Nature & travel

My favourite animals...

There are so many animals that possess many astonishing qualities that we can learn form or which play a role as a keystone species determining the types and numbers of various other species in a community.

Some enjoy the ideal hydrodynamic form to allow them to move through water others have the most amazing sensory perceptions. 

Thanks to the science of  biomimicry, products are emerging from the imitation of these features. For example, scanning electron microscope studies have revealed that tiny "teeth" (riblets) cover the surface of a sharks’ skin that produce vertical vortices or spirals of water, keeping the water closer to the shark’s body and thus reducing drag. This led to the development of new swim wear.

There are loads more examples I could give, but here are ten for starters:


Why I like wild places...

Calgary Bay, Scotland
I like wild places because they remind me of the immensity of the world. When you look out into the unbroken line of the horizon it’s a paraphrase of infinity. Your thoughts are drawn outwards and onwards endlessly. You realise that the world exceeds us – that it’s greater than our capacity for knowledge. The wilderness has prefaced us and will outlive us.

Camping out in wild places - or sailing out of sight of landfall - gives me a complete sense of calm and contentedness, particularly at dusk. 

The sun hangs on the horizon and all of a sudden drops out of sight, spreading its glow along the horizon in its wake. The sky deepens from blue to black and the starry night emerges above.

Kapiti Island, New Zealand
The landscape and the wildlife it contains change at different times of the day. Our senses become more attuned to the scents that spring out of the darkness and the sound of the lapping of every wave against the bows of the boat.

Humanity has always directed dreams of reverence up to the sky at night. It's nice to just sit there in awe of it all.
Top ten:
- Calgary Bay headland, Mull, Scotland
- Carsaig Arches, Mull, Scotland
- Lunga, Scotland
- Kapiti island, New Zealand
- Milford Sound, New Zealand
- Constantine Bay, Cornwall, England
Tiger Leaping Gorge
- The walk from Durdle Door to Lyme Regis, England
- Isle of Wight, rounding the needles, England
Ras Mohammed National Park, Sharm el-Sheihk, Egypt
- Tiger Leaping Gorge and the First Bend of the Yangtze River, Yunnan province, China

Ever so caring elephants

The African bush elephants are the largest living land mammals. They always seem to be constantly in motion – flapping their ears to create a cooling breeze, swishing their tails at flies, breaking off grass or tree branches and nuzzling each other.

Although elephants are typically greyish in colour, they often seem brown or reddish from wallowing in mud holes of the iron-rich volcanic African soil. The elephants love squelching in the mud which acts as a sunscreen, protecting their skin from the harsh ultraviolet radiation of the sun. After bathing, they even use their trunks to blow soil on their bodies to help dry and bake on their new protective coats.

Trunks are pretty useful things really. African elephants have two “finger-like” projections at the tips of the trunk which are sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass, yet strong enough to rip the branches off a tree. They even greet each other by entwining their trunks, much like a handshake.

They’ve also got great hearing and are great at making deep, low frequency sounds that enable them to communicate with other elephants up to 10 km away.

Elephants listen by putting trunks on the ground and carefully positioning their feet. Their trunks are sensitive to vibrations, they have special receptors in their feet which pick up the sound as it travels through the ground, and hearing receptors in their ears.

Now, isn’t that amazing?!

The hummingbird

The sight of hummingbirds hovering to refuel on the wing never ceases to astonish. Their mechanics of flight seem to defy the laws of physics. They are true masters of stationary flight and can even fly backwards — the only birds able to do so. They flap their wings around 25 times a second, though the smallest of the family (the bee hummingbird) beats at up to 90 times a second. The noise their high-frequency beating makes gives rise to their name.
Unlike other birds, hummingbirds get a portion of their lift during the upstroke of their wings. Because flying objects cannot generate lift without creating drag, birds close their wings partially and set their “angle of attack” (the wing’s incidence to the direction of flight needed for generating lift) to zero during the wasteful but necessary upstroke. That minimises the drag and conserves energy.

They then get their lift and forward thrust using a high angle of attack during the downward working stroke. By spreading their tail feathers and curling the tips of their wings back as they bring them down, the large energy-loaded vortices spilling off the leading edge of each wing can be channelled in the required downward and rearward direction to provide both lift and forward motion.
By contrast, to get the extra lift needed for hovering, hummingbirds do not simply flap their wings up and down, but oscillate them through a figure of eight pattern. By angling their bodies near to the vertical, the lift-generating vortices are thrust straight down beneath them. The hummingbird is literally buoyed on a vertical jet of air, with its head held stationary as it uses its long bill to feed.

The wings create the main vortex with a high angle of attack on the downstroke. They then flip their wings around on the upstroke, so as to create another vortex on the other side of the wing.

Pretty cool, huh?

The amazing world of bees...

The bee is aptly described in the proverbs, “as profitable, laborious, loyal, swift, nimble, quick of scent, bold, cunning, chaste, neat, brown and chilly as a bee,” according to Charles Butler in The Feminine Monarchy or the History of the Bees from 1609.

There is no dull fact about bees, whether we regard them for themselves, or for the metaphorical uses to which they are put by social commentators.

Bees are a “keystone species” which have a disproportionately important effect on their environment, relative to their biomass. Such species affect many other organisms in an ecosystem and help to determine the types and numbers of various other species in a community.

They play a role analogous to the role of a keystone in an arch. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it. Similarly, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed, even though that species was a small part of the ecosystem by measures of biomass or productivity.

