Monday, 29 September 2008

Croxdale Foxes: Scat # 3, the berry eater

My visit to the woods had a dual purpose, both to sharpen my tracking skills and also to harvest poles and staves so I began to work my way back down the slope, towards a hazel thicket rising around a central oak. As I got under the oak and began to look around for usable hazel poles using the light coming in to silhouette the straight sticks I noted that somebody had used the area as a camping ground – this was easy to spot as they had helpfully left their empty bottles, tin cans and a stainless steel spoon amongst the leaf litter so other people could tell. These were not the only visitors to the site; evidently a fox had passed this way and had deposited its scat on and around an old plastic bag. It is tempting to anthropomorphise animal behaviour and this spoke volumes. These castings were much smaller than the previous two finds at approximately ?? cm each and were a rich glossy black colour. The deposition site, slightly raised on a plastic bag was classic fox behaviour and by their gooey, mucousy texture they were fairly fresh. The scat broke apart easily to reveal a rough inner texture made up of seeds – the surrounding woodland had a thick ground cover of brambles and along the banks of the nearby beck elder berries hung down in heavy black bunches which this animal was evidently exploiting. The purple-black colouration from this diet of berries was even more apparent when the scat was opened, as was the hard shiny shell of a green acorn. Looking about beneath the tree I was able to find many green acorns that had been cracked and crunched but not eaten, it seems that even a hungry fox has its standards. The smaller size of these castings and the overwhelming content of berries and bitter green acorns suggested that this was a juvenile animal, not yet proficient in hunting and managing to subsist through the late summer and early autumn by eating a vegetarian diet. With the year turning towards its end and the fruits of the hedgerows and undergrowth becoming scarcer this young fox will need to perfect its hunting tactics if it is to survive to see the next spring. Having found and read the signs what can we make of the story? The three sets of fox castings found in my trip to these woods show three distinct diets each with an accompanying impact on scat morphology; although widely different each showed features, either in the choice of deposition site or the evidence from a kill that allowed them to be identified as fox. The wide variance in shape, size, colour and texture found in examining these droppings demonstrates that the received wisdom of books is no substitute for exploratory field work coupled with a good local knowledge of prey species and foraging opportunities. I am of the opinion that scat # 3 was deposited by a juvenile animal, due to its smaller size and the deduction that an adult proficient in hunting would have at least some meat waste in it’s droppings – that this scat had no maggot infestation and contained such an unappetising food stuff as green acorn husks does not, in my view, point to an adult animal. Scats # 1 and # 2 were found at opposite ends of the wood and differed widely - # 1 being very meat rich, less well formed and darker in colour with a very severe maggot infestation whilst # 2 was a classic cylindrical shape and was comprised mainly of compressed grey squirrel fur, with much less maggot infestation. With no usable tracks found around either deposition site to aid in identifying individual animals by their gait or size we are thrown back on supposition and deduction using local knowledge. My feeling having walked the trails and known these woods since childhood is that they are from two different animals, Scat # 1 from an adult fox having its range in the woods and fields around Coldstream Farm and doing very well eating game birds and Scat # 2 from an adult fox with a range centred on the spruce covered pit heap with a skill for catching grey squirrels on the ground. Of course this could be wrong and we have only one animal with a very varied diet – the answer will only come from more time spent in the woods. Top: Scat # 3 deposited on litter on woodland floor
Middle: Scat # 3 opened, the berry seeds can clearly be seen
Bottom: Vulpes vulpes

Croxdale Foxes: Scat #2, the squirrel eater

I took a trail back towards the pit-heap, collecting a long straight holly pole I had cut and stowed earlier in the day as I went. Grey squirrels darted up trees as I neared but no longer went through the noisy rigmarole of alarm displays, for which I was thankful. Fresh, bright white polypore fungi sprouted from birch stumps, looking smooth and streamlined and in the distance three more Roe darted away. They were a long way off and going in the opposite direction to me so I decided not to trail them. I was making my way back to a small glade I had seen a few hours earlier, a hollow on the north side of the pit heap where a young beech tree, some 20 meters high and maybe a meter round at the base grew over small birches and a carpet of sphagnum moss. The back wall of the hollow was thick with brambles and bracken but the space beneath the beech was so clear and tidy and it looked like a room had been set aside in the middle of the wood. At the entrance to this secluded glade, on a pad of moss, was a classic sausage shaped fox casting – even down to the twisted pointy end. The scat consisted of three individual pieces, two lying side by side and a third several centimetres away. All were a dark grey colour, and approximately 8cm long. Although not in an elevated point in the landscape the scat had been left conspicuously out in the open, as if the former owner had been proud of their handiwork. I set to breaking the castings open, starting with the piece set slightly apart from the other two. This was an incredibly tough and compressed cylinder that needed considerable effort to open. Once broken apart it became clear that this fox had the knack of catching grey squirrels on the ground, the whole scat was made up of thickly coiled and matted grey fur, obviously once belonging to a squirrel. This casting did not have any maggots, perhaps because it was so hard and compressed, or perhaps because there was too little meat waste contained within to attract the flies to lay. The other two pieces were slightly easier to break up, darker grey in colour and had some maggots, again the small pearly-grey grubs with the black heads that had predominated in the fox castings in Coldstream Wood, although they were fewer in number than were found in the earlier meat-rich droppings. Although evidently some days old judging by the maggot infestation the whole casting retained a strong musty smell. Top: Classic sausage-shaped fox dropping, Scat # 2
Middle: Scat # 2 opened to reveal grey squirrel fur
Bottom: View of deposition site for Scat # 2

Croxdale Foxes: Scat #1, the pheasant eater

As I took to the narrow trail a wren which had remained silent whilst I stood on the main path began to tick noisily and flick its tail from bush to bush. The trail was thick with Roe slots, some quite large. The amount of cobwebs I had to brush from my face indicated that nothing above waist height had travelled down the trail recently, although a large dog print – something along the lines of a German Shepherd – showed that the trail was not unknown to either dog walkers or the nearby farm. The trail rose and fell, hugging the south bank of a small ghyll, forcing me to bend low to get under branches and making me wince as my pack snagged dead twigs and snapped them off with sharp cracks. As the trail crested a rise at the edge of the wood I stopped and looked down at the open fields and the river beyond. Slightly off the trail I saw a pile of feathers, evidently once belonging to a hen pheasant. I remembered that this area of woodland had been used several years earlier by the farm to breed game birds, I had once stumbled across bags of feed and several mesh pens and from the steady croaky alarm of a pheasant to my left the woods obviously remained a popular area for the birds. Stooping to examine the kill site I noted the ends of the quills had been snapped and torn – characteristic of the feeding behaviour of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). There was precious little left of the bird, only a few scattered feathers – everything else had been devoured. I noticed a small scat in amongst the feathers – which looked dark and lumpy, almost like that of a sheep and certainly nothing like the classic sausage-shaped fox scat text books use to illustrate their pages. Although the scat was extremely atypical of the fox castings found in books it’s positioning with an obvious fox kill and it’s location at the point where the trail crested a rise pointed to fox sign. I photographed the site and carried on along the trail, now heading back in the direction I had come although hugging the edge of the wood rather than the middle. Over the next hundred meters I came upon three further deposition sites used by this animal. In each case the casting had been left on the trail, usually at a high point or a site where a gap in the trees allowed a clear view to the fields. This animal was leaving very dark and lumpy scat that had fallen to the floor in thick, heavy splats. Examining the scat revealed it to be infested, to a greater or lesser extent, with small pearl-grey maggots with black ends. One of these castings, which had fallen in three separate pieces was heavily infested and also revealed a single larger, plumper orange-brown maggot. The larval stages of flies is not my strong suite so I could not estimate just how old the castings were, although a smaller casting found further along the trail appeared to the fresher and had fewer maggots of a smaller size. I left the maggots squirming in the sudden sunlight and thought of the wren that had protested as I entered the wood. This animal, which had so thoroughly marked this trail along the edge of the wood with it scat, was enjoying a particularly meaty diet, taking pheasants from the woods and perhaps also scavenging around nearby Coldstream Farm. Its scats were black and viscous, falling in lumpy dollops and having sufficient meat waste to attract flies to lay eggs in the casting. There was no sign of berry seeds or the purple-black colouring that comes from a diet of berries – this fox was living off the fat of the land. As the game trail petered out and merged again with the main path I noticed a movement in the bush some 20 meters ahead. I stood as still as I could and watched with amazement as a Roe doe came cautiously up the slope to my left and stood looking up and down the trail, like a child waiting to cross the road. The animal looked directly at me, I did not move and it appeared not to register me as a threat. It casually carried on, crossed the trail and disappeared down the slope to my right, immediately followed by a larger buck with impressively knobbly and pearled antlers. I was struck by how the Roe buck had allowed the doe to scout ahead for danger and how closely it stuck to her once she had decided to move. Both animals were much darker than the Roe I had seen in Cumbria in August – those deer had been a rich golden brown in contrast to the darker, sullen grey colour of these animals. Both deer were still within sight, picking their way slowly through the woods. I decided that I would risk a photograph and went to unzip my jacket. Either the sound or the movement alarmed them and they turned to look at me for a moment before bounding away, white rump flashes disappearing as they crashed through the brush. As I reached the point where the deer had crossed the patch I became aware of a strong and quite offensive odour. Even as I stood the smell was dissipating and weakening. I have never smelled this around Roe before – the text books will tell you that the rut for Roe runs from mid July to Mid August but taking local factors into account and seeing how close the buck stuck to the doe it appears that in late September in Durham the rut is continuing. Top: Pheasant killed and eaten by Red Fox
Second: Fox droppings at kill sight
Third: a further deposition also recorded as Scat # 1, 50 meters from earlier kill site. This scat was heavily infested with maggots
Bottom: a third deposition recorded as Scat # 1, some 100 meters from earlier kill site. This scat appeared to be fresh and was not as heavily infested as the previous dropping

