A Question of Perspective

Originally published December 2013

Hello Everyone! I hope that you survived the recent gales intact and with little or no damage to hearth and home. We can only be grateful that our tiny part of the world receives a miniscule portion of the planet’s quota of natural disasters. The great storm of 1987 is certainly the worst within living memory, the worst on record being in 1703. That storm, subsequently referred to as The Storm, ravaged the south of England for a whole week and resulted in losses of life, shipping, property and trees unparalleled in the catalogue of Britain’s Acts of God. In the midst of the destruction a young Daniel Defoe had a narrow escape when a building collapsed close by; how would generations of book readers have coped without Friday!

Almost a hundred years previous to The Storm, in 1607, much of the south-west of England and south Wales was swamped by what we now call a Tsunami (Japanese Tsu-harbour + nami-wave). Reportedly 2,000 people were killed and salt marshes torn out of the Severn Estuary. There is no universal law stating that our little island will not be afflicted by anything on the scale of these disasters ever again, but with our track record our thoughts must go out to those around the world who regularly battle the elements and survive only to find that literally they have lost everything.

The latest gales have left their mark on Quarry Wood. A number of arborial casualties, mainly Silver Birch, are now blocking paths or leaning precariously against other trees. The combination of wind and copious amounts of earth-softening rain has left many of our shallow-rooted trees clinging on to the foot or so of topsoil for dear life. As always at this time of year, the utmost care is needed when walking through the reserve. The trees will be made safe as soon as possible but, given the amount of rainfall at present, it is likely to take most of the Winter.

Now you may call me slow on the uptake (and many do!) but I cannot be the only one who suddenly sees something that has been blatantly obvious and as plain as the proverbial olfactory system since the dawn of (recorded) time. For instance, it has taken the best part of five decades for me to realise that the months of September, October, November and December just do not live up to their names:

September (Latin septemsevenber-suffix)
October (Latin octoeightber-suffix)
November (Latin novemnine + ber-suffix)
December (Latin decemten + ber-suffix)

Why was our Quarry Wood Fun Day held in the tenth month and not the eighth? Why is Christmas celebrated in the twelfth month not the tenth? Why, for that matter, is my birth date in the eleventh month and not the ninth, as November would suggest?

The answer to these puzzlers, and to many others, lies in the time when the Sandal’d and Toga’d Ones were on the ascendancy at around 753 BC. TQW romansRomulus, the first king of Rome, is credited with inventing the original calendar or rather a calendar we would recognise; despite the fact there were only ten months in the year. The year started with Martius (March), ended in December, and lasted for 304 days. The remaining sixty-one days were just not accounted for. These ‘lost’ days occurred during the Roman Winter time and I feel that for those of us fortunate enough to live in a country with distinct seasons, this is quite an appealing system.

How often on a cold, gloom-laden January day do we feel like settling down in front of a blazing fire and letting the world pass us by? In this we are only joining in with many of the denizens of the natural world. Even in England, Winter temperatures plummet to the extent that many species across the five Kingdoms either lose the will to live or hibernate. As I appear to be trying to strengthen the increasingly tenuous link between modern man and the natural world I will focus on the Kingdom to which we belong, Animalia.

To narrow it down even further let us look at Class Mammalia and how they cope with their ‘lost’ days. TQW Dec 13 hedgehogThe common image of our Hedgehogs, Badgers, Dormice et al. is of an Autumnal feeding frenzy in order to store a few layers of fat away. This is true as far as it goes, for example if a Hedgehog does not weigh at least 700 grams it will not survive hibernation, but as is the case for all things biological it is a lot more complicated.

Two types of fat tissue are found in Mammals, White Adipose Tissue (white fat) and Brown Adipose Tissue (brown fat). The former is the result of storing excess calories and is the stuff many of us will be adding on over Christmas to those parts prone to a bit of extra padding. The boffins are still working on understanding fully the role of brown fat, but what is for certain is that it is crucial for hibernating animals. Brown fat generates heat by actually burning calories, most useful when lying in a dormant state in the middle of frozen woodland. When an animal rouses from hibernation, either briefly during the Winter or fully in the Spring, energy levels are at their lowest. Once that internal chemical alarm clock is triggered it is the brown fat reserves that supply the warmth and energy needed to get our Hedgepigs going again at a time when they are most vulnerable.

That is all very well for our taxonomic relatives in Class Mammalia, they can sleep the sleep of the just and wake up (hopefully) in time to partake in some Spring Fever! What about those early Romans you cry! How did they know when to start worrying about what date it was again? The simple answer is that they didn’t! They soon discovered that a year with ten months did not align with the seasons and, reputedly, forty years later King Numa Pompilius converted most of the ‘lost’ days into two months. This lengthened the year to 355 days and made it correspond approximately to a solar year, but resulted in many of the months being misnamed for their position in the calendar year. The astute amongst you will have noticed that a number of days were still not accounted for. In fact it took a lot of tweaking by the men at the top in the Eternal city to produce a calendar that would rule the lives of hoi polloi. It was in 1582 under the leadership of one of Caesar’s successors, Pope Gregory XIII, that the calendar we use today was conceived. The year 1753 saw protests on the streets of Britain when we switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian and immediately lost eleven days from the month of September. One has to wonder how an old gaffer living on the south coast felt having survived the worst storm in British history as a young ‘un only to have some foreigners steal the best part of two weeks of his life!

Of course all of this is of no concern to our sleepy Furzepigs as generations of them curled up and slept through the ancient Druids lighting Solstice Logs, Roman Saturnalia, alcohol fuelled Wassailing, Pickwick’s seasonal indulgence and (how I envy them) present day supermarket scrambles!

TQW pick 2Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (1836)

Happy Christmas One and All!

Paul Johnson





Image 2: Hedgehog by Mark Fletcher, used under Creative Commons License 2.0


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s