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Love of animals

When Helen Macdonald wrote of her childhood indignation at her teacher’s incomprehension as to why prehistoric people drew animals onto the walls of caves at Lascaux, I was with her. I too understand exactly why those people drew animals; why, even longer ago, they drew animals on the Chauvet Cave ( I have some glimmering as to why the first artistic representations known to us are primarily of other species rather than our own; why prehistoric peoples drew, daubed, the forms of wild animals, and not only that, but carved them, hewed them, out of stone, bone, antler. Around eighteen months ago, while I was in the throes of the acoustic analysis my last songbird species, I went to the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum in London ( It had been swimming around my consciousness for some time, but I was trying to suppress my desires to see it because it wasn’t that long since I’d been in London ( and I thought I couldn’t afford either the time or the money to go. Then I read this by Simon Jenkins: It left me with an over-riding thought: I will regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t see this. I can’t not see it. My decision was confirmed a week later when (yes, the Guardian again, how paltry would the world be without it), when I read Kathleen Jamie’s critique ( ) of the same exhibition. I felt well-warned about the minuteness of the exhibits and tried to keep my expectations low. I didn’t succeed. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exhibition occupied 4-5 small rooms. The objects were indeed miniature. These were nomadic people, as migratory as the herds they depended on. Artefacts had to be small, lightly transported. Entering the first room, greeted by John Berger’s quote about art arriving like “a foal that can walk straightaway”, I felt like a poet again. My notebook was out, ready to receive the details like it was ready in the field to note the markings, the attributes of a bird. I meant to write those notes up before now, but here I am now, and better late than never.

Whatever about the physical impressions of the exhibition, nothing had prepared me for the emotion. It was overwhelming, deeply, confusingly powerful. A kind of homecoming. A kind of belonging. Accretions of civilisation fall away; we find ourselves in a space filled with animals. Animals and women. Women of all stages were represented, from young pre-adolescent girls, to matriarchs, veterans of many pregnancies, their gourd-like bodies as replete with wonder as that of the mammoths. Many of the figurines had tiny or absent heads, enormous breasts dominating the swollen bellies: as if they were carved by a pregnant woman herself, from her perspective, staring down at her own body. Indeed, this exhibition was the first place I’ve read where it was suggested that many of the carvings were done by women, and, in a world where mirrors didn’t exist, the distorted representations of pregnant women may indeed reflect that woman’s own point of view; her wonderment, her sense of the enormity of the changes that pregnancy wrought in her body. That exaggeration of the female form makes emotional sense as a reflection of how a woman might feel gazing at her own transformation; particularly, when many of the carvings of young, non-pregnant women showed lithe modern figures, perfectly in proportion. The exhibition suggested that, much in the same way that it was surmised that many of the animal carvings may have been worn by a hunter as a talisman, were touched to invoke the power of the animal, so too the figures of the pregnant women may have been touched to invoke the power of what we might call a goddess, to bring about the safe transition to the other side.

Dotted throughout the millennial-old miniatures and carvings were examples of abstract art from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, of the human female form, designed, obviously to draw our attention to the similarities across eras. Critics demurred on the success of this comparison, and, while I was impressed with the similarities between, say, a Picasso and a Palaeolithic carving, I too wasn’t sure of the appropriateness. It was as if the curators were pleading a little too much that we recognise the significance of the Palaeolithic art as art; as if Jo Public wouldn’t see the similarity, the importance, by herself. It was pointing too hard. It also often felt like an interruption.

The other thing that struck me was the preponderance not just of human, but of animal female figures. For example, the Zaraysk bison, an adult female striding determinedly, confidently, to the rim of her glass cage, in a body made of ochre-buffed mammoth tusk. Her mouth was open, as if she was calling (to other herd members? A calf?). In that menagerie of miniatures, she was relatively large, and I was inevitably struck by the time somebody had evidently taken, hundreds of hours, to carve her into such perfection that she can still walk through the world millennia after the creatures that inspired her creation have gone under the earth. It also struck me that the somebody who had made her, had chosen her, rather than her more physically impressive male counterpart, to carve. It was as if Landseer had chosen the hind rather than the stag as Monarch of the Glen ( It felt a little strange. It was the carving of that female bison that convinced me of the curators’ argument, that many, if not most, of these exhibits had been fashioned by women, perhaps tethered by pregnancy or maternal obligation to the cave or the fire; spending much of that time carving or whittling. It would explain the virtual village of pregnant women housed mostly in a single glass cabinet at the start of the exhibition. These women needed to ponder the mystery of their own capacity to birth, to bring a new being into the world. Perhaps they also needed to ponder femaleness itself, to reflect on its commonalities across species.

