Water, microbes, life, climate ~ exploring Fluminism.

 

24661005390_e71ddf7187_bPhoto by me.

When water pulses through our blood vessels, and through all existence, it branches and converges with an array of forces. By hydrodynamics and changes of state, it braids sky with earth, underworld with ocean.

Seven billion human souls are dependent on water, yet we are a small measure of its flow. Beauty and complexity abounds, in the form of life, in and around it. Beings flourish in the smallest of mountain springs, among the echos of the karst underworld, in the greatest living rivers and down in the deep blue sea. When water falls as rain through a forest canopy, it soaks through the humus, and all awaiting lifeforms spring up, out and, importantly, together. A wave of nutrients flow outwards, carried by water’s own intrinsic nature, but also by the animals it nurtures. When water gathers to channels and wells, life bathes and there seems more certainty in the world.

Water gives life, and some say life made some of the water. Earth is a shiny blue dot lit up by a star, a place in space where water has gathered uniquely from within rock and deep without, pulled from a vast universe of dark matter and energy.

Zillions of microbes gathered at first in water to settle and then to colonise Earth. All other life has evolved to encompass them. They do not simply live alongside, but on us and within us, directing moods and determining the sex of some species.

Water is flow. Microbes are flow.

Raindrops fall with gravitational force, impacting various structures of leaves and soils in complex ways, dispersing microbes and carrying them afar in the bioaerosols created. I observe that evaporating snow may work in similar ways. Water and microbes are interconnected.

Life IS climate, climate IS life. There is no separation. All is flow.

A mathematician would perceive inordinate complexity in a matrix of interconnectedness. There is no single rule, save there is no single rule. Bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa and viruses all converse in chemisignals. The world is never, ever truly silent. And we are never physically separate, but wholly interconnected.

Microbes relay messages to the collective. They commune. Microbes are mind, and determined, a challenge to Darwinian thoughts of success derived from catalogues of failure. Success, it seems, is intent and attempt, rather than failure after failure. This new knowledge of microbial wisdom supports cooperative evolution. We, as humans, are an extention. We, and our genome, can determine our future in order to fairly flourish. Suffering will always be part of the matrix, though we can choose to reduce it by our own actions. There is responsibility, not administered by authoritarianism but by generous, informed self-will. I am now interested, at least, in noimetics, but flow, as dynamic and interconnected life, is a constant love, because that is the quintessential nature of the evolution of life.

Imagination is an evolved gift, we can imagine goals, articulate them in a collective consciousness, like the microbes. And with both rationale and affect, set out to achieve them. There is fluministic love in ‘doing’ these things for the promotion of life’s interconnectedness. Those that imagine and act on this better world are Fluminists. This love is a doing word.

We also know that water and microbes can be a force majeur that overwhelms and destroys. We’ve seen it across the world this last month. Some have felt it. The destruction, loss of life and loved-ones, not just human, has been traumatising. Water and mudslides have ripped into community, clawing and scraping the toxins left recklessly about, draining them into the rivers and eventually to the sea. There will be more human disease as the climate shifts and life migrates. There has always been, but we will see new forms and strengths in others, and across other species ~ animals and plants. The collective immunity will take time to adapt. The way we apply our own lives to the interconnected flow is shown frequently to be a dis-ease. We can change. It will take commitment and a collective mind, like the microbes. It will take Fluminism and Soliphilia.

To not commodify, but to sanctify.
To aid and multiply life flow, not destroy it.

These are my noimetic meanings. I can only hope they ‘affect’ you in some essential way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The sound of rain on leaves….

The Rainbow Serpent, Aborginal Art…

 

 

Has the world gone mad?

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Statue of Sir Peter Scott, London Wetland Centre, by Ginny Battson © 2014

 

“The world has gone mad.”

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!

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For the love of imperfection

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“When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world ~ no matter how imperfect ~ becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

My walking boots have taken me downstream lately, to several water meadows,
where tall, riparian vegetation and dependent insect life ripple to breezes like shallow, verdant seas. As I kick along deep troughs formed by smaller mammals, Skipper butterflies shimmer forward from their lofty look-outs and out to either side. Before they settle, they tussle for the top spots, as butterflies do whether I am present or not, in an extraordinary aerial display of defiance and speed. I love watching them. I love their tenacity, though they sometimes pay for it in broken wings and missing antennae.

