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In the southern city of Kandahar, after long years of bloody war, a royal proclamation forbade the taking of life from humans, and all other animals as well.
“. . . hunters and fishermen have given up hunting. And those who were intemperate have put a stop to their intemperance according to their ability and [become] obedient to their father and mother and elders, unlike the past. And in the future, they will live better and more happily, by acting in this manner at all times.”
Inscribed in Greek and Aramaic on a rock in Kandahar in 260 B.C.E., the imperial edict was broadcast as far as north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.
The singular peace may have lasted until the death of its author, the emperor Ashoka, in 232 B.C.E. The Kandahar Edicts–thirteen or fourteen in all–were still legible when found in the 20th century. A cast of the peace proclamation is in the Kabul museum in the unlikely event that you are planning a trip to Afghanistan.
In another familiar scene of recent imperial devastation, in southern Iraq, excavation has begun on the site of a 4,000 year-old city in the middle of a desert known as the “Fertile Crescent,” which sustained ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.
The Tigris and Euphrates were the first rivers used for large-scale irrigation, beginning about 7500 years ago. The first water war was also recorded here, when the king of Umma cut the banks of irrigation canals alongside the Euphrates dug by his neighbor, the king of Girsu.
In recent years,Turkey’s damming of the Euphrates threatens parts of Syria and drought-parched Iraq. International conferences have been convened to deal with the crisis, to increase release of dammed water to flow downstream.
California, where I live, is normally dry and now, besieged by climate change, with persistent drought and rampant wildfires. Farmers and agronomists are testing drought-resistant strains of olives, vines, almonds and pistachios from the Middle East. California’s own fertile delta has always been heavily dependent on declining snow runoff from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and on government subsidies.
Dams and water supply are a flammable issue everywhere, in California as well as the Middle East. In Syria, drought was recognized late as a major cause of their ongoing civil war. Bashar al Assad might have maintained a precarious and even ecumenical peace, but drought in 2006-9 brought crop failures and hordes of youth without work.
In October 2010 I was traveling through the Syrian desert, passing through Palmyra’s storied ruins, toward the eastern border with Iraq. At the town of Deir Ezzor the suspension bridge leading across the Euphrates to Iraq was lined with youths on display, evidently selling themselves. Farther down the Euphrates, we visited the ancient sites of Dura Europus and Mari. In the course of the war, they were looted, and the suspension bridge, built by another imperial power, in this case the French, was destroyed by Assad’s army.
Back to Afghanistan, where the latest atrocity in the U.S. withdrawal involved a poorly judged drone attack which killed ten members of the family of an Afghan aid worker. Seven were children. There were no U.S. casualties, and President Biden has assured us that U.S. troop withdrawal is being replaced by “over the horizon” warfare–of which that drone attack is only one sample.
Breaking news which may not outlive one or two news cycles: U.S. forces evacuating Afghanistan are not going home; they are shipping out to Iraq.Meanwhile, massive mosque bombings in Kunduz and Kandahar continue, even without western intervention, the sectarian violence of Sunni against Shiites. But also without western intervention, Afghanistan and Iran have finally reached an agreement on the water rights for the Helmand River.
Amid the long rotations of civilization and destruction in Kandahar, there was that one early ruler who called for an end to all killing. Ashoka was surely less benign than the Kandahar Edict suggests. Yet after a violent close to the latest imperial occupation of Afghanistan, the ancient king’s vision of peace seems restorative. And somehow the ancient rivers still curve through the dunes and the fields, and humans still struggle for the land and for a share of the life-giving waters.∞
Given a bootless succession of balmy, deep blue evenings in drought-stricken California, we invited some friends for an al fresco dinner—two Italians, one Romanian, a Scot, a Moroccan, and three of their boys. The transcontinental jumble only occurred to me later, when I was lying awake, regretting my clumsy vinous Italian, and the surplus of food I usually prepare, especially when there are vegetarians.
S. and I were in the kitchen sorting the berries she had brought. She said that her husband had just returned from a long stay in Fez, where he had to look after his sick mother and two eccentric sisters. This reminded me of Abu Hani, our wise, kind driver in the months before Syria’s war; his wife and two unmarried daughters had seemed shielded and restricted in the Muslim manner. Since he had fled Safed in 1948 to settle in the Palestinian quarter of Damascus, now devastated, probably his family are now Syrian refugees. There must be a term for repeat (recidivist?) refugees, like the Armenians, just marking their first century of diaspora.
