KEBABS AND GEOPOLITICS

Milan, 22 December 2019

One of the fonder memories of my Boy Scout days is roasting a whole pig over a wood fire

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and eating the resultant roasted pork, together with piles of crackling and apple sauce.

Not only was the food extremely yummy, but the aroma of the meat while roasting was … well, intoxicating, I think best describes it. I have already written elsewhere about this culinary experience, which I suspect tapped into something really primordial, the hunter-gatherer buried deep in us all.

Perhaps because of this experience, or perhaps simply because of who I am, I have always been extremely fond of roasted meat, both the eating of it as well as the preparing of it. My wife is the same. Unfortunately, having been inner-city dwellers for most of our lives means that we don’t get to roast meat too often. I don’t find that grilling a piece of meat in an apartment oven is a very satisfying roasting experience, and we have never had a backyard where we could roll out the barbecue set and grill the nights away. And, alas, along with old age have come restrictions on eating meats with too much fat attached to them (the cholesterol levels, you know …). This lessens the fun of meat-roasting even further: I think we can all agree that fat – melting and bubbling under the flames – is an integral part of the roasting experience, especially the olfactory part of it.

So it is only from time to time, and always in restaurants, that we indulge in a piece of roast meat. European cuisine of course has many offerings in this department. Apart from the roast pork of my Boy Scout days, which can stand in for any four-footed animals roasted whole, we have roast chicken, which can stand in for all those roasted fowl we see in paintings (or in manuscript miniatures as in this case).

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It doesn’t have to be whole animals which are roasted. We can have cuts of meat which are roasted, such as grilled steaks.

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They can stand in for all the meats grilled in barbecues like this one (although this lot do seem to be having excessive amounts of fun).

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I think we can even throw in grilled fish.

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Yes, all most delicious!

But actually, what I want to write about in this post is roasted meat from another region of the world: the kebab.

What prompted me to write this post in praise of the kebab was a quick visit we made a few weeks ago to Vienna – our daughter flew in for the wedding of one of her best friends, so we thought we would use the occasion to see her. As usual we took our daily strolls around town, and as usual we spent time admiring the döner kebab shops we passed (well, drooling over their offerings might be a better description) – without, I should hasten to add, actually partaking (the cholesterol levels, you know …). Here is a photo of  one of these döner kebab shops.

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For readers who may not be familiar with this type of kebab, its trademark is a long inverted cone of meat on a vertical spit. The cone is made up of thin slices of lamb, beef, or chicken. The spit rotates slowly, with the meat being kept close to a heat source to cook it.

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When you put in your order, the server will slice thin pieces off the meat cone with a very long knife.

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They will serve you your portion inserted into a bread bun or wrapped in pita or some other flatbread.

I have used the long winter nights since our visit to Vienna to read up about the döner kebab and all its cousin kebabs, and I have discovered a world of astonishing variety. I was partly aware of this variety from the visits which my wife and I made in the distant past to Persian and Turkish restaurants in Vienna (we don’t go so often anymore; the cholesterol levels, you understand …). The list of kebabs on offer was always long, a bit like in a Pizza joint, except that we could always understand the pizzas’ names while here we were faced with a gobbledygook of mysterious and unpronounceable names; we would choose our kebabs more or less at random. But now my reading has shown me the true depths of my ignorance.  Kebabs flourish over a huge region, which starts at the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to the farthest reaches of Central Asia, but which also extends down into the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, as well as along the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean. This region maps closely onto the regions of the world which are Muslim, and indeed the kebab is considered archetypal Muslim cuisine. It is now, but actually the kebab predates Islam. It already existed in the Middle East long before Islam came into being, and it spread out of there to all the lands where the newly Islamicized traders and conquering armies brought their religion.

I do not propose to summarize breathlessly what I have discovered. I want instead to focus on the intersection of the kebab with another interest of mine, the global movement of foodstuffs and all the geopolitics which can surround that.

Take the döner kebab – which I should really call döner kebap since that is the Turkish way of spelling the name and this is a Turkish kebab. It appeared quite late on the scene, probably the middle of the 19th century, in the town of Bursa, which is on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, quite close to Istanbul. There was already an established kebab in the Turkish lands that roasted stacks of meat on a horizontal spit (there is still a kebab roasted on a horizontal spit, the cağ kebab). I suppose someone had the insight that if the spit could be made to turn vertically the juices would run down the meats rather than into the fire. The rotating nature of this kebab gave it its name: döner comes from the Turkish word dönmek, which means “to turn” or “to rotate”.

This new style of kebab-making caught on in the Levant, which was of course part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They didn’t call it the döner kebab, though, they called it the shawarma – which is actually the same thing, since shawarma is an Arabic transliteration of the Turkish çevirme, “turning”. Shawarma has become an extremely popular street food throughout the Middle East, as this photo from Egypt attests.

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And of course, as has been the case since the beginning of time, immigrants took their foods with them. We have here, for instance, a shawarma-based restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts.


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The döner kebab also spread to Greece, taken there by Greek refugees from the ancient, ancient Greek populations in Anatolia and immigrants from the rest of the Middle East (victims, no doubt, of the rise of nationalism in countries which were created by the collapse of the previously multi-ethnic, relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire). Initially, it was sold a street food under the name döner kebab and became extremely popular. But politics intervened. The tense relations between Greece and Turkey precluded the Greeks tolerating the use of Turkish words, so in the 1970s, when relations were particularly tense, this street food became the gyros – which is really the same thing, since the name comes from the Greek γύρος, “circle” or “turn”.

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The shift out of Muslim lands to Christian lands meant that the Greeks could also introduce a significant change to the meat used. Originally based on lamb (as are most kebabs), the Greeks started using pork as well as chicken for their gyros.

New Greek immigrants, this time to the US, took the gyros with them, so now Americans had two versions of the döner kebab available to them.

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But the penetration of the American market has not finished! And here I have to go back to the shawarma, which was, as I said, popular in the Levant, including, of course, in Lebanon. The Lebanese have always been great travelers of the globe, and in the late 19th, early 20th centuries there was a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico. They took shawarma with them. Succeeding generations “domesticated” the shawarma, adding spices typical to the Americas to those from the Middle East which their parents had been using. Thus was born the taco al pastor, where strips of pork cooked on a vertical spit are served in a classic maize taco. We have here the server and the product, in Mexico City.

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But Mexico was the host of two waves of immigration from the Middle East! The second was centred on the city of Puebla, where the taco arabe was born in the 1930s. Here, the dish stayed closer to its roots and is served in a pita-style bread.

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And now of course, with the waves of Mexican immigration into the US, these two dishes have also entered into that country.

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So now, Americans have four different types of döner kebab to choose from, each hiding under a different name! (plus probably the original döner kebab, which no doubt some enterprising Turks have brought to the US)

The flow has not been all out of the Middle East. The taco al pastor has been the subject of a reverse migration. In the early 2000s, it went back to its homeland, the Levant, where it is sold as shawarma mexici! It uses the same set of spices as in Mexico, but of course dietary prohibitions have meant that the pork is substituted with chicken, and it is served in Middle Eastern flatbread rather than the maize taco of the Americas.

Meanwhile, the döner kebab itself has been the subject of migration. When the Germans called on Turks to come and work in Germany under their Gastarbeiter, or Guest Worker, programme, they came with their food. Over time, döner kebab has become a hugely popular street food, so popular that an Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe has been set up to look after the interests of those involved in the döner kebab trade. Just to give readers an idea of the size of the market, the Association has estimated that in 2010, more than 400 tonnes of döner kebab meat was produced in Germany every day by around 350 firms, and in 2011 there were over 16,000 establishments selling döner kebabs in Germany. Why, the döner kebab is so popular in Germany that Angela Merkel has graciously allowed herself to be photographed slicing meat off a döner kebab cone (but do I detect a slight anxiety in the set of her mouth?).

