I first started observational astronomy in my thirties. That was when I constructed an 8 inch reflector using a car axle for the alt-azimuth motion and housing that in a solid wood tripod. I followed instructions from a ‘how to’ book and was amazed that, after some fine tuning, I saw pin-point sharp images of stars and could see distant galaxies. I used the scope for a number of years but finally sold it and that was the end of my telescopic observations (I occasionally used binoculars, which by the way is the best way of getting to know the constellations).
Fast forward forty four years. Last December I bought a used 5 inch reflector – the model often advertised as a ‘beginner’s scope.’ I started using it in my bedroom looking through window glass. All the advice suggest this is a bad idea for obvious reasons. However, I found it was a good way of getting to know the scope and how to use the equatorial mount. There seemed very little distortion that you would expect looking through glass and hardly any you could notice when observing the moon.
The next stage I attempted was astro-photography. I’d seen stunning images taken with smartphones on Facebook. You hold the phone camera up to the eyepiece and, hey presto, you have your photo! Well, it’s not quite that simple in practice. For a first attempt I struggled for over half an hour lining up the camera lens with the eyepiece. Eventually I got my first image of a daytime moon that I was pleased with.
The next stage was to buy an adaptor so you could attach the phone to the eyepiece. This was an improvement on the hand-held method but it was still fiddly aligning the camera lens to get all of the image centred. However, I persevered and took the scope outside to photograph the moon.
So, four months have been a steep learning curve – and it continues. This last week I downloaded a free image-editing programme which enables you to enhance your photos. In the days when digital cameras first came on the scene ‘improving’ images in this way was seen as cheating! Nowadays, it’s an accepted part of the whole digital process. So far, I’ve used it judiciously; mainly to sharpen an image as in these two photos. I added the star for artistic effect, but I’d have to look again at the programme to see how I did that.
If you can alter the shutter speed of your camera you can take longer exposures of stars, planets, nebulae and galaxies. Maybe that’s my next step but my phone is an old one so may not be up to it.
How to begin to describe the fascination of astronomy? As I said to a friend today, I’ve always had one foot in the Arts and one in the Sciences. I had a brass microscope when I was 12 and before that spent hours and hours constructing Meccano models and balsa wood planes. Amateur Astronomy is a hands-on hobby. Moreover, it combines aesthetics, science, poetry and art. (I’ve painted a few pictures inspired by astronomy and written a few poems.) You could throw in ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ into the mix too. Blaise Pascal found the immensity of space frightening. Most people find it awe-inspiring but also impossible to grasp what 100,000 light years, for example, actually is. The ‘God by Design’ argument in philosophy is best exemplified by viewing the night sky on a clear night. For me it’s enough to feel a sense of the numinous as I manoeuvre my scope onto a galaxy 2,000 light-years distant. It’s no wonder ancient cultures populated the night sky with gods and legends.
[Perhaps I could write a Part Two about the symbolism of the moon and how different cultures have viewed our nearest galactic neighbour.]
This first blog of the New Year may come out as a bit crazy as I’m writing off the top of my head without any plan. Even for those of you who don’t listen to a lot of symphonies I urge you, just this once, to listen to the first 15 minutes of this! (Eschenbach and his orchestra are superlative by the way. I can’t imagine a better performance.) You can start the video and listen as you read: the music then will run parallel to some of my thoughts.
Last year I wrote a long poem inspired by Mahler’s 3rd symphony, his longest. Early on in that symphony there is a trombone solo and he plays a haunting melody throughout the movement. I find something inexplicably moving about such musical devices; the solo instrument seems to stand for the individual struggling against fate, society, conditioning karma or what you will. Here in the 5th I find the trumpet solo almost unbearably moving in the same way.
Probably because of early-life trauma I have been looking for a kind of ‘perfection’ most of my life. After reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider when I was 21 I decided that ‘ordinary life’ was banal and boring and there had to be something else! (I have too many reservations about Wilson now and see his many flaws.) This has led me on a long search which has included overdosing on classical music, investigating religion and spirituality (too much to itemise here), literature, poetry, wring poetry and short stories, art, practising as an artist, various hobbies and of course, relationships. On the psychological level I might term all of this seeking, ‘compensation activity.’ I can accept that I have been trying to ‘fill’ a sort of emotional ‘lack’ but does that negate the seeking after perfection? I am asking these questions as a 74 year old.
