Wednesday 30 November 2011

Watery Abstracts

These are just some of the abstract type photos I've recently taken of waterscapes. I took the first two photos at Cramond and photos 3 and 4 at Cammo.

Monday 28 November 2011

A couple of photos of birds

I thought I'd share Crafty Green Boyfriend's photo above, just to show the sheer number of birds that were around at Musselburgh Lagoons when we visited recently. The waders in the photo are bar tailed godwits and there are also gulls including herring gulls and black headed gulls. Everything in winter plumage of course.

Meanwhile below is another photo I took of the Canada Goose that seems to think it's a mute swan, which I previously mentioned here.


So I've finished NaNoWriMo early, I had written my 50000 words by midmorning today. It felt like a real achievement! It's been hard work but I've been lucky to have had plenty of time to work on this and was determined from the start to try to finish early. So what have I learnt from the experience?

a) Although to date I have mostly written haiku, short poems and flash fiction, I have proven now that I can at least write enough words for a much bigger piece of work.

b) Just writing with the aim of reaching a given total word count is liberating, as it means you just write without worrying about the quality.

c) at the same time just writing like that means that I didn't get stuck on polishing the first paragraph to perfection only to find myself left with nothing to add to the one perfect paragraph (having said that, the first paragraph is probably the best paragraph in the novel!).

d) but oh, this isn't a novel. Not at all. It's a very rough first draft, which, with a lot of editing and polishing, may one day resemble something like a real novel that people might want to read. (So that's what I'll be doing over the next year or so!)

e) It's useful just to write through the plot dilemmas, in this draft I have characters talking about where they want the plot to go, at one point a character actually says she wishes the author could sort out a particular aspect of the plot (hang on a minute, maybe I should keep that! It could be a nice post-modernist twist to the novel!?)

f) I had always thought that I would find research so tedious it would put me off ever writing a novel but in fact I really enjoyed the research aspect. I think it would be more tedious for me if it was historic research where you need to get all the facts as accurate as possible. Given that my novel is speculative fiction set in the far future then I have a lot more freedom to do what I want with my research. (I've had great fun with extrapolating some elements of the contemporary world into the future!)

So now I'm going to catch up on all the research information I identified but never got the chance to read properly then I'll start looking at the 'novel' in a few weeks time and get it into some kind of decent shape.

And I won't keep talking about it, promise!

How was NaNoWriMo for you?

Sunday 27 November 2011

Blood in the Mobile

Blood in the Mobile is a hardhitting documentary about how mobile phones (and other consumer electronics products) contain minerals such as coltan, which are mined in the Congo. The mines employ child labour and are guarded by military and paramilitary organisations which profit from the mines by taxing the workers and demanding payment from anyone who wants to go into the mine (for example to make a documentary film.) Armed conflict in the Congo over the last 15 years has cost the lives of over 5 million people. 300,000 women have been raped during the conflict. The conflict is funded by the taxes and charges mentioned about and the selling of minerals.

The director of the film Frank Poulsen travels to the mines in Congo to see what conditions are like there. (There is a really harrowing scene down the mine.) He also travels to Finland to try to talk to decision makers within Nokia, the largest producer of mobile phones in the world to see what they are doing to make sure that their phones don't contain minerals from conflict areas of Congo. Nokia are very evasive, they don't say where their minerals come from and in fact spend much of the film denying that it is possible to trace minerals through the supply chains. (despite the fact that German scientists interviewed in this film have devised a way of doing just that - surely Nokia with their large resource and development budget must be able to pay these scientists to trace their minerals?).

Every Nokia employee interviewed in the film whined about how difficult it is to make a difference and assured the film maker that Nokia is doing all it can. Somehow I doubt that they really are.

It is likely that there is no mobile phone in the world that can be guaranteed free from conflict minerals. To do your bit to change this, you can write to your mobile phone company and ask them what their stance is and encourage them to source conflict free minerals. In addition you can take the actions on the Blood in the Mobile website.

You can also do your bit by considering whether you need a mobile phone at all and if you conclude that it is actually essential to your life, then only replace your phone if it breaks, rather than buying the latest hot new model, as I believe is what many people do these days.

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other webpages where you can find out more.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Birds on a Blustery Day

I had heard via Edinburgh Wildlife (@wildedinburgh on Twitter) that there were snow buntings and long tailed ducks around Musselburgh recently, and though I don't agree with twitching (travelling long distances to see rare birds) I did think that jumping on the 44 bus which runs directly from our flat to Musselburgh to see two birds i've never seen before was okay.

