Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Encounters 4 - shrew

Colby Gardens - photo from wikimedia commons 

The other day I saw a shrew. It was a fleeting glimpse, barely a few moments, and such a tiny creature - which leads me to think it was a pygmy shrew - that had I blinked I'd have missed it. At the time I didn't give it much thought  (believe it or not I was looking for snakes), but afterwards I began to consider it more carefully.

I can't remember when I last saw a shrew, and to be honest, I'm not absolutely certain I'd seen one in the wild before. I was fairly convinced I had - I recognised it instantly, and shrews are relatively widespread mammals aren't they?  But if you asked me to pinpoint when or where I'd be a bit stumped. It occurred to me that before last week, it's just possible I'd only seen pictures of them in books.

This shrew was in Colby Gardens in Pembrokeshire, snuffling for worms under a sheet of galvanised metal that I happened to lift up. In a way it was lucky I came along, because the sheets are placed to attract snakes which would happily accept a shrew-sized meal. Last spring, lifting the same sheet, I found the most gorgeous grass snake, chocolate brown with a golden band, like a collar round its neck (can snakes have necks?).

When I disturbed it, the snake had slid unhurriedly into the surrounding meadow, reluctant to leave its warm den. But last week's shrew took a more panicked flight, scurrying to an escape tunnel and wiggling its bum in a last goodbye. An extraordinary little thing I thought, ludicrous in its way, like a tiny vole with Pinocchio's nose. Next moment it was gone.

I'd always thought shrews were a type of mouse, but evidently they're more closely related to moles. And like moles they are fiercely territorial, only coming together to mate. They have the greatest ratio of brain to body size of any mammal, including humans - and they need to consume their own body weight in grubs every day. One web site I came across, claimed that if a shrew doesn't eat for two hours it will die (I presume the author means if  it goes longer than two hours between meals rather than actually eating for two hours!). And some species have venomous teeth, which no doubt the author of that website would wish me to experience for being so darn pedantic.

It occurred to me that most of our wildlife encounters are fleeting, especially of mammals. I'd guess the popularity of bird watching is at least in part because most of them will actually allow for a decent viewing. In contrast, I remember Jane lifting a flagstone in our garden and finding a nest of baby dormice - so as not to disturb them we replaced it immediately.  My lifetime's total of dormice watching: three seconds! Last year I saw my first polecat in years: five seconds. And then there was that weasel which ran across the road as I was driving...

It turns out that encountering a shrew is quite rare after all. They may be commonplace (pygmy shrews less so) but field sightings are definitely not. You need to be in the right place at the right time. And if you're lucky enough for that to happen - then unlike the shrew, which is virtually blind and relies on sounds and smell - try not blink.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Restoring the faith - at least, sort of.


There's a certain irony to sitting down on Good Friday to review a book that's ostensibly for non believers. But then Alain de Botton's latest collection of essays, Religion for Atheists, is not quite what the title might suggest. It's certainly not a rant at Christianity and to my mind, much of what it says ought to be of interest to the faithful. It would be a neat parallel to the book's central theme, if by the time you've finished this post, you've concluded that maybe Good Friday wasn't a bad to publish it after all.

De Botton's starting point is that for him (and arguably for the majority of people in the developed world) the supernatural claims of religions can no longer be taken seriously. Thereafter, he doesn't waste a sentence in examining the scriptures or weighing respective claims of redemption and afterlife - nor does he seek to judge the historical  influence of religion on society. For though these issues may be important in other contexts, they are not relevant to de Botton's aim - which is to argue that even if we accept the ills and falsities of religion, it still has much to teach us about living a good life.

A philosopher friend of mine can barely say the words 'Alain de Botton' without sneering. I'm sure this reflects the views of many professional thinkers - his essays are relatively lightweight; not in the same league as those wrestling with issues of consciousness or logic. But then few professional philosophers can write as engagingly and with as much practical relevance as de Botton. His target is not those concerned with the minutiae of academic debate - it is people like me; people who alongside their everyday life, find themselves pondering its absurdities and sorrows, as well as its joys and purpose.

In a series of essays, accompanied by witty illustrations, de Botton argues that religions, in the way they are organised and practised, in the way they educates and guide, have much to console and inspire us. He challenges non-believers to look again at the positive aspects of religious community, at the need for rules and boundaries, at the merits of religious architecture, at the power for good in institutions. In doing so, he gently exposes the cracks in our egos, giving voice to inner desires for comfort and structure. I especially liked his take on Catholic saints and souvenir icons -  suggesting even the tackiest of figurines can serve a purpose in reminding us daily, of the virtues we desire.

If I am honest I opened the book with deep scepticism. I wrote recently of my own lack of faith, at my incredulity at those who seem able to embrace it, despite the absence of empirical evidence or a deductive logic that is consistent with the way we make everyday decisions. As de Botton introduced his ideas I could sense myself bristling, searching for errors and inconsistencies - but the more I read, the more it occurred to me that de Botton was answering one of the few questions of belief that gives me pause for thought: why is it that so many of those whose views and approach to life I most admire, turn out to have faith?

