I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me.
What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things.
But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind?
I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet.
What else about me?
When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit.
What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written.
As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree.
I hope you enjoy my posts.
http://ipaintingsforsale.com/UploadPic/Gustav Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg
Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!
My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.
But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall
or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.
“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”
To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:
“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”
OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:
“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”
We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.
In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.
In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.
“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”
Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.
“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?”
I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.
“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”
Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.
“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”
Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.
But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.
There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.
Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.
As befits a mountainous country with a coolish climate, Austria has acres of forests covering its many hills and mountains. As a consequence, it once had a vibrant tradition of building in wood. Nowadays, of course, wood as a building material has been almost completely superseded by stone, brick and concrete. The only places you still see wooden buildings are in the small villages which dot the countryside, wooden barns being still quite common there. My wife and I come across them quite often on our hikes, as these photos taken on a couple of recent hikes attest.
I love these old barns. My French grandmother had one just like them attached to the side of her house. We went in there often because that was where the bicycles and the ping-pong table were kept. It was – to the small me – a vast, cavernous place. All sorts of weather-beaten garden tools and other odds-and-ends lurked in the shadows. There was a pile of hay – quite why I don’t know; my grandmother had no animals. But it made the barn smell of hay, into which was mixed the smell of beaten earth rising from the floor. Then one summer I arrived for the summer holidays, only to find the barn gone. My grandmother told me that it had been sagging sideways and threatening to pull the rest of the house down with it. But this perfectly rational explanation didn’t take away the desolation I felt at the disappearance of this wonderful building.
As I say, there was a time when many more buildings in this country were made of wood, especially in the mountain regions. A number of Austrian artists have captured them on their canvases. Oskar Mulley was especially assiduous in his painting of mountain huts and barns, partly or wholly made of wood.
Alfons Walde also often included these buildings in his paintings, although snow was more his thing.
Alas, as we all know only too well, wood burns very well. The older and drier it is, the better it burns, as we all learnt watching the roof of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris go up in flames.
The previously common use of wood in construction in Austria and its tendency to burn well must explain why every municipality in this country, down to the smallest village it would seem, has a fire station. As an extreme example, a couple of days ago my wife and I passed through a small village on one of our hikes, which had not one
but three fire stations!
And each one is bigger than the last. Are fires getting bigger in this village, I wonder, or is it that fire engines are getting bigger and need a more spacious building to house them, or (a somewhat uncharitable thought) have municipal budgets been growing?
Of course, as befits a traditionally Catholic country, Austrians have a saint whom they can invoke to protect them from fire: St. Florian. Austrians should be particularly proud of this saint since he is a native son. The annals tell us that he was born in the latter part of the 3rd Century C.E. in Lorch, near Linz, on what was then the edges of the Roman Empire – the Danube River, which flows just north of Lorch, was the frontier of that Empire. Since so many Roman army units were garrisoned along the frontier his father could have been an army officer. Florian was active, possibly also as an army officer, in St. Pölten (or Aelium Cetium, as it was then called) when one of the periodic rounds of persecution against Christians broke out. This one occurred in 303–304 C.E., under the Emperor Diocletian (the same round of persecution that put paid to St. Pancras, about whom I wrote an earlier post). Without going into the details, which are anyway of dubious validity, it is recorded that Florian was arrested as a Christian. After a trial and various tortures, he was drowned in the Danube by being thrown off a a bridge with a stone tied around his neck. Thus did he become a martyr and a saint.
Sensibly enough, Florian was initially invoked to protect people from the dangers of water. At some point, though, he was pivoted (to use that most modern of terms) and used instead to protect people from fire. My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that another saint, John of Nepomuk, about whom I’ve written in an earlier post and who died in almost exactly the same way as Florian – thrown from a bridge and drowned – won the competition for protecting people from the dangers of water, leaving Florian without a role. Well of course, one critical use of water was to put out fires, so hey presto! he became the protector from the dangers of fire.
The Austrians have not only used wood to build, they have used it to carve, and their churches (and museums) are full of wonderfully carved statues and bas-reliefs. I throw in here a couple of bas-reliefs (from southern Germany in this case) which were recently auctioned at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house.
Naturally enough, the saints who got a place in churches tended to be people’s favourites, ones whom they prayed to regularly. Given the ever-present danger of fire, one of these is St. Florian. My wife and I came across this lovely example of a St. Florian statue during one of our hikes this Autumn, down by Neusidler See (the same hike where we picked up bagfuls of walnuts).
We see here all the typical attributes of such a statue. Florian is dressed as a Roman soldier and gripping a banner, he is holding a bucket of water, and he is thoughtfully pouring that water over a little burning house situated at his feet. Delightful! My wife and I have come across scores of such statues during our wanderings over Austria’s hills and dales. In fact, we came across a fresco of him on the wall of a house just this afternoon.
One statue of St. Florian which we haven’t seen, though, and which I have put on my bucket list stands in the town of Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. The statue was set up in a square, in front of the town’s tax office. Since the statue gave its back to the tax office the sculptor thought it fitting to have the saint flash his bum to the tax men, to show them what he – and the rest of the town – thought of them.
I think we can all sympathize with the citizens of Bad Tölz, especially since St. Florian’s feast day is 4th May, a few days after 30th April, which for many in the world is the deadline for turning in their income tax returns.
By extension of his duties as heavenly fireman, St. Florian is the patron saint of many trades where fire was once used: bakers, brewers, coopers (the staves which coopers used to make barrels were steamed to make them pliable), potters, forges, soap boilers (who knew that was once a profession?). He is also, naturally enough, the patron saint of chimney sweeps, which, dear readers, contrary to coopers, soap boilers, and the rest is not a profession that has disappeared – not in Austria, at least. They are alive and well and thriving here.
When my wife and I first came to Austria, we were struck by these young blokes we would see (there have also been some young ladies in recent years) walking the streets and wearing this strange outfit: black overalls with a white head covering.
Upon enquiry, we were told that they were chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps?! Well, both my wife and I have been around the block a couple of times (I won’t admit to how many) and neither of us have any memory of our parents calling in chimney sweeps. I don’t know about my readers, but to me the term “chimney sweeps” conjures up a Dickensian vision of little boys being forced to climb down narrow chimneys by a nasty master and getting stuck and dying.
At a minimum, chimney sweeps should be dirty-looking, like coal miners.
In fact, they should have died out along with the coal industry. But no, these Austrian fellows are around in large numbers and are lick-spittle clean; they don’t give the impression of ever getting within a mile of an actual chimney. What is going on here?
