Monthly Archives: May 2015

Shady Ladies and Elderflower Cordial


A small herd of new cattle appeared along my running path a few weeks ago, several cows and a single bull. All of them have thick, dark red hair that tufts up in waves like a field of wheat in the wind. And within a short time, there were small calves.

They graze in a triangular field not far from where my running loop begins, and are separate from the black-and-white herds in the surrounding meadows.

Taking the shade - some new faces on the running loop. All photos: PK Read

Taking the shade – some new faces on the running loop.
All photos: PK Read

There are several red, massive breeds that look a bit like them on a site that describes dozens of cow breeds, but the breed that comes closest is in description is the Salers – a very old breed of southern France, with a history that stretches back 7000-10,000 years to prehistoric times.

They’re bred for climates at low mountain altitudes where the winters can get cold, and they are known for being excellent milk producers – which makes them good for cheese 1

This group was escaping the sunshine in the one sliver of shade available on the entire meadow, and they didn’t take very kindly to my approach. There was a fence between us, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

After the run was accomplished, I decided to make some elderflower cordial. The word ‘cordial’ is one that is falling out of fashion these days, at least in its meaning of ‘strongly felt’ or ‘warm and friendly’.

When it comes to its meaning as a sweet-flavored fruit drink, the word always carries with it a scent of Victorian gentility for me.

Elderflower trees are considered little more than giant weeds here in our corner of France, growing rampant in the hedgerows between the fields. The wild one in our garden is no different.

It bursts up through a yew bush recklessly as if it has every right to be there. Up until a couple of years ago, I would cut it back to the ground during the spring and winter chops.

The stray elderflower tree.

The stray elderflower tree.

Here’s a recipe for non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, should you feel inclined and have the opportunity.

Like many things, making elderflower cordial is dead easy, it just takes a bit of patience.

With all the development of new houses in our area and the rapid disappearance of meadows and hedgerows, I’ve come to look on our little elderflower with some sympathy. I’ve started to treat it with a bit more…cordiality.

The bees like it, it smells nice, the flowers are pretty – and I can make a cordial that will bring fragrance and flavor to hot summer days in the months to come.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VIII)

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) Image via

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)
Image via

When I first wrote about the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) two years ago, the civil conflict in Syria had already been wreaking havoc on citizens and landscape for over 24 months. It was suspected that chemical weapons had been used on civilians, and historical monuments were being destroyed.

A bit of good news was that a tiny breeding group of northern bald ibis, once common around the Mediterranean and thought to have been extinct, had been discovered near Palmyra and was quietly expanding. One female, dubbed Zenobia, was still making the annual migratory crossing to Ethiopia. By the time I wrote my post in May 2013, she was the lone survivor of the group.

Back in May 2013, few had yet heard of a group calling themselves Islamic State of Iraq. Now this group, known as ISIS or DAESH, is notorious around the world for its expansion, media savvy, extreme brutality and wanton destruction, dismantling and sale of historical treasures.

The group captured the town of Palmyra this week and has been subjecting the place and its inhabitants to deplorable atrocities.

Amongst all this horror, the  guards assigned to protect four captive breeding ibis disappeared, as have the birds.

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

Meanwhile, Zenobia herself hasn’t been spotted. Even if the captive birds are recovered, if they are ever to be set free in the wild they will need a guide to the wintering grounds. Without Zenobia, they will remain captive. If they are found, of course.

As I wrote in my previous post, “The ibis was considered to be one of the first birds released by Noah off the Ark as a symbol of fertility, and in ancient Egypt the bird symbolized excellence, glory, honour, and virtue, as well as the signifier of the soul.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon told the BBC  that the species could go extinct in the wild in Syria.

Zenobia, the last wild ibis who knows the way to Ethiopia, was named for 3rd-century Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a warrior queen who successfully protected Palmyra for many years against Roman expansion.

“Culture and nature they go hand in hand, and war stops, but nobody can bring back a species from extinction,” said head of the society Asaad Serhal.

Here’s hoping Zenobia takes after her namesake and returns to hold back the tide.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra
Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

On a slightly more encouraging note: A project is underway in Europe to reintroduce the ibis 300 years after it went extinct in the region. But the challenges faced by that project underline how important it is to prevent local extinction in the first place.



The Spoils of the Day

The village of Vufflens-le-Château. All photos: PK Read

The village of Vufflens-le-Château.
All photos: PK Read

Sometimes the constant presence of natural beauty can lead to a certain forgetfulness of the visual bounty all around.

We’ve lived near Lake Geneva for a long time, and while I revel in the views of mountain and lake, I don’t always appreciate just how lovely the area can be.

