Category Archives: Ancient History

Rackham’s History of the countryside

I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…

I miss my blog so much.

Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.

First, this delightful thought.

Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.

Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:

Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)

He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.

Modern Differences

Ancient Countryside

Hamlets & small towns

Ancient isolated farms

Hedges mainly mixed, not straight

Roads many, not straight, often sunken

Many public footpaths

Woods many, often small

Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation


Many antiquities of all periods

Historic Differences

Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700

Most hedges ancient

Many though often small woods

Much heathland

Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch

Many ponds

Planned Countryside

Villages

18th & 19th C isolated farms

Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight

Roads few, straight, on surface


Few footpaths

Woods absent or few & large

Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages

Antiquities few, usually prehistoric


Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period

Most hedges modern

Woods absent or few & large

Heaths rare; little bracken or broom

Non-woodland thorns and elders

Few ponds

I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.

He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes

Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)

It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)

He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:

First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)

The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.

He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.

There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.

There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)

All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)

There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:

In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)

Werewolves!

Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.

The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.

There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.

Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):

The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)

God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:

The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.

Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes

‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)

And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:

Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)

Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).

The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.

I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)

We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.

Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)

They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.

This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:

So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:

  • Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
  • These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
  • Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
  • farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
  • Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
  • Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
  • Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents

There is so much there to love.

Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:

Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.

He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.

We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.

Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.

I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.

A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.

Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:

Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)

I quite love that.

Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes

The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)

Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.

A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.

The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.

There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.

There is so much more of course, a splendid book.

Requiem for bedrock

From one sublime to another, we stopped here early in the morning the day after the Grand Canyon. It was 8 degrees, frozen wind, they unlocked the door for us, the first visitors. We had it to ourselves to recapture our youth.

It’s been sold, and the day before we arrived they had begun moving the figures. Small surprise they started with Betty Rubble, Wilma, the giant Pebbles.

What a loss.

The Rabat Domvs Romanus

Rabat’s Domvs Romanus was discovered in 1881 by gardeners planting trees in Howard Garden. Excavated by Dr A. A. Caruana in 1881. They found a number of Islamic graves and some of the mosaics — the mosaics are extraordinary and allow the fairly precise dating of their placement with a span of 50 years at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 1st century BC. Sadly the British went ahead and destroyed a big chunk of it, cutting the road to Mtarfa railway through the north end in 1899. It was excavated anew by Temmi Zammit in 1922. Which, well, it was early days in archaeology, so loads of interesting things have been lost. We both remember a reference to the cartloads of pottery that were catalogued and then destroyed — but can’t remember where we read this. It wasn’t here. Ah well.

There is a little museum here, containing finds both from the site as well as a few donated from elsewhere. They had these amazing figurines from between the 1st and 3rd Century AD, the middle one is, of course, my favourite. The accompanying notice describes the figure as Eegemone (il cadottiero) — though I imagine this may be Egemone, il condottiero — and the one on the right Ermanio (il vecchio recalvostro). This is the only one for whom provenance is known, found in St Paul’s Square, Mdina. There is nothing about the significance of the names.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Then there is this wonderful glass drinking vessel known as a Rython, with this amazing snail’s head, found in a tomb (but which? no one knows) in Rabat, c 1st Century AD. The glass chalice to the right is also lovely:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Bonnano in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman gives two wonderful maps. One is of the site as a whole, with a look at the system of cisterns providing water to the house.

The second shows just the villa itself, with the areas where the mosaics were found:

There was the Triclinium, where dining happened, where the pater familias conducted all of his business — where once there were amazing mosaics, mostly gone but what remains of them are so beautiful with their tiny pieces and fine shadings:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Such extraordinary mosaics. They were later repaired with coarse tiles.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

I am rather in awe of these floors. There is a display about the cocciopesto floor — believed to have originated in Carthage (those Phoenicians again) around the 4th Century BC, sometimes referred to as Pavimentum Punicum. Crushed pottery was mixed with lime to form a cheap, resistant material — their red colour came from from crushed pottery. This was often combined with white marble tesserae to create simple designs, then called opus signinum. Opus sculatum is the lozenge shaped tiles, put together to form a perspective cube. Such floors were found in almost all Roman sites in Malta, and still found today in fact. Those found here are considered some of the finest in the Mediterranean. No question why (I am just sad glass had to come between us):

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Masks lined these floors. Signage states they probably drew on Greek New Comedy — they almost certainly represent a story but no way to know now what that may have been. I find them very eerie with their open mouths, can’t quite imagine wanting them to gape at me from the floors of my home. .

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

The floors were built over buried amphora, to control the damp…

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

There are quotations from Vitruvius here from his book on architecture, which has re-entered my list of things to read.

