Poetry is Beauty’s Voice

I had a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are” for a long time… before mindfulness was as trendy as it is now. Recently I opened it again and was struck the meditation highlighted here. Watts and Hillman are not familiar to me. This post resonated with me with its discussion of the non-correspondence of language with absolute reality, and the poetry of living:

“I think we’ve spent so much of history arguing over the critique of good written poetic form, high art that carries us on the lofty tailwinds of meaning, that we’ve lost our ability to see poetry in its seed form and the many ways we live it daily. We’ve in some ways deeroticized it, made it too narrow, made people think it doesn’t apply to them. If we could recover this sense of poetries of living, it might help more people appreciate the high poetic craft again, as but one expression of the seed poem’s transfigurative power”

Signs of Life

“Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it” (Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity 48).

For any kind of beauty there is, there is a form of poetry to give it voice.  We think of poetry often as involving meter, verse, stanza, rhyme, prosody–pricking the senses through artfully arranged language. However, I’ve experienced, and I know others have too, poetry that transcends or seems to happen prior to language, and, while the purist poets may object, that’s the topic of this blog.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives a great example in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are of such language-less poetry when he writes of geese flying overhead:

“As I pull into the parking lot of the hospital, several hundred geese pass overhead…. Hundreds are in V’s, but many are in more complex arrangements. Everything is in motion.  Their lines dip and ascend with grace and harmony…

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Bird feeding and tracking notes, March 2018

Bird feeding and tracking notes, March 2018

Been a while since I <a href="https://seamhow much a local cat frequents our gardenussweeney.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/bird-feeding-notes-mid-july/”>I published bird-feeding notes. I was perhaps chastened by my unintended killing of greenfinches and felt there was a hubristic tone to the notes…

I have returned to bird feeding in recent months, taking care to rotate the location of feeders and to wash them out – properly – regularly. I have also paced myself in terms of feeding. A little and often is better than a lot irregularly. I have had chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches (not as many as last year, I think), collared doves, blackbirds, a mistle thrush, starlings, robins, great tits, jackdaws and rooks. No sign of magpies, although further afield I have noticed a couple more locally.

Every year I intend to take part in the Garden Bird Survey and every year something comes up around the start of December which leads to missing the beginning, and then feeling it is too late to catch up.

The recent snowy weather led me to put out a little more food and a steady stream of visitors ensued. One of the other features of the snowy garden is the ability to track birds – and other creatures – by their footprints. It confirmed to me how much the garden is frequented by a local cat.

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009


This fine book on evolution was well reviewed at the time and won the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books. Here is my review from Eurotimes . Or rather this is a draft, and readers will note one paragraph just trails off… I cannot find the final version online or in my email so I am not sure what followed! This review is focused on the ophthalmological aspects of the book, though not to the exclusion of the wider issues :

Life ascending.
Nick Lane

There are ten great inventions of evolution discussed in Nick Lane’s lucid, stimulating book – life’s origin,
DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Lane
makes it clear from the outset that invention does not mean a conscious agency purposefully steered the
process, rather he is referring to the ten great innovations that have transformed life that were created
through natural selection. Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the chapter on sight, which
I will therefore focus on in this review, but the whole book is superbly written and extremely enjoyable.

The eye has long been a favourite topic of anti-evolutionists. In 1802, the English utilitarian philosopher William Paley
argued in his Natural Theology that the eye is an organ of such complexity that it is absurd to suppose
that the purposeless blunderings of evolution (evolutionary ideas pre-dated Darwin, of course) could have
produced it. He used the analogy of a blind watchmaker producing a timepiece, which later gave Richard
Dawkins the title of one of his books. Darwin himself is frequently misquoted by creationists and affiliated
persons in this context – he seemed the admit that “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems
… absurd in the highest possible degree.” Darwin went on the write, however, that “if numerous
gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each being useful to its
possessor, can be shown to exist” the problem is solved.

