Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Banks of Green Willow

As Henry Gosse pointed out in the Preface of A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast, Natural History is not only about plants and animals but also their surroundings. This landscape provides us with inspiration and some talented individuals are able to convey their feelings about it in words and pictures. However, it is music inspired by landscape which seems to have the most effect on the emotions (or is that just how it appears to me?).

Since I was a child, I have loved George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow and, if you don’t know the piece, you can hear it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlXE1152dyc The composer described it as an idyll and its two main themes are from folk songs, so it has a pastoral underpinning. What goes through your mind when you listen to the music? For me, there are images of streams and rivers, of village life and perhaps even cricket on the green (apologies to readers outside the British Commonwealth for that allusion). It’s deeply comforting and we are each likely to have our own recollections prompted by the music.

Butterworth collected folk songs and, as a leading figure in the English Folk Dance and Song Society, was also a keen dancer. With Cecil Sharp and others, he learned many dances by visiting villages and local celebrations, appreciating their musical accompaniment as well as the intricate moves involved. There’s something about folk tunes that brings a strong link to their geographical origins and this applies to the folk music of many cultures but, as Michael Barlow states in Whom the Gods Love, Butterworth was “very much a man of the English countryside”.  Just like his good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Although music played a very important role in his life, Butterworth was also a gifted sportsman and a man of principle, partly from his character and partly through his education at Eton and Oxford (where his academic performance in Classics dwindled as he spent more and more time on music). He was a born leader and was awarded the Military Cross in the First World War for commanding a Company of the Durham Light Infantry after their Captain had been wounded and could not continue in command. George Butterworth was killed by a sniper’s bullet fired into a trench in the Somme early in the morning of 5th August 1916, less than a month after his 31st birthday. The sense of horror arising from this violent death in a First World War trench could not be further removed from all the feelings engendered by listening to The Banks of Green Willow. It's so sad.

Michael Barlow (1997) Whom the Gods Love: The Life and Music of George Butterworth. Toccata Press: London.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Blaschka glass models - the art of Natural History

Leopold Blaschka was an expert craftsman in glass, coming from a family who worked in Bohemia and also, many years before, in Venice. His technique used lampworking, where glass is kept pliable by means of a bellows-driven torch and then moulded using tools. He was also able to incorporate textures and colour by adding different materials and he produced mainly jewellery at the start of his career.

Personal tragedy overtook Leopold in 1850 when his wife died of cholera after just four years of marriage, his father dying just two years later. These were heavy blows and Leopold gained some solace from studying Natural History, extending this to making detailed drawings of plants. It wasn’t until a journey to America to arrange contracts for the sale of jewellery that Leopold began to recover and see the potential for making plant and animal models in glass. On return to Germany, he re-married, was set up as the master of his father-in-law’s glass workshop and, as a small number of workmen were also employed, Leopold had the time to develop his models of plants. A son, Rudolf, was born in 1857 and he was eventually to join his father’s workshop and the two then began to make models of animals, especially marine invertebrates.

As readers of “Walking with Gosse” will know, the finest illustrations of these marine creatures available were in the works of Philip Henry Gosse, who was not only a talented artist and scientist but also the author of a book on aquaria. Henry gave details on how to maintain a sea-water aquarium so that many living animals could be observed under water; a source of fascination for those who had never seen such things. Earlier, it was possible to see specimens in museums but these were preserved in spirit which caused them to lose colour and shape as there was little to support their bodies and they were often slumped in the bottom of display bottles.

Now, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka were able to create glass models, complete with natural colours and extended as in life. They used their own illustrations, based on those of Gosse and observations from their own aquarium of specimens which had been shipped in. They also used the illustrations by Ernst Haeckel of minute animals which could only be seen using a microscope, a piece of equipment again popularised in a book by Henry Gosse. Blaschka invertebrate models became well known and orders came in from a number of museums. Among others, the British Museum ordered 182, The National Museum of Ireland 530, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard 350. There were hundreds more and then thousands of glass models of flowers and plants. I don’t know how long each piece took to make but, the total time from research to final product must have been days, so their industry and attention to detail can be imagined. It wasn’t just lampworking and glass blowing either, for pieces of wire were also involved, as were resins, and each technique required dexterity and patience.

