Thursday 30 November 2023

A Little Bird in Winter

Heinrich Bebel (1472-1518)
‘In regulum auiculam tempore frigido et hyemali cantantem.’ 

Regule parue ales partu genuisse sinistro
   Tereor alecto. sub phlegetontis aquis
Ut sileant cunctae volucres sub frigore brumae
   Deliteatque suo vel genus omne specu    
Solus ad innumeros numeros modulamia fundis
   Vocesque multisona gaudia multa refers
Hinc cur rex volucrum possis vel iure vocari
   Ambigo. cum minimus corpus inerme geras
At reor alituum cum sis durissimus ipse
   Tempore quod gelido gaudia solus habes
Uel qui appellauit Parcas quod parcere nulli
   Consuerint. nomen regule parve dedit.
Swift petty king, I fear you have been assigned an  
   Inauspicious birth. For under the waters of Phlegethon,
under the chill of winter, all birds are silent
   And as birds of every feather hide in their hollows,
You alone sing measured melodies to the countless throngs,
   Only you recall the many joyful tidings and boisterous voices.
For this, I contend you can justly be called the king of birds,
   For although you are geared with the smallest unarmed body,
I think you are yet the hardiest of birds,
   For you alone are full of joy during the icy season.
Indeed he who gave you your name, little king, stitched up the Fates,  
   For they are unaccustomed to granting mercy.
Heinrich Bebel, Oratio ad regem Maximilianum (Pforzheim: Ex aedibus Thome Anshelmi, 1504), fol.Oiir. My translation.
alituum, genitive plural of ales, cf. Virgil, Aen. VIII.27.

Scaly-breasted Munia and Common Reed

The common reeds (phragmites australis 芦苇) growing in the Xiang river mudflats make a popular natural background for personal photos. So the river is full of photogenic youths and elderly fishermen. The cold weather, which started today is not keeping either group from the river, but it is encouraging songbirds to come out in search of seeds and insect; scaly-breasted munia (lonchura punctulata, 斑文鸟) were out in abundance, seeking former foodstuff.

Scaly-breasted Munia and Common Reed

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus, 黑翅长脚鹬).

They range all over Africa, Europe and Asia, but they are infrequent visitors to Changsha; sometimes they venture into the small lakes, sometimes they feed in the shallow parts of the Xiang river, most likely on small crustaceans but I have not observed this closely. Individuals vary in black and white colouration. Their pink legs stand out anywhere but in the right light, and right angle they easily blend into the shimmering water.

Black-winged Stilt in Changsha

Phantoms and Monsters

André Gide, La symphonie pastorale (Paris: Gallimard, 1925; 1919), pp. 64-65:

ah! que la vie serait belle et notre misère supportable, si nous nous contentions des maux réels sans prêter l’oreille aux fantômes et aux monstres de notre esprit...
oh! life would be beautiful and our misery bearable if we were content with genuine evils without lending an ear to phantoms and monsters of our imagination...
My translation.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Wicked Men and Fools

Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (London: William Heinemann, 1924; 1886), p. 98:

I have seen wicked men and fools, a great many of both; and I believe they both get paid in the end; but the fools first.

Domestic Mallard

Domestic Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos var. domesticus, 家鸭).

Most likely the mallard was first domesticated in southern China. Where there are lakes with healthy vegetation, infrequent disruptions and little interference from people or other animals (I suspect local moorhens keep them out of their own favoured territories) there are often a few individuals ducks. How long since their ancestors have escaped domesticity one invariably wonders.

Domestic Mallard in Changsha

Monday 27 November 2023

A Monastic Cell

Pedro Ruiz de Moros (1515-1571)
‘De cella monastica’
Ut patet ampla mihi data cella monastica! Si quis  
   Tendat utramque manum, tanget utrumque latus.
Lectulus et mensa est parvumque sedile. Supellex
   Cui satis haec, nimis hunc quis neget esse sophum?
'On a Monastic Cell'
A spacious monastic cell opens up to me! If one  
   Extends either hand here, it will touch a wall.
There is a couch and table and small seat. For whom  
   These possessions are plenty, who would deny he is wise?
Pedro Ruiz de Moros, Petri Royzii Maurei Alcagnicensis Carmina, ed. by Bronisław Kruczkiewicz, 2 vols (Kraków: Sumptibus Academiae Litterarum Cracoviensis, 1903), I, p. 277. My translation.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot - Moine blanc, assis, lisant

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot - Moine blanc, assis, lisant (c. 1850-55)

Red-billed Blue-Magpie

Red-billed Blue-Magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha, 红嘴蓝鹊).

