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Tree Canopies

From a distance we can often identify a tree species by the shape or form of its canopy. From beneath a tree looking up this is no longer apparent, but we can see the structure of its branches extending outward and upward from the main trunk. The top-most branches are fine and wispy and the leaves they support are exposed to the most intense sunlight. And for trees such as these black maples this may be critical for growth and development.

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Greater Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes are the oldest living bird species with a lineage in the fossil record dating back some ten million years. Greater Sandhill Cranes are 4 to 5 feet in height and weigh from 10-14 pounds. Watch for them on the edges of wetlands and in open fields. They are omnivores like humans and feed on both green plants and seeds, vertebrates such as mice or frogs, and invertebrates such as insects, grubs and worms.

These are year old adult birds which will breed next year.

My thanks to Mike Meetz for the location of these birds and to Steve Dinsmore for input into the text.

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Frost Asters

Asters are fall flowers that come in all sizes and grow in a wide variety of moisture conditions in woodland and prairie habitats and other sorts of wild places. All are favorites for butterflies and a host of other insects such as this bumblebee on frost asters. My observations indicate that insects prefer wild asters over garden varieties.

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Recipes & Greetings for the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋快乐

The burly customs officer was talking to a Chinese couple when I approached the final barrier at Newark Airport last September. My long white US customs declaration form.was flapping and I was eager to hand it over and get the PATH train home. What was he quizzing them about? It was obvious from their faces that they did not speak English.

As I slid over another officer, I heard him ask politely, “And do you have mooncakes?” I was happy to hear his reassuring tone because I had mooncakes in my suitcase, too. Everyone getting off a plane from China this time of year is carrying mooncakes, the ritual pastry of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

I have a special affection for the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiújié 中秋节), also known as the Moon Festival. It takes place a little early in 2016, with the full moon tonight (for those of us in the western hemisphere). Step outside for a few minutes and bask in the light of what American farmers called the Full Corn Moon.

What I don’t love is the commercial frenzy over mooncakes, attractive round pastries that feel like lumps of lead in the hand, and are filled with bland, dense, sweetened lotus seed paste and a discolored, salty, cooked egg yolk. The pastry itself is like shiny cardboard.

They are sold everywhere in China at this season, with pop-up stores for luxury mooncakes in the hotels, and stacks of fancy boxes everywhere you turn. They are ubiquitous but utterly commodified: no one, as far as I could tell, bothered to eat them. They just put them on the table or regifted them—the lavish boxes were the point of the whole thing.

But reading mooncake recipes today was a revelation: they are apparently, when homemade, a delicious treat. This was hard to believe until I thought about British pork pies, which are quite similar in appearance: round, straight-sided pies with a dense filling. If the only pork pie you’d ever tasted was a cheap supermarket version, you’d consider them inedible. But a properly made pork pie is an amazing thing, with unique type of pastry (a hot-water raised crust) and savory, firm filling.

The same seems to be true of mooncakes. Our friend and colleague Carolyn Phillips writes, “I had tried one fantastic moon cake during my first year in Taiwan. The mom in my host family handed me a freshly baked coconut moon cake my very first Moon Festival, and it is one that I’ve never been able to forget. That was, of course, also my very first moon cake, and nothing ever measured up to it in the succeeding decades.” Carolyn spent weeks figuring out how to make a mooncake successfully at home, and you can read her recipes at her blog (the lovely drawing above is her work). Better yet, get a copy of her magnificent new book, All Under Heaven, fresh off the press from Ten Speed and McSweeney’s. It’s a stunner, and more comprehensive than any other Chinese cookbook on my shelf.

For more about the history of mooncakes, please click here to visit our blog and read the Qing dynasty recipe recorded by the poet Yuan Mei, whose classic treatise on food we’ll be publishing in a few months.

I hope we can all enjoy the beautiful full moon this year and perhaps take the occasion to be thankful for the recent signing of the Paris climate accord by the United States, China, and Brazil. The sun and moon shed light on all of us, on this planet we share.

Here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋快乐 ! / continued at A Mooncake Recipe from the Qing Dynasty

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A Mooncake Recipe from the Qing Dynasty

…continued from Recipes & Greetings for the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋快乐

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese CuisinesAnother food book we’ll be publishing soon is the first English edition of a famous culinary manual, the Suiyuan Shidan. Our title is Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, and I went to translator Sean Chen to see if the author, the famous Qing dynasty poet Yuan Mei, had said anything about mooncakes. Here’s Yuan Mei’s recipe, translated by Sean:

Huabian Mooncake (花邊月餅, patterned-edge mooncake)
The household of the Imperial prince makes huabian mooncake that is on par with that of Shandong’s Liu Fangbo. I have invited his female cook several times to the garden by palanquin to make them. I saw “flying flour” [presumably a flour that has been ground so finely that it flies] mixed with balls of raw lard and kneaded a hundred times. The flesh of the jujube fruit were then pushed into the dough as filling, and they were formed and collected to the size of a bowl. Each of them was then grasped in a manner such that the four sides of the mooncake has scalloped edges of the water caltrop pattern. They are then baked on both top and bottom in two fire pots.

