“On Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took a photograph that was destined to become one of the most famous images in human history. As the tiny spacecraft that he shared with astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell rounded the moon and revealed the blue globe of planet Earth, Anders raised a Hasselblad camera, exclaiming with all the enthusiasm one is likely to ever hear from a fighter pilot with the United States Air Force: ‘There’s the Earth coming up. Wow is that pretty.’
“Although very few of us have been lucky enough to travel into space and experience awe by looking at the Earth from a remote viewpoint, everyone has had experiences that they would categorize as ‘awesome’ (and not just in the recent banal sense of that word). When awe strikes us, we are certain of it. We can be overcome by awe when we encounter a dramatic natural phenomenon such as an inky starlit sky, a thunderstorm, or a majestic view of a mountain range or canyon, or even by simple reflection….
“[We] can also be overcome by awe in built settings…. Such experiences bring us outside the narrow confines of the body space, encouraging us to believe that our existence constitutes more than just a beating heart inside a fragile organic shell. We have a sense of boundlessness as the limitations of time and space that hold us aground are suddenly swept aside.”
The poem from Emily Dickinson above is thematically about the ending of summer — a bit of wishful thinking on my part since we’ve been subjected to more days with excessive heat warnings in July and August than I’ve experienced since moving to the southeast. It does make a guy long for the cooler, breezier days of autumn — and even though those are quite a few weeks off, the slightly shorter days with earlier sunsets are good reminders that the seasonal change will come, just not quite yet.
“Photographs have long been seen as markers of the past, a way of preserving what was in what is….
“Unlike paintings, which can invent a subject, photographs preserve a subject in a real moment in time. Despite the fact that well before the era of Photoshop, camera images were manipulated (remember the Cottingley fairies), it is an idea that has had long-standing power. What fascinates me most about photographs are their personal and public uses as tokens of memory and the fact that their efficiency, or lack of it, in terms of seeing and remembering, works precisely to the degree that they are not like visual perception and memory in the brain. Photographs are produced mechanically, which means that, unlike painting, they are created outside human perception, but, like paintings, they exist as representations outside our bodies. At the same time, we look at photographs with our eyes. The vagaries of human vision apply to photos just as they do to all other perceived objects….
“Perception and its crucial cohort, memory, are complex dynamic systems in the brain and have both implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) features. Although scientists once subscribed to a primitive notion of memory storage — you perceived an object and then lodged it intact in your memory — neuroscientists now believe that when you retrieve a memory, you are not retrieving an original memory but rather the memory you last retrieved. In other words, we edit. Memory changes. It is now obvious that the brain is not a camera; it is not a computer; it is not a machine. Despite the fact that new technologies are developing seeing-machines that can recognize people and objects, and many of us work with remembering-machines, our computers, every day, there is little lust for machines that, to use the neuroscience term, reconsolidate memories over time, that unknowingly rewrite or reconfigure the scenes and faces of the past. Digital alteration is a tool for the conscious, not the unconscious mind.”
There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
It’s not so very, very far away;
You pass the gardener’s shed and you just keep straight ahead —
I do so hope they’ve really come to stay.
There’s a little wood, with moss in it and beetles,
And a little stream that quietly runs through;
You wouldn’t think they’d dare to come merrymaking there —
Well, they do.
There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
They often have a dance on summer nights….
This is the fourth of five posts where I’ve taken this summer’s daylily, lily, and amaryllis photographs, and recreated them on black backgrounds. This post features a first batch of amaryllis.
I had never heard of the Cottingley fairies until reading about them in the book of essays by Siri Hustvedt, quoted above. This fascinating episode in the history of photography and image manipulation very nearly sent me down a new rabbit hole — or fairy hole (how rude!) — but for now I stuck with just reading the Wikipedia article and taking a quick look at the book The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) and a few other sources. Having never read a Sherlock Holmes book — I’ve only seen various adaptations of Doyle’s Holmes in films and television series — I didn’t know that Doyle was interested in spiritualism, and, as such, was an early adopter of the fairies-do-exist meme. Doyle was highly influential in his treatment of the images as real, along with Edward Gardner of the Theosophical Society — who infamously stated that the images were “straight forward photographs of whatever was in front of the camera at the time.” This delightful equivocation is a fine example of how ambiguity about manipulated images helps move them into mainstream thought to get treated as realistic, when in fact they are not.
The Cottingley fairies hoax emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century interest in spirit photography, the belief that cameras were capable of capturing images of ghosts and other supernatural entities, though the fairies were posited as real rather than as examples of characters from the spirit world. It was only in the 1980s — recent enough! — that the two girls that created the original five fairy photos publicly admitted they had faked the photographs, despite prior investigations that described how the images had been manipulated. It’s certainly a testament to the enduring power of images — even faked or manipulated images — that the genesis of these five photographs was still being discussed for decades after they were first produced.
I was going to post the five images in a small gallery here, then learned that the copyright status of the images is disputed — they’re not necessarily in the public domain — but you can see them in sequence with a concise overview of their history at The Cottingley Fairies as well as in the Wikipedia article.
