Going to visit the Folks

The walk to Taigh na Bodach has aspects of a pilgrimage for me. It involves  along journey, some routefinding and a walk through as near to a desolate landscape as I am ever likely to find in a Scottish summer ( although the walk to Hampden Park from Glasgow Central on Cup Final day also pops into mind).

I spend a lot of time wondering why I dislike reservoirs so much.  Reducing the carbon footprint or public thirst quenching doesn’t seem to make a difference to my disdain. This one -grandly titled, Loch Lyon- is as usual surrounded by a tidemark of unnatural beaches and a stretchmark of dirt road.

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I spend a lot of time plodding forth and making unlooked for journeys back to my originary version of this – called Loch Lee, which blocks Glen Esk at the top of its own single track road, and made an obvious focus for family picnicking trips back in the day.

It always invoked a sense of dread in me – I felt Iwas being watched by a malevolent deity, and the frequent angry gusts down the vacant gape of the loch were shudder provoking. Now I can  also see the connection to premonitions of carsickness and unwelcome adult attention which went with these excursions.

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I try to treat Loch Lyon on its own merits , notice wheatears being white arsed, and take in the views of the thighs of the local cloud topped mounts, but as usual my response reverts to trying to route march around the track as quick as poss. Diverted mainly by the constant rain of grit into my boots ( how does that happen?).

At the top of the loch a burn leads up into the Breadalbane hills , green knee caps of the giants, and from that another hanging glen dangles, containing, above the falls Taigh na Bodach (or Cailleach).. This is one of the many ambiguities here . It is clear the glen is Glen Cailleach , home of the Alllt Cailleach. The OS map says in that wrinkly special writing – that feels like a treasure map – Taigh na Bodach , but all the current bloggers are keen to revise it’s goddess association.IMG_20170616_112615182

I am here largely because I wrote about this place carelessly in my article on Tombreck for the catalogue to Poet, Painter,Potter .I wondered at the time whether my house style would fit with the ascetic of art catalogues, and received enough editorial feedback to make me realize it was not a good match.

One of the feedbacks which I considered thoughtfully was the attachment of personal pronouns to the statue of An Cailleach in this hut.  I used It originally,  it was suggested I amend to She,  the lack of gender being confirmed as a significant insult by a shamanistic source . I found I couldn’t do this. This took me into a quandary . I don’t think it will be a huge spoiler to announce  I am an atheist , and am not inclined to personify imaginary deities, and particularly representations of them. On the other hand,  the use of the trappings of signification are clearly a part of my writing style , all that weird profane illumination stuff , and I am inclined to try to understand how other people are coming to terms with the Death of God ( or Dearth of Gods, as I typ(o)ed originally and much prefer).

So here I am trudging up Glen Lyon to make my peace..

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A small stone hut, about the size of a kitchen dresser and the height of a sheep , turf-roofed , timber-lintelled and carefully dry-stoned ( which I later discover is the result of a recent restoration) is the abode of the statues. It is in a lot better nick than several of the bothies I ve come across, and most of the graves in a Scottish cemetery.

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The Cailleach, the Bodach , the Nigheach (daughter) , and a few other rounded stones are outside , surveying the glen ( if stones had eyes) , from what I guess is their garden. They are about the size of cobble stones, or irreverently, garden gnomes, but shaped into things with necks , which is no minor thing to do to a lump of granite..

Someone has brought them a couple of Red Delicious , I suspect from the NISA in Crianlarich , where I noticed them yesterday , whilst sheltering from the rain. The teenage shop assistant was relieved I seemed willing to make an actual purchase within an acceptable timescale, which differentiated me from the usual backpack customer

‘ They stand around for ages , don’t buy anything and then expect me to give them a weather forecast. How the fuck am I supposed to know when the rain is going to go off.. Its CRIANLARICH..’ .

The apples are confusing the small flock of sheep which I have scared off to a nearby vantage point, and since neither they or the Celtic gods have eaten them yet I think it is safe to remove the offerings without serious consequences.IMG_20170616_113401714

I’ve walked two hours to get here and feel a lengthy contemplation would be the appropriate thing to do . I manage 15 minutes..

Its remarkable , it has an installational quality ( perhaps because of the emptiness of the background), a site specificness, and the heavy rock rubbed into shape has a primeval quality, which speaks of primitive rather than ancient – although it could be both. It reminds me of outsider art , and of course it is – a strange cult , in a remote place, part of a meaning system i don’t understand – deep in the heart of Scotland ,  a long way from authority , except for the authority you might imagine from the eyes in the hills, which loom, as they do.

