Saturday, 22 December 2012

City of Gardens

Is it really Christmas already?? Crikey. Apparently it is. Well, a very merry Christmas to one and all, and the usual New Year felicitations - may it be fabulous.

We're not having Christmas this year - we're still in Nanjing, but with only a few very hectic weeks to go, and too much to squeeze into them. We're heading back to the UK on January 9th, and in the absence of an immediate job, will probably be moving to Llandrindod where we can carry on the good work (and applications). There's an enormous amount to say about our time in China, and we have been on one or two more adventures recently, including fieldwork in Zhejiang. Right now, though, I'm just going to mention Suzhou.

We've been dying to get to this place since we arrived, and as it's only an hour away by high-speed train, it really wasn't that difficult. Suzhou is famed as the 'Venice of China' and yes, there were indeed cornettos (or the Chinese equivalent). Given that this was in December, we weren't like to try them, though... Anyway. Venetians would be distressed by the poor, overlooked canals. There weren't that many, and they weren't that intrusive (although some were constrained by narrow, winding ravines of houses and managed to at least be atmospheric - if a bit grim). Most of the city is much like Nanjing, but with a Shanghai influence - more shiny new convenience stores, for example, and a high street that could just as well have been Leicester, or Leeds, or countless other UK cities (assuming that you ignore the Chinese characters on most of the signs). But all that, of course, is not why we went.

Suzhou is really famous for its gardens. Dozens of them. Traditional gardens. Classical gardens. "Wild" gardens (in which the neatly manicured beds weren't trimmed every week) - and so on. In one day, you can only see a bit, so we went to the Master of Nets' Garden (a small, classical one that is meant to be among the finest anywhere), and the Canglang Pavilion, a rather lovely sprawling affair with numerous buildings, and a botanical section with various bamboos.

The most striking thing about Chinese gardens, to a westerner, is that they are always a balance between buildings, and a very constrained nature. They have numerous interestingly-shaped limestone boulders, which are presented from certain angles to achieve certain results. The buildings are cunningly designed to produce exactly the right view, inducing exactly the right impression, and so on. They're not so much places to simply be in and relax, and more designed as places to experience. Many of the pavilions and panoramas are particularly designed to impress visitors. But rather than a general feeling that you're in a nice place, in a Chinese garden you feel that every time you turn a corner there is something profound being revealed to you. What poem should I be remembering, with this rock that looks like a crane? Which philosopher's dream am I witnessing in the view through this window? Who is the figure in the carving in the alcove, and what have they to do with the locust tree behind? Why am I so ignorant?

Of course, one thing that was always at the back of our minds was that we were seeing the gardens as tourist attractions, not as living places of reflection and entertainment. How different would they have been, centuries ago, when they were new? For a start, the inhabitants would have been rather different. We were definitely there in the off-season, but even so both were popular. The rooms were furnished, but not used - they feel like shells rather than real places. Much has also been replaced, or has fallen into neglect. We saw friezes with the figures hacked off during the Cultural Revolution (ancient stories depicted in stone being a reminder of 'old ways of thinking'), and crudely-replaced, painted modern woodwork that jarred horribly. But there were also spectacular carvings intact, and some of the carpentry was spectacular.

If nothing else, it makes one dream... the Old China, which is now so hard to find, can still be there somewhere. With a bit of imagination...

The picture here is the view from the Guest House of Harmony, in the Master of Nets' Garden. As always, click to go my Flickr page, with lots more pictures of our little adventure.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Unexpected Beijing hospitality

Beijing hospitality by joe with a camera
Beijing hospitality, a photo by joe with a camera on Flickr.

And now for something completely different. We were in the US recently (during the election, in fact) for the Geological Society of America annual conference. A grand time was had by all, with talks on everything from martian rivers to dodgy non-fossils. The meeting was in Charlotte, North Carolina - a nice place, and amazingly clean and quiet for a large city.

Anyhow, the fun really started on the way back, which is why we ended up in a hotel in Beijing. It's not often you get involved with a real-life kidnapping...

There we were in San Fransisco, ready for take-off, and all sorts of shenanigans start taking off (and therefore, not the plane). Lucy had got a seat right at the back of the plane, and they'd plonked me at the front, behind an Indian family, behind a Chinese family. But the latter was not a model of harmonious bliss, alas - I suddenly noticed that the teenage girl was struggling while being forcibly held down by a couple who turned out to be her parents. It took a moment to realise this, as you simply don't expect to see it, and least of all on a plane - it's sort of a Somebody Else's Problem, rather like spaceships in the park disguised as bistros.

By this stage the airline staff hadn't noticed either, although it was becoming obvious something really was amiss as the girl was now pleading for help while being rugby-tackled by her very anxious-looking mother; dad was just standing around looking shifty.

It turns out that the girl was l8, and a student in the US, and the parents wanted her to come home. Apparently she didn't agree, and had been beaten and forced onto the plane under threat of more force; she presumably had rather cleverly waited until somewhere where she couldn't be ignored before trying to get away again.

