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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.

A box I can carry

For the past couple of days, my thesis has been entirely sidelined by preparation for moving. I’ve been at home in Co Derry, winnowing through the debris of my own life and that of my parents, sifting, sifting, holding things up to the light, really looking at them, and thinking, do I actually want this? I am determined that my new home will have the space for my own life; will not be a mausoleum of the past.

But it’s not been easy work; guilt snags; tears come often; and anger too.

In many ways, the most difficult, but the most pressing thing to trawl through was the huge box, as big as if not bigger than, one of those old tea chests, that has been sequestered in the roof space until recently. It’s down now, the roof space is cleared, and the box has been hulking like a monster in the study. Its contents used to live there all the time, taking up space, pushing my writing notebooks out of the way, constantly demanding attention. Those contents were the files and files of ten years work and more. They pre-date my appointment as my late parents’ controller under the Office of Care and Protection, when my parents were deemed incapable of managing their own affairs; and they go right up to the beginning of this year, to the end of the whole sorry business, when lies, exploitation and corruption were met with indifference. The details are too painful and delicate, too unremittingly awful, to go into, but suffice to say that those serried files contained stuff that was unendurable, unbearable; but which had to be endured, and which had to be borne. At that time, in that place, and with the information I had, it seemed I had no choice.

The first day I looked into the box, I skimmed around the edges. I took things out, glanced at them, put them back. Part of my aversion was that I have been going through mountains of stuff as it is, none of it easy: photos; diaries; cards; letters. I sealed the huge box with tape. I thought, put it away for five years. Don’t look back.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about our new house, walking through its rooms in my mind, trying to imagine where to put the box, where it would fit. There was nowhere I could imagine putting it down, nowhere I could place it. It was too big, and far too heavy. Maybe I could put it in the shed? But it would get damp, and someday, eventually, I would want to look at those papers, and I didn’t want them ruined. Maybe I could put it into storage? But it felt like distance and absence would make it even larger, and it was already far too big.

I rose early, groggy with lack of sleep. I lit a fire in the living room. The box was too big to drag up from the study, but three or four files at a time, I emptied it.  Then I with the files, and a poker over the flames, from first light until lunchtime, I sorted and burned. Over five hours of burning. I raked out the ashes as I went until the hearthstone was slag-heaped. I burned and burned: letters and letters to the Court, to every kind of authority you can imagine; banks, building societies, companies; I burned statements, certificates, all sorts of documents, now past their time.

I didn’t destroy everything. There are ten files left, approximately one for each year of hostage. The remains are the precious (the likes of birth certificates; marriage certificate; death certificates) and the most painful of the lot: stuff that isn’t just about my parents, but which tells, allusively, destructively, futilely, of what happened to me.

The surviving files are now housed in another, much smaller, box. Sealed. For the time being, I will leave it be. I treat as nuclear waste, temporarily cased in lead. Not to be opened until it is safe.

I can lift this box. I can carry it. And my new home, I will find somewhere to put it.

Mourning a forest

I am in mourning for a forest. It’s been a crazy few months and that’s not even mentioning my thesis (well, three chapters down; four to go; two of those in draft). A. has a new job which means that we can finally settle in Belfast. After three years of living apart we are to be together again. We signed for our new house yesterday. The consequence is, however, that we have to say a permanent goodbye to our home of 16 years in Co Derry, and I am in mourning, not for the house, so much, but that too; but mainly mostly and deeply for Learmount Forest.

Learmount  Forest  is just a small woodland in the foothills of the Sperrins, forestry-commission owned so there’s a lot of Sitka spruce, but also swathes of beech, their copper leaf litter quilt-thick in this season; patches of oak and chestnut; and the hills currently larch-golden. And ash, dare I mention them, breath held for the dieback, but for now they are healthy, their leaves garish. It’s always most beautiful in the two seasons of transition: autumn and spring. The pale green light strained through the early soft leaf of beech; the white candles of chestnut; and of course, the eruption of bluebells in April or May, after the drear of an Irish winter, the intense waxy green of their leaves almost as intoxicating as the indigo of their vivid flowers, growing up the flanks of bluebell hill to assail sight and breath.

Down by the river, where the trees break to fields on the opposite bank, the view expands to glacier-scraped drumlins, bright green, spattered with sheep. This is hill farm country and it’s bleakly beautiful. Beyond again the rolling undulations of the tundral autumnal Sperrins, where, when the wind gets up, you can hear the howls of the last Irish wolves.

