Friday, 6 July 2018

A mammoth tooth from a submerged forest

The following, fascinating quote is from an 1865 paper by William Pengelly on “The submerged forests of Torbay” [1]:

A few years ago Mr C.E.Parker purchased an elephant’s tooth of some Brixham fishermen who had just taken it up in their trawl whilst fishing in Torbay.

The purchase took place in the 1850s and Pengelly describes how Dr Falconer of the Torquay Natural History Society identified the tooth as being that of a mammoth. He continues [1]:

Had this been a portion of an existing species it might have been supposed that it had been lost from or with some ship returning from India or Africa; but being a relic of an extinct animal it is obvious that it must have been dislodged from some geological deposit. That this was near at hand and that the fossil hade been exposed but a very short time may be safely inferred from the facts that it is entirely destitute of marks or traces of abrasion, and that there are no marine incrustations on its surface.. ..there can be no reasonable doubt that the trawl tore it out of a submarine part of the forest.

We know that the remnants of these forests are exposed occasionally by wave action, as can be seen in an excellent brochure published by Torquay Museum and available on the Web [2]. The appearance of these remnants must come as a surprise to all those who know Torbay as a holiday destination, with golden sandy beaches like those of Tor Abbey Sands, Goodrington Sands and Broadsands (see images below), all of which are named by Pengelly as having deposits to seaward that contain the remains of animals such as red deer, wild hogs, the long-fronted ox and the mammoth [1].

These beds then also extend inland, with surficial deposits overlying the clay and, according to Pidgeon [3] “most of the trees found prostrate in the forest-clay are.. ..willows.” The ancient forest is therefore likely to have been waterlogged from time to time and that promoted the deposition of organic and mineral particles that formed the clays. So, what we know as seaside and sea was, just a few thousand years ago, a region of swampy forest between rocky outcrops and these forests were habitats for many large animals.

Pengelly (above) was a distinguished geologist, famous for excavations in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay that contributed much to our knowledge of ancient cave faunas and the strata in which their remains were found. He was recognised widely by the scientific community, being made a Fellow of the Royal Society for his research, and maintained an active correspondence with many who shared his interests [4]. 

Pengelly lived in a house in the Upton area for many years, moving to Torquay from Looe in Cornwall and his house was named Lamorna, probably in honour of that region of his home county. He ran a school and was much involved with lectures and the work of the Torquay Natural History Society; the town being an important centre for the Nineteenth Century passion of Natural History, which included the study of rocks and fossils.

At the time of Pengelly’s paper, it was recognised that there had been an increase in sea level in the past few thousand years, and that this resulted in the submersion of the forest, but the rise was not linked actively to the melting of massive glaciers at the end of the last glaciated period ("Ice Age"); knowledge that we now take for granted. Coming 20 years after Pengelly’s paper, Pidgeon focused on whether the fossils found in the submerged forest beds were contemporaneous with early humans. We love anthropocentricity, and especially like the idea that our ancestors as modern humans co-existed with mammoths, these being such popular animals in our imagination. It is intriguing that complete bodies of these proboscideans have been found frozen in the permafrost of Siberia [5], but, unfortunately, Torbay mammoths have been much less well preserved.

[1] W. Pengelly (1865) The submerged forests of Torbay. Devonshire Association Transactions 1(4):30-42. [Published in 1866].

[3] D. Pidgeon (1885) On some recent discoveries in the submerged forest of Torbay. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 41:9-22.

[4] Hester Pengelly (1897) A Memoir of William Pengelly, of Torquay, F.R.S., Geologist, with a selection of his correspondence. London, John Murray.

[5] Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (1995) Mammoths. London, Boxtree.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The End of the World

Those brought up in the world of evangelical Christianity are likely to remember being frightened when the Book of Revelation was discussed, especially the sections describing what is going to happen at the end of the World. There was always the thought that the events described were imminent and that “fire and brimstone” awaited unbelievers.

Philip Henry Gosse was an evangelical Christian who led the congregation of Brethren who met in Fore Street in St Marychurch Torquay during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Every Sunday, he preached a sermon and we have a record of their contents as they were published in one of his last books, The Mysteries of God [1]. His preaching on the end of the World would certainly have produced some discomfort in those listening to him. 

In the chapter entitled “Things coming on the Earth” [1] we read:

It is probable that, at the instant of Rapture of the Church, the whole of Papal Europe will be engulfed by the yawning of the earth bursting into a vast Volcano, never to be quenched. Perhaps one effect of this opening of the bowels of the globe will be to fill up the depression of the Mediterranean; and so to accomplish that physical change announced (Rev. xxi. 1),- “the sea was no more.”

The inference is that the destruction likely to result from this volcanic activity is to be aimed at Roman Catholicism, long a subject of loathing by Gosse and other members of evangelical, non-conformist Christian sects (and obviously not mentioned by name in the Bible, as the book was written in the earliest days of Christianity). We are not told about the extent of other eruptions and explosions, although it was well known in the Nineteenth Century that other areas of the World have considerable volcanic activity. The focus on the Mediterranean not only serves to allow focus on the fate of Roman Catholics, but it also leads on to the events that are set to occur in, and around, Jerusalem.