Anyway Crafty Green Boyfriend and I hopped on said bus and travelled to a very blustery, windswept Musselburgh. We walked along the River Esk, where we saw this lone pink footed goose, (in exactly the same spot it had been in last time I was in Musselburgh with my birdwatching class, when I had used it as a compare and contrast exercise with the superficially similar greylag geese that are found on the river in much greater numbers).

There were also alot of Canada geese on the river. Plus a few redshanks and five turnstones. We then walked along part of the John Muir Way along the coast. The wind was wild and the waves were high. I could scarcely keep my binoculars to my eyes it was so windy, so there may have been long tailed ducks hiding in the waves, that I just didn't see. We did however see eiders and goldeneyes on the sea.

We then visited Musselburgh Lagoons where we sat in the bird hides (and particularly uncomfortable bird hides they are too, all concrete seats and no roofs!). The views were magnificent though. There were large numbers of waders (oystercatchers, curlew, bar tailed godwits, knots and dunlin). There were also good numbers of two pretty species of duck - teal and wigeon. Then one lonely lapwing. Crafty Green Boyfriend took several photos of the birds on the lagoons, but they were too far away to come out well enough to share here (much better to follow the links in the text and find out what the birds look like from the RSPB website!)

The walk back into Musselburgh was even more blustery than the walk out had been! But even though we didn't see the birds we had hoped to see, we were very happy with those we did see!

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks that take you to other websites where you can find out more.

Friday 25 November 2011


fallen leaves -
the ivy covered tree trunks
alive with bird calls

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Water of Leith update

I had the most wonderful view ever of a kingfisher today. I was walking along the Water of Leith in Colinton Dell when I noticed the colour of a kingfisher out of the corner of my eye. It then landed on a branch overhanging the river, just very close to where I was standing. It turned to look at me, 'bowed' then dashed off, flying downstream in a flash of turquoise.


I was very pleased that Greener Leith posted my recent blogpost about the public meeting about the tree felling that is happening as part of the Flood Prevention Works along the Water of Leith. You may have read the post on this blog, but you can read it on Greener Leith here.

Tree felling was stopped yesterday at Canonmills as it seems the specific trees to be felled are subject to tree preservation orders and cannot be removed. The original plans for the Flood Prevention Work had committed to saving those specific trees. Some trees have already been felled along the river, this can't be avoided unfortunately if flood prevention is to be provided, as there is no natural flood plain alongside these parts of the river and the protecting walls can't be built without removing trees. Once the flood prevention works are completed two trees will be planted for every tree that is felled.

As ever, red text contains hyperlinks that take you to other webpages where you can find out more.

Monday 21 November 2011

Oceans - a film

Oceans was shown today as part of the French Film Festival at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh.

Oceans is a visually stunning documentary of the life to be found in the world's oceans. There are some amazing shots:

shimmering cuttlefish; sea slugs looking like underwater flying carpets; supermodel fish species posing on the coral reefs; enormous blue whales leaping from the sea; sea turtles emerging from their nests and making their way to the sea and having to survive the attacks of frigate birds to get there; a mass mating of crabs; small fish cleaning the teeths of larger fish; an adult walrus cuddling its offspring and many other wonderful sights.

There isn't much narrative and what there is, is unfortunately less impressive than the visuals. On the one hand there is virtually no information in the narrative, so we are not told the species name of anything that appears on screen (now blue whales are probably recognisable to a fair proportion of people prepared to turn up to a French language documentary about sea life, but cuttlefish less so and some of the species of weird looking fish are possibly unknown to all but well informed marine scientists). On the other hand there is a lot of heavy handed environmental preaching in the narrative, which is probably counterproductive. Far better to either have the film with no narrative at all, just beautiful music, or get someone like David Attenborough to do a properly informative voice over.

As ever, red text in this post contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Autumn at Cramond

The beautiful (and frankly entirely unseasonably warm) weather continues! We had a lovely day at Cramond today. There were lots of curlews and oystercatchers in amongst the sheep in the fields, though we only got a photo of one of the sheep.

The tide was well out on the Firth of Forth so a lot of the birds were quite a distance away, but we saw more oystercatchers and curlews as well as a fair number of redshanks.

The mouth of the River Almond was quite quiet for birds, though there were a lot of gulls and several species of waders further out and a wee bit upstream there were three mute swans (and a Canada goose who seemed to think it was a swan) and a lot of mallards.

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more.

