Monthly Archives: January 2007


Before I started to write this article I noticed the side bar stats counter was claiming: There are 370 posts – a total of 137085 words written here (and counting). And in my clunky maths mind I thought ‘Oh cool – that’s 100 posts at 370 words per post – how symetrical – or something.’

As it turns out that although that was obviously wrong; strangely, at the same time that’s right. There was 370 posts, and that works out to be an average of 370 words per post. Coincidence? I think not! Merely apophenia.

you don’t know what you’ve got…

View Ladies of the Canyon by Joni Mitchell product details at AmazonBack in 1970, Joni Mitchell released the Ladies of the Canyon album. One of the classic songs (initially released as a single and then incorporated into the album) was the Big Yellow Taxi. It became something of an anthem for the army of environmentalists beginning to awake and arise. According to wikipedia, Mitchell was inspired by the tropical landscape on view from the window of her Hawaiian hotel, and then noticed the paved parking lot at the foot of the hotel. The tree museum relates to the Foster Botanical Garden in Waikiki – home to a number of rare and endangered species. It’s still a great song.

View In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander product details at AmazonA few months back I wrote about the impact of technology, and how in the book In the Absence of the Sacred Mander outlines the impact that technology, specifically television has had on the oral traditions of the Inuit people in north Canada. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that Mander is just one of these whine-y luddite-type people complaining about tv. In other words, someone not unlike myself. Was it true – were the Inuit missing anything real by watching tv?

Inuuqatigiit, The Curriculum from the Inuit Perspective,

Traditionally, Inuit did not have a written language. All of Inuit history, knowledge, values and beliefs were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. The information was contained in both songs and stories, repeated to children by their parents and grandparents as they grew.

Knowledge, traditions, stories, legends, myths, songs, beliefs and history were passed on. Often, a family camp would have an Elder who was the historian and storyteller. There were also others within the camp who told stories. Stories and songs were shared at special celebrations or during storms, but were also told every day as a way to get children to sleep or behave, or to give instruction in hunting or sewing skills. The storyteller often started by saying, “I will tell it as it was told to me, I will not alter it….” There would often be chants and songs in the story which the listeners got involved with through facial expressions, body language, murmurs of wonder and a great deal of enjoyment.

Abe Okpik observes in What Does It Mean to Be an Eskimo?

It is up to the Eskimos of today to use their Eskimo strength of word and thought. It is up to the young people. If they don’t learn and use the language and the stories and songs, they will have nothing special to give to their children. It’s no good looking like an Eskimo if you can’t speak like one.

There are only very few Eskimos, but millions of whites, just like mosquitoes. It is something very special and wonderful to be an Eskimo – they are like snow geese. If an Eskimo forgets his language and Eskimo ways, he will be nothing but just another mosquito.

Alexina Kublu and Mick Mallon explain why:

Two factors chip away at the stronghold of a minority language such as Inuktitut. One is that by the time parents realize its use is disappearing, it is already too late. The second factor is the overwhelming power of English, a power felt today across the world. It’s not just that English is the language of Shakespeare, and Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood. It is also the language of Coca-Cola, and the Apollo program, and Bill Gates, and Michael Jackson, and Disney World. English is the language of power, and of glitter. Parents use English to link their children to the source of power.

OK, so it is possible to see the loss of knowledge through the loss of language. But this is all about indigenous knowledge – how to hunt walrus (although interesting in itself) really doesn’t have a lot of meaning to me. The nearest walruses in my world are the codgers at the Karori Bowling Club.
image from via Photographer Charles Sorrell - KHS Collection - Alexander Turnbull Library Ref P-AC-5277-00001-03
Image: – photographer Charles Sorrell – KHS Collection
Alexander Turnbull Library Ref P-AC-5277-00001-03

It is possible these ‘walruses’ might have had a very real meaning to me and my, we and our, lives. ‘Indigenous’ knowledge is not just the province of small tribes of people living in isolated communities, it affects – it is affecting – us as well. For those of us who speak English, the issue is not one of losing the words, it’s the technology that is being lost. It sounds strange that we are losing technology, given that in our house we have superior computing technology than was used to send people into space in the Apollo program (although I still retain a slide rule, log tables, and an abacus in case the power goes off). It is unlikely that we will enter into the space race any time soon however.

