Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hockham Mere


My friend Julia [B] and I met yesterday at Great Hockham for a wilderness expedition.

Julia is researching a book on Doggerland, the inhabitable land area in the North Sea basin which was drowned as sea levels rose at the end of the last glacial period, the Devensian. Its landscape changed from tundra to forest, then marsh and finally sea, in a process that spanned the transition from the Devensian into our own Flandrian warm period, roughly from 10,000 to 7,000 years ago. This ancestral land is now out of reach of our exploration: we needed somewhere else to experience elements of its vanished wilderness.

Is it possible to talk of 'wilderness' in Norfolk? Other countries have tracts of land we can easily label wilderness - areas defined by the lack of human habitation or disturbance, graced with plant and animal communities and geomorphological processes that operate in ways unshaped by human agency. 'Tis true, we are hardly likely to encounter wolves or frost-shattered peaks in Norfolk - let Ansel Adams picture them for us - but I think the intertidal zone is implicitly wilderness. We have some 90 miles of coastline at the land/sea interface, where the fluxes of wind, waves and tides shape the sand and shingle without reference to humans, and plant and animal lifeworlds may create their biological meshes of meaning undisturbed.

Wind, sand and razor shells on Titchwell beach.

We also have wilderness at the micro-level: life with its processes, unmediated and raw, at the levels of cell and leaf, in every wood, field or garden, under every stone, in every lump of rotting wood. There are beings for whom this spatial level is their life's horizon, and I imagine it is pure wilderness down among the grass roots in my lawn - the selfsame lawn I walk or picnic on. Wilderness is the landscape that belongs to the Germanic vill or wild, the Latinate desierto, selvaggio or sauvage. The word enfolds, in English, a sense of the alien, empty and untamed. At its heart is wildness.

We carry wildness in ourselves, for instance in our blood flow, breathing, dreams and borborygmus which have their own strange, untameable life-logic, even though we know them to be truly and organically ourselves. There is also wildness we experience in others when we realise that they are simply 'not me'; they have their own life-logic which may overlap with our own but it is radically Other and different, perhaps alien. It could be a friend, a neighbour or a bird. We find they are partly 'me' - but mostly not.

Thus, our perception of wilderness may have its roots in the radical Otherness of a landscape: we are forced to meet it on its own terms and not ours. We may be able to find resources and affordances within it, places of identity, attachment and utility, but it remains - at its core - essentially 'other' and wild.

Tyresta forest, Sweden - beavers at work. Photo courtesy Lena Ohre.

Our expedition had prehistoric wilderness in mind, specifically any evocative traces of the lost life-world of Doggerland to be found in the Hockham area. Its task would be both dreamwork and a perceptive attention to the present landscape through which an imaginative experience of the late glacial and early post-glacial landscape might become possible. The result would be writing.
'A text of nature writing is a representational model of the meaning relations that a writer has perceived in the environment under specific conditions, determined by the time, location, and the biological and cultural abilities of the perceiver.' [1]

As a 'representational model', nature writing is a translation from the Otherness of nature, as we experience it, into the selfhood of words. We go outward into Otherness: we return to Ourselves. In the case of Doggerland we are dealing with a world of plants, animals and human life which can no longer be directly experienced. Translation may risk going awry and descending into ungrounded phantasmagoria that have the ring of fantasy but not of vital truth. What we need is eye-opening places where what is experienceable today and what was experienceable 10,000 years ago can come together and bear fruit - the berries and fungi of lifeworld visions.

Suppose we wanted to experience a Devensian environment today we'd need to go north, to the Arctic. The last ice age lingers there, clinging to the circumpolar zone the face of the planet's encroaching interglacial warming, along with its refugees the snow buntings and musk oxen, beetles and midges, pingos and permafrost. My studies tell me this part of Norfolk is awash with physical (and even some biological) evidence for life in the Devensian.

If we wanted to experience an early Flandrian environment we'd need to go north-east, to visit the low-lying landscapes around the Baltic, for example Soomaa in Estonia, where bogs and boreal forest go hand in hand; landscapes of birch and pine, beetle and midge, lake and moraine. The marshy, forested land at Frost's Common and Cranberry Rough, Hockham, has a similar aspect, though no longer inhabited  by elk, wolf and lynx.

