Archive for the 'The biosphere' Category

Higher hunters

August 12 2013

[The] continuing war with Nature was still being waged, even in this technologically precocious [Modern Western] society, by such “higher hunters” as the trawler and the whaler, as well as by their younger brothers the husbandman and the shepherd.

And by a lower hunter, surely, the common fisherman.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Thousands of civilisations 2

June 1 2013

I added some Toynbee to the last post.

The idea of directed panspermia has had respectable scientific attention, but was popularised by a Swiss charlatan, Erich von Däniken, in Chariots of the Gods? (Erinnerungen an die Zukunft: Ungelöste Rätsel der Vergangenheit) (Germany and US, 1968).

He wrote it while manager, from 1964, of the now-demolished Hotel Rosenhügel at Davos. I stayed there for WEF Annual Meetings in the late ’90s when it was run by the much more endearingly eccentric, unforgettable, Eva Ewald and her twin brother. She looked like WH Auden and had grown up something of an anti-Nazi in East Prussia. So I dedicate the last post to her memory.

Rosenhuegel

Thousands of civilisations

June 1 2013

889 planets outside the solar system (in 694 planetary systems, including 133 multiple planetary systems), orbiting various kinds of star, had been identified as of May 22 2013.

Almost all were within our home galaxy the Milky Way, but there had been a small number of possible detections of extragalactic planets.

In the Milky Way, it is thought that there is at least one, on average, orbiting each star. There are 200-400 billion stars in the galaxy. There may be many (perhaps 100,000 times) more rogue planets than stars.

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reported in January 2013 that there are “at least 17 billion” Earth-sized exoplanets in the Milky Way. The nearest known exoplanet, Alpha Centauri Bb, 4.37 light years away, is Earth-sized, but outside the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B.

The discovery of extrasolar planets has intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life. Data from the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog suggested that, of the 859 exoplanets which had been confirmed as of January 3 2013, nine were potentially habitable. Some could have habitable extrasolar moons.

Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science and Duncan Forgan of Edinburgh University suggest that, although there is still no evidence of extraterrestrial life, there could be thousands of civilisations in our galaxy. Toynbee identified twenty-three in the history of the Earth.

When life originates, it may spread among habitable planets by natural or directed panspermia.

Besides exoplanets, exocomets, comets beyond our solar system, have been detected and may be common in the Milky Way.

Wikipedia sources.

If the biosphere were to cease to be any longer a possible habitat for life, mankind, so far as we know, would suffer the fate of extinction that would then overtake every other form of life. Moreover, the nearest potential biosphere to ours (if any other, besides ours, is to be found anywhere in the physical cosmos) may be hundreds of millions of light-years distant from our planet. In our generation, a few human beings have been landed on the surface of our planet’s moon and, after a brief stay there, they have been brought back again to Earth still alive in almost every case. [That should be every case! Bad OUP editing.] This has been a magnificent feat of science applied to technology, but it has been a still more notable feat of sociality, considering that, so far, human beings have been far less successful in managing their relations with each other than they have been in mastering the non-human part of Nature. This feat has taught us some lessons which are of practical importance for estimating our prospects and choosing our policy on Earth.

The Moon is much closer to the Earth than is any other star; it is our planet’s satellite. Yet to land a few men on the Moon for a few hours has required the precisely co-ordinated and enthusiastically co-operative work of several hundreds of thousands of human beings. It has also required a vast expenditure of material resources and a considerable draft on the courage and ability that are mankind’s rarest and most precious assets. Even if the Moon were to prove to be as rich in resources for human life as the Americas, the exploitation of these resources would not be remunerative economically. A permanent colonization of the Moon by earthlings would be impracticable. Human bodies have a physical structure that enables them to withstand, without feeling the strain, the particular gravitational pull of the Earth’s mass and the particular pressure of the Earth’s envelope of air. They need food in the form of other organic substances, either vegetable or animal. All these features and necessities of human life were present in the Americas for those Europeans who reached the Americas by crossing the Atlantic in the tenth century of the Christian Era from Scandinavia and in the fifteenth century from Spain. Their meeting with other human beings who had anticipated the Europeans in reaching and occupying the Americas was evidence that these other parts of the Earth’s dry land were habitable.

