All change! has undergone some changes recently. I’m trying out a nicer looking theme (admittedly, it’s one I cobbled together in a few hours last week but it’s still nicer than the last one) and while I got sidetracked by work, and by writing, I am going to finish up the rest of it soon.

I’ve been doing a lot more fiction writing these days, but that’s not to say I’m planning on stopping the scicomm stuff. The old articles will be back presently, and instead of dividing the domain up into subdomains and child blogs for each separate area, it will be divided up by page theming instead. I’ll have category browsing enabled, so you don’t have to catch the fiction-writing updates if you don’t want to!


On naïvety

Like many with anxiety, I sometimes worry that the people I know consider me to be too naïve, and too much so to take seriously. I hear it in the little things, the small judgemental phrases they utter, acerbic, to their friends, about certain behaviours or activities that they find naïve which happen to correlate with things I enjoy doing. I hear it in the absence of my own words as I am talked over for the umpteenth time.

Now I’m going to preface this by saying that the anxiety does, undoubtedly, play a large part in my feelings on this issue. Anyone else who has been deeply anxious will understand me when I say that my paranoia about this does not equate to me actually genuinely thinking people are talking about me. That’s the nature of paranoia; it twists beyond what your rational mind thinks. I think highly of those I call my friends, and I have enough common sense to not put too much stock in something a mere acquaintance might think. But still, the worry comes.

I have a tendency to get excited about things. I have a tendency to overuse exclamations in my speech. I err on the side of kindness. And I’m not very judgemental – I find it hard to make up my mind about something unless I’m fully informed on the issue, and in lieu of further information I tend to choose the option that is most considerate of other people (or indeed, of other living creatures full stop). Somehow all of these things combined make people think I’m somehow less intelligent, less worldly. Or, at least, in my mind it is a likely possibility that they think this way, a paranoia that strikes through to old childhood fears.

If it were true that people were currently thinking this, as others have in the past, it would make me a little sad because it would mean they only see the surface layer. I’m often overly-enthusiastic because I’m actually incredibly cynical. Yep, I’m a pessimist. But if I’m not changing things and making others excited, I’ll be exactly like all those things that made me cynical in the first place.

And further, it makes me worry that people are more concerned about appearing stern and cold than about doing the right thing (whatever the hell that is anyway, it’s all subjective, to an extent). Permeating through society there’s an idea of what makes a person wise and learned, just as there’s an idea of what makes a person naïve and innocent. If it wasn’t for these archetypes, people certainly would never have called me naïve in the past. Because I was talking about peace? Talking about reducing poverty? Stopping bullying? Anything with the suggestion of a silver fucking lining? I didn’t fit their model. Often people would interrupt me to tell me, in a harsher tone, the exact same thing I had been telling them.

Oddly enough, the times where I haven’t had the energy to be positive are the times when people seem to consider me incredibly worldly. This is worrying.

A couple of years ago I was writing a scene in which a character commits suicide. The feelings took me down somewhere burning white with emptiness, not a good place to be. But I was surrounded by friends when I wasn’t writing, and my saving grace from the blank terror was having the kind of bubbly personality that, I have since discovered, people love to take the mick out of. I had fun drinking with friends, and being sciencey types we soon turned the conversation to extinction events and natural disasters. Well, I got rather animated about this subject and was, to my complete surprise, shot down by an acquaintance, who told me I was ‘too happy about everything all the time, and was lucky to not understand what it was like to have suffered.’ It knocked me sideways, and it was no wonder after that that she had blocked out any possibility of me ever becoming close enough to confide in her about the dark things I was writing, or indeed about any real-world problems I was having. Needless to say, the rest of that suicide scene I was writing went fantastically.

I had another friend who also used to think bubbliness equated innocence, and she used to routinely not give any worth to my feelings. After she found my modelling photos, she had this thing she’d always say, which was ‘You’re far too innocent to do anything sexual,’ (and god, we were twenty two at the time). It didn’t really stop after that, and it was a very effective way to belittle me. Anyway, it turns out putting your own assumptions about someone on a higher pedestal than their feelings is not a sustainable way to maintain a relationship.

The bottom line is: it’s not a healthy idea to put so much stock in the idea of naïvety and its significantly cooler-sounding counterpart, hard-assed worldliness. More often than not it won’t match up to reality.

The other bottom line of course is that it’s really none of my concern what other people might think. For anyone with anxiety it seems like the kind of throwaway statement someone without anxiety might say. ‘If only I’d known it was as easy as just telling my brain not to be shit!’ I want to say sarcastically when I hear things like that. It’s incredibly difficult but ultimately I have to keep being ‘optimistic from my pessimism’ and keep on trucking despite the potholes.

