Sunday, 25 September 2016

Out on the heath

Out on the heath, low September sunlight and a warm, southerly wind over close-cropped turf and bristly gorse bushes. There are paths worn by dog walkers.

The heath is a place I read nature's stories: of rabbits and heather, sand wasps and moths, reindeer lichen and sundry, tough grasses.

The sands and flints below ground have their stories too; so does the ancient river terrace they belong to. One could imagine the life story of each and every stone. Of course, stones are not living things, but how else to describe their individual histories?

A spaniel is running over the heath, as though driven – tongue lolling, galloping, ranging to and fro, panting over hummocks and hollows. Driven by its own hyperactive, doggish lifeworld of smells and impulses.

Rabbits are burrowing here, unearthing reams of sandy soil. They nibble clumps of heather and turn them into green pads. They scent-mark anthills with small marbles of brown dung. This is their lifeworld too.

I stray into some woodland. A goldfich sings from the top of a birch tree, a brief twitter from a sunlit summit, hidden from sight.

Then for a fleeting moment I perceive the world as it shines in the eyes of six year-old boy. He has been given a collection of old cigarette cards called ‘British Birds’; he studies them intently, trying to spell out their names. The pictures are icons; the words are puzzles - both holding a key to the world. Taking both in his imagination, he ranges out into the garden and woodland beyond it looking for birds, driven by joyous curiosity. This is his boyish, hunter's lifeworld.

The man who gave him the cards had no idea quite how far this gift would run, how far the joy would travel down the years.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

I dunno - it just happens

How can a wasp fly?

The question is a 'how' question, asking about means and mechanisms. One answer would be to explain about wings and muscles, body fluids, centres of equilibrium, the physics of aerodynamics, and so forth. These biological and physical explanations are ones many people can agree on, although they do not explain how a wasp, in-itself-, is able to fly.

How can I lift my legs to walk? Once again, I can give physico-chemical explanations involving, muscles, energy, etc. However, they do not explain how I (in-myself) am able to lift my legs and walk.  

Those scientific explanations represent a 'view from nowhere', a universalised and objectifying perspective. That is valid, as far as it goes, but it is not able to explain my experience of walking. For the act of walking or running is something directly experienced by me, and this experience is prior to, and underlies, my experience of walking understood as scientific information.

I have lifeworld information given by experience that is prior to the world understood as objectivised information.

How can I lift my legs to walk? "I dunno - it just happens!" If I am unsatisfied with that answer I now have to start investigating my experience of myself as agent. This will yield a different kind of explanation of how I am able to move my legs purposefully in order to walk.

I am embodied will-to-walk.

Sunday, 5 June 2016


Spider life continues at the Bungalow, and so does my ongoing campaign to keep it under control. I first realised I had problem in August 2013, returning from a French holiday and shocked to find the house had become a havishambling cat's cradle of  webbery. I'm talking about Pholcus phalangioides - the daddy-longlegs spider, spindly and twizzling when touched - not the trad house spiders Tegenaria atrica - large, brown, leggy gallopers. When the cat's away, the pholcids will play. Webs were everywhere, and a shocked awareness that my fortnight's absence had provided them with a wonderful opportunity to make jamboree. The work began: removal with plastic cup & postcard or - at my most ruthless - vacuum suction.

Today, June 4th 2016, I have removed three more specimens: a hen with egg sac from the bathroom, a small male from the spare room and a large male from the lobby (see photo). They were not there yesterday. I have learned pholcid habits. They lurk about unseen among the furniture - "in undisturbed, low light locations", as one website puts it [1] - until something (pheromones?) prompts them to rise: they climb up the wall then begin optimistically to spin next to the ceiling. That is when they become visible and removal become practical. The vacant space is likely to become filled again within a week, as natural territorial recruitment procedes. Small spiders are so diaphanous that they are almost invisible in the shadows. It is best for me to wait until they rise - then cup them. It has become a form of domestic sport. All of them are taken out into the garden and released. Presumably the new environment is a shock to their system, as pholcids are a family preferring warmer climes, only holding on in Britain thanks to hospitable caves and anthropogenic living spaces. "Pholcus inhabits houses where the average temperature throughout the year exceeds 50ºF (10ºC)." [2]

Yesterday I removed another hen with eggs and two small males. The day before that, one specimen; the previous day, three. The removal process has been proceeding smoothly, even through the winter when one might expect them to be a bit less active. The temperate atmosphere in the Bungalow seems to suit them in all seasons. Last year I reckoned I had been removing anything from between one and as many as six spiders per day. Given a rough average of three per day, that made a sporting total of 365 x 3, an estimated 1095 individuals. Removals have proceeded at the same rate this year. Going back to 2013, I am looking at a running total of over 3,000.

