Tag Archives: science

29 September: Creation Season I, Our Stour

The Stour is the river that flows through Canterbury in different channels, including this one, from which L’Arche Kent draws the water for its garden project. When I looked at the photo on a large screen I almost discarded it as it shows more of the flats opposite than the river. But the river is healthy, as the weed shows, and this is confirmed by a survey a friend took part in, counting the different micro-organisms at various sites along the river.

It was not always that way. In the 19th Century Ashford’s sewage went into the river, not good for Canterbury or the schools built near the river. But Canterbury tossed in sewage as well, and worse: opposite us here, where the flats now are, was the tannery, source of industrial pollution.

That has gone, the river is clean enough for trout and eels to thrive; we’ve seen both on this stretch. This would not have happened without dedicated and focussed hard work, continuing to this day with the Our Stour project.

One way to help is to use water wisely; Our Stour provide some good advice for gardeners. This is part of our responsibility as stewards of creation, something to consider in this season of Creation proclaimed by Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.

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2 September: Wesley’s thoughts upon slavery IV, West African culture.

Bronze from Benin, 16-17 Century

In the mid 18th Century M Allanson was already urging a considerable abatement in the perception that Europeans held of Africans.

 It was of these parts of Guinea that Monsieur Allanson, correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, from 1749 to 1753, gives the following account, both as to the country and people: — “Which way soever I turned my eyes, I beheld a perfect image of pure nature: An agreeable solitude, bounded on every side by a charming landscape; the rural situation of cottages in the midst of trees; the ease and quietness of the Negroes, reclined under the shade of the spreading foliage, with the simplicity of their dress and manners: The whole revived in my mind the idea of our first parents, and I seemed to contemplate the world in its primitive state. They are, generally speaking, very good-natured, sociable, and obliging. I was not a little pleased with my very first reception; and it fully convinced me, that there ought to be a considerable abatement made in the accounts we have of the savage character of the Africans.” He adds: “It is amazing that an illiterate people should reason so pertinently concerning the heavenly bodies. There is no doubt, but that, with proper instruments, they would become excellent astronomers.”

The inhabitants of the Grain and Ivory Coast are represented by those that deal with them, as sensible, courteous, and the fairest traders on the coasts of Guinea. They rarely drink to excess; if any do, they are severely punished by the King’s order. They are seldom troubled with war: If a difference happen between two nations, they commonly end the dispute amicably.

  

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21 August: Gilbert White VI, Migration or hibernation?

Starlings in early Autumn before they gather in huge murmurations.

Hibernation of birds was one area where Gilbert White’s instincts were wrong: unlike snakes and harvest mice, neither swallows nor any other birds hibernate; they migrate. I have seen a house martin or two, flying over Dumpton Park in Thanet, just a few metres from the coast, on 20th October one year. Is it likely that they fly south to Senegal? Conversely, is it likely that they hide in river mud, completely without trace?

About ten years ago I used to spend some weeks yearly at Sunbury, which is one of those pleasant villages lying on the Thames, near Hampton Court.  In the autumn, I could not help being much amused with those myriads of the swallow kind which assemble in those parts.  But what struck me most was, that, from the time they began to congregate, forsaking the chimneys and houses, they roosted every night in the osier-beds of the aits of that river.  Now, this resorting towards that element, at that season of the year, seems to give some countenance to the northern opinion (strange as it is) of their retiring under water.  A Swedish naturalist is so much persuaded of that fact, that he talks, in his calendar of Flora, as familiarly of the swallows going under water in the beginning of September, as he would of his poultry going to roost a little before sunset.

An observing gentleman in London writes me word that he saw a house-martin, on the twenty-third of last October, flying in and out of its nest in the Borough.  And I myself, on the twenty-ninth of last October (as I was travelling through Oxford), saw four or five swallows hovering round and settling on the roof of the county hospital.

Now is it likely that these poor little birds (which perhaps had not been hatched but a few weeks) should, at that late season of the year, and from so midland a county, attempt a voyage to Goree or Senegal, almost as far as the equator?

