Ian Short


John Fowles ‘The Tree’

John Fowles, in case you didn’t know, is a celebrated British author who died ten years ago. He wrote a number of fiction books – none of which I’ve read – and some of which were made into films – none of which I’ve seen. The only book of Fowles’ that I’ve read is a short, partly autobiographical text he wrote in 1979 called The Tree. It was given to me as a gift some years ago, and I write about it now after reading it for the second and last time before I pass it on to someone else (I prefer not to keep books unless I am likely to use them repeatedly).

I read The Tree with pleasure that there was someone out there who had similar feelings to my own, and who was able to express them beautifully. Fowles writes about nature: trees in particular. He compares the orderly garden of his childhood with the wild garden he owned as an adult. He says of his adult garden that he leaves it largely alone, in effect to my co-tenants, its wild birds and beasts, its plants and insects. He writes of two tawny owlets fresh out of the nest, sitting on a sycamore branch like a pair of badly knitted Christmas stockings and ogling down at this intruder into their garden. The gardens of Milton Keynes wouldn’t recognise this description as something to admire. Milton Keynes gardens like to have rectangles of uniform green grass growing vertically upwards, of equal length. They are bordered by bark chippings, also set in rectangular patches, or perhaps in circles, with carefully-pruned rose bushes spaced equally about. In fact, the order in the gardens reflects the order in the houses; the lawns are like outside carpets. There is little room for wildlife in such gardens. Especially when insecticides and fertilizer are used – and they are, in abundance. What’s more, the roses are growing on peat, dug up from a peat bog in Scotland; the effect of these gardens is to destroy, not help, wildlife. To me, they reflect a narrow vision of what nature should look like – simple shapes, managed, neat – they show little appreciation of biodiversity and wildness, which is a pity, because the countryside is shrinking, and gardens play an important role in housing and feeding animals, insects and plants.

Away from my rant, and back to the book, which is a beautiful piece about the author’s relationship with nature. He writes about how the randomness and diversity of nature, the multiple paths one can take in exploring woodland, inspire his work. I appreciate this; it’s accepted by many that interacting with nature is healthy and can be stimulating. I did, however, find myself in conflict with the author at one point. Now let me stress from the start that this might partly be because I failed to fully understand what he was talking about. I sometimes became lost in his poetic language; I’m a bit thick with this kind of thing. I struggle to understand Shakespeare’s plays and the more poetic parts of the Bible (I’m impressed when the words are explained to me though – impressed that people manage to cram so much in to sentences).

The part that I disagreed with was Fowles’ view of the relationship between science and nature. He says

Our approach to art, as to nature, has become increasingly scientized (and dreadfully serious) during the last century. It sometimes seems now as if it is principally there not for itself but to provide material for labelling, classifying, analysing – specimens for ‘setting’, as used to set moths and butterflies.

I’ve read on from this passage, and there’s a lot more to his view than this. I can’t summarise it neatly though. The first thing I object to is the suggestion that science is about labelling, classifying and analysing. I think it’s about understanding; certainly some labelling and classifying helps with understanding, but they aren’t the focus. There are some wonderful BBC interviews with the American physicist Richard Feynman available on-line in which, at one point, he talks about conversations he has had with arty friends. They say to him that in looking at plants (or whatever) scientifically he misses their true beauty. His response was that understanding how a plant works, how the atoms inside the plant interact, how water is drawn up the stem, and so forth, only increase your appreciation of the plant, they don’t decrease it. And I agree. If you appreciate the biodiversity of a woodland, how the species interact, the butterflies that appear at certain times of year, what they eat, the migrating birds that come and go, the fungi growing in trees, and so on, then you love the woodland all the more. It’s for this reason that I think educating young people – all people – about nature is so important; if they understand it, they care for it more. I agree that classifying all the plants and naming their parts can be a distraction from appreciating their beauty, but I don’t think science is about naming things.

I doubt that my differences with Fowles are deep, and like I said, they probably stem from my misunderstanding his words, or differences in what we believe constitutes science. He gives an example, which I recognise from my own life.

I came on my first Soldier Orchid, a species I had long wanted to encounter, but hitherto never seen outside a book. I fell on my knees before it in a way all botanists will know… I measured, I photographed, I worked out where I was on the map, for future reference… Yet five minutes after my wife had finally torn me away, I suffered a strange feeling. I realized I had not actually seen the three plants in the little colony we found. Despite all the identifying, measuring, photographing, I had managed to set the experience in a kind of present past, a having-looked, even as I was temporally and physically still looking.

I certainly fall into this kind of trap. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the kind of busy life I lead; I’ve spotted something, take note, and move on. E and I are trying to slow ourselves down, and spend time with the children in peace. (The peace doesn’t usually work out.)





Beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application

Yesterday Ellie and I took our girls to the Science Museum in London. It was heaving. The trains were full, the museums were full, the city was full; but that’s how London always seems to me. In the museum there was an exhibition on Ada Lovelace, who was one of the first people to consider algorithms of the type used by computers today. She died of cancer aged 36, which is my age now.

