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Life on the Cusp

Last week, I was pretty sure it was Spring.  Sunshine, blue skies, birds singing their little hearts out.  All that.

Yesterday, not so much:

It’s on the cusp of a change in season that the world – certainly its weather – feels most alive. Outside the Tropics, anyway. It’s in those days and weeks when change is running strong and urgent. But it’s seldom a simple, smooth change. There’s always a day, at the start of every season, when you wake up, step outside and instantly just know from the feel of the air that a new time of year is upon you. Each season has an unmistakable feel, which you lose the habit of while the other three are cycling through, so that when it comes back, and you feel it on your skin again, it’s instantly recognisable as different from what’s gone before. I love it when that happens.

Except sometimes things go backwards, of course. Last couple of weeks, it was unmistakably feeling like Spring. A freshness to the air, a deeper blue to the sky, a hint of genuine warmth in the sunlight. Here we are today, though, and I wake up to ice, crunchy snow left over from yesterday’s falls. And though the sky’s a luminous blue, the only thing really deep about it is the cold. I don’t mind. I like it, in fact. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s good to be kept on your toes.

It’s not just the weather, though. All things, all systems, are a their most vigorous, unpredictable, energetic, rich on the cusp. In their transitional states.

It’s true of the natural world in many profound and interesting ways. By education and inclination, I’m in large part a biologist, environmentalist, naturalist, whatever you want to call it, and it’s striking how much of that stuff is concerned with boundaries, states of change, cusps. One example: the physical spaces where one kind of habitat merges or changes into another – like woodland, say, giving way to grassland – often hold the richest, most diverse wildlife in any given area, and are often the most dynamic and changeable zones in that area. It’s such a significant effect, there’s even a special word for these transitional zones: ecotones.

Ecotones are bits of land that are physically transitional – or on the cusp, if you like – between two states. The weather’s currently in a temporal ecotone, if you ask me.

And it’s true of all things, isn’t it?  The most interesting, diverse stuff is often in the borderlands.  Fictions that combine two genres into something rich and different from either.  Communities that merge into one another (peacefully, hopefully) and in those places where they merge perhaps have the best of both worlds.  The border between town and country, where you have both the comforts and ease of the urban and the space and air of the rural.

Ecotones.  Maybe not the most comfortable, but perhaps always the most interesting places, times or states to be in.

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I like parasites.  They do the craziest things; things that rightfully belong in sf, fantasy or horrror fiction rather than the real world.  Like create zombie ants. Biology’s a great place to trawl for story ideas.

If you’re currently eating anything, might be an idea to finish that before watching this.  Just saying.

CreatureCast – Lancet Liver Fluke from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

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I just like this. Anything that reminds us, now and again, that the natural world is full of marvels is a good thing. We’re small and ephemeral things, us humans, compared to some of the life we grudgingly share the planet with.

That giant – it’s known, wonderfully I think, as Hyperion –  is centuries old and over 115m tall.   That’s quite a lot taller than the distance from the ground to the tippy tip tip of the Statue of Liberty’s torch.  Good job, Nature.

It’s out there, somewhere, even as you read this.  Hidden away in its secret valley, its silent forest.  Not doing anything, just being.  Being the tallest tree in the world.  Cool.

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In years gone by, I’ve tended to pop out a Miscellany post to mark the festive season.  Don’t know why.  Don’t know why I’m about to do it again, but here I go.

For Likers of Sketches

D(ungeons) & D(ragons) & D(oodles) is a fun little tumblr from Tom Fowler, featuring amusing and striking sketches of a fantastical sort.  Only a handful of images there so far, but it’s worth a look.  Guy can draw.

Image is (c) 2012 Tom Fowler / BIGBUGIllustration.com.  Just so you know.

Weekly Sketch Up is a weekly (funnily enough) column at iFanboy that collates and reposts some of the nicest recent comics-related sketches showing up on the interwebs.  Well worth a browse if you like to see comics artists having a bit of fun.

For Likers of Expensive/Dangerous Toys

Probably too late for this year, but how about asking for a JetLev Flyer when the next gift-giving season comes around?

Or perhaps I could tempt you with a wingsuit?

For Likers of Photography

2012 was, I think, one of the better recent years for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a long-running British institution for those of us who like (a) wildlife and (b) pictures of it.

