Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Walking the Line - Fence Removal with the Borders Forest Trust

Hi all!

Well, I've been having a wonderful time volunteering recently. The nursery at the Falls of Clyde is coming together, and I'll write about that soon (those of you who receive the Lanark Gazette...anyone? or the Falls of Clyde blog may have already seen what I'm doing) but today I want to talk about what I did last Saturday!
The original forest, peeking out of the gully. The dark
shapes on the top of the hill are young trees growing up.

I volunteered with the Borders Forest Trust in April this year (and met David Mundell in the process), and was lined up to do another tree planting day a few weeks later, but the day was preceded by a very heavy lambing night and I couldn't face the hour's drive! I always wanted to return to Corehead, as I had a wonderful time the first time. I didn't blog about that first bout of volunteering with the BFT, but we were planting a riparian woodland to help stabilise the banks of a burn that runs through the farmland.

Corehead is a large area of land that is owned by the Borders Forest Trust and is both farm and young forest. The original woodland of the site is restricted to steep gullies and crags that deer and sheep have not been able to access and the trust is working to spread this woodland out into the hills and glens of the area while bringing back species that have been missing from the area, such as Juniper. You can find out more about Corehead here.

Corehead used to be solely worked for sheep, and the landscape was divided by fences to keep stock in. As the new forest grows, the fences remain as the only straight edged barriers as you look up the glen, and the trust is now starting to remove these fences, with a little help from the volunteers, of course! And that is where this story starts.
Annandale Way signpost, there was a
fence beside it, now gone!! 
We met at Corehead at 10 (although, ahem, guess who was a little late due to not reading the instructions properly...? Hmm) and walked up to the fence that was to be removed. The Annandale Way passes through this glen, and the fences we removed met on either side of the Way, thus creating a barrier for a walker to pass through. Now, I am pleased to say, there is nothing.

The fence removal was simple compared to the deer fences that I remove with Trees for Life (speaking of which, have you seen their fancy new website?). It was only a sheep fence, so only a layer of barbed wire (slow motion required while rolling this up to avoid barbation) and a stock fence needed removed. No straining wires, no twizzlers, and the fence posts were mainly so rotten that the staples came out easy peasy! I do love a good fencing tool so was glad of the opportunity to use one again. I need to perfect my technique before spring TfL sessions!
I love a fencing tool!
We also removed the fence posts so as to remove any treated wood from the area. Some broke at the base, and they will just have to rot into the ground, but most came out cleanly, though with difficulty in some cases! These, and the wire, were all removed from the site by quad. The holes left by the posts were filled in. This is to stop small voles and other small animals falling in and getting stuck. Such a simple thing, but it makes a real difference. It also makes the fence line safer to walk, and that the visual effect of the fence line will be lost much quicker. All positives, and it just takes a few minutes more but leaves you with the feeling of having completed the task well.
Where's the fence gone?
The thing I love about fence removal is how sudden the effect is. Most conservation work requires a long time frame before you can see the effect, but with fence removal, you have a positive visual difference right there and then. It's good, satisfying work, and I can't wait for my next day out with the BFT!

Lynn from the Borders Forest Trust has also written about the day here: bordersforesttrust.blogspot.co.uk/walking-line-at-corehead and I do encourage you to start volunteering with the Trust if you live locally. I'm looking forward to getting more involved and would love to meet you there!

Hope you are all having a lovely week!

Heather

PS. You'll see in the pictures that the BFT use tree tubes on their young trees. These are biodegradeable, and made out of polypropolene that degrades in sunshine. I'm not, personally, very keen on tree tubes, but each individual charity has its own methods for carrying out work, and whatever is best for them is good. I will try to find out more, but the tubes do degrade and they are not harmful for the environment, so it's possible that my dislike comes from the visual effect (and of seeing trees 'stuck' in tubes), both while they're on the tree and when they're discarded on the ground. I shall research more and come back to you on this one!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pentland strolls

Last weekend desperately seeking a respite from everyday life, a good friend and I headed to the Pentlands. These marvellous hills stretch from Edinburgh all the way out to Carlops in the Scottish Borders, and offer a touch of wildness to many people in the area. As it was a Sunday, it certainly wasn't people we were escaping from!
The hills are lovely, and you may remember them from my post last year: Walking the Pentlands. We love these hills, and although they are heavily managed for sheep, timber and (possibly) red grouse, they are great places to escape to.


We walked from Harlaw Visitor Centre to the Ski Centre at Hillend, a wee short walk which was just perfect for the pair of us on that sunny day. Most of the walk, I was in my shirt, for it felt more like August or September than November. A worrying aspect, especially seeing as I'm missing the bite that comes with a cold autumn day. There just haven't been enough of them this year!
My friend and I have both had slight struggles in the past few years, we've both had to make decisions about what we want to do, and although she's had more success than I, we have a lot in common. We were able to talk freely and without restraint, and it's wonderful to be able to talk with someone like that.
During the walk I felt happier than I had for a while; more relaxed. It was as though being somewhere without walls again helped me let down some of my own.