A resident bird on Yuelu Mountain: they are not much bigger than other magpies though their long tails give the illusion of a greater size. When one is nearby, other other bids make a considerable fuss. They are known to eat the chicks and eggs of other birds, but this one chanced to predate on an adult Eurasian tree sparrow: it swooped it from the air, pinned it down and slowly pecked it into submission and death. While the magpie killed and feasted, the rest of the flock of sparrows stayed to sound a frenetic alarm. One Chinese blackbird arrived and attempted several dashes against the magpie in a brave but futile attempt to save the unfortunate sparrow.

Red-billed Blue-Magpie Eating a Sparrow at Yuelu Mountain
Red-billed Blue-Magpie Eating a Sparrow at Yuelu Mountain
Red-billed Blue-Magpie Eating a Sparrow at Yuelu Mountain
Red-billed Blue-Magpie Eating a Sparrow at Yuelu Mountain

Sunday 26 November 2023

There are Always New Beauties in Nature, Every Day

Though I have now travelled the Sussex Downs upwards of thirty years, yet I still investigate that chain of majestic mountains with fresh admiration year by year: and I think I see new beauties every time I traverse it.
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selbourne (London: Penguin Books, 1987; 1788-89), p. 152.

Spotted Dove

Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis, 珠颈斑鸠).

Overlooking the odd feral pigeon, there are two main species of doves common to the woodland areas of Changsha. The oriental turtle-dove has more colourful feathers and makes a 'here-here-oo-oo' sound, while this spotted dove is plainer (aside from its black and white neck half-collar and its rosy-grey breast feathers) and makes a 'coo-coo-a-roo' call. They are both shy, and liable to fleeing ground or perch at the raising of a camera or swift hand-movement.

Spotted Dove in Changsha

Saturday 25 November 2023

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus, 灰头绿啄木鸟).

These woodpeckers live in forests throughout Europe and Asia. But they are seldom present in Changsha: there is not enough dead deciduous trees left standing in the heavily curated woodlands of the parks and Yuelu Mountain. This one braved a few morning hours at Yanghu Wetland Park, searching for food in a few bare branches. Where there is a natural space for them, a they will occasionally appear. This woodpecker also has a long and pensive (even mournful) call, which starts at a high pitch then rapidly falls off.

Grey-headed Woodpecker AT THE Yanghu Wetland Park

A Chinese Poem About Sweden

'Fan Poem for Louise of the Netherland, the Queen of Sweden'
The land near the North Pole is always bright,
In the summer one meanders to the sleepless city,
The path to the Silver River expands one’s horizons,
Now this has truly become a rafting journey.
Binchun was a Qing dynasty bannerman; as an elderly man he was sent an a Chinese envoy to Europe in 1866. After his return to China, his writings (a journal and two books of poetry) enjoyed some popularity in late nineteenth century China.
銀河, ‘silvery river’ refers to the Milky Way.
斌椿 [Binchun], 乘查筆記 [Jottings from a Raft] (文寳堂: 1868), n.p. My translation.

斌椿 - 書扇呈瑞典國王妃

Friday 24 November 2023

A Cold Day in Autumn

Miklós Istvánffy (1538-1615), Lusus pastoralis (23 Octobris, 1564, Posonii.)

Saevit atrox Boreas, nigro dum turbine terras
   Contristat, crebris saevit hyems nivibus,
Saevit et irati, quoties tumet, aequoris unda,
   Et quoties summi fulminat aula Iovis.
Saeva quidem sunt haec, at nostro in pectore longe est
   Saevior occultis ignibus Alcinoe.

The savage North Wind rages while he darkens the lands with a black wind. Winter rages with dense snows. She rages and excites the waters of the angered ocean. Behold how oft the hall of highest Jupiter flashes with lightening. All these things are indeed savage, but in my heart Acinoe is far more savage than the secret fires.
Nicolaus Istvanffy, Carmina, ed. by Josef Holub and László Juhász (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1935), p. 23. My translation.

atrox Boreas, cf. Statius, Silvae, 3.3.96 ‘quae Boreas quaeque Eurus atrox’

nigro turbine, cf. Virgil, Georg. I.320-21: ‘ita turbine nigro / ferret hiems’

Tea-oil Camellia

Tea-oil Camellia (Camellia oleifera, 油茶).

Every year in November, Yuelu Mountain is peppered with blooming camellia shrubs. They grow well in the shade and as there are few other flowering plants along the forested back-trails, they are conspicuous. The flowers are sometimes fragrant but often their scent is imperceptible.

Tea-oil Camellia on Yuelu Mountain

Thursday 23 November 2023

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus, 麻雀).