You can browse a full online gallery of the best images of 2012 on the Natural History Museum website. I confess, it’s a bit of a pig of a site, navigation-wise; but with a little bit of pointing and clicking you can get a look at some stunning wildlife photos (when you eventually find an ‘Enlarge’ button, click that and you will be amply rewarded). And if that tickles your fancy, well you can browse another seven years’ worth of photos there as well.

The exhibition of the winning photos has already started a global tour which runs through next year, and if it’s showing up anywhere near you I’d highly recommend checking it out. Seeing the actual photos at full size is quite the experience if you’re into this kind of thing. Mysteriously, the tour doesn’t seem to include the USA – sorry, USA folks.

For Likers of … Well, Wild Scots Really

These folks show up on the streets of Edinburgh most summers, always drawing a big crowd of passers-by and always being about the best street theatre you could ever wish for: Albannach

Albannach @ Sunday Pub Sing from Highland Renfair on Vimeo.

And since I’m on the subject of music, let’s repeat my old and tired trick of putting a bit of guitar in these miscellany posts. This time, it’s courtesy of Antoine Dufour:

For Likers of Apocalypses (and Podcasts)

As the world’s ending … tomorrow, is it? … why not treat yourself to a podcast on the topics of apocalypses?

Apocalypse Now and Then from the BackStory podcast is a fun and informative dig around in the history of apocalypses and end-times in the USA.

And thanks to Edd Vick for directing me to the BackStory podcast as a whole, back in the comments on this post.  That’s how us podcast lovers spread the love, after all; it’s all about word of mouth.  So why not check out this extensive exercise in word of mouth over at SF Signal on the subject of SF/F podcasts, and do some exploring in the audio wonderland?  There’s something in there for everyone. (Everyone who likes a bit of sf or F, anyway).

Should, for some unforeseen reason, the world fail to end, Happy Holidays to one and all.  Hope everyone gets a minimum of stress and a maximum of happiness over the festive season.  (If the world does end, that minimum and maximum will no doubt be reversed, but don’t fret it; it’ll all be over soon, I imagine).

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Yggdrasil Faces Its Ragnarok

Yggdrasil is the world tree of Norse mythology, more or less the cosmological centre of their universe.  Vast, supporting or penetrating or anchoring – or at the very least co-existing with – the Nine Worlds of Viking cosmology; a holy place even to those most holy of beings, the Gods.  The tree of trees.

It’s an Ash tree.  I like the Ash.  It doesn’t have quite the crowd-pleasing drama or character of Britain’s other dominant large trees – notably oak and beech – but it has its own beauty and grace, and I’ve seen big, old ones that are just wonderful.  Even its saplings are pleasing, with a straight, smooth precision to them that really makes them look like they’re racing up towards the light. And even when they don’t have leaves, they’ve got fantastic big, black buds that you know are going to crack open in the Spring to unfurl vivdly green frondy leaves unlike anything any other really big native tree can offer.

By most estimates, it’s the third commonest tree in Britain, making up a seriously important proportion of our woodlands.  I should probably go find some and enjoy them while I can, because Ragnarok has come calling for Britain’s Ash trees.

In this case, Ragnarok is not the giant wolves and serpents and fire giants of the Viking version, but a microscopic nemesis by the name of Chalara fraxinea.  2012 is the year Ash Dieback arrived in Britain, and there’s a very high probability it’s going to do here what it’s already done in parts of Continental Europe: kill most of our Ash trees.

That’ll punch big holes in the visual and aesthetic structure of our countryside, sadly.  Hedgerows, woodlands, parks will all get a new and unwanted makeover involving a lot – a really big lot – of dead or ailing trees.

I’m too young to remember the British countryside before Dutch Elm Disease all but wiped out one of the previously most common big trees in the second half of the 20th century.  It was a traumatic event for lovers of the British – especially the English – landscape, though.  The elm had been a key element of that landscape, and with a snap of some fungal fingers it was gone.

For purposes of comparison, consider this: there were something like 30 million elm trees in Britain when the lethal epidemic started in the 1960s.  They’re almost all gone now.  Over 25 million of them were dead before the end of the century; more by now.  How many ash trees are there in Britain?  Something like 80 million.  That’s what’s could be lost.  Almost three times as much as went with Dutch Elm Disease.

