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Carping the Diem Again

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Before the drought, I was beginning to think of planting vegetables again, and maybe digging a pond for trout.  Our friend Martin wrote from Prague that trout require running water and we would do better with carp.  He has a cottage in southern Bohemia, where there are 7,600 fishponds.  Many of them date back to the sixteenth century and probably helped Czech farmers survive endless invasions. What starving soldier would think of stealing fish—least of all carp—from a muddy pond?

Carp are bony, and their flesh is not as delicate and tasty as other bottom feeders, such as crab.  In this country most fishermen regard them as junk fish, even dangerously invasive.  However, Asian carp are the fish most consumed worldwide.  In Eastern Europe, for example, carp have always been considered quite palatable. This I read in a book by a Hungarian specialist in aquaculture, which surprised me a little because Hungarian food is so good. Now, with the forint devalued by half, fewer Hungarians are eating well, and pensioners often eat next to nothing.

Once I had carp for Christmas dinner in an Austrian hospital, where I was confined with a minor ski injury. The carp was swathed in a viscous white sauce, presumably to help the small bones slip more easily past the windpipe.   In the course of time I learned that carp (generally fried) is the favored yuletide dish among Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, and even most Hungarians, many of whom share traumatic memories of a holiday carp, live but doomed, in the family bathtub.

Could we be looking at a historic role for carp in slowing the fragmentation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?  What about a conference on the subject in, say, Salzburg? Has any music ever been composed relating to carp?  A carp quartet?  No, but research has shown that certain individual carp can discriminate polyphonic music and melodic patterns, and can even classify music by artistic genre.  This finding supports my view that researchers can prove pretty much anything they choose.

My namesake, by the way, was the Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph, who had many trying years, ruling over so many fractious would-be nations.  The emperor was named in part for his great-grandfather, Joseph II, a famous reformer—which Franz Joseph was distinctly not, although he did speak all the main languages of his empire.  My Moravian grandfather, Franz Josef Pozar on his U.S. entry document, was the youngest son of a kulak family.  After their parents died, his eldest brother kept him at hard labor on projects such as hollowing lengths of tree trunks to channel water to the fields—and quite likely to a carp pond as well.  In any event, he escaped to the imperial army, and later to California.  He had only daughters, and my mother was named Frances for him.  Then I in turn was named for her when she almost died at my birth.

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Emperor Franz Josef, not my grandfather

When I was last in Eastern Europe, I spent time with beloved old friends in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy, who variously described their present regimes as criminal and entrenched, and the future of Europe as gloomy. (This was shortly before the Arab Spring dwarfed any European complaints.) Italian friends admitted that the Hungarians were in worse shape politically, but the Czechs wanted it to be clear that their own government was hopelessly corrupt.  Before, during, and after sharing our political and economic complaints, we ate and drank most heartily and discussed our absent friends, wayward children, and the strange weather.

When I arrived in Florence, it was the end of the hottest September in recorded history.  I stayed with an old friend in a converted convent with a garden and terrace.  She is well prepared for survival under most conditions, assuming that she could ever bring herself to replace all of her geraniums, marigolds, oleander, petunias, et cetera, with useful vegetables.  I did not even mention a carp pond because she will not eat fish except at the seashore.  Even a rising sea full of melting icebergs would not make it as far inland as Florence. And when did anyone ever see carp on a Tuscan menu?

Between Florence and Budapest I traveled on a sleeper train.  In the morning the technicolor shores of Lake Balaton and its summer cottages and parks rolled past my window for a long time.  Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and full of fish, including thirty-pound carp.  The cheery rows of painted cottages and huts lining the lake could have been lifted from Jean de Brunhoff’s elephant utopia.  Nonetheless, my Budapest friends, already fully occupied with good works, were making time to march in protest against the hijacking of their democratic republic.

In China fishponds have been identified as early as 451 B.C.  Presumably archaeologists sifted significant piles of little bones like those concealed in that Austrian béchamel.  The Chinese developed the main varieties of Asian carp, as well as the bright-colored koi.  In California, where I live, Chinese cleared the rocks and built the roads to Gold Mountain.  And later, their great-grandchildren were the best students and colonized the University of California—even before China came to own a large part of the American economy.  All of my doctors and also my dentist are Asian.  I like to pretend that this was my initiative.

In California the Japanese too were thriving, until they were sent to camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  My husband’s uncle, a Jew, drove a car that had been confiscated from a local Japanese family.  He said that he was “saving” it for their return.  This was credible only because his closest lifelong friends were Japanese and Filipino.  As to carp, the Japanese have developed mainly the ornamental koi, which are thought to bring luck, but this may have changed since the Fukushima disaster; what matters most now is whether or not a fish is radioactive.

We raised our children in California, but neither of them has married an Asian.  The anthropologist once remarked, no doubt sincerely, that he felt a little guilty for not having mated exogenously.  Our daughter’s two older children have dual citizenship, thanks to their father, a Canadian Jew, who said that it might be helpful sometime, given the way things are going in this country and the rest of the world.

A spawning female carp may produce a million or more eggs.  A posse of males, swimming  alongside her, fertilizes the eggs as they drift off.  In case of high population density, adult carp will eat the eggs, perhaps to enhance survival of the fewer remaining, or because the adults are hungry.

