It’s striking to realise a personal sense of pure elation from the effect of sunlight in its many forms. Even more so, when light and water mix, and with sounds. I find it healing.
In our rivers, shallow oceans, even at the bottom of swimming pools and upon cave roofs, we are familiar with light refracting back and forth through gentle and chaotic laps of surface waves. A lace-like dance of photons hits our retinas, processes in our brains and triggers emotions.
These hypnotic and beautiful patterns of light are officially known as caustic networks. Most of us would assume caustic is a type of chemical capable of burning, and definitely something to avoid. But caustic, in terms of physics, means patterns formed by the intersection of reflected or refracted parallel rays from a curved surface. Keith Beven, Professor Emeritus of Hydrology at Lancaster University, describes beautifully the physics of caustics and water here at On Landscape.
Earlier this week, Twitter friend Tim Sykes @RiversAndPeople, asked me to create a more relational word for caustics. I jumped at the chance, and spent a few days thinking about it.
I agree. I think a new common word might be useful in garnering interest in something so characteristically Earth-y (rock/water/sun), ecologically effecting, and mesmerizing in its affect upon us.
On studying the patterns at my local river, The Wye, I saw dynamic nets, webs, lace and lattice-work. PIE root *(h)uebh- “to weave;” also “to move quickly” source also of Sanskrit ubhnati “he laces together (Etymonline.com), which is probably where old French Latiz originated.
Lumen, latin for source of light, combined with lattice spelled phonetically for ease of pronunciation across different languages ~ lattiss.
I invited Tim to blog, and so here he writes. My gratitude.
I enjoyed a sense of fun as I rolled-up my trouser legs and waded into the chalk stream, a winterbourne, watched by seven circling red kites and a herd of curious black bullocks. It’s not unusual for me to dip my feet in this winterbourne for its soothing effects on my racing mind and two things struck me as notable this day: the chill of the flow was toe-numbingly energising; and the crystal-clear water amplified the bright sunshine illuminating my pale feet so they seemed to glow ice-white. The sunrays were reflected and refracted by the water, casting a shimmering, shifting net onto the flinty stream bed and my feet. Lost in the moment I was transfixed by this dancing water-crazed light-lattice of star-like nodes and chaotic wavy light threads.
Afterwards I felt joyful, glee, but I struggled to describe exactly what I had sensed at the time: I think my self was suspended in a trance-like state of fascination. That evening, contemplating this further, a friend enlightened me to the technical name for this familiar phenomenon: a ‘caustic network’. To be awestruck by ethereal light is not unusual, a recent night on a beach watching shooting stars mesmerised by the dancing flames of our campfire was similarly spellbinding in a primitive and sublime way. It struck me that such a wonderful natural fluvial phenomenon deserves a non-technical, more soulful name and I asked Ginny, my twitter-friend what she would call it. As you are reading this blog you already know of Ginny’s passionate gift for forging new language and better ways of thinking to express how we celebrate and conserve the natural world and our relationship in and of it: and hence the word lumilattiss was born…
Tim Sykes is a mature, part-time post graduate research student at the University of Southampton. An ecologist by training, he is exploring our deep relationships with chalk stream winterbournes in their flowing, pooling and drying phases, particularly intrinsic and relational values. He tweets @RiversandPeople, so please do follow!
If you haven’t heard Melissa Harrison’s The Stubborn Light of Things, you’re missing a treat; it is a salve for our times. It began at the start of lockdown here in the UK, intent on bringing the natural world, at least in audio, to those more unable to get out. This week (number 25), I’m honoured to be taking part.
Melissa is an award winning nature writer, novelist, diarist, and now podcaster (with a wonderful supporting team), and I possess all her books. I look forward to adding her latest to my shelves, a collection of her beloved Nature Notebook columns written for The Times, now to be published in hardback this coming November by Faber & Faber, also named The Stubborn Light of Things.
This week, after a long time away, I return to the woods in North Herefordshire where I grew up, and recount the story of my most painful loss, that of my mother, and in flow with ecology and love.
I adore unexpected connections, one being that my mother’s name was Iva ~ Melissa visits an ivy in flower, one full of bees. I also worked as a junior paragliding instructor at an ex-WW2 aerodrome in Herefordshire in my twenties, and remember the joy of discovering skylarks nesting at the far end of the runway ~ Melissa visits an old Suffolk WW2 aerodrome and finds skylarks as well as kestrels.
As for the poem you will hear, it is “Into The Hour” by Elizabeth Jenner, and no better a poem to voice the trauma, acceptance and light from such loss, as I now understand Melissa has felt too. It is like sharing an artery.
The word average has an interesting etymology. It originally seems to have been derived from an Arabic word, ‘awariya, ” meaning damaged merchandise.
Since the Middle Ages, the shipping and insurance industries adopted the term, I guess due to the high risks of damage from voyages on the high seas. If a ship were in trouble, and cargo, or ships masts, or other material goods, perhaps even crew or living cargo (human or not), were thrown overboard in order to save the vessel, then losses were calculated by producing a mean ‘cost’ for each claimant for Insurance purposes.
Italian avaria and French avarie meant “damage to ship.”
Later, during the 18th Century Georgian or Enlightenment era, the word evolved into the general mathematical term we recognize today.
Climate policy is dominated by the science and maths of global averages. We are all attuned to hearing mentions of the 1.5 to 5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial averages.