And finally, I will say this for the writers: the above discussed is a great way to introduce realistic relationship dynamics between your characters!

Dropped the binge-eating, gained some binge-writing.

I’m not sure which came first, the realisation that I hadn’t been eating or that I had been writing far more than is common.

I’ve got a relationship with food that mostly focuses around excess. When you’re down a lot of the time, sometimes embracing the fact that mudpie and cheesy crisps exist can be a lifesaving thing. When you’re experiencing the joys of a chronic physical illness, the fear of eating too much is overridden by the desire to eat enough to be strong, to have enough calories to get through the day and not be in pain. And when a person with this mindset and these needs is put on antidepressant medication that is also used as an appetite stimulant, the results can be gastronomically apocalyptic. I’m off those pills now, but years on it’s still hard for someone who already had a stimulated appetite to wean themselves off the urge even further. Not that I need to reduce this habit too much – I’m a healthy ten stone, which is a perfect weight for a bodybuilder and amateur runner, and I still would rather get through a day being strong and able enough to walk the five kilometres into work than worrying about getting a beach body. Put it this way: some people want to be gazelles and that’s totally cool. I, on the other hand, want to be a hefty horse.

But that aside, the point is that the excess around food can only be replaced by a few things. There’s not much that can make me feel satisfied enough in such a sustained way aside from when the creative urge takes me. And while the eating is taking stuff in, the creating is more throwing stuff out. Usually my creativity is a nice backbeat to my life, but every so often the urge grips me and it feels almost self-destructive because it threatens to make me stop anything else important I might be doing.

I noticed recently when I had foregone meals in favour of getting the next chapter down, without even thinking about it.

If I’m having a solid writing day I get through about a thousand words at best. The number is higher for non-fiction – that I can do two or three thousand. I’m a slow writer either way. It takes me years to write a novel. Sometimes I speed-write in a frenzy but usually I try to avoid it because I feel like I’m not doing the words justice by hurrying it up. I take my time.

So the fact that I’m almost twenty thousand words into Trees in November in the very first week of writing it is something that has caught me off-guard.

I had even gone out and bought food, but it had been laying around the house for days.

It was just far more fulfilling, no, necessary to write.

I can feel the urge to return to the novel now, scratching just behind my eyelids, promising fulfilment.

And these are the things that make me take a step back and promise I’ll keep a close eye on it. I’ll make sure I’m eating what I need to while I get this demon purged from me and onto the page. I’ll try and cultivate some kind of way to not constantly swing from excess to excess (even though I’m conflicted by the fact that this behaviour seems to unlock creativity). I’ll get my projects done and I’ll do them well.

The bottom line is, it’s interesting that it’s not necessarily the thing I’m doing to excess that’s the problem, but the fact I’m getting some kind of feeling of necessity, of absolutism from it. I thought that was worth a mention.

All in one take

I recently watched the trailer for Sebastian Schipper’s new movie, VictoriaIt’s a heart-pounding trial of a film based around what sounds like the gimmicky trick of all two-point-three-hours of it being shot in a single take. Apparently it is very good.

It makes me think of my own approach to writing, because this past week I have been on a writing binge – which happens every so often but not enough to be notable as a ‘thing’. The last time it happened was in 2009 and I wrote fifteen thousand words in three days. But even then I didn’t do what I’m doing now.

My best friend from primary school had this uncanny knack of being able to write an entire story in chronological order, straight up from start to finish. While she might have taken breaks between writing scenes, the fact that she plunged straight in and didn’t stop until the whole thing was written was something I found astonishing, because I was much more slapdash – jumping around from middle to end to start, impulsively skipping ahead to the scenes I liked best and writing them first, then filling in the gaps. It’s how I’ve done every story so far.

So maybe this is just because of the fact that the story I’m currently writing already exists in screenplay form, or maybe it’s because of the strange mood of this week. But either way, I’ve realised after the first week and the first ten thousand words of Trees in November that I’ve written almost the entire thing in complete chronological order. It stands out because I’m not merely transcribing the screenplay; there’s things in the book version that, understandably, are more fleshed out from the film, and there’s new material too. Maybe it’s an easier thing to do since the whole novel takes place over the course of one month – November 2005 – and maybe this gives it structure that I don’t need to worry about so much. Either way, it’s interesting to note. I expect that by the end of the novel (or more likely, novella) I’ll have had to jump around a bit more just to flesh it out more and add more stuff in. But we’ll see where that goes.

