Friday, 14 December 2012

'Tis the season for making holly wreaths

Among my earliest memories is trying to find a place to sit down in a living room jammed full of holly. Piles of it, some cut into sprigs, some with wires wound around the stem, green holly, variegated, berries, wires. My dad sat among the piles, a circle of moss balanced on one hand, and with the other hand he stuck holly sprigs into the moss. First he planted a complete circle of cypress sprigs, then three rows of holly, inserted at three different angles to fill up the circle. Finally he inserted several sprigs of variegated holly and  berries. The wreaths were all pleated during the long winter evenings. To keep our stone cottage warm, we burned a paraffin stove. Every couple of hours I had to run into the frosty night to fill up a jar with paraffin and insert it into the stove to keep it running. I also wound wires around the holly stems. Later on, I made a few wreaths to earn some Christmas money.

While he worked, he told us stories.

We heard about his adventures in the POW camp. The compound was along the lines of the camp in the film, The Great Escape. Perhaps it was a harrowing experience, but he made it sound like an adventure. At times funny, especially how the prisoners sometimes got the better of their captors. A few, not many, escaped in ingenious ways. Yes, they dug an escape tunnel, and almost completed it, but in the end decided not to use it. War was ending and the prisoners realized that they had more to gain by waiting until they were released. There were family stories, memories of growing up in a manor house on the banks of the Pripyat River in Bielorus: wandering in endless forests, accounts of the bogs that could swallow you up, hunting for Capercallie and the pranks his brothers played on each other.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that during winter, when the Old Scone Nursery had little else for sale, the wreaths provided most of the winter income. Making each one took about two hours, but they fetched a good price in the Perth shops. Also, materials were cheap. The moss came out of the local woods. As for the holly, well that was a family secret. Enough to say that the nearby palace garden contained many holly bushes. Each winter they received a severe haircut. Finally the local Factor, not amused by the stunted look of his holly trees, told  my dad to cease and desist. He had to look further afield. Hardest to find were holly berries. In a bad year, my dad had to substitute plastic ones.

This year I bought the metal rings and  made a few wreaths for gifts. Remarkably I recalled the entire process as if I'd done it yesterday: the order of the rows, the angles for the holly, that the variegated holly and the berries get longer wires. The wreaths turned out exactly as I remembered. No one makes them that way any more. Modern wreaths have pine cones, plastic holly and fir tree sprigs. 

Where did my holly come from? My dad used to reply to such a question with, “It’s better not to say”. I'll stick to that line. 

Friday, 2 November 2012

Of Fog and Food Poisoning

When air travel goes wrong it usually goes wrong badly. Not just a flight delay but as the poet expressed, “When troubles come they come not singly but in battalions.”

And so to last week’s trip to Munich. Luggage was checked --- luckily underweight, and no funny business at security, such as losing (yet again) my pocket knife. We’re in the departure lounge to take off for Heathrow. But alas there’s fog over Heathrow. First one flight and then an entire board of flights are delayed. Ah whenever we get too big for our boots and think we've mastered nature, pesky weather reminds us that we are on Earth, and planet Earth has the last word. I ask about the Heathrow-Munich leg of our trip, but the BA lady assures us that the flight will be similarly delayed and so we should make it.

After three hours wait, we board, and then wait  another hour on the tarmac for Heathrow fog to make up its mind whether to lift or roll in. We sail! Land in Heathrow and then Amber and I sprint for Terminal 5, ducking under barriers when they pop up in our path. The good news is that we make the gate as the flight is still boarding. The bad news is that  BA took us off the roll and placed us on a later flight. They figured that we wouldn’t make it. I suspect that we got bumped by a celebrity who pushed his/her weight about. So our flight is to leave ---four hours later. More fog rolls in. Signs of “Enquire Airline” pop up all over the departure boards, but our flight is still on. What do you do while waiting? You drink, shop, eat, drink some more. After a while you suspect that flight delays are so profitable for airport businesses, that Gucci, the caviar bars and liquor establishments pool together a bribe for BA to delay certain flights.