As Dr Peter Scott, Head Climate Monitoring and Attribution at the Met Office writes,
“To understand changes and variations in our climate, it is essential to know how the surface temperature changes – from month to month, up to decade to decade. Global-average temperature records provide this vital information. From these records we can see how warm specific months, years, or decades are, and we can discern trends in our climate over longer periods of time. Global records go back about 160 years, giving a long period from which to draw conclusions about how our climate is changing.” (Met Office website)
We live in one biosphere, yes. Global averages are extremely critical, of course, for a global overview. But I contend this is now an ethical problem because regional variation in outcomes is real. Global average obsession must be reigned in. Averaging is damaging.
It does not relay the real story of what is happening in terms of human equity or volatility, and at the higher ranges or peaks of temperature. Nor does any other kind of global average; precipitation, ocean warming, drought, for example.
The differences in regional water availability, (living) biomass and ecosystem function, migratory capacity, and human access to energy for cooling technology vary, sometimes drastically, from place to place. To sideline all these variations will be affecting lives directly, both Homo sapien and Tere sapien. We are reaching the point of moral injury, quite frankly, if these lives are devalued by the process of concentrating on global averages in the public sphere.
I suggest the scientists and communicators, particularly those living in the relative safety of the northern hemisphere (though that is also changing), recognize the shortcomings of constantly emphasizing global averages to persuade populations and policymakers ~ it has become an averimania!
Instead, we should be discussing localized impacts, especially given economic disparity. It might even lead to those disparities being properly addressed and a new kind of fair politics going forwards into increasingly uncertain times.
Along with preventing emissions, there is an absolute duty to plan for extremes, mass movements, and potential conflicts. Because these are where life is most at risk, and since all things are interconnected, the risks are compounded by multiple and cumulative breakdowns in life-flow.
I was fortunate to be sent the following from my Twitter friend Verónica Ansaldo, who is from Chile, in response to this blog. I attach it here, with her kind consent; a brilliant quote, and I’m grateful.
Averages hide inequalities. Nicanor Parra, a famous Chilean poet and physicist wrote: “There are two loaves of bread. You eat the two. I dont eat any. Average consumption: one loaf per person.”
From my rooftop terrace on a hill in the city of Cardiff, in a vague state of suspended covi-disbelief you’ll recognize, I face due South into the eye of the midday sun. A man-jumble of roof, balustrade and wall contains what would otherwise be a 180 degree arc-view from East to West. The sky is none-the-less enormous, and I love it. Each day, I observe the clouds as if they are hastily evolving species, manifesting the effects of water and sky-physics, and stealing creature-ly shapes, every once in a while, stored deep in my imagination
Everything seems in tension, between closed and open, the constraints of the streets, confinement and grief within homes, yet pinned down by the freedoms of the sky. Stitching it all together, between roofs and clouds like needles and silk threads, are the city birds. They occupy their own levels, sometimes overlapping, and to see them interact has been, so much, my corona-consolation.
It is their intrinsic worth that sings the sweetest. Our deadly human pandemic** has liberated their song by silencing most of the dirty noise of vans and cars. They are bright and loud and confident. Right now, Bard Blackbird, perched on the end of our roof ridge, belts out beauty as if he is making up for a century of submission.
“My birds”, I call them. Forgive me. I feel to have almost become one of them. I relate to them all in my own state of birdetal being.*
The regulars who stop by most up here on my balcony are the adaptable and the generalists. Pigeons, with their glittering necks, have made this their day-time home, pairing and caressing with utter devotion before returning for the night somewhere safe where they roost. There are also the maggies (magpies) and the jack jacks (jackdaws), who are the real dancers, and the preening gulls who are dedicated, with true equality, in raising their young and to the mastery of flight. There is a satin crow I call Jet, who talks to me sometimes, and a pair of collared, cooing doves who are building their nest three chimney pots down. I’ve even had a little grey wagtail visit in winter, but she is very special ~ my beautiful, elegant river bird, completely out of place.
Below, in our neighbouring terrace gardens, there are year-round sparrows who cheep and chime nearly all of the time. And there are robins, one I call Rufus Ragnar, who rises from pruned shrub islands to sing whenever Bard takes a break. There are more garden birds I can’t see from up here, but I hear them. And they all fall silent when the sparrow hawk strikes.
High above, there are the ones who never pause. Highfalutin herring gulls, the Jonathans, cast the best shadows over me on a sunny day. Victoria Park jack jacks who flock like a clock to lime trees by the Taff a quarter to sunset every evening. There are the starlings who dash about, shining in splinters of luminescence, and the herons who flap in lazy zigzags, high up and unexpected. Few are the mallards, who cannot fly without telling us all well in advance they are coming. There are new and curious red kites circling; and the peregrines, supreme and terror-flying. We all stand stock still when they are about.
Life. It’s all here among the rooftops and chimneys. No compromise. The main events, have no doubt, are love and loss, youth and aging. And we are all joy, bitterness and reflection. Sometimes, my pigeons sit quietly next to me, on top of the poorly whitewashed roof terrace wall, three floors up, taking in the same, wide view with thoughts of matters much, much further away than we can ever truly reach.
The Goldfinches ~ Carduelis carduelis
The birds I least expect to see in number over a city, especially in Summer when more return from Spanish migration, are the goldfinches.
In the ‘wild’, their long finch beaks are so perfect for the delicate extraction of difficult seeds to forage; the Senecio family (groundsels and ragworts), thickset thistles, and the Dipsacus fullonum (the teasels). Yet they thrive here mainly because of the fine, beautiful black niger seed sold in garden centres and pet shops, poured into feeders and dangled around small terrace gardens and on patios for them to enjoy. As they fly over the rooftops from one feeder to another, they remind me of nursery school children released into playgrounds at break time, chirping with the unfettered emotions of liberation. Their sounds and sight lift me up too, especially since I am currently ‘shielded’ and confined to my flat.
