Saturday 19 February 2011

An island retreat

For the past five years I have run writing and creative retreats at Glencanisp Lodge. This is the big house the community of Assynt bought in the massive buyout of 44,000 acres of land, including the mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg, back in 2005. It has been an act of delicious subversion to book the house that was for so many years the private summer hunting lodge of the Vestey family, and fill it with creative people - writers, artists, photographers, musicians. We have had some fantastic weeks there, 12 of them altogether.

Unfortunately the Lodge is now so expensive to rent that it is no longer feasible to book it out for this purpose and sadly it is once again the preserve of the rich to holiday there. One day I hope a different situation will develop, but for now, I have had to look elsewhere for a retreat venue.

The good news is that I have found one, and it may turn out to be even more magical than the house up the glen in Assynt. In September (3-9 September, to be exact) I'll be running a retreat on Tanera Mor in the Summer Isles. Lizzie on Tanera is now taking bookings - to find out more see here. I look forward to welcoming you to the island!

Sunday 13 February 2011

Seaweed season

In the last few days, the winter has started to seem to be on the wane. It must be the growing daylength: the extra light in the morning kick-starting the day with a bit more energy, the loitering dusk allowing me to let a little bit more get done each afternoon. The garden beckons.

Yesterday was seaweed day: fifteen loads of it onto the vegetable and soft fruit beds. The big tides at new moon combined with gales have meant that vast amounts of wrack have been thrown high up on the shore of Loch Roe. Since then we've had plenty of rain so I'm pretty confident the salt will have washed out. And yesterday was sunny and when you're working hard it doesn't matter that it isn't warm. So, the mucky sacks were unearthed from their hiding place, the creel was emptied and hooped around my forehead, and off I set down to the shore to get mucky.

I like getting mucky. I love the smell of seaweed. I adore watching ripples and the curious faces of seals. I sing back when birds twitter at me. I stuffed the sacks and my basket, experiencing a profound connection to this place and to all the generations of women since ages past who have done this job at this time of year. By the time the wrack-sacks had all performed that pleasing slither and slump as they emptied onto soil, I was ready for my tea. What a satisfying way to spend an afternoon.

Monday 7 February 2011

Forests for sale?

I have four articles in the current issue of Bratach, one of which concerns the hullaballoo that has broken out in England concerning the proposals by the government to divest itself of the state forests. Having read the consultation document, which is here, and thought about the proposals within it, I conclude that folks in England could learn a lot from the Scottish experience of land reform. As most people who may be interested probably can't get hold of Bratach, here's the article, in a slightly fuller form than Bratach had space for.

The UK government is planning to rid itself of the state forests in England and its consultation on the idea shows every sign that its plans are modelled on experiences from Scotland.

Campaigners in England have reacted with horror to the suggestion that ancient woodlands like the New Forest may be privatised. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition raised by 38 Degrees, with the strapline Save our forests - don't sell them off to the highest bidder’. A public letter signed by a hundred famous people, including the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Judy Dench, Annie Lennox, Tony Juniper and Ranulph Fiennes, made front page headlines in the national newspapers, decrying the plan as ‘unconscionable’.

In fact the Forestry Commission’s consultation document does not propose a wholesale sell-off of all its English forests to the highest bidder. The method it outlines for shedding its forests has three parts.

Firstly, heritage forests, which are those with high levels of biodiversity or other social value, like the New Forest, are to be offered to charitable organisations for either full ownership or management arrangements, to secure their public benefits into the future. This could include existing bodies such as the Woodland Trust or National Trust, or new charities set up for the purpose of taking over woods.

Secondly, local communities will be given a first option to buy or lease any state forest that is put up for lease. This is similar to the current arrangement in Scotland under the National Forest Land Scheme. Communities in England will also be able to register an interest in any forest that is important to them and if that forest comes on the market they will have a first option to buy, rather like the Scottish Land Reform Act community right to buy.

Thirdly, commercial forestry operators will be invited to take long-term leases on productive forests, such as the huge Kielder forest in Northumberland, the largest in the country.

These three measures contain a mixture of threats and opportunities. The main threat is the third part. Although the privatisation of commercial forests would not transfer ownership titles to private companies, the leases are likely to be as long as 150 years, locking the land away for many generations.

A similar suggestion was made by the government in Scotland when Mike Russell was Environment Minister. His proposal was to transfer a quarter of Scotland’s forests to private companies on a 99 year lease, in order to generate revenue for climate change protection measures. The idea was met by huge opposition and in March 2009, the proposal was dropped. A similar outcry is now being heard in England.

