Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Eye to eye with an eagle

'The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.'

Matthew ch6 v23 (King James Bible)

Getting up close - eye-to-eye close - to a bird of prey is an unnerving and thrilling experience. Even in the field, through binoculars or a telescope, that unblinking stare fires back a warning. 'I am on a short, fierce fuse' it says, 'you have been warned.' With a few exceptions raptors lead a solitary, highly territorial life. Being eyeballed by one it is easy to understand why. They are definitely not for trifling with.

Having a large bird of prey perched on my wrist sends the adrenalin up another notch. A leather gauntlet feels barely adequate to protect against talons capable of generating enough force to crush bone. I try not to stare, for fear of provoking her, but there is a world behind those eyes that is incomprehensible and irresistible. It is like looking at a Mark Rothko painting; there is a yawning primitiveness that beckons me to step through the canvas.

Golden Eagle. Her heavy brows protect her eyes against wind
and dust, giving a characteristic penetrating stare.

The vision of raptors is legendary, proverbial. 'Eagle-eyed' we say, or 'hawk-eyed'. The udjat, or Eye of Horus the falcon god of the sky and hunting, was one of the most powerful symbols of the ancient Egyptians, the all-seeing eye worn on amulets as a source of royal protection. So just how well can a bird of prey see? It is a question that is almost impossible to answer without making comparisons with our own eyesight.

It is an unwritten law of nature that almost everything is a compromise. Things evolve to be just good enough to shorten the odds of survival, no more. Resources are directed at what is important, at the expense of things that are less so. Nature is not interested in perfection, only pragmatism. Take the golden eagle for example, what can we say about her?  To start with she hunts during the daytime and from a great height. Even more than those murderous talons, eyesight is the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. The light receptors on her retinas are packed so densely that she has a resolution six to eight times greater than humans. She also perceives rapidity of movement that would leave us shrugging. A television screen appears solid enough to our slow eyes but try taking a photograph of it. In the eyes of a diurnal raptor it would flicker on and off distractingly, just as it does to the camera.

High speed killer. Aerial strikes by a Saker Falcon at 200mph
require pinpoint accuracy. The slightest error spells disaster.

So she has high resolution, high speed imaging, then where's the catch?  The receptors in her eyes don't function well in low light. Visual performance tails off sharply at dawn and dusk, forcing her to roost. The receptors also lack the pigmented oil droplets found in many other birds, so her colour perception is mediocre at best and she cannot see in the ultraviolet spectrum like many other birds (or us). Her plumage provides a clue here; birds of prey are not brightly coloured as a family. Why waste energy on what they cannot see? Colour is unimportant when zeroing in for the kill, so colour discernment is sacrificed for what really matters - needlepoint precision.

Not windows to the soul then, as the anonymous author of Matthew's gospel might have us believe, but the eyes of the eagle, falcon, hawk and harrier are chinks of light through which we can spy on nature at work. It is an unsettling world of stimuli untroubled by notions of morality or compassion or beauty or hatred. And that makes it quite beyond our ken; utterly alien, utterly compelling.

Monday, 19 September 2011

A ring of bright mushrooms

Gavin Maxwell was left unimpressed by chanterelles. In Ring of Bright Water he recounts them growing in profusion near Camusfeàrna, the fictitious name he gave to his home in the West Highlands. But he describes them as insipid and flavourless, not worth the bother of collecting, 'their beauty but skin-deep, more appropriate to the magic of moss and fern and rushing water than to the table.'

Mostly chanterelles and a few edible boletus
By his own admission Maxwell wasn't much good at identifying wild mushrooms and, unsure whether what he had collected was safe to eat, disconsolately consigned his haul to the rubbish pit. It was perhaps a wise precaution if in doubt, especially as he lived alone (otters excepted), but such a shame. If he was truly coming upon chanterelles in such quantity then they were a lucky find indeed. It is not that chanterelles are especially rare, far from it, but they are quite localised and have a tendency to grow in inaccessible locations. Last year I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day hanging upside down on a precarious river bank in Galloway trying to pluck the yolk-yellow trumpets that seemed to grow quite deliberately just out of reach.

On that day I went out with a seasoned forager who knew just where to look. Chanterelle haunts, I learned, tend to be closely guarded secrets. Contrary to Gavin Maxwell's lack of enthusiasm, many hunters prize them above all other species and for a short season in late summer / early autumn the race is on to find the golden treasure. Hotels and restaurants will pay a fair price to suppliers willing to brave the mud and the midges, so no wonder the best locations are not generously broadcast.

A few inedible Russula on the right
As our eyes grew accustomed, once we knew exactly what we were looking for, they were unmistakeable. The colour alone is enough to identify them, rich yellow-orange like they had been freshly squeezed from an artist's tube of oil paint. The wide gills run into the stem giving them their classic horn-like shape. They have a rubbery texture and smell faintly fruity. We got a good catch that day and they weren't for sale.  We lived on chanterelle omelettes and chanterelle risotto and chanterelles on toast for days and they were delicious. I can only assume Gavin Maxwell wasn't cooking them right. The tasty compounds they contain are fat and alcohol soluble, so they are no good for boiling. Frying in oil or butter or with a little white wine brings out all the goodness. And if you need a further justification for eating them, they are a valuable source of vitamins too.