So what indigenous knowledge or technology did the walruses probably hold that is being lost? Three words. Home food production. Far more insidious than the loss of language (for us) is the gentle globalisation and specialisation of food. Sure, we can go to the supermarket and be bombarded by the stupefying selection of foodstuffs. I recently counted over a dozen different varieties of beetroot offerings. Not sizes of can, varieties of ingredients. The big issue is, odds are it will be based on the one variety of beetroot. With the eleven secret herbs and spices added…

The techniques of food production gardening, including the diversity of food species is diminishing. Right here, right now. In the fertile soils and encouraging climate of New Zealand, land of the number 8 wire, do it yourself approach to life, the knowledge of how to produce food at home is diminishing daily. Why? Because the people with the practical knowledge and experience gained over the seasons are dying or retiring to old folks home and the information is not being passed on. Further, the seeds that previously provided diversity of variety (and resistance to disease and pests) are also being lost simply because people don’t bother to use them. More convenient to go to the supermarket and buy the produce ready prepared – or if you are a keen gardener, you can buy your seeds there too. Rarely will they be anything other than the mass produced species – grown more for their consistent production than food or flavour or cultural or resistance values.

I can’t substantiate my claims using New Zealand figures, but I believe the USA figures are at the very least indicative. I’ve made the graph from an excel sheet available at the Economic Research Service of the USA Department of Agriculture Briefing Room, Food CPI, Prices and Expenditures: Food at Home. I noted the link from Kitchen Gardeners International, who note home food production is in freefall (production declined by 20% from 2004 to 2005); following a link from Bifurcated Carrots – Patrick’s writing on Gardening Trends.

home food production graphTaking a look at the graph, it took 56 years (1890-1945) to drop from the peak of 38% to 20% (prior to 1890 the figures were calculated in ten year blocks, not annually). From 1946-1958 (13 years) the percentage went from 19% to 10%; with the 1% figure finally reached in 2001. From 1968-1979 the percentage was a steady 5% – perhaps as result of the environmental movement, hippies, and who knows what else would have steadying influence. Joni, was that you?

It could be considered from the numbers that in 1890, 3-4 households in 10 were producing their own food. I suspect in New Zealand it would be rather higher, as there were fewer industrial or commercial centres. By 1946 approximately 2 in 10. By 1958, 1 in 10. By 2001, 1 in 100. I would guess in the suburb I live in, where the walruses play bowls, the numbers are much the same. I regularly stroll around the streets – it’s rare to see a backyard with much more than a superficial nudge towards a vegetable garden. I’ve had cause recently to visit a number of ‘gardens’ – you might see a couple of herbs, or a random cabbage, silver beet, tomato, or, on occasion, a potato. Mostly in isolation. In fact, if anyone grew all of those they’d be seen as fairly hard core horticulturalists.

In the time that the graph covers from 1946-2005, 60 years have elapsed – many of the people old enough to have understood the subtleties of gardening and subsequent food production (and only a percentage actually did have the knowledge) in 1946 have, of course, died. The loss of the technology built on oral traditions in our own culture is immeasurable, and probably irreplaceable.

This is not the kind of information that is preserved in books. Books – from any age – capture the highlights, but they cannot ever replace the hands-on experience, nor answer the spontaneous questions. Anyone writing down instructions for another will quickly discover the gaps between their accumulated tacit knowledge and the voids of the other person. I have rung my Mum for recipes and the recipes are often – “put some flour in” or “add milk” – and then when the recipe doesn’t work quite as well I find the milk should be warm (not hot, mind), and the flour needs to be mixed with some water first. Mum knows exactly how to make the food, and it simply doesn’t occur to her that my food making vocabulary doesn’t match hers exactly.

It’s also about the raw materials. To be able to replant a food garden you have to have seeds that are viable. Many of the supermarket seeds are F2 hybrids – fantastic first year crops, but the seeds are unstable and even if you bothered to save the seeds they will not produce the same crop next year. Patrick notes:

It’s been estimated that since WWII 70% of fruit and vegetable varieties have been lost, simply because people stopped growing them and no one saved the seeds.

And this is quite apart from the political and financial interests of plant patents, and the outright illegality of selling heirloom seeds (as they’re called) in some countries.

This is a problem without a solution. The knowledge is diminishing, much is lost forever. It’s about the interaction of species. Humans preserving plants – not for the plant’s sake, although that is valid in itself – rather for the consumption of food variety. There are indications about how indigenous knowledge – and this is now applicable to any one, any where – can begin to be preserved – the World Bank has produced a kit relating to a Community Knowledge Exchange, entitled Capitalising on Local Knowledge – A toolkit for the preparation, implementation and evaluation of community-to-community knowledge and learning exchanges.

