Tuesday 31 December 2013

Highlight of the year - bow head whale

This is definitely the highlight of all the highlights of my year. I thought seeing walrus or polar bear in the arctic would be the tops, but I was most moved by seeing this bow head whale.

Arctic shorts - bowhead whale from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.
Ever since watching footage on the telly I have dreamed of seeing one of these animals. I never really expected to. But up in the northerly ocean, among the pack ice, we were blessed with the most amazing encounter. Four times the whale surfaced (either that or four separate whales did, which seems unlikely), and by some miracle Bill caught it on film. It moved so gracefully, as if setting an example to us all to be peaceful, to grow old gently and to slow down.

Bow head whales live for hundreds of years. They communicate with eachother over vast distances. What knowledge do they accumulate over this time?

They live in the arctic all year round, so they are massively blubbery - they're the second biggest whales in the world, after the blue. This huge amount of blubber made them targets of whalers. They are slow-moving and float when harpooned, which led the hunters to call them the 'Right Whale'. The result, however, was that they were slaughtered in their thousands and now there are hardly any of them left.

On Svalbard we went to whaling camp after whaling camp, and among the whale bones and detritus I learned of the almost unbelievable massacre of whales, walruses and polar bears by Dutch, British, Norwegian, Russian and other hunters over just the last few centuries. When European whalers arrived in the arctic, these animals were in profusion. Nowadays there are hardly any left.

I was staggered to learn that nowhere on Svalbard is there a memorial to the slaughtered animals, though there are plenty of plaques and monuments to their killers and to all kinds of foolhardy expeditions and bonkers mining schemes that ended in tragedy. It is time to rectify this situation, and remember the arctic wildlife, before it's too late.

Monday 30 December 2013

Highlight of the year - the day job

On Mondays and Tuesdays I'm the co-ordinator of the European Environmental Paper Network, a coalition of more than 70 green and human rights organisations in 26 countries, all of which want paper to be more sustainably produced and consumed. For some of this year I was working Wednesdays for them as well, on the Shrink Paper project, which encourages big users of paper (banks, supermarkets, catalogues etc) to use less of it.

I like my job. I'm proud to start the week by trying to do my bit to prevent the world's forests being decimated for disposable products, and sticking up for the rights of forest peoples in their struggles against corporate landgrabbers who want to pulp their woodland homes or plant pulp plantations on their farmland. I'm happy to learn about the campaign successes of our member organisations, like Robin Wood's achievement getting IKEA to promise to stop sourcing paper from tropical deforestation, and the commitments from Indonesian company APP won by local activists with the support of groups like Rainforest Action Network, WWF and Greenpeace. And I'm excited that we raised enough funds this year so we can collaborate more with our colleagues in America and China on a more effective global response to the multi-national paper industry.

As a writer, of course, I want masses of sheets to come pouring off the presses with my words on it, but as a tree-hugging activist I want the paper industry to stop growing. I inhabit that paradox with some unease, at times, and I'm thankful that my publisher Saraband understands the issues, so I can sleep at night knowing that my books are printed on 100% recycled paper, or being read digitally, requiring no paper at all.

People ask me if there's one thing they can do to help the world's forests, what would it be, and I always say the same thing - make sure you always buy toilet rolls that are 100% recycled post-consumer waste paper. The world's remaining forests are far too precious to flush away.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Highlight of the year - ocean of ice

In June we sailed north into arctic waters. Day after day on the open sea. No land. No other vessels. I had not known what to expect - would it be boring? Frightening? Lonely? It was none of these. It was mesmerising. I felt I could watch the endlessly shifting patterns of light on water forever.

And then we reached the pack ice, and it was the greatest and most enthralling ballet I have ever seen.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Highlight of the year - Assynt wonder-wanderings

I live in wonderland, and it isn't possible to list all those magical mornings when we have walked out, off the croft, up a hill or out into the wilds, to be awed by the beauty or entranced by an encounter with one of the other inhabitants of this land. I know I am the luckiest person on the planet to live in Assynt and its stunning landscape has provided many of my highlight moments over the course of the year.

I remember the extraordinary ferns and feathers of ice on the nameless little lochans beyond Loch Crochach. I remember the mysterious shadow ahead of us when we stood looking north from Pol an Tobair, surveying the Minch and all the land north to Cape Wrath and west to the uniquely peculiar Assynt mountains. I remember the day when a golden eagle flew low over us at Bad na Grianan, wondering perhaps if one of us might not make it home, and thereby providing it with a meal.

We have had lots of special walks out, brewing up on kelly kettle and giving praise to the Goddess of Yellow Wellies. Thanks to Bill Ritchie, for getting me out there, and back again. I can't wait for the next year of wonderland wanderings.

Friday 27 December 2013

Highlight of the year - books

You wait for ages and then 2 buses come along at once. Or in my case, you wait five years and two books get published at once! After gathering tree poems for years, it has been a thrill to have them so beautifully presented in the anthology Into the Forest

Just as exciting was the publication of my novel Bear Witness, in April, and the ensuing conversations and debates about rewilding. I wrote it as a thought experiment about whether it might be possible for bears to be reintroduced to Scotland. All along I was aware I was indulging my own dream, and it has been great to discover that it is a dream shared by other people. Compared with some of the wildlife introduction suggestions (elephants, for example) proposed by George Monbiot in his book, Feral, bringing back bears seems like a pretty sensible and achievable project, hopefully they'll return at some point in my lifetime. Before the winter is out, I'll plant some more fruit trees in anticipation - pears for bears!

Thursday 26 December 2013

Highlight of the year - the Edinburgh Botanics

For the month of July I had the best possible job - poet in residence in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. This was part of the Walking with Poets project, run jointly between the Scottish Poetry Library and the Botanics.
It was a huge priviledge, and I learned a huge amount about botany, especially plant evolution, in a month of intensive exploration of the wonders of the garden. I set out to celebrate the Gaelic tree alphabet, with a tree of the day each day. It did not take me long to trip over the 320 million year old fossil tree outside the glasshouses, and I soon found myself enthralled by the evolutionary tree which links all the lifeforms in the world, including ours. Our fleeting existence as a species pales into insignificance compared to the survival of plants like the lilies above, which have been around for hundreds of millions of years.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Highlight of the year - bees

Two years ago, my bee colony died. I decided not to try to get another colony, as even experienced beekeepers seemed to be having such a hard time of it, so the hive was in bits in the shed until this august, when I arrived back after a summer away to find the shed filled with bees, fervently interested in the old frames. My brother's family were just about to visit, and the shed is the venue for the compost toilet for my nieces' temporary accommodation in a caravan. I didn't think they'd be too amused by a toilet full of bees!