Fortunately, friend, writer and local expert on the area Catherine Nelson-Pollard invited me along on a day excursion, and I got a good reminder.DSC03701

Twice a year, once in spring and once in fall, hundreds of winegrowers in Switzerland open their cellars to visitors.

I’d characterize the Caves Ouvertes event as one of the few real bargains in Switzerland: For the price is CHF 15 (around $15, or €15), intrepid wine tourists get a wine glass, a little neck pouch to carry it, a wine passport, a map, and almost unlimited tasting opportunities for as many wineries as you can visit in a day.

A free bus service takes pass-carriers from vineyard to vineyard along a number of possible routes in each wine-producing canton.

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

We did a short route in the canton of Vaud, which neighbors Geneva.

Swiss wines aren’t widely known outside the region. They tend to be lighter than their French or New World relations.

Production levels are generally small, and vineyards dot the lakeside, the hills and mountain foothills in small parcels. Almost all are tended by hand. This is not a business of vast profits and expandability of scale. DSC03704


A glorious day in mid-May, white clouds blown across the lake by a bise wind rendered gentle by the warm temperatures and the sunshine. Here a château, there a wall curving inward with age.


I had driven over the border from France, so my car was waiting for me back in Nyon, a short train trip from where the wine tours started.

Because I’d have to drive home later, I maintained a strict tasting regimen – small sips, lots of water, dumping the remainder of the tasting sample once I had determined whether I liked it or not. It’s the most sober wine tasting I think I’ve ever experienced. At least, for my part.DSC03713

Over the course of the afternoon, fellow travellers in other groups got ruddy faced. Someone next to me forgot the wine glass she had just put in her neck pouch and broke it against a table.

It was time to head home.

But not before buying a few bottles to share at home.

A good reminder to extend my local range from time to time, and not take its beauty for granted.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass - which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass – which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Telling the Bees


Many cultures have customs relating to bees, animals that have long been highly valued, if little understood. After all, bees work hard all year, they pollinate many of our favorite foods and enable agriculture, they provide honey, and they don’t ask for much except to be left to toil in peace.

I found out today that bees are considered bearers of good fortune and should treated as members of the family. ‘Telling the bees’ means to inform them of any major family news.

Some say one should speak to bees gently, and not harshly, so as not to incur their anger, or worse, their departure.

Until this morning I didn’t have much notion of bee lore. Coming to bees late in life, as I have, what I know of the creatures and their habits is mostly either biological, or from the perspective of a honey enthusiast.

It could be said that while I don’t know bees all that well, I am a fan of their work.

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.  Source: Woop Studios

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.
Source: Woop Studios

I’ve written before that we have a long-standing bee colony in a high roof corner of this old house. The colony was there when we bought the house, I assume it’s been there for a very long time. There are two reasons we’ve never had it removed: The corner is high and inaccessible, and the colony doesn’t bother us.

A third reason is that by not disturbing the bees, we provide a home to an established wild colony – and bees are as threatened here in France as they are around the world. I like the hum of bees around the house and in the garden.

Our living room is located in what was once space for an attic and grain storage, and the bee colony is a few feet outside one large window of this room. We were sitting down yesterday evening, the warm glow of the sunset still flooding across the floor, when I noticed a large scattering of small bodies.

Upon closer examination, I found that they were bees. Many were alive, some weren’t. A few were wobbling around, several staggered along the windowsill. The hive outside was still buzzing with activity while the group inside the house stumbled, disoriented, too weak to flee.

I gathered them up and gently put them all – the quick and the still – outside on the window ledge, hoping they’d revive and rejoin the hive. By the time I’d put them all out, however, the sun had set and the air was cool. But I hoped some of them would make it through the night.

And see, this morning, the sun poured down on them, and a few dozen on the window ledge twitched, flexed, and took flight. The rest were too far gone.

There were also a couple dozen freshly arrived bees dozily walking around on the floor again. I put them out, they flew off.

The strange thing is, from what I could tell, none of the bees flew up to the colony. They buzzed off in wildly different directions, looping like drunk pilots. Are they succumbing to local pesticide use? Just tired from trying to find their way back home? Trying to strike out on their own and failing?

I even found a few of them clustered a floor below, under the chair at my office desk. They, too, took flight once I put them out.

Perhaps I should be telling the bees some news, but nothing comes to mind.

So what I’m wondering is what the bees might be telling me. And whether I’ll understand whatever it is they’re trying to say.

Anyone who knows bees – I’d welcome any thoughts on my disoriented visitors.




Arctic Oil Hubris

Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin



A Stone on the Ledge


I want to talk about a couple of pieces of legislation that seem unrelated, namely new water regulations to deal with drought in California, and new Chinese laws making the purchase of illegal animals parts punishable by jail time.

But first, I’d like to talk about a large white stone that sits atop a window ledge of my neighbor’s house.

