Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grieving and Gratitude: A Thanksgiving Reflection

There is, perhaps, nobody less deserving of the excellent people with whom I have been allowed to surround myself in this life, but this sense, honest and not a false assertion of humility, is, I would guess, probably widely shared. Indeed, how many other friends of Peter Conner Greer and Martin Capodice must feel the same way? We are and were graced by their presence.

When I left for Asia in early February 2011, I knew that my favorite English high-school teacher was living with cancer and that the husband of my dear friend, who was, in his own right, my dear friend, was also living with cancer. Knowing that I might not be there for their last days was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

A month ago, the latter person, Martin Capodice, passed away and today I have learned that my English teacher, Peter Greer, took a turn for the worse on Thanksgiving. He will return home for hospice--a process that mercifully only lasted a couple days for my other long-suffering friend.

The hardest part of being far away, as I just reflected in a letter to the daughter of my English teacher, is that you must delegate the giving of kisses. I did not express to her the coexisting truth: these temporal works of mercy are not assignable. You cannot be there for Thanksgiving and Christmas with your family. You cannot be there for your godson's wedding or your friend's funeral. No amount of cards or phone calls or delegated embraces can substitute for the spiritual fruit of being there yourself in the flesh, but there is some hope that a message of gratitude, an expression of love will provide some warmth and strength to the one about whom you are concerned.

"I don't think I know him as well as you do, but I adore him--he's just lovely and warm, and always has been," wrote a classmate of mine just now about Peter. Her assessment in the latter part of this reflection mirrors my own, but the first part made me wonder how well I actually know him. Comparisons are odious, as my father has always said, and it is true, I think, that we all know people differently. There must be some standard of knowing somebody better than somebody else, but I don't know what it is.

All this being true, still the hardest part of Marty's passing for me--I walked around the hutongs of Beijing in a daze for a couple nights upon hearing the news--was the realization that I did not know him that well. We don't know anybody that well. Death is always a robbery, taking somebody before you were permitted enough time in this life to go one level deeper or, sometimes, to say things that you wanted to say. As his wife said to me, "I just feel so lucky that I did get the time I had with him."

Amen.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Second Visit to the Botanical Gardens after the China Tea Expo

On Monday, Deborah and I went to the China Tea Expo at the Beijing Agricultural Expo Center, not far from our home. Having not had breakfast, we asked a nice woman from Yunnan, who had just been at the tea expo I went to in Changchun in September, about where to find some food. She gave us six bao zi (three apiece) and then sat us down at her tea table. Kindly, she offered to warm them up in her tea cup cleaning tool so we re-steamed them perched upon the bottom of upturned cups in a basin of boiling water. 


After learning quite a bit from her, we were asked, of course, to buy something. I knew this was coming, but her tea was very expensive. We escaped with 150RMB of gold-foil wrapped cooked puerh. After leaving the consumed tea in the urinal (pardon me for sharing this detail, but see the picture below), we proceeded to the subway station.


More than an hour and a half later, we were back at the Beijing Botanical Gardens. I was anxious to see the inside of the world's largest, purportedly, conservatory. Deborah and I wended our way through each of the different major sections--a rain forest, a desert, an orchid zone.







It was a magnificent air day. You could vaguely smell the smoke from farmer's burning their fields, but the blue sky was a welcome sight.






Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"You Gotta Die of Something"

Reflections on Incense, air-filters, and PM 2.5, etc.

Encyclopedia Britannica states that incense was employed to counteract disagreeable odors, drive away demons, manifest the presence of gods, and to gratify gods. Incense burning has been practiced for centuries. Early Christian churches used incense in the Eucharistic ceremony, in which it symbolized the ascent of the prayers of the faithful and the merits of the saints. Later, incense was employed sporadically in the Church of England. Elsewhere in both Eastern and Western Catholic Christendom, its use during divine worship and during processions has been continuous [1].

