“Spring his here” crooned Frank Sinatra. And indeed – at least in the little corner of the Northern Hemisphere on which my wife and I are currently perched – Spring is here! Frank then goes on to lament the lack of love in his life, but that is not our problem. My wife and I can just focus on the flowers exploding into life all around us, humming soulfully a tune or two as we do so.
As usual in Liguria, mimosa was the first to burst onto the scene, with joyous sprays of canary yellow.
Those are fading now, their place being taken by crocuses (high up in the hills)
various fruit trees
and of course daffodils! Gardens and public parks have a sprinkling, but my eye was really caught by this bevy of them planted in a corner of an olive-tree terrace.
It’s been decades now since I’ve lived in the UK, but first impressions on the young mind are indelible (as opposed to impressions on the old mind which I find to be distressingly delible). My spending the Springs of my youth in rural Somerset, in that prep school which I mentioned in a recent post, has meant that in my mind’s eye Spring will always be that triumvirate of flowers: the snowdrop, the crocus, and the daffodil, which someone at the school had planted in various corners of the school grounds. Later, when I moved on to my public school (in Brito-speak, a private boarding school for boys (in my time) aged between 13 and 18), my soul was stirred during my first Spring there by bunches of daffodils which sprang out of the lawn in front of my House.
That same Spring, just off the path which led down from the House to the main school buildings, I discovered a group of narcissi, those cousins of the daffodil, scattered down a slope.
I was enchanted.
Alas, I quickly learned that showing a delight in flowers would definitely put me in the uncool category at school. I risked being compared to Fotherington-Thomas in the book “Down with Skool”. Molesworth, the purported author of the book, has this to say about Fotherington-Thomas: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic). This gallery of drawings in the book of Fotherington-Thomas, by the great Ronald Searle, says it all. At the age of 13-14, that was definitely not where I wanted to be! And so I buried my uncool delight in daffodils and other flowers of Spring under deep layers of teenager cynicism and world-weariness. A few years later, when I got to know it, I could only secretly thrill to Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
But now that I am old and venerable, and my foibles and oddities are tolerated (“don’t worry about him, he’s just an old fart”), I can openly advertise my delight in the flowers of Spring. I can, like the Great Poet, lie on my couch and let my heart with pleasure fill and dance with the daffodils and all the flowers that Spring brings us.
Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).
Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.
A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.
For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.
Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry. Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.
While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.
Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).
Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.
I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.
But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).
On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.
What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?
It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.
But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.
St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).
It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.
Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.
But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.
Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.
As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.
And roasting fiercely!
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.
Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Except that, contrary to William Wordsworth, I wasn’t lonely as a cloud, I was with my wife, and it wasn’t daffodils that I saw crowded on the hillside but primroses. My wife and I were finishing the last stage of the Traveler’s Trail along Lake Como when we turned a corner and found before us this star-burst of yellow.
True to their name — prim-rose; first “rose”, or flower — the primroses have been one of the first flowers to burst out of their winter hibernation into this Year of Our Lord 2020. They have been a constant companion along the paths we have travelled these last days of February, coming up through the forest floor litter of last year.
But it is not only them which have been keeping us company. For every primrose we have seen, it seems there has been a small purple flower close by. A few minutes after seeing that crowd of primroses, we saw a heavy sprinkling of these purple flowers along the side of the path.
Some investigation on my part has revealed that they are liverworts. They are so small that I had to crouch down low to get this picture, with my old bones protesting all the while.
We have seen them showing off hues ranging from this violet to washed-out jeans-blue.
Nature, slowly coming alive again, has continued to give. Today, as we travelled a trail from Como which wends its way through the woods north of the town, we came across a few bunches of this flower.
My internet searches failed to come up with a name for this lovely green flower with yellow pistils. Luckily, however, my initial plea for help led one helpful reader to point out that I had another hellebore on my hands, the helleborus viridis, or green hellebore (I happen to have written about the black hellebore in my previous post). This flower hangs its head modestly on its stalk, so to get this picture I had to lie down on the path – I must confess to having had difficulties getting back up; luckily, my wife was at hand …
A little further, we came across another tiny purple flower. For a moment, I thought it was a liverwort, but on closer inspection I concluded that it was a violet.
And a little further on, we came across a white version of this same flower.
