Masts; Memories; Dust to Flesh.

I can’t recall a year like this.

Never mind the “pandemic”, I’m referring to our lovely Oak tree, draped over the barn roof.

(The valleys though, aren’t singing. Locked down again, for 17 days from Friday. So listen instead to these melancholic melodies from the voices of Cor Meibion Llanelli (Male Voice Choir) from a few years back. Click here.

Ai Am Fod Haul Yn Machlud?

The leaves and rain are falling, and autumnal gales beckon.

Click here for the lyrics to this most beautiful song, perhaps very appropriate for these times, written by locally born songwriter, architect, politician and past president of Plaid Cymru (how often do you find this range of talents in the same person?) Dafydd Iwan.

The latest Welsh lockdown was preceded, just, with me performing a recent intellectual U turn, and signing the Great Barrington Declaration.

Oh, the freedom that comes from an independent standpoint, of no consequence!

To be moulded by prevailing winds? Or not?

It’s so simple for me to change tack as more information comes to light over time. In particular the apparently much reduced actual infection fatality rate of Covid 19 (compared with the initial reports coming out of Wuhan way back in January), and the horrendous economic, social and other mortality fall out from the pandemic response measures already instituted in many countries. Whichever way you look at it, Benjamin Franklin hit the nail on the head in 1789 when he wrote:  “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Not so easy for the juggernauts of politics and big media to do an about turn having gone a very long way down their particular road, should that eventually be seen as being the right approach. Since rarely has the consensus view been so one sided that severe restrictions and suppressing the virus are seen by most to be the only way ahead until the cavalry of a vaccine rides over the hill to the rescue.

Maybe.

However if you fancy swimming against the tide, then Click here for more on The Great Barrington Declaration supported by a number of eminent scientists and peruse and muse, and here, and here. The arguments seem sound, and the data is presented in a clear and rational way, unlike the woolly and frankly confused statistics which get trotted out daily in the very few news bulletins I can now bear to listen to.

But perhaps like me too, most readers are completely Covid news weary, and would rather not hear any more about it, and so resign themselves to live, like it or not, in this novel and restricted way for the foreseeable, and ever extending, future?)

Clearing the falling leaves has always been a necessary autumnal task to avoid the yard and stone path behind it becoming completely clogged, and something that our little Bosch Li-ion lawnmower copes with admirably. The issue this year is the acorn crop. It’s simply massive, in what is clearly a mast year for this tree.

First we’ve had the acorns dropping in profusion, and then a second crop of the lighter cups which the acorns sit in. Whilst the Bosch will manage to hoover all this up from the lawn on a very low setting, it simply can’t cope on the more irregular gravel chippings of the yard, where I can’t run the machine on the lowest cut level.

Thank goodness that earlier in the year, I succumbed to a brilliant offer from the clever folk at Makita. Buy a Li-ion hedge trimmer, and get a Li-ion leaf blower free. I have to say when the freebie blower’s box arrived some time after the hedge trimmer had been  assessed and found to be a huge improvement on an elderly petrol driven one, I thought it couldn’t possibly be an efficient tool. It was just so small.

However whilst needing a bit of practice to hold it at the right angle, its air stream packs a real punch and is definitely up to the task of corraling acorns and debris off the gravel and into piles which can then be picked up. This 40 litre tub is the result of just one of several sessions, needed to remove many of the acorns before they get squashed into the yard’s gravel and turned to mush.

Over a decade ago we’d tried a cabled electric leaf blower, but this gave out on us, was massive, heavy and rated at an enormous 2.3 KW. How Makita produce such efficient motors running off a small interchangeable battery which recharges in around half an hour, for us with PV panels usually when the sun is shining, is beyond me.

