Great Expectations; The Warmest Place; And the Value of Caged Silence

I had great expectations for Monday morning. A new day, week, month (just) and season. And the fact that summer had ended with an appropriate blue moon on the penultimate day of August seemed a good omen. For those unfamiliar with blue moons, it describes the fairly uncommon situation where two new moons rise in the same calendar month. After all, when will we get another summer like this last one? Once in a blue moon we hope!

I’ve now done the sums and our total for June/July/August rainfall clocked in at 711.4 mm. A new PB in Olympic year! The average UK rainfall for the previous wettest UK summer in1912 was ‘just’ 384.4mm. Should I stake a claim for Rhydcymerau being the wettest part of Wales? And judging by our PV figures, 15% less solar energy for all our plants to use for growth.

But what does September hold in store? Monday was predicted to be dry and sunny, so rolling out of bed at 6.15 expecting to have a sunrise as I walked through the dew to let out the chickens and turkeys with some windfall apple treats, I was disappointed to see the valley filled with dense fog. But as often happens in the autumn, the sun started to burn through, and as I stood, taking the photo below of this happening over the hills to the East of the terrace, I noticed the table and chairs.

And did a double take.

I’m used to cobweb displays in the garden – I view them as a spin off (sorry), from our drive to make the garden as appealing to native insects as possible, and over recent years I’ve always managed a few nice photos.

But this display was extraordinary.

As sometimes happens, one’s brain instantly conjures up a link to an image buried deep in its recesses, which you’d not consciously thought about for decades. In this case it was of family Sunday evenings back in the 1960’s I guess, when the Wormald brothers were ushered into the lounge to sit quietly (always a challenge) and soak up the culture of the latest BBC Dickens series, before Malcom Muggeridge “Asked the Question ‘WHY?’ “. And the specific image was of the dusty cobwebbed table and chairs of Miss Havisham’s wedding feast. I’ve no idea how accurate my brain’s recollection of the scene was, or who the actress playing the jilted bride/spinster was. But my brain linked this recollection with the image before me instantly.

Great Expectations recreated beyond the abilities of even the BBC props department.

And as the strength of sunlight changed, ebbing and flowing with the gradually rising mist, over the next hour I wandered the garden seeing more and more examples of arachnid toil, before the sun eventually won its battle with the fog, and these myriad fine structures lost their overnight dewy highlights and became the invisible daytime traps for the garden’s bugs.

But I make no excuses for including a swathe of some of the more appealing images. No further words are needed.

At the start of the London 2012 Olympics, I’d photographed a beautiful Golden-ringed dragonfly on the stone step down into the magic terrace garden, and was intrigued to photograph this week a much smaller Common darter dragonfly, Sympetrum striolatum, which flew around this area of the garden before alighting barely a metre from the earlier sighting, and evidently basking in the sunshine.

I’d noted a similar action, of a butterfly selecting a stony resting place, presumably for added warmth, last year. But I thought I’d see what I could find on line about how dragonflies “see” the world, and ended up reading a fascinating, albeit slightly technical piece, which reviews aspects of dragonfly vision. Click here.

Essentially all vision in animals requires electrical activity changes within specialised cells to produce a response which the animal interprets in some visual sense. This electrical activity is created by the energy of the light entering a receptor structure in these specialised cells, creating an interaction between two different complex chemical molecules – a chromophore molecule, and a surrounding complex protein, called a G-protein coupled receptor (GP) which creates a pocket which the chromophore sits inside.

The chromophore molecule changes shape when light hits it, this in turn affects the surrounding GP making it change shape, and starting a cascade of chemical reactions leading to the creation of a tiny electrical stimulus. In humans this electrical signal is transferred via nerve cells from the retinal cells of the eye, where the chromophore/GP are located, to the parts of the brain responsible for vision, and we then think we see something.

It’s been discovered that there is a single type of chromophore in dragonflies which only absorbs light of a specific and fairly narrow range of wavelength (say green). But the dragonfly possesses 6 different surrounding GP forms called opsins. These opsins alter the wavelength of light which the chromophore can respond to thus allowing a wider range of ‘colours’ to be seen. Even more interestingly, humans only have 3 types of opsin (equating to red, green and blue). So, the corollary is that dragonflies which evolved nearly 350 million years ago have spectral tuning of their vision over a much wider bandwidth than humans, being able to see both at the infra red and ultra violet periphery of our relatively limited rainbow range of wavelength perception. Why people have ‘lost’, or never gained, such additional and spectrum widening extra opsins, and so come to have a more limited spectrum of vision, isn’t clear.

But enough of technical jargon!

The important point I discovered from all of this was that dragonflies can perceive infra-red colours and so would pick up on the fact that this stone step was probably the warmest spot in this part of the garden, around lunchtime. For a cold-blooded organism, it’s clearly advantageous to be able to easily detect warmer areas to bask and absorb ‘free’ extra body warmth from the surroundings, in order to speed up all your metabolic activity.

As a visually limited (from the infra red standpoint), though warm-blooded gardener, I need a gadget to help me in my understanding of such subtle temperature variations. I often mention my digital infra-red surface temperature reading thermometer (link here for more details), and after grabbing this I went out to the magic terrace steps around noon to check temperatures near them, and whether the dragonflies had indeed picked the best spot to rest a while.

WOW. Spot on. At least 4 degrees C warmer than the other hard surfaces, and nearly 12 degrees C warmer than the foliage, as you can see below.

The warmest place, centre image.