And now, riding back on the train to Milan, writing this up, I think I can say about all these flowers, paraphrasing Wordsworth (and severely harming his rhythm in the process), that
“… when on my couch I will lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They will flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure will fill,
And dance with the primroses, liverworts, violets, and green hellebores” .
Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”
Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.
I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.
Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.
Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.
In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.
And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”
The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:
Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …
But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:
I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.
The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.
The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:
Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …
It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.
As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).
Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.
I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.
And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.
In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.
And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.
What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).
Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait. Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).
In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).
For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.
Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting. He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead. He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.
It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.
The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts. Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.
In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?
If your mother tongue happens to be a European language, one of the things which always happens when you learn another European language is that you begin to see words very similar to those in your mother tongue used to describe the same object: “well how about that, the German word for cow is kuh” or “whaddaya know, the French word for quay is quai”. In some cases, like for the word quay, the similarity is caused by straight borrowing: “the French call this new thing they build these days a quai, so let’s call it the same”. But in other cases, experts believe the similarities point to deeper connections between European languages, as in the case of cow and kuh. And these connections span languages from Ireland in the west to northern India in the east, the family of so-called Indo-European languages.
I won’t go into the details of how experts believe the Indo-European languages developed and spread, fascinating as they are. Suffice to say that in Europe we now have three major families of languages – the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages – one minor family of languages – the Celtic languages – and a number of loners – Albanian and Armenian (there are also a few non-Indo-European languages, like Hungarian and Finnish). A lot of basic words – words that our ancestors would have used thousands of years ago – have remained quite constant across different European languages. Look at “cat” in this table, for instance. Pretty much every European language has got the same word. The two languages out of step here are Serbo-Croat and Romanian, which seem to have gone off together in another direction.
And how about that other friend of us human beings, the dog? (or hound, using the somewhat old-fashioned English name for it – Elvis Presley reminds us of their connection in his inimitable song “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound-dog”) We see in this case how the words fall very clearly into their Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic clusters. I think, though, that linguists would tell us that there is actually an underlying connection between the Germanic cluster and the Romance and Celtic clusters, in that the “k” sound being used in the Romance and Celtic languages can slide into the “h” sound used in the Germanic languages. They might even tell us that by some strange alchemy of linguistics the Slavic root word was also connected long ago with their Germanic, Romance and Celtic colleagues.
The same clustering holds for the word “cow” I mentioned at the beginning. In this case, the Celtic languages seem the odd ones out, although I suspect their root is another term for cow, the one we have in the English word “bovine”. The Romance languages, which superficially also look different, probably connect with the others – I would say that somewhere along the line, someone added a “va” to the “ca” sound.
I could go on at great length, giving other examples, but I don’t want to bore my readers and, anyway, these examples are enough to discuss the real subject of this post: butterflies.
All my meditating on the similarities which one finds across European languages was set off when my wife and I walked by the Butterfly House in Vienna a week or so ago – beautiful place, by the way; an old greenhouse from Vienna’s Art Nouveau days whose space has been transformed into a home for butterflies. On the door, in large lettering, was written Schmetterling Haus, Butterfly House in German. Readers will immediately see the house-haus connection. But butterfly-schmetterling? And then I thought of the equivalent words in French and Italian: papillon and farfalla. No noticeable connection between any of the four. This table shows the larger picture, with other languages thrown in. Hardly any connections anywhere!
How was that possible, I wondered? It’s not as if we humans have just recently discovered butterflies. They fluttered around our ancestors living on the Pontic-Caspian steppes, where the experts believe the original Indo-European language was created some 5,000 years ago. Here is one such butterfly whose range covers that part of the world, the Parnassius apollo. Surely they gave these creatures a name?
Butterflies such as this Orange Oak Leaf were also there to welcome the arrival of Indo-Europeans in India as was this Peacock when they arrived in in Ireland and indeed in every place in between. Surely, when our Indo-European ancestors saw new butterflies, they didn’t say “Oh look, it’s those thingies again!”
Pondering about this, I have arrived at a theory. It is based on the assumption that in those far-off days (actually not so far-off for many of our ancestors) we humans were supremely utilitarian, viewing the world around us primarily in terms of what material value it brought to us. Under these conditions, my theory says that words stayed the same – they were conserved – if they were for things which we humans felt were really important, which added value to our lives. And the animals I’ve given above as examples did indeed add great value to our lives: cats, to fight off rodents which otherwise invaded our food stores; dogs, as useful adjuncts to the hunt and to corralling those pesky cows, and for our defence; cows, as givers of milk, as givers of meat, as signals of wealth.
