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Recorded in the ice

20 March 2015


IF YOU do not like committees, then you will regard with envy the membership of the Epoch Ratification Working Group. Its remit: to decide at what point in the earth's history one epoch turns into another. The last such change took place 12,000 years ago, making this surely the least frequently convened committee known to man.

But the Working Group is sitting again; and, this time, it is trying to decide when the Holocene gave way to our current "Anthropocene" epoch. Some say 1964; others say 1610; and we were taken through the issues by Science in Action (World Service, Thursday of last week). That we have now entered a new era - one in which the fabric of the globe is influenced by human behaviour - is beyond dispute. This influence includes, but extends beyond, the climate changes that are our current political concern; and it all might be said to have started at the point when the Old and New Worlds came into contact.

During the later 16th and early 17th centuries, agricultural species were transported to new territories, along with species of virus that killed a vast number of indigenous peoples. This was the start of a revolutionary period in humanity's use and abuse of the planet's resources; a moment so defined that its trace can be seen in the ice-core records of Antarctica, alongside other significant events in global history, such as our collision with meteors, and the suspension of Jeremy Clarkson.

In The Listening Project (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), we were granted access to the musings of two monks from Buckfast Abbey, Christopher and Thomas, who have witnessed much since they joined the Benedictine order. Back in the day, there was Friday-night self-flagellation, and Good Friday lunch was taken kneeling down. Now, young people - at least, those few who still engage with the contemplative life - question the necessity for early rising and such long prayers.

Christopher and Thomas were generally sanguine about such blandishments; did not St Benedict himself say that they should listen to the young?

In Ramblings (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) last week, Clare Balding joined a community no less intense in its expression of faith, though somewhat noisier. Bell-ringers are an order of sorts, if not exactly a closed one; and it is greatly to Balding's credit that she managed, in her conversations with her fellow-walkers, to steer clear of campanological jargon, and stories of high jinks in the bell chamber.

But this was no ordinary group of bell-ringers; and not just because it took them three hours before stopping at a pub. Organised by two ladies named Janet, "Janets' Jaunts" have become a biennial event for bell-ringers from across London, and from across the age-range: the youngest here was 24, and the oldest in her 70s.

Ramblings is one of the quieter programmes in the schedules: an invitation to fall into step with a different pace of intellectual activity, just as one falls into step with its participants. In that way, as Catherine explained here, the rhythm of ringing and of walking are complementary, kinaesthetic experiences.

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