Friday, 21 October 2016

Environmental Grief - psychologically, how we can deal with the destruction of nature

We are in the midst of a mass extinction. These are rare events in the Earth's history, the last one wiped out the dinosaurs. This one is the result of human activity.

For a person, with even the slightest concern for the natural world, the reality which confronts them is one of extinction, destruction and devastation. To take a random, recent batch of headlines from the environmental coalface - 'huge fall in African elephant population as poaching crisis continues', ‘the home of the endangered Iberian lynx is under threat’, '40% of UK species show strong or moderate declines.

A baleful picture is paraded across our television screens, newspapers and social media feeds. We’re watching a catalogue of catastrophe - a dreadful litany describing a disappearing world.

A word that sums this up is 'loss'. We are losing things we love - they are going day by day. The normal human reaction to a profound sense of loss is grief and the course of grief is often described as going through 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

The assumption here is that there is a single event to which we have a grief response and as “time heals every wound” it’s something we recover from. Environmental grief is unfortunately rather different. As soon as we come to terms with a world without such and such a thing, we are confronted with a further piece of bad news. In some ways it’s worse than bad news though, wars are shocking but they tend to end. Terrible conflicts can be resolved, sworn enemies can become the greatest of friends. Species that go extinct stay extinct.

How is it possible to deal with this? Psychologically how do we cope with what can be a depressing sense of things getting worse?

The fact is we do cope - we carry on.

Some of the approaches to this could be characterised as ‘putting things in perspective’. This might, by some, be construed as a prospectus for caring less. I think the opposite is true and was well described in a recent article in Scientific American called ‘Facing Down Environmental Grief’, which asked ‘Is a traumatic sense of loss freezing action against climate change?’

For me it’s a case of avoiding a headlong rush to despair which often results in a, bury your head in the sand, attitude. It becomes all too much to bear, so you switch off – a case of fingers in the ears – ‘la, la, la, I can’t hear you’. Despair, in turn, leads to disengagement and inaction. Watching The Great British Bake Off becomes soothingly preferable to reading about the latest environmental catastrophe.

I'm going to look at some of the approaches to this issue – coping strategies that keep desperation in check. Yes, possibly at times, donning the rose tinted spectacles, but at least these are things you can see something through, unlike the blackout mask of despair – the total darkness of ignorance.

See the positive
To go back for a minute to my gloomy headline – ‘40% of UK species show strong or moderate declines’. What a depressing picture this is - not far off half of British species on the wane. However, I missed out the second part of the headline – ‘whereas just over 30% show strong or moderate increases.’ Now, not quite the empty pint glass of despondency, more like the half full glass of consolation (30% of species will be stable). Granted, this situation is far from good, there are no two ways about it, a lot of British wildlife is in a parlous state, but there are positive nuggets to be found amongst the doom and gloom.

Little Egret
My greatest wildlife passion is birdwatching and I often bemoan the sorry fortunes of much loved birds – Wood warbler, Skylark, Lapwing. However, I also delight in the recent upswing in the numbers of some formerly rare birds - Red Kites, Buzzard and Raven.

These latter three species are doing well because they’re no longer subject to the persecution of old. This now more enlightened attitude is, in itself a positive, and we can take heart from the success stories – the habitats preserved, the dwindling species brought back from the brink and the environmental treaties enacted. Yes, there are forces for good in the world – let’s celebrate them.

So by way of an antidote to the earlier gloomy headlines, here are a few more recent positive stories – ‘Europe’s key animals making a comeback’, 'New York City Air Quality Cleanest in Decades', 'Our 2016 RSPB reserve survey reveals another record breaking year for Bitterns'.

Accept change
Not only is change happening, the rate of change is accelerating, we see it in almost every aspect of our lives – cultural, technological and environmental. Homo sapiens has evolved to deal with a certain amount of change, however the rapid transformations we see today are unprecedented in our species’ history.

Rapid change is often cited as a cause of stress. While it may be difficult to actually embrace change, perhaps an attitude of a little more acceptance is a way of being kinder to ourselves. Does this mean sitting back, unconcerned while bad things happen – absolutely not. It means being better able to remain engaged, and to return to my theme, not allowing despair to make us look the other way.

