First Sighting of the Alps and Self-Willed Ecosystems

As long as I can remember, I have found it very hard to stay in one place for any length of time. When it comes to my career, this is a pain, but for everything else it’s wonderful; even when lying in bed hungover I am guaranteed that a small voice in the back of my head will start nagging me to get up and check out somewhere new.

It follows, then, that I love to travel— dropping in on a foreign country, garbling my way through a phrasebook, wrestling with the public transport system, and immersing myself as much as possible in the unfamiliar culture. I get wide-eyed with excitement— the sheer newness of everything from the word for ‘Hello’ to the different items available in shops drives me into a state of mind simultaneously blissed-out and hypomanic.

With this mood approaching, I set-off for the Austrian Alps— to help out with the school ski trip. Despite my love of travel, I had been in two minds about this use of my Easter holiday. On one hand, I was thrilled to finally see some proper mountains (I come from a very flat part of Suffolk), on the other, I was faintly terrified of being made to ski again. This sounds ridiculous, but on the two occasions I had been dry-slope skiing, I had successively broken two ribs and put my back out. The saying: ‘Once bitten, twice shy’ came to mind, as did numerous visions of me falling down, skiing into trees, breaking bones, etc. Among the other school staff I had acquired the title: ‘Posh Boy Can’t Ski’. I laughed along, but couldn’t help but feel a mild sense of dread creeping up on me as the end of term approached.

In my mind, I had a number of scenarios:

  1. Fake an injury and befriend the local wildlife. Like the boy in the picture below, I hoped my ribs would play up so I’d get to make like a quasi-ginger Snow White and befriend the local fauna.
  2. Find my skiing sensei, make like a Rocky montage and go from tripping over my own skis to whizzing down black runs yodelling like Tarzan crossed with an Oompah band.
  3. Lose my memory after skiing into a tree and spend the rest of the week running around the valleys like some strange, well-spoken Yeti.
  4. Flee across the border while no one is looking and spend the rest of the week scratching a life in north Italy writing poems for food + shelter.
  5. Have a religious epiphany and make like a Russian Mystic, while birds bring me food St. Francis style.

And so on…

But naturally, it didn’t end in any of the ways listed above. In fact, it was like nothing I had expected. Even looking out the coach window at the Alps I felt perturbed by the scale of the place, its sheer presence and inescapability. Being used to being able to see the horizon from wherever I am, I perceived the mountains like a bizarre interruption of my usual line of sight— and would have resented them if not for the complexity each new vista presented to me. I saw various conifers, stemless gentian, reeds, bogs, the v-shaped notch of fast flowing streams, buzzards, ravens, and hooded crows complete with their trademark little silver waistcoats.

Marmot langs de weg
But no Marmots…

Although faintly stunned by the scale of the place, I was also aware of a certain sparseness. Up until this point, I had thought of mountain ranges as fortresses of biodiversity, inaccessible and inconducive to human industry. I could not have been more wrong. The uniform planting of conifers, the limestone quarries, and even the ski slopes all suggested to me that these mountains were hardly a wellspring of ecological wellbeing. Rather, I was given a brief snapshot of the staggering scale of human ingenuity. Naively, I had expected businesses to be somewhat put off by the difficult terrain: this was hardly the case. In the few hours the coach was driving through the Alps I saw specialist logging machinery, numerous kinds of industry, and lorry after lorry carrying materials through and from the mountains. Although a far cry from the agricultural monocultures I had grown up familiar with (with some exceptions, of course), I couldn’t help but feel my initial awe being quickly undercut by an insurgent sense of, for want of a better word, disappointment.

2016-03-26 10.33.44.jpg
Not that the Alps care, of course

Yet human ingenuity has its place. In many ways the history of the Alps is bound up with the history of their human inhabitants— the actions of which are not necessarily always to the detriment of the place. Traditional farming techniques promote diversity in upland meadow areas that would otherwise revert to scrub, and the money brought in by the (now dominant) tourism industry goes some way to ensuring the local government is at least faintly concerned with preserving the landscape. Whether this preservation is for the best is debatable— as ecological systems, in order to be healthy, must be allowed to change’. That a landscape should be unaltered for, say, 50 years, might be good for people with cameras, but might not be best for the habitat. As in most situations, stagnation rarely leads to good outcomes. In fact, there have been humans living in the Alps for as long as 10 000 years— and the mountain range remains a sight of archaeological interest. Much as I was tempted to follow the typical knee-jerk reaction and blame industry for all ecological ills, even a quick survey of a wikipedia page can prove that it’s a much more complicated situation than it first appears.

