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Blog Action Day: Nature and Memory

As decided, on the Blog Action Day we’re blogging about environment. But exactly what shall we say? On occasions like this I’ve always wanted to say something different, yet how different can you be these days when absolutely everyone seems to be aware of the necessity of environmental protection?

JS Herbarium 1988

My problems were solved when my mother scanned and sent to me my first (and only) herbarium. I went to school in 1987, and upon finishing our first form we’d all got this task, to create a herbarium. My mother and I made it together in 1988, and I must be honest and say that it was actually her who made most of the job, although I did have my share. This, for instance, is the title page with my first-form handwriting. This is a poem by a Russian children’s poet, Valentine Berestov, and it tells of the author’s amazement at seeing different flowers out together in herbarium, even though “in the wild” they probably didn’t know about each other.

JS Herbarium 1988

I must admit that I never liked biology or botany at school. I might have mentioned on the blog my Biology teacher, who was a Chemistry teacher by her uni degree, and who actually was up to teaching any subject, including History and Law. Her method of teaching, unfortunately, boiled down to reading from a textbook and drawing tables, and naturally perhaps, the lessons were far from engaging.

JS Herbarium 1988

Believe it or not, but the first time we spoke about the environmental protection was at the English lesson. We had an improvised “environmental press-conference”, over which I presided. I introduced the topics and speakers, from “environmentalists” and “journalists” to “witnesses” of environmental catastrophes. The “speakers” discussed at length the pollution, and the green-house effect, and the animal protection, and the global warming. Yet I should be honest again and say that the only thing that has then benefited from such lesson was my English vocabulary, and not the awareness of the environmental problems.

I think in part the problem may have to do with how the subject of Environmental Studies is taught at schools. In those early years at school I had the lessons in what could literally be translated as Naturology. And I can never forget a quiz we had had when we had to answer questions and tick boxes. One of the question was to classify the objects by their nature – “animate” or “inanimate”. Everything was OK, until I saw “flowers”. I thought of photosynthesis, of everything I knew then about flowers, and ticked “animate”. Turned out, this was the wrong answer. To this day I cannot understand, why. If I go from Latin, it makes sense: “anima” is “soul”, and flowers, naturally, don’t have soul. But neither do animals, one would imagine, yet they do belong to the “animate” world.

And just as I was writing this post, I remember about Hans Christian Andersen again. I was sure he had had a tale about the four seasons, but when I went to look for it I found another tale, which I always used love, it is called The Elder-Tree Mother. The elder-tree tea is a great popular remedy against the cold, but Andersen presented the elder-tree as a dryad, whose spirit told the protagonist, a little boy, wonderful stories. Let me quote this passage to you:

Now the little maiden with the blue eyes and the elder blossoms in her hair sat up in the tree and nodded to them both and said, “Today is your golden wedding anniversary!” Then from her hair she took two flowers, and kissed them so that they gleamed, first like silver, and then like gold. And when she laid them on the heads of the old couple, each became a golden crown. There they both sat, a king and a queen, under the fragrant tree that looked just exactly like an elder bush, and he told his old wife the story of the Elder Tree Mother, just as it had been told to him when he was a little boy. They both thought that much of the story resembled their own, and that part they liked best.
“Yes, that’s the way it is,” said the little girl in the tree. “Some people call me Elder Tree Mother, and some call me the Dryad, but my real name is Memory. It is I who sit up in the tree that grows on and on, and I can remember and I can tell stories. Let me see if you still have your flower.”
Then the old man opened his hymnal, and there lay the elder blossom, as fresh as if it had just been placed there. Then Memory nodded, and the two old people with the golden crowns sat in the red twilight, and they closed their eyes gently and – and – and that was the end of the story….

And so I looked my herbarium, and I saw things I’ve almost forgotten about, or haven’t recalled for years. Indeed, as the works of some historians would prove to us, Nature is the cradle of our Memory. This Memory is living and surviving, from generation to generation, and if this is not enough to persuade us in the necessity of its protection, what else will?


Hans Christian Andersen, The Elder-Tree Mother (in English)
The same in Russian
The same in Danish
The same in German
For translations in other European languages, check Hans Christian Andersen Centre.
Julia’s Herbarium 1988 Photoset on Flickr.

The Storm Shifts the Signboards (H. C. Andersen)

Here is my attempt to save us all from this depression, be that from mild weather or from rattling winds. The BBC report about radio reshuffle has reminded me of a lovely fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Storm Shifts the Signboards. It was one of my favourite Andersen’s tales, and I’m quite sure I first heard it recorded on a vynil disk. It opens with this lovely phrase:

In olden days, when grandfather was just a little boy and wore red trousers, a red jacket, a sash around his waist, and a feather in his cap – for that’s the way little boys dressed in his childhood when they wore their best clothes – so many things were different from nowadays.

I adore this opening. The artist who read the tale was male, and his voice was mature, a bit husky and very kind, like a real grandpa’s voice. It so happened that I had never had a grandfather telling me fairy tales, so the record-player was my imaginary grandpa on this occasion. And so the Grandpa was telling me that he had come to a big town, and

that first night he came to the big town, the weather was worse than any we ever have read about in the papers, a storm such as there had never been within man’s memory. All the air was full of roof tiles; old wooden fences were blown over; a wheelbarrow even ran for its life by itself along the street. The wind howled in the air; it whistled and it shook everything. It was indeed a terrible storm. The water in the canal ran over the banks, not knowing where it belonged. The storm swept over the town, carrying the chimneys with it; more than one old, proud church tower bent and has never been quite straight since.

Above all, the storm shifted the signboards. My favourite ‘shift’ has always been this one:

The sign “Establishment for Higher Education” was moved to the pool hall, and the Establishment itself received a board inscribed, “Babies Brought up Here by the Bottle.”

I really like this Andersen’s tale, because he is better known for his beautiful, romantic and sometimes forlorn stories, like The Wild Swans, The Swineherd, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Mermaid, etc. In The Storm Shifts the Signboards Andersen reveals his talent of a satirist, which in turn makes one appreciate his literary talent differently, not simply that of a composer of all those beautiful fairy tales, but as a witty, subtle and versatile author.

Getting back to our weather changes, Andersen tells us that there had never been such a storm again in his Grandpa’s time, or much later. But, I feel, if those winds continue blowing (and we are told, they will), we might very well see another signboard reshuffle.

Hans Christian Andersen, The Storm Shifts the Signboards (English translation by Jean Hersholt)
Stormen flytter Skilt (Fascimile and text in Danish)
Der Sturm zieht mit den Shieldern um (German translation)
La tempestad cambia los rotulos (Spanish translation)
Unfortunately, it seems that the French translation (L’Orage déplace les enseignes) by Regis Boyer is only available from print: Andersen, H. C., Les Oeuvres (Paris, Gallimard, 1992). Italian translation (La tempesta sposta le insegne) by Kirsten Bech is in: Andersen, H. C., Fiabe (Roma, 1994).

error: Sorry, no copying !!