I was recently treated to the amazing site of a congregation of 120 Little egrets and 6 Great white egrets on the Conwy Estuary, not just a ‘heron priested shore’ more the massed ranks of an entire, white clad, holy order. These are now frequently seen species which, just a couple of decades ago, would have been regarded as great rarities.

This, however, is a gain with quite a sting in its tail. The increase in the populations of some water birds is almost certainly the result of climate change. A number of species are now able to survive in Britain due our milder winters.

Very little in nature is constant, a state of flux is more the norm. However rapid climate change will result in a global reordering that has few precedents in the history of the earth. There will be winners and losers as species adapt, or indeed fail to adapt, to a warming world. It’s likely that the number of losers will far exceed the winners.

My point here comes back to allowing ourselves some crumbs of comfort - it’s, psychologically, the more healthy thing to do. So, if we mourn the loss of one of the losers, we’ve earned the right to toast the fortunes of the winners.

Be aware of Declinism
Declinism is the fairly universal human trait that predisposes us to view the past in a favourable light and the future with pessimism – one of many cognitive bias’s that influence the way we think. It's the common saying of the older generation 'things were better in my day'. This cry is heard today as it was in the days of Ancient Rome, it was probably even grunted by the aged cavewoman!

But what if things actually are getting worse, then surely declinism is no longer a delusion, but an entirely rational response? This is true, however, I'm simply pointing out, that this way of thinking may make things appear even worse than they actually are – something to, at least, watch out for in ourselves. 

Change our perception of what nature is.
Some geologists contend that the current age of human activity is changing the Earth so profoundly that it warrants its own name – the Athropocene. Whatever we call it, it’s clear that mother nature is covered with the greasy fingerprints of human activity wherever we care to look. Nowhere on Earth remains as a pristine, pre-human garden of Eden.

Absolutely and unequivocally we should do our utmost to preserve what remains of the Earth’s natural wonders – it’s vital that we do. Tremendously sad as their passing may be, nature in some form or other will endure. We’re back to the question of how we deal with change. If we love and care about nature – the Anthropocene world is, by definition, the one we care about.

A slight shift in perception, perhaps, allows us to marvel at a forest regenerating after felling, an abandoned factory overgrown with mosses and ferns or a former quarry, now host to nesting Peregrines. In most peoples’ eyes these ‘manscapes’ would come a poor second to the supposed wildernesses which parade across our TV screens in the latest Attenborough epic.

These parts of the ‘Living Planet’ are often what we think of when we think of ‘real’ nature – we expect the full Technicolour, surround sound version, complete with Serengeti megafauna or vibrant rainforest. Well, we’re much less likely to see these places ‘in the flesh’, than to see our backyard, wildlife companions. As well as rightly grieving for the disappearance of these wild places, we can take the odd comforting crumb from the way that nature continues, and indeed flourishes, right under our feet.

To put it bluntly the Anthropocene age is upon us - this is irreversible and inevitable. We can remain in an anst-ridden state, constantly railing against its depravations. Alternatively, and if only for the sake of mental health, we can accept the reality of a globe, everywhere sullied by man's footprints and perhaps even learn to love it.

Celebrate human progress
To focus for a moment on the purely human realm, I believe that things are improving. Admittedly, this view can be a very hard sell during what is, in some ways, a dismal decade. Human progress, however, is very much two steps forward one step back.

Yes, there are immense challenges and setbacks, but look at the gains. Once deadly diseases are being eradicated, child mortality is being reduced, people are living longer and are better fed. Superiority is no longer conferred upon someone simply for being a white, heterosexual, male – we are more civilised and peaceful than ever before.

Some may view the last claim as being highly debatable, pointing to the slew of recent headlines describing wars, terrorism and all manner of barbarities. The important thing to remember is that we are massively more informed about these events than former generations. Events on a par with modern day horrors would have previously gone unreported. That the world is becoming an ever more peaceful place is well described in Steven Pinker’s excellent book ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’.

This alone provides some measure of consolation, but to return the focus back to the natural world – we can also celebrate the fact that here too there is progress. The obvious caveat looms large at this point – humans are a uniquely destructive species,that may well destroy whole swathes of life on the planet – as caveats go that’s a big one!

