Category Archives: True Tales And Tall Stories

Halloween

Samhain 2014, Edinburgh, by Graham Campbell

At summer’s end, the days grow shorter and colder, and the leaves turn to reds and golden. Soon there will be winter cold, frost painted windows and long, dark nights. The world seems to have grown old and decayed, waiting for death.

The early inhabitants of Europe, called the Celts, believed that a veil between this world and the next was thinnest at this time of year. Friends and family who had died would often return, with their souls inhabiting an animal – often a black cat. Black cats are still a symbol of Halloween.

Jack-o'-Lantern by By Toby Ord

Jack-o’-Lantern by By Toby Ord

On the 31st October, they celebrated the fire festival, Samhain. Sacred bonfires were lit on the tops of hills in honor of the Gods. The early Christian church frequently chose dates of ancient festivals for Christian celebrations. Samhain became All Hallows Eve when all the Christian saints were celebrated. All Hallows Eve became corrupted into Halloween.

As with Christmas traditions, some of the older festivals remained and there are many folk traditions associated with Halloween. It is possible that some had their origins in Celtic times and, strangely, many require apples.

  • Single people would try to take a bite out of an apple bobbing in a bucket of water or suspended on a string. The first person to do so was believed to be the next to marry.
  • A young maid would peel an apple in front of a candle-lit mirror might see the face of her future husband.
  • People would attempt to produce a long unbroken ribbon of apple peel. The longer the peel, the longer would be life expectancy.

Although 85% of Americans are Christian, they celebrate Halloween more than most. The children dress up in fancy dress and visit the neighbors. This is called Trick or Treating. Traditional the children are given candy. This year will be my grandson’s first Halloween Trick or Treating. He has a cow costume and has learned to moo!

Día de los Muertos

Dia de los muertos

Dia de los muertos

In Mexico, they have a spectacular celebration around this time called Día de los Muertos which translated from Spanish as Day of the Dead. Families visit their ancestor’s graves and decorated them with flowers and candles. They prepare sumptuous meals usually featuring meat dishes in spicy sauces, chocolate beverages, cookies, sugary confections in a variety of animal or skull shapes, and a special egg-batter bread (“pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead). Then they have a midnight picnic by the graveside.

These traditions honor the departed and celebrate life, the passing year and the spring to come.

Guy Fawkes night

In England, there is another kind of celebration which is called Bonfire night. During the 17th Century in Europe, there were terrible wars between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians. England had its own church which was kind of Protestant. A group of radical Catholics wanted a Catholic England and hatched a plan to kill the king. The plan was to blow up the king with gunpowder at the ceremony which opens Parliament on the 5th November 1605. This poem tells the tale.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By god’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.
And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes was born on 13 April 1570 in Stonegate, Yorkshire. His father, Edward, worked for the Archbishop of York and his mother, Edith, belonged to the Harrington family who was eminent merchants and Aldermen of York. At that time, many people including the nobles were closet Catholics.

Gunpowder_Plot_conspirators by By Crispijn van de Passe the Elder

Gunpowder_Plot_conspirators by By Crispijn van de Passe the Elder

When Guy was eight his father died and after a while, his mother married Dionysius (or Dennis) Bainbridge. Dionysius was apparently “more ornamental than useful”. Guy’s parents used up Guy’s meager inheritance while he was legally still only a child. As did not have any money but was too well borne to become a farmer, he did what many did and became a soldier.

He probably left England in 1593 for Flanders, which is now Holland and the northern part of Belgium, and joined the Spanish army. By then, he must have been a Catholic because Spain was a Catholic country and an enemy of England. In the summer of 1588, the Spanish King Philip II had sent his Armada to invade and conquer England. The English still remember how this formidable foe was beaten first by Sir Francis Drake and his fire ships, and then by ferocious storms in the North Sea.

By 1596 Guy was an officer and took part in the siege of Calais. He was described at this time “most distinguished” for his “nobility and virtue”. Guy’s appearance by now was most impressive. He was a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing mustache, and a bushy reddish-brown beard. His “considerable fame among soldiers”, perhaps acquired at the Battle of Nieuport (1600) where it is believed he was wounded, brought him to the attention of Sir William Stanley and Father William Baldwin.

In February 1603, Guy left the Spanish Army and was sent to Spain by Stanley and Baldwin. About Easter time, Stanley presented Guy to Thomas Wintour and went with him and Robert Catesby to meet the Constable of Castile, Juan De Velasco.

In May of 1604, Guy was back in England, despite that he was a famous soldier fighting for the Spanish king. In an inn called the Duck and Drake in the fashionable Strand district of London, he met Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Thomas Wintour. They swore an oath to blow up the king and so started the Gunpowder Plot. Guy assumed the identity of John Johnson, a servant of Percy. The plan was to kill the king and all his nobles when the king came to Parliament. They would blow them up with gunpowder. First of all they tried to dig under the Houses of Parliament, but that proved too slow and difficult.

Conspiracy!

About March 1605, the conspirators hired a cellar beneath Parliament, Guy filled the room with barrels of powder, hidden beneath iron bars and bundles of wood. All was set and they waited. Guy went back to Flanders. Then one of the conspirators wrote a letter of warning to Lord Monteagle, who received it on 26th October. Although he conspirators knew about this letter the following day, they resolved to continue the plot after Guy had confirmed that nothing had been touched in the cellar. They were very, very mistaken. Lord Monteagle had given the letter to the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Howard, the King’s chief policeman.

On November 4th, a Monday afternoon, Howard and Monteagle searched the parliament buildings. In the cellar, they came upon an unusually large pile of billets of iron and faggots of wood, and Guy. They described him as “a very bad and desperate fellow”. They asked him who owned the big pile, and Guy replied that it belonged to Thomas Percy, his employer. The two nobles reported these details to the King. Something was not right. Guy “seemed to be a man shrewd enough, but up to no good” so, a little before midnight, they searched the cellar again. Once more, the pile of billets and faggots was searched and this time the gunpowder was discovered. Guy was arrested. He had slow matches and touchwood. with which he would have “blown up the house, himself, and all”.

He was led before the King, who sent him to the Tower of London where he was brutally interrogated and tortured. Eventually, he gave up the names of the other conspirators. They were all condemned and all met a grizzly end.

The tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires actually began the very same year as the failed coup, in 1605. Already on the 5th, agitated Londoners who knew little more than that their King had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving. Soon, people began placing effigies of Guy Fawkes on to bonfires, and then fireworks were added to the celebrations. When I was a lad, children would make “the Guy”, and then take it in a pram to a busy street, perhaps by a railway station, and beg passersby for “a penny for the Guy.”. How much money was actually used for fireworks is anyone’s guess. On the night itself, the Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight; and fireworks displays fill the sky.

My Best-est Bonfire Night ever

When I worked in a hospital laboratory, most of us were socialists and hated the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. One year I made a Mrs. Thatcher Guy. The clever Principle Biochemist, known universally a Pudding because he was from Yorkshire, brought a lovely blue suit from a jumble sale, just the kind that Margaret wore. Someone bought a Mrs. Thatcher Halloween mask and a wig and went to work to fashion the dummy out of chicken wire and papier-mâché.

new-years-eve-1789147_1280

It was rather good as it evolved into a sincere hunchback, which looked so evil that I was told to get it out of the flat. It spent the next few days in a little room off the warren which was our lab. One night, our secretary Cherry had been working late, and as she was finishing, she walked through the lab to leave a document for Pudding and met John, the biochemist on call, Although Cherry denied it, John heard a definite sweak and returned ashen-faced.

On the following Saturday, I took the Mrs. Thatcher Guy to our Bonfire Party. It was held at the Surbiton Hockey Club, which was a very nice place and exactly where there were loads of people who thought Mrs. Thatcher was just the bee’s knees. The Guy sat in state in the main dance room. Somehow, she acquired a short middle-aged woman dressed in tweeds and wearing a tweed hat, who hovered around the paper mâché stateswoman and seemed to hobnob with her. The only complaint about the Guy was an ironical aside to Helen who had had nothing to do with the production. Before midnight I gathered a band of children and we all went out a threw Mrs. Thatcher onto the bonfire.

Other people’s Bonfire Night

The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its Bonfire Night festivities and consistently attracts thousands of people each year to participate. Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain. The tradition crossed the oceans and established itself in the British colonies during the centuries. It was actively celebrated in New England as late as the 18th century. Today, November 5th bonfires still light up in far-out places like New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada.

Bonfire Recipes

One year, I was invited to a Bonfire night in the Buckinghamshire countryside. The price of admission was a single, expensive firework. Mine was a two-feet-long rocket, which cost ₤50. The guys who let off the fireworks had a field day, carefully protected with face masks and thick asbestos gloves.

The traditional party afterward was bangers and mash – sausages and mashed potatoes, and baked beans. Followed by lashing of ice cream. After collecting my paper plate of bangers and mash, I looked for somewhere to sit down. Every seat was taken, so I sat on the floor. As I’d studied Aikido for a long time, I did it the most efficient manner, just folding up my legs and dropping to the floor; just like a small child. That someone thought I was one was confirmed when a four-year-old girl came over to me and said, “You won’t get any pudding.” Her mother translated her as encouraging me to consume my plat principle in order to get the ice cream.

After pudding, the children were taken off to bed, and the adults danced the night away, to Glam Rock.

Treacle Toffee To Stick Jaws Shut

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup demerera sugar (crystalized, light brown sugar)
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/4 cup black treacle
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar

Recommended equipment: Candy Thermometer.

Before you start, butter a low-side cake-tin and set aside, you’ll be pouring the toffee in it for setting later.

Place ingredients in large heavy pan and heat slowly, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Then, cover and bring to a strong boil. To keep mixture from sticking to the bottom, stir for the next 10 minutes, or until your mixture reaches 280ºF.

If you don’t have a candy thermometer and you want to check that your mixture is ready, drop a little of the mixture, into a glass of cold water. If it forms a hard ball, then the toffee is ready to be set.

Pour into the tin you prepared and let cool.

When the toffee is half set, mark it into squares. When the toffee is hard, break it up, and eat inordinate amounts.

The Hurricane Experience

Eye of a hurricane by Skeeze

Irma was a big storm. She skulked around in the mid-Atlantic while Harvey had his day. And just as folks were wondering what the next hurricane would be named, there she was. A Category 4 growing to a 5. That’s one might wide storm, one which could straddle Cuba or Florida. So we watched as it turned Carribean islands into mincemeat. The predictions swung back and forth, passing through St. Pete one day, which would subject our home to a 20-foot storm wave, and next day, tearing up Miami.

Cooee, it’s only me, Irma.

Hurricane Irma by Antti Lipponen

Hurricane Irma by Antti Lipponen

Come Thursday evening, our domestic idyll, being in a Category A, was under a mandatory evacuation order. Time to leave. Filled the car up with gas, wifie, Monty the Dog, and after a drop of indecision, Susie, the daughter. We left at 2 am Friday morning. Around 4 and Ocala, we joined the rest of Florida. They were queuing up at the few gas station still open for business or scarfing down comfort food outside Mickie D’s. Google Maps directed us off-freeway, and down progressively narrower and narrower roads. The GM we christened Brenda after Private Eye’s name for her Majesty Elizabeth Queen of Great Britain, second of that name. Her pronouncements on our route had a certain logic, so we followed them until finally balking at an un-metalled road, and making her reroute.

I drove until a very creditable 6 am when Susie took over. Then it was my turn to curl up on the back seat with the puppy. I woke to sunshine and progress. For we had passed Jacksonville and were in Georgia. We had replenished the gas, which had apparently include a humorous episode when Wifie experimented with the various holes on your modern gas pump in order to find out which ones accepted a credit card.

Dog wrangling

Follow Hurricane Irma Forecast by Cayobo

Follow Hurricane Irma Forecast by Cayobo

Now that I was awake, it was time to replenish the people and drain the dog. We pulled into a Georgian gas station to check the facilities and buy coffee. While we bought coffee and lazed in the car, a small dog trotted past. Ami, one of Wifie’s Facebook friend and an animal warrior, had recently posted pictures of dogs tied to a post and left to the tender mercies of Irma. Maybe this was another freed by some callous slob, and need of rescue. So our heroïne set out on a quest to capture the beast. He ran around the station several times. He eluded several stalwart fellows who join in. Eventually, he trotted off down a dirt track, only to reappear at the far end. I foolishly followed in the car. He stopped. The car stopped. I got out. Armed with Susie’s quiche. I walked a few yards down the tree-lined lane, sat down and offered the doggie chunks of eggy goodness. He enthusiastically gobbled them down, but, alas, he did not come quite close enough for me to safely grab his scruff. Once out of quiche, it was time to go.

Tragedy

As we rolled back down the trail, a patch of mud which we had rolled over forwards became a sticky pit of woe, trapping the back wheels. The ladies exited the car, and excitedly pronounced that the car situation would require AAA intervention. Tragedy was avoided when I drove the car forwards and out of dat ‘ole. My reward was a rousing round of applause.  This was the last mishap before making safe harbor at Hilton Head.

Outlander …

Outlander

Do you care for a wee barny?

We stayed for four relatively event-free days. Several nights were devoted to Outlander binges. I like the series: once the inciting event, a  journey through stone and time, has happened, everything else – the castles, the vulnerability of women and sexually-tinged bigotry against them, the studied ignorance which passed for knowledge and the horrid costs endured by less fortunate – is plausible and well done. Caitriona Balfe does a wonderful job as her character Claire Frazer battles with her ludicrous situation and finds through it all, Jamie.

… and Lost

On the first morning of the hurricane party, I set off with the puppy to explore the neighborhood. The other dogs of the house with their walkers whizzed by, and puppy and I continued to explore and explore. I had taken the precaution of taking the power of the GM with me but had neglected to mark our home. As I retraced my steps, rescue arrived in the form of a black Lexus.

After a downpour or two, Irma thankfully ran herself out and it was time to set off back home. GM came through again with flying colors. We passed a couple of honey-colored horses enjoying their field, rolling in a new pond, and cantering its bounds. In a small deciduous wood, perhaps a hundred white heron stood waiting while sheltering from the storm. We found our home as we had left it. Irma’s ire had left it untouched.

