Saturday, April 26, 2008

Olympic interlude

I don't normally let politics intrude in this space, but the business of the Olympic torches has really got my goat, and since I haven't seen the issue covered adequately anywhere else, I decided to have a go. So...

The brouhaha over the Olympics is on again. And what a grim spectacle it is. But nobody should be surprised at that - the entire history of the Olympics is oppressive and statist, heavy with dark symbols.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics is the source of much of it. Believing the foolish nonsense about the Olympics being an 'international movement of peace and understanding', Hitler was at first reluctant to host it. But when his advisers pointed out to him that the Olympics was in fact an orgy of competing nationalisms, his black heart warmed to the idea and he ordered his very talented propaganda people to make it a stunning parade of vile symbols. This they did, and they set the standard for all subsequent Olympics.

Take the Olympic flame for example. This is a purely Nazi invention. Fascists appropriated ancient Greek and Roman imagery for their own purposes, even taking their name from a Roman symbol. The cartoonist David Low satirised the new ceremony with admirable foresight: Various dignitaries bear the torch up from Greece to Germany where a rabid-looking Hitler uses it to 'set fire to an inoffensive Jew'. Notice here how the torch goes through countries that Hitler invaded soon after. Nobody should be surprised at how aggressively the Chinese military dictators have sent their blue-clad goon squad and their irrelevant little flame on a tour of the world. Only a fool would, mothlike, stare at the flame and ignore all the rest of it. And who knows what the flame is going to ignite when it's carried willy-nilly through Tibet as a symbol of the Chinese government's dominance.

It's sad to see sports people being caught up in the 'Olympic movement' because there's really no such thing. Athletes who competed in the Berlin Olympics ended their lives fighting on the Russian Front, while the Olympic City of Sarajevo came under seige and no amount of Olympic movement could stop any of it. If the 'Olympic movement' exists, why do we not hear more of its doings, except as an empty phrase trotted out very occasionally for a bit of orotundity. The Spanish fascist who was Chairman of the Olympics for many years liked to use it. It's absurd to talk about an Olympic movement while remaining totally ignorant of its history.

Nobody stops to ask, "What is the Olympics"? If it's about sport, what are all the tedious ceremonies for? When I play sport, I don't require several days of pageants and speeches before I start. Padding along grinning and brandishing a contentious flame is supposed to be taken for 'sport'? Since none of the ceremonial is in anyway germane to the activity of sport it always has, besides a contentless vapidity, a strong nationalistic bent. What else could it realistically consist of? And if it's not about politics and nationalism, what is all this involvement by national governments about? Why are politicians involved in all aspects of the games? How everybody can wilfully ignore these glaring points amazes me.

Torch runners and sports people are gutless to take part. Even ignoring the origin of the ceremony itself, they are wrong to run within a triple phalanx of taxpayer funded 'police'. I say 'police' because these are no police any more - they've become merely tools of the Olympic games cabal, enforcing the grim vision that lies behind it. It was instructive to see British police on bikes riding down and suppressing citizens who chose to run and brandish their own symbols on the public streets. It was instructive to see the Prime Minister of Australia threatening protestors that police would come down on them 'like a ton of bricks' (what original and picturesque phrasing!). Given this grotesque repression in the name of the 'Olympic spirit', why do none of the sports people refuse to run unless the phalanx of 'police' drop back? Do they not even consider that they might be safer, more dignified, more respected, and better protected to try it? Apparently not.

Now the flame is here in Japan. Protesters have forced the 'Buddhists' at Zenkoji to behave a bit more like Buddhists and not get involved. So the inevitable mindless 'ceremony' took place on a bare carpark. There were hollow suits standing around in the cold applauding the fire on a stick, and gazing at the flame as though it was going to do something interesting or it has some special power. The runners, with their "This is happiest day of my life" grins on their faces, were herded about and manipulated by the volunteer-special-police-flame-attendants and thousands of Japanese police in some sporty new garb, paid for by those of us who don't want any part of it. The runners waved to the gaping public who couldn't see them, and lifted the torch higher when the Chinese police helpfully jerked their arms higher.

While this is all in fact a grim farce on a horrible tradition, it's good that it's happening in a way. You can see fear wiping the foolish grins off the runner's faces at times as they catch a glimmer of what they're involved in. Perhaps they begin to understand what it's like to be a repressed minority. Perhaps they see for the first time the frightening physical powers that governments can bring to bear. This is all to the good. And it's an excellent opportunity for the people of Tibet and their supporters to gain attention for their plight.

