Jet From Gladiators

I hold the teacup gently, rotating it slowly with my fingers to learn its secrets. The low winter sun streaming into the study gives away the translucence of fine porcelain, but only after I’d used a soft cloth to wipe away a decade of dust. It had sat neglected on the shelf above my desk ever since the day that we cleared mum’s house. I don’t know why it caught my eye today, or why I felt the urge to take it down from the shelf.

Clearing the house after mum left had been a sobering task for all of us, and very few of the bizarre array of artefacts that she had collected in her final years escaped the skip. The stupid cup had only escaped the cull due to a pang of emotion, dredged up from the far recesses of my mind. Bloody idiot. I distinctly remember how proud mum had been when dad bought the tea set home. I was only six years old, but the excitement emanating from the pair of them was palpable. Chinese porcelain! In our pantry! My word, what a time to be alive. In the intervening forty two years I’ve learned that it’s not normal to whip one’s self into a frenzy over kitchen goods, but for mum it was quite the status symbol. I never did find out where dad got it from, but with dad it was sometimes better not to ask.

Over the years the tea set dwindled, cups and saucers falling victim to clumsy hands, excitable dogs and children acting out Buck Rodgers fantasies. The day that dad dropped the teapot was particularly harrowing, although I learned three new swears that have stood me in good stead throughout my adult life.

The fragile piece of bone china in my hands is all that survives, an anchor for so many bittersweet memories. A hairline crack, barely perceptible, runs perpendicular to the ornate handle, and a small chip at the edge is stained brown where the bare clay has soaked up years of piss-weak tea. The rich blue cloisonné glaze has started to fade, but the carefully rendered figures of dragons are still visible, brilliant and red.

A glance at the base of the cup provides a small surprise – Armitage Shanks isn’t the first thing you expect to see printed on period Chinese ceramics – but it doesn’t matter. It was real to mum, and dad never let on otherwise. An authentic piece of Tang Dynasty earthenware couldn’t mean more to me than that tiny cup. I place it gently back on the shelf above my desk, giving it pride of place next to the signed photograph of Jet from Gladiators.

I don’t think about them often these days, but I miss them both.

Nautilus

Entirely by accident he found himself in his early 30s, a fully grown man with responsibilities and a crap beard.

He was older now than his parents had been when he was born, dragged kicking and screaming into a bleak world of Thatcher and synthpop. He still felt like a child in many respects, and he supposed that his parents must have felt the same way back then. He had always assumed that there was a hard divide between childhood and the realm of grown-ups, a point of crossing the rubicon where innocent thoughts were left behind and you were issued with a mortgage and a poorly-paid job by a man in a grey suit. It had never really happened that way though. His experience, and he expected the experience of a great many others too, was one of perpetual childhood around which he had formed a concrete shell to protect him from the hammer blows that the past few years had dealt him. Behind the emotional wall he was a little boy, weak and fragile. He was glass.

His childhood memories were bizarrely selective, his mind having disposed of or suppressed huge tranches of what he assumed must have been banal normality. The bits that he did remember, however, were rendered in vivid technicolour. Each of these memories was linked to extreme emotion, moments of heightened joy, sadness and despair that had remained with him as if experienced only yesterday. A painful fall, a moment of embarrassment, a cruel insult or a death, each given equal emotional weight and importance by his odd mind. He could only assume that his brain knew what it was doing, as he had very little control over it. The abiding memory of his childhood was one of failure to live up to expectations, and being crushed beneath the weight of them. He was held up as the golden boy, only for the lustre to fade to grey. His mother had only lived long enough to see him disappoint, and sometimes that still troubled him.

His late teens and early twenties had been a shambles, characterised by confusion, loneliness and a pathetic absence of focus. He didn’t know who he was, or indeed who he wanted to be, and he drifted around the fringes of academia, overweight and angst ridden. He was arrogant enough to know that he was more intelligent than most, but what intellectual capacity he had was wasted within a shell that lacked emotional maturity and social skills. He could mask these flaws to some extent with alcohol, but when sober he was at best tedious, and at worst, plain bad company. Still childlike at this time, but without the self awareness to start building the shell.

