Sunday, 23 August 2015

Hydrology - droughts, floods and sandbanks

Consider the following two photographs, both taken from the same point (at the estuary of the Jeziorka river, where it meets the Vistula). One was taken today - the other on 22 September 2012.

23 August 2015
22 September 2012
We'll have to wait a month to see whether the water levels in the Vistula fall to the same record low levels that they did three years ago, when the exposed riverbed yielded up historic artifacts, some dating back to the Swedish invasion of Poland in 1648.

While we wait, it is instructive to look at some satellite images of this very stretch of the Vistula over the years, courtesy of Google Earth. What's interesting is the way the sandbanks appear, disappear and shift over time. You can see the Jeziorka meeting the Vistula in the lower-middle of each pic. Sadly, there are no images of the floods of May/June 2010, nor of the drought of September 2012.

Image dated 3 April 2002

27 March 2007

23 July 2009

4 April 2011

1 May 2012

4 August 2013 - highest water in this sequence

11 March 2014 - lowest water in this sequence. Sandbank in second pic from top is visible.

4 October 2014
And so we have it - the river rises, the river falls, depending on the rain that falls in the mountains several hundred kilometers downstream. I will check back in a month's time - assuming the weather stays as dry as forecast - to see if that big sandbank has reappeared. In the meanwhile, don't place too much store on media panic. Nothing beats empiric observation of fact.

This time two years ago:
Radom air show - Part 1

This time three years ago:
Restricting passenger movement and safety

This time four years ago:
Seasonal fruit - eat it in bulk, while you can!

This time six years ago:
Russia-Polish 'unification', 1939-style

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Sad farewell to Lila

Below: the last photo taken of Lila. Within half an hour, she'd be dead; an hour later - buried.

Early last month, one of our neighbours found a dead cat on her drive - it looked like the black-and-white tom that fathered Lila's litter of four kittens. Early this month, we noticed that Lila was not well; her eyes were covering up with white film (the third eyelids, which were not retracting). After several visits to the vet - she had a fever for nearly two weeks - blood tests revealed the feline version of HIV, and leukaemia. Her immune system had packed up. She was hardly eating, lying down all day, skin and bone, unwilling to move. Because her condition was infectious, she was confined to the laundry room and garage.

She was put to sleep at the vets this morning, and buried in the garden, between six tall trees.

That's the factual stuff. The emotional and spiritual stuff is swirling around my head. Her little consciousness has been around us since Moni picked her off the streets of Łódź in spring 2012. She was just a few months old then. As a kitten she was playful, but she grew up early; by the time she was around a year old, she became pregnant, and on 10 May 2013, she gave birth to Czester, Feluś, Izadora and Bonus. Knowing that Bonus wouldn't make it, she kept carrying him by the scruff of his neck and leaving him somewhere where the interfering humans wouldn't find him. They did; despite several visits to the vet, the runt of the litter died of a lung infection at the age of three weeks.

There's no sentiment in nature; only we humans feel it.

I buried Lila in the garden, where her body will decompose into the soil; the immortal atoms that once conjoined harmoniously to form her conscious body will move on; through the roots of the trees and bushes into the leaves and fruit, to be pecked at by birds.

As I finished consigning her limp and lifeless body, once so playful, to the earth, a solitary hoverfly appeared and hung in the air over her grave in the August sunshine.

Lila's consciousness slipped inside this particular shell of foam. It observed, it learnt, it moved along that trajectory along which all our consciousnesses move - from Zero towards One. The body that carried that sliver, that scrap of feline consciousness might have begun the process of decomposition in the soil of our garden, but those atoms that once formed the living Lila will spin for ever.

Like Schroedinger's immortal cat, Lila is dead and not dead at the same time. In some other multiverse, she didn't contract the disease, and carried on to live a long and happy life.

All that remains is for me to grieve for her briefly; with a tin of Warka Strong, sitting in the field across the tracks, watching the planes take off from Okęcie, the trains trundling past, swifts, kestrels and cabbage white butterflies in the air, Lila will now always be an eternal part of Jeziorki.

Finally - some photos of Lila's life... Below: as a stray, visiting Jeziorki for the first time, before coming here to settle. Easter 2012.

Below: Lila fulfilled in motherhood. She brought four kittens into the world; just two survived her. One is the ginger tom, our beloved Czester. He had a blood test today to see whether or not he too was carrying the feline immunodeficiency virus. We find out in two weeks.

This time last year:
Your papers are in order, Panie Dembinski!

This time three years ago:
Topiary garden by the Vistula

This time four years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

Friday, 21 August 2015

Whatever happened to Poland's Amish?

Dutch Mennonites fled 16th Century religious persecution to America - where some of them are well-known as the Amish folk of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Poland also welcomed Mennonites (anabaptist followers of Menno Simons) ; they found Polish kings tolerant and welcoming - and their skills in taming waterways were highly sought after in Poland.

