Digital Ischemia

24/09/2017

Night on the Tiles

I blundered into the dimly lit washroom, thoughtless in my sleepy haze. As I automatically reached over the sink for my toothbrush, a dark mass behind the tap startled me. I was used to spiders and other housemates—woodlice, vine weevils, mites, and other dots—scurrying across surfaces but more often living out of sight. I’d even been bitten by a spider. That surprised me, and left me with a tiny red V-shaped cut in my wrist as evidence. That spider had chosen my cardigan sleeve for refuge and reasonably considered my thrusting arm to be an attack. Apparently biting spiders are common in Britain; fortunately they’re harmless.

I knew August was the mating season for ‘house’ spiders, driving them to roam widely and overtly in search of partners, and hence being seen more often. This one surprised me not only by her location but her size: a good ten centimetres diameter. I dislike surprises, especially late at night, and the ensuing tension. I think it comes down to a fear of insects unintentionally jumping on to me and disappearing up a sleeve or into my ear or somewhere I can’t get them. And then what? I supposed they might bite or tickle or lay eggs or commit some other grievous offence. More irrational conditioning.

I went on with teeth-brushing, casting frequent glances to check she was still there. Perhaps the light had halted her exploration, even though it was dark orange – at least neither of us should suffer melatonin cycle disturbances. Do spiders have melatonin? Perhaps my noise or movement vibrations disturbed her. Still indulging this mental blether, I turned off the light and went to bed. The next morning she was gone.

The second night I had entirely forgotten her existence and so was startled again by her presence on the tiles beside the sink. I was more relaxed, though, and observant. After a couple of minutes she rotated to face the wall and compressed herself against the grout. This seemed like avoidance behaviour. I was sorry cause her discomfort. I have no illusions about this being ‘my’ space. The wilderness may have been long since concreted over, but nature is mobile and constantly recolonising.

The following morning she had stopped just over the edge of the tiled unit, where the panel descends to the floor. She remained immobile during my intermittent visits through the day. I wondered if her exploration had tired her, or she had bivouacked there to extend her range the coming night, or she was awaiting prey… or a mate.

The third night the tiles were unoccupied. No movement, no stasis, no presence. I was somewhat relieved, but also concerned by the not knowing – pure selfishness: once you know something is present, not seeing it becomes unsettling. As the toothpaste foam built up, I wondered about the content of her life of which I was mostly ignorant. I trundled back and forth, brushing, pondering.

Crunch. My right foot felt a momentary resistance. My head leaped to the fateful conclusion. I bent my knee and raised my foot behind me: even in the artificial twilight the sole showed a telltale wet patch. The floor covering was too dark to identify the victim.

Wrong time to choose to freeze on the floor! Wrong place! Why did she not sense my noise or vibrations or the light tonight? Why not flee? Evolutionarily unsound!

My defensive denials fizzled out. Was she starving? Not dehydrated in a washroom, surely. Was she fuddled by sleep disturbance? But I wasn’t there that often. Was she just trying to get from A to B, and like the poor hedgehog, when faced with large, looming movement, made a poor choice. Freezing in the path of a heavy creature means death.

Daylight confirmed my conclusion. She’s still there: a fading husk of legs, pressed on the floor. I’ve slid her aside so I don’t repeat the offence, but haven’t appeased my regret yet. I didn’t mean to, sure, but I can’t say I couldn’t have foreseen that risk. Apologies tumble out as pathetically inadequate recompense for not considering consequences. Why do my needs or arbitrary habits supersede my housemates’? What might I have learned from sharing time and space with her? What have I learned?

Advertisements

27/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 3

begins at Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

As Fossoway Flora, the fragile frond, recovers equilibrium, Tantalum the nixie summarises their position in discussing pacifist extremism.
“Whether or not we can hear plants cry in pain, they react to harm. They experience something unpleasant. We shouldn’t need to hear a scream to tell us harm is not good.”

Tin is agitated. The nixie equivalent of a nerve has been nipped. He emits a rapid series of encyclopaedic squeaks.
“Plants are way more sensitive than to just pain. Pine and elm trees can identify which species of insect is chewing them from the insect’s saliva. They then release an appropriate deterrent chemical to the area under attack, or a specific airborne pheromone to attract the insect’s predators.* How clever is that? What else can we conclude but that plants have a sense of taste?”
Tantalum adds: “Just because we don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Tin squeaks on.
“The roots of tree and grain seedlings crackle at a frequency of 220Hz.”
Tungsten belligerently interrupts: “Could be just the sound of ’em growing or shifting about.”
Tin is delighted to respond.
“Indeed, or from their cell walls losing turgor with dehydration. However, the interesting observation is that seedling roots not only make a noise but they also respond to that frequency: they orient their tips in that direction.*”
Tungsten is still translating the technical terms. Tantalum is impressed. Tin squeaks on to a conclusion.
“Except cultivated plants: for example farmed grains are quite quiet*. Humans seem to have bred all the sense out of them, all their community communication and resilience.”
Flora feels faint.