Nina Khatchadourian’s video, called, cunningly, “Armenities,” is a telling exploration of her parents’ layered languages learned in serial homelands. “Armenities” will be at the 2015 Venice Biennale—in the island monastery of San Lazzaro, where lepers were the original refugees.
The bay fog had blown in while R was grilling sausages, and suddenly it was cold and damp, drought or not–the downside of our famous marine climate. Everyone helped shift all the food into the kitchen, filled their plates and reconfigured at the dining table. Someone sought common ground, so to speak, talking sports with the three boys.
That’s when I turned to our Moroccan friend. F. speaks softly with a heavy French-Moroccan accent, but I think that he told me that his father left school at age seven to help support the family, and eventually became a successful merchant who sent nine children to college—the middle one, our friend, to Harvard. Writers admired by F. include Borges, Calvino, and Marquez; he is now writing stories himself, based on centuries-old tales that he had found in the souk in Fez. He has a shy flash of a smile, winsomely conspiratorial.
Early in this century, R and I flew to North Africa, after a conference in Florence, where R talked about the Laocoon (and I nursed a fractured wrist). We went to Morocco, which was for us entirely otherwhere. There was a bright, almost hallucinogenic light across the sandy plain, not unlike the light we have now in drought-parched California. Along the highway was a sparse strewing of people on foot and pieces of litter, mostly plastic. William Kentridge makes dark kinetic profiles of people who might have been moving along such a highway in South Africa.
In Rabat, after dining on a fine pastilla, with music, we wandered off in the moonlight toward a mysterious truncated tower sharing a site with hundreds of stubby marble columns. We didn’t find out what it was until the next day.
Hassan Tower, minaret and mosque, columns left unfinished in 1199.
Sad to say, returning to our hotel, we lost our way and were maliciously re-directed in loops through the city. Next morning, on the train to Fez we shared a compartment with a Moroccan lawyer who expressed confidence that the new boy monarch would be guided by his enlightened sister, within the limits of sharia law, of course.
When F. had mentioned the old story collections he had found in the souk, I had to tell him about our son’s graduate student, a Turkish Kurd, who was cashiered at the airport in Yerevan for stowing old books from the market in his baggage. Our son had bought his first business suit and travelled to Armenia to spring his student.
After more wine, and the stealthy withdrawal of the kids into the living room with their pads and phones, new topics arose at the table. Nothing heavy: for example, where had the motley couples first met? One pair in Grenoble; another in London; another in L.A.; and (much earlier), R and I in Vienna.
Vienna in 1958 was still what you may remember as the shadowy postwar background of “The Third Man”. I lived with the family of an impoverished old baron in a palace on a corner near the Opera. Each morning, the baron’s young frau measured out very carefully the butter and jam for our breakfast kaiser rolls. My roommate, who befriended her, said that the frau’s true love had been killed in the war. One day the baron called me quite literally on the carpet, in the dark, high-ceilinged hall, to scold me for blocking the street entrance late at night while necking with R.
Italy was also grimly postwar when we first saw it. On the other hand, our caro amico M. says that he doesn’t want to live in today’s Italy, which is not the country that he knew growing up. I lived in Florence during some of those years, but Italy seems to me still much like itself, each region colorful and/or and corrupt in its own way, Florence possibly less than most. (Matteo Renzi, the youngest prime minister ever, was mayor of Florence and advocates reforms that alienate both the left and the right.) As for me, I am now immersed, so to speak, in Venice, where corruption is endemic and close to entertaining.
What M. loves is California. After a detour of a few years on the East Coast, he returned to California just in time for the drought. While the rest of us were saving shower water to dribble on our flowerbeds, M. planted exotic succulents in large pots–also a very good plan since he needs to spend a great deal of time elsewhere, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Reno, Nevada, for example.
M. had brought a big raspberry tart, which I put on the table, with S’s berries. Having just finished one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I wondered what S. thought of her. She didn’t know her work, which surprised me, although her own field is Middle Eastern culture. I thought that she had said earlier that she was from Rome, but when I brought out my copy of L’Amica Geniale, she pointed out, in the cover photograph of the bay of Naples, the very school she had attended as a girl.
Why isn’t S. considered a refugee, from Naples (or Rome)? Is M. a Tuscan exile? It’s all in the element of choice, I suppose, which usually comes with education and a dependable income.
