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Three Peculiar Plants

Medlars, fore, and persimmons, aft

I want to talk about three plants, two of which are strongly related to the supernatural landscape and one which is just weird. All of them are well known within certain circles but virtually unknown elsewhere, so they occupy a funny spot in our groupmind. I don’t see any reason why someone should group all three together, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I think they are interesting.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

If you only heard the title and never heard all the lyrics, you could be forgiven for thinking that Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit was about medlars. Instead, it is about black corpses hanging from trees in the South, but medlars are right up there for strangeness, all right.

Medlars really are pretty odd. The trees, while pretty, have a comparatively short life, so they don’t produce as much fruit over their lives as many other fruit trees, and the fruit they do produce is…well, like I said, strange. Medlars are a fruit that you don’t eat right away; they have to blet, which is tantamount to saying they have to rot. After they are picked green, they are left to sit while they decompose from the inside out, their flesh turning from a whitish, solid texture to a brown, pulpy substance that looks and tastes something like grainy apple butter. They are about the same size as small figs, or ping-pong balls. Oh, and there are giant hard inedible seeds in the fruit, so you don’t get much you can actually eat out of a medlar, and I haven’t yet told you that it’s covered with a skin that resembles (and is about as tasty as) wrinkled gray paper that cannot be peeled off without taking huge chunks of the “flesh” with it. To me, the inside of a ripe medlar has always seemed like what a spider must expect after its digestive juices have finished softening up something it snared a few weeks ago. All and all, medlars are not preposessing. Unlike the fruit in the song, they are not particularly bitter although they are not especially sweet, either.

They are a fruit you eat in the winter, which probably helped their appeal. They must have been a food for desperate folk; the tree goes back a long time but it’s hard to imagine anybody, even in the Middle Ages, dreaming of a medlar-filled paradise up above where they might retire when they die. No, these are fruits for the hard luck people, the scrabblers, the ones with no other good options.

As a result, while medlars are not going to be anybody’s favorite fruit, they make for a great metaphor. In fact, it’s hard for a cynical person to look around and not see them everywhere. Whether you think the glass is either half full or half empty, a half a glass of medlars…let’s not even go there.

As far as I know, medlars don’t have any ties to the occult, but I have a couple of other plants for you that most definitely do. Mandrake and John the Conqueror roots have a very strong presence in supernatural lore; the former, in tales from Europe and the Dark and Middle ages and the latter, in the black culture of the American South.

Neither mandrake nor conqueror root, but still creepy

Neither mandrake nor conqueror root, but still creepy

The list of roots with “magical” properties would probably be enough for several posts, but I picked those two because of their popularity in culture and media throughout the ages – and if you thought the mandrake root was something JK Rowling invented for Harry Potter, boy were you wrong! Like many of the extraordinary items in her series of books, the mandrake is something she got from the real world (just like Nicholas Flamel, for instance) and it’s a good reason why the Potter books can work well for teaching children about a variety of things you would not expect at first glance.

The mandrake root appears in folklore much the way JK Rowling describes it. But its appearances go back to the time of the Bible and continue up through today’s pop music. Lookie here:

And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.
The Bible, King James Version, Genesis 30:14–16

Or what about Shakespeare?

Shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth.
Romeo and Juliet IV.iii

Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan
Henry VI part II III.ii

Or John Steinbeck?

We even had a mandrake root – a perfect little man, sprouted from the death-ejected sperm of a hanged man.
The Winter of Our Discontent

More recently, Deep Purple had a tune about them:

I’ve got a mandrake root, and it’s a fever in my heart
-Deep Purple, Mandrake Root (on Shades of Deep Purple, 1968)

Other than Harry Potter, the most recent appearance that I am aware of is in Guillermo Del Toro’s fascinating movie Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006), which is set in the Spanish Civil War:

Mandrake, Pan's Labyrinth

Mandrake, Pan’s Labyrinth

From the strange fruit in Billie Holiday’s song to American slavery is not a big jump, given its subject matter. And that’s where most of the references to the third plant originate; finally, the big kahuna of American Rhythm & Blues culture, the John the Conqueror Root. Here is a short summary of the background on this root and its users:

Hoodoo originates from the magical practices of the Congolese slaves that were abducted and brought to America. While the original tribal religious practices were subjugated by the slave masters and the slaves were forced to convert to Christianity, the original magical practices were preserved and adjusted for the flora and fauna of the new world.

