Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

27 Aug 2012

Drowning Ophelia in an English river

Ophelia 1852. John Everett Millais

17 Aug 2012

Facing the Dark Mountain

It is easy to be pessimistic, cynical and disillusioned. As we are constantly reminded by both the mouth of the media and measures of empirical evidence, the world is crashing down on our heads. Economies, ecosystems and everything in between are taking a turn for the worse. And whilst solutions are constantly spouted by those at the helm of human civilization, so far the track record of responses are pretty dire. 

A week ago, sat in a grassy field in the Cotswolds, I listened to a sermon delivered by Paul Kingsnorth, founding father of the Dark Mountain project, named after the apocalyptic poetry written by Robinson Jeffers in 1935 as a response to the rearmament for WW2:  “Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the Dream-led masses down the dark mountain”.

Here, he outlined his call for contemporary art and literature to face up to the reality of our situation, and to promote Uncivilization, elaborated in their eloquent manifesto. I was not alone in admiring this movement, its aims to target the public consciousness, and strip away the value of growth, progress and human glory. But to embrace the demise of the very civilization which has made me and many of those I hold dear safe from hunger and ill health is a hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, by turning away to art as opposed to finding inspiration in humanity, the project risks becoming an exercise of unfruitful navel-gazing. 

I celebrate an artistic movement to strive to understand and deal with our situation, and I will continue to follow their ascent of the Dark Mountain from the vulnerable flood plains below. But to turn my back on human achievement, intellectual advancement and the discovery of solutions to our problems is something the scientist in me is incapable of.

8 Aug 2012

Birding Britannia

Britain is birding mad. No other nation tackles the observation of birds like an Olympic event. But perhaps that's not the best way to describe it, as for many a twitcher, the self-proclaimed mission of observing their flighty friends stretches long beyond a 2 week event every 4 years. For those to whom the RSPB bird guide is gospel, the arrival of an off course migrant to our shores can mean the delay of a wedding or a journey of hundreds of miles, and weekends are usually booked up with ornithological observations. I am known to fix binoculars to my eyes to take in a grouse, gull or gannet, and this weekend even missed Andy Murray's Gold to visit the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust HQ. But I tip my hat to those to whom a bird-list becomes a passion, making them members of a community based on an unwavering devotion to the natural world.

The extent of it's influence on British culture, aside from the political weight of organisations such as RSPB and WWT, is the list of collective nouns for bird groups, of which I leave you with my favorites. A Charm of Goldfinch, An Exaltation of Larks, A Tiding of Magpies, A Watch of Nightingales, A Parliament of Owls, A Bevy of Quail, An Unkindness of Ravens, A Murmuration of Starlings.
An Asylum of Cuckoos

Beyond Titus; The Sea, The Sea

Rembrandt's The Artist's Son Titus strikes a remarkable figure. Unlike the scenes of wealth and status in many of the other portraits at the Wallace collection however, this figure is simply dressed, and the luxuriant landscapes of ancient Greece or Italy are instead replaced by a inky black, broken only by what appears to be the crashing waves of the sea.

The piercing gaze clearly had an effect on Iris Murdoch, whose magnum opus The Sea The Sea features a tragic figure whose fate is decided by the pulling tides. Indeed, the pathetic fallacy of sea links the elemental landscapes of a rocky shore, with the swirling consciousness of a murderous mind, acting as a mirror to the tumultuous developing plot. By using a wholly natural force to represent that of the workings of the mind of a man, Murdoch captures the power that perceptions of the natural world have on our emotional state.