The jujubes should not be peeled so that their delicate flavors are retained. The lard should not be rendered so it will taste fresh. When this mooncake is placed in the mouth, it melts away. It is sweet without being greasy, and tender without being dry and hard to swallow. In the end, its quality depends on the kneading technique; the more the dough is kneaded, the better the mooncake turns out.

Jujubes are a fruit, not a type of candy, and are often called red or Chinese dates. They come from a hardy and drought-resistant bush in the buckthorn family (Ziziphus jujuba), and are normally dried and then boiled and sweetened before used as filling.

BookworldCarolyn Phillips is one of the advisors on the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Here’s a blog post with Carolyn’s recipe for moon cakes with fruit and nut filling in All Under Heaven. Curiously, while Yuan Mei is all for kneading the pastry, Carolyn urges that we handle the pastry very little, even while using the low-gluten blend that most closely resembles Asian wheat flour (2 parts all-purpose flour to 1 part pastry flour). It’ll be fun to experiment with the Qing dynasty recipes when the book comes out next spring. In the meantime, here’s a video of moon cakes being made by hand in Hong Kong.

For your convenience, here are links to our first three Chinese food podcasts with Carolyn Phillips:

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Books on the shelf, books as a lifeline

When I moved back to America in 1992, I brought two small children, a desk that had belonged to T. S. Eliot, and a whole lot of books. The kids came with me, by plane, but the books and the desk went by boat. The kids and I had dropped into rural life in upstate New York with a bump, and my life was upside-down. But six weeks later, things brightened. I got a packet of shipping documents in the mail, and my books were waiting for me at the New Jersey docks.

I rented a little UHaul truck. I was new to the east coast and had no idea where I was going, but I arranged extra hours with the babysitter and set off, trundling down two-lane country roads through wheat and corn fields and then along the foul-smelling Jersey Turnpike.

At the shipping office, I handed over the bills of lading, worrying that I would be asked to pay something extra in order to get my boxes. The clerk read through the forms, picked up his stamp, and read aloud the numbers for the modest cubic volume of my shipment and then its weight. He frowned, shook his head, and repeated the numbers. I got nervous and started adding up the money in my bank account and what I needed for rent and groceries.

“What’s in them boxes?” he demanded.

“Books,” I said.

“Books?” He stared at me. “Lady, whaddya want with that many books?”

Fast forward to 2016. I’m in a different house, over the border in Massachusetts, and in Manhattan much of the time. Last week I decided I was going to start organizing my books by getting all the ones piled on the floor onto shelves. The China books, the business books – those are from recent years. But as I worked, dusting shelves and making space, tossing a few books into a giveaway pile, I started seeing old friends, books that crossed the ocean with me, some several times. The little red hardbound Tess of the d’Urbervilles that I finished in tears on a bus somewhere in Cornwall during the summer of 1977. A set of books about Greek drama by H. R. Kitto, a famous British scholar who taught one year at UC Santa Barbara and who gave me an ‘A’ when I was sure I didn’t deserve it. Books by Marvin Mudrick, given to me when I dropped into his office to talk – books that Berkshire will soon be republishing and that have brought me back into contact, and fellowship, with other students who used to hang out in his office.

Books Are Not Life But Then What IsFor many of us, books are a source of life, and sometimes a lifeline. Our love of books fires what we do at Berkshire Publishing, and I’m thrilled by the way we’re expanding this year, with the Mudrick collection, the first English edition of a famous 18th-century culinary manual, and much more. We’ve had the pleasure, over the years, of publishing short pieces by many brilliant authors, so it’s a natural transition to begin publishing more for the general reader as well as students and scholars.

In addition to looking for great books to publish, I’ve become more attuned to great readers. I used to read more books than I do now. I sometimes think that it’s because there were better books coming out, but then I look at Kerry Brown, who is the most productive writer and serious reader I know today.

Kerry’s reading may rival that of literary critic Marvin Mudrick, whose erudition tormented his detractors. Here’s what Roger Sale wrote: “When Mudrick is not writing he must be reading; there simply are not enough hours in the day for anything else. Not long ago the man whose office is next to mine had his fifth novel reviewed by Mudrick in The Hudson Review. Mudrick had not liked the novel very much, but, not content with that, he had gone back and read Wagoner’s first four before describing his opinion of the fifth. Wagoner was understandably not very happy at Mudrick’s dislike of his novels, but more than that he was dumbfounded by Mudrick’s procedure. I could only tell him that this was just like Mudrick, and also that I too knew no one else who would read five novels by a man in order to be able to level against one in just the terms he wanted.”

Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese BiographyKerry Brown, as I hope you know already, is the editor-in-chief the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, as well ast the forthcoming second edition of theBerkshire Encyclopedia of China. He runs the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, travels and speaks all over the world, turns out his own new books regularly (the latest is CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping). Yet he manages to read, and read, and read.