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According to the same Association, the story of the döner kebab’s rise and rise in Germany started at West Berlin’s Zoological Garden station, where an enterprising Turkish guest worker by the name of Kadir Nurman set up shop in 1972. He had emigrated to Germany in 1960, and had moved to West Berlin from Stuttgart in 1966. His döner kebabs were a hit with Berliners, fellow Turks took note, piled into the business, carried the döner kebab all over Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. Part of the Turkish community in Germany migrated to Vienna (a peaceful invasion unlike the earlier Turkish attacks on the city centuries earlier). They of course carried the döner kebab business with them. Which is why my wife and I find ourselves drooling over the döner kebab offerings when we are in Vienna. And the Berlin connection explains why the Viennese döner kebab stand in the earlier photo is proudly called Berliner Döner.

Of course, when you say “kebab”, most people think of pieces of meat roasted on a skewer. And many would reply “ah yes, shish kebab”. But shish kebab, or şiş kebap to give it its Turkish spelling, is simply a generic term meaning skewered roast meat – şiş means skewer or sword in Turkish. There are probably hundreds of different types of skewered roast meat dishes eaten by the local populations between Istanbul in Turkey to the west and Dhaka in Bangladesh to the east. They vary by type of meat of course (lamb is the most popular, but just about any other meat – except pork – will be used somewhere; fish is also used, as are offal like liver). They vary in the vegetables and other servings that come with them. And – probably the most important – they vary in the marinades used on the meat. Every region, every province, every village almost, seems to have its own type of shish kebab. In despair at all this variety, I throw in one photo to stand in for all these types of kebabs, that of a Çöp Şiş, which as the name suggests is a Turkish variety of the shish kebab.

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As if that were not enough, there are hundreds of  skewered kebabs where it’s not cubes of meat which are used but minced meat. This adds another dimension to the possible variations, that of the ingredients kneaded into the minced meat. Here, too, in desperation I choose just one kebab to stand in for this group, kabab koobideh from Iran.

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And then there are all the kebabs where the meat, or minced meat, is roasted but not on skewers. And there are kebabs which are more like meat stews. But I will draw a line here, otherwise this post would go on far too long. And anyway, as I said earlier, I want to focus on the global movement of kebabs, and there is more than enough to write about on this topic when considering just skewered kebabs.

Consider souvlaki, which I have read is considered the national dish of Greece.

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As the photo shows, it looks uncomfortably like that Turkish kebab whose photo I put in above. Is it another import from the hated Turk, like the döner kebab-turned-into-gyros? This is the subject of much heated discussion between Greeks and Turks, with the Greeks arguing that their ancestors were roasting skewered meat long before they were conquered by the Turks. They point to the fact that Homer mentions pieces of meat being roasted on spits in the Iliad. If that is not enough, they also point out that there are mentions of this in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others. And if that is not enough, they draw your attention to an archaeological find in some Minoan ruins in the island of Santorini, dated to the 17th Century BC, which they claim was used to roast skewers of meat. I show a photo of the find, to let readers judge for themselves.

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(I’m afraid that the cynic in me feels that putting skewers on the notches rather pushes observers to see what promoters of this view would like you to see)

On the other hand, if the Greeks have been roasting skewered meat since the 17th Century BC, why doesn’t there seem to be any rather more modern evidence that this has been a continuing tradition? The modern souvlaki only turned up after World War II, more or less at the time as the döner kebab.

But I will leave the Greeks and Turks to their quarrels and go further west, to Spain. There, there is a dish of skewered meat called the pincho moruno, the Moorish skewer.

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Although it is now found throughout the country, its focus is in the south of the country. As the name suggests, this is a dish that was brought to Spain by the Arabs, either when they conquered the peninsula or later through trading relations; there is a very similar dish on the other side of the Mediterranean. Of course, the meat used is different: lamb in the Muslim lands, pork or chicken in Spain. Once the Spaniards turned from being conquered to being conquerors, they were a vector for a further migration of the pincho westward, as they brought it to the lands in the Americas which they had colonized. It didn’t take root everywhere in Latin America. It flourished in particular in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I don’t know about Puerto Rico, but I suspect its popularity in Venezuela has to do with the fact that there was a very large migration of Spanish Republicans to that country just after the Second World War, after they ended up on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.

But now let me cross over to the far eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Given their Muslim roots, the Uighurs there have a tradition of eating roasted skewered meat – in fact, I remember distinctly seeing a Uighur grilling them on a street corner during our visit to Xinjiang back in 2010. He looked a bit like this.

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The Chinese authorities may not like the Uighurs, but the Chinese like Uighur food, and this kebab, under the name Chuan, has become a popular street food all over the north and west of China. However, with the usual Chinese inventiveness in all matters culinary, Chinese cooks have greatly expanded the type of foodstuffs being threaded onto their skewers. We have here, for instance, sweet sausages and baby octopus.

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I finish with the story of the satay, from South-East Asia. Satay is now considered a national dish in Indonesia. We have here a satay street vendor somewhere in the country.

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But roasting meat on small skewers was only introduced to the country in the 18th Century, with the arrival of Arab and Indian traders and immigrants. However, Indonesians took to the dish with a vengeance and then its own traders spread it throughout South-East Asia, so that it now is common in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. They also made one very significant change in the recipe, the use of peanut sauce (the peanut itself being one of the foodstuffs originally from Latin America and spread from there by the colonial powers to the rest of the world during the Great Columbian Exchange).

Malay traders then took the satay further afield, working back, it seems to me, along the shipping routes which led from the Netherlands – the colonial power in Indonesia – to Indonesia itself. Malay traders brought the satay to Sri Lanka (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where a Malay community put down roots.  It is now a common street food there. They took it to South Africa (another Dutch colony before the British wrested it from their grasp), where they also formed a small community. It goes under the name of sosatie there: a combination of the words sauce and sate (the Indonesian form of the word). The Malays put down roots there too, and the dish has now been thoroughly localized.

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Indonesian immigrants even took the satay back to the Netherlands itself, where it has become a popular mainstay of Dutch cuisine. This link, for instance, gives you the addresses of the 11 best places in Amsterdam to find satay.

Well there you have it, nice examples of how food dishes have followed in the steps of people as they have moved around the globe, for conquest, trade, or simply to find a better life. In the meantime, I have built up a formidable list of all the kebabs which are cooked in the Muslim lands. I propose to take it with me whenever we travel in those parts of the world, so that I can know what kebabs to try rather than just choose them at random from the menu. Always assuming that the cholesterol levels will allow us this dip into the world of kebabs …

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

Milan, 18 November 2019

A few days ago, my wife entered a greengrocer’s to get some fruit and came out with fruit but also with a gleam in her eye. “I have bought some Jerusalem artichokes”, she announced, and I was delighted to hear it.

It was a University flatmate who many, many (many …) years ago introduced us to this tuber. One evening, it must have been about this time of the year, he appeared in the kitchen with these strange-looking things.

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As we looked at them curiously, he asked us if we had ever tried them. When we confessed that we had not, he promised us a plateful. He was as good as his word. I cannot remember now how he cooked them – more on this later – but it allowed us to appreciate that delicate artichoke taste which is the hallmark of this tuber.

Its name in English recognizes this gustatory affinity to the artichoke. And it is that artichoke taste which drew me to this lumpy, knobbly little tuber; as I have written in a previous post, I am very partial to artichokes.