It makes me wonder if anyone’s ever written an entire story (and I’m thinking novella or novel kind of length) both in one sitting and chronologically from start to finish. It would no doubt require a lot of planning (and the understandable toilet break, plus nearby snacks) but it would be interesting to see if anyone’s done it. I expect the quality of work might suffer, but looking at the raving reviews for this new film Victoria, it might just be possible to have this happen in a writing context too.


image ©

Coping strategies for caregivers: mental health

It was World Suicide Prevention Day yesterday. I’d have written something then, but things got in the way. Anyway, it’s important that people are made more aware of how others think, and react, to things, since everyone has different mental states and experiences. I think the word is Neurodiversity. But knowing more can help stop potentially dangerous situations and states of mind. At least, I hope so. I don’t want to come off as prescriptive here, it’s more just things that are popping into my head and it might not work for everyone. It certainly doesn’t cover the full gamut of mental issues, but it covers some things that I think about. Maybe it’ll be helpful for someone.

*Someone I love is having a nervous breakdown, how do I help?

Well, a nervous breakdown can manifest in a range of different ways. For some, it’s shaking and forcing far too many distractions and cups of coffee as possible in the hopes they can shove the reality of the breakdown away from them. For others, it’s clamming up and slowing down, feeling like stone and not knowing how to move, how to continue on with daily tasks. Others yet it’s a sort of mania that is accompanied by a range of shifting extroverted emotions from anger to enthusiasm. Often the best thing you can do for someone is to be there for them, and not get frustrated by their actions. Reassurance works for a lot of people, but others might prefer you to avoid reassuring and just distract them with things (like, ‘let’s go and cook dinner / go to a football match / do some other thing’). It really depends, but you won’t know unless you try. Avoid doing things that might make the whole thing worse and add extra stress, so definitely don’t bring up a grudge or a problem you’ve been having with them, even if it’s just something as stupid as not putting their dirty underwear in the wash basket. That stuff can wait for later. A person having a breakdown is in a precarious mental state that they can’t fully control and that oftentimes makes their mind race at breakneck pace. It’s something that can make a person feel cast out to sea in a storm, and longing for some firm ground, so you can’t start taking away planks from their raft, and certainly never seek to do so in an attempt to ‘shock’ them into acting normal again. This very rarely works in a positive way; it’s far more likely to exacerbate their nerves and impact recovery time.

*The person I want to support isn’t having a breakdown, but they’re sad about stuff. I want to help but don’t know how.

Asking how they feel usually doesn’t go amiss. Even if they answer disparagingly, it’s really good to check in and give them space to open up. If someone’s depressed they might not feel important enough to bring up how their day was straight off the bat. Even on depressed days, people can see good things, even if it’s a silly thing like a pigeon walking funnily on the sidewalk. A warm smile, accompanied by bringing someone a cup of tea, and showing an interest in how their day was can go a long way in providing space to focus on good things. Or something new, like planning an interesting dinner. The goal isn’t to get rid of the sad feelings, but to provide a space for them to take a backseat while still acknowledging that they exist, which really is the best way to make them abate.

*Okay, so I thought I’d make them a cup of tea but they just can’t make up their mind. What now?

It can be really hard to do decision-making when you’re depressed. It could be that there’s already a whirlwind in your head and you can’t bear adding to it. It could be that everything’s just empty and raising the question of choice seems pointless. It could just be something currently unreachable. So, if the person you want to help looks like they’re struggling to make up their mind, it sometimes helps to reassure them that you’re not going to get mad if they don’t decide quickly, that you decided to do this thing for them and that you don’t mind how long it takes. Make them feel welcome and release the burden of potentially upsetting you from their shoulders. It might also be a good idea to suggest things for them. Like, ‘How about this tea?’ They might sort of nod, and you can take control of the steering wheel, ‘Okay, that sounds good, then. I’m going to make you this, okay?’ And go and do it. If they don’t drink that tea, it’s okay, and you can let them know this too.

*They’re not eating well, and I want to respect their decisions but not hurt them too much.

If you’re taking care of someone you have to do what you can to ensure they’re eating well. Sometimes taking control of the steering wheel in the conversation is necessary again, as your loved one may not be in a place where they can be trusted to take care of themselves going by what they wish or do not wish to do. You should try to get them to eat, or bathe, or dress, but do keep watch for emotional distress. Make sure they are aware that you don’t want to push them, but that you’re concerned for their health. Don’t emotionally compromise them by saying ‘Do it for me’ – this can put undue pressure on their emotional connection to you.