The Moon is not habitable for any form of life. The only lunar matter that could be a resource for human beings would be inanimate matter that has never been even temporarily organic. In order to be made useful, this lunar matter would have to be transported from the Moon to the Earth by human beings camping and working on the Moon under the handicap of extremely trying conditions. This would not pay, as it did pay to convey tobacco from America to Europe and to cultivate in Europe and in Asia other plants – for instance maize and potatoes – that had been domesticated in America by the Europeans’ predecessors who had reached America from the opposite side.

Though neither the Moon nor the Earth’s sister planets, which are far more remote from the Earth than the Moon is, are habitable for inhabitants of our biosphere, it is conceivable that some other sun than ours, perhaps a sun in some other galaxy, might have a planet that would be habitable for us; but, even if we could locate another habitable planet, it would hardly be feasible for travellers from our biosphere to reach it. Suppose we were to discover how to steer the course without being attracted, en route, into one of the burning fiery furnaces of the innumerable suns that are on the move through space; the journey might take a hundred years. [That assumes a travelling speed of about a fifth of the speed of light to Alpha Centauri Bb.] We should therefore have to devise a spaceship on board of which the passengers could beget children who would be able to live on board and beget children and grandchildren there in their turn, before the conveyance could land and disembark the third or fourth generation. And, even if this arriving and landing generation could count on finding breathable air and drinkable water and edible food and tolerable air pressure and gravitational pull in this hypothetical replica of our biosphere, the conveyance (a modernized Noah’s Ark) in which they had made the voyage from one habitable biosphere to another would have had to be stocked with rations of air and food and drink that would keep successive generations on board alive for a century. It seems most unlikely that this fabulous voyage will ever really be made.

Thus our present knowledge and experience point to the conclusion that the habitat of the denizens of the biosphere on the face of the planet Earth is going to continue to be confined to this capsule within which life, in the form known to us, has made its appearance. Though it is possible that other biospheres, habitable for denizens of our biosphere, may exist, it is so improbable that we could ever reach and colonize any of them that the possibility cannot reasonably be taken into account. This fantasy is, in fact, Utopian.

If we do conclude that our present biosphere, which has been our only habitat so far, is also the only physical habitat that we are ever likely to have, this conclusion will admonish us to concentrate our thoughts and efforts on this biosphere: to survey its history, to forecast its prospects, and to do everything that human action can do to ensure that this – which, for us, is the – biosphere shall remain habitable until it is made uninhabitable eventually by cosmic forces beyond human control.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Carbon dioxide

May 11 2013

The daily measurement of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (at a lab on Hawaii) exceeded 400 parts per million on May 9. The last time that level was reached was 3-5 million years ago.

Tardigrades

April 8 2013

“Tardigrades (commonly known as waterbears or moss piglets) are small, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. They are notable for being one of the most complex of all known polyextremophiles. (An extremophile is an organism that can thrive in a physically or geochemically extreme condition that would be detrimental to most life on Earth.)

“Tardigrades can withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water. They can survive pressures greater than any found in the deepest ocean trenches and have lived through the vacuum of outer space. They can survive solar radiation, gamma radiation, ionic radiation – at doses hundreds of times higher than would kill a person. They can go without food or water for nearly 10 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.” Wikipedia

Tardigrade

The Ethiopian monkey-zone

January 15 2013

Geladas grazing

Gelada grazing

Man seems to be able to live in a wider range of climates than any of the other primates. If you traverse one of the canons that have been carved deep into the soft volcanic soil of Ethiopia, you descend from the temperate surface of the plateau to a level at which the canon is habitable for monkeys; but, before you reach the bottom, you leave the monkey’s habitat behind. You descend to a depth at which the canon is too hot to hold monkeys; but there is no altitude, from temperate plateau to tropical river-bed, at which Ethiopia is not habitable for Man.

