Thursday, 30 April 2015



Title: Indian Why Stories

Author: Frank Bird Linderman (1869-1938)

What a splendid lodge it was, and how grand War Eagle looked leaning against his back-rest in the firelight! From the tripod that supported the back-rest were suspended his weapons and his medicine-bundle, each showing the wonderful skill of the maker. The quiver that held the arrows was combined with a case for the bow, and colored quills of the porcupine had been deftly used to make it a thing of beauty. All about the lodge hung the strangely painted linings, and the firelight added richness to both color and design. War Eagle's hair was white, for he had known many snows; but his eyes were keen and bright as a boy's, as he gazed in pride at his grandchildren across the lodge-fire. 

He was wise, and had been in many battles, for his was a warlike tribe. He knew all about the world and the people in it. He was deeply religious, and every Indian child loved him for his goodness and brave deeds.

About the fire were Little Buffalo Calf, a boy of eleven years; Eyes-in-the-Water, his sister, a girl of nine; Fine Bow, a cousin of these, aged ten, and Bluebird, his sister, who was but eight years old.

Not a sound did the children make while the old warrior filled his great pipe, and only the snapping of the lodge-fire broke the stillness. Solemnly War Eagle lit the tobacco that had been mixed with the dried inner bark of the red willow, and for several minutes smoked in silence, while the children's eyes grew large with expectancy.

Finally he spoke: "Napa, Oldman, is very old indeed. He made this world, and all that is on it. He came out of the south, and travelled toward the north, making the birds and animals as he passed. He made the perfumes for the winds to carry about, and he even made the war-paint for the people to use. He was a busy worker, but a great liar and thief, as I shall show you after I have told you more about him. It was Oldman who taught the beaver all his cunning. It was Oldman who told the bear to go to sleep when the snow grew deep in winter, and it was he who made the curlew's bill so long and crooked, although it was not that way at first.

Oldman used to live on this world with the animals and birds. 

There was no other man or woman then, and he was chief over all the animal-people and the bird-people. He could speak the language of the robin, knew the words of the bear, and understood the sign-talk of the beaver, too. 

Arthur Heming (1870-1940)

He lived with the wolves, for they are the great hunters. Even to-day we make the same sign for a smart man as we make for the wolf; so you see he taught them much while he lived with them. Oldman made a great many mistakes in making things, as I shall show you after a while; yet he worked until he had everything good. 

But he often made great mischief and taught many wicked things. These I shall tell you about some day. Everybody was afraid of Oldman and his tricks and lies. Yes, even the animal-people, before he made men and women. He used to visit the lodges of our people and make trouble long ago, but he got so wicked that Manitou grew angry with him, and one day in the month of roses, he built a lodge for Oldman and told him that he must stay in it forever. Of course he had to do that, and nobody knows where the lodge was built, nor in what country, but that is why we never see him as our grandfathers did, long, long ago.

"What I shall tell you now happened when the world was young. It was a fine summer day, and Oldman was travelling in the forest. 

He was going north and straight as an arrow--looking at nothing, hearing nothing. No one knows what he was after, to this day. The birds and forest-people spoke politely to him as he passed but he answered none of them. The Pine-squirrel, who is always trying to find out other people's business, asked him where he was going, but Oldman wouldn't tell him. 

The woodpecker hammered on a dead tree to make him look that way, but he wouldn't. The Elk-people and the Deer-people saw him pass, and all said that he must be up to some mischief or he would stop and talk a while. The pine-trees murmured, and the bushes whispered their greeting, but he kept his eyes straight ahead and went on travelling.

"The sun was low when Oldman heard a groan" (here War Eagle groaned to show the children how it sounded), "and turning about he saw a warrior lying bruised and bleeding near a spring of cold water.

Oldman knelt beside the man and asked: “Is there war in this country?”

"'Yes,” answered the man. “This whole day long we have fought to kill a Person, but we have all been killed, I am afraid.”

"'That is strange,” said Oldman; “how can one Person kill so many men? Who is this Person, tell me his name!” but the man didn't answer—he was dead. When Oldman saw that life had left the wounded man, he drank from the spring, and went on toward the north, but before long he heard a noise as of men fighting, and he stopped to look and listen.

