Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Ramayana Clock

Valmiki the Sage © 2010
Valmiki the Sage is the author of the epic Indian adventure, "The Ramayana." His name literally means, "Born out of an anthill" and begs an obvious question! The answer is that his original name was Ratnakar, and he was a successful and murderous highwayman before he made the mistake of trying to rob the celestial sage, Narada. When Narada curiously asks him why he is stealing and killing people, Ratnakar replies that he needs money to take care of his family. Narada then challenges him to ask them if they will, in return for his care, share in the bad kharma he is building up for himself; he offers Ratnakar untold wealth if he can return with the news that his family is prepared to share the penalty for his actions. Ratnakar is confident they will, but it never pays to bet against a sage...

Following is an excerpt from Sri Chinmoy's play, "Why should I be responsible?" from his book of plays, "My Rama is My All."


(In the forest again. Ratnakar has returned to Narada.)

NARADA: So, you have come here to take your money? Take as much as you want. Why are you so sad? Tell me, what is the news? What is your news?

RATNAKAR: My news is that I have given up my family. I will not be responsible for them since they do not feel responsible for me. They are a bunch of ungrateful creatures: my son, my wife, my parents. I do not want them. I do not need them. Right here, tell me what I should do. I will listen to you.

NARADA: My only advice to you is this: repeat only one name - Rama, Rama, Rama. He will forgive you. He will give you salvation. And it is you who will immortalise him on earth. Long, long before he is born, before he comes into this earthly existence, you will write his biography. You will tell about his immortal life, his life of dedication, his life of glory, his life of fulfilment. All this you will write down in his biography. From now on repeat his name: Rama, Rama, Rama. Just repeat it and let me hear.

RATNAKAR: Mara, Mara, Mara.

NARADA: Can't you say his name?

RATNAKAR: I can't.

(To read the whole play, click here.)

Ratnakar has done so many bad things that he is unable to even say Rama's name, but Narada encourages him to just say what he can, "Mara, Mara, Mara," knowing that if you say "Ma-ra" (which means "death") it will eventually turn into "Ra-ma." A lesson for us all! The story goes that Ratnakar sits down and says the name for so many years that anthills grow up all around him, and when he comes out of his trance he takes his new name, Valmiki, and sets about writing the Ramayana.

Here you can see the story of the Ramayana carved into stone at the caves of Ellora, in India. The current academic consensus is that the oldest documented version of the Ramayana was written in either 5th or 4th century BC, but most spiritual masters refer to the story as though it happened a very long time before that. "Ramayana" means "Rama's Journey." It chronicles the exciting life of Prince Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, and is one of the most famous of all Indian stories, along with the Mahabharata. I'm surprised Disney has never animated it, comprising as it does treacherous relatives, an unjust banishment, a wicked demon kidnapping the Princess Sita, an arduous journey and an all-out battle involving magic, widespread personal sacrifice and at least one resurrection. Plus endless talking monkeys, bears and squirrels.

The Hindu festival of Divali, a real festival of lights, which started yesterday and lasts for five days, celebrates Rama and Sita returning to their rightful kingdom; exhausted, I'm sure. We would call it a fairy-tale, but in India it is spoken of as history, and in such a country, who knows? It was supposed to take place not in the golden age but in the time that followed it, when society had fallen considerably; though not as considerably as today. At that time, magical powers were commonplace and weird beasts lurked round every corner; even the air was different. To the Hindus, the Rama of the Ramayana is not just a prince, but a spiritual master, the first of the Indian Avatars; a word that means "descent"; in this case the descent of a very special soul from the highest inner worlds, with a particular mission to fulfil on earth. His life demonstrates the concept of morality and duty above all other considerations, and millions of Hindus pray to him for protection and illumination. His faithful companion, Hanuman, the monkey hero, embodies the ideal devotee who is completely devoted and dedicated to his master's wishes. Or they are a great warrior and a friendly talking monkey, depending on your point of view! The main thing is that it's a completely great story, on every level.

The Ramayana Clock, designed by Brookbrae, illustrated by Hita Hirons.

