Tarragona’s Amphitheater

Grove Koger

Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater is remarkable not only for its position overlooking the blue waters of the Balearic Sea but also for the fact that much of it was carved in situ out of the existing bedrock. The structure is 427 feet by 335 feet in size, and, at the time of its completion in the early second century CE, when the city was known as Tárraco, could accommodate an audience of some 12,000. In its early years, the amphitheater was the scene of the usual array of cruel Roman spectacles, and was renovated during the reign of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (204-222).

Heliogabalus made quite a name for himself—briefly. According to historian Edward Gibbon, he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury” and was assassinated at the age of 18. So black was his reputation that he was then subjected to damnatio memoriae—the erasure of all references to his existence from the historical record. (The fact that such a practice actually had a recognized name tells us a lot about the time.) Nevertheless, archaeologists have discovered traces of his memory in the inscription celebrating the amphitheater’s renovation. It seems that they found key letters on scattered fragments of marble, allowing them to piece together what would have been a reference to the hated emperor.

Tarragona’s mayor asked modernista architect Josep Maria Jujol to undertake the amphitheater’s restoration in the mid-1920s, but nothing came of the project, and it would be the middle of the century before any serious work was done. Decades later, in 2000, the amphitheater was designated as one component of a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco.

When Maggie and I are in Tarragona, we stay in a small, family-run hotel a short bus ride up the coast from the amphitheater. After an afternoon of swimming on Savinosa Beach and a light dinner at a chiringuito (beach bar) called Pepe’s & Lugano Restaurant and Chill-out (that’s transcribed correctly, by the way), we can enjoy the view above from our hotel balcony.

David Fairchild Revisits the East Indies


Fairchild 10

Grove Koger

Today’s entry from my book When the Going Was Good deals with a book by plant explorer David Fairchild, who died August 6, 1954.


       Garden Islands of the Great East: Collecting Seeds from the Philippines and Netherlands India in the Junk “Chêng Ho” (New York: Scribner’s, 1944)

Having studied agriculture in the United States, Italy, and Germany, David Fairchild spent several years sailing the tropics and subtropics—often in the company of wealthy plant collector Barbour Lathrop—in search of plants that could be introduced into the United States.  Yet the key period of his life seems to have been the eight months he spent in 1896 at the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies, a region he had visited with Lathrop’s help and to which he was to return repeatedly.

Fairchild 8

In the late 1930s the aging botanist was offered another opportunity to visit and collect among “the wonderful islands of the Great East,” on this occasion aboard a specially built Chinese junk outfitted with library and laboratory. The voyage took him and his wife, Marian, briefly to “vanishing Japan,” followed by the Philippines and a number of islands in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), including Celebes (Sulawesi), Bali, Java, the Moluccas, and a host of lesser islands, many never before visited by a trained botanist.   

Fairchild 6

Written with Marian’s help and illustrated with his own fine botanical photographs, Garden Islands of the Great East records Fairchild’s final impressions of a region he had fallen in love with nearly half a century before, and which now lay under the advancing shadow of war. (In fact, the passengers and crew of the Chêng Ho were ordered out of the region by nervous Dutch authorities, but Fairchild saw to it that they dawdled along the way.) Like Alfred Russel Wallace, in whose footsteps he often found himself, Fairchild was a modest and seemingly guileless man, referring with courteous formality to almost everyone as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” His artless account of gentle people and their wondrous home glows with decency and goodwill. 


In 1916, Fairchild and his wife bought a winter home—the Kampong—in Miami, and went on to fill its garden with plants that the explorer had gathered on his travels. Today the grounds belong to the National Tropical Botanical Garden and are open to the public several days a week (see https://ntbg.org/gardens/kampong/ for details). For a fascinating video summary of the development of the gardens, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9Fnp97aSBA&list=WL&index=5&t=197s.

Fairchild’s other books include Exploring for Plants: From Notes of the Allison Vincent Armour Expeditions for the United States Department of Agriculture, 1925, 1926, and 1927 (1930); The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer (1939); and The World Grows round My Door: The Story of the Kampong, a Home on the Edge of the Tropics (1947).

For more information about Fairchild, read Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Adventures in a Green World: The Story of David Fairchild and Barbour Lathrop (Coconut Grove, Fla.: Field Research Projects, 1973); Amanda Harris, Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters (Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 2015; and Daniel Stone, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats (New York: Dutton, 2018).


