It sometimes feels like we skirt around the edges of the winter days. We wake up in the dark and cling to the cold light of the stars and maybe the moon, before driving off to work.  Then we work.  On the way home I hate the light, the light of cars.  The density of city traffic is something I feel glad to leave, into the dark.  It’s with irony that I found myself working in daylight today; on the shortest day.  In between shovelling the sludge of fallen leaves and the foul fowl bedding in the chicken house, I would find myself looking up at the sky, the novelty of it; daylight.


The chickens also had their shortest day today as the car battery feeding them their false daylight was flat.  The electrickery of the LED lights seems to be working to some degree.  The two young hens still lay continuously; they lack wisdom and know no better.   From the older hens we have just received two eggs this week, something unknown until late February.


We used the eggs to bake a cheesecake.  The little man and I smashed biscuits into crumbs and mixed things in bowls.  This is a present for his teachers.  Baked things are the best of presents for teachers.  I received a gingerbread me this year from my A level class.  It’s nice to receive something that someone has put a lot of effort into, more importantly; took delight in making it.


Overcharged with daylight and exhausted from baking, the little man, the little lady and myself lay on the sofa and watched the 1970 classic, ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town.’  Then I kept the light to a deliberate solstice low as we played lego by the woodstove.


Later on I fell into my solstice tradition.  I opened up Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Darkness and Light.’  The lovely sharon looked at me with a little confusion and asked if I read that every year.  I ask her how could I not:

Mid-December, the still point of the turning year…………

I wonder if the most efficient gardening is done in the rain.  Under a steal grey autumn sky I put my head down and dug out the weeds of the raised beds.  I don’t remember ever doing this kind of digging at this time of year.  I would usually dig out the weeds sometime in the middle of winter.  This year I am trying the experiment of Hungarian Rye Grass.  In the main vegetable patch it was sown a week or two ago and seems to be getting itself settled in.


The sowing for this kind of grass ends in a few days, hence the weeding in the rain.  A couple of espressos and the colour of the beech trees keeps me warm in the drizzle. Being in the garden lets me see all the jobs that need done.  I classify many of the jobs as just dreams and I try and add them to my blind areas.  Then there are jobs that I need to create time for; the crab apples need transformed into jelly with cloves and rose hips.


One of the hives needs its block of winter insulation under the roof.  Both the hives need mouse guards fitted; too late in many beekeeper’s eyes.


Books.  We guiltily took the little people to their nursery school and had a day for ourselves.  Over the course of the day I watched the lovely Sharon relax a little and un-knot her neck and shoulders.  She is a mother, a full time teacher, and a carrier, incubator, of a little soul.  As part of our day off we visited the big city and were drawn like magnets to the old second hand book shop.  We spent ages in the narrow passages with books pilled at awkward angles feet above our heads. We browsed shelves of books two books deep.  We filled a couple of bags with our foraging.  I carried the bags.  The lovely Sharon is quite independent with such things and protested on several occasions.  I stood my ground.  I would love to think that chivalry is not dead, but in truth, it is not out of chivalry that I carried the bags.  It was just so I could say, “you have enough to carry.”  Those were heavy bags and it was a long day but it was worth it to deliver a cheesy line and see her roll her eyes and hold back a smile.


At last.  I ordered it months ago and patiently waited for the publication date (always closer than actually published).  Then a few days ago the heavy tomb that is Kith arrived in our post box.  Jay Griffiths is an amazing writer.  Not light, not fresh.  She is deep and rich like the heavy cheesecake that you just can’t stop eating.  Her latest book is re-engaging me with childhood and all that it means and is.  It is making me rethink and savour, just like her other books did.

“…….Before any sense of myself, before a mirror had meaning, before my skin was a boundary, I remember nature as if it were inside me. Birds sang and I heard it inside. It snowed: I snowed. It rained: I rained. As if in some pre-verbal state, whatever ‘it’ was, I was too. I was warm in May because the sun was: I couldn’t tell the difference. I was all the world and all the world was me, saturated with presence. Grass. Blue. Tree. Water. Wind.