Consider though that recent generations are the first to outlaw cruelty to animals, the first to protect wild places, the first to enact environmental legislation. That animals might have rights, which weren’t even afforded to women or non-whites, would have been seen as a self-evidently crackpot notion. Now the idea that animals are conscious, and should be treated as such, is so mainstream that respected scientists, such as Steven Hawking, feel able to signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness – which attests to the fact.

Yes, we’re highly skilled at laying waste to the planet – to soiling our own backyard. The Homo sapien intellect, conferred upon us by evolution is very much a double edged sword. The brains that enabled us to dominate and indeed blight the planet, are the same ones that allow us to think about the repercussions of our actions. The same ones that can see the virtue in a more enlightened view of the earth and our fellow creatures. The same ones that might, at the eleventh hour, have the ingenuity and the will to bring about a measure of ecological salvation.

Take a long view
After around 3 billion years everything will become extinct. The sun will expand and warm, ultimately resulting in the Earth’s inability to support life. After a further 4 billion years the Earth will be absorbed by the Sun - our home planet will no longer exist.

Everything we now hold dear - the forests, the oceans, the species, the man-made wonders, the people, will be just the trace of a memory - the rumour of a whisper - a brief flash of life in the long cosmic night.

So again this raises a question – if everything will eventually, become extinct why bother about it happening during our lifetime? Well my answer would be, we only have the one lifetime – our brief moment on the stage – during that time things we care deeply about are as important as important gets.
It’s up to us to decide what makes the cut in our personal list of priorities. During our time on Earth you could almost say our ‘job’ is to find meaning - to decide on what matters.

This long view, as with other ways of putting things in perspective, are things we can tell ourselves, a mental slight of hand even. So in the middle of the night – we have a soothing balm to keep despair at bay – and so we are able to fight on.

The dinosaurs were witness to a mass extinction, as are we. Unlike the dinosaurs we can see it coming, unlike the dinosaurs we can do something about it.

Do Something
I've been dealing with pyschological responses to environmental destruction. The things that can actually be done are for another blog post. However it's worth mentioning that taking an action of some sort is one of the most effective ways of combating grief. When it comes to feeling better about the world, doing something knocks sitting back, right into that proverbial cocked hat.

This may seem daunting at first - ‘how can I stave off mass extinction?!’ Well single-handedly you can’t - a few, particularly heroic people, put themselves on the environmental ‘front-line’, or are influential enough to be listed amongst the Guardian's '50 people who could save the planet'.

However, to use that over-worked cliché - everyone can make a difference. Make a difference to the planet, yes, but just as importantly for the topic I dealt with here, make a difference to themselves.

From taking part in a piece of ‘citizen science’ all the way to addressing a UN conference. From enthusing others to bravely confronting illegal activity. From simply enjoying and finding out about nature, all the way to writing a classic book such as Silent Spring.

From the small scale and personal to the global and history-making – everybody is on a level playing field in terms of the positive effect on themselves.

Recent Patch Sightings
12/10 - Redwing 1,500 , Fieldfare 120  - flying south during 2 hours
12/10 - Jack Snipe - 1 at the lake
20/10 - Brambling
Several Species of new fungi including Snowy waxcap
Leopard earthball, Scarlet brittlegill (Russula pseudointegra) Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus)

Wholly milkcap - quite a beautiful sight like someone has strewn peaches everywhere!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Autumn Dance

Autumn has been officially inaugurated. It has for me at least. A skein, 110 strong, flew over the patch last Saturday - a fluxating chevron of south-bound Pink-footed Geese.

By way of celebrating  I produced this track made just from samples (raw or processed) of the patch's autumn birds. The bird species are identified in the comments on the time line.

The percussive sounds are made from a Robin 'tick' and a Fieldfare 'chack'. The fluity 'melody', such as it is, is Whooper Swan. I've taken a bit of a liberty calling the Whooper swan a 'patch' birds as I saw 4 flying on one occasion! Brambling, Fieldfare, Redwing, Siskin, Chaffinch, Meadow Pipit, Pied and Grey Wagtails provide flight calls of the kind you might hear on an Autumn morning when migration is taking place.