In this optic, butterflies brought us nothing, so our ancestors did not feel it was important to conserve their name. And so their name just drifted. At some point, though (my increasingly fanciful theorizing continues), butterflies began to be appreciated aesthetically, for their beauty alone. So butterflies began to be given fancy names:
– butterfly: “from butter + fly; perhaps from the cream or yellow colour of common species, or from an old belief that the insects stole butter”
– schmetterling: “from schmetten (cream) due to an old belief that witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream and other milk products”
– mariposa: “the union of Maria and posate, perhaps from a children’s song”
– babochka: “seems to be a diminutive of baba ‘(old) woman,’ a doublet of babushka ‘grandmother’—a fact that seems to strengthen the alleged connection between witches and butterflies”
– glöyn byw: “literally ‘living coal’”
And on and on … I think readers get the picture.
At some point, the artists weighed in, especially the still life painters who liked to decorate their fruit and vegetable compositions with beautiful butterflies.
Van Gogh later put butterflies in their more natural habitat, as in this Long Grass with Butterflies: The poets also weighed in. For instance, we have William Wordsworth’s poem To a Butterfly:
I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless!–not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!
This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers;
Here rest your wings when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We’ll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.
Or Emily Dickinson’s From Cocoon forth a Butterfly, one of many poems she wrote about butterflies:
From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged — a Summer Afternoon —
Repairing Everywhere —
Without Design — that I could trace
Except to stray abroad
On Miscellaneous Enterprise
The Clovers — understood —
Her pretty Parasol be seen
Contracting in a Field
Where Men made Hay —
Then struggling hard
With an opposing Cloud —
Where Parties — Phantom as Herself —
To Nowhere — seemed to go
In purposeless Circumference —
As ’twere a Tropic Show —
And notwithstanding Bee — that worked —
And Flower — that zealous blew —
This Audience of Idleness
Disdained them, from the Sky —
Till Sundown crept — a steady Tide —
And Men that made the Hay —
And Afternoon — and Butterfly —
Extinguished — in the Sea —
Or Robert Frost’s Blue-Butterfly Day:
It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.
But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.
Yes, all very beautiful …
But of course our ancestors didn’t know everything. Beautiful they may be, but butterflies add value to our planet. A number of plants need butterflies for their pollination (a process we humans didn’t understand until the early 19th Century). They are prey to some insects and in turn are predators for other insects, helping to keep everything in its natural balance. So its name should never have drifted, we Europeans should always have had one common name.
I guess this is yet another example of how our half-knowledge of the world around us is leading us to destroy it. I write this as butterfly numbers continue to drop precipitously, with pesticide use, changes in land use, climate change, and who knows what else decimating them. Just as an example, take the monarch, a lovely butterfly native to North America. Its populations have plummeted by 90+% over just the last few years. It is facing extinction.
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. _____________
I have a weakness for Japanese woodblock prints, that art form which we in the West tend to associate with Katsushika Hokusai. I mean, who hasn’t seen somewhere, in some form, his Great Wave off Kanagawa?
or his Fine Wind, Clear Morning? Or even his Kajikazawa in Kai Province
So when my wife and I were preparing for the week-long walk we undertook along the Nakasendo Way in Japan a few weeks ago it was with pleasure that I read that another artist well known for his woodblock prints, Utagawa Hiroshige, had, together with yet another artist, Keisai Eisen, made a series of prints specifically about this highway, The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido.
I should perhaps step back and explain to readers what the Nakasendo Way is. In Japan, as everywhere else where there has been a history of centralized government, rulers were anxious to build and maintain highways between important points in the country to ensure better control. The Japanese shogunate maintained a network of five such highways, all radiating out of the capital Edo (now Tokyo), with a series of officially-approved post towns along each route where the weary traveler could rest for the night, and change horses and obtain porters for the next stage of the journey.
Two of these highways led to Kyoto. One we could call the low road, because it ran along the coast (E in the map), and the other we could call the high road since it threaded its way through the Japanese Alps, a block of mountains standing between Edo/Tokyo and Kyoto (C and D in the map). The latter is the Nakasendo Way.