Where we did encounter a stop, there was always a way over!
It reminded me again of how much we need these places. There were all kinds of people on the hills: mountain bikers; fell runners; walkers; joggers; strollers. Children, adults and elderly alike. They're open to everyone, and everyone should make use of them that can. Withdraw from the enclosures of the city, and open yourselves up to the width of the sky, the colours of the land and the silence of the air.

Wild places don't need to be untouched by man. To me, a wild place is a place that helps you re-find your centre. A place that calms the mind with nature, and a place where you can be your wonderful self without trying or forcing anything.

We both came away feeling like our muscles were stretched, our minds were clear, and the cobwebs were most certainly dispelled!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Rewilding talk, Edinburgh 2014

In October I attended a talk by George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone of Trees for Life. And wow, did it do something to waken me up from my slumber again!

I had heard about the book Feral, of course (who hasn't?), but hadn't yet read it. I was intrigued though, I had heart a lot about George Monbiot, and of course, Alan is one of the most inspiring people I've ever had the honour to meet. So, when my old boss contacted me to ask if I would like to come along to this talk, entitled 'Rewilding the World' at Edinburgh University, I was a YES!


My notes from the talk are negligible, because I was just so utterly astonished and excited by the discussion going on that I could hardly share my attention with something else. The thing I was left with was an absolute and all-consuming positivity. What was said to make me feel like that? Well, first of all, George took to the stage. He talked about what rewildling meant to both him and the world. It's a pretty new word, is rewilding, and it's pretty good. It's about allowing land to be what it wants to be, and as Alan said "the first shared task of all humanity must surely be to restore and rewild our wounded world". We live in a time now when we have contact throughout the world, people are more connected now than we have ever been before, and we can put this to good use. We can use this connectivity to build a shared world that harks back to a wildness that used to be in place.

George talks a lot about the most important component in rewilding, in changing the world and that is hope. It is so obvious, and yet. We are bombarded every day with negative things, and it leads people to despair. We all end up thinking, but what can one person do? What we need to be bombarded with is hope, for hope is what makes us try harder, to keep the fight going, to respond and react better, hope is what keeps our hearts beating. It is why I love working for Trees for Life, because the charity is fighting a future of inertia with positive action

"Planting a pine gives birth to the ancient forests of the future."
- Alan Watson Featherstone

Another aspect of rewilding is rewilding of the human soul. We spend so much of our time in unnatural habitats i.e. the city and we have lost touch with what it is to be in a wild place. So much so that many of us don't even know what we're missing. I know that I do. When I spend too long indoors, I start to get restless and unhappy. My cure is the wild, open spaces, wide skies, real weather, and a sense of freedom and ability. Rewilding is about becoming more in touch with those feelings, and realising how important they are.

It's about choosing your battles. Here in Scotland we have large areas of land with low human populations. There is a freedom there, if you choose to accept it. To escape the masses is easy here, and you can still walk where you don't see a single soul, especially if you keep away from the Munroes and keep to less trodden paths. It's more difficult in countries without that space, but a little spot of rewilding is possible anywhere and everywhere. You may not be able to bring the lynx into your garden, but call in the hedgehogs, the foxes, the frogs and the badgers and you're accepting that little bit of wild that may not have been there before. 

Rewilding is about relinquishing control to nature. It's about saying "you do it best", for she does. We can give a helping hand, such as reintroducing the wolf, but then we must say "go sort it out". Can you imagine the results? Nature and humanity working in conjunction towards a goal, and that goal being freedom for land, animal, and soul. Wow, what an ambition. 

They are ambitious, Alan and George, but so they should be. So we should all be. This is the fight of our times, to give the right of wild back to the earth. We plant a forest so that one day we can say, now let it grow. Our work here is done. We plant where there is no seed source, to create one in the future. Our work is necessary to help this rewilding process, but it's not the be all and end all, it's what happens next that is truly spectacular. 


During the question and answer session, one girl asked, but how do you actually put this into practice, and Alan stood up and just replied "Just do it." He said a lot more beside those words, but they were the catalyst that made all our hearts beat that little bit faster and our spirits start to sing with that rare component that George talked of: hope.

We are a movement that's growing wings and learning to fly, and that night I think I just stepped off that cliff. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Stag Bird Feeders

Well, I succeeded in being able to tick one thing off my list of things to do!

It was a very simple make, all the more simple because everything I could possibly need is somewhere on the farm. The difficulty is in knowing the where, but if you search, within time, you shall always find what you seek (unofficial motto of the farm).
Best find ever...


The rosehip mash was interesting. All animals seem to go mad for it, including cats, and, when I was collecting the rosehips yesterday, even my dog was trying to get into the bag for some. None of these animals are eating them, but the smell seems to do something for them. Hopefully the birds will be as attracted to the mash as everything else seems to be!

