Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Travel notes

PHILADELPHIA is where best-beloved daughter and Michael Brownstein recently celebrated their marriage, which in fact occurred one year ago, but they have their own version of chronology.

Philadelphia is where my ophidiophobic* sister and I were strolling beside the river when we saw a pudgy man striding along with a fat yellowish snake, about 8 feet long, wrapped around his waist and draped over his shoulder. He would periodically stop, look around to see who was watching, and then stroke his snake, call her a “lovely girl” and a “pretty missy” and then kiss her on the lips. Or the mouth. I don’t actually know if snakes have lips. My poor sister ran ahead in a state of profound misery. Instead of following to hold her hand, as a good sister would have done, I stayed behind to learn that the snake in question was an albino reticulated python, and that she had a very mellow temperament. I asked how one could discern a snake’s temperament. Her pudgy keeper told me that she liked to sit on the couch and watch reality television with him. As if that proved his point. I would like to say for the record that kissing your snake in public is not a good idea.

This is what an albino reticulated python looks like when she is not being kissed.

Philadelphia is also home to the Hyrtl Skull Collection, in the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians. The collection was amassed by Joseph Hyrtl. He was born in 1810 in Austria, where his father played the oboe in Count Esterhazy’s band. In university Hyrtl studied the osseous systems of fish and later collected over 800 fish skeletons. He also collected organs of hearing. But it is The Skulls for which he is best remembered. There are 139 skulls, mostly from Central and Eastern Europeans. And each one has a hand-written placard giving the nationality, the name, age, religion if known, occupation, means of death, and a description of any skeletal anomaly. In his collection there are 16 suicides and 11 executions. Here is a small sample of his captions:

Szigeth (Hungary or Romania)
Geza Uirenyi, 81; Reformist, herdsman. At age 70 attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Wound not fatal because of ossified larynx; laryngeal fistula remained. Lived until 80 without melancholy.

Araschtan Gottlieb, 19
Suicide by potassium cyanide because of suspected unfaithfulness of his mistress.

Magyar (Hungarian)
Jaska Soltesz, age 28
Reformist, soldier. Died of pneumonia.
Everted Gonial angles (bilateral); dental caries, potential abscessing.

Magyar (Hungary) from Transylvania
Ladislau Pal
Reformist, guerilla and deserter
Executed by hanging, 1861.
Bilateral flare of gonial angles.

North Hungary
Julius Farkas, 28
Protestant, soldier
Suicide by gunshot wound to the heart because of weariness of life.
Depressed nasal root.

*this is not the only thing she has in common with Indiana Jones.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Notes from the Animal Kingdom

In 3289 BCE, more or less, Ötzi was hunting in the Italian Alps when he was shot in the back with an arrow. He died immediately of hemorrhagic shock. Soon after his body froze and mummified naturally, and stayed that way for more than 5000 years until hikers found Iceman in 1991.
But only recently have x-rays of his stomach shown us that his last meal consisted of wild goat, or Ibex, an animal well known to crossword puzzlers and also to Copper Age mountain dwellers.

In 1539 CE Hernando de Soto arrived in Florida with 600 Spanish soldiers, 200 horses and 300 pigs. It was not de Soto’s first voyage to the New World. In 1514 Hernando sailed west with Pedrarias Dávila, the governor of Panama. De Soto was 18 years old. Dávila was 74 and did not expect to die in his homeland; so he brought with him an iron coffin. He did indeed die in León, Nicaragua (later a Sandinista stronghold) but the coffin’s whereabouts have remained a mystery all these years.
While the diseases (smallpox, typhus, measles, and more) the Spaniards carried wiped out vast numbers of the natives; it was the swine, their ambulatory meat locker, that destroyed much of the lush landscape and became the progenitors of the razorback hogs now so beloved of -- actually I have no idea if razorbacks are beloved by anyone at all. But they have given their name to several sports teams. Don’t ask me which ones.
It is entirely possible that one of Hamlette’s distant ancestors came to the New World with Hernando de Soto.

In the 20th century Chrysler produced a line of De Soto vehicles, each one surmounted by a stylized bust of a helmeted conquistador. Some of the De Soto’s of the 1950’s were the Firedome, the Fireflite and the Firesweep.

As I write these words there are eight stinkbugs perched on the outside of the window screen. Periodically I flick the screen with my finger and they bounce off and fly away, but soon they will return. Halyomorpha halys or the brown marmorated stink bud is native to the Far East. It was accidentally ‘introduced’ (nice euphemism there) into the US in 1998 and since then has been wending its way through the orchards and gardens of Pennsylvania up to New York. In case you care to check, the stink glands can be found under the thorax, between the first and second pair of legs. I read somewhere that the stink of the stinkbug resembles “the pungent odor of cilantro”; I have to assume that aspersion was written by someone who does not like cilantro, and would probably loathe my guacamole.

