At least two months had passed since my last sighting of a full-size adult woolly mammoth. Then, just two days ago, I encountered one here in north Shropshire.
The Beringia Centre outside Whitehorse in The Yukon boasts several versions of this extinct behemoth. The permafrost beneath a tundra landscape preserves all sorts of specimens from 10,000 years ago and beyond. Beringia is the geo-scientists’ name for the land mass that once covered a joined-up Siberia and North America. The woolly mammoth is the star of the show in any recreation of life before the comings and goings of the ice sheets and the voracious hunting peoples who used the land bridge to colonise present day Canada and America.
Just a few miles up the way from my home in Shropshire is an extensive area called Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses. After 20 years of careful work to undo the depredations of man and allow nature to take its course, the Mosses are beginning to resemble what the Beringian tundra would have been like when vast herds of mammoths grazed. And therefore to resemble what the tundra may return to if the permafrost continues to recede via climate change. The remains of mammoths have been found in Shropshire too…..hence the hulking, shaggy presence in a disused barn on land owned by Natural England, guardians of the Mosses.
Last Sunday was International Bogland Day, and I was lucky to be part of a group given a guided half-day tour of the Mosses. Part of the north Shropshire landscape is notable for a smattering of small lakes, the Meres. These are the relics of glacial melt in the deeper hollows. The Mosses are the spongey, peaty, fibrous chest-wig that covers the slightly more raised ground. Since industrial peat-cutting was stopped in 1990 the Mosses have gradually regenerated and now sustain a rich roster of insects, birds, plants and small mammals. Things can only get better too as efforts continue to persuade farmers to complete a surrounding barrier of sympathetically managed land, thus retaining the life-pulsing moisture within the Mosses.
On a warm July day the swathes of exposed peat shimmered like a desert runway, only without the benefit of direct sunshine. The temperature on the Mosses is routinely well above the temperature just a few yards away. You can see why early hominids made the link between peat and fire. Left to its own devices, peat is very good at retaining moisture and sealing in carbon. It is a living organism with myriads of fine filaments that weave and bind and inter-penetrate and support many forms of life. When people bag it up and spread it on their garden they pulverise thousands of years of growth and release a belch of carbon equivalent to 50 miles of high-speed driving in a standard car.
As well as the more usual flora and fauna, the Mosses are home to growing numbers of nightjar, curlew, lapwing, hobby, short-eared owl, snipe, shovellers, teal, peregrines, brimstone butterflies, water voles and rare species of frogs and toads. Moths are somehow always seen as less sexy, but the walk guide did casually mention that there are over 300 varieties on the Mosses. Some creatures are poling their way back from the brink of extinction, particularly the raft spiders and various kinds of dragonflies and damselflies. We were buzzed continuously by platoons of neon dragonflies, including plenty of white-faced darters, long since thought to have taken the same involuntary redundancy package as the dodo. Some of the clumps of sedges and sphagnum moss pillows looked like miniature versions of Piccadilly Circus, throbbing with garish lights and pulsing signals.
There are plenty of adders, but they are fortunately shy types (go to the island of Jura if you want to see adders…along with George Orwell’s writing retreat). The other main predator is the insect-eating sundew plant, which is all over the Mosses in tiny, spore-like clusters, very close to the sweating turf. Innocent-looking beaded droplets tremble on the end of each sundew frond, hovering over the tiny,oblivious, flies. Now that’s a scenario they should have included in the classic 1950s paranoia movie The Fly. It wasn’t even in the over-blown (fly-blown?) remake starring Jeff Goldblum.
There are pine stumps that date back 3,500 years, but the Mosses do not support any current tree growth, though there are plenty of dwarf species amongst the reeds and buckthorn scrub. There is an area in the middle splendidly called Oaf’s Orchard. I’d like to start a campaign to reinstate the word ‘oaf’…as in “Parliament is now home to a particular breed of political oaf, and Cameron-Clegg is merely the current Über-Oaf”. Is it mere coincidence that the manifest drivel phrase ‘Big Society’ has the same initials as another BS acronym? I digress. I digress therefore Iam.
The mammoth in the disintegrating barn looks to be in need of some energetic grooming, but is perhaps all the more true to life for that. In the dark interior, lit only by shafts of daylight pouring through rust patches in the corrugated iron, it has a presence somehow more lumberingly grand than its partners-in-taxidermy in the Yukon Beringia Centre.
