Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!
My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.
But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall
or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.
“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”
To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:
“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”
OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:
“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”
We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.
In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.
In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.
“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”
Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.
“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?”
I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.
“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”
Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.
“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”
Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.
But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.
There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.
Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.
A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.
It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).
I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.
A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).
Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.
Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.
The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).
The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.
But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.
A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).
The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?
The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.
I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.
I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.
It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.
The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit – posca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.
Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.
By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.
The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).
For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.
But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.
It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).
It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.
For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.
For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.
I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.
The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.
Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us theword “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.
Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!
This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.
My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation. In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.
Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:
“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”
Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.
And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)
Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.
This post was going to be about the oleander, but as often happens when I surf the web I disappeared down some fascinating rabbit holes along the way. So while I will discuss the oleander I will also throw in a couple of disparate facts linked more or less tenuously to the oleander.
First the oleander. The walks which my wife and I have been taking recently on the Ligurian coast have led us past many an example of this fine plant, whose showy red and pink flowers have lit up our way, especially when we have been traversing urban sections of our walks.
As usual, after quietly enjoying at this display from Nature, I looked to the plant’s history, to see where it had originally come from (not believing for a minute that it could be native to Liguria). What I found was, I suppose, a testimony to its enduring attraction to humans as well as to its toughness and endurance: enduring attraction to humans because it’s been domesticated for such a long time that no-one can make out its original home – South to South-West Asia seems to the best guess; toughness and endurance because even when taken out of its native habitat it has survived and thrived and created new homes for itself – here is a picture of oleander which has gone native in northern Israel, growing along the side of streams.
It has gone similarly native in many places, from Portugal and Morocco in the west to Yunnan in China in the east.
Its toughness and endurance has made it a popular plant to use in unforgiving environments, like the median strips of highways: you can’t get much tougher than that – poor, stony soil, little water, fumes from the passing cars, collection point for all the rubbish that people throw out of their cars, or that drop off their cars. As a bonus, it almost makes highways look pretty.
One of the first things that struck me when I went to Sicily was the oleander bushes along the highways there, the flowers turning what was really a very sterile environment into a pleasure to look at as the car whizzed down the highway.
The only other thing to note about oleander is its poisonous effects on humans and other animals. Every part of the plant is poisonous: in a word, beautiful but deadly. A couple of books have had as plot devices the murder of someone with oleander. For me, the best is Dragonwyck, not so much for the book as for the 1946 film made from the book. It has Vincent Price, a slimy smoothie if there ever was one, who does in his wife with oleander. We have him here staring broodingly at the fatal oleander plant.
Actually, oleander’s deadliness has been exaggerated. It’s not really that bad. Very few people have certifiably died from ingesting oleander. The worst that normally happens is that you feel horribly sick, you vomit, you get diarrhea … I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out, readers get the picture.
And that’s it, really, for the oleander. Now I can turn to the rabbit holes I fell down!
The first is related to the plant’s effects on humans. But I must start with a little bit of context. I want to take my readers to Delphi, in Greece.
Now the place is just a mass of romantic ruins, but in its heyday, from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE, it was really famous in the Ancient World, a place to go to if you wanted divine advice about something important to you: should our city go to war with our neighbour? should we start a new colony? or, on a more personal level, should I marry her? The temple there was dedicated to the god Apollo, and one of the temple’s priestesses, the Pythia, would answer your question. After offering a splendid goat for sacrifice and paying a suitable tribute (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), supplicants would be led down into the inner sanctum of the temple, this dark small room, where they would find the Pythia sitting on a tripod and flanked by a couple of priests. The tripod was placed across a cleft in the floor through which vapours or fumes would be rising and enveloping the Pythia. She would be holding a branch of laurel in one hand (the laurel was sacred to Apollo) and a small basin of clear water from a nearby sacred stream in the other. Rustling the laurel branch and gazing into the basin of water, she would answer your question. Here is the scene depicted on the bottom of an ancient Greek drinking cup, the supplicant to the right, the Pythia to the left.
Now, this was not like having a pleasant conversation with someone. The Pythia would be pretty agitated: “her hair stood on end, her complexion changed, her heart beat hard, her bosom swelled, and her voice became seemingly more than human”. Here is a much more satisfyingly dramatic rendering, painted by a certain John Collier in 1891, of what the Pythia might have looked like.
The whole experience must have been quite unnerving and overpowering for the supplicants. On top of it, the answer they got was often quite cryptic, leaving the supplicants scratching their heads trying to understand the true meaning of what Apollo had told them through the Pythia.
