Monday 20 May 2024

Never Touch A Book By Any Author Who Had Not Been Dead At Least 30 Years

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood, translated by Jay Rubin (London: Vintage, 2003; 1987), p.38; p.39:

   "This man says he has read The Great Gatsby three times," he said as if to himself.
"Well, any friend of Gatsby is a friend of mine."
   And so we became friends. This happened in October.
   The better I got to know Nagasawa, the stranger he seemed. I had met a lot of weird people in my day, but none as strange as Nagasawa. He was a far more voracious reader than me, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least 30 years. "That's the only kind of book I can trust," he said.
   "It's not that I don't believe in contemporary literature," he added, "but I don't want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short."
   "That's why I read them. If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That's the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. Haven't you noticed, Watanabe? You and I are the only real ones in this dorm. The other guys are crap."

Female Platycnemis Phyllopoda

Female Platycnemis phyllopoda (叶足扇蟌).

The female of the species is decided less 'leaf-footed' than the male, though she is more striking with her black and pinkish yellow colouring.

Female Platycnemis Phyllopoda in Changsha


Sunday 19 May 2024


'Whitsun' by Sylvia Plath

This is not what I meant:
Stucco arches, the banked rocks sunning in rows,
Bald eyes or petrified eggs,
Grownups coffined in stockings and jackets,
Lard-pale, sipping the thin
Air like a medicine.
The stopped horse on his chromium pole
Stares through us; his hooves chew the breeze.
Your shirt of crisp linen
Bloats like a spinnaker. Hat brims
Deflect the watery dazzle; the people idle
As if in hospital.
I can smell the salt, all right.
At our feet, the weed-mustachioed sea
Exhibits its glaucous silks,
Bowing and truckling like an old-school oriental.
You're no happier than I about it.
A policeman points out a vacant cliff
Green as a pool table, where cabbage butterflies
Peel off to sea as gulls do,
And we picnic in the death-stench of a hawthorn.
The waves pulse like hearts.
Beached under the spumy blooms, we lie
Sea-sick and fever-dry.

Male Platycnemis Phyllopoda

Male Platycnemis phyllopoda (叶足扇蟌).

My favourite local damselfly: the 'leaf-footed' or 'phyllopoda', a Greek word that also denotes an (unrelated) group of crustaceans. In flight its leafy white feet flutter like tiny paper wind spinners.

Platycnemis phyllopoda in Changsha

Saturday 18 May 2024


Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 479:

The less amiable sides of Lindemann’s character were shielded at Chartwell, but were often on full display in Oxford. His professorial fellowship was in Wadham, but he thought that Christ Church was more suitable to his status, and contrived to live there for nearly forty years. He was a notable but cantankerous member of the common room. When he stood as an independent Conservative candidate (his views on issues other than the menace of Nazism were well to the right of Churchill’s) at a 1937 bye-election for one of the University seats he was heavily defeated. He was taken into Whitehall by Churchill in 1939, and was made a peer by him in 1941, assuming the grandly riparian name of Cherwell. This led to a mocking piece of Oxford satirical verse, circa 1945, which started: ‘Long, long ago when first the war began, Lord Cherwell was just plain Professor Lindemann’.

Female Oriental Magpie-Robin

Female Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis, 鹊鸲).

A mating pair has been a frequent and chatty presence near my office. Compared to the male birds, the females are always noticeable greyer above and have greyish white feathers below, as one can see here with a not-quite-improper glance.

Female Oriental Magpie-Robin at Yuelu Mountain


Friday 17 May 2024

Cystidia Couaggaria

Cystidia couaggaria (小蜻蜓尺蛾).

All of a sudden, there appeared hundreds of these moths in the bushes and reeds by the Xiang river. Their larva vigorously defoliate the various species of prunus that are popular in Chinese parks, but these adults are less destructive, except, I suppose, by progeneration.

Cystidia couaggaria by the Xiang River

Francesco Filelfo

Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481)
‘Ad Gasparum Mercatum Valentiae Comitem.’

Non venio, Gaspar, nam sudant inguina multo
   aestu, quo testes tres mihi bella movent.

I am not coming, Gaspar, for my groins sweat with so much
   heat that my three testicles make wars against me.

Carlo de’ Rosmini, Vita di Francesco Filelfo da Tolentino, 3 vols (Milan: Presso Luigi Mussi, 1808) I, p. 113. My translation. Filelfo had adopted the Greek nickname ‘τριόρχις’ (‘three testicles’).

