Monday, October 28, 2013

A few selected (redacted) Weekend Highlights

First off, we had a visit from Jerry H., Librarian of the Northern Nutgrowers Association and passionate advocate for nut trees. He came by with our new industrial strength nutcracker – capable of cracking the black walnuts that fall on the back porch and on the driveway, and dent the roof of any car parked beneath. It turns out that, after all these years of thinking otherwise, the black walnuts are actually edible. In order to derive an edible walnut, all you have to do is:
1. Gather the fallen black walnuts. They will be soft and mushy. They will stain your fingers and anything else they touch.
2. Step on them with shoes you don’t mind discoloring and roll them around on the driveway to remove the outer green skin and pulp, leaving the nutshell. Do not do this if you suffer from vertigo, dizziness or labyrinthitis.
3. Soak the partially cleaned nutshells in a bucket of water and scrape them clean with a wire brush. OR, if you happen to have a washing machine you have no other use for, you can put the nuts in that. Do not under any circumstances wash the walnuts in the same washing machine you will use for your clothes, as the nuts will dent the drum and stain everything else.
4. Lay out the cleaned nutshells on a screen and allow them to dry for 2 to 3 weeks in a cool dry place.
They should now be edible.
5. Bring out your industrial strength nutcracker to open them, but be careful of flying bits of nutshell that can be very sharp and could pierce your eyeball.
6. Enjoy the nuts.

I particularly liked Jerry’s jacket.

Next, I went to see CINDERELLA on Broadway with Numero Uno Granddaughter, Leda G.G.H.B. I expected every little girl in the audience to be dolled up in colorful and slightly tacky versions of Cinderella attire, and was somewhat disappointed at the preponderance of blue jeans. Though not on Numero Uno granddaughter, whose version of Cinderella Attire included: a long gown apparently from the 1970’s, a tasteful sweater with a deer (faun?) on it, a glitter headband and missing front teeth. We loved Cinderella. I appreciated that the stepsister with wanderlust and political leanings wore glasses.
Updated fairy tale was followed by a Sushi picnic on Metro North. Numero Uno granddaughter loves sushi. Not photographically documented was the miso soup spillage, which made rather a large mess but did not dampen our good spirits.

Then on Sunday, we walked out back to appreciate the 13-FOOT AFRICAN PYTHON SKIN. (I wanted CSB to lie down next to the python skin, for scale, but his dignity forbade such a ridiculous performance. My dignity would not have minded, but this was not suggested.) This was not our python skin, I regret to say, but our friend Merrill’s python skin. This python skin required the application of glycerin to soften it, and she thought our backyard would be an excellent place to accomplish this. We agreed, naturally. I did not learn if live pythons, that is pythons attached to their 13 feet of snakeskin, like to be rubbed all over with glycerin. But this snakeskin certainly gleamed after the application.

I could include in the highlights last night’s dinner chez Camilla and Aldo. But in the interests of brevity I will simply say: Antipasti by Aldo; Gnocchi a la Romana by Camilla, Rabbit stew (there must be a better word than stew) and caramelized onions by Aldo, Plum tart made with Zinfandel grapes by Camilla. Honey tasting by the bees of Montenegro, Rwanda, Southern Colorado, Bolivia, Block Island, Ontario and Hastings on Hudson.
Also of great interest was the ensuing discussion of the difference between and meaning of CHEF and COOK.