And so we finally board! I phone my cousin in Munich that we’re on our way. Will only be six hours late. We sit on the tarmac, for an hour at least. Finally comes the news that the pilot got sick from food poisoning and had to deplane. The co-pilot can’t fly the plane as maybe he’s got what the pilot has. So, no flight that day. Just get off folks, pick up your luggage and our staff is there to help you. Right?

We get off only to find ourselves in a large crowd of everyone whose flight was cancelled. One BA chap at the counter is trying to sort them all out. The line isn't going anywhere. Some have sat down. A guitarist serenades us with “We shall overcome.” Amber and I are at the end of this line. We study our lack of options. Finally a chap appears from a doorway with a stack of papers and heads for us. “Who wants a hotel?” he asks. Sighting a couple with a baby he gives them some coupons then disappears through the doorway again. Ten minutes pass and he appears again. Several Spanish speaking people corner him, almost threatening to rough him up. He protests, “Back off or I’m going away and I won’t be back.” He gives out the coupons then disappears again. A young chap addresses me in German. Finally he breaks into English, says that he knows what is going on. But before he can divulge the secret, he breaks into a series of German swearing and marches off down the corridor.

 I’m sure we've seen the last of the guy with the coupons when he pops up again. This time he hands Amber and I the goods. The only open hotel is the Olympia, in Central London. But, he warns us of dire consequences if we take our luggage. Luggage stays in airport; our bodies go to the hotel. We have to come tomorrow to be re-booked, or we dial a pricey BA phone number and hope you don’t go bankrupt while we’re on hold. We exit the room with the crowd and guitarists, pass border control and come to the baggage collection hall. All our suitcases are scattered there, with no supervision. Anyone could walk off with them. A sign boldly declares TO DELAYED PASSENGERS: PLEASE TAKE YOUR LUGGAGE IF NECESSARY. If necessary? ~ Are they being funny? We grab our luggage. 

Outside the terminal, there’s another unending line. This time for a taxi. We team up with a German couple, just back from a Star Trek convention. And so for the next hour we trade Star Trek trivia. Taxi pulls up, we cram in, three couple plus our luggage. Upon arriving at our hotel,  the Taxi man asks foe £66. We ask for three receipts, as we each have to reclaim our taxi expense from BA. “I suppose you’re giving me a tip too,” he says. We pull together £80, ask for change. But he pockets the money and says, “Thank you.”. At least he hands out three receipts.

From our hotel room I call the BA number. After 15 minutes a voice comes on. He puts me through to the “Excecutive Club”. Then, I lie on the bed for 45 more minutes; on hold. I hang up. After calling again I reach the first voice. Letting all my dignity go to the wind, I plead, almost cry to the chappie in Bombay not to transfer me but to book me on a flight. Which he does.

After that our fortunes take a turn for the better. Amber and I sleep well, eat a great breakfast, coffee, then lunch on BA’s expense account. Our Munich flight leaves on time and the rest is uninteresting.

I’m left pondering how rarely we appreciate our planet and the weather systems, except when our travel plans go wrong. Then, rather than expressing contrition, or understanding, even acknowledging that the Earth has a right to exist, we’re reduced to swearing.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Cottarton Labyrinth

Last summer, despite being the butt of all jokes and other disparaging comments I built a labyrinth in the middle of our field. Not a maze like you find in English country manors with passages framed by neat boxwood, most with dead ends, designed to bewilder you. Or a-maze? The labyrinth leads you in one continuous path though by no means a direct one, to the centre, and then back out.  You can walk it at any time of day or night, when you feel distressed, when you’re happy, want to meditate. Or you can walk it when you have absolutely no reason or purpose in doing so. Do it consciously, each step taken with awareness, and you find yourself emerging from the pathways  in a different space then where you entered.

The view toward the cottage

Building a Cretan-style labyrinth, or any other is quite easy and doesn't require advanced surveying skills. First, you learn how to draw your labyrinth on paper. Then you repeat the same process on the land. My introduction to drawing was a you-tube video.  I cleared away the space with my scythe. After I’d practiced my art skills and knew how the deisign worked, I repeated the process on the cleared space, using 3 foot long bamboo sticks as my pencil. I used them also to measure the width of the path and stuck one into the ground every three feet. The labyrinth axis is lined up with  Janetstown Hill,  the most prominent peak close to Cottarton,  so that the structure blends with the energy of the land.  I marked the  cross at the labyrinth centre with stones from our land. At the heart is a collection of white quartz. No doubt you'll find your own objects to enhance the structure you build. After drawing the labyrinth on the land I mowed the pathways, and kept them mowed throughout the summer.