Friday 18 November 2011

Calvet the film released to UK cinemas

Some readers of this blog may remember that I reviewed the Edinburgh International Film Festival this summer. One of the highlights of the festival for me was Calvet, a moving biopic of an amazing artist, Jean Marc Calvet. I'm delighted to hear that Calvet is now being released at selected cinemas across the UK, starting with the Cameo in Edinburgh, at 18.40, Thursday 24 November. You can see the full listing of screenings here. Here is the review I posted back in June: Jean Marc Calvet is a self taught French artist, currently living in Nicaragua. Calvet is a biopic of his amazing lifestory. The film is basically an extended interview with Calvet, interspersed with scenes from the places he has lived, views of his amazing artworks and abstract, impressionistic interludes. Calvet was born in Nice, France, in 1965. He had a hard childhood and an early career as a bodyguard to the stars, a French Legionnaire and a vice cop. He then abandoned his partner and young son to take a shady job in the USA, which led to him absconding to Central America with huge amounts of cash he had stolen from his employer. He hid out in Costa Rica and at one point hid in his house on a coke binge that lasted months. The film gives a brilliant and disturbing recreation of the hallucinatory paranoia he was experiencing at this time. During a particular hallucination he literally found some paint and started throwing it around the house. He realised that this formed a sort of emotional release and he started to paint on a regular basis. At this point he was seeing it as purely a therapy, it was months or years before he began to see himself as an artist. When he had overcome his problems and moved to Nicaragua, Calvet decided to search for his son. I found this part of the film a bit tedious, involving as it did a lot of getting lost in little streets and asking the neighbours if they knew Calvet's family. However, tedious is probably how it felt in reality at times and there is an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Calvet's attempt to reconcile with his first family. Calvet is now married with a daughter and he is a successful and prolific artist. You can find out more about Calvet the film hereAs ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other webpages where you can find out more.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Flood Prevention along Water of Leith - update

Crafty Green Boyfriend and I were at last night's public meeting at Stockbridge Library to hear about the tree felling associated with the flood prevention work along the Water of Leith.

The Water of Leith Conservation Trust have worked with the contractors of the flood prevention team to ensure that the natural environment would be as little damaged as possible as a result of the work. The trust have been really good at sharing information about the flood prevention plans with volunteers. The trust, Edinburgh City Council and the contractors have regularly updated people who live in the affected areas. However, when I recently saw the felled trees along parts of the river and read about how many trees in total are going to be felled I panicked more than a little bit. I didn't remember the discussions or plans ever indicating this amount of tree felling.

The same point was brought up by several people at the public meeting. The council engineer and the contractor at the meeting didn't actually approach people's concerns in the best way. Rather than directly and immediately addressing the issue about trees, they chose to give a presentation about the history of the flood prevention plans. They went into a lot of detail, which was interesting, but anyone who has been in Edinburgh and concerned about the flood prevention plans over the last ten years or so, would be aware of the outline of these plans and though it was useful to hear it again, it lead to a lot of impatience in the room.

The presentation did highlight the fact that if flood defences are to be built alongside the Water of Leith in the centre of Edinburgh, then in most places there is not the room to allow for natural flood prevention measures. The river is closely bound by housing, offices, roads and gardens along much of its course in central Edinburgh. One area that was a potential sink for flood waters has had housing built on it since the flood prevention plans were first put forward, despite the council overturning the plans, the Scottish Government had stepped in and said the housing should go ahead (housing built on a flood plain in times of increasing floods and rising sea levels?!). So that is a problem that could have been avoided. Another problem is that Scottish Rugby Union who have their ground at Murrayfield by the river, would not allow the council to use part of their fields as natural flood defences, despite it being ideal for the purpose (I've spoken to an engineer on the project who is puzzled to say the least about that decision, which was upheld by the Scottish Government I think).

Most parts of the river in central Edinburgh, as I say, though don't have potential for natural flood prevention measures. Mathematical modelling was used to decide what degree of flood protection was needed. The design chosen will protect against the effects of a once in 200 year flood incident (remember that with the changing climate what is now a one in 200 year event in the future becomes much more likely). The plan is that existing walls near the river are to be knocked down, metal barriers are to be sunk to a great depth below where these walls ran and then the walls are to be rebuilt in concrete and then clad in stone of the same type as the original stone. The river will not be canalised (apart from areas where it already canalised), as in most cases the walls don't run exactly alongside the riverbank but are at a distance.

