Vigor Mortis

Front cover of The Best of Black Sabbath
In the Christian religion, the resurrection follows the virgin birth. In the rock-graves at Heysham, the virgin birth follows the resurrection. Or rather: the virgin-births follow the resurrections. There are many of both. The rock-graves at Heysham* are carved in solid rock near the remains of St Patrick’s chapel, an ancient ruin overlooking Morecambe Bay on the coast of Lancashire in England. You may have seen them before, because they appear on the cover of a compilation album by the heavy-metal band Black Sabbath, where they’re filled with ice and look suitably dark and sinister. But the graves are sometimes full of life and activity. In spring, as the rainwater filling them begins to warm, there are resurrections – dozens of them. Tiny crustaceans (a group of animals that includes crabs, shrimps and woodlice) hatch from eggs that have over-wintered in the sediment on the floors of the graves. Some of the crustaceans are called water-fleas, others are called seed-shrimps. Water-fleas, whose scientific name is Daphnia, hop through the water with jerks of their antennae, sieving it for fresh-water plankton. Seed-shrimps, or ostracods, are enclosed in tiny double-sided shells through which their legs protrude. They trundle over the stone sides of the graves, scraping off algae and catching even smaller and simpler animals like rotifers and protozoa.

The rock graves at Heysham (c. 11th century A.D.)

Rock graves at Heysham, Lancs. (c. 1000s)

Water-fleas are famous for parthenogenesis, or their ability to produce offspring without sex. Those that hatch first in spring are female and give birth without mating with any males. A single water-flea in a jar of stagnant water soon becomes a swarm. It’s only later in the year that males are born and the water-fleas mate to produce winter eggs, which sink to the floor of the graves and lie there through the cold weather. The eggs of water-fleas and ostracods can also survive desiccation, or drying-up, and can be blown on the wind to new sites. That is probably how these crustaceans arrived in the rock-graves, which they must have occupied for centuries, through the coldest winters and the hottest summers, dying and being reborn again and again. When a human being or large animal dies, chemical changes in the body make the muscles rigid and wood-like. The scientific term for this is rigor mortis, or the “stiffness of death”. Rigor mortis wears off in time and the body begins to rot. The rock-graves at Heysham are an example of vigor mortis, or the “vigour of death”. Medieval human beings created the graves to bury their dead, but the bodies that were once there have been lost to history. The water-fleas and the seed-shrimps remain, tiny, overlooked and fascinating.

A seed-shrimp or ostracod

A seed-shrimp

A water-flea, Daphnia pulex

A water-flea


*Heysham is pronounced HEE-shum and is an old coastal village near the city of Lancaster, after which Lancashire is named.

A Feast of Fractiles

A rep-tile is a shape that can be divided into copies of itself. One of the simplest rep-tiles is the equilateral triangle, which can be divided into four copies of itself, like this:

Self-dividing equilateral triangle

If, on the other hand, the triangle is subdivided and then one of the copies is discarded, many interesting fractals can be made from this very simple shape:

Fractal triangle creating Sierpinski gasket

Triangle fractal 2

This sequence illustrates how a more complex fractal is created:

Triangle fractal 3 split image 1

Triangle fractal 3 split image 2

Triangle fractal 3 split image 3

Triangle fractal 3 split image 4

Triangle fractal 3 split image 5

Triangle fractal 3 split image 6

Triangle fractal 3 split image 7

Triangle fractal 3 split image 8

And here is the sequence in a single animated gif:

