Monday 31 January 2022


I think it's getting on for 15 years since we hedged and fenced our farmlet against the depredations of the neighbour's cattle. Before that the boundary was marked by a rough boulder-and-stone wall held together by prayer, mud and sceaghs Crataegus monogyna. The back-story is too long to reprise here and I'm no longer bitter-and-twisted about it. Whatevs, the boundary is about 300m long from edge of The Field Over The River to the lane which serves the house . . . and dozens of walkers at weekends. Actually we executed a number of fencing-dependent projects over the space of a couple of years at the end of the 00s.

  • A heritage apple orchard and the very lowest part of the property - the only sliver which falls below 200m above sea-level; which is the advised limit for new-planting hardwoods.
  • Planting the acre = 0.4 hectare of the field between us and the clatter of silver barns which blights the view from the kitchen window. That is a mix of oak Quercus robur, ash Fraxinus excelsior Scot's Pinus sylvestris, larch Larix europaeus,with a leaven of other native trees
  • Planting the said hedge with hawthron sceagh Crataegus monogyna, blackthorn draighean Prunus spinosa and hazel coll Corylus avellana in a 7:2:1 ratio. We also included some standards of ash and wild cherry gean Prunus avium.

All the standards in our hedge got topped when we lent the field to some pals to graze horses who were quite capable of leaning over the wire fence and chomping the apical meristem, so now we have cherry coppice. A couple of weeks ago, when the long dry spell started, I thought it would be a good plan to  chop the blackthorn suckers which are march into the pasture from the roots of the hedgerow trees. Hack hack. Really a good idea to use eye-protection because these things whip around in their death-throes. I was only making desultory progress on the sucker-removal task because the goddam hedge has long since escaped the confines of the sheep-wire fence between hedge and paddock. 

Accordingly, last Tuesday, another fine day, I took saw and loppers and started to cut off the overhanging branches brash off the small stuff and keep anything wider than two fingers for winter fuuuuuel. At it again on Wednesday . . . at it again on Thursday. It looks a bit ragged it has won about 2.5m of mowable, grazable sward for the edge of the field. That might be a couple more bales of haylage - which is money. It's also a neat stack of firewood which just needs to be cut to length and left to air out for a couple of years:

The picture at the top shows the shadow fall of the winter sun at 1045 GMT 27 Jan 22 from which, knowing the height of the sun above the horizon here and then [= about 15°] it would be possible [trigonometry!] to calculate the height of our hedge from the shadow across the grass. And hey, our forest over in the background is doing well. For scale, the holly Ilex aquifolium tree flagged with a pink arrow planted in 2008 at 40cm tall is now 3m tall.

Friday 28 January 2022

Fetish your Carhartt

Last Summer, my Michigander pal came visiting, in a brief window of covid-opportunity, to see a man about a farm on the other side of the valley. We hung out a bit and walked up the hill and had a nice lunch in the open air, so we didn't kill each other with spittle-bugs. When he was leaving, he kindly presented us with matching his'n'hers quilted gilets very discretely marked with his company logo. We've both worn these handy arms-free, pocket-enriched garments a lot since last July.

Earlier in the week, my youtube feed delivered a piece to camera by Beau of the Fifth Column, a journalist from Virginia who offers sensible down-home commentary about Antics American from his garage / workshop. According to Beau, folks in Middle America are burning their hats in protest that Carhartt, the now global work-wear company [R, as fashion accessory] is insisting that all their employees be vaccinated. This is one variant on a boycott the vaxxers crazy-fest from the anti-vaxx opposition. I was guessing that anti-vaxxers wouldn't own a Carhartt hat - being full equipped with one made of tinfoil . . . but no, it seems that Carharrt was getting to be associated with, say, those fomenting the Capitol Insurrection a year and a bit ago.

Well, it turns out that our gilets are built by Carhartt! It's a wild world when you realise that something quite ordinary, but extra-ordinarily utilitarian and comfy is a) making a down with the hood fashion-statement at the same time as b) waving the flag for prophylactic vaccination. Cue ♬ ♫ ♩ ♪ vaxx me tender, vaxx me dear, tell me you are mine. I tell ya b'ys if Elvis was alive today [and we know he is] he wouldn't be kissing the audience!

Wednesday 26 January 2022

High bar for the AGM

In many ways, for The Management, it would be handy if nobody turned up to the AGM; assuming the officers and the Board can muster a quorum. That way there are no awkward questions from the floor about that boondoggle in Barbados or the mysterious petty cash haemorrhage. 

