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A murmuration of starlings

30 Jan

Why do starling swarm in the sky? What are they communicating, if anything? Is it play? There doesn’t seem to be a clear response on any website I have searched.

But I have discovered that it is called a ‘murmuration of starlings’, which I like. It evokes the astonishing burr of all those wings in unison, which can be heard whenever you pass close to a group. The RSPB website says:

We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.

They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. 

They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night. 

The starlings I photographed through my car windscreen (I stopped the car first) were swarming over the flatlands of Ampurdan, near the fresh and saltwater marshes of the Aiguamolls reserve. But I find it hard to be convinced that they gather in this way to keep warm at night (especially as it was mild, and mid-afternoon), and nor am I convinced by the peregrine falcon theory (there are eagles here in the Ampurdan also) and the hypnosis effect on such birds of prey.

An article in The Guardian informs readers that The Society of Biology is calling on the British public to “help them solve the mystery of why murmurations form, how long they last and why they end.”

Starlings 1

 

Starlings 2

Starlings 4

 

 

Notes from a Catalan Village: Windy January

19 Jan J & J at stall

Olive Oil

The Christmas and New Year break can be draining enough anywhere, but here in Spain the festive drudgery carries on until Epiphany on January 6th, and the celebration of the coming of the kings (Reyes, or Reis in Catalan), the Magi of the Orient who arrive to welcome the baby Jesus in his manger, surrounded by the traditional donkey, cow and a few sheep. This not only means that nothing functions for a full two weeks, but that everyone – especially those with small kids – are in a state of near exhaustion by the time they need to go back to work on 7th January. This puts everyone in a bad mood, even if the weather, and particularly the persistent icy wind, were not enough.

One aspect of the visitation of the kings, in almost every village across Spain, is that the custom of a white person ‘blacking up’ for the role of King Balthasar – supposedly an African king – continues despite mounting criticism of the practice. In fact, Madrid has abolished the custom altogether, choosing to use a ‘real’ black person in the role. Since in Madrid the spectacle is customarily enacted by three of the City Councillors, and  – unsurprisingly – there are no black Councillors to be found, a professional actor was found. As the English language newspaper The Local reported:

The Spanish capital has decided to break with tradition – all in the name of diversity . . . King Balthazar will be played by a black actor from an African association based in Madrid, confirmed the director of Programs and Cultural Activities at Madrid City Hall, Jesús María Carrillo . . . “As well as being more professional it will be more representative: we are not just using any old actor from an audition . . . we want to connect with the cultural diversity of the city while also bringing a sense of professionalism to the parade because it is a huge event, in which it is a huge responsibility to step into the shoes of one of the three kings.”

The actors will be paid around €1,000 for the parade which will take place in central Madrid on the evening of January 5th. Madrid City Hall also confirmed that sweets will be handed out during the parade to children in the crowd but in a “more peaceful way”: during previous years’ parades several members of the crowd had their glasses broken by flying candies. 

BalthasarWell, so much for Madrid. Here in Rabós, in the Catalan hinterland, there were no such pretensions at political correctness, let alone ‘connecting with the cultural diversity’ of the region. Sweets were thrown most peacefully, and nobody’s glasses were broken. In a society where a good percentage of the agricultural workforce is composed of black Africans, it is a mystery why the ludicrous and offensive practice of ‘blacking up’ be allowed to continue, but there we are. No doubt if a thousand Euros were offered for the job, a volunteer would be found quickly enough.

Last weekend was the Festival of the Olive in Espolla, our neighbouring village. Espolla is only a short walk through the vineyards, but always seems to me a much more exalted and organized sort of place than lowly Rabós: they’ve got a shop that opens all day, a butcher’s, a couple of restaurants. There’s even a bar.

J & J at stall

Our Rabós neighbours, Joan and Juliette, ran a stall (pictured above) to sell their excellent wines and honey. As well as locals, the festival is popular with French market stall holders and day trippers (France is only fifteen minutes drive away on the back road). On display, along with the local wines and glorious dark green, fragrant, earthy mineral-rich oils, there were great rounds of cheese, wonderful freshly baked breads, baskets, wooden chests, wood-burning stoves and candy floss. A great outing on a fine day, after nearly an entire gloomy week of the tramuntana mountain wind.

Espolla

The village of Espolla, in the Ampurdan

 

 

 

Canigou

Mount Canigou, from Espolla

 

 

 

 

 

Notes from a Catalan Village: The Mushroom Season

23 Nov

Rovellos

Autumn is the mushroom season, and at weekends, if you take a walk outside the village, you will encounter the mushroom hunter, a basket slung underarm, scanning the ground with an expert eye. King of the mushrooms is the rovelló, (Lactarius deliciosus) – pictured above, large and fleshy funghi that appear around the roots of pines, which grow abundantly along the tracks through the Alberas leading north and into France.