I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I rather get the impression that we have here a great example of a union using its political muscle to avoid extinction. The way I see it, when chimney sweeps saw that their days were numbered, they got the governments – municipal, for the most part – to pass laws requiring homeowners to have their chimneys – used for gas water heaters for the most part these days – as well as the water heaters themselves checked at least once a year by a “chimney sweep”. As a homeowner in Vienna, I have had the doubtful pleasure of having Viennese “chimney sweeps” come over, solemnly open a little trap door in the wall, perfunctorily have a look in, declare all to be well, and require to paid handsomely for this service. And on top of it all they expect a tip at Christmas! This year, I found this “service” particularly grating because just a few days before the “chimney sweep” had come around we’d had the water heater maintained by a man who spent a good deal more time on the job and got paid proportionately a good deal less. But we can’t get out of it, because if we were to have a fire – Oh St. Florian, spare us this disaster! – and if it turned out to have been due to something the chimney sweep would have checked if we had called him, then the insurance wouldn’t pay – they have you over a barrel (made by one of those coopers who have since disappeared).
Not wishing to end on this sour note, writing about chimney sweeps reminds me that in the old days, when they really did sweep chimneys out, they would have cleaned chimneys connected to those wonderful tiled stoves which they used to have here in Austria. Some places actually still have them. We came across one this summer while staying in a hotel on a hike near Innsbruck; the stove is at the back of the room in the picture.
As readers can see, they have a bench around the bottom where one can sit with one’s back against the stove wall keeping nice and warm. I understand people would even sleep on these benches. But what is really lovely about these stoves is their decoration. I throw in a few pictures of such stoves.
Once, when we were looking for an apartment in Vienna to rent, my wife and I were shown one with such a stove. For one mad moment, we thought of taking the apartment just for the stove. But good sense prevailed; it would have been too small, the children wouldn’t have had their own rooms. Sometimes, though, my wife and I reminisce about that stove we never had. Another thing on our bucket list.
Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).
Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.
A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.
For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.
Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry. Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.
While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.
Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).
Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.
I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.
But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).
On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.
What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?
It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.
But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.
St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).
It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.
Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.
But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.
Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.
As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.
And roasting fiercely!
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.
Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.
It’s been many years since my wife and I have been in Vienna in November – 12, to be exact; I have to go back to the year before we left for China. Like many things which have been done differently this year, the cause lies in Covid. Had it not been for that damned virus, we would have flown to Japan in early October for my teaching course, and we would have flown back to Milan in late October. As it is, constrained by the “new normal”, I am giving my course online, from my living room.
I see, though, that one advantage of being here in Vienna during the month of November is that I can continue my annual habit of memorializing the end of the First World War. But this time, rather than writing about the Western Front with which I am more familiar, I can write about the fronts in which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved, principally the Eastern Front.
Not that I know terribly much about the war on the Eastern Front, which was for the most part a war between the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, on one side, and the Russians, on the other. I have bought books on the subject over the years, but by a twist of Fate those books are down in Milan: all the books which we put into storage when we left for China went to Milan and all the books which we bought in China have ended up here in Vienna, and of course I bought books on the Eastern Front when we lived in Vienna before going to China.
So little do I know about the war in this part of the world that I got the date of the ceasefire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies wrong. I thought it was on 7 November and was planning to post on that day, but actually it was on 3 November, so this post is actually two days late.
I’ve read that the Eastern Front was so long – it stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, so some 1,600 km – that trench warfare never really developed there. The density of soldiers along the Front was much lower than it was along the Western Front, so it was easier to break through the enemy’s lines, and then once a breakthrough was made it was difficult to stop it because the very sparse lines of communication made it difficult to rush the necessary reinforcements to plug the hole in the line. The result was a much more fluid Front.
That’s as may be, but a few years ago I took pity on a very faded aquarelle by the Austrian painter Rudolf Weber, an official War artist for Austro-Hungary, which was on sale at the Dorotheum Auction House. Its subject was a scene from 1916 on the Eastern Front, in Galicia to be precise. I felt that I owed it to the men who died there to give the aquarelle a decent home. It now hangs on the wall, in the shadows to protect it from the light. Although the colours are bleached, you can see a trench snaking across what appears to be a high plateau.
Weber must have been capturing a moment just after a local skirmish. In the lower left-hand corner one can make out dead soldiers lying on the edge of the trench as well as in it.
So there must have been some trench warfare on the Eastern Front.
What happened to those dead soldiers, I wonder? I suppose most of them must have been buried close to the front, just as they were on the Western Front. But are there military cemeteries like those lovely, well tended cemeteries that we see on the Western Front?
I fear not. The Eastern Front runs through the modern-day countries of Latvia, Poland, Bielorussia, Ukraine, and Romania. A number of these countries suffered through the Russian Revolution and its many years of chaotic aftermath. Then this whole region was embroiled in the incredibly bitter fighting of the Second World War. I suspect that whatever military cemeteries were created along the Eastern Front vanished in the decades that followed.
Even if they had existed, they would have been too far away from Austria for most parents to visit and mourn over the graves of their dead sons. The Eastern Front was some 600 km away from Vienna at its nearest point, and as we’ve seen the means of communication we’re not good in that region.
Where did parents mourn their dead sons, then? I suppose they had to make do with the war memorials that dot every Austrian town and village (memorials that a mere 25 years later were lengthened, sometimes by a good deal, through the addition of the names of those who died in the Second World War).
And what of the grand public memorials, by which the warring States memorialized the citizens which they sent to the slaughter? Austria has two. It has a War Memorial, erected in 1925 in the Central Cemetery, which is not central at all, being located on the edges of the city.
And it has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been placed within the building of the old city gates that give access to the old Imperial Palace, the Hofburg.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help but wonder if the locations of these two monuments reflect the differing political contexts of the years in which they were built. Of course, there is a logic in having a memorial to the war dead in a cemetery, but in 1925 the elites were struggling to make a go of the new democratic Republic of Austria. Perhaps these politicians didn’t want any reminder too near the centres of power of the war which destroyed the Empire, leaving them with a small runt of a country to run: better to tuck it away in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. By 1934, however, Austria was effectively a Fascist dictatorship, and no doubt the elites of this dictatorship wanted a monument glorifying the valiant “warriors” who fought and died for the fatherland in that war. Thus are monuments used to project political ideas.
The First World War spawned a slew of war poetry and war art in the UK and, to a lesser degree, in France, which wrestled with the moral outrage of this war. Did the same thing happen in Austria? I cannot judge if Austrians created any war poetry (I know the Germans did; I have translations of some of it). As for war art, few if any of the well-known Austrian artists who lived through the war seem to have produced anything war-related. Egon Schiele painted a few portraits of the Russian POWs that he was in contact with (because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, Schiele was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp).
Gustav Klimt doesn’t seem to have created any war paintings – but then he was not personally involved in the war effort. Oskar Kokoschka, who actually fought on the Eastern Front, seems to have created only one painting, Knight Errant, with the war as its theme, but I find it too heavy on the symbolism for my taste.