I feel it’s almost becoming like something out of Ray Bradbury – instead of people being books, we might need to meet up with others and be able to say something like (in my own case): “Hello, I am string onions on a rope, take leaders out of tomatoes, grow herbs and bok choi.”

Joni was right, back in 1970. She’s still right today.

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

flock off to birdland

neneRecently I’ve been spending more time with birds. Yes, that kind. I wrote here about quail, and previously I’ve written about gulls, ducks, blackbirds, thrushes, even sparrows have had a mention. Birds are near and dear to my heart I guess it’s fair to say, however I don’t feel I have the expertise to write dedicated to birds. The utmost authority on birds – pigeons, to be precise – has to be straight from the pigeon’s mouth – the pigeon blog. Everything else is just an opinion, this is the final word.

Then there’s the Snail’s Eye View – straight from the Snail’s mouth – writing and pix dedicated to natural history, and hosting I and the Bird #41 – I just can’t wait. I may’ve missed the deadline to submit – argh! Snail has written about an encounter with a local Cape Barren Goose. You know the ones – they’re the sumi-soft grey feathers with the candy pink legs and the almost lime green patch around the nose. What’s not to love?

So what’s that wierd duck picture here all about? That’s no duck, that’s a Nēnē (Branta sandvicensis) – the rare Hawaiian goose – and also the official bird of the state of Hawaii. I’m rather proud of this image – I know it’s a long way from being technically superb – right out on the very end of the digital zoom – but I made the photo myself back in August 2006, on Kaua’i. The Nēnē is the world’s rarest goose – numbers had dwindled down to about 30 in the 1950’s, but fortunately it has made something of a comeback to about 500 birds in the wild. When we went to Kaua’i I had expected to see some birdlife, but it was beyond my wildest dreams to see the Nēnē just lounging, catching some rays, on the edge of a taro field near Hanalei. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a very rare animal in the wild. Zoos/parks just aren’t the same. I was just stunned, and initially
thought it was a decoy or toy – cargo cult perhaps – the Nēnē was within 20 metres of the main road, and perhaps 200 metres from the edge of town. Kaua’i – everything is relaxed.

I guess if Puff the Magic Dragon can be there, bird magic is a distinct possibility.

Numbers 11

I’m always interested in old stories – essentially the stuff of legend – and the truths (i.e. scientific or rational explanations) that might be contained there. Some people prefer to believe the stories as is – if you’re one of those people – good for you. I am not. I prefer to think of myself as a legend-thropologist – someone who looks for the threads or seeds of truth behind the stories. So, if you are a rabid believer, and you KNOW I’m wrong, please feel free to write in your own blog.

So. Numbers 11. From the Old Testament. Here’s a quick update – Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, they’re wandering around somewhere on the Sinai, and lugging the Covenant Box with them. They’ve been on the road now for a couple of years, and they’ve been through the winter – just in spring. In Numbers 9 we read about the Passover – it’s March-April – spring. Although they’d been working class in Eqypt, most of the people had a reasonable standard of urban living – not the kind of living that has prepared them for roughing it in the desert. The promised land hasn’t turned up yet. And like good people of any time, any where, when their belly buttons start rubbing on their backbones, it’s time to start complaining. Not just the Israelites (as if that wasn’t bad enough) there were other foreign people travelling along as well. Moses was probably thinking/wishing he’d booked into one of those nice resorts on the coast…

From New International Version (NIV) –

4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” 7 The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. 8 The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a handmill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into cakes. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. 9 When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down.

From King James

4 And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? 5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: 6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. 7 And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium. 8 And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil. 9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it. (Bdellium is an aromatic gum like myrrh.)

From Exodus 16 NIV

11 The LORD said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’ ” 13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.

From King James (again, Exodus 16)

13 … and in the morning the dew lay round about the host. 14 And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. 15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat.

OK – so there’s something called manna, apparently falling with the dew – either in the evening, or present there in the morning. If you read on, particularly in the Exodus verses you find that the preferred cooking method was either baking manna as a bread, or boiling it. Also, if it wasn’t gathered promptly enough, or stored uncooked, it spoiled – verse 20 notes that by the next morning it would have maggots and starting to smell. So, what was it – this manna?

As per the verses above, small round things, like the hoar frost, and, based on the King James Exodus 16, verse 31, “The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.”

