Where Are the Dragons?

Rewilding vast landscapes may bring wolves to restore balance to the natural world.

But rewilding the child will bring dragons to help fight for it.

Yesterday, we visited The Vyne, a National Trust location in Hampshire. I’d love to say that we’d gone to dig into the history of the area but, really, we went to catch-up with family and enjoy a mini break away from everything else (Saturday had been hectic for a whole other reason).

It marked the first time in months that I picked up my big camera, expecting to get lost in the treasures, tapestries and architecture of the big house. What actually happened was that, just before our timed entry started, I realised my audio recorder had fallen off my bag and disappeared, lost forever (despite some frantic searching). That left me a little lacking in inspiration, so whilst the house was extremely interesting, I’m afraid that I barely took a single shot before lunch.

Once we’d eaten, we decided to explore the wider grounds and get away from the manicured lawns and beautifully arranged vegetable beds. The grounds at The Vyne are dominated by water, with a series of man made lakes and rivers running down the centre, captured and diverted from naturally occurring wetlands ‘upstream’. Near the main house, the lakeshore is dominated by viewing spots and feels artifical, though pleasant. As you get further away, though, the wild creeps back in and starts to dominate the senses.

Huge banks of rosebay willowherb, thistle and willow rise up to meet deciduous forest. I was immediately struck by the wealth of butterflies surrounding us. The water was alive with movement from the fish beneath and the calm (at times) paddling of mallard, coot, moorhen, swan and tufted duck above. Squirrels chattered through the trees, momentarily disrupting bird song. And everywhere – everywhere! – that you looked,  bright blue damselflies darted through the air, never breaking their restless patrol of the waterways.

It was fantastic! I routinely trailed the group, pausing to watch a hoverfly balance precariously on the breeze or male beautiful demoiselles fighting over a patch of stream. It re-energised me, and whilst I doubt I got a single “keeper” of a shot I had a lot of fun trying. It made me realise how little time I’ve had with nature over the past 12 months.

Since moving to London in March (what?! yes, this has happened but more to come on that later) I haven’t felt disconnected from the wild. We live near both a large park and the Thames, we have parakeets routinely flying overhead and we even have a small roof ‘garden’ which is becoming increasingly green. Comparing day-to-day sightings, I probably see more large mammals and garden birds then we ever did in Taunton or even Devon.

But there is something different about truly wild places. Something that’s hard to pin down, to formalise or describe as a tick list. The areas around The Vyne aren’t necessarily “wild” in the true sense; after all, they form part of a heavily managed and well funded estate and are based on a Tudor-through-Victorian notion of upper class land management, not natural forces. But they reward and, crucially, encourage exploration – they have  secrets!

The quote at the top of this article is from a post on Rewilding Britain by Gill Lewis, which neatly puts into words some of my instinctive feelings about the nature in London. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, and I am joining hundreds of others in trying to create a fragmented network of wild(er) spaces across the capital, but there’s something that still feels lacking.

Perhaps it’s the never ceasing background hum of traffic and Heathrow, or perhaps it’s that even the least manicured space still feels somehow ‘allowed’ to exist, as if its fate is very much in the hands of the people around it. But something imperceptible was different when I walked around the man-made lakes at The Vyne compared to the man-made gardens at Kew. Somehow, there were just fewer dragons…

 

Creodonts & The Absurdity of Extinction

I just fell down a rather wonderful rabbit hole. My tale begins with a book review, written by Ross Barnett, of Sabretooth (Mauricio Anton). Apart from instantly causing me to add the book to my “to buy” list, the article also briefly lists the various mammalian clades which have exhibited sabre teeth in the past. Amongst this list were those I had expected, such as machairodonts (e.g. the famous Smilodon) and the marsupial Thylacosmilus, but it also contained several I had never heard of. Most notably, it mentioned creodonts.

If I’ve ever come across creodonts before I wasn’t paying much attention because these creatures are fascinating. As a group they are an early success story in the mammalian radiation that occurred at the ending of the Cretaceous, yet despite their broad range and varied niche placement they are now utterly gone. Whilst they may look akin to modern hyenas, cats and even bears, the creodonts are not closely related (or basal) to the carnivorans. They are their own unique, and now absent, thing.

