Sunday, 28 February 2010

Research Methods: The Archives

The coolest research methods lecture yet was about using the archives. Not only was the topic interesting and the lecture useful, but the lecturer was engaging and funny.

Did you know that some archives will ask if you're prone to spontaneous nosebleeds? They fear you might burst a capillary and stain the pages of a precious manuscript. And apparently there's a whole ettiquite to follow when making an inquiry and when visiting an archive. There are foam wedges to keep the spine of books from being broken, cotton covered beads to hold the pages open, cotton gloves to keep your oils from staining the pages, and no pens allowed because they might leak. The coolest thing about archives is that they present a mystery and a challenge. I'm not sure I'll ever really visit one or become a hunter of obscure and previously unseen things (if for no other reason than they keep the archives cold), but I am liking the idea of it.

Death of a Prayer Plant

My plant is dying and I'm trying to decide what to do about it. It's infected with little mealy bugs. I've gone to the internet and asked what to do and it's said wash the leaves, spray crushed pepper water on it, buy a spray, treat it systemically. I've tried washing the leaves. It hasn't helped. I've sprayed it with a safe for food chemically spray. It hasn't helped. Now I'm in search of a systemic solution which I hope will work. The internet has told me that these gross little aphid like creatures suck the sap out of the veins of the leaves and that to kill them, I need to get something into those veins. Meanwhile, the leaves are browning and shriveling up and the nasty little creatures are making webs on the curled edges and generally grossing me out. Every night, my plant folds up its leaves and prays for a cure. I don't want to poison it or myself, but I'd quite happily poison the little bugs. What to do about it, though? Selective chemical use? Is that okay because it's within my room, not getting into open air or water or soil sources? I hope so. This plant is my favorite and I want to save it from a slow and ugly death. So far, these bugs have only sort of spread to one other plant. The other four plants are safe. I'm trying to keep it that way. Hope my plan works.

Mersea Birds

No, silly, not the girls.

On Friday, Anna invited me to go to Mersea with her friend Ron who is a birding enthusiast. He's got the right kind of binoculars (bins, as they call them) and a camera with a good zoom. I walked up to his place on Hythe Hill to meet Ron and Anna at 10. Then we drove out to Cudmore Grove on the northeastern edge of Mersea. From there, you can see out to open North Sea and left across the Colne to Brightlingsea. In between you can see the giant turbines from the Gunfleet Sands wind farm standing up over the low strip of land at Point Clear. To the right along the coast is West Mersea, the more populated side of the island, and across the Blackwater Estuary, the Dengie Peninsula juts out. The foot ferry to Brightlingsea leaves from the edge of Cudmore Grove. The ferry starts back up in April and I plan to make good use of it, walking from campus to Brightlingsea and then ferrying over to Mersea.

The winds on Friday were westerly and quite strong. It was my first time crossing the Strood when it wasn't all mud. To the right side, the water was choppy with waves. To the left, it was flat. At Cudmore Grove, the wind blew constantly at our left shoulders, pushing us towards the sea. We walked through the grass and out to the sea wall. A few skylarks were about and jumped straight up into the air in song. It's a very unusual way to take off, straight up. It's the avian equivalent of the F-35 taking off from an aircraft carrier. My first skylark sighting. I'm not sure what the fuss is about.

It was just past high tide and the water was quite high. The tops of the sea defences were visible between the waves. Unidentifiable black birds bobbed on top of the water. The fresh-water inland lake (due mostly to recent rainfall) was full of birds. We saw pochard, wigeon with their yellow foreheads, tufted duck, mallards, muted swans, gadwall, little grebes, coots, moorhens, an unindetifiable wader (which I think was a redshank, but my company disagreed), and some grey looking goose in the background. We saw lapwings in the field along with a pheasant. In the distance, we spotted jays and crow-type birds (they were either crows or rooks) and magpies. Along the trail we saw a robin, some type of tit, and a chaffinch. It was a good day for spotting birds. Dougal, the keeper of Cudmore Grove, dropped into the bird hide where we were seeking shelter from the relentless wind, and told us about a pair of waxwings that had been spotted on the other side of the island. We were headed there anyway, later, for lunch, so we decided to stop by the Co-op and see the birds. Sure enough, they were sat up in a tree, rose hip, I think he said. They're little grey birds with a tuft of feathers at the back of their heads. With binds or a good lens, you can see the hint of rose and the vivid yellow feathers that line the edges of their tails. It was a rare sighting and the twitchers were out with their mega-zoom lenses.

We stopped at the Coast Inn for lunch. It was lovely. We sat in front of an open fire and enjoyed a good chat while we warmed up. Ron showed us the beautiful picture he snapped of the waxwing. Outside, the wind continued to blow and the sky was broken up by layers of 3-D clouds, rays of sunshine, splashes of blue sky, and the mud reflecting back the light.

There's Something About Mersea

I haven't been very quiet about my lack of enthusiasm for or aesthetic pleasure derived from this part of England. It's fine, but I don't look around in awe like I have in other places. For one, it lacks mountains, and another, it lacks an abundance of trees. Anna's commented several times that I've probably had enough of the Essex coast by now. Yeah, I pretty much have. I could do with a different type of scenery. That said, I won't refuse a trip to the coast if one is on offer. And I'm not tired of going to Mersea.

One of Anna's favorite places in the world is Mersea. It holds a sentimental value for her as well as an aesthetic one. She's interested in learning more about it, discovering more about her love for her and that is interesting to me. I've been maybe 4 times now. Each time is different.