There is a little bit of medical data out there on the web about particles emitted by incense. The conclusion of one study was, "When considering the worldwide prevalence of incense burning and resulting high respiratory exposures, the oxygenated organics identified in this study have significant human health implications, especially for susceptible populations." [2] A second, earlier study concluded, "The particles emitted in a domestic environment by a source of moderate intensity such as burning incense disperse throughout the house, even in rooms with closed doors and in rooms as far away as the next floor. This dispersion has significant implications in terms of evaluating human indoor exposure to fine and ultrafine particles." [3]

The consensus seems to be that it is not healthy. The following abstract offers a good overview:
In Asian countries where Buddhism and Taoism are mainstream religions, incense burning is a daily practice. A typical composition of stick incense consists of 21% (by weight) of herbal and wood powder, 35% of fragrance material, 11% of adhesive powder, and 33% of bamboo stick. Incense smoke (fumes) contains particulate matter (PM), gas products and many organic compounds. On average, incense burning produces particulates greater than 45 mg/g burned as compared to 10 mg/g burned for cigarettes. The gas products from burning incense include CO, CO2, NO2, SO2, and others. Incense burning also produces volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, toluene, and xylenes, as well as aldehydes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The air pollution in and around various temples has been documented to have harmful effects on health. When incense smoke pollutants are inhaled, they cause respiratory system dysfunction. Incense smoke is a risk factor for elevated cord blood IgE levels and has been indicated to cause allergic contact dermatitis. Incense smoke also has been associated with neoplasm and extracts of particulate matter from incense smoke are found to be mutagenic in the Ames Salmonella test with TA98 and activation. In order to prevent airway disease and other health problem, it is advisable that people should reduce the exposure time when they worship at the temple with heavy incense smokes, and ventilate their house when they burn incense at home. [4]
"You gotta die of something" was probably the glib response of some friend who was the object of my concern for smoking cigarettes. It is my response generally to the affliction of living in urban China. I don't own a mask, but I still inhale. They say, as I have reported previously, that a bad air day here in the capital is equivalent to smoking a pack-a-day of cigarettes. Never having smoked a cigarette or even put one to my lips, I am still fairly sure that experience would be preferable to getting my quotient of smoke from tailpipes and smokestacks. That said, I suppose I am just catching up with the nicotine addicts. I fear (deeply) that stressing out about the air is likely to contribute to my demise just as quickly as the particles themselves so I have adopted a laissez faire approach as best I can. Let it kill me, something will eventually.

Now, some might think education has little purpose if even one of their most environmentally-educated friends is not smart enough to don protection, so to speak. In fact, I am very concerned about climate change and air pollution (and over-population, if your thoughts went there), but when I asked the purveyors of the parts to a do-it-yourself air-purifying kit if they had measured the macro-costs of their tool, I was placated with, "What a great idea! We will have to look into that." I am concerned that if we all run air purifiers that run on electricity generated from coal, we will only make things worse. If we all fill the landfills with disposable masks, it won't be long before we are buried in a sea of them. If we try to cool the houses and stores of Beijing with air-conditioning, we will continue to increase the number of unbearably hot days. Accepting some level of suffering now so that more people do not need to suffer later seems like the right thing to do.

A degree of cynicism coupled with a healthy disdain for technological progress probably makes me more curmudgeonly than Wendell Berry, but I think we should not be afraid to ask deep questions about emerging, flash-in-the pan whiz-bangery, such as Superpedestrian's new project. Do we really need a better bicycle? I still sweat on an electric bike. What problem does this really solve and even if it solves my problem, does it solve a larger problem? Not if I am still going to own a Prius and the bicycle, too.

Well, I am concerned about PM 2.5, but I sure would like to find a good game of kodo...and those bikes do look like fun...so I will stop this train of thought about how to be holy in an age of consumption. Cough.

Japanese ladies adding smoke to the air as part of an incense-smelling game.


1. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/284645/incense

2. Characterisation of airborne particles and associated organic components produced from incense burning.
Chuang HC, Jones T, Chen Y, Bell J, Wenger J, BéruBé K.
Anal Bioanal Chem. 2011 Dec;401(10):3095-102. doi: 10.1007/s00216-011-5209-7. Epub 2011 Jul 17.

3. Characterization of particles emitted by incense burning in an experimental house.
Ji X, Le Bihan O, Ramalho O, Mandin C, D'Anna B, Martinon L, Nicolas M, Bard D, Pairon JC.
Indoor Air. 2010 Apr;20(2):147-58. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0668.2009.00634.x.

4. Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease
Ta-Chang Lin, Guha Krishnaswamy and David S Chi3
Clinical and Molecular Allergy 2008, 6:3

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Coal Mining Envy

Warning: Mining Equipment Pornography

dedicated to my old friend and accomplice Dr. Helen Caldicott

This picture is from Monday, prior to the grand opening ceremony
Friday at 1:27 PM

I am about to leave by bicycle for the China Coal & Mining Expo 2013. In the Chinglish version of their promotional website it says, "China Coal & Mining Expo goes back to 1985, when it was first held. It has since been the trade’s only national event every other year. In 2013, China Coal & Mining Expo will have been hosted for 15th anniversary."

In 2011, the bi-annual China Coal & Mining Expo attracted more than 410 exhibitors from 24 countries and regions, occupying more than 70,000 sq. meters, which made it the largest trade show in its sector. 

Friday at 2:59 PM

I am back home already. It is more or less over. It was supposed to run until 2 PM today, but registration closed at noon. Nevertheless, I wandered around the outside grounds with no pass and a camera. Here are the results. Really, it looks like a bunch of over-sized toys for men who like to play in the sand (and play with our future existence, I might add). Compared to the smooth bore of a nuclear warhead, though, one has to admit that these gargantuan dildos are much more exciting for the sadists who wield such weapons of mass destruction.

Penis Length Worldwide
Dr. Caldicott, to whom I've dedicated this post, wrote a book called Missile Envy, making unveiled usage of the pop psychology term "penis envy." As a review in the Christian Science Monitor put it in 1984, "'Missile envy' is partly the illusion that the bigger weapon is the better. It also touches the macho element in our society: The only way to forestall the enemy is to be bigger and tougher than he is." If your enemy is another coal mining company, then you would want to be at this trade show looking for the biggest, toughest hunk of water-squirting metal you could find--maybe from a German company like Krupp. If your enemy is mankind, the smaller Chinese versions will also do. 














Friday, October 25, 2013

The Confucius Temple & Imperial College

Last weekend I went to a nearby site and while I will write a few of my own observations, The Lonely Planet managed to offer such a good description that I thought I would repeat it here with attribution:
An incense stick's toss away from the Lama Temple, the desiccated Confucius Temple had a pre-Olympics spruce up that failed to shift its indelible sense of otherworldly detachment. Like all Confucian shrines, China's second-largest Confucian temple feels rather like a mausoleum, so expect peace and quiet. Some of Běijīng's last remaining páilóu bravely survive in the hútòng outside (Guozijian Jie) while antediluvian bìxì (tortoise-like dragons) glare inscrutably from repainted pavilions. Lumpy and ossified ancient cypresses claw stiffly at the sky while at the rear a numbing forest of 190 stelae (stones or slabs etched with figures or inscriptions) records the 13 Confucian classics in 630,000 Chinese characters. 
A ghastly footnote lies unrecorded behind the tourist blurb. Běijīng writer Lao She was dragged here in August 1966, forced to his knees in front of a bonfire of Běijīng opera costumes to confess his 'antirevolutionary crimes', and beaten. The much-loved writer drowned himself the next day in Taiping Lake. 
West of the Confucius Temple is the Imperial College (国子监; Guózǐjiàn), where the emperor expounded the Confucian classics to an audience of thousands of kneeling students, professors and court officials – an annual rite. Built by the grandson of Kublai Khan in 1306, the former college was the supreme academy during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. On the site is a marvellous [sic] glazed, three-gate, single-eaved decorative archway. The Bìyōng Hall beyond is a twin-roofed structure with yellow tiles surrounded by a moat and topped with a shimmering gold knob.
I did not know about Lao She's trial here, but beyond this interesting tidbit, I found the appraisal accurate and the language vivid.

