This blog has always felt like a strange tangled mess. I’m only starting to value how important it is to me to have all of this cringe-worthy writing collected in one place. I started writing here because I was on a precipice — an unknown learning experience.
My plan is to use this space to reflect on my research over the forthcoming years. At the broadest level of explanation, my research spans three great curiosities of mine, particularly in those magical spaces when they converge: ecology, technology and learning.
It might seem strange to launch into a post about dark matter, having not written here for over a year?
To explain, it’s not because I have had nothing to write about. I’ve had another long episode of balance and neurological issues during 2021. There is confusion, speculation and debate amongst specialists about whether this is Meniere’s disease or something else. I’m caught in the middle of theories. I’m not ready to write about any of that yet. It hijacks my life for months at a time and I fight it each time. I’m not entirely comfortable with the not-knowing.
After ten years of mystery, I’m not hopeful of an explanation any time soon.
I’m also running out of the energy I use trying to hide constant disequilibrium. My brain is tired of keeping up the perception of uprightness. With this in mind, I’ve started to try to reveal it more to others. To accept it as part of me. Additionally, I can console myself by pondering that Earth’s jaunty tilt of 23 degrees is a vital attribute for life on this planet. Feeling the world always slightly off-kilter and defying straight lines of navigation is like experiencing a fundamental truth.
What I do seem to enjoy while all of this is going on, is is running full pelt into learning about topics that I am comfortable with not-knowing. In other words, the entire universe! Sorry everyone, I’m reading about dark matter again!
It’s the invisible mass in our universe that we are striving to understand and make visible.
It is a concept of science (astrophysics and particle physics) that I jump into through popular science explanations for pure enjoyment.
While my journey of understanding has taken place over many years, I don’t document my learning, except in messy scrawled notebooks. I periodically mention dark matter on this blog, because it tends to surface in my writing and thinking (2016, 2017, 2018). Each time I explore, I try to delve a bit deeper and push my understanding. I read books and watch talks. Most recently, I caught up on Dark Matter: Crash Course Astronomy #44 [12 mins]. This is a great quick round-up if you are new to the idea of dark matter.
I think about the concept of dark matter in different ways. I try to grapple with the maths here and there. It is such a slow understanding for me to shift into mathematics. I don’t think that I will ever have the mathematical language to explain it, but I listen to those who do and can. I push my brain to its limits to understand.
Theories about dark matter are something I think about frequently. They are part of my inner wonder. Significantly, when I look at the night sky, I try to pay more attention to the dark. I try to expand my understanding of the science of Indigenous people who know that the dark parts of the sky are the areas that matter more, because there is more matter! I watch the rotation curves in the pattern of spiral galaxies that form on the surface of hot chocolate and wonder.
A hot cup of physics
I will keep asking dumb questions, even if I don’t always get answers:
With attention to all of this, it seems that questions and clues about the invisible universe are all around us.
Ghosts in the dark
I also recently indulged in a Royal Society of Victoria talk The Universe and its Dark Materials[1 hour 20 mins] by Professor Alan Duffy. He explains some of the ways that we are looking for the ‘ghost’ that is dark matter. There is also a shorter 10-minute version if you can’t stretch to the longer video.
Some of the key concepts to understand about the evidence for dark matter seem to be gravitational lensing, rotation curves of spiral galaxies, modified gravity, cosmic microwave background, large scales structures, gamma-ray emissions and direct detection. I can get my head around most of these. I just stare at the equations, hoping that one day they will make sense.
I don’t know how anyone can stroll past the idea – a crystal shielded deep an old gold mine, that could detect the invisible mass in the universe! I find this story impossible to ignore!
A comet in the sky
This week, gazing through my astro-binoculars at the light of Comet Leonard that last passed us 80,000 years ago is another humble lesson. Certainly, the observable universe is astonishing as much as the unobservable universe is baffling.
We live in incredible times for understanding the universe through the most bonkers and compelling ideas in physics. Physics is thrilling and mind-boggling and I feel sorry that I am arriving late at this party. Hopefully it is never really too late fall under the enchantment of science.