Wabi sabi is commonly interpreted outside Asia as recognition of the value of visual imperfections in the nature of the age-worn, crackleature and objects weathered by the elements. We may find physical deterioration artistically satisfying, joy in the uniqueness of things by their flaws. For example, I once received a brand new picture frame in the post. When I opened the package, the wood was dented, having had some kind of tussle with a mail-train door (I would imagine). I kept that frame rather than return it, admiring the dent as Zen-like and unique, whilst saving logistical resources at the same time. I look at the damage now, framing a print of a snow leopard high on a Himalayan cliff, and smile.

Wabi sabi, as a Japanese aesthetic ideal however, is far richer in meaning than these superficial flaws. The visual cues are a mere scratch at the surface. There are deeper, emotional stirrings in action, and even the Japanese find few words to describe them. “Consciousness transcending appearance”, an acceptance of a form of “atmospheric emptiness”, a wistful mix of loneliness and serenity whilst garnering a sense of “freedom from materialism”. At the same time, there’s an inherent weight or mass in meaning and intent. Wabi sabi may be more of a ‘doing’ word than many might think.

You’ll already know, wabi sabi is not an aesthetic commonly adopted in marketing strategies. We are courted to pay for perfection from an early age. Our faces, our houses, lawns and cars must be in impeccable order, blemishes neither tolerated nor encouraged. Ageing skin or chaos in nature are hard to bear for these gurus with money boxes to fill. Even landscapes are airbrushed, in reality and in symbolism. Foundation creams and herbicides come to our “rescue’ and at a cost (beyond money).

Neither is imperfection the culture of nature photo competitions. A shot of a broken butterfly wing, no matter how atmospheric, would rarely pass first round of elimination. Cherry blossom and autumn leaves might be celebrated, of course, but only in full glory and not when run into a road or pressed into the mud of a woodland trail. Some attention is paid to transience and impermanence, but dying, death and bodily decay are certainly off the menu.

Such a relentless pursuit of sublimity is a competition all life is bound to lose. We are constantly being set up for a fall. Non-human life should not have to measure up to such false, anthropocentric standards. Life is a tussle, and so few are left unscathed. Broken wings and missing antennae are common place. We may love these beings as we love our own, warts and all, for they are our kin.

“Wabi sabi” are two kanji or Chinese characters shared by the Japanese and Chinese language. Originally, wabi 侘 meant ‘despondence’, and sabi 寂 meant ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’. These are emotions not portraits or landscapes, vases or tea cups. Ancient Chinese artists and writers ascribed to the aesthetic long before it was brought to Japan via Zen Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony, though classical literature, brush painting and poetry have been key to its development as an ideal and interpretive device.

山寺や
撞きそこなひの
鐘霞む
From a Mountain Temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist

(haiku by the 18th C Japanese poet Yosano Buson (与謝蕪村) )

Whether one is an artist or a lover, mechanic or a parent, we attempt to communicate our personal understanding of such deep, private emotions with the ones we care about. And when we are at our most transparent and authentic, we succeed. This can take courage, of course. Our flaws are perceived by the sensibilities of our patrons and/or loves and, with fortune, are accepted unconditionally. If we fake it, we invite alienation and regret. We can learn to love all imperfections as “rich and beautiful,” and there will be endless opportunities.

Wabi sabi exists of the organic as well as the inanimate. On a dark, rainy day, skippers are subfusc, well on their way to becoming a constituent part of the soils of the flood plain. When the sun shines, they are transformed into brazen flames of orange, flickering and fully alive. Remind me to take beautiful photos of them on those duller days, with their broken wings and missing antennae ~ I will be richer for it, in all that is love and serenity.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sense and Sound ~ stimuli and reflex

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“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.

“You are forsaken,” say the anemones.

“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

― Henry David Thoreau

I ought not to be writing this, because academic deadlines are looming. But I’m seeing many beautiful wildflowers coming into show. I feel compelled to make a note.