Gavin Maxwell was quite an adventurer, traveling widely in the Middle East in the 1950s and trying his hand at all kinds of escapades including a spell of shark farming! But fungi he grew up to treat with suspicion. Consequently the rich supplement to his diet of tinned food that grew all around him at Camusfeàrna went 'unmolested' to use his word. They were left 'to flourish among the ferns and dappled sunlight of the birches by the burns and the hidden waterfalls, their many hues of violet and green, red and orange, nibbled at by discerning and appreciative rodents'.  Oh well,  suum cuique pulchrum est (to each his own is beautiful) I suppose.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Season of mists

'Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -'

from To Autumn  by John Keats

English poets have always been bewitched by autumn. Shakespeare, Keats, Browning and Blake, Clare and Rossetti, dozens of others - they have all turned their pens to sonnets and odes in honour of this most poetic of seasons. They have personified it, as Keats does above: 'Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;' They have found deep melancholy in its declining days, beneficence in its harvests, gothic frisson in its festivals and rituals. And, of course, they have mined it for countless metaphors of death.

Autumn is a long season and an extravagant one. It begins in abundance, the swelling coffers of the crop. It is fat and wealthy and dripping with gold. Keats' bees are duped into thinking warm days will never cease because 'Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.' But plenty begets excess. Excess begets wastefulness which, in its turn, begets decay. By way of this profligate sequence Nature re-stocks the pot for a repeat showing. There is eternity in rottenness, the indestructibility of elemental matter.

Autumn is ripe for poetry because of the way it assaults our senses. Keats knew it and reaped it in some of the most concrete poetic lines he ever wrote. He makes us taste the plump hazel shells 'with a sweet kernel'; we watch with him the long autumn sunsets that 'touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue'; we hear the 'wailful choir' of gnats and the bleat of full-grown lambs, and we are there with him by the cider-press, patiently watching 'the last oozings hour by hour'.  It is a rich pudding of a poem, every line as o'er-brimmed as the cells of his bees.

To Autumn is not a long poem by the standards of the romantic poets but, over a reading of its three stanzas, months have gone by. We are not told directly of the passing of time, it is more subtle than that. With each verse the temperature of the adjectives becomes colder. The industrious bees of the opening verse have, by the poem's close, given way to the gathering swallows, twittering in the skies. And there Keats breaks off, on the brink of the birds' departure. It is a master stroke on which to leave us. The laden apple trees under a 'maturing sun' have been harvested and in their place a winnowing wind stirs the chaff on the stubble fields.

I sat reading To Autumn on the waterfront in Dundee the other day. The sky was distinctly autumnal and a ragged mist snagged in the trees on the opposite shore. I know there are brambles and blackthorn bushes heavy with ripening sloes on that shore. As I read a sudden breeze brought a skittering of crisp sycamore leaves along the path, blotched yellow and black. They passed, the breeze vanished and the sun was once more warm. It was a little taste of what is to come. We are on the cusp.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Out with a bang

So that's that then. The season of Edinburgh festivals is over for another year. It ended, as it always does, with an exhilarating firework display to music on the castle rock. There can surely be few more dramatic settings for such a show, and for those not fortunate enough to have tickets to Princes Street Gardens the city centre has many fine vantage points from which to coo and gasp. This year, in keeping with the theme of the International Festival, the music was chosen for its eastern flavours; the composers, mostly Russian, drawing their inspiration from the Orient. Each year the most appreciative cooing and gasping is reserved for the waterfall, a magnesium white cascade that tumbles and bounces down the bare black rock.

For me the Firework Concert is one of those punctuation marks in the calendar by which time is notched. Whatever the weather it signals the end of summer. As the echoes of the last detonations fade, as the streets clear of spectators and the convoys of road sweepers get to work, there is no longer any denying it - autumn has been heralded in. The concert starts at nine o'clock. A month earlier and it would have been unthinkable to start so early but by now the days are shortening alarmingly. Our wobbly Earth has lurched onwards, like a homebound drunk, veering to the winter side of the street

By Monday morning the streets had returned to normal and Edinburgh's daily traffic of suited commuters and shoppers and schoolchildren went on their way. The city is never without tourists but things get decidedly quieter for a while after the fireworks. At Haymarket railway station and in the queues for the airport shuttle it suddenly seemed as if everyone was heading for the exits. And just as suddenly it again becomes possible to book a table in a restaurant and the buses run more or less to time without throngs of disorientated sightseers asking for directions. It doesn't last long. There is just time to draw breath before the first Christmas displays appear in shop windows. No sooner has the temporary seating on the Castle Esplanade - for the past month home to the Royal Military Tattoo - been removed than the skating rink and big wheel will arrive in the gardens. And so the Edinburgh year rolls on.

Invariably the tourists I meet seem genuinely wowed by my home city. They have travelled the globe to be here and Edinburgh doesn't disappoint. Despite the weather doing its level best to rain on everyone's parade, despite the eyesores of the perennially stalled tram project, and the rash of lowest-common-denominator gift shops selling every imaginable Scottish cliché, despite the litter and traffic and scaffolding and street clutter, they are left with an overwhelming impression of an elegant city. I feel very proud and privileged to sit with a coffee in the Canongate, or to stroll along the Water of Leith to Stockbridge and be able to say 'I live here'.

Edinburgh is a wealthy city. But much of its money is sterile and corporate, sealed off behind faceless legal and financial institutions. Tourism brings money too, lots of it. But more importantly the tourists bring vibrancy and colour and life. During the summer festivals the streets are buzzing with their excitement. There's a certain class of Edinburgh resident who gets very sniffy about the festivals but I am not one of them. Of course there's plenty of mediocre art among the thousands of shows on offer, some of it very hammy, some of it pretentious and excluding, but there is also a lot of fun, energy, talent and idealism to be found.

So, summer 2011 goes out with its traditional bang. It won't be long before next season's programmes start arriving through my letterbox. All those things to choose from and all on my doorstep. That's something I hope never to grow complacent or nonchalant about.