I live in a beautiful place. But enjoying it is like going for a walk in a garden in which lurk many gorgons. Glimpse any one of them and you will be turned instantly to stone.
Enjoy the sunny days, but don’t think about climate change. Explore the sea but don’t think about the plastic pollution. Enjoy the sound of the river outside the door, forgetting how it flooded you that time and will surely do so again. Photograph the extraordinary wildlife, but keep out of focus its continually reported decline. Enjoy the woods on the valley sides but try not to see the bare branches of the dead ash.
So many lurking gorga, you need to walk wearing blinkers.
I took a trip to our nearest town a few days ago, to buy some groceries. It is a short drive, from the Cych valley, up and over, to the broader valley of the Teifi. A pleasant route along largely single-track roads between high banks covered in, depending on the month, snowdrops, primroses, daffodils, bluebells, wild garlic or foxgloves. The journey is something of a mild roller coaster, with the last few miles, once you start dropping down toward the river, reminding me of coming into land in a aeroplane. The slow descent, the engine quiet, coasting, occasional course corrections, and short bursts of power to momentarily recover height, even the turbulence of bumps in the road, all add to the illusion. Then, finally, a moment of stillness, before re-joining the world of people and purposeful activity.
The ostensible purpose of the trip, to buy the groceries, was soon completed by a few minutes shopping in CK’s supermarket. CK’s is the older supermarket in the town. The staff, some young and some older are generally cheerful and I much prefer it to the shiny new Co-op with its loathsome automatic checkouts.
My shopping done the real point of the journey could be indulged in; a coffee in the Cwtch cafe in the high street. The Cwtch is one of the scruffier cafes in Emlyn, but the coffee is good, and, best of all, both the cup and milk start off good and hot and so the coffee can be enjoyed over half an hour or so, even if sat outside with a book, as I usually am. Being a regular customer, I have earned the greeting of ‘the usual’ when I arrive, which is an additional small pleasure.
I enjoy these little excursions; a pleasant change of scenery and the feeling of people around me after the quiet and sometimes enclosing atmosphere of the Cych. The little town is, of course, struggling, but today was Thursday, which is cattle market day, and so the car park and high street were busier than usual with the local farmers, with their 4 by 4s and trailers. I do not want to get into the pros and cons of vegetarianism, but, albeit unthinkingly, I enjoy the presence of the cattle market in the heart of this little town. The sounds and sights it brings, the business and the feeling of purpose and connection with broader community. Not new or original observations maybe, but real to me.
This feeling of community has been a new thing for me. I have been living here for coming up four years now, but its novelty has not worn off. It was not anticipated, though the friendliness of the people, as experienced on various trips and holidays, had always made an impression and was one of the chief reasons for moving here.
I think I hadn’t known I was missing the ‘community thing’ until I experience it. I have been lucky in the past, nearly always living in attractive places, and hardly meeting anyone who was actively unpleasant, but this is different. It is hard to pin down, but I characterise it to myself as a change of emphasis in human interaction. Here, whenever you meet someone, in whatever capacity, you seem to meet the person first and the role they occupy second. There is an immediacy and a human touch to the contact, which, in turn, seems to bring about a corresponding openness and relaxation in me. I find myself chatting in a way I never did while in England.
As I sit, reading, looking around, I enjoy the snatches of Welsh that come my way from people talking in the street. The Welsh language is supported at government level; not just taught within state schools, but actually prescribed as the language of teaching.
Because I enjoy it, I fear the loss of this local feel and culture. It is so vulnerable. Already areas I visit in Pembrokshire are becoming anglicised. One little community that lies at the end of a favourite walk of mine, made the news the other day for being, I think it was, 95 percent holiday homes. This area is not so honey-potish and so may be slower to change but I would hate to see this special quality go.
Of course, as an incomer myself, I am, to some extent, an agent of the very change I fear. But then maybe there is more than one way of incoming to a place. I hope I come with respect and humility and an appreciation of what is here.
It is soon time to head back. It has recently rained and I catch glimpses of the distant Preselis through gaps in the high hedges as they catch the sun and look bright in the clean air. I realize again how beautiful they are and how lucky I am to have ended up here and what a huge opportunity it presents. But how do I express all that I would like to express? Time is short I know, which begins to add impetus, but still, I have no real idea.
The somewhat fuzzy photograph above, was taken, in a rush, at the end of a rockpool survey. Looking at it back at home it wasn’t at all obvious to me what it was, or even that its subject was organic. More geological perhaps? Some sort of crystal growth maybe? A cluster of stars on a piece of rock at the bottom of a rockpool.
I would normally have reached for reference books or the internet to identify a new find, but this time I didn’t know where to start, so I took the easy route and appealed to Twitter, hoping one of the several expert rockpoolers I know to be online would get back with an identification. And, within a few minutes they did1.. Not geological but biological. Animal in fact. A specie of sea-squirt commonly known as Star Ascidian. Hence the stars, of course.