Back when we moved to this mountainside French village in the late 1990s, mail was still delivered via bicycle by a certain Madame Pils, who knew everyone and also everyone’s business.

There were no house numbers, but Mme Pils had no trouble finding mail recipients. Gone on vacation, out running errands, or otherwise unavailable for an important bit of mail? No problem. Mme Pils wrote a personal note, and the tiny village post office, knowledgeably staffed, was open for regular business hours, six days a week.

Thus had it been for decades.

Those were the good old days.

Unfortunately, Mme Pils retired many years ago, and things have never been the same.

A fleet of La Poste bicycles. Source: Wikimedia

A fleet of La Poste bicycles.
Source: Wikimedia

House numbers were mandated to keep up with the expanding population, which has tripled since we moved here.

The central post office, located a few miles away from here, is now responsible for distribution. Mail delivery employees have more territory to cover, and more mail boxes to stuff, than ever before. The faces change every few months or weeks as people try the job and then quit.

Which brings me to my neighbor, born and raised here in the village. She is not a happy customer.

For decades, her mail box has been mounted next to her front door, which is down a small walkway and hidden by a stone entryway. Her house number is visible from the street, so deliverers, who now drive small vans, find the house but not the box.

Our little La Poste vans still look mostly like this old-fashioned one. Loud and yellow. Source: Vieilles Voitures Villeneuvoises

Our little La Poste vans still look mostly like this old-fashioned one. Loud and yellow.
Source: Vieilles Voitures Villeneuvoises

Mme Pils knew where to find it, but these whippersnappers have neither the time nor the inclination to seek out her secret mail box. So they take the easy route: they dump her mail on a window ledge that faces our shared driveway. Rain or shine, windy or still, the mail lands on the ledge. Sometimes it stays there, sometimes it doesn’t.

So she put out a stone. And now the mail doesn’t blow away.

I ran into her a couple of days ago and she was outraged: One of the changing faces of La Poste  told her if she wanted her mail delivered to a box, she’d have to put the box out on the street like all the new houses and apartment buildings that carpet what was still forest and meadow when we moved here.

“Why should I have to pretend like I’m some newcomer? Where would I even put a box, out on the street? I don’t own the street!”

The mail stone. Photo: PK Read

The mail stone.
Photo: PK Read

So she refuses. She says she’s been here all her life, and La Poste should find her mail box like they used to back in the day. In the meantime, anything larger than a regular envelope just doesn’t get delivered.*

I said, why not relocate your box to the front of the house, at least? That’s not an option for her, because her box has always been where it’s been, the La Poste should do its damn job and find it.

Business as usual should mean business as usual for her and from her own decades-long perspective.

She’d rather have a stone on a ledge, lose her mail to wind and rain, or not even get it, than move her mail box.

Old ways die hard.

And so to the news items I saw today.

Severe drought conditions reveal more than 600 empty docks sitting on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, which is one of the largest inland marinas in California. Caption/credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Severe drought conditions reveal more than 600 empty docks sitting on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, which is one of the largest inland marinas in California.
Caption/credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

First: California is, four years into an epic drought, finally introducing mandatory limits for the water agencies that distribute water across the state. But the real black hole of water distribution, namely century-old water allocations to agriculture and industry, require more than the introduction of a few new rules.

It requires a legislative rethinking of how water is used, how farming and industry work, and deeper attitudes about abundance and genuine shortfall. The water system is built on assumptions that were probably wrong in the first place, and it’s these assumptions that are due for reexamination.

Second: China has passed new laws meant to protect trade in illegal animals and their parts by allowing for the prosecution of end consumers. Anyone ordering pangolin in a restaurant or buying ground tiger bone could, potentially, face a 10-year prison term.

Tiger bone wine. Photo: Michael Rank

Tiger bone wine.
Photo: Michael Rank

This is certainly a step towards raising awareness among the Chinese populace, currently the largest market for endangered animals, both imported and domestic.

But the new laws don’t get at the long-standing Chinese licensing system that allows for the consumption of species classified as endangered or illegal – as long as the animal in question was ‘bred in captivity’ by a licensed breeder. There are few controls of these ‘breeders’ or their stock once they receive a license, allowing for the sale of illegal stock with almost no oversight.

So, as promising as both these steps are, they amount to little more than my neighbor’s stone on the ledge.

A makeshift solution to completely changed circumstances, an approach based on habit, stubbornness and an unwillingness to alter behaviour to solve current challenges.

And like my neighbor’s damp and windblown letters and bills, until old assumptions are held up against current realities, there won’t be solutions that bring what’s valuable in from the elements.



*Our house doesn’t have the same problem because, well, the mail box is right out in the open next to our front door and under the house number. If they can find the house (not always the case, but usually), they can find the box.