The make was simple, I made two, and the second is definitely  more accomplished than the first!

1. Collect materials: empty plant pots, narrow squared wire (this will have a technical term, but I don't know what it is!), single strand wire, wire cutters, and string. Oh, and the bird food, in this case, the rosehip mash.

2. Cut a length of wire and bend it in half. Put it through the bottom of the plant pots and bend away from the pot.

3. Cut a square of the fencing net. Cut out the corners to allow the square to bend better and, threading it over the two sticks of wire, bend it into shape over the open end of the plant pot.

4. Remove the net and stuff the plant pot with your mash. Put the net back on, and bend to secure. Voila, you have a feeder!

5. Tie string round the wire at the top and the attach to your stag's antlers.

6. Wait for the birds to come flocking!

7. Thank your helper :)

Creative Projects - Ongoing

Stags head bird feeder, Christmas stocking wool stash buster, owl nesting box and cape of doom...

Ongoing projects are a delight, huh? Sitting there, staring, making me feel guilty when I don't pick them up. But today I shall. I will at least do the stags head bird feeder, as I have the Rosehip mash sitting ready to be eaten. Yesterday I made Rosehip cordial, which is a wonderful source of Vitamin C, and I am going to use the leftovers for bird food.

The stockings are not even started yet, but Christmas is a long time away yet, yeah? No rush....

The owl box has been a long work in progress, but I think just a few more dedicated afternoons would complete it and have it ready for the pigeons to get comfy in over the winter.

The cape is a work in progress. I will write about it properly in another post, I think, but I have been halted due to having to deviate from the instructions in ways I can't quite work out how to do yet. It definitely requires handsewing, but as I'm going to a friend's tonight for a sewing/knitting evening, it might be an ideal project to take. Especially seeing as I've just noticed an error in Anemone and need to take it back a few rounds... Well, I have a family thing coming up in the middle of November and I want to wear the cape to it, so I like having a deadline to work to, and it shall be done!

Now....I just gotta go and work out how to tie a stags head onto a shed.

Have a great day, you all! I leave you with a lovely autumnal view of the waterfalls at the Falls of Clyde.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Truths

I'm going to be honest in this post, and I'm going to use it as an attempt to change the way I've been feeling recently. Along the way, I'm going to insert photos that to me are pure happiness, an attempt at showing that although, for me, it seems like things are not going great, that I've still had some mega times this year. Some of the best times of my life, I think!
The dreamer, Finca la Paz, January
It's been a hard month, really. I started by carrying out my Level 1 Forest School training, which was a huge financial investment for me, but which did not deliver on what it promised at all. I did attend an absolutely magnificent talk by George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone, and it left me feeling more hopeful than I have for a while. I then travelled north and undertook the moss training for Trees for Life. A wonderful weekend, and I returned feeling buoyed up on all the enthusiasm of the participants. Since then it's been a bit of a shocker.
No idea of the mountain, but hey, it was high and I felt MAGNIFICENT!!, Spain, January
There have been some personal stuff that has really thrown me sideways, and it's still left me reeling. I've been really knocked off course, and have just withdrawn into myself. It's interesting, because I think I put on a show a lot of the time - a show that everything is okay, and often it's not, but people don't really always believe me when I try to talk about it. Maybe it's not just me, but a symptom to society. We're all meant to be strong 100% of the time, and stay strong and support others, but not need support ourselves, or maybe it's just me that has that warped view.
At the top of Sgurr Hain with Bla Bheinn in the background, Skye, August
I've come to realise that I need to change. I need to change how I view myself. I've had a couple of mishaps this year - I have deveoped a fear of being belayed down a wall again, no matter how much I love the climbing. I've struggled with fitness, despite achieving more, in those terms, than I ever have before. And due to having an awful job, I've really questioned my abilities in stuff that I always took for granted. Basically this year has made me question a lot.
Drawing peace, Finca la Paz, May
So this is going to change. I'm going to change. My next challenge is a personal one, but one that I need to chart the progress of to stop it from falling to the wayside. I am building a series of plans that will help to build my confidence in all aspects of my life: in my body, in my mind and in my work.

