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.

Lawrence on the Move

Grove Koger

Today’s entry from my book When the Going Was Good deals with D.H. Lawrence’s classic account of a trip to Sardinia that he and his wife took in early 1921.  


Sea and Sardinia (New York: Seltzer, 1921)

Lawrence spent only a few days on the large Italian island of Sardinia, but the very brevity of his visit helped make the resulting account his most coherent travel book. He had quit England in 1919, hounded by charges of pornography, evasion of military conscription (his health was already poor), and even espionage, and was now living on the Italian island of Sicily with Frieda, whom he had married in 1914. But then—as one of the most delicious opening lines in travel literature has it—“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”

Lawrence and Frieda made their trip in early January 1921, taking a ferry from Palermo to Cagliari in the south of Sardinia and proceeding northward by train and bus and automobile.  Lawrence’s record is intimate, livelier than Twilight in Italy, and spiced with a self-deprecating humor. “I was surprised,” he writes in a typical passage, “how well the small engine took the continuous steep slopes, how bravely it emerged on the sky-line. It is a queer railway. I would like to know who made it. It pelts up hill and down dale and round sudden bends in the most unconcerned fashion, not as proper big railways do, grunting inside deep cuttings and stinking their way through tunnels, but running up the hill like a panting, small dog, and having a look round, and starting off in another direction, whisking us behind unconcernedly. This is much more fun than the tunnel-and-cutting system.”

Sardinia in January was “deathly cold,” the food was bad and the accommodations worse. Yet the severe and uncompromising character of the island brought out the very best in the writer, encouraging him to produce one of his happiest works.

The 1950 Heinemann edition (London) of Sea and Sardinia and several subsequent editions contain an introduction by Lawrence’s friend Richard Aldington. The volume in the “Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H Lawrence” (Cambridge, 1997) is aimed at the scholar and is edited with an introduction by Mara Kalnins. The Penguin edition (New York, 1999) draws its contents from the Cambridge edition and includes an introduction and notes by Jill Frank as well as a useful chronology of Lawrence’s life.

For further information on Lawrence the travel writer, I recommend: Paul Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Leo Hamalian, D.H. Lawrence in Italy (New York: Taplinger, 1982); Jeffrey Meyers, D.H. Lawrence and the Experience of Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982); Poste Restante: A Lawrence Travel Calendar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956); and Billy T. Tracy, D.H. Lawrence and the Literature of Travel (Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press, 1983). As to who made the railway that Lawrence and Frieda took, P.M. Kalla-Bishop devotes two detailed chapters to Sardinia’s lines in Mediterranean Island Railways (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970), offering a realistic counterpoint to Lawrence’s more impressionistic account.

The image at the top of today’s post reproduces the cover of my Penguin edition, which features a detail from Jan Juta’s Tonara, one of eight original illustrations that Juta (1895-1990), another of Lawrence’s friends, prepared for the first edition of Sea and Sardinia. The second image reproduces the dust jacket of the first edition and features another illustration by Juta. The third image is the cover of my copy of P.M. Kalla-Bishop’s history.

Roger Vercel’s Heroic Captain

Grove Koger

Today’s entry in the series I’m calling “Sea Fever” deals with a novel by Roger Vercel, who died February 26, 1957.


Remorques (Paris: A. Michel, 1935). Tug-Boat, trans. by Warre Bradley Wells (London: Chatto & Windus, 1936); as Salvage (New York: Harper, 1936)

Born in Le Mans in 1894, Roger Vercel was studying at the University of Caen when World War I broke out. He saw service in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, returning to France at war’s end to teach in the little Breton town of Dinan. His first, psychologically acute novel, based on his experiences in the Balkans and translated as Captain Conan, appeared in 1930 and won the Prix Goncourt. Although he often wrote about the sea, Vercel seems to have had little actual sailing experience. As he said of one of his works, “I made the trip under the lamp at home, leaning over maps and compasses.”

