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The Collation, the Folger Library’s blog, has a post on early almanacs with this fascinating illustration showing us which Zodiac signs govern which parts of our body. Who knew?

STC 501, [A4r]

I wrote about almanacs last year.

Not altogether sure how I’m following Canuck Carl, and this post of his has absolutely nothing to do with books, but I find the story fascinating. Read about Shrek the New Zealand sheep who ran away and lived in a cave for six years. Wild sheep are able to shed their coats each year, but because we have bred Merino sheep to produce wool and hold onto it until we come along and cut it off, that’s what Shrek did, and after six years he was carrying 60 pounds of wool around and suffering from heat exhaustion. See him being released from his self-imposed sweater captivity at Canuck Carl’s post. (You can see a video of the event at YouTube.)

I recently read Isabella Tree’s Wilding (due from New York Review Books this fall*) and was lucky enough to visit Knepp Castle in Sussex where she and her husband have been progressively rewilding their farm since 2001. This involves letting plants grow as they will and most importantly eliminating chemical fertilizers and the antibiotics in animal feed, while introducing grazing animals to mimic the putative prehistoric European environment. They have brought in English longhorn cattle, Dartmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs (all three the closest surviving relatives of ancient progenitors) and red deer. These animals look after themselves year round and graze the grass, plants and trees as presumably they would “in a state of nature”. The government prohibited the rewilders from going the whole hog and leaving any dead animals to decompose! But this is of course how things would/should be. Here are a few of the cattle after overwintering on their own, looking in fine fettle (photo taken on March 14th. You can enlarge it by clicking on it).

Observe the little bramble thicket in the right foreground. This is where oaks grow. Their acorns are stashed away all over in the ground by jays, and when they sprout they are quickly munched down by the grazing animals. Only those sheltered by prickly undergrowth can prosper and grow. Thus Mother Nature arranges things.

Any tree or tree limb that falls down at Knepp is left to decompose in situ. We were told that an oak has three life stages, 300 years growing, 300 years as a mature tree, and 300 years dying. There are plants and animals who need a dead tree in order to thrive, and some of these are quite rare. Supplies of hollow dying trees are generally a bit short — we humans tend to assume a tree without leaves needs cutting down.

Of sheep there are none at Knepp: they are notoriously efficient grazers and reputedly account for the fact that the Highlands of Scotland are basically treeless. (Nor presumably were they present in the European post-glacial environment.) The effect of ceasing to apply chemicals and allowing everything to look after itself has been dramatic. The diversity of insect life has increased immensely: in one research project 12,178 individual dung beetles from 13 species were collected, 11,666 from Knepp, and the rest (only 512) from the control sites, two nearby organic farms. The Knepp sample contained 11 different species whereas the organic farms had 6 and 8 species. This difference in numbers shows the effects of restraining our impulses to modify nature. Very encouraging, to me, was the speed at which species diversity increased: even one year made a big difference. Birds seem to know Knepp offers riches, and home in on the place on their migration. England is in the process of losing its nightingales, but in one field at Knepp we were told “In a month or so there’ll be 15 nightingales singing in this field alone”. Turtle doves have returned. It’s almost as if the information is passed around among these long distance commuters as they meet at some busy crossroads over northern Africa. A note about species diversity at Knepp can be found here.

Rewilding seems unambiguously good for the ecosystem. The trouble with intervention in a complex system is that we always run into unexpected effects. Yellowstone, wolves, and willows is one familiar example. There’s no top predator at Knepp. Should there be? It’s probably far too small to be able to accommodate a couple of wolves! It is, however, reassuring to know that once we humans have managed to eliminate our own species the world looks likely to be able to hit the restart button quite quickly and try again as if we’d never tinkered.


Wilding was published in Britain by Picador in 2018, and has just come out there in a paperback edition.

Dr Zweder Masters tweets this picture of a mural in Utrecht. Apparently the artists, Jan Is De Man and Deef Feed, asked locals for the titles of their favorite books and incorporated the results into their painting.

