Monday, April 15, 2013

Horst And His Weichensteller

I play the clarinet in a wind orchestra. We have thirty+  members, and have had several  percussionists over the years, two of whom were called Horst.

The older Horst played the big drum, the kind set vertical to be hit on the left or right side. He was one of our oldest members, more than 80 years old, and was much cherished in the band by young and old. Being somewhat hard of hearing he needed special help in our rehearsals with where we happened to be starting within a piece, or at the beginning which piece it might be. But this was not much trouble and I don't know as if I have ever heard anyone grumble about Horst. He kept the beat admirably, vigorously wielding the big stick with a big fuzzy hard ball at the end, using the cymbal fixed atop the drum betimes, as the sheet music called for.

He was nobody's fool, was Horst, often relating during breaks how life had treated him, early and late; he seemed to wish to pass on experiences he had had, for example during and after the war, eventually as a prisoner of war with the Americans. I don't know how cleaned-up these stories were for consumption by the latter-day generation to which I belong, but harrowing enough they were. I was surprised to find out his hearing trouble came from this time, when another soldier fired an anti-tank weapon, a Panzerfaust, near his head. When finally he ended up in a prisoner of war camp he quickly got a bad impression of his American captors, due to their rough treatment of any SS men who became their prisoners. The first thing all prisoners had to do was to strip to the waist and hold up their arms. The Americans knew that seasoned SS members had their serial numbers tattooed under their arms, and singled this hated group out for special treatment, a fate that Horst sometimes witnessed.

Horst also told about how his musical career had developed and finally brought him to play that big drum, which with its stand made him wheeze to carry any distance. Somebody, anybody who was around offered to give him a hand with it, which he accepted. Yes he seemed to look at the world with a pragmatical eye, yet with a twinkling of humor that reached you through his glasses.

We have a yearly Band Retreat in April, where we as a group take a weekend and abscond to an old vacation resort on a lake south of Berlin. We practise and rehearse our music the whole of a Saturday and much of Sunday. In the evening in between we gather, some lingering longer, some not so long, in the party room of the stone-built three storey barrack-like building where we stay the night, two or three to a room. There are snacks of many kinds, and someone sets up a sound system and CDs get played, and as the evening winds on and various liquids are imbibed the more adventurous might dance. After only a little coaxing Horst would get up too and, grinning, show us a few steps, dancing with one of the ladies.

I think his story I like best was the one about his Weichensteller, as he called his cane.  When time came for us to make our way to the dining hall down the way, he would look around for his Weichensteller, which he needed to support him on the walk over there. In his youth he often rode the streetcars, he explained,  and in those days the motorman at the front of the vehicle had a long iron bar he'd reach down with in front of the streetcar to set each switch the right way as the tram came to it. The switches are Weichen in German and stellen means to set. So his walking stick he likened to that rod, calling it his "switch-setter".

Horst has left us now; this upcoming band retreat will be without him, sadly, as was the last one. I have been quite long in the writing of this remembrance, mulling over what I should say, and maybe what not.  I hope Horst won't mind the delay.  

Lord of the Flies, Revisited

Well I guess this has to be taken care of at long last.

Yeh, last year I wrote about the mysterious mini "lampshade flies" which congregate at the bottom of our hanging China balloon lamp in the bedroom during the warmer months.

A picture was painted of a benign, quirky little species which was just a slightly interesting little detail of summer.  Naturally I did wonder what species they really were, but took little action to clear up the question.  I do love puzzles in any case, and the air of mystery surrounding them was undoubtedly attractive.

Well, a couple days after that initial post appeared online, a very sharp student friend of mine, Rita by name, actually did clear up the mystery.  Good researcher that she is, she poked around here and there and came up with a number of sites describing the little guys.  Even their lampshade habit was touched on.

It is the Little House Fly or Lesser House Fly, (Fannia canicularis). Here and there are a couple typical sites treating them. After thanking my student, I learned that they were far from the harmless little guys I'd imagined.

My bubble had burst.  I had pictured innocuous, intriguing little guys doing their jerky dance around the bottom of the balloon lampshade.  OK, I figured they had to eat, and so on, but I only saw them around that one spot. Maybe they ate those pesky dust mites we always hear about, inhabiting our carpets, thought I.

Come to find out they light on excrement outside!  Shit, for goodness' sake!  That and rotting vegetable matter seem to be their preferred habitats. They feed and lay their eggs there.
Potentially carriers of disease germs, they seemed much less benign after I had read up on them.