So I shifted all the bits of hive outside, in approximately standard beehive order, and the bees were most impressed and settled straight in. I discovered later that a neighbour had smoked a swarm out of her chimney. These were presumably those bees, getting desperate for a place to stay.

The bees have flourished since as we had a nice autumn with lots of heather. I fed them well and had them tested for varroa mites, and they have none! I have rejoined the Scottish Beekeepers' Association.

It feels like a blessing to be asked, and be able, to give shelter to a new queen and her colony. Given a year of stories of bee disease, the struggle against insecticides and unexplained colony collapses, I seem to be the only person in Scotland with a completely untainted good news bee story. Perhaps there's hope!

Have a very happy honey-sweetened feasting season.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Highlight of the year: bison

I'm just recently back from a short trip to Poland. I spoke at a conference about paper and forest products and then took some time to visit one of Europe's wildest forests in Bialowiesza. It was strange to be in forest in such a flat landscape - most of Europe's lowland forests have been destroyed and converted to farmland. But Bialowiesza was spared, as one of the Tsar's favourite hunting places.

Although all of its bears have been hunted out, there are still wolves and lynx. Most excitingly, it is also home to European bison, which were extinct in the wild last century, but some remained in zoos and they
were successfully reintroduced to the wild. On our third morning there, we sighted two of these giants - Europe's biggest mammals. On our fourth morning, on the edge of the forest, we spent a happy couple of hours with four peaceful creatures (sorry, photo technology is not co-operating today). They knew we were there, and it was a great feeling of camaderie when the biggest bull clearly decided we were no threat, and sat down to chew the cud.

Somewhere out in the forest was also Europe's smallest mammal, the pygmy shrew, but it eluded us!

Monday 23 December 2013

Highlight of the year - walruses

Actic shorts - walrus 'wallying' from Bill Ritchie on Vimeo.

My next novel, the one I'm currently working on, is set 2300 years ago when the Atlantic walrus was much more widespread, not only restricted to Spitzbergen and Greenland. The ivory from their tusks was a highly valued material and traded around Europe. Hunting them then must have been extremely dangerous.

I wanted to meet some in the flesh, smell them and know them in the wild. During our Arctic adventure in June we got lucky. Sitting on a beach with this bunch of lazy males was definitely one of my favourite moments of this year.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Highlight of the year - vegetarian polar bear

Happy solstice everyone! Between now and the end of the calendar year I'm going to post some of the highlights of my year. When I'm away, I tend to disconnect from the internet, and hence most of my most wonderful moments have not been recorded here.

I spent the month of June on an ice-breaker north from Aberdeen to Spitzbergen, and then on a yacht, the Noorderlicht, sailing around the arctic island. It was altogether amazing, and quite a few of my year's highlights happened that month.
Without doubt this counts as one of the most special encounters of my year - can this be a vegetarian polar bear? Here he is, chewing on seaweed. We watched him from the yacht for a good long while, as he padded about on the shore, chomping away on big chunks of kelp. Our wildlife expert on board was as surprised as I was to see this. I don't know if this is a regular occurrence - seaweed is presumably a great source of minerals - but polar bears are normally characterised as strict meat eaters. Perhaps it indicates severe hunger. We have seen some awful pictures of starving polar bears this year, as they struggle to cope with the melting sea ice. Maybe someone out there can shed light on this?

Thanks to Jan Oosterhuis, who took this picture.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

A slideshow in Findhorn

On Sunday 8th December, at 7.30pm, in the Findhorn Foundation Hall, there will be a unique opportunity to hear some of the tree poems from my new anthology, Into the Forest, accompanied by a beautiful display of photos by Alan Featherstone Watson of Trees for Life. I'll be reading with John Glenday, Margot Henderson and Dave Till.  Come if you can! There's a lovely poster here.

The other launch events have been great fun - and this one is going to be something special.

Friday 29 November 2013

A total work of art

I have spent the past few days launching Into the Forest, in a library, in bookshops, with a poetry group, with school kids and last night in style at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. The most delightful thing is watching people stroke the gorgeous cover, with its stunning Carrie Akroyd artwork, and then discover the chapter illustrations for each of the tree species featured in the book, like the oak leaf above. These were created by Kate Cranney and they're rich in folklore and ecology, as well as being simply beautiful. Thanks so much to these talented artists and to Jo Morley who designed and typeset the book, and to Sara at Saraband who makes the whole thing happen. It is a work of art, and I'm so delighted that everyone else seems to think so too.

It's in aid of Trees for Life, and tonight we hear that they won the People's Lottery prize yesterday. Congratulations to them. May the woodlands flourish! You can make a donation to them by buying a copy of the book on my website.

There are two launches left - the first is tomorrow, on Saturday night (30 Nov, St Andrew's night) at Glencanisp Lodge, near Lochinver. The final launch will be at the Findhorn Foundation at 7.30pm on Sunday 8 December, with poetry readings by John Glenday, Margot Henderson and other poets accompanied by a slideshow of tree images. All welcome!

Thursday 21 November 2013

Tree Poetry On Tour!

Tomorrow sees the first of a series of events around Scotland to launch Into the Forest, and give forest-lovers and poetry-lovers the chance to revel in great writing about trees. If you're looking for Christmas gifts, look no further! You can buy it by PayPal on my website and for each copy bought there I will sign it, post it free and give a £5 donation to Trees for Life, so you will be making a significant contribution to the restoration of Scotland's woods with each purchase. 