Now I believe [credo] in Credit Unions, they are embedded in the local community which is what I aspire to do as well; and so does Goodly Barrow [R] the new local café and museum. But the way our CU runs its affairs is not above criticism. I've had a swipe at them for wheeling out the PP for bidding prayers at the AGM . . . and arranging it so I never won a raffle prize at the several sequential AGMs which I attended in the Before Times. Such inappropriate grand-standing by the majority religion is completely against the aspirations we all want for a multi-cultural inclusive society in modern Ireland. 

And here we go again, same mindset different problem. January is AGM month for a lot of organisations and for reasons this year our Credit Union is doing it by Zoom again. Because the CU is conservative they are trying to make it like the before times sending out the call by letter. Said letter has a 33 page wodge of agenda, minutes, proposals, financials and notes on the financials - as you'd expect. 

Q. How do I register for the event?
A. Easy! Just type this 66 character link into your browser: [naah, don't try it]

WTFinances?!! 1) the link on the page is underlined because link so that makes the _underscore_ in WN_QZ invisible and 2) makes then two y's indistinguishable from v's. Shag me if I'm going to try to type that in correctly or even incorrectly. In my last puck at the CU I said that their practices were excluding muslims and protestants and a certain type of rigid atheist from attending the AGM because a representative of the Bishop of Rome was ex officio going to open proceedings. Here the CU is excluding many from their membership heartland who don't type or have poor sight or just can't be arsed to try keying in a long string of meaningless characters with CAPS lc and digits all clattered up.

But I took one for the team community and phoned in a complaint. 15 minutes later hissonour The Manager called me back and he offered to e-mail me the link as he had got it from the tech company which is running the meeting for the CU. Good so, I got my clickable link but, in the long email-trail, I also got the manager's e-mails [both CU and personal], and the name of the tech company and their Credit Union Liaison Officer's e-mail. GDPR fail! By return, I send them a tinyurl link reducing 66 characters to - less than half as long and more than twice as simple / memorable / dictatable over the phone to Olds like me.

Monday 24 January 2022


Time on Rock: A Climber's Route into the Mountains by Anna Fleming [R on another pinnacle; from her blog The Granite Sea] was only published this month and a) I downloaded it on spec through Borrowbox b) abseiled down through it like a freshet burn. It is a worthy successor to Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain which I read through Christmas 2020. And indeed, Anna cites Nan for helping to give her a more contemplative and less conquistador view of Britain's high places. It is okay, it is better, just to be in the hills and forget all that macho goal-driven Munro-bagging triumphalism. Nan Shepherd was born about 100 years before Anna Fleming; so the mantel has been passed by proxy and importantly by writing. Fleming is an Eng.Lit. major with a PhD [Thesis: ‘Wordsworth, Creativity and Cumbrian Communities’(2017)], so has a good idea about how to construct a lucid and evocative sentence.

The case is made that although climbing is still largely a man's world, you would be wrong to think that women are not as good . . . because testosterone drives muscle mass; because r e a c h matters; because hormones. This is mostly bollix: women may be less strong but they have less weight to propel upwards. And hormones may give a greater range of affect but that can mean that when women are at the peak it makes men look and feel pedestrian. The Pill, by blandifying the cycle, may put a snaffle on The Best that can be achieved on the rock-face. Deliberate practice on the rock hones the proprioceptive senses: like dancers, climbers [have to] know where each of their extremities are without having to think about it. The thinking [energy sapping in its own way] has to concentrate on the tactics: each of several contingent moves to get to That solid hold. Hearing too: avoid holds which sound hollow when you tonk them with the heel of your hand.

Rock climbing can be a solo sport - Reinhold Messner famously soloed Everest in 1980 - but the smart climbers go with a partner. Someone with whom you develop an empathy and understanding based on shared epic tales and maybe complementary skills. Fleming has climbed with a lot of different people from whom she has learned and whom she has mentored in turn. The writers of climb-guides have a fractal sense of detail: each hairline crack and knob-for-one-foot is given the agency of each roundabout and turning of the AA itinerary from Wexford to Sligo. These writers have the same expertise as Cape Horners - who in a lifetime of salty toil may have rounded that stormy corner only a few dozen times. And indeed the weather matters: a pitch will be different if the rocks are sopping - although sandstone dries quicker than gabbro.

As well as the properties of different rock, Fleming has made the effort to learn the formal geology of the holds on which she depends. Climbers don't need to know that this pitch was laid down during the Caledonian Orogeny 400 million years ago; but it puts them in their place. In one epiphany near the top of Dubh Loch the Universe had appeared and I had lost my position in the centre

 I stared into the sky,
As wondering men have always done
Since beauty and the stars were one
Though none so hard as I.
It seemed, so still the valleys were,
As if the whole world knelt at prayer,
Save me and me alone;
So pure and wide that silence was
I feared to bend a blade of grass,
And there I stood like stone.