The Ramayana Clock was born about ten years ago when my friends, Tirthika and Suruchi, who own a company called Brookbrae, phoned me up and said they had something interesting for me to illustrate. They design, produce, and fit fountains, sculptures, sun dials, giant clocks; lots of different things. Sometimes their clients are big businesses and sometimes it is a private commission, but everything they do is interesting and unusual. On this occasion, an Indian gentleman in Leicester had asked them to create an heirloom for his family. He wanted it to reflect the land of his birth and to instruct, but also delight, his children. He remembered the clock-tower in his home village in India where everyone would gather to tell stories, and that gave him the idea for this storytelling clock. On brass inlaid on a smooth wooden surface was to be etched the immortal message of the Gayatri mantra, and a little window was left through which another face, turned by the same mechanism as the hour hand, could be seen telling the story of the Ramayana in miniature. The little window was just 10cmx4cmx7cm; each wedge-shaped picture had to measure the same and be painted onto the metal disc that rotated behind the clockface.

Here you can see the metal plate before they fixed it into the clock.

Sita in Ravana's Garden, Building the Bridge, Over the Bridge to Lanka

These are some of my favourite images from the clock. When I accepted the commission I had no idea what style I would work in. At that time planning was not part of my process, so I just slapped some metalwork undercoat around the edge of the wheel, divided it into seventeen windows (the maximum I felt I could squeeze out of the space allotted me, as well as being a prime number) and started on the first picture with oil paint, as I thought it would be more durable than acrylic.

The Golden Deer, The Abduction, The Handkerchief

I didn't draw any roughs or outlines in pencil, I just painted straight onto the metal; my illustration tutors would have despaired! I didn't want the pictures to be completely separate, but to run into each other, so that at all times something interesting could be seen, and I decided to start and finish the story using the device of a pillar. It was hard to squash everything into such a tiny space but somehow it came together. The colours came out of nowhere; I had never done anything remotely like it before. Working so small I wanted everything to jump out with a lot of energy and maybe that is where the vivid colours came from. 
The Handkerchief, Hanuman Leaps to Lanka, Sita in Ravana's Garden

My favourite picture is Hanuman jumping across the sea to Sri Lanka, but the pictures work well as a set and I am happy to have them in an A4 format (well, 8"x12") for the first time, on sale at Etsy. I have some more plans for them; for instance I will be printing them as greetings cards soon, and I would also like to make a Ramayana colouring book so that younger readers can make their own decisions on important matters, like exactly what colour Sita's dress is etc.

So, anyway, that's the story; a very Happy Divali to all lovers of Indian things, everywhere!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Further evidence of Autumn

We drove to the Canal du Midi to do some serious biking together, but I knew I would never keep up. Padmasini's manic enthusiasm and Celena's otherworldly energy make them perfect biking partners and it is my special role to trail behind as their happy but hopeless side-kick. I watched them speed into the distance in a cloud of dust and then got down to business taking photos of all things autumny.  I knew I was being rewarded for my lethargy when I saw these huge fungi, each bigger than a serving dish.

I was trying not to keep stopping; when you are posing as a proper biker you cannot have a family with small children on their first bikes repeatedly overtaking you, as was happening to me, but in the end I decided that getting these photos was worth the humiliation. The habit of jumping on and off my bike can probably be blamed on Royal Mail, Cambridge; I did one year sorting letters on night shift and another doing deliveries in the morning. Posties have to jump on and off their bikes hundreds of times each day, and what is a real effort at first soon becomes second nature, as does wearing shorts in the snow and cornering passers-by to lecture them on any topic that occurs to you. You can get really fit as a postie, and in fact many of them are ex-army, ex-navy guys or serious runners who want to be paid for getting several hours exercise a day. The level of machismo there can be a bit wearing and you have to filter out 90% of their conversation if you are female, but they are a cheerful lot, by and large, especially the older guys on night shift who have lots of stories and can be very entertaining. Sadly, I don't remember many of their stories as night-work doesn't suit me and I was barely awake for most of it. The only thing I vaguely recollect concerns a nice quiet guy nearing retirement age who decides that what other posties only dream about, he will accomplish; once a week he goes home ridiculously early for no apparent reason. After a time, complaints about lost letters on his walk filter through to head office, reach a critical mass and Royal Mail is forced to investigate. Somehow they are inspired to dig up his garden and they find all his undelivered letters buried there. The guy pleads depression, completely gets away with it and the story passes into legend. I wondered whether Management realised how easily the idea could occur to anyone and invented the story themselves as a preventative measure, "It's already been done, don't bother."

