Musings in and on the garden

I have been spending more time in the garden this year, much of it doing simple little jobs which allow my mind to wander while my hands keep busy pulling up weeds, or pruning. I am often reflecting on a book I am reading and at the moment, as is normal for me, there are at least two. The fictional one is ‘Post Captain‘ by Patrick O’Brian and one of the non-fictions ones is ‘The Organized Mind‘ by Daniel Levitin. The book is a mixture of neuroscience, explaining how the brain works, and some practical applications to help us cope in a world which has outpaced the one our brain evolved for. We now expect to keep track of hugely more information than our hunter/gatherer ancestors would encounter, and one way we do this is to move information from our minds to external storage – and this blog post is moving garden musings from my brain to the external storage of the Internet. Another thing I learned from the book is that the brain has two basic modes, a mind wandering or daydreaming mode and the attentional mode, where your brain is focussed on a single thing. When I am musing in the garden my mind is in daydreaming mode, making connections between things, while automatic bits of my brain take care of the routine tasks.

Without my concious mind being aware of it, my attentional system is keeping track of my environment, making sure I do not get too spiked by the roses etc – and only demanding attention if there is something that might need attention. This morning it was courgettes. This spring I planted four courgette plants, fairly closely spaced, and they are being very productive.

I had been reflecting on the news, which for somebody who is shielding due to being highly vulnerable to the virus was a bit of a mixed bag. The hopeful news from the medical science side is balanced by the possibility of a second wave, and the way that, for some people who are not shielding, the measures to keep the spread of virus down are regarded as an annoyance to be evaded.

Suddenly I thought ‘I need only have two courgette plants next year, four really is too many for us’. Planning for the future is an inherently optimistic act, and this looking forward in hope is one of the benefits of gardening. I started to think about the all the good things that, for me – for us, about our garden and the blessings it brings.

Seasons

Gardens bring us in touch with (or force us into awareness of) the seasons. As Ecclesiastes wrote “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” – so the simple act of being in the garden takes my thoughts in this direction. Of particular relevance to the response to Covid-19 is

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

Ecclesiastes 3:5

We are, much as we may feel otherwise, in a time to refrain from embracing, at least until we can be sure we will not inadvertently harm the person being embraced.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes

Several writers have used Ecclesiastes as a framework to weave into their stories. One of my favourite science fiction authors, Roger Zelazny, wrote ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes‘, featuring a Martian race, dying out as they see the no future, and presents them with a translation of Ecclesiastes into Martian, and a rose, as something new under the sun.

Some Science Fiction, Zelanys are bottom right

Alternativity

Wesley Memorial Church numbers some brilliant creative people amongst its membership, and one product of this are several musicals. One of these, Alternativity, commences

Vanity of vanities,
All of life is vanity;

It goes from here to become a great message of hope, complete with varied musical numbers, and pyrotechnics.

Turn, Turn

The Byrds turned the words of Ecclesiastes into a song, focussing on the need for a time of peace.

Compost heaps

I am pleased by our compost heaps, which use the 3 bin system. Like most bits of this blog the original idea was not mine, but nonetheless, seeing them working gives me pleasure. In many ways they are a metaphor for this blog, taking scraps from lots of different sources, trying to keep the right balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ material, which fits with my thoughts on the importance of diversity, and mixing them, to end up with something where ideas (or plants) can grow.

During the writing of this post, one of the Kindle Daily Deals was ‘Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom’, so that has joined the queue of books to be digested and added to the mulch.

Ironically, given that I have felt for some time that one of the threats to our society is the growing channelling of our view of the world through a shrinking number of corporations, a recent Kindle purchase was ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism‘ by Shoshana Zuboff (incidentally one of Barack Obama‘s Favourite Books of 2019). (I am a bit conflicted about whether I should buy so many books on Kindle)

Respect your opponent

One thing which does not go into the compost bins is bindweed – another is dandelions. As a Scot, I was brought up with Robert the Bruce and the Spider as a model of persistent endeavour, but anyone who has continued, like a magician pulling out endless streams of ribbon, to try to get bindweed out, must end up with a respect for its tenacity. I suspect musings on weeds covers such a range that they must be relegated to a whole new post, as yet unwritten.

Digging

Sometimes, when the world seems too full of stress, or conflict, the best solution is a bit of simple physical labour.

Kipling

I shared with my mother and Mary’s mother an interest in Mythology. Mary’s mother, Annie Schofield, was particularly interested in, and a published essayist on Ted Hughes. Origin Myths are a key part of Mythology, and Ted Hughes imagined some in ‘How the Whale Became’. Kipling’s take on Origin Myths was the Just So Stories, of which ‘How the Camel got his Hump’ (which my father could quote to me), is particularly relevant.