Thursday 16 May 2024

Lucidina Vitalisi

Lucidina vitalisi (南华锯角萤).

To me, nothing calls to mind sweat-smelling summer nights like fireflies, though growing up on Vancouver Island I knew them only from books and Calvin and Hobbes comics. They are wonderful creatures and are sadly disappearing from the world.

Lucidina vitalisi on Yuelu Mountain

Vergil and Nature

 Everything that is printed and bound in a book contains some echo at least of the best that is in literature. Indeed, the best books have a use, like sticks and stones, which is above or beside their design, not anticipated in the preface, nor concluded in the appendix. Even Virgil's poetry serves a very different use to me to-day from what it did to his contemporaries. It has often an acquired and accidental value merely, proving that man is still man in the world. It is pleasant to meet with such still lines as,

    “Jam laeto turgent in palmite gemmae;”
     Now the buds swell on the joyful stem.
    “Strata jacent passim sua quaeque sub arbore poma.”
     The apples lie scattered everywhere, each under its tree.

In an ancient and dead language, any recognition of living nature attracts us. These are such sentences as were written while grass grew and water ran. It is no small recommendation when a book will stand the test of mere unobstructed sunshine and daylight.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings (New York: Bantam, 2004), p. 66 [A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849].

Nam tantus philosophus, et Platonis, in quo summa eloquentia summae sapientiae coniuncta est, optimus imitator, P. Vergilii eloquentiam naturae omnium rerum optimae parenti similem esse docet. Nam ut terram hic frugibus arboribusque laetam videmus, ibi pratis floribusque omnia ridere, aliam regionem fontibus irrigari, aliam omnino arescere, esse et loca quae in campos porrigantur, esse et alia quae in montes rupesque consurgant, eosdemque alibi horrendis sylvis vestiri, alibi nudo saxo inhorrescere; sic P. Vergilius stilum suum ad omnes vitae mores integrum traducit, ut nunc brevis nunc copiosus sit, nunc siccum nunc floridum sese ostendat, est praeterea ubi levi fluat agmine, est et cum veluti per confragosa torrens rapidusque praecipitetur.

For that great philosopher [Macrobius], in whom the greatest eloquence is combined with wisdom, is the best imitator of Plato; he teaches that the eloquence of Virgil is akin to the greatest parent of everything of nature. For we see in one place the earth fertile with crops and trees, and in another place, everything rejoices in meadows and flowers. We see another region watered by springs, and another region dried up. We see lands where fields stretch wide, and lands where with rising cliffs and mountains. Elsewhere, we see countries clothed in bristling forests, and countries trembling on barren rock. Though these scenes, Virgil conveys with his vigorous style each manner of life, so that it is now scare, now plentiful; he himself shows what is now desert, and what is now blooming with life, where there is a river flowing in a gentle stream, and where it rushes down over the rough landscape, roaring and rapid.
Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498), Scritti critici e teorici, ed. by Roberto Cardini, 2 vols (Rome: Bulzone, 1974), I, p. 215 [Proemio al commento Virgiliano, 1488]. My translation.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Happiness Can Be Defined All Kinds of Ways

Beauty meant that you were good. And being good meant being happy. Happiness can be defined all kinds of ways, but human beings, consciously or unconsciously, are always pulling for their own version of happiness. Even people who want to die see death as a kind of solace, and view ending their lives as the only way to make it there. Happiness is the base unit of consciousness, our single greatest motivator. Saying “I just want to be happy” trumps any other explanation. But who knows. Maybe Makiko had a more specific reason, not just some vague idea of how to make herself happy.
Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs: A Novel (2020), p. 43.

Black-Striped Orchard Spider

Black-Striped Orchard Spider (Leucauge celebesiana, 西里银鳞蛛).

Several of these spiders have built their angled webs over a small stream on Yuelu Mountain. Their white abdomens, with their green-tinged black stripes make them look like little melons.

Black-Striped Orchard Spider on Yuelu Mountain

Black-Striped Orchard Spider on Yuelu Mountain

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Memory is not What the Heart Desires

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 2007; 1954), p. 493:

Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram.

Common Vervain

Common Vervain (Verbena officinalis).

Here seen growing along the Xiang River. A component in folk medicine around the world. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to treat malaria, joint pain, bruises and other ailments. In medieval and early modern Europe it was associated with magic and fortune-telling.