Fortunately they don't explore houses further, following cooking smells to the kitchen.  No, they have that in their favor, the fact they just congregate in the centers of rooms, in our case under the lampshade. I do have yet to read any entomologist's explanation of just why they do that, and the question I posed in my first blog on the subject: what equivalent behavior do they do out in the field? I have read that it's mostly males you will find marking time under central hanging lamps. They also do get into miniature dogfights, buzzing around each other so lightning-fast you can't tell who is who.  So maybe these special areas are like "leks" to them, those avian meeting grounds where Prairie Chickens, Greater- or Lesser-, meet to strut their stuff in North America. In Europe, Black Grouse do it too, as I read. But that's rather fanciful, as there are always female birds around the leks coyly watching the goings-on, whereas here they do seem to be mostly males.  It was the birder in me, was all.

To wrap up here, I was going to rant on the fact of me being disappointed about their being not the benign, harmless creatures of my imagination. To shout to the heavens "Woe!  Woe, my image of an idyllic world has been shattered!", but what the heck?  I know what nature is, tooth and claw.  And shit.  And we usually think of flies in our anthropocentric way as being annoying, disgusting, disease-ridden little things.  I have learned a little bit about this species, and they never have been annoying after all. I'm sure too there are plenty of unanswered questions about their behavior.  So thank you, Rita for introducing me to the Little House Fly (more poetic than Lesser House Fly I think), a species I don't mind
living around me, even though I probably won't be inviting it to light on my finger.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lord Of The Flies

This is one for the entomologists among you.

It's a long story, one which I'll tell bit by bit in my leisurely fashion.  Be warned.

For many years now, oh, well over twenty I'd warrant, we've been using the same kind of paper shade on the lamp hanging in the middle of our bedroom. Do you know the kind?  It's a big round Chinese lantern style shade, a ball around 60 cm (two feet) in diameter with a hole in the top to introduce your light fixture and a corresponding small hole in the bottom for, well, your guess is as good as mine what that hole is for.  I suppose the little 6 cm (two inch) hole gives some ventilation. We'll come back to this hole later. I can stand under this lampshade and my head will just brush up against it. We replace the things every couple years or so at IKEA, when the paper seems to have gotten brittle and the dust leaves smudges and streaks when we try to clean it.

What does this all have to do with bugs? I warned you, didn't I?  We're getting there.  It's just that I like to set the scene, to give you the background gist. Yeh.

So the thing is, even in my first years of living over here in Berlin I started noticing something about that paper lantern shade.  In the summer I'd sometimes be aware of one or two little flies that seemed to favor the bottom surface of that big hanging ball. Of course in one's quotidian existence one has other things to think about so I took little mind of those little guys.

As the years went on however, they'd appear every summer, just slightly encroaching on the periphery of my attention. I'd give them a moment's thought, then go on to other things.

Over time though I realized that I had begun to expect them as one little element of summer, and that I actually watched them in the odd moment, noticing behaviors as I would in my birding hobby.  I certainly started wondering what they were, what species.  Perhaps they are the Common European Lampshade Fly, with an appropriate scientific name in Latin.

I definitely want to know.  This is beginning to sound like an obsession, isn't it?  Well, as I plumb my soul I can say I still don't spend much time thinking about the little denizens of the underside of our lampshade, but if I sit there at the end of the bed putting my socks on I may look up and can't help noticing them and their comings and goings. There seems to always be one or two there in the summer months, at the height of their season maybe three.

In the meantime I have seen them so often I could write a slim monograph about their natural history.

They first appear in the latter half of June usually, depending on the weather.  This year it was in the last week of June I think.  They are small  and black  -  about half or 60% the size of a normal housefly. They are quite innocuous,  never bothering people or going after food at all. I only see them in the one place I've described, although I grant that, being so small they'd be very easy to miss in other locations.

They have a very definite set of behaviors.  Usually they are seen at rest, clinging to the underside of the hanging paper ball lampshade. Above, I have described a small central hole at the bottom of this shade.  Nearly invariably the tiny flies hang onto the paper with their heads pointed downward, towards the central hole. In fact if they land they hitch themselves around once or twice so that they do point downwards.

Sometimes they feel like exercising their wings, and dropping from the paper shade they start a jerky sort of flight, back and forth, all straight segments and then sudden acute turns, around 60 °
each. They seem to concentrate around the bottom of the lampshade, back and forth, with  never much of a curve in their flight.

