SOCIAL LIFE AROUND A SANDWICH

As I sat down at the start of a public lecture, I overheard the woman in front of me tell her companion, “You can’t build a social life around a sandwich!” I have no idea what the context of this outburst was, and am surprised that the phrase social life around a sandwich lodged itself in my memory.

Building a social life around a sandwich? That’s not as impossible as it sounds. Did you ever swap sandwiches at primary school? I often gave my peanut butter and golden syrup sandwiches to a friend in return for her vetkoek. Vetkoek is basically bread dough that has been deep fried in oil – simply delicious plain or stuffed with cheese or meat.

The rather grim sandwiches that were our regular fare at boarding school provided a brief opportunity for us to mingle and chat during the break – none of the day pupils were keen to try out our thick brown bread sandwiches sweetened with the merest smear of what we disparagingly called ‘floor polish’ jam (actually mixed fruit jam the colour of red floor polish).

While I was in residence at university, some of us would occasionally make and sell sandwiches to hungry fellow students in the evenings to raise funds for, say, the Fencing Club or the Mountain Club. These sales provided many opportunities for socialising with students we might not have had much to do with otherwise.

Alright, none of these examples constitute what one might classify as a ‘social life’ as such, so perhaps that woman was right. Nonetheless, where would we be without the humble sandwich? Let us nod our thanks to the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu (1718-1792), who apparently ordered meat to be served between two slices of bread so that he could continue playing cards. The name sandwich comes from him, even though this way of eating food was common in France and the Middle East well before he made this famous request.

According to http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-sandwich/ , the earliest recognizable form of a sandwich could be the Korech or Hillel sandwich that is eaten during Jewish Passover. Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader and rabbi who lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod (circa 110 BC), first suggested eating bitter herbs inside unleavened matzo bread. The herbs symbolized the bitterness of slavery, and the bread resembled the flatbreads made in haste by the ancient Israelites as they fled Egypt.

Consider those doorstep sandwiches beloved of the ‘forever starving’ teenage boys; the work-a-day cut-in-half sandwiches that fill school lunchboxes; the more dainty cut-in-four sandwiches that appear in staffrooms and meetings. These days we can choose from a wide variety of breads and fillings, have our sandwiches open or closed, with or without crusts …

… the social life around a sandwich? Go to any public gathering where finger food is provided and you will find people congregating where the sandwiches are. That could be the start of a social life built around a sandwich!

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TOO LONG IN …

… NOT THE RIGHT CONDITIONS

It happens every now and then that we purchase a wine that seems to be too good to use for ‘everyday’ consumption and so keep it for a ‘special occasion’. The problem may arise that when the ‘special occasion’ presents itself, that particular wine proves to be anything but special! This is was the sad case of a particular bottle of Blaauwklippen Shiraz Vintage 1999 I was given when neighbours left town.

You can see from the photograph below that the cork had dried out so much that it broke into pieces. In fact it was so crumbly that the corkscrew couldn’t grip on what was left of the cork in the bottle and the latter had to be pushed down. Apart from being suffused with tiny bits of cork, the wine had turned into a foul tasting vinegar – what a disappointment!

Let us not blame the Blaauwklippen Wine Estate, which was established in 1682, but rather the length of time and the conditions under which this particular bottle was kept. It was certainly not in a temperature controlled cellar, but in a wine rack above a fridge in a kitchen.  Was it being kept for a ‘special occasion’ or was it passed over more than once in favour of a wine bottled with a screwcap? Do you remember the brouhaha that swirled around wine drinking circles when screwcaps for wine bottles were introduced?

The moral of this tale is that unless we can control the conditions under which our wine is kept, it seems to be best not to keep it for too long. Enjoy your wine – don’t hoard it!

REDUCING THE LUCK FACTOR

It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.

Waterbuck

A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.

FARMER’S NIGHTMARE

No need to panic: this photograph was taken a year ago not far from where we live, so all is well. Nonetheless, when I came across it this morning, it brought to the fore all sorts of sensations ‘built into’ me from my childhood on our farm. There is the memory of heat, the special smell tinder-dry grass has, the faint movement of warm air on one’s skin, the wariness that pricks up when the conditions are right, and the knowledge that the fire season has begun.

We get veld fires here too, but none of them evoke quite the same feeling of a fire encroaching on a farm where livestock and people are at high risk. The acrid smell of smoke – there is no other smell like that of a veld fire; the sight of tiny black curls of burnt grass being blown by the wind; the thick grey smoke billowing up from the grasslands; a quick look to pinpoint where the flames might be – on our farm or that of a neighbour. The party line ringing – seemingly more loudly and more urgently than usual. No need to wait for the niceties of answering your own ring (ours was two long rings and two short ones) because everyone on the line would lift their receivers at once – there was work to be done, wherever it was needed, and the faster the farmers could muster their vehicles and their workers the better – no fire brigades to do the job out there.