The same with Alfred Kubin, who seems to have only created this illustration, End of the War from 1918 – but, like Klimt, he was too old and had no direct experience of the fighting.
Only Albin Egger-Lienz seems to have created some great war paintings. Here is his painting The Nameless.
Every time I see it, I am reminded of a commentary I read on the American Civil War, about an attack by Unionist troops on a Confederate-held fort. As they ran towards the fort, the soldiers leaned forward as if running against a strong hailstorm – which in a way they were, although it was a hail of lead rather than of ice.
Here we have The Dead Soldier.
This is Finale from 1918 (compare to Kubin’s lame attempt on the same theme).
Egger-Lienz was also sensitive to the havoc the war wrought on home life. Here is his painting War Women, the women left behind when the men left for the war.
And here is his painting The Blind, his commentary on the mutilations meted out by the war.
Otherwise, we have to go down a level, to artists who are not all that well known outside Austria. A number of these were official war artists like Rudolf Weber, others fought in the war. Here, in no particular order, are some of the better paintings (and drawings) which I found on the net.
Rudolf Höger’s Fight at Doberdo
Höger was an official war artist and no doubt was trying to show the soldiers in a good light, as brave “warriors”. But all I see is the sheer brutish thugishness of it all.
Alfred Basel’s Fighting in the Carpathians
Basel was also an official war artist. In a way, his subject is no different from Höger’s, yet it seems more of a ballet in his hands.
This other work by Basel, After the Breakthrough at Tagliamento, reminds me of the work of another war artist, C.R.W. Nevinson, about whom I’ve written an earlier post.
A painting by Wilhelm Dachauer
Dachauer was assigned to a medical team as an orderly. No doubt this subject was drawn from his experience.
Stephanie Hollenstein’s Dying Soldier
Pretending to be a man, Hollenstein joined a rifle brigade in 1915. After a few months, her officers discovered the deception and threw her out. But she returned to the Front, this time as an official war artist. No doubt she drew this on one of her visits to the Front.
Robert Angerhofer’s Dead Soldier in Barbed Wire
As these paintings show, soldiers suffered and died in the same way on the Eastern Front as they did on the Western Front. But if there is one thing that has always struck me living here is how little the Austrians commemorate their war dead compared to the UK. Are the Austrians trying to forget their past? Or is it simply that they have decided that they cannot forever lament the dead? I sometimes think the British commemorate their war dead too much, in the process glorifying war. That is not good. But I don’t think we can just blank out the death and suffering of millions. We owe it to them not to forget. So I’m glad that, once again – although a little late in this case – I have spent some time this year remembering the millions who died or were maimed, physically and mentally, in the war that was meant to end all wars.
Autumn is a wonderful time to go a-gathering. The last of the year’s fruits have ripened and are ready to be eaten – a cornucopia of Nature’s goodies waiting to be sampled!
In the various hikes my wife and I have been making during this autumn season, we have been taking advantage of this bounty, gathering fruits that have (more or less) fallen into our laps.
Our gathering started with grapes; not table grapes but wine grapes. I would admit, if my arm were twisted, that we took a few bunches from vines that were waiting to be harvested.
But we soon discovered that quite often there were bunches at the very bottom of the vines which the harvesting machines they use nowadays didn’t catch.
So we helped ourselves to those. I mean, they were obviously not going to get picked, and there was no point letting them rot on the vine, right? We ate white and red grapes indiscriminately, grapes that had been destined to become Zweigelt or Blaufränkisch in the red wines, Riesling or Grüner Veltliner in the whites. They were full of pips and had thick, rubbery skins but were wonderfully sweet.
Later on, we walked along hiking trails flanked by walnut trees
The ground below the trees was thick with walnuts still in their blackened husks.
So many walnuts! It was terrible to see this bounty given to us free by Nature just being left to rot. So we got to work and collected several bags’ full, which we brought home to eat – waste not, want not, as my grandmother used to say!
That being said, I cannot in all honesty claim that they were a good find. Most of them were small, hard to crack, and the meat inside clung for all it was worth to the shell, a meat that after a while left a metallic taste in your mouth. Once we had dutifully finished our trove of nuts, my wife went out to buy some commercial walnuts, to remind ourselves how easy they were to open, how smoothly the meat fell out of the shell, and how delicious their taste was – sometimes, I have to admit, the products of the agro-industrial complex are tastier than the original …
Lately there have been apples and pears. In so many spots on our walks we came across apple or pear trees growing by the side of the path, groaning under their load of fruit and dropping them to the ground.
All these gifts from Nature, just going bad … It really broke our hearts to see this waste. I suppose the trees were planted in a time when more people lived on the land and when they grew more of what they ate. Now there is hardly anyone left in the countryside and those who are left can’t be bothered to pick the fruit from the trees their ancestors planted. Well, in memory of those ancestors, we gathered up a bag or so of both. The apples were really delicious: red-cheeked and slightly tart in their sweetness, just the way I like them.
Not for me the vacuously mild Golden Deliciouses of this world!
The pears were not so good. A few are mixed in with the picture of our walnuts: small, green-skinned, with a flesh which was both granular and set the teeth on edge. But my wife whipped up a fruit salad, mixing them with some of the apples and adding a sprinkling of sugar and a dash of lemon juice. Mm-mm-goood! (pity we don’t have any gin in the house; a slug of that would have made the salad even more delicious).
The fruit-picking time is nearly over. Now it’s leaf-watching time. This afternoon, we immersed ourselves in a world of yellow, gold, and russet (not too many reds in this part of the world).
We finished where our autumn adventures had started, in the vineyards, yellow now but with a dash of red.
The leaves are falling faster and faster, driven off the trees by wind and rain. Soon it will be time to search out mugs of glühwein, the hot wine toddy of this part of the world.
Hopefully, if lockdowns and other Covid restrictions allow it, we’ll be able to drink the winter season away, waiting for Spring to roll around again and the cycle to start all over again.
Question: What connects this tumbledown church, which my wife and I stumbled across during a multi-day hike we did this summer in the Wachau region of Austria
and this train station in London, well known to all those who take Eurail to go to London?
Answer: Their names: they are both called Saint Pancras.
I must say, when we came across that half-ruined church and discovered its name my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Pancras is a funny name, no? I’ve never met anyone face-to-face called Pancras, I’ve never even heard of someone called Pancras. And those websites which will breathlessly list you famous persons having a certain name all came up blank for Pancras. I had only ever heard the name due to the station, and that only because it’s right next to King’s Cross Station, which I used a lot at a certain moment of my life. And I only remember the name because of its close similarity to the name of that organ we all have and whose precise purpose I have never really understood. Yet here were two places some 1,500 km apart with the same name. Yes, my curiosity was piqued, I had to investigate – “Google it!”, as my son always says. And I am now ready to report.