               In Learmount, I regularly meet buzzard, raven, dipper, heron. I have seen stoats, foxes, the prints of otters; I have witnessed the extinction of our Irish red squirrel, its replacement by that north American invader, the grey, which I nonetheless can’t bring myself to hate. I have written so many poems out of the forest’s light and lignen, its seasonal shifts of hue and shape; the faces of flowers, the voices of birds. I ran to this forest for solace. I was walking in it while my mother was dying, and that morning I saw dipper, buzzard, heron. Now I have to leave and I could weep. I can’t believe I have to let this place go. I am guilty of magical thinking: maybe we can keep both houses; maybe I can write a bestseller and buy it back… maybe …. maybe …. maybe .

The first thing that seeded my love of A. was our joint love of poetry. Later in our first home together, she strove to help me have the time and peace to write. I had sold the first house I ever bought, and I used the bulk of the proceeds to fund my first year out of school, to fund my first book of poetry. So A., that house, that forest, are fundamentally intertwined with that old dream of becoming a writer, a poet. And, as Mary Chapin Carpenter put it better, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I had no clue, neither of us had, as to how hard it would turn out to be. We were both naïve. We both were innocent of the truth: that love and dreams aren’t enough. We had no idea of the cruelty and power of the forces ranged against us, the bewilderment and paralysis ranged within us. We had no idea of the horror of the story that was about to unfold, the tragedies, the lives that were about to break.

Anyway, that’s for another day. The forest sustained me throughout all the time, all the upheavals, its promise and forgiveness, its ultimate indifference, all equally consoling. Out of those woods came poetry, field work, the possibility of a new life and change; out of that soil, came rootedness, belonging. Just to walk into the forest’s shelter, under the dome of the rook-cawed canopy, the thrush-rinsed branches, was to feel the sap of my own self rising, peace descending, to re-set my often frantic mind. I came back to myself in that forest. Now I have to let it go.

Forging ahead

Quietly at the moment. I’m just out of hospital. Had a minor operation yesterday, that has been awaited since the middle of April. Thankfully, it’s nothing serious and I am well on my way to making a full recovery (it could have been serious but after some short weeks of anxiety, that turned out not to be the case. And I’m grand. ( Really. However, I now have some time off that I can validly take as time off, so time for a blog post.

Newcastle was wonderful. My talk was at 12:05 on Monday the fifth of August, which was great, meant I could enjoy the rest of the conference. And I managed to learn enough R to get my stats completed before I went. Granted I worked like a maniac for the three weeks beforehand, was still adjusting my talk the very night before, but it was all worth it. The talk was well received, and after about the fourth slide I began to forget my nerves and actually just talked. Even enjoyed it. When it was done, an American-accented man asked the first question. Because it was the first question, I did what I try not to do, I plunged straight into my answer before I was clear what he’d asked me, and it was waffle. Granted waffle I managed to straighten out, and I felt ok about it. The next question was easy, then it was time to sit down. Later that day, after lunch we were trailing into the huge main hall of the Sage (purpose-built conference centre) and the same man walked by me. “Loved your talk” he remarked. I looked at his name badge. Andrew Sih. Andrew Sih. ( Andrew Sih, who writes the most amazing stuff about behaviour and plasticity, who I’ve been reading for years, Andrew Sih loved my talk!!!

Anyway, that took a bit of recovery time. Later that evening, there was a social event involving a cruise (nothing glamorous; a rather smelly party boat) on the Tyne, and I had a long conversation with him and his wife, and that was lovely too. Except later, I noticed the probable reason his wife had been staring at my name badge quizzically. In fishing to get my “River Cruise” ticket out of the back I’d forgotten to turn it around with my name facing out. So now Mrs Andrew Sih thinks my name is “Conference Dinner”. Well, it’s memorable at least.

There were four days of the most amazing plenary talks and symposia. Prof Andrew Sih isn’t the only mysterious hero I met. That’s the thing about science. People are famous, but not in the generally understood way. You meet your heroes and they’re not glamorous (sorry folks, but you’re not; and certainly not when witnessed on the dancefloor after said conference dinner). But they are bright, nerdy, ordinary, obsessed, and wonderful. You meet your heroes before you even know who they are. What was amazing also was the number of women. Of course from Jane Goodall onwards, behaviour has always attracted a lot of women, but still it was encouraging. Marian Stamp Dawkins. Katherina Riebel. And lesser-knowns who are doing brilliant work on birdsong. This was the first conference I had the confidence to ask questions at myself. And nobody seemed to think my questions were ridiculous or off the point. I spoke to one of the authors of the paper which sent me into a tailspin (this time last year) over the validity of spectrogram analysis, which set me back ages in my analyses (but it’s ok, my tackling of the issues raised has given me a whole chapter of my PhD, so while it’s cost me time, it’s ok; it’s worked out), and it was a good conversation.