I’ve seen some Blaschka marine invertebrate models in the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL and they are exquisite; very much at the crossover between science and art. If you can’t see the models in museums, just take a look at illustrations on the www [for example, at http://blaschkaphotos.mannlib.cornell.edu/main.php]. Wonderful, aren’t they? The real things are even better “up close”.

To find out more about the Blaschkas, see the web links below. These articles form the basis of my blog post and I am grateful to the authors for their inspiration. Special thanks go to Miranda Lowe of the Natural History Museum in London for providing references and also for a most interesting conversation about the work of Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf (1857-1939).

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Witnessing a killing

Last summer, I was looking out through the kitchen window into the back garden. There were several birds flying around, or running and walking on the lawn, and I noticed one fledgling blackbird. It was able to fly, but was not a confident flyer, and other blackbirds were in close proximity.

Suddenly, five magpies swooped down and started to attack the fledgling blackbird, taking turns to stand on it and peck at its head. I had to make a decision on what to do; should I rush out and scare the magpies away, or “let Nature take its course”. I didn’t have long to make the decision, but opted for the latter, as the fledgling would have been damaged by the attack and probably traumatised. Both would have decreased its chances of survival.

While the attacks continued, adult blackbirds did what they could to distract the magpies by diving at them and calling noisily, but still the pecking continued. In the end, the magpies appeared to lose interest and flew off, leaving the body of the fledgling behind; the adult blackbirds then dispersed and thereafter showed no interest in the corpse. I went out into the garden and retrieved the body which showed heavy damage on the head but little else in the way of external marks.

Since that day, I have wondered whether I could have saved the fledgling and, importantly, whether I should have done. I have also puzzled as to why the magpies should indulge in this killing without having any interest in consuming their prey, especially as it has been claimed that they “grieve” for the loss of one of their own (see the link below). It was just one incident in a back garden, but one which left a lasting impression. Not all Nature is harmonious and beautiful.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Philip Henry Gosse and Nature

 Henry Gosse - aged 45 (two years after the publication of "A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast")

Henry Gosse was a great Natural Historian and communicator who believed that making observations of organisms and the environment in which they live has a powerful, positive effect on our emotions. For Henry, it was a confirmation of the magnificence of his God, for he was a devout Christian and believed completely in the Biblical account of Creation. This is what he wrote in the Preface of "A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast":

The following pages I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to make a mirror of the thoughts and feelings that have occupied my own mind during a nine months' residence on the charming shores of North and South Devon. There I have been pursuing an occupation which always possesses for me new delight,- the study of the curious forms, and still more curious instincts, of animated beings. So interesting, so attractive has the pursuit been, so unexpected in many instances the facts revealed by the research, that I have thought the attempt to convey, with pen and pencil, to others the impressions vividly receibed by myself might be a welcome service....

.... I have not made a book of systematic zoology; nor a book of mere zoology of any sort. I venture to ask your companionship, courteous Reader, in my Rambles over field and down in the fresh dewy morning; I ask you to listen with me the carol of the lark, and the hum of the wild bee; I ask you to stand with me at the edge of the precipice and mark the glories of the setting sun; to watch with me the mantling tide as it rolls inward, and roars among the hollow caves; I ask you to share with me the delightful emotions which the contemplation of unbounded beauty and beneficence ever calls up in the cultivated mind.

Hence I have not scrupled to sketch pen-pictures of the lovely and romantic scenery with which both coasts of Devon abound; and to press into my service personal narrative, local anecdote, and traditionary legend; and, in short, any and every thing, that, having conveyed pleasure and interest to myself, I thought might entertain and please my reader. It is not the least of the advantages of the study of natural history, that it strengthens in us "the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meet and surround us."

If it should be objected that - to treat of the facts which science reveals to us, in any other manner than that technical measured style, which aims not at conveying any pleasurable emotions beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge, and is therefore satisfied with being coldly correct,- is to degrade science below its proper dignity, I would modestly reply that I think otherwise. That the increase of knowledge is in itself a pleasure to a healthy mind is surely true; but is there not in our hearts a chord that thrills in response to the beautiful, the joyous, the perfect in Nature? I aim to convey to my reader, to reflect, as it were, the complacency which is produced in my own mind by the contemplation of the excellence impressed on everything which God has created.

