the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Category: Nature

OSMANTHUS FRAGRANS

Osaka Airport, 22 October 2017

My wife and I have been in Kyoto these last three weeks. I was here to once again give my course on sustainable industrial development at the university. But I don’t want to discuss that, I want to talk about a scent wafting on the breeze.

As we walked around the quiet neighborhood where we had taken an AirBnB, I found my nose suddenly being assailed by a very sweet smelling scent. The first few times it happened, I couldn’t locate an obvious source around me and I began to fear that I was suffering from olfactory hallucinations, that a tumor was growing in my brain and was beginning to press against whichever bit it is that controls one’s sense of smell. What made me particularly susceptible to this theory was that the scent was distinctly similar to the one most toilet cleaning products emit; you know, the scent which wafts off that bright blue or pink stuff you squeeze into the toilet bowl, leaving your toilet smelling like heaven.


Maybe the tumor was triggering olfactory memories of my toilet … Luckily for my growing levels of paranoia, the third or fourth time it happened I located the source. It was an unprepossessing tree on the corner of the road

covered in small orange flowers.

Relieved that the scent was not a figment of a diseased brain, I set to work trying to figure out what plant it was. A google search quickly revealed its Japanese name to be kinmokusei, and that in the month of October it filled the air with its sweet scent. A further search revealed that its official name is osmanthus fragrans, with its English names being sweet olive, tea olive, or fragrant olive (the reference to olive apparently having to do with a similarity in leaf shape to the olive tree).

According to its Wikipedia entry, the several varieties of osmanthus are “native to Asia, from the Himalayas through southern China to Taiwan and southern Japan and southeast Asia as far south as Cambodia and Thailand”. The mention of China rang a bell somewhere in my (non-diseased) brain, something I had read once, while living in China, about osmanthus jam. Sure enough, the Wikipedia article revealed that the Chinese make an osmanthus-scented jam, but also osmanthus-scented tea, dumplings, cakes, soups, wine, and liquor. My wife and I never tasted any of these delicacies when we lived in China, but that was Beijing, in northern China, outside the osmanthus’s range.

The China connection and the nostalgia it evoked in me made me dig a little more. I discovered that the plant’s relationship with China is long; the Chinese have been cultivating it for some two and a half thousand years – its sweet scent saw to that. As might be expected, the Chinese poets weaved it into their work. Here is Wang Wei, an 8th Century Tang Dynasty poet:

I’m quiet, osmanthus flowers fall,
Tranquil is this spring night, empty the hill,
The rising moon startles mountain birds,
Which call awhile in the spring stream.

Or here we have the 12th Century Song Dynasty female poet, Li Qingzhao:

I recover from illness,
My temples have turned grey.
I lie down to rest and watch the waning moon
Climb up my screen.
Tender lips meet sweet mace, boiled in water,
Aromatic as tea.
Books and poems are so dear to me
While I sit idle against a pillow.
The outside scene freshens when rain falls.
All day long, facing me lovingly
Is the sweet osmanthus.

Things have come to a pretty pass when a flower’s scent, which made the Chinese poets sing, only makes me think of toilet fresheners! What a dumbing down we are witnessing …

Luckily for me, the Chinese themselves have made a connection between the flower’s sweet scent and more malodorous things. Osmanthus flowers bloom more or less in the eighth lunar month, which is when the Imperial civil service examinations were originally held.

This temporal connection gave rise to a phrase in late Imperial China which was used to euphemistically indicate that a candidate had successfully passed the exam: “pluck osmanthus in the Toad Palace”. Passing the exams would now open up to the successful candidate positions in the administration where myriad possibilities would exist for him to conclude sweet deals to his advantage during the rest of his no doubt illustrious career. Imperial examinations have vanished, only to have their place taken by the gaokao, the university entrance exams.

This is the first critical step to defining how successful a career you can have in China and how much of a life of preferment and sweet deals you will enjoy. “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change and the more they stay the same, as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr once observed.

While I have been reading up on all this, Typhoon Lan has been brewing in the Pacific to the east of the Philippines. Now it is moving ponderously northward towards Japan. The rain that’s been falling as a prelude to its arrival has stripped the Osmanthus bushes of their flowers.

