Monday, 30 November 2015

Simplon Park Pond

The old parade ground between the rear of the Castello Sforzesco and the Arch of Peace has been turned into a park in the centre of Milan. Naturally the park, called Parco Sempione in Italian, has a lake. In and around the lake live various entertaining critters.

Carp, joined by darter dragonflies posing on tall bankside vegetation.
With Purple Loosestrife growing on the edge of the water.
Big ones and little ones.
Looking back towards the Castello Sforzesco.
Terrapins hanging out in the sun.
Butterflies and Neonics: First it was bees, then birds, now it's butterflies. A newly released study report indicates that it is quite likely that neonicotinoid pesticides are linked to a decline in certain species of butterflies in the UK. There is a suspicious looking correlation between the dates neonics became widely used in the UK in the mid-1990s and a dive in populations of generalist countryside inhabiting species of butterflies (ie those that breed and forage in farmland, ). The trend is particularly strong for grassland butterflies, which have long been studied Europe wide and taken to be indicator species. Equally, there is no such correlation between the introduction of neonics and butterflies with more specialist habitat requirements (this is no cause for celebration though, as these 26 species are already known to have dramatically declined in the 1970-80s). 

The population of 17 common and widespread farmland species declined by 58% between 2000 and 2009, despite a substantial increase in spending on agri-conservation projects and despite no clear evidence of habitat deterioration in that period. Seasonal variations and their affects on breeding success were taken into consideration when calculating the fall in population. The scientists likened the effect they were seeing as similar to having a continuous run of very bad summers. The problem seems to lie with the persistance of neonics in the environment, in plant material, soil and water. At this stage the results indicate a correlation but do not show causation. It is possible that neonics are a proxy for other environmental factors associated with intensive agriculture. More studies are no doubt in the pipeline, and it seems fairly likely to me that these results will prove relevant to rural France too.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Tropical Savanna

Tropical savanna is a grassland habitat that is combined with open woodland. To technically qualify as such the trees have to be spaced far enough apart that they do not form a continuous canopy. Tropical savanna is warm and light, allowing a dense covering of grass under the trees. Understorey plants do not suffer from being shaded out as they would in tropical rainforest. The other characteristic that is required for tropical savanna is highly seasonal rainfall, with the majority of the annual rainfall arriving in a single season.

Tropical savanna also frequently forms an intermediary habitat between desert and true forest. Typically, native people around the world manage tropical savanna by fire, and that is true of the area shown here, in the Northern Territory of Australia. As much as any other influence on these environments, man has had a hand in shaping them. In the case of the Australian tropical savanna, it has been a managed environment for tens of thousands of years.  Traditional burning created a mosaic of micro-habitats which increased biodiversity. The burning prevents the understorey scrubbing over and eventually turning into forest, and provides fresh grazing for prey animals such as macropods (kangaroos and wallabies).

Australia's tropical savanna is the least known of the major geographical regions where this type of habitat occurs. Much more famous are Brazil's Cerrado and Africa's Serengeti.
A la cuisine hier: Since I made Chocolate Chestnut Souffle Cake a few days ago I had 16 egg yolks sitting in the fridge. In my usual spirit of anti food wastage I used them up by making custard, vanilla icecream and mayonnaise. All was going well until I got to the mayonnaise. In the process of whisking the oil into the egg yolks with my new hand held plunge whisk and goblet it all got out of control and I sprayed mayo over myself and the surrounding kitchen. That's the second time I've done it using this new ensemble, so it is not getting a third chance. The goblet is too lightweight and is impossible to stabilise (unless you have three hands). I narrowly avoided getting mayo in the custard, which would have made me even madder.

For dinner we had palets savoyards, which I had never heard of before but picked up on special at the supermarket. They are a pork patty with a slice of reblochon cheese on top and wrapped in bacon. There were no instructions for how to cook them so I baked them in the mini oven on quite a hot temperature, with a little stock in the dish. That way the bacon and cheese on the top browned and the bacon underneath and the patty braised. Served with mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli and wavy cut carrots.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Spiritual Ancestors of Christ

The chapel at the Hospice Saint Roch in Issoudun has a pair of astonishing carved limestone 'family' trees set in the corners of the east wall and dating from around 1500. The one on the left is a Tree of Jesse, showing the line of kings leading to Jesus Christ, but the one on the right shows how he is descended spiritually from a line of prophets.

The kings featured are traditionally taken from the Gospel of Matthew. Above David is his son Solomon, then Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Uzziah, Jotham, Jehoahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jeconiah. However, the absence of distinctive signs and the disappearance of the names painted on their banners means we can't now name the Issoudun kings with certainty.