Monday, October 14, 2013

From Parthenogenesis to the Cinema

Last week I went to the Cloisters for their Annual Garden Day. I could have stayed home and worked in our garden here, which needs weeding, pruning - massive amounts of pruning, harvesting and also hoeing and raking, but there was a lecture on Beekeeping in the Middle Ages that beckoned. I could have stayed home to nurse my visiting sister who was laid low with a very nasty case of poison ivy. I could have ushered her into her oatmeal bath. I could also have stayed home to make some baked item to serve my stepson’s new in-laws who were dropping by in order to rhapsodize about the recently transpired wedding. (But I don’t bake.)
Of course I went the Cloisters to learn about medieval beekeeping. In many significant ways, beekeeping in the Middle Ages was not so different from current beekeeping, except there were no varroa mites, no pesticides and especially no neonicotinoids and the hives were such that in order to harvest honey, the hive and often the bees themselves had to be destroyed. But still, the bees made honey and wax, and humans availed themselves of their bounty.
No, the real difference between then and now is what we believe, or know, about honeybees and honeybee societies.
In History of the Animals, Aristotle enumerates some of the extant theories, circa 350 BCE, regarding the parthenogenic origin of bees: the babes spring from the honeysuckle flower; the young are brought forth from olive trees; bees emit their progeny through their mouths. Aristotle eschews mentioning bougonia, the commonly held belief that bees occurred spontaneously from the rotting carcass of a cow or oxen. But Virgil, in his Georgics, elegantly describes this birthing process of bees: a young bullock is smothered and beaten to death, then its body is strewn with rosemary and thyme, and once the Westerly winds start to blow, a swarm of bees emerges. So it was that the ancients believed that bees propagated asexually: parthenogenesis.
For Medieval Christians the great story of parthenogenesis was the Virgin Birth, whereby Mary – without benefit of sexual congress – gives birth to Jesus Christ. (I won’t go near the Immaculate Conception in this short space.) Hence medieval Christians associated the Virgin Birth with the parthenogenesis of bees, and further extrapolated an analogous relationship between monastic communities, full of virgins & ruled by a virgin/chaste abbot or mother superior, with beehives.
This somewhat essential misreading of the gender and procreative process of the bees contributed to the symbolism that surrounded the use of beeswax candles in Christian churches. Many people kept bees in the Middle Ages, but the monasteries were in the forefront of beekeeping because of the importance of beeswax to the rites of the Christian church. Not only did beeswax burn brightly and smell sweetly, unlike the smoky & smelly tallow that was used by the peasantry, but also beeswax had the cachet of being produced by virgins.
In Christian iconography, the beeswax candle represented Jesus Christ: the pure wax being his flesh and the wick his human soul. We can read from the Exultet, a portion of the liturgy recited during the Easter season, this magnificent Ode to the Candle:
If indeed the bees, while they conceive by mouth, so they give birth by mouth; it is with a chaste body, not from foul desire, that they copulate.
Finally, preserving their virginity, they generate offspring; they are glad with progeny; they are called mothers; they remain untouched; they generate sons, and they do not know husbands.
They use the flower as a husband; with the flower they furnish offspring; with the flower they build their houses; with the flower they gather riches; with the flower they fashion wax.
O admirable ardor of the bees!

And more:
O splendid examples of virginity […..]
Let us proclaim the favor of this candle.
Whose odor is sweet, and whose flame cheerful; its fat does not exude a foul odor, but a most joyful sweetness, which is not tainted by foreign colorings, but is illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
Which when it is lit feeds on the fabric of its own body, this weeps tears bound together in rivulets of drops.
And which disperses
as a yellow vein the half-consumed portions as a divine blood, as the flame absorbs the received fluid.

Since earliest times the Queen Bee has consistently been addressed as a King. As a powerful female, she was not alone in being regarded as necessarily male. She rules the hive? Well, then of course she is a guy. Because guys rule! Poor Joan of Arc dressed as a male in order to lead the French soldiers out of their slump and into victory over the English, and it was her cross-dressing that most incensed the clerics who interrogated her and condemned her to the flames. History and legend are replete with tales of young girls who dressed as boys in order to travel safely or enter restricted areas. Likewise history is full of powerful women – and sometimes simply energetic women - who have been condemned for their unwomanly behavior, for being mannish, tomboyish, butch, and unladylike (a favorite word of my mother’s, back when).
No such name-calling occurs in the beehive. The worker bees, all female, know the queen and they know their very survival as a hive depends upon her. Their survival depends upon the virgin queen embarking on her mating flight, high up into the drone space, where she will mate with as many drones as possible; the worker bees know their survival depends on the queen bee then returning to the hive, filled with enough sperm to lay 2000 eggs a day for the next two or three years.
It was not until Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), a Swiss entomologist, looked at the queen bee under the newly discovered microscope, and identified her ovaries, that we came to know – and believe – a single queen was the mother of all the bees in he hive.
Even then, it would be a while before it was understood that drones inseminate the virgin queen. And further understood that inseminating virgin queens is the one and only purpose of the drones, who otherwise do not gather nectar, nor sting, nor create honeycomb. All they do is fly up to the “drone space” and hover all day long waiting for a virgin queen to show up.
Into the 20th century, the prejudices of human mores colored our understanding of the insemination of the queen. It was accepted that yes, it was not a virgin queen who lays 2000 eggs a day, but we clung – moralistically? - to a belief in her essential monogamy. Only in the 1940’s did scientists verify that queens on their nuptial flights mate with multiple drones. To really appreciate this startling fact, we can read E.B. White’s brilliant Song of the Queen Bee, from the New Yorker of 1945, which he wrote in response to this bulletin from the US Dept. of Agriculture: “The breeding of the bee has always been handicapped by the fact that the queen mates in the air with whatever drone she encounters.” You really should read in its entirety E.B. White’s poem, which ends thus:
For I am a queen and I am a bee,
I'm devil-may-care and I'm fancy-free,
Love-in-air is the thing for me,
Oh, it's simply rare
In the beautiful air,
And I wish to state
That I'll always mate
With whatever drone I encounter.