  • The series of launch events begins on Friday 22 November (9.30-12.00) with a fun morning at the community tree nursery at Little Assynt. Local children and anyone else who comes will be planting all the species in the Gaelic tree alphabet. As well as poems and cakes, there will be music with Henry Fosbrooke' woodland orchestra, with an instrument made from each tree in the alphabet.
  • On Monday 25 November, I will be running another children's event at Wick Library, with the winners of the Poetree Competition, which has been run by the library service.
  • On Tuesday 26 November, at 6.00 pm, I will sign the book in Waterstones in Inverness.
  • On Wednesday 27 November, at 6.30 pm, there will be a launch event in Nairn bookshop.
  • On Thursday 28 November, at 1pm, I will be talking at the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens about mytime there this summer as poet in residence. At 6.30pm there will be a launch party at the Edinburgh Botanics with readings from Gerry Loose, Sue Butler and Jean Atkin, poets in residence at the other Scottish Botanical gardens around Scotland this summer.
  • On Saturday 30 November, at 7pm, we will read from the anthology at the Woodland Weekend at Glencanisp Lodge, near Lochinver.
  • On Sunday 8 December, at 7pm, there will be a slide-show and poetry reading at the Findhorn Foundation, hosted by Trees for Life, with readings from a range of Highland poets including John Glenday.
I am giving the royalties from Into the Forest, plus donations, to Trees for Life. Alan Watson Featherstone, Trees for Life’s Executive Director, has said, 'We’re delighted to be involved with this inspiring project. The poems in this book reveal the long-standing cultural importance of trees in Scotland and around the world. The royalties will help us to restore the native forests of the Highlands, ensuring that trees continue to play that role in the future.'

You can get your copy here, or even better, come along to one of the launch events. If you think I could do an event in your area, please get in touch. 

Monday 18 November 2013

Sunday 17 November 2013

Speaking about this land

I got hooked on Gaelic when Roddy Maclean came to Lochinver to talk about the language. He said, 'you know how Inuit are supposed to have 50 words for snow? Well, given that Gaelic is the language of the Highlands, I wondered how many words could I think of for a bit of high land.' He put up a powerpoint slide crammed full of words, and said, 'I got to 72 and couldn't fit any more on the slide...' 

I realised that Gaelic has evolved to speak with real precision about the landscape. The language is customised for this loch-and-cnocan place. And it's not just about reading maps, though that is greatly assisted by a working knowledge of Gaelic.

I love reading Gaelic poetry and I have tired of only being able to read the right hand side of the page. As I've grasped some basic grammar and learned how sentences are constructed, I've become increasingly aware of how often a word like 'moor' is used repeatedly in the English translation, yet several different words are used in the Gaelic original. There are nuances about the shapes and textures of this land that can only be expressed in the native tongue.

I can't speak it yet, but I'm working on it. This week, a group of five of us in Assynt reached a landmark, completing the 144 units of the Ulpan course. I've just spent the weekend at Glencanisp Lodge, for some intensive but very enjoyable Gaelic learning, and singing, and joking, and an indecent amount of chocolate. My favourite session was one on similes: how about 'Cho caol ri taghan' - thin as a pine marten? 'Cho trang ri triur ann an leabaidh' - as busy as three in a bed! And that specificity is there again: in English we'd say 'as old as the hills', but in Gaelic it's 'Cho sean ri ceĆ² nam beann' - as old as the mist on the mountain. What an evocative image!

The other thing I remember from Roddy Maclean's talk, back then, was him telling us that the oyster catcher says 'bi glic, bi glic, bi glic, bi glic'. It's a perfect rendering of their sound, and it means 'be wise'. 'If you learn to speak Gaelic,' Roddy said with a twinkle in his eye, 'you discover that all of the birds are giving us good advice.'

Saturday 9 November 2013

Nature in Assynt - a plan and a vision

There were two interesting public meetings in Assynt this week. The first was a scoping meeting for Assynt Foundation's new forest plan. At last things are moving forward to enhance and expand the woods on our 44,000-acre community-owned estate.

The expansion will probably not be by very much, as there is so little land that is suitable for planting, plus unfortunately there is a strong lobby to protect the red deer, which will greatly reduce the amount of land that can be set aside behind fences for natural regeneration. Personally, I'd like to see a large zero-tolerance zone for deer and see what natural regeneration would result, but it's not up to me. The good news is that there will be ongoing effort, with resources and backing by the Forestry Commission, to enhance our existing woods by planting some of the missing species and to encourage expansion by natural regeneration, with fences and some planting. Around Glencanisp Lodge the horrible wind-blown mess is being cleared and will be replanted, with plans to grow a bigger area of lovely woodland there. The forests will at least go in the right direction (i.e. grow up and out) over the next twenty years, so that is encouraging. If you want to see the draft plan and comment, contact Adam Pellant at Assynt Foundation.

The Foundation is hosting a woodland weekend, at which there will no doubt be much discussion of the future potential for the woods in Assynt and elsewhere in the Highlands. It will be the last weekend of November ( 29 Nov-1 Dec). I'll be contributing some tree poetry, naturally, but there'll be all sorts of other stuff too - from practical wood skills to walks and talks.

The other public meeting was a slide and video show by 2020 Vision. The village hall was pretty full, and we were shown loads of lovely images, but I was left wondering (and in conversations I know many others were too) what the point of the evening was - there was no discussion and no obvious outcome or next steps. The project aims 'to engage and enthuse a massive audience by using innovative visual media to convey the value of restoring our most important but often fragmented natural habitats - to show that healthy ecosystems are not just for wildlife, but are something fundamental to us all.' I can't help thinking if Lochinver was representative, that they are merely entertaining those who already care, many of whom are already busily engaged in things like woodland restoration. It looks like a big budget project, but it seems to be missing an opportunity to inspire new, different or collective action for nature.

My gut instinct is that I want to love the 2020 Vision project, and I've been subscribing to their emails and looking forward to seeing their results, so I was sorry to come away disappointed by their show. I'd be interested to know if anyone out there has a more positive take on the project.

Friday 18 October 2013

Into the Forest

I've been gathering tree poems for years, and my dream of creating a tree poetry anthology is finally reaching fruition. Into the Forest will be published by Saraband in November (just in time for Christmas!) and it is going to be a thing of beauty. The cover and internal images are gorgeous, the design of the book is lovely, and of course the poems themselves are a forest of wonder.