Triangle fractal 3

Triangle fractal 4

Triangle fractal 5

Triangle fractal 6

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Triangle fractal 12

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Triangle fractal 15

Triangle fractal 16

Triangle fractal 17

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Triangle fractal 26

Lulu Lunatic Luz

It’s disturbing what you can find online…

Tales of Silence & Sortilege, Simon Whitechapel, Paperback, 111 Pages

May 28, 2012

If you love weird fantasy, if you love the English language, even if you don’t love Clark Ashton Smith, you should read this book. The back cover describes it as “the darkest and most disturbing fantasy” of this millennium, but that’s either sarcastic or tragically optimistic, because what these stories really are is beautiful. The breath of snow-wolves is described as “harsh-spiced.” A mysterious gargoyle leaning from the heights of a great cathedral has “wings still glistening with the rime of interplanetary flight.” Hummingbirds are “gem-feathered… their glittering breasts dusted with the gold of a hundred pollens.” If you cannot appreciate such imagery, then perhaps you are dead to beauty, or simply dead. These tales are very short, but some of them have stayed with me for years, such as “The Treasure of the Temple,” in which a thief seems to lose the greatest fortune he could ever have found by stealing a king’s ransom in actual treasure. Most of the stories are brilliant, one or two is only good, but the masterpieces are “Master of the Pyramid” and “The Return of the Cryomancer.” The sense of loss and mystery evoked by these two companion stories is almost physically painful, it is so haunting. There is nothing like these stories being published today. Reading them, I feel the excitement and wonder that fans of Weird Tales magazine must have known long ago when new stories would appear by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. Simon Whitechapel doesn’t imitate these authors so much as apply their greatest lessons to new forms of fantasy. This is one of the cheapest books I own, but I accord it one of my most valuable. It is easily the best work of art you will find in any form on Lulu. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Roses of Hsūlag-Beiolă, Simon Whitechapel, Paperback, 154 Pages

Jun 8, 2012

This collection of weird fantasy is filled with mystery, wonder and a sense of the ineffable. Not every story is a mind-blowing masterpiece, but the best of them are absolutely spectacular. Even the worst are good and all are haunting in one way or another. My two favorites were: 1. “The Mercy of the Osmomancer,” wherein a knight on a mission to investigate the tower of a scent-wizard encounters demons made of smells and even learns the language of odors… 2. “The Swans,” in which a pawnbroker tracks down all the known paintings of a seemingly insane artist who paints his canvases entirely black, nothing but black, for reasons best and most poetically left to Simon Whitechapel to explain… Any fan of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Allan Poe, Comte de Lautréamont, Charles Baudelaire or William S. Burroughs will find something wonderful to love in here. I sure did.


Even more disturbing is the thought that this individual may be able to pass themself off as normal in real life: there are no spelling mistakes or solecisms. (Then again, perhaps I’m reviewing my own books in my sleep. (But I wouldn’t compare myself to B*rr**ghs, surely? (Unless it’s a bluff or double-bluff. (Disturbing, as I said. (I agree.)))))

Bat’s the Way to Do It!

I think Britain would be much better off without three things that start with “c”: cars, canines, and coos (sic (i.e., pigeons)). But perhaps I should add another c-word to the list: cats. I like cats, but there’s no doubt that, in terms of issues around negative components/aspects of conservation/bio-diversity issues vis-à-vis the feline community/demographic, they’re buggers for killing wildlife:

A recent survey by the Mammal Society was based on a sample of 1,000 cats, countrywide, over the summer of 1997. The results included only “what the cat brought in” and ignored what it ate or left outside. Leaving aside this substantial hidden kill, it still concluded that cats killed about 230,000 bats a year. This is equivalent to more than the entire population of any species other than the two most common pipistrelles. If these 1,000 cats are typical, and there is no reason to believe that they are not, cats kill many more bats than all natural predators combined. They are one of the biggest causes of bat mortality in Britain, perhaps the biggest. (Op. cit., chapter 6, “Conservation”, pg. 139)

Cover of British Bats by John D. Altringham

That is the unhappy conclusion in John D. Altringham’s very interesting and educative book British Bats (HarperCollins, 2003). Accordingly, I’d rather have fewer cats and more bats. Anyone but a cat-fanatic – and cat-fanatics are found in one or two places – should feel the same, and even the fanatics might reconsider if they read this book. The cat family contains some of the most beautiful and athletic animals on earth; the bat family contains some of the strangest and most interesting. In fact, all bats are strange: they’re mammals capable of sustained powered flight. Little else unites them: in chapter two, Altringham describes the huge variety of bats around the world. They live in many places and live off many things. Some drink nectar, some drink blood; some eat fruit, some eat fish. Some roost in caves, some in trees. Some hibernate, some migrate. Some use echolocation and some don’t. Bats are much more varied than cats and scientifically speaking are much more interesting.

