A IS FOR APPLE

Vienna, 23 July 2021

I coincidentally started this blog when the London Olympics were opening – my first post was about the opening ceremony – so with the start today of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, it seems appropriate to celebrate the II Olympiad of my scribbling with a piece on the act of writing itself. Or more specifically, on the symbols which I use to commit my scribbles to (electronic) paper, the letters of the Latin alphabet. Their creation is a fascinating example of the untiring efforts of people the world over to give permanence to the sounds emanating from their mouths: verba volant, scripta manent, the old Latin proverb intones, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”.

The creation of the Latin alphabet, my alphabet if I may call it that, is also a fascinating story of trade as we shall see. Assiduous readers of my posts will know that I have often written about the material things as well as ideas that have been transmitted by trade.

The overall arc of development of my alphabet can be summarized by the letter
Turn that letter upside down, and you have:


I think readers will agree that this could be considered a very schematic drawing of a cow’s or ox’s head. And that is exactly where my A originally comes from, the Egyptian hieroglyph for ox’s head.

By what twists and turns did that hieroglyph morph over the millennia into my letter A?

The story starts somewhere in the Sinai peninsula in about 2000-1800 BC. A Semitic people there were in contact with the Egyptian civilization and were familiar with their hieroglyphic method of writing. They adopted those hieroglyphs to write down their own language. The earliest example we have is from a place now called Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, which in antiquity was the location of a very rich turquoise mine.

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This is part of some of the inscriptions there, scratched out on a rock, probably by the turquoise miners, at the beginning of the 16th Century BC.

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Initially, this Semitic people followed the basic Egyptian principle of hieroglyphs being pictograms: a picture of an ox stood for the word ox. In this, they were no different from the peoples of East Asia, for instance, who adopted the Chinese writing system – also at its base a pictogramic system – to write down their, very different, languages.

But then, relatively quickly, this Semitic people made one very crucial change: they made the picture of an ox stand for the first sound in their word for “ox”. In other words, their signs began to stand for sounds rather than whole words. This was revolutionary, because it meant that with a relatively small number of signs – some 20 in all – this people could cover all the sounds they used, and then they could string those signs together to write the thousands of words they used. This approach made it much, much easier to learn how to write because it was much easier to memorize such a small number of signs. Compare that to an Egyptian scribe, who had to memorize 1,000 or so hieroglyphs. It democratized writing: only a tiny proportion of Ancient Egyptians could ever hope to be able to write, while – in theory, at least – every one of our Semitic people could become a writer (theory only really became practice in our age, and tragically even today in many parts of the world people have not been able to learn to write).

The Phoenicians, who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in present-day Lebanon and northern Israel, and who were descendants of those Semitic people in the Sinai, perfected this method of writing. They came up with a group – an alphabet as we would come to know it – of 22 signs, with which they could write any word in their language. Here, for instance, is their “ox” sign; they actually flipped the sign onto its side, like so, probably because it was easier to write with a stylus.
The Phoenician word for “ox” was ‘alep. So this sign represented the “a”-like guttural which was the first sound in the word (Phoenician, like the modern Semitic languages, used a lot of gutturals). With time, ‘alep also became the name of this sign.

For their “b” sound, the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for beth, or “house” in Phoenician. And again, beth too eventually became the name of the sign.
This sign was ultimately derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for “house”, although the sign seems to have got bent out of shape over the centuries.

For their hard “g”-sound (like in “go”), the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for giml, or “throwing stick” in Phoenician. And giml became the sign’s name.
Again, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “throwing stick” was at the origin of this sign.
I could go on, but I think readers will have got the point by now. I do think, though, that the Phoenicians deserve to have their whole alphabet shown here.

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In a wave of enthusiasm about the fantastic work they did, I have also decided to show an example of an actual text in Phoenician.

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This tablet comes from a temple that was built in about 500 BC on the Tyrrhenian coast of what is now central Italy. It is there because the Phoenicians were present in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Which brings us to trade.

The Phoenicians were inveterate traders, trading with their neighbours to the east as well as across the whole of the Mediterranean basin; they also established a string of colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean, the most famous of which was Carthage. Not surprisingly, they took their writing system with them wherever they went, and their trading counterparts got to know about it. Many of them quickly twigged to its power and adopted it for their language. The ones who interest me are the Greeks. Around the 8th Century BC, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet wholesale, even transliterating the Phoenician names of the letters into something more Greek sounding. So ‘aleph became alpha, beth became beta, giml became gamma, and so on (and we thus got our name for a group of such signs, or letters as we can now call them: the alphabet, a merging of the names of the first two letters alpha and beta).

The Greeks did have to bring in some modifications to the Phoenician alphabet, because the sounds they used were not quite the same as the sounds the Phoenicians used. The biggest difference was in the vowels. Greek had more obvious vowel sounds than did Phoenician, which relied on gutturals. There was also the hard-“th”, the “ks” and the “ps” sounds. In most cases, the Greeks repurposed Phoenician letters for sounds which did not exist in Greek, in a few others they created new letters.

Actually, because of different dialects spoken among the Greeks, which meant that there were some variations in the sounds used, there were three somewhat different alphabets created by the Greek polities, as shown on this map.

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It’s the western Greek alphabet (used in the parts of Greece coloured orange in the map) which interests us most, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. I show this alphabet here, along with the original Phoenician “template”.
One can see the outlines of the classical Greek alphabet peeping out – the one I used as an unhappy student of ancient Greek at school. With time, the Greeks dropped some of these letters and added others, like omega. In some cases, where I show two letters in the Western Greek column, there were variants. And in those variants, one can see the outlines of letters which were to be found in the Latin alphabet and not in the classical Greek alphabet: the C, the D with the rounded “tummy”, the beginnings of the P (the loop still needed to be fully closed), the beginning of the R (the downward slanting stroke was miniscule), the S. The importance of these variants will become apparent in a minute.

The Euboean Greeks, who used this western Greek alphabet, were also, like the Phoenicians, traders and colonists. In particular, they had set up what are probably the oldest Greek colonies in Italy, around the bay of Naples: one on the island of Ischia (Pithekoussai) and one on the mainland (Cumae).

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They set them up in the 8th Century BC, pretty much when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet. No doubt the Western Greek alphabet arrived very quickly in these two colonies. There, the Euboeans came into contact with the Etruscans, who were at the time the major power in the Italian peninsula and, as this map shows, were poised to expand their power and influence even further up and down the peninsula.

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The contacts which the Euboeans had with the Etruscans were primarily through trade but, given that the Etruscans eventually enveloped both colonies, these could also have led to political alliances.

When the Etruscans got to know the Euboean alphabet they, like the Euboeans before them, must have realized the power of this writing system and adopted it, although they too had to bring in a good number of modifications to deal with the different sounds which they had in their language. I won’t list their alphabet, for the very cruel reason that their language was extinguished – so thoroughly that its vocabulary and grammar are still only partly known, in spite of more than a century of intense research.

Which brings us to the Romans, who did the extinguishing. Early on in their history, this upstart, but aggressive, tribe from the middle of the Italian peninsula were ruled over by the Etruscans, but they took them on and eventually beat them comprehensively. Along the way, though, in a pattern which must be familiar to readers by now, the Romans also recognized the power of alphabets and adopted the Etruscan one – with the usual modifications to account for different sounds in their language, including the readoption of some of the letters in the Greek alphabet which the Etruscans has dropped as not useful to them.

And so, coming back to the letter A with which I started, let me use it to show the arc of development that took place, from the Egyptian hieroglyph to the Latin letter.