The title of this post is a quote from Ada’s tutor Augustus De Morgan, who was a famous mathematician. It seems that he was supportive of Ada’s work, but at the same time doubtful that women could cope with the complexity of mathematics. Everybody knows that this is ridiculous now, and yet back then this view was held by educated people such as De Morgan.

I have become more sensitive to women’s rights now that I have two daughters. I try to look at the world through their eyes. I’ve noticed that much of the language we use – even the language used in children’s books – has males dominant over females. Not in a significant way, but as I am actively trying to encourage my girls to learn and explore, I don’t want them to think that they are second rate in any sense. Some examples: postman, milkman, bin-men, man and wife, farmer and his wife, builder=man, doctor=man, God is He, every animal or object is a he (if not an it) unless we know otherwise, women’s titles reveal their marital status (except Ms, but I guess that each Ms is at least 80% likely to be a Miss). I’ve tried to make feminine the default, but I slip up sometimes, and I notice that most others, even young girls, use masculine as a default. Perhaps it’s beyond their strength of physical power of application to do otherwise.

Christian Britain

From David Cameron’s Christmas message:

It is because [the armed forces] face danger that we have peace. And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.

Peace, peace, peace; are we not currently at war with ISIS? The war is not happening in the UK, but it’s a war nonetheless. I despair of this message. The reasons for people joining ISIS are complex, however, a significant part of the appeal of ISIS is a desire for identity, belonging and a cause. Cameron’s message may alienate some Muslims, and push them towards ISIS. His message says, essentially, that we are a Christian country, but don’t mind others staying here too; in saying this he draws an artificial line between Christians and the rest. That’s an artificial line we don’t need – we have too many divisions already. I’d rather hear that we are a multi-faith society.

Destruction of forest for the 2018 Winter Olympics

This particular issue raised by Avaaz has really irritated me: the South Korean government is cutting down ancient forestland to build ski slopes for the 2018 Winter Olympics. See Avaaz – International Olympic Committee: go green for the games . It’s just disgraceful. Other countries should boycott the games.

Seems that the Winter Olympics has a history of similar crimes; see this depressing article.

Oh fuck, I ate the stalk

That’s what Isabel said after she ate the stalk of a strawberry. Where the fuck does she get that kind of language from?


Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely-used insecticides, but they are harmful to bees. Bees, of course, are a crucial part of our environment, and they pollinate crops. These insecticides were banned from the European Union in 2013, but after pressure from the National Farmers’ Union, the UK government has agreed to allow use of the chemicals in certain parts of the country. See this article on the matter by Friends of the Earth. Please support the campaign to retain the ban on neonicotinoids!

Quest for the purple emperor

Accompanied by Isi, Josi and granddad, I visited King’s Wood in Bedfordshire today (a few miles from our house) in search of a purple emperor. I would have been satisfied with a purple hairstreak or a white admiral instead. Here are some of us having a rest after five-hundred metres.



The first butterfly we saw was a green-veined white. It remained still for a photo.



Nearby was a spider in a funnel-shaped web.


Isi and Josi weren’t getting into the spirit of the adventure (“can we go home?”). We loaded them into backpacks and Josi fell asleep. Then we saw the highlight of the trip, a silver-washed fritillary.


After that the wind dropped, the sun came out a little, and butterflies seemed to appear in abundance; mostly gatekeepers, ringlets, meadow browns, large whites and small skippers. Here’s a small skipper.


All in all a success, even without a purple emperor. King’s Wood has beautiful oak trees; we’ll return in the near future. On the journey home Isi fell asleep. When she awoke later she told me that a butterfly had flown past the window of her car.

Diet Cults

I recently read the book Diet Cults, by Matt Fitzgerald. It’s about how the nutritional science behind various diets (such as vegan diets, gluten-free diets) isn’t sound. The author exposes the incorrect principles on which many of these diets are based. He also suggests his own version of a healthy diet, justified by science, which he describes as the sort of diet that athletes use to maximise their performance. It’s an entertaining book: an easy read, and I learnt a lot. He doesn’t go deeply into the science (so I was left with a number of unanswered questions). Here are some parts of the text that stuck with me.

I’ll begin with a quote.

there is no such thing as the healthiest diet. To the contrary, science has established quite definitely that humans are able to thrive equally well on a variety of diets. Adaptability is the hallmark of man as eater. For us, many diets are good while none is perfect.

He makes this point beautifully in the text, with wonderful examples. Some are geared to a US audience, but it doesn’t matter. Roughly speaking,  the split of carbohydrate/fat/protein (the sources of calories) varies across different, but equally healthy, populations in the world. Humans adapt.

The author suggests looking to athletes for dietary guidance because these people have sought out the best diet to improve their performance, which is also the healthiest diet for all of us.

