March 2011

On Friday I headed into the city after school.  It was a time of solitude and calm wandering.  I headed straight for my favourite coffee shop for a concentrated Americano (or a slightly dilute espresso depending on your half full/half empty perspective).  I slowly browsed my favourite second hand book store, the smell of old books piled as if in some giant game of kerplunk made me feel strangely relaxed.  After the books I went shopping for essential work wear; suits.  My current suits seem to be getting a little tired and threadbare. After a while of enjoying the solitude I began to miss people.  I wanted to head home to see the lovely Sharon and the little man, and on the way home I missed the banter of my car sharing friends.  For me, solitude is a strange thing.  I sometimes feel the need for it, and when I find it I enjoy the loneliness and instantly feel the desire to share it.  This seems contradictory, and it is.  It is similar to the strange relaxed feeling I get in the mountains.  While in the mountains looking after groups it often calls for remote supervision.  On these occasions I find moments between meeting the groups at catch points and I am on my own, and at these times I feel truly relaxed.  However, when I head into the mountains with no other purpose other than my own solitude, I do not feel so relaxed.  I rush to achieve a summit or a goal and am not happy until it is done and I am on my way home.

So, I am not a person that is truly relaxed with solitude.  I am a pretender who wants to run away from people then quickly stop and shout, “come here to see this”.  All these words I have written in this post can be summed up in the Rilke poem ‘Pathways’ that says it all more clearly.  For me it is more of a mantra than poetry;

Understand, I’ll slip quietly

away from the noisy crowd

when I see the pale

stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.

I’ll pursue solitary pathways

through the pale twilit meadows,

with only this one dream:

You come too.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke


Tonight I picked up a book that is a thing of beauty.  It was a book that I ordered from tworavenspress, the blurb attracted me and my experience of their books was the final thing that sent me ordering it.  When I got the book in the post last week I had a quick flick through it and began to feel disappointed.  Fishing seemed to dominate as a topic; had I made a mistake.  However, the weekend is a little pocket of time to dwell on things and an opportunity to dig a little deeper.  I am glad I gave the book another go tonight, it is wonderfully written book.  It is poetry that is written from a place of honesty.  Fishing for pike has so far been a repeating theme but, contrary to my expectations,  it does not distract from the prose and purpose.

We walked back across the tundra as the light closed down. That night, while I lay still wakeful I heard the church clock strike midnight and then, high up, like a remote echo of a time before anyone had ever thought of naming the kwelder, perhaps even a time before the kwelder was, came the call of geese -ancient, fussy, urgent. From the warmth where I hugged myself I imagined that big V of birds riding the air, the slow, hoarse beat of their wings crossing the moon and the Pleiades, and thought of them descending just two miles to the north – descending, settling, gabbing quietly to each other that after navigating through magnetism, through storm, ice and isobars they had finally reached a habitation in the heart of winter.

I suppose that these days there are many who would never notice, many who would find geese and their winter journeys irrelevant at best. After all, it took me long enough to come round to noticing. I don’t think the call of wild geese in winter would have meant very much to me for most of my adult life. But now, having become aware of the strangeness of the familiar, the noticing is like a rhythm. The days are punctuated by the appearance or the sounds of those natural things that mark time passing. Two nights ago, hearing the geese call over the house at midnight, time passed in wing beats, and I was so profoundly reassured that I don’t remember falling asleep.

Chris McCully – Outside

I have just spent the last few hours in the garage making frames for the beehives.  Nails, beeswax sheets, then nails and repeat; all very therapeutic and calming. I did this while sipping a cool pint to homemade real ale and listening to radio 4.  Life is too short; I’m living my retirement dream now.

The school books were packed away late tonight and I am feeling what can only be described as tired with a hint of weary.  The last job of the evening was the welcome distraction of the chores.  I picked up today’s eggs and squirreled them away in my pocket.  I walked around the cottage and filled the feeders and drinkers then went into the garage to dance a little.  I danced around the lawnmower and I danced around the cars.  When the dancing was finally over I had  captured the needy cat who was due her worming treatment.  I now feel I am beginning to understand the phrase ‘herding cats’.

gemini by tomsowerby

After that I walked slowly down the lane to close the gates.  I paused often to stare at the sky.  The stars were all out and the sky was leaving them unhindered.  As I rolled the fresh eggs in my pockets I pondered the seasons.  Orion the hunter is fading from the night sky in the west.  We have no need for him as he is the opposite of the new life around us.  In the darkness the lambs were still calling their mothers for comfort in this new world.  I looked around at the other stars and Gemini seemed to capture me tonight.  I sympathise with the problem of seeing some of the shapes in the sky, but the more I look at Gemini, the more I see them.  I have always known the two stars that mark their heads but have only a vague idea of the ‘shape’.  Tonight it seemed to leap out at me as I stared.  All I think I needed was the concept of the twins and then I saw them sitting opposite each other.  They looked the same as each other as if in a mirror, and yet they were different in their own subtle ways.  Twins.

