Friday, 29 July 2011

Them dry bones

'Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
Indigestibles, the spars of purposes
That failed far from the surface.'

from Relic Ted Hughes

'Hydrogen peroxide?' 'Yes, that's right.' The shop assistant shook her head a little nervously. 'I'll ask the manager.' The manager eyed me up and down before confirming what I already suspected. 'We are not allowed to sell it any more.' Afterwards I thought how glad I was that she hadn't asked me why I wanted it. I would only have dug myself in deeper. 'Well, you see, I have these bones...'  I discovered later that it is quite easy to buy hydrogen peroxide on the internet (but then what isn't?). It seems rather perverse that something deemed too dangerous to stock in a chemist is safe enough to send through the post. In fact the chemist did stock plenty of hair products containing peroxide but I only wanted to whiten my bones, not condition them or give them a shiny bounce.

When I say my bones I don't actually mean my own, which I aim to keep safely tucked away on the inside for now. I mean the animal bones I have found on my travels and can't stop myself from picking up and bringing home. A few weeks ago I found a seal skull on the Fife coast near St Andrews. It lacks a jaw bone but is otherwise almost complete, even keeping some of its upper teeth. It is astonishing, ribbed and vaulted like a cathedral or a crypt, sculpted with precision for its purpose. I have washed all the sand out of it and it now sits in the bathroom, waiting to be treated. Hydrogen peroxide sterilises and whitens bone without reacting with and softening it as domestic bleach does.

For me, bones are among the most irresistible objets trouvĂ©s, rivalling shells in the intricacy of their design. They are things of beauty and curiosity and, cleaned up and brought into the setting of a modern home, they make striking ornaments and talking points. Reactions to my little collection of skulls and antlers vary, as you might expect. Some visitors find them ghoulish, others faintly unhygienic, overlooking the fact that they are far more sterile than houseplants or pets or ourselves! But plenty of folk seem to share my enthusiasm and are a little covetous. Some admit to having collections of their own. 

Gathering bones is as old as the hills. Of course many of their practical uses have been superseded and their decorative uses largely outmoded if not thoroughly outlawed. But bones retain powerful symbolic significances, much exploited and trivialised by popular culture. Their intricate architecture aside, what mostly entices me to pick them up is that strange capacity they have to remind me simultaneously of our transience and our permanance. In Ted Hughes' poem Relic, on the everlasting cycle of consuming and being consumed, the 'indigestibles' - the claws and carapaces and vertebrae that the sea disgorges - 'continue the beginning'.

It is an enviably succinct phrase. And that's what we all do, as we go through our lives, isn't it? We continue the beginning. Perhaps one day far from now, when I have quite done with my own inside bones, some stroller will find one by chance and admire it enough to take home. I find that very comforting.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The whole truth

'Facilius per partes in cognitionem totius adducimur'
Seneca the Younger (4BC to AD65) from Epistulae morales

I remember my early science classes at school. I don't think at that age we had split them into their separate disciplines. Sometimes, when the season was right, we would collect wild flowers from the school grounds and take them inside and dismantle them to learn about their constituent parts. Buttercups were a favourite; they were cheerful and simple and in plentiful supply. Looking back, I don't recall any qualms about us picking them, no cautionary lessons about sparing their less common brothers and sisters. There were words that hadn't been invented in those days, like 'ecosystem' and 'biodiversity'. Eden was there to be reaped, and raped.

Anyway, with nimble fingers and tweezers we pulled apart our chosen flower, laying out the fragments on a blank page. A tiny dab of glue was a precaution against sudden sneezes and boisterous classmates. Once we had our design just the way we wanted, a yellow and green five-pointed star, we would annotate it in pencil. Stipe and stigma, stamens and sepals, the alliterative words rang at once clinical and musical, equally at home in the poem and the operating theatre. When we were done the whole thing was covered in a square of transparent 'sticky-back plastic' (a phrase forever linked in my mind with Valerie Singleton, John Noakes et al). And there they were, our dissected flowers preserved for always, or at least until we grew tired of our no-longer-new exercise books and lost them.

It was a harmless enough lesson I suppose, but even at a young age I remember a certain disquiet about it. There was something a little unseemly about the end result, something not entirely edifying about dismantling a private thing of beauty and splaying it in this way. I must be careful here; with my adult sensibilities I can add connotations of sexual violation to what we were doing of which I am sure to have been innocent at the time. So what was it exactly, this undefined uneasiness? Disappointment, I think, and sadness. It is like the feeling I get in provincial museums and private collections looking at trays of displayed moths and butterflies. Musty and mouldering, they signify age suspended, a chimera of everlasting beauty. Drop the tray and these little pinned-out Dorian Grays will disintegrate into dust.