Why am I recounting all this? Because there has been considerable discussion about how the Pythia got herself all worked up. What was she eating, drinking, or smoking to get herself into that state? Some of the ancient sources say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leaves. But as we all know – bay leaves, which are actually laurel leaves, being used in cooking – laurel leaves don’t have any effect on someone who eats them. Which is where oleander comes in. The Greeks were rather slipshod in their use of the name “laurel”, using it to denote several plants including the oleander (the leaves of the oleander and the laurel do look quite similar). So one clever chap has suggested that the Pythia was actually chewing oleander leaves, which could indeed give you all the symptoms the Pythias exhibited.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the vapours and fumes emanating from the cleft under the Pythia’s seat (and which are very evident in the painting by John Collier). Some have argued that it could have been these that (also) set the Pythia off. Given that Delphi sits on two geological faults which cross each other, it is thought in certain circles that the cleft which the Pythia sat astride was a natural opening into the bowels of the Earth. There has therefore been much discussion about what naturally formed fumes and vapors could have been seeping out from the Earth’s interior and been having this effect on the Pythia – ethylene? benzene? something else? – but it’s all been quite inconclusive. The above-mentioned clever chap suggests what seems to me a much simpler solution, that maybe under the room where the Pythia sat was another room, connected to the former through the cleft, and in which a priest was burning oleander leaves. By inhaling these fumes the Pythia was adding to the effects from chewing the leaves.
That’s one interesting rabbit hole connected to the oleander.
The other involves Hiroshima. As I would hope everyone knows, the first atom bomb ever dropped came down on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Here is a picture of the dreaded mushroom cloud which formed over the city.
The city was totally devastated. Here are a few pictures of what the city looked like in the days and months after the dropping of the bomb.
The city’s botanical gardens were not spared. So bad was the destruction that the garden’s directors thought that nothing would grow there again for decades. Yet lo and behold, the year after the bomb was dropped the oleanders in the gardens grew out from their blasted roots and flowered! The oleanders became a symbol of hope for Hiroshima’s citizens, convincing them that the city could be reborn even after this terrible catastrophe – as indeed it has. Ever since, the oleander has been the city’s official flower.
I’ve become a bit of a cynic in my old age, but this little story does warm the cockles of my heart.
Two days to go until we can roam the streets again …
Well, having covered the animal kingdom in my last two wanderings around the apartment, it seems fair to now cover the vegetable kingdom. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve discovered on my wanders: while humans and animals often take centre stage in the pieces which I reported on earlier – they are the piece – plants are almost always – at least in this apartment – relegated to the role of mere decoration of something else. Let me show my readers what I mean.
For starters, many of our plates, bowls, and jugs are decorated with plants or flowers or fruit. Take this plate, for instance, which I bought many years ago in New York and which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
The plate itself is a copy of an old Ottoman design, depicting a spray of wild flowers. I spy a tulip, a carnation of some sort, a sweet William perhaps. Lovely. But still, only decoration on a plate. In theory, we could cover all those flowers with a greasy meat sauce (I say in theory, because we never actually use this plate, it would feel sacrilegious to do so).
Or take this plate, which my mother-in-law bought.
Plants are much more aggressively centre stage here. We have four large leaves surrounding a small fruit. Lovely piece of design. But still only a plate. We’ve sometimes covered those leaves with olives, small onions, and other hors-d’oeuvres, to serve at table.
Or how about this little milk jug, which once must have been part of a larger tea set (and which I recently discovered, by studying the marks on the bottom of it, to have been made by Richard-Ginori).
Simple but beautiful design. But only decoration on a jug.
From the other side of the world but the same idea: a sake bowl and its companion cups, which my wife and picked up on our travels in Asia.
Here, we have the ever popular presence of bamboo in Asian design. Very handsome. But only there to be admired as one drinks one’s sake from them – which my wife and I have often done.
At a larger, more rustic scale, we have this series of water pitchers, all of which use plants and flowers as their decoration.
All, except for the pitcher with the wisteria, were bought by mother-in-law, who had a great fondness for pitchers. The pitcher-covered wisteria was instead given to us by a friend. They were made by her aunt, a potter. It came with a similarly decorated oil and vinegar cruet and salt cellars. Every time I shake salt on my food, I admire those wisteria, a flower I adore. Lovely – but still only decoration on a utilitarian object.
Sometimes, the vegetal decoration gets so abstract as to almost disappear from view. Take this vase, for instance, another piece which my mother-in-law bought.
It’s really very handsome. But you have to study the vase a bit to see the flowers and the leaves. The more distracted eye, using it perhaps to hold cut flowers, just sees a swirl of browns and yellows.
It’s the same with this glass ashtray.
Only a closer look will discern a leaf in the rippling glass. The distracted smoker will see nothing but a receptacle for his butt-ends.
The fading of vegetal decoration into abstraction is even more marked in other objects. Take this carpet, for instance (another of my mother-in-law’s purchases), which in these days of confinement my wife and I are regularly using as a exercise mat.
It’s the same with the massive cupboard in our bedroom, inherited from my in-laws. Only sometimes, as I open one of its doors searching for a piece of clothing, will I register the rather stylized vegetal design carved in the wood.
I wonder why it is that the vegetable kingdom plays such a modest, secondary role in the pieces with which we surround ourselves. Why don’t we have a statue of a flower in the apartment, for instance? Perhaps it’s because we can more easily have the real thing – the potted plant, a living statue as it were. At the moment, for example, we have this splendid bunch of flowers slowly opening up before us.
If you can have the real thing, why bother with inanimate copies?