Imagine it is still early Spring. Picture a wood anemone in flower, if you will. And now a quivering constellation of them, and an overwhelming sense of wonder when gazing at these seemingly fragile starbursts just above the field layer of a temperate woodland. A light breeze blows in from a mild front and they sparkle in the morning dew. Ah, the glory.

“You are forsaken,” say the anemones, so penned the floriographers of the Language of Flowers. But how can I associate emotional abandonment with Anemone nemorosa? They light up my world every Spring. The Victorians must have this all wrong.

Fast forward to May. This is the time when the opportunity for pollination is done, flowers tarnish and petals shrivel to dust. The flowers are “going over,” as we say, euphemistically. Oh, the disappointment, the grief.

But I propose there’s nothing “over” about the incredible evolution of double fertilization in angiosperms (flowering plants). Why defuse this kind of beauty with a terminal phrase like “going over”? The essence of flower, surely, includes what happens next. It may not be so sensuous to the body, but it’s certainly a wonder to the mind. The process is nothing short of a miracle.

We photographers, artists and writers are culpable. Maybe it’s harder to convey this kind of radiance, the consciousness of life growing in the botanical ovary. Ah, the poetry of the dainty flower, the blousy show, the sexy colours and forms that attract us almost as much as the bees themselves! I’m unconvinced we are even any good at culturally admiring our own mode of pregnancy ~ there’s a lot of goo involved, for sure.

Wood anemones lie dormant for most of the year, spreading out slowly via rhizomes just under the surface of the humous at a rate of about 6 feet per century. I know one patch in North Herefordshire around 600 by 300 feet, so on loose calculation, these plants have been resident since the last ice-age.

Here’s the rub. Pollination fails, often, because the plant is an obligate outcrosser ~ explored not least by Charles Darwin himself, and defining the trait for pollination from spatially widespread populations in order to successfully produce genetically resilient seed. Woodland fragmentation in the UK means this process becomes less and less likely to succeed. The creeping rhizomes secure survival of the species instead. Seeds have almost been forsaken. So, it pains me to say, perhaps the Victorians were right all along.

(returns to study)

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Who Knows ~ A poem for Ginny, by Elizabeth Rimmer

 

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.

She blogs at www.burnedthumb.co.uk.

Monknash and the Anthropocene

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I am at Monknash SSSI on the South Wales coast, protected for its abundance of special geology and rare species. A handful of humans and our canine companions are wandering the beach towards Cwm Marcross, beneath magnificent Liassic cliffs just West of Nash Point. We are all separate in our own worlds, though sharing the common experience of listening to the cackling of fulmars on narrow ledges and tracing our way along the shore. The steep, stratified layers of the cliffs are a rhythmic repetition of limestone and mudstone, and formed as a late Triassic desert was inundated by ocean. Molluscan faunas found here by paleontologists have provided a surprisingly detailed record of environmental history, particularly in rarer tufa limestone deposits. They mark the Boreal/Atlantic climatic transition around 8,000 years ago, when rising global temperatures meant further retreat of ice to the North and a rising sea.

At that point in time, Mesolithic humans, dark skinned hunter-gatherers along with, perhaps, a few early settlers, populated what we now describe as Britain only sparsely. The sea had begun to inundate the good hunting grounds of the marshes, lakes and rivers of Doggerland, disconnecting us from mainland Europe. The Welsh shoreline had extended in plains out beyond what we see now as shore, into the Severn Sea (or in Welsh, Môr Hafren). These flatlands were also being swallowed by rising water levels. The newly forming coast would have provided an important source of marine food for early tribal groups, evidenced by middens of cockle and oyster shells discovered in estuarine zones. The temperate post-glacial climate would have encouraged more people to migrate and succeed.

Some 3,500 years before that, at the end of the last Ice Age, marks the beginning of what the International Commission on Stratigraphy accept as the beginning of the Holocene epoch, the geological time period in which we now exist. Climate has been fairly stable over the Holocene, but things are changing rapidly.

