Thursday, August 06, 2015

Lysimachia, etc, in Mälarland July 2015

A stand of Lysimachia vulgaris

Above, Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris).

At the end of July I spent a few days in Kallhäll, a Stockholm suburb on the eastern shore of Lake Mälaren.  These lake environs were, it turned out, the perfect home for Lysimachia, a genus that likes water in the vicinity.

Appropriately, it was here that I finally learnt to put right my long-standing misconception about Yellow Loosestrife, which was that the yellow loosestrife found in gardens (and regularly escaping from them) was the same as the wild plant.  I noticed lots of it here, but also lots of the native plant shown in these photos, and it was immediately apparent that they were two different species. The garden plant is properly called Dotted Loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata): it comes from SE Europe. Even from a distance it's easy to tell the two apart, since the flowers of the garden species tend to form erect yellow spikes, whereas the flowers of L. vulgaris, as shown here, make a more haphazard impression - smaller and on longer pedicels. Besides, L. vulgaris produces lots of pretty round fruits whereas L. punctata never forms seed, at least not in the north.

Flowers of Lysimachia vulgaris

A third member of the genus, Creeping-Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) was also very noticeable here: under trees it turned the whole ground yellow. I wish I had taken a photo of this.

Lysimachia vulgaris

"Loose strife" is a loose translation of Lysimachia. So it's a learned name, not a popular one. It seems to have been introduced by the herbalist William Turner in 1548.

OED:  1548   W. Turner Names of Herbes sig. E.ijv,   Some cal it Lycimachiam may be called in englishe yealow Lousstryfe or herbe Wylowe.

The legend of one Lysimachus, a king of Sicily, who calmed a raging bull by waving loosestrife in its face, is commonly repeated in books by plant-lovers, but I've yet to track down its origin, and don't even know if any such king really existed. (This was not Lysimachus of Thrace, the bodyguard of Alexander the Great and governor of Thrace after Alexander's death.)

Pliny, Natural History, Bk XXV, 35, gives a variant.

XXXV. Lysimachus too discovered a plant, still named after him, the praises of which have been sung by Erasistratus. It has green leaves like those of the willow, a purple flower, being bushy, with small upright branches and a pungent smell. It grows in watery districts. Its power is so great that, if placed on the yoke when the beasts of burden are quarrelsome it checks their bad temper.
Clearly the origin of the name is over-determined in this story: it is explained both by its discoverer's name and by its supposed power to scatter discord.

Pliny's plant, of course, sounds like Purple-loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), another tall lakeside plant  with opposite leaves that was once thought to be related to Yellow Loosestrife.

So the generic name Lysimachia may have been stolen from an unrelated plant. Its reach continues to extend: apparently there are now moves afoot to bring the Scarlet and Blue Pimpernels (still known to my generation as Anagallis) under its umbrella, bringing them together with Yellow Pimpernel, which despite its English name has always been considered a Lysimachia.

The passage from Pliny also suggests Willowherb. Lythrum and Epilobium do indeed seem quite close relatives. Lysimachia, on the other hand is considered to be part of Primulaceae.

Fruit of Lysimachia vulgaris

But, to add to the confusion, the Swedish name for Yellow Loosestrife is Videört, which means Willow-wort. (William Turner, it will be noted, made the same connection.)

Perhaps this is because of the leaf shapes. The leaf shapes of Salix, Lythrum, and the taller Lysimachia species, are all fairly similar, and make you wonder if this is a convergent adaptation in freshwater habitats.

I don't know whether this also counts as an instance of convergent evolution, but there was another prominent plant around here whose fruits closely resemble those of Yellow Loosestrife. (Perhaps round fruits are a good shape for dispersal on water.)

This other plant, shown in fruit below, is Bunias orientalis, known in the UK as Warty-cabbage. (It is a crucifer with yellow flowers.)

This is a plant that has spread inexorably north and west from an uncertain native region (possibly Armenia). It arrived in Sweden (Uppsala) in the eighteenth-century in grain or fodder from Russia, and hence its Swedish name is Ryssgubbe (Russian Old-guy). It can be found throughout S./C. Sweden but Mälarland is its stronghold.

Bunias orientalis in fruit

Stand of Cicerbita macrophyllum

Here's another Russian emigrant, Cicerbita macrophyllum (EN: Common Blue Sow-thistle, SV: Parksallat).

As the Swedish name implies, this decorative plant was introduced delibrerately and is often found in park-land. It spreads invasively, but impressively, by underground rhizomes.

This particular stand was at Ängsjö Friluftsgård (these spacious "open-air parks", a sort of combination of nature reserve and leisure park, are a legacy of Sweden's influential fresh air movement).

When I saw it I at first mistook it for C. alpina (EN: Alpine Sow-thistle, SV: Torta, Tolta), a common sight in mountain regions.

Cicerbita macrophyllum

It surprised me how different the range of plants I noticed was from what  I'd seen the previous summer in Roslagen (also in Uppland). The cow-wheat Natt och Dag was just as eye-catching here, but this time I saw no Bloody Cranesbill, no Laserpitium, and no wild roses.

But I saw plenty of other things. One highlight was this Epipactis helleborine (EN: Broad-leaved Helleborine, SV: Skogsknipprot). This is a species that, for some reason, I never see in England. Well, to be more precise I do find the occasional spindly plant in woods but I never seem to catch them in flower. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, how spectacular it can be.

Epipactis helleborine in the distance

Epipactis helleborine, inflorescence

Epipactis helleborine, flowers (and aphids)

Epipactis helleborine, close-up of flower

Pteridium aquilinum

In the woods around here it was mild enough to find Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). As often happens when I see a familiar plant for the first time in Sweden, I was struck by its neatness and elegance, the result of cold winters and short growing seasons.