*They’re really responsive to criticism. How do I talk to them about things?

I don’t mean criticism in the ‘my artwork got critiqued’ sort of way. Often, people with aversion to interpersonal criticism can handle work-based criticism because it’s detached, removed from themselves as a person (unless the critic uses ad hominems – insults on a person’s character), but can severely stumble when dealing with people on a relationship level. This is a common feature in avoidant personality disorders (which feature more withdrawal), and also in narcissistic disorders (which feature more extraversion but similar in the hostility towards criticism). It can feel like a double-bind having a relationship with someone with one of these varieties of issues, because you might start to feel afraid of bringing up problems you’re having. But the answer is not to bottle up your problems, nor is it to just bring them up and get stressed at the fallout they suffer each time. There is most definitely a way to talk about things without making a criticism-sensitive person feel on guard. The method differs slightly from person to person, but at its core it revolves around making sure the person knows you’re not trying to make them feel bad, and that it’s not a judgement on them as a person. They may also seek continual reassurance while discussions are going on, even if they might be afraid to ask for this.

People can be sensitive to criticism for a whole host of reasons. Some have been bullied badly, others suffered excessive criticism at a young age while their sense of identity and self-worth was still developing. Others have had traumatic experiences later on in life. Others still have no environmental triggers at all. It’s important to remember as much as you know about this person you’re helping, and using what you know to ensure you don’t repeat any adverse situations they might have been subjected to in the past.

It’s extremely important to remember that if someone suddenly starts to look scared while you’re talking to them about something serious, it’s not necessarily a judgement on your behaviour. Even raising your voice a little in a way that you don’t consider to be threatening might call up connections in their mind of a time this happened before, with someone else, and with less amicable intentions / results. So they’re not trying to make you feel bad, they’re just dealing with stuff, and if you’re more concerned about letting them know how annoying it is that you have to talk a certain way with them, you might want to seriously reconsider how you relate to them entirely.

*I think they want to be alone so I’m not engaging with them.

Sometimes, a person with self-destructive feelings can feel like they’re not worth reaching out to, that they’re not deserving of attention, so they won’t take steps to seek help. One of the worst things a person can do is take this behaviour at its word and give them the cold shoulder. Self-destructive feelings accompanied by a need for human comfort are an anachronistic and difficult mix for the person who’s feeling them. To feel guilty and angry about the fact that you need human contact and love is a cruel mental block to be stuck in, and many times it can only be pushed through to from the other side.

*Well, I tried that, but they’re being rude to me now. They’re still not responding.

It gets tricky when you’re trying to be comforting and the person you’re comforting is still sort of pushing away, or is still unable to break their shell. Sometimes it’s frustrating when you’re trying hard to get through to them and they seem to be shunning you. It can sometimes make you want to lash out and say ‘Well fine, I’m trying but you’re making me feel bad. Fine, go and leave me alone then,’ but please don’t. This only puts more blame and guilt onto the person you’re trying to help. They’ve got a long journey out of self-destructive feelings, and coping strategies that involve hiding themselves away aren’t just going to disappear following one incident of niceness. It takes much, much longer than that.

*But it’s stressing me out, and I need time to myself too. I’m not strong enough.

Very few people are strong enough, but there’s no race here. It’s not about ‘being strong’, it’s about showing that you have empathy, and showing it in a way that is receptive, so that the other person knows they’re in a good enough environment to share it back with you. Sometimes dealing with someone with mental health issues can be taxing, and you really do have to take care of yourself as you do this, but hashing out your feelings with an emotionally compromised person can increase the damage to you both. This isn’t to say you have to baby them. Sometimes it can be appropriate to talk about your feelings, but pick and choose your battles on this one. For many people it may be a bad idea to talk about your feelings that are to do with them, purely because it can exacerbate guilt or self-hatred. For others it may be cathartic, and a way for them to feel more able to open up about their own feelings. But as before, watch for distress cues. I’d err on the side of hashing your issues out with them being a rather risky option. It’s best to find someone who’s in a position to listen to you, and often this person will not be the person you’re trying to help.

If you and the person you’re trying to support are both mentally ill, or just in a bad place, it is a good idea to seek external help for you both. You don’t want to turn things into an echo chamber; you might set up loops that you both can’t get out of.

Setting alone-time for each of you might also be helpful. Even for some dependency disorders, alone time isn’t nearly so bad if you know that someone’s there to pick you up if you are having a crisis or need them. This behaviour can also foster independence.