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The Taigh ( male, female or gender neutral), opens East and downstream over an area of lush grass – as lionized by Duncan Ban on the other side of the hills some centuries ago– and about a hundred yards from the resting phase of a Highland stream, slightly upriver from a small confluence. A moraine makes a boundary to the foreground, crossing the valley , forming a lip to the bowl , which the river skirts and then breaks through in geological time stage left , where the landrover track has now opened a second wound into the boulder clay.  The doorway also frames the hill on the other side of the main valley , which catches the light occasionally, but doesn’t look exceptional.

None of it really does. Its not Stonehenge , or Maes Howe (and I wouldn’t have this place to myself if it did). Its a humdrum special place , somehow homelike and impossibly remote.

My reaction to it is to The Past. The Before and Gone. That feeling I get when I experience an aspect of a way of life that I cant comprehend. – which I guess is that the world is even bigger than I thought.

The statues are small enough to inspire care,not awe. The sheep have knocked one down , and I set it upright again, like I would have done with my child’s toys, or do to cairns on top of mountains. They feel more like your grandparents than your gods. Maybe that’s it  – they are after all about continuity, like the old stories that were dying.IMG_20170616_122325060

Some of the sources describe the shrine of unique. Again I am inclined to doubt. All over Scotland the animals went off to the upland pasture at Beltane , and returned at Samhain. There are loads of ruined shielings – and we would not know if they were for shepherds or gods. On the Inner Hebridean island of Gigha there are bodach and cailleach stones , bare and overlooking the lands, much as a barrow would have done.  A fallen Celtic God would easily merge with the rubble of abandoned cottage , sheep fank or glacial outwash.IMG_20170616_113442221

My shamanistic source tells me that their school interprets the Celtic family as spirits or archetypes , something watching over us, or that we can imagine watching over us, rather than an interventionist deit(ies). There are some legends about this place , but it is hard to know how much they have been rewritten.

 

The legends I found involve  a strange family who come to the Taigh and receive shelter and offer ongoing protection if they’re hut is kept maintained. It is a familiar tale – although in this version no-one upsets the apple carts.. (unless it was me with the Red Delicious,,)  I like better the personifications of the Hills and the Snow in the forms of the Cailleach and Bodach. Its the world you are looking up at all the time , which contains your fate in the winds and the weather. These are the things you’d want on your side.

One of the virally spread internet explanations of the site, suggests it had to be rededicated to the local saint at some point ( who has the main valley named after him) and the rocks are numbered at twelve, and are apostles. Maybe this was a clue to its protection and survival, whilst the missionaries moved north into the Jacobite hinterland.

Taigh was part of something though. I wonder if its custodians were honorary or casual, its respect specific or customary , its presence happenstance or deliberate . I guess all this ambiguity and remoteness is what gives us scope for imagining – and that is why  now it is an appropriate site for a pilgrimage.

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It hints to an active world that was once there- ruined shielings,  an extant site of tree roots which would have been a dying pine wood – and is  gradually returning to being one again as neo-Celts, stravaigers and psychogeotourists blunder up Glen Lyon again to read the entrails of Gaeldom.

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A Sett in the woods

IMG_20170516_194924333 Up the track in the dusk lined with green alkanet , blue fairy lights marking the way. Rustle on through the briars, aware, too aware, of every exploding woody and alarm screeching blackbird, we move back into position at the Badgers’.

IMG_20170516_194832736Well, I am back, for this time, for the first time I have brought others to share my illusionsIMG_20170522_132113725

I’ve been aware of a contradiction between my  declared mission to share and my solitary wanderings. And so recently I’ve been trying to teach the unteachable. Birdwatching, lichen appreciation , environmental sensitivity .. whatever.. Its a peculiar struggle within me , filling up my compadres with context, background and skill-sets, versus trusting them to experience their own small miracles in the commonplace.

I have been enjoying my crepuscular visits to leave peanuts and establish sightlines and escape routes without expectation or responsibility. If I want to wander aimlessly around a wood on a spring evening and chuck some nuts about, well that would be my own eccentric business, wouldn’t it?

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The installation of purpose creates a different dynamic which I’ve been trying to work out and channel for some time. It is both comforting and frightening to think you might be up to something.

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I had a nice conversation with my daughter about the deer which graze an exposed slope along the A1 through our world

. ‘ I sometimes remember to look for them when I am getting a lift [to  morning training]. They’re always there.’ ,’Yeah , virtually every day’.’But I keep telling people about them and they always seem surprised .’ ‘People don’t notice them….Yet they aren’t hiding or anything..’ .

‘But you have to look for them’.

You do indeed.

You need an intent. I keep hearing about Levinas and the Ethic of responsibility to the Other. Its an attitude to try and be available for interaction, communication, and surprise . It strangely fits, although I imagine other things might too.

