Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Indelible Memories Part 2: Nature's Unconventional Journeys - Bush Camp in the Okavango Delta

One of my favourite aspects of travelling is passing through a variety of different contrasting landscapes, each of which not only has its own ecosystem, but has different and unique sensory experiences that await the travellers. After Namibia's deserts, crossing the border into Botswana, my next adventure in Southern Africa was to experience one of nature's more unconventional journeys, the Okavango Delta. A unique feature to Earth, the Okavango River, which starts its journey in the Angolan Highlands, is one of very few rivers than doesn't eventually flow into a sea or ocean. Rather, it is 'consumed' by the vast and largely flat Kalahari Desert.

The flow of the Okavango Delta seen from above
Travelling through such a contrasting landscape sometimes almost feel like hopping from one planet to another, but in noticing the journey's that the winds and rains have brought, together with the journey's taken by rivers, one begins to notice that rather than existing as separated worlds, the natural processes that contribute to different landscapes and geographical features are interwoven, and thus dependent on one another for their existence. The unique journey, shape and outcome of the Okavango River is best seen from above. Viewing the delta from a 6-seater plane shows not only how vast an area it covers, but how the flow of the delta has formed many islands, and where the extensive wet grasslands that the delta supports merges with vast dry sandy desert, a unique natural mix.

Mokoro polers in action on the Okavango Delta
The delta's meandering routes seen from above shows how dependent on the landscape the delta is for its course of flow, but the vegetation and wildlife, from the huge herds of elephants that migrate across the area to the many species of dragonflies and damselflies, are equally dependent on the delta's waters for their existence and survival. Partaking in a bush camp on Chief's Island, the largest island in the delta, gives the traveller not just an opportunity to view this fascinating natural inter-dependency at work, but also to be part of it, including making the flows of the delta your own, as the local Mokoro Polers. Guiding dug out canoes (mokoros), the Polers used the deltas inlets like natural canals, using their sense of presence to guide their mokoros around the reeds and the slow, gentle rhythms of the water's flow and a awareness of the river bed to guide campers to Chief's Island, where I would stay for a night.

Wilderbeest roaming the Okavango delta's grasslands
As well as its flows and rhythms, experiencing nature by being part of it during a wild bush camp also involves taking into account possible safety hazards, especially when the camp itself is part of nature. With most of the camps I had been staying on on my travels not only having the conveniences of access to water, electricity and bathroom facilities albeit limited and very basic, but also fenced off from wildlife, on Chief's Island, the camp was out in the open, including being open to wildlife. Throughout the trip and from previous travelling experiences (including a camping expedition in Svalbard earlier in 2016), I had got used to living in and out of tents, even if it was a step outside my daily living comfort zone, but a wild bush camp was another step outside of my comfort zone within a step outside my comfort zone. Often, stepping outside our comfort zone, in whatever way, we experience sensory feelings that we are usually otherwise oblivious to. 


Water lilies in the delta's inlets
Being aware of the possible health issues, including the possibility of dehydration, being bitten by an insect or even attacked by an animal, I had initially felt my Asperger tendencies of worry and anxiety kicking in, despite having had the necessary injections as well as having taken malaria pills, that something nasty or unpleasant could happen. In such situations, how well one is prepared with the right supplies including the necessary medicines, sun cream and plenty of insect repellent and enough clean water to last two days in the case of the delta, can play an important part in the quality of the experience. Before the camp, we were told to wear colours that blend in with the colours of the natural surroundings, preferably dark green, brown, dark blue or black so as not to stimulate or distract animals. Realising that the guides and Polers I was with were on hand in case of any such incident and that if I left any animals that happened to pass nearby alone, they would likely leave me and the other campers alone, while being aware of such possible occurrences, I began to embrace the experience a little more, starting with a swim in the deltas's waters. Swimming in the delta's calm waters and walking along its sandy desert bed unveiled a richness of plat life, including reed rafts and water lilies, that the delta's journey has brought to what would have otherwise been vast dry desert, similar to what I had experienced in Namibia. As the Okavango runs through what is otherwise a desert landscape, the river carries very little mud. walking along the sandy river bed, one notices heavy amounts of sand getting caught in the reeds, a process that forms the delta's many islands.

An elephant family in the Okavango Delta 
While the high volume of water enables such rich and varied vegetation in the area, their presence also attracts and supports large quantities of wildlife, whose movements often correlate with the region's contrasting seasons, notably elephants. With more than 100,000, Botswana has the largest population of African Elephants, who, led by a matriarch and senior bull elephants, migrate in thousands, along ancient routes from the nearby Chobe, Linyanti and Savute regions to the delta for its constant presence of water and availability of shade from its trees. Watching the world's largest land animals in action, one sees how they make use of nature in their own way, being able to use their trunks, tusks and physical strength to break branches off trees for food, and being able to make use of the inlets for ease of movement and cooling down from the hot sun.