Tungsten feels obliged to leaven the hysteria.
“So at some level they taste and hear. Next you’ll say they can see.”
Tin pipes back with a sneer.
“What is seeing but responding to light?”
Tungsten feels an invisible net is closing.
“And they do that?”
“Phototropism? And you may have heard of photosynthesis.”
“Ar, very clever.”

Tantalum detects Flora’s energy waning, despite the passionate debate, and attempts a summary.
“Usual human folly, then: just because you can doesn’t mean you should…in this case: impose yourselves on other lives.”
Tungsten wades back in with a late surge.
“Bacteria and other microbes are constantly being expunged from yer body, billions per second probably. Is that acceptable since your survival depends on it? Since you can’t see them? Is killing anything to survive acceptable?”
Flora’s twiggy mindlette explodes in a coruscation of anguish and anxiety. She becomes as limp as a twig can, probably in severe drought. Tin wavers nauseously. Sensitive souls.

Tantalum re-establishes pragmatism.
“Not every single seed gets to grow into an adult plant. There isn’t sufficient resource on the planet. ‘Nature is profligate,’ as Umbel says.”
Flora faintly tries to insert “although humans seems to have forgotten…” but Tungsten’s still surging.
“Yer right. Assuming the number of trees stays roughly the same, and, naturally, a tree lives for hundreds of years, and produces millions of seeds during that time, the chance of any one seed making it to reproductive adulthood is literally millions to one.”
Flora sighs in uneasy relief.

But Tungsten likes playing devil’s advocate.
“Of course that same profligate strategy only evolved because of the numerous hazards to be navigated. You can argue it any way you want.”
Flora sways. “Oh, please don’t.”
“I’m just saying, like, for humans, animal protein is easier to digest than plant protein. From that you could argue that human protein is the most easily digested so you should eat one another. Yer moral threshold is arbitrary.”

Flora is surprised to glimpse familiar territory – her starting point circles back toward her. At least they’re not hopelessly lost in a dark, thorny underbrush of debate. Not quite.

“Should we strive to evolve to a physiology where we can absorb all the basic nutrients we need from minerals—if we still consider those to be inanimate—and from them construct every chemical compound that we need?”
“Like us, ya mean?”
“Is that how you do it? Oh, brilliant!”
“Sun, sea, soil and, er, stratosphere?” Tantalum beams self-congratulation. Tungsten grimaces, the verbal initiative having been snatched while he was self-indulgently circumloquacialising around his argument. Best to plough on, push the rollercoaster right to its vertiginous finale.
“The fact that you have evolved to this point through the efforts of others is not in itself justification for continuing. Human evolution has not reached an endpoint. Yer not perfect; yer work in progress.”
Flora agrees with a faint flutter of leaf, despite a haze of impending doom.
“Our ‘success’ is predicated upon killing which is neither ideal nor sustainable. Certainly we have a way to go yet. Why not aspire to exist by absorbing pure energy?”

Tin has a final word.
“When universal aliens make themselves known on earth, will humans respond by assuming their usual superiority complex, regardless of the dazzling astrophysical evidence to the contrary?”
Flora despairs of her native species.
“I’m not so sure I want to be human again.”
“With all your trans-species experience?”
Tungsten can’t resist one last barb.
“Crying out for a superiority complex!”
“Not helpful, Tungsten. I was thinking you’d be uniquely placed to spread a little much needed empathy.”
Flora sighs.
“It’s academic anyway. Can’t even get back to the tree until Umbel resurfaces.”
Tantalum exclaims: “Why did you not say that was what you were after?”
Tungsten’s contributions remain brusque.
“Piece o’ piss.”
Tantalum continues solicitously.
“How close do you need to be to re-thingummy with the full tree?”
“Oh, you see, I think I’ve had enough of the tree, for now at least. I was hoping to extricate myself and resume human status.”
“Sure?”
“Is that an option?”
“As you may have noticed, we’re kinda in the business of evolutionary progression.”
Tin pipes up “You could be like us: Pacifist Extremists!”

As Flora digests this too perfect offer, a trumpet of a fart rips through the bunker.
Tantalum quips: “Action stations, chaps.”

Tin skitters along the bench to the wall. Between two wooden struts, he presses his tiny hand into a crack. There follows a thrilling clattering and clunking of cogs and cranks. An irregular door springs open revealing… nothing: a dark hole lined with vertical wood grain that fades to black as it recedes. Flora is fearfully fascinated by this hellish enslavement of her tree ancestors.

“What’s in there?”
Tantalum beams.
“The wood between walls.”
“Is that some dreadful parody of Narnia?”
“You’d rather ‘stick’ it out here in the trench with Mister Mustard Gas?”
A disappearing Tungsten adds: “who, by the way, can’t transmogrify a ginger biscuit without total digestive collapse.”