The mosaics, surely, would be enough to demonstrate this was the villa of someone very high status, but in addition very fine Imperial sculptures were also found here — of Claudius and his family probably. A rare thing to have the emperor and his family in your home. Like the masks, I don’t think I would have much appreciated that either.

The museum also holds this statue, found elsewhere in Mdina, which gets much more mention in the books. A goddess, unknown, with an ‘Isis knot’ under her breast, a ‘Lybian’ style to her hair, an eastern necklace.

Rabat - Domus Romana

Outside, staring at the ruins of other poorer homes aligned along a long-buried street

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

A jumble of bits and pieces here

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

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Aberystwyth Castle, Sunset

Built as a diamond-shaped, concentric fortress, this stone piled up by Edward I to maintain control over the Welsh now stands ruined, almost impossible to imagine it as it once was. What better fate for monuments to war and occupation, and yet… my deep love for these bloodied stone skeletons shames me. The original castle on this particular spot was built by Llywelyn the Great (c1172-1240). He built a chain of castles from Tegeingl to Meirionydd — it paralleled the English chain from Cardigan to Montgomery. After initiating his campaign to subdue the Welsh, in 1277 Edward ordered his power solidified and embodied and exerted through architecture–updated to withstand all the new technologies of war–in 1277. But not the pounding of the waves. It was already falling down when turned against the English for a time by Owain Glyndwr in 1404. Cromwell completed the task, pounding the Roundheads within.

The townsfolk very sensibly used the stones to help build their town.

It was chance that brought us here at dusk, with a fierce wind that chased everyone else away. Strange to be so alone in this place huddled up to homes and buildings, open to the public to clamber and crawl. I loved that what remains of this place is so open to all, a breath of history knitted into the town itself in the way it is placed. Only the photographer in me cursed the many welcoming benches. In one hidden corner sat a cluster of teenage girls listening to the radio and laughing, the great stone walls sheltering them from the wind.

I did not mind one three-sided room we could not explore.

I wondered where you could see these same stones made humble and domestic in the town’s architecture, still ringing to the sound of Welsh you hear everywhere here.

Aberystwth Castle

Everything else stopped for a while as we looked up towards Pen Dinas where the Iron Age hill fort stood, and along the coast in either direction until the sea swallowed up the sun.

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Contention at Clonmacnoise

Contention at Clonmacnoise…

This from the annals in 942:

Between the foul of the sea and the foul of the land, where there was a great slaughter of crows 942

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An Early Christian site founded by St. Ciarán in the mid-6th century on the eastern bank of the River Shannon. The site includes the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th  -13th century), two round towers, three high crosses and the largest collection of Early Christian graveslabs in Western Europe.
Heritage Ireland

The Megalithic Cairns of Loughcrew

The cairns at Loughcrew may have been one of my favourite places to visit, if only because we got to see them on our own, wander about them at our pleasure after picking up the key at the centre.

[of course, when picking up the key I was given directions to the cairns, which somehow went in one ear and right out the other and so we got lost and so we had to go back, and my partner was ever so brave going back inside to ask where we needed to go a second time.

Of course, I was really the brave one driving at all. Hunched over the wheel, white-knuckled. Pulling over regularly to let real drivers whiz past. It was grand.

Also, I left my glasses at the visitor’s centre so they would always remember me.]

In a landscape of inspiring beauty and intriguing history, the cairns at Loughcrew form the largest complex of passage graves in Ireland, much older than the better known Newgrange.

The Cairns are megalithic structures originally built about 4000 bc as burial chambers. The cairns are in two groups; Carnbane West, about 15 cairns, including Cairn L which is roofed and contains superb symbolic carvings in good condition.

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Oweynagat: Ireland’s cave of the cats

Oweynagat, or the cave of the cats. This may not look like much, but is in fact a gateway to the underworld — it is more terrifying that it is small and hidden I suppose. From this portal have emerged herds of fiendish swine, the ancient goddess of battle Morrigan, malevolent birds, and a monstrous triple-headed creature. Also cats, who battled Cuchulainn and two other warriors. Later it was just known as a cave entrance to hell. Now it sits in a field to be entered perilously by the informed adventurer.

Oweynagat

Oweynagat from a fiend’s eye view, my partner’s legs, if not his very soul, here at risk:

Oweynagat

As St Patrick’s day is not only my dad’s birthday and a day for St Patrick himself, but also St Gertrude’s day, the patron saint of cats, it seemed fitting to share a few more photos of the great Ireland tour of ought thirteen. The cave is part of a larger complex, from the Rathcroghan website:

the royal complex of Cruachan, the oldest and largest unexcavated Royal Complex in Europe….Rathcroghan boasts a multitude of monument types, from the majestic and enigmatic Rathcroghan Mound, which in the Iron Age was impressively topped by wooden ramparts and ceremonial henges, and whose secret heart remains an untouched mystery. … Kings were inaugurated at the ceremonial heart of Rathcroghan and the site is witness to the rise and fall of great tribes, wealthy chieftains and dynastic families. Some of these went on to rule the whole island as High Kings, ensuring the continuing legacy of this unique complex well into the modern era.

