Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Great Thaw

“They’re here!” my little sister would cry ecstatically from the bedroom window when she saw our cousins’ VW bus pull up, each Christmas Eve. Over the past fifty years that battle cry hasn’t changed. “It’s here!” I shouted, glimpsing a long awaited guest --- the thaw. My father, who like most foreigners couldn’t pronounce the sound “th”, called it “The saw”. Its arrival was like a sudden awakening. There was a new gentleness in the air, a sense that it cares for you again. Gone is the severe bite that lashed out at you if you dared to step outside. The wind, newly awakened from sleep, blows over the snow and ice for all it’s worth, and brings the first raindrops. Out on the land heather bushes emerge into daylight again. Our river, the mighty Deveron rises and doubles its size. In the last thaw it burst its banks.

This year’s thaw came on Boxing Day --- so named because the gentry used to set out Christmas leftovers in boxes for those less fortunate. Not only the land came to life but so did Aberdeen.

I set out with the kids for the Aberdeen bus station so they could catch the Edinburgh bus. Soon after passing the Haudagain Roundabout (Also known as the intersection from hell) I noticed that we were progressing at 20 mph, then ten, then five. After crossing Union Street, our speed dropped to one foot an hour. An Accident? A terrorist attack? What the hell was going on? Side streets we passed were just as clogged. Finally Natalia and Adam decamped along with their luggage to walk to the station. An hour later when we reached it, located at the edge of Union Mall I saw the problem. Shopping! And there were the police, diverting traffic away from the mall, in an attempt to keep people away from the shops. When I tried to turn into the parking lot a harried cop yelled for me to drive elsewhere. So I headed down side streets for a parking lot that should have free space, only to land in another frozen traffic line. Everyone else evidently had the same idea.

Luckily Jon’s phone GPS came to the rescue and directed us to available street parking. Getting out of the car brough little relief as we ended up in an impenetrable mass of people all pushing us along the sidewalk, all headed for the mall. Like a scene from Lang's film Metropolis. The mall crowd was so thick that you could hardly turn without bumping into someone. Everywhere signs of 70% off and Clearance Sale dangled cheerfully. On all sides people snatched up piles of clothing, stood patiently in endless cash register lines. I couldn’t have bought a handkerchief if you paid me to; evidently Aberdonians will endure any amount of hellfire if the price is right.

During the three week long freeze leading up to Christmas, shops were so deserted that two assistants would jump up to help you as soon as you darkened the doorway. No assistants around in sight amid the current feedling frenzy, where shops unloaded their goods at fire-sale prices.

We were so hungry we each could have eaten a horse. But our restaurant of choice had a one hour wait for a table. The others had lines snaking out into the mall escalators. Except for Pizza Hut, which neither we nor other shoppers were crazy about. Half-alive and disoriented we staggered out of the mall, and headed for Musa, a delightful restaurant I knew of. Our moods didn’t improve when we found the place closed. No doubt, the employees were all at the mall. Finally we settled on a small pub across the street, where we ordered toasties (1) and stovies (2). A dark beer miraculously soothed our frazzled nerves. Though the pub was only a stones throw from the mall, only a few people were there. We sat drinking our beer and waxed philosophical about the evils of consumerism and shopping.

Outside, snow turned to slush and icicles dripped and fell from the eaves. Traffic lines remained solid, barely budging. The thaw had definitely come.


(1) Toasties --- a Scottish panini made on white bread.
(2) Stovies --- A hot dish with potatoes, Swedes and ground meat; served with oatcakes.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Here Comes the Cavalry

In the midst of our winter snows, blizzards, freezes, airport closures, broken down trains, a lack of road salt, yes the general travel paralysis, there’s one good story. No, it’s not news of a thaw. Forecasters say that there’s no end in sight to our current ice age. The good news is that two tankers have docked at Inverness and Aberdeen, carrying 2 million litres of home heating oil. Most rural Scottish homes have no other source of energy; they cook with oil, heat their homes and their bath water with it. Lately, supplies in many homes have been low, and oil deliveries unavailable.

Each house has a tank containing 1,200 litres or more. When the level drops to less than half, you call a supplier and they fill your tank, usually within a week Not these days. Two weeks ago Brogan Fuels gave me an estimated delivery day of mid to late January. Their stocks are down; demand is up since mid November when the first snows fell. We’re lucky. In addition to oil we have a wood burning stove to warm our house. Our neighbours offered to loan us some oil if we run empty. But many others don’t have those options and must cope in cold houses. Here are some stories.

Everyone blames the winter chaos on government policies. Complacency. After all if Canada and Russia can handle their winters why can’t we?

We can’t because we’re in the midst of a paradigm change. Climate shock. This is our second severe winter that’s worse than anyone remembers. For over fifty years we’ve had mild winters. Our culture evolved around them, allowing us commutes of 50 miles to work, and unrestricted travel in good or bad weather. Suddenly we find that no longer realistic. Last years severe winter did little to prepare us for this one, because no one really believed it was coming. We bought some extra road salt, but not enough. Employed more gritting crews, but not enough. Heating oil budgets were way off. Airports left with too few de-icers and snow blowers. Even if they had them, incoming planes couldn't have landed safely.

When climate change happened before, it didn’t happen gradually. It didn’t give societies time to adapt. The medieval warm period lasted 300 years and ended in 1309. That winter caught everyone unprepared; was so cold that the Thames froze over. The following winter was no better. Then came the disastrous summer of 1315, cold with constant rain. Trading with the continent was disrupted. Corn varieties adapted to a warmer climate no longer grew. There were widespread crop failures and famine, especially serious because England and Europe’s population more than tripled during the medieval warm period. No amount of preparation could have mitigated the disastrous effects.

Following Scotland’s recent paralysis, the transport minister Stewart Stevenson resigned. What will his successor do differently? He can decide that we’re in a mini ice age, buy up new fleets of gritting trucks. Go to Russia for lessons. Or he can shake his fist at the weather. Despite our technology, weather often has the last word.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Father Frost

In an attempt to cheer us up, convince us that the typical Cottarton winter is not that bad after all, and to dissuade Amber and I from moving to southern France, our neighbour Anne Christie sent us these pictures from Russia. Father Frost is laying it on pretty thick there, but at least Russians have tractors and diggers when they need them, and don't have to rely on local councils for spreading grit. Their council taxes are also much lower than ours.

I guess I can fix the phone problem

The readiness of the dreaded Russian army

Here comes the plumber. Now where did you say you had a burst pipe?

Call this a highway?

Man, do I have to dig out this car?

Who left the car windows open?

Let's get this bus moving.

Let's count the strata. For how many years has this car been lost?

Does it blow this hard at Cottarton?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Blowin' in the Wind?

The lack of wind adds to the oddity of this winter. Winter --- yes it began this year not in December but in mid November when the first snows fell, like giants clouds, large flakes drifting down aimlessly. When it was over, I measured a constant 18 inches in our field. Usually we’re snowed in by gigantic drifts but not this time. The ski resorts opened and recouped their losses from several years back, but the renewable energy folk (those who cover our hills with clusters of steel giants with whirling hands) gritted their teeth. And not for the first time. Last year their production was down by at least 10%. From January to March while we waited under the snow, the wind giants stood still as sentinels. If this is the new pattern for our weather in the coming years, it doesn’t bode well for renewable energy, or our plans to derive our future energy from wind farms.