I was lucky enough to spend a few months wandering wild places and towns in England, Scotland and Wales in April and May with my little family.
With little time for writing, it is probably all going to emerge in bits and bobs and scratched together from hasty notes and reflections.
My first 6am cup of tea in the very early morning outdoors in the mountains of Scotland was magical. It is a time to listen and watch, so I fight the urge to photograph, and just try to etch mornings like these in memory.
Although tempting to gaze south-east at the stunning Ben Nevis range, which I certainly did photograph (above), I turned my back on such well-known beauty, clutched my tea and crunched through frosted grass to the edge of the western boundary. From there, the edge, I could watch the cloud transform the smaller mountains to the North and West, where the sun and cloud were playing.
I have no words for the morning. There was bright and complex bird song in the forest. Birds I can’t yet name. The light on the mountains was salmon-pink and sherbert-orange. I stood still and saw cloud spilling down the hillside, creating almost the sense of a rainbow as it played with sunlight on slopes. I heard the wings of birds in the stillness. Nearby, below the grassy slope, I heard the soft tread of sheep.
Wispy and slow, cloud came curling down towards me, brushing the tips of pine trees, before quietly and secretly seeping through every branch. Dampening everything from birdsong to vision, there is nothing more gentle in nature that steals away so much beauty, creating a new beauty of its own. It was hypnotising, leaving nothing but a veil of white in its wake. The gentlest wave.
Tea in cold dregs, I turned around to go back to the cottage to find the cloud had also been creeping down my neck behind me.
All was cloud and cloud was all, and that is all. For now.
Those times when you find yourself alone in nature and for some reason, your sense of awe and comfort switches immediately to a feeling of pagan animism about everything around you. As if you are so very trembling and small in the scheme of tall tree things.
Being alone in nature is something I am quite comfortable with, and actually sometimes really crave now that it’s virtually impossible to have. I did have some pre-dawn walks for a hour or so earlier this year when we were camping in the remote Flinders Rangers. My husband were still asleep in the tent and I went out by torchlight. There was a slightly similar experience to the one I’m about to tell. Perhaps because I had my dog with me, or because it was morning, or even because I grew up around this wild land, I felt awe, but not fear at the strange undersound I heard as I got closer to the hills.
There have been a handful of times when THE FEAR has involved not a wild place, but a known place, like it was for Will.
THe last time I felt it, I was feeling comfortable. It was July 2015 and I was outside our rural holiday cottage in Cornwall. A house full of my children and nephews, in-laws and husband asleep. I was outside at midnight with my astrobinoculars and camera taking night sky pictures.
Anyway, for some reason, being out there in the dark, even after a long night of Summer light, turned, er, well, frightening.
It began with a sound from the fields. The gardens were surrounded by tall hedges, puncutated by one small archway cut out with a gate, with fields beyond. The sound had a hint of human cough or maybe throat clearing, but un-animal enough to confuse my senses. It wasn’t a growl, and I’d lived rurally so it wasn’t a cow or sheep or fox sound. Or bird sound. It was just, unidentifiable. Odd. Weird.
Instinctively, in that moment, when my brain could have rationalised, it didn’t. The day spent exploring ancient nooks and crannies of Cornwall took over, and I, the I that might laugh at my reaction, was gone. THE FEAR had me.
That sound, had set my heart thumping in a rhythm for running. And I wanted to run. I just left my bincolulars and camera on the tripod and ran across the lawns to the sliding door and clambered in to the dark of house and the comfort of the lounge. After a few moments, I realised I had left all my gear outside. As I tried to slide open the door go back to get it, I tried to let the ridiculousness take over. It wouldn’t.
I forced myself, swearing in whispers, to go back out and fumble to detach the heavy binoculars, fold down the tripod and pack away my camera in what seemed like an eternity spent in the now thick ominous darkness. It was somehow, one of the most bravest acts against myself.
And that, is The Fear. I’ve felt it only a handful of times.
If you have ever felt it, you will understand.
Just as Susan Cooper must have understood, when she wrote it for Will to experience.