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As one stands now between the cliffs and the shoreline, it’s as if time is materially trapped in the strata. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the wind, rain and sea recounting narratives of antiquity, released in little whisps around you. There’s evidence here of glacial retreat, lost ecologies of marsh and woodland communities instead of the hinterland of farms we see today. And there are ancient human stories too, no doubt, the joys and struggles of life, to which I think we still may relate.

Here on the edge of things, magic still dwells, as ever.

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Today, intricate honeycomb worm reefs (Sabellaria alveolata), smother wave-cut platforms, thrusting out into long shore drift when tides are low. Their brown planes intersect the water with plumes of sea-spray, the final sigh of waves that may have begun thousands of miles away in the Atlantic Ocean. These are great hiding places for many other intertidal species, part of the reason they are formerly protected from human interference by Law.

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It’s a wonder these reefs aren’t smashed to bits by erosion. But they remain firmly in tact, for now, the colonies of tiny worms resiliently rebuilding their feeding tubes with sand particles and shell remains at every chance.

Sadly, if you look closely, you’ll see brightly coloured plastic rings, toys (some even with faces), bottles, caps and inexplicable mouldings that have become entwined deep in the honeycomb. I feed my hand into the reef to pull a few out, and fail. I can’t damage the reef. They are cemented, ensconced behind the living colonies, leeching out their chemicals as they slowly break down with unquantifiable consequences. It’s as if only another epoch of sea erosion and the loss of the worms themselves would ever see them gone.

Moreover, I look around me and imagine worse to come. Oceanographers are now clear that anthropogenic climate change will bring the seas in higher and harder across these shores. More intense storms will wither the roots of all the rare life I observe today. The intertidal ecological zones will become permanently submerged and the cliffs will fall more rapidly back into the high energy waves that batter their foundations. Species will have to adapt as best they can.

I feel ashamed of my own species. It’s all so unnecessary.

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In altogether different parts of our Earth’s biosphere, as part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, there are a number of academics scattered in universities worldwide who call themselves the Working Group on the Anthropocene. Anthropocene is a term first used by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to delineate a ‘present time interval’, yet to be fully sanctioned or determined, in which many geologically conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activity. The evidence, however, is mounting.

The Group plans to assemble later this year to decide whether the Anthropocene is to be ‘set in stone’. The case will be reviewed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and, if approved, the new epoch will have to be ratified by the International Union of Geological Sciences before formal adoption.

A paper published recently in Science provides further evidence of human impacts upon the lithosphere, the rigid outer part of our planet Earth. Various biogeochemical cycles have ensured our pollutants have reached far and wide. The plastic I find trapped today in the honeycomb worm reefs are only what I can see with my eyes. There are far more profound changes occurring beyond my senses that not only future geologists thousands of years from now (indeed, if our species has rallied), might discover in core samples and geochemical surveys, but modern Earth scientists are already uncovering.

It appears there are indicators in recent lake sediments in Greenland, which distinguish them from the rest of the Holocene epoch,

“The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century.”

Further,

“unprecedented combinations of plastics, fly ash, radionuclides, metals, pesticides, reactive nitrogen, and consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. In this sediment core from west Greenland (69˚03’N, 49˚54’W), glacier retreat due to climate warming has resulted in an abrupt stratigraphic transition from proglacial sediments to nonglacial organic matter, effectively demarcating the onset of the Anthropocene.”

Salutary stuff. There’s still much debate about the precise point in time the Anthropocene is supposed to have begun. Some argue it should be traced back to the Neolithic conversion from human hunter-gathering to farming, whilst others look to the more recent Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the fossil fuel era and greenhouse gas emissions. The Great Acceleration” since the 1950s, a period of exponential economic growth and consumption of resources, looks to be a prime candidate, and even the dropping of the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico 1945 has been suggested. The ‘Subatlantic’ is the current climatic age of the Holocene. It started at about 2,500 years ago, but the data sets will surely no longer be the norm as we move forward in time. Even in the UK, we are already facing what meteorologists describe as ‘unknown extremes’ in terms of climate volatility.

