Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

The Government Response to Covid-19 and Some Numbers

chestnut-leaves

I wasn’t going to write anything on this subject, since there is hardly a shortage of articles everywhere you look, but some of the things I have been reading online have prompted me to put this up. This post concerns the measures put in place by the UK government for the protection of the public. But first, a caveat. It is a commentary on the UK response ONLY. I do not know enough of the details of how other governments have reacted to comment fairly on those.

And please understand also, this is not any sort of commentary on the financial aptitude or ineptitude of their response, which is another kettle of worms entirely.

The prime difficulty of any measures taken is that there is not one immediate and obvious action that can be taken to protect the public. The issue, of course, is that we need to meet, as far as possible, two opposing objectives. First, we need to develop as much immunity in the wider population as possible and second, we need to protect from infection those who are recognised as vulnerable. And to satisfy the first objective, we need to expose large numbers to the virus but to satisfy the second, we need to shield as many as possible from it.

And these objectives are so different that it is impossible to meet both at the same time, but are both so important that each needs to be addressed. Like many things in real life, there is no perfect solution and the best that can be put forward is a compromise of some sort.

And each person’s opinion on which is the more important will be coloured by their own circumstances. Those with vulnerable relatives, or who fall into that group themselves, will likely favour protecting the public as far as possible for as long as possible. Some others who may not have those concerns, may be more likely to favour ‘getting it over with’. Although most will, naturally, want to meet both objectives at once.

It is no wonder that the government has been caught in two minds over how to react, and I rather doubt any other make-up of government would have either found it any easier or managed to square that particular circle.

And what is incredibly unhelpful is a strong partisan approach on social media especially, to the way it is being dealt with. There is always a tendency for the extremes of one side or the other of the political spectrum to denigrate any decision made by the other, and to exaggerate or invent motives for them, and I am seeing this more and more on social media. I may not agree with a particular course of action taken by the government, but to ascribe that action to a policy of deliberately killing the vulnerable, to name just one opinion I’ve read, is both ridiculous and highly insulting to both the government and the public. And hardly conducive to encouraging people to support the measures put in place.

Their response has been hampered not only by trying to find the impossible – a solution that accomplishes both the goals just mentioned, but also by having no real idea for some while how many infections there actually were. It was recognised the figures were under-reported, due to the inability to test the entire population for infection, but no one seemed to really know what they were and, for a while, what the infection rate was.

But how many people are currently infected?

The published figures may actually give a false impression of both the virus’s spread and how lethal it actually is. Depending on how effectively authorities gather the data, there is always going to be under-reporting of the infection rates. Those who self isolate are not tested, nor are they included in official figures. Even those displaying definite symptoms are not tested unless they satisfy various criteria, such as being admitted to hospital, or in a position where testing is seen as necessary, such as high profile involvement with the public. It is even reported that front-line NHS staff are not necessarily tested if they fall ill.

A far more realistic picture might be gained from extrapolating from the death rate. If we take the, admittedly still vague, official estimate of between one and three percent mortality rate for the virus, and perhaps making a judgement call on the efficiency and effectiveness of the health system in place in that particular country, we may get a closer figure. As of yesterday, the UK figure was 55 deaths which would equate to somewhere between 1,800 and 5,500 people infected, most likely closest to the higher figure in the UK. Sadly, the higher the figures, the more accurate the extrapolation is likely to be.

But even these figures are probably far lower than reality, since those who die will have been infected with the virus for some time, so those figures probably lag around a week behind. And on the basis that known infections are doubling approximately every four days, that figure of 5,500 is probably closer to 22,000 and showing no sign of slowing down.

Wishing everybody well.

A Walk And Other Things

It was bitterly cold but sunny first thing yesterday morning, but after a couple of hours the air had warmed up enough to tempt me out. I was due a walk anyway, having not even left the house the previous day.

Every year there is a point somewhere around the middle of February when I feel the warmth of the sun for the first time that year, but yesterday morning there was already a hint of that.

It wasn’t cold enough to freeze the ground, except in a few particularly exposed places, and so it was very muddy underfoot. Therefore it was a delight to occasionally walk through drifts of last years leaves.

And there was so much birdsong. So much so that it became a background noise that was easy to filter out after a while, except when a particularly loud or unusual song caught my attention. Not that I do that deliberately, since birdsong is one of the delights of the countryside. At some point or another when I’m out, I can usually hear the rooks, but maybe because of the sun and the noise from the other birds they seemed to be silent. I’ve always associated them with cloudy skies for some reason, perhaps because I’m so used to hearing them on moorland and in the hills and mountains.

But I’m sure they like a sunny day every bit as much as the next bird.

This morning is cloudy again and the rooks are back. Outside I hear crark crark crark, and the occasional cronk. There is rain and sleet forecast for later, so I go into town in the morning. By the time I get home, the sky is already full of dark clouds and threatening to drop some weather soon.

The afternoon, then. I partly spent painting this little fellow:

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The blue tit is one of the few British birds whose population seems to be increasing slightly at the moment, in contrast to most whose populations have fallen – sometimes dramatically – over the last few years. We seem to be losing lots of the birds I took for granted as a child, which is such a sad thing. As a race, we seem to be so damned good at exterminating other creatures.