I suspect – and hope – it won’t be quite that bad.  It sounds, for various reasons, like it might be slightly more manageable than the Elm Apocalypse.  But it’s undoubtedly going to be bad.  The microscopic genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back in.  So wave bye-bye to those ash trees down the road, in your local wood, in your local park.  They may still be there in a few years time, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Makes you think.  Losing one majorly important large tree from your nation’s landscape could be an accident; losing two in the space of fifty years starts to look like something a bit more careless.  And it’s not an accident, of course.  Both epidemics have only become border-crossing crises because we have a globalised, interconnected trade that moves infected timber or trees around with precious little concern for biosecurity.  Some places – islands, often, which have seen at first hand the catastrophic effects that moving species and diseases around willy-nilly can have – are very, almost obsessively, careful about what goes in and out of their ports.  Britain, and most countries, are not amongst those places.

And what does for our trees could still do for us, one day.  Of all the end-of-civilisation scenarios that get put forward in speculative fiction, and in disaster-planning for that matter, there’s only one that I’ve ever found remotely worrisome (at least since I got past my young childhood fear of going to sleep because I thought the world would be extinguished by nuclear holocaust while I slumbered – I really had that, no joke).  Not worrisome, exactly, but all too imaginable.  That’s infectious disease.

It may never happen, but it certainly could: a virus that goes through the human species much like Dutch Elm Disease went through Britain’s elm trees.  If one of those does pop up, it’ll spread for the same reasons that the tree diseases spread, i.e. we’re all one world one.  Chances are it’ll be unplesant but manageable.  Just maybe, though, it won’t be.  And if it’s not, that’ll be our Ragnarok, I guess.  It’ll come, just as it’s coming for Yggdrasil, in an invisibly small, but inescapably effective package.

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Last weekend provided a nice few days around these parts.  Small pleasures.  Which I will now, of course, insist upon sharing …

An Unexpected Visitor

Putting out food for the little birds in the garden means occasionally being graced by the presence of a bigger bird, come to eat the little ones.  Poor chap missed out this time, but was kind enough to hang around for quite a while – no doubt bemoaning his misfortune – and pose for pictures.

Beach and Barbecue Weather

It was hot, hot, hot at the weekend.  In the photo above we see the unbounded enthusiasm of the Scots for a nice beach in good weather.  If you can see past the seething hordes of beach-goers, you might just be able to make out a lovely view.  Actually it did get more populated later, but it was nice not to have to share it with many folk for a while.  Did have a barbecue, later, but you’ll just have to take my word for that, since I’ve no photographic evidence.

An Expected, but Very Welcome, Delivery

A box of author’s copies of The Edinburgh Dead.  It’ll be in bookstores in just a few weeks now.  Others can make their own minds up about the contents, but looks-wise, I’m a big fan of this.  It’s a sleek and good-looking beast, very nicely put together by the Orbit team.

On the subject of others making up their own minds about the contents, some kind words have been said about the book recently.  They’ve been said in paper-and-ink form rather than on online, so sadly I can’t link to them directly and you’ll just have to believe me when I say that they were along these lines:

Publishers Weekly said: “Ruckley ventures successfully into the gothic with this horrific thriller … atmospheric descriptions help sustain the menacing mood.”

RT Magazine said, amongst other nice things: “this frightening tale of taking scientific enlightenment much too far is enhanced by strong, sharp prose and a lively pace, making it difficult to stop turning the pages.”

Jolly good.  Always a relief when you hear that someone out there in the big wide world likes your book …


Was on holiday last week. Here. The only report of consequence I have from a jolly pleasant week is this: I met an ent.  Cool dude.  Didn’t get formally introduced, unfortunately, so I don’t know his name, but I’m guessing it’s Willowthatch.  Something like that.

A fine looking fellow, whatever his moniker.  He’s currently calling the Cairn O’Mohr winery home.  I’m not sure they even know he’s an ent, to be honest, and I didn’t mention it, in case he preferred to remain incognito.

Actually, I do have something else to report, but I suspect it’s of more interest to me than anyone else: best sighting I’ve ever had of a wild otter, paddling about in the River Earn one lunchtime.  I say best sighting – it was only a couple of seconds, but that’s still better than I’ve ever managed before, as far as I can remember.  Still, never mind all that.  Ent!