The protagonist of Salvage, Captain Renaud, has sailed wooden ships around Cape Horn. But the days of sail are long past, and Renaud now commands a salvage tug, the Cyclone, out of the northwestern French port of Brest. The bulk of Salvage is taken up with a meticulous description of the rescue of a Greek freighter that has foundered in a terrible storm—an operation that repeatedly goes wrong as the freighter’s panic-stricken crew undermine their rescue and as the several hawsers that the Cyclone has attached to the freighter break in the storm’s fury.

Vercel advances his story as stolidly as Renaud and his crew carry out their mission: “It was a tacit rule of honour … never to be taken aback by anything that happened at sea.” Yet Renaud ultimately finds himself undone by the very relationship that has buoyed him up for so long and that he has always taken for granted—his marriage. Perhaps inevitably, Vercel has been called the French Conrad, and like his British counterpart, he finds relationships between the sexes problematic and even debilitating.

Besides his sea novels, Vercel wrote about the port of Saint-Malo, which lies a few miles downriver from his adopted home of Dinan, in Saint-Malo et l’âme malouine. To read my posts about the two locations, which Maggie and I visited in 2001, see “On Our Way to the Emerald Coast” and “France’s Enchanted Emerald Coast.”


The cover of the 1950 Pantheon edition at the top of today’s post features a painting by Jean Gradassi. The photograph of Vercel at a book signing in 1935 is by Luc Walterspiler and is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The bottom image is the cover of the 1982 Albin Michel edition of Vercel’s book about St.-Malo.

Counting the Sirens

Grove Koger

I’ve recently completed two essays involving sirens, and, as I compiled what little information I could find about the creatures, I noticed a surprising point. Their earliest appearance in the literature that has come down to us is in Book 12 of the Odyssey, where they attempt to lure Odysseus and his men onto their island. The means of their appeal is said to be their song, which is so beguiling that none who hear it can resist it. As you probably remember, Odysseus takes Circe’s advice and gets around this problem by filling his sailors’ ears with wax and ordering them to tie him to the mast before they row past the sirens’ dangerous lair.

Aside from the sirens’ physical appearance—they evolved over time from women with avian aspects to women with piscine aspects—there was the question of number. How many were there? If you’re like me, you picture a dozen or so, but the translation I was working from, the 1996 version from Robert Fagles, doesn’t specify. My real problem arose, however, when I consulted other sources, only to be assured, again and again, that Homer refers to two. No, I thought, checking Fagles again; in his version, Homer doesn’t say. Fagles provides notes on the text, but none addresses the question of sirens.

Next, I turned to another noted translation, this one by Robert Fitzgerald from 1961, and was more than a little surprised to read, “Soon, / as we came smartly within hailing distance, / the two Seirênês, noting our fast ship / off their point, made ready,” and so on. Hmmm. The issue was scarcely a major one, but I didn’t want to make an error, so I sidestepped the issue and finished my essays.

The question continued to bother me, however, and I did my best to consult an online version of the Odyssey in ancient Greek in the Perseus Digital Library, which is maintained by Tufts University. But although I thought I knew the word for sirens in Greek, I couldn’t spot it. So I turned to someone who might have knowledge of the ancient version of the language, my good friend Dr. Pamela Francis, who’s a fellow-member of the International Lawrence Durrell Society and an Associate Lecturer of English at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. She couldn’t help me, but she knew someone who could: her colleague Dr. Morris Tichenor, who graciously checked the Perseus text and came up with an answer almost immediately. As he explained, “In ancient Greek, a noun can be one of three ‘numbers’: singular, plural, and the supercool and ultrarare dual, used mostly in epic and only when there are specifically two of something.” Putting the site’s online glossing function to work, he identified the key word—σειρήνοιιν—as feminine, genitive, and dual!

We’ve all heard that Homer nods, but apparently Fagles nods too, which I find reassuring.

In any case, the number of sirens grew over time to eight, and ancient mythographers even created genealogies for them. Nearer our own day, poet and classicist Robert Graves identified eleven in his Greek Myths (1955). However, we’ve long since lost track of whatever dangerous reef or psychologically charged folktale gave rise to the stories of the strange creatures in the first place.