They are common year-round in Changsha, as in most clement regions of Europe and Asia, but in mid-Autumn they appear for a short time in larger numbers. They forage everywhere they are seeds and invertebrates, usually in small flocks but sometimes in groups of thirty or more, vacillating between sheltered perches and feeding grounds. 

Tree Sparrow by the Xiang River

Sparrow for Dinner?

Battista Fiera (1469-1538)

Ardet et est molli passer durissimus aluo
   Si uis esse salax, hic cerebella dabit.
Cur neget? huic subitam sunt adducentia mortem
   I Venus hinc, solas ni modo perdis aues.
The sparrow burns easily and is one of hardest foods to make tender enough to eat. If you want to be lecherous, eating the brains will help. So why refuse to eat it? Because it can cause a sudden death. So get away from here Venus, unless you ruin only the birds and no one else. 
Coena Baptistae Fierae de herbarum virtutibus, & ea medicæ artis parte, quæ in victus ratione consistit. Columella De cultu hortorum. De generibus morborum, ex imprecatoria satyra Petri Montani (Strassburg: Apud Christianum Aegenolphum, c. 1529), pp.14v-15r. My translation.
On the lusty nature of sparrows, see Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae IX.391F; and on their short lives, see Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia 10.36.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Grey-capped Greenfinch

Grey-capped Greenfinch (Chloris sinica, 金翅雀).

A colourful forest bird, they have a noticeable high pitched call. Except for the duration of summer, I frequently see them around Yuelu Mountain and, more seldom, down by the river. Usually they appear on their own or in small flocks,  but occasionally they mix with tree sparrows.

Grey-capped Greenfinch by Taozi Lake

Reading is Where the Wild things Are

Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture - exploit the new thing then move on.
   There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations.
   Reading is where the wild things are.
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), p. 144.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Second-hand Books for Christmas

The few people who give second-hand books as gifts for Christmas are usually eccentric, though, so it is worth opening purely for the entertainment these characters afford.
Shaun Bythell, The Diary of a Bookseller (London: Profile Books, 2018; 2017), p. 262.

Female Amur Stonechat

Amur Stonechat (Saxicola stejnegeri, 东亚石䳭).

They spend summer around Mongolia, Northern China or Siberia and winter somewhere south of here. But during the Spring and Autumn there are always some stonechats foraging and resting around the Xiang river. Sometimes they are timid and sometimes friendly enough to sit and observe me whilst I observe them.

This species is reputed to have broader bills and a slightly less white rump than the Siberian stonechats (Saxicola maurus), but it is often impossible to distinguish between the two species in the wild. 

Female Amur Stonechat by Xiang River

Monday 20 November 2023

Paulownia Bagworm

Paulownia Bagworm Moth (Eumeta variegata, 大袋蛾).

For the past fours weeks there have been hundreds of these bagworms on the wingnut trees by the Xiang River. They make a good meal of the leaves but have not seriously defoliated any of the trees they predate upon. For thousands of years, these creatures have been exploited for their silk, by the larva attach themselves to branches. Their colouring adeptly matches wherever plant they adhere to, which by the Xiang is usually wingnut trees but sometimes nearby shrubs (as pictured here) as well.

Paulownia Bagworm Moth at Xiang River

Bookshop Scent

I remember how in 1941 I spent a rather guilty night of security in Berkhamsted away from the fly-bombs and the fire-watching with my brother Hugh. Asleep in the Swan Inn I dreamt of the W.H. Smith bookshop down the High Street from which I had stolen The Railway Magazine all those years ago, and I smelt the individual smell of the shop which was like the smell of no other Smith’s that I have ever known. In my dream I found a book for which I had long been searching on a particular shelf, and so in the morning, before I had breakfast, I walked down the street to see whether my dream might prove true. I was disappointed, the book was not there, but what I noticed at once on entering the shop was that the familiar smell had gone, and without the smell the shop was not the same. I inquired after the manager whom I remembered well: he had died the year before, and I suppose the new manager had changed whatever was the source of the smell which had so long haunted my imagination.
Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (London: Slightly Foxed, 2010; 1971), p. 81.

Sunday 19 November 2023

Black-winged Cuckooshrike

Black-winged Cuckooshrike (Lalage melaschistos, 暗灰鹃鵙).