This print by Hiroshige, which shows a view across rice paddies of the post town of Nakatsugawa, gives a sense of what the road must have looked like in the shogunate period.
The prints were prepared in the late 1830s, early 1840s, in the dying days of the shogunate. Some ten years later, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay with his black ships and forced the country to open up.
This was the start of the cataclysmic changes which led to modern Japan. Much of the Nakasendo Way was wiped out in the country’s ensuing rush to modernity. This map, which overlays the trace of the Nakasendo Way on a modern map of Japan, shows the problem.
Many of the modern roads followed the course of the old road and thereby obliterated long stretches of it when they were built, while Japan’s skyrocketing population meant that every post town expanded way beyond its original limits, further obliterating the old road, and the calls for modern housing meant many of the old inns, shops, and houses in the post towns were razed to the ground to make way for brick and concrete.
If I write all this, it is because I had hoped to be able to match up at least some of views along our walk with Hiroshige’s and Eisen’s prints. We read that the portion of the Nakasendo Way which we were going to walk along, from Oi to Karuizawa, was the most unspoiled. So when, on the first day of our walk, my wife and I visited a museum dedicated to Hiroshige, I took photos of all the prints covering our section of the walk, in the pleasurable anticipation that at least at a few points along the way I would be able to stop and say “Ooh look, see how it’s changed since Hiroshige’s/Eisen’s time!”
Alas, it was not to be. We didn’t see a single view which I could relate in any way to any of the two men’s prints. Partly it was because so much has changed in the built environment along the route. Partly it was because the organizers of the walk actually made us do large chunks off the Nakasendo Way proper so that we wouldn’t be walking along modern roads and highways. But partly it was because, as I came to realize, the two artists were not interested in giving the viewer faithful renderings of places along the road; rather, they wanted to record the sensations of being a traveler on the road.
With that in mind, let me give the readers a sense of what my wife and I saw as we hiked along highway and byway from Oi to Karuizawa. We started in Oi on a beautiful day, not at all like the day Hiroshige chose for his print of Oi, where we see luckless travelers tramping along through deep snow.
Our guidance notes informed us that nowadays the trace of the Nakasendo Way is marked by the road sporting a special top of asphalt mixed with little yellow stones.
Following this trace (which in truth we really only had for the first day or two) made me feel a bit like Dorothy and her friends on the Yellow Brick Road.
Following our speckled roadway, we passed through the old post towns of Nakatsugawa and Ochiai. These were once two distinct post towns but now have expanded outwards and bled into each other, so it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. I have already inserted Hiroshige’s print of Nakasendo. Here is his print for Ochiai.
The two can be compared to this photo of the modern town of Nakatsugawa. It’s a little hard not to feel a sense of loss.
At the exit of Ochiai, we crossed a bridge from which we had this perspective of a waterfall.
Charming – but not as dramatic as this print by Eisen of the river at Nojiri Something has been lost in the taming of nature.
Thereafter, we climbed steadily up towards Magome Pass, along an old piece of flagged roadway through a pine forest
before stopping for the night at an inn.
As in all the inns we stayed at, we were invited to wash off the aches and pains of the journey in the common hot tub and change into yukatas for dinner – something travelers had been doing along the Nakasendo Way for centuries, as this print by Hiroshige attests (note the man at the back soaking in the tub).
From the window of our room – strictly tatami, and no en-suite bathroom – we had a view of the inn’s garden.
I was reminded of a haiku by the master poet Matsuo Bashō
furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water
Bashō traveled the old highways of Japan in the late 1600s and composed haiku along the way. Two seem particularly apposite for this autumn walk of ours:
No one travels along
this way but I
this autumn evening
Autumn evening: on a withered bough
A solitary crow is sitting now.
The next morning, the weather had turned bad and we left the inn under the rain.
With all our modern gear, we had it much better than some of the poor travelers depicted by Hiroshige tramping along under the rain
or running for shelter in a downpour.
We passed a Shinto shrine buried deep in the trees, whose entrance was guarded by a torii gate.
The same timeIess torii gate worked its way into one of Hiroshige’s prints.
The happy peasants are not so timeless, it seems. We saw no-one, throughout our entire walk, working in the fields.
We arrived in the old post town of Magome which, our guidance notes observed, is one of the better preserved post towns. And we arrived early enough to avoid the hordes of tourists which normally flood the place.