There was a sense of mystery, of sacredness. Even the small crowd of attendees was like a herd of patient, attentive animals gathering at a waterhole; scrutinising the glass cabinets with relentlessly absorbed gaze; pulling back, taking one’s turn, one’s place, moving quietly on when sated. Many of the exhibits portrayed species long-extinct: woolly mammoth; woolly rhinoceros; cave lion; auroch. Others are no longer prevalent in Europe: bison; musk-oxen; wolverine; ibex. Others are since domesticated: horse; reindeer. There, they were still present; all wild . Our ancestors were part of this Palaeolithic Pleistocene landscape. We too were wild, and we were obsessed with animals. We did not love them as pets or domesticates. We loved them as separate peoples sharing the same world. There was no biophilia ( because there was no separation. We carved them, delineated them, hewed them, honed them, buffed them, no doubt touched them, for luck, for guidance in the hunt, for spoor out of danger. Many, in their minuteness, like the many of the figurines of heavily-pregnant women, had little holes pierced in them, were designed, surely, to be worn around the neck.

The objects spanned thousands and thousands of years making the exquisite paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux seem almost modern. The exhibition reached back to about 40,000 years ago, not long after modern humans first became European, an event which was swiftly followed (in geological terms) by the last Ice Age. The ice sheets persisted until about 10,000 years ago. The art spans approximately the same period, and from all parts of Eurasia, Siberia to France, much of it from the Moravian gate, the valley connecting the north European plain to the Danube valley, a bottleneck for migrating animals, much like the Strait of Gibraltar, or Iceland, for migrating birds today. That funnelling acted as a magnet for human hunters then, and collectors today.

I wondered why such artefacts had not come out of Africa. Why did our ancestors there not carve animals with the same unflinching devotion? I have no idea whether or when such carvings came into being in Africa, but there is something sadly ironic in the fact that Europe lost the megafauna that this art celebrates thousands of years ago, while, until about 150 years ago, Africa could bask in a sweltering plenitude of herd and predator. Was it simply that the deep freeze of Europe preserved these things better? Or was it, as also suggested in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (, that the climatic worsening that followed the first Europeans, promoted the production of art? Art famously flourishes in hard times. We have a need to preserve, transform, our perceptions, our experiences. We need, under pressure, to celebrate what we value.

Like Keats’s remark on a stoat “The creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it”, these people caught the purpose, the electric charge of life, in the animals they crooned over. One of the striking things about the exhibition was how it made animal out of animal. Ivory and bone were the favoured materials. Our ancestors must have had superb eyesight for the care of their work, as well as breathtaking vision and memory for the spirit of an animal captured in the poise of a fetlock, the brace of neck, the implied flick of an ear. Abstraction as essence. Clearly these people, like abstract artists or cartoonists, could extract enough to suggest the embodiment: cross-hatching to suggest a mammoth’s shagginess; a sweeping convergence of line to a tusk narrowing to its tip; the squat bulky thrush of a wolverine, carved as a pendant. The delicate pause of a doe at a river’s edge. She is 14,000 years old, of bone, and came from Le Chauffaud Cave, Vienne, in France.

