Saturday, April 13, 2024

A Frightening Thought Returns: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Jeff — Saturday
My post last Saturday on the state of domestic violence in Greece triggered a followup topic I intended to explore today. Instead, though, I've decided to  spare the bloodshed and opt for the pastoral


We’re not talking Robert Frost here, but picture a day by quiet woods far removed from any public road. Deer graze in peace by a pasture while just beyond the borders of the farm hunters wait.  And geese drift upon a pond—still but for the ripples they create—seemingly oblivious to platter size snapping turtles lurking below.

Matt Groening's Scream travesty

Okay, so it’s more like a Stephen King pastoral, but don’t blame me for the tension of the setting, blame Jason.  And I don’t mean the one with the fleece.  I mean the Jason.  The one with the hockey mask.

For not so distant from my tranquil woods sits the actual site of the fictional Camp Crystal Lake.  From here launched one of America’s most successful media franchises, the very one that turned slasher Jason’s hockey mask into an immediately recognizable symbol of pop culture.  

My Woods
Thank you, Friday the 13th (1980), for giving my woods that unique, special touch it lacked when the only distraction to its sylvan setting was the occasional wandering seven-hundred-pound black bear and entourage.  It makes me wonder how peacefully Thoreau would have slept had he known his beloved Walden Pond had a psycho past. 

John Blair (1802-1899)
I mean we’re talking about a sleepy, northwestern New Jersey community of less than 6000 souls nestled within the Great Appalachian Valley.  It was named after one of the richest men of the 19th Century, John Insley Blair, who practiced philanthropy and managed his vast railroad and business empire from this rural town until his death at the age of ninety-seven--less than thirty days from the 20th Century.

Today, Blairstown is home to a prestigious private school, a private airport, and woods filled with summer camps for city kids—yes, all of the above is terrific fodder for a story, but why did they have to pick my woods for the film. 

Main Street Blairstown
I wasn’t living here when the movie was shot, but locals tell me they didn’t think much about it at the time.  Today, though, there’s no escaping that Friday the 13th stands high in this community's history of significant cultural events.  Indeed, when twenty years later The Blair Witch Project launched as one of the most successful independent films of all time, some thought it another film linked to Blairstown but that distinct horror honor belongs solely to the woods of Maryland. 

Jason's woods
I still haven’t seen Friday the 13th.  I spend a lot of time in those woods and have no desire to link the film’s images to my reality.  No need to be looking over my shoulder any more than the thought of it already has me doing—especially when I walk Jason’s woods after dark.  And just in case you think all this is a bit silly, Blairstown has another unique place in the history of modern American horror stories.  But this time the story is for real.

Two years after Jason first stalked Blairstown’s woods, and less than a month before he took up wearing the hockey mask in a sequel, the body of a petite fourteen to eighteen year-old female turned up murdered in a Blairstown cemetery.  She was named Princess Doe and became the first unidentified body entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer system.  Nearly thirty years later, the crime remains unsolved.
Computer generated composite of Princess Doe

The wind is now rattling the panes of my garret window.  

Perhaps it’s a sign for me to return to fictional thoughts.  That’s not to suggest I actually believe Jason’s out there haunting my woods (he said prayerfully)…but I do have a farmer’s message for any itinerant, machete wielding wannabe: I use double-ought in my shotgun, sucker.

Jeff’s Upcoming Events


CrimeFest, Bristol UK


Panel THURSDAY, MAY 9, 2024 @ 17.00

“Overstepping the Mark: Abuses of Privilege and Power” with

Ajay Chowdhury, Alex North, Kate Ellis, Jeffrey Siger, Sam Holland (Moderator) 


Panel FRIDAY, 10 MAY 10 @ 17:10

“What a Thrill: Page-Turners and Cliff Hangers” with
Chris Curran, Antony Dunford, Charles Harris, Christine Poulson, Jeffrey Siger (Moderator)

Friday, April 12, 2024

El Capitan Oh My Capitan

I have a very good camera with an expensive lens.  I have no idea how to work it, except on intelligent setting. On our recent trip to some of the National Parks in the USA I took my tiny point and shoot. I have not used it for ages and forgot it had some special effect buttons. None of these pictures are AI, they are the result of me messing around.

