How does your garden grow?

Titchmarch

Today,  May 2nd, is the birthday of Alan Titchmarch who is one of the UK’s most celebrated TV gardeners and gardening authors.  As an avid gardener myself I have great time for people who can turn an introspective pursuit into mainstream entertainment.  This is a classic example of what I call #tainment as in #Edutainment, the blend of education and entertainment that makes education accessible.  So Titchmarch is a proponent of #Gardentainment

There is a Chinese proverb which says : If you want to be occupied for a year get a job, for a decade get a wife, for a lifetime get a garden.

Paradise is derived from the old Iranian word for a walled enclosure, paridayda which described a royal palace enclosure or park.  These might be hunting parks, or simply royal gardens.  In any case just remember when you are ripping out your weeds by hand, it’s another day in paradise.

Titchmarch has been decorated many times with things pinned onto him by the Queen of England.  So what does a celebrated gardener, TV presenter and author do to top off his life?  He writes a book of poetry of course!  His book is called “The Glorious Garden” which is a beautiful name for a book of poems.

 

Winter Garden; by Patrick Kavanagh

No flowers are here
no middle-class vanities - 
only the decapitated shanks
of cabbages
and prostrate
on a miserable ridge
bean-stalks.
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Canary Wine

Malmsey

In Elizabethan England the prize wine on the market was Malmsey, a fortified wine from the Canary Islands in Spain. It is  a wine celebrated in the writings of Shakespeare.  Indeed the popularity of the sweet white fortified wine predates Elizabeth’s reign.  The Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV, was killed by being drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in 1478 during the wars of the Roses.

Made from the Malvasia grape, thought to have originated in Greece, the vines thrived on the volcanic soils of the Canary Islands.  In those days only a fortified wine could survive the long sea voyage from Spain to Britain.  Indeed prolonged maturation in the cask on board ships at sea actually improved the quality of these wines.

In Shakespeare there are multiple references to “Sack” and “Sweet Sack”.  These are the sweet fortified whites that were popular.  Some from Jerez, but the best from the Canaries.  The name “sack” causes some confusion as the French term “sec” means dry, but these wines are clearly sweet.  It appears to be a derivation from “sacas” a Spanish word used in past times to refer to exports.

The Poet Laureate of England in 1630, Ben Johnson, petitioned for the salary of the post to be raised.  His wish was granted and a tierce of Canary was added for good measure.  A tierce was a large barrel, equivalent to 42 Imperial Gallons or just about half a standard modern bottle of wine per day for the year.  Just the right amount to lubricate the pen of a good poet.

The supply of this vintage ran into difficulty in 1666 when the Canary Islanders rebelled against the London based Canary Island Company and smashed all their wine casks, so that the streets flowed with wine.  The British company responded by banning imports from the Canaries and moving production to Madeira.

The tierce of Canary became a tierce of Madeira until the appointment of Henry James Pye to the post in the 1790’s.  Pye was appointed for political and not poetic reasons.  His work was scorned in his own lifetime and ever since.  The barrel of wine was converted into a stipend of cash, probably because he was suffering under a weight of debt.  Pye received €27 a year to churn out bad doggerel.

But how bad can his poetry be?  Oh let me promise you it is execrable.  What is worse is that it is mostly interminably long.  It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke about the 2 Jewish women in a holiday resort in the Catskills.

Woman 1:  The food this year, it’s not so good.

Woman 2: And the portions, so small.

If you are going to serve bad fare, at least make the portions mercifully small.  So here is a small portion of the work of Henry James Pye, the worst English Poet Laureate, born this day in 1745.  Read it and weep.

The Snow-drop; by Henry James Pye

Hail earliest of the opening flowers!
Fair Harbinger of vernal hours!
Who dar’st unveil each silken fold
ere Sol dispels the wintry cold,
and with thy silver leaves display’d
spread lustre through the dreary glade.
What though no frgarance like the rose
tincturing the Zephyr as it blows,
thy humble flowers from earth exhale
to scent the pinions of the gale;
What though no hues of gaudy dye
strike with their dazzling charms the eye,
nor does thy sober foliage shew
each blended tint of Iris’ bow;
Yet in thy meek unsullied grace
imagination’s eye shall trace
the glowing blossoms that appear
proudly to paint the vernal year,
and smiling Maia’s blushing dyes,
and jocund Summer’s cloudless skies,
and Autumn’s labors which succeed
to bid the purple vintage bleed,
our hopes anticipating see
led on in radiant train by thee.