 

My Idea of Heaven

https://unsplash.com/collections/158745/salt-life-for-me

An English Heaven . . .

A Full English Breakfast

A Full English Breakfast

Julian Barnes, a noted English author, has a very clear and a very English notion of heaven. It starts, naturally, with a Full English Breakfast. (An English comedian said once that a Full English was one of the two things that a woman can do which would comfort any man.) Julian’s heavenly grapefruit is perfectly formed; its segments do not cling, and float away from the fruit on the tip of the oval grapefruit spoon. It had a mélange of flavors coalescing like fine wine, ‘a sort of awaking sharpness followed quickly by a wash of sweetness’.

 Then followed ‘crispy [bacon whose] fat glow[ed] like fire’, eggs which ‘trail[ed] off into filigree gold braid’ and, the tour de force, the grilled tomato. Julian rhapsodized over his grilled tomato: this tomato actually does ‘ – yes, this is the thing I remember – tast[e] of tomato’. The toast and jam is beyond his powers of description but I reckon it was Five Grain Wholemeal bread from Publix, toasted just enough to crisp the toast surfaces but only warm the interior, generously buttered with Kerry butter, and lavished with Bonne Maman Peach Preserve.

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

The main event, though, is tea. Not so much the delicate aromas of the tea itself, rather the receptacle it came in. Of my teapots over the years I am especially fond of a Brown Bessie and one which looked like a painter’s work table,both now alas dearly departed, but of Barnes’s teapot we know little. He is taken with the ‘strainer . . . attached to its spout by three silver chains’ somewhat like a demi-thurible, ‘the insignia of some chic Parisian café’, ‘a little gadget which seems to me almost a definition of luxury’.

 He finds his wardrobe full of his most comfortable, totally wabi-sabi, retired-now-magically-new clothes, and settles down for two more breakfasts.

Next day he goes shopping. A relation of his had said, “When I die, I don’t want to go to Heaven, I want to go shopping in America”. This was Publix/Whole Foods/Central Market double plus good. The range and quality was unparalleled even for those magnificent stores, including, as it did, ‘Terrine de Kangarou’, Garibaldi biscuits with a 50:50 ratio of currents to pastry, and a libation called ‘Stinko-Paralytiko (made in Yugoslavia)’.

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

The following day, at breakfast, he read in the newspaper that ‘No kidding, Leicester City had bloody well won the FA Cup!’

He took up golf on a course which had ‘bits of seaside links like in Scotland, patches of flowering dogwood and azalea from Augusta, beechwood, pine, bracken and gorse.’, and scored a respectable 67. That evening, his carer, Brigitta, artfully declined sex but sex was to be had as he found ‘two long red hairs’ on his pillow in the morning. It is kind of interesting, and very English, that he can make more of your Full English than a good f$%k.

Then, ‘Guess what happened next? [He] started worrying.’ Looking for reassurance, he asked ‘Look, this is heaven, isn’t it?’, to which the reply was ‘Oh yes’ And so his heavenly ‘life continued, and [his] golf improved no end.’ After a while and a cruise or two, he starts to worry again, this time about religion. His case manager asks him what he does on Sundays.‘ “On Sundays”, I said, “as far as I can work out, because I don’t follow the days too closely any more, I play golf, go shopping, eat dinner, have sex and don’t feel bad.”

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

She replies, ‘Isn’t that perfect?’

It was of course but that was not his point nor the point. Apparently, the heaven of psalms and hallelujahs, ‘Old Heaven’, had ‘sort of closed down.’ because ‘after the new Heavens were built, … there was . . . little call for it.’ The inhabitants, the ‘Old Heaveners . . . gave up speaking to anyone but other Old Heaveners. Then they began to die off.’ New Heaveners also had ‘the option to die off if they want to’. In Mr. Barnes’s heaven, people can’t stand being happy all the time and like a medieval king die of a surfeit.

An Intellectual’s Heaven . . .

Frazier, too, is equally unfit for a life of perpetual bliss. In ‘Door Jam’ he and Niles lust after an oh-so-discreet spa, which proves to be very heaven, UNTIL they found that they had had the mere Silver service, and there was the oh-so-exclusive Gold service. Their quest for heaven results in their discovery of the garbage area, and they exit pursued by bees.

The Matrix

Perhaps it is as Agent Smith says in that one good Matrix film:

Agent Smith: Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

The problem of pain

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Barnes quoted Flaubert – the quote I cannot find – that to someone in chronic pain that pain is forever new, forever worthy of attention, but to those who care for the invalid and witness a lifetime of agony, it becomes over time duller, more of an obstacle to be negotiated, an annoyance, even a self-indulgence. Flaubert forgets that love never tires of caring and never become inured to the problems of the beloved.

Paradiso

A good candidate for heaven would be Fiorenza (Florence, Italy), until you see the fortress town houses and learn of the terrible practical jokes the creatives would play on one another. In the science museum there, there is one of Galileo’s telescopes. When I wax lyrical about this little black tube and mention the Starry Messenger , the book he wrote about what he saw through such a little thing; a book which describes an imperfect sun pockmarked by sunspots, the Medicean Stars flocking around Jupiter, that for each of the multitude of stars we can see without a telescope there is a multitude more, and that the face of the Moon “is not robed in a smooth and polished surface but is in fact rough and uneven, covered everywhere, just like the earth’s surface, with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms.”, I usually get a slightly pained look and ‘Oh, really’.

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

There I was able to wander in the footsteps of the great Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri. His Divine Comedy actually has three parts although Hell is by far and away the best known, regurgitated endlessly in horrible films and derivative TV drama. Dante, the supreme poet working in a language of angels and Mafiosi, did so much better describing the damned and their torments than the dubious pleasures of heaven. His profound of hell is a sea of ice where Satan is rooted waist deep, chewing forever on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. He should have a dozen or more mouths for the wicked of subsequent centuries. They are far more deserving of the worst that Hell can dish up.

(I like the idea of putting the shades of Hitler and his stooges in the front row of every Broadway performance of ‘The Producers’. As the reaction of Pyongyang to the advanced publicity to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s film ‘The Interview’ shows, nasty tyrants have no sense of humor. I hope the Seth/James film will be a runaway success.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to heaven the best that Dante – the daddy of them all –  can come up with is the thought of a white rose and an old man’s opiate blissing,

In forma dunque di candida rosa, . . .
ma l’altra, che volando vede e canta
la gloria di colui che la ’nnamora
e la bontà che la fece cotanta,
sì come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fïata e una si ritorna
là dove suo laboro s’insapora,
nel gran fior discendeva che s’addorna
di tante foglie, e quindi risaliva
là dove ’l süo amor sempre soggiorna.
Le facce tutte avean di fiamma viva
e l’ali d’oro, e l’altro tanto bianco,
che nulla neve a quel termine arriva.

Fiorenza is great and should be on your bucket list, but, for me, the number one, tippy-toppy experience was an open-topped bus trip out past the Belvedere, made so famous in Silence of the Lambs, and into the sumptuous summer Tuscan countryside.

Doctor Lecter and Agent Starling

Clarice Starling: Did you do all these drawings, Doctor?
Hannibal Lecter: Ah. That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?
Clarice Starling: All that detail just from memory, sir?
Hannibal Lecter: Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.

Persian Palaces

 

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Just after finishing university, I took a journey through Iran, Turkey and Greece. The first leg of the plan was to head south from Tehran to Shiraz, and visit the summer palace of Xerxes the Great known to the West by its Greek name, Persepolis. Had those ancient Greeks not been so parochial, and had they not wrecked it, the awesome complex would have made an eighth Wonder of the World. For a journey like this, I was not exactly prepared. I compounded the hazards by taking with me a cute teen girl. We survived more or less intact, due to the goodwill of the many generous, kind folk along the way. I’ll write up these adventures sometime, but now I would like to tell of the Palace of Oranges.

Shiraz is called the City of the Oranges and is the home and burial place of Hafez, the Persian Dante. For breakfast we had fresh baked bread, olives and tea and then walked into town and the delightful jewel of a tea house, to which we had been taken on our first day in the City. After a wonderful glass of Sherbot (Iranian lemonade) we set out for the palace. It did not look promising. We walked down narrow, dusty medieval streets penned in by high ocher walls. The entrance was a low unadorned door, which opened into a gloomy, dusty, medieval vestibule. We walked around a corner and the garden exploded at us.

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Gardens like this are long and narrow, and shaded by high walls. Down the middle was a pool lined with blue and white tiles. Between the walls and pool was row upon row of orange trees. At the far end of the garden was the summer house into which was inset a Moorish alcove, lined with mirrors. How lovely it must have been to sit in that alcove on cushions with friends on a balmy night savoring the scent of orange blossom.

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

 

In the Quran, heaven is liken to a garden and in Islamic countries there are many gardens. Two such gardens are in the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and the Alhambra, Cordova, Andalusia. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites aka Wonders of the World and there are many more than seven. I have been to the Taj which is as beautiful in real life as it is on the picture postcards. I hope to see the Alhambra someday. I know that Jacob Bronowski loved it.

Hotel de la Paix

So what would be my idea of heaven?
I’m glad you asked me that.

It is in Siem Reap, Cambodia and was called Hotel de la Paix (Hotel of Peace). It has an undistinguished outside, hidden like the Palace of Oranges, something like a white washed Art Deco cinema in small town America. On the street side is the glass windows of the hotel’s café and a porte-cochère, into which our taxi pulled late on a July evening in 2009. The revolving doors let into a cool minimalist atrium centered on a Brancusi take on the figure forms of Angkor Wat. Above the figure floated  the tiered balconies  of the upper floors.

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

Behind the figure was the reception and the concierge. There we were asked one of the best questions any traveler can be asked: Would you like an upgrade?  We gladly accepted a suite for the price of a double room. Apparently, the bankers who had just broken the American credit system had also confined most of the hotel customers in other countries, so the hotel’s best rooms were vacant. So next time there is a glitch in the economy pack your bags because there will be some really good deals to be had to things normally way beyond your budget. Like this suite.

It was split level. Downstairs, the main room was divided by an enormous swivelable flat screen TV into the sleeping area with a comfy king size, bedside tables lights and so on, and sitting area with a comfy sofa, a desk and view of the central garden veiled by gauzy white curtains. The upper level was a balcony with two massage tables – les massages privés, bien sûr, and french windows which let out  on to a private sunning terrace and a huge marble plunge pool. The levels were joined by wrought-iron spiral stairs. From the sleeping area a short passage led to a huge sculpted washbasin around which were piles of wash clothes, bottles of water and what appeared to be old fashioned cruets but could be split open to reveal a unguents and oils.

Figure at Angkor Wat

Figure at Angkor Wat

To the left were your walk-in closet, a stack of teak draws and the safe, and to the right was the wonderful shower room. I think it is the best shower I have ever seen. The floor and walls and ceiling were varieties of brown biscuit in color, dimpled tiles on the floor and veined marble for walls and ceiling. The shower system was worthy of German engineering. System A was a split cylinder of shower heads to give the all-round shower, with a handheld hanging from a copper hook for those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. System B was a huge – perhaps 20 centimeters wide – flat copper doucher capable of an excellent emulation of a tropical downpour.

Next: the pool. The pool was on the 2nd floor. To call the pool a pool gives the impression of a public building laced by a superabundance of chlorine, a pool of milky water there in, cavernous echoes, slightly scummy grout, and monstrous temperature differences which are best left to Walruses. This pool is more like a garden. To reach it, one takes the lift and then walks down the minimalist corridor, along which were niches presenting backlit Kymer reliefs, which led out into the explosion of tropical sunshine.

pool at Hotel de la Paix

pool at Hotel de la Paix

The doorway lets into an area dominated by a little canal running across left and right. You have arrived at the bit where the rooms which let out onto their own small sun decks, all of which have loungers and the like. The canal continues under the building, each side lined with alcoves with benches and cushions for quiet reading, and ending with an infinity. To reach the rest of the garden there is a little wooden bridge over the canal. There among the beds of succulents and palms are more loungers and more of the industrial sized showers. Some have stone frogs sitting around them. They reminded me of the Gorf who created the heaven called Calf Island described in Salman Rushdie’s 1st book, Grimus.

The rest of the pool had a checkerboard of water inset with small square islands sprouting fronds and palms.  Away from the loungers, several hot tubs bubbled. Another little bridge lead to the spa and the gym. The cool lavender scented spa has plush massage couches, the most expert masseurs, and all the while quietly Khmer chimes tinkle. As it was late, we opted for an early night and – of course – watched Tomb Raider.

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Breakfast, on the morrow, was served in the restaurant. The inside of the restaurant is dark teak, its tables covered with stiff fin-de-siècle tablecloths. You are welcomed by courteous, handsome staff. The al fresco part of the restaurant lines two sides of a courtyard centered around a spreading deciduous tree and pools and flag stones. In the evening, it is candle lit. The side nearest the restaurant has conventional tables and chairs of a colonial style, the other side has five or so suspended bowers, on which you would sit or lie propped up by triangular pillows, little button shaped pillows, and shapeless pillows as soft as clouds; and supplies of comestibles furnished on teak trays on little legs. These were much to the delight of the children.

Breakfast, itself, was a vast array of breads, fruits, juices, meats, and cheeses. Tea was bought in a white porcelain Brown Bessie. On that first day I treated myself to an Eggs Benedict which I’m delighted to say was made with fresh Hollandaise.

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

On the opposite side of courtyard was the spacious bar about the size of decent dance hall, discretely lit with pools of blue light, huge divans and modern Khmer art. The bar itself was biscuit stone inscribed with a homage to the reliefs of Angkor, lit in blue and white. They even did a decent vodka-martini.

The last part of fine dining was the café. We had most of our lunches there. They did very well with fresh handmade ice cream, and wonderful ham and cheese croissants. The servers were handsome, efficient and courteous. I recall one in particular: a beautiful girl with long, long shimmering hair.