What elite endurance athletes truly desire is the least restrictive diet that is sufficient to yield maximum fitness and performance. And they’ve found it.

I like this point, although it was stated a little strongly for my liking; they think they’ve found the best diet, but future research may prove them wrong in parts.

Here’s another quote.

What our history does show us is that, despite the messages we receive from the many contending preachers of the One True Way, there are numerous dietary pathways to optimal health. Ironically, it is this very breadth of options that makes it possible for the various health-diet cults to produce good results that support the illusion of their superiority.

As you can see, he writes well. One of the diets he talks about is the raw-food diet. The raw-food group claim that we should eat in the same way as early humans. Fitzgerald argues cooking actually made us human. Cooking increases the energy yield of foods by making them more digestible. This high level of energy allowed us to evolve big brains.

Other dieters state that we should try to eat the same foods as early humans. The author quotes the biomolecular archeologist Christina Warinner who explains that nearly every food that our Paleolithic ancestors ate no longer exists today, and that virtually every food humans eat today is different from those eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors.

He dedicates a whole chapter to potatoes, about how healthy they are. He cites various people who have lived for a long time on potatoes and little else. Of course, potatoes can be turned into unhealthy foods, such as crisps.

He has a chapter on exercise too, and generally writes a good deal about exercise throughout. There is widespread belief these days that to lose weight you should eat better, but exercising will not help. The reason it won’t help, as I understand it, is because after exercise you eat more, so you regain the calories you’ve burned off. This seems like a ridiculous argument to me: weight comes from consumption of calories minus the calories you use up. To reduce weight you can either reduce the number of calories coming in (eat better) or increase the amount of calories you use up (by exercising, say). Now, whether or not you eat more after exercising is another matter, which depends on how you’ve exercised, who you are, and what you normally eat. The fact is that exercising uses up calories, so to suggest that it doesn’t help in weight loss is peculiar. The book says similar types of things, although doesn’t argue quite as I have done.

After the exercise chapter there is one on coffee, dark chocolate, and alcohol: how these are good for you in moderation. Well, this was news to me. I occasionally glance at studies in the newspapers suggesting that these foods can be healthy, but I ignore them. I’ll have to look into this more carefully. There isn’t much scientific justification in the book.

Later on I read that sports drinks (sugar + water) are effective if drunk before sport: studies have shown that they improve performance. He writes

Nowadays, though, anti-sugar prejudice has left many athletes unable to wrap their heads around the idea that sugar could ever be beneficial in any context.

I found the chapter after the sugar water chapter the least satisfying in the book. It was about fasting. It talked about the benefits of fasting for much of the chapter, but then right at the end stated (without justification) that you don’t need to fast to achieve optimum levels of health. Ellie and I have started fasting recently, for a variety of reasons. Partly to help us appreciate food more, partly so that we can experience and cope with hunger (in a small way), and partly because of the health benefits.

Getting towards the end of the book now, Fitzgerald says the mind and the body are deeply interconnected. He was writing about how your state of mind can affect your health as much as food can (so it’s very hard to, say, give two people the same diet and expect the same results). He discussed stress in particular. Reduce stress and improve your health!

At the end of the book the author offers his dietary plan. He categorises foods into ten types, in the following order.

  1. vegetables
  2. fruits
  3. nuts, seeds, and healthy oils
  4. high-quality meats and seafood
  5. whole grains
  6. dairy
  7. refined grains
  8. low-quality meats and seafood
  9. sweets
  10. fried foods

His plan is that you should eat more of 1 than 2, more of 2 than 3, and so forth. (He explains it more precisely than that.) He isn’t dogmatic about the whole thing, and he himself eats foods towards the bottom of the list, but not much. I think it’s a useful, simple guide, and it has helped encourage me to eat better. I currently have too much of 9. Today that came in the form of two waffles. I’ve skipped dinner.

To conclude, it’s an enjoyable and informative book.




Wildlife Milton Keynes

This morning I was walking Isi and Josi along a backstreet of Woburn Sands, where we live, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, when a stoat ran across the road in front of us. I’ve seen one before in Milton Keynes – in the grounds of the OU – but I’ve never seen one running across the street. I also saw a bullfinch this morning, near the OU, and a red kite (there seem to be a lot of those around this year).

Last year Ellie saw something more remarkable on the street in Woburn Sands: she was pushing Isi around in a pram when a metre-long grass snake slithered in front of them along the pavement for a short spell, trying to get away. Isi was saying “look Mummy, lavender!” and Ellie was saying “never mind the lavender – there’s a snake!” Isi didn’t pay any attention to the snake.

When I first arrived in Woburn Sands a few years ago I would see the odd cuckoo at this time of year. Not heard one for a couple of years now. Our swallow boxes remain empty; still time for them though.

Climate march London

Isabel and I attended the climate march in London on Sunday (21 September). Is thought there would be a merry-go-round (there wasn’t). She loved the animal costumes, especially these giraffes.


I was there as a member of Friends of the Earth.

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