Category Archives: Writing

Winter Poem

Closing up Camp

 

Fish flash lethargically argent in the creek,

Creeping upstream, gleaning the last

Of the caddis flies until torpor takes them.

 

Sun beams golden in glowing leaves but slants

Lower now, more weakly heating us, huddled

On the morning porch hugging our mugs.

 

We don’t swim before breakfast, only

Paddle after our afternoon nap, picking black

And other berries to boil jam and packing

Pumpkins for the car; chopping lumber

 

For the evening fire still keeps off falling

Chill, but within weeks we will give in to

Winter’s grip and slip away to the city.

 

Closing shutters against storms and snow,

Emptying water tanks and pipes from icing,

Clearing closets of anything attracting rodents

Or racoons and slowly strolling round the

Leaf-strewn lawn, taking one last long look

Out across the fall-reflective lake, then forsaking.

 

Still, thinking of spring keeps back sadness,

Slipping through seasons until suddenly

It’s our last, and we must shut up for good,

Or have it opened sadly in our absence,

Our passage through camp just a forest path.

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I write this back in September, thinking of the camp of my friend Tamir, who would have turned 60 a few days ago. I don’t have many photos of his summer place in autumn, but I am sure right now it’s deep in snow and the lake is starting to freeze over till springtime. Thus is life, as long as we still have springtime. And memories that shine like sunlight to keep us warm meanwhile.

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Loch Ness Mystery Solved! Perhaps

Well, it didn’t take the New Zealand Scientists very long to reveal their findings after all.

But then again, it wasn’t very exciting, or inspiring, so why hold back?

Their DNA sampling of the water of the lake showed no sign of genetic material from a Jurassic era reptile, or a shark, or a sturgeon – the latter being my guess…

But there were lots of eel DNA, so they reckon the mysterious creature might be a giant eel…

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Spot the eel? Neither do I…

 

Really?

Not very impressive deduction, in my opinion. Of course there was lots of eel DNA, just like there was lots of trout DNA if they were looking for it. Eels are common fish in such catchments. But do they grow to the size where people might see one from a great distance?

I’ve no idea how long a freshwater eel can actually grow, but this story shows a near-record size, caught in Australia, and it’s less than two metres long. So the adjective giant is hard to be precise about….

So, if there is one or two really huge eels in there, they might leave their DNA, but so would all the small normal sized eels we expect to find there with or without any giants or monsters….

The findings haven’t really found anything, other than they’ve not found anything. You can’t prove a negative, as they say.

It does add one more plank to the argument that there is nothing big enough, at least not a population numerous enough, to produce the quantities of DNA that makes it simple to find in the mass of water that is Loch Ness…

Still waters run deep, as they say, and Loch Ness is one very deep lake.

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Enter September

 

The Subtlety of September’s Entrance

 

The bees don’t know it’s September;

They yet forage on the flowers before the porch

Under a sun shining on, strong as August.

 

Martins and swallows still flit for flies,

Gather on the lines, unready to leave;

Unconcerned the village is deserted,

Windows shuttered underneath their eaves.

 

None have truck with the times men impose,

Their clocks and dates; assigning names

To days that are every one the same.

 

Their seasons do not turn on a tick

So they stay on, as we sadly turn away.

 

 

Yes, the kids, and I, are back to school, back to Pamplona after summer spent mostly in the village….

And the above is my lament.

 

But at least the swallows and house martins had a good year, after a slow start where I was worried we’d have a big decrease over last year. There were plenty of flies around this year, though, (really annoying ones!) after a very mild winter that didn’t seem to kill many flies at all.

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A few hundred house martins and some swallows assembling on the lines above the village. 

 

Latest look at Loch Ness

it’s amazing to say that in 2019, there are still questions to be asked about the Loch Ness Monster

But there are.

Scientists are still seeking to uncover exactly what gave rise to the story, what was and is being sighted from the shore and from boats out on that lake that made people report a large animal – be it a reptile, mammal or fish?

Now it seems that they have discovered evidence to support at least one of the hypotheses of what exactly this phenomenon is – using DNA samples, to see what kind of species might be swimming around, shedding skin cells or scales into the water which might float around and be picked up by their collectors.

My guess, is that they’ll keep the news back for a long time.

If they do produce one, my guess is that it will be a sturgeon, or a small group of sturgeons, that have swum up from Moray Firth at Inverness. Though the lake has few nutrients with which to sustain a large population, it might keep one or two alive for a few years.

 

What’s your guess?

Could there be a large creature hiding out all these centuries, only to be betrayed by its own DNA trail?

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Can scientists really hope to catch a few skin cells in all that expanse of water?

Here is something to ponder….

