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Low tide

5th December 2021

I arrived at Pwllgwaelod bay entirely serendipitously near the bottom of a very low spring tide. Storm Arwen had come through a few days before and it was still grey, windy and cold with a considerable swell rolling into the eastern lee of the bay.

I had meant to just walk over the sand to the sea’s edge, say hello to the sea, and then head up the cliffs for my usual walk around Dinas Head. But, looking over to the far side of the bay, I saw the extreme low tide had left a little cove, which I particularly like, accessible without the usual scramble over wet rocks.

I wandered toward, and then around the headland that separates the two coves and made my way over the dark volcanic sand to the sea. There was nothing in particular to attract attention. I had seen seal pups here in the past, but there were none today. There was a pipit or two, the odd gull and a few crows flying dark against the grey sea, but no choughs, though again I had seen them here previously. Having nothing to engage with I simply stood for while gazing out to the horizon. It was when my eyes dropped that I noticed something in the sand, at my feet.

Even without its romantic and mythical connotations it was an intrinsically exciting shape. Had it been an exhibit in an art gallery, I can imagine the blurb would have used phrases like ‘dynamic rhythm’ and ‘tension of contrasting forms’. It was smooth, a fawn rectangle, gently rounded and swollen, with tightly coiled twisting fibres springing from both corners of one end; it reminded me of an element in a painting by Wassily Kandinsky.

It was a nice find and something new to add to the impressive list of species I have found in the few hundred square yards of this Bay1. It was, however, somehow something more. For a couple of days I had had Tim Buckley’s haunting ‘Song to the siren’2 going through my head, including as I had stood looking out to sea. And then there this was, at my feet, a mermaid’s purse . It seemed to be a small nod, outside of rational thought, towards the existence of meaning in the world: an act of synchronicity, and I must say, at that moment, welcome.

Jon

Fig. A mermaid’s purse, or more scientifically, the egg-case of a small-spotted cat shark3. I had never found one before and I imagined the rough weather had cast it up here on to the sand

Notes:

  1. There is a photo record of species found in this little bay here: https://jonjamesart.com/shore-search/
  2. My favourite version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQZ5_3s4ltU&list=RDJQZ5_3s4ltU&start_radio=1
  3. Also known as a dogfish. Scientific name: Scyliorhinus canicula. More details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small-spotted_catshark

Twenty four hours (or so) on the Preseli hills

18 November 2021

I find this place on the edge of the Preseli hills has everything I need. There are the hills, a large expanse of sea and an even larger expanse of sky.

I usually arrive late afternoon, perhaps after a walk around Dinas Island and then sit peacefully as the world quietens. I walk up to the rocks at Carn Enoch before it gets dark and in the morning cook and eat breakfast, sit and drink coffee, read and daydream or maybe try to write. Sometimes I will go for a walk over the nearby hills towards Fishguard before heading back home around lunchtime or early afternoon.

My most recent trip followed just this pattern. As usual the light here produced something special and it left me wishing I could share the experience. This wanting to share is a feeling I often get and as social media provides the perfect (and sometimes the only possible) means of doing this I have decided to post entries here at times.

I hope you enjoy them.

(There is a little more about the Preselis here https://jonjamesart.com/2020/10/07/the-preseli-hills/ )

Evening: Having nearly failed to persuade myself to make the effort and walk up to the rocks that evening, I was treated to a dramatic and rapidly developing sunset out towards St David’s and Ireland beyond, complete with Titian skies.

Morning: The following morning the air was rain-clean-sharp and bright with towering cumulus clouds,

which at one point looked like so many billow-sailed galleons heading into Newport bay,

and then sometimes a little more heavy and threatening.

The transformation this place can bring about often renders the world practically unrecognizable from what it seemed on first arrival and I am already looking forward to the next time.

Jon

A place to read

29 August 2021

Today the buzzards are loud, mewing incessantly. I look up, but the conifers leave only small patches of sky visible between their feathery tops and the birds are hidden.