Perhaps, by declaring a brand new geological epoch because of the impacts of one species, our own, the act itself will induce a re-imagining and re-forming of human-Earth relations. As a part of nature, we are cheating ourselves if we think our own dominion above all other life remains the route to living within our planetary boundaries instead of exceeding them as we do. We share one biosphere, we need to respect the precariousness of our situation, but remember our responsibilities to our evolutionary kin, both human and non-human.

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Back to Monknash, and the tide is turning; significant, as it’s the second largest tidal range in the world after the Bay of Fundy in Eastern Canada. As I look West along the vista of cliffs, the light is fading to pink with the onset of evening, and it’s time for me to return home. I can’t help feeling that we could somehow learn from this coast as it reveals secrets of past changes whilst recording new climates and adapting species of today and into the future.

This particular section is declared by Cardiff Vale Council to be unprotected from the onset of the sea, left to ‘natural’ processes which would have otherwise shaped our coasts for eons. We are, of course, part of nature, so our impacts may also be perceived as ‘natural’, though does not, I’d assert, make them anymore just. In other places nearby, where humans reside near current sea levels, there are, at least some plans afoot to provide defences and support. But we collectively haven’t the funds to fend off the mass of an expanding ocean for long. I can only hope that 2016 and the declaring of the Anthropocene Epoch will not go unnoticed for real change is now long overdue.

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10 things we all can do to help Biodiversity

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.

Waste

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.

Snake Goddess, a modern emblem?

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‘Medusa.’ What image comes to mind at the mention of her name? I doubt very much if it is one of renewal and wisdom.

The Hellenic myth of Medusa remains as metaphor for all that is wicked and vendictive in the world. Homer, the ancient Greek poet, drew her literary character as the epitome of ugliness and danger, with large glaring eyes, into which no-one should ever look unless wishing to be turned to stone, and hissing snakes for hair, each one ready for that lethal strike.

But the root of the snake symbol is more ancient than any Greek myth or religion: The Egyptian Ouroboros, represented as the circle of a snake devouring its own tail, was a common emblem of cyclicity, the seasons, the eternal return, death and the renewal; the Minoan Snake Goddess was worshipped as a symbol of naturalism and grace; the Celts and early Pagans used the image of a snake in a similar way; before that, an hypothesis stands of a Neolithic Great Mother, with multi-functional powers of priest, ruler and warrior, and of plant and animal cultivator and protector. Indeed, some of the earliest human artefacts are depictions of women, recreated in the image of a snake-bird goddess, not of an evil female presence, but a depiction of all that is good. This neolithic woman co-existed with animals instead of conquering them. Her eyes were large, owl-like, and her locks were snakes, above the neck, as an animalistic indication of high wisdom and prophetic powers, rather than spite and hostility.
The Greek myth diverges: All three dreaded Gorgons were sisters, two of them immortal, Stheno and Euryale; Medusa was the only mortal one, but into her eyes all men may look and stop, dead, turned to stone. Using the mirror of his shield in order to look upon her without fear of death, demigod Perseus was guided by the owl-like Goddess Athena to decapitate Medusa and use her stare, even beyond death, to save Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. The head was said to have been placed upon the heroic Athena’s breastplate as lethal ward. Medusa’s serpentine image remains as one of the earliest stone temple pediments in Hellenic Greece, carved around 600 BC: A symbolic defense against all evil; wickedness against all wickedness.

So, the Owl and the Serpent Woman of all that is good seems to have tumbled down through generations of oral stortelling and split into the brave owl goddess Athena and the wicked snake-like Medusa. Brennan Root refers to Athena and Medusa as shadow sisters, the light and the dark, with an interwoven story as one and the same but divided by misfortune and mortality. Both icons appear to have been preserved in modern culture. But here-in lies a tragedy.

Remember, for the majority of human history, the symbol of snake has been one of birth, death and rebirth. For the snake sheds its old skin, only to live on in a new state of being.

Pre-Christian agrarian Mesopotamia imagined prototypes of snake gods to fear, and these were most likely replicated by the Judeo-Christian tradition thereafter, in the perils of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps, it was the abandonment of hunter-gathering for cultivating the land by hand which changed our human relationship with snakes. Inevitably, there would have been an increased risk of an early death, for both farmer and snake. If snake denies man immortality, then the Serpent of Eden is the ultimate representation.