Their scent is finished for this year. It’s time for us to fly home, hopefully before Typhoon Lan makes a landfall and closes the airport.

_____________
Toilet cleaner: https://wifinowevents.com/news-and-blog/22000-agree-clean-toilets-wi-fi/
osmanthus fragrans: my pictures
Chinese Imperial exams: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGQt7Ts1wo
Gaokao exam: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam
Fallen osmanthus flowers: my picture

Advertisements

CONKERS AND CHESTNUTS

Milan, 26 September 2017

A few days ago, my wife and I decided that for our usual afternoon walk we would take the subway up towards the northwest of Milan and then walk back home. This strategy had us walk through a small park that was once part of the grounds of the royal palace. As we walked down one of the park’s shady avenues, conkers started raining down on us. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s say that two or three seed balls came cannoning down from above our heads and landed with a thump on the gravel, releasing their conkers which rolled around our feet. I picked one up and rubbed it gently with my fingers. Fresh conkers are really lovely, with their brown, lustrous skin and their smooth velvety feel.

Their seed casing is also very pretty, bright green with soft spikes all over it.

More than anything, though, conkers bring back happy memories from my childhood. I still distinctly remember during the breaks in the schoolyard fishing out my conker from my pocket and squaring off for conker duels with my friends. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this playground game, let me quickly explain how it works.
– Find a conker.
– Drill a hole through it with a nail.
– Thread a shoelace or other such string through the hole, and make a strong knot at the end.
– Face your opponent.
– One of you lets his conker dangle, let’s say your opponent.
– You swing your conker at his conker in a rather special way – see the photo below, which looks to have been taken during my boyhood years.

– If your opponent’s conker breaks, you win. If not, you dangle your conker and your opponent takes a swing at it.
And so on, until either one of the conkers breaks or the bell rings and it’s time to go back to those boring classes.

Conkers was, of course, a game of Autumn, played in the first month or so of the school term until the conkers stopped dropping off the trees and the conker supply dried up. Other games then took over the schoolyard until it was mid-September again and time to prepare that monster conker which would surely smash all other opponents in the schoolyard.

In case any of my readers are wondering, conkers come from the horse chestnut, that tree which gives lovely white or pink flowers in the Spring



and which in the last several decades have often looked distressingly mangy by summer time

the result of attack by the leaf miner moth. It seems that this disease was first noticed in Macedonia and has been marching across the globe ever since.

Perhaps, like I used to, some of my readers think that chestnut trees and horse chestnut trees are related. I mean, the nuts in both cases are so similar, as are their casings!

Yet they are not. They each belong to quite different families. I suppose this must be a case of convergent evolution.

One thing which very definitely distinguishes them is that conkers are not edible, but chestnuts very much are. And in fact in this Autumn season, Milan’s shops and markets are putting out piles of chestnuts to entice you.

I haven’t yet seen chestnut roasters on street corners, though.

Maybe they only appear when the weather turns cooler. I await them with anticipation, so that I can buy my paper cone full of roasted chestnuts.

________________
Conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.collinsdictionary.com/amp/english/conker
Conker seed case: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3838298/amp/The-end-conker-Playground-staple-vanish-15-years-horse-chestnut-trees-felled-pests-disease.html
Playing conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/437834394994706958/
White horse chestnut tree in flower: http://www.davekilbeyphotography.co.uk/index.php/plants-landscapes/species-trees/horse-chestnut-05/
Pink horse chestnut in flower: https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/ppdl/Pages/POTW_old/6-10-13.html
Horse chestnut attacked by leaf miner: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-common-horse-chestnut-tree-damaged-by-the-leaf-miner-moth-cameraria-39467824.html
Chestnut and casing: http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.it/2012/09/permaculture-plants-chestnuts.html?m=1
Chestnuts in an Italian market: http://mercatidiroma.com/mercato-trionfale/trionfale
Chestnut roaster, Italy: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/chestnut-street.html
Cone of roast chestnuts: http://www.ricettedalmondo.it/caldarroste.html

STORM CLOUDS OVER VENICE

Milan, 5 September 2017

We had come to Venice to celebrate the 65th birthday of two dear friends. They had invited a number of us from their past to share in this celebration. So there we were, some twenty in all, all slightly geriatric, stepping off the bus-boat onto the island of la Giudecca and gathering at a restaurant by the edge of the wide canal which separates this island from the rest of Venice.