There were people there from all over the globe, probably 3000 delegates in total. It was really exhilarating. I revelled in being able to listen to talks where the minutiae of birdsong, the details of its analysis, were discussed. I learned new terms and where it might be useful to revise my invented vocabulary for some of the details of my own analysis.

Then, all too soon it was over, and just when I’d been getting used to the daily routine. The next day I took a train to another northern English town and stayed the weekend with a young lecturer who gave me a personal workshop on phylogenetic analysis, ie, how to take account of the evolutionary relatedness of my bird species when discussing my findings. This I am doing, or will be again very shortly, using the absolutely latest phylogenetic tree of  almost 10,000 bird species published in Nature (See Jetz et al 2012) last year (of which my mere nine are a part!). Every now and then I pinch myself and remind myself that this is real. I am doing this. Middle-aged me. The 2ii reject of 25 years ago is dead in the water. Sometimes I find myself almost hyperventilating with the excitement of it. That’s not to say that the actual analysis isn’t drudgery. It is. But it’s drudgery with a purpose, drudgery that like my morning swims, is about achieving a goal from steadily doing the groundwork. One lap after another. And I’m learning all the time. I’ve moved from SPSS to R, to programming in BayesTraits (package for phylogenetics; don’t ask, I don’t know the details, but I know how to work it) in a matter of weeks. Whew!

Anyway, as I said, I’m at home in post-op recovery at the moment, so there’ll not be too much progress for a few days. However, by the end of the month, my analysis will be complete. Then it’s just write like a maniac. That I can do.

Swifts and hot stats

Our heat wave continues, and for all the sticky nights, the necessity of A/C in the office every day, mostly I’m loving it. The crowds in Botanic gardens every evening have begun to thin a little as the sun-starved populace starts to trust (in the early days, especially during June’s intro, it was like a major event – it was a major event – the sun was out!). But the thing I’ll most associate with this summer are the swifts screaming their jubilation over the rooftops, frenzied missiles, celebrating each netting of the summer’s sky’s aerial plankton, piercing the dusk with their sonic bonds that hold the solitary atoms of each bird into a tight scour of hurtling mob. They are breathtaking, so beautiful; such a sound of summer. Read in last Saturday’s Guardian ( Ted Hughes nailed it when he said “they’re back … which means the globe’s still working”. Exactly so. Then, in yesterday’s Guardian Jim Crace prose poem on swifts in Mark Cocker’s article on the meanings of birds for us ( I’m not alone in my affections.

The swifts are also one of the few contacts I have with real birds these days. Songsters have quietened as we’re well on the other side of solstice and it’s likely in any case that only the intensity of swiftish screams could tear through the fog of my brain. Well, it’s fog and it’s not fog. It’s also a plummet into the abstract, a deep engaged concentration. Paradoxically, through the intensity of that engagement that I’m learning the true value of rest. As I plough, plod, lumber lurch through my analysis, heading down wrong tracks, barking up the wrong trees, mechanically persisting in my OCD-ness long after I should’ve stopped, I’m also slowly clearing the path, seeing the patterns; I’m also learning that it’s valuable to stop and look around me, not just because I need to, but because it’s actually counterproductive to continue. Ideas come to me when I continue. I wake up seeing a small but true light. I dream into a valid way of seeing. I’m learning to hesitate, snuffle about, test the air.

I’m getting there. I measured my last robin on the ninth of June, so six weeks on (I’ve taken over a week off in-between; yes, even me), I’ve actually done pretty well. I’ve written the first major draft of chapter 3 of my thesis. I’ve half completed chapter 5; chapter 2, the famous paper, is done. I’ve embraced stats as the love of my current life, as personified in Mr That man is a true philanthropist, giving away his time and expertise for the love of his subject. Why didn’t I find him earlier? Why did I faithfully attend stats classes where it went in one ear and out the other? I’ve even done a discriminant function analysis (yes Mr how2stats, you with the chuckle in your voice, at 3:27 on, I made it to the end of the 10th video! And, more to the point, I think I understand!!!).