Usually it’s the gales and hurricanes, roofs blowing off, or flattening whole fields of barley that make a good story. Where’s the story in still air? It’s always windy in the northeast; we often stagger from the car to the door, bent double, while our shopping bag sails down the driveway behind us. Trees bend this way and that, their branches in an epileptic frenzy. I curse the spring wind that shrivels the seedlings that I've set out. I usually plant with an eye on the wind forecast. But when in November or January, the windy months, the air is breathless and the trees stand stupidly like they don’t know what to do, when the land feels like a tame puppy rather than a wolf, I know that something is amiss.

The pundits at the UK Met Office say that a long-term blocking high over Greenland has separated us recently from our Atlantic depressions, those that usually blow over us every three days bringing soggy but mild weather and a lot of wind. Now we’re getting cold air from Siberia. Father Frost from Russia has crossed over to Scotland and is now stalking our hills. He’s surrounded by snow clouds, has a bright red nose and piercing blue eyes. His hoary breath freezes rivers and lakes. The last time he came over was 200 years ago. From 1805-1820 Europe had very severe winters. In 1816, cold temperatures and excessive rain caused widespread famine. Ah Father Frost. In 1812 he came out to meet Napoleon’s troops, marching in their short sleeve shirts toward Moscow.

The pie chart, developed by 19th century statistician Charles Minard, tells the story of the appalling military disaster. The beige chart shows the French advance on Moscow, the black chart is their retreat. Line thickness indicates the size of the army. The red curve is the air temperature during the retreat. You can just see how the French army froze during their retreat.

The first wave of snow has gone.We're looking out at our green hills, and the sheep cropping the grass. But the air is suspiciously still. We're expecting Father Frost's return in a few days. It's time I chopped some more firewood.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Failed Service

The dreaded words come over the PA system while your train is stuck in the middle of a snow field. “Blah blah blah…This delay is due to a failed service ahead of us…” Translation, “Broken down train.” And so we wait; an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life. That we’re all gathered in this tin can, all victims of “extreme weather.” Do any of us know each other? Know the same person? How might some of us be connected?

For once family members can no longer tell me…”But of course you have snow. What can you expect if you choose to live in Aberdeenshire. It’s so nice and sunny where we live. ”

The picture from on high tells a different story.

Despite the blizzards and freezing temperatures, I was determined to make this journey down the length of Britain. My daughters, Johanna and Natalia had recently moved to London. Natalia was singing in the chorus of Handel’s Messiah, something I didn’t want to miss. Amber volunteered to stay home, keep the house warm and feed the cats.

The train sits helplessly yet no one complains. Back in Texas, you’d see people pacing up and down, demanding to know who is in charge anyway. Scottish people are used to muddling along without being too vocal. Failed service is to be expected; actually no service is more common when temperatures dip below -10 Celcius (20 F) because the railway points freeze up. And so when I started the second leg of the journey south, I found no trains leaving Perth. I hopped on a bus headed for Edinburgh. The driver, a small chubby man enjoyed tormenting passengers shivering at the bus stop, telling them, “A’ve nae room. I’m a’ fu.” He waited till their faces dropped before waving them on board. We drove through a white landscape, so still you could hear your own thoughts. After crossing the Forth Bridge, a bridge similar in length and design to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, the bus started to make thumping noises. The driver pulled over; opened the door. A loud hissing coming from under the bus was not encouraging. He radioed for help, then turned to us and said. “Sorry, we’ve broken down.” (No euphemisms of a failed service).

“Ye can wait here for another bus or ye can get oot and walk.”

“Where’s the replacement bus coming from?” asked a passenger.

“Inverness.” He waited to take in the terrified faces before winking.

Actually we only waited for a minute before an Edinburgh local bus pulled in behind us and took pity on us. And so we limped into Edinburgh, where I boarded the London train. Because of subsequent failed services, the train rolled into Kings Cross four hours late.

On the train journey back to Scotland, my cousin Basia and I sat opposite two men who were involved in a conversation about music. I was astonished to hear the older man talk about a superlative performance of Handel’s Messiah he’d participated in.

“A performance in Spitalfields?” I asked during a lull in their conversation.

The older man was Bill Hunt, the violone player in Natalia’s concert. Johanna and I had noticed him, and wondered about his instrument, a cross between a cello and a double bass. What are the odds that out of twelve million Londoners you will find yourself sitting opposite a man who participated in the concert you just attended? Odds as small as winning the lottery. The concert had been extraordinary. The choir, known as the Nonsuch Singers, with the sharpness and discipline of a professional choir, produced an enchanting effect. Of the top-notch soloists, most interesting was David Allsopp, the countertenor. Countertenors produce a high voice similar to an alto, the same range as that of Baroque castrati. David sang the alto part in the Messiah. His high voice was so unexpected that it sounded supernatural. Small wonder that Baroque women used to swoon when a castrati sang.

And who was the second musician opposite us? He was a countertenor though not the same one as in our concert. There aren't many of them, but here was one. We talked for a while about how he produces the high singing voice, as his speaking voice is quite low. When you scream, you’re apparently using the same vocal technique that countertenors use.

The train slowed down then ground to a halt. Yes, another failed service near Newcastle was the problem. Here we were, five hundred people aboard a train. I’d met two connected by only one or two degrees of separation. How many others might there be among the others? Many more than one might expect.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Hills, the Views and the Cats

The sun rising over the hill lights up the snowy landscape making it gleam like a mirror. I'm reminded of our last Christmas, a White Christmas and the last time that Mama was here at Cottarton. We were eleven around the Christmas Eve table; luckily the snow didn't keep anyone away. One morning, while she lay in her bed, she saw Cocia Renia (Cocia means Aunt in Polish), walk by on her way to the bathroom.
Mama asked , “Who’s that old woman I saw?”

“Cocia Renia.”

“Oh, then I must look old, like that.”

These days unfortunately we can no longer have such a fluent conversation. Her stroke has affected her ability to form words. But we do communicate. She's always overjoyed when Amber or I appear in the ward room. Amber introduces herself as, "Your best Presbyterian daughter in law." Mama always asks where we came from, as if we'd dropped from the moon. She'll say a word or two that I can make out; her eyes ask the question. Often she has to try a couple of tries before I understand.

“You’re asking where I live?”

She nods.

“Cottarton --- you’ve been there.”

Her eyes look puzzled; they ask me to explain.

“It’s the house in the hills, with the beautiful views and the cats.”

Her smile indicates that she’s made the connection. She asks again, trying to form a couple of words. At first I don't reply but she can tell from my look that I don’t understand. After a couple more attempts, I realize that she’s asking about Johanna and Natalia. Do I have any news from them? I begin by recapping that they live in London and about what they do for a living. Natalia has an upcoming concert of Handel’s Messiah. Johanna is enjoying her work at the British Library. She has a boyfriend. The girls call often to ask about their grandmother.