Not that we’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes all that often since that first tasting 40-plus years ago. It is one of the few foodstuffs that is still only found seasonally – it’s available from late Autumn to late Winter, and very difficult to keep once out of the earth – so unless you maintain a sharp lookout, you’re liable to miss it. Because of that, and because, frankly, of a bad press – it has a reputation of being something you feed to animals and only eat if you’re literally starving – it’s not grown in large quantities and supermarkets rarely stock it. Once, I bought a whole load of ginger because I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes. They really do look quite similar, as I think this photo shows; the resemblance between the two has often been noted.

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I cannot remember where it was that I bought this ginger, but it must have been somewhere where I couldn’t read the labels – Thailand, maybe? I also cannot remember what we did with all the ginger: probably, after a few half-hearted attempts to drink tea with a lot of ginger in it, we threw it away.

I must confess to also rather liking the name, which I find satisfyingly quirky. I initially thought that the “Jerusalem” part of the name indicated a Levantine origin for the tuber; maybe, I romantically mused, it was a foodstuff brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. But no, I discovered, North America is its place of origin. It is actually the tuber to a rather lovely flower, the Helianthus tuberosus.

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It is part of the Great Columbian Exchange, that massive intercontinental move of plants and animals (and diseases … and people) which took place after we Europeans discovered the Americas: plants and animals mostly travelling from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world, and vice versa for diseases and people. I’ve written an earlier post about a minor representative of this exchange, the prickly pear. The Jerusalem artichoke is another minor representative. It is the relative of a much more important representative, also an emigrant from North America, the common sunflower, planted in vast quantities for its oil-bearing seeds.

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The French explorers of North America seem to have been the first Europeans to report on this tuber, and French colonists the first to send exemplars back to Europe. Samuel de Champlain, the explorer of the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, first came across it on Cape Cod.  As related on the US National Park Service website, “after rounding the headlands of Cape Cod in 1605, the French explorers sailed south along the ocean side of the outer Cape. Avoiding shoals and sandbanks, they managed to enter the first embayment they encountered. They called the place Malle Barre and left the ship to go onshore to inspect the Native American settlement. Champlain described the scene:

Before reaching their wigwams we entered a field planted with Indian corn … The corn was in flower and some five and a half feet in height. There was some less advanced, which they sow later. We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichoke. The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell. There were also several fields not cultivated, for the reason that the Indians let them lie fallow … Their wigwams are round, and covered with heavy thatch made of reeds. In the middle of the roof is an opening, about a foot and a half wide, through which issues the smoke of their fire.”

Champlain helpfully included a map of the embayment in his printed report.

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Another Frenchman, Marc Lescarbot, met Champlain soon after this in Port-Royal, a new settlement on the coast of what is now Nova Scotia. I throw in here a map of Port-Royal which Lescarbot included in the book he wrote some years later.

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Among other things, Champlain introduced him to the tuber. Lescarbot described it as follows: “a sort of root, as big as a beet or truffle, tasting rather like chard but more agreeable”. Chard is a vegetable which I’m fond of, fond enough to have written a post about it a little while back. Lescarbot was onto something, I think: the two share a similarly delicate taste. Nevertheless, in the end I would plump for the artichoke connection, so Jerusalem artichoke it should be, not Jerusalem chard.

Europeans were responsible for the global redistribution of the Jerusalem artichoke, but in truth humans had already started to move the plant out of its natural range before Europeans discovered the Americas. When Champlain, Lescarbot, and all the other anonymous European colonists came across the native plantations of the Jerusalem artichoke on the East coast, it looked to them like the plant had always been there. But actually that was not so. The plant’s natural range is somewhere in central North America, straddling the modern US-Canada border. However, the American Indians, recognizing the tuber’s value as a foodstuff, and especially its availability during the winter months when other food is often scarce, had centuries earlier carried it out of its natural range, all the way to the east and west coasts of North America, and down south into Mexico too.

Fascinating stuff, but none of it explains that “Jerusalem” bit of the name. Unfortunately, the chroniclers of the 17th century – the time when the Jerusalem artichoke arrived in Europe and was diffusing across the Continent – were more interested in the Great Men (and possibly Great Women) as well as the Great Events of their time rather than in the names being given to new vegetables. So it has been left to modern historians and etymologists to make some educated guesses. I give two of these guesses here, the two that seem to me the most likely – or perhaps the least unlikely. The first guess has it that the tuber made its way to Rome, as a foodstuff which had miraculously saved the French (Catholic) colonists of North America from starvation. It was planted in the Vatican gardens, whose gardeners gave the plant the name girasole articiocco – “girasole” being the Italian name for the sunflower (readers will recall that the plant is a cousin to the sunflower). The usual mangling of foreign words in British mouths meant that girasole articiocco became Jerusalem artichoke. This is quite neat and is the guess I would normally lay my money on, but I can’t explain to myself how Protestant Britain would have picked up a name being bandied about in the Catholic Vatican. The second guess has it that the tuber originally entered the UK from the Netherlands and more specifically from the town of Terneuzen (the Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius, who lived there, reported in the early 1600s on having successfully planted a shriveled tuber which he had received, no doubt from Dutch colonists in North America). In British mouths, Terneuzen artisjokken got mangled into Jerusalem artichokes. Trade between the two countries was brisk, so a transfer such as this of a new foodstuff sounds quite reasonable to me. But a mangling of Terneuzen into Jerusalem seems a bit of a stretch.

One of the rare places where my wife and I came across the Jerusalem artichoke was in Paris. The French name for the tuber is equally quirky: topinambour. Here again the mists of time have veiled over the origin of the name. The best guess is that the tuber began to appear on Parisian plates at around the time that a delegation of three Amerindians from the Tupinambá tribe, which had settled on the Brazilian coastline, were paraded before King Louis XIII and his court in the Tuileries (three others had died en route). They were sent there by some missionaries, who were competing with the Portuguese for the souls of the local “savages”.  No doubt the idea was to get the king interested in defending French interests in Brazil. I’m not sure they succeeded in that, but the Tupinambá created a sensation. One of the missionaries commented enthusiastically: “Who would have thought that Paris, used to the strange and the exotic, would go so wild over these Indians?”. After being paraded before the king and his court, no doubt in their “savage” state, the three Tupinambá were taken off to a church, baptized, and dressed in more “civilized” garb.

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Parisians, being vague about the geography of this New World that was being discovered before their very eyes but knowing that the tuber came from somewhere over there, simply decided that the Topinambá had brought the tuber with them and began to call it the topinambour.

Helianthus tuberosus grows extremely well in Europe, it is very easy to grow, and as I said earlier its tuber is available in the winter months when other foods can be scarce. As a result, the plant’s popularity grew, especially in France, where it saw its heyday in the 18th Century. Not only were people eating it, but it was given as feed to livestock. It was so widespread in France that one of the days in the Revolutionary calendar – the thirteenth day in the month of Brumaire, to be precise – was dedicated to it. But by then, its days were numbered. The potato (another representative of the Great Columbian Exchange), after facing a century or so of hostility in France, finally won wide acceptance. It eventually completely eclipsed the topinambour.

Which is sad really, because the Jerusalem artichoke/topinambour is really quite good to eat. I personally prefer the tubers steamed (they can be boiled, too, but they risk crumbling in the water).

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There’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, too, which I have yet to try.

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Then they can be roasted

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fried

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or prepared in just about any other way one can think of – there are recipes out there for all tastes.