I’ve always found the notion of entire clade extinction somewhat absurd. I remember first reading about the K/T event that signalled the extinction of the dinosaurs and, even at an age written in single figures, feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the narrative. I get how large, extinction level events cause biodiversity to crash, but the idea that such a wildly successful and diverse group of creatures would all succumb seemed silly. I must admit, then, that as I’ve aged it has been with increasing smugness that I’ve watched the consensus switch from “dinosaurs are extinct” to “non-bird dinosaurs are extinct”. Frankly, at this point, I feel the old narrative should just be ignored. The K/T event knocked several wonderful animal groups on their respective heads, but the dinosaurs were not amongst them.

Still, though, the plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ammonites and myriad pterosaur groups were all wiped out, amongst many, many others. Whole families, even genera, do go extinct, often with frightening rapidity when everything is considered. That still feels odd, plus more than a little disappointing, and I can now add creodonts to the list of groups which I would love to have had the chance to meet.

But my journey didn’t stop there. Intrigued and fired up by the beautiful imagery of Sabretooth, I went hunting for palaeoart of creodonts. Unfortunately, I largely came back empty handed, but my wide Googling did lead me to discover a new blog to subscribe to: Into the Wonder. It’s a loose connection to the subject I was after, but it’s always fun to discover someone actively writing about developing fantasy lore and creature creation!

Plus, who knows? It took over a century for someone to realise the creodonts were not just another branch of Carnivora, which is a large enough group for some individuals to have only undergone cursory examination, so perhaps they actually aren’t all gone. Maybe, just possibly, one day in the future, some slightly odd mustelid or squash-faced felid will turn out to be a creodont in hiding. Maybe that discovery will even answer questions about an unsolved riddle of folklore? It’s possible… though it’s probably also asking far too much…

Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs [#49]

Well it’s been a long week of other distractions rather than writing, but I have built up several things to link out to, so I guess a round of links from the web is in order.

The Greatest Ignored CV Ever

Data visualisation of academic interests, achievements and major life moments, composed as a pseudo-CV
Now that’s a pretty (useless) CV

Originally created by Ritwick Dey (and weirdly hosted on Flickr), the mock-up data visualisation of Dey’s life has earned some serious kudos on Reddit and deservedly so. The visuals have an immediate impact and are just very aesthetically pleasing, even if (as many Redditors have pointed out) actually using it as your CV would be a quick shortcut to the reject pile. To be honest I’ve been dabbling in something similar (though far simpler) recently, so found seeing the execution of, and reaction to, something much superior to my own attempts kind of fascinating.

Spider Squeeee!

GIF image of an animated spider that is particularly adorable
Lucas the Adorable Arachnid

Lucas the spider has been doing the rounds of the internet this week and I fully understand why. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spiders but I’m also far from arachnophobic, even finding certain real world spiders adorable. That said, nothing in nature (that I’m aware of) has been designed to tug at the heart strings quite so cleverly as this short animation test. Others have already called for it, but can I add my name to the petition for Lucas to be in the next Disney/Pixar movie?

Spider Awesome

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, swings into frame and lands on a skyscraper
Into the Spider-Verse? Yes please!

Weirdly, yet another piece of spider-based animation dropped this week which captured the hearts of the internet, though this time less Tumblr and more Reddit. The first trailer for Sony’s new animated Spider-Man film hit and just looks stunning. It’s Miles Morales meets Spiderverse so I was already intrigued, but those visuals mixed with that soundtrack has left me with extreme hype!

Wildlife Photo-Ark

Around twenty heaped tortoises each with a unique code engraved on the back of the shell
Madagascan ploughshare tortoises with anti-poaching codes

I’m a big fan of projects looking to archive information of endangered species, particularly quality images, biomechanics and video, so that if conservation efforts fail future generations still at least have good data. So when I discover a project like Endangered, created by photographer Tim Flach, it has to be shared. Flach’s photographs (see more at Gizmodo) are beautiful and frequently incredibly poignant, but they’re also paired with detailed information on the animals, and the threats they face, from biologist Jonathan Baillie. It’s conservation meets art, both noble goals in their own right that are only amplified by their intermixing. Definitely going straight on my future wishlist.

