Monday, 28 November 2011

Elephant No. 57: Pine Cones

A couple of weeks ago, one of my close friends collected some pine and spruce cones, thinking I could perhaps use them in an elephant of some sort. So today I thought I'd try it.

The woody cones on conifer trees produce the seeds, and are considered the "female" cones. The male cones, which produce pollen, are usually green and much less obvious. All pine trees—which include various pines, spruce, cedars, firs and more—have cones with overlapping scales. Interestingly, the condition of fallen pine cones provides a rough estimate of moisture levels in the forest floor. Open cones mean that the ground is dry; closed cones indicate damper conditions.

Because they are so widespread, pine cones have long been a part of traditional arts and crafts. They are used to make decorations, toys, bird feeders, and even puzzles. Because pine cones open when dry, a closed damp cone placed in a narrow-necked bottle will eventually dry and open up, making its insertion in the bottle seem impossible.

One of the more unusual uses of a pine cone is the "cone cow". This traditional toy is a common children's activity in both Finland and Sweden, and involves jamming sticks between the cone's scales to make legs. Children usually make an animal pen from sticks as well, to contain their "herd".

In Finland, there is even a fairground with cone cow sculptures that children can ride. In Sweden, there was also a video game that allowed players to build virtual cone cows. Swedish artist Lasse Åberg has produced cone cow art, and cone cows have even been featured on Swedish postage stamps.

A pair of traditional cone cows.
Photo: Timo Viitanen

I wasn't sure what kind of pine cone elephant to make at first. I thought maybe a standing elephant, but it would have been enormous without cutting up the pine cones. Since they're too pretty to cannibalize, I thought maybe I could use one or two pine cones, adding bits of other materials to make something that looked like an elephant. When I pulled out the pine cones and actually started playing with them, however, their shapes more or less dictated an elephant profile.

I figured I had two options for attaching the pine cones: glue gun or wire. (I also seriously toyed with simply laying them out on a flat surface and photographing them without attaching anything.) Ultimately, I decided to start with wire and play at being a clever florist. Since I am most emphatically not a clever florist, wire was not necessarily the best idea.

This was the selection of cones I had to work with. There are spruce cones in this collection, as well as a couple of varieties of pine cones, all at various stages of maturity and dryness.

For wire, I used this spool of 30-gauge stainless steel wire. It turned out to be too fine for this kind of work, but at the time I was thinking that it would be better to have something that wouldn't really show. I should have been thinking more in terms of something which would create a reasonably rigid superstructure.

I started by wiring the two largest cones together to form the head and mouth of the elephant. Through a bit of trial-and-error, I discovered that the best way to wire pinecones together—partly because they rarely have stems—is to slide the wire under the scales, as close to the base of the scales as possible. This not only holds the wire in place, but also hides it to a certain extent.

As you can see from this close-up of my wiring technique, it wouldn't be a good idea to ask me to build a chicken coop.

Next, I wired on four cones for the ears. The double layer of cones in the middle was hard to keep from flopping about. In fact, much of this elephant, ultimately, was hard to keep from flopping about.

Next I added a lighter spruce cone for the tusk.

Faced with a mess of wire joins where the head connects to the ear, I covered it up by wiring on some tiny cones. After that, I wired on the eye, and finally the trunk.

Although it didn't self-destruct or try to completely dismantle itself, at this point it was not the most sturdy of constructions. I fixed this to a certain degree by tying on more wire and twisting it around itself. The back of this thing would give an electrician nightmares. The trunk still has a bit of a mind of its own, but the rest is solid enough. If I were ever to display this, however, I'd probably bolt it to a piece of wood so as not to embarrass myself.

The worst part of this activity was dealing with the sap that was all over these cones. Although it looks rather pretty, it's nasty stuff to work with. It sticks to everything and doesn't easily come off, even with repeated hand-washing. Wet wipes aren't much help, either.

I like the final result, but at some point it will probably need a bit of remedial wiring.

Elephant Lore of the Day
It surprised me to learn that elephants like eating pine trees. Although they obviously don't encounter pine trees in any of their natural habitats, elephants in German zoos enjoy this seasonal treat every January.

Around New Year's, Germany's elephants—along with camels, deer and sheep—are given leftover Christmas trees. Across the country, each elephant receives about five Christmas trees, to their great delight.

It is thought that the oils in pine trees may help the animals' digestion and overall health. Like their cousins in the wild, who focus on eating a tree's bark and leaves, Germany's zoo elephants are particularly fond of the tree's bark and needles.

Elephant calf Thabo-Umasai at the Dresden Zoo.
Photo: Matthias Rietschel/AP

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