Mama smiles, a crooked smile where the right side is lower than the left but quite endearing. Her broadest smile is reserved for Natasha, when she runs into the room and flings her arms around her Cocia’s neck. The past five years Agata and her daughter, Natasha have lived with Mama and cared for her The three have grown close as blood family. Twice a day, at mealtimes, Agata is at the hospital. Yesterday she trudged for two hours through kneehigh snow to get there. She feeds Mama, spoon by spoon, a process that sometimes takes two hours. Mama must be reminded what to do with each bite. That it must be swallowed. The process doesn’t always work, and for Mama it's often exhausting. But it’s the only way to feed her.

That's on a good day. Last week when I was there, Mama slept the entire time, a deep comatose sleep that lasted 48 hours. But when I held her hand, her fingers tightened about mine. For two days she was out. Phones buzzed between Cottarton, Scone and Edinburgh. We waited. Wondered if her turn meant that she was in a terminal process. Then Mama woke up and asked for breakfast. She greeted Agata and Natasha with a smile, then asked what the fuss was all about. Can’t she go home yet? Why not? Her Consultant (the doctor who takes care of her) shakes his head, telling us he doesn’t know what to make of Mama’s condition. Her brain, shot through with Alzheimers has only limited regenerative ability to deal with the effects of the stroke. She may never speak as before, or be able to feed herself. But he admits that he doesn’t have a prognosis.

Mama has surprised us before. Like many women who lived through the war years in Poland, she emerged tough as nails. She’s not about to give up. Over the past couple of years she received the Last Rites at least ten times. Every time we think we’re about to lose her, she’s back, asking for breakfast.

A few days after her last stroke, I told her that Amber, presently in the States, was coming home early to be with her. Mama laughed. She mumbled out more clearly than usual: “Does she think I’m about to keel over?”

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Day after Tomorrow

So, there’s this action movie playing in the neighborhood, where the Atlantic freezes over as a result of climate change, the Statue of Liberty is encased in ice, and Scotland disappears under a mountain of snow. Unfortunately the theatre where it’s playing, is our back yard. The first sprinkle was on November 22, then came Apocalypse Now . A dump like this, in November, hasn’t been seen for 20 years.

Just in case some of you try to accuse me of fraud, of using snow pictures from last year create a sensational blog that will make a lot of money, I'm including a picture of our garage. The green doors were painted last summer. So Amber and I are back in our snow routine. The car, with its snow tyres is parked at the end of our access road. The fridge is stocked. Anticipating this show, I planted long garden stakes to mark where to dig up carrots, leeks, turnips and parsnips. No more digging exploratory trenches to look for vegetables, thank you very much. I’ve also inserted a post in the garage to shore up the roof.

The weathermen point to their charts, incomprehensible except to the expert. They reckon that the Atlantic Jet Stream somehow lost its way, and doesn’t know where to find it. And so the frigid weather in Poland and Scandinavia has wandered over to the UK, to help find the lost Jet Stream. Actually, last April, Professor Lockwood, a climatologist at Reading University published a paper in which he warned us that this would happen. That it is linked with a period of very low sunspot activity. Here's the article.
Low solar activity link to cold UK winters
Climatologists have long recognized that the solar cycle affects our climate. Sceptics of man made global warming seized on this factoid like pit-bulls and won’t let it go, saying, "Our climate change is all the sun's doing, so tighten up folks and keep driving your cars." However solar variability cannot explain the Earth’s temperature --- still rising, or Greenland's melting glaciers. What Lockwood and others showed is that the solar cycle can explain changes in local weather patterns, such as the position of the Jet Stream. So, while Scotland shivers, the Spanish and Italians are baking. Even places in Greenland today have highs of 8 Celcius. Looks like the Scots drew the short straw of global warming effects.

Because of the sun’s role in our climate, I regularly check out solar activity. The website Spaceweather.com shows the latest pictures of sunspots, solar flares, and spectacular movies of the Northern Lights.Even comets. Lately solar activity is picking up and the sun is putting on a show for anyone who is looking. This also gives me hope that, if Lockwood is right, the coming winters won’t be as severe as last winter. But we may have to plough through one more.

As Mark Twain remarked, “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” So what next, now that the Day After Tomorrow is here?

We keep the house warm, the fire roaring in the fireplace and look out over our austere landscape. And we write, without the distraction of shopping or joy riding in the outer world. I like to take snow walks down our road. We rarely meet any vehicles. The white landscape contains an unearthly silence that belongs to another order than ours. Years ago on a business trip to Calgary, I tried to capture the sensation in this poem.


Is not information.
Information is time, knowledge, the computer.
Our information age of
Where, what, why, how and when.
Words we value most.

But whiteness is the other.
It blinds your earthly eyes.
Buries under its cloak
All knowledge, information and memories.
And in its silence you discover
Earth and the deep sky’s ornament.
Certainty - and a vision of how things are.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A Scottish Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: Messy, Complicated, Forgiving, Sentimental and Pecan Pie with loads of Whipped Cream.

While I celebrate my fifth year wedding anniversary in Scotland, Americans dish up turkey and dressing, sweet potato pie and green bean casserole. This is Thanksgiving week. A harvest festival: a week to be grateful for family and friends, football, Black Friday and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Even those who are less fortunate can queue up at the local shelter and enjoy a meal fit for a king. But in the average American kitchen this week, you can count on sheer pandemonium. Men and women who normally microwave their supper will wake before sunrise, to chop endless piles of onions and celery for cornbread stuffing, oyster stuffing, sage stuffing, chestnut stuffing; it depends on what part of the country you boast before happily getting on to the next project of more endless piles of chopping for yet another Thanksgiving favorite. Do you stuff the turkey, bag the turkey, baste the turkey, deep fry the turkey or simply order it from Central Market (if your roots are Houstonian)? There is much to organize on this popular American holiday, from how many pies to prepare to what time the feast is served to who will drive Aunt Jess and Uncle Nick home.

It’s not always easy being affluent. It has its shadow side, like loneliness and families who are fractured and so deeply wounded they must have two Thanksgiving feasts because of a history of pride and poor choices. (As is the case in my family: sadly, it's what we, the older generation, bequeathed to our children, my son, my nieces and nephews; it's their legacy).

I think it’s important to remember these ugly bits about the holidays because it gives such potency, such poetry to gratitude. Most of you reading this blog already know my family history and its unflattering tales and most of you will remember that in spite of this my mother and I and my son, Zach, actually managed some very pleasant, in fact memorable Thanksgiving moments together. Of course, on the other side of town were the rest of her family, her son and his wife and their children, her grandchildren celebrating without us; the shadow of Thanksgiving.

We simply gorge ourselves on this feast and even take another plate from the table to the den to watch football, when not far from this bounty, more food than is found in some small, under developed villages more than their population could consume in a week is the awareness that we eat and they eat less.

These are the polarities of life, the light and the dark, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the happy and the sad, the wounded and the new born of all our lives that bring us together in concert at Thanksgiving.

In the far northeast of Scotland last week, where the gale force winds hold you sideways and the sky casts a muted light, Adam, my nephew, came to visit. We didn’t celebrate a national holiday together, we just celebrated being with each other. We cooked and laughed and engaged in polite debate: the British way. Nothing escaped us, not religion, abortion, spirituality, psychology, the dying and the newly born, our immediate family members and their children and our respective trips back to the States, we covered much ground.

