Sunday 31 October 2010

Saturday 30 October 2010

Guided Walks and Teaching

Over the past few weeks I've been teaching a course on environmental writing for the University of Edinburgh Office of Lifelong Learning and leading guided walks for Edinburgh Council Adult and Community Education. I lead a series of guided walks along the Water of Leith and birdwatching walks for the Beginners Birdwatching Class (which I was asked to teach at short notice as the previous tutor had to retire for medical reasons).

Today I attended an excellent course at Edinburgh Council designed to help adult education tutors to improve their teaching skills and generally share ideas. I was pleased to meet other tutors who teach creative writing and other subjects where we could discuss common themes and issues.

Teaching in a classroom is very different to leading a guided walk. In a classroom, one has much more control over the learning experience, which can be much more structured. It's also easier to evaluate how well the teaching is going. The walks are much more freely structured. The Water of Leith walks are easier because there are lots of points of historic interest to talk about and there's a nature observation element to the walk so there's plenty of interaction. The birdwatching walks are more challenging, because to have a good chance of seeing a lot of birds, one should be quiet. A group of 12 people walking together cannot fail to make a certain amount of noise. Too little interaction with the group makes me a poor tutor but too much risks disturbing the birds and not being so observant of those that are around! Also it's largely due to luck how many birds we see! Sometimes we've been very lucky and had wonderful sightings (for example a very close view of a hunting kestrel that then posed for us in a tree) but other times we've not been so lucky. We have mostly had good weather and everyone has enjoyed the walks but even so, sometimes there can be a sense of not having had enough birdwatching!

The council courses are a very good example of how volunteering can lead to paid employment, as the Water of Leith Conservation Trust (who I volunteer for, looking after a stretch of the river) had recommended me to the council when they were looking for new tutors. My volunteering work was also the reason the University had asked me to put together and run a course about the Water of Leith, which I taught in August and will run again next summer.

By the way, if you had expressed interest in doing my Environmental Writing Course via email, I haven't forgotten you and I'll be in touch about this in the next couple of weeks.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Autumn Birds

Vivid autumnal leaves bright against a perfect blue sky. Two buzzards glide into view in the clearing.

A heron fishes in front of the weir as golden leaves fall onto the river.

A mixed flock of tits scurry through the trees, eating the berries, calling softly to each other.

Two grey wagtails chase each other round and round the river.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Cr*p at the Environment by Mark Watson

This is the ideal antidote to the gloom and doom environmental books I read recently Six Degrees and Field Notes from a Catrastrophe. Those were important books and should be read by anyone who cares about the current climate crisis. However this book is entertaining and practical and enthuses the reader to take action. Mark Watson is a comedian who was won over to the environmental cause by a variety of things including Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. Mark then set up an organisation he called Crap at the Environment for people like him who didn't know much about the environment but recognised it as an important issue and wanted to learn more and moer importantly take action in their own lives. The book follows his efforts to reduce his carbon footprint including trying to learn to ride a bike, grow his own food and cut down on air travel ( a particular challenge for a comedian with a successful international career). He shares his successes and his failures and is entertaining and inspiring. The book also includes a lot of practical information and resources to help everyone to become Better at the Environment. 

Crap at the Environment by Mark Watson published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2008.

Tuesday 26 October 2010


It's apple season and Crafty Green Boyfriend's parents have two apple trees in their garden, so we're inundated with apples at the moment. One of their trees is a cooking apple tree and these apples make wonderful apple crumbles. I've almost perfected my apple crumble recipe, though I've found that the ones I am less careful with turn out better, which I find is often the way with my cooking!

The other tree is an eating apple tree, we're not sure what variety, though we think it's the Laxton's Superb. It's a wonderful apple, slightly crisp, not too sweet and quite juicy but not too much. It has a lovely taste too, totally different from the packaged apples available in most shops. Actually I rarely eat apples, unless they come from Crafty Green Boyfriend's parents' garden.

Find out all about apples, orchard and apple varieties on Orange Pippin.
Abundance Edinburgh is an organisation devoted to orchard and apples in Edinburgh.

(red text in this post links to external websites, where you can find out more)

Sunday 24 October 2010

playground haiku

children's playground -
a crow balances
on a swing

previously published in Blithe Spirit, the journal of the British Haiku Society

Saturday 23 October 2010

Cuts to the Countryside

The UK Government is planning sweeping cuts to public spending. Many of the cuts affect wildlife and the environment. For example there are plans to privatise Natural Nature Reserves and ask wildlife charities to run them. RSPB and other environmental charities have an excellent track record of running wildlife reserves but they need money to do this. It seems unlikely that this government (which likes to present itself as the greenest government ever) would in the current economic climate give charities extra cash. So it looks likely that wildlife will lose out.