Three fat Rhode Island Reds are lined up on the ridgeline of the A-frame CSB built in their yard. It is either remarkable or completely obvious how chickens like to stand on bars and peaked things.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Irenes

So how did Irene-the-downgraded-hurricane measure up against her saintly namesake? While Tropical Storm Irene may have done significant damage up and down the coast, and flooded towns far away from the coast, and washed away wooden bridges, will she be remembered in 2000 years?

In the year 3372 (2011 + 1361, the number of years after the martyrdom of St Sebastian that George de la Tour painted his St Irene) will a tenebrist artist paint T.S. Irene by candlelight – as she surely was experienced by many – as Georges de la Tour painted Saint Irene tending the wounds of St Sebastian?
If you know of St Sebastian at all, you probably think of him as the naked young man with six-pack abs and a come-hither look, loosely tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. Sebastian had the misfortune to be Christian in the era of Diocletian, the 3rd century emperor who considered a day ill-spent if it did not include a nubile young Christian being eaten alive by wild beasts, or boiled in oil, or nailed upside down. If you know of St Sebastian at all, you probably assume he expired as a result of all those arrows piercing his handsome body.
But you would be wrong. Hearing of his torments, Irene, the widow of St Castulus (stretched on the rack, buried alive), went to bury Sebastian’s punctured body. But he was not dead. So she took him home with her, nursed him, tended his wounds with raw honey, and he recovered nicely. Still, Sebastian refused to stay out of trouble, and when he next saw Diocletian he repeated his creed. This time Diocletian ordered that poor Sebastian be cudgeled and then tossed into the sewer. He did not survive.

All the Irenic drama (yes, something of a paradox) chez Let it Bee Farm happened on the front end. We battened the hatches, the eternal hatches. We closed the Palladian windows that grace the hen house and fluffed up the nesting boxes. We encouraged (the late) Hamlette to stay inside her comfy quarters and not venture out to be bonked by a falling tree, and she complied. We picked all the sunflowers, anticipating that they would be flattened by the 80 mph winds. Now a fine layer of vivid yellow pollen coats every surface in the house; I’ve been wiping it up and eating it with my morning cereal and on my peanut butter sandwiches. We gathered bushels of tomatoes, and then we had to figure out what to do with that many tomatoes. (Guess.)
Then the winds fizzled out before they got here. The Saw Mill Parkway flooded, but the Saw Mill Parkway always floods– living proof of the merits of building a road alongside a river. We could have left the sunflowers standing.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Tragi-Comedy of Hamlette

Just how ignorantly, blithely, and naively did we embark on this pig adventure?

Here is the fact of it: CSB has always wanted a pig. Did I know this when we first dated? No, I did not. Would it have dissuaded me from continuing the romance? I like to think I am not so shallow; but I might have been daunted. The kind of pig he always wanted was not a small pink frolicking thing, or a pet pig of the pot-belly variety. He wanted a large pig, a farm pig. He wanted many of them. A herd of pigs. A pantheon of pigs.
As a young man he worked on Ruth Sharp’s farm, Cantitoe Corner, in Bedford, under the tutelage of her foreman Will Perry who was wont to exhort his underlings with this classic phrase*: “What’s time to the hogs?” CSB took the words to heart and has made the expression his own.

*Is this in fact a classic phrase? I have never heard it before, and when I try to use it to effect I am generally met with cookie sheet expressions, or mockery. And what does it mean anyway? Only CSB truly knows.

Then he thought it would be a great idea to have a pig roast for our 60th birthdays. Yes, that old.
So, with the help & advice of Annie Farrell we bought a piglet from Millstone Farm in Connecticut. We went up there one afternoon with a dog crate, bought the little piglet weighing about 30 lbs, and drove her home in the back of the car. Ethan, the pig farmer suggested that, since we planned to ultimately eat her, it would be a bad idea to give her a name. Of course that was not going to happen.
Initially, CSB called her Let’s Eat, but I called her Hamlette, and perhaps it has been that dialectic of nomenclature that has led her to the great existential questions. Or perhaps it is in the nature of all Hamlets to question existence.
We installed her in the pigpen CSB made – a nicely shaded outdoor area about 30 x 40, surrounded by a white picket fence and with a little house for shelter and privacy. She gamboled and rooted and oinked in classic porcine fashion. I had assumed she would eat anything and everything she was fed, that being the nature of a pig. I was wrong. Hamlette, it turned out, was a fussy eater. CSB of course gave her organic pig feed, and choice pickings from the garden. She prefers beet greens above all else. Soon the pigpen was living up to its name. When it rained, the sty became a living room entirely of mud, and also, whenever it rained, the manure smell became quite overwhelming. It could not be confused with ammoniac perfume of chicken poop. (And by the way, we frequently cleaned out the manure. But it kept coming.)