I feel that I cannot in all fairness finish this post without mentioning one negative thing about the Jerusalem artichoke: the plant has a tendency to be invasive, a problem I’ve written about several times. It’s the tubers – if you leave just one little piece in the ground, they will proliferate. This is fine if you have them planted in your garden or in a field; it means you don’t have a problem getting another harvest next year. But it is not fine if the tuber somehow jumps the garden fence or the field boundary. Like another invasive species which I recently wrote about, the Himalayan balsam, Helianthus tuberosus is particularly troublesome if the plant colonizes river banks, for the same reason. It dies back during winter, leaving the river banks much more exposed to the danger of erosion during winter and spring floods.

So, dear readers, bon appetit! But if you want to grow these tubers please make sure they don’t escape from your garden!

OH NO, IT’S HALLOWEEN AGAIN!

Kyoto, 31 October 2018

Halloween is upon us once again! Time to don the costumes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, skeletons, witches, and other assorted weirdos which we’ve been storing in our wardrobes since last year, and roam the streets drinking booze and checking out each other’s costumes!

Time to light the candles in those pumpkins which we’ve been patiently carving into hideous faces (or we just bought ready-made in plastic at the local store) and plonk them down in front of our door!

A dim and distorted reflection indeed of the beliefs of our ancestors that this was the night when for a short while the thin membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead became permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the land.

A time not to be out and about, risking to be set upon by evil spirits. A time to stay safe at home with your family.

Our ancestors also thought that, born as they were at that moment when real world and spirit world temporarily connected, Halloween babies had the ability in later life to commune with the spirits. When, 32 years ago, I wrote to our friends telling them that our son had been born in the early hours of 31st October, I jovially added that I looked forward to him having a successful career as a medium. Somewhat like Whoopi Goldberg in the film Ghost, although she initially was frightened stiff by her gift.

As of this writing, our son has shown no such gift although he has done well enough in other ways.

I am no believer in spirits – I am, as I have said in other posts, a child of the Scientific Revolution and the rationalism that came with it – but I do find it sad that what was for our ancestors an important and holy feast day has degenerated into a twee happening fueled by companies egging us on to consume.

Even the Japanese are getting into the act! Here in Kyoto we are constantly coming across the same Halloween-related consumeristic crap that we see now from Seattle to Budapest and beyond.

Halloween, it seems, is following in the steps of Christmas and going global: any excuse is good to get us out of the house and do some shopping.

Better by far that we just stay at home and enjoy each other’s company over a glass of wine. That’s certainly what my wife and I intend to do.

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Halloween party: https://sf.funcheap.com/marin-singles-halloween-costume-party-san-rafael/
Jack-o-lanterns: http://www.maniacpumpkincarvers.com/jackolanterns/
Medieval living and dead: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/the-medieval-walking-dead/
Whoopi Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsI5bREF20Y
Halloween shopping: http://www.halloween-online.com/articles/halloween-articles-budgeting.html
Holiday shopping: https://me.me/i/fox-10-holiday-countdown-days-until-halloween-400-days-until-2900508

CACTUS RULES, OK!

Los Angeles, 19 April 2018

As we did last year, during our latest stay in Los Angeles my wife and I visited the old house and grounds of Arabella and Henry Huntington, now the grandly-named Huntington Library, Arts Collection, and Botanical Gardens. The arts collection, which we visited thoroughly last year, is well worth a visit. It holds some very famous pieces of European art, such as the Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough.

It also has a really great collection of American art, especially early American art, holding this piece for instance.

But this year we ignored the art and headed for the gardens. Because the gardens are equally wonderful. During their lifetimes, the Huntingtons had already laid out several gardens around the house. One was a traditional rose garden (primarily so that Arabella Huntington could fill the house with cut roses). Henry Huntington also started a camellia garden along the edges of the Vista which the couple created in front of the house. He also surfed what was then a popular trend and created a Japanese garden. He was also an admirer of palm trees, so he started a palm garden. And after some prodding from his head gardener, he agreed to start a desert garden. The same head gardener, presumably with Mr. Huntington’s approval, also installed lily ponds in an unsightly corner of the garden.

Some of these original gardens have been expanded over the years, while new gardens have been added: a Chinese garden, a semi-tropical garden, a tropical (“jungle”) garden, and an Australian garden (along with a couple of much smaller gardens: a herb garden and a Shakespeare garden, the latter housing all the plants mentioned in one way or another in Shakespeare’s works). All in all, this complex of gardens give the visitor a taste of the sights and scents of many of the world’s biomes (they also give people a lovely scenography for picnics and general lazing around on lawns).

The desert garden is what interests me today. As we wandered the paths which crisscross it, we marveled at the wonderful cacti and succulents which populate this garden. We are not the only ones to have been struck by them. I throw in here some of the better pictures which other visitors have posted on-line.



If I focus on the desert garden rather than on any of the other gardens at the Huntington it is because of water, or rather – in this part of the world – the lack of it. As most people probably know, Los Angeles and southern California in general is a semi-desert; in fact, the region wouldn’t have been able to develop nearly as much as it has if its politicians hadn’t managed to filch large amounts of water from the northern part of the State. But this grand water larceny has only put off the day of reckoning. Southern California is running out of water. Something must be done to contain water use.

Under the circumstances, it makes eminent sense for everyone in this city who has a garden to stop planting water-thirsty plants, especially those lawns so beloved by Americans. Here are a few prime examples from the swank properties surrounding the Huntington.


The Huntington itself has its fair share of thirsty lawns.


To their credit, the people running the Huntington are now pushing the idea that Angeleno gardeners should opt for water tolerant plants in their gardens. And what the desert garden shows is that a garden of cacti and succulents can be every bit as beautiful as a traditional garden. These poor plants get a lot of bad press, probably because of the spines which most cacti sport and perhaps because they can often look somewhat bedraggled. Certainly, it seems that Mr. Huntington’s initial reluctance to have a desert garden had to do with unspecified bad memories of run-ins with prickly pear cacti from the days when he was building his uncle’s railroads across the country. My guess is that his horse threw him into a patch of prickly pear – but that’s only a guess.

As we walk around the city, my wife and I notice an encouraging trend towards more cacti and succulents in gardens and public spaces.


Among all the drought-tolerant plants on show, the one I am most fond of is this one, which I have been seeing a good deal of this year.  This example, for instance, graced a space near a bus stop which we were waiting at.
These examples, instead, are part of a more general planting of cacti and succulents which we have often been walking by as we stroll along the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

It is called, I have discovered, firesticks (or variations thereon: sticks-of-fire, sticks-on-fire, and probably others). The name obviously refers to the plant’s crown of very pretty red, pink, and orange stick-like twigs. It’s really very lovely. But beware! The white sap which oozes from a twig when broken can irritate the skin and is especially dangerous if rubbed into the eyes. I should know. The firestick is a direct descendant of the pencil tree.

This tree can be found throughout East and South Africa. And in fact it grew in our garden in Eritrea. I still remember my mother’s frantic screams when she realized that my little fingers one day had broken a twig and I was busily spreading the sap on the palm of my little hand.

Even though they don’t have a garden, my daughter and her boyfriend are moving towards cacti and succulents on their balcony. They have planted a bunch of flower pots with them. I’m pleased to see that the firestick is one of their choices.