The end result was police coming aboard, and eventually dragging hysterical mother off the plane by her feet. After that, it was announced that one of the passengers had decided she didn't want to travel after all (the art of understatement isn't dead after all), but the plane was now free to go - and only an hour or so late.

It was quite a surreal experience, really, but just goes to show that this sort of thing really does happen. It may well be that the parents were fearing they would never see their daughter again, and we have no idea whether she even had a visa to stay longer. We don't know the story, only one of the concluding scenes. Were the protestations of having been beaten even true? The parents didn't speak English, so probably weren't aware what she's said. On the other hand, one of their arguments was that, "If we were in China..." - which of course they weren't, even if they were on a Chinese plane. Seeing something like this makes you really notice parts of a culture that are otherwise hidden. I don't know the true story, so I'm not going to judge anyone - but this does give one a new insight into the dynamics of family in China. Or at least, of one family.

On the plus side, we did get put up in a swanky Beijing hotel after missing our connection, and you don't mind anything when they have such cute little notices. Plus there's no breakfast on Earth like a Chinese hotel brekkie.

p.s. Hi John! Thanks for the comment on the previous post - we can't reply directly (blogspot blocked in China), but my email is my old acutipuerilis one - if you've not got it, it's on my recent papers.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Jellyfish taphonomy

Jellyfish taphonomy by hallucygenia
Jellyfish taphonomy, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

One of the nice things about being a palaeontologist is that fun things quite often qualify as work. For example, a trip to the beach offers an opportunity to make observations on modern marine ecosystems and examine natural taphonomic experiments. To anyone else this may look like peering into rock pools, picking up seaweed and carefully turning over rotting jellyfish, but we know better.

We recently visited Abereiddy Bay in South Wales. I have wanted to go there for a long time, because it’s a very famous site for graptolites. Not only does it have fossils, but also public toilets, interesting insects, rock pools, dead jellyfish and a van selling snacks. This makes it an ideal field location, the only difficulty being deciding what to look at first. We started with the insects, moved on to the fossils, then the snack van, then rock pools, then more fossils, and finally walked along the sandy part of the beach to look at the jellyfish.

Jellyfish, being about as soft-bodied as it is possible to be, aren't common in the fossil record. Most palaeontologists never find one in their entire careers! Seeing the dead jellyfish strewn around the beach, we decided to see look at the impressions they had left in the sand, in the hope of being able to recognise similar structures in the fossil record.

This is the jellyfish itself, or what is left of it. The tentacles are gone (eaten or rotted away), but the bell is more or less intact. (This photo was taken after we had examined the impression it had left in the sand.)

Jellyfish taphonomy

Jellyfish taphonomy by hallucygenia
Jellyfish taphonomy, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

This is the jellyfish as we found it on the beach - note that it's oriented with the flat side down, and the retreating tide has left it in a little hollow. You might expect that there would be some recognisable imprint in the sand underneath, perhaps showing the mouth.

Jellyfish taphonomy

Jellyfish taphonomy by hallucygenia
Jellyfish taphonomy, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

This is the actual impression that the jellyfish left on the sand after Joe carefully turned it over. Note the complete lack of any recognisable features. All the other jellyfish that we looked at showed the same thing. This would seem to indicate that, even if an impression of a jellyfish were to make it into the fossil record, it would not be recognisable.

Of course, these were only a few examples, and we might just have been unlucky. Perhaps other jellyfish are more obliging? Back in Nanjing, I went to the library for information on what happens to jellyfish after they die, and found a book chapter written by David Bruton in 1991. He found that the animals can leave well-defined impressions on sand, but only if they dry out, for example if they are thrown up above the high tide line. This explains why the Abereiddy jellyfish didn’t leave any recognisable marks: they were below the tide line and the sand was too wet.

So, what does this mean for the fossil record? If jellyfish do have the potential to be fossilised, but only above the high tide line, how likely is it that any of them will in fact become fossils? Graham Young of the Manitoba Museum and James Hagadorn of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science recently wrote a review of jellyfish fossils. Their paper is ten pages long, which gives you an idea of just how rare these things are, and they listed nine deposits worldwide as containing bona fide jellyfish. (There are more than nine published reports of fossils purporting to be jellyfish, but most of these cannot be confirmed as such – think how unjellyfishlike a genuine jellyfish impression can be...) Most of the jellyfish-bearing rocks were laid down in very shallow water, as expected, but some jellyfish have been preserved in deeper water. So, jellyfish can be fossilised in a variety of circumstances, but recognising them might be difficult.

And why are we so interested in this? Now that would be telling...

Bruton, D.L., 1991. Beach and laboratory experiments with the jellyfish Aurelia and remarks on some fossil “medusoid” traces. In: Simonetta, A.M. & Conway Morris, S. (eds) The early evolution of Metazoa and the significance of problematic taxa. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 125-129.

