19 February 2006

Ode to a dung beetle

The Economist, in Names for Sale, its leader discussing the millions of animals in need of names, brings up "the difficulty of who will sponsor unloved animals such as leeches, worms and dung beetles."

Dung beetles? Unloved? Oh, what deskboundness wreaks! Discounting history, what type of modern human, having met, truly met a dung beetle, cannot be awed, held in thrall, cannot see the beauty of the beast (like all beetles, the many dung beetles are spectacular) let alone its helpfulness? Finding an email to a friend, I come upon my own words, "How can one feel down when the world has dungbeetles so close that they are visiting the balcony now?"

There was one special night when they came in their many thousands and mated in front of us, the body of them moving against the balcony window like a sleeping five-year-old boy. Here in Australia, they are a rare case of beneficial animal importation, and the nights are often filled with their buzzing. Put your head down to a fresh cowpat and you can hear the crackle and pop as they move about. The native antechinuses adore them, and in the sheltered hideaways where they prefer to eat their prey, you'll find a boneyard of beetle shells (many of them dung beetles) like a pile of armour whose knights have been eaten right out of it.


Ode to a dung beetle

I wanted to write an ode to a dung beetle
but everyone would think it silly
or repulsive.
So I wrote an ode to a swan floating like
its neighbour swans. Watched from the shore
they look like so many discarded tissues.
Why look, though, when we know all the
allusions, princesses et al.

The dung beetle tunnels lonesome
lacking resonance of swans
but with a necklace of
golden servants cleaning
its russet fur, and a smell
of musk that queens would
kill dragons for with their own
bare hands.
Take that, you princesses!
Take that, you swans!
Ring the bells of resonance
for the clangers they are.
Clean on, golden servant-mites.
Trundle your dung-ball to your
secret den, dung beetle unsung.
This poem shall be for you:
Oh Odious One.

Now, to one of my favourite books:
Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance from a Hidden World, edited by Erich Hoyt and Ted Schultz. Here it is, with a portrait of the unloved on the cover.


So, advice to the deskbound: unbind and see other worlds.

15 February 2006

The Medlar Comfits Cooking Guide: Lesson 1— Peppering and larding

Pepper a hunk of meat, and the diner can scrape the pepper off or use tweezers to pick it out. But if you want what you shove into that hunk to stay there, then shove it deep inside, deep into the heart of it. That's called larding.

Peppered quince.
Freeze one quince. This allows the sugars to mature so that you use less added sweetness later and the taste of the quince dominates rather than added sweet. Peel the quince. Roll it in a light mixture of cracked rose pepper, black and green pepper, and some crushed cardamon. Bake slowly in a covered dish with a little water added, till it is the colour of a freshly stubbed toe, or a red rose if you must.

Serve on a bed of kasha or couscous, with a drizzle of honey and a dollop of rich yogurt.


Larded Unicorn (vegan version)
Slice unicorn (made of gluten or marzipan) with a thousand cuts, or poke deep holes into it, and shove in what you like. Then smooth over the outside so that nothing shows.

If your unicorn is made of marzipan, then pieces of candied clementine are good.

If gluten, shove anything in. Nothing will save it in the taste department, any more than anything does, a bird filled with birdshot.

14 February 2006

The beauty of mating slugs

The most beautiful dance I've ever seen, from David Attenborough's newest series, Life in the Undergrowth.

See leopard slugs move as humans could only dream of (and they don't bloody their toes!) and watch them create a flower of sperm.

13 February 2006

The best way to have seen "Jaws"

In 1976, I saw Jaws in Mexico City, at a movie theater that we were lucky didn't burn while the film was running. There were about 5,000 people in the place, and the aisles were more filled than the seats.

The movie was dubbed. The entire audience cheered the shark.