Outside was the Khmer capital dominated by the World Heritage Angkor Wat. Its very nice but we preferred the brooding magnificence of Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, still claimed by the forest by the lava-like flows of Tetrameles nudiflora trees.

和平飯店 by chloe Q

和平飯店 by chloe Q

 I had a massage every day of our visit. Tough, hun? I did have lobster and I did pay more than a dollar. I bought a lovely silver bangle decorated with elephants for the wife, who added silver elephant earrings and a pendant. We sat in the night market and had our toes nibbled by minnows while drinking beer and accosting strangers to come and join us. It was undoubtedly a good trip. Could the hotel bear improvement; everything can. The massages were great but the very tippy-top best is to be had at the Le Meridien, New Delhi.

I like this hotel and I’m far from being alone. Although the name has changed, I do hope its spirit lives on.

 

Palm

Palm

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Polyface Paradise

Joel_Salatin_and_hen by By nick v from washington dc (Joel Salatin) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The second part of Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is about Big Organic, starts with Pollan in a field looking at grass. After this quick intro, we are quickly whisked away to Organic Land, where liveth Whole Foods, Cascadian Farm and Petaluma Poultry. The term “organic” according to the US Department of Agriculture is “a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” To this anodyne bureaucratese, I’m sure Pollan and Joel Saladin would agree. Joel Saladin, a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer”, is owner of Polyface Farm and Pollan’s Virgil in the Land of the Locotarians. After the Supermarket Pastoral tour, we’re back in a Polyface field in a chapter entitled Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture.

Monday

As the son of “one of the great indoorsmen”, Pollan has to wonder “how much do you really see when you look at a patch of grass?” Green? monotonous? Something which reminds “us of our existential puniness”? Lying prone, the good Professor is given the introductory lecture in Grass Farmer: 101. First point. Underline. You may not know anything about grass, but a cow does. It’s dinner, and breakfast – the day job.

“She sees, out of the corner of her eye, this nice tuft of white clover, the emerald-green one over there with the heart-shaped leaves, or, up ahead, that grassy spray of bluish fescue tightly cinched at ground level. These two entities are as different in her mind as vanilla ice cream is from cauliflower. two dishes you would never conflate just because they both happen to be white. The cow opens her meaty wet lips, curls her tongue …”

salad-bar-beef

salad-bar-beef

“Joel calls his pastures the salad bar …”, and now the Second Point. Underline. The Law Of The Second Bite”. Plants do energy economics. After a herbivore’s munch, the cropped grass plants will sulk for a couple of days, and then stage a comeback in a “blaze of growth”. Note all the anthropomorphizing comes from your author, not Pollan, not Salatin. Joel showed Pollan this blaze when he “ pulled a single blade of orchard grass, showing me exactly where· a cow had sheared it the week before, …”, which had “a kind of timeline, sharply demarcated between the dark growth, predating the bite, and the bright green blade coming after it.” Joel can even do a graph for you: “The important thing to know about any grass is that its growth follows a sigmoid, or S, curve …”.

To be a good grass farmer is to exploit this grassy behavior. and being an Old Testament kind of guy, Joel has a law to clarify things: The Law Of The Second Bite, “never, ever ‘… violate the law of the second bite’”. To do so damages the grass plants and consequently its team of fungi, bacteria, bugs and assorted vertebrates. Cows naturally know this: it’s their wild behavior. Humans unfortunately are prone to taking shortcuts: “If the law of the second bite were actually on the books, most of the world’s ranchers and dairy farmers would be outlaws …”. The downside of being a good grass farmer is it takes work; of the brawny kind and of the brainy kind. “As Florida rancher Bud Adams once told [Pollan], ‘Ranching is a very simple business. The really hard part is keeping it simple.’”

Prof. Pollan then spent an invigorating afternoon tossing hay bales in the barn with Joel’s two twenty-something apprentices. He admits that the “… afternoon had left me bone tired, sore, and itchy all over from pricks of the chaff, so I was mightily relieved when Joel proposed we ride the four-wheeler to the upper pasture where the cows had spent their day”, to see Joel’s “postindustrial enterprise” in action.

Joel carefully monitors and records “the grasses in several dozen paddocks, which range in size from one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather”, which he uses to calculate cow days. A “cow day … is simply the average amount of forage a cow will eat in one day.” It’s not an exact science, “a cow day is a good deal more rubbery than, say the speed of light …” because it has to factor in season and weather for the grass, and the cow’s “size, age, and stage of life: A lactating cow, for example, eats twice as much grass as a dry one.” Joel calls it “management intensive”.

In the upper pasture, eighty or so of Joel’s girls were waiting corralled by portable electric fences. “The fence plays the role of predator in our system, “Joel explained, “keeping the animals mobbed up and making it possible for us to move them every day.” It took the men “no more than fifteen minutes to fence a new paddock next to the old one, drag the watering tub into it, and set up the water line.”

Meanwhile, the “cows that had been lying around roused themselves, and the bolder ones slowly lumbered over in our direction, one of them – “That’s Budger” – stepped right up to nuzzle us like a big cat. Joel’s herd is [a] … somewhat motley crew …” Unsurprisingly, Joel “doesn’t believe in artificial insemination or put much stock in fancy genetics. Instead he picks a new bull from his crop of calves every couple of years, naming him for a celebrated Lothario: Slick Willie had the job for much of the Clinton administration.”

Then, “The moment had arrived. Looking more like a maître d’ than a rancher, Joel opened the gate between the two paddocks, removed his straw hat and swept it grandly in the direction of the fresh salad bar … . After a moment of bovine hesitation, the cows began to move …” “The animals fanned out in the new paddock and lowered their great heads, and the evening air filled with the muffled sounds of smacking lips, tearing grass, and the low snuffling of contented cows.”

Pollan recalled his meeting with his steer, 534, in the C.A.F.O. feedlot: “The difference between the two bovine dining scenes could not have been starker.” Polyface Farm is not just cute, it’s way more efficient by “… as much as four hundred [cow days] per acre; the county average is seventy.” Salatin notes, “In effect we’ve bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management.” It’s ecofriendly as “pastures will, like his woodlots, remove thousands of· pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year”. When Salatin bought Polyface Farm, it was a “gullied wreck”. Pollan’s chorus voice wonders, “how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?” Simply put, by trashing consumers, tax payers, domestic animals, and the planet. Pollan notes: “As I neared the blessed, longed-for end of my first day as a Polyface farmhand I must say I didn’t feel at all the way I normally do after a day spent laboring in the information economy.”

Tuesday

Pollan might be, in his Berkley professor avatar, a runner; anyway he keeps himself fit, which I suspect wasn’t a lot of help keeping up with one tough hombre and his lads who are as fit as Olympians. It must have taken a good deal of resilience to prize himself out of bed, that morning; his reward was another day in paradise.

“As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut.” Today, Pollan will meet and get to understand, the second shift of the Polyface crew: the chickens.

Chicken Pollock

Chicken Pollock

He made his way up to “two figures – the interns, probably – moving around up on the broad shoulder of the hill to the east, where a phalanx of portable chicken pens formed a checkerboard pattern on the grass. … Directly behind each pen was a perfectly square patch of closely cropped grass resembling a really awful Jackson Pollock painting, thickly spattered with chicken crap in pigments of white, brown, and green.”

The chicken yards move every day, just like the cow pastures. Grass can cope for a day with chicken pecking and “hot” (nitrogenous) chicken poo. The chickens get “fresh grass, along with the worms, grasshoppers, and crickets they peck out of the grass, [which] provides as much as 20 percent of their diet”. The grass and Joel get their fertilizer. How nice you might think, but the chicken poo has another trick up its sleeve.

In the next pasture, was  a Joel invention which Pollan was “eager to watch”: “The Eggmobile”. “It’s, one of Joel s proudest innovations; … a ram-shackle cross between a henhouse and a prairie schooner”, the home of the laying hens. “‘In nature you ll always find birds following herbivores’, Joel explained, when I asked him for the theory behind the Eggmobile. ‘The egret perched on the rhinos nose, the pheasants and turkeys trailing after the bison-that’s a symbiotic relationship we’re trying to imitate.’” He has no need for pesticide; he leaves it up to his “sanitation crew”.

Four days ago, the chicken yard had been cow pasture. It is covered with cow pats, the stuff you can find in the cesspools of a CAFO. One is a toxic waste and the other a valuable resource: difference is that this cow product has been visited by one of the smallest on the Polyface team.

When Ogden Nash dashed out his couplet:

“God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.”,

he was speaking as a townie.

It’s all in the timing: “’Three days is ideal. That gives the grubs a chance to fatten up nicely, the way the hens like them, but not quite long enough to hatch into flies.’ The result is prodigious amounts of protein for the hens, the insects supplying as much as a third of their total diet-and making their eggs unusually rich and tasty.”

Opo_Terser_-_Female_Tabanus_Horse_Fly_(by)_By Thomas Shahan [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Female Tabanus Horse Fly By Thomas Shahan

Joel releases “An eager, gossipy procession of Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and New Hampshire Whites” who attack the cow pats by “doing this frantic backward-stepping break-dance with their claws to scratch apart the caked manure and expos[ing] the meaty morsels within.

“Unfolding before us, I realized, was a most impressive form of alchemy: cowpatties in the process of being transformed into exceptionally tasty eggs.” Joel is characteristically humble with this, one of his quotidian miracles: “I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.” Pollan – and we should be – blown away by it. “Here we come to one of Nature’s wonders and maybe Farmer Salatin’s most productive workers: the blow fly. They do on Earth what Trip Tucker’s recyclers do on The Enterprise. They literally turn shit into chicken.” Had Nash visited his countryside, God would have told him the why of the fly.

After a visit to another “shademobile, called the Gobbledy-Go”, and other bunch of avian pesticides – the turkeys – it’s thankfully lunchtime.

To illustrate another example of the usefulness of cow poo, Pollan recalls for us his first visit to Polyface and the cattle barn. “The barn is an unfancy open-sided structure where the cattle spend three months during the winter …” Joel leaves the cows’ output in situ and scatters straw and wood chipping to soak up the liquid and make a steady floor. “As this layer cake of manure, woodchips, and straw gradually rises beneath the cattle, Joel simply raises the adjustable feed gate from which they get their ration of hay; by winter’s end the bedding, and the cattle can be as much as three feet off the ground. … There’s a secret ingredient, Joel adds to each layer of this cake: a few bucketfuls of corn.

Over the winter, bacteria and fungi go to town on this goo, turning it into prime manure, and fermented corn kernels. The only problem is how to dig it out? Solution: “’… There’s nothing a pig enjoys more than forty proof corn and there’s nothing he’s better equipped to do than root it out with his powerful snout and exquisite sense of smell. I call them my pigaerators,’” Salatin said proudly.”

Pigs in Shit

Pigs in Shit

Salatin let the pigs have at it, and the two sat “on the rail of the wooden paddock, watching the pigs do their thing …” They were “buried clear to their butts in composting manure, a bobbing sea of wriggling hams and corkscrew tails …”. Pollan’s writer’s side is never completely quiet but on this occasion his word smithy got jammed and could only come up with “happy as a pig in shit.”

A factor in the failure of the smooth operation of Pollan’s copy machine, recall he teaches journalism, had something to do with what happens to those “corkscrew tails” in the big wide world of a pig CAFO. Pigs are smarter than many dogs and they comprehend the vile conditions they live in. Piglets get just ten days mother time “(compared with thirteen weeks in the wild)” and then are put on “drug-fortified feed” “because they gain weight faster”. This leads to the “porcine ‘vice’ of tail chew”. The piglets like to chew the tails of other piglets. The other piglets will let them, because they are as unhappy as a pig can get. The gnawed tail frequently becomes infected, and these infections may lead to septicemia and death of the pig. So far, so horrible. Pollan has so far been keeping to the don’t ask, don’t tell understanding a writer has with the great general public on matters concerning growing and raising food.

In the first “Lord Of The Rings” movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Frodo finally makes it to the Last Homely House at Rivendell. Once he has recovered from the fight at Weathertop and a Morgul-blade cut, he spends some quality time with his uncle Frodo , the Hobbit who found The Ring in The Hobbit. Bilbo gives Frodo an Elvish mail shirt made of Elf silver and his Elfish sword, Sting. While Frodo is trying on his new kit, Bilbo wonders whether he might see The Ring just one more time. When he does, for a moment his face switches into a ravening bug-eyed monster. This is Pollan’s bug eye moment.

The way to cure – what a euphemism that is – “the porcine ‘vice’ of tail chewing” is to rip it off, mostly,. “using a pair of pliers and no anesthetic”. The point of the exercise is to make the stub of the remaining tail so sensitive that the piglet has to defend it. It’s all USDA recommended yet “a hog hell … smoothly paved with the logic of industrial efficiency”, for “’a protein machine with flaws’”. It’s enough to make you swear off pork, (which it has).

Wednesday

When you fondle that slab of frozen white meat in a supermarket, stamped chicken, what springs to mind?

I’ll give you a second.

Chickens may not pay taxes directly, but recently someone killed the animal whose remains you are clutching. Pollan has the same problem.

“Today promised not to be about the ecstasy of life on a farm. Today was the day we were ‘processing’ broilers or, to abandon euphemism, killing chickens.” Pollan “managed to get up right on time-5:30 A.M., to be exact and to make my way to the broilers pasture ”where he would assist the interns in “catching and crating the three hundred we planned to process immediately after breakfast.”

Chicken Wrangling for Professors

Using a big plywood paddle, apprentice Daniel secured a bird, and grabs “a flapping bird by one leg and flipped it upside down, which seemed to settle it. Then, in a deft, and practiced move, he switches the dangling bird from his right hand to his left”. Once he has five in his left hand they are stuffed into a crate, apparently no worse for the experience.

“’Your turn’, Daniel said, nodding toward the cornered mass of feathers remaining in the pen. To me, the way he‘d grabbed and flipped the chickens seemed unduly rough, their pencil legs so fragile-looking, Yet when I tried to coddle the birds as I grabbed them, they flapped around even more violently, until I was forced to let go. This wasn’t going to work.” He ended up copying Daniel, gathering the birds into “a giant, white pom-pom” and stuffing them  into carry crates. His judgement on this initial part of the experience is “I could see why doing it as fast and as surely as possible was best for all concerned.”