Early morning at Tufty, Anam Cara, September
First off, fitness. Part of my inability to let myself go at the moment is having lost touch with my physical self. I've become a bit of a stranger to myself recently, I think, and I'm pretty unfit, which I hate. I long to swim, to run, to jump, to climb, to cartwheel, but I'm just not trusting my feet at the moment. I've ordered a pilates DVD and will be using that to try and build up inner muscular strength. When you're running on no funds, it's not simple to just start going to classes and things. But, once my confidence builds further (lots of walking for me too. I'm lucky to have the Pentland Hills on my doorstep, and plenty of options for getting out and about, including cycling - oh the wonderful cycling!) I will start to do the things I long to do. I long for water!
Fairy pools at Torrin, Skye, August
Water baby, indeed.
I need to remember that I have done wonderful things. There have been amazing times. Campfires, and songs, dancing - and not of the drunken club sort (though there has been some of that, but amazing Five Rhythms inspired stuff that left me glowing and content), friendships, teaching, learning. Wonderful stuff.
Nairn beach with my brother and sister, September
Creating. I love to create. This year has really been a year that I've come on in skill and dedication. I'm becoming more patient, which is very interesting, and as such I'm finding that if I want to complete a project I will spend the time getting it right. I don't want to change this. I want to keep making and being pleased with my makes. My sister and I made our bridesmaid dresses for our other sisters' wedding, and it was tricky - jersey bamboo, anyone? - but it was wonderful to wear clothes to the wedding that we had created ourselves. Want a look? Unfortunately I don't have a photo with just me in it, well I do, but it only shows my face and shoulders. That will have to do, I guess.
Me and my bridesmaid dress, Newlands Church, West Linton, September
Creating is also a wonderful thing for giving a person something to feel they have achieved. Fickle Sense's wonderful post on sewing and mental health gives an overview on this.
So, while I don't have a permanent job and am battling to improve myself, it's lovely to have something that has no strings attached, that I can just do, do happily, and that leaves me content. I highly recommend crafting if you're in any kind of mental strife!
Me and otter skull, precious find. Islay, May
I am following a type of outdoor teaching at the moment, called Kamana. It's a free course (that I think is meant to tempt you into spending money to do the whole thing, but take what you can from these things, yeah?!) and it's about increasing your connection to the outdoors. I am pretty highly connected, but I like some of the tools, and I am dedicating myself to undertake the whole course over the next 8 days. Intensive and life-changing. Just how I like learning to be!
With a rescued Guillemot, Loch Duich, March
I've also just joined the British Bryological Society. Now, those of you that know me should know how much I love mosses. Those wonderful, tiny, courageous plants that grow everywhere (except in Spain, oh how I missed them!) and that bring hope to my heart. I love the minature beauty and the way time seems to slow when you're studying them. But, for some reason I have always put off joining the society. This is a step for me that shows how I want to proceed. My dream is to build up my knowledge of plants and mosses to be able to carry out National Vegetation Classification (NVC) surveys. Being a member of the BBS means that my knowledge of these plants will be increased through social events and other. It also comes with the benefit of meeting other interested people. That's never a bad thing, right?
Feeling beyond awesome on top of Sgurr na Chiche, Knoydart, September
Sometimes when we have plans they can go array. My intention here is to have a bookmark that I can refer to, and other people can refer to to ensure that my course stays true. I don't know why I have found this year so tough when I have had so many smiles on my face at so many different times. I can't explain that. However, even putting an answer to some of these things means that I have something to fight for and it's bringing the fight back to me. It's hard to always be strong, but now I think I will start to arm myself with the tools that mean that I will be better armed to keep going.
Crossing Loch Nevis at sunset with hand gathered mussels in hand and walking boots round shoulders. The mussels became an important component in one of my best meals ever, and the memory of crossing that freezing sea loch with the sun going down will be a memory that will stay with me forever. 





Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Time

Someone once said to me:

Eagles only lend their spirit for a short time. 
Fly before your time is over. 

But recently I've been finding that hard.

I am starting to take the time now to try and find my wings again, to find what was dragging me down, and to try and rise up again. A job which I like could help: every time I work for Trees for Life I come home again lifted up to the sky. I ran a training course recently on Bryophytes of the Caledonian Forest and I was so uplifted by other people's joy and passion that I was definitely flying then. So that shows me that I need to use things that make me happy to get forward. 

And I will, because I am not ready to give those wings back just yet. 


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tumbling Water

Is there any place more peaceful that a mountain burn? One that has trees strewn along its steep banks, where they're free from the attentions of the deer. They're plentiful in Scotland, land of tumbling water, and the water is so joyous, no matter the quantities, it's clean, fast, bright and wonderfully noisy.
Singing as it tumbles it quietens our own souls. It finds us peace through the noise of relentless activity.

I've seen several that I love recently, but the ultimate best one is undoubtedly Allt a' Ghille Chruim in Knoydart. We walked a long way over the few days prior to reach the burn, and it was a sign that we were close to our destination for the next two nights. It was fast flowing, but will be faster now, but the trees surrounding the burn were magnificent. After the lack of trees along the path we were walking, for three tree lovers, we might have been starting to feel the strain. Upon reaching the burn we were transported to heaven. The oaks breaking rocks to hold onto the edge, the holly, the rowan, the diversity and the wonderful life was breathtaking and we took our time to replenish our water and catch our breath.

It was a steep gully, which was why there were trees, and it was rock and water, the eternal relationship that makes up so many of our mountainside burns. We're lucky here, water is plentiful, but that does not mean that we should ever take it for granted or forget its majesty. Finding burns like Allt s' Ghille Chruim ensures that we don't.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Happiness

That's what we all want, really?