The first question I found myself asking off the back of this was: why should someone want to preserve an ecosystem indefinitely? I found some answers in the book ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot. Although advertised as a book on ‘rewilding’ it necessarily touches on a number of different topics, among them the pitfalls of current conventions in conservation. In fact it’s hard to write about ecology without going off in hundreds of different directions. It seems fitting (at least to me) that writing about ecology should appear as messy and organic as the subject itself. Monbiot refers to current practises in his provocative chapter ‘The Conservation Prison’ (pp 209-226) as curatorial— aiming to preserve land on the grounds of value judgements disguised as sound, scientific judgement. The consequence is that:

‘If an ecosystem cannot adapt, its richness, structure and complexity will decline even faster than they are today’ (p.221)

The only way ecosystems can keep up with the rate of climate change, and adapt in the face of the changes the anthropocene age has set into motion is to become more ‘self-willed’— to be that is ‘rewilded’. Rewilding is a pretty gigantic concept in itself— and the few books I’ve so far read on the subject couldn’t have been further apart in their justifications for, say, reintroducing the Wolf to Britain, or coppicing less trees. But all the same, the phrase ‘self-willed’ intrigued me.

First, the anthropomorphic nature of the phrase caused me to raise an eyebrow. Does an ecosystem really ‘will’ anything? And if so, is it in a way similar to the way a human society might ‘will’ something? I think back to reading James Lovelock’s various books of Gaia theory and shudder slightly— and recall the way some writers have a habit of mythologising and totalising the ecological world makes my skin crawl. I’d rather throw my laptop on the floor and scream ‘it’s hopelessly complex’ than think in such a stunted way.

And yet, the phrase ‘self-willed’ remains stuck in my mind. Even as a metaphor for allowing an ecosystem to change and function without direct, sustained human intervention, it is a useful term. From an existential angle, I consider all the possibilities open to a simple patch of moor once people stop grazing sheep on it. Abandoned to chance, all manner of different factors come into play, with different effects and outcomes. Without someone to curate the moors living museum, it could develop in directions even ecologists could not necessarily predict— some dead wood blown from the top of the hill could become the home of new beetle species for example, or a flash flood could simply clear the whole thing away…

The ability of an ecosystem to self-determine, in short, is one I find fascinating, and feeds into all sorts of interesting ideas about plant and animal selfhood. The presence of human industry on the Alps had upset my sense of the sublime, almost as much as being on a coach with 40 students had upset my general sense of tranquility. The issue for me appeared to be more and more one of humanity’s coexistence with nature. Is a kind of equality desirable? Or is a slight reduction to the damage already done all we can hope for in the future? Regardless, I could see it was going to be a heavy week for me…


In Which I am Interrupted by a Fox

I seem to spend a lot of time standing at bus stops in remote locations, waiting for a bus that may or may not come. Though this might not appeal to my students who seem to think I should be driving the latest Audi (at least) by now, it does give me time to think, especially about the natural world, and its latest incarnation as ecology.

In this state of gently juxtaposed boredom and expectation, my brain, if viewed in cartoonish cross section, would likely appear something like a tangle of psychical tumbleweed, swivelling around inside the socket of my skull; getting snared in unlikely places— aimless yet serene— a focussed, almost meditative kind of daydream.

Or alternatively, like something out of Beano’s ‘The Numbskulls’

This state of mind, thoughts idling along like the engine of a stationary vehicle, rarely lasts for long. Interruption is inevitable, whether it be from the bus finally arriving, or something more… unexpected. In day-to-day life the idea of being ‘interrupted’ has a fairly bad press. I try to talk to a friend about something and they interrupt me. I try to pull a few sheets of paper, or finish off some kind of project, then someone knocks on the door, or my phone goes off. The classic example of agonisingly irritating interruption being Coleridge’s ‘Person from Porlock’, the one who interrupted him at length, preventing him from completing the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ in its entirety.

My old phone was especially adept at this…

And yet, not all interruptions are for the worst. In order to change someone’s mind, it is necessary to interrupt their accustomed chain of thought. Constantly revisited and reinforced by the person— both by themselves and various factors, it takes a definite, shift, break, or even dislocation in order to create space for a new way of thinking to emerge. Such interruptions are the gateway into sudden changes of heart— analogous to waking from a dream, or waking one day to find that everything appears new. I think of Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’— the life of the hero Gregor, being so abruptly interrupted, so different from his accustomed existence— his waking up— a horrific initiation onto the brink of the uncanny, into a whole new, defamiliarised sense of being.