What species is he noticing? Ethiopia’s most famous monkeys are geladas, which live at high altitudes in the Ethiopian Highlands. They only sleep lower down. How much lower? Was he seeing them as he descended into the canyons in the early morning? And why are there normally no monkeys in temperate climates? Wikipedia:

“Geladas are found only in the high grassland of the deep gorges of the central Ethiopian plateau. They live in elevations 1,800-4,400 m asl [above sea level], using the cliffs for sleeping and montane grasslands for foraging. These grasslands have greatly spaced trees and also contain bushes and dense thickets. The highland areas where they live tend to be cooler and less arid than lowlands areas. [...] Geladas are the only primates that are primarily graminivores and grazers – grass blades make up to 90% of their diet. [...] At night, they sleep on the ledges of cliffs. At sunrise, they leave the cliffs and travel to the tops of the plateaus to feed and socialize. When morning ends, social activities tend to wane and the geladas primarily focus on foraging. They will travel during this time, as well. When evening arrives, geladas exhibit more social activities before descending to the cliffs to sleep.”

The highest peak is Ras Dashen, at 4,500 metres.

In another book, he describes a journey from Gondar to Aksum in the far north, in early 1964, crossing the Tekezé Gorge – and, I think, the Semien mountains (any connection with simian?), where gelada live in particularly large numbers. Gondar was an Ethiopian imperial capital from 1635 until the middle of the nineteenth century. The Kingdom of Aksum emerged as a power in the first century and lasted for a thousand years. It was never conquered by Moslems.

The Kingdom of Aksum, in the northern part of present-day Ethiopia, had been converted to Christianity about half way through the fourth century. In the sixth century, Aksum, like Nubia, adopted Monophysitism, and the East Roman Imperial Government had to acquiesce. Aksum commanded the sea-route between Egypt and India, and its ruler was in a position to intervene in the Yemen in the Roman Empire’s interest. Constantinople could not afford politically to quarrel with Aksum over a theological issue.

Ethiopian Christianity is now predominantly Oriental Orthodox, which is quasi-Monophysite.

The road, which has kept more or less on one level so far, now gives way, without warning, beneath our wheels. The plateau breaks off short, and the road zigzags down the side of an apparently bottomless ravine. The descent is so steep that the sections of the road immediately below us are out of sight. Down we go and down and down again. A few more twists and turns and we have entered the monkey-zone. At our approach, these amusing creatures leap over the parapet with their children on their backs and hurl themselves into the abyss – a less formidable ordeal for them than coming to close quarters with their human cousins. A few more twists and turns, and the monkey zone has been left behind us and above us. Monkeys seem to be less adaptable than human beings are to differences of climate. The plateau is too chilly for them; the bottoms of the gorges are too torrid. Only human beings can make themselves at home in both these climates, and in the monkey-zone as well.

Gelada family

Gelada on a cliff

Gelada family (is the old one on the way to going grey?); sleeping on a cliff

White gibbons

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous (first two passages)

Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965 (final passage)

Islands

November 22 2012

List of lists of islands.

The Shamanka or female shaman, a holy rock on Olkhon

The Age We Made

November 18 2012

Four-part BBC radio series on the Anthropocene geological epoch. Available permanently, starting here. Presented by Gaia Vince, produced by Andrew Luck-Baker.

Genus Homo

November 7 2012

Hominidae, a family of primates, include four extant genera: chimpanzees and bonobos (Pan), gorillas (Gorilla), humans (Homo) and orangutans (Pongo). Collectively great apes. Extinct genera include (for example) Australopithecus.

The word hominid is also used in the restricted sense of member or species of genus Homo. In this usage, all hominid species other than Homo sapiens are extinct.

Homo habilis

Homo rudolfensis

Homo ergaster

Homo georgicus

Homo erectus

Homo cepranensis

Homo antecessor

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo rhodesiensis

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo sapiens

Homo sapiens idaltu

Archaic Homo sapiens (Cro-magnon)

Homo floresiensis

Approximate chronological order of appearance. But not a linear progression. Some were branches and offshoots, and there was overlapping.

Neanderthals in popular culture.

Modern straits

September 8 2012

In [the modern] post-Christian Odyssey there was more than one passage to be negotiated and more than one kind of ordeal to be faced.

The two spiritual dilemmas, the “straits” Toynbee told us we needed to negotiate in 1952 – he imagines Greek sailors negotiating the straits of Messina and of Gibraltar – can be restated in modern terms, with some realignment of metaphors.

