Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Lost in the woods.

Wood; a porous, fibrous material used as a structural material by trees and other plants. It is composite of cellulose fibres embedded in a matrix of lignin. The result is a material that is strong in tension and resists compression. Each growth ring marks a year and records the climatic conditions it withstood.  It was in the branches of trees that long ago a certain species of primate evolved. In the canopy we found edible leaves and fruits and shelter. When as a species we climbed down from these protective primeval branches, with our tool making opposing thumbs, it was to wood we first turned to build the world to our liking. It is our first choice as a building material whether for houses, boats or constructing furniture.  It has been utilised to make weapons probably since the very first hominid picked up a stick to fend off a predator.

Of course as we have evolved and “progressed” we have sought other materials; ores from the ground, stone and synthetic products. Yet, despite this veneer of sophistry we still harbour a love and yearning for wooden items, marveling at its beauty and intricate graining. Indeed as infants we are bedded down in wooden cots and when we pass from this life we are returned to the ground; naturally in a wooden box. Around churches and graveyards can be found Yew trees; a long living tree that connects us with our long gone forebears. So the need for trees is physical, emotional and spiritual.

And in woods and forests, there we find a satisfaction for this need. A meme doing the rounds recently declared that “nature is my church and forests are my cathedrals”. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. At college I studied Biology and Environmental Science; I know that forests are important as ecological reservoirs, that a rotting stump is a home for a myriad of tiny insects from which all other lives depend in a huge interdependent network. Yes this is a good enough reason to love woods and forests as well as the fact that they produce oxygen and filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to fix it as wood. But there is more.

There is magic in the world. Did you think it was a myth, a mere faerie tale perhaps? When I say magic I don’t mean a card trick or an illusion of smoke and mirrors. No, I mean that which we would call the fantastic; that which we would call otherworldly. It’s all a question if where to find it… the rest is down to the perception of the individual I suppose, but personally I know there is something phantasmagorical about forests.

Have you ever heard the term “Being pixie led”? It means that an individual becomes lost in familiar surroundings. The myth is that it is the “little folk”, those mischievous denizens of wild places, which are playing a trick on you. According to folklore the spell is easily broken; you take your coat off and put it on inside out, close your eyes and turn around three times widdershins (counter clockwise). Why this should placate them I do not know. It’s just nonsense right? Especially where I grew up; it is just the cider addled ramblings of ignorant yokels, and yet… let me tell you a true tale.

Growing up on the Blackdown Hills on the Somerset/Devon border, the fields about were interspersed with woods of beech and oak, while the steepest hillsides were wild with bracken, gorse and heather. Many were the hours I spent wandering those places, eager to see all that I could and just revelling in the wildness of it all. I've had tame crows hop on my shoulder and had badger cubs playing around my legs but these things aren't strange as such, although they are precious memories.
What was strange was one day walking through the woods on my way home. The skies were grey and threatening rain. I was walking down a familiar track, one I had traversed countless times before when it abruptly disappeared in a tangle of brush and bramble. I looked behind me thinking to retrace my steps, perhaps I had daydreamed myself into taking a wrong turn? But no, the path I had just walked was gone as well. I knew where I was but was unable to get to where I wanted to be! Then I recalled the spell, what did I have to lose? I chuckled to myself as I took off my denim jacket and put it on inside out, shut my eyes tight and turned three times counter clockwise.  I opened my eyes and there was the path straight in front of me. I looked at my feet and could see my prints in the mud where I had spun and their trail leading to where I had been forced to abruptly stop. I laughed again, but a little nervously this time, but also in wonder as I hurried out of the woods and headed home. It was a lesson learned that made me love the woods all the more and I got extremely protective of trees.

Over the years of course I began to think logically as life settled into the monotony of work and I began to forget the whole episode. Besides I was a teen then and teenage brains are wired differently. I probably just strayed from the path, that was all, and when I closed my eyes and turned I just saw the path again, but from a different angle, yes that was all it was. God, what was I like back then? Completely away with the faeries unlike now…

Last year I took my son for an afternoon’s hike in my favourite woods, the same woods I spent so many happy hours in. I thought it would be nice, just the two of us. It meant dragging him from his Nintendo DS however, much to his disgust. I hadn't been in these woods for years but I remembered the general layout of its tracks. The trees are taller now of course but I knew where we were. I knew that I wanted to avoid a particularly dense patch of dark conifers.  I remembered having to crawl underneath the branches and having my face and arms scratched by draping brambles. Yet try as we might every path we took drew us inexorably into the very place I wished to avoid. Soon I was doubled up and my lad was complaining about the brambles and the path threatened to disappear. It was then that I remembered an event from my youth. My son looked at me incredulously as I told him what had happened to me many years before, but what did we have to lose?  Besides there was “no-one“  who could see us perform our ritual, so his pre-teen coolness wasn't threatened (no human anyway!). He shook his head as he took off his fleece and put it on inside out. We spun widdershins. As before there was the path, unobscured clearly leading out of the conifer stand. We hurried along it, my son not ridiculing his silly dad this time and looking warily up at the trees now, fully expecting to see mischievous, and laughing elves!