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This is not a scientific work, but it could be

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things you learn from reading books

It’s amazing what you can learn from books.

Sounds silly, that sentence…

I love when I’m deep in a book and something stops me halfway through a paragraph and makes me say “Holy shit!” out loud – I never knew that! Or, “Wow. Who knew?”

And sometimes it’ll send me off to investigate further.

There are some writers, editors etc., and I suppose readers, who don’t like this. They don’t anything that makes you interrupt the story, that keeps your nose in the leaves.

But for me, a really rich book is one that makes you pause every now and then and think about what you’re reading, ponder the meaning of what you’ve read, assimilate the knowledge this piece of writing has given you over and above an entertaining read.

This is why people read fiction. This is why science indicates that people who read fiction are more empathetic.

Here are three examples:

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I started reading Homo Deus, a recent non-fiction book, the sequel to Sapiens, which you might have heard of.

But before I go deep into it, I wanted to read a similarly titled novel – Men Like Gods, by HG Wells.

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An interesting book. We are clearly still in Wells’ Age of Confusion, with our population soaring way, way past what Wells worried was too many (2000m), and our world yet being pillaged by the rich.

But what really amazed me, in a book about a crossing dimensions into new universes (where the telecommunications department knows where every human is at all times but the knowledge can only be used for the good of the individual!) was the fact that the main character commented on the fact that there were thrushes singing in July – that he knew these birds stopped singing by June.

This is a character who writes for a liberal paper in the centre of London.

I’m a zoologist – sorry, I have a doctorate in zoology (there are picky fuckers out there in twitterlandia who like to point out that there’s a difference if I no longer gain employment from zoology except by teaching biology, who I hope die when they’re on a plane and a retired doctor tells them he’s no longer qualified to give them first aid while they suffer cardiac arrest, but I digress) – though not an ornithologist, but I had no idea.

He also commented on the fact that nightingales could be found in Pangbourne and Caversham, both in Reading just outside London were great places for nightingales (I wonder if there are any there now) which was amazing knowledge for an average Joe, too.

Why don’t we all know such things now? Where is our general knowledge of the life of other species around us gone? I was only familiar with the Blackbird and Robin – aside from the magpies and seagulls – back home in my hedgerow.

 

How much we have lost, even from such busy, hedonistic, polluted and poverty-stricken times as 1920’s London.

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Another book I recently read, and commented on in my facebook feed, is Point Counter Point, by the contemporaneous Aldous Huxley, who only predicted the future in this particular novel by talking about the fact that the world would run out of phosphorous, and other important raw materials and minerals due to unhinged addiction to progress, while politicians fucked around with petty, inconsequential nonsense that they hoped with get them elected over someone equally competent – or in competent, as the case usually is – while the problems that really affect us only snowball.

 

The third novel was Meridian, the second novel by Alice Walker, the author of The Colour Purple.

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At the end of the book, Walker describes the main character in the following paragraph:

“On those occasions such was her rage that that she actually felt as if the rich and racist of the world should stand in fear of her, because she – though apparently weak and penniless, a little crazy and without power – was as yet of a resolute and relatively fearless character, which, sufficient in its calm acceptance of its own purpose, could bring the mightiest country to its knees.

And I couldn’t help but think of Greta Thunberg – a beam of light in our own dark times, who seemingly powerless, is nonetheless, so resolute in her purpose that she has an immense effect upon countries.”

It is so often the person who seems weakest who can stand the strongest.

I only hope that in contrast to how people treated people like Meridian in the era of civil rights, that we will appreciate Greta for the positive influence she is on global justice and the survival of our society, and protect her from the evils we know some amongst us would wish her.

 

 

 

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Panorama of where I was when I came up with this poem

 

Immersed in Silence

 

It’s the silence that impresses

More than the open sky above

This corner of Spain, the

Distant mountains rising over

The Meseta, through the haze.

 

The windmills sometimes drone

In the Botxorno, from above, but

Unheard in Cierzo the

Traffic hidden behind hills,

Drowned by deep rocks,

 

Birds seem to keep their distance:

Hardly heard as flocks flutter

Through the hedges. No snores

From boars in hollows or barks

From roe in thickets. Alone the

 

Breeze in ears, and stopping

Let ears rest almost to knowing

Shoots growing, sensing,

Utter solitude

Uplifting.

Vast Void

 

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When the Sea is Empty

 

When it’s empty of wonders,

Will we yet wonder at the water’s edge?

Without the unseen marvels,

Will the sea still seem so vast,

Standing on the barren shore?

Sliding By

 

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Stop, Watch, Go.