Their range covers much of south east Asia. They summer high up in the mountains, but if one is lucky, this arboreal bird can be spotted in spring or autumn in Changsha. Its 'peew-peew-peew' call is rare here, but worth listening when the rare opportunity presents itself.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike at the Yanghu Wetland Park

Two Kinds of People Who Lose Things

    There are two kinds of people who lose things: those who leave them in the place, go away and never know it—instead of being sorry for them and ultimately assimilating or throwing away their leavings, I suppose I ought to report the loss to the police. And for those who say they have left things and haven’t I can’t be sorry. But the other day I mixed the two kinds myself. Coming in from a walk I met on the steps a nice woman who had called for a hat that a friend said he had left behind. Not seeing any on the hooks, and Bessie denying that any hat had been left in a bedroom, I was rather irritated by her certainty, evident even through her politeness, of its being here, and I sent her off. But as soon as she was out of sight I found the hat on my head.
John Fothergill, An Innkeeper’s Diary (London: Chatto and Windus, 1934), pp. 278-79.

Saturday 18 November 2023

Climbing Senecio

Climbing Senecio (Senecio scandens, 千里光).

Along the roads or footpaths on Yuelu Mountain, one inevitably comes across climbing senecio. In some places now there are large blooms, but more often one finds stray plants on their own, flowering over rocks and shrubs.

Climbing Senecio on Yuelu Mountain


Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Torino: Einaudi, 1986; 1947), p. 23:

Tutti scoprono, più o meno presto nella loro vita, che la felicità perfetta non è realizzabile, ma pochi si soffermano invece sulla considerazione opposta: che tale è anche una infelicità perfetta.
Everyone discovers, sooner or later in their life, that perfect happiness is not possible, but few pause rather to consider the opposite: that the same is also true with regard to perfect unhappiness.
My translation.

Friday 17 November 2023

Rules for a Renaissance School

 Scholasticorum officia in literatorio ludo a Murmellio Alcmariae insigni Hollandiae oppido discipulis praescripta.
   Scholastici Deum in primis timento eiusque praecepta diligenter observanto.
   Parentibus et magistris obediunto.
   Sacerdotibus, magistratibus et praeceptoribus, reverentiam exhibento.
   Cum dominis contubernii, contubernalibus et condiscipulis humaniter honesteque versantor.
   Nemini vim inferunto.
   Rebus alienis manibus abstinento.
   Extra contubernium nocte non dormiunto, neque per vicos divagantor.
   Lupanaria, paneasque ne ingrediuntor, neque cum feminis rem habento.
   Ensiculum, pugionem, sicamve ne gestanto.
   Aleam ne ludunto.
   Ebrietatem vitanto.
   Capillo tonso, vestituque decenti apparento.
   Dominicis feriatisque diebus rem divinam sacramque concionem audiunto.
   Pecuniae parcunto.
   In tempore scholam literariam frequentanto.
   Grati benevolique sunto.
   Dociles et attentes se praebento.
   A magistris audita domi relegunto et audienda praemeditantor.
   Bene vivere et latine loqui assuescunto.
   Venter, pluma, venus laudem fugienda sequenti.
School rules prescribed for the students in the grammar school of the excellent Dutch city of Alkmaar by Johannes Murmellius (c.1480-1517).
   Students will fear God first and diligently observe His commandments.
   They will obey their parents and teachers.
   They will show reverence to clerics, government officials and instructors.
   They will show consideration and act honourably towards the house-keepers, their room-mates and schoolfellows.  
   They will not resort to violence against anyone.
   They will keep their hands off the possessions of others.
   They will not sleep outdoors or spend the night drifting along the streets.
   They will not enter brothels or pubs nor consort with women.
   They will not wear swords, knives or daggers.
   They will not gamble.
.  They will avoid drunkenness.  
   They will keep their hair short and dress in accordance with decency.
   On Sundays and Holy Days they will witness the Mass and the sermon.
   They will be thrifty with money.
   They will arrive at school on time.
   They will be grateful and courteous.
   They will responsive to the lessons and give them their full attention.    
   They will reread what they heard from the teachers at home and prepare themselves for the next day’s lessons.
   They will accustom themselves to live and speak in Latin.
   They will strive for praise by avoiding gluttony, sloth and lust.
H.E. van Gelder, Geschiedenis der Latijnse school te Alkmaar (Alkmaar: Coster & Zoom, 1905), I [De Groote School tot 1572], p.151. My translation. The second volume of this work was apparently never published.

Blue-striped Nettle Grub

Blue-striped Nettle Grub (Parasa lepida, 丽绿刺蛾).

Yesterday and today I have seen significant numbers of these parasa caterpillars around the base of Yuelu Mountain. They are known for providing a nasty sting. I recollect that about the same time last year they had a similar population boom.