Stood at the bus stop, I did not turn into a beetle. I did, however, meet with a singularly strange encounter. Idling away the time, suddenly I felt a tug at the plastic bag full of shopping I was carrying. I looked down to see a large, scrawny dog fox, muzzle deep in the carrier bag. The rusty orange against the tarmac appeared unnaturally vivid. He was so close, I could see the patches of bare skin between the fur he had moulted. We locked eyes and there was a brief pause. The pause seemed to go on for an uncomfortably long time— the kind you’d associate with silently praying for someone to leave. After what felt like minutes, although it was as little as a second, the fox trotted off across the road.

I can imagine the way the farm workers in a pub back in Suffolk I sometimes visit might react to this: kick it, hit it with a bit of 2×4, shoot the bastard, etc, etc. The alarmist cries of city-folk encountering increasingly bold urban foxes also come to mind, as well as my own experience running for a bus at 4am through Peckham Rye, seeing fairly chilled looking foxes wherever I turned. Ted Hughes’ thought fox comes up like a paternal ghoul and ‘Fox in Socks’ although I never remember reading this particular Dr Seuss book.

Yet the most arresting thing for me was at the scene of the encounter. I am familiar with foxes biting into rubbish bags, but not into bags I am carrying. For a brief second I almost dropped the bag with revulsion, as if the touch of the fox’s teeth had transfigured it into pure garbage— in the same way the touch of a fly might make food inedible. Then I noticed the saliva it had left round the tear in the bag. At this point I wish I could have managed to say something insightful, but despite my best efforts, all I could manage was a stuttered: ‘Oh.’

Wondering if that really had just happened, I checked the hole in the bag again. Still very much a hole and still very much dribble covered. For a second I felt infinitely small, and then a slow, nauseating current of shame crept up around my ankles like an incoming tide.

Despite the fox’s exit, I still felt luridly aware of his presence. The creature’s animal gaze had lingered, and made a deep impression, one that, even as I write, I’m still trying to work out. Reaching home, I went to my usual sources, and found that (unsurprisingly) Jean-Paul Sartre has much to say on the subject of otherness, as well as the concept of the gaze.

In ‘Being and Nothingness’, he writes of the way an encounter with ‘the Other’ can affect us, how:

‘By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put into the position of passing judgement on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other’ (BN, p.246)

As I go through day to day life, I objectify a number of entities which lie outside of myself. In the case of trees, plants, and other so-called ‘inanimate’ objects, this objectification appears simple enough. It is when I encounter another lifeform that things become complicated. Watching the fox as it stands, looking at me, I become aware of a contest, a struggle between us. Even as I perceive him as the object of my gaze, I become simultaneously aware that I am also the object of his scrutiny. I feel like the fictional native who believed the camera stole a part of the soul. Feeling myself to be both objectifier and objectified, my casual, everyday solipsism that allows me to pass through the world unaccosted, is thoroughly interrupted. I realise that, in order to come closer to an understanding of how I am in the world, my only resort is to treat myself like an object, in the manner of the other who has stared me down with its inscrutable, all-pervading gaze. Suddenly, I am at the mercy of consciousness I can barely begin to comprehend. I experience a deep sense of unease— anxiety, even. In going among the inhabitants of the world, whether I wish it or not, I am inevitably remade in a new image— one not necessarily within my control. I am inevitably drawn into a vast, unconscious struggle, whether I want to be a part of it, or not.

But how is this connected with a fox taking a bite out of my Co-op bag? Well, to begin with, I have always been struck with the way Sartre (and other continental philosophers) use the word ‘Other’ in a way that can be applied to animals as well as other people. By its flexible range of applications, it avoids the pitfalls of anthropocentrism, and presents itself to me as an interesting way into discussing our coexistence with other creatures. The main questions I find myself asking are: how is the gaze of an animal different to the gaze of another human? Is it as important in our own self-formation? And ultimately— how do animals perceive us? In the case of the fox, I suspect myself to have appeared as a calculated risk— food versus possible injury. Reduced to this simple formula, I cannot help but feel somewhat deflated, and taken aback. In approaching me in the way it did, the fox (albeit unintentionally) momentarily caused me to experience the same objectification that is central to the way people approach nature. By interrupting the cosy lock-in of my daydreaming, the fox inadvertently made me realise this. And quickly, I began to see examples of such subversion elsewhere…

Adorable, adorable subversion.

I recently re-read a short sequence of poems in Ruth Padel’s collection ‘The Soho Leopard’. Entitled ‘The King’s Cross Foxes’ it charts the lives of a group of foxes from birth to maturity— from being with ‘the curled C’ of their mother, to leaving for their own ‘contested strips / of shadow’. One poem from this sequence struck me especially. ‘Playtime’ describes the way ‘Dogfox brings toys for the kids’. These toys include:

                                        hamburger cartons, sharp-

crackle crisp packets, toy stegosauruses, playdough.
Watch it: you’ll lose

whatever you leave out at night. A Flora Oil bottle,
perfect rattle with a pebble, for any toddler fox.