Young, G.A. & Hagadorn, J.W., 2010. The fossil record of cnidarian medusa. Palaeoworld, 19, 212-221.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Back in Nanjing

Jiming temple by hallucygenia
Jiming temple, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

I took this photo in the evening from the office opposite ours - our office has a fine view of the wall of the badminton court. The view is of the tower of the Buddhist temple next door to the institute. Having the temple next door is quite handy from our point of view, as we can buy vegetarian dumplings or noodles at lunchtime, go to the other restaurant for an occasional evening meal, and buy interesting fake meats at one of the temple shops. (The other temple shops sell jade, incense, candles and religious figurines. Buddhist monks and nuns might not be allowed money, but they can certainly run a successful business.)

September's fieldwork was quite eventful, with some extremely interesting finds. We have to keep quiet about them for a bit (it's a condition of the grant we got from National Geographic), but will be able to share them in due course.

And we will try to post on here more often...

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Crinoids and taxonomic nightmares

new crinoids by joe with a camera
new crinoids, a photo by joe with a camera on Flickr.

The wonderful world of crinoids
Morning all. It's about time we did some more fossils, so here's something a bit different. You're all familiar with starfish and sea urchins, right? Of course you are. Most of you might even know that they're closely related. They are both defined as classes within the subphylum Eleutherozoa, along with sea cucumbers, brittle-stars and concentricycloids. I’ll be impressed if many of you have heard of the Eleutherozoa, but you might well have come across the echinoderms – that’s the even broader group that they all belong to. It’s a marvellous phylum – lots of unique features, like pentaradial symmetry and a hydrostatic support system. The six modern classes cover a lot of ground in terms of variety, but they’re nothing compared with their ancestors.

At some point I’ll post photos of an edrioasteroid that Lucy brought back from Morocco for me – imagine a starfish on a cushion and… actually you’ll be nowhere near, but it’s a start. Anyhow, for today I wanted to introduce the other living class, and some other Moroccan fossils: the crinoids. Otherwise known as sea-lilies (when they’re known at all), these are delicate-looking animals consisting of a long stalk, a cup-like body (calyx), and an array of arms. The modern ones have in many cases lost the stalk, and swim around like a cross between a brittle-star and a jellyfish. (I must stop these daft analogies – I once told an undergrad to think of these as being like starfish on stalks, and one of my fellow students has never forgiven me…).

Crinoids have a pretty ancient history, going back to the base of the Ordovician. For a long time, the oldest one was Ramseyocrinus, from Ramsey Island in Pembrokeshire, but it’s been superseded by some amazing finds in the US. These rare discoveries are what we have to rely on, though – crinoids fall apart very rapidly when they die, so complete fossils rely on live burial (like so much else that we study). This means, of course, that our view of the early crinoid record is very sketchy indeed, with a few spectacular faunas, and a lot of gaps. Which brings us to Morocco.

A few years back I was invited to write up the crinoids from the Late Ordovician rocks of Morocco (these rocks have very famous echinoderm faunas that are being described en masse, but crinoids are relatively rare components of the fauna). I duly accepted, and now the time for submission is long overdue, so I’m desperately trying to finish them off. Just for once, it isn’t just me being lazy that’s caused the delay – in this case the number of crinoid specimens has been extremely low, and I’ve literally been waiting for specimens to describe. I had a few from the beginning, but most of them only as single specimens... which isn’t really enough to describe, as you need to see a lot of details for a meaningful description. Another problem is that they’re preserved in sandstone, with the grain size so coarse that is makes working out the arrangement of plates on the calyx very tricky, or just plain impossible. I’ve been making latex casts, cleaning and preparing, but in some cases there just isn’t enough information.

Finally, though, the end is in sight. Lucy came back from Morocco in the spring with a bunch of new specimens, some from a new site, and the preservation is just gorgeous. These I could do something with… and promptly set to work doing so. What I didn’t expect, though, was just how stonkingly, befuddlingly weird they all are. It has taken ages just to understand the things, work out what families they’re related to, and so on. There are some that simply don’t fit in known families, or have combinations of features from a whole stack of different ones. So how about the beautiful pair of specimens in the picture? Well, they’re clearly a new species of Euptychocrinus, a monobathrid camerate (honest). The problem is that they appear to be otherwise closest to an odd group of diplobathrids called the Opsiocrinidae – i.e. in a different suborder. This is the sort of result that makes you wonder whether the distinction between the suborders is reliable at all… which opens a whole can of worms about whether we’ve got the classification system right.

It’s never easy, eh? Every time you think you understand it a little bit, it just gets weirder. The fauna is a combination of groups known otherwise from North America, the UK, and elsewhere, and from well-known families or truly obscure genera. Some appear to be extremely primitive, and others most closely resemble things from the Devonian. What’s most surprising, though, is how diverse the fauna is. Although there are many, many fewer specimens of crinoids than of other groups (brittle-stars, cystoids), the diversity is (I think, although the formal descriptions aren’t out yet) even higher. There are no species with lots of specimens, and most of them are represented so far only by one or two. We see the same thing in the Builth Inlier in Wales, but in reverse: there the crinoids are relatively abundant, and it is the starfish that are extremely rare… but so far, every starfish specimen seems to be a different species. What is this telling us about ecology? No idea, but patterns like this are always interesting to ponder. Besides, it distracts me a bit from the taxonomic headaches that these amazing specimens generate every time I open the drawers.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Variegated yarn

daffodils by hallucygenia
daffodils, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

I always like the look of variegated yarns before I start to knit with them – the colours contrast so nicely! However, they never seem to look as good knitted up, so I tend not to buy them. I made an exception for this lovely green and yellow sock yarn – I don’t normally go for yellow at all, but this particular yellow paired with this particular green did appeal. It has taken me some months to find a way of knitting with it where I liked the result.