Homes: temporary and permanent as permanent can be


TREE: Persoonia, though I don't know the species (there are approximately 100). Commonly called Geebung, this tree, like many other geebung varieties, has edible fruits with one large seed in each berry. They are astringently sweet with a little kick of turps, crunchy as gooseberries but without tartness. It's always an exciting experience eating them, for they have such a range of personalities, from tree to tree and berry to berry—or more properly, drupe to drupe, as are cherries and olives and peaches and loquats, but that word has an unfortunate dry sound, doesn't it? 'Drupe' should mean desiccated through neglect, like a dusty orange, hard and hollowish, or like so many people.
VINE: Eustrephus latifolius var. angustifolius, commonly called Wombat Berry. The berries are the size of peas, and ripen from apple green to bright pumpkin orange; fleshy, crunchy, and each contains a few smooth and shiny black seeds that are almost impossible to dump from pockets because they look and feel like seeds that fairy tales things grow from. The fruits are delicious—a cross between star fruit and pumpkin. I think that I would still think they taste like tropical pumpkin with crunch even if they weren't pumpkin coloured, but I don't know. I saw them before I tasted them, so they need an untainted taster to taste without preconceptions. The root of the plant is edible but I've never dug one up.
PUPA CASE: Guessing here—one of the Psychidae (commonly called bag worms or case moths) ?

What the octopus?

Have you ever regarded something that was transformed, by the peculiar state of your mind at that moment, into something quite different, and yet the essence of itself? It only happened to me once, just recently.

Perhaps it was the preoccupation of "Why," but when it happened, I barely had time to reach for a pen, as I didn't do anything but act as secretary. Yet the happening was as natural as an octopus jumping into fishnet tights, because of course, the octopus is an eight-legged ballerina.

More than that, I can't explain. But I hope someday, to meet the octopus again.

from The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson (unedited excerpt)*

In the sea there are mysterious comings and goings, both in space and time: the movements of migratory species, the strange phenomenon of succession by which, in one and the same area, one species appears in profusion, flourishing for a time, and then dies out, only to have its place taken by another and then another, like actors in a pageant passing before our eyes. And there are other mysteries. The phenomenon of 'red tides' has been known from early days, recurring again and again down to the present time — a phenomenon in which the sea becomes discoloured because of the extraordinary multiplication of some minute form, often dinoflagellate, and in which there are disastrous side effects in the shape of mass mortalities among fish and some of the invertebrates. Then there is the problem of curious and seemingly erratic movements of fish, into or away from certain areas, often with sharp economic consequences.

When the so-called 'Atlantic water' floods the south coast of England, herring become abundant within the range of the Plymouth fisheries, certain characteristic plankton animals occur in profusion, and certain species of invertebrates flourish in the intertidal zone. When, however, this water mass is replaced by Channel water, the cast of characters undergoes many changes.

In the discovery of the biological role played by the sea water and all it contains, we may be about to reach an understanding of these old mysteries. For it is now clear that in the sea nothing lives to itself. The very water is altered, in its chemical nature and in its capacity for influencing life processes, by the fact that certain forms have lived within it and have passed on to it new substances capable of inducing far-reaching effects. So the present is linked with past and future, and each living thing with all that surrounds it.

*Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, Chapter Two, "Patterns of Shore Life", pgs 44-45, Panther Books Ltd. London 1965
…………………………………………………

The biology of human history

In the course of human history there are mysterious comings and goings, both in space and time: the movements of peoples, the strange phenomenon of succession by which, in one and the same area, one culture appears in profusion, flourishing for a time, and then dies out, only to have its place taken by another and then another, like actors in a pageant passing before our eyes. And there are other mysteries. The phenomenon of mass hysteria has been known from early days, recurring again and again down to the present time — a phenomenon in which the populace become obsessed because of the extraordinary multiplication of some idea, often a perceived villain, and in which there are disastrous side effects in the shape of mass mortalities among minorities and various individuals labelled as "the enemy". Then there is the problem of curious and seemingly erratic movements of people, into or away from certain areas, often with sharp economic consequences.

When societally-created disaster floods the roads with a populace yearning to escape, refugees become abundant in neighbouring countries, and various types of black marketeers flourish in the lucrative zone between the places of peace and prosperity, and that of danger and deprivation. When, however, the situation of societally-created disaster is replaced by a situation of prosperity, freedom and safety, fleeing refugees are replaced by immigrants, and the cast of characters undergoes many changes.

