Tuesday 31 March 2020

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  editorial@birdwatch.co.uk.

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.

Thursday 19 March 2020

Spillover by David Quammen

 Spillover by David Quammen

 This fascinating book looks at zoonosis - diseases that have entered (spilled over into) the human population through contact with animals (by eating, farming or hunting) and asks what the next big pandemic disease will be. I first posted this review about two years ago but it's a very pertinent book for the times we're living through, so I'm posting again.

Quammen is a brilliant science journalist, laying out well researched facts with a narrative style that would suit a thriller. He takes the reader through research into the origins of diseases such as Ebola, flu and AIDS, looking at how the diseases made their way into human communities and how they spread. He talks to eminent scientists in molecular biology, epidemiology and disease ecology.

This could be a very dry and depressing topic, specially 520 pages of it, and I admit, although I picked this book up a couple of years ago, I just couldn't bring myself to read it until recently. I'm very glad I did though, it is a total page turner and is full of fascinating science that is presented in an accessible way, without ever being dumbed down.

The main message of this book is very sobering. With all we are doing to the environment - destroying rainforests and other valuable habitats, forcing proximity between ourselves and wild animals and between our domestic animals and those wild animals we are constantly enabling diseases to pass from wild animals to ourselves. Some of those diseases might be more or less symptom free in their wild hosts (as disease and host have evolved together) but attack humans with ferocity. Others may cause serious disease in their wild hosts and the same for us as well.

The second message is equally sobering. We often talk about outbreaks of disease, but an outbreak is a sudden increase in population of any organism, whether it is a new version of the flu virus or a plague of locusts. Most outbreaks surge and then collapse. If you look at the growth of the human population over the recent past, then as a species we could be described as an outbreak and so the question is begged - when is our population going to crash? And will it be the next zoonotic pandemic that causes that crash? And if so what will be that disease?

It's a fascinating book, well worth reading if you're interested in health or the natural world.

Spillover by David Quammen published by BodleyHead (2014) on FSC certified sustainable paper. 

Edited to add: In this article on the Orion magazine website, David Quammen talks about COVID-19. 

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Lovely art exhibition inspired by birch trees at the Birch tree Gallery

The Birch Tree Gallery is a lovely little art gallery on Dundas Street, which is Edinburgh's 'street of little art galleries'. The current exhibition (showing until 4 April 2020) features art and crafts inspired by birch trees. Beautiful paintings, embroideries, baskets and ceramics fill the small space without cluttering it. 

The gallery is dominated by this large, depiction of birches by Kenris Macleod that features on the poster for the show. Kenris created this piece using free motions machine embroidery - she uses the sewing machine needle to draw and paint with thread.

Birch Tree Gallery - ad Birches (anniversary) 

Take time to look round though and you see a wonderful selection of work, including other works by Kenris Macleod but also collages, vases, baskets of various types. All are inspired by birch trees or the wildlife found in birch woodlands and include depictions of birches in all seasons. 

This exhibion has been curated to celebrate the gallery's third anniversary and features artists who have already exhibited with the gallery, or who will appear in the future shows. 

The owner, Jurgita is very happy to talk about the artworks and is keeping the gallery open for as long as possible, despite the Corona virus. She wants people to feel that they have a nice peaceful space to go and enjoy art. The gallery is rarely busy and there is no need to touch anything other than the door handle which is sanitised regularly. 

You can see the works that are for sale in this exhibition here

The next exhibition Printscapes is scheduled to open on 8 April, though will open without a launch event to avoid risks associated with the corona virus. 

You can like the Birch Tree Gallery on Facebook to keep up to date with exhibitions and events.

Monday 16 March 2020

First Celandines of the Year!

Lovely to see the first lesser celandines of the year in the Craiglockart and Colinton Dells along the Water of Leith.

And also interesting to see the difference in this little pathway over the past few weeks. This first photo shows the pathway on 17 February, when it was full of snowdrops

and below is the same path today, all the snowdrops are over and the daffodils are out!

It felt really springlike out there and lots of birds were singing, lovely to hear the chaffinches, blue tits, blackbirds, robins and others.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Spring in the Botanics

We had a lovely Spring walk in Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday. Some of the rhododendrons are out already

and others are just starting to bloom

The daffodils and crocuses look beautiful

If you visit the Botanics, make sure you check out the exhibition 'Think Plastics: Materials and Making' which showcases crafts made from recycled and upcycled plastics. There are some wonderful items in the exhibition, beautiful and imaginative - I particularly enjoyed the works by Lorna Fraser, which used varied materials including recycled plastic bottles and recycled saline syringes to create sculptures of plants and imaginary underwater scenes. The exhibition is on until the end of May 2020.

In these times of uncertainty around the novel coronavirus and with many people facing the prospect of social isolation, it is worth noting that enjoying nature can be a great activity to combine with social distancing. (Though please, don't go alone to greenspaces that you don't know well or don't feel comfortable in. Take your partner or family members but avoid large groups. There's a good article from the Audobon Society here). 

Thursday 12 March 2020

A Green and Pleasant Land by Ursula Buchan

A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War

This is a fascinating (though almost too detailed) account of how the British Government, through the famous Dig for Victory campaign encouraged and cajoled the population to grow food crops and rear livestock during the Second World War. It details the contributions of the Women's Land Army, the Women's Institute and professional gardeners to the flourishing of British gardens and to the improvement of our national diet during the war. It also examines how gardening helped people keep themselves occupied, stop worrying and improve their general well being during a time of huge stress.