Meanwhile, Hamlette grew and grew.

Did we know anything of pig breeds? No.
Did we know of the proper age at which to slaughter a pig for a pig roast? No.
Did we know the correct age to slaughter a pig for anything at all? No.
Did we know how we were going to slaughter the pig? No.
Did we have any idea how to transport the pig to a slaughterhouse? None whatsoever.

And then – suddenly so it seemed - Hamlette was huge, too huge to roast, and we had to find a decent slaughterhouse for her. A humane slaughterhouse. I wanted to fly in Temple Grandin for the task, but she was busy.
CSB did some research and found an FDA-approved slaughterer (And very nice person) in Connecticut, and made Hamlette an appointment with her maker for the last day of August. Then arose the question of how Hamlette would get to the abattoir.
CSB toyed with the idea of asking his sister if one of her Bedford friends had a horse trailer we could borrow, but then decided against it. I thought it was a good plan. But no.
Then he rented a small closed U-haul trailer. He spoke with the man at the slaughterhouse, who said we were insane to think of bringing Hamlette that far in a closed trailer: she would pant, overheat and be DOA. And then we would have a dead pig but NO ham or bacon, because a dead pig cannot be slaughtered, not least because she is already dead.

So Chucker cancelled the U-Haul rental and cancelled the slaughter appointment. The next plan was to build a crate for Hamlette and put that on an open trailer. He remembered that Ned has a trailer and thought that would be a good thing because then he could bring Ned’s trailer over here right away, and build the crate on top of it.
But Ned’s trailer has Quebec license plates, no brake lights, no turn signals, and no lights at all. So we decided against Ned’s trailer.
But the fact of the Quebec plates made us start to worry about crossing state lines. Is it legal to cross state lines with a live pig for the purposes of slaughter? For any purpose? I have no idea. Should it be? Should it be more or less legal than crossing state lines with a minor for the purposes of sexual acts?
Apparently that is illegal.
So Chucker will have to build a subtle crate, a crate that does not have stenciled on it: LIVE PIG WITH NOT LONG TO LIVE. But also a crate with air holes, a comfortable crate Hamlette can travel in without undue stress.
He will build this crate inside her pigpen and start feeding her inside it so she gets comfy, and then we will lure her into it with food.
But how will we then get the crate (which itself won’t exactly be made of balsa wood) filled with a 300 lb pig onto the rented trailer?
With great effort.
CSB built the crate – quite a nice crate – and lined it with fresh wood shavings and made a gap in the fence around the pigpen, and situated the crate right there.
And then without any suggestion from us, Hamlette sauntered in. She likes it in there? All day long we have watched her go happily in and out of the crate that will transport her to the abattoir.
By the time this is over I may well be a vegetarian.
Then CSB went to pick up the rented trailer and drove all over the lawn to bring the trailer to the crate. The trailer has a ramp and we are thinking that we will coat the ramp with Vaseline and push the crate bearing Hamlette up the ramp and onto the trailer.

There is an element of the unknown about how well this process will work, not least because we really don’t know how much Hamlette weighs. In her piglet-hood CSB would pick her up to gauge her weight, as compared to the bale of peat moss. Obviously, the results would not pass FDA muster. She has long since gone past the weight and size to be hoisted, even by CSB. So we are placing bets on what she will prove to weigh once she arrives in Connecticut:
CSB came in the lowest at 225 lbs.
Honorable son bet 300 lbs.
I bet 310 lbs. Big.
Steve (who grew up on a farm in Iowa; probably has a clue) bet 280 lbs.
Mim, (who has a dramatic flair) bet the highest with 350 lbs.
Oscar (who grew up in EL Salvador) bet 250 lbs.

Well, the deed was done. After a sleepless night, CSB was out there this morning. He was a bundle of nerves. Hamlette, however, needed no coaxing to get into her comfy crate lined with wood shavings, with a stylish water bucket installed in the corner. In she went, as if she had known all along this is where it was all headed. CSB flipped up the door, and sealed up the crate. Then we pushed. And pulled. With Oscar’s help and a minimum of cursing (in deference to Hamlette’s sense of propriety) we pushed and pulled the crate onto the trailer, tied it down with ropes, just in case CSB encountered a tornado en route.

CSB just called in from Connecticut. They arrived safely. He sped past the state border weigh stations. (Actually, I have no idea.) Hamlette is fine. She is now in a bucolic pen. The butcher said that he no longer tells customers the weight of the standing pig because once a lady accused him of cheating her when her packages of pork came to less than the standing weight. Then, on seeing our documented bets, he relented and assessed Hamlette’s avoirdupois as around 250 lbs. Several of us (Honorable son, Mim and myself, specifically) were very wrong.