A sister

It is galling to take out one’s winter clothing, after having packed it away. I say this as a Canadian, but from the banana belt of Canada — the extreme south. In the north they never put anything away; just dig things out of the ice every morning. Let me add heated words for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the USA. These shysters have announced the warmest year since planetary record-keeping was first impostured in 1880. NASA joined in with the same ludicrous result.

Both agencies receive huge amounts of public money to “prove global warming,” and both have been caught fiddling the books in the past. It would be quite impossible to get a reliable average from the system of spot readings they use, at carefully selected, changing locations. But this aside, their raw data is further “seasonally adjusted” like the unemployment figures. Too, like the communists of old, they keep adjusting the records from the past, to make the present ones look better. They retain credibility only among the credulous. Among those who have lived in North America recently, their po-faced announcements can be greeted only with guffaws.

My finches are with me on this. These would be the raspberry juice-dipped “purple finches” who breakfast on my balconata (Haemorhous purpureus). Surely I have mentioned them before. My balconata has become a truckstop for several species, ranging up in size to that buzzard I mentioned a few weeks ago. An ornithological friend tells me they must be house finches. They are not. (I suspect he is in the pay of the NOAA.) They have been driving the sparrows of Parkdale into the pigeon niches. A country bird that can beat an urbane sparrow at his own game has got to be banqueted, and prized.

These finches are erratic migrants, who may winter in Florida like many other Canadians, but breed in our north woods. From my limited observations, they would seem to have chosen the city not as a place to live, but as a kind of free public foodbank in which to loiter and bulk up, en route both ways.

Their breeding success may have some small part to do with this adaptable foraging, but in the main I attribute it to the jealousy of the male. For I’ve noticed that, having entrapped a female, he will not leave her in peace, nor let her out of his sight for a moment. (Anecdotes could be supplied.) He will even push sunflower seeds on her, as if the delicate little creature couldn’t pick them out of the trough for herself.

Any one of these finches has taken more spot temperature readings than all the satellites in the sky, and from much closer to the ground in question. And as I say, they get around. They aren’t stuck like machines in fixed orbital paths: they can out-change NASA not only for locations, but for skill in selecting the warmer ones. And while the males may have their thoughts fixed on other things, the females are quite philosophical.

Now, I’ve consulted my finches on global warming, and they reject the idea completely. I’ve asked the question often enough, and each time, without fail, they just fly off dismissively, in their droll, slightly looping way.


My spine having improved from its condition in Advent through Lent, I am out walking again to my own selectively warmer locations. Was walking, and shivering, through an abnormally chill spring, till I relented and retrieved my winter gear. We have clear skies and temperatures to shoot up into the fifties today (Fahrengrade; I don’t do centiheit); but that is from the Weather Network, whose predictions of what will happen in the next six hours are about as useful as those from the United Nations for the next six decades.

Among my moral flaws, manifested in my urban ambulations, is the inability to keep away from secondhand bookstores, antiques emporia, street stalls, and other provisioners of junk. In this respect, I am something like a bird. Money I have little, but this is the golden age of recyclement, when for instance the best books may turn up in the general house-clearing mounds, sold off to dealers by the large cardboard box, or rather, mischievously insinuated into boxes falsely labelled, since the booksellers sure don’t want them.

French books, for instance, are at the opposite of a premium in Parkdale just now. Earlier this week I walked off from one basement, hardly lighter in loose change, but with a rucksack of Pléiades including Alains, Balzacs, Camuses, Valerys, even a Descartes and a Spinoza. I couldn’t help myself: I couldn’t leave them there absorbing cellar-rot. And these were all older editions, before the pointillistes of the Académie française got at them, fluffing out each volume with hundreds of pages of mostly irritating textual and interpretive notes, making them too fat for a jacket pocket. For gawdsake, I cuss, has no one ever heard of an editio minor?