One piece of good news though is that money for wildlife friendly farming looks set to stay in place. This means that farmland birds, which have really declined in numbers recently will continue to be given the protection they need so that their numbers have some chance of recovering. One example that shows very clearly how wildlife friendly farming can make a difference is the recent increase in number of corncrakes in Scotland.

Today, Crafty Green Boyfriend and I joined 20 000 other people to march through the centre of Edinburgh to protest at the Government Cuts. It felt like a real flashback to the 1980s when we were students protesting against the Thatcher Government. It was less well organised and there was less chanting, but I guess we'll have plenty of chances to improve our protesting skills over the next few months.

Friday 22 October 2010

Water Birds Reflect

 mute swans and Canada geese seen on Dunsapie Loch, Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh last Saturday, as photographed by Crafty Green Boyfriend 

Thursday 21 October 2010

The Forest Cafe

The Forest is a volunteer run, not-for-profit arts and events space and veggie café in the heart of Edinburgh. All events are free. All are welcome to help, admire or perform. We are You. You is Us. For more information go to our real website.

Unfortunately the building where the Forest is currently located is for sale. So the Forest is holding a series of fundraising events to raise funds to buy the building. You can find out more on their Facebook page or on their website.

The Forest also runs a publishing house that publishes a variety of books, as you can see from this list (and I'll be reviewing one of them soon on this blog!) and a record company (you can see a list of their recordings here.) They also have a library of radical books (and hats!) and are a venue for fringe theatre.

All in all the Forest is a great centre for alternative culture in Edinburgh and it would be a real shame to see it close.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

here and there by Cathy Cullis

This is a beautiful handmade book. The cover features one of Cathy's lovely small monoprints, ink on paper, stiched to the card. Each cover is unique. Inside the beautiful cover are fifteen beautiful poems. Cathy writes about home and family, love and memory and has a wonderful eye for detail, as these brief extracts show:

from &;

hot, with impressively sour clouds
nesting like dolls.

from Love is Dandelion

And the grass is a poem in many languages,
dotted with daisies, reinventing green.

She can also astonish with a striking turn of phrase as in these lines from Starling:

................................................All the shabby
angels are wearing their starling feathers
for today is the broken one.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short book and was sorry to come to the end. But it's good to be left wanting more!

You can read some of Cathy's poetry on her blog Nevering and you can see some of her multi-media artwork on her other blog here.

Monday 18 October 2010

New Caledonian Woodlands

New Caledonian Woodlands is a not for profit organisation and social enterprise in Scotland that exists to enhance the natural environment, inspire positive environmental behaviour change and improve mental and physical well-being. They do this via a range of environmental projects with a focus on hands-on conservation activity. These are the projects coming up before the end of the year:

Coppicing in the Community Weekend Away, Gordon Community Woodlands - Friday 5th to Sunday 7th November.

Surprise Christmas Weekend Extravaganza - Friday 3rd to Sunday 5th December.

Christmas Spectacular Tree Planting & Craft Day - Sunday 12th of December.

If you are interested in taking part in any of these events please check out their website or e-mail dawn.hickieATnewcaledonianwoodlandsDOTorg for more information.
There is a lot more to browse on their website too! For example you can take the New Caledonian Woodlands Planet Pledge to reduce your carbon footpirint with support from the organisation. You can find out more about that here.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Saturday 16 October 2010

Autumn on Arthur's Seat

views from Arthurs' Seat


We had a lovely walk round Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, today. The weather was wonderful, warm and sunny, though the dark clouds gathered later as you can see from the second photo! The jackdaws that nest here in the summer were out in number, calling and flying around, one even started fighting with a magpie! There were some swans and geese on Dunsapie Loch, and I'll share photos of them next week! We saw one lone and scruffy rabbit, where usually there are several, perhaps there were just too many people around for them!

Friday 15 October 2010

Water for Wildlife

Today is Blog Action Day. This year's theme is Water. You can read more about the vast number of issues relating to water here. Blog Action Day is also asking people to sign a petition to support an International Water Treaty to ensure clean water for everyone. It is a scandal that in the Twenty First Century about 4,500 children across the world die every day from unsafe water and lack of sanitation.