Sambucus racemosa

Here was another striking sight. It looks pretty much the same as a common elderberry, except for the berries being bright red, not black. This is Sambucus racemosa (EN: Red-berried Elder, SV: Druvfläder). Both the Red- and black-berried elders are complexes with several subspecies around the northern hemisphere. This is is ssp. racemosa, the European Red-berried Elder. It is another introduced species in Sweden. It was first noticed in the wild on Djurgården (Stockholm's pleasure-island) in 1837. Its Nordic heartland is a stripe that slants SW-NE through northern Denmark, central Sweden, and southern Finland; a common arrangement.  In the UK it's much more common in eastern Scotland than anywhere further south. It's rather strange that this species, with its evident liking for these more northerly parts of Europe, is not native to them; its native range is central Eastern Europe. (Some of the other subspecies of Red-Berried Elder grow high up in Siberia and Canada.)

Red-berried Elder is mildly toxic. In its native region, the berries are considered edible but only after cooking. The berries ripen earlier than the common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), so happily they're unlikely to end up in your elderberry wine!

Lonicera xylosteum in fruit

Another fruiting shrub that gave me that "the-same-but-different" feeling. This is clearly a honeysuckle but it isn't the usual sort (speaking from a British perspective). It is Lonicera xylosteum, known in English as Fly Honeysuckle and in Swedish as Skogstry or even simply Try.

In the UK this is a rare escape. It was once thought to be native, because of a rather isolated population in a remote spot on the South Downs that has been recorded ever since 1801. But English gardeners have been growing Fly Honeysuckle since the sixteenth century.

The situation in Sweden is different. Here the common Honeysuckle (L. periclymenum, SV: Vildkaprifol) is much admired for its heavenly fragrance, but it is a local plant of the south and west coasts only (it's the county plant of Bohuslän). L. xylosteum, on the other hand, is a common plant through most of south-central Sweden, extending up the east coast to Ångermanland.

Unlike common Honeysuckle, Fly Honeysuckle isn't a climber but a free-standing shrub. The branches are brittle but very strong. In the past they were used to make tines for rakes and harrows, and the combs ("reeds") on weaving-looms.

As with all honeysuckles, the berries are poisonous.

Lathyrus sylvestris, with Trifolium arvense

This is recently disturbed ground (on a railway tunnel). The perfect spot for Lathyrus sylvestris (EN: Narrow-leaved Everlasting-pea; SV: Backvial). Commoner in Uppland than anywhere else in Sweden.

Here. it's growing with Trifolium arvense (EN: Hare's-foot Clover, SV: Harklöver), very common from Skåne to Uppland, but not further north.

Trifolium aureum

On this overcast day (we later hid from steady rain in a pizza restaurant), it was the flowers that supplied colour. And in particular, the bright yellow of Trifolium aureum (EN: Large Trefoil, SV: Gulklöver), a plant I'd never seen before. It's a rare casual in the UK, but is native and common in the southern half of Sweden. Though it may not be apparent from these photos, the flowers are distinctively larger than other yellow clovers, larger even than Hop Trefoil.

Trifolium aureum

Vincetoxicum hirundinaria

One of the great things about going to Sweden if that the plants are fascinatingly different from the UK, but not so radically different that I've totally lost my bearings and have to start learning all over again.

It's a rare thing, therefore, to run across a genus that does not appear at all in Stace's UK Flora, but that was the case here. This is Vincetoxicum hirundinaria (SV: Tulkört, EN: White Swallow-wort) a species that just makes it into the east of Europe, including the Baltic. Vincetoxicum generally is an east Asian genus.  A plant of dry stony ground.

Perhaps these young trees have no business in a post about wild plants, but as Kallhäll is a suburb of Stockholm (albeit set in miles of lake and forest), you'll forgive me for getting a bit urban.

They are Manchurian Cherry (Prunus maackii), a tree native to Korea and N. China. There was a line of them along one of the principal roads in the centre of Kallhäll, and I was very taken with the smooth yellow-bronze bark, not as spectacular or shiny as Tibetan Cherry but quietly striking, if that isn't a contradiction. This species is resistant to cold. The small fruit, can apparently be used in jams, etc. I'd never come across this species before, and was astonished by the unexpected combination of normal cherry features (bark with rings of lenticels, long serrated leaves) and the bird-cherry / cherry-laurel group (flowers and fruit in racemes).

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Thursday, July 09, 2015

librivox splurge

I moved house. As the drive to the office is now ten minutes not five, and as I've been making a few round trips to Frome and elsewhere, I thought it was worth downloading a bunch of Librivox audiobooks. (The splurge is, of course, free.)

Here's what I've listened to so far:

Marlowe, both parts of Tamburlaine the Great. A bit of a trudge through Marlowe's incessantly mighty line. It's not the fault of the readers - David Goldfarb and a good supporting cast. It's just that the uncut text needs something more than reading aloud to spark it into dramatic life. Listening to this, you are made aware that none of the participants are in the same location, and that each has recorded their speeches separately.  (As often in my own silent readings of Tamburlaine, I found the most lively part is the digressive episode at the beginning of Part 2 when the Christians under Sigismond betray their alliance with Orcanes.)

Benito Perez Galdos, Electra.  (see other post)  Here's proof that Librivox readings of plays can be very involving indeed. This is a proper performance. Brilliant production, recommended.

Balzac, Eugenie Grandet.  Absolutely wonderful. (I'd read it before, but a very long time ago). I am now at the age when everything in Balzac at last makes sense. Well, perhaps not all the financial details: I still don't entirely grasp how Grandet makes such a good thing of his brother's bankruptcy. The story (with its infinitely slow opening chapter) has me wide-eyed and gripped: it all seems real and unexpected, as if described events unfolding within my own family circle. Terrific reading by the great Bruce Pirie.