Following in Odysseus’ wake, these Phocaean seafarers would have first to negotiate the straits between Sicily and Italy without approaching either an Italian shore where they would be pounced upon by the monster Scylla or a Sicilian shore where they would be engulfed by the whirlpool Charybdis [...].

[But] if they were to reach the boundless waters of a globe-encompassing Ocean, these voyagers must put to sea again [and] make for the Straits of Gibraltar between the Pillars of Hercules, where this pair of menacing mountains, towering above the African and the European shore and threatening, from either flank, to fall upon any ship audacious enough to run the gauntlet without their leave [...].

In the interpretation of this parable in terms of the Western Civilization’s prospects, the finding of a passage between Scylla and Charybdis signified the negotiation of the Western World’s immediate problem of finding some way of avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification. Mid-way through the twentieth century of the Christian Era the Western Society was in imminent danger of destroying itself by failing to stop making War now that a demonic drive had been put into War by the progress of a Western physical science; and it was in hardly less imminent danger of stultifying itself by seeking asylum from War and Class-Conflict in Circe’s pig-sty. [...]

“Avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification” is the nuclear and ecological strait.

And how can people become richer without losing some of their humanity? Scylla threatens to pounce on you for romanticising poverty. Charybdis wants to suck you into a global Dubai.

In this spiritual ordeal the forbidding Pillars of Hercules were a pair of rival authoritarian and dogmatic faiths, both of which alike were offering to the storm-tossed voyager an everlasting Nirvāna in their stony bosoms and were threatening him with the eternal punishment that had been inflicted on the Flying Dutchman if he were to be so impious and so fool-hardy as to reject their offer and sail on past them out into the blue. From the one shore this ultimatum was being delivered to Western souls by a Christian heresy in which the stone of Communism had been substituted for the bread [footnote: Matt. vii. 9; Luke xi. 11.] of the Gospel, and from the other shore by a Christian Orthodoxy in which the body of Christ, [footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 27; Eph. iv. 12.] who had “come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”, [footnote: John x. 10.] had been petrified into a pillar of salt [footnote: Gen. xix. 26.] by a backward-looking ecclesiastical tradition. To dare the passage between these two frowning Pillars of Hercules was a venture that might daunt even a mariner whose moral had been fortified by a previous success in making his way safely between Scylla and Charybdis.

The new Pillars of Hercules are, on one side, convinced post-communist atheists and, on the other, religious men of “passionate intensity”.

When I was in my twenties, most of my contemporaries professed “agnosticism” when asked about religion. They lacked “all conviction”. Today, their nominally if that Christian equivalents in the UK – partly because of the recent example of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, partly because encouraged by Dawkinses and Goldacres – are confident enough to profess outright atheism.

Plus ultra!

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Great elementary things

April 20 2012

“The mind refers naturally to the beauty of the great elementary things – the sky, the sunshine, and the hills, rivers, fields, and trees; and in people to those things which suggest beauty, activity, and health. We all have a longing for the perfect things.”

___

George Clausen, from Taste, in Aims and Ideals in Art, second series of Royal Academy lectures, Methuen, 1906.

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

March 30 2012

Wikipedia.

Jeffrey Sachs

March 4 2012

Are there any arguments against him heading the World Bank?

Why he wants to.

The number of dead

February 4 2012

… people is about 107 billion, according to the Population Reference Bureau. The population of the planet reached 7 billion in October 2011, according to the UN.

TH Huxley

January 7 2012

Huxley arguing, in 1893 and ’94, against Social Darwinism.

“Cosmic Nature is no school of virtue, but the headquarters of the enemy of Ethical Nature. … Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process, the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best. … The ethical process is in opposition to the principle of the cosmic process, and tends to the suppression of the qualities best fitted for success in that struggle. … What would become of the garden if the gardener treated all the weeds and slugs and birds and trespassers as he would like to be treated, if he were in their place? … The practice of that which is ethically best what we call goodness or virtue involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint. … It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. … Man, as a ‘political animal’, … is compelled to be perpetually on guard against the cosmic forces, whose ends are not his ends, without and within himself. … The ethical progress of Society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. … The history of Civilisation details the steps by which men have succeeded in building up an artificial world within the Cosmos. … In virtue of his intelligence, the dwarf bends the titan to his will. … That which lies before the Human Race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to the State of Nature, the State of Art of an organised polity, in which, and by which, Man may develop a worthy civilisation, capable of maintaining and constantly improving itself, until the evolution of our globe shall have entered so far upon its downward course that the cosmic process resumes its sway and, once more, the State of Nature prevails over the surface of our planet.”

