Richard Carter's meta feed http://richardcarter.com A merged feed of Articles, Notebook entries, Reviews and Newsletters from richardcarter.com en-gb Richard Carter Newsletter No. 13: Bramblings! http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/bramblings/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/bramblings/ Fri, 18 May 2018 10:36:39 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) bramblings · wheatears · Mary Beard · Beaker folk · Meera Sodha · recipes · John Tyndall · Eunice Foote · religion · Ben Myers · Austin Kleon · Walter Benjamin · giant sloths · Shetland · Neil Ansell · Charles Darwin Rich Text

18TH MAY 2018

Hello.

Blimey, when I said I’d see you in Spring, I had no idea Winter would drag on quite so long! Still, we’ve finally knocked another one off. Those of us living in the Northern hemisphere, at least.

Highlight of the over-extended winter was my first ever sighting of bramblings. I’d been keeping an eye out for them all winter, and finally spotted a pair in our cherry tree when I popped into the kitchen to put the kettle on one afternoon.

Male brambling
Male brambling.

Highlight of Spring, so far, has been the return of my beloved wheatears to the Moor. As ever, it was the flash of their eponymous ‘white arses’ that gave them away. (Photo below.)

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. The Guardian published an excellent profile of everyone’s favourite classicist and tweeter, Mary Beard. As my Latin teacher Spiny Norman would no doubt have observed, exegit monumentum aere perennius. (No, me neither.)

  2. Recent DNA analysis suggests the arrival of Beaker folk 4,500 years ago changed Britain for ever.

  3. We tried Meera Sodha’s recipe for aloo paratha with quick lemon pickle. It was mind- and mouth-blowingly fantastic. (Two recommendations: don’t de-seed the chillis, and place the frying pan on a high, not medium, heat.)

  4. In my book On the Moor, I describe how the Victorian physicist John Tyndall first investigated what we now call the Greenhouse Effect. Turns out, unbeknownst to Tyndall (and almost everyone else) an American scientist named Eunice Foote carried out similar, less detailed, experiments three years earlier.

  5. The wisdom of youth: recent research indicates being non-religious has become the norm among young Europeans.

  6. My mate Ben Myers’ excellent novel The Gallows Pole has been shortlisted for the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. To look really cool, you should try to read it before it wins. Ben also has a new non-fiction book out: Under the Rock. I’m very much looking forward to reading.

  7. Austin Kleon on doing something small every day to build a body of work.

  8. Alan Nance attempts to retrace the final journey of philosopher, critic, storyteller, and Jew, Walter Benjamin.

  9. Following in very different footsteps, thanks to a remarkable find, scientists have managed to retrace a giant sloth hunt.

  10. An interesting cultural history piece on how Shetland whalers headed south.

Shameless plugs

I’ve started a new page on my website quoting extracts from reviews of ‘On the Moor’. So you no longer have to take just my word for it.

The nature writer Neil Ansell provided some nice blurb for the cover of my book. Here’s my review of his latest book, The Last Wilderness.

I’m about to launch a second newsletter in my capacity as the Head (well, Only) Honcho at the Friends of Charles Darwin. It will be all about Darwin, evolution, and stuff like that. As all the best Darwin quotes have already been used as book titles, my working title for the new newsletter is, rather sensibly, The Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.


Male ‘white-arse’
Male ‘white-arse’.

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

Richard
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Book review: ‘In Patagonia’ by Bruce Chatwin http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-in-patagonia-bruce-chatwin/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-in-patagonia-bruce-chatwin/ Mon, 30 Apr 2018 13:54:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Wandering about Patagonia with no clear plan in mind. In Patagonia

I first read In Patagonia many years ago, and had been meaning to re-read it for some time. My memories of it still left a lasting, albeit vague, impression. But my ageing eyes were put off by the small typeface in my battered old copy of the book. Fortunately, the 40th anniversary edition proved far easier to read.

My vague memories of the book weren’t far wrong. After all these years, In Patagonia is still a strange, haunting book. Bruce Chatwin seems to wander about Patagonia with no clear plan in mind, delving into history, making random excursions, and describing encounters with colourful locals. It’s a format that works well.

Being more cynical than when I first read the book, I now suspect some of Chatwin’s stories were embellished for dramatic effect. But In Patagonia remains an unusual, fascinating read.

On thing I had forgotten was just how short most of the chapters are. There are 97 of them in total, with many being only two or three pages long. It’s a format I found remarkably engaging. With such short chapters, Chatwin doesn’t have time to hang about. He’s on to his next subject and up to speed in a couple of sentences. Which makes the book a real page-turner.

Still very good, after 40 years.

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Book review: ‘Heligoliand’ by Jan Rüger http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-heligoland-jan-ruger/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-heligoland-jan-ruger/ Mon, 30 Apr 2018 13:51:10 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Britain, Germany, and the struggle for the North Sea. Heligoliand

I bought Jan Rüger‘s Heligoland on a hunch, having read two highly complimentary reviews. The hunch was that I would enjoy the book very much indeed, not least because the subject matter seemed to echo a number of themes explored by one of my favourite writers, W.G. Sebald. My hunch was correct: Heligoland is a fantastic read.

The eponymous subject of this book is a pair of small islands in the German Bight of the North Sea. Annexed from Denmark by the British during the Napoleonic Wars to prevent it becoming a French naval stronghold, the archipelago became a base for British wartime smuggling and espionage operations. It became an official British colony with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Two years later, Heligoland rebranded as a seaside spa, which in later years (to the consternation of the British) became a major centre for gambling, and a refuge for German revolutionaries.

After the unification of Germany, Heligoland was much coveted by Bismarck, who saw it as a launchpad to German imperial ambitions. The colony was eventually horse-traded with Germany for unopposed British access to Zanzibar. The main island was heavily fortified by its new owners in advance of the First World War, during which, thanks to the new fortifications, it saw very little action. The fortifications were dismantled in line with a provision of the Versailles Treaty after the war. The resentment this caused in Germany became a major source of Nazi propaganda between the wars.

When the Nazis rose to power, they heavily refortified the main island. But the advent of aerial warfare had made Heligoland less strategically important. It was largely ignored by the allies during the Second World War until, in the final days of the war, it was blanket-bombed to such an extent that the Germans were forced to desert the island. To add insult to injury, in the years immediately after the war, the British used Heligoland as a bombing range. But the ultimate insult came in 1947, when they did their level best to level the island by setting off stockpiles of wartime munitions in a single ‘Big Bang’. The explosion changed the geology of the island forever. After a coordinated series of protests, Heligoland was finally returned to German control in 1947, where it remains to this day.

Rüger’s fascinating history of the archipelago is really a history of Anglo-German relations over the last two-hundred years. It shows how continent-wide political manoeuvrings had profound effects on the two tiny islands. It’s a wonderful example of describing major themes by concentrating on small, specific examples.

The Sebaldian themes that emerge throughout the book include the Napoleonic Wars, the North Sea (née German Ocean), the leisure activities of the idle rich, aerial warfare, war crimes, and walk-on parts by assorted artists and despots. Even Werner Heisenberg makes an unexpected appearance. It was during a prolonged visit to Heligoland in 1925 that he first formulated quantum theory: a circumstance that seems metaphorically apt, bearing in mind Heligoland’s uncertain position during much of its political history.

Highly recommended.

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Book review: ‘The Ascent of John Tyndall’ by Roland Jackson http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-ascent-john-tyndal-roland-jackson/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-ascent-john-tyndal-roland-jackson/ Tue, 20 Mar 2018 14:38:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A long-overdue biography of the Victorian scientist, mountaineer, and public intellectual. The Ascent of John TyndallThe Victorian physicist John Tyndall is one of those figures who tend to appear on the periphery of other people’s biographies. He socialised and worked with many famous individuals, and was himself famous and influential in his day. But his fame rapidly diminished after his tragic death.

Roland Jackson suggests, at the conclusion of this excellent biography, that Tyndall’s relative obscurity these days can be attributed to three factors: (1) his wife’s failure to produce a planned biography meant no biography appeared until 1945 (over 50 years after Tyndall’s death); (2) Tyndall was a great experimentalist, rather than theoretician, and it is the theoreticians who tend to be remembered in physics; (3) Tyndall was one of the last of the great classical physicists, missing out on the revolutionary discoveries that took place in his chosen field within a few years of his death. By the time the first biography appeared, Tyndall’s physics was, in some respects, out of fashion.

Tyndall’s reputation is due a renaissance. As the person who explained the physics behind what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect, he deserves to be better known at a time when human-induced climate change is finally being recognised as one of the most pressing concerns of our age (at least by those who don’t have a vested interest in denying it).

In addition to the Greenhouse Effect, Tyndall is perhaps best known for explaining why the sky is blue. Indeed, he receives honourable mention regarding both these subjects in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk. But, I must confess, my knowledge of Tyndall’s science pretty much ended with these two subjects until I read this extensive biography. True, I did know he was a member of the X-Club: a dining society of scientific friends, who campaigned on behalf of naturalistic science (and, therefore, against the encroachment of theology into scientific matters). I also knew that he was a friend of Charles Darwin, climbed the Matterhorn, and was accidentally killed by his wife (see my book for more details). But I had no idea Tyndall had explained how atmospheric conditions can affect the transmission of sound (another topic touched on in my book). Nor did I know he was a forceful proponent of atomic theory, ether theory, and the germ theory of disease. Nor that his investigations into germ theory and other topics led to his invention of a new sterilisation process, the firefighting respirator, and to an improved design for foghorns. While these topics might sound eclectic, Jackson shows how they all stemmed from related studies into sound and light transmissions through gases.

