Saturday, 22 November 2014

Life in the Colonies

Recently my father sent me some geneology research he's been dabbling in for the last few decades. Perhaps the most interesting family document of all is a letter from my great great grandmother in Australia to her sister back in Devon, England. My paternal great great grandmother was born Elizabeth Wickett, on New Years Day 1801 in Cornwall, England. She died near Geelong, Victoria, in the south east of Australia in 1874. The letter is dated 15 May 1854. Here is an extract:

Dear and Loving Sister, I have had a great desire for a long time to hear from you. I thought you would have writen to me, or one of my brothers long ago, but I think you have almost forgotten me or you do not think it worth your while to write to your eldest sister who is now in a distant land from you, but I can assure you I have not forgotten you nor my dear brothers ethor how it would rejoice my heart to see you all once more in time that I might tell you what I have seen and past through since I saw you last and also hear you talk about home and what you have had to pas through I suppose you are all getting on well as touching this worlds goods for we are informed that times are very brisk in England now: But I should still be much more glad to hear from you that you all are walking in the way of heaven for then by the help of God we should soon meet again where we might listen to each other tell how Jesus hath Done all things well. I am happy that Samuel hath chosen the Lord for his portion, happy choice may the Lord keep him in the Slippery path of youth. I have also heard By Mary Luxmore that Sarah Ann hath left Mr Walkey on account of bad health I was very sorry for that, But I do hope By this time she is quite restored and that she and all the family are now enjoying good health. I now hasten to let you know a little about our family and this colony, their is no doubt But you have heard of the Death of Elizth Ann. She was ill only one weekof typhus fever before she left this world, we hope to be forever with the Lord. it was a great treil to me to part with her. Charlotte is married with Mr. Richard Hamm sone of Henery, he is a nice young man and hath bin very Sucksesful at the gold diggings above one thousand pounds worth of gold fell to his share. John is lately married with his uncle Rogers daughter Fanny Ann, the rest of our children are living with us and enjoying tolerable good health. the times are very good in this colony for all sorts of industrious people. wheat is woth one pound per Bushel 60lb. Barley 10/- and strange as it is Oats is 15/- per Bushel 40lb.potatoes 6 pence per pound hay is woth £25 per ton. We shall make this year at least £1500 of hay. labour horses are worth £150 each a pare of Oxen £50 and a good cow £15. Masons and carpenters 30/- per day, labour men from 15/- to £1 per day, Ducks are £1 cupple fowls 10/-, eggs 6 pence each, butter 5/- lb. Money is very plenty I can assure you we have more of it than we should if we had lived in England all our days. John says if we were to give up Bisnes now our incom would be above £700 a year. I hope Dear friends you will not think I name these Bostingly I can assure you I do not it is only to let you know what people can do for themselves and theire familys with the Blessing of heaven on them in this colony.
When Elizabeth left England she was married and living in a farmhouse in north Devon. The farmhouse is now a listed historic building I see, but unfortunately I don't have a photo of it. This is a drawing of it done by my sister [photo courtesy of my father]. It is a Devon longhouse with later additions.
 Neither do I have a picture of the farmhouse where she lived in Australia, and it no longer exists. This is a painting of the homestead commissioned by my uncle just before the building was demolished [photo courtesy of my father].

Friday, 21 November 2014

River Bank Management

The Indre River at Pont de Ruan.

From this (above) to this (below).
The Ash Fraxinus exelsior trees on one of the islands in the river at Pont de Ruan were coppiced earlier this year. The trees grow right on the edge of the island and their roots form a retaining structure preventing the island from being undermined by the flow of water. Ash is often used in this way in France. It likes a moist environment and takes well to being coppiced.

Coppicing is the practice of regularly cutting trees back to a stump known as a stool then allowing them to shoot again. The word is an anglicisation of couper the French word 'to cut'. The cutting part of coppicing is done every 5 to 30 years, depending on what diameter of regrowth is wanted. The regrowth tends to be straight and often has a commercial value. The straight dense but flexible wood of Ash has been used in France for thousands of years for tool handles -- everything from prehistoric spears to garden forks sold in the brico stores.

The reason for coppicing these trees is primarily to keep the landscape stable. It reduces their tops so wind rock is not a problem. The trees develop massive root systems compared to their tops, which is ideal for stabilising the banks of the island. Coppicing has the added benefit that it will triple the lifespan of the tree (or even more). Unmanaged Ash has a lifespan of about 200 years, but a coppiced Ash could live 1000 years.
Loire Valley Nature: A new entry has been added for Variable Bluet Coenagrion pulchellum damselfly.
A new entry has been added for big rivers habitat.
A la cuisine hier: Keema a South Asian curry using minced meat, served with rice. The leftovers will get made into Samosas at some stage.
Honey Decline: Chris Luck has written a sobering post on his blog. Every year his honey yield goes down. It's not because he has less bees or because they are unhealthy or dying. It's because there is less and less for them to forage on every year. The bees aren't starving -- yet -- but they can't produce as much excess over and above what the hive needs to reproduce and survive that Chris can harvest.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Reconstructing Agnes

The face of Agnès Sorel has been reconstructed in digital 3D. The result is striking.