A spanner was well and truly thrown in the works when I started following the Zen Buddhist path in 1985. There is a saying in the tradition I follow, ‘to live by Zen is the same as to live an ordinary daily life.’ (Actually it is part of Dogen’s advice for meditation) Yikes; did that mean I’d spent decades wasting time and floundering about? Well, yes and no. It did mean in practical terms that I questioned my assumptions more and more and could no longer take refuge in seeing myself as an outsider or elavating art as the main purpose in life. (Schopenhauer famously believed the Arts were literally the only compensation for being born a human, such was his pessimistic view.)
As a Buddhist I try not to divide things as being inferior or superior. Walking into a shopping centre or supermarket use to throw up all sorts of judgemental thoughts such as, ‘this is mindless, what a consumer society we live in.’ Nowadays because of being more mindful I just do the shopping. ( The thoughts will still arise but I don’t dwell on them.) It may not be as enjoyable an experience as listening to Mahler but that is the Buddhist view. We don’t see reality as it is because of all our personal preferences and opinions. I’m a slow learner when it comes to Buddhist practice.
This slight change in my ‘outlook’ has been very gradual since 1985 I’d say and it actually makes the best of both outlooks. The music, works of art etc. seem more amazing and the little steps of life such as walking in a park or doing the dishes are also amazing. Don’t get me wrong. Depression is ongoing and most days I tread water to keep my chin above the surface. However, even the depression (not a good term as it is not a noun, not a ‘thing’) takes on a slighly different context. A Buddhist monk recently came out with the wonderful throwaway statement that ‘there is more to life than life.’ This gives me hope and confidence that there is a bigger picture than what my own petty preferences show me. I suppose it is similar to the line in Shakespeare that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ It is a lot more nuanced than Shakespeare though; it points to the soap opera quality of ordinary life. (Oh dear, we are back to ordinary life being banal and boring! I told you this could turn out to be crazy.) It is said that there are the circumstances we each find ourselves in and at the same time an underlying ‘life-force’ for lack of a better word. (‘Buddha nature’ to be exact but I am not writing this for confirmed Buddhists.) I cannot describe here what it precisely means but can throw out a few pointers. How about the Christian ‘to be IN the world but not OF the world? And one for the Buddhists among you; Samsara and Nirvana are not seperate.
What has all of this rambling to do with Mahler? Here is another thought. One of the aspects I like about Mahler is the length of his symphonies; most are over an hour long. In this time of the sound bite and low attention span I revel in something which both demands prolonged attention and is compex. Why? Umm, maybe because it’s just the joy of music. Maybe because life is difficult and complex and therefore the music runs in parallel to life. I suspect one of the reasons why Mahler is popular today is exactly because his music reflects the complexity of life we all recognise. That multi-layered complexity is what I was getting at in my poem.
So, finally what of perfection? There is another saying that all people have an intuitive sense of an ultimate goodness or an ultimate ‘reality’ above and beyond their own personal lives. It is not something that can be logically argued about. I believe that is behind my own seeking after perfection – dare I say it: that we have to believe we are okay (perfect?) as we are! (Wabi sabi in our own lives.) That means for me I can still enjoy Mahler but also can accept when I feel grumpy, depressed and irritable. I can still gaze at a Van Gogh in awe but still appreciate the hot water running out of my tap.
My imaginary interlocutor may ask why is washing the dishes ‘amazing.’? Imagine being on your deathbed. Will you be able to wash the dishes then? Will you be at peace then? Now that you can wash the dishes, can you reflect on the incredible compexity of the action. The complex co-ordination! Above all, can you ‘just wash the dishes’ without following a train of thoughts about the past or the future?
As we approach the end of this unprecedented year it seems appropriate to post this short poem.
That was the year when
everything shut down
and all we could hear
were the birds.
That was the year when
we hid from each other
and couldn’t say goodbye
to the dying.
That was the year when
the masked looked
askance at the unmasked.
That was the year when
we found out what
was essential and what
That was the year when
I found out there was more
to life than life.
That was the year when
I found out there is more
to death than death.
That was the year when
I unstitched a few
That was the year when
I found out there was a
a human need to reach
out and touch others.
