Anglesey 2021

We recently returned from our annual, early September week in Anglesey. As always, I spent hours sitting on my favourite rock near the caravan, gazing out to sea, waiting for nothing in particular to happen. It’s a wonderful way to chill out.

The view from my favourite rock
The view from my favourite rock.

With the exception of one day, the weather was pretty ideal this year, although there seemed to be more sea-fog around than usual. Wildlife-wise, it was a quiet year: fewer Sandwich terns, waders, razorbills and gannets near the coast; only a single grey seal; and most of the swallows already en route to Africa after a pretty dire August. But there was still plenty to see, and we went on our favourite walks, and ate one or three ice-creams.

Ravens
Ravens, north coast of Anglesey.

There was also one wonderful starry night. Anglesey skies have very little light pollution, so we gazed up open-mouthed at the Milky Way, and trained my snazzy new binoculars on Jupiter and the Galilean Moons: from left to right, Ganymede, Europa, Io, Jupiter, and Callisto.

We’re already looking forward to next September.

31 August, 2021

Sheep on the Moor

A walk on the Moor with Jen, the purple heather now past its best and fading fast.

A few sheep, a couple of red grouse, a lone wheatear flitting away. A distinctly autumnal feel in the air. Which is always disconcerting for those of us who book their ‘summer’ holidays for September.

Gannets

· East Yorkshire ·

During a few days’ stay at her sister’s caravan near Filey, Jen and I drove a short distance down the coast to visit the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliff’s: home of the UK’s only mainland gannetry.

The view from the clifftops were spectacular. V-formations of adults and juveniles were heading out to sea. Scores of other birds were circling off the cliffs before breaking away to make ambitious, often aborted landing attempts on narrow ledges. Ledge-space is at a premium, and neighbouring birds jealously guard their bijou real estate, repelling any interlopers that approach too close.

Gannet on landing approach

Jen and I last visited Bempton ten years ago, a couple of months earlier in the breeding season. Those extra weeks represented a considerable change in the life of the colony. Last time we were here, many pairs of adult gannets were still bonding or brooding their solitary eggs on cramped cliff-faces, while a few fluffy, white hatchlings could be seen here and there. This time, there were large, dark, brightly bespeckled young all over the place. These were mostly protected by lone parents, the other parents being away fishing for food. Young gannets are disconcertingly dinosaurian in appearance, and remarkably different in colouration to the brilliant-white adults. It takes several seasons for the full colour transformation to occur.

Adult and fledgling gannet

Up close, adult gannets are far more impressively coloured than the bright-white, black-wing-tipped birds seen from a distance. Their dark legs ad feet bear snazzy turquoise stripes along the ankles and toes. Their pale, sinister eyes are ringed with blue lids. Their sturdy, black-streaked, white dagger-beaks bear a hint of blue, lending them a metallic appearance. And the sides of their heads, their throats, and napes are stained with a hint of tobacco.

Gannet

Up close, gannets are also rather smelly. I dare say all seabirds are, but when they’re gathered in such huge numbers, the effect borders on that of a good fertilizer—which is, of course, exactly how seabird guano was once used.

I’ve only just learnt that the word gannet comes from the same etymological source as gander—presumably on account of the gannet’s vaguely goose-like appearance. Both words are based on the Old English word ganot, meaning ‘strong’ or ‘masculine’. Which I guess just goes to prove, what’s source for the gannet is source for the gander.

Gannet in flight

Everything I needed was already in my notes!

After several months’ detour, converting my existing notes to a Zettelkasten(ish) format using the Obsidian app, and lots of deep reading to add yet more notes to my ‘vault’, I’ve finally got back to, you know, actually writing words for the book I’m supposed to be writing.

Rather appropriately, the topic of my current chapter is the twenty-or-so years Darwin took between coming up with the idea of natural selection and actually telling the world about it. I used to think that was a long time, but the rate I’ve been going with this book of mine lately, it now sounds positively speedy.