There are more than 150 poets featured, ranging from nobel laureates like Seamus Heaney and Gabriella Mistral, to people you will never have heard of because they haven't been in print before. The anthology is structured into chapters following the species of the Gaelic tree alphabet but the selection of poems is ecologically liberal, including many close relatives of our native species living all over the world - from California to China, Norway to Norfolk.

I won't begin to try to explain how much more work is involved in the editing of such a collection than I expected. I'm just pleased that it has come together and been so creatively produced by Saraband.

The book is in aid of Trees for Life, and I'm giving my royalties to them to support regeneration of native woodlands in Scotland.

Into the Forest is dedicated to Gavin Wallace, whose tragic death earlier this year saddened everyone who knew him. I guess there must be hundreds of others just as grateful as I was for the  recognition he gave to our efforts and for the practical help he gave with Arts Council grants to individuals and to organisations. He was so modest about it all - a delightful man. I met him in the flesh first at the Ullapool Book Festival, after I'd received a Scottish Arts Council writer's bursary, and when I thanked him he gave a little smile and said something brief and nice and then turned the subject to the blossoms dressing the trees all the way up Market Street in the way they always do in Ullapool in May. I am sure he would have loved this book.

Thursday 3 October 2013

A watery poem for National Poetry Day

Today's National Poetry Day so to celebrate that, here's a poem on the theme of the day, water. It's from my collection Castings, now out of print. I found this traditional Cree story and loved it so much I wanted to see if it worked in the environment I am familiar with. In the Cree version I found, it is told by a man who is watching, with a wishing bone, hidden in some bushes. I've translocated it to the Highlands and retold it from the woman's point of view.
Wishing Bone Poem
(from a Cree story told by Jacob Nibeneganesabe)

This is my story.
I am married to this peaty pool.
He washes me
quenches my thirst
is fond of amphibians and ferns
sparkles in breezes.
I show him my love
swimming in him

Earlier this summer
the arsonist sun
scorched him away.
I lay in the dry hollow
waiting for rain.
Storms came
but their waters drained away.
I wept in the dry hollow.
Salt tears crusted my face.

I went looking for my husband-pool
trawled the glens and mires
I found him in a dark rocky hole.
He bathed my eyes clear.
Ever since I have been bringing him home
little by little
cupped in my hands.

Monday 30 September 2013

Rock Writing at Knockan Crag

On Saturday 5th October, as part of the Assynt Festival, and the Year of Natural Scotland 2013, I'll be doing a rock writing event. A what? An exploration of rocks and how they've shaped our landscape, from a literary point of view - part writing workshop and part performance.

The plan for the day is to start with a 'Rock Book'. This will be a collection of some of the wonderful words about our landscape that have already been laid down, for example in Norman MacCaig's poetry, by geologists, and by local writers, as the raw material to inspire new rock writing.

From 1pm, we will use the Rock Book as inspiration, to be crushed and reformed, eroded and replaced by newly sedimented words, with intrusions of other existing writing brought along by participants squeezed among the strata, exploring all the geological metaphors we can in the time!

The result will be a metamorphosed set of rock writing strata, which will be performed on Knockan Crag at 3.30pm.

In between there'll be light refreshments, and there'll be a marquee in case the weather is typical for an Assynt October day, but you'd be best bringing clothing suitable for outdoors.

Come! It's going to be a unique Geopoetic event!

Saturday 5 October, Knockan Crag

1300: Poetry & Story Writing Workshop – using words about our landscape as raw materials to inspire new rock writing.

1500: Light Refreshments

1530–1630: Reading the new rock writing and perhaps some old ones too!

Everyone welcome to come along and take part by writing, reading or just listening.

More information on www.assyntfestival.org.uk

Saturday 28 September 2013

Rowan for Scotland's National Tree

Until 3 December 2013, the Forestry Commission is running a consultation about whether Scotland should have a national tree, and if so, what it should be. I was very flattered to be asked to be the 'champion' of the rowan tree when the consultation was launched at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens earlier this month. Someone there must have noticed how much I love this beautiful species!

There are many myths and stories involving rowan trees. My favourite is a Greek myth. It tells of the top god Zeus, who discovered that his sacred nectar cup had been stolen by demons and sent eagles in pursuit. Although they rescued the magic cup, they were fatally injured in the process. As they fell to earth, Zeus turned their feathers into the pinnate leaves of rowan trees, their bones into wood and their blood into bright red berries. (These berries make a ruby-red jelly that rivals marmalade on toast for breakfast - the recipe is in the Handbook of Scottish Wild Harvests - and now is jelly time!)

In the Celtic tradition, rowan is the symbol of Brigid, goddess of poetry, music and the arts. It therefore seems fitting to offer a wee poem for this bonniest of Scotland's trees.


The rowan grows tall
passed over by all
it forms
here in the open wilds
the perfection of a child's
painting of a tree
untested by tragedy.

In the anthology of tree poems I'm editing (Into the Forest, due out in November from Saraband) there are lots of gorgeous poems about rowans, including Hopkins' cracker Inversnaid, with its reference to the 'beadbonny ash', one of the tree's nicknames. Its leaves are ash-like, so it is often called the mountain ash, and the Vikings believed men were made from ash trees, and woman from rowans.

There is no more magical tree than rowan. Its flowers have the magic number of five petals and sepals, and its blood-red berries bear the mystical pentogram. Witches make their wands from rowan twigs. In rural areas throughout Scotland, you still see rowan trees planted close to houses, because of the belief they will keep evil spirits away. The cross-beams of chimneys are called ‘rantrees’ in Scots because they were often made of rowan wood, to stop ghosts and ghoulies coming down the chimney. Twigs over doors, in stables and byres, tied into the tails and manes of livestock or attached to masts and halyards on boats, are all supposed to bring health and good fortune.

So cast a spell with a rowan stick, and cast your vote for it to be Scotland's national tree!