For a change, my hero Charles Darwin is very much a peripheral figure himself in this biography. Other scientists, rightly, feature more prominently. The cast of characters is daunting: I would have appreciated a brief dramatis personae at the front of the book to remind me occasionally who some of them were. Notable figures include Robert Bunsen, Heinrich Gustav Magnus, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Babbage, Rudolf Clausius, James Joule, John Herschel, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Lubbock, George Busk, Herbert Spencer, Richard Owen, James Dewar, and Louis Pasteur. But Tyndall’s extensive social and professional circle didn’t stop at scientists. As well as a generous smattering of the nobility, his friends also included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Last but by no means least, I have to declare a special interest in Tyndall’s closest friend, the mathematician Thomas Archer Hirst, who, Jackson recently suggested to me following an exchange on Twitter, might possibly have been the previous owner of my personal copy of Tyndall’s last book, New Fragments.

From relatively humble beginnings, Tyndall first worked as a surveyor in his native Ireland before moving to England, where he worked for the railway surveyor (and my magnificent namesake) Richard Carter. It was while he was based in Halifax that he became friends with Hirst. Both later went on to study in Marburg, in what is now Germany. An invitation for Tyndall to give a talk at the Royal Institution, which was deemed a great success, led to further invitations and a job offer from Faraday. Tyndall was to spend the rest of his career at the Royal Institution, where he eventually succeeded Faraday. Like his predecessor, he was greatly admired for the quality of his public lectures, which often involved live demonstrations.

It was ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, who first seems to have interested Tyndall in the study of glaciers. Tyndall’s subsequent trip to the Alps led to a life-long love of mountaineering. It was a golden age for the sport, which Tyndall still occasionally treated as a scientific pursuit. Some of his mountaineering exploits sound reckless to modern ears. I was amused at his thinking a bottle of champagne was suitable refreshment when attempting a new alpine peak. That said, Tyndall was the first person to climb the Weisshorn, and, after a number of earlier attempts on the summit, the first to traverse the Matterhorn (which had been conquered only three years earlier, not so much with a bang as by a Whymper).

The Tyndall that emerges from this biography is a fascinating and likeable character. He doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour, but he comes across as a loyal friend, outspoken champion of science, forceful critic, and a man with a strong appreciation for the charms of the female sex (albeit, not for their intellectual abilities). Jackson seems to find his subject likeable too, although he is not above criticising Tyndall for his sexism, and occasional disingenuities and inconsistencies.

Jackson is one of the editors on the ongoing John Tyndall Correspondence Project. As well as in his copious correspondence, Tyndall’s life is well documented through journals, scientific papers, newspapers, periodicals, and books. The amount of documentation available means Jackson has been able to stick to the facts, without the need for too much conjecture (the bane of many biographies). He has also adopted a mainly chronological approach when telling the story of Tyndall’s life. This always strikes me as the best approach in biographies, although it does make the accounts of Tyndall’s yearly lecturing and mountaineering cycles occasionally repetitive.

The Ascent of John Tyndall is a long-overdue, magnificent tribute to an important, but largely under-appreciated scientist.

Highly recommended.

Disclosures:

  • I received a free, advanced review copy of this book from the publisher;
  • as explained in the above review, I have previously had brief contact with Roland Jackson via Twitter and email concerning my copy of Tyndall’s last book.
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Book reviews: ‘Charles Darwin: Voyaging’ • ‘Charles Darwin: The Power of Place’ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-charles-darwin-janet-browne/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-charles-darwin-janet-browne/ Wed, 07 Mar 2018 14:48:24 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A magnificent two-volume biography. Charles Darwin: Voyaging / The Power of PlaceJanet Browne’s magnificent two-volume biography of Charles Darwin is the one against which all others must now be judged.

Volume 1, Voyaging, takes us from Darwin’s birth in 1809 to his decision in 1856 finally to start work on the ‘species sketch’ that would become On the Origin of Species. In between, we learn about his school days; his abortive studies in medicine at Edinburgh; his university days at Cambridge; his five-year voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle; his rise to prominence as a man of science; his early publications; his devising of, and early research into, his theory of evolution by means of natural selection; and his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and their settlement in their perma-home at Down House in Kent.

Volume 2, The Power of Place, resumes the story, taking us from the 1858 bombshell letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, indicating Darwin was in danger of being scooped, to Darwin’s death and Westminster Abbey funeral in 1882. In between, we have On the Origin of Species and all Darwin’s subsequent books, from orchids to The Ascent of Man to earthworms.

I’ve often said, and continue to maintain, that the best way to get to know Darwin is to read his copious correspondence. Janet Browne worked for a number of years on the Darwin Correspondence Project, and her work there very much informs this wonderful biography. Browne is particularly good on Darwin the strategist and tactician, showing how, through the medium of the letter, he developed and made highly effective use of a widespread social network.

Browne is also excellent on how Darwin’s more obscure works (on such apparently diverse subjects as coral reefs, orchids, insectivorous plants, sexual selection, movement in plants, variation, expressions of emotions, and earthworms) fitted into a bigger picture. I was particularly interested in her take on Darwin’s barnacle work. Darwin’s eight-year study into barnacles is usually presented (correctly) as a somewhat excessive precautionary attempt to establish his credentials as an acknowledged expert on a particular group of species. He felt he need such credentials before having the temerity to announce a theory claiming to explain the evolution of all species. But Browne shows how Darwin’s barnacle work also helped influence his theory, making him fully appreciate the amount of variation to be found in nature.

It is not possible to do justice to over 1,000 pages of magnificent biography in such a brief review, but, if you want to get to know Charles Darwin (and you’re not prepared to read the 25 volumes and counting of his published Correspondence), you would be well advised to start here.

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Newsletter No. 12: Unspeakable things beneath the shrubs http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/unspeakable-things-beneath-the-shrubs/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/unspeakable-things-beneath-the-shrubs/ Fri, 16 Feb 2018 13:13:12 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Mark E Smith · Alan Bennett · Carl Linnaeus · Ronald Blythe · human evolution · flu epidemics · Great Exhibition of the North · Charles Darwin · insects · introverts · Virginia Woolf · John Tyndall Rich Text

16TH FEBRUARY 2018

Hello.

Good grief, is it still February? As I say in On the Moor:

Christmas long-gone, and still winter drags on! By February, it’s getting beyond a joke. As my friend Mary used to say, there’s a reason why they only gave it twenty-eight days.

Still, we’re getting there. The snowdrops are out. The ash trees are beginning to bud. Dunnocks are starting to do unspeakable things beneath the shrubs. Spring is most definitely on its way.

Mill in snow
The view over my garden wall on Monday.

Me and my big mouth!

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. One of my greatest music heroes, Mark E Smith of The Fall, has died. In an entirely selfless, humanistic attempt to educate the masses, I’ve been tweeting a weekly #FallFriday video link for the last few years. Everyone is unique, but M.E.S. was truly a one-off. Some tribute pieces:
  2. Extracts from Alan Bennett’s 2017 Diary appeared on The London Review of Books website.
    You can also listen to him reading the extracts.
  3. How the index card cataloged the world
    It turns out Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy (Homo sapiens, and all that), also had a hand in inventing that most useful of categorisation tools: the humble index card.
  4. Akenfield revisited: what a rural classic reveals about our changing countryside
    Researchers have begun working on Akenfield Now, a project that will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ronald Blythe’s classic book Akenfield. As with the book, the project will draw on oral histories recited by people who have grown up or lived in the area for much of their lives.
  5. The origin of ‘us’: what we know so far about where we humans come from
    A handy potted account of what we currently know about human evolutionary history.
  6. …but, as always, our knowledge keeps growing. STOP PRESS: Oldest known human fossil outside Africa discovered in Israel
    A fossil, dated to nearly 200,000 years ago, is almost twice as old as any previous Homo sapiens remains discovered outside Africa.
    See also: Humans left Africa 40,000 years earlier than we thought
  7. The Untreatable
    An informative, scary piece about flu epidemics.
  8. Great Exhibition of the North: an event to transform and delight
    Newcastle and Gateshead will host the biggest event in England next year with an exhibition designed to challenge preconceptions of the North. #TheNWRA
  9. The book that coloured Charles Darwin’s world
    Like other naturalists of his time, Charles Darwin’s documentary tool was the written word. During the Beagle voyage, he drew many of his words from a slim volume entitled Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.
  10. Insects took off when they evolved wings
    The evolution of wings not only allowed ancient insects to become the first creatures on Earth to take to the skies, but also propelled their rise to become one of nature’s great success stories, according to a new study.
  11. Making it as an introvert
    A typically thoughtful video by photographer Sean Tucker on the challenges of being an introverted freelancer.
  12. Harvard University Library has digitised Virginia Wolf’s photograph album and made it available online.

Shameless plugs

To mark Charles Darwin’s 209th birthday, I wrote a piece about how the ghost of his friend John Tyndall (probably) helped solve the mystery of a morbid inscription I found in a book of Tyndall’s essays.

A couple of reviews of my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk

Legendary science blogger, PZ ‘Pharyngula’ Myers describes it as:

…wonderful. Science and history and geography and evolution and culture all tangled up in musings while walking about the moors around Hebden Bridge.

while equally legendary science writer Brian Clegg writes:

There’s much to enjoy in Richard Carter’s pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England’s Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it’s inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants […] or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

What do you mean you haven’t got round to buying a copy of On the Moor yet? What happened to the New Year’s resolution? That yacht isn’t going to buy itself, you know!