I’ve had good luck writing about sirens. My short story involving them, “The Happiest Man Alive, was published in the September 2018 issue of the Bosphorus Review of Books. And my essay “In Search of the Sirens,” in which I discuss the possible location of the creatures’ island(s), is scheduled to appear in the first issue of Seaborne in March.


The image at the top of today’s post is a detail from an Attic red-figure stamnos depicting Odysseus and the sirens; it dates from ca. 480-470 BCE and is reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. The second image is John William Waterhouse’s 1891 painting Ulysses and the Sirens and is reproduced courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. The third is a 1909 painting with the same title by Herbert James Draper, reproduced courtesy of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, England.  

The Mystery of Balta Island

Grove Koger

My good friend Bill Cope recently asked me to take up my old role of reference librarian, and I’m glad to say that, after a bit of flailing around, I was able to help him.

Bill’s question involved the island of Balta in the subarctic Shetland archipelago north of mainland Scotland. He’d noticed a reference to it, he said, because he’d once read a book about a famous sled dog named Balto, which is another story for another day. In any case, Bill had used the satellite feature of Google Maps to look as closely as he could at the island simply to see what could be seen, which, given Balta’s small size (some 200 acres), and northerly latitude (60°45′3.6″ N), wasn’t much. But as he zeroed in, he noticed circular patterns in the waters just off the island’s shores. Were they, he wondered, evidence of some defect in Google Maps? Or were they really there? And if so, what were they?

We both speculated for a moment, and I suspected that Bill was seeing storage tanks for petroleum, which of course is being extracted all over the North Sea. However, when I looked up Balta in Wikipedia, which I use frequently but cautiously, there was no mention of oil. I learned that the island does have the northernmost fish farm and fish hatchery in the United Kingdom, but since I don’t eat fish, I didn’t give the matter much thought.

Next, I turned directly to Google Maps, and sure enough, there were the circles Bill was seeing, two sets of ten apiece just off the island’s western shore. But they looked so regular—so perfectly circular—that, like Bill, I wondered whether they were some sort of defect in Google’s imaging process. You can see what we were seeing here.

The more I looked, however, the more I read about fish farming, so I did an image search under “Balta” and “fish farming,” and sure enough, we were seeing fish cages, which I admit was an entirely new concept to me. They’re essentially large, circular nets that are open at the top and closed at the bottom. Some are designed to float at the water’s surface, but others are apparently suspended below the surface. Those being used at Balta are the former variety, and are being used to raise salmon.

I also ran across announcements that Cooke Aquaculture Scotland bought a company named Balta Island Seafare in 2016, and, given that information, found a YouTube video promoting the Cooke operation, although I’m not sure we’re seeing Balta itself.


Bill, by the way, was the liveliest writer working for Boise Weekly back in the day. I appeared there very occasionally, but he maintained a weekly schedule, year after year. I was able to help him with research from time to time, and it’s been a pleasure to do so again. You can see a selection of Bill’s columns here.


The photograph at the top of today’s post shows the beach at South Links, Balta, and the second shows some of Balta’s residents with fish cages and the nature reserve known as the Keen of Hamar beyond. Both were taken by Mike Pennington and are reproduced courtesy of Geograph.

Jules Verne Sets Out

Grove Koger

Today’s post is about the early life of an enormously influential French novelist who was born February 2, 1828—Jules Verne. It’s drawn from my article “Extraordinary Voyages: Jules Verne’s Geographical Imagination,” which originally appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of Mercator’s World.


When Jules Verne (1828-1905) was a child, he decided to run away to sea. Accompanied by two friends, he rowed out to a ship anchored near his family’s summer home on the Loire River and signed on as a cabin boy. Had the Coralie not put in subsequently at the nearby port of Paimboeuf, allowing Verne’s father to catch up with him, he might well have reached the Indies. It was 1839, and Jules was eleven.

It’s a fine story, and it offers a handy key to the mind of a writer who set so many of his stories at sea, or beneath it. Yet Verne published no account of the escapade during his lifetime, and it almost certainly never took place, even though it became enshrined in family legend and has been repeated in many biographies. Verne grew up in the western French port of Nantes, and like many youths he dreamed of ships and the sea, but in the story of the Coralie we meet the daring boy that Verne and his readers wanted him to be, not the timid boy he really was.

