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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Dictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Rich and fascinating in their own right, scientific names add greatly to the pleasure of natural history, commemorating both its roots in ancient history and the scientists who have laboured to systematize and classify the living world. So you can move from Achillea millefolium, “the thousand-leafed (medicinal) plant of Achilles” to Lonicera hildebrandiana, “Hildebrand’s plant of Lonitzer”. Achilles will need no introduction; Adam Lonitzer (1528-86) was a German naturalist and A.H. Hildebrand (1852-1918) a British plant-collector. I was disappointed at first to learn where Lonicera came from, because it’s an attractive name that I thought would have some suitably attractive meaning in Latin or Greek. After all, the most famous member of the genus is L. periclymenum, or honeysuckle.

But beauty from banality is appropriate enough for plants, and there are countless beautiful meanings elsewhere. Strange ones too, like Lycopersicum esculentum, “tasty wolf-peach”, a.k.a the tomato, and Dranunculus muscivorus, “fly-eating little dragon”. That last plant reveals one of the book’s minor flaws, however, because it’s also listed under its alternative name of Helicidiceros muscivorus. But the listing refers you straight to D. muscivorus and you’ll have to go outside this book to find out what Helicidiceros means (“the helical plant with two horns”, apparently).

That apart, Dictionary of Plant Names should fascinate and delight any serious gardener or plant-lover and almost all of the names vanish into mystery in the end, because even the ones that have millennia of written history in Latin or Greek go back into many more millennia of prehistory.

The man ultimately responsible for this feast of mystery and meaning, beauty and strangeness, was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who invented the binomial system — generic name with initial capital (Achillea) plus specific name in lowercase (millefolium) — and who commemorated himself in his favourite plant, the delicately beautiful Linnaea borealis, “the northern Linnean”, whose common name is “twin flower”. It was a humble choice for the greatest of all systemizers and classifiers, but humility is a Christian virtue (albeit a little-practised one) and Linnaeus was a staunch Protestant.

That isn’t a coincidence: Protestantism was one of the foundation-stones of modern science and though that wasn’t necessarily good either for Protestantism itself or for the wider world, it may reflect the more introverted psychology of northern Europeans. As God and our relation to Him slowly slid off-stage, the natural world slid on and we eventually discovered that we were part of it. The staunchly Protestant Linnaeus led to the agnostic Darwin, the agnostic Darwin to the staunchly atheist Dawkins. Orbis redit in orbem — “the cycle ever repeats” — but science can still offer quiet aesthetic pleasures as it marches us back towards fanaticism and worse, and you can find some of them in books like this.

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Crash: The Limits of Car Safety, Nicholas Faith (Boxtree 1998)

It’s got the same name as J.G. Ballard’s book and David Cronenberg’s now notorious film of J.G. Ballard’s book, but Nicholas Faith’s Crash could never have attracted as much attention at those two. A fiction about people deriving sexual pleasure from deaths and injuries in cars is much more important than the reality of deaths and injuries in cars. Rather in the way the fact that Princess Di died was much more important than why she died – which was because she was travelling in a grossly overpowered machine in a crowded city.

Lots more examples of the psychological paradoxes and lunacies of our love affair with the car can be produced, and this book produces them: “[D]uring Ulster’s quarter-century of Troubles, more deaths have been reported from road accidents than from the civil war.” But road deaths aren’t deliberate and malicious, so there’s no satisfying moral frisson to be had from them and they get ignored. Plus, we simply don’t like to face the truth – it’s too horrible to face it. Unless you stay inside all your life, you have to get near cars sometimes. That means that you can die in a very unpleasant and painful way by being hit by a car, whether you’re inside another car or not.

It’s much worse if you’re not, of course, because pedestrians take sixth or seventh place in the priorities of city-planners and architects. And car-designers:

One gesture that motor manufacturers could make an effort to reduce pedestrian injury would be to make the front of cars more pedestrian-friendly. The most dangerous vehicles are those with high ground clearance and ornaments, especially bull-bars – designed to show that the owner is used to herding cattle or elephants. These should be forbidden (or, at least, their owners assumed to be guilty if they ever hit a pedestrian).