Geraniums to the left.

Geraniums to the right.

Violets below the step.

And the obvious spot for a dragonfly to alight, on the step edge.

The warmest place.

Finally, a fortunately rare politically themed bit, so skip to the end if bored. Last night after I’d put the turkeys to bed, (why can’t you find turkey coops for sale? Answer, the turkeys would prefer to perch on top of them, rather than put themselves to bed, like the chickens), I paused at the gate into the high meadow and drank in the scene.

The Plough was furrowing down through a patch of faintly silvering mackerel cloud and into the silhouetted black dome of a big sycamore tree to the North of the bird’s run. The light was failing. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the landscape was truly silent save for a lamb over half a mile away across the valley which must have momentarily separated from its fellow sheep, and was bleating occasionally in slightly alarmed fashion. Then that too stopped, and for a few minutes there was real, deep silence.

Not threatening, but peaceful and awe inspiring in this big open landscape. Then the wind picked up, and the leaves of large ash trees sky-lined a couple of hundred yards away started to rustle. The tawny owls began to call, and the complete silence was gone. Such special moments happen surprisingly often down here, and are one of the compensations of a simple life, wet climate and poor internet connectivity. But how can you put a value on this? And should you even try?

I first encountered the concept of the value of silence a couple of years ago, when in making my film ‘Epiphany In Translation‘ in 2010 I’d tried to get permission from the BBC to include a clip of Radio 4 broadcasting the minute’s silence on armistice day whilst my camcorder focused on our wood burning stove at 11.00 am on November 11th.  I had to reject the idea, since the cost of incorporating that one minute of broadcast silence into the film was – close your eyes and guess:



I kid you not.

More recently the BBC have remembered the centenary of the birth of American avant garde ‘composer’ John Cage with an hour long documentary on Radio 4 and a Prom concert. I forced myself to listen through the radio programme, hoping to understand the man a little better, and what all the fuss was about. There were several recorded interviews with Cage, who seemed to have an unusual accent somewhere between Vincent Price and John Malkovich. Whether a majority of ordinary music listening people would rate much of Cage’s output as musical composition is debatable, although I was interested to hear that Brian Eno was influenced by his work, in particular Cage’s idea for a “prepared piano”, where screws and other objects were placed on a piano’s strings, to turn it into more of a percussion instrument.

I was also taken by the story of the genesis of his perhaps most famous piece “4 minutes and 33 seconds”, which consists of this length of time of ‘silence’. Concert goers clearly paid something recently at the Proms to experience this ‘event’, along with other Cage pieces. Apparently, Cage had the idea for ‘4.33’ after spending time in an anechoic chamber in 1951 at Harvard University where there was no audible extraneous sound, but he was nevertheless aware of two strange sounds once he had become attuned to the silence. One of low frequency, the other of a higher frequency. On exiting the chamber, the sound engineers explained to him that one was created by his nervous system, the other by his heart.

More bizarrely I later discovered that even after his death the value of Caged silence is being defended by his estate’s lawyers after Mike Batt of Womble’s fame issued his own spoof version of ‘Silence’ on a CD, only in this case it only lasted for a minute. Thus the concept of silence being both of interest, and having a value, has clearly entered the world of our urban rulers, lawmakers and enforcers. Batt strongly, and I think correctly, defends his silence as being artistically UNIQUE (click here for more details) and distinct from the Caged version.

So, it was strangely fortuitous to read this week that the firm (RES) behind one of the planned local windfarms has created a “breakthrough policy” by offering to pay local residents a discount off their electricity bills, should the windfarm be constructed. I suspect that this will be scant compensation if, as residents close to the nearest existing windfarm at Alltwallis have discovered, their experience of real rural silence disappears once the blades start turning, and the repetitive poorly recognised infra-sounds of amplitude modulation become the annoying back-beat to daily life.

But heck, this “breakthrough policy” is what our very own chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Parliamentary committee, Tim Yeo, suggested recently on Radio 4 . “Bribe the locals” to persuade more of them to welcome windfarms throughout rural Britain. But perhaps £225 per annum for loss of real rural silence is a bit below the level already set for me by the BBC and what John Cage’s lawyers reckon it’s worth.

At last I seem to have returned to my starting theme of webs. Of deceit. For anyone with too much time on their hands, there are some interesting links on the personal financial involvement in this field of some of our supposedly impartial movers and shakers, which you can access by clicking here and here .

Meanwhile the garden looks different, as always, to this time last year. Fewer healthy apples, later Asters, better Hydrangeas, but the swallows still seem to enjoy visiting.


5 thoughts on “Great Expectations; The Warmest Place; And the Value of Caged Silence

  1. Julian, The island where my family vacations in Maine must be very much like where you live. Very remote, dirt roads, few vehicles, relatively unpopulated, and very quiet. In fact, at least once a day while I am there, I actually listen for the silence and really take time to appreciate it. There is absolutely no price that could compensate me for the peace that this provides. However, reading the book Quiet made me realize that many people don’t need or even notice silence. You might like the book. Carolyn

    • Hello Carolyn,
      Thanks for the comment and the very kind link for the book, which I’ll check out. You’ll gather from my post that I totally agree with you that in many ‘developed’ parts of the world, real silence is a rare thing, which should be more widely recognised, valued and protected. We know we’re really fortunate and privileged to be able to enjoy it for now here, and it sounds and looks like your Maine island is equally blessed. Again, best wishes and good luck with your repair and restoration work, and your new nursery season,

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