*The person I’m trying to help actually doesn’t respond to warmth the way I understand it. How do I help them in this case?

There are a host of mental states that mean that people exhibit more detachment from emotion, and not because they’re missing closeness or anything like that. They still have emotions (they’re not robots, and please don’t call them that, it’s hurtful) but they might relate to the whole concept differently to you. This is very different from taking care of someone who might be dependent-avoidant, or from someone who cuts themselves off because they feel they deserve it but secretly want closeness in a very conventional way. In these more distanced cases, it’s important to learn how your loved one relates to others, what values they hold important. It might not be hugs and cups of tea, it might be sitting apart and listening to a forty-minute piano sonata in silence. It might be not talking about it at all. It might be knocking back five shots and not talking about emotions, but sharing a smile. This can get tricky if your emotional needs are more centred around closeness than theirs, because they may say or do things during their recovery process that can sting. It’s best to put yourself in a mental state where you can deal with this (see the above point for tips) because if you don’t you run the risk of frustrating them and damaging their mental state. Someone who reacts more ‘coldly’ than you and who has mental health problems may feel a pressure to perform, and in this it’s not different at all from those with self-confidence issues feeling pressure to respond when they don’t feel brave enough,   It’s not nice to feel like you have to be someone you’re not out of fear of being ‘too mad’ or ‘too broken’ for someone you love to deal with. We care for those we love, we don’t want them to be hurt

*The person I’m trying to help has a disorder that involves fluctuating mental states. How do I do the right thing?

Doing the right thing in every single situation would require near-telepathic abilities, so you have to accept that sometimes you’ll misread a state of mind and do the ‘wrong thing’. It can be incredibly difficult but please don’t give up on them. Seeing someone you love going from warm to cold can be confusing to experience, but all the same it’s going to be far more conflicting in their heads. Whichever state they happen to be in, ultimately they care about the fact that you care, and you still have a relationship to them, so try to foster that relationship in every situation. They might say or do things in one state that they don’t remember in another, but they’ve chosen to associate themselves with you for a reason, so hold on to it. These cases nearly always involve a more bespoke solution that only you can come up with from experience, but remember there is not a catch-all solution. The human mind – both yours and the person you’re caring for – can be surprising.

*The person I’m supporting won’t believe me when I say I care. It’s actually starting to make me sad. How do I convince them?

The thing about mental illness is that it can make a person feel irrational things. It’s the great persuader, and your attempts at persuasion might pale in comparison to this beastie. But it’s also important to remember that a person suffering irrational thoughts can be experiencing cognitive dissonance. Complete belief in irrational thoughts is just one far end of a large spectrum. It’s actually quite common to have something in your mind telling you everyone hates you while the other half of your brain is saying that this is ridiculous and knows that you are loved. So those parts where you tell your loved one that you care and they break down saying that everyone hates them and they want to die? That’s the thing they’re up against saying that. Don’t take it as something against you, rather, help them fight that thing. Be a bulwark against it, something reliable that they can hold on to when it gets real dark. And if it does make you feel sad to constantly hear these things, try not to rub their face in it. It’s probably a good idea to find someone not experiencing mind-altering paranoia to talk to about how you feel on this. Because you have to stay healthy too.

There is no wrong way to feel. This is very important.

And some things can only come about by trying. Sometimes you’ll try and you’ll end up hurting someone more. But if you keep trying different things around this, if you keep on being there for them, it’s extremely likely that you’ll be helping far more than not.

I suppose this all can be distilled down to a few key points.

Ask how people feel. Give them space. Be considerate that they might have different needs than you.

The last one is one I always need reminding of. I forget that people have different needs to me, and sometimes start being overly close to people that really could do without quite that many hugs. It takes time to learn different people’s systems, but it’s so much better to try and make that space than to not. The people who you care about will appreciate it, and they will remember. It might save a life.

Soon it will be winter; the trees are losing their leaves

It’s my favourite time of year, and also the hardest time of year.

While I hunt for representation for Nimbus (a search which is starting to prove productive, but the process is slow), I’ve been getting on with some other stories. City of Dis is one of them, but I have to be in the right mood for that. It’s an incredibly personal novel and it pains my heart to write it. But it must be done, and it will. Until then, though, I’ve recently had my thoughts settling on other things.

