Every other Thursday I try to make it to the 6pm seminar organised by the Media, English and Culture department of the School of The Arts. The seminars take place in the building adjacent to the one in which I work; they feature a diverse mix of internal and external speakers; and wine is always served.
Invariably I’m the only scientist in a room full of staff and postgrads with research and teaching interests as varied as 19th Century Gothic literature, Elizabethan playwrights, the history of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and the scientific romances of HG Wells. So the wine helps to imbue a cosy sense of oneness with my fellow academics and by the second glass I’ve convinced myself that I can contribute something meaningful to the discussion which follows. (One day I’ll have to record those conversations and listen to them sober…..)
The seminar this week was by Dr Jon Mackley, a specialist in the literature of the early Medieval and “Dark Age” periods. Jon talked about the writing he’s been doing aimed at understanding the lost pantheon of gods worshipped by our Anglo Saxon ancestors, and their fates as feast days and rituals were absorbed into British Christian culture. This replacement of deities put me in mind of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant novel American Gods, but that’s by the by.
What has this got to do with biodiversity, you ask? Bear with me…..
Conversation afterwards got onto dragon-hero myths and (fortified by some cheap red) I brought up the story of the Lambton Worm. This legend originates from County Durham, the part of England in which I grew up, and so has always been a part of my personal culture. My dad often sang the first few lines of the 19th Century song when I was young and in turn I’d occasionally sing it to my kids when they were very small, in a broad Durham dialect:
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm.
(Wikipedia provides a useful translation of the song for anyone born south of Darlington)
When I was thinking about the legend afterwards it struck me that there were some interesting metaphors regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services contained within it, beyond the culturally important “mythical biodiversity” of such creatures as dragons, unicorns and griffins.
The story of the Lambton Worm begins with young Sir John Lambton fishing in the River Wear:
One Sunda morn young Lambton went
A-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk
He thowt leuk’t vary queer.
Exploitation of wild fish stocks has always been an important provisioning ecosystem service for human societies in a local context, with Sunday fishermen such as John Lambton taking the occasional fish for their family; and at a national level, providing significant amounts of protein for the human food chain. Global fish stocks are beyond the level at which they can be sustainability exploited, however, and a scandalous proportion of what is currently netted is thrown back into the sea, often dead, as “bycatch“. The “fish” that Lambton caught was in fact a juvenile dragon (or “worm”) which looked so strange (and presumably inedible) to the young knight that he disposed of it:
But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was
Young Lambton cudden’t tell-
He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem,
So he hoyed it doon a well
John Lambton throwing the worm into a well could be a metaphor for the way in which our society so often gets rid of the things that we produce and that we don’t want, with no real thought for its fate. As a kid growing up in the 1970s close to the banks of the very same River Wear where John Lambton fished the Worm, I well remember the stream of turds, condoms, tampons and filth slicks that the river was expected to absorb and to transport into the North Sea. Later I worked for a while in the local Vaux Brewery which flushed its untreated waste water in vast volumes into the Wear. By then no one was bothering to fish the river. In the 1980s new sewage treatment works were built to deal with the effluent of what was at that time the largest town in Britain. Slowly the water quality of the River Wear improved until it is now considered by the Environment Agency to be “one of the most improved rivers in England“. A river which John Lambton would perhaps now recognise.
Alongside the quality of the water, the quality of life of people who live by or visit the Wear has also improved as the river’s ability to sustain cultural ecosystem services related to work, tourism and leisure has increased. Which brings us back to the department of Media, English and Culture. What is a muddy boots ecologist with interests in the biodiversity of species interactions doing sitting in on their seminars on a Thursday evening? Beyond the fact that they are always entertaining and informative (and they serve wine), it’s the opportunities these seminars provide to draw parallels and create metaphors which relate to my own area of expertise which fascinates me. Making such connections and spinning these stories is something my brain does without me asking it and I find them useful for understanding not just the complexity of the science I deal with, but also the environmental challenges facing humanity. As a species we cannot get away from our evolutionary and ecological roots within the totality of biodiversity of planet Earth (a topic which I’ll return to in future blogs) and that is reflected in the cultural biodiversity of ideas and research topics that a university such as Northampton sustains.