An arm from off a Barbie Doll. Knickers
From washing lines. Shoes.

(The Soho Leopard, P.26-27)

A mixture of rubbish, toys left outside, and even clothes are brought to the Fox cubs’ playtime. Although all these things have (or had) their human uses, they are now stealthily repurposed for another species’ use. The capitalised ‘Flora Oil’ and ‘Barbie Doll’ appear especially prominent, emphasising the discrepancy between their original (human-directed) use and their fate as a fox cub’s plaything. I am tempted even to suggest that the objects are metonymic of the human world they were originally made to be part of. It is as if, in playing with these brand names, these objects so much a part of our day-to-day lives, the foxes are playing with the human world itself, subverting and repurposing it to their own needs.

Upon writing the above, I feel it worth mentioning how sensitised my encounter made me to the almost unconscious struggle between humans and nature. While I cringe to be reminded, to be made to taste my inbuilt objectification of nature, much as I consciously struggle against it in my poetry, thought, and actions, I am also reminded of how nature remains inscrutable and abstract— silent even— in an unspoken show of creaturely civil disobedience. This disobedience is something I am thankful for— precisely the kind of interruption I believe that, we as a species, are so gravely in need of.


Beachcombing (2) Boring Piddocks

I must confess to have not made it out nearly as much as I would have liked recently. As the light levels increased, and I was no longer going to work in the dark / coming home in the dark, I thought I’d finally get down to the beach more often— but instead something much less exciting happened: I stayed in and perfected the art of the pre-dinner nap.

It wasn’t simple laziness that led to this. I have recently started following a number of beachcombing groups on facebook. Each time I login, I am assailed with images of elusive Sea-beans, rare, vagrant seeds that have drifted over from farflung shores. By comparison, my local beach doesn’t seem up to much. All the same though, this morning I set out to dispel my disenchantedness, hoping to find something that would finally get me thinking again.

Some of the offending culprits

Mercifully, I was having a good day, and it did not take long before I encountered an old friend of mine: the Piddock. Tacking along the strandline, I came across an unusually small Piddock shell. Given how delicate these shells are (also known, touchingly, as Angelwings), I was surprised to find one that had survived this far up the beach— intact except for a small hole towards its thinner end. Even once they get to their full size (the largest I’ve seen where I am was 9cm from one end to another, though they do get bigger), it is still easy to crush the shell in a single hand. Taking this as a sign that Piddocks were the way forward, I set out to find the source of this tiny reminder of a shell.

Much smaller than this…

The tide was out so I didn’t have to wait long until I’d located some prime Piddock habitat. As I walked further out along the beach, the sand became siltier. Eventually this silty sand became thick mud— hard and slippery with clay. The retreating sea had cut runnels through it— so what I stepped gingerly across looked more like the surface of some alien planet than a beach— with its own strange geography of eroded islets, deltas, and clouded pools. Looking up, I became aware of a sensation of being watched. I turned to see a large black bird picking through the mud I’d tramped across. It was a Crow, but for a second the unexpected strangeness of the terrain made it almost impossible to recognise— as if ‘Crow’ here meant something altogether different— uncanny even. Sensing my attentiveness, the bird cawed resignedly and lumbered up into the stiff, sea air. I turned back to my hunt for Piddocks, feeling for all the world like a giant awkwardly tip-toeing across Mars.

Of course, I fell over, got muddy and soaked, and cold on top of it all. I scooped the mud from my beard and crumbled it between my fingers: small particles, not especially gritty, somewhere between dark and milk chocolate in colour. Feeling the sheer richness of this stuff between my hands, its cloying stickiness, and inhaling its algal reek, I remembered the creation story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which humans are created from a mixture of earth, moisture, and heat. The early modern poet Edmund Spenser riffs on this (as well as other ancient Greek and Latin sources) in Book 1 of his epic poem The Faerie Queene. Describing the fecundity of the mud deposited by the river Nile’s annual flooding, he writes:

His fattie waues doe fertile slime outwell,
And ouerflow each plaine and lowly dale:
But when his later spring gins to auale,
Huge heapes of mudd he leaues, wherein there breed
Ten thousand kindes of creatures partly male
And partly femall of his fruitful seed;
Such vgly monstrous shapes elsewher may no man reed.
(FQ, Bk1. 1.21.2-9)