They won’t be forbidden, because some people think they look good and they make cars more expensive, which helps the profits of the manufacturers, who have been putting profit above people for a long time. Cadillacs, for example, used to have “a prominent knife-like projection just above the instrument panel. It was designed to prevent reflection of the instrument panel onto the windshield. To accomplish this minor task, they produced as lethal a device as is seen in any American car.”

And was it removed when its lethality was pointed out? Maybe. If that didn’t interfere with profits. During the investigation into the way cars built by Ford were catching fire very easily, an American investigator

found various crucial Ford documents, one of which was a letter from the Ford Motor Company arguing why they should not make fuel-tank system improvements. They said that there will be 180 burn deaths per year at $200,000 value per burn death, there will be 180 serious burn injuries at $67,000 value per serious burn injury, and there will also be thousands of burned vehicles and there was a value on that. When you added all those numbers together it came out to an annual benefit of $50 million. Ford said we can fix the problem for $11 per vehicle but if you multiply the $11 per vehicle by the many millions of vehicle made per year, that came out to $150 million. So Ford was arguing that it was cheaper to let ’em burn.

The same kind of designers and the same kind of priorities were putting cars on the roads in Britain and Europe at the same time – and still are – and if car-manufacturers here were getting up to the same tricks as some American ones it’s quite possible that they got away with it, because we don’t have the same freedom of information laws:

Perhaps the most nefarious example of GM [General Motors]’s power emerged only in the 1970s through a Senate investigation. This revealed that it had headed a group of major companies that had bought and then shut down the light rail systems used for mass transit in Los Angeles, replacing it[,] partially and inadequately, with buses, nine out of ten of which were made by GM. The 1964 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles were directly traceable to the inhabitants’ inability to get to work by public transport.

That sort of thing shouldn’t be unexpected, but some of the other facts in the book should be. Seat-belts save lives, don’t they? Well, yes, of course they do. Or do they? Maybe not. Studies have been done that show they don’t seem to have had any effect, because they make drivers feel safer, drive faster, and crash more often and with worse effects. Paradoxical, but “paradoxical” is a word that comes to mind a lot when you read this book. Cars have very strange effects on our psychology and for all the huge damage they do and the deaths and injuries they cause, we don’t seem prepared to do anything about them.

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The Biology of Flowers, Eigil Holm, illustrated by Thomas Bredsdorff and Peter Nielsen (Penguin Nature Guides 1979)

An excellent short introduction to one of the most fascinating areas of biology. Flowers are results of millions of years of interaction between plants and animals. The first animals were insects, the next were birds, and the last so far, at least in nature, were bats. Flight is the important thing, you see, because it allows pollinators to travel far, fast and accurately between individual flowers. To take advantage of wings, plants have evolved to advertise with color, shape and scent, but those advertisements aren’t necessarily honest. Some animals are paid for their services with nectar and pollen, or even with seeds, but others are tricked into cooperating or even turned into drug-addicts.

Helleborines of the genus Epipactis, an orchid named after a plant supposed in ancient times to cure madness, actually induce a kind of madness in the wasps that pollinate them: a wasp sometimes becomes so drunk on Helleborine nectar that “it cannot fly, but walks from flower to flower, covered in pollen clubs” (the helleborine glues a little stick of pollen to the wasp’s head as it drinks the nectar). The wasps can even blunder into spiders’ webs while under the influence or end up too weak to move, caught on the sticky helleborine flower. Apart from bee-orchids, flowers pollinated by bees generally play fair. But bees don’t always play fair back: some flowers are designed for only the heaviest bumblebees to enter, so the lighter “buff-tailed bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris) sometimes steals the nectar by biting holes in the corolla tube” (the base of the flower where nectar is stored).