In the discovery of the biological role played by human society and all it contains, we may be about to reach an understanding of these old mysteries. For it is now clear that in human society, nothing lives to itself. The very social fabric is altered, in its nature and in its capacity for influencing human activity, by the fact that certain ideas have lived within it and have passed on to it new ideas capable of inducing far-reaching effects. So the present is linked with past and future, and all history and each human and living thing, with all that surrounds us.

04 February 2006

Individualants

It isn't wise to stop by the side of just any anthill in Australia, but this one had no aggressive defenders. The visible ants were busy coming up from a narrow opening, each with a particle of sand in its mandibles. Each ant deposited its load on the rubbish pile and returned below.

They looked as same to me as we would to them. While I was watching the ants, some builders' labourers drove past, and a waste truck. Some of the ants that I watched working were slightly bigger than others, some slightly brighter coloured; each individual looking a bit different though not different enough to recognise if the same one emerged again on the busy worksite.

They acted, not as 'ants', but as individuals. They had personalities. I've often watched ants, but never noticed before how individualistic their actions could be, and possibly always are. I don't know. All I can say from having been fascinated is that these ants busy at my feet were like any nation of people. There were ants who ran with their rocks to the top of the rubbish hill and dropped them so that if they rolled off, they'd roll away from the central entrance in its depression. There were ants who emerged from the hole and dropped their rocks right at the entrance where they were likely to tumble in. These ants reminded me of people who open their doors and just turf their rubbish out, a common practice where not made illegal.

I'll be accused of anthropomorphism for saying this, but ants were around first, so whose ism is it anyway: It was utterly compelling seeing an ant emerge, watching the way it moved, and trying to predict what it would do.

There were ants who looked as if they knew they should have gone further, but dumped the load and quickly ducked back inside. There were ants who stopped partway up the rise, for all the world looking as if they were contemplating. And there were ants who worked in the most disgustingly virtuous way. No fist-pumping from them once their loads were off their jaws—only a work ethic that ants have a reputation for, but Mao Tse-tung thought he knew the masses, too. It is man's social being that determines his thinking, he wrote. Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world.

Granted, ants aren't known for changing the world, or having great leaders. They've made great strides to change the world in a vast area underground just metres from where I sit. But they're still just ants. The more things change, the more they stay the same. As for their society, I couldn't tell one ant from another, so there was no way that I could say, 'That ant doesn't deserve to be supported by the toil of the rest of the masses.'

When I got home, I looked up 'lazy ants', and found that Eisuke Hasegawa marked the ants he studied. I wish I could have done that, but I only observed in ignorance and surprise.

Is it preposterous to consider the thoughts of an ant? Of course, workers have a difficulty thinking, as H. Rider Haggard remarked in his account of a year of his life as a progressive gentleman farmer, A Farmer's Year: Notable men are rare; there be very few in any age who can lift their heads and voices high enough above the raving crowd for the world to see and hear them, and great events occur only from time to time. But behind these Titans existed the dim multitudes of the people . . . of all these forgotten humble hordes there remains nothing but ourselves . . .

I could not tell whether busy ants and slack-arse ants are so as a matter of personality, age, health (factors Eisuke Hasegawa pondered) or indeed, whether that virtuous ant was a slackard in the last trip up from the bowels of the nest. I could not compare their queens, or even meet them.

The only thing I knew from watching these educators is that I'll never again think of ants as that body made up of individuals in the way that negates the individual. The fact that we don't know the who-ness of an ant is another mystery that we should want to explore, not negate the existence of. Workers unite, to be sure. And they do seem to be so much more efficient and cooperative than those creatures who have lips to sing the Internationale, but it was wonderful to see that they would fail, as masses, to spell We Love Our Dear Leader, or even We Suck, in some stadium display.

The masses are often surprising — individuals even more so.

Grandfather's beard



It's high summer here in southern New South Wales, and the grandfather's beard is in seed. By winter, the grandfather's beard will turn grey. Like an old salt's face-growth, grandfather's beard is tougher than steel.



Caustis flexuosa, Family: Cyperaceae. A type of sedge that grows in clumps up to the waist height of a smallish woman. Often seen near 'drumsticks'.