For Tonight

I am a shape who shifts
like the costumes of mosses
like the rabbit eyes of trees

Tockholes I

leaping out of my skin
plunging into the dark arms
of underwater trees

Tockholes III

for once knowing beauty and fluidity
as I run down stairs without
missing a single step.

Tockholes IV

I am the waterfall and its deep pool,
the sun reflected and the fear
of loss surrounding him
like the magic of Faerie,
the golden ball,

Tockholes V

the secrets found by bees
crawling into the purple caverns
of foxgloves emerging centuries later
coated in dusty wisdom.

Tockholes VII (copy)

Can it be possible
that I am wide awake
like your rival as you dream
these enchantments

and here, now, even
at midsummer

the aspen trembles
at your name?

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*This poem is based on a walk in Tockholes Wood on Midsummer Eve and is addressed to Gwyn, who remains a presence in my life even in his absence from the landscape.

Fairy Glow: The Magic of Emiliania Huxleyi

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the queer impression of whiteness coming upwards: as if the light was below the sea instead of above it… the fairy glow or white reflection that I had experienced long ago
Mr Ronald Bells, World Fishing, 1954

It’s a magic that can be found across the world’s oceans, but is particularly innate to the North Atlantic; to the Norwegian fjords, southern Iceland, the English Channel; this magical blooming, this milky turquoise, this white water, this fairy glow shining upwards as if from a subterranean castle.

If I told you it was caused by fairies would you be enthralled? We all know the fay can take many shapes and forms from the microscopic to the macrocosms of huge hulking universes stalking through the void. Well I shall tell you it is created by beings who work fairy magic called emiliania huxleyii.

Emiliania_huxleyi_coccolithophore_(PLoS)

Emiliania Huxleyi is a single-celled marine phytoplankton which dwells in the surface waters of all the world’s oceans and lives by photosynthesis – using the energy of the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and energy. This is not its only magical art. As a coccolithophore it forges intricate coccoliths – scales or platelets like plate armour – deep within its cell from calcium carbonate. When emiliania huxleyi blooms it sheds hundreds of extra coccoliths, which act like mirrors, creating the fairy glow, just like the countless shifting walls of the Fairy King’s castle.

The blooming of emiliania huxleyi, its fairy glow, has a number of profound ecological effects. The first and most obvious is its alteration of the ocean’s albedo ‘whiteness’. This results in more light and heat being reflected into the atmosphere and less penetrating deeper into the water, thus cooling the ocean.

It also affects the carbon cycle. The ocean is the earth’s largest active carbon sink. Emiliania huxelyi plays a significant role in the carbon pump by which it removes carbon from the atmosphere. Emiliania huxleyi utilises carbon absorbed by the ocean to create its calcium carbonate plate armour. When it blooms it removes an excessive amount. Afterwards, some coccoliths sink to the depths as marine snow, removing the carbon from the cycle for millions of years, to be revealed as chalk formations such as the White Cliffs of Dover and the Seven Sisters. Some coccoliths decompose and release their carbon back into the ocean. The partial pressure* of carbon dioxide in the ocean determines how much can be taken from the atmosphere in this complex transaction.

By a less obvious magic emiliania huxleyi’s blooming brings about the formation of clouds. Emiliania huxleyi contains dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), which it breaks down into dimethyl sulphide (DMS) and acrylic acid to ward off predators. DMSP is also converted to DMS when it dies. Huge pulses of DMS are also released when emiliania huxleyi blooms. DMS reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere leaving molecules of sulphate aerosol to act as cloud condensation nuclei (CNN). As the clouds form and rise due to energy being released as heat, emiliania huxleyi is sucked up with the surface water and travels in the clouds to fall as rain or snow in a new region.

Scientists are only just beginning to gain an understanding of this magic. Blooms of emiliania huxleyi cool the ocean through reflectance and cloud generation and remove a great amount of carbon from the ocean. In this era of man-driven climate change these processes are of fundamental importance.

It is therefore troubling to hear that the existence of emiliania huxleyi is under threat from ocean acidification. The rise in carbon emissions has led to an increase in the partial pressure of carbon dioxide, dissolved inorganic carbon, and bicarbonate ion concentration, and decrease in the concentration of carbonate ions and pH in the ocean. The decrease in carbonate ions makes it more difficult for emiliania huxleyi to create its calcium carbonate shell. Its beautifully crafted plate armour is becoming thinner, weaker, lighter, and suffering malformations. Emiliania huxleyi could die out.

I believe it is no coincidence that emiliania huxleyi has started revealing itself on the brink of its’ extinction. Thomas Henry Huxley discovered coccoliths whilst dredging mud in the depths of the ocean in 1858. Thus, it was named coccolithus huxleyi when identified under a light microscope in 1902. Its structure was described under an electron microscope by Braacht et al in 1952. Cesare Emiliania’s name was added in honour of his contributions to paleooceanography. Much of his work involved drilling cores into the sea bottom and revolutionised our ideas about the ocean’s history.