The collective noun for goldfinches, as The Lost Words elegantly reminds, is a charm. Collective nouns arose from the feathers (quills) and inks of early medieval French and English hunters, mostly by the ruling classes, or those that documented their elite colloquialisms in celebration of their elite pursuits. Our Eurasian relationship with goldfinches is as historically complex. Not only were they hunted, but captured, traded and kept confined as pets, at least since Pliny the Elder wrote about this strange human obsession, just after the death of Jesus Christ.
“The smallest of birds, the goldfinches, perform their leader’s orders, not only with their song, but by using their feet and beak instead of hands.” Pliny the Elder, Natural History.***
Deep inside our pre-frontal cortexes combined with cultural memory and emotional response, we are somehow wired in what constitutes beauty. These birds are certainly a dash of colour with their blood red faces, black and white stripes and yellow brushstrokes painted along their wings. But this doesn’t explain the cultural need to covet and possess. Perhaps we may look to their celebration in aesthetics, as many iconic artists have tethered goldfinch imagery, in paint, to wood and canvas.
Many of these images are rooted in Christian religious symbolism. One of the greatest artistic masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance is, it is said, Raphael’s Madonna Del Cardellino, The Madonna of the Goldfinch painted 1505-6. The bird is cradled by the child, John The Baptist, and in the presence of Mary and her child Jesus. It is the depiction of the boy’s crucifixion as a prophecy that came to pass, as was John’s life and death. Legend has it, as Jesus died on the cross at Golgotha, a goldfinch flew down to his Crown of Thorns to remove them from his injured scalp, and was splashed with a drop of His blood. The idea of any goldfinch bearing witness of the crucifixion is utterly within reason, as they were once numerous in and around the City of Jerusalem. Not so much now in 2020, as they have been hunted, trapped and sold as pets continuously for over 2000 years, and their habitat smashed for human development.
Sixteen to seventeen centuries on, during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, goldfinches appeared once more in images such as Gerrit Dou, Young Girl at the Window, 1662. Fabritius’s painting, completed just a couple of years later, is surely one of the most famous, even more since Donna Tartt wrote her novel ‘The Goldfinch’ and won 2014’s Pulitzer Prize. The book was never about goldfinches. This is a sophisticated story of a boy who rescued (stole) Fabritius’s painting from a gallery in New York, after surviving a terrorist explosion. The burden of this secret is carried through the trials and tribulations of his life.
“Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.”
Theo, the boy, hid and prized the painting, perhaps in a symbolic processing of his mother’s death. She had died from the bomb blast, just like the real and violent end that came to the painter himself. Fabritius was caught in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine in1654, which killed at least 100 people and destroyed a large part of the city, including his studio and many of his paintings. The Goldfinch survived all, and is perceived as something of a resurrection.
Art historian, Linda Stone-Ferrier contends that, in the Netherlands, both real goldfinches and painted ones were found commonly in and near windows, as a symbol of neighbourly social exchange. For its time, Fabritius’s Goldfinch must have been hugely novel in its life-size and three dimensionality; a trompe l’oeil, fooling the eye into believing it reality ~ perhaps, installed near a window as a trick to lure the good will of passers-by.
But with my Fluminescent sensibilities, I see the photos of the painting and feel pain. The golden chain glints hard and sharp, tethering a tragic bird, otherwise born to fly free, to its wall-mounted, closed, tin box of seed. This is yet another disembodiment, that the bird cannot ever forage for him/herself, the whole scene being fixed for hundreds more years in some nightmare painterly incarceration.
In his Guardian article 2014, Caspar Henderson writes of the modern painter ATM, and the mythical murals he painted around London ~ the birds of his childhood ~ one being a goldfinch.
“Typically between two and three metres high, and depicted with their subtle natural markings, they seem like giant projections from the collective memory of places now hidden beneath the roar of the city.”
Again, I feel an intense isolation, the bird painted away from his/her ecological flows. It’s a giant ghost, out of scale, captive to the wall, street, and city, waiting upon the spell of the human gaze for a life they cannot ever truly live. The mural reminds me of when I see wildflowers named with chalk on a pavement. I crave for so much more, for the flowers themselves, and for human passers- by; arrows to show the species that sustain them, and those they sustain. The real beauty of nature, I contend, is in the direction and dynamism of all the arrows.
ATM has said he was inspired by the early prints of John Gould, tending to show, at least, a favourite flower or perch in composition. But once again, these are aesthetically appealing to the human eye, and in danger of being only extrinsically valued by us and, therefore, the only lives worth saving. Nature is so much more. Species in isolation are trompe l’oeil tethered by golden chains.
My goldfinches live seemingly vibrant and free lives, with their flights of excitement, overheard and overhead, several times each day. But really they are here only at our behest. Niger seeds, native to Ethiopia and Malawi, are commercially grown in huge quantities in India and Africa, and traded to Europe in the bird seed markets. They resemble sunflower seeds in shape, but are smaller in size. They are encased in a thick, seed coat, and can be stored for up to a year. Before they are exported, they are sterilized by intense heat to prevent germination, and to kill off any other seeds in the mix.
