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Defining Where Health, Environment, and the Arts Meet

We’ve come to the twentieth entry in the Bamboo Pen. Sebold Communications has been in business for over a decade. This year, with first-rate help from Gallop Web Services, we redesigned our Web site to make it more responsive and useful to you, our clients and readers.

To mark all three occasions, I’m taking time to define the four interdisciplinary fields we promote through words and programs. They are—as you may have discerned from our tagline and past interviews—environmental health, arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

Like most of my posts to date, this one is evergreen. I’d like it to be a “growing evergreen.” So as experts, feel free to expand the definitions with examples and resources. Once your comments accumulate, I’ll update the article. I may even quote you, if you allow. In the interim, I’d be happy to tweet news of your work.

Environmental Health

Let’s start by defining “environmental health,” the best known of the four. According to the World Health Organization, environmental health

addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviors. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted toward preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behavior not related to environment, as well as behavior related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.

You can find other definitions of environmental health on the Web sites of the U.S. National Environmental Health Association, which publishes the Journal of Environmental Health, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funds scientific research.

What Environmental Health Covers

Topics in environmental health include, but certainly aren’t limited to, the environmental causes of cancer and other diseases, the effects of pollution and climate change on human health, animal- and vector-borne diseases, housing and land use, disaster preparedness, nanotechnology, nutrition, and food and water sanitation—where the field arguably began in nineteenth-century England.

Specialties of environmental health include environmental epidemiology, toxicology, exposure science, and newer areas like EcoHealth, which assesses how changes in the Earth’s ecosystems affect human health, and ecopsychology, which covers the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Horticultural therapy and forest bathing are ecopsychological practices.

Further Reading and Future Posts

My interview with pediatrician Robert Zarr falls under ecopsychology—in part. If the subfield is new to you, you may want to start there. Then, sit outside somewhere green to read Biophilia by E.O. Wilson and Voice of the Earth by Theodore Roszak, who coined the term.

To survey recent medical literature on nature’s impact on child health, visit the Children & Nature Network. For a lighter read, check out the blog of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

In future posts, I’ll explore infectious disease and climate change; homelessness and water sanitation; environmental health literacy; and related fields, like conservation medicine and occupational health psychology. Nature, including botany, will get its due, too. I tweet about environmental health and the environment regularly.

Arts in Health

“Arts in health” is an umbrella term, not unlike environmental health. Although most people realize that the environment affects our bodies and minds for good or ill, not everyone knows that the arts positively shape our physical and mental health. In fact, scholars have documented their efficacy.

In The Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the Arts Council England defines arts in health as

arts-based activities that aim to improve individual and community health and healthcare delivery, and which enhance the healthcare environment by providing artwork or performances.

The Arts Health Network Canada created a useful infographic of arts in health—an artful definition.

How Arts in Health Works

Specialties of arts in health include individual- and community-oriented visual arts, writing, music, drama, dance/movement, and culinary therapies, as well as healthcare architecture and interior design. You’ll encounter artists from many disciplines, experts in health promotion and communications, and practitioners of arts in conflict and medical humanities, which uses the humanities, social sciences, and the arts to advance healing.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, arts-in-health programs help residents in hospices and long-term care facilities, clients of mental health and rehab programs, and prisoners. Audiences also include school children, disadvantaged communities and individuals, participants in special-needs and wellness programs, refugees and homeless people, medical providers and disaster-response teams, and active and retired military. The field began in veterans’ hospitals in the United States during the Second World War.

Arts in health can result in significant reductions in insomnia, depression, anxiety, pain, post-traumatic stress, hospital stays, medical visits, medication use, and—by extension—healthcare costs. Consumers of arts in health benefit socially. Artists develop their disciplines. Communications improve between patients and caregivers, especially in buildings that feature fountains and artistic signage designed to welcome and calm.

Proof and Upcoming Articles

There are joint university programs in fine arts and public health. Medical schools encourage students to study the humanities. You can even come up with your own quasi arts-in-health program to help you write at work.

