First Known When Lost on Spring and mortality, with Herrick, Wallace Stevens, and Epictetus

Original here

Spring beautifully — and gently — counsels us to be mindful of our mortality. This is sound advice. In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons. I am not suggesting that we should brood over “the strumble/Of the hungry river of death” from morn to eventide. But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
‘Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

“Death is the mother of beauty.” (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning.”) What do blossoms do? They “stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last.” What do “lovely leaves” do? “They glide/Into the grave.” This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve. Our response should be gratitude. Gratitude and acceptance.

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

The Granddaughter Paradox published in Sci Phi Journal

My story The Granddaughter Paradox has been published in Sci Phi Journal, an online journal of science fiction with a philosophical twist (or philosophical fiction with a science fiction twist?)

Reading the full story requires a subscription, or as the site says:

You need to be a Patron of the magazine to read all of this item. Jump over to our Patreon Page and sign up now. All pledges processed in 24 hours.

So obviously I will encourage anyone reading this to follow the above instructions… but here is a preview:

Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.

When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:

“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”

He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.

Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.

“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”

“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.

“Really? Whose daddy?”

“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”

“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.

It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.

“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”

“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”

“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”

“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”

“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”

She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”

“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”

“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”

“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”

“Do you remember being sick?”

“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“

“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”

“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.

“It is jailers who are always on guard against escapism”

Steven Greydanus, “What we lose when ‘Stars Wars’ goes to the dark side”, National Catholic Register 28/12/16

When Star Wars goes to the dark side, a generation raised on Marvel bad boys may not realize just how they’ve been robbed. Cynics who find it easy to imagine Superman as a potential threat to the planet and hard to conceive of him as a role model — who are suspicious of the very concept of a role model — may cheer for a darker, less escapist Star Wars.

For my part, I’m firmly with J.R.R. Tolkien on the validity of escapism. As he wrote in On Fairy Stories:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used. … In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. … Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?

It is jailers who are always on guard against escapism. Star Wars was once a notable escape hatch from the pervasive cynicism dominating so much of pop culture as well as the wider world. Under Disney management, the Force may be with us always, but will it still offer young viewers that “first step into a larger world”?

Fifty Ways to Build a Hedgehog House

Fifty Ways to Build a Hedgehog House

Well, not quite fifty – but there is a range of methods seen in these YouTube videos on the apparently simple project of how to  build a hedgehog house.

Sometimes one gets the impression that this is a much much more ecologically and environmentally aware age than, say, twenty or thirty or forty years ago. This may be true of the number of people who  self-identify as someone who “cares about nature” and conservation, or consumer preferences in terms of environmental-friendliness being a popular marketing approach. In terms of species loss and biodiversity decline, however, recent years have seen many species take a pummelling – and I don’t think this can be seen as the legacy of earlier decades. Insect numbers are in a dramatic decline over recent years.And “ordinary” species of the British Isles such as the hedgehog are also declining steeply.


Building a hedgehog home is something you can do to help hedgehogs. Hedgehog Street, a British initiative jointly run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, point out that no matter how lovely your hedgehog home is, if there isn’t access for hedgehogs to your garden than there is no point. Hedgehog street also point out that a natural feature is a very good way of encouraging hedgehogs to stay:

The best way to provide a nesting option for hedgehogs is by creating a natural feature, such as a compost heap or log pile, as this has the added benefit of encouraging insect prey too. Artificial hedgehog houses (or hibernacula) are also used by hedgehogs and can be great fun to make.

If you leave a messy patch in a quiet undisturbed area of your garden then hedgehogs might make their own nest there either to hibernate in or to rear their young. However, if you want to improve your chances of having a resident hedgehog you could either buy or make them a home.

There are a plethora of how-to videos on YouTube on hibernaculum (singlular of hibernacula -which seems to be a hibernation chamber for any creature) construction. Much the most straightforward is this from Wildlife Connections at Chester Zoo, very much of the “cut a few holes in a cardboard box” school:

You won’t be that surprised that the above approach is the one I tried with my children yesterday evening. Here’s another straightforward, child focused holes-in-a-box-with-a-bag-on-top video:

Here’s nice video that, aside from an echoey quality to the narration which is a bit distrating, is quite entertainingly dinky and is a variation on the cardboard box with a few neat features added from the YouTube account Alice Loves Internet:

Much, much more elaborate approaches are possible. This video from the woodwork/upcycling site Rag’n’Bone Brown is entertainingly produced – and the narrator assures us that it took “two hours from start to finish” – but as it involves jig-saws, belt sanders, bitumen paint and an impressive variety of woods this is something that I don’t think I’ll be knocking off in anything like two hours:

Finally (for now) here’s a Danish approach that is extremely thorough and well-insulated -I will leave the viewer to judge the degree of equipment and effort required.