Dostoyevsky, The Gambler - Good reading (mostly by Bill Boerst) - the book is entertaining and empty-headed. Doesn't really make me want to go back to this author whose books I so devoured as a teenager, though I realize The Gambler is not by any means a fair sample.

Chekhov The Lady with the Dog and other stories. A surprisingly disappointing experience. I'm a massive fan of Chekhov's short stories, but listening to these one after another doesn't show them off to best advantage. The downbeat endings tend to come as shocks or mere stops; unable to see the page, I had little sense of them arriving. And then there was no opportunity to reflect, to look back over the text and to admire the artistry: instead, I was straight off on another jaunt to some usually inconclusive destination. The details blur. The doctor who doesn't marry the pianist. The kiss on the theatre stairs. The pistol-shot. The jealous husband at the army dance.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Here's an author who is really new to me - at least, I've never read any of her books, though I imagined I knew something about them, I supposed I could "place" her. Now, all my thoughts are being revised. "Love the scenery of S. France  - the author must have remembered her travels well"; so I comment at this early stage.   (I was still near the beginning of vol 2). I've since discovered that she had never been on any travels. Her only trip abroad, later in life, was to Belgium.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pale Flax (Linum bienne)

Pale Flax (Linum bienne) - photos from June 21st 2015, on a roundabout just outside Frome, 

A plant that epitomizes the many transient beauties of midsummer. Driving through the long twilights of that blessed season, one is constantly accompanied by the starry whites of the roadside: Hogweed, Hemlock, Oxeye Daisy, Rough Chervil, Bramble...  But a rarer plant like this is seen only by chance. Once I'd taken the photographs, I never saw it again. It retires into fruit. 

The plants are so slender and leggy that it's hard to contain them in a photograph. 

I'd never noticed these plants before. In the past the species was mainly coastal but it is now spreading and I imagine it could find its own way along the road network to suitably dry verges inland. Or the plants might have originated as part of a "wild seed mix", a popular choice for urban roundabouts nowadays,  but this one is out in the countryside and I didn't see any other sign of exotic "wild flowers".

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

by the roadside

Nectaroscordum siculum

A large colony of Honey Garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum), in a shady spot beside the M4 westbound, near Chippenham, Wilts.

Identifying plants at 70 mph tends to be a bit approximate.  Every so often, over the past fifteen years of commuting,  I'd get a flash of a strange group of what looked like a cross between bulrush and a giant cocksfoot. I never pinned down exactly where this was, and sometimes I even wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing up. (Evidently, the plants are not noticeable for most of the year.)

When I spied the colony again last week, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I determined to find a way to get closer. That turned out to be easy. Exit at Jct 17 (2 miles up the road), take the road to Sutton Benger, then from there the road to Seagry. Handy lay-by just before you cross the motorway. The plants are just beneath you.

On June 21st 2015, the flower-heads looked extraordinary, as weird as a Cappadocian landscape.

(When I was on the spot I assumed that the upright pinnacles were "buds", i.e. yet to flower, but I've since been told that these were post-flowering. In Nectaroscordum the flowers are upright in bud, drooping when open, then upright again in fruit.)  

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

a double circuit of barbury castle

Visit to Barbury Castle last Monday evening, June 15th 2015. The Iron Age hillfort has two concentric ramparts. The steep banks support what appears to be a fairly unspectacular chalk-land flora (e.g. Common Spotted Orchid was the only orchid that I noticed), but I found a few things interesting enough to photograph. As I sank into the details of this landscape, I knew I'd want to come back soon. 

A patch of Crested Hair-grass (Koeleria macrantha) growing on an old ant-hill. (Try to ignore the intrusive fescue...)

Panicle in full flower. 

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Monday, June 15, 2015

botanist in bath

A couple of interesting plants seen during yesterday's visit to Bath. 

A weird-looking bramble, growing among "normal" brambles, on the edge of the park at Bear Flat. With the help of the internet I've pinned this down to Rubus laciniatus, a species that's been given various English names, including Parsley-leaved Bramble, Fern-leaved Bramble, Evergreen Blackberry, and Cutleaf Evergreen Blackberry. (French: Ronce laciniée. Dutch: Peterseliebraam.)

The stems have thorns; the buds have distinctive elongations; the petals are relatively narrow and 3-lobed (or double-notched, if you prefer).

The black fruit is said to have a delicious flavour, "fruitier" than most R. fructicosus agg.  I pass by this spot fairly often, so I might get the chance to check it out.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Portrait of Robert Browning by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1855)

[Image source: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

This post compiles all the pieces that I've written about Browning. The two most substantial pieces appeared in Intercapillary Space, so I've just given links to them.


Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)

The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.


Strafford (1837)


"Bishop Blougram’s Apology" (published in Men and Women, 1855)

Of course you are remarking all this time
How narrowly and grossly I view life,
Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule
The masses, and regard complacently
‘The cabin’, in our old phrase. Well, I do.

The bishop is fascinated (in what is finally a generous way) by his effect on the young man. Whom he doesn’t wholly understand, but he knows that “life” is a revered word. He enjoys the words “narrowly” and “grossly”; intended as criticisms of him, he smacks his lips over them. This is talk not lecturing, so his sentence leaves its moorings - he obviously does not mean, what he logically implies, “how narrowly and grossly I regard complacently...”

“in our old phrase” politely includes Gigadibs (he would feel, “implicates”).