There was leisure, obviously, for the work, whether in the long reverie, the heavy incipience, of pregnancy; or in the seasonal stretch of a northern summer, when daylight itself is plenty; or in the converse of winter, when winter-weak prey meant relatively easy hunting, and long firelit nights when hunting was not possible, left hours to muse and to whittle. It is estimated that it took about 400 hours, for example, to make “Lion man”, one of the few male figures, carved out of ivory using bone, which was found in Stadel Cave in Baden-Wuerttemburg in Germany. Out of Hohle Fels Cave, came the Diving or Flying water bird, aptly made out of swan bone. The wingbone of a Griffin vulture was used to make a flute, a flute that may also feature in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was carved between 36,000 and 40,000 years ago. From the Vogelherd Cave in Baden-Wuerttemberg, some 36-32,000 years ago, formed out of mammoth tusk, came: horse; cave lion; mammoth; snow leopard; bison. A roll call of the lost and left behind ( Often the figures were rubbed with ochre, charcoal, to give hue and depth. The very material that the sculptures embodied echoed shamanistic transformation: ptarmigan out of reindeer antler; reindeer out of avian bone. There were artefacts, generally of more recent vintage, the shafts, handles, spear-throwers, mostly under 20,000 years old. These too were fashioned into leaping horses, swimming reindeer. One of the findings of unusual and more recently-acquired provenance, for someone, like me, reared Catholic, was a tiny horse found in the cave at Lourdes in France in 1886. The horse itself had hidden there for at least 13,000 years. Like all the carvings, it was a perfect miniature, the defined mane, the inlaid ears, suggesting not just a form, a species, but an individual, a personality.

I overhead one couple murmuring over a carving. “The work”, said he to her. “The love”, she responded. And love it was. We did not despise these animals. We did not use them. We dwelt among them. We admired them. We were one species among many, and, for all our accumulated scientific knowledge, we do not yet know them; we have not mined out their mystery; nor that of our own ancestors. As Henry Beston ( put it: We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.


I live with some pain every day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not overwhelming, and I manage it. I swim regularly. I do yoga. I practise the Alexander technique. I try to be aware of my posture. For all that, the pain is still there. The damage is done.

It started 10-12 years ago. I was planning to come out of full-time teaching, try my hand, finally, at this writing lark. I was a very conscientious teacher, most of my evenings, much of my weekends spent hunched over a desk, preparing, marking. Then in my spare time, I persisted hunching over the desk trying to write poetry. I was also an inveterate diary-writer. So a lot of the time my back was curved over a desk, my head bent.

I moved house, I stopped swimming. That’s when the rot really set in. I didn’t notice it at the time. The pain in my back grew gradually. Then it migrated up my shoulder and neck. Then down my right arm. I’m right-handed. When I lifted a pen, tried to move it, pain shot down my arm into my hand. It froze it. I couldn’t move the pen. Spasms of pain coursed down my back.

I was terrified. I gone part-time in school. Now I couldn’t write. I could hardly even sit. I went to the doctor, got prescribed painkillers, anti-inflammatories. They worked for a while, but the pain up its ante, shouted louder. I went to physiotherapists, got given sets of exercises to do. I did them assiduously, fanatically, over and over again. I went back to the doctor. Again and again. Back to the physiotherapist. Different physiotherapists. Then a chiropractor. The pain got worse. I got used to the sceptical stares of health professionals. Being looked at as if I was making it up. I wasn’t making it up. Why, oh why, did nobody even hint that my posture was the problem? Meanwhile I kept on exercising like an maniac while still eating painkillers like they were smarties ( I was determined to write. I hadn’t taken all these risks, made all these sacrifices, to end up crippled. I wasn’t going to be beaten.

A. and went to hear Mary Oliver ( read in Wellfleet in 2005. I love Mary Oliver. I love the fact that I’ve heard her live. After the reading, we went back to our B&B and I wept. I wasn’t going to make it. I was defeated. I was never going to be a writer. Pain felled me every time I tried.

I came across a book (, finally, that made sense to me. Spurred by its advice, my touring of the health professionals of Northern Ireland eventually found me an Alexander technique teacher. The Alexander technique was everything I was not in relation to my pain. It was gentle. It was subtle. It was patient. It suggested, amazingly, that one’s imagination could improve things. It was certainly no quick fix, but sheer desperation made me take it seriously, notwithstanding the scepticism of at least one physiotherapist that I attended.

