My school report would have said “easily distracted”

Lisa Ashby

I have to confess that when lockdown first came about I didn’t much mind. Things had been a little hectic in the Ashby household and a number of jobs had been put on the never ending “to do” list and nothing seemed to be being crossed off it. I thought that being stuck indoors for a while might not be a bad thing, a chance to focus. The only fly in the ointment was that we were in the middle of replacing the chimneys at home, and I do mean in the middle. The day everything stopped my chimneys were without their four pots, the scaffolding was up and the replacement pots were missing somewhere between Northampton and Mottingham.

Chimney repair

One of the jobs I had been meaning to tackle was the transcribing of some items from the Club archives. This time around it was 35mm slides; they remind me of my childhood, like little windows into a different world. When the boxes arrived I was immediately excited and set about trying to find some sort of pattern in them. I looked at any processing codes on the casings, placed them over a light box and gradually got them sorted ready for scanning. This happened before the whole chimney and Covid issue but as often is the case I was side tracked. In this case it was the capability of the scanner. Although simple to use and easy to install it became evident that if any image took up the full space of the slide, the Ion Slides Forever scanner would cut off the end of the image. Not a problem when one’s picture is a microscope on a display table but pretty useless when you have an image of a page of text. Luckily friends have a Epson Perfection V500 Photo scanner which claimed to be able to scan four images at once. After some niggles with the installation I was able to get on with the task in hand.

Group photo

Arrangement of diatoms and scales


Davidson Metalab Optical Bench

Davidson camera

It is true to say that not all of the images are particularly exciting, however they all form a part of our history. The next job was to create a written record of what is actually on the slides e.g., books, text, equipment excursions. I have managed to do possibly 80% of this and then I got distracted.

Then along came Zoom, I was not keen. I don’t like talking on the phone and I dislike video and video calling even more. However, it quickly became obvious that we would not be returning to our usual activities for a while and I would have to embrace this new technology. Given my own feelings about it I am amazed at how quickly the other members of the committee have got on board with video calling and are navigating it with far more success than I am! As my involvement with our Zoom events has been restricted to trying to create a record of attendees I had plenty of time to find something else to amuse me.

One of the next jobs I decided to catch up on was some repairs. I collect all things Watson and to go along with a fishing rod and reel that I had, a friend had given me a leather fishing wallet, it’s the sort of thing you would have kept your flies and rigs in and I found the membership cards of the previous owner in it dating back to 1918. I have cleaned it, removed any signs of potential infestation and reinforced a few weak points. I had to stop short of feeding the leather as the supplier of the leather food had furloughed its staff and ceased production. Within the wallet are two pages of felt that were damaged. I had been happy to leave these but my husband decided it would finish the job if I replaced or repaired them, the problem is I don’t know what it is made from so I put it to one side whilst I got distracted by something else.

Fishing wallet and tickets

The committee decided that if members couldn’t meet together we should come up with projects that members can be involved in from their own homes. I chatted about this with my husband who said he though pseudoscorpions would make a good project and a couple of articles had got him interested. Little is known about pseudoscorpions but they are found all over the country in many different habitats. I passed the idea on to the committee and before I knew it I was the lead on a project. I have never led a scientific project but as always I am supported and guided by a number of people in the microscopy community who have all ‘been there and done that’ many times before. In total there will be four projects and they will be detailed in the Journal which should have come out during September. I know rules on getting out and about have eased but I am hopeful that the membership will still want to get involved and will enjoy being part of a wider project. For my part I have been making Tullgren funnels and collecting samples from all over my garden.

Tullgren funnels

So far I have discovered that pseudoscorpions are elusive to say the least. I have taken samples from old and new compost, dry and damp leaf litter, in shade, in sun. The only place that has yielded results is a small channel by the side of my greenhouse which has given me 11 specimens. Most of them are Chthonius ischnocheles (Common Chthonid) although some are juveniles and so I have been unable to confirm the species of those. Like most things I am running before I can walk, I have indeed managed to find pseudoscorpions but no way of photographing them in a way that I would consider acceptable. Luckily the Club comes to the rescue once more and I am speaking to another member who knows a thing or two about photography. I am hoping he can come up with some equipment ideas that will suit my skill level and my budget, but whilst I wait for his advice….

