Thursday 30 September 2010

Environmental Writing Course

I've just started teaching a course on Environmental Writing for The University of Edinburgh's Office of Lifelong Learning. A couple of people mentioned on Facebook that they would be interested in doing this course as an e-learning course. So after discussing it with my supervisor, I am now able to offer this course as an e-learning opportunity for people who live outside the UK. (This is to avoid undermining the viability of the course at the University and to avoid making arbitrary decisions about UK geography). In the first instance I'm offering it as a FREE pilot course, using weekly email exchanges and asking every participant to fill out an evaluation form so that I can assess how successful the course is and whether it is worth offering in the future, including the possibility of developing it as an online group learning experience.

The original two people who expressed interest will be taking this course and I am opening it up to probably another three people. So if you regularly comment on this blog or are a friend of mine on Facebook, live outside the UK and are interested in taking this course as an online learning opportunity then please let me know why you're interested in the comments below and I'll put names in a hat and choose!

The e-learning course will start sometime soon after I finish teaching the course at the University, probably mid-November.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert describes itself as a frontline Report on Climate Change. It's an accessible, concise and cogent look at climate change covering the history of climate change and climate science, the effects of climate change on wildlife and on human settlements, the political aspects and some ideas on climate change mitigation.

The author has visited many places that are affected by climate change. She reports on scientific explorations of permafrost, explaining how important it is as a carbon store and how rising temperatures undermine this role. She travels to the Arctice seas where she learns to recognise seasonal sea ice by taste (it is salty compared to the fresh water that is stored in permanent sea ice). She also learns about the albedo affect, such that white surfaces (eg ice) reflect sun and so help to keep the temperature low whereas dark surfaces (eg open sea) absorb sunlight and heat up. This sets up a feedback loop such tat as more ice melts there is more open sea to absorb more heat and thus to heat up the planet more quickly.

We are taken through a history of how the climate has changed from prehistoric times and how the relative stability of the climate since the ice Ages has allowed civilisation to develop and how extreme climatic events have caused some civilisations to collapse (this is a theme that is explored in much more detail in Jared Diamond's book Collapse, which inexplicably I've not reviewed on this blog!).

A chapter of the book is devoted to how some communities are mitigating against climate change. In parts of the Netherlands (a country that lies below sea level that is kept dry by complicated systems of dykes and pumps) where people are starting to live in floating houses, and areas of the same country where low lying land is being allowed to revert back to the sea to increase the chances of saving other areas. The community of Burlington in Vermont is highlighted as one where citizens are all taking a lot of positive steps to reduce their energy consumption (and this is being replicated in other places too).

The book was published in 2005 and some things obviously have changed (George W Bush is no longer president of the USA for example) but much remains depressingly exactly the same. This is an incredibly sobering book and one that really everyone should read. As is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas which I'm currently reading and will review in the near future.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert published 2006 by Bloomsbury on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Musselburgh Lagoons

We went to Musselburgh today, and walked along the Esk river and
round the shore to the Musselburgh Lagoons. The Lagoons, were created in 1964 by the South of Scotland Electricity Board. Three hundred acres of land have been reclaimed from the sea with pulverised fuel ash from Cockenzie Power Station. The area has become an important area for wading birds and sea ducks and has nice tree lined paths that lead to concrete bird hides. The hides are basic and open to the elements so I guess it's an uncomfortable experience in winter, which is one of the best times for birdwatching here! When we were there the tide was well out and there was a strong wind, which meant that birdwatching on the mudflats was difficult with the birds being far away and the binoculars difficult to hold steady. A low tide also means that the birds don't flock in huge numbers to the lagoons. However we did see lots of curlews (both on the mudflats and the lagoons), oystercatchers, redshank, goosanders and eider on the mudflats and wigeon (one of my favourite ducks!) and lapwings on the lagoons. I love watching lapwings and it was wonderful to see them in good number as they have become so rare these days. We also saw a shelduck and a heron on the lagoons; greylag geese and Canada geese further upriver. Also a few last swallows flying over the lagoons!