His mid to late twenties were a brighter period, and a time when he experienced some of the emotional development that should have happened years before. His life was changed by two things: a girl who taught him to see himself from the outside, and a job that gave him the sense of purpose that he’d always lacked. His confidence and self belief grew exponentially during this time, aided by great friends and new experiences. This buoyant period would be shattered in time by tragedy, but the progress he made would stay with him always.

His mother’s unexpected death would change him profoundly. Perversely, through the sadness and confusion the defining feeling would be one of acceptance and defiance, firing his desire to move on, to set aside the last vestige of childishness and to look forward rather than inward. More difficult times would come in the following years, including a formal diagnosis of the depression that had lain dormant for years, and the slow decline and eventual death of his father. It would be logical to assume that the hardships of the past decade might have broken him, and he wouldn’t deny that there were times that it came close, but entering his 34th year he found himself more confident and cheerful than ever. Certainly more comfortable in his own skin, and more optimistic than at any time he could recall. He had realised recently how primitive he was, how his spirits could be lifted instantly by a ray of sunlight bursting through the clouds, and this primal kinship with nature gave him great comfort.

He was me. He still is.

My First Wild Place

My grandparents’ old house was put up for sale recently, which gave me a chance to have a look at what the owners had done to the place. The house itself had been completely reconfigured internally, to the point that it was almost unrecognisable, but that was inevitable as it had been in need of serious modernisation for many years. It looked good, and I didn’t begrudge any of the changes. What startled me, however, was the change that had been made to the garden, my childhood playground. When I was growing up the garden was huge and diverse and exciting, but it has since been stripped and paved, denuded of vegetation and the potential for adventure. It made me nostalgic about the time I spent there in my formative years.

I was always close to my grandparents, and through a combination of luck and proximity I attained an unrequested but not unwelcome ‘golden grandchild’ status. I spent many long days with them as a youngster, often helping grandad with a madcap scheme in the garage or baking an array of rustic but tasty foodstuffs with grandma. The two of them were without doubt the catalysts for my lifelong love of natural history, and our trips out into the countryside were fulfilling and frequent. The dynamic changed slightly when grandad passed away after a period of illness in 1997, and my role changed from co-adventurer to weekly visitor and occasional lawn mower. Grandma hung on for over 10 more years before a stroke took her independence away, but I still remember those latter years fondly.

As a youngster the garden was my kingdom, and I the explorer in chief. The rear of the house directly overlooked a small linear lawn area, and the job of cutting the grass was frequently my price for the reward of lunch. I didn’t mind though, because once mown the lawn became my archery arena. My equipment was basic, a rudimentary bow made from a sturdy stick of willow and garden twine, my arrows crudely butchered bamboo canes, but it didn’t matter. I was Robin Hood and William Tell rolled into one.

Between the lawn and the house was a small plum tree and rose bed, which is where I first became fascinated with creepy-crawlies, particularly the aphids that clustered around the rosebuds. On the opposite side of the lawn was an area of garden shrubs that held little intrinsic interest for me, although it did attract a good selection of bees and butterflies. I was always more interested in the fruits and vegetables than the flowers, although the rudbeckia blooms hold a special place in my memory.

Beneath the kitchen window a concrete slabbed pathway ran adjacent to the outdoor toilet (unbelievably cold!) and coal place on the left hand side, before sloping up slightly to the level of the rest of the garden. Several points of interest were accessible from the top of this slope, including a quince tree to the left, a home-made cold-frame (built from old windows) and rhubarb patch to the right, and a small spindle tree directly ahead. There is an old photograph somewhere of me standing in this area at the age of four, wearing grandad’s hat, coat and gardening gloves. I haven’t seen it for years.

