Monday, 27 August 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 says don't underestimate the ants

The Archipelago of Truth offered some advice about the value of red ants recently - suggesting curry their eggs. I thought the next time I have scale shifting size of ant egg moment that advice will be very useful. Earlier this evening a particularly daring red ant found its way into one of my ears. I didn't care about what the ant was trying to tell me and quickly dug it out. Of course what I really needed was a green woodpecker to perch on my shoulder and pick off any ants intent on getting to the most precious of my woody materials.

A particularly fine specimen of a green woodpecker can be found over in the Archipelago. My advice to any woodpecker with a predilection for ants is, don't underestimate them. Bernard Werber's, 'Empire of the Ants' has an account of how a foolhardy woodpecker met a very grisly end via a multitude of very snappy mandibles.

'Soldiers then entered the head, looking for the opening to the brain. A worker found a passage, the carotid artery, which led from the heart to the brain .........' - and so they continued.

I retreated from poly-tunnel tomato picking and headed for a potato harvest. 

I thought these were potatoes however as the ground began to rumble and the birdsong was drowned out by a cacophony of gnashing mandibles I realised I had disturbed a giant red ants nest. Remembering Technomist's advice about red ant curry, I opportunistically grabbed a few of the eggs and legged it, hoping I would escape their vicious clutches and make a giant red ant egg-aloo. Giant red ants do not take kindly to their eggs being stolen for curries and one ant pursued me with terrifying determination. Even when I jettisoned one of the eggs the ant did not let up the pursuit. I thought all was lost as the air just above my head was vibrated by the frantic myrmedon gnashings. Then another sound or vibration filled the air and with a terrific whoosh an exquisite dragonfly swooped down and crunched the petulant giant red ant away.

Dragonfly at the allotment, Sunday 26th August 2012

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 is looking for a swim in the Lea

I enjoyed reading Gareth Rees’ tribute to an irrepressible and rebellious River Lea. Gareth searched for the preternatural spirit of the river and shared not so much an elegy but a homage and affirmation that counters some of the gloomy outpourings and discharges which have dimmed the vision of that sibling tributary of the Thames.
In Gareth’s mind the Lee retrieves herself as the river Lea at a weir near Lea Bridge Road, just a relatively short distance before a reunion with the mythic darkness of the Thames at Leamouth, one of many confluences in the great water cycle.
Rivers have a profound place in the human psyche and Gareth comments on his dedication that the river Lea can also be equated with a post industrial psychosis, that is, a severe affectation of the perception of external reality. He publishes via Scoop an online magazine which presents a fantastic discourse on psycho-geography; that discipline and/or un-disciplined study of relationships between mind and place. Much of the scooped discourse is land based. My perception of this has been formed by reading Robert Mcfarlane’s, The Old Ways, in which he describes journeys made via ancient sea and water ways kept alive by uniquely passionate and courageous spirits. Mcfarlane proffers a theory that the predominant land based perception of place comes as a consequence of the Roman Empire’s military conquest and domination by road (across land) – often involving the subjugation of water by drainage, bridging and viaducts. Mcfarlane suggests we can subvert this dominion or ‘terra-centricity’ (my term) by returning to water (the sea) and thus discover new and lost cultures of place and belonging.
Walking is often the default means of psycho-geographic communication or communion. In Mcfarlane’s aqueous return, sailing is a way to be more mindful of places which will not hold any physically tangible sense of a person’s passage. Mcfarlane did come close to walking on water but maintained a grip on some sandy shallows of tidal reality enough to find his way to shore and retell the salty tale. He remembers his friend, Roger Deakin, a visionary proponent of wild swimming who wrote, Waterlog, an account of a swimmers journey through Britain. Deakin suggested ‘dry land is our problem’ and that bathing and swimming can bring about a transformation in us, from Homo sapiens to Homo ludens, from neurosis to playfulness. Sadly, Deakin can also be found weeping while sitting less than playfully by the Bury St Edmunds Tesco on the banks of the Lark, the humiliated ‘Jordan of the Fens’, a river reduced to a dribble and trickle of near irredeemable public convenience.
Is the Lea a convenience? Would you or I swim in it? I wouldn’t because I think it is too polluted, harbouring microbes via effluence which can transmit diseases causing extremely distressing psychosis and physical debilitation – post industrial or otherwise. The same day I started reading the ‘Swimming with Eels’ chapter in Waterlog I’d swum at Stanford Lock on the River Ivel Navigation. The swim of the pond beneath the long gone mill was charming, a gentle flow and tow of a depth I could just about reach standing with outstretched toes before I submerged entirely. The weather was balmy, the scorching sun partially obscured by slowly drifting clouds. Their still flowing reflections were refreshingly cool with each launch into them from the shallow margins to the deeps where I made unpractised strokes of the breast, crawl and back. I like to think some time dissolved and washed away as I relaxed and gently trod the currents. I fear I would not find this ease in the Lea.