The first thing I had to do was lie down, which was obviously ridiculous. Then I had to attend to my breathing. What good would that do? But between the Alexander technique and practising a form of meditation, I began to get better. The first thing I had to learn to do was stop the fanatical exercising. Then gradually come of the last of the painkillers (I’d been taking so many I developed an allergy to some of them). Stopping the exercising was hard. I was totally addicted to it. But it was no longer exercise. It was a form of self-harm, an outlet for my fury at not being able to write, and about the general circumstances of my life. The confirmation that the exercise had to stop was when I finally landed in the office of yet another physiotherapist who on examining me immediately exclaimed “But this muscle is all scarred”. I was shocked but a second physiotherapist confirmed this opinion. Now I was deeply upset. In my efforts to get better, I’d made things worse. I hadn’t even considered that exercising on painkillers was not a good idea. Mind you, nobody had even suggested that this might be the case. Not that I was going to be stopped, I was so frantic to find a ‘cure’.

However, although some damage is permanent, its effects don’t have to be. While it has taken me years to become reconciled to how I injured myself, it didn’t stop me continuing to make changes. I acquired a load of office equipment that enabled me to stop hunching; that helped me look after my back. The pain faded. I started doing yoga – gently. Eventually I went back to the swimming. I was able to write again. I wrote a second collection of poetry. I wrote a Masters, then a PhD thesis. Clearly, I can physically write – move a pen, tap on a keyboard.

But the pain is merely soothed, not vanished. It flares up when I take my improvements for granted, when I neglect to mind my posture; when I get resentful about having to look after myself; when I treat my body as a machine. It is there is the briny taste in my mouth that reflects the damage done to the muscle in my neck; that pulpy, bubblewrap feel. It is there is the crunching when I turn my head; in the gristling knots of the scar tissue in my trapezius and obliques; in the weakness I feel in my right side when I do the front crawl. It protests if I don’t get enough sleep; it nags when I’m stressed.

The pain has taught me that there are limits to what a body can do. That some things cannot be repaired. That some hurts may mend, but they don’t heal. That things will never quite be the same again. It is a lesson in acceptance, growing up, growing old. However, it has also taught me that things don’t have to be perfect to be good enough.

Pain and trouble don’t stop you going on.

The wanderer returns

Well, I’m back. No excuses really, just adjusting to being post-PhD. I have a new gender-, marital-state-neutral title. It’s nice. I still get a mini-shock when I pull out my bankcard and read ‘Dr’. But otherwise, it’s not a big deal. No major life-tranformations. I have a new identity of a kind, but no job, not much direction yet. That will come. But, hey, I can swim 40 lengths in 35mins! That’s an achievement now.

I’m supposed to be writing papers but I’ve stopped. Truth is, I’m seriously cheesed off. I’ve also stumbled into some pre-Vatican II world, where I’m are supposed to be deferent, grateful, and invisible. I’m supposed to be grateful for alleged ‘kindness’ in having the opportunity to work on the project which consumed the last nearly-four-years of my life. Not to speak of the financial cost. Anyway, don’t want to rant too much, but it’s annoying. So I’ve written one paper and sent it out. I’ve drafted another that’s ready to go out to co-authors. But there are issues to sort out before I write any more, and I’m on internal strike. I’ve not been in the office for a week (lovely few days in Donegal, but that will have to be left to your imaginations ..), and I don’t intend to go back for another week. I am thinking of my novel again, the one I abandoned to do my PhD. The one I spent a month working on in Hawthornden ( before I started the PhD. I don’t want to do a post-doc. This decision is strange to me, because I thought it was what I was working towards. I thought I wanted this. But I’m 50 in December, we’re barely in Belfast 8 months, and I don’t want to move again. I want to be here. With A. Sitting in our study, newly shelved, at my old writing desk, looking out at a gap between the houses opposite, where I can just about see the Belfast hills. It’s not quite the same as the Sperrins, but it’ll do.

What’s next? In the short-term, I’m going to register as a supply teacher, start earning some money again. I’m going to look for work in Belfast. But mentally, I’m reorientating. The PhD was brilliant, but everything is pushing me back in my old direction. I did the Masters to distract myself from grief, and to redeem my 2ii. I worked really hard, did really well, got the PhD as a result. I loved the PhD. I loved the fieldwork, the research. But I hate the politics, the landgrab, what the poet Eavan Boland describes in the essay “A journey with two maps” ( ) whereby her artist mother let her teacher sign her work.

