Posts Tagged ‘water’

marsh lane

December morning,
sluggish dawn,
of greys and greens,
and mist and mud,
where water weeps
into long hollows,
and pools like eyes,
which lidless gaze
at still sleepy skies.
And the ways,
heavy under foot,
slow my passing,
and would arrest me,
arms outstretched,
gnarled fingers grasping air,
lifeless as the hawthorn,
bare and dripping drops,
of silver dew.



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dowserCurious incident recently – a science blogger learns of a water-company engineer dowsing a field for a broken water pipe. She blogs it with a skeptical slant. It’s picked up by the news media who add their own spin: UK water companies wasting money on “witchcraft”. Nice one!

That little “ping” of Witchcraft on the radar then brings out the great showboating battleship, HMS Skeptic, guns blazing. Arch celebrity skeptic and CSICOP* notary Richard Wiseman is on the BBC’s Today program, reminding us of the idea-motor and confirmation bias stuff – how we’re all so thick we can’t tell when we’re being duped. Presenter John Humphrys mischievously recounts his own successful experience of dowsing, and thereby earns further snippy headlines in the following days’ newspapers. Wiseman responds by saying Humphries would have kept his anecdote to himself had it been unsuccessful (confirmation bias), and a fair point, though this hardly discredits the idea either since Humphrys’ attempt was successful.

When asked, most UK water companies admitted the use of dowsing, but then quailed at the sight of HMS Skeptic anchored ominously offshore, so they back-tracked, emphasising instead how they invest vast sums in proper scientific solutions. Their field engineers “might” employ a bit of dowsing on the side, they said – but in a strictly personal capacity. I smiled at that, imagining the emails then sent to all those engineers to get with the corporate message, and to get rid of those bits of bent coat hanger.

It’s a while since I studied the paranormal in any depth, but it’s a fascinating subject. It’s an area in which the gullible can easily find themselves lost and duped, but equally, it’s a field that could yield the most profound advances in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Also of interest to me is that cohort of professional celebrity skeptics and their oftentimes simplistic arguments which start from a baseline of: this cannot possibly be true and thereafter work towards a rational explanation, no matter how weak. When all else fails, they call into question the honesty or the sanity of the persons presenting evidence in favour of paranormal phenomenon, also those simply writing about it in anything other than derogatory terms. Anyone actually claiming paranormal prowess will be mercilessly torn to shreds.

True, dowsing has been debunked by scientific trials – at least those trials selectively quoted by skeptics. Skeptical debunkers it seems are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone else, since other studies do lend credence to its efficacy. In more prosaic terms water company engineers probably use it on the quiet because it has worked for them in the past, and they are not uncomfortable using it again simply on the basis they have no rational explanation for how it works. Engineers are pragmatic people.

Me? I have some technical training, which I mention here only to demonstrate that, although I regularly indulge in literary fantasy, I am not entirely without the ability to think critically. In spite of that I once made a twitching stick from a birch twig, held it like dowsers do while I walked a stretch of path through a meadow. Why? Well, I was curious, and why not? What happened? Well, mostly nothing. But at various points the stick twitched in a very disconcerting manner, no matter how steadily I tried to hold it.

My explanation, part technical, part speculative, is that it was responding to the unconscious movement of my hands. This is programmable to a degree by the idea-motor effect, just like the skeptics say, but not in all instances. To dismiss it as such is a little disingenuous. Personally I favour the idea that the body is responding to discontinuities in the local geomagnetic field, caused in turn by anomalies in underlying geology. Although hardly proven, it is, at least, an interesting avenue for study, how the body might be sensitive in this way, and how it might connect to the electromagnetic energy matrix of its environment.

Nor is this as far-fetched as it sounds, since recent squeaky clean scientific studies suggest birds navigate the earth by seeing, or sensing its magnetic field using quantum coherence effects. It’s not a great leap then to suggest we might also possess the same ability, perhaps unconscious, or in most of us atrophied beyond all practical use. Yes, it sounds a little strange, but only if you’re thinking along narrow lines, and only if you adopt the rather unscientific position that anything straying beyond the materialistic and strictly mechanistic paradigm is all “witchcraft” and can’t possibly be true.

Skeptics should also bear in mind witchcraft is a well established spiritual practice, and as such, to use that term in a pejorative way is disrespectful to those practising it. So mind your language, and remember the more shrill one is, the more likely you are to win over only those as shrill as yourself. And that’s no victory for common sense at all. It’s simply another form of fundamentalism.