As someone versed in fairylore my feelings about the methods of the discovery of emiliania huxleyi are mixed. I’m not sure if I see Huxley and Emiliania as walkers between worlds whose genius and dedication has earned them great gifts of insight from Faerie, or as raiders like Arthur whose dredgers and drill cores are the flashing swords coercing the Otherworld’s mysteries into Thisworld’s light.

One thing I’m sure of is that the disappearance of the fairy glow of emiliania huxleyi is a powerful portent of the retreat of the magic of the fay and breakdown of the relationship between the worlds. The loss of this enigmatic phytoplankton would not only be sad, but could play a role in bringing about the end of the world as we know it as magical being by magical being slips away into the deep.

*Partial pressure ‘is the hypothetical pressure of that gas if it alone occupied the entire volume of the original mixture at the same temperature.’

SOURCES

J. D. Shutler et al, ‘Coccolithophore surface distributions in the North Atlantic and
their modulation of the air-sea flux of CO 2 from 10 years of Earth System Dynamics satellite Earth observation data’, Biogeosciences, 10, 2699-2709, 2013
K. J. S. Meier et al, The role of ocean acidification in Emiliania huxleyi coccolith thinning in the Mediterranean Sea’, HAL Archives-ouvertes, 2016, https://hal-univ-perp.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01280556, accessed 29th April 2018
Sophie Richier et al, ‘Response of the calcifying coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi to low pH/high pCO 2 : from physiology to molecular level’, Marine Biology, 158: 551-560, 2011
Stephen Harding, Animate Earth, (Green Books, 2009)
William H. Wilson et al., Isolation of viruses responsible for the demise of an Emiliania huxleyi bloom in the English Channel’, Journal of Marine Biology Association of the United Kingdom, 82, 369 – 377, 2002
Emiliania Huxleyi Home Page, Science Netwatch, http://www.soes.soton.ac.uk/staff/tt/, accessed 26th April 2018
‘Partial Pressure’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partial_pressure, accessed 29th April, 2018

The Search for Mabon

Mabon son of Modron… was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall… No-one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’
– How Culwch Won Olwen

Narrator:
On the verge of May when the veil is thin
Between city and suburb and faery hall and glen
Modron born of Avalon bewails her missing son.
If he is not rescued, summer will not come.

Across Britain’s suburbs and industrial towns
A clarion blast sounds on a white bone horn.
The landscape reverberates like water at its call.
Plunging steeds leap forth bearing fair Cai tree tall,
Bedwyr swinging the spear of nine blows,
Gwalchmai hawk eyed screeching,
Gwryrh each language speaking,
Cynddylig guide, Menw the enchanter,
And Eidoel son of slaughter.

Cai:
We’ve searched all of Wales and England too
Mabon is lost midst the sky scraper rows.
The impenetrable wall we cannot break through.
Hidden is his prison and invisible its rooms.

Gwalchmai:
We’ve lost the wolf and elk, walrus and bear
See the drays of grey squirrels have replaced the red.
The countryside has evaporated, bees are humming scarce,
The wildest animals are gone. This land is sunk in death.

Gwryrh:
I’ve spoken to the cattle, sheep and pigs
And the household pets but they no longer speak.
I’ve tried asking people but they neither see nor hear,
While the darkness keeps darkening and Modron weeps.

Menw:
The curse on this land cloys denser than a spell,
Its wizards are more cunning than the witches of Caerglow.
As Mabon’s release is their shining sun
If he remains in prison then their days are done.

Cai:
Why should we care?

Gwalchmai:
The subjects here are our distant sons and daughters
Prisoners like Mabon in their tower block quarters.

Bedwyr:
And if Mabon is not sought,
Twrch Trwyth will not be caught,
The razor he carries stolen,
Yssbaddaden will not be shaven
And Culwch will not win Olwen.

Cai:
Then we must seek out the oldest animals.
I believe a blackbird can be found nearby.

Blackbird of Cilgwri (on the Wirral Peninsula):
When I first came here I alighted on an anvil,
Watched engrossed the glow of the furnace and hot iron.
My song combined with the hammer as I pecked,
Joined by centuries of smiths until only a nut remained.
When factories replaced the forge I hid it.
My nut and I survived the blitz.
I have seen industry rise and fall and suburbs sprawl
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Stag of Rhendynfre (in Cheshire):
When I first came here there was an oak sapling
That grew like my antlers branching into a mighty crown.
It fell, leaving a stump red with blood. Over Farndon
Welsh and Angles, Royalists and Roundheads fought.
I have seen battles aplenty lost and won
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Owl of Cwm Calwyd (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here this vale of Conwy was wild wood
Destroyed by men, grown back, brought down again.
I have seen mine shafts sunk, pit men gone
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Eagle of Gwernabwy (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here from my tall rock I tasted the stars, rolled
Their crackle on my tongue and passed their wisdom to my young.
Now my rock is sunk, the sky forbidden. To Gwynedd
I have seen carloads of holiday makers come,
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet in a lake on the Severn dwells a salmon
Who drowned me before I wrenched fifty tridents from his spine.
I think you might benefit from his wisdom.