It was a kinship so primary that the senses understood it long before the mind.  Water was the touch of it; I could feel the sky and taste the dampness of leaves in the uninstructed mud the body knows. I had two older brothers, each of us a year apart, and our mother, a gardener, thought that children, like seeds, grew best unobserved in good black earth, so in daffodils we were crazy with yellow and by autumn we were brown and shiny as conkers, but all through the year we were frank and stout with dirt. Our mother dressed us in three little pairs of black tops and three little pairs of black trousers, so no one would ever complain about us being filthy for the very good reason that they would never see it. Every once in a while, six little bits of black clothing went in the laundry and three little bits of grubby childhood went in the bath.

images (1)

So there I was reading the little man his bedtime book. We delved into the realms of story and make believe, a world with morals and lessons around every corner. This particular story (spoiler alert) was about a tiger who did not want to go to bed. His mother decided to let him learn his lesson and told him he could stay up all night. He went searching for his friends, the lion, hippo, elephant etc. only to find them all in various stages of bedtime preparation. Eventually he wandered back home exhausted and regretting not going to bed. This was a nice little story which was spoiled by the visit to the elephants.

I know there is something wrong with me, but seeing the moon like that upset me so much. It could not be unseen. With the setting sun on the right the moon should be a crescent facing the other way around as it is lit up by the sun. The same realisation happens when I see actors drinking from empty cups.

It ruined it for me. I know it shouldn’t upset me, but it does.

At the weekend I ventured out into the mountains.  It was a very late expedition, chasing the daylight with only a few weeks until expeditions are closed down for the winter.  The weather was perfect for walking, cool clear air and magnificent blue sky landscapes.  The autumn darkness seemed to arrive very quickly and coldly.  The chill was softened by amazing star-scape, the familiar constellations in their bold crystalline  glory.

The cold nights have made me more inclined to curl up with a good book.  I have a pile of ‘to read’, but I find my self digging out the same books to read again and again.  These are the books I love.  This is my book list..

the wild places by robert macfarlane

findings by kathleen jamie

a year’s turning by michael viney

winterdance by gary paulsen

wild by jay griffiths

the old ways by robert macfarlane

pip pip by jay griffiths

sightlines by kathleen jamie

I’m thinking about time again. It all started a week ago when I did something that I felt loathed to do; I signed up to a gym. I believe that exercise should not be an exercise; it should be a part of our natural interaction with the world. A gym is the reverse of this; it is isolation away from the world. There is no bird song to be heard on a running machine. That said I have failed to fit proper exercise into my life since the little man arrived and it has been a hard fact to face up to. So, the gym is part of my time now as it can be slotted in and allocated its portion of me.

I got hold of a copy of Earthlines and I was reminded of Jay Griffiths. I was reminded of her book; Pip Pip, a sideways look at time. This has prompted me to think about our interaction with time again. This morning I slowed myself down to bee time. The bees actually operate at a faster level to us but they are sensitive to our normal speed of motion. I moved slowly during the inspection in order to convince them that I mean no harm. My motions were smooth and sluggish. I removed the frames at a bee’s walking pace and I relaxed into a persona of calm without fear. To be honest, the sun was shinning and the air was warm, this meant the bees were quite calm and relaxed. In the second hive I spotted two play cups which had eggs in. Play cups are a normal part of the hive, they are the beginnings of queen cells which are part of the preparation to swarm. Play cups themselves are not a sign that a swarm is imminent, but eggs in two play cups are a hint in that direction. They are a sign that I must make preparations for swarming and the possibility of tricking them with an artificial swarm.

As it is swarm season now;

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.

This means that weekly inspections are part of the flow and pattern of chores here at the cottage. The chores have been increased too. Where we had a few hens to look after we now have a few hens, a few older chicks in a coup in the garage and a lot of new fluffy chicks in the brooder in the utility room.