The first statue of Confucius that one sees upon entering the shrine.

Halberds at the gate to the temple. 
Caption in the museum reads, "According to the records, Confucius was nine chi and six cun tall and was called 'a tall fellow' by other people. Considering that one chi is equivalent to twenty centimeters, Confucius would be a strong man of 1.92 cm." This was only the tip of the iceberg in his glorification.

This is one of the hundreds of 190 stelae that the Emperor Qianlong, who reigned during
the time of the American Revolution, had inscribed with 13 classic books. I liked the 
stone of this one, with its mottled, China-like surface. 

Just before I took this beautiful picture, I had a wonderful conversation with a blustery German fellow and his Chinese wife, who were tourists from the Vancouver area, but there were not a ton of people around so it was much like Lonely Planet describes--a place where you can "expect peace and quiet."

Another statue of the great sage, Kongzi (孔子), fenced in with the red-ribbons of good wishes

A couple of large mythical beasts seem ready to devour the HVAC system, perhaps to preserve the blue-sky days. 

The lovely second story of a hutong (alleyway) home that has a straight view of the temple's grounds. 
"What? You did not do your homework?!"

 
The dorms of the scholars seemingly used a system of movable boards to transform their cells from beds into study chambers or an eating table.

The azure heavens with the celadon and golden ceramics that adorn the tomato soup red stone gate made for a gorgeous picture. "Gnarled cypress trees outside the gate create thick shade from the sun. On each side of the gate stands a huge marble stele inscribed in Mandarin and Mongolian ordering all horse riders, even the emperor, to dismount. The glazed yellow tiles on the roof reveal the temple’s past dignity." (from CITS)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

My New Crest

This is a new crest that I have designed for myself:



Lightning bolt (upper left, outside): Benjamin Franklin, who was author of an essay on farting, is also quite famous for his kite experiment involving lightning. He is the polymath and polyglot who I hold in highest regard. I was deeply affected by lightning near Lake Monsan in Quebec in 1996 so this strikes me as a fitting symbol to add to my emblem replete with its arrowhead-shaped tip associated with Greek mythology.

Clothespin (upper right, outside): Hundreds of patents exist as mankind has sought to perfect something of such grace and practicality that is quite nearly perfect already, like the Holy Grail. It represents a paradox: it shall never attain the level of utility which its tinkerers seek for it unless employed more widely in all households. 

The clothes peg, in British parlance, is a symbol of frugality and operates as an obvious badge of my life work with Project Laundry List.

Shield: The shapely shield used in the crest is bodacious and elegant, combining the noble with the proletarian.

Inscribed Cross: The Cross is a Christian symbol and, accordingly, for me it is a fitting way to divide the field. 

The engraved Simplified Chinese characters, meaning "The Middle Way" or in latin via media, are 中间道路. I chose Simplified Chinese over the more elaborate Traditional script because this convention, along with the adoption of pinyin, allowed a very high rate of literacy to be achieved in China. As a nod to the ancient, I have employed the vertical presentation of characters. I like that it is four characters in length

"The Middle Way" was a term John Henry Newman of the Oxford Movement defended in a famous series of lectures when he was an Anglican (Episcopalian), but which he rejected later, claiming, 
For a mere sentence, the words of Saint Augustine, struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before... 'Securus judicat orbis terrarum!' ["the verdict of the world is conclusive"] By those great words of the ancient Father, interpreting and summing up the long and varied course of ecclesiastical history, the theology of the Via Media was absolutely pulverized. (Apologia, part 5)
The crest speaks to the fallibility of human knowledge juxtaposed against God's infallible Way. 