Truth to tell, they have chosen these plants not so much as a commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle but rather for their low maintenance requirements. Neither of them are particularly diligent in watering and previous planting attempts ended badly because of this. Let’s hope that when we come back next year, they are still flourishing: cacti and succulents rule, OK! (at least in Los Angeles)

__________________
The Blue Boy: http://huntington.org/webassets/templates/general.aspx?id=14392
Early American art: http://www.huntington.org/WebAssets/Templates/content.aspx?id=22779
Picnicking, Huntington gardens: https://www.facebook.com/HuntingtonLibrary/photos/a.70860174880.63671.51018909880/10156013615919881/?type=3
Desert garden-1: http://www.huntington.org/desertgarden/
Desert garden-2: http://fr.gde-fon.com/download/huntington_jardin-botanique-de-San-Marino/433151/2395×1590
Desert garden-3: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.gardenista.com/posts/escape-to-a-desert-garden-in-pasadena-huntington-library-garden/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-4: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g33029-d110203-i41542481-The_Huntington_Library_Art_Collections_and_Botanical_Gardens-San_Marino_Cal.html
Desert garden-5: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/107875353549586117/
Desert garden-6: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27398485@N08/3280510696
Desert garden-7: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/561331541042981128/?source=images
Desert garden-8: https://www.visitpasadena.com/businesses/the-huntington/
Desert garden-9: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-10: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_Barrels_%26_Senecio_mandraliscae_Blue_Chalk_Stick_succulents,_Huntington.jpg
Desert garden-11: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.gardenista.com/posts/escape-to-a-desert-garden-in-pasadena-huntington-library-garden/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-12: http://huntingtonblogs.org/2014/01/torch-bearers-of-the-desert-garden/
Desert garden-13: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
Desert garden-14: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/christophvi.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/more-than-reading-at-the-huntington-library/amp/?source=images
San Marino property-1: http://www.pasadenacarealestatehomes.com/blog/san-marino-ca-real-estate-market-reports/
San Marino property-2: http://activerain.com/blogsview/4681118/san-marino-ca-homes-for-sale-and-recent-market-activity-june-7–2015
Northern vista: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/280278776779445390/?source=images
Rose garden: http://www.huntington.org/webassets/templates/general.aspx?id=15523
Gardens around LA with cacti and succulents: my photos
Firesticks: my photos
Pencil tree: http://patioplants.com/product/pencil-tree-cactus-euphorbia-tirucallii-big-7-deep-plug/
My daughter’s cacti: my photo

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

CARLSBAD CAVERNS

Los Angeles, 7 April 2018

Alert readers of my previous posting may have been asking themselves what was the origin of the gypsum strata in the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges, which had played such a crucial role in the creation of the White Sands dunes (because, of course, they had not been magically created out of nothing, nor had they been lying there since the birth of the Earth). I’m not sure I can give a categorical answer to this question, but our visit to the nearby Carslbad caverns suggested one possible answer.

A little bit of background is in order here for the uninitiated. Carlsbad caverns constitute a very large underground limestone cave system in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico. This little diagram gives an idea of the extent of the caves. As one can see, it is a series of large chambers connected by passageways.

Videos in the Visitors’ Centre helpfully inform the interested viewer that these chambers were formed by our friend gypsum! Many millions of years ago, as the Guadalupe Mountains were being uplifted, the limestone strata making them up cracked and fissured as the rocks twisted and turned. Rainwater percolated downwards through the cracks until it reached the water table, while hydrogen sulphide percolated upwards, given off by the crude oil and natural gas lying far below (and which we saw being pumped out on our way to the caverns).

When the hydrogen sulphide met the groundwater, it reacted with the oxygen in the water to form sulphur dioxide which then reacted with the water to form sulphuric acid. So the limestone cracks and fissures now found themselves bathing in sulphuric acid. This unforgiving acid attacked the limestone and turned it into calcium sulphate, which is none other than our friend gypsum. The gypsum washed away, leaving fresh limestone to be attacked by the sulphuric acid. And then the cycle repeated itself until the small cracks and fissures had turned into huge caverns. I imagine a similar process created the gypsum strata with which I started this post: hydrogen sulphide bubbling up into a sea above, the sulphuric acid so created attacking coral formations and turning the sea into a vast pool of dissolved gypsum, the sea drying out thereby creating beds of crystallized gypsum. Something along those lines.

Coming back to the Carlsbad caverns, as the uplifting of the Guadalupe Mountains continued the caverns were raised out of the water table and drained of their acid. The caverns would no longer grow. But the rainwater kept percolating down, and in so doing filled the caverns with those formations which make such caves a wonder: the stalagmites and stalactites of course, but also the sheets, the draperies, the ribbons, the flowstones, … Carlsbad caverns have their share of these wonders. But first one has to get to them. The caves have a natural opening at the surface

through which Mexican free-tail bats stream in and out at night

as do cave swallows during the day.

But so do human visitors, who walk down, down, down


into the central chamber of the cave system, the Lunch Room, a huge cavern rather oddly decked out as a cafeteria.

From there, visitors can explore – guided or unguided – other chambers. We chose to take the tour of the King’s Palace, which offered us these views.

This cavern was also home to some strange-looking formations, which I had never seen before. The formations looked somehow gnarled and knotty.

It seems that these proturbances have been formed by convective patterns in the cavern’s air streams gently pushing the drops of water in directions other than down.

I hope I haven’t bored my readers with all this science. I find it fascinating, although I recognize that others may find it tedious or, even worse, that it may bring back bad memories of sitting benumbed in chemistry classes at school. To make it up to them, let me talk about art, or more specifically prehistoric cave art. Of which, unfortunately, there is hardly any at Carlsbad caverns. There is no prehistoric art in the caves themselves. It seems that the Native Americans were afraid of entering the cave, from which they believed their ancestors had originated. There are reports of Native American pictographs around the natural opening, although I didn’t see them and found no photos of them on the web. No matter! I’ll transport ourselves thousands of kilometers eastward to the caves in France and Spain on whose walls our Paleolithic ancestors painted some 40,000 years ago, and I’ll throw in some pictures of the cave art one can find there.


These paintings are very interesting, no doubt about it, but what impresses me even more is that the artists ventured so deep into the earth to paint them. At some point during our tour of the King’s Palace, our guide turned off all the lights. The resulting darkness was absolute. Your eyes never accustomed themselves to the dark as they would outside, allowing your eyes to eventually see something, even if only indistinctly. It was instead unremittingly pitch black, an extremely disagreeable sensation. Of course, our Paleolithic ancestors would not have painted in the dark, they would have taken torches down. But even a torch would have given off precious little light; our guide lit a lantern powered by a candle and such light is faint indeed.

How did our ancestors create such lovely sketches in such a tremulous light? And how did they overcome their fear in going so deep into the inky blackness of these caves? Questions without answers.

________________
Map of Carlsbad caverns: http://carlsbadnewmexico.com/places/carlsbad-caverns-maps/
Oil derrick in New Mexico: https://fronterasdesk.org/content/9902/new-mexico-lawmaker-faces-challenge-strengthening-oil-regulation
Natural opening: https://www.tripsavvy.com/new-mexico-honeymoon-activities-1863221
Bats at natural opening: https://miraimages.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Zbbmp9jYDCc
Cave swallows at natural opening: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g60761-i23159610-Carlsbad_New_Mexico.html
Path down through natural opening: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/138556126016751944/?source=images
Main Corridor: https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/fees.htm
Lunch Room: https://www.flickr.com/photos/46062921@N00/442216196
King’s Palace-1: my wife’s photo
King’s Palace-2: http://rv-dreams.typepad.com/rvdreams_journal/2007/06/carlsbad_cavern.html
King’s Palace-3: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/rv-parks-carlsbad-caverns-52061.html
Gnarled, knotty formations: my wife’s photo
Prehistoric art-1: https://www.archaeological.org/tours/europe/25009
Prehistoric art-2: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cave-of-lascaux
Prehistoric art-3: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/phys.org/news/2011-11-ancient-dna-insights-cave-horses.amp?source=images
Prehistoric art-4: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/513551163733767543/?source=images
Candle in a cave: https://www.dragonsdawn.org/nmtCaver/El_Malpais_Feb_2017/index.html

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT

Los Angeles, 30 March 2018

Like most children who have spent holidays on a beach somewhere, both my wife and I have memories of playing in sand dunes, I in Norfolk

she along Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Then, after we met and started traveling the world we visited a number of large-scale sand dune systems, far away from any sea. The first we saw, at the start of our lives together, were the sand dunes of Death Valley.

