Thursday 29 February 2024

Rough-fruited Buttercup

Rough-fruited Buttercup (Ranunculus muricatus, 刺果毛茛).

Another species of buttercup growing on the paths along the Xiang river. Its native range is from the Mediterranean to Central Asia but is naturalized throughout the world, including here in Hunan.

Rough-fruited Buttercup by the Xiang River

Strength of Mind

Omnis homines, qui sese student praestare ceteris animalibus, summa ope niti decet, ne vitam silentio transeant veluti pecora, quae natura prona atque ventri oboedientia finxit. sed nostra omnis vis in animo et corpore sita est: animi imperio, corporis servitio magis utimur; alterum nobis cum dis, alterum cum beluis commune est. quo mihi rectius videtur ingeni quam virium opibus gloriam quaerere, et quoniam vita ipsa qua fruimur brevis est, memoriam nostri quam maxume longam efficere. nam divitiarum et formae gloria fluxa atque fragilis est, virtus clara aeternaque habetur.

All human beings, who desire to surpass to other animals, ought to endeavour to the best of their ability to avoid passing through life in obscurity like cattle, which nature formed with their heads to the ground, subservient to their bellies. But taken as a whole our strength is situated in the mind as well as the body: we enjoy rather the power of the mind and servitude of the body; the first we hold in common with the gods, the latter with beasts. For which reason it appears to me more reasonable to seek glory with our intellectual resources than though our physical strength, and since the life itself which we enjoy is short, to make the memory of our lives as long lasting as possible. For the glory of wealth and physical beauty is fluid and fragile, but virtue shines brilliantly and is eternal.
Sallust, Catilinae Coniuratio, I. My translation.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Chinese Buttercup

Chinese Buttercup (Ranunculus chinensis, 茴茴蒜).

There is not much in bloom right now but every two or so kilometres along the paths by the Xiang river there are a few Chinese buttercups, oblivious to cold and cloud.
Chinese Buttercup by the Xiang River

The Absolute Book

Leszek Kołakowski, ‘Is There a Future for Truth’ in Is God Happy?: Select Essays (New York: Basic Books, 2013), pp. 288-297 (p. 288):

Some of us, at that stage of our early youth when we made our way through a great many books, believed that one day we would hit upon the book par excellence: the absolute book, the book that would bring ultimate enlightenment and reveal the Whole Truth. We fairly soon came to the conclusion that, although there are many excellent books, wise books and interesting books, the absolute book does not exist. But what we had in mind, as we laboured under the illusion of its existence and waited for the Truth to be revealed, was truth in a particular sense.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Eurasian Wryneck

Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla, 蚁䴕).

Twice I have seen a wryneck in the trees by the Xiang river: once last April and exactly two weeks ago today. Both times, it has appeared in roughly the same spot though if it is the same bird it must only rarely forage there, as I have often looked for it.

Eurasian Wryneck by the Xiang River

How Strange Literature Is

Adolfo Bioy Cesares, Borges (Buenos Aires, Destino, 2006), pp. 290-91:

1957 Sábado, 15 de junio. ‘Hablamos de la Odisea y de la Iliáda. BIOY (a Borges):  «A vos te gusta más la Odisea. Yo prefiero la Iliáda. Comprendo que la Odisea en más novelesca, pero en la Iliáda hay algo épico que no he sentido en ninguna parte». A pesar de su vieja preferencia por la Odisea, Borges trata de darme la razón: dice que Reyes también prefiere la Iliáda; que según Butler la Odisea es la mujer de la Iliáda, que a pesar de la intervención de los dioses, uno siente que los guerreros son valientes (a diferencia de lo que ocurre con los guerreros celtas, en cuyo valor no se cree). BORGES: «Lo que occurre a cada uno es muy importante.» BIOY «Son pocos. No están perdidos en la multitud. El destino de los individuos pesa en las batallas: lo contrario del admirable Verdun de Jules Romains. Realmente los hombres son héroes.” BORGES: «Homero es muy minucioso sobre lo que les pasa; las heridas se detallan: manó la negra sangre. (Pausa) Qué extraña es la literatura. Porque el encabezamiento de la Odisea está en la tradución de Lawrence en líneas de todo el ancho de la página, la impresión es de que uno lee otro libro. Está bien, de parte de Lawrence, el haberse dado cuenta».
   De la Eneida dice que es un libro admirable; que por muchos años la opusieron a la Iliada y a la Odisea, como la obra culta frente a la obra genuina, pero que hay muchas cosas lindísimas en ella. Dice que la tradución española, de Eugenio de Ochoa, que publicó Ureña, es excelente: «Reproduce muy bien los versos latinos.” Comenta también: «Mis sobrinos leyeron todo en esa colección de Ureña: la Odisea, la Iliada y la Eneida. Les gustaron mucho. Traté de entusiasmarlos con Ariosto, pero fracasé. Ven solamente un libro mal hecho. Sin embargo, hay tantas cosas en el Orlando Furioso».