The picture includes one of the largest specimens I have ever encountered (or eaten). I’d recommend them cooked in olive oil or butter with some garlic and parsley, and spread over toast, or with spaghetti or linguine, if you have any.

Another – perhaps the other – defining feature of autumn is the Tramuntana – a wind that heads down off the Pyrenees and sweeps all before it. It makes its way to the coast of Menorca (200 miles due south from here), and who knows how far beyond . . . It is a wind invested with powerful psychological or emotional qualities.

This wind, the mountain wind, infiltrates every corner like a spinning incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, taking them over utterly. Eventually you become aware only of the immediate and hallucinatory impact of whatever stands before you: the silent apparition of the dog waiting expectantly in the doorway; a dead sheep lying beside a roadside elm. The wind sucks out everything from you, leaving you exhausted and chastened. People have been known to commit murder on account of the mountain wind, or else go slowly insane over several seasons. (Colour of a Dog Running Away)

The wind needn’t affect everyone in quite this way; but the dogs, they notice, and flocks of starlings appear as you drive along the road to Garriguella and swerve and dive and bank away in a thick black cloud over the recently ploughed fields.

I have noticed, in myself and others, particularly after a full week of the wind – a tendency towards dreaminess or abstraction, a withdrawal into a state in which the structures of the phenomenal world have a tendency to dissolve. When this happens, conversations about the village take a strange turn, and the person with whom one thinks one has been speaking turns out to have been dead for a hundred years (the teenage girl who disappeared into the mountains with her illegitimate and stillborn child in 1912), and the postman mistakes you for Andreu the beetle-crusher, and the Butane delivery driver’s assistant refuses to let you take in the heavy gas cylinder that you use for cooking and hot water, mistaking you for the old man you must appear to him to be, and tells you to take care now, to wrap up warm, it’s cold.

Rabos January 2012

 

pre sunset

 

sunset

Engrained confusion and Freudian typos

20 Nov
A porpoise with purpose

A porpoise with purpose

Are there words that you always seem to mis-type? I don’t mean mis-spell when writing longhand, but mis-type, when typing in a hurry, when the words are coming out faster than the fingers can organise them into print on the screen, and the mind, as it were, stumbles. Is there any point in analysing these moments?

The question I am getting to, rather clumsily, is whether or not there is an element of the ‘Freudian slip’ involved in the kinds of words that we habitually mis-type when typing faster than we can comfortably manage.

Let me give two examples. One word which I often type incorrectly is ‘purpose’. It occurs to me that this is because I lack purpose, that I have always lacked purpose. I am quite good on intention, and energetic in pursuing obsessive goals, but purpose can floor me. No doubt I spent too much time immersed in the novels of Samuel Beckett as a teenager, but I can hardly blame him. I over-identified with Beckett’s forlornly comic protagonists, mostly because, like my teenage self, they lacked purpose, and this coincided with a time in life when I and those around me were being encouraged to acquire and develop Purpose above all things.

Puprose or porpuse (which of course gets auto-corrected to ‘porpoise’)is how I spell it, and once or twice pusproe. I find it hard to ‘get’ purpose, and have to slow down, pause, and seek out the keys.

The other word I almost invariably type incorrectly is ‘because’ (becuase, beacuse, beacuase etc) – but most commonly beacuse .

My analyst friend, Alphonse, perched on his Freudian stool, says: purpose, sure, Blanco: you lack purpose. Because, surely, because you lack a sense of causality. You refuse to believe that one thing happens as a direct consequence of another thing, and prefer to follow your misguided and mystical faith in Sympathetic Magic.

And there’s the rub. Causality (or actually, I kid you not, cuaslity, which sounds rather like ‘casualty’ is as much of a stumbling block as ‘purpose’ and ‘because’ – the latter as a subordinating conjunction (I hate you because you are a liar) or compound conjunction (the concert was cancelled because of the rain). Either way ‘because’ is a concept whose very existence depends on an acceptance of causality.

But to reinforce this confusion, I have a final repeat slip-up to confess to: when speaking Spanish I consistently confuse the word casualidad (chance, coincidence) with  causalidad (causality)– it is an engrained error, but one which must surely have deep psychological roots, in which I regard all causality as, essentially, a matter of chance or coincidence.

 

 

 

Dark Ages

31 Oct

A new poem by Pedro Serrano, translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn.

Bill, Pedro, Me @ Pen & Wig

Pedro Serrano (in mirror), with Blanco (left) and Bill Herbert.