Of course, the story doesn’t end with the Romans. The Latin alphabet could have disappeared at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, along with so much else that did disappear. That it didn’t is a testimony to writing’s utility to the Western Christian Church, the only organization left standing from the Roman era. Apart from the ability to more easily transmit religious ideas, the alphabet allowed the Church to – once again – give written form to languages without writing, in this case all the languages which the Germanic and Slavic tribes brought with them, often mixed in with the remains of Latin and its offshoots. As usual, there was the usual problem of dealing with sounds which didn’t exist in Latin, but interestingly enough no new letters were created. There was just fiddling around with the existing ones. So, for instance, we have Å, Ê, Ï, Ø, Ù to deal with various long vowels, and Č, Š, Ñ, to deal with the “ch”, “sh”, and “ny” consonants, in various European languages (there are lots of other fiddles, but for the sake of brevity I will leave them out). The process of using the Latin alphabet to create writing systems for various languages has gone on in modern times as the European powers colonized other parts of the world which didn’t have writing – the North American tribes, for instance, or the tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa – or even which did, for instance in Vietnam.

All of this has given me the puerile desire to create my own alphabet. I’ll use the same process of development: assign to each letter in my alphabet an object which starts with that letter, create pictograms for each of those objects, and then simplify those pictograms into letters. To identify the necessary objects, I’ll use one of those songs with which parents teach their children the alphabet, songs which go something like this:

A is for apple, a a apple
B is for ball, b b ball
C is for cat, c c cat
etc.

As an added plus, I can use the exercise to ruthlessly cull my alphabet of unnecessary letters: C, because S can be used for soft-C, K can be used for hard-C; X, because you can simply write X as KS. And I’ll come up with standardized ways of dealing with diphthongs. In the process, I’ll make English writing sound the way it’s spoken: as any non-English native will tell you, English has one of the craziest spellings in the world, there is no way in hell that you can tell what a word sounds like by the way it’s spelled.

Mind you, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my new alphabet once I have it. I’m not 10 years old anymore, with a BFF with whom I could pass notes back and forth during classes in our own secret code. And I’m past the age of being a spy, sending my minders coded messages about where the weapons of mass destruction have been stashed away.

No worries, I’ll think of something! Watch this space …

Oh, and enjoy the Tokyo Olympics!

TUBING DOWN THE DRAVA RIVER

Milan, 28 June 2021

My wife and I, together with our daughter this year, have just finished our annual week-long hike in the Dolomites. We went back to the valley where we had started our hike last year, the Val Fiscalina in Alto Adige (or Sud Tirol).

I will hopefully post my usual photo-essay of the hikes we did, once our daughter sends us the photos – as she repeatedly reminded us, the camera in her iPhone is way better than ours, so she took most of the photos. But here I want to talk about something that happened during an easy hike we took on one of our five days of hiking, to give our muscles a rest. It was along the side of the valley between Sesto and Dobbiaco. Along the way, we crossed this panel.

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It was announcing that we were crossing the sources of the Drava River. The Drava River! … I knew this river as a tributary of the Danube, somewhere in the Balkans. Yet here was its source, some 500 km away as the crow flies. To memorialize the moment, I took this picture, just when a young boy happened to be messing around with the stream of water.

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I immediately recognized that pastime from my own childhood, damming and undamming streams; I still enjoy undamming the rivulets that trickle down the side of tracks we hike along, poking away at the amassed debris with my walking sticks. I would also float sticks on streams and watch them disappear around the nearest bend. Where would those sticks end up, I wondered.

Once, when I was a bit older, I spent hours poring over maps of England, trying to figure out how I might be able to kayak down the stream which ran along the bottom of the valley in front of my school, all the way to London. Ah, the foolishness of youth! I’m not sure a kayak would have even fitted in that stream.

A few years later again – I was in my mid teens by then – I was consumed with envy when I discovered that my two cousins had spent a couple of weeks tubing down some river in France. Just the thing I had wanted to do with my kayak!

That evening, I was once again studying maps, to see where the Drava river went. And suddenly, I found myself dreaming up an imaginary tubing journey down the Drava with my wife, all the way to its mouth on the Danube. This picture gives my readers an idea of what I’m talking about, although this particular tubing expedition is taking place in Tuscany.

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I decide that we will start our imaginary tubing journey in San Candido. At its very beginning, the Drava is really a miserable little stream, there’s no way we could float two tubes in it – plus a third one carrying our stuff. But at San Candido, it receives the waters of the much bigger Sextner Bach.

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So off we go, down the Drava!

After some 8 kilometers of going east the Drava stream will carry us out of Italy at Prato alla Drava and into the province of East Tyrol in Austria.

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30 kilometers later, the stream will bring us to the town of Lienz. Here, the Drava meets the much more powerful Isel River, which bulks it up.

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After Lienz, the Drava, a river now, although still a small river, will carry us into the upper Drava valley. We’ll first pass through the Kärntner Tor, or Carinthian Gate, which is a narrowing in the Drava Valley and the entry point into the province of Carinthia.

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The river runs between the Kreuzeck range of the High Tauern in the north and the Gailtal Alps in the south. After carrying us past various picturesque villages like the village of Greifenburg

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the river will turn sharp left and squeeze through the Sachsenburger Narrows.

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We’ll be traveling faster on the more rapid currents and we’ll burst out of the narrows, spinning perhaps in our tubes, to find ourselves floating past Sachsenburg itself.

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We will have travelled some 50 km by now since we plonked our tubes down in the stream at San Candido.

Just after Sachsenburg, the river receives the Möll river, swelling it still further.

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Maybe a few flecks of gold will cling to our tubes at this point! The Möll, but also the Isel earlier and other streams coming out of the High Tauern Mountains, carry alluvial gold out of these mountains. For several thousand years, pan handlers have earned a modest but honest living along the Drava River downstream of the High Tauern Mountains, panning the river’s detritus for gold, all the way down into Croatia. Even today, some hardy souls try their luck.

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We will now be floating by Spittal an der Drau.

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Soon after, Villach, the biggest town we’ll have seen so far, will hove into view.

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After Villach, the Drava River becomes more of a lowland river, running slower and beginning to twist and turn across the landscape. Our tubes will follow it in these twists and turns, eventually entering the Rosental valley and running along the northern side of the Karawanken mountain ranges. Here, the river, and my wife and I, will end our travels in Austria. We will float gently by Völkermarkt

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before following the river south as it slips through a gap in the mountains and enters Slovenia. In total, we will have travelled 255 kilometres in Austria.

Onwards into Slovenia! We will soon reach our first Slovenian town, Dravograd.

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The river, and us, will now turn eastward, and after running through a sparsely populated area we will arrive to Maribor.

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After admiring the quays of Maribor as we slip by, we will let the river take us southward to Ptuj.

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Shortly thereafter, after traveling some 120 kilometres in Slovenia, the river will carry us across the border into Croatia.

Croatia, here we come!

We cruise by Varaždin, which we don’t really see, it being set back from the river. Quite soon after, the Drava is joined by the Mur River.

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For 130 kilometers or so, the river now becomes the border between Croatia and Hungary. It has become a very slow-moving river, meandering its way across the landscape, which has become a pleasant forest- and marsh-filled environment.

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We will patiently follow the meanders, moving sluggishly past the Hungarian border town of Barcs.

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From now on, we’ll have to be careful not to be run over by the ships which begin to ply the Drava for trade. Further on, we will glide past the small Croatian town of Donji Miholjac.

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The river now stops being the border with Hungary. On it goes, looping and relooping as it crosses the region of Slavonia.

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It will eventually bring us to Osijek.