Adam and Paul played music to entertain the chef by and I must say we ate like Royalty, maybe better than. In this pre-Anniversary week, I was completely conscious of the goodness at the table here at Cottarton: the goodness of the people, their kindness and their generosity, the spirited conversations and the unreserved laughter – it was all here and yet…

I know what loneliness is: I know loneliness in a most intimate way and because I know, my gratitude for the family I do have and for the loving relationships active in my life, I am so very thankful this Thanksgiving season.

To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: “It doesn’t matter what seat I’m in at the opera, I’m just so grateful to see the show.”

At this American Thanksgiving Table, this season, don’t forget to pass a little shadow along with the cranberry sauce.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Kinnoull Hill

Kinnoull Hill has been part of my life since early childhood. Its tall cliff face surmounted by a small tower looks over the River Tay, and dominates the Perth skyline. The first time I climbed to the top, my father held onto me, as I was determined to walk right up to the sheer edge and watch the world drop away into nothingness. The winter of 1963 Munia, Jim and I sledded down the slope facing Perth. Though not a sheer drop, the slope is steep enough to generate enough speed to bring your heart into your mouth.

Whenever Amber and I visit the old nest in Scone, we try to fit in a walk up the Hill. There’s something unearthly about the place. It feels like a temple, a place of magical power, more majestic than anything built by human hands. Though the Hill is not a tall mountain, it makes you feel small, coming face to face with something vast; not unlike the sensation that may arise when you stand at the foot of a Giant Sequoia. There’s rarely a time after a climb up the hill when I don’t feel refreshed and ready to take on the world. On the Hill daily troubles and concerns retreat to where they appear paltry.

On the summit, there’s no barrier to prevent anyone from jumping over the cliff, and some people have. There’s only a wooden sign that reads, “Dangerous Cliffs.” Unlike the United State, Scotland doesn’t have serious litigation problems. If you want to take your life, nobody is going to stop you.

I’ve long felt that such a place has many stories to tell, and I set myself the task of uncovering them. The small tower, known as the Folly, was erected in the 19th century by the fifth Earl of Kinnoull, who wanted replicate the castles he saw overlooking the Rhine. Built as a ruin the tower never had any other practical purpose. According to some sources the hill was the site of an earlier castle, long gone by the twelfth century, however the site has never been excavated.

Less generally known are the early legends, about a dragon that, back in the sixth century, had his lair in a cave below the summit. True to his nature, he slaughtered cattle and abducted beautiful girls. Supposedly he was slain by the Christian saint. St. Serf. I say supposedly, because what’s more telling is that the dragon was consecrated to Belinus, the Celtic sun god. The great festival of Belinus is Beltane that is celebrated on May 1, one of the two main Celtic festivals, the other being Samhain --- or Halloween. On Beltane, people celebrated the birth of the sun, with fires, dances and debauchery. Even all marriage vows were suspended for one day. Beltane was celebrated on Kinnoull in a small hollow below the summit called Windy Cowl, a place reputed to have of multiple echoes and eerie sounds. Finally in the sixteenth century the Scottish Kirk, declaring Beltane to be mostly frequented by papist monks and other unsavoury characters, put an end to the fun.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that a dragon is associated with the Hill, as the dragon appears frequently in British mythology. He’s often called “The worm”. Many places whose names contain the phrase “worm” or “orm” are named after a local dragon.

The following site, Mysterious Britain, contains links to many British dragon stories.

I suspect that the dragon’s legendary wickedness is as undeserved as the big bad wolf’s rapacious reputation, and is more a result of the attempts of monks and priests to Christianise the old religion of Britain. In China, where there was no attempt to suppress the early beliefs, the dragon is a benign force --- celebrated with song and dance. The great worm appears to represent overwhelming power that we have no control over, often disruptive like a gale storm or earthquake that periodically changes our lives. If we're religous or spiritual, we might attribute that power to a deity or deities. Long ago that power was believed to reside in prominent physical features of the land: mountains, caves, or a stone circle such as Stonehenge.

Kinnoull Hill is such a place. Its dragon also bore the distinguishing feature of a stone in the centre of its forehead. Whoever possessed the stone would himself have the power of the dragon, including the gift of invisibility. Back in the seventeenth century a certain James Keddie found the stone in the cave. For a while he enjoyed being invisible; playing pranks on his friends, but he eventually lost the stone, and it hasn’t surfaced since. Perhaps it’s in a cave, waiting for Bilbo Baggins to drop by.

Today we inhabit a different world. Dragons and magical stones of invisibility belong to the world of fable; we’re most comfortable relegating fables to Halloween or Harry Potter movies. Ours is a rational world that values working a job, no matter how humdrum, and making money. We imagine that we’re in control and that we don’t need to propitiate any deities. I’m not sure that we are in control. Life has its way of dealing us the unexpected. Nor can we dismiss what the dragon stands for --- an awesome power that makes itself felt in our psyche, whether we invite it or not.

Take a climb up the hill and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Wayside Cafe

Off the A96, a few miles from Inverurie you’ll find the quintessential Scottish honky-tonk housed in a single-decker bus parked permanently in a small lay-by. There are always several cars parked there, testifying that people do frequent the bus. Whenever Amber and I whizzed down the road from Aberdeen toward Cottarton, we’d notice an official road sign pointing right, saying, “Hot Food”. As if this was the last chance to eat before you headed off into the bare hills, where the only residents are sheep. We’re not great fans of local eating establishments. They're genuine but sparse. In a Huntly cafe, if you inadvisedly order a cappuccino, they serve you a cup of --- get it, “instant cappuccino.” To make the coffee appear Italian, the waiter cups a hand about his lips and makes fake cappuccino sounds. In an Inverurie café, the waiter froths your milk, then adds drip coffee to it, and calls it a cappuccino. Toto, somehow I don’t think we’re in Italy any more. So, when we stopped by Roy’s Bus, as it’s locally known, we didn’t try to order cappuccino. Amber had just got off a transatlantic flight from Houston. Her nerves were shot. She doesn’t pretend to be anything but the most nervous flyer. We were looking for something to help her feel the ground under her feet.

The Bus, analogous to Doctor Who’s Tardis, is a bus on the outside and a café on the inside with two rows of tables and chairs. Space is distorted so that the bus’s inside feels much larger than its outside. Several other customers were there; the waitress moved rapidly taking orders and delivering them. We ordered coffee --- no European funny business please --- and she brought us a cup of hearty, brewed coffee. Couldn’t have tasted better. Jerked us both awake. Then came the Scottish Breakfast, comprising of fried eggs, bacon, ham sausage, black pudding, baked beans and a fried tomato. Perhaps in such a charming place with windows on every side,giving us a 360 degree view, the food tasted especially good. I savoured every bite. The Scots are unpretentious about their food. They don’t try to compete with chefs from other countries. What they cook, they cook well, whether haggis, soups, breakfast, savoury pies, stovies or fish and chips. Scots are good with simple meat dishes. If you want healthy, organic meat or fish, there’s plenty of it here. Local butchers will sell you meat, derived from animals and farms that they know well. In Aberdeen you can buy fish that comes straight from the docks. For most people, eating out is not as common as in the States. Home cooking is preferred, partly because restaurants tend to be expensive, and most people feel that their home cooking tastes better. Plus, there’s the ambiance of a warm home, and the home table that’s special.

