Sunday, 5 February 2012

Making the Most of Things

Anticipation and prediction have long been a part of human nature (indeed they are the key to our survival).  I enjoy the symbolism in Art – in Christian Art goldfinches, because of their diet of thistle seeds and blood-red colouring on their heads (supposedly caused by trying to pull out the thorns and nails), have traditionally been painted to symbolise the crown of thorns and death of Christ.  The goldfinch, depicted in pictures of the Madonna and Child, remind the viewer of the crucifixion-to-come when Jesus has become a man.  An early example is Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child painted around 1480:

The gourd, fruit and other details are also symbolic – the apple is a reference to the story of the Garden of Eden; the gourd is the symbol of recovery, redemption and resurrection (deriving from the experiences of Jonah) and the fly is representative of Satan – flies are universally seen as the bearers of pestilence and evil and hence the one in this picture is painted to symbolise sin and enticement.  The painting is a reminder to the medieval viewer of the need to be prepared and to overcome selfish temptation in order to achieve desired outcomes and a place in heaven.

I have been struck a number of times this week by people’s ability to overcome adversity and turn apparent problems to their advantage.  My youngest son was a participant in an inter-school rowing event on Saturday.  It was freezing cold, the riverbank was fringed with ice, and yet a huge number of young people and their supporters gathered to compete.  Their enthusiasm and energy was exemplary – many organisations strive to achieve the same dedication and effort from their employees, but few have such a unified and selfless focus, given by all contributors, towards achieving a shared goal, nor the same degree of appreciation for the input made by each member of the team.  My son is a cox – a tough position when the temperature is sub-zero – his team mates gave him their hats and scarves to help him, so that he could steer them to victory.  I loaned him my gloves, a precious souvenir of a memorable trip to New Zealand.  They are made of possum fur spun into a fine yarn.  Possum fur has hollow fibres and hence provides excellent insulation.   Possum gloves are an example of man’s ability to create advantage out of inconvenience.  Possums are not native to New Zealand, they were introduced in 1837 to establish a fur trade, but have bred unchallenged  and are now decimating local flora and fauna (in Australia, their native land, they are preyed upon by dingoes and their numbers are regularly reduced by natural bush fires).  In New Zealand, where there are no natural predators and very few fires, possums are having a huge, adverse impact on the ecosystems.  They are viewed as a national pest.  People work hard to reduce their numbers and industries have developed to use their remains.  My cousin, Roger Crowden, an exceptional bookbinder based in New Zealand, makes beautifully tooled book covers and vellum out of possum leather and I wear my possum gloves with pride.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw another example of humans making the most of adversity this week.  For those of you who read music, the below might make sense.

If the meaning defeats you, check out this posting on YouTube:

All credit to, Lukas Kmit, clearly a very talented viola player and musician, who turned the situation he found himself in to both his and his audience’s advantage.

Given the hours that I have been working this week, I have not always been able to get home in time to cook supper for my family.  I have had to resort to prepared meals.  One such was a dish of Perciatelli with prawns and chilli.  Perciatelli are Spaghetti slim strands of pasta that are hollow (like Bucatini, but thinner).  They reminded me of possum fur.  At first I presumed that they had been developed by a supermarket to enable the swift reheating of pre-prepared meals.  However, I have now undertaken a little research into pasta and suspect that it came about as a result of the pasta making machine.  Pasta grew in popularity during the 18th century, as its production became easier.  When the American Ambassador returned from France in 1789 he brought with him a Macaroni maker that he used to delight friends and guests.  Many people credit the advent of Italian pasta to Marco Polo, when he returned from China in 1295.  However, there are Italian recipe books from twenty years earlier containing references to pasta dishes.   Although he certainly encountered pasta in China, it is probable that pasta was being eaten in Italy at a much earlier date.  The first mention of a recipe is in the book “De arte Coquinaria per vermicelli e macaroni Sicilian” (The Art of Cooking Sicilian Macaroni and Vermicelli)”.  It was published around the year 1000.   The earliest record of food made from a wheat and egg paste was circa 1,000 BC, when the ancient Etruscians baked it and there are objects from this period that seem to be pasta extruders.  The ancient Greeks and Romans ate a version of lasagne and there is evidence of Arab traders bringing noodle-like strings of pasta to Sicily early into the first millennium, the Talmud refers to pasta-like dishes being prepared and eaten prior to the 5th century AD.  Pasta is another great example of man being able to overcome obstacles and cope with the unknown.  When dried, it is a convenient source of food that can easily be transported.  It proved a staple food source for troops over the centuries – there are records of it being used in the Civil War and in World War Two macaroni and cheese was a popular meal – pasta can last a long time and only water is required to create a nutritious serving.  There are few foods that have remained relatively unchanged for over 500 years – proof to the value of pasta as easy and nutritious sustenance.

The garden is swathed in a two inch blanket of snow and I am glad that I put food out for the birds.  There are queues to get to the bird-feeders and mealworm encrusted fat.  The goldfinches behave like a supportive and social family, sharing the feeder full of Niger seeds and chattering to each other as they eat.  The robin has acquired new skills (to get to the food that it prefers) and now hovers like a hummingbird to feast on fatty mealworms – I am surprised that it doesn’t burn more calories than it consumes.  The crows and magpies are selfish bullies, watching from the fig tree, before flying down to snatch a chunky offering from the blackbirds and dunnocks, then returning with it to their perch, where they eat in solitary enjoyment in the branches of their lookout.  Their swooping in for their own self-gratification at the detriment of smaller, less influential birds reminds me of some of the least attractive traits in human behaviour  – I could draw analogies between Bankers and the City bonus culture where, for the main part, individuals judge themselves on the amount given in comparison to their peers, rather than considering the wider environment and their own contribution towards achieving desired outcomes for the business and the community in which they operate.  My time with the executive team this week was well spent, as we considered each individual’s performance in relation to the overall business and results.  We are ambitious goldfinches, aware of many of possible pitfalls but also the potential for the future, and not self-centered crows.