Croxdale Foxes: Down The Woods

On Sunday 28th September 2008 I revisited the woods I knew as a child. Bordered on the west by the river Wear, to the north by the East Coast Mainline and to the east by the village of Croxdale and the A167 these woods are a mixture of spruce plantations on old colliery pit heaps and stands of ash and sycamore along the narrow beck valleys. As is often the case with woodland in Britain it is a mean and hemmed-in kind of wood, squeezed on all sides by agriculture and settlements and showing the signs of abuse that are so common; empty beer tins stuck on bushes for kids to shoot air guns, piles of tyres tipped over fences by farmers too lazy to dispose of them properly - the casual desecration of the modern word. I entered the woods along the track from Sunderland Bridge – the opposite way that I used as a child but easier to access to the areas I wanted to look at. I passed the sewage works and piles of fly-tipped garden waste, walked under the large red-brick viaduct that carries the inter-city trains and on to the river, signs of the recent flooding showing in the bent Himalayan Balsam and debris caught high in the branches of the willows and hazels that hem the bank. As I left the path and took to the woods a grey squirrel immediately started alarming from an oak tree 10 meters in front. I stood exasperated as it chirped and squeaked, violently shaking its tail. I can not remember greys in these woods 30 years ago, in fact I can not remember seeing any grey squirrels in this part of the Wear Valley. As recently as the late 80s red squirrels were present in Croxdale woods and also in the woodland extending from High Butterby to Shincliffe but now every footstep seemed to scatter another grey into the trees, their noisy ascent making it less likely that any other wildlife in the wood would stay around. I climbed to the top of the pit heap, the black spoil from Durham’s mining heritage bound together by spruce and silver birch planted in the 1950s and 1960s. The steep western side of the heap runs down to the river and from the long ridge at the summit the village of Croxdale can be seen across the fields to the east. On another visit earlier this year I had seen Roe deer grazing in the secluded margins where the woods met the fields so I began to move carefully and quietly in that direction only to see a brown Labrador trot towards me followed by its owner. If any deer had been in this part of the wood they would be long gone by now. I descended the pit heap at its steep southern end and dropped down into the beck valley, a narrow strip of woodland full of ash, hazel and holly. The beck had been scoured by the heavy rain at the beginning of the month but even so it looked dull and lifeless and I stood on its banks. I remembered an afternoon visit to this spot as a boy when my Dad and I had caught so many fish that the bucket had been unable to hold them and I watched as they swam round and round in their own shoal. Now the beck has no fish or fresh water shrimps, no holes for bank voles amongst the roots of hazels. At the bend in the beck where the old cracked willow lies flat on the woodland floor a new steel bridge with massive concrete foundations has replaced the old wooden footbridge. I crossed the beck and took the trail into Coldstream Wood, more spruce plantation left to run wild although not as mature as the plantations on the pit heap. The path had been churned up by horses and mountain bikes and the wood was quiet and still, not even a bird call accompanied me as I walked up the trail. At the end of the wood I leant on the gate and looked across the fields to Coldstream Farm – now much larger and posher than I recalled and as I looked a mountain-biker appeared in the distance. Not wanting to be around when he arrived I took a small game trail to my right, planning to skirt along the outer edge of the wood closest to the river before rejoining the trail back at the bridge. Top: Satellite image from Google Earth showing scat find sites. OS Explorer 305 Bishop Auckland, ref 260370
Middle: Sunlight on the western slope of the pit heap
Bottom: Coldstream Wood seen from the banks of the river Wear