13 days to go before we are let out on the streets again – if we are let out; the Government is being very cautious about relaxing the lockdown, for fear that the virus will spring to life again. Here’s to hoping.
Anyway, as I continue my wanderings from room to room in the apartment, I’ve decided to do an extension of my previous post on the human face, this time looking at pieces which celebrate the whole of the human body – in other words, statues (or base reliefs in a couple of cases) of one form or another.
I start with the biggest statue that we possess, our “nail man”.
As I said, he is big: a little over a metre tall. My wife bought it at an auction of African art at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna. The blurb we received at the time of sale states: “Nail fetish, tribe: Bakongo, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, on a plinth, one foot set on a small animal as an expression of power, right hand lifted and holding a spear to defend from evil influences [the spear has disappeared], large oversized head with a wide-open mouth and all-seeing glass eyes, body covered all around with nails and iron pieces, with a glass-locked belly box filled with magic substances giving the figure power, suspended amulets, dark patina, age damage, 2nd half of 20th Century”.
We refer to him fondly as the nail man, but he’s actually a Nkondi. The purpose of a Nkondi was to house a spirit (living in the belly box) which could leave the statue to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies (this hunting role explains why the statue has his arm raised and used to hold a spear; pity that got lost). People would drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness – particularly of contracts and oaths. The purpose of the nailing was to “awaken” the spirit to the task in hand and sometimes to “enrage” it if nasty guys needed to be hunted down (before nails were common, it seems that this awakening was done by banging two Nkondi together).
Staying with Africa, the next piece originated in Gabon.
My wife also bought this, at the Dorotheum (she has been in charge of buying our African art). The Dorotheum’s blurb has this to say about it: “Ritual house door leaf, tribe: Tsogho, Gabon, wood, polychrome, front decorated with a relief-like, very stylized “stick figure”, tribe-typical facial features, lattice pattern, age damage, 2nd half of the 20th century”.
Africa also brought us this next piece, once again bought by my wife at the Dorotheum.
Once again, I turn to the Dorotheum’s description: “Wall plaque, tribe: Yoruba, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, two carved out column-figures in relief, in caricature fashion: Colonial officer in white uniform with tropical helmet, walking stick and briefcase, next to schoolgirl in a carrier skirt with book in hand, recognizable age damage, 2nd half of 20th century”.
All the previous pieces are probably no more that eighty years old. The next piece, in and of itself very young, is a copy of a far, far older piece which is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
My wife and I bought the piece at the Museum Art shop in Vienna (which I mentioned in my previous post). The original came from Cyprus, where it was made in about 2100-2000 BC. The piece I have is made of resin, but the original was modelled terracotta, with a polished red slip. The description which the shop gave us states: “This figurine has a rectangular body and is decorated with necklaces. The arms and facial features are stylized by engraved furrows ending in cupules. The ears are treated as pierced projections. These figurines used to be placed in tombs and should be interpreted as a female symbol of fertility. Given their size and shape, they might also have been worn by women as pendants.”
Well, those were the pieces in the living room. I shall now move to the kitchen, where we have a series of shelves where we keep many of our knick-knacks.
The first piece I will present is this ceramic clown.
This was another piece which we inherited from my mother-in-law (readers can refer back to my previous two posts to understand better the role of this good woman in our knick-knack collection). It’s a fun piece, although I’m not sure I understand how it is meant to be used. My wife says that it’s a candlestick; you put the candle into that little bowl which the clown is balancing on his extended foot. I must try it one day, to see if works.
Staying with the circus theme, we have this piece.
I imagine the young lady to be one of those women which I remember in my youth seeing in circuses jumping on and off cantering horses.
It was given to my wife as a present by her colleagues when she left her job here in Italy to move to Vienna. It’s actually a calendar. You move the red, green, and yellow balls to indicate the right date (outside circle) of the right month (middle circle), and the right day (inner circle). It doesn’t really serve its purpose, since it’s so very easy to forget to change. I reset it just before taking the photo yesterday, and it will probably remain frozen at yesterday’s date for several months until someone else decides to set it right. But it is cheerful to look at.
Moving from one female figure to another takes us to this piece.
It’s actually a grater. My wife and I were so enamoured by the design that we bought two of them, one for each of our children. We gave our son his. This one is our daughter’s, waiting patiently to be picked up some day. Since it’s such a fun piece, we’re quite happy that it stays with us sine die.
The next piece was another one handed down to us by my mother-in-law.
It’s a wonderful piece of ceramic, depicting as it does two Daughters of Charity singing. Until the reforms of Vatican II, Daughters of Charity used to wear this very striking wimple. Lord knows why they wore it, though.
We have no idea where my mother-in-law picked the piece up, but I silently bless her whenever my eyes happen to fall on it.
We also inherited the next piece from my mother-in-law.