A few years ago the lagoons were threatened by the development of an extension to the nearby racecourse, but the development was not given planning permission so at least for now the birds can all enjoy this wonderful area and we can enjoy the birds!

Friday 24 September 2010


Liftsharing can help you to reduce your carbon footprint and get to know your neighbours or work colleagues better! Find someone travelling your way so you can share your journey, save money, cut your carbon footprint and have fun!

In the UK it is National Liftshare Week 4-8 October. You can find out more here.

I don't liftshare on a regular basis, I either walk or take the bus. Sometimes I take lifts with people after poetry events. I would liftshare more regularly if it was appropriate and I could find someone going the same route as I was doing.

Do you liftshare? What have your experiences been?

If you're in the Uk and interested in liftsharing, then you can register your interest on the Liftshare website here and they can find a match for you.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Altered Book - Autumn

I thought it might be nice to revisit the altered book I made after I'd visited Italy a few years ago now.
I made the book from an old anthology of articles from the Italian press. You can see the original book in this post.
This is the autumn colour page of the book. The background is an article about Italia Nostra, which is an Italian conservation group. The leaves we found on a walk in the woods near the River Po in Torino. I coloured the background in pencil crayon.
You can see other pages of the book here, here and here.

I've started collecting autumn leaves again this year and hope to make some collages with them!

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Love and Garbage by Ivan Klima

This is an excellent novel (at least partially autobiographical) following the life of a writer as he gives up his essay on Kafka to work as a road sweeper in Prague in Cummunist Czechslovakia. From an environmental point of view, the garbage is the most interesting element of the novel. Although the novel doesn't take a specifically environmental stance the fact is it deals with a vastly important environmental issue, how we deal with our rubbish.

The narrator's work as a garbage collector stimulates his meditations on how people were treated as garbage in the ghettos and concentration camps in Nazi Europe which he had lived through as a child. This stimulates the reader to think about how our throwaway society may affect our attitudes to our fellow human beings and in fact other living creatures we share our planet with.

The whole narrative is fairly meandering and moves seamlessly through different time periods and different themes. Kafka is referred to a lot, he's obviously a great influence on the narrator, despite him having given up on his essay!

Love and Garbage by Ivan Klima published 1986 by Penguin

Monday 20 September 2010

Sunday 19 September 2010

Tentsmuir Forest

Yesterday we went to Tentsmuir Forest in North Fife with Crafty Green Boyfriend's brother. It's a lovely area with wetlands full of birds and forests full of fungi. The tide was well out, which actually makes the birds more difficult to see as they are further away but we identified redshanks, curlew, oystercatchers, mute swans and shelduck.

In the forest I saw goldcrests and a treecreeper high up in the trees. A group of jays were arguing loudly in one area. The main purpose of our visit though was to look for fungi. We aren't big fungi foragers, though we do know the main edible species. Tentsmuir is famed for its fungi and at this time of year it is full of a huge variety, edible, inedible and downright poisonous. We gathered a few ceps, bay boletes and chanterelles. If you want to pick wild mushrooms, you need to be positive about your identification, as many species are poisonous and others can give you severse stomach upsets. A good online guide to UK Fungi Foraging seems to be Wild Mushrooms online.

The weather was beautiful for our trip. Dragonflies and small copper butterflies were flying around in the sun over the rough grassland at the edge of the forest.

small copper butterfly, photo by Crafty Green Boyfriend

Swallows were flying over a lot of the fields that we passed on the journey.

Shirl of Shirl's Gardenwatch was also in Tentsmuir on Saturday (though we didn't see each other there!). You can read about here trip here.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Autumn Crocuses

Edinburgh Botanic Gardens
for Shadow Shot Sunday
(It's an old photo but the right time of year to repost it!)

Friday 17 September 2010

Gorgie City Farm

We had a lovely afternoon at Gorgie City Farm today. Two of the sows have given birth very recently and as you can see from this photo, one set of piglets is very young indeed!

We enjoyed watching the rabbits as we always do. They seemed to be livelier than normal. Here is Driftwood, the bunny we sponsor on the farm.