Here’s a reminder, courtesy of David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen, that color can mean different things to different people because there are multiple ways of measuring it. The video, by Tom Scott, who posts lots of videos on YouTube exploring quaint bits of science, is an introductory tour of The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard, conceived as a means of validating the pigments used in artworks.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.

Plans exist to plant messages encoded in this tree alphabet created by Katie Holten, an artist active in all things tree-ish.

I’m not holding my breath in expectation of being able to read such a message. OK, crabapple is C, but what happens if you just think of it as apple? I’d sooner see a cottonwood here. Douglas fir would be a tree many of us have heard of; but dawn redwood? Dogwood would do too, but of course that gets you into difficulties with F — though surely most of us would recognize a fig leaf. And having to think of holly as I not H would always trip us up.

  • A = Ash
  • B = Birch
  • C = Crabapple
  • D = Dawn Redwood
  • E = Elm
  • F = Flowering Dogwood
  • G = Ginkgo
  • H = Hawthorn
  • I = Ilex
  • J = Juniper
  • K = Kentucky coffeetree
  • L = Linden
  • M = Maple
  • N = Nyssa
  • O = Oak
  • P = Persimmon — wouldn’t plane be an obvious city choice?
  • Q = Quaking aspen
  • R = Redbud
  • S = Sassafras
  • T = Tulip tree
  • U = Umbrella pine — I have heard of the upas tree.
  • V = Virginia pine
  • W = Willow
  • X = Xantholyxum — well, one sees the problem, which doesn’t go away with this answer.
  • Y = Yellowood — why not yew?
  • Z = Zelkova — ditto X

Xantholyxum unfortunately seems usually to be spelled with a Z not an X. It is “commonly” called Prickly ash. Zelkova, a Georgian relative of the elm, has been extinct in Northern America since the Pleistocene. Either Ms Holten is planning on reintroducing it, or maybe more likely avoiding messages with the letter Z in them. Nyssa turns out to be a tupelo: initial searching throws up such exciting options as New York Self Storage Association, or New York State Snowmobile Association. One might better go down the “northern” route for the N entry. Still, we can all appreciate the effort.

Here’s an arborically encoded message from Mary Oliver:

Good luck working that out if the trees are ever planted in Central Park! Punctuation appears to remain an unresolved issue.

You are invited to download the font here, so that you can (monkey) puzzle your friends. Of course the whole point of the exercise is not to provide a new communication medium, but to keep trees front and center in our consciousness. To the extent that Ms Holten can get publicity for her efforts, this is worthwhile. I’ve been up and down Grand Concourse quite a few times since 2009 when Ms Holten started the Tree Museum there, but I’ll have to go slower and look more closely next time.

Link via Hyperallergic.

Perhaps even odder than the “a” or “an” situations I went on about the other day is the case of publishers such as NYRB, who, as my wife points out, refer to themselves both ways. On the back cover of their books New York Review Books talk about an NYRB book, while if they were to spell out their name it would be a New York Review Book. Trolling through the alphabet one finds in addition to N publishers the following indefinite indefinite article afflicted publishers: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Harvard University Press, Liverpool University Press, Melbourne University Press, Random House (now protected by their acquisition of a leading Penguin), and Sussex Academic Press all forced to deal with such a dual indefinite article existence. I wonder if it’s a blessing or a curse? Probably a good thing on balance, as it must make you think every time.

Referring to yourself by initials only is a particularly university press sort of thing to do. We even resorted to initials for addressing our colleagues. I have to be addressed as RJH to get me started working in the morning. So I have to apologize for not listing the many other university presses lining up behind the initial letters, F, H, L, M, N, R, and S. Of course some of these may prefer not to refer to themselves by initials. I don’t know if Fordham University ever talk about an FUP book. I know I always feel a slight shock when Columbia University Press refer to themselves as CUP. After all, CUP used to be an RJH/a Richard H. employer, and I never worked for Columbia.