The Sun sets on the Delta
The delta takes on a different dimension at sunset, where the colouring of the plant life and landscape changes dramatically in response to fading light, opening up a nocturnal living world in the process. The night I camped out on Chief's Island happened to be Halloween! After the Mokoro Polers treated us to a memorable singing and dancing display, during the night, a hyena passed by the camp, making a ghost-like laugh!





Part 3 of my African Adventure will follow soon, in which I recall my experience of the power and majesty of Victoria Falls


Thursday, 5 January 2017

Indelible Memories Part 1: Dunes, Cave Art and the Milky Way - Camping in Namibia's Deserts

Of the skills that artists and writers can call upon, as well as creative use of colour and language and eye for detail, is memory, all of which are well-documented strengths of many people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Though I am often told that I have a good memory for knowledge and information, but through simple noticing through being present with each moment, I find that sensory experiences from different landscapes, climates and lighting leaves almost indelible memories within my consciousness. Nearly three months on from my journey through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, I find myself making use of what I have with these to share the memories here on this blog.
Sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Nambia

The first part of my adventure through Southern Africa saw me travel up the Western Cape from Cape Town via a kayaking excursion along the Orange River through Namibia's other-worldly desert landscape of Sossusvlei, A wealth of sensory experiences await the traveller who is prepared to open to the landscape and its properties, as well as being able to observe and experience nature's forces in action. As well as dune shapes, the formation of the landscape through journey's brought by the Orange River, where I started my journey into Namibia, and the currents of the Atlantic Ocean has also played a huge part in shaping its distinctive colouring. As part of an ever-renewing process over millions of years, the reddish orange sand we see in the desert today was originally deposited in the Atlantic Ocean via the Orange River, before the ocean's currents gradually brought it back where the wind carried it back inland over time where it has mixed with salt and clay deposits as well as other elements, including iron.

Dune 45, Namibia
Almost like the opposite extreme of Svalbard's glaciers, where I was earlier in 2016, sand dunes initially appear still to the naked eye, but are gradually changing slowing in response to the wind, temperature and air pressure. Through getting up close and personal with them though, we can experience how their shapes and texture are constantly changing and renewing them through our other senses.Trekking up Dune 45 (85 metres high), I found that as well as the effects of natures forces on its shape, I also gained an appreciation of nature's effects on the texture of the sand, the density of the sand grains and of the dune itself. Often overwhelmingly hot during the day as I experienced going up Dune 45, at night temperatures in the desert take on a different dimension becoming much cooler, occasionally dropping below freezing point. Cooler temperatures can occasionally bring fog from the Atlantic meaning droplets of moisture can find its way into the sand. This affects the density of the sand, thus also effecting both the sensory experience and difficulty of the walking on it. Having previously trekked on grainy surfaces, including volcano ash, I initially expected Dune 45 to be 'skiddy', but instead, the sand was rather firm. It was still early in the morning so levels of moisture within the sand were still heavy. 

The Milky Way viewed from Spitzkoppe, Namibia 
When in tune to sensory experiences of a desert landscape, as well as an appreciation of its physical qualities, one can also notice the range of colouring within the materials that make up the landscape with more clarity as well as how their hue changes dramatically in accordance with levels of sunlight. After the Sun has gone down, another set of colouring gradually becomes more apparent. Far removed from the effects of light pollution and overcast skies, more stars can be seen with the naked eye than usual, including an arm of the Milky Way. With concentrated observation, the colours within the stars, including white, yellow, red and blue also become much more apparent than usual, while the patterns that we often use to navigate our way around the night sky, the constellations, gradually fade within a star-filled sky.

San cave art, Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
When focusing on the night sky in the desert, an effect I felt that it had on me internally was that it helped me to expand my usual thought patterns. Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I do still find that I can be constrained by thought patterns and that my thinking can be clouded by emotions, similar to how my view of the night sky can sometimes be constrained to the constellations as well as hindered by light pollution. In this way, I felt that by expanding my attention externally towards the night sky, it also gave me insight internally to the workings of my mind. being able to understand the local surroundings in a different light, together with fascinating tours of cave paintings throughout my journey also enabled me to understand the world from the perspective of the indigenous San people, commonly known as 'bushmen'.

San bushmen, Botswana
It is said that Australia's Aborigines were able to see the moons of Jupiter. This would have been enabled not only by clear skies and an obvious absence of light pollution, but also, as hunter gatherers, their eyesight was well-adapted for such purposes. Similarly, the San have historically relied on the the stars to track down animals when hunting animals for food, fuel and clothing material. The way their eyesight adapted for hunter-gatherer purposes is visible in their art work in rocks and caves across the region, some of which is many thousands of years old. Though in an increasingly modernising Africa, the traditional ways of the San people have largely disappeared, they do give a fascinating insight into human relationship with nature, including how we adapt to it to survive.
  

