Sunday, September 29, 2019

Greenery and Gourds in Le Jardin de Plantes...

A few weeks ago I went back to Le Jardin des Plantes in Paris to check on the progression of the decorative gourds that are the main feature of a number of flower beds there. The most impressive of these herbaceous vines are to be found in a tunnel trellis arrangement along the main path leading to the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle.

From the outside, the tunnel appears rather ordinary - like a leafy bunker - but once you peer within and the sunlight pours in between the drapes of greenery, you catch sight of the strangest suspended forms, dangling down, heavily from stalks, defying the laws of gravity and logic too! 

The length and weight of these gourds was truly incredible, as was their shape and the surface of their rind-like skin. Smooth, serpentine fruit hang alongside gnarled, oblong varieties, and odd pendulous clubs. It was difficult to believe that these are the fruit of rather delicate, unassuming flowers.

Gourds come from the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, pumpkin, cucumber and melon. Whilst most of this group of tendril-bearing plants are grown for consumption, the gourd is generally cultivated for its decorative, ornamental qualities.

However, it also used for its practical usages - as vessel and utensil - and finally as the basis of an amazing array of musical instruments. Some of the names alone are food for thought, with self-explanatory animal references; the snake, hedgehog, buffalo, coyote. My favourite name is, however, the Turk's turban...
I'm not sure what use will be made of the gorgeous gourds at Le Jardin de Plantes, but here are a selection - along with pumpkins and squashes - in my local health food shop.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Green Sheep Grazing...

On the usual dull trip to the supermarket, I was amazed to see a small flock of sheep clustered around trees in the storage grounds of one of champagne houses - Castelnau. I couldn't wait to come back to take a closer look!

These fine beasts have been brought in to operate an eco-friendly grazing mission on the scrubby grass and it is not the first time that these 'green sheep' have been called upon to maintain the land in Reims. The cemetery has already benefited from the services of these live lawn-mowers and trimmers. Sadly, and I think perhaps predictably, this does not always end well for the poor animals in question as there have already been cases in other regions of France wherein the sheep are stolen and taken away for barbeque purposes, or simply butchered on the spot in the most barbaric manner, presumably in the same aim. The joy of seeing pretty creatures pasturing on otherwise non-descript land obviously does not register in the minds of individuals capable of carrying out such acts. Anyway, I was thrilled to see them, and to notice that a number of beehives have been installed in the same area.

Eco-grazing animals also include horses, donkeys and goats, but some tend to get a little too enthusiastic in their feeding habits! The sheep here are Moutons d'Ouessant, a hardy breed originating on the island off the coast of Brittany.

The breed's numbers dwindled dramatically in the early part of the 20th century, to the point that it died out on the island in the 30s. Since the 1970s however, an association - GEMO (Groupement des Eleveurs de Moutons d'Ouessant) has fought to safeguard its existence and support its promotion.

The Ouessant sheep are noticeably small - at about 35-40 cm in height - and therefore do not yield a great deal of meat. A distinctive feature is the horns, possessed by the rams alone. These are impressive, flattened forms that loop around over the back of the head toward their shoulders, growing back toward the face.

The Ouessant fleece is generally dark brown or black but pale cream exists too, as in the sheep in the grounds here. This lighter colouring is said to be due to cross-breeding for increased meat production  and is therefore not characteristic of the pure Ouessant breed. The rams with the intense black wool did look a little sinister from certain angles!  Males also bear a rather impressive ruff of wool around their necks, framing the head.

Although sheep of any breed are not known for great intelligence, I did think these had a rather interesting look in their eyes, which are a beautiful golden colour.

I hope this little flock will stay safe and that this will lead to other eco-grazing projects around the urban landscape.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

In Harmony with Insects - Anima (ex)Musica...

This summer I was curious to see what an exhibition of arthopods in a ‘utopic bestiary’ would entail. Insects, arachnids, myriapods (and crustaceans) belong to this phylum and several imaginary specimens were on display for a few weeks to coincide with the annual classical music festival – Les Flâneries Musicales. Indeed, to celebrate the 30th year of the Flâneries were some of the most cunning creepy-crawly creations ever seen! These were beasts composed solely of the parts of old discarded musical instruments which had undergone the strangest metamorphosis in shape and substance.

