“Of swallows, hares and horrors” – Simon Barnes on nature in the Age of Terror

Original here:

Wild June moves into Day 5 and I’m spoiled for choice again. Shall I write about the swallows above the meadow? Or the hare in the garden? We saw each other at the same time and we both froze, holding a 15 yard stand-off for a full minute. Or perhaps I’ll turn to the butterflies that –

Tell me: is it wicked to enjoy such things in a time of devastation, after the horrors of Manchester have been followed by the horrors of London Bridge? Of if not wicked, is it not infinitely trivial, lacking in all seriousness, to bother with nature at times of random urban murder?

I did a piece for The World at One the other day, on the drastic decline of lesser sported woodpeckers. They put it on right at the end, cheerily describing it as “light relief”. I was a little surprised that extinction is now light relief, but I said nothing; I was glad to say something I thought worth saying on a damn good programme.

All the same, I really don’t think that the future of the planet is light relief. And I don’t think that it’s trivial to discuss that subject, even when we’re preoccupied with more immediate horrors. The environment is something that we all have to live in: our health, our happiness and our future are tied up in it, and so are those of our great-grandchildren.

The environment doesn’t become irrelevant, no matter how disturbing recent events have been. Swallows are useful indicators of the health and long-term viability of the planet we live on, being good monitors of pollution. The future of swallows is inextricably linked with our own. Swallows mattered before the events of the weekend, they matter today and they’ll matter even more tomorrow.

And then there’s the matter of consolation. Nature, the wild world, the non-human world, greenness, birdsong, running water, wildness and wilderness and weeds under swallow-filled skies: these things make life better, not just for bird-spotters but for everyone. They’re part of good times. But just as important — perhaps even more important – nature can also make life less bad.

Nature helps us to endure the terrible things in life just a little more easily. Nature makes life better on our good days; nature stops life being worse on our bad days.

Nature is not a pat solution to horror, grief, loss, terror and hopelessness. But we need nature to make us happy, we need nature to keep us safe and we need nature to console us. We need nature because life is wonderful and we need nature because life is terrible.

We need nature.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

There are quotes – like “Let them eat cake” and an awful lot of things supposedly said by Mark Twain – which are indestructibly associated with the wrong person, or the completely wrong context. This post on the the blog Engage the Fox is an interesting reflection on some reasons why quotes are misattributed. However, the post is focused on why wise or witty sayings are misattributed to celebrities, or better known figures in general (something like this happened with the Mary Schmich column that became the Baz Luhrmann Sunscreen Song which was falsely reported to be a speech by Kurt Vonnegut)

There is another species of misattributed quote – the one that, rather than reflecting the supposed wisdom of the person falsely cited, makes them look foolish or hopelessly out of touch.  And one specific subspecies is the False Prediction – the boldly confident claim that, with the benefit of hindsight, looks totally absurd.

Seven supposed predictions from the world of technology are collected here in a PC World article. My confidence in this article, as will become clear, is pretty low. However it is a useful example of the kind of “prediction” that gets mocked in later years. We allow ourselves a little rather self-congratulatory chuckle at the fools of the past with their nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners and failure to see why anyone would want to own a home computer. Of course, our turn will come.

The very first “Foolish Tech Prediction” highlighted in the PC world article is this:

 

Foolish Tech Prediction 1

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

At the dawn of the computer industry, nobody really knew where this new technology would take us. But the explosion of desktop computing that put a PC in nearly every American home within 50 years seems to have eluded the imagination of most mid-century futurists.
After all, when IBM’s Thomas Watson said “computer,” he meant “vacuum-tube-powered adding machine that’s as big as a house.” It’s fair to say that few people ever wanted one of those, regardless of the size of their desk.

(IBM did stay in the business, of course.)

This, of course, does acknowledge that predicting that devices as big as house would ever have a popular appeal would not have seemed reasonable when Watson made his statement.

Except, Watson said no such thing. From Wikipedia:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” is often attributed to Thomas Watson; Senior in 1943 and Junior at several dates in the 1950s. This misquote is from the 1953 IBM annual stockholders’ meeting. Thomas Watson, Jr. was describing the market acceptance of the IBM 701 computer. Before production began, Watson visited with 20 companies that were potential customers. This is what he said at the stockholders’ meeting, “as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”[7]

Aviation Week for 11 May 1953 says the 701 rental charge was about $12,000 a month; American Aviation 9 Nov 1953 says “$15,000 a month per 40-hour shift. A second 40-hour shift ups the rental to $20,000 a month.”