There's a bit of a hat-tip to Gwen "space below my feet" Moffat too. 

Okay, you possibly think you don't have 8 hours of ear-time for an homage to rock. Try this interview, though.

Sunday 23 January 2022

Sun 23r Jan 022


Saturday 22 January 2022

Thích Nhất Hạnh 11Oct1926 - 22Jan2022

Regret to report that Thầy [teacher: R teaching a thing or three] Thích Nhất Hạnh passed on to his next adventure today on the stroke of midnight Vietnam time. In 1975, with the Fall of Saigon, TNH was exiled in France and not allowed to return home. His community purchased land in the Dordogne intending to support themselves growing and selling plums and plum jam. Le Village des Pruniers Plum Village was founded in 1982. His early book The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation [1975] struck a chord among those of the Lost Generation whose spiritual and affective lives had been shaken loose from their own tradition. An increasing income stream flowed into Plum Village from running retreats and workshops for those who were seeking a better inner life.  

In 2006, The Beloved and I went with Dau.I and Dau.II for a week-long Retreat For Workers in the Neurosciences. A certain amount of hilarity ensued. But it was also extraordinarily affecting: the monastics devote a good bit of time to their music and it's hard to be Dr Skeptic-Face when everyone comes together in harmony to sing namo avalokiteshvara . . . Now you know everything

Thầy was a great believer in walking meditation. This happened most days on the Retreat and with 700 questers and seekers on site there was a certain amount of discrete jockeying for a position near the centre of karma. Call me cynical but all that angst & neurosis seemed to put a damper on TNH's equanimity and his standard practice was to seize the hands of the two nearest children to keep the needy adults at bay. I reflected at the time that, when Dau.II [L,L] and Dau.I [L,R] are the age that Thầy was then, they would be able to tell their own grandchilder that they had been Present at the birth of a movement which now bigger than Islam and Xianity combined - they had walked with god.

Five years later a whole team of monastics led by TNH came to spread the word in Ireland. The Beloved was centrally instrumental in getting the ducks convention centres in a row to make that happen. Further hilarity ensued when I became the chauffeur of the rented people carrier which was to transport Thầy and his cabinet from the Airport to Dublin to Killarney to Dublin to Belfast to Airport.The old chap would doubtless have preferred to be driven by a child but a) that's not legal in Ireland b) I knew enough to speak only when spoken to.

He suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2014, received the best medical care available in the USA but left the West for good in late 2018, returning to Vietnam after half a lifetime in exile.

Hail and farewell and Bon Voyage!

Friday 21 January 2022

Stampai Mullarnai

It's more than 20 years since we were co-instrumental in the launch of HEN, the Irish Home Education Network. Two things glued the disorganisation together: an annual 'gathering' and a ~quarterly newsletter. One of the early invitees to address the gathering was Máire Mullarney who was old enough to be my mother and had raised a family of 11 kids with very little formal schooling. And written a book Anything school can do you can do better documenting the wide range of interest her very different children had in school-school. The following year we asked Máire back again as part of a panel of Old Hands to field questions from anxious newbie home edders. Well that was a bust! Like Linus Pauling going off the rails about vitamin C, by that stage, Mullarney had gone Full Metal Esperanto and every question was framed by Zamenhoffery

When we started editing the HEN newsletter, I was always casting around for people to interview, and on that button-hole list was Killian Mullarney, who'd spent his entire life observing, drawing and painting birds. But, while a number of people in my Wexford orbit claimed to know Killian, the word was that he was all grown-up and didn't want to be defined as the offspring of a home ed guru / activist / Esperantist. So that interview never happened. I was therefore looking for our copy of  Anything school can do you can do better but could only locate Mullarney's guide for Early Reading [as L]. Which contained a remarkably timely autograph book-mark [also L] "Did I say send a £1.00 worth of stamps plus postage? Well, wait until a new series, all birds, comes on sale. Our son Killian designed them. Best wishes, Máire M".

The new convener of the Wexford Science Cafe is much better networked than me and last Tuesday Killian Mullarney was our guest speaker - even though we are not yet meeting face-to-face. Here is a man who has invented himself; now making a living from the his researches into the life and times of birds. There is another ornitho-earner in Eric Dempsey, whose memoir Don't Die in Autumn [bloboprev] is worth digging out of the stacks in your library . . . or Borrowboxing! Neither of these blokes went to college or even finished school, yet they have become respected experts in their field. 

