Wave-gales – 9th November 2022

PT 2.

My rockpool monitoring done I consider what to do. The day is not conducive to walking round the head and I am feeling somewhat flat and uninspired. However there is still coffee in the flask and it seems silly to head back home having driven out here, so I decide to walk to the next bay and see what is to be seen.

I arrive and install myself on one of the smoother, dryer rocks. Halfway into a second refill of my Lilliputian flask-cup, a commotion of chough cries catches my attention.

I look up: is that them over there, mobbing a buzzard? No, they’re just crows. But there, yes, I see them now, two of them, flying over the bay. I swing the camera up and am lucky to catch them in the viewfinder and even luckier that the somewhat erratic auto-focus works. 

Choughs seem incapable of flying in a straightforward manner, instead they constantly swoop, dive and play and I wonder if, being intelligent corvids, they need to distract themselves from some lurking angst that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm them. 

Looking at the photographs later I notice one of the birds even appears to have been flying upside-down when I snapped them; their fingered silhouettes look like the bird-shadows we used to cast as kids on a wall using a lamp and entwined fingers – apart from the fine curved beak that is. 

The choughs are a welcome distraction, but once they are gone, I feel again at a bit of a loss. I cast around for a purpose and decide to try one of my photo-mosaics, based, not on a rockpool, but on an area of the sumptuous seaweed that lies uncovered by the low tide.  Maybe I can find a patch which includes some of the blue-rayed limpets, which I know can be found here when the tide is low like this. 

This endeavour requires a perilous expedition to the very edge of the sea, a stagger over a rocky and rockpooly shore, hidden beneath two to three inches of extraordinarily slippery laminaria seaweed. I manage, just, to keep bones and camera intact and make it to the shore, where it doesn’t take long to find a little group of grazing limpets. They always surprise me, how small and how bright they are, and how they shine out with male-engineered exactness from the soft curves of the kelp.

I backtrack, regain terra-firma, and am draining the last coffee dregs when I realise I haven’t found any new species for the species-record of the area, which I have been keeping for a while. When I first started coming here, a year or so ago, I used to find one or two new creatures each time, but of course it gets harder. There are no obviously accessible rockpools on this part of the shore, but plenty of large rocks, the underside of which can provide a rich habitat. 

I generally don’t like lifting rocks when surveying as, although it is the only way to find some species, such as crabs, it is just so intrusive. As a species, we probe and pry, by day and night, shining touches, real or metaphorical, into every nook and cranny. It makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I am part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I sometimes wonder if a bunch of carefree kids, scrambling over the rocks, making a racket and larking about with a frisbee or at football, aren’t more easily forgiven and ignored by wildlife than one well-meaning probing, prying scientist. 

Of course, the standard advice is to ‘carefully put rocks back exactly as you find them’, but how can this work? For example, I lift one large flat rock and ten or more tiny, juvenile shore crabs begin to move. Some freeze and play dead, others burrow and yet more scurry for cover. It is good to see such abundant life, but how do I put the rock back without crushing at least some of their delicate bodies?

Of course, I can’t. So instead, I place another stone under the edge of the rock I have lifted to act as a prop and trust the sea to arrange things better when it visits in an hour or so, (I can almost hear it tut-tutting at my ridiculous artifice). I leave all the other stones unturned and wander bank up the beach.

As I do so, drifting towards the path that leads back to the car park, I arrive at the strand line and turn to wander along it. 

In my current frame of mind it is its bleakness that strikes me. It is a trainwreck. Everything broken, dead or dying. A pale crab with a missing leg is tumbled and half buried in torn weed. Numerous holdfasts, failing to live up to their name, have been ripped from the rock and lie in a tangled mess, along with numerous shells, empty of whatever recently animated them and called them home.

It all seems, today, to eloquently express the nature of life and its end, and I feel it crystalise a nascent feeling of sadness. But then, as I notice all this, I also begin to feel something new; a strange comfort in this uncompromising spectacle. 

It is not an easy comfort. The tideline is bleak. Its message, as a metaphor for the fate of all that is personal, is undeniable. But its complete matter-of-factness is also somehow beautiful.

Everything dies and is recycled. Biology to chemistry to physics and maybe, sooner or later, back to biology. The strand line writes this large and shoves it in our faces, and maybe we are affronted, but there is nothing cruel about it. Or about the sea in general for that matter. It is just the way things are. If we let go of the personal, and the angst that accompanies it, and look at the big picture, maybe we can see an austere beauty.