“There are two ways of determining the best plant material for a given location. One is to study the native flora, and the other is to experiment with plants from similar climates. Gardeners on the Pacific Coast have already discovered that their hot suns and periods of drought supply the conditions necessary for maturing certain bulbs from tropical and subtropical countries, and we are beginning to learn that many of them can be grown with equal success in the Southeastern states.
“Some of the Eastern catalogues list a few tender bulbs, but most of them must be ordered from California growers. Among the plants contributed to American gardens by the warm countries are representatives of the three great bulb families: the Amaryllidaceae, the Liliaceae, and the Iridaceae…. “The Amaryllis family is a major source of bulbs for mild climates. Their grace and charm is suggested by the poetic and mythological names of some of the genera: Lycoris and Nerine for sea sprites; Amaryllis for the nymph celebrated by Theocritus and Virgil; Hyacinthus for the unfortunate shepherd, beloved of Apollo; and Zephyranthes, flower of the west wind….
“Amaryllis, the genus which gives its name to the family, has only one species, although many closely related forms are known as amaryllis.”
Have you grown old, or is the soul still young, Within that body that was once so fair? And has true silver touched the powdered hair? While you have proved too well the song once sung That rang so sadly, like a passing knell — You will grow old, in the evening, by candlelight. Have you grown old, and with uncertain touch Do you now finger what you once forsook — The dusty pages of a pious book? You did not, dear, love praying overmuch When you were young, but liked to smile and tell You will grow old, in the evening, by candlelight.
No! rather say you passed in your full bloom, With your sprigged pannier’s first more sober hue, The mellow lights of autumn warm on you, As in your rose-heaped, closely curtained room You sang to some last love a last farewell — You will grow old, in the evening, by candlelight.
As this is likely the last of the amaryllis flowers I’ll photograph this year (though I am picking out some daylily, lily, and amaryllis photos for my black-background treatment), I thought Viola Taylor’s poem “A Memory of Amaryllis” fit pretty well. It’s from her 1908 book The Story of Amaryllis and Other Verses, which I puzzled mightily about in a post last year (see Red and Pink Amaryllis (1 of 3)) — when trying to figure out if the amaryllis poems in the book were about amaryllis flowers, about the life of a person known to her as “Amaryllis”, or even about Greek mythology associated with the plant family name “amaryllis”. But this year, since I have access to three artificial intelligence chatbots — see Easter, Madonna, and Regal Lilies (2 of 3) for more on that — I decided to give ChatGPT, Google Bard, and ClaudeAI a twirl to see if they could help me out. Maybe I should call them my Three AI-migos — though it may be premature to consider them friends.
Anyways! I sent this question to each chatterbot…
There is a book of verses called “The Story of Amaryllis” by Viola Taylor. Are the references to “amaryllis” throughout this book about a person named “Amaryllis” or plants in the amaryllis family?
… which both ChatGPT and Google Bard interpreted as a request for information about a living person, and gave an answer that sounded like “Us AIs don’t know nothing about no people” — with Bard actually getting a little snippy about it. ClaudeAI, however, seems to have nailed it, providing this nice overview of Taylor’s verses:
Based on some quick research, the references to “Amaryllis” in the book “The Story of Amaryllis” by Viola Taylor are about the amaryllis flower, not a person named Amaryllis.
Some key points:
The amaryllis is a flowering bulb plant that belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family. Common species include the belladonna lily and naked lady lily.
The name “amaryllis” comes from Greek mythology, derived from the name of a shepherdess who shed her blood to win the love of the shepherd Alteo.
Viola Taylor’s book is a narrative poem that anthropomorphizes the amaryllis, telling the mythological story of Amaryllis through the perspective of the delicate flower.
Descriptions of the “crimson gown” and “flower fairy” in Taylor’s verses match the appearance of the amaryllis flower, with its bright red blooms and delicate, almost human-like form.
So in summary, while the name Amaryllis has mythological roots as a woman’s name, in the context of Viola Taylor’s botanical poetry, the references are likely about the actual amaryllis flower itself, not a person. The personification gives the bloom a voice to tell its Greek myth-inspired origins.
Anthropop (see! it is a word!) is deeply embedded in human culture, reflected in all the arts, and continually used to help us understand the world and communicate about it. But personally I’ve often wondered if (non-human) beings are capable of something similar, though we may be anthroppoping if we think they are. Does a dog ever pretend to be a cat? Mine seems to — sometimes sneaking around the house, peaking around doorways, and jumping at me like a puss on the prowl — so I think it’s possible. And it’s a well-established fact (not a fact) that Thesaurus Rex — the first speaking dinosaur — emulated human vocals before humans spoke (or even existed!).
So ClaudeAI’s interpretation fits the verses in Taylor’s book very well, as Taylor charts the flower/person’s progress from birth to death, and even after-death, through nine related poems. The verse I quoted above is the seventh poem in the book, positioning the flowers as a memory just before they’ve returned to the earth, as they’re fading from their summertime vibrance — and possibly while thinking they were glad not to be daylilies, which were already dead….