* * *
I am reading a novel at the moment which is pertinent to our present pandemic. It is titled The Silver Darlings, by a Scottish author, Neil M Gunn. It was first published in 1941, perhaps that date is significant in itself. The ‘silver darlings’ of the title are in fact herrings as the novel traces the Highland fishermen and their families in various situations. (They are silver not only because of their colour but because they provide sustenance and profit for the population.) Each chapter (26 in total) has a title and chapter 10 is The Coming of the Plague. The plague turns out to by dysentery but the effects on the population are the same; the need to isolate those infected and many deaths. With our present pandemic I’ve heard people reference Albert Camus; The Plague and other novels or plays but I’d be surprised if many people have heard of this Scottish novel. The historical setting is around the highland clearances when many were moved off the land and hence found employment in the fishing industries. There is an underlying political dimension to the novel. (Neil Gunn was a Scottish Nationalist.)
As some of you may know my father was a Scot and I may even have heard him mention Neil Gunn. It is a pity I will never know if he read this book. There are salmon fishermen in our ancestry so that is another reason for connecting with the characters.
So, what is it about the novel which makes it other than just a ripping old adventure story? In a word, its humanity. The characters are all believable and three-dimensional. But above that, I have been moved by the honest down to earth evocations of situations involving suffering and joy, for example when he describes compassion in action and the love between the characters. There are many poetic descriptions of the countryside and sea. Many commentators today talk of the loss of community: in this novel there is a strong sense of community. It is easy to feel nostalgia for the past and over-romanticise it, but Neil Gunn writes without sentimentality of a way of life which has vanished from the so called developed world.
The plague chapters are very moving and are impossible to read without comparison to our present situation. Again, he doesn’t exaggerate the suffering and writes with much empathy. (I do wonder how the war affected him and how involved he was. Some research for a rainy day! I had a quick look online and there is no mention of the war although he was living in Scotland in the 40s.)
I am only half way through the novel so I have not made my mind up as to how satisfying it is in the end as a work of art. From what I have read so far, I would recommend it as a novel which provides insights into a way of life of the past and how natural forces (disease and the elements) affect us all.
I have now finished reading the novel and can say it is one of the most life-enhancing novels I’ve read. The relationship between Catrine and her son is very well developed. The overall tone of vitality and optimism is refreshing; there is none of the angst associated with mid twentieth century literature. Some may conclude that this is because it is a naturalistic ‘escapist’ narrative, but I found depths of insight here which would contradict this assessment.
The only sounds that Adam could hear were the cries of the red kites and buzzards as they searched for carrion. That and the sloshing of water everywhere. As he stepped onto an iron girder he squeezed the water from his dirty trouser legs.
He wasn’t sure whether there were any other living humans as he clambered over what had once been an ocean-going cruise liner. The aquatic monstrosity was now lying virtually upside down in the middle of the river Tyne. Adam thought he might be able to find something edible if he could find an entry point.
It seemed odd to Adam that he had only seen a few rotting bodies during his hand to mouth existence. Maybe the profusion of kites and buzzards had cleared the high ground of many of the corpses. On second thoughts Adam knew that this was not an adequate explanation; if it had been he would have seen plenty of skeletal remains on higher ground. A much more likely explanation was that the majority of the population had been washed out to sea, or had simply sunk beneath the water which was now enveloping what had once been the Newcastle and Gateshead city centres.
He was now standing on firm ‘ground’ – or rather, on the ship’s belly which lay diagonally a good three or four metres above the polluted water. He had to use his hands to maintain balance as he edged towards a broken window. Once inside the hulk he pulled on his mask and began to explore the drowned leviathan. Even with the mask on he could smell the familiar bouquet of death. Bloated bodies, looking like shoals of puffer fish, floated just inches below the surface of the water.
Greta Thunberg tells us to be scared: T.S.Eliot said ‘mankind cannot bear too much reality: Gurdjieff said we are automata; we live like sleepwalkers and that planet Earth is a far outpost in the galaxy, populated by psychotic beings (so did Douglas Adams); Eckhart Tolle says many of us are living ‘unconscious lives.’ David Attenborough appears on countless television programmes warning us about species extinction and climate catastrophe; Gandhi said there was enough produce on the planet for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed; William Blake said we are blind, that the fool sees not the same tree as the wise person and that heaven is in a wild flower; Extinction Rebellion disrupts city life; Friday School Protests become global, and in 2008 a project called Dark Mountain launches its Manifesto. Here are some quotes from it:
The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.
The authors point out that thinkers have always been aware of the fragility of life and that ‘civilisation’ is skin deep. They quote Joseph Conrad and then this apt simile from Bertrand Russell:
Bertrand Russell caught this vein in Conrad’s worldview, suggesting that the novelist ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ What both Russell and Conrad were getting at was a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.