This is really a four-part blog post, but as I can only post one picture at a time, it will have to be four separate posts. The posts should be read in reverse chronological order, i.e. variegated yarn, first attempt, second attempt, success.

First attempt

hedera socks by hallucygenia
hedera socks, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

I wanted to make a pair of socks with the yarn. I didn’t want to do a scarf or hat, because putting yellow next to my face doesn’t suit me, and I already have enough pairs of gloves. I choose this sock pattern. After a few inches, it was clear that the pattern and the yarn don’t work together. The colour variation obscures, rather than shows off, the lace pattern, and I didn’t like the way the colours were pooling. I do like the pattern, and will probably knit it again in a solid colour wool.

Second attempt

For the second attempt, I found a pattern for socks using linen stitch. Linen stitch uses slipped stitches and brings the wool forward in front of some stitches, both of which mix up the colours a bit. I was hoping that this would get rid of the pooling but, as you can see, it didn’t. I rather like the part on the right, where the green and yellow are very mixed up, and if the rest of the sock had been like this I would have persevered.


green and yellow sock 2 by hallucygenia
green and yellow sock 2, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

In the end I bought some more wool in a harmonising colour (the dark green), and did a simple plain striped sock. This works! The dark green breaks up the large areas of yellow, and the overall effect is bright and cheery. Now to knit a second sock, so I can wear the pair...

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Japanese Rhinoceros Beetle

Greetings all - if you still remember us. Sorry about the hiatus... one thing after another, and then we just got out of the habit. Anyhow, here's a good one to get back into the swing of things. If the video doesn't run automatically, click and it should take you to Flickr, where it does.

These little beauty was found on the way into work, on the pavement, upside-down. The previous day we'd found a female in the same place, and in the same rather undignified posture. Coming from a country where the bulkiest insect you can find is the stag beetle, this lumbering tank was quite a surprise.

For some reason, it didn't take long to work out it was Trypoxylus dichotomus, a relatively common species in the far east, but most typical of the northern areas. The larvae live in rotten wood for a few years before emerging (imagine the size of the hole... not great if you've got them in your furniture, I imagine), whereapon the males battle each other endlessly for the attention of the females. The ridiculous horns are perfct for flipping each other over, but can probably also inflict some serious damage on opposing appendages if twisted the right way. We found another male that was apparently unable to walk (or even stay upright - a common complaint, it seems), with one of its legs not working. It might not have been a rival... but it probably was.

These animals are apparently popular pets, and I can see why - they have so much personality. Inevitably, though, they're often made to fight each other... which is fine up to a point, of course, as that's what they do, but I imagine there's a natural limit to how often they encounter each other and choose to do battle. Less inevitably, they're apparently sold as pets in Japan... from vending machines. Yes, I'm sorry to say you read that right. Ho-hum.

A few interesting facts... I read on forum somewhere that the size of the adult depends on the quality of the food given to the larvae (reasonably enough). Those who tried feeding them an apparently nutrient-rich diet of leaves and mulch, however, ended up with smaller adults than those feeding them on wood alone. I guess their digestive system is geared towards wood, and they can get more from a twig than they could from a hefty Greek salad with added bamboo shoots.

Apparently ( the enormous horn doesn't stop the males flying as far and as fast as the (hornless) females. To compensate for the weight, they've evolved larger muscles and so on, which presumably does require more energy... so I'm not sure exactly what the study really showed, to be honest. Interesting, though, and it must be quite fun sticking tiny radio transmitters onto them.

Finally... apparently they have quite a mainstream profile in Japanese media. If anyone has seen the classic (sort of)film "Godzilla vs. Megalon", you may notice some familiarity in Megalon's facial protuberances... yes indeedy, the god of Seatopia is apparently a giant bipedal mutated T. dichotomus... and yes, I really, really should leave it at that.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Prehistoric cucumbers

Top o’ the mornin’ to ye. Lucy's still sunning herself in the desert, finding sponges, arthropods, and who-knows-what, so you're stuck with me again. Once she's back we're hoping to have - shock, horror - a brief holiday, and go somewhere spectacular. Before then, though… time for some more fossils.

