Magpies in the spring

Magpies are common in UK, and can be a bit of a pest, thieving food intended for other birds. But catch them in the right light and they can be rather beautiful, like the above recent shot from Tatton Park.

They are particularly active in spring, with spells of amorous behaviour interspersed with avid feeding from what they can find in the ground.

Booths Mere

The featured image could be of a swamp in Texas, but it’s actually alongside the small lake known as Booths Mere in Knutsford. We’ve known this lake exists for many years, but only recently got to see it close up, as we discovered a short stretch of the bank that is accessible.

Otherwise, it’s private land reserved for fishing. This is a great shame, as it could be a valuable local amenity for walkers. Maybe one day…

You can see a small jetty, presumably used for fishing purposes.

There are some venerable trees around the bank, this one with magnificent roots visible.

Blackthorn

It’s spring blossom time. One of the first out in the hedgerows was the blackthorn. Contrary to the similar hawthorn, blackthorn gets the flowers out first, with leaves following later. At a distance, there is an ephemeral feeling to the vista presented by blackthorn en masse, as in the featured image from Anderton Country Park.

Closer in the individual branches have their own lacy beauty, especially set against the recent blue sky.

Blackthorn is also called sloe, and its fruits are used to make sloe gin. And the wood was traditionally found suitable for making walking sticks.

Third is the Horse Chestnut

The weeping willows by Knutsford’s Moor Pool are now well out, and trees and hedgerows are covered with new hawthorn leaves. Third in line of the big deciduous trees to come out with leaves is… the horse chestnut.

The current spell of warm sunny weather means that this was a close race for third. A sycamore was in a similar state the next day. Thus spring develops apace. What a time!

See previous posts on willow and hawthorn.

Mellow yellow

Serenaded by blackbirds on a country walk, coming up to sundown. The pattern of clouds in the luminescent sky, or archipelagoes out to sea?

Silhouettes of the living intricate skeletons of trees, soon to be bedecked with thousands of leaves.

Shot just to the left of the declining sun.

Once I was taught to write proper sentences.

All doomed?

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Will Durant

To make up for a significant gap in my scientific/technological education, I once waded through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (abridged version, a mere 1003 pages summarising the original 12 volumes), with significant help from a large Webster’s Dictionary. The ebb and flow of humanity and its civilisations was indeed fascinating. But always there was the question at the back of my mind ‘Why do civilisations fail? This has inspired many historians to produce their own stories and analyses. William Ophuls is familiar with many of these and has produced this short book Immoderate Greatness in which he summarises the conclusions, not the stories.

So why do civilisations fail? Ophuls suggest there are six fundamental reasons:

  1. Ecological exhaustion through systematic exhaustion of the civilisation’s periphery and nature. The money economy tends to become an abstraction disconnected from the real world.
  2. Exponential growth. Essentially the future is valued at a great discount to the present. Decisions are taken for now, not for future generations.
  3. The law of Entropy, disorder tends to increase despite technological advances. Technologies tend to require more energy than they can generate. The natural system based on living processes does not have this problem.
  4. Excessive complexity. Eventually the level of problems created exhausts the capacity of people to manage them.
  5. Moral decay. Glubb identified that civilisations pass through natural ages: pioneers, commerce, affluence, intellect, then decadence. Over a period of around 250 years. In the latter age politics is increasingly corrupt and life unjust with huge wealth discrepancies – with bread and circuses to distract the people.
  6. Practical failure. The previous problems inevitably lead to increasing failure. Inflation,  debasing currency and wars have been the desperate paths historically taken. Reform and revival is possible, but is not the path most taken.

Now we have a global civilisation that has been around for about 250 years. It exhibits many of the symptoms mentioned. Collapse is possible, are we all doomed? Not necessarily.

What is clear is that fundamental change is needed – not least re global warming, catastrophic decline of the natural world, pandemics and global security. All require global cooperation.

The evident reversion of some countries to populism and posturing nationalism are moving in the wrong direction – that of moral decay, privileged elites, bread and circuses. This is the last thing that is needed.

And next is the hawthorn

With the lighter days, some shrubs are beginning to show leaf. Most trees are still bare, some with catkins, like the featured pussy willow. But now the hawthorn is coming into leaf, second only to the willow (earlier post).

Fresh hawthorn leaves at Shakerley Mere.

