Wednesday, 20 February 2013

on the eighth day

Chinese New Year is over for another year. The ‘Spring Festival’ continues in the rest of China until the weekend, but Hong Kong went back to work last Thursday (only the first three days of the new year count as public holidays). However, we had two more events to celebrate on the eighth day of the new year (eight is, according to the Chinese, a lucky number): blessing the roast pigs and the village dinner.

Paula and I spent a lot of time during the holiday period trying to establish a cycle route to the wetland areas in the northwest of the New Territories, which I plan to write about in the next few days, and we also attended the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour on the second day of the new year. I missed last year’s display, mainly because I didn’t fancy standing around for two hours with a full-length plaster on my leg, but without such an encumbrance it was, as usual, well worth the wait. Also as usual, the organizers included several new effects, and while I’ve not seen the displays put on by other cities, they would have to be exceptional to surpass Hong Kong’s efforts, which involve firing more than a thousand shells a minute into the air for 22–23 minutes. The big mystery is why so many spectators faff about trying to shoot video of the display, an endeavour at which they may be successful, but only by sacrificing any immediate enjoyment of the spectacle.

For the first time, we had firecrackers to accompany the blessing of the roast pigs, which were then consumed immediately, as per tradition. I have to say that this type of roast pork is absolutely delicious, and I probably ate more than I should have done, but it is difficult to resist. The eleven-course village dinner was actually a lunch this year, mainly because some residents complained that it was too cold at night, although this winter has been exceptionally mild, and the main problem with a daytime meal is that there is no entertainment. I missed last year’s dinner too, for the same reason that I missed the fireworks, so it was good to get involved in the celebrations once again.

Here are a few photos from the ceremony to bless the roast pigs:

A makeshift altar has been set up to bless the roast pigs. Red, in case you hadn’t guessed it, is a lucky colour to the Chinese, which is why so-called ‘lucky money’ (lai see), a traditional gift at this time of year, is always placed in a red packet.

Don’t stand too close. This string of firecrackers is about to get considerably more violent.

I’m not really carving the pig, merely posing for the camera.

Monday, 11 February 2013

snakes alive

The best way to see in the Chinese new year is with firecrackers and a lion dance, although I suspect that the firecrackers were slightly damp this year. They exploded with all their usual ferocity, but the heap of shattered cardboard smouldered for quite some time after the final explosion, which is not what is meant to happen.

Don’t ask me to explain the alleged personal characteristics of people born in the year of the snake, because I don’t believe any of it. For me, the more interesting question is why the Chinese, with thousands of animals to choose from, elected to include the snake in their twelve-animal zodiac. Very few people like snakes, which are listed as one of the ‘five noxious creatures’ of Chinese folklore (the others are centipedes, lizards, scorpions and toads).

One has to wonder at the composition of this list. The vast majority of lizards are completely harmless (a family of gheckos lives behind our fridge), and none of Hong Kong’s three toad species is toxic; ugly, yes, but not toxic. Spiders are notable absentees from the list. There are no venomous spiders in Hong Kong, but there are some large and scary ones, so their absence isn’t easy to explain.

We in the West are accustomed to thinking of the Chinese menagerie as occurring over a twelve-year cycle, but the actual cycle is 60 years, because each of the twelve animals is also associated with one of the five elements of Chinese cosmology: earth, fire, water, wood or metal. Three of these coincide with three of the four elements identified by the ancient Greeks. It is interesting to note the absence of air in the Chinese system; the reason for this omission can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile, welcome to the year of the water snake. Here are some photos from our own ceremony to usher in the new year: two photos of the firecrackers going off, and two photos of the ‘lion’ standing in the smouldering debris from the firecrackers.

Friday, 1 February 2013

down on the farm

Many people go out of their way to buy organically grown produce because of the guarantee that such produce is free from pesticides, but there are other benefits that are often overlooked or not understood. In particular, the use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers is banned under Soil Association rules in the UK, and probably by other accreditation bodies elsewhere, because this has an important effect on the uptake by plants of trace elements from the soil. All nitrates are extremely soluble in water and therefore dissolve preferentially; as a result, trace elements are not taken up by a crop that is fertilized in this way, and its nutritional value is thereby reduced.

There are two main strands to the practice of organic farming: crop rotation, which includes the planting of legumes, and soil conditioning. Legumes such as clover have nodules on their roots that are home to colonies of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, so when the crop is ploughed back into the soil at the end of the growing season, this becomes a vital source of nitrogen given the prohibition on synthetic nitrates. Animal manure provides an additional nitrogen source, but this material also has an important effect on soil condition.

Soils vary considerably depending on the underlying bedrock, the use to which land is put and the materials that are added, but all soils are complex ecosystems that need to be managed carefully. Soils that have a low organic content (humus) do not retain moisture efficiently, while soils with a high content of clay minerals easily become waterlogged. It follows that soil health depends on having plenty of humus, so that air can enter the pore spaces between soil grains and thus support the bacteria and small invertebrates (earthworms, burrowing insects, etc.) that are essential if the organic material is to decompose, making nutrients available to the growing crop. Roots also need air to function properly, so soil condition is of crucial importance whatever the crop.

An often neglected aspect of sustainable arable farming is composting, although ploughing unwanted plant material back into the soil is a viable alternative. However, the best way to deal with organic waste is to place it in a compost heap, where it will decompose aerobically, with the aid of invertebrates and micro-organisms that invade from the underlying soil, to form a material rich in humus that can be added to the soil.

Pests are dealt with in organic farming by introducing natural predators, which commercial pesticides are likely to kill in addition to the target pest. Another useful technique is intercropping: for example, planting pungent herbs such as rosemary and sage among rows of carrots deters the carrot root fly, the larvae of which can devastate a carrot crop. Ensuring that plants are healthy makes it less likely that they will be seriously affected by fungal infections and other plant diseases. The end result is foodstuffs that are healthier to eat and contain more trace nutrients than the same foods produced by conventional means, which in addition to being less nutritious are often completely lacking in flavour.

However, there is one major drawback to organic farming: crop yields are lower, and with the world’s population already approaching unsustainable levels, this is not a problem that can be ignored. The choice is therefore between producing less nutritious food in greater quantities and organically grown produce, which costs more and can feed fewer people. This begs an unavoidable question: is it socially responsible to insist on buying organic produce when the priority should be to feed everyone, not just those who can afford the higher prices that come with lower yields?