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I think I’ll stop our imaginary journey here. We’ve already travelled some 160 kilometres through Croatia, and some 7 kilometres beyond Osijek the Drava finally flows into, and loses itself in, the Danube.

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I don’t think there would be anywhere for us to get off the river there, and I don’t feel like continuing all the way down the Danube to the Black Sea.

Well, that was a nice dream! Alas, I suspect that doing a trip like this in real life wouldn’t be possible. For one thing, the river has been dammed to within an inch of its life, for hydropower. There are no less than 22 hydroelectric stations along the river. Assuming one is even allowed onto the lakes behind the dams, at some point we would somehow have to schlepp our tubes around the dams and down onto the river again – assuming that there would be enough water downstream of the dams to plonk our tubes into. For another, I rather suspect that having one’s bum in the water all day, for something like two weeks (my guess as to how long this little trip would take), might not be too good for the skin of the bum. For a third, the waters of the Drava up to at least the Möll River are all from glacial or snow melt and so would be pretty damned cold. But hey! What would life be like without dreams?

I read, however, that they are constructing a bike path all the way down the river. Maybe it would be more sensible for my wife and me to simply bike down the Drava …

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CATCHING A FUNICULAR

Milan, 15 June 2021

It’s not often that I write about technologies, they are mostly workhorses of some sort without much else to commend them. But from time to time I come across a technology that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s because the technology in question is genuinely lovely to look at – solar power towers come to mind – but sometimes it’s simply because it’s quirky and fun and brings a smile to my world-weary, seen-it-all-before, been-there-done-that face. Funiculars fall into the latter category.

My wife and I have been taking funiculars quite often this last month or so. Actually, we’ve been taking one specific funicular quite often, the one between Como and Brunate, the village perched high above Como, on the steep hills – cliffs, almost – that plunge into the lake. It is the jump-off point for a number of our hikes.

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Wikipedia informs me that the line was inaugurated in 1894, and certainly the style of the station in Como fits with that date.

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We pile into one of those weird carriages that all funiculars have.

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They are the only thing I’ve ever come across in the real world which look just like those parallelograms we used to draw in geometry classes at primary school.

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Entering a funicular carriage is like entering a world where everything leans to one side. Luckily for us, as readers can see from the picture of the carriage its’ designers have rigged up the inside into a series of flat platforms connected by steps, so we can sit in a normal position and not like those astronauts who are about to take off from Cape Canaveral.

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At departure time, a bell rings sonorously, the doors slide shut, and the steel cable starts dragging us up this impossibly steep hillside.

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Halfway up the climb, the down-going carriage hoves to on the horizon.

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It’s on the same track as ours, and coming straight at us.

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But just before the inevitable head-on crash, the two carriages veer sideways – one to the left, one to the right – they slide past each other

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and continue on their way. Soon after, we ease slowly into the upper station at Brunate, the doors open, and we stride off to yet another hike, after briefly stopping to admire the view.

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It’s not just their quirkiness that makes me like funiculars. They are also clever pieces of design. The key design principle behind them is to have two carriages attached to the same cable. I personally haven’t dragged anything up a very steep hill, but I would imagine that it’s pretty hard work, requiring the outlay of a lot of energy – and an overseer to whip the bejeezus out of me to make me pull harder. A picture from Asterix and Cleopatra shows what I mean.

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Attaching another carriage to the cable means that at least the weight of the carriage being dragged up the hill is now counterbalanced by the weight of the carriage sliding down it, so the only energy you need to add to the system is the energy required to drag the people sitting in the carriage up the hill. And if you can get people into the carriage going down the hill, they can pretty much balance the people coming up, reducing even more the energy required to get the upcoming carriage to the top of the hill.

I can’t find any claim on the internet to an inventor for this key idea. I suspect it’s an old idea, with the inventor lost in the mists of time. The most immediate precursor comes from the golden age of canals, where similar systems were used to drag boats up from a lower canal to a higher one, counterbalanced by boats being let down from the higher canal to the lower one. My wife and I have walked down the slope of one such system, the Keage Incline, in Kyoto. It used to connect the canal from Lake Biwa to the canal 36 meters lower which ran through Kyoto.

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It was taken out of use in 1948. Now only tourists like us use it, especially during the Spring when the cherry trees, which have been planted along it, are in bloom.

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This clever idea of the counterbalancing act was taken one step further in a few funiculars, where a water tank was attached to the carriages. An operator at the top of the funicular would fill the tank of the downward-going carriage with enough water to make it just a bit heavier than the upward-coming carriage, so that the downward-moving carriage could pull the upward-coming carriage up the hill without the need for any extra energy input. At the bottom, the tank was emptied out, and the whole cycle started over. Unfortunately, this alternative to the funiculars’ basic balancing act was never very common, because it needs a good (cheap) source of water at the top of the hill, whereas most sources of water are at the bottom of hills. I also suspect these types of funiculars were more complicated to manage. Over the years, a good number have been switched to more conventional hauling engines, but a few still exist, for instance the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the water tank is below the carriage)

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and the Neuveville-St-Pierre funicular in Fribourg, Switzerland.

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The Fribourg funicular has reached a maximum of cleverness. It uses the treated wastewater from a treatment plant located on the top of the hill to fill the tanks. At a minimum, that makes it a win-win-win solution, and I think there must be another “win” in there somewhere.

The next important invention in the funicular story does have a name and a face attached to it. Originally, cables were made of hemp or other natural fibres. As readers can imagine, they were not that strong. If the weight being pulled was too great they would snap. In practice, this meant that the hills up which things were dragged could not be too steep or the loads too heavy. This limitation was overcome when the German Wilhelm Albert figured out how to make stranded steel cables, with the first steel cable being put into use in 1834.

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Initially, the steel cables were stranded by hand, which obviously limited output, but in 1837 an Austrian by the name of Wurm developed a machine to strand cables. The German rope-makers Felten & Guillaume then got into the game and by the 1840s were churning out more, and cheaper, steel cables. We see here their factory in Cologne in the 1860s.

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This greatly expanded the scope of where funiculars – and anything else being dragged up inclines – could be used.

The final important invention had to do with track layout. In the first funiculars, each carriage had its own set of tracks. This funicular in Hastings in the UK, which was actually built quite late in the day – 1902 – shows the principle.

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Two tracks laid side by side, plus four platforms – each track had to have its own top and bottom platforms – took up a lot of space, space which was often carved out of the living rock. If only one track could be used (and only two platforms), the construction costs could be lowered considerably. But how to get the two carriages past each other when they met at the midpoint? This knotty problem was solved by a Swiss engineer by the name of Carl Roman Abt.

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He came up with this set-up for the tracks.

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As the diagram shows, to make it work the wheels on the left of one carriage are flanged on both sides, while it’s the other way around on the other carriage. Like that, when the carriages come to the passing point, the carriage flanged on the left always veers left, the carriage flanged on the right always veers right. The inner wheels aren’t flanged at all. Quite simple, really – although I’m sure the execution in real life is more complex than that two-sentence description.

Abt first used this system in 1886 on the funicular in Lugano which connects the old town to the railway station. Which is great, because it allows me to throw in a picture of one of the funiculars which my wife and I have used in our lives. Readers can see that the cars are thoroughly modern, fruit of a makeover in 2016.

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While I’m at it, I can throw in pictures of the two other funiculars we have travelled on:
The Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles (which uses a 3-rail track layout)

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The Eizan Cable Car, to the north-east of Kyoto

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I’m racking my brains to think of other funiculars we’ve travelled on but I think that’s it: four in total, counting the one in Como. Not a huge number given that there are some 300 funiculars around the world. We really have to do better. I shall review with my wife Wikipedia’s list of funiculars around the world, to see which ones we should try to ride (this could be an excuse to visit places we haven’t been to yet, like Rio de Janeiro or Santiago in Chile). And then, when (if) COVID-19 is brought under control, we can be on our way!

IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.

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I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.

Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.

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Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.

Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.

Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.

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I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.

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In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.

Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.

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Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.

We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.

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Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.

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I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus.  But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.

The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.

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And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.

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I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.

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The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.

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Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.

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The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.

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It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.

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So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).

In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.

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Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.

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One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise.  Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.

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But, once again, I bow to the Experts.

It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Iris florentinaIris pallida.

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They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.

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After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.

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RED WINES FROM SOUTHERN ITALY

Milan, 24 May 2021

In an earlier post, I confessed that the amount of wine my wife and I consumed during the two lockdowns which we have endured over the past year was considerable. In that same post, I said that we focused much of our wine drinking on red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine.

I chose to buy wines from southern Italy because I didn’t know them very well, which fed into my general tendency to support the underdog and be contrarian. After sampling a few bottles, I also felt that the red wines of southern Italy had more oomph to them than wines from northern and central Italy – I beg readers not to ask me to translate that into the flowery language of the wine connoisseur because I can’t. As I once confessed in an earlier post, my general method of assessing wines is “mmh! that’s a nice wine!” or “mm … not a good wine”.

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Also – and this was important with the tightening of household budgets under lockdown – they were generally cheaper than other Italian wines.

I also felt virtuous in supporting local grape varieties. Not for me the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and the few others which dominate wine-making worldwide! No sirree, I was going to support the more than 1,500 grape varieties (yes, I kid you not, 1,500) which exist in Italy.

So from Sardinia I was buying wines made with Cannonau grapes (or to be more precise, where the Cannonau made up the largest share; the great majority of Italian wines are blends).

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From Sicily, it was wines made with Nero d’Avola grapes.

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From Puglia, it was wines made with Primitivo grapes.

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From time to time, though, we branched out into wines made with Nero di Troia grapes.

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From Basilicata, it was wines made with Aglianico grapes.

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From Calabria, it was wines made with Gaglioppo grapes.

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(For reasons which are now not clear to me through the haze of history, I chose few if any wines from Campania – a lapse to be rectified in any future lockdowns!)

At some point, though, through the wine fumes, I began to wonder how many of these grape varieties really were local. One can make the case that actually no domesticated grape varieties are really autochthonous. Archaeologists tell us that domestication and the related discovery of wine-making took place somewhere in the region between the Black Sea and Iran, between the seventh and the fourth millennia BC. The earliest evidence of domestication has been found in Georgia (the country, not the US state) and of wine production in Iran in the northern Zagros Mountains.

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Subsequently, domesticated vines and wine-making knowledge spread to other civilizations in the region, first Egypt and Lower Mesopotamia, and then to the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Greeks (at a later period vine and wine-making moved along the Silk Road to China and Japan, but that is a story for another day). The Greeks and the Phoenicians, continues this story, transferred the domesticated grape vine and wine-making technologies further west, to Italy, Spain, and the south of France. The Romans then carried the vine and wine-making further north in Europe to what are more-or-less its northernmost borders today. And then when Europe colonized the rest of the world, the Europeans took their vine and wine-making knowledge with them. So in this view of history, no domesticated grape vines are really autochthonous.

But that’s one Creation Story. Another Creation Story points to the fact that the vine species which was domesticated for wine-making (called, appropriately enough, Vitis vinifera) grows wild from Georgia to Portugal.

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So why could wine-making not have been independently discovered in several places?

A third Creation Story, and the one – for what it’s worth – that I feel is most credible, is that wine-making did indeed start in Iran or thereabouts, and cuttings of the domesticated vines were indeed carried westwards. But in their new homes, these vines could well have crossed spontaneously with local wild forms of the vine (or have been made to cross with them by the local viticulturists), thus shaking up their DNA a little and possibly affecting berry size, ripening time, sweetness, and whatever other characteristics viticulturists prized at the time. In this view of history, each locality can have vines which are hybrids of immigrant vines and local ones, which makes them pretty local. And anyway, even if a vine was brought in from somewhere else, if it’s been around in one locality for a long time surely it’s become local? (a bit like all Americans of immigrant stock nevertheless considering themselves locals) And anyway, the grape vine’s DNA is subject to spontaneous mutations (like American immigrants), which over time will distinguish it from its neighbors. All excellent reasons, I think, for declaring that grape vines which have been grown in one locality long enough can be considered autochthonous.

Of course, one could argue that all these Creation Stories are irrelevant because of the American pest phylloxera which devastated vineyards planted with Vitis vinifera in the late 19th Century (we have here a cartoon of the time, whose caption was “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines”)

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Ever since then, pretty much all commercial vineyards are Frankensteins, with Vitis vinifera grafted onto a root stock of one of the American members of the grape vine family which are resistant to the pest. Under the circumstances, I can hear some people ask, can one really call any commercial vine autochthonous?

I reject this latter argument because first, if I did accept it I wouldn’t have a story to tell, and second, because even with an American rootstock the grapes still express only the DNA of the grafted Vitis vinifera. Just as a person who has had their heart replaced is still expressing their old DNA.

So with all that out of the way, we can now focus on those wines which my wife and I (and not infrequently our son) were imbibing during lockdown, and ask ourselves the question: are the grapes that went into making them local or not? As usual in life, the answer is yes in some cases, no in others.

As one might expect, many of the local vines in southern Italy have their own Creation Stories. The cynic in me suggests that a good number of these were invented to increase a wine’s marketability, although I could well imagine that there is a desire on the part of the local people to have the stories of their vines reflect their own Creation Stories. Thus, many of the Creation Stories reflect the south of Italy’s ancient history as Magna Graecia, that arc of Ancient Greek colonies which stretched from Puglia all the way to Sicily. They suggest that the vines were brought from Greece by these early colonists. Others look to the Phoenicians as the source of their vines; Phoenicians also had colonies in Sicily and further afield. This map shows the situation in about 500 BC.

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If these Creation Stories are true, they would place the original migration episodes for the vines in question at some two and a half thousand years ago, quite long enough to claim that they are now fully local. Other Creation Stories suggest instead that the local vines are crosses between local wild stock and immigrant stock. Who can deny that such vines are fully local? Ampelographers have weighed in (these are experts in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grape). They have given savant judgements on the heredity of countless vines by comparing the shape and colour of their leaves and their grape berries. Wonderful word, ampelographer! It rolls off the tongue like a good wine rolls down the throat. In my next life, I want to be an ampelographer, it must look so cool on a CV.

Anyway, along have come DNA studies, to cut through all the bullshit. We finally have a scientific basis for making judgements about a vine’s genealogy.

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And the white-coated scientists in their labs have discovered some very interesting things.

Take Cannonau, the grape variety that is the Sardinian grape par excellence (editorial note: since photos of bunches of grapes get pretty boring pretty quickly, I will instead be throwing in nice photos of the places where the various grapes grow).

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DNA studies have shown that actually, it is none other than Garnacha from Spain! (which, by the way, is also none other than Grenache; the French brought the vine from Spain and then frenchified the name) The most likely Creation Story in this case is that the Spaniards brought Garnacha to the island some time during their centuries-long dominion, from 1324 to 1718. Some Sardinians have tried to claim that the move was actually in the other direction, from Sardinia to Spain, but I don’t think that will wash, especially since a number of other “local” Sardinian grape varieties have also turned out to have a Spanish origin. On the one hand, I’m saddened by the fact that although I thought I was supporting a local variety when I bought Cannonaus in fact I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was pleased to learn of this Spanish connection, because I recall thinking, when I first tried Cannonau, that it reminded me of Rioja, and Garnacha grapes are one of the constituent grapes of Rioja.