Scottish land reform commentator Andy Wightman has responded by asking ‘Is the outcry focused on the right target?’ His view is that if people in England are really concerned to secure the future of ‘their’ forests, they need to be worried about the current situation of ownership by the government ministers and seek to transfer ownership to bodies that have more local and community accountability. The second measure in the proposal will enable this to happen.

However, experience in Scotland shows that unless a right in law for communities to take ownership (or to lease for long periods) is coupled with funding, nothing will change. While the Scottish Land Fund existed, a series of significant community land buyouts, like those in Assynt and on the Hebrides, were possible.

When the National Forest Land Scheme began, several communities, such as Mull and Kilfinnan in Argyll, bought forests to pursue important housing and rural development projects, thanks to available funding. However, since the Heritage Lottery decided not to make any grants towards the purchase of state land, the National Forest Land Scheme has ground to a halt, and now a number of communities who have been granted permission to buy state land have failed to do so because of lack of money. The closest of these to us is Embo, in East Sutherland. The community had ambitious plans to buy the Fourpenny Plantation in order to reverse the clearances there and create woodland crofts for local people to live on. Their application for the land was approved by the Forestry Commission in July 2009, but when the Lottery turned down the grant application for £370,000, the purchase was scuppered.

Community and environmental campaigners in England should learn from Scottish experience of what works, and what blocks progress, in responding to the government’s proposals.

Friday 4 February 2011

Draining the bog

Wind a bit on the wild side last night, and a dramatic thunderstorm to stir the spirit. Our new cabin, aka 'The Great Hall', is so well-insulated we had to open the windows to hear the gale roaring in the trees. After 12 years of living in a caravan we haven't got used to being safe inside, separated from the elements.

I spent last weekend digging ditches to the south of the cabin in the hope of draining the great squodgy sog of wetness around it, which we've been steadily plodging into a mudbath since the cabin was habitable in December. There's nothing quite so satisfying as digging up from the stream, turf by turf, getting muddier and muddier, and eventually taking out the final divot.

One last heave of the spade and the backed-up water gushed through, torrenting down into the stream and away. The ditches ran with water for days, and now after the downpours of last night, they're running again. It's gratifying to see, and I await spring with interest, hoping that as the grass grows in, the ground might turn out to be a bit less marshy than before.

When I lead creative workshops, one of the main metaphors that I use is the idea (which I first encountered from Julia Cameron) that our creativity is like water. Inside each of us we have the potential for a vast reservoir from which art can flow, and we should feed that reservoir at least weekly and preferably more often, with good things - treats, sensuous experiences, play, fun, excitement and beauty. The creative process happens when this water flows from the reservoir down our stream of consciousness. But this stream can easily get blocked up with detritus, with doubts and fear, with boredom and overwork, with demands and failure to be understood. To make creativity feel easier we need to work to keep the stream of consciousness free-flowing. Scribbling long-hand in a notebook daily is my preferred method. Perhaps there are others that also work - meditations of other kinds or physical labour where the mind can run free.

Digging the ditches, I pondered the metaphor. There was something happening, as I dug, that was connected to my own creative process. The ditches form a herringbone of short canals, an extension to the existing stream. This wasn't unblocking the main channel, but it was about seeing another area where I was bogged down, and freeing it up. It required pretty serious structural change. It caused a short-term flooding torrent. And it has created an as yet unknown potential.

It's no coincidence, surely, that Top Left Corner, the community arts company I helped to set up last year, is winding up. I've been feeling overwhelmed (bogged down) for months, by the work that the company required. And now, the company will end (structural change), there is a flood of final activity and who knows what the future will bring. Meanwhile, creatively, I'm feeling more energy than I've felt for ages - a sense of new creative areas opening up, a huge sense of relief.

There are risks, of course. The problem with the drains that I've dug is that they cut through a highly organic, peaty soil. We are not supposed to drain peatland as it stores carbon when wet and when it dries out the fibres in the peat can decompose, releasing the carbon they contain into the atmosphere with all the attendant climate change risks that means. Plus we don't like making interventions like this on the croft, which we are trying to manage in as light-touch a manner as we can, to help woodland regeneration and ecological restoration. Was this too heavy-handed an intervention? Will planting some trees make up for the damage? How do we tell?

Likewise what may I have lost by the death of Top Left Corner? What's the price of freedom? Quite aside from the financial risk to myself of being once again completely freelance, what will the knock-on impacts be on the cultural climate in these parts?

Is there more stormy weather in the forecast?