So on our bank in the dusk , we are staring intently at the badger hole ,wondering if a snout will emerge. My friends are sitting on a yoga mat, and the thing does remind me a bit of a meditation practice . Stay focussed, keep still . I don’t of course. I suffer from intent drift, but I think I am available – and hopefully heightened. I hear the rustles of my coat on the twigs ( memo to self- no waterproofs next time), the white space between the calls of the thrushes slowly settling into the anxious night, the more distant hum of the traffic getting louder. I imagine the badgers hear all this too. img_20170522_133558429.jpg

One of us wonders how they know when to come out. I believe they wake, scratch and head out, all instinct and hunger pangs, but, really, it feels more natural to think of them as creatures of volition, considering their contact needs with their environment. And again I wonder if contact with an actual badger will break the spell of imagining. We have all had preparatory badger dreams.

I am also racked with responsibility . What if there are no Actual Badgers ? I imagine some burly estate worker interrupting our vigil with a powerful flashlight to tell us he gassed the sett out years ago, while chortling about the stories he will be able to tell at the next works dance. How will I face the world humbled in my nascent role as nature guide? Or my cold and disappointed friends walking back down the hill..

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The Actual Badgers emerge, I note, once the last blackbird has throstled, once the soundstage is set.

We become the rapt audience for a music concrete recital, savouring each note and tone. Rustles echo, advance and recede, but mainly remain elsewhere. The noises are  major, arpeggio and haunting  . It feels like everything is listening.

They are also lateral, elsewhere. I wonder if they are aware of our presence. The rumbles occasionally come in our direction, but as they grow louder, they also , repeatedly, stop abruptly to be followed by pregnant silences – which produce nothing. Are they sniffing? Listening?

Experienced badger watchers , having customized their formulae for peanut butter lures, also roll their overcoats around on the spoil heaps of excavated burrows and leave them maturing near the sett, to costume back into on their next visit. It’s a routine a shaman would recognise.

I wonder about the underworld of dark, musky tunnels – one badger width diameter, full of mixed olfactory messages of welcome and warning, of decaying bedstraw, fermentation, and proprioceptive presence. I also like the boundary – the secret.

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As I write my imagined badgers continue to forage under subliminal understories. I can now hear them move , but I still cant quite picture their paths across the screen.

Images in the article are drawn from  A Guide to Watching Wildlife (1963) , by David Stephen, which was my 10th birthday present. I am not sure which illustrator made the drawings.

Badger facts from the more recent New Naturalist monograph , Badger, by Tim Roper. And badger awareness from Scottish Badgers

Badgers are still being gassed for their alleged role in the spread of TB in cattle. Labour election manifesto promises to stop the cull. And renationalise the railways…

Pedonged (scots ,derived)

‘So we moved up to Turriff and then the oil pedonged’, she said, and it clearly had.  Had she been in her Standard Grade English class some pedant might have tried to correct her – but I imagine the process of explaining , ‘The correct form is “all gone PeteTong”, from Cockney  rhyming slang’, might have been too risible.. and who the Hell wis he anyway*..

Pedonged it is, an example of expandable language growing in our midst, with the onomatopaeia of perishing elasticity , of bubbles bursting..

 

Id be glad to hear any other examples of its spread..

 

* Lame superstar DJ of twenty years back .. Interestingly present at the recent Oscar ceremony when things did go PT, but unable to add much to the occassion.

 

** But who was Tammy Norrie?

Puffin

Pop Up Winter

So now for a few days each year it snows. We are challenged to go outside. To be nostalgic for the old days of frostnip and unsteady balance.

Our cri de coeur – ‘ Winter  – Buy  NOW While Stock Lasts’

Day One- 

I walk cross country twixt shopping mall , industrial estate and dubious pony enterprise. A cloud – slate grey , but like, those blue -grey slates I’ve only seen in the Welsh Highlands – looms.  Down the road from me a white line emerges and crosses the gap between us. It runs up the rod until me the field, ponies et al are submerged in hail.

Some kind of specialised hail that the Inuits or the Icelanders have a word for, but sadly not I.

Day Two –

Dumyat is the highest hill protruding from  below the cloud. It  still receives the weather, for which there are many words in Inuit or Sami, and is a reasonable grandstand.

I am asked , ‘What do I believe in,  but don’t question?’, which of course, I can only answer obliquely , staring down at the slate (yes, that slate) grey meanders of the Forth.

It is good to be having this conversation here, with the attendant mild peril, and the possibility of tripping over into exposure. To remind us that there might be an external reality after all.

But it is possible to look out at the vista, the gaps opening and closing, as if from the stage where the drama of my life is playing. And the different, but complimentary,  stage also happening where I get cold, and the edges begin to feel less concrete – lets call it numb.