Last Day of Organic Fortnight

Organic Fortnight, is the UK’s biggest celebration of all things organic. This year the campaign has focussed on choosing organic products every day. Hopefully it has encouraged more people to see organic as a realistic option.

I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone who blogged on organic issues during the fortnight or who followed the campaign via Soil Association Scotland's Twitter feed. You all helped to create a buzz around the campaign. So thanks to:

Zero Waste Week website.
Allotment 2 Kitchen
Caroline at Coastcard
Gabrielle Bryden
The Information Officers' Support Blog
Elizabeth Rimmer on Luchair
Elevenses Time
Suitably Despairing
My Zero Waste
Tree Shadow Moon
Real Food Lover

If you took part and I've missed you off the list, please let me know!

Thursday 16 September 2010

sleepy bee haiku

a bee sleeps
on a sunflower -
fallen leaves

Meanwhile there's a new blog post for Organic Fortnight over on Tree Shadow Moon

And I am totally delighted by this review of my poetry chapbook Unthinkable Skies, thanks to James of Coyote Mercury.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night Time by Allan Shepherd

This is a wonderful little book about nightime in the garden, focussing on moths.

The narrative takes in human evolution and mass extinctions, climate change, biology and the need for wildlife friendly gardening. By focussing on a group of animals the author is passionate about, it really brings home the sense of loss that we face as we continue to push so many species closer to extinction.

The book is interspersed with extracts from the moth collector's Memory Book, which is full of his nature observations and notes from key works on climate change and evolution. There are also copious references for how to attract moths and other wildlife to your garden, making it a very practical book. Anyone reading this who isn't already fascinated by moths will be so by the end of the book. But then starts the difficult adventure of learning moth id, this book gives pointers but its really difficult to learn to id moths....

Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night Time by Allan Shepherd published by the Centre for Alternative Technology

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Organic Food and Biodiversity

Organic Farming does not rely on pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. As a result it is not poisoning plants and animals that live on the farm. Organic farming also encourages a diverse ecosystem to develop soil fertility and encourages natural predators that can then keep pest species in check. Many studies have shown that overall there is a greater variety of plant and animal species on organic farms compared to conventional farms, with soil living organisms, birds and butterflies being usually seen as the groups that benefit the most. A Finnish study in 2007 also indicated that converting to organic farming can help to re-establish species that had been lost during the period as a conventional farm.

You can read more on the Wildlife Page of the Soil Association website, which also includes a link to a long study done on the issue of Biodiversity and Organics.

For Organic Fortnight

What other bloggers are saying about Organic Fortnight

Organic Plum and Apple Flapjacks on Allotment 2 Kitchen

Organic Fortnight on Transition Edinburgh University

Monday 13 September 2010

Redhall Walled Garden

I walked along the Water of Leith this morning as I do almost every Monday morning. Today I was delighted to see a kingfisher for the first time since I've been volunteering with the Water of Leith Conservation Trust. (Before I became a volunteer I used to see kingfishers most times I walked along the river and I have seen them in other places over the past year). It wasn't just the usual flash of blue zipping along the river either, it sat quietly on a branch for quite a while and looked at me. I don't have a camera at the moment but even if I did, I would have rather enjoyed the view than try to take an inferior quality photo. I also had very good views of a dipper, a grey wagtail and a buzzard. There were lots of blue tits, great tits and coal tits in the trees all along the river too.

There are still a couple of places available on the guided walks I'm leading along the Water of Leith starting 28 September. You can find out more here. There are also still places on my Environmental Writing Course that starts the same day. You can read about that here. I've just been asked too to take over a series of birdwatching classes that start on 27 and 29 September (and then again in November). You can read about those here.

Redhall Walled Garden is one of the landmarks of the Water of Leith. This was originally a mill and later became the kitchen gardens for Redhall House across the river. Redhall is a beautiful garden that offers a supportive working environment for up to 35 people who are recovering from mental health problems. There's a lot of practical activity at Redhall - people can develop skills in all areas of organic gardening. The beautiful environment offers a safe place for people to be and to unfold, often at a time in their life when they are experiencing great distress. The garden contains lots of lovely, meditative small gardens, including a wildlife bog garden, a Zen garden and a recreation of an iron age dwelling. Redhall is open from 9am-3pm, Monday to Friday and holds information days once a month along with open days twice a year. You can read more here.