Common Vervain by the Xiang River

Monday 13 May 2024

Bird After Bird

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Signet Classics, 2006; 1916), pp. 230-231:

What birds were they? He stood on the steps of the library to look at them, leaning wearily on his ashplant. They flew round and round the jutting shoulder of a house in Molesworth Street. The air of the late March evening made clear their flight, their dark quivering bodies flying clearly against the sky as against a limp hung cloth of smoky tenuous blue.
   He watched their flight; bird after bird: a dark flash, a swerve, a flutter of wings. He tried to count them before all their darting quivering bodies passed: Six, ten, eleven: and wondered were they odd or even in number. Twelve, thirteen: for two came wheeling down from the upper sky. They were flying high and low but ever round and round in straight and curving lines and ever flying from left to right, circling about a temple of air.
   He listened to the cries: like the squeak of mice behind the wainscot: a shrill twofold note. But the notes were long and shrill and whirring, unlike the cry of vermin, falling a third or a fourth and trilled as the flying beaks clove the air. Their cry was shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.
   The inhuman clamour soothed his ears in which his mother's sobs and reproaches murmured insistently and the dark frail quivering bodies wheeling and fluttering and swerving round an airy temple of the tenuous sky soothed his eyes which still saw the image of his mother's face.
   Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their flight? For an augury of good or evil? A phrase of Cornelius Agrippa flew through his mind and then there flew hither and thither shapeless thoughts from Swedenborg on the correspondence of birds to things of the intellect and of how the creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of their life and have not perverted that order by reason.
   And for ages men had gazed upward as he was gazing at birds in flight. The colonnade above him made him think vaguely of an ancient temple and the ashplant on which he leaned wearily of the curved stick of an augur. A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon.

Broad-winged Thistle

Broad-winged Thistle (Carduus acanthoides, 节毛飞廉).

In my opinion it is a beautiful tall thistle, not less so on account of it being common throughout the grasslands and roadsides of Asia and Europe. A few plants find their way into edges of the mudflats of the Xiang River every Spring: they rise conspicuously from one to two meters in height, towering over the other weeds and brambles.

Broad-winged Thistle by the Xiang River

Sunday 12 May 2024


“Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2007; 1813), p. 43.

Humility does not consist in having a worse opinion of ourselves than we deserve, or in abasing ourselves lower than we really are, but as all virtue is founded in truth, so humility is founded in a true and just sense of our weakness, misery and sin. He who rightly feels and lives in this sense of his condition, lives in humility.
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (London: J.M. Dent, 1951; 1729), p. 209.

Stachys Geobombycis

Stachys geobombycis (地蚕).

A hedgenettle, now in bloom on Yuelu Mountain. Dozens of plants, clustered together, have appeared by the edges of trails and in shady but uncrowded regions of forest.

Stachys geobombycis on Yuelu Mountain

Saturday 11 May 2024

Bulbose Stonecrop

Bulbose Stonecrop (Sedum bulbiferum, 珠芽景天).

Another plant in bloom on Yuelu Mountain: far from ubiquitous, clusters of its yellow flowers and succulent leaves have been colouring a few shady inclines.

Bulbose Stonecrop on Yuelu Mountain

The More You Try to Control The World

Geoff Dyer, See/Saw: Looking at Photographs: Essay 2010-2020 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2021), p.40:

Larry Sultan said he ‘always thought of a great photograph as if some creature walked into my room; it’s like, how did you get here? . . . The more you try to control the world, the less magic you get.’

Friday 10 May 2024

Common Gardenia

Common Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides, 栀子花).

The common gardenias on Yuelu Mountain are finally in bloom: I often find them in the wilder and overgrown parts of the forests. I prefer wild ones to their tame garden-dwelling cousins.

Common Gardenia in Changsha

Speaking French

Percival Everett, James: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2024), p. 101:

“You don’t sound French. Kin you even speak French?” “I’m not one fer showin’ off, boy. I wouldn’t want to set a bad example. Besides, French is a very complicated language. Hearing it might cause yer ear a consternation from which you might never recover. So, I employ the language sparingly.”

Thursday 9 May 2024

Japanese House Centipede

Japanese House Centipede (Thereuonema tuberculata, 花蚰蜒).

A common species on Yuelu Mountain (and in many rural as well as urban spaces) but they usually run away when disturbed or exposed to light. This one was content to be gently observed while it rested on a piece of old bark.

