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 ( ) 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 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 –

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 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.