During all of this the Postal Microscopical Society slide boxes have been dropping through the letterbox monthly. Encouraged by Mike Samworth, I reached out to the members either side of me on the circuit and have struck up a correspondence with the chap who sends the slides on to me. If it hadn’t been for lockdown this would never have happened and I like to think of it as a bonus. One of the things I like about the PMS boxes is I have no choice in what is coming my way. That means that I am forced to consider specimens that I wouldn’t normally pick up out of the slide cabinet. The slides are not always something I want to look at, although some recent boxes have had me digging out the camera lucida to draw some wing structures. I haven’t drawn since secondary school so I am exceedingly rusty, but I am sure Mr A really enjoyed having to make my adjustable drawing stand. It does make me realise that using a lucida is an absolute skill, the lighting of the paper as well as the specimen, the angle of the paper, everything has to be perfectly arranged. So far my efforts have been more luck than judgement but when it works its rather special. Perhaps by next year when I have a little more judgement I may be able to enter some of the results into Quekex.

I have also had a nice box of geological samples. This gave me the chance to use the petrological microscope. Having struggled with Nicol prisms which sit in the top of the draw tube I am pleased to find that the petro is very comfortable to use. Using a smart phone held over the eyepiece gave some surprisingly pleasant results and made me think about getting a smartphone adapter (I will add that to the “to do” list).

Geological slides

I had seen Pam Hamer give a talk at the joint Bournemouth meeting and it reminded me I had bought some of the files she had recommended previously, although as yet I had not used them. As luck would have it at the same time on a well-known auction site someone had listed a box of rocks as well as a few sets of rocks and minerals. Collection was local and in the end both lots were won for under £15. The cost was low enough for me to not worry if I make a complete hash of trying to mount them. However two items in the boxes caught my interest. The first being what I think is a bone, although from what I am not sure; the structures are beautiful and remind me of images of snowflakes or diatoms. The other is a sample made up of a myriad of shells, my first job has been to get rid of the surface layer of hairy dust that needed removing before I can look any further.

Collection of minerals

Rock samples

I then saw the report that was issued on the Hairs and Fibres meeting. This was the first Zoom gossip and although because of technical issues I couldn’t get into the meeting it reminded me that I can be an idiot and that I can use the microscope to look at the “felt” from my fishing wallet to see what it’s made from. There was also a recent article in the Quekett Bulletin No. 78, May 2020, pp. 31–36 (Picking Up The Threads, by Lewis Woolnough) which seemed like a good starting point. I started to look at them, honest I did.

Damaged felt

Throughout this the Quekett has been trucking along, meetings have been changed to virtual events, and as much as I would like to be meeting in person I cannot deny that feedback from those members who are not usually able to get to meetings has been encouraging. The next item in the programme was Quekex. Should we cancel? Could it be virtual? Should it be done over a day or longer? Would the lecturers still be willing to take part? There were lots of questions. I’m not sure during the meeting I actually agreed to be coordinator, but I think I may have said “if you (the committee) send me what you have I will see what I can do with it”. So here I am now at the end of August about a fortnight before the deadline for entries to Quekex. I have e-mailed members and guests, we have speakers and we have a programme. I am left with two big questions. Will members get fully behind a virtual event and will I get any exhibits? Only time will tell but I hope this event will go down in the history of the Club for all of the right reasons.

You would think with my never-ending list that I would have enough plates in the air, but then we had the gossip meeting on the slides of Ernie Ives. It was very informative and those of you who attended would have seen Chris Thomas show some images of wood sections that I found particularly attractive. That should have been the end of it, but it has inspired me to have a go at entering something in the art exhibition. I have made something, but I as I write this I am not 100% happy with it; I have a fortnight so I will persevere and hopefully get to the point where I have something I am happy to show.

Wood section

My final distraction has been caused by one of the first things on the list, the Club archives. They got me and Mr A talking about excursions, particularly to Keston Ponds, which luckily is local to us. I wondered if it might be possible to visit again and recreate one of those excursions (I draw the line at wearing a full length dress for the occasion). I have approached those responsible and will wait and see if we could get permission. In the meantime I didn’t see why I couldn’t go on my own little reconnaissance mission. My enquiries have led to me to discover another local nature reserve less than 30 minutes away which I have driven past a number of times without knowing it was there. I now need to squeeze in another trip out before Mr Ashby returns to work and leaves me without a car for the next few weeks.

Excursion to Keston Ponds

As it stands now, the chimneys have been replaced and a number of non-microscopy related things have been ticked off the never-ending list. But the current PMS box needs to be posted, I still haven’t identified the felt, made any rock slides, finished my art entry or bought any camera equipment. I have however been regularly enthused by what can be seen through the microscope and by the knowledge and support of the people within the Quekett.

I am not sure my school report ever actually said I was easily distracted, though reflecting on 2020 as an adult I really don’t think I can deny it.

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