I used a similar idea earlier in the year with Spring / Summer birds.  Autumn bird sound consists mainly of calls -  as opposed to spring version when there is a lot more song to work with - so I had to play fast and loose with some of sounds  to get any kind tune going.

I also found, when making the spring version, that simply layering a lot of sounds in the normal bird song frequencies can produce something quite strident and indeed unpleasant. For this reason I tried to get a wide dynamic range with bassier notes prodced by lowering the pitch of sounds and vocoding other sounds.

Gratifyingly the track got through the 'Fresh on the Net' whittling down process. They have weekly submissions from around 200 artists from from which they select 30 - these then go to public vote to arrive at a top ten.  So my track will be played on Tom Robinson's show on BBC 6 Radio show.

Dogs Vomit Slime mould
only the Dog's Sick slime mould
can compete in the slime mould
 comedy name stakes
Recent Patch Sightings
18/9 - 110 Pink feet - south
20/9 - 80 Pink feet - south
22/9 - Purple brittlegill, Dyer's Mazegill - new fungi
23/9 - Dogs Vomit slime mould
23/9 - Influx of thrushes - c20 Song Thrush, c30 Blackbirds - probably continental birds
Far fewer moths though some Autumnal ones - Yellow-line Quaker, Pink barred sallow new - Firethorn Leaf Miner

A fresh  Comma enjoying some September sun

Female Common Darter

Purple Brittlegill

Pink-barred Sallow

A Lancashire sunrise

Friday, 16 September 2016

It's raining DNA hallelujah

Common Vetch

Rosebay Willow Herb

Broad leaved Dock

The fact that ‘Wild Flowers’ are so called tells us a lot about the way we view nature.  They are named after the part which appeals to us aesthetically.  I think they should be  renamed  ‘Wild  Seeds.’  I can imagine our early ancestors would have been a lot more  interested in this, possibly edible,  part of the plant.

To the plant this is  the business end of the year – the time when it makes copies of itself. It also makes means of dispersing these copies. Hence the ‘possibly edible’ part - some plants bribing other organisms to act as their couriers – “here’s a juicy blackberry for you if carry these mini-me’s down to the bottom of the hill”.


Himalayn Balsam

Over the last  couple of weeks, on my patch walks,  I’ve been marveling at the variety and sheer abundance of these seedheads.  A windy day transformed a field full of thistles into a downy blizzard. Berries have been ripening – an ‘eat-me’ advertising campaign. Himalayan Balsam has been setting seed booby traps – ready to turn bazooka at the slightest touch.

It’s not just members of patch’s plant community that have been busy scattering their genes. A few weeks ago the swarms of  flying ants were testament to the biological  prime directive – ‘go forth and multiply’.

It’s been raining DNA. Those thistle seeds  (so good at dispersing, that they manage to find their way to the upstairs bathroom)  are tiny  instruction manuals – ‘this is how to make a thistle.’ The urge, the impetus to do this, is so strong it’s as  if the patch has exploded – one great stretch of  genetic code.


Hairy Tare

Yellow Flag Iris

A Swarn of flying ants is just as much a 'blizzard of DNA' as the plant version


Broom seed pod - the white hairs give it a fantastic fringed effect

Recent Patch Sightings
28/9 - Rare Moth - Blastobasis rebeli (my second in garden & 5th for Lancs)
1/9 - Juvenile Chiffchaff in the garden do its ' crazy thing '
5/9 - Moths Pinion-streaked snout (new) and Dusky Thorn (new)
6/9 - Ichneumon wasp Macrocentrus bicolor
7/9 - Moths Ypsolopha sequella (new) Mompha locupletella (new) Black Rustic moth 13/9 - New fly - Geomyza tripunctata
16/9 - Birch Sheild bug
17/9 - Pink-footed Goose 110 south - early arrival

Birch Shieldbug (Elasmostethus intersinctus)

Dusky Thorn

*‘It’s been raining DNA’ is a phrased borrowed  phrase from Richard Dawkin’s book 'The Blind Watchmaker'.
** My patch walks have also been punctuated by my trying to get seedhead photographs from below, for no better reason than the fact that it’s view you don’t normally see and also it puts them centre stage.  