As we sipped our aperitifs and later seated ourselves around two tables ranged along the edge of the canal, vast cumulo-nimbus clouds hovered to the north of us.

By the time we had finished the entrées (tris of raw fish, chopped fine, with sauces) and were tucking into the risotto cooked in a shellfish sauce, the sky had turned dark and menacing and the restaurant owner was worried that gusts of wind would carry his shade umbrellas away.


By the time we finished the main course (tuna seared briefly in the pan), the epicenter of the rain clouds sat above the campanile in St. Mark’s Square.

Once coffee was served, after a pannacotta for dessert, the clouds were dissipating and sunshine was breaking out again over Venice.

We said our goodbyes, promising, as has been the custom with these birthday parties, to meet again in five years’ time (and ignoring the little voice inside us emitting the hope that we would all still be of this world then), and went our separate ways. Ours took us through St. Mark’s Square, where the rain clouds to the west still looked menacing

but no rain fell on us as we threaded our way through the alleys back to our hotel.
__________________
Photos: all ours

FOSSILS IN THE STAIRS

Vienna, 29 June 2017

A few days ago, just as my wife and I were setting out from the apartment, it started to rain. It was my wife who had decreed that it wouldn’t rain, but it was I who went back to get the umbrellas. As readers can imagine, I was a little grumpy as I ascended the stairs, glaring at the individual steps. Perhaps it was my acute attention of the steps, perhaps it was the light; whatever it was, I suddenly noticed in the sixth step from last, which had been worn smooth by countless feet treading on it, something which I had never noticed before on my walks up and down those stairs: a fossil.

At first sight it looked like a leaf, but I now think it could be a coral of some sort. I walked up and down all six flights of stairs in our building looking intently at each step,

and I now see what I had never really noticed before, that the limestone used for them is made up of a mass of shells and other marine remains, fallen randomly on top of each other and then squeezed tight by the monstrous weight of later rocks above them.

As we discovered when we bought the apartment and picked through the Land Register, our building was constructed at the turn of the century. It was, and has remained, a modest building – no Belvedere Palace for us

just a modest lower middle-class building, one of many outside Vienna’s swank 1st District.

Consequently, even at a time when long-distance travel had been made a thousand times easier by the booming rail system and nascent road system, I would imagine that the stone for our steps came from a local quarry. Which is more than possible, there being quite a number of old limestone quarries around Vienna, a number of which – I have been breathlessly informed by an Austrian fossil-hunter website – are good sources of marine fossils.

An Austrian map of the country’s geology

informs me – if my rudimentary German is correct – that the rock formations in question are Late Tertiary. Specifically, according to a mind-numbing report prepared for the 26th International Geological Congress which I leafed through electronically, they belong to the Neogene beds in the Vienna basin; these were laid down some some 10-15 million years ago, between the Upper Eggenburgian and Lower Badenian stages of the Middle Miocene epoch, as a result of at least two marine incursions into the Vienna basin.

Setting aside all the arcane – and, frankly, incomprehensible – scientific mumbo-jumbo with which this report is filled, we can happily conclude that the jumbled marine fossils locked forever more into the steps of our building’s stairway are the result of the area around Vienna twice being a sea. It must have been a nice warm sea too, since corals flourished in its waters. In fact, this map of mid-Miocene Europe shows that much of Central Europe was under water during this Epoch, this being the far western end of the wonderfully-named Tethys Sea.

In cases like these, I am always taken by a sense of wonder. Here I am, living on the edges of a rich agricultural plain 350 kilometers from the nearest sea.

Yet once upon a time there was sea all around me, probably quite like the sea which my wife and I snorkeled over a year ago in Thailand, with coral outcrops, starfish and sea urchins clinging to their rocks, crabs scuttling along the sea floor, fish flashing in and out of the coral, and from time to time the passing shadow of a shark.

That same sense of wonder came over me many years ago, when we visited Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. The park sits in the middle of a harsh, dry, desert region.

Yet all around us lay the petrified remains of a once mighty forest.


Artists imagine that these 200 million year-old forests looked something like this.