Tin and Tantalum don’t wait for the warm, toxic gust that inevitably follows the fanfare. They pitch Flora through the hatch by—or possibly to—her sticky end.

A few minutes later, as the fug clears, a heaving and a creaking brings forth Umbel.
“What-ho, chaps. A little inner work clearly required there. Fascinating.”
Here ‘inner work’ means a restorative doze; however, clothing remains decorated by crumbs and cocoa, and hair has been restyled by screwing against a heat-retentive pillow.
“Ah. Popped out for a spot of fresh air, I see.”

THE END

*Tree sense facts from Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate.

20/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 2

follows Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists part 1

“One for all, all for one!” This squeaky trio preludes three tiny leaps from the tin on to the bench, accompanied by aggressive shaking of tiny fists. Fossoway Flora, or twig thereof, is baffled.
“How can you win if it’s four-all?” Another bafflement arises. “What are you?”
“Nixies. What are you?”
“Oh, yes, I forgot; Fossoway Flora – got myself involved with a dear old beech tree. Lightning strike type thing.”
“Pretty small tree.”
“Ahaha. I’m travelling light. Flying, baggage allowance – you know.” Flora’s stoicism wavers.
“Not even slightly. Anyway, I’m Tantalum, and this is Tungsten and Tin.”

Flora acknowledges graciously, as best she can by a slight bend of stalk, and raises an invisible eyebrow to Umbel’s careless approximations. A staggering insight smacks her.
“You were in a tin!”
Tantalum sighs.
“Misappropriation of proprietary label. It’s actually an alloy.”
Flora catches Tin smirking.

Tungsten moves the discussion on before it becomes irretrievably bogged down in wordplay.
“What’s yer conflict?”
“Where to draw the line.”
“Always tricky. ‘specially when yer basically a line yerself.”

Tungsten performs a triumphant miniature jig at this wit. He aborts this on realising that he too has succumbed to wordwankery. Flora decides not to engage in an escalating series of barbs until she has ascertained if these ‘conflict demonerals’ can help her. But please let’s move on.

“That’s quite good. Well done.” Flora commences formal proceedings. “My question is: how do you eat without killing? How do you live without killing?”

Tin develops a beatific grin but remains silent. Tantalum raises his arm to claim an imaginary conversational baton.
“Ideologically?”
“Yes, I suppose. Is it possible? What is… Beyond Veganism? I mean, vegetarianism is not killing animals; veganism is not using—some would say abusing—animals at all; but each threshold is arbitrary. What’s the ultimate level? – total harmlessness.”
Tungsten beckons to Tin.
“Yer up, Tincyclopedia.”
Tin frowns but recites with ease and squeaks.

“Ahimsa, you mentioned?”
Flora casts her mind back to that pearl cast before Umbel cast his crumbs. Not really surprising that the wee nixies overheard that conversation, as they sat poised in their resona-tin. She twitches a leaf encouragingly. Tin resumes.
“Then it’s fruitarianism for you. Fruit, nuts, seeds, any reproductive part—zygote—that the plant produces and detaches for dispersal in order to propagate itself. Fruit in particular evolved to be attractive to animals as food for the very purpose of entering a trading partnership: the animal gets sustenance, the plant gets propagated with a handy dollop of fertiliser.”
“Oh, good. Can you live on those?”
Tantalum is horrified.
“We’re mineral sprites!”
“Oh, gosh, no, sorry. I mean: can I?”
Tungsten can’t help himself.
“Yer a tree.”
“Damn it.”

“Stop provoking the lass, Tungsten. Flossie, we’ll come back to transmogrification, so don’t fret. Follow the line!”
Flora appreciates Tantalum’s benevolence and pragmatism – sentiments always lacking from interactions with Umbel. Incidentally, that would-be puppeteer of this unlikely conversation remains off-screen, in a post-prandial stupor, emitting nonsensical murmurs. Flora succumbs to a rush of questions.

“How far can you take harvesting? Is it permissible to take some of a plant’s tubers if the plant can survive? That’s still a harm. I’ve felt it! Sodding Tiahmin, snapping my bits off. Is it acceptable if the plant is an annual and would die anyway after producing its offspring? Provided you leave some—how much? And isn’t that just sustainable horticulture?—for the next year? If you let a plant go to seed and collect that seed, is it then acceptable to eat its root, stem, leaves, or any or all of the rest of the plant? Are leaves permissible? A plant will likely survive the loss of a few leaves, but, again, that’s still harm – there’s still an injury and a detriment to potential…” Flora’s twiggy stomata gulp fishlike.