First of all, who was this Saint Pancras? Well, he was an obscure fellow about whom relatively little is known. Like Saint Blaise, another obscure fellow whom I have written about in an earlier post, he was born in what is now central Turkey some time in the 3rd Century. When still a boy and after his parents died, he moved to Rome to be with his guardian. There, again like Saint Blaise, he was caught up in one of the periodic persecutions against Christians, in this case by the Emperor Diocletian. It seems that he and his guardian were giving shelter to Christians and as a result he (and presumably his guardian, but he disappears from the story) were arrested. Pancras was 14. Here, the story gets fanciful. His hagiographer claims that Pancras was hauled in front of the Emperor himself, that the two had a long discussion during which Pancras impressed the Emperor with his youth and determination. Finally, annoyed (enraged, says the hagiographer) by the teenager’s refusal to refute his Christianity, he ordered Pancras’s execution. Pancras was promptly dragged off and beheaded. I find it hard to believe that the Emperor ever bothered to speak to this unknown youth; in fact, as one of the commentators diplomatically put it, it would have been very difficult for him to do so since he was not actually in Rome in the year that Pancras was beheaded. Whatever actually happened, it seems that Pancras was buried along the Via Aureliana.
For reasons that are just as obscure to me as the details of his life, his grave became a hub of pilgrimage and supposed miracles. Pope Symmachus built a basilica over the grave in 500 AD, a basilica that was expanded and much remodeled over the centuries. A church still stands on the spot (a church which, I must admit, I have never visited; perhaps the next time I’m in the Eternal City …).
If things had remained there, Pancras might have ended up as simply a minor regional saint. But for reasons which are yet again obscure to me Saint Gregory of Tours in France wrote in a famous book on Christian martyrs which was published in about 590 AD, that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon and would collapse and die. Well! In an age where oaths were taken incredibly seriously and where everyone believed in the existence of demons and Hell, this was equivalent to saying that Saint Pancras was a divine lie detector: who in their right minds would dare to lie if asked to take an oath on the saint’s tomb? An oath on Saint Pancras’s tomb was considered so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness’s testimony.
There was one slight problem: Saint Pancras’s tomb was in Rome and Rome was far away. No matter! In an age in which trade in the relics of saints flourished, relics of Saint Pancras were considered just as potent. There was therefore a huge and urgent demand from all over Western Christendom for relics of Saint Pancras to be sent to them. The Romans were not slow to oblige, and soon relics purported to be of Saint Pancras were on their way to every corner of Western Europe. As one source I read commented: “The whole body of the Saint was apparently in at least twenty churches; the head, in at least ten cities. As for the individual bones, they were without number. Of course, only a small part of these relics could be authentic .”
Of course, such potent relics needed to be housed appropriately! As a result, many a church was built and dedicated to Saint Pancras, with his relics enclosed in the main altar. In great pomp and ceremony, swearers of oaths could be solemnly brought before the altar and required to take their oaths. In our more cynical age, we can smile at the credulity of our ancestors but I have to say if I had been around in the Middle Ages and had been required to take an oath before the relics of Saint Pancras I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lied. Who wants to spend eternity in Hell, even if you are being asked to swear that you didn’t kill someone?
It wasn’t just churches who owned relics. Rich aristocrats also had their collections of relics, housed in richly made reliquaries like this one.
I have absolutely no basis for making the following claim, but I would like to believe that one of the most famous of all oaths taken during the Middle Ages, that taken by Harold Godwinson in Normandy in 1064 before Duke William, was taken on relics of Saint Pancras. For readers who are not familiar with this story, let me quickly summarize the salient points. In 1064, the-then king of England, Edward the Confessor, was clearly nearing the end of his life and didn’t have a son to succeed him. Various regional powers were jockeying to get into position to take the crown on Edward’s death. One of these was Duke William of Normandy, who was related to Edward, although in a rather indirect way. Another was Harold Godwinson, head of the most powerful family in England. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Harold went to Normandy (some say he was actually on his way to France but got shipwrecked on the Normandy coast). Duke William promptly laid hands on him and held him prisoner, although he went through the motions of treating him as a valued guest. Harold’s “stay” ended with him swearing an oath on a series of relics. The Bayeux tapestry captures this moment.
Quite what he swore is not clear. William claimed that Harold swore fealty to him and agreed that he would support him to be king. Consequently, he cried foul when Edward died and Harold took the throne. Harold retorted that he had been made to take the oath under duress and therefore (whatever it was that he was made to promise) it was not valid. William took this “betrayal” as an excuse to legitimize his invasion of England. We all know how that finished. The two armies met at Hastings, Harold took an arrow in the eye and died, and his army collapsed. Again, this key moment in English history was caught in the Bayeux tapestry.
We’ll never know what oath Harold really took. As they say, history is written by the victors. But coming back to the relics that Harold took his oath on, it certainly seemed to have been important enough to have warranted the use of Saint Pancras’s relics. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson believed that they were of Saint Pancras. In his verse-drama “Harold,” when it comes to the moment of the oath he has William exclaim:
“Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall!
Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius
Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this!”
Continuing in the obscurity department, when the Church hierarchy got around to assigning saints to all the days in the year, something which they seemed to have done quite early on, they assigned St. Pancras to 12th May. Why St. Pancras got 12th May is completely mysterious to me. In any event, 12th May was already St. Pancras day in 896 AD, when the Holy Roman Emperor Arnulf of Carinthia conquered Rome. Arnulf belonged to that delightful period of European history when everyone had fantastic names, something I have noted in an earlier post about Saint Radegund (itself a wonderful name). His father was called Carloman, his mother Liutswind, his son Zwentibold. He deposed Charles the Fat as Holy Roman Emperor and took his place, he was saving Pope Formosus from the clutches of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude when he conquered Rome. And on and on: there are literally dozens more such colourful names attached to Arnulf’s life and times.
But I digress. Arnulf attributed his success in conquering Rome to the intercession of that day’s saint, that is to say Saint Pancras. This made Saint Pancras even more popular than he already was in the German lands, and could well explain in a roundabout way why my wife and I came across this dilapidated church in the Wachau dedicated to him.
The fact that May 12th is Saint Pancras’s day meant that for centuries he also played an important role in the agricultural calendar of large swathes of Europe, from Lombardy and Liguria as well as Slovenia and Croatia in the south to Sweden and Poland in the north, from Belgium and France to the west to Hungary in the east. He, St. Mamertus (May 11th), St. Servatius (May 13th), and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14th) became collectively known as the Ice Saints, and Saint Sophia (May 15th) as Cold Sophy. They were so called because the middle days of May were believed to often bring a brief spell of colder weather, and there were warnings against sowing too early in case young crops were caught in a frost. These were translated into a series of colourful sayings, no doubt repeated around the hearth by the wise men (and perhaps wise women) of the village:
Pankraz, Servaz, Bonifaz
only make way for summer.