“Care to rule” is an odd phrase, perhaps a false note, but it passes the crozier/crook under our nose.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Benito Pérez Galdós: Electra (1901)

Sara Casanovas as Electra in a 2010 production at the Teatro Español

I listened to Electra in the impressive Librivox presentation - the most professional-quality Librivox play-reading that I've heard, and highly recommended! (The excellent translation was by Charles Alfred Turrell.)

Possibly because I'd found Balzac's plays such a let-down in comparison to his novels, I didn't have very high expectations of a play by Galdós. But I was wrong: Electra is terrific. And it has an importance in Galdós' career that Balzac's plays never did. Its premiere, on January 30, 1901, was scandalous. It was a great success, but its powerfully anti-clerical message led to public demonstrations. 

The traditional comparison of Galdós in Madrid with Balzac in Paris or Dickens in London is misleading in several respects. Both the earlier authors can be reasonably claimed to have had truly national audiences. Balzac was an idiosyncratic kind-of-conservative; but so large a presence rose above political divisions. And the great radical Dickens was read by all of English society. There might be mutterings from some quarters about the "sullen socialism" of The Chimes and Hard Times, but even conservative readers had been unable to resist Pickwick and Little Nell. By the time of Dicken's greatest novels, he was as much of an established institution as Christmas. 

Galdós wrote in a more fiercely polarized society. His audience in his own lifetime was far more restricted. For the conservative and pious majority, his work was considered off limits. And Electra set the seal on that.

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in the business park 2

Two plants that crop up on the extended paved areas that are used for parking. Photos from the beginning of June, 2015.

Above and below, Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) - probably ssp. leptocladus, though I need fruits to confirm.

You need to go to the back of the car-park to find this. It only likes the parking-spaces that nobody ever parks in.

Rat's-tail Fescue (Vulpia myuros). Springs up in paving cracks (often just a single spike). This, however, is a more robust plant from the edge of the car-park. The panicles are long and drooping (e.g compared to Squirreltail Fescue, V. bromoides) and the lower glume is typically 25-40% length of upper glume, whereas in V. bromoides the lower glume is >50% length of upper glume.

Here's more info than you probably want about it: (from the Invasive Species Compendium).

[CABI is a not-for-profit organization for agricultural and environmental research and data. It developed from the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, who originally studied tropical pests. Now a major source of global data on species of interest to agriculture and conservation.]

Rat's-tail Fescue is considered by BRC an archaeophyte (ancient introduction) rather than a native plant, but that's hard to be certain about. Like other Vulpia species, it has become noticeably more widespread in the past fifty years. This is the most common Vulpia species in urban environments.

The two photos below show the panicle, which can look one-sided from certain angles. Sometimes, as here, the spikelets stand proud from the main stem and stick out like the teeth on a comb.

Dewy morning: a pure sward of Vulpia myuros on recently disturbed ground 

Small Toadflax (Chaenorhinum minus) by a kerbside. A pretty plant when seen in close-up, but easily overlooked because it's so small.

In the business park 1


Thursday, June 04, 2015

another fine Yponomeuta mess....

I guess I'm getting my eye in for Yponomeuta outbreaks now. 

This is part of a length of hedge in the Swindon business park where I work.  I noticed it while driving past yesterday and thought: Hmm, I know what that's about. Sure enough, closer inspection revealed that the hedge was being absolutely blitzed by an Yponomeuta explosion. 

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a sense of complicity - scratchpad

This is a theme that crops up a lot in the vicinity of Andrea Brady's poetry. Commentators mention it. The poetry mentions it. ("Winter Quarters", "Friendship 2") - the poetry, everywhere, is alert to it. You might almost say, lives and dies by it.

In our world it's hard to escape.

So thanks, Obama administration.

I am not very happy, right now, with the activities of Royal Dutch Shell, as they crow over their arctic adventure go-ahead.

Yet I drive, eat, heat and earn. (It's been estimated that 20% of pension funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.)

(I think we should now routinely call them fossil fuel companies. "Energy companies" is an attempt to occupy the centre ground that is now totally inappropriate.)

In fact you could say that a general unease and disapproval of fossil fuel industries goes back with me to teenage years. That was 40 years ago, and I don't think I'd heard of global warming, but it seemed vaguely wrong to me (and of course many others) that we were "using up the planet's resources". We were very protective of the planet, this big bouncing baby that was suddenly wriggling in the arms of my generation after all those millennia of being far too big for human beings to conceive let alone affect.

This was how I felt when university pals went off to earn big bucks with Schlumberger.

It was in the late 80s when we began to think that "the greenhouse effect" presented a more immediate danger than exhausting the planet. Svante Arrhenius had floated the concept in 1896, but no-one had thought it was really happening. Then the papers told us that the poles were melting. Cows and termites might have something to do with it, but it was mainly all about fossil fuels. 1998 was the hottest year on record.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Books to go

Another home move, and a clearout. The books are going to Julian House in Bath.

A consequence of relativism is that I could almost as happily keep these books and get rid of others. Most of these books I part with only because I have too many to read; some are favourites that I look forward to finding again one day.


For example, John Lothrop Motley, the first volume of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1855). An Everyman hardback; a format for reading that, in my opinion, has never been bettered. How happy I am that formerly, at least, I had time for these deep dives. Now I can only wonder at the marvellous first chapter. Motley's classical idea of the ancient Netherlands being populated partly by yellow-haired Gauls and partly by red-haired Germans is a structuring myth that the few facts in Caesar and Tacitus can be strung around.

The truculent German, Ger-mann, Heer-mann, War-man, considered carnage the only useful occupation, and despised agriculture as enervating and ignoble. It was base, in his opinion, to gain by sweat what was more easily acquired by blood. ...