The cats have slipped down on the list recently. In my mind I have made their welfare a priority in terms of their food, water and accommodation, but I have let their affections slip away from me. I have been so busy that I can’t remember when was the last time I sat down with one of the cats and scratched them under the chin or gave them any kind of attention. So it pleased me tonight when I scratched under Tillie’s chin. She just appeared serendipitously as the little man and I finished earthling up the potatoes. To be honest I did most of the earthing up as the little man sat and watched while occasionally thrusting his had into the dirt and muttering something that must seem comprehensible to him. Tillie approached and I scratched her under the chin as the little man sat down on my knee and looked at the sunset. Tillie was the first ever animal that the lovely Sharon and I took into our care. She was thrust upon us unexpectedly and we loved the challenge of looking after, and loving, an animal. As I scratched her under the chin I thought about how many animals we are caring for now.

A few days ago the little man and the lovely Sharon and I were walking down the lane and I jokingly asked when we were going to get the little man a puppy. The lovely Sharon’s response took me by surprise; she said it would be nice to have a few more animals around the place. With goldfish, cats, hens, chicks and about sixty thousand bees, I had to give her the look. The look that said, “really?”

I cannot remember how I found the book ‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie, but I am glad I found it long ago. I am glad I read it, and then read it again, and then read it again to my son as he settled himself to sleep in my arms. Kathleen is not so much a writer of books as a sculptor of words. Her words end up being unpretentious and uncluttered. Her words seem to highlight the life in things and the life in us. The book ‘Findings’ has been categorised as nature writing that has broken the mould. In my eyes it is because it is not nature writing at all. It is about life and our experience of it.

Yesterday I took delivery of Kathleen’s next instalment ‘Sightlines’. So far I have found myself immersed in an arctic voyage and visits to a pathology lab. These two different glimpses do not do it any justice. You have to sit still and absorb yourself into Jamie’s prose. So far not a single word has disappointed.

Often I see an imbalance in my students in the classroom. To learn and develop in any subject, two things are needed; knowledge and confidence. Too often my students have too much of one and too little of the other. Over-confidence without knowledge is dangerous, but the reverse is frustrating. Half a teacher’s job is to slowly, and delicately, build our pupil’s belief in themselves while realising it can be shattered so easily. If I am being honest, I have to admit that my own balance in the learning curve is weighted down by too much confidence, with the exception of fruit trees.

When faced with a fruit trees I really do not know what I am doing. I know they need pruned but I have a deep seated fear of killing the tree. It feels so wrong to let me loose with a set of loppers on a tree that must be decades old. Over a year ago I read the books about pruning fruit trees. I read dusty old books found in second hand book shops and shiny new books dispatched from the monstrous book machine that is Amazon. I read and absorbed. I looked at the diagrams and I inspected the trees with the book in hand. I did all this before taking the loppers in hand and…… doing nothing. Fear gripped me and my own confidence drained away as I approached the trees.

Last spring I watched the oldest of these fruit trees suffer. It bloomed and began to blossom at the edges of its old branches until a cruel set of winds blew through the end of spring. The tree was too stretched out with its untidily long branches, the leaves began to curl and die. In the summer it found the energy to recover a little, but it was clear that it was suffering, and it was my fault.

This morning I decided to go for it. Over confidence can be brutal, but then again; confidence must be gained by experience. I grabbed the loppers, and the ladders, and the wood saw! I threw myself into it and the plum tree did not look like itself by the end of it. Time will tell.

Later in the morning I found out some good news. As it was such a lovely spring day the bees took advantage of it. They were very active with lots of big wheeling and spiralling flights around the hives. This is a sign that some of the bees were learning the hives location. This, in itself is a good sign; however the really exciting sight was that of big wads of pollen being brought into the hives in large amounts. Lots of pollen means lots of baby bees to be fed, which probably means that both hives contain healthy laying queens. Now that temperature of spring, and my bee fever, is beginning to rise, my mind is drifting to the characters of the seasons. The willow is releasing its pollen, but when will the dandelions start to take over the fields and verges. When will there be the first ‘flow’?