No summer before Boniface
No frost after Sophie.
You’re never safe from night frost
Until Sophie is over.
Servaz must be over
If you want to be safe from night frost.
Pankrazi, Servazi and Bonifazi are three frosty Bazi.
And finally, Cold Sophie is never missing.
Pankraz and Servaz are two bad brothers
What spring brought they destroy again.
Never plant before Cold Sophie.
Readers get the picture. Alas, science seems to disprove peasants’ belief that there was a tendency to a cold spell in that period. In fact, science has generally stopped us from giving any credence to saints. Which is generally a good thing. But it does mean that names like Pancras, Mamertus, Servatius, and Boniface have sunk into obscurity, so much so that when I came across a church dedicated to Pancras I scratched my head and muttered to myself “Who on earth was he?” Luckily there was Google to help me find the answer.
Oh, in case any readers are asking themselves why the railway station in London is called after St. Pancras, it seems that it was so called because the surrounding district was so called, and the district was so called because there was once in the vicinity a very ancient church dedicated to Saint Pancras. So there you are.
My wife and I have been doing a lot of hiking since I retired. It’s a great way to keep fit, and it’s a great way to see Nature – slowly, with the time to appreciate what you are seeing. Initially, we hiked without sticks but alas! Time has taken its toll, in my case especially in the knees. So we finally bit the bullet and bought ourselves a set of walking sticks each.
Shortly afterwards, when we were out on hikes I would often hear a low moaning, coming seemingly from close by. It sounded like the noise a kid would make on Halloween when dressed up as a ghost, a sort of ‘woo-hoo-oo’ noise.
To make matters more confusing, the moaning came and went. After a bit, when I did hear it I would look around me to see what the source of the sound could be, but I could never identify anything. I began to think I was imagining the sound. Perhaps something was going wrong with my inner ear? Or was a tumour growing in my brain and pressing on some part of the brain that had to do with hearing sounds?
Luckily for my sanity, I finally figured out was going on. To explain, I need to throw in a picture of the upper part of our walking sticks.
Those holes allow me to modify the length of my sticks, by moving a button clip from hole to hole. It was the wind blowing over the holes that was causing the sound – my sticks were acting as flutes. This discovery led first to relief that I was neither mad nor sick, and then to a certain curiosity about flutes. As is my habit, I began to investigate (God, what a hopeless nerd I am …). I discovered a whole world out there that I had never known existed. I read that flutes belong to a bewilderingly complex family of musical instruments called aerophones. Someone even nerdier than me has come up with a scientific classification of musical instruments (the Hornbostel-Sachs system, so presumably the nerds in question are Messrs Hornbostel and Sachs). Aerophones are allocated the number 4, ‘non-free’ aerophones (“the vibrating air is contained within the instrument”) the number 42, and ‘edge-blown’ aerophones, which is the scientific name for flutes, the number 42.1. So as not to bore readers, I will at this point stop drilling down into the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, but they should be aware of the fact that I could go down five – yes, five – more levels: the permutations on the design and operation of flutes seem almost endless.
Out of this welter of information, I have seized upon one comprehensible fact: that while all cultures on all continents have at some point in time come up with ‘end-blown’ flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim at the upper open end of a tube”; number 421.11 ), only Asian cultures came up with ‘side-blown’ (or transverse) flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube”; number 421.12). Since my sticks were making a noise because the wind was blowing across the sharp rim of my sticks’ holes, and if therefore I were mad enough to classify them as a musical instrument it would be somewhere under number 421.12, I have decided to focus on this family of flutes (I also happen to very much like the music from one member of this family in particular, as we shall see in a minute).
Before I go off to explore transverse flutes, I want to pause a minute and muse on how come our very distant ancestors ever invented flutes in the first place. I mean, what possessed someone to take a hollow tube, drill some holes in it, and start blowing into it? And we are talking about very distant ancestors. The earliest known flutes are some 43,000 years old. They were unearthed in a cave in Germany. Two are made from mute swan bones, the third from a mammoth’s ivory tusk. This is one of those flutes.
Since bone seems to have been a common initial material flutes were made from, I am now going to make a huge mental jump, unsubstantiated by any evidence that I know of, and suggest that actually the holes in bones were made by a predator with large, sharp incisors, that the bone dried out and the marrow disappeared thus hollowing out the bone, that the wind, blowing over the holes, made the same kind of noise I was hearing on our hikes, that an ever-curious early ancestor, attracted by the noise, picked up the bone and started playing around with it, blowing into it, trying to imitate the noise, … The rest is history, as we say. I also have to presume that the creation story of flutes happened independently many times over in different places and that Stone-age bone flutes will eventually be found in many places other than Germany. I should also say that I have not created this story completely out of nothing. There is a cave bear femur with holes in it that was uncovered in a cave in Slovenia, also about 43,000 years old.
Initially, it was thought to be a primitive flute. This is now questioned, with the current argument being that the holes were made by some predator or other.
I can’t figure out if these German Paleolithic flutes were end-blown flutes or transverse flutes. There is a video online showing a pretend-Paleolithic woman playing one of these flutes (or presumably a copy) transversely.
Which makes sense to me: if my story of how flutes first started is at all correct, our ancestors who picked up “singing bones” would have imitated the wind and blown across the holes. But then why did most cultures end up with end-blown flutes? Or perhaps more accurately, why did our ancestors, except those in Asia, abandon initial transverse flute playing for end-blown flute playing? I will let that question hang there, because I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Any readers who have an insight to this puzzle are welcome to weigh in.
Well, after those musings on the Ur-story of the flute, I can finally turn my attention to transverse flutes. My research (i.e., the reading of Wikipedia entries) have led me to identify some 20 types of transverse flutes. Here again, I do not propose to bore readers with breathless descriptions of each and every one of them. I will just mention two, for reasons which I hope will become clear.
I start with India. There, the bansuri reigns supreme. It’s been an integral part of Indian music for at least 3,500 years. It has an almost mystical standing among instruments, being closely associated with the God Krishna. We have here a modern take on this, from a temple in Singapore.
And here we have an older take on the theme, a statue from the 15th Century.
The bansuri does indeed produce divine music, although that of course is a very personal judgement and has as much to do with the instrument as it has with Indian music in general. I’m not sure when I became aware of Indian flute music. All I can say is that I have a very clear recollection of seeing an Indian black-and-white film in my early twenties, no doubt in some rundown arty cinema somewhere, where the soundtrack was this achingly lovely, haunting flute music. I tried to rediscover the film and its music while writing this post but failed. I throw in instead this video of the bansuri being played.