Joel slaughters the birds on the farm “and would slaughter his beeves and hogs here too if only the government would let him.” His dictum on the subject: “’The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview.’” The birds are killed in “a sort of outdoor kitchen on a concrete slab, protected from (some of) the elements by a sheet-metal roof perched on locust posts. Arranged in an orderly horseshoe along the edge are stainless steel sinks and counters, a scalding tank, a feather-plucking machine, and a brace of metal cones to hold the birds upside down while they re being killed and bled out.”

The arrangement affords Joel a deal of satisfaction. “’When the USDA sees what we’re doing here they get weak in the knees,’ Joel said with a chuckle.” The USDA slaughter house manual assumes walls, the one on Polyface Farm doesn’t have any. Joel’s rejoinder to any “USDA inspector conniptions” about this “plein-air abattoir” is “the best disinfectant in the world is fresh air and sunshine. Well, that really gets them scratching their heads!”

The true irony here is although “Polyface can prove its chickens have much lower bacteria counts than supermarket chickens (Salatin’s had them both tested by an independent lab)”, and those lower counts presumably translate into lower human exposure to the bad ones, the USDA regs. don’t care. This is possibly because: “That would require the USDA to recall meat from packers who failed to meet the standards, something the USDA, incredibly, lacks the authority to do”. If you think that’s a tad wrong, Pollan relates a full blown Saladin exposition on the subject. “It was a little early in the day for a full-blown prairie populist stem-winder, but clearly I was going to get one anyway.” Perhaps that was Joel’s way of encouraging Pollan on the next part of his adventure.

He joined the killing crew dispatching the birds, carefully and efficiently. He wondered “Could they smell the blood on Daniel’s hands? Recognize the knife? I have no idea. but the waiting birds did not seem panicked, and I took solace in their seeming obliviousness.” He dispatched birds himself, and saw once the birds “came out of the scalder [they looked] very dead and soaked – floppy wet rags with beaks and feet.” Yet there was still majesty in death: “The viscera were unexpectedly beautiful, glistening in a whole palette of slightly electric colors, from the steely blue striations of the heart muscle to the sleek milk chocolate liver to the dull mustard of the gallbladder”. The experience clearly moved Pollan who concluded; “In a way, the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling.”

Saladin, and maybe Pollan, clearly think that the Polyface way is better than either Agrobusiness or Big Organic. They are many who agree with Saladin in principle: José Bové, Roquefort farmer, M.E.P. and McDonalds demolisher, or Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, or “Sally Fallon, the “nutrition expert and cookbook author” of the Weston Price Foundation or the folks at Eatwild.com, or Joel’s numerous fans among the chefs of Charlottesville, or the discriminating citizens who pay “a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to get to it.” The direct Polyface customers are: ”a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher. several retirees. a young mom with her tow-headed twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. … no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled urban foodies generally thought to be the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.“

When I first read Omnivore’s Dilemma, wifey and I were exploring the little towns around Austin. When we discovered Round Rock and ROUND ROCK DONUTS, that was a good day. Many of those little towns were charming but neglected; the town squares lined with deep, cool emporia. I could see, come the apocalypse, a group of Saladin acolytes buying the broken land around one such, and establishing a Free State of Joel.

The historic jail at Gonzalez comes with a gallows for dispatching ne’er-do-wells, with the side benefit of educating the drunk tank or parties of misdemeanoring teenagers. 3D print shops could make any piece of modernity you could wish for, including droids, drones and Ironman suits for kitting out a militia. Power would come from the sun. Everything would be locally grown or locally made. Perhaps half of the land might be rewilded, becoming home to traditional Native American ways of life.

That Agrobusiness will end is in no doubt, although it would be nice if it were done with care and compassion, which is unlikely with the myopic Mammon worshippers currently in charge.

A patchwork quilt of Free States of Joel would be as troubled as current times. America has a tradition of marriages between religion and greed, which dates back to the Salem witch trials. On the small screen it is exemplified by Jimmy Baker, who is still, amazingly, in business. In addition, this vast country hides a host of fundementalist backwaters, a few of which are ruled by perverts like Warren Jeffs.

The main problem with a Polyface solution to human nutrition is: What to do with cities? Joel is not interested. Cities are essential to any growing culture. They provide relative safety for the outliers of human diversity. The concentration of humanity promotes complexity, exploration of cultural traditions, and a welcome to new ideas.

The current situation is clearly nuts. Let’s get to work and fix it.

 

Cohen Bros. Moments: How Japan met America at the end of the Pacific War

Geisha Makeover at the Katsura Studio,Tokyo by lu_lu

First scene: the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

In the end it was the Tenno, 天皇 (てんおう), the Son of Heaven, the divinely appointed ruler of Japan, who made the decision. The credo of Budō, the Japanese Way of the Warrior, demanded that a warrior surrender his life whenever his lord needed it. That had been the cornerstone of the Empire’s zeitung, its imperishable spirit of conquest. The Empire’s armies had beaten the British and the French, and ground down the Chinese. Those British had treated the emperor with contempt. That ex-King had mocked him and his impeccable Western clothes, as a “prize monkey”. The news that a British battleship Prince of Wales had been sent to the bottom by Japanese torpedoes, had given the emperor grim satisfaction. That ex-King had been Prince of Wales when he gave such insult. During the siege of Singapore, the British soldiers thought that the Japanese bicycles running on stripped steel rims were tanks, and the civil servant in charge had meekly surrendered what Churchill thought an unsinkable battleship. Unfortunately, all its guns pointed out to sea.

"Budō" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

“Budō” shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

Then the Empire had taken on a greater foe. That foe should have fallen apart at that first crushing victory. Its leaders had let the country rot for over ten years, leaving it to gangsters and film starlets to run things. They were a mongrel horde without discipline. But it hadn’t worked out like that. What should have been an easy next battle turned out to be a disaster. Somehow the mongrels knew and were ready. They had conjured aircraft carrier after aircraft carrier from who knows where. Their airmen were ferocious. At least as committed as our warriors who had been given Bushido souls with their mother’s milk. The mongrels never ever gave up, and kept coming on, hit after hit, until we started to lose aircraft carriers, the proud victors of the Battle of Pearl Harbor; first Soryu and then Kaga. We lost four irreplaceable ships and so many men. In the end Admiral Nagumo had to give up. The rout was hidden for a while. The eyewitnesses who might have spread discord, those soldiers and the airmen who had survived were interred. Our propagandists announced a great victory. But that was a lie.

Now the Tenno and his generals were down to just two options. Super weapons had vaporized the downtowns of two medium sized cities, apparently left intact by the Super Fortresses just to see what these weapons could do. And who knew how many more super bombs the enemy had and where they would be used? One thing was for sure, there was nothing that the army, navy or airforce could do to stop them. The slimmest, deluded hope was an agreement signed back in the glory days. The fact that it had been a cynical matter of convenience, at least by the ally who sponsored it, didn’t seem to matter much. He had gone to break the farcically named “non-aggression” treaty with a spectacular invasion, which he had called Barbarossa. The snows of the Steppes and the bloody minded persistence of the Untermensch, had turned it into a hellish rout which had rolled all the way back to his Fuhrerbunker under his chancellery in Berlin. Now he was dead, suiciding not by honorable Seppuku but a quick bullet and glass vial of prussic acid, while around him raged Gotterdammerung , a monstrous parody of Wagner’s tale of the Nordic gods. Hitler’s war had shattered European imperial power forever, at an incalculable cost in resources and some fifty million lives. (There is an excellent film on those last days called “Downfall”. The drawback is that it’s in Deutsche but is nonetheless an absolutely compelling tale.)

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

That other Axis ally had always been a flake and was dead too, shot by peasants and his corpse urinated on by their women. Now Uncle Joe, the Tsar in all but name of the Soviet Union, had unequivocally torn up that ‘non-aggression’ agreement by formally declaring war. The Russian army had already beaten the Imperial Army once before, and was now on its way down the Trans-Siberian railway. The great Soviet General Zhukov, who had seen off the Wehrmacht and had commanded that first defeat of Japanese forces in Manchuria, would steamroller the last vestiges of Japanese Imperial might and, if the Soviet Army behaved as it had done in Germany, would fulfill every horror story concocted by our propagandists. The Imperial Army had a lot of hidden skeletons like those tales back in Korea and China.

The options were simple: trust General Anami’s Ketsugō plan, which included arming children with sharpened bamboo sticks, or surrender to the Americans. Hirohito, Divine Son of Heaven, Tenno, chose door number two. The Tenno, divinely appointed ruler of Japan, the pinnacle of Bushido, had decided that he preferred to live and take his chances.

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

The Atomic Bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9th which was the same day that the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. After trying to get a concession or two the Empire of Japan signaled that it accepted the Potsdam declaration, which demanded total and unconditional surrender. On August 15 the Japanese people heard the Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast telling them that they would have “to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable”. Few of them understood what was about to happen due mainly to the archaic form of Japanese he used, which was something like FDR or Churchill using Chaucerian English, and in part to the scratchy recording made by NKK and the Emperor’s thin reedy voice. Japan waited for the victors.

Second scene: Flashback

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

The Japanese do not call themselves Japanese. Their name for themselves is Nihonjin and the name of their country is Nihon (日本), the sun’s origin. Europeans first learned of this country from Marco Polo’s book where he described an island known to the Chinese as Zipangu. Our name Japan was garbled from the original by filtering it through Mandarin and Italian or maybe Cantonese and Dutch. Any which way, one would be hard put to find more dissimilar languages.

Until 1945, Japan had never been successfully invaded, although Genghis Khan had a couple of goes back in 1274 and 1281. They are a homogeneous insular people, courteous and intelligent, and minimalist by necessity and by taste. They also think very highly of themselves.

When in the 16th Century Europeans arrived, the few Japanese who met one were not impressed. Yes, the Europeans brought interesting ideas like muskets which the Japanese readily copied but the men themselves were appalling. They were ketto yabanjin(けっと 野蛮人), dirty hairy beasts just like the goblin tengu 天狗 with huge long noses, enormous penises and venal tastes. During the war, the Imperial propagandists had capitalized on these prejudices. And now these barbarians would have the run of the place.

Third scene: Atsugi Air Base, Japan

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

It wasn’t long before those dreaded Americans arrived. On August 28, 1945, only 13 days after Hirohito’s broadcast American troops arrived at Atsugi Air base, just south of Tokyo, with orders to secure Yokohama for General MacArthur and his staff. The troops formed a convoy of trucks and ventured into enemy territory. They were soon met by a Japanese convoy sent by a new organization set up by the helpful Japanese government called the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA), and these trucks were carrying Japanese women in elegant kimono, who had “volunteered” to service the horny Yanks. Well, for many of the women sex was their day job anyway. The American officers were shocked and offended, and said so but, no doubt, some of the GIs would have been game. And so began a fascinating bit of human history, replete with every human vice but also much sweetness.

Atsuji wasn’t the only airfield which had to be commandeered. In early September, fifty Marines were sent to secure the air base at Omura near Nagasaki in Northern Kyushu. They too were welcomed by a party of geisha, and finding the base adequately secured, the men, lead by their fearless first sergeant, moved on to commandeer a nearby geisha house which they chose as their billet — while they waited for reinforcements — as it was well supplied with beer, ‘hibachi-grilled fish’ and girls. The doughty first sergeant of MAG-44 commandeering party was 22-year-old Nick Zappetti who already had a colorful history. He had grown up in the Italian enclave of East Harlem on Manhattan, New York. His cousin was Gaetano Luchese aka “Three Finger Brown” and Zappetti knew lots of other guys with nicknames, “Boss of Booze” Joe Rao, “Trigger” Mike Coppola and Joe Stretch whose real name was quite melodramatic enough.

Fourth scene: Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori, Japan

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San, by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Japan, of course, had its own wise guys. They called themselves ya-ku-za, the numbers 8-9-3, a term for a losing hand in cards. In other war torn countries black markets had flourished and Japan was no exception. While the Emperor and his cronies mourned, and the people feared the impending hordes of yabanjin, the yakuza reaction to the cessation of hostilities was let the good times roll. Only three days after the Emperor’s speech, they placed an advertisement for a black-market market called charmingly Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori (Shinjuku has more Light) and a couple of days after that the market in Shinjuku opened with supplies which had been destined to support General Anami’s Ketsugō army and then liberated and repurposed by the Yakuza. It was not long before the victors and vanquished were able to make working arrangements about the economic facts of life.

Tokyo was a shanty town of lean-to huts; some folk were even living in bomb craters, and nobody had enough to eat. The point that the government ration was totally inadequate was neatly, if inadvertently, made when a Tokyo District Court Judge who had refused to eat anything bought illegally died of malnutrition. So, despite “not overly successful” attempts to rout out American involvement, the light of Shinjuku AKA the black market boomed. Some eight million dollars worth of remittances were sent back to America, more than “the entire military payroll”. Naturally, the Yakuza claim that they saved the people at the beginning of the post war period.

Fifth scene: Rikidozan in the Ring

Fascinating although this is, it isn’t really Cohen Bros. material. For that we have pro-wrestling. After years of being told how tough the Japanese fighting man was (true) and how victory was inevitable (not so true) the post war Japanese male felt something of a letdown. The depth of such feelings were discovered on the night of February 19, 1954 in a puro-resu bumu held on Tokyo.

In the blue corner representing America were the Sharpe Brothers, Ben (6’ 6”, 240 pounds) and Mike (6’ 6”, 250 pounds). In the red corner representing the Land of the Rising Sun, Home of Sumo were Rikidozan (6’ 2”, 220 pounds) and Kimura (5’ 8”, 170 pounds). A Japanese journalist wrote, “The difference in physical size, especially in Kimura’s case, triggered painful memories among the spectators of Japan’s devastating loss in the Pacific War.” The ring announcer agreed, “Those Americans are huge. How can they possibly lose?”

