Monday, 30 March 2020

Lessons from Walden by Bob Pepperman Taylor

Subtitled Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy, this book, in three chapters, explores  themes from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: 1) the need to simplify our lives; 2) the need to follow our moral intuition and 3) to live close to and learn from the natural world. The author's intention being to use Walden as 'a springboard for thinking how we and our contemporaries wrestle, for better or worse, with the issues Thoreau raises'. He also explores some of the shortcomings of Walden's ideas for current circumstances.

The author observes that Walden uses the resurgence of nature in Spring as a metaphor for us to awaken ourselves from our lives of 'quiet desperation' so we can learn to live simple, more satisfying lives. He outlines the central point of Thoreau's approach as being achieving a satisfying simplicity rather than a self denying austerity and from there leads into a discussion of Thoreau's ethics as they contrast with the 'disinterested' ethics so often presented as desirable. He also explores Thoreau's difficulties with dealing with people who he met who were poor not by choice but by circumstance and his thinking behind the economy that forced people into poverty. He makes clear his belief that Thoreau saw voluntary simplicity as a way to challenge the inequalities of the established social order. Certainly, Walden ties personal awakening to the wider world and politics.

Walden, wasn't a vast wilderness, but on the edge of Concorde Village, but still was a place where Thoreau felt he could learn from nature. He saw nature's value in beauty and in it's potential as metaphor to to see ourselves in new ways.   

"His project as a writer and artist, however, is primarily to use the natural world as a force for moral awakening or reform, and it is this project that makes him so significant in our American ethical traditions of thinking about nature."

Taking Thoreau's writings as a springboard, Pepperman Taylor gives an overview of changing American attitudes to nature, ranging from the differing views of the first colonial people and the first African slaves brought into the country to discussions of ecomodernism which puts its faith in technology to save nature. Thoreau's views about humans having a place in a locality where they cound intimately know nature, ran against the flow in a country where nature conservation originally grew out of a concern to preserve natural resources for their indistrial exploitation not from that exploitation.

Although Thoreau's Walden is central to the discussion in this book, the author also brings in not only Thoreau's other writings (particularly On Civil Disobedience) but works by others, from Plato's Republic to the writings of Aldo Leopold. He puts Thoreau in the context of other philosophers writing in the nineteenth century and follows common threads through more recent writers, to assess the state of the nation and modern politics. So this is a much more wide ranging work than the title might suggest.

It's the relevance of Thoreau's ideas to our current political and environmental situation that make it so vital that people revisit his writings and this scholarly book is a good analysis, particularly for the American reader. Also, in these times when many people are self isolating against the Corona virus, it is interesting to read about Thoreau's thoughts about separating himself from society at Walden, though that is by no means the main focus of this book.

Lessons from Walden by Bob Pepperman Taylor, published by University of Notre Dame Press.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-book in return for an honest review. 

Saturday, 28 March 2020

#DailyExercise in the Times of COVID-19 Part 2

The UK Government is, at the moment, allowing us out for one form of #DailyExercise once a day in addition to visiting the shops (as infrequently as possible), travelling to work (for those with essential jobs that can't be done from home) and medical emergencies including helping those who are self isolating.

You're not supposed to travel far from home for your daily exercise and we're lucky in having a small park and two cemetries very close to where we live for quiet walks. Here are some photos from the last few days.

It's been raining quite a lot and the coltsfoot isn't too happy when it does

They cheer up again when the rain stops, such pretty bright flowers

The horse chestnut buds are gradually unfolding

Lovely to see primroses

and the first few flowered leek coming into flower (though this is an invasive non-native plant, it has beautifully intriguing flowers)

 Two grey squirrels were chasing each other through one of the cemetries, this one thoughtfully took time out to pose for us

Several birds were singing, notably a distant mistle thrush and this robin

 And we saw a flock of about 10 waxwings! This is the latest I've seen these winter visitors still here though I read on Twitter they're still around in a few parts of Edinburgh.

Tonight is Earth Hour at 8.30pm, local time. You can take part by turning off your lights for one hour to show solidarity and support for protecting our natural environments. World Wildlife Fund have some ideas for activities for marking Earth Hour while maintaining social distancing - we'll be playing Scrabble by candlelight!

You can see Part 1 of my blogposts about #DailyExercise in the times of COVID-19 here.

And my post about staying close to nature in these challenging times is here.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Staying Close to Nature during Lockdown


In the UK, we are currently (as in many other countries across the world) severly restricted as to the times and reasons we can leave our homes. We can go out for vital shopping (as infrequently as possible and preferably alone), medical emergencies, to help people self isolating or to go for a walk, run or cycle ride in the local area (#DailyExercise - either alone or with other members of our household).

If you have a garden or live close to greenspaces that you can walk through for your #DailyExercise, then you may find yourself seeing wildlife that you've not really noticed before. You may also want to develop your interests in wildlife. Here are some ideas to help develop this interest:

The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has instigated the Breakfast Birdwatch Project. Every day, between 8am and 9 am, a time when, normally, many people would be commuting to work, on the school run or otherwise engaged, they can get together to birdwatch from home. Using #BreakfastBirdwatch on social media, people are being encouraged to share what they can see in their gardens, on their balconies, rooftops and spaces from their own homes, while keeping within government guidelines in relation to COVID-19. You can find out more here.