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20 August: Gilbert White V, Harvest Mice

Harvest mouse by Hendrik Osadnik

White depended upon correspondence with other gentlemen researchers to further his researches – and theirs. He contributed to the identification of the harvest mouse as a separate species. ‘Nondescript’ here means not having its description recorded in a scientific publication. Two inches is about 5 cm.

I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy.  From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript.  They are much smaller, and more slender, than the mus domesticus medius of Ray, and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour; their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly.  They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves, abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles.  They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat, perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket ball, with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged.  It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.  As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively, so as to administer a teat to each?  Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk.  This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field suspended in the head of a thistle.

Letter xiii

As to the small mice, I have farther to remark, that though they hang their nests for breeding up amidst the straws of the standing corn, above the ground, yet I find that, in the winter, they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass: but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest.  A neighbour housed an oat-rick lately, under the thatch of which were assembled nearly a hundred, most of which were taken, and some I saw.  I measured them, and found that, from nose to tail, they were just two inches and a quarter, and their tails just two inches long.  Two of them, in a scale, weighed down just one copper halfpenny, which is about the third of an ounce avoirdupois: so that I suppose they are the smallest quadrupeds in this island.  A full-grown Mus medius domesticus weighs, I find, one ounce lumping weight, which is more than six times as much as the mouse above; and measures from nose to rump four inches and a quarter, and the same in its tail. 

Zwergmaus (Micromys minutus), fotografiert 9/2005 von Hendrik Osadnik

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18 August: Gilbert White III

This marshy stretch of water offers cover to birds – and would-be hunters.

We continue reading from White’s letter to Pennant.

Wolmer Pond, so called, I suppose, for eminence sake, is a vast lake for this part of the world, containing, in its whole circumference, 2,646 yards, or very near a mile and a half.  The length of the north-west and opposite side is about 704 yards, and the breadth of the south-west end about 456 yards.  This measurement, which I caused to be made with good exactness, gives an area of about sixty-six acres, exclusive of a large irregular arm at the north-east corner, which we did not take into the reckoning.

On the face of this expanse of waters, and perfectly secure from fowlers, lie all day long, in the winter season, vast flocks of ducks, teals, and widgeons, of various denominations, where they preen and solace, and rest themselves, till towards sunset, when they issue forth in little parties (for in their natural state they are all birds of the night) to feed in the brooks and meadows, returning again with the dawn of the morning.  Had this lake an arm or two more, and were it planted round with thick covert (for now it is perfectly naked), it might make a valuable decoy.

A decoy uses floating model ducks to attract flocks of wild birds to a stretch of water where hunters and their retriever dogs are waiting.

Gilbert White can be seen here involving his parishioners in his science, surveying the pond. It must have been exciting for the swarms of children following behind. I daresay they got in the way.

He says elsewhere that rich tenants had stripped the oak woods around the pond, selling the timber, in all probability, to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth to build ships with ‘hearts of oak’. War and greed deforesting England.

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17 August: Gilbert White II, Nature is a great economist.

Sussex Cattle

LETTER VIII Continued.

Within the present limits of the forest are three considerable lakes, Hogmer, Cranmer, and Wolmer, all of which are stocked with carp, tench, eels, and perch: but the fish do not thrive well, because the water is hungry, and the bottoms are a naked sand.

A circumstance respecting these ponds, though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid-leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding.  During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle, and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency.  Thus Nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another!  Thomson, who was a nice observer of natural occurrences, did not let this pleasing circumstance escape him. 

He says, in his “Summer,”

“A various group the herds and flocks compose;
. . . on the grassy bank
Some ruminating lie; while others stand
Half in the flood, and, often bending, sip
The circling surface.”

White is more aware than many modern people of the cycle of life! These Sussex heifers were beside the Little Stour River in July 2020.

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16 August: Gilbert White I, living comfortably.

We have read how Samuel Johnson encouraged friends to make detailed personal observation, scientific enquiry in other words. No-one appears to have found this activity anti-Christian or against Bible teaching. Gilbert White of Selborne, Hampshire, was an Anglican curate who observed the Natural History of his parish and shared his discoveries with friends in letters that became his book, The Natural History of Selborne. WE celebrate his tercentenary this summer. Our first selection comes from letters to Thomas Pennant, himself an associate of Johnson.