At WSC we heard the epic saga of getting the definitive Birds of Europe into print. Actually, of course, "definitive" because, as the kit gets better and the patient telescope-hours accumulate, revision of certainty is a constant in ornithology. Most of the birds you see out there do not have the perfect crisp plumage of alpha males which appear in bird books - most of the flock are scruffy looking juveniles and less blinged-up females. The book was initially commissioned in the last century by Collins. Their corresponding editor died suddenly, Collins was taken up into a publishing MegaCorp which wanted a quick return.The other illustrator Peter Grant also took ill and died. Eventually the Swedish [junior] publishing house owned the project and the 1st edition was launched 15 years after the initial commission. A 3rd edition is to hit the shelves this Spring 2022.  Mullarney is one of the leads on The Sound Approach which encourages the use of a final front-ear to assist the eyes in bird ID. Interesting riff on sounding out of birds on MeFi. As his Mother mentioned above, Killian Mullarney created the gorgeous set of birdy definitives for An Post:

Peter Grant the ornithological illustrator is not the same as Peter [and Rosemary] Grant, experts on the evolution of Darwin's Galapagos finches. At least the 2019 An Post Europa bird stamps painted by Mullarney have their Latin names.

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Ed Wilson gone

With great prescience at the beginning of December, I put a hold on the Borrowbox ebook of Scientist: Edward O. Wilson: A Life in Nature by Richard Rhodes. He died, in the fullness of his years, on 26 Dec 2021, so I was ahead of the herd who wanted to read this recent biography.  The book arrived in my feed on 12Jan22 and I raced through the tale within the week: partly because I was familiar with the science and the broad brush of Wilson's contribution. But I guess also because the writing was good to great. Richard Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize [The Making of the Atomic Bomb 1986 in re me prev] winning historian, biographer and journalist. We've covered some of the same ground: Hedy's Folly is about coded broadcasting and  Hedy Lamarr; Deadly Feasts about BSE and Carleton Gadjusek but I see a rich seam of future reading for me.

Mais revenons nous a nos formis - because ants is what engaged EO Wilson's attention for  the best part of 8 decades - he started early and stayed the long course: fit and lucid into his 90s despite having lost the sight of one eye as a teenage angler. It is not inappropriate to compare Wilson's contribution to 20thC biology to Darwin's in the 19thC. Darwin's 8 year obsession with barnacle growth and development is matched by Wilson's love affair with the genus Pheidole - a widespread and diverse genus of ants [Pheidole dentata's distinguishing features drawn L]. His comprehensive 800 page, 625 species, 650 illustrations Pheidole in the New World A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus came out in 2003 and you can't afford it at €190.

It's not clear why Rhodes picked Wilson as his next project because his previous oeuvre was more about physics. It may have been that both men had grimmo absent-father childhoods that forged a dogged determinism. Anther connexion is that Rhodes was on the committee [with Annie Dillard] which decided that a zoology textbook The Ants is  by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson, should win the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1991. It was Wilson's second Pulitzer - his first for On Human Nature [1979] which was Wilson's response to the internecine shit-storm conjured up in Dick Lewontin's tea-cup after the publication of Sociobiology [1975].

Sociobiology was the making of me as an independent scientific thinker when I read it (in preference to, like, the actual course material) while an undergraduate in 1976. It was also a long chunky book mostly about "animals" but the final chapter looked at humanity through the lens of what Wilson had learned about social behaviour in other animals. The idea that any part of human character was determined by genetics was counter to the [Marxist] dogma that anyone could become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union if they learned how in a true Soviet school - regardless of whom their Papa was. Of course there were traces of patriarchal certainty in everything that Wilson wrote - he was born white in Jim Crow Alabama - but it is/was just lazy-arsed polemic to characterise the man himself as racist and misogynist. For the latter, he was notably generous, kind and respectful for two of my closest female friends. I'll also note that he found common ground canopy with Meg Lowman - both recognising the vital importance of biodiversity up there in that of part tropical forests which you can't see from the forest floor.

We - you and me - could do worse than make a contribution to EO Wilson's Half-Earth Project which has the conceit that humanity has shit-the-bed, yes, but is prepared to ring-fence the other half of the planet for all the beetles, bats, bees and begonias which we haven't already driven to extinction.

Monday 17 January 2022

Processing: alnus to twigs

 Two Fridays back, I wrote about the forcible transmigration of a handful of our riverine trees [alder Alnus glutinosa and willow Salix spp.] to the opposite Wexford <ptui ptui> bank of the wee stream which marks the end of our demesne and then county borrder. 

These things happen even if one could wish otherwise. asap, I planted about 20 Salix whips to help hold the bank together during the periodic floods. Last week, the weather being unseasonably sunny and dry, we descended on the field where the tree corpses had been laid out: self with the mighty Zomax ch.saw & The Beloved with loppers and a hatchet. I R old, so I resolved to work a shift equivalent to a tankful of gas in the ch.saw. The willows especially were quite gnarly and twisted; and I could see length suitable firewood through a veil of twigs. Removing the layers of occluding brash was not dissimilar to a surgeon peeling back the epidermis, dermis, adipose, muscle and mesentry to reach the patient's pancreas. 