On a business trip a few years ago, I visited the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia which are remorselessly engulfing farmland; I commented on these in an earlier post.

And then there were the sand dunes of Namibia, which we visited one Christmas some ten years ago with our children.

The most awesome of these dunes were a dull red, with the biggest towering over us.

But the blindingly white dunes of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which we visited last week with our daughter and her boyfriend, are in a class of their own. The eerie beauty of these dunes has led better photographers than I to surpass themselves, and I have shamelessly pinched some of the best of their photos to insert here.



We walked in a big circle, from dune crest to dune crest, marveling at the vistas before us of undulating whiteness, all the way, so it seemed, to the surrounding mountain ranges.

I’ve been careful not to refer to these dunes as sand dunes, because they are not sand as we normally understand that term, that is to say silicate. These are dunes of gypsum (calcium sulphate to the chemically inclined of my readers).

In the morning, we had visited Lake Lucero, which lies to the southwest of the dunes. It is an evanescent lake; it appears during the rainy season in late summer and is gone by the time the windy season in the spring rolls around. When we visited it, there was no sign of any water.

Here we could see how the gypsum “sand” had been created. It all started 24,000 years ago, when a new ice age started and the climate in this corner of New Mexico began to be much wetter than it is today. For nigh on 14,000 years frequent rains lashed the nearby San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges. The rainwater nibbled away at strata of gypsum which had been exposed by the mountains’ uplifting, and streams carried the dissolved gypsum into a lake at the foot of the mountains. This lake has been named Lake Otero. The lake had no exit, so it grew in size until the water evaporating balanced the stream water entering. But the gypsum (and other salts) carried into the lake remained and slowly concentrated. Then, some 10,000 years ago, the ice age came to an end, and the climate here became dryer. Less rainwater fell on the mountains, streams got smaller or disappeared, and Lake Otero began to shrink. As it shrunk, the dissolved gypsum became ever more concentrated until finally the lake water was saturated. The gypsum started precipitating out of the lake water, forming huge crystals of selenite in the process, which then settled onto the lake’s bed. This picture shows a very pure crystal of selenite, which is colourless.


But during our ramble along the shores of Lake Lucero we saw selenite crystals in their more natural state, jutting out of the ground. They were various shades of brown; other substances that were present in the lake water have colored the crystals.

 

And still Lake Otero kept shrinking, until nothing but Lake Lucero – sometimes there, often not – was left.

With the climate change of 10,000 years ago came strong winds. For the last 10,000 years they have been scouring the alkaline flats left bare when Lake Otero disappeared. They first carried away the thin crust of clay and fine particles, which exposed the selenite. Freezing and thawing cycles went to work on the crystals, breaking them along their weakest plane. The process continues to this day. We saw these crystals of selenite down at Lake Lucero being slowly split open.


The shores of Lake Lucero are littered with fragments of selenite crystals, broken up by wind, frost and heat.

On and on went the work of breaking down the crystals until they had become flakes light enough to be carried along by the prevailing southwesterly winds. As the flakes bowled along over the alkaline flats, tumbling over and over, they cracked and crumbled further until only small sand-like grains were left.

The winds have pushed the grains up into the dunes that we see today. And all that tumbling has so scratched and scarred and pitted the surface of the grains that they reflect back sunlight in all its wavelengths so that we see them as intensely white.

Unbeknownst to us, my wife and I have been living with selenite around us in the apartment in Milan, although in this case in the form of desert roses.

My mother-in-law picked them up in Algeria, where she visited some of the oases south of the Atlas Mountains and walked the dunes of the Saharan desert, like these at the Biskra oasis.

Another dune system for my wife and I to visit – once Isis no longer roams the Sahara desert, kidnapping and beheading hapless tourists.

____________________

Norfolk dunes: http://www.bringingtheoutsidein.co.uk/landscape_photography/holkham.html
Dunes Adriatic coast: https://www.rentbyowner.com/property/hotel-le-dune/BC-268102
Sand dunes Death Valley: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g143021-d2255762-i116167540-Mesquite_Flat_Sand_Dunes-Death_Valley_National_Park_California.html
Sand dunes Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sand dunes Namibia-1: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/6685099420949300/?lp=true
Sand dunes Namibia-2: https://travelservice.tips/attractions/africa/sossusvlei-dunes.html
White sands-1: https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/wave-dunes-white-sands
White sands-2: http://www.magazinusa.com/us/states/show.aspx?state=nm&doc=10&dsc=White_Sands_National_Monument
White sands-3: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160517-the-beautiful-white-sand-dunes-that-should-not-exist
White sands-4: https://www.newmexico.org/listing/white-sands-national-monument/218/
Lake Lucero: my wife’s picture
Selenite-pure: http://www.crystallinephoenix.com
Selenite crystals in the ground: my pictures
Selenite crystals on Lake Lucero shore: my picture
Gypsum grains: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Sands_National_Monument#/media/File%3AWhiteSandsGypsum.jpg
White sands-5: my picture
Desert rose: https://www.feelcrystals.com.au/product-category/crystal-meanings/desert-rose-crystal/
Tadrart, Algeria: https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293717-d504734-i300952025-Algerian_Sahara-Algeria.html
Biskra oasis, Algeria: https://plus.google.com/105463517722617181754

FOSSILS IN THE STAIRS

Vienna, 29 June 2017

A few days ago, just as my wife and I were setting out from the apartment, it started to rain. It was my wife who had decreed that it wouldn’t rain, but it was I who went back to get the umbrellas. As readers can imagine, I was a little grumpy as I ascended the stairs, glaring at the individual steps. Perhaps it was my acute attention of the steps, perhaps it was the light; whatever it was, I suddenly noticed in the sixth step from last, which had been worn smooth by countless feet treading on it, something which I had never noticed before on my walks up and down those stairs: a fossil.

At first sight it looked like a leaf, but I now think it could be a coral of some sort. I walked up and down all six flights of stairs in our building looking intently at each step,

and I now see what I had never really noticed before, that the limestone used for them is made up of a mass of shells and other marine remains, fallen randomly on top of each other and then squeezed tight by the monstrous weight of later rocks above them.

As we discovered when we bought the apartment and picked through the Land Register, our building was constructed at the turn of the century. It was, and has remained, a modest building – no Belvedere Palace for us

just a modest lower middle-class building, one of many outside Vienna’s swank 1st District.

Consequently, even at a time when long-distance travel had been made a thousand times easier by the booming rail system and nascent road system, I would imagine that the stone for our steps came from a local quarry. Which is more than possible, there being quite a number of old limestone quarries around Vienna, a number of which – I have been breathlessly informed by an Austrian fossil-hunter website – are good sources of marine fossils.

An Austrian map of the country’s geology informs me – if my rudimentary German is correct – that the rock formations in question are Late Tertiary.

Specifically, according to a mind-numbing report prepared for the 26th International Geological Congress which I leafed through electronically, they belong to the Neogene beds in the Vienna basin; these were laid down some some 10-15 million years ago, between the Upper Eggenburgian and Lower Badenian stages of the Middle Miocene epoch, as a result of at least two marine incursions into the Vienna basin.

