Sunday, 14 June 2020


A black and red enamelled jewel by the side of the lane. 

A lost ear-ring perhaps?  No - as I get closer I see it's a cinnabar moth.  A brazen, day-flying moth which has no need of the shy nocturnal habits of moths which double as a bit of bark or a dead leaf.

After this very dry spring in this part of Wales the field is famine dry, the dead grass the colour of old bones.  The only living green is ragwort, its rosette clusters not yet in flower but surviving because of its deep roots.  This is the cinnabar moth's host plant.  Amazingly the insect is able to assimilate the ragwort's notorious toxins to its own advantage.  The bright red and black wings of the adult moth and the orange and black football stripes of the caterpillar are a warning to would-be predators.

The moth is named from the mineral cinnabar (mercuric sulphide, itself poisonous), the source of a bright red pigment.  It was used by painters for centuries. It's even been found applied to human bones millennia ago.

In previous dry spells aerial photography has revealed ancient sites beneath the surface of the land, oulined by cropmarks - some of them completely unknown before.

I've been reading Julia Blackburn's Time Song, subtitled Searching for Doggerland, a fascinating exploration of the land whose submergence caused Britain to become an island in around 5000BC.  Julia is clearly fascinated by the wealth of material left behind in this land under the surface of the sea - wooden causeways, worked flints, the bones of mammoth and rhinoceros.   In the main chapters one subject and/or place links to another or others in a web of associations.  Julia visits experts and eccentrics (some of whom are the same) to understand more of what lies beneath the surface.

In between each section are short 'Time Songs' written from a different perspective and usually based on the author's background reading.    At first reading, the 'Time Songs' seemed prose-y and factual:

Everything that lives dies
And everything that lives
Has three isotopes of carbon.  (3)

Fifty-five to thirty-five million years ago,
When the clays, sands and gravels
Of the London and Hampshire basins
Were being laid down in shallow seas,
Birds in Britain became more plentiful.  (2)

When I finished the book I went back and re-read the 'Time Songs' and appreciated them far more the second time round.

Time Song 7 has a beautiful list of plant names and ends with

A people poised 
Between the Old and the New

Time Song 9 is based on an Objibwa folk story of a woman who married a beaver. 

Time Song 14 is overtly political:

The Neolithic means
Owning things

The first steps of the Neolithic
Were taken some eight thousand years ago
In the land of milk and honey
[Now the land of oil and war]

But there's another more personal strand in the book as Julia interweaves fragments of memoir and memories of her late husband.  'He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.'

Julia Blackburn Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (Jonathan Cape 2019)

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