See you in the Spring!

Love & hugs,

Richard
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Book review: ‘The Last Wilderness’ by Neil Ansell http://richardcarter.com/reviews/last-wilderness-neil-ansell/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/last-wilderness-neil-ansell/ Wed, 10 Jan 2018 12:39:56 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A journey into silence. The Last WildernessNeil Ansell’s latest book is about revisiting one particular region five times in the space of a year. As he puts it:

I wanted to achieve a synthesis between the intensity of the new that comes with first sight, and the depth that comes with familiarity, by choosing a place that was relatively accessible and returning again and again, in all weathers and in every season.

The region Ansell chose for his repeated visits is the ‘Rough Bounds’ in the North West Highlands of Scotland: an area which is about as close as you can still get to true wilderness in the UK. His idea was to go there without any overarching plan; he would simply see what turned up during each trip. As someone who has written a book about over two decades’ walks on a local moor, this is an approach I heartily endorse.

I very much enjoyed the unplanned nature (pun intended, I suppose) of The Last Wilderness. Whereas many other nature writing books might, for example, dedicate an entire chapter to describing a single, almost magical encounter with otters, Ansell gets to describe several otter encounters in a more matter-of-fact manner: the otters simply appear, do their otterly stuff for a while, then disappear back into the Rough Bounds backdrop. The otters are a memorable feature of the particular walk, rather than its highlight.

During his repeat visits, Ansell gets to explore moor, hill, forest, river, loch, and sea-shore. His random encounters include eagles, divers, deer, gulls, waders and gannets. He also reminisces about similar encounters during his previous wanderings in ‘many of the wildest and most far-flung corners of the earth’.

A recurring theme of the book is Ansell’s deteriorating hearing, and how this is affecting his experiences of the natural world: ‘I could hear the chatter of fieldfares, but the redwings were gone to me’. Later in the book, he also has to begin to come to terms with an even more serious medical condition.

The Last Wilderness is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the sort of things that can happen when you take time to become more familiar with an already familiar place.

Highly recommended.

Disclosures: Neil Ansell is an online friend. He provided some front-cover blurb for my book On the Moor. I received a free review copy of The Last Wilderness from the publisher.

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Book review: ‘Ravilious & Co.’ by Andy Friend http://richardcarter.com/reviews/ravilious-and-co-andy-friend/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/ravilious-and-co-andy-friend/ Tue, 09 Jan 2018 15:12:06 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The Pattern of Friendship. Ravilious & Co.In my hardback copy, this is a beautifully produced and illustrated book. It describes the lives, loves and careers of a close-knit group of artists and designers, many of whom first met at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1920s. The group included Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash and his brother John, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Enid Marx, Douglas Percy Bliss, Percy Horton, Peggy Angus, Helen Binyon, and various spouses, friends, lovers, and hangers-on. Although the book is, in effect, a biography of the group, as its title implies, Eric Ravilious takes centre stage.

Ever since I first became aware of Ravilious’s wood-cuts and water-colour paintings, I’ve been a fan of his work which, paradoxically, seems to blend the traditional and modern. But this excellent book made me appreciate that Ravilious did not work in isolation, and was very much part of an as-yet-unnamed movement that deserves and needs a name (if for no other reason than it would have made writing this review considerably easier).

Andy Friend has researched the lives and relationships of the group in great depth, producing a fascinating account of set of people who deserve to be better known. It strikes me that the tale of this group would make a fascinating film or TV drama, especially as it is ‘blessed’ with a tragic, wartime finale.

Highly recommended.

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Book review: ‘The Dun Cow Rib’ by John Lister-Kaye http://richardcarter.com/reviews/dun-cow-rib-john-lister-kaye/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/dun-cow-rib-john-lister-kaye/ Tue, 09 Jan 2018 14:21:01 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very natural childhood. The Dun Cow RibThe Dun Cow Rib is John Lister-Kaye’s memoir of his childhood, and of his development as a naturalist and conservationist.

Born into a privileged family, John was dispatched to boarding school at an early age after his mother developed a rare and serious heart condition. Formal education at a strict school did not sit well with young John, who was always landing himself in trouble—sometimes deservedly, other times through no fault of his own. His father eventually removed him to another school, and then another. The third, somewhat unconventional, private school was far better suited to a boy fascinated by the natural world: there was an important, ecologically rich wildlife patch adjoining the school, and one of the teachers actively encouraged John to develop his interest in natural history.

Running in parallel with the account of John’s education are accounts of his mother’s ongoing illness and medical interventions, which involved pioneering heart-surgery. The tale is set against the backdrop of home life in his grandfather’s manor house. I particularly enjoyed reading about the grandfather, who lost a leg late in life in an incident almost identical to that in which my own great grandfather, also late in life, lost his.

After school, Lister-Kaye gradually migrated towards a life in conservation through friendships with naturalist and future TV-presenter Terry Nutkins and Nutkins’ mentor and guardian Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water.

The Dun Cow Rib is an unusual, entertaining memoir. As to the family heirloom that provides the book’s title, I’m not giving too much away by saying that it is not a rib, and did not originate from a cow of any colour.

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High tides and volant voles http://richardcarter.com/volant-voles/ http://richardcarter.com/volant-voles/ Thu, 04 Jan 2018 15:03:08 +0000 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) An unplanned visit to the flooded Dee Marshes is rewarded with a wildlife spectacle.
An unplanned visit to the flooded Dee Marshes is rewarded with a wildlife spectacle.


Article source: http://richardcarter.com/volant-voles/

Catching up on Twitter in a Wirral Starbucks the morning after Storm Eleanor, I read the following:

@RSPB_BurtonMere Burton Marsh completely flooded! Lunchtime’s high tide could be spectacular! Get down to Parkgate!

An immediate change of plan. Twenty minutes later, I pull into the marsh-side car park at Parkgate. There are dozens of birders already there, all of them far better equipped (and insulated) than me. So I head over to a quiet corner and take shelter behind a convenient wall.

The Dee Marshes only flood a few times a year. The signs of the previous high tide are unmistakeable: flattened marsh grass; plastic jetsam; rank, salty mud. A second flood seems unlikely: an hour before high tide, there’s only the customary distant glint of water way across the marshes near the Welsh bank.

I’m soon joined by a couple of birders. We trade bird tales as the waters slowly encroach into the marsh. It’s bitterly cold. I’m ill-prepared for such conditions, but it’s worth it. There are far more birds flying about than usual: gulls, geese, ducks, waders, starlings, herons, egrets. I’m told I just missed a male hen harrier. I’m immediately compensated with a brief sighting of a short-eared owl scudding low across the rising water channels.

The birds become more agitated as the tide reaches the scrape. A water rail comes tearing across the marsh like a roadrunner and vanishes beneath the wall at our feet. He’s followed by dozens of terrified voles, many of which are swept up by gulls and gobbled down whole, mid-air. Others are dropped during gullish squabbles. One jettisoned vole flies so close that all three of us duck. It splats into the soft marsh and promptly disappears: a lucky escape. I take another look for the hiding water rail. He spots me, and makes a bolt for it across a shallow pool, disappearing round the corner of the wall.

I’m shivering uncontrollably now. My heated car-seat beckons, but I manage to hold out for another half-hour or so, until I can no longer feel my fingers.

What a spectacular start to the new year!

Lapwings
Lapwings over the Dee Marshes.
The rising tide reaches the scrape
The rising tide reaches the scrape.
Water rail
Water rail.
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole.
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2017: a year in photos http://richardcarter.com/2017-slideshow/ http://richardcarter.com/2017-slideshow/ Mon, 01 Jan 2018 14:34:17 +0000 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) My seventh annual video slideshow review of the year.
My seventh annual video slideshow review of the year.


Article source: http://richardcarter.com/2017-slideshow/

For the last few years, at this time of year, I've produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here's the 2017 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year's slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Placid Reflux, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

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Newsletter No. 11: Penguin eggs and yetis http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/penguin-eggs-and-yetis/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/penguin-eggs-and-yetis/ Sat, 02 Dec 2017 11:13:57 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Sir Thomas Browne · Saturn · penguin eggs · heroes of science · evolution of languages · nature books · dna barcoding · periodic table · Alice Roberts · geology Rich Text

2ND DECEMBER 2017

Hello.

Only eight days since my last newsletter: people will talk!

As my last one didn’t contain the customary links to articles you might find interesting, I thought I’d better make amends as soon as possible. But first…

Shameless plug

On the Moor
Buy from Amazon uk | .com

In the unlikely event it has escaped your notice, MY BOOK IS FINALLY OUT!!

An ideal Christmas present for all the science, history, and nature fans in your life. Just think how prescient you’ll look when this thing wins the Pulitzer. Why not treat yourself to a copy, while you’re at it?

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

As I read and write about stuff that interests me, it should come as no surprise that some of the following links relate to topics also covered in On the Moor:

  1. Browne
    Thomas Browne

    Robert McCrum’s 2017 Guardian series, The 100 best nonfiction books, nears its end with Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). Although the 17th-century language is hard-going at times, Sir Thomas Browne’s book would certainly make my list. The final, summary chapter in particular is a masterpiece. I first encountered Browne via two of my all-time favourite writers, Stephen Jay Gould and W.G. Sebald. You can imagine my delight when I discovered there’s a Bronze Age urn-burial site within spitting distance of my home, on the edge of the local moor. You can, of course, read all about it (and Sir Thomas Browne) in my book.
    See also my article The Thomas Browne Affair.