Soon all will be covered in leaves, all in the rush of the new energies of rapidly increasing light, of the spring equinox.

Entangled Life

I’ve always known that there are mushrooms and fungi and yeasts and strange underground things called truffles. And I’ve increasingly become aware of just how interconnected is all life on earth, which shows through as one of the themes in this blog. What I had not fully realised is that fungi are fundamental building blocks of this interconnected life, even to the extent that plants could not exist without them,  and live in symbiosis with them. Of course this also applies to animals, including human beings. Indeed, some of the largest beings on the planet are fungi.

The actual fungal body is the mycelium of threads (hyphae) that runs through the earth, the compost heap, the rotting corpse, the living being. The mushroom and truffle are the fruit, which provides the mechanism to facilitate spreading of the spores.

For millennia fungi have provided the means for human relaxation and psychological transcendence, through psychedelic mushrooms and the alcoholic beverages that come from fermentation through yeasts, which are also simple fungi. Who knows what role they played in the visions of prophets and mystics, and the evolution of the human psyche.

All this and more is the subject of Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life. It is a very readable story of the discoveries of modern science related to fungi, woven with Merlin’s own personal journey. Well worthy reading for a better insight into the ever-increasing complexity of our understanding of the natural world, which is just about keeping pace with our ignorant destruction of it.

I should perhaps declare a minor bias, in that Merlin’s  illustrious father Rupert Sheldrake stayed overnight at our house in the early 90s, in order to give his Knutsford Lecture on Visions of a New Renaissance. Rupert’s innovative approach to science, that led to his theory of morphic resonance, appears to have rubbed off well onto his son Merlin, who is proving to be another great communicator of science.

Featured image of edible fungi in a basket is by George Chernilevsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Melchett Mere

The county of Cheshire contains a number of smallish lakes, or meres. Many date back to the glacial period of the last ice age, ‘occupying hollows in the glacial drift surface of the Cheshire Plain’ (see itemised list). The lake in Tatton Park, known as Tatton Mere, is one of these meres of glacial origin.

Tatton Mere, December 2020

Just north west of the top of Tatton Mere lies a smaller lake, named Melchett Mere, but at a noticeably lower elevation. Is this another glacial lake? It seems not. Cheshire also has a history of salt extraction and mining, notably in the area around nearby Northwich and Wincham from the 17th century. Uncontrolled mining activity led to great subsidences of ground and the formation of lakes, such as the notorious Ashton’s and Neumann’s flashes near Wincham.

Melchett Mere, March 2021

Effects of the salt mining activites, and particularly wild brine pumping, were often felt many miles away. According to the National Trust, Melchett Mere in Tatton Park was formed by a sudden collapse in 1922. The resulting lake was named by Lord Egerton after the then chairman of the extractive company he believed to have been responsible (presumably Henry Mond, 2nd Baron Melchett, who became deputy chairman of ICI in the 1940s).

Subsidence due to brine pumping activities is serious business in Cheshire, as evidence by the existence of the Brine Subsidence Compensation Board. Some of the land in this area is still subsiding. Notably this lies on the proposed route for the HS2 high speed train. I hope those guys know what they’re getting into!

A dead tree

Thank God the days are gone when dead trees were removed from the landscape, part of an obsession with tidiness that took little account of the web of life in which we are embedded. The dead tree is an ecosystem containing countless organisms and fungi, all about the miraculous job of reducing solid wood back to the soil it came from.

Our National Trust now usually leaves trees where they fall in the landscape. This one at Tatton Park was probably once a spectacular oak tree, now gracefully yet vulnerably declining back to its origins.

Thus individual life emerges from the collective, lives and flourishes, and eventually dies and returns home.

Springing forth

The recent spell of dry sunny weather has seen ever increasing signs of the coming of new life in the spring. Many crocuses and daffodils are already past their best. As usual, the willow is the first tree to show signs of life, while the branches of others are still bare.

This year, more than most, we psychologically need the boost of burgeoning life that comes with spring.

There is no time like Spring,
When life’s alive in everything,

From ‘Spring’, Christina Rossetti

Green darner dragonfly

UK dragonflies tend to be so active that they are difficult to photograph. But these North American green darners at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas, March 2019, were just basking on the footpath in the sun.

Green darner male

They are so-called because of the supposed resemblance to a darning needle. Any young readers will probably say ‘What the heck is that?’.

