9. Scathophagidae – alchemy

James Hutton as caricatured by John Kay

There is no getting away from change – certainly not at Siccar Point in Berwickshire which is famous for it. This is the place where, in 1788, James Hutton saw and interpreted the incongruous layers of rock as indicating that geological history was vast. Rocks had been laid down as sediment in ancient seas, compressed into a harder form and then twisted and folded, eroded and then submerged under subsequent layers of sediment. Human history was but a tiny fragment in this slow story, the Bible an imperfect account of the earth’s long genesis. With this perspective there was room for biological evolution to occur, and it just wanted Darwin and Wallace to come up with a mechanism and the evidence.

Just along from Siccar Point is a spot I dreamed of in the days when I thought I should become a hermit.There is the ruin of house set just above the tide line under towering cliffs, nothing to be seen from it but sea and a raw spur of red sandstone. Here I would escape the world and …. I now wonder what possessed me that I thought it might work – miles to the nearest road, miles more to the nearest shop. Little chance of growing anything on the north-facing, salt-swept patch of almost flat ground beside the house, no electricity or water supplies, no harbour or beach for a boat. The only merit of the place was the absence of other people – which when you are in a misanthropic mood, seems like a good thing. But the farmer whose I needed permission saw sense and said no.

So visiting the spot again in the course of helping in the hunt for hibernating Herald and Tissue moths in the sea caves, and having accrued the wisdom of a few more decades, I could laugh at my former self. Mind you, three of the walls were still standing, and the tideline was heaped with long boards perfect for re-roofing – but I was happy enough to leave these daydream thoughts and head back to a more convenient, comfortable and companionable home. Letting my net hang like a wind sock as we walked back across sheep fields into a stiff breeze, it was soon populated with flies, one of which was this golden-haired dung fly, its furry legs and body glinting in the sun with slender silky fuzz, a drop of amber on the forehead, crisp black bristles and a darkened cross vein on the wing, a dipteran beauty spot. The family name, Scathophagidae, sounds like “dung-eater”, which is what the larvae do. Turning dung into gilt is an alchemy to be wondered at.

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