Saturday 30 September 2023


Littlebell (Ipomoea triloba, 三裂叶薯).
For the past three weeks, littlebells have been flowering in the wilder parts around the river. With rare exceptions their petals show little variety, and are predominately the same whitish pink. As a morning glory, the time it see then is before the mid-afternoon; later in the day the flowers are curled into shrivelled cones.

Littlebell flowers at the Xiang River

The Library

Ista beata tibi sola est quae ducitur aetas;
   Cum tot docta vides ora vetusta loqui.

Such a blessed library is your life's sole devotion,
here you see so many wise and ancient faces speaking.

Benedetto Giovio (1471-1545), Disticha, ad Franciscum Iulium Calvum (Basel: apud Io. Frobenium, 1518), p. 50. Benedetto was the brother of the more famous historian and biographer Paolo Giovio. This poem is from a collection  of distichs which was printed along with Ludovico Pittorio's Sacra et satyrica epigrammata. My translation.

'ducitur aetas', cf. 'cui florida ducitur aetas, / Tu quoque pone animos vere monente graves'. Desiderius Erasmus, Poems, trans. by Clarence H. Miller, ed. by Harry Vredeveld, 2 vols (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press, 1993), I, p. 270 [Poem 106.103-104].   

Félix Vallotton, The Library
Félix Vallotton  (1865–1925), The Library (Musée départemental Maurice Denis "The Priory", Wikicommons)

Friday 29 September 2023

Ivy-like Merremia

Ivy-like Merremia (Merremia hederacea, 篱栏网).

Near the river, there are often a few unostentatious pink, yellow or white flowers from various bindweeds. But in one great Michaelmas show, the velvety green vines of ivy-like merremia flowered in abundance, and with it life has changed: bluebottle butterflies, asian honey-bees and hosts of other insects have come for the pollen, multifarious spiders have come to ensnare pollinators, and songbirds have come to feast off the spiders. Out of nowhere these small buttery flowers are everywhere.

Ivy-like Merremia by the Xiang River

Ivy-like Merremia by the Xiang River

Faire is the Heaven

'Faire is the Heaven'
Music Composed by Sir William Henry Harris (1925).

Faire is the heauen, where happy soules haue place,
In full enioyment of felicitie,
Whence they doe still behold the glorious face
Of the diuine eternall Maiestie;
Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins,
Which all with golden wings are ouerdight,
And those eternall burning Seraphins,
Which from their faces dart out fierie light;
Yet fairer then they both, and much more bright
Be th’Angels and Archangels, which attend
On Gods owne person, without rest or end.
These thus in faire each other farre excelling,
As to the Highest they approch more neare,
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling,
Fairer then all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties ioynd together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse,
The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?
The text is from Edmund Spenser’s ‘An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie’, lines 78-81 and 92-105. Sir Harris omits 10 lines where Spenser’s veers off into Platonic mystical abstraction and Pseudo-Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy. The arrangement is so beautiful that one often fails to notice that the grammatical reorganisation suggests that ‘those bright Cherubins’ are 'more faire' than ‘the glorious face of the diuine eternall Maiestie’, though the final lines offer a corrective.

Listen here (whilst the link stays).

Thursday 28 September 2023

Little Egret

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta, 白鹭).

This egret was stalking the lily-ponds of Xianjia Lake (咸嘉湖), which hosts a small egret and heron sanctuary. They are one of the most common fishers in Changsha, and are easily identified by their yellow feet.  

Little Egret at Xianjia Lake

Little Egret at Xianjia Lake

Bedside Books

Hope Mirrlees, ‘Bedside Books’ in Collected Poems (Manchester: Fyfield Books, 2011; 1928), pp. 102-10 (p. 102):

 Above all, they must not be dull, Dullness (pace Pope) is not a soporific. If it were, it would have its uses, and serious modern novels might live as lullabies. But dullness per se has never yet put anyone to sleep, and when we nod in church, the poppies tangled in garnered piety are the cause and not the parson’s homily, and if Jeremy Taylor himself were preaching on Christmas Day, and his text was Nevertheless the Dimness, we should not be a wink less drowsy. Even a detective story is more soothing than a dull book. Suave mari – a detective story may sometimes be read in bed. To extract the last drop of sweetness from this delightful hour, we must be conscious of our bed as well as of our book, and a detective story emphasises the conceit that our bed is a hare’s form, a warm secret refuge from hunters and hounds – while outside our sanctuary there is terror and flight and the surging enemy, mute and terrible.
         Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis,
         E terra magnum spectare laborem.

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Paper Mulberry

Paper Mulberry (broussonetia papyrifera, 构树). 

The fruit is sweet and edible (otherwise it would hardly matter that is sweet) but bruises easily so that it is best to devour it straight after picking. The young leaves are eatable too, when cooked, though it would be better to wait until next spring to try them. As a book-lover, one must respect this tree's long and ancient part in the production of paper.

Paper Mulberry

All Mirrors are Magic Mirrors

All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

George MacDonald, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1858), p.114.