The female has a blue tail.

Just look at those amazingly transparent wings!

Beware gators!

There are usually a good number of American alligators, locally called gators, at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas. Most lie in the water, as in the featured image. A few warm up in the sun on the banks of the lakes/swamp, sometimes just feet away from the visitor path. They are pretty docile, and probably well fed, but it is well to be wary.

This proximity does give the opportunity for close-ups of those craggy reptilian bodies.

Brazos Bend State Park, 2019

I think that the open mouth was just a convenient resting position, and not the anticipation of a good snack!

These animals can grow to 4 metres long and weigh over 400 kg.

Common gallinule

We’ve been fortunate to visit Brazos Bend State Park in Texas a number of times over the years. Apart from the more exotic birds (from a European perspective) there appeared to be plenty of coots and moorhens, just as on most lakes in the UK.

However, the loquacious and overactive ‘moorhens’ did not appear to behave at all like those in UK. Yes this was usually the mating season around March, but surely these were not the same species. A web search shows that they are common gallinules, which were given a separate categorisation from moorhens only in 2011. Their mating behaviour is quite spectacular!

Brazos Bend State Park, 2019

See related posts moorhen, purple gallinule.

Moorhen

Moorhens are one of our commonest water birds, and indeed are quite common worldwide, under names such as marsh hen or common gallinule. These members of the rail family appear fairly undistinguished, so are not first choice photographic subjects. I’ve tried over the years, but he result is usually not particularly impressive.

Here a strong low afternoon sun brought out the brown colours in the body, which usually appears black.

Shadow of rail on rail
2021 Knutsford

Their gait is quite ungainly, which does make for an interesting profile when backlit.

2020 Shakerley Mere

Economics catching up?

“Nature is a “blind spot” in economics. We can no longer afford for it to be absent from accounting systems that dictate national finances, or ignored by economic decision makers.”

At last, economics appears to be catching up with the real world. The Dasgupta Review, commissioned by the UK Treasury, has stated what has for long been the bleeding obvious. Our economics is not serving us well by supporting destruction of our natural environment, our home.

“Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of Nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them.”

I’ve lost count of the number of pressure groups that have made this point over the past decades, but here is hope that at least the UK government is starting to listen, and perhaps it may influence the forthcoming biodiversity summit.

Maybe the ice is beginning to melt away – the neoliberal dogma that has ruled over the gradual destruction of nature for 4 decades.

The review quotes that modern saint, David Attenborough:

“Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core.”

We all need reasons to hope.

The Fall

Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise after an incident with a serpent and a piece of fruit. I remember it from Sunday School at the local Methodist Chapel. Why did our ancestors place so much emphasis on this story? It comes in Genesis 2, in verse 8, just after the creation of heaven and earth.

And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man…

God creates Adam and then Eve and by the end of Chapter 4 (verse 23), because Eve partook of the fruit of a forbidden tree (it was clearly the woman’s fault):

…the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth…

This was obviously highly significant to the men (well they probably were of that gender) who set down the Old Testament. Why? Well, Steve Taylor’s book The Fall has an answer to this question, not only for the scribes of that era, but also for ourselves and future human beings.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book – first published in 2005 and highly recommended by many reviewers. I guess I sort of thought I knew the story, but it was not with the wonderful vision encompassed by this book. Steve is a psychologist, so his story is imbued with a deep understanding of human psychology, but he has also clearly researched and understood many disciplines to produce a work of this scope. This is a history of the fall and a vision of our potential return to paradise.

Read More »

Water, ice and snow

The recent cold spell means that Shakerley Mere is part frozen, giving rise to patterns of water, ice and snow.

The common resident black-headed gulls sunbathe on the ice, awaiting walkers with food to offer.

Of course, at this time of year their heads are not black.

The gull on the right shows the dangers of bleaching from the low winter sun.

Fallow deer at Tatton

Tatton Park is home to two species of free-ranging deer. Most easily seen are the spectacular red deer, which often congregate near to the Knutsford entrance. More numerous are the smaller fallow deer. These are much more timid, so tend to stay away from the areas popular with people.

Recently, this grazing group presented a pretty picture, with one sentinel alert and standing guard – probably checking our dog was on his lead.

There’s a comparison of antlers for male red and fallow deer in this post.