This is based one of our papers, just out in the open-access online journal Palaeontologia Electronica, published by the Palaeontological Association. At some point we'll write about the whole debate over science publishing, but suffice to say that open access is a Good Thing. Did you know that authors have to sign away their copyright to the journal, and are often asked to pay a few hundred pounds for the privilege, before the journal sells the paper at £30-40 a go, and charges ridiculous subscription charges for academic libraries, with no royalties whatsoever to the authors? Palaeo Electronica isn’t the highest-impact journal, but it’s one of the ethical ones. Anyway, that’s for another day. The point here is that you get to read the paper for yourselves, should you be that way inclined:

In outline, what we’ve got is another fauna from the Ordovician of Wales with some exceptional preservation of squidgy things in it. Unlike the Llanfawr fauna we talked about before, this isn’t in some nice useful exposure like a quarry – it’s a tiny, crumbling bank of shale with trees on top, on the side of a stream valley that’s so dim you can barely see anything on a hot summer day due to the thick canopy. The shales are deeply weathered, and although there was pyrite there once (good for X-radiography, remember) it’s not there anymore. What we’re left with are rusty shapes on crumbly grey rock, which we can’t see until we’ve got out into the open.

The reason we bother with it is that there are – you guessed it - sponges! Lots of sponges. There are probably a dozen new species. There are also palaeoscolecid worms (we’ll go into those when the paper comes out in the next couple of months), trilobites (yawn… no, they’re cute, really), and various other gubbins. The gubbin that is most exciting, though, is a small number of sea cucumbers.

Sea cucumbers do not appear as fossils very often. Unlike their cousins the sea urchins and starfish (all included in the echinoderms), they don’t have a rigid skeleton. The plates of an urchin’s test have been reduced to tiny sclerites (rather like sponge spicules) embedded in a leathery skin. The only really robust bit is a ring of plates around the pharynx, which you can see in the photo. They’re truly delightful animals – the only things I know of whose defence mechanism is to spit their intestinal tract out at anything that bothers them. It’s ok – they grow a new one afterwards. Just down the road from us is a restaurant that advertises, “Specialist in Sea Cucumber!” so obviously someone else appreciates them too.

Anyhow, although they turn up regularly on reefs, sea cucumbers really come into their own on the abyssal plain. Great herds of them march across the muddy plains, filtering yummy marine snow out of the water, or digging through the mud for delicious little morsels. They’re one of the most abundant large animals on the planet, where some authors say that they make up nearly 90% of the deep marine animal biomass. They also have many clever abilities, such as buoyancy control and burrowing ability, which is all quite impressive for something with no brain.

One of talents they don’t have, though, is being fossilised. There are very few examples of complete fossil holothurians, with the oldest until now being the Late Silurian of Australia, 50 million years later. There are some isolated, microscopic sclerites and plates from the same sort of age as ours, but until now, no whole ones. At this stage, I should explain what’s important about the Middle Ordovician, regarding echinoderms. There are numerous extinct groups of echinoderms, but the living ones all appear in the Ordovician (except the concentricycloids, but they’re just weird, and are probably merely a strange group of starfish). The crinoids appear in the earliest Ordovician, the starfish (in the form of the extinct somasteroids) around the same time, followed by the true starfish and brittle-stars, and then finally the sea urchins and holothurians. The latter two appear for the first time in the Middle Ordovician; in fact, we’ve got the oldest sea urchin too, but that’s not published yet. They are also believed to be very close relatives, so the earliest ones should show features that are somewhere between those of the two groups…

Until now, that really wasn’t true – and in a way, it still isn’t. There’s a truly bizarre extinct class of echinoderms called the ophiocystioids that might be close to ancestral holothurians, and the bothriocidaroids appear to be an early branch off the sea urchin lineage, but there’s really nothing that shows anything like a clear transition between the two groups. Ours helps a little bit, in that it’s got traces of a sea urchin-like skeleton in the form of reduced ambulacrae – the lines down the side of an urchin, where all the tube feet go. These skeletal ambulacrae are completely lost in modern holothurians, which makes the feature particularly important, and it actually ties in with some predictions made years ago by a German researcher. Isn’t it nice when science actually works?

There’s still a fundamental question remaining, though – where did they come from? Both urchins and cucumbers appear in the fossil record in the Middle Ordovician, in obviously primitive but still recognisable forms. There’s nothing obviously related before them, and there’s nothing (except ours) that’s clearly intermediate. We now have diverse Early Ordovician faunas like the Fezouata Biota, replete with abundant echinoderms, but nothing there that could be closely related to urchins – although there they do find somasteroids in abundance, along with edrioasteroids, which might be the ancestors of them all. The fossil record is pushing us towards thinking that these groups really did evolve in an extremely short space of time…

The thing to remember, though, is that the fossil record lies. It hides things. It gives you glimpses, and then pretends that the rest isn’t really there. Anything living in shallow water, for example, tends to get obliterated before it even has a chance to be fossilised. Our undescribed urchin is from Llandegley Rocks – conveniently, a shallow-water deposit preserved due to being on the side of a subsiding volcano. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe the urchins and cucumbers really did evolve in the Early Ordovician, but in a place where we can’t – yet – see them. Time to get the hammers out again, then.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

There's nowt as queer as Folk

Brian Boru's March a video by joe with a camera on Flickr.