Our exercise, intended to reveal, had merely exposed. The flat page showed us what but not why. We learned nothing of how our specimens aligned themselves to the rays of the sun, or how they opened to the insect vectors of their choice, why they grew abundantly here but not there, why they flowered in June but not April, why they were golden yellow and not blue or white. Our neat two-dimensional creations had anatomy but lacked vitality; stems and stamens yes, but no soul.

The quotation above, written by Seneca in a letter at the end of his long life, translates as 'We are more easily led part by part to an understanding of the whole.' This linear and very Latin approach to learning has been enshrined in our education system ever since. We break things down, take them one step at a time, allow time for assimilation before moving on. But it is a method not without fault. A compartmentalised approach to learning can easily accentuate the differences between things rather than the commonalities. It spills over into other aspects of our society, leading to linear cause-and-effect responses to probelm solving. Our piecemeal approaches to clinical medicine and law-making are examples, they are rarely holistic. It seems we can never entirely put Humpty together again.

My disappointment with my buttercup was, I suppose, a first lesson in Gestalt; the whole is not merely the sum of its parts, an aphorism attributed with some dispute to Aristotle's Metaphysica. It has become fashionable to disparage the grand old philosopher in our iconoclastic age but his explorations of the origin and essence of things, of primal existence, have illumined our view of ourselves in a way that is unparalleled in Western thought.

Later I went on to study natural sciences at college, at times conducting laboratory exercises far more brutal and pointless than dismembering buttercups. And often I was left with that same elusive unease that we were missing something. We found out what things were made of but not what made them the way they are.

I have some of my school exercise books still, those jottings of another me. None contains a flower preserved under plastic I'm pleased to say. These days I prefer to wade knee-high through buttercup fields, relishing how radiant they are in their wholeness.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Balmerino chestnut

Like the first monks I came to Balmerino in Fife on foot. Unlike them I had walked only a few miles along the coast, carrying nothing but a packed lunch and a camera. They came across open country all the way from Melrose, bringing the religious trappings they needed to found a new Cistercian monastery. No doubt they had beasts and covered carts and plenty of help from the lay community. And they had their unswerving faith in those early days. Nevertheless, in 1227 it would have been quite a trek. But then, unlike me, they came at the behest of a queen.

The story goes that Ermengarde de Beaumont, widowed queen of William the Lion and the Abbey's founding patron, planted a Spanish chestnut tree on the site to mark the occasion. It is tempting to believe the story that the tree growing in the grounds today is Ermengarde's gift to her new monastic community. If true, that would make it some eight hundred years old. Sweet chestnuts are certainly confirmed as living to that age in other places. Some Corsican specimens are said to have lived for a milennium. Sadly the tired old giant at Balmerino is likely to be only half that age. Ironically, that would have seen it planted around the time of the Abbey's demise during the Dissolution.

Supported by props, the scars of past amputations patched over with mortar, the Balmerino chestnut could almost be a metaphor for the ruined Abbey itself. The little that remains of this always small, never wealthy, daughter house of Melrose is presently off limits, deemed unsafe by its keepers, Historic Scotland, for clambering visitors. The hope one day is that sufficient funds will be raised to stabilise the masonry that survives and allow full access. Meanwhile, the Balmerino chestnut lives on, instilling a sense of secular awe in latter day pilgrims like me.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A Sky worth subscribing to

The much heralded 'digital switchover' has taken place in our part of the world. Our trusty old terrestrial analogue television signals are no more. I suppose it will be a little piece of history by the time the switchover programme completes in 2012; another milestone in the digital communications revolution. Despite all the advance publicity and my desk-sharing with a colleague working on a project to support those less able to manage the change, I still managed to forget about it when the time came. I had a grumpy five minutes on returning from holiday to discover nothing was where I had left it on my television.

Now I am thoroughly re-tuned and unsurprised to discover that in spite of having the best part of a hundred channels to select from, I still have difficulty finding much I can be fussed to watch. Lucky, then, that there is no shortage of alternatives to the (not so) little black rectangle in the corner of the room. Top of my list just now has to be weather watching; probably not what News Corp and the other stakeholders in BSkyB had in mind when trying to entice me to subscribe to Sky, but a whole lot more entertaining.