Do we want our birds simply as trompe l’oeils, feeding on seeds blasted by heat in India and shipped here for distribution and profit, while the goldfinch’s true seeds of delight are languishing brown under the damp spray of pesticides or the latest Weed-Burner-Killer-Wand-Butane-Gas-Blowtorch, marketed for the sake of what is deemed beautifully tidy by Dekton or GoSystem on Ebay or Amazon (sometimes the same places you’ll find niger seeds for sale).
So much energy, capital, and dependence upon markets is nurtured, whereas our own groundsels, thistles and teasels are classed as ‘weeds,’ and purged for the sake of a false idea of what beauty truly is ~ clipped, manicured and tidy. How compulsive are we, as a species, to want to force and possess beauty, regardless. These beings are part of the flows of all life (Fluminism), the interconnections (the arrows), being the most worthy of protection.
I want goldfinches to be all the things we Eurasians have historically not allowed them to be. Heedless of religious symbolism and childhood myth, I want them to sound their excitement released from 2000 years of chains. They may be a mirror to the image of ourselves, in that we too need to feel those infinite connections impressing within and without us. Neither do they need our trickery, our trompe l’oeils.
They want to be real, foraging for their natural, local seeds pollinated in resilient ecological flows with plenty of cover against predation. Fluminism is the love that provides it all.
*In deference to the wonderful work by Irigaray and Marder “Through Vegetal Being” published by Columbia, 2016.
** Latin pan- “all” + dēmos “people”.
*** Rackham, Jones, & Eichholz, Book 10 translated 1938.
I am hearing this often in my particular sprachraum (the Anglosphere, at least), off-line and on-line, an almost daily occurrence from one quarter or another. Along with a sharply rising global temperature mean, record breaking norm-shattering meteorology and ice-melt across consecutive months, we are witnessing regressive steps in socio-political relationships; intolerance and prejudice gaining traction as some kind of reactive protest against uneven wealth distribution and increasing migration of the dispossessed. The far right have their heads up for the main-chance. This is deeply worrying to those with a conscience.
Yet still, so few engage with what all urgently need to discuss ~ our relationship with Planet Earth, our home amidst a sixth mass extinction, the source of our very existence and our ultimate survival kit, regardless of who or to what our perceived moral community extends. Moreover, the intrinsic value of life, all life, and the processes and interconnections between all.
Never have we been so vast in number. Never have we, or any other living being, witnessed such unbridled ecocybernetic change. One cannot simply call this era the ‘new normal’, because it is highly dynamic. Each dataset combined appears as a new abnormal.
We exist in a falsely-assumed human realm, an evolutionary cul-de-sac, into which we are all symbolically corralled by our own global media and techno-markets. The truth is that we are so interconnected to all living beings and all inorganic phenomenon that we shall never fully understand it entirely. Humans are simply part of the whole. Despite what science and scientists may imply, the uncertainties are vast. Just to understand that we shall never fully understand the ultimate complexity is a humility. It is to inject some wisdom back into our times, when all else seems lost to our own arrogances.
The irony is that so many problems are made worse by delusional and fragmented ways a dominant Western pedagogy view the Earth, its systems and unfathomable complexities. Purely anthropocentric “utility” of nature (servitude and subordination to humans) still reigns supreme in UK conservation circles, indeed UNEP. It is no panacea, as if nature is inert and placed here for one purpose only. Sometimes, I find it is these individuals and organisations who make me more angry than the just plain greedy. Given their privileged status of being educated, they ought to know better. Some are even ecologists, studying some of these very interconnections.
I think, as others do, many are limited to a narrow field of vision, disjointed fragments of connections, encouraged by the rationalisation of Western education tied to a career-plan ~ the training of specifics, cognitive biases towards the familiar, a lack of the cross-disciplinary, rendering many blind to the peripheral vision required upon the ‘whole.’ Or is it desperation? On the frontline, they may be tired of a fight, susceptible to caving in to global financial ambitions towards exponential growth on a finite planet. Those dark forces are, indeed, strong. But giving in is not pragmatism. Giving in is simply giving in.
I have written before on the dangers of so-called Natural Capital valued by a single unit of financial measure. Now the WWT have released their latest policy document on economic value into the very heart of the neoliberal centre-line in Westminster, subjecting nature to the same volatile economic paradigm that favours the rich and acutely fails to ‘trickle down.’ How can we legitimately and morally divide into financial units that which is hugely interconnected and that we do not fully conceive? We too are nature, the moon and the stars. Where does this end?
This is on top of the widespread eco-illiteracy of even the most basic of underlying cybernetic principles of the ecosphere. WWT were, and are, leaders in voluntary environmental education. I revere them in this sense, utterly. Peter Scott’s beautifully altruistic ambitions have influenced many across the globe, ~ no mean feat. In his wake, I wish this respected organisation would expand education into the mainstream, not enter the fray on economics as if there were no economic alternatives than to subject nature to the language of commerce and government ~ the corporates, lobbyists, hedge funds and bankers. Investment in support of nature (including us), is important, that the flow of resources towards habitat restoration and integrated protection is generously provided via better understanding. But to value non-human life in packets of currency is another matter, I don’t care how desperate things may seem! A 25 year plan along these lines makes me suffer from eco-anxiety. I am imagining the abuses possible by a hedonistic, self-regulating City of London as I write. Many new Cabinet members don’t even acknowledge climate change as a real and present threat, leave alone that a sixth extinction is underway, and between them a small to non-existent understanding of functional ecology. Money is not an ecological educator. No matter how ‘regulated’ this new order may seem, entrepreneurial spirit and diligent accountants will find the gaps in order to take advantage at a profit. There can be no guarantees all will be for the good. This is the nature of free commerce right now. The whole paradigm needs to shift.