Hello again all… Lucy’s on her way to Morocco at the moment, so you’re stuck with me again, in cold, murky Nanjing. It’s trying to be spring, but not quite managing it yet. We did promise all sorts of random discussions on here, so this one is going to be more random than most…

There we were the other day, sitting in Finnegan’s Wake (the local Irish pub) and listening to the Irish Rover (or something), and the discussion started meandering over what makes something folk music. We ended up getting tied up in so many knots, and having to think about so many different things, that we decided we ought to write some of it down. As you may know, we both sing a bit of traditional folk, while I do a spot of harping and Lucy flutles (flauts? flaunts?), with a bit of persuasion. We used to go to folk clubs in the UK, and were often struck by what many people were performing. To us, Bob Dylan isn’t folk. Neither is Simon and Garfunkel’s stuff. They may be very nice, and perhaps one day we will class some of it as folk music, but not yet, surely? But then, why not? And what about Enya? Was everything that Clannad did folk, or Runrig? It started to get quite complicated…

When we personally talk about folk music, we mean the really traditional stuff – you know, at least a century or so old, and (if it’s a song) preferably in a long-lost Celtic language. Or Elvish. But obviously, there’s more to it than just the age – a lot of classical and religious music goes back just as far. Of course, one doesn’t dress up in black tie to go to a folk concert, and a typical folkie in the ballet theatre would stand out a mile, so there must be a deep division somewhere. So what other differences are there, besides calling a violin a fiddle?

You could argue it was partly down to the instruments, but there’s a lot of similarity. Some of Rodrigo’s solo guitar stuff could almost *be* a folk rendition, and a lot of the folk instruments have near-exact (although admittedly grander) counterparts in classical circles. Except perhaps bagpipes… can you imagine a ‘Great Highland Pipe sonata in E minor’? No, don’t even try. [Edit: just checked, and Bartok, believe it or not, did indeed write a bagpipe sonata. And he’s not the only one.] You could find differences in the style of the music, perhaps, but how much of the classical repertoire is based on folk melodies? Mazurkas, anyone? The point is that there are a lot of points of overlap, and occasionally it’s very hard to tell the difference.

Eventually we decided it was all about the purpose and meaning of the music, and what you’re allowed to do with it, rather than anything about the music itself. Modern pop music is mostly about the performer – the good old celebrity. They can cover someone else’s song, but people talk about the singer rather than the song. Classical seems to us to be about the performer some of the time (but only really when you’re dealing with the best), but more often it is the composer – it’s the perfect arrangement of notes written down a century ago, and the arrangement of notes must remain. Of course, there are ‘fantasias on a theme of…’ – but these also are fixed. They are like paintings: to be admired in the form in which they were created. Leeway is allowed in the interpretation and intonation of the notes, but the notes themselves must remain. I remember once when Pavarotti hit the news for making three mistakes in a concert. The crowd were screeching for their money back. When Loreena McKennitt started singing the wrong song, everyone laughed along with her, and the poor confused musicians thought it was hilarious.

Folk tunes, in contrast, are about as loosely defined as it gets. Usually only the melody is written down – you’re meant to make up the harmony as you go along. Better than that, though, is that the tunes themselves are flexible. They’re often organised simply, with several repetitions of a primary section, and the musician is actively encouraged to make twiddles and add squiggles here and there, as they see fit. And what about the lyrics? They’re even more subject to change: for old songs, there are often numerous versions in circulation, and you can pick up different verses of old favourites from buying a new recording. Of course, being out of copyright helps a lot…

Perhaps the best example of this is “Two Sisters” (or numerous other titles, including “The Bonny Swans”, and “Dreadful Wind and Rain”). The basic story is that two sisters walk along a riverbank (or the sea), and the older pushes the younger in. She refuses to help her out unless the poor girl gives her ‘her own true love’ (or some variation on that). The girl drowns and gets swept away, eventually being found by a miller, his daughter, or a passing minstrel. Usually, she gets made a harp (yes, yes, I know… just accept it, right?), and eventually gets taken back to her old home, where she spontaneously sings a song (yes, you can do things like that in faerie tales) denouncing her sister. There are hundreds of versions across Europe, in many languages, and no-one even knows where the original came from.

It works backwards too – popular lines can be transplanted into entirely different songs, and turn up anywhere. An example of a ‘floating line’ is “I leaned my back against an oak, thinking it was a trusty tree; but first it bent, and then it broke, and so has my love done to me” – a popular sort of theme for folk songs in general.

So what’s it all about, then? It’s partly about the performer, but it’s noticeable that the most successful Celtic folk musicians tend to diverge more and more from the traditional tunes and move towards creating their own. Enya, for example, started out with Clannad, but wanted to perform her own, more commercial material. Interestingly, Clannad also headed in the commercial direction, but their early recordings are almost entirely traditional tunes. Many of the best folk musicians today (e.g. Julie Fowlis) are almost unknown outside followers of the genre. I have some beautiful cds for which I can’t even remember the singer’s name. Somehow, though, that doesn’t really matter.

