Vienna, 30 December 2016

My wife, son and I have just visited a show on Georgia O’Keeffe at the Kunstforum in downtown Vienna. I suppose O’Keeffe is best known for her big, close-up paintings of flowers
or of animal skulls floating over desert landscapes from the American Southwest.
But personally I find that, after a wow moment on first sighting, these pall quickly. Seeing them now, I find them somewhat twee.

What I prefer by far in O’Keeffe’s works are her paintings of New Mexico’s landscapes. Two in particular in the show caught my attention, Purple Hills from 1935
and Rust Red Hills from 1930.

It’s not all her landscapes that I appreciate. It’s those where she has cut away much of the detail to reduce the landscape to its essential shapes and colours. For me, this kind of painting is a form of abstract art. In fact, it’s the only form of abstract art that I really appreciate, where the eye is captivated by the interplay of shape and colour but where there is still a recognizable subject.

Even as I write these lines, I gaze at two prints of paintings hanging on my wall, by the Canadian painter Lawren Harris, who worked in the same way, painting quasi-abstract landscapes. In his case, though, his subjects came from Canada’s far north. The prints I have are his Lake and Mountains, painted in 1928

and his Mount Lefroy, painted in 1930.
Harris is part of the Group of Seven, a grouping of seven Canadian painters who believed that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature and who concentrated on paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape. Perhaps the most iconic painting of this group is North Shore, Lake Superior, painted by Harris in 1926.
I first came across the Group of Seven as a teenager, when I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I loved their paintings, especially those of Harris. The pared down monumentality of his paintings seemed to reflect so well the huge, spare landscapes I was seeing around me.

The only other time I have come across abstract representation of landscapes is in Australia, and more specifically in the work of Rover Thomas, whom I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. The example I gave there was the painting River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.

I also gave there an example of another quasi-abstract landscape, this one by the Australian painter Fred Williams, again of a river system.

Interestingly enough, Georgia O’Keefe painted a similar scene, It Was Blue and Green.

It seems to be the case that painters are drawn to these types of “abstract landscapes” in the remoter, more rugged parts of the world. I wonder if there are North African painters, or painters from the Sahel countries, who have painted in abstract form the landscapes of the Sahara desert. Or how about Scandinavian or Russian painters who have painted their far north in abstract form? Who knows, maybe there are even Argentinian painters who have depicted Patagonia in this way.

But O’Keefe shows that actually it is possible to extract the abstract from the more homely parts of the world. Here is her Winter Road 1, from 1963, also in the Vienna show.
Perfect: a dark brown to black line curving across a white background, but also obviously a road across snowy hills. I have seen this exact scene several times in my life in places no more remote than North Yorkshire.

Georgia O’Keeffe, flower: http://de.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/05/what-do-you-see-in-georgia-okeeffes-flowers/
Georgia O’Keeffe, animal skull: http://www.marissamuller.com/blog/2015/7/3/skulls-flowers
Georgia O’Keeffe, Purple Hills: http://www.scottzagar.com/arthistory/timelines.php?page=event&e_id=1935
Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hill: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/my-faraway-nearby
Lawren Harris, Lake and Mountains: https://www.oberhauserart.com/close_up_views_of_selected_artwork
Lawren Harris, Mount Lefroy: http://www.artcountrycanada.com/group-of-seven-harris.htm
Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/canadian/The-Group-of-Seven.html
Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
Fred Williams, Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Georgia O’Keeffe, It Was Blue and Green: http://www.oocities.org/moondarlin/artokeeffe3.html
Georgia O’Keefe, Winter Road 1: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/the-walk-to-laggan-cottage-ruins-and-ancient-footfalls/georgia-okeeffe-winter-road-1-1963/


Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As readers of this blog cannot have failed to notice, I’m a bit of a history buff. I suppose it runs in the family. My father had an extensive collection of history books, which as I grew up I filched for a quiet read in bed, and my elder brother actually teaches the subject.

As perhaps we all do, my interest in history started with the grand events, the Kings, the Queens, the battles. But with age, I became more interested in the history of the voiceless: the poorer segments of society, the goods and chattel which we humans have enslaved and used for our own material comforts, and – the topic of this post – our forefathers from the time when there were no written records: pre-history. Precisely because they have no written history, the latter can only talk to us through the material remains they have left behind, and through the chemical and biological tracers they have scattered about, from our genetic codes to such mundane things as pollen records. This post is about a particular material remain left to us by the voiceless, rock art.

My first meeting nearly half a century ago with this art form was not very propitious. They were rock paintings, in the middle of Lake of the Woods, on the US-Canadian border, where I was spending a week canoeing. They were painted on a small overhang on the water’s edge of one of the many small islands that dot the lake, so that we could bring the canoe alongside to study them. They looked something like this.
If I’m to be honest, I didn’t think much of them. They were pretty crude drawings, and awfully faded. I was far more excited by the very old man we met on another island, who told us that he remembered as a child being hurriedly bundled off into a hiding place because the local Indians had gone on the warpath. Wow! Indians on the warpath! To a boy of 15, that was something to talk about, not those crude, faded rock paintings.

At about the same time as I was gazing with a certain skepticism at the rock paintings on Lake of the Woods, I came across my first rock engraving. It was the White Horse, carved in the mid-19th Century into the escarpment of the Yorkshire Moors near my high school.
I have to say, though, that I was more taken by the gliders soaring silently on the updrafts created by the escarpment than the White Horse carved into it.

Well, time passed, I grew up, and I became wiser (I hope). My growing fascination with pre-history meant that I became more interested in rock art. Not that I saw that much rock art in the flesh, as it were. For instance, I have never managed to see the rock engravings in Valcamonica up in the Alps, not that far from my wife’s home town of Milan, even though it was one of the first places to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the other hand, when my wife and I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona early on in our marriage
we came across some rock engravings among the old American Indian pueblos.
I may not have been seeing much rock art, but I was reading up on whatever new finds were being made. For instance, new caves were being found in France and Spain with art from the Paleolithic era, adding to what was already known. I give here just a few examples from some of the better-known caves:

Now this is really art! Visiting these caves is on my retirement bucket list – if we can manage to get in. Many of them are closed, or access to them is severely restricted, to protect the paintings. Forget the problem of stray fingers touching where they shouldn’t. Even our innocent breath deteriorates the artwork.

Several of the articles I read were about rock art in Australia. For instance, there was much excitement several years ago when it was announced that some rock art in the Northern Territories had been dated to 28,000 years ago, which made it Australia’s oldest dated rock art, and some of the earliest in the world.
Then there were articles a few years before that about the fascinating rock art in Kakadu National Park, also in the Northern Territories, which goes from the ancient

to the modern – Australian rock art didn’t stop tens of thousands of years ago.

All this meant that I approached the rock art which we visited on our recent tour of the Kimberley with a lively interest. We found ourselves confronted with two quite different styles of painting. The more recent, Wandjina art, is dominated by these alien-like faces.
To my mind, these paintings were only mildly interesting. Of much greater interest was the considerably older Gwion Gwion art, which is peopled with stencil-like figures like these.
In contrast to many of the representations of people in rock art, where they tend to be reduced to mere stick figures, Gwion Gwion art shows them dressed and coiffed. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that one can get an idea of what the painters of this art might have looked like if we had met them.

There are very recent articles reporting scientific analyses which suggest that these paintings could be 50,000 years old. This very much favors the theory which I mentioned in my previous post, the author of which argues not only that African peoples sailed to the Kimberley and brought the baobab tree with them but also that they were the authors of the Gwion Gwion art. He claims similarities between this art and the rock art of the Sandawe people, hunter-gatherers from Tanzania.

Personally, I’m not convinced. But hey, I’m no expert. In any event, reporting this claim has allowed me to segue smoothly to Africa, a major storehouse of rock art. And here I will leave my readers with some remarkable rock art from the Sahara, once a green and verdant land full of game and peopled by the humans who hunted them and who recorded their lives on the rock.