When I was a kid I was fascinated by this story. What exactly can fall from heaven with the dew, be good enough to eat (almost immediately), but spoils apparently equally fast – and it’s white? The only thing I could think of was hail. Hardly nutritional, boilable, or bakeable. Not exactly wafers made with honey.

I had overlooked the obvious. Just because the dew comes down doesn’t mean the manna has to come down. Could be the manna comes up. It just has to be on the surface (with the dew) in the morning. Now, that changes the dynamic from a miracle to some other kind of explanation. But what could it be? What grows that fast?

Many desert plants have evolved to go through their flowering and life cycle very quickly after rains. Within hours of rain, seeds are germinating, the plants then grow incredibly rapidly, flowers burst, become pollinated, seeds set and are distributed, and the plant dies very shortly there after. Manna couldn’t be one of these flowering plants – the Bible is clear about it being overnight – and spoiling equally quickly. So, what is it? In fact, that’s the meaning of Manna – see verse 15, in both versions, above. What is it? The answer appears to be a plant, but not a flowering plant. Mushrooms. Mushrooms grow that fast. Can mushrooms grow in the desert? Yes – to be precise, these are truffles – desert truffles.

Can this be the case? I think there’s some very good evidence, given in the description above – And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium. I’m not sure if the manna as coriander seed is in terms of colour – where there’s a clear reference to the colour of bdellium. Bdellium is a traditional name for a resin similar to myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) – the liquid resin is a yellowy-brown colour, it hardens to a reddish brown. I think the reference is less to the colour of coriander seeds (also yellowish brown) and more relevant to the coriander’s habit of bolting – growing very rapidly to flower (and seed heads). Coriander produces a mass of flowers – I think the biblical reference therefore is to prolific (coriander-like) numbers of truffles.

Image of desert truffles from http://botit.botany.wisc.eduSo, is there a desert truffle? A shallow growing species that would answer the question? According to Tom Volk, manna is is the desert truffle (Tirmania nivea, zubaydiya) –

Its light outer skin turns slightly scaly and bleaches white. It spoils within a few hours in the heat, sometimes filling up with maggots and turning into a stinky slime. All desert truffles are collected in the early morning hours. The main reason is to get them before animals and maggots can get to them first. It is also easier to spot them in the early morning hours, as the dew softens the sand …

According to Tom Volk, desert truffles are still harvested by the Bedouin today –

Traditionally, they are best roasted in the fire, or cooked with camel’s milk. To preserve them, truffles are dried and powdered, then added to the dough of flatbreads. Truffles are often eaten at the end of the meal, like desert, with honey.

And despite the complaining, the Israelites got over it, from the King James Exodus 16, verse 35, “And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.”

image from http://scienceblogs.comSo, what about the quail? The quail (Pharoah Quail – Coturnix coturnix – آشیل) would be migrating north in the Spring. Exhausted quail have regularly dropped unexpectedly from the air, and while resting would’ve been easily captured by motivated Israelites. According to Numbers 11, NIV,

31 Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. 32 All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp.

Ten homers, according to the NIV, is about 60 bushels – 2.2 kiloliters. That’s a lot of quail. King James tells pretty much the same story:

31 And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day’s journey on this side, and as it were a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. 32 And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.

Two cubits, again according to the NIV, is approximately one metre.

Finally, the Israelites had meat to go with their manna. Seems a pretty good diet to me. Unfortunately, according to Numbers, God had had quite enough of the moaning and the ill manners, and so – according to King James (and the NIV) –

33 But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. 34 Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah [translates as graves of craving], because there they buried the people who had craved other food.

So, ignoring the plague from God punishment for your greed concept, what is it about quail that could strike down probably quite fit people – remember, they’ve been on the road for a couple of years – the weak ones would’ve died out already. They had ample food (see above) and water, plus (I’m guessing) milk from camels and goats. What could lay them low?

I wondered if it was possible to catch something like West Nile virus from quail. Quail could possibly be a vector, but that virus is normally delivered by mosquitoes. I thought maybe the quail might’ve been infected by mites, which bit the people who did the harvesting and then bingo. It’s a bit of a leap, and anyway, the virus isn’t that fast – according to the story, people dropped in their tracks ‘meat was still between their teeth’. I wondered about a variant of bird flu – again, it’s not that fast – people had only had a limited exposure time-wise – the birds were also alive enough to have flown in.