Some people think that money is the way to happiness, and if that's what they find then that's fine.
Others think family and friends make them happy, and that's even better, but it's not really the truth either.

What about it coming from inside of us, and that we each of us are in charge of our own happiness. What about that? I can become so reliant on making (other) people happy with my decisions, that it becomes very hard at times to decide to be selfish and to make a decision based on my needs and desires.

It is hard, because, as social animals, we want to make the pack happy. We also want to fit in, and to achieve the same things that have been drilled into us since we were wee. But, just because everyone else is doing something, is that what will also make you happy? I don't think so, any more.

I've not had a proper paid job for some time now, and that has made me very unhappy. But, when I think about it. In that period of time, I have ended up doing some wonderful things instead. I've been trekking, working at other things, undertaking crafts, relaxing, walking... Time has become a blur, as I have no boundaries of time and place, but on the whole, it has been great. One of the best things has been working as a focaliser for Trees for Life, and that showed me really what I want to do with life: teach, enthuse, inform and educate. So I'm putting that into motion now.

It's what comes between making a decision and putting it into motion that makes things difficult, but I have decided that I must put my own happiness first and undertake something that makes me very, very happy.

I'm going back to Spain.
_______________

Have any of you made any decisions regarding happiness recently?

Monday, 11 August 2014

Nature in Close Up

Hi all,

How are you all this fine day?

I am well, though it is blowing an absolute gale here and it's chilly, chilly, chilly! It's been a while since I uploaded photos onto my computer and I thought that some of you might like to see what I was experimenting with recently: close ups!

Now, I highly advocate going walking with a hand lens. These little beauties open up the world to us in ways that you cannot imagine. I used to have both 10x and 20x lenses, but the 10x is unfortunately broken (soon to be replaced!) and so I am seeing things in extreme close up at the moment. It's great!

This is a hand lens. If you want to go on a trip of beauty I recommend that you get one now :)

 I always wanted to show people the wonders of the world in close up. The amazement that you feel as you get closer to the object and the tiny features jump into focus is a great one. However, I could never manage to get good enough photos to portray this...until I started to experiment with more functions and found that, hey presto, I could!

Hazel Corylus avellana



Just look at the juiciness of those young leaves. The beautiful, rich pink colour. Even look at the shape of the hairs! It looks sticky, and maybe it is, for look at that midge caught on the leaves. The plant is beautiful, just look at the detail, the veins, the variety of hairs (some glandular, some hispid), the variety of colours, and all on a plant that we would call green! Stunning, gobsmacking, glory-making. Yes, glad we are to live in a world such as this.



Forest Bug Pentatoma rufipes

Identified by its square shoulders, it's jazzy, patterned abdomen (see it peeking out from underneath its wings?), the orange legs and overall shape.
See the origami-like folded wings, the sectioned antennae, the two claws at the end of each foot. Appreciate this small bug for what it is. Yes, an insect, and at first glance brown, until you see that it's burnished bronze, greeny, with reddish spots, the detail in this animal is immense.

Lichens on a log

Confession time: I know next to nothing about lichens. I admire them, their awesome beauty and strength against adversity. But, I do not know how to identify them at all. If you do, please leave your comment and I can update this section with your information, but until then all I can say is that I find it astonishing how many different species are on this 7cm length of twig. At my count: 10, but to a mycologist: how many more? Stunning. Several wee mosses there also. Now, I love mosses, love them a lot. And I love these very very much. Maybe one day I'll be able to put a name to them, but until then we can just appreciate, eh?

Common Toad Bufo bufo 

Wow, just look at this little chap. Check out his eye, the depths of it. The orange, with the red patterns running through it.
The colour of his skin is camouflage, and this beauty is certainly camouflaged. However, you get many different colours of toad. I've seen ones that are bright yellow, reddish, greenish. The variety is as large as that within any human population.
I love amphibian hands and feet. There's something so human about them, and you can feel them clasp. The warty skin is a defense mechanism - other animals know that the skin is nasty. I used to find almost whole toad skins close to otter feeding remains. Otters, with their clever hands, can skin a toad to eat.

Knot Grass Moth caterpillar Acronicta rumicis

I noticed this 7cm long caterpillar eating rushes (I cannot remember for the life of me what rushes they were: bad ecologist) and what stood out was that yellow strip along its side. In the surroundings he looked almost luminous, with the red spots between spurts of hairs. Three true legs, four prolegs, and what dedicated munching! He was making short work of that tough stem. This colouration is no camouflage. He is warning possible predators: eat me at your peril. He's stunningly beautiful, and I wish him all the luck in the world as a moth. Go, caterpillar, go!

That's all I have just now, but there may be more. What do you think? Should we all be paying more attention to the small things in the world as well as the larger? Are these tiny things just as lovely and just as special as more noticeable things? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Special Places

I was asked recently to build up a strong picture of a safe place for me: a place that has no negative connotations connected to it at all. I discovered that I have several and I think I would like to share them with you here today. I've been having a bit of a hard time of it all recently and it calms me to remember these places and times. I'll describe three, but by the end of this post there may be more.