During August white clover grew in the structure. On a warm day you could smell its honey. My favorite time of day was around 9 pm when the low angle of the sun lit up our grassy field in bright golden hues. There was a peace in the air that did not appear to originate in any human thought Something you might call, sacred. You wanted to indulge totally in what was there. Without boundaries. To walk in circles, with your feet constrained to move along a prescribed path seemed almost unnatural.  At other times, especially when one felt overwhelmed by  turbulent thoughts, the pathways were more welcome. Walking them awoke an inner movement toward harmony. There was no thought of suppressing unwelcome thoughts or feelings, but rather a process of becoming more aware of them. Seeing what was already there.

Stone circle near Aboyne

Some people like to go to a church, cathedral or other special building to pray or meditate. Lately I've found most such places, built by human hands, to be empty and uninspiring. The temple that inspires is not one that is built by us or by our clever thoughts. It’s outdoors in the order created by nature, with nothing to separate the sky from the Earth. The language is expressed in the grains on the grass stalk, seemingly haphazard clover clumps and gnarly pine trees. I suspect that our ancestors five thousand years ago or earlier also sensed a certain sacredness in such places which is why they built their stone circles. Not to create temples of worship. The temple was already there. But rather to mark those spots that were particularly meaningful. Where, if you spent some time, you might discover yourself and your connection with the land.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Bees and the Northern Lights

Three days ago the bees were acting up. Temperatures were below 10 C, and so I expected them to remain huddled in a ball inside the log, but there they were, buzzing in circles, darting here and there. They clustered in large groups on the log. Some took off to forage, but others, plain excited danced in zig-zags to the music of  an unseen piper. Some alighted in Amber’s hair when she approached the hive. A first!

Meanwhile, unseen by us,  a large mass of plasma erupted from the sun and began its journey earthwards. Did the bees sense it? I’m quite sure that they’re aware of many influences that you and I don’t notice. Our unconscious thoughts and feelings for one. Geomagnetic storms are known to affect their WaggleDance.  They have a close relationship with the sun. Adult worker larvae take 21 days to develop, the rotation period of the sun. When the Queen takes her mating flight which way does she fly? Directly toward the sun. It’s well established that worker bees use the sun’s position when executing their Waggle Dance --- a complicated set of gyrations performed on the honeycomb to tell other foragers where the best food supply can be found. And what are beeswax and honey if not energy sources --- the sun’s energy stored by bees and ready for burning.

Clearly I didn't understand what the bees were telling me or I would not have been so surprised when Charles called last night to tell me that the Aurora was active. I hung up quickly and darted outside. There it was on the northern horizon, a curtain of greenish-white extending a quarter of the way to the zenith. Amber even brought out Ellie to look, but poor Ellie, just out of a bath, found the warmth of the indoor fire more inviting than the green thing-a-jig on the horizon. From the white haze, several green flames shot upwards, waving, hair-like. I thought of my camera, but realized that by the time I fished it out of my clutter, the flames would be gone. Oh well, that’s why UFO’s are never properly photographed either.  A second green curtain developed higher in the sky. You knew that it wasn't a cloud because stars shone steadily through it. Minutes passed, the lights shifted  to cluster brightest under the pole star. A large pink glow gathered close to the horizon, remained there for a few minutes before dissipating. The green flames died away and there remained the white glow that was not from street lights.

Luckily, others were able to capture the show.

Did the bees know about the solar explosion before it arrived? I don't rule it out. Barbara Shipman, a mathematician at Rochester University described their the Waggle Dance  in terms of a six-dimensional figure, one that can also describe the behavior of sub-atomic quarks. I've no idea what her discovery means except that bees remain extremely mysterious, with an intelligence that far surpasses what you'd expect of the little things. Perhaps they're not limited by our three dimensions.