Fortunately for us, he also find time to write short reviews of what he reads, and has generously agreed to let us consolidate and publish those reviews, the latest of which include reviews of of Second-Hand Time and Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love.

Inspired by Kerry (and Marvin Mudrick), Berkshire will now be publishing book reviews and reading lists, too – a natural evolution, given that our encyclopedias include massive bibliographies compiled by the leading experts in the field. We have occasionally distilled that data into lists such as the twenty-one most-cited books on sustainability and we recently ventured to list the best books about China. Your suggestions are most welcome!

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REVIEW Second-Hand Time

Like most of the rest of the human race that took notice, the announcement last year that the Belorussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature left me totally clueless as to who she was and what she had written. Since then, I’ve managed to read through her account published in the 1990s of participants and their families who took part in the Soviet Union war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and now the rather more epic Second-Hand Time, just published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

At almost 700 pages, this is a long book to wade through. But it reads quite easily, despite the uncompromising content of some of the interviews. One in particular stayed with me—the account by the mother of a woman who died in Chechnya after volunteering to be a police woman. Like other petitioners in China, this individual had made it her life mission to find out what had happened to her daughter, despite being brutally beaten back by almost every official she had quizzed. One gets the feeling that somewhere in the world, this mother is still pursuing her quest—and still getting frustrated. A very sad story, but all too common.

There is a saying from Hungary, which goes “What is the one thing worse than Communism?” with the answer “What comes after it.” In some senses, Alexievich’s verbatim accounts from people over the last two decades reflecting on the fall of the Soviet Union testify to this. There is the odd expression of (very transient) admiration for Yeltsin, largely scathing accounts of Gorbachev as some traitorous gadfly who was one thing abroad and another at home, but on the whole pretty universal negativity about what happened post 1991. One section of the book talks about the suicide of one of the great generals from the Soviet era who simply couldn’t bear to see what was happening to the country he fought for from the age of seventeen. These sort of stories are not ones we often hear in the West, with its addiction to the story of how democracy triumphed over tyranny in Russia. The most sobering aspect of some of the voices and their stories is how positive the evaluations of Stalin are—even from people who had direct experience of the Great Terror in the 1930s.

Reading a book like this really helps to at least understand why in China there is so much skepticism about the introduction of a more pluralistic, post-Communist order. I imagine that were a Chinese politburo leader to look through this book, they would feel it completely reinforced their convictions that following the path of the Soviet Union would be hurtling towards perdition. And on the evidence of Alexievich’s writing, it would be hard to disagree with them.

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REVIEW Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love

Anyone who has managed to avoid being decapitated by one of those selfie sticks while wading through crowds of tourists around some of the main sites in London (or any other metropolitan centre for that matter) has no doubt reflected on one of the more obvious side effects of the new culture of social media – narcissism. If they have, then I could not recommend more highly Simon Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love (Princeton 2014) – this link is to the publisher’s website.

Blackburn is formerly Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. From my memories of the remorselessly dry, analytic approach that most of the philosophers took when studying there three decades ago, it is a wonder that, while coming from this stable, he has been able to write such lucid, engaging and, frankly, very human books. But they are also rigorous, profoundly learned, and, in the end, oddly healing.

This treatment starts with the myth of Narcissus but makes the sound, but perhaps under-appreciated point that self-love,as the ancient Greek story shows, has eternal dissatisfaction built into it. Narcissus reaches out to his own image which he has fallen in love with, only to have his hand shatter its calm reflection on the water surface. The same goes for the sorts of images that Blackburn then moves onto in commercial culture – he writes, in particular, about the L’Oreal campaign with its dreadful slogan `Because you’re worth it’, commenting that the original was apparently going to be the even worse `Because I am worth it’. That, he writes, typifies the sort of self-contained, cold, unreciprocating nature of a lot of images in advertising – things that demand to be looked at, but never, he says, to look back. The message is simple. We need them, they do not need us. That itself denies the fundamental need for responsiveness, dialogue and recognition in any human relationship. No wonder one of the most pertinent critiques of capitalism and consumerism is that their default is to create appetites and hungers, but never to appease them.

Because Blackburn is such an accomplished philosopher, he can write well about morality without becoming moralising. And the final few pages of his book are extraordinary, because, without being remotely patronising, they congratulate the reader for having reached this far into the work and being willing to engage, and think, about these profound problems of self-value, self worth and self-love in a cultural environment where they have become detached from self-knowledge, with its need for appraisal, recognition of contingency, limitations, failures. It is really helpful to have a public intellectual use their immense learning and wisdom to contribute to what is very definitely a vastly important public debate. And much of what Blackburn states is highly prescient, including an eerily powerful section halfway through the book about disdain for facts and expertise – something that has only intensified since 2013 when this book must have been written, and seems to have come to its Armageddon in the dismal EU referendum campaign in the UK, and the equally squalid and awful president election now underway in America.