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Of Plastic and Plasticity

         

   Of Plastic and Plasticity

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Peering out over open water: green wash,

No spot of black to mark a seal, nor sight

Of white to indicate ice upon which to strike,

The bear turns about, towards dry land,

And trundles away from the shore,

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Following a novel scent, not so sure

To signify a meal, but more appealing 

Than sterile saline. The stench of humans

Almost overpowers hunger, pull of putrefaction,

.

But cautiously the bear pads across scraped

Gravel and strands of soft stuff –not snow – and

Colourful lumps, shiny hard strips and bits.

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A sharp set of claws upturns tins and other

Things the bear has never seen, and finds skin,

Bones and shreds of flesh of prey never tasted:

Not even raw; changed in a way it can’t fathom.

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Other animals abound – gulls and foxes and

Neighbour bears. But she fights for her share

Of the spread-out spoils of some unknown

Carnage, scavenging scraps of flesh amid debris,

Some of which is stuck with string, some

Clinging to wrappers – has to be eaten also –

But are surely shed easily enough 

As would be ingested seal skin and bone.

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Some men with glasses from a far observe

The animal with consternation, as it with

Relish ingests the refuse: Earth’s greatest

Quadruped predator reduced to such. But 

Others shrug at suggestions of contamination,

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Considering the data and the sea state – 

Since even artic snow and summer rain contain

The same chemicals as the landfill, and

The seals are a dish equally intoxicating

From fish swimming in poisoned brine.

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What use, they wonder, a pristine scene

Without seals within reach of a beach,

Other than to produce a perfectly clean

Bear carcass: healthy except for hunger?

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The bear, on the other hand, now on land,

Is pulled by the wind past the dump, to 

More varied carrion. Carcasses lie in woods:

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Caribou, moose, deer and musk oxen;

Moving, the quarry could become new prey

Replacing seals, if bears become plastic enough.

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The pinipeds themselves, if they are to survive,

Shall someday have to haul up on a shore to pup;

Walrus, too, must beach for calves to breach.

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Eventually, perhaps, an adaptation to such crap

From our waste, awash in any water, solid or not,

They encounter, can give a chance for all species

To scarcely subsist somehow in a new balance.

But such hopes fast melt in plasticity’s absence.

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Not the most up-beat of poems, but in some way a tiny bit optimistic for the predator if not species of large mammal facing the most precarious future of us all….

Thoughts on wildfires and their aftermath…

23+25/7/22

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, will have seen the photos I posted of the forest fire that burnt through the hills near the village n the Valdorba/San Martin de Unx area of Navarra where I stay on weekends outside Pamplona.

From sunrise we saw the fire approach with a strong wind behind it.

The fire came close, about a km away, but the wind thankfully shifted and it did not come up the other side of the valley towards us in the end, though we did have to evacuate officially after emptying the house of anything we wished to save – which for me only amounted to the spare medicines I keep here, one book from my large collection and a couple of jumpers with sentimental value. I did think it prudent to take 800 year old statue of the Virgin Mary out of the little church, just in case.

You can see the windmills in the smoke. Only one was damaged. The rest have been turned back on and are back supplying the province as they have for 25 years.

The fires here are not generally set by farmers looking to clear land, though they are sometimes caused by accidental sparks from machinery during harvesting. The extreme heat and extended drought made any spark potentially disastrous, and the high winds made fires spread almost unstoppably – there were several over that same weekend in the province.

The cause of this fire hasn’t been clarified, but the local farmers union are adamant that the underlying problem is the reduction in sheep grazing on the hillsides and the environmentalists push to leave the mountains to themselves rather than intensively manage them…

Well, I hadn’t been able to go up to see the aftereffects of the disaster until a few days ago – now a month after the event.

I cycled down to the valley to the village of Maquiriain which was close to being burnt, but was eventually also saved, up along the main road that was the final fire break, to a village at the head of the valley called, Olleta, and from there turned up to the top of the hill and then back along the tracks joining the windmills.

