February 22nd, 2015
Tony Juniper’s book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? brilliantly proves that money really does grow on trees. Nature is the basis of our economic lives and is worth $100 trillion/year to the global economy. But we use up our yearly budget of resources in about 8 months and after that we destroy our natural capital. Juniper lists the huge benefits we get from healthy soil, plants, light, water and animals, and shows it makes economic sense to care for them. Pollinators, for example, are vital for our food supply: of the 100 most important food crop plants, 71 are pollinated by bees. He says the most likely causes of the bee decline are loss of habitat and pesticides (especially neonicotinoids):
Of all the unintended consequences that arise from how we treat nature, the loss of pollinators caused by pesticides is one of the more ironic. Chemical that were designed to protect agriculture are undermining its viability.
But he’s hopeful we can protect the bees, for example, by planting ‘bee roads’ of flowering plants between crops.
Everyone who has even a small garden can help with this.
February 15th, 2015
There is only one time that is important: Now. – Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales (1903) inspired me in my youth and I still love the wisdom of his folk tales. The classics are How Much Land Does a Man Need (very little, naturally); The Three Questions (Eg. What should I do with my time?); and A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg, an environmental metaphor that has only gained in power.
Photo: the only colour photo of Tolstoy (here aged 80), taken in 1908:
February 8th, 2015
One evening, a Sufi stopped by the roadside to read a book. He lit a bright lamp then walked some distance away and lit a small candle. He sat by the candle and read. People passing by asked, “Why don’t you read by the lamp?” The Sufi replied, “The bright lamp attracts all the moths. Here I can read my book in peace.” (Adapted from A Perfumed Scorpion by Idries Shah)
Blockbuster books attract many readers, but I’m attracted by books that are almost forgotten. Here are a few favourite hidden gems:
- Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche; and which Lewis called “far and away the best of my books.”
- Catastrophe, the strange stories of Dino Buzzati – a brilliant collection of surreal stories.
- Daydreamer by Ian McEwan – imaginative stories about a boy who daydreams to cope with growing up.
- The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang – thoughts on everything by a Chinese writer and inventor
- Drift by William Mayne – survival story about a North American Indian girl and a white boy.
February 1st, 2015
A Bee in a Cathedral by Joel Levy is a fascinating book of science analogies and astonishing numbers. Suitable for all ages, only the physics section is a bit complex. A few of my favourites factoids:
- Every day 1 million meteoroids strike the Earth
- How far to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Travelling in a rocket at 250,000km/h, it would take you 18,000 years
- Most of the living cells in your body are less than a month old
- About 50 million neutrinos are passing through you now
- Every molecule in a glass of water is changing partners billions of times a second.
- How hard does your heart pump blood? Empty a bathtub in 15 minutes using only a teacup —repeat this without stopping for the rest of your life
- If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the centre.
January 25th, 2015
The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a fable about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a wise child. It’s one of the world’s most translated books (in 250 languages) and the top selling French book. It has the most intriguing sentence in all children’s literature:
What is essential is invisible to the eyes. (L’essential est invisble pour les yeux.)
What is ‘essential’? Is it truth, love, soul, uncertainty? These are the questions the story evokes. The opening chapter about following your dreams is brilliant. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who also wrote great adventure books (eg. Wind, Sand and Stars ). His delicate watercolour illustrations are near perfect too.
January 18th, 2015
The things that you do should be things that you love; and the things that you love should be things you do. – Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s stories kept me reading in my teenage years and still inspire my writing today. I still have my first Corgi paperback of The Golden Apples of the Sun – the best 65c I ever spent (in 1970 that was an hour’s raspberry picking). Bradbury’s sci-fi-fantasy stories are scary, surprising, sentimental, and highly imaginative: a dinosaur falls in love with a lighthouse (The Fog Horn); an insect changes history (A Sound of Thunder); an astronaut pursues Jesus from planet to planet (The Man); the sun only shines once every 7 years (All Summer in a Day). He wrote short stories (my favourite collection is The Illustrated Man), novels, film (eg. Moby Dick) and TV.
Read more about Ray Bradbury:
If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.– Ray Bradbury
January 11th, 2015
Male bees (drones) have a decadent life inside the hive but it ends gruesomely. In spring and summer drones spend their days eating and sleeping – the female bees even clean up their droppings for them. In autumn the females push most of the drones out of the beehive to die in the cold air. Why have drones at all? To mate with a new queen, but it only happens once every few years. Several drones will mate with her and die in the act. Drones themselves have no father; they hatch from unfertilised eggs. It was once thought all bees came from virgin births, until in 1788 a blind Swiss naturalist, Francois Huber, proved that queens mated.
What big eyes the drones have; all the better to find the queen.