Blue-striped Nettle Grub at Yuelu Mountain

Thursday 16 November 2023

Every Book By Its Scent

 I know men who say they had as lief read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years-never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize. Or my Shakespeare, the great Cambridge Shakespeare-it has an odour which carries me yet further back in life; for these volumes belonged to my father, and before I was old enough to read them with understanding, it was often permitted me, as a treat, to take down one of them from the bookcase, and reverently to turn the leaves. The volumes smell exactly as they did in that old time, and what a strange tenderness comes upon me when I hold one of them in hand. For that reason I do not often read Shakespeare in this edition.
George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 29.

Parasa Pastoralis Caterpillar

Parasa pastoralis (迹斑綠刺蛾).

I spotted this caterpillar climbing the south side of Yuelu Mountain (嶽麓山). Last July when were many caterpillars roaming the trails and bear rocks. Now, I have noticed a second wave of parasa larva (both this and other species) out and about.
Parasa pastoralis larva

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Long Sepal Violet

Long Sepal Violet (Viola inconspicua, 长萼堇菜).

Walking along the Xiang river, I sat down by the edge of the footpath. Had I done otherwise I would not have noticed this solitary flower, which, raising its stem from obscurity amidst the grass and wet weeds, seemed out of time and place.

Long Sepal Violet by the Xiang River

Long Sepal Violet by the Xiang River

The Books That We Re-Read

Robert Louis Stevenson, Memories and Portraits & Other Fragments (London: William Heinemann, 1924), p.110:

The books that we re-read the oftenest are not always those that we admire the most; we choose and we revisit them for many and various reasons, as we choose and revisit human friends.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Language as an Art

Joel Elias Spingarn (1875-1939), Creative Criticism and Other Essays (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1931), pp. 49-50:

The fact that two lines have the same external succession of beats or accents, conform or do not conform to the same “metre,” follow or do not follow some traditional system of versification, tells us no more about their intrinsic quality as poetry than the fact that two men have the same bones or the same lymphatic system tells us about their special qualities as statesmen, as friends, or as men.

What is true of metre is also aesthetically true of language itself. To speak of “learning a language” is to risk the danger of the same confusion, for we do not learn language, we learn how to create it.

Indian Chrysanthemum

Indian Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum indicum, 野菊).

Today was cool but sunny, so in the early afternoon I perambulated around Yuelu Mountain. Along one of the paths where the sun could easily penetrate the tree line there was a single large display of chrysanthemum flowers, servicing a host of flies and a few honey bees.

Chrysanthemum indicum on Yuelu Mountain

Monday 13 November 2023

Monnier's Snowparsley

Monnier's snowparsley (Cnidium monnieri, 蛇床).

There has been an efficient onslaught of cold weather: most birds and insects were hiding. Some Autumn flowers are still taking in whatever sunlight they can. And near the Xiang river there is still plenty of cnidium flowering. This plant is a resourceful weed with has a long history in herbal medicine, in particular for skin ointments and as an aphrodisiac.

Monnier's Snowparsley at Xiang River


    It seems paradoxical that an article should impress us more if it is unsigned than if it is signed. But if does, owing to the weakness of our psychology. Anonymous statements have, as we have seen, a universal air about them. Absolute trust, the collected wisdom of the universe, seems to be speaking, not the feeble voice of man. The modern newspaper has taken advantage of this. It is a pernicious caricature of literature. It has usurped the divine tendency towards anonymity. It has claimed for information what only belongs to creation. And it will claim it as long as we allow it to claim it, and to exploit the defects of our psychology.
E.M. Forster, Anonymity: An Enquiry (London: Leonard & Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1925), pp. 20-21.

Sunday 12 November 2023

Pallas's Squirrel

Pallas's Squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus, 赤腹松鼠).

There are not many wild mammals on Yuelu Mountain, but near the Hunan Normal University campus there is one reclusive Pallas' squirrel that can sometimes be seen jumping from tree to tree. I see him once every two or three months, and only when the weather or term vacations have driven away the usual crowds of students and tourists. More rarely I have seen him mid-way up the mountain along some of the rugged footpaths north of the college. Perhaps there are other squirrels elsewhere on the mountain but I have not observed them.

Pallas's Squirrel on Yuelu Mountain

On Sudden Death

José Miguel João de Portugal e Castro, Marquis of Valença and Count of Vimioso (1706-1775):

‘De repentina morte’
De brevitate queri vitae nos saepe solemus;
   Cum mage sit nobis mors metuenda brevia

'On sudden death'
We often complain of how life passes by so swiftly, when a swift death ought to be more worrisome to us.
José Miguel J. de Portugal, Epigrammatum liber unus (Lisbon: ex praelo Michælis Rodrigues, 1732), p. 35. My translation.

