Archive | December, 2014


24 Dec

For the first time I turned a job down because I thought it was too much for me. A client arranged for me to look at a “Christmas Tree which was planted some years ago in the garden which needs to come out”.

I was skeptical, but I packed my chainsaw and gear and drove to the client’s house. A very nice gentleman showed me through to his back garden.

He pointed to a 70 foot high Western Hemlock of some maturity – about 20 inches girth. “That must have used a canny few fairy lights” I said. He proceeded to ask me if I could fell it.

I thought yes, absolutely but I said “Not without trashing your green house, your neighbours garden or your sitting room. There is only one spot it will go – along your property boundary.”

Then I heard myself say “I will not do it because it is too risky, I will give you the name of a reputable tree surgeon – he is a friend and he will dismantle it from the crown down for you”

I walked away feeling old but alive.

I have several guardian angels who are my Valkyries. Polly, my daughter pictured above gives me the desire to act sensibly (she calls it good Daddliness).


Clare, my wife is the Valkyrie who strengthens my mettle, sharpens my wit and makes me brave.

I am a lucky man!

God Jul, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you my lovely readers.



15 Dec

In the ancient Celtic tradition a Druid was priest, healer, soothsayer and lawgiver. Druids were not liable to pay taxes, they were an elite who protected the lore, traditions and the spirits of these ancient Islands and of the other Celtic nations across the water in Gaul (a large area encompassing most of France, Luxembourg, Belgium, parts of the Netherlands and Germany and parts of Northern Italy). Their influence was so strong that the Roman invaders under Caesar and later emperors tried vigorously to suppress them, so feared was their influence and practise. In particular, human sacrifice in the form of immolation (burning alive) in the Wicker Man was seen as particularly barbaric.

Training a Druid could take up to twenty years, and because the education was entirely oral (there were no written texts) and experiential, members of the order were trained to have prodigious memories.

It takes about twenty years to train a modern human to become a Doctor, from childhood to first qualification and then many more years training in a specialisation such as surgery or anaesthetics. It takes about the same length of time to gain a Ph.D..

I was 23 when I gained mine in Zoology. Throughout this time my mind was engaged in an ever more esoteric progress from ABC (learned in primary school in West Africa) through Algebra and Grammar (in Matlock) and eventually through closer and closer study to a highly specialised new field of enquiry – in my case centipede biology.

The discipline and the patience required of an acolyte of the Druid order, or a modern Ph.D. student is prodigious, because every step of the way is fraught with the very real prospect of failure. The slope is very slippery indeed.

I came across this strange apparatus whilst cleaning out my desk yesterday, a pair of iridectomy scissors – probably the smallest hand-held scissors money could buy back in 1980. Displayed on a piece of inlay work just finished for a client it made me think how peculiar the tools of my former trade and how refined the intent they represented.


Like the soothsayer I had become in my late twenties and early thirties I spent long hours spinning my own myths and legends around the bits of Arthropods I had dissected in order to forge a career as an academic.

Instead of reading tea leaves or the giblets of a sacrificed chicken I would, as a research Zoologist conduct experiments on the bodies of tiny segmented creatures. It was as if by delving into their secret anatomies I would understand life and perhaps myself better.

The basis of medicine is physiology and anatomy. Most people do not realise that the robust understanding of nervous transmission at the synapse is thanks to years of painstaking research on the squid, Loligo, or that much of our knowledge of genetics is thanks to the endless selective breeding programs of the fruitfully, Drosophila. Our understanding of life is a chimaera, based upon a mixture of animal model systems from the rat to the flatworm.

I am no Druid, but this pilgrim has journeyed from micro dissection and neuroanatomy to marquetry and mouldings. My old friend Peter Craggs likes to joke that I have had a ‘career in reverse’. From academia, through secondary education, through conservation to carpentry. I prefer to think of it as a necessary unlearning of aspiration, to discover my true nature. I am a Littlewood after all.

Just because you can, does not mean you should. The Druids understood this, and in their reluctance to write knowledge down they honoured the true spirit of our Earth and the living creatures that form a living alliance with her.

Tread gently amidst the trees, for we do not stay not long in this world. I wish you seasons greetings as we celebrate the Solstice on the 21st of December and the return of the Light.