January 4th, 2015
The book has long oscillated between being accepted as harmless hilarity and being condemned as excessively horrifying- Humphrey Carpenter
Struwwelpeter (Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures) by Dr Heinrich Hoffman (1845) is a classic of gleefully gruesome cautionary rhymes about naughty children. Hoffman was a psychiatrist who founded an influential Frankfurt asylum and pioneered counselling as an alternative treatment to cold baths. The characters in Struwwelpeter were inspired by his child patients – he’d tell them stories and draw pictures to calm them down. Hoffman was looking for a book for his three year old son and could only find ‘stupid collections of pictures, and moralising stories’, so he created Struwwelpeter. It was one of the first picture books designed purely to please children – before 1850 children’s books were mainly religious and moral lessons with titles such as An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. Read more about ‘Shock-Headed’ Peter here.
The Awful Warning carried to the point where Awe topples over into helpless laughter.– Harvey Darton
December 28th, 2014
Five years old, terrified on my first day at school. I sat on the hard mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss. I became so engrossed I didn’t notice my mother slip out. Horton the faithful elephant helped me get through that day.
Six years old, and absorbed in a cowboy adventure, Calico the Wonder Horse by Virginia Lee Burton. Gripped by this image of the Stewy Stinker crying in remorse for his wickedness – aware of my own naughtiness perhaps.
Seven years old, and Tintin was my role model for courage and integrity. The stories introduced me to sci-fi and humour, history and politics.
Eight years old, and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster opened the world of word-play to me, an addiction that remains today.
Nine years old, and I devoured Willard Price books as pulp adventures with erupting volcanoes, balloon rides and killer anacondas. I wanted to write books as exciting.
Ten years old, on the ultimate journey with a small hero facing the monstrous Smaug. The Hobbit kindled my imagination more than any other book. It was, as Tolkien said,
‘an escape to a heightened reality- a world at once more vivid and intense.’
Here’s the 1966 version that I owned, with a cover drawing by Tolkien himself (link to all Hobbit covers).
December 21st, 2014
Honey bees have six (girl) powers to match any comic-book super hero. And like every super hero bees have one fatal weakness: when a bee stings you, it dies.
1. Super Flyers
Like Superman, bees are great flyers. A bee flies about 1000 km in her life. If she was human sized, that’d be like going five times around the planet. And she can carry 122 times her own weight.
2. Super Attractors
Like Magneto, honey bees use electro-magnetic forces. They have their own navigational GPS thanks to millions of magnetic crystals that sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Bees also have an electrical charge which attracts pollen.
3. Super Therms
Like Torch and Mr Freeze, bees cope with extreme temperatures. In the heat, air-conditioner bees fan their wings to cool the hive; and in the cold, bees huddle in a tight ball and shiver to keep warm.
4. Super Smarts
Like Professor X, bees are intelligent communicators. They are the only other creatures we know that use a symbolic language. The bee dance indicates direction and distance to flowers, and the quality of nectar. Bees can also tell time, measure, memorize, and solve problems.
5. Super Food
Like Wolverine, bees have healing powers. Honey is nutritious, lasts forever, and is a healer, killing bacteria and fungi. Manuka honey fights infection and heals burns. Bees use anti-bacterial propolis to keep their hives germ-free.
6. Super Transformers
Like Spiderman, bees can change their genetic structure. A queen bee is not born that way – any girl bee can become a queen. The worker bees prepare a royal baby by feeding it on royal jelly which triggers DNA change.
December 14th, 2014
Anyone can write but editing must be learned. P.G. Wodehouse was a relentless editor, polishing his manuscripts to perfection – Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt) described Wodehouse’s unique system:
‘When he was writing a book he used to pin pages in undulating waves around the wall. Pages he thought were working well would be pinned high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall.’
The aim was to get the whole story up to the ceiling level. Here are 3 books that have helped me learn to edit:
Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King teaches the mechanics of style, dialogue, point of view, ‘show not tell’, character, beats.
The Art of Writing by John Gardner is a more stringent book which talks about maintaining the ‘dream’ of the story – when the writing draws attention to itself (in a bad way) then the dream is broken for the reader.
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner
On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934) explores the idea that a writer is both artist and self-critic – a writer begins with the unconscious mind ‘bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’; but then the conscious mind ‘must control, combine and discriminate’ (that’s editing in a nutshell).
The writer must be as God in his universe — present everywhere and visible nowhere. -Flaubert
December 6th, 2014
There is great exuberance in the Moomins, and a delightful battyness. – Jeanette Winterson
The Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson (originally from the 1950s) are reprinted in five magnificent hardback volumes. The comics are a lovely balance of humour and optimistism. The free-spirited Moomins live in the moment and these comics are still relevant, commenting on consumerism, the environment and work. For example, in The Conscientious Moomins, an officer of the League of Duty admonishes Moominpappa for being a drop-out; but when Moominpappa joins the establishment, all the pleasure goes out of his life, and he returns to his old philosophy of
‘Live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!’