Lake of the Woods rock painting: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/8653359
White Horse, Kilburn: http://www.jdw-fitness.co.uk/ben-campbell-5k-10k-trail-races/
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.italia.it/it/idee-di-viaggio/siti-unesco/valcamonica-larte-rupestre.html
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.invasionealiena.com/misteri/articoli-misteri/963-arte-rupestre-delle-alpi-la-valcamonica.html
Canyon de Chelly: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Canyon+de+Chelly+National+Monument
Canyon de Chelly pictographs: http://www.inn-california.com/arizona/apacheC/canyondechelly/rockart.html
Cave wall, Lascaux: https://www.reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts/comments/2xfe1z/what_if_cave_drawings_are_done_by_cavechildren/
Hunters, Lascaux: https://hartogsohn.com/category/טכנופוביה/
Bisons, Altamira: https://www.pinterest.com/gfrilli/prehistoric-art-altamira/
Horses, Chauvet: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/prehistoric-cave-paintings-of-horses-were-spot-on-say-scientists
Bears, Chauvet: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/francechauvet.htm
Rhinoceros, Chauvet: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10920920/French-cave-paintings-inscribed-on-Unesco-World-Heritage-list.html
Reindeer, Font-de-Gaume: http://artdiscovery.info/rotations/rotation-1/packet-1/
Nawarla Gabarnmang: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/06/24/spe31.asp
Kakadu woman: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_10231459_aboriginal-rock-art-namondjok-at-nourlangie-kakadu-national-park-northern-territory-australia.html
Kakadu kangaroo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/521502831831829461/
Kakadu boat: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/10/photogalleries/australia-aboriginal-art-photos/photo4.html
Wandjina art: https://www.pinterest.com/rosadevaux/wandjina/
Gwion Gwion 1: our photo
Gwion Gwion 2: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/bradshaw_paintings.php
Gwion Gwion 3: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/photographs/
Sandawe rock art: http://africanrockart.org
Giraffe, Dabous, Algeria: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/giraffe/
Cattle, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Antelope, Oued Dider, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Man and dog, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Archer, Oued Djaret, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/


Bangkok, 11 June 2016

One of the first things which struck me as my wife and I started our tour of the Kimberley in Australia was the presence of this tree, which we frequently saw, both in leaf
and bare
and many of them with fruit.

I kept saying, “Aren’t those baobab trees?” For they looked amazingly like African baobabs.
Well, the fact is, they are baobabs (although Australians insist on calling them boabs). These trees are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa (two species) as well as in Madagascar (six species, of which these, subjects of a previous post of mine, are magnificent specimens)
and there is this one species in Australia – actually, the tree is found only in the Kimberley and nowhere else in Australia.

How did the baobab tree end up in the Kimberley? I mean, it’s quite some distance, some 8,000 km to be precise, between the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Australia.

A first hypothesis was that this was a left-over from the break-up hundreds of millions of years ago of the supercontinent Gondwana into its constituent pieces of South America, Africa and Madagascar, Antarctica, India, and Australia
which then proceeded, through continental drift, to arrive where they are now. The ancestors of the baobab had existed on Gondwana, so the thinking went, and were carried along for the ride on the drifting continents.

Apart from the fact that this hypothesis doesn’t explain why there aren’t baobabs in India or South America, modern DNA analysis has nixed it. Comparison of DNAs has shown that the African and Australian varieties of the baobab separated a “mere” 100,000 years or so ago, when (by my calculation) Africa and Australia were 7 km closer (continental plates drift slowly).

So how did the baobab make it to Australia?

Well, the next most obvious hypothesis is that an African baobab nut or two (of which the smiling ladies in the photo above are holding a basketful) was carried out to sea and then carried along by surface currents to its new home in Northwestern Australia. But the experts are hesitant, and I understand why. A study of this map of surface currents
shows that to make it to the Kimberley region, a nut would have had to fall into the Somali current and been carried northward, then it would have had to get taken eastward by the northern branch of the Indian Ocean’s Equatorial current, all the way to the island of Sumatra. At that point, our bobbing baobab nut would have had to hug the southern coastlines of Sumatra and Java, to then, somewhere around Bali or Timor, change course, coming southward and westward, finally making a landing in the Kimberley. As the sad fate of the Malaysian flight MH370 has shown, anything floating further south in the Indian Ocean would tend to be carried westward rather than eastward. The map below is a computer-generated estimate of where debris of the plane could have drifted from the original hypothesized crash point (the square point on the border of the blue area); the red area is where debris might have been 18 to 24 months after the crash.
If this ocean voyage of the baobab nut occurred at all, it would have taken place during the last ice age. This started 110,000 years ago, which is pretty much when the two baobab lines separated, and finished 12,000 years ago. Among other things, the ice age caused sea levels to drop, which modified coastlines in certain parts of the world. In turn, these modifications could have affected the direction of surface currents. So to be really correct, one should look at a map of someone’s best guess of surface ocean currents during the ice age. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across any such map. This map, however, shows where the coastlines were at the time.

It seems there were no big changes in the area we’re interested in except around the islands of Indonesia and New Guinea, where the lower sea levels connected up a lot of the islands (and, en passant, made that last hop of human beings into Australia 50,000 or so years ago a good deal easier). I’m no ocean currentologist, but I rather think that the blocking up of the straits between these islands might actually have made the last leg of the baobab nut’s journey, that right turn from Bali to Australia, somewhat easier.

How long would such a trip have taken? Well, it took debris from MH370 about two years to wash up on the coast of Mozambique, so I would imagine that it would take just as long, if not longer, for a baobab nut to travel in the opposite direction. Could a baobab nut soak that long in the ocean and still be able to germinate upon arrival? We can look to the coconut for an answer; a coconut, at least the original version before human beings started messing around with it, was designed to be dispersed by sea.
There happens to be a lot of argument on this point, but no-one has ever claimed that a coconut can last two years in seawater. A maximum seems about three months, and even that has been challenged. So I seriously doubt that a baobab nut, even if it had managed to make it to the Kimberley by sea, would have been in a fit state to germinate.

So, how else could the baobab have arrived in the Kimberley?

The next most obvious hypothesis is that human beings brought the baobab with them, because they too originated in Africa. Could the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, who are currently thought to have arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago (plus or minus 10,000 years), have carried the baobab nut with them? Well, since they left Africa about 120,000 years ago and took 70,000 years to reach Australia, that would have meant planting the baobab as they went along. This is not actually as crazy as it sounds. Both in Africa and in the Kimberley there is strong evidence that the local hunter-gathering groups deliberately carried the baobab with them and planted it in new areas – the tree is a great source of many things other than the nut. But if this really did happen, then shouldn’t we find baobabs along their most probable migration route?
Yet, apart from southern Arabia, none of the places between Africa and Australia have baobabs, or even baobab remains. Of course, it could be that climate changes in these places after the end of the ice age killed off the baobabs, or it could be that they were killed off by the after-effects of the absolutely gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in the island of Sumatra about 70,000 years ago
the ash from which fell over a huge area, much of it on the migration route to Australia, which could have choked plant life.
It has also been argued that many years of permanent darkness set in after this event, a sort of “nuclear winter”, which of course would have affected the ability of plants to photosynthesize.

But still, all in all, the chances of the baobab having gotten to Australia via this long, long migration route seem very slim.

So how, then, could the baobab have gotten to the Kimberley?

And here, gentle readers, we step into a wasps’ nest. One Australian scientist has made the radical suggestion that tribes sailed from the east coast of Africa to the Kimberley, carrying baobab nuts as food. He claims that the rock art of the Kimberley (which I will cover in a future post) is (a) far older than is generally thought, maybe 50,000 years old, and (b) shows that 50,000 years ago the painters knew the use of boats.

He suggests that the nuclear winter caused by Mount Toba led them to sail east, to the source of the sun, to find it again, which coincidentally would have brought them to the Kimberley (and he argues that there are strong connections between Kimberley’s rock art and the rock art of East Africa).

Well, as readers can imagine, such views have the Australian archaeological community in a tizzy. It certainly is a pretty far fetched theory. But somehow we have to explain how the baobabs got to the Kimberley, right? Anyone of my readers have any ideas?