My answer concerns gestalts, the things we pick out of the background.The pattern of lights we detect. The constellations in the stars, the data in the noise, the gusts in the wind, the eddy in the storm. And you can only stay there for a while.

Day Three –

I am following a badger path through the woods. It has, I feel, the feel of a purposeful trail, made by a creature, of unknown purpose, but a confident one.  It contours around objects in clinch space , yet aims directly towards something – scent or sound, I assume ,  apparent during the long dark night. Badger time.

I have wondered about coming out here then. I own a good headtorch, which would aid my progress, and alarm the badgers. To switch it off would reverse the tables. To blunder in the dark down the runs of a powerfully awed predator in its home patch,  feels slightly disrespectful.

The path ley-lines its way back to the sett , a hardhat area of ongoing (de) construction where the signage cordon hasn’t been applied. Badger bypasses and clover leaves link recreational and industrial zones, while a (fallen) trunk road heads out over the stream to the fields. The mouths of the setts hang open , expressing blank bank vigilance.

Its Dog Walk Wood, but the hounds are restive and puzzled, on their circuits. Lurking amongst the trees, with a badger aspect, I watch them twitch and skulk off. ‘Good musk that – should have a go at bottling it..’

It s the sort of place a Gruffalo might live, with its terrible teeth and hideous claws. Axel Scheffler’s illustrations of the Deep Dark Wood work well as schematic memories of the gloom of boreal forests, and I suspect for younger listeners may have become as much of an ur-expectation of correct arboreal form as the Hundred Acre Wood was for me.

It feels right that ,in this shade of broken branchlets and vertical trunks, is some hidden fierce animal. And while the clamour to restore some of these to our shores claims some spurious eco-authority , methinks the real reasons are in the stuff of fairytales.

These however also had God and the Devil. Now we have The Gruffalo. An impulsive menace to the woodland folk , yet readily controlled and neutralised by the legend of the Big Bad Mouse.

I like The Gruffalo’s Child even better, which may also reflect the reality of my own reading couplet(and also restores the original gender balance to the fable). The Child challenges the recieved wisdom of the Mouse legend, and with it the nature of being a Gruffalo ( she being young and bright , contrasting with her forgetful, timorous, snoring  – middle aged! – father). Of course , the trickster mouse does for her too, but by this point the Child has relocated itself from the Gruffalo avatar to the lap of its attendant parent. And remains knowing ( although hopefully also closer to sleep).

‘But what happens to the Gruffalo? (es/ii?)’ , I hope you are all shouting..

We leave them snoring in their hole , wrapped together for warmth , their tracks in the snow our only evidence of their rather unremarkable, yet improbable, existence. Something like the badgers below my feet, on the woodland bank, I hope.

Of course gruffaloes look more like bears( or big foot), but we don’t have any of those left.

Old Brock, has anthropomorphically looked a bit middle aged, myopic and ingallant, podgy and careless about his diet, and in the absence of light could seem a bit like a gruffalo.

Contact with the sharp instinctual needs of actual non-gender specific badgers (Melis melis) risks dissolving this narrative illusion with some speed.

Best let sleeping beasts lie..

Why Birdwatch?

At the scrapes. I am chatting with Bill, who visits twice daily, before and after his work. He does it, he says, to make sure there is a record ( his count), so that the Council, which makes the official record, can’t misrepresent the deterioration in the numbers of waders using the site, and cut it’s management funding even further. And then, once the point’s been made, he adds,’ And this place is always changing.’

This is manifestly true – in the Fall. Of leaves, but also of birds, landing lightly on marginal places, via translocations of lesser or greater flights, for shorter or longer stopovers, and with greater or lesser success.

Depending on how you look at it, a bird is either always en route, or always about to land.  Guidebooks define the avifauna  in chauvinistic relation to a mythic heartland (‘our birds’) where they are either resident, summer or winter visitor, passage migrant, vagrant or escapees. The birds simply see a patchwork of habitats and potential territories for feeding, resting and nesting,and the ability to fly over the uninteresting bits in between.

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Typical birding – waxwing at twilight, January

They play constant hopscotch – and these  movements can happen within a garden, for a dunnock or a house sparrow, or over an area of  four hundred square miles, for gannets or shearwaters. These movements are repeated each day, and extended over annual and life cycles. So we could say, the great migration through life only pauses for feeding and resting, and localises for nesting, repairing feathers(moults) and muscle tissue. Even flightless birds like kiwis and penguins make these movements, and selection has led to a diversity in how they are done.