Friday 30 August 2013

In praise of Saraband

Saraband has won the Saltire Society's Publisher of the Year award (see here). I'm not remotely surprised. I have, over the past eight years, been published by four different publishers: the tiny poetry pamphlet and magazine publisher Essencepress, the tiny Hebridean-based literary outfit Two Ravens Press, the huge London-based subsidiary of multinational Random House, Virgin Books, and Saraband. Saraband has been in every way the best publisher of them all. They published Bear Witness, my second novel, earlier this year and this autumn will see the release of Into the Forest, an anthology of tree poems.

Saraband is based in Glasgow, so they're right at the heart of Scotland's book scene and much easier to reach than London, so that means I have experienced for the first time a publisher being both accessible and guiding me into where the buzz is. They have been a delight to work with: never remote, always enthusiastic, consulting me on all phases of the books' development and proactive about promotion. These are all good things, but there are three main aspects of Saraband's approach that really stand out.

First of all, they make the most beautiful books. That's why I first approached them with the idea for Into the Forest. Their design work is the best in the country - from gorgeous coffee-table books like Woodlanders and the Panda book, to the elegant and workable pocket guides to Scottish trees and Scottish wild harvests. They also do adventurous and unconventional, like The Cottage Garden Diaries, with its cloth cover and old-world style that so fits the story within. Like every writer, I long for my work to be made into really beautiful books, and Saraband does just that. The design and illustrations for the tree poetry anthology is in process just now, and it's looking gorgeous.

The design of Bear Witness also illustrated the second great thing about Saraband: as a publisher of books about nature, sustainability and eco-literature, they really walk the talk. In my day job I campaign for sustainability in the paper industry. Before I was taken on by Saraband, Sara Hunt had already read my book Paper Trails so she knew how I feel about this issue, and to my delight, she has always proactively worked to ensure that my books are made from the most sustainable paper available. This means 100% post-consumer waste paper, both inside and for the cover, and she has made sure it hasn't reduced the aesthetic quality of the books one bit. I have lost count of the people who have commented on how lovely the paper feels. But Saraband didn't stop here. The cover card that would have been offcut at the printer was used to create special bookmarks for the book, to make sure nothing was wasted - a nice marketing touch but also an indication of just how thoughtful the whole team is about their use of natural resources. So the books they produce are 'eco' to the very core, not just in the words they contain.

But most of all what I admire about Saraband, and the third thing I want to praise them from the rooftops for, is what lovely people they are. I feel that I fall into step so easily with everyone I meet who has a link with them. They're kind and good humoured, generous with time and altogether human. They put a lot of effort into praising people who are doing the right thing, and reaching out to co-operate with other people and organisations in Scotland's literary world. I know that many people, not only those of us lucky enough to be directly involved with them, will be delighted by the recognition they have received. Isn't it good to know that sometimes it really is the best team, with the nicest people, that wins?

The Saltire Award was given this year to honour the memory of Gavin Wallace, who did so much to help literature in Scotland. I feel sure he would have been pleased with Saraband's win, and I'm proud that Into the Forest will also be dedicated to his memory.


Wednesday 14 August 2013

Special birthday offer on Bear Witness for the next three days

It's my birthday on Saturday, and I want to share the presents around, so anyone who buys Bear Witness from my website will get a copy of The Last Bear for free. Why do this? I simply love it when people read my bear books and enjoy them - that's the best birthday present I can get.

I'm also spectacularly chuffed that A L Kennedy says Bear Witness is 'Moving, intelligent and quietly passionate,' and I hope you'll agree.

Get your free book here, and please spread the word. The offer will end when I've opened the post on Saturday 17 August.

Monday 12 August 2013


I have returned to the croft after a month in the arctic in June and then a month as poet in residence at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden: two huge privileges and amazing to do them back to back. I blogged pretty much every day of July at www.walkingwithpoets.wordpress.com so it has been good to take a breath since I got back, and just be here in the wild wood. Each day there's another marvel to discover, or rediscover. It's that time of year when you get aromatherapy for free all day, every day - the soft sea breeze is dense with honeysuckle and heather blossom fragrances, and trees talk in their native tongue.

I've also returned to Hesse, as I do, from time to time, as to an old friend. Here he is on trees (from Wandering).

'So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts. Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.'
Wishing you all childish thoughts, and happiness.

Friday 7 June 2013

Come for poetree in the Edinburgh botanics in July

In July I'll be poet in residence in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, and the programme for the month is now agreed. For 18 days we will have a tree of the day, following the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, with an event in the afternoon or evening to celebrate the link between trees and poetry.

Here's the plan (all dates are July).
  • Birch - Beginning ceremony,  Saturday  6 July, 3pm - 3.15pm, Real Life Science Studio
  • Rowan - Taste of nature walk, Sunday 7, 3.30pm - 4.30pm, Meet at Real Life Science Studio, Gateway
  • Alder  - Outdoor poetry reading, Monday 8, 2pm - 4pm, look for signs on arrival. Bring a rug to sit on.
  • Willow - Weaving with words, Wednesday 10, 2pm - 4pm, John Hope Gateway
  • Ash - Tree folklore talk and poetry reading,  Thursday 11, 7pm - 8.30pm, John Hope Gateway - access only via West Gate on Arboretum Place from 6.45pm
  • Hawthorn  - Rustle of leaves - a listening walk, Friday 12, 3.30pm - 4.30pm, Meet at John Hope Gateway
  • Oak - Tree folklore and word play, Saturday 13, 2pm - 4pm, Oak Lawn - look for signs on arrival or a poet tying yellow ribbon round an old oak tree...
  • Holly - Tree folklore and word play, Sunday 14, 2pm - 4pm, Oak Lawn - look for signs on arrival
  • Hazel - Tree wisdom poetry workshop, Monday 15, 2pm - 4pm, Patrick Geddes Room, Gateway
  • Bramble - Poetry buzz readings, Saturday 20, 2pm - 4pm, Around the Garden
  • Ivy - Free tree hugging lessons, Sunday 21, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, Look for signs on arrival
  • Blackthorn - Ouch! That prickles! A touchy-feely walk exploring textures around the garden, Monday 22, 3.30pm - 4.30pm, Meet at John Hope Gateway
  • Elder - Workshop on growing new poems from cuttings, Tuesday 23, 2pm - 4pm, Patrick Geddes Room, Gateway
  • Pine - Pines and poems from all around the world, Wednesday 24, 3.30pm - 4.30pm, Meet at John Hope Gateway
  • Gorse - Gorse wine, Sloe gin, Heather ale and other drinking poems, Thursday 25, 7pm - 8.30pm, John Hope Gateway - access only via West Gate on Arboretum Place from 6.45pm
  • Heather - If you're the size of a bee, heather's a big tree, kids event, Friday 26, 2pm - 4pm, John Hope Gateway
  • Aspen - Renga: collaborative poetry writing, Saturday 27, 1pm - 5pm, Chinese Pavilion
  • Yew - Gaelic Tree Alphabet ceremony, Sunday 28,  3.30pm - 4.30pm, Meet at John Hope Gateway
All welcome to come and join in! Hope to see some of you there. To find out more about the project, please contact Frances Hendron at the Scottish Poetry Library or Amy McDonald at the Botanics, or see the Walking with Poets blog.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Losing the language