Talk of “playing fair” is anthropomorphism, of course: selfish genes take whatever advantage they can and if a plant has evolved to feed an animal, it’s because the animal performs some service for it in return. Plants that don’t use animals to reproduce, like the grasses, can seem less interesting at first glance, but if you wait patiently by a field of rye (Secale cereale) in summer, you might change your mind. The dull-looking rye-flowers will be waiting patiently too: for a “sudden lowering of light intensity” caused by a cloud passing in front of the sun, which will trigger the simultaneous opening of thousands of stigmas and a huge cloud of pollen. There’s a lot more to even the dullest-looking flower — and plant — than immediately meets the eye, and this book will give you many mind-expanding examples, beside enriching your understanding of those aspects of flowers that do immediately meet the eye (and nose): their shapes, colors and scents.

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RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Possibly the best short guide to the seashore I’ve ever seen. There’s a good balance between informative text and attractive images. And while the photos are good for identification, the detailed and attractive line-diagrams by Marc Dando are good for understanding, whether it’s the internal anatomy of the green sea-urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) or the life-cycle of the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).

You don’t get so much interest so easily on land. Apart from insects, the strangest and most interesting terrestrial life tends to be microscopic. That’s not true of marine life and the seashore, where the outré is almost everyday. It’s a Lovecraftian place, from surreal sea-slugs and seductive sea-anemones to highly intelligent octopuses and highly idiosyncratic crabs. There’s beauty, like star ascidians (Botryllus schlosseri) and jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis), and grotesqueness, like sea-spiders (Nymphon gracile) and their relatives the barnacles (which are crustaceans, not molluscs). As Darwin wrote of barnacles: “The probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed… when fully extended it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal!” That quote begins the section on “Echinoderms” and Maya Plass has found a similarly quirky or enticing quote for every other section, whether it’s poetry by an obscure Victorian naturalist or prose by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Plass is not only writing in a long tradition of natural-history guides: she’s paying homage to that tradition. And I was glad to see a a chrestomathic crustaceologism from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) heading the section on lobsters. His book celebrates the variety and variousness of water and the life it nourishes. More than a century later, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore does exactly the same.

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Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

An excellent and unpretentious guide to a subject that can go sadly awry in the wrong hands: psychogeography. Whether she’s writing about stone-circles or ley-lines, Joanne Parker keeps an open mind but never allows her brains to fall out. Her message is: “Here’s what people have thought and done – now make up your own mind.” Or maybe that should be: “Now go and see for yourself.” This book is both a guide and a goad, because after reading it you’ll want to look at what it talks about.

But stone-circles, in chapter two, and ley-lines, in chapter four, are esoteric excursions amid earthly or aerial realities. Chapters one and two are devoted to caves and canals. Then the book takes to the air for a look at flight-paths in the fifth and final chapter. Parker must have planned that journey from the underground to the aerial, from the subterranean to the celestial. The themes of the book are firmly established in that first chapter: there’s much more out there than readers may have supposed.

In fact, there’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Caves are fascinating places both physically and psychologically. Merely knowing about them alters the way you view a landscape. When you enter and explore them, another landscape changes – your own mind. But caving isn’t just about exploration: it can also involve excavation. Cave-systems can be extended or brought together by digging. It’s tough and dirty work and the cavers who undertake it are running risks like those faced by their mining fathers and grandfathers before them.

But one big difference is that they aren’t being paid for the risks they run. One of the genetic legacies of agriculture may be a propensity to enjoy activity for its own sake, because a farmer’s work is never done. Hobbies are a kind of work and our conscious motives for them may be no more than rationalizations for urges that literally uncoil from our DNA. But the urge to compete must be older than anything agricultural:

When Nixon discovered Titan, reducing Gaping Gill to the second largest cave in Britain, he was, he confesses, “delighted to steal the crown, as it were” from Yorkshire. While sprawling underground passages may stretch underground like colossal sleeping dragons, with a prehistoric disregard for county borders and human rivalries, one spur to diggers is certainly local pride. […] The connection of Lancashire’s Ireby Fell caverns to Rift Pot in Yorkshire was celebrated proudly with Eccles cake, Lancashire cheese, Black Sheep beer and Yorkshire teacakes, as the Three Counties system took its penultimate step towards deposing Ogof Draenen. And for many other cavers, making their local caverns deeper, longer or more complex than caverns further afield becomes a challenge akin to the race between medieval parishes to build church spires ever closer to the heavens. (ch. 1, “Underground, Overground: The Caver’s Map of Britain”, pg. 26)

