Saturday 14 May 2016

Time for a walk

Shortly after we moved into the farrrm, when Dau.I and Dau.II were still tiny, we acquired an extra man in our family.  If you live in town, you can leave even quite small children to their own devices at home while you nip round to the shops for a loaf of bread for their tea. It's probably not a good idea to combine the trip with a visit to the pub for a couple of stiffening gins against the bedtime routine. Down the country, a couple of miles from any shop, going for 'a few messages' is a huge logistical exercise:  leaks have to be taken; the kids have to be dressed against the weather . . . even if they're asleep; buckled into their car seats; the car-keys need to be found. We put out a call for an au pair to be the extra adult while I was off-site pushing the frontiers of science in Dublin . . . and the only candidate was a young chap from Spain. Javier was built like a Greek god and had long blue-black Superman hair, so he was easy on the eye and easy to be around in other ways; and useful too - he'd take the girls off to the river for walk or cook tortillas. When I came down from The Smoke he was eager to outdoorsy, manly things on the farm and park the small children for a while.  We communicated in a mixture of English, eSpanish and Latin.  He knew as much Latin as me because he'd had a year of Biology in University in Madrid.

He'd gone to University to read Biology because he was smart but also, despite a quite suburban upbringing, because he was passionate and knowledgeable about the natural world.  University had not served him well, 1st Year Science required book-learning the names, attributes and taxonomic relationships of trees rather than going out to hug them. I could, accordingly, ask him to cut down some Fraxinus excelsior [Ash / Fresno] branches as a treat for the sheep and be confident that he wouldn't kill them with the fruit of the spindle tree Euonymus europaeus. We learned a lot from each other.  Oddly, although all my working life has been spent among professional biologists, I've only known a few naturalists. Like Chris Burnett, who could recognise and name a tree from its Winter silhouette or Des Higgins, who knows more about the taxonomy of Irish spiders than anyone else alive and has recently gone a little bonkers about bird-watching. Me, I'm terrible at this sort of thing, although I've kept patchy records of the annual arrival of cuckoos Cuculus canorus and swallows Hirundo rustica in our valley. You've probably got to have a mentor for this sort of engagement with the natural world and really you have to start early.

If you're already grown, then one way to give the natural world a whirl is to try a trek.  Not a yomp up Mt Leinster before breakfast but a journey that takes a few weeks. It's almost Summer at The Institute, which is when folks can clear a bit of time and clear out.  This is a bit later than Chaucer's motley crew set off for Canterbury in ca. 1376:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote  . . .
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes
Today is Ed Ricketts' [L] birthday, he's long long gone, killed at the age of 50 in a stupid accident in Monterey, but because of what's been written about him, primarily by John "Mice and Men" Steinbeck, he still lives on as an inspiration to professional biologists.  Indeed, at the time in the 1930s, he was one of the very early professionals in the business: making a living collecting lab specimens for museums and universities 'back East'. Like Javi, he had dropped out of college in U Chicago but unlike Javi, he spent the succeeding several months on a long trek through the American South just after WWI. He wrote it up later as an elegiac essay called Vagabonding thru Dixie, which you are urged to read.  I've blogged Ricketts before especially in how he informed my philosophy of education.

In 1920 you could vagabond through Dixie in the same way as Patrick Leigh Fermor [prev] vagabonded from the Hook of Holland to Byzantium in the late 1930s. Or Laurie Lee busked round Spain in 1936. Horses and mules "git up thar mules, dag gum yore hides" then outnumbered cars and trucks on the road. To get the same sort of a stretch nowadays you have to travel off-piste - nobody wants to get wiped out by an 18-wheeler doing 100km/h.  You can make a mad macho marathon of it like running the Appalachian Trail. Or a more modest, and very lonely, contemplative schlep along the coast of Portugal as I undertook in 1989. Many people experience a sort of transcendence on the Camino de Santiago: strange and wonderful things can happen on that trip if you keep your eyes and mind open and don't have too many expectations. You might even glimpse a kingfisher Alcedo atthis. I've watched a couple of documentaries this week about the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts at the Mexican desert in the Spring and hopes to reach the Canadian border before Winter snows block the last pass.

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