Close your eyes and let the music flow over you, let it envelop you, let it transport you to some secret place in your soul where the music of heaven resides. Without being too morbid about it, I would be more than happy if such a piece of Indian flute music were to be played at my funeral.
My old Chinese connection brings me to the second transverse flute which I want to write about, the dizi. It’s been in use in China for at least 7,000 years, although I throw in here a photo of it being played considerably more recently. This is a late 15th-early 16th Century painting of the Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi nonchalantly walking on water as he plays his dizi.
It’s not only because of my connection with China that I mention the dizi, it’s also because of a very distinctive design feature this flute has. The dizi uses a mokong, which is a paper-thin membrane traditionally made from the inner skin of bamboo cells that is pasted over a hole located between the hole across which the player blows (the “embouchure” – such an elegant way of saying it, try saying it a few times, you sound really erudite) and the finger holes.
Don’t ask me to explain what exactly this does to the sound, I simply quote here what someone else has said: ”The mokong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder, and adding harmonics to give the final tone a buzzing, nasal quality”. Readers may judge for themselves from this recording.
Like many things Chinese, the dizi (and flutes in general) migrated to the surrounding countries: Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam all have dizi-like flutes with the membrane and/or transverse flutes which had a membrane but where it has been abandoned. I throw in a couple of photos to record the use of transverse flutes in these countries. Here we have a transverse flute being played at a convivial meeting (a meal, I suspect) of Japanese men in the pre-modern era.
Here we have a group of Koreans playing various instruments together, one of which is a transverse flute.
Of course, there is a question as to where the Chinese in turn got the transverse flute from. I’m sure the Chinese would argue that they invented it locally. They certainly invented the use of the mokong – the earliest dizis didn’t have it. But as for the flute itself some music historians think that actually the Chinese got it from Central Asia. I will carefully refrain from taking any position on this issue. Let’s simply say that it is an open question.
Which leads me – sort of – to my last point. The transverse flute, I’m happy to say, allows me to bring up one of my favourite topics, covered many times in these posts, namely the transfer across Eurasia of various products and ideas. The transfer mainly took place along the Silk Road, that network of trading routes which stretched out across Central Asia from China to Europe, with most of the transfer going from east to west, but sometimes in the other direction. Readers will no doubt remember what I wrote above, that the transverse flute only existed in Asia. However, any reader who has been to a concert hall knows that the transverse flute is often used in Western classical music. So am I mistaken? Was the transverse flute also invented in Europe? It seems not, according to historians of music. They believe that the bansuri somehow made its way to Byzantium (they think it was the bansuri rather than the dizi, say, or some other transverse flute from Asia, because of how the flute is depicted in Byzantine sources) and from there spread slowly to the rest of Europe. I find this intriguing. There were contacts, although indirect as far as I know (i.e., through some intermediary country), between Rome and India, contacts which no doubt would have continued with Byzantium. I have to assume that as part of these contacts Indian flautists came to Byzantium and showed the Byzantines how to make and play the transverse flute. In any event, here we have someone – probably Orpheus – playing a transverse flute in an 11th Century Byzantine manuscript.
From Byzantium, the transverse flute made its way to Germany and France first, and from there – a good deal later – to the rest of Western Europe. The mention of Germany allows me to slip in a mention of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Most representations have him playing an end-blown flute, but some have him playing a transverse flute.
The use of transverse flutes got a big leg up from the military use of fifes. Armies in southern Germany and Switzerland began using fifes in the 15th Century, as a way of signaling maneuvers (fifes can be extremely piercing in the higher registers and so can be heard over the noise of battle). From then on, every serious European army began to have a fifing unit. It was only in the early 19th Century that fifes were displaced as a military signaling device. Nevertheless, many regiments continued to have a band of fifers (which is where the musical use of the word “band” comes from – a useless factoid which readers can cite at their next party). If I report all this, it’s only because it gives me an excuse to insert a photo of that wonderful painting by Manet of a young military fifer.
The Baroque period saw a makeover of the transverse flute, with it being completely redesigned. Various types of transverse flute were created. Music was written especially for the flute. And – once again – the rest is history. Just to round out the story, I throw in here a picture from an opera which has as one of its main protagonists a flute, Mozart’s Magic Flute. Without going into the details of its highly convoluted plot, the prince Tamino is given a magic flute which he plays at various moments. The opera is a delightful piece of nonsense, allowing Opera companies to go over the top with decors and costumes, as is the case here with a production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
As readers can see, in at least some productions the flute in question is a transverse flute (although I seem to remember that in the production I saw it was an end-blown flute).
Well, I leave my readers with a link to a lovely piece of Western, modern flute music: Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx”.
In the meantime, my wife and I will be plotting our next hike, where perhaps our sticks will sing in the wind.
A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.
It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).
I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.
A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).
Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.
Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.
The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).
The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.
But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.
A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).
The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?
The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.
I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.
I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.
It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.
The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit – posca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.
Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.
By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.
The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).
For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.
But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.
It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).
It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.
For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.
For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.
I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.
The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.
Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us theword “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.
Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!
This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.
My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation. In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.
Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:
“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”
Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.
And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)
Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.
My wife and I have been doing quite a lot of hiking in high alpine meadows this year, which of course means that we’ve been passing a lot of cows. Here is a photo I took of one such cow at one of the huts we recently stayed in.
Every time I see cows, I am struck by the same thing: they never smile (or laugh, for that matter). I am particularly aware of this lack of hilarity in cows because of the French cheese product, La Vache Qui Rit, the Laughing Cow.
For readers who may not know this product, it’s a delicious spreadable cheese that comes in wedges. Each wedge is wrapped in silver foil; the foil is removed by pulling on a red plastic thread. It’s normally given to children. That was certainly the case for me; my French grandmother routinely fed her grandchildren pieces of French baguette thickly spread with this cheese: mmmm, soo good!
But it’s not the cheese I want to talk about. It’s the round box which holds the wedges.
As readers can see, the box is covered by a picture of a cow laughing heartily (she also has a faintly gypsy-esque look, with boxes of the cheese dangling from her ears like large earrings). I would always study the picture as I munched on my cheese-smothered piece of baguette, fascinated by that laugh. Why couldn’t the cows in the field below the house laugh like that, I wondered? Or at least smile. Or the neighbour’s dog? Or the rabbits my grandmother kept in a hutch in the vegetable garden? Or the horse I would pass on my way to get milk at the nearby farm?
As one does as a child, I quickly forgot these philosophical musings. But during my recent continued meetings with cows in high alpine meadows the question has resurfaced, although since I am now considerably older and (I hope) wiser, I ask myself the question differently: why do human beings appear to be the only species who smile?