Mersea isn't anything spectacular, but it interests me. It's regarded as a backwards place by lots of people. Though if you're not from Essex, you may have never heard of it. It's known for its oysters. It's thought to be the landing spot of the Romans many ages ago when they based their British operation in Colchester. The Strood is an old roman road. It's a sort of resort town where people vacation in rented caravans and go to the sea front in summer. It's not my type of place. But I find it interesting that it's history is so often forgotten, it's a forgotten place, and yet, it's sort of a fulcrum for my time here. I've been up the coast from it, down the coast from it, I reside inland from it. I've seen it from Abbotts Hall Farm, from the Dengie Peninsula, from Brandwell, from the Strood. The coast itself sort of wraps around Mersea and I keep ending up there, and am quite happy to keep going back and getting to know different bits of it better, from birding, to eating or walking the edges, to the churches, cafes and harbor. It's a funny little place with a lot of story built up around it, even the stories that fail to mention it.


The wind has been blowing almost constantly since last night. I find it to be an interesting phenomenon. Tonight I've been tickled by my window being sucked shut repeatedly, and then, after some time, released. That happens regularly in this room. The wind has woken me up at night, as has the rain, recently. I've been observing which directions the clouds are blowing and trying to fain knowledge as to what that means for the type of weather blowing in. Yet, despite trying to play it smart, I'll admit that I don't entirely understand wind. It took me about 20 years to grasp that wind direction was in fact describing where it came from, not blew towards. I get on-shore, off-shore, the idea of solar radiation, temperature differences and more vaguely the idea of differences in pressure. And though I know about these differences in pressure, I still don't get what makes the direction of the wind, what makes it blow regularly, what happens when different spiraling bits of wind collide, and so on. Possible this is because I don't totally understand the pressure thing. I'm start to grasp that warm warmth means lower pressure because warm air is lighter than cold air, exerts less downward pressure, it rises, in warm things (gas and fluids) the little atoms speed up and spread out. I know also there's a point at which it's not so warm anymore because due to the decreased air pressure, the little atoms can no longer touch to bounce off one another and create energy/heat. Or maybe I'm making that up.

In my attempt to advance my understanding, I have discovered a few good websites (at bottom). The first two help explain what wind is. The third is a totally awesome one that shows the current wind directions in the UK.

And while my understanding is lacking, the wind continues to taught me, blowing, occasionally gusting, by my window, into my room, whistling white noise in the background. -- A lot of fun, education oriented pages -- A bit more technical. I think I need a model that demonstrates what this looks like. - Awesome!

Thursday, 25 February 2010


This is not an example of new nature writing. At best, it's a travel book. At worst, it's a documentary of how he overcame his crisis of self.

It's not about nature at all. It's about one man's experience with sailing around the coast of Britain, trying to deal with his disillusionment with his home country, the fall out of a divorce, and his general lack of ambition and drive in life (which he claims to have coasted through).

Jonathan Raban writes not to share a story about nature through the first person narrative, but to exorcise some of his issues. It's a sort of self-help retelling of a diary about a man going through a hard time. This is made clear by the first and last chapters of the book. The first sets out his issues. He's unhappy with Britain and the Brits, particularly the English. He's dissatisfied with his life, his upbringing, he has some daddy issues, and he's trying to work it all out. He starts out on the sea and alone. He ends up on land and with company, presumably a girlfriend, but we never get to meet her.

What the book does afford us is a different view of England, a view from the sea, and that's a treat (albeit even a rare one in this book).

The Fat, Lazy, Wasteful, Greedy, Bullying, Polluting, Unhealthy, Ignorant American (Did I leave anything out?)

Many of the lectures I've attended recently have referenced reports about how fat, lazy, unhealthy, wasteful, greedy and polluting Americans are. We have more cars per person (80 for every 100) than any other country. The number of and degree to which people are overweight has increased dramatically in the last 40 years. We're gigantic polluters at an average of 20 tons a head who are trying to free ride for as long as possible. We over-consume food, water (430 litres a day), and energy. It hasn't really bothered me much. I've just assumed that the reason was mostly due to the availability of studies and information and also more impressive because the US is such a big place (not a fat joke). Friday, after watching End of the Line, when the "star" of the show was answering questions was the first time when I felt like it was a low blow. He was talking about consumption being the issue, not so much population. I agree with that well enough. But he said he needs to stop going to the US because every meal he's served is two portions worth. I think this is in large part due to the choices he makes of places to eat and also I think it's unfair to point the finger at the US in that case. I'd just had an order of fish and chips that was about 2.5 meals worth. I think one of the differences between the UK and the US is that the portions might be gigantic in the US, but if I eat somewhere where that's the case, I am quite happy to take the food home and eat it for lunch the next day. Here, you're not meant to take food home with you. Asking for a doggy bag gets you funny looks. I'm not saying that there's nothing wrong with the US, I'm just saying the problems aren't isolated to its borders. I think other parts of the world, like the UK, needs to take a closer look at itself. It's not a case of a healthy chick looking down upon a fat chick, it's the clinically obese chick looking down her nose at the morbidly obese chick all the while stuffing her face.

Abbotts Hall Farm

Today was a wonderful day. Up early, the sky looked like it might let a bit of blue through. The air had dried a bit, as had the ground. We met at 9 am in the dark dungeon that they call "under podia" for a field trip--my first with the bio sci crew. We loaded into a very long passenger van and drove out to Abbotts Hall Farm ( It's an Essex Wildlife Trust site situated on the Blackwater estuary and the Salcott Channel. It consists of farm land, reclaimed marsh land, wildlife area, and grazing land. It's a beautiful place, and I bet even more beautiful in spring and summer when things are in bloom. It's an easy escape to say that in winter everything is brown and grey. The colors are actually quite a bit more complex than that. In the reeds, for example, there are purples and golds. You can see Mersea from there, and Salcott and Maldon. Our group was lead around the site by the warden who was a fantastic guide. He showed us where they were farming, explained why they're practicing conservation grade rather than organic farming (couldn't control the weeds otherwise), and what type of other wildlife encouraging practices they perform, such as beetle banks and patches of open space for starlings to land in. He took us down to the new wetland area and pointed out a few of the sea wall breeches and identified some of the salt marsh plants that were thriving in the area. We passed a bird hide, two owl boxes, a field with big piles of wet London clay, a yard with sheep in it (and tons of adorable lambs), a fresh water pond, a worn down bit of salt marsh, some coppiced hedge rows, and plenty of water fowl. The highlights for me were the puddles and the barn owl that we saw. The puddles were awesome in my wellies. I splashed about, walked through mud, walked through a few inches of water to clean the mud off again. It's so much fun to walk through puddles and have dry feet. The barn owl was an amazing sight. What beautiful bird. It's big white wings flapping gently in the air. It hovered and dropped and a few moments later, rose again. It was my first barn owl sighting and a real treat.