Although pholcids have their place in the ecology of the Bungalow (for one thing, they are efficient predators of house spiders, which I don't like), my sporting campaign will continue. Even if I move house I dare say one or two of them will follow me somehow, and begin again their attempt to spin whispy chaos in my domestic world.



1 - Animal Diversity Web
2 - British Arachnological Society

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


Salcombe is a Devon sea town of white houses and grey roofs set on a rounded hillside. Sometimes a quite modest house with a good aspect can sell for a million, especially if it looks onto the harbour or estuary - that steep notch in the coast where tidal waters surge in and out of the South Hams through a drowned valley or ría, flanked on one side by the craggy rocks of Bolt and the lower cliffs of Portlemouth Down on the other. This is the window frame through which Salcombe views the outer world and mariners see the town. Climbing tiers of houses are interlaced with dark holm oaks and umbrella pines, giving the town a Mediterranean feel. Its spirit looks seaward and southward.


My sister Pip and I went walking today in the sunny, breezy aftermath of a storm which had battered Devon with 70 mph winds and driving rain the night before. Salcombe has interesting routes for walkers to choose from: pretty, high-banked lanes that loop inland through woods and secluded coombes, or climb to bald summits with panoramic views; coastal paths that go tracking out round the estuary's gentle indentations or  threading boldly the harsh, sea-girt declivities of Bolt.

There are also paths in the town where the nature of Devon and far-off places are mingled in startling southern conjugations. Wooded slopes too steep for houses show a native flora of oak and hazel, pennywort and primrose enriched by all kinds of exotic garden escapes. The mild oceanic climate means that local gardeners can be adventurous with their choice of plants: one of the footpaths is overhung with a pineapple palm (Phoenix canariensis) from the Canary Islands. Southern species such as the holm oak (Quercus ilex) may last have been native here 10 million years ago in the Miocene, when subtropical forest covered Britain, including elements of the beautiful laurissilva now found in the Macaronesian group of islands off the African coast (e.g. Madeira, Tenerife, Cape Verde). They were later pushed south by advancing Pleistocene ice sheets, but have now returned - with human help.

My most joyous discovery has been the tree echium, Echium pininana, from the Canary Islands. As we followed a wooded path we came upon spectacular, long-stalked, bushy plants, rather like dark-green shaggy clubs. Dried woody remnants of last year's dead stalks towered alongside us, reaching well above head height.

Tree echium has an interesting story, recently deciphered by botanists using molecular genetics [1]. The genus Echium originated as a herbaceous plant living round the Mediterranean, then spread to the Macaronesian islands when they formed, one after the other, by volcanic action over the last 20 million years. As Darwin and other have noted, herbaceous plants on islands tend to evolve a woody growth habit, so a new range of woody Echium species evolved in Macaronesia, able to grow to a remarkable height. Echium pininana is one of them, an endemic of La Palma in the Canaries. Research shows that it arrived in the Pliocene epoch about 3.73 million years ago [2].

I have never visited the Canary Islands, but I have been captivated by photos of their enchanting forests, volcanic mountains and luminous atmosphere. They are on my life's list of places to visit. I would not be put off by the thronging coastal holiday resorts; they'd just be a cheap place to roost in between day excursions to explore the vegetated, rocky interior. If I were on La Palma I'd make a point of seeking out Echium pininana. It is not too late for me to do it.

Tree echium is a monocarpic plant. That means it flowers once then dies. It lays down wood then builds itself up over two or three years before spending itself in one final, magnificent, spire-shaped spasm of mauvy-blue flowers. I may never make it to the Canaries, but I'll be happy to visit Salcombe again one July or August to catch Echium pininana at its moment of Macaronesian glory. The plants I saw this week look as though they are preparing themselves for a mighty show.

