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Category: Nature

IN THE MOUNTAINS

Sori, 24 April 2017

The north wind had blown hard all night, and by morning the air over the sea, the village, and the hills behind it was crystal clear. After our morning coffee, we decided to take the path along the sea cliffs which brings one to the village graveyard. Along the way, we stopped for a moment at the memorial to those who have died at sea.

But with the air so clear, I soon forgot the dead and let my gaze be drawn by the snow-capped mountains hovering far away on the horizon: Mounts Gelàs and Argentera, along with their acolyte peaks, in the the Maritime Alps, today enveloped in the National Park of the Alpi Marittime.

Oh, that I could skim across that lapis lazuli sea!

Soar over Spotorno on the opposite shore of the Gulf, waiting patiently for its summer bathers, up over the hills behind it.

Over Mondovì, racing for the mountains beckoning to me behind it.

To finally alight, high up in the park, there to enjoy all its delights.






One day we’ll go there, I tell my wife, one day – although no doubt by a more normal mode of transportation.

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Pics of the memorial and the mountains behind it: ours
Flying over the sea: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/northern-beaches/superman-surfer-gets-birdseye-view-to-sea/news-story/90862b1d51f14ff9887116c7a5768088
Spotorno: http://www.comune.spotorno.gov.it/1822/galleriafotografica/24-06-2007-la-spiaggia-di-spotorno/
Mondovì: http://www.italythisway.com/places/mondovi.php
Parco alpi marittime-1: http://thetourismcompany.com/casestudy.asp?serviceid=2&projectid=921
Parco alpi marittime-2: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=17863
Parco alpi marittime-3: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=14489
Parco alpi marittime-4: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=7856
Parco alpi marittime-5: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=13402
Parco alpi marittime-6: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=9385

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some thirty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio


either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). At the end of the ceremony, we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like Health & Safety services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll, we walked through the courtyard where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense and keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh … the gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, in the background but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh … so desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees

and we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

 

WILDFLOWER EXPLOSION

Los Angeles, 10 April 2017

The dark clouds which dumped huge amounts of rain on southern California a few months ago have had a multicolored lining: the intense blooms of wildflowers which have burst out all over this desertic and semi-desertic landscape – water is life. A few posts ago, I wrote about the wildflower blooms in Joshua Tree National Park, considerably more intense this year than in previous years.

Last weekend, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend on a trek in the Malibu hills where they plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

The hillsides were a riot of yellow, with the flowers growing head high, crowding in over the track, brushing your face, leaving pollen streaks on your cheeks.

And there has been the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve …

My wife and I went up there some ten days ago. As we exited San Francisquito Canyon high up on the southern slope of Antelope Valley, we saw spread before us on the valley’s opposite slope several faint patches of orange shimmering in the heat: our goal.

On we drove, down to the valley’s floor and along the its northern slope. We turned a corner and the banks of the road suddenly flamed orange. We were starting to see the California Poppy close up.


After paying our park entry fee and parking the car, we started walking the trails. Our aim was to climb to the top of Kitanemuk hill, walk along the crest a while and then come down and loop around back to the car park. These photos document our walk. I don’t think they need commenting.



I love wildflowers. I love their brilliance, their panoply of shapes and colors. I enjoy their anarchy; not for me the regimented flower beds of suburban gardens. I mourn their evanescence. I see them for a short time in Spring, and spend the rest of the year impatiently waiting their return. I’m really glad that our daughter’s birthday – our excuse for coming to Los Angeles – serendipitously coincides with the annual wildflower explosion in this corner of the world. And I’m secretly thankful for all that rain earlier in the year. It brought much misery to many but a great joy to me and my wife.

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Pictures: all ours

WONDROUS PLANTS, WONDROUS ROCKS

Los Angeles, 31 March 2017

Two weekends ago, my wife and I visited Joshua Tree National Park, together with our daughter and her beau (I should quickly explain that we are currently in Los Angeles, visiting the happy couple). For those of my readers who have only a hazy idea of this National Park, let me give some background. Located some three hours’ drive east of LA, the park straddles the border between two desert ecologies, that of the lower-altitude Colorado desert, and that of the higher-altitude Mojave desert. It was created back in 1936, to protect and preserve its rare desert plants. As a tribute, I throw in here a photo of the lady, Minerva Hoyt, whose tireless efforts back in the 1930s finally led the US Congress to list the site.