My guess is that this mast year is a consequence of the extremely benign spring weather. Click here for more thoughts on mast years. Although bees will collect oak pollen from the tree’s male catkins, the actual pollination of the insignificant female flowers is thought to be almost exclusively wind blown. The term derives from the Old English word mæst, meaning the nuts of different tree species which lie in autumn on a forest floor. Traditionally such a crop would have been a bonanza for any local pigs, in a custom known as pannage. A complete lack of rootling pigs here means I’m left with the vain hope that other resident wildlife will consume the literally tens of thousands of acorns which now litter the garden areas beneath the tree, or we may be left with an enormous crop of seedlings to root out from the garden for the next 18 months. I just can’t face trying to pick or brush them up, though maybe long term that would indeed be time well spent?

 

________

With Wales just entering this new 17 day “circuit breaking” lockdown, I’m including a few more photos from the couple of brief walking breaks we managed to slot in after the original spring breaks had to be postponed by the then breaking pandemic lockdowns.

The first in September centred around the lovely unspoiled valleys lying between the twin Shropshire landmarks of The Stiperstones, and The Long Mynd. Our base, a simple converted single story barn set on a rutted single track road was remarkably an even quieter location than here at home and an incredibly well located point for exploring the myriad of well marked, and generally very quiet footpaths, which criss cross this area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

One awoke, drew back the gable end curtains and looked out from the bed across a deep and sometimes mist filled valley to a rising tree topped hill.

The odd thing is that although both Fiona and I hail from Shropshire, neither of us had ever really explored this countryside before in a significant way, though I had very clear visual memories of occasional childhood trips onto The Long Mynd via the narrow and steeply climbing Carding Mill Valley, to watch gliders take off from the Gliding Club on the West facing, and incredibly steep escarpment. Though I couldn’t remember this particular family grouping or visit way back in 1963…

Fortunately we enjoyed equally stunning weather, and were fit enough to tackle the terrain, but one aspect of many of the walks was the lack of flowers in the pasture and moorland scenery in a predominantly sheep and cattle grazed landscape of small upland fields, not dissimilar to home.

It’s very typical in many such locations to walk through short cropped grass littered with sheep droppings from animals which are grazed extensively on the same land for weeks on end. Pity the poor stock having to find any fresh grass here…

One consequence of such continual grazing is that internal parasitism can be a big issue, and the response by most farmers is the widespread use of systemic anthelminitics (parasiticides). Along with the use of other chemicals for the control of fly, mite or lice. It’s now recognised that many such chemicals are excreted, largely unmetabolised in dung and urine for several weeks after treatments, and so this means that there’s quite a lot of unseen chemical contamination of any such rural environment.

This can have significant effects on invertebrate populations, not least the numbers of dung beetle species, which in a healthy organic ecosystem will either bury or breakdown the dung, and efficiently recycle many of the nutrients into the soil and in doing this, more speedily removing the droppings from the landscape. In turn there are big impacts on the birds, and mammals higher up the food chain. Click here for a very good descriptive overview of the problem.

It was interesting to observe on our return to Wales, where we haven’t used any such chemicals now for around 3 years, just how much wildlife diversity was evident in our small upper hay meadow. Something we never witnessed in many hours and miles of walking paths across this stunning Shropshire scenery.

___________

Revisiting other memories of family holidays saw us snatching 3 days walking the coastal paths around Llangranog in Ceredigion in early October. Late last year I discovered that our family had visited in 1961, and whilst there aren’t any photos from this visit with me in, (though it might just be me in the distance), this shows Mum with my younger brother in a very snazzy outfit for a day at the beach ’60’s style. More recently we’ve been visiting Llangranog almost every year over the last 25 years, first with children, then grandchildren, as well as on our own. Never tiring of its spectacular scenery, and changing moods.

Yet I’d never discovered before now, that the wonderfully folded cliffs around Llangranog represent a geologically significant interface between 2 ancient periods of sedimentary rock formation, and a previous period of mass extinctions. Or that these rocks were laid down nearly 440 million years ago, when this part of the world was sitting way down in the Southern hemisphere, between the 2 red arrows below…

, And that being very early sedimentary rocks, if you knew what you were looking for, you can find fossils of primitive lifeforms, including various worm like creatures and their burrows formed in the sand and mud of the seas, preserved in the exposed cliff face rocks. I can’t wait to return and have a closer look sometime!