I should say at this point that my response to this question is completely based on an article by Michael Graziano, who is a Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University, entitled The First Smile.
I should also remind readers that we are, for all of the airs and graces that we give ourselves, fundamentally great apes. We share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, 98% with gorillas, and 97% with orangutans. When Charles Darwin first revealed this relationship to horrified Victorians, one wit came up with this cartoon.
One aspect that we share with all the other great apes (and indeed with all primates) is our sociability. We are intensely social animals and much of our instinctive (DNA-driven) behaviour comes from us having lived in bands on the African veld. This behaviour regulated the all-important interpersonal relations. One such relation was when someone else in the band approached you and entered your personal space. Here, I let Professor Graziano take up the tale.
“Imagine two monkeys, A and B. Monkey B steps into the personal space of Monkey A. The result? … a classic defensive reaction. Monkey A squints, protecting his eyes. His upper lip pulls up. This exposes the teeth, but only as a side-effect: in a defensive reaction, the point of the curled lip is … to bunch the facial skin upward, further padding the eyes in folds of skin. The ears flap back against the skull, protecting them from injury. The head pulls down and the shoulders pull up to protect the vulnerable throat and jugular. The head turns away from the impending object. The torso curves forward to protect the abdomen. Depending on the direction of the threat, the arms may pull across the torso to protect it, or may fly up to protect the face. The monkey snaps into a general defensive stance that shields the most vulnerable parts of his body.
Monkey B can learn a lot by watching the reaction of Monkey A. If Monkey A makes a full-blown protective response, cringe and all, it’s a pretty good sign that Monkey A is frightened. He’s uneasy. … He must view Monkey B as a threat, a social superior. On the other hand, if Monkey A reveals only a subtle response, perhaps squinting and slightly pulling back his head, it’s a good sign that Monkey A is not so frightened. He does not consider Monkey B to be a social superior or a threat.
That kind of information is very useful to members of a social group. Monkey B can learn just where he stands with respect to Monkey A. And so the stage is set for a social signal to evolve: natural selection will favour monkeys that can read the cringe reactions of their peers and adjust their behaviour accordingly. This, by the way, is perhaps the most important point of the story: the primary evolutionary pressure is on the receiver of the signal, not the sender. The story is about how we came to react to smiles.
Then again, nature is often an arms race. If Monkey B can glean useful information by watching Monkey A, then it’s useful for Monkey A to manipulate that information and influence Monkey B. Evolution therefore favours monkeys that can, in the right circumstances, pantomime a defensive reaction. It helps to convince others that you’re non-threatening. Finally we see the origin of the smile: a briefly flashed imitation of a defensive stance.
In people, the smile has been pared down to little more than its facial components — the lifting of the upper lip, the upward bunching of the cheeks, the squint. These days we use it mainly to communicate a friendly lack of aggression rather than outright subservience.
And yet we can still see the monkey gesture in us. We do sometimes smile to express subservience, and that servile smile can come with a hint of the whole-body protective stance: head pulled down, shoulders up, curved torso, hands pulled in front of the chest. Just like monkeys, we react to such signals automatically. We can’t help feeling warmer towards someone who beams [a genuine, friendly smile involving the eyes]. We can’t help feeling contemptuous of a person who makes a servile cringe, or suspicious of someone who fakes a warmth that never reaches those vulnerable eyes.”
To underline Professor Graziano’s point about the servile cringe, I insert here a picture of Uriah Heep from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, the epitome of the servile cringer.
As for people with the fake smile which never reaches the eyes, I can think of a few people I’ve worked with over the decades who would fit that description very well – I name no names so as not to be sued for libel.
In any event, Professor Graziano’s explanation of why we smile seems to me a good one. And it turns out that chimps and monkeys have something which looks remarkably like a human smile.
So we may not be the only ones who can smile. Maybe a lot of monkeys have something like a smile.
But it is a pity that cows don’t smile. It would be so nice if they would smile at me and my wife as we cross the high alpine meadows on our hikes.
And we would definitely smile back.
P.S. Any reader who is interested in an explanation of why we laugh and cry should consult Professor Graziano’s article.
They mini Mt. Fujis were really quite arresting in their symmetry among the gentle anarchy of the forests.
A closer look at them told us that these were ant nests; there were columns of ants radiating out from them into the surrounding undergrowth and their surfaces were pullulating with ants.
A bit like the statues of John of Nepomuk that I have written about earlier, once we noticed one nest we began noticing them everywhere we went on our subsequent walks. We always came across them in wooded areas, mostly among conifers or mixed woodland. Sometimes the nests were modest mounds, at other times they were really quite large.
A little surfing of the web has taught me that these nests belong to wood ants, of which there are some 32 species distributed in the colder reaches of the northern hemisphere: 13 in the Eurasian continent, spread all the way from Japan to Ireland, and 19 in North America. My favourite of all these species has to be Formica lugubris, the lugubrious ant. I wonder what its namer had in mind when they came up with that name. This particular species seems no more lugubrious than any of the others. I throw in a close-up of another species, Formica rufa.
I must confess to putting in this close-up photo simply to gross out my wife, like I did with close-ups of crickets and dragon flies in earlier posts (so childish of me …). However, the first of these photos also allows me to point out the ants’ black and red colouring – although I must confess not to have noticed this colouring scheme when inspecting the ants milling about on top of the nests.
Coming back to Formica lugubris, I have to say if I were a wood ant I think I would feel pretty lugubrious. The great majority of the ants are – female – worker ants. They spend their whole short lives (a couple of months) looking after the queens and their babies (or grubs, to give them their more scientific name), feeding them, moving them from one good spot in the nest to another, watching over them as they finally pupate and metamorphose into adult ants, and generally fussing over everyone; marching off into the surrounding forest to collect food; building up the nest, mending its thatch (more on that in a minute) … and all this and more with hardly a moment’s rest (a power nap from time to time is all they get). No wonder they croak after a few months! As for the few males, they are of course completely feckless, doing bugger-all to maintain the nest or feed the kids (typical …). Mind you, they have even shorter lives than worker ants – a couple of weeks. They have only one role in life, which is to impregnate the queens. This they do with savage abandon, with these mating rites becoming a huge free-for-all. Once that is over, they expire – if they haven’t already become lunch for birds and other predators who hang around during the mating rites and pick them off. As for the even fewer queens, they only need to go through the mating rite once in their much longer lives (they can live up to 15 years or so); the sperm they so collect lasts them a lifetime. Thereafter, they bunk down in the nests, and spend the rest of their lives begetting children and sleeping. What a life, for all of them!