Sunset over Sossusvlei, Namibia
The sensory experiences I felt I had camping in Namibia's desert also gave me an insight into how the San would have had to make use of all their senses for survival purposes in an extreme environment where resources are often scarce, as well as leaving me with memories of what were, for me, new and different experiences. Such memories often find themselves 'etched' within one's consciousness. My most indelible memories of Namibia's deserts though, which the present day convenience of cameras allow us to capture and store, were the night sky sights and the dramatic sunsets.

Indelible Memories Part 2, in which I recall my experience of the Okavango Delta, will follow soon.

       

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Steaming into the Past - The Sherborne Christmas Carol

One of my favourite aspects of mainline steam-hauled trains is the incongruence that they bring to the present day. Not only are they incongruent to a present day railway scene dominated by modern sprinter, voyager and pendolino units, overhead wires and electronic arrivals/departures boards, but also to contemporary passenger habits, including using mobile devices to check trains times, for which passengers of the 19th and early 20th century would most likely have used Michael Portillo's favourite book - the Bradshaws.

Black Fives 44871 and 45407 at London Victoria
In many ways, mainline steam-hauled trains are like time machines that have travelled from the past. But as well as coming from the past, my latest mainline steam experience also took me into the past. Travelling on the Sherborne Christmas Carol, double-headed by former London Midland and Scottish Railway Class 5's (known to many rail enthusiasts as 'Black Fives') 44871 and 45407 The Lancashire Fusilier (named in preservation), what I felt was especially noticeable travelling behind a double header was that there seemed to be thicker clouds of smoke flying past the windows as the train gathered momentum. The late former Poet Laureate and lover of railway journeys Sir John Betjeman wrote extensively about how railways create their own landscapes. Watching the smoke shroud the nearby woodlands, in this way steam-hauled journeys also often create their own scenery.

The Parade, Sherborne
Passing through Worting Junction, well-known as a pivotal location during the holiday season on the Southern Railway where holiday season specials either went across the bridge in the direction of Southampton or under the bridge along the former Atlantic Coast Express route to North Cornwall, the train stopped to take on water at Salisbury before heading onto Sherborne. Whereas it felt that the train had come from the past to the present, Sherborne's medieval architecture made it feel like the train had taken me into the past. As described by Thomas Hardy in his novel The Woodlanders*, it is as if some medieval stone masons had been flashed down through the centuries.

Tombs of Aethelbald and Ethelbert, Sherborne Abbey
Dominated by its abbey, Sherborne is said to be where Alfred the Great was educated. Though much of Sherborne Abbey that is seen today dates mainly from the 15th century, there is still some evidence of Norman and Saxon architecture. The abbey's north choir aisle contains two tombs that are said to be those of King Aethelbald of Wessex and King Ethelbert of Wessex, elder brothers of Alfred. History perhaps best remembers Alfred as the only English King to defeat the Vikings and burning cakes, but also had a vision of a new kind of kingdom for his time based on his love of reading. According to history, Alfred learned to read from his mother Osburh with his brothers, who read a book brightly illuminated by monks. Osburh said that whoever learned to read the quickest could have the book. The visual appeal of the illumination encouraged Alfred to learn and the book became his, though historians now think that rather than being able to read fluently, he was able to memorise the texts so well. Believing that without learning and Christian wisdom there could be no peace and prosperity, Alfred proposed to make works of literature, including holy texts, accessible to his subjects by translating them from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, over 500 years before the Protestant Reformation.

Ladybird Books' title Alfred the Great,
first published in 1956
This led me on personal trip down memory lane to a formula that was part of my childhood, and of many other British childhoods, Ladybird Books. Memories of Ladybird childhoods may well have been aroused recently through the presence of parody Ladybird titles on the shelves of WH Smiths satirising what the generation that read the originals feel they may since have been through (a midlife crisis) or have become (a hipster). For me though, growing up, Ladybird Books provided me with a beautifully illustrated window to learning, which suited my visual ways of thinking as a child with Asperger's Syndrome (then undiagnosed). Written in a simple language that could easily be understood by children, they were accompanied with beautiful illustrations, of which Sherborne's picturesque streets could well have adorned. I remember being attracted to the illustrations in Ladybird Books on many different subjects that arouse childhood fascinations including animals, historical figures, transport etc. but to understand what was happening in the illustrations, I learned to realise that I also needed to pay attention to the written text, which encouraged me to read and later explore further, something which many of us take into later life with us, including myself. Over a hundred years since the first book published by Ladybird Books, one can only wonder how many lifelong pursuits of learning and exploration began with them.

Reading about Alfred the Great with Ladybird Books, I also learned about the burh (later called boroughs) system Alfred developed to help defend his kingdom from possible future attacks. Alfred's burh system help to connect towns via fortified roads and bridges (in some cases reusing existing Roman roads), which as well as for defence purposes, also enabled a network of commerce. It is possible that without Alfred's translation programme and development of the burh system, subsequent events that I also learned about through Ladybird Books like the Industrial Revolution and with that, the coming of the railways, both of great importance to shaping the present day society we live in, might not have happened. In Alfred's time, most people rarely travelled much further than the village or settlement the lived in. Often it would take days to travel distances by horse or on foot that, in contemporary times, can be done in a few hours by train, bus or plane. The idea of inter-connection through the burh system would later enable future generations to travel beyond where, at one time, their 'world' would have stopped in a much more accessible, affordable and quicker way when the appropriate technology, railways and later motor vehicles, to make this possible arrived.