Stanford Lock, Bedfordshire, August 2012
Later on, while lost in dead end circumambulations on and adrift from the Navigator and Kingfisher Ways time caught up with me and started rubbing at my sweaty heels and toes promising blisters. I headed home content with my amphibious exploration. Later, after dinner and a cool foot soak, I returned to Waterlog and the multifunctional advice the Environment Agency had given Deakin following the enquiry he made after swimming in the Lark at Isleham – where once river baptisms had taken place. The cool refreshment of the day’s swim and soak then transformed into a hot prickling flush of fear as the advice reminded me of the hazards of swimming in rivers where sewage may be a problem.
However Deakin, to some extent, decried this officially sanctioned lack of faith in a rivers natural and cultivated ability to clean itself. For many rivers and their people water borne diseases are a prevalent threat and condition and much psychosis, disablement and mortality can be associated with dirty water. Deakin’s passionate and embodied knowledge of river histories enabled him to identify industrial pollution by truly synthetic or alien substances as a greater cause of concern. There is shit and there’s shit and the Lark was severely poisoned in the late 1980s by a leak from a sugar processing factory; a bitter sweet poisoning made all the more worse by the concrete containment and brutalisation of the river – a psychotic situation familiar to followers of the Lee and Lea. But this is a gloomy discharge, a fretful immersion in thoughts of water diseased with microbes and their ominous incubation periods – a self concern about a situation which many people make much more practical and outward looking efforts to remedy, truly inspired by the hope a river is rarely entirely lost and that the joy of water can be found again.

Stanford Lock - Reconnoitre

Outdoor Swimming Society tips - here

Friday, 17 August 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 on wasted energy

I'm currently recouping energy (or energies) in the pleasure fields of central Bedfordshire; Bunyan country. I have enjoyed a week of lazy mornings, reading and listening to the radio, followed by more physically energetic forays into the surrounding countryside, cycling, walking, fishing and swimming.

Yesterday I listened to Radio 4, You and Yours, which featured an article about some residents of Walthamstow whose homes are being shaken by freight trains using the nearby Gospel Oak to Barking line. If I recall correctly one of the rail officials interviewed stated the frequency of freight train journeys on that line has increased, as has the torment of some of the rail side residents.

A while ago there was some speculation that nuclear waste prevented from being transported via the North London line, for the purposes of Olympic site security, would be transported via the Gospel Oak to Barking line. I don't know if this is true however there are, it seems, ways of identifying trains carrying spent nuclear power rods.

The routes of the rail lines can be viewed here and here and here are some other links about this subject:

Local press reports -

Games Monitor

London CND Nuctrain Map

No Nuclear Trains

Will I go trainspotting when I get back to Walthamstow? Perhaps it would be wasting energy? In the meantime Bunyan's country waited for the pedal power of a field student intent on some R&R. I followed the River Flit upstream for a while. I wondered if it is clean enough to swim in. I got to Ampthill and turned north towards Bedford. I admired the bricks and brickwork of Ampthill. Later I found a fascinating video about brick manufacture - and the bi-creation of holes where waste of various sorts is often deposited.