I was pleased. A new entry for my growing rollcall of species found in the pools of this little north Pembrokeshire Bay2.. I looked up Star Ascidian online to get the proper scientific name and its scientific classification:
Common name: Star Ascidian
Scientific Name: Botryllus schlosseri
I like these scientific names and classifications. I enjoy the feeling of learning and arcane knowledge they project. They conjure images of ranks 18th and 19th century amateur scientists grappling to understand the world around them, at a time when the balance between knowledge and mystery left room for such intellectual curiosity and simple enthusiasm. The problem is they pique my interest. Like tips of icebergs, they hint at more below; hidden research, information and knowledge. I find I need to delve further, and that one thing leads to another, so that what might have started as a chance finding of something curious in a rockpool, all too easily mushrooms into a much larger, sometimes even burdensome, investigation.
Whenever I sense this process starting, I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beautiful short story ‘Leaf, by Niggle’, in which an artist, Niggle, becomes obsessively absorbed in a particular painting which seems to take on a life of its own.
“There was one picture in particular which bothered him [Niggle]. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder; and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there. When people came to call, he seemed polite enough, though he fiddled a little with the pencils on his desk. He listened to what they said, but underneath he was thinking all the time about his big canvas, in the tall shed that had been built for it out in his garden (on a plot where once he had grown potatoes). “
I particularly that last line ‘on a plot where once he had grown potatoes’, presumably illustrating how the obsessive work on the painting displaced more practically fruitful activity!
Anyway, my little sea-squirt acted, for a while, a little like Niggle’s Leaf. I have sketched one of the main branches of its tree here and will add one or two more in a second blog shortly.
The first thing I noticed was that the sea-squirt belongs to the Phylum Chordata. The ‘chord’ in Chordata refers to a primitive nerve chord that may run along a creature and from which the spinal column and backbone evolved. Chordata is therefore the phylum to which all vertebrates, including ourselves belong.
Two things followed this; the first was I realised that although I had recorded many different species since I started delving into these rockpools, this was the first that belonged to this group. How different this is to the land-based animal life we are all familiar with, where Chordata seem so dominant. For example, all the mammals, including ourselves, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, snakes, lizards are all Chordata. I started to wonder why this difference is so marked, which led to reading read about disparate subjects such as why insects are small and how the average density of many animal bodies, including our own is almost the same as that of sea-water, which means that marine life doesn’t feel gravity in the way land animals do enabling the wonderful strange and delicate forms of rockpool life I had been finding.
Having learned that belonging to chordata implies a primitive spinal cord or backbone, I looked again at the photograph. It was not at all obvious how this thing, which appeared little more than a smear of patterned jelly, could have a backbone or indeed would have any use for one. Turning to the formal definition of Chordata I read,
“Chordata: A phylum of the animal kingdom comprising all the animals that have, at some stage in their life, a notochord (a hollow dorsal nerve cord), pharyngeal slits, and a muscular tail extending past the anus. Includes the subphyla Cephalochordata, Urochordata, and Vertebrata (vertebrates).3.
The clue is in the second line; “at some stage in their life”. It turns out that the sea-squirt starts out as a free-swimming larva, somewhat like a little tadpole, complete with a primitive, eye, tail and notochord and importantly, a very rudimentary brain, designated to controlling it’s motion.
After a brief free swimming (pelagic) period the tadpole attaches itself to a suitable substrate and metamorphoses into the attached (sessile) jelly form I found.
This life-cycle, of pelagic larva to sessile sea-squirt, turned out to be more significant than it at first seemed.
Evolutionarily speaking the story goes like this; Once Upon a Time (roughly 550 million years ago) there was a specie of tiny tadpole like creatures that spent their days swimming in the sea. Some of these tadpoles found that it took much less effort to cling to the rocks and wait for the food to come to them than to actively seek it out by swimming, while the others stuck with the original swimming about plan. Each group became somewhat set in their ways and slowly evolved to become more suited to their adopted lifestyles.
The group that stuck with the swimming, we could call them the pelagic group, went on to great things, or, even if we eschew this somewhat subject value judgement, at least went on to great variety and experimentation, as it is now believed, that these little free swimming tadpoles evolved to give rise to all the vertebrate life on earth, including, of course, ourselves.
Things did not go as well for the sessile group. Nature discovered (through the usual method of ruthless experimentation no doubt) that once attached to its rock the organism no longer needed its tail, eye, embryonic spinal cord and backbone, or, for that matter its brain. These organs the sea-squirt evolved, in a process known as regressive evolution, to digest for the sake their protean content!
The element of black humour in this coupling of an organism ‘settling down’ with the loss of its mental faculties, has not been missed. The philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, draws a parallel to the process of a university professor obtaining tenure!
“ The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore so it eats it! (It’s rather like getting tenure.) ”4.
Professor Sea Squirt5
Different lines of investigation, including modern genetic analysis, indicate that the sea-squirt is the immediate ancestor of all vertebrates and therefore is considerably closer to humans than many other forms of equally unlikely looking life. For this reason, among others, the sea-squirt has become the model organism for studying the evolution of vertebrates, including the origin and development of human hormone, nervous and immune systems. The latter, among other things, providing a new range of chemo-therapy drugs6..
