Thursday, May 30, 2013

Varieties of orchids at Gamone

This morning, once again, I strolled up along the road at Gamone to admire our splendid wild orchids, while attempting to identify as many as I could. In yesterday's blog post [display], I indicated the presence of many Monkey orchids (Orchis simia). I picked a few specimens and brought them home to be photographed. The monkeys in the following specimen have dark purple paws:

[Click to enlarge images.]

In another specimen, the monkeys are pale and slender... and the fellow at the bottom has an erection!

I don't know whether they're two slightly different varieties, or whether the first plant is simply more mature than the second. In the following specimen, probably a Military orchid (Orchis militaris), the form still has arms and legs, but it's more like a woman in a bulky skirt than a monkey:

I haven't been able to identify the following fine specimens, whose flowers have the form of a person wearing baggy pants, but they might be Burnt-tip orchids (Neotinea ustulata):

In various places on the slopes above the roadway, there are entire walls of Pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis).

From a distance, you might mistake each plant for a single flower. But, when you examine them more closely, you realize immediately that each pyramidical head is indeed a group of orchid blossoms.

The larger flowers at the bottom reveal the typical asymmetrical form of each orchid blossom, composed of three small sepals, two small petals and a large third petal, double-lobed, called the labellum.

Finally, the most exotic orchid specimens I discovered at Gamone were members of the Ophrys variety, whose labellum looks like a large insect.

I examined this specimen from every angle, and compared it with photos on the web, in an attempt to identify the exact variety.

I concluded that it could well be an Ophrys fuciflora (Late Spider-orchid), or maybe an Ophrys apifera (Bee Orchid).

Click here to access an excellent website with examples of many wild orchids. Incapable of identifying with certainty my Ophrys specimen, I decided to contact the creator of this website, Philippe Durbin, who's an expert on French orchids. Here's an English translation of his reply:
I can understand your problem, because it's not obvious! I would imagine a hybrid between Ophrys fuciflora and Ophrys apifera. No certainty, however. See if you can find its parents in the vicinity.
Trust me, on my initial orchid excursion, to find a puzzling specimen! Now I'll have to wander back up on the slopes and look around for the mum and dad of this orchid love child. Why couldn't they simply procreate in a hermaphroditical fashion, like most self-respecting Ophrys orchids? Or with the help of a bee, like those queer orchids that get a kick out of bestiality? Maybe the parents of my puzzling orchid specimen had heard of "the good effects of intercrossing" in a book published in 1862 by a celebrated English naturalist.
Charles Darwin: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.
Click here to access this surprising document, which proves (if need be) that the great Charles Darwin was indeed an amazing observer and scholar.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wild orchids and an exotic moth

Yesterday afternoon, when I gazed towards the east from my bathroom window, I was quite excited by a tiny band of clear white sky that seemed to be peeping over the mountain ridge at the far end of the valley. Would this be a harbinger, at last, of the fine warm weather for which we've been waiting for weeks and weeks?

Well, it wasn't, because rain soon started to fall. Consequently, there hasn't yet been a slot of two or three days of sunshine to dry out the patches of turned-up earth, alongside my house, that are destined to be my vegetable garden.

I've got a great little rotary tiller, which I've been using over the last week or so, but this kind of machine is not very efficient in soggy soil.

Ideally, the soil should be so dry that it crumbles apart as soon as clods get hit by the revolving blades. But that's hardly the case for the moment. Meanwhile, the landscape around Gamone is sumptuously green. On my daily walks up along the road with Fitzroy, I've admired glorious patches of wild orchids, which apparently appreciate the damp overcast weather. One of the common specimens that is growing in abundance is the Monkey orchid (Orchis simia), which gets its name from the four mauve lips of the flower, which look like a tiny monkey lying on his back, in the middle of the flower, with his outstretched arms and legs in the air.

On one such orchid, I found a superb specimen of a Five-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena trifolii), which had probably emerged only recently from its cocoon. I succeeded in bringing it home with me, nested in a small bouquet of orchids and wild roses.

Normally, the larvae of this insect (called a zygène du trèfle in French) are supposed to thrive on a common form of wild flowering clover called Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). Clearly, my specimen has refined tastes, since it prefers to dine on orchids.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Genealogy fiction

GeneaNet is a genealogy service that was created in France.

Click here to access the GeneaNet website.