Tungsten peers at the gasping twig.
“Is it oxygen yer needing, or carbon dioxide? Nitrogen?”
Tin, more pragmatically, thrusts a rubber tube at her. He notes her increased alarm.
“Not from the swamp! Piped by fungal mycelia from—”
Flora clamps a vesicle around the tube and draws in fungal gas. More pleasant than it sounds. If yer a tree.

To be continued…

13/08/2017

Fossoway Flora and the Pacifist Extremists

Fossoway Flora quickly became tired of life at tree pace—or, more tactfully, she’d learned what she needed and it was time to move on. Prince Tiahmin was adorable, but also became tiresome every time his baddies threatometer lurched and he reached for a stick. Repeatedly she had to remind him that sticks had an original purpose before they became handy weapons. He was leaving her disfigured.

Such irritations all come to the same thing: Flora has learned the various ways we live and let live or let die. That old tree is a canny beech. The way it manipulates everything that enters its space, deciding who to encourage, who to repel. She feels the urge to visit Uncle Umbel. This could be problematic, given that her genome has merged with Fagus sylvaticus fossowaii, and currently exists in a firmly rooted way. However, she reasons, every cell carries the complete genome and her uncle is an open-minded sort.

Uncle Umbel has an allotment that appears to have been trampled by a navigationally-challenged herd of migrating aurochs, pulverised by glacial moraine, and finally kept at perfect conditions for putrefaction by the lukewarm outflow from a more-alcohol-less-taste whisky distiller. An extremely quaggy mire.

“Umbel? Umbel? I’m quite bored and if you don’t show yourself I’ll plant something with flowers on!” …calls a thrawn twig, swirling across the mire.

A three foot diameter octagon of mud opens via eight triangular petals, carefully draining slime outward, and reveals a spartan subterranean bunker. The clipped voice of one who aspires to have served in the RAF c.1940 dots and dashes forth.

“Wotcha. Get a move on, girl. Hatches to rebatten T minus three!”

The twig daintily pivots into position to surf a gust-stream and thereby dives between the gnashing metal petals.

“Cocoa?”
“Er, not really practical, thanks.”
“No. Hah! You’d get sticky! Hah! Sticky!”

Fortunately, a twig is also excused from having to disguise disrespectful facial expressions. Flora grabs for the conversational initiative to avert any further grocerial puns.

“Ahimsa, Umbel.”
“Gesundheit!”
“What is your understanding of it?”
“Your what-what?”
“Sanskrit: harmlessness. As in: toward self and other living beings.”

Flora gulps in horror at the contagious nature of the abbreviated style. She reassures herself that she is merely applying ‘mirroring’; a clever technique of neuro-linguistic programming. And she’s doing it unconsciously so she must be good. Still, she hopes producing puns won’t be necessary.

Umbel blinks repeatedly as distant, neglected circuitry is recommissioned. His amphibiously protruding eyes swivel and his ears twitch back an inch, stretching his forehead. On grocerial subjects you can get an interaction in real time, but anything even vaguely philosophical requires Umbel to shut down and dedicate all cognitive resources to the matter. His head lolls, lip slackens and cocoa teeters precariously on his chest.

Flora patiently scrutinises the bunker’s interior: piles and piles of dust-besmothered…shapes. She really can’t identify any of it, apart from the odd protrusion of wire or single sheet of paper, revealed only by apparent overwhelm, tilt and subsequent dustalanche.

A fragile connection sparks. Umbel’s cocoa hand twitches. Cocoa inevitably splashes on his shirt. Umbel powers back up.

“Ah. Just logged off pro tem, chaps. Buggeration.”

He blots himself with a towel placed at the ready for such regular eventualities, thereby scattering a portion of crumbs he carefully collected earlier.

“Clean on today, of course. Irretrievable. I shall have to disrobe forthwith.”
Umbel chuckles and lurches into unsteady motion. Flora’s patience was never good during pantomime. “Ahimsa?”
“No. Not a flicker.”
“Nothing?”
“Refer to the Conflict Chaps.”
“Who are..?”
“Thomson, Tim, and… and… Tarantula. You get the idea. Cheerio, folks.”

Flora is nowhere close to getting it, and rather thankful for the implied shreds of sanity. There are some peripheral gene puddles she’s keen not to paddle in. With Umbel retiring for a post-cogitatory nap—’cocoa’ is merely a vehicle for a substantial sugar and cream component—Flora is unattended in the elves’ factory. The fact of being trapped holds little concern as yet. Her leaf stalk flits investigatively along the bench, enticed by a curiously shuddering tin. A little probing releases a lid to reveal three blinking figures, of similar stature to herself in her current twig incarnation.