Back in the future, and around about, there were protest signs featuring a silhouette of a chimney with a slogan declaring, 'No to Covanta' 

I thought about the controversial history of Edmonton Incinerator and the merits of energy and other bi products from waste. At the top of a hill coming out of Ampthill on the B530 there was a fantastic view of the countryside to the west, a vantage point once utilized by a pillbox.

In the distance to the west beyond the range of my camera lense there was a large installation of wind turbines. Their blades turned deceptively slowly from my parallaxed viewpoint while the clouds moved swiftly overhead.
Nearby I had just passed an entrance to Lockheed Martin, Ampthill. I had an inkling that company has something to do with armaments and defence and later I confirmed this via these links:

My thoughts were mixed about the nature of the research at that facility. They, (the thoughts) included the horrors of depleted uranium, and the vision of Lockheed Martin's founder. Back in the photograph from the escarpment, a place inviting fantasies of flight, there was a gloomy thought, a moment of chill as a cloud passed across the sun, that defence can so easily be offence. Time to fly down the hill and lift my thoughts.

I found this monument by the B530, between Ampthill and Bedford

This dedication lifted my thoughts, and while I had decided not to take a dip in the Flit I had dipped into Pilgrims Progress and found these lines in Bunyan's apology,

Dark clouds bring waters, when the bright bring none,
Yea, dark or bright, if they their silver drops
Cause to descend, the earth, by yielding crops,
Gives praise to both, and carpeth not at either,
But treasures up the fruit they yield together


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 on Olympic Parks and Rides

Lord Sebastian Coe proclaimed of the Olympic Games in his speech at the closing ceremony, 'we did it right.' During the same ceremony a symbolic gesture of thanks was made to the army of games-makers who had volunteered their time to help make the games the success it is widely regarded to be. I'm sorry to say the protracted flashy overblown pop kitsch extravaganza restored some of my scepticism about the games. I had been engrossed in many of the sporting events and relieved that some of the transport disruption I'd expected or been lead to expect had not materialised. 

I just felt relief that the closing ceremony eventually finished and then a little sad I had no sense of a vision of the legacy after enduring the televisual spectacle to the saccharine end. Cycling was one of the sports in which Team GB excelled and I think there is hope the success will continue as more people are inspired to cycle - some of them competitively. When a modest posy of flowers was ceremonially presented to a representative of the games-makers my thoughts returned to a games-maker I met on Leyton Road earlier in the week. We had a brief conversation about provision for the games-makers who cycled to the Olympic Park.

I was really surprised to discover games-makers choosing or having to lock their bikes to a railing alongside Leyton Road opposite the Olympic park; that, if there were cycle parking facilities on site, it was more convenient to park and lock the bikes in that less secure location.

Leyton Road cycle parking during 2012 Olympics

There were traffic marshals and other Olympic staff at this location close to the corner with Liberty Bridge Road and so the cycles were probably less vulnerable to theft/damage than at similar sites away from the Olympic Park. 
In the conversation with a games-maker I was told there was a dedicated space for cycling games-makers however it was well away from many of the venues/locations and it was a hassle using that facility particularly when volunteering late. He confirmed most of the bikes probably belonged to games-makers and added that very often this make do cycle parking facility had been so much in demand, so overcrowded, he hadn't always been able to lock his bike there. 

In a another conversation with some friends who went to the Olympic park as spectators I was told about the provision of large though much underused cycle parking facilities. They were very surprised at how good and underused the Olympic cycle parking was although went on to recount the difficulties they had trying to meet up with companions who had travelled by train to the Olympic park once they had parked their bikes.

Of course this is largely anecdotal evidence that cannot be used to corroborate the sometimes tragic treatment of ordinary cyclists - even by institutions that profess to represent sport and physical well being. How right was it that volunteers to the games felt compelled to leave bicycles locked to a railing outside the Olympic Park?

