Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Cypripedium acaule



I'll always associate pink lady's-slipper or moccasin flower with my childhood, because there was a secluded spot in the woods about a mile or so from my house where they could be found quietly growing, if you were observant and if you went at the right time of year. I haven't been back for decades and I have no idea if they're still there, though I wouldn't be surprised if they were. These native orchids require just the right habitat and are said to be extremely difficult to cultivate.

I know of another place where they still grow in relative abundance, though, and over the weekend I trekked into the woods and found several dozen of them in bloom. They're not visible from a main trail, but are easily reached if you happen to know where they are. Two other hikers walked right past them while I was there, but they either didn't notice them or weren't interested (or maybe they were just giving a wide berth to the eccentric kneeling on the ground with a camera).


The white moth on the specimen below is Tetracis cachexiata. I know that fact not because I keep that kind of information in my head, but because an online search for moths associated with the plant immediately brought it up. The moth has been spotted on lady's-slippers many times in various locations over the years, but no one knows quite why. It's not believed to be a pollinator of the flower (which is pollinated by bees), nor does it derive any apparent nourishment from it. One theory is that it obtains some kind of pheromone from the plant. Charley Eiseman at Bug Tracks has more information.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Notebook: Seeing Music


Christy Moore:
When I go to West Clare I can see the music in the hills and stony fields. Today I look out upon the Sheep's Head and over Dunmanus Bay to Mount Gabriel and I can see many things: the beauty of it all, the bay, the beacons — as one man tries to quietly fish in it another hungry man seeks to poison it. I can see God's work everywhere but I cannot see the music. In West Clare you can see the fiddle music, you can stand looking over a stone wall into a poor little field and it is there as plain as day. I saw concertina music on the square in Kilrush in 1964 and the vision never left me. Coming up from The White Strand in Milltown Malbay I met chanter music, and on the windswept Hill of Tulla (East Clare) I met the man that wrote Spancilhill. The music scarpered off the big fields of Meath and Kildare — there is no sign of it at all. I have seen it in Ahascragh too, and above in Ardara and you can plainly see the flute music in Fisher Street. You'd always have a better chance of glimpsing it around stony half acres, but seldom if ever on the ranches brimming with sleek shiny bullocks full of antibiotics and growth hormones. Show me a scrawny auld heifer unable for a bull and I'll show you a slow air with a slip jig traipsing after it. The combine harvesters have driven the music out of the John Hinde-coloured pastures where it has been forced to live in exile in libraries and museums. It needs the birdsong and the meadow to breathe, the wind through the furze, the distant corncrake in the meadow, the smell of the fair day.

From One Voice: My Life in Song (Hodder & Stoughton, 2000).
"Spancilhill" (or "Spancil Hill"): a song associated with Robbie McMahon, a version of which appears on Christy Moore's 1970 album Prosperous. John Hinde was a popular photographer and creator of nostalgic colored postcards.

Friday, May 22, 2020

One a Day



I've never read The Decameron before, but coming across vivid passages from Boccaccio's own introduction to the work quoted in the pages of Philip Ziegler's The Black Death reminded me that its one hundred stories are held together by a frame-tale set in Florence during the bubonic plague outbreak of 1348. Ten well-heeled Florentines, happening to encounter each other in church, resolve to flee together to the countryside, and in the course of their wanderings they relate tales to each other at the rate of one per person per day.

The tales aren't long, and it occurs to me that by slowing down the travelers' pace tenfold I can read a single story every day, leaving abundant time for other reading, and I should be done right around September 1st, at which point perhaps we'll all have a better idea of the state of our current plague, or rather plagues. I'll be reading the Signet Classics version translated by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa. My copy has a sprinkling of annotations, in ink, by its former student owner, the kind of thing I might once have found irritating but now find adds a level of amusement.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Streetcars (Albert Camus)


The Plague:
During all the late summer and throughout the autumn there could daily be seen moving along the road skirting the cliffs above the sea a strange procession of passengerless streetcars swaying against the skyline. The residents in this area soon learned what was going on. And though the cliffs were patrolled day and night, little groups of people contrived to thread their way unseen between the rocks and would toss flowers into the open trailers as the cars went by. And in the warm darkness of the summer nights the cars could be heard clanking on their way, laden with flowers and corpses.

(Translation by Stuart Gilbert)
The hardest part of The Plague to read at the moment is the chapter in which the narrator recounts the increasingly desperate measures the authorities in Oran resort to in order to dispose of the mounting number of victims. Individual graveside ceremonies — simplified a bit, to be sure, as a concession to public hygiene — give way in time to furtive disposal in a common pit. Thus far it hasn't gotten that bad here, but the very image gnaws away at our complacency. Few notions horrify us more.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Signs and wonders



I've discovered that my old Picassa slideshow of images from the Augsburg Book of Miracles no longer works, but rather than try to recreate it I'll simply post my favorite image (above) and refer the curious to Marina Warner's review (from 2014) at the website of the New York Review of Books. Strange days indeed.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Even to a woman


Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, January 1349:
The contagious pestilence of the present day, which is spreading far and wide, has left many parish churches and other livings in our diocese without parson or priest to care for their parishioners. Since no priests can be found who are willing, whether out of zeal and devotion or in exchange for a stipend, to take on the pastoral care of these aforesaid places, nor to visit the sick and administers to them the Sacraments of the Church (perhaps for fear of infection and contagion), we understand that many people are dying without the Sacrament of Penance. These people have no idea what recourses are open to them in such a case of need and believe that, whatever the straits they may be in, no confession of their sins is useful or meritorious unless it is made to a duly ordained priest. We, therefore, wishing, as is our duty, to provide for the salvation of souls and to bring back from their paths of error those who have wandered, do strictly enjoin and command on the oath of obedience that you have sworn to us, you, the rectors, vicars and parish priests in all your churches, and you, the deans elsewhere in your deaneries where the comfort of a priest is denied the people, that, either yourselves or through some other person you should at once publicly command and persuade all men, in particular those who are now sick or should fall sick in the future, that, if they are on the point of death and can not secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other, as is permitted in the teaching of the Apostles, whether to a layman or, if no man is present, then even to a woman.

Quoted in Philip Ziegler, The Black Death.
Adds Ziegler:
The authority to hear confession has, in all periods of the Church’s history, been restricted to the priesthood. To throw it open to laymen and even to women, though not in defiance of canonical authority, was a step to be taken only in case of extreme emergency. It was a confession on the part of the Church that the crisis was out of control and the normal machinery no longer able to cope with it.
Though Ziegler's volume was published in 1969 and there have been many other books on the subject since that time, it remains highly readable and in print. A young man when he wrote it, the author has gone on to write numerous other books and is still alive as of this writing.