At the other end of the scale, the day after the ramble round the Mosses I became acutely aware of another connection with the wetter parts of the Canadian tundra. My legs are now mottled with assertively cheerful red bite bumps. If I had been in Yukon or Alaska I would have automatically slapped on my Muskol pheromone forcefield and biked home with unbitten legs and a female sasquatch on my trail. I will be going back to the Mosses and Meres regularly, but I’ll be Muskolmaintenantman…safe in the knowledge that I will have gone the way of the woolly mammoth by the time the sasquatch has been reintroduced to north Shropshire.
* * * *
Which conjures an image from an early Robert Crumb comic strip, Bill Ding Meets Bigfoot, where an uptight all-American male meets an Amazonian yeti woman in the woods and is turned on to all sorts of interesting new experiences. Crumb was one of the first artists to illustrate the comic book narratives of Harvey Pekar, who died last week.
Pekar became better known after his graphic novellas under the title of American Splendour became the basis of a successful documentary film about his life. He was a notoriously grouchy and cantankerous individual, but also a gifted writer who paved the way for greater talents by prising the comic book genre away from its superhero imagery. Pekar made it possible for ‘ordinary’ lives to be seen as rich material for graphic art, ensuring that cutting edge comics caught up with other media such as films and novels. He was lucky to get the support of someone as skilled and artistically cunning as Robert Crumb in the early stages. Pekar’s stories are best when interpreted by a sympathetic and talented draughtsman, but he is a symbol of the determined outsider, stubbornly convinced of his vision and sticking to it until the world learns to see with his eyes.
In the UK there is still a lingering snobbery about comic book narrative, a snobbery not shared in Europe, Latin America, North America, Japan and many other places. Crumb himself remains supreme (and interestingly controversial), but in my own limited knowledge I’d certainly recommend Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Joe Sacco, Linda Barry, Aline Kaminsky, Chester Brown, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez…and from these shores, the genteel but biting satire of Posy Simmonds.
There are some lines on pages that make words. There are some lines on pages that make drawings. When the two are combined by someone who knows what they are doing a whole world of subtle inter-connections opens up.
A farewell tip of the inkwell to Harvey.
* * * *
Owww! Those pink pingos on my legs are itching. “Something in my veins bloodier than blood”, as Jeff Tweedy out of Wilco sang…
* * * *
My Mum has now been moved to a different nursing home. I picture her travelling along on a gentle conveyor belt. A gentle speed, but still enough to create a soft breeze, a breeze that catches at tatters of her memory, teases at them, then detaches them so that they drift away behind her. Those tatters can no more be collected and put back than a dead leaf can be grafted back onto a tree.
Fortunately a stage arrives when there can be no memory of ever having possessed memory.
There is real consolation in seeing my Dad enjoy some days of simple, unremarkable pleasures after stretching his own frailty into the thinnest of threads through dutiful care over the last few years.
* * * *
Whilst travelling up and down the country, writing, looking for gainful employment, trying to get Pick Up the Pieces picked up by a publisher, and starting some d.i.y., I am also doing a little life laundering. I don’t have very many possessions to whittle down, but I am trying to do something about my books and my music.
I realise that I have been what might be called an obsessive-completist. I used to think that if someone had written some great music, or a fine song, or a good book, then everything they touched must be gold. It must be right to gather as much of their art as possible, mustn’t it? Errr…not true if you think about it – very few, if any, can survive the ‘complete works’ test in terms of quality.
So, I have been carrying out a cull of the book shelves and the cd racks. I have been making compilations of loved music and getting rid of the rest. In this context it’s interesting to see who so far remains complete and unweeded.
In fiction it is Alice Munro. In poetry it’s Don Paterson (though poetry is easy in a way as you get your Blake, your Yeats etc all there in a single volume). To be an obsessive-completist in classical music was always beyond my means and my space, but in non-classical music it is Richard Thompson whose cds just will not crunch down into my own version of a Best Of.
And now he’s rubbing it in by bringing out a new album later this year, Dream Attic. Will that also pass into the hallowed shelf space occupied by the rest of his music? Maybe obsessive-completism never disappears entirely, it just gets more narrowly focused. I see it has a track called Demons In Her Dancing Shoes so I’m hooked already…