  2. Talking of Sebald, Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft captured a final stunning photograph of the Rings of Saturn two days before plunging into the planet’s atmosphere.
  3. My friend GrrlScientist is gradually republishing many of her old stories from various media sites on her Medium page. Her recent repost, The mystery of Captain Scott’s penguin eggs, concerns Bill Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Bowers’ 1911 scientific expedition to collect penguin eggs in Antarctica. Ornithologist Bill Wilson also stars in the chapter about red grouse in On the Moor. I was really taken with Wilson: a real mini-hero of science.
    If this sort of story interests you, you might like to subscribe to GrrlScientist’s newsletter.
  4. Another of my friends, the science historian Thony Christie, generally pooh-pooh’s the idea of lone ‘heroes of science’. Science is a collaborative process, so it‘s unfair (and misleading) to give individuals too much credit. My flippant, but genuine, response is that anyone who contributes to our scientific knowledge is a hero in my book (even those who ultimately get it wrong). Thony’s recent post, History of the little things, makes me suspect we’re in far closer agreement than either of us lets on.
  5. As I explain in On the Moor, my own personal hero, Charles Darwin, provided some useful insights into the evolution of languages. But, as a recent article on the Randomness of Language Evolution explains, just as with species, the English language is shaped by more than ‘natural selection’.
  6. The Guardian recently nominated some of the best nature books of 2017. I couldn’t help noticing one glaring omission.
  7. Identifying species via ‘DNA barcodes’ is another topic mentioned in On the Moor. Now scientists are using it to debunk fragments of ‘yetis’, and, more importantly, to shed light on the evolution of bears.
  8. In a similar vein, new genetics research has settled questions about American prehistory—in particular, about the peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador.
  9. Nasa recently posted a charming version of the Periodic Table showing where your elements came from. (Spoiler alert: No, we weren’t fashioned from clay and spare ribs; as Carl Sagan famously put it, we are made of star-stuff. Isn’t that so much more awesome?)
  10. Even though I thought the suggestion sounded pretty obvious, I was interested by a recent piece on how writing has tended to make language syntax more complex.
  11. A feature interview with one of my favourite science communicators, Prof. Alice Roberts. I’m very much looking forward to reading her latest book, Tamed: 10 Species That Changed Our World: she has a knack for simplifying without dumbing-down.
  12. The British Geological Survey has just published a new interactive Climate Through Time map. This would have been really useful when I was writing the prologue to On the Moor: half a billion years of Earth’s history crammed into a little over 600 words… And they say I can’t write succinctly! (On the strength of this newsletter, they’re probably right.)

Rest assured, the frequency of this newsletter will now return to an a reassuringly vague, as-advertised ‘occasional’.

Love and hugs,

Richard
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Newsletter No. 10: Book launch http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/book-launch/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/book-launch/ Fri, 24 Nov 2017 09:57:30 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) 24-Nov-2017: 158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own book, ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’. Rich Text

24 NOVEMBER 2017

Hello.

158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.

What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…

OUT TODAY!

I’m delighted to announce that my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk is now available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and other international Amazon websites.

On the Moor covers (front and back)

On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:

  • Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
  • the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
  • Celtic languages;
  • Bronze Age burials;
  • evolution’s kludgy compromises;
  • bird migration;
  • DNA barcoding;
  • skull anatomy;
  • where Earth got its water;
  • the mapping of Great Britain;
  • grouse disease;
  • Scott of the Antarctic;
  • how to define a species;
  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
  • the Brontës;
  • the Laws of Thermodynamics;
  • why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
  • the Greenhouse Effect;
  • the songs of skylarks;
  • snipe courtship;
  • vapour trails;
  • rooks’ faces;
  • the best way to cook a wheatear.
  • …Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!

I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.

But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:

Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.

Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)


Apologies for the shamelessly pluggy nature of this edition of the Rich Text newsletter, but it isn’t every day to get to announce your first proper book.

Normal service will be resumed next time.

…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!

Richard
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My book is finally out! http://richardcarter.com/on-the-moor-launched/ http://richardcarter.com/on-the-moor-launched/ Fri, 24 Nov 2017 09:56:59 +0000 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) I’m delighted to announce the launch of my book ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’.
I’m delighted to announce the launch of my book ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’.


Article source: http://richardcarter.com/on-the-moor-launched/

24 November 2017

158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.

What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…

I’m delighted to announce that my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk is now available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and other international Amazon websites.

On the Moor covers (front and back)

On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:

  • Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
  • the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
  • Celtic languages;
  • Bronze Age burials;
  • evolution’s kludgy compromises;
  • bird migration;
  • DNA barcoding;
  • skull anatomy;
  • where Earth got its water;
  • the mapping of Great Britain;
  • grouse disease;
  • Scott of the Antarctic;
  • how to define a species;
  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
  • the Brontës;
  • the Laws of Thermodynamics;
  • why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
  • the Greenhouse Effect;
  • the songs of skylarks;
  • snipe courtship;
  • vapour trails;
  • rooks’ faces;
  • the best way to cook a wheatear.
  • …Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!

I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.

But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:

Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.

Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)

…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!

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The appearance of my child http://richardcarter.com/notebook/my-child/ http://richardcarter.com/notebook/my-child/ Wed, 15 Nov 2017 15:27:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) This afternoon, I received my proof copy of ‘On the Moor’.

‘I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child.’
Charles Darwin, writing from just below a Yorkshire moor to his publisher, John Murray, 3rd Nov 1859, on receiving his first copy of On the Origin of Species.

I finally know the feeling, Charles.

This afternoon, I received my proof copy of On the Moor:

‘On the Moor’ proof

Not quite as ground-breaking as On the Origin of Species, perhaps, but no reason to be any less pleased or proud.

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Newsletter No. 9: Teaser or spoiler? http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/teaser-or-spoiler/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/teaser-or-spoiler/ Fri, 10 Nov 2017 13:23:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) On the Moor · Zanzibar · container ships · giant ground sloth · Barry Lopez · indigenous people · Cambrian Explosion · Little Toller · Iain Sinclair Rich Text

10 NOVEMBER 2017

Hello.

It’s been a bit longer than usual since my last update. Apologies, but I’ve been working hard to get my book On the Moor out there. Barring any last-minute hiccups, I hope to be able to make a major announcement in my next newsletter. (I’m not sure if that counts as a teaser or a spoiler, but, either way, watch this space…)

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

This time there are precisely 10 links (for those of you who happen to count in the octal numeral system):

  1. A Swap for Zanzibar
    Neal Ascherson on the strange history of the North Sea archipelago of Heligoland. I couldn’t help thinking W.G. Sebald would have been fascinated by this.
  2. 30 Days Timelapse at Sea
    Someone had the wonderful idea of fixing a timelapse video camera to the top of a container ship. Compulsive viewing.
  3. Darwin’s Megatherium molar mystery
    Reuniting the remains of a prehistoric giant ground sloth excavated by Charles Darwin in Patagonia in 1832.
  4. On the edge, calling back: Barry Lopez
    A moving interview with the adjectiveless writer Barry Lopez. I still haven’t read his highly acclaimed Artic Dreams, but it can only be a matter of time.
  5. The Invitation
    The Lopez interview mentioned above refers to this Granta article: a thoughtful piece on how indigenous people experience events in the natural world in a different way to us.
  6. What sparked the Cambrian explosion?
    Scientists have hypothesised for decades about the cause of the evolutionary burst known as the Cambrian Explosion that happened 540 million years ago. Could a steep rise in oxygen have sparked the change, or some key evolutionary innovation?
  7. Little Toller Books: Clarissa Luard Award Shortlisted Publishers
    Adrian Cooper on how he and his partner created Little Toller books in their spare bedroom: proof that it’s possible for non-experts to create something very special. So what are you waiting for?
  8. Iain Sinclair’s farewell to London
    In characteristically concentrated prose, Iain Sinclair on how he has lost his centre of gravity: his compulsion to write about London.

Coming soon (shameless plug):

On the Moor covers (front and back)
[Click to enlarge]

I hope you’re even one-tenth as excited about this as I am.

Richard

Raven
A raven ‘cronking’ in Anglesey.
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Feedback sought: Potential covers for my book http://richardcarter.com/notebook/feedback-book-covers/ http://richardcarter.com/notebook/feedback-book-covers/ Mon, 02 Oct 2017 13:07:23 +0100 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) I’ve been experimenting with some different cover designs for my book ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’, and would be interested in receiving any feedback you might have. I’ve been experimenting with some different cover designs for On the Moor. I’d be interested in hearing any feedback you might have. The advice from Amazon is to use big text on the cover, so it can still be read when reduced to a minuscule thumbnail image in their store.

I don’t consider any of these potential covers to be finished yet, but I’ll be very interested to hear what you think. In particular, which, if any, of these covers might tempt you to take a peek inside the book to find out more?

Sample cover 1
Cover 1
On the Moor sample cover 2
Cover 2
On the Moor sample cover 3
Cover 3
On the Moor sample cover 4
Cover 4
On the Moor sample cover 5
Cover 5

Please feel free to leave your feedback in the comments below, or you can email me, or post comments on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks.

