geekness


During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close.  Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family.  This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.

Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland.  It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb.  I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.

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It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place.  I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.

Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.

Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage.  I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months.  Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements.  When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home.  Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.

I think I can handle a little light drizzle or a bit of rain while I’m working in the garden. Yet today was a too much at times. At one stage, one of many, I retired to the cottage to watch the hail stones coat the grass. It cleared quite suddenly and I stepped back out into the cold air to hear the lovely Sharon shout behind me, “A rainbow! A rainbow!” It was a remarkable rainbow. It was remarkably colourful and remarkably close to the ground. Then the moment of realisation came; the rainbow ended right in the middle of the turnip field which was just a donkey field away from where I was standing.  There I was with a spade already in my hand and thinking that moments like this present themselves less than once in a lifetime, then real treasure presented itself. The little people picked up on the excitement and wowed at the rainbow.  The little man spotted the double rainbow and I pointed out how the colours are reversed (I excluded the mathematical reasons). The little lady recited all the colours she could see, and the littlest man yelped something indecipherable but encouraging; this was the true treasure at the end of the rainbow.

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As I poured in the sugar syrup and put the mouse guards on the hives tonight, I remembered the strange case of the mad mouse. It all began as I sat looking out the kitchen window and spotted something small running about on the roof of the wood shed. It was one of those strange moments when it is absurd enough to take a few seconds to sink in; a mouse running about on the roof in broad daylight.  Soon The little man and I were perched at the window with binoculars watching this mouse and its nonsense.  It ran over the roof as if looking for something, then ran to the apex and slipped under a bit of bent corrugated iron.  It might disappear for a few seconds only to reappear and carry on with its quest.  What this was, we were never sure. It never went into the gutter or near any moss, it just seemed to run about the roof.  The three seemingly overfed cats never put in an appearance as it ran about for a very long time. The little man asked mouse themed questions.  One of these was, “what do mouse bones look like? Are they like our bones?”  This might just prompt me to do a little experiment that I read about a long time ago.  Catch a mouse, kill it, then place it in a wire cage.  This can be left at the bottom of the garden.  As long as it is left long enough, and as long as the holes in the wire are small enough, no larger animals should steal the bones.  So, after a while the bones will be left and it ends up as a little mouse jigsaw puzzle of sorts. Is it bad that I think this is a fine father and son activity? At the very least we will have reduced the pest population by one.

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The details were sketchy.  In spite of  reading  and re-reading emails and attachments, I could not find the details; the time and the place.  It seemed that they were assumed to be known to everyone but me; the new member of this secretive group.  I gave up and sent an email explaining that I was at a loss, then I waited.

On the morning of the meeting I received a reply that included directions. This named road, then that named road, before turning down another country lane before finding a track beside a neatly cut hedge.  When I read these I was skeptical that such a hedge could be distinguishable after half an hour’s driving along country lanes. Then I turned a corner and spotted an unusually neat hedge with a lane that took me to the meeting hut beside an old stone castle.  I half expected to find someone wearing a red carnation who would hand me a briefcase with the clue to the next part of my adventure.

As soon as I arrived I was welcomed warmly.  Slowly, more and more people arrived and mugs of tea and biscuits were distributed.  When they stood in small groups the conversation always started with the bees; “How are your bees?”  From there the conversations went off along different paths, but one thing was constant; the bees. At one point I veered away from the details of apiculture and opened up a little. In a conversation with one gentleman I revealed that in the winter I forgot all about the bees until, in Spring, I felt the bee fever and they began to occupy my dreams.  The man’s face seemed confused and a little shocked.  I suspected I had shared too much emotion and he must think me a dreamer and a dolt.  Then he stopped me and declared fervently, “No, No, I never forget them in Winter.  I can’t stop thinking  and dreaming about them all year.” The conversational paths would often come back to one serious point; winter losses.  When someone shared news of a lost colony the others would hang their heads in experienced sympathy. A story circulated about someone who knew someone who lost seven colonies. Faces winced along with a sharp intake of breath through teeth, as if they had been revealed the gruesome details of an industrial accident.

When we were all certain that anybody that needed a cup of tea or a biscuit was provided for, we all settled into our seats for a presentation about the rare flora and fauna of the Causeway Coast.  It was about then that I realised that these people weren’t obsessed with bees.  These people were obsessed with life and the world around them and I felt welcome in such company.

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I plan to use the electricity from a car battery to encourage the chickens to lay eggs.  It is not through some gruesome electroshock therapy, but with light.  They are tied to light and the tide of the seasons.  I plan to trick them.

