Blog

Just one of those days

(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;

[1] “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.

[2] 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’!

  1. Caspar Henderson
  2. https://jacklynch.net/Texts/treatise.html

Time to try

I have been blathering away to myself, for quite a long time now, about trying to produce a larger piece of writing, maybe even a book. I realise that if I don’t do it now it will never happen. Of course, it probably wont happen anyway. More than likely I will get bogged down in the usual feelings of shifting perspectives and fractal complexity that tend to assail me whenever I try to focus on a specific objective. But at least I will have tried, and the next time the thought; ‘it would be fun to write a book’ occurs to me I will be able to say, ‘remember, you tried that once and couldn’t do it’, so shut up and get on with something useful’.

So I intend to try. I don’t know what the usual or best approach is, but, given a rough direction, I intend to just start to write and simply see what happens. Sometimes thoughts breed thoughts in a way that makes planning too far ahead pointless.

So, I have put the first draft of a few paragraphs below, as a merest toe in the water and indication of intent! I may occasionally add little bits as things go along, if they go along, as I feel it will help me to put something ‘out there’. If anybody reads this and has comments, please feel free!

Preface

The rockpool is about a metre long, half metre wide and thirty centimetres deep.  A small depression in dark rock lying at the eastern end of a small sandy bay on the north Pembrokeshire coast. I have arrived at nearly the lowest point of a low Spring tide. The sea is less than a meter above what is known to sailors as LAT or the ‘lowest astronomical tide’ and at such a tide much more foreshore is accessible than is usually the case.

It is cold and grey. The sea is rough from a recent storm, and a residual swell is washing round the headland that defines this side of the bay.  Despite this cold greyness I can already feel the calming and soothing effect of this place working on me.

I have been visiting this Bay, and the particular area around this rockpool for a year or so now. I started coming here as part of a citizen science project designed to monitor species of shore life, but unfortunately, despite having worked in science for many years I found I lacked the discipline to do the science properly. I could not focus. So, instead of conducting proper timed searches I just potter about seeing what I can find and thinking and dreaming about the sort of things being near the sea makes you think and dream about.

There is much to inspire here.  In terms of the wildlife alone it can feel like living inside one of those iconic ladybird books of the 1950s and 60s. A new edition maybe; ‘What to look for in Pembrokeshire’ whose cover would show an anemone filled rock pool and behind which dolphins would swim in a blue sea whith black fingered, red beaked Choughs displaying above. In these days of constant reporting of ecological disaster, I am drawn to this place as an iron filing to a magnet.

But it is not just the wildlife. The folded cliffs and the rocky outcrops that crest the nearby Preseli hills speak of geological drama and even the night sky appears clearer than usual, revealing worlds beyond.

Just wandering and experiencing is enjoyable here. Walking along the cliffs, or on the hills, is often dramatically beautiful. There is a quality to the light which, combined with the juxtaposition of sea, cliffs and hills produces something which is nearly always special and sometimes feels transformational.

Unfortunately, for me, it is never quite enough to just be in a place and enjoy it. I always want to do something more with it. Sometimes it is just to use it as inspiration for trying to paint or draw, or write poetry, but more often it acts as a spur to think about what I suppose might be thought of as the bigger questions of life, science and philosophy.

And so today I am sat here, on these rocks looking out to sea, with a coffee in hand wondering where to start.

But then I realise, it doesn’t matter too much where one starts. It is all connected. The sea is boundless. Wherever you jump in is, in some sense, the same as everywhere else. So, as I am in the fortunate position of having no plan to work to, no deadline and no one to please, I will probably just wander and see what turns up.

Short walk

I wanted to do a blog with no (or very few) words. Words can be so difficult; always limited or limiting in some way.

So here it is; a short walk in my favourite area of the Preselis – to share.

(The music is me attempting to play Roy Harper’s lovely instrumental ‘Blackpool’).

There is a little lyric with this song which I wasn’t up to singing:

"The rain falls like diamonds
pin-pricks the still water
spreadeagles it's laughter
across the green sheet
of the sleeping sea."

Roy Harper - Blackpool, (from 'The Sophisticated beggar').
(Lots of good songs on this album, but maybe an acquired taste!) 

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