[Footnote: Huxley, T. H.: Evolution and Ethics, the Romanes Lecture, 1893, and Prolegomena, 1894, reprinted in Huxley, T. H. and J.: Evolution and Ethics, 1893-1943 (London, 1947, Pilot Press), pp. 78, 81, 51, 52, 81-82, 59, 82, 83, 83, 60.]

Surely, aside from the now-obvious evils of Social Darwinism, this is the right idea to have of civilisation. We know most of the physical universe is a howling emptiness and a tedious place to be. We know part of it is red in tooth and claw. We’re doing our own thing. I suppose this is an Epicurean and Existentialist, rather than a Stoic, position.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Norwegian atrocities

December 11 2011

Cannibalism among polar bears in the Svalbard archipelago (main island Spitsbergen); the mauling to death of an English schoolboy there in August; mass-killing on an island near Oslo in June. Trandumskogen massacres during the Second World War.

Second of Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods below. He wrote them for a 1942 Hollywood film, Commandos Strike at Dawn, which was based on a story, not otherwise published, by CS Forester.

IMDb: “A gentle widower, enraged at Nazi atrocities against his peaceful Norwegian fishing village, escapes to Britain and returns leading a commando force against the oppressors.”

Stravinsky’s score was rejected. The film used a different one, by Louis Gruenberg.

The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree has been a gift of Norway since 1947. A plaque below it reads:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.”

Major Quisling (post here).

Houellebecq, Lévy, Warnock, Scruton

December 10 2011

Laughable, judging from the beginning, and just possibly fascinating exchange between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy reviewed at the Guardian. On Amazon, Public Enemies is on sale for Kindle for only £3.99, in hardback for £13.49 (full price £19.99) and in paperback, but only through third parties, from £8.79. An odd profile for a new book.

After looking at it for a few minutes (in the £3.99 edition), I can’t say whether or not Lévy makes a fool of himself as philosopher or how Houellebecq comes out of it, but the self-loathing shown on both sides at the beginning is not evidence that Lévy has started to agree with everyone else’s view of him. I have not read any of his or Houellebecq’s books.

Lévy, Roger Scruton and Mary Warnock are on the current BBC Radio 4 Start the Week, available as a podcast. (Why have paid podcasts never taken off?)

Warnock’s new book is Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion out of Politics. More subtle and penetrating than Dawkins, says one Amazon reviewer, which would not be a surprise. He is a wonderful writer on science.

Scruton’s forthcoming book is Green Philosophy. Whether “philosophy” is the right word in the title or not, it is his logical next book. Ecological problems need to be addressed at as devolved a level as possible. Amazon:

“The environment has long been the undisputed territory of the political Left, which has seen the principal threats to the earth as issuing from international capitalism, consumerism and the over-exploitation of natural resources. In Green Philosophy, Roger Scruton shows the fallacies behind that way of thinking, and the danger that it poses to the ecosystems on which we all depend. Scruton contends that the environment is the most urgent political problem of our age, and sets out the principles that should govern our efforts to protect it. The current environmental movement directs its energies at the bigger picture but fails to see that environmental problems are generated and resolved by ordinary people. In Green Philosophy, Scruton argues that conservatism is far better suited to tackle environmental problems than either liberalism or socialism. He shows that rather than entrusting the environment to unwieldy NGOs and international committees, we must assume personal responsibility and foster local sovereignty. People must be empowered to take charge of their environment, to care for it as a home, and to affirm themselves through the kind of local associations that have been the traditional goal of conservative politics. Our common future is by no means assured, but as Roger Scruton clearly demonstrates in this important book, there is a path that we can take which could ensure the future safety of our planet and our species.”

First weather forecast 2

August 2 2011

Daily meteorological data were published in The Times from Wedneday June 8 1853 (the day Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay).

That is original research, as far as it goes, and shows what a few minutes of careful archive searching can do.

Here is the first report:

EJ Lowe – we saw a Darwin connection yesterday – was a botanist.