Trying to discover more about the actual name for the spectacular island just North of Llangranog, Ynys Lochtyn, led me not to a satisfactory translation, but instead to Keith Nicholls’ March 2019 Phd thesis  “A Geoconservation perspective on the trace fossil record associated with the end – Ordovician mass extinction and glaciation in the Welsh Basin”.

Click here for access to the whole thesis, which whilst being couched in necessary but unfamiliar geological terminology, nevertheless contains a great overview of both the landscape and its history, as well as examples of some of the extinct life forms to be found. It also includes this edited descriptive citation from this significant designated Geological Society site :

“The coastline section between Llangrannog Beach and Ynys Lochtyn
 is a regionally important site for several reasons. The Lower
Palaeozoic sedimentary rocks exposed here, namely the Llangranog Formation and
overlying Gaerglwyd Formation, span the late Ordovician – early Silurian boundary, a
major time break in the stratigraphic column. Excellent exposure provides opportunities
to obtain detailed information about these formations that can be used when following
them and the Ordovician-Silurian boundary inland where exposure is generally poor.
The Traeth Bach Member, the upper part of the Llangranog Formation, shows
spectacular examples of folds and faults produced by slumping and other gravity-driven
movements of the sediment before lithification. Dark mudstones in the sequence
commonly contain well preserved graptolites that may be used to date the rocks. In parts of the Gaerglwyd Formation there are particularly clear examples of septarian
concretions, unusual pillow-sized carbonate-rich bodies produced by chemical processes during lithification of the sediment.

On the day of our latest visit however, the weather was overcast with rain threatening, so I opted to leave my camera behind. Which meant that I have Fiona to thank for the image of a flock of Choughs which appeared as we reached the mid point of our walk, above the amazing Ynys Lochtyn headland.

Although we’ve seen and heard choughs occasionally on this part of the coast before, it’s only ever been a pair. To see a large flock was a rare delight since there are thought to be fewer than 250 breeding pairs in the whole of Wales, which represent over 55% of the British population, mainly surviving on the rugged coastline areas of the country. Towards the end of the season, small flocks apparently form of the paired for life parents, together with the current season’s offspring, before they disperse later in winter.

They were more common birds in the past, but habitat loss has contributed to their decline, and they figure in a couple of interesting historical links with distant history and myth. Firstly legend has it that King Arthur didn’t die, but was transformed into a chough (choughs still feature in the county arms for Cornwall). Click here for more. Even more dramatically there is an intriguing association with the assassination of Thomas a Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, with the whimsical speculation that the bird developed its red beak and feet from visiting the murder scene and paddling in the bloody scene!

There is a wonderfully illustrated lecture “Heraldry and the Martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket” by Cecil R Humphery-Smith, OBE, FSA, FHS on the details of this significant moment in British history, and how it might have later led to the creation of a heraldic coat of arms for future archbishops of Canterbury of three choughs on a silver background, and indeed later still become incorporated into the arms for the city of Canterbury itself. Click here for a fascinating read. Although I should add that real life choughs have much thinner beaks than these heraldic birds, or indeed most other British Corvids.

 

Along with coming across a colony of Ivy Mining bees, Colletes hederae, further South at Dinas Island the day before… They provided many fond memories of this brief escape to the coast, which may be the last for a little while._________

As the last of the leaf colours develop and change almost daily around the garden, we’re very grateful to be living in such wonderful country, and with a garden where the first snowdrops will soon be popping up to herald light at the end of this fast approaching winter tunnel. Even when the clouds close in, and the rain falls, such vibrant colours are a delight.

