Category Archives: Science

A MEMORIAL TO ERIC YORK

I’ve mentioned the story elsewhere, but it this is a photo of Eric York, who died in the Grand Canyon in 2007, of Pneumonic Plague. I never met Eric, but I saw how colleagues, friends and his girlfriend were so shocked by his death, and especially perhaps the cause. I had walked down into that extraorindary ‘hole in the ground’ with one of the last people to speak with him, a teacher at the school where I was doing a writer’s in residence programme. When we learnt a Ranger had died that night, from colleagues at the ranger’s station in the Canyon, the mood was understandably sombre. Eveyone was speculating. It was extraordinary though to learn the next day that Eric had died of a strain of the Black Death, from skinning a mountain lion carcass.

Apparently plague exists in cats and rats, especially at certain heights around the Canyon, and they die of it too in Colorado, although ‘Zoonotic Transfer’ into the human population is very rare in America. Eric had passed away in his cabin, around Halloween, and parents at the school were especially and understandably worried. Anyone who had come into contact with Eric was put on antibiotics, as the top virologist from Washington flew down with his team, to allay fears. It was a surreal and nervy time, very unhappy in other ways too, with the authorities both trying to supress rumours, and put people’s minds at rest. It seemed to take a very long time to get into the National Press. I wanted to do a book on Eric, and the life of the Rangers, a rather special breed of American, with any number of stories of Canyon life, and the often rather crazy and unprepared tourists who visit too, but sadly it was not to be. One day I hope to go back, because it is a place that touches and inspires many of the themes in my own books. DCD

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PHOENIX ARK PRESS RELEASE

Phoenix Ark Press are delighted to announce the publication of Leonardo’s Little Book of Wisdom, compiled and introduced by the historian Foreman Saul, who is profiled below. An essential guide to the Master’s life wisdom and wit too, this unique selection, from the translation of Leonardo’s notebooks by Jean Paul Richter, will lead you through a genius’ insights into science, painting, nature, religion, God, love and death. Interspersed with Leonardo’s mostly humorous prophecies, it brings the man to life in a vivid new way and is done to celebrate the Discovery Channel’s coming forensic series on Leonardo’s painting and, of course, the National Gallery’s ground-breaking exhibition in London this autumn. What better way to walk through life than in the company of a true giant?

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PROFILING FOREMAN SAUL

Foreman Saul is one of Phoenix Ark’s more elusive and mercurial authors; a little like the great Leonardo himself. A journalist and historian , with a name you might think stems from across the Atlantic, rather than the Europe of his upbringing, he has specialised in both the Civilisation of the Italian Renaissance and travel throughout Europe and Italy.‘Who or why, or where or what?’ is Foreman Saul, we sometimes joke at the office, as he pops in and out, but he usually shrugs and certainly raises an eyebrow about some of the more exotic theories on one of his great heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci!

Phoenix are delighted to give you a taste of his Introduction to this little book of huge insights, far beyond their time:

Many have earned themselves little books of wisdom in collections of their sayings, but it is not something you might immediately expect from such a scientific figure as Leonardo da Vinci, who was born 1492 and died in 1519. The epitome of a ‘Renaissance Man’, Leonardo is best known for his paintings, drawings, and numerous practical and mechanical inventions. He also left 13,000 pages of notes and reflections, in jottings, observations and thoughts, mostly to aid his work, often disordered, so never intended for publication. That jumble is what most justifies a new approach to re-ordering some of his words, into categories of useful life reflections… We are flooded with ‘self help’ books and life guides purporting to supply ‘The Secret’, but what better way to walk through life than in the company of a truly towering genius?”

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THE 4th PHOENIX ARK CULTURAL ESSAY

LOVING ANIMALS by Eugenia Anastassiou

From the legend of Androcles and the Lion, to Kipling’s Jungle Book, through the moving story of social alienation and redemption in Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose the theme of the deep bonds and devotion between animals and humans has been explored many times in literature.

Yet last week, in Helmand in Afghanistan, life seemed very poignantly to imitate literature. Twenty-eight year old Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, an Arms and Explosives Search dog-handler in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, was shot on mission. As his body was being taken back to Camp Bastion, a comrade-in-arms, his own search dog Theo, who witnessed Lance Corporal Tasker’s death, died from a seizure. Reports from battle-hardened soldiers in the field mentioned that Theo had ‘died from a broken heart’. Today the soldier-master and his dog are being repatriated together, making their final journey back home, as a team. Lance Corporal Liam Tasker and Theo died on Tuesday March 1st 2011. His death brings the total number of UK military personnel to have died in Afghanistan to 358, and Theo is the sixth British military dog killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

Even as human beings, we often cynically question the theory of people (let alone animals) dying from a broken heart. How does Shakespeare’s Rosalind have it in As You Like It? ‘No one ever died for love’. Certainly art, poetry and literature though go a long way in perpetuating that naturally romantic, idealised form of death. Can animals feel such a thing as heartbreak, or is it just anthropomorphic clap-trap, worthy only of the Daily Mail?