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Out Of The Storm: The Apocalypse of William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson is the master of the macabre sea story. Apprenticed as a cabin boy in 1891 at the age of fourteen Hodgson spent seven years at sea before the dangers of the ocean, brutality of his crewmates and the beggarly wages paid by the ship owners forced him to seek his living ashore. For Hodgson the sea is never a benign environment, rather it is the lair of monsters and ancient terrors, phantom derelicts and the ghosts of the sea-dead rising to revenge themselves on the living. Mariners find themselves cast away on dripping, alien islands that have risen temporarily from the ocean floor or they are buffeted and blasted by spectral winds that converge from the four corners of the earth. The sea is a borderland of the soul, a liminal neither/neither place that partakes both of the sacred and the profane. A place where the boundaries that separate us from the beyond are blurred and merged, where it is possible to hear in the wash of the waves the beast rising from the deeps. Of all Hodgson’s sea stories “Out Of The Storm”, first published in 1909, stands apart in it’s abject horror. The story begins conventionally enough with a tone of Edwardian domesticity as a caller pays a visit to a scientific friend to find him receiving a message from a sinking ship via a strange telegraph-like machine. But as the narrative unfolds we are subjected to an intense and hallucinary description of a man at the point of death, mortally afraid and in the grip of dire spiritual revelation. The son of an Anglican vicar Hodgson must have been well aware of the Christian symbolism associated with the sea. The figure of the steadfast mariner who clings to his faith and is rescued from the swell, Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale and the deluge that cleansed the world of the sinful were all fitting subject for pious hymns, sermons and pamphlets but in “Out Of The Storm” the narrator sets these traditional Christian motifs of salvation and redemption, so familiar to Hodgson’s readers, at naught. Instead God is mocked and abjured and in his extremity the narrator deifies and glorifies the raging storm. Recounting the story in the first person, his language rising and falling in Biblical cadences he eventually breaks down in a frenzied denunciation of God, delivered in blood and thunder tones worthy of Blake:
Oh! God, art Thou indeed God? Canst Thou sit above and watch calmly that which I have just seen? Nay! Thou art no God! Thou art weak and puny beside this foul Thing which Thou didst create in Thy lusty youth. It is now God--and I am one of its children.
The sea itself is personified and horrified – it is foul and full of “Satanic thunder”, it mocks and cackles like “Hell from the mouth of an ass”. The storm lashed ocean is omnipotent and malevolent, thoughtless and careless, the destroyer and consumer of all. When a sailor is swept over the side the narrator sees huge monstrous jaws in the waves, hears the clash of titan teeth. We are not sure if this is metaphor or reality, has the sea come alive, is it animated and sentient, a vast thrashing many-jawed leviathan that can not be subdued? Hodgson hated and feared the sea. It is to him the ur-source of all that is wicked and blasphemous upon the face of the earth. With a message that echoes the biblical destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah the sea in “Out Of The Storm” teaches sin and fosters the procreation of the wicked. It is possessed of a creeping, insidious, infectious foulness that causes mothers to abandon their children and lovers to slash at each other with tooth and claw. As the waters rise above their heads the narrator can hear the sea calling, whispering of death and the grave until he is repulsed and sickened, “to speak of it to one of the living is to initiate innocence into one of the infernal mysteries--to talk of foul things to a child”. We are reminded of the end times, a ship of fools, brother turning against brother, the hells and wastelands of Bruegel and Bosch in which tortured, terrified people are stripped bare of their humanity and their souls laid open and ugly to await final judgement. But near the very end, with the sea-green grave gaping beneath him the narrator recants his blasphemy and clings once again to the religion of his childhood. He asks God to aid him in his mercy, begs for forgiveness, prays for death. Is this conversion genuine? Is the narrator turning to God with love – or fear in his heart? He begs the listener not to repeat his ravings because he is himself afraid of what has been revealed. Woe to you o earth and sea. There are things that are worse than death. William Hope Hodgson was killed by an artillery shell at Ypres on either 17th or 19th April 1918, aged 40 years. He was eulogized in The Times on May 2, 1918. OUT OF THE STORM "Hush!" said my friend the scientist, as I walked into his laboratory. I had opened my lips to speak; but stood silent for a few minutes at his request. He was sitting at his instrument, and the thing was tapping out a message in a curiously irregular fashion- stopping a few seconds, then going on at a furious pace. It was during a somewhat longer than usual pause that, growing slightly impatient, I ventured to address him. "Anything important?" I asked. "For God's sake, shut up!" he answered back in a high, strained voice. I stared. I am used to pretty abrupt treatment from him at times when he is much engrossed in some particular experiment; but this was going a little too far, and I said so. He was writing, and, for reply, he pushed several loosely-written sheets over to me with the one curt word, "Read!" With a sense half of anger, half of curiosity, I picked up the first and glanced at it. After a few lines, I was gripped and held securely by a morbid interest. I was reading a message from one in the last extremity. I will give it word for word:---"John, we are sinking! I wonder if you really understand what I feel at the present time—you sitting comfortably in your laboratory, I out here upon the waters, already one among the dead. Yes, we are doomed. There is no such thing as help in our case. We are sinking--steadily, remorselessly. God! I must keep up and be a man! I need not tell you that I am in the operator's room. All the rest are on deck--or dead in the hungry thing which is smashing the ship to pieces. "I do not know where we are, and there is no one of whom I can ask. The last of the officers was drowned nearly an hour ago, and the vessel is now little more than a sort of breakwater for the giant seas. "Once, about half an hour ago, I went out on to the deck. My God! The sight was terrible. It is a little after midday: but the sky is the colour of mud--do you understand? -gray mud! Down from it there hang vast lappets of clouds. Not such clouds as I have ever before seen; but monstrous, mildewed-looking hulls. They show solid, save where the frightful wind tears their lower edges into great feelers that swirl savagely above us, like the tentacles of some enormous Horror. "Such a sight is difficult to describe to the living; though the Dead of the Sea know of it without words of mine. It is such a sight that none is allowed to see and live. It is a picture for the doomed and the dead; one of the sea's hell-orgies--one of the Thing's monstrous gloatings over the living--say the alive-in-death, those upon the brink. I have no right to tell of it to you; to speak of it to one of the living is to initiate innocence into one of the infernal mysteries--to talk of foul things to a child. Yet I care not! I will expose, in all its hideous nakedness, the death-side of the sea. The undoomed living shall know some of the things that death has hitherto so well guarded. Death knows not of this little instrument beneath my hands that connects me still with the quick, else would he haste to quiet me. "Hark you, John! I have learnt undreamt of things in this little time of waiting. I know now why we are afraid of the dark. I had never imagined such secrets of the sea and the grave (which are one and the same). "Listen! Ah, but I was forgetting you cannot hear! I can! The Sea is--Hush! the Sea is laughing, as though Hell cackled from the mouth of an ass. It is jeering. I can hear its voice echo like Satanic thunder amid the mud overhead--It is calling to me! call—I must go---The sea calls! "Oh! God, art Thou indeed God? Canst Thou sit above and watch calmly that which I have just seen? Nay! Thou art no God! Thou art weak and puny beside this foul Thing which Thou didst create in Thy lusty youth. It is now God--and I am one of its children. "Are you there, John? Why don't you answer! Listen! I ignore God; for there is a stronger than He. My God is here, beside me, around me, and will be soon above me. You know what that means. It is merciless. The sea is now all the God there is! That is one of the things I have learnt. "Listen! it, is laughing again. God is it, not He. "It called, and I went out on to the decks. All was terrible. It is in the waist- everywhere. It has swamped the ship. Only the forecastle, bridge and poop stick up out from the bestial, reeking Thing, like three islands in the midst of shrieking foam. At times gigantic billows assail the ship from both sides. They form momentary arches above the vessel--arches of dull, curved water half a hundred feet towards the hideous sky. Then they descend--roaring. Think of it! You cannot. "There is an infection of sin in the air: it is the exhalations from the Thing. Those left upon the drenched islets of shattered wood and iron are doing the most horrible things. The Thing is teaching them. Later, I felt the vile informing of its breath; but I have fled back here--to pray for death. "On the forecastle, I saw a mother and her little son clinging to an iron rail. A great billow heaved up above them--descended in a falling mountain of brine. It passed, and they were still there. The Thing was only toying with them; yet, all the same, it had torn the hands of the child from the rail, and the child was clinging frantically to its Mother's arm. I saw another vast hill hurl up to port and hover above them. Then the Mother stooped and bit like a foul beast at the hands of her wee son. She was afraid that his little additional weight would be more than she could hold. I heard his scream even where I stood—it drove to me upon that wild laughter. It told me again that God is not He, but It. Then the hill thundered down upon those two. It seemed to me that the Thing gave a bellow as it leapt. It roared about them churning and growling; then surged away, and there was only one—the Mother. There appeared to me to be blood as well as water upon her face, especially about her mouth; but the distance was too great, and I cannot be sure. I looked away. Close to me, I saw something further--a beautiful young girl (her soul hideous with the breath of the Thing) struggling with her sweetheart for the shelter of the charthouse side. He threw her off; but she came back at him. I saw her hand come from her head, where still clung the wreckage of some form of headgear. She struck at him. He shouted and fell away to lee-ward, and she--smiled, showing her teeth. So much for that. I turned elsewhere. "Out upon the Thing, I saw gleams, horrid and suggestive, below the crests of the waves. I have never seen them until this time. I saw a rough sailorman washed away from the vessel. One of the huge breakers snapped at him!--Those things were teeth. It has teeth. I heard them clash. I heard his yell. It was no more than a mosquito's shrilling amid all that laughter: but it was very terrible. There is worse than death. "The ship is lurching very queerly with a sort of sickening heave"--"I fancy I have been asleep. No--I remember now. I hit my head when she rolled so strangely." "My leg is doubled under me. I think it is broken; but it does not matter--" "I have been praying. I--I--What was it? I feel calmer, more resigned, now. I think I have been mad. What was it that I was saying? I cannot remember. It was something about--about---God. I--I believe I blasphemed. May He forgive me! Thou knowest, God, that I was not in my right mind. Thou knowest that I am very weak. Be with me in the coming time! I have sinned: but Thou art all merciful. "Are you there, John? It is very near the end now. I had so much to say; but it all slips from me. What was it that I said? I take it all back. I was mad, and--and God knows. He is merciful, and I have very little pain now. I feel a bit drowsy." "I wonder whether you are there, John. Perhaps, after all, no one has heard the things I have said. It is better so. The Living are not meant--and yet, I do not know. If you are there, John, you will—you will tell her how it was; but not--not--Hark! there was such a thunder of water overhead just then. I fancy two vast seas have met in mid-air across the top of the bridge and burst all over the vessel. It must be soon now--and there was such a number of things I had to say! I can hear voices in the wind. They are singing. It is like an enormous dirge--I think I have been dozing again. I pray God humbly that it be soon! You will not--not tell her anything about, about what I may have said, will you, John? I mean those things which I ought not to have said. What was it I did say? My head is growing strangely confused. I wonder whether you really do hear me. I may be talking only to that vast roar outside. Still, it is some comfort to go on, and I will not believe that you do not hear all I say. Hark again! A mountain of brine must have swept clean over the vessel. She has gone right over on to her side... She is back again. It will be very soon now--" "Are you there, John? Are you there? It is coming! The Sea has come for me! It is rushing down through the companionway! It--it is like a vast jet! My God! I am dr-own-ing! I--am--dr--" Top: the vessel is now little more than a sort of breakwater for the giant seas. Middle: Not such clouds as I have ever before seen; but monstrous, mildewed-looking hulls. Bottom: William Hope Hodgson in the uniform of an officer of the Great War.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

