Friday 29 September 2023

Native Soil by Sarah Watkinson


This new novel from poet scientist Sarah Watkinson merges a romantic tale with environmental concerns.

Recently widowed, Olivia has used the legacy left by her late husband to purchase a farm in the Yorkshire Dales, and aims to fulfil their shared dream to create a sustainable farm that respects local culture.

She comes down from her farm in Yorkshire to see Andrew Bamberg, a well-respected scientist and celebrity presenter of Invisible Wildlife, giving a presentation on soil microbes at the Natural History Museum in London.

Andrew is researching the importance of healthy soil ecology to the success of farming and the conservation of nature, but faces huge pressures within his University department, which is dominated by people who want to make money from GM crops. He gets the sack, which is the impetus he needs to start working on soil microbiology at Olivia's farm., allowing him to take "microbiome research into real landscapes."

This novel has a real sense of place, with well observed details, whether that is the children in London's Natural History Museum

"They fingered science-fiction plastic dinosaurs, these little inheritors of mammalian supremacy, each
child about the size of one of the Diplodocus’s vertebrae."

 or the flora of the Yorkshire Dales:

 "Underfoot the soaked turf was close and even, finely textured with the shapes of tiny leaves—clover, thyme, burnet, eyebright and gold patches of moss."

Though it focuses on the relationships between the main characters, the novel also looks at the complex of relationships between politicians, academics, farmers that become involved in any attempt to get an agricultural research project going. Details on topics such as business planning for the farm, looking after sheep or GM technology are included without slowing the story down. The reader is prompted to think about priorities, as one character says: 

"So, we pay for a moon shot but can’t afford to catalogue the living things on the planet."

The engrossing story is peopled with convincing characters - it's an indication of how well Olivia's character is drawn that I actually fretted over whether she was moving too quickly in the relationship, convinced that she would be disappointed. You will of course need to read the novel to find out whether my concerns were correct!  

 Native Soil by Sarah Watkinson, published (6 October 2023) by Moore and Weinberg.

ISBN: 979 8 9854286 3 6   Paperback   304 pages RRP: £16.99   October 2023

Moore & Weinberg Publishing:    

Available through bookshops and internet booksellers (Also available as an ebook)


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


Sarah Watkinson  was recently the inaugural poet in residence at the University of Oxford's Wytham Woods. You can find out more about that work in this inspiring, short video:

Monday 25 September 2023

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich


Ravens nest on Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat, where the keen (and lucky) observer can watch these amazing birds. In their Edinburgh location, they are elusive, there's no guarantee that they will appear or stick around if you're walking around their area.

So Mind of the Raven really appealed to me as a chance to get up close and personal with these incredibly intelligent corvids.

Bernd Heinrich is an experimental biologist, and this book is built on the foundation of his field observations and experiments with groups of Ravens in a number of sites in the USA. There are some fascinating explorations of the birds' behaviour here:

'I've seen ravens loitering for hours in the updrafts of the hills and mountains of western Maine. Again and again they ride the air elevators and dive down in pairs or small groups. Once..... I was in a spruce tree watching groups of five to twenty birds return to a roost. Most were flying methodically. Suddenly one, who was coming back alone at high altitude, closed both wings to its sidesand bolted straight down. In rapid succession, it made three 360 degree spins around its axis. Then it extended its wings, banked slowly and descended in a graceful arc to land in the top of a pine near the roost where others were already settling in for the night. Why the extra flourishes? Do the birds act out something they visualise in the brain, which the other birds don't? Or do their odd behaviours just 'happen' without their conscious knowledge?'

This is the best aspect of the book, detailed observations, combined with scientific curiosity. However, often the book feels bogged down in the specific details of the fieldwork, which does at times become repetitive.  

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich published (1999) by Harper Collins.


You can read my earlier review of two books about the famous ravens of the Tower of London here.