Animals must be moved, crops must be saved, grazing must be saved, people must be saved – and quickly! I recall a particularly large fire fanned by strong wind that swept through the bottom section of our farm. Even from the farm house I could see vehicles like toys gathering near the bottom camp as flames roared up the tall Eucalyptus trees that seemed to explode as the sap heated up. I can feel the fear. I can still sense the urgency with which everything was done – and the hurried efficiency of getting water ready for the men who were beating out the flames.

Fire: a farmer’s nightmare.

IN DEFENCE OF THE COMMON FISCAL

This strikingly handsome bird is burdened with an unfair reputation for cruelty. Imagine being known as Jackie Hangman, the Butcher Bird, or Fiscal Shrike. What is in a name you might ask – a lot, especially if the connotations of it are negative! What does hangman bring to mind? Synonyms for butcher include destroyer, killer, murderer, slaughterer, and slayer. Fiscal is a word associated with budgets, bursars, and being pecuniary. These names have come about because the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is known to sometimes impale its prey on thorns – or even barbed wire fences – for later consumption. If you visit the interesting blog run by the De Wet family at https://dewetswild.com/2018/09/26/common-fiscal/ you will find a photograph of a rather large frog impaled on barbed wire.

Does anyone condemn a spider for catching unsuspecting moths or beetles in its delicately spun web? Are spiders considered cruel when they wrap their prey in silken thread to eat later? Are people who work in abattoirs and butcheries condemned by society and treated like outcasts? We have to eat, some may argue, and would rather someone else did the killing, the cleaning, the cutting up and the packaging of the meat that we buy in neatly wrapped polystyrene packaging in the supermarkets or carefully wrapped in butcheries so that we can store it in our refrigerators or freezers for later consumption. Perhaps if we had to kill for our daily meat, more of us would prefer to bake our daily bread and grow our own beans and pumpkins. We have to eat. The Common Fiscal has to eat too. Its diet consists mainly of insects, although it has been recorded as eating small birds, reptiles and rodents too. I have frequently observed these birds eating seeds, fruit and even food scraps in my garden. This one has just been pecking at apples on the feeding tray.

As they also eat locusts, crickets, and caterpillars they should be appreciated for ridding gardens of potential pests – they perform a valuable function. Usually the Common Fiscal makes itself conspicuous by perching on an exposed branch or fence post from where it closely observes its prey before dropping down to catch it. This Common Fiscal is cleaning its beak on a branch.

The next time you are in a game reserve or see a Common Fiscal in your garden, watch it carefully: it often returns to the same perch over and again. I suspect they have marked out territories for the ones I see in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example, appear to be fairly evenly spaced from each other and they seem to scare away any other birds that venture into their space.  I see their aggression relating to food sources when there is something to their liking on the feeding tray, such as the bacon rind this one is eating.

A Common Fiscal will not tolerate other birds feeding with it – the Black-collared Barbet doesn’t either and the size of the Red-winged Starlings ensures a solitary meal for them too. It has been claimed that this habit of theirs negates efforts to create a bird-friendly garden. A glance at my monthly garden bird list is proof that this is not the case.

Their hooked beaks are adapted to their diet – nature finds ways to fill niches – and are described by the uninformed as ‘cruel’. Have you ever carefully looked inside your pet cat or dog’s mouth? Why do tourists marvel at the sight of a lion’s teeth and yet shrink from the beak of a Common Fiscal? Large raptors are described as ‘majestic’: what are their beaks and talons designed to do?

Despite its unfair reputation, I consider the Common Fiscal as being well worth having around for they definitely do much more good than harm!

SERENDIPITOUS PELARGONIUMS

Serendipity: an unplanned, fortunate discovery.

Serendipitous: occurring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

This is what happened today: two friends and I were admiring the flowers blooming in a nearby indigenous garden. Among them were a variety of pelargoniums in different colours and sporting different patterns on the petals as well as their leaves. We briefly discussed the very early cultivation of these flowers and how they have been developed and domesticated over the centuries to make them such a popular summer bloom all over Europe and in parts of the United States – most originating from our humble indigenous stock. I didn’t have my camera with me so will show you two examples from a previous post.

Once home, I settled down to read the blogs I follow – this is where serendipity comes in to play – and the first to appear was one I look forward to reading each week. This time the topic was none other than pelargoniums! It was as if Carol had been pre-empting our morning discussion. It is a wonderful article which I urge you to read if you are interested in these flowers: https://naturebackin.com/2019/05/23/pelargoniums-wild-and-domesticated/

Soon after, I received this photograph from a friend of her dear departed dog, Dusty, who enjoyed picking a flower now and then.

Now, if that was not serendipitous enough, a belated birthday present arrived for me:

What a happy, pelargonium-filled day it has been!