I think, given the subject matter, any picture will have a degree of awe about it

El Capitan, Oh  El Capitan. It's not exactly what Whitworth, sorry Whitman, wrote but it's what went through my mind when I first saw the southeast face of the rock.

It’s rather magnificent.

7573 feet high, one sheer side facing southwest and the other to the south east.

On the opposite side of the valley is the prominence, The Half Dome, which reminded me a lot of Ben Nevis. It's like the big head of a bull elephant poking its nose in to see what’s going on.

We were in Yosemite, which Scots like to call Yosey-might, in Mariposa County, California, U.S.  There was a lot of snow.

I didn't find Sammity Sam.

People like to climb it. I believe so many people do that you need to ask permission. Some routes up the face are closed due to damage of climbers using the same ledges and holes to gain traction.

The first successful climb was on November 12, 1958. So climbing this, and the moon landing are not so far apart in history.

People now do all kinds of climbing from aided climbs, free climbs, free solo climbing. Climbing with one hand tied behind your back? With one eye closed?

You can hike it from the 'back' which is far more sensible.

The Native American name for the rockface is  “Tutokanula” or "Rock Chief"  and the loose Spanish translation of that is the name we call it today

Another version is that it’s a mistranslation of Inchworm due to the legend of the two bear cubs stuck at the top of the sheer rockface. Mother bear can’t get them down no matter how she tries. Other animals including mountain lions, deer all try to help up but it’s the inchworm that manages to climb the rock and rescue the little ones.

Different climbing routes have interesting names - Iron Hawk, Sea of Dreams, Golden Gate, Silence, Free Rider, Dawn Wall. The tempest, the Salathe wall, and The Nose.

 Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is the measurement of how difficult  a route is. Many of them have been climbed once and never again, deemed just too dangerous.

There have been over thirty fatalities between 1905 and 2018 while climbing El Capitan, much less than I would have thought. Five of these have been since 2013 and that seems to be due to an increase in timed ascents, trying to gain sponsorship or for social media  fame.

 The first climbers spent 47 days pioneering the route. A typical modern party on The Nose will take 3-4 days to finish the climb. The first ascent under 24 hours was in 1975. Now that record is under 2 hours..

As the rock face is sheer, a climber might carry a portaledge. These are frame beds made from aluminium and they hang from an anchor. Given that on a climb like this, which could last more than a day, everything has to be carried up, including water. 

A gallon of water per person per day is recommended…. And that is heavy.

On the plus side, at  ground level there was lovely visitors centre that  had lovely vegan sandwich and chips.

These are just pictures from the wee camera.

I saw this and thought of a murder plot straight away.


Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Anyone want some elephants?

 Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Elephants on the Chobe River

The President of Botswana and his conservation minister are offering large numbers of elephants around. Especially to countries making noises about elephant conservation so that they can find out what it’s like to live with elephants as neighbors. The first offer was from Botswana’s wildlife minister, Dumezweni Mthimkhulu. In London last month to lobby members of Parliament, he offered Britain 10,000 elephants, saying “I hope if my offer of elephants is accepted by the British government, they will be kept in London’s Hyde Park because everyone goes there. I want Britons to have a taste of living alongside elephants, which are overwhelming my country. In some areas, there are more of these beasts than people.” (If “some areas” is the Chobe National Park this is hardly surprising or undesirable!)

Hyde Park.
Just add elephants and mix well...

Then, a few days ago the president of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, trumped this by offering Germany 20,000 elephants, although he was less prescriptive about where they should live.  How about the Black Forest? Probably the elephants would make themselves at home there, with plenty of tasty trees to eat and abundant water. They might find it a bit chilly in winter, but they seem to find Namibia okay, and the nights can get pretty cold there. What the local Germans would think about it is more of a question. And that’s the point.
Black forest. Good for elephants?