And it is not by accident that our consumption-driven culture is stealing the human cumulative brain-force that could be working on better solutions. And as the shopping malls hum with either those with cash to buy or those eternally unhappy people with unrequited aspirations and no cash, the planet burns. The 1% percent skim it all off and walk away scot free. Leopold spoke of land as community to which we should belong, not chattels to be owned. Pricing nature implicitly commodifies, even if unintended, like a serious side-effect to be listed on pharma labels. And let us not forget that slavery is immoral. Ownership of all living beings follows (even domestic animals – an argument for another day).
I am being blunt here, because I feel blunt is required. “The world has gone mad?” It is the human world that is mad. The majority of Earth is probably trying to regain homeostasis despite us. There are better ways to induce care for one another, our non-human kin and the inorganic phenomenon which are integral to life. Egalitarian eco-education/mentoring has not yet been tried, not least in the corridors of the City of London and Westminster, indeed any centre of power in great force! There’s huge room for engendering respect and reciprocity, love ~ I have not and will not give up on the ultimate power of love ~ and, with a will and a way, a return to the ecosphere perceived by the majority as sacrosanct.
I will write again on the sacrosanct, the return and the sacred, soon. And with love!
“And our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature speaks to the natural sources of our lives, which indeed may hold the secrets of love for all things, especially our own humanity.” Bernie Krause
Huka Falls on the Waikato River is a boiling blood-riot of water sound. Pull off Thermal Explorer Highway, just north of the city of Taupo, New Zealand, and the cacophony of this eleven metre high waterfall leaps out, and then sucks you in to its vortices with disdain. It’s an auditory spectacle. If you were curious, and leaned too far over the footbridge, you’d be dragged in and crushed by arms of seething, blue foam (Huka is Maori for ‘foam’). If death did not come quickly by drowning, you’d perish by thunderous noise. It’s earth-deafening. You’d be broken into shrapnel.
At age 46, it’s not an everyday occurrence when a huge chunk of key understanding, largely hidden in life, reverberates through my entire being with a deep, resonant rumble. It’s happened twice this last month (lucky me). I write here about only one revelation and will write again about the other. But this one is important. It is the power of sound.
Whilst sitting peacefully at ancient shallow ponds to the West of Cardiff, Wales, I see their flat, silky surfaces puckered by a few whirly-gig beetles. These little beings spin around and around. If I listen intently, I can just hear the bubbles of a newt surfacing for air. A leaf may fall from the oak that spans high above my log-seat, somersaulting down into the surface tension in apparent silence, though other life-forms may have the sense to hear it. There are the songs of passerines, of course, romanticised by many a poet, and not forgetting the old, grey heron, who flaps his wings to escape my gaze. Sometimes, the leaves rustle like surf. The loudest noises, it must be said, stem from Welsh Black cattle that graze in fields over the fence. These pseudo-aurochs bellow, tongues out, making their presence known. Their sound is somehow timeless.
The Huka Falls and these Cardiff ponds are just two auditory experiences I can share in some detail. We have a lifetime of accumulated memory of sound. But I think we largely take these references for granted. Image dominates our 21st C Western culture. Even pop songs are ‘make or break’ depending on the ‘pop’ of videos. Bernie Krause used to make music, a synthesiser player for top names (The Byrds, The Doors, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison) and many Hollywood films of the 1960s and early 70s. Now he is an ecologist, sound wizard and key advocate of the conservation value of soundscapes, a rich three dimensional analysis of ecosystems that the use of the human eye simply cannot match. With some irony, technology is adopted to record and interpret data, though I imagine the sound of an electric mic is very quiet. I listened to his TED talk this week, and it was a revelation.
Our senses, if working well, are fine biological instruments, connecting mind and exterior world with webs and chains of cellular matter and electricity. ‘Messages’ flow from receptor organs to the brain and, at certain times, right back to our skin and muscles in the form of action and reflex. Aristotle is thought to have classified the five main senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell), but now we understand that there are more senses than the big five which use differing combinations of receptor organs.
Immanuel Kant, German philosopher of the period of ‘Enlightenment,’ proposed that knowledge of the outside world depends on our distinct modes of perception. In order to define what is ‘extrasensory’ we need to define what is ‘sensory.’
What a pity!
In one swipe, with a blunt knife, Kant cut us away from our environment and other living beings, when perhaps indigenous cultures had/have retained that important sixth sense. There is wisdom in intimacy with the rest of the natural world, unbroken song-lines. The fractures remind me of the nature of progress in human evolution. Maybe basic in our modern make-up is the need to disconnect in order to appreciate the very opposite. As Heraclitus in his ‘Unity of Opposites’ implies;
They do not understand how that which differs with itself in is agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre. (Freeman’s translation)
Barry Lopez writes often about the notion of home verses away, in that the patterns he observes whilst travelling away can bring insight to troubling issues at home. What’s more, whilst away, one is given to appreciate a new perspective on ‘home’. Novelty, new perspectives and the plasticity of the mind are important psychological components to wellbeing ( let us not get stuck in deep ruts).
Back to Huka Falls, and the novelty of sound. The water drains from Lake Taupo and swells up with oxygen, swirling into a turquoise ferment. The river powers into a narrow canyon, just fifteen metres across, noise deepening as a ripping 220,000 litres per second flow by (enough to fill one Olympic sized swimming pool in 11 seconds, so say the tourism brochures). You cannot hear birds or bellows. You cannot even hear one’s own thoughts. It really is power-sound that rumbles through your very fabric. This is a prime example of what Bernie Krause describes as a ‘geophony,’ sound emitted by non-organic phenomenon here on planet Earth ~ a rich audioscape, that we may not even be able to sense fully, from the crackles of aurora to the grinds of the seismic.