To be continued…

06/08/2017

My Neighbour’s Baby

The parents’ squabbling catches my attention. My quiet Sunday breakfast with a wildlife magazine shattered. Peer Gynt capers on in the Hall of the Mountain King. The squabblers slam from room to room, swatting and shrieking at each other. I lean to the window and pull back the gauze curtain, searching for explanation. One of their children sits on my front grass. Just sits, not playing, not eating, not moving, not seemingly hurt, but I don’t read children well. The parents barrel on. Another figure slinks by – another neighbour, inspecting the unattended child. My gut flips – some pre-verbal fear. In a reflex I knock the window. The neighbour starts and glances at me. I wave. Frustratingly her momentum carries her out of my sight. The parents separate, hurling only intermittent complaints. The child remains immobile.

I unlock the front door to look closer. Mostly I want to help, but I need more information: what happened? I seem to be too late. The neighbour is out of sight. The child sits on the grass, freckled and bewildered. I don’t want to approach in case this aggravates the situation. I don’t want to interfere. Or should I move her to a safer position? What would be safer? In my house is far too ambiguous. I have no relationship with this child. Her parents seem to be calming. I return indoors and glance out the window. The child still hasn’t moved. I can’t settle back to breakfast; I wander ineffectually about the front rooms, reviewing the incident, assessing my choices. I keep glancing out the window.

Suddenly the parents launch a fresh bout of shouting. I check the window: the child is gone – in a matter of seconds between my glances. I can’t see anybody, any movement. I open the front door and see the parents hopping and shrieking along the pavement. I can’t read their distress. Still no sign of the child. My eyes flit to another movement. Beneath the bordering hedge I see my neighbour’s legs saunter up the path and out of sight. The parents are hysterical. Why didn’t they do something for their child before? Why didn’t I? I peer again between the trunks of the hedge. I look very carefully to catch a glimpse as my neighbour’s path curves back into view. In a moment I see what I’m looking for: the shape of the child, carried away.

There was a moment when I could have acted. I chose not to. To let others’ choices play out. I may have delayed things by rapping the window, but that’s as likely to have increased the suffering as not. If I had the chance again, I’d lift that baby and bring it indoors. I’d suffer the guilt of upsetting the parents. My experiences lead me to believe that my neighbour simply wanted to play with the child. A distorted behaviour that has its roots in natural instinct but has become torture. I have some responsibility for that. I could do better.

If it had been my neighbour the sparrowhawk who found the young blackbird, I would be more comfortable with that. A reasonably quick death for food. A domestic cat I’m much less comfortable with. It doesn’t feel natural to me. Still, I have too little information. I had a moment and I only half-intervened. Bless her.

25/06/2017

Solstice Stillness

follows Night Ride and Sunrise

As the leading edge of the rising sunlight pours down past my hand I feel that warmth. And another: I feel another hand touch mine. I wind two fingers between these others. The animal warmth, the companionship is surreal. My fatigued legs underline my fragility as the nuclear explosion hits us. I’m not looking at the sun, but the dazzle across the wet sand is mesmerising. The pebbles laid to outline the orca blaze darkly. Eventually it becomes too bright; I have to turn.

This straggle of a man juts out of the sand like he’s been here years. His features seem especially coarse and creased as my eyes overcompensate the contrast. Envying experiences of which I’m ignorant would be nonsensical, but he seems rooted, settled.

He cranks his head around to face me, with huge effort to turn from the sun. He opens his eyes, then his mouth as I did only moments back. For him, the lack of arising words seems a surprise, a perplexing fault, rather than a second thought. I firm my grip on his hand.

Where did he come from? I twist to scan further around, behind us, to examine my entry point. I see the thin end of the curved edge of headland, the last stretch of silky grass that I glided over, the beginnings of the vertical rock face, loose rocks tumbling over the beach in geological time, no shelter. Where was he before that?

Finally, he rasps, “It wasn’t for you.”
“I know. It wasn’t for you either. It’s only meaningful from the crags.”
“Or from the air.”
“Your problem with me is that I didn’t arrive by helicopter?”
“My problem is that you showed up.”
My pique relishes this bickering. “Sorry to ruin your peace but other people are going to keep showing up. We’re like ants at jam.”

I release his hand. Mine feels damp. I step away then change direction to reach for the bike handle.
He spits out, “I won’t nick it.”
I flush, thinking: no, but you’d have my food and precious things in an instant, and that would hurt me more than I’m prepared for right now. The sublime sunrise moment has left me feeling vulnerable. Remember that thing? Surely it can’t be overshadowed already. I want peace and isolation to savour that experience, not someone else’s selfish, abrasive neurosis. Ha – I’m just like him. I shove the bike east, away from him, along the beach. I’m not leaving yet.

He emits another flurry of words, “I meant: once you’d showed up, I didn’t know what to do next. I don’t…”
I freeze, replaying his blurted confession. Is it? Is it enough to mollify my umbrage?

He lunges surprisingly nimbly and is suddenly in front of me, facing me, fixing my eyes. Bless him, he’s contrite enough not to touch me again. So he stands in my path. A couple times I feign to bypass him. A smirk breaks one side of his stare.