Sherborne Abbey
A special carols service was held at the abbey for passengers and staff of the Sherborne Christmas Carol. Travelling back to London Victoria, while Christmas tree lights from nearby houses shone through the clouds of smoke Black Fives 44871 and 45407 performed their own Christmas carol - 'Chuffing Home for Christmas'.

Wishing all readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.





*In Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Sherborne is named 'Sherton Abbas'

Special thanks to the Railway Touring Company for a fantastic day out.





Wednesday, 20 July 2016

A Midnight Sun Adventure - A Week of Kayaking, Summitt Trekking and Glacier Hiking in Svalbard

After having experienced a week of days limited to just two hours of sunlight per day in the Finnish Far North, I felt encouraged to revisit the Arctic during the other extreme. This time during Midnight Sun season, where the Sun doesn't set for up to six months. Visiting the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean, I found that not only do the extremes of lighting at northern latitudes have different effects on the landscape, but also on mind and body.

The Midnight Sun shines brightly over Svalbard's Isfjorden

A Norwegian territory located on a latitude of 78 degrees north, the Svalbard archipelago is located about halfway between the northernmost part of mainland Norway and the North Pole. Being so far north means that the Sun is still high in the sky as late as 1.00 am, not even going behind the mountains! Spending a week camping under the Midnight Sun on Svalbard not only took me right out of my comfort zone but, being in a largely untouched landscape away from many modern conveniences e.g. wi-fi.

It is understandable how Norway's landscape of steep-sided fjords, bays and inlets, together with the difficulties much of the landscape presented for farming and overland travel, were made use of as transportation networks by the Vikings. Most likely, curiosity aroused by wondering what was on the other side of the horizon led them to build strong ships to embark on voyages into what then was the unknown. One of the first reminders of the world that the Vikings lived in that Svalbard presents is the Isfjorden, a long fjord that cuts through Spitsbergen (the archipelago's largest island) around where many of its settlements, including the largest Longyearbyen, are based. Apart from the road that links Longyearbyen to the airport, there are no roads on the archipelago, making sailing one of few viable ways of getting around, using the fjords as natural sailing routes. With little of the now known world then explored, heading out to the open sea could very easily have seemed, within their mindset, like heading out to the 'ends of the earth', not knowing what was over the horizon, including encountering any unexpected hazards. Though such mindsets now though are largely a thing of the past with Google maps and satellite navigation technology, there are still some challenges nature presents on which one can't rely on technology to navigate successfully to avoid collisions or pitfalls. Instead, one has to rely on their intuition, concentration and presence of mind, including making use of all five senses.

Two such experiences I had in Svalbard included kayaking towards the front of Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen) before later hiking on the glacier using crampons and an ice axe. An active glacier, carving, Esmarkbreen creates its own tides and waves when large chunks of ice break off the glacier into the sea making thunderous sounds which the Vikings could have mistaken for the sound of Thor's hammer! Svalbard's existence was confirmed by Dutch explorers who discovered the archipelago in 1596. It is possible but unconfirmed as to whether it had previously been visited by Viking explorers. Though there is a description of Svalbard in the Viking sagas, meaning 'cold shores', it is perhaps more likely that they refer to parts of Greenland's coastline.

Esmark Glacier (Esmarkbreen), Svalbard
The very name Svalbard may have meant cold shores to explorers over 800 years ago, but being in the Gulf Stream, Svalbard's shores can be surprisingly warm during summer. Kayaking towards the front of Esmarkbreen, I felt I had to be alert at all times using all five senses, listening for thunder sounds from the glacier to anticipate and prepare for  any sudden waves while keeping an eye open for floating pieces of ice approaching. Floating ice for a glacier can be very deceiving to the eye as, often only a small part of the ice is visible about the water surface, so you don't know at first whether an ice chunk is either relatively harmless or a major obstacle. When rowing towards floating ice, I found it useful to, where possible tap piece of ice to see if they could be pushed aside easily or if they were too heavy to move and I needed to steer around. As large pieces of ice carved from the glacier break up in the water they gradually spread out forming a ring, almost simulating Saturn's rings on Earth. Finding space to row a kayak through a ring of ice pieces was difficult and even harder work rowing through it when an opportunity came. With the ice moving constantly in the water, I to to be quick to row through before the gap became too narrow and I would get stuck!