Abbotts Hall Farm is a place I'd like to spend more time, put in some volunteer hours, accomplishing something, contributing to something, and doing it in a beautiful setting.

Monday, 22 February 2010


It seems that nightly the temperature dips to freezing or below and the ground freezes. My feet are starting to be able to sense how cold it is by the give of the ground. I test them out on the tiny grassy mound that sits in the middle of the car park. When it's freezing, the grass cracks under my weight and the mud doesn't get on my shoes.

On Friday, walking back from campus at 9 p.m. the puddles left from the rain were frozen over. A smooth watery puddle transformed into ridged icy surface. I stepped on them and slid my feet over them in play, to see how slippery they are.

Last Monday the lake on campus was frozen over but for a little sliver where some ducks and seagulls swam. I sat on the fifth floor of the library and wondered why the edge didn't freeze. I'd think the deeper parts would stay open and the shallow edges would freeze. Was it the warmth of the earth that kept it unfrozen? Was there a lot of duck activity in that area? My train of questioning was interrupted by the single goose that announced his arrival into the park. A lone goose. He landed and wandered up hill, pecking occasionally at the grass and looking around. I hoped he was not really lost.

Yesterday, I walked to town along the river and there was a bit along side the path which had a thin layer of ice on it. It was melting and shiny. I stepped along the ice, breaking it into pieces. I jumped here and there to see if more force produced a greater crack. I did this for a few minutes until a runner came by and I made my way back to the path with slight embarrassment.

I've been wondering if this freezing and thawing is good for the earth in the way that exposure to hot then cold is good for the circulatory and immune system in a human. Is it a flush? Does it benefit the animals any? Or the trees? Is it simply confusing, as it is for me, to be hopeful one day because it's getting warmer and I can do with one layer less and then disappointed the next when it's so cold another layer is needed?

I enjoy the ice, anyway. I like to watch the bubbles beneath it pulsate. I like to watch birds land on it. I like to crack it. I like the way it changes the look of things. And I'll be glad to see it go and make way for spring.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


Coast lines and bodies of water have been a theme for me since my arrival here in Colchester. I've taken field trips to the North Sea, to Orford Ness, to Minsmere, Southwold, Dunwich, Dengie. We talked about the sea this week in Wild East. Jules said that the light, the ozone blue of the sky on that particularly sunny morning, made him want to go to the beach. That seemed funny. I saw the same beautiful sky and was excited about the day, but I was feeling that the beach was the last place I wanted to be. It made me start thinking about my relationship with the oceans. I've always wondered if I were landlocked in the middle of the country if I would miss the ocean. Growing up, the ocean was always just over the mountains. I knew where to find it. I thought I'd miss it when I lived in Norwich, but I didn't really. I didn't miss it in DC. I enjoyed going to visit it when I lived in Orange Country and LA. I spent a bit of time by oceans in Australia. It was exciting to see where the Southern and Indian Oceans met. It was thrilling to watch the sun rise over the ocean in the Whitsundays and to see the belt of Orion set into the black water. I'm not sure what my relationship was with the ocean when I was younger. I remember going to the beach. I remember the discomfort of sand in every crevice. I remember playing in the waves. I remember a sandshark swimming over my feet and being terrified. I must have been about seven. And now I'm sort of terrified of the ocean, though not as a result of that fish fluttering over my feet. I like the ocean fine from land, from up on a cliff, or at a safe distance or possibly on a flat beach with my feet in it so long as the water stays below mid-calf. I enjoy watching waves crash on the shore and dolphins arching their way along a beach. I love the sound of sea lions barking to each other. I love a blue ocean, the variation of colors as it moves from shallow to deep. But do I need an ocean? I've visited it more than I thought I would since I moved here, but I could do without it. True, the North Sea doesn't really do it for me. And technically, it visits the front of my building twice a day with the tide. I like a river. I'm craving forests and mountains. When I need a retreat, it's usually not to the beach. Maybe I've been spoiled and there's always been one within driving distance.


Today is the kind of day when it delights me to send a flock of gulls into the air. My mood proceeds me. The gulls jump up and flap their wings to keep it off them. In their sea-worthy screeches, they scold me for coming. "Keep that shit away from here." They haven't done anything to warrant my scowling gaze turned upon them, but they're there, where I want to be, and today I am not backing down. I'm hoping the water will be a calming affect. Besides, I'm quite pleased to a little ruckus being made by someone or something other than me. It makes me smile. The festering settles as the sun sets and the gulls make their way back, one orange foot at a time.

The most important choice you will ever make . . .

Tuesday there was a lecture on ecoliteracy. It brought up some interesting debates and responses from my classmates. My attentions settled on two quotes. One was from Aldo Leopold and included the phrase "rivers washing the future into the sea". I thought that was tragically lovely. The other was from the tutor who said that the choices we make at the supermarket are the most important ones we can make. What are the implications of this? It seems like it shouldn't be that way. It seems like our vote, our actions, our . . . I don't, anything seems more important than what we buy at the supermarket. Does this mean each bleep as an item is scanned is a vote? I think the answer is yes. Now that we live in such a economically powered world, the best way for the average person to get his or her point across is to speak with his or her money. This also means the more money you have, the more power you have. Now, of course, as an individual, you don't count for much or make much difference, but it's a start and at least your conscience will be clear. And once you start going down that path, you can lead by example, encourage others to, band with likeminded folk and start to build that social capital, start, like Ming Lo, to move the mountain, influence the economic machine.