It’s a question of scale - a Redwood Tree is majestic – from down here a  Hogweed seedhead on a tall stem appears almost a striking.

Together these photographs form a 'Vole’s Guide to the Seedheads of Britain'.  The voles, along with other small mamals, seem to be massively under-resourced in this area.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Conscious Patch

If consciousness is viewed as being on a dimmer switch - i.e humans have a lot of it, dogs and magpies have some of it, bees have a bit of it - what might a patch map of consciousness look like?

In Nick Lane’s fantastic book ‘Life Ascending’ he lists consciousness as one of the “ten great inventions of evolution”. Reading this got me thinking about how, if at all, the concept of consciousness could be applied to the patch.

Within this are two questions 1) is there consciousness on the patch? 2) is the patch conscious?

An answer to either of these will hinge on which of the various definitions of the word we choose to employ. These definitions range from the rigorously scientific to the rigorously unscientific - new-age beliefs, via religion and metaphysics. An interesting way to approach this question is to look at the various attempts to explain consciousness and speculate how a ‘map’ of consciousness on the patch might look on each of these views. To put simply if consciousness is like this where would you find it?

What is it to be consciousness?
What's it like to be a starling? Is a starling conscious?
Stephen Hawking thinks so.
I wake up in the morning, I think to myself  'time to get up', moments later my body moves - I get out of bed. Waking up is accompanied by a kind on mental switch, I start up the thing called consciousness. I have the thought, the intention, to get up.  This seems to be a non-physical phenomenon - and yet the physical world - my body- is affected.

The so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is the question just what IS a sensation, what IS the green of a leaf, what IS the painfulness of pain, what IS my intention to get out of bed. How does the firing of neurons generate these phenomena? Why does the feeling which accompanies awareness exist at all?

The question of consciousness has, until recently, been seen to be out of bounds to science - more the realm of philosophy or theology. Even though, each of us has a consciousness1 we are not well equipped to analyse it. We are biased towards a belief that feelings, sensations, hopes, fears are in some way ineffable – ‘feeling stuff’ seems different to ‘body stuff’.

The brain is pretty much blind to itself, we can feel the beating heart, the heart can feel pain, but thoughts and feelings just seem to arise like magic. Consciousness is for this reason often seen as belonging to the spiritual realm…how can it be explained in purely physical terms??

Levels of consciousness
Neuroscientists often distinguish between two (some, as many as 8) levels of consciousness – 'core' and 'extended'.

'Map' of core consciousness on the patch.
Core consciousness – animalistic, raw feelings – hunger, pain, thirst, fear etc. The function of these is clear – putting your hand over a flame is not a good thing for you to do – so evolution has come up with ‘pain’. There is nothing inherently painful in the flame, it is not a property of fire – instead your brain invents the feeling.  It is a powerful bodily ‘to do’ - move your hand away - that shoots straight to the top of the list of priorities. Good old evolution.

Humans clearly possess this kind of consciousness, but so do animals. The analogy of a dimmer switch is often used to describe the way the ‘light’ of consciousness is turned up as you go from primitive organisms to human beings. That’s to say, apes have a lot of it, dogs and magpies have some of it. But so, to some extent, do honey bees – the sweetness of nectar is the reward offered by the flower – prompting the bee to seek it out. When you get down to bees the dimmer switch maybe nearly off but there’s still some light.

'Map' of extended conciousness taking
 the restricted view that it is only possessed by
human beings
Core consciousness occurs on a moment by moment basis, when this is layered with memory, language, thoughts of the future, society etc, extended consciousness arises -  raw feelings are overlain with emotion.

Here is the dimmer switch turned up to full - we have the full and rich scope of human mind. So we have what are thought of uniquely human ‘complex’ emotions - nostalgia, love, sympathy, regret etc – and the things that have been the products over the centuries – a Beethoven Symphony, the Mona Lisa, Stonehenge, the moon landings, Buddism, the United Nations and yes even UKIP.

Even amongst humans there must be degrees of consciousness – adults having the dimmer switch turned full on, babies less so. If this is true then perhaps it follows that magpies and dogs (which, at least seem, as intelligent as a baby) are conscious in the same way that a toddler might be. That’s to say they also possess extended consciousness...just less of it.