To TAD or not to TAD

I first became familiar with Triple Aught Designs ( www.tadgear.com ) of San Francisco, manufacturers and retailers of top-end military and out-door clothing and equipment in 2007 when I was looking for a soft-shell jacket suitable for “bushcraft” and use in woodlands. I wanted something in subdued colours and with a hood – the climbing/hill-walking company’s were offering jackets with hoods (Haglofs, Arc’teryx etc) but the best colour they could come up with was black and the prices were steep. Hunting apparel manufacturers had some soft-shell’s in green and brown but without a hood. Then I saw the TAD Stealth Hoodie – a hooded soft-shell jacket that came in multi-environment green, coyote brown or grey and was packed with the features I was looking for. I ordered one, not immediately because they were out of stock and TAD only manufacture in small runs to maintain quality, but in February of 2008 when they re-stocked. It cost $265 – approx £130. I also ordered a Marino wool hat at $29.95, about £15. The total order, with shipping, came to $316 . There was a bit of a foul up because the TAD website didn’t allow overseas customers to pay via PayPal but that was easily sorted out and I eagerly waited the arrival of my stuff. About 4 weeks later I got a letter from ParcelForce informing me that the package had been impounded by Customs and would only be released on payment of the duty, plus a “handling fee” – the letter menacingly stated that . Nobody likes to be held hostage but what can you do – they’ve got your goods and the clock is ticking. So I coughed up the £58 and my package was finally delivered. Imagine my disappointment when I opened the package to discover that TAD had sent me the wrong garment in the wrong colour – and it had cost me £58 to find out. To add insult to injury they had used the computer generated sales receipt as the address label so HM Customs & Excise had known exactly how much the stuff had cost and had stung me accordingly. I emailed TAD and got a quick response, they offered to replace the wrong jacket with the right one but there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t be stung by Customs again so I decided to cut my losses and opted to return the jacket for a refund. TAD paid to ship the jacket back to America but even so there was the hassle of posting if off and waiting for my refund. I did keep the Marino hat, which with shipping and customs fee’s ended up costing me £89! It’s the most expensive woolly hat I’ll ever buy… I licked my wounds and put it down to experience. But I still wanted a soft-shell, preferably in green or brown and with a hood if possible. I almost bought a Harkila but they were not cheap and didn’t have a hood then one day in May I was surfing the web and came across www.ebaybanned.com and saw what looked like a replica of the TAD Stealth Hoodie retailing for 53 Euros, or £40 in real money.
I bought one. Shipping was free and 6 days later it arrived from Hong Kong. This is nothing less than a blatant counterfeit of the TAD Stealth Hoodie complete with fake tags, labels and logo. Just like the original it has 2 chest pockets and 3 arm pockets, plus a large “poachers pocket” on the back accessed by zips at both ends. The hood has a peak and is adjustable via toggles at the front. There are pit-zips under both arms for ventilation and a two-way front zip. The site very helpfully points out that these garments have been made for the Asian market with Asian sizings so European/North American customers may need to go up a size. I’m 6’1” and 13.5 stone and would usually take a Large, I ordered the X-Large and it’s as good a fit as anything I’ve bought off the internet. I appreciate that there is a slight drop in quality from the American-made genuine article to the Chinese-made knock-off but having handled both an original TAD garment and this counterfeit I think the difference is slight – the zips, seams and stitching are all very tight and well finished. Anyway, in my view “bushcrafters” tend to buy ridiculously over-spec products when something cheaper would function just as well, at least in the situations and environments most of us operate in. The summer of 2008 gave me plenty of opportunity to test the jacket. During a particularly heavy rainstorm in Hammsterly Forest in early June the jacket initially worked well but when the rain became relentlessly heavy leaks could be felt creeping in at the shoulder seams. This is understandable and it should be noted that soft-shells are not intended to be totally impermeable to rain. Similarly during a trip to Cumbria in early August the jacket was great in lighter drizzly rain, shedding water from it’s surface without any difficulty and it was also able to take short bursts of very heavy rain but it did begin to let in water if exposed to the kind of prolonged torrential downpour that English summers produce. The colour “coyote brown” was developed by the US armed forces for deployment in hot arid environments and seems to cover anything from light sandy beige to an almost milk-chocolate brown and this jacket is towards the lighter end of that spectrum. As a consequence it’s no good as camouflage in summer woodlands where green is the predominant colour but does blend in well amongst the dry grass of coastal dunes and uplands. The lighter colour can make it prone to appearing grubby and so far I’ve washed it twice by hand in warm water, using Nikwax Techwash – both times it came up good as new. This is not a perfect never-need-to-buy-another jacket but it does perform well within its comfort zone and for the price I don’t mind subjecting it to hard knocks and rough use. I’ll leave it up to your own conscience as to whether ‘tis nobler to buy the real thing from TAD and support the people who actually developed the design and own the patents or whether you feel £40 for a hooded soft-shell is too good an opportunity to miss and vote with your wallet.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

RYN - Astral Death: carried on the winds of the void

When and why did sound assume the forms, laws and narratives that transformed it into music? Did people use their voices to imitate the sounds they heard, to tell stories and pass on information? Did they build instruments to better mimic the song of birds or the rush of water or wind? And what now when people turn away from the forms and laws that dictate what is music and try to make sound that does not conform and refuses to carry a narrative? What happens when sound tries to express nothing but its own being?
RYN are the bleakest and most cold of ambient projects. The pieces contained on Astral Death are more akin to the voids that have been caused by the absence of sound than it’s positive presence. Soft crackling grey spaces rotate, divide and multiply revealing concentric storms of slow falling snow falling feedback and static. Twice projected into the ancient past and the ancient future the listener is lost, abandoned in a neither/neither world with no signs to guide the way, no stars to navigate the ship. Stripped of bearing until meaning has no meaning and disorientated until there is only the pulse of shimmering samsaric spirals of non-being/being the listener must submit to be lead through these places by the psychopomp of astral death.
As the reed pipe mimicked the wind so the instruments of RYN mimic the wind that blows down on us from the ancient deeps. Sometimes the wind blows soft and we know it only by the coldness it carries within its wings but oft times it raises to a mighty tempest and rolls and thunders around the towers of the great and the hearts of the humble, whispering of the things that are not and the places that will never be.
Unrest Productions – www.unrestprod.com

The Hen

With September upon us and the swallows beginning to gather on wires and gables it is an appropriate time to enjoy this particular story from Lord Dunsany's Book of Fifty One Tales, first published in 1915. Dunsany, with his vulpine wit, was a master of the concise and this short aphoristic piece juxtaposes his sweeping lyrical love for wonder and beauty with his contempt for the squalid, parochial and suburban...you should hear our hen! THE HEN All along the farmyard gables the swallows sat a-row, twittering uneasily to one another, telling of many things, but thinking only of Summer and the South, for Autumn was afoot and the North wind waiting. And suddenly one day they were all quite gone. And everyone spoke of the swallows and the South."I think I shall go South myself next year," said a hen. And the year wore on and the swallows came again, and the year wore on and they sat again on the gables, and all the poultry discussed the departure of the hen. And very early one morning, the wind being from the North, the swallows all soared suddenly and felt the wind in their wings; and a strength came upon them and a strange old knowledge and a more than human faith, and flying high they left the smoke of our cities and small remembered eaves, and saw at last the huge and homeless sea, and steering by grey sea-currents went southward with the wind. And going South they went by glittering fog-banks and saw old islands lifting their heads above them; they saw the slow quests of the wandering ships, and divers seeking pearls, and lands at war, till there came in view the mountains that they sought and the sight of the peaks they knew; and they descended into an austral valley, and saw Summer sometimes sleeping and sometimes singing song. "I think the wind is about right," said the hen; and she spread her wings and ran out of the poultry-yard. And she ran fluttering out onto the road and some way down it until she came to a garden. At evening she came back panting. And in the poultry-yard she told the poultry how she had gone South as far as the high road, and saw the great world's traffic going by, and came to lands where the potato grew, and saw the stubble upon which men live, and at the end of the road had found a garden, and there were roses in it--beautiful roses!--and the gardener himself was there with his braces on. "How extremely interesting," the poultry said, "and what a really beautiful description!" And the Winter wore away, and the bitter months went by, and the Spring of the year appeared, and the swallows came again. "We have been to the South," they said, "and the valleys beyond the sea. "But the poultry would not agree that there was a sea in the South: "You should hear our hen," they said. Top: Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany
Middle: Swallows. Bottom: Hens.