The photo and information about Redhall Gardens have been recycled from a previous post for Organic Fortnight.

What other bloggers are saying about Organic Fortnight:

Organic Food festival from Real Food Lover

Sunday 12 September 2010

Bridgend Community Allotments

Bridgend Allotments are an organic allotment site in the grounds of Craigmillar Castle Country Park, Edinburgh (one of the less well known Country Parks in central Scotland). The allotments are easily accessible from the main road and just next to a bus stop. For those outside the UK who aren't familiar with allotments, they're sites where people can rent an area of land in which they can grow their own vegetables and fruit (though many have limits on the number of fruit trees that can be grown). The whole Bridgend allotment site is organic and includes composting toilets, rainwater collection for most of the water supply, a small wildlife meadow and a communal hut in the middle of the site as well as a lot of very imaginative recycling, such as these mini-greenhouses made from old windows and waste wood:

Part of the site is set aside for the Bridgend Community Health Allotment, which runs a project to get people (particularly those who live in the local area) together to grow healthy organic food. Trained horticulturalists work with participants to help them grow food for themselves and to develop skills and self confidence.

This is an old post I'm recycling for Organic Fortnight.

Saturday 11 September 2010


explore is a multimedia organization that documents leaders around the world who have devoted their lives to extraordinary causes. The explore library includes over 250 original films and 30,000 photographs, covering a range of topics, but with a particular interest in the environment. explore also makes awards through the Annenbery Foundation, which so far has awarded over $15 million to over 100 non-profit organisations across the world.

Voting is now taking place in the explore Hatch Disaster Short Film Award. You can view the films and vote on them here. Each film shows a response to a specific environmental disaster and showcases an example of how individuals, communities and organisations can respond extraordinarily. Voting ends on Wednesday 15 September.

Friday 10 September 2010


rusty gate -
a spider weaves a web
between the bars

previously published in a British Haiku Society Member Anthology

Thursday 9 September 2010

Animal Vegetable Miracle

This is a wonderfully inspiring book about Barbara Kingsolver's family attempt to eat locally for a year. They have a plot of land on which to grow vegetables and raise chickens and turkeys and they invest a lot of time into sourcing other locally raised food. Kingsolver's narrative is broken up by thoughts from her older daughter Camille who also shares wonderful sounding recipes (which can be found also on the website:

Kingsolver weaves musings about broader food issues into her narrative of their year. Which is more important organic or locally produced? Why is international agriculture so dependent on so few varieties of so few species and how can we revive heritage breeds?

We are given fascinating and scary facts about conventional agriculture, eg: In 1948 when pesticides were first introduced, farmers used roughly 50 million pounds of them and suffered about a 7% loss of all their food crops. In 2000 they used nearly a billion pounds of pesticide and lost 13% of their crops. Which seems like an excellent advert for organic agriculture to me!).

The most valuable aspect of this book though is the enthusiasm with which Kingsolver documents her family's year and her humour in sharing so many of the stories along the way, her younger daughter's unexpected entrepreneurial skills as she plans an egg business, the saga of the turkeys learning how to brood their eggs (because turkeys are bred artificially and designed to last only one year, the ability to breed has effectively been bred out of them).

After reading this book, you should find yourself looking more carefully at the labels on the food you buy, and searching for a spot where you can grow your own food even if your windowledges all face north and your neighbours have locked you out of the communal garden.