Trees in November was first written as a screenplay, over ten years ago. It’s arguably as dark, if not darker, than City of Dis, and the story is quite upsetting to go through. Like Dis, and as its name suggests, it starts in November. It’s a story about loss, about obsession, about disintegrating mental health, and about how a person might cope with it. And more than that, it’s a snippet of how things were in 2005. The world I went to college in was very different from today. I couldn’t have known all the fantastic things just around the corner, and I couldn’t have known how strange seeing and reading all this work has made me feel. Not nostalgic, that would be the wrong word. But it is strange because it’s familiar; it’s a part of my history.

The story isn’t about me, but it’s from my world. South-East England, Nokia texts, fifteen years old hanging out at local community centres for rock gigs, avoiding townies shouting ‘greebo’ at anything that looked slightly alternative, sneaking out to that one cool friend’s house party because they lived on an estate and their parents didn’t care if we binge-drank all evening, going down the skate park, lugging massive guitar cases and amps round our small nowhere town to jam at friends’ houses after school, pretending we weren’t getting drunk in the park. My world was waiting back at home for time on the family computer because yeah, we had our own computers by then but there’s only one dial-up modem connection, using chat rooms and Myspace and getting three pounds eighty per hour for working at the local supermarket to fund getting to more gigs.

And so it goes. Many of us were not healthy, and many of us could have done with more help. But the support networks back then weren’t anything like today. You could find outlets in some online forums, but there was nothing like the connectedness I experience now. Living in a nowhere town, you realise how much it was a closed loop; it fed into its own understanding of how to cope with problems. I really can’t comment on whether it’s better or worse than ten years earlier or ten years later, but the important fact is that it is different, and I can really feel it. I gave myself a shock, going through my old folders, and finding some of the cutouts, the printed word of my own obsession, still from that time. It’s not healthy to hold on too long when your attempts at getting better involved bad habits, but it is important to get that story out if that’s what it takes to work through it.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. And it’s a stupid month to be doing it in, but it certainly gives it more feeling. Sometimes I think I need to be in that place to wring out the most emotion from it.

Most of my stories seem to take place in the dying light, in that place where hope seems to fade along with the seasonal leaves and you’re faced with the prospect of a cold, hard winter. There will be a spring, there always is, but the question is whether you’re there to see it or not. Some things drag you down places dark and hopeless, and exploring those landscapes is just as important and necessary as fighting back against them is for making your way back out of them again.

An introduction

I’m Holly and I write stuff. I also like geology and exploring – particularly, sailing tall ships and climbing volcanoes. Although I had a pretty unconventional childhood spent being relocated from country to country (yep, military family), I spent my earliest years in Malaysia surrounded by lush forest and disconnected from technology, while most of my school days were spent in the nowhere parts of the South of England at the turn of the century. The world that I knew and that I read about in geography books was a place where it was completely plausible for fantasy and reality to collide – the good parts and the bad – and the older I get, the more I find it still is. I’m not done exploring and I’m not done writing stories. Nor reading other people’s stories, for that matter. There’s so much out there, both real and imagined, and I genuinely think education can change the future for the better.

My writing often includes scientific topics, the mythological side of fantasy (particularly those god-myths inspired by natural disasters and events), worlds that allow me to explore certain geologies and climates, and, quite often, a look at illness and the human psyche.

On Darwin Day and the desire to travel

It’s Darwin Day today – the celebration held on the birthday anniversary of legendary scientist Charles Darwin. He was a pioneer in not just evolutionary science (which most people know him for) but in geology and exploration as well.

Last year I had the pleasure of enjoying Darwin Day whilst overlooking the stunning viewpoint of the Beagle Channel itself. This channel separates Chile from Argentina at the bottom of the South American continent, and is so named for the HMS Beagle, the ship that Darwin sailed through it in 1833. By a twist of fate, the ship was exploring the Argentinian coastline from late January onwards, meaning that Darwin was actually around these shores on his birthday.


It truly was amazing waking up in such a place, on such a date. It wasn’t something that had been planned – I was there to go on a tall ship expedition of my own, and February, in the height of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, is the best time for it.

On the glaciers surrounding the channel, Darwin wrote:

“It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”

There is a lot less snow visible these days at this particular time of year. The weather was a balmy ten degrees Celsius or so. I did expect more of a challenge, but I suppose the fierceness of a far-South summer can be left to the ages past.

Snow-capped cordillera surrounding the channel - surprisingly warm!
Snow-capped cordillera surrounding the channel – surprisingly warm!