Although Minister Mthimkhulu eventually backed down and said that his offer was “rhetorical” (so no elephants for Hyde Park after all, I’m afraid), the president was more forceful, pointing out that Botswana had successfully transferred 8,000 elephants to Angola and some 500 to Mozambique, and stating that he wouldn’t “take no for an answer”.

Standard way to transport one elephant.
They are unconscious at this point.
How do you handle 8,000?

So what is causing the Botswana government to offer large parcels of pachyderms to countries all over the world? It worked with Angola and Mozambique, but I guess they actually wanted the elephants.

The fact is that Botswana does have a surfeit of elephants. The previous president, Ian Khama, had a policy that wildlife would earn its keep through high-end tourism. He banned trophy hunting, cracked down hard on poaching, and welcomed international tourists in droves. Nature took its course, and now Botswana has around 130,000 elephants, about a third of the world’s total population. To hear President Masisi tell it, it sounds as though you might bump into an elephant anywhere in Botswana, or more frighteningly, it might bump into you. In fact, much of Botswana is arid Kalahari scrub and that’s not where the elephants like to hang out. They are concentrated up in the north in the magnificent Chobe National Park, particularly along the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. 

Elephant in Kasane at night.

However, elephants are nomads, and in Kasane, a town on the Chobe River, you may well see elephants wondering around the town perhaps helping themselves to a tasty hedge. More seriously, they will help themselves to crops the surrounding people depend on for their livelihoods, and there have been some bad experiences with injuries and even deaths of local people. In the national parks themselves, the trees are groaning (or dying) under the browsing pressure of the huge animals.

Masisi has reversed Khama’s ban on trophy hunting and that’s what all the fuss is about. The UK has introduced legislation to ban the import of trophies from endangered species, and elephants qualify as endangered pretty much everywhere outside southern Africa. Germany is talking about doing the same thing. Botswana says that that will just make the elephant problem worse at the same time as depriving the country of important revenue supporting local people, conservation and wildlife management.

Traffic Jam.

Let’s unpack that a bit. First, there are only a few hundred hunting licenses issued in a year, so in reality that won’t make much of an impact on the population. However, trophy hunters want the best tuskers and that can have an impact on the long term tusk quality of the population. While it’s true that a trophy hunt of a couple of weeks will cost of the order of $50,000 (and very few tourists will spend anything like that sort of money), it’s arguable how much of that money makes its way down to the people living with elephants.

Elephants in Savuti. Not much left to eat...

On the other hand, alternate population control options include culling (i.e. hunting without trophies that costs money) and contraceptives that can also be expensive and hard to administer. (No, we are not talking about condoms here.) Botswana argues that banning the import of trophies, as the UK and Germany want to do, is interfering with Botswana’s internal affairs and wildlife management. They ask how hunting elephants for trophies is different from hunters heading off to shoot deer for their antlers, which is often described as supporting deer population control, and takes place every season in the UK and Germany among other countries.



My Third Act

 Sujata Massey

My sixth birthday

“I don’t want to talk about age.”


A smart, accomplished, and elegant woman friend said this to me recently. I still do not know her age and am not going to ask her again. I suspect that this lovely person believes she’d be treated differently if people knew; perhaps even rejected. 


My mother also doesn’t do much chatting about her age. She’s a vibrant woman, beautiful inside and out, who raised three daughters, traveled the world enthusiastically and is now retired from business life. Speaking candidly, she says that she sometimes has a feeling of irrelevancy because she's passed 80. In public, strangers seem to overlook her and don't take what she says seriously. 


Ageism is a word that is believed to have been coined in 1969 by the psychiatrist Robert N Butler, when speaking to a Washington Post reporter about some people’s reaction to the housing for the elderly poor being built in their neighborhood. And while this original example is quite macro in nature, there are so many micro-aggressions and other insults. I'm learning that people being treated as “old” rather than the people they feel like inside is painful.