Japanese House Centipede on Yuelu Mountain

Familiar Tunes

Riku Onda, Honeybees and Distant Thunder, Translated by Philip Gabriel (New York: Pegasus Books, 2023; 2019), p. 184:

People no longer wanted musicians to improvise. Instead, audiences went to hear the famous tunes they were already familiar with. They were less keen on challenging or new work, and idiosyncrasy was avoided. The growth of the CD market only speeded up this trend. CDs, as was commonly known, excluded the highest and lowest registers, sounds on the edge of audibility. And so the kind of indigenous, European nuances of performance that had for so long been a tradition, were eroded.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Journey to Fairyland

 . . . I am looking over the sea and endeavouring to reckon up the estate I have to offer you. As far as I can make out my equipment for starting on a journey to fairyland consists of the following items.

1st. A Straw Hat. The oldest part of this admirable relic shows traces of pure Norman work. The vandalism of Cromwell’s soldiers has left us little of the original hat-band.

2nd. A Walking Stick, very knobby and heavy: admirably fitted to break the head of any denizen of Suffolk who denies that you are the noblest of ladies, but of no other manifest use.

3rd. A copy of Walt Whitman’s poems, once nearly given to Salter, but quite forgotten. It has his name in it still with an affectionate inscription from his sincere friend Gilbert Chesterton. I wonder if he will ever have it.

4th. A number of letters from a young lady, containing everything good and generous and loyal and holy and wise that isn’t in Walt Whitman's poems.

5th. An unwieldy sort of a pocket knife, the blades mostly having an edge of a more varied and picturesque outline than is provided by the prosaic cutter. The chief element however is a thing ‘to take stones out of a horse’s hoof.’ What a beautiful sensation of security it gives one to reflect that if one should ever have money enough to buy a horse and should happen to buy one and the horse should happen to have a stone in his hoof--that one is ready; one stands prepared, with a defiant smile!

6th. Passing from the last miracle of practical foresight, we come to a box of matches. Every now and then I strike one of these, because fire is beautiful and burns your fingers. Some people think this waste of matches: the same people who object to the building of Cathedrals.

7th. About three pounds in gold and silver, the remains of one of Mr. Unwin’s bursts of affection: those explosions of spontaneous love for myself, which, such is the perfect order and harmony of his mind, occur at startlingly exact intervals of time.

8th. A book of Children’s Rhymes, in manuscript, called the ‘Weather Book’ about ¾ finished, and destined for Mr. Nutt. I have been working at it fairly steadily, which I think jolly creditable under the circumstances. One can’t put anything interesting in it. They’ll understand those things when they grow up.

9th. A tennis racket—nay, start not. It is a part of the new regime, and the only new and neat-looking thing in the Museum. We’ll soon mellow it—like the straw hat. My brother and I are teaching each other lawn tennis.

10th. A soul, hitherto idle and omnivorous but now happy enough to be ashamed of itself.

11th. A body, equally idle and quite equally omnivorous, absorbing tea, coffee, claret, sea-water and oxygen to its own perfect satisfaction. It is happiest swimming, I think, the sea being about a convenient size.

12th. A Heart—mislaid somewhere. And that is about all the property of which an inventory can be made at present. After all, my tastes are stoically simple. A straw hat, a stick, a box of matches and some of his own poetry. What more does man require? . . .
Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), pp. 94-96 [From a letter from Chesterton’s to his fiancée Frances Blogg].

Lance-leaved Coreopsis

Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata, 剑叶金鸡菊).

Another beautiful but invasive flower. I have not seen many along the Xiang River but occasionally there is a patch of them growing, provided there is space for their to enjoy full sunlight, usually near overgrown margins.

Lance-leaved Coreopsis by the Xiang River

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Modern Hermits

Twentieth-century hermits do not live in cells or caves; they do not live in the wilderness or in a hut in the forest. And so we imagine that there are no hermits left in the modern civilized world. Really, however, there are a great many of them, more than in the days when Christians were being martyred. Their cells are disguised; they are located in modern cities, in communal apartments, on the streets of Moscow and Kiev.
Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook, Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2013; 1964) p.78.

Moss Verbena

Moss Verbena (Glandularia aristigera, 苔藓马鞭草).

Originally a South American flower, sometimes it grows wild along the Xiang river: perhaps having spread from the gardens in the Yanghu Wetland Park.