But unfortunately these positive aspects can't outweigh the negatives. I can't bear to see the representatives of Western and Japanese protest groups attacking China and the Chinese. China has suffered vastly under the imperialism of these powers, and this needs to be acknowledged, with every utterance if necessary. Meanwhile, these same powers are committing genocides in Afghanistan and Iraq, and soon maybe Iran too. This also needs to be acknowledged, again with every utterance if necessary. Not to do so is gross hypocrisy, and an added insult to the Chinese people. The Chinese people don't have the advantages of a free press and free communications to discuss with each other whether clinging to Tibet or Taiwan is really in their interest. We have these perquisites of liberty in sufficient measure, but that hasn't helped us to prevent our government and our military goons from slaughtering Afghans and Iraqis. So please, let's not hypocritically point the finger at the Chinese alone. Doing so won't incline them to listen to us any more than they do already.

And let's not forget how much CO2 all this empty symbolism is emitting. When the permafrost in the Arctic starts melting and the methane starts burping out, perhaps all the Olympic torches and flame holders can be set up as pilot lights to stop the methane getting into the atmosphere and killing us all.

Friday, April 25, 2008


There's a lot of bamboo around in these parts. Who it belongs to I couldn't say, nor could most people but the owner probably. And judging by the way most bamboo is left unmanaged, it's probably safe to say that the owner doesn't care either. (I've only ever seen one small managed grove, and it was very beautiful in its way.) An elderly lady that I used to do Tai-Chi with kept begging me to go and chop down her bamboo, but I didn't have the time, nor the means to do anything useful with it since her hill was too far from our house for me to carry it.

This means that you can pretty much go into any bamboo grove in your neighbourhood and harvest what you need. But a little bit of know-how is good. So are the right tools.

I have a folding pocket saw, a bill-hook and some forged scissors. These are the essentials. I also have a splitter which is only useful if you need regularly sized slats of bamboo. You can cut down even the biggest bamboo culm with either the saw or the bill-hook in a few minutes, but the saw is neater. The bill-hook is very useful for smashing dry dead culms which get in the way of harvesting and new growth. The scissors are for cutting off the little branches. They must be solid, forged scissors because the ones with pressed handles just deform like wax in your hand on about the third little branch.

So which culms to harvest? This picture shows my local grove of moso bamboo. Moso has big, heavy culms that taper gradually over their whole length. The internodes have what appears as a single line (the other main species in Japan have double lines). The culm walls are generally thick.

This artful shot shows a selection of culms of different ages. Basically anything that's brown is dead and should be cut down ideally. The dead ones in this photo look too far gone to be useful and could just be broken up and stacked tidily on the ground. The culms to harvest are the light, grey-green ones with the black joints. This is oxidized wax which indicates a mature culm. Avoid cutting the dark green culms with white joints. Cutting just above the joint is best so that the stump doesn't become a home to mosquito larvae.

This is a very messy stand of madake (I think). Madake has culms that are straight along most of their length, and double lines at the internode. The culms don't generally get very big and heavy, and the walls are quite thin.

The uses of bamboo in the cheapskate's garden are seemingly endless. They are very good as supports for climbing plants and stakes for weak free-standing plants. Here small branches support peas. I just stuck more branches in as needed.

This is the whole top of a bamboo culm with its branches left on, stuck in the ground for Okinawan goya to grow up. This worked very well last year. Again, more branches can be added as the plant begins to spread out.

Small branches are stuck in to form an X that stops this aubergine getting blown over. When it gets bigger, I'll make a truss of long, straight madake sticks to train the branches along so that the aubergines don't lie on the ground.

When the timber offcuts from building the house run out for making bed borders, I'll start using bamboo again as I used to. Even with the timber, the stakes used to fix them in place are pointed slats of moso, banged in with a little sledgehammer.

Bamboo can be used for fences, tied together with black string. Done skilfully they can be very attractive. Done with little skill, they can look backwoods and ratty.

This ratty fence prevents people trying to turn their cars around on my fig trees, and the little cages stop dogs from standing on them (mostly beagle/terrier mixes).

Ehime Prefecture has a Program to Promote Cyclical Use of Bamboo Resources (woot!) which has just been updated. They have an ambitious looking set of proposals, and they also have a PDF brochure with some useful information about bamboo in the Prefecture, and how to cyclically use it by, well, cutting it down.

I have a couple of books about bamboo. One is Building Bamboo Fences by Isao Yoshikawa. This is a charming book, with beautiful photos and drawings. It makes fence building look really easy, but having tried it, I can assure you that it isn't. Yoshikawa's book doesn't include photos of people with horrible facial injuries, but this is one of the risks involved. Hint: When using a splitter, keep your face well clear of everything. However, the book inspired me to build a fence, however backwoodsy, and to try making other useful things, and when I become more adept, I still hope to make a beautiful kenninji-gaki.

The other one is The Book of Bamboo - A Comprehensive Guide to this Remarkable Plant, It's Uses and It's History by David Farrelly. This book is actually quite annoying. The author attempts a poetic sort of prose, and he seems to believe that bamboo = Zen or some such nonsense, and Oriental = environmentally harmonious. And while the book does cover a lot of interesting information, each practical item is so barely touched upon (compared to the crap about the 'Tao' of bamboo) that it's scarcely worthwhile at all. But it does have some slight value nevertheless.