Speaking of books, I devoured Helen Macdonald’s “H is for hawk” (  over the weekend. The reviews aren’t exaggerating. This is a brilliant book, grief and distraction dissected and chartered with the forensic sight of the book’s ostensible subject. But the poetry of description, the brilliance of the images, is uplifting. The book soars, as breathtaking and brilliant as a hawk on the wing.


I have just a week of this indulgence left. A mere seven days to stretch into this pool of fact and abstract, detail and overview. My PhD is almost over. I will never again have this mixture of incipience and fulfilment. Very soon I will have to re-enter the so-called real world. There are papers to publish, jobs to find, grants to apply for, but for now, for this last week there is just two of the things I like to do most: read and think. Unlike the devouring reading I did before, when I was trying to grab, grasp, the material, sieve it, shape it, constantly reviewing it for how it helped direct and lead my thesis, this reading now has a different feel to it.

Preparation for my viva has resonances of an amble through familiar streets, greeting old friends along the way, that flare of pleasure when you recognise the warmth of an old acquaintance, someone you haven’t seen for a long time, the very existence of whom was buried so deep in the memory that you had almost forgotten them. Now suddenly here they are, your eyes meet theirs, and you suddenly remember all you loved about them, and how great it is to be back in touch. And there are others who want to grab you by the arm, elbow you off for the distractions of a day at the seaside, or into the mountains for the thrilling views, and you have to resist, insist No, no, I need to stick to the path, keep my own end in sight, don’t be leading me astray! And there are others still, that take off their little round spectacles in the candlelight, fix you with their intense gaze from wizened, sun-starved faces, and spin you, dazzle you, with their logic, detail, the marvellous concatenation of fact after inevitable fact, and again, you have to cry No, no, too much! This too is the wrong path, I need to hold onto the rope of my own story, into which, of which, yours feeds, but it can’t overshadow. And I haul on the rope, climb out of the basement, back onto the dappled path.

It’s not that I’m not actively preparing. Having spent months constructing my thesis, working it into a tome that is now a physical thing festooned with post-its, now I am breaking it up again, de-constructing it into individual words, phrases, points, on revision cards that I can pull out of my bag to stare at whenever it’s opportune, whispering the words like a prayer. I have my practice viva tomorrow, I have read the university website’s proffered advice on the ‘doctoral examination process’. I have some idea of what’s expected of me. I know this last lap has a serious purpose, a definite goal, and is certainly not a stroll in the park. But, nevertheless, it is yet a deep and satisfying joy, a painfully poignant luxury, to be reading and thinking, after all that work and processing; all that struggle towards mastery. Now to return with hard-earned, sore-bought, expertise, and able to say: look all this; isn’t it wonderful?

Looking around

I have been debating inside myself what to do with this blog. I haven’t written it properly in ages – not that I was ever that consistent. The four months from Christmas to the end of April and the actual submission of my thesis were such a steep learning curve. There were also a bereavement – A’s not mine, as such, but it has been tough. Now I find myself just short of a fortnight away from my viva, and I’m really only emerging from the brain fog that accompanied the exhaustion of submission. It seems the interval between submission – 28th of April, and my viva – 26th of May, is one of the shortest known to academia, and I feel a little bit panicked that maybe it is too short. That I won’t be ready. That I have forgotten everything about my thesis. Indeed, I read it with some bewilderment now: did I really do all that work? Do I really know that much? Of course the short answer is that I did and I do. But how to get past my perennial self-doubts?

Today I attended a course within the university about women and academia, and it was really good. It was both positive and negative. Yes, there is a lot of evidence of the leaky pipe, how female participation in academia just leaks away the further up the scale you go; but there was also very postive messages about active participation, mentoring, how to progress. I had debated whether to attend this course. Yesterday I almost cancelled, concerned that it would draw too much time away from my viva prep, but it was actually quite inspiring. Because the truth is, I had been uncertain about whether I wanted to stay in academia; whether I wanted to do a postdoc. And there are some voices inside me whispering not to try. I’m forty nine years old. How can I be starting a career at this age? I will be competing against people half my age. Do I have the drive and energy for this? Added to these considerations, is that I really fell into this PhD. I hadn’t planned on starting a PhD at the ripe old age of 45.