In The Times of Wednesday January 24 1838, we find:

“Mr. Murphy, in his almanack, has certainly made some very happy guesses as to the state of the weather; still we are bound to say, that at present there are not sufficient ascertained data in meteorological science to reduce its calculations to a regular system. Much, however, may be done by careful observation, and this Mr. Murphy has done.”

Murphy’s Weather Almanack was published (we learn in The Athenæum of Saturday February 10 1838) by “Messrs. Whittaker & Co.”. Was that the same Whitaker, with one t, who started publishing his almanack, which still appears, in 1868?

The Athenæum (1828-1921), a weekly, was publishing its own meteorological data in 1838 with the help of the Royal Society. An earlier, monthly Athenæum was publishing meteorological data signed by L Howard in its first volume in 1807. (That Athenæum was nothing to do with the Boston Athenæum founded in 1807.) In both cases the charts were more detailed than those of The Times in 1853 – or 1861. How far back do we find them?

First weather forecast

August 1 2011

Modern, published.

The Times, Thursday August 1 1861, 150 years ago. The first image is from July 31. Spot the difference.

Wikipedia still says that the first daily forecasts were published in The Times in 1860. The images here from The Times archive suggest that the BBC story today, which says that the first appeared on August 1 1861, is correct.

The man behind them was Robert FitzRoy, who had been captain of HMS Beagle during its second voyage, 1831-36. Toynbee’s “Uncle Harry” succeeded him as Marine Superintendent at the Met Office after his retirement in 1866 as a sea-captain.

Counter-universes

July 20 2011

A living creature is a bit of the universe which has set itself up as a [...] separate counter-universe. It tries to make the rest of the universe serve the creature’s purposes and centre on the creature. That is what egocentricity means. [...]

All the great philosophies and religions have been concerned, first and foremost, with the overcoming of egocentricity.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

The state of the ocean

June 20 2011

BBC.

state of the ocean.org.

Dirt

May 4 2011

Wellcome Collection, museum of the Wellcome Foundation, London, until August 31.

Events. Events. Images. Films. Book. Flickr.

India 2007

Vienna, March 1 1938

Untouchable

The end of freshness

In the Roman Campagna 2

Yuri Gagarin

April 12 2011

Completed single Earth orbit in Vostok spacecraft April 12 1961. “I see no God up here.”

Crisis of the green revolution

February 27 2011

Economist.

State-directed ecocide

January 18 2011

From Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature to Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the Iraqi marshes. We need an audit, but if you put “state-directed ecocide” into Google in quotation marks, you get nothing at all.

Thesiger in Africa

December 14 2010

Alexander Maitland on a new book, Wilfred Thesiger in Africa. Various contributors. No text by Thesiger, but his African photographs are there and in an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum which runs until June 5 2011.

See also Thesiger’s The Life of My Choice (1987), My Kenya Days (1994) and The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-34 (1996).

My Kenya Days (old-fashioned title for a book in 1994) took us to the eve of his return to London, though he said at the end of it that he hoped to die in Kenya.

No modern explorer travelled as much or for as long or so austerely, or retreated to comfort so rarely, or wrote so well when he did retreat or was a better photographer. When he travelled, his camera and, in some cases, medicines, not mainly for himself, were the only possessions which distinguished him from his local companions. No traveller was so little corrupted by voyeurism or careerism.

None has shown such detestation of modern life without being a dropout from his own society or a sentimentalist. He was a proud (his word) Englishman who spent little time in England. He knew that people, including himself, were happier in the old ways of life and that the Earth was being ruined. The British Empire would serve (he did not say this explicitly), where it ruled, as a guarantor of stasis.

When men landed on the moon, Thesiger was at Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Samburu youth, near Maralal, Kenya, 1977

Thesiger at 100

Thesiger’s question

Thesiger at 100

December 13 2010

BBC Radio 4 documentary, with Frank Gardner. Until December 20.

Audio slideshow.

___

Arabian Sands:

“I knew that I had made my last journey in the Empty Quarter [1949-50] and that a phase in my life was ended. Here in the desert I had found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again. But it was not only this personal sorrow that distressed me. I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe. I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.