The image at the top of today’s post is a photograph of the junk Chêng Ho. The photograph of Fairchild (with a snail on his hat!) dates from 1932 and was taken by Palemon H. Dorsett, while the map showing the East Indies dates from 1885.  

Michel Bernanos’s Final Voyage


Grove Koger

Today’s post from the series I’m calling “Sea Fever” deals with an account of a surreal voyage by a little-known French writer who died on July 27, 1964.


La Montagne morte de la vie (Éditions Pauvert, 1967); The Other Side of the Mountain, trans. by Elaine P. Halperin (Houghton Mifflin, 1968)

The son of French novelist Georges Bernanos, Michel Bernanos was born in 1923 and shared a peripatetic life with his parents, traveling to the Riviera, Majorca, Paraguay, and Brazil. He lied about his age to fight with the Free French Naval Forces in World War II, then returned to Brazil for two more years before spending another two in Algeria. Along the way, he made himself into a writer, but published under pseudonyms to avoid confusion with his well-known father.

Bernanos 1

Bernanos’s only claim to fame in English is this short work, which begins as a typical adventure novel, develops quickly into a harrowing story of survival at sea, and concludes as a surreal meditation on the futility of human aspirations. After a night of drinking, its eighteen-year-old narrator (whose name we never learn) is persuaded by a friend to sign on as a crewman in a galleon. Ignorant of life at sea, he finds himself keel-hauled by the sadistic crew and is saved only at the last moment by the captain. Afterward he’s taken on as an assistant by the ship’s cook, Toine, a stoic character whose perseverance marks him as the novel’s moral center.

As it nears the equator, the ship is becalmed, and its crew, deprived of food and water, begin to go mad, resorting to mutiny and cannibalism. Rain finally arrives, but it trails a gale behind it that destroys the ship. Cast adrift, Toine and the young man eventually reach land, but it’s a land like none they’ve ever encountered, with blood-red soil, threatening plants, and disturbingly lifelike statues of men and women. A pulse-like beat shakes the ground. They find themselves drawn to a distant mountain, but after a struggle to reach the summit they find themselves at a kind of dead end, doomed to … But I’ll leave that revelation for you to discover.

Like his two characters, Michel Bernanos himself reached a kind of dead end on July 27, 1964. He killed himself in the Forest of Fontainebleau near Paris, having carried—in a gesture that in retrospect appears all too obvious—an empty travel bag into the forest with him. Like his other literary works, The Other Side of the Mountain dates from the early 1960s, but it was published only after his death.

The fantastic voyage has a long and varied history, ranging from Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC) to Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and William Hope Hodgson’s Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907) and beyond. I’ll be discussing those works and others in future posts.


The image at the top of today’s post reproduces the cover of my Dell paperback edition, but its artist is not identified. 

A Taste of Naxos

Kitron 1

Grove Koger

Nearly every island, it seems, can boast certain food and drink specialties born of happenstance or necessity. The Greek island of Naxos, for instance, is noted for a fresh, soft cheese called xynomyzithra that you’ll probably find crumbled over your green salad. Another specialty is a citrus liqueur based on the leaves of the citron tree.

Chalki 2

The citron (Citrus medica) is one of the world’s original citruses. It may have originated in India, and Alexander the Great’s soldiers may have been instrumental in its spread westward. The citron fruit itself is relatively large, oblong, gnarled, and bitter. In Greece, its thick rind is sometimes sliced thinly and boiled in sugar syrup to produce what’s known as a “spoon sweet” to be served with a glass of cold water. And it’s in Naxos that an entrepreneur created Kitron (KEE-trohn).

Chalki 3

Maggie and I visited the original Vallindras Distillery in the attractive little village of Chalki (once the capital of the island) in 2011. The operation was founded by Grigorios Vallindras, and its first product was apparently a version of the traditional Naxian citron-flavored raki known as kitrorako. It was the founder’s son, Markos, who created Kitron in 1896, and its popularity soon surpassed that of its traditional cousin. Today, the building is given over in part to a tasting room and small museum displaying equipment, bottles, documents and other artifacts from the distillery’s early days.

kitronleaflets 1

Workers begin harvesting citron leaves in September or October, when they’re at their most aromatic, after which they’re mixed with water, citron peel and spirits. After half a day or so, the mixture is filtered and distilled. The brightly flavored distillate is then sweetened with sugar, tinted with colorant, and bottled. Kitron comes in three categories. The sweetest is lowest in alcohol (about 60 proof) and green, while the driest and strongest (72 proof) is yellow. A clear version falls somewhere in between in sweetness and strength.