So that chapter delves deep into the earth; the next delves deep into history as it looks at “Prehistoric Patterns: The Megalithic Shape of Britain”. But the caving chapter has prepared the way, because caves were among the first places occupied in prehistory: “The Torquay cave also boasts a human jawbone, dated between 38,000 and 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest fossils from modern man ever to have been found in Europe” (pg. 16). No stone-circle is as old as that and maybe human beings weren’t capable of creating them so long ago. In some cases, matching a stone-circle would be a big challenge even today, with the full resources of our technological age. The architectural expertise and astronomical alignments of sites like Avebury and Stonehenge should stir the stolidest mind.

So could the subject of chapter three, the “Hidden Highways” that form “The Lost Map of Britain’s Inland Navigators”. In other words: canals. They were the veins and arteries of the Industrial Revolution. Then thrombosis and gangrene set in, because advancing technology made roads and railways more economical, so the canal network is much smaller than it used to be. Economics expanded it, then choked and contracted it.

But canals had become part of psychogeography, so their decline hasn’t been irreversible. Water has always been an esoteric element, as John Buchan conveyed in one of his best short-stories, but canals were a new variation on an ancient them: they were river-like, but they didn’t flow and they didn’t swing or swerve. Sometimes they dove straight through hills. The strangeness and romance of canals are well-summed up for me in the fact that Robert Aickman, one of England’s greatest macabre writers, was the founder and early vice-president of the Inland Waters Association. And people who love canals don’t like to see them disappear:

The Wey and Arun Canal Trust are working piecemeal on the canal, in the hope that some day its full length might be revived. Many other canals around the country are, similarly, waiting for their second coming, trusting to the undiminished enthusiasm of optimistic volunteers – to the successors of men like the late David Hutchings, who, after his groundbreaking restoration of the Stratford Canal in 1958, proclaimed simply, “Fortunately none of us were experts, or we should all have known that it was impossible.” (ch. 3, pg. 89)

Hobbies can be hard work. For some people, they wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t. But the ley-hunting of chapter four is usually more leisurely than caving or canal-recreation. Ley-lines are earthbound, but they capture the imagination in a special way. The man who introduced them to the world, Alfred Watkins, had the right name: earthy and English. And he chose the right string of monosyllables for the title of the book he published about ley-lines in 1925: The Old Straight Track. His theory was the British landscape still bore the signposts used by ancient traders in salt, flint, furs and other necessities of prehistoric life. By using hill-tops, stone-circles and churches built on ancient sites, he mapped what he called ley-lines, or the routes used in ancient times to travel in the most direct way across the landscape.

But there’s one of the difficulties with his theory right away: the most direct way across a landscape is rarely the easiest or most convenient. Why climb up and down a hill or wade through a marsh when it’s quicker to go around it? And are the alignments that Watkins identified really deliberate? In some ways it didn’t matter: ley-lines captured the imagination of countless people and have inspired countless expeditions. And adaptations of his theory have slipped the surly bonds of ergonomics: some people say that ley-lines are about earth-currents, not economics. There’s a lot of speculation, insubstantiality and even UFOlogy to ley-lines today. I don’t know what Joanne Parker herself thinks. She presents all sides of the arguments and chapter four becomes part of the camera obscura offering an overview of the wildness, weirdness and wackiness of British psychogeography.

Then, after the UFO flight-paths of chapter four, the book takes to the wing for the real flight-paths of chapter five. Except that the earliest human aeronauts in Britain weren’t on the wing: they were under the basket. Balloons were the first stage of man’s conquest of the air. They’ve never gone away: like canals, although they’re obsolete in strictly practical terms, there’s something special about them that invites and sustains serious devotees. But the planes that replaced balloons, like the trains that replaced canal-boats, have more devotees. Maybe Parker should have included a chapter on trains and their tracks, but I don’t think the book misses them. This is Britannia Obscura and trains aren’t obscure. I like them, but I can read about them elsewhere.