Just to emphasise the importance of accuracy in scientific investigation, Henry goes on to state:

....I would not have it supposed that I have ever stated the facts of Natural History in a loose, vague, imaginative way. Precision is the very soul of science,- precision in observation, truthfulness in record: and I should deem myself unworthy of a place among naturalists, if I were not studious to exhibit the phenomena of Nature with the most scrupulous care and fidelity. Humanum est errare: I dare not suppose I have escaped error; but I am sure it is not the result of wilfulness, I trust it is not of carelessness.

There is no doubting Henry's honesty in all that he did and this certainly applied to his scientific work, which led to him being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. However, his science had the wider setting that provided a more fulfilling view of Natural History. It is a highly Romantic approach, of course, but that is no bad thing. It is an approach which enhances our appreciation of the World and helps us to recognise our responsibilities in minimising the destruction of Nature.

Although Henry Gosse and I would disagree on many things related to religious belief, I find him to be an inspiration and agree strongly with the sentiments in the Preface. I am not ashamed to call myself a Romantic.

       One of Henry Gosse's beautiful illustrations from "A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast"

Monday, 4 February 2013

Extraterrestrial Life

Last week, I had lunch with a group of ex-colleagues and it gave me a chance to chat with a geologist. I won’t identify him, but he is certainly an expert and also very good company, being cultured and urbane. So, I mentioned my current topic of interest - the Origin of Life - and, without knowing my views, he stated immediately that life on Earth was likely to have originated from an extraterrestrial source. As you would expect, I then asked him how he defined life. A little taken aback at my question, he explained that he was in the camp which considers that life probably began with the development of self-replicating molecules and that these, or perhaps their immediate precursors, arrived from somewhere in space. I then came clean and told him that I think that life began with the formation of the first cell and that this may have been a single event of extraordinary significance, with this first cell being the ancestor of all life forms we have today and through geological time. It would be a true moment of Creation if it was not down to chance, which I believe it to have been (note the use of the word “believe” here, by the way).

On hearing my view, the geologist then went on to say that the formation of the first cell was dependent on the enclosure of various components by a membrane and that this would have developed by layering against a clay particle of some kind. Now, whether one believes that the chemical components of living things had an extraterrestrial source or not, there was a need for assembly, and clay particles have chemical characteristics which would aid the process. Another part of this discussion about components is that molecules that result in the complex sub-units of living cells are formed in conditions like those which exist in contemporary “white smokers”, a type of hydrothermal vent found deep in oceans and which we have only known about for a few decades. Just like the idea of extraterrestrial sources of complex chemicals and the formation of the first cell (or, perhaps, cells) on the surface of clays, the smoker theory of the Origin of Life is speculation. The theories may well be correct, but they are only theories, despite having been given near factual status by constant repetition.

One point we can all agree on is that life began in water, as the contents of the first cell must have enclosed fluid from a surrounding aquatic habitat. As a result, one of the first things we look for on other planets is water, or evidence that water has been present, or that water may be trapped beneath the planetary surface. If we cannot do that, we try and locate planets which may have Earth-like conditions (although these have changed radically through time), as they may harbour water somewhere on, or near, their surface. The extension of this thinking is that, if we find water, we are likely to find life. If life originated with the formation of a single cell in a once-only event on Earth, the chances of finding anything like cells elsewhere seem infinitesimally small. There is a possibility that some complex organic chemicals may be identified in water from another planet and, no doubt, this will be claimed to be evidence that life exists elsewhere.

As we cannot agree on a definition of life, and as we have no idea about its origin, despite all the myths, isn’t it safer to adopt the approach advocated by Karl Popper - the idea of falsifiable hypotheses? It is much more logical to suggest that no cells exist anywhere else in the Universe and then disprove that hypothesis, rather than make assumption after assumption about chemicals, water, clay, white smokers etc. and build it into layer upon layer of myth to comfort us into thinking that we are not alone. No-one would suggest that that the images of life on other planets found in films and comics, for example, are anything other than fantasy, but couldn’t that claim be levelled against some of the conclusions of scientists? I hope not.