_________

 

Dust to Flesh

Is there a better space

Than here beneath Penbontbren’s early evening
Still and silent, starlit sky?
The solitary meteor shoots North,
From Draco’s distant twin starred eyes.
Cosmic dust burned bright, above the steady,
Watching snail trails. Half a dozen satellites,
A clutter.
Our silent gift to atmospheric space,
Sensibly safe distanced, race.

I strain, and crane, and all burned out
With stiffened neck, I wish.
Past pink washed walls, their framing emerald sempervirens
Ramrod straight as Sky Rockets, but strong, root deep
Beside a devilish contorted wayward willow.
Now chilled I leave, retrace my dewy steps
To cosy, lofted comfort.

Is there a better place

Than this Pen Dinas, above the storm strewn debris,
Pwllgwaleod’s freshly littered beach?
A trailer, cheap and cheerful, gunwaled with its driftwood booty.
The very essence of the sea distilled.
While seaweed filled, our maskless nostrils flare,
Draw in the air as fresh and clear
As any in this land, and climbing,
Soon we reach those recent ankled,
Out of sight neat burrows.
Carefully bored beneath So’wester’s chilling rush.
Too late to see the early males, their job now done,
We watch millennial migrants’ snazzy queens return,
And dodging noisy walkers’ boots,
All bright and beautiful with yellowed limbs,
Stash ivy’s tempting late autumnal dust.
A larder store for brooding winter’s trial.

Was there a better time

Than at this other Dinas?
Beyond the Lifeboat, duned at Poppit’s vast beguiling sands.
Beyond the shipwrecked rat culled Puffin land.
Then chance, or fate, or distant deity, brought two tired hiking souls
Past Ynys Lochtyn’s studded upright seams, quartz white and bright,
Right down and back o’er still pink flowering, thrifty lawn,
Close cropped, to pause a while on simple bench,
Perched low on ancient upturned saucepan hill.

Was there a safer place

To rest at Pen y Badell’s base?
Now crudely topped, not with its long gone ancient roundhouse
And ditched and dyked encircling walls,
But MODern bunker, tracking hidden missile threats,
Not clambering rival tribes, exhausted by its greasy steepling sides.

No.

This was it.

Yet…

High above the ancient cliffs.
As if from nowhere, sirens called.
And clattering down the wind, familial flock
Had blown in like a squall.
I strained to count, lost track at twenty five,
As shifting form and shape they hurtled in the buffeting wind.
Now bird, now wingless discus, hurled
By hands unseen, beyond, alive.

They plunged and soared and banked once more.
Brake turned, with outstretched jet black finger wings,
They planed the chilling gusts.
Then, close enough to catch the strangled chiaows
With red beaks gaping, thin, they jerkily moved in.
Closer, even closer, to expose our hidden lie.
Tormented, then they tempted us.

“Join us.”
“Soon.”
“Come.”

“FLY.

These master Corvids have no need of social distance,
Have no fear of human might,
Delight unfettered, in this special place, and Covid free,
Where Earth meets Sky meets churning Sea.
At this very Western limit, horizon taut above the cresting waves.

We stood.

Transfixed, and wondered.

Sure fidelity of shared life, long, and mirrored.
Though now reeling from such wizardry,
Our paths felt blessed,
But spirits plundered.

Is this the place,
Another time,
Familiar space,

For dust to scatter, worlds to meet and shatter?
Blow or drift and settle.
For men, millenia and myths
To meet and mingle,
Take one’s chance and tumble, or stretching time
Upcycled ‘neath the sodden turf.
Through leather jacket grubbiness, an unimagined hell,
Are plucked at last by probing beak.
Thus miss a beat, and pupal cell.

Take flight.

And Soar.

This glimpse, still rare, whichever tongue you speak,
Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – Flame coloured raven, black bled rust.
Brân goesgoch – Red legged crow.
Or simpler, Red-billed chuff.
(Are there yet better names for flesh, from dust?)