The export of Kitron began in 1928, but today little of the distinctive liqueur is shipped beyond the island, as the number of citron trees has declined. Kitron carries a European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which safeguards the reputation of the liqueur while outlawing unfair competition.

Chalki 4

The image at the top of today’s post is a sign dating from the early days of the Vallindras Distillery, and the two photographs beneath it are scenes from the distillery’s museum. The modern yellow leaflet advertises the strongest version of Kitron, while the photo at the bottom shows a typical house in Chalki.


Lisbon’s Elegant Elevator

Santa Justa elevator - Needpix - titosoft

Grove Koger

Maggie and I had scheduled only a few days in Lisbon toward the end of our 2017 visit to Portugal, but in retrospect we could have filled weeks. The city’s central districts are built on the steep banks of the Tagus River, and negotiating the maze of their streets can be more like a climb than a walk. As a result, we picked out a handful of destinations and arranged taxi rides.

One of our most enjoyable outings involved riding the elegant Elevador de Santa Justa. It’s an elevator, all right, but one that rises seven stories (nearly 150 feet) from the Rua de Santa Justa, just a few blocks from the city’s waterfront. A part of the city’s public transport system, it links the lower district of Baixa and the Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square), saving quite a bit of climbing. More importantly to us, however, its observation deck affords a breathtaking panorama of the city and the Tagus. Our hotel in Lisbon lacked a rooftop terrace, but the elevator nearly made up for it.


Designed by Portuguese engineer Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard, who represented the Companhia dos Ascensores Mecânicos de Lisboa, the elevator began operation in mid-1902. It was powered at first by a steam engine (installed where the viewing platform is now) that pumped water into and out of tanks beneath the two elevator carriages, but the system was replaced by an electric engine in 1907. The structure is decorated with ornate ironwork, and the stylish carriages feature wood paneling, brass fittings, and mirrors.

After enjoying the view from the Elevador, we sought out a café for tea and some delectable pastéis de nata (see my post for May 5, 2020).


The photograph at the top of the post is by titosoft and is reproduced from Needpix.com. The second photograph, which shows the Elevador prior to its conversion to electric power, is by Paulo Guedes and is reproduced from Wikipedia. 

With George Borrow on the Peninsula

Borrow - Bible - 3

Grove Koger

Today’s selection from my book When the Going Was Good deals with the best-known book by English writer George Borrow, who was born July 5, 1803.


The Bible in Spain; or, The Journeys, Adventures, and Imprisonments of an Englishman, in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula (London: John Murray, 1843)

The Byronic George Borrow, so famous during his lifetime, so thoroughly forgotten today, is surely ripe for rediscovery. A student of Roma (gypsy) life and lore, he cast himself as a scholar adventurer, providing enthusiastic readers with fictionalized accounts of his early years and travels with the Roma in Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857).

Borrow - Portrait 2

Borrow was an apostle of the open road, and made a marathon walk of 27.5 hours in 1833 from his home in Norwich to London, where he applied for a position with the British and Foreign Bible Society. Posted first to Russia, he was next sent to Portugal and Spain (for Borrow “the land of old renown”) to print and distribute copies of the New Testament, a work then proscribed by the Catholic Church. Borrow arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, in late 1835, revisiting London in 1836 and 1838 but otherwise remaining in the Iberian Peninsula and nearby Morocco until 1839, when official Spanish opposition drove him home.

Borrow based The Bible in Spain to a large extent on his letters to the Bible Society. While it reads like a breathless catalogue of picaresque adventures—brawls and narrow escapes abound—the book seems on the whole to be a truthful document. The Iberian Peninsula was then in the throes of the political turmoil precipitated by the Napoleonic wars, and Borrow supplies some suitably grotesque anecdotes of military savagery. Not surprisingly he is also virulently anti-Catholic. As to his ostensible mission, Borrow admits to accomplishing “but very little,” yet pronounces the period “the most happy years of my life.”

Borrow - Bible - 2

If you’re looking for a good edition of The Bible in Spain, the Macdonald edition (London, 1959) includes notes by Peter Quennell. The Everyman’s Library edition (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1961) includes an introduction by Walter Starkie, a fellow student of the Roma. The Century edition (London, 1985) includes an introduction by Ted Walker.