Roy’s Bus is special, a true wayside café for travellers on their way somewhere else, and who want something more than to gulp down a pre-packaged sandwich and a bag of potato crisps, all the time with one hand on the wheel. It’s definitely a place to relax, and to hang out. Local kids call the bus, “The Hangover Bus” because it’s a good first stop on Sunday mornings, to cure the hangover from a Saturday night blow-out. One local said he liked to sit there with his coffee and do research. Others study for exams. I can’t think of a better place to write. You’ll meet every character you might want to put into a story. I think I’ll start my next novel there.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


Do you ever fly in your dreams? Like the woman in the picture? Like Superman with your arms stretched out? It’s good to find that ability when, in the midst of a nightmare, you’re in a tight spot, pursued by baddies or demons. In such situations your legs are usually not much use, so the only way to escape is to fly away. Sometimes you just skim the surface of the land, and at other times you soar above the trees. It depends on the lightness or weight of your heart. The places you visit are likely to be unfamiliar as a temple in Papua New Guinea, or a shanty town in an unnamed country. Curiously, on your journey you meet people you hadn’t seen for a while, but who know you very well.

The evening Gabriella Nissen invited us to her photographic studio in the Heights had its special magic, because we found ourselves surrounded by friends we hadn’t seen in three years --- Quin and Gabriella, Chris, Pat and Jim. Shirley had just flown in from LA to see us. I met Quin over twenty years earlier. We canoed together and worked with a group that was trying to establish a Waldorf School in Houston. We picked up conversations where we’d left off, as if no time had passed. We drank dark beer and ate the mythological Star Pizza. Gabriella’s images added to the dreamlike quality of the evening. They contain movement, often dramatic and expressing deep emotion, such as the photos of Dominic Walsch from the Houston Ballet. Some recent images were for fashion magazines, such as the flying woman; she had mastered the force of gravity; the watery element too. There she is sleeping underwater. The studio also contains Quin’s wood art, such as the bench carved out of a single cedar. Every whorl and knot in the grain stands out, emphasizing that this is an object carved out of a living thing.

What did we talk about? Things we all felt passionate about. Our art, as many of us are artists, whether we use images, words or wood. Politics cast its shadow too. With election not far off, the Country stood at the edge of a precipice. We felt that many opportunities had been missed because of fear. Fear is the force of gravity that prevents us from flying. Adds weight to our hearts. Despite the insanity of politicians, bankers and the powers that be, we knew that we had each other, our lives and our vision. If we allowed ourselves, we could fly like the woman in Gabriella’s picture.

The real world broke in --- the watch, that pocket dictator, told Amber and I that we had to drive off soon so we would reach Tomball before our friends went to bed. And so, awkwardly we had to get up, say our good-byes, at least for now. We might see each other again, but that moment in the studio was over. Walking back to our car felt like coming down to Earth, landing, the inevitable waking that follows any dream.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Wolf Talk

Perhaps you’ve seen wolves, in a sanctuary or at least on a TV documentary. But did you ever hear them talk? The wolves we saw at the St. Francis sanctuary in Montgomery, Texas, appeared at first to be large dogs, but upon a closer look their eyes were nothing like a dog’s. You sensed an intelligence behind them, that the wolf studied you closely, reading your mood and your character. It knew more about your feelings and impulses than you knew yourself.

They talk to each other. Listening closely to their howling, you soon realize that there’s an elaborate conversation going on. Each cry contains, words, vowels and consonants strung together in a way that’s not haphazard. As in our conversations, the wolves aren’t talking at once. First one calls out, a long drawn howl modulated; more like a song with words. Another wolf responds, but using different words and then a third. You’d swear that they’re having an elaborate conversation. No doubt you’ve heard a dog howl at the moon, but not like this. Unfortunately we've no Rosetta Stone to help us understand that the animals are saying. We can only surmise.

I’ve known Jean LeFevre for almost twenty years. She and her husband John settled on the rolling hills near Montgomery about the time I moved to Houston. They built a church and a retreat centre there. Also a wildlife sanctuary to take care of sick or wounded wild animals that people brought to them. Among their patients, there soon appeared several wolves, brought often by police or rangers. Now that they are in the sanctuary, the wolves can no longer be released into the wild. But --- do they have a bad life being fed and cared for by Jean and her volunteers? Click on the link for a look at the cast of characters.

St Francis Sanctuary

I last saw the wolves five years ago and since then they’ve been one of my passions, to the extent that I recently wrote an entire novel around their lives. On this visit to Texas, while Amber reconnected with her family, I needed to reconnect with the wolves.

Duchess wasn’t happy to see Jean that day. I’ve no idea why Duchess was so displeased, but the moment that Jean drew close to her cage, the wolf bared her teeth and threw herself against the wire. Not only did she utter a medley of snarls, typical of a mad dog, but she spoke to Jean in a dark voice, words that only a magician could decipher, telling Jean precisely why she was angry with her. The antics didn’t fluster Jean in the slightest. She placed her hand on the chain link fence, inserted a couple of fingers and wagged them in Duchess's face, not only to try to calm her down, but to demonstrate that she wasn’t afraid. Anyone else would have ended up minus a couple of fingers. Placing her lips close to the wolf’s head, Jean spoke in English, telling Duchess that she was sorry for the misunderstanding, and that she would always take care of her. Duchess snorted, pushed away from the fence to land on fours and trotted off. A minute later she had forgotten the episode. I surmised that her anger was specifically directed at Jean because when I whistled to her she smiled at me. I wanted to greet her. She was barely a pup when I met her on my earlier visit and she had been extremely friendly to me then. I told her I was pleased to see her again. She walked over to me, looked me over closely and said she was happy to see me too.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Earth's Curvature

Penny drove us all the way from Fredricksburg out into West Texas. The roll of the land settled and the horizon grew in all directions. Near Big Spring, a town that boasted of having its own symphony orchestra, we saw a few open ponds, but otherwise the ubiquitous scrubby plants and dry river beds spoke of the lack of water. Wind generators, perched on the tops of mesas turned slowly. Not many people live out there. Once it had been a land of ranches but we didn’t see any cattle. The only inhabitants dotted throughout the landscape were the oil pumps, nodding their heads rhythmically. Some were no longer operating. My eye was drawn to the sky that with every mile grew overhead to where it encompassed the land. The horizon where Earth and Sky met was not flat but curved as you often see from an aeroplane. From that curvature you can tell that you're on planet Earth. A globe. If you're mathematical, you can even work out the Earth's circumference. The feeling of vast space left me breathless. Amber and I have our home among the Scottish mountains, a place of outstanding beauty. A beautiful view means vertical relief. I never expected beauty in a land that was so flat. Perhaps the feeling of expanse, or space , evoked in me the feeling of the numinous.

While driving, Penny related to us in great detail many stories of her mother's family --- the eleven brothers and sisters from Crane Texas, the youngest two being Edith whom we were about to meet and Joyce, Amber and Penny’s mother.