Boab tree in leaf: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adansonia_gregorii
Boab tree bare: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/boab-tree-kimberly.html
Boab tree in fruit: http://www.visualphotos.com/image/1×10636003/australia-western-australia-broome-roebuck-bay-a-faint-banded-sea-snake-caught-on-the-mud-flats-at-low-tide
African baobab tree: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/11328252/Baobab-the-superfood-of-2015.html
Grove of baobab trees, Madagascar: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/1618549836269760/
Gondwana: http://www.earthsciences.hku.hk/shmuseum/earth_evo_07_01.php
Ocean surface currents: http://www.cruiserswiki.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean
Debris path of MH 370: http://www.deepseanews.com/2015/07/how-currents-pushed-debris-from-the-missing-malaysian-air-flight-across-the-indian-ocean-to-reunion/
Coastlines last ice age: http://maxworldhistory.weebly.com/map-exercise.html
Coconut in the sea: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Coconut-Floating-on-Water-Indo-Pacific-Split-Level-Dispersal-of-Seed-Posters_i2634256_.htm
Migration out of Africa: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Paleoanthropology.html
Mount Toba eruption: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/yellowstone-super-volcano-is-far-bigger-than-previously-thought_122013
Mount Toba ash coverage: http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/03/31/200th-anniversary-of-tambora-eruption-a-reminder-of-volcanic-perils/
Bradshaw art boat: http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?169983-Primitive-Depictions-of-Medieval-Ships-Seen-from-Above


Bangkok, 7 June 2016

Yes, I did that. On our recent tour of the Kimberley in Australia. The ant in question was the Green Tree ant or Weaver ant.
As readers can see, the ant has a bright green bum. The driver-cum-guide of our tour was a passionate advocate of the country’s Aboriginal population, of which there are still many in this little corner of Australia (it was the last part of the continent to be penetrated by white settlers, back in the 1870s). Among other things, on our walks through the bush he would point out various bush tucker (for non-Australians, that’s wild food which can be harvested in the bush), which he always claimed were bursting with proteins, Vitamin C, and other goodies, and which he would then invite us to try. So apart from Green Tree ants, I dutifully ate the petals of Australia’s kapok tree

the “petals” of the rosella “flower”
and the inside of the “nut” of the Australian boab tree (on which hangs a fascinating tale, which I will write up in a later post).
His partner, who was our cook, also fed us camel burghers (camels can now be found in the wild in Australia by their millions)


and kangaroo stew (also to be found in their millions throughout Australia, but of which we saw surprisingly few on this trip).
My conclusion: I really hope I don’t need to be a vegetarian in the Australian bush.

But actually, further research on my part since we returned from Australia suggests that the range of bush tucker we tried on our tour was rather limited. One article in Wikipedia has quite a long list of bush tucker to be found in the top end of Australia where we found ourselves, only one of which – the boab nut – we tried. So I really shouldn’t give up on bush tucker just yet.

Green tree ant: http://www.alexanderwild.com/Ants/Making-a-Living/Arboreal-Ants/i-wpGjWZ8
Kapok tree flower: http://www.crystalchannelers.com/blog/plantology—aboriginal-healing-recipes—reduce-a-fever
Rosella: https://cnesgreen.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/roselle-flower-tea-hibiscus/
Open boab nut: https://outbackjoe.com/macho-divertissement/bush-tucker-plants-and-animals/boab-tree/
Wild camels in Australia: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/pests-diseases/202-camels-in-western-australia?showall=1
Kangaroos: http://notallowedto.com/the-feral-child-a-boy-raised-by-kangaroos-discovered-in-australia/


Bangkok, 5 June 2016

My wife and I both agree that without a doubt the Bungle Bungle National Park was the highlight of our recent tour of the Kimberley (I suppose I should use its proper name, Purnululu National Park, but Bungle Bungle is such a delightfully silly name that I shall stick to that). It has been chosen as a World Heritage Site and for once I agree with this. What we have here is a deeply eroded range, and I think the best way to appreciate the unique geology of the Bungle Bungle is through an aerial photo
or two
or three.
Readers will immediately notice the smooth rounded shapes into which the rocks have weathered – beehives is a commonly used descriptor and seems very apt. The guidebook with which we were thoughtfully supplied on our coach stated that this type of formation is very rare – only a few other places on Earth have it, and not nearly as extensively as in the Bungle Bungle Range. UNESCO, in its World Heritage Site write-up, notes approvingly that “the Bungle Bungles are, by far, the most outstanding example of cone karst in sandstones anywhere in the world.” Without going too much into the geological whys and wherefores, the fact that the rock has eroded into these smooth rounded shapes seems to have to do with the bands in the rock, seen quite well in the third photo above and even better in this photo taken by my wife from ground level.
The key to the bands’ existence is the clay content of the rock. The darker bands have more clay, which means they hold moisture better, which in turn allows a very thin film of cyanobacteria to grow on the rock. It is this film which gives the rock its darker colour. The red bands, on the other hand, having less or no clay, dry out quicker and so cannot support a colony of bacteria. Instead, they have been stained orange-red by iron and manganese deposits. The bacterial film protects the rock from too rapid an erosion, which allows the rounded shapes to form.

Geological considerations aside, it’s a delight to walk through these humped and rounded rocks, which are split by numerous gorges and chasms, a number of them having trails laid along them. We walked just two, the Cathedral Gorge and the Echidna Chasm. The Cathedral Gorge narrows slowly


to finally finish in a pool partially covered by deep overhangs.

DCF 1.0

The Echidna Chasm, on the other hand, is a deep, narrow gash in the rock, at times so narrow that it is hard to get through. After the surprise of coming across Livistona fan palm trees at its mouth (palms are not the first trees that come to mind in this hot and arid landscape)
one edges into the chasm itself. There is a certain fun in threading one’s way through, at some points having to climb and clamber over huge boulders, sections of the walls which have come crashing down; one keeps looking nervously up to see if others might not be about to give way and squash one like a beetle. But there is also an ethereal beauty in this chasm. At certain times of the day, the sun catches the rocks and makes them literally glow. Our iPad cameras were too feeble to catch this wonderful light, but this photographer has managed beautifully.
We would gladly have stayed longer in this Park and done more of the trails. But that is the downside of organized tours: the tyranny of The Schedule.

After detailed discussions, my wife and I have agreed on two more modest scheduled highlights, both, interestingly enough, having to do with water. One was the boat ride on a section of the Ord River near Kununurra, which has been dammed for irrigation purposes. From such utilitarian objectives has come a very pleasant body of water, in the form of several kilometers of the river which are filled year-round with water (a rarity in Australia).


“Water is life” our driver-cum-guide would constantly intone, and this stretch of river was the living proof of this. Apart from several well-fed freshwater crocodiles which we spied along the banks with a twittering of excitement, we saw a large number of birds, the most majestic of which was undoubtedly the white-breasted sea eagle
and the sweetest of which was the Jesus bird (aptly named since it seems to walk on water).
The mother hatches the chicks, the father is then solely responsible for their upbringing (many of the ladies on board noted this division of labour with approval; the men said nothing). But perhaps the most interesting wildlife we came across was a colony of fruit bats hanging out (literally) in a couple of trees along the bank, making quite a noise as they yelped and barked – when do they sleep, I wonder?


From the mutterings of disapproval among our Australian companions and the spirited defense of the bats put up by our guide, we surmise that they are considered a nuisance in more urban settings, no doubt because they sink their fangs into the fruit of your garden which you had been looking forward to eating.

The second modest scheduled highlight was Windjana gorge, in the King Leopold Ranges (why the British explorer who first came across these ranges named them after the King of the Belgians is a bit of a mystery to me; my guess is he was hoping the guy would fork out for his next expedition). Apart from the frisson we got from seeing twenty or more freshwater crocodiles all in one place waiting in complete stillness on the banks or in the water for their next meal to go by
the gorge itself was very pretty
and once again the rocks glowed orange-red in the setting sun.