I'm reading Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest. On page 106, she notes the following changes in the 2008 new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. 

New words: database, export, curriculum, vandalism, negotiate, committee, compulsory, bullet point, voicemail, citizenship, dyslexic and celebrity.

Words removed: catkin, brook, acorn, buttercup, blackberry, conker, holly, ivy, mistletoe.

My reaction is visceral and furious. Who could possibly take 'acorn' out of a children's dictionary? Are conkers really no longer part of the necessary vocabulary of every British child? How will future generations get through the winters without the words for holly, ivy and mistletoe?

Saturday 25 May 2013

By leaves we live

During July I will be poet in residence in the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens as part of the Walking with Poets project. I'll be blogging regularly while I'm there, and the first taste of that is now on the project page, here: https://walkingwithpoets.wordpress.com/

Thursday 2 May 2013


We had our Beltane fire a day late. The night itself, 30 April, was poor weather, I was out for most of the evening and had work to do the next morning, so we delayed. Call me a fair-weather pagan, but everything conspired to make last night feel right. As we finished eating, an otter came by, dipping and cruising along the bladderwrack fringe of the shore. Two bats performed invisible calligraphy on the sky, spelling out a mystery. It was a calm, clear evening.

The recent northerly wind had cleared all the seaweed off the rock where we always have fires and the circle of stones always manages to withstand the spring tides. We took a bottle of wine down there and set to.

The makings of a fire are inauspicious: a scrumple of waste paper and a heap of scrap, bits of broken pallets that have spent a few years as steps or fencing until they're too rotten for that, old planks and offcuts and a few chunks of driftwood. I made a tower of little bits and set it alight, then as the flames started licking I laid some bigger sticks into a spider shape and let it weave its web of mesmerism.

All the scraps unify into a single thing - the fire is singular. The pieces of wood line up, like a narrative adventure, one by one, building to a blazing climax. The wood that seemed to be rubbish comes back to life. Flames seem to remember the movement of leaves, the shimmying dance of wind through a woodland canopy, and all of the colours and warmth of sunshine.

A fire is magic. I know nothing so completely absorbing. I can't remember what we thought or said while the fire burnt.

Eventually, after the last pieces of wood found their place and burned, the last flame flickered out, and the fire-web released us to go to sleep. The embers (plural again now) glowed on through the night, cooling.

This morning we woke to the first cuckoo. Its two-tone song seemed to follow the fire, as two follows one. Suddenly everything has coupled up, and everywhere I look there are pairs of leaves opening, pairs of legs, lips and beaks. Soon we'll be awash with the froth of blossoms and clusters of berries and the world will be myriad and many and too numerous to count, until the autumn.

Then, with another fire, we'll welcome the big zero of winter, out of which this miraculous May has sprung.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Bears on the loose!

It's out! Bear Witness was formally launched on Monday at Glencanisp Lodge, and we sold all the copies we had available, so that's a great start. It is now available from all good bookshops. It's also available as an ebook and an audio book from Amazon. I hope you all enjoy it. If you would like a signed copy get in touch.

As well as the book launch we had a great debate about reintroducing bears (and wolves and lynx) back to the Scottish Highlands. We heard inspiring talks and readings from Roy Dennis (who reintroduced red kites and sea eagles and has brought red squirrels north to Dundonnell), Jim Crumley (author of The Last Wolf), David Hetherington (who did his PhD on the reintroduction of lynx to Scotland) and Mark Foxwell (who talked about the Scottish Wildlife Trust's reintroduction trial of beavers). It was soon clear that a future where bears, wolves and lynx roam wild in Scotland again is not just fiction, it's within the realms of possibility.

There seems to be a real willingness to share the land with all the other animals that are native to here and I found it really exciting to see the enthusiasm for returning bears to Scotland.  Here's some BBC coverage: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-22280586.

The first reviews of Bear Witness are starting to appear. The Scotsman's review called it 'lyrical and tight'. Jason Donald calls it 'Passionate and subversive, with a poet's touch...'

I'll be signing them at the Made in Assynt Craft Fair in Lochinver on Friday 3 May (10-4) and there will be another launch event at Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on Thursday 16 May at 6.30pm..

Monday 15 April 2013

A chainsaw attack on Highland culture

Arts and culture in the Highlands and Islands seems to be under attack from the powers that be. Last month we had the news that Northings magazine will be no more, and this month all the staff of our arts agency Hi-Arts have been given their notices.

I have written for Northings for the past three years, mostly writing features of artists and reviews of art exhibitions, plays and other events. It has been nothing less than a joy. The editor Kenny Mathieson has been a pleasure to write for. Some of the time he'd make suggestions to me, and other times I'd propose ideas to him, and he has always made my job as straightforward as possible with a speed of response that puts every other editor I've ever experienced to shame. I've interviewed a huge range of craft makers and artists from the northwest, making connections and helping to raise their profile.

As time has gone by I have realised that Northings is not only a magazine, it is the hub of an artistic community. Because it was set up as a social network, it has always encouraged comment and discussion, and I have hugely enjoyed receiving feedback from readers, whether agreement about my take on an exhibition or another point of view about an artist.