Spot the glider!
Although it may be deserving of many epithets, nobody could accuse this summer's Scottish weather of being dull. After the fierce, tree-culling gales of May, in Edinburgh this last week we experienced violent thunderstorms and flash floods accompanied by strange mammatus clouds. These clouds, so named because they have the appearance of breast-like mounds projecting below the main cloud base, are quite rare in Britain. They will be more familiar to my readers in the US where their appearance is often an early warning sign of tornadoes. They signify unusually turbulent currents within the thunderheads above, and steep temperature gradients

Storm moving across Fife
On a calmer note, our prolonged daylight hours after sundown have this week been showing an even rarer feature, one of the best displays of noctilucent clouds for many years. Noctilucent clouds are made of tiny ice crystals at great altitude, far exceeding that of any other clouds. On summer nights, when the Earth's surface is in shadow but the sun sinks not far below the horizon, high layers of the atmosphere (the mesosphere) are still illuminated in the northern sky giving the clouds, where present, a ghostly, diaphanous glow.

Some of these effects have been quite localised. They require being in the right place at the right time and with a camera to hand. I haven't managed either of these particularly well and sadly have no pictures of these phenomena of my own. However, there is a wonderful shot of the noctilucent clouds over Portobello beach on the website Talk Porty. I was out of town when the Edinburgh storms came although a week earlier I did witness something similar in Dundee; no mammatus clouds but midnight skies in the middle of the afternoon and the city bombarded with hailstones the size of hazelnuts. This picture of RRS Discovery was taken on my mobile phone shortly after the storm passed, about 4pm on a midsummer day!

Unstable airflows have been moving across northern Britain for months now. They may not make for ideal summer weather but the visual effects have been dramatic. As our great painters of clouds, John Constable and JMW Turner, knew well, there isn't a single colour on the palette that can't be found in the sky in the right conditions. It makes for great viewing day and night. It is a Sky worth subscribing to, except of course we don't need to.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Poppies in July

'You flicker. I cannot touch you.
I put my hand among the flames. Nothing burns.
And it exhausts me to watch you

Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.'

Sylvia Plath wrote two mature poems on the theme of poppies, both dating from 1962 and bearing in their title the month of their composition. Both appeared in the posthumously published Ariel although it is not certain that would have been her intention, had she lived to assemble the final manuscript herself. But they surely belong together, disconcerting twins born a few months apart but progeny of the same stock.

Like most of her late poems Poppies in July (quoted above) and Poppies in October are written in free verse. The language is sparse and urgent, pruned of the superfluous words that filled and sometimes flawed her earlier style. They share an imagery too, of skirts, mouths, blood and noxious vapours; the flowers represent splashes of vibrant, pumping life addressed by a protagonist who is pale and listless and passive by comparison.

Poppies are startling flowers, often gaudily sumptuous in a landscape of muted shades. Seeing them scattered red and black among fields of summer wheat and barley it is easy to understand why they were favourites of the impressionist and pointillist painters. The flowers in Claude Monet's Poppies, Near Argenteuil (1873) almost seem to flicker in the way Plath describes them.

Their association with euphoria and painlessness ('your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule, Dulling and stilling.') and the sinister payback of dependency, decline and death were not lost on Plath either. 'There are fumes that I cannot reach. Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?' she asks in July, while the allusion to carbon monoxide in October is, of course, agonisingly prescient.

Sylvia Plath had a genius for taking everyday things, especially things to which we more usually ascribe benign romantic associations  - candles, mirrors, the moon, flowers and so on - and injecting them with new significances, subverting them into things charged and edgy and dangerous. I can gasp at poppies, but I can never quite look at them without recalling these poems, Sylvia Plath's 'little hell flames.'

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

An incantation of moons

THE Scottish night sky promises rather lean pickings for planet watchers in the month ahead. Of our Earth's five solar system companions visible to the naked eye only one, Jupiter, offers much to look at during July and even then only for early birds (or very late owls). Venus will soon move behind the sun. Mercury - always a challenge at the best of times - might be glimpsed in the post sunset afterglow. Mars and Saturn are low in the pre-dawn sky but faint enough to need binoculars, Mars getting slowly brighter as Saturn fades.

Part of the reason for the poor show ought to be obvious, there isn't much night sky at the moment! Another is the angle of the ecliptic. The solar system is a remarkably flat disc. Most planets orbit the sun in the same plane with not much more than a few degrees of variation. On summer nights the sun dips only shallowly below the northern horizon. Correspondingly, the planets are low too. Light from objects at low elevations reaches us through more atmosphere. The atmosphere with all its movement and pollutants disturbs the light rays, resulting in fainter, fuzzier images.

