31 December 2011

Fox Fires on New Year's Eve...

This print, Fox Fires on New Year's Eve Under the Garment Nettle Tree at Oji, from Ando Hiroshige's 100 Famous Views of Edo depicts the New Year's Eve assembly of fox spirits known as kitsune.   According to Japanese legend, kitsune from the neighboring provinces gather beneath a particular tree near the Oji Inari Shrine on the last day of the year.  As they proceed toward the tree, they breathe fire, which is understood by local farmers as the means by which to judge the success of their crops for the coming year. 

Dear readers: Bijibou wishes you all a happy, healthy, safe and peaceful New Year. 

22 December 2011


I have been beavering away in a veritable Santa's workshop of industry lately, making catnip toys for many of the cats in the neighborhood, finishing Foof's stocking and beginning a knitted hat for myself.  Supposedly, cats can see the colors green, blue and yellow.

Mice - one fat and colorful, one lean and suspiciously ratlike - both looking well and truly dead.

Foof's stocking.  I need to add a tab for hanging then I'm done.  I'm not completely happy with the way I embellished this one - with a line of red soutache running through a strip of vintage tatting.  I think there may be a better alternative. There's still time to change it.

The Hinagiku Hat

 My Neep Heid is complete.  My ambitions to turn it into a Radish Heid were foiled by the overly loud Plum color I had originally chosen.  This was replaced with Mantilla which made it more beetlike, hence, Beetish.

10 December 2011


Admittedly, I may have trespassed into crazy cat lady territory, but so be it - I've been crafting some Christmas stockings for my cats. I have coveted this wool from Osgood's Textile for years and finally found a perfect use for it. I used a few treasures from my cache of linen and trims and created some cross stitch initials discovered on this brilliant site.

Bob's stocking is complete; Foof's is next.  

30 November 2011

The Little Pilgrims

     For The Two Bishops of Trondheim, it seemed like a perfectly ordinary day.  The wind blew, the snow fell, just as it had all week. But as the hours passed, something odd began to happen.  The bishops sensed a sinister presence.   By the end of that day, one thing had become horribly clear - Norway was in danger.  Strange shapes appeared in the mountains, then scattered across the tundra, quickly spilling into the valleys below.   Huge bands of marauders began swarming into the foothills, laying waste to the land. They marched into the fields, devouring corn and haystacks. The whole swaggering mass seemed to rise up in a moment of Nordic atavism, roving and raiding like a crazed troop of Berserkers then moving down into the fjords.  This was an infiltration so wondrous and terrifying that when recalled later, it was likened to that Biblical plague of locusts.  To the bishops, this was a most curious form of heavy weather.  The only reasonable explanation for the sudden appearance of these deranged and pestilent creatures was that they had fallen from the sky, spontaneously generated from 'feculent' clouds.  This belief was nothing new.  The miraculous appearance of fish, frogs, toads and other animals was familiarly understood as an aberrant form of precipitation.  When the account of this remarkable phenomenon was published some ten years later,in 1532, by that "natural philosopher" and cartographer Jacob Ziegler of Landau, it was The Two Bishops of Trondheim who were credited with the idea that the clouds were raining lemmings.

 Wikimedia Commons - johsgrd

That's the perpetrator, the Norwegian Lemming, Lemmus lemmus, a winsome ball of fluff.   Lemmings are part of that Superfamily which includes rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils.  As herbivorous Arctic rodents, lemmings typically feast on shoots, leaves and grasses.  They do not hibernate during winter but instead remain active, foraging for food.  Like other rodents, they have a high reproductive rate and experience periodic population booms which seem to follow a three to four year cycle.  It is during these "lemming years" that the mass migrations occur, phenomena to which observers have historically attributed various and colorful motives.   First, it was the clouds.  The clouds were responsible for disgorging from their wisps and billows the looming mobs of four-leggers who terrorized the frosted valleys.  It is in his geographical masterwork known as Schondia, that Ziegler shares the speculations of the bishops and refers to the "four-footed insects" as a pestilence ushered in by storms or sudden showers.  He describes them both as a plague in a moral sense which threatens to corrupt Norway, and as vectors for an infectious plague which physically undermines Norwegians.  The biological plague Ziegler refers to here was known as Lemaensot or Lemming-fever, most likely tularemia, an infectious disease carried by rabbits and aquatic and other small rodents.