And there is something else. Being out here and looking on the sea, or this tide line, is a powerful antidote to self-absorption. I am reminded of a line in W.H. Auden’s, The mirror and the sea, which Adam Nicolson quotes in his book, ‘The mighty dead: why Homer matters‘, which runs;

“All you are not stares back at what you are”

This line is looking at the tide line or out to sea. What does it mean? We can, maybe, project different meanings onto it; an existential dread certainly, but also, perhaps, acknowledgement of a beautiful, refreshing otherness. 

Today it is the latter. I look out from where I am standing and nothing of me stares back. I like that. I feel emptied. Re-calibrated. Healthier.  The cobwebs have been blown away. A wave-gale has blown through me: an icy dollop of sea water that has scoured me of all the deadening detritus of old thoughts and feelings.

I am put in my place. A nothing in the cosmos. Thank God!

I take a last look at the grey sea and head for home.

Chough – one of two that flew over the bay.
Photo-mosaic of red and brown seaweeds. Click on the image then zoom to hunt for blue-rayed limpets and a patch of Bryzoan!

Wave-gales – 14th October 2022

PT 1.

As I walk down the concrete steps to the bay the sea smell is stronger than usual. Autumn has arrived. Piles of red seaweed and brown laminaria lie along the beach, torn from the rocks by the first rough weather.

It is a grey day and the bay strikes me as looking a little tired, but I set off anyway towards the cliffs and the rockpool I have been monitoring for the last year or so.  But something is wrong. I get roughly to where the rockpool should be but it’s not there! The rocks as well! Nothing is in its right place! I stand, momentarily confused and disorientated, but then realise, it is just that the sea is so much further out than usual, due to the exceptionally low spring tide, and so the landscape is changed.  I pause, re-establish my bearings and after a few minutes find my objective.  

In contrast to the bay, the pool’s appearance is improved by the recent heavy wave action, it is much cleaner and brighter than the last time I saw it1.

It is fresh and clear and its distinctive pink colour plain to see. This colouration, which is shared by many pools in the area, is due to a soft-pink encrusting coral that covers the pool basin below the waterline and a sturdy red seaweed known as Corallina officianalis which grows in tufts within the pool itself2.  There are, in these pools, often also a few delicate twists of a bright green algae known as Sea lettuce, as well as a scattering of limpets and periwinkles on the rockpool floor. Some pools also sport Snakelocks anemones, with their striking purple-tipped green tentacles; a simultaneously startling, but subtle play of complementary colours.  There also often signs of apparent whimsy; limpets sporting delicate weed fascinators, or with periwinkles riding on their backs. Often these various elements appear arranged with such fussy, delicate artistry as to bring to mind a plate of Michelin starred food from a fancy London restaurant.

I have been observing these pools regularly for not quite a year, and have noticed they are most attractive in the spring.  Throughout the summer months, presumably due to the higher light levels and warmer water, some of them, including the one I monitor, grow an epiphytic algae that gradually obscures both colour and form3.  At the same time silt and detritus, including excreta from the grazing shellfish built up on the bottom, hiding the coral floor and filling seams and cracks in the rock.

But now, with the bigger seas, all is refreshed. Wave-gales have blown though, scouring the pool, and removing all that was not strong or well anchored. 

Peering in, one of the first things I see are the pale, blue-banded tentacles, of daisy anemones. I feel a perhaps unreasonably strong sense of relief. They had been missing all summer and, in my habitual assumption of the worse, I had thought them gone. But no, all is well, they were merely obscured by the silt. But such is the relentless reporting of loss and change in nature these days that any sign, such as this, of resilience or even normal natural routine, is frequently accompanied by an motional release. Given the transformation wrought by the recent waves I wonder if this scouring is a necessary part of these rockpool habitats, in the same way that fire is a necessary part of some grass or woodland ecosystems.

I find a place to stand where my reflection in the water is least and take a series of fifty or so overlapping photographs covering the rockpool from barnacled shore to barnacled shore. These will be stitched together into a single highly detailed image when I get home – a method of recording the pool and something new I am trying. 

While taking the photographs I notice that the sea has deposited some of the same red seaweed, or macro algae as it is properly called, in the pool as lay along the beach. Here, as there, a lot of it is covered in a pale encrustation called sea mat. It looks nothing from a distance but looking closely reveals a very fine lacy mesh of perfectly rectangular cells, each less than a millimetre in size. This is a Bryzoan4 or ‘moss animal’, a colony of tiny flower-like filter feeders. I have never seen the creatures, only these dead remains, but still there is something arresting about this geometric precision amongst the organic forms of the seaweed.