For Organic Fortnight

What Other Bloggers are Saying About Organic Fortnight:

Eating Organic Carrot Gnocchi on Allotment to Kitchen.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

New Yurts at West Moss-side Farm - Organic Holiday Venue

I enjoyed visiting West Moss-side Farm near Stirling earlier this year. You can read about my visit here. So I was delighted to hear that now they have three self catering holiday yurts ready for people to stay in, complete with barbeque facilities where you can sample the farm's organic produce. Part of me has always wanted to live in a yurt (I love films featuring nomadic yurt living families in Outer Mongolia!)
West Moss-side Farm is in a delightful location next to Flanders Moss Nature Reserve. In summer swallows flock to the specially built swallow hotel in the new barn while cuckoos call across the fields. You can read more about the yurts on the West Moss-side Farm website here. The farm also offers a wonderful range of creative workshops, which you can read about here and is also a lovely venue for meetings.
What other bloggers are saying for Organic Fortnight:

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Reducing Food Waste

I always try to avoid food waste. We are lucky to live within reasonable distance of a fair number of good food shops, many of them being small local shops rather than supermarkets. So I buy little but frequently, often shopping for groceries on the way home from work. This means we cut down on the amount of food that is sitting around the kitchen.

I also usually buy local and/or organically grown produce, both of which seem to keep better.

My personal challenge to cutting down on food waste is broccoli stems. I try to choose broccoli with shorter stems and have recently started cutting it differently to use more of the stem. Even so some of that stem is fairy tough and inevitably ends up in the compost. Does anyone have a great recipe for making the hard bits of broccoli stem edible and even tasty?

Here are a few ideas for reducing food waste:

* Avoid Overpackaged food
* Recycle food and drink packaging where possible
* Plan your menus and buy only what you need when you need it
* Store your food properly
* Learn some recipes for using leftovers
* Compost any raw fruit and veg that go off

For Zero Waste Week

You can read Zero Waste's blogpost for Organic Fortnight in this post here.

Monday 6 September 2010

Green Tea

I love drinking tea but have long intended to cut down on the amount of black tea I drink and replace it with green tea, which contains extra anti-oxidants and less caffeine so is better for you. I started drinking almost entirely green tea about a week ago and so far its working fine!

I always drink organic tea, the local wholefood shops in Edinburgh stock a nice selection of organic green teas. So that's the connection with Organic Fortnight.

The connection with Zero Waste Week is probably less obvious. I always use loose leaf tea as this cuts down on excess paper use in tea bags. Additionally if I'm drinking green tea I can fill up the tea ball with tea leaves first thing in the morning and keep using the same tea all day without any loss in taste. Doing this with black tea just doesn't work for me, as black tea quickly loses its taste if reused. Once I've used the tea as much I can, I add it to the compost.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, I reuse the foil wrapping from tea packaging to make small envelopes for small greetings cards. The cardboard box I usually put into the packaging recycling though I sometimes use it in craft projects. By reusing my tea as described above then I'll have fewer tea boxes to reuse or recycle. I'll also save money by buying less tea.

Read what other bloggers are saying about Organic Fortnight:

Organikal blogpost on Organic Fortnight
Organikal Organic Challenge
a poem about cosmetics and chemicals by Gabrielle Bryden

Sunday 5 September 2010

International Vulture Awareness Day

Yesterday was International Vulture Awareness Day.

Vultures were once incredibly numerous - in the 1980s the Oriental white backed vulture was the most numerous bird of prey in the world. Vultures are not pretty birds but they are vital to the ecosystem as they eat dead animals and prevent the spread of disease.

Sadly though many species of vultures are struggling these days. Particularly in Asia where a veterinary drug diclofenac that is found in animal carcases that the vultures feed on then poisons the birds. Four species of Asian vultures are now classified as critically endangered and have declined 99.9% in the past 15 years.

In 2006, the Indian and Nepalese Governments stopped domestic manufacture of veterinary diclofenac. In August 2008, the Drug Controller General of India made sale and use of the drug illegal. To prevent vets using human diclofenac for livestock all stocks of the drug are now labelled as 'not for veterinary use'.

The RSPB and Bombay Natural History Society along with other conservation groups are working on captive breeding programmes for the affected species. In July 2010 all these species bred and successfully fledged young in captivity.

Vulture Safe Zones have also been introduced in two parts of Nepal. These are areas that are guaranteed free of diclofenac and where vultures are fed safely. Vulture populations have been doing well in these areas in recent years.

A safe alternative drug has been found and is being used in Asia and in Africa.

More information at:

This is just one example of how agricultural chemicals can damage wildlife and the wider ecosystem. Organic farming does not use such chemicals and works with nature and so preserves wildlife.