Finally he saw the bushes bend and sway near a creek that flowed through the forest. 

He crawled toward the spot, and peering through the brush saw a great Person near a pile of dead men, with his back against a pine-tree. The Person was full of arrows, and he was pulling them from his ugly body. Calmly the Person broke the shafts of the arrows, tossed them aside, and stopped the blood flow with a brush of his hairy hand. His head was large and fierce-looking, and his eyes were small and wicked. His great body was larger than that of a buffalo-bull and covered with scars of many battles.

"Oldman went to the creek, and with his buffalo-horn cup brought some water to the Person, asking as he approached: "'Who are you, Person? Tell me, so I can make you a fine present, for you are great in war.”

"'I am Bad Sickness,” replied the Person. 'Tribes I have met remember me and always will, for their bravest warriors are afraid when I make war upon them. I come in the night or I visit their camps in daylight. It is always the same; they are frightened and I kill them easily.”

"'Ho!' said Oldman, “tell me how to make Bad Sickness, for I often go to war myself.”He lied; for he was never in a battle in his life. The Person shook his ugly head and then Oldman said:

"'If you will tell me how to make Bad Sickness I will make you small and handsome. When you are big, as you now are, it is very hard to make a living; but when you are small, little food will make you fat. Your living will be easy because I will make your food grow everywhere.”

"'Good,” said the Person, “I will do it; you must kill the fawns of the deer and the calves of the elk when they first begin to live. When you have killed enough of them you must make a robe of their skins. Whenever you wear that robe and sing--"now you sicken, now you sicken," the sickness will come--that is all there is to it.”

"'Good,' said Oldman, 'now lie down to sleep and I will do as I promised.”

The Person went to sleep and Oldman breathed upon him until he grew so tiny that he laughed to see how small he had made him. Then he took out his paint sack and striped the Person's back with black and yellow. It looked bright and handsome and he walked the Person, who was now a tiny animal with a bushy tail to make him pretty.

"'Now,' said Oldman, “you are the Chipmunk, and must always wear those striped clothes. All of your children and their children must wear them, too.”

"After the Chipmunk had looked at himself, and thanked Oldman for his new clothes, he wanted to know how he could make his living, and Oldman told him what to eat, and said he must cache the pine-nuts when the leaves turned yellow, so he would not have to work in the winter time.

"'You are a cousin to the Pine-squirrel,” said Oldman. “And you will hunt and hide as he does. You will be spry and your living will be easy to make if you do as I have told you.”

"He taught the Chipmunk his language and his signs, showed him where to live, and then left him, going on toward the north again. He kept looking for the cow-elk and doe-deer, and it was not long before he had killed enough of their young to make the robe as the Person told him, for they were plentiful before the white man came to live on the world. He found a shady place near a creek, and there made the robe that would make Bad Sickness whenever he sang the queer song, but the robe was plain, and brown in color. He didn't like the looks of it. Suddenly he thought how nice the back of the Chipmunk looked after he had striped it with his paints.

He got out his old paint sack and with the same colors made the robe look very much like the clothes of the Chipmunk. 

He was proud of the work, and liked the new robe better; but being lazy, he wanted to save himself work, so he sent the South-wind to tell all the doe-deer and the cow-elk to come to him. They came as soon as they received the message, for they were afraid of Oldman and always tried to please him. When they had all reached the place where Oldman was he said to them: "'Do you see this robe?”

"'Yes, we see it,” they replied.

"'Well, I have made it from the skins of your children, and then painted it to look like the Chipmunk's back, for I like the looks of that Person's clothes. I shall need many more of these robes during my life; and every time I make one, I don't want to have to spend my time painting it; so from now on and forever your children shall be born in spotted clothes. I want it to be that way to save me work. On all the fawns there must be spots of white like this (here he pointed to the spots on Bad Sickness's robe) and on all of the elk-calves the spots shall not be so white and shall be in rows and look rather yellow.”

Again he showed them his robe that they might see just what he wanted.

