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.