Most important is the descent of the New Jerusalem, described by Gosse as [1]:

..the sudden coming into sight, from heavenly space, of a glittering object, unknown to astronomers, self-luminous, above the brightness of the sun, steadily approaching, till it enters our atmosphere, and comes into close proximity to, if not actual contact with, this globe; transcends all human experience, and defies all natural philosophy. But the epoch is an epoch of miracle: the Almighty God is henceforth visibly interposing; and is not bound by natural laws, which He made, and which He can interrupt, or counteract, at his pleasure. The suspension of a non-rotating cubic mass, 1500 miles every way, in our atmosphere or near it, composed of such materials as gold and gems, and inhabited by millions of human beings, in bodies, however ethereal, would surely so augment and throw out of bearing, the specific gravity of the earth, so alter its relations to the sun, to the moon, even to all the other planets, as to be inconceivable and impossible!..

..I suppose this cube to face the earth cornerwise: to consist, indeed of two pyramids, placed base to base, of which the upper will be the city-proper, and the lower will consist of the twelve glorious foundations. These foundations are the most remarkable feature in the whole material structure; and they form its distinctive character; “the City that hath the foundations.”

This extraordinary description is based on Revelation Chapter 21, with Gosse adding his own exegesis. Questions arise from this description, of course, and contemporary readers must ask where the New Jerusalem (Heaven) is now and whether it currently has a physical form, as it is going to at the end of the World. I’m sure that these questions also occurred to Gosse, but he was happy to admit there were sections of the Bible that he could not understand.

The attention to detail in The Mysteries of God is typical of the man and it replicates the pattern of Gosse's investigations on seashore life and on many other aspects of Natural History. His books on these subjects were very popular and they contain many references to God as Creator. Like many contemporary readers, I do not pay much attention to these interjections and they do not impact the rest of his wonderful writing. Gosse was a profound Creationist and proposed his own theory to explain the presence of the rock strata, with their associated fossils, that came into existence over the few days stated in Genesis [2]. It is fitting that he had something to say about both the beginning, and the end, of the World.

To Henry Gosse, religious belief was paramount and he always wished to be able to ascend to Heaven in the Rapture [3] and not have to go through the process of death. Unfortunately, he didn’t get his wish and died four years after The Mysteries of God was published.

[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1884) The Mysteries of God. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

[3] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Five articles inspired by visits to National Trust properties

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), the pioneer of photography and refiner of the calotype process, was a mathematician and keen archaeologist who lived at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. His family home is now owned by the National Trust and it is easy for a visitor to imagine life in the old house, and the adjoining village, during the Nineteenth Century.

During a visit to Lacock Abbey, I had a chance to look through the library (only at the spines of the books, as they were wired in for security purposes - see above) and was drawn to a copy of Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness by Hugh Miller. I have no idea whether Fox Talbot read this copy, but I feel sure that he did. The book was an important contribution to debates about apparent conflicts between the literal truth of the Bible and mounting support for the reality of geological time scales and for the evolution of organisms, especially humans. Foot-prints of the Creator was written as a response to the ideas put forward in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published, anonymously, by Robert Chambers in 1844. That book, very popular at the time, described the evolution of both the physical and biological world, using, in part, ideas that had earlier been propounded by Lamarck. Of the development hypothesis, Miller wrote:

If, during a period so vast as to be scarce expressible by figures, the creatures now human have been rising, by almost infinitesimals, from compound microscopic cells,-minute vital globules within globules, begot by electricity on dead gelatinous matter,-until they have at length become the men and women whom we see around us, we must hold either the monstrous belief, that all the vitalities, whether those of monads or of mites, of fishes or of reptiles, of birds or of beasts, are individually and inherently immortal and undying, or that human souls are not so. [1]

It was this latter point that was so important to Miller who, as a committed Christian, could not countenance the idea of humans without souls. There was no conflict, however, with the view of geological time scales, and Miller described periods of creation and extinction in The Testimony of the Rocks; or, Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed. The book was published posthumously and is based on several lectures, with the addition of further chapters “written mainly to complete and impart a character of unity to the volume of which they form a part” [2]. In the preliminary section entitled “To the Reader”, Miller writes:

It will be seen that I adopt.. ..[a] scheme of reconciliation between Geologic and Mosaic Records which accepts the six days of creation as vastly extended periods; and I have been reminded by a somewhat captious critic that I once held a very different view, and twitted with what he terms inconsistency. I certainly did once believe.. .. that the six days were simply natural days of twenty-four hours each,-that they had compressed the entire work of the existing creation,-and that the latest of the geological ages was separated by a great chaotic gap from our own. [2]

He continues by stating that:

..the conclusion at which I have been compelled to arrive is, that for many long ages ere man was ushered into being, not a few of his humbler contemporaries of the fields and woods enjoyed life in their present haunts, and that for thousands of years anterior to even their appearance, many of the existing molluscs lived in our seas. That day during which the present creation came into being, and in which God, when he had made “the beast of the earth after his kind, and the cattle after their kind,” at length terminated the work by moulding a creature in his own image, to whom he gave dominion over them all, was not a brief period of a few hours’ duration, but extended over mayhap millenniums of centuries. No blank chaotic gap of death and darkness separated the creation to which man belongs from that of the old extinct elephant, hippopotamus, and hyæna; for familiar animals such as the red deer, the roe, the fox, the wild cat, and the badger, lived throughout the period which connected their times with our own; and so I have been compelled to hold, that the days of creation were not natural, but prophetic days, and stretched far back into the bygone eternity. After in some degree committing myself to the other side, I have yielded to the evidence which I found it impossible to resist; and such in this matter has been my inconsistency,-an inconsistency of which the world has furnished examples in all the sciences, and will, I trust, in its onward progress, continue to furnish many more. [2]

Although unable to accept ideas about the evolution of humans, Miller had changed his mind about the literal description of the days of Creation in The Bible. He made extensive studies of the fossils in his native Scotland, and elsewhere, and found geological time periods the only possible explanation for the changing flora and fauna in different rock strata.