Magome is the birthplace of the novelist Shimazaki Toson. One of his most famous novels, Before the Dawn, is set in Magome at the time of the wrenching change from the Tokugawa shogunate to Meiji Restoration. As one review puts it, “Shimazaki shows that the Tokugawa shogunate, for all its repressiveness, had much to commend it; that the restoration, for all its successes, created a great deal of frustration and disillusion.” I must confess to having never read the book, but now that I’ve walked the Walk and seen all the changes that Japan’s opening up has wrought I think it’s time for me to do so.
We now began the walk up to Magome Pass. The higher altitudes were finally bringing the autumns colours to us.
The Magome Pass is nothing today but a tricky point where the walker has to be careful in crossing the road so as not to end up as roadkill. But Eisen and Hiroshige each presented the pass as backbreaking work for those carrying heavy loads along the route.
As we walked down the other side, carrying just a small rucksack
I could not but reflect that our lives had been made much easier by the modern road: while we walked, the bulk of our luggage was being transferred from inn to inn by car.
We soon came across an old tea house, which has been serving weary travelers tea on their way up to, or down from, the Pass since time immemorial.
Hiroshige preserved one such stopping-off place in one of his prints.
Local volunteers keep the tea house going, offering tea (and, our guidance notes informed us, sometimes songs) to the walker who is willing to tarry a while, which we willingly did.
After a cup of tea, we were on our way again, reaching our inn on the outskirts of the old post town of Tsumago. As we saw later that afternoon, Tsumago was another post town which has elected to preserve itself for the tourist trade.
The only thing that struck me about the place was the strange habit which the locals had of hanging persimmons, ripe now all over Japan, outside their houses to dry. If nothing else, it made for a pretty photo.
After Tsumago, our walking deviated from the Nakasendo Way. The next day, on our walk from Tsumago to Kiso-Fukushima, we took an alternative route through the mountains, which in the old days was used when rock slides and other hazards blocked the normal route. Gone was the speckled roadway. It was rougher, wilder, and altogether more beautiful.
This brought us to Nojiri, from where, with a bow to modernity, we took a train to Kiso-Fukushima. Our entry to the town was this.
This is how the town’s entry looked like in Hiroshige’s time.
After an evening session in the inn’s Onsen (that Japanese institution of public bathing in mineral waters channeled from hot springs) and a good sleep, we started our next day with a visit to Kiso-Fukushima’s Zen rock garden, reputed to be the biggest in Japan. As an aficionado of rock gardens, I couldn’t miss it.
Well, as they say “bigger is not necessarily better”. I’m not sure I approve of that use of white lines in the design.
Here again, we strayed off the Nakasendo Way, taking the old Hida Way, a salt and medicinal herb trade route. We started at the Karasawa no taki falls.
We climbed up through some beautiful forest
to the Jizo Pass. It was marked by a little statue which someone had thoughtfully covered with a hat and a bib to keep it warm during the winter.
Just before heading down the other side, I gave a thought to those other travelers which Eisen had depicted also taking a break at the top of a pass.
After a lunch in beautiful sunshine gazing out at Mount Ontake in the distance (a volcano, I have since learned, which blew its top not too long ago)
we headed out for our afternoon walk over Nishino-toge pass, about which I have no memory and no photos – I must have been tired.
And so to our final day of walking, which saw us coming back to Kiso-Fukushima by bus, take a train to Yabuhara, and from there walk to the old post town of Narai. The walk took us to the top of Torii-toge Pass
and from there down to Narai. Narai is one long street of well preserved houses.
I could see no relation whatever with Eisen’s print of Narai
although what I saw rather reminded me of his print of another post town, Sakamoto.
A final reminder, if ever I needed one, that my initial dream of matching woodblock prints by either men to what I was seeing on the ground was an exercise doomed to failure.
After a late lunch, we hurried to the station to catch a series of trains to our final destination, the old post town of Karuizawa. As in Hiroshige’s print of Karuizawa
we arrived in darkness, although we enjoyed a slap-up meal at our inn rather than smoking what looks to me suspiciously like opium pipes. Perhaps the poor buggers didn’t have the cash for a good nosh.
The next day, we took that super-modern form of transportation, the bullet train, and headed to Osaka to catch our plane back home. My wife and I have already agreed that next year, if we go back to Japan, we will do another walk. The question is where.