For Doggerland itself, scientific research has begun to lay bare the geography using remote sensing and sampling techniques[2].We are beginning to chart the layout of drowned estuaries and low hills, fens and plains, on the seafloor and beneath it. We know about the kinds of plants and animals present, and the timing of the submergence. We now have details of this lost, low-lying landscape available to us in words and maps. It probably looked a bit like parts of Norfolk.

For understanding the people of Doggerland, we could draw on the experience of the hunting & gathering peoples of the northern forests, coasts and tundras. They are the ones who grappled in deed and myth, in actions, words and songs, with the realities of life in this kind of environment. This would complement the traces of local Mesolithic occupation. Perhaps some of the people settled at Hockham were refugees from Doggerland. What language, stories and skills did they bring with them?

A digital terrain map (DTM) of Frost's Common (right), with the eastern margin of Cranberry Rough (left).
A pattern of ditches can clearly be seen, evidence of 20th century drainage work.
Imagery © Forestry Research, courtesy Breaking New Ground data.

Hockham Mere

Our expedition was focused on the western side of Hockham parish. It included Frost's Common, an area pockmarked with a concentration of ponds. As a digital terrain map shows, the land slopes hence gently westward into a broad basin area, a shallow sump for water draining from the glacial sands, gravels and clays which underlie it. This is the area called Cranberry Rough, the site of an ancient lake known as Hockham Mere. Its muds were investigated by researchers in the 1940s, who cored down and recovered samples to a depth of 30 ft (9 m). They were able to show that the Mere holds a sedimentary sequence going back to the end of the last ice age, with a fossil pollen sequence to match[3]. 

The Mere
probably existed in some form until Tudor times before being drained with a network of ditches. 19th century maps show this reclaimed land as swamp woodland and rough pasture, with the eastern part set aside as a Poor's Fen allotment; altogether it covered some 190 acres (76 ha). Patches of worked flint near the western end and traces of charcoal in the lake muds are evidence of occupation by Mesolithic hunters & gatherers, more than 7,000 years ago. There is a Roman road, the Peddar's Way, tracking nearby, and the vestiges of a deserted railway line cutting across it. The southern half of the site is managed by the Forestry Commission, and so theoretically it is publicly- accessible. Until recently almost all Cranberry Rough was covered with woodland, but a programme of publicly funded works has now cleared trees and bushes from the southern half of the site, revealing a flat tract of boggy pasture. The oozing, privately-owned core of
its northern half is swamp carr, pristine and impenetrable.

Swamp carr at the heart of at Cranberry Rough, May 2015

We parked that car near the entrance to Fire Route 83, and entered the forest. We followed our own trackless path.

Frost's Common

'Maa iidse tiigid'
'The land of ancient ponds'

Deadened by crowding trees, the sounds of traffic on the A1075 are muffled and soon die away. Frost's Common has an extraordinary power of dépaysement, of taking one elsewhere - in this case somewhere boreal and strange. I have been in similarly odd, crumbly forests in Sweden where the delightful and the sinister are woven together equally. An attractive variety of broad-leaved and coniferous trees presides over a complex of brooding ponds; the tracks of deer (and some bigger animals) are woven here and there over the earth; in some places dense mats of dead bracken mask a jumble of rotten trunks. Mosses, lichens and fungi abound. Time passes and - pixie-led - one finds oneself going in green circles, for one cluster of ponds looks much like another. One steers by instinct - or the sun, if its position can be discerned.

A forest glade

Evergreens beside a periglacial pond.


Geologically speaking, the land at Frost's Common is a mosaic of sands and chalky clays, and the ponds are probably relict lithalsa or pingo landforms. Fourteen thousand years ago the ground here would have been swollen with permafrost ice. The surface layers would melt in summer then refreeze in winter. Patches of water-bearing sand in the subsoil would swell up and form large blisters of ice, with freezing and thawing happening on a seasonal basis. At the end of the ice age these active frost mounds became permanent ponds. There must be fifty such ponds and wet depressions surviving at the Common. It is a landscape ravaged by periglacial pox.