This was an exceptional event – quail normally fly at night (it’s cooler) and land – yes – exhausted, but to feed and hide for resting during the heat of the day. It’s not clear why they would arrive at night – typically I would expect them to be looking to leave at that point – but the story does tell of the wind from the sea – a storm, perhaps? It is possible that the southerly wind only blows during the day – and quail – being sensible creatures they are – a likely to use the tail wind to their advantage. But why did some of the people die?

According to, quail migrate along from Africa, in March and April, on their way to Europe. Quail flying to the northerly climes do land in the evening – as it is Spring, perhaps it is not as hot during the day. They do use the Sinai as resting points. In terms of the enormous numbers – in days gone by it was common for species to migrate in huge numbers – the passenger pigeon, as noted in wikipedia, lived in enormous flocks—the largest of them a mile (1.6 km) wide and 300 miles (500 km) long, taking several days to pass and probably containing two billion birds.

OK – so, it is possible to have huge numbers of quail, migrating in Spring, across the Sinai, from Africa, on their way north to europe. What about the people dying? It is possible for some quail, particularly those on that flight path, to be poisonous. Not to everyone, but to certain susceptible individuals – and not every quail is poisonous either. The condition is known as ‘coturnism’ – and appears to be unique to quail – hence the name, derived from the scientific name for quail – Coturnix coturnix. The condition was reported on by the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, reporting on a review by Louis Grivetti, a nutritional geographer at the University of California at Davis. There’s a suggestion of a genetic susceptibility to the poison – sounds reasonable given that the biblical story notes in Psalm 78, verse 31, King James version: “The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.” The chosen men – suggests to me there might’ve been families that were particularly susceptible – and that it appears in men, rather than the females who might’ve married into the family. Could be that the men ate first, and/or were ‘more important’ than the females. The sexist explanation doesn’t appear overly strong in the reporting of the time – women figured prominently in the biblical stories.

Coturnism exhibits a number of symptoms – vomiting, respiratory distress, excruciating pain, and paralysis – and apparently tends to affect the elderly rather than the young. More detail on the symptoms is available, along with further analysis of the quail migrations, compiled by Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre. It remains somewhat unclear what is the exact root cause of Coturnism. It might just depend on the volume consumed, and the concentration. If, as an example, the birds were stewed or roasted the poison might be more concentrated than if consumed in a dilution of soup. This is thought to be a poison, rather than a bacterial based food poisoning, possibly as a result of the quail having eaten poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) seeds, or perhaps the seeds of Stachys annua – the Hedgenettle Betony. Betony seeds appear to contain cyanide compounds. If this is the case, the quail may have surprisingly high tolerance to the compounds – and the consumers perhaps less.

People who believe in the biblical version will probably find God’s wisdom in everything. People who don’t will probably find the rational explanation equally wise in everything. I just find it fascinating how stories carefully recorded and kept can be found to have at least some foundation of truth, and that there is some value and wisdom remaining for us today.

Zhou Yu’s Train

View Zhou Yu\'s Train product details at AmazonThere’s something other-worldly about trains. Humanity has had a love affair with them as a character in stories probably since Stephenson’s Rocket. In my mind, they’re something akin to Charon, the boat man who said nothing, but ferried fee paying shades across the Styx. Trains – not those nasty commuters – are about little deaths, grieving, farewells, lost loves, running down the platform, rain, fear, and fogged up glass. The beautiful cinematography in Zhou Yu’s Train manages to capture much of the romance of train travel – trains are threaded through the story as the heroine, Zhou Yu searches for perfect love. It’s only when Zhou Yu switches from trains to other forms of transport that things change. She has a lover in a distant town – a poet – and the film makes full use of poetic scenes, music and script to continually reinforce this theme. And we get to see snippets of post-Deng China – becoming ever more prosperous, travel is suddenly an option, and the girls who paint vases have enough money, and enough time, to make use of trains to frequently visit distant lovers. And the back streets of Zhongyang? Surprisingly clean – almost the Switzerland of Asia. Not the China I remember, but I liked it anyway.

This is not the easiest film to follow – the Mandarin dialogue at times was difficult so the subtitles were an unfortunate essentential – but it’s worth the effort. You do have to pay attention – not only do the subtitles flit past, but the story flashes scenes past – not unlike the view from an express window – you capture the big picture, the detail is torn away from you, little better than a glance. The storyline is put together rather like the broad stokes of the more rustic styled silk embroidery – sweeping, back and forth – difficult to follow, but eventually it comes together and you realise everything in the big picture is connected – right place, right time – not unlike the trains themselves. Sit back, let the ride take you.