Their calling is met by the sound of the stream rising from the valley bottom, a hundred or so feet below me. The stream is also loud. It has been so for weeks now. It is loud because it is shallow, running and chattering over rocks; the water low at the end of a dry if not overly sunny summer. It will be loud again in the winter, but with a different voice, a voice born of rushing brown turbulence.

I am pleasantly suspended between these two sounds; the birds and the river. Suspended literally as well as metaphorically, on a seat slung between two trees halfway up the valley side.

To my right are conifers. Majestic. Two hundred feet tall or so. Western hemlock, planted maybe eighty years ago, native to northwest America but looking naturalized and attractive on this steep hillside.   Conifers provide a poorer habitat than deciduous woodland, but these trees, I know, are enjoyed by the local marsh tits who harvest their cones. They were also visited last winter, I think, maybe, hopefully, by a pair of crossbills, although the birds were high and the identification difficult.

To my left is scrubby deciduous woodland; a mixture of hazel, oak, and beech; full of tawny owls and, in the summer months, chiffchafs, blackcaps and pied flycatchers.

The valley itself is a wooded gash in otherwise rolling county; as if a knife had been drawn across proved earth, leaving a cut which opened when the crust was baked. But in fact it was ice, not fire, that created this valley; melting ice draining away from beneath the glaciers of the last ice age, ten thousand or so years ago.    

The particular trees I am suspended from are perched on a rocky outcrop twenty or so feet high. Coupled with the steep natural fall of the land this extra height is enough to allow me to see right across the valley and to lend my seat a certain vertiguousness, which I enjoy.

Today it is warm, still and quiet. There is little movement other than a gentle rain of pine needles from the branches above and the occasional flicker of white butterflies finding the sunnier patches of the woodland floor.  But it is not always like this. Sat up here in a strong wind I have been in a mountainous sea, all green waves and movement; trees of different thicknesses finding their own resonances within the wind, bending and swaying, towards and away, each to a different time, like the violin bows of an amateur orchestra. The seat is attached to the trees, so you are in a boat on this sea rather than looking from the shore; there is even an edge of the sailor’s fear; what if a mast should break or a spar come crashing down.

But, so long as it is dry and not too cold, this is a wonderful place to sit and read. I know I am lucky to have access to it. Lucky to the extent even that guilt sometimes takes the edge even off the pleasure of reading.

Canal walk: Swallows

(During the summer of 2014, I got into the habit of walking the seven miles, along the canal, from Aynho warf to Cafe Nero in Banbury town centre for breakfast every Saturday morning. I remember the weather as being mostly perfect and these walks took on an unexpected magic and significance. This is one of a few of pieces of writing that came out them.)

15th April 2021

A few weeks into these walks it suddenly occurred to me that something was missing.  It was summer but there were no swallows.  Even over the canal, where you would expect flies to abound, there were none.  But of course, we get used to this.  The constant news of species decline. The degradation of the natural environment through pollution or ever-expanding housing, it goes on and on, oppressing and saddening.  Perhaps, to an extent, we ignore this sort of news, and perhaps, to an extent, we are right to do so. Why shouldn’t we?  We have, after all, to live in a world over which we have negligible control. We must ‘keep smiling’ and go on being at least reasonably effective in everyday life, so the ability to ignore bad news is maybe a necessary defence mechanism.

I was listening to the radio the other day, there was a discussion about the plastic pollution of our beaches and seas. How do we reconcile our romantic image of the sea with such news? The sea, a place of escape; fathomless and poetic, the realm of adventure and heroic deeds and of a refreshing otherness.  How do we reconcile such feelings and images with the possibility that the seas are irreversibly polluted with plastic? I say ‘possiblity’ because I find it impossible to accept that the seas and the beaches are actually irreversibly polluted with plastic.  PLASTIC! Of all the possible pollutants, plastic somehow seems the worse. Not only in a practical, scientific sense, because it does not break down, but also in a poetic or metaphorical sense.  In plastic we have managed to unite images of cheapness and tackiness with immortality. By polluting the sea with plastic, we seem to have injected poison right into the heart of one of the most potent of life’s well-springs.  The ‘idea’ of plastic seems to pollute the ‘idea’ of the sea in even more complex and harmful ways than real plastic pollutes the real sea.