The Ones We’ve Already Lost: Palaeo Art

Two theropod dinosaurs with unrealistic iguana like physiology fighting
Two Dryptosaurus (at time Laelaps) fighting in an incredibly famous image from Charles R. Knight, 1897

From ensuring the animals we may soon lose are well documented to attempting to document those that have already been lost. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the field of palaeo art and love both the finished pieces and the processes that go into their creation. There’s something incredibly interesting about decoding the past and trying to set it to understandable visuals which I just love. Stumbling on to an article taking a deep dive into the history of the field, then, was a fascinating read which has been put together very nicely. It’s great to see books I find particularly influential, such as All Yesterday’s, as well as their author’s (and respective blogs) being linked to and discussed on such a main-stream website as The Atlantic. It would also appear that some new books on the subject may be coming out soon, which is great news. An article I will want to come back to from time-to-time, if for no more reason than to explore all the linked resources. Top work.

Insta Inspiration [#45]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends [#23]

Well, back from trip number two, which was a little more relaxing (though a lot more tiring… I do not understand how bodies work). As a result, I’ve actually been reading a bunch of stuff, including some fascinating finds in my Pocket archive, which I just want to get off my chest.

First up is a pretty recent post from Brynn Metheney, a fantastic artist whose work I’ve followed for years. The post details a recent contribution to an interesting project, the Endangered Species Book. That’s an impressive list of artists to be working on a single project and it seems like a very worthy cause. Definitely one I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Next, are a combination of quite old posts that have taken me far too long to catch up on. Both are written by Richard Thornton, a friend of mine who is currently living/working out in Japan (I say currently, but he’s been out there for years now). The first is a brilliant look at sake culture, which was utterly alien to me but now has leap-frogged up my bucket list for the land of the rising sun. The second is a rather more personal account of shaving-procrastination (I can seriously relate) and snowboarding (I have zero life experience to understand this utter madness). Like everything Richard writes, they are funny, inciteful and make me equal parts jealous of his life and incredibly grateful for my own. Perhaps Japan should be the aim for 2018…

Finally, the oldest of the lot, is a short story I saved to my Pocket account so long ago I have zero recollection where it is from or how I found it. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare is an utterly fantastic piece of Discworld fan fiction; in fact, it’s so good that I was almost convinced it had been written by Pratchett himself. The script, phrasing and language is very witty and the overarching concept is so incredibly correct to the voice of the series that it is definitely part of my head-canon now. I almost added it to this month’s MiM, but I don’t feel fan-fic is something I need to keep track of in that way. If you’re a fan of the main series, you should definitely read this – it provides some clever closure on several key themes and characters.

That suggestion does come with a slight word of warning, however: it may get to you a little bit. Personally, reading Mister Vimes’d Go Spare made me realise I have been avoiding reading Pratchett since he passed away. It hasn’t been an intentional, conscious choice but it is clearly one I’ve stuck to. Reading a story that even mentions, and briefly touches on, several of these characters I love and hold so dearly was, at times, surprisingly hard. Not only that, but the core idea at work was, and remains, incredibly powerful. Vimes has always been one of my favourite characters and, I think, the one that has been most influential on my own personality and life. Part of that reason is the character’s understanding of and relationship with the concept of justice. It’s a very nuanced one, yet contains absolutes which have always appealed to me. Vimes and the Watch storylines shaped my own concepts of morality a great deal.

As a result, Mister Vimes’d Go Spare cut close to the bone. The central concept is that, in the wake of Vimes’ death, his ideals and belief in justice take on a life of their own. That shouldn’t be confused with ‘good’ or ‘right’; Vimes never lived in a ‘good’ world, never had much time for something just because it was ‘right’. But there are standards. Some things have to be done, and they have to be done in a certain way. That’s justice. Not making sure the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but making sure that the result is fair and that everything is equal. It’s a very powerful idea. Talking about why I enjoyed the short so much to my partner, even writing this now, and truly contemplating that idea gets to me. It gets to me because I believe it; because, to me at least, it is true. It also gets to me because it is one of those wonderful Pratchett ideologies that feels important and correct; something that is both worth remembering and striving to obtain in our world. And that gets to me because we won’t be getting any more of those. So be warned: it might get to you, too.