Wow, the automatic bookmark…….here

The point is that we’re all sleepwalkers…..Powerful forces construct social reality – parenting, schooling, television, advertising, dress code, corporate ethos, military drill. They’re all…variations on hypnosis. Mostly we walk around in a semi-trance. We want what we’re conditioned to want. We’re like the hypnotised subject who happily eats an onion thinking it to be an apple. We only believe the onion’s an apple… because we’ve built a mutually enforcing sense of reality with one another. This is known as consensual reality, or consensus trance reality. It’s what makes a football result seem important, what drives fashion, and causes the day to be spoiled by make-believe tragedy in a soap opera. The implication is that we’re all living a dream, a myth, and that if we don’t persist and insist on what C. G. Jung called ‘individuation’ – if we don’t start living our own dream and being authentic to our own deepest calling – then life itself will be sucked away by the energy vampires of consciousness.

From Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh.  I’m only half way through the book but it has already got my head filled and pondering.  It is about people, religion, poetry and our place in this world.  Quite a good read so far.

I drove home as the sun set in a beautiful azure sky.  I got changed straight away to cycle into the village and return some books.  The beauty had turned into a beast; a dark grim sky with freezing rain.  I headed on anyway with the books well sealed up in the panniers. With frozen hands I eventually got to the library to find it shut, even though I had checked the times before I left the house.  The sign in the window said it was closed due to short staff.  I would have thought they could have done something with stools or step ladders.  *sigh*

The world began with a woman,
shawl-happed, stooped under a creel,
whose slow step you recognise
from troubled dreams. You feel

obliged to help bear her burden
from hill or kelp-strewn shore,
but she passes by unseeing
thirled to her private chore.

It’s not sea birds or peats she’s carrying,
not fleece, nor the herring bright
but her fear that if ever she put it down
the world would go out like a light.

The Creel by Kathleen Jamie

I’m somewhere near the end of ‘Pip Pip: A Sideways Look At Time’. It is a sobering book that is revealing to me things that I had never seen or thought of before. I have read Jay Griffiths’ other book: ‘Wild’ and I found her writing beautiful but very rich. Her writing seems to take time to read and leaves me full of thoughts and ponderings. ‘Pip Pip’ is about time, how we relate to it and how it relates to us.

A week ago I caught sight of the oldest of timekeepers rising through the winter trees at the cottage. Recordings of the moon’s cycle are some of our oldest examples of carvings. I find it much easier to keep an eye on the phases of the moon in the winter months. I try and keep a mental note of its character as it waxes and wanes. Last week an asteroid passed close to the earth, closer than the moon. This sparked a little thought in my mind. Some may lose sleep at the thought of an asteroid arriving from space, but what if it hit the moon? What if our tides suddenly waned and never waxed back. I imagine it would be just as devastating for us and the ecosystem that we often forget we are tethered to.

the moon, wanning from full, through the cottage trees

Inspired by the book on time I found myself caught by the moon. I had just put the little man into his bed. I had just fed him his milk and we had read through Peekaboo Farm many times. He began drifting into sleep as I buried my nose into his head and smelt him, as he sliped into the land of nod. The most amazing smell in the world. The little man seems to adore the smell of his comfort blankie a little more than his mum or dad, but that does not stop me burying my nose into what little hair he has and loving the comforting smell as he drifts off to sleep. After putting him to bed I walked down the narrow stairs in the cottage and caught a glimpse of the moon through the roof window. I don’t really know how long I stood at the window and stared at the moon, and I am glad I don’t know how long. I stood and watched it as the winter winds tore under and around it and I thought about a few things. I would like to think that there were probably a few moments, in un-clocked time, where I did not think at all.