The park is – at least to my European eyes – enormous: 3,200 square kilometres, the size of Luxembourg. But that’s less than 1% of the size of California. One of the difficulties I always have in the US is getting used to the size of things here (including food portions, but that is another story).

The park’s symbol, and the origin of its name, is the Joshua Tree, a member of the Yucca family.

It is related that the plant got its odd name from a group of Mormon pioneers in the mid-19th century who were heading west to what they fervently hoped would be their Promised Land. When they came across the tree, members of the party decreed that the plant’s shape reminded them of the Biblical story in which Joshua holds up his hand in prayer to stop the sun.

Personally, I have my doubts about this tale but have no better name-origin story to offer.

There are parts of the park where Joshua Trees cluster closely. Contrary to many web sites, that of the park itself included, I’m not sure I would go so far as to call these clusters a forest.

It is sad to relate that the Joshua Tree is in danger of disappearing from the park because of climate change. I suppose the trees are finicky in their locational needs, both in terms of altitude as well as of terrain. Climate change is making their current location too hot for them. But where can they escape to? The tragedy of the Joshua Tree, and indeed of all plants, is that being rooted to one place they cannot migrate to cooler climes. To migrate long distances they are totally dependent on either having their seeds sail away on the back of the winds or on animals eating their fruit and wandering far away and depositing the seeds in a nice bed of faeces. It seems that in its evolution the Joshua Tree opted for the latter form of dispersal, but it was its bad luck to create this symbiotic relationship with the Shasta ground sloth.

Note that this is an artist’s reconstruction of the animal based on fossils; it disappeared in the big wave of extinctions that occurred in North America some 12,000 years ago (perhaps hastened on their way by the first humans who arrived in North America, or perhaps not; the experts are animatedly divided on this issue). So the Joshua Tree has been nailed to the spot for the last 12,000 years.

After admiring the Joshua Tree – in my case with a point of sadness – we went for a hike through a most interesting geological formation that the park hosts.


When we weren’t wondering where the end of the trail was because we had run out of water, we were wondering how these formations had come to into being. Wikipedia has since informed me they were formed by the cooling of magma beneath the surface into a form of granite with roughly rectangular joints. Groundwater then filtered through the joints to erode away the corners and edges to create rounded stones. In a final step, flash floods washed away the covering leaving these piles of boulders.

All this was in the higher-altitude Mojave desert. After finally getting a badly-needed drink of water, we started down for the lower-altitude Colorado desert. As we wound our way down, we quite suddenly entered a belt of Cholla cactuses.

These cactuses are gleaming white at their crown

but go coal black at their base

and eventually collapse in an untidy, dirty black pile

leaving behind this strange trunk, empty at the core and with regularly spaced diamond-shaped holes in the remaining husk.

It looks for all the world like a thick mesh fabric which has been rolled into a tube.

Just past the belt of cholla cactuses, we began to spy another strange plant, the Ocotillo.

From a distance, it appeared to be a cactus with long thin branches. But when we got close, we saw that actually the plant closely covers its branches with leaves rather than have them all clustered at the crown like most other trees do.

Onwards down into the Colorado desert we rolled until at last we sighted what had brought us there, the desert’s flowers.

We were visiting the park at that short moment in the year when the apparently barren desert bursts into flower. The flowers race to create seeds for the next generation before the summer heat builds up and withers away everything on the desert floor.

And with that, we cruised back up to the upper Mojave desert and took the road back to LA.

