January 17th (Trees)

A thousand clichés, of which I have been known to indulge, portray winter landscapes as lifeless. I’m trying not to see them that way. These bare trees caught my eye as I left campus yesterday afternoon, and I endeavoured to remember that these are complex living organisms – not merely part of the scenery. I imagined the deep system of roots that quests beneath the ground for nutrients and water, mirroring the way their branches stretch up toward the light.

The second best time to admire winter trees is at sunrise or sunset. The low sun bounces back from their trunks, kindling another set of clichés to do with fire and flame. No, perhaps the second best time to admire winter trees is after a heavy fall of wet snow. The kind that sticks fast to even the most vertical branches, concealing everything in dazzling white.

The best time is at dusk. Their image sinks into blackness, stark against the twilight. Squint and your eyes play tricks of perspective. Are those flat tree cut-outs in the foreground, or are the trees the true reality, possessing the beyond-darkness of deep space? They are certainly other worlds, part of the same rich tapestry of life, known by science yet moving in ways and in dimensions of time and space that are far outside our human experience.

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Exit 2016

I never achieve everything I intend to in any given year. Not even close. Doubtless it would be better for my health not to make any plans at all. There is, however, something inevitable about the impulse to measure our lives by the calendar. My annual sense of having fallen short is one reason for a touch of seasonal malaise, though Christmas also brings a sense of grateful relief. Nothing more will get done this year, so I may as well rest and enjoy all that the festivities will bring. A second source of gloom for this year is the uncertainty with which many of us face 2017. It may be time to ‘look to the future’, but it’s an unknowable future still shrouded in smoke from the fires of the past 12 months.

My chief solace in the heart of an uncertain winter has been the sound of birds warming up their syrinxes for spring. Robins sing pretty much year round; in Berkshire this December song thrushes, blackbirds, dunnocks and great tits all join them in the chorus well ahead of the solstice. Blackbirds, especially, have stopped me in my tracks several times as I allow their rich, fluid music to calm me. Whilst still I begin to notice other signs of winter life, such as the mating clouds of midges that emerge like smoke in the weak afternoon sun.

Birdsong and swarming flies are not unusual on mild winter days, not even on bright-but-cold ones, though of course unusually warm weather could be a sign of climate change throwing seasonal cycles further out of whack. Yet somehow I am able to forget about portents of global catastrophe and experience these wonders with simple joy. Nature doesn’t have all the answers to the ills of our age, but there is still healing to be found in the uncomplicated lives of wild things that, as Wendell Berry beautifully put it, ‘do not tax their lives with forethought of grief’. So long as such wild life remains in the world, there is hope.

Willow bud bursting on the 18th of December.

Willow bud bursting on the 18th of December.

The Long View (Branscombe, October 29th)

It’s 260 million years before the present day. Off the back of an ice age, temperatures have spiked on Earth, sent soaring by rising carbon dioxide levels. Somewhere on the northern half of Pangaea, Earth’s only continent, a six-legged animal stirs, twitches its antennae, and slinks across a fern-shaded rock to escape the fierce heat of the sun. It lives for a few days, time stretches forward and the picture disintegrates. So, gradually but inevitably, does the continent.

160 million years later: the bristletail’s rock lies submerged in a shallow sea. The water is warm, very saline and populated by a huge range of bivalve and brachiopod molluscs. Many of their shell forms are familiar, such as oysters; others now strange to us will depart along with the dinosaurs at the end of the era. Generation after generation of organisms vanishes into the sediment until this flourishing marine landscape is held within a few centimetres of greensand rock. The sea level falls, and the water above dries up.

The continents clash and part in an imperceptible dance. Rocks rise and fall. The Eurasian plate drifts further north; our rock strata settle into a temperate region. A river valley some way to the south is breached by the sea, filling to become a broad channel. Our patch of earth becomes an island. Wind, water and salt work northward, eating into bedrock which itself once formed the bed of that long-vanished sea. Eventually, piece by piece, this sea floor is revealed again, falling in great boulders out of what is now a sea cliff onto a shingle beach below.

It’s now an unseasonably warm afternoon in late October, and the English Channel is docile. Only gentle waves of remarkably clear water lap at the shingle. Four of us bipedal apes – pretty new on the scene – trace one of the ancient shell beds with our fingertips. A small animal scuttles across the boulder as we marvel at the texture of tangible ghosts in the rock. Six-legged, binocular-eyed, hunchbacked and with three long filaments for a tail: it’s a bristletail, in general body plan unchanged since its ancestor sought shelter beneath a tree fern at the close of the Paleozoic.

It’s almost impossible to conceive of a 260-million-year span. Reframed as a year, let’s say that first bristletail awoke on New Year’s Day. In the first weeks of spring Pangaea breaks up and the continental plates we would recognise today drift apart.  The mid-cretaceous warm sea blooms through the summer months before gradually falling beneath layers of soil and rock through September. In mid-October a meteorite falls and the dinosaurs meet their final downfall. A month later, New and Old World monkeys divide. Apes emerge towards the end of November; our earliest recognisable ancestors not until Christmas Eve. Our species, Homo sapiens, arrives just in time for tea (of course) at quarter past five on December 31st.  Modern human history fills only the last 20 minutes before midnight.

In a million years or so, this turbulent period in the earth’s history many now dub the Anthropocene will be long buried. Our lives are so brief by comparison we may as well be standing still. The only time available to us is right now, which makes it all the more remarkable that we could spend an afternoon breaking the remnants of eons past out of the rock to hold them between our fingertips, unseen since before the end of the age of dinosaurs. What did we mortal monkeys do to deserve the ability, and knowledge, to hold the life of the ages in our hands and understand something of its vastness?