The contrast between priest-ridden Gauls and austerely monotheistic Germans is Motley preparing the ground for his later account of the Catholic-leaning Belgians and the Protestant Dutch. (As also, his claim that the ancient German government was fundamentally democratic, the Celts aristocratic.)


There's just time to mention, before night falls on it, one of the more obscure volumes in this big box.

Through the Land of Babylonia: A Fascinating Tour in Bible Lands by Leonard T. Pearson (1939, revised 1951). The Rev. L.T. Pearson travelled initially in a Nairn bus across the Syrian desert (with a party of 9, including three ladies); once in Iraq the party travelled by sleeper-train and Rolls Royce motor-car.

Pearson proves from the Bible that 1938 is the year when the time of the Gentiles comes to an end and the Holy Land becomes once more the gathering of the Hebrew people; as foretold, exactly 2520 years after Nebuchadnezzar. He takes his Bible very literally. The vitrified brick of Birs Nimrud is, in his view, the remnant of God's high-heat desolation of the Tower of Babel.  The silt found at Kish and Ur is a remnant of the Great Flood (3200 BC in Pearson's reckoning).

The long day spent in the ruins of Ur inspecting the walls and buildings of various ages, examining the pottery and piecing together the stories of the past, cause one to return to the Hotel on wheels, filled with wonder. On turning in for the night and with one's thoughts still back in the very early ages, the writer was brought abruptly into the present by a tap on the window and the stationmaster said:-- "Mr. Pearson, I thought you would like to know that Cambridge has won the boat race -- I've got it over the wire!"
Pearson's style veers between this pleasant homeliness and exalted preaching. Thus, passing the natural Oil Wells between Kirkuk and Mosul, and seeing patches of fire ("It is Hydrogen, which, when coming in contact with the air, bursts into flame"), he thinks this may be the Burning Fiery Furnace in the book of Daniel, and he homilizes:

The Law of the Sabbath is broken, even in church circles, the Word of God is popularised by taking out the very portions that would "hurt" the reader to his heart's good. The world today is worshipping "flesh" as in no previous generation under the guise of health, and exalted to the rank of deity until modesty, prudence and purity are ordered to the flames of extinction. It is in the suffering that the Christ is made manifest, it was so in Nebuchadnezzar's day, in Smithfield's bonfires, and it will be until Christ is revealed in the fullness of His Glory.

Meanwhile we arrive at Nineveh where the author takes the opportunity to demonstrate the literal truth of the story of Jonah, and to explain that Christ's three days and three nights in the tomb (paralleling the whale) actually ran from Wednesday sunset to Saturday sunset.

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a walk in the park

Cherry Tree, Bath 5th April 2015

This tree is beside the pond in Royal Victoria Park, Bath.

A single-flowered pink cherry ought to be Sargent Cherry (P. sargentti), but this tree looks very different to the ones I'm used to seeing in Shaw (Swindon), pictured here. (On the trees in Swindon the leaves emerge beetroot-red along with the flowers.)  I suppose the other possibility is that this is a Yoshino Cherry (P. x yedoensis), but their blossom is nearly white, usually. The date could support either - the Sargent Cherries in Shaw bloomed the following day.

Possibly the tempering effect of water accounts for the profusion of blossom on the lower branches.

Conveniently growing next to it, the double flowers of Prunus 'Accolade' , which is a hybrid between P. sargentii and the Winter Cherry P. subhirtella. 'Accolade' comes into flower a few days earlier than Sargent Cherry.

Prunus 'Accolade'

Prunus 'Accolade'


Monday, May 11, 2015

the snowy scratch-card

OK, I admit it, I'm only posting this to see how my new email subscription service Feedburner (sign up over there on the right!) will handle multiple posts in a single day. (Not something that's likely to happen very often, but hey.)



"The Rushes", I think, is Andrea Brady's name for her occasional poems: speedy here-and-now one-off poems which don't belong to a larger project such as the extended verse-essay Wildfire (Krupskaya 2010).

What's cut from the rushes here, then, are two swathes: Embrace (previously published separately in 2005), and Presenting, which consists of more recent poems. The implication, maybe, is that there's a whole marshland of other uncollected poems out there. Which is quite an impressive thought, because Cut from the Rushes is an exhausting reading experience. Not for the number of poems , but for the demands made by each one.

The title might mean a bit more. At any rate, "cut" is a word that turns up very frequently in Brady's texts (as it does, also, in Prynne's). In one word it concentrates the grand themes of physical violence and cultural manipulation; public opinion is manufactured;  - as Brady noted in her Quid essay about post 9/11 grief.

You might entertain the hope that the occasions of the poems would be obvious, and in some cases this is true. E.g the much-discussed "Saw Fit" (Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib) or "The Gloucester, The Illustrious" (Operation Highbrow, evacuation of British citizens from Beirut in 2006) or  "Vision in Neutrals" (sub-titled A Coalition Pastoral). Reading the reviews, which naturally favour what the reviewer can talk about, you sometimes get the impression that the poems are all like this. But they're not. Most of the poems are highly oblique about their occasions. Most often the poem-titles are riddling puns ("Sight Unseen") or just riddles ("In Album Men") or personal notes ("To Castellina").

A poem like "In Album Men" has an occasion, all right, but not really a public occasion: more about holidaying in Turkey. The locations include Uçhisar in Cappadocia, Olympos in Lycia, and maybe the Lydian aqueducts.

 Mevsimlik sailors cut the Eurovision frigate in to hove 

(See, I told you the word "cut" was a regular.) "Mevsimlik" is Turkish for Etesian - the summer northerly of the Aegean, considered "a good steady sailing wind preferred by many leisure sailors" (Wikipedia). There's a sneer lurking here, about the leisure sailors. In the poem the sneer (and the leisure) becomes applied to the cultural tourists who file through Turkey like Xenophon's mercenaries. I.e Brady herself.