A few weeks back, I was exploring the Vistula near Kozienice. I came across villages called Holendry Kozienickie, Holendry Piotrkowskie and Holendry Kużmińskie. Checking the Polish gazeteer (download it here - 100,000 Polish place names on 2,627 pages), I find many traces of Mennonite settlement in Poland enshrined in toponyms. Holandia, Holenderki, Holendernia, Holendrów, Olender, Olendry, Olenderki - Olędry even (three of them). But that's just the places that were openly named after their founders.

The 'Holendrzy' (who later came from Germany - the common factor was their religion) tended to settle along the banks of waterways and lakes. The Vistula has a cluster of them between Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and Płock. Kazuń Nowy, settled by Mennonites from Prussia after 1764, is an example.

Poland was densely forested and typical mechanisms of settlement would take the form of a group of people being given the right to clear ground for agriculture in exchange for future taxes to the landowner. The Holendrzy, who brought with them expertise in flood-protection and irrigation, contributed to the development of Polish agriculture by implementing practices brought over from the Low Countries. Simple ideas such as building cattle-sheds down river of human habitation, so when the river flooded, the animal dung would not be washed into houses. And planting poplars and willows in the floodplains, to break up and hold ice floes which might otherwise damage buildings.

The Mennonites would not take part in wars, they dressed in plain clothes without ornamentation, they were baptised once of an age at which they could understand their oaths. They worked hard and prospered. Most importantly, they kept themselves to themselves. While having good working relationships with the surrounding Polish population, they did not willingly intermarry nor assimilate. Mennonites did not welcome outsiders into their closed communities.Their numbers were smaller than their influence; the census of 1921 gave numbers of Polish citizens claiming to be Mennonites as a mere 1,500.

When the Second World War broke out, the Nazi invaders treated them as Volksdeutsche - ethnic Germans - despite the fact than many of their ancestors had fled Prussian persecution in previous centuries. This status led to the expulsion of remaining Holenders after 1945. Internment camps were set up for them - mainly women, children and old people - there was one in Leoncin, between the Puszcza Kampinoska forest and the Vistula, for example. They were deported to East Germany in the late 1940s, thus ending nearly four hundred years of Mennonite settlement in Poland.

Traces of their existence here can still be found - not only in village names, but also cemeteries, barns and houses. Fortunately, they are relatively well documented (link here to English-language pages of and there is a partial list of Mennonite remains across Poland. Mazowsze itself is particularly well documented.

The story of Poland's Mennonites - quite unknown even among educated Poles today - is an interesting tale of refugees, migrants fleeing religious persecution. Poland was officially tolerant towards victims of the counter-reformation, and local landowners were quick to make use of the newcomers' skills and propensity for hard work. Yet by maintaining a strong ethnic and religious identity that set the Mennonites apart from the hosts, the seeds of their ultimate fate were in place.

This time last year:
PKP publishes plans for upgrade of Warsaw-Radom line

This time two years ago:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time four years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time five years ago:
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna

This time six years ago:
It was twenty years ago today

This time eight years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Drought (Part I, no doubt)

A dry August, day after day of blue skies, the heatwaves are abating, we've moving into late summer. Statistically, August is the second-wettest month of the year after July; this year there's been very little rain, and what rain has fallen has been in isolated thundery downpours.

Not a surprise then, that water-levels have fallen dramatically. Here in Jeziorki, the middle pond between ul. Trombity and ul. Dumki is drying up fast. I walk out most of the way across in my office shoes - hard enough not to subside into smelly mud.

Below: looking north, the picture is more mixed - there's still water in the far pond. A few more weeks without serious rainfall and an east-west crossing on foot will become possible; should the drought continue into mid-autumn it may become to stroll through the reed-beds.

Below: stock media photo to illustrate 'drought'. Except this time it's at my back door.

Below: at the northern pond, there's still water enough for the swan family (which I photographed earlier this summer - see how how the cygnets have grown).

Below: across the tracks - daisies in the stubble.

Below: not far from ul. Karczunkowska - good gosh - it's giant hogweed - barszcz sosnowskiego - the killer plant from Russia. This particular patch was notified to the Straż Miejska (urban wardens?) two years ago. It's still here because this is a privately-owned patch and the authorities don't have the power to walk in and eradicate this invasive and toxic weed.

I shall no doubt return to the subject of this drought; three years ago, the lowest water levels ever recorded on the Vistula occurred in late September.