England, in the second half of the eighteenth century was much more rigidly divided by class than today. Many countrymen, out of doors in all weathers, and not unobservant, were illiterate and unschooled, so were unable to contribute as much to the growth of knowledge than if they had received an education. However some parishioners did help White by bringing specimens or telling their curate about a sight worthy of his attention.

LETTERS TO THOMAS PENNANT, ESQUIRE. V

The village of Selborne, and large hamlet of Oakhanger, with the single farms, and many scattered houses along the verge of the forest, contain upwards of six hundred and seventy inhabitants.

We abound with poor, many of whom are sober and industrious, and live comfortably in good stone or brick cottages, which are glazed, and have chambers above stairs; mud buildings we have none.  Besides the employment from husbandry, the men work in hop-gardens, of which we have many, and fell and bark timber.  In the spring and summer the women weed the corn, and enjoy a second harvest in September by hop-picking.  Formerly, in the dead months they availed themselves greatly by spinning wool, for making of barragons, a genteel corded stuff, much in vogue at that time for summer wear, and chiefly manufactured at Alton, a neighbouring town, by some of the people called Quakers; but from circumstances this trade is at an end.  The inhabitants enjoy a good share of health and longevity; and the parish swarms with children.

Notice that the villagers live in good stone or brick cottages, and that White feels the need to remark upon the fact. The field above is sown with maize using a seed drill, invented by Jethro Tull. It made hoeing the crop easier and less wasteful, but imagine hoeing that field all day!

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3 August: Examine all you can by your own senses.

Johnson’s friend, the surgeon Dr Staunton, was about to leave for the West Indies when he received this advice in a letter from Johnson. America here includes the Islands; New England was still a collection of British colonies. I hope you have the chance to enjoy examining something on holiday, a natural or even man-made curiosity.

In America there is little to be observed except natural curiosities. The new world must have many vegetables and animals with which philosophers are but little acquainted. I hope you will furnish yourself with some books of natural history, and some glasses and other instruments of observation. Trust as little as you can to report; examine all you can by your own senses. I do not doubt but you will be able to add much to knowledge, and, perhaps, to medicine. Wild nations trust to simples; and, perhaps, the Peruvian bark is not the only specifick which those extensive regions may afford us.

Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell.

Cortex peruvianus study by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 1706; better known today as quinine. A simple is a plant-based medicine; a specific is a medicine for a particular disease; in this case malaria.

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15 July: Little things.

JOHNSON. ‘There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’

from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.

Samuel Johnson lived before the Voyage of the Beagle changed science for ever, but the generation of biologists before Darwin – like the Hampshire curate Gilbert White – were systematically looking at little things with the humility Johnson is advocating. Selborne parish was White’s study, the chalk hills, the plants and animals that inhabited them.

Our experience, walking on Kentish chalk during lockdown, is that once our eyes are open – to a damsel fly or to orchids for example – we see many more of them. This is a fly orchid, well named. But what else should my eyes be open to, walking city pavements?

Let’s pray for all those working at a really little, microscopic level, to bring us treatments and vaccines for diseases such as malaria and the new covid-19. Nothing is too little!

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11 July: Going Viral XL, Hope is a muscle we must use once again.

When I taught in a very small school, one of our pupils had cystic fibrosis. Every now and then we would go to the children’s ward of the local hospital to visit and teach him while his lungs were drained under medical supervision. In the previous weeks his energy levels had gone steadily downhill.

This article from Commonweal Magazine tells of new drugs that have been developed since that time; whether that young man was still around to benefit I know not. The writer, Roberto De La Noval, likens the drugs’ effects to the raising of Lazarus: adjusting is more complicated than we might at first imagine. But we are all coping with Covid 19: we must learn to hope for this life and the next. A good read!

Will.

These bell flowers were living a full life in a handful of mountain soil; iced over in winter, full summer sun, just getting on with it, beautifully,

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