Sunday, February 12, 2012

An Author with a Head on His Shoulders

Where is Robert K. Massie’s head at?
Well, fortunately it’s still on his shoulders, unlike some of the folks he describes in his biography of Russia’s famous empress, Catherine the Great.
Off with Their Heads

In a bizarre twist to a great book, Massie interrupts the fascinating story of Catherine to give the reader a chilling mini-history of the guillotine. The guillotine came into use during Catherine’s time (late 1700s) and became famous during the French Revolution.
Massie notes that it was invented by Dr. Joseph Guillotin as an instrument for delivering instant, painless death. However, Massie questions whether the guillotine really did kill instantly. He cites cases in which the eyelids on severed heads blinked.
One respected French medical doctor experimented with a severed head. He called the victim’s name after the head dropped from its body. The eyelids slowly lifted up and stared at him. The eyelids closed but opened again when the doctor again called the name, and focussed on him.
After the diversion of severed heads, we get back on track with Catherine’s story. There is a valid connection between Catherine, the guillotine and the French revolution. Catherine worried about revolutions like the ones in America and France erupting in Russia, which happened a little more than a century after her death.
Massie’s diversion to the guillotine is bizarre but interesting. For instance, I didn’t know it was used in Germany between 1933 and 1945.  Also, anyone who researches and writes as well as Massie has the right to take us off on tangents occasionally.
Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman is an excellent read that provides insights into Russian history and culture. Massie is the author the Pulitzer-prize winning Peter the Great and the book about the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra.
Massie is 82 and plans another book. He says he has to continue writing because he keeps having children. The youngest is 11.

Monday, February 6, 2012

No Eating the Pets

"God, I love watching them," my wife sighs with happiness. "I don't know if I could eat one now."

I see my plans for hunting wild turkey evaporating. I had taken the mandatory weekend course, acquired the certificate, bought the licence, camo pants, camo jacket, hat and face net, and special turkey hunter's vest with seat. I had steeled myself for cold. dark mornings, sitting and waiting and calling as they come out of roosts to feed.

A Spring Romance
Now my wife is turning the prey into pets.

Wild turkeys returned to Ontario after the government began a reintroduction program in 1984. Today, 70,000 wild turkeys live in areas across southern Ontario.

They started showing up at our cottage appearing skinny, so my wife decided to feed them. It was love at first sight, and now she sits by the window watching them snort up many dollars in bird feed.

They are big birds, males (gobblers) standing up to four feet high and weighing more than 20 pounds. They are tall, dark, but not handsome. They have fleshy, featherless heads and necks that look like posts where kids have stuck their used bubblegum. The colours even look like bubblegum, varying shades of red, white and blue-gray. The flesh lights up bright red on gobblers when the turkey is angry or sexually aroused.

On their beaks is a flap of flesh called a snood, which biologists say is a hearing organ five times more effective than the human ear. Their feet are odd as well, four yellowish toes making a foot. The gobblers have spurs on the backs of their legs and they use them for fighting.

 Their wing and body feathers are pretty, in a way. Dark buff or chocolate brown tipped with white. The body feathers are rich looking with a copper-bronze iridescence. The feathers on males are spectacular during spring mating displays when the tail feathers are fanned.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell gobblers from hens, but one way is to look for the beards. The beards are tufts of feathers that grow out from the chest an average of nine inches long. However, just to complicate things, a small percentage of hens also have beards.

You have to be able to distinguish between gobblers and hens for hunting purposes. But judging from the romance developing through the cottage window, I won't be out hunting them anyway. Or if I do, I suspect I’ll be doing my own cooking.