Human action, human technology, the sounds of modernity? Bernie calls this ‘anthropophony,’ so it is distinguished from the ‘natural.’ Some human sounds are, of course, controlled, like music and speech, others are chaotic and fragmented. Our unique biological, cultural experiences converge to interpret, for example, in Rudolf Steiner’s educational system of Eurythmy ~ gestures and interpretative movement to sound and in the telling of stories. Our bodily sounds need not be excluded from the “biophony”, sounds emitted from living beings, as we are part of nature. To Bernie, however, the tools we use are ‘other,’ so these are where his line is drawn. What is clear, in the Anthropocene, we are seeming to make a lot more noise!
There are physical, mental and spiritual aspects to our existence. Do our senses overlap, deeply resemble or integrate with all three of these aspects? Each of the five senses consist of organs with specialized cellular structures that have receptors for specific stimuli. These cells have links to the nervous system and thus to the brain. We know that sensing is active at primitive levels in the cells and integrated into sensations in the nervous system, not least by the central nervous system (the spinal chord and brain). Yet we do not fully understand consciousness. God speed, we are all conscious and able to be conscious of one another and other living beings. One ought to be conscious of a snake bite, a storm coming or a broken heart as we are the touch of a healing hand or a loving hug. Is consciousness another fully connected system, into which we are all able to join? Perhaps, we have no choice.
Sight is probably the most developed sense in humans, followed by hearing ~ a generalisation. There will be exceptions to the rule, not least from those who experience the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia, where the senses cross-wires.
Consciousness and mind may create their own forms of reality (although they may not be truths), based on the memories of sensory data fused with our responses. Words, forms, shapes, patterns, colours; they become entwined in a rich complexity (life is complexity). But our senses may well extend out into the environment, the inherent interconnectedness with all that is our one biosphere. Were it not for Kant, Western approaches may still have been in tune with the extended self. In nature, there is a compelling argument, that we humans are deeply entwined with the combined ‘other,’ Dylan Thomas’ quietus of the ‘Green Fuse’, or more distinctly, Glenn Albrecht’s ‘Ghedeist’ (a word full of hope), the positive interconnectedness between all beings via the spirit-force, for a collective good, which all life may play a part. The nature of its inherent ‘doing’ makes this a powerful word indeed.
I am returning to the overall ‘ecophony’ of the Cardiff ponds, where the combined sound of the ecosystem has its own rhythm, its own dance. Though quiet, save for the dawn chorus, it is a wall of sound. I do not sit there in silence. I am sure that, in the detail, data would dance for any soundscaper with the technology to listen and record, beyond human biological ability. And we ourselves could engage in a eurythmy in recognition of both the losses and the gains of our own impacts here upon the Earth. The senses combine and so do our reflexes. I feel a great love for the individual biophony there, a love for the wilder beings residing there. What I love, I wish to protect. Apart from aesthetic qualities, and human musical harmonies, I am now more aware that my love for nature and sound is united in entwined threads extending way beyond my body, and I have Bernie to thank for this.
Finally, Kinesthesia is the awareness of muscle and movement of the joints, enabling coordination to walk, talk, and use our hands with strength, rhythm, and delicate precision. It is what allows us to touch our ear lobes whilst our eyes are shut, or to know where to scratch if we have an itch. I think there may be a kind of kinesthesia in our collective consciousness too, we just need to be reminded (and coached), that it is there and it is powerful. Put it to good use, and we may ‘hear’ good things come from it.
For now, I’ll leave you with more on Bernie’s ‘ophonies’… tap into the Ghedeist, and enjoy.
There are people who know the world
in specifics – not gull, but black-backed,
(lesser and greater), black-headed,
common, glaucous and herring.
There are people who know the woods –
not trees, but oak, willow, hazel,
aspen, and lime, and not oak
but sessile or pedunculate.
There are people who learn the names,
the Latin, the genus, the cultivar,
making lists for countries and years,
and the life-list with all the ticks –
the bbjs, and the gaps they need to fill.
And then, there are other people
whose hands and eyes know everything,
who taste the wind for salt or coming rain,
who find the right leaf or root or berry
for health or flavour, without a word spoken.
There are people who know their gardens
like their family, their lawn like their own skin,
a new bird by the frisson the cat makes,
even before the stranger’s call
breaks into the grey still morning.
And who can tell us which of these
knows best, knows more, can teach,
protect or harvest earth and sky
and water for the common good?
Or shall we try for both, a lore
of senses, heart and mind at one,
where knowledge and compassion
are held in equal balance, equal trust?
Elizabeth Rimmer is Makar for the year 2016, Federation of Writers (Scotland).
I’m honoured to present her work here, and immensely touched this was written for me. Thank you Elizabeth, for an enduring feeling of joy.
Elizabeth was born in Liverpool, moving to Scotland in 1977. Her first collection Wherever We Live Now was published in 2011 by Red Squirrel Press. Her second collection The Territory of Rain was published by Red Squirrel Press in September 2015, and officially launched Feb 2016 at the Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh.
Her work has also appeared in Poetry Scotland, Stravaig, Northwords Now, Brittle Star, Gutter, and Drey, and on-line in The Stare’s Nest and Zoomorphic.