There was one other highlight, which wasn’t marked in The Schedule, and that was the night sky. In many places, we camped far, far away from any polluting light sources. This, combined with the normally clear skies, meant that when the moon didn’t get in the way we had glorious views of the night sky. It was a sky without the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere with which my wife and I are familiar, but nevertheless a magnificent site to behold, especially on the nightly walks to the toilet to which I alluded in the previous post.
Our last night out, we dragged our camp beds out of our tent, and as we dozed we watched the Milky Way wheel across the sky. Wonderful. But as they say, there is no gain without pain. I am still spreading anti-histamine cream on the dozen or so bites I got from the accursed Australian mosquitoes that night, may they rot in Hell.


Bungle Bungle aerial view-1: http://www.kimberleywilderness.com.ccd. dau/the-apt-experience/photos-and-videos/photo-gallery
Bungle Bungle aerial view-2: http://www.ryanphotographic.com/Essay.htm
Bungle Bungle aerial view-3: http://kimberleymedia.photoshelter.com/gallery/Bungle-Bungles-Purnululu/G0000GcT6t3sRLPw/C0000uv7H8rn8We0
Cathedral Gorge trail: my wife’s photos
Cathedral Gorge pool-1: http://studyperth.com.au/about/news-feeds/2015/10/top-10-walking-tracks-and-bike-trails
Cathedral Gorge-2: my wife’s photo
Livistona palm trees: my wife’s photo
Echidna chasm: http://www.wildroad.com.au/galleries/australia-photos/echidna-chasm-purnululu-national-park-australia/
Ord River: my wife’s photos
White breasted sea eagle: http://thelife-animal.blogspot.com/2012/07/white-bellied-sea-eagle.html
Jesus bird: https://well.smugmug.com/keyword/WadingBirds;birds
Fruit bats: https://drivedownunder.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/its-a-bungle-out-there/sony-dsc-138/
Crocodiles, Windjana Gorge: https://flamingoing.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/the-devonian-reef-national-parks/
Windjana Gorge: http://www.broomeandthekimberley.com.au/gibb-river-road-and-gorges/
Night sky: http://www.3rf.com.au/gallery.asp


Bangkok, 5 June 2016

I must excuse myself to my readers for the long gap in my posts, but my wife and I have just come back from a two-week holiday. We were visiting the Kimberley region in Australia, which for those not familiar with Australian geography is the region tucked away into the continent’s northwest corner.

It’s Australian outback country par excellence: a poor, red, stony earth with rocky outcrops, lightly covered by a varying mix of grasses and eucalypts


and dotted, sometimes thickly, with termite mounds
sparsely populated, with huge cattle stations whose cattle is almost wild
Young Brahman cattle enjoy the lush grasslands in the Kimberley wet season.
and small, nondescript towns
with significant Aboriginal populations.

We chose to go with an organized tour, and so we found ourselves, the rather exotic foreigners, traveling with 22 Australians and a New Zealander (I don’t think New Zealanders really count as foreigners in Australia). It was a fascinating mix of people. Nearly all of them were from Australia’s east coast, escaping their “cold” winter. Most of them were retirees; at 62, we were among the youngest (there were two outliers, girls in their early twenties – we all stared at them in surprise when they first got on the coach; what on earth were they doing with us old fogies?). Two couples had been dairy farmers, a number had been teachers, a number had been social workers of one form or another, one had worked in the prison system, one had been an architect and another a house builder, one had been a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance, one of the young girls drove coal trucks out of a coal mine while studying part-time to be a nurse, the other was a receptionist. As behoves an immigrant country, several of our group were first-generation immigrants: there was a woman who hailed originally from Malaysia, another from France, a couple from the Netherlands, and another couple from what had once been Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. All this diversity made for interesting discussions as we opened up to each other at meals and around camp fires in the evening.
And of course, we touched upon the more intimate things of life: children, deaths of or separations from spouses, and, as we settled into the trip and admitted several trips a night to the toilet, the state of our prostates. It was somewhat akin to that film of long ago “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”
although in our case we only toured one small part of one country (but still managed to clock up 2,600 km; just to put things in perspective, the Kimberley is twice as big as the UK), the coach we rode in was technologically very sophisticated, custom-built on a Mercedes chassis to take anything the rugged unpaved roads of the outback could throw at it


and we slept in tents – I was strongly reminded of my Boy Scout days.
The tour started in Broome, a small town on the Indian Ocean and once a pearling station, went east along the paved Great Northern Highway for a thousand kilometers or so, to the even smaller town of Kununurra, and then looped back to Broome along the unpaved Gibb River Road, with a detour north at some point along the Kalumburu Road to visit the Mitchell Falls situated very nearly on the northern coast. I do not intend to bore my readers with a detailed travel diary. I will just touch upon some highlights in the next posts. So cheerio, mates!


map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberley_(Western_Australia)
Kimberley vista: my wife’s photo
Termite mounds: https://www.birdwatch.co.uk/categories/articleitem.asp?item=643
Cattle: http://kimberleymedia.photoshelter.com/gallery/Cattle-Kimberley-Images/G0000RM6HcfEh3fE/
Kununurra: http://www.avalook.com/newsite/?page_id=13
Old Aborigine: my wife’s photo
Around the campfire: http://sacreddestinations.org/sacred-destinations-spiritual-tours-meditation-retreats.html
“If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” film poster: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_It%27s_Tuesday,_This_Must_Be_Belgium
Coach: http://www.outbackspirittours.com.au/tours/cape-york-wilderness-adventure
Tents: my wife’s photo


Sori, 25 February 2016

We’re in Italy at the moment, spending a week here to get things in order for my impending retirement. We decided to make a quick visit to our apartment on the sea, by Genova, to check if all was well but also to see the mimosa in flower. The flowering of mimosa on the Ligurian coast is a wondrous sight to behold
especially when you’re toiling up a hill like these hikers are and find yourself in front of a flash of canary yellow, a harbinger of the Spring to come.
All was well with the apartment but alas! we were too late for the mimosa. It had reached its peak some two weeks before and the flowers were already very much past their best.


Disconsolate, I decided to do the next best thing, a little internet surfing to learn more about mimosa.

I had half expected to discover that mimosa originally came from China. After all, that had already been my experience with several plants, from wisteria to the willow. But no! I was delighted to learn that mimosa comes from south-eastern Australia. Here is a photo of it in the State of Victoria, in what is probably its natural state, cohabiting in this case with mountain gums.


Mimosa is actually a bit of a misnomer, for which it seems we have to thank Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system for giving scientific names to living things.
What I call mimosa is actually an acacia (or perhaps was an acacia; more on that in a moment). For some reason, Linnaeus decided to also give the genus acacia the name mimosa. The confusion was cleared up later, but not before this particular type of acacia got stuck with the name mimosa. Confusion on nomenclature doesn’t stop there, for it seems that acacia is also a misnomer in this case. I don’t follow taxonomic decisions with bated breath, but Australian acacias should apparently now be called racosperma. The august scientific body which makes these kinds of decisions decided so back in the late 1990s or thereabouts, but the Australian botanists, indignant at the thought of having to change the name of their cherished acacias, managed to get the vote reversed in 2005. However, I now understand that the vote was re-reversed. In all of this confusion, I think we should just go with the common name, the wattle. Since there are nearly 1,000 species of wattle in Australia, I have to be a little more specific and say that the “mimosa” planted here in Liguria is the silver wattle.

How mimosa got to this part of the world is not that clear – at least, I didn’t find any clear description of that journey. Another distinguished botanist, Joseph Banks
who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post on kangaroos, brought the wattles to the attention of the Western world. But who actually brought the living plant back, or its seeds, and propagated it I don’t know. Whoever it was, the peoples from Portugal to the west all around the rim of the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean Sea and on into the Black Sea to the east have a huge debt to him (or, who knows? her). Every spring, they can enjoy magnificent bursts of yellow, like this one in Odessa in the Ukraine.


