Mellow fruitfulness

We spent Sunday morning picking fresh vegetables on a farm just east of the edge of Brussels. La Finca runs a farm specialising in local organic vegetables. They have a shop and a small restaurant and run activity weeks for kids. Once a year they open to the public and let you pick your own produce and watch demonstrations of apple-pressing and the manufacture of woollen goods.

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Even though summer is lingering, Indian-style, the gourds were already out on display:

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We brought home a basketful of tasty veggie goodies, but I was more interested in the visual aspect of many of the plants. The swirl and bulge and violet hue of these leaves.

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These alien purple tubers.

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Basically anything with a hint of purple in it caught my eye.

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Later in the day we visited a see-through church in Flanders, and on the way passed by fields of corn…

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…and orchards bursting with ripening apples.

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The hedgerows nearby were also full of less familiar seeds, berries and blooms.

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These seed pods were probably my favourite:

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Although these were a close second:

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Naming the dead

This weekend I went to the cinema to see the film Under The Skin. Much to my surprise it was sold out. This film has been out here for several weeks already and, despite the presence of Scarlett Johansson, isn’t exactly a summer blockbuster. Forced to decide between just going back home and choosing another film, I looked at the other dozen or so films on offer. I wanted to see Boyhood but that was already half an hour into its showing, and the only other possibility was Tracks. It wasn’t high on my “to see” list, but it was on it, so that’s what I went for.

It tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who trekked alone across 2000 miles of Australian desert with a few camels in 1977. It’s a beautifully shot story of a woman who just wants to be alone in the wilderness, and how hard that proves to be. There are also some interesting insights into both Australian and Aboriginal society, but to be honest the most fascinating part came before the opening credits. An onscreen caption warned “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

Afterwards I looked this up online and found that indeed many Aboriginal tribes prefer not to name or publish images of the recently deceased as they feel that it would disturb their spirit in the afterlife. During this period (which may last between one and a few years) a generic name like ‘Kumantjayi’ is used to refer to the deceased. But it also leads to some problems, as noted on wikipedia:

“This presents some challenges to indigenous people. In traditional society, people lived together in small bands of extended family. Name duplication was less common. Today, as people have moved into larger centres, with 300 to 600 people, the logistics of name avoidance have become increasingly challenging.

Exotic and rare names have therefore become very common, particularly in Central Australia and desert communities, to deal with this new challenge.”

There’s also a bizarre anecdote on this website about how names given to Aborigines by white settlers were affected.

The one thing that remains unclear to me is to whom, in this specific case, are they referring? I mean, if the real deceased person is portrayed onscreen by an actor, does that still count? Or is it because someone who acted in the film died after filming was completed? I guess they probably mean the post-credits scene where we see photos of the real Robyn Davidson and the Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy. Davidson is still alive and attended the film’s première, but I imagine Mr Eddy is long gone by now. Which is a shame because he was one of my favourite parts of the film. It’s worth watching if you get the chance.

But I still hope to see that Scarlett Johansson film some day soon.

Could you be a little more specific?

“The Matses are a 2,500-strong tribe, and they live in the tropical rainforest along the Javari river, a tributary of the Amazon. Their language, which was recently described by the linguist David Fleck, compels them to make distinctions of mind-blowing subtlety whenever they report events. To start with, there are three degrees of pastness in Matsese: you cannot just say that someone ‘passed by there’; you have to specify with different verbal endings whether this action took place in the recent past (roughly up to a month), distant past (roughly from a month to fifty years), or remote past (more than fifty years ago).  In addition the verb has a system of distinctions that linguists call ‘evidentiality’, and as it happens, the Matses system of evidentiality is the most elaborate that has ever been reported for any language. Whenever Matses people use a verb, they are obliged to specify – like the finickiest of lawyers – exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. The Matses, in other words, have to be master epistemologists. There are separate verbal forms depending on whether you are reporting direct experience (you saw someone passing by with your own eyes), something inferred from evidence (you saw footprints on the sand), conjecture (people always pass by at that time of day), or hearsay (your neighbour told you he had seen someone passing by). If a statement is reported with the incorrect evidentiality form, it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would answer in the past tense and would say something like daëd ikoşh: ‘two there-were [directly experienced recently]’. In effect, what he would be saying is ‘There were two last time I checked’. After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense.

“But finding the right verbal form for directly experienced events is child’s play compared with the hair-splitting precision required when you report an event that has only been inferred. Here Matses obliges you to specify not just how long ago you assume the event occurred but also how long ago you made the inference.”

And if you think that’s bizarre, wait until you hear about the Guugu Yimithirr people’s use of geographic directions.

Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass

Old haunts

When travelling from one country to another I much prefer taking the train to flying.  The plane has its own pleasures, but travelling by rail, apart from offering (slightly) more legroom, also gives me the time to acclimatise to my destination. Passing through a country, rather than over it, you see the gradual changes in landscape, architecture, and signage that let you know you’re entering a different space, inhabited by a different culture. On the way down I passed through fields blanketed with snow, where the sheep, normally the cleanest, brightest objects in the countryside, seemed suddenly dark and dirty against their pristine white background. On the downside, the return journey was delayed by localised flooding which turned those same fields (and occasionally the train track itself) into lakes.