Echium pininana photographed on Guernsey.
Image courtesy La Société Guernesiaise.


1 - Bohle, U-R et al (1996): Island colonization and evolution of the insular woody habit in Echium L. (Boraginaceae); Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol.93, pp.11740-11745/.
Online at: [April 2016]

2 - Kim, S-C et al (2008): Timing and Tempo of Early and Successive Adaptive Radiations in Macaronesia; PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(5): e2139.
Online at: [April 2016]

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Blue Flower


Small, intensely blue flowers are scattered in the sandy soil at my feet. They are pricking their way up among grass stalks here at Barnhamcross Common, near Thetford, England.  The terrain is hummocky, showing historic scars from many years of digging for sand and gravel.  This secluded corner of the Common is clothed with sedge and gorse, scattered oak and pine trees. It has a typical sandy Breckland soil, and lies not far from the Little Ouse river on level ground that was once part of the floodplain. In common with several of the Breckland heathland specialities, this blue flowering plant is tiny and unobtrusive, and yet quite beautiful in small detail.

I  have a real sense of a discovery here. Not only is the plant's identity a puzzle to me - its flower-head reminds me of a scabious, but isn't like any kind of scabious I can identify - but its beauty calls out to me: all shades of blue are gathered in its complexion: azure, caerulean, gentian, lapis, sky. I take photographs that barely do justice to this luminous phenomenon.


I emailed a photo to Martin Sanford at the SBRC, Ipswich, asking for an identification. He named it as Sheep's-bit, Jasione montana, a member of the Campanula family that grows on light, sandy or stony soils. He said Barnhamcross Common is one of its known Breckland strongholds. The species is sparsely present in Norfolk - Beckett and Bull's 'A Flora of Norfolk' (1999) shows it as very localised, 'confined to short, acid turf', with its principal population centred in the dunes round Winterton-on-Sea. The 'Encyclopaedia of Life' maps Jasione montana as a native of the temperate parts of Europe. NatureGate in Finland says it is a native of rocky outcrops, sandy areas and hillsides.

The native distribution of Jasione montana @ The Encyclopaedia of Life

Sheep's-bit has been expanding in my imagination. Its flowers are true-blue scintillae studded like stars against the gloomy backdrop of my daily thoughts. Harry Godwin's 'History of the British Flora' provides an interesting local history. Its fossil pollen has been identified from late Devensian (Weichselian) levels at Old Buckenham Mere, an almost dried-up natural lake about 15 miles away. The pollen was blown into it from surrounding land and preserved in the mud. This takes its history back over 12,000 years to the end of the Ice Age. It would have favoured the freely-draining, coversand soils and sparse vegetation of the period. He says it was also found in the Roman to Anglo-Saxon levels, and suggests it owes its presence here to agricultural disturbance of sandy soils thereabouts.

Such factors seem to be key to its survival at Barnhamcross Common. There is evidence that someone has deliberately broken the soil surface in places, presumably for bioconservation reasons - so preserving a suitable habitat. Instead of a blanket of over-shading sedge, gorse and trees, we have patches of open, disturbed ground that fosters greater floral diversity. In this way a delicate, late glacial species, with a local history of over 12,000 years, still flourishes in Breckland. Its flowers have the same blue that once reflected in the eyes of a Saxon farmer, a woolly rhinoceros or a tundra vole.

*  Beckett, G & Bull, B: A Flora of Norfolk; Beckett, 1999.
* Godwin, H: History of the British Flora - A factual basis for phytogeography; Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1975.
* West, RG: Plant Life of the Quaternary Cold Stages - Evidence from the British Isles; Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Shrews in the roof

18th August 2014

Today I took the opportunity to do some desk work out of doors, sitting on the terrace by the front door and proof-reading a book for a friend. Leaves were brushing the back of my neck from time to time as the wind stirred the vine there. It is a feature of the Bungalow garden: climbing up to the eaves and muffling the front of the house with a bright green jungle of stalks and questing tendrils.

