Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Lost World of All Creatures Great and Small

Picture by Psyche
There probably aren’t very many people who aren’t familiar with James Herriot, the country vet who motored around the Yorkshire Dales, saving the lives of sick animals and encountering their eccentric, hard-bitten, but entirely lovable owners. The veterinary world has changed a lot since then; now there are shining operating tables, plastic gloves and x-ray machines. In contrast James Herriot describes practicing in the most primitive conditions…traveling in cars without heaters, operating on tables that had to be propped up during surgeries, stripping half-naked to deliver a calf in the middle of the night.
In reality, of course, the name was Alf Wight, and the stories, though based on his experiences, are mostly fictional…which probably makes them all the more remarkable, considering what the author was able to achieve.
Picture by Psyche

My first encounter with All Creatures Great and Small, was with the television series, which ran intermittently from 1978-1990 and starred the magnificent Robert Hardy (who, aside from being an expert on the long bow, studied under both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien). Watching the shows became a family tradition; I laughed my way through them, but didn't really understand them. I was too young, I guess; but from that moment forward, I wanted to be a vet. As a little girl, I gathered odds and ends from around the house which struck me as doctoring equipment; we didn’t have a dog, but stuffed animals worked just as well. So I started my own practice, and ran it until I grew out of it.
Picture by Psyche
But then, I was old enough to pick up the books. They opened up a world, a world which many of us will never see, a world of hard work; dirty, but clean; heartbreaking, but full of joy; a whole race of people who lived according to the cycles of the land and (pardon the expression) very close to nature. And that, I think, is the real treasure of James Herriot…because the books aren’t about the animals he saved, they are about the fast disappearing Dales farmers he admired so much.
Picture by Psyche
In the sterile, artificial society which we now live in, we tend to forget that at one time, most of the population lived in the great rolling countryside, hidden away among the hills, nearly isolated from the Great World Outside. It’s only in recent centuries that people have poured into cities. Of course there were always the great cities like Rome or Constantinople, but they were small in comparison with the cities we have today. Once upon a time- indeed, for thousands of years, people lived with their livestock, very close to the land.

Picture by Psyche
Life seems to have become very clinical now-a-days. Kids go to school, mother and father both work; there are electric bills, grocery bills, care repair bills...in between family members hardly get to see each other, or form any kind of relationship. Sometimes they go on vacation, but jobs, friends and exciting happenings are distracting. In contrast, James Herriot describes families that live and work together, learning together, laughing together and weeping together. These Dales families did the same things every year in a never ending cycle, but they never grew tired of it; they were staunch and steadfast and remembered that blood is thicker than water. Relationships had to work, because the people had to work together; there was no option of backing out, or trying something different, because the abyss of foreclosure and starvation was always just around the corner.

All Creatures Great...and Small
Picture by Psyche
Of course, the books probably paint that bygone world in rosier hues than it really was. The work was really hard and car heaters and WiFi and televisions are nice to have, but I can’t help thinking something has been lost. I only partially know what it is like to have loving grandparents…aunts and uncles live thousands of miles away and my extended family have fragmented beyond repair. James Herriot wrote about families, great families that were powerful, but very humble, and that’s the reason I get a small ache every time I read his books, because I have a longing for something I can only hope to experience.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

El Galeón Andalucía

Since 2010, after leaving her homeport in Seville, El Galeón Andalucía has been cruising around the world visiting various ports and delighting hundreds of people. According to her crew members (there doesn't seem to be a great deal of information online), she is a 95% accurate replica of a Spanish treasure galleon from the 16th century. And happens to be the only one of her kind in the world.  
At one time, Spain was the single super-power in the world; she had a vast global empire encompassing portions of Africa, including Morocco, bits of India (Sri Lanka), and the Spanish East Indies, and of course great chunks of the Americas. She even controlled bits of Italy, France and the Netherlands. 
During the time that ships like El Galeón Andalucía were on the sea-roads, Spain was nearing bankruptcy and was entirely dependent on the income from the American Colonies. The Spanish were always searching for El Dorado, the lake of gold, to add to the thousands of tons of golden Aztec trinkets that were being turned into golden doubloons.   

The mainstay
We went aboard El Galeón Andalucía on a blustery day that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be cloudy or not (we alternated baking in the sun and shivering in the sea breeze), and took a number of pictures during our 45 minute tour. 
The cathead, used for hoisting and lowering
the anchor. It some ships, the end of it was
decorously carved with a lion's head
For those of you who have never been near the sea (my heart goes out to you), there was a strong smell of fish, and salt and lobster pots were piled up on the dock, and seagulls and turns were wheeling overhead, shrieking at us (probably inquiring if we were going to drop our sandwiches).
I’ve had the chance to go aboard several tall ships, but each new one always delights me as much as the last. There are always slight differences in how things are done aboard, but in essentials, they always have the same purpose. 
The great cabin
El Galeón Andalucía, though not large herself, is sixty feet longer than The Mayflower. She looked quite large and imposing from the dock, but once I got aboard her, I couldn’t help marveling at the courage of the people who were brave enough (or foolish enough) to make their living on the sea. 
Today, the ship is outfitted with a GPS system, but four hundred years ago, the chief form of navigation was dead reckoning,  where the Captain, adding up the direction and speed of the ship (and with a little bit of chance) ‘reckoned’ his position on an ill-drawn map. The Sextant, the next revolution in navigation after the compass, was not due for invention for another two hundred years. 
I was a bit disappointed with what the ship was like below decks; instead of showing the sorts of cargo the galleon would have been carrying in the sixteenth century, there was a mini movie theater about the construction of the ship. Which was nice…but we didn’t stay to see it.
All in all, if El Galeón Andalucía, hoves into a port near you, don’t hesitate to see it. The entry fee is well worth the history you get to experience when you are aboard. 
Looking up at the foretop.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Voice From Gallipoli: Part II