'Piirneva niiske luht'
'Bordering a damp meadow'

The hummocky terrain of Frost's Common gives way, on its western side, to an open area surrounded by forest. It is less a glade than a rough, tussocky, damp heath. The ground undulates with a few ground-ice depressions, and is sporadically studded with willow, hawthorn and gorse. It seems to be a tract of clear-felled forest that was not replanted. It is not attractive, but does have a very strong sense of place about it. Many years ago, in the Åland Islands of the Baltic, I waited at dusk for elk (Alces alces) to emerge in such a place as this. Stepping into the open here, one is aware that other eyes may be watching.

'Ja tume männimets'
'And a dark forest of pine trees'

The damp meadow gives way to patchy, mixed woodland of oak, pine, poplar and willow. This in turn gives way to regular pine plantation. Passing through it means treading underfoot a spongey carpet of dead needles; one's horizon is reduced to a brown world of spiky and straight-planted bole corridors; one's hearing is hushed and closeted. Vestiges of freedom still remain in the tree tops, however, where occasional titmice twitter and flit, and breezes may ruffle greenery in the topmost twigs. Our attention is mostly on the ground. We stumble over half-buried snags. We find a startling splash of chrome yellow slime, a living myxomycete. We notice the landscape's resources, its tracks, trails and signals. Deer droppings; scraps of egg shell; the tang of a fox; tufts of foxglove or fern. Overhead, way above the tree tops, passing pigeons and carrion crows. The trees are mostly young, perhaps 20 years old, but have none of the casual spontaneity of youth: they are already dry, serious characters. It seems a human body could lie here, in the silence at their feet, buried beneath a steady rain of needles for decades before being discovered. But I suspect my imagination is running away with me here: the foxes would soon make it their own and the crows would strip what remained, leaving just wreckage. The place is more populated than it seems, and there are large, fresh-looking animal tracks meandering among the pines, evidence of other-than-human wills contributing to the place.

The myxomycete

Corridors of forestry brash

We navigate westwards through the forest, until the pines loosen as the ground becomes wetter. Birches and willows step in once more. They mark the eastern margin of the former Mere. We reach a gate from which, 1000 years ago, we might have surveyed wild water and fen.  

Cranberry Rough

'Siin on sissepääs suur raba'
'Then the entry to a large swamp'

We are walking across the old lake ground and its soggy, partly-drained successor. Dark, peat-rich soil has been mechanically stripped of encroaching trees to reveal a wetland in the remaking. Cattle have poached the ground into a black chaos of wet potholes which we step through to reach a balk of higher ground which runs westward across the site. This will be our only access route.

Like hunters, our senses take in the layout of woodland and water bodies, the direction of the wind, the evidence of bird and animal life. At each step we evaluate threats and resources, check our orientation, adjust our thoughts to the terrain and to each other. We find we are not alone.

This marsh is alive with living things that shy in our presence - the birds. They are signs in our wilderness, and we in theirs. Geese, ponderous and clamouring as they rise. Herons, craking. An explosion of teal in a whirr of wings that peels off the marsh, swings round then refocuses farther off, each bird dropping back with a white splash to water. And distant, about 800 yards away, the eye discerns what look like aurochsen - ochreous cattle, hairy and over-horned - pasturing on what the swamp has to offer by way of December's dying herbage. If we want to reach cross the Mere and find the place where the Mesolithic flints were found we shall have to pass them.

Courage fails me. I am unnerved by the aurochsen and the birds. We are standing exposed in a chilly emptiness. Is it wilderness or nature reserve; public or private space? It's only two o'clock but daylight seems already to be fading.

I notice that I have lost or misplaced my mobile 'phone. I want to retrace my steps - our steps - to look for it before the light fails, and Julia agrees. 
We turn back.

The return

'Suur raba,
Piirneb tume männimets,
Siis niiske luht,
Ja maa iidse tiigid'.

'A large swamp,
Bordered by dark pine forest, 
Then a damp meadow
And a land of ancient ponds'.