June 15, 1957, Saturday. ‘We talked about the Odyssey and the Iliad. BIOY (to Borges): "You like the Odyssey better. I prefer the Iliad. I understand that the Odyssey is more fantastic, but in the Iliad there is something epic that I don't feel anywhere else”/ In spite his old preference for the Odyssey, Borges tries to take my side: he says that Reyes also prefers the Iliad; that according to Butler the Odyssey is the wife of the Iliad, that despite the intervention of the gods, one feels that the warriors are brave (unlike what happens with the Celtic warriors, in whose courage one doesn’t believe). BORGES: "What happens to each one is very important." BIOY "They are few. They are not lost in the crowd. The fate of the individual hangs in the battles: the opposite of the admirable Verdun of Jules Romains. Truly the men are heroes.” BORGES: “Homer is very meticulous about what happens to them; the wounds are detailed: the black blood gushed. (Pause) How strange literature is. Because the preamble of the Odyssey is in Lawrence's translation in lines the whole width of the page, the impression is that one is reading another book. It is good, on Lawrence's part, to have noticed this.
 Of the
Aeneid he says that it is an admirable book; that for many years it was set up against the Iliad and the Odyssey, as a cultured work compared to the genuine work, but that there are many beautiful things in it. He says that the Spanish translation, by Eugenio de Ochoa, published by Ureña, is excellent: “It recreates the Latin verses very well.” He also comments, "My nephews read everything in that Ureña collection: the Odyssey, the Iliad and the Aeneid. They liked them so much. I tried to get them excited about Ariosto, but failed. They see only a poorly made book. However, there are so many things in the Orlando Furioso."
My translation.

Monday 26 February 2024

Gryllotalpa ornata

Gryllotalpa ornata.

During our recent cold snap I have been looking through some old photos. One curious find was this species of mole cricket, which I saw mid-October last year on Hengshan (衡山) as it trundled along on a short visit above ground.

A Book of Questions

 A novel should be a book of questions, not a book of answers.
Hilary Mantel, 'A question of belief', The Guardian, 28 Jan 2006.

Sunday 25 February 2024

Tadpoles on Yuelu Mountain

Most of the would-be rivulets which run down Yuelu mountain have been desiccated by a dry autumn and winter; I can still, fill my water bottles from an tap rooted to underground stream, but on the surface intermittent rains only soften the ground only for it to harden soon again. Puddles are sparse, though frogs seem to have found at least one mucky pond at the base of the mountain. I venture they are most likely black-spotted frog (pelophylax nigromaculatus, 黑斑侧褶蛙) spawn, since I frequently saw and heard these adult frogs around the same spots last autumn.
Tadpoles at Yuelu Mountain


Sloth is the root of much bad opinion.
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960; 1934), p. 99.

Saturday 24 February 2024

Chinese Slug

Chinese Slug (Meghimatium bilineatum, 双线巨篷蛞蝓).

We are in for week of cold, rain and respiratory illnesses. It will be challenging to take pictures until things improve. In the meantime, there is not much to photograph anyways: a wet piece of wood revealed some woodlice, two lethargic cockroaches and this listless slug.

Professors Moving Quickly

Professors do not like to be asked to move quickly, and particularly not by a man who is not yet thirty. They can move quickly, or do they imagine, but they do not like to be bossed.
Robertson Davies, Cornish Trilogy Omnibus (New York: RosettaBooks, 2019), p. 24 [Rebel Angels; 1988].