Tuesday 26 September 2023

Skunk Vine

There are not many ostentatious mid-summer flowers in Changsha, but there is skunk vine (paederia foetida, 雞屎藤), which flowers sporadically throughout the summer and then in abundance before the beginning of autumn. A few weeks ago its flowers were everywhere I walked along the river, already now it is uncommon to find a single bloom.  The English and Latin names are a little unfair: although it is true that the bruised plant does release a mildly sulphurous smell it is neither noxious nor harmful, especially if left unbothered.

Skunk Vine

Reading History and Poetry

legendi etiam poetae, cognoscendae historiae, omnium bonarum artium doctores atque scriptores eligendi et pervolutandi et exercitationis causa laudandi, interpretandi, corrigendi, vituperandi, refellendi
also we must also read poetry, master history, and select instructors and writers from all the noble arts to mull over thoroughly and, for the sake of practice, we must praise, explain, correct, criticise and refute them.
Cicero, De oratore, I.34,158. My translation.

Monday 25 September 2023

Juvenile Red-billed Blue Magpie

Juvenile red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha, 红嘴蓝鹊). This youthful bird has been living near my college and slowly gaining independence from its mother. These are one of my favourite corvids: they are strange and beautiful. And their young are strange and comical.

Juvenile Red-billed Blue Magpie
Juvenile Red-billed Blue Magpie

Strange Things

John Florio, His firste fruites (London: by Thomas Dawson, 1578), fol.52r-52v:

By readyng, many things are learned, who wyl haue good counsel, let him reade, who wil see, and heare strange things, let him reade
Gilbert K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1909), p.60:
Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.

Sunday 24 September 2023

Peacock Pansy

Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana, 美眼蛺蝶)

Some of these ochraceous beauties were around early last spring, when it was unseasonably warm. I have been seeing them again these past few weeks. Their English name is odd, while the Chinese 'beautiful eye butterfly' is more descriptive, something like 'tiger's eye' would have been more evocative.

Junonia almana

Reading Old Books

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) on reading old poetry:

There are more good poems already existing than are sufficient to employ that portion of life which any mere reader and recipient of poetical impressions should devote to them, and these having been produced in poetical times, are far superior in all the characteristics of poetry to the artificial reconstructions of a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times. To read the promiscuous rubbish of the present time to the exclusion of the select treasures of the past, is to substitute the worse for the better variety of the same mode of enjoyment.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904):

Whenever you hear of a new book being published, read an old one.

‘Shelley’s Defence of Poetry’ Peacock’s Four ages of poetry; Shelley’s Defence of poetry; Browning’s Essay on Shelley, ed. by H.F.B. Brett-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1923), pp. 1-19  (p. 17).

 ‘On Reading’, in Talks to Writers (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1920), pp. 185-214 (p. 214).

Saturday 23 September 2023


Crape-myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica, 紫薇). The flowers appear in late summer and endure deep into autumn. Bridging the two seasons they are an apt symbol of the equinox. 
Crape-myrtle at Taozi Lake

Spiritualist Philology

In the biography of his brother, G. Wilson Knight records the classicist Theodore Haarhoff’s contact with the spirit of the Roman poet Vergil, and its possible influence on W.F. Jackson Knight’s translation of the Aeneid. G. Wilson Knight, Jackson Knight: A Biography (Oxford: The Alden Press, 1975), p. 467:

   On 2 February 1966 Haarhoff reports another contact. Jack [W. F. Jackson Knight] was said to be expressing appreciation of the work being done about his writings. Then:
As a test I asked V. what the first word of the Aeneid was as written by him originally. The medium was unresponsive to any language not Eng. or German but when I suggested ‘arma’—there was a decided and emphatic No. Then she said it sounded like ill-ill ... which would be the first of the ‘rejected’ lines
                    ille ego qui quodam ...
The medium is utterly and completely ignorant of Latin.
These ‘rejected’ lines had been used by Jack in his translation: ‘I am that poet who in times past made the light melody of pastoral poetry...’ Perhaps earlier directions from Haarhoff’s contacts had advised their inclusion.
The ‘rejected’ opening lines of Vergil’s Aeneid are:
Ille ego qui quondam gracili modulatus auena
carmen et egressus siluis uicina coegi
ut quamuis auido parerent arua colono,
gratum opus agricolis, at nunc horrentia Martis
arma virumque cano...    
I am he who tuned a song on a slender reed,
Departed from the woods, and bade the fields concede          
To obey the tiller—ever keen for the farm’s
Pleasant labour. But now I sing the bristling arms
Of Mars and man...

My translation.

Friday 22 September 2023

White-browed Laughingthrush

White-browed Laughingthrush (Pterorhinus sannio, 白颊噪鹛).

A nice earthy bird, found year-round grubbing and singing under the bushes; they are less shy when foraging and are always loud and noticeable. Picture taken by the Xiang River (湘水).

