Time

I had my semi-regular check up this week to see how mental I am. The answer was, reassuringly, not very mental, although two days later I had a bit of a wobble that could have gone either way. It got me thinking.

Firstly I should explain how I perceive time. It sounds daft, I know, but recently I’ve learned that we all experience time slightly differently. Some see a calendar year as a linear thing, beginning in January and following a straight line until the end of December. Others see time as a loop, or clock face, months ticking by and years beginning afresh. Personally I visualise each year as a parabola, with January to April a shallow incline to be conquered, May through August almost a plateau, and September onwards a sharp, uncontrollable fall. Don’t ask me how I perceive longer time periods, I don’t even know how to explain it myself. Suffice to say that there are right angles…

I don’t think I’ve always experienced time as a curve. Certainly as a child I belonged to the ‘straight line’ crowd, with acute peaks during times of excitement like summer holidays and Christmas. The warping and curving has only really happened in the past decade or so, which broadly correlates with the period I’ve spent tussling with the world and my place in it. Ergo, time passes differently when you’re mad. I’m not very mad, but just enough to see beyond the magician’s curtain (and occasionally the wizard’s sleeve).

The slopes of the parabola are the times that I find difficult. Like many who suffer with relatively benign depression, the black dog comes with the dark. Summertime is generally fine, with the long sunny days keeping the silos of good chemicals in my strange brain topped up. Vitamin D, serotonin, dopamine, all present and correct. Autumn is when things start to change, happy chemicals starting to deplete as the nights draw in. I can generally feel myself weakening, as the sun-fuelled forcefield melts slowly away. By the time November comes I’m quite fragile, and during the bad years this is when the real tussle starts. It’s a tussle with myself, so you’d think I’d know the rules and how to win, but apparently not. It’s frustrating, because autumn and early winter are two of my favourite times of the year. I’ve said it before, but I prefer Bonfire Night to Christmas. It’s the smell of woodsmoke and candy floss that does it.

I’m going to gloss over the winter part because I want to write about it as much as you want to read about it (i.e. not at all). Suffice to say once you’ve tried to push through three months of feeling broken and worthless, you won’t want to do it again. It’s a handy learning curve if nothing else. Finally you get through to the other side and spring is on the horizon. The nights get longer and the lazy sun starts to make an effort once again. It’s an upward struggle to drag myself to April, but that’s usually the time where my old friends the good chemicals generally kick back in.

Back to the parabola again. It was only this week that I finally worked out why I see time that way, or at least I’ve come up with an explanation that my brain finds convincing. I think I want to see time as a loop, probably an oval, but my broken brain can’t connect the two loose ends of the curve. December should grade into January and begin the annual cycle afresh, but for some reason I can’t handle that. I fall into a void between the two ends of the thread, and it is often a real fight to end one year and find my way to the start of another. January and February are when I’m at my least motivated, and I sometimes obsess over the fear of getting back on the treadmill and living through another year. It doesn’t last long, but it’s always there.

I’m lucky in many ways that my job is also my passion, namely nature and wildlife. Nature can, however, be a real bugger for those with a tendency to dwell on the passage of time. Nature gives the open minded depressive any number of allegories to cling on to, some helpful but most less so. The birds are the worst offenders, the spring chorus of the migrant breeders raising our spirits and gladdening our hearts before they abandon us to our solitude once more. The swifts are the ones that get me, one moment wheeling through the sky en masse and screaming with the pure joy of being alive and free, then August arrives and they depart suddenly on the changing winds. They’re oblivious of course, but the swifts taking their leave is a sure sign that I need to batten down the hatches for the gathering storm.

It’s mid August as I write this, and I’m fine. I’ve been on my second spell of antidepressants for over a year now and they seem to keep all my chemicals balanced without making me an emotionless robot. The swifts are preparing their exit strategy and the leaves will soon start to turn, but I’m fairly optimistic about the coming months. I think Bonfire Night should be a good one this year.

First Light

I’m often out before the world awakes,
Earning my keep as the folk slumber on.
Studying old Albion before first light breaks,
Observing the changes that come with the dawn.