Simply attending arts programs improves health and wellbeing. It encourages us to celebrate, strengthen, and preserve our own and others’ cultures—to feel pride when surrounded by struggle and loss. At an exhibit I helped curate, I saw two artists embrace after their presentations: one had seen the towers fall on 9/11; the other had endured years of conflict in her home country, Iraq. Both found personal healing through painting in response to Iraqi poetry about war and resilience. For another example of how the arts alleviate trauma, see my post on Lisa Garlock, an art therapist who uses arpilleras (story quilts) to mend individuals and communities.

Last year, the International Journal of Nursing Studies published a review of medical literature on arts in health. One of many online, it covers the last ten years. The American Journal of Public Health surveyed arts in health in an earlier article.

In an upcoming post, I’ll focus on arts in health in Syria, where I lived long before the war. Later, I may examine how arts in diplomacy, visionary or outsider art, improv theater, and arts in education overlap with arts in health.

Arts in Environment

Google (or Bing) “arts in the environment,” and you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find “environmental art,” which encompasses only the visual arts. What about the others? They have evoked landscapes and addressed environmental catastrophe just as often as sculpture and painting. Get on Twitter, and every day, you’ll see writing, drama, dance, music, and more on nature and climate change. Where, then, is the umbrella term—the equivalent of “arts in health”?

Let’s start to answer the question by defining environmental art, from ancient cave to modern junk art. Then, helped by the accepted definitions of environmental health and arts in health, we can define arts in environment.

Based partly on a 2010 greenmuseum.org post by Sam Bower, Wikipedia defines environmental art as

a range of artistic practices encompassing both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works.

So ancestors’ scribblings of bison on walls and more recent paintings of buffalo-filled landscapes constitute historical approaches to nature in art. Those who practice “art in nature,” a subfield of environmental art, might create ethereal constructions of twigs and flowers, with or without an environmental message. So-called land, or earth, artists move, dig into, or otherwise alter landscapes, sometimes permanently and harmfully.

EcoArt, Branch of Environmental Art

For the purposes of defining arts in environment, we are most interested in what visual artists call “ecological art,” or “EcoArt,” which began in the 1960s—around the same time as land art—to advocate the Earth’s, not the ego’s, good. Among ecological artists would be sculptors who address habitat destruction by fashioning bison or buffalo out of natural materials found on the prairie. In the last fifteen years, EcoArt has surged because of concern about climate change.

EcoArtNetwork offers the following definition:

Ecological Art is an art practice that embraces an ethic of social justice in both its content and form/materials. EcoArt is created to inspire caring and respect, stimulate dialogue, and encourage the long-term flourishing of the social and natural environments in which we live. It commonly manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art.

Proposed Definition of Arts in Environment

In view of the preceding definitions, I propose that

arts in environment uses the visual arts, architecture, music, dance, creative writing, drama, culinary and other arts to call attention to environmental issues and promote the Earth’s health, including the well-being of humans and other species.

Found poetry, found music, slow food, acoustic ecology, and documentary film may find a way into arts in environment. Feel free to amend the definition or suggest other nonvisual arts in environment.

In future posts, I may survey subfields of EcoArt, such as restorative art, sustainable art, recycled art, and green art and architecture. I may interview practitioners of ecovention, urban acupuncture, and social sculpture. For an example of restorative art, see my article on Patterson Clark.

Related visual arts like found art, junk/trash art, BioArt, and SciArt may prove intriguing. We may dig into traditional crafts, landscape painting, art in nature, even land and crop art.

Learn and Question More

For now, begin by reading Land and Environmental Art (1988) by Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis. For newer resources and links, visit EcoArtNetwork and Leonardo, which focuses on arts, technology, and the sciences, including the environment.

So far, there’s little proof of EcoArt’s power to educate or directly benefit the environment. I found one study of environmental art, climate change, and carbon offsets. In 2015, Scientific American published a piece on climate-change data and environmental art. But I can’t find any analyses of the effectiveness of nonvisual arts on raising environmental awareness or instigating positive, lasting change—even locally. Stay tuned. Send me your thoughts—or research.