I’m guessing that it’s Don Quixote. I find the caricature rather well done: a noble-looking head above, thin bandy legs below. Some 15 years ago, my wife and I visited Burgos during a tour of Spain. I was astonished to see a shop offering pretty much identical pieces as this one, in all sizes. My wife reckoned that our piece must have been brought back from Spain by her father. She had a memory of him going to Burgos for a conference. I was suddenly assailed by a sense of his ghost walking down the road ahead of us.
I definitely know where this quartet comes from.
My wife and I bought them in Poland, in the main square in Cracow.
We happened to be there on market day, with stalls laid out in the square. Together with our daughter, we were on our way to pick up our son, who was playing in a baseball tournament somewhere in the middle of Poland. (We went on from there to have a holiday in Finland, but that story is for another day).
I’ve said several times in this and the last two posts that my mother-in-law made some admirable choices of knick-knacks to buy. But not always. This quintet of figurines is a case in point.
As far as I can make out, they represent soldiers from the 18th, possibly early 19th Centuries. The Dorotheum is full of this stuff, and I always give it a wide berth. I simply find pieces of this kind to be too “precious”. But we have them and I’m not going to throw away things which someone took quite a lot of trouble and time to make (but I might see if we can’t sell them one of these days).
My mother-in-law did much better with the next trio.
Formally, they are candlestick holders, although I’ve never seen them used as such. They are clearly Italian pieces; the statue to the right indubitably represents a carabiniere. The statue to the left looks vaguely military. I don’t know if the woman in the middle represents anything except a nice housewife off to do her shopping. My wife wonders if they are not characters from some old Italian folk tale. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law never explained – or if she did explain we weren’t listening – so we will probably never know.
My mother-in-law also bought the very Baroque-looking bishop in this next photo.
Normally, I would have tut-tutted and put it away in some dark corner out of view, but I rather like the way it contrasts with the African statue next to it. Both men are bearded. Both are somebody important – The African is possibly a chief. And both hold a staff of office. But the solemnity, the gravitas, of the African piece just highlights the essential frivolity of the Baroque piece. The contrast between the two encapsulates everything I disapprove of in the Baroque.
Up to now, the statues have all been standing. But we have a few pieces where the subject is sitting. This first example is quite splendid.
It’s one of our more recent acquisitions; we bought it a few years ago during our annual visit to Kyoto (I give a course at the University on sustainable industrial development). It caught my wife’s eye as we were nosing around a flea market which was being held in the compound of one of the temples there. It is some type of Japanese doll, made of papier maché, and seems to represent a Japanese lord or warrior.
The next example is more traditional, but it has great sentimental value for my wife and me.
My wife found them in a little shop in Vienna which sold bric-a-brac, a short while after I was informed that I would be going to Beijing to take over my organization’s office there. Her buying them was a way of celebrating our move to China, a move which neither of us never regretted. I started this blog there and many of the earlier posts were about China.
In this final example of seated figures, both come from my mother-in-law.
They are not pieces that I would buy, but I recognize the wonderful workmanship that went into both of them. I’m not sure what the old man represents. He has by his side a bag of gifts and toys, so I wonder if he’s not meant to be Saint Nicholas.
But my figurine doesn’t have a mitre on his head, which as the picture above shows, he really should have. I also don’t understand why he would be holding a sheet of music, apparently composing. So the jury is out on that one.
It’s very clear, on the other hand, what the old lady represents. She’s an old peasant woman with a delicious cheese in her hands and a crate of vegetables at her feet.
My mother-in-law was rather fond of figurines representing peasants in one garb or another.
Of course, there is a strong tradition in Italy of having figurines such as these peopling the Christmas crèches or presepi. As I have discussed in an earlier post, these presepi are wonderful and I enthusiastically set up our family presepe every year, lovingly setting out the figurines in the necessary “tableau”. But I’m not too fond of them on their own, so I’m afraid all these figurines of my mother-in-law’s have been relegated to a dark corner of the living room.
I’m rather more tolerant of this other figurine which my mother-in-law bought, also of a peasant, but this time of a Chinese peasant. Since he’s holding a fish, I presume it’s a fisherman.
Since I started with the biggest statue that we have in the apartment, I will finish with the smallest statue that we have, a standing Buddha.
It’s a mere 9 cm high. I bought it in Sri Lanka while there on a business trip. It was the first of several Buddhas which I have bought over the years. Perhaps one day I will write a post devoted to them (all the other Buddhas are in Vienna, so that post will have to wait until we manage to get back to Vienna – Covid-19 has currently closed the border between Italy and Austria). Ever since I bought it, I have been looking for a suitable plinth on which to place the statue, but so far I have found nothing.
Well, that finishes this particular wander around the apartment. Over the next 13 days of lockdown maybe I can come up with a couple of other trips through the knick-knacks we have here.
Our son has gone on a “tartufata” today with some of his friends to a place called Ovada, a town in southern Piedmont. I’m not sure if this word really exists in Italian, but what it means is that they have gone to a restaurant in Ovada, where they will order various dishes seasoned with tartufo, or truffle in English. ‘Tis the truffle season! Many an Italian is fanning out over the country where truffles grow to taste this delicacy. Alas! neither my wife nor I are terribly fond of the use of truffle in cooking. I’m sure some readers will gasp in horror at this admission. Our son certainly shook his head sadly when we admitted this to him – he, of course, is a great fan. My beef with truffle is that its taste is very intense, far too intense for me; even my son, fan though he is, admits that he can only eat a small number of dishes seasoned with truffle before it’s too much for him.