The American Goliath, Mike Sharpe, climbed into the ring to confront tiny Rikidozan. Then Riki, as he became known, ‘flew into the ring and began pummeling Mike Sharpe with powerful karate blows.’ Mike backed down towards his corner and was quickly worn down by the furious Jap. To escape he tagged his brother. Ben received the same warm welcome. The blitzing attacks of the feisty Riki dazed him; he collapsed and Riki held him down for the count.

Rikidozan in action

Rikidozan in action

The audience went wild, jumping to their feet and throwing cushions, hats and anything else into the air. The crowd of some 20,000 gathered at Shimbashi Metro Station to watch the match on a 27 inch “General” went bananas, stopping traffic outside. Folks who had climbed trees to get better view of another jumbo TV in Ueno Park were so jubilant that they fell from their perches, “incurring serious injury and … ambulances shuttle[d] back and forth …. to the nearest hospital for much of the evening.”

It was estimated that between 10 and 14 million Japanese had watched the show live, and when it was broadcast 24 million, around a third of the population, watched. Riki was now a celebrity adored by millions including the media mogul and owner of NTV Matsutaro Shoriki who said,”Rikidozan, by his pro wrestling in which he sent the big white men flying, has restored pride to the Japanese and given them new courage.”

Alas, it was pro-wrestling and pro-wrestling is not known to be much of an actual contest, and this wasn’t at all. The match had been “scripted, rehearsed, and staged with the full cooperation of the Americans, who had been extremely well compensated for their trouble.” Nick Zappetti realized that was money to be made and was recruited to be a fall guy along with fellow American, one John MacFarland the Third.

Sixth scene: The Imperial Hotel Diamond Incident

MacFarland was not exactly inconspicuous in a nation of shortish, black haired people. He was 6’ 4”, 250 pounds, his red hair was cut into a duckbill, and he went by his wrestling name of “Gorgeous Mac”. As well as being a prize on the pro wrestling league, he had issues. He had been hospitalized for manic depression and treated with insulin shock therapy for his shocking temper. Gorgeous Mac was also in debt and an illegal, as his tourist visa and his passport had expired, so he need a lot of money fast, so he talked with Nick, with his connections and all, how this could be achieved.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

The plan MacFarland came up was a doozy. He wanted to rob the Diamond Shop in the arcade of his swanky hotel. First off, this was some hotel. It was called the Imperial and had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and had survived the great Kanto earthquake in 1927. It was a home-from-home to high-ranking officers from GHQ, senators and Hollywood stars and was ‘generally acknowledged as the Greatest Hotel in Asia.” The plan sounded simple enough. The Diamond Shop offered ‘private showings’ of its merchandise to certain qualified guests. Gorgeous Mac would establish his credentials with a suitcase of cash, which in reality was newspaper with a thin overlay of bills. He would get chummy with the salesman and offer him a drink. The drink would contain ‘knockout drops’, rending MacFarland and the salesman unconscious, Zapetti would emerge from another room and swipe the diamonds. It seemed plausible until Gorgeous Mac said, “I gotta have a gun”.

Zapetti tried to argue him out of his questionable request by pointing out that he was an enormous pro-wrestler and could easily handle any salesman. All Gorgeous Mac would say is “I gotta have a gun”. Zapetti had seen MacFarland totally lose it before, so declined to be part of the venture. He did however provide a .38 revolver which he gave, sans bullets, to one of   Gorgeous Mac groupies. This teenage boy was nicknamed the “Mambo Kid”, “M” for short, on account of  his taste in clothes: ‘black rhinestone-studded Latin clothes and big pompadours’. Should you doubt that Japanese folk love Latin dance you should go to the Asakusa Samba Festival.

So, on “January 15, 1956, at 10:20 AM, Imperial Hotel arcade jeweler Shichiro Masubuchi carried a briefcase filled with . . . diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies to MacFarland’s room.” He was relieved of the case by MacFarland and M who then chose to take the elevator to the main lobby, “where MacFarland agreeably stopped to sign autographs. Then he stood in line for a taxi in front of the hotel …” That evening MacFarland made front page news and had a team of seven detectives “- one for each leg, one for each arm, one man to grab his torso, another for the neck and a detective to snap on the handcuffs on” – on his trail. It didn’t take long to find, and when they caught him he came along quietly. MacFarland got eight months in a Japanese jail for his trouble.

So there you are.

This is but a taste of the wonderful Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster. As the wise man said no one could make this stuff up. and Cohen Brothers would have a field day making it into a film.

Featured Image: Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

 

 

 

 

Five Stars And Four More Plus Copious Supplies Of Oxford Blue

Stone bull's head rhyton used for libations, from the Little Palace of Knossos (1600-1450 BC), Heraklion Archaeological Museum by Carole Raddato

Almost ten years have passed since that evening; an evening which did not have a good beginning. At the time, I was working at the worst job I’d ever, ever had. It was in a town which I can only describe as a boil on the bum, angry, taut and tender. The job itself was maniacal, a St. Vitus dance on broken glass. The commute was a leprously icky dirge. I arrived home in the city of dreaming spires, feeling gritty dirty and worn, soul torn and rueful. I needed to have some fun.

I had been told that up on Boar’s Hill there was a folly called Jarn’s Mound and I thought, why not go and find it. The mound, the lily covered lake and wild garden are all that remain of Youlbury, the home of Sir Arthur Evans. In the 1920s, he followed the scratches on trifles found in junk trays of the antiquitieres in the Plaka in Athens to a field in Crete and his epoch-making discovery of Minoan palace at Knossos. The Iliad recalls, that from this palace, the heart of the labyrinth, the Bull Masked King Idomeneus lead his eighty black ships to keep fealty with Agamemnon, High King of Mycenae, rich in gold, and made war on Priam and his sons and his city of Troy.

Oxford Christ Church Meadow by Tejvan Pettinger

Oxford Christ Church Meadow by Tejvan Pettinger

After a wonderful shower – I do like Adidas shower stuff – and so, zesty fresh, wearing clean clothes, I unlocked my mountain bike and set offinto the twilight. First across the little wooden bridge into Hinksey Park where, during early autumn, the lido pool exhales grey ghosts. Then on to the pedestrian bridge over the swan pool. On the water, several dozen of the white birds rested in the dusk, like white magnolia blossoms strewn on oil.

As I carried the bicycle up the first flight of steps, descending down towards me was a family on a quest with a question. Had I seen it yet? What was I supposed to have seen? Oh, the great alignment. I vaguely recalled that all five of the planets known to Ptolemy, might be seen that night strung along the ecliptic, and no I hadn’t. Just at that moment, we were engulfed in a flurry of miniscule, cheeping Pipistrelle bats. After pointing out the bats as some kind of consolation, I continued across the bridge, up the second flight across the rust colored railway lines and down into a meadow.

The meager little path on the other side, overgrown but still passable let into a farm lane, where I mounted the trusty bicycle, The lane lend into a small village of South Hinksey which is just a row of flaxen thatched cottages molded out of the honey sandstone of hereabouts and – an Oxford staple here – the lighted windows showing rooms full of graceful living and books. Further on I passed the rather sparse General Grant (I made a mental note to pop in one day) which was followed by a farm yard with the pungent tang of cows’ muck. Then up a wicked little slope onto the A34/Oxford Bypass, round the roundabout and up the hill.

The road up Boar’s Hill has been worn by nature and thousands of years of farming into a kind of  reverse ziggurat; several duple bands scored into the hill side, each band temptingly shallow to begin with followed by a gear stripping, wobbly scramble. I will admit that come the steep bit number three my heart was knocking on 150 bpm so I dismounted to catch my breath. By the time I reached the top, night had finished falling and I was faced with a Y junction: the hill road continuing along an unnamed road stretching to the gloom and another diving off down into the Vale of the White Horse, which by the way does have a white horse, an Iron Age minimalist sketch scored through the turf to the creamy chalk just below.

Northern lights in Iceland seen from f-road 326 during my travel, close to Hekla volcano and Steinsholt guesthouse farm by Moyan Brenn

Northern lights in Iceland seen from f-road 326 during my travel, close to Hekla volcano and Steinsholt guesthouse farm by Moyan Brenn

Without light or a map this was a puzzlement which was quickly fixed by the welcoming lights of the Westwood Country Hotel, a little way down the Abingdon Road. This evening had yet to contain any alcohol which settled it. I padlocked the bike to a trellis and went in. The only beer they had was a lager so I made do with that. The only other residence were a rowdy Russian family. I settled down to read my book: Northern Lights.

This is the first book in the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. If you haven’t read it you should. It is the most marvelous tale which starts in Oxford, not this Oxford, but one in another universe. The hero is Lyra, dubbed “Lyra Silver Tongue” by Iorek Byrnison, the rightful king of the snow bears. So I lounged and supped and read those last few pages. I was taken to the snows of Svalbard to join Lyra in the destruction of Bolvangar and stepped with her and Pan through the Northern Lights into our universe. I closed the book with a sigh knowing that I had already bought part 2, The Subtle Knife and could begin again tomorrow. The drink was drained, the bike released and I set off down the hill.

Once over the brow of the hill it dawned on me how dangerous the road down might be. It had no street or house lights and as it was enclosed by a tree canopy it was as dark as dark could be. I did have my itty bitty cycle lights but didn’t imagine that would make a difference to some Beemer late for a date. So I whistled down the hill – no brakes – enjoying the danger and speed,

and I’m please to say no stone turned my wheel and sent me off karooming into a bush. The real danger lay at the bottom at the roundabout: people. Although I was pedaling furiously some plonker chose to tailgate me.

Mad lHatter By Tenniel

Mad lHatter By Tenniel

I narrowly escaped on to the ring road cycle path which was protected by a raised curb. As I cycled along it occurred to be that there was in these parts a remote establishment called The Isis Tavern, and voted unanimously that that to be the next stop. A little further on, the ring road ran over the Thames, known in these parts as the Isis, an odd name which has more to do with the scholars who rendered the Saxon place name Tamese into Tamisis or Tamesis rather than, as I thought for a long time, the queen of the Egyptian gods. As I came up to the bridge I noticed a path down to the bank. This path was a deeply incised cleft into the slippery clay of the embankment and proved a little tricky to negotiate what with a book bag and bicycle but barring a few slips I did it.

I mounted the bike and pedaled away but found the towpath full of mud and pots and holes. It was gloomy yet the moon cast enough light to turn the path into a metal leopard pelt, pockmarked with silver mirrors. I was concentrating on trying to avoid the puddles and a muddy tumble when out of the corner of my eye I saw it. There. there lined up across the sky were all five wandering stars, just as predicted. The ecliptic, the line across the heavens which all the planets follow (except the dwarf planet Pluto), appeared to me to be about 70 degrees to the horizontal, so my five where at a steeper angle than Russell’s amazing photo. So there they were, lined up, ascending at a jaunty angle. a truly amazing sight. Thing is though once you’ve seen them, said to yourself Good gracious, isn’t that remarkable, etcetera, they quickly become uninteresting.

So I remounted and rode into the gloom cast by some tall poplar trees and almost immediately almost ran over some fellow. Now, this being Oxford, what you think were the first words out of his mouth? They were not too surprising: it was the question of the family a couple of hours ago, had I seen it? Yes I had, just follow me. We retraced my steps and I gestured, there they are. Enjoy!

One of my oldest memories, I could only have been four or five, is the smell of a pub: a sweet smell of beer, the warm hearth and conviviality. The Isis Tavern is a Victorian farm house close to the Isis Lock and the (Oxford) Mathematical Bridge. That evening was busy but not crowded. I walked to the bar, ordered a pint of Oxford Blue and asked the assembled drinkers whether anyone had seen the Northern Lights. I got two replies – from the bar folk; the blond Canadian girl had seen them from the northern part of her country and the blond Swedish boy from the northern part of his, both places deep into the Arctic Circle. The liberating effects of the flowery deliciousness of Morrell’s brew, allowed me to strike up a conversation with a fellow patron whose history included being a Buddhist nun.  She was our Alice and I the Mad Hatter, we were joined by a highly inebriated fellow, a builder’s merchant’s clerk, who played Dormouse. He dozed on his barstool but managed to awake whenever the was a drink in the offering.

We drunk till closing time. Then I unpadlocked the bicycle and wheeled it – I was far too gone to attempt to mount the beast – along the muddy towpath to Folly Bridge and home.

Micky in Fantasia from primogif

Micky in Fantasia from primogif

 

The Occult Knowledge Of Ancient Alien Theorists

Around to the Queen Nefertiti by Egisto Sani

Akhenaton was a most unusual looking dude. His statue in the Cairo museum of Antiquities shows a long, equine profile; a pair of flaring nostrils; hooded, mesmeric eyes; a mobile, sensuous mouth and, above all, the high dome of a vast cranium sloping back deep into the Pharaonic crown. The sculpture gives a profound impression of immense power and a clear, deep intelligence for which we have only one word: genius.

Statue of Akhenaten by Les Williams

Statue of Akhenaten by Les Williams

Akhenaton was a revolutionary before his time. He allowed his likeness to be realistic, breaking away from the stylized bombast of Ramses the Great, and leading to a flowering of creativity never before seen. The Mona Lisa of this brief twinkling in human history is the bust of his queen, the timeless, iconic Nefertiti, possibly the most beautiful woman of all time. To the ancients, women were chattels, servants, breeding stock. Most ancient potentates kept many wives and a host of concubines, but Akhenaton had just one, his childhood sweetheart whom he trusted in everything, promoting her his co-ruler.

Together they turned their backs on the dark, incestuous gods of Thebes and Tanis with their sinister magicians and their corrupt, power-hungry priesthood. The Pharaoh and his Consort sort only the light they called the Aten, and whose symbol the Solar Disk lights our world, bringing it warmth and life.

To tear their people away from the old hideous cults and the rank superstition on which those abominations thrived they set out north into the desert and were shown the place by the setting sun. There at Amarna they commanded a city to be built and, miraculously, the vast city of Akhetaten sprung into existence. Scientists still do not know how such an immense project with its innumerable temples, palaces and causeways was achieved in such a short time.