White-browed Laughingthrush by Xiang River

Poetry Doesn't Pay

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), Satira I.88-90:

Apollo, tua mercé, tua mercé, santo
   collegio de le Muse, io non possiedo
   tanto per voi, ch’io possa farmi un manto.  
Apollo, thanks to you, thanks to you, sacred
   college of Muses, I do not earn
   enough to buy myself a cloak. 
Ludovico Ariosto, Satire, ed. by Alfredo D’Orto (Milan: Fondazione Pietro Bembo, 2002), p.14. My translation.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Little Grebe

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis, 小鸊鷉).

Common through much of the old world, little grebes are year-round residents in Changsha: always to be found in the river, especially in the early mornings, and throughout the lakes and canals. In those rare moments when there is not much other noise, one hears their trilled 'wheat-wheat-wheat' call echoing across the water.

The first photo was taken 11 October 2022 early in the morning at the Xiang River (湘江). The second, showing the grebe in its breeding plumage was taken in the afternoon 2 April 2022.

Little Grebe

Little Grebe in Breeding Plumage

Poetry and Gout

Ennius, Ennianae poesis reliquiae, ed. by Johannes Vahlen, 2nd edn (Leipzig: Teubner, 1903), p. 210 [Enn. Sat. Lib. Inc.V.64]:

numquam poetor nisi si podager
I never write poetry unless my feet are swollen with gout.

My translation.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

A Good Night’s Sleep

Bene dormit, qui non sentit quam male dormiat.
He who does not perceive how poorly he sleeps, sleeps well.
Publilius Syrus, Sententiae, ed. by R.A.H. Bickford-Smith (London: C.J. Clay and Sons, 1895), p.5 [77]. My translation.

Chinese Blue-tailed Skink

Chinese Blue-tailed Skink (Plestiodon chinensis, 中国石龙子).

Warm weather brings out reptiles, though so far this season I have only caught furtive glances of local snakes: movement and scales deep in the tall grasses and mulch. But during these vacillating days of wet grey and warm sun, I sometimes see these lizards enjoying the sun.

Chinese Blue-tailed Skink

Tuesday 19 September 2023

White Wagtail

White wagtail (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰). 
They often frequent the ponds, lakes, rivers and wet farmlands of Hunan, and it is easy to miss that ther eare two subspecies residents in Changsha.

The White Siberian wagtail (Motacilla alba ocularis), spotted in the afternoon 20 Jan 2023, has a grey back and black eyestripe. They can be seen here over the colder months, but presumably summer in the far northern climes.
Motacilla alba ocularis
On the other hand, the Amur wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis) can be found all year round. This wagtail has a more black feathers on its back but has no eyestripe.

Amur wagtail

St Jerome on Translation

St Jerome, Prologus in Pentateucho:

Aliud est enim vatem, aliud esse interpretem: ibi spiritus ventura praedicit, hic eruditio et verborum copia ea quae intellegit transfert; nisi forte putandus est Tullius Oeconomicum Xenofontis et Platonis Protagoram et Demosthenis Pro Ctesifonte afflatus rethorico spiritu transtulisse, aut aliter de hisdem libris per Septuaginta interpretes, aliter per Apostolos Spiritus Sanctus testimonia texuit, ut quod illi tacuerunt, hii scriptum esse mentiti sint. Quid igitur? Damnamus veteres? Minime; sed post priorum studia in domo Domini quod possumus laboramus. Illi interpretati sunt ante adventum Christi et quod nesciebant dubiis protulere sententiis, nos post passionem et resurrectionem eius non tam prophetiam quam historiam scribimus; aliter enim audita, aliter visa narrantur: quod melius intellegimus, melius et proferimus. Audi igitur, aemule, obtrectator ausculta: non damno, non reprehendo Septuaginta, sed confidenter cunctis illis Apostolos praefero. Per istorum os mihi Christus sonat, quos ante prophetas inter spiritalia charismata positos lego, in quibus ultimum paene gradum interpretes tenent.
Indeed, it is one thing to be a prophet and another to be a translator: in the case of the first, the Spirit foretells things to come, in the case of the later, learning and power of expression translates what it understands. Unless perhaps Cicero ought to be understood to have translated the Oeconomicus of Xenophon, the Protagorus of Plato and the Oratio pro corona of Demosthenes under the inspiration of the rhetorical spirit, or that the Holy Spirit carefully build up evidence through the Seventy translators in one way, and through the Apostles in another way, so that the Seventy passed over in silence what the Apostles feign to have been written. What now then? Do we condemn the old? Not at all, but after we labour over the works of those who came before us, we do what we can in the house of the Lord. The Seventy translated before the coming of Christ and when faced with what they did not understand they rendered it into dubious translations. But after His Passion and Resurrection we write not so much prophecy as history; for what we have heard we tell one way and what he have seen we tell another way: what we understand better we translate better. Now listen, envious one. Hear me, critic. I do not blame the Seventy, but I dare to place the Apostles before them all. Christ speaks to me through the mouths of those whom I read [in 1 Cor. 12:28] are placed before the prophets on account of their spiritual gifts, in which the translators hold almost the highest place.
Biblia sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem, ed. by B Fischer, I. Gribomont, et al., 5th edn (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006), pp. 3-4. My translation.