For those of my readers who have never seen a truffle, they grow in the ground, normally around the roots of certain trees.
They are not at all handsome-looking. They resemble pebbles, with a roughly roundish shape and rather knobbly. Normally, a number of them will fit into the palm of one’s hand. This next photo shows the two most common species of truffle, the white and the black (there are number of other types of truffles, but we’ll keep it simple).
An enduring image from my youth is the use of pigs to find truffles. It was one of those stories I heard, about French farmers – a pig on a leash in one hand, a basket in the other (and no doubt a smoldering gitane in the side of the mouth) – wandering the woods of the Perigord (a region of France famous for its truffles) looking for this culinary delicacy.
With their fine sense of smell, pigs are exceedingly good at locating the truffles buried in the soil. I don’t suppose pigs are used much any more. Clever people have figured out how to farm truffles, so I presume the foraging for wild truffles is mostly a thing of the past.
For those of a biological turn of mind the truffle is a fungus, one of perhaps 2 to 4 million fungi species (this is an estimate; only some 120,000 species have been formally described). It belongs to the Ascomycota phylum of the fungi kingdom, along with “good” fungi like morels, brewer’s and baker’s yeasts, and the penicillins, as well as “bad” fungi like the Candida fungi and ringworm, which infect us humans, as well various plant pathogens with colourful names like black mold, apple scab, rice blast, black knot and powdery mildews.
What actually set me off on this post was not truffles; it just so happened that our son went off on his gastronomic adventures at this time. It was actually mushrooms, which are members of another phylum of the fungi kingdom, the Basidiomycota, that got me to pick up my pen, figuratively speaking. As is our habit when we are in Milan, we’ve been walking the woods around Lake Como, and in recent days we’ve stumbled across a good number of very striking mushrooms. Perhaps the weather conditions have been particularly propitious, perhaps we have just happened to walk across mushroom-rich grounds. I have no idea if any of the mushrooms we’ve seen are edible; I’m certain that one of them definitely is not. They just struck me as being particularly handsome. Seeing handsome mushrooms actually started on our walk along the Kumano Kodo trail in Japan. Here is a lovely one we almost tripped over, growing as it was right along the path we were following.
Aren’t they just beautiful?!
We also saw a very nice species of bracket fungus on a large cypress tree on our last day.
Passersby had put 10-yen coins on the bracket fungus; this was the entryway to a large Shinto shrine, so I presume they play a role in animistic religions. I took the coins off, feeling that the fungus looked much better without them (and I hastily add that I put them back once I had taken my photo).
I’m very fond of bracket fungi. Years ago, when we were living in Washington D.C., my wife and I came across a lovely set of bracket fungi growing on a dead branch, during a walk in the woods. We brought the branch back to our apartment, where it brightened up the place. With great regret, when we left for Europe, we gave the branch and its fungi to a friend. I’ve always wondered what became of them.
But coming back to Lake Como, the first set of mushrooms we saw were these, growing under a pine tree.
Unfortunately, since they were in someone’s garden I couldn’t get any close-up photos. I rather suspect, though, that at least some of them – the ones to the left – were the fly agaric mushroom. This is a truly beautiful mushroom – but a hallucinogen if eaten in small amounts, and deadly if eaten in larger amounts.
These are the mushrooms that gnomes will often be pictured sitting under or on.
A little later, when we had entered the woods, we were lucky enough to come across a fly agaric in its mature stage on the side of the path.
It looks like something took a bite out of it; I hope it had nice hallucinations.
After that, we saw a number of other mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor as we walked along.
Lovely … But I have no idea what their names are (or their toxic or hallucinogenic properties) – I welcome any reader who knows them to tell me. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue traipsing through the woods and perhaps we’ll see a few more species of mushrooms to admire.
After I had finished giving my course on sustainable industrial development at Kyoto University, my wife and I took a week off to walk the woods of Japan. Last year, we walked the Nakasendo Way. This year, we hiked along the old Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail. Just as had been the case when we walked the Nakasendo Way, we were struck by just how much water Japan has. In all its forms – rills, brooks, streams, rivers, waterfalls – the water welled out of the mountains we traversed and trickled, ran, poured off their flanks. The noise of water running across rock and stone was our constant companion.
No wonder water is such an integral part of Japanese gardens, from falls
to streams and ponds
to small water elements.
All this water, and the rain which is the source of it, means that there are high levels of humidity in Japan, excellent conditions for the growing of moss. I have read that of the roughly 12,000 species of moss known worldwide, some 2,500 varieties are found in Japan alone: one-fifth! That’s pretty good going. And they certainly beautify Japan. Moss casts a lovely green sheen on everything it touches. This is true everywhere but it is particularly true in Japan. On our walks there, we’ve seen it growing luxuriantly on felled trees and tree stumps.