Shake things up

After hearing yet another story about another cultural practice that is dying off because the younger generations aren't picking it up (for any number of reasons), I got to thinking that it might be time to change things up. If it's important that a particular practice continues to be carried out, then why not open it up to everyone. Advertise for folks to come and learn and give them the opportunity to develop a skill, be employed and be a part of something. Seems to me that a lack of involvement, of things to get involved in, of cooperation and contribution are part of what ails the western world. Take the fishermen on Lake Puravesi in Finland. Ice fishing is part of their culture. There used to be 50 teams of fishermen in the 1950s and today there are just 3 regular teams of 2-3 men. Fishermen have apijas (a-pie-yas) or personal fishing areas on the lake which they know well and will fish according to their acquired knowledge of it. Some places they fish only once a season, some they fish every day. They believe that a good fisherman dreams up the fish the night before he goes out. It's a beautiful way to think of the world. One fisherman is quoted as saying "We are the last" and not in a celebratory manner. For whatever reason(s), their children are not going to carry on this tradition. There are many able bodied people in the world who are looking for something to do and who do not want to be employed in a fluorescently lit box, dreaming one day of a big enough promotion to get a desk near a window. Can there be some sort of networking or internship community which people join to share culture, to find work, to take up and carry on a tradition? Seems like a good idea to me. I don't want to go sit behind a desk for the next 40 years of my life. I'd much rather go learn how to farm organically or build houses or memorize epic poetry. I'd much rather be a part of something and do something than sacrifice my time for a paycheck. It seems there must be a way to change how things are done. Anyone fancy moving to Finland and learning how to ice fish? (If it weren't for the cold, I'd volunteer.)

Not from around here

Being from sunny southern California, I take sunny days for granted. Rather than race out into the sunshine and spend all day out there basking in it's rays, no mater how cold the surrounding air is, I tend to think I'll go out just after . . . . Usually mid-way through whatever it is, the sun disappears behind a cloud.

I could benefit from becoming more like the locals. They respond to sunny days the way I imagine kids from the mid-west respond to snow days. They burst out of doors and sit with their faces like sunflowers.

Heavy rain was forecasted for yesterday and today. Yesterday I managed to make it out into the sunshine for a walk to town. I told myself I was going to walk to the grocery store, but after being outside for just a minute I decided to take the long route to Tesco, via town. Today I wasn't as successful. I was expecting rain. I was glad I made it out yesterday. This morning it was dreary. It rained. I laid in bed and watched the news, then read and took a nap. I woke at 3 to the sun shining into my room. Rather than leap out of bed and throw on some presentable attire for basking in the sun on a winter's day, I stared dubiously out the window at the clouds. I hesitated way too long. The sun and blue sky showed through the clouds until sunset. I should have gone out to have some fresh air and exercise this body. Maybe one day I will learn to be grateful for what's given and to enjoy it for as long as possible. Until then, keep hoping that I may be granted with the chance to learn my lesson.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Snapfish Photos

I just figured out how to share albums via Snapfish. The albums on the side bar are from the various field trips we've taken in the Wild East class. Photos are by the students including Juliet, Julie, and Anna. Photos in the Tilbury and Canvey album were also contributed by Jules. If you're looking for a photo credit, just ask.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Winter Morning

frost on meadow
reed tails bent under
the heavy weight of solid water
thin coat of icing
sky to dirt and in between are shades of brown or gray
yesterday's golden blue view drained of color
the river drained of water

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Canvey Island

One of many sites where the life-taking waters of the January 31st, 1953 flood waters rose up unexpectedly over the sea walls and into the homes of sleeping victims. Some fought for their lives and lost. Some probably woke up drowning. Some survived. Jules Pretty tells the haunting stories of that night from all over the East Anglian coastline in his new book, This Luminous Coast. They stuck with me.

First stop on Canvey was the Lobster Smack pub. A beautiful white building with black accents butting up against the sea wall. The Lobster Smack dates back hundreds of years. The sea wall comes up to its roof. We climbed to the top, walked around the sea wall and down the otherside where Havenhole Brook meets the Thames. Some boats were stacked up on the wall. Some were moored in the water. The oil refinery sat opposite. I sat down and enjoyed the sunshine and the shelter from the wind that the wall provided.

We visited the Customs volunteers who shared 4 hour shifts at the end of a raised pier. They welcomed us into their cozy cabin. The walls were decorated with posters: A Sailor's Guide to Clouds, Whales and Dolphins of the UK and Europe, a guide to types of boats, notices about the importance of their work identifying and stopping smugglers (it's not only illegal, it's harmful to the UK), a note about closing and opening the post. Two older gents made room for the 6 of us and chatted a bit about their work there.

After the smack, a quick drive down Long Road, down High Street and to the amusement area and the Labworth restaurant. Yum! A beautiful white structure with polished metal letters and big windows looking out on the water. It's sort of built into the sea wall and it was lovely. The big windows let the light in and captured the heat. It was a welcome refuge from the cold wind.

Coal House Fort & Tilbury Beach

Great tits! Blue tits! Robins! A green woodpeckers! Pied wagtails! Sparrows! Seagulls, shell ducks, and wood pigeons, too. And a garbage strewn beach!

Today was an amazing day. A field trip took me to Fobbing, Mucking, Coal House Fort, Tilbury Beach, and Canvey Island. It started at 6am from North Station. The skies still dark. Snow had fallen over night, but the clouds had moved on and left the sky open to the stars. It was a dark drive down the motorway, some distant lights and the lights of the other cars on the road.