The most memorable account I can think of about the BMH Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, is Roald’s Dahl’s in Going Solo. Dahl is best known for having written Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but long before Charlie, Roald Dahl was a pilot in the RAF during World War Two (he was also a secret agent, afterwards, but this doesn’t matter at the present); he crashed his Gloster Gladiator in the desert and his face was reconstructed in Alexandria. I’m going to guess that very little had changed since 1915, when allied soldiers were being sent there from Gallipoli.
Yale Commencement program,1911
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great (no big surprises, there) and is probably best known for its extensive Library. But the Library wasn’t just a library; it wasn’t like your local stopping place for the latest Harry Potter movie…no, this library had all the ancient texts of literature, science, medicine…and was, in fact, only one piece of the Musaeum, a great institution of learning dedicated to the Muses of Greek mythology (‘museum’, anyone?). The Musaeum was like a University long before there were Universities; all the greats came to study there. The place hosted (among others) Euclid, father of geometry, Archimedes, father of engineering, Herophilus, the founder of the scientific method…but most importantly for our purposes, Erasistratus, the man who, in the 3rd century, founded the Academy of Medicine, one of the oldest medical schools ever reordered.
Archimedes' 'eureka!' moment, when he discovered how
to determine the volume of an irregularly shaped object.
eg: a crown
He once said that if he had a lever long enough,
he could move the World.
Galen, one of the very greatest medical researchers of all time, studied there, but unfortunately, the fire that destroyed the Library, also destroyed the medical school. Time wiped away the Musaeum, yet the learning and knowledge that went on there were not completely lost; today our understanding of the world- of physics, engineering, chemistry, mathematics and medicine- is firmly built upon the stones these thinkers carved out of the rock.
The Tower of Hercules in Spain is an ancient Roman lighthouse
built along the same lines as the Pharos of Alexandria
Alexandria is such a strategic locations with its two big harbors, it’s hardly surprising that it played an important role in both World Wars. It served as a British command center, and for thousands of injured soldiers, it was an oasis in the desert, a place where they returned from the front line, little knowing that the methods used to treat their injuries were based on the hard won knowledge of thinkers who had stood on the same ground a thousand years before.
It was from Alexandria that the second letter from Martin was sent. I wonder if he knew the history of the place. Of the Pharos, the giant lighthouse that had once lighted the way of a thousand ships. And of the Musaeum, which shaped the world that came after.
I will stop talking now and let you read Martin’s letter. Please bear in mind that he describes some injuries, so if you are squeamish, proceed with caution. Like the last, original spelling and punctuation have been preserved.
No 19 General Hospital
31st Aug
Dear (great-grandmother’s name),
I wonder if you ever got my little note written from the hills.
Well if you did this is the sequel. I have been one of the lucky ones and still am to be writing this note, but they got me alright. No I in the left thigh and No 2 a little later on, broke my left arm.
Then I went down.
This was on the 10th and I am down splendidly. Blood poisoning all gone, & beginning to sit up and take a little nourishment. 
I hope to be able to go home in about a fortnight. And shan't I just be glad to see the old place again.
A year's soldiering is pretty strenuous!
But fellows are really fighting splendidly, especially the Australians & New Zealanders.
Some of the positions are like going up the side of a house, and directly one shows an eyelid you get shrapnel, machine gun and rifle fire simply poured at you. If I come through this show and I ever see a man shooting a rabbit again, I'll kill him. I could tell you quite a lot of interesting things but the censor forbids. The Turkish snipers are the very devil, I caught one up a tree in a sort of green cage. His face was painted green and his rifle and clothes. Truly a hoary old villain, and stacks of a-mution. Their fellows pick off a lot of our men, they are very daring and cleverly conceal themselves.
Egyptian stamp, 1914
You will see form the lists, that my regiment had a bad time, 23 out of 26 officers gone. It's awful to lose you pals like this, & I am afraid in my present state I get awfully depressed.
But we didn't half make some ground! The Turk (?) on the whole is quite a gentleman in his fighting. His German master has taught him some of them some of his dirty tricks.
A captain pal of mine who was hit close to where I was laying wounded, was hit in the thigh by either an expanding or explosive bullet.
It simply blew the whole of his thigh out. He died in about half an hour of loss of blood, and I couldn't move to help him. A corporal in my own lo(?) was hit in the stomach by a similar bullet, with the same result. There are tact's that happened to come under my notice. We ought to do the same, but somehow we simply don't!
I know you are with us in spirit, so you will be glad to know we shall be through the narrows soon. It's costly but it's going to be done.
I am going to stop now I am getting tired. I hope you can read my scrawl, but writing is not quite so easy as usual just now. Kind thoughts to you and regards to family.
Yours very sincerely,

I apologize profusely for my absence all this time. I have not been at all well these past six months; sometimes it is a struggle to even get up in the morning, and trying to write a blog post with my foggy brain is pretty much impossible. I hope you will continue to stick with me, anyway.