Bees play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, and are the major type of pollinator in ecosystems that contain flowering plants. Bees either focus on gathering nectar or on gathering pollen depending on demand, especially in social species.

Bees gathering nectar may accomplish pollination, but bees that are deliberately gathering pollen are more efficient pollinators. It is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees, especially the domesticated European honey bee. The former is primarily as an energy source and the latter primarily for protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used as food for larvae.

There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in seven to nine recognized families, though many are undescribed and the actual number is probably higher. They are found on every continent except Antarctica, in every habitat on the planet that contains insect-pollinated flowering plants.

In 2005 researchers at Caltech studied honey bee flight with the assistance of high-speed cinematography and a giant robotic mock-up of a bee wing. Their analysis revealed that sufficient lift was generated by "the unconventional combination of short, choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency". Wing-beat frequency normally increases as size decreases, but as the bee's wing beat covers such a small arc, it flaps approximately 230 times per second, faster than a fruitfly (200 times per second) which is 80 times smaller.

Bees figure prominently in mythology and have been used by political theorists as a model for human society. Journalist Bee Wilson states that the image of a community of honey bees "occurs from ancient to modern times, in Aristotle and Plato; in Virgil and Seneca; in Erasmus and Shakespeare; Tolstoy, as well as by social theorists Bernard Mandeville and Karl Marx."

As for the insects as symbol, bees have been used to endorse monarchism, republicanism, hard work ("non nobis" - "not for ourselves" do we work, runs the tag along many Renaissance images of hives) and indolence. Bees have provided templates to explain or guide human society - although we've been almost always wrong in how their society forms and operates.

Honey bees actually live in hives of up to 80,000 insects. They are divided into social classes – the queen, around 6,000 unhatched eggs, 9,000 hatches eggs or brood larvae, 20,000 older larvae or pupae, 300-1,000 drones and 40-50,000 work bees. That's a lot of insects working together for a common purpose - to make life go on - and the delicious honey is a great by-product along the way!

It's all about the journey...not the destination

I've just come across a lovely poem called Ithaka by Constantine P. Cavafy.

It focus on the importance of being "mindful" when you travel, fully inhabiting the given moment and experiencing everything around you to the full. It encourages us to be endlessly curious and grateful for the wonderful things we encounter along the way. Most importantly, it celebrates the joy of coming home.

The word "d├ępaysement" springs to mind. It means to "decountrify oneself". When you return home from exploring a different country and culture, you see it with a fresh pair of eyes. You have a new perspective on the world you live in and your place in it.

Some of the lyricism and rhyme of the original is probably lost in translation from the Greek, but it's still a powerful piece that speaks to the reader in any language.

* * *


When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.
Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean. 
Constantine P. Cavafy

* * *

The poet's wise words are draw inspiration from Odysseus’ ten year voyage home from the Trojan war. The twists, turns and adventures Odysseus encounters are used as a metaphor for a fulfilling life by Cavafy, just as they were by Homer in the original epic poems.

Cavafy is saying that the things that really matter in life in the end are experiences and memories. Some people always find the straight and easy path, avoiding distractions and detours. When they reach the end, what do they have to show for it?

We're told not to be worried about scary monsters like the Cyclops (there's no such thing). Equally a person without internal strife is less likely to encounter external strife.

The harbours are happy times and places in the life of the reader where pleasure, knowledge and experience are gained. The Phoenician trading stations symbolize times in life when one is exposed to art and beauty and culture. The poet urges us to enjoy luxury and beauty when the chance arises. One should appreciate the fine things that come into one’s path for the sake of the experience and not to amass treasures.

He suggests we visit Egyptian cities often, which symbolise times of knowledge and education. Education is not something that is sought once in life. Rather, we should be endlessly curious and enjoy life-long learning.

Ithaka, Odysseus’ island kingdom, is both the starting and ending place. The place we come from shape us and make us what we are. Ironically, the farther people get from home (physically, temporally, and ideologically) the more they want to return.

So, take your time on your journey through life, stopping to obtain wisdom, pleasure and experience. Happy travels folks and a happy homecoming too!

Why I like walking...

I like walking – particularly up hills and along coastal cliffs. It’s so invigorating to look at an amazing landscape stretching ahead of you and enjoy the wind blowing away your cares.

Walking not only makes us healthier, by increasing our heart rates up, it also provides a time and space to think. To fully experience the world around us, we first have to free ourselves from the distractions that are constantly begging for our attention.

For Nietzsche, "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking," (Twilight of the Idols). While Thomas Jefferson walked to clear his mind of thoughts. "The object of walking is to relax the mind," he wrote. "You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you."

Perhaps by taken out of our normal environment, we engage more fully with the world. In Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns writes that "new insights come from people and new environments – any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will come next." 

According to the Latin aphorism, Solvitur ambulando, virtually anything can be solved by walking. That's why I'm keen to spend more time enjoying some of the wonderful walks in the world. Here are my top ten for starters:

Top ten walks
- Carsaig Arches, Mull, UK- Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan province, China
- The Inca trails and Machu Picchu, Peru

- Jurassic Coast, UK
- Cairngorns, UK
- Haytor, Devon, UK

I’d also probably add these to the list once I’ve had a chance to experience them:
the Gower Peninsula, UK; Annapurna region, Nepal; Ard├Ęche, France; and Pennine Way, UK.