I stopped the engine every little while a) to spare the arm-muscles b) to get some work out of the others: pulling brash out of the way, so it wasn't a trip-hazard [I R old: it goes with the territory] but also stacking the logs into tidily convenient piles. TB did more work pulling all the small stuff into a long bank along the edge of the field. This stop-start meant about two hours of work and two trees dismembered for each tankful of gas. Three shifts over Thursday and Friday saw our part of the task finished.

I am confident that, some time soon, the log piles will be delivered to our yard in the front bucket of our neighbour's tractor. The stumps, which are too fibre-tangled to split and too stone- and sand-included to cut, will disappear into a hollow - for habitat, like. Twigs also.

Sunday 16 January 2022

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

It is the Feast of St Fursey Lá Feile Fursa, an Irish saint, born in  Galway (where he became abbot of Killursa) but travelled across Europe to teach and preach in East Anglia and Picardy - where he is more widely venerated than in the home-place.  A train of events last year has induced me to make an annual pilgrimage to a certain glacial erratic on the North-East shoulder of our hill. Has to be for sunrise; has to be January; so there is small expectation of "success" - defined as catching the sun actually breaking the horizon. But that hasn't stopped a rolling roiling circus around Solstice Sunrise in Newgrange each year. On Weds 12 Jan 22 I made a wee recce aka feasibility study and captured the moment. On Lá Feile however it was a mizzling whiteout:

Leaning up against the altar, you can catch the top of the pilgrimme's staff made by my friend and fellow seeker Sally a few years ago.

I was, so, there! As I came down across the face of the hill I could hear the first weekend walkers chattering on the path far below but they couldn't see me, nor I them. Make a note in your diary for next year: staff, sandals, sanctity all optional.

Tis St Fursey's day

Sunrise is the local thing on this day
this pic taken at 0830 12Jan2022; because you just can't guarantee clear skies in Ireland on any particular day and time in January.

Notes on the pic above: sun rises at 125 today; the stick is pointing at 127 because it's four days ago. Onwards! Avanti! Ar aghaidh! En avant!

Friday 14 January 2022

Plumbing the depths

 Since we moved into the farrrm, we've had <counts> five [5] different plumbers on the payroll. The first installed a) copper pipes throughout: in an area known to have copper-eating acid water b) a truly byzantine heating and hot water system c) the grit filter on a sideline of the water system that didn't go to the house. Grit from the newly sunk well accordingly washed into the house . . . to embed like fossils in all the tap washers so they ground out their seatings . . . to block the inlet jet to the header tank . . . and fill the header tank with an inch of fine sand. The first copper hot-water cylinder lasted 15 months the second 2 years until replaced by stainless-steel. The copper pipes lasted about ten years and failed sequentially over the next five to be replaced by qualpex plastic piping. So many drips through the kitchen ceiling!

The current plumber answered an emergency call two years ago. In the chat afterwards, he refused to change the washers on the kitchen taps because he reckoned the corrosion hereabouts would be near terminal, but did offer to replace the mixer tap unit in the kitchen if we found one which suited [the decor?!]. I operate on an if it ain't broke don't fix it basis. If the t'ilet doesn't flush easily, I'll happily fill a bucket. This Christmas we had a house full of family though, and they all needed to be instructed in how to flush the upstairs jacks. This was quite the ritual for house-guests of my father's generation "you need give the chain a half pull and then heave like buggery". Something clearly needed to be done and at the beginning on this week Current Plumber said he'd time free if we could source the parts.

The kitchen tap unit [R, with lever-taps and height enough for a hot-water bottle] was replaced soon enough but the upstairs toilet cylinder proved to be of sterner stuff. The thing is that toilets are designed so that the workings are invisible - users must not be frightened by the sight of a ball-cock or a rusty bolt. Plumber decided that the problem was only obviously to do with the flush-handle: the fact that was banjaxed through strain hinted that the siphon was probably defective as well. Toilet fittings are fixed together with threaded steel bolts and wingnuts but these inevitably get corroded unless the householder [that would be me] routinely keeps them oiled, greased and undone and re-tightened. At some stage in the derusting process, Plumber asked if there is a vice-grips in the house. Fakk! There is; but that tool could be in one of 3 places, two of which are outside in the dark beyond the reach of electric light. After 10 minutes of fruitlessly turning stuff over by torch-light, the vice-grips manifest itself in a 4th place [with the spanners, duh] and I rushed them upstairs.