A major characteristic of this free service is that you can communicate with other researchers who are examining surnames that interest you. This feature can sometimes put you in contact with a researcher who has already carried out work that concerns you. In most cases, though, you come upon research results that simply don't ring a bell in any useful way.

As a registered user of GeneaNet, I made a request to be informed of all ongoing research concerning individuals named Skeffington. As soon as I receive an email from GeneaNet stating that one of their members has just uploaded Skeffington data into his family tree, I try to understand the circumstances in which this operation has been carried out. That's to say: Who are these researchers who appear to be interested in the Skeffington family? What is the exact nature of their uploaded data? Etc. Let me simply say that, in spite of countless emails indicating that dozens of GeneaNet member have inserted Skeffington data into their family trees, I have never yet found an iota of pertinent Skeffington information through this service. On the other hand, GeneaNet has helped me considerably concerning the history of former owners of my house at Gamone. So, I continue half-heartedly with the service.

The community of GeneaNet users appears to include researchers who are happy to get involved in what I would refer to as genealogy fiction. That's to say, their research starts out with serious facts, of the kind that we expect in a genealogical context, but they soon link their family tree to massive blocks of existing data whose authenticity is often nebulous, to say the least. Within these blocks of data, many of the individuals appear to be members of the nobility, but their credentials are open to doubt. Meanwhile, other individuals whose names appear in these blocks of remote "cousins" are personages from history and even from legends. A few days ago, for example, I was told that a French researcher had inserted the names of several 17th-century Skeffington individuals into his family tree. When I examined his tree, I was amazed to discover that it contained a gigantic horde of people stretching over more than a hundred generations. One of his alleged cousins was Attila the Hun.

King Arthur was also present.

Jesus and his mother were also distant cousins of this well-connected Frenchman.

Concerning the mother of Jesus, it's frankly weird to find her designated as "the Virgin Mary of Arimathea". The inspired GeneaNet member who contributed this description was surely an adept of an obscure medieval English legend suggesting that Joseph of Arimathea was the paternal uncle of the Virgin Mary, and that he once visited the town of Glastonbury (Somerset) with his young nephew Jesus.

A little earlier on, our well-connected Frenchman had also announced that he was related to Cleopatra and the pharaoh Ramses.

To my mind, this sort of nonsense has no place in serious genealogical research. In fact, I suspect that certain members of the GeneaNet community derive pleasure from uploading tons of fake data of this kind, and the service then encourages other members to establish alleged links to such personages.

Friday, May 24, 2013

New Dan Brown novel

My daughter Emmanuelle happened to give me the only Dan Brown novel I possess: the notorious thing whose title evokes the great Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519]... who surely did not deserve to be manhandled, five centuries after his prolific existence, by a muddy-minded and pretentious US writer.

I was incapable of pursuing my reading of Brown beyond the first few pages of his ghastly tripe. Even the boring movie with Tom Hanks didn't unblock me. I'm simply unable, viscerally, to consume Dan Brown's words and thoughts. They give me an uncontrollable desire to vomit. Meanwhile, I see that this celebrated US novelist pursues his activities, no doubt astronomically successful. Click here to see a delightful review of Brown's latest twaddle.

Click here for further amusing criticism. If one were to ask me how a lousy novelist can become filthy rich through his shit, I would reply that the first step consists of being American.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

You gotta thank the Lord

As an authentic grass-roots American media celebrity, Wolf Blitzer is expected to praise God on CNN. From time to time, inevitably, in the course of his mindless burbling, Blitzer encounters reality.

Is Blitzer really the robotic arsehole whom we see here? Probably...  The full name of the God-fearing arsehole is, of course, the United fucking States of America, now getting into the diabolical business of using robotic drones to exterminate certain of its undesirable citizens. 

End of an Australian automobile era

As a boy in Grafton, I grew up in the shade of the celebrated Ford motor company, founded in Detroit (Michigan) in 1903 by the legendary industrialist Henry Ford [1863-1947].

In Australia, the Englishman Charles Bennett, a bike-rider of the penny-farthing era [see], had become a New South Wales champion cyclist in 1883, and he went on to create the highly successful Speedwell brand of bikes [see]. But times were changing due to the arrival of the automobile. Charles Bennett moved into this field, starting up an Australia-wide automobile affair whose branch in Grafton was known as the City Motor Garage and Engineering Company. Around 1920, in Sydney, my London-born grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] met up with Bennett, who persuaded his young compatriot to take over Bennett's Grafton business.

That soon became the dominant preoccupation of my grandfather. And, throughout the years that followed, the latest model of the Ford automobile became a standard feature in family photos.

On the left, that's my wonderful grandmother Kath Pickering [1889-1964]. The little boy is my father Bill Skyvington [1917-1978], and the little girl is his young sister, my aunt Yvonne Tarrant, who celebrated her 94th birthday in Taree a few weeks ago.

As soon as he acquired land, enabling him to become a beef grazier, my father (a mechanic in his father's business) was so faithful to the Ford story that he chose V8 as his cattle brand. Click here to see my blog post on this subject.

I learned yesterday that Ford has decided to abandon Geelong.

Why not? After all, these days, nobody rides a Speedwell bike. In any case, another fragment of my childhood Australia is crumbling away.

It's too late

A great Mediterranean gentleman—poet and singer—has left us.

Georges Moustaki [1934-2013]

I saw him for the last time at the Festival Jacques Brel in St-Pierre-de-Chartreuse in the summer of 1993.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dog cognition

Dogs are intelligent creatures, and they appear to be able to perform certain cognitive tasks that are beyond the capacity of wolves and chimpanzees. A typical case in which certain dogs reveal their innate intelligence is the ability to understand the human gesture of pointing. We humans are so accustomed to using this gesture with our fellow humans that it's natural for dog owners to attempt to communicate with their animals by pointing in one or another direction. I have the impression that Fitzroy often reacts positively to this gesture, but I must admit that the message gets through most efficiently when I use my outstretched foot to point, say, at a piece of food that I've thrown on the ground for him. But it's not as if I carry out this kind of experiment in such a rigorous fashion that I can vouch for my conclusions.

Brian Hare, a researcher in biological anthropology at Duke University, was keen to study this question of the effectiveness of pointing in a canine context.

Realizing that his university department simply couldn't get together a significantly large enough contingent of dogs for such experiments, he decided to exploit the methods of so-called citizen science. That's to say, he founded a company called Dognition [click here to visit their website] which invites dog owners to enroll their pet dogs in trials that can be conducted with the help of the Internet. That's to say, the company provides you with all the information needed to conduct certain precise experiments, and you then send back the results for analysis by company specialists. I intend to see if they'll accept Fitzroy as a candidate, because I think it would be nice if my dog were to collaborate with a US technology company, and maybe get enrolled in an American university. And that reminds me of my Eskimo joke:
A retired couple of Californian tourists are visiting an Eskimo settlement in Greenland. They strike up a conversation with a woman alongside her igloo.

ESKIMO: My son works in a Californian university.

CALIFORNIAN: Really! What's he studying?

ESKIMO: No, he's being studied.
The excellent science writer Carl Zimmer—author of the fascinating little book about viruses that I mentioned in a blog post in June 2011 [display]—has written an article in The New York Times [here] on the subject of canine cognition.

A couple of days ago, Zimmer wrote another short article [here] on the fascinating questions of why and when certain wolves branched away from their wild ancestors and evolved into dogs. Apparently this split started in East Asia, through genetic mutations, 32,000 years ago. One of the new genes that evolved on the canine branch brought about a flow of the serotonin neurotransmitter into the nervous system, which had the effect of making the primordial dogs less aggressive than pure wolves. Hordes of mellowed-down animals got into the habit of scavenging in the vicinity of groups of early human hunter-gatherers, and that is how we ended up being accompanied by domestic dogs. It's interesting to realize that this process is quite different to the previously-held idea that humans might have stolen wolf pups from their parents and tamed them. It was the evolution of the serotonin-oriented gene that got the "taming" process into action, in a totally autonomous fashion. The only human intervention would have consisted, no doubt, of destroying or chasing away dangerously aggressive scavengers that were not sufficiently "serotoninized". And this would have contributed to the emergence of a pack of increasingly friendly animals.

Let me relate a trivial anecdote concerning Fitzroy and his apparent intelligence.

Over the last fortnight, I've been strolling up to my neighbor's place every day to feed their poultry while Jackie and his wife were away on vacation. Needless to say, Fitzroy always accompanies me. And he never seems to accept the idea that he's not allowed to follow me into the hen house. Sometimes, while I'm stepping in through a wire mesh entrance, Fitzroy has succeeded in sliding into this interesting place, where his presence creates turmoil among the hens, rooster and geese. So, I decided to bring along a dog lead, and tie up Fitzroy before I open the hen house. He wasn't happy to find himself suddenly attached in Jackie's yard, a short distance away from the hen house, and he let me know by a new variety of short squeals, unlike any of Fitzroy's everyday sounds. Less than a minute later, Fitzroy was free, having severed neatly the fabric part of the lead with his molars.

I was amazed. I have the impression (though I may be wrong) that it takes a good dose of cognitive cleverness for a dog to conclude rapidly that the only obstacle that prevented him from approaching the hen house was a band of canvas cloth, which could be cut rapidly by means of his teeth. As you can see from the photo, Fitzroy had already attacked the cord part of this old lead on a couple of previous excursions, but I had imagined those early acts as a mere game, resulting from the presence of the cord near his jaws. As for biting through the canvas strap, in a matter of seconds, that seemed to be the outcome of a deliberate reasoned strategy aimed at freeing himself. In the style of the proverbial prisoner manipulating a fragment of metal fashioned into a rudimentary saw blade to cut through the bars of his cell, Fitzroy was using his teeth as a tool to attain liberty.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Our third anthem

Once upon a time, in France, we had an extraordinary national anthem—stirring, but not particularly nice—that evoked blood and gore, the smoke of muskets, and images of slain soldiers.

Recently, we've received an anthem of a higher order, intended to evoke culture, history and harmony among the peoples of the Old World.

But there's yet another anthem, designed to remind us that we Europeans have become a continent of dumb TV-viewers, willing to watch almost anything, no matter how stupid it might be.

The grand final of the notorious Eurovision Song Contest will be taking place next Saturday evening in Sweden. If ever you've been out of contact with the planet Earth over the last decade or so, and you need to know what this spectacular happening is all about, just click here to visit their official website.

As usual, we believe that France is a top favorite, and almost certain to win the contest hands down. Unfortunately, the name of our singer escapes me for the moment. I've also forgotten the title of his/her song.

Talking about Australia

Up until recently, I used to make comments in this blog—often of a critical nature—on various aspects of my land of birth, Australia. But I've always realized that it's preferable, for several reasons, to avoid this bad habit. These days, I find it harder and harder to even know what's happening in Australia, because my two principal sources of information—the online web versions of The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald—have implemented paywalls. And since I have no intention of patronizing such low-quality newspapers, I no longer necessarily know what's happening Down Under.
NOTE: Method for getting around paywalls. Copy the title of the desired article. Paste it into Google as an argument. This usually works. [Don't tell anybody I told you.]
Here in France, funnily enough, I constantly run into situations that have encouraged me to remain abreast, as best I can, of current events in Australia. You see, every time I open my mouth, French people realize that I speak with a curious accent (my Franco-Australian daughter and son have always disagreed), and they often ask me where I come from. And, as soon as I say Australia, French people inevitably wonder out loud why on earth any sane individual (?) with an Australian passport would have left his native Antipodean paradise for a harsh land such as France... where taxes are astronomical, the economic climate is disastrous, young folk can't find jobs, the sky is constantly overcast, people are arrogant, mustached males eat smelly cheeses and frogs' legs smothered in garlic, nobody speaks English, etc... It would be ridiculous to suggest (even if it were true) that I was attracted to France, long ago, because of all the wonderful women. These days, thanks to the Internet and YouTube,  French people know that Australia, too, has superb female creatures such as Jesinta Campbell.

Besides, it's a known fact that, here in France, flamboyant females sit around lazily in cafés getting pissed on coarse red wine... which is hardly a man's idea of nice womanhood.

When French people ask me why I moved here from a fabulous land of milk and honey such as Australia, I make an attempt to reply truthfully... which is possibly a personal weakness, indeed a stupid mistake. Maybe it would be simpler if I were to tell a few white lies, and concoct a standard explanation capable of satisfying everybody. For example, I've already noticed that, as soon as I speak of owning farm animals (merely a couple of donkeys today, but there used to be sheep and goats), most people seem to see that as a plausible reason for my staying put, stoically and permanently, in rural France. French folk who hear such an "explanation" must imagine that, if the Aussie fellow's so stupid as to have purchased French farm animals, then he surely doesn't deserve to return to his native wonderland in the southern hemisphere. After all, not even a French farmer and his wife, booking in for a Mediterranean cruise, would expect to be able to bring their dog along with them.

The basic problem, I believe, is that the Australian tourist authorities have done such a splendid job of presenting Australia to foreign audiences (through TV documentaries, above all) that French people imagine sincerely that my native land is something like a mythical Switzerland transported into the tropics, surrounded by white sands and warm turquoise waters, where countless ordinary citizens have become immensely wealthy simply by digging up precious minerals in the backyards of their suburban homes and selling the stuff to less lucky lands (such as France).

My personal evaluation of Australian society has been dominated, over the years, by three major negative themes:

1. The absence of a profound political culture in Australia (as opposed to politics as a lucrative career) means that the nation's wealth has never been distributed justly to the people. Consequently, Australia's infrastructure and lifestyle (apart from an abundance of good weather) are deplorable.

2. Contrary to what Australians themselves seem to imagine, their land is relatively uninteresting, indeed boring, from a touristic point of view. While there's a lot of empty scenery (which can be interesting at times), there is no visible culture, history or non-superficial social atmosphere.

3. As my Francophile friend Geoff once put it, there are no traditions of written culture in Australia. Among other things, there is no role in Australia for individuals who would be designated in France as intellectual observers.

Concerning that final remark, I was most intrigued to come upon a short critical article written by a young Australian lady named Alecia Simmonds, who's a journalist, an adjunct lecturer of law at the University of New South Wales, and a Merewether Fellow at the prestigious Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Click here to find Alecia's article, entitled Why Australia hates thinkers.

To whet your appetite, I'm appending a few lengthy excerpts of Alecia's excellent article. Certain specimens of colloquial language and parochial allusions might puzzle the non-Australian readers of my Antipodes blog. While insisting upon the fact that I do not necessarily share the strong opinions of Alecia Simmonds, I refrain from commenting upon the detailed substance of her paper.
[...] in Straya, we don't give a dead dingo's donger about academics. Universities make a perfect target because, like few other Western countries, Australia hates thinkers. In contrast to France, where philosophers often grace the covers of Le Monde, and England where Slavoj Zizek writes regular columns in The Guardian Weekly. In Australia, we have Peter Hartcher on anti-Gillard autopilot and the bile-flecked bleating of shock-jocks like Alan Jones.

[...] The problem is that as a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: "chattering classes", "latte-sipping libertarians", "intellectual elites" and now Nick Cater's most unlovely term "bunyip elite". If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue "is not just academic". Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down.

[...] There's no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag. The question is why. It's certainly not for want of thinkers.

[...] Perhaps there's a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England's stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We're a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don't mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we've interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool.

[...] There's also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn't sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It's equated with sexual unattractiveness. And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It's as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.
Getting back to the personal question of why I reside in France rather than in my native Australia, the most honest and meaningful answer is, of course, that the three members of my family live here (in Paris and Brittany).

BREAKING NEWS: As proof of my resolution to refrain from criticizing my native land, I do not intend to comment unduly and at length upon an astonishing news flash in the latest online issue of The Daily Examiner [here]:
E coli bacteria in the Lower Clarence water supply system
On the other hand, I wish to criticize their ill-informed journalist who wrote the following statement:
E. coli itself is generally not harmful but its presence in drinking water indicates that the water may be contaminated with organisms that may cause disease.
The presence of Escherichia coli indicates, almost certainly, that the municipal water supply has been contaminated by sewage: possibly human fecal matter. The journalist writes as if this bacteria were a mere indicator: some kind of biological litmus paper. He/she doesn't seem to understand, or doesn't wish to say explicitly, that it's the E coli bacterium itself that "may cause disease". A more serious article would have indicated the actual levels of E coli that have been detected.

Monday, May 13, 2013

First signs of forthcoming walnut season

Yesterday, I discovered the first visible signs at Gamone of the forthcoming walnut season.

This year, I intend to try out a totally new recipe: fresh walnuts preserved in sweet syrup. It appears to be a Greek Cypriot specialty. The product is marketed on the web.

Here are a couple of photos of the product that I found on the web:

These images suggest that the product—referred to as glyko karydaki in Greek—has much the same appearance and texture as my familiar pickled walnuts made with malt vinegar. I've found a clear and complete recipe [here] from a Cypriot lady, Ivy Liacopoulou. I've told her that I intend to use her recipe, and she has kindly provided me with further advice concerning the importance of thickening the syrup, which plays a vital role in the preservation of the product.

In Ivy's recipe, there's an intriguing "ingredient": quicklime. I've put the word "ingredient" in inverted commas because powdered calcium oxide is merely used at one stage in the lengthy preparations in order to keep the walnuts firm. But the toxicity of this dangerous substance will have long disappeared, of course, by the time the walnuts become edible.

Natacha and Alain were the first people to inform me of the existence of such walnuts, which they had discovered at the Greek-Armenian Edykos restaurant in Aix-en-Provence.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fitzroy's hose running

I provided a brief presentation of this interesting new sport, invented by Fitzroy, in a blog post of 26 February 2011 [display]. My dog continues to practice this activity regularly and assiduously, in a style that has become exceptionally vigorous.

Indeed, when Fitzroy storms past me at breakneck speed, I try to locate myself outside of his racetrack, for fear of getting wounded by one end of the blue hose. Meanwhile, Fitzroy has developed a complex set of exercises designed to loosen himself up prior to each series of runs. The exercises start with an intense session of motionless meditation, during which the dog seems to absorb the vital energy flowing through the hose.

I would imagine, as an onlooker, that the ultimate aim of these exercises is to attain a relationship of symbiosis with the hose, in all kinds of positions.

Between the dog and the hose, the contacts are subtle, involving not only the teeth and jaws, but the paws too.

But these points of contact must be as soft and light as feathers, so that the dog can devote all his energy to running. It's a kind of zen operation, in which the dog and the hose are capable of moving autonomously but contiguously along a common space-time locus.

In other words, at no moment of his flight does the dog have the impression that he's actually holding the hose. The animal is simply moving in parallel with the object, and the object, reciprocally, is accompanying the animal. It's all very philosophical.

The runs themselves take place so rapidly that I find it almost impossible to take meaningful photos. In any case, an observer has to actually watch a series of runs to get the full impact of their force. Amazed by the power and speed of the animal as it hurtles across the lawn, a naive onlooker might imagine that the dog has simply found an explosive means of letting off steam and having fun. But such an onlooker fails to understand the profound sense of this activity, which is more an ethereal art than a sport. Admittedly, it's not easy to find the right words to describe hose running, which is impregnated with a highly spiritual dimension. It would be great if Fitzroy himself were to decide to produce a treatise on this subject, of which he is undoubtedly the creator. And probably the world champion.

Work at the southern end of my cellar

In my blog post of 11 April 2013 entitled Spring has sprung... at last [display], I mentioned my intention to construct, in my ancient stone cellar at Gamone, an old-fashioned wood-burning oven for baking bread and pizzas. This is likely to be a long and arduous project, since I first have to prepare the cellar for the installation of this massive object. In the present blog post, I shall describe the very first operation in this project, which I'm carrying out at the southern end of the cellar. This information is relatively technical, and is designed to be appreciated primarily by François, Emmanuelle and Christine, who have always remained interested by the evolution of the property at Gamone.

Let me start at the beginning. Here's a view of the southern façade of my house, taken in November 1993 (several months before I became the official owner of the property):

The scene reveals why, at that time, we took few photos from this viewpoint. A giant linden tree prevented an observer from obtaining a meaningful view of the southern façade of the house. But this photo indicates clearly the proportions of the roofed area behind the house (above the cellar), where a white van is parked. To reach this spot, the vehicle had to approach the house (on the opposite side of the photo), pass in front of the house (on the gravel down on the right-hand side) and then reverse up the grassy slope alongside the linden tree.

A long time ago, I asked René Uzel to remove that linden tree, along with the old apple tree that you can see on the left-hand edge of the photo. Since then, the southern façade of my house has been clearly visible, as you can see from this photo that I took this morning:

It's not easy to compare details in these two photos, 20 years apart, since it's hard to see anything at all in the first photo. It should nevertheless be apparent that a huge amount of earth has been removed from beneath the wheels of the vehicle in the old photo, enabling us to observe almost the entire southern wall of the cellar (which was completely buried in the old photo). You can even distinguish the upper half of an entrance into the cellar, shown here in an enlargement:

A decade ago, I had asked René Uzel to use his mini digger to remove the earth under which this southern entrance into the cellar had been buried, maybe for several centuries. As soon as the stone wall and the entrance became visible, I was in for a major surprise. Noticing the way in which fragments of hard earth remained attached to every rough stone in the façade, I suddenly realized that this was no doubt the first time ever, since its construction, that this wall had been brought out into the open daylight. I had always imagined that the entrance (which formed an alcove when seen from inside the cellar) had been blocked by earth, a long time ago, for unknown reasons. I now realized that, on the contrary, this entrance had never, at any point in time, been cleared of the earth that blocked it. In other words, this wall and entrance had been constructed from inside the future cellar, using the original earth as a formwork (coffrage in French). And nobody (up until my intervention) had ever got around to removing the formwork. Faced with this unexpected situation, I decided that a reinforced concrete retaining wall should be erected on the left, as soon as possible.

Here's a closeup photo of the entrance at the southern end of the cellar, taken a month ago from the top of the short earthen ramp that leads down from the level of the outside ground:

As soon as René had unearthed this new entrance into the cellar (and the house), I sealed it firmly by means of a pair of old wooden doors that I jammed in place. Now that this wood work has been removed, I can look out from inside the cellar towards the south.

Before thinking about having a door installed here, I needed to build a concrete threshold. So, I promptly tidied up the ground and laid down the formwork for the future threshold, as shown in the following photo:

Clearly, a previous owner seems to have used this alcove to support wooden shelves.

Here's a closeup view of the threshold formwork:

A fortnight ago, when I turned on my electric cement mixer with the intention of starting to lay concrete for the threshold, I was annoyed to find that the machine stopped turning after 20 seconds. I unscrewed the cover, and discovered that the cam belt had slid off the big cog on the drive shaft that makes the drum rotate.

Knowing nothing whatsoever about the mechanics of concrete mixers, I drove immediately to a big hardware company in Saint-Marcellin to seek guidance. Usually, as soon as I open my mouth in such a setting, full of professional tradesmen, the staff and onlookers realize that I'm a do-it-yourself tinkerer, and I sense their condescending regard. But everything changes in a positive sense when they hear you explaining that you've opened up your concrete mixer, discovered that the cam shaft has slipped of the big cog on the drive shaft, and that you need to fix it. Anybody who talks that kind of talk in a tradesmen's store must be taken seriously. So, I was thrilled to find a tradesman in overalls come over and tell me that, after having installed the new cam belt, I should rotate the drum manually for a few turns, to make sure that the new belt is in place. It was surely the first time in my life that French tradesmen seemed to be respecting me as a member of their fraternity. I felt elated, but I forced myself not to say much more, for fear of being revealed as a fake.

The next morning, I was able to examine closely the mechanism of the electric motor in my concrete mixer, and I discovered that the old cam belt was in perfect shape. The cause of the breakdown was a simple bolt that had escaped from the motor shaft, enabling the small cog to drop off. And, five minutes later, I was able to insert a new bolt, tighten it and get the machine running perfectly. Funnily enough, when I went back sheepishly to the hardware store in order to return the new cam belt and ask for a refund, I was received once again as a genuine "tradie" (as Aussies say). Not only had I taken apart the motor of my concrete mixer, but I had been able to detect an unexpected problem and repair it effortlessly. The fellow at the counter found it perfectly normal to refund the cam belt.

Finally, I used two bags of cement to lay enough concrete for the threshold, and the final result is perfectly acceptable.

The concrete slab might appear to be exceptionally thick. In fact, it needed to be a little higher than the level of the future elevated wooden planking that I intend to install (once I've finished the construction of the wood oven) throughout the entire cellar, which measures 6 meters long (from north to south) and 4 meters wide (from east to west).

The threshold slab is not solid concrete from top to bottom, since the level of the ground is located about halfway down the slab. As for the future staircase, it will reach the outside ground level at about the top of the wooden barrier, which holds a rock fill on the other side.

Yesterday, a carpenter from Pont-en-Royans dropped in to take measurements for a door at this place. Later on, I intend to build a concrete staircase from the threshold up to the level of the outside ground. It will be composed of exactly 9 steps, each of a so-called rise (height ) of 17 cm and a so-called run (depth) of 25 cm. See, I'm already starting to talk, once again, like a genuine tradesman. I must be careful not to get a swollen head, otherwise my tradesman's hard hat will no longer fit on my skull.