Numero Uno: Nether Largie Standing Stones, Kilmartin Glen


I visited here with my friend Colleen while on a wee roadtrip which took in the beavers at Knapdale as well as other things in the area. This time and these standing stones stand out from the rest though.

We stopped here for lunch, and ate and blethered and had a wonderful time. Let me tell you something about Colleen: she is a wonderful person to travel with, as well as being a brilliant friend. Anyway, this lunch consisted of salad grown without the use of chemicals from Whitmuir, eggs from my hens (fed without the use of chemicals also) and fish. It was while we were enjoying this veritable feast in that glorious May sunshine that makes spring in Scotland so life-giving that we suddenly realised something special. Those long-ago people that erected these stones and also enjoyed this place would have probably been eating very similar things to us. It was as though history snapped and contracted. We could have been from any time, we could have been anyone. To lose yourself in time is a wonderful thing, and I have long sought to regain that feeling.



Location Numero Dos: El Almendron, Costa del Sol, Spain


This wonderful mountain is one that I climbed while WWOOFing in Spain this January just past. It remains my biggest achievement to date, and I don't even have numbers to bring it home to you. You'll just have to trust my words instead.

Early in my month in Spain, myself and the forest (mountain?) man climbed a part of a ridge of mountain which form a very impressive focal point in the area. The least of these mountains is still taller than Ben Nevis by quite a margin. I struggled to get up it (but get up it I did, assisted by Ibex sightings) and then proceeded along the ridge to get another two or three under my belt. We made our own path down, passing through secret holm oak and stone pine forest which was just wonderful. Then, on my last day in Spain, when my fitness had improved ten-fold from climbing the steep hill that the finca (smallholding) was based on several times a day, we climbed The Big Almond, El Almendron.

And this was different. It was easier in that I was much fitter, but it was a massive achievement for me. The day started early and it was a chill wind. This was pretty much the only day I wore trousers since I'd landed in Malaga 30 days before. But it was easy going, following those brilliant paths that I have come to associate with Spanish mountains, marked with little cairns at each turn. Until we were forced to go off track, and make our own way to the summit. Paths do not go to El Almendron summit - it's too tricky, and too steep to have a path. And why would you want to climb something where if you fall, you die, no exception? Why indeed.

The photo above is of me at the top. You cannot stand on the top. Even without the strong wind that was trying to push us off the mountain, the top is smaller than your foot, your hand, smaller indeed than the size of that photo. And on the other side is a vertical drop of at least 500 metres. It's immense. To get to it you creep along ledges, pull yourself up massive rocks and there is very little straight walking at all. It's a scramble and a difficult one at that. But, oh so worth it. To be on that top, and to feel that wind. To see that drop, and to see beyond the mounain for miles and miles and miles. Oh, I have never felt so close to dying. And I have never felt so alive.

This day was one to remember forever, for many many reasons. Beyond the climb, there was the wood mouse trying to open our box of nuts and raisins just below the summit where we stopped to rest and relax. There was a descent which was climbing-down-a-wall-with-no-ropes scary. There was the scenery, there was the being of the only people on that summit. There was the sun coming out at last, there was the triumphant walk down and back to the truck feeling strong, fit and healthy. There was the feeling of having been in the right place at exactly the right time and having been aware enough of that to be left with complete happiness.


Location Numero Tres: Under the Lemon Tree, Finca la Paz, Spain

I have no photo for the lemon tree, and you may find this a bit of a strange location after the last one. But there are different feelings that are special and this tree is associated with me finding peace with myself and the world.

One of the jobs that we kept returning to on quiet days at the finca was to clean the lemon tree. This tree, although badly damaged in trunk and limb, gave wonderful lemons, and was worth fighting for. It suffered from a sooty mould fungal infection (yeah....sounds lovely, eh?!) which we washed off the leaves with water and a very mild disinfectant. There were some people on the finca who saw this as a chore unworthy of proper attention, and there were some of us, me included, who saw it for what it was: a chance to calm down, to slow down and meditate. Now, I find meditation hard. I find it hard to slow my thoughts and to stop all the noises of my brain from distracting me. But, when washing the leaves I found my way to another world.

It's the repetitive motion (check, wash, wipe, check) and concentration required that allows for this. The motion requires little or no thinking, but you have to focus on the task - which leaves are done, which are not, which need a second wipe, twig done? That section done? - but it only requires a certain level of your brain and it seems that it requires just enough to stop you thinking unnecessary thoughts. It stops all the silly, unnecessary thoughts (I wonder what time it is, isn't it hot today? I wonder what the others are doing) and leaves enough room for the serious thinking.

