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Category: Nature

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.

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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.

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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.

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