Back in Africa, the rootworkers and conjurers there used one root that conferred upon its bearer strength, prowess, luck and fertility. This root was even edible, and often used in magical talismans and workings. This root doesn’t grow in the temperate climate of the United States, so they sought out the magical knowledge and wisdom of the local Native Americans for similar local herbs.

Note that this site also sells the root, and apparently the root is useful just by reason of its presence, as nobody eats it or makes tea from it. In other words, it is magic. Or placebo, if you believe in western medicinal explanations for things.

John the Conqueror supposedly was an American slave who never submitted to his white masters, and who went on to become part of the cultural landscape in the black world of the time, his reputation growing over the years until now he is regarded as a legendary figure with magical attributes and, as is often the case with such figures, whimsical and/or arbitrary actions to those who rely on him. He seems to serve the same function in that society as Iktomi, the Lakota Trickster. All of the American Indians recognize the Trickster, although he is not aways a coyote; he might be a spider or even a rock. In any case, the Trickster is a figure to watch out for, because you might just get what you ask for, but with a sting in it. Or maybe just the sting. This also has a great deal in common with the old European tales of fairies, brownies, and such – and I am explicitly not including Walt Disney in this comment. His influence has done so much to pollute the waters when it comes to these creatures that it’s a real shame. Anyway, back to the Conqueror root.

There are innumerable references to the root, which is often pronounced John the Conqueroot, in literature (notably, James Lee Burke’s novels set in Louisiana), blues music, R&B, and of course, Cajun music. One of the best known is the Willie Dixon song recorded by Muddy Waters and everybody’s brother:

Oh, I can get in a game, don’t have a dime,
All I have to do is rub my root, I win every time
When I rub my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain’t nothin’ she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root
-Muddy Waters, My John the Conqueror Root (written by Willie Dixon)

My own personal favorite mention of the root is from Mason Ruffner’s vastly underrated and largely forgotten album from the 80s, Gypsy Blood, which was produced by Jimmy Page.

In the bridge of the song Under Your Spell (starting at 1:47 in) Ruffner sings

I’m goin’ down to the station,
Ride that train to New Orleans.
I ain’t gonna be your fool no more
Goin’ back to New Orleans,
Gonna see a voodoo queen and a hoodoo man,
Get a mojo hand, have a John the Conqueror root
Danglin’ from my boot
And a gris-gris charm, just like Doctor John.

Doctor John, of course, is the Cajun/R&B roots guy who sings about all the Louisiana hoodoo tropes, so Ruffner is referring to a referral here. I always like that.

So there you have three plants, two of them with purported magic qualities and one which really seems like it should have them, given its multiple foibles. But at least you can eat medlars without getting sick even if you won’t get a lot of nutrition from them. All three are interesting, though for different reasons and sometimes you just have to learn a new thing, right? I’ll bet for most people here, medlars are a new thing.

Stay young and monstrous.

Also…Välkommen till alla mina nya besökare från Sverige! Mina farföräldrar kom från Sverige i slutet av 1800-talet, men tyvärr talar jag inte svenska. Jag hoppas att du tycker om min webbplats. (Thanks to Risto of Rikstone Amps for translating that for me.)

 

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Music: Mother Of Dragons

DaenerysBlog

Isn’t that beautiful? That picture was done by my friend Mark Owen, who graciously allowed me to use it here. Mark’s art is definitely worth looking at.

I gave up on Game Of Thrones, the TV show, because I had read all of the available books and I knew what was coming; honestly, I’ve lost patience with Martin’s addiction to punishing his readers. But I still like a lot about the series. When I was writing a piece of music and Mrs. Tyrannocaster said “I think you should call that one ‘Mother of Dragons’” I let the idea sit there for a while because that hadn’t been my inspiration, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed to fit. So in the end I went with it.