Saturday 4 September 2010

North Berwick

small (?) white butterfly

sea buckthorn

The Bass Rock from North Berwick
(all photos by Crafty Green Boyfriend)

Blogging about organic issues every day during Organic Fortnight would be too much for all of us, so some days I'll be blogging about other things! Today we had a lovely day in North Berwick, a small town a short train journey away from Edinburgh. North Berwick is famous for the Scottish Seabird Centre which focusses on the gannets and other wildlife of the nearby Bass Rock. We didn't go to the Seabird Centre today but walked along the beach away from the town. The weather was perfect, sunny, blue skies and very warm. House martins were swarming above the town and low over the sea, swallows were swooping low over the golf courses and gannets were diving from the high hazy sky into the sea. Eider ducks bobbed in a group of twenty, while a family of cormorants gathered on a rock and there were several oystercatchers too. White butterflies fluttered everywhere and there were darker butterflies too though most of them flew by too quickly, at least one of them was a peacock. There were ladybirds all over most of the grasses by the coastline and lots of grasshoppers too. Later waiting for the train back into Edinburgh we saw a swift flying among the house martins, the swifts should have left by now, though I have seen some stragglers around in September in previous years.

Friday 3 September 2010

Organic Food doesn't need to cost more

The theme for Organic Fortnight this year is Choosing Organic Every Day. According to the Organic Trade Board, 68% of people polled said that they would buy more organic produce if it were cheaper. Interestingly though the board has produced information that shows that organic staples can be cheaper than the non-organic alternative -so for the staples at least you can choose organic every day without it costing too much.

Some organic products are more expensive just because of the cost of organic inputs such as feed and the costs of certification, inspection and more labour intensive processes. This premium passes to the farmer and guarantees:

* that your food is free from pesticide residues or other unpleasant chemical additives

* that any animal involved in production has lived a good life to high animal welfare standards and

* you are likely to be supporting small scale agriculture rather than an impersonal industrial conglomerate (though this can't be guaranteed these days as industrial conglomerates are seeing the potential in organics).

Some small scale local producers find the costs of certification to be too much. Some of these producers may produce food to organic standards without the certificate to prove it. If you live near one of these producers it is worth checking them out and getting to know them. If you can learn about your organic farm on first hand terms and can see their standards for yourself, perhaps the certificate isn't so important?

If you focus on buying fresh organic fruit and vegetables and minimise the amount of meat or ready meals you buy then you will find it doesn't cost so much. Another thing to think about is that the more people who buy organic, the cheaper it will become, just due to market forces.

Excellent article on Organic Foodee - Why is Organic Food more expensive?

For Organic Fortnight

To find out what's happening in Scotland during Organic Fortnight, visit this page.

Posts from other participating bloggers:

You can have a look behind the scenes of the campaign on the Information Officer's Support Blog here.

Caroline Gill talks about the Eden Project and organic chocolate here.

Gabrielle Bryden makes the connection between pesticides and autism here and shares a light hearted look at organic free range emus here.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Organic Fortnight 3 - 17 September 2010

Organic Fortnight starts tomorrow! This year's theme is Choosing Organic Every Day and aims to show people that it isn't necessarily expensive to buy organic and that where it is more expensive that there is good reason. During the Fortnight I will use several blog posts to talk about organic issues and to share some more unusual organic products and experiences to show that there is a wealth of organic out there!

I know that some readers of this blog will be also blogging on organic issues during the Fortnight. I will link to as many of these posts as I am aware of. So if you are blogging for Organic Fortnight, this is your reminder that the campaign starts tomorrow and please remember to let me know you're joining in!

Soil Association Scotland will focus on organic producers and activities during the Fortnight, both on their blog and via Twitter.

There is a piece about Behind the Scenes at Organic Fortnight on the Information Officers' Support Group Blog here.

Organikal is supporting Organic Fortnight.

Zero Waste Week focuses this year on Food and Drink waste and there will be some joint campaigning.

For readers in the USA, the whole of September is Organic Harvest Month!

Wednesday 1 September 2010