Several single houses each surrounded by bright green lawns, announced our arrival into Andrews. We pulled into one of the first driveways. Entering the kitchen we found Aunt Edith sitting by the table waiting for us. She greeted us with a broad smile. Her eyes, clear as an eagle's, looked at us through her large spectacles, seeing more detail than you could imagine. Her warmest smile was for Amber whom she hadn’t seen for many years. Aged 94, Edith still lived alone. The elegant furnishings and carefully chosen colour combinations spoke of a proud heritage --- the West Texas landed gentry. Every day Graciella cooked for her. Graciella spoke no English and Edith spoke no Spanish, yet their relationship was more than 30 years old. Anna would also stop by, pick up bills and handle the finances.

No sooner had we sat down at table when a Texas sized ham roast as large as a Thanksgiving turkey appeared from the oven. While we took bites of ham and roasted potatoes Edith asked us so many questions that we were left bewildered. She wanted to know everything about us. All our life stories. At first I could barely hear her over the blaring television --- tuned apparently all day to the Money Channel. I muted the sound. Edith didn’t appear to notice the difference. I suspect the TV was on only for background sound. Responding to her questions I talked about how I arrived in California almost forty years earlier, my astronomical research, teaching in elementary school, and of the odyssey that brought me to Texas. She listened carefully, interrupting if something I said wasn’t clear to her.

Amber pressed her aunt for stories about Joyce, but Edith did not want to talk about her. I suspected that Joyce’s mental illness cast a long shadow on the family. Neither did she want to talk much about her own past, which disappointed us as we hoped to learn some family history and scandals. We tried to force the issue by requesting to look at some family pictures. With one hand on a walker, Edith rummaged through various files in a closet, produced a few scrapbooks but only a handful of pictures.

“What do you think of Obama?” she asked me out of the blue.

She’d already sized me up as a liberal and wanted to hear my piece. I protested that living in Scotland, I wasn’t interested in the actions of the US President --- as long as he didn’t go off and start another war that involved Europeans. I pointed out that very few wars since 1945 ended in anything but stalemate. That remark ended our political discussion.

After lunch Edith retired to her bedroom for her afternoon rest but she asked us to sit with her. Hanging opposite her bed was an oil painting of a villa amid arid hills that reminded me of the Tuscan villa where Amber and I had spent last summer. Later, I asked Edith about the picture.

“Which one?”

“The one that looks like Italy.”

“A New Mexico painter did it.” After a short pause she added. “It’s yours. I want you to have it after I'm gone.”

I protested that this offer was extravagant, but Edith was not to be dissuaded. Once her mind was made up, that was that.

The next morning Amber asked Edith where we could stretch our legs before our long drive back to Frericksburg. Edith directed us to a small lake, but advised us to bring bread for the ducks, advice we should have taken. Arriving at the lake we found several ill-tempered geese that pursued us. Amber crossed the street to give the geese a large berth. They evidently felt cheated because we hadn’t brought food.

As we prepared to leave Amber found a cookbook on Edith’s bookshelf, a cookbook long out of print and which contained the Four Seasons Hotel recipe for “Stuffed shrimp in mustard fruit.” Vincent Price, because he was a celebrity, had been able to filch the recipe from the chef. I copied it down, but not fast enough before Edith spotted me and asked what I was doing. She demanded to see the book. After looking it over, she presented it to Amber, saying, “Take it home.” Amber protested that the book was valuable --- online copies sold for a few hundred dollars. Surely Edith’s daughter who loved to cook aught to have it. As with the picture on the bedroom wall, Amber’s protestations fell on deaf ears. Edith wanted Amber to take the book away immediately. Amber felt she’d been given the keys to the Kingdom.

We said our good-byes. Several of them, and then left. Soon we were once again out in the open land with the sky above dotted by fluffy clouds, and the curved horizon before us.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


I’m a tactile person --- I like to touch others and like to be touched. Not everyone is like that. No doubt the cynics have various names for me such as “touchee-feelie” but what the hell. Touching is a primitive, non-verbal communication that conveys a lot. Much more than casual words. Words will often lie. We aren’t always truthful when we speak, but our touch never lies. It’s direct, and expresses our feelings precisely. It’s the way we communicate with our natural environment, with animals and with those closest to us. Sometimes it’s the only form of communication with them.

So it was with Mama who had a stroke three days ago that deprived her of her ability to speak. Also to understand what was being said to her. Sitting across the dinner table from her, I saw it happen, though for several minutes I wasn’t sure what had happened. For several minutes Agata and I tried to elicit a response, then called for an ambulance. Mama’s eyes, half closed suggested she wasn’t aware of us, at least not visually.

In hospital, we saw no great change. She didn't respond to our presence, or to our words. As if she had drifted off to a place where we could no longer reach her. Then she lifted her left arm, moved her fingers as if searching with it for something. She wanted someone to take it and hold it. I took it; the fingers didn’t respond to my touch but there was a slight pressure. The face, frozen by the effects of the stroke didn’t reveal any expression but her eyes awakened slightly. She was there --- I was sure of it. What’s more, she knew that I was there. She also knew who I was.

The following day Mama’s eyes were open most of the time and they followed Agata and I. She moved restlessly in the bed, remained slack-jawed. Perhaps she was hungry, as she could not be fed normally. The stroke had affected her ability to swallow liquids or food. Every few minutes her eyes looked wider, a look of fear. She had to be terrified, finding herself in a place where she no longer understood what people were saying, and could not express herself. Again, taking her arm I rubbed it. No response from the arm, but the fear in her eyes appeared to recede. Agata spoke to her, telling her not to be afraid, but I had the impression that touch conveyed more than the words.

The doctor and his cortege of young assistants drifted in. After making his assessment he discussed it in a whisper with the others, before turning to us. “I think your mother has had a stroke,” he said. Not exactly breaking news. “The next few days will help us determine her recovery.” It’s all I could get out of him. I asked whether patients typically recovered the ability to swallow, but the doctor waffled so that I felt stonewalled. Later, Natasha ran in with a leaflet from the waiting room, with all the information I was seeking. That the ability to swallow often returns within weeks. I’m still not sure why the doctor’s at the very least couldn’t paraphrase to me the leaflet's contents. Why are doctors so afraid that anything they say could be used against them?

That afternoon Mama recognized our faces. She could answer our questions with a nod, or by pointing. An incremental improvement, but we were overjoyed to see it. More than anything she wanted to be held, to feel human contact and know that we were really there. That we weren’t phantasms of her imagination. The solid touch that didn’t lie was what she needed.

When the Zambian nurse, we know well from Mama's previous visits, came in, I asked her for a favour. “I know that hospital policy is that I can only visit from 3-5pm and 7-8 pm, but Mama is terrified. She needs someone there --- all the time --- holding her hand. I want permission to come at any time and to sit with her and hold her hand. I’ll get out of the way at mealtimes or if I’m in the way. The nurse was initially doubtful that such an exception could be made but she said she’d try. A few minutes later she returned and said that my request was granted.

The next morning our communication was different. I still held her, but now that I could use words to reach her, I sensed that she no longer needed or wanted to be touched. She even found it embarassing. Her eyes were awake, conscious of me, the sunlight on the window, my watch. She smiled, a crooked smile typical of a stroke victim. I explained what had happened to her and she nodded to indicate she understood. I was amazed at her rapid progress and hope that she’ll continue to develop the ability to swallow, and to speak. She has a fighting spirit that’s enviable.