We’ve seen it clustering thickly around the base of standing trees.
and throwing a gauzy veil over their trunks.
We’ve seen it throw a light mantle over rocks.
It doesn’t stay in the forests. It will colonize the artifacts created by man.
We’ve even seen it make the ugly concrete edges of a road look lovely!
The genius of Japanese garden designers is to have fought off the instinct, which we seem to have in the West, of banishing moss from their gardens. Instead, they have welcomed it in with open arms and integrated it into their designs. As a result, no self-respecting Japanese garden is without its moss.
Given my weakness for Zen gardens, I love the way the designers of these gardens have incorporated moss into their designs.
Some gardens use moss the way we would use grass, creating “lawns” of moss.
If the light is right, the effect can be quite magical.
A good number of temples have extensive moss gardens, where moss covers the floor of the whole garden. The most famous of these is Saiho-ji temple in the western outskirts of Kyoto. It’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s difficult to visit. You have to book months in advance, using a system of return postcards, which is really primitive in this day and age and very difficult to do if you don’t live in the country. But we managed it this time.
A good number of years ago, as I relate in a previous post, I built my own Zen garden in a corner of our balcony. I had no moss, though, in that garden. The micro-climate on the balcony was too dry and harsh. But maybe, one day, somewhere, I’ll make myself another Zen garden, and this time I will try to incorporate moss.
My wife and I have just come back from our annual trip to Kyoto, where I teach a two-week intensive course on sustainable industrial development. As usual, when I was not giving classes we were either visiting Kyoto or walking the ring of hills which surround the city. And as usual, we’ve been coming across a good many examples of this representative of the insect world.
This, dear readers, is the Nephila clavata, or the Joro spider. It is found throughout most of Japan, as well as in Korea, China and Taiwan. And this is the time of year when they spin their webs. They are everywhere! If you’re not careful, you will walk into the webs as you walk along, getting those silky threads all over your face. Here is an especially dense set of webs which we had to navigate.
I have to say, this species of spider is really quite striking. Look at those green and black markings! And that dark red stripe around its abdomen! I am definitely not a fan of the spider family, but even I have to admit that the Joro spider is beautiful, even if in a rather sinister sort of way. And it does spin lovely webs, the classic ones, a series of concentric circles with radiating spokes. My wife and I were lucky enough to catch this one in the morning sunlight when it was still wet with dew.
The Joro spider is a champion for matriarchal societies. The female is much bigger than the male, and it is she who sits, in deathly stillness, at the centre of the web, waiting for hapless insects to blunder into it and become her next meal.
As for the males, a couple of them will be found on the edges of the web, waiting anxiously for their chance to copulate with the female. After copulation, the female will spin an egg sack, fill it with anything from 400 to 1500 eggs, and then attach it to a tree or other suitable surface. After which, with the onset of winter, all the adults die, leaving the eggs to hatch the following May. The juveniles scatter through the underbrush and the cycle starts again.
And that’s all there is to say, really, about the Joro spider. I’m sure arachnothologists could natter on excitedly for hours about various aspects of the spider’s life cycle and behaviour but I’m assuming my readers are, like me, just ordinary folk with no more than a passing interest in spiders. So I will say no more about the Joro spider – except for one thing.
Readers may be interested to know that the Joro spider has over the centuries become one of Japan’s many yokai – these are the supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons that haunt Japanese folklore. I have this theory that it is the dominance of the female over the male along with her vivid colouration that has led to the Joro spider being turned into a yokai. The name in Japanese, Jorogumo, actually means “woman spider”. The name can also be written to mean more negatively “entangling bride” or even “whore spider”. The common role of the Jorogumo yokai in folk tales is to shapeshift into a beautiful woman who will set herself up in a cave, in the forest, or in an empty house in town, and will wait there for unwary men to pass by. She will seduce them, tie them up in her silken web, and then devour them. We have here several modern takes on these ancient storylines, with the second bordering on the pornographic.
A common finale to these folk tales is that one young man, more astute than the rest, will figure out that the beautiful woman who is trying to inveigle him is actually the dreaded entangling woman/whore spider and will take her out with a sword or other suitable weapon. Here we have a strapping samurai doing just that, in a 19th century woodblock by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
It is interesting that a number of folk tales from other parts of the world include wicked seducing women from the supernatural world, ready to kill or otherwise neuter healthy young men. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the enchantress Circe in the Odyssey, who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and whose plot to visit the same fate on Odysseus was foiled by the hero.
Or in the same Odyssey, we have the (female) Sirens whose beautiful songs drove (male) sailors mad and incited them to smash their ships onto the rocks.
Without getting too anthropological about it, I have to assume that these tales are a product of the patriarchal societies in which they were developed. In a strongly male-dominated society, the worst thing that can happen to a man is to find himself dominated by a woman. The best excuse a man can give to explain why this happened is for him to say that the woman seduced him. To make it an even better excuse, give the woman supernatural powers of seduction – “if she’d been a normal woman, I could have resisted her female lures”.