But enough of the how; why was I going back to the UK for four days? Long-time readers may remember this little post, concerning children taking photographs of places which were meaningful or memorable to them. More recently I wrote about my home town and my changing relationship to it. These two ideas finally coalesced into a photo project. I took a couple of days off work and went back to the town where I was born and raised to take some photos of places I used to hang out in, or play in, or visit regularly. Little corners, bits of wall or pavement, parks, shops, views. It was the first time I’d gone back there alone since before I was married and I took my time wandering and remembering.

The criterion for the photos was a simple one – places I fondly remember and which have not substantially changed over the intervening years. Every time I go back something has been re-landscaped or demolished or “developed”, so I wanted to make some effort to preserve, if only photographically, the places where my childhood played out. One of the things that surprised me most as I started snapping was that a lot of the places I remember are alleyways and walls – borders and transitional spaces. I also kept thinking about the places I’d love to have photographed but which I couldn’t because I knew they didn’t exist any more – this set is as much defined by what isn’t there as by what is…

The photos aren’t especially beautiful in any objective or formal way, and I don’t expect them to be of any real interest to anyone other than myself, but if you want to take a look, the full set, including more detailed notes and relevant anecdotes, can be seen here.

Keeping track

I like to plan ahead. I don’t mean that I want every minute of every day for the next twelve months mapped out, leaving no room for serendipity, chance, or mood swings. It’s more about the fact that I have a terrible memory so I need to write down upcoming events in order to keep track of them. The problem is that I have four calendars in various formats and various locations, leading to a lot of repetition.

During the seven hours I spend at my desk every day I keep an eye on two electronic calendars. I like to keep private and professional life as separate as possible (which is why friends never receive an email from my work account unless they’re also colleagues), so the Outlook calendar which contains details of meetings and other work-related appointments doesn’t mention private stuff unless it has an impact on my work, like a day off, leaving early to collect the girls from school once in a while, etc.

My Yahoo calendar is used for everything else, from travel to evenings out to birthdays to visits from friends and families. I also keep note of films I’ve seen at the cinema, even if it was a last-minute decision and didn’t really require advance planning and calendar consultation. This is a habit left over from the days when I was a slightly more obssessive-compulsive moviegoer than I am these days.

But what happens when I’m not near a computer? I have a traditional paper diary in my bag, which pretty much replicates my Yahoo calendar, so that I can see at a glance when I’m free for some potential scheduled fun and relaxation. I keep these (I think I have about a decade’s worth of them stored upstairs at home) which can be useful sometimes for checking dates, but they’re not really the kind of thing I’d sit and pore over, waxing nostalgic.

Finally, we have a wall calendar hanging just above the telephone. Apart from its decorative function (recently we’ve gone for various land art calendars) it’s handy to have an overview of the month in front of us when we’re on the phone making arrangements for travel or for hosting visitors.

As far as recording events after they’ve happened is concerned, I was never really the journal type. As a child I tried it once (around the age of ten, I’d guess), keeping a diary for a few months before I got bored or ran out of things to say. Before I started this blog the only record I kept of my life was scattered across photographs, videos, letters to friends and objects I kept. Even now, as you’ve probably noticed, this isn’t really the “what I did today” kind of blog. The family blog fulfils that function when necessary. The way I look at it, unless your day-to-day life is immensely varied and thrilling, that kind of stuff is of limited interest to a very small number of people, which only diminishes over time.

Anyway, must go, as an automated Outlook calendar reminder tells me that I’ve scheduled a coffee break for the next 15 minutes.

Time is money

When I took my youngest daughter to school this morning she stopped in the communal toilets to relieve herself. The room is open plan, with three tiny WCs in a row. On one of the other seats was a small boy with his trousers around his ankles, looking up at his mother with big sad eyes as she repeatedly sighed, looked at her watch, and said “Hurry up, I’ve got an important meeting this morning!”

Don’t be a stranger

Recently I found a couple of people through Facebook with whom I hadn’t been in touch for over a decade. I’m not the kind of person who feels the need to “friend” everyone with whom I’ve ever exchanged three words, but these two were people I’d spent time with, got drunk with, laughed with, and then lost touch with.

Why did we lose touch in the first place? Mostly due to one of us (usually me) moving to a different town or a different country. There are some who say that if the person was that important to you you’d have made the effort to keep in touch with them in the first place, but it’s not always that obvious, phone numbers and email addresses change or are mislaid, and circumstances conspire to separate people.

What does annoy me is when you do make an effort to keep in touch with someone despite a geographical divide, and your efforts are not reciprocated. Both my wife and I have one friend each who behaves like this. You write to them and receive no reply. You call them or manage to meet up with them when you go back to visit and it’s all smiles and “It’s been too long!” and “We must keep in touch!”. And then the next time you write…nothing. Or they make some lame excuse about not being very good at keeping in touch, as if it requires some special talent to reply to an email.

We go through phases in our relationships with these people. Occasionally we miss them (because at one time they were good, close friends) and make an effort to maintain contact. Then time passes and we say to ourselves “Sod it – if they can’t be arsed, neither can I”.

What would you do?