There's something special about being up before the sun. Then it rises and the world changes in its light. I forget how much I enjoy being up for a sunrise, having my day bookended by a sunrise and a sunset. It feels complete. It makes time feel less artificial and more in tune with the world. The birds are up then, singing songs to one another, preparing for the day. I was excited for the sunrise, but I was thrilled by the moon rise. A sliver of a moon emerging from behind a dark cloud bank, like a trumpet calling attentions east in advance of the sun.

It's been a very dynamic weather and cloud day. There's been mini-hail, snow, sunshine, and big fluffy, dark bottomed, white topped clouds sweeping across the landscape. Two things have been consistent throughout the day: the wind and the cold.

When we arrived at Coal House Fort, with a brief stop to have a look at the Bata factory and to photograph the sunset through some barbed wire, we had some coffee out of the car boot on a brightly colored plastic sled. Three three of us who rode together then walked around the fort a little bit. I played on the swing. Once we were good and cold, we made out way back to the car to warm up a bit before everyone else arrived.

There were some mesh bags with seed posted on some of the trees in front of where we parked. It brought the birds out. Great tits, blue tits with their blue cranial patches, robins, pied wagtails, and more. It was really a fantastic location. Always one to watch a bird, I've been working on my bird identification skills so that I can watch with a more informed eye. Sitting in that warm car while the snow came down and the sun shone in the front window, watching birds come and go, I was a happy camper.

All assembled, we headed out and along the sea wall for Tilbury Beach: a popular spot for a day out in Victorian times turned Victorian garbage dump and site for relocated bones. When the grave yards were full, a law was passed that allowed the bones to be dug up and relocated (or less politely said, thrown out) to the Victorian garbage dump. Today, as the dump is eroded by the lapping waves of the tidal Thames, the bones, bottles and broken pottery are revealed and scattered across the once-popular shoreline.

We passed down a hedge lined path, stopping at a memorial bench dedicated to a child who died that is populated with random offerings. We turned right and continued down the paved route. The snow seemed to have had no affect on the chalk drawings that cartoonishly depicted family members: dad with ears about the same size of his head coming curving off to either side of his face, mom with big boobs the same shape as dad's ears, a few phallic images not assigned to any family member, and luke, just a kid, no distinguishing features. They were all signed "Loren was here."

Holes were made in a fence topped with barbed wire which seemed to have been put there to keep people away from the coast. Or maybe it was out of the old garbage dump (or tip, as the Brits sweetly call it), but the barbed wire tipped to the land side. The fence was peeled back between these posts, leaving nice holes in the fence, big enough to walk through, no twisting or bended required. We made it to the end of the paved path and climbed over a stile, walked on a bit further and climbed down onto the beach.

It's creepy at first. I didn't want to see any bones. Then after the third or fourth I found myself thinking, hey, bones! The pieces of pottery and glass that they're mixed in with are incredible. Blue bottles, green bottles, brown bottles, clear bottles. I found a green one with the words "Do Not Take" raised on one side. Naturally, I picked it up. Some of the pottery had words on it, some had images, many had colors: pinks, reds, blues (lots of blues), greens, yellows and oranges. Any bricks - many with letters engraved in them.

I could spend all day there (in better weather). My neck is a bit stiff from looking at my feet the whole time. It's like a pebble beach but possibly more exciting. There's so much to take in. My brain kicks on. It searches through the debris like it would through a word find puzzle. It tries to make sense of it all, to see patterns. I'm not quite sure what it's after, but I'm happy to go along for the ride, discovering little treasures along the way. Worn glass in shades of white, green and purple were strewn amongst the newer debris: the plastic bottles and bottle tops, plastic bags, plastic combs, and a couple aluminum cans. Will current garbage dumps be hot spots for treasure hunters in the future? I thought about collecting all the glass on the beach for recycling. I thought about the tetanus shots you'd need if you accidentally slipped on that beach. Many of the bottles are broken and their jagged edges are sometimes burried in the sand, sometimes jutting into the air.

Bits of wood, a pallet, industrial looking packs, soles of shoes, coconuts, oyster shells, and bones. Some bones were hole. Some were broken off at the edges, some were peeled back revealing the gauze-like patterns inside. Some bones were on the shore, some were half-buried, poking out of the bank. It became fun to try to identify them: a rib here, a vertebra there, the foramen on that one, the two heads on this one, the arches, the spinal processes, the transverse processes, the body, the joint surfaces, the laminar groove. All that physiology finally coming back to me and being put to use.

I couldn't capture it with my camera, partly because I don't know how to work it properly, but partly because a camera can't capture it, not as the eyes do. Still I tried. The waves lapped. The clouds passed over head. The sun shone where the clouds weren't. My hands were frozen. My nose was running. My eyes were seeking, searching, happily over the shore. At once, too soon and just in time, it was time to move on. I left somewhat reluctantly. I left feeling like I'd love to come back there and like I probably never will.

Next stop: Canvey

Fobbing & Mucking

Today I visited the little village of Fobbing and drove through a little place called Mucking. It became a joke along the BB2B walk that the towns with names ending in -ing were also verbs. Places names like Wopping and Epping took on entirely new meanings. ( So I couldn't help thinking about these places as verbs. They seem to be a bit more obvious in terms of potential meanings. It occurs to me that "about" both of these words can be added after both of these words to be a sort of command. Off can apparently be added to Fob to form a different kind of command. A FOB, where I come from, is usually a derogatory term used to describe a recent immigrant. Fobbing therefore could be what a person does when they imitate a FOB to benefit themselves in some way (i.e. a Japanese American adopting a thick accent to get out of answering someone's question). Fobbing apparently also has roots in the 14th century with regard to deceit, thievery, and smuggling. Interesting as there used to be a harbor at Fobbing. In fact, it was only after the 1953 floods that they built barriers and sea walls to keep the water out that this stopped being the case. I've done a bit of a search and other potential meanings for the name are that it was a place or small creek near people with a family name like Fobba. Same goes for Mucking. The funny thing about Mucking is that it is now the site of a large garbage dump. (This site will soon be capped and converted to a nature reserve.) The name came before the dump, though.