Borrow’s other works include The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain, with an Original Collection of Their Songs and Poetry, and a Copious Dictionary of Their Language (1841); and Wild Wales: Its People, Language, and Scenery (1862).

And if you’d like to know more Borrow, see Michael Collie, George Borrow, Eccentric (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Robert R. Meyers, George Borrow (New York: Twayne, 1966); and David Williams, A World of His Own: The Double Life of George Borrow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).


The image at the top of today’s post is a scene of Segovia from the 1843 Murray edition, engraved by Georges-Henri Manesse after a sketch by A. H. Hallam Murray. The portrait of Borrow is by an unidentified artist and is reproduced from the 1920 Dent edition of The Life of George Borrow by Clement K. Shorter. The bottom illustration, taken again from the Murray edition, is an etching of Toledo by Manesse; the original artist is unidentified. 

My Thanks to Dr. Hartwig

Hartwig 1

Grove Koger

That’s Dr. George Hartwig, who was born in 1813 and died in 1880. I can’t find any more information about him aside from the facts that his middle name was Ludwig, that (according to the Cambridge University Press, he was a “German scientific writer”) and that he wrote about natural history. There are two reasons for my interest in him: his Polar and Tropical Worlds was of the many books my parents bought for me from Boise’s Book Shop decades ago, and Scarecrow Press adapted the book’s presentation page as the cover image for my 2002 book, When the Going Was Good.

That’s Dr. George Hartwig, who was born in 1813 and died in 1880. I can’t find any more information about him aside from the facts that his middle name was Ludwig, that (according to the Cambridge University Press, he was a “German scientific writer”) and that he wrote about natural history. There are two reasons for my interest in him: his Polar and Tropical Worlds was of the many books my parents bought for me from Boise’s Book Shop decades ago, and Scarecrow Press adapted the book’s presentation page as the cover image for my 2002 book, When the Going Was Good.


The Polar and Tropical Worlds carries a somewhat involved but not exactly arresting subtitle: A Popular and Scientific Description of Man and Nature in the Polar and Equatorial Regions of the Globe. Two Volumes in One. Embracing the Combined Results of All the Explorations, Researches and Discoveries of Modern Times. I found the illustrations fascinating, and although the subtitle suggested a pedantic treatment of those “combined results,” the writing wasn’t bad at all. Consider these sentences, taken from a description of a “khamsin or simoom,” a desert storm common in the Sahara:

“The crystal transparency of the sky is veiled with a hazy dimness. The wind rises and blows in intermittent gusts, like the laborious breathing of a feverish patient. Gradually the convulsions of the storm grow more violent and frequent; and although the sun is unable to pierce the thick dust-clouds, and the shadow of the traveler is scarcely visible on he ground, yet so suffocating is the heat, that it seems to him as if the fiercest rays of the sun were scorching his brain.”

The book’s presentation page carries what was, for me, a tantalizing image. Oddly enough, however, my copy bears the inscription “Presented to John by Mother / Dec. 19, 1929” on one of the blank pages preceding it. Did the woman feel that the presentation page itself was too attractive to write on?

Hartwig 1

In any case, this edition of The Polar and Tropical Worlds was edited by Dr. A.H. Guernsey, the Scientific Editor of the American Cyclopedia, and was published in 1877 by C.A. Nichols & Co., Springfield, Mass., and Hugh Heron, Chicago, Ill. WorldCat tells me that it was one of a number of English-language editions of the work, which suggests that it was widely read. In fact, a passage I’ve run across in Marta McDowell’s book The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2017) confirms the fact. In it, McDowell writes that “Carrie and Grace were now old enough to enjoy Pa’s ‘big green book’ on their own, as Mary and Laura had done. The Polar and Tropical Worlds, a three-inch volume bound in emerald cloth and embossed with gold, combined two natural history books by a popular science writer,” and so on. McDowell adds that “the book’s animals were the biggest draw for the Ingalls girls.” For me, on the other hand, its maps and its depictions of tropical plant life (admittedly a bit dim) were its most exciting aspects.

I can’t help but be struck by how these many worlds—Dr. Hartwig’s, John’s, his mother’s, Marta McDowell’s, the Wilder girls’, and my own—have converged. I’m not sure there’s any meaning to the convergence, but it’s a reminder that our individual worlds are much wider and richer than we may realize.