Saturday 11 November 2023

Indian Lettuce

Indian Lettuce (Lactuca indica, 翅果菊).

This biennial herb can grow quite tall, but along the Xiang river this Autumn it has seldom grown beyond 30 to 40 centimeters in height. It has been growing taller on Yuelu Mountain, surpassing one meter where it has unimpeded access to the sun. The leaves are edible, but slightly bitter. The stem can also be cut for its sap: its mild lactucarium is a useful digestive.

Indian Lettuce by the Xiang River

The Golden Mean

ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν. μεσότης δὲ δύο κακιῶν, τῆς μὲν καθ᾽ ὑπερβολὴν τῆς δὲ κατ᾽ ἔλλειψιν: καὶ ἔτι τῷ τὰς μὲν ἐλλείπειν τὰς δ᾽ ὑπερβάλλειν τοῦ δέοντος ἔν τε τοῖς πάθεσι καὶ ἐν ταῖς πράξεσι, τὴν δ᾽ ἀρετὴν τὸ μέσον καὶ εὑρίσκειν καὶ αἱρεῖσθαι.
Virtue then is a habit of mind concerning choice, consisting in the mean relative to us, determined with reference to reason, as a sensible man would define it. It is a middle ground between two evils: one of excess and one of deficiency; because one of these vices falls short of what is proper and the other goes beyond it, both in passions and in actions, where virtue finds and chooses the mean.
Aristotle, Ethica Nichomachea, 1106b-1107a. My translation.
est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines
quod ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum.
There is a mean in things, and there are certain boundaries, beyond which and short of which, virtue is not able to find a place.
Horace, Sermones I.106-7. My translation.

Friday 10 November 2023

A Small Plot of Earth

O nimium felix possessum quisquis agellum
Desidis exercet pulso torpore veterni.
O exceedingly happy is he who cultivates his own small plot of land, when the stupor of enervating drowsiness strikes.
Wilfred P. Mustard, The Eclogues of Faustus Andrelinus and Ioannes Arnolletus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1918), p.38 [Publii Fausti Andrelini ecloga V.6-7]. My translation.

Tagasta tonkinensis

Tagasta tonkinensis (越北橄蝗).

There are many species of grasshoppers in Hunan but I have hitherto afforded them little attention: next year I hope to more carefully note and identify the various orthopteras I see by the river, on Yuelu Mountain, and further afield. This one I observed last September 7th: from July until mid-October they were often in the wilds by the Xiang river but they are gone now.

One wonders if the name of the genus refers to Thagaste, the Numidian village and famed birthplace of St Augustine. The ancient town lay in a valley but the adjacent forested hilltops were long a natural fortification against foreign invaders. The genus falls under the family Pyrgomorphidae (a remarkably colourful grouping of grasshoppers), which derives from πύργος, a 'defensive tower', because their heads vaguely resemble towers. It would take some imagination to envision the towered forts of Thagaste in this little insect, but the image does the trick as a mnemonic.

Tagasta tonkinensis by Xiang River

Thursday 9 November 2023

My Father Wrought

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 63:

   Almost thirty years ago, in a poem called ‘Follower’, I wrote about myself as a child dragging along behind my father when he was out ploughing. The poem began:
                     My father worked with a horse-plough,
and as unremarkable as this may have been as a line of verse, it was still the result of some revision. Originally I had written:
                     My father wrought with a horse-plough,
because until relatively recently that verb was the common one in the speech of mid-Ulster. Country people used the word ‘wrought’ naturally and almost exclusively when they talked about a person labouring with certain tools or animals, and it always carried a sense of wholehearted commitment to the task. You wrought with horses or with a scythe or with a plough; and you might also have wrought at hay or at flax or at bricklaying. So the word implied solidarity with speakers of the South Derry vernacular and a readiness to stand one’s linguistic ground: why, then, did I end up going for the more pallid and expected alternative ‘worked’?
   The answer is, I suppose, because I thought twice. And once you think twice about a local usage you have been displaced from it, and your right to it has been contested by the official linguistic censor with whom another part of you is secretly in league. You have been translated from the land of unselfconsciousness to the suburbs of the mot juste.

Creeping Woodsorrel

Creeping Woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata, 酢浆草).

These buttery yellow ground flowers begin to creep out of the green crowded earth every Fall and more appear whenever it rains until at least late Spring. According to Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China (vol. 3 p. 678), medieval Chinese scientists discerned how to locate copper deposits in the earth from the trace accumulations that build up in their lemon-flavoured trifoliate leafs.
Creeping Woodsorrel by the Xiang River
Creeping Woodsorrel by the Xiang River

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Mock Strawberry

Mock Strawberry (Potentilla indica, 蛇莓).