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What I did on my holidays http://richardcarter.com/notebook/holiday-timelapse/ http://richardcarter.com/notebook/holiday-timelapse/ Mon, 18 Sep 2017 09:27:09 +0100 Richard Carter (Notebook – Richard Carter) An Anglesey timelapse video.

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Book review: ‘Improbable Destinies’ by Jonathan Losos http://richardcarter.com/reviews/improbable-destinies-jonathan-losos/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/improbable-destinies-jonathan-losos/ Tue, 22 Aug 2017 15:27:17 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) How predictable is evolution? Improbable DestiniesThe late Stephen Jay Gould more than once observed that, were it possible to roll back time and re-run evolutionary history, we would most likely end up with very different results. Minor differences in circumstances can lead to very different evolutionary pathways.

Others, most notably Simon Conway Morris, hold that evolution is far more predictable than Gould would have had us believe. As evidence, they cite the interesting phenomenon of convergent evolution, where different species evolve strikingly similar features in similar circumstances. A classic example is the similar body shapes of dolphins, sharks, ichthyosaurs, and (at more of a stretch) penguins: these predators’ ‘designs’ enable them to move quickly under water. If mammals, fish, ichthyosaurs, and birds evolved such similar shapes for moving at speed in the same environment, the argument goes, evolution must, to some extent, be predictable.

Those who maintain that evolution is more predictable than we might suppose sometimes go so far as to claim that upright, bipedal, intelligent life was almost inevitable on Earth. Had it not been for that pesky asteroid, they say, the world would now, quite possibly, be being ruled by dinosaurian, rather than mammalian, humanoids. This despite the fact that, as far as we know, upright, bipedal, intelligent dinosaurs failed to evolve in the 180-million years that dinosaurs actually did rule the earth.

Jonathon Losos's interesting book sets out to explore both the phenomenon of convergent evolution, and the possibility of performing experiments to assess evolutionary predictions. In the first part of the book, he describes many examples of convergent evolution. In subsequent sections, he describes experiments in the wild, and in more controlled environments, to determine whether the accuracy of various evolutionary predictions can be tested.

Although convergent evolution is a genuinely fascinating phenomenon, it is considerably less remarkable when the species in question are closely related. When presented with similar environmental challenges, is it really at all surprising when closely related species evolve similar solutions? Evolution can only tinker with what is already there; how many fundamentally different tweaks can be made to closely related lizards, for example, to help them evade a new predator? In fairness to Losos, he makes this point more than once, but, to this non-expert at least, it seemed as if more might have been made of it. There is a world of a difference between two species of stickleback, to cite another example, evolving brighter colours in the absence of predators, and dinosaurs evolving into intelligent humanoids. Even if small-scale convergent evolution of closely related species is common, extrapolating to claim that the evolution of intelligent humanoids is almost inevitable is another thing entirely.

Sensibly, Losos doesn't spend too much time examining arguments about putative humanoid dinosaurs—although he does eventually make his own position clear. This book is primarily about the experiments: how scientists have begun to test evolutionary predictions, and to assess how particular examples of convergent evolution come about. Both of which strike me as far more interesting and useful than coming up with untestable hypotheses about where dinosaurs might have gone next.

An entertaining book on an interesting subject.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

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Newsletter No. 8: But is it Art? http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/but-is-it-art/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/but-is-it-art/ Fri, 11 Aug 2017 13:58:26 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) iPads · s-town · babylonian astronomy · Patti Smith · James Kelman · star-stuff · golden age of photography · conveying life's wonders · horses · bees · organ donations Rich Text

11 AUGUST 2017

Hello.

I recently replaced my beloved but technologically ancient iPad with a brand-spanking-new iPad Pro. It’s a wonderful piece of kit. I draft most of my writing on the iPad, including this newsletter.

Thanks to the electronic Apple Pencil that accompanies the iPad, I’m rediscovering the horror that is my handwriting, and the joys of doodling.

Moor grass doodle

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

Nine shall be the number I shall recommend, and the number of the recommending shall be nine:

  1. I finally got round to listening to the phenomenally successful S-Town Podcast. It’s a seven-episode documentary about an Alabama town and a colourful character named John. Highly recommended.

  2. Science historian Mathieu Ossendrijver has translated five cuneiform tablets which show that Babylonian astronomers used geometry to track Jupiter.

  3. The wonderful Patti Smith reminisces about her buddy Sam Shepherd.

  4. James Kelman on his approach to writing, and how writer’s block is ‘an economic luxury’.

  5. The late, great Carl Sagan famously explained how we are all made of ‘star-stuff’. Now, computer modellers have calculated that around half our bodies’ atoms formed outside our galaxy. We’ve come a long way.

  6. The thought-provoking video What does photographer Pedro Meyer think?, in which the veteran Mexican photographer explains that we are living in a golden age of photography. (If you don’t have time to watch the full 16 minute video, you might like to start at around the 9-minute mark.)

  7. George Monbiot on why we need new words to convey life’s wonders. I was in two minds about this one, agreeing with many, but not all, of his examples.

  8. My friend GrrlScientist on how almost all modern horses are descended from a few oriental stallions. Long-form science blogging at its finest.

  9. This fantastic video of 21 days of bee development condensed into one minute.

Shameless plug

I recently wrote about my grandma’s organ donation. (Don’t worry, no surgery was involved.)


Five bonus points to those of you who spotted the Monty Python reference earlier.

Is it art?

Richard
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Grandma’s organ donation http://richardcarter.com/grandmas-organ-donation/ http://richardcarter.com/grandmas-organ-donation/ Thu, 10 Aug 2017 13:49:29 +0100 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) On the mysterious arrival, and equally mysterious disappearance, of a Wurlitzer organ.
On the mysterious arrival, and equally mysterious disappearance, of a Wurlitzer organ.


Article source: http://richardcarter.com/grandmas-organ-donation/

Some time in the late 1970s, a Wurlitzer organ appeared out of nowhere in the corner of our dining room. It was a big wooden affair with a folding lid, two keyboards one above the other, and a whole bunch of switches, dials and pedals.

You could tell it was a Wurlitzer organ because it had the word WURLITZER emblazoned across it in garish gold letters. Off to the right, more discreet lettering bore the legend Crane & Sons Ltd., Liverpool & London.

It turned out my grandma’s sister had recently decided to replace her electric organ. Never one to miss out on a bargain, grandma had bought the old organ for my sister and me. The first my sister and I (and, I recently learnt, our parents) knew about grandma’s generous gift was the day it landed in our dining room.

When you turned on the power, the organ made an alarming thump followed by a more subdued humming noise. It took several minutes to warm up. While you waited, you got to flip the switches and turn the dials into the required configuration. There was a large collection of black switches labelled with the names of musical instruments: violins, cellos, glockenspiel, guitar, horns, and so on. The most notable thing about these switches was, no matter which combination you selected, the sound emanating from the organ remained essentially unchanged. It seemed to me Wurlitzer could have saved themselves, and us, a whole lot of bother if they had simply had a single switch labelled electric organ. There were also switches to alter the bass and treble settings, which did at least seem to make some appreciable difference to the din, as did one labelled Sustain. But our favourite switches were the three labelled Vibrato, the options being On, Fast and Full. We always flipped all three, which made the notes more wobbly.

In case you haven’t already worked it out, I should perhaps make it clear that, with the exception of grandma’s electric-organ-playing sister and their long-dead half-brother (of whom, more shortly), I come from an entirely unmusical family. Don’t get me wrong: we all enjoy listening to music, but actually playing the stuff is another matter entirely. To this day, I remain in awe of anyone who can string a bunch of notes together. It’s voodoo, as far as I’m concerned.

The organ came with a matching stool whose seat lifted to reveal a compartment for storing sheet music. Inside we found a thick book of ‘popular tunes’. Presumably, these were tunes popular with the sort of people who enjoyed a good sing-along around the family Wurlitzer: Danny Boy, We’ll Gather Lilacs, Abide With Me, and a host of other songs my sister and I had never heard of. There was also a photocopy of the music for the song Why Does a Red Cow Give White Milk When it Always Eats Green Grass? Although we didn’t know the tune, my sister and I had at least heard of this one, as it had been written by grandma’s half-brother, the first-world-war pilot, variety entertainer, and pantomime dame Hal Miller.

Rather than arranging for costly music lessons, Dad, whose own musical curriculum vitae began and ended with an appearance in H.M.S. Pinafore at secondary school, decided to wait until either my sister or I began to demonstrate any sort of natural aptitude for, or even vague interest in, playing the organ. To ease our path to musical greatness, he hit upon the idea of labelling the Wurlitzer’s keys. He spent an entire wet afternoon carefully applying Letraset dry-transfer letters to both rows of white keys. The black lettering wouldn’t show up on the black keys, so those were left unlabelled.

All that remained was for my sister and me to consult the popular song book, choose a song we actually knew the tune to, read out the letters above the words of the song, and bang the keys with the same letters on the Wurlitzer. Just about the only song we did recognise was Silent Night. I can still recite the letters to this day:

GAGE / GAGE / DDB / CCG / AA CBA GAGE / AA CBA GAGE / DDF! DBC E / C G E G FD C

Getting on for four decades later, Silent Night still comprises my entire musical repertoire.

Where was Mum in all this? Silently fuming. After a while, not so silently. From the day it arrived unannounced to take over the dining room, Mum began to drop subtle hints about how awfully big the Wurlitzer was. Within weeks, she was referring to it as ‘that damn thing’ and was refusing to dust it. In later years, she took to kicking it as she hoovered nearby.

