Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

 The Fair Botanists

 A historical novel set in Edinburgh? Focussing on plants? With strong female characters? This book immediately appealed to me for obvious reasons, and I've read a few books by Sara Sheridan before.*

The Fair Botanists is set in Georgian Edinburgh in 1822, and focuses on the move of the city's Botanic Gardens from its site in Leith to its current site in Inverleith and the flowering of the giant Agave americana plant in the garden's glasshouses. The two main characters are Elizabeth, a recently widowed botanical illustrator and Belle, a courtesan and maker of perfumes, who become friends. There's a whole array of supporting characters, both historical (including King George IV, Sir Walter Scott) and fictional. 

The historical detail is very detailed (some may say too detailed) and really brings to life Edinburgh as it was in those far off times, particularly the area around the Botanic Gardens and the Water of Leith. I particularly liked the descriptions of the large trees being moved through Edinburgh on the back of horse-drawn carts. I also liked the small details giving insight into the social customs of the day, like the two young characters who, after sharing their first taste of pineapple, decide to go and watch a public flogging, as their 'first date'.

Overall, this is an engaging read for anyone interested in historical Edinburgh, or the development of Botany or the place of women in 19th Century Edinburgh. 

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan, published by Hodder and Stoughton.

* you can read my reviews of some of Sara Sheridan's other books by following the links below: 

The Secret Mandarin

On Starlit Seas

Secret of the Sands.

Sunday 28 January 2024

In the Grounds of Lauriston Castle

 Yesterday we visited Lauriston Castle to walk round the grounds. This is probably the best place in Edinburgh to see Cherry trees in bloom later in the year (see these photos from last year's cherry trees). At this time of the year, however, most of the trees are bare except for the evergreen species and this lovely Witch Hazel: 

As the Big Garden Birdwatch is happening this weekend (you can do the birdwatch in any green space, not just in a private garden) we took note of all the birds we saw: 

Jackdaws, including this one that was hanging around the outside café area

Blackbirds, Robins, Blue Tits, Great Tits, lots of Long Tailed Tits, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, 3 Bullfinches, including this handsome male 

1 Dunnock, 1 (or possibly 2) Nuthatches, 2 Magpies and this Pied Wagtail, which was running around the outside café area

The grounds of Lauriston Castle overlook the Lauriston Agroecology Project (where I carried out butterfly surveys last year) and across to Cramond Island in the Firth of Forth 

The castle grounds are free to visit. Lauriston Castle itself is only open by appointment, you can book a guided tour and there is a programme of events for all the family.


I'm delighted to have a bird themed tanka in the inaugural issue of Password journal of very short poetry. You can read the whole issue here.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Scarlet Elf Caps

Yesterday, I walked through the Dells alongside the Water of Leith, carrying out my regular river patrol, recording wildlife and picking litter. 

As soon as I got into the Dells, I heard the sound of a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming. This is always a wonderful early sign that Spring is on its way! 

Though Spring is on its way, I saw several fungi species today. Many people think of fungi as primarily a feature of autumn, but there are fungi around all year. This time of year is a good time to see Scarlet Elf Caps and a few years ago I discovered a nice little colony of this lovely fungus along the walkway in the Dells. So, I had a look today and this is what I found:

There were other fungi around too, including Witches' Butter

and this, which I think is Crystal Brain Fungus 

I also found this beautiful twig, which had fallen from a tree in recent winds, showing a lovely selection of lichens (including the khaki coloured camouflage lichen) and mosses (including a Bristle Moss) 

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Fuzz by Mary Roach

 Front Cover

 Subtitled When Nature Breaks the Law, this is a fascinating, informative look at human - animal conflict and how we deal with it. The book travels the world, from India to the US, from the Vatican State to New Zealand. We are shown wild animals that kill people, animals that steal food from garbage, and non-native invasive species that prey on or out-compete endangered species. The author looks at methods of birth control for problematic species; ways to allow farmers to minimise the damage done to crops by wild animals and methods of raising awareness of wild animals amongst the general population.

The author spends time with law enforcement agencies, conservation organisations, and others to gain insights into the shady world of animals who behave badly (and of course the bad behaviour is defined in human terms, most animals are just doing what they need to survive). 