The creation of this crest in the wake of the public unveiling of the Oxford Consensus this week does imbue the calligraphy with a current, powerful meaning. Furthermore, as an Episcopalian who was confirmed Catholic at age 22, I attribute my conversion to Newman, in part, and partially to the powerful writings of the Cistercian friar Thomas Merton, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism who pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. 

N.B. In this day and age, the Chinese characters meaning The Middle Way (中间道路) are exploited by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, for political purposes. I am not in the habit of publicly pulverizing others beliefs, though that could be done with some alacrity, nor am I in a geographical position to opine on this topic so I wish to distance myself from those who might thus read into their inclusion. 

Canada Lynx (upper right, inside): Born in the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Tiger, I chose instead a North American predator (Lynx canadensis) known for its ferocity and beauty. I have regarded this animal in highest esteem among felines for many years. As with the wolverine, I hope to observe one safely in the wild someday. It stands for my hopes. 

N.B. It is my pet peeve that some people refer to the Canada goose as a Canadian goose. I regard the mislabeling of this cat in like manner as an equally egregious solecism.

Another disclaimer is owing: I should not be confused with another Alex, who seemed ignorant of the species that thrives when "bunnies" have sex.

Common Loon, Cattails and Lotus (upper left, inside): The Common Loon (Gavia immer) is my totem. Its eerie, lonely cry carry me to a place of tranquility. This image also incorporates cattails and a lotus flower. 

My initial confusion coupled with ignorance allowed me to wonder if the Ark of the Covenant was like Noah's Ark, a question I posed to my more Harrison Ford-savvy trippers on the day that I was both reading about these arks and was struck by lightning while photographing a presumably non-Covenantial rainbow. Some time later, I jumbled the cat o' nine tails used for punishment in the Royal Navy with the pervasive swampland reed, sometimes called catninetail. My first cousin once-removed and the son of a favorite great aunt was the youngest man ever made captain in the Royal Navy. As a descendant of the Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins, believed by some historians to have also been the mutineer in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Hopkins is said to have shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1607 and the play to have come out of this tragedy. It seemed like a motif that would encapsulate maternal and paternal family history, as well as the predilection to subversion that seems to run deep in my blood. It is meant to remind the observer of the way that language evolves and is sometimes misunderstood. 

The lotus flower (Nelumbo lutea) which grows in the North American habitat of the Common Loon has roots anchored in the mud, but leaves and flowers that emerge above the water's surface. It is beautiful and its tuber, a food source. It is here, in part, as a representation of my knowledge of New England and Canadian edible wild plants.

Twinflower (bottom left, inside): I am a fraternal twin, so that is one apparent reason for the inclusion of this delicate specimen in my crest. The perennial stems of the twinflower are slender, pubescent, and prostrate; the flowers are paired, pendulous, with a five-lobed, pale pink corolla.  The twinflower gets its eponymous Latin name, Linnaeus borealis, from the Swedish botanist Carl Linnæus who named it as his favorite. He created the system of binomial nomenclature, a scheme that organizes nature in a somewhat orderly fashion. I teach it to my students and regard the "Prince of Botany" with nearly as much esteem as the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once did, when he wrote: "Tell him I know no greater man on earth."

Bike wheel & crossed paddles (bottom right, inside): The bike wheel is a symbol of simplicity, like the token clothespin previously discussed. It is a rejection of the automobile but, with its sophisticated hub, shows I am not a Luddite. It becomes, like the Wheel of Samsara or the Dharma Wheel, a symbol of modern enlightenment, not to mention healthy living. It apprehends health in a corporate and individual sense. It should remind those who look upon this crest of Bill McKibben's admonition that if the Chinese could do one thing for the environment it would be to remount their bicycles and abandon the personal automobile. The Presta valve is oriented at three o'clock because the Trinity is immanent and transcendent and three is my favorite number.

The wooden paddles are a nod to the indigenous people of North America, particularly the Cree among whom I have mingled. They are a visual reminder of the summers that I dedicated to learning about James Bay and its threatened rivers, while at play in the fields of the Almighty.   