 _______________
Minerva Hoyt: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minerva_Hamilton_Hoyt
Joshua Tree: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm
Joshua praying to stop the sun: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/292874781996938329/
Joshua Tree cluster: http://www.wolfsvisionphotography.com/JoshuaTreeNationalPark.html
Shasta ground sloth: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/03/10/bring-back-the-shasta-ground-sloth/
Rock formations: http://charlesgurche.com/photography/landscape/national-park/joshua-tree/
Cholla cactus gardens: https://www.123rf.com/photo_9396795_beautiful-cholla-cactus-garden-in-joshua-treer-national-park-in-afternoon-sun.html
Cholla cactus close-ups: my pictures
Ocotillo: my pictures
Wildflowers: http://niebruggestudio.com/wildflowers-at-joshua-tree-national-park
Wildflower close-ups: my pictures

A WALK ON THE WILDER SIDE

Sori, 10 December 2016

It’s a sad fact that the coast of the Riviera – as well as that of the Côte d’Azur, which takes over at the Franco-Italian border – has been much overbuilt. Ever since this part of the world – harsh, inhospitable land, from which generations of peasants had barely eked out a living – was discovered in the late 19th Century by the growing middle classes of Northern Europe, who were attracted to its mild winters and dramatic rocky landscapes, brick, concrete, and asphalt have been poured with wild abandon over a narrow strip of land following the shoreline. Sometimes, when I look out over this mass of houses, shops, supermarkets, banks, roads, railway lines, bridges, and all the other infrastructure of modern life, and when I hear the continuous background noise of traffic, I wish I could travel back in time to see these places when they were more pristine and unspoiled, or wave a magic wand and make it all disappear.

At such moments, it is time to pull on the hiking boots and head for the hills. For the overbuilding dies away quite quickly as one ventures up into the deep, narrow valleys giving onto the sea, valleys which are the defining geological feature of this part of the coast. Thus it was that a few days ago, all booted up, we boarded a small bus in front of the village school. At the appointed time it left, taking the road that initially follows the valley floor, jumping from bank to bank of the stream that runs down-valley, before it begins to climb, with the road at this point becoming horridly narrow and sinuous. We climbed through a couple of small villages before being dropped off at the head of the valley. Since this was still a hundred or so meters below the crest, a 3 km tramp up the road was required before we finally arrived at the top. The view of the sea, glittering far below, was magnificent.
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We popped quickly into this restaurant
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to say hello to the owners. In earlier days, when the children were young, we would come up here quite regularly to have a magnificent plate of lasagne al pesto and go for a short walk or let the children kick a ball around. This time, we could only manage hurried greetings. Normally, this is a place patronized by very local people – it was here that I was first exposed to the local dialect in its pure, undiluted form – and the number of diners is manageable. But this day was a public holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the restaurant was crowded with foreigners (the term “foreigners” covering even the citizens of nearby Genova) and everyone was in overdrive.

A short walk down the road brought us to the start of the trail we were taking today. The aim was to walk along the southern crest of our valley to Sant’Apollinare (the starting point of the first of this trio of walks) and so back down to the village. This panoramic photo taken a few days’ later from our balcony shows the crest we followed.
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The walk was all I desired to get away from the madding crowd. Almost immediately, most signs of modern life disappeared. As we tramped along what was probably an ancient mule track, we met hardly anyone; it was just us and nature. The track took us through woods
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where small flowers unknown to me still grew in this late season on the trackside.
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The track took us across high pastures, bereft of animals at this time of the year
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and past numerous hides – hunting being a particularly popular pastime in the autumn, with the excuse that the ever-increasing populations of wild boar need culling.

At points, the vistas opened up, towards the sea on one side
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towards the other side of the valley, whose side our bus had climbed, on the other
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back towards head of the valley, start of our walk
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and way over the range of valleys to our south and north.
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As we neared our destination, we got a lovely view of Monte di Portofino, the location of the walk in my previous post.
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We were tiring by now, hoping for a smooth final leg. But it was not to be. The ground got very much stonier, the path harder.
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Civilization also came butting in. Two men on noisy, smelly motorbikes suddenly appeared on the path, wanting to get by, while the dull roar of the motorway, which was passing under our feet, wafted up.