We approached Fobbing from the north and the gas flare at the oil refinery just beyond it is visible for miles. It was just before dawn and the flame was a great reminder that our artificial lighting doesn't hold a candle to the light generated by fire. We parked across from St. Michaels, a famous site involved in the Peasants Revolt of the 14th century. We walked down to Harbor Lane which used to lead to water and now leads to more houses and some marsh land for a better view of the refinery. We stood below the pylons and watched the gas flar as the sky brightened. A sliver of a moon perched just above the clouds and faded quietly into the distance as the sun made it's way to the horizon.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Fun with words

I participated in an experiment today for some linguistics student. It was good fun. It had a lot of different phrases that I wasn't very familiar with, but think I did an okay job sussing out their meanings. It involved reading sentences one word at a time and using a video game controller to move from word to word and answer yes or no questions. I haven't held a controller in ages.
The one phrase that stuck out for me was 'train up'. I still haven't decided whether it refers to training or a method of transportation. The second part of the experiment was sentence completion. The whole thing reminded me about how much I enjoy language and one of the reasons why I love British folks is that they are playful with language and their use of it often makes me reexamine it.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Unexpected Lessons

Too many times since starting here I've found myself thinking that I'm not learning what I thought I'd be learning. Truth is I'm probably also learning things things that I didn't think I'd be learning. (And there is a difference.)

I had a fantastic meeting with a tutor in which I expressed concerns about what I wasn't learning and how it was being presented. I was proud of myself for foregoing the attitude and simply engaging in conversation. Maybe the mistake is mine -- I expected things I shouldn't have expected. So I asked about the intentions. Then I offered my experience and concerns and they were well received, received with gratitude for bringing them forward and a very open mind. I told myself not to expect anything more than getting it off my chest and was rewarded with quite a bit more.

I'm growing up -- slowly but surely -- and hopefully learning to stop, reconsider and talk about things before just being upset or discouraged by them.

One of my colleagues here on the BioSci side of things said that people tell her she complains too much and is too idealistic. I've heard that. I think we need people with ideals because too many of us are complacent. I myself am guilty of complacency and sometimes in the worst ways -- after being outraged by something, deciding not to saying anything and then just taking it (somewhat bitterly) as it is. I don't want to loose my idealism. I want to make it work for me and I want to be in places where it is appreciated and in places that are open to change and working towards an ideal.

Colne Walking: To Mersea

The disappointing thing about walking to Mersea from the Hythe is that you only get to walk along the Colne to Rowhedge and then it's through fields and on roads.

Yesterday Anna and I set out through the drizzle and the oppressive grayness on a walk to Mersea. Mersea is where Anna spent the first four years of her life. Many of family members have lived there, fished there, grown up and had families there. It was where her grandmother lived. It was where she visited almost every weekend in the summer. It's a special place for her and I've enjoyed taking trips there, getting to know it bit by bit, being witness to her rediscovery and deepening appreciation for it.

We've been talking about walking there for quite a while now. She wants to write an essay on it. I've been saying I'd be happy to go as long as it's not freezing or wet. Well, that's exactly what yesterday was. More than that, though, it was muddy. That was the fun part. There's nothing like stepping into a big patch of mud, feeling your foot sink it or even slide, and then that suction when you try to pull your feet out. I had to re-tie my shoes because they were getting pulled off. I had a good time playing in the mud and I much preferred the mud to the roads.

Thank goodness Anna brought along two bright vests to each of us to wear while we walked on the roads because there were some blind bends and scary patches in which drivers drove faster than what seemed safe, especially from the side of the road. In some places there was no shoulder to speak of and in others there was a little strip of slippery mud to the outside of the while line. Cars didn't slow down. Some sped up. Motorcycles roared past and one dude on a dirt bike did a wheely to impress us girls.

On either side of the roads, though, was mud. Mud walking along the Colne to Rowhedge, mud along the brook that we crossed, mud in a field that still had some beets left in the ground, mud on Mersea. My shoes were covered in it. Later in the evening, sitting at an Indian restaurant, I even found mud on the front of my knees. Not quite sure how it got there.

Another thing we picked up along the way were some thistle-like prickly balls that stuck on Anna's shoe laces. I thought they made rather nice ornaments. (Still looking for the name of these.) We found them in a field into which we took a wrong turn. The field was full of rabbit holes and some root vegetable that looked like turnips, or radishes, or beets.

Anna found some sphagnum moss along the south side of the river wall just before Rowhedge. She was excited to find it and said it was quite rare. She picked up a patch that had already been pulled up and turned it over to find a woodlouse crawling on it. Gross, I thought. She put a piece of it in her pocket.

It was a day for getting wet. I was picking it up on my clothes, on my face, on my glasses. My hair was frizzing and I could see the curls peaking out from my hood. The wind was blowing, just slightly, but cold enough that you took notice, especially when it ran over wet surfaces. Water came from the ground up, too. We walked through a flooded field where I jumped from grassy patch to grassy patch in an attempt to not water log my boots. This lead to a brook that required a bit of jumping. We made it across without picking up any extra water.

