7 january 2010

Here's Gilbert White on January 7th, 1785:

Shook the snow from the ever-greens, & shovelled the walks. Snow-scenes very beautiful! On this day Mr Blanchard, & Dr Jeffries rose in a balloon from Dover-cliff, & passing over the channel towards France landed in the the forest De Felmores, just twelve miles up into the country. These are the first aeronauts that have dared to take a flight over the Sea!!!

Here's an extract from Jeffries' account:

When two-thirds from the French coast we were again falling rapidly towards the sea, on which occasion my noble little captain gave orders, and set the example, by beginning to strip our aerial car, first of our silk and finery: this not giving us sufficient release, we cast one wing, then the other; after which I was obliged to unscrew and cast away our moulinet; yet still approaching the sea very fast, and the boats being much alarmed for us, we cast away first one anchor, then the other, after which my little hero stripped and threw away his coat (great one). On this I was compelled to follow his example. He next cast away his trowsers. We put on our cork jackets and were, God knows how, as merry as grigs to think how we should splatter in the water.

A grig is, among other things, a cricket.

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10 january 2010

annelida plurabelle

Do you remember how back in the old days (about a decade ago - how young and full of hope we were! and how much older and more filled with hope we are now!) - do you remember how Alamut used to have a totem animal for the year? Let's have that reference in full:

A totem is a plant, animal or object which is the symbol of a social group, particularly a clan or tribe. In the 1950's A. R. Radcliffe-Brown argued that totemism is essentially a system of classification with respect to the relationship between man and nature. This view provided the basis of structuralist interpretations in which totemism as a mode of classification provides an analysis of the structure of human thought.

Well, this site's totem animal for 2010 will be the Earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris. We've had a brief look at worms in the past, but this year expect worm news and information of all kinds. Let's kick off with the classic Darwin quote:

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

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24 january 2010

They are commonly abundant in garden mould, or in any rich loamy soil containing a liberal quantity of decaying vegetable matter, and may be caught at night in any quantity by going stealthily over short grass meadows or garden grounds after a shower, with a lantern and candle. Numbers will be found feeding upon decaying vegetable matter over the surface, their bodies extended to their full length, while their tails remain within the mouths of their holes, to which they withdraw with the quickness of thought on the least vibration being communicated to the earth; hence the necessity of the collector treading lightly as a passing spirit. It is only through feeling the earth quake by the footstep that they become sensible of the presence of an enemy, as they possess neither the organs of sight nor hearing, so that, if the worm-hunter only takes care to tread softly upon the bosom of his mother earth, he may gratify his taste for music at the same time by singing 'Excelsior' or the 'Hundred Pipers' at the top of his voice for anything the worms will care about it.

from A.S. Moffat, The Secrets of Angling

I forget when it was, but I was still living with my parents. I had a book out of the public library. I read not the passage above, but something similar, about how worms come to the surface on warm damp nights. The whole thing was a serendipity: I looked at the clock - ten o'clock on a summer evening. I opened the window and leaned out into warm humid air. All I needed was a torch and I was off to the park. Most natural history quests are hit and miss, a matter of perseverance and patience, but this was a scene from a fairy tale. There was no search needed: they were there for the asking in the torchlight, worms by the thousand in the damp grass. Big worms and little worms, single and in copula, with more arriving every minute it seemed. It was difficult to take a step without treading on their bodies, but they seemed oblivious to my feet. A touch from a finger or a blown breath surprised them though, sent them underground in a flash.
I haven't looked for them since. In a way I haven't needed to. It was love at first sight that night.

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Not a tree,
A plant, a leaf, a blossom, but contains
A folio volume. We may read, and read,
And read again, and still find something new.

- James Hurdis