Hugh Miller (1802-1856) was brought up in Cromarty and left school at around sixteen. His father had died when he was five and his maternal uncles were an important influence on the young Hugh, encouraging his fascination with the natural world and also with folklore and legend, interests that remained with him for the rest of his life. He had always been a keen reader and liked to write, but he needed a job and so became a stonemason, travelling to wherever there was work. His skills with hammer and chisel aided his developing interest in geology and he was expert in breaking open nodules that contained fossils. As described in the excellent biography Hugh Miller: Stonemason, Geologist, Writer by Michael A. Taylor [3], Miller achieved fame as an expert on fossil fish from sandstones and this despite his natural shyness and difficulty in enjoying formal meetings. After a spell working in a bank, he was appointed the editor of an Edinburgh newspaper, The Witness, that enabled him to write on a number of subjects and he was involved in debates on the future of the Free Church in Scotland, holding strongly Calvinist views. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Hugh Miller ended his own life and the reasons for his suicide are not clear, although he suffered from severe health issues caused by silicosis, acquired when he worked in an atmosphere thick with stone dust in his younger years. To the end, he was a committed Christian and his faith was not challenged by the difference between the “geologic and Mosaic records”. He was “not a man torn between science and religion, but, on the contrary, one who is comfortable with both.” [4]

Another book published in 1857 took a quite different line to that in The Testimony of the Rocks. Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) was a member of the Brethren and could neither accept ideas on evolution or anything that questioned the literal truth of the Holy Bible. The developing ideas on the mid-Nineteenth Century were thus a challenge that he felt he must address. Like Hugh Miller, Henry Gosse had no formal training but he, too, became an expert in his field, in this case Natural History. In his early years he was encouraged in his observations by a maternal aunt and he went on to be fascinated by all the living organisms around him. His work on sea anemones and corals is still recognised as important, but he also published on a wide range of other topics. Interestingly, like Hugh Miller, he was a shy man and an excellent writer, but Henry Gosse was also a gifted painter and illustrator and his books became widely popular as a result. One book was not a success and this was Omphalos, sub-titled an attempt to untie the geological knot, and this was Henry Gosse’s way of resolving the conflict that Miller also addressed. Although primarily an observer of living organisms, Henry Gosse had an excellent knowledge of rock strata, the fossil record and geological time and he accepted this reality. However, Gosse theorised that they were part of the six-day Creation, with the structure of the Earth’s crust, including the remains of organisms, having been created in a few days. Unsurprisingly, this view was considered absurd by scientists at the time and, to Henry Gosse’s surprise, it was also regarded very unfavourably by Christians, as they found it unlikely that God would wish to deceive by hiding fossils within rocks [5].

 It seems strange that devout Christians, working with the same Holy Book, have such disparate views and the debate about Creation, and what was meant in Genesis, continues today. Of course, it causes such strong feelings because there are always differences of opinion in human culture and we have a tendency to only fully acknowledge our own personal beliefs. Hugh Miller was able to accept a change in his views in the light of changing evidence and it did not impact his faith, but Henry Gosse found himself boxed into a corner. Gosse had the satisfaction of maintaining the purity of his position, but it left him isolated and disappointed. No more so than in his relationship with his only son Edmund, with whom he had been very close and who, as a youth, could not follow his father’s dogmatic approach.

I greatly admire Henry Gosse as a Natural Historian and find his books, and illustrations, quite wonderful. He was a caring man whose religious beliefs underscored everything that he did, but whether we could have sustained a conversation, or a friendship, is debatable. In contrast, I think I would feel less guarded when meeting Hugh Miller, although his energy and time-keeping might be a strain. Both men are important parts of the period of Natural History described by Lynn Barber as its heyday [6] and Miller and Gosse are given adjacent chapters in her book. The transformational work of Darwin in On the Origin of Species published in 1859, just two years after The Testimony of the Rocks and Omphalos, provided, in natural selection, a mechanism to explain evolution and it transformed our thinking. It is such an important book that it has overshadowed the contributions made by Miller and by Gosse, yet the change of mind of one, and the determination not to change by the other, give insights into current debates on Creation and evolution. Their books are worth reading.

I wonder if Fox Talbot read both?

[1] Hugh Miller (1849) Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness. London, Johnstone and Hunter.

[2] Hugh Miller (1857) The Testimony of the Rocks; or, Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed. Edinburgh, Thomas Constable & Co.

[3] Michael A. Taylor (2007) Hugh Miller: Stonemason, Geologist, Writer. Edinburgh, NMS Publishing Limited.

[4] Simon J. Knell and Michael A. Taylor (2006) Hugh Miller: fossils, landscape and literary geology. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 117: 85-98.

[5] Roger S. Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

[6] Lynn Barber (1980) The Heyday of Natural History. London, Jonathan Cape.

While visiting the Library of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, I found a copy of Hugh Miller's Foot-prints of the Creator: or the Asterolepis of Stromness and wondered whether the Fox Talbot family had been enthusiastic readers of the book [1]. Last week, I was at Oxburgh Hall, the ancestral home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family, famous for its well-preserved Priest's Hole, into which the brave can still clamber. This hidden room was to protect Roman Catholic clerics after the Reformation, a time when they were hunted and persecuted. The house and park are wonderful places to visit [2] and I followed my usual habit of perusing the spines of the volumes in the Library: one of the books that stood out was a copy of Jean-Henri Fabre's Social Life in the Insect World.