Practising Crevice Rescue
After kayaking towards Esmarkbreen's mighty front, the next adventure was to walk up it. As well as an opportunity to practice mindfulness of walking, setting foot on a surface that is not only obviously outside of one's comfort zone, but despite having previously walked on glaciers, Esmarkbreen presented a completely different challenge.Unless one does it regularly, stepping on a glacier feels like learning to walk again and re-learning tying your shoelaces when putting on crampons. For much of the year, Svalbard's glaciers are under heavy snow. Even after much of the snow has melted during summer, there are still patches of thick snow on the ice into which one can sink. Numerous deep crevices in the glacier also present a hazard. Before going any further up the ice flow, groups trekking Esmarkbreen are instructed in crevice rescue should one be unfortunate to fall in. Being roped together in a trek team provided assurance that should you fall into a crevice or get your foot stuck in thick snow to help pull you out if they can.

Initially, when walking on Esmarkbreen, I found that it was difficult to distinguish between ice and snow surfaces with the eye alone when I got my foot stuck in patch of snow! This was where, for the next stage of the trek that the ice axe became invaluable, almost becoming like a 'sixth sense' to test whether the immediate yard in front of me was solid enough to walk on, or if I would have to take a diversion. All glaciers have their own individually shaped surfaces in accordance with their surrounding conditions, their flow gradually carving their own landscapes within the mountains. As with trekking in any landscape, it helps to adapt to it with an open approach, making using of the forces and properties of nature, including using the ice shapes as steps, and where necessary, carving steps in the ice with the ice axe, while at the same time having a conscious awareness of whom you are roped to, offering assistance where needed.

View from Varmlandsryggen
Making the forces and properties of nature your own by adapting to and going with them, it also enables one to see the journeys that natural processes bring, not just down the mountains, but through the seasons, where the effects of Svalbard's five seasons are visible. Svalbard has five seasons, As well as Spring, Summer and Autumn, there is also Light Winter and Dark Winter. During Dark Winter which there is no sunlight for up to five months, known locally as the 'Polar Night'. Though Svalbard must feel like a different world during Polar Night, the effects its seasons bring don't exist in isolation, but are inter-connected with the rhythms and flow of nature and time. Ascending the Varmlandsryggen, a steep 575m, in summer there is still a lot of thick snow at the summit, around which much of the landscape would be covered by during winter. But looking down the surrounding ice flows towards the shore, a different landscape of glacier carved fjords and inlets, permafrost and huge amounts rocks and sediments deposited by melted ice flows (moraine) is revealed. Coming down the mountain, the journeys that the snow and ice bring are revealed when running water is sighted. Most interesting is the route by which the flows of water find their way into the Isfjorden, which isn't often obvious. it often appears that flowing streams from the ice flows seems to suddenly 'stop' at large deposits of moraine before they find their way to the Isfjorden. But just like one finds their own way, at their own physical level, to the summit at Varmlandsryggen or to inner peace in a meditative context, each stream finds its own way into the Isfjorden going through or around the moraine deposits.

Wild Reindeer
Bearded Seal
During a season without darkness, such physically demanding activity was necessary to ensure that I would get to sleep later, but even with such excess physical activity, it felt difficult to get tired under the Midnight Sun. This provided me with a little reminder though of how I used to find it very difficult to 'switch off' and relax most of the time before I started practising mindfulness. Though even now there are times when I still find this difficult, with mindfulness I feel as though I have more control. I felt I managed to sleep under a very bright Midnight Sun, though even when feeling exhausted physically, it took a lot of effort. During the evening hours, campers had to take it in turns to be on watch duty, in case a polar bear, one of few animals that will attack and eat humans if hungry enough, came near the camp. When going beyond Longyearbyen, visitors to Svalbard must be accompanied by a guide with a rifle in case of an encounter with one of Svalbard's 3,500 polar bears. Though on this occasion the King of the Arctic didn't make an appearance, there were some traces that a polar bear had been in the area hunting their prize prey of ring seals, including footprints and seal skin. Wildlife that I did see from a distance though included a bearded seal floating on ice near Esmarkbreen's front and some wild reindeer.

Gokstad Viking Ship, Oslo
Returning home via Oslo, I had a reminder of lost worlds I felt I had a glimpse into during a memorable week in Svalbard when visiting the Viking Ship and Fram Museums, the latter dedicated to polar expeditions .During the kayaking expedition, I felt I was able to experience a mentality that existed in the minds of the Viking sailors of 1,200 years ago and during the glacier hike, a mentality that polar explorers of the early 20th century, may well have experienced. Though many written histories still often portray the Vikings as brutal raiders, pillagers and plunderers (many of which were written by those to whom they were fierce enemies), underneath that, as suggested by some of the artefacts in the Viking Ship Museum, there was also a sophisticated civilisation that made great technological advances for their time, especially in shipbuilding. With that they gave us a spirit of travel and exploration, which has taken human ingenuity to testing environments including the North and South Poles and the Moon, and who knows where next? The impressive Gokstad and Oseberg ships in Oslo's Viking Ship Museum, serve as a reminder of how testing human ingenuity in such extreme conditions leads various innovations worth having that make up the present day world we may often take for granted.