"'Remember,” he said, “after this I don't want to see any of your children running about wearing plain clothing, because that would mean more painting for me. Now go away, and remember what I have said, lest I make you sick.”

"The cow-elk and the doe-deer were glad to know that their children's clothes would be beautiful. And they went away to their little ones who were hidden in the tall grass, where the wolves and mountain-lions would have a hard time finding them; for you know that in the tracks of the fawn there is no scent, and the wolf cannot trail him when he is alone. That is the way Manitou takes care of the weak, and all of the forest-people know about it, too.

"Now you know why the Chipmunk's back is striped, and why the fawn and elk-calf wear their pretty clothes.

"I hear the owls, and it is time for all young men who will someday be great warriors to go to bed, and for all young women to seek rest, lest beauty go away forever. Ho!"

The End.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Agave- The Century Plant

Agave- The Century Plant

I was fortunate enough to spot this Agave plant flowering in the Etobicoke Greenhouse one day. They had taken pains to create a hole in the glass roof to allow the plant to grow freely. 

Now, why would they go through this much trouble, I inwardly queried. 

Intrigued, my brief investigation revealed that this particular plant was special indeed. Also known as an 80 year-old American plant, they only flowered once then died. 

Surreptitiously about this time an article from the CBC caught my attention:

“Housed at the University of the Michigan since 1934, the plant has grown so rapidly since the spring that at more than 27 feet (8.2 metres) it is now too tall for the Ann Arbor conservatory, which has had to remove a pane of glass to accommodate it. The sudden spurt is a sign that the plant could bloom soon. The variegated American agave (Agave americana) was collected in Mexico by famed ethno-botanist Alfred Whiting, who then was a University of Michigan graduate student. Known as the century plant because it blooms infrequently, it is native to Mexico and the American Southwest and typically lives 10 to 25 years in the wild before blooming a single time then dying.” ” (University of Michigan/Matthaei Botanical Gardens/Associated Press)

How fortunate for us that we had the very same plant flowering right in our back yard. Naturally I wanted to learn more. Here’s some brief info I gathered from Wikipedia:

Agave is a genus of monocots. The plants are perennial, but each rosette flowers once and then dies. Some species are known by the name century plant. The genus is placed in the subfamily Agavoideae of the broadly circumscribed family Asparagaceae. It’s composed of e about 208 species.

Common names include century plant, maguey (in Mexico), or American aloe (it is not, however, closely related to the genus Aloe). The name "century plant" refers to the long time the plant takes to flower. The number of years before flowering occurs depends on the vigor of the individual plant, the richness of the soil, and the climate; during these years the plant is storing in its fleshy leaves the nourishment required for the effort of flowering.

In the variegated forms, the leaf has a white or yellow marginal or central stripe. As the leaves unfold from the center of the rosette, the impression of the marginal spines is conspicuous on the still erect younger leaves. The plants require protection from frost. They mature very slowly and die after flowering, but are easily propagated by the offsets from the base of the stem.

They are succulents with a large rosette of thick, fleshy leaves, each ending generally in a sharp point and with a spiny margin; the stout stem is usually short, the leaves apparently springing from the root. Along with plants from the related genus Yucca, various Agave species are popular ornamental plants. 

It is a common misconception that agaves are cacti. They are not related to cacti, nor are they closely related to Aloe whose leaves are similar in appearance.

Each rosette is monocarpic and grows slowly to flower only once. During flowering, a tall stem or "mast" grows from the center of the leaf rosette and bears a large number of short, tubular flowers. Once the flower blooms it will take many months before the plant dies. 

But in the plant's final throes, it is expected to produce "pups," or genetic clones that look the same as the parent plant, from which they can propagate the species. In addition there is another way to propagate this plant…For after development of the fruit when the original plant dies, suckers are frequently produced from the base of the stem that of which can become new plants.

Chiefly Mexican, agaves are also native to the southern and western United States and central and tropical South America.

Agave Americana, or a century plant, was introduced into Europe probably by Spanish and Portuguese explorers about the middle of the 16th century. It became popular in Europe during the 19th century, when many types were imported by collectors and it became widely cultivated as an ornamental plant. 