Reluctantly I went inside the house. Daily life --- what people call “the real world” was calling, even though it’s probably less real than we think. This was the first time I’d seen the Aurora since returning to Scotland. It’s an unexpected guest, beautiful and uncommon. When it’s there you want to stay with it every minute. You don’t know when you’ll get to see it again.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Reinventing the Wheel (Hoe)

I believe in short cuts. Some say that ‘you get what you pay for’. I prefer to find a good deal. For free if possible. I like to break laws such as the law of gravity. Bend the law of karma, produce vegetables and flowers with little effort, instead of by the sweat of thy brow.

Among gardening short cuts, there's none better than the wheel hoe. I first saw it in the book on Permaculture gardening by  Nikolay Kurdyumov, Growing Vegetables with a Smile and knew I had to have one. Next year we’re planting a 200 square meter patch of wildflowers, a cereal field and so on. My current approach to gardening of spading over the bed, weeding out buttercups one by one, rotavating, replacing lost soil with barrows of compost --- It's too much for one man. There has to be a better way.

Yesterday I cleared out the buttercup-infested wildflower bed. First I scythed down the weeds to two inches. Then the wheel hoe loosened the weeds and soil down to 4 inches. I raked the weeds up. A job that normally takes half a day was finished in an hour. Plus the well-worked top layer that is most fertile was preserved. Unlike the rotavator, the wheel hoe doesn't bury the weeds to where you can't find them.

Permaculture emphasizes working with the top 4 inches of soil. You mulch it with weeds, hay, straw, cardboard, leaves --- whatever decomposes. The soil’s fertility lies not in fertilizer but in the interconnecting pathways created by roots, earthworms and other bugs --- the soil’s structure. Destroy that by spading over the soil and no amount of fertilizer will help you.  I was sceptical whether Permaculture, shown to work in Australia and Russia, can work in Scotland with our heavy, slug-infested clay soils. But why not try it anyway and save a heap of work as a bonus. And so, this summer I mulched the veg beds with hay. I put away the spade and brought out the wheel hoe.

The beauty of the wheel hoe is  its efficiency in delivering your effort where it is needed. This is a result of the handle design and the wheel --- once again re-invented. In working a straight dutch hoe, you can’t deliver the necessary force because of your unwieldy grip on a straight handle. Also, the bit is driven into the ground rather than parallell to the ground. Trust me, it takes remarkably little effort to plough up your land with a wheel hoe.

Where do you find one? Such a simple tool, once a common feature in gardens, is unfortunately not readily available. In the US you can find one at Lehman’s, that sell Amish tools or at Valley Oak Tool Company,  all for about  $275. In the UK, your only option, other than the antique tool store or ebay is the Swiss made Glaser for about £330. All that money for a hoe?

Along with my philosophy of getting a good product, cheap, I opted for the Planet Whizbang hoe, and ordered it online. They sell you the metal hardware that makes up the hoe. You assemble it, find a suitable wheel and you make the handles yourself. The kit costs about $100, plus $45 if you want it shipped internationally. The design is excellent and durable. The hoe works like a miracle. Particularly important are the right-angle handle grips that deliver your effort efficiently, to push the hoe along. Amber has attacked the weeds in our gravel path with it. I've prepared and planted new beds, hoed out weeds in no time. Meanwhile my petrol rotavator is gathering dust in the garage. 

Give it a spin. See if the wheel hoe won’t transform your gardening too.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Log Hive --- and its Residents

The past two weeks has seen a buzz of activity around the log hive. Bees coming in and out, flying in circles but appearing more frustrated than contented. Each day I poked my head into the log to see what was going on. Hundreds of them were packed into a giant ball suspended from the roof of the log. I didn’t see any sign of honeycomb building or any other activity. A couple buzzed in my direction to let me know that they didn’t care for me or my anxiety .

“Just go away and leave us alone. We’re managing,” they said.

Well might they be annoyed, as their entry into the hive wasn’t exactly natural. They arrived at Cottarton in a small nuc-hive, courtesy of the Moray Beekeepers, who supported my plans to keep bees in a hollow log where the bees can build their nest the way they do when left to themselves. The colony had an egg-laying queen, some drones and workers. They already had some brood cells (with embryonic bees)  and honey cells.