As so often when travelling, something that I felt I brought back from Svalbard was an intuitive awareness and understanding of a completely different environment in which I had to adjust and adapt to regularly. In relation to being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, getting use to environments different from what is the norm for me as well as managing and adapting to change isn't naturally easy for me, but coping with it by being present with it I find enables greater confidence in myself. Having said that, when I arrived home, it took me at least a week to get used to darkness again!

Huge thanks to Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions and their fabulous guides for all their help and support during the camp.

   





   

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Noticing Patterns - From Construction of Ancient Monuments to Classifying Galaxies

Of things that the human brain can still do so much better than computers, it is in being able to recognise patterns and inconsistencies in data, something that people with Asperger's Syndrome can excel in, including in software scripts. This is why the amateur can still make significant contributions to science, particularly astronomy.


Stonehenge viewed from the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
The ability of the human brain to observe and recognise patterns goes back many thousands of years together with the nature to keep the mind both active and occupied, which is evident in the construction of ancient monuments, including Stonehenge. Though Stonehenge’s function is still largely unknown, it is commonly accepted that it served  as a solar calendar. What is also highly likely is that its construction originated from observation of patterns in the movement of the Sun. Over time, another aspect of the human mind would lead us to find out why such patterns occur, one often commonly found in people with Asperger’s Syndrome, curiosity. 

It can be an easy assumption for one to make that the further known reaches of the universe at inter-galactic level, the technology needed to go so far is only available to professional astronomers working in observatories. Though technology required to collect and process astronomical data is largely the realm of professionals who have access to the equipment needed, analysing and classifying data, including noticing patterns is where the amateur astronomy enthusiast can not only still make a significant contribution the further into Deep Space we explore. In astronomy, an advantage that the amateur can sometimes have is that he or she has freedom from the often rigid nature of professional frameworks and classification systems. In this way public participation can be an invaluable resource to scientific research.

Hubble's Turning Fork, system by Galaxy Zoo used for classifying galaxies
At an introduction to Sunderland Astronomical Society’s public open evening, Graham Darke, a long-time member of the society, explained why with Galaxy Zoo. Galaxy Zoo is an online citizen science project that gives the public access to astronomical data obtained from the world’s largest telescopes from the ground based observatories of La Palma in the Canary Islands and Gemini South in Chile’s Atacama Desert to those in orbit including the Hubble Space Telescope. In his introductory talk, Darke explained that as well as the human mind being better at recognising patterns than computers, members of the public often have the spare time to analyse it than the professionals who are busy collecting the dataWith the huge amounts of data on other galaxies throughout the universe being collected, it had initially been thought that to analyse, classify and catalogue so many galaxies would take many years, but courtesy of Galaxy Zoo, more than 50 million galaxies have been classified by over 150,000 people since the project was launched in 2007.

Within the universe that observable to humankind with current technology, there is estimated to be over one hundred billion galaxies, which are enormously variable in shape, size and composition and yet also similar, ranging from large spiral-shaped galaxies like Andromeda and smaller irregular shaped galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. Much can be learned about galaxies from their shapes, including the possibility that larger galaxies formed due to a merging of two or more smaller galaxies. Also interesting are the surroundings of galaxies, including their gravitational fields and radio waves and X-rays emitted from their centre. Public participation through Galaxy Zoo further has opened up humankind to an ever-expanding universe, including the recent discovery of gravitational waves, caused by merging black holes. 


Heelstone, Stonehenge. Just behind it there is an arrow
show the direction of the Midwinter Solstice
Meanwhile, present-day visitors to Stonehenge marvel at how it was constructed without modern technology, not just in being able to move such large and heavy stones, but also the accuracy of the alignment of the stones are in accordance with the the Sun's position in the sky during different seasons. Traditionally a favourite site for Summer Solstice celebrations, the original purpose of Stonehenge may rather have been to mark the Midwinter Solstice as there is a 'sunstone', or 'heelstone', placed in the direction of where the Sun would appear at the Midwinter Solstice. Whereas in the present day, most of us have access to conveniences to keep us occupied when we feel 'bored' such as smartphones, iPads or indeed Galaxy Zoo, apart from hunting, chanting and telling stories, our Neolithic ancestors would have had little else to do to keep themselves occupied, but to make a game of tracking and recording the positions of the Sun in the sky from sunrise to sunset and the Moon and stars during the night. Without present-day light pollution, they would have been able to see so many more stars on a clear winter's night. So like mass participation in classifying galaxies, 5,000 years ago, it could possibly have been the participation by many prehistoric sky watchers that enabled the construction of Stonehenge.