Walking back, our attention is on the ground, on little details, as we walk; they become the thread back through the labyrinth of our expedition: back across the great swamp - through the forest of pines - across the damp meadow - between the ancient ponds. We revisit our walk's geography in reverse, following our memory's representation (such as it is). I recognise my own boot-prints. I remember where I stood to watch a pair of carrion crows. We cross the same beast paths; navigate between the same boles (or just about). I notice a patch of yellow slime. Here is the place among the damp pine needles where we picnicked on green olives, boiled eggs and black chocolate. I recall the crossing of a clearing or the skirting of a pond; the place where we doubled certain bushes, or stepped over a fallen trunk; a pile of droppings or a feather. It is extraordinary how vivid some memories are: I find myself able to retrace tracks and relocate localities we were at two hours earlier. The hunter/gatherer in me is impressed: I am an asset to the tribe.

Back at the car park I find my mobile phone buried safely in a bag, so all is well there. This story poses some awkward questions about the quality of my memory. Perhaps I'm not such an asset after all.

I have since learned that the yellow myxomycete is Fuligo septica, a species with a strange Fenno-Scandinavian mythology: said to be the vomit of troll cats or, in Estonia, the leavings of the demon Kratt. Each society in each age interprets natural phenomena in its own way. Today, in 2016, the texts books can tell me a lot about the biology of slime moulds, and I find the idea that troll cats may roam the Hockham Woods an appealing one. However, the most important thing seems to me that Julia and I encountered this strange organism together here – out in the heart of a Norfolk wilderness – much as our ancestors, some 9,000 years and perhaps 500 generations ago, might have found it on a pine forest floor in old Doggerland – a landscape now submerged by more than time.

Seal on heita pilku kulla kõnnumaal'.
'There is a glimpse of gold in the wilderness'.

How would our ancestors have named this thing?


[1] - Maran, Timo & Tüür, Kadri (2016): From birds and trees to texts: An ecosemiotic look at Estonian nature writing. In: Parham, John & Westling, Louise (Eds): A Global History of Literature and the Environment; Cambridge University Press.
[2] - Gaffney, V, Fitch, S, and Smith, D (2009): Europe's Lost World - The rediscovery of Doggerland; Council for British Archaeology.
[3] - Godwin, H & Tallentire, PA (1951): Hockham Mere, Norfolk; Journal of Ecology 39.

With acknowledgements to Google for Estonian translation, and apologies for the inevitable faults of grammar and meaning ...

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Pliocene big cat in Suffolk

Dreams are strange things - such spontaneous flights of invention which I could hardly conceive in my daytime life.

This morning, just before waking, I got up and pulled back the curtains. Instead of the usual startled muntjac or rabbit dodging away into the laurel  bushes I saw something much larger and more disturbing. About the size of a spotted hyaena; its neck and legs quite long; its tail short; a glowing pelage of yellowish fur speckled all over with small brown marks; its head like a panther or lion, but profile more elongated and somewhat thicker or bearded under the chin - I couldn't quite see, as it was moving away from me. It had a smooth and fluid pace.

I wanted to bang on the window to get it to look round, in order to see the head; however. I awoke before that was possible. It was gone.

Astonished, I ruminated on what I had just seen. A large felid of some sort, seen padding into a patch of Neogene laurel forest. It was very similar to the extinct big cats of Pliocene / early Pleistocene age. How about the scimitar-toothed cat Homotherium or the dirk-toothed cat Megantereon?

Its head was similar to a Megantereon cultridens illustrated here, although I couldn't see the canine teeth. Its body shape was also similar (see here) but the tail was shorter and the canines not clearly visible. Its size was similar to M. cultridens pictured here, but not as large as Homotherium here.
My verdict? A dream representation of an extict felid species, closest to the genus Megantereon which became extinct in Europe about 900,000 years ago. The representations of M. cultridens by artists such as Mauricio Anton diverge from mine in having fur with much bolder spotting; the canine teeth more prominent; the tail slightly longer.

Early Middle Pleistocene fossils of Homotherium have been found in Suffolk (Pakefield) and West Runton and possibly Sidestrand (Norfolk), but no Megantereon - the closest finds are from France.