This is the Canal du Midi, constructed in the 17th Century, which along with the Canal de Garonne links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and is called the Canal des Deux Mers, or the Canal of Two Seas. The previous trading route had to go all the way around Spain, so although it took nearly fifteen years to build it spared each voyager the perils of shipwreck, Spanish pirates, and seasickness. The hydraulics involved in such a long canal were way beyond the engineers of the time, who had honed their craft on fortresses, and there is an unusual story associated with the construction. Some peasant women from the Roman Baths in the Pyrenees had been hired to shift dirt from one of the canals, but their supervisors soon realised that because of the long hydraulic tradition in the Pyrenees, the women's knowledge of water-work far surpassed their own. These women then designed the canal through the mountains near Bezier, using very few locks, and built the eight-lock staircase at Fonserannes. I was really surprised to hear that their supervisors gave them the credit for this; they could easily have claimed it for themselves, as was often the case at that time.

I will never get tired of seeing so many horses everywhere.  I particularly love the skewbald ones that the Americans call "pinto"; that is, a horse of any colour other than black, with white patches on it, in some cases nearly all white. My father liked to play the guitar, and I can remember him singing me this American song about a famous skewbald horse: 

"Stewball was a good horse
He wore a high head 
And the mane on his foretop 
Was as fine as silk thread.
I rode him in England
I rode him in Spain
He never did lose, boys,
He always did gain."

I haven't heard it for thirty years or so! I suspect he got it from this Joan Baez songbook as I remember it kicking about for a bit. 

Other favourites were, "Where have all the flowers gone?" and "Last night I had the strangest dream." And of course, "How many roads must a man walk down?" My parents were both complete hippies at heart, though the healthy kind rather than the other.  More about them at some other point... Now is not the time to go into the upbringing that created Tom Hirons and I.  A blog-entry would not suffice. An autobiographical novel would not suffice. Possibly a mini-series would suffice, if you could find a demographic that enjoyed equally Days of Our Lives and The Good Life. Let me just say that because of the wholesome nature of our household, one of my most dearly cherished dreams as a child was to persuade my mother to buy a soda-stream. For those of you who didn't grow up in Seventies England, a soda-stream is a machine with which you can make poisonous, phosphorescent fizzy drinks. You would no more have found one in our house than you would find, say, a slice of white bread, a TV or anything with sugar in it. It was actually my own fault; my mother was trying to find things that I wasn't allergic to and sugar really didn't seem to help. Strangely enough, now, after years of eating badly due to my complete lack of interest in food preparation, I am eating so well at the restaurant I work in, Tripti Kulai, that the craving for sugar has reduced and my diet is very close to what it was when I was little. The girls here are good at passing on their enthusiasm and I have been initiated, once and for all, into the noble art of cooking. They even praise my pastry! I am not worthy... Although we do deal with creme fraiche and sugar, we make sure to offer a lot of things that are without gluten, dairy or sugar, and these taste delicious too.

This vegetable patch by the cycle path reminded me of one of the gardens we had when I was little; the sea of cauliflowers and apple tree, especially. Although this looks much neater.

I realised the seasons really had changed the other night when I was woken by the sound of the wind breaking the glass in a neighbour's window. It was the Mistral, howling like an an untalented teenage band or a ferocious beast, but apparently it was only a little taster session of what we're in for later on. The custodian of my apartment treated me to a lengthy description of the upcoming weather, in French that I could barely understand but supplemented with lots of gestures. "Three hundred days of sunshine," he warned me, "but nobody tells you about the other sixty." It is going to be merely horrible, apparently, for December, but come January we will really see the Mistral kick in, with weeks of unrelenting, brain numbing and freezing wind. The only silver lining is that the Mistral blows away clouds and the sky is very clear at that time. In Provence, just next to us, the Mistral allows you to see mountains 150 kilometres away that are not normally visible at that distance. To offset this good news, there also exists a 'Mistral Noir' that brings clouds and rain... My friends tell me he is exaggerating and that Provence gets the worst of it, so now I don't know who to believe.