Though I was delighted to be able to use language again, somehow I felt a loss of intimacy such as we shared earlier when touch was our only means of communication. Touch is reciprocal in that you cannot touch someone without experiencing touch. It takes a great deal of trust because with touch there aren’t any barriers. The boundaries between you are blurred. You’re with each other and whether you like it or not, you can affect each other deeply.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Halloween Tree

By Halloween --- “sicht a night” as Robbie Burns called it in his poem, “Halloween”, the Rowan tree’s leaves are changing. The red berries that hung in large clusters have morphed into withered, white berries. The morning sun rising at a low angle lights up the tree with so many colours that you stand in awe. Most Scottish homes have one or two Rowan trees --- what in America is known as the Mountain Ash, planted not far from the main doorway. It’s there to protect the home and the inhabitants from ghoulies and bogies. And Scotland has plenty of those. Perhaps it’s the damp Scottish climate that produces ghosts, so legendary throughout the world. I’m sure it isn’t only the Scottish imagination; wild though it may be. People I meet in the pub are quite happy to talk about football, the economy,girls, getting drunk or the like. Not about ghosts. Certainly not about fairies --- unless these are fairies in the American sense of the word. But if you find yourself alone in the hills on a desolate spot, you may feel that the land is alive. That you're not necessarily alone. Even those who aren't imaginative will experience it.

In Aberdeenshire Halloween is usually celebrated with a bonfire. Some people wait until November 5, what the English call "Guy Fawkes Night." It’s an opportunity for farmers to burn scraps of wood that have accumulated over the year; often to get together with friends for a dance or a drink while watching the flames soar into the sky. It’s a very ancient festival --- the Celtic Samhain, which predates Christianity and even resisted all attempts to Christianize it. Halloween --- the eve of All Saints Day? I don’t think anyone thinks of it in those terms. Long ago the bonfire had less to do with burning scrap wood. It was more about the welcoming of the dark cycle of the year, when “nights are lang and mirk.” The fire is lit in defiance of the night, a defense against the dark and what it represents. Death.

It was also a celebration of night, of the shadow --- all those forbidden impulses, the things we’d secretly like to do but for social reasons we don’t dare. Long ago the kids took over that part with their Halloween “tricks.” They used to stuff a neighbour’s chimney with peat, or tie a string to a row of turnips and pull on the string, so that the farmer sees his turnips marching across the field. Another favorite was to knock loudly on a neighbour’s window, at the same time smash a bottle against the wall. That gives the old geezer a start! Dressing up as ghouls was also part of the fun --- guising as it’s known here. That’s the past. Today in our present age of commerce, some chocolate manufacturer invented “trick or treat.’So out comes the big bag that must be filled with sweets. You see it in the cities here, but certainly not on the scale that it exists in the US.

The game of “dooking for apples” that children know worldwide as a Halloween game, may have its origin in a forgotten ritual of a trial by water, where the Celtic initiate had to go through water to reach the apples of immortality. A lesser known game, one I used to play with the kids when they were young, is the trial by fire. You attach a candle to a small board, balance it with an apple on the opposite end, and hang it six feet above your kitchen floor. With the candle lit, and the apple dangling on the other end, you spin the board. Jumping up you try to take a bite of the apple and avoid singing your hair. Again, there's the message that the gift of immortality is not cheap. You have to go through fire and water to attain it.

Halloween is a night for divination, so get out your Tarot cards, Horoscope, I Ching or whatever you use to take a peek at the future. Find out what fortune may come your way. Traditionally you'd make mashed potatoes with turnips and bury a ring, penny, a silver coin, a button. Depending on what lands in your mouth, you’ll either find marriage, poverty, riches or remain single. Or, you may also lose a tooth that year.

As for ghosts? I’ve never seen any but I know some who have. Later I’ll post a few stories that demonstrate that in Scotland the barrier between our world and the other is very thin.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


The contents of the baskets are mushrooms, not any old mushrooms. These orange and blue caps that emit an orange milk when bruised are so special that they don’t have a name in our great English language, even if it is the lingua franca of global business. In Polish, they’re called “rydze”, in Russian it’s “грузды”. The French call them “lactaire” meaning the milky one. The botanical name is “lactarius deliciosus”. Neither Brits or Americans offer a name because they don’t come from the supermarket. The poet Shelley sums up the attitude of most English speaking people toward wild mushrooms in the words,

“And agarics and fungi, with mildew and mould,
Started like mist from the wet ground cold
Pale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead
With a spirit of growth had been animated.”

That description suits me just fine. When I walk in the woods, I feel that they’re mine. My only competitors are the #!$%& young Polish immigrants who pop out from the undergrowth dragging a large bucket filled with their ill-gotten goods.

Lactaires, as we shall call them, are the best --- with the consistency of steak, a sweet fruity taste and a characteristic tang that belongs to the wood. They only need to be fried in butter, served on toast along with a small vodka. After one bite you’ll feel that even the best caviar doesn’t measure up. For the Scotsman in me, that’s especially good news, as the mushrooms are free. Being so prized, they’re not easy to find. You have to get to them before the maggots find them, and that’s usually a day or two after sprouting. Not every year is bountiful. Some years you won’t find a single one. Then there are years when they crop up everywhere, and this appears to be such a year. At Cottarton at least.

After three years at Cottarton, the mushrooms found us. At first I thought I was dreaming when mowing the lawn I found one in front of the mower. After a small look around I discovered one patch, then the next and them the nextunder the line of trees surrounding our property. But when I found them growing out of the gravel, and out of the bed that Amber had weeded, I let out a yell that, had it been heard by any neighbour, would have summoned an ambulance. Restraining myself from picking them, I waited for Amber to come home from work. I wanted to hear her shrieks. She shrieked --- evidence that the Polish/ Russian mania had properly infected her. We gathered a basket full. They were only a day old and scarcely contained a single maggot. We ate some – for two or three days, cooked and froze several baggies full, and took the others to Agata and my mother in Scone. Agata loved them, even if she was insanely jealous. It’s not fair that some people have our luck to have lactaires crop in their back yard.

They kept coming. Each time it rained, the Lactaires sprouted and we gathered another basketful. Bewildered about how to handle the bounty, I salted many of them --- arranged the freshest caps in a jar, salted each layer and then pressed them with an oak weight I had cut for the job. After a day they let out their water. A process similar to making sauerkraut, it will preserve them for winter. I pickled a jar and froze the rest.

The mushroom crop made me wax philosophical. Our piles of winter snow made Amber and I wonder about how many more similar winters we could take. We’re hoping last winter was one of a kind and not part of Scotland’s new and improved climate. Last “spring” Amber was looking at real estate in southern France. Now,the very Earth is sending us another message, offering us a gift that probably hasn’t come to anyone else in Scotland, telling us that this is our home, and where we need to be.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Bambi --- aka “The Usual”

I’ve been asked how we live off our vegetables with three feet of snow covering our garden. We dig for them. When Amber needed carrots to roast with a chicken I dug a trench three foot deep and twenty feet long to look for them. It took a few tries but I was able to find the carrots, well preserved under the snow. They were more delicious when baked than you can imagine.