But Jupiter is fun to watch, often by far the brightest thing in the sky (our moon excepted of course). Even viewed through binoculars its disc grows larger, where stars remain the same size. I use a birdwatching telescope and on good nights I can clearly see Jupiter's famous coloured bands and the four Galilean moons, so called after their first observer Galileo Galilei four hundred and one years ago. The moons have an ecliptic of their own and can often be seen strung out in a line to one side of the planet.

The Galilean moons! As a child I used to chant their mysterious names over and over, as if through my incantation I might summon the mythological lovers of Jupiter (or Zeus) in the flesh. Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto... Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Conquests of Jupiter might be a better collective description as all, three girls and a boy, were pursued, deceived and taken by force. Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto...  In fact it wasn't Galileo who named them but a rival, Simon Marius, a German astronomer. His claim to their discovery has been largely forgotten but his apt names have persisted.

An incantation of Jovian moons
Attempts to get my camera and telescope to speak to each other have so far yielded disappointing results so this picture isn't mine, but it gives a good idea of what you should expect to see. Galileo was a generous, or perhaps just prudent, man. He dedicated his discovery to his patron and former maths pupil Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  He was also genius, devising a means of telling the time and longitude from nightly observing the relative positions of  'Cosimo's stars'. And he was fortunate to live in a part of the world and an age where clearer skies were guaranteed!

As July goes on Jupiter will rise earlier, so by the end of the month it will be up by midnight. I'll be away in my tent again by then, free of Edinburgh's light pollution. Telescope at the ready I will start up my incantation. Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto... Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Join me?

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Return of the giant hogweed

'Turn and run! Nothing can stop them. Around every river and canal their power is growing.' Funny, but it has never occurred to me before now that Peter Gabriel's apocalyptic, if rather fanciful, lyrics to The Return of the Giant Hogweed (Nursery Cryme 1971) are about the true story of the introduction of the plant to the Botanic Gardens at Kew during the great age of Victorian acquisitiveness, and its inevitable consequences. In Gabriel's re-telling the giant hogweeds take on the guise of John Wyndham's triffids, bent on vengeful human annihilation.

Giant hogweed by the river Esk
Last week I was writing about our harmless native hogweed. Today, walking the river Esk in East Lothian, I came across an immense infestation of giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, an altogether more frightening encounter. There were many specimens of easily twice my height and the large area, completely overrun by the plant, was sealed off behind barbed wire. And for good reason... giant hogweed is best given a wide berth.

The plant produces a sap which reacts with ultraviolet light. Even mild contact such as brushing against the hairy stems can leave the skin hyper-sensitive to sunlight, resulting in painful and persistent blistering that may recur for years. The giant stems are hollow, making them attractive for children's games as swords, blowpipes or telescopes, with potentially horrible consequences. There are cases of hospitalisation every year.

As Peter Gabriel laments, giant hogweed, which originates from the Russian Caucasus, is virtually indestructible, requiring a co-ordinated effort by landowners, local authorities and environment agencies over a many years. According to East Lothian Council's website, council officers are engaged in a long-term campaign of eradication, backed by legislation making it an offence to plant giant hogweed or to allow it to grow unchecked on private land.

Sandra has written recently about the tenacity of weeds and the futility of our attempts to submit them to our will. Readers of my earlier posts will know that I, too, am an admirer of the weed. I am left with a sense of deep ambivalence about plants like the giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam and others. After all, we reap what we sow. Brought to Britain as ornamental curiosities, they are one legacy of the colonial hubris of our ancestors. In spite of all our best (and costly) efforts at eradication they are almost certainly here to stay. Containment through responsible environmental management is probably the best we can hope for.

Let me stress I have absolutely no wish to see children blinded or disfigured through contact with this plant, any more than I would want to see people bitten by adders, poisoned by mushrooms or injured by any other agent of our natural world. In that sense we are fortunate in Britain that there is not much out there to do us serious harm. But in our enlightened twenty-first century do we still entertain the eradication of species on the grounds that they are potentially harmful to us, our pets or our livestock? What is missing from East Lothian Council's website is surely what should be the second prong of its campaign, education. There are no photographs or drawings by which to identify the plant, no advice for parents or gardeners on avoiding contact or what to do if experiencing symptoms. We must kill it, that is all.

The giant hogweed is undoubtedly impressive although not especially attractive. It is certainly a plant to be treated with extreme caution. On balance it would probably have been better if Victorian gentlemen collectors had not brought it here. But they did and we must learn to live with it as we must the grey squirrel, the sycamore, the mink, the rhododendron, the New Zealand flatworm and the myriad other newcomers to our islands. We should remember that unlike John Wyndham's sci-fi triffid, the giant hogweed isn't an invader, we introduced it.