Photos: all ours, except:
Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa
Hokusai, Fine Wind Clear Morning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine_Wind,_Clear_Morning
Hokusai, Kajikazawa in Kai Province: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39656
Edo five routes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edo_Five_Routes
Perry’s ship enters Tokyo Bay: https://medium.com/tomorrow-in-progress/when-black-ships-bring-the-future-9c7456050fcc
Nakasendo route on modern map: https://sites.google.com/site/kisokaido/presentation-nakasendo-kisokaido
Yellow Brick Road: http://fortune.com/2018/11/08/wizard-of-oz-script-auction/
Modern Nakatsugawa: https://photorator.com/photo/57577/spring-day-nakatsugawa-japan-
Kiso-Fuskushima station: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiso-Fukushima_Station
Karasawa no Taki falls: https://www.getaway.co.za/travel-ideas/walking-through-japan/
Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.
23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.
For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,
Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.
But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.
But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.
Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)
In the street
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Tram lines under trolley wheels
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris
A car raced along
Pulled by a pack animal
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
You deserve to be run over …”
I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.
Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.
But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.
The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.
Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.
Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.
Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.
Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.
This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.
Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”
The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.
It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,
The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.
Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.
Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.
But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”
I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.
I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.
This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.
This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.
As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.
Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!
Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.
The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost
Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.
In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.
Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.
It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.
She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.
We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.
The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.
My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.
I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.
I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace
But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.
Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.
In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.
I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.
The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.
I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.
Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.
Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).
I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.
Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.
Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.
Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.
Put 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.
It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.
To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)
Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.
Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.
Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).
Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.
Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.
Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.
Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.
As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.
The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.
On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire, known to us as the Southern Song, around the city of Hangzhou. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.
Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.
In one of my wanderings through the Vienna woods with my wife, I noticed a tree like this one growing along the side of the path.
The bark, with those typical striations, almost scarifications, suggested strongly to me that it was a cherry tree.
The leaves looked cherry-like too. There was a cherry-like fruits hanging on the branches, but they were really small.
Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?
Cautiously, oh so cautiously, I tried one of the fruits. There was hardly any pulp, although what there was tasted cherry-like. And the small seed looked cherry-like too. I pronounced to my wife, who was standing anxiously by, waiting for me to keel over from eating some deadly poison, that in my opinion we were standing before a wild cherry tree.
Now that I had noticed the tree, I began to see them everywhere along our walks – a nice change from the drifts of wild garlic. Later on, one of the entries along a little “Nature Walk” at Hermesvilla (a large country house built by Emperor Franz-Josef for his beloved Sissi on the outskirts of Vienna) informed me that these were indeed wild cherry trees. In German, they have a charming name, Vogel Kirsche, a name that Linnaeus echoed in the Latin name he gave it, Prunus avium. I say charming, because I can indeed imagine birds feasting on these small fruit. What a lovely banquet Nature has given them! Here, a clever photographer has caught one in the act.
I have since read that small mammals also eat them, spreading – like the birds – the seeds far and wide, this no doubt explaining why I was discovering the trees far and wide in the woods around Vienna.
When I was a much smaller mammal than I am now, I distinctly remember climbing into the cherry tree which my French grandmother had in a corner of her garden – a big, stately old tree which had been there many a-year – and scarfing down its plump purple cherries, spitting out the cherry seeds far and wide. Ah, how sweet those cherries were! Even now, fifty and more years later, I can remember their taste. So I salute the Lords of the Universe, who in their infinite wisdom created the Vogel Kirsche for the delectation of the Vogels and small mammals!
Well, after that flight of poetic fancy, let me return to earth and to a more sober turn of phrase. For those among my readers who are as interested as I am in etymology, it may interest them to know that the English word “cherry” derives from the Old Northern French or Norman word for the tree and fruit “cherise”, which itself is derived from the Latin word “cerasum”, which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Greek word “kerasous”. The etymology tracks the journey of the domesticated cherry tree into Europe.
Kerasous was actually the name of one of the Pontic Greek provinces lying on the southern shores of the Black Sea, east of Trebizond. It was here that the Greek world got to know the domesticated cherry tree that we are familiar with, with its much larger cherries than the tiny fruit of the wild cherry tree which I had nibbled at cautiously. Somewhere in the Anatolian highlands behind Kerasous, farmers had domesticated the wild cherry tree, patiently coaxing it over generations to deliver up bigger fruits more on the scale of us big mammals, and sweeter and juicier into the bargain.