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind.
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump— The hump that is black and blue!

Just So Stories

Candide

Garden’s crop up a lot in Voltaire’s novel Candide, which concludes

Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.

Candide (English translation)

Garden fences

Our garden has a fence, rather than a wall, but – as The Organized Mind explains, peoples brains lump things together at a conceptual level, hence I find myself musing on fence-like things, although with a reflection that we presumable have good fences, as “good fences make good neighbours“, and we have excellent neighbours. As usual the concept also reminds me of a book, in this case Divided, by Tim Marshall.

Paradise Lost

Although Eden had a ‘verduous wall’ – i.e. a hedge, this still acted as a divide Eden from ‘not Eden’ – and eventually Adam and Eve have to leave, and venture out into the world. The ending of Paradise Lost is one of the bits of poetry which sticks in my head, and I find it quite comforting.

Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Paradise Lost (book 12)

The Selfish Giant

Early on in lockdown, many kind friends and neighbours helped us by shopping for us, in many cases fitting this in with working from home and looking after young families. It was a great pleasure, later on, to be able to invite them and their children into our garden, where Mary has made a trail of things to find, and we could enjoy their excitement from a safe distance. The transformation our garden, and the joy of sharing it reminded me of The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde.

Connections and continuity

One of the joys of a garden can be be the way it connects to people and places. Of the vegetables we are growing, some were grown by Mary while the rest came from friends and neighbours, so they all connect to people.

Several of the plants in our garden came from our parent’s gardens.

Snowdrops from my parents garden, planted by my father
This fuchsia came from my parents house in Somerset

Both of my parents, and my grandparents were keen gardeners, although I appreciate gardening more now that when I was younger, when my siblings and I were used as unskilled garden labour – ‘Pick a punnet of raspberries before tea’.

This fuchsia came from a cutting of one grown by Mary’s mother

Mary’s mother was a keen gardener, and grew a wide range of fuchsias in her compact, but well tended garden. Mary has followed in her footsteps.

Or centre bed, being dug by our friend Trevor, who Mary has known all his life

Mary’s father commanded a Motor Launch (M.L. 121) during WW2, and had many exciting adventures, including carrying Gracie Fields through a storm off Italy. He also made several life-long friends. The son of one of those friends dug our centre bed, thus all our parents have connections in the garden.

This owl, one of several in the garden, was a present from my brother.

Several of the plants and sculptures in the garden are presents from my siblings – so many that this owl must act as representative for them all.

This Cherry Tree was a wedding present from Buckland School, where Mary taught.
Plaque given to my mother by Juniper Green Ranger Guide

My mother was a Guider in many places, including running the 74th City of Edinburgh for many years, and starting the Juniper Green Ranger Guides. This plaque was given to her when she ‘retired’ from guiding in Edinburgh – although she ended up running a guide company in Somerset, having only planned to be a helper.

Rosemary from Fountain House, from Juniper Green

The house in Edinburgh where I spent most of my childhood, had a rosemary bush growing outside the front door. When my parents moved to Somerset they took a cutting of that rosemary with them, planting it outside the front door, and this is a cutting from that. On significant departures, such as going off to University, my mother would give us a sprig of this rosemary, quoting Ophelia “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”.

Check by Vital Peeters

The chick is a resin cast sculpture by Vital Peeters, who made the Amazing Love stained glass window in Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford.

There are far too many special things in the garden to describe here, so like Candide I should conclude il faut cultiver notre jardin.

“I am half sick of shadows” said

the Lady of Shalott

Very loosely, in Tennyson’s poem, the main character is isolated in a castle on an island, where she can observe the world through a magic mirror, and occupy herself by weaving a magic web, but may not leave the tower or she will be struck by a mysterious curse.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

From The Lady of Shalott

Compared to many, I am in a very fortunate position in this lockdown. From my office window I see, just beyond a quiet (especially at the moment) lane there flows a small stream, flanked by willow trees. Beyond that are fields, and the dreaming towers of Oxford.

And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;

By the margin, willow-veiled,

Selected lines from The Lady of Shalott


I have plenty to keep my occupied, with the garden, software development, plenty of books, and the endless resources of the internet. The ability to have video chats with friends is an amazing development, which would not have been feasible a short while ago, and yet, seeing a young family walk past the titular phrase came into my mind, with many memories and connections.

Arthurian romance

Like many children I read the various stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and these acted as a springboard for many later interests.

Some of my Arthurian Romance collection

The stories act as a framework to discuss good and evil, loyalty and treachery, and even the permanence of defeat and death, as Arthur sleeps in some secret location, to be awakened at the time of greatest need.