We reached a monument to Christ the King, put up by enthusiastic parishioners decades ago. We thought we had finally more or less arrived, but 20 minutes of hard and confused slogging over rocks and through woods awaited us still.

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But we finally made it to the small church of Sant’Apollinare, just as the sun was beginning to sink.

Bone tired, we headed down the last stretch in the gathering darkness, down
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down
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down
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back into the coastline’s overbuilt environment.

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___________

photos: all mine

A WALK IN THE SETTING SUN

Sori, 8 December 2016

We decided not to struggle up the path which leads from the railway station up along the spur of the hill to the small church of Sant’Apollinare at the top. We did it a few weeks ago and it’s brutally steep. Instead, we took the bus that starts from in front of the village fishmonger, timed to leave just after school breaks up. Together with one shy schoolgirl we zipped up the road which zigs and zags its way up the hillside. 10 minutes later, just shy of 4:30, we were deposited on the small parking area by the church. The sun was beginning to set over the Riviera on the other side of Genova, bathing the little church and the distant Monte di Portofino in its ruddy rays.

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We were taking the path that led down to the little town of Recco, nestled at the foot of the Monte di Portofino. We needed to get down before it got too dark. We started walking, passing through olive groves where the hillside’s exposure to the sun was good
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and through Mediterranean maquis where it was less good
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and where earlier farmers had not bothered to terrace the hillside and plant olive trees.
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We passed the Torre dei Saraceni, the Saracens’ Tower, which according to local legend was built as a lookout to warn local villages when raiding parties of Barbary pirates based in Northern Africa (or maybe closer in Corsica and Sardinia) were approaching, looking to carry away loot and people to be sold as slaves in the market places of Tunis and Algiers (a plague which Italy’s coastal communities suffered until the 1800s).
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When we were young and foolish, my wife and I had fantasized about living here, brushing aside such practical questions as where the nearest shop was to buy food.

On we hurried, with the Monte di Portofino looming larger.
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Out to sea, ships were hurrying also, to reach the safety of the port of Genova.
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We watched as the sun finally set across the Bay of Genova, silhouetting the Torre dei Saraceni.
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We went on in the sunset’s afterglow, down dimly-lit steps

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arriving finally in the small village of Polanesi on the outskirts of Recco. Our path skirted the parish church

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into whose dim interior we quickly dipped. Its floor hinted at some tragedy 200 years ago
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while its outer walls proclaimed a more recent tragedy, the retreat from Russia in 1942-3, in which many Italians died.
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The moon alone was now shining in the sky.

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By its dim light, and in places by the light of my phone, we stumbled down the last steps to finally reach the Via Aurelia.
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When I was young and foolish, I thought this really was the trace of the old Roman road, but I discovered later that the Romans never bothered to build a road through this wild and mountainous region; they just went by boat along the coast.

A short walk brought us to Recco, now enveloped in darkness.
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We lowered ourselves into the chairs of the nearest bar and had ourselves a well-merited Aperol Spritz.

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all photos: mine, except for

Aperol Spritz: http://www.aperolspritzsocials.com

KYOTO IN NOVEMBER

Kyoto, 13 November 2016

We read glumly about the results of the American presidential elections and their aftermath. The future looks bleak. Yet, even in this dark hour, it is impossible not to be struck by the beauty that surrounds us in Kyoto.

The paintings on the sliding doors of the temples, branches spreading over a wash of gold.
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The sweep of moss, brilliant green, under the trees, in the temple gardens.
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The leaves turning on the Japanese maples, early November scarlet bleeding into old summer green.
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I am moved, like the Japanese poets of old, to compose a haiku.
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Velvet moss greening gnarled roots,
Maples blooming red:
I weep for America.

____________________
Sliding doors: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/44858
Japanese poet: https://www.pinterest.com/reaconnell/haiku-japanese-poetry/
Other photos: ours

TAKING THE D TRAM TO NUSSDORF

Vienna, 24 July 2016

We’re in Vienna briefly, on our way back to Bangkok from the annual training course I give in Budapest and using the occasion to visit the warehouse where our stuff has been stored away these last seven years to agree on when to start moving it and to where when I retire in a month’s time. We’ve used the occasion to spend the weekend here.