DARK AGES

The tiger leaps

from a cloud of smoke into transience.

Falls on the devastating corral with an idleness

corresponding to the haste of his victims,

not to his elasticity.

He brushes past the bars of his cage

swinging his tail, rattling, tac, tac, tac, tac.

Crackling, he licks the circus sands

and raises ripples of dust,

traces of an approaching wake.

The motive for his observation

journeys in the smooth rhythm of his stomach,

velvety, gluttonous, elastic.

He turns circles before the spectators,

ears cocked, instincts fixed

on the excitement in the air.

He walks by the tables, propitious,

exudes substance and style.

The head sinks between the shoulders,

swells in the rail that encircles him.

The claws are extended

in the animal body that awaits him.

In the mirror of midday

the night’s end was taking shape,

beatific, inscrutable.

DARK AGES

El tigre salta

de la humareda a la fugacidad.

Cae en el aplastante corral con una pereza

que alude a la prisa de sus victimas,

no a su elasticidad.

Pasa rozando las rejas de su jaula

meneando la cola, golpeteando, taq’, taq’, taq’, taq’.

Restallante lame las arenas del circo

y levanta espejuelas de polvo,

huellas de una estela aproximándose.

La razón de su observación

viaja en el suave ritmo de su vientre,

afelpado, glotón, elástico.

Da vueltas a los espectadores,

las orejas prestas, su olfato

en la agitación que se respira.

Pasa propicio por las mesas,

se enjundia, se estiliza.

Sume la cabeza entre los hombros,

crece en el riel que lo circunda.

Deja las uñas puestas

en el cuerpo animal que lo acecha.

Desde el espejo del mediodía

se apuntaba el final de la noche,

beatífica, hierática.

Tree

10 Oct

tree near corral

Today’s post is a translation of the opening fragment of the poem ‘Tree’ by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando (born 1978).

 

1.

my father has a girlfriend of my age

my father says he cheated on my mother with six women

of those he fell in love with

my father always cheated on my mother

“always” could be reduced to fifteen or twenty years

my father and my mother became engaged at fifteen years of age

and were married as soon as they were legal adults

my mother is the daughter of a military man

my mother is the daughter of a military man they say was involved

in the death of che guevara and the nationalization of the gulf oil company

my father is the son of the right hand man of the president who led the revolution of 1952

my father’s father was exiled by the father of my mother

i am the daughter of my mother and of my father

i have a sister and two brothers

my older brother has the same name as my father and the older brother of my mother

the older brother of my mother died in an airplane accident

they say that it wasn’t an accident

they say that the plane was sabotaged to bring about the fall of my military grandfather’s government that nationalized oil and tin

my younger brother has the name of sid campeador and of the younger brother of my mother which is also the name of her father

i have my name and the name of the older sister of my father who died during an epileptic attack in eastern bolivia

my father’s mother says that she was born in a place where the cemetery is bigger than the village, and the word love is not known

my sister has her name and the two names of my mother

my mother’s younger brother has his father’s name

– but never uses it –

my mother’s younger sister is adopted

– but this is an open secret –

i am the spouse of my spouse

i do not use the surname of my spouse

my spouse was the boyfriend of the second daughter of my mother’s younger brother

my mother and my spouse’s father had a fling

my father became somewhat jealous

my mother was sick with jealousy

she used to check my father’s pockets and phone him like a madwoman

i suffer from jealousy

my husband has cheated on me on several occasions

i have never been able to cheat on my husband

i haven’t dared

yet

mother and father

mother fatherland

mama milk-bottle

the family tree doesn’t know its roots

it can’t see them

in the darkness and depth of the earth

there hidden underground

far from the crown

from the air

and from the branches

from the branches of this tree

hang the dead

the suicides

my father’s mother’s brother

shot himself on christmas night

my father’s younger brother snorted cocaine until his heart stopped

my mother’s first cousin threw himself off the niagara falls

poetic deaths

deaths

my mother’s father died of cancer of the pancreas

my father’s father died of pulmonary emphysema

it costs this tree to breathe

it doesn’t know its roots

surnames run all along its structure

they vanish

they become transparent

Translation from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn


 

Fragmento de “ÁRBOL”

1.

