28 December 2012

January - Winter of Content

January - Winter of Content

A time of sweetly sad memories,
    a dark evening, a piled high fire,
    embers curling and fiery tongues
    licking wood, hissing and sighing.
    Coffee hot in the old mug, a hand
    covering mine and the voice,
    long absorbed into the song
    of the planets and the ever circling
    bright stars, speaking warm
    and serene in the spluttering
    candle light and winter rain.
‘I will love you and care for you,
    I will walk with you in dark times
    and in light, your pain is my pain,
    your joy is my joy, and we have,
    my love, time enough before us.’
The veil of our temple was rent
    but no earthquake shook the land,
    no blackness blotted out the day.
    As long as the sleeping sun rises
    and memory stays fresh and green
    I will live in him and he in me.      
    For the gentle warmth and light
    of the nascent Spring cannot
    be overcome by lingering darkness
    or the bitter cold of winter sorrow,
    and now is our Winter of Content. 

11 December 2012

The uninvited guest - at home with Serpula lacrymans 

In the end … it won’t matter how much you know, but rather how much you love.       John C Morgan

I locate, at last, the fugitive soup spoon.  It peeps coyly out from under the fireside chair which is backed up against a wall.  Two orphan kitchen wall cupboards are stacked up against the chair  and the heavy coffee table nestles up to the cupboards. The carpet is carpeted with boxes of food and kitchen tools leaving me a six inch corridor in which to manoeuvre between table and sofa.  I begin to ease my way through, and poke at the fugitive cutlery with the handle of an umbrella. The spoon shudders and disappears further under the chair. I throw the umbrella at the chair but only contrive to sweep a vase off the coffee table which falls with a shattering crash onto the marble hearth.  I throw myself onto the dust shrouded sofa and, cursing, regard the domestic building site that now occupies my flat.

I have been sharing my life with an unpleasant minute organism called Serpula lacrymans.  Or to be rather more accurate, my flat has been sharing its life with a particularly dangerous pathogenic fungus whose sole function would appear to be the destruction of other living organisms. In my case, or in the case of my house, the destruction of  wood floors, frame and fittings left uncurbed, would lead eventually to the collapse of the building. To prevent this, Serpula has to be radically eradicated, involving the stripping of internal walls back to bare brick, the ripping out of all infected timbers, the application of noxious chemicals. Meanwhile my kitchen furniture lives in the living room and all the bathroom fittings have migrated to the garage - a quarter of a mile up the road. 

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” wrote the Teacher, but I searched almost in vain for some benevolent purpose for this particular pathogen in what some regard as an  intelligently designed world.  Did God at the end of the third, or perhaps fifth, day of Creation look at Serpula lacrymans and see that it was good?  Or did an unbidden micro organism, in a moment of the Creator's creative absent mindedness, slip unnoticed into the Creator’s net?  
Serpula lives secretly in dark places; it sucks the liquid heart out of heathy timber leaving only a fragile desiccated skeleton in its wake; it may lie dormant for years then suddenly burst into a life of insatiable thirst as it travels without impediment through brick and old mortar. While today my builders tend to call it ‘house cancer,’ its existence and the damage it caused were first mentioned in the Book of Leviticus when, sometime between two and a half and three thousand years ago,  it was diagnosed as a “a fretting leprosy in the house: it is unclean.”  It might have destroyed my home; if it is not wholly eradicated, it still may do so.

Until very recently any beneficent purpose for the existence of Serpula  remained a mystery.  And that perhaps was its purpose.  It warned of the myriad intricacies and baffling paradoxes of the natural world about which we as a species know so little and it humbled us in the face of that which we did not understand.  Yesterday I found a News Item dated July 2011 from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.  A consortium of scientists from 10 countries has reported - under the headline “Dry Rot Fungus (Serpula lacrymans) Can Produce Biofuel”- that to pursue its task of breaking down wood so that it may drink and continue to live, the fungus uses a newly discovered enzyme which binds itself to wood cellulose fibres and then breaks them down. “It is this process that makes it possible to produce biofuel out of wood.”

On whether or not biofuels are generally a “good” thing or a “bad” thing for the environment, the jury is still out.  It is as likely that Serpula and its newly discovered enzyme will be shunned, as that it will be warmly welcomed as a source of easily produced power.  But this is the first indication I have found of any  scientists’ enthusiasm for Serpula lacrymans. Whatever the outcome of the current biofuel investigations, I marvel at the newly recognised capacity of this minute and mysterious organism to help  power up my computer and cook my dinner  -  I may even come to love my uninvited house guest.