In Scotland as in many other countries bee colonies are in serious decline. There are few wild bee colonies left. The decline is blamed on certain new pesticides and the Varroa mite, a blood sucking parasite active in most hives. While I accept the causes, I also wonder if modern bee keeping methods don’t exacerbate the problem by providing an unnatural environment that makes bees more prone to disease and parasites. Also there's the current practice of harvesting honey and replacing it with sugar syrup. Isn't that like feeding the bees junk food? I was very impressed by the apiary of log hives in Cevennes,France. where, according to the local beekeeper, there has never been a Varroa problem. Neither are the bees fed sugar water. Could natural beekeeping help stem the bee population decline by producing healthier bees, able to deal with Varroa and other vicissitudes? Many bee keepers think so. There is a significant movement in many countries to redesign the hive to accommodate the bees natural way of building their nests.

I arrived at Cottarton with the bee colony. How does one move them into the log so that they will start building there? I built a horizontal platform on the log, connected it to the log with a plastic pipe. Set the hive onto the platform so that the only way out of the nuc would be through the log. Once the bees were out of space, wouldn't they move into the log? Well, after a couple of days I realized that they didn’t like their new front door. None of them showed up in the log.

Move-in day for the new residents

I moved them into the hive using the old fashioned way of shaking them off the frames into the hive. Then I set the hive back onto the platform and waited. They buzzed about like crazy but eventually settled down. This method of moving the bees proved unfortunate in that the bees left their brood cells in the nuc unattended. Brood need to be kept warm by the body heat of hundreds on bees, or they die. For whatever reason my bees didn’t find their way back to the brood cells and without their body heat, the brood appear to have died.

For several days the bees hung in a large ball, showing no interest in their old cells or the sugar water I left for them. I held my breath. They left the hive in ones and twos, flew about and returned. I couldn’t tell if they were feeding on anything. I called John Salt at the Moray Bee Dinosaurs. John also has a log hive plus years of experience with bees. In a steady voice, like a pediatrician talking to a nervous new mother, John suggested I calm down, leave the nuc out so that the bees can raid its honey.

I placed the nuc just outside the hive. That got their attention. They began to visit it, feed off the honey they had already stored there. Each warm day I would see more of them flying between the nuc and the log. The bee ball began to look active with bees moving about it. They were building something inside, but I couldn’t tell what. Also, they didn’t like me looking on because they’d shoo me off if I stared at them for too long.

Canterbury Bells

Outside the white clover was in blossom. On a hot day its delicious honey aroma wafted through the air. Canterbury Bells opened up. The garden began to buzz. When picking the Bells I would find so many bees feeding there that I felt guilty about stealing their food. While walking through the field I found more of them around the clover, busy but contented. Every warm day a cloud of them hovered around the hive entrance.

Finally I saw what they were building, white wax cells, several of them. Each day they added centimeters to their structures. Still no interest in sugar syrup. Why should they bother when they have good honey?

 They’d had a rough entrance into the hive, and a couple of weeks of adjustment --- but now they are at home. And they are happy.

Three days later

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Gardener’s Day (a.k.a. Dachnik Day)

Yesterday many gardeners whose plots are producing their first vegetables celebrated Gardener’s Day. At Cottarton, several of us brought dishes made from vegetables we grew and mushrooms foraged from the woods. Flowers too. The table was laid with crab-apple wine and beer, dandelion wine, salads, chantrelles, fresh potatoes, sprouted beans. Despite a very cold April and May, with June and July temperatures resembling November’s, our Earth was still able to produce a festive bounty. The crowning blessing was the weather --- a balmy 20 degrees: the first such day for at least two months, brought on a strong southerly wind. And no rain. Am I too presumptuous to suppose that the Earth thanked us for the attention we gave her? Even the bees came out of their log and buzzed about us.