As I walked along, ducking out of the way of the Joro spiders’ webs, I found myself wondering how one of these tales would have been told in a matriarchal society.
I suspect that many of my readers will have no idea of what I’m talking about, especially if they hail from the northern latitudes. I certainly didn’t until I first came to Italy a lifetime ago. Loquats were one of a long list of new food items my wife introduced me to. Except that she didn’t call them loquats, she called them by their Italian name, nespole, and it took me at least thirty years and the internet to figure out their English name.
Loquats are a fruit. They look like this when unopened.
They’re a bit fussy to prepare. You have to first peel off their thin skin, which tends to break and tear easily, complicating removal. Once you’ve done that, you slice them open, only to find three or four large stones inside.
The stones are quite beautiful really – warm brown, smooth, glistening – but they take up a lot of the internal space, which of course means less flesh to eat. In any case, once you flip the stones out the fruit is ready to eat. Ah, my friends, such taste! Sweet, but with a slightly tart, acidic note, a very juicy but firm flesh. To die for …
When we lived in Italy, I always looked forward to the month of May as loquat season. Then we went away for some twenty years and loquats remained but a dream. Even in retirement, when we spend a good amount of time here, we tend to leave before loquats come on the market – we have been in the habit of migrating up to Vienna by mid-May. As luck would have it, though, this year we’ve stayed longer than usual, so I’ve had the joy of once again eating loquats.
The fruit’s English name gives us a clue as to where the loquat hails from. “Loquat” is the English rendering of the Cantonese name for the fruit, lou4gwat1 (I believe those numbers are indications of the tones – good luck with that; in my five years in China, I never managed to “hear” a single tone). The fruit’s ancestral homeland is indeed southern China – more strictly the middle and lower valley of the Daduhe River. I throw in a satellite map from Google Maps, where the red pin is stuck in the river’s valley.
Readers will see that Daduhe River is in the far south-west of China, in Yunnan province. It lies north of Xishuangbanna, which sits on the Mekong River (and which we had the pleasure to visit when we lived in China), and to the south of Pu’er, the location of a rather particular Chinese tea (which I must confess to not liking very much). It doesn’t surprise me that the loquat originates from this part of the world. Yunnan is a globally famous “hot spot” of biodiversity, hosting thousands of different species.
This Chinese connection delighted me when I found it out since over the years I have written a number of posts about various plants which have been carried out of China and spread to the rest of the world. To date, I have written about the Ginkgo tree, Kaki fruit, the Magnolia, the Peking Willow, Wisteria, the Pauwlonia tree, and Osmanthus. As always, Chinese poets and artists celebrated the fruit. We have here a painting from the mid to late Ming dynasty.
While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.
The fruit’s English name may be Cantonese but it was not through the port of Canton that it was first transferred to Europe. Like a number of other Chinese plants that reached Europe (from just among the ones I’ve written posts about: the ginkgo tree, kaki fruit, and the magnolia), the transfer occurred via Japan. It seems that the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Japan, were also the first to bring the loquat back to Europe. By the time they first set eyes on the fruit and its tree, probably very soon after they arrived in Japan in 1543, it had been growing there for 500 years or so. In all likelihood, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, either Chinese monks going to proselytize in Japan or by Japanese monks returning home after a period of study in China.
The modern varieties of loquats owe a lot to the patient work by Japanese farmers to develop fruits that were bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild ancestors. I salute all those anonymous Japanese farmers for their efforts! I throw in here a woodblock by Katsushiga Hokusai of Japanese farmers at work on their more traditional crop, rice.
Of course, like the Chinese, the Japanese celebrated the loquat in their art. Here is a woodblock by Utagawa Hiroshige (whom I’ve had cause to discuss at length in a previous post) with the same subject of bird and loquats as the Ming-era Chinese painting above.
In any event, some time in the late 16th, early 17th Century, a Portuguese ship like this one carried the loquat back to Europe.
The Portuguese didn’t call this new fruit “loquat”, nor did they even call it by some Lusitanian derivation of its Japanese name “biwa”. Instead, like a good number of other countries in Europe, they thought they had to do with a Japanese cousin of an already well-known fruit in Europe, the medlar, whose Portuguese name is nêspera (closely related to its Spanish name, níspero, and more distantly related to its Italian name, nespola – for those interested in linguistics, in all three languages the word derives from the Latin name for the medlar, mespilus, although at some point the “m” drifted to an “n” and the “l” further drifted into an “r” in the Iberian peninsula). The medlar was once quite a well-known fruit in Europe although it has since fallen into obscurity. I certainly had no idea what it looked like when I started this post, and I suspect this to be the case for many of my readers, so I throw in here a photo of this antique fruit.
Comparing this photo to my first photo of the loquat, I think readers will understand why this confusion arose. By the early 1800s, botanists had understood that it was actually a different plant but by then the damage was done and the Chinese upstart had linguistically dethroned the venerable medlar in about half the European languages.