The roof comes down to head height beside the front door. Twenty years ago we had a nest of hornets there. They were no bother - we saw them coming and going: they saw us doing the same; one of them was always on guard by the door to greet returning nest-mates and keep a weather eye open on the world; low-frequency murmurings heard at night, like Spitfires warming up on a distant aerodrome. I heard something different up there last week: a conversational twittering, scratchy and sporadic, like the sound of bats  - or pixies. I couldn't quite locate the source: was it coming from a chimney stack or a hole in the tiles? I had a vision of furry faces swivelling about in the semi-darkness of the roofspace, discussing something important.

My reading was disturbed by rustling among the leaf litter under the vine. Nothing to be seen. A few minutes later the rustling came from higher up among the thicket of leaves. A quick movement, and there - silhouetted by sunlight crossing a branch in the heart of the leafage - unmistakeably a shrew, climbing about, hunting and exploring; perhaps nervously taking its first foray out of the nest, its nose twitching about in frenetic hyper-mobility. The identity of my nattering neighbours was clear.

The locals call a shrew a 'ranny'. I'd like to think that the Latin name for a Common Shrew, Sorex araneus, owed something to the East Anglian dialect, or some obscure Viking root of it revived by Linnaeus who named them. Its name has another dimension for me: odour. It reminds me of the word 'rancid', and shrews have a reputation for smelling bad.

Shrews in my roof.... The twittering is apparently a 'low amplitude, broadband, multiharmonic and frequency modulated' sound used as a form of echolocation [1]. Coupled with a rosette of stiff but sensitive whiskers around their snout and a good sense of smell, that must be how they they find their way around in the roof. Their eyesight is said to be poor. Judging by size, I think mine are most likely to be the Common Shrew rather than the Pygmy Shrew.

I have always thought of shrews as being members of the Order Insectivora, along with hedgehogs. However recent genetic studies have shown they are part of an Order Soricomorpha (''shrew-forms') which they share with moles and a rare family from the West Indies called the solenodons. The latter are living fossils, with relatives dating back to Cretaceous times, over 65 million years ago, and teeth which can deliver a poisonous bite like a snake. Other shrews, including the Common Shrew, are said to have a poisonous bite, but this is due to a toxin present in the saliva [2, 3, 4]'It is a ravening beast, feigning itself gentle and tame, but being touched it biteth deep, and poysoneth deadly', says Topsell [5]. I have not yet tested the truth of this.

There is something primaeval about thise animal. How old is the species Sorex araneus? Scientists have traced shrew origins back to the Heterosoricidae, a family living in North America in Middle Eocene times, about 45 million years ago; behind them must lie some ranny-like Cretaceous mammal, as yet unknown. Later, the Soricinae family evolved, to which my Sorex shrews belong, and the earliest fossils of the genus are found in Germany, in the Middle Miocene, c.11 million years ago [6]. The earliest likely British record for S.araneus is from Hoxne, Suffolk, dated 400,000 BP [7]. The site is no more than two miles away from my house as the crow flies, and only yesterday in geological time. The species itself is not quite as ancient as I had imagined.

Strange to tell, shrews are one of the most studied animals on the planet. S.araneus is one of the few species whose genome has been completely mapped, and as a result we are able to carry out detailed studies of its subspecies and their distribution in time and space. Some surprising results have emerged. 30 years ago we thought it was just one species, but it now turns out to be five cryptic species, each with distinctive genetic signatures which directly contradict their apparent similarities in size, skeleton and bodily appearance [8]. Externally the look the same, but internally S.araneus is 'characterised by spectacular chromosomal variation' [8], and shows 'one of the most spectacular chromosomal evolutions ever recorded in mammals' [10]; it has evolved an extraordinary wealth of chromosomal races (karyotypes).

Since 1987 S.araneus has been the subject of a specialist research group called the International Sorex Araneus Cytogenetics Committee. Through the work of Jeremy Searle and others, it has been possible to divide the British population into six racial types and plot their geographies; from this we can work out the story of how the Common Shrew recolonised Britain after the last Ice Age, having spent it sheltering in a refugium area on the Continent, most likely in central Europe [8]. Some of the genetic diversity within the species seems to have adaptive value, as slightly different karyotypes are found in different habitats, for example shrews in bogs are different from those in dry grasslands [11]. Apparently shrews are a rapidly evolving species, and this helps adapt them to changing ecological niches and ultimately leads to the evolution of subspecies and - on a much longer time scale - species. I have no idea which race my shrews belong to, but quite possibly they are of the Oxford race discovered by Searle which is typical of Eastern England [12]. It now seems likely the fossil S.araneus from Hoxne is one of the cryptic subspecies. David Polly's research holds out the hope that we may eventually be able to tell them apart by the details of their molar teeth [8]. There is a lot more to shrews than meets the eye.

