March 2010

It all sounds a bit insane down in Belfast tonight.  It is a bit crazy here but with Belfast being so tech savvy it has a constantly updated twitter feed #belfast.  My favourite was when someone tweeted that they were going through a scary landing at the city airport in a prop plane in gale force winds as they saw all the lights of Belfast flicker (I nearly spelt that flickr, oh dear).  Scary end of the world stuff.

A pupil came to me today with a cake made by her mother.  It was to say thanks for giving up our time at the weekend to take her daughter up into the mountains.  I have to say I was impressed.  This was no ordinary thoughtful gift, this had time and effort and chocolaty goodness in it.  It went down well with the teachers in the science department.  Some of these teachers took no part in the weekend but we let them enjoy it as their post event encouragement seemed to flow easily.

It is hard to imagine that only a few tents were the shelters only a few days ago.  It is a reminder of how the Northern Ireland weather is so bizarre this time of year all the time.  As I write this I have a snowy gale blasted view out my window.  It even seems to have the dim blue shades of a winter day.

Reading some of my feeds today reminded me of the Lake District six months agoSimon Cox’s post rings true for me when he writes about immersing himself in the mountain craft for a week on his ML assessment and then returning to the world afterwards.  I also remember the weird return to normal life that seemed to flow quite happily when I was away and so focused that I hardly had time to ponder what was happening in the real world.  On a similar note I noticed that Tollymore has updated its website.  I can’t praise Tollymore enough.  The lovely Sharon and I have been there plenty of times and have always enjoyed the courses.  Very professional, lots of learning and lots of laughs along the way.  I am looking forward to us going on a course there sometime when the new centre is finished.  It looks amazing.

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I am not happy that I have finished this book, because it has finished.  I even tried to slow down in the last chapter.  I have a habit of reading aloud to the lovely Sharon when I find interesting bits.  Whether she likes it or not I can no longer tell as she has been worn down by my bombardments and protests no longer.  Although I am glad that she still shares her thoughts on the actual content of what I read.  She found John Lister-Kaye a little too poetic for her liking.  I can see where she is coming from with this critique but it is the lyrical and poetic images of this book that I loved.  Between the flow of this writing are interesting insights and stories of the natural world around us.  At least I am comforted by more books by the same author that I have not read.

The following passage is not one of the most poetical but it did stand out in my mind enough to dog ear the page.

The ascent of man has always been at the expense of the natural world; we have always destroyed our own habitat and the fellow creatures that would share it with us. But for most of human history the world was a big enough place to absorb our impact and to repair the damage as fast as we laid waste. When we felled forests they grew up again. When we broke camp and moved on to a new abode nature strode in behind with the beneficent process of re-colonization and restoration. We left nothing behind us but ash, bone, redundant timber, dung and clearings, all of which nature can cope with in a flash. Then Civilization strode into the arena. In awe of its compelling logic we stepped away from nature and abandoned the wild that had served us so well. We pillaged the forests to build great cities. The advancement of knowledge and the birth of science and technology seemed to be everything we could have wished for, matched in scope only by the conceit and complacency that spawned it. What we had not bargained for were the numbers of human beings that would arise as an inevitable consequence of advances in medicine, energy production and global mobility. Nor had anyone given thought to the space we would need to feed those ever-expanding populations. We lived with the grand assumption that there would always be enough land-water-food-natural resources for us all. For long enough there were. For several thousand years ‘Moab was our washpot and out over Edom did we cast our shoes’.

Tonight as I was standing in the garden I was also reminded of another part of the book that interested me.  As I looked up at the full moon I thought of part of the book about mammals and the moon.  It seems that nocturnal mammals have a cycle of activity that is tied to the moon.  Specifically a period of activity of feeding during the dark nights of the new moon and a period of relative inactivity during the bright full moon.  And, as they have less potential food during a full moon, the common predators of these nocturnal meals are also less active.  Are all these little creatures tonight hiding away in sleepy torpor?

With a bus full of pupils Friday morning began by heading for the hills.  Although I drew one of the long straws and got to drive to the hills separately, behind the bus.  Once we had all spilled out at the foot of the hills we began to diverge into little groups in all sorts of directions, keeping one eye on the sky and mumbling to the weather gods.

As the day went on I felt a cold virus begin to grip.  It had been knawing at me all week but now began to take huge bites out of my general wellbeing.  By the time evening came I retired to my sleeping bag early and very weary.  Not an ideal state to be in.