Here you can see a junior Mistral ruffling the plumage of a bush. I noticed that when the wind occasionally stopped, the trees and plants stayed in nearly the same position, as though they were still compelled by it's force, so they must grow up wincing in anticipation of it's arrival each year. One of my favourite books, "A Year in Provence", has this to say about the Mistral:

"We drove home, warm and well-fed, making bets on how soon we could take the first swim of the year, and feeling a smug sympathy for those poor souls in harsher climates who had to suffer real winters.
"Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the north, the wind that had started in Siberia was picking up speed for the final part of its journey. We had heard stories about the Mistral. It drove people, and animals, mad. It was an extenuating circumstance in crimes of violence. It blew for fifteen days on end, uprooting trees, overturning cars, smashing windows, tossing old ladies into the gutter, splintering telegraph poles, moaning through houses like a cold and baleful ghost, causing la grippe, domestic squabbles, absenteeism from work, toothache, migraine - every problem in Provence that couldn't be blamed on the politicians was the fault of the sacre vent which the Provencaux spoke about with a kind of masochistic pride.
"Typical Gallic exaggeration, we thought. If they had to put up with the gales that come off the English Channel and bend the rain so that it hits you in the face almost horizontally, then they might know what a real winter was like. We listened to their stories and, to humour the tellers, pretended to be impressed.
"And so we were poorly prepared when the first Mistral of the year came howling down the Rhone valley, turned left and smacked into the west side of the house with enough force to skim roof tiles into the swimming pool and rip a window that had carelessly been left open off its hinges. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in twenty-four hours. It went to zero, then six below. Readings taken in Marseilles showed a wind speed of 180 kilometres an hour. My wife was cooking in an overcoat. I was trying to type in gloves. We stopped talking about our first swim and thought wistfully about central heating."
January, A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle 1989

As I sped past this little glen it seemed to glitter with promise; the kind of place you might fall asleep and get kidnapped by fairies. They would probably be of a cheerful disposition though, and would send you on your way with nourishing food and a map to guide you; not like the 'Little Folk' (I think 'Supernatural Mafia' would be a more appropriate euphemism here) that frequent lonely Scottish moors specifically to lure unwary travellers into their own world. Imagine the trauma of breaking out of fairyland only to discover that your credit card expired a hundred years ago...

This is the road home on which I nearly caught up with Padmasini and Celana.

Extremely tempted to stop and lie down in this stuff.

Effortlessly elegant scenes like this flashed past my eyes at every moment as I breathlessly hurtled past.

Shady, wind-shaken pine trees; and as many pine cones as you could possibly want.

And the final, incontrovertible evidence of autumn; bales of hay.  In Suffolk, my English home county, they make huge wheels of it, but these look a bit more manageable. Summer must have gone now... As it says in one of the Harvest Festival hymms at school: 

"Roses sweet petals shed
Apples are turning red.
Summer goodbye, Summer goodbye."

Saturday, 22 October 2011

In praise of chariots

Queen Jadis rides a London cab with style. Illustration
by Pauline Baynes from "The Magician's Nephew" by C.S. Lewis

A chariot is a vehicle travelling fast and light, often over unknown terrain; a lone traveller who may be on a scouting mission or just revelling in the joy of speed. A chariot is full of the spirit of adventure. Its wheels turn always toward the unknown. I originally wanted a flying carpet but my friends tell me I need to be more grounded, so a chariot it is.

You can accessorise a chariot. For instance: an Indian chariot has a large parasol to shelter a passenger from the elements, making it possible to be both indoors and outdoors at the same time. If you want, you can fly a flag above the parasol. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s flag hosted the spirit of Hanuman the monkey hero and when the chariot speeded up you could hear the flag screaming in the wind to frighten his enemies. I don’t think I need to do that, but it’s a nice idea. Boadicea had viciously long knives strapped to her wheels, all the better to mow down Romans with: again, not strictly necessary. My own chariot will have many little bells on it so you will hear my approach from a distance, like a shimmering mist. Then anyone who wants to run away and hide will have ample warning!

