Sunday, 25 September 2016

Out on the heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

I dunno - it just happens

How can a wasp fly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Mice and men

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The South Hams

Unless you see it for yourself, it is hard to appreciate the level way the hill tops of the South Hams meet the Devon sky. Stopping my car between Malborough and Salcombe I see a flattish horizon lying around me: the hill tops mark the surface of a gently wavering plateau. Just a few gentle undulations here and there detract from the general impression of a broad concordance of summits in the countryside between Dartmoor and the coast.

You can only see this plateau landscape from high places; stand anywhere in between them and you will just see hills and valleys. Car drivers in the South Hams are forever climbing slopes or dipping into troughs - but summit views tell a wide and level story. In the same way, a trawler captain might rise to a wave top and see all crests forming a composite, flat horizon that belies the rising and falling of his little ship.

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

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

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

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

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

What's left there is ocean. 


Sunday, 5 June 2016


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

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

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

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



1 - Animal Diversity Web
2 - British Arachnological Society

Wednesday, 13 April 2016


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Les Rats de Montfaucon

I have been dipping into 'Gleanings in Natural History' by Edward Jesse (John Murray, London, 1834). It is a collection of miscellaneous essays and notes on plants and animals, half bound in green leather with beautifully marbled boards. I have been searching for information about eels. However yesterday I allowed allowed myself to be distracted by stories about other animals. What I read about the rats of Montfaucon made my hair stand on end.

Montfaucon is an area on the north-eastern side of Paris, part of the unexceptional quartier called Les Buttes-Chaumont. As I remember from my days living in the city, its greatest attraction is a public park with interesting rocky terrain, sited in some old sandstone quarries. Two hundred years ago it was a frightful place.

Until 1760 it had been home to the biggest gibbet in France: a square, three-storey building, like a stone-built warehouse with windows, open on three sides with an access ramp to the rear; each window could hold a hanged body, sixty windows all round. A factory of public execution. The smell of the place and the crowd of dogs and carrions birds were atrocious.[1]

Le Gibet De Montfaucon. Image courtesy

At the same time, Montfaucon housed the capital's night soil processing factory, la voirie de matières fécales, at which excrement collected by cart was processed into valuable 'poudrette' fertiliser. It was sited in one of the disused quarries, and consisted in a descending series of linked basins. Liquid matter was gradually drained off, and the solids progressively matured into a nitrogenous earthy material for resale.[2]

Two horse knacker's yards and rendering plants were situated in another quarry. They were able to process 15,000 carcases per year (that means 288 per week; 41 per day). Products included hide, hair, grease and maggots (for fishing and raising poultry). Every night a horde of rats sallied out from drain pipes and holes and stripped the carcases clean of anything edible. Only the bones remained by morning.

The knacker's yard at Montfaucon (Parent-Duchatelet, 1827) Image courtesy

A knacker's shed at Montfaucon, 1831. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes the rats themselves fell victim to campaigns of extermination and commercial exploitation - as many as 2,500 could be killed in one night, tackled with a poisonous mixture of arsenic and flour or by dogs, sticks and flaming torches. Their miserable skins had some value. The tricky thing was not to provoke them into making a panicky exodus into surrounding housing estates.

When the wind was in the north, all Paris suffered from the suffocating stench of Montfaucon. As the population of the city grew, people lost patience with the place. Also, the rats were becoming a mortal danger, and not just to lone drunkards and tramps. Buildings and public infrastructure were being undermined by their burrowing.

The trigger for change was an outbreak of cholera in the city in 1832, leading to a public health campaign and a final decision to close the site. The night soil processing was moved to the Forest of Bondy, some 15 km east of the city. But what of the knacker's yards?

The question had evidently been debated for some time, as Edward Jesse wrote:
The most interesting account of rats I have met with, was made some time ago in an official report to the French government. It was drawn up in consequence of a proposition made for the removal of a horse slaughter-house at Montfaucon, to a greater distance from Paris, when one of the chief obstacles urged against such a removal, was the fear entertained of the dangerous consequences that might result to the neighbourhood, from suddenly depriving these voracious vermin of their accustomed sustenance. (p.311)
The writer Théophile Gautier (1838) likened the potential rat problem to a volcano - 'Naples has its Vesuvius, and Paris has its Montfaucon', he wrote [3]. He dramatically explained the situation for prurient readers:
The rats of Montfaucon are no ordinary rats; the abundance and quality of their food has developed them prodigiously; these are Herculean rats, enormous, huge as elephants, ferocious as tigers, with teeth of steel and claws of iron; rats that make one or at most two mouthfuls of a cat; the fields they cross are trodden down as though an army had passed through with its artillery, baggage train, ammunition wagons and field smithies; the clay they carry on their feet gives this trackway a greenish hue that distinguishes it from other paths: these routeways, toughened as if by tarmacadam, terminate at subterranean ratopoli with immense tunnelworks where innumerable gnawing and devouring populations swarm…

Those who dine like Belshazzar at Montfaucon, suddenly missing their sustenance, will come into Paris to eat human instead of horse meat.

Montfaucon was finally closed in 1849 [4], and re-opened as Buttes-Chaumont Park in 1867. I have not been able to find an account of the closure of the site. I suspect the feared rodent apocalypse never happened. Dogs, poison, sticks and flaming torches can accomplish great work.  

If pure stench and carnal corruption are revelations of Hell then Montfaucon was surely a Hell on Earth. Sad to say, it was not an exceptional one. There were in those days many fragments of living Hell in the world, where living things were tortured or recycled without compassion by their fellow beings or obliviously by the plutonic processes of decay and putrefaction. The slaughterhouses of Regency England are a case in point. Today such facilities are sanitised and closely regulated, as are facilities for sewage processing and capital punishment. Today they are conducted pretty well out of sight and mind. However, we need the story of places such as Montfaucon to remind us of the existential truths our civilisation has masked, and indeed what civilisation has accomplished over the last two centuries. Is there such a thing as progress? I think the story of Montfaucon is clear evidence that there is.

Who can say what further progress may yet be made in the spheres of justice, waste disposal and animal rights?


[1] - Le Gibet de Montfaucon, at: Plateau Hassard: Le Blog - 
[2] - La Voirie de Montfaucon, at: Plateau Hassard: Le Blog - 
[3] - 'La Ville des Rats', by Théophile Gautier (1838) - 
[4] - La Voirie de Montfaucon, at Wikipedia -

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

In the South Downs


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

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

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

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

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

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

We passed a chalk pit; we entered the wood.

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

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

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

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

Such things are worth walking to find.

Edward Thomas