Mandible of Homotherium sp. from Pakefield / Kessingland cliffs, Suffolk.
Figured in Backhouse, J: 'On a mandible of Machaerodus from the Forest Bed'; Quarterly Journal
of the Geological Society of London, no. 42.  Scale: 10 cm. Note the wide fossa between canine and premolar, where the elongated upper canine tooth descended.

My friend Matt Salusbury (Mystery Animals Suffolk) collects information about big cat sightings in East Anglia. I doubt he will add my unique 'sighting' to his database, although he could add this new information to the body of mythopoeic knowledge that has lately grown up around big cats. Perhaps he can start a new database for 'Dream Sightings', and thus add the Bungalow garden to the oniric mythic geography of East Anglia.

"A myth is a public dream, a dream is a private myth", said Joseph Campbell. [1]

While dreams appear as highly subjective phenomena, Carl Jung argued for their potential for revealing elements of the transpersonal, ancestral, unconscious 'objective psyche' present in archetypal patterns. The symbols appearing in dreams may have their roots in the archaic human mind. "Just as the body bears the traces of its phylogenetic development, so also does the human mind. Hence there is nothing surprising about the possibility that the figurative language of dreams is a survival from an archaic mode of thought".[2] Not just 'mode of thought' but perhaps the dream-thought itself may be archaic. It is likely that big, powerful predators left their mark in the ancestral psyche, and the numinous power which my dream cat possessed argues for its archetypal associations. It is up to me to meditate upon the many meanings that radiate from this symbolic animal and its dream setting.

One further thought: I don't think that paleontologists and reconstruction artists should dismiss the idea that Megantereon may have had an evenly brown-spotted pelage; it is normally represented as having a variety of leopard-like botches and mottlings or tiger-like stripes.Who's to say that some mysterious ancestral memory may not have visited me in the half-light of a winter dawn? A notable and archetypal dream image certainly did.

[1] - Cited in: 'Private Myths - Dreams and Dreaming', by Anthony Stevens; Hamish Hamilton, 1995.                
[2] - 'General Aspects of Dream Psychology', in: Jung, CG: 'Dreams'; Ark Paperbacks, 1982

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 - me 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.

One thing's for sure: I know that I am embodied will-to-walk.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Mice and men

Today I found a nest of wool and leaves containing six baby mice; they fell out of a box when I was emptying out my shed. If I were a dog or cat I would have eaten them straightaway. If I were the mouse-mother I would carefully have gathered them up and stashed them somewhere safe. Being myself, I studied them for a while; I felt pity for them; I found them attractive in a soft, velvety way; I dealt with them with a stick because I do not want more mice wrecking my storage boxes.

This episode has prompted some clear thinking about morality. What follows is an attempt to consider this subject in a fresh way, taking inspiration from Husserl's concept of intersubjectivity and Lifeworld, Bateson's systems theory, Von Uexkull's Umwelt theory and Schopenhauer's philosophy of will.


1) All human actions have moral value because they are enacted in a transpersonal (transsubjective) dimension. All actions impact on the world, including the lifeworlds of other beings.There is no such thing as a purely private action.

2) Whether the actions are considered to be morally 'good' or 'bad' depends on the outcome, not the motive. Motive is determined by personal character, which is a given. Morality is thus about outcomes and not motives.

3) The driver of all action is the organic Will to Life of the individual. The expression or enaction of this Will is determined by the participation of this individual in their transpersonal (social / ecological) context, which supplies information feedback. Other individuals (human or non-human) are maximising the expression of their respective Wills, either competing with or collaborating with their neighbours. The result is contested or participatory trophic action-space, with feedback loops tending to facilitate or limit / sanction behavioural expression.

4) Moral value (meaning) is assigned by participants to incidental actions producing outcomes in their lifeworlds. All actions are interpreted by and signify to some person or some living thing; they have causal impact on lifeworlds.

5) All outcomes are in-themselves morally 'good' as well as 'bad'. Absolute good or bad is an idea, but nothing more. Assignment of moral value (i.e. place on the moral spectrum) relates to the context in which the outcome happens. Context is an open, layered system. A morally 'good' outcome at one systemic level may have a morally 'bad' outcome at another level or on the same level. Moral value is assigned to the outcome by fellow participants in the transpersonal dimension. The individual is not in a position to say whether their actions are morally 'good' or 'bad' except through a) direct feedback from contextual participants, or b) introjected feedback.