So folk does not centre on the performer, and obviously not the composer. The lyrics and the notes are flexible, and the instruments and style, although they tend to conform to certain stereotypes, also overlap with classical. We decided the answer was that folk music is about the meaning of the music rather than the outward appearance. The songs reflect moral lessons or helpful ways to think about things in order to overcome one’s own difficulties, or they are ways of remembering old stories. In many ways, folk songs are like faerie tales, or the stories told around campfires. The tunes themselves, like all music, carry with them emotions and atmospheres, but most of the folk tunes I know of that have no songs attached are for dancing to. There are slow tunes – airs – as well, but these inevitably seem to have lyrics added, if they’re weren’t around originally. The musicality of folk is really just for the sake of being musical; it’s not the main purpose of it. There’s a joyousness in folk performers that you rarely see in other types of music (except jazz, maybe).

So there you have it; I’d like to think that folk really is primeval. It’s maintaining what music was first made to do: as a way of remembering things, of passing on stories and ideas about what really matters. But perhaps the true folk tradition is an anachronism in the music world today, because the situations it refers to don’t really happen nowadays? I think I’d disagree – the situations are the ones most fundamental to the human world, even if the specific examples are long gone. These songs are mostly about life, love, and loss. Perhaps they can’t solve all your worries, but at least you can share them with long-lost minstrels, and know that someone understood.

As a final word, I’m also glad to say that Wikipedia seems to be having as much trouble defining folk music as we are. There’s much more to the discussion over there:

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A little taste of almost home

welshcakes by hallucygenia
welshcakes, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

One of the things that the Chinese don’t really do is ovens. Big industrial ones, yes, but not little domestic ones for home baking. There are times when one feels the urge for a home-made cake or a quick batch of rock buns, and this is of course impossible without an oven. So, on fieldwork this summer, we invested in a copy of “Welsh Bakestone Cookery” by Bobby Freeman. Bakestones (or griddles) are a way of cooking cakes on the stovetop – perfect for our situation.

Needless to say, actually making something wasn’t quite as simple as reading the recipe book, deciding which one sounded yummiest, and doing it. For a start, most of the recipes involve baking powder, which of course isn’t available here, because no-one has an oven. This difficulty was solved by a quick trip to the supermarket on our visit to the US in October last year (which also yielded ground coffee, hot chocolate and an external hard drive for backing up all our data). I bought what is probably wheat flour in the local supermarket here in Nanjing – I can’t read the label, but it’s the right colour and isn’t made from rice (I know that character). The local supermarket also yielded the other necessary ingredients, with the exception of mixed spice (I found time to visit a supermarket in the UK over Christmas).

So, ingredients gathered, we decided to make welshcakes. This is the first recipe in the book, so presumably the simplest, and Joe has often eaten them so he knows what they’re supposed to be like. Lacking a mixing bowl or pair of scales, we used the bowl of the rice cooker and the “oh it looks about right” method. Instead of a griddle, we used the wok. Amazingly, the cakes turned out delicious, although Joe says that they’re not really Welshcakes. Obviously more practice is needed!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! by joe with a camera
Happy New Year!, a photo by joe with a camera on Flickr.

In case you think we're really behind the times, it is of course Chinese New Year. the buses are empty, there are charred scraps of red paper blowing in the gutters, and Lucy's currently working on the laptop while snuggled up in bed - Ah, the good old Nanjing winter!

This year falls under the Dragon's influence in the Chinese Zodiac, which is strangely appropriate, as we both do as well. Lucy's close to being a rabbit, it must be said, but you only see that side if you offer her a carrot. Apparently dragons are very independent, and work best on their own (oh dear); they prefer to live on their own terms and not be ruled by others, while they go about their creative things, eccentric experiments, or whatever. While this might sound strangely familiar, I've always had some problems with the concept that everyone born in that year operates the same way. Every twelve years it would be total anarchy... but then, perhaps that's why the school year doesn't coincide with the Chinese year, but is almost six months out - a schoolyard filled with an even mix of rabbits and dragons does more-or-less fit my memories...

Anyway, what I hadn't realised was that the Chinese Zodiac also goes through a cycle of the five elements. This is the year of the Water Dragon, who is by all accounts a very reasonable sort of beast. Apparently they counteract the blazing emotions and recklessness of fire dragons (guess what we are... reckless? really? Well, I guess we did decide to come out here in the first place). You've got to say, though that the prospect of schoolrooms filled with a year's worth of fire dragons is rather a terrifying prospect.

Anyway, enough of this silliness. the festivities went off in true Chinese style (as always, click on the photo to get to Flickr, where in this case there's a little video of the fireworks from our window). We were hoping to find lots of photogenic, noble-looking dragon statuary and ornaments, but there are almost none to be seen. The official dragon is a strange deer-like thing that's always depicted as a cartoon or a fluffy toy. Someone hasn't read the stereotype... either that, or everything is aimed at children, which is quite likely. After all, go to the UK at Christmas, and how often do you see a non-stereotypical, jolly Santa? I guess these celebrations are not really about the meaning any more, here or back home. It's the occasion that matters nowadays, the giving of huge boxes of oranges (very nice ones, but we'll be eating them for weeks), and the chance to go join the crowds at the fair and win a stuffed Garfield.