Actually, given that the golden wattle, another member of the large wattle tribe, is now the floral emblem of Australia, I was expecting to find a photo on the net of a mimosa in flower in the ANZAC cemeteries of Gallipoli. But no. Photos there are of the cemeteries
but none with a flowering mimosa. Perhaps no-one visits the cemeteries in the early Spring. But if instead it’s because mimosas are not planted in Gallipoli, I think a move in this direction is in order. Should not an earlier immigrant to Europe from Australia welcome the Spring every year in that corner of the Mediterranean where Australians lie in their eternal sleep?


Mimosa in Liguria: http://helpilivewithmyitalianmotherinlaw.com/2013/03/07/the-magic-of-liguria/
Mimosa on the hills: http://lemiegite.escursioniliguria.it/gita_per_gita/gita_per_gita_2014_2016/2015-02-01_sori_cordona_nervi.html
Mimosa in Australia: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/foto/mountain-gums-and-silver-wattle-victoria-australia-fotografie-stock/128394637
Linnaeus: http://linnaeus.sourceforge.net
Joseph Banks: http://lggardendesign.com/it/linvasione-della-rosa-banksiae/
Mimosa in Odessa: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/365143482264046608/
ANZAC cemetery, Gallipoli: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/621860/FIGGIS,%20SAMUEL%20DOUGLAS%20JOHNSTONE


Bangkok, 19 October 2015

One of the interesting side-effects of living in Bangkok is that I can carry out a comprehensive study of feet. The climate here is such that the wearing of open footwear is exceedingly widespread, so I can examine – surreptitiously, of course – a very large number of feet as I walk around, sit in public places, or – as was the case when I started this post – sit in buses stuck in Bangkok’s perennially dreadful traffic. Since so many foreigners come to Bangkok, the study is very cross-cultural: I study not only the feet of the Thai, but also – judging from the shards of phrases I overhear as the foreigners walk by – Australians, Europeans of all stripes, North Americans, some Latin Americans, quite a number of Middle Easterners, a sprinkling of Africans, and of course Asians from every corner of Asia. I am now ready to report back on the findings of my study.

Let us first set the benchmark against which I can compare the feet I see. This would be a foot in its natural state, that is to say a foot that is perennially shoeless. This photo, which I’ve used before, gives an excellent example. What we have here is a band of Amazonian Indians who are coming into contact with the modern world for the first time. Their astonished and somewhat fearful faces upturned towards the helicopter (I guess) are fascinating, but I would invite the reader to focus on their feet, feet which have never been shod.

amazonian Indian feet

As the readers will quickly agree, these feet are in the state that most human feet have been in for 99.99% of the time we have inhabited this planet.

I throw in here an older photo, taken – no doubt by some amateur anthropologist – to deliberately show a natural foot. And of course it has to be an old photo, because wearing shoes is probably now the norm rather than the exception. Finding a foot nowadays which has never been shod must indeed be hard.

natural and baby feet

Note the way the toes in the natural foot, especially the big toe, are splayed out. A minute’s thought will show that of course this is the way it should be. By spreading out like that, toes are giving the foot a wider footprint and therefore making it easier for the person on top of those feet to balance.

In this photo of a baby’s feet, the reader will notice that they naturally take this splayed form

baby feet

Only later, through imprisonment in shoes, do the toes come closer together

feet with toes close

sometimes too close together.

toes too close

I am reminded of TS Eliot’s poem Animula, which tracks the evolution of a person’s soul from birth to adulthood, but which actually describes very well the fate of our feet: “‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’ …Issues from the hand of time, the simple soul … misshapen, lame, unable to fare forward …”.

But back to the matter in hand. Having set the benchmark, I can now report the results of my pseudo-sociological field experiment in the streets and other public spaces of Bangkok.

Generally speaking, the feet of Thai people look in considerably better shape than those of foreigners from “civilized” countries. A good number have quite splayed toes, fruit no doubt of hardly ever wearing shoes at home. In fact, it’s quite common to see their little toes falling off their flip-flops or sandals. Clearly, the basic “chassis design”, if I can put it that way, adopted by shoe manufacturers simply ignores the natural form of the foot with splayed toes. Shoe manufacturers take as their starting point an already somewhat malformed foot. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, it is their products which have malformed out feet in the first place. Other Thais have moderately straightened toes, fruit of some level of constriction by shoes.

thai girl's feet

I detect a social element here. It is clear from their dress and occupation that the Thai owners of feet whose toes are splayed come from the poorer strata of society, while those with feet with straight toes come from the richer ones. And I also detect a gender element. Young Thai women show more evidence of constricted toes than do the men. I will come back to this in a minute.

As for the feet of the foreigners, those of people from more developed, richer, more “civilized” countries show toes much more tightly squeezed together

white feet in flip flops

along with more extreme signs of foot distress: bunions


hammer toes

hammer toes

calluses and corns.

Like in the case of the Thai, women’s feet seem more malformed than men’s. Which gets us of course to the cause of all these foot problems: canons of accepted (feminine) beauty.

Let’s face it, for hundreds if not thousands of years, there has been this insidious idea that those members of society who are more civilized, more refined – and richer – have delicate (for women) or well proportioned (for men) limbs and features. Hands, of course, have always been a particular object of this odious social creed, because having big hands, and especially having big fingers, meant that you were poor and so did a lot of manual labour.

If you were rich, on the other hand, you could pay people to do your manual labour for you, leaving your hands and fingers slim.

slim hands

With feet, it must have been a little different. Like grand clothes, the fact that you wore shoes showed that you had money to burn, not like that bum on the street who had to run around in his bare feet all day. And of course, slim, petite, shoes (that is to say, narrow, horribly constricting, shoes) showed (or pretended to show, since your feet were actually squashed into the shoe) that you had slim, petite, feet, not broad feet like that bum on the street etc.


This last pair of shoes, with their modest heels, allows me to segue smoothly into that terrible habit of wearing high-heeled shoes. As we all know, it’s mostly women who wear them, but men do too, depending on the state of fashion. I am ready to reveal at this time that when I was young and foolish I went through a phase of wearing platform boots, one black pair and one brown, which looked like this.

platform shoes

Apart from feeling pretty cool as I walked around Uni, I found a most satisfying side-effect to be that I was taller. No doubt that’s one reason why women do this to their feet

high heels

which when you strip away the shoe looks like this.

foot in high heel position

Modest heels I could understand. I mean, I fell for them. But why subject yourself to the pain of excessively high heels, not only a pain that comes today but also a pain that dogs you for years to come? Because men still rule the world, and they like to see the accentuated swish in a woman’s gait caused by walking in high heels, or maybe they like the fact that her legs look longer, or that her feet look smaller, or her toes shorter, when wearing heels. Or maybe it makes women take smaller steps, to avoid falling over (my wife still remembers her father exhorting her to take small steps, because that was more ladylike and refined). Or maybe because it makes men feel strong to see women tottering around on heels, not able to walk very far before complaining of sore feet and needing help.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But consider this. For nearly one thousand years, from early in the Song dynasty, about 1000 AD, to the early 20th Century, many Chinese women were subjected to the unbearably painful process of foot binding. To appreciate the full horror of this practice, let me give the readers a quick summary of what girls were subjected to. The process was started when girls were between the ages of 4 and 9, that is, before the arches of their feet had had a chance to develop fully. First, after softening the feet and cutting back the toenails, the toes of each foot were curled under and then pressed with great force into the sole of the foot until – the – toes – broke. But it didn’t finish there. While the broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot, the arch of the foot was also broken so that the foot could be drawn down straight with the leg. So you basically smashed the little girl’s feet. Then you started the binding. The idea was to pull the ball of the foot ever closer to the heel, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole.

As the readers can imagine, a girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention if she was not to die from this process; it is estimated that 10% of girls died from gangrene and other infections due to foot binding. So their feet were regularly unbound, they were washed, the toes unfolded and checked for injury, and the nails carefully trimmed. The broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl’s feet beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. Then the poor girl’s broken toes were folded back under and the feet rebound. Every time the feet were rebound, the bindings were pulled even tighter. The ideal was to end up with a “foot” no more than 10 cm long.