Nefertiti Bust by Philip Pikart

Nefertiti Bust by Philip Pikart

Yet the old priests plotted and planned. Robbed of power, they caused chaos in the kingdom, accusing the Pharaoh of abandoning his people. They may well have had him assassinated using a poisoned fig. Their menacing threats forced Nefertiti, now in fear for her life and the lives of her children, to write to Egypt’s mortal enemy, the Hittites, for help, for a husband. This last desperate attempt foundered when the Hittite prince was murdered in the sands of the Sinai, and Nefertiti disappears from history.

There remains on a temple wall, the Hymn to the Aten, composed by Akhenaton, which some five hundred years before the time of Moses and more than a thousand before the first words of the Pentateuch were committed to writing, is the first monotheistic prayer on earth.

 

“Thou gloriously set thyself up on the borders of the sky
Thou from whom every life was born
When Thou shone from the horizon at the east
Thou filled the land with thy beauty
Thou art beautiful, great, sparkling,
Thou travel above the land Thou hast created
Embracing it with thy rays,
Keeping them tightly for your loving son (Akhenaton).
Although Thou are far away, thy rays are on Earth;
Although Thou hast fill men’s eyes, thy prints are not seen.”

 

K'inich Janaab' Pakal

K’inich Janaab’ Pakal

On the other side of the great Atlantic ocean, remote and unknown in Europe for another three thousand years, were great civilizations which also built pyramids and which also worshipped the Sun God. In the Mayan city of Palenque, within the Temple of Inscriptions is the tomb of the god king, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. He looks uncannily like Akhenaton. Pakal too had those luminous, mesmeric eyes, a puckered sensuous mouth, and a deep domed head. He too ruled in a time of prosperity and artistic accomplishment. His capital of Palenque also simply appeared, this time in the dense tropical Mesoamerican jungle. Most intriguing of all is the heavy lid of his solid sarcophagus which seems to show him at the controls of a spaceship.

Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, British Museum

Further coincidences abound. The crystal ‘Skull of Doom’, found by Anna Mitchell–Hedges in Lubaantun, Belize, in 1923, has the same elongated cranium, and remarkably the mysterious skull is made of rock crystal, and could not have been carved using any known technology. Ancient Alien Theorists believe that there are other more remarkable artifacts waiting to be discovered in the lush vegetation of Meso or South America. We now know that there was a vast civilization centered on the Amazon apparently spanning the entire continent, which is shown by the geographical location and the sidereal alignments of the figures drawn in the high plains of the Nazca desert. Isn’t it strange that when the decorated explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett was closing in on the mysterious city of “Z”, he just disappeared?

Isn’t it odd that many of modern fiction’s extraterrestrials also have high domed cranium and are frequently without hair? The central character in the epic ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ is the austere Deltan Ilia whose empathic nature and enticing pheromones allow man to make a connection with his most powerful creation. Might this not be some kind of buried unconscious root memory of beings from beyond the stars. Many Ancient Alien Theorists think so. Might not Akhenaten and Pakal be visitors from another world? Or perhaps Star Children, the progeny of gods and men?

No. The mummies of Akhenaton (AKA KV55), his father Amenhotep III, his grandfather Thutmose IV  all reside at the Cairo Museum of Antiquities, and the remains of his son Tutankhamen rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Thanks to the pioneering work of  Svante Pääbo, who went on to make discoveries concerning Neanderthals and uncovering a hitherto unknown human species, we know they are all have the same human DNA as you or me or Barney McGee.

I could unpick all the false leads, misrepresentation, the number of times I’ve added two plus two to come up with nine but, in our quest to understand the Ancient Alien phenomena, I propose a shortcut. If we have been visited by extraterrestrials they must have come a long way. How long might that be?

So, in human terms what is a long way? From the 18th Century, humans have been traveling faster and farther. There was a time, September 15 1830 actually, when humans, riding behind Stevenson’s Rocket, went from travelling as fast as a galloping horse, to a dizzying 28 mph (45 km/h). Women passengers were warned by eminent medical men that traveling at such speed would do them irreparable harm. All that happened to the ladies, reported the actress Fanny Kemble, was that they enjoyed an exhilarating day, although William Huskisson, the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, managed to fall in front of the steam engine which obligingly made him the first railway fatality. Within twenty years, steam trains where traveling at an astonishing 78 mph (125.6 km/h).

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

The early 20th century saw another revolution in travel when, on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright briefly was airborne, traveling at a sedate 10.9 km/h (6.8 mph). Within 2 years, a Wright Brothers’ airplane was travelling at 60.2 km/h (37.8 mph). Aircraft have continually become faster and flown higher, the record of 3,529.6 km/h (2,193.2 mph, Mach 2.883) being set by Capt. Eldon W. Joersz and Maj. George T. Morgan on 28 July 1976 in a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Travelling by aircraft has become commonplace and for a time there were actually commercial supersonic flights. I reckon that the people who travel the furthest are the crews of commercial airlines. A modern jet aircraft travels at around 500 mph. Air crew can only travel 1000 hours per year by international law. So, say a crew member flies for 30 years, they may do around 15 million miles in a lifetime, a distance which is merely interplanetary.

The furthest object made by humans is Voyager 1 launched way back in 1977. After the spacecraft had taken a true voyage of discovery and many wonderful photos, Carl Sagan prevailed on NASA to turn it around and take a picture of us on our planet: our ‘blue dot”. Voyager 1 is now (Christmas 2014) 19,558,664,450 Km (12,153,190,604 miles) from Earth and has traveled at 62,136 km/h (38,610 mph). Is that anything like a long way? For us: yes, for space: not even worth talking about.

So how about the total distance traveled by Americans, all of them, per year? In 2000 there were 190,650,023 Americans with driving licenses. The average distance one drives is 13,476 miles in a year, which means that America as a whole drives 2.5 trillion miles annually. This is more like it. The unit that astronomers use to measure the distance between stars is the light year, which is just under 10 trillion kilometres (or about 6 trillion miles). Our nearest star is the binary star Alpha Centauri which is 4.37 light years from the Sun, or 25 trillion miles. It would take Voyager 1 75,000 years to get there.

Ilia, from Star Trek: The Movie

Ilia, from Star Trek: The Movie

So how can we explain the destabilizing event at the beginning of the film which introduced the world to Ilia, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The rather ponderous plot opens with a vast, unknown entity which we later are informed is called V’ger, zapping a couple of Klingon K’t’inga-class battle cruisers. Later Ilia is zapped and reconstituted into V’ger’s spokesperson to be eventually sublimated with Decker, a Star Fleet officer who fancies her something rotten. Alas the lovely, talented Persis Khambatta, who played Ilia, died in 1998, just 49 years old.

We eventually learn that at the heart of V’ger is a space probe from the 20th Century called Voyager 6. There was no Voyager 6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is set in the earth year 2273 when Voyager 1 will have traveled another 360 billion km making it all of 6% of a light year from Earth; not even out of the back door.

The Star Trek Communicator.

The Star Trek Communicator.

That’s the trouble with Science Fiction: the Science part has made Captain Kirk’s Communicator a reality – you can buy a cell phone which looks just like it – but the Fiction bit may not produce any more wondrous communication sets, may be just dodgy plywood ones. Space Fiction gets around the problem of crossing the interstellar space by inventing snappily named ruses to essentially bypass the issue: Star Trek had Warp Drive, Stargate used some kind of worm hole, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used an Infinite Improbability Drive. It would be possible to explain to Isaac Newton how his principles would allow men to journey to the Moon, based on elements of technology of his time. Current scientific notions of interstellar travel require stuff like negative energy or negative mass, none of which exists now nor do we have a clue how to make any of it. So it is very likely that there is no interstellar drive for us to invent and we will remain on Earth or its environs for the whole of our existence.

So why did a SOASTA survey report that a sizeable proportion of Americans believe that the future will be just like Star Trek? First of all, no one notices negatives. During the first half of the 20th Century, we increased our top speed by a factor of 20 times, but since then not by much more. Secondly we are entranced by Moore’s Law, which promises twice as much for half the price every 18 months. It is, of course, only about the transistor equivalents on a silicon chip. This phenomenal growth has propelled computing into every nook and cranny of human life; but the “law” itself is just about the chip, and not about interstellar travel nor the possibility that it has already been used by extraterrestrials to visit us.

Luckily for the purveyors of UFO mythology, there are more important considerations than mere truth: gullibility and greed. The abundance of TV and now Internet channels means that there is always a shortage of cheap material to fill the schedule. TV channels like Discovery Channel or the History Channel do not exist primarily to inform, they exist to make money, so their executives will accept any subject within a broad remit so long as it is likely to attract sufficient advertising revenue.

Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”

Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”

Humans are attuned to little globs of information. We have, since the beginning, known that any tiny clue might mean the difference between dinner and being dined on. Such clues are self evident; a certain kind of rustle, a particular shape and color. They are the grist of traditional learning, and grow into ritual, superstition and a fascination with esoteric lore. When he read that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” in John 1:1, it seemed reasonable to John Dee, the Royal Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, that “the Word” belonged to the language of God and his angels. So Dr Dee, founder of the Rosicrucian Society, devoted a lifetime to learning this language of angels, or maybe the words of the fallen kind, the language of witches. We do not know how Dr. Dee obtained his obsidian mirror, a thin polished disk of a black glass made in a volcano, but it is almost certain that it was taken by Cortez from the great pyramid at the heart of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, temple of blood and still beating human hearts. The Aztec sorcerers called Dr Dee’s scurrying glass Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”. When conjoined with the Enochian alphabet Dee the Magus was able to converse with the spirit Madimi” and together they cast a hex on the Spanish Invasion fleet and scattered it to the four winds. Sorry about that, I got a bit carried away.

Likewise, a UFO fabulator starts from the point of Extraterrestrial contact and works backwards. The word “work” here requires a little clarification and connotes finding objects, stories or witnesses, sewing them into simplistic narratives which borrow from current technology and science fiction, and projecting onto ‘the facts’  their unworldly rational. It will undoubtedly help to have sinister government types lurking around, to provide the undoubted reasons for your valuable program content being occult. A good conspiracy theory is a get-of-out-jail-free card for any awkwardness that may crop up.

Erich Anton Paul von Däniken

Erich Anton Paul von Däniken

The hard part will be the pitch, i.e. getting the money, but the key here is persistence; the channel execs need to fill air time and get their bonuses. Once you have the production money you’ll need to keep expenses down so fill the run time with general footage which can be purchased off the shelf and a very few graphics with no more than seven words a piece – remember most of your audience does not read books of any kind and are somewhat out of practice reading-wise – then cobbled the whole lot together with the “talking heads” of your UFO researchers. You don’t need to pay the “experts” much as they will appear to promote their own product. Take the money, allow the tax man to pay off your considerable expense accounts and stow the rest in the Bank of Cyprus. Life is good.

Giorgio Tsoukalos

Giorgio Tsoukalos

Ancient Alien theorists own a debt of gratitude to the founder of their discipline, Eric von Däniken. Dr von Däniken made his discoveries while working as a hotel manager in Davos, Switzerland. Is it a coincidence that every year, the rich and powerful attend a ‘conference’ there in Davos?  Just after he published his ground breaking  Chariots of the Gods?, the Swiss authorities convicted him of fraud and sent him to prison. Despite this set back, Dr von Däniken continued to develop his ideas and wrote a second seminal work, Gods from Outer Space, while in prison and finally cleared his name. He went on to found AASRA ( the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association) and also designed and built Mystery Land at InterlakenSwitzerland. Typically, the scientific establishment has lambasted his work describing it as a “cultural Chernobyl“.  At this public education institution visitors can study aspects of the Ancient Alien controversy in a complex of exhibits including the outstanding Nazca pavilion.

Erich von Daniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos

Erich von Daniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos

Ancient Alien theorists also are indebted to Carlo Rambaldi for his vivid portrayal of alien life in such ground breaking films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Alien, and Frankenstein ’80. It is interesting to note that Rambaldi lived for many years close to Dr. von Däniken in Italy, and that the craniums of Rambaldi’s creations are perfectly smooth.

The Ancient Alien Theorist torch has now been taken up by fellow European Giorgio Tsoukalos who created the award winning Ancient Aliens. Tsoukalos is “the leading Ancient Astronaut expert” and Director and cofounder of von Däniken’s official international research organization, Center for Ancient Astronaut Research (A.A.S.R.A). The far flung travels of this “real-life Indiana  Jones” may explain why Giorgio adopted his highly original hair grooming. It appears to be derived from the styling of the Centaurian Ambassador, Londo Mollari.

Londo Mollari, Centaurian Ambassador

Londo Mollari, Centaurian Ambassador

 

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 1: Children Of the Corn

Cow
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Philosopher of Foodies. He starts his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, with a simple question “What should we have for dinner?”, and comes up with interesting food for thought. He has the temerity to do something that most people do their best to ignore, and something that the food industry, which he charts, dissects and skewers, does its best to encourage. He writes, “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner”. Ignorance is bliss, you might say.

I think it would be fair to say Pollan’s point of view could be summarized by a quote from the hero of part two and three of the book, Joel Salatin: “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?” (page: 240)

The plot of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (not a catchy title in my opinion) revolves around preparing four meals.

  • A McMeal which was gobbled up in a moving car. It was adequate. Pollan had his guilty Big Mac and fries. He could persuade his wife to take a salad, and his 11-year-old son had the McNuggets which “taste like what they are, which is nuggets, du-h”. We get introduced to George Naylor, Pioneer Hi-Breed’s 34H31, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and a brockle-face calf called Steer Number 534.
  • A Big Organic meal came care of Whole Foods, and consisted of roast “Rosie” chicken, roast veggies – “yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash, steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad”; followed by organic ice cream and organic blackberries.
  • This is contrasted to the locatarian fare which was mainly from Polyface Farm located in rural Swoope, Virginia. The food was roasted corn, roast chicken again, and lemony rocket salad washed down with a peachy Viognier out of VA. The wine was an “unexpectedly fine wine”. Dessert was chocolate soufflé.
  • The stupendous final meal, its ingredients all handmade or plucked and killed by Prof. Pollan justifiably proud of his achievement wrote the dinner up in a Berkeley-style menu.
Pollan's Menu

Pollan’s Menu

Our omnivorous dilemma

Our omnivorous dilemma is AKA “What should we have for dinner?” We humans are omnivores capable of eating a surprisingly wide variety of food. This includes comestibles that some folk swear are delicious, healthy and nutritious, such as Japanese Natto, or Cantonese chicken feet or tripe from Morpeth, but to me are as appetizing as cold sick.