There are undoubtedly many well-known instances where animals, especially dogs it seems, have grieved and mourned the death, both of their own and their owners. Phoenix Ark’s founder told me how, visiting a wolf sanctuary in Colorado, an alpha wolf who had lost his mate, dug a half hole in the sandy ground and lay down to grieve. That night, when the pack usually picked up each other’s haunting evening wolf song, the others stayed eerily silent, as he howled, as if in a mark of respect. Howl, howl, howl. Wild elephants are known to pass around the bones of their dead , as though the touch of their trunks is transferring some deeper pereception of life and death.

As for our emotional relationship with animals though, the touching 19th century tale of the Scottish Skye terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, made into a rather over-sentimentalised movie, a statute and virtual industry, is the true story of a dog whose love for his dead master John Gray, a night watchman for the Edinburgh City Police, meant he spent every day sitting on Jock’s grave in Greyfriars Kirk, for fourteen years until his own death. More recently, in 2002, during Mugabe’s violent attacks on both his own people and white farmers in Zimbabwe, the image of Squeak, a Jack Russell staunchly guarding the mutilated body of his owner and refusing to move, made headlines across the world.

Apart from anecdotal evidence, and the instincts of writers, scientists are now beginning to analyse higher feelings in animals, especially the strong attachment between man and dog. Heading some of this research is neuro-psychiatrist and leading autism specialist Professor Jaak Panksepp, who has attempted to map out animal brains and further confirms emotions such as happiness, even possibly humour, as well as sadness and separation anxiety, as part of their fundamental psychological make-up – just like humans. To many it is quite obvious and rather makes a mockery of supposedly vital research grants being spent on studies that can lead British scientists to the remarkably obvious conclusion that a stag actually feels stress during a hunt!

But at last science bears up a level of anthropomorphism. Indeed, while we perhaps can see everything, and sometimes too much, of ourselves in the great mirror of nature, it would be impossible to understand animals without the intrinsic langauge of emotion, that is so much part of ourselves. Various dog experts, animal psychologists and vets commenting on ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog With A Broken Heart’ find it unusual or impossible, since dogs, like all pack animals, have a strong survival instinct, and eventually adapt to new situations or new owners. But in this case, especially because of the heightened circumstances of Theo being a war-dog and working with Lance Corporal Tasker in such stressful conditions as Afghanistan, the bond would surely become even more intense. Just look at their photograph above.

As for emotion and its destructive effects, Dr. Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist who also happens to treat the Queen’s corgis, offers the explanation that ‘dogs being highly sociable animals, suffer from a form of depression which inhibits not only their appetites but also their immune system. This makes them susceptible to infection and can be fatal’. But isn’t this also the way humans can weaken, and even die of a broken heart, with apologies to Shakespeare?

Other animal experts and behaviouralists will probably put up endless arguments against Theo dying of a broken heart, dismissing it as trite sentimentality, made up to make people feel better about a tragic outcome. Why should humans be so limited and arrogant though, as to presume that Lance Corporal Tasker could not instil such an extraordinary bond, a tribute indeed, and that Theo never sensed, as Anaïs Nin put it: ‘Love (which) never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source…..it dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness’. March 2011 Eugenia Anastassiou. Eugenia has worked in Television and Film on many political and sociological documentaries and is passionately involved in ideas and culture. Her essay is a very welcome edition to a little publisher, that prides itself on its animal stories.

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THE SECOND PHOENIX ARK ‘CULTURAL ESSAY’

THE CHILD’S EYE by Donald Sturrock

Tom Stoppard once wrote that the person who carries their childhood with them throughout life never becomes old. In this he spoke for many artists and thinkers, past and present, who have been inclined to cast a suspicious eye over the notion of adulthood, and celebrate instead the child’s perception of the world.
Roald Dahl was one of these. In old age, he often jokingly described himself as an ‘infantile geriatric’, or a ‘geriatric child.’ He was utterly confident that he still saw the world with a young boy’s eyes and once told me – with a proud twinkle in his eye – that he thought most adults were quite incapable of doing so. Dahl was an inventor of stories, and something of a fantasist, but he retained a razor sharp memory of his childhood. He could recall with ease the thrill of cycling down a hillside with no hands on the handlebars, the tedium of interminable Maths lessons, and the sensation of having a world of giants always looking down on you. More remarkable however was the fact that he also retained a child’s natural ability to invent and imagine, to live in the moment, to stop and stare and wonder at the marvels and mysteries of life – to recapture what Dahl’s friend and admirer John Betjeman described as the period “measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.”