The Death of a Tortoise

Lonesome George - Stamp

Grove Koger

I’ve reached back to 2017 for this piece, but I think it’s as relevant today as when I entered it in a contest sponsored by the Idaho Writers Guild. I’m proud to say that it won First Place in Essays that year and was subsequently published in The Amsterdam Quarterly and The Amsterdam Quarterly Yearbook.


The morning of June 24, 2012, was a somber one at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Located on the island of Santa Cruz in Ecuador’s Galapagos Archipelago, the station had long been the home of what was believed to be the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise. But that morning his caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found him dead in his corral, the apparent victim of nothing more dramatic than old age.

The tortoise had been discovered on Pinta Island in November 1971 and transported to Santa Cruz for his own good, as his subspecies—known to herpetologists as Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni—had been considered extinct since 1906. Dubbed Lonesome George, he had become an icon of efforts to preserve the earth’s endangered species.

Pinta was once home to untold numbers of George’s brethren, but they were hunted down throughout the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by pirates and whalers. Darwin commented on their decimation throughout the islands during his visit aboard the Beagle in 1835, while noting the suggestive differences among the populations as well. Then fishermen dealt another blow to the surviving tortoises by releasing goats on Pinta in 1959, planning to slaughter and eat them as needed during their long fishing expeditions. Within a decade the goat population had grown to an estimated 40,000 individuals, destroying most of the island’s plant life in the process. It was at the height of this devastation that a scientist discovered the lone tortoise, and in 1972 rangers for the Galapagos National Park transported the animal to the research station.

Charles_Darwin_Research_Station - TriiipleThreat

Over the years scientists introduced female tortoises from a closely related Isabela Island subspecies into George’s pen, hoping to produce a population that, although hybrid, would nevertheless preserve George’s DNA. When it was determined that George was actually more closely related to a subspecies on Española, two females from that island were substituted. But while the females laid several clutches of eggs, none hatched.

After George’s death, his body was transported to the American Museum of Natural History for preservation by noted taxidermist George Dante and a short period of display. “This is absolutely the most important project you could ever do in your life,” Dante says of the assignment. Determined to capture the tortoise’s personality as well as preserve his body, he questioned those who had taken care of the animal. “Everyone you talked to had a different story about George,” he recalls. “They knew every wrinkle on this animal.”

Preserved in a suitably regal and lifelike stance, George’s body was scheduled for permanent exhibit at the Santa Cruz research station where he had lived so long. However, Ecuadorian officials insisted that he be displayed in the country’s capital, Quito, where environmental conditions could be controlled more carefully, and a bronze replica shipped to Santa Cruz.

Tortoise - White

Questions of extinction aside—and they are certainly profound ones—there’s something about tortoises that appeals deeply to us. “Poor, lumbering creatures” we say, admiring their stubborn patience yet thankful not to be in their place. Of course George is far from being the first individual tortoise to have caught the attention of mankind. Think of Aesop’s fable in which the hare, certain of winning the race, settles down for a nap, while the tortoise—stubbornly and patiently—pushes on to the finish line.

Eighteenth-century English naturalist Gilbert White wrote affectionately of a Greek, or spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) named Timothy who had been bought from a sailor in 1740 and was eventually given free range of White’s garden at Selborne in Hampshire. (The designation “Greek” refers to the species of tortoise rather than its original home, which in Timothy’s case was never known.) Upon Timothy’s disappearance from the garden in late spring of 1784, White lamented that he “should be sorry to lose so old a domestic, who has behaved himself in so blameless a manner in the family for near fifty years.” Fortunately the old boy was found ten days later in a nearby field. Timothy died at about the age of 64 in 1794, surviving his famous owner by one year, and was only then identified as being an old girl.

Timothy the Tortoise

Yet another spur-thighed tortoise named Timothy was a well-known resident of the rose garden of Powderham Castle in Devonshire until 2004. Taken off a Portuguese ship in 1854 during the Crimean War, he lived as a mascot aboard various vessels of the Royal Navy until given a home with the Courtenay family. Apparently perturbed by the vibrations of bombs dropping on nearby Exeter during a much later conflict—World War II—Timothy dug himself a shelter under a set of terrace steps. He was 160 or so at the time of his death. His last owner, Lady Gabrielle Courtenay, who was then 91 herself, remarked that “you could call him, and he would come and say hello and have a strawberry.” In 1926 a scientist had determined that, like White’s beloved reptile, this Timothy was actually a female, but the name stuck.