Monday, 21 April 2008

April 20th - The Cusp Of Spring




Last year there was much in the news about Spring coming early. Gardeners at Kew were reported to comment that the growing season hadn’t really stopped and flowering trees and shrubs were coming into bloom four or even six weeks earlier than expected. I don’t know what has happened this year at Kew but up here in the wilds of waney Spring has only just begun to make its presence felt.

Walking in the woods on Sunday 20th April it was the rattle of dead oak leaves in the wind that was the dominant sound, although now and again the song of great tits and chaffinches broke out from above. Away deeper in the wood a jay cackled and cracked and a pheasant gave off it’s alarm. Several fat bumblebees buzzed drowsily through the shadows a few inches from the ground, as if they hadn’t yet shaken the sleep from their compound eyes.

The yellow gorse flowers where the most colourful thing in the woods, although little white stars of wood anemone were beginning to twinkle out from a thickening carpet of green. As an indicator of ancient woodland the anemone’s and bluebells point to what was once here, before mountain bike tyres rutted the paths and a local running club decided to paint “Home” on the trees to aid their orienteering.

The was a nice fresh crop of deer slots in the wet mud on the paths and away deeper into the spruce plantation and here and there the delicate white flowers of hawthorn and blackthorn were just starting to open.
Top: Flowring gorse
Middle: Fallow deer slots on a muddy bank
Botton: Wood anemone

Monday, 14 April 2008

TTSSATTSR


The formless given form. The shadows cast by light caught as they pass.


Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Irreducibility of Hunting




The recent Louis Theroux programme on South African game farms will have done little to change public opinion towards hunting. The sight of fat Americans shooting captive reared game in a fenced enclosure, sometimes from hides near water or salt licks where the animals have been habituated to gather does not inspire thoughts of a “fair chase”. With professional hunters guiding clients in 4x4’s to docile animals the skills of tracking, stalking and killing appear to be secondary to the hunters desire to get a trophy or tick another species off the list.


Theroux, the very model of the over-urbanised metropolitan hypocrite who eats meat and wears leather but would rather not think about where it came from, at least seemed to become aware of his hypocrisy even if he declined to address it but programmes like this can only fail to convince a public disengaged from the reality of meat farming that hunting can be a good thing.


In his essay “The Irreducibility of Hunting” Dr Lee Foote argues for hunting both as a life affirming experience that touches deep parts of what it means to be human and reconnects us with the process of food procurement that the modern world has removed. The debates around hunting are complex and emotive and whilst we may recoil at some of the attitudes and behaviours displayed by those who hunt for fun I know that when I came across a small heard of deer grazing at the edge of a wood last weekend my heart quickened and a hunting instinct returned. Once upon a time we all had to hunt to eat and if the modern world has rid us of that inconvenience it has also taken away that truth.



The Irreducibility of Hunting


Dr. Lee FooteAssociate Professor, Dept. of Renewable Resources University of AlbertaI


I would be flattered for my gravestone to read "A good hunter; a trusted companion; an engaged and contemplative soul who lived his dreams". Inevitably we "do" but a small proportion of the things we plan, wish to, or dream of. There are too many engaging options swirling around for us to partake in more than a scant few of them. What hunter doesn't day dream ofAfrican safaris, barren ground caribou hunts, Arizona javelina; speargunning for tuna in the California kelp forests, or dove hunts in Mexico? I suggest that we should carefully choose those few we can afford then partake with all our being to wring the very essence of the hunt out of these touchstone events.


In the western, privileged, consumer countries we have unprecedented and almost incomprehensible access to resources. We live in a way where simply articulating our ankle unleashes the equivalent of a 200-horse team pulling our chariot; where our chariot can bring home the edible, wrapped portions of a large ungulate without us breaking a sweat or a spear point. Indeed, our hunting heritage may have brought about altered tooth structure, bipedalism, stereoscopic vision, language development, social behavior, tool using and even sex roles. We embraced these aspects of humanity with aplomb but it raises an important question - what relict behaviors and instincts do we share with our ancestors and how do we fit them into city life full of parking lots, mortgage payments, canned food and movie theaters? Most of us have seen the lashing tail and flicking ears of a house cat eyeing an unreachable birdfeeder; it requires little imagination to link tabby to a leopard stalking an impala. So why should we hesitate to acknowledge as instinct the quickened pulse and urgent whispers of hikers happening onto a herd of deer? It follows that those who hunt and think about their actions may be finding authentic outlets in which to exercise their instinctive drives. Might this explain the depth of commitment and satisfaction that hunters find in their pursuits? These are things we draw from our deep senses but as modern creatures we need to go one step farther to absorb and process the meaning embedded in the act of hunting to mesh it well with our new-found culture. After all, we spend relatively few of our waking hours engaged in the hunt each year. The remainder we are expected to be gentle and civil citizens.We are jerked backward and forward in time even as we unthinkingly munch South American nuts coated with German chocolate wrapped in aluminum foil from African bauxite mines and sold in North America; we are twitching like that window-watching cat as we sit in front of a big screen and vicariously live the panic of a tailback in full flight from a predaceous linebacker. Are these sensations authentic? . . . undoubtedly yes, because perception is reality in regard to interpreting our senses. We have all the tools, however deeply buried in our brain stems, to relish the fatty, oily richness of cocoa oils just as distant relatives relished the kidney fat of a mastodon calf. Our instincts are engaged and some flickering primal sense gratifies us with a small endorphin rush for passing that Brazil nut overour tastebuds. Elation awaits us for reaching the virtual cover of the endzone uncaptured. We are not alone in our vicarious pursuits - what hunter hasn't pondered the dreams of dogs in their whimpering, leg-twitching sleep. Those canine practice chases must be just as real as a young boy's dreams of a Gretsky slapshot or Jordan jumpshot. But that is where it ends. Right in our heads. That is no place to live, no rabbit fur, no hat trick, no three-pointer, no safari.


I would advocate spending time in pursuits that we not only have the instinctual tools with which to immerse ourselves deeply, but also those where our intellectual tools can be brought to bear. This is important for us to make sense of what we have wrought. Neither of these tasks is easy but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. I am talking about thinking through the endeavor of hunting with intent. Birdwatching, like baseball, gets one only halfway to this goal. Hunting is the focused intent to find, interact with and try to kill a chosen animal, sense the well-earned elation, use it to fuel our bodies, share the symbolism and absolutism of meat, tell and retell the events to others. Dwelling upon and learning from the experience brings us full circle. There may well be other activities that can do this too. Active participation in (as opposed to merely watching) most sports reaches these steps to somedegree; observe, physically act, learn & grow. Elemental physical sports with great doses of anticipation, uncertainty and interaction with other identified forces come to mind - boxing, sailboat racing, white water paddling. However, the differences between the meaning of a hunt and the meaning of team sports seem profound in their subtlety. Sports games are defined by rules concocted by humans to provide a challenge. An arbitrary bar height, a ticking clock, a chalk-delineated area of field. As we are engaged in sports games there is no abandonment of culture to move back in time to ancestral preparations of body, mind and equipment. Quite the opposite, we must use a fair proportion of our senses simply staying within the bounds of the rules because any lapse and we forfeit our goal. With hunting, there is an absolute touchstone goal that cuts across the entire activity- killing one's quarry. The finality of killing is an absolute consideration in hunting that is not duplicated elsewhere in sport with the possible exception of bullfighting. Though ethics and social norms are woven into the selection and methods of killing, there is an absolute finality and gravity in deliberately stopping a heart.