Koala Bear

Koala Bear

What to eat does not trouble animals with a more restricted diet, say a Koala Bear. “The koala doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner.” For most people for most of history the choice of what to eat was limited to what there was, and during famines, what might keep body and soul together for another day. Even in the good times and the good places consumption was guided by custom and etiquette. It is not surprising that the cuisine of the great courtly cultures of the world – China, India, France, Turkey/Greece – features lots of little dishes drawing inspiration from the good wife cooking for her peasant family. For example Crêpe Suzette was invented by Henri Charpentier, He learned its crêpe and fruit elements from his foster mum. The alcohol was added by the Parisian restaurants of the Fin de siècle, the flame by chance, and the appreciation by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England, and guests. Or that was Henri’s story.

By stu_spivack (Preparing the crepes auf flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Crêpe Suzette by stu_spivack

Those times are still the daily reality of most people today, but large and growing proportion of us have moved on to modern life and modern eating. Instead of selecting available foods from a market and cooking them according to family recipes, we have advanced to the food aisles of the supermarket. And they are extraordinary. I wonder what a gifted Renaissance man like Erasmus would have made of the cornucopias we visit every week or so. There are “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments”, “freezer cases with “home meal replacements” “, “broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks”. I recall wandering around a Target in Denver being quite overwhelmed by the size of its food section and especially by the size of some of the packages. As most of the packages and brands were new to me, I had a problem deciding what to buy for my meal for one. I’m not alone in this. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry …”

Supermarket

Supermarket

Pollan maintains that as we modernized we have been cut off from traditions which have been systematically tested over hundreds of years. Now we have a food industry instead. It may be shocking but the executives at Tyson, Walmart, and Whole Foods are mainly interested in running profitable businesses, and their next bonus; they are not necessarily the best folk to ensure our welfare. In theory that welfare is provided by a plethora of laws and agencies. Unfortunately, the science that underpins these laws and guidelines has only had a couple of hundred years to figure how to grow and maintain a human, compared to the thousands afforded to cultures. The Illiad tells us that the young blades at Nestor’s court at Pylos cooked kebabs in the hearth of the king’s throne room Moreover, as Big Tobacco showed us, science can be brought for a price.

Adrift from a distinct food culture, and our concerns multiplied by Madison Avenue and the latest research, we are prey to fads. So a book like the Atkins diet can radically alter eating habits by demonizing pasta and bread and replacing the food pyramid as people’s go-to reference, for a while. Meanwhile we are all getting fatter and dying unnecessarily from so-called diseases of affluence, while we read the labels and wonder “What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum?”

Pollan recognizes this as a cultural problem, and writes: “We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of being healthy.”

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

[It’s interesting that a worldly wise, well read, West Coast professor like Pollan should find the notion of an American Paradox odd. Does he think that paradoxical behavior is something that only other nations do? In America, I see paradox everywhere. It’s the only Western country where any old lunatic may arm himself – they are nearly always men – in order to shoot up a school, movie theatre, whatever. And there’s never a stout NRA member to return fire.]

Pollan’s answers his question by following the clues “that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.”

Why Corn (Maize)?

Pollan writes, “I invariably found myself in the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.”, because “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” including “things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers …” and there is a good reason for this. Corn, after its seeds have been lovingly synthesized and protected from all manner of ills, produces more calories per square foot than pretty much any other food crop. This is due to its unique biochemistry, its “C-4 trick” as Pollan calls it.

There is no such plant as “natural” corn. Like nearly all our foods, humans have developed it from an unprepossessing original, in corn’s case a plant called Toesinte. Native Americans capitalized on variant plants in which a genetic mutation had wrapped the seeds in a tough husk. The tough husk prevents the corn from propagating naturally, but what would be a death sentence to a wild plant was a bonanza for humans. From then on, we unnaturally selected those characteristics which pleased us, up to and including “the biological equivalent of a patent”. It so happened that frequently the offspring of two varieties of a plant is bigger and better than either of its parents. In Genetics-speak, that cross strain or hybrid is called the F1. The children of the F1 hybrids, the F2 hybrids, are usually shadows of their parents so the farmer must buy his F1 seed from Monsanto or such. George Naylor, Pollan’s corn farmer, buys his, a brand called Pioneer Hi-Bred’s 34H31.

From somewhere in Idaho

Pollan met George Naylor in the middle of his corn field on a “slate-grey” day. Naylor “is a big man with a moon face and a scraggly grey beard” and was wearing “the farmer’s standard-issue baseball cap, a yellow chamois shirt and overalls – the stripy kind favored by railroad workers”. His Iowan field “has some of the richest soil in the world, a cake of alluvial loam nearly two feet thick” made by the “retreat of the Wisconsin glacier ten thousand years ago”, and is home to tall “prairie grasses – big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, and switchgrass”.

Corn Field

Corn Field

It is remarkably productive: an acre of the Naylor farm yields “more than ten thousand pounds of food”. The farm is part of a vast mono-culture of identical plants which runs skyline to skyline, a Manhattan of corn, devoid of people. The population of Green County, where the Naylor farm is, in its heyday was 16,467, now it’s a bit over ten thousand. The local town, Churdan, is a shuttered ghost town, just a café and minimart left, with the “windowless concrete skyscraper” of the grain elevator standing vigil at the far end.

The growth from the modest twenty bushels per acre eked out by the Native Americans and the pioneer farmers, got underway in 1947 when the munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama started to turn its surplus of ammonium nitrate into fertilizers instead of explosive. Hybrid corn just loves lots of nitrate fertilizer. The combination spawned corn farms running on oil. Pollan writes “every bushel of industrial requires the equivalent of … fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn”. “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food …”. The industrialized farm-factory has a side effect: nitrate fertilizer is washed from the fields down into the Raccoon River, which runs through Des Moines. River chemistry converts nitrate into toxic nitrite, which can find its way into tap water for humans. So, in Des Moines, the city has to issue “blue baby alerts”.

Yet despite all this technology and hard work, George Naylor “is all but going broke”. Why this should be “is complicated” and “has something to do with the perverse economics of agriculture …; a little to do with the psychology of farmers; and everything to do with farm policies …”, the last being the life’s work of Earl “Rusty” Butz, AKA “The Sage of Perdue”, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture. See the picture of Butz with Trickie Dickie, and a young Dick Chaney.

A sale of 30 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union “in the fall of 1972” compounded with “a spell of bad weather in the Farm Belt” forced grocery prices to a record high and an apparent food scarcity. Hunger It is never lost on politicos that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was hunger due to bad harvests, so when in 1973 ominous grumblings  started; “housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets” and newspapers asked “Why a Food Scare in a Land of Plenty?”, there was action.

Richard Nixon, Earl "Rusty" Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Nixon, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

So, the “Sage of Perdue set to work re-engineering the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.” “He exhorted farmers to plant their fields ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them to ‘get big or get out’.” With the 1973 farm bill, he rejinked government subsidies from loans designed to keep farmers’ solvent into direct payments intended to increase production. And that farmers did, all too well. Over the years, government has found other things to spend money on, consequently “just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price in order [apparently] to make American grain more competitive on world markets.”  The result is that as of October 2005, corn was bought for $1.45 a bushel and the agriculturists at the University of Idaho reckon that that bushel costs $2.50 to produce, trapping the farmer into attempting to grow still more, ad infinitum.

A monument to this abundance, or a “plague of cheap corn” as George Naylor put it, was the “bright yellow pyramid the size of a circus tent” Pollan saw at the foot of the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa, part of a “bumper crop” “represent[ing] what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the elevators [the previous] … October.” Pollan felt that “something [was] deeply amiss in the sight of so much food lying around on wet ground.”  Ricardo Salvador, a Latino agronomist and Prof. at Iowa State, took a similar line: “To be honest I felt revulsion. In Mexico, even today, you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered almost sacrilegious.”

But from the perspective of hardnosed commodity brokers, this hill is only so much “number 2 field corn”. This term was coined by the Chicago Board of Trade as part of a grading system introduced in 1856 to simplify commodity trading. It is almost inedible: you’ll have to soak the corn kernels in water for several hours to get something tasting like “lightly corn-flavored starch.”  But, then again, you’re not supposed to eat it; it flows into factories which turn it into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, umpteen other things and meat. Pollan intended to follow this yellow river on its journey to the consumer so he contacted the chief processors of corn, Cargill and ADM, but they declined Pollan on “food security” grounds.

Mommy, what does C.A.F.O. mean?

Pollan left the Manhattan of corn and towering corn elevators which stand like a lone moorland menhirs to visit a cattle metropolis called Poky Feeders. The high plains of western Kansas are crisscrossed by “ramrod roads”, Kansas lay lines to the standing stones of Idaho. He speeds down one until “the empty dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see” which is coupled “an aroma more bus station men’s room than cows in the country”. Welcome to Poky Feeders. He had come to visit his steer, number 534.

By Derekbalsley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle Lot By Derekbalsle

534 had started his life in a birthing shed on the Blaire Ranch “a few miles outside Sturgis, South Dakota”. His mother was 9534, that would be the 34th cow born in 1995, and his father via “a fifteen-dollar mail order straw” was “Gar Precision 1680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks. If this strikes you as rather Brave New Worldish, you’re not alone; only we’ve not yet applied industrialization to human reproduction. His first six months were spent with his mother, on Blair Ranch’s “rolling short-grass prairie” with the option of “nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass.”

“In October, two weeks before [Pollan] made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother.” Then “he was rounded up and herded into a “backgrounding” pen with others of his cohort, to spend a couple of months learning to eat corn from a trough. It was in this pen that Pollan chose 534 because he “had a wide stout frame and was brockle-faced- he has three easy-to-spot white blazes.” “Ed Blair, the older of the two brothers, suggested only half in jest that [Pollan] go the whole hog and buy the animal” which “immediately struck [Pollan] as a promising idea.” Shortly after 534 was off to Poky Feeders.

The heart of Poky Feeders is the mill. It processes a million pounds of feed a day, which is corn rolled into flakes which weren’t “half bad; not as crisp as a Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor”, liquefied fat i.e. beef tallow, and “a sticky brown goop of molasses and urea, plus vitamins and a couple of antibiotics “- Rumensin and Tylosin.”

It all makes inexorable economic sense, even the cannibalism.“ “Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when [Pollan] raised an eyebrow.”  Trouble is, apart from the yuck factor, the system is new in evolutionary terms which means things go wrong. The classic example is “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first brought to light in merry England where, once upon a time, bits of sheep were fed to cattle. A disease of sheep known as scrapie was passed to the cattle and then to humans. For a while British beef was banned in Europe and , there were fears that it could turn into an epidemic as the human version Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease was essentially untreatable. In a damage control exercise, the British public were treated to the spectacle of the nerdy Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, feeding his four year old daughter with hamburgers at a Norfolk country fete. The furor has died down, for now, and is not a known problem at Poky Feeders.

The main problem that Poky’s three “hospitals” cope with is Bloat. A diet loaded with starch stalls the fermentation in the animal’s rumen which “inflates like a balloon” and may occlude his esophagus and suffocate him. The cattle can also get “a kind of bovine heartburn” which too can be lethal. This is why the animals are fed antibiotics. “Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed”. As the current stocks of antibiotics are variations of a handful of compounds, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised by antibiotic resistant superbugs. According the staff veterinarian, Dr. Mel Metzin, all this is due to the simple fact that “they’re made to eat forage and we make them eat grain.” so the “cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days”, perhaps “as much as [the animals”] systems can tolerate.” Still Dr. Mel is upbeat: “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Pollan found 534 in pen 63 which on first impression was “not a bad piece of real estate, all considered.” Then he figured out the pond which pen 63 overlooked was no pond at all but in CAFO speak “a manure lagoon”. (CAFO is the acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Pollan had on “the same carrot-colored sweater” he had worn when they had first met in South Dakota and wondered if 534 would show a “glint of recognition?” Nope, “none whatsoever.” He looked well although his eyes were a little bloodshot, “irritated by feedlot dust” according to Dr. Mel. Indeed, Dr. Mel was impressed: ““That’s a handsome-looking beef you got there.” “[Pollan’s unspoken reply:] Shucks”

Rube Goldberg and Number 2 corn

Around 60% of “the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year” is used in CAFOs and the like. The rest – remember humans don’t eat kernels of number 2 field corn – is deconstructed in a wet mill. As ADM and Cargill, who do most of America’s wet milling, had declined to show him their plants in Decatur, Illinois and Iowa City respectively, he made do with a model mill at the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. It is “a Rube Goldberg [Heath Robinson (GB Eng.)] contraption of stainless steel tubes, pipes, valves, vents, drying tables, centrifuges, filters and tanks” which as Larry Johnson, the Center’s director, describes it “is essentially an industrial version of digestion”. Pollan goes into some detail on how the processes work, but suffice to say it is ingenious, cost effective and mainly made from metal. The end product are things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is “the most valuable product refined from corn”. Then these products are reassembled into food items like Cocoa Pebbles breakfast cereal or Coca Cola, and a surprising range of other products, e.g. Windex, diapers, gypsum drywall, wax paper and fresh vegetables!

First Booze Then Fries

Unsurprisingly, the result of ingenuity and a prodigious amount of cash is what Pollan calls “A Republic of Fat”. The UN reckons that there are now a billion or so people with overnutrition – an interesting euphemism – which is more than the unfortunates with malnutrition, at around 800 million. So, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and it is probably technically possible to do it. Quite when we’ll get around to it is another matter.

