The Urdenbach Marshes in Summer

Yesterday I biked down to the Urdenbach Marshes south of Düsseldorf. It's a large nature reserve which used to be on the path of the Rhein until the river made a curve. City planners are now diverting brooks in the nature reserve to allow it to revert to marshland. It's now home to plenty of waterfowl, and the authorities are even planning to introduce water buffalo, although the locals aren't all that thrilled and may stop the plan. Unlike marshes in most parts of the world, this one isn't full of things that want to kill you. The sweet, intoxicating odor of decay and burgeoning life is everywhere. Before I move on to the pictures, one bleg: can anyone identify the light-purple labiate flowers? They're everywhere near the raised path. I looked everywhere, but could only find flowers which look a lot like these, but not quite the same. Frustrating.

UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond

 


Will a German Doctor's Snake-Oil Doom America's Carnivorous Plants?

It's the golden age of podcasts, everybody, and I've just discovered a fine one: Criminal. Each episode is 20 minutes long and has something to do with some sort of crime. The first episode profiled a man convicted of killing his wife who may be freed by proof an owl actually killed her. From this podcast we learn that 'owlstrike' is a word, and that owls usually attack humans on the right rear side of the head, and that owls are strong and silent and can really fuck you up if they want. There's also a story about the late 1990s inkjet currency-counterfeit trend, and a profile of one of Wyoming's three female coroners, who talks about a man who kept himself alive during a cold winter by drinking antifreeze.

The German connection comes in Episode 5, 'Dropping like Flies'. The carnivorous venus flytrap plant grows naturally only in a 90-square-mile of North Carolina:

Problem is, the market for flytraps is booming. Poachers can get between 10 and 25 cents per plant, and local flytrap nurseries make a healthy profit selling them on. The plants aren't yet listed as endangered, so the penalties are relatively low.

'Criminal' goes on the hunt for who is buying all these plants, and quickly arrives at the door of Carnivora. Carnivora is a U.S.-based company that sells a product based on extracts from the Venus Flytrap plant which it claims boosts the immune system. They're not allowed to claim that it cures cancer under U.S. law, but that is the main selling point in countries where they can make this claim. The man who came up with the formula was a German 'country doctor' named Helmut Keller. This 1985 article (g) from Der Spiegel records the frenzy surrounding the then-new preparation, as desperate cancer patients begged Keller to treat them.

Now, as the podcast reports, Keller's been dead for four years ('still here, but on the Other Side', claims the company's new director), the company is under new management, and is not being accused of breaking any American laws, since it only calls Carnivora a dietary supplement, not a cancer cure. Also, the current owner of the company claims it doesn't buy any flytraps from North Carolina, but instead gets them from laboratories in Holland and China. But if Carnivora isn't behind the huge recent increases in demand for flytrap plants, who or what is? As you might expect in the area of carnivorous-plant-poaching and alternative medicine, there are a lot of gray areas. A fascinating listen.


Morton Feldman in a Cave

Over the weekend there was a heatwave, so I decided to decamp to the cellar of my apartment building, where it's always a nice cool 20°. I sat in a folding fishing chair, played this quartet from Morton Feldman through my earphones, and worked. I noticed a line of water droplets on the bottom of a pipe about 2 meters in front of me. Every minute or so one of the droplets would fall to the floor. Plook. Plook.

And then it hit me: somebody should put on a concert of Morton Feldman in a cave. The gradual, natural processes of deposition and accretion, the geologic time scale, the chill, slightly unnerving sense of calm -- what could be a better arena?

Feldman is popular in Germany, not least because he spent an 18-month DAAD fellowship in Berlin in the early 1970s. There are many talented German performers of Feldman's music, and of course Germany has some pretty nice caves.


Hackberries and Willows in Bloom in Unterbach

Finally, Typepad lets you post multiple photos at once (more easily), so let's give it a whirl.

This being the Rheinland, there are a lot of former quarries and gravel pits around, many of which are turned into artificial lakes. Lake Unterbach (g) is in the western part of town, just a 20 minute bike ride from where I live. Perfect for a leisurely bike ride. The hazelnuts, willows, and hackberries (Traubenkirsche) are in bloom. At least I think that's what the brilliant white trees on the island are, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. 

Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark
Geese in Südpark


Stuffing Pregnant Women with Marmot Meat

Marmot-edit1.jpg

A while ago I visited Zürich and bought this book, Vom Essen und Trinken im alten Zürich ('On Eating and Drinking in Old Zürich'). I saw it at a flea market and just liked the quality -- thick, glossy paper, lots of interesting and well-integrated illustrations, solid and durable binding. A fine example of the bookmaker's art. (You know, real bookmakers).

I've been dipping into it a bit lately, and it turns out to be full of Fun Facts.© As was pretty normal for medieval Europe, people needed protein and ate anything that moved, from eels to finches to sparrows to hawks to frogs to hedgehogs. Smaller birds would just be roasted on a spit and eaten whole, their tiny bones providing the sought-after crunch factor. To conceal the fact that some of these meats are pretty revolting, they would be slathered in fat and whatever spices came to hand. Things got a lot easier after 1500, when trade brought eastern spices, sugar, coffee, tea, and other delicacies first to the rich, then to everyone except the poorest people.

We also learn that medieval and early-modern Germans avoided eating malodorous cheese, giving it the nickname Schreck-den-Gast (scare the guest). During times of scarcity, the Zürich authorities would create exhaustive, precise rationing lists, most of which survive (Remember, they're Swiss). According to one such list, pregnant women were to receive extra rations, including extra portions of marmot (groundhog) meat. 

That'll teach those strumpets!


German Word of the Week: Weichtierkundler

One of the many fascinating things about Hermann Löns, the German naturalist and folk poet (Heimatdichter) is that for a time he studied malacology, which is the study of molluscs. There's a Latinate German word for this as well (Malakologie), but screw that, the more German way of describing this line of study is Weichtierkundler. This is another example of the German animal names which the Internets have discovered: 

In this case, Weich = soft, Tier = animal, Kundler = expert (literally, 'knower'). Put them together, and you have a knower of soft animals. Appropriate, since Löns was a bit of a womanizer. Which, in German, is either Frauenheld (woman-hero) or Schürzenjäger (skirt-hunter).


German Word of the Week: Einsatzort

Images

Being the Friend of Nature™ that I am, I'm gonna plant some bee-friendly plants on my balcony this weekend. To find out which ones to plant, I visited bienenretter.de (bee-rescuer). One of the main pages is labeled Dein Einsatzort: Balkon! 

There are a couple of things to note here. First, the website uses the private/intimate form of address, something which is increasingly common in the German media and which often irritates extremely traditionalist Teutonophiles such as myself. Sure, bee-rescuer website, we may have some ideas in common, but that hardly gives you the right to address me informally.

Honor is saved by the use of the German word Einsatz. What is (an) Einsatz? Einsatz is a mission, a task, purposeful activity of some sort. Work. Diligent accomplishment. Soldiers go on Einsätze (missions). The sign above lets you know that this car is owned by a doctor who is currently doctoring someone up -- he is im Einsatz (literally 'in a mission'). Einsatz, being value-neutral, and also being German, has its dark side. The mobile SS death squads in the occupied East during World War II were called Einsatzgruppen, often lamely translated as 'special action groups'.

Now, many German words have other, completely unrelated meaning, so Einsatz (literally, 'in-portion' or 'in-set' or 'in-part') is also the incredibly useful, general term for something smaller that fits into something larger, as these images, found at the previous link will immediately convey to you:

Bildergebnis für mit einsatzBildergebnis für mit einsatzBildergebnis für mit einsatz

At first, the two meanings might seem unrelated, but upon further reflection, a metaphorical Einsatz refers to something someone or a group does to fulfill a larger mission.

Which brings us back to Einsatzort: Balkon! Your place of Einsatz, this website is telling you, is your balcony. By planting the right plants, you, ordinary German citizen, can help assure the survival of bees. And with that, I plan on beginning my Einsatz with a beer-fuelled visit to my local Gartencenter.


Aurochs With and Without Questionable Ideology

A translator opines on the difficulty of rendering Aurochs into English:

Walser was prophetic about 100% Germanness. A good decade after his 1917 story, German scientists—Heinz Heck in Munich and his brother, Lutz Heck, in Berlin—started a program to breed back the massive primordial beasts, extinct since 1627. The result was Heck cattle, misleadingly announced to the world by the publicity-savvy brothers as “back-bred aurochs.”