The Tree of Prophets.
The terrestrial line, the issue of the tribe of the kings of Judah, supported by a fig tree, is complemented by the spiritual and religious line of Jesus. The great priests, patriarchs and prophets who announced his coming are arranged according to a symmetrical composition seated in the branches of an oak tree. Moses carries the tablets of the law. At his side, clothed in a fleece (perhaps Gideon) then in the centre Aaron at prayer, as befits the first high priest and older brother of Moses. Also there is Melchizedek the priest-king who blesses Abraham, lying there in place of Jesse. All denoting the signs of recognition of the messiah who is placed, bound, under the pelican, the symbol of sacrifice. The bulk of the tree crushes the monsters that are there to indicate to the pensionners and patients at the hospice that faith will triumph and good will be victorious over evil.

The virtuosity of the modelling of the prophets, and of the depth of undercutting of the leaves is attributed to the workshop of Gilbert Bertrand, who made other statuary in the chapel.

The decoration is a proliferation of foliage and plants, integrating human figures and animals. Originally it was painted, and the cornice frieze allows us to get a glimpse of the original effect. This chapel is remarkable because of the two 'family' trees, which are unique in France. These masterpieces are classed as a historic monument in their own right.

The stone decoration is both spiritual and realistic. The limestone is local, a stone which is soft at first, but hardens on exposure to the air. The blocks of stone were roughed out off site, then put in place and the fine detail added. The dull natural colour of the stone was enhanced with paint to really emphasis these beautiful details.

On this prophet you can just see faint traces of the original polychrome 
paint work, as well as marks left by the tools used to carve the figure.
The striking effect of the sculptures comes about in part from the setting, but equally from the play of light and shade of the carved shapes and the contrast of flat surfaces against contours. The carving is very fine at the base and more acomplished in the oak tree than in the fig. The higher figures are less finely carved.

Aaron in the centre.
Moses is the first of the prophets and the most prestigious, placed at the bottom far left. He would live to be 120, lead the Israelites out of Egypt and teach the law. He is presented here as an old man, glowing with an inner light and with a dignity that is not observed in the other characters. Simply clothed, head and feet bare, he has two horns on his head which are the symbols of divine power. He carrys the tablets of the law and his name is inscribed on the hem of his robe.

The priest or prophet on the bottom far right is very refined in his clothing. He wears a necklace and an under tunic with pleated sleeves and fastened with a button. His cloak is trimmed with a jewel encrusted fringe. This priest wears a turban, signaling the 'orientalism' of these figures. The turban symbolises dignity and power. The higher the status the bigger the turban.

The figures of the prophets depicted in the oak show a great variety of costumes, accessories and hairstyles. The prophets wear robes and wide cloaks, with the exception of one, who is clothed in a short tunic and boots. In the 14th century it was headgear that distinguished the status of individuals.

From hoods to domed conical caps, felt hats to multiple forms of bonnets, whether long haired or cropped, all the heads are covered with the exception of Moses. More than the gestures or the lost names, it is the costumes that provide the symbols of the priesthood.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Badgers Behaving Badly

I suspect that the badgers who occupy this multistorey sett near Chaumussay are asking for trouble which may lead to them being evicted in a thoroughly unpleasant and sadly permanent way.
This is what the sett looked like in April 2015. Renovations, extensions and general home maintenance have clearly continued apace since then.
The farmer will be worried about his field boundary collapsing on to the road, and so will the roads department and the local council. While I was taking these photos a couple of days ago a truck full of hi-viz clad road workers bombed past on their way to lunch (it was 11.45). I have no doubt they are now fully expecting a complaint about the condition of the road complete with photos from me.
Swift Evening: The indefatigible Amboise based campaigner for Swift conservation Carolyn Knowlman has organised an evening at Amboise Chateau on Monday 30 November. The aim is to highlight the issues this fabulous bird species is contending with and offer advice on how we can help. Swallows and Martins will also be covered. She is thrilled to have enticed Edward Mayer, President of Swift Conservation as guest speaker. He is one of her heroes in the field. There will also be a speaker from Switzerland and one from the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO). The evening starts at 6.30 pm and will be held in the Salle des lys. Entry is free.
Tours Station Panels: SNCF have emailed to say that after lengthy negotiations and studies of the ceramic panels in the station at Tours, restoration is set to commence in April 2016 and the first panel will be put back in place sometime during the year. They thank everyone who got involved by donating to the restoration fund. Those people will be publically acknowledged with a plaque listing all the names under the first panel to be returned.