View at Medium.com

*CSICOP – Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

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linton falls

Linton Falls on the River Wharfe

I’d planned to walk on the western coast, Morecambe bay, from Arnside maybe, but the Met office suggested moving the itinerary east a bit to avoid drowning in the tail end of a tropical storm hurled clean across the Atlantic. So the Dales it was and a brief window of opportunity that closed around tea time. Here I enjoyed calm and intermittent blue skies punctuated by showers and dramatic clouds, which eventually thickened over Grassington to a uniform steel grey and a more persistent rain.

The falls at Linton have become a bit of a magnet of late, my third visit this year. £4.50 for the day on the little National Park Authority car park – expensive in these still straightened times, but still half the price of a day’s walk in the Lakes. A week’s rains had swollen the Wharfe to thunderous proportion. People drive for miles for these falls, go no further, and who can blame them? There is falling water everywhere, and a fine wooden bridge to carry you into its most spectacular and sonorous midst. All falls are a draw, each of unique character, and blessed with a spirit of place. At Linton the spirit is that of dragons.

But today the falls were admired only in passing as I made my way up-river. I followed heavy paths to begin, over lush cattle churned meadow, then finally a bit of narrow lane that dropped me down to Conistone and the Dib.

the wharfe

The Wharfe, near Conistone

Limestone country throws up some odd landscape features, none more curious than the Dib, a narrow nick between steep rock  and a secret passage into the higher green beyond. It’s the former course of a beck, now long disappeared, but bears evidence of thunderous erosion in ancient times. It also affords some light scrambling, and a sporting route up onto the Dales way. I last walked its course thirty years ago, thought I remembered the Dib fairly well, but it turns out I didn’t. When I was young, it was those simple little scrambles that fascinated, and I tacked them all together in memory, leaving out a vast and lovely lost vale that separates the beginning bit from the end.

Today it was the vale that most impressed.


The Conistone Dib

After scrambling out of the Dib we find ourselves on the Dales Way, just here a gorgeous broad green path that leads you back to Grassington and the Falls – a round of eight and a half miles, and then a couple of days for my bones to recover from the pummelling of wild footways.

There was a peculiar scent on the Dales way. I was upwind of a large group of kids who’d spent days wandering the Dales with big packs, doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s. A charming chatty lot they were too, in spite of being mud-caked and looking like they were ready for a brew, and collectively smelling like,… well, like human beings, sweated by long exertion, and who’d not had the pleasure of a bath for a bit. They looked weary, but determined, and in good humour. I admired their grit, was heartened to discover there are still lions among our youth – sufficient I trust to see off the donkeys who shall oppress them in their near future with tick sheets and performance reviews. So roar! Roar my little ones, roar like you mean it.

The Dales way descends some four miles, gradually to Grassington. This is limestone and green sward at its best, and views out across the Wharfe to Cracoe Fell, and a walk I did one frost dusted morning last December. Scent of mud here, and moorland sedge, something metallic in it, and then rain as the dramatically darkening clouds burst and the wind stiffens to the coming storm’s refrain.

I continue to follow my nose as the scent of the farm comes up at me, a good mile off yet, but the air sweetened with the unmistakable aroma of cattle en-masse, and midden. And then it’s the slick cobbles of Grassington and the scent of coffee and beer and chips. I’ve yet to see Grassington in the dry, but no matter. The rain does not spoil it. It’s going the tourist way in parts of course, but retains a certain gritty charm. And so long as people still live here, and the holiday cottages do not outnumber them, I see no reason yet for alarm.

on the dales way

On the Dales Way

I wash the mud off my boots in a puddle by the car, peel off the waterproof trousers, roll them up and put them in the slowly decaying carrier bag I’ve kept them in for years. My knee delivers a warning stab as I slip off the boots – reminder of an old injury, result of a bed and a flight of stairs and an overestimation of ability. That was years ago, the injury I presume a feature I take forward now.

And driving home I wonder how I’ll remember this walk in another thirty years. I wonder too about the importance of the accuracy of recall, when our mind so easily bends things over time to its own ends, and to a mere precis of past moments. It’s can’t be that important, since it did not stop me from carrying a fondness for this place, nor a desire one day to return.

I’d better not leave it another thirty years or I’ll be eighty seven.

Still, I might just manage it.

We’ll see.

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