Arts in Development

More established than arts in environment is “arts in development.” Although the field makes use of many artistic disciplines (like literature and theater) to advance health, education, environment, social justice, you-name-it, the “arts” are often handmade traditional crafts. At best, finished products bear “fair trade” and “organic” labels.

Outside of major cities, like Washington, DC, “development” doesn’t imply international, and, sadly, “international,” especially in “international development” circles, doesn’t always include disadvantaged communities in so-called developed countries. In the Bamboo Pen, development as in fundraising for a business or nonprofit doesn’t interest us. Nor do we care about a living thing’s maturation (apart from the four fields of the blog).

Fair Trade, Best of Arts in Economic Development

Instead, our focus is on crafts and agricultural goods, like artisanal honey and soap, used in local, national, and international “economic development.” Arts in development, done well, benefits producers financially, if not culturally and socially, and leads to improvements in their families’ health and education. Ideally, arts in development projects are also fair trade: from design to sale, they favor craftspeople and farmers over middlemen and are environmentally sustainable.

When it comes to definitions, the word “economic” is key to distinguishing arts in development from the other three fields we’ve defined. Fair-trade arts (and agriculture) in economic development is really what we’re after.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) offers the following definition:

Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers—especially in the [global] South.

Fair Trade organizations have a clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission. They, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.

Gender equity, capacity building, and healthy working conditions are among the ten principles of Fair Trade the WFTO advocates.

You can find other definitions on the websites of U.S. organizations like the Fair Trade Federation  and TransFair USA.

History and Distinctions

In the United States, fair trade started in 1946 when the Mennonite Central Committee founded Ten Thousand Villages, which sells crafts (and now foodstuffs) in stores across the country. Fair trade became a movement against neo-imperialism in the 1960s, when makers wanted fair and equal access to markets. Crafts became less attractive to consumers in the 1980s, so fair traders moved into agriculture. Concerns about the environment arose, and certification and labeling regimes began. See the Fair Trade Resource Network for a very nice timeline.

Not all arts, or crafts, in development organizations are certified in fair trade, even though they meet many of the qualifications. You can learn about the pioneering work of Aid to Artisans in an earlier post. GoodWeave, another U.S. nongovernmental organization, works to eliminate child labor in carpet production. Human rights and education are their primary concerns.

To survey fair-trade arts in development, consult The Impact of Fair Trade on Social and Economic Development: A Review. To learn more about arts in development generally, read Art, Culture and International Development: Humanizing Social Transformation, a book published in 2015.

I’ll blog on fair-trade (and nearly certifiable) organizations and individual artisans. Future posts may feature Ten Thousand Villages and Serrv, which market jewelry made by silversmiths in Mexico and recycled-paper baskets woven by entrepreneurs in Vietnam—among many other edible and nonedible artisanal products. On my list are the Women’s Bean Project, where American homeless women assemble soup mixes, and Al Mokha, which sells coffee from war-torn Yemen. Get inspired yourself by volunteering for a fair-trade group near you!

Conclusion

By now, you’re probably amazed, if not overwhelmed, by the many places where health, environment, and the arts meet. You also may have noticed considerable overlap between environmental health, arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development. On the same table, you may have found food sanitation, culinary therapy, organic slow food, and fair-trade plates. Perhaps you’ve seen a skit on Zika and climate change. If you have, share it with us as an example of arts in environmental health.

Maybe you’re wondering what would happen if we reversed the words in the names of the four interdisciplinary fields. What would “health in arts” encompass? A diseased organ in a painting? A real heartbeat in a piece of music?

[head-spinning semantic overload … &%zap^#! … actually seeing angels on pinhead]

***

In layout and content, the Bamboo Pen has come a long way since Setting Themes.

Based on readers’ responses to my first twenty posts (sadly, I lost my social shares in the redesign), I’ve decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events, including exhibits, and features about people who—for the greater good—devote their time to mixing and matching health, environment, and the arts. Feel free to send me their names.

For now, let my post be a gift to those of you—scientists, artists, health workers—who are too busy discovering, creating, and healing to categorize your work intentionally or worry about definitions. Caring is what all four interdisciplinary fields (and the broad areas of health, environment, and the arts) have most in common.

