Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Chicken Race

Yesterday was Chicken Day in Elphin, the most easterly of Assynt's crofting townships. I was there attempting to simulate how neolithic people might have fired pottery, which soon turned out to be an exercise in discovery of novel ways to make perfectly innocent-looking ceramics explode on an open fire. There's more about that on Historic Assynt's diary page here.

But I thought it was worth a note here about the Chicken Day itself. Some of it was a conventional country fair - cake stall, raffle, that kind of thing. But everything had a poultry flavour and, as the day went on, it became more and more surreal. The biggest stall was the one selling bird food. Entry to the beautiful pet show was restricted to fowl. In the treasure hunt all the treasure was eggs. The pictures on display were all, you're getting the drift here, of hens. There was an egg and spoon race, naturally.

But the highlight of the day was the Chicken Race. The Elphin folk had been advertising for anyone who wanted to bring their hens and take on the local birds and several birders from north Assynt, Achiltibuie and even Ullapool took up the challenge. There was an Irish bookie running a tote and betting was hot. Even I put a couple of quid on Bluebell the bird from Stoer, and I'm really not the betting sort.

At 4pm, the field consisted of ten hens. Confused Duck had been hot favourite but in the end was too confused to make it to the starting line. The birds were held in check by their owners. There was a breathless silence.

Then the race began. The hens were released onto the course and the watching crowd erupted into shouts of encouragement.

The birds set off up the track, to whoops and bellows from the crowd. A couple of hens kept close to the fence and edged their way along in the right direction. The crowd went wild.

The rest of the hens just wandered about. Some of them started to peck at the grass. Shouting began to dissolve into snorts. Encouragement descended to insult. The hens appeared unconcerned. They didn't get the race thing and the grass was rather good.Was it possible that some of them had a faint blush of shame? No, they made it quite plain - they just weren't into that competitive stuff.

One rather handsome black bird, however, seemed to understand the point of the exercise and, in a leisurely but determined manner, strutted her way to the finishing line. A subset of the crowd brayed with glee. The rest of us were too busy laughing at the remaining birds to worry. Especially once the humans started trying to catch their chickens. Then they showed they could run! The winning chicken, just to outshine them all, found a gap in the fence and was well away out into the peat and rushes before being eventually brought to a standstill and restored to her jubilant, and no doubt greatly enriched, owner.

A fine way to spend an afternoon. Really, I can't wait for next year. I might even have to get a chicken.

Friday, 23 September 2011

In Memory of a Good Man

On Wednesday 21 September, I did a special A-B-Tree event. Here's my log of it.
At 5.10pm it’s raining, but I’m going for it anyway. The plan’s too good to miss. The rowan tree is my totem tree and today is International Peace Day and also International Day of Struggle against Plantations, a day of protest set up by Ricardo Carrere of the World Rainforest Movement, who died just a month ago. Today, all over the world, people are gathering to remember Ricardo, an inspiring Uruguayan leader of a global movement of people given by him the courage to challenge the huge industrial super-powers who take vast tracts of land to use for monoculture tree crops without regard to the people affected by them.

I met Ricardo 14 years at a United Nations meeting on forests in New York. I was a newly fledged activist campaigning for the rights of forest peoples, and he was a veteran of political negotiations and a man of resolute principle, untemptable by compromise and immune to flattery or coercion. With Bill my partner, I’ve spent many hours with Ricardo, plotting tactics on back steps or courtyards or wherever the smokers had to go. I learned so much from his discourses on the failures to respect the basic human rights of poor people, indigenous tribes, forest-dwellers, peasants and anyone else who stood in the way of corporate resource exploitation.

Ricardo was a key intellectual force behind a United Nations process to reveal the Underlying Causes of Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The Underlying Causes dialogue took place on every continent and resulted in a trenchant analysis of the economic instruments, financial institutions, corporate culture and social trends that underpin the global catastrophe of forest destruction. For those of us who were disillusioned by the futility of trying to stop deforestation by lying down in front of bulldozers on forest roads and forwarders on logging sites, Ricardo offered a clear big picture of who the real targets of our campaigns should be. It’s not loggers who destroy forests, they are just the tools of the World Bank, pulp corporation executives, DIY store managers and paper buyers in catalogue companies.

I’m particularly grateful for the help Ricardo gave me in understanding the pulp and paper industry and its impacts on land and people. When I was writing Paper Trails, Ricardo’s comments on the plantation chapter of the book made it a much stronger text, while also giving me huge encouragement to carry on trying to spell out the whole story of the true costs of paper.

When I was co-ordinating a campaign to reduce paper use in Europe (called Shrink: Addressing the Madness of Over-Consumption of Paper) I was bolstered by Ricardo’s support, knowing that the campaign was right to address one of the most powerful underlying causes of forest loss – excessive consumption by people in rich powerful societies, mostly in northern countries, of resources appropriated from poor and powerless communities, mostly in southern countries.

So, never mind the rain, I go to talk to a rowan tree about Ricardo. It’s an ancient giant, its trunk almost completely rotten, but where it has tumbled its branches have taken root, and new shoots are sprouting from its boll. It is a tree that refuses to die, or having died, will live on anyway - a fitting tribute to Ricardo.