Last night I found myself at the annual meeting of the Ulster Beekeepers Association. It was a fun and interesting evening chatting about everything and anything, and also chatting about bees. I also found out that I won 2nd place in the annual PowerPoint competition. Not only was I quite pleased with myself but I also received fifty pounds in prize money! It should be poetic that it should be spent on the bees but we are thinking of building a more permanent, and much larger, run for the chickens.

one of the powerpoint slides

I have and idea and a plan. The injection of some more money into the budget prompted me to buy the wood to get started. The three new arrivals are still being bullied by the three old hens, being hen-pecked I think. This means they are spending more time in the coop than on the grass in the run. Eggs must have been stepped on and consumed as they loafed about in the coop.  There were no eggs for a couple of days; a very bad habit to start, and difficult to stop. We are now policing this by lifting the eggs as soon as we can to prevent them being munched. We have also popped a few plastic eggs in the coup. The idea is that if they try and peck them they will begin to realise that they are inedible.  We intend to expand their space as soon as possible. This is part of a long term project that has been moved up the list. The idea is that we might raise our own hens next year, for the pot!

About a month ago I received word that I had won 3rd place in a different beekeeping competition; a photo competition.

the image that won the bees a new super

The competition was for customers of  Peak-Hives build beautiful beehives from cedar wood. The wood is locally sourced, where possible, and look fantastic. I can still remember the amazing smell of the hives when they were delivered. The smell filled the garage on the cold winter nights when I pulled on a thick fleece and hammered and glued the hives together.

tonight’s autumn mushrooms in the gathering darkness

Tonight I made up more sugar syrup for the bees, but not before heading out for an autumn dander. I strapped the little man to my back and we headed out as the light began to fade. We nibbled blackberries and shouted “doyi, doyi, doyi” at the hedges. We watched the sheep and we looked for strange mushrooms along the way. Tonight we read about a boy who found a lost penguin. We rocked in the chair as we drank our milk (he drank his milk as I pretended to; to entertain) and we read our book by moonlight (a light shaped like the moon). The real moon is waxing now and will be full in just over a week. It is bringing with it the darkness and the long nights. But the little man and I have our moon shaped lamp and books about penguins and bears to hide in, on these gathering winter nights.

the rocking chair under the ‘moonlight’

our bedside reading material (two options for if he wants to read or if he wants to fall asleep in my arms)

This is the book to read tonight.  It is the book to curl up in bed with as the gathering storm begins to arrive and spill its energy.  It is the book that reminds us of nature’s power and how we are impotent against it.  In 1839 a storm hit Ireland that was beyond any other storm in memory.  It is said on that night the fairies left Ireland.

In 1839 the gusts were estimated to be in the range of 115mph.  Tomorrow the gusts are expected to be 90mph.  The numbers may seem close but a small increase in speed is a large increase in energy.  I expect it will be windy and possibly damaging tomorrow but it is just a reminder of what is possible.


The Night of the Big Wind is the book for tonight, but I have to admit; I can’t put down ‘Findings’.  It is that good a book.

Last night I read a bit more of a book. It is hard to break little habits and make room for reading; a good habit that is easy to break. I am not one that thinks much about the actual writing of a book. I don’t think I have the experience or authority and usually just like a book full of geekness, facts and weirdness. Sometimes a book comes along that changes my mind and I find myself eating the words. This book is such a book. The chapters themselves are so far about things like finding a whale on a beach, but the words are poetry. I am not even through to the middle and I already know I am going to hate finishing it and I am already thinking of who to lend it to.

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

This morning the tradition of Saturday morning pancakes has returned after a break in that habit. The lovely Sharon is making Banana Bread and the little man is in his walker with his arms help high at the patio door. Toys are being slammed against the glass to attract the attention of the cats. Yelps of joy can be heard from him when they humour him with occasional glances.
It will be my turn with the dessert soon.  A vanilla, lemon and honey cheesecake is the intention (with our own honey).  The lovely motherly Sharon will move from sweet to savoury as she prepares little pots of meals for the little man’s dinners.  The kitchen will soon take on the smell of steaming vegetables and cheese sauces, and it will fell like Sunday dinner is imminent.  While we are doing all this we can’t help but keep looking out the window.  The season is changing more rapidly now and the coming storm be sure to push it along faster.  At the moment it is far out at sea but is only a day or two away.   The bees will be fed tonight, and then they will be strapped down ready for the winds, ready for rain, and ready for the storm on the horizon.

the coming storm

The last few days have included experiment in camping, the loss of some bees and a few books.