If anyone found this meteorological theory incredible, they needed to look no further than Swedish historian and geographer Olaus Magnus' 1555 work, History of the Nordic Peoples, for irrefutable proof of lemmings raining down from the sky.  There it was, in a woodcut identified as The Migration of the Lemmings.  The lemmings, which look suspiciously ratlike, are superimposed over storm clouds and shown falling to earth.  Once on land, they move inland from the coast, and are immediately carried off by much larger predators with sharply pointed ears and long, striped tails.

The History, an otherwise invaluable source of information about the culture and customs of Scandinavians, added little to the lemming migration theories.   Magnus, having purportedly plagiarized Ziegler's Schondia for a description of the creatures and their mysterious behavior, simply corroborated the lemming creation myth and confirmed the sense of unease brought about by their invasions.   For their destructive ways with crops and generally foul temper, the lemmings were understood as a portent of evil, a divine punishment sent to make the sinful repent.  They were so reviled that the Norwegian clergy devised a special curse in an attempt to exorcise the supernatural vermin.  It was full of the usual hellfire sentiments.

 I ban ye, pestilent rats, in the name of the Holy Trinity! (signs the cross.)  Haste away then from these our fields, vineyards, and waters.  March thither where ye are no man's bane.  In the name of the Holy Trinity and the host of heaven, and the Church of God, I curse ye that in all your goings ye be cursed: Wasting day by day: waning till no remnant be found. May He who will judge the quick and dead by fire grant this.  Amen.

And of course, the lemmings appeared to do just that, wasting and waning until the next surge in population a few years later.  

It wasn't until the 17th century that the belief about lemming origins began to shift.  New, and more importantly, accurate information was being appended to the current knowledge about the animals.  After receiving the preserved body of a lemming from the Bishop of Bergen, Danish anatomist and naturalist Ole Worm published an anatomically correct drawing of the creature, providing convincing evidence that the lemmings were rodents who were produced by other rodents rather than clouds.  The results were republished two years later in Worm's masterwork, Museum Wormianum, a scholarly catalogue showcasing his extensive collection of natural history specimens. 

While 16th and 17th century theories about lemmings addressed the problem of where they were coming from, theories developed during the 19th century focused on that other curious matter: where they were going.  For a summing up, let's turn to a passage so richly purple it defies belief.  It was published in 1883 by Moncure Daniel Conway, an American minister.

...nothing I have heard seems to me so suggestive of a literal lost Atlantis as a fact concerning the Norway lemming (Myodes lemmus, a sort of rat). The migratory instinct of these lemmings every now and then—every twenty or twenty-five years—leads them to plunge into the Atlantic, and swim till they drown. It is the teaching of evolution that no animal has any organ or instinct which either is not, or was not once, of use to it. It is difficult to suppose that the migrating instinct of the lemming was always simply suicidal. It looks as if they must once have found land where it exists no more. These little creatures would seem to be the last believers in that wonderful island the tradition of which allured the voyagers of the world for centuries, painted as it was with colours of the sunset, and whose last fabled enchantments are spiritualized in Bacon's New Atlantis and Shakspeare's Island of Prospero. The faith of man painted Atlantis with all the glories of a lost Paradise. To read the rumours of it is to know the sorrows which our race wished to leave behind when it made the sea-change into something rich and strange. There was the land of the lotus-eaters where men might eat a nectar which stilled all desire to return to their homes; and if they returned they were not to be recognized even by their own families. They were ever young and happy. It looks as if the medieval man was as eager as his humble co-voyager the lemming to migrate away from his wintry old world. 

The "Atlantis Theory" was a popular one and it had a long list of adherents, including English entomologist and zoologist William Duppa Crotch who moved to Scandinavia and wrote extensively on lemming migration.  In his paper, On the Migration and Habits of the Norwegian Lemming,  published in 1876, Duppa Crotch begins to advance, somewhat cautiously, his suspicion that the lemmings are seeking an ancestral homeland. He first observes that the migrations are always directed westward rather than south, where there is an ample supply of food:

They are, however, always directed westwards; and thus the theory that they are caused by deficiency of food fails so far, that these migrations do not take place in a southerly direction, by which a larger supply might be obtained. 

Then comes the explanation.  The lemmings are driven to seek something more important than food:

There is, however, a solution of this difficulty, involving a subject that has always seemed to me of the deepest interest, and which led me to spend two years among the Canaries and adjacent islands.  I allude to the island or continent of Atlantis.  

Is it not then conceivable, and even probable, that when a great part of Europe was submerged and dry land connected Norway with Greenland, the Lemmings acquired the habit of migration westward for the same reasons which govern more familiar migrations?