As for me, I’m tuckered out from defining what you do. I think I’ve earned a green art–wrapped, mood-enhancing, artisanal, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable chocolate bar. Every bit of one—or two!

If you need me for writing, editing, or programs, I’ll be at my desk. I might be interviewing a “wrapper,” urrrr … “rapper” who just composed a song on solar cookers.

[cooked]

Setting Themes

Where Health, Environment and the Arts Meet is the slogan of Sebold Communications. It’s also the theme of my Web site and blog, the Bamboo Pen. The pen–chicory flower trademark graphically embodies my current work and writing, the way I see the world.

Like you perhaps, I enjoy putting together different fields and arts and breaking down barriers between peoples, even species. Interdisciplinary, intercultural programs and publications, when well designed and managed, make lasting impressions on audiences and can ease relations between political opposites. Behind every success lies a unifying idea, or theme.

Here are four steps you can take to develop themes for programs, publications, and businesses:

Imagine

Start with the message you want to impart or the subject you want to showcase—in other words, what you want to learn or accomplish and what you think might excite others. Don’t be wowed by the reputation of a speaker, artist, or writer just yet. Later you can choose a celebrity to present your program or compose a book chapter. For now, turn on music that evokes your topic. Get enthused about your idea. Do some research online or in specialized libraries.  Record all your thoughts. How can you weave together a series of programs or blog posts? A performance and a publication? A health presentation and a holiday celebration?

Before settling on a theme and tagline for Sebold Communications, I did a lot of thinking. In previous work, I had seen arts and cultural programs foster peace, environment, and health. I decided to write blog posts about not only environmental health, but also arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

I got out crayons, colored pencils, a sketchpad. I found my old bamboo pen from Islamic calligraphy classes with Mohamed Zakariya. I paged through wildflower books. My mind wandered. Which colors would best suggest health and the environment; which flower, the world? After some bizarre drawings, I came up with a trademark and representative colors. To read up on Asclepius, I went to the Library of Congress with my reader’s card. And for a season, I took mock blog notes at art exhibits, science fairs, and international development conferences.

Visualize

How can you bring alive your ideas? Can you find a funder whose values reinforce your theme? Choose your speakers or authors now. Picture the room or the finished publication. How will people move through the conference room, negotiate the layout of your online or print report? Will there be a bottleneck at the pastry table? Will a well-placed graph enhance readers’ understanding of your project results? Place the tables and chairs or chapters and pictures with the takeaway in mind. You want to make sure your in-person and home audiences enjoy themselves enough to stay for the whole program or read the entire book. You want them to absorb your message.

For Sebold Communications, I had to design an attractive Web site in concert with a graphic artist and a Web site developer. I visited sites of Webby Award winners in the arts and sciences to see how they laid out their homes on the Internet. I wanted to unpack the trademark on the inner pages, create mini-themes by using different chicory drawings on the services panels and the bamboo pen on the blog, or writing, page. Then I had to learn WordPress to compose pages and posts. At that point, I decided to alternate topical pieces with somehow-related articles on writing, editing, programs, or languages. For eight posts introducing the elements of my trademark and the format of my blog, I wanted photographs in blues, greens, and yellows.

[Update: In January 2016, Gallop Web Services helped me redesign the site to make it mobile and more useful to visitors. I also decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events and features on practitioners and scholars in the four interdisciplinary fields mentioned above. Tell me what you think!]

Publicize

Who is your audience? Where do they get their information? Do they read only professional publications and blogs? Or does your program or publication have broad appeal? Should you advertise on radio and TV or YouTube and Vine? Which languages should you use? Should you bother with hard-copy brochures and press releases? Where can you mingle with your potential audience? At conventions or shared workplaces? Package your theme accordingly.

Which social media do your readers use? There are so many to explore. I signed up for LinkedIn early on, then Twitter and Google+.  LinkedIn reinforces my business, and Twitter reflects my blog. Most of the people I work with are at least on LinkedIn. Those who work in relief use Twitter, and those who manage programs gather in Google Hangouts. Communications and marketing experts know know that social media drive curious visitors to their organizations’ Web sites, where they can find publications and calendars.