The Egyptian war goddess, Neith, is cited by Plato as the inspiration for Athena, said again to have been rooted in a Mesopotamian owl goddess, resulting in the Greek ideal of womanhood in Athena; of strength and purity. What of Medusa as woman? Ovid, the Roman poet, claimed the mythological Medusa was a woman of immense beauty, perhaps a nod to her early virtuous incarnations. Athena, the virgin goddess, turned her into a monster/victim in a fit of jealousy, after Poseidon raped her in Athena’s own Temple. Feminists of the 20th Century seized upon Medusa as, therefore, a symbol for both victim of men and of retaliatory strength. Here was a woman who could deaden a man’s voyerism and render him nothing but a cold lump of stone. Her gaze was victor in the face of patriarchy. By contrast, the Russian philosophical Nihilists of the 1860’s had said those who do not stare into Medusa’s eyes fear reality, that life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. It is unfortunate that Medusa as deterrent to voyeurism appears to have been somewhat eroded very recently by Hirst and Rihanna in their photo shoot for GQ magazine, where the male gaze is actively encouraged to pour over Medusa’s form (and snakes) as sexual objects. Although there is a vague resemblance here to the Abrahamic religious symbolism of snake as sexual desire, it’s far less complex, and therefore, less rich in meaning, simply by its empty, commercial objectification. A sign of our time.

I prefer to imagine the cultural richness of some kind of neo-neolithic snake goddess. Faced with anthropogenic environmental impacts, I think we could steal ourselves anew and look deep into Medusa’s big owl-eyes, which search for light far into darkness. We can embrace the wisdom of her serpent locks and reclaim the image of snake as all that is good about this ever-renewing world. It is not that I wish all humans to be turned to stone or return to the stone age! Her image could be re-imagined as one of insight, wisdom and integration, an affirmative message from our neolithic ancestors. And if we can face down those fears of imminent death and sweep aside any notion of Medusa as victim, perhaps we may re-draw her character for the modern age, of the strength of the wilder things and the wild inside us all.

Brave swallows

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“One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.” Aristotle

I’ve just returned from a short stay on the Channel Islands. We made our sea crossing in a fast catamaran ferry which departed from a distinctly sunny St Helier to a particularly cloudy Weymouth. About mid-journey, mid April, as I leaned on the portside railings to brace myself from high winds, I noticed we had just passed a small sailing yacht also bearing north, bobbing in and out of a medium swell. Just above the inky water, between the two moving vessels, I glimpsed a pair of small dark birds, wing tip to wing tip, flying faster than the yacht and slower than the ferry.

Their flight style, recorded deep in my childish memories of common land and sweet hay meadows, gave their instance away as “barn swallows”, regardless of the unfamiliar backdrop. They were perhaps a little seasonally late in their Northward ventures over crested waves.Their usual glossy feathers were dulled, I imagined, by red Saharan dust.

Breathtaking.

Here were two seemingly fragile passerines determined to cross yet another vast stretch of water, with tiny beating hearts and a heritable timing for their arrival somewhere on British terra firma to nest. I was mesmerized, so happy, but my failing eyesight tracked them for only a minute before losing them as we ploughed on towards Portland rock. I’m unsure anyone else on deck noticed them. Maybe the crew on the bridge.

Migration of whichever species, horizontally, vertically, all around Spaceship Earth, fills me with Carson’s “sense of wonder” and beyond, with empathy and concern for our fellow time travelers . Two little birds out at sea and a massive volume of life all around the planet making tracks.

I noticed the catamaran was throwing up sea spray, which the wind spun into webs by the ton, drifting across the swallows’ path. One of the many unexpected hazards they face. I hoped they coped.

Hope as the plasticity of the mind, the flip side of fear, is all I have.

Much later, by the time I reached home in the Welsh Borders, a few Southern African swallows had already completed their Spring journey; a stunning feat in all manner of ways. They swooped and dived, I do believe, in a “sense of wonder”. Brave swallows, with the hearts of lions.

BTO Spring Migration