Of course, to think of ants in human terms is very silly: ants are ants, humans are humans. But this tendency of projecting human foibles onto animals has a very honourable history. Take the French poet Jean de La Fontaine, for instance. He wrote many animal-centered poems whose point was to skewer human weaknesses and stupidities. One of his best-known poems is La Cigale et la Fourmi, the Cricket and the Ant:
La Cigale, ayant chanté
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue
The point of the poem is that the cricket spent the whole summer singing the days away while the ant industriously spent it collecting food to see it through the winter.
Come autumn, the cricket comes piteously to the ant, asking it to give it some food, and the ant tells the cricket to bugger off (the moral of the tale for us humans is made clear in this old drawing, by dressing up both cricket and ant in humans’ clothes and having the ant live in a human house).
My French grandmother often quoted the poem in approving tones, making it clear to me that I should be the industrious ant and not the feckless cricket. Personally, I think the story lacks Christian charity, but perhaps in La Fontaine’s day, when most people lived very close to the edge, they simply didn’t have enough to be able to generously share with feckless idiots who had failed to lay in the necessary provisions.
But back to the wood ants.
Let me describe their nests, which are marvels of engineering. First let me insert a cut-away diagram of a nest.
The whole structure is designed to maintain optimum temperature and humidity levels for the grubs and pupae. So, the nests are somewhat flatter on their southern side, to have the sun’s rays hit the nest as directly as possible; the worker ants lay the pine needles and other debris which make up the nest’s thatch in the direction which maximizes the latter’s ability to heat up in the sun’s rays; the nests are often built around a tree stump – the heat given off by the rotting process adds to the nest’s heat; and if that is not enough, worker ants will “sunbathe” on the thatch and when they are nice and hot will go back into the nest and cool down where heat is needed. As for control of dampness, the ants carefully choose sites which are not damp in the first place. Then the same thatch will act as thatch on a human house, keeping out the rain. Since the bottom of the nest, which is in the ground, tends to be damper the worker ants will carry damp material from the lower floors to the upper floors to even out dampness differences.
These wonderful nests have attracted a number of hangers-on. Some are useful, like the worm Dendrodrilus rubidus, for instance. It gets (steals?) food in the nest but it keeps moulds and fungi in check. So it pays for its keep, as it were. Others are not, like several species of beetles, which spend their larval stage in wood ant nests. Most are just a nuisance, eating plant food they find there. Several species of beetle, though, are real little bastards. They eat the pupae, and to avoid being killed by the ants they produce chemicals which disguise their presence. Some of these little buggers go so far as to secrete a scent which the ants can’t resist. The poor ants then allow the beetle to roam freely about the nest unharmed. Little shits … In the case of other species, it’s not clear if they play a role – bad or good – in the nests. There’s the tiny shining guest ant, for instance. It has its own tiny nests and tiny broods in the wood ants’ nests. If a queen and a bunch of worker ants take off to set up a new test, a bunch of shining guest ants will go with them. But when the going gets tough – when conditions in the nest deteriorate – the shining guest ants get going: “hasta la vista, baby, been nice knowin’ ya!” And then there’s a species of woodlouse which has been cohabiting with wood ants in the dark chambers of their nests for so long that it has lost its eyes and colouring (I remember reading about the same thing happening to some species of fish which were discovered living in completely dark caverns off the coast of Mexico somewhere).
As I said, if you look at a nest you’ll see columns of ants marching off to forage – and marching back with what they’ve foraged. Wood ants play an incredibly important role in keeping in check certain species which are bad for the health of the trees – more on this in a minute. But they actually get most of their food from stroking the bums of aphids. This is an absolutely fascinating relationship, probably the only known example of farming by a species other than humans.
Aphids feed by sucking the sap from trees and shrubs. They extract what they need from the sap and excrete the rest as “honeydew” – the name gives one an idea of the taste of this stuff, which is packed with sugars, acids, salts and vitamins. Wood ants love this stuff, and it makes up the major portion of their diet. Over time, wood ants and aphids have developed a symbiotic relationship. Wood ants look after the aphids; they protect them from predators and they move them around to places with more or better sap.
In return, aphids will excrete their honeydew when gently stroked by the ants. It’s hard not to think of human beings and their cows when you read about this relationship.
The ants will fill themselves up with the honeydew, march back to the nest, disgorge it and feed it to the queens and grubs.
One reads lurid stories about ants biting and stinging people. Wood ants can certainly bite – they have the necessary mandibles – but they also have a secret chemical weapon. They keep a store of formic acid in their gaster (that bulbous end section of theirs), which they can spray at attackers or prey.
As the photo shows, they can shoot our their formic acid over quite a considerable distance, relatively speaking. If they were my size, they would be squirting formic acid over a distance of 20 metres – not half bad! As you can imagine, a concerted attack like the one in the photo would be enough to keep most predators away. But some birds have figured out how to turn this spray of formic acid to their advantage. They alight close to the nest, and use the resulting formic acid shower as a way of killing off parasites which they’ve picked up. This European Jay, for instance, is having its formic acid spray-over and seems to be quite enjoying the experience.
Of course, formic acid gets its name from the Latin name for the ant, formica. Formic acid was discovered by one John Ray, an English naturalist, in 1671. He obtained the acid by getting hold of a large number of wood ants, crushing them, and distilling off the acid from the resulting mess. Poor ants! sacrificed to the advancement of science. Here is the painting of the man about to do something awful to a foxglove.
I’m sure myrmecologists (which I have learned is what experts in ants are called) would find a thousand and one other things which are fascinating about the wood ant. But I’ll stop here. There is one final thought, though, which I want to leave with my readers because it goes close to the work I’ve been doing these last forty years.
The fate of wood ants is a great example of human beings thinking they are very clever and know everything when in fact they know very little. This is particularly true of the workings of the natural world. Thus, in the case of wood ants, people didn’t realize that they probably play a key role in the health of forests. I say “probably” because actually we don’t know all that much about the life and times of wood ants, so it’s difficult to judge their true role in forest health. Nevertheless, they certainly seem to keep down the populations of insects which would otherwise attack trees, like caterpillars of moths such as the pine looper and sawfly. Their farming of sap-sucking aphids also appears to affect tree growth. They help in distributing the seeds of plants. They of course provide food to a whole suite of animals. Yet we have thoughtlessly – and ignorantly – been destroying their habitat. As a result, wood ants are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, although thankfully at the milder end of that List. Some species are already extinct locally – the black-backed meadow ant, for instance, is extinct in the UK since 1988. Not only is it really troubling that these ants could be facing extinction (“extinction is forever”), but foresters are also finding that the health of forests has been impacted as a result of the drops in ant population. In this day and age, when we desperately need every tree we have to combat climate change, that is truly worrying. In fact, efforts are now underway to protect these ants and get them to help us protect our forests. I can only hope for the best.