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History Undusted: Advent Calendars
Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Military History
The Quandry of Quarantine
There’s been a lot of talk about the Corona Virus; in fact, that seems to be the only topic in the news right now; and while I rarely go onto social media sites, I was curious about what’s circulating there, and so I went on yesterday. While I agree that misinformation and scare-mongering are never helpful (and those both seem to abound in social media, like a wildfire virus) I disagree with people’s faulty conclusion that there must, therefore, be no danger of coming into contact with the disease or with the disease itself.
My husband and I have been cautious, we’ve been washing our hands and keeping a distance between ourselves and others, but the fact is, we all come in contact with things that have been in contact with others every day: The coins you use, the door handles you turn, the shopping cart you push, the food packages stocked onto the shelves in the store by someone else. And despite all our precautions, we have been infected. We are now under self-imposed quarantine for two weeks.
Quarantine will be a topic for a lot of people; in Italy currently, that “lot” is 16 million or more. So what do you do with two weeks within your own walls? Nowadays, I can shop online – I can order groceries delivered to our door from local shops (if they’re not under lock-down, too); I can have electronics delivered overnight – faster than if I had to go to a shop (if the postman can still get out). But I think the most deciding factor in making it through quarantine well is on the level of mental health; however, some people are better-equipped for isolation than others. Indoor hobbies play a huge role in helping people pass the time. Those who have no hobbies, perhaps because they think they have no time for such things, will suddenly find themselves with LOTS of time on their hands. People like my husband, who have to move and exercise or they go a bit stir-crazy, will need to figure out creative ways of doing so within the confines placed on them. Even if you aren’t there yet, it may be helpful to figure out ways to make time pass meaningfully, because like it or not, Corona is in our lives for a while yet, and it will shape our societies, economics and personal constructs for some time to come.
So to help, I thought I’d give a few suggestions of what to do on a rainy day, or as in our case, quarantine:
- Learn something. YouTube abounds with interesting videos on every topic under the sun. Here are a few of my favourite channels:
- For entertainment, YouTube offers films, comedy (try “Dry Bar Comedy“), talk shows (e.g. Good Mythical Morning)
- Do a puzzle. Either a physical one or a virtual puzzle.
- Play an instrument – you might have enough time to polish your abilities.
- Learn a new craft, or dust off one you already know how to do. Find an outlet for your results – often, a goal will help focus your efforts… either as a gift for a friend, or as a donation to a charity or cause (e.g. hats for cancer patients, or toys for animal shelters). I have an endless supply of ideas for crafts, so I’m all set. 😉
- Read a good book. If you need ideas, check out this link! 🙂 Books that I like to read depend on my mood; I like anything by Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen and Stephenie Meyer; the Descended series by Dana Pratola, and anything by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R Tolkien.
- Watch a good film. Whether a DVD or something through an online source, there are hundreds of good possibilities out there.
- Connect with people. That may sound odd as a suggestion for time spent in quarantine, but people are a phone number away. We have one friend here who is also in isolation, and she knows no one else in Switzerland yet; so we are on the phone daily right now, as a way for her to connect with someone outside of her four walls. We’ve called friends to make sure they’re okay (if need be, I can go out, as I have a supply of face masks). If you have other people in your home, play a game together.
I hope you never face quarantine, but if it happens, decide ahead of time to view it as an opportunity dropped into your lap; you’ll be better able to cope with it if you have a positive outlook on it, and you’ll be more equipped to take the bull by the horns and find a way to come out the other side a better person!
Filed under Articles, Cartoon, Humor, Links to External Articles, Musings
History Undusted: The Colour of Carrots
Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.
Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.
They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).
These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.
One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.
Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.
The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).
For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).
The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.
Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Military History, Research
The Long and Short of it
If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know I’ve written a few novels; the recent sale was a great success!
I’ve been working on something that will not only help me market those novels to a wider audience, but it’s also giving me good experience in another genre: Short stories. Just like a novel, a short has a setting, a character, character arc, conflict and resolution – just in a much more compact and simpler landscape, so to speak. You can’t afford to flesh out an ensemble of characters or have a slow-burn leading up to the time-bomb or ticking clock of conflict. I’ve been trying my hand at various lengths, from flash fiction of 6 words, or exactly 53 words long, to short stories up to 7,500 words. They all have their own challenges.
Until recently, I’d been taking a distance-learning course on the topic of short fiction, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t worth the money – and was refunded; I’ve taken a course through the same institute before, so I’ll be glad to continue looking at their options since they were helpful in resolving the issue. While the premise of the course was a good one, I am a quick and independent learner, and I’d learned enough through online research to have all the principles – it’s just about putting them into practice.