(I have found so-called science books for children, published in the 1950’s and 1960’s, stating categorically that the queen bee mates with one and only one drone. I tried to contact the publishers and express my outrage at this promulgation of false science, but was rebuffed.)

So with such thoughts of bee procreation in my head, we went a few days later to see a wonderful new movie, More than Honey, by the Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof. (We saw it at Jacob Burns in Pleasantville, and I hope it will get widely shown. I highly recommend it.)

Imhoof was moved to create this documentary by the environmental crisis affecting the honeybees. He charts the paths of several different beekeepers, from a picaresque Swiss who keeps the native European black bees much as did his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, to his (Imhoof’s) daughter-in-law researching honeybee genetics in Australia (the only place on earth with no varroa mites), to an American migratory beekeeper, trucking thousands of hives to the almond groves of California and to the apple orchards of the Pacific northwest and back to the Dakotas to make honey. Perhaps one aspect of the brilliance of this movie is that even this migratory beekeeper - whom we first meet as he is listening to the buzzing din of bees pollinating the almonds, saying, “That is the sound of money” – is not vilified, but allowed to tell his story in a humane and nuanced way. Later he will say, referring to the loss of his hives to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD): “I’m getting real comfortable with death of an epic scale”.
Along the way, Imhoof captured on film something I never thought I would see: a drone mating with a virgin queen, midair. The process takes a few seconds, and only when it was over, and the camera captures the drone pulling out of the queen and then plummeting to the ground as he dies, bereft of his inner organs, did I cotton to what I had just witnessed: way up in the beautiful air, where it’s simply rare, I saw a drone and a queen starting the process that would result in tens of thousands of more bees.
Of course I had no idea how feat was accomplished, but I have learned. Imhoof and his crew learned where the ‘drone space’ was. They built a 10-meter high platform for their camera and cameraperson. The drones, however, congregate even high than that. So in order to lure to drones down to their altitude, the filmmakers emitted pheromones. Then they filmed, and filmed, for ten days, and for that they have 30 seconds of amazing footage.
“O admirable ardor of the bees!” Indeed.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Flossing at BAM