Here was a collection of creatures which blurred the boundaries between the worlds of entomology, the plastic arts and music as they moved their long, spindly jointed limbs to produce curious clicking noises as they stretched, undulated, pivoted and shuffled. The most animated and striking of these were eerily displayed in a darkened room, with light projected onto the forms of these breath-taking protagonists.

Large transportation crates were also on show, just as if these were exotic, rather dangerous show animals. Inscribed alongside their images were not only the physical  precisions  – width, height, length and weight -  but also lists of the musical instruments that had been used to give body to these unusual beasts.

Parts of violins, organ pipes, tubas, trumpets, trombones, metronomes, cellos, clarinets, cornets, pianos, pianolas, accordions, zylophones, harmonicas, harpischords, guitars, drums, doublebasses, banjos, bagpipes, bells, string bows, synthesizers and speakers were cleverly recycled to emerge as exoskeletal anatomy. Heads - complete with eyes, antennae, feelers and mandibles - abdomens, thoraxes, wings and jointed appendages took on a whole new dramatic dimension!

Presented on their impressive, sizeable stands were a tropical centipede, giant cigale, Colorado beetle, stag beetle, oil beetle, bug, woodlouse, spider and grasshopper - all given the collective name of Anima(ex)Musica. These are all fascinating representations of the animal kingdom on a very imposing scale but become all the more intriguing as you try to identify the difference components.

Suffice it to say, this exhibition would probably not attract many arachnophobics or indeed anyone with a pathological fear of insects – termed entomophobia. Most people seem to have an instinctive dread of any encounter with a wasp or, to a lesser degree, bees, and their response is generally rather excessive, largely inappropriate and wholly ineffectual. How many times do you risk getting stung due to the dramatic swatting and batting of some third party whose actions only goad the hitherto inoffensive creature to exact revenge on the nearest flesh?

Incidentally, wasp phobia is known by the striking term spheksophobia (derived from the Greek form of wasp – spheco), whilst myrmecophobia signifies the fear of ants; katsaridaphobia is the fear of cockroachers; skathariphobia – the fear of beetles; lepidopterophobia  - the fear of moths and butterflies; scolopendrphobia – the fear of centipedes; orthopterophobia – the fear of crickets; apiphobia – the fear of bees and perhaps the most ‘logical’ of fears - that of mosquitos – anopheliphobia. 

The artists behind the creation of these insect exhibits are perhaps not entomophiles per se, but they certainly understand the importance of these tiny giants. The phylum Arthropoda, is the largest in the animal kingdom with arthropods alone representing 80% of living creatures. Nevertheless, they are generally much maligned and largely misunderstood. The trio of creators – collectively known as Tout reste à faire – have endeavoured to take us into a realm that is usually overlooked since the actors in this theatre are literally too small to scrutinize and are considered to be of little true worth. And yet it was Einstein himself who is said to have warned us that should bees be eliminated from our planet, Mankind would soon perish…

Over five years, Vincent Gadras, Mathieu Desailly and David Chalmain have studied entomological anatomy in order to « make visible the invisible », using the anatomical parts of old musical instruments that are likewise, little known and rarely held up for observation. How often are we able to study the intricate mecanisms and intimate mechanical parts of the instruments that generate the music that surrounds us? Furthermore, this musical recycling also enables the arthropods to find a voice – literally – as they emit strange noises when exposed to the steady flow of exhibition visitors.

The fact that the artistic creators requested the general public to donate their unused and unusable musical instruments by depositing them at the Conservatory of Music in Reims also generated a certain by-word-of mouth ‘buzz’ (sorry !). Finally, Tout reste à faire make clear the aim of this project: to halt the elimination of these tiny creatures that play such a huge role in the eco-system.

