Monthly Archives: October 2012

Acorns Oaks and Art

Spring, and the oak tree we planted in the gully beyond the sitting room window has suddenly shimmered into leaf.

I treasure these first days when the young fretted edge of the bright leaves are still frilly, and brilliant green and translucent. They’ll weather into darker green,  leathery- looking foliage as the summer months go by, but this is spring, and the word is verdant. This particular oak belongs to a group known as marcescent , which means they keep their brown leaves until spring, so it’s gone from brown to green in the space of a few weeks.

One of my toddler grandsons and I grew it from an acorn which had rooted itself in one of my pots. Every time we moved house I carefully lugged it along, and every time the grandson came to stay, or visit, he inspected ‘his’ tree. Once I planted it, and it flourished for three years in a corner where it would bug no-one else by taking their light or stealing their space. But then after another heart scare for my husband, we left that three level house to squeeze ourselves into this little cottage by the sea next door to my daughter’s holiday home.

I couldn’t leave the oak behind. It was like one of my grand-children and had enjoyed nearly as much feeding and nurturing as them. So we dug it up, and re-instated it here. It’s not even on our land, but on a paper road, which legend has it was mapped out by a surveyor in England in the nineteenth century, and thus he didn’t realise he’d planned it to run straight down into the sea. So the road will never be activated, and this is a safe space for my tree.

It doesn’t spoil anyone else’s view, and there’s plenty of room for it to spread its branches. It’s grown so much in the six years we’ve been here, that it now hides the neighbouring house across the reserve, and gives me shade in summer, and lets the sun into the sitting room in winter.,

All in all, an ideal tree! I was reading the wonderful American writer Annie Dillard the other day, and she describes communing with a sycamore. She goes on to describe Xerxes, King of Persia – who on one of his marches through Asia Minor with his huge army – came upon a single exquisite plane tree, the same family as a sycamore. He was so ravished by its beauty that he halted his army and stayed there for several days in contemplation of this work of nature. She imagines his army halted, puzzled, thirsty and weary, waiting on the hot and treeless plain. And after a few days, still rapt with the glory of creation, Xerxes, warlord, invader, builder of monstrous palaces which are now lost demesnes, orders a goldsmith to be rooted out of the tents, to come and forge a medal to preserve that moment forever.

But though the Xerxes and his goldsmith couldn’t really manage to embalm that moment in time, the great composer Handel did. Written over two thousand years after Xerxes died, Handel’s opera Serse, opens with the king singing “Tender and beautiful fronds of my beloved plane tree”, from the famous largo: ’Ombre mai fu’, one of the best known pieces of classical music

However, loving beauty didn’t make Xerxes a nice person – it doesn’t, it seems… murderous Nazis like Hermann Goering collected beauty, but it didn’t rub off on them! Xerxes was the man who had the Hellespont whipped with three hundred strokes and chains dumped in it when a storm destroyed his fleet!  We won’t go into what Goering did.

But my oak, unlike Xerxes’ plane tree, is a stranger in a strange land – what is known as an exotic tree in New Zealand, where it is not a native. In its native land – England – it’s host to 284 plants, insects, birds and animals, compared with five in a chestnut, and one in a plane tree. Like my oak here, they are both alien species in England.

So in England, my oak would be hosting birds, plants, insects and creatures, from the oak bush crickets which browse in its crown, to the roe and fallow deer which seek its shade. There are bugs that feed on oak flowers, beetles that eat the bark, and caterpillars that eat the young leaves. The insects attract birds – nuthatch, tree creeper, pied flycatcher, wood warbler, (wonderful names) while the great spotted woodpecker nests in holes drilled in rotten branches.

Acorns feed jays and squirrels,  and all the wild life attracts predators like weasels and sparrowhawks.  Indigenous wildflowers grow at its roots, bluebells, primroses and wood anemones. Lichens and fungus grow on it, and mistletoe, of course, famously grows on the oak for the use of both Druids and Christmas revellers. Though the acorns are poisonous to other domestic animals, pigs thrive on them.

Yet here in New Zealand, I look out on an empty oak, which actually makes me sad. No bugs or beetles, or birds. I have to treasure it for its changing beauty alone, in a country where nearly all the trees are evergreen, and which never change with the seasons. Neither will it last for an age like ancient English oaks planted in the time of Elizabeth the First. My tree has catapulted skywards, and like the other oaks here, will reach its prime in a hundred years, and then slowly decay for the next fifty years.

So like Xerxes and his goldsmith, I just have an impression of an oak. I don’t have the essence of an oak, supporting dozens and dozens of tiny lives and plant growth, but just have to make the most of what the tree and I share – mutual love and memories of all the places we’ve lived in together. Xerxes had his tree immortalised  by Handel’s genius, so perhaps I can lay claim on Handel too, and celebrate my oak tree with  his lovely song from another opera, Semele: ‘Where e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the breeze, trees where you sit shall cast into a shade’.

 

PS  You can listen to both Handel’s songs on Youtube, both food for the soul. Enjoy beautiful Kathleen Battle or exquisite Andreas Scholl singing ‘Ombre mai fu’, and the matchless Kathleen Ferrier or legendary Leontyne Price singing ‘Where’er you walk’. I hope you love them too.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Morning tea with friends in their airy house overlooking the harbour, all the windows open in the sunshine on the first day after we put the clocks forward for summer. Amongst other goodies we had coffee and gingerbread, and my friend gave me the recipe.