Fabre, who lived from 1823 to 1915, was an enthusiastic entomologist and had the ability to engage readers with his descriptions of insects and their behaviour, often amplified by the results of experiments that he conducted. Here is an example from Social Life in the Insect World where he discusses his observations on the Oak Eggar Moth Lasiocampa quercus (see above). The text is translated from the French and this is what members of the Bedingfield family would have read [3]:

One afternoon, while trying to determine whether sight plays any part in the search for the female once the males had entered the room, I placed the female in a bell-glass and gave her a slender twig of oak with withered leaves as a support. The glass was set upon a table facing the open window. Upon entering the room the moths could not fail to see the prisoner, as she stood directly in the way. The tray, containing a layer of sand, on which the female had passed the preceding day and night, covered with a wire-gauze dish-cover, was in my way. Without premeditation I placed it at the other end of the room on the floor, in a corner where there was little light. It was a dozen yards away from the window.
   The result of these preparations entirely upset my preconceived ideas. None of the arrivals stopped at the bell-glass, where the female was plainly to be seen, the light falling full upon her prison. Not a glance, not an inquiry. They all flew to the further end of the room, into the dark corner where I had placed the tray and the empty dish-cover.
   They alighted on the wire dome, explored it persistently, beating their wings and jostling one another. All the afternoon, until sunset, the moths danced about the empty cage the same saraband that the actual presence of the female had previously evoked. Finally they departed: not all, for there were some that would not go, held by some magical attractive force.

The description of what we now know to be the action of pheromones is delightful: who could not be fascinated by Fabre's account of his experiment? Charles Darwin certainly valued his work in insect biology and, in a letter to Fabre on 31st January 1880 [4], wrote:

I hope that you will permit me to have the satisfaction of thanking you cordially for the lively pleasure which I have derived from reading your book. Never have the wonderful habits of insects been more vividly described, and it is almost as good to read about them as to see them.

Further in the same letter comes this:

I am sorry that you are so strongly opposed to the Descent theory; I have found the searching for the history of each structure or instinct an excellent aid to observation; and wonderful observer as you are, it would suggest new points to you. If I were to write on the evolution of insects, I could make good use of some of the facts which you give.

Fabre's Creationism came from his deep religious beliefs, recorded by his biographer and namesake, Abbé Augustin Fabre [5]: these times of overweening atheism [the biography was published in 1921], when so many pseudo-scientists are striving to persuade the ignorant that science is learning to dispense with God, would it not be a most timely thing to reveal, to the eyes of all, a scientist of undoubted genius who finds in science fresh arguments for belief, and manifold occasions for affirming his faith in the God who has created and rules the world?

Incorporating quotes from Jean-Henri Fabre, he continues:

.."Life is a horrible phantasmagoria. But it leads us to a better future.".. ..This future the naturalist [Fabre] liked to conceive in accordance with the images familiar in his mind, as being a more complete understanding of the great book of which he had deciphered only a few words, as a more perfect communion with the offices of nature, in the incense of the perfumes "that are softly exhaled by the carven flowers from their golden censers," amid the delightful symphonies in which are mingled the voices of crickets and Cicadae, chaffinches and siskins, skylarks and goldfinches, "those tiny choristers," all singing and fluttering, "trilling their motets to the glory of Him who gave them voice and wings on the fifth day of Genesis."..

.."And when one evening," says his friend, "I remarked that these little miracles clearly proved the existence of a divine Artificer: 'For me, I do not believe in God', declared the scientist, repeating for the last time his famous and paradoxical profession of faith: 'I do not believe in God, because I see Him in all things and everywhere.'"

It is fitting then that Fabre's book is in the Library (shown below) at Oxburgh Hall, the home of the Roman Catholic Bedingfield family. Not only will family members have thoroughly enjoyed Fabre's descriptions of his observations and experiments in entomology, they would also empathise with the importance of his faith, although they may have questioned Fabre's dogmatism. It is easy to sympathise with Darwin's frustration at the conflict between reason and the unbending position of those believing that The Holy Bible must be taken literally. It is a conflict that continues today.

[3] Jean-Henri Fabre (1911) Social Life in the Insect World (translated by Bernard Miall). London, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd.

[5] Abbé Augustin Fabre (1921) The Life of Jean Henri Fabre, the Entomologist 1823-1910 (translated by Bernard Miall). New York,

The Scotney Castle Estate in Kent provides a wonderful example of an English Romantic landscape. The original castle was modified extensively in the early Nineteenth Century (below, upper) and a new house, in a quite different style (below, lower), built on the hill overlooking it. The grounds are beautiful, but the old castle and its moat are the dominant features and can be seen from all the best rooms in the new house, completed on the instructions of Edward Hussey III in 1843.

When visiting large houses owned by the National Trust, I always make a point of looking at the titles of the books in their libraries (see the previous two articles). It is clear that Edward Hussey III, like many of his class in the mid-Nineteenth Century, was interested in Science and Natural History. Among the books in the new house were Jabez Hogg's The Microscope: it's History, Construction and Application (published in 1854), James F. Johnston's The Chemistry of Common Life (published in 1855) and Mrs T. J. Hussey's Illustrations of British Mycology (published in two parts in 1847 and 1855). Hogg's book was very popular at the time, selling over 50,000 copies, and it describes the physics of microscopy; the construction of microscopes; how to prepare materials for microscopy; and descriptions of animals, plants and their parts. It was a comprehensive guide for those indulging in this Victorian passion, and Johnston's work gave some answers to questions about the biology of organisms that were observed, with sections on air and odours; water; soil; foodstuffs and digestion; liquors; and narcotics (!).

