Thursday, August 16, 2007

additional notes on the below

Regular readers will know that I'm apt to carry on expanding blog entries for some time after their initial publication, though I know this can be a frustrating practice and I apologise for it. I never really regard any of the entries as finished. Just this once I'll try and group a few additions here:

On the stone pine: Mussolini's regime became totalitarian in 1924, the same year as Respighi's Pini di Roma. Since I was impolite enough to speculate about a common admiration for the military machine of Classical Rome, I will redress the balance with another speculation: that perhaps the opening part of Respighi's later Feste Romane (1929), the brutal gladiatorial combat titled "Circenses", makes its own comment on those who would reassert the values of ancient Rome.

Plums: I went and filled up a mighty bag of plums. The whole lot came from just a few of the most accessible branches of the most accessible tree. It's easy to forget the awe-inspiring superfluity implied in the word "glut"; there were enough plums on these dozen trees to feed the whole neighbourhood. Removing them from the fridge after a week, they looked awkward to deal with and I wondered how I'd ever remove the stones. In fact it was easy, just heat them up, give them a few cursory prods with a fork or slashes with a breadknife and they melt down very satisfactorily. Eventually the only pale fish in this deep red broth are the stones, which can then be lifted out with a spoon. (The stones also identify themselves by the distinctive noise of a wooden clack against the spoon as you stir it all around.) I've added what I thought was quite a lot of sugar but the mixture is still very tart. There's enough to fill a hundred small pies and it remains to be seen if this Herculean labour ever occurs.

August vegetation: Around maize-fields and in urban sites I keep seeing a group of alien species including cockspur grass (Echinocloa), bristle-grass (Setaria) and amaranth (Amaranthus). I'm sufficiently deterred by Clive Stace from attempting closer identification. While discussing the last of these families, Stace takes the opportunity to insert one of those stray personal judgements that are the light relief of botanical books: he calls Celosia argentea, much utilized in park bedding schemes, "probably the world's ugliest plant". Aficionados will recall Francis Rose's equally unexpected lyricism about the Lady Orchid "one of the most beautiful European plants". Both these intrusions occur in texts otherwise systematically descriptive for some hundreds of pages, and are like the "easter eggs" that were once the secret delight of those engaged in the numbing task of coding operating systems.

Since I'm on the subject, something I never understood until today is how the idyllic classical connotations of "amaranth" came to be associated with such an apparently unpromising genus as the pigweeds. Did Browning's Paracelsus, exclaiming: "Twine amaranth!" imagine twining such stiff upright greeny-brown spikes? Was the author of Fields of Amaranth (in Powell's novel) an aficionado of salt-marshes? The explanation is this: the classical amaranth was a legendary flower that never faded, associated with immortality. The generic name Amaranthus was given to the popular Victorian garden annual Love-lies-bleeding (A. caudatus) - originating in South America - because its long lax magenta spikes kept their colour when used in dried flower arrangements. This decorative plant turns out to be in the same genus as the mundane species (somewhat resembling docks and goosefoots) that you find around the Mediterrean; a few of them native to those parts, though many unintentionally introduced from America, e.g. A. retroflexus, the Common Amaranth. With the warmer weather they are becoming commoner in the UK, too.

Running: I learnt a lesson today. I wanted a new route and cut out of the town eastwards past a new housing development (formerly, a factory) and so down to the river. I know there was a return-path along the river that would bring me nearly back to my home, so I set off along it. It was early morning and the grass was (as some poet said, though I can't remember who) "rough with dew". When the grass turned into waist-high stands of Indian Balsam I started to get very wet and ran on holding my mobile phone above my head (I've already destroyed one this summer by subjecting it to a cloudburst on the Mendips). As I ran through it, I set off a train of small gunfire, the explosive dehiscence of balsam fruits. The lesson is that I should have worked out at this point that no-one had been using the path all summer and I should have turned back. Instead, not recalling exactly how much further I had to go, I carried on running. I didn't mind much about being soaked or my feet landing ankle-deep in obscured swamp; but the problem came later when stinging-nettles took the place of the Indian Balsam. My legs had no protection at all, and while a few nettle stings are not worth mentioning, a quarter of a mile of stings at every step is more disconcerting. Still, it was useless to turn back now, so on I went. I distantly remembered that it was good for the circulation to be stung by nettles. When I got home both my legs were a uniform blotch of red, not a centimeter unstung; this evening, they still tingle incessantly. All very entertaining, of course. Still, I won't be running along that path again - at least, not until winter comes to clear it all out. The stings are, after all, intended as a deterrent. It's disrespectful to ignore nature's messages too flagrantly; you'll come a cropper, says the accumulated weight of culture from Hesiod onwards...

[That night, the entertaining tingle turned more fretful - I couldn't get to sleep. But after that things were OK, though even a week later I can re-activate the irritation by scratching my shins. The sting contains formic acid, histamine and serotonin according to Wikipedia. There's an annual competition for eating raw nettle leaves at the Bottle Inn in Marshwood, Dorset - the men's record, held by Samuel Ellis, is the leaves from 52 feet (about 16m) of stems eaten in one hour. I expect he had a pint of beer to wash it down.]



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