This is where the problem with the trees come in. The work in fitting the metal barriers and replacement walls needs access. Trees get in the way unfortunately. The trees that get in the way are being removed. Lots of trees. This is really upsetting and a great loss to local biodiversity. However, if we are to prevent floods then this work needs to be done (though obviously it would have been better if housing and offices had never been built on a floodplain in the first place....). When the work is completed, all the trees will be replaced - two new trees will be planted for every tree that is removed. (Why the contractor and the spokesperson from the council didn't say this right at the start of the meeting, I don't know. It would have prevented some of the bad feeling that run through most of the meeting, judging from the delighted reactions from some people in the room to hearing this announcement). The trees will be planted with the help of the Water of Leith Conservation Trust and with local residents associations, who have been closely consulted all along the way. (Some people at the meeting have had their houses flooded and had nothing but praise for the way that the contractors were involving them in the future restoration of the trees). Of course these trees will grow slowly, and it will be years before the area is back to its current beauty, which is really sad. However, given the circumstances I do think that everyone involved is doing the best they can.

(As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more).

Monday 14 November 2011

Light by Margaret Elphinstone

Light is the story of a family in the early 19th century who look after the lighthouse on a tiny island off the Isle of Man. Lucy and Diya are sisters in law and have three children between them. Their whole life is dictated by the needs of looking after the light yet their very future is threatened by the arrival of surveyors who are working for the engineer Robert Stevenson who aims to modernise the nation's lighthouses.

The novel explores how progress affects the family's life, sometimes in unexpected ways. The characters are all well drawn and have their own believable reactions to the changes that are on the way. There are many misunderstandings between the family and the surveyors, which sometimes become melodramatic.

For me the most enjoyable thing about the novel are the descriptions of nature. The reader feels transported to this tiny island in the middle of a moody sea:

A crack appeared in the northern cliffs. They passed a stack with a pinpoint of light in its heart that gradullay grew until the stack became an arch, and they could see the sea shining on the other side. Beyond the stack was a fissure full of tumbled boulders, and the dark mouth of a cave. Sea and sky were suddenly full of birds. A wild clamour rose from the crack and a plume of kittiwakes, far more graceful than the puffins, soared above the headland, riding the air currents. A thin ribbon of white fringed the rocks ahead. A scatter of rounded boulders suddenly turned into seals, which humped their way down to the water and dived in a series of neat splashes. A minute later, half a dozen heads surfaced close to the boat, watching the new arrivals with dark, dog like eyes.

Last year I really enjoyed reading another of Margaret Elphinstone's novels The Sea Road, you can read my review here.

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Tree Year

I've said before on this blog how wonderful the autumn colours are this year. Our flat overlooks a couple of cherry trees that I have been casually blogging about for Tree Year. These trees for some reason always seem to lose their leaves later than most other cherry trees in Edinburgh. This is how one of them looked this morning - the photo really doesn't do justice to the full glory of the colours!

Meanwhile in Colinton Dell (which is an area of the Water of Leith that thankfully won't be affected by the Flood Prevention Works) this is how the hornbeams (that I've been studying for Tree Year) looked earlier this week. Notice in the first photo how some of the branches of the hornbeams are full of very yellow leaves, while others are full of leaves that are still very green!

As ever, red text in this post contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Preventing Floods on Water of Leith

Flood defences are currently being built along parts of the Water of Leith (you can read more here and here). Given that many houses by the river are threatened with flooding on an increasingly frequent basis, these defences are essential (though of course there is the argument that we wouldn't have these problems if we didn't build houses on floodplains). The City of Edinburgh Council has contracted Lagan Construction to do the work.

As a volunteer with the Water of Leith Conservation Trust, I know that the trust is working closely with the contractors to minimise disruption to the natural environment (one part of the defences work was delayed for example to allow a kingfisher pair to finish raising their family). I also know that the contractors have agreed to plant wildflower seeds and make other environmental improvements once the defences have been completed.

However, lots of trees are being cut down so that the defences can be built. These are old trees, home to lots of wildlife and beautiful additions to the urban landscape of Edinburgh. It is just heartbreaking to see these trees being lost gradually along the river between the Stockbridge and Leith areas of town. While I had been following the plans for the flood prevention scheme, I had no idea initially that so many trees would be affected. A public meeting has been called for later this week to outline the reasoning behind tree removal and the mitigation measures that will be put in place after the works are completed. You can read more about it here.

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks that take you to websites where you can find out more.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Raindrops on Spiders Webs

It was a dull and drizzly day today as I walked along the Water of Leith. There are spider webs everywhere, looking like lace with all the raindrops hanging on them.

It was a good day for birdwatching too. I can almost guarantee seeing bullfinches along the Water of Leith, but today I saw seven of them all together, where before I've only ever seen four at most (and that when parents are feeding offspring). Spylaw Park was full of long tailed tits and at one point when I was closer to the river, a large flock of long tailed tits surrounded me, chattering away and flying round me. I also got three very good views of dippers bobbing in the river.