To this day a genuinely Greek tortoise, but one of undetermined gender, lives in the ancient Agora in Athens, where it has become something of a tourist attraction. Maggie and I encountered it one afternoon in 2011 as it trudged through the dry grass for a drink at a shallow basin provided by the Agora’s staff, then retreated to a sheltered corner amidst a tumble of ancient masonry. Its life appears carefree, but in the midst of the economic calamity that has befallen Greece, it’s hard not to view its stubbornness and patience—those qualities again!—in a symbolic light. The animal has appeared in several YouTube videos, and may well be of greater interest to many tourists than the ruins it lives amidst.

Agora tortoise 2011 - 1

Today Pinta is goat-free, thanks to a project in which the island’s feral invaders were hunted down, but no more of its once-plentiful tortoises have been found. So is this the end of the line for Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni? Maybe not. After Lonesome George’s death, it was discovered that seventeen tortoises from the remote Volcano Wolf area of Isabela Island (the home, you’ll remember, of the first of George’s would-be mates) actually carry some of the genes of the Pinta Island tortoise, and that one of them is an eighty percent match. Given that five of the seventeen are juveniles, there’s a distinct possibility that purebred examples may yet live in the same area.

Others tortoises from Volcano Wolf carry the genes of the Floreana Island tortoise, also considered extinct. Authorities suspect that the crews of whaling vessels may have captured the Pinta and Floreana tortoises for food but later threw them overboard when they weren’t needed. Over the subsequent decades the animals would have mated with their distant Isabela relatives—or maybe, just maybe, among themselves.

Now efforts are underway to establish a captive-breeding program for the two subspecies, with plans of eventually reintroducing them to their original homes to help restore the islands’ ecosystems. “The word ‘extinction’ signifies the point of no return,” explains Yale University professor Dr. Adalgisa Caccone, a member of the research team working on Isabela. “Yet new technology can sometimes provide hope in challenging the irrevocable nature of this concept.”

And maybe, just maybe, George’s cousins will win their crucial race after all.


The image at the top of today’s post is a stamp from Ecuador commemorating the death of Lonesome George. (In case you’re wondering, modern stamps from the country routinely show the denomination in US dollars.) The second image, by Triiiple Threat,  shows the Charles Darwin Research Station and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The third image reproduces the cover of a selection from Gilbert White’s journals dealing with his spur-thighed tortoise Timothy (New York: Avon/Discus, 1982), while the fourth reproduces the cover of Rory Knight Bruce’s 2004 book about Powderham Castle’s Timothy (London: Orion). The photograph of the Greek tortoise near the bottom is one we took in Athens’ Agora. 

Celebrating Slovenia’s Honey Bees


Grove Koger

A recent Time Magazine article about Slovenia’s thriving beekeeping industry reminded Maggie and me of our visit to the Museum of Apiculture in the picturesque little town of Radovljica in 2013. We were staying on the shores of Lake Bled (see my post for September 23, 2018), but Radovljica was only a short bus ride away.

As it turned out, the Museum of Apiculture is housed in the town’s handsome manor house on Linhart Square. The institution celebrates the work of several eighteenth-century figures instrumental to the development of beekeeping in the region, including  Anton Janša (1734 ̶ 1773), who taught beekeeping in Vienna, lectured about the practice throughout the Austrian Empire (which then included Slovenia), and introduced a squared-off design for beehives that allowed them to be stacked. Since 2018, his birthday of May 20 has been celebrated as World Bee Day.

Bee 4 IMGP2134

During the second half of the eighteenth century, it became common for Slovenians (including Janša himself) to paint the front boards of their hives with fanciful scenes drawn from the Bible and folklore. Within a few decades, the practice spread throughout the region and blossomed into a kind of folk art. The Museum of Apiculture boasts nearly 250 of these boards, including an example dating from 1758. It also displays antique beekeeping equipment, a long cart loaded with traditional Slovenian hives, and a large glass-fronted exhibit of framed honeycombs in which you can watch the industrious little insects at work. 

Beehive_panel - 2

Slovenia’s bees thrive thanks to the country’s many linden trees and fields of buckwheat. It can even boast an indigenous variety, the Carniolan, or Apis mellifera carnica, which is renowned for its gentleness and its ability to adapt quickly to changing weather patterns. The Time article I mentioned points out that one out of every 200 Slovenians keeps bees, and that while populations of the vital insects are on the decline in many parts of the world, the number of colonies in Slovenia has actually been growing by about 2 percent per year. See https://time.com/5815141/slovenia-bees-climate-change/ for the entire article. My father was a beekeeper, so I’m always glad to see any good news about the practice.

