Tag Archives: plymouth

A Dartmoor Cuckoo Chorus – Lockdown Nature Walks 6

With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks.  So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood.  Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.

We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river.  With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather.  Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”.    A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley.  Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called.  Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below.  The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off.  Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.

Wistman’s Wood (taken 19th May 2018)

 

We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks.  By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks.  A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay.  The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside.   Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about.  Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment.  Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley.  We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail.  Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.  We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped.jpg
A cuckoo (from Wikipedia)

 

Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:

The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me.  In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year.  With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation.  Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.

After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river.  Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy.  I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather.  We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away.  Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself.  We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path].  This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so.  Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.

About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood.  At first, their calls came at different times from different locations.  One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer.  This call and answer pattern was then repeated.  But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped.   For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.

The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times.  “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round.  A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.

When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.

We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here

The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart.  Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.

A night at the opera – or how the myth of the love potion seduces both writers and scientists

The Glyndebourne Touring Opera visits Plymouth in the South West once a year and it’s a real treat to go to their productions. This year we went to see Donizetti’s frothy but very popular L’elisir d’amore. This was beautifully sung and played by the young cast and the production, directed by Annabel Arden, was slick and sexy, with plenty of laughs and a few naughty bits. The story is slight: unsophisticated country lad, Nemorino wins the heart of knowing beauty, Adina with the help of “the elixir of love” sold by the travelling quack, Dr Dulcamara. The elixir is purported to make the drinker attractive to all members of the opposite sex but is actually only cheap wine. Despite the lightweight plot, it was a charming evening and Donizetti captured my attention for more than two hours with his ever changing melodies. Here is a link to some pictures of the production.

Donizetti is not the first to have been captivated by the idea of a “love potion” and we find the motif frequently in both myth and in literature. One of the earliest examples is the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult: Tristan is sent to Ireland to collect Iseult, already betrothed to King Mark. Along the way, Tristan and Iseult ingest a love potion and fall deeply in love causing all sorts of problems. Wagner used this story in his opera Tristan and Isolde and the legend surfaces again in L’elisir d’amore; Nemorino hears Adina reading the story and this gives him the idea of using a love potion to win her heart.

Other examples of writers using love potions as plot devices include Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Sorcerer. JK Rowling used the idea in her Harry Potter books; her love potion, Amortentia causes powerful infatuation or obsession in the drinker.

It is, however, in a Hollywood movie that we finally see scientists confronting the love potion myth. The 1992 film Love potion number 9 introduces geeky biochemist Paul and his comparative psychobiologist colleague Diane; Paul has a secret crush on Diane but, as you might predict, his geekiness gets in the way. Paul is given a love potion by Madam Ruth, a gypsy palm reader, to help overcome his diffidence. He is sceptical at first but, when he sees the effect of the potion on the sex life of his cat, he enlists Diane’s help in “scientifically” analysing the potion; this includes shedding their lab coats and testing the love potion on themselves. The plot twists and turns, but all ends happily ever after for Paul and Diane.

Although the storyline in this movie is lighter than the foam on a perfect cafe latte, the idea of manipulating romantic attraction using a love potion is a perennially fascinating topic, which is why it continues to emerge as a plot device in fiction of all kinds. The same fascination may be what drives real scientists to investigate the basis of romantic attraction.

One of the more infamous scientific investigations in to the basis of romantic attraction is the so-called “sweaty t-shirt experiment” performed by the Swiss Zoologist, Claus Wedekind in 1995. Wedekind was interested in the factors that influence human mate choice and for his study he recruited a group of young men and women. The men were given t-shirts and asked to wear them for two days. At the end of that time the men were instructed to put their t-shirt in to individual but identical boxes. The women were then asked to smell the t-shirts and declare which they found most sexually attractive. Definite preferences were exhibited by the women in their choice of sweaty t-shirt suggesting that odour plays a part in male/female attraction. Moreover, Wedekind showed that the women tended to select men with dissimilar genes in part of the immune system (MHC complex). This could be a means of ensuring that potential offspring have a strong immune system.

Another, very recent, study from the University of Bonn examined a different aspect of romantic attraction, namely how the bond between loving couples is maintained. The work focussed on the role of the brain chemical oxytocin, dubbed the “cuddle hormone” by the popular media. Pair-bonded heterosexual men were shown pictures of their partner or of unfamiliar women. Before the pictures were examined, the men were given intranasal oxytocin or placebo and neither the subjects nor the scientists were aware of the treatments.

After receiving intranasal oxytocin, the men perceived their partner’s faces as more attractive, and there was no such effect when pictures of unfamiliar women were presented. The enhanced partner response was paralleled by activation of the brain’s reward system in a manner similar to that produced by some drugs. The authors concluded that oxytocin contributes to romantic bonds for men by enhancing partner attractiveness and so may contribute to human monogamy.

You can imagine that these kinds of studies might, in the future, lead to forms of love potion but based on another piece of fiction, we might want to be wary of the consequences. In 1974, Roald Dahl published a slightly risqué and slightly unpleasant book called Switch Bitch consisting of four short stories. One of these stories describes the efforts of Belgian olfactory chemist, Henri Biotte, to make a perfume, the ultimate love potion, which activates the nasal receptors corresponding to the eighth human primary odour, for sexual desire. His synthetic odour does what he expects it to do but when his co-worker sprays it over herself, Henri gets overexcited and suffers a heart attack as a consequence.