Have you known, The Fear? I would love to hear your tales.
#TheDarkIsReading & THE FEAR conjurs up this night. Family & UK in-laws asleep in holiday cottage. I was outside for night sky pics. Heard an odd sound from darkness in the quiet night. Terror took over, clambered into the house, heart thumping. https://t.co/u9FOXBrXBF
In the breath-held beauty of night, every leaf seems paused as if painted in still life, branches striking shapes, shadow-shifting in the moonlit corners of my sight. Crickets sing a rhythmic chorus under the waxing glow of gibbous moon, inciting beetle feet to tread their forests of towering grass blades. The dance of Diplopoda feet, heard burrowing through to damp soil, microcosmic tramping that loosens pathways, unthreading mycorrhizal threads, triggering fungi to fruit. The luminous moon conjures magpies into a midnight warbling, their tree-to-tree dream song the perfect soundtrack of the Universe. I lift my head and eyes to dive up into the starred abyss of the dark-sea spaces in The Milky Way above. Scrambling for words enough to surface from deep wonder, with everything above and below and around and within connected.
We’re the hippies of the hood perhaps, with our mostly native rambling front garden but I decided to forge on a bit further and gently introduce some vegetables as it’s a great growing site. It’s a first for me in an Australian garden growing vegetables in the front (did it in the UK as we had a very small space).
With wallaby and kangaroo grass seeding, flax lilly’s dainty clusters of nodding blue and yellow flowers, red and yellow kangaroo paw in flower and the sweet scent of native frangipani trees it’s a hot colour riot of sight and smell right now. A bee haven. Mingling scents of native frangipani, rosemary, lavender and lemon basil too. So why not even more diversity with some produce in the mix!
The first adventures into mixing some veg into the front (we don’t have street verges alas!) was sacrificing a bed that had mainly herbs. We inherited heavy clay soil in this front garden, so I took a patient year of soil prepping including worm castings, mushroom compost, direct deep composting of kitchen scraps first, before attempting any removal or planting. Removing the large woody herbs wasn’t too laborious once the soil had improved (previoulsy impossible baked into hard clay!) and the tomato seedlings have loved their freedom!
There will be more front veg planting to come, longer term plans for strawbale or timbercrete to replace wooden retaining walls – so much to do – and I’m converting a lawn at the back first – so my guess is this is it for a while in the front. But by tackling one small thing at a time – like a yield of heirloom tomatoes, which have always been challenging in my backyard raised beds, you find that you can slow down enough to think about design more, rather than just rushing in to plant and change everything all at once. It gives you time to observe.
I’ve been keen to try building nest blocks for blue-banded bees, by packing a clay/sand mix into rectangular PVC pipe after hearing about this technique and seeing it online.I’ve looked at a few ideas for insect hotels and made a list of materials required.
It would cost around $20 from the local hardware store for the PVC pipe. Not much in the scheme of things, but bees have been finding accommodation for thousands of years before PVC pipe came along, so…
In the meantime, it’s Spring and bees need shelter. I used what I had in the spirit of experimenting with some ramshackle nests that I could probably call ‘ bee shacks’, and not quite bee hotels. For the less discerning bee, or indeed any insect interested in a small house footprint. Calling all bees and insects looking for a downshift!
The way I look at is, the wider bee community and insects in general make do with what nature provides, rarely to a formula or straight lines or perfect build. So why not appeal to those opportunistic and adapatable personalities of nature , with my very own flavour of hacky haphazardness?
So here is a combination of weathered bamboo garden stakes I already had, hessian, twine and some mesh that was a plant protector, packed with a clay and sand mix (clay soils from our front garden), that I then accidentally dropped from a height- removing most of the clay/soil.
Lashed by twine onto a dodgy trellis – it will move slightly in the wind:
And also, an old pot packed with clay and sand, a few hints at what wandering insects might want to do to make a crash pad, and undaintily shoved on the soil underneath the borage.
Now to see, who, if anyone, shelters in these tiny share shacks!
sharing wild spells of magic found in nature, books, stories, backyard farming, ecology, permaculture