Setting aside all the arcane – and, frankly, incomprehensible – scientific mumbo-jumbo with which this report is filled, we can happily conclude that the jumbled marine fossils locked forever more into the steps of our building’s stairway are the result of the area around Vienna twice being a sea. It must have been a nice warm sea too, since corals flourished in its waters. In fact, this map of mid-Miocene Europe shows that much of Central Europe was under water during this Epoch, this being the far western end of the wonderfully-named Tethys Sea.

In cases like these, I am always taken by a sense of wonder. Here I am, living on the edges of a rich agricultural plain 350 kilometers from the nearest sea.

Yet once upon a time there was sea all around me, probably quite like the sea which my wife and I snorkeled over a year ago in Thailand, with coral outcrops, starfish and sea urchins clinging to their rocks, crabs scuttling along the sea floor, fish flashing in and out of the coral, and from time to time the passing shadow of a shark.

That same sense of wonder came over me many years ago, when we visited Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. The park sits in the middle of a harsh, dry, desert region.

Yet all around us lay the petrified remains of a once mighty forest.


Artists imagine that these 200 million year-old forests looked something like this.

All that teaming life in this now almost dead environment …

It was more with a sense of fascinated horror than awe that I first gazed on the “fossils” (mummies is perhaps the better term) of people and animals dug up at Pompeii.



They were overtaken, submerged, in the 1000°C-hot pyroclastic flow that swept down the sides of Mt. Vesuvius and howled through the city at 700 km/hr.

What a terrible, terrible death! But perhaps it was a mercifully quick death, with them being flash-cooked, basically.

Hmm, I didn’t want to finish on this rather depressing note. But hey, that’s life! In the meantime, I need to escogitate a plan to persuade my wife join me on a visit to Vienna’s Natural Science Museum (sheathed in a very nice stone, I should add) so that I can study the area’s geology better.

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Our building’s steps: our photos
Belvedere Palace: http://www.austriawanderer.com/the-belvedere-palace-in-vienna/
Our apartment building: our photo
Geological map of Europe: http://www.gifex.com/detail-en/2011-06-29-13972/Geological-map-of-Austria.html
Miocene Europe: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-klima4.htm
Vienna plain: http://www.donau.com/de/roemerland-carnuntum-marchfeld/detail/marktgemeinde-goetzendorf-an-der-leitha/c53b2a6b0c75fed4d809b78b888830d9/
Tropical sea: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/coral-reef-in-thailand-louise-murray-and-photo-researchers.html
Petrified Forest NP: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/nature/petrifiedforest/#petrified-forest-hills.jpg
Petrified tree-1: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/petrified-forest-national-park-arizona.html
Petrified tree-2: http://www.van-tramp.com/wp/petrified-forest-national-park-revisit/
Forest 100 million years ago: https://jerry-coleby-williams.net/2015/02/15/bunya-prehistoric-plant-ancient-australian-food-tradition/araucaroid-forest-ca-100-million-years-ago/
Pompeii mummies-1: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/535224736949021987/
Pompeii mummies-2: http://hesed.info/blog/pompeii-lava-statues.abp
Pompeii mummies-3: https://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/fossils-paleontology-old-bones-gc30/25828-reposting-pam-s-odd-rock-fossil-2nd-opinion
Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius: https://it.pinterest.com/agcinnamongirl/pompeii-italy/
Natural History Museum, Vienna: https://ictca2017.conf.tuwien.ac.at/index.php/natural-history-museum-vienna

OUR L.A. PHOTO ALBUM

Milan, 18 April 2017

My wife and I landed back in Italy a few days ago. And now, lying on the sofa tired and jet lagged, I’m sifting through the multiple, kaleidoscope impressions of LA careening around my brain after our month’s stay there. Picking out from my photos as well as that of my wife’s, and, where for some unexplained reason there is a gap, complementing them with photos off the web, here is our photo album of our holiday in LA. To be viewed together with my last three posts. Enjoy!

-o0o-

I start at Venice Beach, where our daughter and her boyfriend live.

Twenty years ago, we visited the beach so that our son, at that point in his life passionate about in-line skating, could show off his tricks to the other cool dudes who he had read in his magazine congregated there. That had to be our starting point on Day 1.

It’s got much cooler since we were last here. The skatepark looks incredibly futuristic to my untutored eyes.

An amusing message from a citizen of Venice Beach.

I wrote about public murals in an earlier post. Many of these are in Venice Beach. Not surprising, I suppose, since it’s meant to be a very artsy community. Talking of artsy community, here’s the yellow brick road in the Mosaic Tile House.

This is an otherwise normal house in Venice which an artist couple have been covering inside and out with broken tiles and pottery for the last twenty years.

The Venice High School and an ex-police station nearby.

You find this kind of architecture – 1930s? – dotted all over the city. For some reason, they remind me of Superman and his Gotham City. Something to do with the artwork in the early comics? They also remind me of Shanghai, where a lot of the posher pre-WWII buildings have this style.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), up on Bunker Hill.

R.S.V.P., by Senga Nengudi. It’s made of panty-hose weighted down by sand. Still striking.

Better Homes, Better Gardens, by the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall. The museum is holding a major retrospective of his work. It’s fascinating to see these paintings populated by coal-black subjects. It challenges our traditional perspectives, where it is normally white people who inhabit paintings.

Across the road from MOCA, the Walt Disney Auditorium.

It’s rather similar to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; not surprising, really, since the two are by the same architect, Frank Gehry.

A charming fountain in the small garden behind the Auditorium, made with shards of blue and white porcelain.

It reminds me of a sculpture I saw in Beijing a number of years ago.

The monthly flea market at the Rose Bowl.

The art of the deal …

A detail of a painting from the Getty Centre’s impressive collection of European art.

It always appeals to the puerile side of me to see saints – in this case St. Stephen – having the objects by which they were martyred – in this case stones – lodged in their heads. There is a Saint Peter, Saint Peter the Martyr, who died from having his skull smashed in by a sword. In paintings, you see him calmly going about his saintly business with a sword lodged in his head.

The view from the Getty Centre, over Los Angeles.

A beautiful view, although unfortunately you could also see the city’s infamous smog, a light brown mist licking up the base of the surrounding hills.

Some of the statues in the Getty Villa, part of its collection of Classical Greek and Roman art.

I am so used to seeing sightless Greek and Roman statues that I find these staring statues slightly unsettling. If I lived in a Roman villa surrounded by statues looking at me so intently, I think I’d get rather nervous.

One of the beautiful sunsets which greeted us in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, about which I wrote in an earlier post.

Watching a team putting together the next NASA satellite to be sent to Mars at NASA’s/Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), with its widely diversified collection:

Pieces from the museum’s excellent collection of Amerindian art.

An example of the strange Casta paintings which were produced in Spain’s Latin American colonies.

The aim was to show the result of mixing three populations: the Spaniards, the Amerindians, and the Africans. They were based on incredibly racist concepts, with the whites always at the top of the pile, the blacks always at the bottom, and the natives somewhere in between. The degree of mixing placed you somewhere on this spectrum.

From the museum’s collection of American art:
Moonlight on the Water, by Winslow Homer

Angel’s Flight, by Millard Sheets

Chester, by Sargent Claude Johnson


All nice examples of early 20th Century American art before Abstraction became the norm.

A wonderful painting from the museum’s collection of German Expressionist art:

The Orator, by Magnus Zeller. It captures so well the angst in post-WWI Germany. I think it helps to understand why Hitler succeeded.

A masterful Georges de La Tour, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, from the museum’s collection of European art.

A 17th Century plate from the museum’s collection of Japanese art. The turnip has finally been ennobled.

A nice example of Japanese lacquerware, a 17th Century writing box.

