Sunday, 28 July 2013

a flock of seagulls

One of the more pleasant aspects of the recent hot weather has been the opportunity, rarely granted to the long-suffering residents of these islands, to sit in the sun outside one’s local pub and enjoy a few beers. During one such sojourn at my own local, I found myself thinking about the Mesozoic era of the Earth’s history. This must sound like a bizarre juxtaposition of ideas, so an explanation of what triggered this train of thought is in order.

My home town, even though it is more than 30 miles from the nearest sea, has a large population of seagulls, many of which could be seen swooping and swerving overhead recently as the pub’s patrons basked in the unaccustomed warmth. Seagulls are highly adaptable creatures, so having any knowledge or experience of the sea is not essential to their continuing survival. Their behaviour is driven by only one imperative: the need for food.

So what’s the prehistoric connection? The Mesozoic era began with the last throes of the Permian mass extinction, 250 million years ago, when more than two-thirds of all land-based vertebrates and 95 percent of all ocean-dwelling species disappeared. During the Triassic period, the first of the three periods that comprise the Mesozoic era, the most significant replacements for these losses were reptiles, in the sea, in the air, and on the land.

In addition to the large reptiles that appeared during this period, there was also a group of smaller reptiles with some mammalian characteristics, known as therapsids. Towards the end of the Triassic, some of these had evolved into the first mammals, which were no bigger than small rodents that were unable to compete with the lumbering leviathans of the Jurassic period. These early mammals were therefore nocturnal, because reptiles are exothermic, meaning that they rely on the environment to maintain their body heat and are thus much less active at night.

Now, if we were to imagine the arrival of extraterrestrial visitors towards the end of the Cretaceous period, 70 million years ago, what would they have made of what they found here? They would not have been able to predict the precise direction in which evolution would have proceeded, but they would have concluded, surely, that the future lay with the big sauropods that dominated every landscape. The rat-like mammals that scurried around would not have registered as having any significance for future developments.

And they might well have been right, had it not been for the arrival of an extremely large meteorite 65 million years ago. When this unexpected projectile crashed into Mexico’s Yucat√°n Peninsula, the resulting explosion threw up huge quantities of dust. This had two effects: global temperatures plummeted; and the ensuing reduction in light levels severely inhibited plant photosynthesis. Both proved disastrous for the large reptiles: lower temperatures made it almost impossible to maintain body heat, especially if the body in question was extremely large; and reduced levels of photosynthesis meant that much less food was available for the big herbivorous dinosaurs, which in turn meant much less food for big carnivores such as the tyrannosaurs. They died out, leaving the way clear for mammals to take over the world.

We know that this was a worldwide phenomenon, because the thin layer of rock that marks the Cretaceous–Tertiary boundary can be seen on every continent, and this stratum can be linked definitively with a meteorite impact because it contains unusually high levels of iridium, an element that is rare here on Earth but relatively common as a constituent of meteorites.

If we imagine a second group of alien visitors to the planet now, what conclusions might they draw? They would surely note the environmental stresses induced by the dominant lifeform—an expanding population, resource depletion, pollution, etc.—so they might well conclude that, like the dinosaurs, Homo sapiens is doomed to extinction. If that really was their conclusion, they might then speculate on which creatures would fill the niche left behind. And this is where I return to the beer garden of the Agricultural Hotel, and the seagulls wheeling overhead. They have all the necessary attributes: adaptability, small size, audacity and speed of movement. And they will eat almost anything, stealing it if necessary, including food that has been discarded by humans (the main attraction for seagulls around these parts is a large landfill site). They are the ultimate opportunists.

This is all merely speculation, but humans shouldn’t forget that, like the dinosaurs, they haven’t been given any guarantees of their continuing survival, and we could still screw it all up, after which seagulls, or their descendants in the remote future, will inherit the Earth. The meek will have to look elsewhere.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

goosey goosey gander

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.

Traditional nursery rhyme.
My friend Barry must be pleased, secretly, that whenever we go out for a walk nowadays, he won’t be called upon to exert himself unduly. So it was yesterday, when I thought that the head of Haweswater would be a suitable venue for a brief excursion. Haweswater had once been a much smaller lake, but it was dammed in the 1930s by Manchester Corporation, in the teeth of fierce local opposition, to supply water to the city.