Older they are than the current hundred-dollar editions, but too often with leather covers cracking from a simple cause. The poor things were never read. (Except sometimes the first five prefatory pages, where 99 percent of ballpoint pen marks will be found.) Those acquainted with book-leather may understand the problem: leather requires treatment. Old leather books that have been properly read and handled, have by and large endured.

This is demonstrated by a beautiful missal, also found this week — that by Provost Hussenbeth of Cossey, in Latin and English, first published 1871. (The supplements show it is a later printing.) It contains dozens of exquisitely cut engravings on biblical and symbolic themes; and too, the latest revisions from the Rome of Pius IX (“the Infallible”). Needless to say, it is my latest guarantee of avoiding the Bugnini desecrations that began in the 1950s.

My eye had been drawn to it (lying in a heap on a dirty concrete floor) by the patina of the leather; then when I picked it up, by its wonderful state of preservation. Internal evidence of Mass cards, inserted notes, and devotional passages neatly inscribed on blank pages at both ends, suggest the book was much used, but always gently, almost certainly by a nun. Those passages show her special mystical devotion to the Holy Family. The oils from her clean hands treated the leather, over many years. That is what preserved it.

From the saddlers and connoisseurs of horse tackle, one learns the use of first-pressed neatsfoot oil. This must be applied sparingly and skilfully at regular but not too frequent intervals. Neatsfoot is made from the lower legs (but never the hooves) of cattle. It may also be known to the keepers of precious baseball and other gloves. Though it will darken the leather over time, the oil makes it ever more supple.

But here is the strangest thing. God seems so to have arranged the universe, that the oil from human hands is even better than neatsfoot, and does not darken. It would seem to be the best possible treatment, not only for calfskin, but deerskin, sheepskin, goatskin, and all other fine book-leathers.

The missal now in my possession was printed on a superb bible paper, thinner and lighter by weight, yet more opaque than that used for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. I am no Victorian, and the typographical and decorative features are not to my taste, yet every detail of the book’s manufacture has been done with such durable care and craftsmanship that I love it to distraction.

I seem to have become a missal collector, without quite intending it. Like the Duke of Wellington before me (who learnt Spanish from a missal purchased in Dublin, on his way to the Peninsular War), I look out for foreign missals especially. They make wonderful language textbooks. They were indeed the old method for learning a foreign language, unless one was an anti-Catholic bigot. For if one has fully mastered Latin (a claim I can never make), or become familiar with the Mass, one may pick up any modern language from the close translations in the parallel columns. Better yet, the language one picks up will be elevated, not coarse.

Likewise, those who know their Bible well, have the inestimable advantage when seeking a reading knowledge of any other language into which they find it translated. And with that, the perfect preparatory tool for reading any national literature new to them, for the greatest works in every Western language depend on biblical allusions. A facility in the spoken language can then be obtained, upon arrival. (There is no nation on earth whose people will not generously help you in this task.)

All such advantages are alas lost to the modern, fast-food, cafeteria Catholic, along with the Latin Mass itself and the eloquence of the Vulgate, that were until recently his birthright. Nevertheless, this will all be recovered when our generation of Vatican Vandals has finished passing away.


One thing was omitted, from the many things written in my latest missal (acquired for a price so low I am embarrassed to state it). The owner failed to write anywhere in it her own name. I found memorials in the book for eight deceased nuns, whom I suppose to have been among her friends; but of course, no one lives to add her own final Mass card. Still, on the possibility some kindly fellow nun slipped it in while clearing her possessions, I will ask gentle reader to say a prayer with me for the last of those remembered: Sister Mary Gertrude of the Convent of Notre Dame, at Birkdale (in Yorkshire?), née Agnes Collingwood, who died 3rd December 1918, in the 55th year of her age, and 34th of her religious profession:

“O Gentlest Heart of Jesus, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament, ever consumed with burning love for the poor captive souls in Purgatory, have mercy on the soul of Thy servant Mary Gertrude; bring her from the shadows of exile to the bright home of Heaven, where, we trust, Thou and Thy Blessed Mother have woven for her a crown of unfading bliss.”