Friday 23 February 2024

Azure-winged Magpie Hunting for Insects

Another example or corvid-cleverness: an azure-winged magpie (cyanopica cyanus, 灰喜鹊) discovered that some protective wrappings on trees provide a fertile ground for breeding invertebrates, and that tearing away at the adhesive tape would expose some good grub.

Aesop’s Crow and the Pitcher

Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 86:

Whether New Caledonian crows have leaps of insight remains to be determined, but these experiments suggest that these birds do have an extraordinary ability to notice the consequences of their own actions, says Taylor, and to pay attention to the way objects interact. These are mighty useful mental tools when it comes to making and using material tools. THE AUCKLAND TEAM IS also attempting to figure out whether the crows understand basic physical principles.A “crow-appropriate paradigm” for this, as Taylor puts it, is an experimental version of the old Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher.” In that fable, a thirsty crow comes across a half-filled jug of water. Unable to reach the water to drink, the crow drops pebble after pebble into the pitcher until the water level rises enough for him to drink. As it turns out, this is not just a folktale. New Caledonian crows will do exactly that—drop stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level. And, as Sarah Jelbert discovered while working with the Auckland team, if given a choice between heavy objects and light ones, solid and hollow ones, the crows will spontaneously pick objects that will sink over those that will float. They know how to pick their materials and will select the right option 90 percent of the time. This suggests that the crows understand water displacement, a fairly sophisticated physical concept, on par with the comprehension of a child five to seven years old. It also suggests that they’re able to grasp the basic physical properties of objects and make inferences about them.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Oriental False Hawksbeard

Oriental False Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica, 黄鹌菜).

On sunny Monday, the fields by the river were full of flowers: wide swathes of white chickweeds, shepherd's-purse and clover, blue speedwells and cucumber-herb, thousands of scattered purple violets, and a variety of yellows: dandelions, false hawksbeard, buttercups and wordsorrels. Freezing temperatures have come and, except for the resilient white clovers, the wild flowers are all back into hiding.

Oriental False Hawksbeard by the Xiang River

Original Thinking

Mark Pattison, Memoirs of an Oxford Don (London: Cassell, 1988; 1885), pp. 51-52:

A man who does not know what has been thought by those who have gone before him is sure to set an undue value upon his own ideas – ideas which have perhaps been tried and found wanting. As accumulated learning stifles the mental powers, so original thinking has been known to bring about a puffy, unsubstantial mental condition.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Common Vetch

Common Vetch (Vicia sativa, 救荒野豌豆).

Some vetch plants along the river are already in flower. This common weed is still used as animal fodder in some parts of China. The leaves can be eaten by people as well (they were part of some prehistoric diets); its purple flowers and stems without long hairs distinguish it from more toxic species of vicia.

Common Vetch by the Xiang River

A World of His Own

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (New York: Macmillan, 1948; 1938), p. 8:
A great writer creates a world of his own and his readers are proud to live in it. A lesser writer may entice them in for a moment, but soon he will watch them filing out.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Winter Small White

Small White (Pieris rapae, 菜粉蝶).

We had three days of sunny days in the high 20s although we are now back to winter weather. The false spring brought out a few butterflies: mostly Asian commas, and where there were sufficient flowers, a few small whites such as this one. I also saw a solitary blue admiral flying high and far.

Small White by the Xiang River

Philosophy Neither Rejects Nor Selects Anyone

Bona mens omnibus patet, omnes ad hoc sumus nobiles. Nec reicit quemquam philosophia nec eligit; omnibus lucet. Patricius Socrates non fuit. Cleanthes aquam traxit et rigando horto locavit manus. Platonem non accepit nobilem philosophia, sed fecit.

A noble mind is available to everyone; according to this principle, all of us may gain distinction. Philosophy neither rejects nor selects anyone; it shine for everyone. Socrates was not a patrician. Cleanthes was employed as a hired hand drawing water from a well and watering a garden. Philosophy did not receive Plato as a an aristocrat, but made him one.
Seneca, Epistulae, V.44.2-3. My translation.