I’ve never read about Britain’s “Flight Paths and Regions” before. Air has always been an emblem of fluidity, but there’s a lot of rigidity up there now:

The practical problem with so much free airspace being gobbled up [by commercial aviation] is that it makes routes across the country more and more difficult for general aviation. “Where I live in the south-east,” Brian Hope says, “you can fly between airports at the moment to get north or west. But if Farnborough and Southend airports both get controlled airspace, that would block those routes.” It’s a little like a gated community suddenly being built in the middle of the Pennine Way or halfway round the South West Coast Path. And it’s not just close to London that these problems exist. The controlled airspace around Birmingham and Manchester is also notoriously difficult to avoid, and Bristol’s controlled airspace has recently joined up with Cardiff’s to create a vast impasse in the west. (ch. 5, “Highways in the Air: The Map of Britain’s Skies”, pg. 151)

I hadn’t thought about any of that before, but I hadn’t thought about a lot of the things in this book before. It’s been a mind-expander and an eye-opener, teaching me a lot and prompting me to look for more information elsewhere on everything from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “one of the seven wonders of the canal world” (pg. 70), to the Belinus Line, a ley that stretches the entire length of the British Isles and seems to connect Inverhope, Inverness, Carlisle, Birmingham, Winchester and Lee-on-Solent.

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The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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Morbidly Miriam: The Mephitic Memoirs of Miriam B. Stimbers, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2018)

(This is a guest-review by Dr Benjamin H. Rubinberg)

Miriam Stimbers is, in my opinion, the most important psychoanalyst at work anywhere in the world today. When she began her career, the prospects within academia for psychoanalysis must have seemed less than rosy. Unrelentingly vicious and increasingly underhand attacks had been made on Freud’s golden legacy since the end of the Second World War. We had been told that psychoanalysis was irrational and anti-empirical, authoritarian and misogynistic, that it was a pseudo-scientific cult for the superstitious, simplistic and statistically illiterate.

Miriam responded to these attacks by defiantly taking Freudian techniques to new heights of psychoanalytic sophistication and seismographic subtlety. She began her career detecting “Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy” in the seemingly carefree music of Suzi Quatro. She went on to unearth “Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust” in the apparently mild-mannered music of Simon and Garfunkel. More recently, in what is perhaps her greatest triumph to date, she has laid bare “Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism” in the superficially ‘civilized’ novels of Jane Austen. And anyone who has read a single paragraph in any one of these jaw-dropping studies must have asked her- or himself: What is the back-story of this remarkable scholar?

Morbidly Miriam: The Mephitic Memoirs of Miriam B. Stimbers is Miriam’s own attempt to answer that question, containing what she describes as “an uncompromising chronicle of my first fifty years on Earth.” The opening fifteen of those years were difficult ones, to put it mildly. Miriam was born in the notoriously rough-hewn Scottish city of Glasgow and had authentically atrocious “Parents from Hell.” Both were alcoholics, both were addicted to violence, both seemed to thrive on chaos and conflict. Miriam admits that she may well have inherited her own “committed contrarianism” from her “tram-conductress” mother, but she says that memories like the following still have the power to chill her blood at several decades’ distance:

Ma stood swaying in the door of the living-room, flushed with a mixture of cheap whiskey and vindictive triumph.

“Weel, Ah’ve done it!” she announced.

“Done whit, ye auld bitch?” responded Pa with a belch, scarcely troubling to look up from where he sat slumped in his armchair, listening to the racing results on our battered 1950s radio.

“Ah’ve joint the fuckin’ Tories!”

That attracted Pa’s attention.

“The fuck ye have!”

“Aye, an’ Ah have at that.”

“Ah’ll no have nae fuckin’ Tory under this roof!”

“An’ there ye’re wrang, ye auld cunt. ’Cos Ah’m a fuckin’ Tory an’ Ah’m under this roof right noo, see?”