It is tempting to quote more and more but I’ll leave it to readers to read the whole Manifesto online (it’s on the Dark Mountain website: https://dark-mountain.net/) I’ll just quote one more part:
We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age – the age of ecocide. To name it thus is not to presume the outcome, but simply to describe a process which is underway. The ground, the sea, the air, the elemental backdrops to our existence – all these our economics has taken for granted, to be used as a bottomless tip, endlessly able to dilute and disperse the tailings of our extraction, production, consumption. The sheer scale of the sky or the weight of a swollen river makes it hard to imagine that creatures as flimsy as you and I could do that much damage.
For those of us who can bear as much reality as is necessary, reading the Manifesto will confirm what we have been aware of all along. Other people may regard it as alarmist but this position is being shown to be based on wishful thinking and ignorance as the evidence of the human-caused destruction mounts each day.
First, we have to diagnose the problem. I would suggest the Manifesto does this clearly, radically and evidentially. Then we have to seek remedies. This seems straightforward doesn’t it?
(Actually, Dark Mountain’s approach is quite modest: it is primarily about the arts; that is, the project is about providing a platform for writers and artists as we head into the unknown.)
In this article, I simple want to address the predicament we find ourselves in now, more generally. It takes a pandemic to wake us up it seems. It has forced many of us to differentiate between the inessential and the essential. Do we really intend to carry on having two or three holidays abroad? How many businesses are benefiting humankind as opposed to destroying the environment or alienating human beings with their soul-destroying products? [Not to mention arms production and other life-destroying technology!]
The response to Covid has been global (is global) and has radically changed our lifestyles. This shows that governments, organisations and individuals can use the wonderful gift we have as humans – that is, we can get together to collectively use our brains to affect change and solve problems. (Obviously some countries have dealt with the pandemic much better than we in the UK have.) Notwithstanding the note of absolutism sounded by Dark Mountain, that of ecocide being an unprecedented challenge, it should be possible to turn the tide even at this late stage. Unfortunately, species extinction and climate catastrophe don’t seem to be as immediate challenges compared to Covid 19. They are more amorphous, less graspable than the pandemic. Which is ironic as climate change and habitat destruction could end up with the extinction of homo sapiens (I always think it ironic; this classification of us as ‘wise’).
I am not an economist but recently I saw a book with the title, The End of Capitalism. This idea that our political systems are becoming outmoded seems to be in the air. In my opinion, and that of the Manifesto authors, Capitalism as we have know it is the ultimate cause of our present predicament. With its crude credo of economic growth at all costs, it has raped the earth, caused ongoing species extinction, displaced whole populations, alienated us from each other (Marx was not alone in thinking this; there were also Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to name two other contemporary figures); caused climate change and even caused the various pandemics we have witnessed. (Would viruses jump from animal to human if we didn’t have hundreds of thousands -millions?- of human beings working in appalling sanitary conditions killing and handling animals, many of them wild animals?)
William Blake’s little drawing, I want, represents the ‘engine’ of the capitalist project and shows how consumerism feeds on itself. There is no end to ‘wanting more’ and we need to learn how to be content with less. This was the message of a lot of writers in the sixties such as E. F. Schumacher with his Small is Beautiful.
If capitalism is not replaced with something more equitable, more humane and more ecological it could be responsible for the ultimate extinction.
We can’t say we haven’t seen this coming; to the names of Conrad and Bertrand Russell could be added the following random selection:
William Wordsworth, H. G. Wells, Theodore Rosak, Krishnamurti, Eric Fromm, Henry David Thoreau, William Blake, Rachel Carson, Marjory Stoneman, Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman and Wendell Berry.
I am not so idealistic as to imagine capitalism will be dismantled tomorrow. I am thinking long term; fifty or a hundred years from now. If we survive that long I imagine capitalism will be viewed as a primitive system on a par with feudalism.
Societies cannot be transformed to become more humane and equitable without a concomitant transformation of consciousness. This may well be a subject of my future posts.
Nightingales have a special significance for me; when I first saw and heard one in France I had an experience of the ‘numinous.’ I describe this briefly in another post titled, Keats’ Nightingale.
I even coined the term, ‘the nightingale effect’ to describe any time and instance when we see the world anew, with child-like eyes, completely devoid of pain or disharmony.