The Armenian genocide was the first of the twentieth century. In 1915 Dr. Clarence Ussher, a medical missionary.working in the Van Province, bore witness to the massacres of the Ottoman Turks. Dr. Ussher was ancestor of a valued friend, the remarkable writer Nicholson Baker, a committed pacifist and author of the revisionist war history, Human Smoke.
An important center of Armenian culture is the Venetian island of San Lazzaro, which was resettled in 1717 by a dozen Armenian Catholic monks who arrived in Venice from Morea in the Peloponnesus, following the Ottoman invasion. They renovated the church of St. Lazarus and constructed gardens, a seminary, and other buildings. Napoleon left them alone after he conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797. Some say this was because of an important Armenian member of Napoleon’s staff.
Little-known fact: Lord Byron lived on San Lazzaro from late 1816 to early 1817. In short order, he seems to have learned enough Armenian to translate passages from classical Armenian into English, and even to co-author grammars of English and Armenian.
Aside from tending their huge library, the Armenian monks produce 5,000 jars of rose petal jam per annum, a number of them eaten by the monks themselves, and the others sold in the San Lazzaro gift shoppe.
In the world outside the island, the questions of Armenian genocide and property restitution continue fraught. Solutions have been suggested: Armenian churches and monasteries currently used as storage facilities by the armed forces could be handed back to the Armenians. Beyond that, collective compensation might be modeled on German compensation to Jews. Turkey could also take in Armenian refugees from Syria and Iraq, could offer Turkish citizenship to Armenians who want it, could remove the names of perpetrators of the genocide from Turkish streets signs and places.
Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, and by far the best known Armenian in the world, says, “I am saddened that still 100 years later not everyone has recognized that 1.5 million people were murdered. But proud of the fact that I see change and am happy many people have started to recognize this genocide!”
Here she is with her husband, rapper Kanye West, one of Time‘s 100 most influential men in the world.
In Syria as well, one of the main rebel groups is welcoming the attention from Kardashian.“We are glad Kim Kardashian is taking an interest in this issue, as we too are concerned about extremist groups’ persecution of minorities,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast. “The Free Syrian Army has put out a statement committed to protecting of citizens of Armenian descent and to maintaining the integrity of their religious sites…”
Question: shouldn’t Kardashian be coordinating with Angelina Jolie, who has been earnestly trying to raise international consciousness about the Syrian crisis for several years?
Some doubt that Kardashian could find Armenia or Syria on a map, but this is petty carping. How often can beauty could speak to power and be heard? If only I had brought this question to the dinner table.
14 November 2019
This year, from the other side of the Grand Canal, the warning siren keens closer– and longer, as if keyed to the 50-year flood tide approaching in the laguna.
Not much is otherwise different: another video of someone swimming in the floodwaters in front of San Marco, photos of boats stranded on embankments, of shopkeepers sweeping bilge off their doorsteps. The new mayor blames climate change, a new appearance at the head of the usual malefactors: the sirocco from Africa, full moon, tectonic subsidence, rampant corruption in the calamitous MOSE project to block high tides. The old mayor, arrested amid the MOSE corruption, was recently absolved, but MOSE is still inoperable.
Five years ago, in Cannaregio, I heard the siren sounding a bit before sunrise. . . a long, piercing alert, followed by a series of slowly articulated, musical ululations. Then the quiet slosh of the first vaporetto docking and departing as usual across the canal. I had been lying awake for a while, having seen the acqua alta warning the day before. Acqua alta, high water, refers to monster tides that cause flooding all around the northern Adriatic, but most famously in Venice. Between autumn and spring, the high tides can combine disastrously with the sirocco and the local “bora” winds and the oscillating waters of the long, narrow rectangle of the Adriatic Sea.
As the foundations of most Venetian buildings have been brining in the depths of the lagoon for centuries, the natives regularly take certain minimal precautionary measures. Passerelle planks are neatly stacked, ready to be laid out across flooded expanses in Piazza San Marco and other low-lying parts of the city. In our neighborhood, Cannaregio, ten metal supports for the passerelle were stolen, for what market it is hard to imagine. Tall rubber boots are ready by the door of our attic apartment, lent by our kind landlords, but they are too small for our big American feet.
The first real autumn rain brought only moderate acqua alta in Venice. But in Tuscany the deluge submerged Massa and Carrara, below those white-veined mountains where ancient Romans, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and rich Americans and Arabs, have found an unending supply of white marble to bedeck their temples and mosques, mansions and museums.