Sadly, I have to admit that there are a handful of creatures that I would like to see a little less of in the small universe of my flat and balcony. Insects, bugs and butterflies have come and gone over the months here, but in view of the tattered state of the leaves of the potted plants on my balcony, I feel sure that the vine weevils – beastly black beetles - are still actively feeding on my potted plants during their nocturnal raids, emerging at dusk to reap havoc on foliage and flowers. These resiliant creatures are now simply biding their time, lurking under leaves, fattening themselves up for a egg-laying blitz as they burrow under ground. Once this preparation has taken place, the harm will occur far below the soil surface during the overwintering stage as emerging larvae promptly set about gnawing and boring away at the root systems of my long-suffering greenery until ready to emerge as fully-formed evil weevils next Spring.

An incredibly resistent being, the weevil must be one of the ultimate banes to any gardener since this uninvited guest is unlikely to abandon its host environment, even with the greatest encouragement to do so. They must surely be an example of evolutionary perfection – fit to thrive – and their ultimate sign of defiance is the fact that the female does not need a male to reproduce and can lay hundreds of eggs in one session…

Beetles and bugs are often confused for one another – or are simply referred to as creepy-crawlies and then grouped with spiders, wasps and itchy things as globally-acknowledged unpleasant pests. However, there are distinct dfferences between the two. Bugs, from the Hemiptera order, have sucking mouthparts with piercing ‘stylets’ to feed on sap or nectar. They also have membrane wings, and undergo incomplete metamorphosis to reach their adult phase.

Beetles, of the order Coleoptera, have three distinct body regions – head, thorax and abdomen – in common with all insects, yet these are not necessarily visible when observing from the beetle from above. Transforming from the larval stage to adulthood, the beetle has a complete metamorphosis yet the constant feature throughout each step of their lifecycle appears to be their formidible appetite, aided by munching mouthparts. Powerful mandibles allow the beetle to devour plant or animal substances, as l have learnt from experience and considerable expense. The vine weevil has a strange ‘snout’ arrangement, but that does not make it any more endearing, I have to say.

Meanwhile the other beetle type in this household - the carpet variety – is equally maligned due to the voracious feeding of its larvae – commonly referred to as the ‘woolly bear’. Very little to find cute or attaching in this specimen either – especially once it has pock-marked clothes or any article of animal origin (feather/fur/felt/hair etc), having grown tired of its staple diet; dander.

In common with most adult beetles, the carpet beetle has elytra – hardened forewings that form a shield to cover the membranous hindwings when not used for flight. As the remarkably small adult beetle flies innocently about your home space, it is initially hard to associate this will the greedy grubs that cause criminal damage in the dark recesses of your wardrobe. Just like the vine weevil in your garden, the carpet beetle is devilishly hard to part company with, once it has taken residence in your home and the liquidation of larvae and the bashing of beetles will take up a considerable amount of your time in. All is fair in war, I have no qualms here and take no prisoners.

It seems unjust that spiders should get such a bad press when they do very little damage, destroy insect pests, and spin amazingly beautiful, intricate webs. I had a close encounter with another type of weevil earlier this month – in a Goldilocks moment. « Who has been eating all my porridge ? ». In fact, the offenders were almost eaten by my good self as I mistook the small dark forms in my rolled oats for Chia seeds – until I noticed how they were crawling about my cereal bowl. I resolved there and then to wear glasses for future breakfast preparations!

Living on the fifth floor, we rarely have any truly exotic visitors, winged or otherwise, however there are a few exceptional moments. Few and far between, these visits are of great interest and entertainment to the cats.

This summer, the arrival of a sizeable grasshopper on the window  was therefore met with astonishment and a certain amount of feline frustration since the beast in question was on the ‘wrong’ side of the glass, and no amount of scratching would deliver it to eager paws and jaws.

Things took another dimension however that same night, when the grasshopper made its way into the flat and was leaping and flying around the confined space, with both cats in hot pursuit. This was definitely one of the highlights of the cats’ summer and yes, the grasshopper did live to tell the tale as we managed to guide it back out onto the balcony.