Monday 18 September 2023

The Fortunes of Books

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.
The fortunes of books rest on the reader’s power of comprehension.
Terentianus Maurus, De litteris, syllabis, pedibus et metris, 1286. My translation.

Mating Pair of Plains Cupid Butterflies

Plains cupid butterfly (Luthrodes pandava, 蘇鐵綺灰蝶). I saw many of these plains cupids a month ago and now see fewer and fewer each day. Sometimes their undersides appear lighter, sometimes more brown. When together it is easier to notice the larger patch of orange on the male (right).

Mating Pair of Plains Cupids

Sunday 17 September 2023

Sacred Lotus

Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera, 莲).  A plant rich in religious symbolism. In summer, local lotus ponds are popular with herons and moorhens, and people often come to collect the seed heads (for eating) with long hooks. There is still time to admire their broad green leaves and pink flowers but soon they will shrivel and brown. Summer is almost ended.

Sacred Lotus

Classical Philology

‘Classical philology leads to all the rest, provided one gets out of it’.

Attributed to Neo-Latinist Jozef IJsewijn (1932-1998). Luc Devoldere, ‘A Great Neo-Latin Scholar: Jozef IJsewijn and his Life's Work’, trans. by Yvette Mead, The Low Countries, 6 (1998), pp. 288-89 (p. 288).

Saturday 16 September 2023

Male Greater Blue Skimmer

Male Greater Blue Skimmer (Orthetrum melania, 异色灰蜻).
I see them throughout the summer and autumn by the lakes and in the forest, but never (yet) by the river. There are other powder blue dragonflies about which bear a casual resemblance, but these greater blue skimmers are noticeable, even at a distance, for their size and in particular the great thickness of their tails.

Greater Blue Skimmer on Yuelu Mountain

The Endurance of Ideas

Seu bona seu mala sint, durant concepta per usum.
Quam flectis virgam, ventis invicta fit arbor.    

Good or bad, thought habits endure through practice.  
You bend a branch which becomes a tree, impervious to the winds.
Sextus Amarcius (Fl. 11th c.), Sermonum libri IV, ed. by Maximilianus Manitius (Leipzig: Teubner, 1888), p.46 [Sermo III.36-37]. My translation.

Friday 15 September 2023

Common Kingfisher

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, 普通翠鸟).

I often sit with this particular bird in Wangling Park (王陵公园). The first picture is from December 1 last year: I took it to mark the first day of meteorological winter; and he was sitting on one of his usual perches by the pond, about 10 or 12 feet from where I eat. The second picture was from earlier still: last November, as the kingfisher was enjoying his own luncheon. Even now, so many months later, I sometimes see him fishing from perches are obscured by summer lily-pads. We have been observers of each other for two years already, and though every winter is a challenge for his kind, I, at least, hope to see him for many more.

Common Kingfisher in Wangling in Winter
Common Kingfisher in Wangling in Fall

Word For Word

Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560), from the second preface to L’Olive (1550):

Et puis je me vante d’avoir inventé ce que j’ai mot à mot traduit les aultres.

I pride myself on having invented what I have translated word for word from others.
Joachim du Bellay, Œuvres poétiques, 8 vols, ed. by Henri Chamard & Geneviève Demerson (Paris: E. Cornély, 1908-1985), I (1908), p.19. My translation.

Thursday 14 September 2023

Common Straight Swift

Common Straight Swift (Parnara guttata,  直纹稻弄蝶).
No doubt their larva are a pest for rice farmers. In late summer they emerge from the grasslands and can be found in presentable numbers in the bushes by Xiang river (湘江) as well as flower beds in parks and private spaces. I have also seen them in the flowers at the top of Yuelu Mountain (嶽麓山), but never yet at lower forested elevations. 2nd picture added 13 October 2023.

Common Straight Swift
Common Straight Swift in October

To Melancholy.

Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)
SONNET XXXII. To Melancholy.
Written on the Banks of the Arun, October, 1785.

WHEN latest Autumn spreads her evening veil
And the gray mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro' the half leafless wood that breathes the gale.
For at such hours the shadowy phantom, pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet's eyes;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night wand'rers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity's own Otway, I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden'd wind!
Oh Melancholy! — such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
    And soothe the pensive visionary mind!

Wednesday 13 September 2023

Juvenile Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Late summer is still full of mating insects and young birds. This juvenile eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus 麻雀) was drinking at the stream near my college. It does not matter whether they are perched on rocks or trees, or foraging in the grass or fallen leaves or soil, they seem an elemental part of the scenery, like bustling little nature spirits.

