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March hare

The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

hare

A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

Well, you haven’t quite missed out on the National Day of Unplugging. Here you are, once again, online. All day you have been checking your phone’s email and messages, working online, posting photos to Instagram, checking on who tagged you on Facebook and Twitter.

Need a break? The National Day of Unplugging this year is from sundown March 1 to sundown March 2, so you can still give it a try.

Sign the Unplug pledge and disconnect. Talk to people you meet. Eat a few uninterrupted meals. Read a printed book to yourself or aloud to a child or partner.

This project is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, which was a practice of our ancestors of carving out one day per week to unwind, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones. Our ancestors at one time did have to “unplug” but nowadays that is the hardest part of any Sabbath Manifesto.

There is snow on the ground in Paradelle and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.

robin

There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.


Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after her birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So it offers the elements of fire and a birth.

 

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

 

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.

Beginning in 1908, Sears started selling entire houses. They sold 75,000 DIY mail order homes between 1908 and 1939.

The approximately 25-ton kits were transported by railroad. They had 30,000 pre-cut parts, plumbing and electrical fixtures, and up to 750 pounds of nails.

see more of them

Camus

I noted on a blustery November 7th that it was the birthday of French writer Albert Camus.  I think a lot of people think of him as an existentialist based on his books, but he said that did not describe him. Actually, in an interview, he rejected any ideological associations.

I find Camus more optimistic than some people. I like a few quotes of his in that spirit.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

His novels include L’étranger (1942, The Stranger), La Peste (1947, The Plague), and La Chute (1956, The Fall). All of them have their grim moments.  When I read Camus, I was only in my teens and I think the sadness in his writing played into some Romantic notions I foolishly had then about being depressed.

In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus did deal with a big topic of existentialism – suicide. Camus wrote that “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

In Camus’ view, suicide was a natural solution to the absurdity of life. But in The Myth of Sisyphus, he also tries to identify the kinds of life that could be worth living.

This weekend while I am away from the early winter of Paradelle in summerish weather, I’m thinking a lot about how season and location affect our attitude and mood. Though I have been rereading some Camus this past week, I am not feeling the inherent meaninglessness that seemed to overcome him at times.

In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. On January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car crash.

“I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn’t,
than live as if there isn’t and to die to find out that there is.”

 

Flamel home

The home of the Flamels in Paris.

Nicholas Flamel was born outside Paris in 1300. Though he family was poor, he received a good education.

For a time, he worked as a scrivener copying texts, writing letters, and selling manuscripts, he also wrote some poetry.

He married late in life an intelligent and attractive widow named Perenelle. Like Nicholas, his wife supposedly had explored alchemy, the science of the age.

The most interesting part of Flamel’s life may not have been part of his life. We can find out about his marriage contract and his will by seeing them in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The legends are much more interesting.

That story says that Flamel came to own an odd book via a two florins purchase he made from someone who came to his bookstall in need of money. The manuscript volume was bound in worked copper and it was engraved with curious symbols and characters. It had only twenty-one leaves/pages that were not paper but made of young tree bark and written/inscribed with a sharp stylus.

It was illustrated on some pages with serpents. The serpents are swallowing swords, crucified on a cross, and trailing from a bubbling fountain in the middle of a treeless desert. It is said that this was the Book of Abraham the Jew, but it was not a religious text. It is supposed to contain a complete exposition on the art of transmuting base metals to gold – alchemy.

To use the book as an alchemist, you would also need to create the “philosopher’s stone” (AKA the Sorcerer’s Stone) Using the stone and book one could distill the Elixir of Life which can give eternal life.

The only historical evidence we can point to for this possible ownership is that the Flamels did become suddenly rich at one point. They had no children and used the money to help the poor, establishing low-income housing, free hospitals, and endowing Catholic churches to do good works.

tombstone

We believe the couple lived quiet scholarly lives studying and writing about alchemy. Perenelle and then Nicholas died while they were in their eighties and were buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents. Nicholas designed their tombstone which has the Sun above a key, a book, Christ, St. Peter, St. Paul. and curious engravings. The tombstone was located in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, but is now at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

Obtaining the book is the first part of the legend. The next part comes shortly after Nicholas’s death, when their tomb was opened by vandals. Were they searching for the philosopher’s stone, gold, or the book? Well, not only did they not find those things, but they did not find the bodies of the Flamels.

Amongst devotees of the Flamels’ work, it was said that Nicholas and Perenelle had distilled the Elixir of Life and had staged their own deaths. They then took the book and stone and went on to the rest of their eternal life.

What I had not heard before was a story recounted by Garrison Keillor on his Writers’ Almanac podcast recently. An 18th-century archaeologist working in Turkey met a “philosopher” who seemed able to speak almost every known language and also knew a very detailed history of the Flamels. He did not claim to be Nicholas, but told the archaeologist that Nicholas and Perenelle were in fact still alive.

This philosopher said that after they left France the couple went to India and there sought out adepts and mystics with abilities that exceeded the known science.

So, how did I meet Nicholas? Like millions of others, I met he and his wife as friends of Albus Dumbledore, wizard and headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

In the tales of Harry Potter, the Flamels live on. In the first book, Harry Potter and the The Sorcerer’s Stone (British title: The Philosopher’s Stone), Nicholas is 690 years old.

The couple lives in Devon, England. Their immortality continues through infusions of the Elixir of Life (in this version, one drink is not give eternal life – it is more of a Fountain of Youth). In the Potter version, their Philosopher’s Stone had to be destroyed to keep it from the dark wizard Voldemort. They made enough Elixir to set their affairs in order. Flamel and his wife were assumed to have died when the Elixir ran out. Harry thought this was terrible, but Dumbledore told him that their deaths would be like “going to bed after a very, very long day.”

But did they die? That is fiction. What about the real Flamels? Nicholas created a Philosopher’s Stone once. Might he have created another?

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