Quarry labor was always hard and poorly paid, fueling rebellions among the workers. By the end of the 19th century, Carrara was called the cradle of anarchism. These days the flooded residents seem to be demanding some responsible governmental action, no small order in 21st century Italy. A dear friend, an art historian who helped salvage Florentine art after the great flood of November 1966, observed sadly that Tuscans have never understood how to deal with water. The Venetians, too, were underwater in 1966; their efforts to curb the tides have a higher profile because Venice is more obviously fragile than stony Florence.
The huge MOSE project (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) is supposed to protect Venice and the lagoon against flooding. Note the acronym’s cunning allusion to the Hebrew patriarch who parted the Red Sea. MOSE consists of 78 mobile underwater barrier gates that rise during high tides to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Approved by the Comitatone (Big Committee) in 2003 with a budget of some 7 billion euros, MOSE has so far successfully tested only four of the gates.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, the mayor of Venice and 35 other “public servants” were charged with misuse of billions of the MOSE funds. The arrest of the mayor of Venice was international news, and even amid the flamboyant excesses of Italian politics, the level of corruption is spectacular.
The scandal provided local color following the opening of the 2014 Biennale of architecture, which was set partly in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyards, first mentioned in 1104. “Arsenale” comes from the Arabic “darsena” or workshop, and there were naval arsenals already in the seventh and eighth centuries along coasts from North Africa to Arab Sicily and the southern Mediterranean. But for some four centuries, the fleets built in the Venetian Arsenale ruled the waves in war and commerce.
Venice hasn’t been actively at war for some three hundred years. The grand buildings of the Arsenale now house a splendid naval museum as well as splashy international expositions like the architecture Biennale, part of which occupies the Corderie, a vast columned hall built in the 16th century, where miles of ropes were made for the ships in production.
The Biennale exhibits were remarkably free of military or imperial connections, except of course for those involving the guilt, implicit or acknowledged, of modern colonial powers. Silvio Berlusconi’s melodramatic apology to Libya for decades of Italian abuse is memorialized next to videos showing footage of the most recent exploitation of Libyan oil.
On the Arsenale embankment is a recumbent classical column that is connected with the Biennale’s Albanian exhibit. A documentary by Albanian exile artist Adrian Paci shows the quarrying of the marble block in China, its loading onto a freighter, and to cut costs, three Chinese carvers working the marble en route on the high seas. Paci thus addresses what we might call the downside of global trade and labor.
During the Second World War, the shipyards in Richmond, California, were the most efficient and productive of any in the country. Huge buildings, on the same scale as the Venetian Arsenale, enclosed the assembly lines which had been pioneered by early Venetian shipbuilders. In Venice the workers, the arsenalotti, were respected and paid well. The Richmond shipyards employed tens of thousands of unskilled laborers fleeing the depressed South. Rosie the Riveter was a familiar icon of the spunky female worker.
The docks and warehouses now house restaurants & theaters and light industry. An Italian restaurant, Salute e Vita, in a Cape Cod Victorian said to have been the Richmond harbormaster’s house, is now owned by a beautiful woman born Ethiopia and raised in Rome in a family of restaurateurs.
Menbe now dispenses Thanksgiving charity to the hoi polloi of the real city of Richmond, many of whose grandparents came from the depressed South to work in the wartime shipyards.
Richmond now has the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime of any city in the Bay Area except Oakland. Property values were so low that developers could profitably produce a town-house development along the waterfront and even offer some public amenities, little beaches and a smart interactive memorial to Rosie the Riveter.
In Venice, every year after 1177, the doge sailed out into the lagoon on a seriously over-decorated ship called the Bucintoro, and tossed a ring into the waves to symbolize Venice’s wedding with the sea. After Napoleon had carried off the Lion and Horses of St. Mark and the choicest artworks in the city, the French set the last Bucintoro afire where all in the city could see it burn, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And there the canny French sieved the ashes to save the gold.
Some years ago Colonel Giorgio Paterno proposed to recreate the festive Venetian Bucintoro that was destroyed in 1798. Colonel Paterno, the head of Fondazione Bucintoro, said in March 2008: “[We will] build it as fast as we can but we’re not in a hurry. It is intended that the project will make use of traditional shipbuilding techniques and original materials…and will reproduce the gold decorations.”