The following are a tiny fraction of the books which have been written about King Arthur. They show the diversity of the themes which can be woven from the basic stories.

The once and Future King

This begins with the light-hearted ‘The Sword in the Stone‘, which features Merlin turning they boy Arthur into various animals as part of his education. People being transformed in to animals is also a major theme in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion which I mention below.

The Last Defender of Camelot

A short story by Roger Zelazny, this features Lancelot, who has remained alive until the present day, being summoned to awaken a sleeping Merlin, whose ideas on Kingship are incompatible with the modern world. Zelanzy’s novels are complex and many have relations to shadows. In The Chronicles of Amber the world we live in is a shadow of the ‘real’ world of Amber, and in ‘Jack of Shadows‘ the main character exerts his magic through shadow.

The Mabinogion

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur occurs in The Mabinigion, and reading that, in search of Arthur took me into a fascinating world of feuding princes, giants and magical transformations.

Blodeuwedd by Jackie Morris

The story of Blodeuwedd, like that of The Lady of Shalott, is driven by a mysterious curse. Lleu Llaw Gyffes is under a curse that he may not have a human wife, so Math and Gwydion (the king, and his uncle – the relationships are quite complex), make a woman out of flowers to be his wife, and call her Blodeuwedd, which means flower faced.

Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw, and would like to be rid of LLeu, but he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. Most adulterous spouses would give up at this point but the resourceful Blodeuwedd wheedles the secret out of her husband, in a conversation which I imagine went something like this:

Blodeuwedd: I am really worried about your safety, despite all that, so I can watch out, is there any way you can be killed ?

LLeu: I can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass.

Blodeuwedd: Let me make some notes…

A year later, another conversation

Blodeuwedd: I am still worried about your safety, and seem to have lost my notebook – silly me, it must be from being made of flowers – would it be easier if you showed me the standing on a riverbank, wrapped in a net and so on bit, maybe at dusk tonight.

LLeu (standing on the riverbank at dusk etc) : OK – like this

Gronw (having spent the last year forging a spear): Gotcha !

Struck by the spear Lleu, rather than dying, transforms into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion tracks down LLeu, and transforms him back, and then pursues the fleeing Blodeuwedd, and transforming her into an owl. The picture, with elements of flowers in her dress, and her hand starting to turn into a wing tip, combines the elements of flowers and owls, reminiscent of the story The Owl Service.

Lleu tells Gronw it is only fair that he (LLeu) should have a turn at throwing a spear, and Gronw ask if he can hide behind a rock, Lleu agrees and throws the spear though the rock anyway, killing Gronw.

Llech Ronw – The slate of Gronw

One moral from this story is that someone can be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily as smart as they think they are (back in those days, naturally – I am sure there are no current parallels !) – or

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

Against stupidity, the gods themselves battle in vain

Friedrich Schiller Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

The Historical Arthur

The historical Arthur may not even exist (as ‘1066 and All That‘ points out, it is important not to get him mixed by with King Alfred, who did exist), and as the sources of stories of Arthur are so diverse, it is not surprising to find sites all over the country associated with him. This does, however lead to a lot of interesting places to visit, from Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh – city of my birth, through Tintagel – legendary site of Arthur’s conception, to Glastonbury, sometimes associated with Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.

Seeking out these places gave me many interesting places to visit, and now provide memories.

Glastonbury – and High Ham

When my father retired from the Forestry Commission, in Edinburgh my parents moved to High Ham, in Somerset, and you could see Glastonbury Tor from their garden. According to some clever marketing by the monks at Glastonbury the tomb of King Arthur is in the grounds of the Abbey.

Music

I was listening to ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rick Wakeman while writing this, although the legends have inspired other works, such as Parsifal.

The world of imagination

One of the reasons The Lady of Shalott sticks in my head is that it paints a picture, and in my mind’s eye I envisage the scene unfolding as the poem is narrated, similar to the way Narnia is created through Aslan’s singing in The Magician’s Nephew. A project I have had in my head for a long time – from long before it was technically feasible – was to turn my mental view of the poem into a video. I have started to look at Blender – I do not know if the movie will come to completion, but it does remind me of two things.

A benefit of enforced isolation has been an outpouring of creativity, as people find themselves with time on their hands an chance to try something new – the poem does not tell if the Lady of Shalott knew weaving prior to the curse. An old boss of mine was fond of saying ‘There are no problems, just opportunities’ – resulting a a certain amount of soto voce mutterings about insurmountable opportunities – but there is at least an element of truth in the saying.