Other institutional and infrastructural difficulties cyclists and pedestrians have had to compete with are finding alternative routes as a consequence of cycle and footpath closures made by the Olympics. One of the closures is of the River Lee Navigation path starting at Eastway.

Lee Navigation Path Closure, July 2012 - 

I have been cycling to work along this path by the Olympic Park for several years and seen the site develop from the time the opaque blue fence was removed. I've wondered from the first signs of the buildings what I would make of their completion. The way to this has been closed temporarily though for a surprisingly long time. I expected there would be some restrictions (enforced by the army!?) to the use of the path along this way during the games, particularly where the path meets White Post Lane which is an access point to the Olympic Park however I was surprised by the complete closure of the path and the resulting diversion which takes in Eastway and the various and very busy junctions with the A12/East Cross Route, before the sanctuary of Victoria Park (where one of the Olympic cycle parks is).

Prior to the installation of the canal-side military outpost there was an opportunity to take in the minimal splendour of the Olympic architecture and landscaping without having to pay more for the privilege. During the development, the stretch of park just inside the fence alongside the section of the canal path between Eastway and White Post Lane would allow access, I hoped, to a view of a cultivated flower meadow to mitigate the harshness and incongruity of razor wire and cctv, and the enforcement of exclusion and alienation. Alas this was not to be for just a few weeks before the beginning of the games the fertile and grassy stretch was ripped up and the trees removed and in their place a car park was quickly and efficiently installed. Who is the car park for? In some ways I'm glad they closed the path. What this development demonstrated was that if there had been a will provision might have been better for volunteers cycling to the Olympic Park.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Field Study's Man in E17 returns from Myrmidonia E4

watering wheelbarrow

wheelbarrow holloway

Robert Macfarlane asks in, ‘The Old Ways’, what does he know when he is in a place that he can know nowhere else, and, what does this place know of him that he cannot know of himself.

‘The Old Ways’ is an account of various walks Macfarlane has made and what he has learned by them, the intimacies of nowhere else around, within and without him. So far as I have accompanied him along his written recollections, some of the routes of and locations on the walks are familiar to me, e.g. the Icknield Way, yet by his eloquent knowing and writing the ways are also rewardingly unfamiliar.

Macfarlane suggests there is vanity involved in the making of the journeys (and the written accounts) however he has looked beyond himself, his sense of place, to seek the insights of others who have made similar and very different journeys to him, most notably, the old way romantic, George Borrow, and the haunted and haunting poet, Edward Thomas. They, and other companions, have enabled Macfarlane to avoid immersion in a vanity project.

I have been wondering where I have been and where I could go to apply Macfarlane’s questions. Appropriately, a place come to personal prominence recently might have much to say about vanity; the place being a polytunnel on an allotment in Chingford at the edge of the Lea Valley. This polytunnel and the site around it has some relevance to E17 in that surplus fruit and vegetables grown there are sometimes sold from Organiclea’s Saturday stalls – and are labelled ‘ultra local’.

Organiclea Stall Skill Share 4th August

Red ants in the polytunnel

I have been going to the allotment since late summer 2003 following an invitation via a flyer from Organiclea. The polytunnel was erected by the founding members of Organiclea who had started reclaiming the neglected site from a bramble thicket in 2001. The tunnel consists of a series of metal hoops, deeply set in the ground, over which translucent plastic sheeting is stretched. Its length runs east west; an orientation that maximises the sunlight it can receive. The special ‘greenhouse’ plastic has seldom been cleaned and therefore the tunnel is not performing optimally although for such an old tunnel it is still in good shape structurally. The brambles have only just started encroaching through the inevitable cuts, tears and rips in the plastic skin and so are perpetuating a cycle of counter reclamation (with more vigour this year) since the collectively minded ‘Organiclea’ departed for pastures new and more in keeping with ‘permacultural’ ambitions.