Although the research started in the 1920s, and the first bull said to resemble an aurochs was born in 1932, the whole effort has been remembered, not entirely unjustly, as a project of “Nazi science,” madly breeding a genetically pure super-race. Lutz joined the Party early. Time magazine says “the Nazi government funded an attempt to breed them back as part of its propaganda effort.” But one English journalist, Simon de Bruxelles, seems to have cornered the market on magnificent aurochs headlines, from “A shaggy cow story: how a Nazi experiment brought extinct aurochs to Devon”—

Through the misty early morning sunlight dappling a Devon field a vision from the primeval past lumbers into view. The beast with its shaggy, russet-tinged coat, powerful shoulders and lyre-shaped horns could have stepped straight from a prehistoric cave painting. The vision is … Bos primigenius, the aurochs, fearsome wild ancestor of all today’s domestic cattle, immortalised tens of thousands of years ago in ochre and charcoal in the Great Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux in southwest France…

—to, just last month, the nearly incomparable “Peace in our time after slaughter of Nazi super-cows:”

Britain’s only herd of “Nazi” cattle has been turned into sausages because they were so dangerous that no one could go near them…. The cattle, which have long horns as sharp as stilettos, were an attempt by Nazi scientists to re-create the prehistoric aurochs, a breed of giant wild cattle regarded with awe by Julius Caesar….

Atavistic Northern European grandiosity about aurochs lives on. There’s a new effort to resurrect the ancient breed, the Tauros Project, led by Dutchman Henri Kerkdijk, and an even newer offshoot from 2013: the Uruz Project, complete with a TED event. They want to help “rewild” Holland by “de-extincting” the animals that inhabited earlier ecosystems. It all sounds pretty plausible: as this useful summary explains, scientists sequence aurochs DNA from old bones found in Britain, then go looking for breeds of cattle alive today with segments of aurochs DNA still intact. (“Tauros,” initially called “TaurOs” ≈ Taurus + Os, “Bull + Bone.”) With the sequencing of the complete aurochs genome, celebrated on the Breeding-Back Blog last year, the double-helix dictionary of the aurochs is complete. A few more generations of selective breeding and there we’ll have it.

The aurochs are not being “recreated,” as an online commenter puts it: “They are just being ‘rejoined.’ The genes are still there, spread through the population of cows.” They are being spelled.

Here's a picture I took of an modern quasi-Aurochs recently in the Neandertal Ice-Age Animal Reserve (g), where they are no longer being bred for their chthonic-Aryan qualities. Presumably.

Aurochs with Medium Length Horns


The Neander Valley and Ultra-Rectilinear Mettman

Over the weekend I set out for the Neander Valley, where the first Neanderthal skeleton was found. It's also an ultra-pleasant hiking destination, complete with babbling brooks, succulent green meadows, winding forest pathways, mildly dramatic shale rock formations, and quaint villages where people set out bookcases full of old horse magazines by the side of the road. The leaves were, to use Oscar Wilde's phrase, 'ruined gold'.

During the hike I made a wrong turn or two and ended up in Mettman, famed as one of the epicenters of German Spießbürgerlichkeit (g) (petit-bourgeois stodginess). Everything there was quiet, respectable, recently-cleaned, and terrifyingly rectilinear.

Perhaps you readers can help me clear up a few mysteries in the pictures below. First, those metal studs pounded into the (mold-yellowed) wooden electricity pole? Who puts them there and  what do they mean? Second, the old stone markers by the side of the road in Bracken, Germany. What was their original purpose. Any clues would be appreciated.

Moss on rotting tree stumpPath and Meadow near Düsssel in Neander valleyPath in sunlight in Neander valleyRuined gold chestnut leaves in Neander valleySignal Studs in Wooden Electricity PoleStone marker in BrackenStone markers in BrackenUprooted tree roots amid broken slate Neander valleyView of Mettman Creek ValleyHouse in MettmanRectilinear neat garages in MettmanIch hase Zigreten machine in Mettman











Beech roots Neander valley
Bookshelf and door near BrackenDetail of mountain creek wildlife info posterDüssel river in fall Neander valleyEsel Nicht Füttern Don't Feed the DonkeyGaststätte im kühlen Grund Christmas festInformation poster about molesIvy and beech leaves Neander valleyIvy Covered Rocky OutcropMaple leaf caugh in twigs Neander ValleyMeadows in Neander valleyMein Pferd magazines in outdoor bookshelf BrackenMigrating geese and doves in Neander valleyMoss covered rotting tree branch Neander valley