Between two trips to the Scrapes late September in the Fall, a week had past, and ruffs, sand martins, lapwings, sandwich terns, curlew sandpipers, whimbrels and ringed plover had vanished from the site, while pink-footed and brent geese, shoveller, grey plover, greenshank and black-tailed godwits had arrived. And that’s only in terms of species. In terms of individual birds flocks will rise and fall daily, as Bill’s counts show,  although in patterns, which like the weather, have seasonal rhythms.

And birds we constantly see, are in fact individually different. Local birds -starlings, blackbirds,wood pigeons, herring gulls are not the same birds in the summer as the winter.

At some point in the not too distant past or future I encounter my last swallow of the year. I may encounter it again on my half-term break in Spain in October. And curiously, if it survives the hunters guns and nets in the Med, the flight across the Sahara, and the vagaries of a winter in the Okavango, I am quite likely to see it again next year. Or another bird looking more or less the same. Gilbert  White is often remembered for his insistence in trying to prove that swallows hibernated in mud during the winter, and without the evidence from ringing, modern optics, and international studies, that seems more reasonable than the truth.

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I know this is an awful picture , but it does illustrate the way i started to birdwatch. What are all those different ducks?

I got my bird watching habit as a pre-teen when no-one knew what cool was, and knowledge seemed to equal power. I started doing it again when I realised some of those early companions – stonechats, skylarks, corn buntings, ptarmigans, tree sparrows- were not rotating around any more.

There are two types of response to this type of recognition and I own both. One is to prosyletise, hence this post, and Bill’s regular and obliging concern to show the casual visitor what’s up at the Scrapes . The other is to cherish – invest attention in the meeting with the bird. The effort spent in encountering a rarity is the most apparent way of doing so. Thus the birdwatcher*becomes a migrant like the birds – and becomes a twitcher.

I have enjoyed an occasional twitch, but almost prefer the dips of non-achievement and misidentification. I stared out at the sea off Dunbar for two hours one late November afternoon, in search of a windblown phalarope, but didn’t think it wasted time, even though the bird had flown.

Mostly this type of thing is done by middle aged white blokes with a lot of technology. If they didn’t form part of the Brexiteers it is only because they are concerned it might affect their ability to go on twitching trips to the Azores. Maybe its this kind of association that makes me nervous about collecting names and facts to staple to my encounters. It’s a bigger question, and  as it comes up, the Deep Ecology movement washes over the shallow birdwatcher..

‘Does it really matter what it’s called?’

My own answer might feel like an evasion. The effort of identification, that selective attention to the Thing that makes it stand out of its background, makes us notice, expands the field of our senses, and to consider the presence and absence of those Things more,. I was gratified when I heard the manager of a retreat centre I frequent say more of less the same thing as we discussed the virtues of mosses. A bigger world, is a more wondrous world, a less anthropocentric world, and a world in which our home is provisional, and therefore more special.

But twitching has it’s limitations for me. I don’t want to go on long car journeys in my spare time, carrying increasingly complicated optical and satellite equipment in search of increasingly misplaced and indistinct birds. I have joined another tribe, I think, who are gradually evolving amongst the deluge of bird related material. We are interested in learning more about what we see – behaviour, chronology, local movement .What comes to us. I think you could call it patch birdwatching.

The staples are garden feeding and breeding surveys,  and there are  still novelties on show. This week  (January) I was watching the ducks on the river go through their annual pair bonding displays, and despite having known goosanders since I was ten ( for a brief period my sister pushed a dead one around in a pram. It was the seventies..) I watched their display for the first time.

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Some geese – in homage to KL

I like Konrad Lorenz’s description of bird pair bonding as an attempt to diffuse the tension of intimacy. Goosanders do this by synchronised swimming. Ducking their heads in the water with their necks outstretched ,which means the female’s crest sticks vertically up out of the water, they swim along like an overwound clockwork toy, and occasionally emerge to resynchronise their direction with a sideways glance, and do that predictable head tossing thing popular with goldeneye, and other lesser ducks.

One thing that comes up watching stuff like that , and flirtiing with the anthropomorphic fringe , is’ Is it fun? ‘ There is a post I hope to get round to one day about whether an aesthetic sense exists in the natural world , and how it might transpose into our own, and it will probably be based on the work of David Rothenberg. What I will add as an original thought is that it doesnt matter if goosanders do (or dont) , and that that is the basis of another type of thinking which is ultimately about aesthetics, as being beyond purpose, and probably not something ducks have to bother about.

 *There are conventions in birdwatching. One is that some groups prefer to say ‘birding’, perhaps in recognition of their multisensory quest, or  because its quicker to text.

The end of the world (as we know it)

I unwrapped How Will Capitalism End? on Xmas Day. Later on it still hadn’t ,and the continued presence of the book and capitalism,  reminded me that ‘How ‘does not equal ‘When.’.