This post though looks at water for wildlife, specifically along the Water of Leith. The Water of Leith is one of the rivers that runs through Edinburgh and as many readers of this blog know, I help to look after part of that river.

The Water of Leith was the most polluted river in Scotland in 1864 but it is now clean enough to support trout and otters. Many UK rivers are a lot cleaner now than they used to be, though there are still pollution issues with our waterways. The Water of Leith runs through Edinburgh, which is a major city and so the river suffers sometimes from sewage overflows, inflows of industrial pollutants (specially from garages) and littering (including large items such as shopping trolleys and car doors).

The Water of Leith Conservation Trust was the first charity set up in Scotland specifically set up to protect a river. It does a wonderful job, helped by a large number of volunteers, many of whom are ercruited from local businesses and community groups, including youth groups. The volunteers are vital to helping to keep the river and the walkway alongside it clean and attractive. There are around 20 volunteer patrollers (including me) who walk along a particular stretch of the river, recording wildlife, picking litter, pruning back vegetation and reporting major issues (such as pollution or large rubbish issues). Then there are the clean up volunteers who go out regularly to tackle those bigger rubbish problems or who attempt to control the spread of invasive species such as Himalayan Balsam, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed.

The volunteer patrollers met last night (as we do every few months) to discuss the current issues facing the river and how to address them. One new idea that came up is to have a small group of volunteers who can respond at short notice to medium sized rubbish issues - the pile of rubbish that one person couldn't deal with but that wouldn't offer enough work for a clean-up team to be kept occupied. We were also pleased to hear that the local Environmental Wardens are going to step up actions against people who put dog poo into bags and then throwing it into trees or the river or hang it on fences, which is a disgusting habit and increasingly seen along the river.

Clean rivers are vital for wildlife and for human recreation, in some places also for drinking water. Organisations such as the Water of Leith Conservation Trust make a huge difference to the state of our rivers and the wildlife that lives along them. The UK Rivers Network is a useful source of information about rivers and river campaigns in the UK.

For Blog Action Day

Thursday 14 October 2010

Six Degrees by Mark Lynas

(Warning - depressing book review)

Six Degrees outlines degree by degree what would happen in a climate changed world. So Chapter One outlines the effects of a one degree rise in the average global temperature, including the loss of the Gulf Stream, which currently maintains the climate in UK and northern Europe at a much warmer temperature than otherwise would be the case given our latitude. So paradoxically northern Europe stands to become colder in the first stages as climate change really takes hold. Chapter by chapter the effects are spelled out, the Amazonian forest would be history once the temperature has risen by 4 degrees and once we reach a global average temperature 6 degrees higher than todays, we face outright catastrophe with mass extinctions not only of animals and plants but of uhuman populations too.

The book uses evidence from paleontology from the prehistoric times of greatest global warming to project possible future scenarios. However we are risking temperature rises that are beyond what the world has known, ever. Previous global warming incidents also took place over longer time periods enabling the life forms that were around at the time much more time to adapt to the new climate and survive. This time the temperature is rising much quicker and there is less time to adapt.

There is probably some natural element to the current rise in global temperatures (the climate has, after all, changed throughout the history of the earth) but the evidence points squarely to most of it being due to human activities. Reading articles such as Arctic Ice in Death Spiral by Stephen Leahy makes you wonder how far we already are on the path to irreversible climate change.

Unfortunately most of us are probably too wedded to our comfortable convenient lifestyles and governments see no votes in compulsory reductions of standard of living.  So whether we can actually cut back on emissions in time to avert catastrophe is probably a rhetorical question to which the answer is sadly no. I'm very glad I don't have children, because I would fear their future so very much. I would like to be optimistic, but somehow I really don't see it after reading this book. I also envisage this review getting as few comments as did my review of Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe).

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Monday 11 October 2010

Montrose Basin

We spent a lovely few days in Montrose and had several walks round the Montrose Basin. Our first walk was on a beautiful evening, with wonderful warm, low sunlight, redwings flying around the bushes round the paths and a good number of geese and ducks on the water.