On Saturday morning, we visited an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s work, my wife’s favourite modern artist, which is spread between the 21er Haus and the Upper Belvedere. While we were at it, we also had a quick zip around the Upper Belvedere’s permanent collection – there is a lovely set of Schieles and Klimts. Then, footsore and thirsty, we took a D tram back into the city centre and headed for a café to have a drink and a rest.

Once revivified, we pondered where to go next. I suggested the Leopold Museum, which is holding an exhibition of a rather minor Austrian painter of the 19th Century, and so we dragged ourselves rather slowly in that direction. But on the way, we saw another D tram clank past, and since it was a glorious day we decided on the spur of the moment to hop on and ride to the end of the line, to Nussdorf, which lies at the foot of the hills that overlook the city. As the name suggests, Nussdorf, Nut Village, was indeed once an independent village but is now a suburb of Vienna. Presumably it once was known for its walnuts or hazelnuts, but several hundred years ago it planted vineyards on the slopes above it and thereby made its fortune selling thirsty Viennese Grüner Veltliner wines.

Now, as we got off the tram at the final stop, we trailed after our fellow passengers, all ramblers, who were making their way determinedly towards those vineyards and the woods beyond them, the Wienerwald. We found a path which followed a stream
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and started ambling slowly upwards – the walk was in no way strenuous.

The path first coasted houses buried at this time of year in luxuriant vegetation
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but then it became more solitary.
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At one point, we passed a little park dedicated to Beethoven.
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It is said that he used to come over from nearby Heiligenstadt, where he spent many summers in his later years, to walk along this same path, which of course the marketing-savvy locals have named Beethovengasse, Beethoven Lane.

Further on, we passed the dead of Nussdorf, sleeping their eternal sleep at the foot of the vineyards
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and now finally we were among the vineyards.
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A few yards further on, we arrived at our destination, a heuriger
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(a buschenschank in Styria; the owner of this heuriger must be a Styrian immigrant)

Heurigers, or wine taverns, dot the countryside around Vienna, selling the local wine, as well as simple food so that their patrons do not drink on an empty stomach. We had chosen this one from a map thoughtfully provided along the path by the local authorities, anxious to ensure that a good time was had by all
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We settled down in the tavern’s garden
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and pleasantly whiled a way an hour or so, sipping on our wine mixes (it was a bit early for straight wine), nibbling at our dried sausages, cheese plate, and Greek salad, gazing out over the neighbouring vineyards
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and generally enjoying that sense of gemütlichkeit – warmth, friendliness, and good cheer – which is the trademark of heurigers.

Suitably refreshed, and full of good cheer, we ambled slowly down the hill again, where I for one took advantage of the old-fashioned toilets, or pissoirs as the Austrians so picturesquely call them, helpfully provided at the tram stop by the local authorities
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before climbing back into the D tram

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and clanking slowly back into the city centre.

__________________
The stream Schreiberbach: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d260626-i134059629-Vienna_Woods-Vienna.html
All other photos: ours

THUNDER

Bangkok, 4 July 2016

It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.

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At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
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followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.

At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.

What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder

make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
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who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
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although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
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After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
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His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
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A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
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who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.

I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
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which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
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(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
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What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.

Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.

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Thunder clouds over Bangkok: https://paulandsarahinthailand.wordpress.com/author/artyfooty/page/5/
Thunder clouds over Bangkok-2: http://2bangkok.com/2bangkok-weather-index.html
Lightning over Bangkok: http://www.digitalphotographytipsonline.com/my-image-gallery.html
Tawhirimatea, NZ: http://auckland-west.co.nz/2011/08/09/twhirimatea/
Raijin, Japan: http://www.esamskriti.com/print.aspx?topicid=969&chapter=1
Chaac, Mayan God of rain: http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/a/Mayan-Rain-God-Chaac.htm
Ramasura: http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/mekkala_e.htm
Zeus on pottery: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.1.html
Artemisium Zeus statue: http://www.crystalinks.com/zeus.html
Teshub, Assyrian-Babylonian: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/12525705192076524/
Thor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrarland_Statue
Thor comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_(Marvel_Comics)
Thor and Zeus comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeus_(Marvel_Comics)

THE AUSTRALIAN BOAB TREE

Bangkok, 11 June 2016

One of the first things which struck me as my wife and I started our tour of the Kimberley in Australia was the presence of this tree, which we frequently saw, both in leaf
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and bare
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and many of them with fruit.