“I’ve been here a long time. You can stay with me or you can go. You can’t stay without me.”
I ask a little trade for my acquiescence, “Why an orca?”
“Intelligent, well evolved, decent creatures.”
“Is that who you want to communicate with?”
“No chimpanzees or elephants in Scotland.”
“Any progress?”
“More than I’ve had with humans.”
“Imagine how much more we could be if we could.”
“We can; we just haven’t worked out how yet.”
“I hope you do. Maybe if they want to as well. I wonder why they would, though. We’re choking them with plastic, poisoning them with chemicals leaching from landfilled electronics, removing their habitat, or simply killing them for body parts. And there’s taking them captive, ‘lethal’ sampling for ‘scientific research’, ship strikes…”
“I’m aware of the time pressure. It doesn’t help.”
“I only mean to despair of my species—my culture. We keep obliterating communities—native peoples as much as other species—then regretting it later when we realise what we’ve lost, whether that’s indigenous knowledge or ecosystem processes. We think we’re so successful, but the terms of that success are so short-sighted.” I seem to have a lot to say on this. So does he.
“It’s way more than our ‘loss’: they have their own right to life, their own life, not just for how they can help us.”
“You’re right, of course. I should go.” I seem to have flipped my stance.
“Why?”
“I’m bringing all the shit that you’re trying to get away from.”
“You’re not bringing anything apart from a decent-looking oilskin, and you’re not leaving.”
“Hostage for a tarp?”
“Something like that.”
“When did I change from resented intruder?”
“You said ‘who’. About the orca; you see it as a person, not a thing.”

He makes fire; he bakes bannocks. Not the hermit I’d assumed. Apparently he trades information and expertise with crofters and hikers for the staples he can’t forage. I’ve brought plenty, partly to share, partly for not knowing how long I’d stay. I wonder if he’d choose me or the supplies.

He’s a caveman, but again not as I’d assumed. The entrance is invisible without serious exploration: behind a downward-sloping four foot high shelf of rock, a horizontal slit the width of a human head. Reading my panic, he chuckles, “As long as you can fit your head through, the rest of your body will squish.” Hardly reassuring.

I glance about for distraction. Nestled in a rocky crevice, a solar-powered evaporator reassuringly drips desalinated water into an amphora. Anxiety makes me critical, “And if there’s no sun?”
“Cloud still lets some energy through. It’s slow but it’s enough.”
I continue digging, “And if it’s raining?”
He looks at me, patronising amusement twisting his face. I flush again. That idiocy just sealed my fate.

He slides on his back; for some reason I’m less uncomfortable on my belly. We squirm and side-wind like snakes into the cold hole. High rock shelves carry dry groceries and drying dulse, ceramic vessels and shell platters. The smell is oddly pleasant. A huge contoured sandbag seems to be universal furniture. I draw back from inspecting further; it feels intrusive.

Solo again in scavenging for driftwood, I find a cache of plastic flotsam. Things in the wrong place. I can’t help myself collecting it and removing it to the cove’s grassy entrance. Things to be returned to the rest of the world. That done, the polluted spot restored according to my idiosyncratic perspective, I make an offering to the sea of the dried flower I brought. An apology. A drop in the ocean.

We return to the fire and boil water for a drink of herbal something. It’s exquisite. The simplicity and the ingenuity delight me. My half pound bag of random nuts delights him; he’s had none for months. He tells me he didn’t intend to stay so long. He didn’t intend to be alone.

Some time after five AM the world leans its furthest. The moment of the solstice before the world’s tilt begins to recede. I feel for the turn, straining as if I might catch the crank and rattle of the universal machinery. I recall my hairpin journey, its far flung crook before I came back almost to my starting point.

He chose me, we shared, and I stayed.

beach pink shell

20/06/2017

Night Ride and Sunrise

Sandscape

Inspired by: Jean Sibelius – Öinen ratsastus ja auringonnousu (Night Ride and Sunrise) ~15min

A cold air balloon hits me in the face, startling me to gasp. I tread hard on the pedals before I can reconsider. I set out again, cycling through the night, but this time away from home – such that it is: that rough stone bothy furnished with old wood from so many places before. They’re barely familiar but they sing long songs of experiences, those sticks and stones. They even grudgingly comfort me, lost soul that I am. Only now I have an urgent reason to get somewhere.

I hope the wheels don’t come off, literally or figuratively. I had to liberate the bicycle from the lean-to, from cobwebs, carcasses, dust and rust; spent most of yesterday at it – or maybe it’s the day before now; must be by midnight. Thought I might need to go further. Never thought I’d need to go faster. I review my inventory: water, food, blanket, tarp… A torch seems inappropriate. Can’t think of anything else needed, but I never do, until it’s too late to turn back. I feel for the pannier behind the saddle; still secure. Can’t do that too often: the front wheel wobbles wildly on the rutted track.