 

mi padre tiene una novia de mi edad

mi padre dice engañó a mi madre con seis mujeres

de las que se enamoró

mi padre siempre engañó a mi madre

–siempre– puede reducirse a quince o veinte años

mi padre y mi madre se hicieron novios a los quince años

y se casaron al borde de la mayoría de edad

mi madre es hija de un militar

mi madre es hija de un militar que dicen estuvo involucrado

en la muerte del che guevara y la nacionalización de la gulf oil company

mi padre es hijo del hombre de confianza del presidente que hizo la revolución de 1952

el padre de mi padre fue exiliado por el padre de mi madre

yo soy hija de mi madre y de mi padre

tengo una hermana y dos hermanos

mi hermano mayor lleva el nombre de mi padre y el nombre del hermano mayor de mi madre

el hermano mayor de mi madre murió en un accidente de aviación

-dicen que no fue un accidente-

dicen que sabotearon el avión para que cayera el gobierno de mi abuelo militar que nacionalizó la gulf y el estaño

mi hermano menor lleva el nombre del sid campeador y el del hermano menor de mi madre que es también el de su padre

yo llevo mi nombre y el nombre de la hermana mayor de mi padre muerta por un ataque de epilepsia en el oriente boliviano

la madre de mi padre dice que nació en un lugar donde el cementerio es más grande que el pueblo, y que no conoció la palabra amor . . .

mi hermana lleva su nombre y los dos nombres de mi madre

el hermano menor de mi madre lleva el nombre de su padre

– pero no lo usa nunca –

la hermana menor de mi madre es adoptada

– pero ese es un secreto a voces –

yo soy esposa de mi esposo

yo no uso el apellido de mi esposo

mi esposo era el novio de la hija segunda del hermano menor de mi madre

mi madre y el padre de mi esposo tuvieron un romance

mi padre se puso algo celoso

mi madre era enferma de los celos

auscultaba los bolsillos de mi padre y lo llamaba como loca por teléfono

yo sufro de celos

mi marido me ha engañado varias veces

yo nunca he podido engañar a mi marido

no me he atrevido

todavía

madre y padre

madre patria

pacha mama

el árbol familiar no conoce sus raíces

no puede verlas

en la oscuridad y profundidad de la tierra

allí debajo escondidas

lejanas a la copa

al aire

y a las ramas

en las ramas de este árbol

cuelgan los muertos

los suicidios

el hermano de la madre de mi padre

se pegó un tiro la noche de navidad

el hermano menor de mi padre aspiró cocaína hasta detener su corazón

el primo hermano de mi madre se lanzó por las cataratas del niágara

muertes poéticas

muertes

el padre de mi madre murió de cáncer de páncreas

el padre de mi padre murió de enfisema pulmonar

a este árbol le cuesta respirar

no conoce sus raíces

los apellidos recorren toda la estructura

se desvanecen

se hacen transparentes

from Patria bastarda (2014)

Confabulation, or making shit up

1 Oct
Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing: making shit up?

Post is delivered erratically in the village, and two issues of the London Review of Books land in my letter box on the same day. I read one of them, and am struck by a sentence in an article by the excellent Jenny Diski, one of a series she has been commissioned to write following her diagnosis of terminal cancer (last year she was given possibly three years to live). The article – like much of her recent work – concerns her relationship with Doris Lessing, who ‘took her in’ as a troubled teenager, after ‘abandoning’ two of her own children in Rhodesia, as it was then known. The article begins with a troublesome quotation from Lessing, which is, in fact, the ‘Author’s Note’ to her book The Sweetest Dream:

“I am not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people. Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography. There are no parallels here to actual people, except for one, a very minor character.”

In her essay, Diski explores and questions this (disingenuous) disclaimer, and edges towards a revelation of who the ‘very minor character’ might be.

‘What is she telling us about?’ asks Diski: ‘Sex, politics, her version of some truth that has been confabulated?’

And there it is. That word. Confabulate has a peculiar history. It comes from the Late Latin, confabulationem – “talking together”, con = with/together; fabula = fable, tale. The making of fables. And yes, you can do it in a group, with other people, or you can do it on your own, in your head. Making shit up, which is what writers do, a lot.

In recent years, ‘confabulate’ has taken on a specific medical meaning. I was very interested to learn that the clinical term for Alzheimer’s patients making shit up is ‘confabulation’. Wikipedia even has this: “Confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” – which is kind of interesting, considering what it is that writers do. Now, if you look in any dictionary, you will find the word has become medicalised, thereby adapting its meaning to a specific clinical usage, while its original meaning has taken a back seat.

Recent neurological research (see, for example Daniel L. Schacter’s Memory Distortion) has provided overwhelming evidence to suggest that memories are constructed from an uneven mix of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Something similar is true for perception: our perceptions are constructions that supplement data processed by the brain with other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.

So, when Alzheimer’s patients ‘confabulate’, in other words ‘make shit up’, I cannot help but question what it is that writers do: the difference being, I guess, that with Alzheimer’s patients confabulation is involuntary, and with us it is (usually) intentional.

 

 

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