This distinction of ‘ideas’ as a thing apart from their physical counterparts, seems interesting to me.  Of course, at a mundane level it is inevitable; we can never know a physical object in its entirety and so we must always work with an abstraction of it. Such abstracted ideas, however, are often more complex and multi-dimensional than the thing itself.  For example, our idea of the sea, as we have seen, is likely to be far more than just the sum of our scientific knowledge of it. It will include our personal and cultural associations at least.  It is therefore not surprising that such an ‘idea’ has characteristics and behaviours which engender reactions far beyond those of the real object. 

Mixing up the internal and subjective with the external and objective in this way is practically unavoidable.  Even colour, which we cheerfully think of as a property of an external object, is, in truth, created entirely by our brains. The same being true of sound and the other sense impressions. The kingfisher, for example, is not blue and red, but colourless; the illusion of blue and red is created by our brains and projected onto the bird.  We project not just sense perceptions such as colour and sound, but more complex phenomena such as feelings thoughts and emotions.  To one person a sea bird colony appears a towering affirmation of chaotic but wonderful life, to another it is nothing but a smelly mess of squawking birds. Both are no doubt projecting some internal and probably unexamined element of themselves onto the external object.  Even wilder or more abstract projections can be formed.  We may look at nature and see love, or God, or a violent threat that needs to be subdued, or anything else for that matter, and because projection is often largely unconscious, we may feel such things to be objective reality; that the thing really has these properties, and be incredulous that others see things differently.

Is this good? Like a therapist’s patient, should we be encouraged to recognise these projections for what they are and ‘take them back’, relieving the objects of the burden of our expectations? Should we just allow the birds to be birds and the sea to just be the sea?  Extremely easy to say, and maybe this is what science does; looks at what is left after we have withdrawn all our projections. And of course, it works.  We sit back, in the large part, confidently expecting scientists to solve our problems, be they outbreaks of new diseases, global food shortages, or the development of biodegradable plastics and, with luck, we will not be disappointed. But there are difficulties and dangers here too.  Science is brilliant at solving problems and generally improving life at a practical level, but the overall picture of existence it builds can seem bleak. To the extent that, for some, it is hard to live with. 

This conflict between our subjective view of the world and what science tells us is not new. Perhaps the best-known expression was the romantic poet Keats’ accusing Isaac Newton of un-weaving the rainbow by explaining it in terms of prisms and the composition of light.

Is there an analogy here? One of the guidelines for building cages, or should I say enclosures, in modern zoos is that they should be such that the captive animal is able to ‘express its natural behaviour’. Birds should be able to fly, monkeys to climb and, presumably, hippos to wallow.  Is one of the problems with science that it seems too bare a cage; a concrete rectangle maybe, in which our need for nutrition and air is recognised, but with no facility for us to express our imaginative, meaning-hungry natures?

I don’t know.  Sometimes it seems like this to me, and that, to change metaphor, scientists are like miners; in that they go down to a dark and inhospitable place to bring back substances of practical use to us all. At other times the contrary seems true, and I would agree with the physicist Richard Feynman when he said that (to paraphrase); to think that science in some way undermines aesthetic sense is ‘a little bit nutty’.          

Attempting to reconcile these viewpoints seems simultaneously interesting, difficult, and important.  But this is the good thing about walking, it gives you time to think about such things.

Regarding the swallows (and maybe we can hope it will be the same with plastic) it was not as bad as it might have been.  A week or so later, I was walking up to the lock gates at Kings Sutton and there they were, low over the water, twisting swooping and diving, with that characteristic pattern of flight which seems to have been laid down in our consciousness over a lifetime of summers. Slender wings the colour of mussel-shells or summer twilight and under the chin the hint of summer warmth and of the autumn to come. Coincidentally, just as I saw them, the lock gates above which they were flying were opened and for a moment it felt as both the emotional release of seeing the swallows and the water released by the lock gates flooded out together over the countryside. 