This section of the way is newly familiar. Three weeks’ exploring has started this way every day. I wanted a remarkable place to see the solstice sunrise. Along this tiny stretch of north Scottish coast I’m spoilt for choice. Unusually for me I could simply let my intuition take over. Wherever I ended up would be fine, would be right. No obsessing. I was learning to relax, until I found the cove this evening—yesterday evening. Now I ride that old, familiar tension.

I drift away too easily. I should pay attention to this moment, this space, the immediate future, the path ahead. The undulations of the landscape seem concertinaed even at this modest speed. Wind gusts, breezes, blasts and swirls. I try to become accustomed to the uneven rhythms of the jolting and swaying, to not resist. A cloud of tiny creatures peppers my face; I blink until my eyes rinse them out.

My initial sprint—for warmth as much as from excitement—subsides to steadier pedalling and rhythmic squeaking. Glowing nocturnal eyes flash aside from the front wheel. How do I seem to them? How do I see? I’d forgotten the beauty of incomplete darkness this time of year: the northern horizon remains a rich, deep blue through the barely five hours from sunset to rise.

Through a strip of scrubby trees, the front wheel jinks off a twisted tree root. For a moment the bike and I are suspended at the edge of tipping over. A rut yanks the wheel and restores my balance. That was pure fortune; no skill of mine. I’m rattled enough to coast to a halt, to rest.

The pannier is still intact. I brought other things too—unnecessary things of sentimentality; I’m not ready to analyse that just yet—four pieces of music, a notebook, a dried, pressed wild orchid – romantic, thoughtful, planned, preserved, but only delaying the inevitable.

Avian pipings precede the dawn – other insomniacs unable to rest in the undying twilight. Colour and shape emerge from the blue, movement flickers, huddling to stretching to quivering, then dainty footsteps. I refocus on the path: the appointment is the summer solstice: sunrise, four AM. It really doesn’t matter where, but I’m suddenly very attached to that cove.

I ride my excitement, rattling and jiggling over the last of the rough moorland, then freewheeling down a smoother grassy slope. A slight warmth catches me, reminds me I’m racing the sun.

I so hope I’ve timed this right. I was so late spotting the cove, even later deciding what to do. I had reached the crags expecting to see only a sunset—an entire experience in itself—then sleep a bit before wandering out again for sunrise. The direct light slipped away, like every year for millennia, leaving the twilight to reveal an image.

The shape blew me away. I just gawped. Suddenly I was galvanised: it had to be, but could it? My brain struggled to engage with logistics, to calculate if I had time to cycle home for supplies then all the way west until the ground fell away so I could double back at land’s edge until it descended to sea level. I don’t know the distance but it would be well over an hour each length of the hairpin, maybe nearer two. I wasn’t sure I remembered the terrain. Now I’m sure. Committed, anyway.

The dawn chorus winds up – I can’t help myself labelling each arising signature: starling, oyster catcher, curlew, skylark, meadow pipit. Their calls cut the murmur of air pushing through the features of the land.

So smoothly the total glow becomes direct sunlight way above my head, brightening, warming, lifting the air. A puff of cloud has the temerity to dull then obscure the light. For one hypoxic moment I think that gives me more time. As if anything so ephemeral could slow universal mechanics.

Exultation bubbles over my anxiety. I haven’t dared wonder if I can even access the cove this way. It has to be. There’s no time for— I clatter around the last curve, in a rush of anticipating the sudden drag of sand, and the moment of sight.

The sand. The pebbles. Here on the tiny beach they are obviously arranged, but the shape is not apparent. From the crags the shape is a deliberate line drawing of an orca, swimming through a sea of sand and rocky spume. It’s a magnificent vision. It must have been created recently or the tide would have smudged it, erased it. It must be communication. Must it? I lean on to one foot and swing the other over the bike. As I rest the frame against a rock my legs wobble – exhaustion or nerves?

I stand at the orca’s pebble fluke facing north-east. I open my mouth to call out a greeting to…anyone, but perhaps being present is enough. The sun doesn’t need my awe verbalising. I let my eyes sweep the sharp, sandy cove, the shimmering sea, the jutting rocks, and back to the crags and my earlier vantage point. A few moments more rush past. My euphoria builds with the dazzle. Finally the sun’s rim ripples over the headland. I imagine I feel its leading edge scan down my body. Perfect.

The world turns. And someone stands beside me.

Wooden post in sand

30/11/2016

Flickering Shades

The Ghost of Species Past

Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)

Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)

See this dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris), a perennial herb cousin of Meadowsweet in the family Rosaceae, on its favoured dry pasture. Taste its bitter sweet tuberous roots and young leaves, cooked or raw. Smell its crushed mature leaves, like oil of Wintergreen, as they release methyl salicylate. Infuse dropwort’s flowers for traditional medicine. Feel its therapeutic effects, as the methyl salicylate is metabolised to salicylic acid, a proven NSAID, like aspirin.