Other similar initiatives include #WildlifeFromMyWindow a long standing Twitter project for people who are housebound and the Self Isolating Birdclub, also on Twitter.

There are many things you can do from the comfort of your own home to remain connected to nature. Bird Guides has outlined a few ways you can remain connected to nature and wildlife from your own home and garden, you can read more here. Discover Wildlife has also put together an article about staying connected to wildlife at this time. You can read it here.

Birdwatch are looking for photos of birds seen from your windows in the UK, they will pay for any they use. Email photos to

The Zooniverse is always looking for people to get involved in their citizen science projects. There's a wide range of projects covering a wide range of areas of interest. Find out more here

If you need help with identifying UK wildlife then you may be interested in this list of helpful wildlife identification websites that I've put together on this blog.If you think anything is missing from that list, or if you know of any further initiatives helping people stay connected with nature during these difficult times, please let me know in the comments.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

#DailyExercise in the Age of COVID-19

The UK Government is, at the moment, allowing us out for one form of #DailyExercise once a day in addition to visiting the shops (as infrequently as possible), travelling to work (for those with essential jobs that can't be done from home) and medical emergencies including helping those who are self isolating.

You're not supposed to travel far from home for your daily exercise and we're lucky in having a small park and two cemetries very close to where we live for quiet walks. Here are some photos from the last few days.

It's lovely to see the coltsfoot in flower in the park, this pretty plant is always one of the first bright wildflowers to appear

It's also growing up among the daffodils

  The cemetries are both quite overgrown making them ideal places for nature


 It was lovely to find this patch of wood anemone in one of the cemetries

and these celandines too

The horse chestnut buds are starting to open, their buds are large and sticky compared to buds of other trees

We've seen our first butterflies of the year in one of the cemetries, a comma (which wouldn't stop for a photo) and this small tortoiseshell, which seemed too cold to open its wings, if you look closely you can just see some of the patterns of the upperwing showing through the lower wing

The chiffchaffs have obviously returned from their wintering grounds and we have heard a couple of them calling their names from the shrubbery.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

What to Read During a Pandemic?

Obviously, many people, myself included, want to read for escapism at least patr of the time during times like this. On the other hand there are three books I would definitely recommend as timely reads which are relevant to the Covid-19 outbreak. Probably best to alternate them with less grim readign material.....

1) Spillover by David Quammen is a brilliantly written, well researched and sobering examination of zoonoses, diseases that pass from animals into the human population, with often devastating consequences, COVID-19 is an example of a zoonotic disease. You can read my breif review of this book here.

2) The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus is a classic novel set during a plague outbreak in Algeria. It is at one and the same time a description of the progress of the plague in the town but also acts as an allegory for the progress of fascism across the world. I read the novel in French and have to admit I found it hard going, easy enough for me to understand it in French but difficult enough for me to have to read it very slowly. Also, my French probably isn't good enough to fully appreciate the subtexts in this book and the philosophical musings. Having said that, I would definitely recommend it, it is available in translation if you can't read the French.

3) The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a novel set in the near future, after a flu pandemic has essentially destroyed civilisation. Hig lives in an airfield in post apocalyptic America with hhis dog, Jasper, his aggressive but resourceful neighbour Bangley and his Cessna light aircraft. This beautifully written story follows their lives through hope and hardship and their relationship with an isolated group of Mennonites living nearby, who have a blood disease that hit most people who survived the flu.  I loved the relationship between Hig and Jasper, the dog is a very vibrant character in this novel. I couldn't help thinking about where the current COVID-19 pandemic will leave us when it finally ends.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Corstorphine HIll

We try to have a lunchtime walk round Corstorphine HIll every Friday if we can. Yesterday was no different. It was a beautiful Spring day out there and the hill looked lovely.

We saw several birds too, some of which even stopped for long enough for us to take photos, like this beautiful male chaffinch

and this lovely treecreeper who seemed to be investigating every crack in the wall in its search for food

So, as we become more and more restricted in what we can do (all pubs and restauarants are now shut in the UK, though are open for takeaway services in some cases) getting out there and enjoying nature is still an option! If you can't get out, you may be able to watch birds from your window (this obviously depends on the view your windows look out over!).

Friday, 20 March 2020

Lunchtime Walks in the time of Covid 19

Seeing as we are now both working from home we'll be going on lunchtime walks together as often as possible. Yesterday we walked to and around the nearby Harrison Park. The light was beautiful and ever changing, here is a lovely birch tree as we walked out through the park

and here is the same tree photographed from the opposite side later when we were walking home

The lesser celandines are out, always beautiful to see

and Max the cat is self isolating but posing for passers by

As so many things close down for the indefinite future, the outdoors is still open. Enjoying nature is essential for physical and mental well being and if you don't have a garden that means walking in public greenspaces. If you go with just your family then you can maintain sensible social distancing from everyone else while enjoying the fresh air and sights and sounds of nature.

It's notable that while organisations such as National Trust and RSPB have closed their buildings, cafes and visitor centres their nature reserves are (in most cases) still open. Similarly although the greenhouses and cafe at Saughton Park have been shut, the gardens are still open and the cafe may be opening for takeaway service only.