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What is beyond doubt is that the writer subsequently underwent a young man’s typical struggle between his father’s expectations and his own ambitions. Verne studied law, but he lived and breathed literature. That his legal studies had taken him to Paris in 1846 was surely fortuitous. Verne’s first literary efforts were boulevard dramas, but what little success he enjoyed in the theatre seems to have been due to his friendship with Alexandre Dumas pere and fils. Several short stories Verne published in 1851–“The First Ships of the Mexican Navy” and “A Balloon Trip”–suggested a different direction, but it was to be more than a decade before he found a winning formula.

By 1863 European explorers such as Richard Burton and Heinrich Barth had penetrated deep into Africa. The public anxiously awaited word from James Grant and John Speke about the source of the Nile River. In January of that year, Parisians woke up to read the exciting account of one Dr. Samuel Ferguson, who, thanks to the backing of the Daily Telegraph in London, had set out to cross the continent with two companions—by hydrogen balloon! According to the report, Ferguson had solved some of the most vexing problems involved in long balloon flights—the apparent necessity of releasing precious gas or dropping ballast from time to time in order to control the craft’s  altitude.

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Five Weeks in a Balloon was the first of an array of novels, novellas, and short stories that Verne and his publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, would call “Les Voyages extraordinaires.” Hereafter, most of Verne’s works made their first appearance in Hetzel’s Magasin d’éducation et de recreation. The astute publisher contracted with Verne to handle the author’s works in periodical form, followed by book publication. Over the years this arrangement, revised several times, would make Verne rich, allowing him to move his family to the quiet northern French town of Amiens and to buy a series of yachts.

Chekhov’s Grim Journey East

Grove Koger

Today’s post from my book When the Going Was Good deals with a highly unusual travel narrative by a writer known primarily for his plays and short stories, Anton Chekhov, who was born January 29, 1860.


The Island of Sakhalin: Travel Notes (Ostrov Sakhalin: Izputevykh zapisok; Moscow: Russkaya mysl’, 1895)

Although educated as a doctor, Anton Chekhov had developed an early interest in literature and the theater. By the time he was thirty he had written a number of stories and plays, including his first notable achievement in the latter category, Ivanov. In this 1887 play, Chekhov treated the familiar Russian subject of the “superfluous” man, a theme whose suggestions of spiritual crisis had personal meaning. He already knew that he had tuberculosis, and after his brother Nikolai died in 1889 and another play received a critical drubbing, he announced that he wanted to “live for half a year as I have never lived up to this time.”

Chekhov had always enjoyed reading explorers’ accounts, and now resolved to visit the island of Sakhalin, a grim penal colony lying half a world away off the coast of Siberia. After receiving official permission, he set out in May 1890, but it took him nearly three months to complete the journey (by train, carriage, and riverboat) to Russia’s eastern seaboard. Chekhov stayed another three months on the island itself, conducting an examination of the colony’s administration and taking a numbingly thorough census of its population.

The Island of Sakhalin actuallybegins with Chekhov’s arrival at the port of Nikolayevsk near the island. The book combines aspects of a travelogue with meticulous observations of the lives of prisoners, guards, and exiles. Chekhov describes the island’s terrifying natural setting and ferocious weather, notes the degradation of its landscape by its colonizers, and observes the brutalizing effect of imprisonment and corporal punishment upon its inhabitants—all in the same determinedly detached tone. In a letter home, Chekhov called Sakhalin “hell,” but in his book he was a firm if sympathetic doctor, intent on describing what might well have been the many symptoms of an extraordinary disease. Writing in the New Yorker in 2015, Indian-American author Akhil Sharma called it “the best work of journalism written in the nineteenth century.”

The editions of Chekhov’s book published by Washington Square Press (New York, 1967) and Greenwood Press (Westport, Conn., 1977) as The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin include an introduction by Robert Payne; however, the translation by Luba and Michael Terpak has been criticized as inaccurate. Subsequent editions from Century (London, 1987) and the Folio Society (London, 1989) reproduce the same translation but include an introduction by Irina Ratushinskaya. The Ian Faulkner edition (Cambridge, 1993) published as A Journey to Sakhalin is translated and introduced by Brian Reeve and includes “Across Siberia,” Chekhov’s account of the first part of his journey, as well as an introduction, notes, maps, several appendices, and a selection of period photographs.