Night into day is a gradual progression,
Ephemeral twilight whilst the two overlap.
The sun brings relief from night’s sombre oppression,
Brightening the sky and banishing the black.

The colours of daybreak are subtle and strange,
Showing shades of rich indigo and burgundy red.
The new sky signals time for a natural shift change,
As songbirds serenade the night beasts to bed.

Dawn is the place where old magic still dwells,
The air thick with traces of enchantments and spells.

Polemic With Blobfish

It’s something that we rarely contemplate, but we humans are a species. Arguably the most intelligent species, and unquestionably the most adaptable, influential and destructive species, but a single species regardless. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise man’.

If we strip away the ego and artifice that we have constructed to describe ourselves, we are a simple taxonomic unit, sitting on a list with fellow units such as the naked mole-rat, the blobfish and the potato. Admittedly the blobfish has yet to evolve the ability to shape the entire planet in its own image, but who can truly say that there isn’t an alternate reality in which the blobfish has dominion (the multiverse theory at the heart of quantum physics makes blobfish world a genuine and wonderful possibility).

There are many species on earth that wield huge influence over their ecosystems. These are generally described as keystone species: those species that are fundamental to the successful function of a particular ecosystem. Beavers, for example, fundamentally change the structure and hydrology of their home ranges through dam building, creating habitat for species that could otherwise not survive. Many apex predators are also considered to be keystone species because they control populations of smaller herbivores, which in turn allows diverse botanical communities to flourish. A sound example is the Eurasian lynx, a large cat that predates species such as rabbit and small deer that could otherwise graze out vast areas of vegetation. A common theme that unites all keystone species is that they are relatively few in number, and their influence on their ecosystem far exceeds their abundance. This is where any attempt to portray mankind as a keystone species begins to crumble somewhat. We are certainly not few in number, and we don’t inhabit a particular ecosystem. In fact, with the exception of the marine world (for the time being) there are few terrestrial ecosystems that we have not found a way to infiltrate and change. Our influence is extraordinary. We are legion, and we transcend the definition of a keystone species. That puts us in our own category, where many of the adjectives we use to describe other organisms just don’t fit. Some authors have referred to humans as a virus which, whilst technically false, does act as a useful metaphor to describe our influence.

Over a relatively short period of time we have developed the ability to engineer our environment on a massive scale. Deforestation converted much of our wildwood to agriculture, which in turn allowed the population to expand, leading to further deforestation. Huge tracts of land have disappeared completely beneath cities and roads, which require extensive quarrying to plunder the land of its resources. Fossil fuels have driven the expanse of industry, which in turn has influenced the climate. This has subsequently altered the oceans, the one ecosystem where mankind has yet to gain a foothold. Ocean warming, coupled with changes in chemical composition and the drastic effects of manmade plastics on many marine species, means that although we haven’t colonised the ocean, we have still influenced it hugely, and not for the better. I don’t approve of the influence that humans have had in the planet, but I can accept that it was inevitable. Had any other species evolved so greatly in such a short time then doubtless the planet would have been shaped in their image instead, with equally disastrous results. Especially those sodding blobfish.

The success of our species is a product of our ingenuity, which has allowed us to overcome the things that would normally inhibit the growth of populations. As mentioned above, apex predators generally occur in small numbers that are restricted by the availability of prey, and the balance of predator and prey tends to find a natural equilibrium. If the predator reduces the prey population too much then weaker individuals can’t feed and die out, at which point prey numbers increase and predators feast, thus beginning the cycle afresh. We humans have found a way to stay ahead of the game in this respect by developing a diverse diet and giving over huge tracts of land to the farming of crops and livestock to sustain us. This has traditionally been very successful, but there are many shocking examples of where our control over nature wains and the needs of a rapidly growing population can’t be met. The horrific scenes of African famine from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present day provide a stark example. In recent years there has been a shift in political rhetoric, and the fact that we live on a small orb with finite resources has finally been realised. It is, however, only 30 years since the concept of sustainability was first introduced to global politics by the Brundtland Commission. With hindsight it seems like a case of ‘too little, too late’. We can’t cheat the system forever.