Our other walks all took place in dreich, drizzly weather (for non-Scots unfamiliar with the term dreich, just look at the photos and you'll get the idea!). The mist was incredibly atmospheric and we saw thousands of pink footed geese, grazing on the mudflats, taking off in great honking flocks and then landing again to continue grazing. There are apparently 65 000 pink footed geese at the Basin now and more still arriving! We saw more shelduck than we've ever seen anywhere (I always love the shelduck's patchwork quilt appearance) and lots of eider too. We got very close to the eider, not only close enough to have a good look at the males' characteristic green 'ears' and pinkinsh breasts but to hear the whole flock making a weird 'woo-ooo' sound under its breath. There were also lots of lapwings, always a joy to see with their wonderfully floppy wings and their dancing flight, lots of oystercatcher and curlew too (both of which have lovely haunting calls). Plenty of smaller waders too, redshanks which are easy to recognise because of their red legs but others too, which in poor light and at quite a distance were much more difficult to recognise.

There is a walk round the basin and a Visitor Centre (run by Scottish Wildlife Trust) complete with outdoor hides and an indoor area that overlooks the Basin through huge picture windows lined with high quality telescopes and binoculars.

A wonderful place to go birding!

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Off to Montrose

We're going away for a few days to Montrose. We'll be doing some birdwatching at Montrose Basin and then I'm reading at this poetry event, as organised by Rachel who blogs here.

When we get back I'll make my decisions about the environmental writing e-learning course (see this post for more information). So this is your last chance to express interest, and if you have expressed interest already, I'll be in touch soon!

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Earth Shattering - Eco Poems

Earth Shattering, Eco Poems edited by Neil Astley, is an anthology of poetry about the relationship between humans and the natural world. It encompasses a wide range of poems along the continuum of pure nature poetry and campaigning environmental  poetry, though it avoids the most didactic poetry. Neil Astley uses the phrase eco-poetry to describe this continuum of poetry, others have called it ‘green poetry’ or ‘the new nature poetry’. The book includes work from a wide variety of poets, including many of the most well known eco-poets from across the world. The book also includes useful biographies of all the poets.

Earth Shattering is arranged in sections that look at different elements of the human relationship with nature:

1. Rooted in Nature features poetry largely from ancient Chinese poets but also from Romantic poets and more contemporary poets.

2. Changing the Landscape focuses on 18th and 19th Century poets who wrote about the destruction of the environment, showing that environmental awareness does in fact go back further than we sometimes think.

3. Killing the Wildlife focuses on the death of individual animals but mostly on extinctions.

4. Unbalance of Nature includes poetry about pollution, deforestation, urbanisation.

5. Loss and Persistance laments what we are losing and celebrates the nature that remains and our attempts to protect it.

6. The Great Web focuses on our interdependence with nature and includes poems that are love poems to nature.

7. Exploitation looks at our exploitative relationship with nature, including a section on Dispossessing America.

8. Force of Nature focuses on climate change and global warming and the broader state of the planet.

9. Natural Disasters looks at hurricanes and other 'natural' disasters that are becoming more common as the climate changes.

To quote from the book's introduction:

‘As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards Eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But Earth Shattering shows that the power of poetry is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every reader. And anyone whose resolve is stirred will strengthen the collective call for change’

It's an excellent anthology that I have used in the poetry section of the Environmental Writing course I teach in the University of Edinburgh Lifelong learning programme. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in poetry and the environment.

Earth Shattering edited by Neil Astley, published by Bloodaxe, 2007

Monday 4 October 2010

Birds at the Botanics

I was recently asked at short notice to take over teaching Beginners Birdwatching for Edinbugh City Council so I've been doing that since last week. I realised last week that many people in the class are not beginners as such and so if I get to continue teaching this class I may rename it! Today we had a walk round Edinburgh's wonderful Botanic Gardens. Before we even got into the gardens we had a birding treat as a medium sized flock of oystercatchers passed overhead flying away from the school fields opposite the Botanics, to be closely followed by a large flock of curlew doing the same thing. Inside the Gardens we had an excellent view of a heron perched unexpectedly on a chimney and a pair of sparrowhawks flying around the trees, we got a very good view of the male, with his orange barred breast and blue back, a much more handsome creature than the larger drab brown female, but exciting to see them both at such close range. There were also lots of tits and robins flitting around the trees and a number of dunnocks who were less shy than is normal for that species. Altogether an excellent class and perfect weather too!

Sunday 3 October 2010

Friday 1 October 2010

Crafty Autumn Leaf

Craft House Concept is a new shop in Edinburgh showcasing the best of British crafts for the home. They are currently looking for people to send them crafted autumn leaves that they will display in their window. You can find out more about the competition on their blog here, and meanwhile here is a photo of my leaf! It's made from reused card, images from magazines, reused foil and a leaf from some pot pourri.