The term BIODIVERSITY is used to describe variety and population of non-human life here on Planet Earth. Biodiversity includes everything from tiny microbes to blue whales.
Global biodiversity is in decline. A recent WWF report, for example, shows non-human vertebrates (that’s birds, fish and non-human mammals), have declined by 50% in number since 1970. Freshwater life has been particularly hard hit.
We are PART OF NATURE, and so rely upon what it provides to us, like food, drink, medicines and materials. We NEED to protect and encourage LIFE and HABITAT upon which life depends, not only for our own survival and the survival of our descendants but also to give back what we, and generations before us, have taken away. All life here on Planet Earth is extraordinary. In my view, for this reason alone, there is cause enough for humans, despite our own needs, to act with far greater care. Biodiversity is being depleted by the combined actions of our everyday life choices.
To co-exist with all other life, and to care at all, we need to confront what science is telling us and then act as far as we can. The most direct impacts are by over-harvesting and loss/disturbance of habitat resulting from human development and economic goals.
Increased pollution, agricultural intensification, nutrient availability and increased CO2 emissions, resulting in climate change, are also to blame.
Most people don’t actively try to harm nature, and it’s often tricky to see the connections between what we do each day and the consequences as a result. But THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES and analysis uncovers more each day.
With some simple changes, we CAN, as individuals, lessen our own adverse impacts.
Remember, as groups of individuals, we have more power to make a difference. So you might want to join up with others who are like-minded and want to act to make the changes required. Here are just ten things that will help reduce your own environmental impact, and thereby your adverse impacts on biodiversity, and in multiple ways. Feel free to think of more!
Habitat & wildlife
ONE: Reduce or QUIT the use of pesticides and fertilizers in your gardens. These often have knock-on effects in wildlife populations and run off into water courses with adverse effects for the plants and animals living there. Ask your Local Authority to do the same.
TWO: Invest and grow wildlife friendly gardens/patios or balconies and choose wildlife-friendly fencing to allow some access. Volunteer for your local wildlife trust, community garden or conservation group. Ask the Local Authority to manage their lands in a biodiversity friendly way.
THREE: Reduce, reuse, and recycle, with an emphasis on REDUCE (buy less non-essential stuff). The less habitat conversion will be necessary to get those resources or the energy to make STUFF, and the less waste goes into the landfill. Compost what you can. Ask your Local Authority for help if you need it.
FOUR: Use environmentally friendly personal and household cleaning products, for example, distilled vinegar. This reduces chemical contamination of habitats both during manufacturing and when those chemicals go down the drain. Go for BUAV labelled products too. We don’t need to be cruel to animals by endorsing companies who test their commercial products on them.
Food and the choices we make.
FIVE: Buy local, organic food and drink. Ask for it if the shops don’t stock it. Expensive? Well, you’ve saved money by acting on POINT THREE. Might as well spend it on decent food. This helps reduce fertilizers and pesticides going into the environment, which in turn reduces negative impacts on nearby beneficial insects (for pollination and pest control) and adjacent freshwater biodiversity. Grow your own if you are able or buy direct from small holdings.
SIX: Buy sustainably harvested seafood, which avoids ‘by-catch’ of other species. Some trawlers destroy seafloor habitat; many shrimp farms destroy mangrove forests, which are important as nurseries for wild fish species. Ask retailers questions!
Energy use: By reducing your energy demand, you reduce both carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change, and disturbance of habitat for fossil fuel exploration and extraction. And you make savings.
SEVEN: Conserve energy in your home. Home energy audits are available from power companies. They know it’s more economical to conserve than having to build new power generating plants. Take advantage of any reasonable government schemes on offer.
EIGHT: Reduce single-person car use. Car pools, public transport, walking, and bicycling are also options. Look into the growing number of fuel efficient vehicles, electric, hybrid or turbo diesel (tdi) models. Go for an MPG as high as you can find, and check your tyre pressures.
NINE: Home-buy OR rent, choose a home with renewable energy and/or energy efficiency. Decide what’s most important about your region, your site and your needs, and you can still have a beautiful, comfy home. Think about using green landscaping and building materials and allow for nature in any external design ideas.
TEN: VOTE! Find out about legislation affecting biodiversity, make contact with your local political representatives, tell them how you feel and ask them what they will do to help. And support people and groups who are acting on long-term ecological sustainability.
Good luck and talk to your friends and family if you can. Thank you!
With thanks to David Hooper, Western Washington University, for inspiration on the 10 point structure.
According to the 9th Century Anglo Saxon Chronicles, key historic manuscripts written during the reign of King Alfred the Great, January was known as ‘Wolf Manoth’. This was a more stable meteorological era, with native Eurasian wolves almost guaranteed to come out of the relative safety of the woods to approach human settlements for food in harsher weather. They were perceived, not surprisingly, as an agri-cultural threat. And so Wolf Manoth was deemed the first full month of wolf hunts by the all-prevailing feudal nobility.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Medaeival Renaissance, with bloody Saxon invasion and the spread of Christianity, any indigenous pagan reverence to nature was lost. There was a drive to dominate land, defend it, convert and reap it.
Britain’s native wolf, Canis lupus lupus, the Eurasian Wolf (or perhaps a sub-species), was said to be as big an animal as ever found in the Arctic. They were noted at battle scenes scavenging on the dead but were equally considered noble, courageous, persevering and tireless. As such, the wolf was often symbolized on the heraldic Arms and Crests of nobility. To kill one was a feather in one’s cap.