The Farrelly book mentions bamboo beehives, although typically, it doesn't have any useful information about them, nor any pictures. So I looked on the Web and found this PDF which has a description and images. This is so simple it must be worth trying.

Another thing I want to try is making bamboo charcoal. I don't want to be the only one in my neighbourhood who doesn't issue clouds of smoke.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Corn again

I've had some unhappiness with corn. In fact, I've tried to grow it three years in succession and not had a single grain that I could eat. This is truly a miserable record. In every case, typhoons followed long droughts, smashing down the weakened and stunted stalks, leaving only debris for the crows and ants to finish. Going to England for a crucial two weeks in the summer was probably also a contributing factor.

This time I'm determined to succeed. The price of grains is going off the metre now and everybody must do their bit to raise production. I've already been to England this spring, so I can tend my crop in the summer.

So I went to the local Daiki DIY store (formerly 'DIK' - I wish they hadn't changed their name) and bought 18 plants at 68 yen for 3. This is stunningly good value considering the price of corn seed and how poorly it does when planted directly. I also like the fact that you get a little bit of 'free' soil with your purchase.

Then I went to the bamboo grove and cut some nice straight poles to make borders for the bed. I think we need a posting soon all about bamboo. I tried weeding the bed which had been left fallow for many months, but ran out of time and just sort of turned the weeds under in the end and chucked lime on everything. This certainly won't have killed them, so mulch was imperative. I noticed that just under the surface, the soil was still very cold, so I decided to try the novel approach of 'tile mulch'. Up the hill there's a collapsed building with tiles lying among the weeds. I cart them down by wheelbarrow and use them for paths, borders and stuff. The hope is that the tiles will be heated by the sun, fry the weeds, warm the soil, and direct water onto the corn when it rains. This is probably too much to hope for, but it was a fun day nevertheless.

(While I was doing this, a friend dropped by. He was kind enough to say that the vegetable plot was beginning to look like the work of a professional. Actually, I'd been thinking the same sort of thing myself, although with the reservation that it was probably a very sloppy, time-pressed unorthodox sort of professional. It's nice to have friends who say encouraging things.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spring is sprung

The weather recently has been ideal for the past month, with rain a couple of times a week at least. This makes gardening very easy since everything grows steadily and you can spend time weeding and planting instead of watering. Can we arrange for it to be like this every month please?

I had given up hope that the clover I seeded early last year on the vegetable garden would grow. It seemed to have been overwhelmed by the grass and weeds. But these all died in the cold, and now the clover is running riot. I've never seen such big clover leaves. They look really good for green manure and mulch, especially because when you cut the big leaves, there are little ones already growing underneath. Also, I ripped up a few clover plants and the roots have the little white and pink nodes on them that I believe contain the bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soils. Clover seems to be a valuable ally to have in the garden. I had thought of having a covering of green as a prerequisite for keeping hens, and now that green has appeared I'll have to start thinking about the next step. It occurs to me that I have no idea where you get hens from.

I've constructed yet another bed. The offcuts left over from the house have been very useful for this, and there still seems to be another couple of beds' worth left. This bed is being used for green peppers, two sorts of aubergine (including one of the very long thin type popular in Ehime), and 'asparagus lettuce'. I have no idea what this is, I just found it at the seed and plant shop. I wonder if it will make our urine stink like actual asparagus does? It seems to be the very useful 'cut and come again' type, and if it really tastes like asparagus, we'll be in salad heaven - until it flowers anyway.

The broccoli all flowered which meant that it stopped producing tight, edible green heads. The bees seem to rejoice in the yellow flowers, and the missus suggested I display some flowers indoors. Something rural and weird must have gotten to her, because a few years ago this sort of thought would never have crossed her mind. Hopefully this new bucolic free thinking will extend to the keeping of hens, but I wonder...

I left a bit of broccoli standing for the bees, and put the rest in the compost, hoping that the large amount of green material will get it hot at last. At least once I want to succeed in hot composting.

Now the peas are coming along well and the onions. The peas are a variety with purple shells that I picked up in the garden shop. The flowers are also a pretty purple.

In addition, the garlic seems to be nearly ready, and the potatoes are beginning to leaf. I planted yellow and purple varieties instead of the usual spuds, and according to the packets, they all have amazing health-giving properties that will make you live to 163, if'n you don't get hit by whatever kind of bus they'll have in the future.

This year, the vegetable patch is actually beginning to look something like what competent gardeners of many years standing produce. I find myself admiring it with an idiotic grin of total happiness on my face. The other morning I noticed that the cilantro had started its spring growth. I pulled a bit to sniff and got cilantro scent on the end of my nose. I couldn't stop smiling about the whole thing for about 5 minutes. I got the cilantro plant from my friend William at his Thanksgiving Dinner last October and it survived a drunken ride home in a yoghurt pot. This makes it all the more precious. I never thought I'd be so pleased with a herb.