Juvenile Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Comedy and Hostility

Howard Jacobson, ‘Have You Heard the One About Auschwitz?’, Standpoint (June 2013):

Take on tears and tragedy and you meet no resistance; take on laughter and comedy and you walk into a steepling wall of hostility. The very enterprise sets up false expectations, the silliest being that if you write about comedy you must play the comedian yourself. Which is closely followed by the philistine objection that comedy, alone of everything else we do and think, must not be subjected to critical thought. Intellection kills the joke, it’s argued, as though, like some arcane ritual, comedy loses its divine mystery in the presence of philosophy or criticism. And this is before we get on to disagreeing about what is or isn’t funny. Certainly, what you find hilarious your neighbour won’t. And not only won’t he find it funny, he will be angered by it, for offence attaches to the very ambition to amuse. We are indifferent to tears that don’t flow. Maybe next time. But for laughter that lies stillborn in our belly we cannot ever forgive the father. Whoever goes out on a limb, therefore, declaring for this comedian or comic writer or another, risks a double-wrath — for being too much the intellectual in support of comedy that isn’t comic and for spoiling that which has no value anyway. Good luck with that.

The article is archived here.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Juvenile Crested Myna

The crested myna (Acridotheres cristatellus, 八哥) is a very common Changsha songbird. In the summer, when most other small birds have retreated to the shade they are often conspicuously around, young and old, searching for insects in the grass. All are good singers and these juveniles in particular are great devourers of flies.
Juvenile Crested Myna

Gardens In Utopia

St Thomas More (1478-1535), Utopia, ed. & trans. by Edward Surtz, S.J. & J.H. Hexter. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965; first pub. 1516 [The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 4]), p. 120; p. 121:

Hos hortos magnifaciunt. in his uineas, fructus, herbas, flores habent. tanto nitore, cultuque, ut nihil fructuosius usquam uiderim, nihil elegantius. qua in re studium eorum, non ipsa uoluptas modo, sed uicorum quoque inuicem de suo cuiusque horti cultu certamen accendit. & certe modo aliud quicquam temere urbe tota reperias, siue ad usum ciuium, siue ad uoluptatem commodius. eoque nullius rei, quam huiusmodi hortorum, maiorem habuisse curam uidetur in qui condidit.
The Utopians are very fond of their gardens. In them they have vines, fruits, herbs, flowers, so well kept and flourishing that I never saw anything more fruitful and more tasteful anywhere. Their zest in keeping them is increased not merely by the pleasure afforded them but by the keen competition between blocks as to which will have the best kept garden. Certainly you cannot readily find anything in the whole city more productive of profit and pleasure to the citizens. There is nothing which their founder seems to have cared so much for as these gardens.
Jakob Grimmer  - Allegory of Spring

Monday 11 September 2023

Fledgling White Wagtail

In past weeks the mudflats in the Xiang river were radiating heat, so that walking about has been a bit like exploring the inside of a slippery clay oven. The serotinal sun is still at strong but for whatever reason the fluvial sediments have cooled, and so more birds have come to bath and and to forage. This fledgling white wagtail (motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰) was doing both one early afternoon.

Fledgling White Wagtail

Long Books

Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, ed. by Richard Davenport-Hines (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 65 [4 May 1951]:

I, unlike you, prefer my books to be long (though this may be a sign of laziness: it spares one the mental effort of repeated choice); and I am now re-reading, for the nth time, that greatest of all historians, as I continually find myself declaring, - Gibbon. What a splendid writer he is! If only historians could write like him now! How has the art of footnotes altogether perished and the gift of irony disappeared!

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. by Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1982), p. ix:

 ‘You can’t get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me [...]’

Sunday 10 September 2023

Oriental Magpie

Oriental magpie (Pica serica, 普通喜鵲).

Found throughout Changsha and they largish for magpies and bearers of good luck. They are vibrantly blue, black and white, but if one sees them right light, their remiges have a beautiful purple iridescence.

Oriental Magpie at Yanghu Wetland

Oriental Magpie at Xianjia Lake

Adam and Eve

Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, ed. by Henry Festing Jones (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930), p. 243:

A little boy and a little girl were looking at a picture of Adam and Eve.
“Which is Adam and which is Eve?” said one.
“I do not know,” said the other, “but I could tell if they had their clothes on.”

Jan Brueghel the Elder - The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) / Peter Paul Rubens  (1577–1640), The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (Mauritshuis)

Saturday 9 September 2023

Male Amur Paradise Flycatcher

Amur paradise flycatcher, (Terpsiphone incei, 寿带鸟)

I spot them occasionally in the parks of Changsha, though they are usually timorous and stay high in the dark tree canopies. One summer day was cooler than most others this season, so I went out to see who was more active in the nearby forests. Many birds and insects were less dormant. This male, in white plumage, was only visible for one moment, but that is one moment longer than I have seen one for the past few years. I don't except to see another this fall season, but perhaps I will see one again next year, or the year after.

Amur Paradise Flycatcher

Contemplating an Empty Universe

From George Berkeley’s (1685-1753) Commonplace Book, in The Works of George Berkeley D.D., Formerly Bishop of Cloyne: Including His Posthumous Works, 4 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871), I, p. 59:

’Tis wondrous to contemplate ye World empty’d of all intelligences.