My first experience was ageism was brought about by myself, to myself. I was 43 years old and standing in the checkout line at Giant Foods with my toddler daughter and a babysitter. The friendly asked if the 23-year-old babysitter was my daughter. I was horrified as being mistaken as someone who could have such an old child—that it meant I was likely fifty or some similarly grotesque age. And now, the irony is that I have a child who’s almost 23. 


And I am actually SIXTY years old. 

With dear friend Prem (over age 80 and long walks daily)


When I was much younger, I imagined certain stages so clearly. These included transforming into a college freshman; turning into a news reporter; becoming a bride; and being able to write ‘mother’ on a pediatrician’s form. I never let my imagination roam as far as becoming a grandma; and now, when I look at my young adult son, I ponder whether he will have a role in that someday.  


Then I sternly reprimand myself. Asking my son to make me into something else isn’t a strong way to live--it harkens to the other identity milestones. It was a college admissions officer who granted me entry as a student; an editor who hired me as a reporter; a boyfriend who asked if I’d marry him; and a judge who signed the papers allowing me to be an adoptive mother. 


My recent step up to becoming 60, though, is a solo accomplishment. And I’m surprised to report how good it feels to be here. I’ve heard the fifties is a very happy decade for many women in terms of professional life and personal freedom. Fitting the stereotype, this was the era that I started a new mystery series that was my most successful. I became very busy with books and the adjacent promotional responsibilities. But my longed-for decade of professional recognition was also the time in which my immune system battled two diseases and my family suffered many emotional hardships, including the loss of our daughter. I am glad to gently close the door on my fifties and embrace the Big 6-0.


And how strong I feel! I watch myself jumping on my small rebounder trampoline several times a week, light strength training, swimming and doing water-aerobics, and fast walking over hilly terrain with older women friends who are faster than me. I feel confident I'll get even stronger this year. Someday in the far future I might shuffle and have trouble walking. But not for a long time—and its quite possible that my experience of waning strength, body and mind, won’t be catastrophic. 

The crowd couldn't stop talking!


Dear friends Joff and Johnie, and my Tony


I asked Tony what he thought about me planning a significant 60th birthday party. He hadn’t wanted one for himself, but he liked the idea of my doing it, especially at a cozy Basque restaurant, La Cuchara, a few miles from our house. The invitations went out: not to every friend I have, but to the ones I’ve spent significant time talking about highs and lows with during recent years, as well as longtime friends from college and past jobs, and those in my family who were able to come. 

With my sisters, Rekha and Claire


In the four months before my party, I read a book called The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. It's not a regular party planning book; it's about bringing meaningful connection to people through a host's work. I was intrigued enough to also take Priya's video course that aids in personalizing your own gatherings with plenty of cases to study and worksheets to dig deep into one's true motivations for bringing people together. I took it all to heart. The invitations I sent hinted that each guest should not bring gifts, but expect to share deep conversation. 


I greeted everyone at the door and handed them a paper with a random icebreaker question to ask someone they didn’t know. At the designated dinner tables, people were grouped and asked to answer a question or two of their choice. The first question asked them to talk about about a twist in their life and what personal strength they used to pull through. The second option was to share a piece of advice they wish they’d had at a younger age. As I went around the tables to make sure people were OK, a friend joked that I was being ‘very prescriptive,’ but by party’s end she was raving about the joyous communication the table conversation had brought her. And this was my secret intention all along: I wanted people to find strength and happiness in themselves. 


Cringing as Mom reads my 8th grade essay!

I sat with my husband, my mom and stepdad, and three other friends. The party buzzed with conversation at the six tables where friends and family sat. During dessert, many friends spoke aloud to the whole group on their thoughts about aging as well as our shared relationships.  I stood next to them and felt truly humbled by the sincere and loving tributes. 


In the days since the party, I’ve mulled over that feeling of being overcome during the tributes. I recognized not being able to accept praise is the very demon that makes people feel miserable about aging. If we positively credit to others, why can't we give ourselves credit, too? I always thought it was corny when people spoke of ‘loving themselves,’ but now I understand it’s not only a desirable trait, but one necessary for mental survival. 