“Weel, then, ye can clear yer fuckin’ airse off oot of it!”

“The fuck Ah will!”

“Ye will an’ all, woman, or Ah’ll boot ye oot!”

Most days, Pa would have thrown something hard and heavy by now, but I could see him squinting and blinking first at Ma in the doorway, then at the bottles sitting on the floor by his chair. He was seeing double again. (ch. 2, “Ye Can Take the Girrul Oot-a Glasgae…”, pp. 23-4)

That episode from Miriam’s home-life is horrifying on many levels, no? But it was not so bad as it might seem. Despite her shocking avowal, Miriam’s mother was being deceitful: she had not in fact joined “the Tories,” that is, Britain’s loathsomely racist and white-supremacist Conservative party. She was merely seeking to provoke her husband into a fight. In this, as so often before and later, she succeeded and the young Miriam was soon once again ringing for a pair of ambulances and mopping blood off the carpet. It is little wonder that Miriam sought a refuge from the violence and vindictiveness of her home-life in the calmer, kinder and caringer world of books and literature, nor that she should have set her heart on winning a scholarship and becoming the first person in her extended family of “boozers and brawlers” to attend university.

The scholarship – “my magic carpet to a better world,” as Miriam calls it – took her to Merton College, Oxford, and introduced her to some of the most exciting and up-to-date developments in literary theory. But she had already lost her heart to a certain roguish revolutionary from Vienna: Herr Sigmund Freud. Miriam has proved unflinchingly faithful to Freud and Freudianism right to the present day. Her move from Britain to the United States has merely strengthened her commitment and deepened her respect. Indeed, on the day that disaster struck her new homeland and a “bouffant buffoon” (as Miriam cuttingly puts it) was elected to the White House, she says that she found herself “literally praying to my wise old Meister.”

Despair was nevertheless an ever-present temptation in the wake of Trump’s “toxic triumph,” but Miriam says that she was determined to remain strong both for the the planet’s sake and for the sake of her life-partner Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum, who is, in her own words, “a proud member of the Black-African Diaspora (despite the racist assumptions made by sickeningly many people on first hearing his name).” Miriam has never taken the comfortable route or sought the quiet life. “It would have been very easy,” she writes of her trans-Atlantic move, “to take advantage of white privilege, to sleep with powerful white men, and to coast to superficial success in America. I could not do that. I will not do that. Hier stehe Ich – Ich kann nicht anders.”

She’s right. She won’t do that. But we can be sure that she will continue to thrust the boundaries of psychoanalysis outward, upward, and downward, just as we can be sure that she will continue to alternately intrigue her adventurous readers and traumatize her timid colleagues. Miriam Stimbers is the psychoanalyst of the century and Morbidly Miriam is a must-read autobiography for fans old and new alike.


A Seriously Stimbulating Stimbibliography

Penetrating the (Pernicious) Portal: Towards a Pre-Anthropology of the Knock-Knock Joke (Oxford University Press 1992)
Miscegenation, Misogyny, and (Mephitic) Mimesis: Towards a Post-Anthropology of the Lightbulb Joke (O.U.P. 1995)
Can the Cannibal? Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro, 1974-1986 (University of Nebraska Press 2004)
Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010 (Serpent’s Tail 2007)
Law of the ’Saw: Terror, Teratology, and Tmetic Tenebrosity in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (U.N.P. 2010)
Kentucky Fried Freud: Candid Confessions of a 21st-Century Psychoanalyst… (TransVisceral Books 2012)
Re-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music of Take That, 1988-2007 (U.N.P. 2013)
Base Citizens Raping: Revulsion, Repulsion and Rabidity in the Music of the Bay City Rollers, 1972-2002 (U.N.P. 2014)
Botty: An Unnatural History of the Backside (TransVisceral Books 2014) (reviewed here)
Jane in Blood: Castration, Clitoridolatry and Communal Cannibalism in the Novels of Jane Austen (U.N.P. 2014)
Underground, Jehovahground: Ferality, Fetidity and Fundamentalist Phantasmality in the Music of the Wombles, August 1974-January 1975 (TransVisceral Books 2015)
Komfort Korps: Cuddles, Calmatives and Cosy Cups of Cocoa in the Music of Korpse-Hump Kannibale, 2003-2010 (U.N.P. 2015)