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyaltov Pass Incident, Donnie Eichar

dyaltov memorial.jpg
Memorial to the Dyaltov Hikers, , Mikhajlov Cemetery, Ekaterinburg


I first came across the Dyaltov Pass incident some time ago on Wikipedia, probably by following a link on the Wiki page “List of unusual deaths” The incident saw the deaths of nine Russian hikers, all students of the Ural Polytechnic Institute and experienced hikers, sometime on the night of 1st February 1959 when, as the Wikipedia page puts it: “during the night something made them tear their way out of their tents from the inside and flee the campsite inadequately dressed in heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. Soviet investigators determined that six victims died from hypothermia but others showed signs of physical trauma. One victim had a fractured skull while another had brain damage but without any sign of distress to their skull. Additionally, a female team member had her tongue missing. The investigation concluded that an “unknown compelling force” had caused the deaths”

Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain is a compelling account of the incident, and his own investigation over fifty years later. This incident has attracted a lot of attention over the years, much of it conspiracy-theoretical in nature. For me, the most forceful impact of Eichar’s book was restoring the humanity of those who lost their lives; an incident like this tends to attract a lot of speculation and curiosity with the sheer loss suffered overshadowed. Eichar discusses the family’s distress, especially at the difficulties having their children buried back in Ekaterinburg. On Pinterest there is a gallery of photos Eichar collected which further reinforces the humanity behind this unsolved-mystery story.

Eichar weaves three stories together – the hiker’s journey in 1959, the search for them a few weeks later, and his own journey in 2012. He also encounters the “tenth hiker”, Yuri Yudin – who turned back from the trip due to illness. There are moving passages about his understandably mixed emotions, although Eichar is disappointed to find Yudin is in thrall to inchoate conspiracy theories which Eichar rejects (see below) He is also stunned when Yudin expresses unvarnished nostalgia for Stalin’s time (although condemning Lenin) with particular ire for Boris Yeltsin. Eichar’s translator vigorously shakes her head in refutation of Yudin’s view on Stalin, although one wonders how naive Eichar was about Russia it he didn’t realise Yeltin’s massive unpopularity. Yudin says “under Putin, we are plankton” and decries the corroding effect of money on contemporary Russia

The book also gives some revealing glimpses of Soviet society during Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Often, writing not directly trying to understand a society or pontificate about it – a book investigating the myserious deaths of a group of hikers, for instance – can reveal more than a worthy tome of social analysis. Indeed, parts of the book reminded me – vividly  – of the fiction of Andrei Makhine. Two passages in particular struck me with force, both for this insight but also for their emotional force.

One describes an incident on January 24th 1959:

On the morning after their departure, three hours before the lazy winter sun had risen, the Dyaltov group disembarked in Serov, an iron and steel manufacturing town 200 miles due north of Sverdlovsk. Blinov and his party joined them on the platform. It wasn’t yet eight o’clock, and after ten and a half hours of gaiety and irregular sleep on the train, both hiking groups were weary. The next train, which was to take them to Ivdel, wasn’t due to depart until evening, leaving the group of friends no choice but to spend the day in this unfamiliar mining town. Perhaps they could visit a local museum or- befitting their academic studies – a metallurgy plant.

Their first instinct was to get some sleep inside the station while it was still dark. They quickly discovered, however, that the doors were locked. The workers inside, speaking brusquely through the station windows, refused to allow any travellers in from the cold.

In classic fashion, Georgy lightened the mood by taking out his mandolin and breaking into song right there on the platform – a conspicious disruption given the early hour and inhospitable surroundings. In comic imitation of a busker, he set out his felt cap for tips, his beanpole frame and protruding ears adding to the comedy of the moment. But his spontaneous merrymaking didn’t last long because a nearby policeman heard the noise and strode over.



After a stern warning from the policeman, the group wander Serov and discover an elementary school “bearing the uninspired name of School #41.” A cleaning lady lets them in, and they meet a schoolmaster who allows them rest in the school if “in return, they would speak to his class later that day about their trip.”

A typical Soviet school day was broken into two periods: a morning session devoted to proper lessons, followed by a less structured afternoon session, during which pupils could pursue their own activities or gather for guest speakers. Schoolchildren could typically expect war veterans, factor workers, museum docents or writers as afternoon guests. But a group of mountaineers who could regale them with their adventures? This was a rare thing.

With Igor and his friends well rested, they piled into a classroom of roughly thirty-five young face, ranging in age from seven to nine. The little ones were eager to learn, and when the hikers revealed the contents of their backpacks, the children were held in captive fascinations. There were ice crackers, maps, Zorki cameras and flashlights – known as “Chinese torches” – passed around the room. The guests even treated the  class a tent-pitching demonstration, and by the end, the children were begging to be taken along on further expeditions. With the educational portion of the visit concluded, the classroom erupted in song

While Sasha was certainly the star of the sing-along, the children fell hardest for Zina, and became emotional at the idea of her leaving them. They asked her to be the leader of the “Pioneers” – a youth group similar to the Scouts in the United States – not understanding that Zina couldn’t stay. As evening drew near, the hikers wrapped up their visit with one last song, but the happy conclusion didn’t prevent the children from becoming tearful when the hikers moved to leave. With their teacher’s permission, the entire class poured out of the school and followed the ten adventurers down the road all the way to the train station. The kids pleaded with Zina again, begging her to stay and promising to be well behaved if she would only agree to remain behind and lead their children’s group.