Sometimes the world seems like one big adventure in speculative fiction.  It’s 2011, obviously, but that’s not a very epic scale to be thinking on for those of a fantastical or science fictional bent.  Adjust your brain to the scale of geological time, and we live in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon.  The Holocene began something like 12,000 years, the blink of an eye in big picture terms; the Phanerozoic’s been running for over 500 million years.

What’s got me thinking about all this is that – as those who follow the news may well have heard – there’s a serious proposal on the table, for consideration by those scientists who worry about such stuff, to officially declare the Holocene Epoch over.  To consign it to the past, and recognise that the world has entered a new geological Epoch: the Anthropocene.  It’s a technical little tweak to the obscure nomenclature of time to which only a tiny fraction of humanity need pay any attention.  But … but, it’s also an extraordinary thing to let your imagination explore for a while.

The justification for ushering in the Anthropocene Epoch is basically pretty simple.  The idea is that we humans have exerted such an influence over the Earth’s natural processes on a planetary scale that future scientists, vast stretches of time from now, will be able to look at the rocks and detect clear, consistent signs that something vast and dramatic changed.  That change was us.  The fundamental processes at work on the only planet in the universe we currently know supports life have been so profoundly altered by the feverish activity of just one amongst the millions of species inhabiting that planet that a new Epoch is called for.

The change over from one Epoch to another has in the past been marked by such  dramas as the beginning or end of global Ice Ages, and mass extinctions associated (perhaps) with global catastrophes like asteroids bumping into the Earth.  Now we can possibly say that Homo sapiens itself in that category of radically world-altering events.  Who would have guessed, watching a little group of hairy primates wandering around in Africa all that time ago, that they’d grow up to change the geology of the entire planet?

I find it awesome stuff, that makes me stop, just for a few minutes in the heady rush of day-to-day concerns, and think about bigger stuff (before I get back to packing podcast mp3s onto my player).  What’s most striking to me is the diversity of broader effects that are associated with this potential Epochal shift, and how we little humans, with so little conscious effort, seem to have matched the efforts of raw Nature in convulsing the planetary systems.

The ebb and flow of Ice Ages is associated with big changes in global sea level, for instance; we’ve got sea level rises already modestly underway, with an unknown increase yet to come (I’m in the camp that suspects it’s a consequence of human activity, as you might guess).  Quite a few Epochs (and the higher level Periods) end with mass extinction events; we’ve certainly got a spike in extinction underway, as a (mostly unintended, but I’m not sure that’s much of an excuse) consequence of human activity.  Whatever the catastrophe that did for the dinosaurs at the end of the Late Cretaceous Epoch, it seems to have left its fingerprint all around the world, with a very thin layer of rocks abnormally high in Iridium.  My favourite proposal for a precise marker for the start of the Anthropocene that future geologists will be able to rely upon is just such a very thin layer, one that we put there: atomic bomb testing began in 1945, and it’s left its trace all over the Earth in faintly radioactive deposits.

If 1945 is settled upon as the start of the Anthropocene, there’s a thought to conjure with.  I imagined living through the start of a new millenium was a wee bit special.  In hindsight, my parents, and others alive at the end of the Second World War, have rather got me beat: it looks like they lived through the start of a new planetary Epoch – a distinction they share, out of all the billions of humans who have ever existed, only with the microscopically small number of Homo sapiens alive when the Holocene began all those 12,000 years ago.

And go further, pursue this Big Time, Stapledonian thought a little further.  That Phanerozoic Eon I mentioned at the start, the 500+ million year slab of time of which the Anthropocene will be just a fractional subset: it’s defined by the appearance and diversification on a vast scale of abundant, complex animal life.  We live in it still, but for how much longer?  We’re not about to see the disappearance of all animals larger than a worm any time soon, but any good student of science fiction already knows how the Phanerozoic will end.  Indeed, I’ve got a suggested name for the Eon that will replace it, if the dreams of countless sf authors and transhumanists are realised: the Mechanozoic.  Self-replicating artifical intelligences all over the place, uploaded human consciousnesses walking around in mechanical shells or living out their lives in digital wonderlands.  The rise of the mind-machine hybrid, whatever form it takes, will surely be the cue for us to ditch the Phanerozoic and move boldly into a new Eon.  (There’s another obvious candidate for the instigation of a new Eon, of course: the permanent spread of terrestrial biological life beyond Earth).