Progress along the central pathway, beyond the small patch of lemon balm on the left, led to a small apple orchard. This area was grandad’s pet project and contained a broad selection of rare apple types, including several specimens where he had grafted multiple different apple varieties onto the same tree. From the right hand side of the orchard it was possible to access a narrow avenue of fruit bushes, with gooseberries to the left and blackcurrants to the right. I used to gorge on gooseberries until my stomach hurt. I can’t stand them now!

Next to the fruit bushes was a small plot where grandad and I used to plant runner beans in early summer. This was a particularly fun job, involving the construction of a line of bamboo wigwams held together by offcuts of wire foraged from the garage. I can remember the structure and form of the runner bean plants vividly.

A short walk back to the central path gave access to a further large planting area to the left, but this was the domain of more flowers and shrubs that never gripped me. There was, however, a small patch of chives that we frequently used to plunder to enliven our breakfast scrambled eggs. Beyond the tedious shrub bed was a further area of apple orchard, including a tree where grandad and I installed a small wooden bench (a bit of old door if I remember correctly). On at least one occasion bumblebees nested within the mossy grass at the foot on this tree, which was yet another milestone in my ecological awakening.

The garden backed onto my old infant school, and the boundary between the two was a hawthorn hedgerow containing a large mirabelle plum tree that annually showered the garden with beautiful white blossom. After the blossom came a sea of tiny but delicious orange plums, which grandma used to collect and turn into unfathomably sweet jam. I often helped with the jam making process, trying frantically to lick the spoon whilst avoiding scalding myself on the sugary lava.

The far corner of the garden was the most exciting and mysterious part. Concealed behind a cherry laurel bush and in the shadow of a eucalyptus tree, this is where the fun things happened. The first fun thing was the twin compost heap, built by grandad out of wood offcuts and chainlink wire. These composts were used on rotation, so as one became full it was left to decompose whilst the other was filled. My main role in those days was to climb inside and stamp the leaves down, but this also gave me the opportunity to interact with the numerous worms, slugs, snails and bugs that made their home in the compost.

Next to the compost was an even more exciting attraction, the incinerator. From memory this was made from an old cast iron water tank, and grandad and I frequently used to build bonfires to dispose of waste paper and piles of woody garden rubbish. Occasionally the fire would require a splash of paraffin to bring it to life, and the sound and smell is impossible to forget. The bonfires generally occurred in the evening, and i’d spend an age watching the flames dance before arriving home smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, but blissfully happy. I don’t feel sad, but I do miss those times.

This particular corner of the garden was the scene of the most exciting wildlife encounter of my young life, when I happened upon a sparrowhawk in the eucalyptus tree in the process of tearing open an unfortunate woodpigeon. The sparrowhawk was startled and flew away, and I was startled and flew away too. I ran to the house, crying out with excitement until grandad came to investigate. We found the abandoned pigeon, torn and visceral, and we were both fascinated. It seems gruesome in hindsight, but I made grandad put the pigeon in a large jar for me so that I could take it home. It lived at the bottom of my parents garden for several weeks in gradually more advanced states of decomposition before dad eventually disposed of it. It’s hard to imagine that any wildlife encounter in my life will ever affect me like that again, the adrenaline coursing through my veins was extraordinary.

When I started writing this piece I have no idea just how vividly I remembered the sights and smells of the place, and how much my time spent there shaped my subsequent life. A lot has changed since then, and those places of my childhood don’t exist anymore, but I won’t forget them. It was my first wild place.

Fantastic Fungi

I’ve been obsessed with fungi ever since I heard the mushroom joke as a small boy. I was exploring my dad’s record collection, and through the hiss and crackle of a warped 78 I distinctly remember Lonnie Donegan singing about toadstools and dustbins. I was immediately hooked.

For Christmas the same year I begged my parents for a book about fungi, and I can vividly remember the excitement I felt as my small hands unwrapped it. It was the Observer’s Guide to Mushrooms, Toadstools and Other Common Fungi, a tiny tome packed with photographs, drawings and fungal facts. I can still remember every inch of the minuscule dust jacket, red text above a photograph of fly agaric. For the uninitiated, fly agaric is a fairly common woodland mushroom, but to a young boy in the urban waste of south Birmingham it was the stuff of legend. A shiny red cap flecked with patches of white sat above brilliant unblemished gills, the creation of a madman’s fevered dream. As a teenager I would learn that it is also one of the fabled ‘magic mushrooms’, which made it even more exciting.