I had a really good day’s solid writing today. One of my best day’s writing ever, in fact. I’m still buzzing. I’d done my research, I had a detailed chapter outline with links to appropriate research notes, I had a big mug of Yorkshire Tea, I was raring to go, and suddenly the tremendous faff of converting all my notes started to pay off: I was writing about complex, interrelated ideas, and the words just flew from my keyboard.

But the best bit of all came when I hit a bump in the road. About a third of the way into my outline, I suddenly realised there was a gap in my preparatory work. My outline said I should include a paragraph or two about Darwin’s need to explain the evolution of social insects. But when I consulted my note on that topic, it was very basic. So, not wanting to disturb my flow, I skipped that section, deciding to return to it once I felt my energy flagging, when I would spend an hour or two reading up on the subject. But, when I got to that point, the necessary research took me less than 10 minutes… Everything I needed was already in my notes! All I needed to do was link a few of these existing notes together.

This is exactly how Zettelkasten(ish) systems like mine are supposed to work: you fill your filing system with lots and lots of short notes, linking as you go, then, when you finally decide to write in detail on a chosen topic, most of the work is already done for you.

I’ve known it from the start, but this new way of making notes is perfect for the way I tend to work. It’s what I’ve been looking for all these years. I just wish I’d started using it twenty years ago… Who knows how many notes I’d have by now, and how much more stuff I’d have written?

1 August 2021

Yorkshire Day… whatever that’s supposed to mean.

As I let Mia out into the garden first thing, a wren machine-gunned from somewhere in the undergrowth. It’s good to hear them back in the garden.

As I stood in the light drizzle, trying to locate the tiny bird, I heard a dull tapping. A great spotted woodpecker was hacking about near the top of our Scots pine in search of grubs. They’re only occasional visitors to our garden. Fabulous birds.

Mia wasn’t the least bit interested in stupid wrens or woodpeckers. Why was I wasting time gazing at birds when there were balls to be thrown?


Back throwing balls for Mia in the garden in the afternoon, there were wren calls all about. Parents keeping in contact with their young. I spotted at least five birds. Pound for pound, the noisiest in the business.

Young wren
Young wren

31 July 2021

As I was loading shopping into the car boot at Sainsbury’s in Halifax on Wednesday morning, I glanced up and was surprised to see a peregrine falcon zooming back and forth, pestering the local gulls and feral pigeons. Paul Knights later tweeted a photo of one taken in Halifax a few weeks earlier. I hadn’t heard they had taken up residence.

We’re looking after Jen’s sister’s border collie, Mia, this week. As I took her out to play in the garden this evening, I heard a communal twittering, and, seconds later, about 30 long-tailed tits breezed through the garden in that just-passing-through way they do.

It’s the random wildlife encounters as you go about your daily life that seem the most special, as far as I’m concerned.

Sun’s all hottin’ in the rotten hot

Is it just me, or is it hot around here? Hot… in July: some sort of mistake, surely. The thunderstorms can’t be far off, mark my words.

Meadow at sunset
The meadow in front of our house at sunset last week.

Spotted a roe deer grazing at the far end of the neighbour’s field first thing this morning. It observed me as I opened the gate, but seemed to have decided it was too hot to get into all that running away business.

The locally rare siskin was back at the bird-feeder yesterday, and, on our walks around the lanes, there have been the occasional whitethroats and magnificently red male linnets.

Male linnet
Male linnet

The barn owl has been back a few times too. Only fleetingly, as usual. I’ve taken to keeping my camera to hand in the evenings, already set to the right settings. But I only ever seem to spot the owl as it’s about to leave. Still a thrill, though.

Barn owl
Barn owl in the gloaming

New facts emerge

…I am become most deeply interested in the way facts fall into groups. I am like Crœsus overwhelmed with my riches in facts.