We headed off on a mini holiday towing a trailer tent that had been kindly lent to us.  The point of a two day trip was to see how the little man would cope with camping, or this is what we told everybody.  The truth is that we wanted to see if we would cope taking the little man camping.  It turns out that we must have chosen the best possible two days that the misty isle of Northern Ireland had to offer.  The sky was pure blue and we felt like we were camping in the south of France.  The little man coped perfectly, as expected when you consider that he had his mum and dad’s full and undivided attention without the distractions of home.  After his bed time we would sit outside in the long evening light and sip wine and nibble cheese while we read our books and talked nonsense.

The actual location of the holiday was a strange one.  We rang round most of the camp sites in Northern Ireland to find them nearly all unsurprisingly booked up.  The one place that had a cancellation for only a couple of nights turned out to be a fantastic site in Cushendun.  It is an extremely small little village that is both beautiful and full of character.  On the first evening we sat outside the tearoom and watched a man pass by with his lawnmower running, appearing to mow the tarmac footpath.  This was the moment when I knew that I would like Cushendun.

On returning to home after feeling a little relaxed and sun-kissed we unpacked and put our feet up.  After a much needed coffee I took a walk around the cottage and decided to check out the bees.  On the day before we left I caught a cast swarm from one of the hives (my own fault for leaving two queen cells).  I had hived them in a small nucleus hive and hoped for the best.  After leaving them for a couple of days there was no activity at the entrance to the nuc.  It was raining so it might not be a bad sign.  I was itching to know if they had stayed but could not open them up and disturb them unnecessarily.  So, the logical conclusion was to grab the stethoscope from our hypochondria kit and try and hear some activity.  All was silent.  I cheekily gave the hive a little knock which would normally (I have done it accidentally) give a menacing snake like hiss.  Nothing.  The hive was empty and removing the lid confirmed that it was bare and Tooter and her tiny entourage were gone. Maybe she returned to the hive or took up residence in the other hive that might be queenless.  These are extremely slim possibilities but not beyond the realms of possibility.  In a week I will get a chance to open up the hives and find out what is going on in what is left of them.  Some good news reached me today though.  I am told that there is plenty of activity at Grelder’s hive at the out apiary.  In theory, she should have a fresh batch of newly hatched bees freeing up even more to be out foraging. Her bees are making honey and they might not eat it themselves if the fine weather returns.

the last known location of Tooter

When we got back from Cushendun I decided to look at the bookshelf and find anything interesting that I had filed as ‘to be read sometime way off in the future’.  I picked up ‘The Worm Forgives the Plough’ by John Stewart Collis.  What a find.  I am only a quarter of the way into this book now and I love it.  Collis is an academic who chooses to throw himself into agriculture as a labourer during the Second World War.  He knows very little about the jobs and describes what he sees and does exactly as he sees them.  It is a beautifully written book about the methods that were on their way out as mechanisation began to take over and industrialise farming.  Here is a random passage to give a hint at his style:

Before we knocked off, the remainder of the rick had to be covered with an old tarpaulin which we dragged out of the stable close by We unfolded it gradually, and as we did so more than one nest of mice came to light, mice large and small and tiny. They began to try and-scuttle away, the baby ones running round helplessly. Arthur grabbed at them with his enormous hands, catching two or three at a time. He squeezed them to death and stuck them in his waistcoat pocket. He disposed of a large number of them in this manner. He took a mouse, squeezed it between his forefinger and mighty thumb, stuck it in his pocket, then grabbed another, squeezed it and likewise tuck it into his coat or waistcoat until he was bulging with mice. At first I couldn’t imagine the object of this collection. It turned out that they were for the cat at home. On returning he would call the cat to him and steadily produce mice from his person. Not so much for love of the cat, I gathered, as in order to encourage further research in this direction.