Monday 19 February 2024

Old European Hospitality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (London: John Murray, 2004; 1977), pp. 24-25; p. 101:
Somebody told me that humble travellers in Holland could doss down in the police stations, and it was true. A constable showed me to a cell without a word, and I slept, rugged up to the ears, on a wooden plank hinged to the wall and secured on two chains under a forest of raffish murals and graffiti. They even gave me a bowl of coffee and a quarter of a loaf before I set off. Thank God I had put ‘student’ in my passport: it was an amulet and an Open Sesame. In European tradition, the word suggested a youthful, needy, and earnest figure, spurred along the highways of the West by a thirst for learning—thus, notwithstanding high spirits and a proneness to dog-Latin drinking songs, a fit candidate for succour.


   Remembering the advice the mayor of Bruchsal had given me, the moment I had arrived in this little village, I had sought out the Bürgermeister. I found him in the Gemeindeamt, where he filled out a slip of paper. I presented it at the inn: it entitled me to supper and a mug of beer, a bed for the night and bread and a bowl of coffee in the morning; all on the parish. It seems amazing to me now, but so it was, and there was no kind of slur attached to it; nothing, ever, but a friendly welcome. I wonder how many times I took advantage of this generous and, apparently, very old custom? It prevailed all through Germany and Austria, a survival perhaps, of some ancient charity to wandering students and pilgrims, extended now to all poor travellers.

David's Fulvetta

David's Fulvetta (Alcippe davidi, 灰眶雀鹛).

David's Fulvetta eating snow in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. A plain bird but it is widespread in Hunan wherever there are proper forests.

David's Fulvetta in Zhangjiajie

Sunday 18 February 2024

Academic Lubrications

    The complex social and intellectual machinery of Oxford University at this time was lubricated by vast quantities of alcohol. Magdalen was perhaps one of the most bibulous of Oxford’s colleges, with its resident fellows being particularly prone to overindulgence. During 1924 and 1925, the Senior Common Room paid off a debt by selling twenty-four thousand bottles of port, raising the sum of £4,000. Fellows who wagered against each other would calculate their winnings in terms of cases of claret or port, rather than cash. The Senior Common Room butler was once observed carrying a silver tray laden with brandy and cigars through the college cloisters at eleven o’clock one morning. On being asked what he was doing, the butler replied that he was bringing one of the fellows his breakfast. Lewis kept a barrel of beer in his rooms to entertain colleagues and students, but otherwise seems to have avoided the alcoholic excesses of the prewar years.
Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Colorado Springs, CO: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013), pp. 115-16.

Xenocatantops brachycerus

Xenocatantops brachycerus (短角外斑腿蝗).

In the summer, there are hordes of these short-spurred grasshoppers on Yuelu Mountain. In winter, they are uncommon but still easy to find provided the temperature is above freezing and the sun is shining.

Xenocatantops brachycerus on Yuelu Mountain

Saturday 17 February 2024

Student Expenses from the 1910s

Christian Gauss, Through College on Nothing a Year, Literally Recorded from a Student's Story (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915), p. 74:
Student Expenses from the 1910s

Gauss reports the yearly expenses of a poor student at Princeton in the 1910s. Noting this anonymous student was paying a reduced rate of tuition, $320.90 in 1912 is reckoned to be equivalent to $10,203.20, according to an online calculator, today. 

The cost of attendance for 2024-25 at Princeton (not including transportation there and home again) is estimated at $86,700, broken down thus:
  • Tuition: $62,400.
  • Housing: $11,910.
  • Food: $8,340.
  • Estimated miscellaneous expenses: $4,050.
Costs have changed.

Phoebe zhennan

Phoebe zhennan (楠木).

This tree has a long history  of use in China as valuable 'nanmu' (楠木) wood. Long exploited for making boats and buildings, due to overuse and habitat loss it is now rare. This one growing in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is fortunately protected.

Phoebe zhennan in Zhangjiajie

Friday 16 February 2024

Female Plumbeous Water Redstart

Plumbeous Water Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus, 红尾水鸲). Female.

The female is more common and more plumbeous than the male. This one I spotted in Zhangjiajie though I have also seen one or two in Changsha within the past few weeks.