Skipping to the island of Sicily, what about the Nero d’Avola grape?

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Well there, I’m happy to say, I have been supporting an autochthonous variety – that is to say, a variety which could well have been introduced several thousands of years ago by the Dorian Greeks who colonized the part Sicily where the town of Avola is located; the town does indeed seem to be the center of this grape’s distribution. The original immigrant grape could actually have been a forefather of today’s Nero d’Avola, since DNA studies have revealed a cousin-like relationship between it and two other ancient Sicilian grapes, Catarratto and Inzolia. As far as I know (although the white-coated scientists publish many of their DNA studies in scientific journals which I don’t have access to), no relationship has (yet) been found between Nero d’Avola and Greek grape vine varieties. It could well be that the forefather has vanished, as old vine varieties were replaced with newer ones; phylloxera also put paid to a large number of varieties.

Vaulting now over to Puglia, in Italy’s heel, we can have a look at the Primitivo grape.

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And here I must start by admitting that my wine choices were not supporting autochthonous grapes; Primitivo is not an Italian variety. Nevertheless, we have a fascinating story here. DNA studies have shown that actually Primitivo is a Croatian grape variety, more specifically one from the Dalmatian coast. Unfortunately, the devastations of phylloxera mean that there is hardly anything left now of the variety in its homeland – a few vines here and there. We can imagine some adventurous southern Italian sailing across the Adriatic Sea to Dalmatia and bringing cuttings back home. As far as can be judged, this was quite recent, some time in the 18th Century. The grape’s Italian name points to why viticulturists were interested in it – it was an early (“primitive”) ripener.

What makes the Primitivo story really fascinating is that DNA studies have also confirmed that it is pretty much the same as the “Californian” grape Zinfandel! (bar a mutation or two) How a Dalmatian grape variety ended up in southern Italy is not hard to imagine. But how on earth did it end up in California?! The best guess is by quite a circuitous route. Step 1 is that the variety was transferred to the Hapsburgs’ greenhouses in Vienna, when Dalmatia was part of the Austrian Empire. Step 2 is that, as part of a burgeoning global trade in plant species, horticulturalists living on the US’s eastern seaboard requested the Imperial greenhouses to send them cuttings, which they did. They probably also requested cuttings from British greenhouses, which had earlier requested them from the Viennese greenhouses. Step 3 is that one or more of these horticulturalists from the Eastern US joined the gold rush to California but took care to take vine cuttings with them. Presumably, they found that in the end it was more profitable to make wine in California than to pan for gold. (As a quick aside, one of my French cousins many times removed, who came from our family of vignerons in the Beaujolais, did something similar. He joined the gold rush to Australia but ended up making wine; I don’t know if he took cuttings with him or used the vine varieties which others had already brought to Australia. In any event, I have a whole bunch of Franco-Australian cousins whom I have never met)

But let’s get back to Puglia, to consider the Nero di Troia grape variety, which we tried from time to time during lockdown.

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DNA studies have shown that this grape has an equally fascinating genealogy – and luckily for me and my determination to support autochthonous grape varieties, I think I can safely say that it is definitely an Italian variety. DNA studies have shown that Nero di Troia’s mother is Bombino bianco, an ancient white grape variety found all along the Adriatic coast but especially in Puglia, while its father is Uva rosa antica, now only found as a very minor variety in the province of Salerno in Campania.

So far, so good. But what makes Nero di Troia more interesting than most varieties is that DNA studies have also shown that it has two full siblings (same father vine, same mother vine): Bombino nero and Impigno. Which just goes to show that grapes are like humans: you and your siblings can have the same parents but you can be quite different from each other.

What’s even more interesting is that comparisons of the DNA profile of the father, Uva rosa antica, to those in DNA libraries have revealed that this minor variety from Salerno is one and the same with another minor variety called Quagliano found only in a few Alpine valleys in Piedmont, in the very north of Italy, which in turn is one and the same with a variety called Bouteillan noir found in Provence, in France. Which just goes to show that there must have been quite a vigorous, though completely informal and unmonitored, trade in vine cuttings throughout southern Europe.

Moving on to Basilicata, the wines we tried from that region during the long months of lockdown were based mostly on the Aglianico grape.

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This is definitely one of the grapes where the locals have a Creation Story involving its introduction to the region by the Ancient Greeks through their colonies in Basilicata. Alas, DNA studies have revealed little if any relation to other existing Greek varieties, so if Aglianico was imported to Basilicata the original Greek plantings have all disappeared. Which suggests that perhaps Aglianico is actually a cross between some immigrant vine from somewhere and local wild stock. In any event, I think we can count this one as an autochthon.

Finally, Calabria. The wines we were drinking from this region are mostly made with the Gaglioppo grape.

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This is another grape variety that the local inhabitants wish to believe came originally from Greece, through the Ancient Greek colonies on the Calabrian coast. However, DNA studies have clarified that Gaglioppo is a very Italian grape, being a cross of the Sangiovese and Mantonico grapes. The latter is a very typical and ancient Calabrian grape. As for Sangiovese, viticulturists have used this grape to sire a whole series of grape varieties. At least ten are known at the moment, including Gaglioppo. There must have been something about Sangiovese grapes that viticulturists liked; if any ampelographer reads this, please tell me what it was. It doesn’t finish there, because in turn DNA studies have revealed that Sangiovese is itself the product of a cross between the Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo grape varieties. Ciliegiolo is an ancient variety from Tuscany. Calabrese Montenuovo, on the other hand, has its origins in Calabria; sadly, it is now an almost-extinct relic. We have here another example of the vigorous trade in vine cuttings, this time up and down the Italian peninsula.

I could go on. For instance, each of these grape varieties is blended with various other grapes, and many of these have had their DNA studied. But I’m running out of steam and I fear that I will soon be losing my readers – there’s a limit to how much information about DNA one can absorb before one’s mind begins to whirl like a double helix.

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I leave my readers with a final plea: considering that there are 1,500 varieties of grape in Italy, please ignore any wines made with the Top Ten grape varieties and concentrate on trying out all 1,500 Italian varieties. Cin-cin!

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THE PALM TREES ARE DYING

Sori, 27 April 2021

There is a walk which my wife and I take in Liguria (calling it a hike would be a bit of a stretch), which brings us by easy stages to mid level on the hills dropping into the sea, leading us eventually to the small village of San Bernardo perched atop the old fishing port of Bogliasco, from where we can walk down to Bogliasco itself and catch a bus home (after, perhaps, an ice cream to reward us for the walking).

On the way, we pass a wide terrace, which stands out from the surrounding olive terraces and vegetable patches for the simple reason that it is terribly bare. The little grass it has is clipped to within an inch – what am I saying, a centimetre – of its life. This bareness is due to the terrace’s hosting a number of ruminants – a couple of donkeys and three-four sheep – which graze voraciously on any blade of grass that dares to raise its head.

Until a year or so ago, the terrace also used to host half a dozen magnificent palm trees – very old Canary Island date palms judging by their height and girth. Two years ago, we noticed a sign which proudly proclaimed that the palm trees were part of some EU-funded project, leading us to make cynical comments about the wasteful use of EU largesse. Last year, the palm trees were gone; the ruminants had the terrace to themselves. After more cynical comments about wastage of public monies, we began to wonder.