This raising of profile and interaction with audiences is not just a fluffy thing. As everyone in the arts knows, reputation, profile and audience reach is core business. I know that my pieces in Northings have generated other commissions in other places and sales of artists' work. They have also generated more work for me. Northings was therefore not just some kind of mirror on the cultural world of the north, it was part of its economic engine. Why therefore, has it been refused the sustenance it needed to continue growing?

Hi-Arts, the agency which created and ran Northings, has been funded by Highland and Islands Enterprise and Creative Scotland, but this funding will cease in June 2013. We get the impression that some aspects of Hi-Arts' activity may find new homes, but when it has been sawn up and the dismembered limbs of the organisation have been distributed, where will we go for the help and support the arts in the north really need? It isn't enough that writers may have a literature officer to talk to, or crafts people may have someone to talk to about crafts promotion. My experience shows that we need the whole thing.

My involvement with Hi-Arts goes back much longer than with Northings and I don't really know where to begin describing the support that they have given me. They helped me set up community arts organisation Top Left Corner. They helped us to run a wonderful centenary celebration for Norman MacCaig. They helped to set up the Assynt Festival. They seed-funded the A-B-Tree project, which involved a creative writing event for each letter of the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, all around Scotland, to celebrate the International Year of forests in 2011, and a host of other events and spin-offs including my relationship with publisher Saraband, with whom I'm producing an anthology of tree poems, and with whom I've found a home for my novel Bear Witness.

As I have fledged as a writer, struggling to make a livelihood in this notoriously difficult field, I really don't think I could have survived, and certainly not flourished as I have, without the help of Hi-Arts. It wasn't just the literature officer, Peter Urpeth, though he's a great guy. Enormous help came from Robert Livingston, the director, who despite having the task of running the organisation, has always seemed to have time to nurture new ideas, to visit in person or video-skype to talk through plans at their earliest stages, and to offer real vision and moral support in developing them through to fruition. Their business manager, Karen Ray, spent ages with me showing me how to keep clear and competent books. Their audience development expert, Sian Jamieson, made me laugh and get inspired about how to use social networks to make and keep contacts with potential audiences for my own and others' work. They have run promotional events here, so that we didn't have to make the four hour return journey to Inverness to benefit from opportunities.This is just a little bit of what they've done.

Hi-Arts is an organisation that understands what is actually required for rural artists to turn themselves into managers of an arts enterprise. And the Highlands and Islands really badly needs arts enterprises, both to keep us alive culturally but also to contribute to our fragile rural economies. Has anyone at HIE studied the scale and distribution of the contribution of arts to our economy? I really doubt it.

In this corner of the world, I bet there are more people making part of their livelihoods out of arts and crafts than off the land. Crafting is the new crofting. Art about, of and from the environment is a huge part of our economy - from Highland Stoneware, one of our biggest employers, to the galleries of internationally renowned artists like James Hawkins and Fergus Stewart, to the dozens of self-employed people who sell their crafts at fairs like Made in Assynt, or in village halls, like the co-operative in Achiltibuie, and the Market Street Collective at An Talla Solais in Ullapool. Tourists love our art, and increasingly seek it out. Some of our makers, like jeweller Barbara MacLeod and yarn-dyer Helen Lockhart's Ripplescrafts, have online shops that bring them income from around the world. All of these people are bringing money into the Highlands and contributing to the economy.

Did HIE measure any of this? Has Creative Scotland really understood the significance of these tiny businesses that collectively make up our creative industry, particularly to remote communities where there are so few other options to make a living? If so, why oh why, are they cutting down the one big tree, Hi-Arts, that has seeded so many of these enterprises?

Wednesday 6 March 2013

How Wild Can We Go?

The launch of my new novel Bear Witness on Earth Day, 22 April 2013, is shaping up to be part of a memorable and exciting event.

How Wild Can We Go? will be a day devoted to envisioning the future of wildlife in Scotland. The launch of Bear Witness will be at 5pm, at Glencanisp Lodge, Lochinver, with readings, wine and a chance to buy a copy of the book, hot off the presses and signed by the author. Read what people are saying about the book here.

In the morning, there will be a children's event, playing with the kinds of fruit and nut bearing trees that bears like. This will involve the local forest school and the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape project.

Prior to the book launch, from 1-4pm, there will be a guided walk to the Inchnadamph Bone Caves. Here we'll see the site where bones were found from several species now extinct in Scotland, including lynx and brown bear. This will give us all a chance to think about where we are coming from in terms of Scotland's wildlife past, and to look out at the landscape and reflect on the land's capacity at present.

Then we will return to Glencanisp Lodge, and start thinking into the future. After the book launch there will be a buffet dinner (a bargain at just £7.50) followed by a debate led by an august panel of speakers (tickets are £10, with a chance to win a free signed copy of Bear Witness, and you can buy them by paypal here).

The headline speakers will be Jim Crumley, author of The Last Wolf,  and Roy Dennis, Scotland's leading expert on reintroductions of various species, including the osprey, sea eagle and red kite. Joining them on the panel will be a representative of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which is leading the beaver reintroduction in Argyll. There may be another special guest. I'll let you know as soon as we know...

Monday 4 March 2013

The primrose proof of spring

Every year it's a different date. Last year it was February 19th. It has been as late as 23rd March. One freaky year it was late December. This year it's today, the first primrose, and the official start of spring on the croft.

Winter is over, so we have migrated to the caravan at the shore. It is a shock to be back to life at ambient temperatures after months in a well-insulated cabin with stove, but waking to the dawn light on the loch is the reward. As well as the move, other spring activity has begun: potatoes are chitting, the brussels sprouts seeds are sown, the onion sets are in the ground. I look at the list of winter jobs and think, well, next year...

Of course, we have been known to chicken out and return to our winter quarters. March often throws us some pretty ferocious weather, but even if it proves to be premature, it feels good to declare the winter season closed. It has been milder than usual, with fewer storms than we often get and we had a mind-blowing stretch of good weather in February which made it feel much shorter than it sometimes does. But it was long, nevertheless. The primroses are so welcome.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Help please! Do you know these poets?