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Cammo Country Park

We had a wonderful day in Cammo Country Park yesterday. The weather was beautiful, sunny with clear blue skies but a definite autumnal chill to the air. The autumnal colours were gorgeous (it does seem to be a particularly fine year for autumn colour, the beech trees especially).
There are some amazing patches of fungi throughout Cammo, these bracket fungi are particularly impressive.

Then there were the birds! The woodland was full of blue tits, long tailed tits, great tits and coal tits. We also saw a goldcrest and a treecreeper. But it was the farm fields around Cammo that were most exciting for us as birdwatchers. We saw a big flock of small birds and quickly identified some of them as goldfinches (common but very beautiful, groups of them are appropriately called charms), yellowhammers (getting to be rare these days, but still quite reliably seen on farmland round Edinburgh) and tree sparrows!!!! I've never seen tree sparrows in my life before so I was quite excited. There were a load of them chattering away as they flew between the trees and the stubble in the fields. They are delightful birds, more elegant than house sparrows, and male and female look the same. They are one of the birds on the Biodiversity Action Plan in Edinburgh and are red listed because their numbers have declined drastically in the UK in recent years (though apparently there has been a slight improvement in the past year or so).

As ever, text in red contains hyperlinks which take you to other websites where you can find out more!

Saturday 5 November 2011

bonfire haiku

It's Bonfire Night in the UK today. People across the country will be lighting bonfires and setting off fireworks. If you are making a bonfire, make sure that no hedgehogs or other animals have made a home in the wood. The best thing is to build the bonfire just before you light it so that you can thoroughly check all the wood. If you're using a fire that you built earlier you need to turn over all the wood carefully to check that nothing is hiding in it. There's good advice here.

If you're setting off fireworks, make sure your pets are indoors, because they can be scared by the loud bangs.

Here are two haiku that I've written about Bonfire night:

sparks fly
from the bonfire -
star filled sky

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

fireworks -
the herring gulls
take flight

Friday 4 November 2011

Earth Balls (fungi)

We had a lovely walk round Corstorphine Hill this lunchtime. It's looking at its autumnal best at the moment.

There are lots of fungi around at the moment, including these impressive earth balls, which seem to have been partially nibbled by a squirrel.

There were also a lot of birds flying around, including redwings and fieldfares - autumn must have arrived!

Thursday 3 November 2011

Playing with Water by James Hamilton-Paterson

As I'm writing a novel for NaNoWriMo I'm trying to put myself in the right frame of mind by reading non-fiction books that relate to some of the themes found in my novel. Island living is one of these themes and one of the books I've chosen to read is Playing with Water by James Hamilton-Paterson.

This book is a memoir centred on the years that Hamilton-Paterson spent living on an island he calls Tiwarik off the coast of the Phillipines. It is an uninhabited island but one that is popular with youngsters from nearby villages as a place to play, camp and fish. Hamilton-Paterson finds a niche for himself in the local community, not least because he turns out to be an expert spear fisherman.

The author has a wonderful eye for detail and describes the underwater world beautifully, there is a particularly breathtaking sequence when he stays underwater almost too long and afterwards realises that the air he had been breathing had been tainted with oil, so his sightings became more and more dreamlike and surreal. He also meditates on the damage caused to the local ecology by the large ships that dynamite the coral reefs. He also is saddened by the fact that the local fishermen often use poisons and small amounts of explosives in their fishing, but realises that for them it is a matter of survival and making a few pennies at the local market. (Interestingly he doesn't seem to differentiate himself from the local spear fishermen, who use the most sustainable form of fishing, without reflecting that he made a choice to live there and kill those fish, while the local people have no choice if they are to stay in the area.)

He also ponders his early life (at first I had found these flashbacks annoying, because I thought that the book was meant to be a travel book, but later I realised how insightful they are).

Sadly since the book was written, the island of Tiwarik has been bought by a Japanese company and turned into a tourist resport.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Autumn Trees

The autumn colours are magnificent this year. Beeches are always one of my favourites at this time of year and thisyear they seem to be excelling themselves with wonderful mixes of colour in the trees as you can see from these photos (above and below).

Also the hornbeams (the trees I'm 'studying' for Tree Year are looking lovely.

and footpaths and riverbanks are collaged with leaves.

I do love autumn!

For those of you who are interested in my progress with NaNoWriMo I'll be updating every few days on Over Forty Shades and every day on Facebook. I'll be posting interesting links I've found while researching the novel over on Twitter. (I've written 6 107 words so far!)