However, it was Mrs Hussey's book that most attracted my attention, as she had a family connection to Scotney Castle. Anna Maria was married to Thomas John Hussey, the son of the Reverend John Hussey, who was the younger brother of Edward Hussey, the grandfather of Edward III who built the new house. Maria (the name by which she was known in the family) was the daughter of the Reverend J. T. A. Reed and the Reed family, like the Husseys, were acquainted with many leading figures of the day in science, including Babbage, Herschel, Fox Talbot and Graves. Both families knew the Darwins of Downe and Maria's younger brother George Varenne Reed was tutor to Charles Darwin's sons [1].

Maria had three younger sisters, all of whom were interested in botany and in collecting plants [2], and she wrote a wonderfully personal journal during a visit that she made to Dover with her youngest sister Kate (Catherine) in 1836 [2]. At the time, Maria was 31 years old, with two young children, and Kate 19 years old. In addition to many visits to the shore to observe marine life, the two collected plants, fossils and other geological specimens during walks in the Dover area, some of which required short trips by boat. There is no mention of her interest in fungi in the journal.

In Illustrations of British Mycology, Maria describes fungi (funguses to her) that can be collected in Britain; the means of collecting them; and how to identify them. It is detailed, accurate and scholarly, with many plates that show the skill of both Maria and her sister Fanny (Frances) as illustrators - montages of some of the lithographs in the book are shown below. We learn from Elizabeth Finn that Maria was not happy with the work of the lithographers [1] and one can only wonder at how good the originals must have been:

In addition to its value in allowing accurate identifications, the book also conveys Maria's enthusiasm for the subject. Here are two examples of her descriptions, first of toadstools and then of mushrooms [3]:

This splendid Agaric lifts its head boldly, the "observed of all observers", even the most careless so that it is oftener kicked to pieces, and other attentions of the kind bestowed on it, than most "Toadstools" receive: I have mourned over specimens nearly a foot across, their pure ivory gills and glowing scarlet pileus crushed in the dusty road.

The English "Mushroom" proper takes two different forms, according to soil and other conditions of site. The first case is that of rich cool loam districts, such as the extensive grazing pastures where the dairymen of Bucks herd their cows, and which have not been ploughed or mowed within the scope of the remotest tradition; the herbage is kept down by the cattle, and neither rude gravel below, not rank matted grass above, offers obstacles to the regular development of the fairest and most fragile of mushrooms, the very perfection of the thing! no freckles deface the white silky pileus, no thick cottony screen swathes a clumsy stem betokening coarse over-feeding; a light soft veil is all the protection the gills ever had, and they have expanded so rapidly even that has disappeared, or left only a few lacerated fragments on the stem; tender, succulent, friable and digestible, nourished on pure earth, in air redolent of wild thyme and the breath of kine, by dew which might be Fairies' nectar it is so free from the impurities of city miasma..

I do not know if Maria visited Scotney, but I would like to think that she did, as the estate must have been a splendid place for hunting fungi. The presence of her book in the Library indicates that Edward III was likely to have had an interest in this activity, and perhaps in looking at details of fungi using a microscope, and who better than a relative (by marriage) to act as a guide? Judging from her descriptions in the book and in her journal, she would have made a fascinating companion on Nature rambles and she deserves to be ranked alongside Margaret Gatty, Anna Atkins, and Amelia Griffiths, all eminent Victorian Natural Historians.

[1] Elizabeth A Finn (2009) Hussey, Anna Maria (1805-1853). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Elizabeth Finn Botany, Boats and Bathing Machines: Anna Maria Hussey's Holiday in Dover 1836. Available as an e-book from Kent Archives Service - Ref U3754.

[3] Mrs T. J. Hussey (1847) Illustrations of British Mycology, containing Figures and Descriptions of the Funguses of Interest and Novelty Indigenous to Britain. London, Reeve Brothers.

I like perusing the titles of books in the libraries of large country houses. They give an impression of the interests of previous owners of the house and, because of my liking for Natural History, it is volumes on this subject that particularly catch my eye [1,2,3].

Last week, I visited Standen House, the country home of the Beale family from the end of the Nineteenth Century. It has lovely gardens and the interior of the house is decorated in Arts and Craft style and contains some very fine furniture [4]. As would be expected in the library of a family with seven children - and, later, grandchildren - there were many volumes about fairy tales and adventure, but the book that stood out for me was The Days and Nights of Birds by the French amateur ornithologist Jacques Delamain (the cover of my copy is shown above). Ornithology has always been a popular pastime, and many books have been written about the habits, and habitats, of birds. In the Foreword of The Days and Nights of Birds [5] Delamain writes:

"But has not everything essential been said about birds?" The question was put to me one day by Abel Bonnard who was unwilling to see too narrow a limit imposed on his keen poetical curiosity. I assured him that this subject, like all which touch nature, was inexhaustible. Indeed, for the seeker, one discovery leads to another and new problems appear which the mind tries to solve. The beauty of living creatures and the setting in which they move, life's harmony and complexity, always awake in us unexpected echoes. Intellectual curiosity, the aesthetic sense and poetry never fail to renew the world.

Each one of us follows his own way, seeking to understand the mystery of creation. For some, the way grows endlessly broader, embracing vast horizons, others advance slowly and shortsightedly along a narrow path. But no one can set out without discovering riches..