In fact, we now have models of the evolution of the eye that exceed those of other organs in explanatory
power. The Swedish researchers Dans Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have modelled this succession
of steps, which is each generation is taken as one year, requires somewhat less than half a million years.

The eye does seem, at first glance, to pose a problem to evolutionary explanations of its origin. What’s
more the human eye, with its rods and cones located behind an array of nerves and with its blind spot
where the optic nerve leaves the orbit, does not at first, cynical glance to be especially well designed.
Furthermore, the cant charge of anti-evolutionists has been “what use is half an eye?”, and answering the
question of how a retina could have evolved, separate from the rest of the optic apparatus, is at first
glance difficult. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” is a famous dictum of the evolutionary biologist Leslie
Orgel, and Lane goes on to show not only that the eye is well adapted to its purpose, but that (I am not sure what I said subsequently)

His approach begins, entertainingly for readers of this publication, with the observation that “anyone who
has been to a conference of ophthalmologists will appreciate that they fall into two great tribes: those who
work at the front of the eye … and those who work at the back … the two tribes interact reluctantly, and at
times barely seem to speak the same language.” For this divide, ironically, reflects the half-an-eye
distinction and allows us to consider the evolution of both halves of the eye.

For the retinal part of the answer, Lane travels (literarily speaking – it was the marine biologist Cindy Lee
Van Dover who did the actual exploring) to the most hostile and extreme habitat on earth – black-smoker
vents on the deep ocean floor that support an ecosystem of hardy survivors. Among these is the
ironically named eyeless reef shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata), which as a larva has fully formed eyes.
These are not of use to the adult shrimp, so they are reabsorbed and replaced with a literal half an eye
– a naked retina.

Most doctors will remember rhodopsin, perhaps rather dimly. It is the light-sensitive protein at the heart of
the visual process, being involved in photoreceptor synthesis as well as the initial perception of light.
Rhodopsin evolved from an algal ancestor where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis.
Rhodopsin is used by some bacteria for a form of photosynthesis.
Lane synthesises the evolution of all the aspects of the eye, although one of the ophthalmological tribes
may feel their area of interest is dealt with in slightly less detail than their retinal brethren. The naked
retina was the first step on the journey. As different organisms’ sheets of light-sensitive were arrayed in
different ways, with some recessing into pits which allowed shadows to be cast and therefore an idea of
where light comes from to be assessed, the trade-off between resolving light and light sensitivity began to
tip the balance in favour of lens formation.

Writers in this field must be tired of having to handle the creationist/intelligent design issue. Lane’s book is
not aimed at this debate, although in the footnotes he refers the reader to “The Flagellum Unspun” by
Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller which attacks the creationist idea of irreducible complexity, as
exemplified by the development of a flagellum. Lane quotes Miller on intelligent design advocates as
double failures, “rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because
they think too little of God,” and discusses Pope John Paul II’s views of evolution and the mind (made in
the course of his 1996 pronouncement recognising that evolution was more than a hypothesis) with
respect and sensitivity. Lane is clearly that wonderful thing, an enthusiast able to explain and inform

Snipe and Woodcock at 33⅓ RPM: Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor De Vogels 8 

Snipe and Woodcock at 33⅓ RPM: Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor De Vogels 8 

I came across this birdsong album in my family home lately. As will become clear, I can’t find out much about it online, but I felt that the aesthetic of the album was worth capturing. And it is somewhat sobering to be able to listen to birdsong from over half a century ago.

I can’t find that much online about John Kirby, who recorded this as one of a series of birdsong albums released as “Listen the birds / Hoor de vogels” in, I think, the early 1960s.

There is this oral history interview with him
, which is “accessible for UK Higher Education and Further Education institutions only.” although the terseness of this summary of the interview has its own kind of poetry:

Making his own tape recorder from a kit. Recording first bird song in May 1951. Building own portable battery recorder. In 1953 BBC accepted his recording of Whooper Swan and subsequent recordings. Contributing to the Sound programme. Buying electric tape recorder in 1959. Pioneering use of filters. Meeting Ludwig Koch. Publication of commercial discs. Difficulties of mass production.