A culture has developed around most forms of hunting but as late as the beginning of the 20th century culture, rule minding was still a minor point. Passenger pigeons were taken with dynamite, ducks with rock-laden puntcanons, bears with snares, and bison from trains. Few objected to any means used in achieving an animal's demise any more than the cat is denied its mouse for the unsporting means of taking it in an enclosed dustbin. Rules have tightened about hunting as a way of prolonging the opportunity to hunt in the face of swelling human populations and more efficient technology. Even today where technology and population lag, Inuit hunters may harpoon seals, noose rabbits, and snitch eggs from goose nests. Canada's Woodland Cree set snares for moose, and shoot sharptailed grouse on their leks. Denesulfine hunters may shoot a dozen swimming caribou at a good crossing and tow them from their motorboat's transom back to camp for dog food. As human populations increase, these activities will diminish and laws, band rulings or taboos will likely crop up pragmatically to prevent their recurrence. To most people geographically or generationally isolated from eating wild-killed meat these activities seem barbaric, heartless and uncivilized. When "uncivilized" becomes a pejorative it speaks volumesa bout how far cultures have drifted from a natural way of living.


By way of contrast, a young, ethical, sophisticated dentist that wade-fishes a stream with an expensive fly rod to catch and release several dozen trout causes few emotive ripples from people that have lost their nature connection. Point of fact, however, his unintentional hooking mortality (about 10% usually) will likely kill two trout. Fifteen-inch trout in the north are probably 10+ years old; three times as old as those caribou that were shot while swimming. The trout were not used and he accepted no responsibility for their death. He has behaved in a far less defensible( some would say honorable) manner than a Tuktoyuktuk girl who eats eider eggs for supper. Her hunting, her eggs, her pride, her nutrition, and she remembers where she got them! To the raided goose she is no different, no less natural, than the grizzly bear whose tracks she crossed as she searched the river's edge. They are both hunters driven by and gratified by the same exact events, killing and eating an egg. She has maintained a clear behavioral connection all the way back into the inky depths of our evolution and she has helped carry it forward one more generation.


All this natural interplay aside, are there other compelling reasons for hunting in a modern era? There seems to be no clear link to evolutionary fitness in the short term, or is there? What does it mean for someone to say "I am happy" or "I am content"? For most, hearing a family member say that is deeply pleasing, especially if both have played a part in the state of being happy. However, ultimately people must look within themselves to recognize happiness. They give themselves permission to be happy, then they have the sense to reflect on this condition enough to say "I am happy".Often the distractions of living in a bustling crowded environment that is divided into ½ or ¼ hour time blocks doesn't allow people to ascend to the total happiness plane. Even if they manage to get there, distractions rarely allow them to settle down enough to relish the condition and roll it around in their mind. Some people learn that getting well away from other humans is the first step toward being able to hang onto their happiness and actually enjoy the privilege of being. I, like many readers herein, am most uniformly, unconditionally and purely happy when I am actively hunting. I am also most acutely aware of it because there are almost always long quiet pauses built into the process. The setting is not devoid of distractions; it is only devoid of the demanding sort that can't be ignored. These are natural reflection periods. For one thing, there is a pure escape from the socio-cultural material world. There is no discrimination between hunters based on the weight of their wallet, the expense of their wristwatch or the kind of vehicle that transported them to the field. Those commonly used economic measures of happiness are stripped away and afield we are all equal. There is an elegance to sampling the nuances of the surroundings, and the process of getting outside of one's body, area and epoch to try on different perspectives like one tries on clothing. It is a way of being-in-the-world and feeling connected to the elemental attributes of heat, cold, muscle contractions, precise hearing, deep hunger and the exercising of very primal parts of the brain that hearken back to dark and pure urges. Whatever endorphins or internal gratification feedback loops are at work here, they seem to be hardwired, but it takes some peeling back of the urban cultural layers to get to their honest core.The complete absorption in some fully occupying task is fulfilling. All but the most jaded, unthinking, vicarious-livers know the satisfaction of being fully engaged in some demanding task, be it casting a fly precisely while balancing in cold water, racing through moguls on a snowboard, gluing up a tedious 900 piece model airplane, devouring a challenging book or stalking on red-alert through an Acacia woodland. Activities of total absorption.These are what psychologists call "flow-experiences" and they share certain attributes, including a complete unawareness of one's feelings, a loss of the sense of time (My god! Where did the last 3 hours go?), a deep sense ofcalm, a peacefulness, and maybe exhilarated exhaustion after the activity is over.


These flow experiences may be so valued by adults because they are so rare. We are fortunate if we have 50 hours of fully engaged flow experiences out of the 8760 hours available each year - less than 1% of our time. Children seem much more capable of being fully in the moment and often are so deeply preoccupied with a game, contest or a painting that when they finally look up they are overly tired and famished with hunger. Some behaviorists contend that play during adolescence is preparation for life's more serious endeavors as an adult, particularly related to physically procuring food and competing for mates. So, have we prepared ourselves during childhood for something we never get around to as adults? Maybe we love the involvements that let us return to the blissful carefree unawareness of childhood. Through hunting we can re-enter the zone ofengagement that we carry instinctively in our bones, that we practiced as children and now reconnect and implement as adults. Hunting is one of the most honest behaviors we can access and even then, it is not always possible to reach the full-out screaming immersion of the six-year-olds' Ferriswheel experience. Sometimes our adult baggage creeps in and ruins the experience, or more tragically, we never get around to participating in the core activities.


There is one overriding reason hunting provides a better, more dependable passage into being fully connected, leading to a better chance of enteringflow-experiences. In hunting there is an intended quarry; another entity as fully and honestly engaged in the activity of pursuit/evade as the hunter. When hunting with commitment, one is lured or channeled into the mostcomplete level of engagement. It is the difference between waltzing alone or with a partner. If one is hunting with a dog, falcon or even a close cooperative companion, there is a second cooperative spirit that pulls one in demanding the effort to participate fully.


However, it is primarily the purity and completeness of the hunted animal's drive to elude, deceive, escape, or even attack the hunter that is the lovely expression of millennia of evolution preparing it to survive. This evolutionary response is what makes clear the steps the hunter must make to keep the dance from being a mockery. We must follow through with our best effort to kill our quarry and this for the sake of the evolutionary process that brought both of us to this point. These flow-experiences are not independent of the final milliseconds of subduing quarry. In the long pageantry of anticipation, preparation, practice, apprenticeship, travel, pursuit, killing, possessing, processing, sharing, consuming, telling, re-telling, analyzing, speculating and appreciating, the actual kill is one step on a long winding staircase. Without it though, things would be quite different and some subsequent steps would not be reached. Hunting without the intent to kill is not hunting any more than a dress rehearsal is not theater. Without an appreciat-or there is no art appreciation. Without prey there is no predator. Without predators, grouse become chickens, deer become goats; wildfowl become barnyard dabblers and mice become small hamsters.

On a hot September fencerow with dozens of doves streaking past and a very warm shotgun barrel I am sure to be reeling with the euphoria and pure engagement of a predator. I am so very very alive and I relish the sway between periods of calm quiet and the subsequent crouching, spinning and shooting. This teeter-totter of being fully engaged interspersed with introspective boredom can make the hands on my watch spin frantically until I look up and realize the sun has set and my stomach is rumbling. It is time to return to the ordered and clock-metered life with three-squares and a foam pillow. The bumpy ride back from pasture to gravel to pavement completes my transition back to the civilized realm and is accomplished witha grin and some satisfaction, not because I may have brought eight ounces of bird to earth but because I succeeded in leaving my routine role, my common sphere. I stepped out and back in time to exercise instincts long dormant. The sense of satisfaction, all bag aside, was in seeing life and death in avery different way for a few hours and the fact that I will carry this rejuvenation with me in reliving and anticipating my next experience.