If there's a second one on the other side of the bottom hole, it may take off  and egage the first in a furious close-on dogfight before both break off and land again.  Either that or it's one of  their courtship rituals!

As I write this, early July, I still see only one hanging out there. Others will surely appear soon.  When evening comes, they disappear too, heading off to some unknown night roost.

There are so many mysteries about these little fellows.  What do they eat?  Do they die off in the autumn or hibernate in some hiding place?  They must also lay tiny eggs somewhere.  I imagine them like the horrible pulsing eggs of the Alien movies, in miniature: little dots probably placed on the paper of the lampshade itself.

Probably my second-biggest question about them is what they do out in the natural world?  Hanging paper lampshades have only been around for a splinter of the time needed for them to evolve. Do they find some hanging blossoms in the woods on which to congregate?

Question Number One for me is simply what are they?   After more than twenty years I  think I'm entitled to know.  Any professional entomologists out there reading this?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Weel, weel. Son Daniel pointed me here, and so I now have my very own 'Pirate Name', for what it's worth.

My pirate name is:

Mad Roger Flint

Every pirate is a little bit crazy.
You, though, are more than
just a little bit.
Like the rock flint, you're
hard and sharp.
But, also like flint, you're
easily chipped,
and sparky. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ode to Joy

Yesterday I was driving home from the in-laws'. I had Klassik-Radio on. Suddenly this brass music started, horns and trumpets, deep bass. I recognized it, and within moments I felt a joy welling up within me; tears began streaming down my face. I felt giddy and was cackling my joy to the world.

Why? What was it? It was some film music, some processional march from one of those "Roman Type" movies, as we say in my family. I wasn't sure at first, I must admit, if it was from "The Robe" or what, but those strains of music were intimately familiar, that stirring marching music, conjuring up the pomp of Rome, the might, the glory of Rome. When at last it had run its course, the announcer came on and of course! It was from "Ben Hur", the parade of the charioteers by Miklós Rózsa.

Parade of the Charioteers

I know most anybody else will listen to this piece with a different feeling, from apathy to dislike to whatever.

Why did it stir me so, just at that moment? Listening to it again now, I don't get the same feeling. It's just some piece of music I know. I thought about other pieces of music I might hear on a classical station. Somehow it didn't seem my reaction would've been the same if I had heard one of my favorite pieces from Mozart, say, or Beethoven. And surely I didn't count this piece among my great favorites anyway.

A lot was the serendipity of it, I thought. I surely didn't expect to hear such a piece then and there. This was Klassik Radio however, and they are famous for their eclectic mix of film music in the afternoons, so really in the back of my mind I was hoping to hear something of that ilk. So this was only part of it. Surely too, it had to do with the recognition I experienced.

Certainly I was filled with such joy, cranking the volume all the way up, for a number of reasons, but I think one main one was that the movie was one I had seen every year on TV in my childhood, like "Moby Dick" or "The Wizard of Oz". But the latter, sure, I have since seen and heard music from so many times that if I suddenly heard "If I Only Had A Brain", say, would I react the same way? Hmmm. Well, yes, I would melt into tears of joy if I heard "Over The Rainbow", since I love that song anyway.

So OK, I'm trying to analyze a nearly ineffable experience here. Give it up, kiddo. Life offers up these moments of joy. You can't put your finger on why it happens. You can't push a button and say, OK, I'm going to have an uplifting experience now. I suppose that's the object of my ruminations here, to figure out where the sudden feeling comes from, to perhaps manufacture more of them for myself in the future.

Weel weel. Though it is certainly true that I can't produce such moments like a magician, out of thin air, I know I will continue to enjoy them when - like magic - they happen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Oh! The Smell of Early Summer!

Have you ever, come June let's say, noticed a lovely fragrance in the air? I have. Now, later in summer as I write this, the scent has faded or as my brother suggested, been overlaid with other more redolent summer smells, but cast your mind back to those early summer evenings...

For me it's a hallmark of that time, late late spring or early summer. You can smell it anywhere there's anything green growing. Maybe it's somewhat fainter downtown where it's mostly asphalt and buildings, but where we live it's streets lined with apartment buildings, having bits of green here and there and trees sticking up through their little allotted slots in the pavement. Of course behind the buildings the irregularly-shaped courtyards have their plantings of flowers and grass and trees too. And the scent is strong.