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's ski slope at Szczęśliwice

This time last year:
On the road from Dobra, again

This time two years ago:
August storm, ul. Targowa

This time three years ago:
Warsaw Central's secret underground kebab factory

This time four years ago:
Cheap holidays in other people's misery

This time five years ago:
Steam welcomes us to Dobra

This time six years ago:
New houses appear in the fields by Zgorzała

Sunday, 16 August 2015

What I read each week

When people ask me the source of my broad general knowledge around economic and political issues, I reply that it comes from a third of a century of reading The Economist. I started when as an information officer at the Confederation of British Industry in the early 1980s; each week it would land on my desk and I'd flick through with - at that time - little more than a passing interest. Over the years, I found The Economist's style and argumentation more to my liking, as my political views matured. Since moving to Poland in 1997, it has become for me essential reading, a magazine I buy each week (indeed the only one I buy each week). Unlike many executives whose subscription copies lie in unopened piles, my Economist gets a thorough read over the course of the week, and over time that general knowledge builds up.

Last month, rumours began to fly around that following its sale of the Financial Times, its owner, Pearson, would be selling its stake in The Economist. When it transpired that the FT was being bought by a Japanese publisher, there was a general shrugging of shoulders, Rolls-Royce Motors and Bentley are owned by the Germans, Jaguar and Land-Rover by the Indians, so the transfer of ownership of the FT to Nikkei did not provoke much comment. But  it would be worrying were The Economist, said to be the UK's most powerful foreign-policy tool (yes, far more powerful than the BBC), slip into the hands of a rich and vain owner, determined to have such influence for himself.

But the worry was unfounded - Pearson owned a non-controlling 50% stake in the title, the rest was in the hands of - yes, four very rich and powerful families - the Agnellis, Rothschilds, Cadburys and Schroders, with the Agnellis' holding company Exor owning 43.3% of the Economist Group. Now, those families, in particular the Agnellis, have taken over the Pearson stake. And the fact that the editor of The Economist has been an ex-officio member of the Bilderberg Group, gives added ammunition for those who believe that the world is run by a small, secretive and self-selected coterie peddling its own sinister agenda. [To look at what can happen when a respected title gets into the wrong hands, read this.]

The Economist's influence is sorely needed in a troubled world. Though it is seen as a liberal (economically and socially) title, promoting deregulation and privatisation, it is far more nuanced than critics usually admit. Sustainability is also a core value, at its heart the sense that ever-increasing inequality cannot be good for the economy. The Economist realises also that modern free-market democracies function as well as their regulators let them. The role of the state is not questioned - just how efficiently the state functions. Corruption and rent-seeking are corrosive and at their heart stifle human innovation and hold back the individual's ability to make the most of their potential. Editorially, The Economist takes a more balanced approach than simple free-market fundamentalism.

Year on year, The Economists continues to extend its sales, its reach and thus its influence. Read by 5.6 million people around the world (mostly still the paper version, but with increasing digital readership), the title is a hit with policymakers around the world. From the Audit Bureau of Circulation:
The [Economist's] net audience totals per region are as follows:
  • North America: 3,389,433
  • United Kingdom: 501,343
  • Continental Europe: 648,959
  • Middle East and Africa: 94,411
  • Asia Pacific: 546,546
  • Latin America: 94,590
Its writing style is clear - but not for dummies. Elegant prose, often with a humorous touch, makes reading The Economist a pleasure. It also makes for the best material on which to polish your English. Most Economist journalists are Oxbridge graduates; if non-native speakers can learn to write like The Economist writes, glittering careers in multinational corporations await. Incidentally, the authors write anonymously. Standardising (not standardizing) on UK-English (labour, lift) rather than US-English (labor, elevator), The Economist does make one stylistic concession to its North American readership - dates are given as August 16th, 2015, and not the usual 16 August 2015 found in most British newspapers.

[Slightly off topic, but while talking about The Economist's circulation, I can report that sometime this morning, this blog had its millionth page-view since Google started counting in May 2010]

New features surprise and delight. The World If... and Science Brief have just appeared. Smartphone users wake up to the daily Espresso short news analysis clips. And online, there's many articles that don't make it into the print edition.

I buy the Economist at the newsstand wherever I am when it becomes available. This may be Warsaw, it may be London (as indeed this week). I travel a fair bit, which is why I've been reticent to subscribe and benefit from the lower issue price. There's nothing worse than walking past a brand-new copy at an airport newsstand on a Friday, passing on the purchase because you know it will be in your post-box the next Monday (or Tuesday). However, having a smartphone now gives me access to the content the moment it's uploaded (Thursday evening). So I have just now, for the first time, bought myself an annual subscription for paper version with full digital access for €226.

Incidentally, Pearson has divested itself of the two jewels in its crown - the FT and its half-stake in The Economist - to focus exclusively on its education business. Education business is like the brewing business. It can be done better, with greater passion, by people nearer the end-user. I do not foresee a happy future for Pearson.

This time last year:
Defending Poland, contributing to NATO

This time three years ago:
Balloon over Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Happiness, Polish-style

This time six years ago:
And watch the river flow...