It was the names of the mushrooms that drew me in. To the serious mycologist (a fungi expert to you and me) English names for mushrooms are a contentious subject. Just like the hardcore botanists out there, most are of the opinion that English names are an unnecessary dumbing down of perfectly good Latin and Greek binomials. They’re wrong though, because the English names are what make an otherwise impenetrable group accessible to the amateur enthusiast like me. Many English names for fungi were deliberately coined in order to pique the interest of the lay observer, and they range from the whimsical to the horrifying. A few personal highlights include the powdery piggyback, lemon disco, the pretender, dewdrop dapperling, hairy parachute, funeral bell, vampire’s bane, destroying angel (eek!) and the flirt. My favourite was, and still is, the amethyst deceiver. Not only is it an evocative name that makes me think of fantastical worlds, it’s also stunning. Seriously, just look at it.

I’m not a mycologist. I’m not even that good at identifying different types of fungi, but I adore them. That’s part of their beauty, you don’t need to be able to identify them to appreciate them. Another great thing is that you can find them anywhere, even in the winter when many other flora and fauna are engaged in senescence or sleep. There are over 15,000 species in the UK, although admittedly this number includes a large number of species of rust and yeast that don’t entirely tickle my fancy. Fly agaric though…

A final fascinating fact is that the things that most of us thing of as mushrooms are actually just the fruiting bodies, responsible for the production and delivery of countless tiny spores. The really clever stuff happens below the ground, or within whatever medium the fungi is growing within. This is where the mycelium live, incredibly complex networks of delicate microscopic threads that take in the nutrients that give the fungi life. Many of these mycelium are vast, covering a much larger area than the visible fruiting bodies. In this way fungi are very much the icebergs of the terrestrial ecosystems.

Incidentally, the mushroom joke is:

“My dustbin’s absolutely full of toadstools”
“How do you know it’s full?”
“Because there’s not mushroom inside”.

In hindsight it’s a terrible joke.

Remembering Dad

He dozed lightly, head resting against the textured plastic wall of the aircraft. He’d fallen asleep before take-off, his large body secure in the snug embrace of lap belt and armrest. His dislike of flying had grown with age, in inverse proportion to his tolerance of crowds and confined spaces. Fitful sleep was his only escape, and he had learned to let the vibration of the engines lull him into an uneasy stupor.

Reverberation of thin metal in turbulent air jarred him awake, his head lolling sideways before the eventual onset of sentience. He’d been dreaming about Dad again.

He rubbed the focus back into his eyes and gazed wearily through the square glass portal. Through a thin sheen of woodsmoke cirrus he could make out a familiar patchwork below, vast tracks of forest dotting a mosaic of pastoral and arable, all haphazard boundaries and awkward lines. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the landscape at home, but on a much grander scale. The vastness of the woodlands was no less impressive with repeat viewings, and the green carpeted foothills of the Carpathian mountains always filled him with awe.

It was almost a year to the day since Dad had gone, a sudden and shocking end after a protracted illness. He’d been thinking of him a lot recently.

His ability to read the landscape was something he’d learned from years of study, both academic and professional. He’d eagerly pored over books written by men with white beards, telling of glaciation, tectonics and fluvial process. Each of these was a carpenter’s tool, shaving and chiselling the world over geological epochs. Man’s influence was particularly telling, stripping the land of much of it’s high forest to make way for the farmland required to sustain a growing population. Some considered humanity to be the most destructive of all the great viruses of the Holocene, but if that were true Central Europe remained a sanctuary. Here the green man made his last stand.

Dad hadn’t been himself for years. Without Mum he was frail and nervous, a pale imitation of his former self. His last two years were marred by psychiatric problems that meant he wasn’t really Dad anymore. In some ways that made the inevitable easier to endure.

