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Friday, 12 November 2010

Just for the record, I like scientists

And now I’m going to cry! Not great floods of tears (after all, it’s not as if Wales have won the Six Nations again) but a definite welling; a lump in the throat. Because there He is. Just a short distance away – I don’t know how far, the water makes it difficult to judge and distance is the last thing on my mind – is the blue whale. The sea is calm and there is still snow on the mountains around the bay. As He surfaces you can see the muscular blowholes burst open and we hear His mighty, exploding gasp of breath. With little warning He displays the tell tale signs of preparation for a deep dive. And as surely as the earth spins His flukes are lifted from the water. There is an awestruck murmur. From one person a cheer. And He’s gone.

Now there are animals and then there’s the blue whale. Finding adverbs for how He moves is a fruitless task. You couldn’t say that He was cutting or scything through the ocean, His progress is too stately. It’s certainly more than just swimming. The arc of His back as He rolls between air and water, stitching the sky and the sea together with long undulating needle strokes, is graceful enough to make you believe in sea serpents.

Finding new ways to describe their size is equally useless so I’m not going to bother. Go to Google, look for the superlatives. Suffice to say that these beings are on a scale that is still alien to us. In a world where we’re frustrated by the things we can’t catalogue, quantify, codify and categorise there are entities like the blue whale that will continue to cloud our sense of what’s possible. At the very moment we think we’ve mapped the life we experience the blue whale appears from beneath us bringing us a message that we may have named and categorised His race but that He is still representative of deeper mysteries of understanding; and most elusive of all, we haven’t begun to understand why He makes us feel as we do. His appearance makes us tear up the map and want to start again.

But it’s ironic that He just seems too big to deal with. Does the strange way we react to its presence make us want to put it away so we can deal with our feelings later? Is the blue whale so awkward? And is this why the world is so obsessed with beginnings at the tiniest scale? At the Large Hadron Collider they’re looking for something to explain the beginnings of the universe. But within yards of where I was standing was something much more tangible that explains what the universe means to me, to us. And what it means here and now, not 6 billion years ago.

So scientists of the LHC, I invite you to remove your hard hats, your fetching white rubber wellies and your one piece contamination suits. Put plastic sheets over your microscopes and take off your goggles. Close down your spreadsheets and silence the oscilloscopes. And when you’ve done all of that go whale watching. Come and feel what it’s like to share a brief moment with something that will defy analysis and description; something that you can’t put into a formula. Something that’s so big (and not just in its physical size) that in all your academic brilliance you will not be able to see the beginning or end of the theory behind it. I promise you that all you will be able to do is stand and realise that, as Goethe has it, “I am here to wonder.”

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Wildlife Rock n' Roll

I don’t really know what the intelligent conservation community of the UK thinks of Terry Nutkins. I suspect there are quite a few people who dismiss him as little more than a grubby-fingered children’s entertainer; engaging in his own way but hardly a natural-history heavy weight. Furthermore, I can imagine that there are quite a few people who weren’t too enamoured by him keeping a sealion (or was it a seal?) at home in what couldn’t have been much more than a big bath.

But the fact is that Terry, Tezzer, along with Johnny Morris, were the only people on television when I was a nipper talking to children about animals in a way they could understand. We had El Attenborough of course and whereas we knew exactly what he was going on about, his job was to show us the wonder of the natural world which he continues to do, unrivalled, to this day. But Nutkins used to explain stuff and, best of all, he’d jump straight to the most gruesome and enthralling facts; how poisonous it is, how it could kill you, how quickly it could kill you, how long its teeth are and how big it was compared to our dog. This, I assure you, was what we wanted to know, was the reason we tuned in.

And the absolute coolest thing about yer man was the fact that he had a missing finger. Or at least half a missing finger. I can recall getting close up to the TV and pointing it out to my brother; “There!” I would say, putting my own finger against the screen. And my eyes would follow the finger that wasn’t there as Nutkins gesticulated on Animal Magic.

And I distinctly remember, at least I’m sure I remember, him once holding it up to the camera and saying that it was bitten off by a Scottish wildcat. Now that is pure, octane-fuelled, wildlife rock n’ roll! Here was a man that had lived wildlife in its reddest form. I wanted something wild to deny me a digit! To a seven year-old, having your finger bitten off by an animal is perhaps the coolest way to lose an appendage and I held up the back of my hand and bent my middle finger into the palm (just as I’m doing now) to see what I would look like. The answer: very dashing with a rakish whiff of danger.

It turns out I'd created a false memory. It wasn’t a wildcat. It was one of Gavin Maxwell’s otters that took off Tel’s finger. But the excitement is undimmed. I wanted, and still want, to get close enough to wild animals to feel their electricity, look into their eyes, feel their sense of being perfectly adapted to the cold and dark that we, as a species, have decided to remove ourselves from. And maybe, just maybe, I will one day have the chance to lift my sleeve and say “See that scar? Scottish wildcat.”