Give

Think of something you can give free to your audience or readers, something that will match your program, publication, or business. With a souvenir, they’ll remember the experience longer and more fondly. Your report won’t get lost in a pile.

If you plan a program on the history of the camel as I once did, offer attendees camel burgers on toothpicks! In your next performance program, include a seek-and-find word puzzle whose solution underscores your theme. Watch early birds find the answers and stay in their seats at intermission. Are you doing a program on hand washing? Give out tiny soaps as health educators do.

At Sebold Communications, I haven’t quite gotten to this step. I’m not too sure about the white papers marketers advocate. Maybe I’ll write a blue or green one! Offering people free help with a tough sentence or two didn’t fly through Twitter. For now, I’ll stick with providing writing samples through my blog or editing a page or two from the middle of a prospect’s report. I might volunteer to organize a lecture.

Now that you’ve suffered my advice on setting themes and had the behind-the-scenes tour of my business and blog, let’s explore where health, environment, and the arts meet. The next post will in some ways be my first. I’ll write about the project that inspired me to blog: Environmentally concerned artists have crocheted coral reefs to call attention to the beauty and plight of real ones in oceans around the world.

After I spin that much shorter yarn, I’ll examine the structure of sentences and paragraphs. After all, words live closely together like corals, either happily or unhappily.

So stay tuned. Tell us about your creative process. Share news of health, environment, and the arts!

Asclepius, His Staff and Snake

Spare the rod, or staff, and spoil the child? Not exactly. But Asclepius, who grew up to be the Greek god of medicine, was born into an all-too-human story of domestic violence and could have used his staff before birth to protect his mortal mother, Coronis, from his divine father, Apollo, the sun god. Even after Asclepius acquired his staff and single serpentine assistant, mayhem followed him most of his life. And through eternity, the general confusion between his staff and Hermes’ double-snaked caduceus has dogged Asclepius and his medical progeny—including Hippocrates, the father of medicine.

The birth story goes like this: Apollo went on a trip. Coronis, already pregnant, fell in love with another man. (Never mind, that Apollo and Coronis hadn’t legally married. Gods don’t have to bother with all that decorum.) A white raven Apollo left to watch Coronis told him of his lover’s disloyalty, and—after he singed all members of the Corvus genus black forevermore because the bird hadn’t pecked out the guy’s eyes—he asked his sister Artemis, the goddess of hunting and childbirth (uh-huh), to kill Coronis. As Coronis lay on the funeral pyre, Apollo, full of remorse (what’s new?), asked Hermes, the god of commerce, thieves, and literature (among other things), to cut Asclepius out of her womb. Lest you wonder why Apollo didn’t handle the gore himself (at least in some versions), be aware that he was the original god of healing (indeed!). Apollo couldn’t cope with child rearing anymore than cesarean sections, so he gave the baby to the centaur Chiron, who taught Asclepius the medical arts.

Asclepius’s staff may have been passed down among ancient Middle Eastern gods (and doctors) from “Grandma” Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of nature (who got a little warlike in her later years). She walked around with a rod encircled by one snake (never two) to represent Earth’s fertility. (By the way, the words “life” and “snake” share the same stem in Semitic languages.) On a particularly difficult medical call, a snake twined itself around Asclepius’s staff to give him some useful herbs. The two became a duo so dynamic that not enough people were dying to satisfy Pluto, the god of the underworld. Eventually, he complained to Zeus, who threw a thunderbolt at Asclepius to kill him. Apollo, again enraged, slew the Cyclopes who made the thunderbolt. But Asclepius wasn’t divine enough to warrant resurrection, so Zeus made him into the constellation Scorpius.

Though officially dead and hanging in the sky as star art, Asclepius visited his temples all over Greece. Sick people lolled about the floors (along with lots of snakes, I’m told), and Asclepius appeared to them in helpful dreams. In 293 BCE during a frightful epidemic  (according to the poet Ovid), the Roman senate decided to summon Asclepius to Rome from his favorite sanctuary in Epidaurus. Some senators didn’t like bypassing Apollo (who could blame them?), so they went to Delphi to consult the sun god. In a kind moment, Apollo urged them to accept help from his son. The senate took two years to call Asclepius (sound familiar?).