I would assume that Ancient Greeks brought back some trees and planted them in the Greek heartlands. From there, I would have thought it no great flight of the imagination to think that the cherry tree spread to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies that ran along the insole and heel of the Italian boot and the southern coasts of Sicily, and from there a skip, hop, and a jump would have brought the tree to the expanding Roman world.
Not so, according to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us as Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History
written in the late 70s AD, he holds that the cherry tree entered the Roman world in a much more Roman way, as spoils of war. In his words (translated, I hasten to add, by someone much more learned in Latin than I), “before the victory of L. Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, that is down to 74 BC, there were no cherry trees in Italy. Lucullus first imported them from Pontus”. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (to give the man his full name) was a Roman consul in the sunset years of the Roman Republic.
He was, it seems, a brilliant general. Among his other accomplishments, he comprehensively thrashed Mithridates, king of Pontus. In the process, he gained for himself untold riches in loot, which, along with the domesticated cherry tree, he brought back to Rome. He used his riches to live a life of luxury, something which was still frowned upon in Republican Rome but was to become the norm in Imperial Rome. Apart conspicuous consumerism (which included that typical expense of the Roman rich and powerful, the organization of extravagant games), Lucullus created a number of gardens, a fragment of one of which still exists in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.
This was another “spoil” of war – Lucullus had picked up the Persian love of gardens during his Eastern campaigns; I have had cause to mention Persian gardens in an earlier post, in quite another context. No doubt it was in his gardens that he planted his imported cherry trees and invited the Roman rich and powerful to partake of its fruit. As might be expected, the fruit became incredibly popular and plantings of the cherry tree grew apace. As the Roman legions moved north carrying the Pax Romana and civitas with them, the administrators who followed carried along cherry trees to plant in the conquered lands. Citing Pliny again, “in 120 years they have crossed the ocean and got as far as Britain”.
Of course, strictly speaking Pliny was wrong when he said that there were no cherry trees in Italy before Lucullus brought them. There were, but of the type which I had come across in the Vienna woods. The natural habitat of Prunus avium stretches from Ireland to the Iranian Plateau.
Our ancestors were eating their little fruits at least two thousands years before Pliny wrote his Natural History – we know this because various Bronze Age sites across Europe have yielded up the tiny little stones – and no doubt Italian peasants were still eating them. But aristocrats like Pliny would surely not have deigned to touch such poor food – much as I do not touch the elderberries which currently weigh purple and heavy on their bushes here in Vienna but whose weak and watery taste I came to despise when I picked them as a schoolboy in the English hedgerows.
Coming back to Lucullus, he was also known for his eating habits. His over-the-top banquets in particular were to become legendary, giving rise to the English word “lucullan”, as in “that dinner was lucullan” meaning that it was particularly large, lavish, and ostentatious (I add this etymological factoid because my wife is fond of using the equivalent Italian word “luculliano” of certain meals; it might interest her to know its provenance). If I mention this aspect of Lucullus’s lifestyle it is because of a recent lunch – not lucullan but definitely many notches above the ordinary – which I shared with an old colleague. After a starter of marinaded char with beer radish, apple and woodruff, followed by a main dish of grilled sturgeon with baby kohlrabi, Risina beans, Meyer lemon and stewed onions, all washed down with a glass of white wine, we both took for dessert a curd-sour cherry tart with hay milk ice cream. It was actually that delicious sour cherry tart that precipitated this post, not my meeting in the woods with the wild cherry.
I must admit to having been a bit sneaky with my readers, having written up to now as if there were only one type of edible cherry. In fact, as all cherry lovers will know, there are two: the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus.