This was the home of the

great Iron Age Warrior Queen Medb, who ruled all of Connacht from her home here in Rathcroghan, the origin point for our National Epic ‘an Táin Bó Cuailnge’ – the Cattle Raid of Cooley, which features a whole host of legendary heroes including Medb herself, the mighty Battle Goddess Morrigan, the Connacht Champion Fraech and the boy hero Cúchulainn, whose names and deeds are inextricably linked to the landscape that surrounds us here. Witness the site where the ferocious white horned bull Finnbennach, battled the legendary Donn Cuailnge, the brown bull of Cooley.

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Dinosaurs and the Martian Canals: From Tucson to Tuba City

Road trip! Day one, a long driving day to get up past the sprawling monster of Phoenix, up up to the top of our enormous state. This all used to be two lane highway when I was a kid, but it’s four to six now most of the way…and has traffic to fill it. If you build it bigger they will drive it say the planners, and they are right.

Tucson to Phoenix

I just realised there is almost no traffic in this picture. But honestly. It’s there. It is anything but carefree. I kind of admire the effort some planner put into this though:

Tucson to Phoenix

We put a lot of effort into destroying the desert too… sucking up the groundwater reservoirs to grow crops, leaving the rest of the valley dry as dust edged with an unbelievable green:

Tucson to Phoenix

Like the efforts of a corporate chain pretending they have any kind of authentic history, but without making too much of an effort:

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Enough of that kind of effort though. Getting up to Flagstaff, cooler air, and the Lowell Observatory, now that was amazing. Lowell — built in 1894 by millionaire Percival Lowell of the Lowell, Massachusetts mill owner Lowells. You know. Those fucking Lowells. Which makes this a place that combines a quixotic history with quite a lot of space-exploration awesomeness.

So…I was excited to come here because Lowell believed — and tried desperately hard to prove — that Mars was covered by immense canals being built by martians in an immense hurry to channel water from the poles to held save their dying civilization. That is my all-time favourite Mars theory, and yes, yes it was inspired by reading a lot of science fiction (it also inspired a lot of science fiction, as you can guess). But also because a famous Italian astronomer by the name of Schiaparelli wrote a book about the canali of Mars, which should simply have been translated as channels (natural), but were instead translated as canals. And Percival Lowell being one of those fucking Lowells and the guy who funded and ran the observatory, there was no one who could really budge him from that hobby horse. So he spent a lot of years working on these maps, drawing canals that no one else could see because they just weren’t there given the low resolution of the telescope.

lowell mars map2bI still love them. Especially as there are apparently three theories about where these lines actually came from. The first is — his own eyelashes. The second — shit, I have forgotten the second. The third — that he spent a lot of time staring into bright skies and he was actually seeing the patterns of his own retina reflected back the way you sometimes do when getting your eyes checked. That was my favourite.

But back then he had some credibility — this from the New York Times on August 27, 1911 (105 years ago yesterday! That’s a bit of a coincidence).

life-on-mars

The Clark observatory today:

Lowell Observatory

Inside it’s even better:

Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

Lowell hired two guys to build this dome who had never built a dome before — and you can pretty much tell. But it works. It needs to move of course, so originally that dome sat on great castors and two men with ropes had to move it according to Lowell’s instructions. The next attempt was my favourite — to set it floating on a course of salt water (to prevent it from freezing). Our tour guide (who was awesome) noted that it worked great. For all of two hours. All kinds of things went wrong, some of the stains are still visible on the wood. So they went back to castors and two guys pulling it with ropes, but then the next director came along and had the bright idea of using tires. So it is now cushioned on original Ford 1957? steel rims and hubcaps — the tires themselves have to be replaced frequently given the weight of the dome.

Lowell Observatory

I haven’t even gotten to the more exciting parts, like the way Vesto Slipher (!) actually discovered from his observations here that the universe was expanding, though his measurements of the various spectrums of stars and the realisation that most of them were moving away from us. Spectrum analysis also proved that those spiral things people were seeing were actually entirely separate galaxies. This meant that universe was actually much bigger than just our galaxy. Imagine that jump when the two had always been conflated. Imagine how the universe expanded then (not literally you understand, but our understandings of it).

Vesto presented his findings and had astronomy’s first ever standing ovation in 1912 — in the audience sat the not-yet-Doctor Hubble, who would first try to put a number to the expanding universe.