Over the past year or so I have been gathering poems about the species in the Gaelic Tree Alphabet for an anthology, which will be published in the autumn by Saraband. It will be called Into the Forest - A Celtic Alphabet of Tree Poems. The whole process has been a delight so far, but I'm reaching the part of the process I was warned about by other anthologists: finding copyright holders to seek permission to reprint poems.

About 80% of the poems are either published in books by successful publishers, or I know or have been easily able to make contact with the poets. Without exception I have had lovely messages of support, encouragement and enthusiasm from the poets whose poems I have asked to use.

But now I've reached the last 20%, I have a list of poets who I don't know how to contact. Mostly I found their poems in magazines, now defunct, or in books whose publisher no longer exists. I've asked on Facebook for leads for them all. There are also poets I know to be dead, but don't know who holds their copyright.

So, I am appealing to the world, please, if you know how to contact any of these poets, or know who holds their copyright, please contact me (hag@worldforests.org) and let me know!

A J McGeoch, Andrew Landsdowne, Alice V Stuart, Annette Berman, Barbara Cormack, Colin Oliver, David Nicol, Derek Bowman, Eric MacDonald, Francis Duggan, Harry Rutherford, Ian MacDonald, Jay Howard, Jean Monahan, John Esterbrook, Moira Cattell, Rob King, Robert B Shaw and William Oxley.
And the ones I know to be dead: Gabriela Mistral, George Bruce, Louis McKee, Margaret Winefride Simpson, Tom Rawling and William Heinesen

Any leads much appreciated.  Thank you!

Wednesday 30 January 2013

The Power of the Wind

The power is out in Lochinver, so thanks to the wonders of off-grid living, ours might be the only household around here on the internet this morning (or maybe there's one other, hi Stevan and Helen!). Bill took the generator down last night once the wind began to look serious, and we've just put it back up again. In between, it blew a hoolie.

It was an eerie night. I didn't sleep much. The moon was just past full, giving the blanket of cloud a weird, white glow - floodlights on something unthinkable, in another part of the world.

The cabin vibrated and shuddered as gusts galloped in, battering us. I imagined the wind as a horde of wild, dancing creatures. The woods roared, birch trees bucking and cavorting like they wanted to uproot and follow the storm. The aspens on the crag strained and tossed their upper bodies around for release. And every now and then, one of the passing dancers would kick our cuboid little home as if to say, 'Oi, come out, you squares, we're having fun.'

They must have kicked a power line down somewhere in their frenzy. I hope everyone's coping without electricity. I can't help feeling a bit smug - elated with the energy of the wind and glad we're not dependent on the national grid to keep working. And the boat is safe.

Monday 7 January 2013

Polar bear petitions

[Photo: Paul Shoul]

I have been devoted to polar bears all my life. They're beautiful and ferocious and that combination of attributes has always appealed to me.

For most of my life I believed that it was wrong to kill them. I knew they had been threatened by extinction from over-hunting and only recovered due to the protection measures of the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears - and I always believed that Russia's strict implementation of this agreement, banning hunting altogether, was right, whereas other countries, like USA and Canada, which allowed some hunting, was wrong.

Then I went to the Russian Far East, and met indigenous people who have traditionally hunted polar bears, and I accepted that in fact they have the right to wear polar bear pants. I've written about this in an earlier blog post,  arguing that while traditional hunting is acceptable, killing polar bears for sport is not, and that the practice of trophy hunting should be stopped.

The petition I signed then was seeking to have polar bears' status upgraded under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, from being listed under Appendix II to being listed under Appendix I, thus effectively banning trade in their body parts and bringing an end to trophy hunting. You can read more about the legal status of this change, and a rationale for why it should be done, here. The picture above comes from that report.

I still find the idea of killing bears (indeed any animals) for sport repugnant and barbaric. Yet, there are serious questions about whether the CITES change to restrict it is a good idea.

In a recent article in the international journal of Marine Policy, Douglas Clark, Chanda Meek and several other scientists from Canada and Alaska argue that the CITES listing upgrade would be counter-productive. They claim that it could cause an increase in the number of bears killed, because at the moment indigenous communities of the north are actively involved in co-management of the bears and have strong economic incentives to protect them, through the money they earn from the sale of hunting licences, but if the hunt and trophy trade is squeezed by CITES, their potential economic losses will reduce their willingness to co-operate in the co-management system.

This is therefore an argument that says that the indigenous people have economic rights to the proceeds of trophy hunting of bears. This goes way beyond the right to wear polar bear pants; it is no longer about the right to continue their traditional culture. Does the fact that in Canada and Alaska, the trophy hunting system has a high value, really give the people who currently benefit economically from that system a right to continue it? I am uncomfortable with that. I don't agree that the fact that they currently profit from trophy hunting gives them a moral right to do so.

Yet Clark et al argument is less moral than pragmatic. They point out that the economies of northern communities are already fragile, and the change in CITES will most likely be perceived by them as harmful to them. The policy will thus undermine the processes of co-management between all the different people with an interest in polar bears and in particular, it will set back progress that has been made in building trust between conservationists and indigenous peoples.

I have stacks of questions at this point. Are there economic compensation arrangements that could be put in place to make up for economic losses from trade in polar bear parts? How polarised are the players in the co-management system and how fragile is that system? Surely if co-management is working, a change in the rules can be negotiated between the government and local communities that does not require the latter to carry the burden of a change in the CITES listing. I remain to be convinced of this part of the argument.

However, much more fundamentally, and more convincingly, Clark et al argue that the main threat to both polar bears and the ways of life of northern indigenous peoples is climate change and thus changing the CITES listing is a 'fig-leaf policy', merely fiddling while the arctic goes into melt-down. Supporting the CITES change allows politicians like David Cameron to look like they are doing something to protect polar bears when in fact they are ignoring the real problem. Therefore politicians of the northern nations should be focusing their efforts on changing policies that affect carbon emissions and those of us interested in polar bear conservation (and indigenous peoples rights) should be putting our energies into lobbying for action to address climate change.

If you agree with me that this second argument is sound, you might like to support this petition calling for a stronger lead to be taken by the USA on climate change, for the sake of polar bears, and polar people.

Meanwhile, I will continue to mull over the ethics and economics of hunting.