While Mutability was very specifically domestic in its concerns, this was nothing new. Brady has always uncaringly done things that are supposed to typify mainstream poets: for example, writing about herself, family, relationships, the domestic and quotidian, and holidays. Of course the way she does it is distinctive. But the point is, she doesn't need to demonstrate where she stands in the poetry world.

This is surely a strength. After all, there are reasons why these subjects are so popular among the poets and audiences of today. They are itches we need to scratch. They are politically sensitive and much-cut-up battlegrounds. They are the place where we play out a dialogue of feeling and forgetting our complicity. They are where the money gets spent. They are the site of desire and of such values, visions and ideals as still remain to us.

In some other respects, too, Brady stands out from the mass of post-avant writing.



Much post-avant writing disdains the similes and metaphors that mainstream authors cherish. Brady is willing and able to deploy brilliant similes.

                                       Flock of friendly parables catch
the air like whiffle balls. Hard to loft, they are harder to gather.   

("Paradise Gardens 1 and 2")

(This reminds me that Brady is an American poet as well as a London poet and a Cambridge poet. "Precinct" comes easier when the word is interpreted in a US way. "Child Stars on Trial" is totally Brady, but the passing hint of Arielle Greenberg isn't simply a coincidence)

will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park?

(Mutability, p. 109)

smoke unbundled like measuring tape

("Hymn On The Nativity")

grenades, built to appeal to the hand
like an American football

("Thrown Fire", in Wildfire)

Most post-avant poems avoid a resonant ending: not open-field enough: they cultivate a muted fade. But many of Brady's poems end with a knockout.

                   so gorgeous
a hush falls down
the fault of language.
("To Be Continued")

Or this, a clincher that is also a brilliant simile.

Because you are righteous you open your
head every day, joy cut-in like a kite mark. 

("Commercial In Confidence")



Nevertheless, the poems in Cut from the Rushes are difficult. They never resolve into simple or single meanings. And yet the urgency of the poem challenges us to find meaning, and not just any meaning either.

For me this unassuming book, described only as "her fifth book of poems", is the stark centre of her work as it stands right now.

The poems are difficult. That's less true of Mutability, a book that many will be able to read with simple happiness. In a different way it's also less true of Wildfire, because at least you know what the poem is about.



Work from home encased in plastic.

This is how "Ergon" begins. The poem is about work. The words carry two meanings straight away. One is a general comment on that cliché of the workplace, "working from home". The poem is naturally concerned with the modern idea (presented as paradisal) of taking your work anywhere, of work infiltrating the homeplace, of jumping on planes between pressing Ctrl-S to save your document. Behind that, again, looms another phrase with rather different social connotations: the "home workers", that quintessentially modern addition to the army of the exploited, lured by delusive promises of £££ in adverts on lamp-posts and Gumtree.

The second meaning is more specific and autobiographical: the author looking at a plastic binder of the work she brought from home: student marking, maybe, or photocopies of funerary elegies. It's concise: we know we are talking about papers though papers are not mentioned. (Compare the passage in "Table Talk" where a sheep must have "plunged onto the strand from the pasture": we are aware of the unmentioned sea-cliff.)

Here's the whole of the first paragraph.

Work from home encased in plastic. Is it
born or learned gentleness, can
ungreased applications be worked in
no sweating   Work for
cardiac health, go past dinner for broke
go throat backed up with morals
not to do anything different but keep
go   And backed against the lists
scare easily. 

A kind of meditation begins, still on the two potentially conflicting topics of work in general and of Brady's unusual line of work in particular. For example, the nature-or-nurture question of the second line:
"learned gentleness" uneasily combines the instilled tractability of the workforce, and the "learnèd" exercise of a gentle profession.

The poem asks another question: "can ungreased applications be worked in no sweating". At one level the question is about the viability of the concept of  a kind of work that rises above money ("ungreased" - unbribed). Work that, even when you've stripped it of its self-delusions, doesn't merely instantiate the sweatshop.

The poem is open inasmuch as it already comprehends a wide spectrum of work: from literally unpaid poetry to rewarding, self-realising, professionalism to any type of work that is conceived or presented as not merely labour; work that aspires to be something that can be enjoyed or be good for the worker or with a quasi-moral value in itself.

Somewhat unexpectedly, though not for Brady fans, the poem refuses easy contrasts between academic noodling and factory floors. Instead it recognizes a community of work, though it may be a community of illusion. It is certainly, as the last sentence indicates, a community of shared insecurities and fears.

"Backed against the lists scare easily": Brady's poems stretch so widely for multi-valency, and withal so freely combine the personal with the general, that I half-suspect a glance at those academic "lists" (closed internet forums) that are the regular pabulum of innovative poets and renaissance scholars alike. But the principal image comes from jousting. The workers are not the knights but their horses (work-horses, obviously), backed against the lists (barriers) and, like any cornered animal, prone to panic.

("Ergon" and "Table Talk" are in Cut from the Rushes)



London covered in, debilitated by, joying in snow: seven inches or more, Siberian airs, North Sea waters. You're oblivious, stuck inside with a running cold and laughing all through your dinner: it's surprise which evokes you, you delight at the simple plosives that come from a resting face, eyes thrown upward to indicate 'wait for it'. Or you cough, I say 'exCUSE me' in highest camp, and you give your bawdy laugh: this is conversation. But also nothing surprises you, so will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park? 

 from Mutability: Scripts for Infancy - "You" is Brady's daughter Ayla, eight months old in Feb 2009 when this was written.