In the chapter on animals that kill, we find out that just because a human corpse shows signs of having been attacked by a bear, doesn't mean that the bear killed the human, there are documented cases of people having died by overdose or other non-animal related ways and then a bear just comes along to eat the body. On the other hand, of course, there are documented cases of people having been accused of murders that have then been shown to have been deaths due to animal attacks. 

If humans habitually disposed of rubbish properly, then animals (from gulls to foxes to bears) become much less likely to associate human settlement with free food and are less likely to become problem animals. Bears that have easy access to human foods are shown to hibernate for shorter periods and have a higher rate of reproduction, thus making more problem bears that hang around for a longer part of the year.We also need to become more accepting of natural animal behaviour: "Let's take the example of Canada geese on golf courses. What is their crime? Befouling the turf.... For this, should we be allowed to call someone in to round them up and gas them?"

The narrative is amply peppered with entertaining anecdotes such as the bear that removed a door and placed it gently against the wall before wandering into the house, monkeys in Indian temples who have learned to steal and the return the stolen items in exchange for food, and "a macaque that got into the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences and took to pulling IV needles out of patients arms and sucking the glucose"

Another interesting insight from this book is how much of wildlife research in the US has been focussed on reducing wildlife's negative impacts on agriculture, rather than actually conserving wildlife. For example, we are given details of The National Wildlife Research Centre's work in how to reduce the amount of sunflower seeds being lost to birds. The National Sunflower Association presses for birds to be poisoned and "in 2018 USDA Wildlife Services destroyed 516,000 red winged blackbirds, 203,000 grackles and 408,000 cowbirds." Which is shocking, particularly when you consider that: "birds provide significant pest and weed control services to the farmer".

Over in New Zealand, introduced animals from stoats to possums to domestic cats threaten many of the island's unique birds, many of which are flightless, including the yellow winged penguin. The book examines what caused the problem in the first place and looks at whether it is possible to manage the predators in a way that is genuinely humane. Genetic manipulation is one method, which is discussed here in some detail, including the ethical dilemmas it poses.

It's not just about animals, though. A chapter is dedicated to plants, from poisonous beans to dangerous trees that can kill a person if they fall. The best way to deal with the latter being to make the tree safe while allowing as much of it as possible to remain as valuable wildlife habitat.

Roach obviously does her research very well and is very firmly on the side of the animals, even while offering balanced arguments all the way through. The book is always interesting (though the chapter on lethal methods of dealing with pests was too long for me, with too much information on poisons and types of gun). However, I found her sense of humour was generally irritating rather than funny, though many people find her writing very entertaining.

Fuzz, When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach published (2021) by W W Norton

Tuesday 23 January 2024


...............the loss of trees

Monday 22 January 2024

Ladybirds at Lunchtime

 We had a lovely lunchtime walk round North Merchiston Cemetery and checked for hibernating ladybirds on the gravestones. Most of the ladybirds we saw were Harlequins (Harmonia axyridis), a species that occurs in a number of colour forms. This is Harmonia axyridis var spectabilis

while this is Harmonia axyridis var succinea

and here's a gathering of both varieties

The Harlequin is an invasive species, it first arrived in the UK in 2006, I think, and is in many places taking over from other species. In the cemetery today, we only saw a couple of ladybirds that weren't Harlequins, and they were both Pine Ladybirds like the one below.

You can (usually) get a closer look at these photos by clicking on them to enlarge them.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Arthur's Seat

 Arthurs Seat is one of favourite places in Edinburgh for a walk. So that's where we went yesterday. The light was sometimes quite dramatic, particularly in this view looking towards Salisbury Crags. 

Although it was quite mild yesterday, the lochs were still partly frozen after a few days of sub zero temperatures.  Looking down on Duddingston Loch, we were struck by the reflections

while Dunsapie Loch was also partly frozen, with the Mute Swans finding themselves with much less water than they're used to having.

The stone walls alongside the path up Arthur's Seat are covered in a variety of mosses, which were looking beautiful in the lovely light. The photo below shows Grimmia pulvinata and Anomalous Bristle Moss and possibly some others. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Love Shanty by Sadie Maskery


Love Shanty is the latest collection from Sadie Maskery. These are poems about love and friends, myths and family. Several poems feature her late father. Retirement Poems 1 -5 being well observed short scenes from a life, shot through both with humour and poignancy. The longer Dad ends: 

I can't remember the last time
You carried me on your shoulders
Or the last time you had strength 
To walk the hills you loved so much ....
 I think that soon you will reach a crest
Gaze beyond it to where I cannot see
And there will be the last hill 
Save some ice-cream for me. 