West meets East. A painting by Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape with Poet, echoing that most classic of Chinese paintings, the scholar contemplating nature.

Contemporary art at the Hauser & Wirth art gallery in LA’s Art District.

Whatever … I much preferred the rose in the courtyard.


From the exhibition at the Japanese American national museum, exploring the shameful treatment meted out to Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

It is hard not to see in this exhibition warnings about current feelings about Muslims in certain quarters of America.

I’ve already written about the wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. These are some of the wildflowers we came across during a walk we took one weekend with our daughter and boyfriend on Catalina Island.

The marvelous organ in the Walt Disney concert hall, seen here during a concert we attended.

We were lucky enough to hear it being played a week later.

Infinity Mirrored Room, by Yayoi Kusama: installation art at the Broad Museum.

We were ushered into a dark room with mirrors on all the walls and a very shallow pool of water on the floor. Small LED lights hung down from the ceiling, their light being reflected over and over in the mirrors. One had a sense of floating among the stars. Very tranquil. A pity we could only stay in a minute.

The rest of the museum is dedicated to contemporary art. I’m not a Basquiat fan, but this painting, Eyes and Eggs, stood out positively for me

while this Jeff Koons stood out negatively – I find his stuff so damned shallow.

A wonderful painting in the Norton Simon Museum’s very fine collection of European art.

It shows St. Joseph as a doting father cheerfully playing with the child Jesus. In most paintings, St. Joseph usually stands around solemnly in the background, like a piece of furniture.

West meets East again. This is a statue of a bodhisattva in the museum’s collection of Asian art.

It is a wonderful example of art from Gandhara. The region is home today to the Swat valley, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but it was for a couple of centuries (180 BC-10 AD) a Hellenistic kingdom, a carryover from Alexander the Great’s conquests in this part of the world. Greek sculptural concepts were superimposed on the local Buddhist faith.

Olvera Street, one of the few traces left from the original nucleus of LA, the Spanish settlement of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, a small market town for the local ranchers.

Transfer of California from Mexico to the US, the area’s popularity with the American plutocrats looking for winter homes to escape the cold of the Mid-Western states, the growth of the movie industry, attracted here by the region’s almost continuous sunshine, the discovery of oil, the growth of LA’s port during WWII, its becoming a manufacturing hub after the war just when car ownership in the US skyrocketed … across the decades these have all deposited layer upon layer of new urban structures. But none of it has masked the essential Latin Americanness of LA – nearly 50% of Angelinos are Latino.

Part of the army of homeless people in LA.

They are very visible there, no doubt because the weather is so clement, but a problem in all developed countries. How can our societies, so rich, accept this shameful situation?

Portrait of Samuel and Eunice Judkins, Ulster County, New York, by Sheldon Peck

Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn, by Samuel Miller

Yankee Driver, by Thomas Hart Benton

The Long Leg, by Edward Hopper

Soldier, by Charles White

A sample of the impressive collection of American art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. It also has an extensive collection of British art, of which this Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough, is one.

As I confessed to my wife, the only paint-by-numbers picture I ever tried as a boy.

The Huntington also has lovely, and very extensive, gardens.


Hollywood!

The Dream Machine, masking the essential tackiness of it all.

An exhibition of the artist Jimmie Durham at the Hammer Museum.

A very amusing artist, although you have to wonder if he isn’t taking his viewers for a ride and laughing all the way to the bank.

Seen after visiting the Watts Towers, subject of an earlier post.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the depiction of a real heart in this time-worn phrase, so popular to T-shirt manufacturers.

Art livening up the otherwise dreary underbelly of a highway overpass, seen at a subway transfer station after leaving Watts.

Hollyhock House, the first Frank Lloyd Wright house I have ever visited.

I reserve judgement.

A delightful take on the aristocratic habit of painting palace ceilings with frescoes showing angels, saints, or gods cavorting in the clouds.

Seen at the exit of a subway station, coming up the escalator.

Contemporary art at the Geffen Centre of MOCA.

Whatever … As long as I don’t have to pay for this stuff.

An amusing sign inviting people to come and taste the luncheon delights of a local restaurant.

Resonates particularly strongly with my wife and I, wrestling as we are with the need for weight loss through diet and exercise. We came across it at lunch time as hunger gnawed at our insides.

And with that, it’s a wrap on our stay in LA!

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Photos: ours, except for the following:

Skatepark, Venice Beach: https://m.discoverlosangeles.com/blog/things-to-do-venice-california
Kerry James Marshall: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-how-kerry-james-marshall-became-a-superhero-for-chicago-s-housing-projects
Rose Bowl flea market: http://la.racked.com/maps/los-angeles-vintage-shops/rose-bowl-flea-market
St. Peter Martyr: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/madonna-and-child-with-saint-peter-martyr-1503-lotto-lorenzo.html
Japanese internment: http://freenom.link/?k=80808080&_=1492438798
Infinity Mirrored Room: http://www.thebroad.org/art/exhibitions/yayoi-kusama-infinity-mirrored-room
Basquiat, “Eyes and Eggs”: http://www.thebroad.org/art/jean‐michel-basquiat
Koons: http://robbreport.com/art-collectibles/broad-contemporary-art-museum-opens-los-angeles
Bodhisattva: https://www.pinterest.com/sheth0430/gandharan/
Olvera St.: http://www.inetours.com/Los_Angeles/Photos/Olvera-St-cross.html
LA’s homeless: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-how-los-angeles-homeless-crisis-got-so-bad-20150922-story,amp.html
“Blue Boy”, Thomas Gainsborough: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_Boy
Huntington gardens: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Japanese_Garden_at_Huntington_Library.jpg
Hollyhock House, exterior: http://www.mnn.com/your-home/remodeling-design/blogs/hollyhock-house-frank-lloyd-wright-beauty-to-bloom-again-following
Hollyhock House, interior: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/myonebeautifulthing.com/2015/03/16/walk-wright-in/amp/
Carl Andre, MOCA: https://www.moca.org/

WILDFLOWER EXPLOSION

Los Angeles, 10 April 2017

The dark clouds which dumped huge amounts of rain on southern California a few months ago have had a multicolored lining: the intense blooms of wildflowers which have burst out all over this desertic and semi-desertic landscape – water is life. A few posts ago, I wrote about the wildflower blooms in Joshua Tree National Park, considerably more intense this year than in previous years.

Last weekend, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend on a trek in the Malibu hills where they plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

The hillsides were a riot of yellow, with the flowers growing head high, crowding in over the track, brushing your face, leaving pollen streaks on your cheeks.

And there has been the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve …

My wife and I went up there some ten days ago. As we exited San Francisquito Canyon high up on the southern slope of Antelope Valley, we saw spread before us on the valley’s opposite slope several faint patches of orange shimmering in the heat: our goal.

On we drove, down to the valley’s floor and along the its northern slope. We turned a corner and the banks of the road suddenly flamed orange. We were starting to see the California Poppy close up.


After paying our park entry fee and parking the car, we started walking the trails. Our aim was to climb to the top of Kitanemuk hill, walk along the crest a while and then come down and loop around back to the car park. These photos document our walk. I don’t think they need commenting.



I love wildflowers. I love their brilliance, their panoply of shapes and colors. I enjoy their anarchy; not for me the regimented flower beds of suburban gardens. I mourn their evanescence. I see them for a short time in Spring, and spend the rest of the year impatiently waiting their return. I’m really glad that our daughter’s birthday – our excuse for coming to Los Angeles – serendipitously coincides with the annual wildflower explosion in this corner of the world. And I’m secretly thankful for all that rain earlier in the year. It brought much misery to many but a great joy to me and my wife.

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Pictures: all ours