It is well-known that being able to recognise patterns through eye for detail as well as working to set set of rules and classifications is where aspects of Asperger's Syndrome can present strengths. Going beyond this, a curious mind, through wanting to find out reasons for why such patterns occur opens us up to new theories and possibilities, including being able to notice interdependent existences, including our own. as with all life, we depend on Earth and the Sun for our existence, yet also exist independently. But to exist independently, it helps to be able to make the Sun's strength our own, including for agricultural purposes (when to plant and harvest crops) as Stonehenge was very possibly used for. Together with the other planets, Earth and the Sun depend on each other for their existence, yet also exist independently. Further afield, the Sun is depends on the Milky Way for its existence, while the Milky May depends on the Local Group of Galaxies and the Local Group of Galaxies depends on the larger Virgo Cluster for one another's existence and their place in the universe. Yet within one another's interdependent existence, they also exist independently, their independence being enabled by interdependence.  


When applying the ability to recognise and interpret patterns together with curiosity, these factors can become one, thus enabling us to expand our awareness. With our awareness expanded, we can then notice that time and space merge into one from within 5,000 years since the construction of Stonehenge to within billions of years during the formation of the Solar System and further beyond that, the formation and evolution of galaxies of all shapes and sizes.

Galaxy Zoo, including information on how to participate in classification of galaxies, can be access at www.galaxyzoo.org  

More about Sunderland Astronomical Society can be found at www.sunderlandastro.com

To find out how to participate in astronomy locally elsewhere in the UK, you can find your astronomical society at the following link www.fedastro.org.uk 


Monday, 21 December 2015

The Crane Bird Aurora - Night Sky Magic and Messages in the Finnish Far North

Arriving in Muonio, Finnish Lapland, with its very short hours of daylight in winter and extensive pine forests, one can believe that, of the many present-day etymological theories on the subject, the reason why Finland got its name was because it was thought to be where the known world 'finishes'.
Snow-covered pine trees in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, Finland

Similar to what I have found on meditation retreats in forests, within the heavily snowed pine-forest landscape of Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park , there is no obvious horizon. An effect that this can sometimes enable on the mind is that one's mirror neurons begin to turn towards you and where you immediately are. Whereas with a horizon, one may wonder what is on the other side, perhaps questioning whether the 'grass is greener', that you may forget what you have not only where you are but within also.

Peering upwards through the trees though and looking over the frozen lakes, there is something though that has aroused human curiosity for thousands of years, the night sky. Following a rainy Christmas market in the capital Helsinki and after checking the local weather forecast for Muonio which suggested cloudy skies with intermittent snow, I was surprised to see a clear night sky during my first night in Muonio. But quite often though, when looking for clear skies for astronomical purposes it can be that the weather forecast and the weather as it happens are two very different things. In Lapland, weather conditions can change very quickly from one extreme to another, making it difficult to provide an accurate forecast. I also heard from the local aurora forecast that solar activity had been very strong over the last two days, which meant that there was a good chance that the Aurora Borealis could appear.

After experiencing a glimpse of the lights from Tromso, Norway, a year ago with a professional aurora chaser and photographer, I was eager to see a clearer and hopefully brighter aurora display from Muonio in the far north of Finland. During my first night in Muoni, I went down to the banks of nearby Lake Jeris, wrapped up warmly in temperatures of around -10 degrees to practice astrophotography techniques with a recently acquired digital single lens reflex camera and tripod. Using an exposure of 15 seconds, used by most astrophotographers as it is the right balance to allow enough light from the stars without making trail movements, when playing back my images, I spotted a green tinge that I didn't immediately see with the naked eye. But refocusing my eyes on the sky, after a few minutes, a faint glow of green slowly began to reveal itself. This time, I had found my own way to the Aurora!


The Aurora Borealis seen from the banks of Lake Jeris, Finland
But it was on the second night of my stay that the lights more than just merely turned up, but they were spectacularly bright. Once again, I had the fortune of a clear sky at just the right time indicated by the huge number of stars that appeared, making some of the constellations less obvious. The longer hours of darkness north of the Arctic Circle also contribute to a prolonged display of aurora activity. After noticing a glint of green from my cabin window, walking down to the same spot where I had been the previous night, the lights truly began to reveal themselves.


A Crane Bird-shaped Aurora, Lake Jeris, Finland
After applying my external attention and noticing to appreciate what I felt was being present at the 'Greatest Show on Earth', for a brief moment I then took a step back and turned my attention inwards. applying the effect that the forest location initially had on me upon arrival. As well as being able to get in touch with one's feelings and emotion through focusing attention inwards, one can also get in touch with their creative side. Of the shapes I noticed that the Aurora appeared in that night, one resembled an origami crane bird that I had made in Japan. 


Memorial to Sadako and her 1,000 crane birds, Hiroshima, Japan
The crane bird became an international symbol of peace in Japan after Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl in who was two-years-old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her native Hiroshima 70 years ago this year in 1945. Exposure to radiation during the blast and its aftermath saw Sadako develop leukemia in 1954. Following treatment, Sadako was given at most a year to live and in that time, she learned how to make origami crane birds and together with her room-mate, made a thousand crane birds upon which she made a wish to recover from her illness. Sadly, Sadako's wish never came true, but the legacy she left leaves us with a warning to humanity of what technology we have invented can do to us if we use it for destructive purposes.