Other highlights included stopping in some nice pubs that served good food and not eating, only to arrive at Mersea where no pubs were serving food, not even the Company Shed or the Oyster Bar. Not after 5 and not on a Sunday night. That left us with Indian at a restaurant called Titash, which had me giggling inappropriately. Early in the day, trying to identify some little birds in a bit of woods just past Rowhedge, I confessed to Anna that I was getting pretty good at identifying a tit when I saw one, but I could never tell what kind of tit it was. They don't tell to stay still while I get a good enough look to sort it out. I'm also working on identifying trees, and despite having spent an hour looking at just a day earlier, I still couldn't tell you one from the next except to say that I looked that one up but can't remember that name from the next one. I'm proving to be utterly useless at this. Anyway, I couldn't tell if I saw an Ash at all along the walk, but I probably wouldn't have been able to identify it even if I had, and especially not without its leaves.

Mersea is a place that has a lot of weird ideas around it. To me, it's just another low-lying, unattractive location in Essex. To people who are from Essex, it's this muddy reject of a place where inbreeding is suspected and you might go for a day out at the beach if you can't get to anywhere else. Or it's a special place that holds memories of childhood and summers, warm mud beneath the sea, seagulls, fishing, oysters. Oysters is probably what it's best known for. There's a front garden near the mainstreet that's made up of oyster shells, the white insides turned up to the sky. There's a pub called the Black Pearl that has a beautiful sign: moonlight on a dark sea with a oyster open and showing it's dark pearl in the foreground. Then there's the Coast Inn - cute name, cozy pub with a fire and a black dog.

Across the water we could see Bradwell, an oddly shaped nuclear power plant. It's funny how different things look from across the water. I've stood on that shore and looked at Mersea. I've stood on Mersea and looked at Bradwell. Over on the Bradwell side, on the Dengie Peninsula, there are a few farms. One of those farms features several gigantic stacks of hay. Their shape mimics that of the power plant. From Mersea, Bradwell looks like one of those gigantic stacks of hay. I'm sure if we'd stayed on a bit at the water front, that would have changed as the orange-yellow lights came on all over it, but was getting cold and we were getting hungry.

Anna took me by the house where her grandmother had lived. It was a place of gathering. Everyone seemed to go there. She developed Alzheimer's before she died. That's got to be frightening. She was saying she misses her grandmother. I could relate. I miss mine, too, and I called her later to tell her so.

After eating, we took the bus back to Colchester. I figure we walked about 12 miles, detours and all. It was a great way to spend a day. I haven't had a good long walk since the last day of Big Ben to Brussels. It's so satisfying to walk from one place to the next and not have to retrace steps or walk in a big circle. It's so satisfying to arrive at some place new.

Friday, 5 February 2010


I've been thinking about my dissertation topic. I want to write about climate change from a human perspective. It's so entangled in politics right now that we're really loosing sight of the potential impacts and of the experiences that people might have as a result of climate change. Aside from fears generated by scare-mongering tactics and Hollywood films or pundits seeking to expand their fifteen-seconds of fame, there are the predictions that may not be as cinematic, but might be equally (or more) traumatic for those who face them. What am I talking about? Displacement as a result of climate change induced weather or sea-level rise or resource depletion. There are even things that aren't linked to climate change, but are tied to ecological and resource issues. I think we should stop arguing about the percent to which these scenarios are likely to occur and start to think about plans. I bet the US still has plans for what to do if Russia launches a nuclear attack on it and that seems unlikely to happen these days. So let's come up with some plans for what to do so we can be prepared and hopefully we won't ever have to execute the plans. If the climate isn't really changing, if the planet isn't in fact warming, I think that would be a great relief to all, especially the scientists who are getting these horrific predictions.

I'm looking into where to do my research, pick one case study because that's all time with afford me. One place to go and have a look around, to try to document and piece together a picture of what a place is like and how it was be for those who live there once it's gone. There are several places I can choose from, I think, but will they all stand up to the test of whether that change is a result of climate change? I don't know. And I suppose we won't really know until it's gone and it's twenty years later and we have the historical data to analyze. Still, whether it's climate change or not, it's happening, and if a particular example is not a result of climate change, will it still hold up as an example of what will come a result of climate change?

I'm thinking about places like Kirabati. There's debate as to whether the rising sea level it is experiencing that threaten to swallow it whole are a result of climate change. But whatever the cause, the threat exists.

I've been thinking a lot of rising sea levels. I can't really imagine what it looks like. I've seen the images, the Ed Mazra's powerpoint presentations of the receding coastlines of Florida and New York. I've seen it other places as well. It's interesting. It gives a new shape to the world. But no where does it sink in more for me than what a rise in sea level means than on the islands. If you live on an island that's pretty low-lying and the sea rises, it comes from all directions, presumably, around the island. The island is only so big and you can only retreat so far inland before you find the other side. So you move in land as far as you can and the sea comes up from in front and behind. And you're up to your ankles in it. And then your knees. And then your waist. And it rises until all land disappears. All around you is water. You can only see water. And it's not a small bit of river you can cross, but rather an ocean. This is my dream. This is the image that is haunting me.

It scares the hell out of me.

I've never felt comfortable in the ocean. It's too vast and powerful for me. My place on the land. So to be in an ocean with no hope of land, or even to be waist deep in an ocean, with land under your feet but no way to climb out, is a terrifying scenario. What does it feel like to live in one of these places and know that occurs and it's predicted to get worse? Do children have nightmares about the sea swallowing them up? Are there legends that predict this will happen? Are they instructive? What does it mean to the people it most immediately affects? I'm curious and terrified for them.

Sustainability: A Matter of Prepositions?

I'm reading excerpts from Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America and delighting in it. I've been hearing his name for sometime now but this is the first I've actually read of him. I'm not writing to sing his praises so much as explore an idea that came to me while reading chapter four, "The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture". He writes, "The farms were generally small. They were farmed by families who lived not only upon them, but within and from them."