And finally,

I am therefore inclined to assume that in former days the lemming had a climatal motive for its migrations; and it may even be supposed that some, at least, returned to their northern home; otherwise it seems hard to account for the persistency with which they cling to a suicidal routine.

This is not the first stated connection between lemmings and suicide, but perhaps the 19th century date will put to rest the popular theory that Walt Disney's 1958 documentary White Wilderness is responsible for the lemming suicide myth.  This Academy Award winning nature documentary was exposed as fraudulent in the 1980's.  The lemmings, which can be seen hurling themselves from a cliff, were in fact herded onto a rapidly spinning turntable which launched them to their deaths.  Here's the August 13, 1958 New York Times review of the film.   The reviewer mentions the lemming sequence in which the audience is treated to a glimpse of the "traditional, mysterious 'death march' to the sea".

Since the vernacular view of lemmings as mindless conformists is wrong but persistent, let me do my part to end this benighted and disagreeable fiction.  I return to Mr. Duppa Crotch and his lemming paper...

Nothing stops them, neither fire, torrents, lakes, nor morasses.  The greatest rock gives them but a sight check; they go round it and then resume their march directly without the least division.  If they meet a peasant, they persist in their course, and jump as high as his knee in defence of their progress.  They are so fierce as to lay hold of a stick and suffer themselves to be swung about before they quit their hold.  If struck, they turn about and bite, and will make a noise like a dog . . . They are the dread of the country. 

For more current thinking on the matter, seek out Dennis Chitty's enjoyable and very readable Do Lemmings Commit Suicide: Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts, Oxford University Press, 1996.

25 November 2011


...or pitaya, as it is less commonly known.  Dragonfruit is the fruit of several cactus species grown throughout Asia and Central and South America.  For all its exoticism and show-stopping look-at-me-ness, the flavor is comparatively disappointing, rather like a bland, mildly sweet melon.  I would, however, happily try one again, unlike the esoteric, fruity treat I tried last year, the ill-natured and hideously repellant Durian, a food I might taste once more, but without so much happiness.

04 November 2011

A Moralizing Rant

In August 2011, just hours after that typhoon of rapacious looting and pillaging known as the London Riots, Londoners, armed with brooms and buckets, appeared in force and set about putting their neighborhoods back together. Volunteers mobilized to help sweep debris from the streets and come to the aid of shopkeepers whose businesses had earlier been the scene of terrific violence and it was not just in London that residents were organizing to restore order to their communities. Across the UK in those areas affected by this contagious mayhem, citizens were Keeping Calm and Carrying On.

It's not like that here. Perhaps it will take a series of appalling riots to mobilize the citizens of Western Massachusetts, but I hope not. Last Saturday it was not a hooliganizing mob but a freakish blizzard that disabled our region. We have had a late autumn and most of the trees were still covered with leaves, so when the quite heavy snow fell, it severely weighted the oaks and the maples and down they came. Since early June we have experienced two tornados, one big, one not so big, one hurricane and one earthquake, but this blizzard has created far more damage than all those events combined. It has been almost a week since the storm hit and nearly 100,000 homes are still without power. And that's just in our region. Other New England states were badly affected as well. While walking the streets, you can still come across downed power lines, felled trees, tangles of broken limbs. But that's not what really concerns me. What is quite astonishing is how quiet everything is. Where did everybody go?

I live in an area that did not lose power and the damage to the property is not so jaw-droppingly bad but a local college is virtually invisible for all the downed elms surrounding it. Lining the streets, branches have piled like berms, shoring up the tree belts. Jagged fragments of shattered limbs are projecting into the roads, making it necessary for cars to veer into oncoming traffic. There is garbage strewn across the street in an otherwise tidy neighborhood. In every place I walk or drive through, lawns are covered with debris. No one is cleaning up. No one is mobilizing or organizing or restoring. Everything is as it was on Sunday after the storm had passed with the only difference being the absence of snow, now melted thanks to warm temperatures, but no one had to do anything to make that happen. So what is everyone waiting for? Why aren't they taking care of their neighborhoods, why are they leaving things as they are?

In the hundreds of houses I passed on my walk early this morning only two had yards cleared of debris. There are a few houses that have sustained some damage and of course it is not reasonable to expect the owners to dislodge the thirteen foot splinter impaling their garage, however, in the majority of cases, all that's necessary is a big dose of yard work. But six days on, the place still looks like a disaster. A friend helps her family clear limbs from their street annoying a growing line of drivers who cannot be bothered to get out of their cars to help her. An acquaintance, after waiting an hour in line to fill her car with gas, arrives at the station behind a man who pulls up to a pump and leaves his car, returning with his lunch fifteen minutes later. An accident occurs at an intersection without the benefit of functional traffic lights because someone refuses right of way to another vehicle.