I left that tree with clearer thoughts than I'd had in a while. I felt calm and relaxed and happy and was willing to enjoy myself, my relationship with the forest man, and the world for all that was good and wholesome and happy. My doubts had been assuaged, and my negative reactions had been removed. It has not, of course, had a permanent effect, but it has made me consider the thought that I need to find an equivalent. I cannot infect a tree here, of course, and so I must find something that can give me that same effect of cutting out small thoughts. I just don't know what that thing is yet, but it will come.



So there we are, three locations. Don't be put off by the fact that two are in Spain. My time in Spain was something that will stay with me forever more, so it has of course had a big effect on me. There are numerous special places in Scotland and Ecuador and any other place that I have visited. There was special places in the Czech Republic, and I have special places in my head and heart that will never be shared. Moments and times of love that are for me alone.

Do you have any special places that you keep going back to in your head? Any place that can help you at times of grief or hardship? If you can, please do share them. I would love to hear.

Best wishes to you all

The pools at Torrin, Skye



Sunday, 13 July 2014

Grasses, Rushes and Sedges, oh my!

I went on a course!

Grasses, Rushes and Sedges as taught by Ben Averis and run by the Central Scotland Forest Trust. And it was brilliant! We met at the car park of Aberlady Local Nature Reserve, which is easy to reach by either car or bus, and is about an hour walk from Longniddry train station (as one of the course attendees found out!). I can highly recommend a visit, whether it's for the bird life, the plants (we saw some rare plants such as bog pimpernel and several less than common sedges), butterflies (we saw small skippers and others!) or just for a walk in a lovely place! Well worth a visit.


Aberlady LNR. Lovely day for a visit!
First off we met and found out what sort of level we were at. We were all pretty much at a level, mostly keen beginners with a small amount of knowledge.

The first plants we came across were common, pretty ubiquitous ones which are very good to be able to identify. These were False oat grass Arrhenatherum elatius, Cock's foot Dactylis glomerata, Couch Elytrigia repens, and Perennial rye-grass Lolium perenne. Moving onto the saltmarsh habitat (SM16 Festuca rubra salt-marsh community) we started to find others that we maybe hadn't come across before. Red fescue Festuca rubra was interesting to see, as fescues are notoriously similar and hard to tell apart. Ben gave us some handy pointers to use in the field which included what location and soils to enable us to be able to pinpoint certain species with more ease. Red fescue can be identified from other fescues due to it's slightly wider stem leaves, whereas all the others have wiry stem and basal leaves. On the saltmarsh, the red fescue is the only wiry leaved grass present.

Another plant which was very interesting to see was the Saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii, which is one of the top-flowering rushes, and very common in this habitat. We also found a sedge - Long-bract sedge Carex extensa which has wonderful long bracts which come out at right angles from the female spikelets. We also looked for another good saltmarsh sedge, Distant sedge C. distans, where the female spikelets can be up to half the stem length distant from each other.

I must admit that it was a highlight to see Quaking grass Briza media for the first time. It certainly lived up to what I was hoping for, and I really enjoyed that sighting. It's a very delicate, particularly beautiful grass that has a real simplicity and delicate look.
The lovely Quaking grass
It was brilliant to have a look at some Agrostis, bent grass, species. We found both common Agrostis capillaris and creeping bent A. stolonifera, and discussed the other common species, both of which are found on upland sites. Bent grasses have very leggy looking flowerheads as all the individual flowers are on a stalk. This is an easy ID trick to know straight away when you are looking at an agrostis.

It was definitely a day of sedges, however. Overall we found ten sedges of the genus Carex and one of the genus Eriophorum - the cotton-grasses.
False fox-sedge C. otrubae has bright, wide yellow leaves, and a surprisingly small flowerhead for the thick looking appearance of the rest of the plant. It's mainly a coastal sedge in Scotland, although grows further inland the further south you go. It's stem is incredibly triangular, and pretty unmistakeable.
Brown sedge C. disticha has a very dense, brown flowerhead, and has mixed male and female flowers so you don't get that distinctive look of the different spikelets.
Brown sedge flowerhead
We looked at the differences between the glaucous sedges - common sedge C. nigra is grey-green all over, but with upward pointing flowers, carnation sedge C. panicea is also glaucous all over, but has drooping flowers. Glaucous sedge C. flacca has a green upperside to the leaf, glaucous underneath and bottle sedge C. rostrata has a green underside and a glaucous upperside.
Bottle sedge leaves
The tiny flea sedge C. pulicaris was great - when ripe the seeds 'jump' off the stalk when touched. You can see where it gets it's name from! The dioecious sedge C. dioica is also very subtle and has male and female plants and so the flowerheads do not share a stalk.
Dioecious sedge flowers. Two female flowers to the left and a male spikelet to the right. 
It was great to see Reed sweet grass Glyseria maxima, although probably not a very essential species to know straight off, it's very distinctive and because of it's great size it took very nice photos! I'll finish with it.