The Chinese are nothing if not eminently practical. Recognizing that mothers might well be too sympathetic to their daughters’ pain, it was generally an older female member of the family or a professional foot binder who carried all this out. Oh, and the process was usually started during the winter time since girls’ feet were more likely to be numb from the cold, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme. How nice of them.

This was the result:

crushed bound foot

Chinese lady with bound feet

Of course, no-one except the persons caring for the feet ever saw this. What they saw was this, these oh-so dainty little shoes.

Lotus-ShoesAnd why were Chinese women subjected to this horrible procedure for a thousand years? For beauty, of course. Men ruled China (they still do), and crazy as it might sound to the modern reader, men considered bound feet to enhance a woman’s beauty by making her movements more dainty and “ladylike”. As readers can imagine, it was difficult to walk on broken feet. Women with bound feet tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, they walked with a cautious, unsteady gait, taking tiny, swaying steps. And, of course, that most important thing where women were concerned, well bound feet helped her parents contract a good marriage for her. It could also be that it was found to be an effective way of forcing women to be housebound and completely reliant on men. In this view, traditional societies forbid women from leaving the house; the Chinese simply broke their feet.

So what is the moral of all this? Look after your feet! Stop obsessing about narrow, dainty feet. Celebrate splayed toes. Go to the office in flip-flops and take off your shoes the moment you sit at your desk (which is what most Thais do). Put on sandals until the dead of winter; our feet can tolerate quite a lot of cold. Throw away all your high-heeled shoes. And if a man ever asks you to wear high heels, cut him mercilessly out of your life; he is clearly a swine.


Amazonian Indian feet: http://birthdayshoes.com/media/blogs/bdayshoes/2013_Photos/.evocache/human_feet_look_like_if_you_never_wear_shoes.jpg/fit-640×540.jpg?mtime=1386261566 (in http://birthdayshoes.com/what-a-natural-human-foot-looks-like-if-you-never-wear-shoes)
Natural human feet: http://origin.ih.constantcontact.com/fs096/1102283092773/img/101.jpg?a=1102864935304 (in http://www.sukiebaxter.com/could-your-feet-be-the-source-of-that-pain-in-your-neck)
Baby feet: http://naturalrunningcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Screen-shot-2012-02-26-at-5.30.11-PM.png (in http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2012/02/27/enhancing-natural-pronation-control-feet-designed-that/
Feet with toes close: http://www.guide2health.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/bare-feet.jpg (in http://www.guide2health.net/2012/08/life-long-immunity-to-disease/bare-feet/)
Feet with toes too close: http://i.imgur.com/aURQcnm.jpg (in http://www.inquisitr.com/931111/lebron-james-feet-picture-of-stars-messed-up-toes-goes-viral/)
Thai girl’s feet: http://www.zeefashionstore.com/ProductImage/18391/1.jpg (in http://www.zeefashionstore.com/womenshoes.php?brand=79&section=6)
White feet in flip-flops: http://blog.diagnosticfootspecialists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/flip-flops.jpg (in http://blog.diagnosticfootspecialists.com/)
Bunions: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Hallux_Valgus-Aspect_pr%C3%A9_op_d%C3%A9charge.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunion)
Hammer toes: http://images.medicinenet.com/images/slideshow/diabetes_foot_problems_s13_hammertoes.jpg (in http://www.medicinenet.com/image-collection/hammertoes_picture/picture.htm)
Working hands: https://scpeanutgallery.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/working-hands.jpg (in http://scpeanutgallery.com/2015/02/04/morning-prayer-4-feb-heb-124-7-11-15-mk-61-6-get-a-grip/)
Slim hands: http://hoocher.com/Agnolo_Bronzino/Portrait_of_Lucrezia_Panciatichi_ca_1540.jpg (in http://hoocher.com/Agnolo_Bronzino/Agnolo_Bronzino.htm)
Woman’s shoes 1770: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Woman’s_silk_brocade_shoes_1770s.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1775%E2%80%9395_in_Western_fashion)
Platform boots: http://img3.etsystatic.com/000/0/5381238/il_fullxfull.291560419.jpg (in http://galleryhip.com/platform-shoes-for-men.html)
High heels: http://www.glamour.com/images/fashion/2013/08/heels-w724.jpg (in http://www.glamour.com/fashion/blogs/dressed/2013/08/check-out-this-3d-scan-of-what)
Women in high heel position: http://www.tellwut.com/uploads/media/image/12607e1398914701o270.jpg (in http://katherincruikshank.blogas.lt/tag/hammer-toes)
Crushed bound foot: http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/lotus-feet#.vj027qN6E (in http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/lotus-feet#.eegdQJg3y0)
Chinese lady with bound feet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding#/media/File:A_HIGH_CASTE_LADYS_DAINTY_LILY_FEET.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding#Variation_in_practice)
Lotus shoes: http://www.top5ives.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Lotus-Shoes.jpg (in http://www.top5ives.com/top-5-most-weird-shoes-in-history/)


Bangkok, 23 January, 2015

One of the most far-reaching effects of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas was the so-called Columbian Exchange, the exchange of plants and animals (and bacteria and viruses) between the Americas and the rest of the world. This map shows some of the major crops and livestock which made the journey in either direction between the Americas and Europe.
We see, for instance, that the tomato crossed to Europe from the Americas, along with the turkey and corn (and possibly syphilis), while the cow, the horse, and the onion, went the other way, along with smallpox, measles, typhus, and a whole series of other diseases (the diseases nearly wiping out the Amerindian populations).

But I want to focus on a plant which normally doesn’t get mentioned in discussions of the Columbian Exchange: the prickly pear, a plant whose history is very much centered on Mexico. Here, we have an exemplar standing guard, as it were, at the site of Teotihuacan.
In fact, the prickly pear is so centered on Mexico that it graces the Mexican flag as part of the latter’s central emblem (for those with “mature” eyesight like mine, it’s what the eagle is grasping with its talons at the same time as it grasps that snake in its beak).
Maybe the prickly pear’s low profile in Columbian Exchange discussions is because it’s such a nasty, spiny plant, which really doesn’t endear itself to anyone.
Or maybe because it’s not much of a commercial crop; the Food and Agricultural Organization, which collects global statistics on some 160 crops, collects no statistics on the prickly pear, for instance.

Whatever the reason, I wish to right this injustice and pay tribute to the prickly pear and its role in the great Columbian Exchange. It may perhaps have played a modest economic role, but it helped to fill many an empty stomach, and it sure as hell has played an important ecological role, sometimes wreaking havoc in the ecosystems into which it was thoughtlessly thrust.

I first met our prickly friend in the country of my birth, Eritrea. Here, you see a specimen in front of the delightful little train which runs from Asmara down to the seaport of Masawa on the Red Sea.
I have a vivid memory of taking that train to go down to the coast for a holiday on the beach.

It was the Italians who, as colonial masters
introduced the prickly pear (please note the plant waving at us from behind the colonial troops and their Italian officer). The Italian colonialists brought it from the mother country, of course, where it grows in profusion in the more arid southern regions of the country. We have here an example gracing the ruins of Agrigento in Sicily.
But southern Italy was just a later stop on the prickly pear’s journey out of Mexico. It must surely have reached Italy from Spain, which was the first port of call for many of the biological journeys out of the Americas. Here we have a Spanish prickly pear, nudging its way into a photo of Sagunto castle in the province of Valencia.
In truth, I have chosen pictures which show off the prickly pear to advantage, but normally the plant is much more unprepossessing. This photo of a ragged, messy patch of prickly pear in a village of Ethiopia is much more typical of how the plant presents itself
especially when its population levels begin to explode out of control in some foreign ecosystem which has no natural biological defenses against it. The Global Invasive Species Database lists several countries where the prickly pear is now considered an invasive species. Eritrea is one of them, along with the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Somalia – the Italians, who colonized all three countries had little idea of the damage they were wreaking. But South Africa also considers it an invasive species (here is a picture of prickly pear invading the Kruger national park).
And Australia had a catastrophic invasion. The prickly pear was initially introduced as an ornamental plant for gardens. Then some bright spark thought of using the plant as natural fencing (sensibly enough, cattle and other animals desist from pushing through breaks of prickly pear because of the nasty spines, and they don’t eat them for the same reason) and to start a cochineal dye industry (the little beasties from which the dye is extracted munch the prickly pear’s pads). But the prickly pear went crazy. It eventually converted some 260,000 square kilometers of farmland (which for those readers, who like me don’t think in square kilometers, is more or less equivalent to a square 500 km by 500 km) into an impenetrable green jungle. Farmers were driven off their land by this “green hell” and their abandoned homes were crushed under the cactus growth.
The authorities finally managed to get the plague under control in the 1920s by introducing a South American moth, the Cactoblastis cactorum, whose larvae feast on prickly pear. This led to a crash in prickly pear populations, and while the plant has not been eradicated from Australia it has been brought under control (the Australians were lucky, by the way; there is always a risk in this kind of biological control that the agent will find another native plant much more to its liking and wipe that out instead, or once it’s dealt with the original pest will turn its hungry eye on to something else and become an invasive species in its own right).