Although echolocation isn’t universal, it is the most interesting aspect of bats’ behaviour and it’s used by all the species found in Britain, from the big ones, like the noctule and greater horseshoe bat, Nyctalus noctula and Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, to the small ones, like the whiskered bat and the pipistrelles, Myotis mystacinum and Pipistrellus spp.[1] Two of the pipistrelles are in fact most easily distinguished by the frequencies they call at: the 45 kHz pipistrelle, Pipistrellus pipistrellus, and the 55 kHz pipistrelle, Pipistrellus pygmaeus. As their English names suggest, one calls at an average of 45 kilo-Herz, or 45,000 cycles a second, and the other at an average of 55. The two species weren’t recognized as separate until recently: they look almost identical, although the 55 kHz is “on average… very slightly smaller”, and they forage for food in the same places, although the 55 kHz is “more closely associated with riparian habitat” (that is, it feeds more over rivers and other bodies of water). But examine their calls on a spectrograph, an electronic instrument for visually representing sounds, and there’s a much more obvious difference. This is a good example of how much the scientific study of bats depends on technology. Human beings didn’t need science to know about and understand the ways a cat uses its senses, because they’re refinements of what we use ourselves. We might marvel at the acuity of a cat’s eyes or ears, as we might marvel at the acuity of a dog’s nose, but we know for ourselves what seeing, hearing, and smelling are like.

Echolocation is something different. Bats don’t just see with their ears, as it were: they illuminate with their mouths, pouring out sound to detect objects around them. And the sound has to be very loud: “The intensity of a pipistrelle’s call, measured 10 centimetres in front of it, is as much as 120 decibels: that is the equivalent of holding a domestic smoke alarm to your ear.”[2] The “inverse square law”, whereby the intensity of sound (or light) falls in ratio to the square of the distance it travels, means that the returning echoes are far, far fainter than the original call. It’s as though Motörhead, playing at full volume, could hear someone at the back of the crowd unwrapping a toffee. How do bats call very loudly and hear very acutely? How do they avoid deafening themselves and drowning their own echoes? These are some of the questions bat-researchers have investigated and Altringham gives a fascinating summary of the answers. For example, they avoid deafening themselves by switching off their ears as they call. They’ve had to solve many other tricky acoustic problems to perfect their powers of echolocation.

Or rather evolution has had to solve the problems. The DNA of bats has changed in many ways as they evolved from the common mammalian ancestor (which also gave rise to you, me, and the author of this book) and those changes in DNA represent changes in their neurology, anatomy, and appearance. It’s easy to see that hearing is important for bats, because their eyes are relatively small and their ears are often large and rigid and come in a great variety of shapes. What isn’t easy to see is what those ears are supplying: the bat-brain and its astonishing ability to process and classify sound-data as though it were light-data. Bats can create sound-pictures of their surroundings in complete darkness. Of course, the feline or human ability to create light-pictures is astonishing too, but we’re too familiar with it to remember that easily. Bats aren’t just marvels in themselves: they should encourage us to marvel at ourselves and what our own brains can do. The digestive system of a bat, cat, or human needs food; the nervous system of a bat, cat, or human needs data. That’s what our sense-organs are there for and in principle it doesn’t matter whether we create a picture of the world with our eyes or with our ears.

Male noctule (Nyctalus noctula) calling from tree-roost to attract mates

Male noctule calling from tree-roost

In practice, there are some very important differences between sound and light. Light works instantly and powerfully on a terrestrial scale; sound takes its time and is much more easily diluted or blocked. A hunting cat can scan an illuminated or unilluminated environment for free, because it doesn’t have to generate the light it sees by or the sound it hears by. Hunting bats have to pay when they scan their environment, because they’re using energy to create sound and induce echoes. Once they’ve got their data, both cats and bats have to pay to process it: it takes energy to run a brain. But bat-brains are solving more complicated problems than cat-brains: Altringham describes the questions a flying bat has to answer when it detects the echo of an insect:

How far away is the insect?… How big is it?… In which direction does it lie?… How fast is it flying and in what direction?… What is it?… (ch. 3, “The Biology of Temperate Bats”, pp. 42-3)

Like insect-eating birds, bats can answer all these questions in mid-flight, but what is relatively easy for birds, using their eyes, is a much greater computational problem for bats, using their ears. “Computational” is the key word: brains are mathematical mechanisms and process sense-data using algorithms that run on chemicals and electricity. Bats were intuitively using mathematical concepts like doppler shift and frequency modulation (as in FM radio) millions of years before man invented mathematics, but man-made mathematics is an essential tool in the study of echolocation. For example, the concept of wavelength, or the distance between one crest of a sound-wave and the next, is very important in understanding how bats perceive objects. Light has very short wavelengths, so humans and other visual animals can easily resolve small objects. Sound has much longer wavelengths, so bats find it hard to resolve small objects. But some find it harder than others: Daubenton’s bat, Myotis daubentonii, and other Myotis spp. “can resolve distances down to about 5 millimetres when given tasks to perform in the laboratory”. But horseshoe bats, Rhinolophus spp., “can do little better than 12 millimetres.”

Why this difference? You have to look at the nature of the sound being produced by the different species: the Myotis spp. use “high frequency FM calls”; the Rhinolophus use “predominantly CF [constant frequency] calls”. The mathematical nature of the call determines the bats’ powers of perception. Calls can also determine how easily a bat can identify an insect: “relatively long calls can have a ‘flutter detector’… If a call is 50 milliseconds long, then within one echo a bat can detect the full wingbeat of insects beating their wings at more than 50 Hz.”[3] So bats can tell one kind of insect from another, something like the way a blindfolded human can tell a bumblebee from a mosquito. But insects aren’t passive as prey and one of the most interesting sections of the book describes how they try to avoid being eaten. Some moths have “ultrasound detectors” and if a moth hears a calling bat, it “will either stop flying and drop toward the ground, or begin a series of rapid and unpredictable manoeuvres involving dives, loops and spirals”.[4] This kind of ecological interaction creates an “evolutionary arms race”: each side evolves to become better at capture or evasion.

The moth/bat air-battle is reminiscent of the air-battles of the Second World War, which involved radar trying to detect bombers and bombers trying to evade radar. One defensive technique was jamming, or attempts to interfere with radar signals or drown them in noise. Some moths may use this technique too. The tiger moths, the Arctiidae, don’t try to escape detection. Instead, they “emit their own, loud clicks”[5], perhaps to interfere with echolocation or startle a predatory bat. Alternatively, Altringham suggests, the clicks may be the aural equivalent of “bright warning colours and patterns”: the moths may be warning bats of their unpalatability. If so, it would be another example of the difference between the costs of sight and the costs of sound. An unpalatable insect in daylight doesn’t have to pay for its warning colours, after the initial investment of creating them, and doesn’t have to know when a predator is watching. An unpalatable insect in the dark, on the other, can’t send out a constant audible warning: it has to select its moment and know when a predator is nearby. Unless, that is, some insects use passive signals of unpalatability, like body modifications that create a distinctive echo.

Bat-researchers don’t know the full story: there is still a lot to learn about bats’ hunting techniques and the ways insects try to defeat them. But “cost” is a word that comes up again and again in this book, which is partly a study in bio-economics. Bats have to pay a lot for echolocation and flight, but flight is a more general phenomenon in the animal kingdom, so the economics of bat flight also illuminates (insonates?) bird and insect flight. Altringham points out a very important but not very obvious fact: that flight is expensive by the unit of time and cheap by the unit of distance. Movement on foot is the opposite: it’s expensive by the unit of distance and cheap by the unit of time. Bats, birds, and insects expend more energy per second in flight, but can travel further and faster in search of food or new habitats. However, bats don’t all fly in the same way: a bat expert can identify different species by their wings alone. The wings vary in “wing loading”, which is “simply the weight of the bat divided by the total area of its wings. Bats with a high wing loading are large and heavy in relation to their wing area, bats with small bodies and large wings have a low wing loading”.[6] Then there’s “aspect ratio”, the “ratio of wingspan to average wing width”, or, because “bats have such an irregular wing shape”, “wingspan squared divided by wing area.”