Recently I found myself walking, standing then dancing in the polytunnel, making awkward balletic steps on my toes to move between the raised beds, in-between the lush verdance, all the while holding a watering can to water the needy plants. What had precipitated my clumsy toe stepping and wayward spouting? This year the polytunnel has become something of a formicarium – a ‘formilopolis’ -  and there is barely a square inch let alone a foot of ground that is not teaming with red ants, each of them, I’m told, selflessly pursuing an anarchistic socialist utopia. My two toe steps were made to minimise the square footage of my rubber based footprints for heavier steps trigger the offensive defensive instincts of the myrmidons and their intensely irritating bites. Increasingly my efforts to avoid the attentions of the ants were made in vain as this year many ants have scaled the heights of my inside legs and bitten where no ants have bitten before. What indeed does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself? Modesty?

What is the anarchistic socialist utopia I was trampling? William Morton Wheeler (1865-1937), the founder of American myrmecology, was inclined to anthropomorphise ant behaviour (or sociality) with an imagination perhaps informed by a culture of classical myth and militarism. John Berger (1926- ) wrote in, ‘Why Look at Animals’, ‘animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises ..... magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial.’ Sacrifice is what Homer celebrated of the ancient nation, the Myrmidons, in The Iliad,

“Ye far famed Myrmidons, ye fierce and brave! Think with what threats you dared the Trojan throng”

Modesty prohibits me from describing the fate of the ants which scaled the mythical heights however I imagine way down deep beneath my toes the Myrmidons are exchanging classical concoctions of pheromones describing legendary derring-do in the dark and nether regions of Field Study’s Man in E17 in E4. 

Another ethologist, Konrad Lorenz (1903 – 1989), questioned this metaphorical and mythical coexistence more seriously in the wake of World War II and The Cold War, stating he ‘was tempted to believe that every gift bestowed upon man by his power of conceptual thought has to be paid for with a dangerous evil as the direct consequence of it.’ Ants had emerged terrifyingly large from the irradiated deserts of that man’s generation.
As ever, one man’s (if not ant’s) utopia is another’s dystopia and according to Pierre Andre Latreille (1762 -1833), a place of ants is one ‘of inequalities, hard labour and dreary chastity’. When Latreille penned his gloomy perceptions of the lot of ants, ‘myrmidon’ was also a term used to describe a loyal, unquestioning follower and hired ruffian; that is, a person lacking imagination.But here from the peaceable gift of the polytunnel (a modest Eden nestled in a vein of the Lee Valley) milk and nectar must break, and honey sweat through the pores of oak* and so there has to be another way of re-imagining the proliferation of ‘them’, the ants. So I have continued to dance contorting to bloodily scratch the tops of ant bite induced spots, to enter a funky reverie of pain that could have been of a rite of passage by which, one day, I could become Solenopsidini. Alas conceptual thought disrupted the trance as a question occurred to me about the collective mass/weight of the ants in the polytunnel and around the allotment as a whole. Could it be there was more ’ant’ than ‘man’ at work in the paradise garden? This year the allotment as a collaborative human effort has been something of a failure as few of us sharing the allotment have been able, willing or wanting to cultivate it; some loss of oneself to the intimacy and poetry of the place has been tainted by resentful thoughts about the absence of ‘the others’.  Outnumbered and outweighed! To counter this emotional density I have tried to accommodate thoughts about the benefits of the ants – how fantastically they are turning over the soil, how efficiently (ruthlessly?) they are preying upon all sorts of fellow beasties that can try the patience of a hopeful gardener. I can also wonder at their intimacy with the place, how there is barely a square millimetre of the terrain untracked by and to the power of 6 legs & feet, and communicable by senses only imaginable.

Have I found the ‘nowhere else’ of the place and the nowhere or no one else of me? This is unlikely for vanity has come between the place and me as typically I performed for a story to be recounted later on. In this state of un-communion I am overweight rather than outweighed, carrying too much of a sense of self towards a place that prevents actually getting and being there. In, ‘The Old Ways’, Macfarlane probably gets over this threshold (of vanity) by a balance of imaginative recall and reinvention.