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I kept saying, “Aren’t those baobab trees?” For they looked amazingly like African baobabs.
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Well, the fact is, they are baobabs (although Australians insist on calling them boabs). These trees are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa (two species) as well as in Madagascar (six species, of which these, subjects of a previous post of mine, are magnificent specimens)
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and there is this one species in Australia – actually, the tree is found only in the Kimberley and nowhere else in Australia.

How did the baobab tree end up in the Kimberley? I mean, it’s quite some distance, some 8,000 km to be precise, between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Australia.

A first hypothesis was that this was a left-over from the break-up hundreds of millions of years ago of the supercontinent Gondwana into its constituent pieces of South America, Africa and Madagascar, Antarctica, India, and Australia
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which then proceeded, through continental drift, to arrive where they are now. The ancestors of the baobab had existed on Gondwana, so the thinking went, and were carried along for the ride on the drifting continents.

Apart from the fact that this hypothesis doesn’t explain why there aren’t baobabs in India or South America, modern DNA analysis has nixed it. Comparison of DNAs has shown that the African and Australian varieties of the baobab separated a “mere” 100,000 years or so ago, when (by my calculation) Africa and Australia were 7 km closer (continental plates drift slowly).

So how did the baobab make it to Australia?

Well, the next most obvious hypothesis is that an African baobab nut or two (of which the smiling ladies in the photo above are holding a basketful) was carried out to sea and then carried along by surface currents to its new home in Northwestern Australia. But the experts are hesitant, and I understand why. A study of this map of surface currents
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shows that to make it to the Kimberley region, a nut would have had to fall into the Somali current and been carried northward, then it would have had to get taken eastward by the northern branch of the Indian Ocean’s Equatorial current, all the way to the island of Sumatra. At that point, our bobbing baobab nut would have had to hug the southern coastlines of Sumatra and Java, to then, somewhere around Bali or Timor, change course, coming southward and westward, finally making a landing in the Kimberley. As the sad fate of the Malaysian flight MH370 has shown, anything floating further south in the Indian Ocean would tend to be carried westward rather than eastward. The map below is a computer-generated estimate of where debris of the plane could have drifted from the original hypothesized crash point (the square point on the border of the blue area); the red area is where debris might have been 18 to 24 months after the crash.
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If this ocean voyage of the baobab nut occurred at all, it would have taken place during the last ice age. This started 110,000 years ago, which is pretty much when the two baobab lines separated, and finished 12,000 years ago. Among other things, the ice age caused sea levels to drop, which modified coastlines in certain parts of the world. In turn, these modifications could have affected the direction of surface currents. So to be really correct, one should look at a map of someone’s best guess of surface ocean currents during the ice age. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across any such map. This map, however, shows where the coastlines were at the time.

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It seems there were no big changes in the area we’re interested in except around the islands of Indonesia and New Guinea, where the lower sea levels connected up a lot of the islands (and, en passant, made that last hop of human beings into Australia 50,000 or so years ago a good deal easier). I’m no ocean currentologist, but I rather think that the blocking up of the straits between these islands might actually have made the last leg of the baobab nut’s journey, that right turn from Bali to Australia, somewhat easier.