John Clare (1793-1864) used to be described as a ‘peasant poet’ because he had not had much of a formal education, if any. However we must remember Bernard Shaw’s quip about his own education, that ‘the only time my education was interrupted was when I went to school.’ The education Clare received from Nature, like Wordsworth, was life-long and deep. Maybe his vision was kept pure because he hadn’t been ‘corrupted’ by the stultifying educational system of his day.?
It’s strange how we have books on our shelves unread or unremembered. I have a 1966 anthology of Clare’s poetry and prose and I certainly have read it. However, I can’t remember this poem, The Nightingale’s Nest, having such an effect on me as when I read it today. It works on a number of levels as all good poetry does. It parallels my own experience of searching for this ‘wonder-bird.’ I wasn’t looking for its nest but simply looking and listening to see if I could find the bird. People who are not birders (to use the American term which has been adopted here in the UK) may wonder what all the fuss is about. This would require an article of its own but for me it combines many things including a sense of the chase, making a list, a sense of achievement, furthering the trait of curiosity, aesthetic pleasure and self-transcendence, if that latter is not too pretentious a term. (Actually, readers now can appreciate this, as witnessed by so many in this unprecedented lockdown situation. Presenters on TV, such as Chris Packham, have talked of the healing power of nature.)
To get back to Clare, the lines, I’ve nestled down/And watched her while she sung – and her renown/Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird/
Should have no better dress than russet brown. . . exactly parallels my response when I first saw one singing. (I’ll add my short poem at the end just to show this similar response.)
The genius of Clare is that he writes of the particular but in so doing he uses the specific as a jumping of platform into a spiritual dimension. (Strictly speaking there are not two things here; the experiences he writes of are all of a whole; the specific and spiritual are two sides of the coin.) Of course, he has this in common with Blake, Wordsworth and many other poets. But, perhaps he is the more consistent in his adherence to his ‘local patch’. Wordsworth travelled a lot in comparison. Anyway, I’ll leave the poem to speak for itself.
The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove, And list the nightingale – she dwells just here. Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear The noise might drive her from her home of love; For here I’ve heard her many a merry year – At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day, As though she lived on song. This very spot, Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way – And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got, Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails – There have I hunted like a very boy, Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn To find her nest, and see her feed her young. And vainly did I many hours employ : All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn. And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down, And watched her while she sung ; and her renown Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird Should have no better dress than russet brown. Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy, And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy, And mouth wide open to release her heart Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me Did happy fancies shapen her employ; But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred, All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain: The timid bird had left the hazel bush, And at a distance hid to sing again. Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves, Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain, Till envy spurred the emulating thrush To start less wild and scarce inferior songs; For while of half the year Care him bereaves, To damp the ardour of his speckled breast; The nightingale to summer’s life belongs, And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs, Are strangers to her music and her rest. Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide – Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush – For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest, Her curious house is hidden. Part aside These hazel branches in a gentle way, And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs, For we will have another search to day, And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ; And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows, We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook : In such like spots, and often on the ground, They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look – Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here, Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by – Nay, trample on its branches and get near. How subtle is the bird ! she started out, And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh, Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear, That might betray her home. So even now We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still. See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough, Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill. Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives. We will not plunder music of its dower, Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall; For melody seems hid in every flower, That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ; And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves, Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. How curious is the nest ; no other bird Uses such loose materials, or weaves Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves Are placed without, and velvet moss within, And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare, What scarcely seem materials, down and hair; For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win. Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives Homes for her children’s comfort, even here; Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near That loves such pleasant places. Deep a down, The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell. Snug lie her curious eggs in number five, Of deadened green, or rather olive brown; And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well. So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, As the old woodland’s legacy of song.
* * *
Last day in France – binoculars at the ready – after sudden rain I walk along steaming tarmac into pine forest shade, pulled by bright sobbing and glissando glide – I know you’re there by your jazzy come-on; I’ve tuned my ears to see round corners! My first glance upwards towards the telephone cable over-shoots – the bird on the wire looks so plain – I don’t catch on to your whispered tones. When I catch up, you’re magnified in a circle – I marvel at your modest plumage, warm brown tail and throbbing throat. A little brown jizz! Your bel canto leaps, your triplets and tremolos are a high wire cabaletta – heard only by me.
Maybe tomorrow you’ll fly south, silently tracking the fine line between light and dark, between seeing and not seeing, while I fly north towards grey skies, terraced houses and blackbirds in the park.
The Clare anthology I have is Clare, New Oxford Series, Edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. (1966) It has a wide selection of poems and prose so you can read the prose description and the subsequent poem.