In terms of natural history, events of the Middle Ages are a short hop away from our industrially farmed landscapes and sheep-shaped uplands of today. The Welsh Borders were once graced by thick native woodland, plenty of prey species and, before settlement, would have fueled good populations of Eurasian Wolf, largely out of sight of Celts, Romans and Anglo Saxons alike. But as humans warred over these Borderlands and castles were built to occupy and defend, wolves, in predating Royal game species like deer and boar, were out-competing Kings and Princes. Worse still, they posed an increased threat to commoners’ livestock, young children and as a species, were not afforded any Royal protection from them, unlike deer. Their end was perhaps an inevitability. Every last beast — male, female and cub — lost in taming the British Wild.
No-one seems to know for sure where exactly the last pure wolf or breeding pair was killed. Hybrid bones have been discovered and identified, perhaps throwing light on a more gradual intermingling of wolf genes with those of domestic dogs. There are a few locations cited as contenders, however. Somewhere and at some point, the deed was done.
There is a section of the Upper Irfon river, a tributary of the Wye, called Camddwr Bleiddiad, a spectacular place in itself, but all the more exotic when you know the translation… “Wolves’ Gorge”. If you know the Abergwesyn Valley at all, it will be easy for you to imagine wolves up among sheep on the open slopes, or calling to one another on the ridges, above the rush of water. And on Bryn Gawr, in the Desert of Wales,the Cambrian Mountains. Ecological ghosts remembered in a name.
Another place not far away and a contender for that last wolf kill in Britain (possibly as recently as the early 1700s) is the Upper Lugg Valley, also a tributary of the Wye. It rises from north of the Radnor Dome, where prehistoric burial grounds have been found on the summits. There are a few small villages alongside the river as it flows west, Llangunllo, Whitton and on to the town of Presteigne. There’s a steeper, more isolated valley to the South of Llangunllo and a lone village called Bleddfa. Settled a long time before the turnpike road was built in the 19th Century, it was surrounded by a Royal hunting enclosure, otherwise known as the Radnor Forest, the remains of which are now stewarded by NatResWales. The castle there, Bledewach, now a grassy mound, was the scene of fierce Welsh/English skirmishes, and indeed was captured from the Mortimers by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd himself, the last true Welsh Prince, in 1262. Bleddfa can be translated from Welsh to “Wolf’s Nook or Abode”.
Now here’s my own twist. My mother’s paternal family hail from the Upper Lugg Valley. There are remnants of my ancestral DNA scattered in graveyards all around, and we’ve genealogy records relating to one particular hill farm dating back to the early 1700s. It’s not beyond reason that my ancestors may have participated in that supposed last brutal kill, and others before.
Despite my deep beliefs in non-human nature as kin, I am not filled with guilt for the actions of my Medieval ancestors. Neither do I feel compelled to put this obvious wrong right. But I do, with a biocentric consequentialist leaning*, value the moral worth and high moral standing of wolves.
According to supporters, not least author and columnist, George Monbiot, there are strong ecological arguments to reintroduce the Eurasian wolf to mainland Britain, and I would agree in theory. The wolf of the weald, of the woods, could be a strong symbol of woodland succession, self-will of the land, and a renaissance of our currently denuded shoulders of upland England, Wales and Scotland. New frontiers in ecological science tell us that apex predators, in the few areas around the globe where they are able to exist without human persecution, or where they’ve already been reintroduced, are crucial to “Trophic Cascades.” These are powerful interactions controlling entire ecosystems, where top predators limit the density and/or behavior of prey species, therefore benefiting the next lower trophic level in the ecosystem, and so on. In the case of wolves, they initiate a more natural ecosystem balance down to flora and soils, particularly through the predation of ungulates like deer.
We need to ask ourselves again, however, are we simply playing ‘God’ by restoring historical or forming novel ecosystems? Isn’t this the same old attitude of dominion which caused the demise of the wolf in the first place? What are the guarantees of success in a changing world and a changing climate? Are we not simply trying to assuage collective guilt, acting upon a sense of duty to put things right ecologically or as Monbiot suggests, acting from ecological boredom and the rewilding of our own minds?
I’ve learned recently that funds are being raised for a first major British upland rewilding scheme, in the Desert of Wales.** To succeed, advocates must bring along with them local hillfarmers, communities, estates, any potential intolerance, particularly to wolves should they decide to re-introduce them there in future. Education, particularly in neighbouring settlements but also beyond, of wolf ecology, behaviour and depredation (or deterring techniques to protect pets and livestock) as well as introducing strict regulations in their welfare, prevention of starvation and hunting are vital. We live in the 21st Century, but some still see themselves as ‘traditional country people’ with ‘traditional rights.’
Outlanders imposing new ideas may not be warmly welcomed. Broadly, attitudes may have changed since Tudor times, but in some rural areas, not as much as you might think.
Three hundred wolf heads, five wolf tongues a year, three hundred wolf pelts in exchange for gold coins, property, lands, even freedom was bought by the extirpation of magnificent British wolves. And those individuals forming packs were as social as any human community at the time, with senses and sensitivities even beyond our full comprehension today. We are still naive of the fullness of their being, but we are learning. The wolves that once were, or the wolves that are to be, have moral worth in themselves and rights to exist for their own sake. I suggest we have to look carefully at the potential consequences for them, and indeed, for the hillfarmers and communities. Hopefully these consequences will be positive. For now, I am heartened there will be no wolf killings in Radnorshire this Wolf Manoth, neither by Nobility nor Commoner alike. Sadly, I cannot say the same for foxes.