It was a long cycle, and hot – the tail end of another heat wave that passed over us the week before. In the interim there had been a storm or two, but mostly dry sunny days with the chilly north wind blowing as usual.

First observation:

The most obvious thing is that the experiment of planting pine trees was a huge error, just like it is in many other areas of the world. The living trees left should be felled for timber or paper and native trees let grow – or be planted or seeded from local trees if necessary – instead.

The road built to build and service the windmills makes mountain biking an easier prospect, and helped with the fire extinguishing, though the firemen could not hold the fire back at this point and it continued down the hill to the right, towards my house.

The trees that burnt most were pines and those nearby suffered from the heat.

The densest stands of oak did not suffer so much and seemed to have protected one another (probably because of increased humidity within copses) and even some fields.

Here you can see the burnt pines and the green are all oak, of both evergreen and sessile species.

The huge snowfall we had in October didn’t seem to have dropped so many boughs in the area I saw as in trees around our village, so probably didn’t have a huge effect, but I did see that under the trees with fallen limbs there was more ash when the wood burnt, and the trees probably also suffered from more open canopy effects.

These young oaks seem completely dry but some new growth has sprouted, as seen in the next image.

The same tree showing where a branch was broken by the winter’s heavy snowfall, and some new growth: green against the heat-killed brown leaves.

The juniper bushes burnt to crisps, as did a lot of box, and some other small shrubs I’d know the name of, though that has to include roses and brambles. These will regenerate, I suppose from seed, and some brambles are already coming up. The evergreen oaks are sprouting – from trunks that lost all their leaves and are only sticks, as well as those with shrivelled brown foliage.

Those with trunks too badly burnt have some sprouts from roots, and I suspect more will come with rains and patience for them to get to the surface.

These are young trees and were all badly damaged by the fire, but at their bases, new growth has come through the charred soil.
You can see thought the trunks are charred, the roots are alive and deep, and a new stem has sprouted, despite the lack of rain.

The sheep or other grazers would have probably not had changed much at all. The grass would have been eaten before it burned, yes, but not the juniper and box, as even the horses don’t od much to stop it, so fire is actually the best way to reduce it, and the forest will benefit long term – if the climate change can be reduced in time to have any forest.

The farmers union and other lobby groups are sponsoring a story-telling event for the local kids: how to avoid causing fires in the future. One hopes it does not slant towards recounting legends and myths of the old days… when the mountain was not wild, but was more like a commons-like park or ranch.

Just to be clear, I am in favour of cattle on the hill, as I am the horses, but I wonder if the farmers union would agree that an underlying condition we need to deal with is reducing the CH4 levels from intensive cow production so as to reduce climate change leading to heat waves and forest fires of the future…

Planting a Flag on the Shifting Baseline

There are realities and there are coping mechanisms.

My six-year-old is a big nature fan. And I am faced with the task of explaining the fate of nature in addition to its wonder. And sometimes it’s too hard. Thus the poem.

My son on a recent trip to the wilds of the Burren, looking for flowers and insects. He found an alpine gentian and a few orchids.

            Planting a Flag Upon the Shifting Baseline

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Passing an afternoon in the local park

Beyond the playground with youngest 

Child exploring our natural world around

Appears bare over and above weeded beds

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The park hosts ducks and if lucky a few 

Unseen moles given away their holes in

Tight mown lawns . The pond produces 

Not a dragon nor damselfly these days;

Frogs do not call nor drop from Lilly pads.

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Starlings must suffice for birdsong in

The absence of other sopranos. Sparrows 

Tweet where warblers once had trilled.

Cherry blossoms bloom only for humans it

Seems: no bees now humming about branches.

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But the sun still burns as the Earth turns,

And instead of telling tales of yore;

The beings which beautified our world before,

I plant my flag upon the shifting baseline

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And allow my boy appreciate the birds and

Insects that are left: ants on the rocks,

Grasshoppers blending into the too-late left

Unmown blades; daisies and dandelions yet

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Lovely even if aren’t orchids and goldfinches

No longer glorify the scene as they seek seeds.