Sunday 24 September 2023

Braidburn Valley Park

 We hadn't visited Braidburn Valley Park for a while, so that's where we decided to go yesterday for our walk. It's a lovely wee park 

whch stretches alongside the Braid Burn 

and has beautiful views over to the Pentland Hills 

Yesterday we were lucky enough to see four Speckled Wood Butterflies, one of the few butterfly species still around at this time of the year. 

The park celebrates its wildlife in art, including several signs decorated with art from primary school children

and a beautiful mural created last year by local artist Chris Rutterford with Art students from Firrhill High School transforming the electrical substation

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Butterflies at Edinburgh Agro-Ecology Project

 One of the things I've been doing this summer is making regular butterfly surveys at Edinburgh Agro-Ecology Project. This is a wonderful project in north Edinburgh that is rewilding some fields, planting an orchard and other trees and offering community growing opportunities for local people and groups. I still worry a little that the fields where waders used to overwinter may no longer be an ideal habitat for Curlews, Oystercatchers and similar declining species (though recent sightings of large flocks of Curlew in the area may prove my concerns to be wrong) but in general it's brilliant to see a project like this becoming established in Scotland's capital city. 

After two cold, rainy days, today was warm, sunny and dry, though there was a breeze (which picked up later) and the grass is still damp from all the rain. Still, almost perfect conditions for a butterfly survey. I saw good numbers of Speckled Wood Butterflies, a few Large and Small Whites and a couple of Red Admirals, including this one which seems a little the worse for wear but which was happy to pose for the camera. 

The area offers wonderful views over to -the Firth of Forth

including this view of Cramond Island
There are several magnificent old trees around the area


It would be wonderful to think that all the newly planted trees will one day be as impressive as these old ones! 

Autumn is definitely on the way

I saw a good variety of birds as well as butterflies, including this Stock Dove

Monday 18 September 2023

Two Hand crafted Owls

 I've been continuing to make owls, using the craft kit I bought a while ago from a second hand shop and scrap fabric from my stash. These two most recent owls have felt eyes instead of buttons. 

To see my previous owls, visit this earlier blogpost.

Friday 15 September 2023

Seasons in the Sun by Annest Gwilym


Seasons in the Sun, the third collection from Annest Gwilym, focuses on nature, also taking inspiration from Welsh mythology and looking at social issues such as the impact of second homes on communities in Wales and the loss of the coal industry. 

The poems here see both sides of nature, the beauty that we should all appreciate more than we do and the tragedy of our despoliation of that beauty. Here there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world:

'sunborn globes red as rubies'

from The Greenhouse 

and amusing observations that give a different perspective on common scenes

' ... a watery sun sits
on the horizon
like an over-fed cat.'

from Fair Maids of February

Several of the poems evoke atmosphere very well, from the mysterious 

visions of rising,
shifting brine, changing the map of the coast:
a watery future wreathed in mist.'

from Wraiths of Winter

to the discomfiting but entirely apt  'invisible seethe'  of the Wasps' Nest.

Also discomfiting, but entirely necessary, are poems highlighting the negative impacts we have on nature, such as This is not how it was meant to be, which contains the following bleak lines:

'Poor man’s beach – choked by remnants
of a dead industry, and litter.

Tired old sun in a silent sky
above the stale, clich├ęd sea.'

July also offers a portrait of nature spoiled by human negligence and carelessness, with descriptions of littering that are so commonplace that we often don't even notice any more:

'a foxglove-bright sweet wrapper
is tangled in a bramble bush.'

a description which chimes very well with my own experience as a volunteer litter picker!

But also, there is hope, in the poem Restoration, in which plants gradually take over an ugly building, eventually reducing it to dust, returning the land to its natural state. 

This collection is rooted in Wales, featuring both poems about social issues and mythology. The Desolation of Holiday Homes and Wales for Sale both bemoan the fact that so many houses are left empty for ten months a year, while local people can't find housing (a phenomenon which I remember hearing about when I was young and is now even more prevalent and widespread in today's Air BnB era). Blodeuwedd Does the Dishes explores the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd (Welsh for Flower-Face). (Blodeuwedd was made from flowers by magicians as a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was cursed and could not find a human wife. You can find out more about this myth here.)