The US takes the lead in the obese league with 60% of Americans who are overweight and 20% who are obese. It has not always been so. “Most researchers trace America’s rising rates of obesity to the 1970s.” which is coincidentally the era of Earl Butz. Maybe that’s no coincidence at all.

Pollan gets his label Republic of Fat from a book about America and alcohol entitled The Alcoholic Republic. Apparently, from the time of the Founding Fathers onwards, America was on a “collective bender” to the astonishment of European visitors. One wrote home, “Come on then, if you love toping. For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.” Pollan reckons that the driving forces for both republics are the same things: too much corn and ingenious marketing.

At the top of the roll of honor for those marketers is David Wallerstein, who invented for McDonalds the “equivalent of a papal dispensation”: Supersize. McDonald’s empire has in recent times been losing market share which wasn’t helped by the film Super Size Me. This goes some way to showing that the Republic of Fat will not need a period like Prohibition to reform a clearly daft state of affairs.

A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “You eat what you are”, which includes Pollan, suggests that reform is happening in the US, so soon back to slimmer Americans, with the rest of the world in tow with the end of world hunger thrown in. That would be nice. In the meanwhile, Pollan has updated the ancient Mayan self-description “the corn people” or corning walking”, “So that’s us: processed corn, walking”.

Texan Rodeo

A cowboy on a bucking horse

By Jiminie, I like, nay, love “Ro-de-o.” Perhaps an earlier pre-rodeo me might say, “Now I’m a confirmed fan of Rodeo”, but we’re in Texas at the Ro-de-o. Yeee Harr!

The arena is huge, at least the size of a football field, enclosed and dark. Nested in four beams of white light, a lone horseman on chestnut mount holds a great Stars and Stripes. The flag is taller than the man mounted on his horse. The Star Spangled Banner is playing and most of the audience is singing along, many with their right hand across their heart. This is followed by an impromptu yet personal prayer thanking the Lord for being American and most of all a Texan. This leaves you in no doubt that you are in the land of patriots and believers.

The Star Spangled Banner in the Rodeo Area

The Star Spangled Banner in the Rodeo Area

Now, down to business. There are gates at either end of the arena. The wild riders are carefully seated on their horses or bulls, locking hold of the harness with stout rope and rough leather gloves. The gate is flung open and the horse and rider launch into the void. The mustang jumps, arches and rolls; the rider balances like a tightrope walker with only his grip holding him to the horse. After ten seconds or so, which must be a deal longer for him, two compadres sidle up either side of the beast, one going for the mustang’s harness and the other offering a welcome shoulder and the rider swings on behind him. Their horses are magnificent; their professionalism and timing superb.

The acceleration, the exhilaration

The acceleration, the exhilaration

After a few horses, comes the next event: calf wrangling. These are not petite little pets. They are waist high on a man, and very much have a mind of their own. So as soon as they are released into the arena, they run hell for leather. The cowboy only has a moment to jump and catch him. They wrestle awhile until the weight of the man will turn the calf’s head and the animal tumbles over. One time, the animal was on his way down when he jinked and twisted out the wrangler’s grip and plumb got away.

Sheep Wranglers

Sheep Wranglers

Then it’s the turn of the little fellas. They are kitted out for contact sports and seem kind of small in this vast space with these big men, but they will be treated respectfully and kindly. The comperes wrangles the row of 4th and 5th graders into some kind of order. They are interviewed, “Say, what’s your name fella?” and shown their mount. Not for them a steer; one fall, one blow on the head and that would be goodnight little tyke. That eventuality would be followed by a sure and swift vengeance from the most formidable creature hereabouts – a Texan Mom.

They get up close and personal with an ornery sheep. The child is carefully mounted onto the animal gripping the fleece with all their eight year old might, the handlers retire and they’re off. As the sheep does do much in the bucking and kicking line, just runs, the might just has to hang on for dear life for five seconds or so, sometimes slipping over the animals head and frequent rolling down under the beast, belly side. Then comes the prize giving. The little man who got kicked in the head got a special big trophy. They might want him to come again.

The original Daisy Dukes

The original Daisy Dukes

Refreshments can be had from the hawkers who patrol the bleachers and then there is the industrial sized bar. There, there are the young Texans females. These bodacious teens wear Daisy Dukes and well tended boots, check shirts and pushup bras for showing off the begins of the best present their mother will ever give them. They are as prime an animal as any you will see in the arena below: Svelte and willowy with cumuli of sleek, glossy, lustrous hair; flawless skin the color of wheat toast and  generous, scintillating smiles.

The odd thing here is that there seem to be parallels to another sporting contest held on the other side of the Pacific; that would be Sumo. The rodeo arena and the sumo dohyō are both holy places made of earth, both have elaborate customs and ceremonies, and both are out and out contact sports for big men. As I’ve written before, I do not think killing animals just for sport is justifiable.

Sumo arena

Sumo arena

A day out the Ro-de-o just goes to show you don’t have to slaughter an animal just to have a good time.

Harry’s Big Day: The History Of A Dastardly Practical Joke

Fire

Harry wandered in, mumbled his announcement, and wandered whence he came. I heard myself mutter, “We just can’t leave it,” “No we can’t,” Hilary chimed in.

Technicon SMA 12/60

Technicon SMA 12/60

This is the story of my most dastardly practical joke, and I seriously doubt that I will better it (which doesn’t mean I will not try). Let me set the scene. It was in olden times, i.e. the 1980s, before the personal computer and well before mobile telephones. The nearest thing most people came to a computer was their electricity bill. Still, the march of Science had arrived in our little Clinical Chemistry Department of our little suburban hospital. We still had a few test tubes and Bunsen Burners. I recall performing an enzyme assay for Acid Phosphatase (a test for prostate cancer) using a rack of test tubes suspended in a water bath and I suppose the Radioimmune Assays for hormones – then the big thing – did use dozens of little plastic tubes, but on the whole the test tube thing and naked flames were on the way out; most of the work was done by machines.

Greg Saunders of CSI and his bank of wiz bang, internet enabled, Deep Minded gizmos were 20 years in the future. Instead a company called Technicon had cornered the hospital chemistry market with the notion of a bubble. In the most simplistic terms, a drop of blood serum was sipped from a little plastic cup held on a carousel and diluted with water, salts and detergent to become a sample. This sample was feed through clear plastic tubing where it was mixed with chemical solutions, and the resulting chemical reaction produced a color change, which was measured using a photocell. The bubble prevented one sample drop washing into the next.

The machines were magnificent, and their memory is sadly lacking on the Internet. The chemical solutions could be vibrant colors, such as a deep magenta for measurement of total carbon dioxide. The form of the machines was a network of transparent tubing, imbedded with handsome springy glass coils, oil heating baths, transparent acrylic blocks and finally blocky colorimeters. The biggest machine in the lab was a magnificent SMA2 whose great rack of tubing was back-lit, highlighting the flickering voyage of the bubbles, and the magenta and peach solutions. All in all, they were something I feel Willie Wonker would have been proud of.

The bulk of the analyzes and running these machines was done by the serfs like Hilary and me, who gloried in the name of Medical Laboratory Scientific Officer. Harry, however, was of the nobility, a doctor destined to become a consultant. On that glorious morning when Harry made his big announcement, Hilary and I were doing the second most popular set of tests, those used to assist in diagnosing Liver Function. We used blood serum but there were some test tube tests for liver function performed on urine. Harry’s announcement? He had asked for an opportunity to do a pee test for liver function.

He had asked because he was taking the big exam, the one which made him a Consultant. He had already passed the written portion of the final exam but unlike the exams you or I would take, after the written bit there was a practical bit. And the practical bit had teeth; if you failed it then you had to do the whole exam all over again. Just the kind of thing to catch Harry – a low riding, laid back, Hush Puppy driving individual – out.

Harry wanted to practice.Ho, ho, ho! Hillary and I would give it to him. This was an act of some temerity on our part. Doctors, as you undoubtedly know, are far more intelligent than non-doctors. Only they have opinions which have merit, on the human body and pretty well anything else. To publicly mock one in his natural habitat was not necessarily a hanging offence. This was not the Japan of Edo, but it was not the done thing; words would be said.

Technicon sample carousel

Technicon sample carousel

Once, when I was the on-call chemist working in the evening, the duty admitting surgeon sent down a sample for the standard tests for admitting a patient, a Urea and Electrolytes, done on the glorious SMA2. The patient had an ‘acute abdo’ as we say, a painful stomach. I suggested that I also did the test for the enzyme Amylase which screens for pancreatitis. This ailment causes nasty stomach pains but is much loved by surgeons because in patients with pancreatitis surgery is contraindicated, as they say. The immediate treatment is to tuck them up in a cozy bed with lots of morphine and fluids, and wait for the consultant round in the morning. However there are many other abdominal pains,  e.g. appendicitis, which do require surgery. After an hour or so, a groggy patient was in the receiving room of an operating suit and a  newly minted consulting surgeon, not the admitting surgeon, was reviewing his notes. The aforesaid was a Mr.: a fully certified surgeon will insist on the Mr. instead of Dr. to which he is perfectly entitled, to distinguish them from those mere purveyors of potions. The attachment to being a Mr. (or a Miss – I never met a Mrs. but undoubtedly they exist) is something which harks back to when the principle skill required of a surgeon was to remove a leg in less than 25 seconds and follow that up with a good shave. Mr. – I forget his name – called and wondered if I might do the Amylase after all. Alas I didn’t have enough blood so he sent me down some more. The test included a 20 minute incubation/cooking time, so for around half-an-hour the operating theater, surgeon, anesthetist and staff waited. I suspect that during this time a rather cross phone call went from operating room to Casualty; a fiery dressing down down the clearly defined totem pole. This is my theory anyway. From then on every patient Dr. P admitted that night also had this Amylase test requested. By the 7th patient, I was well past just complaining to my team of doctors. I was fuming and marched into the little office, to be confronted by one of the most beautiful women I have ever met –  Dr. P  and her  exquisite almond eyes. She apologized and I was allowed to say it was my pleasure, shucks.

Hilary and I laid our plans well. First, we concocted our urine sample, A.K.A. The Bait, with tap water, a splurge of blood serum for protein, a spatula of glucose, some aspirin (which Hilary swore would work “just like urobilin”) and a drop of bilirubin, the yellow pigment of jaundice, from an old brown glass stoppered bottle hidden away in the dark recesses of the chemicals store. I invented a patient who I called Eileen Whitling, The word “whitling” sounds like a family name and my thesaurus told me was from the Anglo Saxon for a lie. She had a test request card created for her which put her on Intensive Care unit (ICU) and gave her a diagnosis of ‘Acute Abdo’, i.e. her tummy hurt, a lot. much like Dr. P’s patient. The plausible back-story was that poor old Eileen had arrived in Casualty feeling very poorly and was clearly unwell; what of, no one knew, perhaps pancreatitis, so she had been sent to ICU to be carefully monitored, and meanwhile a bunch of tests had been ordered looking for clues. Now, it so happens that the first symptom of acute liver failure is bilirubin appearing in a patient’s urine so there were good clinical grounds to do the test. The fact that over the previous two years Harry had never had such a request didn’t seem to bother him. Nor did he notice that The Bait was the only test requested for Eileen. To make The Bait a little more convincing I put it in a high risk bag reserved for suspected Hepatitis patients. On the off chance that there really was an Eileen Whitling and she was on the ICU I called sister in charge of the ICU to tell her about the plot. Very, very unlikely but stranger things have happened.

Now the hardest part: waiting. I recall having The Bait in place dangling from a brass hook on the pigeonholes of the separating bench, the initial point where samples were received. A crack crew such as Hilary and I zapped through the day’s analyses, converting graphs drawn by the machines to numbers and writing up the report cards, well before 4 pm which was last call for the report cards to be glanced over by a medico or a biochemist and sent out to the wards, the GPs and the satellite hospitals. Harry had seen the treasure, carefully folded back the results sticker to read the fallacious patient detail and quietly burbled, replaced the prize on its hook and wandered off, again – he did do a lot of wandering off. The minutes ticked by. I found myself on several occasions wandering towards the separating bench to find a mildly expectant Harry hovering around awasting time. I found my face spreading into the broadest grin and had to turn away smartly and find cover. Folk started to accumulate around the general area of the separating bench. They made half-hearted, general conversation. They frequently glanced at (a) the clock and (b) The Bait .

At long last Harry came through, collected The Bait, inquired as to whether there were any more, was told no, and proceeded with as much aplomb as he could muster into the bowels of the lab to perform these most vital of tests. Hilary and I were invited to the hospital bar for a quick drink. She declined as she had to go home to make tea. How everyone knew I do not know to this day. Our preparations weren’t terribly subtle and someone with some knowledge could have figured out what was afoot. Hilary claimed she hadn’t told anyone. But there you are – the only person in the lab who didn’t know was Harry. Moreover, the noncommissioned management must have known fairly early in the afternoon and could have stopped the prank in an instant. Yet they just let it roll along. Seems that various people had a rather low opinion of our Harry.

So we sat in the bar supping tepid beer waiting for the shoe to drop. Christine – one of the seven Chrises in the lab at the time – arrived late to report that Dr. Harry was carefully performing the tests, carefully measuring the test ingredients, which was totally unnecessary in these qualitative tests. He had picked off the two easiest, those for protein and sugar, first. They proved to be splendidly positive. Then he did the bilirubin test which was also satisfactorily positive. Harry apparently started chortling. Poor Eileen may have succumbed to some dreadful autoimmune disease which was damaging not only her liver, but her kidneys and pancreas. This would need careful investigation. Christine described his enthusiasm as gruesome. Then Helen decided to up the ante and called him to make a totally specious request as anewly minted admitting clinician. This combined with rather lackluster performance of aspirin to imitate urobilin gave the game away. Harry’s wife who had patiently waited for him while he was doing the tests took the poor man away.

The next day a zephyr blew around. Helen caught the little ire that Harry felt but mostly he was disappointed to find that Eileen would not be needing him.