Valentines Treats

AinSakri

The Ain Sakhri Lovers: British Museum The oldest image of lovers we have.

 

Valentine ; by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Flowers

Happy Birthday Gerald Durrell

Gerald

Born in India in  1925, Durrell was relocated to Corfu in 1935.  There is no better place in the world for a 10 year old boy to run wild.   When I think of Gerald Durrell the first image that comes to me is something like the photo above, the young English boy growing up in Corfu with his menagerie of pets, the central character in his novel “My family and other animals”.

The second is “Fillets of Plaice” the collection of writings he published from random scribbles and writings.  The name of the book is a nod of respect to his older brother, the “real” writer of the family, Lawrence.  Lawrence Durrell published a book entitled “Spirit of Place” penned from scraps, discards from his novels and fragments of letters.

Fillets of Plaice contains two very memorable short stories, one about Pâté and the other a Ghost story set in a Library in a remote house.

Gerald is best known for changing the purpose of the Zoos of the world.  It was he who recognised their role in conservation as opposed to entertainment.  If we can reverse the destruction of habitats and re-populate them with native wild species it will only be because Gerald Durrell founded Jersey Zoo.

I can find no poetry by Gerald so you must settle for Lawrence.  This one is replete with imagery from Corfu and beneath it all Charon of Greek Mythology.

This unimportant morning: by Lawrence Durrell

This unimportant morning
Something goes singing where
The capes turn over on their sides
And the warm Adriatic rides
Her blue and sun washing
At the edge of the world and its brilliant cliffs.

Day rings in the higher airs
Pure with cicadas, and slowing
Like a pulse to smoke from farms,

Extinguished in the exhausted earth,
Unclenching like a fist and going.

Trees fume, cool, pour – and overflowing
Unstretch the feathers of birds and shake
Carpets from windows, brush with dew
The up-and-doing: and young lovers now
Their little resurrections make.

And now lightly to kiss all whom sleep
Stitched up – and wake, my darling, wake.
The impatient Boatman has been waiting
Under the house, his long oars folded up
Like wings in waiting on the darkling lake.

Cordons Pierreux

Just back from Lanzarote where farmers make use of Cordons Pierreux to improve the land.  It is interesting to note that there are three types of soil in Lanzarote, a yellow clay, a black cinder and a red gravel.  The red gravel is used for planting well established palms and succulents.  It seems to act as a barrier to weed growth.

The black volcanic ash cinder appears to be the favoured medium for farmers.

Lanzarote suffers from two key challenges, water and wind.  There is little of the first and an abundance of the second.  The dried out soil is easily blown away by the strong sea breezes that keep the islands cool.

Cordons Pierreux are stone ribbons that look like mini dry stone walls.  Farmers use them to mark out field areas, or in some cases to protect individual plants.  Some of them are very fancy, built tall and give good shelter to ornamental plants as in this photo.  These are designed to protect delicate seedlings from harsh sea winds.

Wall

For the most part the Cordons look like these field versions:

Field

To illustrate how they work I took the following close up:

Cordon

This cordon bounds a field end, and you can see the vegetation is far thicker on the left than it is on the right.  The prevailing wind blows from left to right.  Small grains of soil are blown up against the cordon and fill the cracks in the stones.  There they form a barrier to the soil moving.  This barrier also slows the loss of moisture from this field.  You can see (in real life) how the soil in the field is more moist that that outside the cordon.

Seeds blow into the cordon and germinate.  Their roots and shoots help bind the whole thing further.  They provide wells of biodiversity, home to native plants and a habitat for insects.

Cordons Pierreux don’t appear to be very sophisticated but in an environment such as this one they are a cheap, easy and incredibly effective solution to problems of farming.

 

 

 

Happy Saturnalia

Io.jpg

Beginning on Dec 17th, the Roman Festival of Saturnalia was a time to upend conventions.  Things that were illegal at other times of the year were permitted during the festival of Saturn.  Sumptuary laws were broken to permit feasting and public drunkenness.  It was time to party, party, party.  Gambling was permitted.

It was also a great time for people who were normally constrained by their place.  Women could let loose.  Slaves and servants were given pride of place and were served at table by their masters.  There was liberty for wives to tell the truth to husbands and for slaves to berate their masters.