As for the staff …

It has been the symbol of healthcare providers for 2,500 years. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans got a little confused between medicine and trade (somewhat characteristic of us, huh?) and started to use Hermes’ caduceus to represent public health and medicine. The confusion actually started in the fifteenth century when the German publisher Johann Froben, not erroneously (read on Hermes above), used the caduceus on his books, only some of which were on medicine.

And the snake, living or dead?

It went to China to become part of the Chinese horoscope and rule over the year 2013 (actually 4710 or 4711, depending). I’m kidding, of course, but the connection between Asclepius and the Year of the Snake just struck me and brings us, smoothly or clumsily, to the subject of my next post—setting themes.

Green Business

\ˈgrēn ˈbiz-nəs\ n

In third grade, we had to invent something. I came up with the “pollution vacuum cleaner.” It would suck up all the trash and poisonous air and water in one snort. Maybe it was then that I decided to go green.

Fast-forward quite a few years. When I started my sole-proprietorship, I decided to run it as sustainably as possible. Here’s what I’ve already done and have in the works:

  • Clean Electricity. Like you perhaps, I’m very troubled by fossil fuels and the steady rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So I switched to wind to power my home office. Now, in my spare time, I can fight mountaintop removal and other destructive mining practices, with a cleaner conscience.
  • Green Web Hosting. By 2020, Internet servers will probably emit more carbon than the airline industry, now the biggest culprit. With that scenario in mind, I chose a green Web host when I designed my Web site. Now my real and virtual abodes are wind driven.
  • Vegetable-based Printing. Pigments carried in linseed (flax), canola, castor, and other vegetable oils release fewer volatile organic compounds (VoCs) than petroleum-based inks. The oils also degrade more completely than conventional inks and can be removed much more easily from paper during the recycling process.
  • Skipping the Car. I live downtown in a city with a fairly good public transportation system and many bicycle-friendly roads, so I don’t own a car. Bussing to meetings is an option. Walking and carrying my own purchases keep me physically fit, save me money, and help keep tons of carbon out of the air.
  • Environmental Education. Last but not least, I read to discover just how much I pollute, even without driving. I attend lectures and, in the process, network with potential clients. Before I engage a business, I research it. Does it practice and promote sustainability? No one is perfect. What are its intentions?

Do you have a sustainable business? What have you done? What do you plan to do this year? If you’re new to the idea, visit Green America for tips.

How can we make it easier to be green?

Green, the Color

The feeling. The hue of Ireland, Islam, and Indian mysticism. Of winter’s solstice and half Christmas. Color code of the environment and environmental movement, of Green Peace.

Greens. Brood of blue and yellow. Malachite, emerald, and jade shades of majesty and yore. Chicory, moss, mantis, shamrock, olive, and pine—garden greens of peace and poetry.

Green is for nature and newness. It describes green monkeys, green turtles, and green sunfish. With blue, it adorns parading peacocks, and as algae, it blankets slumbering sloths. In leprechauns, monsters, and dragons, green is, or is not.

It’s merely a degree of blue in Chinese, old Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. The Ancient Greeks didn’t notice green, but the Romans had ten words for it. In English summers, there are green peppers, green onions, and green beans at the green grocer’s. Throughout the year, green-thumbed growers tend vegetables in greenhouses for greenbacks from gardening greenhorns.

And thousands of years ago, expert painters ground malachite, a mineral found in copper mines, to obtain a blue-green pigment. It colored the halo of the Buddha in China and the face of Osiris in Egypt. Mere mortal Egyptians shaded their eyes with malachite makeup to ward off the sun and evil. Across the “Great Green,” as they called the Mediterranean Sea, Pliny the Elder lauded malachite’s powers in Rome. Some thirteen centuries on, Cennino Cennini listed three greens in The Craftsman’s Handbook. Malachite he called “half natural.”