Having said all that, guess where the biggest crowds we saw were? Not at the parks, but at the entrance to the local Jiming buddhist temple. Yes, there were loads of balloons with Winnie-the-Pooh and similar local characters, but in an officially non-religious country, this mass attendance suggests that at least some of the traditions are deeper-seated than just enjoying the festivities...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

News from the canine fashion world

dressed-up dog by joe with a camera
dressed-up dog, a photo by joe with a camera on Flickr.

We've now been here a year (wow... I can't decide whether it feels much shorter or much longer...), and the time seems right for a few balanced impressions about this strange, confusing and strangely endearing country we've ended up in. Perhaps slightly oddly, I can't help thinking that this poodle sums a lot of it up rather nicely.

Never before, anywhere, ever, have I seen a dog wearing trainers. Eating them, yes, but not wearing them. Add to this the rather natty coat and headwear, and you have one very smart-looking pooch. It's surreal. It's utterly daft, and in the UK hardly anyone, I dare say, would have the nerve to be seen out with such a sophisticated companion. Aside from the jeers and laughter, such an owner would doubtless be worried about being upstaged - and we couldn't have that, now, could we?

In China, the bizarre (by our standards) is commonplace. No-one bats an eyelid at young women wearing what can only be described as wedding dresses (or the ultimate in ball gowns) while out shopping. Nor do people seem to notice someone pausing in their walk through the woods in order to let out an immense, ear-splitting yell. Well, of course you wouldn't notice, would you? It's just someone out doing some exercises.

I get the impression that people here generally do not care about irrelevant appearances all that much (how else to explain the spectacularly noisome dustbins just outside the front door of a swish restaurant?). What matters is whether something works, and whether it happens to be what you have.

There is a huge gap between rich and poor here, but the great majority are in the poor end. I'm sure there's envy, but on the other hand, the rich are clearly distinct and not really relevant to most people. Among the normal townsfolk, everyone seems remarkably equal. Whether dressed in ragged robes or a natty coat and four matching trainers, you're just as worthy of a seat on a bus, or being served in a restaurant. Perhaps someone has very little money; that's just the way it is. Perhaps someone wants to dress up to be completely over the top; that's fine too - it's their choice entirely, and they're not going to get laughed at because of it.

On the other hand, there are the apparent paradoxes. This acceptance of other people's behaviour (within reason, if not *reason*) is not a lack of interest; the Chinese people in general are intensely sociable, and very interested in what other people are doing. They seem to manage this without being judgemental, though, which for westerners like us is a beautiful novelty. Although we get a lot of attention [It's the beard - Lucy], it's always amicable or simply curious. We get people staring at us, wanting to have their photos taken with us, and so on, but it seems to be a genuine interest. Never once have we felt the hostility that many overseas pioneers have met with in the UK. It's just not part of the culture.

I think perhaps that this openness to new ideas or surprising discoveries is what explains that self-satisfied poodle. It's like the cake shops, you see. They've taken the idea of a cake (completely alien a few decades back, I'm guessing) and taken it to extremes. There are dozens of little patisseries around now that have an extraordinary selection of startling creations, smothered in icing and little creamy parapets. Bored with plain cake? Then go for one of the ones with a layer of ice-cream instead. Why not? Like everything else that goes on in China, it works.

And so, back to the poodle. It looks ridiculous? Fair enough, but it's warm, and its feet aren't cold and wet. And nobody they walk past seems to care... but I bet they do, really. I bet half of them are thinking about doing the same, if they've got a dog. If they can't afford it, they're probably thinking about sewing up little booties themselves. Because, you see... it works.

And that's why they can complete the biggest engineering project in the world ahead of schedule and under budget - and why they're rapidly taking over the world's economy. They take whatever works and improve on it, without worrying too much about whether it sounds silly or might be embarassing. And that is one of many reasons why the country is so beguiling for those who get to spend some time here. Let's hope we can unravel some more facets over the coming year. After all, we're probably completely wrong, and anyone Chinese reading this will probably be laughing uproariously. But we'd like to think they won't mind our misconceptions, and will take them in the spirit in which they're meant. If you're reading this: perhaps we'll never understand this extraordinary country, but we're going to have fun trying. :)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Penguin by hallucygenia
Penguin, a photo by hallucygenia on Flickr.

Happy New Year (the first New Year of the year) to all our readers!

We’ve been in the UK for a few weeks, visiting two museums, two universities, one library, one dentist and eleven relatives, as well as doing conference presentations. Internet access has been extremely limited lately, hence the lack of blog posts. We’re now about to fly back to China, and hope to be updating the blog more regularly this year.

In the meantime, here’s a nice picture of the penguin I made with the turmeric-dyed yarn I blogged about a few months ago. As you can see, the dye worked very well. The penguin complained of being cold (I thought they were supposed to like that, but apparently not) so I had to make a little hat and scarf too.