Friday 16 December 2011

The croft - shed and polytunnel

Here's another shot of another key corner of our exploded abode - winter headquarters ('the great hall') on one side, bath shed (formerly known as 'the lounge', as it used to house a sofabed as well as the bath, so one could lounge, wet or dry...) on the other. In between them, the polytunnel.

What did we ever do without the polytunnel? Quite apart from salad production all year round, getting plants started in spring, tomatoes in summer etc, at this time of year it's a vital dry store of wood with chopping block for kindling production, and I store my willow in it for basket making, make felt in it, in fact I do everything vaguely messy in it, especially on wet days.

Monday 12 December 2011

The croft - studio

Continuing with a picture of the croft, for those of you curious about our 'exploded house' of scattered sheds. This is the industrious corner, with our studio (designed and built by Bernard Planterose of Northwoods on Loch Broom) and the shed behind it, which used to be our office until we built the studio, and which goes by the somewhat grandiose name of 'the library' (yes, it is full of books).

On the right of the picture you can see the power supply. We also have a solar panel, about which I cannot speak warmly enough. Heating is by wood, and sunshine.

There, now you know where I'm sending this stuff from.

Friday 9 December 2011

The croft - moving in...

I've been asked by a few folk to put some pictures of the croft on here. So I've had a rummage and over the next wee while I'll post up some shots of our various sheds and caravans to try to give a visual impression of life here.

This seems as good a place to begin as any - this is the arrival, in 2001, of our 12-foot caravan in which we spend spring, summer and autumn. It landed a bit to the left of this picture, on the shore of Loch Roe, and we have since painted it a sort of russety purple colour so it blends in with the birch trees a bit.

We got lucky that day. The helicopter was passing over Assynt on his way back to Inverness from Lewis, where it had been shifting electricity poles. We had the caravan stropped up ready at Achmelvich beach, and the whole operation from pick up to drop off took less than 10 minutes and cost us £75 - one of life's best ever bargains. Sadly the pilot wouldn't let me ride in it, because if it had started swinging, he'd have had to drop it. The skill of the pilot in lowering it into position was completely breathtaking.

One of the amusing things, ever since, has been watching people who come to visit scratching their heads beside the caravan, and eventually saying, 'How on earth did you get this here?'

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Is twitter the new oral tradition?

It has started to dawn on me, as I spend several hours each afternoon and evening tweeting about trees, that twitter is a new form of an old thing.

As part of the A-B-Tree project,  at dusk each day I'm creating what several folk have now described as a 'forest of tweets' about a tree - one tree per day, taking them in alphabetical order, according to the Gaelic tree alphabet. Today it was oak. Yesterday it was hawthorn. Tomorrow it will be holly.

I normally begin with nomenclature and botanical facts, move onto practical uses and then gravitate to snippets of folklore. I throw in links to poems from time to time, and most days I have finished with a poem.

I'm enjoying this process, although it feels a bit strange to be sitting in my shed in the dark, throwing out titbits into cyberspace to see if anything bites. But increasingly, it seems, people nibble.

The poet, former librarian of the Botanic Gardens, Colin Will (@colindwill) is hugely knowledgeable about trees and chips in most days with fascinating gems. Environmental archaeologist specialising in trees, Coralie Mills (@dendrochronicle) has shared knowledge too. I'm delighted when people ask me for sources or for clarification, or start to speculate what something might be about. It's great when people pick up on something and retweet it to their followers because they think it's interesting, or weird.

I've been corrected about several points, which is fab. For example cricket stumps are unlikely in ancient times to represent the Triple Goddess because there were only two of them until 1775, though isn't it interesting that they're called wickets (echoes of wicker and wicca...)

Then there are the jokes - and I love the banter around some of the stranger magic spells I've put up, or the just plain silly responses. I'm being heckled! Go cybercrofter!!

But most pleasing is the realisation that a lot of the stories and traditions, taboos and warnings, rhymes and spells, go right back to the oral tradition of storytelling and the bardic culture. Although this project started out as all about writing, the content of much of this stuff predates written communication and was passed on around firesides, in songs and tales. And twitter is a bit like a giant, global fireside at a giant global crofthouse, where people can drop in, listen for a bit, throw in an idea, nod or laugh or take the piss, and wander out again. I like that.

Tomorrow at dusk, thig a-steach (come away in), pull up a stool and we'll give holly a chewing over @cybercrofter. Slainte!

Sunday 4 December 2011

Panda voyeurism in Edinburgh should make us ashamed

I seem to be in a small minority of people who are dismayed about the arrival of two pandas at Edinburgh Zoo today.