Swallow

The gap is joined
The spark flies
The lock above the old bridge opens
Summer floods
The swallow has made the cut

(‘cut’ is a country name for canal)

Living light

23rd March 2021

This blog is about a form of bioluminescence known variously as ‘sea sparkle’, ‘milky sea’ or more poetically ‘mareel’, which is a Shetlandic name meaning ‘sea fire’, (from Old Norse marr (“sea”) + eldr (“fire”). Also “miracle”, “morrali”, “glimro”)  

A near miss:

I feel greedy, wanting to see sea sparkle. The sea provides us already with seemingly inexhaustible inspiration and possibility; to want it to also put on a light show seems ungrateful.  I must admit though, since I first read descriptions of night-time glowing seas, I have wanted to see them for myself.

I got quite close once. I was ‘crewing’ for the first leg (Eastbourne to Falmouth), of a sailing trip that was going to cross the Bay of Biscay, carry on down to north Africa and eventually cross the Atlantic. The skipper was to pick up different crew for the various stages and on this first leg it was myself, a friend, my father-in-law, and a young vivacious eastern European girl whom none of us had met before called Lenka1.

This was to be my first time sailing at night and I was full of romantic expectation of seeing the mast ‘stir a sky full of stars’, the ‘loom’ of the lighthouses we would pass and maybe even sea sparkle. However, although we had good wind and a fast trip2 none of this happened. The sky was overcast, and the veiled moon and shore lights reflecting from the clouds prevented it from ever getting properly dark. There was not a star to be seen and certainly no glowing seas. With a strong north wind and a rough sea, it was also extremely cold and uncomfortable3.

We arrived in Falmouth tired and the three of us were relieved to climb into the warmth and comfort of a modern car and head for home.  

Lenka was staying on for the next leg and, after a day recovering, was to be joined by two new crew members for the trip across Biscay.  We swapped email addresses so we could keep track of how the rest of the journey went and said goodbye.

A couple of days later a wonderfully joyous email arrived in my inbox. High on tiredness and excitement, writing from the plane on the way back from Spain, Lenka described, in ecstatic broken English, how they had met not only bad weather and rough conditions but large areas of sea sparkle4. As the boat had ploughed into each glowing wave, cascades of glimmering sea spray had been fired back over the deck, drenching the crew, who, excited and laughing, had also begun to glow. Lenka described how the luminous water had run into their eyes, and mouths, picking them out and making them shine with sea fire.

As you might guess, I was sorry not to have been a part of this; to be aboard a boat sailing through a spectral sea with a maniacally laughing and glowing crew is something you will not get to do every day.

While I am unlikely to get the chance of experiencing sea sparkle in quite such dramatic circumstances I would still like to see it.  I have therefore made these few notes, partly out of curiosity and partly in the hope of increasing my (and anyone else who is interested) chances of seeing it in the future.

What is sea sparkle:

Nature has learned, through the guided play of evolution, to perform various tricks with light. Some of these modify light present in the environment, while with others generate ‘new’ light. The bright blue flash of a kingfisher, the shimmer of certain butterflies’ wings or the rays of the blue-rayed limpet5 are all examples of a phenomenon known as iridescence, in which the microscopic structure of the wing, feather or shell modifies the light falling on them, and causes them to shine and shimmer. Although iridescence generates no new light the effect can be surprisingly bright; catch the sun on the back of a kingfisher as it flies low over a river and you would think it was lit from within. 

Blue-rayed limpets – an example of iridescence in marine life.

Bioluminescent creatures on the other hand generate light and hence shine or glow in the dark. 

Instinctively, forgetting science for a moment, the ability to produce light seems to be somehow miraculous. There is something elemental about light.  It seems more than just another physical phenomenon. Light and its counterpoint darkness are a primeval pair of opposites.  ‘Let there be light’, the ‘light of reason’ and the ‘dark ages’, the ‘glimmer of consciousness’, the depiction of holy people as having haloes and the very word ‘enlightenment’, all contain light at their core. In children’s books as well, the ability to generate light is depicted as magical and firmly in the domain of wizards or supernatural beings, such as Harry Potter, Gandalf, Ged8 or ET. 

Such connotations seem to give light, and the ability to generate it, a mystical or even spiritual aspect6,7.