The circumstances of the Wurlitzer’s eventual disappearance were as mysterious as those of its arrival. In 1986, I returned home from university to find the organ gone. Its alcove in the corner of the dining room had been reclaimed by its former occupant: Mum’s precious, well-dusted Ercol sideboard.

The Wurlitzer was never mentioned in polite conversation again.

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Newsletter No. 7: Hacked and hurt by time http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/hacked-and-hurt/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/hacked-and-hurt/ Fri, 30 Jun 2017 12:48:15 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) John Tyndall · Galápagos cormorants · why English is so odd · Thoreau & Darwin · anthropological discoveries · mass-extinction hyperbole · WG Sebald · yellow rattle · Inigo Thomas · Mars exploration Rich Text

30 JUNE 2017

Hello.

Although I appreciate I should be getting On the Moor out there first, I’ve recently been ruminating on the theme of my next book. True to style, I have a number of vague, interweaving ideas in mind. Nothing concrete yet, but, believe me, I’m working in it.

During my ruminations, I came across a wonderful quote from the nineteenth-century scientist, mountaineer, and friend of Charles Darwin, John Tyndall. Tyndall features in two chapters of On the Moor. The quote I found, which was inspired by a view looking down on the Matterhorn, links the themes of thermodynamics, evolution, and erosion, all of which also feature in On the Moor:

As long as the temperature of our planet differs from that of space so long will the forms upon her surface undergo mutation, and as soon as equilibrium has been established we shall have, not peace, but death. Life is the product and accompaniment of change, and the self-same power that tears the flanks of the hills to pieces is the mainspring of the animal and vegetable worlds. Still, there is something chilling, if not humiliating, in the contemplation of the irresistible and remorseless character of those infinitesimal forces whose summation through the ages pulls down even the Matterhorn. Hacked and hurt by time, the aspect of the mountain from its higher crags saddened me. Hitherto the impression it had made was that of savage strength, but here we had inexorable decay.
—John Tyndall. ‘Old Alpine Jottings’ in New Fragments (1892).

I’m pretty sure I would have liked Tyndall, had I ever met him.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

This time, I have a veritable ennead of recommendations:

  1. How an Icon of Evolution Lost Its Flight
    Scientists have discovered some of the genetic changes behind the useless wings of Galápagos cormorants.

  2. English is not normal
    A fascinating article about how and why English is so odd.

  3. Thoreau’s debt to Darwin
    On his bicentenary, how Thoreau was reinvigorated by Darwin.

  4. Three new discoveries in a month rock our African origins
    An analysis of some important recent anthropological discoveries.

  5. Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction
    Our species is wreaking terrible damage on our planet, but easy with the mass-extinction hyperbole.

  6. W. G. Sebald, Humorist
    How an eccentric sense of playfulness runs through W.G. Sebald’s four major books.

  7. Daylight robbery in the grasslands
    It was quite a surprise to turn to the Guardian’s Country Diary feature to find it had been written by someone I’ve known since I was 11. Jeremy Dagley on yellow rattle: a parasitic plant that grows in abundance in my farmer friend’s top meadow.

  8. This moving London Review of Books Diary piece by Inigo Thomas about the death of his father.

  9. This NASA video celebrating 20 years of continuous Mars exploration.

Shameless plug

You might like to check out my recent article entitled Orion’s belt-buckle about the star I ‘adopted’ in my early teens.


Borrowed dog update

Millie the borrowed dog is with us for a couple more weeks. She is doing well, despite the perverse enjoyment she seems to derive from walks in the rain.

Now remind me… Which one of us ABSOLUTELY INSISTED on going for a walk, and which one of us thought to bring an umbrella?

Feel free to contact me with any feedback. And please forward this newsletter to any friends you think might enjoy it, suggesting in the politest possible terms that they really ought to subscribe for themselves.

As you were.

Richard
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Orion’s belt-buckle http://richardcarter.com/orions-belt-buckle/ http://richardcarter.com/orions-belt-buckle/ Tue, 20 Jun 2017 11:45:29 +0100 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) In celebration of my adopted star.
In celebration of my adopted star.


Article source: http://richardcarter.com/orions-belt-buckle/

When I was about fourteen, I decided to adopt a star. I was standing on my parents’ patio on a glorious chilly evening. The stars were out in relative abundance for the suburbs. I thought I should pick a star so, wherever I saw it in future, I would be able to relate to it; to imagine it twinkling above my home.

I knew how to find the North Star, but that seemed too obvious a choice, so I sought out the short line of three evenly spaced stars I’d noticed many times before. I found them to the south-west, hanging in the darkness above the garage, and, reckoning it would be the easiest to remember, chose the middle star to be my star. I didn’t know at the time that the three stars in question comprised Orion’s Belt; and I’ve only just found out from Wikipedia that my star goes by the Arabic-derived name Alnilam, meaning string of pearls. Alnilam, it turns out, is a blue-white supergiant: the 29th brightest star in the night sky. Not bad for a humble belt-buckle.

Orion
The constellation of Orion photographed from Anglesey. Alnilam is shown dead centre.

Although the stars of Orion’s Belt look to be in a straight line, that’s only because we see them from our particular vantage point in the galaxy. In reality, Alnilam is roughly half as far away again from us as its two apparent companions, Alnitak and Mintaka: very roughly 1,340 light-years to their 800.

Just think about that for a second. In fact, actually count out one second. Go on, I mean it, I’ll wait…

In the time it takes to count a second, a beam of starlight travels 300,000 kilometres through space (that’s 186,000 miles in old money). That’s slightly farther than the most reliable car I ever owned travelled during its entire lifetime. Or, to put it another way, if you could somehow steer its course, a beam of light could travel around the earth seven-and-a-half times per second. Yet the light of Alnilam, striking our retinas when we happen to glance up at it on a chill winter evening, left that star shortly after the Romans abandoned Britain, several hundred years before the Norman Conquest, in an era we are no longer supposed to refer to as the Dark Ages. How unimaginably vast is our Milky Way Galaxy? Yet it is only one of an estimated two-trillion galaxies in the universe. Two trillion. That’s a two followed by twelve zeros: 2,000,000,000,000. How unimaginably insignificant are we in the vast non-scheme of things?

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With hindsight, I suppose I could have chosen my star more carefully: the constellation of Orion isn’t visible from the UK for three months of the year, from May to July. It’s still up there, of course, but at that time of year Orion rises and sets during the hours of daylight, so is banished from our skies by the brightness of the sun.

But Orion’s absence during the northern hemisphere’s summer months makes its reappearance in our night skies in late summer and early autumn a cause for celebration. Indeed, for many years, I’ve marked my ‘official’ start of autumn by the first pre-dawn sighting of Orion over the gate at the end of our driveway. There he stands, just like last year, facing west, club raised aloft: just as he will have stood, long before the story of Orion the hunter was invented, as the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Moor above my house gazed out on the same pre-dawn sky; just as he stood almost four decades ago, that starlit evening above my parents’ garage; just as he will stand, for many years to come, when I am long gone.

Yet perhaps I shouldn’t be so sanguine about Orion’s endurance. Like everything else, the configuration of the night sky evolves with time. Constellations change shape; new stars are born; old ones die. Ultimately—very soon by astronomical timescales—my adopted star, Alnilam, is likely to go out in a blaze of glory: a massive supernova. Indeed, perhaps it already has. With the speed of light as the limiting factor for spreading news throughout the universe, Alnilam might have exploded a thousand years ago, and we still wouldn’t know a thing about it for another 300 years or so.

So maybe I should enjoy Alnilam’s pin-prick of Dark Age light in the night sky while I still can.

That’s certainly my intention.

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Newsletter No. 6: A borrowed dog http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/borrowed-dog/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/borrowed-dog/ Sun, 28 May 2017 14:15:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) woodpeckers · ambrotype portraits · W.G. Sebald · a deserted hamlet · mission creep · prime meridians · W.H. Hudson · podcasts · street photography · bonkers · tapirs · coiners Rich Text

28 MAY 2017

Hello.

I’m looking after a friend’s dog for a couple of months, and am sending my friend daily photo updates to show that Millie is having a good time. Which means my Instagram and Flickr feeds have a decidedly canine feel to them at the moment.

Millie

One of the advantages of suddenly finding yourself with responsibility for a borrowed dog is that you’re forced to get off your fat arse at least once a day and go for a walk. The other day, I took Millie to see the bluebells at Hardcastle Crags, a local beauty spot. At the end of the walk, we were thrilled to see a pair of great spotted woodpeckers making several visits to their nest-hole to feed some extremely noisy chicks.

Great spotted woodpecker

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

This time, my recommendations number the same as the Muses of classical antiquity:

  1. Photographer Giles Clement’s stunning 16x20” glass ambrotype portraits made using a home-built camera and a lens from a First World War spy Zeppelin. (Link via: Bored panda.)
  2. An interview with W.G. Sebald from 1997, four years before his untimely death. I’m a huge Sebald fan, filing his books under uncategorisable, or, equally unhelpfully, Sebaldian.
  3. Photographer Stuart Petch’s notes and photos from Thorns, a deserted hamlet in upper Ribblesdale.
  4. My friend Thony Christie’s thoughts on historians’ tendency towards mission creep, leading into a review of a new book about prime meridians. (Thony fact-checked a chapter about the history of triangulation in my own forthcoming book, On the Moor. Any remaining errors are, therefore, entirely his fault.)
  5. The naturalist W.H. Hudson also features briefly in On the Moor, but, until I came across this Smithsonian Magazine article, I had no idea how influential he was.
  6. I’m addicted to podcasts. If you’ve ever wondered what the hell you’re missing, you could do far worse that listen to episode 51 of ‘Reconcilable Differences’, in which John Siracusa and Merlin Mann, two men of a certain age, fret about random stuff. Very funny.
  7. (Video) Photographer Craig Roberts visits London’s Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Market, showing how street photography is done.
  8. In what is perhaps a sign of the times, America finally seems to be catching on to one of my favourite British words: ‘bonkers’.
  9. To mark World Tapir Day (no, it really is a thing), my online pal Dave Whiteland released a charming, online, interactive story, Dwindle: a tapir’s tale.

