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The end

Well folks, I’m calling it a day. I’ve decided that this is no longer the space where I want to reach out to the world in blogsphere. With thanks for all your kind reading and comments.

Keep in touch on my continued work in science (mainly teaching courses on birds, their evolution and song) through my new site:

I have also returned to literary writing, and the teaching and facilitating of creative writing and poetry. You can get the details of this work from my writing website:


Coming home to a future

I have thought very seriously about staying in science. I loved getting the opportunity to a PhD in my forties. I loved the research itself – all of it: the fieldwork, the analysis, the writing. Most of all, the opportunity to learn so much about birdsong. It was joyous, exciting, stimulating. I learned so much about myself, as well as about the birds. It was a massive opportunity and at a personal level, a reward, and I know I made the most of it.

Since then, the bubble has burst and things have come to earth with a bang. The paper that went out over the summer, the one that was based on the methodogy chapter of my PhD, came back a few weeks ago, rejected. This paper was intended to address the dispute over methodology that I’ve referred to in previous posts ( Well, the responses were a little peculiar. The first reviewer was prepared to accept with revisions. The second reviewer roundly rejected, and pointed us in the direction of a recently published conference proceedings which contradicts our findings. And lo and behold this person (I have a strong suspicion of who this particular reviewer is) is a co-author on that paper. So obviously, they’re not going to be happy with my paper).

So there had to be a third reviewer. Again, that reviewer was prepared to accept our paper, with revisions, some of them quite major, but what the hell. I’ve been through that process before. But the next bit felt a bit strange and a little unfair. The editor went off and got a fourth reviewer, who has not accepted the paper. Then the editor used a casting vote and rejected the paper. It feels a little as if s/he didn’t want it in the first place and just made sure to get the result they wanted.

I am disappointed, obviously. And there’s no doubt that the paper could be published elsewhere. But in some senses, I was using this paper as a litmus test. Staying in science would mean working on the papers, possibly for years, if my previous experience is anything to go by. Also, there are no opportunities for me to work at the local university at the minute, so I would have to go away. Great Britain. Europe. North America. Who knows. I thought I was up for that. I thought I could work at birdsong in the future. But when it comes to the crunch, I find that I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go away. If I did a postdoc, I’d be competing with people 20+ years younger than myself. I could do it. The question is, do I want to do it? So much of my life has been spent doing what was expected of me, or what I was good at out of a sense of duty, or moral obligation, or because I’d be letting somebody down (who? where are they?). But as somebody said to me recently, just because you’re brilliant at something doesn’t mean you have to do it. I don’t know if I’m brilliant at science. I know I’m good, but I don’t know if I’m brilliant. I do know I did a very good PhD, and I’m proud of it. But my personal life took a back seat while I was doing this PhD. I’m just settling into a new life in Belfast. I’ve begun work on my long-neglected novel again. I’ve made contact with my poetry editor, attended a reading he gave recently in Belfast . There are parts of myself, really important parts of my life, that I had to neglect to get the PhD done.

But I got it done. I have proved that I can be a scientist. The question is, do I want to be a scientist, the whole shebang, the kip and kiboodle, the short-term contracts, the peripatetic lifestyle, the workaholism, the competitiveness, the single-mindedness it takes to merely coast never mind get on? I was in a little bubble while I did the PhD. I had my own little world over which, it felt at the time, I had charge. But as Barbara Ehrenreich somewhat put it, as a junior scientist your work belongs to your boss. Which is fine if you’re under 30 and have time to get yourself on your feet. But while there was much that was redeemed for me by my PhD, it doesn’t get me back my youth. It doesn’t get me back that time. I want a different direction.

For now, this is what I want: time to rest, think, write. I want to write. I wrote a 50,000+ word thesis, so I know I have the persistence to finish my novel. I want to regain the confidence, the dreaminess, what Elizabeth Bishop called the ‘perfectly useless form of concentration’ to write poetry again. In fact, I am writing semi-poetry again. And, later, I can write science. I can write about my PhD.

I cheered inwardly when Helen Macdonald won the Samuel Johnson Prize ( She combines writing about nature with memoir, history. I have aspirations myself in that direction. It’s not that I don’t know that the path I’m choosing will be equally difficult, maybe more so, to that of becoming an academic. I also know from hard experience that getting a poem published is just as hard in its own way as getting a scientific paper published.

The PhD was a blast. I had two brilliant years of fieldwork. I spoke at several conferences including two international ones, attended others. I got to immerse myself in a subject that I love. But there are other things that I love too, things that meet in me, that I want to bring together. It’s a bit scarey. There’s no career, as such. But I know my general direction. I will find a way. Once again, I’m back for the poet.

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.

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.

I’ve written one paper and sent it out. I’ve drafted another, but I have some issues to sort out. 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 not young, we’re barely in Belfast 8 months, and I don’t want to move again. I want to be here. 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.

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, the thinking, the writing. But I’ve had to put poetry aside for far too long ….

Speaking of books and poetry, 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; 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 family bereavement. 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.  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. 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.