Author Wolfgang Streeck is a German economist/sociologist, who has moved leftward and to an academic career from within the German establishment. His stuff appears in New Left Review and even less popular (but august) journals, but quoted and reviewed in the Guardian and the FT.

Streeck’s essays have been loosely organised into a book – he says honestly ( more honestly than his publishers) he’s too busy to produce a coherent narrative. And he probably couldn’t write fast enough .However from the mists of 2014 his thoughts appear prophetic – as I was reading random news bulletins seemed to be constantly reinforcing his views, and the personal stories of my therapy clients are affected by the factors Streeck identifies. It’s good to feel you have a sense of what s going on – at least initally, but not feeling you are in chaos, is not ultimately a way to get you out of feeling despair.*

Streeck points out that every major theorist of capitalism expects it to end . This is only illogical from within the bubble in which we have lived most of our lives. The third law of thermodynamics might be assumed to apply to economic systems as well as physical ones.

What it means to believe this is interesting. I was walked through Das Kapital in my twenties, and it probably saved me from a couple of bouts of depression. ‘Yes, the world is crazy and in unfair, your in the wrong place/wrong time, there is a reason for all of this, and it won’t last forever’ ( I will however skate quickly past the future dictatorship fo the proletariat). And that phrase’ All that is solid melts in to air’. What a useful mantra at that time ( the 1980s), and again now.

Of course, over that period, capitalism hasn’t melted, but orthodox Marxism has. In fact triumphalist lackeys ( or  capitalist running dogs , if you prefer) have announced it has brought the End of History.

However then there was the Crash. Which did look a bit like a dramatization of Das Kapital. Except for the ending, which is exactly like the beginning, again.

Streeck is careful to point out that this has happened a lot, that capitalism has normal cycles of boom and bust, and that internal opposition to capital ( ‘democracy’) has probably sustained its hegemony in a dynamic equilibrium for a long time now. But he believes those features are no longer effective.

Briefly globalisation has allowed capital to outmanoevre democracy. Cheap credit, inequality, systematic corruption,  destruction of trade unions and the lack of a political consensus, have all unlocked a boom and led to an effective end to the pattern of capitalism investment. Thus we are all consuming on a credit bubble.

 

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illustrative material for this one is a bit limited so here is some new broom (geddit?)

So how will capitalism end? According to Streeck, with a whimper, not a bang. With no major challenge to the system, the stagnant post capitalist world can be propped up  by us – as consumers ‘coping, hoping, doping and shopping’.  In parts of our social system these methods will cease to work and the dying state will not be able to repair them – I think about social care, or post-industrial pollution, and these areas will fall out of the loop, left to be dealt with (or not) by contingent local solutions. On an individual basis , parts of our lives will meet the same fate .

Last year I read a similar diagnosis in Post-Capitalism by journalist Paul Mason, who however, sees the potential for new social formations around open access technologies and solutions, such as Wikipedia which cant be easily capitalised.

Streeck is not offering such upbeat hopes. I imagine he may have a large locked box under his bed.

 

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And an opportunity to tell the wood from the trees..

I can’t say that I totally understand economics, or that I completely believe in it in its current form. What I do get is a kind of Marxist gut instinct which tells me Streeck’s  analysis is not just based on wishful thinking. It is going down , the centre can’t hold, and the dramas and crises, like the anthropocene storms we’ve created to match, will come thicker and faster.

But I don’t think we’re there quite yet – Streeck argues against the possibiity of capitalising new markets and technological innovation, but not convincingly I feel .There is a lot of third world out there to create new raw materials and markets ( bilateral trade deal, anyone?) , and the speed of technological innovation will inevitably create new opportunities for commodification ( I’ve just read about a big start up grant for development of designer probiotics).

I believe though that it will be the environmental limits which are harder to overcome. I don’t think these are inevitable, but they are without co-operation of the kind [which is one of the things that Streeck describes as the ways in which democracy has extended the life of capitalism by restraining it]. However the climate change deniers have sneaked back into power in the US, and Brexit is about to remove the UK from EU environmental legislation ( which probably wont last much longer anyway). The vogue for bilateral deals will leave this type of international constraint nowhere.

I think the possibility of ecological conditions which push society beyond normal service is the most likely end of post-capitalism . What will happen in these scenarios?– I would suggest we look at the aftermath ( immediate and long term) of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as precursors (and many others in less familiar places). And feel sorry for our children.

 

* most  interesting review I’ve found from a non new left source is here. You’ve got to answer a silly question for the FT website to read it. And of course it has a happy ending.

Status

Cuckoos and Peppered Moths – how natural is selection?