Hunting continues to renew us, give us humbling mortality insights, and provide hope for our next role escape. There are so very few things in our lives that yield these most precious of gifts: renewal, humility, insight, and hope. We must treat hunting with the same reverence we hold for our religions, our children, and the world's greatest works of art.


Dr Foote is a biologist teaching at the University of Alberta, his website details his current research activities http://www.ualberta.ca/~lfoote/index.htm

This essay first appeared in "Fair Chase" the publication of the Boone and Crockett Club and was taken from
www.kifaru.com, makers of bomb-proof bespoke hunting and outdoor kit.


Friday, 11 April 2008

Poison (Ger)


Black Metal post 1990 leaves me cold, and not in a good way. It is neither black enough nor metal enough and rather than the ultimate outsider art it set out to be it has become just another music trend for dilletantes to obsesses over before moving on to the next scene. Emo kids in day-glo headbands sport Burzum t-shirts and corpse paint is no longer a talismanic channelling of the dead but a tired joke. But it was not always so. In the 1980’s Black Metal was a term of contempt and something far far beyond even the mainstream of metal, which was itself on the margins of society. These where the days when Venom were regularly voted the worst band in the world in the annual Kerrang readers poll – the same mag that slagged Slayer, VoiVod, Celtic Frost and Bathory’s early albums before suddenly remembering around 1986 that they’d liked them all along – just in time to pump the mid 80’s thrash movement for every penny.

There are always bands who get left behind. Who now remembers Voor or Black Shepherd, and although terms like “primitive black thrash” are thrown around by people too young to own a cassette player it is rare to find something that actually lives up to it’s boasts. And then there is Poison. If you want to know where modern Black Metal gets it’s fascination with the Cult of Incompetence look no further than Poison. Modern Black Metal tries too hard to perfect a sound that bands like Poison got by the sheer fucking bad luck of not being very good musicians, having access to poor quality studios and releasing their material on cassette. Just as Venom probably wanted to be Judas Priest but never quite learned the chords Poison never quite managed to rise to the standard of Lant/Dunn/Bray. This is seriously primitive blackened thrash metal, the wailing leads aping King/Hanneman like an imbecile child trying to sing a hymn, the riffs lost in layers of fuzz and the ghastly vocals mixed with all the lumpen horror one would expect of a cheap studio in Ulm in 1984.

Given the influence that bestial 80’s German metal had on the Latin American scene it comes as no surprise to find a fan site to Poison hosted from Brazil. Maybe the brutality of those early recordings from Sodom, Destruction and Kreator spoke to something in the Latin make-up that the North American and UK bands could not. Maybe it was their blasphemy, aggression and violence. Maybe the sight of Testament dressed in five pairs of matching Reebok basketball boots just looked a bit fake. Either way Poison were an evolutionary dead end. Their sound did not progress or develop, it stayed locked in the past and remains the sonic equivalent of being flogged by a rusty bulletbelt. For when Hellhammer is too weak and you really do want something buried by time and dust.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Wildwood




For Father’s Day 2008 I received a book that I already owned. Armed with the receipt I set off to Waterstones to exchange it for something else. For the booklover wandering through Waterstones must awaken the same feelings of ennui and anti-climax as a food-snob winning a trolley dash around Iceland. The shelves bulge with the pre-packaged and over hyped, low quality celebrity-backed junk with a TV tie-in. I can think of a hundred books on a dozen subjects that I want/need/desire but as I walked through the shop it was clear that I would struggle to find any of them here.


The natural history section seemed to consist only of books about garden birds and I was about to turn away when I saw the spine of “Wildwood” stand out from the crowd. I had made a mental note to myself in the summer of 2007 to buy the book after hearing it discussed on Radio 4 as I drove to work but as with most mental notes in fell off the mental kitchen wall and down the back of the mental fridge long before I acted on it. Justing by picking the book up and feeling its weight, the well designed boards and the texture of its creamy pages I knew this was something that I should have bought and that the chance must not slip away again.

Deakin weaves his personal history through the pages of the book like a spoor. References to hippy fairs in Suffolk in 1970, the Whole Earth Catalogue and The Incredible String Band point to where he came from and how his views were formed and it is clear that Deakin was part of the counterculture that saw its role as ecological activists and conservationists of both tradition and place long before such ideas had been smoothed down to fit the mainstream. The resurrection of his sixteenth century timbered farmhouse from a near derelict shell to a living home is discusses with pride and the knowledge won from hard work.. For Deakin this house, with its moat and 323 oak beams in which swallows and spiders were as welcome as he, roots him to the spot. He talks of the seeming permanence of houses as opposed to the transience of camps that he has built in the deep hedgerows but acknowledged that in reality we are just passing through, and houses, even one as old and wooden as his are just blinks in the eye of the forest.
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But these are not the reflections of a middle-aged New Ager living out the rural dream in deepest Suffolk but rather a book that looks at the lives of the people who live in woods and who work with wood, artists and artisans and harvesters. For Deakin wood is a “fifth element”, a quintessence that partakes of earth, air and water to grow and in turn feeds the fires to warm and feed us, provides material to build and craft the things that support and delight us and exists in it’s own right as a thing of beauty both when alive and dead. To the medieval mind the wildwood was a wilderness, a place of monsters and outlaws in which chaos and panic ruled. It was to be contrasted with the garden, ordered and cultured, a place for courtly love and civilisation. Deakin carries on this tradition and shows how foresters have always been marginal people, living literally beyond the bounds and beyond the control of landowners, church and state. He recounts how foresters have struggled and fought to preserve rights to the land in opposition to those who would put them off it and he quotes from Thomas Hardy’s “The Woodlanders” to illustrate how poor a living was to be had from the woods. The sense of struggle for scant reward runs through the book as Deakin details the troubles of Suffolk thatchers and Australian woodsmen in providing a reasonable living from the woods and he does not flinch from proclaiming that the dynamic reciprocal relationship with the environment that was once everyday and everywhere is becoming harder to sustain.

Good travel writing should be able to invoke two complimentary yet seemingly conflicting emotions; the desire to experience new and different places whilst at the same time evoking in the reader the feeling that by virtue of reading the page they have already travelled there and know it well. Deakin’s numinous, elegiac prose on the walnut forests of southern France, the damp eerie spruce of the Ukraine and the various habitats of the Australian bush does just this. He visits each with a keen naturalist’s eye for detail and a sensitive, human desire to interact and learn from the people who continue to live and work in the forests of the world. However it is when he travels to the former Soviet states of central Asia in search of the origins of domestic fruit varieties that the book begins to stir the soul. Travelling with local foresters and researchers Deakin climbs through remote wooded valleys by day and stays by night in forest Dachas , eating the walnuts that are offered to him by every one he meets. In these valley’s Deakin describes a primal idyll of wild fruit forests that support hundreds of varieties of wild apple, plum, walnut and berry. In his journeys through the woodlands of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan Deakin does nothing less than look back into Eden, a fertile and gentle habitat among the wild places that produced the means for humanity to thrive and drift across the earth.

Books that do not make one think are not worth reading and for me there was as much to make my spirits sink in Wildwood as there was to make me soar. The saddest was to contrast Deakin’s description of magnificent, wild ancient woodland with the mean and degraded woods that predominate in Britain today. Professor Tolkien once commented that he did not think there was a single patch of wildwood left anywhere in the land, and if there was he would not want to visit it for fear of finding it littered and despoiled. When I walk in the woods behind my house with my daughters I am well aware that this is not the Ferghana Valley or even the green-man haunted oak woods of Devon. This is the remnant of a woodland, hemmed in by housing and roads, the becks running pale and dead with the effluent from industrial estates, the signs of casual vandalism showing on trees and the woodland floor as trail bikes and drunken kids leave their mark.


It is painful to see how few old trees remain in my local woods, here or there an oak or a beech growing quietly alone, towering over the younger ash and scrubby spruce trying to grow on the shaley waste from collieries. It is hard to feel satisfied with such places when Deakin talks of the Pilliga Forest or wild olive woods on the mountains of Lesbos but we are where we are. The beck might not support as many fish as it did when I was 10 but last week when I went into the woods to cut hazel poles I disturbed a pair of mallards that had swam upstream away from the flooded river. There are still huge blackthorn thickets that rise like islands where the wood meets the fields, enveloping other tree’s in their spread and providing a haven for hares and bullfinches and there is ample evidence of deer in the woods, both by the scrapings and slots along the game trails and the nibbled saplings and shoots – even occasionally the startled gallop and the sound of breaking twigs as the animals flee. The stench from the sewage works does not seem to hindered the pale grey leafy lichens from colonising acres of planted larch or the flocks of waxwings from feasting on the rowan berries in winter. There is still diversity and beauty in the woods and we should make it our business to enjoy it.