Friday 8 September 2023


John Gower (c. 1330-1408), The Complete Works of John Gower, 4 vols, ed. by G.C. Macaulay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899-1902), vol. II (1901), p. 317 [Confessio Amantis, IV.573-87]:

For as a man that sodeinli
A gost behelde, so fare I;
So that for feere I can noght gete
Mi witt, bot I miself foryete,
That I wot never what I am,
Ne whider I schal, ne whenne I cam,
Bot muse as he that were amased.
Lich to the bok in which is rased
The lettre, and mai nothing be rad,
So ben my wittes overlad,
That what as evere I thoghte have spoken,
It is out fro myn herte stoken,
And stonde, as who seith, doumb and def,
That all nys worth an yvy lef,
Of that I wende wel have seid.

Leptogenys Kitteli

They are inactive at night, but during the day these army ants (leptogenys kitteli, 基氏细猛蚁) scour every part of Yuelu Mountain (嶽麓山). Individual ants wander about like itinerant warriors. When seen in groups they are almost always dragging worms, grasshoppers or other spoils back into their own abodes, which are often makeshift and temporary nests, precariously put together under debris and old leaves. There is something inappropriate and anthropomorphic about referring to an ant as 'aggressive', but the term is often applied to them because they move quickly and are efficient at finding food.

Leptogenys kitteli

Thursday 7 September 2023

Oriental Blue Dasher

Oriental Blue Dasher (Brachydiplax chalybea subsp. flavovittata, 蓝额疏脉蜻). They are simply larger and more elegant than the other dragonflies swarming around the lakes and still waters and they stay close to their rock, reed or lily-pad perches.
Oriental Blue Dasher

You Can Tell a Man by his Gait

Can you discern the character of someone by their manner of walking?  Some preliminary notes on identifying devils, goddesses, clerks, the unchaste, the great and the lowly by their paces:
Proverbs 6:12:
A man that is an apostate, an unprofitable man, walketh with a perverse mouth
Ecclesiasticus 19:26-27:
A man is known by his look, and a wise man, when thou meetest him, is known by his countenance. The attire of the body, and the laughter of the teeth, and the gait of the man, shew what he is.
Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1125a:
καὶ κίνησις δὲ βραδεῖα τοῦ μεγαλοψύχου δοκεῖ εἶναι
('A slow walk is expected of a great-souled man')
Seneca, Epistulae, LII.12:
impudicum et incessus ostendit et manus mota et unum interdum responsum et relatus ad caput digitus et flexus oculorum
('The unchaste man reveals himself in his walk, his hand gestures, an off remark he makes in passing, how he touches his head with his finger and the turn of his eyes')
Juvenal, II.15-17:
                                             verius ergo
et magis ingenue Peribomius; hunc ego fatis
inputo, qui vultu morbum incessuque fatetur.
('Peribomius is franker and more honest; I charge the fates that his face and his walk betray his sickness.')
Petronius, Satyricon, 126:
nec auguria novi nec mathematicorum caelum curare soleo, ex vultibus tamen hominum mores colligo, et cum spatiantem vidi, quid cogitet scio
('I know nothing of augury and I am unaccustomed of studying the stars of the astrologers, but yet I can infer the manners of men from their faces, and I can tell what a man thinks from watching him walk')
Johannes de Irlandia, The Meroure of Wyssdome, 3 vols (Edinburgh : Blackwood, 1926-1990), I, p. 163:
His luking, his ganginge and all his hevingis ware mare plesand þan ony man can tell ore wndirstand
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1.101-2:
                              Highest queen of state,
Great Juno comes; I know her by her gait.
Vergil, Aeneid, I.405:
et vera incessu patuit dea
('and the true goddess [Venus] was revealed by her walk')
John Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.869-871:
And with them comes a third of regal port,
But faded splendour wan; who by his gait
And fierce demeanour seems the Prince of Hell
Anonymous, ‘The Quill Driver’ (1-4) in The Regrets of Memory (London: Henry Wix, 1840), pp. 73-77 (p. 73):
Behold the Clerk, whose stiff, uneasy gait
   Proclaims his calling, from all other men,
Move swiftly onward to his daily fate,
   And haste still faster as the clock strikes ten.
My translations.

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Paddy Frog

Paddy frog (Fejervarya multistriata, 泽陆蛙)

Hot summer nights are bursting with nature. During the day, swarms of dragonflies are flying everywhere adjacent to water. At night it is moths and flying beetles. This paddy frog was wandering near the river in the city of Xiangtan (湘潭), blending into the concrete as well as he would into a natural setting.

Paddy frog in Xiangtan

Coffee Tips?