It would be easy to criticise these essays. An obvious line is that de Botton cherry picks the most positive qualities of religion as suits his purpose. He does not mention those more unsavoury aspects that its proponent would have us contextualise or consign to history. But this would be both churlish and to miss the point. Religion for Atheists is not about belief, nor is it about the sociological merits of religion - it is about what might help us lead a good and flourishing life; it is about the consolations we crave in the face of what, at times, can seem an overwhelmingly pointless existence.

In this way the essays are a continuation of de Botton's previous books - each of which uses a thematic 'hook' (love, work, architecture, travel, even Proust) to address much the same issues. A fair criticism would be that he is reaching the limits of this theme - at different times, Religion for Atheist seemed to be either stretching the point or too obvious in his choice of analogies.  In my view, de Botton's earlier book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was subtler, wittier and ultimately more revealing in its consideration of modern life.

There are undoubtedly some who'd describe Religion for Atheist as full of 'stuff and nonsense'; too highfalutin or contrived to matter.  I'm not so sure. I love life, and with luck I might sustain mine for another thirty years; my youngest son, whom I adore beyond words, can expect to reach ninety. Yet in a wider temporal context that is barely a blink of an eye - in three generations we will all us be forgotten. If I thought too hard about this I could quickly come to tears.

As an atheist I can take no comfort from the prospect of an afterlife - my concern is how to make the best use (in every sense) of the limited time I have.  And to my surprise,  I found myself agreeing with de Botton: whilst religions may be wrong in their transcendental promises, they do still have something to teach us.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A secret waterway


If you mention Pembrokeshire to most people, they'll almost certainly reply with a comment on the beauty of the coastline. That's understandable, for it's the cliffs, coves and islands that dominate the tourist brochures, drawing thousands of vistors each summer. The coast is synonymous with the county and yet, one look at the map shows there's more to the National Park than a ribbon of land by the sea.

To the north is the Preseli, a line of hills-cum-mountains, best known as the home of the blue stones which form the inner ring of monoliths at Stonehenge. The Preseli hills are under-rated, but they are not the subject of this post, for even high on the ridge the sea accompanies your every step: it defines the horizon, it shimmers or dazzles according to the light, and in the evenings, it draws your eyes to the dying sun.

To find a truly different view of Pembrokeshire you have to head further inland. In the centre of the county, a few miles up river from Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock (two towns so industrialised that they're excluded from the Park) is the Daugleddau Estuary. This is the secret waterway: forty miles of rivers and reed beds, castles and mills, tributaries and mudflats. All roads lead to a watery end - to cross the channel you must divert north or pay the toll at Pembroke bridge.

Yesterday we went to Lawrenny Quay, situated at the central junction of the estuary. The Daugleddau is a kilometre wide here - upstream it narrows only gradually, splitting eastward into the Carew and Cresswell rivers; further north into the Western and Eastern Cleddau. But the term upstream is a little misleading, for the river is strongly tidal and at low water the smaller tributaries (known as pills) are little more than runnels in the mud. The dominant flow is more of a gradual seep than a bubbling spate, helpful for heavy barges - years ago this waterway was busy with ships taking coal to Bristol and beyond.

A friend once told me the Daugleddau was the quietest landscape he knew. I'd beg to differ - it's true there's an immediate stillness, but in an aural equivalent of looking at the night sky, it takes only a few minutes for your ears to adjust. Once they do, there's a myriad of voices.

In the stunted oak wood to the north of the quay there were too many trills and craws to discern. We saw wrens and long tailed tits, an unidentified finch stabbing at the bark - there were swans and geese on the water, herring gulls too, a little egret by the far shore. The last time we were here there was a green woodpecker at Garron Pill. Yesterday a raven circled overhead, jackdaws strutted on the salt-marsh, rooks and magpies too - almost all the common corvids I said - and as if to prove it, I spotted a jay flying from tree to tree in the churchyard on the hill.

Birds are ever present on the Daugleddau, but they are far from the only attraction.  Along our path, wood anemones made the most of the light before the canopy returns them to shade; a fern uncurled its first helix, everywhere were primroses, early bluebells, forget-me-nots and celandines. A small tortoiseshell was basking on the brambles, a peacock (butterfly not bird), made its way to the blackthorn blossom. There were plume moths, ladybugs, red spiders I couldn't name...


And then there's the landscape. The river was flooding as we descended to the quay - boats swayed on their moorings, a catamaran glided down the channel - the first sail of the year perhaps? To the east the Carew appeared motionless, it's mirrored surface glinting blue as the clouds parted, the bank-side fields dotted with lambs. All the scene lacked for perfection was an otter swimming to the shore;  I've long hoped to see one here, but though they are certainly present I've yet to be so lucky.

We're fortunate though, to know this place, to have it close and most times to have it almost to ourselves - apart from the wildlife that is. There is also one fine exception to the silence and stillness - the busy little cafe on the quay, which serves perhaps the tastiest crab sandwich and coleslaw side that I know. A delicious way to end a fabulous spring walk, and a gentle reminder that even in the middle of the county, the coast is never far away.