The mud that the Nile’s ‘fattie waues’ leave behind is exceptionally generative, creating out of only heat, earth, and moisture, a myriad of undefinable, multifarious new animals. And yet, this exponential rate of growth is without direction, leaving animals hermaphroditic and ‘vgly monstrous’. What Spenser contemplates here (bearing in mind this was first published in 1590) is the horror of creation without a guiding principle, such as God, to lead it— and the fear that nature may, like the Nile mud, become so efficient at garnering new life, that it itself is turned on its head, and accelerating away from the order conferred by God, become unnatural. For Spenser, God was the arbiter of creation; and therefore, any ways in which the natural world appears to excel itself outside of God’s influence must appear more as symptoms of a fallen world than anything else.

I get quite excited about things like Spenser and mud, but must try not to digress. Given Spenser’s terror-at-mud, I find my reaction to what was, at least to begin with, a pleasant stroll on the beach, quite reasonable. Then I stood on a Piddock. Daydreaming as I had been, I had walked straight into the middle of the Piddock bed without realising. At once the Piddock withdrew its siphon and squirted some seawater back up to the surface. Where the retreating sea had erroded the mud, I could see some exposed Piddock shells, some broken, some whole, lodged in their earthen cells. I should explain.

They are also hide-and-seek world champions

Piddocks, like most shellfish, are born as seaborne plankton. They free float until they sense the scent of their fellow Piddocks which signals to them that a suitable home is nearby. Settling on what is (hopefully) a suitable substrate, they begin the process of boring down into the rock (or in this case, mud). If undisturbed / untrodden on, they will spend their whole lives in this way— like little anchorites confined to a single room, using only a twin siphon to filter the sea above for nutriment. In this way, whole colonies build up quickly wherever suitable material is present. Although most of the Piddocks I encountered lived in mud, in the past I have also come across some which have bored into soft chalk, or even driftwood. The hole they form is almost perfectly round and stones they have bored through are often confused with hag stones. The eventual break up of these stones will, no doubt, contribute to erosion, and the formation of beach sand. I would be curious to know exactly what my local beach would look like if there were no Piddocks around to break up the softer rocks, and whether they could be introduced to suitable areas to slow coastline erosion. As councils purchase sand to bolster the natural sea defences a beach provides, I wonder if Piddocks could be used towards the same end.

And they happen to be fairly amazing artists as well come to think of it…

I don’t have the heart to evict a Piddock from its burrow, but a quick image search reveals that they are definitely not the most attractive of creatures. By contrast, their shell (the source of the name ‘Angelwing’) is exactly that— angelic in appearance. If this contrast were not strange enough already, they also glow in the dark. I have never been out at night to check, but Piddocks are indeed bioluminescent creatures. What use this could be to them, encased as they are in mud, rock, or clay, is, as of yet, beyond me. Although a number of sea creatures are bioluminescent, and it is possible that for the Piddock it is simply the side effect of some chemical reaction, I refuse to believe there isn’t a specific purpose for it.

But I think I’ve stamped around enough now. And I think the lone fisherman just down the beach, hunting for lugworms, is giving me funny looks. Backing away from the Piddock’s strange sea-carved habitat, I watch them spitting their siphoned water back into the sea as it approaches, like thousands of tiny, hidden fountains. Despite knowing it’s wrong to get sentimental about it, I can’t help but feel a glimmer of pity for their isolated little lives, so like the thousands of people, who, each year, disappear, for seemingly no good reason at all.

Happy (?) Pangolin Day (1 Poem)

Chinese Pangolin


I wear my judge, jury, obituary—

filigree of wealth,
sidefooting through trawled forests

desolate as the surface
of mars.

Taikonaut. Don’t

apologise to me—
golden fatted, too precious to live.

I know it— and wear my charms,

my murky jade chains

with diffidence. I’ll die,
or pluck them out like fingernails
and die all the same

in the shrinking full moon
of a winter snare

wearing my infused riches,
the gaudy tea stains

round the ancient pot of my skin—

pearly leper,
I’ll harry myself to the mountains
with a spread-eagled curse

and lodge in a sleeve of ceramic earth
charred to a crisp.

All I desire from life is:

a certificate declaring death
by natural causes,

not this menu hanging over me
like an aerial tombstone,
not this full body rust

and quickening corrasion,

with a dab of the tongue:

snuffed embers.



A Chinese Pangolin. For more info see: Arkive , , and WWF


Note: The Chinese Pangolin is one of the most endangered of Pangolin species in the world. Seeing as Pangolins on the whole are globally the most trafficked animal, it’s easy to see how desperate a situation this is for the creature. It is threatened by demand for its meat and scales from a number of countries including Vietnam and China. Although recent changes to poaching laws in a number of SE Asian and African nations are a good start to combating poaching, much remains to be done.