Willow, Wetlands & Nostell Priory [#11]

Nostell Estate & Wetlands Centre

Edit (21/05/18): Due to an issue with Yahoo, I no longer have access to the Flickr account linked below. If you’re interested in my photography, check me out at theAdhocracyUK instead.


Well, despite my best intentions, it has been almost a year since I last finished and uploaded a Flickr album. There are many, many albums at 90% complete or over, but I tend to find that I lose interest right at the final hurdle. It’s something I’m working on, much like my writing (speaking of, we’re at #10 and counting!), so hopefully there will be plenty more posts like this in 2017.

The first half of the pictures were taken in the grounds of Nostell Priory, a National Trust property located near Doncaster which we dropped into on our way back from visiting friends in Durham. It was a flying visit, really just allowing us to break the trip and stretch our legs, so I’d say Nostell has a lot more to offer than what we experienced, but what we did see was rather charming. I’m not sure if it was the Spring flowers coming into bloom or the rarely nice weather, but the grounds had a slightly enchanted feel to them. The various follies, Medieval quarry and distinctly Victorian concept of the Menagerie Garden combined to imbue certain areas with a quality reminiscent of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. It felt like the house and grounds had been built on top of a more fantastical, ancient and much more secretive estate. I imagine it would have been an amazing place to grow up in and would definitely recommend it, whether for a full day out with the whole family or just an idle wander.

The second half of the album is comprised of a small number of shots from another brief outing, this time to the Willows & Wetlands Visitor Centre. Run by Coates English Willow, the centre is really just a shop and small (but very pleasant) café that allows access down onto a part of the Somerset Levels. There is a small museum and plenty of information displays, but we didn’t spend too much time with either. Instead, we spent our time exploring the various trails through the surrounding farmland, woods and down onto the flats themselves. Various willow animals have been scattered amongst the paths, all of which were wonderfully well set (I was particularly fond of the swooping eagle). Again, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time at the centre but I would definitely say it was worthwhile. Seeing an area of Somerset which still actively pumps the fens and plants up the willow beds was really interesting and, in its own way, quite beautiful.

Seashore Safari

Seashore Safari

Private boat anchored in the River Dart. Also, a portal to my first Flickr album!

Edit (21/05/18): Due to an issue with Yahoo, I no longer have access to the Flickr account linked below. If you’re interested in my photography, check me out at theAdhocracyUK instead.


Over a year ago I received a voucher. Over a month ago I finally managed to cash it in. The result? A fantastic day out in Dartmouth with the Great Escapes team! We spent the morning down on the beach (what little there was… after a year you’d think we’d have learned to check for spring tides!) with some of the fantastic staff, learning all about the ecosystems of the seashore, rock pools and general intertidal zone. I honestly cannot recommend the Seashore Safari enough to anyone interested in biology, conservation or animals; you may not be looking at the “usual” marine draws (no cetaceans in sight, I’m afraid) but I’ve never had a more informative and enthusiastic guide in the UK and now have a much deeper understanding of (and interest in) this fascinating and completely accessible world. Safari is not a misnomer in this instance, it actually felt like that kind of experience.

The afternoon was largely absorbed by a longer trip out on the company’s rib, down the coastline from Dartmouth to a breeding colony of Fulmars, which I hadn’t realised even came this far south. After a brief (and unsuccessful) trip up the River Dart in search of seals enjoying the calmer river waters, we were treated to a fantastic lunch hamper and then bid farewell to the great crew at Great Escapes. We had a little time to kill but the weather set in, so ended up idling around the Dartmouth Museum, which was interesting enough but not boundary pushing (unless you’re a fan of model ships, in which case you’ve probably already been… twice), before heading home.

Overall a really fun day with total information overload! On that note, although I’ve tried to gather my thoughts together in Lightroom (which therefore appear as captions in Flickr – and can I just take a moment to point out how momentous it is that I both have a Flickr and have actually published an album on it!) but almost certainly got a few things muddled in the interim month, so apologies if I’ve inadvertently spread misinformation! I’d also like to take a second to record/recommend both the RSPB’s Bird By Name subsite and the frankly incredible The Seashore website, both of which were crucial in fact checking and are amazing resources if you fancy a self guided seashore safari yourself.