Is it the beautiful face that caused Charles VII to fall deeply in love and proclaim Agnès the first official royal mistress? It seems very likely. As a rare blue eyed blonde Agnès certainly stood out from the majority dark haired dark eyed crowd at court, but she wasn't just a pretty face. She was educated (speaking several languages for instance), charming and cultured. The king openly involved her in and consulted her on matters of state and it was this public role that gives her historical significance and resulted in her becoming a romantic legend in France (although almost unknown outside the country).

 The copy of Jehan Fouquet's painting of the Madonna, for which Agnès is the model, that hangs in the Logis royal in Loches.
Philippe Froesch, from Visualforensic in Barcelona, has done many digital facial reconstructions, and the popular television programme Des Racines et des Ailes was the first to reveal the images. The Cité Royale de Loches website has an image of the new facial reconstruction of Agnès and a video of the section of the programme on Agnès embedded*. The programme is in French of course, and is about royal favourites.

The resulting reconstruction is impressive. With up to date digital imaging software it is now possible to show very fine detail of the skin texture, hair, eyes. Agnès's face had already been reconstructed in 2005, after her tomb was opened as part of reinstating it in the church of Saint Ours, but in digital terms, the technology used then is ancient. It meant that a scan of her skull already existed though, and the current reconstruction used it as a starting point. Her skull, which is housed in a terracotta urn inside the tomb is very well preserved and that combined with the new technology has allowed a very realistic and detailed reconstruction. The colour of her hair for example was based on the remains of her eyebrows still attached to the skull as well as on contemporary descriptions of her. Dr Philippe Charlier, who examined her remains as part of the 2004 exhumation and confirmed that she had consumed an extremely high dose of mercury prior to her death (about 10 ml) was also involved with this reconstruction. Whether the mercury was a mistake in the dose or a deliberate poisoning is something Dr Charlier refuses to be drawn on. (My money's on deliberate poisoning, at the orders of the future Louis XI.) He did note however that she had malaria, but that it was not the cause of death.

The marble effigy of Agnès on her tomb in Saint Ours church, Loches.
(taken by Simon who is tall and clever and can manage such things)
This new reconstruction shows a distinct resemblance to the woman in the painting by Jehan Fouquet. The painting is of the Virgin and Child, commissioned by Etienne Chevalier after Agnès's death, but it has always been accepted that Agnès was the model. Jehan would have seen Agnès often in life and probably had many sketches of her. You can see the same large eyes, small mouth and high forehead in the painting and the reconstruction. Fouquet's painting also shows us the full breasts of a nursing mother and a slender fine boned figure. Sadly, whilst the technology allows us to reconstruct Agnès's head in full detail, it is unlikely we will ever see a full body reconstruction according to Philippe Charlier, even if we had the rest of her skeleton.

Nowadays the only extant contemporary three dimensional representation of Agnès is the effigy on the tomb. This too matches the skull almost perfectly, probably because the sculptor would have based the work on a death mask. The modern reconstructor worked in a remarkably similar way. The image is 'sculpted' by hand, the software does not do it for you automatically. Surprisingly, the digital reconstructor relies more on contemporary painted images than on contemporary sculptures for certain information about an historical character's appearance. The reason is that all artists vary in skill, but lack of skill and errors in proportion are more exaggerated in a three dimensional work than in a two dimensional work.

*If you watch the video to the end you will see our friend Tony Williams talking about the Brenne. He's an LPO warden on a nature reserve there. 
A la cuisine hier: Lamb liver, marinated in buttermilk then crumbed and fried. Lamb liver is less than half the price of veal liver but often not available so I was pleased to get some at Loches market yesterday. Served with mashed potatoes and gravy made from onions, bacon and red wine. Followed by squidgy chocolate pudding made by Simon, with custard.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Big Laughing Jim

 A couple of weeks ago someone brought these big yellow mushrooms to a fungi foray. I'd never seen or heard of this species before, but it turns out to be very interesting for more than just its size and yellowness.
This is Gymnopilus junonius, otherwise known as the Spectacular Rustgill and it is one of the magic mushrooms. It is hideously bitter (as confirmed by someone on the outing who tasted a bit, then spat) and apparently turns green if you cook it. It contains the hallucinogen psilocybin and a neurotoxin as well as a couple of other mind bending chemicals. One of the various effects of psilocybin is uncontrollable laughter, leading to this species having the nickname of Big Laughing Jim. However, the quantities of interesting chemicals vary considerably from mushroom to mushroom and from place to place. Sadly for all you unreformed hippies out there who can't wait to get out foraging after reading this, the species is more likely to make you very sick than give you a trip. Plus, small ones can easily be mistaken for the deadly Galerina spp.
Moss Outing: The Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine has organised a joint outing with the Société des Sciences de Châtellerault to look at mosses on Sunday 23 November. Meet at 2 pm in the carpark for the Lac de la Forêt on the RD910.

Coming from Tours or Sainte Maure by the A10 or D910: From the A10 take the Châllerault Nord exit. Take the bypass to the right of the roundabout. 

Coming on the D910 from Ingrandes: At the second roundabout go towards the A10 crossing the Vienne and at the roundabout, take the second exit on to the bypass.

Then follow the bypass (several sets of lights) towards Poitiers. At the Châteauneuf roundabout continue straight through up to another roundabout and go right towards Le Lac. Then continue to the left at the roundabout then right at the following roundabout.