We can see that Delamain's interest in birds was wrapped up with his love of Nature and he communicated this in an attractive prose style that is apparent even in translation. It is easy to see how readers may be stimulated to look more closely at birds after reading his books and Delamain concludes the Foreword by writing:

My first book, Why Birds Sing, brought me precious assurance from my readers that I had taught them how better to observe Nature, and how to love her more. If my present volume induces them to look once more on the ever varied spectacle offered to our eyes by the seasons as they pass, and increase their interest in the creatures that people our fields, woods and rivers, it will have fulfilled its purpose.

One can imagine Mr Beale, or visitors to Standen, reading the book and using it as a guide to their own observations on walks in the garden or around the estate.

The writings of Delamain influenced many others, including the composer Olivier Messaien. Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong and Hill and Simeone [6] describe the result of his visit to Delamain's home La Branderaie de Gardépéé (see above):

In April 1952,.. .. Messaien took what proved to be a decisive step. At the suggestion of his publisher Leduc he paid a short visit (15-17 April) to Jacques Delamain, a leading ornithologist and prolific author. Delamain lived in south-west France, his house at Gardépéé set in large wooded grounds midway between Cognac and the neighbouring town of Jarnac, where the Delamain family firm still produces brandy. Delamain's tuition enabled Messaien's knowledge of ornithology to catch up with his musical aspirations. In particular, he learned to identify birds solely through their songs or cries: 'It was [Delamain] who taught me to recognise a bird from its song, without having to see its plumage or the shape of its beak.'

..the visit to Delamain proved a life-changing experience. Delamain inspired Messiaen to pursue his researches in a more systematic way. The results can be seen in the surviving birdsong notebooks, the Cahiers de notation des chants d'oiseaux, in which Messaien started to collect his observations from nature..

Messaien went on to compose Réveil des oiseaux and Hill and Simeone [5] include a quote from the composer about this work:

"In Réveil des oiseaux [...] there's really nothing but bird songs [...], without any added rhythm or counterpoint, and the birds singing are really found together in nature; it's a completely truthful work. It's about an awakening of birds in the beginning of a spring morning; the cycle goes from midnight to noon: night songs, an awakening at four in the morning, a big tutti of birds cut short by the sunrise, forenoon songs, and the great silnce of noon.."

You can hear the piece in this video clip [7] and it is interesting that it follows a sequence of bird song through a day, perhaps in homage to Delamain's Days and Nights of Birds

I find the link between Delamain and Messaien fascinating: a great composer and a wonderful writer both communicating about Nature and the pleasure that it gave them. Thank you Standen, and the National Trust, for giving me a chance to tell the story.

[5] Jacques Delamain (1933) The Days and Nights of Birds (translated by Mary Schlumberger). London, Victor Gollancz.

[6] Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (2007) Olivier Messiaen: Oiseuax exotiques. Aldershot, Ashgate, 

 In 2017, I visited Dyrham Park for the first time. The late 17th and early 18th Century house has a breathtaking setting (see above) and its grounds, with their ponds and formal gardens, add to the perfection of it all. The interiors are equally splendid and I enjoyed walking around, looking at the furnishings and decoration, but I was drawn to a painting. This was Murillo's An Urchin Mocking an Old Woman eating Migas that had been in the house for centuries, although the canvas I was staring at was, I think, a copy [1] of the original (see below).

There are two threads to Murillo's work: religious paintings and those of street life, and the painting at Dyrham Park combines both. Prolific and popular in his time, Murillo had an excellent technique and was able to convey movement and feeling. I remember being struck by his work when I first saw The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities [2] on a visit to the National Gallery in London as a teenager. 

I have indicated the main lines of composition in the Dyrham Park painting above, the background being of little significance. From this analysis, we see that our eye is led around the images, with the lines drawing us to the face of the woman and, over and over again, to the face of the boy. The dog also plays a part, as does the food that the woman is attempting to eat with a spoon. The boy has a beautiful face (we can barely see his body, but for the right shoulder and arm) and, while engaging us, he is mocking the old woman, who looks across and up with fear and resignation. Her bowl of migas is drawn to one side and partially hidden from him (and the dog) by her right arm. The message is one of the cockiness of youth and the despair of bullying in old age and being able to do nothing about it. While the religious component is hidden, the painting could be taken as a model for at least one of the Beatitudes [3] and may well have been conceived by Murillo with this in mind.

Another question arises from the title of the work: what is migas? By chance, I had lunch yesterday at Moro in Exmouth Market in London. On the menu (see below, with magnified section) they had migas as an accompaniment to grilled lamb and sweetcorn, so I had some. The migas that I was served was a ball of fried, seasoned breadcrumbs and this is the way the dish is served in modern Spain, and in many other countries, often with some small pieces of meat or chorizo included. It is thus "leftovers" and this further emphasises the lowly position of the old woman in the painting, although her migas looks much more substantial and was possibly of bread scraps moistened with liquid (water, milk, or oil?) from the jug seen in the bottom left of the composition.

If you get the chance, visit Dyrham Park [4]. It is a magnificent place and you, too, can stare at the Murillo painting and be challenged by Murillo's urchin.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The isolation of a Creationist

The Creationist W Welch believed that many planets throughout the Universe are colonised by intelligent beings and that they lived on cool parts of our sun [1]. Philip Henry Gosse, also a Creationist, thought differently [2]:

I venture to suggest that not only the Planets and Satellites of this system, but the Sun itself,- nay, the millions of Suns, that, to our eyes are but specks in space,- (yet each one, perhaps, with its system of planets and satellites) are none of them habitable as yet, but are being prepared by God for habitation; each in succession to be got ready for Colonization from Earth by Adam’s race. That God is, we may say, furnishing his great House of many mansions, of which one small apartment alone is occupied.