The above is a tiny sample of what investigations of the humble sea-squirt have revealed and are still revealing, but already I somehow felt the need to shake its hand, if only it had one.
Evolution of chordates showing the sea-squirt (Tunicates) as the ancestor of the vertibrates.7.
(I wouldn’t have bothered to blog this, but I have decided to be more inclusive and curate less. It is best treated as an observation in ‘over thinking’ and maybe an exercise in self-mockery! There maybe however one or two things perhaps worth picking up at a later date.)
Pt 1. (Carpark on the Preseli hills)
I have written several times below about the wonders of this place. The way the light transforms, the calm and the wildlife, the sculptural rocks and soft air. But, of course, it is not always like this. Grey days exist everywhere and for everyone and it is grey today. Today also the landscape matches the mood. I feel grey; my head frozen, locked up and useless. This is my least favourite state. Joy comes from freedom and freedom from thinking. But, for the last week or so, my head has been having none of it. In this frame of mind all the bad things seem real and the good things illusory, which is, of course, as it should be in a meaningless, random and uncaring universe!
Some of this mood is, I would say, objectively justifiable. I find myself obsessively typing ‘Ukraine news’ into Google, searching for reassurance, while scouring social media for a sense of contact and warmth. The first is nowhere to be found and the second scarce.
My project to write a book feels already dead. Killed by just the demons I suspected it would be killed by, but which I hoped to exorcise by calling out and naming. But no, they know me too well and are too clever and wily.
Of course, there is probably never a ‘right time’ to try and write a book, just as there is never a right-time to have children or move house, but this time, with global conflagration appearing a distinct possibility, makes even starting seem pointless.
The fact that I am not alone in this gloom is some comfort. Talking to a neighbour the other day black humour welled up when she said, ‘well I’m not buying any ripen-at-home fruit, or long-playing records for that matter at the moment!’ Not easy times for a perfectionist obsessional who wants everything to be just right, while simultaneously searching, with the aid of a very proficient imagination, for reasons for them not to be.
I have found retirement also brings challenges. The working week, with its cycle of pressure-relax-pressure-relax, used to at least act like a simple pump, keeping the stuff of life moving. Take that away and you can be left with stagnation and the opportunity for a real sharp-toothed-long-clawed existential crisis. I have always had a propensity for such crises, but with little to distract me, this talent can truly blossom.
I remember I chose science, specifically physics, as a career because I realised, I needed something challenging but, most importantly, something external and objective, to engage with. I knew, even by then, that if I didn’t distract the beast with some red meat, it would surely eat me alive.
I fancy others have felt similarly. Was Einstein referring to something similar when he said:
“Strenuous intellectual work and the study of God’s Nature are the angels that will lead me through all the troubles of this life with consolation, strength, and uncompromising rigor.”
Not many of us have the strength to forge our sense of meaning, Nietzsche-like, out of nothing, with just our bare hands. In any case, is it possible to hang meaning from something we have constructed ourselves? What other choice do we have? To hang meaning off God or Nature. But both of these it seems can be pulled down relatively easily. Perhaps recognition of our common human plight and compassion for other sufferers is at least a starting point, but this too can be picked apart philosophically if one really chooses to do so.
Philosophical ideas, particularly those around free-will, determinism and reductionism have always had the power to empty life of meaning. This is one of the difficulties I have with writing; everything that doesn’t tackle at least one of the three or four major philosophical questions of life and existence can seem like so much padding! Ridiculous to feel like this, I am sure. Maybe the answer is to simply stop thinking about such things and accept that, to quote Kirkegard; “Life Is Not A Problem To Be Solved, But A Reality To Be Experienced.”
Who knows! I am tired of swinging between imagined possibilities. I drove out here to write, but can’t and the weather does not inspire walking, so I am heading back home.
Pt 2. (Two hours later)
I dropped a hundred feet or so, from the relatively flat top of the hill, down the steep sided valley and the world changed. The mist thinned, making it to appear luminous rather than flat grey. The bluebells began to faintly glow from the verge and birds (pipits and a wheatear I think) could be seen moving along the banks on either side of the road. I was struck by the warmth of the air blowing gently through the van window.
The usual order of things was reversed. Usually, I love to get out of the valley. To the more open uplands. But not today. The terrain matched the mood. Enough of the bleak. Why would we choose to live on the colder, windier uplands when the shelter of the warm folded valley is nearby. To profess love of such bleakness, be it mountain or sea, is, it seems to me now, to not really know these places. We are not designed to live in such inhospitable environments, however good the views.
These thoughts and feelings recalled something I had read recently on twitter. An author I follow1. and who I suspect experiences similar days, had tweeted a quote from the writing of the Scottish philosopher David Hume;
 “The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
 Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three- or four-hours amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”2.
Of course, it is interesting that despite the healthier and more natural feelings Hume described in the second part of this excerpt, whatever it is that drives philosophers and others to ponder the sorts of questions they ponder, drove him, sooner or later, back to the ‘hills’!