Although there is this book and others in the same ‘too read’ category, I could not resist picking up a few more today.  There is a second hand book shop in Belfast that is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures that are waiting to be discovered.  The shelves seem dangerously stacked and claustrophobically narrow.  They seem to contain material on any and every subject apart from beekeeping.  I could not find and section on beekeeping.  I enquired at the desk expecting the gentleman to scratch his head and point me towards the natural history section which I had already went over exhaustively, several times.  Instead, and to my surprise, he turned around and put hand to a modest pile of books beside the till.  He said that a lot of people ask about beekeeping books and he hardly ever gets any in.  So when he does have some he keeps them beside him so he can easily get at them.  The books were from a very old collection and one classic stood out so much that once I saw the author’s name and the bargain price. I snapped it up without even looking inside the cover.  I walked away with four books for not much more that ten pounds, books that will be added to ‘that’ pile.

a beekeeping classic

an old one but the rles don’t seem to have changed that much

it seems that meadowsweet was the original aspirin

not astronomy, it’s about living in a lighthouse

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

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.

The moon is waxing towards full this weekend. It seems a fitting time to plant things.  Some would even do it deliberately in a waxing moon believing that it helps the crops.  This theory of ‘biodynamics’ sounds implausible as the groundwater here in Ireland always seems high whether the moon if full or new.  Maybe it is premature to be planting at the moment as it is not the seed moon or planting moon but it is the moon of winds.  I put more trust in the old names than biodynamics.  The old names are a guide to the changing faces of the months and the jobs that need done through the year.  Then again, Mesolithic man did not have a greenhouse.

This coming full moon is a ‘supermoon’.  Its distance to the earth is close at the same time that it is full.  This makes it appear bigger than normal in the sky.  It also means that predictions come forth about its effect from ‘astrologers’.  The subtle spelling difference that says astrologers and not astronomers makes me dismiss these predictions as nonsense.  After all, these same astrologers predicted that today I would do something about something vague and possibly meet someone important.  Personally I think everyone I met today was important.



Last night the lovely Sharon and I watched a little bit of a Steven Pinker lecture.  He was summarising some of the main points of a book called the Blank Slate.  This was a book I read some time ago and I must admit I found myself struggling through it.  It is a good book but a hard topic to wade through.  Pinker tackles the evidence on some very tough topics including such heavy things as God, religion, racism, violence, gender, war, Marxism, etc.  When Pinker published the book there were two topics that he tackled that received about 90% of the criticisms written.  These two topics were the arts and parenting.  Let me give you a glimpse of why.

steven pinker

Pinker looked at the current scientific evidence and drew the obvious conclusions no matter how difficult they were to accept.  On parenting, the conclusion is the most hard to swallow.  A lot of the evidence Pinker worked on points towards the concept that the parenting shapes the child.  However, this research does not take into account the fact that parents pass on their traits and possibly personality by genetics.  Once these genetic factors are taken into account the conclusions change and are a little frightening.  Twins appear a lot in this research and they have very similar personalities even when brought up in different homes.  In fact, they turn out just as similar when brought up in different homes as they are when brought up in the same home.  You would have assumed that they would be more similar if brought up in the same home, but this is not the case.  So, when summed up, the evidence points towards two conclusions:


  • Everything that happens to you in a given home appears to leave no permanent stamp on your personality or intellect.
  • Children are shaped not by their parents, over the long run, but actually in part by genes, and their culture at large and by the culture of their peers and, to a very large extent, by chance.


The lovely Sharon and I found these conclusions difficult to swallow.  Especially as our own culture bombards us with ideas that we have to do this and that to stimulate the little man’s development.  But, we are scientists and we find it hard not to ignore research.  As Dara O’Briain said, and I paraphrase, “people think they can pick and choose science.  They ignore the bits they don’t like but you never hear them getting onto a plane and saying “I don’t like the look of those wings.  I want curly wings on my plane.””

In the end I wonder if Steven Pinker looked at the effect of cuddles, tickles and hugs.  I would like to hypothesise that even though the little man’s personality is in his genes, culture and chance; I think that cuddles, tickles and hugs will bring out the best in him.

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