Sunlight glinted off the surface of a small river that snaked sinuously through the land below. He noted the contrast between the river, meandering through the landscape according to the path of least resistance, and the nexus of roads that man had carved through whatever stood in their way. The roads were generally straight lines, designed with set-square and draughtsman’s pencil. Straight lines reduced cost, and it was easier to cut the trees down than to curve around them. He contemplated how the rivers themselves had been engineered to suit man’s needs, evidenced by the long straight sections adapted to drain the wheat fields. Nothing under the sun was truly untouched by man, not any more.

He’d been thinking about Dad more often than he’d like to admit. When he was awake he remembered the strong, silent, kind man of his youth, however dreams only ever showed him the fading shell of not-dad that he’d become. It was almost funny how his final act had come to define a lifetime.

As they flew over slate grey mountains a thick mattress of cloud formed an opaque barrier, and his study of the landscape was thwarted. He was frustrated. Staring out of the window occupied his mind and kept the realisation of how much he missed dad at bay. He already knew, of course, but he’d refused to let himself dwell on it. He’d never really grieved for either of them, not properly. He’d cried on the day that Dad went, but a period of acceptance and closure had never come. It wasn’t a misguided attempt at machismo, he just didn’t know how to open himself to the process. Words were his only outlet. He’d probably end up working his feelings into one of those tortuous verses he’d started to write. Something tedious about landscape, no doubt.

A break in the cloud gave him something to focus on, a small round lake perched high amid the granite. They called these ‘tarns’ back home, derived from Old Norse. He was grateful for the distraction.

Reconnection

The thrum of rubber on pitted tarmac gives way to the static crackle of leaf litter, and her mind burns white hot. The engine idles and dies. She’s almost there. A muffled click and a flash of orange give a final brief contact with the new world. She begins to walk.

The woods feel different today, shades of emerald and fern slipping into amber, leaves and beech mast a rustic carpet beneath her. She’s known a thousand Autumns here. A scramble through fading briar traces vermilion lines on her skin, but she doesn’t feel it.

She easily finds the sunken lane, where the moonlight is her lantern. The dappled glow of the waxing orb picks out familiar landmarks; the tree root, the dull gloss of the holly leaves, faint mist over the bracken. Each step carries her closer to the glade, carries her further into the past.

She dips her head beneath an arc of maple boughs, and steps lightly into the clearing. A fox screams a clarion call as she slips off her shoes, standing barefoot in the damp earth. She finds the tree, and settles into her familiar groove, contours of skin and bark entwined.

She’s always known this place. Eyes closed, visions of times past fill her as her mind drifts. Modern life will drag her back soon, but tonight she inhabits the forest, her thoughts dancing nimbly through the landscape of Albion past as sister tawny sits sentinel.

She’s always felt different, always been an outsider. Few know that she belongs to the earth, steward spirit of the land. There are so few of us left these days, she ponders sadly. The wind stirs, unsettling the rookery above her. Time ceases to exist.

The Ecologist

The ecologist sat at his desk in the early hours, stifling a yawn with his woollen sleeve. Steam rose lazily from a mug perched haphazardly on a faded coaster. It had once shown a photograph of a badger cub, but the surface had been undone by years of use. He sat in this position almost daily, countless mugs leaving their indelible mark on young brock’s face. He was tired today.

He’d bought the house twelve years ago, and for twelve years the green leather-topped desk had sat facing the window. On a clear day he could see beyond the wooded valley all the way to the estuary, but a shroud of morning mist enveloped the outside world today. The mist didn’t trouble the shorebirds that gathered in their thousands on the shingle banks at this time of year, their keening calls echoing eerily through the murk. The shrill alarm cry of the redshank, sentinel of the marsh, carried furthest, warning of danger and easily identified from his seat at the window. The flight call of the curlew was his favourite, a joyous burble quite unlike anything else. On rare occasions the dawn had rewarded him with the sad lament of the greenshank, but not this dawn.