Tonight I saw one climb straight up a brick wall and disappear under the eaves. They are evidently bold and enterprising animals. They are also fevered and vulnerable beings, who live with death as a constant companion. Shrews have an incredibly fast metabolism, and when frightened their heart rate can shoot up to over 1200 beats per minute [13]; their digestion lives on a two-hour turnaround, so if they go without food for more than a few hours they will starve and quickly die [14]. I imagine they suffer greatly, passing their short and passionate lives in a ferment of hunger and competition for food and living space. I have often heard them shrieking at each other, hidden deep in the undergrowth of some grassy forest - 'a rapid succession of shrill cries, which pierce the ears like needles of sound'  [15]. Gladiatorial screams of defiance, triumph and submission. If I wanted to tame one I would have to bring it offerings of woodlice, beetles and spiders, and promise to keep it in solitude. 'They love the rotten flesh of ravens', says Topsell, but I think I'd have to draw the line there.

From Topsell, 1658.



1 -
2 - Buczacki, S. 2002: Fauna Britannica; Hamlyn.
3 - Poisonous Shrews, at: Shrew Culture, Myths, Stories and Poisonous Facts; The Shrew (ist's) Site aka 'The Shrew Shrine' - online at: [accessed Aug 2014].
4 - The poison is a paralysing organic peptide called Soricidin - see Wikipedia  [accessed Aug 2014].
5 - Topsell, E. 1658: History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents; London; p.406. Online at: [accessed Sept 2014]. 
6 - Rzebik-Kowalska, B. 1998. Fossil history of shrews in Europe. In: J. Wojcik, J. & Wolsan, M. (eds.): Evolution of shrewsMammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Białowieza, Poland. 
7 - Schreve, D.C. 2000: The Vertebrate Assemblage from Hoxne, Suffolk. In: Lewis, S.G. et al (eds) 2000: The Quaternary of Norfolk and Suffolk Field Guide; Quaternary Research Association.
8 - Polly, D.P. 2003 - Paleophylogeography of Sorex araneus (Insectivora, Soricidae): molar shape as a morphological marker for fossil shrews; Mammalia 68.2.
9 - Borodin, P.M. et al 2008: Recombination Map of the Common Shrew, Sorex araneus (Eulipotyphla, Mammalia); Genetics 178.2 - [accessed August 2014]
10 -Taberlet, P. et al 1994: Chromosomal versus mitochondrial DNA evolution: tracking the evolutionary history of the southwestern European populations of the Sorex araneus group (Mammalia, Insectivora); Evolution, 48.3
11 - Wojcik, J.M. 1991: Chromosomal polymorphism in the common shrew Sorex araneus and its adaptive significance; Mémoires de la Société Vaudoise des Sciences Naturelles, no.19.
12 - Searle, J.B. & Wilkinson, P.J. 1987: Karyotypic variation in the common shrew (Sorex araneus) in Britain – a 'Celtic Fringe'; Heredity, no.59.
13 - Crowcroft, P. 1963: Shrews; Animals of Britain Series  no.17, Sunday Times Publications, London.
14 - Churchfield, S. 1988: Shrews of the British Isles; Shire Natural History, Princes Risborough.
15 - Wood, J.G. 1865: The Illustrated Natural History. Mammalia; George Routledge & Sons, London; p.434.
16 - Topsell, E. 1607: The History of Four-footed Beasts

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Rock Samphire

2nd August 2014

A warm, boisterous wind is pushing me around today on Bigbury beach, south Devon. I am here with family enjoying the wide expanse of sand and sparkling sea. Rough, slaty cliffs make a backdrop to the beach, and their rocky outcrops provide a choice of sheltered places for setting out a picnic.

