Tag Archives: zoology


14 Oct


Anguis fragilis, or the Slow Worm, is no worm at all, but a semi-fossorial (burrowing), limbless lizard. I found this pair of lovely reptiles many moons ago on the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland whilst teaching the undergraduate Field Course for the Zoology Department of Newcastle University.

They are breathtakingly beautiful creatures;  bronze, muscular and elegant. But one must take great care in handling them – like all lizards they can drop their tails.

Slow worms used to be common on the UK mainland of my youth, but the depredations of the domestic cat have significantly reduced their number.

Various dictionary definitions of worm would have us believe the word as a noun describes a creature which creeps or wriggles, a person who is weak or despicable, or as a verb -describing ‘moving with difficulty’. In Old English or High German, Wyrm means ‘serpent’ or dragon. Poor terms term for treasure.

I learned the concept of ‘finding treasure’ from my mother. who had an uncanny ability to enthuse me in the natural world and matters philosophical. As a single mother bringing up two boys in the 60’s and 70’s she had to watch the pennies. Her way of engaging my brother Tim and I was to say “Let’s go and find a treasure”. We would set off on a ramble up Stanton Hill towards an old lead mine. Whatever the season, weather or mood, we would always find something to wonder at; flowers, seeds, lichens, fossils, bits of galena and felspar, insects – all manner of living and natural things.

When she was asked, years later “How do you explain raising two Zoologists?” Mam said “I made them look at every ant on the way”.

Essentially, she taught us ‘how to get our eye in’. Although this idiom generally refers to someone who is good at hand eye coordination – in sport – I think it is the essence of doing and looking with a prepared mind. An eye for detail, for natural structure and form are essential in my work. So it is with the same delight I experience in finding slow worms, that I solve design and structural problems with wood….and every time I go to the wood yard I am looking for treasure.

This is some of the Yew I am using to make a four poster bed at the moment – it reminds me of a distant nebula viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope.


An Image from Hubble:

Westerlund 2 — Hubble’s 25th anniversary image

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings has been released to celebrate Hubble’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of new discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science. The image’s central region, containing the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Our greatest treasure, our children – and I include great ideas and projects in this – find us, if we are fortunate.

My daughter, Polly, was a most able zoologist’s assistant when she was little, braving inclement weather to indulge her father’s obsession with Natural History. I realise now that I was only doing what my mother did, as a parent, and getting her to squat down and look closely.


The cleft chestnut fence in the background seems to run through my head in this photo taken in 1986 – I do sometimes wish I had listened to my heart many years ago and really looked at this picture. I would have realised that the way to happiness for me was in playing with wood and looking for treasure, it took me a while to get my eye in.



1 May

Manus is the zoological term for the distal portion of the forelimb of an animal. I’m a zoologist, I trained at Manchester University between 1976 and 1979 and stayed on to study centipede leg glands for a further three years. My wife asked me once “What does Ph.D. stand for?” to which I replied “Piled high and Deep”. I continued to pile it high and deep for another twelve years as a postdoctoral researcher, which is a posh word for a ‘drone’ or ‘lab monkey’. Until I finally had had enough and became a school teacher. I had much more fun teaching science to secondary school students and rugby to reprobates.

Until I became ill. Years of very black moods interspersed with periods of intense creativity and manic energy caught up with me and I had a spectacular break down. It has taken me years to calm the Tsunami of emotions and the resulting fall out to regain a confident lucidity I have not felt since I was a boy. Eventually I was diagnosed by a very competent psychiatrist, having seen a rubbish shrink for several years prior who did not help one bit. In fact I suspect the antidepressants that were prescribed for ‘chronic depression’ were partly instrumental in bouncing me in to a full blown psychotic episode.

But this piece is not about manic depression (a much more descriptive and robust term than the trendy BiPolar Type 2 I am labelled with). It’s no longer fashionable anyway, not since Catherine Zeta Jones and Stephen Fry made it cool. It is not cool. In zoological terms it is an annoying trait I may have inherited. This piece is about sanity.



I free carved this bowl from a lump of Australian gum tree using a mallet and a series of chisels. It took me about two days of continuous tapping away at the chisel handle with my mallet to hollow out the bowl. The concentration required and the repetitive nature of the exercise was rather like zen meditation and it left me in a state of bliss. 

I have made plenty of rubbish bowls and lousy carvings in my time, but I still achieved that state of mindful bliss every time I carved. My mind is calmed by this kind of exercise.

I believe that when the connection between the mind and manual work is at its strongest, for example during craft or art work that we move away from mental instability and achieve the centre ground.

The key moment in human evolution was when our ancestors became bipedal freeing not only the forelimbs, but large areas of the cortex for communication. We used to make tools, hunt and gather – now we sit at computer screens and tap keys. We pile it high and deep. Branch out a little and make something, after all a busy manus is the foundation of compos mentis.