6) We pay attention to the various implications of our actions (ends as well as means) on as many levels as possible. That is morality in action. We provide feedback about the outcomes of the actions of others as they impact on our lifeworld. That is also morality in action.


My introjected feedback tells me I lack compassion. I suppose my fellow humans might tell me the same. The mouse-mother is not in a position to give me feedback about her reaction. Tonight a scavenging animal will probably find their bodies in the hedge where I chucked them; it will make them its own. A morally 'bad' outcome may have a morally 'good' outcome. This is the dance of creation and destruction, destruction and creation...


Some interesting reading
* Simpson, B, Willer, R, and Harrell, A, 2017: The Enforcement of Moral Boundaries Promotes Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior in Groups; Nature Scientific Reparts 7, Online Article 42844.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The South Hams

Unless you see it for yourself, it is hard to appreciate the level way the hill tops of the South Hams meet the Devon sky. They define the surface of a plateau that extends from the coast northwards to  Dartmoor. Only gentle undulations here and there detract from the general impression of a broad concordance of summits across the district. It's only when you view the countryside from a high place that this becomes clear; if you stand anywhere between them you will just see hills and valleys.  A car driver is for ever climbing slopes or dipping into troughs - but summit views tell a wide and level story. In the same way, a trawler captain might rise to a wave top and see all crests forming a composite, flat horizon that belies the rising and falling of his little ship.

The high points include summits at East Prawle (443 m), Blackdown Rings at Loddiswell (580 m) and Stanborough Camp at Halwell (700 m). Lying between them and the sea is a complex, rolling mass of lesser hills, slopes, valleys and coombes that form the physical heart of the South Hams. We should not forget the contribution made by the long, dendritic estuaries - the rias - that penetrate the land mass, where lower reaches of valleys such as the Erme and Dart have been drowned by the sea. These valleys continue inland and are fed by a welter of coombes scooped out of red-brown Devonian bedrock.

I have never understood the origins of this summit phenomenon. Old-time geographers talk about  peneplanation, suggesting that the landscape was planed off in the late Neogene period. My teenage mind's eye used to hold an image of an immense wave-cut platform uplifted and then dissected by rivers. That does not make sense. What about glaciation - have the summits been planed by ice sheets? There is no evidence that this landscape has suffered anything more than periglacial processes in the freezing hinterland beyond the southern limits of Pleistocene glaciation. The slopes and coombes are thickly bedded with frost-shattered debris, but not outwash gravels nor till - not even on Dartmoor. There remains the idea of subaerial erosion as the most plausible agent, set against a history of rising and falling land levels over millions of years.

The rocks underlying the South Hams are mostly of Lower Devonian age - mostly slates and mudstones, perhaps 410 million years old. You can see them everywhere in walls, or in rocky lanes.

Supposing the South Hams were an extremely ancient terrain, perhaps tens of millions of years old. Suppose an eroded landscape of Devonian rocks was once covered by the sea, buried in sediment and then uncovered - then perhaps buried again, then exhumed once more - and all the while the land levels and sea levels were rising and falling over immense stretches of time. The South Hams landscape may have been roofed and unroofed several times over, and what survives is a battered and extremely ancient relict terrain, now seen as a complex of flat summits, hills and coombes - over which farms and villages, woods and hedgerows have been laid out in the blink of an eye.

I cast my imagination 60 million years into the future. Like HG Wells' time traveller, I see the land and its wrinkled skin of green landscape blur and then dissolve.

What's left there is ocean. 


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]

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

In the South Downs


I do not know the South Downs, but my visit to Petersfield last week was drawn into their power. They looked grey and brooding in the mizzling weather blowing up from the south.

Locals must be familiar with these hills and the bulk that forms a backdrop to their lives: southwards towards Burriton, westwards to Ramsdean, northwards to Steep. They frame all views except eastward, into Sussex, where the Weald lies.