This incident has a heartbreaking sequel:


Weeks later, once School #41 had gotten word that the Dyaltov group was missing, the children all wrote letters to UPI, expressing their concern and asking the frank questions that children ask. What happened to their new friends? Where was Zina? But their mail went unanswered, even after the group’s fate was known. Yuri Yudin received one such letter from a child they had met that day, but he didn’t have the heart to write back. What could he say?

On January 26th 1959 the hikers arrive at Sector 41, a temporary woodcutting camp (I am sure someone has tried to make something of the recurrence of the number 41) There follows a less emotionally stirring but perhaps even more revealing insight into Soviet society (note Yudin’s comment about the woodcutters being “not just working class”) It is too long to quote in full but I have tried  :

The men had young, unlined faces, the hikers recognised that they were not much older than themselves. Among those who greeted them there was one proud man, who stood out from the test. He had dark disheveled hair and a full red beard. … Boroda (the Russian word for “beard”) considered himself the spokesman of the group, and he took immediate charge in finding rooms for their guests. Aside from a series of pine log cabins that served as dorms for the workers, there was little to see at Sector 41 .. Perhaps it was at moments such as these that the ten hikers felt lucky to have been awarded a place at the university; even under Khrushchev, there were many many young people whose opportunities were startlingly limited.

The woodcutters made bread for their visitors, and after dinner, everyone gathered around the wood burning stove for warmth. The cabin offered none of the comforts of the Vizhay guesthouse. The furniture was Spartan, and patches of swamp moss wedged between the logs were the only thing keeping out the bitter draft. But the cabin was luxurious compared with the accomodations that lay ahead for the hikers, and they were surely grateful for the warm reception and company.

In fact, the students from the city found that they had more in common with these rural labourers than they might have guessed. It was true that the woodcutters had the wiry bodies of men who made their living from the land, but they also had the minds of self-taught intellectuals and the hearts of poets. Of all the men, the hikers found Boroda the most like-minded. Not only could he recite poetry as if he were reading it from the pages of a book, but he also held an easy sway over the entire group … His reluctance to shave may have arisen from convenience, but when paired with his smart blazer and Cossack-style breeches, Boroda’s generous facial hair lent him a surprising air of sophistication. It was as if he were making a conscious fashion statement, even if out here in the Russian wood there were few to admit it.

Over multiple cups of  black tea, which was in plentiful supply from China during that time, Boroda and his crew recited their favourite poems for their guest. “Even though they worked as forest cutters, they knew Yesenin and his poems,” Yudin remembers. “So that shows that they were smart, not just working class.” Sergei Yesenin was a lyrical poet of the early twentieth century, one of the most celebrated in Russia. He had been an early supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, but his later criticism of the government compelled Stalin to ban his work – a ban that remained in placed through Khrushchev’s regime.

The Dyaltov Group with the Section 41 Woodcutters – source

At times in the book, Eichar is asked why he, an American with no Russian connections, is interested in this story. “Are there not mysteries in America also?” he is repeatedly asked. He asks himself the same questions. When he first goes to Russia his girlfriend is heavily pregnant, and on his return she has had a daughter . One can imagine adventure writers of even ten years ago not mentioning this fact, or glossing over it, whereas Eichar wonders at his motivation (he doesn’t mention that his girlfriend is model Julia Ortiz either). However this is never really resolved or explained.

Eichar’s hypothesis is that infrasound caused the hikers deaths. He outlines the reasons why the other theories advanced are less than probable. In particular avalanches, a beloved hypothesis of skeptical debunkers, simply don’t occur on the kind of terrain the tent was placed. Eichar convincingly demonstrates that the physical injuries the hikers suffered are relatively easily explicable; the mystery lies in why they left the tent, barefoot. This review sets out, concisely, the threads of his argument (and I like the line “while conspiracy theorists might have a worldview shaped by Hollywood teen-slasher movies, the Dyatlov group acted as a conscientious team in a hostile environment.”)

Eichar describes researching this theory in the US, and rather entertainingly finding that one his Russian counterparts has exactly the same theory. For me, the weakest sections of the book were those following Eichar’s attempts to follow in the hiker’s footsteps. In the end, Eichar does not spend the night camped where the hikers did (which is perhaps just as well given his conclusion) and there is an anticlimactic element to this attempt retracing. While there are plenty of illuminating lost-in-translation moments, Eichar is blessedly free of the condescending scorn many Americans seem to indulge in about all things Russian.

Infrasound has the explanatory advantage of being little known now but not even coming on the radar of investigators in 1959. Hence the “unknown compelling force” which, given the perspective of 1959 , was entirely correct if it was infrasound that did them. Personally, Eichar’s account is convincing, but – like MH370, I would imagine – there is likely to be something perpetually insoluble about the mystery that will always leave room for doubts.