For more information about the author, I recommend Toby W. Clyman, ed., A Chekhov Companion (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985); Janet Malcolm, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (New York: Random House, 2001); James McConkey, To a Distant Island (New York: Dutton, 1984); V.S. Pritchett, Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (New York: Random House, 1988); Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life (New York: Holt, 1997); and Juras T. Ryfa, The Problem of Genre and the Quest for Justice in Chekhov’s “The Island of Sakhalin” (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999).


The photograph at the top of today’s post shows the village of Krasnyy Yar on Sakhalin, and is reproduced courtesy of the Aleksandrovsk Municipal History and Literature Museum in Alekandrovsk-Sakhalinskiy. The portrait of Chekhov (by an unknown photographer) dates from 1900 and is reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and the map is reproduced courtesy of the site Open Democracy.

Hanno’s Great Voyage South

Grove Koger

Hanno the Navigator was a Carthaginian seaman living in the fifth century BCE, and what little we know about him we know in a tenuous, roundabout way.

According to Roman author Pliny the Elder (c.23-79), Hanno hung a report in a temple in Carthage (in what’s now Tunisia) of a voyage he had taken down the Atlantic coastline of Africa. Beside his report, he hung three skins, a detail we’ll get back to later. The Navigator’s text was subsequently copied about 400 BCE in an inscription in another Carthaginian temple, and then translated into Greek and copied during the Middle Ages in two Byzantine manuscripts, Codex Palatines Graeus 398 and Codex Vatopedinus 655. Next, Swiss polymath Conrad Gessner translated the text into Latin in 1559. Along the way, portions of the narrative have been lost and others may have been corrupted, but in any case, it’s been given the title Periplus, which means “coastal voyage.”

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Hanno’s mission apparently involved colonization as well as trade, and was probably based on at least some previous knowledge of the coast, as he is said to have sailed with a fleet of 60 penteconters (50-oared ships) and some 30,000 men and women. While these numbers may well be exaggerated, they certainly suggest a large expedition. The Navigator apparently established several settlements on the coast of what’s now Morocco, including Thymiaterion (Kenitra or Mehidy, at 34°15’N; that is, north latitude) and Acra (possibly Agadir, at 30°25’N). The river he refers to as the Lixos may have been the Drâa, which flows into the Atlantic opposite the Canary Islands at 28°45’N.

Hanno probably ventured farther south. But just how far? There’s speculation that he may have reached the Gambia River (13°28’N), south of which the African coastline shifts noticeably to the southeast. It’s at this point that we need to consider two tantalizing mysteries in the text of the Periplus.

In Section 13 of the work, as translated by Wilfred H. Schoff in 1913, we read that Hanno’s ships “came to an immense opening of the sea, from either side of which there was level ground inland; from which at night we saw fire leaping up on every side at intervals, now greater, now less.” Fire shows up again in Section 15, where the expedition “passed by a burning country full of fragrance, from which great torrents of fire flowed down to the sea. But the land could not be come at for the heat.” In the next section, the ships “sailed along with all speed, being stricken by fear.” After rowing four more days, the Carthaginians “saw the land at night covered with flames. And in the midst there was one lofty fire, greater than the rest, which seemed to touch the stars. By day this was seen to be a very high mountain, called ‘chariot of the Gods.’”

This “chariot” could have been Mount Cameroon, which lies at 4°13’N near the Gulf of Guinea in what’s now the nation of Cameroon. It’s known in the local dialect as Mongo ma Ndemi, or “Mountain of Greatness.” At 13,435 feet high, it’s easily the highest point in the region. And it’s an active volcano. In fact, it’s part of a chain of volcanic islands nearly a thousand miles long known as the Cameroon Line that includes the islands of Bioko, Príncipe, São Tomé (which lies practically on the equator), and Annobón (Pagalu).