“On the last evening, as bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha were tying up the few things they had bought, Codrai said, looking at the two small bundles, ‘It is rather pathetic that this is all they have.’ I understood what he meant; I had often felt the same. Yet I knew that for them the danger lay, not in the hardship of their lives, but in the boredom and frustration they would feel when they renounced it. The tragedy was that the choice would not be theirs; economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as ‘unskilled labour’.

“The lorry arrived after breakfast. We embraced for the last time. I said, ‘Go in peace,’ and they answered together, ‘Remain in the safe keeping of God, Umbarak.’ Then they scrambled up on to a pile of petrol drums beside a Palestinian refugee in oil-stained dungarees. A few minutes later they were out of sight round a corner. I was glad when Codrai took me to the aerodrome at Sharja. As the plane climbed over the town and swung out above the sea I knew how it felt to go into exile.”

Arsenic-based bacteria

December 3 2010

“Until now, the idea has been that life on Earth must be composed of at least the six elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus – no example had ever been found that violates this golden rule of biochemistry.”

Presumably, life not caring what its chemical constituents are is good news for religion. Story.

Soft and hard wood

November 16 2010

An eighteenth-century English Whig landowner, who had put his treasure into the founding of a family, would plant avenues which even his grandchildren would not live to see with the eye of the flesh in the glory of the timber’s full-grown stature. A twentieth-century Ministry of Agriculture planted soft wood to replace the hard wood that it felled; and, in this greediness for quick returns, it was advertising its disbelief in its own immortality, however loudly it might shout Le Roi est mort! Vive le Roi! The business men who had taken over from the landowners the management of a British Conservative Party had restricted the horizon of politics to the range of their own myopic commercial vision. Après moi le déluge, if business is booming today.

Spanish chestnut avenue, Croft Castle, Herefordshire; Flickr credit: rowteight

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Immovable

August 6 2010

There’s a legal distinction between movable and immovable property, immovable being real estate. Here is an idle stab at a list of everything man-made that is immovable.

Airport runways, helicopter landing pads, rocket and missile launch pads
Aqueducts
Artificial beaches
Aviaries, large cages
Bollards
Bomb, shell craters
Bridges
Buildings, shelters
Buried and undersea cables
Canals
Cave paintings, graffiti, murals
Cities, megalopolises
Cuttings
Dams, dykes, water barriers, locks, sluices
Ditches, channels, irrigation
Escarpments
Fences, railings
Fields, lawns
Flagpoles, maypoles
Forests
Gardens
Gates, barriers
Graves, tombs
Gutters, manholes, drains, sewers, sewage pipes
Hamlets
Harbours, dry docks
Hedges
Industrial plants, oil rigs and refineries, power stations
Landscaping, golf course bunkers
Level crossings
Megaliths (Stonehenge, Pyramids, Great Wall), colossi
Mines
Monuments, fountains
Mounds
Observatories, as in Jaipur; and large satellite dishes
Open air sports facilities, ice rinks, racecourses, ski runs
Orchards
Parks, public gardens, zoos
Pastures
Paved, bricked, tarmacced spaces
Pavements, verges
Pictures in the landscape (White Horses)
Piers, jetties
Pipelines, water pipes, gas pipes
Plantations
Quais, embankments, ghats
Quarries, excavations
Radio telescopes, large satellite dishes
Railways, monorails
Ramparts
Reclaimed land
Reservoirs
Roads, flyovers, paths, tracks; lamps, milestones, signs, painted lines
Rubbish dumps, pollution
Ruins, foundations
Shrines
Songlines
Station platforms
Steps on a hillside
Stiles
Subterranean shelters, dwellings, cellars
Suburbs, urban sprawl, shanty towns
Telegraph posts and wires, pylons, towers made of iron girders, aerials, signals, public telephones
Terraces, rice terraces
Towns
Trenches
Tunnels
Viaducts
Villages
Walls, moats
Water towers
Wells, pumps
Windmills, water mills

Rice field, China, location not stated, Wikimedia Commons

Landscapes

Stability and dynamism

July 31 2010

The wych-elm

I remember Henri Frankfort criticizing me on a point [...]. I had apparently disparaged the ancient Egyptian civilization for being static. Frankfort said: Why on earth disparage it for that? Why isn’t the Egyptian ideal of keeping society static just as good as your wretched modern, Western idea of dynamism? And when we look at the world today we see there is a great deal in what he said, and we are beginning to think we must stabilize our civilization.