In A Nice Cup of Tea, realising that her husband has died, the narrator watches the boiling kettle as: 

The steam curled across the worktop 
and disappeared. Where does it go
I wondered. 
There is also the lesser grief of unrequited love too, in See Kay Won, in which the narrator gives a boy a bottle of the same scent she wears herself and hopes he will find her through scent alone. But humans aren't really attuned to scent in the same way as dogs, and there are several canine characters in this collection. My favourite poem here, indeed, features that relative of the domestic dog, the wolf. How to Sing with Wolves presents the wolves' song as "a tapestry of mingled scents, / intents, power and hierarchy" with a "chord / of puppies sleeping in a tumbled mass of warmth".
Elsewhere, there is the title poem, a love poem to the rhythm of a sea shanty; the amusing O Let Me Be a Chef on TV (which surely needs to be read out on TV by Nigella Lawson) and memorable lines and phrases, such as "The haunting of sunshine" (from Stay Out of the Sun) and "Tragic poets clutter up the shoreline" (from Selkie).

This is an excellent collection, beautifully presented with a cover photo of the Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian.

Love Shanty by Sadie Maskery, published (2023) by Mariscat Press.


You can read my review of Sadie's earlier poetry collection Shouting at Crows here

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Gathering edited by Durra Shahwar and Nasia Sarwar-Skuse


 Subtitled Women of Colour on Nature, this book brings together sixteen thought-provoking essays by women of colour on topics around the natural world, ranging from personal observations on nature to academic investigations of the history of colonialism on the human relationship with nature. The idea being to try to balance out the over-representation of voices from white people from richer countries on issues around climate change and biodiversity loss, which are, of course, topics that impact the global south more than anywhere. The essays are wide-ranging, and this review can only really pick out the elements that most leapt out at me.

Several contributors wrote about their feelings of being excluded from nature. In A British-Ghananian in the West Country, Louisa Adjoa Parker notes that she felt that her "face looked wrong against this rural backdrop" and "The first time [she] found an image of a Black woman in the countryside was like finding a nugget of gold." While Sharan Dariwal, in The Nature of White Sustainability, calls out the racism found in parts of the environmental movement and asks "if whiteness, in other words capitalism, had a big hand in creating this climate crisis, then when saving the land, should they not turn to those who consumed gently to become the leaders of change?"

The links between faith and nature and the human relationship with nature crops up in a number of essays. In From God We Come and to God We Return, Dr Sofia Rehman notes that "Muslim intellectual heritage is filled with odes to the oneness of human existence with all that is around it, particularly nature and an understanding that we are part of nature" Hanan Issa writes about trees, mythology and Islamic perspectives in The Sacred Arbor, sharing stories about trees found in Islamic literature and noting that trees are often used as a metaphor for the truth in Islamic texts. Meanwhile, Adéọlá Dewis in Nature, points out that "Ifa, the Yoruba belief system, teaches that we are nature." 

Some of the essays look at the relationship between nature and work in the creative sector. In The Stones of Scotland / (a) version, Alycia Pirmohamed aims to show that it is possible to be both a Muslim writer and a nature writer, that the two aren't mutually exclusive. Katherine Cleaver uses A Pencil, A Trowel and A Dinosaur Bone to explore her struggle to combine both arts and science in a satisfying career and in Nature is Punk, musician Nadia Javed writes about the relationship between nature and music.

In Nature is Queer, Jasmine Isa Qereshi considers, among other issues, the naming of wildlife after problematic people from history (a topic that the American Ornithological Society is currently aiming to correct) and notes that most species already had names, given to them by indigenous people.

Taylor Edmonds, who has worked as Poet in Residence for the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, writes about her relationship with nature and concern about rising sea levels, pondering: "Would my potential great grand-child be able to trace my routes around my hometown in the same way I had traced my great-grandmothers'?"

Susmita Bhattacharya looks at the healing potential of nature and describes how "[b]eing out in nature helped [her] see things differently" while being treated for breast cancer, and how nature has helped to change her life for the better.

Ironically, for a book that aims to be largely about inclusivity and accessibility, the full enjoyment of Maya Chowdry's In a Relationship with Sugar depends on being able to scan a QR code, thus effectively excluding the sizeable minority of people who don't have a smartphone. 