—Charles Darwin to his cousin W. D. Fox, 8 February [1857]

It’s not just the absence of a natural narrative arc that poses a challenge when writing an essay collection loosely themed around Charles Darwin.

The almost limitless potential subject matter for my Darwin book, and Darwin’s continuing appeal and relevance, create another problem: all manner of interesting new stories continue to appear with reckless abandon on my Darwin news radar. It’s wonderful, really. The temptation to head off down some fascinating new rabbit-hole is constant and immense. It takes considerable will-power not to be distracted. I often fail.

But the real killer is when new facts emerge about some topic I’ve already ‘finished’ writing about. You wouldn’t believe how often, for example, a brand new press release appears in my RSS feed-reader concerning the evolutionary history of domestic dogs… I’ve done that chapter. Stop finding out interesting new stuff, bloody scientists!

Sometimes, new material can appear on the most esoteric subjects. Just weeks after I completed a chapter on how Darwin made species classification make sense, by identifying the natural way to group them is by genealogical descent, up pops a brand new academic paper about Darwin’s disagreement with his friend Thomas Henry Huxley on that very subject! I’ve earmarked that one for consideration when working on my second draft. But if I were less thick-skinned, I might start to take this sort of thing personally.

Over the years, I’ve slowly come to embrace the idea that factual writing in the essay format—my preferred genre—can never be definitive. Indeed, I see its incomplete, provisional nature as a large part of its appeal. Interesting new fact keep emerging. If it were possible to write a definitive book on the wide variety of Darwin-related topics that interest me, it would already have been written, and I would have to find something less interesting to write about—and to read.

The challenge to me as a writer is not to write the final word on the topics that interest me, but to try to convey some of that interest to my readers. Whether or not I succeed is another matter—but it is at least something I can get my teeth into, and try to do something about.

An arc of sorts

Certain categories of factual writing tend to have natural narrative arcs that lead to a sense of an ending. Memoirs, biographies and travelogues, for example, all recount true stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Other forms of factual writing have no obvious beginning or end, and could in theory go on indefinitely. After completing his encyclopaedic Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey didn’t feel compelled to stop writing about flowers. Once Delia Smith had written her hugely successful Cookery Course, it didn’t mean she’d run out of recipes to publish.

My own writing falls squarely into this second category. I write open-ended factual prose about stuff that happens to interest me. Although I appreciate it wouldn’t be good commercial practice to pitch my work as such, I write essay collections: individual pieces loosely strung together via a uniting theme. My first book was ‘about’ my walks on the local Moor, but it was really an excuse to write a series of mostly standalone essays about science, history and nature. The book I’m working on at the moment is ‘about’ Charles Darwin, but it’s really an eclectic collection of chapter-length essays about Darwin-related topics—once again, science, history and nature. Charles Darwin was a major historical figure, and I’m a major Darwin nerd: I could, in theory (and quite happily) spend the rest of my life researching and writing more and more Darwin-inspired chapter-essays, never exhausting the subject matter. But going on indefinitely would mean never finishing my book. As with my Moor book, I appreciate I’ll have to draw a line somewhere. But there’s always the next book.

Despite the absence of a planned narrative arc for my Darwin book, I am finding certain unplanned themes have started to recur in different chapters. I knew they would. The same thing happened with my Moor book. As with the Moor book, I’ve been keeping a detailed note of which themes raise their heads in which chapters, and how these unintentionally theme-linked chapters might most logically be arranged. Which means there will need to be a major re-ordering of chapters when I get to the second draft. Then I can start to build stronger links between these and other chapters, based on the themes that have emerged. With any luck, I might even give the impression such a structure was my intention all along. It’s the second draft that makes a book, as far as I’m concerned.

Even though there’s no obvious natural narrative arc to my Darwin book, emerging themes have started to provide an arc of sorts.

In other words, it turns out I’m writing exactly the sort of book I was hoping to write.

But there’s still a long way to go.