The idea that having consciousness is something that extends beyond just Home sapiens is gaining currency.  In 2012 an international group of prominent scientists, including Stephen Hawkins, signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.  They proclaimed their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and squid.

The illusion of consciousness
Consciousness on the patch taking Daniel Dennett's view that it is
 an illusion, or more accurately taking his opponent's view that
that he denies the existence of consciousness.
Daniel Dennett – in his book Consciousness Explained argued that consciousness is, in fact, an illusion.  According to Dennett, the mind consists of a set of mental faculties (memory, reasoning, perception etc) which are physical systems that can be reduced to ever simpler sub-systems - what Dennett calls the 'army of idiots'. Dennett, therefore, thinks that there is no-one 'in charge' over and above the idiot army. We are under the misapprehension that there is an overarching conscious agent – this is the illusion.

Opponents of Dennett have referred to his book as ‘Consciousness Explained Away’ or ‘Consciousness Ignored’. John Searle has summarised Dennett’s view as denying the existence of consciousness. I think I agree, I read Consciousness Explained some years ago and when I got to the end thought, 'so when is he going to start explaining consciousness??'

Panpsychism views all matter as conscious - it's everywhere
David Chalmers has argued that consciousness must be a generated by physical processes, however feelings don’t correspond to any known property of matter. His rather startling conclusion is that matter must have some additional property which we are unaware of – and that, in fact matter itself is conscious. He further suggests that this must mean that consciousness is universal – it’s everywhere. If you are a Panpsychist you see yourself as a mind in a world of minds.

Not just would this mean that you’d have to extend the realm of consciousness down past honey bees but to microbes and then rocks.

This kind of idea has been around for a long time and Chalmer's work chimes in with the theories of Plato, Leibnitz and Spinoza. With attention turning to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness Panpsychism has, started, perhaps surprisingly, to become fashionable again.

Is the patch conscious?
On almost every definition of the word 'consciousness' and in almost every way it is explained we can conclude there is indeed consciousness on the patch, but what about the second question - is the patch itself conscious?

James lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis contends that the earth behaves as if it were a single organism. Organisms interact with their physical environment to form a self-regulating system that’s helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life.

The theory has been eagerly jumped on by some in the environmental movement and a 'Gaian Philosophy' has emerged. Subscribers to this strand of thought have gone a long way beyond Lovelock’s ideas and suggest that not only does the earth behave as if it were a living organism, but it actually is a living organism and a conscious one at that.

It’s certainly possible to imagine that some Gaian-type self-regulation happens at the level of an eco-system
Some so-called ‘new-age’ beliefs and several religious traditions hold a view that the earth, or even that the universe is conscious and so have embraced the notion of Gaia as being scientific proof of the fact.

Opponents of this view brand it has un-scientific and indeed wishful thinking - Lovelock himself would absolutely disown these ideas. Many scientists these days treat the Gaia hypothesis as a useful metaphor but nothing else.

Just to suppose for a moment that it were the case that the Earth were conscious – would that mean that a hemisphere was conscious? What about an eco-system? What about the patch?

What if the panpsychists are correct in their, seemingly hard to swallow, contention that all matter is conscious?  The patch is comprised of matter so on this view you'd have to conclude that, yes, in some way, the patch is conscious.

Perception per se
The map of core consciousness could also work as a map of neural activity and also of perception per se. Everywhere there are organisms with nervous systems. Sense organs are sending information to these 'brains'. There is a lot of perception going on.

Would it make any sense at all to view to these organisms collectively and contend that this collective has self awareness? Does this equate to a kind of collective consciousness?

In my view if the patch were ‘conscious’ then the meaning of the word has been stretched so far that it’s not at all the same thing as the kind self-awareness of internal states that humans possess. It’s certainly possible to imagine that some Gaian-type self-regulation happens at the level of an eco-system, but it’s not necessary to invoke ‘consciousness’ to explain it.

The Noosphere
Although, not totally relevant to the question 'is the patch conscious’ a fascination diversion is the concept of the ‘Noosphere’. If, as some contend, consciousness is a property that emerges from computation, then we should be able to a build a conscious robot with computer for a mind, if a robot why not a whole planet?