I first encountered the Pangolin in poem form. Marianne Moore’s (poet extraordinaire and wearer of amazing hats) ‘The Pangolin’ combines acute perception with an alertness to connections between the natural world and questions of grace, art, and animal selfhood. I’ve been building up to writing something about it for a while now; maybe this’ll be the year it finally happens…

Beachcombing (1) The Sea

The beach in the immediate vicinity of Bognor Regis is an unprepossessing, shingley kind of creature. Slowly backing away from the seafront, it seems to exist only through an exertion of some animistic will, making a begrudging effort to appear sandy, before guttering away into swash. It’s an attitude I’ve come to grow fond of— the resentment that much of the less popular parts of the south coast seem to increasingly emanate. In Bognor’s case though, the resentment is tempered with a sense that the place is eager to please; as if the beach itself is wondering why there aren’t so many Victorians around anymore, and blames itself for their absence…

Erm… Guys? Was it something I said?

My experience of books, art, cinema, etc— is eager to tell me exactly how I feel about walking beside the sea. And yet, despite the polyphony of different meanings and significances, I cannot help but find the sea to be a singularly hostile entity.

The first time I saw it this way was one Boxing day I spent walking backwards and forwards between the coast of Aldeburgh and Thorpeness. It was a timely reminder that the coast is only really popular in the summer. At other times, the water goes from a more picturesque, blueish shade, to various combinations of green, grey, and brown— the colour autumn might be if someone were to (somehow) liquidise it. Pausing to pick up a chip of amber, I felt a sudden sense of anxiety— as if someone I knew, somewhere, was in trouble, and that I was completely powerless to help them. This feeling persisted well into the New Year, and regularly nudges me whenever I choose to amble along the coastline in my present day dwelling of Bognor Regis.

It is at this point I should explain my reason for anthropomorphising the sea— for projecting emotions and experiences onto it which are unlikely to be relevant to anyone except me. When I first began reading about ecocriticism, I was quick to become puritanically against anthropomorphization. It was a fundamental wrong— the consequence of this being some extremely strange and not so great poems about the Brecklands (since quietly disposed of). And yet the harder I tried to purge it from me, the more persistent it became, to the point I found myself forced, in lieu of its expulsion, to make the best of the process.

The sea took on a human form to me— it walked around and did it’s best to distract me from my urgent business concerning pebbles, Piddock shells, and the sand swilling through the holes in my shoes. It was an irritation, but one I was keen to exacerbate— in the same way I might stop myself from scratching a mosquito bite, until the only thing to do is to scratch and scratch and scratch… I found there were many mediums eager to tell me what I thought of this personable sea: distasteful, spiritual, a scientific puzzle… I considered what I’d seen of fluid dynamics and felt my brain wail at its inability to cope with dense formulas, then thought about the Stella Maria, and finally the Shell on Aldeburgh beach.

Regardless of approach, all appeared to end in the same opacity— illuminating only an aspect of my own perception and filtering out anything of the sea that could potentially be considered ‘a totality’— a coherent route into some deeper understanding. I felt like a man given a shattered crystal, told to piece it back together into its original form— askance and slightly bewildered. I feel a pluralistic way of approach to be a useful one, but at the same time cannot help but feel I lack the necessary insight and intuition (not to mention reading / thinking time) to make it worthwhile. In short, looking out to sea makes me feel frustrated and stuck and happy in a dismal kind of way. It’s a bizarre chimerical kind of creature— and one I cannot hope to pin down here, for, unlike many of its natural counterparts— hills, mountains, plains, etc, the sea has one trait that sets it aside: it swallows art as fast as it inspire it— all indifference and no comment.

Coincidentally, Captain Haddock is my spirit animal…

It therefore should not come as a surprise that I prefer to avert my gaze and stare at pebbles instead. Over time, this has evolved into a kind of beachcombing— a shambling, head down kind of movement up and down the strandline, or ankle deep in swash after a storm searching for interesting uprooted bits and pieces.

I hold that humans are a species biologically inclined towards beachcombing. The fingers that wrinkle on prolonged immersion with water to provide a better grip, the endurance for long, slow walks, and the way the head inclines to watch the shingle, make us well suited. On a more personal note, this way of trudging along a beach reminds me a lot of the way monks process their way into their chapel— eyes modestly and half inwardly alighting on the ground, very much in their own sweet, unworlded realms.