In the morning the other instructors let me sleep in as they did the morning duties of rallying the troops and motivating the tired and cold pupils ready for their steep trek.  Later that morning I listened to their chatter on the radio and was jealous.  They were heading up to the mountains as I sat eating a late breakfast on a beautiful day.  But I need not have worried as I would feel better as the day went on.  I even felt well enough (with copious coffee) to help out the instructors with groups in the forests.  It is always interesting to see how some groups can demonstrate skill and confidence on the hill and then fall apart navigationally in forests.  The repetitive nature and the path junctions bewilder them.  What bewilders me is that they seem less inclined to use their compass in the forests than on the hills.  As if the trees shield the north and the south or as if they are in denial;  “Why would you use a compass when you are on a path?” or “How could we get lost on a path?”

I may not have got into the high mountains that day but I did get to see the forest in early spring.  I may not have had much of an appetite but I had enough of an appetite to slowly graze through handfuls of fresh wood sorrel and let the rivers and strams help heal me.  Is wood sorrel it a good source of vitamin C?

Today was a day sustained by strong black coffee and lockets.  Every single minute of a full (no free periods) day was filled by demonstrations on the art of packing rucksacks.  Bags begin by being bulging with tents and sleeping bags strapped to the outside.  They insist and scream in tantrums that it simply is impossible to pack.  Often all the toys are thrown far from the pram.  A few minutes later I pass back to them their rucksack with everything neat, tidy and squared away.  They respond with withheld awe and a hint of suspicion, as if I have conned them or tricked them as a quick handed magician would.

hypermadcrazybusyinsanefastdon’tstopdon’tbreathkeepgoingtelephonekeepsringing dataprojectorblowsupnotimeforlunch

A much busyier day than expected.

Note to self:  the rule of thumb “a school meeting will usually take twice as long as you are told it will take” is WRONG.  I need to change it to “a school meeting will usually take three times as long as you are told it will take“.

The cheesecake and tarts seemed to be appreciated by our guests today, as did a filling main meal made by the lovely Sharon.  It was a beautiful day and as it got dark it continued to a beautiful evening.  So nice that we sat outside for a while and stared up at the moon and stars. The air was cool and still enough to hear some geese/ducks nearby being disturbed and flying about the field.  Then it began to get colder and I began to notice it in my toes.  The lovely Sharon sat in her down jacket seemingly not bothered.  Although maybe it was the jacket that was upsetting the local wildlife?  Just as my feet were protesting too much and I regretted not wearing shoes and socks, the atmosphere shifted around the moon to reveal a huge moon halo.  I forgot about my feet and stared.

A moon halo is a mesmerising site.  Long ago, when we listened to each others stories, a moon halo was thought to foretell of bad weather, of rain.  In Ireland I imagine most things can foretell rain but this one might make sense.  The halo is seen as the moonlight refracts through high altitude crystals.  I am told such conditions are a thing of approaching fronts.  I will bring an umbrella out tomorrow, and shoes.

It is the equinox today.  It is the day when the hours of day match the hours of night and the day when the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It is only one of two days in the year that behave this way.  I have not been out enough to see it much today, instead I have been indoors making things.

We have been making tarts and cheesecakes, we have been tidying and cooking and tidying.  After my prize blueberry cheesecake was safely shelved in the fridge I ventured into the garden but too late for the sun.  Instead I saw the crescent of the moon.  It was hung in a clear sky and tempted me to be geeky.  And so, I was.  I tested something that I had only recently discovered in the natural navigator.  I drew a line in my mind’s eye.  This line went from point to point of the crescent moon and then followed down and across the sky to the horizon; and there was south.

image from stellarium used to represent concept in  the natural navigator

I already know where south is roughly, but this moon compass needed to be accurately tested.  Did I run and get my compass?  No, I was even more geeky than that.  I merely glanced at my greenhouse and its little solar panel that drives the heat sink.  It has always been aligned precisely south to soak up as much sun as it can manage.  It all lined up perfectly.

EDIT – I played about with stellarium (amazing software) and I can’t quite get it to replicate what I saw.  For a couple of nights now I have tried this trick and it seemed to be pretty close to south.  But when I use stellarium it seems to bee more off than I observe.  Stellarium points more SSW than South.  Strange.