It’s mathematics again: there are no explicit numbers in a bat’s life, but everything it does, from echolocating to flying, from eating to mating, is subject to mathematical laws of physics, ecology, and economics. Bats have to invest time and energy and make a profit to survive and have offspring. As warm-blooded, fast-moving animals with high energy needs, they’re usually nearer famine than feast, which is one reason they migrate or hibernate to avoid or survive through cold weather and scarcity. They also vary their diet during the year, to take advantage of changes in the abundance of one insect species or another, and seek out specialized feeding niches. Daubenton’s bat, for example, “habitually feeds very low over water”, using echolocation to catch not just flying insects but floating ones too. That is why it needs smooth water to feed over: ponds, lakes, canals and placid streams and rivers. The floating insects are easier to echolocate on a smooth surface, rather like, for humans, a black spider on a white wall. Once spotted, they “are gaffed with the large feet or the tail mechanism and quickly transferred to the mouth as the bat continues its flight”.[7]

Long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus) gleaning harvestman

Long-eared bat gleaning harvestman

One of the photos in the colour section in the middle of the book shows a Daubenton’s bat mirrored in smooth water, having just scooped up prey from the surface. Other photos show other species roosting, perching, or in flight, but the book also has excellent black-and-white illustrations mixed with the text, hand-drawn using a speckled or pointillist technique that suits bats very well. I particularly like the drawings on pages 48, 67 and 101. The first shows a long-eared bat, Plecotus auritus, “gleaning”, or snapping up, a “harvestman” (a long-legged relation of the spiders) from a leaf (ch. 3); the second shows a “male noctule calling from his tree roost to attract mates” (ch. 3); and the third shows a tawny owl trying to catch another long-eared bat (ch. 4).

Owls could be called the avian equivalents of bats: they’re specialized nocturnal hunters with very sharp hearing, but I think they’re both less interesting and more attractive. Bats, with their leathery wings, sometimes huge ears, and oddly shaped noses, are strange rather than attractive and some people find them repulsive. But some people, or peoples, find them divine or lucky: the introduction describes the Mayan bat-god Zotz, with his leaf-shaped nose modelled on that of the phyllostomids, or vampire bats.[8] The Chinese use a ring of five bats to symbolize the “five great happinesses: health, wealth, good luck, long life and tranquillity.”[9] Altringham blames the less positive image of bats in European cultures partly on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was first published in 1897. Before then, he says, “bats were not linked with witches, vampires and the evil side of the supernatural in any significant way.”[10] Dracula may have done for bats what the novel Jaws (1974) and its cinematic offspring did for sharks: encouraged human beings to harm the animal fictionally and falsely depicted as villainous.

Daubenton's bats (Myotis daubentonii) in a summer roost

Roosting Daubenton’s bats

If so, British Bats is partly redressing the balance. You can learn a lot from this book about both biology in general and bat-biology in particular. It stimulates the mind, pleases the eye, describes the appearance, ecology, and range of all British species, and points the way to further reading and research. So let’s not hear it for John D. Altringham! Without specialized equipment, that is, but that equipment is getting cheaper and more widely available all the time: you don’t have to be a professional zoologist to record and analyse bat-calls any more. There is still a lot for zoologists, both amateur and professional, to learn about bats. Okay, some of the research – like fitting miniature radio-transmitters to wild bats – seems intrusive and smacks of Weber’s Entzauberung, or “disenchantment”, but the more we know about bats, the more we will be able to help conserve them and their habitats. Bats aren’t villains: cats are. I like both kinds of mammal, but I hope we can find some way in future to help stop the latter preying so heavily on the former. If this book helps publicize the problem, it will be valuable for bat-conservation just as it is already valuable for bat-science. In short, no more brick-bats for Brit-bats: we should control our cats better.

Reviewer’s note: Any scientific mistakes, misinterpretations or misunderstandings in this review are entirely your responsibility.

NOTES

1. sp = species, singular; spp = species, plural.