It looks at the propoganda produced by the government, including leaflets and short films on topics such as composting and the work of professional bodies such as the Royal Horticultural Society. The book is enlivened by extracts from Mass Observation diaries, which give more personal insights into the times.

The book mostly covers what happened in English gardens during the war, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are rarely mentioned. 

It's interesting to compare the government mobilisation of ordinary people during the war with what we probably need in terms of mobilisation of people during the current climate crisis.

It's well worth reading if you're interested in a different perspective on the 2nd World War or if you're interested in the history of gardening. However there are so many statistics and so many facts that it can seem overwhelming and it doesn't quite merit the 'Highly Entertaining' comment from the Daily Mail.

A Green and Pleasant Land by Ursula Buchan published (2014) by Windmill Books.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Grow a Secret Garden for Butterflies


 Cinnabar moth, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, June 2018

Grow a Secret Garden for Butterflies is the theme of this year's Wild About Gardens campaign from the Wildlife Trusts and Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). 

Wild About Gardens celebrates wildlife gardening and aims to encourage people to encourage wildlife into their gardens. Many of the UK's common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat. 
Butterflies and moths are vital pollinators and, along with caterpillars, are important food for many species of birds such as robins and blue tits as well as bats. However, their numbers are declining, once-common species like the small tortoiseshell have dropped by up to 80% in the last 30 years in some places. 

But, our gardens, whatever the size, can provide valuable homes and food sources for these beautiful insects. An ideal butterfly garden includes a wide variety of plants that bloom throughout the year to support insects across their life cycles – for butterflies and moths emerging from hibernation, egg-laying females, caterpillars and then as adults. Early-flowering species such as dandelions and native bluebells are good sources of nectar; buddleia is a great summer butterfly bush and, finally, ivy flowers are very popular with pollinators in autumn when little else is in bloom. Many wildflowers and long grasses offer great food sources for caterpillars.

The campaign is asking people to pledge a new Secret Butterfly Border or Butterfly Box in their garden or local green space to help butterflies and moths. Then put your butterfly garden on the map all the butterfly gardens, whatever their size, will contribute towards the network of green spaces that nature needs to survive. 

The Wildlife Trusts and RHS have published a free booklet with advice aon how to make your outdoor spaces more attractive to butterflies, moths and their caterpillars.You can download it here.

Monday 9 March 2020

Frogs in a Suburban Pond

Yesterday we went to Crafty Green Boyfriend's mother's and checked out the frogs in the pond. They were quite shy though they were splashing about quite a bit and have laid a lot of spawn.

This little one popped up to say hello.

Hopefully they'll become more active as the weather warms up!

Saturday 7 March 2020

Blackford Pond

Today, Crafty Green Boyfriend and I went to Blackford Pond, hoping to see frogs and frog spawn, which normally would be visible by this time of year. We were very disappointed not to find any spawn, nor did we see any frogs. However there was plenty more to see. The male tufted ducks always look magnificent at this time of year with their smart tufts

but there was quite a wind today. which messed up their style a little

We were delighted to find these scarlet elf cups by the edge of the pond, a very striking fungus

 Just alongside the nearby allotments we saw this earth star, another impressive fungus, though not at its best at this time of the year

and just up the road at the bottom of Morningside Road, the crocuses are beautiful at the moment

It's definitely starting to feel like Spring!

Thanks to Crafty Green Boyfriend for the photos of the tufted ducks and the elf cups. 

Thursday 5 March 2020

Snow Angels by Jenny Loudon

 Snow Angels is Jenny Loudon's follow up to her successful first novel Finding Verity.

 ‘I keep thinking of snow angels,’ she murmured. ‘Of the fun and joy in making one, and the pleasing shape... And then, of how they never last, and melt away—and in no time at all, there is no sign that they were ever there.’

Amelie Tierney loves working as a children's nurse in Oxford. She has a loving husband, Nick and an infant son, Bertie. She doesn't see enough of her mother, Kerstin and misses her grandmother, Cleome, who lives in a remote part of Sweden.

Then, one sunny October morning, an accident happens, with devastating consequences. Amelie travels to Sweden to spend time with her grandmother. She gets to know her grandmother's neighbours including Tarek, a Syrian refugee and experiences both the positive and negative aspects of living in a remote rural area. As the bitter cold of the Swedish winter gives way to Spring, Amelie begins to see that there may be a way forward for her into recovery.

I enjoyed the characters in this novel, especially Cleome, with her connection with and cuiosity about the natural world, her creativity and ability to find signs of optimism in even the darkest times.  The writing beautifully evokes both the city of Oxford and the wild beauty of rural Sweden, while seamlessly bringing issues such as climate change and refugee rights into the narrative.  The novel offers a convincing and vivid portrayal of grief and how the natural world can bring a sense of perspective and aid recovery.

Snow Angels by Jenny Loudon published (2020) is available on Kindle or follow the links on her website

Disclaimer: I received a free e-book of this novel in exchange for a review. 

You can read my review of Jenny Loudon's first novel Finding Verity here