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

Recorded for the 1972-73 programmes of Radio Free Europe.

The lawns of Los Angeles

July 11 2010

At a time when this question of the relation between the Will and Intellect and the Subconscious Psyche was much on the writer’s mind, he found himself in Southern California among the green lawns of Los Angeles. The city is so extensive when measured by the standard of mobility even of the driver of an automobile that the pedestrian visitor is prone to forget that, on the map of the continent as seen by a traveller in an aeroplane, this garden-city which, on the ground, seems boundless, is merely a tiny patch of verdure marooned in the midst of a vast desert. Moreover, the green is so perpetual that the spectator is also prone to forget that it is kept in existence only by a likewise perpetual tour de force. Though on every lawn he sees the sprinklers twisting and turning all day long, he soon comes to take the lawns for granted, as if they had been natural products of a non-existent rainfall. So it gives him a shock when on some vacant lot – kept vacant, perhaps, by a speculator in the hope of rising prices – he sees the savage desert sage-brush bristling up out of a parched and dusty ground. He then realizes that, under the artificial green lawns, the same savage Nature that has here broken its way to the surface is all the time eagerly waiting for an opportunity thus to come into its own again. This is the precarious position of the Intellect and Will.

The gardens of Hofuf (old post).

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Garbage

July 8 2010

New Delhi. “From the amount of garbage thrown outside the walls of the house, you knew that rich people lived there.”

___

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008).

Deepwater

June 6 2010

What was true with Haiti is with the Gulf of Mexico: the best reporting is from Anderson Cooper and others on CNN.

AC 360° podcast.

Snakes and Respighi

May 17 2010

A fire at the Instituto Butantan in São Paulo on May 15 destroyed scores of thousands of preserved snakes, spiders and scorpions: a scientific catastrophe.

Respighi visited its serpentarium in 1927. Jesús López-Cobos, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Global Biodiversity Outlook 3

May 10 2010

Published by the Convention on Biological Diversity today.

Losing the world

February 22 2010

“The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”

___

Wordsworth, sonnet, composed c 1802.

Messiaen on Pélleas

February 5 2010

At the Paris Conservatoire.

Charming. One of the unsolved mysteries of twentieth-century culture is: who made Messiaen’s shirts? Throughout his life he wore them with huge collars which did not seem to follow any fashion.

I saw him in London at a performance of Des canyons aux étoiles, probably in 1988 on the occasion of his 80th birthday, in a church, I believe All Souls, Langham Place. His wife Yvonne Loriod was at the piano. The orchestra was probably the London Sinfonietta and the conductor may have been Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Messiaen on birds

February 5 2010

Nightingales, corn crakes and song thrushes.

 

Copenhagen

December 18 2009

Isn’t this a conference that should go on for months in order to get real work done, like the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, flawed though many of its decisions were – or years, like the Council of Trent?

The War Game 3

November 10 2009

I predicted that the YouTube clips of The War Game in my November 1 post would not be available for long and they have already been removed. This is petty-minded of the BBC, which has earned enough by now by licensing the film it refused to show on television, while the film’s maker, Peter Watkins, has earned nothing. The BBC’s public service remit alone should require it to disseminate it free of charge. You can probably get it on other sites.

The War Game

The War Game 2

The War Game 2

November 2 2009

Citizens of West European countries were haunted [in the post-war world] by fears that some American decision, in which the West European peoples might have had no say, might inadvertently bring Russian atomic missiles hurtling down on Dutch, Danish, French, and British heads. Such West European fears of dire consequences descending upon Western Europe as unintended by-products of some impulsive American retort to some provocative Russian act of aggression were anxieties that might or might not be well founded, but their currency in Western Europe was a fact, and this psychological fact exposed a constitutional flaw in the structure of a commonwealth of Western nations in which all the partners, with the crucial exception of one partner whose “fiat” was “law”, were exposed to the risk of being involved in a perhaps irretrievable catastrophe as a consequence of decisions in which they might have had no voice, on issues in which, for them, the stakes were life and death.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954