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Another mystery involves the skins that Hanno hung up beside his report. The final section of his report refers to an island with a lake, within which there is another island “full of savage men. There were women too, in even greater number.” These savages had “hairy bodies,” and although the men escaped “by climbing the steep places and defending themselves with stones,” the Carthaginians “took three of the women,” whom they killed and skinned when the creatures “bit and scratched” and “would not follow.” In his translation, Schoff refers to these creatures as “Gorillæ,” but the animals we call gorillas don’t throw stones. On the other hand, chimpanzees do, and one population of the apes is found in West Africa just south of the Gambia River. Two others can be found near Mount Cameroon.

Taken together, these clues suggest that Hanno’s fleet may have reached the westernmost point of the African continent, which lies just north of the Gambia River, or even approached the equator. On the other hand, most modern authorities doubt that the Navigator’s fleet could have returned if it had sailed past Cape Bojador (at 26°7’N), as the currents and winds would have been against them. Although the Carthaginian ships were equipped with fifty oars apiece, rowing against the currents for any distance would have been a Herculean task.

Making our analysis even more difficult, Hanno may have altered the descriptions of the places he visited in order to throw off competing traders from other countries. We’ll probably never know the real extent of his travels, but—based on the clues in the Periplus—it seems likely that he or his fellow countrymen possessed at least fragmentary knowledge of tropical Africa.


The quotations in today’s post are taken from The Periplus of Hanno; A Voyage of Discovery down the West African Coast, by a Carthaginian Admiral of the Fifth Century B.C.; The Greek Text, with a Translation by Wilfred H. Schoff (Philadelphia: Commercial Museum, 1913). Surprisingly little about Hanno has been published in English; the most useful source I’ve found is the book Carthage: A History, by French historian and archaeologist Serge Lancel, translated by Antonia Nevill and published by Blackwell in 1995.


The image at the top of today’s post is a 1754 map illustrating Hanno’s possible route down the coast of West Africa, with the island of São Tomé shown, slightly out of its true position, on the equator. The second image shows a Phoenician ship on a coin minted during the reign of King Tennes of Sidon, who ruled in the 4th century BCE. (Carthage was originally a Phoenician colony.) The third is an 1893 wood engraving of the mouth of the Drâa River, while the fourth is a map of the Cameroon line, reproduced from Wikipedia under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2.

Our Once & Future Chestnut

Grove Koger

For today’s post, I’m reprinting an article that I published in the Fall 2008 issue of Boise Journal.


For Americans, chestnuts are something of an anomaly. On the one hand, they’re familiar and traditional. We all know about those chestnuts roasting on an open fire, don’t we? Yet how many have actually eaten them? Chances are, not many; and for those of us who have, chances are, not often.

A century ago, the answers would have been entirely different. What happened?

The “boundless chestnut woods” that Henry David Thoreau once celebrated stretched over vast tracts of land from Maine southward into Florida and westward into Arkansas. The American Chestnut Foundation estimates that chestnut-rich forests once covered some 200 million acres.

American chestnut trees regularly grew 150 feet all. A specimen with a diameter of 17 feet was recorded in North Carolina in the early years of the last century, and another found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was measured to be more than 9 feet in diameter 6 feet about the ground. Trees this size could produce as many as 10 bushels or more of nuts, which then might cover the ground beneath the trees four inches deep.  Castanea dentata, as botanists call the American chestnut, was a generous, magnificent giant. By 1940, however, it had virtually disappeared.

Tragedy had struck in the form of a fungus-induced blight. The culprit, Endothia parasitica, had apparently hitchhiked on Chinese chestnut saplings imported from the Far East in 1904 and planted on Long Island. Although the fungus posed little threat to Asian trees, it proved fatal to those growing in North America, sparing only a few isolated groves of European chestnuts in the American West.

The loss of the trees meant much more than the loss of a colorful tradition, however. Hardest hit by the blight were the Appalachian farmers who sold and traded the chestnuts, fed their hogs on them, and harvested the game that foraged on them. The trees were also fine sources of timber, tannic acid (for tanning leather) and honey.

Fortunately, the blight didn’t spell the absolute end of the chestnut culture in the United States. But before we get to that good news, let’s take a wider view.