The ducks are enough to look at despite there

Once being more dainty denizens in the reeds:

.

For thus we seize upon the joy we need,

The only hope for wonder left clinging

After the stupid, searing, sundering of greed.

There are no insects evident here despite the huge amount of chestnut flowers begging for bees, but it’s good for the soul anyway to get here from the city.

Enjoying Spring?

.

.

            The Enjoyment of Spring

February leaves light frost on the park grass,

But the birdsong cutting the chill silence belies

This skin of sparkling crystals; harkens from 

Recently breakfasted birds animated to action 

As the era of excitement approaches, already 

Cold soil broken by budding narcissus prepared to 

Perform their demure golden pouts and beside

The warming morning rays upon me shows

The strengthening sun will soon scatter the ice

And afternoon will even induce disrobing, thus

Dallying in sun-drenched dales. 

.

Yet, still, I feel

Almost ill at enjoying these delightful days when 

We know elsewhere gale forced storm surges 

Swamp grasslands with salt, wind whip trunks

Down like twigs, just as most we need them 

Growing. The mountain slopes are bare of snow:

Instead several fires on-going, and a bushel

Of other evils await. 

Even here, these trees 

Are leaving too soon; petals, peeping weakly

Into shape shall feed few bees this spring,

And we fear for their fruits come summer.

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For the grass beneath the white seems damp,

But even the soil is dry, and blades soon scorched

As we wait for rains, disappeared more than delayed,

During a drought seeming set to last till March.

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The rain came, finally, to wash off the delicate petals from these early-flowering trees, in early March. And record rainfalls in some places, like Alicante, with highest ever 24hr precipitation on March 4th… not so good for the fields at all.

I wrote this poem after a pause in the park on the way to work, the same day I saw this video of the storm surge back in Ireland where they were hit by several named storms while our farmers in Spain were desperate for rain.

End of 21, start of 22….

        Well, another year’s over, and a new one, just about to be begun…

And what have we done?

Well, we hung on in there, I hope. It’s been pretty crappy. There has been a flood of shit news, and it’s not getting any better, nor will it anytime soon, if it ever does.

I know it’s not nice to think of depressing things this time of year, but after the floods in Pamplona (and then downstream in the days afterwards) a few weeks back, I wrote this poem….

I don’t hope you enjoy it, but do read it.

And watch Don’t Look Up while you are at it, this new year’s break.

the floods before they receded.

    It’s Only Getting Worse

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The recent flood recedes from fields;

Ducks return to the river, magpies 

Scan the sodden banks for stranded

Shells of drowned snails and worms

About the larger flotsam: scarves of

Polytunnel plastic wrapped round trees,

Piles of pallets and branches, miscellany.

.

Detritus, with the magpie foraging just in front…

The older bridges have weathered well,

While barrier walls and fences will

Have to be mended. The stench of

Fetid faecal matter mulched in mud

Hovers over the flood plain as men

Spray down streets, machines sweep

Up debris, sewers are pumped clean.

.

pump truck working on the sewer lines.
washing away the mud

The greatest flow of water recorded,

The worst flood in living memory; but

Just another on a list occurring during

One news cycle – Bolivia got battered

And a mile-wide stream of tornadoes

Thrashed six US states, leaving deaths

In its wake as well as destruction of wealth.

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And it’s never getting better, as a

Song says: the slippery slope we sang

About is beneath our soles now, and

We’ll slide ever faster, repeating wreckage,

Building back broken bridges, other 

Constructions lasting less time until

The next deluge or other artificially-

Exacerbated natural disaster.

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The things we counted on for

Christmas will be dependant on

Whatever’s already arrived: the

Shipping and chips yet pending

Slows supplies perhaps until a 

Year passes, but the shortages

May last till we die; living again

With scarcity, like our ancestors

In times past we thought we’d 

Superseded, but let ourselves slip 

Up, back, due to too much greed.  