How long would such a trip have taken? Well, it took debris from MH370 about two years to wash up on the coast of Mozambique, so I would imagine that it would take just as long, if not longer, for a baobab nut to travel in the opposite direction. Could a baobab nut soak that long in the ocean and still be able to germinate upon arrival? We can look to the coconut for an answer; a coconut, at least the original version before human beings started messing around with it, was designed to be dispersed by sea.
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There happens to be a lot of argument on this point, but no-one has ever claimed that a coconut can last two years in seawater. A maximum seems about three months, and even that has been challenged. So I seriously doubt that a baobab nut, even if it had managed to make it to the Kimberley by sea, would have been in a fit state to germinate.

So, how else could the baobab have arrived in the Kimberley?

The next most obvious hypothesis is that human beings brought the baobab with them, because they too originated in Africa. Could the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, who are currently thought to have arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago (plus or minus 10,000 years), have carried the baobab nut with them? Well, since they left Africa about 120,000 years ago and took 70,000 years to reach Australia, that would have meant planting the baobab as they went along. This is not actually as crazy as it sounds. Both in Africa and in the Kimberley there is strong evidence that the local hunter-gathering groups deliberately carried the baobab with them and planted it in new areas – the tree is a great source of many things other than the nut. But if this really did happen, then shouldn’t we find baobabs along their most probable migration route?
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Yet, apart from southern Arabia, none of the places between Africa and Australia have baobabs, or even baobab remains. Of course, it could be that climate changes in these places after the end of the ice age killed off the baobabs, or it could be that they were killed off by the after-effects of the absolutely gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in the island of Sumatra about 70,000 years ago
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the ash from which fell over a huge area, much of it on the migration route to Australia, which could have choked plant life.
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It has also been argued that many years of permanent darkness set in after this event, a sort of “nuclear winter”, which of course would have affected the ability of plants to photosynthesize.

But still, all in all, the chances of the baobab having gotten to Australia via this long, long migration route seem very slim.

So how, then, could the baobab have gotten to the Kimberley?

And here, gentle readers, we step into a wasps’ nest. One Australian scientist has made the radical suggestion that tribes sailed from the east coast of Africa to the Kimberley, carrying baobab nuts as food. He claims that the rock art of the Kimberley (which I will cover in a future post) is (a) far older than is generally thought, maybe 50,000 years old, and (b) shows that 50,000 years ago the painters knew the use of boats.

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He suggests that the nuclear winter caused by Mount Toba led them to sail east, to the source of the sun, to find it again, which coincidentally would have brought them to the Kimberley (and he argues that there are strong connections between Kimberley’s rock art and the rock art of East Africa).

Well, as readers can imagine, such views have the Australian archaeological community in a tizzy. It certainly is a pretty far fetched theory. But somehow we have to explain how the baobabs got to the Kimberley, right? Anyone of my readers have any ideas?

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Boab tree in leaf: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adansonia_gregorii
Boab tree bare: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/boab-tree-kimberly.html
Boab tree in fruit: http://www.visualphotos.com/image/1×10636003/australia-western-australia-broome-roebuck-bay-a-faint-banded-sea-snake-caught-on-the-mud-flats-at-low-tide
African baobab tree: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/11328252/Baobab-the-superfood-of-2015.html
Grove of baobab trees, Madagascar: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/1618549836269760/
Gondwana: http://www.earthsciences.hku.hk/shmuseum/earth_evo_07_01.php
Ocean surface currents: http://www.cruiserswiki.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean
Debris path of MH 370: http://www.deepseanews.com/2015/07/how-currents-pushed-debris-from-the-missing-malaysian-air-flight-across-the-indian-ocean-to-reunion/
Coastlines last ice age: http://maxworldhistory.weebly.com/map-exercise.html
Coconut in the sea: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Coconut-Floating-on-Water-Indo-Pacific-Split-Level-Dispersal-of-Seed-Posters_i2634256_.htm
Migration out of Africa: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Paleoanthropology.html
Mount Toba eruption: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/yellowstone-super-volcano-is-far-bigger-than-previously-thought_122013
Mount Toba ash coverage: http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/03/31/200th-anniversary-of-tambora-eruption-a-reminder-of-volcanic-perils/
Bradshaw art boat: http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?169983-Primitive-Depictions-of-Medieval-Ships-Seen-from-Above