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Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

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Moon: From 4.5 billion years ago to the present: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David M. Harland (Haynes 2016)

It was a clever idea: to put out a guide to the Moon in the same format as one of Haynes’ famous car-maintenance manuals. And the execution matched the idea. This is a detailed and interesting history of selenological speculation and lunar exploration, all the way from the ancient Greeks to the Apollo missions and beyond.

Except that there hasn’t been much beyond the Apollo missions. As the book’s final page notes:

On 31 December 1999 National Public Radio in the United States asked Sir Arthur C. Clarke, renowned for forecasting many of the developments of the 20th century, whether anything had happened in the preceding 100 years that he never could have anticipated. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “The one thing that I never would have expected is that after centuries of wonder and imagination and aspiration, we would have gone to the Moon… and then stopped.” (“Postscript”, pg. 172)

And we’ve been stopped for some time. Neil Armstrong died in 2012, forty-three years after that “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind” in 1969. But David M. Harland ends on an optimistic note: he thinks that “The Moon is humanity’s future.” It will be our gateway to the rest of the solar system and perhaps even the stars.

But it will be more than just a gateway. There is still a lot we don’t understand about our nearest celestial neighbour and big surprises may still be in store. One thing we do now understand is that the scarred and pitted lunar surface got that way from the outside, not the inside. That is, the moon was bombarded with meteors, not convulsed by volcanoes. But that understanding, so obvious in hindsight, took a long time to reach and it was actually geologists, not astronomers, who promoted and proved it (ch. 5, “The origin of lunar craters”). It was the last big question to be settled before the age of lunar exploration began.

Previously scientists had looked at the Moon with their feet firmly on the ground; at the end of the 1950s, they began to send probes and robotic explorers. Harland takes a detailed look at what these machines looked like, how they worked and where they landed or flew. Then came the giant leap: the Apollo missions. They were an astonishing achievement: a 21st-century feat carried out with technology from the 1960s, as Harland puts it. Yet in one way they depended on technology much earlier than the 1960s: pen and paper. The missions relied on the equations set out in Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). Newton had wanted to explain, inter multa alia, why the Moon moved as it did.

By doing that, he also explained where a spacecraft would need to be aimed if it wanted to leave the Earth and go into orbit around the Moon. His was a great intellectual achievement just as the Apollo missions were a great technological achievement, but he famously said that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Harland begins the book with those giants: the earlier scientists and mathematicians who looked up in wonder at the Moon and tried to understand its mysteries. Apollonius, Hipparchus and Ptolemy were giants in the classical world; Galileo, Brahe and Kepler were giants in the Renaissance. Then came Newton and the men behind the Apollo missions.

Are there more giants to come? The Moon may be colonized by private enterprise, not by a government, so the next big names in lunar history may be those of businessmen, not scientists, engineers and astronauts. But China, India and Japan have all begun sending probes to the Moon, so their citizens may follow. Unless some huge disaster gets in the way, it’s surely only a matter of time before more human beings step onto the lunar surface. Even with today’s technology it will be a great achievement and more reason to marvel at the Apollo missions. And the Apollo photographs still look good today.

There are lots of those photographs here, with detailed discussion of the men and machines that allowed them to be taken. The Moon is a fascinating place and this is an excellent guide to what we’ve learned and why we need to learn more.