"innumerable" gently ushers in Tennyson's "Come Down, O Maid":

the children call, and I
Thy shepherd pipe, and sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

In this final post of Mutability the poet celebrates the quiescent and fertile before turning to head back up to the "dusky doors" of greed, exploitation, complicity and violence. (Brady's more usual topics)

The child learns to be surprised. There must be a playing-field of the unsurprising before surprise can occur. In learning what to be surprised by, one becomes who one is: "surprise evokes you". Or, we are most vividly ourselves when sprung alert by surprise.

"This is conversation".  While fondly pretending to self-mock the inanities of baby-time and to contrast them with the fiercely intellectual colloquies of the day-job, yet it's also a recognition that much that we call conversation, once you strip off the apparent topic under discussion. consists of just such childish rocking and play and fidgets.



The simple happiness of the writing of Mutability is, if a compulsion, yet grasped with a full will and consciousness. It is not over-thought; the thought is intrinsic to it; but of course it is meditated.

But what if the note -- record of zeal overflowing -- sponges off your initiate life? ... the troubled line between domesticity and action, home and writing.... The chronic absenteeism of a political critique must have its letter. ... But not to dwell in you, on it, would be an act of penance, of asceticism. ... Is love ever progressive, if all happiness is just a fragment of the entire happiness people are denied? ... I miss a humane account of the household, of friendship, paracosms that prevent our utter ruination. 

(sentences from Mutability, pp. 11-13)

The absent critique is moving forward in those very questions. And the nursery is a foundry of society.

                    We cook you up,
knowing the chemistry is irreversible
and the past evaporates under any sky:
harming you into being, survivably indifferent. 

(Mutability, p. 11)



Now bring forth the beast that ruled the world with's beck,And tear his flesh  and set your feet on's neck;And make his filthy den so desolate,To th' 'stonishment of all that knew his state.

(quoted in "Cultural Affairs in Boston")

"Cultural Affairs in Boston" is itself a quoted title (from John Wieners) and the poem appears at first glance a mass of Bostonian references. This quotation is marked out from the rest by the italics. It's from Anne Bradstreet's poem "A Dialogue Between Old England and New", which is usually celebrated as evincing a woman and an American having the temerity to criticize and bewail the corrupt state of Old England, then embroiled in civil war (this was in 1642).

But Brady's quotation comes from a part of the poem that is quietly dropped from the Norton Anthology. Old England laments the civil war, but New England is, on the contrary, highly enthusiastic about it. She (New England) urges the Parliamentarians to drive Papism out of Old England with all the bloodiness necessary to righteousness, and to make full use of the machinery of justice.

Let Gaols be fill'd with th' remnant of that pack
And sturdy Tyburn loaded till it crack. 

But why stop at the English Channel? Why not destroy Rome for good and all? (That's what Brady's quotation is talking about specifically.) Indeed, why not lay waste to Turkey, too? (Bradstreet, who learnt from John Foxe, associated Turkey's expansionism in Europe and Palestine with the Antichrist and hence with Ezekiel's Gog.)

As an image of long-distance bellicosity Bradstreet's narrowly Puritan poem, burning with indignation over the slaughter of Protestants in Ireland and La Rochelle, could hardly be bettered. But in Bradstreet's time New England was not a seat of power, its opinions on international affairs didn't count for much; they do now.

The presence of Bradstreet's poem in "Cultural Affairs in Boston" (in this quotation, and in more covert references elsewhere) completely transforms the social comedy of its account of the Cambridge poets' visit to this cultural capitol on April 13th, 2007.

the regular army training in sculls
points us up the Charles towards Winthrop
and guacamole from Grendel's kitchen,
Robin tears his Reuben limb from limb. 
The comic violence of Robin Purves' struggle with his sandwich underlies a structure that is admittedly based on cultural stereotypes of the US and its momentary Brit invaders ("are you some kind of invading army?"). But underlying that, is the fact of the two nations partnering in foreign wars against their perceived Gogs.  

The violence is queasily combined with a certain cartoonish unreality: American religiosity of "cartoon cloudlands" and "disney wings", and British animations in the "YouTube ornithocheirus" (presumably they're watching episode 4 of the Beeb's Walking With Dinosaurs) - the pterosaur Ornithocheirus, another translatlantic migrant fosillized in the Cambridge greensand. In different ways the monster-battles of Beowulf and the unrealistic incitements of Bradstreet's poem partake of that cartoonish unreality. Yet, somewhere far off from Harvard, the violence is being made real.

"She Cannot Take Any Credit For This One", says the poem's subtitle. The poem is characterized by a certain doubling: Robin with Reuben, Harvard with Cambridge... And the subtitle perhaps just glances at those chiming names, Andrea Brady and Anne Bradstreet, women poets who emigrated to different Englands. As always in Brady's work, the poem cancels the author's "ethical priority" (this phrase comes from the afterword to Wildfire) in favour of a shared complicity. (Commentators who have felt the need to acclaim Brady's supposedly exceptional lack of self-regard are pulling in the opposite direction to her own poems.)



"Chorale" is a prose poem that appears to describe a barbecue but is haunted by suggestions that what is being barbecued is the planet. That's from the opening words ("Around the pole blooms surrogate fire"). It isn't just streamers round a maypole. Later on, hope melts and fizzes "like ice dropped on soda", observers are "griddled with light", and we prepare to sail in "hot fat seas of ruin". The poem ends:

We should draw up a plan with these tongs, sticky with the fleshes, but as hope floats we are too busy. Too busy watching.

That is rather more than the machine for complicity that is any western city. It confesses to being horribly entertained by the slow drama that the oil era has set in train. (Is any drama without oil now in fact imaginable?) And it places the emphasis, perhaps too squarely, on hope being just as manufactured a substance as democratic opinion or public grief.