Chariots can also be used for exercise. On campaign, Alexander the Great would ride alongside his men, jumping on and off his chariot constantly, like a hyperactive six year old. He did it to keep himself fit, but I imagine it also cheered his weary troops to see someone working harder than them. On one occasion when they had been marching through a desert for days, water had nearly run out and morale was at an all time low. The thirsty men collected together what was left of their water ration and presented it to Alexander in a helmet, but he poured it onto the sand in front of them, saying he would not drink when his men could not. They did find water fairly soon so it all worked out okay, and he became even more of a legend. Who knows whether his behaviour displayed clever management skills or a genuine concern for his men? Maybe both. My own chariot will be able to fly through the air or speed across the surface of the ocean, so it will not support that “one of the lads” image, but Alexander would still have liked it for the ostentatiously embossed metal armouring I intend to clutter the bodywork with.

Such a chariot will need the right kind of horses, possibly the kind you could steal from a Russian fairytale. For instance, in "The Firebird", a hunter called Ivan is trying to discover what is eating all the Tzar's best apples when he finds a brightly shining tail feather, ringed with flames. His horse (the kind you really need if you are to survive a story like that) warns him not to pick it up but, having no sense of self-preservation, he does. The horse then gets him out of every sticky situation he insists on getting himself into and upstages him completely, but Ivan is the one who gets all the credit.

Another useful mount would be the fire breathing chestnut coloured horse whose left ear you can climb into and right ear you can climb out of to be completely improved in looks, strength and personality. A poor boy (called Ivan again, I think) captured the heart of a princess and made his fortune by having this makeover. Such a horse could be a constant source of revenue at fairs, or in a booth at Covent Garden, perhaps.

Or, while I was in Russia, I could lie in wait for the three horses that herald the changing times of day. If you happen to be in the right place, and if you stay very still, you can see them pass: the white horse of dawn, the red horse of midday and the black horse of darkest midnight. Of course, they are already ridden by silent but rather grim looking horsemen so you would have your work cut out pilfering one.

I have considered Scheherazade’s one-of-a-kind mechanical flying horse that made off with an Arabian prince on a test run and then landed him in enemy territory facing a three month hike home, but you could never really trust such a thing. It did redeem itself later on and his journey was the cause of great good fortune in the end, but still…

In Greece, Helios and Selene used good old horses to draw the chariots of the sun and moon across the sky. Those horses sound perfect but their absence would be quickly noted and who wants the Greek gods on their tail? Helios and Selene sound fairly easygoing but they were later identified with Apollo and Artemis: enough said. 

Other options present themselves. Why horses? Well, because anybody harnessing cats to their chariot would be very disappointed. I wondered briefly how many kittens you would have to use, as they are infinitely more loveable, but imagine parking a thousand kitten power chariot and feeding them and all that. It’s just not doable. To think nothing of the furballs. Griffins, winged lions as depicted in the Book of Kells, wolves or wild boar: the list is endless. A chariot pulled by a phoenix? Think of the health and safety implications. Flamingos? Too showy. And there’s no point looking to the Indian deities for guidance as they have even less discrimination than western  gods. The goddess Durga has four lions pulling her chariot, the goddess Saraswati, swans, and Lakshmi lies on the back of a gigantic cobra called Shesha. I even saw a picture of the goddess Ganga on a crocodile. I ask you!

Dogs? Now, that is a distinct possibility. On the road into Cambridge from Trumpington I once saw a kind of bicycle-rickshaw thing pulled by two dogs. They were straining at the leash, their faces quivering with joy. The women riding the contraption was not even pedaling; she smiled at me as she thundered past, certain in the knowledge she had the city’s coolest ride. It made me want a dog, just so I could take it for runs tied to my bike. It’s not cruel to ask a dog to pull something: it gives it a chance to be important and elevates its status to the indispensability that all dogs long for. I suggested to my brother that he make a little cart for his dog Macha, so she can help him when he goes shopping, but he said she would run away with it and catching her could take hours. I think if he put heavy enough items in the cart or attached little brakes to the wheels like on the bottom of a large wheelie bin so she could be parked on the pavement outside, practising her resentful look, the problem would be solved, but he remains unconvinced.

And what about huskies? Hardier than horses in a cold climate, more intelligent than reindeer; should I wish to ride my chariot across the desolate wastes of Antarctica (with sledge attachments over its wheels, of course) a husky or eight would be just the thing.