Other poems explore other topics such as insomnia. Many poets can probably relate to these lines from In the Immensity of Night

'Whisper poetry in my sleep
which evaporates at dawn.'

Luckily for us, the poems in this collection didn't evaporate before reaching the page! 

Seasons in the Sun by Annest Gwilym, (published 15 September 2023) by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch

Buy it here

You can read my review of Annest's earlier collection 'What the Owl Taught Me' here.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Autumn Butterflies

 Yesterday I carried out another in my series of butterfly surveys at Lauriston Farm Agro-Ecology Project in north Edinburgh. It's a beautiful place and the light was perfect for these photos

In the photo below, if you look carefully, you can see part of Lauriston Castle, which lies in beautiful grounds on the other side of a wall that marks the boundary of the agro-ecology project. (You can see photos of Lauriston Castle grounds in this blogpost from April).

Much of the Agro-ecology project involves allowing the fields to rewild, then there are areas where crops are being grown in community growing plots, then there are areas that have been planted with trees, including a small orchard and the area below which will be a general woodland area.

I didn't see many butterflies on yesterday's survey, apart from a good number of Speckled Woods, like this one (which I had photographed a few days earlier). Speckled Woods have two broods a year, so you're most likely to see them in early Summer or late Summer / early Autumn. There seem to be a lot of them around at the moment!

Today I was carrying out my regular voluntary patrol of the Water of Leith in Colinton and Craiglockart Dells and saw a couple more Speckled Woods and this lovely Red Admiral. This migratory species of butterfly is having a bumper year this year (see this report from Butterfly Conservation.)

The early Autumn colours were beautiful in the Dells! 

Saturday 9 September 2023

Walking the River Almond

 The unseasonably hot weather continued today, and we sought shade alongside the River Almond for our walk. It's a lovely river, and we were lucky to get excellent views of several birds, including Grey Heron


and most excitingly we got a great view of a Kingfisher, a bird most usually seen flying at top speed along the river, not stopping to pose like this (if you click on the photo you'll get a better view of the kingfisher!)

We also saw Grey Wagtails, Mallards and Dippers

It was lovely also to see several Speckled Wood Butterflies, including this one

Thursday 7 September 2023

Tree Following September Update

 This year for Tree Following, I've chosen the beautiful cooking apple tree in Crafty Green Boyfriend's mother's garden. You can read the post where I introduced the tree here

The tree is around fifty years old and produces a lot of apples (last year was a bumper year and I gave apples to colleagues, neighbours, students in my writing classes as well as friends!). The apples are excellent in apple crumble or just stewed and eaten with custard or added to porridge. 

Here are some photos of the tree from the middle of August:

The apples were already looking well developed

but I don't think that this year's harvest will be such a bumper harvest as last year's!

I also took more photos on 1 September. 

By 1st September, the plums on the nearby plum tree were already ripening, and some were ready to eat (and tasting delicious!)

The nasturtiums are also ready for harvesting, the leaves taste very peppery and can be added to salads or to stews. The flowers are also edible, but I haven't tried those yet (I prefer to leave the flowers for the pollinating insects to enjoy)

The hydrangea bush is looking wonderful 

This Magpie feather had fallen in the garden - it's easy to think of magpies as being black and white, but many of their black feathers are actually very iridescent and show blue, purple and green depending on the light 

We were in the garden again today and I noticed this spider's web in the tree 

Although the apples aren't really ripe yet, this one has already fallen from the tree

 Several Speckled Wood Butterflies were flying around the garden, including this one

 and several tiny froglets were wandering around in the grass, having left the garden pond to explore the wider world


People who follow trees in the UK may be interested in the Woodland Trust  competition to find the Tree of the Year. Trees are nominated for their age or importance, in some cases their historical importance, in others because they have been threatened with destruction and the local community has rallied round them. The winner will represent the UK in the European Tree of the Year competition!

Voting is open until Sunday 15 October, and this year's winner will be announced on Thursday 19 October.

Find out more and cast your vote here