There are several species in the genus Castanea, but the largest nuts come from the European, or Spanish chestnut, Castanea sativa. The species apparently originated in Iran, and was carried to Southeastern Europe by the Greeks and subsequently spread by the Romans. Specimens can grow to tremendous size and live for centuries, if not millennia. An example known as the Castagnu dî Centu Cavaddi, or Hundred-Horse Chestnut, can be found on the slope of Sicily’s Mount Etna. It’s believed to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old and once had a circumference of 190 feet, although its massive trunk has long since split into several separate ones. It came by its distinctive name because, according to legend, a company of a hundred horsemen once found shelter beneath its branches during a storm.

Chestnut trees must be at least five to seven years old before they produce. The chestnuts grow inside a prickly burr that splits open in the fall and drops the nuts to the ground, still enclosed in a tough shell and a bitter inner membrane. This is how they’re marketed for a short period of time in many communities around the world.

Sapling American chestnut trees still sprout from the stumps of their long-dead elders, but they routinely die before they reach 10 feet in height. Under the guidance of the American Chestnut Foundation, however, growers are breeding blight-resistant hybrids of American and Chinese chestnuts that can be replanted in the wild.

If chestnuts are marketed in your area, you can eat them raw; however, roasting accentuates their flavor, and it’s usually the first step in sautéing or glazing them. Here’s how: Using the point of a small, sharp knife, cut an X into the flat side of each nut, making sure than you pierce the shell. Then boil the nuts for about five minutes and drain them. Next, place them on an ungreased baking sheet, cut side up, and bake for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees, turning once. After removing the nuts from the heat, wrap them in a towel for a few minutes to cool. You can then peel away the shell (which will have curled open) and rub away the inner membrane with the towel.

Oven-roasted nuts are slightly sweet and slightly mealy, a natural treat whose subtle flavor will grow on you. To enhance that flavor even more, roast them gently over charcoal for 15 to 20 minutes, a technique that imparts a pleasant smokiness. Just score and boil the nuts as above and place them in a cast iron pan over the grill, shaking the pan frequently to stir them. They’re done—and delicious—when their shells curl open.


The photograph at the top of today’s post was taken by Petr Kratochvil and the second by Richard Revel; both are reproduced courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net. The painting of the Hundred Horse Chestnut is by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813). The bottom photograph is by makamuki0 (pixabay.com) and is reproduced courtesy of Needpix.com.

Sanctuary in the Himalayas

Grove Koger

Today’s post, which is drawn from When the Going Was Good, deals with the most famous book by Heinrich Harrer, who died January 7, 2006.


Seven Years in Tibet (Sieben Jahre in Tibet: Mein Leben am Hofe des Dalai Lama. Vienna: Ullstein, 1952)

Inspired as a youth by the exploits of athletes and explorers, Heinrich Harrer trained himself in skiing and mountain climbing. He earned a place on the Austrian Olympic Team in 1936, but by his own account soon found the competition with “human rivals” unfulfilling. Turning to his other interest, Harrer managed with several friends to scale the heretofore unconquered north wall of Switzerland’s Mount Eiger in 1938. Now a far greater challenge—Kashmir’s Nanga Parbat—beckoned, and Harrer and other expedition members traveled to what was then British India to reconnoiter the peak.

Harrer and his companions were arrested and interned when war broke out. His first two attempts at escape failed, but on his third try—near the end of April 1944—he and six fellow prisoners got away. By mid-May, Harrer and a companion paused at a 17,200-foot pass on the Tibetan border, hoping somehow to reach Japanese lines several thousand miles away. Thus began the pair’s journey into the “forbidden” country, whose capital Lhasa they reached only after a roundabout, twenty-month trek of harrowing hardship and danger.

Seven Years in Tibet is an account of a brave if foolhardy escape that became something else entirely. The two fugitives were greeted warmly and treated well, and Harrer eventually became a tutor to the young Dalai Lama, the country’s spiritual and political leader. He left the country only in 1951, forced out by invading Chinese troops. Harrer actively championed the Tibetan cause, but had relatively little to say about his pre-Tibetan years in Europe. As a motion picture version of his book was reaching the screen in 1997, it was revealed that he had been a member of Hitler’s corps of secret police, the Schutzstaffel. When confronted with the revelations about his past, Harrer called his SS membership “one of the greatest errors of my life.”