Why did some Spaniard ever bring the prickly pear back to Europe in the first place? Because, as far as I can tell, he thought he could brighten up a Spanish garden somewhere. But it cannot have been because of the beauty of the plant itself. More likely it was the flowers, for indeed the web is full of pictures of the flower of the prickly pear. Here are a few of the more pleasing examples.
At some point, though, people, especially the poor with bellies to fill, began to also focus on the fruit, the “figs” of the prickly pear
These had been enjoyed by the Mesoamericans for millennia before Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores arrived and have been enjoyed by the Mexicans ever since.

I add here a close-up of the fruit
first because it’s a nice photo, but second because the sharp-eyed reader will notice the hair-thin spines which nestle lovingly around the crown of the fruit. Their scientific name is glochids. They are the nastiest little buggers imaginable. They come off easily and lodge under the skin of the unwary picker, where they cause exquisite and unending agony as the said picker tries and tries and tries again to extract them, always in vain. Bloody little bastards … Readers may have gathered from this little burst of ill humour that I have personally experienced this exceedingly painful trial. It was in Eritrea as a matter of fact, where as a young and foolish lad I tried picking the fruit.  I then ran to my Mummy to get the horrible little things out, which she eventually did after much wailing on my part and cross admonitions on her part for me to keep still. I had tried picking the fruit because my mother had earlier bought some, perhaps from a lady like this
and I had liked them – a little too many seeds perhaps but nicely fresh and sweet.

Personally, while I like the taste, that early brush with glochids has always made me wary of the fruit. The pain in the hands was bad enough but the thought of those things getting stuck in your tongue or gums because the fruit was badly cleaned is dreadful. And the thought of them getting stuck in your throat is simply too horrible to contemplate.

But others around the world consume the fruit without a second thought, especially around the Mediterranean rim. Here, we have some cheerful young lads selling the fruit in Egypt

While here we have a more solemn Moroccan doing the same
And here a smiling Sicilian ditto
As readers can imagine, over the centuries people in the countries where the prickly pear was introduced eventually got around to putting the fruit into alcoholic drinks – at least in those countries where such drinks are tolerated. Thus, we have a prickly pear-flavoured liqueur called “Ficodi” in Sicily, we have a prickly-pear flavored herbal liqueur called “bajtra” in Malta (another country, by the way, where the prickly pear has been declared an invasive species), out in the lonelier reaches of the Atlantic, on the island of St. Helena (where Napoleon Bonaparte was banished), the potent “Tungi Spirit” is produced with the fruit, while prickly pear fruit is the main ingredient of a popular Christmas beverage in the British Virgin Islands called “Miss Blyden”. Looking at how all these various drinks are made, I think I would plump for Miss Blyden: prickly pear steeped in rum and sweetened with sugar. Mmm, sounds good …Yohoho, and a bottle of Miss Blyden, is what I say.

But actually, these drinks are all derivative, if I can put it that way: you just plunk prickly pear fruit in an alcoholic medium; it could actually be any fruit that is plunked. The Mesoamericans, on the other hand, came up millennia ago with colonche, an alcoholic drink using just the juice of the prickly pear fruit, fermenting it over a number of days. I have read that it is a sweet, fizzy, red beverage. Here’s a photo of a glass of colonche, together with the fruit from which it is derived.
I regret to say that I did not try the drink while I was in Mexico. However, I have asked my son to try it and report back. If the feedback is good, we can discuss about getting into the business of exporting it!

What I will not promote, through export or otherwise, is the eating of the pads (that is to say the fleshy leaves) of the prickly pear. They eat them in Mexico – and in New Mexico too (and perhaps some of the other southwestern States of the US). The original peoples of Mexico were eating them when Cortes burst in on the scene, and it’s still quite popular. I saw them sold in the supermarket around the corner from where we were staying in Mexico City and took a photo, but I prefer this more sympathetic photo of a Mexican lady on the street selling them.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I had tried the pads, cooked and with melted cheese, in a taco. I also tried them, with cheese but without the taco. It didn’t change the taste much.
I’m all for trying things once (with the exception of insects). But not necessarily more than once. Pads of the prickly pear fall into the latter category.

But who knows? As the Mediterranean countries slowly go down the economic drain, and more generally as we 99 percenters slowly get poorer, perhaps we will join our Mesoamerican friends and start eating prickly pear pads – as the poor of the Mediterranean lands turned to the fruits of the prickly pear some three hundred years ago to fill their empty stomachs.

Columbian exchange: http://globerove.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Columbian-Exchange.jpg (in http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/cbgobble/columbian-v-triangle)
Prickly pear in Teotihuacan: https://farm1.staticflickr.com/214/444712763_0a91a8353e.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/eternal_sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind/444712763/
Mexican flag: http://www.freepressers.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/mexican-flag-640.jpg (in http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2011/k1302_10_21.asp)
Prickly pear: https://seekraz.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/prickly-pear-cacti-in-tucson-desert.jpg (in https://seekraz.wordpress.com/tag/prickly-pear-cactus/)
Prickly pear by Asmara-Masawa railway: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8633/16089064905_44b9e68e48_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-hill/16089064905/)
Italian colonial masters: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/it/6/6c/Ascari_penne_di_falco.jpg (in http://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regio_corpo_truppe_coloniali_d’Eritrea)
Prickly pear in Sicily: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8299/7826141194_33f0e36a8d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/mari-mora/7826141194/)
Prickly pear in Spain: https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/dsc_0048.jpg (in https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.wordpress.com/tag/castle/)
Prickly pear in Ethiopian village: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-YutF1G9Qjbo/Up44cIZUf_I/AAAAAAAAMPA/fydBOTfLCNY/s1600/00041775.jpg (in http://jhodgesagame.blogspot.com)
Prickly pear in Kruger National Park: http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/images/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts_fig1.jpg (in http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts.htm)
Prickly pear in Australia – the green hell: http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/Images/Local%20History/johnty%20turner’s.jpg (in http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/HTML/HeritagePricklyPear.html)
Prickly pear in flower-1: http://www.fotothing.com/photos/4aa/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea.jpg (in http://www.fotothing.com/AzViper/photo/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea/)
Prickly pear in flower-2: http://photosbygarth.com/travels/DesertGardens4-23-11/prickly_pear_cactus_flowers_0887.jpg (in http://photosbygarth.com/wordpress/)
Prickly pear in flower-3: http://www.summitpost.org/prickly-pear-cactus-flower/294673
Prickly pear fruit-1: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-_NFH_ZhWJCU/T1kjB-HTOWI/AAAAAAAAA84/rBf30_8f5qg/s1600/5.jpg (in http://docsfitnesstips.blogspot.com/2012/03/prickley-pear.html)
Mexicans selling prickly pear fruit:
http://i.gonoma.net/i/destinations/1106/zacatecas-images/prickly.jpg (in http://gonomad.com/destinations-xxx/3205-zacatecas-mexico-rsquo-s-overlooked-colonial-gem)
Prickly pear fruit-2: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU/s/600/600/PPCA-021548.jpg (in http://rolfnussbaumer.photoshelter.com/image/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU)
Ethiopian lady selling prickly pear: http://jamminglobal.com/2012/05/ethiopia-part-6-historical-axum-and-mountainous-twisties.html
Prickly pear seller Egypt: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/Media/NewsMedia/2013/7/16/2013-635095893366005272-600_resized.jpg (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/3357/25/The-fruit-beneath-the-thorns.aspx)
Prickly pear seller Morocco: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Prickly_pear_seller.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia_ficus-indica)
Prickly pear seller Italy: http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto/3126/3126-08-20-44-1557.jpg (in http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto.cfm?idfoto=65383&idfotografo=3126&crono=1)
Colonche: (in http://www.am.com.mx/aguascalientes/especiales/espiritus-de-la-republica-144117.html)
Seller of cactus pads: http://holeinthedonut.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Nopal_Cactus_Seller_Mercado_Hidalgo_Guanajuato.jpg (in http://holeinthedonut.com/2010/06/01/mexico-food-nopal-cactus/)