Overall, the book offers fascinating insights into various aspects of the intersections between faith, culture and nature. Though I had expected more of the essays to offer personal insights and didn't expect there to be so much historical / academic analysis, but that's a comment on my own expectations, not on the value of the contents.

This book is due to be published in February 2024, but you can pre-order it now.

Gathering, Women of Colour on Nature edited by Durre Shahwar and Nasia Sarwar-Skuse published (2024) by 404 Ink

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

Sunday 7 January 2024

Winter Sunshine and lots of Birds at Musselburgh

 We had a lovely walk at Musselburgh yesterday, walking along the River Esk to the Firth and Forth and then continuing on to the bird hides at Levenhall Links. The sun was shining, though it was very cold. 

We saw lots of birds, as one does along this route at this time of year! Highlights include: 

Long Tailed Duck, we saw six of these sea ducks, the females don't have tails

Lapwings - we saw about 50 of these beautiful birds that are sadly declining in number across the UK

Bar Tailed Godwit (to the left in the photo below) and Oystercatcher (to the right) were both present in good numbers along the shore 

Turnstones were running around on the rocky shore 

and there were a lot of Goldeneyes (the photo below shows a male)

and here's a female Goldeneye 

Musselburgh is always a great place to go birding. There are plans to build flood prevention structures along the River Esk and birders (and others) are concerned about the negative impact these works will have on nature. Of course, the town needs to be protected from rising sea levels, but the proposed plans seem pretty extreme. You can read about the flood prevention scheme here. You may be interested in Pause the Flood Scheme, which aims to find a responsible, nature based approach to flood prevention for the town.

Thursday 4 January 2024

Watershed by Rae Spencer


 Back when I edited the poetry journal Bolts of Silk, I was happy to publish four poems by Rae Spencer (you can read them here). So I was delighted when Rae sent me a copy of her debut poetry collection Watershed

The collection focuses on the natural world and the human relationship with nature. In Adaptable, the narrator wonders what it would be like to swap her life for that of a raccoon seen foraging: 'clever hands / Combing much for morsels'

Several of the poems look at growing up and ageing in both the natural world and the human. In The Cardinals, the parent birds struggle to bring up their single nestling, living as a 'little family of fear' while Metamorphosis follows the increasingly perilous journey of Monarch caterpillars into becoming butterflies. The Tracking observes the wolf as it follows 'the scarlet woven girl' (Red Riding Hood) where the wolf turns out to be: 'the wry and gnarl / Of age that steals, quick, quick at her heels.' Doppler Effect compares the onset of grief to the sound of an approaching siren of an emergency vehicle: 'Panic whining to an unbearable pitch.' 

The poems are full of vivid phrases such as the 'strange ember music' of In the Suburbs, Night Rises or the description of robins as 'cheerily fat, shiny with rain' in the poem Spell Out a Robin for Cheer. Or possibly my favourite lines: 

'It's only a winter's spell, gold leaves spinning
Like hypnotists watches blurring time.'

from Another Autumn


Watershed by Rae Spencer published (2023) by Kelsey Books

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Kingfisher and other Birds along Water of Leith

 We had a lovely lunchtime walk along part of the Water of Leith today. The highlight was watching this Kingfisher as it spent several minutes fishing. Probably the best ever view I've had of a Kingfisher.

We didn't see any Grey Herons in the river, but a passer-by pointed out these three Grey Herons standing on top of the roof of a block of flats! 

We were keeping an eye out for Goosanders too and found this group sitting on an island along with Mallards

Also gathered in a group were these Collared Doves, part of a flock of about twenty! This is quite unusual to see, as in my experience Collared Doves tend to travel in pairs or singly rather than gathering in groups! 

Towards the end of our walk, we passed a block of flats with several bird feeders hanging at the balconies. The nearby trees were full of birds, including this Greenfinch.

for Nature Notes

Tuesday 2 January 2024

Winter Wildlife

 Happy New Year to all my blog readers! Hope everyone had a peaceful holiday season. 

Here are some of the highlights of our winter walks and nature observations from the past couple of weeks in Edinburgh:

Redwing eating rowan berries 

Waxwings eating rowan berries outside our local school

Grey Heron fishing in the Water of Leith

 The last sunset of 2023 seen from North Merchiston Cemetery 

Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park on New Year's Day 

For Nature Notes