If I be asked how living, breathing human bodies can possibly be transferred from world to world, I reply, I have no conception, how. But if man himself has invented means of travelling across oceans; of floating in the air; of living for hours under water; of conversing audibly across hundreds of miles; of conveying written messages thousands of miles in a minute,- I am quite sure the Omnipotent God will find no difficulty in conveying men through stellar space, when He pleases.

Certainly a contrast in views, with one writer letting his imagination run wild and the other taking a much more measured approach, believing colonisation would be from the Earth, the site of God’s initial Creation.

In addition to their consideration of the colonisation of planets, Welch and Gosse both published theories about the origin of the Earth: Welch in his book Religiosa Philosophia [3] and Gosse in Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot [4]. Both men felt that their theories did not contradict the account in Genesis in the Bible, that they held to be sacrosanct. 

Welch suggested that some part of the water from the firmament formed a large globular mass from which particles condensed and then sedimented to form a solid core [3]. Over thirty years later, Gosse also tackled the conflict between the then contemporary knowledge of geology and the Biblical account of Creation with his theory of prochronism: the act of Creation included rock strata, and their associated fossils, that thus bore evidence of “life before time”.

Little is known about Welch, but Henry Gosse was a very well-known figure in the world of Natural History and I have a great admiration for his descriptive and observational powers, his industry and his skills as an illustrator. Until recently, I have steered away from his religious books, as I feel little empathy with his rigid beliefs.

Given the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species two years after Omphalos, and the extraordinary effect that Darwin’s book had, it is remarkable that Gosse held so firmly to his theory. This is what he wrote in The Mysteries of God about scientific thought in the Nineteenth Century:

The vast accession made to the knowledge of natural things, during the past century, by the observations of innumerable students, and by the conclusions deduced therefrom, has been, by the Arch Enemy, turned into a most potent weapon against the faith, used with marvellous skill for insidiously discrediting, first, and then arrogantly denying, the teachings of Holy Scripture.

It is startling to mark how fatally successful have been his tactics. A very large number of professed Christians,- perhaps even the majority of such as are competent to think about the matter,- are, more or less, tainted with the prevalent unbelief; conscious of, at least, a lurking suspicion that some of the Bible statements are not absolutely trustworthy; but must be, if not rejected, explained away, in some non-natural exegesis. Even in those who read Papers, or deliver Lectures, professedly to defend Revelation against sceptical Science, this unworthy trimming is sometimes painfully manifest.. .. Various subterfuges and shifts are used to evade the verbal accuracy of the Sacred Word; needless concessions here, and admissions there, allow the truth of God to pass by default. One makes a distinction between the veracity of different parts, ignoring, or denying its integral unity. There is often an underlying assumption that, at whatever cost, the teachings of the Bible must be subject to the accepted conclusions of Science: and, in general, the tone of the Lecturer is one of frowning severity toward the simple believer, and of tolerant sympathy toward the scientific infidel.

I sympathise with Gosse’s position on deciding what is, and what is not, factual in accounts in the Bible and it is something that must be difficult for many contemporary Christians. Not for Gosse though. He was unbending in his belief in the literal truth of the Bible and preached this to the small group of fellow believers he led in St Marychurch in Torquay. The Mysteries of God is based on his sermons, but it was not well received, even by fellow members of the Brethren and it had few reviews [5]. In the book, Gosse again propounds the theory of prochronism, stating that it had not been refuted in the 27 years since the publication of Omphalos. Unfortunately, this was probably because no-one bothered much about Gosse’s ideas, especially as he rarely ventured far in the later part of his life (he died in 1888). He spent much time at “Sandhurst”, his home in St Marychurch (see below – picture from [6]), save for many visits to the shore, the local countryside, and to the Brethren chapel he founded.

Another characteristic shared by Gosse and some contemporary Christian Creationists, is their ability to see Satan (the “Arch Enemy”) everywhere – as is so clear in the passage quoted above. Henry’s son, Edmund, found this, and the religious fervour that drove it, unbearable, as we know from his well-known book Father and Son. In it, Edmund wrote [7]:

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain and distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension. My Father’s inconsistencies of perception seem to me to have been the result of a curious irregularity of equipment. Taking for granted, as he did, the absolute integrity of the Scriptures, and applying to them his trained scientific spirit, he contrived to stifle, with a deplorable success, alike the function of the imagination, the sense of moral justice, and his own deep and instinctive tenderness of heart.

Isn’t that sad?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1884) The Mysteries of God: A series of expositions of Holy Scripture. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[3] W Welch (1821) Religiosa Philosophia. Plymouth, W. Byers.

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

[5] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[6] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Wm Dawson & Sons.

[7] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A study of two temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation

The rapid development of geology in the first part of the Nineteenth Century brought challenges to those who believed in the literal truth of The Holy Bible. Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in three volumes from 1830-1833 [1] synthesised contemporary views on the accumulation of different strata over very long time periods, with the strata containing the fossilised remains of plants and animals. Clearly, the Earth was more than 6000 years old, as maintained by Christian Creationists, and believers were thus faced with a conflict that they needed to resolve.

In 1821, ten years before Lyell’s synthesis, W Welch of Plymouth produced his Reliogiosa Philosophia [2] and I am grateful to Dr Patrick Armitage of the Freshwater Biological Association for suggesting that I would be interested in Welch’s work. I had no knowledge of it before Patrick contacted me, although a copy is available as an e-book. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out anything about Welch except that he lived in Stonehouse in Plymouth and believed in the truth of everything written in The Holy Bible.