Cuckoo. Cheating by Nature – Nick Davies, Bloomsbury, 2015

Of Moths and Men. An Evolutionary Tale: The Untold Story of Science and the Peppered Moth- Judith Hooper, 2002

There is a long history of the inferential use of natural history observation , and the fascination it creates for the observer and reader. Gilbert White (reverend)and his correspondents allow themselves to speculate , and to reinforce their belief in the Great Design.  Others set out to look for some kind of proof of phenomena  – I think of Fabre‘s  laborious experiments  imposing repetition  and variation on his hunting wasps;this tradition eventually sinking into the confident personification of animal intent that permeates the voice-over of countless ‘nature programmes’.

 

The cuckoo book is in the Fabre tradition, sometimes known as ethology,  written by a  field scientist working on the nearest cuckoos to Cambridge . It has the essence of a species monograph , which spills over into the more popular science and natural history genres.

It is about cuckoos, but it is , of course, also about how to situate reporting the work of scientists into a more popular market. This it does well, and the conundrums of the evolution of cuckoo behaviour, and what Davies’, following Darwin,  characterises as an’ arms race’ with their hosts, led me back into the theory of natural selection again.

 

In fact to the extent that it came to haunt and dominate my response to the book.

I remembered a doubt I have always had about a view of natural selection which sees it as purposive, and directional . This is invoked by the famous phrase about the ‘survival of the fittest’, which was originally developed as a Victorian apologia for human suffering , and enthusiastically adopted by Darwinians (and at times by Darwin).

In another form – and this is where Cuckoo goes- it gives us to believe that  all evolved characteristics probably have some useful purpose. For example here is Davies explanation of the different plumage morphs in cuckoos

 Variable plumage is characteristic of other species of parasitic cuckoo too, and is likely to have evolved to confuse enemy recognition by host

and again on how host species recognise their own eggs

An obvious way of avoiding this mistake would be to imprint only on the first laid egg.This would ensure the host learned what its egg looked like before any cuckoo had a chance to lay. This would work beautifully if there were no variations in the hosts own eggs.. If a females eggs were variable however, then she would need to prolong learning.. The best compromise may be to prolong learning until the host has been exposed to a rangeof its own eggs..in general learning should be more prolonged the more variable the host’s own eggs and the lower the chances of parasitism. Experiments are needed to test these ideas

 

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A cuckoo in the Museum of Scotland demonstrates that being out of focus is an adaptive disguise..

I might quickly point out that experiments are indeed needed, but they would show what happens – not why it does. Or they might show what can happen now – but not how that came to pass. And in most  real life situations there are too many variables to control to make more than an impressively thorough Just So Story.

How did the Peppered Moth lose its Sprinkle..

Then I stumbled across Of Moths and Men  in the local library. My ecology degree is dated , but I recognised many of the names inside – Ford, Kettlewell, Haldane, Huxley , Lewontin , Jay Gould, without being able to place them in connection to each other in the history of science. ( I notice I am keeping to the convention of enumerating the scientists by surnames , like footballers, which is slightly awkward since many of them in a process of natural selection, have  given birth to other scientists…)

The book is about crypsis , hiding things, overtly, peppered moths.. proximately, flaws in evidence , and ultimately, a critique of scientific method, which flowed from the pen of Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s, and I found immensely helpful in an unreformed science department in the 1980s.

 

Melanism in the peppered moth was believed to be supported and encouraged by the selective predation on a more common morph on the altered bark of sooty trees in industrial areas of the UK. This was a reasonable hypothesis , given both the rapid spread of a black melanistic form  through the industrial revolution and the development of the synthesis between natural selection and genetic theory . A group of scientists and mathematicians  in Oxford had founded a branch of science called ecological genetics , and sought proof  of how these type of changes might occur.
An experimental trial by a researcher in the team appeared to show selective predation by birds on white forms in polluted areas , and black forms in non-polluted, and to a degree which implied that it was statistically sufficient explanation for the spread of the black, melanistic form.

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So conclusive that it appears( ed) in most scientific textbooks as the supporting proof of natural selection – partly because of its clear premise and experimental design (and partly because there were few convincing alternatives). I was rewarded for reproducing it in various biology exams.

It still feels a shock to find out it is not true . As the book carefully demonstrates, the experimental design was repeatedly altered to reflect the bias of the researcher, moth and bird behaviour were effectively manipulated in the trial, and the results were smoothed in such a way that they are statistically impossible.  Aspects of the findings produced scepticism , initially from lepidopterists, and then successively from statisticians, evolutionists and ethologists, up to the present.  However even within the book the most critical biologists are unwilling to say it was fraudulent or even wrongly premised.

an adaptationist programme has dominated evolutionary thought in England and the US during the past forty years. It is  based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimising agent. It proceeds by breaking an organism into unitary traits and proposing an adaptationist story for each considered seperately

 

Initially , the book suggests, this was because it was released as a foundation of how evolutionary genetics could take place, and currently , as it is a pedagogic prop to the teaching of evolution, under attack by creationists, and by university governments moving towards more lucrative cellular views of biology. Criticising the paradigm leaves you open to these attacks, and damages your own reputation – I mean, the Scottish Education Department might even rescind my Higher Biology..