The garish clock, inherited from his mother, chimed five as he finished the last of the tea, an elixir for his weary bones. He hated the clock, but sentiment stopped him from selling it. Sitting at his desk in the early morning was a regular occurrence, and he was often at his most productive when the day was new. These days he found little joy in the scientific reports he wrote, bound as they were by such tedious constructs as accuracy and rigour. A linguist’s heart beat within him. He tried to stifle it, but each report that he wrote betrayed evidence of tiny rebellions, brief flashes of florid prose amid the sterile listing of facts. Crepuscular. Moribund. Gravid. He felt excited pangs of electricity in his fingertips as he typed the words.

Sitting at the desk at this time usually followed a night spent chasing bats and stumbling around woodland and fields in the half-light of dawn. It was a strange job. Today was different though. He’d been asked to write an article for the local field club magazine, a chance to reminisce on his most memorable encounters with nature. The opportunity to write, to really write, exhilarated him.

A career spent recording wildlife had given him no shortage of source material. He’d kept notebooks since childhood, jotter and stubby pencil ever present in the map pocket of his waterproof coat. Lists, sketches and musings, memories of treasure found and lost. Almost two decades of study committed to paper. He rarely studied the notebooks these days. They told of his greatest triumphs, but so many of them were tinged with sadness. Sadness at lost friends with whom he shared so many experiences, and sadness at his own unstoppable march from his youth. Aching knees were a constant reminder that he was no longer the proud specimen of his formative years, and he reflected on this often. A tough childhood had instilled in him a strong sense of pessimism, particularly regarding his own mortality, but he had made peace with this part of himself long ago. He was slowing down, but it no longer kept him awake at night.

He wrote, frantically. Melancholic thoughts were pushed aside, as half-remembered fragments from sun bleached pages were made real in his memory. For the briefest of moments he lived them again, committing each to print in as much detail as he could recall. He described the rare seabird seen from the charted boat, the first encounter with an osprey, and the day that the toads moved into the pond that he helped to dig. He wrote about the bat roost, the largest known in the county until the youngsters had arrived on the scene with their modern kit and enthusiasm. He wrote at length about natterjack toads, clockwork sprites on the moonlit dunes.

The sun reached its zenith, and still he wrote. A thought had slowly materialised throughout the morning, and it startled him. He had realised that during a career spent actively seeking encounters with nature, it was the chance sightings that truly inspired him. Every encounter with flora and fauna gave him pleasure, but it was the occasions where luck and coincidence collided that truly delighted him. The more he wrote, the more these casual meetings came to the fore. His heart beat faster as he recalled the unexpected badger amid the fruit trees, the sudden goshawk over a barren hillside, the stoat in ermine amid the rushes and the day that a fox appeared where a seal should have been. His first otter had been an accident, spotted frolicking near the seashore off the west coast of Scotland. This wasn’t his favourite memory though. His favourite memory had occurred in the very house in which he was feverishly writing, two years past. An elephant hawk moth had alighted on his bedroom curtains, causing a yelp of excitement. In the rush to find his camera the moth had spooked and flown out of the open window, leaving only a smear of chalky beige powder on cornflower blue fabric. He’d never seen anything more beautiful than the moth, and he thought about it every day.

It was approaching dusk when his typing slowed, the article nearly finished. It had been a day of self-reflection and creativity, and the ecologist was proud of his work. He was especially pleased to have used some of his favourite words. Viviparous. Vespertine. Petrichor. More pangs of excited electricity. His awakening about the joy of chance encounters had inspired him. He had known for some time that working with the thing he loved had made him take it for granted, and had dulled the sheer joy he got from the natural world. Today was the day that he resolved to spend more time immersed in nature, recapturing the exhilaration he felt as a young man experiencing wilderness for the first time. Starlight glinted off the ebbing tide of the estuary, an elegiac chorus rising from thousands of tiny souls clustered above the shoreline. He’d buy a new notebook in the morning.