Female Plumbeous Water Redstart in Zhangjiajie

One Quality

There is one quality which unites all great and perdurable writers, you don’t NEED schools and colleges to keep ‘em alive. Put them out of the curriculum, lay them in the dust of libraries, and once in every so often a chance reader, unsubsidized and unbridled, will dig them up again, put them in the light again, without asking favors.
Ezra Pound,  ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960; 1934), p. 45.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Asiatic Toad

Asiatic Toad (Bufo gargarizans, 中华蟾蜍).

The first wild amphibian of the year has made his appearance. Yesterday in Wangling park, this medium-sized toad was out in the unseasonably warm sun and evidently too preoccupied with the new sights and commotion to be much bothered by me or others stopping to observe him.

Asiatic Toad in Wangling Park

A Ruffled Mind

Charlotte Brontë, The Professor (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1994; 1857), p. 154:

A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Male Plumbeous Water Redstart

Plumbeous Water Redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus, 红尾水鸲). Male.

Taken in the evening in the Wulingyuan scenic area in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. They are not so common in urban areas but can often be found by fast moving streams, darting from rock to rock devouring flies. I see the grey females much more often than the blue and orange males.

Male Plumbeous Water Redstart in the Wulingyuan scenic area in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

For the Feast of Saint Valentine

Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey (London: Penguin Books, 1994; 1846), p. 278:
It’s the husband’s part to please the wife, not hers to please him; and if he isn’t satisfied with her as she is—and thankful to possess her too—he isn’t worthy of her, that’s all.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

What are the Stars?

Now, the sun, the moon, and the stars, besides that they are a necessary part of the universe, afford also a spectacle to mankind; a spectacle how glorious! with which we can never be cloyed, affording ample matter for our speculations. By computing the course of the stars, we have distinguished the different seasons, their vicissitudes, and duration. And, since these are known only to man, it is best to suppose they were made for his service.
Thomas Herring, Letters from the late most reverend Dr. Thomas Herring: Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, to William Duncombe (London: printed for J. Johnson, 1777), pp. 304-5 [Remarks on Lord Bolingbroke’s Notion of a God]. Cf. Cicero, De natura deorum II.5.15.
‘But what are they really? What do they say they are?’  the small young lady asked me. We were looking up at the Stars, which were quivering that night in splendid hosts above the lawns and trees.
   So I tried to explain some of the views that have been held about them. How people first of all had thought them mere candles set in the sky, to guide their own footsteps when the Sun was gone; till wise men, sitting on the Chaldean plains, and watching them with aged eyes, became impressed with the solemn view that those still and shining lights were the executioners of God’s decrees, and irresistible instruments of His Wrath; and that they moved fatally among their celestial Houses to ordain and set out the fortunes and misfortunes of each race of newborn mortals. And so it was believed that every man or woman had, from the cradle, fighting for or against him or her, some great Star, Formalhaut, perhaps, Aldebaran, Altaïr: while great Heroes and Princes were more splendidly attended, and marched out to their forgotten battles with troops and armies of heavenly Constellations.
   But this noble old view was not believed in now; the Stars were no longer regarded as malignant or beneficent Powers; and I explained how most serious people thought that somewhere—though just where they did not know—above the vault of Sky, was to be found the final home of earnest men and women; where, as a reward for their right views and conduct, they were to rejoice forever, wearing those diamonds of the starry night arranged in glorious crowns. This notion, however, had been disputed by
Poets and Lovers: it was Love, according to these young astronomers, that moved the Sun and other Stars; the Constellations being heavenly palaces, where people who had adored each other were to meet and live always together after Death.
   Then I spoke of the modern and real immensity of the unfathomed Skies. But suddenly the vast meaning of my words rushed into my mind; I felt myself dwindling, falling through the blue. And yet, in these silent seconds, there thrilled through me in the cool sweet air and night no chill of death or nothingness; but the taste and joy of this Earth, this orchard-plot of earth, floating unknown, far away in unfathomed space, with its Moon and meadows.
Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia (London: Constable & Company, 1933), p. 24.

Baby Rhesus Macaque in the Snow

Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta, 普通猕猴).

This baby macaque was waiting for its mother in the snow in the Wulingyuan scenic area near the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. The mountain snow was beautiful and lasting though a little terrifying to traverse at higher altitudes.