However the Phanerozoic ends, those alive at that moment (assuming something’s not gone really horribly wrong and there is actually something roughly human still around) will really have something to crow about, since the only living things to have previously experienced such a transition were little wriggly and blobby things that weren’t big on conversation.  I’m guessing they never even noticed it happening.

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Photos from a week spent out of town, savouring the season.  Autumn’s by far the most characterful time of year, by my reckoning (at least in this corner of the world): all bluster and colour and change.  Got a certain natural magic to it, which nothing embodies more powerfully for me than the movement of birds.  Yes, I’m the odd guy who, at this time of year, might suddenly stop in the middle of doing or saying something and stare up at the sky, just because he’s heard a skein of geese honking their way overhead; or who pulls over the car in mid-journey to stare fixedly at some long hedgeline because he’s seen a flock of Scandinavian thrushes enjoying a bit of British hospitality.

What can I say?  These things give me a frisson of pleasure every time I see them.  They speak of ancient, deep rhythyms and cycles that are unimpressed by mere human preoccupations.

Plus, of course, there’s the colours.  No other season gets close to matching Autumn’s palette.

(I am glossing over the near-relentless rain of the last week or so.  It was, to put it mildly, a damp experience.  But hey, that’s part of Autumn’s personality too).

I’ve got a passing interest in cryptozoology. Not in the sense that I actually believe there are dinosaurs living wild in the Congo, or hairy hominids roaming the North American continent, or plesiosaurs splashing around in a certain well known body of water not too far from where I currently sit (even though I am apparently blind to the evidence provided by Google Earth itself in that last case).

No, it’s more a case that I would like to believe all that stuff, and find those who do, the stories they tell and the quests and investigations they undertake interesting and vaguely appealing. There’s a certain romantic instinct – a sort of longing for mystery and strangeness in the world – that seems to be part of the mindset, and I think that’s a very basic human attribute. A very high proportion of us are drawn in one way or another to the mysterious and the strange, and we find our own personal ways of bringing those elements of the world into our lives. The search for unexpected wildlife fits the bill in a lot of respects.

And although I dismissed the plausibility of some of the most famous cryptozoological icons right at the start, there are several other cases that I tend to think of as ‘semi-cryptozoological’ that appeal much more strongly to both my heart and my head. For example, there’s the possibility of big cats living wild in the UK, eating our sheep.

Or, and here we get to the thing that really captures my imagination, and even moves me, there’s the thylacine. Could there be, somewhere in Tasmania, or even mainland Australia or New Guinea, a surviving population of the largest modern marsupial carnivore? Living in the wildest places it can find, skirting the fringes of human awareness and imagination? I would be utterly delighted if that one day proved to be true, not least because it’s humanity’s fault that the poor old Tasmanian Tiger disappeared in the first place.

I think part of the reason the thylacine has a hold on my imagination, and that of many other people, is that we have film of what may well have been the last individual of the species. Call me a big softy if you like (my excuse is that I’m a wildlife fan by instinct and by education) but I find this clip really quite moving. Was this animal, at the time it was filmed, the very last of its kind on the whole planet, thanks to us:

Probably. But not necessarily, if you climb aboard the cryptozoology wagon. There have been heaps of alleged thylacine sightings, and even some films, including one from this very year that’s now drawing to a close.

Not exactly conclusive, huh? Unless you were after proof that there are mangy-looking dogs and foxes running around the Antipodes, in which case – well, make your own judgement.

But this, out of all the cryptozoological tales, is the one I want to be true. I reckon it’d be wonderful if in one of those clips we were looking at an animal that had survived, hidden, despite humanity’s best efforts – both intentional and otherwise – to rid the world of it. If I was a multi-millionaire with time on my hands, I wouldn’t be remotely tempted to embark on expeditions in search of the yeti or the sasquatch; but the thylacine … yes, I could spare a fraction of my vast wealth to mount a quest in the wilds of Tasmania. Guess I’m just a romantic at heart.

(Though if I did find something out there, whether or not I’d tell anyone, I’m not sure. If anything deserves a bit of privacy, a bit of human-free peace and quiet, it’s the thylacine.)

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