After we left the museum early that afternoon, Maggie and I happened upon a restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the lush Sava River Valley, and there we enjoyed another of Slovenia’s claims to fame, its plump porcini mushrooms. 

Radolca 1

The image at the top of today’s post is what philatelists call a souvenir sheet, this one issued by Slovenia in 2018 in honor of the first World Bee Day. It includes an actual stamp as well as a portrait of Anton Janša on the selvage. The photograph (one of our own) shows a cart of antique beehives, while the third image is a nineteenth-century painted board from the museum’s collection, reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of the Sava River Valley at the bottom is also one of our own.

John Ireland, Arthur Machen, & the Silent Dancers

Harrow Hill - Simon Carey - Wikipedia

Grove Koger

The friendship between English composer John Ireland and Welsh writer Arthur Machen marks the unusual confluence of two interests of mine, modern British romantic music and supernatural literature. So it’s been a pleasure to investigate the details of the relationship between the two.  

Ireland - 2

Having bought a copy of Machen’s collection The House of Souls in 1906 and the short novel The Hill of Dreams the following year, Ireland realized that he had happened upon a kindred soul, as both he and Machen were deeply interested in prehistory and in the pagan practices that seemed to them to have survived to their own day in various out-of-the way places.

A number of Ireland’s works bear out his argument, made frequently over subsequent years, that no listener could really understand his music who had not read and understood Machen first. This is particularly true of his large-scale symphonic rhapsody Maidun, the symphonic prelude The Forgotten Rite, and Legend, scored for piano and orchestra and dedicated to Machen himself.

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Legend was inspired by Harrow Hill, which lies in West Sussex north of the village of Patching. The modest, gently sloped hill (see the image at the top of the post) has been found to hold the remains of Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age settlements as well as older Neolithic flint mines. An online site about the hill maintained by the Sussex Archaeological Society describes the surrounding area as a “very rich archaeological landscape” (http://www.sussexarch.org.uk/saaf/harrowhill.html).

It was to a familiar spot in this storied landscape that Ireland had carried a picnic lunch one day, but before he could begin eating, he noticed a group of children dancing silently nearby. He had time to take in the fact that they wore “archaic clothing,” but then, when he happened to glance away briefly, the dancers disappeared. Ireland subsequently described his experience in a long letter to Machen, who replied, on a postcard: “So you’ve seen them, too!”

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It’s that experience that Ireland recalls in the central section of Legend. The piece has been recorded a number of times, but you can find several versions on YouTube, including a live performance featuring Nigerian-Romanian pianist Rebeca Omordia and the National Music University’s Universitaria SO in Bucharest at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjYExV1zAQY.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that I have excellent peripheral vision; I see things at the “edge” that others miss. But experiences such as those that Ireland and Machen underwent lead me to wonder whether there might be more peripheries than the kind we normally speak of—and whether there might be individuals whose vision is more finely attuned to them.


The Harrow Hill story has been retold a number of times, but my primary source has been John Ireland: The Man and His Music, by Muriel V. Searle (Midas Books, 1979).

The photograph of Harrow Hill was taken by Simon Carey, is reproduced from Wikipedia, and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The photograph of Ireland shows him standing before Rock Mill, his home from 1953 until his death on June 12, 1962, and is reproduced courtesy of the John Ireland Charitable Trust. The cover illustration for House of Souls is from the first edition (London: Grant Richards, 1906) and is by Sidney Sime, while the portrait of Machen is reproduced from the Tales of Mystery and Imagination blog. 



How Mr. Williams Spent His Summer Vacation

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Grove Koger

Mr. William Williams, that is. I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of him, almost positive, in fact. But he wrote a little book called My Summer in the Alps, 1913, and reading it recently and tracking down some information about him has turned out to be an interesting exercise.

I bought the book for a dollar in Boise’s Book Shop decades ago, when I bought anything I could put my hands on that looked the least bit exotic. But the truth is that after glancing at it briefly, I put it on the shelf, and that was it for a long time.

Now I’ve taken a closer look.