There is much to consider. Perhaps our choice of steed gives some indication of our inner nature.  If so, I suspect that my chariot will be pulled by a selection of creatures in a daily relay. It would be really exciting not to know what was going to pull you each day! I could probably handle the kittens for a short while, for example, or the wild boar, but not for too long. This way, each day could be a pleasant surprise. So I am starting my journey with whatever presents itself, fair or foul, heavy-duty or lightweight.

Forward, upward, inward! The imagination-chariot must be trusted to know how best to proceed; only then we can gallop (or slither or wing) toward our goal at full speed.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Of storks and snails

It is called the Park of of Birds, but it should really be the Park of Snails. They were everywhere, congregating in clumps and attaching themselves to inhospitable looking plants. This strange, in-between place, where fresh water meets the sea, is definitely poised between two worlds; humidly marshy, as though you might disappear into quicksand if you ventured off the track, but with sudden blasts of fresh sea air. When it started to rain we heard frog voices all around, ribetting appreciatively, and because of the swampy feeling I couldn't help thinking of gumbo stews and what would go in them here! I am told that there are also eels, which are very nutritious and delicious I'm sure; I'm vegetarian so I don't really know...  

As we ran along a path of wooden slats with bamboo grass on either side, gekko lizards scurried out of our way and the local mosquitoes welcomed us as only they know how. Crossing one stream I saw many groups of fish gathered together, all pointing in the same direction, not swimming at all, as if they were queuing or assembled for some purpose other than that of daily life. A mystery, like many others, that will never be answered.

You may not immediately recognise these for what they are; manmade stork nests!  I know that from the scale of the photo they could easily be mushrooms, but they seemed to be about a metre by a metre on top. They look a bit deserted at the moment, though.  From far back people all around the world used to build nests for storks in their roofs to encourage them to hang around, as they were supposed to bring good luck.  In some cultures they were even credited with possessing human souls!  Whether that is true or not I couldn't say, but they seem to enjoy an excellent reputation everywhere. I would really like to see a stork chick, which is bound to be less elegant than it's parents, but is even more sweet I'm sure. Because of the good weather here I think they can probably have their chicks at many different times of the year, so maybe I will be lucky sooner rather than later.

You are not allowed to get very close to the birds because it is a conservation area. My camera's zoom is not brilliant but you can just see some of the many storks, egrets and herons we found here, cavorting about in this little lake. I asked the girls if these storks brought babies to worthy French couples and they assured me that it still happens!  Clever things.

More storks, happily perched.  There are few predators to harass them here; maybe foxes? In other parts of France, the Alps for instance, there are wolves, but I don't think there are any near Montpellier.

White horses; after all, we are very near to the Petit Camargue.  My brother suggested that it is called the Petit Camargue because everything is small; little white horses and little black bulls, dwarfed trees and so on, but strangely enough everything seems to be the right size. Nice idea though. I will come back again to see the storks and snails, but I might need to go further afield to find something that is one of the symbols of this region but I haven't seen yet, although I am told they are everywhere; flamingoes.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

On the edge of the seasons

A couple of weeks ago the sea here was unusually active, gushing frothily enthusiastic onto the beach like a pot boiling over or a few million tons of champagne.  The locals blamed the upcoming equinox for this change and maybe rightly, as there was no wind at all and it returned to it's trademark glassy stillness the very next day, leaving no clue as to what had inspired the anomaly.  Someone suggested that the moon was closer to the earth than normal and that was what was causing all the commotion, but actually, the moon was at it's farthest yearly point from the earth so that couldn't have been the case.  Whatever the cause of it, something was up.  There seemed to be a different attitude in the water itself, an extra mischievous joy. Each wave was topped by meringue-like foam that dispersed into what closely resembled a bubble-bath. I floated about in it for hours, re-living watery memories of my childhood holidays, many of which were in France.  I made a big mermaid sculpture out of sand, with masses of flowing hair, like I used to, rolled backwards and forwards in the tide, like I used to, and realised that if I wanted to be on holiday permanently, I could do it here.
                                             *                       *                          *
The very next morning, the temperature dropped like a stone and the sunny hiking trip I had committed to when I thought we were still in the middle of summer looked set to be a game of icy wind and rain.  The few people I saw outside on the streets had the haunted look the French always adopt when rain appears, sort of betrayed by nature, like in Day of the Triffids when everyone's gone blind and giant carnivorous plants are stalking humanity; that level of trauma.  So what? I hear you cry.  Well, I was determined to find out how a mediterranean Autumn differed from an English one, preferably with lots of photos of me overcome by the heat to irritate my friends and family back home, whereas it was the exact replica of a late-October day in Cambridge and not at all the kind of evidence I was looking for.

On the way to the pine forest we had decided to hike through I was told that because it was now Autumn and the hunting season was starting we might have a problem with drunken hunters.  Hunters are supposed to aim upwards into the trees, but sometimes they are not so discerning after a liquid lunch.  My friends said it was probably okay because one of us had a red t-shirt on; that would lessen the chance of our movements being mistaken for those of game, at least.  Funnily enough, I had admired some bulletproof vests in the Montpellier branch of Decathlon a few days before, but not realising I would soon have a genuine need for one I had overcome the temptation and bought a swimsuit instead.  It just goes to show that you should always listen to your intuition...

Clustering around our red t-shirted colleague, we entered the pine forest.  After walking for some time we passed through a little settlement and encountered this insanely friendly cat guarding a church there.  I thought it might be part indigenous wild-cat, but it turned out to be English.

The forest floor was covered with pine cones that were so springy to walk on I fantasised about covering my sitting room floor with earth and bringing back a few hundred of them to create an interior forest look.  I reasoned that I would soon be doing woodwork in there anyway, so having a lot of wood and earth around would create the right ambience, but I suppose that it is going to start raining at some point and that could get quite unpleasant.  Still, I am thinking about it!

Amazing wavy pine trees worthy of a Chinese movie.  Expected to see a couple of sword fighters wafting about on them, gently bending the top branches with their exertions, but didn't.  Near to Montpellier there is a famous bamboo forest, so they are probably all there.

These trees were actually growing out of the rock; I really don't know how they do that.

Rosehips, the aftermath of wild roses; used to make herb tea and syrup out of, just like in England.

Nice dried flowers, no idea what they are.  We left the pine forest and made our way through the surrounding countryside, stopping to gather fruit and herbs wherever possible.

Fennel!  I'm sure it must grow in England somewhere but I've never seen it in the wild.  One of my favourite herbs, and something we use a lot in Tripti Kulai, the restaurant I work in, where they insist on calling it 'fenouil'.  I took some of this home and I've been eating it each day as it is completely delicious.  Hopefully it really is fennel and not some hallucinogenic local delicacy.

Beautiful village called Saint-Privat (I think).

I've noticed that vegetation here has a faintly tough look, as though it is ready for whatever life throws at it, in contrast to the Italian landscape that always looks like butter wouldn't melt in it's mouth.

Lovely olives!  I can't be the only person who thought that olive trees yielded either black or green olives, can I?  My friends had a good laugh about this, in their tactful gallic way, and then explained that it is the treatment of the olive that determines it's colour.  On the way home, we interrupted a householder's siesta to buy fresh olives, and some were given to me in order to educate my palate.  They were fruity, delicious and superior; predictably.

My landlady in England grows very good figs.  She says figs like arid conditions, which means I have been wrong all this time and Cambridge is not the rainy place I thought it was.  These figs were quite little in comparison to some I have seen, but very potent, and both fruit and leaves carried the scent of aniseed.

The Priory of Grammont peeping up through the trees.

A goat we found in the grounds of the Priory that I liked very much.

Although it could be a kind of guinea pig, I'm not sure...

There were grapes in abundance along the road, and these were very sweet and strong.  Apparently there is a first yield and then there is a second, smaller wave that most farmers don't bother with because there are not enough grapes to justify the labour, and these just hang around waiting for people to pick them.  I think that these must have been from the first, forbidden harvest, which made them even better!
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The day was not as cold as it had threatened and we were only moderately chilled when we headed back to Montpellier.  I actually only heard one rifle shot the whole day, and that was as we were leaving the pine forest; I think the hunting season may be just starting now.

Perhaps I will go back to Decathlon for the bulletproof vest before our next hike.