I won’t be sharing any of the stories here, because I’ll be using them to enter writing competitions, and one of the frequent prerequisites is that a story has never been released online or elsewhere. But I’ll share a cartoon with you that kind of reflects the life of a writer: Writing, re-drafting, hoping others will appreciate it, and eventually releasing the story into the wider world…
If you’re a writer, keep at it! Hopefully you live in an area where you can join a writers’ group, or at least find other writers that can encourage you and give you feedback; if, like me, you’re on your own and living in a country that speaks another language than the one you write in, then keep at it – find your encouragers online, or within your family or circle of local friends.
If you’re interested in finding out how to write short stories, here are a few recommendations:
James Scott Bell’s “How to Write Short Stories”
Short Story Tips: 10 Ways to Improve Your Creative Writing
Filed under Articles, Links to External Articles, Publications, Research, Writing Exercise
History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga
I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them; life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.
The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936, Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.
The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.
In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).
Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.
In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.
I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.
To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.
Filed under History, History Undusted, Military History, Space, Astronomy
History Undusted: Eidsborg Stave Church & the Vest-Telemark Museum
Back in August of 2013, my husband and I went on a holiday/research trip (for “The Cardinal“) through parts of Norway, and we came across an amazing site: Eidsborg Stave Church and the Vest-Telemark Museum. We went to Eidsborg with the intention of seeing the outside of the Stavskyrkje (stave church) there on our way to the Heddal Stave Church; instead, we spent swift hours there! It started off with a private guided tour from a local guy (“local” meaning his family has lived in the area since the 1300s), who was both understandably proud of the local history and knowledgeable, as well as enthusiastic.
The museum itself is modern, beautiful, excellently staffed and convenient, with free wireless connection, a cafe and a gift shop, but most importantly, an extensive exhibit of the history of Vest-Telemark. The rural life from the late 1700s to 1900s is colourfully laid out, with printed information sheets at each station in Norwegian, English and German. There’s a strong sense of pride in local culture, and you can breathe in the history of the place. Literally. The buildings on the property, some of which you can enter, live and breathe the lives of those who lived there; the musty smells of old leather, damp earth, mildew in the wooden and thatched walls and roofs, the smell of pine wood, the turfy aroma of the blackened pitch-coated walls of the Stave church itself, and the sight of dusty sunlight streaking in through wallboards into the barn, the smithy, a cottage, storehouse, stable, or the mill. There was even a sauna, built around 1895 (saunas weren’t used back then as they are now; they were places to dry grains for storage or to steam out fleas and lice from fur rugs and coats).
The church is typical stave construction: The staves are corner pillars used to support the edifice, and the interior of the roof uses the same skeletal structure as the Viking longboats – if it works (and those ships worked better than anything on water for centuries), why change it? The inside of the church is rich in history: Carvings from the 1200s, intricately painted walls from the 1600s, a statue of the patron saint of travellers (St. Nicholas of Bari) watching from the corner (as an antique replica – the original is in an Oslo museum), and the dusty light of sunlight peering through small holes near the upper beams. The latter mainly served to provide a bit of light as well as fresh air: Candles could only be afforded for the clergy, so it would have been extremely dark without those holes; sermons went on for hours back in olden days and there were no seats until the middle ages. Everyone in the parish was required to come, punishment or humiliation being the course of the day if they failed to appear for service, and in the tiny space allowed inside the original church, it would have been standing room only, packed in like sardines. If someone fainted from lack of fresh air, it probably wouldn’t have been noticed until everyone filed out. Today there are pews, and it is used weekly as the parish church through the summer and autumn; it is closed for service during the colder months as heating it would cause decay of the paintings and interior woodwork.
Wooden-shingle clad from the ground up, it gives the building the appearance of dragon’s scales, and having been coated with thick pitch for centuries, it looks quite as if it has been charred; it smells wonderfully peaty, like a strong dark whiskey, and on a sunny day you can smell the aroma a good distance away. The gallery along three sides of the church reveals many interesting details, from the wooden spikes used to nail the shingles to the roof to the outer curve of the stave pillars jutting out into the gallery. It’s living, breathing history, and a pleasure to have been there.
History Undusted, 21 September 2013
Filed under Articles, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Research
The History of Wedding Rings
Have you ever wondered when the tradition of wedding rings began? How they developed in various cultures around the world? To read a fascinating article on the topic, just click on the image below; the article includes images of amazing works of art worn on fingers centuries ago. The image below, by the way, is of my own wedding ring; it’s a runic ring designed by Sheila Fleet in Orkney, Scotland, and it says, “dreams of everlasting love”.