2. ch. 3, “The Biology of Temperate Bats”, pg. 40

3. Ibid., pg. 45

4. ch. 4, “An Ecological Synthesis”, pg. 98

5. Ibid., pg. 99

6. Ibid., pg. 71

7. ch. 5, “British Bats, Past and Present”, pg. 117

8. ch. 1, “Introduction”, pg. 10. “Phyllostomid” is scientific Greek for “leaf-mouthed clan”.

9. Ibid., pg. 11

10. Ibid., pg. 9

Ink For Your Elf

The Majikalph Script

Majikalph was created by Simon Whitechapel in 2012 to combine his interests in artificial alphabets and recreational mathematics. It is based on the patterns created when lines are drawn between numbers of various 4×4 magic squares. In a magic square, every row, column, and diagonal of numbers adds to the same total. In the 4×4 magic square below, the most interesting patterns are created when each number is connected to the number 2 or 4 places higher than it (e.g. 2 goes to 4 or 6; 13 goes to 15 or 1).

Majikalph is used for writing English and is written from right to left. There is no distinction between upper and lower case. No character of the script is invented: each is based on one or another of the 880 possible 4×4 magic squares (for further information, please see MagicSquares.net).

The sample text is an extract from Tennyson’s The Princess (1847):

Oh, hark, oh, hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
Oh, sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).

Sample Text

Hymn to Herm

The Cult of Infinite Hermaphrodites

When neophytes enter the Cult of Infinite Hermaphrodites at Xidar, they are taught, amidst their initial duties of sweeping and service, the operations of simple arithmetic. Then, at the end of their first year, now most practised in this arithmetic, they are asked to say which number it is that, self-mated, beareth 4. And they reply, of course, that 4 is born of self-mated 2. And asked the same of 9, they reply 3; and of 16, they reply 4. Thus it is (they now learn) that 2 is called by the Cult the hermaphrodite of 4, as 3 is the hermaphrodite of 9, and 4 of 16. Then the neophytes are asked to say which number it is that, self-mated, beareth 1: which is to say, what is the hermaphrodite of 1? And they reply, of course, that 1 is auto-hermaphroditic, self-mating to bear itself. And then, in mildest, most deceptive tones, they are asked to name the hermaphrodite of 2. And here, in this simplest of questions, they stand (tho’ they know it not) on the brink of a Mysterium Magnissimum et Tremendissimum, a Riddle Most Mighty and Awesome.

Now, ’tis evident that the hermaphrodite of 2 falleth betwixt 1 and 2, for 1 is the Auto-Hermaphrodite, self-mating to bear itself, and self-mated 2 beareth 4, as remarked above. But where-betwixt doth the requested hermaphrodite fall? The neophytes know not. So they are told: test the mid of 1 and 2, which is 1½, or 3/2. Self-mated, this bears 9/4, or 2¼. And this falls too high. So, subtract a ½ of a ½ from 1½, for 1¼, or 5/4. Self-mated, this bears 25/16, or 1 and 9/16. And this falls too low. So, add a ½ of a ¼ to 1¼, for 1⅜, or 11/8. Self-mated, this bears 121/64, or 1 and 57/64. Again, too low. So, add a ½ of an ⅛ to 1⅜, for 23/16, or 1 and 7/16. Self-mated, this bears 529/256, or 2 and 17/256. Too high. And thus the neophytes proceed for a day, dividing and subtracting, dividing and adding, ever approximating the hermaphrodite of 2.

But do they ever reach it? Could they ever reach it, by this or any other mode of rational approximation? And here is the Mighty Mystery, the Riddle that Wrencheth the Brain, for the Cult replieth: Nay, Nay, Never! For It hath an incontrovertible proof that demonstrateth, by easy steps of simple logic, that the hermaphrodite of 2 is impossibly a ratio of finite integer to finite integer: which is to say, it must be infinite. Were the sky all parchment, the seas all ink, and gulls all plucked for quills, the hermaphrodite of 2 remained irrecordable. And more than this: the Cult can prove, by adaptation of the aforementioned logic, that the hermaphrodites of all integers, save the perfect squares, are similarly infinite and irrecordable, eternally elusive of finite man, yet definable even in their boundless nature by his skull-boxed brain-speck. And this truth the Cult flaunteth to the profane in its very name, which titillateth and tempteth, yet yieldeth not the guessed-at, the hoped-for fruit.