After I realised it was Darwin Day, I spent some time reading his voyage journal, in particular I was interested in what he had to say on this part of the world. His observations on geology are truly remarkable, but in stark contrast, as can be expected for a man of his time, he had some rather disagreeable opinions of the local people who lived there, the Yámanas. This indigenous group still lives in this part of the world, mostly thriving off the tourist industry now – us Europeans didn’t wipe them out completely, but we did do some awful things based on our assumptions. So one thing we should take away is that we must pay attention to the difference between due scientific process and personal/social bias, especially when it comes to listening to important and knowledgeable figures.

The collective name for this region, the southernmost tip of South America, is Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Although it wasn’t the HMS Beagle’s first trip down there, having completed a preliminary hydrographic survey in 1830, it was Darwin’s trip that brought this land to the attention of the Western world, along with other places he visited on this voyage such as the Pacific Galapagos islands.

The prog rock band XII Alfonso have created an album called Charles Darwin which tells his entire life story story through an epic 52-song compilation. You can listen to the entire thing for free on Bandcamp, and I’d strongly recommend doing so (and maybe chucking a few pounds their way) – in particular check out Track 15, ‘Tierra del Fuego’.

I would encourage everyone to delve into Darwin’s journal this Darwin Day. For its scientific observations, for Darwin’s personal struggles, for the inextricable socio-historical undercurrent, for the fact that he had the idea of getting out there to find out more and went for it, despite the dangers. Human curiosity in a nutshell. It’s important to not forget this stuff – it’s part of our human history, and a big part, at that. Share it with people, tell your kids: think, and get others thinking too.

Engineering Connections for Climate Change

I’ve been thinking a lot about connections. About how we construct them between other humans, about what that means, and about why it’s so difficult to engineer any kind of meaningful connection between us and our environments.

There’s that familiar saying, ‘To know the true size of the desert, you must walk it,’ and I fear that it may be true, because the only meaningful connections I have with others regarding climate change and the Antarctic is either with those who have walked it like I have, or with those who study it intensely, such as other geologists and environmentalists.

I don’t want this to be true. I want everyone to be able to know the weight of these problems, I want everyone to be able to take it seriously without having to resort to going there or being so heavily involved with it in their lives. I don’t want this to be true because it means that no change is ever going to come if it is.

I want to talk about the emotional dimensions just as much as the physical ones. I want to have a serious conversation where we talk about the temperatures on the West Antarctic peninsula and what this means for penguin populations just as much as I want to reveal the immense isolation and reverence of walking in pristine snow with a blanket of heavy snow-cloud above me, ice crystals hovering in the air and resting on my brow. It’s a world apart from status updates and commuter woes, a world apart from the place of constant connections. But it’s still a connection, albeit a deep, slow-moving one.

When I think about it on my own, a kind of calm overcomes me. It’s a sad sort of calm. It’s the kind of calm that heralds stormy seas approaching. It means something has to change.

I think what it means is that we can’t just think about engineering solutions to the Earth’s physical problems (ice melt, climate change), we have to think about engineering solutions for how we make our interpersonal connections, how we get the message across seriously to other human beings.

There have to be solutions as to how to do this. Increased science communication has already been shown to do good in educating people on the physical side of the problem. Maybe re-marketing this science communication for an incredibly non-sci market would do the trick, but it would have to be carefully considered so it doesn’t become another novelty ‘Breathtaking Earth Photos’ style communication; there are so many of those at the moment that they start to lose poignancy. The message would have to cut through somehow, and I don’t know how that would work in an Internet-based consumer market. If it’s not something that’s instantly consumable or easily-understandable it’s hard to push across. And it runs the risks of being branded with the hippie tag, which turns a lot of folk off instantly. The fact is, the way we humans perform our social interactions has changed massively since the Internet became prominent in our lives over the past few decades, and the way we talk about some issues hasn’t quite caught up.

I can interact perfectly well with other scientists on social media but they already have a vested interest in such topics – other folk it’s harder to get involved. For instance, I’ve had many a time in real life meeting with friends where my feelings on climate issues are brushed over in order to talk about the latest film or celebrity mishap, and I’ve had many a time on social media where my glacier photography has been ‘outed’ as a screencap from some popular videogame.

Glacier in the Lemaire Channel - totally just a screencap from Skyrim!
Glacier in the Lemaire Channel – totally just a screencap from Skyrim!


I am always of the thought that if somebody I care about is interested in a thing, I treat it seriously, because it matters to them. Even if I have strong moral objections to that thing, it’s still a serious issue. And I worry about what we’re doing to our human connections if we stop taking seriously the things that matter to us – because if we don’t take them seriously we’ll never question those things, we’ll never understand them, we’ll never move on.