If you’re looking for a good edition of Seven Years, the English translation is by Richard Graves. Peter Fleming wrote an introduction to the first English edition (London: Hart-Davis, 1953) that has been widely reprinted since. Beginning with the Tarcher/Perigee edition (New York, 1981), many English editions have also carried a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

Harrer’s other works include The White Spider (1958); I Come from the Stone Age (1963); Ladakh: Gods and Mortals behind the Himalayas (1981); and Return to Tibet: Tibet after the Chinese Occupation (1983). And for more information about Harrer, see Orville Schell, Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood (New York: Metropolitan/Holt, 2000); and Encountering, Retracing, Mapping: The Ethnographic Legacy of Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter (Zurich: Ethnographic Museum, University of Zurich; Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers.


The image at the top of today’s post is the dust jacket of an early German edition of Harrer’s book. The photograph of Lhasa is by littleP (pixabay.com) and is reproduced courtesy of Needpix.com.

Messina 1908: Calamity, Charity & Philately

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Grove Koger

It was one of the most devastating natural disasters in modern European history. The Sicilian city of Messina, which lies on the strait separating the island from the toe of the Italian boot, was struck by a massive earthquake at about 5:20 on the morning of December 28, 1908. Within minutes, a 40-foot tsunami then swept through the strait and pushed inland for miles. The twin calamities left Messina in ruins, and Reggio di Calabria and other nearby settlements on the peninsula suffered much the same fate. The total death toll may have run to as many as 100,000 people or more.

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The Italian army and navy began rescue efforts immediately, and other countries dispatched their ships to aid in the operation. Within a short period of time, a number of countries also began raising humanitarian funds in what may seem like an unusual manner. They printed stamps in a series of shared designs, with proceeds going to help the many victims. But these weren’t really postage stamps; you couldn’t mail anything with them. But you could add them to letters carrying official stamps, and in Italy itself, thanks to a royal decree, they were postmarked. (Those cancellations increase the value of the stamps and the envelopes they’re attached to—a point of considerable interest to collectors.)

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The stamps, which collectors categorize as labels or “cinderellas,” were triangular in shape. One series involved ten simple images of landmarks and the like, and were printed se-tenant (that is, together on single sheets) in ten colors. In all, ten countries issued the stamps, with denominations in currencies appropriate to the particular country. Another shared series pictured the King and Queen of Italy, and were priced in higher denominations. The countries involved in this humanitarian effort were Austria, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States.

A few other labels were also printed, with the Massachusetts branch of the American Red Cross, for instance, producing its own triangular versions.

A century later, in 2008, Italy issued an official rectangular stamp commemorating the terrible event.


The Messina earthquake played a minor role in the lives of two intriguing writers—Norman Douglas (1868-1952) and Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913).

Having heard in mid-May 1909 of the misery that the survivors of the quake were still suffering, Douglas took it upon himself to “cajole or blackmail” the foreigners living on Capri (then Douglas’s home) into contributing to a fund that he then carried to Messina and Reggio. “During this operation,” he wrote, “I had occasion to observe, not for the first time, that when it is a question of relieving distress the poorer folk are more generous, relatively speaking, than the wealthy ones.” Douglas published an account of what he saw in the September 1910 issue of Cornhill magazine and incorporated the material into his classic 1915 travel account Old Calabria.

The earthquake also figures in Rolfe’s strange fantasy The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1934). Protagonist Nicholas Crabbe (who is something of an idealized self-portrait) rescues a survivor of the catastrophe before sailing to Venice, where the rest of the novel is set.


The image at the top of today’s post is an American stamp from the first series showing Sicily’s Mount Etna, and the third illustrates the manner in which the stamps were printed on the sheet. The photograph of damage in Messina is from the collection of Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright and is reproduced courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. The final image shows the 2008 Italian stamp commemorating the event.