The difference is made with prepositions: upon, within and from. With regard to living and the land, off is a commonly used preposition. I think he writes that sentence with that commonly heard preposition in mind. Off suggests a distance or a separation, a removal from the object. Merriam-Webster defines it in the following ways:

1 a —used as a function word to indicate physical separation or distance from a position of rest, attachment, or union (take it off the table) (a path off the main walk)(a shop just off the main street) b : to seaward of (two miles off shore)
2 : from the possession or charge of (had his wallet stolen off him)
3 —used as a function word to indicate the object of an action (borrowed a dollar off him) (dined off oysters)
4 a —used as a function word to indicate the suspension of an occupation or activity (off duty) (off liquor) b : below the usual standard or level of (off his game)

A few of those definitions imply a taking or removal. Can that idea then be read as taking from the land? Can taking be thought of in opposition to giving; as an output without an input? Or using the land to one's own ends?

Maybe it can be most easily understood in terms of opposites. The opposite of off as being On. To live off the land is to not live on the land. I think the argument is being made that we ought to live on the land and as a result of not living on it our culture is suffering. But so long as there is gravity, we will live on the land; and so long as that's where the food grows, cars drive, buildings sit and animals (produce) roam (and we're not solely pescatarians) we will need to live in relation with the land. We need to do things to get things. We need inputs for outputs and ideally there is a balance. Land, sea, this planet, Mother Earth is not a wealthy parent with bottomless pockets that will continue to dish out whatever our greedy-hearts desire. It is a limited or closed system in which we need to mind the parameters. As greedy little children, we want everything that we want, but we also want to be houses, clothed, and maintained in a healthy way, so we need to consider that when we're asking Mother Earth drain every penny from her bank to satisfy our current whims. We need to do less living off the Earth and more living within it, within limits, within the closed system, within the realm of what is not only possible but what will do good.

This chapter and the sustainability approach suggest that we need to complicate the reigning paradigm of capitalism (economics, continuous and limitless growth) and look not value the financial bottom line at the expense of everything else. We would all benefit to create less distance between us and the Earth, Nature, food, ecology, etc. We need to view our interactions with natural resources as an exchange, not as endless resources there for the taking. We need live on the land, with the land, within the land, from the land, amongst all of the features of the land, beside it, by it, concerning, considering, following, for, into, like, near, regarding, through, via, even as the land? (Substitute land with anything: farm, water, air, or Earth.)

So, I'm thinking, is it really as simple as changing the preposition?

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Portrait of a Prophet

I went to an event hosted by the Islamic Society on campus tonight. Knowing next to nothing about Islam I hoped it would be informative and it didn't disappoint. The speaker talked about the good virtues of the Prophet Mohammad, his kindness, ability to forgive, his humility. I found the stories refreshing, the way that religious stories are. They encourage faith in humanity, inspiration to be on one's best behavior, to find inner peace and strength, to always act from a place of kindness. It was a good reminder for me.

My favorite story of the night was about the trunk of a date palm that Mohammad used to lean against while delivering his sermons. One day a pulpit was made for him and he began to deliver his sermons from there. The date palm began to weep for love of the prophet. He then returned to the tree and rubbed his hands on it and it stopped crying.

It's beautiful to think that the plants, nature can sense us like we sense them. Just thinking about the possibility that we might bring them as much comfort as they bring us makes me smile. The potential for interaction between species, plant and animal, animate and inanimate . . . that's exciting to think about.

Colne Walking: Upstream

It was a beautifully sunny day. I walked to town along the Colne. It's sign posted as 2 miles from the Hythe. From here, it's about two miles to Wivenhoe. The scenery in each direction is quite different, though. And it's been a while since I've walked down to Wivenhoe and beyond when the sun was out.

The first part of the walk isn't all that great. It looks like an old industrial area, trash on the sides of the road, the pavement cuts off and you have to walk in the road for part of it, neglected buildings and boats. My favorite part of the first bit are the holes in the wall. One has wood carving framing it and the other is simply a hole in the wall and it looks like someone lives on the other side. I find it odd that there's a wall there. People who live in the adjacent buildings look out their windows and see the road and then the wall. Depressing. After the wall, comes a few abandoned buildings and a little round about. Then you walk through what feels like people's backyards, some areas look like they're used as personal dumping grounds.

Especially in winter, it seems excessively gray and dead. Most of the plants are without leaves and colors that signal life. I didn't particularly want to be walking there. There were duck-like birds on the bank. I couldn't tell from my distance if they were teal or widgeon. Wood pigeons sat at the tops of bare trees.

Along the way were bizarre metallic signs, like lamp posts, artistically designed with different items and words like Migrate, Diesel, Nesting and Boats.
I didn't know what to make of them. I saw only 4 but I'm not sure how many of them there are.

The graffiti on the railroad bridge was a welcome flash of color.

Just after the bridge the reeds glowed in the sunlight. I stopped to admire it. Two evergreen trees stood just beyond. Both the reeds and the trees were reflected in the brown water. I think the sunlight makes that reflection possible. It makes the river a much nicer place.

After winding through the worn down parts of the river, there's a road, and then what I guess is the old Marriage mill and suddenly it's beautiful, manicured parklands. Funny to see where the money cuts in and out. Walking from East Hill up to Castle Park is a completely different experience. Green lawns, fancy townhouses, the non-tidal portion of the river.

My favorite part was the iced-over lake and the seagulls and ducks that stood on it. Watching them land on the ice was good for a chuckle. They're less graceful looking with a slide.

I watched an air bubble move beneath the ice for a while before continuing on to town.

Colne Walking: Low Tide

I went down to the bend where Arlesford Creek comes into the Colne. The river is much wider down there and at low tide the muddy banks are exposed. When it's quiet--between trains, bird calls, groups of chatting walkers and gun fire--you can hear the trickle of water as it drains from the banks down to the river. I stood and stared. I looked for the moving water that I could hear. I could see the grooves that had been dug into the mud, but could see no water, other than the water that glistened on the surface of the whole muddy bank. I thought I'd like to stay there for a full tidal cycle to hear the difference between the tide coming in, going out, and everything in between.