However, despite all this, being able to generate light through bioluminescence, is in fact very natural and commonplace. Many, many creatures, especially marine creatures, bioluminesce and it is thought that nature has reinvented bioluminescence fifty or so times during the course of evolution. The tree of life is, like a Christmas tree, decorated with many twinkling and flashing lights. 

The bioluminescent creature responsible for sea sparkle is a tiny single celled organism that drifts around the oceans as a component of plankton. It has the pretty Latin name ‘Noctiluca scintillans’, which translates as ‘sparkling night light’.

Undisturbed Noctiluca produces an extremely pale glow that is hard to see, but this changes if the water is disturbed by wave action or by someone walking or swimming. The cells then flash and sparkle with a blue-green light9 as a defence mechanism, to put predators off feeding, or to attract larger predators which will, in turn, feed on the predators of Noctiluca10

Swimming dolphins stimulate Noctiluca scintillans as they disturb the water11.

The mechanism by which bioluminescence is generated is chemical and is similar across many bioluminescent species. It involves an enzyme called Luciferase, and a light emitting compound called Luciferin12,13. In sea sparkle the Luciferase-Luciferin reaction is stimulated when the shape of the cell is distorted by the forces within the disturbed water. I have read that cells only sparkle at night and that even if you take a jar of sea water containing sea sparkle into a dark room it will not sparkle unless it is also night-time. It seems from this that although only a single cell Noctlluca must contain an internal clock, (but then you wonder if they also take account of the different lengths of night and day in winter and summer in which case, they also need to keep track of the time of year as well as the time of day). 

Finding sea sparkle

To be able to see sea sparkle it is necessary for Noctiluca to be present in large numbers; the conditions for this to occur therefore provide a guide for when it might be best to go hunting for it. 

These conditions include:

  • Warmth:  Noctiluca reproduces more readily in warm water, so looking after periods of warm weather might be a good idea.
  • Shelter:  Sheltered, calm bays are good hunting grounds as here the plankton stay near the surface of the water rather than becoming distributed throughout its depth. 
  • Onshore breeze: A gentle onshore breeze may also help as this will push the surface water containing the creatures toward the shore.

Even under these conditions I get the impression that the appearance of sea sparkle is quite erratic and unpredictable. There are, however, various internet groups dedicated to reporting sightings, including one dedicated to sightings around the Welsh coast14. Keeping an eye on such sites could significantly increase the chances of catching this elusive phenomenon.

If you go hunting, good luck!

Notes:

  1. Not her real name.
  2. Approx. 280 miles in 34 sailing hours (8.3 knots approx. average).
  3. It is one of the strange things about sailing that despite uncomfortable experiences like this it draws you back time and again.
  4. I do not know how large the areas Lenka sailed through were, but I have read that sea sparkle can cover thousands of square miles and be visible from space.
  5. There is a short blog I wrote about Blue-rayed limpets here.
  6. It seems to me a particularly charming aspect of bioluminescence that it is what might be considered more lowly creatures, such as glow worms, fireflies, jellyfish, and single celled plankton drifting on sea currents, that have the ability generate light, while the ‘higher’ mammals, including man, are denied it.
  7. This aspect was nicely brought out in the Disney film ‘Avatar’ in which the fantasy world of Pandora was lush with bioluminescent plants and creatures.
  8. Ged was a wizard in Ursula le Guinn’s excellent Earthsea Trilogy (which included the original school of wizardry on ‘Roke Island’).
  9. This shade of blue-green light is the best colour for penetrating sea water, (the colour of the rays of the blue rayed limpet is a similar shade, for the same reason).
  10. It is easy, when casually browsing on the internet, to get the impression that such interpretations are established facts – but other sources indicate that such ideas are just hypothesis and that research in many areas is still ongoing.
  11. Screen capture from full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJcTWr8-mFo
  1. This is the subject of research inspired both by curiosity and the search for possible practical applications. The American university MIT are looking into the possibility of engineering bioluminescent plants to replace electrical lighting ( https://news.mit.edu/2017/engineers-create-nanobionic-plants-that-glow-1213 )
  2. ‘Lucifer’ is Latin for ‘bringer of light’.
  3. For example,  https://seasparkle.wales