All that teaming life in this now almost dead environment …

It was more with a sense of fascinated horror than awe that I first gazed on the “fossils” (mummies is perhaps the better term) of people and animals dug up at Pompeii.



They were overtaken, submerged, in the 1000C-hot pyroclastic flow that swept down the sides of Mt. Vesuvius and howled through the city at 700 km/hr.

What a terrible, terrible death! But perhaps it was a mercifully quick death, with them being flash-cooked, basically.

Hmm, I didn’t want to finish on this rather depressing note. But hey, that’s life! In the meantime, I need to escogitate a plan to persuade my wife join me on a visit to Vienna’s Natural Science Museum (sheathed in a very nice stone, I should add)

so that I can study the area’s geology better.

_______________
Our building’s steps: our photos
Belvedere Palace: http://www.austriawanderer.com/the-belvedere-palace-in-vienna/
Our apartment building: our photo
Geological map of Europe: http://www.gifex.com/detail-en/2011-06-29-13972/Geological-map-of-Austria.html
Miocene Europe: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-klima4.htm
Vienna plain: http://www.donau.com/de/roemerland-carnuntum-marchfeld/detail/marktgemeinde-goetzendorf-an-der-leitha/c53b2a6b0c75fed4d809b78b888830d9/
Tropical sea: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/coral-reef-in-thailand-louise-murray-and-photo-researchers.html
Petrified Forest NP: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/nature/petrifiedforest/#petrified-forest-hills.jpg
Petrified tree-1: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/petrified-forest-national-park-arizona.html
Petrified tree-2: http://www.van-tramp.com/wp/petrified-forest-national-park-revisit/
Forest 100 million years ago: https://jerry-coleby-williams.net/2015/02/15/bunya-prehistoric-plant-ancient-australian-food-tradition/araucaroid-forest-ca-100-million-years-ago/
Pompeii mummies-1: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/535224736949021987/
Pompeii mummies-2: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/za.pinterest.com/amp/pin/308144799474273688/
Pompeii mummies-3: https://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/fossils-paleontology-old-bones-gc30/25828-reposting-pam-s-odd-rock-fossil-2nd-opinion
Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius: https://it.pinterest.com/agcinnamongirl/pompeii-italy/
Natural History Museum, Vienna: https://ictca2017.conf.tuwien.ac.at/index.php/natural-history-museum-vienna

UNDER A LINDEN TREE

Vienna, 1 June 2017

One of the reasons we were attracted to the apartment we bought in Vienna is that there is a linden tree, or lime tree, just outside the living room, at eye level.

Right now, the flowers are still forming, but it was July when we bought the apartment and the tree was in full bloom, covered in pale yellow flowers around which buzzed a thousand insects.


The scent that wafted through the open window was divine. For those readers who have not had the good fortune to be near a linden tree in full bloom, let me try to describe the scent: delicate – your brain barely registers it; sweet – at the height of the bloom, insects are crazy to get to the nectar; ephemeral – the scent wafts your way for a second, then disappears just as quickly. I’m sure the memory of that scent still lingered in our minds when we signed the purchase contract.

Strangely enough, even though the linden tree grows in the U.K., I have no memory of that scent from my youth; perhaps because I hardly ever spent any of my summers there. Nor do I have any memory of the scent from France, where I spent many a youthful summer, or from Italy, where I spent many of my adult years. It was only when I moved to Austria twenty years ago that I became aware of it. Was it perhaps because linden trees are common shade trees throughout the Germanic and Slavic lands? Certainly, the street we live on in Vienna has a portion, closer to the city centre, which is entirely shaded in linden trees – and what a treat it is for the nose to walk unter den linden, under the linden trees, when they are in bloom! I will make sure we walk along the much more famous Unter den Linden Avenue in Berlin


when we go there in early August although by then I fear that the peak of the trees’ blooming will have passed.

I have to think that the frequent presence of linden trees in urban settings throughout Central Europe can be traced back to the sacred place the tree had in Germanic and Slavic mythology. When Christianity arrived, it sensibly adapted, planting linden trees around churches, accepting that villagers congregate under the village linden tree for important meetings or for seasonal festivitiesas well as encouraging a tradition linking the Virgin Mary to the linden tree (probably because this displaced a pagan goddess linked to the tree).