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My Summer in the Alps was privately printed in New York in 1914, or MCMXIV, as the title page has it. The book is 19 cm. wide by 27 high and is printed on crisp paper. The pages are deckle-edged (untrimmed), itself an indication of quality, and tissue guards have been tipped in to keep the handsome photogravure illustrations (taken from photographs by the Zurich, Switzerland, firm of Wehrli, Kilchberg) from offsetting (transferring ink) to the opposite pages. My Summer runs to 21 numbered pages, and on the verso of the last appears the following edition statement: “THREE HUNDRED COPIES ON DUTCH HANDMADE PAPER PRIVATELY PRINTED FOR THE AUTHOR BY FREDERIC FAIRCHILD SHERMAN MCMXIV.” What’s more, as the verso of the title page makes clear, Williams took the trouble of copyrighting the work. All in all, My Summer is a small but handsome example of bookmaking at its finest.

What about Williams himself? It took some searching, but thanks to WorldCat, the immense online union library catalog, which has an entry for the book, I learned that Williams was born in 1862. With that information and a bit of patience, I tracked down obituaries for him that had been printed by the American Alpine Club and the Alpine Journal in 1947.

It seems that Williams was born in New London, Connecticut, on June 2, 1862. He attended Bellerive School in Vevey, Switzerland, on the north shore of Lake Geneva; received a B.A. from Yale in 1884 and an LL.B. from Harvard four years later; worked for a time in a law firm in New York City; and served in the quartermaster’s department in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. He went into private law practice at the beginning of the twentieth century, but over time held a number of government positions as well, working for instance as Commissioner of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity for New York City from 1914 to 1917.

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More to the point, Williams began climbing at the age of 13, joining London’s Alpine Club (publisher of the Alpine Journal mentioned above) in 1882 and the American Alpine Club in 1921. He wrote at least one other book, A Summer Trip to Ecuador, at some point. It also ran to 21 pages, but WorldCat doesn’t provide the name of its printer, its place of publication, or even its date.

Williams died in 1947 (the year of my birth, coincidentally) in his room at New York City’s renowned University Club, where he had lived since 1899. He had been recognized, according to the Alpine Journal, as “one of the four oldest active tennis players in the world.” In a tribute printed in the Journal, E.L. Strutt remembered him as “a strong mountaineer, equally good on ice or rock, possessed of an excellent judgment, and also one of the best of companions and friends.”

I’m fascinated with Williams’ precisely because he reveled in activities that would have frightened me beyond measure, even assuming I had the strength and perseverance to attempt them. I’m an extreme acrophobe whose aim is to spend as much time as possible on the ground, preferably at sea level, and preferably in a hot climate. But Williams found the heights and the snow and the ice of the Alps bracing. It’s impossible not to be impressed.

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As he recounts in his plainly written book, Williams and his party departed for one excursion across the Alphubel Pass in Switzerland to the valley of Saas at 2:30 in the morning. It was, he wrote “good to be again walking in that crisp morning air, and glorious scenery of rock, ice and snow.” They reached the summit of the pass (about 12,500 feet elevation) at 7:40, but shortly afterward “it became very hot, the snow soft and the going heavy. We were constantly sinking in below our knees …”

Another morning, they set out even earlier, at 1:30, for an ascent and went on to spend more than six hours climbing. “The condition of the snow was not particularly good, but neither was it bad,” Williams wrote. And the weather? The party experienced “all sorts”—a snow storm, then clear skies, then a strong wind of 30 to 40 miles per hour and temperatures “well below freezing; which conditions, taken in connection with the rarity of the air above 14,000 feet, rendered the last part of the climb a very chilly affair.” Etc., etc.

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The book’s climax comes as Williams assays a truly daunting series of aiguilles (rocky peaks) in the commune of Chamonix in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France. “Their rocks are firm and offer passages about as difficult as it is possible for human beings to ascend or descend without artificial aid; indeed, to the uninitiated some of the places … must often seem quite inaccessible.” In this case, by the way, Williams and his party had departed at 2:00 AM.

Williams’ adventures, remember, took place during the summer! But the man was also “extremely keen on winter expeditions,” remembered his friend Strutt. I wonder how early he liked to get up then …

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The image at the top of today’s post shows the Alphubel Pass, the scene of one of the first of Williams’ “excursions,” with the Swiss village of Saas-Fee—the “Pearl of the Alps”—in the foreground. The second is Mont Blanc and the third the Matterhorn. The fourth shows the five summits of the Aiguille des Grandes Charmoz (beneath the tiny “x” above the frame), while the fifth is a closeup of one of the five. At the bottom is the slightly soiled cover of my copy, which somehow made it to Boise, Idaho, more than half a century ago.