Dahl celebrated beyond measure the human capacity for fantasy, subversively exhorting his readers, young and old, to observe the world with “glittering eyes” because “the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” In a similar vein he attacked the tyranny of contemporary information culture, when he argued that the nicest small children were those who have been “fed upon fantasy” while the “nastiest” were the ones who knew only a diet of facts. He was being deliberately provocative of course. But his celebration of playfulness, even of frivolity and silliness, had an important message – one that is all too easily forgotten in this current age, where observation and plain speaking are so out of fashion. Echoing many free thinkers before him, who tempered the sophistication of adulthood with the wide-eyed imaginative inventiveness of youth, he issued a plea to observe the world with fresh eyes, free of preconceptions and conditioned responses.

Some of the greatest composers possessed this aspect to their personality. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, was composing operas of wit, elegance and refinement aged only thirteen. As an adult he became a revolutionary of refinement, whose compositions reached dizzying pinnacles of poise, finesse and urbanity. Yet alongside this cultivated wisdom, he treasured his child’s sensibility, delighting in pranks, jokes, scatology and invented languages until his untimely end, aged only thirty-five. The earthy wit of his final opera The Magic Flute remains testament to the sixteen-year-old, who on tour to Italy, joked to his father about the sights, sounds and smells of the Merdeiterranean.

Not all child prodigies managed to hang onto that freewheeling joie de vivre. Like Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was at the peak of his powers as a teenager. His magnificent Octet was composed in the autumn of 1825 when the composer was only sixteen and was partly inspired by the vision of an orchestra of flies, frogs, crickets, mosquitoes and a bagpipe blowing soap bubbles. It sent what one listener described as “an electric shock” through its first audience. Mendelssohn however would find that, in adulthood, his child’s eye grew dim. Though he too did not reach the age of forty, many of his later compositions lacked the wit, exuberance and daring originality of those from his chldhood. They became bogged down by a self-conscious desire to be serious.

But a desire for grandeur need not necessarily cloud the eyes of youth. Fifty years after Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler was writing symphonies of unparalleled scale and ambition: works that he believed would embrace and express the universe. Yet he repeatedly drew on his childhood memories of nature, military bands and folk-songs when he needed inspiration. When analysed by Sigmund Freud. What did he talk about? His childhood. And many of his greatest and grandest symphonies drew on The Youth’s Magic Horn, a collection of poems which had thrilled him as a teenager. The verses are filled with innocence, humour, wit and perhaps, most of all a fantastical sense of wonder at the mysteries and strangeness of the world.

For Benjamin Britten too, childhood was a complex cocktail of emotions, among which was an acute awareness of the unexpected power of innocence and vulnerability. This also remained an ever-present force throughout his adult life. When asked why he wrote so often and so well for children, Britten is said to have replied: “Because I still feel like I am thirteen years old.’ It was something that also cemented his attraction to Christianity, with its regenerative belief that a ‘little babe so few days old’ alone had the possibility to ‘rifle Satan’s fold.’ Clearly all these writers and musicians retained their own distinct sense of childhood. However there was surely something in the child’s sense of magic, of an imaginative world untarnished by the compromises and cynicism of adulthood, that was also universal. This “spirit of youth” enabled each of them to be unselfconsciously original, daring and new. Each was always irrepressibly young at heart. It is a shame that this freshness of response is not more widely celebrated by more of today’s educationalists and politicians, who seem all too eager to see the world through the dull lens of examinations, targets, certificates and qualifications. In downplaying the importance of original thought, they would do well to remember the words of the mathematician and storyteller Lewis Carroll, who complained that he would “give all wealth that years have piled, The slow result of Life’s decay, To be once more a little child, For one bright summer day.”

And it is not just the world of the arts that might benefit from such an approach. Two of Britain’s most brilliant scientists were sustained by their own child’s eye: Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. As a child, the playful inventiveness of the former infuriated his teachers. As an adult, that same quality would enable him to rewrite the fundamentals of biology. Newton personified his attitude to knowledge as being that of a child, writing that he saw himself “like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” If only more people could take this metaphor to their hearts, the world would surely be a happier, more imaginative and more exciting place in which to live. Donald Sturrock – Feb 2011 Donald is profiled below. The next Phoenix Ark essay will be by the Historian Saul David. The images are Dahl in adulthood, and in Repton School uniform, Mozart visting Madame Pompadour, Mendelsson, a replica of Newton’s telescope and Collier’s portrait of Charles Darwin.

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LIFE ON EARTH

Just finished watching the triumphant, civilised, passionate David Attenborough, on the origins of life, and it is extraordinary what we know, and extraordinary how little we know of each other.

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