  1. This sounds like a totally anthropocentric judgement – perhaps the inhabitants prefer a rich, murky soup of nutrients, but then according to ‘3’ below this instinctive judgement may be correct.
  2. This type of rockpool is given a special designation by the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC), you can read more about it here.
  3. I have read that this growth of epiphytes actually stunts or kills the red Corallina officinalis sea weed.
  4. Rockpools and the life within them have inspired and continue to inspire great interest from evolutionary biologists, from Charles Darwin down. Bryzoans, are heavily researched for a number of reasons, including that their calciferous cells mean they are well preserved in the fossil record, enabling close tracking of evolutionary changes.

Twix wrapper – 30th September 2022.

My sense of continental geography, or even just French geography is poor. I had driven for eight or so hours, more or less following the magic thread of the sat Nav. I knew I was somewhere central-southish, but exactly where, and in relation to what I really couldn’t say. 

It had been the same before we left. Where are you going? People had asked. Well I’m not really sure was my rather embarrassed answer.

The journey itself had been impressionistic. Driving through hours of night. Getting lost in industrial Rouen.  Waking to a beautiful mediaeval town and sampling early morning coffee and coissants. Fields of sunflowers. Flat lands bounded by curtains of grey storm clouds, split by repeated lightnings. 

The mediaeval town had not been an exception, there were more, and the odd fairytale chateau. Building developments seemed much less obvious, or non existent. How was this? What is different about French population dynamics compared with those of England, where every square inch seems to be being developed for housing? 

The countryside appeared well tended and attractive. Healthy trees with clean trunks to above traffic height, rather than lorry-pruned as often seems to be the case here. Free parking and even special overnight provision everywhere. Welcoming! Fresh bread and cheese that seemed to feed the soul as well as the stomach. Was this somehow the result of putting people first? The French resistance to erosion of working practices and worker’s rights. It seemed to fit, but I am probably wrong; silly to presume to pronounce on a country after such a short time, but that was the impression.

Finally, arrival and a few days with the friends whose generosity had allowed this holiday opportunity, before being left to ourselves to recoup from a difficult summer. 

So now, a few days in and a chance to look at the atlas and find out where we were.  Availles Limosan, a bit west of central. The drive had crossed the Loire valley – ah, that explains the beauty. I turned over the page, so we are near Limoges. Porcelain if I remember correctly. Maybe a destination for a day out.  Then I notice the colouration of the map indicating rising ground to the east. I turn another page or two drawn by the lure of mountains. And then, for the first time, it really dawns on me;  I am on the continent! Connected to all that extraordinary scenery, culture and history.  

Old patterns of thought and obsessions kick in.  Switzerland. I could get to Switzerland. Why didn’t we come for longer!

Switzerland is a powerful draw to my imagination.  Why? A constellation of reasons. The most wonderful scenery; recollections of walking holidays in the Alps, walking on grass (I am no climber), but high up and looking across to valleys of snow and rock; to the Eiger and the Matterhorn. A night of fireflies during a walk towards Italy through the Ticeno on a holiday way back in university days. And then there is the science; Einstein and CERN. CERN on the French Swiss border, the world’s largest particle accelerator and a Mecca for physicists. And Einstein, living in Zurich in the early days before his time in Berlin and the rise of narzism, sailing on the Zurichsee and thinking of light and relativity.

So, two good reasons for being drawn to Switzerland, but not the key reason. The key reason, perhaps strangely, is that the pioneering psychologist Carl Gustav Jung lived in Zurich. Why is this important? I find it hard to say. I read Jung’s collaborative biography, ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ more than forty years ago, along with various other books about him, or in which he was discussed, but I was by no means a careful or particularly avid reader and certainly no Jung scholar.

But something of his writing and the life and thought he described has penetrated deeply and lodged within. Only fitting, I suppose, that work by Jung should should find its way into the unconscious.

There are two physical foci to this obsession, the first, simply enough, is Jung’s house in Zurich, or, to be more precise, in Kusnach, a region of Zurich on the shores of the Zurichsee. 228 seestrasse if I remember correctly.  The second and more powerful, is Jung’s retreat at Bollingen, further up the lake.

Bollingen was built in stages; in some sense a physical manifestation of the psychologist’s thought and development.  I think I remember reading that Jung felt himself to be most at home when at Bollingen, surrounded by the natural world, performing the simple routines of cooking and firewood collection, on the lapping edge of the zurichsee.