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So these scenes we’ve seen recently

Are those to keep upon our screens:

Fond memories of former times

When our world was right, and we 

Never accepted the sun was setting

Till we saw nothing but dark night.

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I know we have just too many things on our minds, and that it’s easier to stick to the day to day, but this is going to be our day to day soon enough if we don’t drag our so called leaders into the daylight.

Crazy Weather… just who’s the crazy one around here?

They say you never know yourself if you’re going crazy… perhaps it seems those around you are tho ones who are really crazy.

We call this weather crazy, but aren’t we really the crazy ones for not recognising it for what it is, and indeed really basically fucking batshit crazy for letting it happen without doing anything useful to stop or slow it, and in fact being the cause of it all…. and all the time knowing that it’s going to come back and not just bite us on the arse, but beat the shit out of us, till any sense we have left will be knocked out of us.

Flowers share the branch with not-yet-fallen leaves on a tree in November in a Pamplona park….

            The Reaping of Disdain 

Pink blossoms add extra beauty

To an autumnal almond tree:

Orange and auburn leaves left

Before falling with the frost

At least formally expected 

If it arrives as it did normally in

November. 

Sun and clear sky

Seem apt background to marvel

At young walnuts dotted on a

Bare-leaved tree, wondering if we

Will get a second harvest this year.

Like the oilmen grinning as the

Ice melts for their machines to

Begin drilling without awaiting 

Spring, 

  

We reap the short-term 

Gains until the true harvest of

Our disdain, ignorance, apathy

Ripens in silent screaming of 

Ecosystems stretched to snapping.

The walnuts. They were still growing last week, even after a snow squall in between…

Enjoy the Silence before the coming Squall

 

I wrote this a few weeks ago, when the weather was colder – now it looks like we’re far from having a white Christmas.

But we can still enjoy the simple things, even if it is only by ignoring the difficulties awaiting us in the new year and beyond.

The snow starting in the pines – if you zoom in you can see the haze is all flakes of snow. The camera never does justice to the scene, of course.

           Silence before the Squall

Snow falls past pine trunks 

Like solidified silence: almost

An extension of dawn’s tranquillity

Before squalls scream across canopy

Sending flakes flurrying down

To pale box and holly’s leaves.

As hours slowly pass, and white quietly

Deepens, the wind weakens and settles 

Like drifts. Then, as evening stretches,

A strip of cloud opens to allow sunlight

Illuminate the scene before twilight,

Suffusing with diffuse golden radiance

The shifting mists along the ridges, red

Shrouding windmills. Imbuing soft sunset

With orange fire across the ice instead

Of another storm sending us scarpering 

Inside to hide, it seems such gentle 

Splendour shows us the scenes 

Awaiting us after all our playing, and

For all our attempting to prepare 

For her vagaries, in the end, we will

Flit like flakes upon her wind, for

We are but Nature’s playthings.

The scene before sunset (lower down were less snow fell) – the sun was beginning to get down to that break in the clouds to light up that mist that hung all along the mountains to the left, while my kids were playing just out of shot and distracted me from taking a photo of the later colours.

Happy Christmas everyone!

For those looking for a quiet read, or a nice E-reader gift, check out my books….

Some of them are on sale with Smashwords from today!

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/djmobrien

Suddenly Spring

Suddenly Spring

 

How quickly it comes, now, this thing called spring:

Crocuses suddenly splatter bank in violet and blue

Blackbirds burst out with twilight tunes as

Bats trawl back and forth for rising flies proving

This apparent death of winter weather is true.

 

Considering I was sledding in a village near where this photo was taken yesterday on this very day last year, I only hope a blast of snow doesn’t kill the flowers unfolding, nor catch the bats too early out of hibernation.

 

 

 

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:

homo deus.jpg

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.

men like gods.jpg

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.

point counter.jpg

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.

meridian.jpg

 

 

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.