Meanwhile, on the other side of town, they were working through their book pile…adding book after book after book into their LibraryThing database. After several hours of intensive effort the database had swelled considerably. Well over 130 books were carefully, lovingly catalogued and tagged. They felt good – almost smug – proud of their efforts.

Turning, they looked back at the shelves that had so recently held their collection, and noticed that barely the first shelf had been cleared. ‘Oh good’, they thought, ‘only another five book cases to go’.

Neither was prepared to mention the other books they had hidden. Stashed. Not that they needed to, of course, these books were not an addiction. No. They could give them at any stage.

Any stage at all.

After they’d been catalogued, anyway.

bloom, unseen

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act ii. Sc. 1.), William Shakespeare wrote a few lines that, from the first time I read them have always painted a picture in my mind – this is somewhere I’d like to spend some time. Shakespeare notes some of the most beautiful and fragrant flowers – back then probably more wildflowers than in a garden as we would know it today.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

Marica is working through her Project 365 – she wrote about the flowering of our ‘Queen of the Night’ cacti. Marica wrote – This plant will bloom when it is ready whether anyone notices it or not. I am so glad I got to see it and smell it. I wonder how many things in life we miss out on because we are not observant or even aware or worse still, we just don’t care.

I am also reminded that we all have different gifts; different things we can do or offer. The difference between us and this plant is that we are able to choose whether or not we will bloom, when we will do it, and how long for.

View The Five People You Meet in Heaven product details at AmazonOver the Christmas/New Year break I re-read Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. On reflecting about the story, and Marica’s writing, I realised we might also bloom unknown to ourselves. Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard (Stanza 14) is perhaps talking more about how a person might go to their grave with their song unsung, but it begins to capture the idea –

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Only begins, however, because it is possible that the sweetness is not wasted. It is possible to be hugely influential in another person’s life without being aware of it. There are two men who have had an influence in my life, they both shared the same first name, in my mind they look somewhat alike, they shared the same interests, and I doubt that they ever heard of each other, let alone met each other.

Alf King was my biology teacher at high school. He’s one of the few teachers I can remember, and yet I can’t actually think of anything exceptional that he taught me, from a biology perspective. What he did do was teach what was his passion in life – to me he was, and is, the epitomy of what a teacher should be – someone who is, in the twilight of their career, still as enthusiastic about the subject as they were straight out of university.

Mr King’s lab was the real McKoy – worthy of the Herbology lab frequented by Harry Potter. There were plants (Bryophyllums – of course) growing on the windowsills, along with a selection of other experiments. Mice – the labs smelled of mice. Cockroaches (in the range). Jars with preserved sharks and other specimens, including snakes, collected during the years spent in Kenya. I can recall him saying how he thought he’d discovered new species of plants – and if memory served me correctly he’d sent them off to the Linnean Society, only to find the plant had been documented decades before. He laughed about that – and I realised that biology could be more than some lessons in a classroom, rather a network of past, present, and future discovery. As an aside, I found in a recent Linnean Society newsletter some advice that I believe, even taken out of context, summarises Alf King:

  • Recognise the likely benefits of following the rules.
  • Optimise your use of the single side of A4.
  • Include a budget.
  • Avoid appearing greedy.
  • Predict the ultimate outputs.
  • Partition large projects into fundable portions.
  • Look forward more than backward.
  • Stand out from the crowd.
  • Consider the broader impact of your outputs.
  • Keep your feet on the ground.

So, although I was a good biology student (loved it), it wasn’t the biology lessons that I really took away, rather it was the collection of attitudes, values, and techniques that have influenced me and my practice, both in class and out, ever since. The blooming on my part, unseen and unknown by my old teacher.

image of Alfred Bryd Graf from http://www.roehrsco.comThe second influence came from Dr Alfred Bryd Graf. Dr Graf would never have heard of me, but he’s had quite an influence on me. He died aged 100 in 2002, after a long and successful career as a plant hunter and world authority on tropical and subtropical plants. He added at least 120 ‘new’ plants to the range of known varieties. He found new species of aglaonema, dracaena, sansevieria, begonia, and even the first white African violet. Dr Graf was no armchair horticulturalist – the New York Times noted in his obituary that his trips had their close calls, from unforgiving terrain to tribes who resented his intrusion in New Guinea. He visited the giant lobelias of Mount Kilimanjaro, the azaleas and rhododendrons of Sikkim and the bamboos of China, where he savored the country’s ornamental horticulture.