Humans are currently engaged in linking up the earth using the internet. Not only will the ‘internet of things’ link man made objects – fridges, cities, cars, but humans will be directly ‘plugged in’ to this web. Might the Earth itself then become conscious?

Recent Patch Sightings
27/8 - Tree Pipit -1, Chiffchaff - 21, Barn Owl -1
26/8 - Trickle of bird migrants overhead
25/8 - New Beetle - Silpha atrata
24/8 - Influx of Painted Ladies
5/8 - 'Flying Ant Day'
New Moths - Oak Hook tip, Cabbage moth, Dinghy shell, Blastobasis adustella, Ancylis badiadana

Another moth with beautiful metallic markings - Gold Spot
This Lesser Water Boatman was in the moth trap - it wasn't very happy until I put it in some water - then he was as happy as Larry (whoever he is)

Following on from my Minimal Wildlife Quiz I made these mugs with some of the designs
- Jay, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Goldfinch.

1 I can only ever know with absolutely certainly that I, myself am conscious - my mind is the only one I have access to. I have to make the working assumption that other people are also conscious. It makes sense to assume this - they behave as if they were conscious.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

An inordinate fondness for beetles

Ground beetles, in the garden pitfall trap during a seven day period (nb these are not to scale). There were other kinds of beetles in the trap - several species of Rove beetles for example these are just the Carabidae - Ground Beetles

The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reputed to have been asked what could be concluded about the nature of god from a study of his creation -  his reply was that he has -  "An inordinate fondness for beetles."

Yes there are a lot of beetle species - nature has got beetles coming out of its ears. I had my own taste of this during my week long 'beetle drive' (fans of pointless stuff your parents used to do should check out the beetle drive). I put a pitfall trap in the garden - this being a glass jar placed into a hole in the ground. Beetles stumble into the trap and can't get out - simple, yet...erm...simple.

Almost every time I inspected the trap - I would see one or two ground beetles scurrying around and bumping into each other like tiny dogem cars. Black and shiny and all the same - until closer inspection revealed them to be mostly different species  - an inordinate fondness indeed.

There are are around 400,000 described species of beetles (and probably over a million in total), compared to 5,487 species of mammal, for example.

Why are there so many species?

A number of suggestions have been put forward:
  • Many beetles are plant feeders and plants provide a large number of ecological niches.
  • As they go through metamorphosis the different stages are able to exploit a range of habitats.
  • As they have a hard exoskeleton they are able to withstand extreme conditions. 
  • Some groups are innately good at speciation.
It has also been suggested that, as beetles are a relatively old group they have had longer to diversify than newer groups such as mammals. There are, however, other orders of a similar vintage which are nowhere near as diverse as beetles.

Recent studies of the fossil record indicate that the key factor is that beetles tend to be extinction proof.  So while they're good at producing new species they're even better at not going extinct - and clearly didn't pass on any tips to the dinosaurs.

Very few beetle families have ever gone extinct through their evolutionary history.

This begs further questions however - why are beetles resistant to extinction? Why are there so many insects per se, and indeed why are there so many species of anything?

In common with the reggae song by Johnny Nash this blog has 'more questions than answers'.
Ruptela maculata
Phyllobius glaucus
Athous haemorrhoidalis
Gastrophysa viridula

Black Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus humator)

I quite often catch beetles in the moth trap and particularly the carrion eating sexton beetles - these have a fascinating mutual relationship with mites.

Mites of the genus Poecilochirus produce nymphs that crawl on the beetles and are transported to carrion. Once they arrive at the carrion the mites leave the beetle and proceed to feed on nearby fly eggs and immature larvae.

Mites help sexton beetles reduce the amount of competitors on carrion. With less competition the beetles' larvae have a better chance of maturing to adults."

It's win-win - the mites get free transport to sources of carrion - the beetle larvae get more food - hoorah!

Rosemary beetle (Chrysolina americana)

This beetle originates from southern Europe and has been found in Britain since the mid-1990s. It feeds on Rosemary and Lavenda and is now considered a pest

It's a bit of a beauty though!

Scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

Sometimes wildlife should come with a Parental Guidance warning!

Carabus nitens

My blog rule is that I only include wildlife from the patch - I've made an exception for this jewel of a beetle however found in the Bowland Area

Monday, 1 August 2016

Arthur C. Barnett's Mysterious World

There are mysteries around every corner. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool, a charlatan and/or Ezra Pound, without an ounce of poetry in their soul (I personally have 3.02 grams of poetry in my soul).

With this in mind, I embarked on a patch expedition to get to the heart, of the kernel, of the crux of these riddles, that have puzzled precisely no-one since the dawn of time. Camera grasped to my sweaty palm like a diseased sailor (nonsensical similes ahoy) I embarked on the Odyssey of a Lunchtime, armed only with my ‘weak lemon drink’…and some clothes…and shoes…and the aforementioned camera.

'Giants Back-Alley'

The first port of call was the conundrum, not known in these parts as ‘Giant's Back Alley’ (also ‘Large Person’s Lego’). These ‘building bricks’ were on a truly gargantuan scale, with a girth and breadth of...oh…easily…..that much.

Did celebrity giant, Fin Mctool use this site as a dry run for his later piece – the famous ‘Causeway’. Is it performance art? Is there a sense in which it works on several levels? Will it ever be finished?

A more prosaic explanation is that these are the stones that previously belonged to some kind of ‘building’ as it were – who can say...perhaps we’ll never know.

Mystery one – nailed it.

'The Fire Trees of Doom'

Buoyed by having definitely solved my first mystery I strode on with the confidence of a small anteater. I felt like some latterday ‘Richard Dawkins’, debunking sloppy thinking left, right and centre, one god delusion at a time - whilst getting really annoyed at religious fanatics and totally loving the evolution.

The next stop in my patch puzzle pilgrimage was the breathtaking ‘Fire Trees of Doom’.

Dude, this really is an all-time top eight mystery! It’s a cornucopia of confusement and a plethora of perplexitude. This is also ’something like a phenomenon’, which only happens at certain times of the day – nearly always in the morning – a fact that only deepens the mystery.

Certain fir trees appear to glow! Yes that's right you heard correctly - hold off the ear syringing for the moment. They are backlit with an eerie radiance, looking for all the world like a star (or a kind of ‘sun’, if you will) rising up in the background!

Is this a magical transmission from a sparkly netherworld of sprites and spirits? …or maybe celestial yobbos starting a fire for no reason??...or maybe these are glowworms on a truly industrial scale??

The answer…it’s definitely a magical transmission from a sparkly netherworld of sprites and spirits.

Mystery 2 - cracked! 

The Hatch (also of Doom)

Warming to my task, like an underwater salesman, I proceeded to the best, boldest and baddest of all possible enigmas - The Hatch!!! This is also of course 'of doom'.  Viewers of the long-running reality series, ‘Lost’ will be well aware of the significance of a hatch.

What we learnt from the well-researched and easy-to-follow documentary was that ALL hatches lead down to a chamber, in which sits a little Scotsman, preventing a global catastrophe by the simple expedient of pressing a button.

This hatch was, of course, no exception - I shouted down to the Jailed Jock –‘don’t bother pressing the button, it’s just a poorly explained psychological experiment – no disastrous consequences will ensue if you don’t do it”. He shouted back ‘oh, ok’.

Mystery 3 Solved!

And so I returned home, tired but happy in the knowledge that the final pieces in the jigsaw of time had fallen at my feet.

Bestriding the mysteries of the patch like a bloomin’, big colossus? – job done! where's me breaky.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

'Minimal Wildlife' - quiz

When doing my blog post on camouflage I was messing about with a couple of moth designs in photoshop. I found that I could simplify the design a lot and it would still suggest the moth.

So I thought what's the minimum amount of information, that's needed to suggest a certain species? I've tried to use just geometric shapes. I've also tried to get as far away as possible from any kind of representation of the species and still have it be in some way recognisable.

I also quite like these as wildlife art - I'm going to hang them on my wall!

What do you think these are? They could be birds, mammals, insects, flowers or fungi.

I was asked by a local RSPB group to do these additional images - as fun / educational resources for Children