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That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People, Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead (Bloomsbury 2016)

It would have been worth reading this book for this single pithy summation of religion’s appeal:

Colin Haycraft, the atheist husband of the fervently reactionary Catholic writer Alice Thomas Ellis, used to say that “religion is for women and queers” […] (ch. 3, “Gays and Evangelicals”, pg. 39)

In fact, there’s more than that to make reading worthwhile, but “women and queers” are usually at the heart of the story. Sometimes in very funny ways, like the encounter between the Nigerian Bishop of Enugu and Richard Kirker, “the general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement” outside the Lambeth Conference in 1998. As Kirker squeaked in indignation, the Bishop of Enugu tried to exorcise him: “I can deliver you! God wants to deliver you! In the name of JESUS! Father, I pray that you deliver him from homosexuality in the name of JESUS! Father, I deliver him out of homosexuality, out of gay!” (pg. 138)

That’s in chapter 8, “Dreams of a Global Church”, which describes the Church of England’s ludicrous attempts to become a big player on the world stage by harnessing the almost entirely imaginary power of the Anglican Communion. Everything the Church of England does is ludicrous, but the sight of two sacred minorities – the Black Community and the Gay Community – clashing like that is especially so. Not that the Bishop of Enugu really belongs to a minority, but that’s how he would have been seen by Guardianistas in the UK. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead are certainly Guardianistas, so they think the Church of England’s decline has been caused by its failure to become liberal fast enough:

[T]he biggest casualty of the battle over women was the continuing support of ordinary English women, and their willingness to pass on the faith. The timing could not have been worse. The first generation of women to be both highly educated and still committed to the Church of England in large numbers was precisely the one the battle did most to alienate. (ch. 5, “The Trouble with Women”, pg. 89)

Apparently the Church should have accepted women priests immediately and not alienated that vital generation. To me that’s nonsense. Decline was inevitable and the only parts of the Anglican Communion flourishing today are the evangelical ones in the West and the conservative ones in the Third World, neither of whom accept women priests or want to be welcoming to gays. Christianity is declining in America too and the Episcopal Church’s rush to embrace gay and women priests has done it no good.

And “Blacks vs Gays” isn’t the only funny clash of Guardianista favourites: the Gay Community doesn’t always get on with women either. One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters says this about Anglo-Catholics in Brideshead Revisited (1945): “They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents.” That isn’t so far from the truth: Anglo-Catholics are the “smells and bells” wing of the CofE and this book says they control a training college called St Stephen’s House, or “Staggers”:

Some of the handful of women unwise enough to go to St Stephen’s ended up being transferred to other colleges by compassionate DDOs [Diocesan Directors of Ordinands], and the handful who stuck it out learned to live with routine cruelties and humiliations. One year, at the end of their time in training, they sent the customary Petertide ordination cards to their brother students asking for their prayers, only to find them torn up into small pieces and returned to their own pigeon-holes. (ch. 2, “Cuddesdon: where the mild things are”, pg. 24)

Bitchy? Well, yes: St Stephen’s was famous for a culture “in which men called each other by girl’s names like ‘Doris’ and ‘Betty’ and got excited by lacy cottas and embroidered chasubles.” (pg. 23) That camp culture wasn’t at all welcoming to real girls. But how can self-professed Christians, gay or otherwise, behave like that? A quote at the end of the book suggests an answer: “Christian hatred is powerful because it arises out of deep convictions which really matter to the haters.” But the deepest Christian conviction of all should surely be devotion to and obedience of Jesus, who told his followers: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew v:44; Luke vi:27).

There’s little sign of those divine commands being followed by any side in this book, but the twisted psychology of religion is part of what makes it so fascinating. The best argument against belief is the behaviour of believers. But conservative believers do at least keep Christianity alive. Liberal believers kill it by trying to make it acceptable to the Guardian. Liberal Christianity is often just as irrational as evangelical, but less interesting and entertaining for all involved, whether true believers or sceptical outsiders:

Andrew has had it seriously explained that the only reason God does not resurrect the dead at English ecclesiastic events the way that frequently happens in Africa (if we are to judge by the evidence of evangelical DVDs) is that the English don’t have enough faith. (ch. 7, “Charismatic signs and wonders”, pp. 127-8)

It takes enormous faith to believe that the Church of England will ever be a popular church again, in any sense of the word. I think Christianity will revive, but it will be the crazy and conservative kinds, not the kinds favoured by the authors of this book.

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