Meanwhile, the streets remain hellish, the yards untended. Everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to do something. But there isn't anyone else. Perhaps it's too much to ask some Americans to rally in support of their community, but they seem to be similarly unwilling to look after what is theirs or exercise common sense.  Is this now the local attitude - Keep Calm and Don't Care?

29 October 2011

at first, it was just an ugly rumor...

 ...but now, it's an inarguable fact.  Local meteorologists have threatened that at least four inches of snow will fall by tomorrow morning.  It's not all that much, but still, it is only October and this doesn't seem quite right.  What to do?

 One could sit around playing one's recently rediscovered Game of Authors found lurking in a box amidst a small collection of letters and an abacus.  Game of Authors was first produced in 1861 by GM Whipple and AA Smith of Salem, Massachusetts.  Parker Brothers produced a later version in 1897.  I've seen many different and more imaginative covers for this game including another Milton Bradley version picturing Shakespeare, (or, if you prefer, Edward de Vere).

Alternatively, one could catch up on some knitting. 

One sock is lovely, but having two is the goal, apparently...

...and they don't knit themselves.

Perhaps one might try to finish that book?

25 October 2011

swooning, and how to do it...

In an issue of the English periodical The Ladies' Magazine, dated 1764, one happily notes this intriguing advertisement:

FITS just imported from Italy; being a speedy
and efficacious method of procuring the most 
captivating and natural fainting, and will be
found particularly useful in this riotous season, 
when all ladies would be ambitious to appear
in public with a proper delicacy of nerves, which
some, from a too good constitution, have the 
misfortune to want. These Fits are sold sealed up,
in small boxes, five in each, in color and appearance
like a barley-drop, so innocent that a child of two
years old may take them with safety; each drop is 
a sure Fit of ten minutes,at the expiration of which
you are as well, if not better than before taking them;
the operation is immediate. 
To be sold at all perfumers, with printed directions. 
Price 4/- the box or 1/- a single Fit.

Or, perhaps you could just purchase one of these, a Jamieson's of Shetland Color Card, revealing, in its entirety,  the whole rich and exhilarating spectrum of Jamieson's Spindrift ...

 A 2 ply jumper weight yarn, equivalent
to 4 ply.  This yarn is traditionally
used for Fair Isle knitting.
Available in over 220 colours including
21 natural shades.  The range allows
immense design potential.

As well as a case of the vapors,  if you are like me and blessed with an innate tendency to become helplessly spellbound by irresistible color.   Having one of these to gaze at longingly is possibly as exciting as sorting through the many dozens of colors in that colossal box of Crayolas I owned as a child and which was exclusively responsible for introducing into my vocabulary words like, "sepia", "cornflower", "magenta" and "mulberry". 

Do bear in mind that the colors reproduced here bear only the slightest resemblance to  the colors on the chart.  In order to properly appreciate their beauty you need to have the chart or the yarn in hand.  I learned how unreliable internet color reproduction is after receiving my quartet of Spindrift in preparation for my first stranded colorwork project in quite a few years, Kate Davies' superb turnip-inspired Neep Heid tam.  Neep Heid is a thoughtfully designed pattern knit in a beautiful soft grey, heathered green, and exuberant purple colorway.  These are not quite the colors that set my heart aflutter, however,  and since deciding to recreate this tam I have been obsessively trying to work out which of the lovely Jamieson skeins I can be happiest with.  Yes, I did spend many hours staring at the color charts reproduced on three websites and eventually chose colors that surprised me when they arrived.  I decided to order the chart to eliminate any future mistakes, (this is badly put - all the colors are splendid, just not what I envisioned), and now I am completely absorbed by it, not overcome by single or multiple fits but solemnly mesmerized.

My Neep Heid is going to be a Radish Heid or Meacan-Ruadh (red root) Heid.  The colors are as follows: Mooskit, Plum, Granny Smith, Tundra.  They are only adequately reproduced here.

That Plum really is the Magenta from the Crayola box and rather more spicy than I had imagined.  It is, when one compares it with a proper radish, similar but perhaps too exciting.  Granny Smith is a shade of green one would like to call verdant, but that would be silly.  I had originally ordered Chartreuse, but the Granny Smith is more...verdant.  Tundra is a bit too rusty and will probably be replaced with Mocha.  Or Birch.  Or Grouse.