There were many other species that we found, and we also discussed other things - birds, butterflies, habitat management etc. It's so nice to be bunched together with other people that are mad keen about knowing this stuff, and it makes for a very pleasant learning environment. Ben was a brilliant teacher, patient and very, very knowledgeable. I would recommend courses run by him, and by the Central Scotland Forest Trust as it was very well organised and put together. Overall a fantastic day out, and I cannot wait to head out into the field and see what I can find!

Reed sweet grass flower, with branched bur-reed growing in the water behind. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Spooky

How about I update you on the bird?

For those of you new to the blog, or that missed this post, in April a young rook from the rookery close to where I live fell (or was he pushed??) out of his nest. Due to there being no way I could hitch him back up those 15m trees, with me he stayed. You can read the first account of his time with me here...

Well, he's grown quite a lot since those days and is as much a character as ever.
Messy, cat foody beak. Can't even make an effort for photos! 

He was just learning to fly when I went off to Spain and so I was fully expecting to come back and for him to be gone. He wasn't though, still hanging around, still begging to be fed! He's approximately two and a half months old now and can fly like the devil. He's clever, though is taking quite a while to learn how to feed himself absolutely.

The difficulty is that it's taken him a long time for him to recognise cat food (what we feed him) as food. He like wriggly things and would rather go for my bracelet than the enticing piece of cat food that I'm holding out for him. His absolute favourite food in the world though, is leatherjackets. These he makes little noises for, and he has recently learnt that he can search for them himself. We've struggled to teach him how to forage, as he just looks at the cat food on the lawn as though it's something of no interest whatsoever, but there was a breakthrough the other day when we were gardening! Finding leatherjackets in the soil, we fed them to Spook, and when he dropped one and promptly picked it up again, the penny dropped, that that's him sorted. So instead of dropping it into his mouth, we just started throwing the grubs at him and he started to search even when none had been found. The amount of dirt on his beak on a regular basis has now increased one thousand fold!

Perfect roost
He's still a character, but has become rather bossy. It's hard to say no to him, although when he's content he's a wonder. It's fascinating to just sit and watch him. I've seen him contentedly play with different objects for ages. I think it is often a show of basic caching, an activity which is very important to rooks. One memorable time he found a beautiful black feather. Probably one of his own, but nevertheless, for him this was a stunning prize. He then proceeded, with it in his mouth, to walk over to where two old clay pipes were lying on the grass, he carefully placed the feather in between the two. However, there was something not quite right in this positioning, and he shifted it slightly, before jumping onto the other pipe to gain a better view and turning the feather over several more times before becoming content with how it was placed. He then jumped off the pipe and went for another wander, before chancing upon a piece of hard plastic. This was another prize and he carried this back to the pipes also. However, on arrival back at the pipes and on catching sight of the black feather again, he realised that the feather still wasn't right and, dropping the plastic without a second thought (obviously it didn't even compare to the feather!) he then continued to adjust the position of the feather, even at one point having it sticking up vertically into the air!

He still chatters to himself, but not so much any more, and one huge step for both him and us, is that he socialises with other rooks now as well. For most of the day, he'll be out in the fields with another group of rooks. It's hard to know whether he's on the outskirts or whether he's actually part of it, but it's great to see. He always did know he was a rook, you see, even from a very young age. Nothing about any other bird (other than a sparrowhawk or a buzzard, or, presumably, any other bird of prey - these would cause him to hide immediately) would interest him, but let him see a corvid, or in particular, another rook, and that gleam in his eye just became gleamier and you could see how interested he was in these others.

He goes pretty far from home, I've seen him at least a kilometre from here, which is pretty cool, and as I've recently been told that the old saying 'as the crow flies' should actually be 'as the rook flies' then maybe he's just living up to that!

That's not food...!
One of the best things is when he flies next to you, when you can feel the swoosh from his wings and hear the air being diverted. And, he loves it. Again, emotions on an animal? But we only have human words to describe what he's feeling. I can tell when he's angry or upset with me (he does NOT like being held, even if it's to remove something caught on his feet) and I can tell when he's taking pleasure in something. And flight is definitely that something. Well, wouldn't you? When he takes off from one perch, and without flapping his wings once, swoops to the ground and then uses the air to lift him back up to the same height he started on to perch on a new perch - you can tell even he's impressed with his abilities then. He likes to wash in warm weather, and preens preens preens. His feathers, ever beautiful, have a greeny/purple sheen and are absolutely stunning.

 Overall I'm/we're just at the last hurdle. Helping him to become self sufficient. He know how to find his own food, but has gotten lazy, I think, due to the ease with which we feed him. Why would he bother to worry about feeding himself all day when all he needs to do is wait for one of us to return home and then he'll get a lovely full belly with no energy wasted. But, this last step has to be undertaken. It's handy that there are work men around all the time just now, which he doesn't like. So, all day he's hanging out with the other rooks, spending time with them. Maybe one day the penny will drop and he'll realise that he can get enough food to survive, or maybe he'll fall in love and find a mate and she'll start to demand more attention. Who knows, but it's been a real treat to work with him, this fascinating bird.
Hey, I can perch!