Manchester Corporation had already created controversy in the Lake District in the nineteenth century by doing something similar to Thirlmere, but the damage here was much more extreme. When the dam was completed, the water level was raised by 29 metres, which meant the inundation of two ancient farming villages, Mardale Green and Measand. Although all the farms and houses were demolished beforehand, the remains of Mardale Green, at the head of the valley, can still be seen during periods of extreme drought, when the water level is unusually low.

Anyway, we drove to the head of the valley with the intention of following the footpath on the opposite side of the lake. This path was clearly visible from the small car park at the end of the road, so we headed directly across the damp fields towards it, following an indistinct path. This was a mistake.

The river coming down from the mountains on our left was quite shallow, but it would not be easy to cross it without getting our feet wet. It’s easy to jump from one stepping stone to the next when those stones are large, but here all the rocks that stood clear of the water were small, and it took quite a while to find a way across the obstacle in front of us that didn’t risk undue stress on my dodgy knee.

Once we had crossed, the ground rose steeply before us towards a traditional stile over a dry-stone wall:


The smooth rock outcrop in this photo provides evidence that at some time in the not too distant past, a few thousand years ago, this valley was scoured by ice, like the rest of the Lake District. The ice has gone, but ice-planed outcrops like this can be seen all over the district.


We hadn’t walked far before our attention was drawn to some bizarre sounds emanating from the far shore of the lake. There appeared to be a couple of large birds, which may or may not have been geese, and this was all the excuse I needed to turn back. However, there was no need to go back across the river, because the good path we were now on led back to the car park, albeit by a circuitous route. At least we could be certain that our feet would remain dry.

On the way back, I spotted a common wall lizard, about 15cm long. Had I been on my own, my first instinct would have been to reach for my camera, but I wanted Barry to see it before it disappeared into the long grass. It was yellowish brown with prominent longitudinal stripes, which meant that it was possible to see it only when it was moving across bare ground. I’m used to lizards in Hong Kong—monitors, skinks, and the family of geckoes that lives behind our refrigerator—but I have to admit that this was the first time I’d ever seen a lizard in my native country.

After a cup of coffee, I suggested that we walk back along the road to investigate the birds that we’d heard from the other side of the lake. We’d already revised our estimate of the number of birds to half a dozen, but as we drew closer, it became apparent that there were probably twice this number.

Barry spotted them first: large, plump birds waddling, extremely slowly, line abreast, towards the water. They had become visible only when they had reached the stretch of gravel between the grass and the water’s edge, and this mass migration appeared to be very orderly:


Note the line of birds on the left, and the orderly flotillas already on the water. One by one, they launched themselves into the water, but they were clearly not in any hurry: we were able to keep up with them without undue effort as they paddled lazily along the shoreline. I have no idea where they were going, or what they were doing immediately before we spotted them, but they were a magnificent sight:


I’ve since identified the birds as Canada geese, and I’ve calculated the size of their gaggle as about one hundred (and before anyone accuses me of misusing the word ‘calculated’, I should point out that I arrived at the figure of 100 by counting roughly half the birds on the water and multiplying that result by two).

Friday, 5 July 2013

remember a day

In the summer of 1987, I took my eight-year-old son Siegfried rock climbing for the first time. The climb I chose to take him up is named Corvus and (unsurprisingly given the name) is located on Raven Crag in Borrowdale. It is graded difficult, which isn’t as daunting as it sounds, given that the original grade ‘difficult’ was #3 on a four-point scale devised in the 1890s (‘easy’ and ‘moderate’ are no longer considered proper rock climbs). It is 460 feet in length and was first climbed in 1950. Afterwards, I wrote a fictionalized account of our ascent, which I reproduce below.

Waiting for the bus: nervous talk of hard day ahead. Bus comes. Long journey down the valley. Leave bus at stone bridge over river. Path across rough pasture. After ten minutes of gentle uphill work, path meandering through open wood of gnarled and stunted oaks, the slope falls back beneath their feet. After a few more minutes, gradient imperceptible, they reach small gate in rough stone wall guarding entrance to the combe. The woodland gives way to bracken, coarse grass and heather as path continues through narrow valley, river bubbling on rocky bed below.

The open fellside, friendly as a giant in the summer sunshine, beckons. They pick a way along the rough track, skirting large boulders, sun warm on eager faces. The cliff, their destination, is concealed by shoulder of hill on their right. Rounding this, they stop. The imposing buttress stands, relaxed and easy, against the sunlit slopes of the surrounding hillside.