"Every man needs a vice-grips"
"Maybe so, I'm not a proper man clearly: I have vice-grips but I don't know where they are"

I also have a selection of spare hack-saw blades which was handy, because the wing-nuts clamping the cistern to the pan were seized entirely. ¿Why oh why do designers of bathroom ceramics recess the bolt-holes so that they cannot be accessed with an angle-grinder?  Likewise ¿Why oh why do designers of bathroom ceramics think it's a good idea to insert the inlet pipe into the cistern through the bottom? Yes, yes, I know it's because it cannot there be seen but really, it is a hostage to leaking fortune innit? The poor weary plumber dried his hands, tidied up and knocked off at 8pm. At 1 AM I get up to use the facilities and get a wet sock. The in-pipe has a micro-leak producing drip . . . drip . . . . . drip at the rate of about 1 ml  per hour or half a cup a day. We have a bucket, we are fine.

Not for the first time, I reflected with St Plumb that Ould Ray, who lived in this house from 1941 to 1994, never had plumbing woes because, before we came with our city ways, there was no well, no pump, let alone running water and a flush-toilet. Since then so many pipes, so many stop-cocks, so many joints, so many ball-cocks, so many spigots and so many pumps all ready to go wrong on us.

Wednesday 12 January 2022

The root of the matter

Radical! Metafilter flagged up a beautiful database of drawings of plant roots, meticulously excavated and recorded by v. Prof. Dr. Erwin Lichtenegger (1928-2004) and Univ. Prof. Dr. Lore Kutschera (1917-2008), leader of Pflanzensoziologisches Institut, Klagenfurt, Austria.

Where we live the two commonest hedgerow trees are ash/es fuinseog Fraxinus excelsior and hawthorn/meidoorn sceach Crataegus monogyna [R with a light dusting of fairy tributes] Hawthorns are always getting uprooted in storms, ash never - they just rain branches down from on high. Eight years ago, starting a new job at The Institute, I was required to teach environmental chemistry. I was commuting to work through horizontal winter weather and I had an idea for a practical experiment for the students. "we" would measure the mineral content [Li, Na, K] of leaves (more accessible than roots) in these two species from two different sites. 

Hypothesis: trees roots of each species selectively take
minerals they need from whatever soil they find themselves in
OR tree roots take up whatever is locally available indiscriminately. 

There is nothing obvious in the tree-root drawings which explains why hawthorn is so often from mother earth untimely ripped. It must be some aspect of the structural integrity of the roots and/or the interface with the soil which would need instruments to measure.

As is the nature of science, the results were eh maybe, needs a bigger sample. The other result was that one of the students insisted that I supervise his final year research project. Then he decided that 'we' should apply for post-graduate funding, which five years later resulted in his PhD. And I never followed up the location.vs.species experiment because the following year, the institute hired a qualified environmental chemist, and The Man had me teach some other module for which I was supremely unqualified. I dunno about the students, but I learned a lot on that job.

Monday 10 January 2022

Dangling for science

I'm borrowboxing The Arbornaut by Meg Lowman [eponysterical because she is, for preference, high in the canopy and started her career as a rare woman in a man's world]. It's a massive fail on my network that I'd never 'eard of Lowman until I browsed the book from the largely empty prairies of the Borrowbox inventory. There are tree-huggers [meeeee!]whose contact with trees is an embrace at shoulder height and there are Arbornauts who get up up and away into the canopy where most of the interesting stuff happens. A helluva orgy of beetle consumption and sex for starters. Terry Erwin famously revised upward the number of species on the planet in 1982 by insecticidal fogging a section for tropical forest canopy and counting the number of beetles which rained down to the forest floor onto collecting sheets. His Fermi answer was 30 million species, although EO Wilson has upped that to 100 million by throwing archaea and bacteria into the mill.

Meg Lowman escaped from rural upstate New York to a PhD program in Sydney NSW where she wanted to study the effects of environment on leaf abundance. She had to devise all her own hypotheses and the protocols to test them because nobody had done that sort of thing before. Leaves of mature trees were only available after they had been felled and it is hard to do time-longitudinal studies on something that is about to become board-feet. With consultation from spelunkers, she invented and designed a tree-climbing harness which allowed her to dangle from a branch high in the canopy and have both hands free for taking notes, holding calipers and swatting off spiders and midges. Later on she was sundowning after a day's field work and bounced into existence the idea [but not the patent!] of a permanent walk-way through the off-ground habitat. That greatly enhanced access for the Citizen Scientists she recruited through Earthwatch and also made repeat measurements of exactly the same trees possible. Before that she had been sling-shotting lead-weighted fishing line over branches to haul up the rope for her arbornaut harness.