I came to the end of Wildwood with regret. Deakin had described his home and the surrounding woodlands in Suffolk with such careful detail that I felt I could log on to Google Earth and look through his window. He had written of places I had never heard of and will never see in a way that makes me thirst for them. He had found wonder and grandeur in the smallest of things – the wobbly flight of moths, the presence of plants in unexpected places and the soft chuckling language rooks use to sooth their chicks in the nest. He had praised the humble ash tree in the final chapter of the book, marvelling at its ability to bend and create organic architecture, swooning over it’s pale grey skin and tendency to have green mossy socks, which le likened to the shaggy legs of Pan, and in doing so he had made me love the local distinctiveness that makes my local woods what they are.

It was with deep sadness that I googled his name after reading the book to find obituaries. Roger Deakin died of a brain tumour in August 2006. That Wildwood should be his last book is a shame, he had planned to write a book about the county of Essex and another on the aboriginal heritage of the British Isles, both of which I am sure would have been full of the same intimate, well observed detail and poetic joy as Wildwood and it’s predecessor Watelogged. It is a strange and sobering sensation to find that the author you have just read, in which the life force and wonder of trees and woodland is celebrated in vivid beauty has himself returned to the earth.

Roger Deakin – writer, filmmaker and environmentalist
11th February 1943 - 19th August 2006

Top: Wildwood
Middle: Deakin swimming
Bottom: Rowan thicket in Weardale, July 2007

Thursday, 3 April 2008

April Revival


The advent of British Summer Time is a good point to breath life back into this blog. That is not to say that the previous months have been spent in idleness or waste, on the contrary, the reason why the blog has been neglected has been due to the amount of other work demanding time, attention and effort.



The first week of February was written off by this year’s latest variation on the norrovirus. Getting sick comes with having kids, and one can look back on those healthy days before being a family man with a sigh and a smile. Back then it was taken for granted that a good night’s sleep meant eight or nine hours of unbroken rest, rather than two or three fitful hours crammed into a child’s bed along with a cuddly seal called “Sammy”. It was also taken for granted that there was enough hours in the day to eat well, or indeed at all, and to exercise and relax. These are now the stuff of memory and as such each winter for the last few years I have caught whatever horrible virus is doing the rounds. This year was a bad one, so bad that during the four days I was on sick leave I could barely eat although I did manage to get to ASDA to buy a copy of the newly released “Live After Death” Iron Maiden DVD. Scream for me Spennymoor.

The release of the “Demon Entrails” anthology on February 18th was a twenty-five year highpoint for all Hellhammer fans, although the forthcoming coffee table book of lyrics, art and photos will surely be another. If only I knew where that Celtic Frost guitar pic was that I grabbed at the Bradford gig last year, it can’t have gone far. The new albums by RYN, “Astral Death” and Eidulon have been warmly received, vast drifts of rumble and drone like the sun breaking through miles of dense inky cloud to illuminate nothingness. I will be writing more about both releases in time. The new Black Mountain album was bought as a gamble and half paid off, I’m sure it’s mix of heavy rock and folk will be looked on as the new sliced loaf by alternative college kids in ethical hats but to anybody who doesn’t think music started last week and who already owns records by Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Wishbone Ash, Curved Air, Atomic Rooster and hundreds of others it will be politely enjoyed and put on the shelf between Black Feather and Black Oak Arkansas. Hopefully not the new Isis or Pelican.

The first three months of 2008 saw Earth, Sir Richard Bishop, Ramesses, Burial Hex and Silvester Anfang all play gigs in Newcastle. Not that I went to any of them, a combination of poor health, lack of money and an unwillingness to make the 60 mile round trip kept me at home reading Sherlock Holmes stories. In late January I found a boxed edition of the complete Holmes stories in a charity shop for only £5.99. £5.99 later I was the proud owner of a boxed collection of Sherlock Holmes stories which I proceeded to read in strict chronological order. I am a stout fan of Edwardian fiction such as the ripping adventures of John Buchan and the anti-German spy stories of William Le Quex and although I had read several of the Holmes novels before others were new to me. To completely immerse oneself in the atmosphere and culture of another time through great fiction is a rare pleasure and there is none so good as Doyle’s skilful depiction of the criminal underworld of London between the 1880’s and 1910’s.

There are always other gigs. May will see Shift return to Newcastle with a blast walls of noise and raging power electronics, “Unable to bear the silence of the world” was one of the best albums I heard last year and I have already marked this on the calendar as essential, as well as the first UK tour of Zoroaster and Genghis Tron, who will be destroying hearing as they go. June 24th has Whitesnake and Def Leppard co-headlining Newcastle Arena, my love for David Coverdale’s bluesy heavy rock is equalled only by my scorn for Def Leppard’s plastic poodle cack. What’s got 9 arms and sucks? Def Leppard. Saturday 12th July is Doom Metal Inquisition V, all-dayer at the 1in12 Bradford. Unfortunately US doom titans Orodruin and The Gates of Slumber won’t be there as planned but with Pagan Altar, Warning, The River, The Lamp Of Thoth, Lazarus Blackstar and Witch Sorrow it is going to be the biggest doom gig the UK has seen in years. Or maybe ever. Tickets on sale soon.

I have been walking along the banks of becks and field margins, looking for straight sticks and poles amongst hazel thickets and blackthorn jungles. I have always cut sticks during walks but I have decided to finally begin making “proper” walking sticks, caped with antler and thonged with leather and ferruled in steel. So far I have a nice bundle drying slowly in the rafters of the garage. It is a gentle and contemplative art and maybe only a few steps away from having a tartan flask and a Jack Russell called “Scamp”.

Lying in the warm waters of the outdoor swimming pool at CentreParc in February, with the distant rumble of the A66 and the snow drifting through the trees I realised that the tracks I had been working on for the “Hunts & Wars” album needed something more, or maybe something less. So when we returned home and I was able get some free time to spend in the studio I overhauled the first track, cut it down, trimmed it’s fat and thinned out the murk to let some of the light shine in and the darkness shine out. I also recorded 3 short pieces to act as interludes between the 4 longer tracks, smaller and quieter with less emphasis on the sturm and more on the drang. What I have now is seven pieces of varying lengths which come in at a total of about 65 minutes. The titles reflect the Cimmerian/Howardian spirit that has informed these sessions from the start.


1 Before The Hammer There Was The Horn
2 Helmwind
3 Father Of The Frosts
4 Niord’s Theme
5 Reaching For The Stars We Blind The Sky
6 Night Must Fall
7 Hunts & Wars



Each piece will be accompanied by a sigil that I have dreamed throughout the workings for this album and I am making plans for the cover that will include a nidstang pole to earth the current that the horns draw down. “Hunts & Wars” will be occidental and ancient and will partake of the epic and barbaric in their true forms.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Lunar Signs






Photographs of the full moon taken 22nd January 2007. Lunacy. Lycanthropy. Eye of Qulielfi.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Robert Ervin Howard born 22nd January 1906






Robert Ervin Howard, writer, poet and visionary was born in Peaster, Texas on January 22nd 1906.

Howard wrote hundreds of short stories and poems many of which have become embedded within the popular imagination of the last century. In common with his correspondents Clark Ashton Smith and Howard Phillips Lovecraft he used his profound skill to described events and character that range from the numinous to the macabre.

I find Howard’s poem Cimmeria, written in Mission, Texas in 1932, to be a particularly powerful example of his work. The poem, written as a remembrance from one far removed from his homeland, beautifully describes the fierce brooding hill country that Howard made the home of Conan, his most famous character and carries all the menace and foreboding of the unknown wilderness.

Howard took his own life on June 11th 1936 aged 30 years.

I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds' leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.
Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista--hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.