Filed under History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Research
A Little Light Reading… Not
I will admit that I have quite odd tastes in reading, especially for a woman; I tend toward history, nautical, and obscure or long-forgotten books. In writing my current manuscript, which is Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy, I’ve read more than a fair share of military history books, specifically covering the 18th century of the Royal Navy. Once, on a research trip to London, I searched out a bookstore that specializes in military and transport books, even reputed to have remainders; I don’t think they’d seen a woman in the shop in years (who’d entered intentionally) by the looks I got; one of the men even said, “The beauty shop’s two doors down, love.” When I asked if they had the out-of-print autobiography by William Spavens, a unique lower deck view of the 18th century navy, they froze as if they hadn’t heard me correctly. The question must have been laced with catnip, because after that I had the entire shop of men eating out of my hand, and I spent nearly two hours in there being helped to the finest pick of naval history books (including the autobiography I was after!). Sadly, the last time I was there the shop was gone, but I’ve since found the largest used book shop in London, Skoob, which is highly dangerous for a bibliophile with a private library…!
A few of the books I’ve read in the course of research for Asunder are fairly gory, like Medicine Under Sail (I’d bet my bottom dollar that the screen writers for “Master and Commander“, with Russell Crowe, read that book as they wrote the script) and “Poxed & Scurvied” – the story of sickness and health at sea, while others have been like reading a thriller, such as “The Seven Years War” by Rupert Furneaux or “A Sailor of King George” by Captain Frederick Hoffman.
I devour history books like other people devour pulp fiction; but especially during the first draft of the book, I had to continually keep in mind that I was writing historical fiction, not a history book; the details that I included had to serve the plot and character development, and not visa versa. Only a fraction of what I learned has gone into the book; but those rich details give salt to the waves, creaks to the ship, and whip to the rope (I’ve also spent hours aboard the Cutty Sark “filling in the blanks” of a docked ship, so to speak, but that’s another story). I could have peppered the dialogue with so much naval slang you wouldn’t have been able to swing a cat (naval slang, by the way), but if readers were to get ripped out of the story trying to figure things out, then I would have missed the mark.
So, the next time you sit down for a little light reading, you might want to consider one of the books linked above; then again, if you don’t want gory dreams, rather go with “The Price of Freedom“, or “Redemption“, or “The Cardinal, Part One or Part Two“… and enjoy!
Filed under Articles, History, Military History, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Research
Odd Jobs #12: Rodeo Clowns to Soil Conservationists
Hi everyone! I’m back with this week’s lineup of weird and wonderful jobs. While each of these jobs is here for its own reasons, seamstress may seem like the least odd job – at least it’s one that we all know (if we are in the habit of wearing clothes) must exist out there in the world somewhere. The last job on this list, soil conservationist, is actually quite important here in Switzerland; there are many villages in the Alps that owe their continued existence to being able to use the steep alpine pastures wisely. Planting trees is integral to avoiding soil erosion, which helps prevent landslides, mudslides, and avalanches; another key component is placing barriers such as snow guards to help keep the soil, snow and debris where it should be.
Once again, I have personal experience with one of the jobs: Silk tree designer. If I had to find another job, that would be one I’d love to do again. Enjoy perusing the list!
- Rodeo Clown
- Rubbish Detective
- Safe Cracker: When combinations are lost or forgotten, safe crackers use their ears and fingers to open the safe.
- Sewer Inspector
- Silk Tree Designer: This is one I can give you the low-down on personally: I was a tree designer back in the 80’s, making everything from bonsai trees for private homes to 30-foot trees for shopping malls. Our storage warehouse had a few permanent silk trees, as birds had built nests in them, coming and going as if they owned the place… they’d found a sweet gig, with a weather-proof forest. Tools of my trade were drill guns, glue guns, moss, paint, unformed branches of plastic-coated wire and silk leaves (which I had to shape into realistic branches), and the base: A thick branch of a tree which had been treated and planted into a plaster-filled base pot. I found out the hard way that Manzanita leaves can give off a narcotic-like aroma when heated, as with the friction caused by stripping off the leaves from a branch: I was straddled atop a ladder working on stripping the leaves from a tall branch-base, when I got so dizzy that I had to grab hold of the ceiling’s piping and call for help. My mother looked it up in her medical journals, and the result was that the leaves were in future removed by the plastering department. It was one of my all-time favourite creative jobs, next to being a Pizza Hut lab assistant.
- Snake Milkers: Extract venom from some of the world’s most dangerous snakes, like rattlesnakes and cobras. The extracted venom is often used to create anti-venom for hospital or laboratory use, and can be sold for up to $1,000 per gram.
- Snowmobile Guide
- Soil Conservationist: Their main job is to come up with plans to prevent erosion and develop practices for sustainable land use, mostly by performing land-use surveys.