Greek Motto: As a convert to Catholicism and a student of the classics, these two Greek words, speude bradeos, which translate into the Latin as festina lente and English as "hurry slowly," adopt a connotation as powerful as their denotative meaning. Nobody more thoroughly or in a more elegiacal manner has offered a treatment of this phase on par with Desiderius Erasmu's Adagia II, 1, 1: Festina Lente. Overall, Erasmus' piety and humility combined with his sense of humor present an inimitable guide to the faithful so it is fitting to contain the penultimate nod to him at the foundation of this contemporary regalia.



Note: The artwork is all taken without permission. I apologize, but will make no pecuniary gain from this tremendous waste-of-time.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"to the bottom of seeeeeeeeeeeeea...It was sad when the great ship went down."

When I was a boy of seven, my twin sister and I were packed off to summer camp, where I would wet the bed and be a source of ridicule for my uncool clothes ("your mother dresses you funny")...but I still loved it, the hiking and canoeing, the camping and skinny dipping, the singing and orienteering, blueberry picking and washing with Dr. Bronners in Loon Lake.

We were allowed to jump off bridges into rivers (the nasty Saco), because it was the permissive post-1970s, and my favorite time, especially as I grew older, was singing at The Playhouse almost every night. Men who loom epic in my mind would strum Grateful Dead and all manner of Peter, Paul and Mary and Kingston Trio songs for an hour or so before we were paraded out to do taps and herded to cabins from which, as we grew older (and full of hormones), we would sneak out at night.

In that playhouse, we also learned a song, at age seven, "Got drunk last night, got drunk the night before, gunna get drunk tonight like I ne'er got drunk before..." Today, sadly, there would be editorials in the newspaper and social workers would be sent in to shut down the camp if such a song were taught and children were allowed to jump from bridges. We turned out all right--not perfect, but no more pot-smoking or hard-drinking or unhinged than the next guy or gal, I suspect.

There was another song, though, about the Titanic, which we sang that I must say was terrible. It was about the sinking of the great ship. "The Titanic" was made popular by Paul Newman and Brandon de Wilde acting in the 1963 film Hud. Our version ended with, "The moral of the story, as you can plainly see,/Is to wear a life-preserver when you go out to sea." (Before we called them PFDs, which would have fit better in the song.) It was to the tune of "Nearer Thy God to Thee" and was really a class warfare song in keeping with much of the rest of the American folk tradition that is the staple of my music chest still more than thirty years on.

This is all by way of introduction to the main topic of this post: Ships that sink. Deborah and I watched Bob Ballard, the undersea explorer who discovered the remains of the Titanic, in a gripping National Geographic special, called The Alien Deep. Last night, the episode called Ocean's Fury was full of tales of lost ships. Here is the official synopsis of the program:
Dr. Ballard thinks that rogue waves – and all waves – are getting larger and more frequent on the seas. In Ocean's Fury, Ballard travels the world in search of the forces behind the motion of the ocean, meeting with scientists and practitioners along the way. He talks to oceanographers, climatologists, river boat pilots, surfers, fishers, and more – all to prove a single point: the ocean is growing more dangerous by the day.
The most stunning theory proposed for how sea water moves in its 1,000 year cycle around the planet was that fish and other sea creatures, like squirt-propelled jellyfish, create ripples that eventually compound into "rogue waves." It was unbelievable until I woke up and saw my friend Valerie's Facebook post of this fish:

Oct. 13, 2013: The crew of sailing school vessel Tole Mour and Catalina Island Marine Institute instructors hold an 18-foot-long oarfish that was found in the waters of Toyon Bay on Santa Catalina Island, Calif. (AP/CATALINA ISLAND MARINE INSTITUTE)
Ballard reported that, on average, one very large container ship sinks every month in addition to hundreds of smaller ones. We got a helicopter tour of the "Graveyard of the Pacific" where the Columbia rolls on to the deep. "The Columbia River Bar is a stretch of water in the US's Pacific Northwest where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. The Bar is also known as the Graveyard of the Pacific having taken roughly 2000 ships and 700 lives in recorded history." It was a tremendous amount of factual information, mixed with forceful editorializing about the importance of curbing anthropogenic sources of climate change.