Reliogiosa Philosophia, subtitled A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation (thus the title of this blog post), opens with its dedication to Sir Humphry Davy, the President of The Royal Society (PRS):

Presuming on your well known regard for, and patronage of, the Arts and Sciences, I have taken the liberty to dedicate to you this first production of my pen, on a subject which has long engaged the attention of Geologists.

Should the present work meet your approval, it will afford me gratification, from a conviction that you would not bestow your approbation, unless you conceived the conclusions I have drawn to be founded on truth; and if my attempt to reconcile recorded facts in the book of Nature with the history of Creation, as given by Moses, in the Sacred Volume, prove successful, true religion and philosophy will be benefited; and as they are derived from the same source, they should be united to promote the same end.

I do not know how Davy responded to the book but, although Welch’s thoughts on the formation of the Earth are imaginative, they are also eccentric and it is unlikely that the PRS took them seriously.

Welch’s theory is this: the power and word of the Almighty, by the agency of fire, a union of the gases was effected, and which, in a state of Nebula, uniting, formed a globe of water, of much larger dimensions than the present earth, with its seas, now only encompassing our shores. These gases contained and combined all the principles of future matter.. ..a globe of water thus formed, became the emporium, or grand magazine; a union of stony particles probably then took place, which, when they became specifically heavier than the water, descended from every part towards the centre, and formed a nucleus, whilst the stony particles, in their descent, obtained from the diurnal motion, the form of a spheroid..

..The nucleus being of a nature suited to marine vegetation, plants were, by the creative power of the Deity, first produced, suited to the wants of testaceous and crustaceous animals. From these sources, I presume, the earth received its gradual increase:- that, in proportion as vegetables and animals have been produced, the layers or strata have been formed, and the waters lessened; and that, in the process of time, the earth approached towards the surface of the waters, when the long confined volcanic matter acquired a force superior to the resisting external pressure, burst the hitherto unbroken globe, raised the Continents with the Mountains, producing various phenomena..
Welch’s ideas on the formation of the Earth are summarised by an illustration in his book (see above). In propounding these views, he provides an explanation, albeit an extremely unlikely one, for the origin of the huge volume of water in the oceans covering so much of the Earth's surface: contemporary theories proposing that this water comes from comets, or from the release of water from crystalline rocks. Like Welch, we don’t know.

The development of rock strata described by Welch must have taken a lot longer than the few days demanded by the account in Genesis. He addresses this point [2]:

It may.. asserted by some persons, that the Almighty could as easily have constructed our Globe at once, and that the means here laid down are inadequate to the end. To the former I reply, that it would be a species of blasphemy to doubt his power; but that the point is, not what he could do, but what the book of Nature shews he has done; and to the latter position, it will appear obvious.. .. that the production of marine animals is incalculable, and that the myriads of millions in a globe of water, and which the Creator abundantly filled, to produce and execute his designs, by the shells cemented with decomposed plants making layers, and constantly forming into rock, tending in every part to raise the bed of the Ocean.

This is confusing, as Welch is a believer in Creation, yet appears to accept the idea of change over long periods of time – not of evolution, but of the formation of rock strata with their associated fossils. It certainly requires a lot of faith to accept the description given in Genesis.

Much of the rest of the book elaborates on Welch’s theory, but he also gives us an Appendix that shows us the power of his imagination [2]:

..we may safely infer, that the Deity would not have provided the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and the Herschel, or Georgium Sidus, with moons, (of no sort of utility to us,) unless he had intended to have placed beings on those globes, possessed with the faculty of vision, and capable of receiving and enjoying light, in a manner similar to ourselves; and it is more than probable, nay, it amounts almost to a demonstration, that not only the planets in our system are inhabited, but those in every other throughout the universe..

What is the basis for these assumptions? Is there any statement in The Holy Bible to support this extraordinary view? Did each of these myriads of planets, which had the same Creator, also have the same Jesus Christ?

Welch’s views on planets are fantastic, but nothing compared to what he has to say about the sun:

The Sun, which is evidently the most glorious orb in our system, has been very generally supposed to be a globe of fire; I shall, however, on this subject offer a few observations, and conclude the present essay by endeavouring to illustrate that not only the planets, but that our sun also, is probably the abode of intelligent and more exalted beings.. may.. reasonably inferred, that the source of our day is surrounded with a luminous atmosphere, suited by the Creator to his all-wise and beneficent purposes; and, that owing to a break or opening, which at times occur, we are enabled to perceive a part of his orb, and which, contrasted with the brilliancy of his luminous part, appears black, demonstrating that it is not a body of fire; it is, therefore, more than probable, that the sun is a suited habitation to superior and exalted beings.

I had never considered “sun spots” in this way and I wonder what Davy, and other readers grounded in science, made of Welch’s extraordinary theories. How did he develop them? Did they stem from a threat to his religious beliefs? I cannot answer these questions. However, it is worth pointing out that currently accepted theories on the origin of the Universe may seem equally preposterous in two hundred years’ time and we may have to accept that we will never explain what we observe. That acceptance provides a niche that religions exploit, yet it can be argued that religious explanations may be as valid as “scientific” ones when dealing with the unknown. Welch, however, seems just a tad wild in his metaphysical imaginings…

[1] Charles Lyell (1830 – 1833) Principles of Geology (three volumes). London, John Murray.

[2] W Welch (1821) Religiosa Philosophia. Plymouth, W. Byers.

Many thanks to Patrick Armitage for suggesting that I would be fascinated by Welch’s book – I certainly was, but probably not in the way that Welch intended.