I’ve always been fascinated by the things we leave behind.
There’s a photograph of me, about 18 months old in the summer of 1959, holding my Great Grannie’s hand in her daughter, my Gran’s, back garden in Kilbirnie. She was born in the 1880s, less than twenty years after the American Civil War, before the Boer War, before telephones, radio, automobiles and air flight. She saw both World Wars, and lived long enough to see manned space flight and men orbiting the moon. She never got to see Neil Armstrong taking his one small step, missing it by a year, but I was sitting with her daughter and granddaughter watching as it happened.
I’ve been in touch with that history, fingertip to fingertip, and it’s now captured for as long as the digital image exists somewhere in cyberspace. I sometimes imagine her holding her own great-grandparent’s hand as a child, and that takes us back, fingertip to fingertip to fingertip almost to the start of the 19th Century. Imagine a chain of them, each great grandchild reaching to their great grand parent. It’s only twenty five or so of those touches before we’re back to Roman Britain, and suddenly the depths of pre-history doesn’t seem that far away.
I watched those moon missions as a lad, and grew up as the world beyond our council house slowly went from ten inch black and white to eighteen inch colour, a telephone came in and brought the far a wee bit closer, and things went from mono to stereo and from an analog reel-to-reel planet to the early slow halting rolls of the digital rollercoaster we’re on now. I saw the early toddlers’ steps of things that would come with me through time, like Doctor Who, James Bond and Star Trek, and mourned the loss of others that got left behind, like Adam Adamant, The Time Tunnel and The Avengers.
By the time the mid Seventies came around I wanted to be a scientist. Actually, I wanted to be a spaceman ( the fastest man alive ), but when I started into the studying, I found myself drawn towards biology and chemistry more than to maths and physics. I’ve retained a life-long love of all things pertaining to outer space, but when it came to time to choose a path beyond school, I went with the Biological Sciences, and instead of looking forward, found myself looking back again, at things left behind.
I majored, eventually and only after forays into Zoology and Marine Science, in Botany at Glasgow University, my Honours thesis being on how the history of agriculture in an area can be gleaned from the study of pollen grains left behind and captured in the strata of nearby peat bogs. I spent the summer of ’79 tramping around Scottish bogs collecting samples, visiting burial mounds and stone circles in the areas of interest, and holidaying in Orkney to visit the wonders of Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae. (There is a lot that has been left behind on Orkney, and I recommend it for anybody who is after an encapsulated concentration of just how deep our history goes.)
My final year was spent at a microscope, analysing and counting the various types of pollen in the peat layers to build up a map of vegetation over time. Seeing the chart fill in as I went backwards, century by century in the peat, and watching how the concentration of cereal grains retreated, and forest tree pollen rose and fell, gave me as much a sense of deep time and what we leave in the environemt as I had got standing in the great chamber of the Meas Howe tomb the summer before. And finding cereal pollen, in strata I knew was at least 5000 years old, made me realise that people have been leaving things behind them for a long time, even if they don’t notice it.
In the years to follow the science faded from my life, as my chance at a PhD spluttered out in a lost grant and I fell into firstly a year in Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum cataloging fossils, then six months of electron microscope work at a fruit research station in Kent. I was skint, only just covering my rent, so when I saw a chance to jump over to IT in a software house in the City of London, I took it and immediately tripled my salary. The following years were work, drinking, marriage, drinking, divorce and more drinking while developing software systems for suits in the City. Eventually I got out of that, got remarried, moved back to Scotland, sobered up a wee bit, started writing and got happy. But I had left science far behind
It’s almost 40 years ago now since I was any kind of a scientist at all, but I’ve always wondered, what if. I’ve kept up with my love, both of outer space, and of archaeology. I’ve visited many ancient sites in the likes of Stonehenge, Avebury, Wayland’s Smithy and the burial mounds on the English Downs, tombs and neolithic temples in Malta, the great rows of menhirs in Carnac in Brittany and the palace of Knossos in Crete. And all the while I was wondering, if I dug in the soil there what would the past, the pollen so small we don’t notice it, what would it tell me about what they left behind?
Fourteen years ago, I finally escaped the world of corporate IT, came to Newfoundland, and science crept in again, this time in my writing. Scientists began to show up in the likes of THE CREEPING KELP, NIGHT OF THE WENDIGO and Professor Challenger pastiches and since then they’ve been getting even louder still, no more so than in my Quatermass subsitute THE DUNFIELD TERROR and in my nod back to the botanical years in FUNGOID and THE GREEN AND THE BLACK. Something I thought I’d left behind has come back to remind me that things are never totally gone. Some things remain in fragments and snatches, stories and songs, sculpture and markings on cave walls.
Small things, things barely noticed. Things that want to come back.