The hills are chalk; their summits are mostly bare and their slopes are mostly wooded. In past centuries they would have been given over to sheep, with flocks crossing the downland turf. The Downs remain but sheep and downland are mostly a memory now, as arable or tree plantations have taken over. What would the poet Edward Thomas have made of this? He lived at Steep; he walked these hills, knew their paths and people; he digested what he saw and felt, he distilled it into his ungainly yet ecstatic, wild yet thoughtful writing, in which the character of nature is blended with his own troubled soul. He chronicled the pre-War world just before it crumbled. He wrote a book 'The South Country' and filled it with his response to the Downs.

My friend Jonathan runs a sawmill near Butser Hill. He manages Whitelands Wood, with its modern stands of ash and western red cedar climbing the northern flanks of the hill. He nurtures a few ancient yew trees in clearings. He delights in the wood's biodiversity. Old man's beard scrambles along the fences and up the trees; Roman snails still live in the rough chalky soil. Otherwise there are few traces of the ancient downland visible on old maps and which developed here since the Bronze Age. Constant grazing is just not practical. Times have changed.

Buried path - a former downland trackway, with flints and mosses underfoot

On Tuesday Jonathan and I drove to the Shepherd's Church at Didling, with his son Bede and grey, shaggy lurcher Beaumont for company. The chalk escarpment runs east-west here, fronted by a dark ribbon of woodland; its summits are green and bare. The church stands alone, surrounded by fields and is reached by a farm track, which becomes a footpath that continues towards Didling Hill. We paid our respects to this ancient shrine before walking on, with Beaumont trotting along in a universe of smells. The day was patchy sunlight with passing clouds. I became absorbed by the hill's wooded presence as we climbed towards it. Edward Thomas's words were flickering through my thoughts: old man's beard, 'that  hoar-green feathery herb' and how the scent of its shrivelled seed heads evoked unplaceable memories; the shell of 'a little snail bleached in the grass, chips of flint and mite of chalk'; the badger, 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts', dug from his sett and given to the hounds in a dark combe with 'sliding chalk by beech and yew and perishing juniper'.

We passed a chalk pit; we entered the wood.

The world changed - ash and yew crowding around us. Deprived of grassy cover, the topsoil showed bare flint and chalk in the gloom beneath the trees, which the deer had browsed into a canopy just below head height. Brown and white earth from a badger's sett was mounded up between the roots of a large ash. A pile of yew seeds in various stages of decomposition marked a vole's winter feasting place. Beaumont was in his element, alert, alive and questing. We diverged from the path a bit, exploring tree bark with a forester's eye, reading the past written into its hard, rumpled textures. Jonathan noticed a scatter of prehistoric flint knapping debris underfoot, white shards glowing in tree shade - they would have been hidden by an overgrowth of turf had this been open downland. In places I found my feet struggling to grip on the sloping soil, the sliding chalk.


The old world of the Downs finds shelter beneath the trees. Here, we move into a different, set-aside space on a north-facing scarp too steep for farming. Root and tree, teeth and fur, flint and bone; the smell of earth and vegetable decay; animal trails, invisible. The elder world seems closer here, with Thomas's sturdy footsteps close behind us and the whisper of corduroy as he walks past, struggling with his thoughts. He has a weekend's leave from the Army; he is walking to clear his head, clear the turbulence of a homecoming to his wife Helen and their three clamouring children ten miles way in the cottage at Steep. They only remember him as he was before he enlisted. He is walking to find the words he needs, to encounter places where his own nature can do its work of healing; he strides out to forget everything on earth 'except that it is lovelier than any mysteries'. He sees a fallow deer as it watches him under the trees; it stamps then runs. He finds himself alone.

We turned and left the wood.We hadn't even reached its upper margins, where open skies and downland begin - I don't know why: I would have relished a summit view. For some reason the wood had been enough, a saturation. Beaumont trotted on across the reseeded grass ley, indifferent to its green monoculture.

Meaning flourishes in spots of diversity in the landscape, like a 13th century flint church, a pile of yew seeds between the roots of a tree, or the smell of a badger.

Such things are worth walking to find.

Edward Thomas