This one just looks plain wrong to me. Though it sounds pretty awkward with an “a” too. Perhaps homage is a word to avoid? Tribute might upset me less.

Of course it all depends on how you pronounce the word: “a” if the “h” is sounded as a consonant, “an” if the “h” is silent and the word sounds like it’s started with a vowel. I suppose there may be people who pronounce the word as ‘omage — they’re probably the same ones who stay in ‘otels. In another corner of the linguistic world I guess one would say “Lend us an ‘and”.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme provide a transatlantic break point just like tomayto, tomahto. They are herbs to me, while to all around me they are merely ‘erbs. That always sounds to me like a Cockney telling me to “Lend ‘Erb an ‘and”. D. H. Lawrence was not David Erbert Lawrence, though, come to think of it, who knows how his family would refer to him. That most fondly remembered of schoolteachers, H. H. Mills, was a Bertie, but you knew that those two “H”s would always be sounded. Australian miler extraordinaire Herb Elliott was no shrinking ‘Erb. (My mother, whose mother was a Border Eliot, would always tell me that Herb’s surname should really be spelled with only two consonants — though if you felt the need, for whatever crazy reason, it was acceptable to double either of the consonants, but never both. I bet we’d have welcomed Herb at any clan reunion though.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary homage/’omage is another of those UK/US differences, so as Mr Spinnen’s book was published by David R. Godine of Boston, MA, I suppose I have to withdraw my objection. Never heard of an American paying ‘omage though. I guess it’s not a word that comes up too often. The country was kind of founded to get away from this sort of thing. Just yesterday I did at last hear an American on the radio mentioning homage in connection with some sports personality, and he did indeed say ‘omage. This doesn’t alter my objection to the oddness, ugliness of the word whichever way you jump.

I wonder if there’s something in all this about our relative closeness to/respect for France. The word does sounds better in French, un homage actually sounds quite worth having. I assume this French connection is the origin of the American pronunciation of the word. This is however a little surprising: the break usually seems to go the other way. What we in America call an eggplant is a British aubergine, which of course is no more than a French import. In America we eat zucchini (when we can’t avoid it). In Britain this becomes a courgette. The Brits seem hard-wired to pay homage to French cuisine (we don’t even have our own word for that) with courgettes, aubergines, éclairs, bouquet garni, mayonnaise, mache, roquette, not to go as far back as omelets, beef, pork, veal and mutton.

Parenthetically, on the subject of letterspacing, I think I’d prefer to see a little more space between those Os in the title, and a little less between the M and the A in HOMAGE. Might pull in that G too, the A just has too much air around it. Still, David Godine always makes a handsome (or do I mean an ‘andsome) book, and I can’t imagine that the cover designer didn’t consider the options here. If you cut up the letters and try different versions, who knows but that the one they ended up choosing won’t turn out to be the best.

David Crotty’s regular Friday entertainment at The Scholarly Kitchen this week features a video on color terminology in different languages.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to watch it in your browser.

This just screams trouble, but as a protest against the President’s decision not to put Harriet Tubman‘s portrait on the $20 bill after all, Dano Wall has created a 3-D printed stamper so you can update the bills in your wallet all on your own. He plans to make a few more stampers for others to use as well.

Hyperallergic tells the tale. According to adafruit stamping Ms Tubman’s face on your $20 bills should not land you in jail. Burning a bill, flushing it down the toilet, or defacing it “to render it illegible or unrecognizable” would seem to be illegal, but, perhaps because nobody had imagined anyone would do such a thing, overprinting a different portrait seems to slide by.

Well, OK, part of my motivation in starting this blog was to clarify differences between British and American book talk. (I think this got taken care of mainly amongst the earlier posts, though I’m open to queries from puzzled book folk.)

Here’s list from Merriam-Webster of British words not readily understood by Americans. Blimey, are Americans really that gormless? Surely most of these 10 words, and the second list accessed via a link at the bottom, are not utterly opaque to Americans. One might observe that a couple of their explanations are less earthy than they might have been.

Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.