Your chattering, clattering spell,
Will linger long, and resurrected,
Outlive October’s chilly knell.

16 thoughts on “Masts; Memories; Dust to Flesh.

  1. Well done for signing! Pleased you were able to enjoy the delights of Pembrokeshire before being locked in! Wonderful photography.. as usual and many interesting facts…as usual…and highlight .. your poem capturing your thoughts, feelings and sights.

    • Thanks Marianne, Being TV less I’ve no idea how much airtime the GBD has received, but from your comment I maybe pick up that you’re of a like mind? I wonder whether you have any ideas about the actual meaning of lochtyn, or indeed the former lochdyn? ( presumably pronunciation is not that far from Lockdown!
      I found first workings on the poem – along with the Pembs. fresh air and scenery -extremely therapeutic, initially removing myself from the dreadful game shows on TV on a Saturday night, by retreating to the quiet of the B&B bedroom… When it was eventually finished, I felt it was probably time better spent, and Fiona in her turn made really good progress with knitting me a new jumper, whilst this was on in the background! Made us think we’re glad we only get limited exposure!
      Best wishes and hope you enjoy the next fortnight!
      Julian

  2. Your photographs evoked some good memories of the Welsh Marches an area we knew well as we spent over 30 years living in Herefordshire.
    Sadly like so many upland areas it is seriously over-grazed. We started winter grazing with Galloway heifers last year, and whilst I have not checked the beetle populations yet, we’ve had an impressive crop of dung fungi.

    • I’d not really thought about this issue of (very widespread) overgrazing/parasiticide use and consequent knock on/out effect on invertebrates much before this year, but one thing we’ve really noticed is how many more meadow ant colonies we now have. And this year no end of ant swarm days. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? My gut feeling is that like most of these uncharismatic organisms they form a critical cog in the wheel of a vibrant natural pasture community. I did buy a weighty tome on ant life cycles/social structures this summer, but although it’s written by 2 of the renowned world experts, it’s language makes it quite unreadable. We love the Marches and were surprised by how relatively under-walked the area seemed to be – unlike Pembrokeshire/Cardiganshire, which even in October was much busier than we’ve ever seen it before, but I guess that’s the inevitable consequence of more people holidaying in the UK…

  3. Love the poetry, both written and visual. Sympathise with the commentary too and enjoyed the memory prompt of our own visit to the Long Mynd. Survive and enjoy the things around you 🙂

    • Thanks Alastair. The Long Mynd is a lovely place, and away from Carding Mill Valley/Church Stretton was surprisingly quite given the glorious weather. Are clearly in quite a good place for being socially isolated, but I think everyone is going to find it a long winter. I heard today that one of the late Anthony Clare’s tips for avoiding mental health was to develop a passion for something, and I think both Fiona and I are lucky in having several things to keep us busy and enquiring. I’m guessing that your creative endeavours are equally great at keeping the general gloom at bay! Stay well,
      best wishes
      Julian

    • Thanks Amelia, I’ve just read the nature article link so many thanks for that. As someone in the higher risk category myself, I’m personally very concerned about Covid, and we are both taking lots of measures here to reduce our risk. But the infection fatality rate data in the WHO published meta data Ionnadis paper I gave a link to, makes me think that at a societal level, we have to do more in the way of cost/benefit analysis for the actions being taken across countries. Plus I do wonder over the longer term just how well many people’s immune systems will work, if they never get exposed to anything? A variant of the use it, or lose it concept that seems to apply to many biological processes.
      And will mass testing for the latest new virus come to be accepted as the way that we come to terms with living in an inherently risky world?
      Time will surely make it clearer just which sort of strategy would have been the best one to adopt, once data and information on many aspects of the virus become ever clearer. Thank goodness I don’t have to take any of these decisions.
      As you say though, thank goodness too that we have our gardens to enjoy…
      Best wishes to you both,
      Julian