Liguria, like most Italian regions by the sea, has a large population of palm trees. The most common palm tree by far is the Canary Island date palm, and any self-respecting seaside resort will have at least one avenue lined with them, like this one in Taggia, in Liguria.

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Many gardens in Liguria, both public and private, will also boast a palm tree or two. Other than the Canary Island date palm, it’s possible to spot, over a garden wall or tucked away in the corner of a park, a whole slew of different palm species: the true date palm, the Chinese windmill palm, the California fan palm, the Mexican fan palm, the Chilean wine palm, and more.

Now, the fact is that in the last year or so during our walks and hikes in Liguria we have been noticing many dead palm trees, either with their fronds dried up and drooping piteously, or with the fronds completely amputated leaving behind a forlorn blackened trunk.

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A quick zip around the Internet has shown us that this Great Die-Off of Ligurian palm trees that we have been witnessing is due to this critter.

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This is Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, known in English as the red palm weevil. It’s really a very pretty beetle, one which I would be proud to have pinned to the board of a beetles collection if I had such a thing.

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But this pretty, pretty beetle has the unfortunate habit of laying its eggs at the base of palm tree fronds, from which larvae hatch, which then burrow down into the trunk to the root of the fronds and live off their lymph, killing them off in the process. The larvae pupate inside the trunks, and when they have metamorphosed into beetles, they crawl out and fly off to find mates and new palm trees to attack. This attack on the fronds is deadly because palm trees, unlike true trees, die when their crown of leaves are killed or are chopped off.

This beetle is originally from tropical Asia, where it attacks many species of palms. But the active international trade in palm trees has brought it to Italy, where it has been overjoyed to find a host of new palm trees to attack. Unfortunately for the palm trees, our beetle friend is not at all finicky about what palm trees it attacks. And it seems to have no complaints about the Italian climate either.

It’s the same old story of invasive species, a topic I’ve covered several times in these posts: the water hyacinth, the prickly pear, the Himalayan balsam, the Jerusalem artichoke, among others. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, repeating myself over and over again (as I write this, it saddens me to think that only people over the age of 60 will know what I mean, because they might well have owned a vinyl record in their youth and seen how a scratch can lead to the needle jumping backwards and repeating the same piece of music over and over. But I digress.)

Of course, it’s not just Italy which has been attacked by this plague of red palm weevils. Everywhere along the southern rim of Europe, where the climate is mild enough to allow palms to grow, the beetle has arrived and is decimating palm populations. It’s also arrived in the Middle East and North Africa and is decimating their date palm groves.

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In this case, there are large, and growing, economic costs attached to this plague – in Italy, palms are merely for show. In fact, I had come across anguished talk of this beetle a year or so ago, when doing some research on date palms for a project I’m involved with in Egypt (the largest producer of dates in the world, in case anyone is interested). It is only now that I have made the connection between the holocaust of palms in Italy and this other massacre of palms in North Africa.

A sighting of the beetle in California was reported back in 2010, but it turned out to be a false alarm. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the beetle arrives in the US, and many of those tall, thin, graceful palm trees my wife and I saw in LA will start dying.

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And no other corner of the world where palm trees grow will be spared the red palm weevil’s scourge. Eventually, the pretty red beetle will arrive. We simply live in a world which is far too open to trade; if we and our goods move all around the world so will other species, some of which will turn out to be invasive in their new homes. Simple as that.

As if all this is not depressing enough, Italy’s palm trees are under further attack from another invasive species, a moth this time, which hails from Uruguay and central Argentina. Its formal name is Paysandisia archon, but it’s known in English as the palm moth or palm borer. It too is quite a handsome species.

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It attacks palms in more or less the same way as the red palm weevil: it lays its eggs at the base of the palm fronds, the grubs once hatched burrow into the trunk to the root of the fronds, and then they proceed to suck the life out of the fronds. “Luckily” (if that term has any meaning here), this moth has a rather long life cycle, so it’s taking longer to spread through Italy’s palm populations than the red palm weevil (and so is getting less press). But it is spreading, under the radar. Like the red palm weevil, its tastes in palms are quite catholic, so none of the palm species in Italy are spared its attentions.

Of course, one could shrug one’s shoulders and point out that this beetle is wiping out plants that are not themselves natural to Italy but were brought here from somewhere else – a punishment for an earlier disregard of Nature’s ecosystems. Unfortunately, though, the beetle also seems to attack Italy’s one and only endemic species of palm, the dwarf fan palm.

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As the name suggests and the photo shows, it’s a bit of a runt of a palm. It doesn’t grow more than 2 metres high, and it grows in clumps, so you can’t use it to line a stately avenue of some seaside resort. But it is actually from this part of the world, and it does have its niche and role to play in Italy’s ecosystems. Right now, the red palm weevil seems to prefer the other species of palm available to it in Italy, so it only occasionally attacks the dwarf fan palm. But imagine what will happen once the weevil has killed off most of the other types of palms around: very sensibly, it will turn to the next best thing to keep going, at which point the dwarf fan palm’s days will be numbered – if it hasn’t already disappeared, that is; contrary to the red palm weevil, the palm moth is very partial to the poor little Italian palm.

I’d like to end this post on a somewhat positive note, but right now it looks like we are losing the battle against weevil and moth. The classic modern response of spraying everything in sight with chemical insecticide is not only dangerous but it’s also not clear how well it works. And on top of that, it appears that the weevil at least is becoming resistant to chemical insecticides. Maybe pheromone traps could work. But maybe not. What I’m really nervous about is that some bright spark will go to tropical Asia (for the weevil) or Uruguay and central Argentina (for the moth) and bring back one of these pests’ natural predators, that the predators will be set free to attack weevil and moth, and that they will promptly attack some other easier target they find, thus becoming an invasive species in their own right – this is not science fiction, it’s happened before.

The best thing is just leave species where they are. We all have perfectly lovely local species. Let’s make our surroundings lovely with them and not with species we have brought from some other corner of the globe.

A PUDGY CHERUB AS A WEATHERVANE

Sori, 14 February 2021

As my wife and I were walking down into Vernazza on our latest hike along the trail which links together the Cinque Terre, I noticed this on the steeple of the village church.

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I suspect it’s a little difficult for readers to see what I mean, so I throw in this close-up photo of the steeple.

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“This” is a weathervane. As I’m sure many of my readers will know, in the pre-modern world, where weather satellites didn’t exist and TV channels didn’t give you weather forecasts every hour on the hour, the function of weathervanes was to tell people which way the wind was blowing, a pretty good indicator of what the weather was going to be like. And of course peering at weathervanes went along with some of the weather-related sayings people were fond of quoting, like this one about the winds:
“When the wind is in the east, it’s good for neither man nor beast.
When the wind is in the north, the old folk should not venture forth.
When the wind is in the south, it blows the bait in the fishes’ mouth.
When the wind is in the west, it is of all the winds the best.”

I can imagine some great-great-great grandfather of mine looking up at the weathervane on the barn and saying “Aah, wind today’s from the north. Like they say, ‘old folk shouldn’t venture forth’”, no doubt using this as a good excuse to wend his way to the village pub to fritter his time (and money) away.

But weathervanes are also excellent examples of how we human beings transform functional objects into art. Take that weathervane on Vernazza’s church. If readers look again at my photo, they’ll see that the weathervane-maker turned the sail, which a weathervane needs if it is to work, into a rather pudgy angel. The things which weathervane-makers have turned the sail into, and continue to turn them into (this is by no means a dead art), are endless. I throw in here, in no particular order, some of the designs which have caught my fancy.

