18 Oct 2016

Buzz of the Summer Gone

Living in Corsica, one thing I clearly noticed this Summer - the first Summer I have spent on my grandma's property up in the mountains in approx. 25 years - is the scarce number of pollinators compared to 25 years ago. There was no scientific study on my part; I just pitched my remembrance of those bygone Summers vs. 2016, as flawed an indicator as this might be. As a child and teen coming to the island for the Summer holiday with my family, we would come across a healthy number of bees, wasps, bumble bees, butterflies and other winged creatures in our surroundings, without looking for them. The place was literally buzzing!

Sometimes you would get half a dozen wasps joining us for lunch (a hazardous gatecrashing that would meet its comeuppance, let us it be known!), and you had pollinators and all means of flying insects buzzing around us when we were relaxing on the terrace. Admittedly we had natural pollinator magnets close by, namely a huge bougainvillea and a lush peach tree (now both gone), but even if you ventured outside of the confines of grandma's property, you would come across pollinators without looking for them.

Summer 2016, my first Summer back in the old family holiday house after about 25 years, I was really able to gauge the stark difference in population numbers. What struck me most was the scarcity of honey bees - and alarmingly every single one of them I spotted on the terrace (a paltry dozen in the space of four months), were either dead or dying! Night-time wasn't faring better, as the moths I came across were few and far between compared to 25 years ago! The moths were also very small (the length of a thumbnail) for the vast majority (90%), and rather bland in colour (plain taupe or light grey) and insignificant in looks. What happened to those flamboyant, geometrical moths of my childhood?


Pollinators worldwide are in serious trouble, and I am able to witness it firsthand on my tiny isle without any scientific measurement systems. Pesticides, insecticides (including the notorious neonicotinoids), herbicides and other agribusiness by-products from intensive farming are directly responsible for pollinator decline. In addition to pollution, you have other factors like degraded natural habitats of meadows, prairies, pastures and marshes, the systematic mowing of road verges - underrated buffer zones that act like mini-ecosystems and whose wildflowers (if any left) play a role in feeding pollinators. In the last 25 years, the earth population has increased by 2 billion people, and the galloping demographics coupled to our consumerist ways are tipping the earth's ecology to the point of no return.

"This much is clear: we ignore bees at our own peril. What happens to them will eventually happen to us." - Joel Sartore, photographer, National Geographic

Here in Corsica, the local environmental agencies implement the insecticide-spraying of our resort towns, shorelines and wetlands a couple of times every Summer, late afternoon, supposedly to kill off mosquitoes, but the controversial insecticides are harmful to bees, moths and butterflies. Of course the agencies will not admit to it, while the islanders tend not to question the controversial ecological agenda that is being played out on different levels by the government and corporate interests, leaving our wildlife at the mercy of uncertainty and unsafety.

Queen Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, Madison, Wisconsin by Clay Bolt Nature Photography


Across the Atlantic, award-winning natural history and conservation photographer Clay Bolt - a bee enthusiast - took matters in his own hands when he found out about the near-disappearance of the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), a native northeastern bumble bee whose very existence, on top of the dangers listed in our above section, has been further compromised by commercially-reared bees imported from Europe (and used for the pollination of greenhouse crops) which infected the rusty-patched bumble bee with fungal pathogens when coming into contact. The sharp decline of the bumble bee is staggering: 90% of its historic range since the mid-1990s!

Female Worker, Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, Madison, Wisconsin by ibid.

Clay set out to document the fate of the rusty-patched bumble bee, not only by way of investigation but also by raising awareness. He joined forces with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on their petition to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and Environmental Protection Agency in order to save the bumble bee, first by getting it listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Meanwhile his 19-minute documentary, A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, is reaping nationwide and international recognition, having been shortlisted by four film festivals. The best award it garnered though was for the USFWS to finally agree (3 years 8 months after the petition was launched) to propose ESA protection to the rusty-patched!