However, now I am finally lifting my head to look around me and ask, what do I actually want and is it achievable? The short answer is, I don’t know. I think I am fundamentally disorientated by my experiences of the last decade, both good and bad. And I’m not sure how to proceed. I still have to get through my viva, of course. And then I have to publish my research. But today’s course gave me a bit of confidence that while these may be unchartered waters, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. I do think I need to take a little bit of time to think about the next stage. But the truth is, when I read my thesis, when I remember what I’ve found out, it’s still exciting. And there’s more work to be done. But there’s also more work to be done inside me. It’s a bit scarey, but not knowing where I’m going could actually be a good place to start.






Well, it’s over, the big part anyway. I have been away for a long time, but it’s time now to start emerging. Since Christmas, I have mostly worked a seven day week, but it paid off. I submitted my thesis last Monday, a day early than the agreed submission date. I don’t know how I feel about it. Delighted, triumphant, but also scared and uncertain. What’s next? No idea. And I’m not young. And I have no clear direction in mind for myself.
In the immediate future, however, there are things I need to do. I have to prepare for my viva, which is on the 26th May. Then I have to complete the corrections for the middle of June in order to graduate in July. There are papers to write. Jobs to look for. Tomorrow, I’m leading a dawn chorus in Co Derry, which means a very early rise, now that I live full time in Belfast. It’s in Learmount forest, my haunt and inspiration, so that’s something to look forward to. Back to the birds. Back to where it all started.

Moving on

Well, not really. Another couple of days at home in Co Derry have left me drained, upset, and very angry. I know I’ve alluded events in my personal history that seem to have left an indelible mark on me. I also know I’m only coming out of the legacy of all that stress, distress and powerlessness. Well, more preparation for moving has only revealed yet more stuff. I want to be able to leave all that stuff behind. I really do. I know it is poison to me. I know that unless I can actually find a place to put it, it will keep bleeding into my current life, which has so much potential and so many riches. I have lost so much already, and what I have managed to regain and restore for myself is still on shaky ground. I can’t afford to be overwhelmed by this stuff. But I am. And I have to respect that.

The things that happened to me are literally unspeakable for me. They were also unspeakable at the time, but that very unspeakability actually made things worse. I found myself in a place where I was defenceless. And that very defencelessness was exploited. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t articulate what was happening to me. I couldn’t describe what I saw. A huge part of me didn’t want to face it. And I was also convinced that I wouldn’t be believed. I think I was right in that belief.

But let’s put it this way: I know the literal truth of sayings like “a person would sell their own mother”. I know what it means to have the dead desecrated. I know more again, but those things are impossible to say. However, these are not the stuff of fantasies. These are not stories that happen to other people. They happened, to a large extent, to my late parents; but, as I managed, eventually (and too late), to articulate to one authority figure relatively recently, of the people still left alive, I am the one who bore the consequences. These things also happened to me.

I still blame myself for not being able to stop it.

One thing that is helping is “Quiet” ( I realise I am an off-the-scale introvert, who many times in my life has masqueraded, or been encouraged or pushed, into acting like an extrovert. I often act extroverted when I am furthest from myself. I act extroverted when I feel threatened or under pressure or distressed. But I’m not an extrovert. I am probably a perfect researcher. I am an introvert, who can’t cope with too much stimulation, whether that be from social situations, even where I enjoy them; or, as now, when the stimulation arises from really distressing memories. I realise my inarticulacy likely also, at least partly, arose from my introversion.

What I need for myself now, is quiet, routine, to once again immerse myself in my work. And that day is coming. I just have to hang on, and try and be gentle with myself. It wasn’t my fault that there were things I didn’t know. It wasn’t my fault that I was unable to defend myself. It wasn’t my fault that I was left bearing consequences that were too much for me to handle, and I did what introverts classically do: I fled.

Very soon I can flee into my work again. There are better days ahead.


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