It soon became apparent that the most significant impactor of leaf life and density was herbivory by insects. Until Lowman went a-sampling and a-counting, botanists had guessed that 3-4% of the leaves were consumed by insects. Her work required that number to revised upward by 10x. Trees are supporting a huge biomass of chomping coleoptera.

Meg Lowman [R] is about my age but she doesn't seem to be retiring anytime soon. Possibly because she took her two chaps into the field with her, and grew to appreciate their keen eyes, she has gone out of her way to mentor young women in science from Abyssinia to Assam [and that's just the As!] because she herself had zero [to the nearest whole number] female role-models for science in school and college. 

She surfaced my horizon recently in the Guardian Ethiopia [bandwidth-sapping pictorial essay] where she is mentoring the priestly guardians of the only tall trees left standing in the country . . . surrounding the existing churches which have, so far, been able to resist the drive to get more land under cultivation [tef!] to feed the vaccinated [smallpox rather than covid, of course]  millions. Again, she was a woman in a man's world but they recognised that she brought essential information and different ways of seeing to the table. Wordier story in National Geographic.

The priests rowed in behind a solution that is parallel to that which built the landscape we inhabit in rural Ireland. The stones were picked out of the fields surrounding the church forests [enhancing productivity] and used to build a wall around the sacred property sufficient to deter wandering livestock; and so protect the regenerating seedlings on which the sustainability of the woods depends. 

I've mentioned before that during a life-time in science, the pay-off is that I've had three good ideas. Meg Lowman seems to have an unusual ability to ask interesting questions about what she sees, as she wanders the world. Not only that, but she also has a knack for designing experiments to address these questions. And further, the dogged patience to crank through a project over weeks and months generating data and analysing it. And she's funny with it. Lest all this start to seem too sunny, you must realise like many [most?] women in science, Dr Lowman has been serially bullied by powerful men in her orbit despite being objectively successful by all the metrics which count. She articulates a "tall poppy" hypothesis that she has been serially bullied by powerful men in her orbit because objectively successful by all the metrics which count. Hats off! . . . and, well really; these alpha males can go crochet their chest-wigs.

Meg Lowman is #99 in my women in science series.

Friday 7 January 2022

Succession: Alnus to Salix


Did I mention that the laneway up to our house almost washed out on Christmas Day? I did. There's going to be a lot more of that mega-weather in the future; so it might be prudent to think about priorities and the contents of your Go Sack while you're still cosy on the sofa. In our case 1) get vehicles down what was left of the road as the right of the road was getting scoured 2) address the cause of that downstream flood 3) attempt to divert water from upstream of the house. We dealt with these top priorities in exactly the wrong order BUT I was/am happy that we got those three tasks on the emergency To Do List. Preparing the BrusselSprouts, laying out another roll of TP and clearing the floor of wrapping-paper were all waaaay down on that List.

I wasn't until a full week after Christmas that we really took on board that there had been a simultaneous crisis at the far end of the property where our fields end at the County borrrder. For about 500m that border is coterminous with the Aughnabriskey, a tributary of the River Barrow which serves a catchment of several hundred hectares of boggy upland and dry heath. Although these uplands have some capacity to adsorb rainfall, a helluva lot of storm-water has to flow down a stream bed which in high Summer is about 4m across and 15cm deep. The field from whose edge I took the photograph is called the field over the river because it hangs over a 10m drop to the river bed. 

The field on the other side of the stream is the first bit of flattish land encountered by water as it courses off the hills and in an ideal world would serve as a callow allowing storm water to lose its energy as it spreads across a wider area. Farmers in general are not happy to own callows because standing water is heavy, compresses the soil beneath, and cannot graze cattle. Banking off the downstream callows causes the water to back up and town of Clonmel is flooded pretty much every winter on the regular [bloboprev]. Ultimately because private property trumps the common good in the Irish constitution.

My neighbour acquired a mighty tonka-toy tracked digger a few years ago and has used this monster to grub up the stream bed and build a berm along the edge of his field in an effort to prevent the meadow getting flooded. The paltry efforts of one man, even with a 120cm digger-bucket at hand, can do little in the face of acre-feet of running water - remember 2017 Oroville? that was concrete . . . or rather gone-crete. Anyway the berm was breached and neighbour pulled out 6 or 8 well grown alders Alnus from our side of the river [pink arrows in the pic] because they had been undercut and were damming the flow. We might have wished to be asked first but farmers tend to view trees as an obstruction even if there isn't an emergency. It would have protected our bank better if the roots had been left in place, too. I guess we have some fire wood for the 2023 season.