November 30th, 2014
Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. – Flannery O’Connor
The best short story I’ve ever read is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find – it certainly has the most powerful ending. Her stories can be dark, her characters grotesque, but there’s always a redemptive thread and a tough spirituality that’s never preachy. O’Connor honed her writing to near perfection despite the pain of lupus which killed her at the age of 39. Here are some of her incisive thoughts about the writing process from her collection of essays and lectures, Mystery and Manners:
If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money.
When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’
Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.
There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the fiction writer can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting to the point at once.
As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.
The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity.
November 23rd, 2014
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers – they said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years, was re-worked and finally published to some critical reviews, writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? It’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book, and very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Strawberry Snatcher has trod.
November 16th, 2014
It’s the most important relationship on Earth – everything in Nature depends on pollinators and flowers getting together.
Pollination is ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg.
For a flower to make fruit and seeds, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do 80% of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally vital so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water and spray-free gardens.
Scenes from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling movie, Wings Of Life:
November 9th, 2014
Draw to live; live to draw –Wanda G’ag
This is Wanda G’ag (it rhymes with blog) one of the finest children’s book illustrators. Her masterpiece is Millions of Cats (1928) the story of a lonely old couple who attract ‘millions and billions and trillions of cats‘. The pictures roll like waves across the pages; clouds, trees, hills and cats all swept along in the flow of the story. The black and white gives it that slightly unsettling folktale vibe. As a child I loved the army of cats drinking a pond in seconds, and the final catastrophic catscrap. Try to find her bizarre Nothing At All too, about an invisible dog.
Here’s G’ag’s biography and one of her lithographs :
November 1st, 2014
I’m writing a sci-fi novel and falling into two traps: Infodump and Unobtainium.
Infodump is a when a character gives a mini lecture — telling instead of showing — such as in reply to “Tell me, Professor, how does your invention work?” Infodump can be reduced by editing out any techno-babble, and by using characters to give brief explanations only when plot demands it to move forward.
Unobtainium is a plot device such as an alien substance or a future technology. Most sci-fi has these but too often they’re used by writers to remove a plot hole; as in ‘Lucky I brought my sonic screwdriver to do this impossible task.’ (A version of: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’– Arthur C Clarke). Possible solutions are to make your ‘Unobtainium’ central to the plot (eg. give it a snappy back-story), or reduce it to a playful bit of science.
October 26th, 2014
Thousands of unarmed students in Hong Kong are currently standing up for democracy by taking to the streets. It’s often students who lead the way in peaceful protest movements:
- 1943: The White Rose group were university students in Munich who distibuted thousands of leaflets exposing the Nazis’ crimes and encouraging people to resist. They were executed.
- 1957: The Little Rock Nine were high school students in America who broke through the race barrier by enrolling in the local all-white high school despite threatening mobs.
- 1986-89: University students in China protested to demand more freedom, culminating in Tiananmen Square with half a million Chinese citizens. The government crushed the event.
- 1988: University students in Burma led massive street marches against the military rulers. The army killed hundreds but Burma eventually got free elections.
- 2000: Students in Serbia led a non-violent protest to help oust a corrupt government.
October 18th, 2014
It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school (primary!). I sat on the hard grey mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg to the class. I became so engrossed I didn’t even notice my mother slip out. That loyal elephant helped me get through that watershed day without too many waterworks. My other favourite Seuss characters were the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz. Seuss pushed the English language to the limit. Ever wonder why Green Eggs and Ham is so repetitive? Seuss only had a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, but he created a classic. By the way writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.
October 11th, 2014
The honey bees’ ability to learn faces is unexpected. – ‘Good With Faces’, Scientific American
When I first started beekeeping, older beekeepers often said their bees recognised them – now we have proof it’s true. Honey bees’ brains are the size of a sesame seed with only a million neurons (we have 100 billion), but bees can learn patterns, navigate, communicate, count, tell time, measure, and memorize. Research now shows they can also recognise human faces. Bees were trained (with a sugar water reward) to identify a human face, front and side view – and after training they could instantly identify the same face rotated 30˚. Honey bees do not have distinctive facial markings, so why have they evolved this ability? It’s due to their pattern-recognition skills but I wonder if it also evolved as bees formed a close relationship with humans over the last 20,000 years. Here’s how I might look to a bee with it’s many-faceted compound eyes:
The life of the bee is like a magic well: the more we draw from it, the more there is to draw.’ — Karl von Frisch
September 28th, 2014
Writing requires four fundamental steps:
Imagine: ‘Open your mind’ (P.D. James)
Write: ‘Put one word after another’ (Neil Gaiman)
Edit: ‘Omit needless words’ (William Strunk)
Hope: ‘Outrun the self-doubt’ (Stephen King)
The steps of writing harmonise nicely with the four forces of physics:
Electromagnetism holds our atoms and molecules together, and like imagination, it has infinite range.