Loquats have an interesting life-cycle. Like the strawberry tree, which I wrote an earlier post about, the flowers appear in the late autumn or early winter. It seems that the flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled at quite a distance; personally, I have never experienced this even though the loquat tree grows in Liguria (from where I am writing this post). The sweet-smelling flowers were also a reason why the tree was a favourite among Chinese and Japanese poets.
But from a botanical point of view, what is more interesting is that to obtain fruits from these flowers you have to grow the trees in a region where pollinating insects are around at that late time of the year. That is why I never saw the fruit in either the UK or France when I was growing up and had to wait till I came to Italy, where the tree can fruit in the south and along the Ligurian coast, for me to discover it. An advantage of this life-cycle is that the fruit ripens at any time from spring to early summer. It is the first fresh fruit to be available naturally in Italy (i.e., not ripened artificially in some greenhouse somewhere, nor flown in from some remote part of the world), and so can have the monopoly of the fresh-fruit market before the cherries and other fruits appear. Which is why for me the month of May is loquat time.
And now it’s time for me to gorge myself on some more loquats!
I wrote in the previous post about my wife and I visiting a museum dedicated to the Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige, in preparation for our walk along the Nakasendo Way. That same museum also happened to be holding an exhibition dedicated to Katushika Hokusai. Many of Hokusai’s woodblock prints were of course on show, and it was certainly a pleasure to be given the opportunity to study and admire them up close.
But actually it’s a painting of Hokusai’s that has remained with me in the intervening weeks. I sneak in here a photo that I took of it – I’m not sure I was allowed to take photos and I looked around stealthily before whipping out my phone and snapping this shot. I have cropped the photo to eliminate the silk wall hanging in which it is incorporated; I want the reader to focus on the painting, and I find its silken frame a distraction to the eye.
Its title is Wild Geese and Great Poet, and indeed we see a man of certain means sitting on the ground, his elbow resting on that typical Japanese arm rest, the kyousoku. His head rests on his hand, and he is watching with a look of wistful melancholy at a flock of geese flying away into the distance.
I immediately felt that there was a story being told here. I saw the drawing in of winter, with the geese flying south from Siberia to overwinter in Japan, and of the poet meditating on the drawing in of his own life as old age beckons: the kind of pessimistic thinking which I enjoy, especially now that I am a pensioner, and which makes my wife roll her eyes and sigh loudly. I felt that Hokusai was surely taking his cue from a Japanese or possibly Chinese poem on the subject, and I resolved to track the poem down.
Well, five weeks have passed, and I can’t say that I have yet found the poem in question. Everyone agrees that flying geese were often used as symbols of the passage of the seasons and of time in Japanese and Chinese poetry, but one particular poem where the writer uses this imagery to meditate on his approaching old age I have not found. Fearing that the task I have set myself will meander on inconclusively before petering out ignominiously, I have resolved to stop here, draw a line under my research, and report back on the results of my increasingly dispirited internet surfing.
The best fit I have found is a poem from the Songs of Chu, an anthology of Chinese poems which tradition says were written in the late 200s BCE, during the Warring States period. This particular poem is attributed to the poet Song Yu. I read into this poem a story, so typical of Imperial China, of the bureaucrat who has somehow fallen foul of his master, has lost his position, and is now wandering the land, an exile, wondering if he will ever get his old life back.
Alas for the breath of autumn!
Wan and drear: flower and leaf fluttering fall and turn to decay;
Sad, forlorn: as when on journey far one climbs a hill and looks down on water to speed a returning friend;
Empty and vast: the skies are high and the air is cold;
Still and deep: the streams have drunk full and the waters are clear.
Heartsick and sighing sore: for the cold draws on and strikes into a man;
Distraught and disappointed: leaving the old and to new places turning;
Afflicted; the Emperor’s servant has lost his office and his heart rebels;
Desolate: on his long journey he rests with never a friend;
Melancholy: he nurses a private sorrow.
The fluttering swallows leave on their homeward journey;
The forlorn cicada makes no sound;
The wild geese call as they travel southwards;
The partridge chatters with a mournful cry.
Alone he waits for the dawn to come, unsleeping;
Mourning with the cricket, the midnight traveler.
His time draws on apace: already half is gone
Yet still he languishes, nothing accomplished.
As for the Japanese side, the best I’ve managed to find is a number of haiku. Here is one from the Manyōshū, a collection of Japanese poems compiled sometime after 759 AD.
The inlet of Okura is echoing;
To the fields of Fushimi
The wild geese are passing.
This one instead is by Matsuo Bashō, master haiku composer whom I mentioned in my previous post and who lived in the second half of the 1600s.
The sea darkening –
The voices of the wild geese
Crying, whirling, white.
And finally, there is this haiku, written in 1953 by Takaha Shugyo
Wild geese pass
The whole of heaven
A certain continuity is revealed, I think, over this nearly 1,000 year period.
Well, since it was a visit to a museum dedicated to Hiroshige that led me to the painting by Hokusai, I feel it is only fair that I should finish with a woodblock print by Hiroshige, Full Moon at Takanawa, where geese are the star players. _____________