My friend Betsy said that aging means living deeply. In my mind, this idea means accepting sadness and loss: feeling it, rather than pushing it away. I do that better at sixty than at twenty.  I’m also trying to remember to look at all the people around me with fresh eyes, noting their vulnerability and gifts. This generally results in good feelings and can transform an encounter.


I am a woman entering the third act of life. In books and movies, that final third is where the pace really picks up and a climax approaches. Of course, there will be a dénouement; but reading the ending before its time is never a good idea. 

Striding happily forward, Karin and Bharat

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Rubber Trees: A Tale of 2 Henrys

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

On the domestic front, renovations are pretty much done (and our bathroom looks Fantastic) except for a couple of things they promise will be done by the end of this week--or by the end of next week... 

On the work front I've wrapped up and set one project aside--well salted and spiced--to ferment (studying how kimchi is made wasn't a waste of time!) and will spend the next two weeks figuring out the next book... which will probably be set in a rubber plantation, hence today's post!

Growing up in Singapore in the 60's, there were rubber trees and rubber seeds pretty much everywhere.

I remember finding seeds like this in the field outside our primary school building. 

The fun thing about these rubber seeds was that if you rubbed them hard and fast on cement floors, they heated up enough to 'burn' when pressed against other people's arms or legs. (And no, I can't remember why we did that!)

Anyway, rubber trees were found pretty much everywhere and rubber was big business in the region, though there were no plantations in Singapore. And even though Hevea brasiliensis isn't indigenous to our region.

How that came about thanks to the 2 Henrys of today's post; Henry Wickham and Henry Ridley.

The first Henry, Henry Wickham, was a 'bio pirate'. 

In 1876, at a time when South America was the world's largest producer of rubber, Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds out of Brazil as "academic specimens". This was a term generally used to classify (dead) animal or plant specimens, not viable seeds. 

A museum in Peru (Museo Barco Historicos in Iquitos) describes Wickham's act as "the greatest act of biopiracy in the 19th century, and maybe in history" claiming the plantations Britain set up in her colonies as a result of his theft destroyed South America's rubber business.

Wickham and his rubber seeds arrived in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and 2,700 of the 70,000 seeds were successfully germinated.

Britain then sent rubber seedlings from London to British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta in Indonesia), British Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia)... and in June 1877, twenty two rubber seedlings arrived at the Botanic Gardens of Singapore (now still Singapore) where they came under the care of the second Henry: Sir Henry Nicholas (H.N.) Ridley.

Henry Nicholas Ridley, a botanist by training and Scientific Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1912. Shown above with the herring-bone method of tapping rubber that he invented. 

Unlike traditional incisions that tended to kill trees, his method allowed for just a section of the bark to be removed to tap latex without destroying the tree.

Nicknames like 'Mad Ridley' and 'Rubber Ridley' show Ridley's passion for promoting rubber and its huge economic potential. 

Ridley also researched the most suitable land and soil for planting, the ideal density per acre (instructing trees be planted 13 feet apart), the best method of raising seedlings, the most effective processing techniques, and the best means of packing and shipping processed rubber.

At the time, there was a huge demand for rubber in the West because of the exploding automobile industry and Dunlop's new pneumatic (rubber) tyres. But farmers were reluctant, because rubber trees took six years to come to maturity, compared to much quicker returns on tapioca, sugar and (especially) coffee. 

What really made rubber take off in our region was when the coffee plantations, a staple crop till then, were wiped out by disease--making rubber the best alternative.

In the forests of Amazonia, the traditional tapping method had migrant workers searching out wild trees and leaving them to die after tapping. Under Ridley's guidance, British run Asian rubber plantations were far more efficient and were soon supplying more than 90 percent of the world's rubber needs.

Rubber trees (like so many of us) are a non-native species flourishing here as a result of British colonisation.

Business and 'burning' seeds aside, they are beautiful trees and part of what we know of as home .