Some of those expressing disquiet are upset about the underlying politics, and the diplomatic and trade ramifications of this deal between China and Scotland. There are also financial concerns about the cost of renting the pandas and paying to maintain them versus how much income the zoo will make through increased visits, and even if they pay for their keep, what any surplus will be used for. I find of these arguments against keeping pandas in Edinburgh convincing. But that's not what really upsets me.

The zoo argues that it is helping the conservation of pandas. In his book Way of the Panda, and a recent blogpost, Henry Nicholls questions the connection between keeping pandas in captivity and helping them in the wild. He concludes 'there is little, if any, overlap between the lives of captive and wild pandas'. No panda raised in captivity has ever been successfully released into the wild, so the captive breeding programme that Edinburgh will take part in will merely rear another generation of imprisoned animals. There's no convincing evidence that keeping pandas in zoos does anything to address the practical problems facing wild pandas, particularly habitat loss and poaching.

What saddens me most is what bringing the pandas to Edinburgh is going to do to people in Scotland. It will strengthen a culture of acceptance of keeping large animals as captives, on display. Children and adults will pay to experience animals behind bars, within concrete enclosures, unable to forage for food, undergoing controlled mating and with no interaction with other species except humans.

But a wild male panda has a territory of more than 10 square kilometers of habitat dense with bamboo. No bear should have to live in a small, sloping concrete enclosure without any of its natural food source. No civilised society should allow this, let alone use it as a voyeuristic form of entertainment, encouraging people to pay to look on and laugh.

The zoo's message will be that being boxed in and controlled is somehow safe, protective, even special (because pandas are so cute and rare). What's worse, they will try to pass this exploitation off as something to do with 'nature conservation'.
Bringing pandas to Edinburgh not only completely misses the point about what actually needs to be done to prevent them from becoming extinct (tackling the problem of poaching and strengthening the reserves of their natural habitat in China), but by bolstering tolerance in Scotland for keeping intelligent creatures in captivity it also chips away at our appreciation of nature and wildness and freedom.

What Scotland really needs is not caged animals from the other side of the world. We need more wild places, and more opportunities for people to experience the myriad wonders of life that exists here in its natural habitat. For every day a child spends at Edinburgh Zoo peering at bears behind bars, that's one day they haven't spent out in the woods, playing, exploring and having a real experience of nature. That's what makes me sad.

We can, and should, watch pandas on video, in the wild, not in some latter day circus on Corstorphine Hill.

Friday 2 December 2011

A-B-Tree phase 2

I have now completed 18 creative writing events, one for each tree associated with a letter of the Gaelic alphabet. The last one was willow, at Timespan Museum in Helmsdale, and as it was disgusting weather we stayed indoors - restricting our experience of the tree to some twigs I had brought, and some baskets. But the participants seemed to enjoy themselves nonetheless, and we had a fascinating discussion about the folklore of willow, including some pretty weird ritual practices associated with it - good for a laugh.

So that's phase 1 of the project complete, and now I'm getting under way with phase 2, which is to gather all of the information I have collected about the trees and write it up. Quite what form that writing will take is still pretty fluid, and I'm open to suggestions.The plan so far is...
  1. Poems. I have now written a poem about each tree. I had some already but it's been an interesting challenge to complete the set. Once they're polished, they might form a pamphlet.
  2. More poems. There are loads of really gorgeous poems about trees out there and it has been one of the pleasures of phase 1 to find these and share them at events, using them as inspiration for new writing. I realised last week, having spent a day in the Scottish Poetry Library, that there is a lack of a poetry anthology about trees. Trees Be Company was produced as part of a trilogy by Green Books about a decade ago, but it misses many wonderful poems. It would be great to work with a publisher to produce a new poe-tree anthology.
  3. Tweets. One of the things people have enjoyed most about the A-B-Tree sessions are the snippets and titbits I brought along of ecological and practical facts and folklore. At many of the sessions I handed these out on bits of paper and we all took turns to read them out. I realised that these snippets are all roughly tweet sized, so I decided to tweet some of them, taking a tree a day and going through them in alphabetical order. I started yesterday with birch. Today it was rowan. And I'll carry on until 18 December. As I go, I'll put them up on a page on the website. Birch and Rowan now have their pages. Follow @cybercrofter on twitter, and tune in at dusk each day to catch them.
  4. A report. The project has been supported by Forestry Commission Scotland and Hi-Arts, and I'll be writing them a report about the events.
  5. School materials. I've had some discussions with teachers, and I'd welcome more, about producing some of the information about the trees in a form that would be useful for children to learn from. One suggestion has been to make laminated cards for each tree, with images, facts and activity suggestions. I rather like this idea. 
  6. A book? Is there a book in all of this? Let's see how it goes.