Melt 250 gm butter with a firmly packed cup of molasses or dark cane sugar, stirring to mix. Take off the heat, and add half a cup of dark rum, three quarters of a cup of full cream milk, half a cup of ginger marmalade, two large eggs and the grated rind of three oranges. Meanwhile, in a large bowl sift three cups of SR flour, two teasp baking soda, two tablesp of ground ginger, two teasp of cinnamon, one teasp each of ground nutmeg and cardamom, half a teasp of ground cloves and make a well in the centre.

Pour in the melted mixture stirring to form a smooth batter. Beat in about 120 gm of chopped crystallised ginger. Pour into a greased lined tin 23 cm square according to this recipe. Bake at 180 degrees for an hour and a half until well risen and firm to the touch. Cool in the tin. It’s better kept for two days wrapped in an air tight container before eating, and butter when you cut into slices. The recipe used marmalade instead of ginger marmalade, but I don’t like orange marmalade, and it also suggested the grated rind of two limes and lemons as well as the oranges. I wouldn’t. But I can’t wait to try my bowdlerised version, and I think I’d sprinkle some sugar on the top before baking.

 

Food for Thought.

Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.

Stella Adler  1901 – 1992 Actress, and founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in NY, and Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. Her students included Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen, Robert de Niro, Melanie Griffiths, Harvey Keitel and others.

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Ladies Lunching Yet Again!

Nothing like a girls’ lunch to keep the juices flowing and the mind agile. These girls were eighty two and eighty one. Eighty two years old has just got back from Europe, where she watched her grand-daughter win a gold medal at the Olympics, then nipped across to Germany where her son had restored an old building, and was giving a celebration thank you to all the forty helpers. Friend found herself cooking said dinner for the forty. After a cruise down the Rhine, she came home and popped straight into hospital for a hip replacement. Today she was hiding her white elastic post-op stockings under a snazzy pair of well cut black trousers, and wearing a beautiful turquoise French jacket with silver buttons.

She plays golf, walks her two dogs, attends endless lunches, dinners, and concerts, and is doing a thesis for the U3A on medieval medicine, reading Chaucer in the original Old Englische. If I meet her walking her dogs, and greet her with “Hail to thee, blithe spirit”, she’ll reply with the rest of Shelley’s verses, all twenty one of them, or any other poem I want to mention.

Eighty-one year old gave up sailing last year when her eighty year old husband had to give up judging international yacht races, but she still does yoga every day. She still paints and has exhibitions in a smart gallery, makes all her own exquisite clothes, the envy of her friends, and creates her own jewellery. She’s just finished re-painting and re-decorating in black and white, their holiday home on a near-by island. This included re-covering sofa cushions and chairs and painting furniture.

After much laughter as we consumed fresh salmon on puy lentils with a glass of rose, followed by fresh- out- of- the oven plum and almond tart and coffee, we talked about our lives. We discovered that we each envied the others aspects of their lives, and felt that everyone else had much better relationships than our own. When we discussed our own truths, amid more laughter, we found that our assumptions about each other were completely wrong.

This conversation cheered us all up, and put a lot of things in perspective, so we could count our blessings instead of comparing ourselves with others. Finally our mutual admiration society broke up and we went back to our husbands and children, dogs, painting, writing, golf, reading and grandchildren.

That night one of the loves of my life rang. “Hello,” he said. After we’d discussed his essays and lecture schedule, and covered the various 21st birthday parties he’d been to, he told me he was heading overseas to get a job before going to an overseas university. I had a moment’s inspiration, and said, “darling, you know you could make a fortune if you’d grow a field of hemlock and turn it into little pills for me and all my friends to take when we feel it’s time.”

He entered into this discussion with enthusiasm, replying, ”Yes, Grannie, I know euthanasia will be the thing in future, but I think there’s a better way than hemlock”.

What about Socrates I protested, all he had to do was drink, and then just let himself go cold from his feet up until the poison reached his heart. We discussed Socrates, but grandson was unsure that hemlock was the best way. They’re experimenting with all sorts of things these days, he told me – partly to find methods to kill animals so that people feel they can eat meat without feeling guilty. Really, I queried?

Yes, there’s a gas which expels oxygen, and when the brain is starved of oxygen, you go into a state of bliss, so you die blissfully he assured me.

Well how do they know, I asked, unconvinced? They’ve been experimenting with pigs, he said. (My hackles began to rise at the thought of experimenting on animals.) He went onto tell me that they filled two troughs, one with ordinary apples, the other with apples injected with this gas. The pigs who chose the gassy apples ate their fill, and then staggered off and collapsed. When they came to, because there wasn’t enough gas to actually kill them, they rushed back to the trough to get more of these bliss-filled apples, and they did it several times till the apples had all gone! They knew a good thing when they tasted it. Pigs in heaven!

I was convinced. If intelligent pigs had blissed out and wanted more, it sounded just the ticket to me.  And since my husband had just reported from a health board meeting, that an overseas geriatric expert had told them that today’s old never saw their children, because the children were all so busy still working; that it’s one of the biggest health problems these days that there’s no one around to care for the old, I tucked away the thought of those apples. Bliss – filled apples would be just the thing for a rainy day… we could die happy and go straight to heaven!

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Apples, as we know are cheap, and if there are no bliss-filled apples around we might as well make a heavenly apple tart!

The good thing about this recipe is that you don’t have to cook the pastry blind. Line a pastry dish with short crust pastry, and sprinkle the base with a quarter of a cup of fine white breadcrumbs. Peel and thinly slice four apples and arrange in overlapping circles on the pastry. Combine one cup of cream with half a cup of sugar and two eggs, and pour over the apples. Sprinkle with quarter of a cup of almond slivers and bake at 180 degrees for half an hour or longer until the custard is set. The jury’s out on whether we need cream or not!

 

Food for Thought

There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfilment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.                                                      Martin Buber  1878 -1965  Austrian-born Israeli philosopher

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