Now that the snow is melted, so that we have less than a foot, we’re back to our battle with Bambi. Last night he came by and ate the remains of the sprouting broccoli, leaving only turds. He’s been a pest since his home, a nearby forest was clearcut. A couple of months ago the deer located Cottarton and stripped all the vegetables except the leeks. I have a reputation as a non-violent, anti-gun, anti-violence sort of bloke, but when the deer attack by veggies, I start seeing strips of venison hanging in my shed. Zackary already showed me where I need to build a deer platform, so that I can sit comfortably all night, a bottle of whisky by my side, gun in one hand and a lantern in the other, and root out Bambi. The problem is that nights are beastly cold --- can be -5 Celsius, and I like my sleep. But --- it’s not a bad idea if nothing else works, and we could have a good supply of venison.

You can buy venison at certain butchers, but not legally. The reasons may have to do with health rules, EU rules or something else. Forty years ago, my mother learned to buy venison from a butcher down the road. While standing in line she noticed a couple of people ahead of her asked the butcher for “the usual”. The butcher responded by giving them a wrapped bundle of unidentified meat from the back room, actually venison. He charged very little. So, mama also asked for, “the usual” and brought it home. We all loved the venison; had it regularly for a month or two, until the morning when mama went in search of “the usual”, but found the butcher’s shop closed down, a police padlock on the door. Later the Perth newspaper reported how the butcher was busted for selling poached venison.

Until Zack builds me the platform, or I scroung up the funds for a deer fence, or employ a pack of wolves to chase off the deer, I’m building an electric fence on two sides of the property where I think they are getting in. Roe deer, the most likely offenders, are quite good at jumping livestock fences, even without taking a run at them. From their snow tracks I located where they jumped the fence. Yesterday I strung out two strands of polywire, one above the fence the other knee level. For bait I attached aluminium strips coated with peanut butter, and then fired up the electric charger.

A good jolt to the tongue might help the deer forget about my vegetables, but what do I know about deer psychology? Are they so determined to come in that they don't mind the old jolt? The electric fence is a technological solution to an old problem. We’ll see how it works.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


Cottarton is mythological --- something we knew when we settled here, reinforced one morning when looking out on our driveway I found a large hare --- at least three feet tall. The rainbows we see don’t belong to this world. Neither do the gales that sweep past. And, yes, there’s the snow. You may have heard that the entire UK, as the tabloids say, is in “the grip of ice and snow”. But in our glen the snow, as with the hares rainbows and wind, acquires mythological dimensions. Icicles hanging from our eaves keep growing --- the record’s about eight feet, including the icicle that grew from the ground up. As in Narnia, it’s winter for as long as we seem to remember, and no end in sight of breaking the evil spell. The other night I passed snow giants, beings of snow reaching ten feet, walking with an indifferent nonchalance across the fields.

Viewed from space, the UK looks like the moon, or curst by a nasty spell which has relocated the missing polar icecap here. Try making out anything but snow and ice.

Closer to home, we haven’t seen a postman since Christmas, which is good, as we have a respite from our deluge of bills. The rubbish hasn’t been picked up either. Once a day a snow plough passed down the road, clearing the snow, but there’s no salt or grit. The county is low on grit and reserves it for major roads, once every two days.

Walking to our car, parked permanently at the end of our dirt road, we pass sheep that are making the best of the snow. Every day Robert or Mark Hamilton dump a load of turnips in the feeder for the sheep. You wonder where other animals shop for food. The deer shop at Cottarton.

They first appeared a couple of months ago after a nearby forest was clearcut, leaving the roe deer to forage elsewhere. Then, we still had cabbages, brussel sprouts, kale, Savoy, broccoli. No more. After three visits we were left with nothing but stumps. The locals suggested I buy a shotgun and a lantern, and sit out all night long, drinking whisky and waiting for the buggers to show up. A deer fence --- seven feet high is a permanent solution, but beyond our budget. I’m going to try an electric fence. However, in today’s snow it would be a foot under.

How about releasing some wolves into my field? Now, we’re really talking mythology. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear the wolves howling at night? Hear them calling the pack together for a hunt. Watch them gather? They’d have plenty of food, all the deer they ever wanted, and if they ran short of venison, well, they could help themselves to a sheep or two. It might not make for the best neighbours, and that would be a wee problem.

Have you ever looked at a wolf close-up? I was privileged to, at the St. Francis Sanctuary in Magnolia, Texas. They study you, understand you, can welcome you or dismiss you with a glance. These are no just a breed of dogs, but are highly intelligent.

The wolf used to run here, long ago when the land was heavily forested, a thousand years ago perhaps, or farther back. Exterminating the wolf, and clearing the forest for agriculture and farming went hand in hand. Once the wolf was gone deer multiplied. Without the wolf to control their numbers, they had no predator other than us. Unfortunately the deer eat small trees and bushes, my berry bushes and my veg, meaning that forest cannot re-establish itself easily, and I end up tearing out my hair.

Maybe we need the re-establish our ancient relationship with the wolf.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Blue Moon

Last night the world never got dark. Yes, I mean last night, December 31, Hogmany as it’s known over here, what should be almost the longest night, usually so dark that you could be looking into a deep well where you can’t see the hand in front of your face. Not last night. Around midnight Amber and I stood outside the house and looked around, surprised that we could see our snowy landscape extending all the way to the horizon in every direction. Nothing moved in the whiteness, unless it was that lone car winding its way on a country road to a Hogmany party. Or a dark haired bloke going “first footing” --- the custom of visiting your neighbour, whisky bottle in hand. It brings good luck if the first footer has dark hair, which is why with my brown hair, I don’t do it. Call it being DQ’d for life.

Under the hazy skies you can’t see the moon; you wouldn’t know where to look. The lighting appears to emanate from every direction and casts no shadow. Perhaps it emanates from the Earth itself from its unbroken snow cover. What’s going on? Isn’t it supposed to be dark? Well, yes, but once in a blue moon --- the name given to the second full moon in December --- it doesn’t get dark in winter. The Earth covered in a thick layer of snow acts like a mirror, a source of lighting that reflects the diffuse moonlight, scattering the rays isotropically. There’s the scientific explanation. Does it satisfy you, or would you rather stand with us in the winter midnight twilight, quietly, and look around you at every detail, the bushes sticking out of the snow, heavily laden tree branches, houses half buried, flustered sheep wandering around in the nearby field. They can't make anything of the twilight either. Look at them all so that you don’t miss a unique moment, one that won’t return.

Morning saw a new snowfall, that erased all signs of several days of snow shovelling and buried our access road. Our car’s lost somewhere in the whiteness. The icicles dangling in front of the study window grew another foot, some of them now almost four feet long. We’re in a snow house as in Lean's Doctor Zhivago, except that the house in the movie set had fake snow and was filmed in the boiling Spanish summer. The actors did a good job shivering and looking cold. At Cottarton we have the real thing. It started falling about December 20. This is the longest siege that the local people remember, but them they tend to say every year. The house stays warm thanks to a wood fire in the living room stove. My mother sits in her chair nearby where she can stay warm and look out over the snowy landscape. She's been with us over a week, keeping us entertained with her often acerbic humour. To her the landscape has an unearthly beauty. She’d like to go to church today but we probably won’t be going. It’s New Year, the world is hung-over, still asleep, including the snow ploughs and road gritters.

Outside, it’s begun to snow again.