For the last bit of my analysis, however, I have to make the switch from SPSS to R. And I have to do it in the next week, because on Monday 5th August I’m speaking at the Behaviour 2012 conference  ( ), in Newcastle, England. After that, I’m travelling on to another location in England to work for a few days with another scientist on the phylogenetic part to my analysis, ie, the impact of the evolutionary relatedness of my different species on my findings (which I have to control for). Then it literally is, just write it up. I should be done by Christmas or at least not too long after that. And my supervisor is discussing a post-doc with me. After all these years, and this late in life, I may have a career!


(Those avid followers of my blog will have noticed that this post, while written on the 28th of July, hasn’t got posted till today, the 21st August. This is because, in my usual fitful and distracted way, I forgot to actually post it! So it’s been languishing in Drafts for nearly a month and I didn’t notice! oh well …..)

To make an end is to make a beginning

Well, folks, I did it. Granted, somewhat behind my original schedule, but nonetheless I’ve made it. Despite our currently Californian (?) weather, I blitzed it over the weekend and got the last robin measured up on Saturday afternoon. I even had a cup of caffinated coffee to celebrate, taking it out onto the front grass to make even more of it. There you go. No more looking at spectrograms, except in my dreams (yes, I do dream about them). No more straining to get the measurements exact. No more cursing the perfect song interrupted by another bird. It’s only taken me two years. But I have them. Nine species. Approx 20 individuals per species. Not to mention all the attrition it took to get those 180+ birds, 180+ playback experiments, all the ‘useless’ recordings hibernating for me to, maybe, oneday, find a use for them. Months in the field. Months of dawnrising. Months of sleepdeprived driving the country. Months of joy, actually, hunting for my prey, getting so close to them, getting to know them. As Niko Tinbergen (from Curious Naturalists) said (about digger-wasps, all things, so the transference is not specific to creatures of our own, or more closely related, class – in the taxonomic sense): “they were transformed into personal acquaintances, whose lives … became affairs of personal interest and concern to me”.

Then, now just over, months and months of getting to know the songs so well, I see their patterns in my dreams, hear their sound whenever I let my mind wander. Assessing, counting, measuring, calculating, checking, verifying. Excel sheets mutating, expanding, proliferating, such multitudes and variety, they’re almost as overwhelming as a full-on dawn chorus.

However, now I have to make the leap fully into the abstract. Now I have to fire all engines ahead with my statistical analysis. I must leave the personal, the animate, the individuals, long and far behind and delve into the patterns of numbers that their songs have made. As one of my supervisor would say, now the fun really starts. I’ve made a good headway into the preliminary statistical analysis already, and there are some interesting things emerging. And it’s fun, and exciting, and a totally different way of losing yourself to that of being in the field. A different kind of forest to find my way through. This too demands work, but also patience. Waiting to see. Who knows what will emerge into the clearing.

“..  make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

(TS Eliot. from Little Gidding).

Lifting my gaze

So much has been going on. As my nature seems to be such that I am both highly distractable and utterly obsessive, sidelining my blog felt right for a while. But no more. I am feeling ready to engage with other parts of my life again. To sit up and take notice.


Suddenly summer is here and forcast to be around till at least the weekend. Truly amazing. Granted, office-bound as I am, I won’t see much of it, but even so. Blackbirds flute morning and evening from the urban gardens all around me. Swifts scream across a blue sky. Robins plaint. Chaffinches indulge their little squelch of a song. Even the diurnal rhythm of the five-minutely planes serving Belfast City airport, their outlines and colours sunlit-clean and bright, are benign in this balm. The longest, if not quite the coldest, spring of this century so far is vanquished at long last. Summer, which seemed a broken promise, a gaudy tale of yore, is truly present. I’m not used to this. Not used to the fact that, for the next few days at least, I can trust it.


I’ve completed the chiffchaffs, I’m due to finish the robins this weekend – robins, the species that, thanks to my success with them in my Masters, started this whole adventure off. Fingers crossed that the results with this crop will bear out what I found with the previous, but who knows? That’s the scarey part about research. You just can’t control the outcome.


Very very soon, I’ll be done with this part of the analysis. The slogging, the eye-stinging detail, all that mind-numbing, emotion-achoring measuring will be done. Now I have to discover the patterns, see how they relate, turn it into a coherent narrative. Say what I think. I have to think.


To lift my eyes from the physical acoustic analysis, move deeper into the abstract. It’s a bit like lifting my gaze from the past, moving on with my life. 


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