The Xerces Society

"Pollinators are critical components of our environment and essential to our food security—providing the indispensable service of pollination to more than 85 percent of flowering plants and contributing to one in three bites of the food that we eat. Bumble bees are among the most widely recognized and well understood group of native pollinators in North America and contribute to the pollination of food crops such as squash, melon, blueberry, cranberry, clover, greenhouse tomato and greenhouse pepper, as well as numerous wildflowers." - The Xerces Society


Some might argue that federal protection is too little too late, and that the USFWS and EPA are part of the problem they created in the first place - I agree. On his journey, Clay came to question whether saving one species rather than another made any sense. You cannot just save the one species by disregarding the wider environment because all species are interconnected. If one species is endangered, it is as a result of imbalance in the environment that is also impacting other species. Only a holistic approach can save the world, yet at this point we are too far gone down the path of ecological destruction for a holistic approach to be made possible. We humans are the problem to the decline and disappearance of fauna (and flora).

Male Rusty-patched Bumble Bee resting on Joe Pye Weed, Madison, Wisconsin by ibid.

So what can be done when our world has become what I would describe as full-blown mechanically-controlled Darwinism? How do we disentangle our economic models from the exploitation of nature's resources? How do we reverse the changes and grant nature its power back? If we cannot stop the process, does it mean we should just give up? No. What we can do is salvage what we can, review our consumer habits in order to slow down the process that way. Sounds lackadaisy but indeed all we are left with is damage control. Individually we can take matters in our own hands like Clay did, and it is up to us how we choose to do it. We can, for instance, make our garden, terrace or balcony pollinator-friendly. Go organic and encourage others to do so, shun pesticides and anything GMO-based. 

A Ghost In The Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee 
from Day's Edge Productions on Vimeo.

Further Resources:

10 Oct 2016

Halloween Tingle Without the Tack

No need to look over your shoulder, Halloween has been creeping up on us like a shiver. A number of you will probably resurrect last year's fluffy spiders, stick-on ghosts and daffy ghouls from their boxed-in torpor for the kids, and shake them back into a semblance of duty. Others might renew their stock through a little expense. Hands-on types like the talented girls at A Beautiful Mess will no doubt go all creative over it. While those without young kids or the inclination to go festive, will just brush the thing away like a bug getting too close. Maybe still get candy for the Trick-or-Treaters (and dive in the bowl later!).

As an aside, why go studio when you have the location? If I wish to trick myself into Halloween I haven't much to do because in my old medieval hamlet, there's a bat colony living in an old ruined dwelling across the way, creepy-crawlies with the weirdest physique trying their hardest to crash my place ('tis that time of year after all!) - and yes I have the privilege (or misfortune) to live within walking distance of a handful of ruined edifices (and that includes a ruined castle up the mountain!). Maybe you too live in a place steeped in history and mystique and the last thing you want is put on a Halloween show when you are already 'living the show'!

Reliquary Box, Cloître de Gnadenthal, Canton d'Argovie, Switzerland (pict source)

The last piece on Halloween that I wrote dates back 6 years, a five-post extravaganza gathered together under A Working Week of Spook, an art project which really amused me back then as I compiled a scenario out of every scary movie title imaginable, with atmospheric snapshots to boot.

This time around, I have been looking at giving yet another adult approach to the theme, in a quirky yet light-hearted celebration of sorts minus the kiddie props, dressed-up pumpkins and silly nonsense. I have compiled a short list of simple ideas that I have practiced in my day (except not necessarily on Halloween), should you want a little pulse racing for Halloween without the tackiness or much effort. Please follow your host...


Nowadays every town and city has guided tourist tours on offer, and those with a troubled past (think Savannah in the Old South) even have ghost tours on their books. Don't do it solo, take your partner, siblings or friends with you, for the more, the merrier! I highly recommend it if just for the experience and fun of it, and for warming up afterwards at a local (haunted) pub over drinks and a platter of antipasti to share! I did the Lincoln Ghost Walk (U.K.), about ten years ago, October time, and our guide was so much fun and interesting! She had all the scary anecdotes, spicy details, the cheeky stone imps, the headless knight on horseback and other Tim Burton-like characters who gently tingled our imagination as we hushed past, from one haunt to the next. The hour-long tour started at dusk, giving old Lincoln's streets and edifices (including the castle and cathedral) a ghostly bias, a creepy ambience nurtured by tales of the unexpected, while the damp weather was closing in on us, slowly sinking into our bones, adding intensity to the shivers....