It's easy, of course, to see the mechanism of complicity in outbursts of media-filtered emotion. But "watching" comprises more than being idly entertained. In another sense, we urgently need to watch; that is, to comprehend the details of what's done in our name. But what we seek to understand we tend to get used to.

And besides, a sense of complicity is necessary to understanding, for example, incendiaries. We need to recognize why we want a world lit up by phosphorus. To write Wildfire Brady had to risk celebrating it. That's why, I think, her afterword begins by claiming that "It" (the essay) tries to persuade us... etc. Why this evasiveness? Why couldn't she say "I'm trying to persuade you"? Apparently the author cannot claim her essay's good intentions.  

Wildfire, sparked by the US troops' use of White Phosphorus in Fallujah, is structured around thehistory of incendiary devices, most of them not phosphorus-based. But Wildfire aims to place that combustive topic in wider contexts, psychological and social alike. The oil era is also in its sights, as is indeed clear from the epigraph to the whole book, a quotation from Louis Aragon:

Texaco motor oil, Esso, Shell, great inscriptions of human potentiality, soon we shall cross ourselves before your fountains, and the youngest among us will perish from having contemplated their nymphs in naphtha.

That theme returns in the section titled "Crude".

Wildfire exists in two forms. The paper form contains only the poetic text (plus some interesting photo-images). The online version contains the text too, but with hyperlinks that lead us to the poem's main source-texts. Brady herself has worried (in interviews) that this hyperlinked presentation short-circuited the verse-essay from being read as verse: we get too stuck in to the essay aspect, to a fund of modern news articles, G.H. Schubert's extraordinary speculations, Browning's "Karshish", the Ancrene Wisse, and so forth. And this isn't such a bad way to read Wildfire : the information startles.

But, to take "Crude" as an example, relatively little of its dense pair of pages is fully accounted for by the links; and the links tend to narrow its scope, i.e. to the history of one well-attested ingredient of ancient incendiaries such as Greek Fire: "naphtha", the combustible substance that was more or less how the ancients conceived of crude oil and other naturally occurring hydrocarbons (the distilled substance kerosene was known as "white naphtha").

After one of its pauses for redirection, the poem begins talking about the kerosene heaters (UK: paraffin heaters) used by poor families. Brady means her own childhood: the rayon pyjamas, the Vaseline, and having to keep the window open because of the fumes.

and runs the little heaters in poor homes.
I dried my curls before the soph hop,
came aspiring into the night perfumed like a pick-up;

But the sentimentalism is not hers. This is the language of the enablement argument, routinely used by dirty fuel industries to defend their profit. (Recently, Peabody Coal provided the heartwarming example of bringing heating to poor villagers in China - this is what lies behind Tony Abbott's claim, that "coal is good for humanity". The Chinese woman who did the voiceover was later identified as a Monsanto executive.)

The acrid pick-up (truck) smell of the poem is hardly dispelled by the discomfiting reference to another child in nightwear, victim of the Haditha massacre.

"Runs"... that innocent-looking little word encapsulates the issue. On the one hand, kerosene runs heaters in the way that petrol runs motors: it fuels them, it serves them, it enables them: just as coal from the Galilee Basin serves poor Chinese villages. On the other hand, executives run businesses: to manage, to control, to make a human system turn on its cogs. This isn't merely a double meaning. The two aspects always come together, and that's one reason why the oil era is so difficult to get out of. After all, it is an enabler, for example of blog posting on a laptop in a warm dry room.

"Crude" is obsessed by visions of automatic human systems (it uses the concepts of RepRap, of helpless replication). For there's another familiar problem with how the oil era smooths the paths of our thinking. In Wildfire Brady's theme is chiefly explosive: sudden, one-time, catastrophe. There may of course be many such: the explosions that "flash along the street like bunting". But in the combustion engine these explosions are, paradoxically, in the service of smoothness, order and regularity. Like the gas fired peakers that ignite automatically, perhaps only once or twice in a year, so as to maintain the overall stability of supply to end-users. In the oil era regularity itself, social order itself, is a chain of explosions.

So, in what way is it legitimate, as it certainly must be, to connect oil-as-fuel with battlefield weaponry? That, or something like it, is the question that "Crude" revolves; the notorious fumes of those domestic kerosene heaters being merely a jocular glance at an easy answer. Here, on the one hand, are queasy images of smoothness, continuity and social order: the gleaming surface of "carpooled naptha", the automatic, the Nectar (loyalty card), broadcast and trade.


Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)

Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), Middleleaze 7th April 2015

Named after Johannes Thal (1542–83), German physician and botanist. His Sylva Hercynia (written 1577, published 1588) is the first flora to attempt coverage of all the plants in a region, not just the ones with known medicinal properties. (It was, for example, the first to describe this charming and ubiquitous plant.)

Hercynia, in this case, meant the Harz mountains of N. Germany. *

Thal was severely injured in a horse and cart accident while on his way to visit a patient, and died a month or two later, aged only 41.

* It's possible that the MHG word "Harz" (mountain-forest) is somehow derived from the word Hercynia. Classically, the Hercynian forest (as described by Caesar, Tacitus, etc) covered a much wider area: a vast band extending eastward from the Rhine and running right across Germany, Bohemia, Romania... The Harz, like the Black Forest, is a relict.

Not to be confused with Hyrcania, classical name for a region of Iran immediately south of the Caspian (formerly Hyrcanian) Sea. In later writers (such as Shakespeare), the name usually crops up as a haunt of tigers. Probably Virgil was the key reason for this widely-dispersed meme, when he has Dido accuse Aeneas , "Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres" (Hyrcanian tigers nursed you). Tigers became extinct in this region in the 1970s.

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