Then in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

That turned out trickier than expected of course, given it was not a planet at all, but still.

I loved the Rotunda too, though we didn’t get enough time here as we still had far to go.

Lowell Observatory

Inside we had a little fun with spectrum analysis ourselves. We got to wear glasses.

Lowell Observatory

And these simple and flimsy things revealed wonders when staring at tubes of neon or mercury. Not quite this good, but close enough. This is neon:

neon

We got a quick look at everything else…I wanted more time but we couldn’t wait until evening when they were opening it up fully.

Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

From there we drove up to Tuba City…and a sign on the side of the road said dinosaur footprints and mom said ‘hell yes, let’s do it’ (or something to that effect). We had seen a dinosaur earlier of course:

Tucson to Phoenix Dinosaur

But look at these things, they are amazing…

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

I’m not sure I can say the same about this toenail polish which I bought on a crazed whim — I am never colour coordinated like this.

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

This place is one of my favourite in the world. Mum says it took her forever coming from England to get used to the space, it made her feel so small, so insignificant. Me, I feel like this space makes you humble and at the same time opens you up, gives you a spirit big enough to fill it. It makes me so happy to be back here again in the red rocks. Especially staring across an ancient seabed at dinosaur tracks.

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

We gave our guide and her partner a ride into Tuba City, it being the end of the day, and then found a hotel. An expensive hotel. Damn. But the Hogan Restaurant next door? The best waitress ever and they had mutton stew with frybread on the menu which probably gave mum more joy than anything else through the day — she grew up on that in postwar England don’t you know.

Hogan Cafe, Tuba City

Me, I had a cheese burger — on fry bread. Which was delicious but oh. my. god. Filling. I can’t tell you how filling. I could eat almost no fries, but that was probably a good thing. As it is, I feel I should run the first ten miles tomorrow alongside the car…

Tomorrow, Anasazi ruins! Chama! So exciting.

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Dreams of Copernicus: Collegium Maius

Today started with Copernicus (1473-1543) — a visit to Collegium Maius where he was a student. Though never a professor. We had a splendid, if quick, tour with decidedly witty commentary. Copernicus kept his head down in a deeply Catholic atmosphere, kept quiet, and published nothing until the year leading up to his death at age 70. Not Galileo, and look what happened to him…

I am not sure of the moral of this.

Collegium Maius is an amazing place, gothic brick construction along with limestone exuding knots of flint and two most beautiful ammonites. It has vaulted ceilings, incredible carved wood, has been a place of learning and study since the 14th century, and in this form since the 15th. Professors lived upstairs and taught downstairs, and it is most splendid.

I was most excited about the instruments Copernicus used — early ways people were trying to understand our universe before lenses or proper telescopes. They are amazing, these three.

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The Jagiellonian Globe:

Collegium Maius

Made in 1510 in France and most likely the first globe to show the Americas. In completely the wrong place.

A copy of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, the famous text by Copernicus positing our own revolution around the sun:

Collegium Maius

Many more most wonderful instruments of astronomy, like these from Moorish Toledo:

Collegium Maius

And more:

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

Collegium Maius

The college itself is more stunning than I can say, with wonderful carved wood and painted ceilings, carvings, instruments, books, windows, furniture, murals, beaten metal shaped to reflect candle-light to illuminate a room, the most wonderful wooden spiral staircase I have ever seen, the Nobel prize medal won by Wisława Szymborska who was a student here, the Oscar and other awards won by Andrzej Wajda, an intricate inlaid door commemorating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of American and showing the maiden Europe distributing justice to the New World and Africa. We did not, however, manage to catch the clock figures striking the odd hour…

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300_424.8_2016.05.18.14.59.38This was only the beginning of a day in Krakow, which also included an exhibition of Max Ernst: An Ornithologist’s Dream (most wonderful) a trip to the Pharmacy Museum (again wonderful), lunch at Noworolski’s, where Lenin once took his mistress (and sometimes his wife), drinks in Kazimierz at Propaganda… but I have no more energy, and all of these things demand more thought.

More posts on Poland:

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Time’s Anvil: seeds, saints, fascism and labour

Time's Anvil -- Richard MorrisRichard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:

This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)

This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.

On seeds

I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that

seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…

A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.

There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:

every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.

Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.

On saints

The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:

A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)

There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.

It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.

I quite love thinking more about this, though:

In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)

The ties between fascism and planning & conservation

I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler

held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.

The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:

The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)

It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.

I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:

It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)

Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.

Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.

I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.

On the beauty of labour

Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —

buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.

A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:

Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)

It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:

…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)

if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)

There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:

that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)

By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.

I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.

A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the  Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.

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