There are no more natural greens than those found in leaves. But chlorophyll, a pigment essential to photosynthesis and the greenness of plants, proved hard to fix as a dye. Neolithic fashionistas obtained a weak green from birch leaves. In Europe, green textiles continued to fall victim to sunlight and washing until the sixteenth century when dyers first dipped material in woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue and weld (Reseda luteola) for yellow.

In surveying the old green denizens of my crayon box, I found copper. Like the bronze statue of a venerable general, time had cloaked it in verdigris. A deceptive, derivative, all-too-temporal—green.

Blue, the Color

The mood. The hue of things Hellenic, Jewish, and Marian. Of Krishna and the Buddha’s peace of mind. Color code of health and health care, the United Nations.

Blues. The music. The “beyond the seas” ultramarine of lapis lazuli and the blue-black indigo of cultivated woad and wilderness weed. Ice, Wedgewood, sapphire, royal, navy, and Prussian—rainbow blues of superstition and awe.

Blue is for sky and water. It describes blue cats, blue sheep, and blue whales. It tints blue spruce and graces blue gardens. In blueberries, bluebirds, and bluebonnets, blue is true. Chicory is blue, too.

It’s the “azure” of Persian that Arabic brought from Afghanistan to France, then Europe, through Andalusia in Spain. In English, there are well-born blue bloods and hardworking blue-collar workers. Once in a blue moon, blue-nosed moralists turn blue in the face when their friends curse a blue streak of blue language.

And once upon a time, a creamy-bright ultramarine pigment came from crushed lapis lazuli. Lapis is a rock (an aggregate of minerals), not a gem. It still hails mostly from nearly inaccessible mines in mountainous Badakhshan, Afghanistan. For centuries, traders shipped deep blue nili, azure asmani, and turquoise sabzi lapis loads down the Indus River by dhow to Egypt, where Cleopatra shadowed her eyes royal blue. Some of the haul travelled along the western Silk Road through Aleppo, Syria, to Venice and the palates of Michelangelo and the younger Titian.

Between lighter shades of blue and violet lay indigo—according to Issac Newton, who placed it on his spectrum of seven colors. Indigo comes from many species of Indigofera, which grow in Latin American and Asian tropics. Indian indigo, after much political drama, displaced European woad (Isatis tinctoria) in the seventeenth century. Indigos and woad are magic. They produce a yellow that turns blue only when it hits the air. They can make blacks blacker and whites whiter, until they turn blue. Anglo-Saxons, Aztecs, Germans, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, and Yoruba have died cloth, even themselves, shades of indigo to ward off evil from infancy to death.

Some years ago, on a warm winter day in a soup kitchen, I tested the power of blue. Steaming more than the cooking pots, I took off an indigo-dyed Touareg scarf. My neck was perfectly blue, alarmingly so. A beyond the seas, beyond the world—blue.

 

Scientific Names

While rifling through my cookbooks and botanical tomes to find information for the previous post (From Chicory to Coffee), I began to panic. What was the difference between Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia? Which did people drink and which did they eat? Was I dealing with a bunch of bitter balls of lettuce or a beautiful blue bloom?  Should the trademark of Sebold Communications have featured a flower around a pen or a pen in a salad spinner? I thought scientific names were supposed to relieve confusion, not worsen it.

Part of the answer lay in two books I inherited from my grandmother a dozen years ago—Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden and Waverley Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. In short, all endives are chicories, but not all chicories are endives. Both species are members of the genus Cichorium, and both land on our plates. It seems that, over time, Americans and Europeans have disagreed about which edibles belong to which species. Hence, my distress.

What’s clear (kind of like the mud plants grow in) is that C. endivia var. crispa is curly endive, the frisée or “chicory” Americans see in grocery stores, sometimes next to C. endivia var. latifolium, the flatter-leaved escarole. C. intybus, whose roasted root flavors coffee, is Belgian endive in the States. It’s the tightly wound wad of white and pale green leaves that people often sauté in butter. After chicory flowers, enthusiasts dig up the roots and bury them in damp sand in warm, dark cellars until new leaves bud. Less rugged folks just putter over to a purveyor of fancy green goods.