Foggy Bridge * Explored * (Biarritz, France) by Anth Optic, via Flickr


Ghost or no ghost, I generally find stately homes pretty spooky per se. As soon as you push the door, you enter a different world, almost a static parallel universe. As much as it may look like a permanent show-home or museum (at least the parts of the house open to visitors), the mansion heaves with memories, if only testified by its age, history and historical significance. It is heavy with memorabilia, heavy with mementoes. The place has a soul and it feels like a lot. It feels starched up and stuffy: the high ceilings, the secret door, the solemn arrangements, the cellars, the faded grandeur, the ostentatious artefacts that seem to have sprouted out of the mantelpieces and furniture, the animal trophies on the walls, the cascading draperies, the chandeliers, the rugs that have defied time, the almost rarefied air because those houses are not lived in anymore (or only occasionally). People were born there and they died there. These creepy larger-than-life portraits that stare at you, casting that inquisitive glance in a 'I don't know you' sort of way that follows you around the room. Such encounters are likely to put you in a Halloween mood.

Even Boscobel House looks a little creepy (pict source).


Technology has made it all too easy to tune into in-house on-screen entertainment (Netflix and the likes) to bother going to the movie theatres anymore, never mind the old picture house that has survived redevelopment blitz! Such a shame because these old cinemas are an experience all to themselves: colourful history, architecture and interior design, furnishings, creaky floors, warts et al! Some have been renovated back to their former glory like the Electric Cinema of Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London. Other oldies may still be operating in their raw (unrevamped) state, but don't let it put you off. As you soak in the atmosphere, watching a movie might become secondary! It doesn't have to be a scary movie; a psychological thriller, a film noir classic, or that Hitchcock flick you've meant to watch some day, or even a good comedy that will take on a little edge, courtesy of the location...

The Falcon Maltese film noir by John Huston (1941) is based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett.


So much fun as it goes rickety rackety in its vintage splendour, whisking you around its bends and corners. The ride isn't scary but it is fun to pretend it is, close your eyes and scream and feel liberated! The settings are so kitsch, make sure to snap photos! The ghost train I'm on about hasn't been startled by technology yet, so no laser beams, optical illusions and other special FX! The creatures are straight out of a bad remake of a 1950s low-budget monster movie and that is ace! Some of the mannequins bear battle scars and broken bits: no worries, that's part of the territory (of age)!

[29-Oct-2016 Update] Joel Zika has developed a habit out of the spooky rides. He is on a rescue mission to the remaining few scattered worldwide (some of which clocking up 100 years of age!). He is immortalising those remaining rides through a virtual reality project, a noble and innovative heritage preservation scheme.

You may add a little edible fright to the shindig! Those head out of Biscuiteers' kichen.


Les Catacombes: if you are into morbid art, then this place is a must! At the end of the 18th century, under a public sanitation order, the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents - which had been in operation for 10 centuries (1000 years!) - was closed down. Its remains (skulls and bones) were transfered to a depository - an ossuary - housed in a former limestone quarry (14th arrondissement). Throughout the 19th century, the remains from other central Parisian cemeteries were deposited at the catacombs too. Ultimately the ossuary holds the remains of 6 to 7 million Parisians! The beyond-the-grave showcase (as we are tempted to describe is as) is an artistic skull-and-bone display within a subterranean gallery, a symbiosis of place and content. You may surprise yourself holding your breath as you amble deeper than 6ft under past death personified in a way that might be too close to the bone for some! The popular place certainly isn't for the faint-hearted or the claustrophobic but you sure will get the Halloween tingle! More fascinating details from the illustrated guide.