So last night Reine (favorite daughter) and I went to BAM to pick up the tickets for Ethel’s DOCUMERICA and then we realized the show started at 7:30 instead of 7 which meant we had time to get something to eat. Reine led us to La Caye which I thought was Jamaican the entire time we were there (not entirely idiotically, because Reine did allude to the prevalence of Jamaica/West Indian cuisine in Fort Greene, so I just inferred…), but I should have realized it was Haitian because the menu was in French. Since we only had about 30 minutes we ordered a salad (it had beets, but I was wearing a black dress so it seemed safe to eat beets, which it would not have been had I been wearing anything white) and Shiktay(cod fish mixed with onions, peppers, garlic and parsley - served with French bread) to share. The Shiktay was tasty, but early on I realized that shreds of codfish were becoming lodged in my teeth and that my teeth had a vice-like hold on shreds of this Shiktay. In fact, I have never known a vice to hold on so tightly or to so persistently resist dislodgment, as did my teeth last night. Still, we finished most of the food, tossed back our glasses of Pinot Noir, and then headed back to BAM where I went straight to the ladies’ room in order to floss. I proudly pulled from my purse a credit card sized FLOSSCARD® Compliments of Irwin Miller, Donald Salomon & Joseph Esposito, DMDs & DDSs, my dentists. Although Miller has been retired for at least three years now and plays golf in Arizona full time. I figure that the two remaining partners kept his name on the FLOSSCARD® to be nice, or because it is cheaper than making any changes to the printing on the card, or it could just be that this FLOSSCARD® has been in my purse for several years, and hence predates Dr. Miller’s (“Miller the Driller”) retirement. Whatever the reason for Miller’s name on the FLOSSCARD®, Reine was impressed that I had this with me. She wasn’t about to waste time checking to see the names of the generous dentists, the dentists of her youth. I pulled out a length of floss for Reine, and then one for myself. She flossed and departed. I flossed and flossed, and kept flossing. I succeeded in dislodging the shred of codfish from between my upper left molars, but then – was I feeling cocky? – I proceeded to keep flossing in places where there was no lodged codfish. I tried flossing between the upper right molars, molars that are impossibly tight. So tight that the very floss got stuck between them, and then shredded. No amount of subsequent flossing could dislodge that shredded piece of floss, and in fact all attempts to dislodge floss with floss were abject failures. Because the floss on the FLOSSCARD®, while a freebie, was unwaxed, or deficiently waxed. And if I didn’t know it before, I know now that the tightness of my teeth requires HIGHLY WAXED FLOSS.
While I was fruitlessly trying to floss out the shredded floss, Lorraine F* came into the ladies' room and we greeted each other, and she even proceeded to introduce me to a friend who she said I may or may not have met at an earlier occasion at her house, and I tried to be gracious but my tongue was probing my upper right molars and the shredded floss that still dangled from between them. So I just said that I really needed to finish flossing, which was not entirely true because I am guessing (hindsight?) it was already clear, even to me, that no amount of flossing with the unwaxed floss was going to solve the situation and was probably going to make it worse. I don’t need to describe the unpleasant feelings of having stuff, anything, floss or food, jammed between two already tightly jammed together teeth. You all know that feeling, unless you are blessed with teeth sufficiently spaced apart, and then nothing I can say can possibly evoke the feeling. It is sui generis.
And also, it seemed just a bit uncanny that in less than a week I had two awkward encounters in ladies' rooms, though this one at BAM was certainly the lesser, in awkwardness. The first awkward – the most awkward – ladies’ room encounter was in a country club on Long Island, with CSB’s ex-wife, at the wedding of CSB’s son. Post-divorce civility has not been achieved with this particular ex-wife – nothing approaching it – and so there I was at my stepson’s wedding, and yet have never actually laid eyes on his mother. Had I met her in the ladies’ room at Grand Central Station prior to that wedding, I would not have known who she was. I would have been clueless when she hurled invective my way. Because she would recognize me, since she has made a point of it, and anyway I am fairly easy to find. (Even on FB:)
But I did see her at the wedding, since we sat catty-corner within ten feet of each during the ceremony, and now at least I knew what she looked like. At the wedding, at this first opportunity in years, the ex-wife clearly was disinclined to be civil to any of her former in-laws, never mind me. So later on, during the dinner & dancing portion of the evening, there I was washing my hands in the ladies’ room, and just as I turned around, CSB’s ex-wife walked in, saw me, spat out “ O F#%@ ing Christ” and marched out. That was it. In over ten years, that now qualifies as our only face-to-face encounter. For a second I considered dashing after her and saying, “This is such a happy occasion, let’s try to be friendly….” Or something similarly smarmy.
But I wasn’t wearing a bulletproof dress, and I knew the last thing she wanted was to converse with me that night; what occurred in the ladies room, stayed in the ladies’ room.
I spent the first hour of Ethel’s DOCUMERICA trying to ignore the shredded unwaxed floss that was stuck between my molars and filaments of which dangled in my mouth, and failing to ignore any of it. Meanwhile, the technological portion of the evening failed. The middle screen of the three screens for displaying the DOCUMERICA photographs went black. At first I thought this might be on purpose, but after being black for a really long time, it was clear. Midway though the program, the performers stopped, and over the loudspeaker we heard that they would try to fix the technological problem. Five minutes later we heard on the loudspeaker that the technological problems had proved intractable, and so they would continue sans visuals. Reine and I departed for her home, where she assured me I would find very WAXY FLOSS. And I did. So that problem was solved.
Some problems** are more easily solved than others. All it takes is very WAXY FLOSS.

* A friend and also host to some of our NYC bees and very gracious and most likely someone who would never floss in a public rest room.
** BAM has since fixed the technological glitch, so you can now see DOCUMERICA in all its glory.