How would you get your friends at the pub interested in such a thing?

How would you get your friends on Facebook interested?

Or is it a bit of a pointless issue and should we be approaching it from a different angle?

If anyone has any thoughts or ideas, hit me up, because we need to start engineering solutions for the human connection on climate issues.

Hidden Stories: John Nunn and the Wreck of the Favorite

Most of my favourite stories come from real life. Hidden gems, tucked away in annuals and magazines centuries-old. Unbelievable tales from friends that you would not believe if you saw it in a film or read it in a book. The incredulity and haphazardness of what real life can throw at you beats any bizarro film, any magical realism novel.

If you want to exercise your powers of portraying the bizarre, take a look in these places. You never know what you will find.

Two years ago I found what I still consider to be my favourite story of all. It’s the story of a young sailor, name of John Nunn, who was shipwrecked in the wild and desolate Kerguelen Islands in 1825. I may be biased, because this is a tall ship story, and it involves Kerguelen, but yet, it is like no other.

Portrait of John Nunn smoking a pipe
Portrait of John Nunn

Nunn was no stranger to being shipwrecked, but even still, his resourcefulness that allowed him and his few friends to survive, for two years with limited supplies (not much more than hunting tools and a bible) is stunning.

How did it happen? Well, Nunn was part of a whaling expedition to the Southern Hemisphere. Only fifty years prior, Admiral de Kerguelen, a Breton Frenchman, discovered the Kerguelen Islands, opening up a whole new area of the Southern Ocean to industry after it was found that a whole lot of sea creatures  frequented the place, which was completely uninhabited by humans.

Part of the reason for the lack of human colonisation is that fact that, to this day, these islands lie in the path of one of the strongest ocean currents on the globe.  The whole region of the Southern ocean between South Africa and Australia is so fraught with danger that in the 1870’s, the British Navy habitually sent ships out to search for shipwreck survivors, as it was naturally assumed by then that people would fall under misfortune when taking the perilous shortcut to Australasia.

Map of the Southern Ocean around Kerguelen, showing Antarctic Convergence line
The perilous zone of the Southern Ocean, as shown by the Antarctic Convergence line. Image ©

Of course, Nunn went before all this, when the whaling industry was in its prime. After a chaotic journey south involving a pirate chase, they arrived at Kerguelen in a ship christened the Frances, armed with weapons that could take down anything from baby sea elephants to adult whales.

The most haunting part of the story comes when he talks about the events which led up to the first shipwrecking. During a stint in which him and four crewmates took a shallop (a small, open rowboat) out to Iceburgh Bay to hunt sea elephants, they experienced a series of strange events. First, the mysterious discovery of a cavern, in which a dozen baby sea elephants were imprisoned by bars of ice. The group of men, heads full on enchanted tales from their childhoods, broke the ice bars and freed the baby seals.

Later, aboard the shallop, the men observe the sea fall still, and in that gentle stillness, a giant whale rises from the sea depths and arcs above them, rocking the boat with its tail in a fantastic display of proximity and threatening with that majesty to send them all into the water.

They then realise that the oil lamp has been burning all night, unnoticed. This is an ill omen, on top of the other two strange events. Nunn and his friends find themselves unable to get it out of mind, and experience a sense of dread.

The following day their shallop encounters foul waters and they are shipwrecked across that same stretch of coast.

The 'Loon', the shallop Nunn was shipwrecked in
The ‘Loon’, the shallop Nunn was shipwrecked in

I can only imagine the awe, intrigue, and sense of chill strangeness they must have felt in the lead-up to the shipwrecking. The sense of ill-portent fulfilled, that bit of magic creeping into reality with devastating effect.

Confined to the small bay with no way to obtain fresh food and no resources for cooking meat, they nonetheless survived and were rescued by the captain of another ship, the Favorite, a month later. But soon the Favorite fell under the dismal spell too.

It started with a dream John Nunn had. In it, he is trying to escape a sinking shallop and ends up swimming to shore. When he told his friends with whom he had been shipwrecked, they took him very seriously and asked that he tell the first mate. He did not.

A few days later, when navigating an awkward bay, the Favorite sprung a leak. Nunn had to swim to the shore. And this time it was no month but two years before him and his shipmates were rescued.

Throughout that time the group made use of abandoned whaling huts and seal oil distilling equipment, and scraped out a living worthy of a 21st Century post-apocalyptic film.

I won’t spoil the rest of it for you; you can read it for free here.

My parting advice: look in the forgotten places. Find the stories that hide there. Your imagination will be all the richer for it.