So there you go – something quite different and in context entirely reasonable thing was conflated with various other speculative comments by others (there is more on the Wikipedia page on Thomas Watson) One wonders how many of the rest of PC World’s “foolish tech predictions” were quite so foolish after all

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.

….

And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here

“The Glamour of the West”  D L Kelleher, 1928

“The Glamour of the West”  D L Kelleher, 1928

20170605_095717-1The Glamour of the West seems to be part of a series by D L Kelleher, following on from The Glamour of Dublin and The Glamour of Cork. Kelleher is an obscure figure now. Here is his bio from The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature:

Kelleher, D[aniel] L[aurence] (1883–1958),

playwright and man of letters. Born in Cork and educated at UCC, he was associated in his early career with the group of dramatists known as the ‘Cork Realists’ [see Abbey Theatre]. Stephen Grey (1910) was produced at the Abbey in 1910, and thereafter he wrote A Contrary Election (1910). His travel sketches reflect his varied career, and include Paris, Its Glamour and Life (1914), Lake Geneva (1914), The Glamour of Dublin (1918, as ‘D. L. Kay’), The Glamour of Cork (1919), Round Italy (1923), and Great Days with O’Connell (1929). His poetry includes Cork’s Own Town (1920), Poems Twelve a Penny (1911) and Twelve Poems (1923).

The Glamour of the West doesn’t even make this concise list. It is a collection of very brief sketches, the longest a couple of pages. The subtitle, “Bantry Bay to Lough Foyle”, gives a sense of the geographic range, although at times Kelleher veers quite far east (to Anthony Trollope in Banagher and Maria Edgesworth in Edgesworthstown).

20170605_095726I quite liked the Talbot Press symbol (“logo” seems a bit anachronistic) Talbot Press seems to have gone the way of all flesh:

 

Kelleher’s tone is set from the outset, in a “Prelude”:

“The West’s Awake!” – Awake to what? To its own infinitely small knowledge of itself? That  is as much as one can say in answer.

He ends the Prelude thus:

So, in 1928, this brief book of resentment and hope, coloured with a little love, takes up a few of the threads, and as tenderly, cynically, or dispassionately as may be, for a moment resumes an old story.

Kelleher references “cynicism” quite a bit throughout. The tone of the book is often bantering, scathing  – but in a somewhat indirect way. It put in my mind of a fictional character, Sarah Devlin from J G Farrell’s wonderful novel Troubles  There is a sort of habit of mind that could no doubt be called post colonial in a later age; mindful of the the atrocities but also the slights inflicted on the Irish nation over the years, and complaining of these in a what could be called a passive aggressive tone. Perhaps most suggestively, there is little on the events of the prior decade which led to Irish independence (in part).

Some extracts may demonstrate this comparison – the reader can judge if it is apt or not.

“The 1847 Famine In Mayo” is perhaps a little more emotionally direct than other pieces. It begins with a consideration I have wondered about myself

In the year 1928, when this book is being put together, there are many thousands of living Irish people whose parents were born in or about the Famine times. No wonder, here and there, if a melancholia should appear in the Irish. A generation born around the famine year could not escape the famine complex. In the west especially, life turned black with the black blighted potato. Social historians discuss the incidence of hysteria, and worse, due to the Zeppelin nights in London. The long duresse of the famine of 1847 was deeper shock to the whole population than any number of night-raids. Death might ensue from a bomb, but despair and death both were surer in Ireland. In Mayo the tragedy was at its height. At Westport workhouse, built to hold one thousand inmates, three thousand clamoured for entrance sometimes in a single day. Yet the pride of the Irish poor if well known; they will only enter the poorhouse when ruined and hopeless. The gate of the workhouse would be closed and barred early. Then the desperate, weak, lonely, agonised outcasts would throw themselves down to rest and snatch a sleep at the foot of the wall on the opposite side of the road. As many as seven corpses were found one morning like that, dead where they lay.

“Long duresse” is in the original. I did wonder originally was it a reference to the longue durée  concept of historians of the French Annales School, but this was many years before. “Duresse” must be related to “duress” and mean suffering.