There was balance there.

The Ghost of Species Present

Ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum)

Ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum)

Perhaps you may see the ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum), or perhaps not: declared Extinct in Britain in 2005, a single ghost orchid was subsequently discovered. Now Critically Endangered – one ghost orchid does not make a viable long-term population of a species – it flickers on the edge of existence. When it does appear, it occurs in beech, oak, pine and spruce forests. Ghost orchids obtain nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi that are associated with coniferous tree roots, thus they have no chlorophyll and do not photosynthesise. Being mostly subterranean, this ghost is named for its creamy-white to pinkish-brown colour during its fleeting appearances to flower in dark, damp woods.

Patience. It awaits serendipity: a pollinator that has visited a fellow ghost orchid flower recently and nearby. Such visits have been fewer and fewer, and further and further between. We might never know the full extent of what we might lose by its passing.

The Ghost of Species Yet to Come

Scottish bog myrtle (Myrica gale)

Scottish bog myrtle (Myrica gale)

Scottish bog myrtle (Myrica gale) has been known for centuries – Highlanders and other north-western Europeans used it to flavour beer and discourage biting insects. Bog Myrtle oil has antibacterial properties which promote healthy skin, but it is also an abortifacient.

Clinging to life, finding survival just that little bit harder with each rapid generation. Sense the air and the water, the light and the warmth, the shadow and the push of neighbours. Each individual knows only its local conditions and its individual success or failure to thrive there. But the collective intelligence of the plant species is there for us to grasp.

Here the path bifurcates. Feel the slight indicative changes in climate pressures. Dread the heralding of another ‘miracle’ plant, of industrial harvesting scouring moorland to feed human hyperconsumerism until the fad passes.

We don’t have time enough to wait for natural evolution to refill these niches. Meanwhile, other connectees in the web adjust to their space change. So, we rush to isolate our chemical benefactors, to artificially evolve what we want from only a fragment of understanding. Evolution has a very long timescale for good reason. It is not finished, never finished. Can we listen? Can we wear much smaller shoes?

 

Today is Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

20/12/2015

A Visit to St. Nature

Come with me, along the sodden river bank. Put the bustle aside for a moment to mind a different world. Crunch through the crust and catch a creature beginning its seasonal lament…

A Visit to St. Nature, laid-eggs and gentians!

‘Tis the night before Solstice, and all through the soil
All the creatures are flat out, engrossed in their toil:
A-stoking the chimneys, a-polishing wares,
In hopes that their customers soon will be there.
The robin is posing above the rose bed,
While morsels of bugs and plums dance in its head;
Here parsnips and beetroots in their earthy wrap,
Are well settled in for a long winter’s nap,
While out of the woods comes paper for letters;
Gall wasps and acorns make ink for the writers.

But metals mined from precious earth leave a gash,
So you get your gadgets to throw in the trash.
Marvel at this pristine land under snow,
Hiding the poison, the maiming below.
What to your wondering eyes will appear:
An oak forest slain or great herds of deer?
A coral-free ocean, a melting Arctic,
Or land ripe for drilling and likely oil slick?

More rapid than eagles, the grousers’ guns came,
Despatching hen harriers, pursuing their game.
Now right whale, now rhino, now orca, now oryx;
For ivory, elephant; for petting, slow loris;
For timber, for palm oil, for pain medicine,
Farewell tiger, orang-utan, pangolin.
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
Each life is extinguished, without asking why.

So, can you get conscience, and consciousness too,
And see all your toys as distractions from you?
For you, in a twinkling, like stars on our roof,
Have altered our planet, yet deny the proof.
Hydrology, chemistry, flooding the ground:
Thresholds and chances passed by in a bound.

You still dress in fur, still leather your foot;
Your homes are still tarnished with ashes and soot.
Your bundles of toys are breaking our backs;
Your shopping addiction, your over-processed snacks,
Your eyes never wrinkle, your straight nose, how very
Successful, and how your lips swell like a cherry!
Your so-perfect life is wrapped up with a bow,
So where did your ultimate happiness go?
The therapy, pampering, white straightened teeth,
And the drink, and the dope and the smoke in a wreath;
Around your taut face and your little flat belly
That strain when you laugh, at dire, brainless telly…

Where went the magic, the fairy and elf,
The enchantment that humbles, in spite of yourself?
The wink of the eye and the twinkle of sled,
The ringing of bells and the sparks where it sped?

Oh, please step outside, and outside of yourself,
And fill up your ears and your eyes and your health,
And take in some fresh air and nourish your nose,
Or ask yourself why, if the smell isn’t rose;
You might be surprised, even pleased if you listen,
Delighted to see all of Nature a-glisten.
So, as the world turns and a new year is nigh,
Happy Solstice to all, and to all a good night!

 

Humble apologies to Clement Clarke Moore.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.