Salmon of Llyn Lliw (on the mouth of the Severn):
Mabon was once prisoner in Gloucester’s wall
But now the cell is empty, his captors gone.
Rumour tells me by the Ribble in the North
Mabon is imprisoned in another house of stone.

Narrator:
Down the old tram road they see the Ribble’s shining vista,
Hear the song of the river, catch the moonlight shimmer.
From the dazzling pitch and flow a salmon pokes his nose.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Stand upon on my shoulders and to Mabon we will go.

Narrator:
The intrepid troupe assemble on the salmon’s back
And ride to the north bank with their steeds swimming behind.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Cross through Avenham Park to the city of Preston.
Listen for the groan of Mabon in his prison.
Modron’s son is cruelly engorged
In the seat of all that’s wicked- in the Centre of St George.

Narrator:
Lances high to starry sky, flags unfurled the cavort ride
Crashing over tarmac and bursting neon lights
To rally at the entrance of the centre of all evil
Where the elevators slide and the lifts glide baleful.
Artificial lights light the artificial caer
And a one eyed giant bawls

One Eyed Giant
Who goes there?

Cai:
Mount the lance, draw the sword, stay the shield, set the spear,
We will tear down the walls like the fire cracks a bier.
Wheel the steed, raise our arms, to this wickedness amend
Wrest the son from his prison, by the hand of my friend.

Narrator:
Doorways shatter like a crystal cave in
Steeds arc bucking like the breath of Faery
Down the false lit corridor their swiftness chasing
To the circlet hall where the giant is waiting.

His circular eye is as gold as wealth
His maw brims wide to devour the world
Glistening black as a politician’s soul
He unwinds his scales into dragon form.

Cai smites with lethal bright immutable sword,
Growing taller than the tallest of the trees on Avenham park.
One thrust from handsome Bedwyr strikes nine blows
Driving the serpent into dismal throes.
Eidoel Aer, pepped for the slaughter
Cuts a phalanx of sores into the creature’s quarters.
Gwalchmai’s hawk pecks its eye bone bare
Cai thrusts his sword into the eyeless stare.
The scales subside like a sliding slogan
At the flick of nine wands the spell is broken.

Ascend nine wizards in immaculate suits
They float on greed and designer shoes.
Their ties are tied in perfect knots
Like the bonds of life in the hangman’s garrotte.

Menw steps forward with his wand of hazel

Menw:
Subtle illusionists, cease your evil!

Wizard One:
Fools of Faery, you don’t stand a chance
When the light of the world lies locked in our banks.

Wizard Two:
Deep in our vaults Mabon laments
As we sap out his life to sustain our command.

Cai:
Curse your greed, we will have our inspiration.
Menw, weave a spell, let us fight his liberation.

Narrator:
Menw raises his wand, the hallowed hall crackles
And rocks in rivets like a dome in shackles.
Shop faces fall like dull dumb dolls,
Beauty’s errant features leak ugly holes.

Deep within the atmosphere the air is shimmering
Strangled in their suits the wizards are shrivelling.
On the strike of spear and sword thick runs the gore
Sluicing parapets of wealth down the stairs and out the doors.
Slicing through disguise, every garment falls
The knights of Faery tear down the wall.

From the house of stone, Mabon rises,
On the slender stroke of dawn, as a shaft of beaming light.
Pure and youthful, small but bright,
His miniscule frame holds infinitesimal might.

He leashes his hound, mounts white dark mane
Travailing forth at a time of desperation.
Gathers the reins, readies his bow,
Notches an arrow for a-hunting he must go.

Hence Mabon was sought,
Twrch Trwyth was caught,
The razor was stolen,
Yssbaddaden was shaven
And Culwch won Olwen.

Modron born of Avalon gathers in her arms
And rejoices glad her fleeting son as beaming summer comes.

Calling

Before my calling I slept in a glass coffin.
No-one knew if I was live or dead until
I raised my head. And still they are pondering.

Whilst I slept I watched processions
of black clad men carrying coffins,
who march here still putting time
to death, brief as dragonflies.

Their echo beats loud. In woodlands
at March I search for a heartbeat, whilst
mad winds whirl the winter skies overhead.

Roads steal sound. Pylons warp every sense.
Yet when I look the past in the eye it looks back.
They need us now as much as we need them
and the people of the future need us again.

For live or dead there is no rest, no place
to hide nor coffins left, only time processing
through both worlds to a fathomless end.