Baby Rhesus Macaque in the Snow

Monday 12 February 2024

A Latin Poem for Spring

Morten Børup (1446-1526):

      In vernalis temporis ortu laetabundo,
      Dum recessum frigoris nuntiat hirundo,
Terrae, maris, nemoris decus adest deforis, renovato mundo,  
Vigor redit corporis, cedit dolor pectoris, tempore iucundo,
      Terra vernat floribus, et nemus virore,
      Aves mulcent cantibus et vocis dulcore,
Aqua tempestatibus caret, aer imbribus, dulci plenus rore,
Sol, consumptis nubibus, radiis patentibus lucet cum decore.
      O! quam mira gloria, quantum decus Dei!
      Quanta resplendentia suae faciei!
A quo ducunt omnia, summa, ima, media, formam speciei,
Magis haec distantia, quam sit differentia noctis et diei.
      When springtime rises joyful,
      Whilst the swallow heralds the frost’s retreat,
The beauty of earth, sea and forest appears outside, the world is renewed,
The body’s strength returns, and the heart’s sorrow fades,
in this pleasant time,
      The earth abounds with flowers and the woods with greenery,
      The birds flatter with songs and sweet tunes,
The water is undisturbed by storms, the air with rain, is filled with a sweet spray,
The sun, having devoured the clouds, shines
beautifully in illuming rays.
      O! What wondrous glory, how great is God’s splendour!
      How resplendent is His countenance!
From which all things, high and low and in between proceed,
Though the disparity between God and His creation is greater than between night and day.

Albert Thura, Idea historiae litterariae Danorum (Hamburg: sumtibus Theodori Christophori Felgineri, 1723), pp. 71-72 with typos plexus (7) and dictantia (12). My translation.
Lake in Wangling Park

Sunday 11 February 2024

Moso Bamboo

Moso Bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis, 毛竹).

Many mature culms of moso bamboo fell this winter: we gathered some for making planting pots for spring. We also found some uprooted younger culms, which we made into walking sticks.

Moso Bamboo in Wangling Park

Don't you ever mind?

“Don't you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (London: Virago Press, 1990; 1905). p. 16.

Saturday 10 February 2024

We Live in the Past

Why prostrate reason your Reason to meer Nature? We live off the Past: it is in our Words and our Syllables.  It is reverberant in our Streets and Courts, so that we can scarce walk across the Stones without being reminded of those who walked there before us; the Ages before our own are like an Eclipse which blots out the Clocks and Watches of present Artificers and, in that Darkness, the Generations jostle one another. It is the dark of Time from which we come and to which we will return.
Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (London: Penguin Books, 1993; 1985), p. 178.

Teleogryllus Occipitalis

Teleogryllus Occipitalis (黑脸油葫芦).

Local cricket: they are very noisome in the summer and autumn but are quiet now.

Teleogryllus Occipitalis in Botanical Forest Garden

Friday 9 February 2024

Camphor Tree

Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora, 樟).

Recent snow and freezing rain has been destructive to the local trees. Thousands of fallen branches are being transported from the parks and streets every day but it will take weeks to clear it all. The camphor trees in particular have endured much.

Camphor Tree Winter Fruit

Winter Riddle

Pedro Ruiz de Moros (1515-1571), ‘Aenigma.’

Gentibus optatus media inter frigora nascor;
Ore parens patulo me concipit edit et alvo
Centum uteris distincta, alvusque illaesa superstat.
Non fert longa novem mater fastidia menses.
Angustis horae spatiis conceptus in auras
Prodeo sublimis, consurgensque undique pello
Vitae hostem; succedo loco reddoque salutem
Omnibus optatam et tenui solatia plebi.
Me populi patresque colunt, regesque superbi,
Plebs tenuis mihi se et natos debere fatetur.
Vita brevis; septem vivo longaevus in horas;
Est totum vixisse diem longissima vita.   
‘A Riddle.’
I am born in cold weather when all nations desire me;
With an mouth open, my parent conceives me and brings me forth from the womb,
I am divided for a hundred wombs and her womb stands uninjured,
My mother does not endure long nausea for nine months.
Conceived in the narrow space of an hour, I come forth
In lofty airs, and rising everywhere I banish
The enemy of life; I advance into the room and restore health,
Which is desired by all and I am a solace for humble people.
The people and their fathers and proud kings honour me,
Humble people acknowledge that they themselves and their children are indebted to me.
My life is brief: I am ancient if I live for seven hours;
To have lived through an entire day is the greatest extent of life for me.
Pedro Ruiz de Moros, Petri Royzii Maurei Alcagnicensis carmina, ed. by Bronisław Kruczkiewicz, 2 vols (Kraków: Sumptibus Academiae Litterarum Cracoviensis, 1903), II, p. 488. My translation.