 Lydia Maria Francis Child (1802-1880), The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (New York: Samuel S. & William Wood, 1841), pp. 82-83: 

   As substitutes for coffee, some use dry brown bread crusts, and roast them; others soak rye grain in rum, and roast it; others roast peas in the same way as coffee. None of these are very good; and peas so used are considered unhealthy. Where there is a large family of apprentices and workmen, and coffee is very dear, it may be worth while to use the substitutes, or to mix them half and half with coffee; but, after all, the best economy is to go without.
   French coffee is so celebrated, that it may be worth while to tell how it is made; though no prudent housekeeper will make it, unless she has boarders, who are willing to pay for expensive cooking.
   The coffee should be roasted more than is common with us; it should not hang drying over the fire, but should be roasted quick; it should be ground soon after roasting, and used as soon as it is ground. Those who pride themselves on first-rate coffee, burn it and grind it every morning. The powder should be placed in the coffee-pot in the proportions of an ounce to less than a pint of water. The water should be poured upon the coffee boiling hot. The coffee should be kept at the boiling point; but should not boil. Coffee made in this way must be made in a biggin. It would not be clear in a common coffee-pot.
   A bit of fish-skin as big as a ninepence, thrown into coffee while it is boiling, tends to make it clear. If you use it just as it comes from the salt-fish, it will be apt to give an unpleasant taste to the coffee: it should be washed clean as a bit of cloth, and hung up till perfectly dry. The white of eggs, and even egg shells are good to settle coffee. Rind of salt pork is excellent.
   Some people think coffee is richer and clearer for having a bit of sweet butter, or a whole egg, dropped in and stirred, just before it is done roasting, and ground up, shell and all, with the coffee. But these things are not economical, except on a farm, where butter and eggs are plenty. A half a gill of cold water, poured in after you take your coffee-pot off the fire, will usually settle the coffee.
   If you have not cream for coffee, it is a very great improvement to boil your milk, and use it while hot.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Pale Smartweed

Pale smartweed (Persicaria lapathifolia, 酸模叶蓼).

There are many different plants that comprise the entangled mass of vegetation living on the muddy soil of the Xiang river (湘江), wherever they are left free to grow. Of them, pale swartweed is more prominent in the late summer when it is full of flowers, arachnids, and insects. Its other names include 'curlytop knotweed' and 'willow weed' and though I prefer the latter, it invites confusion as it may also refer to other species of persicaria.

Pale smartweed by the Xiang river

Great Literature is Often Obscure

The classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) was responding to the charge that Persius’s satires are often too difficult to understand:

quid? solus hic obscurus? non etiam optimus quisque attentissimum et πολυμαθέσατον requirit lectorem? Non commemorabo Thucydidis τὰς περινοήσεις, τὰς ἐμπεριβολὰς, τὰ γλωσσηματικὰ καὶ ξένα, τὰ ἀνακόλουθα et similia multa quibus obducta caligo ingens illius historiae. silebo Platonis τὰς ἀκράτους καὶ ἀπηνεῖς μεταφοράς, de quibus Longinus. hoc solum dicam, maximarum difficultatum ea potissimum scripta esse plena, quae omnium seculorum docti homines maxime sunt admirati. quis Pindarum intelligeret aut Aristophanem absque eorum interpretibus foret? quis Graecis literis doctus choros Tragicorum inoffenso pede percurrit? Theocriti τὰ σκληρά notant veteres critici: neque indignentur.  
What of it? Is Persius alone obscure? Does not every great writer require a most attentive and polymath reader? Shall I not recall Thucydides’ subtleties, amplifications, foreign idioms, strange phrases, anomalous inflections and many similar things which enshroud his history in a great mist? Shall I be silent concerning the excessive and harsh metaphors of Plato, which Longinus wrote about? Let me say this: the writings of the best authors, which learned men from all ages have most admired, are especially wrought with difficulties. Who would have understood Pindar or Aristophanes without the commentators? Who is so learned in Greek literature that he would run through the choruses of the tragic poets without skipping a beat? The ancient critics marked the difficult parts of Theocritus, but they were not upset by them.
Persius, Satirarum liber, ed. by Isaac Cassaubon (Paris: Apud Ambrosium & Hieronymum Drouart, 1605). fols. e1v-e2r. Emended γλωοσηματικὰ. My translation.

Compare with this passage from one of Casaubon’s manuscripts, cited by Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg:
Obscuritas prophetarum. Nemo leviter prophetarum scripta attigit quin eorum obscuritatem animadverterit. huius rei multiplex est causa. Ac caussam quidem caussarum investigare cue Deus OPT. MAX. uoluerit sic eos loqui non est tenuitatis nostra: quibus persuassimum est, ita Deo visum quia ita optimum: ita esse optimum quia sic Deo visum. Sed propriores huius obscuritatis causae multae possunt adnotari, aliae e rebus ipsis profiscuntur: quae altae, sublimes, interdum etiam futurae: ut de iis non potuerint prophetae nisi obscure loqui. aliae sunt in ipso dicendi genere: quod sane rebus est accommodum ὑψηλόν ὑψηλαῖς. Itaque quicquid est apud Longinum et alios rhetoras quod τὸ ὕψος τῷ λόγῷ concilet, id omne reperietur in prophetarum sciptis luculentissimae expressum.
No one who has ever even touched the writings of the prophets in passing has failed to notice their obscurity. The reasons for it are many. It is not for one of my low station to investigate the fundamental reasons why God wished them to speak in this manner. I am firmly convinced that God decided thus because it was best, and it is best because God decided thus. But certain intermediate causes of their obscurity can be noted. Some derive from their subject matter. The matters they deal with are lofty, sublime, and sometimes in the future, so that the prophets had to discuss them obscurely. Others have to do with their style, which is clearly the right one for their subject: a sublime style for sublime things. Whatever Longinus and other theorists of rhetoric say about how one attains sublimity in speech will all be bound, brilliantly expressed, in the writings of the prophets.
“I have always loved the holy tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a forgotten chapter in Renaissance scholarship (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap, 2011), p. 107.fn140 [Bod MS Casaubon 51, 19 recto].