As an especially dark song by Los Campesinos! puts it, the sea is indeed a good place to think of the future. In fact, it’s hard not to have a thought that appears insignificant. I simply hope that what’s flown into my brain while I scuttle up and down the coast is equally interesting, perhaps even useful.

To be continued…


The ecological role of roads (or more specifically of the land immediately either side of them) is something I’ve been umming and ahh-ing over for a while now. I assumed the thought would eventually submerge and I’d go back to my habitual mood of ‘worrying about Pangolins’, but a chance happening prevented this.

I say ‘happening’ but this is much too edifying a word for what was essentially me being a careless git and losing my bus ticket. Unfortunately, I only realised this once I tried to get on the bus— and after a vaguely humiliating scrabble through my belongings, stepped back onto the kerb to watch the bus as it pulled away.

I had a long, dismal walk ahead of me. Somehow 6-8 miles seems so much longer when your only company is the A259— a dull stretch of A road with a just-about-walkable cycle path running alongside it in a starved, malnourished kind of way. The occasional near collision with a cyclist would be my share of excitement, and the judgemental looks of passing motorists would set the atmosphere perfectly. After a quick lie down on a park bench, I set out, hoping to get the walk over and done with as soon as I could.

Away from the city centre, Chichester quickly subsides into a maze of pricey suburbs, unexpected roundabouts, and what appears to be a distressing amount of funeral parlours. Walking alongside Florence park I witnessed a gaggle of dogs battling over a frisbee and a woman practising for the triathlon. I considered what my life would look like if reduced to the scope of three events; the thought kept me amused until I rejoined Bognor road and reached the bridge over the railway which, for me, marks the border of Chichester.

Ahead of me was a huddle of car dealerships, offices, and plumbing supply stores. Above the first dealership, a Red Kite shaped, for want of a better phrase ‘scare-pigeon’, bucked in the wind with bizarre alacrity. I paused to catch my breath (it had been a long day) and watched the shadowy thing with an increasing sense of resentment. Although birds of prey have made a recovery in recent years, there is, as ever, a lot of work to be done. That Chichester cathedral has resident Peregrine Falcons should not be exceptional— they should be elsewhere too. And the self-congratulatory bloom of merchandise strikes me as more irritating than anything else. I’m sorry if it sounds ridiculous— but when people’s reaction to an ecological success is to wonder how they can profit, I can’t help but think they’re part of the larger problem. Admittedly, the webcam here is intriguing, but the idea of putting animals on film constantly is, well… complicated. It may seems as if I’ve strayed from the pigeon-scarer, but the truth is, it’s flavoured my whole opinion on the subject. Held up against decades of persecution, it just seems like an insult, as if to say: ‘You, falcon, are replaceable’. I’d rather clean the guano off the cars myself…

Beyond the first roundabout, things seem to get serious. I run out of things to look at, and instead end up scraping around for interesting things to think about the various plants. The first thing I notice is the quantity of Hemlock, Dock, Cow Parsley, and Mugwort. Funnily enough, the last of these is said to relieve foot-soreness if put in the shoes. Other than that, the plant-life was a mixture of Hawthorn, Poplar, Crab Apples, and other shrubs and things often found next to roads. With their ability to put up with the high level of pollutants, these plants are survivors. Towards the armco barrier in the centre of the road, I notice a large quantity of Danish Scurvy Grass, a result of road gritting in Winter. Faced with high levels of salt, most plants die away, but the seaside plant, now widespread across the whole of the road network of the UK, seems happy enough (if a plant can be called ‘happy’).

Despite the green-ness of the roadside path, there is still much potential. With correct management, removal of small shrubs, Hemlock, and mowing in late Summer, it is possible to produce the kind of poor soil quality that Orchids and other rare flower species seem to love. Sad as it may sound, I get quite excited about verges kept this way.

My reverie was interrupted by a flock of Canada Geese in a field running parallel to the road. Usually I wouldn’t pay them too much attention, but the way the flock began edging away from me (bearing in mind I was at least 25m off) snagged my interest. The fact they were cautious of me was proof that they were wild birds— of the kind not seen hissing at small children by lakes. I wondered if this was because they weren’t used to seeing humans out here, but remembered that this would have the opposite effect. At 4am, for example, a number of species don’t seem to register humans at all— it’s as if we’re part of a 7am onwards kind of mise-en-scene rather than discrete entities in ourselves. At times when I’ve had ducks running round my ankles, and Swifts almost flying into me, that I think that sometimes animals delineate their world view a lot more than we do— that instead of carefully parcelled denotations of objects, qualities, quantities, etc— they view a single, homogenous and whelming mass that simultaneously offers them everything they need and everything they fear. Or to put it another way: does my cat think of me as just a particularly mobile piece of furniture? Perhaps sometimes…

The first building I come across is a garden centre, in garish yellow, with a sign proclaiming proudly that an Alsatian ‘can reach the fence in 2.5 seconds: can you?’ I’m barely 2 miles from Chichester, and already the shops along the A259 are acting with true frontier spirit. Reading the sign, I play with the idea that ‘maybe I do look shady’— a suspicion confirmed the next day by another member of staff at the school I work at, who assumed walking along the road meant I was either mad or homeless. I told him simply that I prefer the term ‘eccentric’ and left it at that.