 

Crossing a bridge on my bike,

I glance down at the river

Slow blink, thinking I

Could just watch the water flow by,

Watch the world go by,

Let my time fly by

As I pause my life for a while,

 

But strife lets the suggestion

Slide by

And I

Just ride by.

 

 

Homage to 1984

Are we learning Newspeak as we speak?

 

George Orwell’s masterpiece novel is 70 years old this week.

I first read it thirty years ago, when 1984 was already a year in the past. But it was clearly then a warning to be vigilant, to watch Big Brother and ensure He/It/They didn’t take over our little part of Oceania (though Ireland doesn’t even get a mention as Airstrip Two, or something).

Yet, despite the fall of the Iron Curtain five years after its setting it’s become more relevant as time goes on.

Orwell had lived the experience of seeing the ideals of the common man being twisted, controlled and eventually stymied by a stronger power, which pretends to be helping, often with propaganda as one of the main weapons. Consider the attempts to halt climate change, pollution, corruption, environmental destruction over the years since the 1960s. They were as effective as the efforts to overthrow communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Hopefully the current demonstrations from #fridays4future and #extinctionrebellion will have better success, because we can’t afford wait till capitalism collapses under its own weight – predicted to happen soon enough but not before it causes ecological collapse.

The emission of a reality TV series called Big Brother brought the book to the consciousness of a mass of viewers who’d never read as voraciously as some of us do.

And yet, how frivolous a use of the term. How cosy we were in thinking we had control of how we were being observed, could opt in to 24/7 scrutiny for a few weeks in the hope of winning cash prizes and/or fame.

I’ve not read the book again since I was fifteen (I very rarely read a book twice), but recently I’ve been teaching students about dystopias and I’ve watched clips of the John Hurt movie version, which bring it back into focus like a slap to the face.

When I tell the kids where the reality TV show name comes from they’re surprised, but what’s more astounding is the ease with which we have allowed Big Brother (Big Business, Big Data) to take over our lives, to actually scrutinise us more than the TV cameras do on that show.

Though we don’t pause to consider it much, now They can look into our thoughts, from our daily choices and actions in a real setting, not on some TV set.

And I’ve started wondering if we aren’t already starting to use NewSpeak.

At first, we did it to ourselves, since people stopped writing letters to one another, as well as a decline in reading.

Then, when phone texting became a thing, we started shortening words and changing spelling to fit more words in, and speed up messaging. We also started choosing simpler words rather than more complex ones.

Now, though, Big Brother is doing it.

Just like Big Data has figured out that predicting our choices is easier when They are in fact guiding us – as seen in the Pokemon go game – so, I think, predictive text on our phones (and the suggested replies suddenly appearing on our emails nowadays) is designed to do the same to our thoughts: to direct them, shorten them, prune the word selection until we are saying the same thing again and again, using only the few words They tell us to. Eventually, the sentences They construct for us will be considered good enough. We will write what They suggest we write. And, as Orwell so vividly explained, we will think how They want us to think. Simply.

Is there any remedy against this trimming of our mental faculties?

Yes.

Read the book.

Read the book again (I plan to this summer) and again, and read more books in general.

What have you read recently?

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The Many Versions of the Werewolf Tale

I was in the Basque speaking area of Navarra last weekend, up in the hills.

Very green.

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We went to visit a museum made by a very interesting guy called Iñaki Perurena, whose famous in the region for having Guinness World Records for lifting stones, among other things.

He has some amazing sculptures and lots of interesting paintings of characters from Basque Mythology on huge rocks dotted through the woods.

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The Basques have a lot of strange characters that live in the woods. A much richer diversity than the simple fairy and leprechauns of Ireland, to be honest.

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They have a type of Faun, mermaids, goblins, their own Santa Claus character, a cyclops, giants…

And…. another creature who you might bump into while walking the woods in such remote areas where houses are separated by large tracts of land, and visiting your neighbour involves a trek up a mountain.

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Gizotso, is werewolf  in Basque, and is said to be an extremely strong savage beast that lives in the woods and is made by sexual intercourse between humans and wild animals.

I’ve a long-held interest in werewolves, of course, and my kids speak Basque in school, but I’d not heard of this particular thread of the great tapestry of werewolf tales.

It’s fascinating how many different versions there are of this story. One of the things that unite all human societies are the similarities in our fireside tales of others who live just outside the light spread by our hearths. And the werewolf is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all, more than even the dragon.

At the same time, it’s disturbing how easily every society can alienate others and reduce them to the status of “savage animals.”

Perhaps it not so difficult to see how such stories of werewolves can spring forth in our imagination from simple ingredients such as deep woods, woodland dwellers, people we don’t like, and people we desire.

Of course, nowadays, nobody believes in werewolves.

 

 

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