Yesterday I went down the fields between showers with a big-arsed iron bar and a bag of rooted willow Salix cuttings which have been sitting in a bucket of water since last winter. If we avoid another 100mm/24hrs deluge this winter then the roots of these pioneers will stabilise the bank better than any number of big stones. note to self: more willow cuttings needed.

Wednesday 5 January 2022

Fermi? No problem


. . . was beyond his ability to answer . . . so long as in was numerical; and interesting. He is remembered today for his power of estimation - quickly delivering a good enough answer. He tended to go off the boil when he had to do the dreary bump-and-grind to get a precise answer; leave that to 'computers' driving desk-calculators; and move on to the next Big Problem. I'm getting a handle on Enrico Fermi [L,L having just been introduced to Wolfgang Pauli L,R by Werner Heisenberg L,C] by listening to my latest borrowbox audiobook The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age [2017] by David N. Schwartz not to be confused with The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Feats of Genius [2006] by Andrew Robinson. One could a) ask for shorter titles b) a little more imagination in the publishing world. Fermi has far less credibility than Thomas "Rosetta" Young as a Man Who Knew Everything because he really focused his considerable intellect on the physics of small things.

David Schwartz is the son of 1988 Nobel Physicist Melvin Schwartz, so he must have grown up immersed in the language, and presumably the relationship helped get him access to people and papers to compile his biography. Fermi must have been an asset, because he was welcomed to the United States direct from receiving the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics in Stockholm. The family packed heavy leaving for Sweden because they had no intention of returning to Fascist Italy after Mussolini cranked up state anti-semitism. Fermi's wife would have passed for Jewish and her father later died in a concentration camp despite being an Admiral and wealthy. After Pearl Harbor, the Fermis became officially enemy aliens but by then Enrico was a key figure in the Manhattan project to develop nuclear weaponry before Nazi Germany: first at Columbia U in NYC, then at U. Chicago and finally off to Los Alamos. 

Having read biographies of Richard Feynman, I was familiar with much of the narrative of Los Alamos but Schwartz's book has a good explanation of why the design of a plutonium bomb needed to engineer an implosion towards a core rather than firing two sub-critical masses at each other - which would work for a bomb using Uranium235 whose properties Fermi's team had nailed in the first sustained, controlled nuclear reaction in a repurposed squash-court back in Chicago on 2nd December 1942. Fermi had a roving brief in Los Alamos - a sort of EnricoTheScientist for lesser mortals to bounce ideas off. But he seems to have been quite ambivalent about the ethics of developing such a powerful weapon - especially after it became clear that the Germans were out of the war in the Spring of 1945. But there is rather a poor paper trail for Fermi and he died in 1954 = +60 years before Schwartz mobilised to write his book; so there is plenty of leeway for speculation about Fermi's motives and his actions.

One of his most famous actions was to drop pieces of paper as the blastwave propagated from the Trinity Test at Alamogordo on 16th July 1945. Those paper fragments travelled 2.5m from their launch point above Fermi's head; from which he was able to calculate the power of the explosion as ~10 kilotonnes of TNT. Much more expensive instrumentation delivered a figure of 18 kilotonnes the following day. It was a classic case of a good enough Fermi solution using an elegant appropriate technology experimental design.

Freeman Dyson's research program gets trashed by Fermi - Hans Bethe collaborates - Murray Gell-Mann pushes Fermi's comfort zone.

Monday 3 January 2022

A fragment of the True Bomb

We had a spill of rain on Christmas Day and there was a bit of damage to the lane . . . although the water gave the drain a good flush through - removing the soggy sycamore [Acer pseudoplatanus] leaves that I should have swept up in the fall. There are some things that are best done with machinery, if available; but some a best done with hand-tools. Clearing drains is better with a slash-hook and shovel because even the 30cm bucket of a digger will do damage by ripping out stably embedded rocks and allowing more severe erosion next flood-time.

On the subsequent days several members of my family and I were tricking about with shovels, wheel-barrows and rakes: selectively transferring small rocks and gritty material from the drain to the lane so that the postman could deliver all the missing Christmas cards without doing a sproinnngg on his suspension. A week later, it is almost on a can't see the join level. There was an interesting turn up for the book about halfway up the lane. I was lifting loose stones from the bottom of the drain, when a very flat one came up in my hand - about 20cm x 12cm and shaped like South America [R]. It has a couple of the same square bosses which appear on the piece of the True Bomb which demolished the house we live in 81 years ago on 2nd Jan 1941. So, provisionally, we have another fragment of that tragic jigsaw.

I'm not going actively looking for more because it is hard to properly establish provenance without the help of an archaeologist or a forensic metallurgist and their equipment. And don't mention metal detectors - there are buckets [literally buckets in at least two cases] of miscellaneous iron-mongery thrun in the ditches across the property.