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The eventual owners of weathervanes will often choose designs that comment on something: their profession, their beliefs, their interests, the times they live in, even the racehorses they have bet on … No doubt it was in that spirit that Pope Nicholas I, way back in the 9th century, ordered that the rooster be the emblem used on weathervanes placed on Christian churches. It seems that Pope Nicolas was harking back to a comment made by Pope Gregory the Great even further back in time, in the 6th Century. Gregory had decreed that the rooster was the most suitable emblem of Christianity, being the emblem of St Peter – he is referring to the story in the Gospel where Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at dawn, here captured in a painting by Francesco Rosa in San Zachariah church in Venice.

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Personally, I find this a rather strange reason to choose the rooster as an emblem on churches, referencing as it does a moment of shameful betrayal by the man who was to become the first Pope. I rather think that Popes Gregory and Nicolas were doing something which Christians had been doing since the dawn of their religion, putting a Christian gloss on what were actually thriving pagan traditions (“if you can’t beat them, join them”). For the Goths and no doubt other “barbarians”, the rooster, crowing as it does at dawn, was an emblem of the sun. What better emblem to put on churches! Wasn’t Jesus (apparently) born at the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn?

In any event, from the 9th Century on, rooster-themed weathervanes became the norm on Christian churches (which no doubt explains why, in English, another name for the weathervane is the weathercock). The oldest surviving weathervane in Europe – from the 9th Century – is a rooster which, until 1891, graced the Church of Saints Faustino and Giovita in the city of Brescia.

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And the Bayeux tapestry, my favourite tapestry and one I’ve mentioned several times in these posts, clearly shows a man installing a rooster weathervane on Westminster Abbey (the scene is actually about the burial of King Edward the Confessor; I presume the nuns who made the tapestry were adding local colour).

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Now, I’m sure that at this point my alert readers are saying, “Hang on a minute, why does the weathervane on that church in Vernazza have an angel and not a rooster, then?” Well, it seems that at some point the Church authorities relaxed the rooster rule somewhat. Other emblems were possible, although normally ones which were linked to the saint or saints to which the church was dedicated. In the case of the church in Vernazza, it is dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch. A quick zip around the Internet tells me that a weathervane emblem connected to her (completely apocryphal) life could be a dragon: one of the more dramatic moments in her life was that she was swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. Dragons are popular emblems for weathervanes. Here’s a nice example.

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Or the emblem could be a hammer. She is often depicted, especially in Orthodox icons, as hammering the Devil – once no doubt she had been regurgitated alive by him. My wife and I saw a great example of such an icon in a museum in Athens a few years ago (for some reason, the Orthodox call her Marina rather than Margaret).

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Here’s a nice example of a hammer, although it’s put together with a saw (“hammer and saw”).

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But no, we have an angel. OK, I guess angels are pretty saintly and so a good emblem for a church – as long as they look serious, like this emblem (for some reason, most of the weathervanes have the angel blowing a horn).

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But no, if readers go back to my original photo, they will see that the weathervane-maker seems to have made more of a cherub. Raphael painted the most iconic of cherubs.

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And here we have a nice weathervane example (also tooting a horn; it seems that angelic figures are expected to be horn players).

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The example on Vernazza’s church doesn’t seem nearly as cute. As far as I can make out, the cherub there has gone to seed; a cherub who has spent rather too much of his lockdown time eating and drinking and not enough time working out in his living room.

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I’m not sure how the weathervane-maker got this pretty non-religious weathervane past the parish priest. Perhaps the weathervane-maker was the parish priest. Or perhaps the parish priest was a jolly fellow who liked a good laugh. I have in mind someone like don Camillo as played by Fernandel.

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The parish priest must also have calculated that his bishop would never come to this Godforsaken village during his tenure – until quite recently it was pretty difficult to get to Vernazza and the other Cinque Terre; you either walked over the hills or you took a fishing boat, neither of which I see any self-respecting bishop doing.

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the backstory on this weathervane. In the meantime, I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye to see where I might have come across weathervanes in my life. Only one episode comes back to me, from my days at prep school (in British vernacular this being a boarding school for primary-school-age children). As I ascertained after a quick zip around the Internet, the school still exists. The only change I can see is that it has gone co-ed in the intervening years, an excellent thing. The school has taken over a building with venerable origins, as this picture of the main lawn attests.

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But the main reason for my putting in this photo is that discrete weathervane on that small tower in the centre of the photo. I throw in here an enlargement.

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It’s a rather boring weathervane, taking the shape of a flag (the first instruments used to figure out which way the wind was blowing were no doubt flags; indeed, the English word “vane” is derived from the Old English word fana, meaning flag). Nevertheless, I know that weathervane well. One year, my dormitory gave onto the roof covering the gallery (those windows we see to the left of the base of the tower). I was a naughty boy and friends with other naughty boys. We would regularly sneak out of the dormitory window at night onto that roof and go for a walk, just for the dare. Sometimes, that weathervane would be silhouetted against the moon. I see it still … aahh, the good old days!

One other memory I have of weathervanes is their figurative use in cartoons, especially political cartoons. As we all know too well, politicians are notorious for going “whichever way the wind blows” (a popular wind-related saying). Cartoonists have always had a field day with weathervanes, using them to show politicians who chop and change their opinions, “trimming their sails” to prevailing opinion (another popular wind-related saying). I remember a British cartoon mocking the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for acting like a weathervane over the independence of British colonies in Africa. I couldn’t find that particular one on the Internet. But political cartoonists have been busy with the weathervane metaphor in the intervening years. Here are some recent examples.

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For some reason, the use of weathervanes seems to be especially popular among American cartoonists. Could it be that the extensive use of interest groups in American politics makes American politicians chop and change their opinions more frequently – and, given the pervasiveness of TV news teams, the evidence of their chopping and changing is more obviously there for everyone to see?

Politicians are of course sensitive to the charge of behaving like weathervanes. Quebecan politicians are so sensitive to the charge that the provincial Assembly has banned the use of the term, considering it a slur. I never knew politicians were quite that thin-skinned …

Well, that still leaves the mystery of my pudgy angel. Maybe, next time my wife and I are in Vernazza, I’ll drop into the church and try to find an answer.

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If I find one I will report back.

PASSITO WINES, BOTRYTISED WINES, ICE WINES

Milan, 7 February 2021

One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.

We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.

A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:

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“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).

The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).

“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).

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Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.

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Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.

You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.

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Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.

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Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.

As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.

Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.

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And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.

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In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.

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For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.

You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.

As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.

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And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.

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The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.

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What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.

As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.

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This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.

Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.

Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.

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The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.

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Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.

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This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.

Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).

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Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.

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And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.

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At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).

And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.

HOLLY AND CHRISTMAS

Milan, 12 December 2020

It’s that time of the year again! Time to drink nice hot toddies, time to put up the Christmas tree and other sundry decorations, time to set up the nativity, time to put on the CD of Christmas carols and sing along (in my case, somewhat off-key).

“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”

Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.

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Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.

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No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.

It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn

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Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.

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And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.

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This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.

Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).

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Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”

Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).

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So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.

Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.

The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.

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Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.

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“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”

The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.

Then there’s the mistletoe.

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“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”

Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.

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Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.

I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).

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Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.

What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.

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This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Vienna, 30 November 2020

Wagram: A region close to the River Danube upstream of Vienna, where there are steep terraces made up of deposits of loess laid down millions of years ago.

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“Wagram” is a composite of two Middle High German words: “wac” (moving water, river) and “rain” (meadow, slope). So Wagram means Slope by the Water or Bank. No doubt these terraces were created centuries ago by a meander of the Danube which then changed course at some point, because there’s not much water by these slopes now. Vineyards have been planted on many of the terraces where the slopes are not too abrupt.