Stoloniferous, it fortifies its positions close to the ground and is virulently resistant to human aggression: whether by foot or by mover. In exchange for our disturbances it offers bland (and slightly crunchy) red berries and trifoliate leaves, which provide a good poultice for insect bites and (I am told) burns as well. Along the Xiang river have found single berries here and there since midsummer, but they are now more numerous, often appearing in groups of five or six drupes.

Mock Strawberry by the Xiang River

Ignorance Increases with Reading

Bernard Berenson, One Year's Reading For Fun (1942) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), p. 59 [5 May 1942]:

As I have occasion to consult a volume of Deutsche Biographie, I look at all items of interest. They consist of entries for people known to me not only as names but even as careers and values they are people, however, about whom I have never read a biographical account. How much one would like to know more about what one cannot give time to. One's ignorance increases as one reads. One finds persons, places, events referred to, whether hitherto unmentioned or too vaguely to satisfy, and one hungers for more till either accident or imperative need drives one to procure information.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Grote's Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Grote's Tussock Moth (Calliteara grotei, 线丽毒蛾).

They range from the Himalayas to southeast Asia. It has been an unseasonably warm November in Changsha, so everywhere one examines nature, life seems to be experiencing one last hurrah before cold weather is unbridled: each week there are new flowers, new birds and new insect larva to be found. Recently these yellow and white caterpillars have been present on Yuelu Mountain in conspicuous numbers; it is the first time I have noticed any of them so far this year. Often they have been feeding and shedding their hair on broad-leaf trees. Two, we found resting together on a warm rock near the mountain summit. When disturbed, they raise their bristles and stare at you with their jet black eyes, but we left them unmolested as possible, so they could enjoy and destroy their allotments of woodland shrubbery.

Grote's Tussock Moth Caterpillar on Yuelu Mountain


Grote's Tussock Moth Caterpillar on Yuelu Mountain

Memory is Curious, Capricious

   Memory is curious, capricious, incalculable, inexplicable, like all other realities. What is it? Is it a thread? No, rather a nerve rivulet conveying what is left over of a vital experience from somewhere in the past to the present instant. The loss of memory begins with attenuating this flow until it almost stops. Thereupon this something that hitherto had a warmth, as if it were an extension, no matter how remote, of our blood-stream, ceases to be part of us, never to be reintegrated with ourselves, even if we do recapture it and save it for mere use. So much of what only the other day seemed part and parcel of my mental furniture has faded and vanished before I have perceived it. Could I have retained it with timely effort? I could not have believed that I would forget my Greek irregular verbs, the dates of the kings of England, the succession of our presidents, the rivers, the capitals, the boundaries of our individual states. I find that I am forgetting them or have lost them already. Huge lumps of memory break away and melt into oblivion. Why? How? Is memory a tablet, a palimpsest, criss-crossed and written over and over, till no ground is visible through a tangle of inextricable confusion? It that why we cease to retain easily and then not at all after a certain age, and why the tablet breaks off at the edges and cracks in the middle? Again, memory seems to act as if it consisted of a pile of photographic negatives. During our best years these negatives present themselves unbidden when wanted. Now they ignore my orders. What has happened? Have they failed in energy and readiness, have they failed in energy and readiness, have they faded, or is it my ego that can no longer command their obedience?
Bernard Berenson, Sketch for a Self-Portrait (New York: Pantheon, 1949), pp. 15-16.

Monday 6 November 2023

Red-billed Starling

Red-billed Starling (Spodiopsar sericeus, 丝光椋鸟).

There are always a few of these starlings about, but at this time of year there are thousands of them by the river: migrating in huge vociferous flocks.

Red-billed Starling in Changsha

Fossilised Books

Certain genera of animals, once flourishing, but now extinct and known only by their fossilized remains, are described by paleontologists. Literary historians recognize also certain genera of literature, once flourishing, but now extinct and known only to a few specialists who care to delve into books which, gathering dust on library shelves, are all but forgotten and virtually fossilized.
Johannes A. Gaertner, ‘Latin Verse Translations of the Psalms: 1500-1620’, The Harvard Theological Review, 49.4 (1956), 271-305 (p. 271).