Hungarian visitors once brought us a small aloe plant that they had dug from the sand in Death Valley.  It is now huge and looks rather peculiar in a big pot under the redwoods, which also look rather strange, agreed, next to the stand of bamboo planted during Prohibition to hide the wet bar on our terrace. The bar is long gone, though there is still plenty of drinking there.  We put the aloe on the terrace whenever our Hungarian friends are in town and may stop by.

Some of our Jewish friends in Eastern Europe are buying property in the west just in case—but not as far west as California. Odd how one’s feeling of safety can depend on being able to go somewhere else, far from home. These friends liked California years ago, they said, because there was no high culture, only beaches and redwoods, vineyards and crab. ( No carp.)

In those years, as we were making room to plant something—artichokes?—in the back garden, the hole began slowly to fill with water.  At first we were afraid that we had broken into a water main, but then it seemed more likely a sort of hernia from the creek that moves underground diagonally across our block, at least on a map.  Although ours is the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, the occasional family of racoons or skunks appears in our driveway, doubtless because of the creek. We filled the hole, but I’m imagining that water will bubble right up again when we excavate the pond.  And the racoons, if not the skunks, will surely be a threat to our carp population.

Half a block from us, at the corner of the park, there used to be a water pump and drinking fountain marking the underground passage of the creek.  Of course the pump was vandalized and eventually replaced with some straggling succulents.  In fact the park had originally displaced several blocks of old houses that had been demolished or moved to make space for it.  At the same time, only two blocks away, at the more famous People’s Park, Berkeley students and street people were protesting against the Vietnam war by ripping up the blacktop and planting flowers. Decades before Ferguson, Reagan sent in the National Guard. Meanwhile, the sedate citizens’ committee at “our” park wanted to make a more positive statement, but couldn’t agree on a plan. So they simply rolled out a few acres of turf, later planted some trees, and much later built a playground.  It was called Willard Park, after Frances Willard, the temperance and suffrage leader, a more interesting woman than you might think.

A homeless woman has settled with her black plastic bags in the corner of the park nearest us. She has long curtain of brown hair, graying, and a sad, sweet face. She seems to sit all day on a low stone wall in the shadow of clustered redwoods.  Maybe she sleeps there in the bushes.  Once, in the rain, I approached her and asked if she could use some help, or if she preferred to be left alone.  She looked frightened, and nodded at the left-alone part, so I stumbled away. If I’d been thinking, I would at least have left my umbrella for her.  Thanks to the Chinese (again), umbrellas are easy-come, easy-go. Not that we need them in 2014.

Unless the drought has drained it, the underground creek could prove to be a problem when we excavate the pond. We wouldn’t want the whole back garden to turn into a giant sinkhole.  Martin promised to send a book on pond construction.  I didn’t ask him from what century, but wouldn’t you think the principles would be the same?—and after all, the Bohemian pond system has lasted five hundred years.  Now that I think of it, Martin’s cottage, near an old Schwarzenberg castle, sits right above a small pond.  They could stock it!  But right now he and his wife are finally feeling prosperous and cosmopolitan, and seldom eat unhealthy Czech food such as fried carp. They have a new Japanese son-in-law who is a good cook.

According to the Hungarian fish professor, our pond will only need to be about 1.5 meters deep.   Probably it would be good to mound and pack the soil around the edge as we dig the hole.  Actually, we should consult with our son-in-law, a hydraulic engineer, and have the work done by professionals—soon, while we have the money, but before we really need it.

And who knows how much time we have?  The Bay Area is notoriously prey to all kinds of natural disasters—not just drought but earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis, and wildfires, not to mention unnatural phenomena such as suicide bombers, intercontinental missiles, and bioterrorism.  One granddaughter, gifted and also providential, has taken it upon herself to assemble a survival kit.  I tell her that we can’t be ready for everything.  But in fact, we can take certain measures, including constructing that carp pond to ensure a continuing protein supply.

Doubtless there are city guidelines that we’ll need to follow.  Given that Berkeley is a “nuclear-free zone” and areas around Berkeley schools are “drug-free zones,” a whole code of restrictions must govern any body of water in a residential zone.

I have been looking into vegetables that thrive near water.   Rice fields are probably better on a larger scale.  Also, it would be better to have vegetables that can be eaten raw, since we won’t be able to count on power. Watercress?  Might be eaten by fish. The grass carp is said to eat greenery like a lawn mower.

Occasionally I wonder how soon we will be pushing wheelbarrows full of money to pay the butcher, the baker, or the dentist, as they did in Weimar Germany.  Not too hard to imagine cash soon being worth, pound for pound, as little as books.   Sometimes there are aquariums in medical offices, maybe because the motions of the fish are interesting, or at least soothing, to watch.  I’m guessing that the water in our particular pond may be too muddy to see the fish.

In a Department of Natural Resources sting in Midland, Michigan, a man selling two live grass carp to undercover agents was arrested and charged with ten counts of possession and two counts of sale of illegal species.  The man, who was driving a pond-cleaning company truck, was out of state—from Arkansas.  He could be fined $20,000 on each count and serve up to two years in jail.  A local editorial warns that the time to stop the Asian carp invasion is now.  The idea is:  if we can’t keep Asian products from our markets and homes, we can at least keep their silver and bighead carp out of our waterways.  Already the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified carp DNA more than once in Wisconsin waters.  Not a great leap to imagine a Fox News trailer showing a Berkeley couple raising invasive Asian carp in their backyard.

 


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