Cactus pad and cheese: http://s3.amazonaws.com/foodspotting-ec2/reviews/846163/thumb_600.jpg?1315336866 (in http://www.foodspotting.com/150802-amandahugnkiss)/)



Beijing, 16 May 2014

Several scents have followed me through my life. I wrote earlier of the scent of water. Another scent which has been a lifelong companion, gladly greeted when met, is the scent of anise.

I first became aware of the scent of anise during those long summer holidays of my youth which I spent at my grandmother’s house in France. To while away the summer days, my cousins and I would go for long bike rides through the surrounding countryside. We would often stop at bistrots in the villages we passed through, to have a break and slake our thirst. Given our young age, we would ask for soft drinks: a lemonade for me, while my cousins would opt for a sirop à la menthe, a peculiar French drink, violently green in colour and based on mint. Propping up the bar, meanwhile, there would always be a couple of locals, drinking, regardless of the time of day, un petit rouge (a glass of red wine), or un petit blanc (ditto, but white), or a beer, or a pastis.
They were normally also enveloped in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke which emanated from the unfiltered Gauloises cigarettes hanging from a corner of their mouths.

I was particularly fascinated by the pastis. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this drink, pastis is a typically French liquor very much associated with the south of France.
It gives off this wonderful aroma, being flavoured with aniseed (as well as licorice). It is strong (40-45% alcohol by volume), but it is never drunk neat. The drinker will add a fair amount of cold water before drinking it, at which point the liquor’s original dark transparent yellow colour clouds to a milky soft yellow.
As a boy, I would never tire of watching this wondrous, almost alchemical, change take place before me and breathe in the sweet scent of anise.

Since my family never used anise or the closely related fennel in cooking, I only next stumbled across the scent of anise when I came to Italy for the first time, nearly forty years ago. My wife to-be (as it turned out, although I didn’t know it then) introduced me to finocchio, or Florence fennel, a special cultivar of the fennel which was developed in Italy.
Many people (my late mother-in-law for one) eat finocchio cooked or braised but I prefer it raw, sliced very thin, almost shaved, with a simple oil and vinegar dressing.
Like that, it maintains the scent of anise, which begins to waft out as you prepare it in the kitchen, rises appetizingly from the plate as you spear the fennel slices, and is liberated in your mouth as you crunch down on them. Whenever I’m in Italy, and if it’s the right time of year, I will eat finocchio. In fact, it was my having a finocchio in salad last night that moved me to write this post.

Years later, just after coming to China, I stumbled across the scent of anise in another guise. During one of the early banquets to which I was invited, I noticed a star-shaped thing sitting in my dish.
Intrigued, I asked what it was. Star anise, I was told, a spice which is commonly used in Chinese cooking (and actually in the cuisine of much of Asia, as I later discovered). It’s actually a very pretty spice:
In any event, even more intrigued, I took a tentative bite and suck, and it did indeed taste of anise. But later research showed me that similar taste and scent do not a botanical relationship make. Anise, Pimpinella anisum, and Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, are flowering plants which are both members of the Apiaceae family, and in fact look quite similar:
Star anise, on the other hand, is the fruit of a medium-sized tree or big bush, Illicium verum, of the Schisandraceae family:
The same-scentedness arises from the happy chance that all three plants (as well as licorice to some degree) contain the organic chemical anethole – and here I get distinctly nerdy and add a diagram of this chemical
Why these unrelated plants should all contain anethole I don’t know – and why we smell it and taste it as pleasant I don’t know either. Somewhere out there in the ether there may be papers which explain. But I have neither the patience nor the energy to trawl through the depths of the internet to find them.

But what I have found out is that there is at least one other plant out there whose leaves contain anethole. This is the rare tree from the Australian rainforest, the ringwood or (appropriately) aniseed tree, Syzygium anisatum – although confusingly, the leaf, which contains the anethole, is called anise myrtle.
Feeling rather like one of those birders who will travel to the ends of the Earth to sight a bird which they have never seen, I am thinking (although I have not yet told my wife this) that she and I should travel to Australia again, this time to try this new, exotic source of anise scent. I read with interest that anise myrtle is considered a bush tucker spice in Australia, that is to say a spice from a native plant which can be used to spice a dish of native fauna and flora. Anyone for a stew of kangaroo and warrigal greens spiced with anise myrtle, followed by a couple of quandong fruit for dessert?

A village café: http://wwwdotgretagarburedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/les-vieux-de-la-vieille-jean-gabin-noc3ablnoc3abl-pierre-fresnay-via-pkcine-com.jpg (in http://gretagarbure.com/tag/comptoir/)
Pastis poster: http://www.posterclassics.com/Images-Drinks-French/bigPastisOlive.jpg (in http://journals.worldnomads.com/theglobetrottingtexan/story/69164/France/Marseille-Pastis-Capital-of-the-World#axzz31oe3iEng)
Pastis going cloudy: http://www.frenchmoments.eu/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Pastis-©-Peng-CC3.0.jpg (in http://www.frenchmoments.eu/pastis-from-provence/)
Finocchio: http://www.dietagratis.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Finocchi08-450RCS.jpg (in http://www.dietagratis.com/ricette-light/3552-insalata-di-finocchi/)
Finocchio salad: http://www.ilcuoreinpentola.it/images/stories/ricette/2013/maggio/insalata-finocchi.jpg (in http://www.ilcuoreinpentola.it/ricette/contorni/insalata-di-finocchi/)
Star anise in a dish: http://www.withaglass.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/tenderloinsoyp.jpg (in http://www.withaglass.com/?p=15273)
Star anise alone: http://foodie-isms.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/star-anise1.jpg (in http://foodie-isms.com/?p=5085)
Anise plant:http://herbgardening.com/HerbGardeningImages/AnisePimpinellaanisum.jpg (in http://herbgardening.com/growinganise.htm)
Fennel plant: http://herbgardening.com/HerbGardeningImages/Foeniculum_vulgare520.jpg (in http://herbgardening.com/growinganise.htm)
Illicium verum: http://thegardenpalette.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/watermark_303.jpg?w=500&h=468 (in http://thegardenpalette.wordpress.com/tag/star-anise/)
Star anise on tree: http://www.cnseed.org/wp-content/uploads/Star%20Anise%20seed%20Illicium%20verum.jpg (in http://www.cnseed.org/star-anise-seed-illicium-verum.html)
Anethole structure: http://structuresearch.merck-chemicals.com/cgi-bin/getStructureImage.pl?owner=MDA&unit=CHEM&product=800429 (in http://www.merckmillipore.com/chemicals/trans-anethole/MDA_CHEM-800429/p_BwWb.s1L3_sAAAEWfeEfVhTl)
Aniseed tree: http://floragreatlakes.info/rfsimages/ringwood1.jpg (in http://floragreatlakes.info/html/rfspecies/ringwood.html)
Anise myrtle: http://www.anfil.org.au/wp-content/uploads//flushing-tree.bmp (in http://www.anfil.org.au/key-native-species/flavour-of-the-month-february/)