When I come home of a pleasant June evening, or later as it's just getting dark, the delicious sweet smell surrounds me, tantalizing, captivating.

What is it? It doesn't seem to come from anywhere in particular; it's all over the place. My best guess is that it's tree pollen, but I have yet to have a botanist confirm this.

And the smell itself - what's it like? It's pleasant; it's sweetish. Well we all know smells are notoriously hard to pin down. Add to that my own personal poorly developed sense of taste especially. If I am given a slice of bread with jam on it, I have a hard time identifying it, especially if I don't see what color it is. If I see Red, then I can rule out a bunch. But in any case I taste it, and somehow know the taste, but can't put my finger on it till I'm told "Peach, of course!" and then I slap my forehead and say "Oh, yeah, sure." This may be some kind of deficiency on my part.

But in any case this scent I'm talking about is a really delightful facet of those warm, glowing evenings: the sun sets late, the light lingers long; it's shirtsleeve weather. And as you walk up the block to your door every breath you takes in this sweet, almost magical smell.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Botanical and Ornithological Musings

Recently here in Berlin we have been somewhat blessed by little wisps of white, floating on the breeze. I look out of the window and I can see these bits of cotton here and there, anywhere in town it seems. It seems obvious that they are coming from some trees or other, but I am a bit challenged as the parlance goes, concerning trees. Birds now, I can rattle off your English and your German names as well, but trees? Hmm, not so good.

In my teaching of English as a foreign language to Germans, I often throw out questions to them
to compare things in America to here in Germany. Recycling, cell phones, hot water heaters. This time it was little wisps of cottony stuff floating almost wherever you look.

They said, unanimously I believe, that the stuff came from Pappeln, poplar trees in English. Oh, I said, having in my mind a generic picture of a poplar as a tall thin columnar tree which you often see lining roads in pictures of Tuscany and other such romantic places. I further told them that I remembered back from Denver that at some time of year you would have a similar phenomenon, but it would come from a different tree altogether, which we call a cottonwood. The stus got a laugh out of that, after translating cotton back into German: Baumwoll, to get Baumwollbaum. We laughed.

So today I went online to expand my knowledge of this poplar tree which causes these spring snow flurries to fall. I find it's a large family of trees which include the aspens, those lovely trees with the gold bark and bright yellow leaves when they turn in autumn, up in Colorado's Rockies. And - hey! What do you know. The family also includes my 'completely different tree', the cottonwood. Did I feel sheepish. But online here too, I then asked my brother if the same phenomenon was going on now there too, back in Denver. He said no, but he remembered that cottonwoods do that too at some point in the year.

Well. I think of myself as a bit of a naturalist, in some respects. I am a birder, am interested in sky phenomena and astronomy; but as I say trees and plants are not my strong suit. Now with birds, it is interesting to compare the avifauna of Europe with that of North America. The species on the two continents are different for the most part, though many are related. So you will find jays on both land masses, but the lovely though raucous Blue Jay looks quite different than the mostly tan european Jay. As I understand it this is tied to the geological history of the Earth, the continents having once been one connected land mass. As they parted, the species became differentiated more and more over time. A few kinds are interestingly the same on European and North American soil however, like the Magpie, or Elster as they say here in Germany. Same bird.

Having read about this, I naturally assumed the same to be true for trees, and indeed it does seem to be. The cottonwood is in the same family as the Black Poplar of Europe but is a different species. I'm learning. For example, I have always loved the word sycamore. What a lovely name for a tree, one which I thought was a peculiarly North American kind. On researching, I see that again I was wrong - it's a member of the plane tree family, which is found throughout Europe too with other species. In German it's Platane. I've heard of them, sure, but never connected them with sycamores because I never really knew what a sycamore looked like, just liked the name.

You know:

Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves - a sycamore
Moonlight in Vermont

But to go back to the topic, yes the tree species on the two continents seem to have split over the eons into different versions of similar trees. Interesting, like the birds.

In North America there are many more different species of birds than in Europe, also because of geologic history, as I have read. During the various Ice Ages, the ice sheets covered all of Europe down to the Alps I believe, wiping out many species which had been there before. As the ice receded, only animals which had been able to survive in more southerly areas were able to repopulate the country. In North America on the other hand the ice only came down to the middle of what is now the United States of America; hence there was still a great buffer zone to the south for birds to retreat to - the continent was not competely covered. The birds simply moved north again as the ice receded. More species survived.