Shameless plugs

Earlier this month, I was invited to the Hebden Bridge launch of Benjamin Myers’ fantastic new novel, The Gallows Pole. It’s based on the true story of the local Cragg Vale Coiners. Eighteenth-century Yorkshire meets The Sopranos: you should read it. Check out my review.

I recently joined GoodReads, a social network for book lovers. If you’re also a member, you might want to follow me via my GoodReads profile page.


Well, that dog’s not going to walk herself…

Feel free to contact me with any feedback. And please forward this newsletter to any friends you think might enjoy it, suggesting in no uncertain terms that your life would be made a whole lot simpler if they were to subscribe for themselves.

Richard
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Book review: ‘The Gallows Pole’ by Benjamin Myers http://richardcarter.com/reviews/gallows-pole-benjamin-myers/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/gallows-pole-benjamin-myers/ Mon, 22 May 2017 12:49:59 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 18th-century Yorkshire meets the Sopranos: intrigue, betrayal, murder, and revenge in the Calder Valley. The Gallows PoleDespite my reading almost no fiction these days, there was a pretty good chance I was going to enjoy Benjamin Myers’ novel based on the true story of a notorious gang of 18th-century money counterfeiters: one of my study windows looks out across the upper Calder Valley towards Cragg Vale, where much of this novel is set; the other looks across Hebden Valley to Heptonstall Church, where the novel’s protagonist is buried.

The Gallows Pole tells the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, an organised gang of criminals based in and around the upper Calder Valley, in what was then a remote part of England where the law held little sway. The novel is set against the backdrop of imminent industrialisation, with the threatened arrival of mills, the Rochdale Canal, and the detested turnpike (still known as ‘New Road’ where it passes through nearby Hebden Bridge).

Locally, the coiners still have something of a reputation as a band of merrie men whose debasement of the king’s coin helped feed the poor. In reality, their leader, the self-styled ‘King’ David Hartley, was far less Robin Hood than Tony Soprano: the Cragg Vale Coiners were a bunch of lawless, murderous thugs, with, as events were to prove, little to be said for them in terms of group loyalty.

All great anti-heroes require a would-be nemesis. In Hartley’s case, this came in the form of William Deighton, an excise officer charged with putting an end to the counterfeiting operation. What follows is a story of intrigue, betrayal, murder, and revenge.

The Gallows Pole is written in two narrative voices, both of which work remarkably well. The main story is written in third-person standard English with a few stylish twists to lend period authenticity. Direct speech is incorporated into the text without quotation marks, and people are always referred to by their full names, both of which devices just seem right somehow. When the coiners are gathered, the formal listing of those present, as if for the minutes, gives an appropriate Uncle Tom Cobley and all period feel.

The second narrator’s voice is that of David Hartley himself. These very short, italicised diary extracts, interspersed throughout the main narrative, are written without punctuation and are littered with contemporary slang and phonetic spellings. Usually, this sort of device annoys the hell out of me, but it works brilliantly in The Gallows Pole. If King David Hartley really had kept a diary—and don’t we all wish he had?—it surely would have read like this. Myers must have had immense fun (and given himself some severe headaches) capturing Hartley’s ‘authentic’ voice. Here is a typical example, imparting some useful advice on man-management:

Now lissen now for I tell you sum thin importent sum thin secret now When a dug misbyhayves you ponk that dug on its neb and when it misby hayves again you rub its phyz in scat and if still that dug misbyhayves a third tyme then you are doon sum thin rong so then you beet it until sum thin goes in its ays like the last ember of a dyin fyre and the spirit of the creechure will be yors and then yool have no trubble from that dug and that dug will give his lyf for you and now it nose its playce that yule have mayde for it And it will feer you an love you an protec you An that is how you run a ragged crew of desprit men That is how you run a gang that sum corl the Turvin Clippers and that uthers corl the Cragg Vayle Coiners.

Finally, I should say a word about Myers’ descriptions of the local landscape. It’s an area I know and love very much indeed—as, judging from his evocative descriptions, does Myers. I tend to be parochial in the extreme in my local walks. Reading The Gallows Pole made me want to begin roaming farther afield, exploring the upper Calder Valley in more depth, maybe even wandering into the godforsaken craggy vale that was once the haunt of a ragged crew of desprit men.

Disclosure: At the time of writing this review, I have met local author Ben Myers on two occasions. We now follow each other on various social media.

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Newsletter No. 5: Incongruous owl http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/incongruous-owl/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/incongruous-owl/ Tue, 25 Apr 2017 13:24:16 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) dawn chorus · Simon Armitage · the invention of the telescope · huge, sprawling collaborations · Withnail & I · book smells · re-assembling Darwin’s research notes · converting walks into words · Daniel Dennett · writing letters · humanist politics · dentistry with stone tools · analysing penguin poo · Melissa Harrison · Robert Macfarlane · swallows Rich Text

25 APRIL 2017

Hello.

As always round our way, the dawn chorus last Monday was initiated by a blackbird: half-hearted melodic chortles at first, but quickly growing in confidence. Then came the robin, great tits, blue tits, and wood pigeon, followed by a wren’s sonic fusillade, the underrated twittering of a dunnock, and the monotonous U-NI-TED! U-NI-TED! soccer-chant of a collared dove (he must have travelled up from London for the match). In the space of 15 minutes, the chorus had grown to a full-blown oratorio. But then came something I’d never heard in a dawn chorus before: the incongruous kee-wick of a tawny owl calling from our Scots pine. It was good to hear old brown owl contributing to the jocund din.

Early Spring has also seen a pair of rabbits take up residence in the garden, and a roe deer make a rare early morning visit to the field in front of the house. But still we anxiously await the swallows. Twitter contacts have begun to report their arrivals far and wide. And a friend in Perthshire positively squeeeeed in delight as the first swallows returned to her neighbourhood while we were talking on the phone last Saturday. But still no swallows in the West Yorkshire Pennines. They always seem to arrive later here than elsewhere. Perhaps they don’t relish the climb. But it surely can’t be very much longer…

Sunny bunny
A sunny bunny waiting for some swallows recently.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

Like protons in the nucleus of a silicon atom, this newsletter’s recommendations number 14:

  1. Simon Armitage: ‘Language is my enemy—I spend my life battling with it’
    Poet Simon Armitage on his love-hate relationship with writing.
  2. How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?
    My friend and history-of-science curmudgeon Thony Christie on how, as so often happens in science and technology, many different people contributed to the invention of the telescope.
  3. …and it’s not just in science and technology. In this uplifting video, which employs the surprising analogy of the world’s biggest ball of paint, John Green discusses how art and writing and most other human endeavours are best imagined as huge, sprawling collaborations.
  4. Withnail and I: 30 years on, it’s the perfect film for Brexit Britain
    Ben Myers on Withnail & I: a film set in the Sixties, made in the Eighties and claimed by the Nineties, but which, 30 years on, is a film for our times.
  5. Can you judge a book by its odour?
    How distinctive book smells say something about how and when a book was made, and where it has been.
  6. How Darwin Evolved: 25,540 Paper Fragments Tell the Story
    On how computer experts are re-assembling Darwin’s research notes.
  7. Putting walks into words
    Author Linda Cracknell on converting walks into words: a subject very close to my heart. [See also my review of Cracknell’s Doubling Back.]
  8. Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul
    I have owned two of Daniel Dennett’s books for many years, but never managed to get into them. This fascinating profile of the philosopher made me think I should give his writing another chance. He sounds like a thoroughly good egg.
  9. Should you feel sad about the demise of the handwritten letter? asks Siobhan Phillips… As someone who has been writing letters to the same friend on a regular basis for over 26 years, originally as word-processed printouts, nowadays as emails, my response has to be an unqualified ‘Not necessarily!’
  10. A politics of humanism can help build a just, free and more equal world
    Disillusioned with all political parties following the EU Referendum, I decided to take some positive action by (finally) joining the British Humanist Association, which campaigns politely and positively on matters that seem important to me. This article explains how more humanist politics could make the world a better place.
  11. Oldest tooth filling was made by an Ice Age dentist in Italy
    Dentistry with stone tools, I kid you not.
  12. A Tale of Cataclysm, Written in Penguin Guano
    What analysing penguin poo can tell us about historical penguin populations.
  13. On Aston’s Eyot
    A moving piece by Melissa Harrison about returning to her native Oxford to finish writing a novel. [See also my review of Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time.]
  14. Violent spring: The nature book that predicted the future
    Robert Macfarlane remembers JA Baker’s The Peregrine 50 years after its publication.

Shameless plugs

A few days ago, I published an article whose third draft had been languishing on my hard drive for several months. I had dithered about publishing it because I thought others might not recognise the wonderful sensation I was trying to describe, for which, as the article explains, the word ‘spiritual’ won’t do.