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The book advances ( somewhat slowly) towards its  argument through the prism of the personalities of a group of charismatic but insecure scientists, participating in their own survival of the fittest around academic tenure, reputation and legacy… Some of these are charicatures, maybe scurillous ones, and have upset the colleagues of the deceased scientists. They have in turn strongly criticised Hooper’s research , but do not seem to have produced repudiations of the flaws she has pointed out in the experiment and its subsequent promotion*.

 

EB Ford s school  of ecological genetics ( which apparently was never formally recognised as a university department) was the initial victor , and paradigm setter, but was quickly and successfully challenged  by the more stochastic ideas of Stephen Jay Gould and  Richard Lewontin (beautifully expressed through analogy in The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm ) and in the UK by C.H.Waddington. Under these conditions the scepticism of lepidopterists and statisticians were no longer discounted , and various other hypotheses about the rise ( and subsequent rapid fall ) in the melanistic peppered moth population were aired.

Natural selection, which was first considered as though it was a hypothesis that was in need of experimental or observational confirmation, turns out on closer inspection to be  a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognised relation. It states that the fittest individuals in  a population (defined as those who leave the most offspring) will leave the most offspring. Once this statement is made , its truth is apparent…. CH Waddington, 1966

 

Frustratingly for the eco-geneticists the possibility of organising a sufficiently ‘rigorous’/ controlled experiment ( eliminating alternative explanations and introducing control populations) seems impossible , leading us back once again to the distinction between lab science with its simple cause-effect relationships , and the chaos of linking observation to proof in the real world.

 

I remember my reactions to the efforts of ecological genetics  as vaguely desperate stuff, and found myself particularly sceptical about traces of purposiveness in the idea of natural selection. I cant decide now whether I was sniffing out tautology , or simply found the determinism anathema to my fledgling Marxism.

Not surprisingly I preferred SJG’s ideas . A writer and polymath, left-liberal, and able to drop his ideas into magazine article length pieces, peppered wth asides about baseball and books, his view of evolution seemed more credible. It finds room for the  then discredited  (but instinctively attractive) ‘jump’ theory of evolution, in the suggestion that populations contain many mutations which are neither harmful or useful until a particular situation makes them so, and that survival of individuals and species have a lot more to do with luck than fitness. Within his accounts I can find room for the jumping universe ,  not-knowing  and randomness. He also will let go an occasional side swipe at the Oxbridge set. Perhaps unsurprisingly his ideas have made much less impact in the UK, and despite all of his intellectual chutzpah, do not offer a clear new paradigm.

In the UK we are still sheltered from the tide of creationism ( and its intellectual wing , intelligent design) that is threatening free thought in the US. But it is coming , as faith schools, Brexit and increasing university privatisation  play out and create a cold climate for liberal thought.  It will become harder to describe your world-view as ‘only a hypotheses that seems to make best sense of things to me’, and easier to look for justification in knowledge systems that others may not understand. To do so  is the challenge for post modernism in the face of all kinds of backward looking certainty.

There is a story near the end of Moths and Men about a biology teacher who is trying to update his teaching about the famous experiment . This involves trying to introduce an understanding about the scale and scope of the experiment , the flaws in the design , the problems in eliminating the flaws, the process of deciding what parts of the story we can still believe , and perhaps the process of being close to the gaining and losing of certainty in knowledge. I d like to think that approach might spread..

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* A quick scan over Wikipedia about Moths and Men and the peppered moth experiment will show how live the controversy about the book is. The most recent posts concern the reproduction of the experiment by Michael Majerus, a now deceased senior entomologist of the Ford school, who claims to have corrected the experimental bias and found the same results , which he reiterates conclude that predation causes the differential in survival of the different forms.   His conclusion is supported by one of the American entomologists who questioned the original findings.

However the paper is only available from academic websites which charge substantial sums to non-academic subscribers. This is of course of no concern to scientists who believe journalists , and the general public are unable to understand the subtleties of their work – as the other criticisms of Hooper suggest. And which completely miss the point about why she found a market for her book , and the destabilising claims of creationism are able to take root in the post-consensual heart of a sceptical public.

If I ever get to see the paper I will be interested to see if it has addressed the suggestions for alternative explanations for differential spread of melanistic moths. And I promise to make my findings freely available, which is how we challenge the  conservatism of orthodoxy , whether its theistic or scientific.