But I did find it curious. The modern wilderness, as experienced by people in the UK, seems a unique one. Rather than having vast stretches of landscape that are deserted, far from anywhere, where you could die quite easily and not be found for months, we have squeezed inbetweens— the A259 may not be the Steppes, but with the looks I was getting, it may as well have been. When my colleague asked if I’d had a breakdown, what I heard him asking was more ‘why did you differ from what is perceived as normal?’. Without a proper wilderness, this nation gets all the mileage out of what is, ultimately not very many miles worth at all. The effect is a violent one. Stranded on the side of the road, I am marked out as a ‘have-not’ as all those ‘haves’ in their cars whizz by. I am anachronistic, an outsider, pushed to the fringes with all the other wasteland creatures: all the Hemlock and Artemisia, all the waste and detritus I will not even begin to list here.

I have what dignity I can (because I’ve given up on the moral highground), but the way this space has come to be constructed bewilders me. That I should walk where others don’t and that this should mean I am not like them simultaneously gratifies my inner cynic and appals my inner innocent. And where does the roadside end in any case? Is everything next to a road, outside the protective shell of a ring road, an M25 or, in Chichester’s case an A286 inevitably marginalised in the worst way possible? Be it agriculture, hamlet or otherwise? The level of fly-tipping I encounter would not be possible otherwise. Truly, I think to myself, I would be closer to civilisation at the brink of the Darvaza crater than here. And if only because of the sheer banality of it! I cannot help but think sometimes that boredom is the modern wilderness.

I pass an Indian restaurant, another garden centre, a farm, a roadside cafe. I am tired, and feel remarkably jaded. I swear at a Crow in Swedish, Italian, and Middle English. It is at this point, after two hours trudging along, that Bognor begins to appear— starting with the outer settlement of Bersted. I see a ginger cat and get over-excited. Much petting later and the rest of Bognor does not nearly seem so bad. That it’s downhill makes things surprisingly easy. I swing my legs as I walk in the way that Sam Vimes (from the Terry Pratchett novels, but that’s another story) taught me, and keep on going, until all too suddenly, my house appears in front of me. As always, I feel as if much too much has happened to me in much too small an amount of time— but I would not have it any other way.

2 Pangolin Poems

Am breaking a long silence by returning to one of my favourite subjects: the Pangolin, with (as the title suggests)— two poems—one that came to me as I re-read H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (picturing the Martians with their heat rays and smoke as some kind of eco-satire on us) and another about a video of a Pangolin swimming across a pool (which I can no longer find). Despite, the title of the second poem, Pangolins are actually surprisingly good swimmers— and are often found living near water. Hope you find these interesting…

Pangolin Post-Apocalyptic

For you, it’s already happened, Chinese Pangolin,
life gone like a parody of War of the Worlds
and the forest turned hostile as the surface of an alien planet
you pick your steady way across,
sipping the air’s dank underbelly for the acrid itch
of anthropos, the hot wicks of their snares
or the gavel barks of their hounds, the rasp of a shovel, biting deep.
You could not find a mate this year— but it does not matter.
There are too many ants in the loam for you to eat alone
and you’re getting skittish about your place in this dwelling
that foams like a stream rapidly emptying.
You reason: something abstracted and a loss of morale,
a grizzled veteran though you’d be the last to know it,
wrapping yourself round lianas like the longhand for ‘persecution’
or the bark at the end of an auction turned unexpectedly plaintive:
‘going, going: gone’, blotted out, poor chattel.

Not his first choice

he skitters through reeds galumphs
face first into the tarry breach
of a tropical pond

Ceramic glitch

he spiders his way across
the leafy halitosis of last year’s
forest moult

Snorkle snout held up

he casts us a look of dignity
assaulted our tragic hero
in farcical circumstances

With armbands for lungs

a terracotta army at his back
as he rejects the covet-swallow
common to all water


up the bank into generous trees
to bandage himself round bark
whorled in scale self-rustle and timorous hiss