Monday 4 September 2023

Guenther's Frog

Guenther's Frog (Sylvirana guentheri, 沼蛙). It is always a delight to find amphibians in the wild. This frog was lurking midday around the waters of Wangling Park (王陵公园). There are many more in the murky pools around the bottom of Yuelu Mountain: they are not always to be seen but at night they can be heard. The Chinese name correctly suggests they reside in swamps and marshlands.

Guenther's Frog

Wine for Medicine

Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio (1504-1573), from Egle, Act I Scene IV:

              A Dio, compagni cari.
Ma io vi prego intanto a raccordarvi
Che ‘l vino è medicina a ogni gran cura
E che impossibil è che chi ben beve
Con ogni grave duol non faccia tregua.
                Adieu, my dear friends.
But in the meantime, I beg you to commit yourselves
to the fact that wine is medicine for every great worry
and that it is impossible for those who drink well
not to make peace with every serious sorrow they suffer.

Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio, Egle; Lettera sovra il comporre le Satire atte alla scena; Favola Pastorale, ed. by Carla Molinari (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1985), pp. 27-28. My translation.
‘Give strong drink to them that are sad: and wine to them that are grieved in mind’ Proverbs 31:6.

Triumph of Silenus

Gerard van Honthorst  (1592–1656), Triumph of Silenus, wikicommons (Louvre)

Sunday 3 September 2023

Yellow Bittern

Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis, 黃葦鳽). This shy diminutive bird was hiding in the lilypads at Taozi lake (桃子湖), but was only noticeable when changing fishing spots. In the summer and early autumn there are often bitterns hidden anywhere umbrageous with lilies and reeds; they are a bird for the patient nature-lover, not for the casual observer.

Yellow Bittern at Taozi Lake

Epigram on a Cat

Domingo Andrés (c. 1525–c. 1599), ‘De fele’

In praedam inuehitur quasi concita fulminis ales,
   Estque omnis fetus sputaque feles edax.

As if by a rushing thunderbolt the bird is attacked, fitting prey,
And the cat gorges thus on all the little birds, even to their very spittle.
Domingo Andrés, Poesías Varias del alcañizano Domingo Andrés, ed. & trans. José María Maestre Maestre (Teruel: Instituto de Estudios Turolenses de la Excma, 1987), p. 208 [Lib. III.CLV]. English Translation by L.M.P.

Saturday 2 September 2023

Juvenile Long-tailed Shrike

In early spring, a pair of long-tailed shrikes (lanius schach, 棕背伯劳) made a home in the marshy reeds at Xianjia Lake (咸嘉湖). Their nest was near a favoured fishing spot for egrets and night-herons, which the mother shrike tirelessly attacked and displaced from dawn until late. The fishing birds accepted this harassment gracefully, but often just as one left another one arrived so that the constant assaulting must have been tiring work for the mother shrike, on top of tending a nest and later feeding newborns. By June several of her fledglings were flying on their own and only recently have these shrikes left to seek out their next adventures.

Juvenile Long-tailed Shrike at Xiangjia Lake

A Friend to Yourself

Distichs of Cato, 1.11.1:

Dilige sic alios, ut sis tibi carus amicus
Love other people, yet be your own best friend

Menander, Monostichoi,  407:

Οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδείς, ὅστις οὐχ αὑτῷ φίλος
No one is a friend to others, who is not a friend to himself

My translations.

Friday 1 September 2023

Female Blue Pansy

Female Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya, 翠蓝眼蛱蝶).

While the male has very noticeable metallic blue and velvet black hindwing, the upperside markings and ocelli are much more vibrant on the brown female butterfly. This species was declared the official butterfly of Jammy and Kashmir last June, and given its distinctive appearance I am only surprised that no government adopted it before then. This is the first one I have seen this year: it was taking advantage of the cooler afternoon to enjoy the garden flowers planted along the Xiang river (湘江).

Femle Blue Pansy by the Xiang River
Femle Blue Pansy by the Xiang River

Age of Adjectives

Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia (London: Constable & Company, 1933), p. 76:

But why wasn’t I born, alas, in an age of Adjectives; why can one no longer write of silver-shedding Tears and moon-tailed Peacocks, of eloquent Death, of the negro and star-enamelled Night?