This morning, the China Daily news clippings included a frightful picture of a Panama-registered, but Chinese ship sinking off the coast of South Korea. The title of the article: 1 Chinese dead, 18 missing as ship sinks off ROK.
 
The cargo ship CHENGLU15 is seen amid a storm in Yingri Harbor of Pohang in South Korea on Tuesday. [Photo/Xinhua]
It is time for us to get real about climate change.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Water Caltrop, Yam Beans, and "Asparagus"

Always intrigued by new cuisines and new ingredients, we stopped to buy some vegetables that I have not knowingly eaten prior to now. Outside of the Buddhist temple that abuts Nanguan Park, which is a stone's throw from where we live, a man was selling these interesting-looking vegetables.

Water Caltrops for Sale                                       Photo credit: Deborah Zhang (c) 2013
Wikipedia says of these:
The water caltropwater chestnutbuffalo nutbat nutdevil podSinghara (Hindiसिंघाडा)سنگھارا (Urdu) or Pani-fol (Hindi: पानीफल) is any of three extant species of the genus TrapaTrapa natansT. bicornis and the endangered Trapa rossica. The species are floating annual aquatic plants, growing in slow-moving water up to 5 meters deep, native to warm temperate parts of Eurasia and Africa. They bear ornately shaped fruits, which in the case of T. bicornis resemble the head of a bull, each fruit containing a single very large starchy seed. T. natans and T. bicornis have been cultivated in China and India for at least 3,000 years for the edible seeds.
While I have eaten water chestnuts previously--mostly in American Chinese food--I have never seen anything like these. They are beautiful and as the Wikipedia entry states, positively bovine in their appearance with a hint of orchidness. Georgia O'Keefe would have had a field day painting them!

I just cooked four of them as a sample. They are delicious, but nearly impenetrable. Chef-A-Gogo describes his experience with these popular tidbits when he was introduced to them in Phuket, Thailand. He explains that they are not crunchy like a water-chestnut, but much more like an actual chestnut--you know, the kind that December's carolers sing about roasting on an open fire.

Chinese Nutpick with Mother-of-pearl handle

As we do not have a nutpick, we are using our tea awl to dig out the meat.

Wikipedia continues,
Water caltrop has been an important food for worship as prayer offerings since the Chinese Zhou Dynasty. The Rites of Zhou (2nd century BC) mentioned that a worshipper "should use a bamboo basket containing dried water caltrops, the seeds of Euryale ferox and chestnuts" (加籩之實,菱芡栗脯). The Chinese Herbal Medicine Summary (本草備要 published in 1694, written by Wang Ang 汪昂) indicates that water caltrop can help fever and drunkenness.
As you can see from the first picture above, our street vendor was also selling chestnuts, which are for sale everywhere in the streets of Beijing, much as sweet potatoes are, as well. He was not selling the water lily seeds of Eurayle ferox, though. These, I am quite sure, I have never seen.

"Chestnuts Roasted on an..."  Photo credit: http://perceptivetravel.com/blog/2013/02/08/wangfujing-snack-street-beijing/

Photo credit: http://www.changdashanyao.com/
I bought a ¥10 bag of the mountain yam bean. It weighs about 2 kg and will do nicely for a couple of yummy dinners. Now I must set about how to prepare them. It is not easy sometimes to find recipes.

On Sunday morning, we had brunch at a spicy fish hot-pot place with an old colleague of mine from the High School Attached to Northeast Normal University and she and her husband ordered something which the Chinese-English dictionary calls "asparagus", but is really bamboo shoots. NPR has a wonderful story about the kind of "asparagus" that I am trying to identify for you.

Photo credit: Laura McCandlish for NPR