Last night I learnt that there are many things that we must battle against if we are to keep bees. The first of these is time, as we still have to wait for another month for even the possibility of getting bees. Even then we might not get them as it is all dependent on the bees themselves. If we are lucky enough (some may not think it lucky) to get them, then we must care for them and look after them and keep my eye out for:

Chill brood
Chalk brood
American Foul Brood – Paenibacillus larvae
European Foul Brood – Melissococcus plutonis
Varroa destructor
Acarapis woodii
Nosema apis
Wax Moth
Sacbrood virus
Chronic bee paralysis virus
Acute bee paralysis virus
Black queen cell virus
Deformed wing virus
Tropilaelaps mites
Small Hive Beetle

*Woodpeckers! In Ireland? Reports of sightings have been made in Strangford.

There is also a teacher in my school who is very resistant to us getting bees. She is aghast at the thought of the little man beeing around (sorry) the bees. This is a worry of ours  and the suggestion, by another colleague, of putting up an electric fence to keep him away from the hives did not sit well with any of us. It was a suggestion in jest  we hope. We do intend to build a fence around the apiary that will have a locked gate. It will not be Fort Knox but it should be enough for a well defined boundary. The apiary will also be on the opposite end of our gardens, well away from the garden that we intend to use for relaxing and enjoying life. We would never have dreamed of keeping bees without the space we now find ourselves in. I have also talked to some friends who grew up around bees with no ill effects. It seems that a near mythical fear of the hives must be encouraged from an early age. They all tell me it was not a terror fear but one of respect. The lovely Sharon and I both took this all on board and we don’t really know the answers.

The landscape is rich with history, it is a palimpsest of old stories if we take the time to try and unpick them.  One very old echo of the past is in the form of standing stones.  Most of them are hidden away from view behind gorse and trees, but sometimes they are in plain view.  One standing stone I sometimes drive past is on a road called the Carncome Road.  As far as I can tell, it means the road of the stone and hollow.  The stone itself does lie very near a natural hollow which looks to me like a nasty frost pocket.  The stone is unfortunately integrated into a garden wall which makes it look a little sad to me.  It takes away from its timelessness and ancient atmosphere.

The Carncome Standing Stone – image from Monu-mental about prehistoric Antrim by Tom Fourwinds

When I have driven past it my mind has usually been sent wondering about its past and purpose.  As with many standing stones it is more than likely a clock that marks the seasons as a sentinel of the summer and winter.  Yesterday I decided to see if I could find anything it might align to.  I sat down when I got home after school and measured obvious high points on the map and took some bearings.  Setting up Stellarium with the exact location of the stone and then winding back the clock a few thousand years revealed …..nothing.  No significant alignments revealed themselves.  I was a little disappointed and thought that if people had gone to the trouble of putting the massive stone their, they would have had a significant purpose for it.

I returned to the map and let my eyes wander a bit until I saw another standing stone five kilometres away.  This stone seemed placed to be visible on the horizon and nestled between two other high points.

The Tardree  Standing Stone on Browndod hill – image from Monu-mental about prehistoric Antrim by Tom Fourwinds

Again I measured the bearings and even measured the elevation angle.  I cranked up Stellarium and sat back to watch the dawn on the winter solstice three thousand years ago.  The sun rose perfectly at the standing stone on the Browndod hill.  If you think this is a little too geeky a thing for me to do, then please remember that the trouble the people went to thousands of years ago when there were a lot less people living here and these stones were ridiculously difficult to move about.

Last week I got a new table for my classroom.  It was delivered in the post, flat-packed in a tiny little box:

When one of my junior chemistry classes was decimated by the ski trip being away they all wanted to watch a video.  I refused, instead I suggested that we play with cards.

I soon had them laying all the element cards all over the classroom and then sorting them out.  Then we named the groups and began to put them all together on the entire back wall of the classroom.

The quality of the pictures adds a certain beauty to many of the elements and brings them to life.


This does bring the number of periodic tables on my walls to three.  One is the classic standard giant table that has seen many years of classrooms and is a little faded and old.  The other is a sheet of fabric one and a half by two and a half meters that hangs with prints of the elements from this website.  Each print was created by an artist and has part of the story of the elements in them.  My favorites include:

This is Tungsten and it has the element symbol W from an old name for the metal; Wolfram.  If tin minors came across any wolframite while trying to extract tin it caused problems for them to get the tin.  This wolf-metal ate their precious tin.


The urban glow of yellow/orange street lights is due to the use of sodium in the lamps.


Ta is Tantalum.  Tantalus was a greek king who really annoyed the Greek gods by sacrificing his own son.  They punished him to spend eternity in a stream under a fruit tree.  If he tried to drink the water the water would recede below him and if he was hungry and tried to eat the fruit the wind would blow the branches out of reach.  Apparently the isolation and discovery of tantalum was a project that seemed to bring the scientists involved close to getting it but for a while it seemed just out of reach to them.

My interest in the stories of the elements has been given new life with the discovery of two recently published books on the stories behind the elements.

Periodic tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements

The Disappearing Spoon

They are both fantastic and quite readable.  However, I find The Periodic Tales the more enjoyable.  They, along with Napoleon’s Buttons, should be compulsory reading for Chemistry Teachers everywhere.

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