Role reversal and guising were commonly practiced and these elements have become key components in our modern Christmas Panto.  In pantomime the lead boy is often played by a woman, the dame is played by a man.  Mistaken identity and upending of norms, where the pauper marries the princess are common themes.

Saturnalia was a festival of light centred around the week of the winter solstice.   It involved bringing evergreen foliage into the house and using it to decorate the walls, symbolic of protecting the kindling.  From this tradition we get the modern fashion for bedecking our halls with the holly and the ivy.

Candles were burned through Saturnalia as symbols of knowledge and learning, and translated into the current practice of lighting up homes for Christmas with coloured lights.

During Saturnalia work stopped and schools closed, to give people a holiday period, just as today.

Citizens put aside their togas and dressed instead in colourful greek outfits that were bright and garish.  A bit like we do today by wearing gaudy cheesy Christmas jumpers.

Citizens, who normally walked bare headed, would doff a pilleus, a pointy felt cap usually worn by freedmen.  Next time you are at the office christmas party and find a pointy cap on your dinner place setting you will know it is designed to reduce your status, and make all of you equal for the party.

Romans also had a tradition of gift giving for Saturnalia that we have translated to the notion of Santa Claus.

Ever wonder where the tradition of sending Christmas cards came from?  You got it!  It’s another Saturnalia custom.  As with the verse below from Catullus Romans would send each other verses of poetry for the holiday.  This year I revived something of the Roman tradition by sending framed poems to my family and to SOME friends.

 

Saturnalia Gift ; by Catullus

If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.

(translated by Josephine Balmer)

Talking Turkey

turkey-cock-walking-farm-31935806

Since today is USA Thanksgiving it is a good time to talk about Turkeys, their origin, their names and their use in language.

The Turkey had a strange introduction to the English language.   The Mexican turkey was domesticated by the Aztec’s.  When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World they found a new type of domestic fowl.

To them it looked something like a peacock, so they gave it the Spanish word for the same:  Pavo.  The Peacock is now called the Pavo Real in Spanish, or the Royal Fowl.

When the Spanish brought the Turkey back from Mexico it spread rapidly across North Africa to the Ottoman Empire.  The Turks named the bird a “Hindi” or an Indian Fowl, because they then believed the New World was part of the Indian sub-continent. Hence we call the islands of the Caribbean the West Indies.

The French who purchased the bird from the Turks adapted the name “Hindi” to French.  They called it Volaille d’Inde (The Indian Fowl) which was shortened over time to Dindon.

The English called traders with the Ottoman Empire “Turkey Traders”.  When this new bird arrived they called it the Cock or Hen of Turkey.  So we get the name Turkey as a bird.

When English colonists set off to Virginia Colony and New England they included domesticated Turkeys in their compliment of farm birds.  When they arrived in the New World they were surprised to see a wild bird species remarkably similar to the fowl they believed came from Turkey.

The North American wild turkey ( Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) has not been domesticated, and is a different sub-species to the Aztec domestic turkey.

To ‘Talk Turkey’ is a synonym for talking real business.  It appears to originate in a joke where a white man suggests to a red indian that they share the spoils of their hunting as follows: ‘I can take the Turkey and you can take the crow, or you can take the crow and I can take the Turkey’ to which the Indian replies ‘you no talk turkey to me”.

To go “Cold Turkey” means to give up a habit or an addiction completely.  The phrase comes from the fact that drug or alcohol addicts to completely cease using can get cold clammy sweats and goosebumps on their skin, so their flesh looks like refrigerated Turkey.

A Turkey Shoot is a situation where a person or group has an unfair advantage over others.  In business it is a situation where unexpected demand creates an environment for supernormal profits and frequently arises in disaster situations or in times of war.  If you have the product the consumers will pay through the nose for it.  In military situations a classic case of a turkey shoot was the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, when union soldiers ran into the crater created by the detonation of a huge mine.  The sides were too steep for them to exit the hole and the Confederate troops were able to shoot down on them with ease from the rim of the crater.

The origin of the term ‘turkey shoot’ is uncertain.  Many rifle clubs in the USA hold pre-thanksgiving turkey shoots where the prizes are frozen turkeys.  What characterizes these competitions is that skill is replaced by luck.  Most of them involve blasting a target at short range with a shotgun.  Older versions involved shooting rifles at staked live turkeys, requiring slightly more, but not a huge amount of skill.