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I suppose the sandy soil of the loess is good for vines. The wine – mostly made with Grüner Veltliner grapes – is good enough to have given the region its own wine name, “Wagram”. In some of the steeper slopes wine cellars have been dug directly into the loess.

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We’ve been climbing up and down these terraces throughout the summer, principally because we’ve been hiking along sections of the pilgrim path to St. James of Compostela, known as Jacobsweg in this part of the world. The path happens to run along the loess terraces.

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Many a village which stands at the foot of these terraces has added “Wagram” to its name. So we’ve walked through Fels am Wagram, Kirchberg am Wagram, Königsbrunn am Wagram, Stetteldorf am Wagram, Eggendorf am Wagram, … (there’s even a Wagram am Wagram, which seems a bit exaggerated).

Deutsch-Wagram: Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that on the map above, a village of this name is marked. It is across the Danube from Vienna and a little to the north-east of it.  It too sits on deposits of loess, although the slopes of the terraces here are very gentle, almost imperceptible. The village stands on the northern edge of a flat plain, the Marchfeld plain, which is rich agricultural land. There’s really nothing much to say about this village. I’ve looked at its Wikipedia entry and sifted through photos of the place online, but I could find nothing of any substance to report – except for one thing: it gave half of its name to one of Napoleon I’s major battles.

Battle of Wagram: It was fought in early July 1809 not too far from where I’m writing this. Napoleon had captured Vienna in May, but the Austrian Emperor had not capitulated, and the bulk of the Austrian army was undefeated and was camped on the Marchfeld plain across the Danube from Vienna. Napoleon concluded that until he had beaten this army no peace could be concluded. He therefore decided to get his army across the Danube onto the Marchfeld plain and give battle. His first attempt, in May, using the island of Lobau as his entry point into the plain, was a costly failure. This has come down in history as the battle of Essling, taking its name from the village of Essling around which much of the fighting took place.

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Learning from his mistakes, Napoleon prepared his army’s crossing of the Danube through Lobau with far more care and this time the crossing was successful. And so by the early hours of 5 July the two armies were facing each other across the Marchfeld plain. This rather fine old map shows the battleground nicely.

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The Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, knew that Napoleon would cross again at Lobau and had set up his positions along the slight ridge of loess, placing himself at the centre of the Austrian line, in the village of Deutsch-Wagram. That slight ridge, along with a marshy stream which ran at its foot and which acted as a fine defensive barrier, put the Austrians in a good position. I do not propose to give a detailed blow-by-blow account of the battle. A few fanciful paintings of a propagandist nature will suffice.

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The reality of the battle was grimmer. After two days of hard fighting, the Austrian army retired in good order while the French army was too knackered to properly pursue it. The French claimed victory, and although that was technically correct the “victory” didn’t change the strategic situation. After another inconclusive battle 5 days later at Znaïm, the two sides agreed to an armistice.

The battle of Wagram and the previous battle of Essling had been very costly. The casualties were very high on both sides, but for the French, after more than 10 years of almost continuous fighting, it was harder to make up the losses. Napoleon’s enemies had finally understood his strategies and were beginning to emulate them. There were going to be no more spectacular victories with relatively light losses as there had been in the past. Many see the battle of Wagram as the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

Avenue de Wagram: One of the twelve avenues that radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although now largely forgotten, the avenue’s naming in 1864 was originally a piece of propaganda by the-then Emperor Napoleon III. It was always useful for him to glorify the deeds of his uncle Napoleon I, it was a way of burnishing his rather more doubtful credentials. Baron Haussmann was busy creating a new urban landscape for Paris at the time, which, among other things, meant that the area around the Arc de Triomphe was being remodeled. The Arc had originally been built as a memorial to one of Napoleon I’s greatest victories, the battle of Austerlitz. When his ashes were returned from the island of St. Helena in 1840, they passed through the Arc de Triomphe on their way to his final resting place in Les Invalides.

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Why not, then, turn the area around the Arc into a memorial to the first Napoleon’s military genius? And so, in 1864, a number of the new avenues radiating out from the Arc were named after Emperor Napoleon’s more famous battles (his earlier battles when he was a mere revolutionary general or even First Consul were ignored): along with the Avenue de Wagram, there was the Avenue d’Essling which I’ve already mentioned, the Avenue d’Iéna, celebrating the battle of 1806 fought at Jena in Thuringia, during which Napoleon pulverized the Prussian army, the Avenue de Friedland, celebrating the battle of 1807 fought in what was then eastern Prussia, during which Napoleon decisively beat the Russian army, and the Avenue d’Eylau, commemorating a battle fought four months prior to Friedland in the same neck of the woods. One other avenue was named the Avenue de la Grande Armée, to commemorate Napoleon’s imperial army which had fought in all of these battles and more during his campaigns from 1804 to 1814. To cap it off, a circular road which runs around the Arc de Triomphe had one half of the circle named rue de Presbourg, commemorating the treaty of Presbourg signed with Austria after the victory at Austerlitz, and the other half named rue de Tilsit, commemorating the treaty of Tilsit signed with Russia after the victory at Friedland. As a cherry on the Napoleonic propaganda cake, a number of the remaining avenues were named after members of the Napoleonic clan. Quite understandably, all these last avenues had their names changed later when Napoleon III was toppled, along with the avenues commemorating the battles of Essling and Eylau (not surprising really; as we’ve seen, Napoleon actually lost the battle of Essling and he only just won the battle of Eylau).

I’m sure all this propaganda from the past is lost on the avenue’s current inhabitants. The only thing that seems to matter today is that Avenue de Wagram is a very chic place to live. While not situated in the “seizième arrondissement”, the 16th district of Paris, the city’s toniest district, it is still a very desirable place to put on your calling card. Real estate on the avenue is eyewateringly expensive. This is a view of the avenue from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

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As befits such a moneyed area, it is represented in Parliament by a member of the right-of-centre party Les Républicains, Ms. Brigitte Kuster.

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Salle Wagram: Whatever the Napoleonic propagandists might have wanted, for the people of Paris the area around what became Avenue de Wagram near the Arc de Triomphe had been a place where you went and had fun ever since the Revolution. The ball got rolling with a drinking hole where you could also dance. Then came theatres, music halls, concert-cafés, and then cinemas.  Perhaps the most famous of these palaces of fun was the Salle Wagram, a large hall built in 1865. It was located at 39bis, avenue de Wagram.

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It was famous as a place where Gay Paree went to dance the night away.

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But it was also a place for exhibitions and other “serious” shows, like the First Cycling Exhibition of 1894.

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The money took over from the fun. All the places of entertainment other than Salle Wagram and a couple of others have disappeared, leaving space for expensive offices and apartments. C’est la vie, as the French philosophically remark.

Station Wagram: The name of a station in Paris’s subway system, one of many.

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It serves Avenue de Wagram, although it’s actually located on a small street that crosses the avenue – the avenue’s greater name recognition decided the station’s naming. Opened in 1911, many of the initial travellers no doubt used the station to go to Salle Wagram or the other entertainment spots in the area. But now it probably only services workers whose offices are in the area and the cleaners and other domestics who work in the surrounding rich apartments.  The station itself is nothing to write home about. Perhaps it was more interesting architecturally when first opened, but the modernizations of the 1960s have left it a bog-standard station.

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Its one saving grace is its entrance, which harbours one of Hector Guimard’s delightful Art Nouveau floral designs.

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So it is that by the vagaries of history, loess terraces in eastern Austria were transmuted into a dot on the Parisian subway map 1200 km away.

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C’est la vie, as the French say.