I have been to Zurich twice and both times felt obliged to act on my obsession. The first evening of my first trip I vainly tried to find the Bollingen retreat. This was a long time ago, well before the days of the internet and easy information gathering, and the effort was a complete failure. All I have, somewhere, is a grainy twilight photograph of some faintly towered building – nothing to do with Bollingen. However the next morning I walked along the seestrasse in Kasnach to number 228, Jung’s House. 

I remember standing at the gate, looking down the long path to the front door. Then, as I took my obligatory photo, a man, the occupant I assume, walked up the drive and  greeted me at the gate with a ‘good morning’ and a ‘can I help you?’ . Being an idiot, and shy, I mumbled a ‘good morning’ and a ‘no thank you’ and walked on. I don’t know for sure, but I think at the time Jung’s grandson and family were living in the house and I often wonder if, recognising me for the pilgrim I was, he might have stayed to talk or even offered to show me around. 

My other memory of this incident is in some way stranger but perhaps more telling. I remember that, as I approached the house, I was actually shocked to see, first a petrol station (Texaco I think it was, in a garish bright red) and then, of all things, a Twix wrapper lying in the gutter, right outside the house! Shocking, as I’m sure you will agree! Why? Well, can you imagine, just the absolute prosaic mundanity of it. What had I expected? I’m not sure. Not maybe to meet the spirit of Jung, or the archetypal figure of Philemon,  with his kingfisher wings, strolling the garden or leaning on the front gate, but at least some sanctity, or sense of the numinous – certainly not a petrol station and a Twix wrapper! 

Of course, this was all a long time ago, so I might be tempted to lay such infatuations at the door of youthful folly, however this would be disingenuous as I was gripped by similar feelings just a few years ago. I was on a work trip with a PhD student. We were at the Paul Sherrer Institute (PSI) just outside Zurich. The experiment we were conducting (developing a method for combining neutron and x-ray imaging techniques) was intensive, but there was some free time and I decided to have another go at finding Bollingen. 

I set off along the lake again and this time I nearly made it.  All the way to Raperswill, the region of Bollingen.  But somehow I had put the dot on the map in the wrong place and I wandered around missing Bollingen by a mere mile or so. I have wondered since if something inside me was sabotaging my attempts to visit this place, but more likely it was just a combination of rush and natural incompetence.

Anyway, not to worry! I have a better plan now! I’m going to hire a dinghy in Zurich and sail to Bollingen.  What better way to get there?  To sail the water that Einstein and Jung sailed – the length of the lake to the tower – wouldn’t that be a thing to do with a day. 

Anyone for rockpooling? – 27th August 2022

A short blog with a difference.

I have been doing some work with nature charities, surveying rockpools in order to monitor variety and abundance of marine species (more details here). As part of this ‘work’ I am experimenting with high resolution zoomable photo-mosaics as a means of recording rockpools, but also, maybe, as a teaching/fun resource.

By clicking/tapping on this image, and zooming into the photo-mosaic that replaces it, and panning around, you can explore your very own rockpool.

Best results are with an at least reasonably high resolution screen and an not too slow internet connection. (Please let me know of any difficulties with using this, or indeed, thoughts in general).

Click on image to enter rockpool then zoom and pan around.

There are three types of sea anemone in this pool, one very easy to spot, the other two are a little harder.

(I may try to add a recording of shore sounds that plays while the image is open at some future date.)

Rock – 7th August 2022

(After a very difficult few weeks, helping look after a relative suffering the last stages of cancer. )

I don’t want to write for a few minutes, but rather sit here and soak in the peace.

It has been too long.  I am too tired to think.

I breath in the cool damp air, close my eyes, open them again and look to the sea.

A small flock of pipits rise and caught by the breeze arc away towards the hill. They are an analogy for something within, but I can’t put my finger on what.

The last time I came here this place was all wrong. Cold and bleak. Now it feels like life. Like breath. I would dissolve and seep into these rocks. Here. Forever. I have thought about this before, to be a rock on this hill. The calm being of it. Warm and chill. Rain tears on stone skin. Night sky. Day sky. Skylarks. A peregrine’s cry. In the spring a bird’s nest, a wheatear or stonechat’s maybe, at my feet, or behind my stone ear.

Am I irritated that a place can change so radically, from the negativity of my last visit, to the adoration of this? If I am honest, yes, but ridiculously – do we expect the desert traveler and the drowning man to see the same river?