The rate of measured biodiversity decline over the past century is astonishing. A pessimist might say that this is just the beginning, and that the habitat loss required to sustain further exponential population growth will prove the death knell for global biodiversity. A slightly more optimistic view is that the value of nature is now realised, and that this value encapsulates more than just pounds, shillings and pence. For this reason there is a genuine desire from some quarters to retain and protect the jewels of the natural world, and even to redress some of the damage we have inflicted by creating and restoring new habitats. I don’t know which of these views I most closely align with, but suspect I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m heartened by efforts to enhance biodiversity and to think beyond the immediate needs of people, but I also feel that protecting a few trees whilst the rape of the rainforest continues is little more than tokenism. A more fundamental change is needed to have any kind of measurable benefit on a global scale, and it’s hard to see where that change might come from.

It’s sad to think that in a few generations iconic species like the giant panda, the tiger or the mountain gorilla might be little more than photographs in dusty old textbooks, but it’s also realistic. It’s very clear that we, as the most influential species by a great margin, have assumed stewardship over our planet, and therefore it’s our responsibility to address these declines in biodiversity. We each need to realise that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it, a species like any other. By destroying biodiversity we are slowly destroying ourselves. It might already be too late, the flywheel effect of actions already committed may have taken us across the Rubicon, but we have to try, if for no other reason than the act of immersion in nature is one if life’s purest pleasures, and one of the greatest releases from the pressure and stress of modern existence. We owe it to ourselves to resist.

As you read this there are teams of scientists working day and night on developing a means of terraforming mars, effectively creating a backup earth for when this planet can no longer sustain us. The virus moving to new host, if you’ll forgive a moment of indulgent hyperbole. Personally I’m investing my time in creating a wormhole to the blobfish world.

Sand and Stars

The late evening sun is almost touching the horizon as they walk together on the beach. Fingertips entwined, leaving two fleeting lines of footprints in the soft caramel sand, the sinuous, lazy amble of two souls with infinite time and no destination. The act of sharing time and space is the only thing that matters.

They pick their way along the strand line, negotiating the thin band of natural jetsam carried to land by the encroaching tide. He watches her skip nimbly over a warped piece of sun-bleached driftwood, and thinks that he could exist for millennia and not find anyone more perfect. The sunlight makes her rich auburn hair gleam like burnished gold, a stark contrast to near-translucent porcelain skin. Her face is a poet’s dream, deep green eyes and a crooked, knowing smile framing a flawless button nose, faint freckles her reward for a day spent under the sun. She thinks her freckles are ugly, but they make his heart sing.

The sun dips below the horizon as a distant lighthouse oscillates slowly, warning ships of the perilous rocky outcrops obscured by the waves at high tide. The brilliant white beam appears to glimmer as the flow of photons refracts through droplets of spray, creating ephemeral rainbows that they alone can see. They stop and sit together on the sand, watching the amaranth sky fade to black as the fleet of distant fishing boats become scattered points of light.

His dopamine flooded mind is acutely aware of his surroundings, and he pays abnormal attention to the sand beneath his hands and feet. He scoops up a fistful and lets the grains slowly fall through his fingers, tiny fragments of ancient life. He tries and fails to imagine how many grains of sand there are in the world, but he knows that the number is unimaginably huge. A fitting metaphor for the way he feels about her.

She pays no attention to the sand, instead gazing up into the darkening sky. She has been fascinated by the night sky since she was young, and as the stars slowly reveal themselves she is able to identify familiar constellations. She speaks the names of the galaxies, stars and planets out loud, her imagination travelling uncountable light years deep into endless space. She struggles to comprehend the vastness of the universe, but she thinks that her love for him might be comparatively vast.

They lay together on the warm sand, not touching but close enough to be aware of each other’s every subtle movement. Caught between the sand and the stars they marvel at the unlikeliness of their two souls sharing the same microscopic fragment of spacetime, and at the near impossibility of finding each other in the unending eons that stretch eternally before and after that moment. Like Andromeda and the Milky Way, destined to collide since the dawn of time.

The sudden realisation of the impossibility of it all. That might just be what love is.