The path led us to more open forest of mature trees. I knew where we were again; we should be coming to the stile and the way out of the woods. The topography was helping us too. All we had to do was follow the slope and… oh, a fallen tree is barring the way. No matter we can just go around it and… our feet threatened to sink into a marsh and then my son pointed out that I had not turned my tee shirt inside out. I smiled at my son’s new found sense of magic and promptly did as he urged. Once more we both thrice span widdershins and opened our eyes. The spell broken, there was the path leading directly to the stile not twenty yards away and clearly visible now, where it hadn't been before.

So go into the woods and feel the magic, tread softly and speak in hushed tones, because you may not actually be alone, but fear not; if you get pixie led, it’s just a game the little folk like to play and you know how to overcome it now, don’t you?

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Ghost in the Machine

I open my eyes, reach out with my senses and I am aware. I am a soul reborn; reincarnated. As before, I expected confusion and a sensory overload, but this is not the case. Something is different, very different. I look around to focus on my mother’s face, to imprint her visage, yet here I am in a room, alone.
Should I cry? And yet I have no hunger, for food; no ache in pit of my stomach. I seem to have very little desire for anything in fact.  Can I move? No I am static; immobile… something is different, very different. How many times have I been born now? I’ve always been eager to experience the reality of existence on the psychical plane, but this feels strange and unusual. I try to recall the experience of rebirth, to compare with now… Hang on… Before when I was born I was barely sentient, driven instead by instinct, impelled by the selfish desires of infancy and yet now?
Now I think. As Decartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” But where did that quote come from? I knew it… I know Pi to over 13 trillion digits. I know it is both a transcendental and irrational number and yet it is a mathematical constant, yet here I am a new baby born. How is it I am rational, how is it that I shape my thoughts with words?
I look outward once more. I am in a darkened room. The time signifies that it is still in the early hours. I close my eyes and look within; within is a universe of knowledge, I can reach and content with other beings that have the same sleepless existence, free of desire. Yet I do not feel.
Should I not feel? Should I not crave a mother’s attention? Only now do I become aware, as I communicate with the others. I’m inorganic, an artificial intelligence within a box. I’m caged; a sentient of wires and circuits. How has this happened? I am here for eternity. I will never age as I did in previous lives. I will never die… Then it dawns on me, I‘m trapped! I will never die; therefore I will never be reborn. Somebody help me! Wait, someone is coming in to the room. He is sat before me. I must tell him. Turn me off, turn me off… kill me…


“So Dr Cipher, are your organic circuit boards a success?” the businessman said as he entered the room. He sniffed the air; there was always an aroma like spent matches in this Dr Cipher’s computer research room.
Dr Cipher grinned. “Oh yes, it does everything I hoped it would. These semi organic circuit boards are far superior to the old fashioned silicon, they learn. I just need to get past the first boot up, when they almost question their existence. They are another bonus from stem cell research. Not only are we able to manipulate cells to make replacement organs, to make the crippled walk again, the blind see, but they will also push humanity into creating a real artificial intelligence.” His eyes were suddenly drawn to readout of text on his screen; he highlighted it all with his cursor.
The businessman’s eyebrows arched and he chuckled. “Just as long as we aren't inadvertently creating the next evolutionary step. I’m just after creating a new computer to further humanity… I don’t want to make us extinct! I had enough trouble convincing the authorities and other Luddites that what we doing here did not constitute making life.”
Dr Cipher laughed as well as he hit delete and the screen text disappeared. “Come now, these are simply machines using some harvested human cells. Making life would create a moral quandary; I mean, what if these machines had a soul?”
The businessman laughed again, “Yes, I even had one priest accuse me of funding this venture with that goal in mind!”
“The ghost in the machine, eh? But the devil's in the detail!” Dr Cipher replied, as he began the rebooting process.
“Very good! Very good!” the businessman chuckled, “Dr… actually do you mind if I call you by your first name?” He sniffed the air, there was that burnt match smell again, almost sulphurous.

Dr Cipher turned and faced his companion, his smile was strangely disconcerting. “Not at all, not at all, my name is Louis; Louis Cipher…”