Moss Verbena by the Xiang River

Monday 6 May 2024

Oriental Turtle-Dove

Oriental Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia orientalis, 山斑鸠).

One of the two most common birds in Changsha (the other is the light-vented bulbul), which could be said for many other urban spaces in China. They are sometimes a bit finicky about being observed and liable to fly away if a camera is raised towards them. In the city and the woods one can often hear their soft 'heer-heer-ooo-ooo' call.

This one was relaxing outside my office window this morning.

Oriental Turtle-Dove by my Office

An Apt Translation

Mary Shelton gives a little gasp, and flushes as if some gallant had pinched her. Jane Rochford drawls, ‘Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare.’ She translates for Mary: ‘Apt.’
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London: 4th Estate, 2019; 2009), p. 299.

Sunday 5 May 2024

Vocabulary and Success

A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto, and uses “Stertoraneous Shover” and “Smart Junior” as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a great success under modern business conditions.
H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1969), pp. 54-55.

Lema Diversa

Lema diversa (鸭跖草负泥虫).

One can easily lose oneself in the world of leaf beetles and the lema genus alone contains over 1300 species. This small but beautiful red-brown beetle came out of hiding close to sunset in the Taohualing Scenic Area, near the top of one of the parks many forested hills.

Lema diversa in Changsha

Saturday 4 May 2024

Japanese False Bindweed

Japanese False Bindweed (Calystegia hederacea, 打碗花)

Its flowers are more common in Autumn but this bindweed does sometimes bloom in Spring. Usually the petals are more pinkish than this one, but the coloration is variable.

Japanese False Bindweed in Changsha

The Company I Want

Irish Murdoch, Under the Net (London: Vintage, 2008; 1954), p. 34:

The company which I need is the company which a pub or a café will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls.

Friday 3 May 2024

Dense-flowered Loosestrife

Dense-flowered Loosestrife (Lysimachia congestiflora, 临时救).

An easy flower to find in May in Changsha on the edges of forests and the fringes of mountains. Its yellow flowers are brighter than buttercups.

Dense-flowered Loosestrife in Changsha

The Evolution of Grievances

An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so. If the world is to be set right, the work will be done by shilling numbers.
Anthony Trollope, The Warden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; 1855), p. 105-6.

Thursday 2 May 2024

Iris by the Xiang River

Every Spring hundreds of irises bloom in the mudflats by the Xiang River approximately one kilometre south of Taozi lake. Every year I look forward to seeing them in bloom. Yellow irises (iris pseudacorus) are fairly common and there are a pinks and whites ones that so far are a taxonomic mystery to m, but by far the most common are these vibrant purple irises: they have been described to me as some member of the subgenus limniris or as 'Louisiana irises'; whatever they are they are delightful.

Iris by the Xiang River

Literature is the Sum of its Discoveries

V.S. Naipaul, Literary Occasions: Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), p. 39:
Literature is the sum of its discoveries. What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators. What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

European White Waterlily

European White Waterlily (Nymphaea alba, 白睡莲).

'European' is an unfortunate epithet for a flower than is equally Asian and North African. They are finally in bloom at Taozi Lake and already popular with damselflies and swarms of smaller insects.

European White Waterlily at Taozi Lake

The Pleasures of Bees

It is my bees, however, which afford me the most pleasing and extensive themes; let me look at them when I will, their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new; for which reason, when weary with labour, my common place of rest is under my locust-tree, close by my bee-house. By their movements I can predict the weather, and can tell the day of their swarming; but the most difficult point is, when on the wing, to know whether they want to go to the woods or not. If they have previously pitched in some hollow trees, it is not the allurements of salt and water, of fennel, hickory leaves, etc., nor the finest box, that can induce them to stay; they will prefer those rude, rough habitations to the best polished mahogany hive. When that is the case with mine, I seldom thwart their inclinations; it is in freedom that they work: were I to confine them, they would dwindle away and quit their labour. In such excursions we only part for a while; I am generally sure to find them again the following fall. This elopement of theirs only adds to my recreations; I know how to deceive even their superlative instinct; nor do I fear losing them, though eighteen miles from my house, and lodged in the most lofty trees, in the most impervious of our forests. I once took you along with me in one of these rambles, and yet you insist on my repeating the detail of our operations: it brings back into my mind many of the useful and entertaining reflections with which you so happily beguiled our tedious hours.
J. H Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer