Archive for August, 2009

Bamboo spring is bamboo autumn, ok?

I’ll explain.

Here’s a picture of the grove as it was a couple of weeks ago. This year it’s looked slightly yellow, due perhaps to the enormous amount of rain we received during autumn and early winter. The soil may have stayed a bit puggy for too long: moso loves hills for the drainage. But maybe I’m imagining the yellowing.


Soon, however it will be spring, which means bamboo autumn. Then you’ll see real yellow. “Bamboo autumn” is an expression I coined to describe the fading and shedding of leaves just prior to the insane upthrust of new culms in spring. The grove concentrates all its energy underground for that event, everything above ground looks half-dead. What I discovered recently is that everyone else who grows moso or lives around it also refers to spring as “bamboo autumn”. Oh well, if you can’t be original, be fashionable.

After too much rain, there’s been almost no rain for two months. I really don’t want to think about that. So…

On the subject of autumn:

The Australian poet A. D. Hope wrote some verses about an Aussie experiencing a true northern hemisphere “fall” for the first time. Autumn weather down here is as close as you can get to perfect, but most of us don’t experience the dazzling mass colour changes of entire deciduous forests. The one time I glimpsed it briefly – driving through the Bois de Boulogne – I responded much like Hope, who wrote in his Ode on the Death of Pius XII:

I was at Amherst when this great pope died;
The northern year was wearing towards the cold;
The ancient trees were in their autumn pride
Of russet, flame and gold.

Amherst in Massachusetts in the Fall:
I ranged the college campus to admire
Maple and beech, poplar and ash in all
Their panoply of fire.

Something that since a child I longed to see,
This miracle of the other hemisphere:
Whole forests in their annual ecstasy
Waked by the dying year.



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Here I’ve simply added cooked, frozen moso-shoot slices to a pot of  pork belly stewed long with black sugar, soy, garlic, sesame oil, star-aniseed. It’s like the old classic khow yok, but without the dried mustard green.


Of course, I’ll carefully skim all liquid grease and cut away all the solid fat from the meat. NOT.



Anyone into camellias? Here’s the view from my kitchen window:


If I washed the window I think I’d lose that veiled glow around the flowers.  Yep. I’m too much the romantic and esthete to wash windows.

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When you grow a lot of something, you notice there’s substance to the old notion of companion planting. Moso bamboo loves the company of lantana and black wattle, and will rush to the root area of white sapotes; it seems to shun stands of tea-tree, and it hates short grass. Its most perfect partnership is with the bunya pine, ancient relative of the South American monkey-puzzle and the recently discovered heirloom, the Wollemi pine.


Neither discourages the other’s growth, so one can have both bamboo shoots and bunya nuts on the table. For those who’ve never eaten bunya nuts, their shell is tough but not rigid, slightly resembling that of a brazil nut; it has mealy flesh, very much like a chestnut.

Its (usually) triennial fruitings were major feasting times for the aborigines, and an aboriginal acquaintance once told me to soak the nuts in sea-water before roasting. It makes sense, as the shell is very slightly porous and the nut somewhat dry. But how would a Dhungutti man inherit detailed knowledge about something that grew much further north and away from the sea? All the bunyas around here are planted, as far as I know. Hmm. I think we still know little about the trade and travel of pre-European Australia.

The only slight problem is that when the moso culms are new, tender and very high, a freak wind can snap them if they crash against the branches of a bunya. Yet the branches aren’t as rigid as those of most trees, and barb-wire bunyas are impossible for animals to climb, (except for goannas, a fact to which I’m a witness). Overall, these two giant species make great buddies.


I mentioned, but didn’t name,  a much admired movie a couple of posts back. This is it:


Paul Muni was an actor who, like Spencer Tracy, was never the subject of mimicry. He was largely without personal mannerisms, even though there’s an inevitable stagey quality about some of his work. Muni started out in Yiddish theatre at age twelve and didn’t act in English till he was in his thirties! He wasn’t above the eye-popping and brow-lifting of early movie actors. Yet I’m never sure if his slight awkwardness wasn’t deliberate: his Scarface and Chain Gang characters start out as uncertain post-adolescents, which makes their hardening/maturing so much more effective. Meticulous actor’s actor, or a bit of a ham? Maybe both.

Chain Gang is just a great flick. A Warner Bros victimhood special, it tugs every string and tugs relentlessly. Yet there is an artful discretion toning the sensational aspects. The flogging scene is more telling for being mostly off-camera, and what gets emphasised is the psychological side: after an exhausting day, as the prisoners are readying for sleep, there is a policy visit by the guards and a policy flogging administered. Sleep is to be the victim…“Macbeth doth murder sleep”.

When you see a good pre-talkie movie you can be struck by the open-air scenes, and how much freer and fresher things could look without the need for sound equipment etc. Though a talkie, Chain Gang achieves all that in its plein air and action sequences. There is also a touch of deliberate and very effective large-scale composition. Makes you think that the director, Mervyn Leroy, had been checking out Eisenstein.

Paul Muni

The final scene is famous for its simplicity and intensity. Apparently it owes much of its visual effect to an accidental lighting failure. “I steal.” A simple piece of dialogue was never so artfully placed.


Here’s the amazing fact that was known to people of the day but may be unknown to modern audiences. The movie was based on a book by Robert Elliott Burns, about his own experiences. Both book and movie were produced while Burns was still on the loose. The events, though dramatised and probably slanted, were substantially real and current!

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Wallabies, bower birds, bandicoots etc don’t need delicatessens. They have the hobby farms of tree-changers to meet their most exotic gastronomic requirements. Which is why so many tree-changers can be found combing the shelves of Woolworths and the local co-op supermarket.

When you shove those New Zealand peas into your freezer and close the door, you feel like shouting: “Try getting to that lot, wallabies!” The bower birds that have learned to consume all but the most thick-skinned citrus would no doubt find a way into my fridge if they could be bothered.  (I hear they now have their own Human Studies faculty on the Lismore campus. Hope all that liberal education makes ’em a bit more compassionate towards us.)

If the localist movement gets its way, I might be obliged to use my bamboo to build a garden-fortress. You see, there may be no more veggies freighted from North Queensland or Tassie, no more freeze-dried this or snap-frozen that. No more of those juicy Californian dates.

And these localists aren’t market-stall hippies. They’re posh and they’re heavies.

Gordon Ramsay wants Gordon Brown to fine those who market out-of-season foods. According to some localists, remote sourcing of all produce must be stopped by law. Freezing, canning and other preservation methods are now suspect. If not bans, then taxation must stop the rot – or non-rot. A former French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, has written a book with the title: I Will Never Eat Cherries in Winter Again. A man who can make sacrifices like that is dangerous.

No need to exaggerate, of course. Lovers of Chateau Petrus, foie gras entier, Perigord truffles, Roquefort cheese, Sevruga caviar and the like needn’t worry. There are plenary indulgences and automatic carbon credits for all posh items that have been mentioned favourably in the weekend supplements of either The Guardian, the NYT, or the Melbourne Age.

No, these anti-globo campaigns are directed at the buying habits of common mangia-fagioli: the supermarket-shoppers. Gordon Ramsay will no doubt still be able to celebrate the passing of strict localist/seasonalist legislation with imported Blanc de Blancs and jet-freighted Malossol Beluga. (So might a Borgia pope relax with his mistress after a hard day’s piety.)

Well, I must confess to owning an ultra-globalised foodstuff, and I fear it’s not posh enough for any dispensations. (Maybe its quaintness will gain it a partial indulgence.) The wider scandal involves an entire race – those Tibetans! – and it’s been going on for centuries. Here is a nineteen year old jincha, or tea-mushroom.


An unbroken younger jincha looks like this:


This is not mushroom, it’s pure tea, from the original broad-leaf species of Yunnan, South West China. Known as puerh, it was wok-fried, sun-dried, then steamed and compressed into a traditional mushroom shape. Originally, this processing was to ready the tea for transport along the Old Tea Horse Road, one of the world’s ancient trade routes. The starting point was the town of Puerh, though the ancestors of my tea-mushroom may have been loaded at Dali, near to what is still the production area of that kind of puerh.


The main, but not only, customers were the Tibetans, who still relish this substance as a source of life-preserving vegetable-broth as well as a stimulant and social beverage. Of course, their way has been to add yak-butter, salt, sugar, hemp-seed etc to make it more sustaining. Without this very foreign and remotely sourced product, life would be unthinkable for plateau-bound Tibetans.

Something else came of all this carrying of compressed-tea over thousands of kilometres in different climates. Puerh tea was found to improve with age and storage, and even the warmth and movement of the horses. Consequently, other people in Asia, and now the world, have acquired a taste for it. (Caution: many who love tea nonetheless hate puerh.)

Needless to say, it has become the object of speculation, fakery, fibs, health-claims, hard-sell advertising…you name it. It comes in many shapes, ages, sizes and since the economic reforms in China, there are innumerable brands and labels to choose from.


My nineteen year old jincha, a cheap but good-to-age roughie made by the Xiaguan factory, was never in Tibet. It spent a lot of time in Taiwan, where there is great demand for puerh, before ending up in Newcastle, Australia. Before all that, I’m guessing from its flavour that it spent some time in humid conditions in Hong Kong. After nineteen years, it’s back in bamboo and camellia country. Not Yunnan, however, or Puerh township, where puerh tea isn’t widely liked. I did warn you it was a Global Thing!

How does it taste? A combo of smoke, earth, wood, syrup, mould, fruit, mushroom…


I totally love it. I  love it globally.

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To the right and rear of this picture, the first shoots will emerge, (with luck and rain, in a few weeks). They always appear in this sector first, forming a few spindly culms.


Pioneer shoots that appear outside the grove aren’t necessarily runts, but these one always are. On the whole, moso doesn’t like short grass, sparse undergrowth or bare ground, especially where exposed to sun. So the first growth is in this spot, but the big pioneers will appear on the other side, where it’s steep and shaded; or they’ll grow up from the base of a bunya pine, as you can see in the right foreground. I’ve heard of people planting out moso  in open, cleared paddocks: I don’t get it.

While waiting…

I’ve chatted about a tea and a book so far. What about movies?

In the last post I mentioned my preference for for a solid plot-‘n-character flick. I’ve never been an admirer of movies like The Matrix where the effects are the main stars; I like such flicks even less when there’s an overlay of intellectualism, such as  Kubrick’s 2001, with its mock profundities.

When young and mature I was impressed for a while by art-house. If Max von Sydow stared long and hard at Bibi Andersson I thought something was going on. I learned to nominate The Silence as my favourite Bergman, and to explain that such-and-such a movie was about alienation. You couldn’t go wrong with alienation. Europeans were always getting themselves alienated.

Then I got old and immature.

Charles Dickens said: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” And he never missed a chance to tug hard and shamelessly on those authorial strings. Last year, a movie came out which was Dickensian in the real sense. Slumdog Millionaire dared to follow Dickens’ formula without flinching. The result was a huge and improbable success. Mirth, horror, pity, triumph get piled on one another to form a giant Work’s Burger of an entertainment. In case the viewer is in any doubt as to the movie’s populist intentions, it ends with a Bollywood dance number. A great movie? Maybe not: the excesses and improbablities were a bit fatiguing. What I loved was the show’s unhesitating willingness to involve and entertain, and its universality. Let’s hope it turns out to be a landmark.

Mind you, the two “great” directors mentioned above could make movies, even though they squandered most of their energies on a dull affair called Art. When Bergman laid on the costumes and fantasy, and pre-genius Kubrick stuck to ingenious cinematography, there were sparks. I could still sit through The Seventh Seal, though without the adolescent reverence…and I’d jump at the chance to catch Kubrick’s The Killing again.

Seventh Seal


When they could achieve these effects with a chess-board or a card table, you wonder why such directors could be bothered with Harriet Andersson’s psychiatric problems, or the Cruise family bums.

And check out that group of crooks in The Killing. That’s Elisha Cook looking concerned next to Sterling Hayden. No cutesie-pies at this table. This is NOT going to be Ocean’s Fourteen.

But it’s not Bergman and Kubrick, or even Slumdog, I wanted to discuss.

The movie that’s excited me after recent viewing –  which I won’t name yet – achieves what Slumdog achieves: the universality, the arousal of varied and powerful emotions attached to the fate of a single character. What lifts this particular movie so high is direction that’s pacey, disciplined and even tasteful; above all, it has a leading man who, to this day, is still regarded by some as the best of all screen actors.

I should add that the movie is very old. Some of its impact is due to the fact that it pre-dates the 1934 Hays code of censorship. The unsexy star was uneducated and untrained, though vastly experienced from a stage childhood.

Most who see this movie are amazed by how fresh it seems, after they’ve adapted to its superficial creakiness. Far more amazing are the events that led to its making…

Off to bed. I’ll name and post on this flick later.

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Do these bamboo poles of mine look familiar? Is there something about the spacing, the colour, the size…and those wispy leaves?


That’s right! Moso is the species that makes up the enormous “bamboo sea” in Anji, China; and moso was the vegetable star of the epic martial arts movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


I’m not a great fan of the flick. Like The Matrix (which had the same choreographer as Crouching Tiger), it’s a movie for lovers of effects and overall style. I’d rather get caught up in a lineal plot, kicked along by some juicy characters…but that’s just me.

Mind you, a moso grove would be a great setting for a shoot-out or sword-fight. Or a Hitchcock movie, with Bernard Herrmann sound track, where Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren has recurrent nightmares about some twilit moso grove…Wait! Let’s make that Kim Novak…


Yeah, I know. Those guys are all old or dead. People say I’m a typical St. George supporter, living in the past. Hmph. If anyone had dared say that to me back in 1968, why, I’d…

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When things flower madly around here it doesn’t mean it’s spring. It just means: pollinate me.  These beauties won’t have much trouble finding pollinators.

smaller grev

Moso bamboo knows it’s not time too send up shoots yet. In fact, after an ideal cool season, there’s now the chance of a dry spring and summer. That can mean later and fewer shoots. To take one’s mind off the frustrations of El Nino…what about some book talk?

Stefan Zweig was a depressive, Jewish, middle-European intellectual who wrote psychological studies of…Whoa! I’m losing you, aren’t I?


But stay with me. Zweig was an entertainer. His studies of European historical figures don’t pretend to be either history or biography. Rather, he selects a character who can’t fail to interest and lets you see the times through that character. The result can read a little like a novel and Zweig is not above the odd Hollywood flourish to keep a bit of juice in the mix. Yet for all his narrative vibrancy, he was a scholar and respected interpreter of history. The style is clear, like Orwell’s, and, like Orwell, his emphasis on character and human nature gives his work appeal to readers of all political colours.

I’d heard that his study of Fouche was a great read, but didn’t get round to it till now. Yes, it’s a great read. And what a subject! (He’s Foo-shay, by the way. There’s supposed to be an acute accent over the “e” in Fouche, but I have trouble with  tech stuff.)


I’ll avoid spoilers – but was there ever such a brilliant, twisty, amoral survivor as this guy? Starting his career as a prig, a demagogue and mass-murderer in the French Revolution, he took more shapes and turns than seems possible for one man. Still loathed by nearly all to this day, Fouche was nonetheless recognised by Balzac as a genius, and Zweig, while harbouring no illusions on the character of his subject, exhibits that genius. One is even tempted to think that France and Europe were better off for his unlikely, unwanted influence over such titanic figures as Robespierre and Napoleon. Probably more lived than died because of the unloveable Joseph Fouche.

As you read the book, you find yourself shrieking: “How is Fouche going to make the next switch? Surely, he’s washed up this time!” It’s not unlike watching Indiana Jones.

A possible lesson. A guy who can walk into a room and have everyone like the way he looks and talks can make great career strides quickly. But a man who struggles from birth against a general and spontaneous dislike of his person might well develop psychic muscles others know nothing about.

Another lesson. If a screaming demagogue comes round to your house one morning, seizes your property, publicly condemns everything you stand for, then publicly shoots you into little pieces with a big cannon…Don’t worry! He probably doesn’t mean it. He’ll probably feel completely different about things by afternoon. Such was Joseph Fouche, Duke of Otranto.

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