The rocks and pebbles are a galaxy of subtle pinks, greens and grey slates of Lower Devonian age, classified by geologists as belonging to the Meadfoot Beds. They have been polished smooth in the zone below the tideline, but remain sharp and pitted by salt spray weathering above it. The bedding of the rock is almost vertical, being evidence of severe folding after it was deposited. Up in the cliff, the bedding has been further distorted in places by frost action during the Ice Age, shattering and remobilising it into interesting patterns.

The sea is working a further transformation on the slates, steadily recycling them into pink, green and grey sand. This will, in turn, feed the formation of other rocks - on multi million-year timescales.

Up on the cliff, tiny roots are also doing their part in breaking up the slate. Pale green patches of Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) are growing in any places where their roots can penetrate. They have sought out joint planes in the rock, where rainwater is concentrated and a rudimentary soil has formed. The result is a pattern of hanging gardens scaling the rock face, with neat rows planted by nature.

Rock Samphire gives me a pang of nostalgia for southern skies. It looks as though it belongs - as it essentially does - to the Mediterranean world; it is found along warm coasts from the Black Sea to Atlantic Europe. It has a pleasant, aniseedy smell which reminds me of fennel and the holiday aroma of ouzo and pastis; they call it 'sea fennel' in Latin countries [1]. Its fleshy, drought-resistant leaves look good to eat, but reportedly taste like 'a mixture of celery and kerosene' [2]. I suspect this may be an effect of the phenolic and tannic phytochemicals it contains [3].

Rock Samphire has evolved to exploit this rocky niche; I can't see any other plants competing to occupy this bit of uncomfortable, salt-blasted, sun-baked habitat. It is triumphantly doing what it is best at. 
Every plant expresses the special will of its species, and says something that cannot be expressed in any other language. [4]
Schopenhauer's thought leads me to new insights. Living things may be seen as verbal forms as well as nouns. They are dynamic doers and effectors. Crithmum maritimum does what it does - says what it says - according to the deployment of its genetic programming. It 'crithmums' at the genus level, and 'maritimums' at the species level. We can see it as a kind of selfhood - deploying life-seeking information specific to its own kind, existing and acting in the service of maintaining and reproducing itself. If Rock Samphire tastes like ‘celery and kerosene’ that is because it needs phytochemicals to defend itself from being eaten where it stands.

Here, I find Crithmum maritimum growing in rocky clefts. As a species, it is bound to its particular ecological niche, and as individuals these plants are bound to their clefts. They are constrained to make the best of their circumstances, and as individual plants fixed to the soil in which they are rooted (for better or worse) they can only transcend them through effective reproduction strategies. I reckon plants are absolute, blind optimists: they must wait for their environment to bring them what they need. By contrast, animals can move around and seek better circumstances, mate with whomsoever they will, but as a consequence they are naturally prey to the ceaseless, questing dissatisfaction which Schopenhauer identifies as their existential condition of all living things, and which the most conscious beings experience most acutely [5]. Psychologically, I reckon the more conscious an animal is the more capacity it has for pessimism as well as pleasure. Animals in zoos may mope or go mad [6].  

I am an example of the most mentally complex species present on Bigbury beach today - a human being. As an animal, I can exercise existential freedoms that are denied to Rock Samphire. I am able to make choices about where to lay my towel down on the beach or what food to eat. Like a dog I can choose where to dig a hole in the sand, or like a herring gull I can think how best to tackle a picnic hamper.

The onshore breeze is strengthening as the afternoon wears on. As an animal I am free to decide many things for myself - I can change my circumstances.

I think it's time to put on a pullover and fetch an ice cream from a café a few hundred yards away.

My innate pessimism tells me the café is sure to be closed by the time I get there.



[1] - Crithmum maritimum L. Gardening in mediterranean climates worldwide. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[2] - Crithmum maritimum L. Plants for a Future. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[3] - Houta, O, Akrout A & Amri, H (2011): Phenolic amounts, antioxidant and antimicrobial potential of Crithmum maritimum cultivated in Tunisian arid zones; Planta Medica 77. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[4] - Schopenhauer, A (1969): The World as Will & Representation; Book 1, chap.28. Dover Books. 
[5] - Schopenhauer, ibid; chap.56.
[6] - Masson, G  (1996): When Elephants Weep: The emotional lives of animals; Vintage Books.