Blue A. Americana occurs in abundance in the Karoo, and arid highland regions of South Africa. Introduced by the British settlers in 1820, the plant was originally cultivated and used as emergency feed for livestock. Today it is used mainly for the production of syrup and sugar.

Agave’s uses are numerous:

The bruised leaves, for instance, have afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured. Its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque, of which the natives, to this day, are extremely fond. 

Its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings. Thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, was drawn from its tough and twisted fibers. 

Pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves, and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. 

There are four major parts of the agave that are edible: the flowers, the leaves, the stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap. Each agave plant will produce several pounds of edible flowers during its final season. 

The stalks, which are ready during the summer, before the blossom, weigh several pounds each. Roasted, they are sweet and can be chewed to extract the aguamiel, like sugarcane. 

When dried out, the stalks can be used to make didgeridoos. The leaves may be collected in winter and spring, when the plants are rich in sap, for eating. During the development of the inflorescence sap rushes to the base of the young flower stalk. 

Agave nectar (also called agave syrup), a sweetener derived from the sap, is used as an alternative to sugar in cooking, and can be added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent. Meanwhile the leaves also yield fiber. Agave Americana for instance is the source of pita fiber, and is used as a fiber plant in Mexico, the West Indies and southern Europe.

The Navajo similarly found many uses for the agave plant. A beverage is squeezed from the baked fibers, and the heads can be baked or boiled, pounded into flat sheets, sun dried, and stored for future use. The baked, dried heads are also boiled and made into an edible paste, eaten whole, or made into soup. The leaves are eaten boiled, and the young, tender flowering stalks and shoots are roasted and eaten as well. The fibers are used to make rope, the leaves are used to line baking pits, and the sharp pointed leaf tips are used to make basketry awls.

The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, though the rash is no longer visible. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. 

The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec! Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!

Such a find! I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip by so I made periodic trips to the greenhouse and took some pictures as the flowering progressed to seed. 

In August we went back and took these photos of the plant after the staff had removed the dead parts.

The End

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Seven Pairs of Earrings

The Seven Pairs of Earrings

Once upon a time in China there was a stringent and powerful king that ruled the state of Qi with an iron hand. 

The beautiful queen, in contrast, was compassionate and generous. As the king loved her very dearly her influence often softened his stance on state and military affairs and spared many from certain calamity. 

Unfortunately as her influence grew, so did her enemies who stood to gain from war and the, now suppressed, oppressive measures. 

Mysteriously, the beautiful queen one day fell ill and died soon after. The king, reverting back to his warring ways, caused many innocent folk to suffer once again. 

A few upright ministers got together at long last and managed to persuade the king to remarry. Their hope was that he would be more reasonable if he had love in his heart once more. 

But who should it be? The king had left the decision up in the air, to be discussed later. 

A wise minister, a close friend visiting the Prime Minister Xue at this time put forth the suggestion that he would be rendering a useful service to the state if he could recommend a suitable mate to the monarch. 

The prime minister, after a prolonged silence, nodded and exclaimed. “Of course you are right sir. To tell you the truth, I had long held the same view. Only one difficulty made me hesitant in approaching his Highness with a suggestion. As you well know, our Sovereign has seven concubines who are all very close to his Highness.”

The difficulty is in determining which of them the king’s favorite is. If my recommendation differs from his Highness’s choice I would certainly offend the new queen, with dire consequences for me later on.” 

The wise minister nodded his understanding. “There is a way out of this dilemma,” he finally added. “The Spring Festival will be upon us in a couple of days.”

If you wish to discover the king’s favorite present his Highness with seven pairs of earrings depicting a spring flower. Six pairs should be identical in quality and style, but the seventh pair should be of discernibly higher quality. 

When you learn which of the seven concubines receive the best earrings, you will understand the king’s thinking on the subject.”

Xue was pleased and took his friend’s advice. When the king chose his new queen, she was the same woman recommended by the Prime Minister and peace reigned ever afterwards in the state of Qi

The End