Neither can I find out much online about the Europese Fono Club AKA European Phono Club the Dutch label this record came out on.

So here is Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor de Vogels 8 <a href="http://https://www.discogs.com/No-Artist-Listen-The-Birds-8-Hoor-De-Vogels-8/release/3149525“>This has the same tracklisting but a different cover : 

Silence in the Cairngorms – from Nan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain”


Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity. The senses must be used. For the ear, the most vital thing that can be listened to here is silence. To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon. Such moments come in mist, or snow, or a summer night (when it is too cool for the clouds of insects to be abroad), or a September dawn. In September dawns I hardly breathe — I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it. Once, on a night of such clear silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering, I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stared down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl — that was rare, it was a minor triumph.

“Shouting about humankind being part of nature may mask a fear that it is nothing of the sort.”

From Peter Reason’s “In Search of Grace”, a passage on a theme that has often occurred to me. Philosophically, one can unpick the concept of “nature” and any separation between the world of human activity and the natural world. This idea often accompanies beliefs that an interest in nature is a recent phenomenon of industrial societies This passage, and the David Cooper quote, resonate with an intuitive sense that there is a gap between the human and natural world. Later in the book, Reason discusses the experience of a storm and how this, in something of the manner of Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus” – confronting the visceral reality of the natural world:

Part of the problem is that our reflective consciousness is so thoroughly self-absorbed: our interest and attention is focused almost exclusively on ourselves and those closest to us. At our best, we may feel part of a fellowship of humanity or a human family. While our understanding of evolution and ecology tells us that we are also part of the community of life on Earth, we rarely fell that in our bones or in our hearts. However much we may assert that we are all part of the same universe, that we are part of the evolution of life on Earth, we still find it difficult to overcome a sense of estrangement, or otherness. As philosopher David Cooper puts it, “Shouting about humankind being part of nature may mask a fear that it is nothing of the sort.”


“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience” – Peter Reason on the messy human reality of pilgrimage

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience” – Peter Reason on the messy human reality of pilgrimage

One of the charms of Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace“ is his human honesty at the gap between the lofty ambition of pilgrimage and actual experience. At the very outset of his voyage, he writes of “the repetitive anxiousness that so often comes in the small hours … I lost all sense of why I was on this journey; all sense of pilgrimage disappeared.” He expands on this theme:

It is not uncommon for travellers to feel resistant at the point of setting out. For years the French writer and traveller Sylvian Tesson had wanted to spend the winter in a small cabin in Siberia. In Consolations of the Forest he writes about the challenge of rousing himself from bed on the morning he is to set out and wonders if he will undermine his own desire. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes the calamitous weather and uncertainty about porters at the beginning of a trip in the Himalayas. The forthcoming journey is losing all sense of reality and he asks “where did I imagine I was going, where and why?”


I suspect that in order to gather the energy for a significant journey we have to idealise it in our minds beforehand. There has to be a grand purpose to make it all worthwhile. So I have described my voyage as a pilgrimage (rather than a sailing cruise) I had thought of it as a “deep ecology homage” But once I set off, these worthy ambitions ran up against the unrelenting and sometimes frightening reality of the wild world. The high-minded purposes become meaningless and difficult to hold on to. The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience. We can only engage with the world on its own terms, terms that include inclement weather, the contingency of plans, and the unreliability of equipment. And they meet with my fragility as a human being; my mistakes, my indulgences in emotions, my fear, the gap between my high expectations and the reality.


There is something of the ridiculous in this. I boldly wrote that on pilgrimage we leave the comforts and habits of home in order to meet the more-than-human world more directly. But I was discombobulated when I had to live through what this actually means in practice. The grand purposes with which the pilgrim sets out will only survive and deepen as they are tested against experience.