For the biologically-minded among my readers, it might interest them to know that P. cerasus is actually a hybrid between our friend P. avium and another species of cherry tree, P. fruticosa, or dwarf cherry. This friendly intermingling of genes must have occurred on the Iranian Plateau or in Eastern Europe where the two species’s natural habitats overlap. As its common name suggests, P. fruticosa is believed to have provided the sour cherry tree its smaller size, but it is also thought to be responsible for its tarter tasting fruit. It seems that the hybrids took on a life of their own (“stabilised”, I believe is the scientific word for this) and interbred to form a new, distinct species. The wonders of biology …
I can personally vouch to the smaller stature of the sour cherry tree and to the greater tartness of its fruit. As a young boy, staying at my French grandmother’s house over a summer holiday, it came to pass that my grandmother decided to visit a first cousin of hers who was staying in her country house some kilometers away. She took me and my sister along with her. It was a delightfully faded house with furnishings that were rather threadbare and old fashioned: my mother rather reluctantly inherited it many years later, commenting that it would be more work than it was worth. Having politely pecked the old lady on the cheek and suffered through comments about how much we had grown since last we had met, we were allowed to run off into the garden, leaving the two old biddies to settle down to a nice cup of tea and a gossip. In that garden, tucked away in a corner, we discovered this small tree covered with bright red cherries, all very easy to reach – no clambering up ladders into this tree. Alas! A couple of cherries were enough to dissuade me from going further. They were too sour for my little mouth. I was disconsolate, although when my grandmother took a large bag of the cherries back home with her, I realized that I had stumbled across the source of those fabulous cherries that filled glass jars such as this one which stood in serried ranks on a shelf in the cellar.
My grandmother made assiduous use of those cherries, baking tarts such as the one I had eaten in my non-lucullan but still exceedingly yummy lunch. Memories, memories …
Of course, we love cherries not just for their fruit but also for their flowers in Spring.
Here, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have surpassed us all. They have taken their local species of cherry tree (I should note in passing that there are at least 60 species of cherry worldwide) and over the ages have coaxed them into giving fabulous blooms in Spring.
In turn, cherry blossoms have coaxed wonderful poems out of Asian poets. Here, for instance, is a short poem by the late 9th century Japanese poet Otomo no Juronushi.
Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?
While here we have Li Yu, terrible ruler (he was the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty in the late 10th century) but wonderful poet.
Beneath the moon, before the steps, all cherry blossom has fallen,
Enwreathed in smoke, she looks sorrowful lying in bed.
She feels the same regret today as one long year ago.
Both braids like cloud in disarray, her face is wan and sallow,
The crimson corset wet from wiping tears.
But what’s the reason why she suffers so?
She lies in a drunken dream before the window.
These biological wonders have been carried all over the world to amaze and delight. Many years ago, when we lived in Washington DC, we tried to see the cherry trees in bloom there.
But the crowds were so impossibly large that we beat a hasty retreat. I have a more intimate memory from my university days in Edinburgh. There was a little square, Nicolson Square, just across from the University Drama Society’s theatre space which I used to haunt. I would often pass through the square on my way to and from the other university buildings. It was densely planted along its sides with cherry trees which had an intensely pink flower. In the Spring it was a delight, as you walked first under sprays, then, as the petals fell, through drifts, of pink. This photo, from those years, gives a small idea of the loveliness.
That brief blaze of pink was a harbinger of the (weak) sun and (relative) warmth to come after the long, long, dark, dark, cold, cold months of the Scottish winter. And it always happened just when we had to hole up in the library to study for our end-of-year exams! Such is life …
wild cherry tree: https://www.waldwissen.net/waldwirtschaft/waldbau/pflege/lwf_waldbau_vogelkirsche/index_DE
wild cherry tree bark: https://www1.wdr.de/verbraucher/wohnen/service-garten-borken-100.html
wild cherry fruit: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
bird eating cherries: https://www.fotocommunity.de/photo/kirschen-essen-vogel-chrisi-online/17347944
wild versus domesticated cherry: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
Pliny’s Natural History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny)
Villa Borghese gardens: http://www.garden.it/chicotti/i-giardini-segreti-di-villa-borghese-giardino-dei-fiori
Prunus avium range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
Sour cherry: https://gourmandistan.com/2012/05/20/short-sour-cho-chweet-cherry-season/
Glass jar full of cherries: http://lesgourmandesastucieuses.blogspot.com/2011/07/comment-conserver-vos-cerises-2eme.html
Cherry tree in bloom: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/fotos/wild-cherry-tree
Cherry trees blooming in Japan: https://www.redduckpost.com/cherry-blossoms-in-japan-can-you-rely-on-the-forecast/
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC: https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/national-cherry-blossom-festival
Nicolson square: https://www.facebook.com/lostedinburgh/posts/nicolson-square-spring-1972-lovely/1530993553624989/