Or fancy red goods. After all, what about red Belgian endive? Well, it’s radicchio, the unforced heart of a C. intybus variety with red leaves. Then there’s speckled radicchio, or chickendive, which came about when C. intybus and C. endivia found—ahem—common ground.

All members of the Cichorium genus belong to the Asteraceae family, which is part of the Asterales order, which falls under the Asteranae superorder, which—yada yada. Never mind that some people call the Asteraceae “Compositae.” We don’t want to get into the weeds, do we?

If you remain confused, consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Worried about how to italicize the scientific names of plants? Follow the examples in this post, or better yet, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for me, I feel a little better. I think.

From Chicory to Coffee

There it was in the field: blue enchantment.

My grandmother was somewhere behind me, hidden by grasses body-tall. Her quick work was muffled by meadowlarks ground-nesting and spring-summer heat ululating, low. We were collecting teasles and milkweed pods, the natural bits she crafted into porcupines, rabbits, and little kings set before blackbird pies. Characters from nursery rhymes and her private imagination.

I turned to face the chicory flower again. A cricket chirped. I went in for the pick.

Cichorium intybus—chicory flower, blue sailors, succory, coffeeweed—is an aster native to central Europe. It spread to North Africa and the Middle East and, centuries later, to North America and Australia. It has dandelion-like leaves in rosettes close to the ground and hairy, grooved stalks up to four feet high. Sometimes the ruffled petals come in pink and white, rather than lavender and blue. They make up flowers that open and close at the same time every day and lie close to their stems.

Afraid of bees.

The flowers can be pickled, crystallized in sugar, made into wine, and frozen in ice cubes. Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and Turks cook young chicory leaves. Food foragers favor C. intybus greens. So do livestock. The ancients discovered chicory’s powers to combat diabetes, worms, depression, indigestion, and headaches. Some swear that chicory essence rids cats and dogs of codependence. Chicory even ranks among the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

Since the Middle Ages, people have roasted chicory’s long taproot and added the grounds to coffee, especially during wars and economic downturns. In the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur Hill Hassal, using the long-neglected microscope, proved his suspicion that the coffee in London shops was almost universally extended with chicory (and, far worse, liver). In France, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Vietnam, and Louisiana, they fell in love with chicory’s peppery taste. During a coffee shortage in Syria, I turned to tea.

That was years after I gathered my blue bouquet. I presented it proudly to Grandma. It wilted right away as—I later learned—anything preciously magic would.

From Bamboo to Pen

Somewhere near you, a stand of pens is growing. Quietly and quickly. All you have to do is look closely at your neighbor’s bamboo hedge, and you’ll see the pens, stacked end to end, greenish tan, like images in a seek-and-find picture puzzle.

You might even see them grow. Bamboo stems, stretching, node to node.

That’s because bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth. In some places, it’s even invasive. Its 1,450 species can attain their full height (fifteen to forty feet) in one growing season. Bamboo’s secret agents? Rhizomes. The underground stems send forth shoots that press their way through the soil into blue light. The new culms stand stem to stem, darkening the ground, green.

Long about their third year, the culms harden. Turn brown. Ripen into pens.

Bamboo is a true grass, a member of the Poaceae family, like crab grass, the bane of gardeners. But bamboo is useful. It can be made into lumber, medicines, textiles, paper—and pens. Pandas and lemurs find bamboo shoots delicious. African mountain gorillas love them. Humans like them, too. The Buddhist monk Zan Ning wrote a book full of bamboo-shoot recipes.

Japanese make fishing poles out of one bamboo species. They’re flat on one side and have knobby ends, great for holding string in place. Mohamed Zakariya, one of the best Islamic calligraphers in the world, stocks up on the poles when he visits Hawaii. He cuts them and carves the ends into nibs to write big Arabic letters, 7/16 inches wide. He made my bamboo pen, my one and only, the one I used when I studied with him. It became part of the trademark of Sebold Communications and the namesake of this blog. At some point, I’ll interview Mohamed about pens of all sorts and Islamic calligraphy. Meanwhile, visit his website to learn more about his art.

And welcome! Please watch the Bamboo Pen grow. Post to post.