And then, as the rain eases, a family come along to join me. We talk about red deer’s predilection for rowan, its amazing link to juniper through a rust fungus, and the fondness of redwings and fieldfares for its berries, which brings them here all the way from Scandinavia. They will be disappointed this year, as it’s been a poor year for fruit.

No tree is richer in magical powers than rowan, if the old stories are to be believed. It grows outside most old houses in these parts, and is still planted close to new ones, because of the belief that it keeps away evil spirits. Every self-respecting white witch has a rowan wand, and although cutting or burning the wood is bad luck unless it is done with due ceremony, it has a host of uses, all supposed to result in protection, whether of cradles or carts, houses or barns, cows, sheep or people.

I am glad to have had some people to share some of the stories with, like the boy on Arran who untied the rowan twig from the cow’s tail and the origin myth that has rowan made of eagle feathers and drops of blood. And I was delighted when the boys went off and adopted some trees and wrote about their magical powers. One, if you kiss it, will bring you good luck. Another, when it grows a bit bigger, will become a witch's broom.One is going to produce a special tea that, when drunk by military leaders, will bring about world peace.

I’m sure Ricardo would be pleased. Home, and dry, I raise a glass of rowan wine to his memory.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Going Potty

If you've followed this blog for a while you'll know that I'm more than a bit partial to pots, and fascinated by how ceramics uses all the elements - earth mixed with water, dried in air then fired. Now, all of a sudden, life seems to be full of interesting pottery events and people.

I've recently had the good fortune to interview Lotte Glob, stunning ceramic artist based on a croft a bit north of me, and the result is here. Lotte's own website, full of glorious images of her work, is here.

At An Talla Solais, the gallery in Ullapool, there is currently a gorgeous exhibition of ceramics and associated art, and my review is on the Northings website.

And next week, I am getting very excited about the prospect of helping to build a neolithic-style pit to fire pots, which Brenda, one of the project officers for the Life and Death in Assynt's Past project, has been encouraging people to make (see here, for example). It's going to be fun!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


September and October see the trees blush with colour and swell with fruit, and I am going to be celebrating their wonders with the A-B-Tree project - 18 creative writing events around Scotland exploring the connections between trees and writing, one for each tree associated with a letter of the Gaelic alphabet. My website has a page with more information about the project here. Come along to an event near you, or if there isn't one and you'd like one, please get in touch. I might well not be able to stop at 18 events!

Thanks to the Forestry Commission and Hi-Arts for financial support to make this project possible - and I'm proud to be taking part in the International Year of Forests.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Home from the Summer Isles

Tanera Mòr is a tardis island. I've looked at it from the mainland for many years, thinking it a wee smidgin of a thing. Earlier this year, I visited for a day trip, allowing myself time to chat with Lizzie and Rich Williams about a creative writing week we were plotting, leaving myself the luxury of a couple of hours to look around. 
We chatted so pleasingly, my island-scoping time was squeezed a bit, but in an hour and a half I still managed to sprint up to the high point above the northerly pier and stroll around the east side of the island to the jetty at the south. I reckoned I'd seen most of the place and I was delighted by the woods, the ruined herring factory with its beautiful stone pier and the fabulous views out to the west to the other Summer Isles. I was pleased that I had left myself something of the island to explore when I came back for a week in September. 

That week has just come to an end. It was one of those special times in life that dart past like a dragonfly. 

On arrival, I sauntered up to the high point to survey my domain for the week. To my surprise, a proper look at the map revealed that the big lump down the south end of the island was in fact a hill considerably larger than the one I was standing on. Rather more of the island remained to explore than I had expected. 
On my first full day, the weather was warm and calm. A paddle around the island was in order. I set off on a kayak across the sheltered bay, which gained Tanera its Viking name meaning 'big haven'. And big it turned out to be. At the far side of the bay, I returned, the shoreline of the island having stretched beyond my reach. 
My walk up to the real high point and on down to the beach beyond revealed just how far the south and west sides of the island extend. After several hours of scrambling, numerous bays and craggy cliffs, bogs and thick heathery knolls were stalwartly untrodden. 

A walk in the woods tuned me into the scrubby tree regeneration happening all over the island - on all sides many more patches of woodland burgeoned, unscrutinised. 

Out on Patricia for a cruise around the island, surely this time to achieve a complete circumnavigation, the rough open water to the south forced us back through the channel between the island and its little sibling, Tanera Beag. The south shore is still to be revealed. 

We saw common and grey seals, gannets and kestrels, butterflies and toads, and a friendly Highland bull, but the otters and dolphins eluded us. We had all possible weather: sunshine and rain, calm and wind; still, I couldn't help wondering what it is like in spring or in snow. We were dazzled by phosphorescent plankton, rainbows, a spectacular moonrise and Jupiter over the mountains, yet just imagine it under the northern lights!
By the end of the week, the little dot on the map had expanded to a whole world, complete with everything a world should have: woods, moors, freshwater lochs and streams, pebbly beaches, ocean crashing at the feet of cliffs, a sheltered bay, a walled garden and a tidal island promontory (not forgetting warm baths, log fires, fairly traded and organic food and excellent company) along with none of life's troubles in the form of cars, phones or constant internet. It's a uniquely peaceful world, and I've barely scratched its surface.

Thanks very much to Lizzie and Rich, Lesley May, Rachel and Jeanne, for inspiring and creative company in the tardis.