This is a fairly long (eight minutes) instrumental and it has some things in it that I think are pretty cool. Well, I call it an instrumental, but that’s not correct, it just doesn’t have any words. With the way the vocals and the guitar double each other in the first section, I’ve never really heard anything quite like it. That was a challenge to do, too. The piece is quite complex, and if you are adventurous enough to give it a try don’t be put off by the slow intro; it does go somewhere, LOL.

Here’s the Soundcloud player for the song, complete with strangely formatted image (which I apparently can’t control, at least as far as its appearance here):

For those with older browsers (like me, LOL), here is a link to another source which should work for you. No registration required. Does require Flash, though.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2014 in Images, Music/Video

 

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Road Rage & Sacred Cows

Tech note: YouTube seems to want to present this in a letterbox format here, but it is not a letterbox video. If that bothers you (it bothers me), watch it directly on YouTube. (The little button on the lower right that says “YouTube”.)

I shot this video several years ago. I gave a copy to the police to help catch the driver of the car (that’s me yelling out the license number on the audio track – twice) and they released it directly to the media even though it was copyrighted footage. Somebody else uploaded it to YouTube (and that’s the link I’m posting here – I never really felt the need to post it myself; I could always prove it is mine by providing the original .avi file, after all), where it got tons of hits; it appeared on all kinds of national and international news media and I had a heck of a time trying to track the appearances down to tell the programs and networks nicely that they owed me money. In the end I made more money off this eleven second video than any single project I ever did in my whole career as a professional photographer. (I wrote about this here.)

What is my point here beyond bragging about this video that I was lucky enough to catch? Because it was a combination of luck (right place, right time) and skill (taking the camera with me when I investigated the noises we were hearing, having enough practice with it to be able to use it immediately, and most of all, thinking about using it in the first place), but anybody who was lucky and had their camera ready could have taken a version of this.

But where it got really interesting to me was the comments on YouTube; there were a lot of people who said the video is obviously a fake because the only way you could get a video like this is to set it up, to stage it. It made me realize how much we are at the mercy of group thought, and it gave me a real glimpse into how conspiracy theories can get started and then keep going. How much of what we believe we believe simply because everybody else also believes it: things like the idea that eating fat will cause heart disease (after it makes you fat), that grains are good for you, that doctors always know best – these are all ideas that seem sensible to us because we grew up with them, and yet they are all wrong.

How many other sacred cows do I believe in that could be slain? Well, there’s the problem, because since I believe in these cows I can’t see them; these are animals that must not be seen to be believed, to rephrase N. Scott Momaday. Currently, I’m reading Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser, and it’s made me wonder if there isn’t another sacred cow I wasn’t aware of, one that has to do with the relationship between antibiotic use and the proliferation in our society of all sorts of conditions: weight gain, autism, allergies, celiac disturbance, GERD, schizophrenia, and lots more. To me, the sacred cow here is the idea that antibiotic use does not cause problems. But it is the default belief in our society right now for most people. You can see why I’m nervous about endorsing Blaser’s idea; if it is correct, it is huge. I don’t think Blaser makes a complete case for the overprescription of antibiotics (and their use in farm feed) as the root cause of these things, but I do think he mades a very good case for it being at the least a contributing factor.

But he also points out that this idea is one that you will have a very hard time selling to the rest of the country. That’s where it gets tricky. You can already see people lumping this idea with the anti-vaccine movement, the homeopathy and Christian Scientist crowd, and maybe even the Abominable Snowman groupies or the crystal-gazing Lemurians. It’s so easy for us to dismiss things that seem to disagree with what we already “know”. I mean, maybe there really are Lemurians under Mount Shasta.

I know that I shot that video. Some of those YouTube commenters “know” that it was a fake, but I bet that even if I met them in person, showed them the Canon A540 camera with the video still in it, they would be able to tell me how I faked the video. After all, if I faked it, I can hardly admit that, can I? And wouldn’t I have prepared a bullet-proof explanation? It’s an argument that nobody can win. Except…except that the police believed the video, and what’s more, they tracked down the driver of the car with it and he admitted it (even in the stream of YouTube comments, if I remember right – I’m not going to go back and reread them all again).