Thus was the tree’s place in Central Europe’s modern cities assured. But why the linden tree was sacred to Slavic and Germanic tribes in the first place is not clear to me – at least, I have found no good answer in the literature available to me on the web. I have read that the tree was seen to represent the female side of nature (with the oak tree representing the male side), its natural capacity to regrow quickly seen to symbolize rebirth and fertility. Perhaps. But – simply because it appeals to my romantic fancies – let me add here another theory, which I extracted from the wilder and woolier side of the internet, from a site dedicated to Druidism to be exact. There, the writer noted that the tree is in full bloom around the time of the summer solstice. Well! What better reason to sacralize a tree which gives off a heavenly scent when the great Sun God reaches its apogee! (we have here modern devotees celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge)

Whatever the reasons, the linden tree’s connection to the feminine side has meant that it has naturally been connected to love. Betrothals took place under the village linden tree, but so – people whispered – did love in its wilder form. A famous German minstrel song from the 12th Century, Unter der Linden (translated here by Raymond Oliver), says it all (or nearly so).
Under the lime tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Tándaradéi,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —
Heaven’s Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
Tándaradéi,
See how red my mouth’s become.

There he had fashioned
For luxury
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Delightedly
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Tándaradéi,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!), for shame I’d die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Tándaradéi,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

Of course, the tree’s sacred properties meant that it had a special place in the apothecary of our ancestors, with various parts of it being ingested to remedy numerous ills. A pale descendant of this is the infusions of linden flowers which are available in our supermarkets.

My mother-in-law liked this infusion and always had a packet of it in her kitchen cupboard (my wife and I prefer camomile; it has more taste, we think).

But tasteless infusions are not the only food which is extracted today from linden trees. Bees adore linden flowers, and honey aficionados adore linden flower honey, praising it to the rafters for its sublime taste. Not being honey enthusiasts, I can only offer this judgment without comment. They also mention its much lighter colour compared to other honeys, which this photo certainly attests to.

As can be imagined, the linden tree’s wood was also considered to have talismanic properties. I want to believe that many religious statues in this part of Europe were carved out of limewood for this reason, although more prosaic reasons such as the wood’s ease of carving and its ability to hold intricate detailing are also given. Be that as it may, some lovely carvings have resulted. Here is a Saint Stephen looking pensive and holding in his lap the rocks with which he was lapidated

while this is the Supper at Emmaus, a solemn occasion indeed for the artist from the look on everyone’s faces.

Well, time now to go to bed. Tomorrow, at breakfast, we’ll open the window again on our linden tree.

___________
Linden tree from window: our picture
Linden tree blooms: our picture
Unter den Linden Avenue, Berlin: http://www.berlin.de/tourismus/fotos/sehenswuerdigkeiten-fotos/1355832-1355138.gallery.html?page=2
Villagers dancing under a linden tree: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/under-the-village-linden-tree-ken-welsh.html
Shrine under linden tree: https://www.lamusdworski.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/linden-tree/amp/
Summer solstice, Stonehenge: http://notihoy.com/en-fotos-mas-de-20-000-personas-presenciaron-el-solsticio-de-verano-en-stonehenge/
Linden flower infusion: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lipton-LINDEN-Tea-Bags-pyramid/dp/B00TVCXZ7S
Lime flower honey: http://www.dealtechnic.com/shop/honey/raw-wild-flower-lime-honey-800g-with-jar-honey-flow-2014-natural-organic-farm/
Saint Stephen: https://www.pinterest.com/elkie2/small-sculpture/
Supper at Emmaus: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-christ-in-the-house-of-mary-and-martha-the-last-supper-the-supper-68542669.html

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.

_____________
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.

____________

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.
image
We popped quickly into this restaurant
image
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.
image
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
image image
where small flowers unknown to me still grew in this late season on the trackside.
image
The track took us across high pastures, bereft of animals at this time of the year
image
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
image
towards the other side of the valley, whose side our bus had climbed, on the other
image
back towards head of the valley, start of our walk
image
and way over the range of valleys to our south and north.
image
image

As we neared our destination, we got a lovely view of Monte di Portofino, the location of the walk in my previous post.
image
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.
image
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.

image

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
image
down
image
down
image
back into the coastline’s overbuilt environment.

image

___________

photos: all mine