Here is another characteristic extract –  about a man from my father’s part of the country:

A very old man, eighty-five, perhaps more, came into the town of Dunflin, Co. Sligo, one day in 1670 on his way to Dublin. The jolting of the rude two wheeled car, with only a layer of straw thrown down in it to soften the corner where you could sit, had tired him out. So he went to the tavern where he was known (for he had often passed that way) and asked for a bed for the night. He was given his old bed in the room above, and then he settled down by the fire in the kitchen to take a little drop of whiskey to revive him and to rest for a short while. There was a very nice girl serving drink to any that would come into the bar outside. But there was little custom and she came into the kitchen and stayed a long time talking to the old man, for she was a really nice girl and could appreciate him. They were pleasantly conversing when a loud clatter of feet was heard from the shop and a voice calling, “Come on here and fetch it out!

Hurrying from the kitchen the girl recognised the intruder as a well-known loyalist from near Dunflin. As soon as he saw the comely girl he put his hand around her, but she pulled herself away and stepped back into the kitchen where the old man had risen from his chair on hearing the confusion. The intruder followed her in and again trying to lay hold of the girl, said “Come on! Give me a kiss and you, you old —–, turn away!”

But the old man put himself between the girl and the soldier and defied him to touch her, for, as old as he was, he would strike “a foul fellow the like of you.’ The drunken soldier, blazing with insolence and disappointed passion, caught up a knife that was lying on the table and drove it into the old man’s heart and killed him with that blow.

That old man was Duald MacFirbis, once a rich scholar, who had spent his whole life compiling histories and genealogies. He was one of the true lovers of Ireland, keeping a hope for posterity by writing down the story of the heroic past. He did it in poverty and homelessness and now he had murder for his crown.

Here are some photos of the pages this story is recounted in:

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20170605_100453

It is easy to mock this kind of thing, with references to comely girls and so on. Of course, as I often think, some day our prose will no doubt seem laughable. And the book is an at times nearly Borgesian in its laconic capturing of a person, a society, a nation through moments.

One more extract, and this one is actually in some ways the most characteristic:

PRIMROSES BY THE SEA

This is a personal chapter. It need not lose by that. It is about a trip we took by road from Sligo to Bundoran. It is really about a stop we made on the way when we ran past a desolate-looking harbour of refuge that the Congested Districts Board had made for fishermen, since gone to America. We were able to pass around the empty harbour to the edge of a cliff almost as unreclaimed as nature left it.

It was a day in mid-June when primroses rambled over the grass, and sea-pinks with them. Under the cliff the rocks cut into a smooth sea. The view extended almost to Donegal. There was no ship or boat or any sign of life except ourselves.

“Where are we now?” said I.

“I don’t know,” said the man who owned the car. “I came here once before and don’t know whether it is Leitrim or Sligo.”

“Is Leitrim on the coast?”

“It is – a couple of miles of it. But I think we are in Sligo. Leitrim is further on.”

We made tea on the sloping cliff side and watched the perfect solitude.

“Nothing ever happened here,” said my friend. “There is no glamour to write about.”

Nothing only primroses in mid-June, gold sands shining up through blue water, the smell of sea-wrack from the caves, the caress of soft aqueous air.

Glamour enough! Go there and see!

 

“Reciprocity”, John Drinkwater

From the ever wonderful First Known When Lost blog, a meditative post which features the poet John Drinkwater. All I knew of Drinkwater before this was a school text which lumped John Masefield and he as mediocrities notable only for indicating the depth of amiable banality poetry had sunk to before the genius of Eliot swept it all away.  As Stephen Pentz often writes, it is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.

Reciprocity

I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides.

“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange – the fact of dreaming.

Thus, in a psychology book I admire greatly, The Mind of Man, Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity – I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error – and he speaks of the incoherence, the disconnectedness, of the fables of dreams. I would like to recall Paul Groussac and his fine essay, “Among Dreams,” in The Intellectual Voyage. Groussac writes that it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane – after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves. A great writer of the eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, believed that our memory of dreams is more impoverished than the splendour of reality. Others, in turn, believe that we improve our dreams. If we thin of the dream as a work of fiction – and I think it is – it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares”, from Seven Nights

 

17946

“While there is still time”

The Mower
BY PHILIP LARKIN
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.