Feeling hot now. The boy is tired. Path is hard to see as it crosses jumbled scree slope. But they continue. Take wrong path: start to climb too soon. Return, energy wasted. Talk stops during final steep ascent to foot of buttress. Something has changed. The cliff now towers overhead, blotting out the sun. The boy is silent for a moment, then in cheerful voice talks of magnificent view, lake in distance, trees surrounding, more mountains.

The man examines the cliff, looking for way ahead. Narrow gully filled with moss and rushes. Easy, yes, but also wet, slippery and loose. Steep slab on left. Harder, but better option. Eat lunch now, no time later. The man uncoils the rope at base of slab. The boy ties one end around his waist, sits down to watch, and wait.

The man starts to climb V-shaped groove in slab, incut holds for fingers, rock rough for feet to grip. Thirty feet quite easily, then rock steeper. Traverse into gully on right. Good belay on chockstone. He takes stance at start of traverse to watch the boy.

Easy at first, but the boy is soon stuck. The man worries. Is the boy too young? Only eight years, and no experience. Rope tight. The boy stretches out his arm. Fingers curl over sharp edge of rock. Pull quickly. He soon reaches the chockstone. Congratulations. And encouragement—only eight more pitches to go.

“Up there next?”

“Up there next?”

Happier now, the boy points to steep, square corner in left wall of gully. Easier than it looks. Strenuous, but big holds. The man climbs quickly and safely to big ledge. The boy, now confident, follows. Hard work, talk unceasing.

Hard work, talk unceasing.

At the ledge, they pause to study the way ahead. Traverse across face on left, following narrow ledge. Easy, but requires care. They soon reach large rock bollard at foot of long, steep chimney. The boy is no longer nervous. Happy instead, he looks forward to tackling the chimney.

Starting the long chimney.

The man leads on, fingers cold. The chimney has many holds and is much easier than expected. Almost ninety feet to reach another ledge. The boy is slow, tiring already. At last he reaches the ledge. Five pitches remain.

Approaching the top of the long chimney.

The way is easier now, first across wide, muddy ledges, then easy slab. But now the crucial step lies directly ahead.

“The next bit looks hard!”

The boy studies the blank wall above them. Narrow crack leading across. No footholds.

“I’m not sure if I can do this, but I’ll try.”

Committed already. Retreat not an option from this position.

The man crosses the wall, swinging by his arms from crack. The boy follows, surprised to find excitement stronger than fear. The main difficulty now below them, the pair continue. Big ledges between pitches, going much easier.

Easier going: the penultimate pitch.

Now only one pitch remains. Quite steep, but many sharp handholds and footholds. Finally, after four hours, they reach the summit.

Quite steep, but many sharp handholds and footholds.

Sunlight provides its own reward. Relax in warmth. Return slowly to bottom of cliff. His first climb over, the boy is proud of his success. The man is proud of his son. Together, they hurry back down to the road to catch the bus.

The summit. The lake in the middle distance is Derwentwater, and the peak beyond is Skiddaw, one of only four mountains in the Lake District that are more than 3000 feet high.

If anyone is wondering whether Siegfried maintained an interest in rock climbing after this adventure, I offer the following photo, taken nine years later. He is about to make the hardest move on a climb called Gillette Direct on Neckband Crag in Langdale, which is graded extremely severe (E2). It involves relying on an extremely insecure, rounded dimple as a foothold as you reach for a good hold above. I fully expected my foot to slip off at this point, and Siegfried’s did, so that he swung out into space to the left, from where he couldn’t get back onto the rock, so I had to lower him back to the ground. He succeeded at the second attempt.

Monday, 1 July 2013

photographic abstraction #7

This latest instalment in my abstract photography series features some new ideas and some old ones. As usual, the titles are merely what I see in the photos; you may have other ideas. However, I do have one caveat: an artist friend told me that he would have preferred not to have any titles, so that he would not be influenced when looking at the pictures. As you will see, I have not heeded his advice, but if you too prefer to look at these pictures without their titles, then clicking on the first photo will bring up a slide show.

Also as usual, I welcome suggestions for alternative titles, and I’d also be interested in hearing what you think these are actually photographs of. Some are fairly obvious, but I wonder if anyone can identify Geometry. Links to previous posts in the series are provided below.

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction
Photographic Abstraction #2
Photographic Abstraction #3
Photographic Abstraction #4
Photographic Abstraction #5
Photographic Abstraction #6

atlantis

boundaries

geometry

nocturne in black and gold

rivers of fire, rivers of ice