03 October 2011

in praise of something real...

In those instances when I have pushed my mind out of the way and acted on an impulse, lonely, delightful or otherwise, I have been happiest.  Many enthusiasms have taken me over and when I gave way to them I learned something invaluable.  Lately, important psychic real estate has been occupied by a single insistent idea: hand-spinning the lofty fleece of sheep.  Naturally, when I learned that a spinning workshop was taking place this past weekend at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival I had but one thought: Carpe Diem.

I drove to Tunbridge, Vermont to take a class with Patty Blomgren, a spinner from East Dummerston.  The class was designed for beginners - no experience necessary, nor do you need to own sheep! - which was good, as I have neither.  It was my first encounter with a spinning wheel, apart from Walter Crane's illustrations for the tale of the forlorn miller's daughter and that capitalist imp, Rumpelstiltskin.  Patty urged us to "start treadling and don't stop", which meant removing our shoes and continually pumping the treadle - the thing that makes the wheel spin - and it's not as easy as you might imagine. 

Trial and error time. Eventually, I got it, I could make the thing spin.  I challenged myself to keep the movement consistent, to create smooth, unhesitating revolutions of the wheel.  Eight workshop participants made eight wheels twirl in fluid rotation while Patty laid out an immense Shetland fleece and explained how, when shopping for shorn wool, one ought to be on the qui vive for stray tags of sheep poo and undesirable accumulations of  "vegetable matter".   The class was only three hours long, so the business of cleaning the fleece was covered fairly quickly, but I will say that having read a bit about this painstaking process which rids the fleece of dirt, dye, manure, sheep dip, grease, vegetation and sheep sweat,  I know it requires an elegant and  respectful solemnity and for me, there is something irresistibly counter-culture about that.  Unfashionable as I may be,  I despair of the carelessness that is the byproduct of our moment's manic hyper-acceleration.  The meticulous nature of this process necessarily resists that warp speed imperative.

By the end of the day you will be putting yarn onto the bobbin, admiring your first skein of yarn and leaving with the confidence to continue spinning on your own!  Whatever you say, Patty.  The end of the day was beginning to loom so we were provided with prepared fleece and given general instruction on how to turn it into yarn.  Like every other thing worth doing, it is only learned by doing it badly then doing it slightly less badly until you finally do it a little less badly than that.  Someone new entered the room, a tall man.  He sat down next to me.  If you yearn to experience the kind of compressed focus that reduces every exterior detail to muddy imprecision, or a form of concentrated energy so powerful that you should really be able to  forge diamonds with it,  hand-spinning is the thing.  I think he said something about the yarn I was spinning, how it looked like ... yarn.  This much I remember: I was in a trance and I said, "I'm in a trance, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just doing it".  I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just doing it.  Right now, having produced, in a trance, nearly 61 yards of perfectly knittable, albeit occasionally slubby yarn from the lofty wool of a Romney sheep, I can think of no better counsel than that.  There is an unmatched pleasure in not knowing what you are doing, but pressing on anyway. 

24 August 2011

ghosts of gone birds...

You may know that delightful Thomas Hood poem that ends,

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

Fair enough, but I like November, and if it were November and I found myself fortunate enough to be in London, I would immediately make a point of visiting the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibit sponsored by Birdlife International, a coalition of conservation organizations whose aim is to promote the conservation of birds and their habitats.  The multimedia art exhibit focuses on the artistic resurrection of extinct bird species through the collaborative efforts of more than 80 artists.  The project's aim is to raise awareness for BirdLife International's Preventing Extinctions Programme.   Birdlife's current statistics show an alarming increase in bird extinction: over the last 30 years, 21 species have disappeared and 190 have been classified as critically endangered.

The London exhibit will be on view the 2nd through the 23rd of November.  For those who can't get to London - take heart; the event's organizers have hopes for an international tour.

You can read the Guardian article about the exhibit here.

As for that joyfully affirming poem...


by Thomas Hood
(1799 - 1845)

No sun--no moon!
No morn--no noon!
No dawn--no dusk--no proper time of day--
No sky--no earthly view--
No distance looking blue--

No road--no street--
No "t'other side the way"--
No end to any Row--
No indications where the Crescents go--

No top to any steeple--
No recognitions of familiar people--
No courtesies for showing 'em--
No knowing 'em!

No mail--no post--
No news from any foreign coast--
No park--no ring--no afternoon gentility--
No company--no nobility--

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,