 

 

 

From further away

I wrote a blog post – a poem, really – about watching the planet from a distance. We sometimes think that what we have around us is of utmost importance, but it’s probably not, it’s just a jot in time.

Well, as I read the book, Against the Grain, and I see that civilisations fall almost as often as they spring up from the sweat of their subjects. I am feeling less attached to this one we are currently living in.

41e1Y2Mv7KL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Read this book. It basically says what you’ve probably been thinking. Farming wasn’t a great leap forward, it was forced upon us.

The history of our planet is basically people doing bad things to other people and species to keep themselves in the lap of luxury if at all possible.

The last century is an anomaly in giving any power (superficial though of course it is) to the common man (or woman, if she’s really lucky.)

If we see all the stuff written about past civilisations, all dug up from the ruins, often when those now living in those places have no idea about them, no memory, no stories, just some stones they might have found and used as foundations for their own houses, we see how fragile, how faint is the mark of these societies, really. They disappeared most of the time.

image006.jpg

These ruins were only found in 2016, but now it’s thought they’re from a civilisation that once controlled a region of India near Myanmar (see link above). Did anyone miss them? Not at all.

So what if we disappear too?

In the past, the people subjugated by these states didn’t all die – many or most escaped back to a former type of life, and were probably happier for it, definitely better off in terms of diet and health. So why lament the demise of the rulers?

I don’t.

I live in this world, of course. I am dependent upon it. If it were all to disappear tomorrow – as I said back on New Years Eve 1999, when we wondered if the Year 2000 bug would stop the world – then I’d be dead in a matter of months. I can’t just walk away from the status quo, go and grow beans and catch animals. I am attached to the technology for life, and though I teach my children about wildlife which might help them when the cities are destroyed, my daughter is equally diabetic and unless I learn how to distil insulin from dead deer and rabbits, we’ll be as dead as anyone else when the disaster hits.

But people will survive.

Some will walk away, south or north where the weather is better. Humanity will continue, just as it did after the collapse of other societies. Some people will remember how to live outside the shelter of our cities and society. Apart from the plastic everywhere, this small snapshot of history will become as forgotten as the rest.

Our descendants, if we have them, will build their cities on top of ours, like we have on others, so our buildings will be discovered accidentally some day like we find the remains of the Roman walls and medieval castles when we dig out subterranean car parks.

The beech trees will survive, shifting north and south, possibly all the way to Antarctica, where they once grew before during a time when the world had a similar atmospheric CO2level to today. Most of the other plants will probably struggle on, too, though much of the fauna will die out, to be replaced eventually in time by other species.

It’s a real fucking pity, a goddam waste, that we allow this to happen. It’s stupid, stupid, stupid, to quote some fuckwit from the annals of insurance fraud. The age of stupid, like the documentary.

We could keep the world looking the way we want it if we move our asses.

To allow it to change from how it suits us is like letting the house burn down because you’re too lazy to pick up a fire extinguisher.

I remember visiting Niagara Falls years ago, and being told that the quantity of water allowed to flow is much reduced not just to produce electricity, but to ensure that erosion doesn’t move the falls upstream – which would mean having to move the viewing platforms from where they are now. And that would be silly.

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this is from 1969, when the American side of the Falls were stopped flowing completely to purposefully fix faults to prevent erosion.

If that kind of sense was applied to our current problems, we would see a lot more action on the climate change front.

Our society might have a sea-change in our economic activities, but it will be unnoticeable on a grand scale, just like the difference between agriculture in England growing turnips in the 18thcentury is indistinguishable from growing grain in Egypt two thousand years ago.

But moving London, Alexandria, Miami and all those other seaside towns kilometres inland will be a major change that will be seen clearly in the archaeological record of our planet.

 

londonsealevels.jpg

the blue bits, as you might imagine, are those under sea level… hopefully we won’t get to this. But it’s reckoned that once we get to 4˚C, then it will go up to 6 or 9 by itself.

And because we won’t be around to explain it, they’ll be confused as fuck as to how stupid we were. Stupider than Easter Islanders.