[To see the answer, highlight the text below here.]
**Fornax vel fornacis calor [A furnace or the heat of a furnace].

Thursday 8 February 2024

Chinese Fan Palm

Chinese Fan Palm (Livistona chinensis, 蒲葵).

A common palm tree: where most local trees have suffered a good deal this winter, it has been holding up to the snow rather well.

Chinese Fan Palm in Wangling Park

Here Come the Tigers

There are lips in pistol
And mist in times,
Cats in crystal,
And mice in chimes.

James Thurber, ‘Here Come the Tigers’, in The Beast in Me and Other Animals (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), pp. 103-112 (p. 104).

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Leaves of Ice

Overnight the trees and shrubs were ensconced in ice. During the day, it melted slightly and once curious effect was that sometimes pieces of ice moulded to the shape of the leaves slid down and adhered to other frozen leaves below, forming their leaves of ice amidst the foliage.

Ice Leaf by Xiang River

Party Politics

Is there ever a public man in England that altogether believes in his party? Is there one, however doubtful, that will not fight for it?
William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, n.d.; 1852), pp. 485-86.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Comic Spirit

Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing. Credulity is not wooed through the impressionable senses; nor have we recourse to the small circular glow of the watchmaker's eye to raise in bright relief minutest grains of evidence for the routing of incredulity. The Comic Spirit conceives a definite situation for a number of characters, and rejects all accessories in the exclusive pursuit of them and their speech. For being a spirit, he hunts the spirit in men; vision and ardour constitute his merit; he has not a thought of persuading you to believe in him. Follow and you will see. But there is a question of the value of a run at his heels.
George Meredith, The Egoist: a comedy in narrative (London: Oxford University Press, 1948; 1879), p. 1.

Crested Mynas and Long-tailed Shrike

A shrike was attempting to rest for a moment by the river, though he had little peace from a noisy flock of myna.

Crested Mynas and Long-tailed Shrike

Monday 5 February 2024

Golloping Books

Philip Larkin, Letters to Monica, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (London: faber & faber, 2010), p. 366 [13 October 1966]:

   ‘It’s a nice feeling, being good at being fond of books. You watch him [C.S. Lewis] golloping them down, & getting a living out of it, & finding more books to gollop. I wish I could have done it. I don’t think I really liked books, not old books anyways. I could never feel that Chaucer was as real as the Daily Mail, & so I was never an academic.’

Another Long-tailed Shrike

Another long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach, 棕背伯劳) on a bare tree. We are due for a few days of cold rain.

Long-Tailed Shrike

Sunday 4 February 2024

Chlorocryptus Purpuratus With Pseudoscorpion

Chlorocryptus Purpuratus (紫绿姬蜂) with Pseudoscorpion.

A species of ichneumonid wasp that are common on Yuelu mountain in Autumn: this picture was taken last September. What is interesting here is the pseudoscorpion hitching a ride on the wasps leg: a form of behaviour known as 'phoresis'.

Chlorocryptus Purpuratus and Pseudoscorpion on Yuelu Mountain

Horace and Landor

   Neither simple nor passionate sensuous only in so far as he is a gourmet of food and of language, aere perennius, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, bald-headed, pot-bellied, underbred, sycophantic, less poetic than any other great master of literature, occupies one complete volume of the British Museum Catalogue and about half the bad poetry in English might seem to have been written under his influence, but as almost no Englishman save Landor has ever written a line of real criticism this is not perhaps very surprising. There are people called the ‘English Critics’ (sometimes the gt. E.C.) who have put down a few rules of thumb about finding rhymes, or about the religious bearing of literature, or indulged in metaphysical speculation, but Landor was almost unique in examining specific passages of verse to see whether they were well or ill written or if they could be improved.
Ezra Pound, ‘Horace’, Arion, 9.2/3 (1970), 178-187 (p. 178).

