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.

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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 mar 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.

Groceteria

Shop

In the 1890s the concept of a self-service restaurant developed in the USA.  Based on the Scandinavian model of the smorgasbord it was given the Spanish name “Cafeteria” by John Kruger when he was serving food at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago Worlds Fair).  Perhaps it was the association of Columbus with Latin America that inspired Kruger to call his format the Spanish for Coffee Shop.

On this day in 1916 the first self-service grocery store opened in Memphis Tennessee.  The Piggly Wiggly opened by Clarence Saunders was originally marketed as a grocery version of the cafeteria and was called a “Groceteria”.  You entered through a turnstile.  You were offered a basket or a grocery cart for convenience.  It offered self service, price marked goods and a customer checkout.  The supermarket was born.

I have seen the rise and fall of many groceterias over the years, including the Ballymun Cash Stores (which was in Finglas), H. Williams, Superquinn, Quinnsworth, Crazy Prices, Super Crazy Prices, Roches Stores.  The rise and survival of Iceland, JC Savages in Swords, Nolans in Clontarf, Musgraves/Supervalu, Dunnes Stores, Tesco and most recently the German invasion of Aldi and Lidl.

As a kid growing up in Dublin I was always exposed to supermarkets.  On the other hand my summers were spent in Kilkee in the West of Clare.  There were no supermarkets in 1960’s Clare.  I have vivid memories of my mothers frustration, on her holidays, having to queue at the butchers and at the grocers to be served one at a time with a long line of other mothers.  I always had the enjoyable job of going to the bakery.  Picking up fresh loaves, hot from the oven and bringing them back to the house for breakfast time.

Travelling to the continent in 1976 was an eye opening revelation.  The French Hypermarche was a decade ahead of Ireland.  All those wooden barrels full of olives, who knew olives were so popular?  Those were the days when you bought Olive oil in a pharmacy in Ireland to treat an ear infection. Very different days.

Happy Birthday Paddy Clancy

Paddy

My dad passed away in October 2006.  That is significant because it predated the smartphone.  In those days cameras on phones were a new and expensive add on.  As a result most of the photos of Paddy are old style paper photographs, and there are not many digital ones.  I never got around to scanning all my old paper photos, but I managed to find this one in my archives.

Paddy and Maura were preparing for a trip.  It may have been the holiday they took in Dubrovnik.  I know this because my dad was doing up his cabin bag when I took the photo.  Paddy was the ultimate boy-scout, being prepared for every eventuality.  It was a product of his upbringing in a military household.  On camping holidays when anything broke Paddy had a spare in his “magic box”.  His in-flight bag was a treasure trove of travel “must-haves”.

My parents grew up during WW2, or “the emergency” as it was called in Ireland.  Born in 1927 they were 12 when the war began.  Ireland suffered a similar rationing regime to Great Britain, which meant frugality and food discipline was central to their lives from age 12 to around age 20 when rationing eventually tailed off.  They never lost their discipline in relation to waste.

Here is a story that illustrates their mindset.  When they were newly married my father bought a good coat for his wedding.  It was a fine heavy wool tweed coat.  Good Donegal tweed is tough stuff and lasts many years.

Over time the coat began to wear and my mother had to turn the cuffs and put in some repairs.  Eventually Paddy said it looked too shabby to wear.

Maura agreed, so she took the coat apart, panel by panel, and reversed the material and made up the coat again.  She put in new lining and the whole garment looked brand new.

When you turn the fabric it looks fine for a while, but it is worn thin and within a short few years the coat looked beat again.  Paddy said “Maura, this coat is finished, I need to buy a new one.”  Maura looked it over and sadly agreed.  “Yes” she said, “it’s finished, you can’t wear that any more…….I’ll cut it down to make clothes for the children”.

Were he still with us Paddy would be 90 today.  My dad shares his birthday with William Ernest Henley (b. 1849), the Victorian poet made famous all over again by Nelson Mandela.  Mandela would read “Invictus” to his cellmates in their darkest days.  He gave the poem to the South African Rugby Union team in 1995 to spur them on to win the Rugby World Cup for the new South African Nation.  Clint Eastwood directed Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the Springboks captain, and Morgan Freeman as Mandela in the 2009 movie centred on that poem.  Here is another from Henley more along the theme of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

Oh gather me the rose; by William Ernest Henley

O gather me the rose, the rose,
while yet in flower we find it,
for summer smiles, but summer goes,
and winter waits behind it.

For with the dream foregone, foregone,
the deed foreborn forever,
the worm Regret will canker on,
and time will turn him never.

So were it well to love, my love,
and cheat of any laughter
the fate beneath us, and above,
the dark before and after.

The myrtle and the rose, the rose,
the sunshine and the swallow,
the dream that comes, the wish that goes
the memories that follow!

Bucket list #6

Dustbin

The latest installment in my bucket list thread is this rakish looking model, a large size plastic bucket with a weather proof lid complete with locking handles.  I need it for the chickens.  Well, really they are hens, laying hens.

I wanted my own fresh eggs, so I bought a henhouse and enclosed a chicken run.  It is equipped with suspended containers for water and feed.  The feed needs to be replenished regularly and it comes in very large 25 kilo bags.  The feed bag goes in the bucket, and it stays dry in all weather.  Each morning I refill the feeder from the bucket.

The weather proof locking handles double up to keep out varmints.  We don’t have to worry about raccoons or bears in Ireland but never underestimate the intelligence of a fox, a stoat, a rat a mouse or a crow.

The hens are working out well.  They are mostly Blackrocks, which is a first generation cross between Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rock Barred.  A couple of them are slimmer and have white feathers at the neck.  They are White Star crosses, which are Rhode Island Reds crossed with a Light Sussex.  I figure William Carlos Williams had either Light Sussex or possibly Leghorns, but he is never so specific is he?

Currently we get 5 to 6 eggs a day from 6 hens.  That will tail off come winter, but a light I installed in the coop should prevent a complete drop off.

Hens are great for reducing your garbage load as they eat all your food scraps.  They then produce copious amounts of good manure which goes to the vegetable garden, to produce more food.  Should they stop laying for any reason there is always a recipe for coq au vin…….

 

The Red Wheelbarrow; by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.