Dr Graf’s contact with me has been through his books ‘Tropica’, and the huge two volume encyclopaedia, ‘Exotica’. When Marica was working through her writing about the cacti she wanted to know more about them, and the correct name. Searches on the web showed a confusion of names and muddled information. I said to Marica, ‘The internet is -at best – an opinion, Exotica is the law.’ When I was more actively involved with growing and selling house plants, Dr Graf’s books were the final word in terms of identifying plants, quite apart from the astounding range of other information relating to the culture and origin of the plants. Seeing photos of the plants in their natural context was so amazing – often clarifying some of the other questions, for example what mix to grow the plants in or if the leaves change shape as the plant matures.

Apart from the obvious reference advantages, Dr Graf’s books have always been an inspiration to me – we didn’t make very much money working with plants, but I loved it. Here was someone who had somehow managed to take things that were interesting to me – travel with his wife to the far corners of the planet, explore, look at plants, take photos, learn new things, discover new species, and come home and write books that are cherished around the world. It doesn’t get better than that – I’m still motivated by that idea.

boiled egg faq

Do hard boiled eggs float?
No, not of themselves. As an egg matures the gas inside the egg expands. If the gas is not released by poking a hole through the large end of the shell the egg will float – boiled or otherwise. That’s how you can tell how fresh the egg is – very fresh = little or no floating; a couple of weeks old definitely the large end will float upwards; six weeks old the egg will float very freely. Two months old and you might discover how explosive the gas pressure has become. Try to stay away from the gas powered contents of the egg at this point, you’ll be impressed by how penetrating the – um – fragrance can be.

The shells won’t peel off my hard boiled eggs!
Generally it’s better to cook the eggs, and then plunge them into cold water to cool them enough to peel them. I recommend tapping the shell with the back of a spoon to crack the shell into as many little shards as possible. Hold the eggs under cold running water, pinch the shell off the large end off – there will be a gap between the shell and the egg (where the gas was). The water will help separate the shell (still attached to the membrane) from the egg. If the egg is too warm (or it is a little under cooked) it’s very easy to damage the egg as it sticks to the shell membrane and tears. The food value doesn’t change, however.

Are brown eggs better than white eggs?
No – food value-wise it’s just a variation in the packaging. When I was a kid brown eggs were slightly less common and slightly ‘nummier’ i.e. tastier than white eggs. Today, white eggs are seemingly harder to get. I like them brown. I believe you can get green and blue eggs – I’ve never seen them – although duck egg shells are greenish colours.

What is the difference between raw eggs and hard boiled eggs? Can you tell the difference without breaking the shell?
Yes, it’s really easy – impress your friends, pick up girls, etc… take a raw egg and a hard boiled egg, and place them on a hard, flat, smooth surface. Try to spin the eggs on their sides. A raw egg will not spin very well, whereas a hard boiled will spin very happily.

What about quail eggs?
No idea of difference in food values. They’re smaller, cuter, and look rustic in a sophisticated kind of way. Boil as per hen eggs – perhaps for slightly less time (they are smaller). Pay particular attention to getting the hole in, as cracking the shell while boiling would be just erk. Serve unpeeled with a selection of salts, including spiced salt, in elegant mounds. A simple way to make spiced salt is to take a couple of teaspoons of salt and add chinese five-spice powder or garam masala to taste. I think they ate quail eggs in ‘Brideshead Revisited’. If they didn’t they probably would want to…

What about ostrich eggs?
No idea of difference in food values. They’re larger, and shiny white. Boil as per hen eggs – you’ll need a larger pot to boil the egg in and you need to plan in advance. Allow about 50-60 minutes for a soft boiled egg, and 90-100 minutes for hard boiled. If you want the eggs hard boiled, allow another couple of hours for them to cool down to the point where you can handle them. You’ll need quite an appetite too – one ostrich egg is the equivalent to 25-30 hens eggs.

Who are they to protest me? Who are they?

View First Blood (Special Edition) product details at AmazonToday I learned about the START system of triage. That’s what I do. Not triage, I learn about stuff. I leave triage to one of my ‘must read’ blog pals, Reynolds (Random Acts of Reality). He’s a London-based E.M.T. (Emergency Medical Technician – like a paramedic, only not as well paid) working for the London Ambulance Service. I learned today that apparently the time expected/allowed/allocated for triage in the UK is 60 seconds. In the USA it’s 15 seconds. Which perhaps explains why the British could never make ‘Rambo’. Thankfully.