When the evidence is strong enough sometimes you have to take a stand. I don’t think we have the luxury of believing that these antibiotics are completely harmless despite all the known good they do; that’s a stand I think we need to take as a society. And it’s a hard one to figure out how to implement, because what is a busy doctor, badgered by a parent with a child who has just caught a cold (colds are viral; they don’t respond to antibiotics) supposed to do when the parent wants some amoxicillin anyway? The doctor is already overworked; it’s just a lot easier to give ‘em the prescription than argue.

I think the first place to start is with the use of antibiotics in animal feed; this is part of industry’s effort to both increase animal size/growth rate and avoid raising the animals in healthy conditions. In other words, this is about money. And the first thing you will hear from them if you talk about legislating anything that concerns this (the first thing beyond the words “nanny state”, anyway) is the argument that food will cost more. Well, it might cost more for them, that’s correct. They will certainly pass the increase on. But won’t that just start to level the playing field a bit for the guys who are already out there trying to do the right thing?

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that there is another sacred cow out there: cheapest is best. This is the industry supported view, and it’s wrong. It leads to attitudes like the one that believes that we should irradiate our food rather than grow/raise it in safe conditions. Just live with the fuckups and correct ’em later, right? Not acceptable. Get rid of the pesky vermin problem by engineering crops that will kill the vermin. Wrong. Cook everything until the bacteria die. Not acceptable! All of these are arguments that shift the responsibility for food safety away from the industy that produces it to the consumer, and that for-profit view has got to change. We have to start seeing profit as something that we own – our health, for example. I think we have a right to profit from our health and that industry should be there to help us do it; it doesn’t work the other way around…except that right now, that’s exactly how it works. And that’s wrong.

And that’s also why I’m tagging this post as a rant, LOL. Because otherwise it’s just too disheartening, and they win. And one of the most effective ways they do this is by simply wearing us down. But that can wait for another rant.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge



 
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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Health, Music/Video

 

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Video

Bury The Cheerleaders

Tech note: YouTube seems to want to present this in a letterbox format here, but it is not a letterbox video. If that bothers you (it bothers me), watch it directly on YouTube. (The little button on the lower right that says “YouTube”.)

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2014 in Music/Video

 

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The Night Machines

NM13blog

Tech note: YouTube seems to want to present this in a letterbox format here, but it is not a letterbox video. If that bothers you (it bothers me), watch it directly on YouTube. (The little button on the lower right that says “YouTube”.)

The Night Machines have their own web page. There’s also information on what they are and how they came about. Why would somebody go out at night and take photographs of machines?

That’s it for now. Stay young and monstrous.

 

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Images, Music/Video

 

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Music: Sweet Bride

Here’s something a bit different from the other music I’ve posted; this is a Kate Rusby tune, although she would certainly never do it this way, and she would definitely not end it the way I did. 🙂

Sweet Bride is a great song, and I love the way Kate does it, but I could never do it like that so I opted to go in a completely different direction; I really had no choice; nobody is going to sound like her anyway.

For my guitar playing friends, I did the guitar parts on my Esquire (‘69 Tele originally) and my Warmoth Tele – the red one in the video, and I used a Marshall 18 watt amp with an extra gain stage, my favorite of all the amps I have built.

Everything in the video is mine, with one exception: I didn’t take the picture of the woman which YouTube chose as the thumbnail. Diane H took that one.

Tech note: YouTube seems to want to present this in a letterbox format here, but it is not a letterbox video. If that bothers you (it bothers me), watch it directly on YouTube. (The little button on the lower right that says “YouTube”.)

RedTeleP1040809Blog

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2014 in Music/Video

 

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Music: The Bonny Swans

BonnySwansBsmtblog

The Bonny Swans is one of my favorite songs by Loreena McKennitt. I think McKennitt is at her absolute best when she is interpreting other textual sources, and in this case she was working from the same story that Pentangle told in the other song I posted recently, Cruel Sister. Her version is closest to the old English fairy tale Binnorie, using many of the same lyric devices. In any case, it’s a great song and here is my take on it, which rocks a lot harder than hers does.

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Posted by on November 8, 2013 in Music/Video

 

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