I finally decided to publish my article having read Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which contained a short passage that made me realise I might not be alone in experiencing these sensations. You can read my review of her fantastic, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book here.

Since the last newsletter, I have also reviewed the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, and Built on Bones by Brenna Hassett, which describes what archaeology can tell us about how human bodies were affected by our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies.


- STOP PRESS -

…A SWALLOW, just now, gliding in the stiff northerly above the field behind our house!

The swallows are back!

Richard
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‘Spiritual’ won’t do http://richardcarter.com/spiritual-wont-do/ http://richardcarter.com/spiritual-wont-do/ Sun, 23 Apr 2017 19:01:42 +0100 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.
In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.


Article source: http://richardcarter.com/spiritual-wont-do/

There’s this wonderful sensation I get from time to time. I’m hoping you do too, otherwise I’m going to sound like a total weirdo as I try to describe it.

I’m usually outdoors when it happens, often at some place that means a lot to me: approaching the trig point on the Moor above my home, for example; or gazing out to sea from my favourite headland. It also happened, totally unexpectedly, the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, and when I first heard a full-blown orchestra playing live.

But it can happen in the most mundane situations too, such as at our compost heap after dark. I’ll be standing there, holding my small bucket of potato peelings, looking out at the lights across the valley, when, without warning, some sort of switch gets flipped and everything goes into ultra-high-definition. My senses seem magnified somehow. I suddenly become far more aware of the world around me: of the lonesome dog-barks echoing in the distance; of the vastness of the sky, and of the darkness between the stars; and of the cold air sending goose-pimples erupting along my forearms. It’s very much like that feeling you get when you come out of the cinema, back into the light and noise of the real world, and everything feels so utterly, well, real.

I’ve mentioned these experiences to friends. They claim to know exactly what I’m on about. They say they have them too. But they then almost inevitably go on to use the word ‘spiritual’. Which makes me wonder whether we’re talking about the same thing at all. The word ‘spiritual’ is precisely the wrong word, you see. No, that’s not it at all.

It’s not just the word’s religious connotations. As a devout atheist, I take great exception to such profound and uplifting experiences being hijacked in the name of religion. But that’s not my real problem with the word. ‘Spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spirare’, meaning to breathe. In this respect, it’s entirely appropriate: the sensations I’ve tried to describe are breathtaking. The same Latin root also gives us the word ‘inspirational’. Perfect. But the word ‘spiritual’, to me at least, clearly implies the non-physical. Which is where it totally misses the point.

The thing is, you couldn’t get more physical than these sensations I’m trying to describe. When I reach the trig point on top of the Moor, and the whole hi-def thing kicks in, I suddenly become hyper-conscious of the material nature of my existence. This is not the Matrix. This is no dream. I am here. This is now. The air filling my lungs is cool. It is made of molecules. So am I. So is everything else. There is rock beneath the heather. I can taste the sea on the wind. All this stuff is real: water and rock; flesh and bone; physics and chemistry. Real is all there is. It’s us and the universe, my friend. Accept no alternatives.

Trig point
Trig Point S4643, on the Moor.

I’ve struggled to come up with a more appropriate adjective than ‘spiritual’ to describe episodes like these. The trouble is, the religiously inclined and the new-agers have already (mis)appropriated all the best ones: ‘enlightening’, ‘illuminating’, ‘uplifting’. For a while, I quite liked the word ‘lucid’, until it occurred to me that the same word is also used to describe dreams, which again misses the point entirely.

What I’m trying to describe is the sensory equivalent of an adrenaline rush. Something that jolts you out of yourself into the physical universe. A reality rush, if you will.

Do you know what the hell I’m on about? Can you think of a better term than ‘spiritual’ to describe these experiences? One which can’t possibly be misconstrued as endorsing any sort of belief in the non-physical or the supernatural? One which embraces the physical reality of such astonishing sensations?

Or is it just me being a total weirdo after all?

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Book review: ‘Built on Bones’ by Brenna Hassett http://richardcarter.com/reviews/built-on-bones-brenna-hassett/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/built-on-bones-brenna-hassett/ Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:35:06 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 15,000 years of urban life and death. Built on BonesBuilt on Bones explores how archaeologists interpret dental and skeletal remains. In particular, it examines what we can infer from changes in humans’ bodies associated with our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies. Or, as Brenna Hassett puts it: ‘This book is about human adaptation in the face of human invention.’

It’s a fascinating subject for a book, and bioarchaeologist Hassett is well qualified to write about it. The book contained some, to me, surprising revelations. For example, throughout the world, the adoption of agriculture seemed to go hand-in-hand with a decrease in physical stature. This could indicate that agricultural diets were not as nutritious as hunter-gatherer diets—although Hassett is quick to pour scorn on the current fad for so-called ‘palaeo’ diets.

Hassett explains how our move to urban lifestyle, while conveying certain benefits, also seems to have had numerous drawbacks—especially for those lower down the pecking order. She includes several chapters on how urban living led to new forms of violence, and encouraged different types of disease. All of which sounds rather gloomy—which perhaps explains Hassett’s liberal use of (a few too many) footnote-based jokes.

Built on Bones covers a surprisingly interesting subject in an entertaining manner. If I have one criticism it is that, in the early chapters in particular, Hassett often writes extremely long, heavily nested sentences. So much so that, on a number of occasions, I finally reached the end of a sentence only to discover I had entirely forgotten what it had been about. It’s a flaw I have tried to overcome, with limited success, in my own writing. (Handy hint: Try reading your sentences out loud. If you begin to asphyxiate before the end, they’re almost certainly too long.)

Occasional epic sentences aside, an entertaining read.

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Book review: ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ by Annie Dillard http://richardcarter.com/reviews/pilgrim-at-tinker-creek-annie-dillard/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/pilgrim-at-tinker-creek-annie-dillard/ Wed, 05 Apr 2017 08:56:58 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Pulitzer-Prize-winning ruminations on the natural world. Pilgrim at Tinker CreekI put off reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for longer than I should. I’d gathered it was a rather spiritual book, and I seldom enjoy such writing. But my misapprehensions were misplaced: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an absolute delight.

Annie Dillard muses about our relationship with the natural world, and how the natural world came about. Yes, there is plenty of spiritual stuff in there that I don’t agree with, but it is written in such a way that you’re never entirely sure where Dillard herself stands on the subject—if, indeed, she has come to any conclusion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is very much a thinking-aloud book: Dillard is writing this stuff to try to get her head around it. Which is one of the best reasons anyone can have for writing anything.

Dillard is also extremely good at writing succinctly from what I would describe as a more scientific viewpoint. A handful of gems that stood out:

  • [Re. the old chestnut about a tree falling in the forest] …beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can try to do is be there.
  • More than one insect […] is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.
  • Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.
  • That insects have adapted is obvious. Their failures to adapt, however, are dazzling. It is hard to believe that nature is partial to such dim-wittedness.
  • That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about creation. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then look at the trees; when you’ve looked at enough trees, you’ve seen a forest, you’ve got it.
  • Evolution, of course, is the vehicle of intricacy. The stability of simple forms is the sturdy base from which more complex stable forms might arise, forming in turn more complex forms, and so on.
  • Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.
  • We have not yet encountered and god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.

At one point in the book, Dillard recounts sitting outside a remote petrol station sipping coffee while patting a puppy. She describes the sudden sensation of being in the present. This section resonated immensely with me: it’s a wonderful sensation I’ve experienced many times myself, totally out of the blue. I even have an unpublished article about the phenomenon, which has been sitting in my drafts folder for a couple of years while I wondered what on earth to do with it. I was worried nobody would have a clue what the hell I was one about. But Annie Dillard, for one, clearly would, so perhaps there might be others. Maybe I should get the damn article out there once and for all.

A brilliant book. Highly recommended.

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Book review: ‘Selected Letters of Philip Larkin’ (Anthony Thwaite, ed.) http://richardcarter.com/reviews/philip-larkin-letters/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/philip-larkin-letters/ Wed, 05 Apr 2017 08:53:01 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Hugely entertaining correspondence from one of Britain’s most popular poets. Selected Letters of Philip LarkinReading other people’s letters is one of my guilty pleasures. I first read this selection of Philip Larkin’s letters in 1993, writing to a friend shortly after I’d begun: ‘So far, the guy seems a bit of a prat.’ But I ended up enjoying the book immensely, Larkin’s prattish moments notwithstanding.

Be warned, there is plenty of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Toryism and jazz in these letters, but there are also plenty of affectionate letters. And there are also many humorous moments. Like this, in which the young Larkin describes beginning work as a librarian in Shropshire

The library is a very small one, I am entirely unassisted in my labours, and spend most of my time handing out tripey novels to morons.

Or this, in which he describes a neighbour playing atonal classical music:

[It s]ounded like a ferry boat trying to get out of a piano factory…

Or this, on the poetry of a future Poet Laureate:

At Ilkley literature festival a woman shrieked and vomited during a Ted Hughes reading. I must say I’ve never felt like shrieking.

The misogyny, racism and xenophobia make uncomfortable reading, and damaged Larkin’s posthumous reputation. The fact that the letters containing them were limited to a relatively small number of recipients made me suspect there was more than an element of puerile, exaggerated, politically incorrect in-joking with ‘the lads’. But I also strongly suspect that Larkin’s misogyny, racism and xenophobia, while not being as extreme as they might sound on a literal reading of these letters, were genuine enough.

Misgivings aside, well worth a second reading. Recommended.

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