Who cares if, in the scene where Rambo jumps from the cliff and falls through the trees, Sylvester Stallone not only did the stunt himself, but he broke three ribs for full authenticity? It was filmed, and it is in the movie. But so what? It’s just the movies. Hardly tough really.

What is tough is Reynolds today writes on a topic that may cost him his job, or at the least, may well be a CLM – a career limiting move. He starts with some basic assumptions –
(1) Ambulance workers are human beings, human beings require food.
(2) The government wants the NHS to spend less money.
(3) People who use the NHS have high expectations.

And then the story unfolds… it could be that Reynolds is just another moaning medical – it’s hard to engage with the endless whining from that corner of the economy. But then, why would he? Why would he burst into very public print, to shaft his own job and cash flow? From the article:

On the breaks themselves – in a 12 hour shift we are paid for 11 1/2 hours, we have half an hour unpaid break and 10 minutes that are interruptible. If our break is interrupted in those last 10 minutes then we receive a payment of £10.

Sounds like a man fed up. I can’t believe that British labour laws allow a worker (particularly one working in such responsible role) only 30 minutes break in a 12 hour day. I don’t doubt Reynolds, I’ve done those kinds of hours myself in a few job roles before today, but never in role that required life or death decision making. It doesn’t seem responsible.

Due to the budget pressures we have been put under recently there was essentially no overtime available. While we are supposedly fully manned it still meant that there were plenty of ambulances unstaffed. This situation was brought about by the government cutting our money, all at the risk of patient care.

When we have to provide the government with our response time figures we’ll flood the area with ambulances so that we can make it in a ‘big push’. Budget be damned. It used to be if we didn’t make the target then our budget would be cut – now they cut it regardless of us making our targets.

Oh, now that’s good. Brilliant, in fact. I can see how cutting budgets when targets are met can be good for morale. If we were making a movie about this it is increasingly sounding like Brazil II. Laughable, in the delicious British black comedy tradition. Except lives are at stake.

Clearly, the situation appears to be riddled with too many questions with too few answers. Wellington has a free ambulance service. To the best of my knowledge, that’s unique in New Zealand. I’m not sure how it is funded, other than I know there are street appeals, and it is possible they contract the service from central and local governments. What I have seen is locals exhibiting a strong sense of loyalty if not love, and gratitude for one of the only free medical services available. Everyone seems to have a very warm feeling towards the service – a feeling of some pride. I’m probably wrong, but I don’t imagine there would be too many people ringing them on 111 as Reynolds notes, because they can’t find their trousers.

Solutions? Reynolds offers four – first – to lower the expectations of the public toward ambulance care and possibly the NHS. He discounts this.

Second – reduce the number of calls either by filtering the calls or educating people to not abuse the service. He doesn’t like the idea of user pays. Well, that’s it for the New Zealand solutions – user pays coupled with crap service.

Third is for the government to invest more money and to stop stuffing the service around. Reynolds correctly observes that if you’re running a business you wouldn’t expect to be able to expand your company without some form of investment. In my opinion it is unreasonable for the tax payer to stump up for a service without having some expectation that there will be accountability for the return on the investment. I think there’s some tension there between the for-profit model in what is essentially a not-for-profit, service based industry.

The fourth solution is about forcing the government to pay attention. A kind of work-to-rule based on the refusal to supply stats. It sounds a bit like a frustrated person wanting to slap them back. No surprises there. We need to take a rolled up newspaper, strike across the dog’s nose and in a firm and clear voice say , “No!”. Well, it is the year of the dog, after all.

I’d like to humbly offer a fifth solution. There was something else I learned today. On the 29 December 2006, Economic Secretary Ed Balls announced that the British government finally paid off the USA and Canadian governments for money borrowed to fund World War II. Some sixty years later, the final payments of $US 83.25 million to the USA and $US 22.7 million to Canada were sent. Done. Finished. Finally, Britain is free from the annual installment plan negotiated by none other than John Maynard Keynes himself.

Oh, Reynolds, I know what you’re thinking. Jeepers, that’d give us $US 105.95 million – approx 53.59 million pounds, or, 79.54 million euros extra in the kitty. I’m guessing that running an ambulance service for Britain is extremely expensive, but I bet it would be better for having a million pounds a week poured in. There’s be 1.59 million pounds left over at the end of the year.

Let’s split it – say half each, less a new pair of trou for that mad buggar who has to dial 999 to find his…