That night, as well as an obvious sight of beauty, I also felt that in the run-up to Christmas, the Aurora brought a message, to live in peace, thus helping find happiness within.

Merry Christmas Everybody, and a Happy, Peaceful New Year!
              






Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Eye for Detail, Imagination, Creativity and Patience - Mindful Railway Modelling

Arts and crafts are well-known for their therapeutic qualities, as well as providing a space for one to express their creative side. For many people on the autistic spectrum, it can also be a way of expressing their thoughts, feeling and emotions, especially if their ways of thinking are more visual, making it easier to communicate their needs.

Mindfulness doesn't necessarily change an individuals interests, pastimes or pursuits, but can change the way one approaches them, thus enriching one's experience. It is well-known that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, have so-called special interests. It is not un-normal for anyone, whether on the autistic spectrum or not, to have an interest from which one gains great enjoyment. But when linked to autism, sometimes such interests can become an 'issue' to others around them with presumptions that they can be isolating or possessive, to the extent that they become associated with stereotyped Asperger behaviour. When taking a mindful approach with more awareness to such interests, whole new visual and sensory experiences slowly unfold, thus deepening one's relationship with their interest and how it relates to their surroundings.

Of late, I have begun to notice this with one of my longer term interests, model railways. A pastime that I have been very keen on from when very young, that I have 'shelved' every so often due to other commitments and responsibilities, when returning to it fairly recently with a more mindful awareness, I have begun to notice in more depth the artistic side of the pastime, its relationship to full-sized railways, including adding realism. A theme largely advocated by Cyril J Freezer, the late former editor of Railway Modeller, realism applies not only to making a model railway layout look more realistic through the addition of scenic detail and weathering, but also to train operation, track layout and setting.

It can be very easy for one to be put off taking up railway modelling in a monetary sense when one sees the retail prices of model locomotives, rolling stock and accessories, including power and control equipment. Space can also be an issue for many. The idea of railway modelling as a pastime confined to the wealthy was a myth that Freezer looked to disprove. Fair enough, when starting out in model railways one may find themselves spending quite a bit of money to acquire one or two locomotives, some rolling stock, track and power appliances as well as time and effort in acquiring some space in which to build a layout.  However, through patience and intuition, going deeper into it need not be too expensive. As well as being in many ways more affordable, techniques Freezer described in Railway Modeller and the many books he published on railway modelling, including scratch-building (making models from readily available raw materials) and kit-bashing (altering or adapting a commercial kit) to fit a limited space, also help add and further deepen an individual uniqueness to a model railway or diorama.

After many years of enjoying making commercial card building kits by Metcalfe and Superquick, whose products are a familiar sight on many model railways, including my own, I found that I had amounted a large reserve of waste card, including unused patterned card e.g. brick, tiled etc. Additionally, I had also amounted a sizeable stock of modelling materials and tools, including several colours of modelling paints. Though I had previously kit-bashed or put individual touches on card buildings I had made from Metcalfe and Superquick kits, I hadn't previously attempted scratch-building. Through being able to notice and gain an appreciation of the textures of different raw materials that had amounted from my modelling activity, including waste card and wood offcuts as well as a spatial awareness of the scale, including proportions, I saw there was a way I could make use of amounted raw materials rather than them going to waste. Looking at examples from old railway photographs I had seen online or in books, I put together the following small buildings/structures:

Cattle dock, made from card and matchsticks
Locomotive coaling stage, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
Coal depot, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
An aspect of realism that I have begun to enjoy adding, is placing and in some cases painting figurines depicting people in various leisurely and working roles, including rail enthusiasts with spotters notebooks, porters, a station master and engine crew. As well as adding depth to a layout, placement of figurines and small details, such as trolleys, suitcases etc. also helps to further enhance the imaginative side of building a layout. As well as being a therapeutic activity, painting figurines (many I have painted so far are supplied by Dart Castings) also helps to bring then beyond a figure-shape cast in white metal almost into an individual character.

An eager rail enthusiast chats to the station master
Such scenes may be inspired by books or films where rail travel features heavily or in my case, through being interested in recreating rural branch line scenes that were once common throughout Britain until many were closed after the Reshaping of Britain's Railways by the government in the 1960s, when private car ownership and motorways were still largely in their infancy. As well as in miniature, the realism encouraged by Cyril J Freezer has much relevance for full-sized railways in opening us up to lost rail networks in an era where roads have become heavily congested and certain towns, villages and housing estates remain remote from public transport. As well as providing alternatives to car use, local lines can also serve as a link with the mainline networks, including proposed high-speed routes.

Two young enthusiasts chatting to driver,
based on a well-known  Southern Railway poster
For me, railway modelling has been a good way for me to apply imagination to eye for detail, which I have long considered a personal strength. Turning it into something creative though requires a lot of patience cultivated through mindfulness, which I hope will be rewarded the more I work on my layout, which I have named Bretherbury.