EDIT 2 – Actually now that I think about… When I look at the Stellarium software I am looking at a 2d projection of a sphere, that might make a difference! ?

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It’s caturday, taste the ice cream that is life.


Where is the javaman this morning? Where is my dealer?

No americano at the market this morning, no breakfast either.  It seems that everyone who prepared food on site were closed.  Very strange.

We had a science quiz today.  The hall was packed with noise and excitement, it was amazing to see how competitive they were.  I was taken back by it all until the building round.  Once the straws, tape and cardboard were handed out I was gone.  Mine had to be the highest tower, the tallest, the best.  And it was, but the other teachers disqualified me for being too old.  WHATeverrrrr!

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Today I intended to climb mountains.  I did not.  The students had other plans and some were off skiing instead.  So then I planned to wander solo through the hills but then I changed my mind.  Instead I pottered.  It is necessary to potter occasionally.  To catch yourself with hands covered in soil and planting seeds to the sound of radio 4.  To laugh inwardly, nearly cry, and think, “OMG, how old am I?”

It is only three days until equinox. It is a fitting time to plant the tomatoes and peas and such things.  I would love to admit to knowing when to plant different things, to feel the pulse of the moon and stars and be able to know when to sow.  In reality, this is not my pulse.  My planting is done in hiatus of work.  My pulse is the gaps in traffic and the regularity of bells. I do not plant crops out of necessity, our crops are a luxury.  They are the random nibbling of peas, the tomato salads al fresco with rosé wine and the experimental peppers tasted and binned after copious glasses of cold milk.  A biology teacher colleague asked me how long our salad seeds take to germinate.  He was contemplating a new experiment and its feasibility.  I gave him a reply of maybe a week or two.  This was suitably vague and hopefully he read between the lines that my true answer was that they germinate when they germinate and they seem happy with that.

Some day soon or in the distant future, I will be standing in a street and the clouds shall be all over the sky.  Then, someone will ask which way north is.  Then, I shall take a deep breath as if tasting the very air and casually declare that north is that way.  They will stand in awe and never know that I had looked for sky satellite dishes which all point south south east.

Books are good

How long does it take for the earth to make one complete spin on its axis?  I thought it was 24 hours or pretty close to it.  I was wrong, it takes 23 hours and 56minutes.  Thats 4 minutes out!  Some of you might think it is close but 4 minutes is a lot when it builds up; nearly half an hour a week.  It turns out that the value we use as 24 hours is a solar day which is the apparent motion of the sun.  This is not 23 hours and 56 minutes because of our motion around the sun.  This is all very geeky and has been prompted by me picking up The Natural Navigator by Tristen Gooley.  If you are in any way interested in navigation then this book is a must read.  Belfast had a few copies of this last week but they are all sold out now.  Not sure why they sold out so fast, I don’t think it is the typical choice for mother’s day.

It has a section on star navigation and it mentions briefly how the night sky has been used be the mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  It turns out that the spacecrafts that delivered the rovers also relied on looking up at the stars for navigation.  It’s amazing to think that this ancient method is still so very real in this age of GPS.

This image was taken by one of the mars rovers.  You can see the three stars of Orion’s belt at the bottom.

On this theme, here is a picture of sunrise from mars taken by one of our lonely little robots so many millions of miles away.

These amazing little robots have worked harder than they were designed to do, but they are never coming home.


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I think it is fair to say that spring has arrived.  The birds are singing constantly, the frogspawn are filling in the puddles and for some strange reason I keep noticing ducks flying everywhere.  I don’t think I ever noticed so many before, maybe I was never looking? Random.

Looking forward to doing very little today.  It must involve coffee and a book, any more and I shall have to draw the line.  Although I am breaking myself gently into the day by watching the Asgard Project.  A little bit of armchair climbing and a brilliantly put together film.  When the adrenaline is too much for me I watch the Jackdaws hop around the field as the coffee machine warms up.  I wonder if they know about the ducks.

“Mad Jack” Churchill enjoyed danger so much that he fought World War II with arrows and a broadsword — that’s him on the far right, leading a training exercise in Scotland.

“Any officer who goes into action without his sword,” he said, “is improperly dressed.”

Churchill charged through the whole war this way — he’s the only British soldier to fell an enemy with a longbow — and yet he lived to be 90. He died peacefully in Surrey in 1996.

reblogged from futility closet via 3Z

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