Crypte Archéologique du Parvis de Notre-Dame: Admittedly the crypt underneath the square of Cathédrale Notre-Dame is neither scary nor does it house a cabinet of curiosity but awe has the power to tingle your spine all the same for building vestiges are holders of truth and mysticism, and imagination may take you places that summon a shiver. Archaelogical excavations (1965-1972) unveiled a condensate of 2000 years of the History of Paris through building foundation vestiges, including a 4th century bath house, with overlapping layers and untangled parts, like pieces of Lego from different eras that somehow managed to intersect and ultimately slot into one another. More fascinating details from the illustrated guide.

7 Oct 2016

Important Dates!

Spring and Summer yield seasonal produce that truly is hard to resist even if you are moderately interested in fruit and veg. Strawberries will always find a way to your heart, while those greens and tomatoes conjured up together in a salad are so refreshing, they are almost a tabletop necessity when the heat is on and a garden party beckons!

Three's not a crowd!

However Autumn (or Fall as it is commonly known in North America) and Winter may not be met with the same excitement. Yet in those heavy-duty root vegetables, rustic pumpkins, plump cabbages, rosy-cheeked orchard apples, and nuts of every variety and calibre, our bodies find the comfort food, the sustenance and the stodge they need to keep us warm and functional, and not fall into hibernation! And if you are my mum, add persimmons and dates to the list.

I must admit that I never was a fan of the latter two but I never gave up on them, to the extent that they are now a part of my Autumnal fruit bowl too, for added enchantment. This year I have reached a new milestone with those fresh dates, as three different types of them are cohabiting in the fruit bowl right now: Barhi, Medjool and Jujube! Save the date(s), I did it! Those Barhi and Medjools I got yesterday are from Israel. The Jujubes might be from Corsica, I'm not sure.

Sticky, gooey, yummy!

I have to pinch myself sometimes at the sight of these semi-exotic delicacies, yet by the same token remind myself that I live closer to Tunisia - a major date producer and exporter of middle-eastern produce - than to Paris! It is thus only natural that our market stalls and fresh produce aisles shall reflect the geographical proximity, which is a joy!

If you are not too keen on dates, chance is you haven't tried fresh dates. Those are the daddy! They are plump, juicy, sun-kissed, gooey, tasty, nutritious, generous and ready to lend themselves to those killer baklava and other sweet and sticky moist cakes with a middle eastern inclination! Give the shoulder to the thin dates tightly corseted into puny little plastic trays. They are the equivalent of factory-farmed food: unloved, they gave up the ghost way before their time and thus are dry and bland.

Eat as is!

All dates do not come from palm trees. I mentioned the jujubes in a post a while back, in reference to mémé (my grandma), who ate all sorts of unusual fruit while growing up in Corsica: medlars, mulberries, carobs, and the oddly-named  jujubes! The jujubier trees were introduced in Corsica in the 19th century from China, and their fruit (jujube) is also known as Chinese date. This forgotten date is making a come-back locally (in Corsica), no less so than in a mainstream fashion (i.e. down the supermarket aisle, and by the crate-load).

In matters of taste, it's a bizarro bite because not all dates taste of dates! Fresh jujube faintly tastes of apple, with a consistency to match, hence its French nickname of pomme surette (tart apple): an unusual taste for an unusual name! Fresh barhi - my favourite - tastes best when just ripe, in its off-white/ pale yellow robe and slightly giving to the touch as its skin starts to crackle. It tastes divinely of melt-in-the-mouth oven-baked/ caramelised apple, and will lend itself beautifully to the most amazing tarts and pies! The overripe barhi (brown and squidgy) however tastes like fermented apple, almost cider... Medjool doesn't taste of apple: it tastes of a fleshy date - with gusto!

Whichever date it is, enjoy it unadulterated. There are however other ways of 'dating' the date... by dressing it, blitzing it, and/ or baking it! I am well tempted by those three scrumptious recipes:-

Date, Banana & Coconut Smoothie by Tuulia
Mango Tahini Date Cereal Bars by Love Me, Feed Me
Pear, Date and Coconut Cake by Hummingbird High