Saturday 3 February 2024

Sweet Annie

Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua, 黄花蒿).

A common wormwood: a few new plants have been growing in the mud of the Xiang river. Known in herbal medicine as qinghao (青蒿), it has a long history in the treatment of fevers and in the past half century an extract from it has saved millions of lives in the treatment of malaria.

Sweet Annie growing by the Xiang River

Language of Seagulls

Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel (London: Vintage Books, 2012), p. 672 ['Joe Gould's Secret'; 1964]:

 ‘Just now, when you told the waitress that you were an authority on the language of the sea gull,’ I said, changing the subject, ‘did you mean it?’ Gould’s face lit up. ‘When I was a child,’ he said, ‘my mother and I spent summers at a seaside town in Nova Scotia, a town called Clementsport, and every summer an old man would catch me a sea gull for a pet, and I sometimes used to have the impression that my sea gull was speaking to me, or trying to. Later on, when I was going to Harvard, I spent a great many Saturday afternoons sitting on T Wharf in Boston listening very carefully to sea gulls, and finally they got through to me, and little by little I learned the sea-gull language. I can understand it better than I can speak it, but I can speak it a lot better than you might think. In fact, I have translated a number of famous American poems into sea gull. Listen closely!’ He threw his head back and began to screech and chirp and croak and mew and squawk and gobble and cackle and caw, occasionally punctuating these noises with splutters. There was something singsong and sonorous in this racket that made it sound distantly familiar. ‘Don’t you recognize it?’ cried Gould excitedly. ‘It’s “Hiawatha”! It’s from the part called “Hiawatha’s Childhood.” Listen! I’ll translate it back into English: By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them …’ Gould snickered; his spirits had risen the moment he had begun talking about sea gulls. ‘Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translates perfectly into sea gull,’ he said. ‘On the whole, to tell you the truth, I think he sounds better in sea gull than he does in English. And now, with your kind permission,’ he went on, standing up and starting to get out of the booth, a leering expression appearing on his face as he did so, ‘I’ll step out in the aisle and give you my interpretation of a hungry sea gull circling above a fish pier where they’re unloading fish.’ I had been aware, out of the corner of an eye, that the counterman had been watching us. Now this man spoke to Gould. ‘Sit down,’ he said. Gould whirled around and looked at the counterman, and I expected him to speak sharply to him, the way he had spoken to the waitress. He surprised me. He sat down meekly and obediently, without opening his mouth.

Friday 2 February 2024

Speckled Piculet

Speckled Piculet (Picumnus innominatus, 斑姬啄木鸟).

This local piculet was poking holes in the dead reeds near the river, and managed to extract from within considerable numbers of ants and ant eggs. It is remarkable to think what the world must sound like to a bird which can hear ants shuffling inside a reed stem.

Speckled Piculet at the Xiang River

Charlotte Brontë on Writing

I asked her whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in “Villette” was so exactly like what I had experienced, —vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, &c. She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling to sleep,—wondering what it was like or how it would be,—till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this one point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened. I cannot account for this psychologically; I only am sure that it was so, because she said it.

Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë,  ed. by Anne Taranto (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005; 1857), p. 507.

Thursday 1 February 2024

Black-throated Tits Hunting Spiders

Towards evening a group of black-throated tits (aegithalos concinnus, 红头长尾山雀) was hunting for spiders among the trees and along the crevices of a stone building. It is common to find these tits covered in cobwebs: they must be quite menacing for unsuspecting arachnids.
Black-throated Tits Hunting Spiders
Black-throated Tits Hunting Spiders

Writing a Biography

It was something of a Victorian custom for widows to write biographies of their eminent husbands. Perhaps a biographer’s devotion is a little like the devotion of a spouse. Writing a person’s life means living with them intimately, struggling to understand them, wondering how far they can be trusted, dealing with the ways they resist, annoy, disappoint, challenge and elude you. It means staying with them for their whole life, if not for your own — though such a close encounter with another person is bound to leave you changed, even as you move on.
Clare Carlisle, The Marriage Question: George Eliot's Double Life (London: Penguin Books, 2023), p. 280.