Sunday 5 November 2023

School and Leisure

Denn eines der Fundamente der abendländischen Kultur (und nehmen wir, vielleicht allzu verwegen, einmal an, jener Neubau werde in abendländischem Geiste geplant– eine Annahme, so sehr bestreitbar, dass man geradezu sagen kann: eben dies und nichts anderes stehe heute zur Entscheidung)–eines der Fundamente der abendländischen Kultur ist die Muße.–So steht es schon zu lesen in der Metaphysik des Aristoteles, in ihrem ersten Kapitel. Und auch die Wortgeschichte hält eine ähnliche Auskunft bereit: Muße heißt griechisch σχολἠ, lateinisch schola, deutsch Schule. Der Name also, mit dem wir die Stätten der Bildung, und gar die der Ausbildung, benennen, bedeutet Muße. Schule heißt nicht »Schule«, sondern: Muße.
For one of the foundations of Western culture (and we, perhaps too boldly, assume that the reconstruction will be carried out in a Western spirit—an assumption, so very debatable that one can almost say, that just this and nothing else is today open to question)—one of the foundations of western culture is leisure.—so it can be found in the first chapter of the Metaphysics of Aristotle. And also the history of the word conveys a similar message: leisure is σχολἠ in Greek, which is schola in Latin and ‘school’ in German. So the name which we give to places of education, and even to education, means leisure. School is not ‘school’ but leisure.
Josef Pieper, ‘Muße und Kult’ in Kulturphilosophische Schriften (Hamburg: F. Meiner, 1999), pp.1-44 (pp.2-3). My translation.

Small White

Small White (Pieris rapae, 菜粉蝶).

For the past month there has been no shortage of butterflies, but in recent days their numbers have been increasing still. Often I see close to a dozen types of butterflies and moths feasting on a single flowerbed, not including more reclusive species hiding under leaves. Small whites are common across the world: perhaps once upon a time they ventured into China from the eastern Mediterranean, but they are natives now.

Small White by Xiang River

Saturday 4 November 2023

Olive-backed Pipit

Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni, 树鹨).

A cooler weather resident in Changsha. I saw a few near the Xiang river last February. And recently I have been spotting them there again.

Olive-backed Pipit at Xiang River

Quis custodiet ipsos censores?

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (London: Virago Press, 2012), p. 95:

We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast. If our feelings register some minor shock, or if we suppose the public might be somewhat irked, or even if we think we can discern some earnest hope on the part of a writer to irk or to offend ourselves or our neighbors, then a book is praised as a creditable effort and excused from the kind of attention that might raise questions about its actual novelty or merit.

Friday 3 November 2023

Chinese Black Bird

Chinese Blackbird (Turdus mandarinus, 乌鸫).

They are most conspicuous in the hot wet part of summer, as they can still be found out in the open, when most other birds have retreated from the sun. But They are active, foraging for worms and insects, all year round.

Chinese Blackbird at Wangling Park

Radical Chic

Antonia Fraser, Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter (London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010):

Later we went up to Melvyn and Cate’s in Hampstead as before, in a hired car. Me to Harold: ‘Would it be the height of radical chic to ask for a driver who is a Labour voter?’

Thursday 2 November 2023

Bridget Jones: A Missing Scene

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir (London: Vintage, 2013), pp. 605-606:

The party scene took two days to film. Renée Zellweger stuck to her English accent all the time, even off-camera, so that he [Rushdie] had the odd feeling of meeting Bridget Jones, not the actress playing her. Colin Firth was funny and welcoming. “I secretly hope you’re going to be lousy at this, because I can’t write books.” And Hugh Grant kissed him. There was a scene in which he and Hugh were supposed to greet each other as long-lost friends, and before one of the takes Hugh asked, “Do you mind if I kiss you in this one?” and then planted a major smacker right on his amazed mouth. The scene didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie. His first screen kiss, he thought, and it was with Hugh Grant!, and it ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Araneus ventricosus

Araneus ventricosus (大腹园蛛).

This orb weaver was occupying a tidy web by the Xiang river. If is is not one of the most common local spiders, it is one of the most noticeable: one often stumbles upon its large webs in dense bushes and forest pathways.

Araneus ventricosus by Xiang River

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Male Yellow-bellied Tit

Yellow-bellied Tit (Periparus venustulus, 黄腹山雀).

Often seen from autumn to spring around the woods and waters of Changsha. They are frequently in mixed flocks, searching the trees, bushes and ground with smaller numbers of tits and Pallas's leaf warblers. When they are present nearby, one almost always hears their cavalier whistles.

Consolation for the Soul

Kempo van Texel (active c. 1505-1522)
Consolatio ad animam

Tristia quum dulcis resecantur stamina vite
   Te vocat altitonans ni malefacta premant.
When the sorrowful threads of sweet life are cut short, the high-thunderer calls you, unless your evil deeds restrain you.
Kempo van Texel, Carmina et epigrammata pulcherrima [(Zwolle : Peter Os van Breda, 150?)], p.23. My translation.