The Weak Force is confined to the centre of atoms, as a writer must be confined with a story until it’s drafted.
The Strong Force holds atomic nuclei together, as editing gives the story strength.
Gravity is like hope, in that it keeps us anchored and has infinite range.
Read my essay, The Science of Writing.
September 21st, 2014
All royalties from my ebook, Honey Bees, are donated to Oxfam, funding projects such as ‘Plan Bee’ which teaches beekeeping to women in Ethiopia. The Plan Bee project enables an extra 4,400 women beekeepers to increase production by using modern beekeeping methods and equipment, and so earn a living for their families. Read more about Plan Bee.
Photo: Wubalem Shiferaw, beekeeper, Ethiopia (courtesy Oxfam).
September 13th, 2014
New genetic research suggests honey bees originated in Asia not Africa as previously thought. Bees have been around for a while: the oldest known bee is a 100 million year old bee suspended in a piece of amber (a tree resin), found in Myanmar (Burma). Ancient bees lived in trees or on cliffs – honey bees derived from cavity-nesting bees that spread out from Asia about 300,000 years ago. People discovered honey about 20,000 years ago; it must’ve seemed like a magical food in their diet of wild animals and plants. Early honey hunting was a dangerous job because bees lived in tall trees or on cliff faces. Cave paintings show hunters climbing cliffs to raid nests – imagine dangling from a vine, 150 metres up a cliff, while being stung by bees! People still do this kind of honey hunting today in India, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Image: Rock painting of a honey hunter in Valencia, Spain (6000 to 8000BC)
September 6th, 2014
Twenty-Three Tales by Tolstoy
There is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson
Moominpappa had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done.
A Moment of War by Laurie Lee
I was in that flush of youth that never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible.
Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
I wouldn’t have said off-hand that I had a subconscious mind, but I suppose I must without knowing it, and no doubt it was there, sweating away diligently at the old stand, all the while the corporeal Wooster was getting his eight hours.
The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
August 31st, 2014
Everything in the tales appears to happen by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated. – A. S. Byatt
One of the appeals of the 200 year old tales of the Brothers’ Grimm is how random events seem connected; as A. S. Byatt says in her excellent essay (online here). They are stories of generic princesses, simpletons, brothers and sisters who meet with good or bad ‘luck’ on their quest, yet are bound by the rules of the fairy tale world – a kind of guided randomness, but usually with a happy ending. Perhaps this is the way children see the world: capricious, a little scary, but ultimately, a hopeful place.
When I was a child I loved how the Grimm’s characters met the forces of their fickle, often gruesome, world with kindness and cunning. I’d lay in bed and listen to Danny Kaye’s brilliant reading of Clever Gretel on Sunday morning radio. The illustration above is by the great Arthur Rackham (more Grimm illustrations here).
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.– G.K. Chesterton
August 24th, 2014
The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:
The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.
August 10th, 2014
Does the universe have a purpose or is it an accident? Scientists have divergent views on the significance of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is the iconoclast, Richard Dawkins, who sees an indifferent universe which has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose.” At the other end is biologist Jane Goodall who believes the universe is both purposeful and meaningful. In between there are theories ranging from a ‘conscious universe’ to a ‘self-creating universe’. Whatever their beliefs, at least there’s usually a shared sense of wonder among scientists…
…Read the rest of my essay, Science and Soul, here.
Photo: The remnants of supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela, birthplace of some of our atoms. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
August 3rd, 2014
The threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.– BBC News
A new study on ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides says that they are a key factor in the decline of bees. The study combined 800 research papers from 20 years and concluded these nicotine-based nerve poisons are also damaging the wider environment. The pesticides are systemic – the whole plant remains toxic right through to flowering – so bees (and other critters) are poisoned by pollen, nectar, and drinking water. These pesticides are widely used in NZ and even sold in garden centres. The government has not yet responded to the new study, so meanwhile, avoid these products: Confidor, Advantage, Merit and Admire (what shameless names). And remember that there are ways to deal with pests without harming bees, including organic gardening and IPM:
It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson
July 27th, 2014
I loved science fiction when I was a young teen – especially short stories about time travel, which usually had surprise endings. In Arthur C Clarke’s All the Time in the World, a man freezes time a second before a nuclear blast; in A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, the death of an insect changes the course of history. I still have my old copy of Bradbury’s Golden Apples of the Sun; the Corgi paperback cost me 65 cents new in 1970 (about the hourly rate for raspberry picking in my summer holidays). A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a novel ahead of its time in 1960 (it was rejected 26 times by publishers). Its plot combines wormholes and angels and has a classic ending: a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. L’Engle liked to tackle grand themes, as she said:
You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.