The other is that the world of the imagination is even larger and more amazing than the real world. Examples include Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic ‘Click and Drag‘ (you need to click and drag to see what I mean)

(as an aside his comics on ‘The common cold‘,’Everyone’s an epidemiologist‘, ‘Sourdough Starter‘ , ‘Homemade Masks‘ and more are relevant to the Coronavirus crisis)

The quotation which had come to mind to sum up had been ‘To sail beyond the sunset’, which is again Tennyson, from his poem Ulysses, but although another favourite poem, it is not exactly upbeat. (‘To Sail Beyond the Sunsetis also the title of a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein – in his most fantastic phase).

On the theme of journeys of the mind I turn to Hassan by James Elroy Flecker.



                        ISHAK
        We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

                        HASSAN
        Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
          When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
        And softly through the silence beat the bells
          Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

                        ISHAK
        We travel not for trafficking alone;
          By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
        For lust of knowing what should not be known,
          We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

HTML in WordPress

I have been writing HTML, by hand – as that was the only way you could write when it first came out, ever since it was invented. Before that I had been using the DEC format program and IBM GML for some time, so the concept of a markup language was familiar.
As my previous web site was hosted on Demon’s homepage service, it was written in vanilla HTML. Since I read HTML  manuals and used it to experiment, there were features I missed – many of which have been around since the early days of the web – which are not directly available in the excellent WordPress visual editor.

Please note that some of these are now available in the Gutenberg Editor within WordPress.

Tooltips (<span> with <title>)

By using a construct like

<span title="Eating, and thinking !">Easter Quiz and Baked Potato Meal £1.50</span></p>

you can make a “tooltip” like “Eating, and thinking !” pop up when someone hovers the mouse over the “Easter Quiz…” text. This was used in several places on the old site, and may be retrofitted, but see http://oxford-phab.paladyn.org/wp/blog/2005/12/31/programme-2005/ for an example (18-Mar-2005)

Internal Anchor tags for footnotes in a page

Use something like

Sonnet<sup><a href="#sonnet">1</a></sup> to a Nonagenarian

for the source, and

<li><a id="sonnet"></a>Technically ...</li>

for the target.

Image Maps

  1. Publish the post  or page with the picture which has the image which should have the map.
  2. Download the image from the page to some temporary place.
  3. Fire up GIMP and select Filters/Web/ImageMap
  4. If needed refer to https://docs.gimp.org/en/plug-in-imagemap.html for more detailed instructions
  5. Save the generated Image Map file
  6. Go back to WordPress and edit your page in text mode.
  7. Find the image you downloaded and update its “img” tag with the “usemap=#map” tag, but if you have multiple images on the page change to something like usemap=”#map-g-ggf”
  8. Copy and paste the generated “map” section below the “img” section you updated, but change the name to match the previous page
  9. Update the WordPress post or page and test.

There is an example on the George Edward Lines – Pictures post.
 

Special Characters

There is a good reference to special characters, which can be inserted in HTML mode at https://dev.w3.org/html5/html-author/charref

Wishing USB-C a successful future

I  have a crate full of USB cables, and it has been a very successful standard, but I was excited to read a Scientific American article about USB-C – a new Universal Serial Bus cable standard. Over the last few years the ‘B’ end of a USB cable – the small end which plugs into a phone, or a tablet, sometimes to exchange data, but often just to charge it has developed several variations. Most devices now use micro-B, and that has been adopted as the standard for new mobile phones.
In the near future an expansion of provision of USB-A sockets would be of enormous assistant the the modern traveller. I took a long distance bus to London recently and every pair of seats was provided with a 13Amp mains socket, and into each of these was plugged an adaptor, which was providing power to charge a mobile device. Providing one socket per pair of seats does potentially leave half the passengers powerless. Each of those sockets is wired to an inverter, which is converts the 12V DC of the bus wiring to 240V AC, so that the adaptors can convrt it back to 5V DC. Any foreign visitors would need to purchase and carry an mains adaptor to convert physical format of the plug they use to fit an British socket, even though what they really wanted was, in almost every case, to plug in to a USB-A socket. I do sometimes travel with a laptop, and my wife’s phone predates the USB-microB standard, so some people will need the mains socket.
The service life of a domestic car should be at least 10 years, and a bus could be double that  – so vehicle manufacturers should be fitting vehicles being built now with USB-A sockets, and planning to provide at least one USB-C socket per passenger in the vehicles being designed now, with several USB-C sockets available in places around the driver and wired back to the vehicles computer system.  For the passengers this could power, and potentially supply data to their entertainment or mobile office and communications system, for the driver increasingly sophisticated Satnav and driver assistance gadgets could be retro-fitted.