The foundation wrote to then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy to ask for a financial contribution as a goodwill gesture in view of the Napoleonic vandalism. Just this year, no thanks to Sarkozy, the French pledged to contribute six hundred oak trees from the forests of Aquitaine surrounding the city of Bordeaux. Meanwhile, alas, as Paterno said, “Invaded by so many million tourists, the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history.”
There is also the escalating risk that Venice will lose its historical and cultural identity not through tourism but under the invasive tides of the Adriatic. The earliest acqua alta, in 579, was reported two hundred years later by Paul the Deacon, a Benedictine monk-historian. The event, known onomatopoetically as the Rotta della Cucca, was a calamitous rupture of river banks in the Veneto. This collates with variously reported global climate changes in 536-538, confirmed by tree-ring chronology. The probable cause was a volcanic event that created a dust ring around the planet, darkening the sun and aborting harvests. The ensuing famines and civil unrest could explain many gloomy global developments, from the sudden decline of Teotihuacan to the Plague of Justinian, and the westward Mongol invasions. In fact, this catastrophe theory, advanced by journalist David Keys, was so expansively interesting that it was quickly discredited by qualified academics—but not before public television documentaries that you might have missed, as I did.
Catastrophe theories aside, it must be conceded that recent western technology, no matter how advanced in nuclear weaponry, domestic espionage, craft beer, and social networking, has not been able to resolve drought issues in Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, or California.
In October 2010, at the edge of the Assad reservoir in northern Syria, we shared a picnic—lots of mezze & pastries—provided by our genial driver. Abu Hani was a Palestinian refugee, a survivor, having lived alone for several years while teaching math in Saudi Arabian middle schools in order to finance his household in secular Damascus. His wife would not live in Saudi Arabia. We haven’t heard from Abu Hani for almost four years now.
This might be a place to share the information that in Saudi Arabia, our staunch ally in the noble fight against Islamic State barbarism, there were 79 public beheadings in 2013.
The Assad reservoir is near the town of Raqqa, now controlled by the Islamic State, which sometimes prefers to bill itself as the more historically resonant Islamic Caliphate. A recent account of the consumption habits of the Caliphate’s soldiers found western products such as Pringles, Snickers, and Red Bull absorbing much of their $3 daily food allowance. Not mentioned was their appreciation of American brands of machine guns and tanks that they have confiscated from various Syrian rebel groups, “vetted” or not.
Returning to Venice from Florence one day in November, I paged through an international paper. The top story was Obama in China. That night Italian TV showed Obama, lean and elegant in a mandarin jacket, coolly chewing a piece of gum as he strode across a stage to shake hands with President Xi.
Maybe it was later that same night that the Italian Marco Polo (played by the impressive Marco Paolini) appeared onscreen. In any case, all this tended to eclipse an interesting op-ed on the historic drought in Isfahan. The writer suggested that western help in dealing with the drought problem could improve relations with Iran, where, as (almost) everyone knows, Isfahan is located.
Isfahan, visited by Marco Polo in 1330, was a Persian capital known for its beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. But, way of the world, in 1722 it was sacked by Afghan invaders and the capital was moved to Tehran. Today Isfahan still produces carpets and textiles, but also steel. It has a major oil refinery and “experimental” nuclear reactors, as well as the largest shopping-mall-with-a-museum in the world (not to mention a top-notch chamber of commerce). But cosmopolitan twenty-first-century Isfahan is now suffering from an 80-year drought.
When Venice was a major commercial center, expediting goods along the route to Isfahan and other Silk Road depots, the Dogana da Mar, the Customs House of Venice, controlled access to the Grand Canal and the San Marco docks.
In 2007 Japanese architect Tadao Ando began a wonderful renovation of the space for use as a museum. “This building has been floating on the water since the 15th century, and my intention is to see it float into the future; it is a very old building and it was very difficult to study its history so as to preserve its original structure and innovate toward the future.” Since the extant building was actually built in 1677, one doesn’t feel that Ando’s creativity has been much hampered by his study of its history.
Meanwhile, the modest hydrographic station on the Punta della Dogana (the Doge’s Nose) still sends information to the Centro della Marea (Tide Center), which warns the citizens of coming inundations. .
One morning after our return to Berkeley, I looked out the window. The California drought was breaking in a big way and our street had become a flowing canal. There was a flash flood warning online, but a silent one.
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.
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.