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Last year the eggs stopped coming around this time of year and did not begin to return until the end of January.  This year, out of ten hens only the two youngest have continued to lay.  Even now they are slowing down to an egg only every few days. It’s amazing that they are so domesticated that they do this at all.  Under the pressures and margins of commercial farming, a chicken has been bred that can lay an egg every twenty five hours nearly all year.  The wild birds must look on with shock at this ability. Although the wild birds have limited energy, having to forage far and wide at the whims of the seasons.  The chickens get everything given to them.  The chickens might argue that everything is taken away.

We live in darkness. Around midwinter the day will be only seven hours long, and most of that is usually dull and grey.  This is where the elecktrickery comes in…. A car batter, a timer, and six hundred lumens of LED light might fool them into spring.  Light controls their cycles, needing only nine or ten hours of dark roosting.  I feel a little bit guilty with this con, but then I also feel guilty buying eggs from the shop.  A little of the guilt might be offset if I rig up our small solar panel to it.  If that works then there may be a certain poetry to the setup.  Instead of using electricity I will be using the battery to bottle the sunlight and give them a little back in the long winter nights.

My laptop hard drive failed tonight. It failed with a creaking squealing sound that hard drives shouldn’t make. I shrugged my shoulders and remained philosophical. The lovely Sharon seemed concerned, “what about all your work?” I shrugged my shoulders again, “sure it’s all in the clouds.” We both looked out the window and contemplated the overcast sky. “And anyway, it’s just an old laptop that somebody else wanted to throw away. The hard drive was probably on it’s last days anyway.” She looked at her laptop, also recycled. Or should I say pre-loved, full of apps and not programs? “Do laptops just fail?” It felt like a conversation we should be having if we were four years old, about our pets. “Don’t worry, we always have the clouds.” She switched back to being concerned about me, “so, what are you going to do?” By this stage I had found an old unwanted laptop hard drive and swapped it for the squealing one. It booted up and the familiar linux login screen appeared. Less concerned with me now the lovely Sharon looked at her own laptop again, “I hate linux, it’s so frustrating.”
“But, it’s free. Most of the internet runs on linux, or so I’m told.”
“It’s still frustrating.”
“Besides, how would people know you are a geek if you aren’t using linux?” She just shook her head. Silence.

After a few moments the laptop was back on its feet and had synced all its ‘apps’, connected to the clouds. Concerned again, but this time for my nerdiness and not for my laptop, “did you just have a spare hard drive just sitting already set up?”
“I was saving it for a cloudy day”

“It’s raining, should we still go?” I looked outside as if to acknowledge the question, even though I had just come in from cleaning out the hen house. I replied that we should go, we would be mad not to. The lovely Sharon’s question was not about the fact that we should go walking in the rain, it was about getting stuck in a heavy downpour with the little ones. The weather front seemed slow moving and more damp than menacing.

Wrapped up in layers and hats, we found ourselves in Acorn Wood. We have found ourselves visiting here a lot recently. Acorn Wood has been set up by its local community of volunteers who look after its grounds, ducks, geese, swans, chickens, rabbits, guinea fowl and pheasants. It even has a little fairy village hidden away in the woods, but I think they look after themselves.

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There was water all around us. Water drizzling from the sky, water dripping from the points of twigs and yellow leaves. Water splatting in the puddles under our feet and a soft fur of water covering the hats on our heads. Even our breath was saturated and wet the air in front of us. In such weather at this time of year I can’t help myself from constantly stopping and staring. Gazing at the running river, at piles of fallen leaves, at rooks in the trees.

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After a few hours the thought of food and the wood stove brought us home. After a wet autumn walk I can think of no better smell than that of damp hats and gloves drying by the stove. Later there was a different smell from the stove. Autumn is the season for rolling out fistfuls of hazelnuts on top of the wood stove. We sit back and patiently wait for the slight hint of burning before we lift them off and try and eat them when they are too hot and burn our fingers. The lovely Sharon believes roasted chestnuts are superior to hazelnuts. I will have to disagree with her on this matter.

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It has been discovered that hazelnuts were harvested in large amounts on the Scottish island of Colonsay nine thousand years ago. Annually, neolithic man made a trip to the trees and collected them to roast them on the island in what must have been very large fires. It seems that roasted hazelnuts can be stored longer than fresh ones, a fact we knew nine thousand years before best before dates. I can’t help but picture them sitting around the fire on a damp autumn night with the smell of roasting nuts and drying hats.

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