Now sing:

All hail, O World, the lowly Worm,
Which, same to same, exchangeth sperm!
And twines its twin, beneath the moon,
To grant itself renewal’s boon!

Next bow, yea bow, and loudly hail
The spiral-foot, the crawling Snail!
That twines its twin, ’midst nuptial slime,
To slay the slayer, scything Time!

From The Hymn to Hermaphroditi.

Nostra Signora della Cunetta

Our Lady of the Gutter

Walking on the shaded side of Longsands Avenue, he saw a small lady’s-mantle in the gutter. Alchemilla mollis. The soft little alchemical one. It was new-grown and its pleated leaves were fresh and green against the cement. He wished he could spin a poem out of it, out of the unexpected sight, something deep and mysterious and Larkinesque. A line, or two lines, occurred to him. The line of the gutter/Stutters with green. But where to go after that? Later, walking back along Longsands Road, he heard a twittering, or thought he did, and looked up to see swifts high up, swirling, swooping, seeking insects he couldn’t see. Aëroplankton. Again he wished he could capture the moment, condense the sight into potent language. He thought a little. Sickle-wing swifts/Reap the insected air. But again, where to go after that? He liked “insected air”, though. It had an assonance of “infected air”. But why not a portmanteau? Reap the insfected air. He’d always liked words that started with sph and sf. Sphinx. Sphragistics. Sfumato. Sforzando. “Insfected air” would be air that had insects and pollution in it. Reaped by sickle-wing swifts, fluttering their wings like eyelashes. He remembered that Ted Hughes had written a poem about swifts, but he didn’t like it. It had reminded him of Gerard Manley Hopkins, left out in the rain for a week or two. Perhaps Larkin had written about swifts too, or mentioned them. He hadn’t finished The Complete Poems yet.

Later in the day, he was walking along the promenade. The tide was out, but a tongue of water had been left at the foot of the gold-lichen-splashed sea-wall. He climbed down the steps to it, squatting on his haunches and looking into the wind-rippled water. He saw a shrimp first, then, perhaps when the shock of his shadow or the tremors of his arrival had subsided, tiny flounder began to flick to and fro over the sandy mud. When you saw them move and settle, you could just see their outlines. Otherwise it would be impossible to know where they were. The previous year, on a very hot day, another flounder had been defeated by its camouflage: not protected by it, but doomed. The same tongue of water had stretched along the foot of the sea-wall, but it had been shrinking in the fierce sun. He had rescued some of the dozens of shrimp that crowded the damp but drying sand at one end of the tongue. They were flicking themselves into the air as they dried, hoping to land in water, disappointed again and again. He collected them on his palm and threw them into the deeper water in the middle of the tongue.

As always when he did something like that, he wondered whether it was better not to interfere. Perhaps preserving the weak just means greater misery in future. But they weren’t weak, they were unlucky. Probably. But perhaps unluckiness was weakness too. Because weakness led to unluckiness. Then he left the sand and the shrimps to walk to Merrimont Park. Later, walking back along the promenade, he walked down the steps again and looked at the sand where he had rescued the shrimps. It was completely dry now and he saw what he hadn’t seen before: a tiny dead flounder. If he had seen it before, he would have rescued it, but its camouflage had been too good, defeating his eye, so it had dried and died with dozens of shrimp, hundreds of them, thousands. A hammic hecatomb. Unnoticed and unmourned, except by him. Nature was always sacrificing her self to herself. Insects, arthropods, myriad little lives lost daily, hourly. Presided by whom? Perhaps Our Lady of the Gutter.  Nostra Signora della Cunetta. Nuestra Señora de la Cuneta. Our Lady of the Overlooked and Interstitial. He wished he could write a poem about her, complete the poems he had begun about the lady’s mantle and the swifts, but perhaps it was better that he couldn’t. Prose was better for stumbling, for incompleteness, for the rhythmless and rhymeless way the world threw fragments of beauty and consolation at you.