    • Thanks for this Philip, which I read with interest. I certainly don’t think the GBD is perfect in its concept, and I have no way of assessing how it came to be funded. However it does in a rational way point up the issue of proportionality of response, and dare I say cost/benefit, now that more data on actual infection fatality rates is becoming clearer, which I guess is what is the biggest worry with most pandemic diseases. The most recent ONS survey from the UK which I looked at last night is interesting on this and currently seems to mirror the meta data anaylsis of the John Ioannidis WHO published paper which I linked to in my post, i.e. IFR of CVID is not a lot different so far this autumn to the normal cases of seasonal influenza/pneumonia, which of course is an annual event and has never shut the world down in the way that Covid is doing.
      Only time will tell whether this is the start of a dramatic second wave of fatalities or not, but for sure the country is going to face a social and economic tsunami as societal restrictions continue through the winter. How then do we live in this new hyper-testing world?
      One of the few things I remembered from our veterinary course, and sort to apply in my practice, was that diagnostic tests, of any sort, are useful to confirm a suspected diagnosis based on careful history taking and symptom analysis. Used on their own, as is widespread throughout medicine, and now veterinary medicine, the vast majority, though expensive and time consuming ( which clearly benefits quite a few people and I guess companies) actually yield “negative” results and add little to the eventual outcome of the case. This is not fatalistic, just how life, and death, is. A positive diagnostic test result gives the clinician reassurance and/or protection against the risk of potential litigation.
      But as with much of current politics/ Brexit,/Trump/ Biden, there’s not much scope for a meeting of views on a topic like this, I guess!
      Having drifted into this murky soup, next time I shall return to bees and flowers. I think. Much safer and more positive territory.
      best wishes
      Julian

  4. I totally agree with you on the devastation caused by sheep grazing and totally disagree with you on the value of the Barrington Declaration. It is a good year for acorns here too.

  5. Hello there! Hope your lockdown is over by now. We still have four weeks to go ( was 6 weeks).

    I hate even think about the chemicals. Our wildlife is almost non-existent, even in the mountains. Very little insects, even less birds – seeing this really breaks my heart. This year I have seen only one rabbit.
    Ynys Lochtyn has so interesting geology! These light streaks of quartz have a dramatic look good enough for a myth or a fairy tale.
    Chough is one of my favorite bird. I haven’t seen them this year, but heard from afar once. Thank you for all the curious information about them.

    Beautiful poem, sad times.

    I don’t even want to comment on the Covid situation here. So much blatant lies, and even more incompetence. The only hope is a good luck. Street photographers are having a field day. I haven’t taken a single photo of people in masks yet. I just don’t want to. The novelty will wear off soon with masks becoming a part of everyday’s life. It doesn’t bother me a bit. I have been a pocked sanitizer girl since they were invented 🙂 What bothers me is that the number of UCI beds is limited, and soon they will have to choose whom to save first.

    Stay safe!

    • Hello Inese, thanks for the comment and hope you’re bearing up under these testing times. 6 weeks is a heck of a longtime for a lockdown! We’ve just had 17 days in Wales, but are now being told we can’t travel into England, though fortunately we always have enough to keep us busy here in the autumn. I always assumed Ireland would be rich in wildlife, so saddening to hear that you’ve lost it there. Ynys Lochtyn is an amazing place – the quartz seam is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and it was a real treat to see so many choughs – very uplifting especially on a grey windy day. I try to avoid hearing about Covid – England’s just into a 4 week lockdown, and I think there has been much incompetence and poor judgement, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have been in the hot seat – I think apart from the New Zealand PM no one has really emerged with great credit. But maybe that’s the problem, we need more female multi tasking global leaders??
      Anyway I’m vaguely optimistic that the numbers of fatalities won’t be as bad as predicted – the Uk top modeller overestimated by a factor of 10 times in the spring, yet he’s still the one who seems to get listened to,
      Best wishes
      Julian

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