We raised our glasses to the Earth, and to Love whose power brings out the flowers and the fruits that energize us. Then the music began: Roy, Jake and Charles on their respective instruments and the rest of us singing. Magda brought each of us a sheaf of barleycorn, tied with coloured yarn, and led us in the song John Barleycorn a traditional harvest song. Maddie painted all our faces with whatever theme we asked for. When the guests left they took with them  garden produce and flowers from the table. Gardener’s Day, generally celebrated around July 23 is close to August 1 the medieval festival of the Gule of August, or Lamas. These days it doesn't make the Daily Mail headlines, but long ago it was a significant celebration of  the first harvests. As with most of our present day festivals, its origins lie with the Celts. August 1 was Lughnasadh, when the first corn was cut, and the first blueberries picked, corn rituals performed and marriages. Not only the harvests begin but the first mushrooms pop up --- but the Celts make no mention of those. It was a religious festival too. According to Monaghan’s  The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore,

…a custom Lughnasadh shared with the other Gaelic festivals was the lighting of bonfires and visiting of holy wells. The ashes from Lughnasadh bonfires would be used to bless fields, cattle and people.[14] Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking sunwise around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (see clootie well).[15]

It was not just an opportunity for food and booze but had a spiritual significance of reconnecting with the power of the Earth. In a curious way our day at Cottarton turned out that way too. Every now and then our guests would wander off to be alone for a while, down in the field and away from the bustle, to the walking labyrinth or to stand by the stream. Jake went off to pull sticky willow from our hawthorn hedge. The old spirit of Lughnasahd was alive.

In Russia they celebrate a Gardener’s Day whose date varies from region to region, but it began with Dachnik Day among the ecological communities. The Dacha is a small plot of land in the country with usually a rustic cabin. Dacha villages are found outside many cities and are where people raise vegetables on which they, “Dachniks”, subsist throughout the year. The celebration of Dachnik Day combines  feasting and song  with a conscious recognition of spirit that expresses itself through nature.

I find it curious how Dachnik Day, conceived only ten years ago, has since then spread throughout Russia and to many other other countries, without any particular promotion.  Certainly no commercial promotion. It appears to answer a psychological need in us. But for what? It's not only a date for a good party; you can have one any Friday night. Our psyche needs to feel a connectedness with our spiritual heritage in a deep way that isn’t tainted by old traditions and dogmas. To express our gratitude for the power that makes the corn grow and provides us with our daily bread.

Happy Gardener’s Day to everyone.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Gateway to Paradise

Recently Amber looked over the back fence as the burn flowing at the foot of a steep bank, and noticed a little glade. We all thought about sitting there by the bubbling creek. The voice of the live water can bring inspiration, peace, and open even a door to another dimension. But how to navigate the steep and slippery incline down to the water? Here's the solution I came up with--- steps cut into the hill and framed with treated wood. It's a typical technique when building a mountain trail; heavy work but with Jehan's help we banged it out in a day.

 Jehan is here from France, working as a WWOOFer. Under this program,Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, kids volunteer to work at organic farms throughout Europe for their room and board. It's a great way to see the world on a limited budget and learn organic gardening/farming techniques. Jehan has been in Scotland since May, on the Isle of Skye,Perthshire, and now at Cottarton. Click on this link for a walk up the hill to the gate. Turn up the volume for the sound of the water. The steps are muddy, but soon a news layer of grass will make walking easier. My nephew Juan Bleggi plans to replace our old Gateway to Paradise with one worthier of the name.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Weather Report for Scotland

Last night after the local news,  instead of the familiar well-dressed weather-man standing by the map of Scotland and presenting the same dull weather, there was this wild-eyed chap in wellies, with long, white hair, a loose shirt, half-unbuttoned. When he spoke it was evident that he’d lost half his teeth. This is what he said, at least until a couple of men in black appeared and marched him off camera.

Good evening. In case you haven’t noticed it’s rather cold and rainy out there. Temperatures are holding around 12 degrees Celsius, a bit disappointing considering that this is mid-July, normally the hottest time of the year. (A toothless smile) Also, if you’ve been watching the earlier news you’ll have seen the floods in England and Wales, also very unusual for this time of year. (Long Pause) It’s been raining fairly constantly, with only short breaks since April. Gardeners take note: Earth is still barely warm enough to germinate seeds. Grains are growing slowly. Elsewhere around the world: record heat waves in the eastern United States along with a loss of lives. In southern Russia, the death toll from the floods is expected to be more than 150. (His stare was serious this time).

So, what is going on? They tell you that the Jet Stream is doing something or other. (A dismissive wave). Empty words. The truth is that the Earth is very sick, and that she has a high fever. She’s alternating between shivering and sweating. Over the past few hundred years she has been poisoned and she can't take it for much longer. To resist the toxins, she must withdraw from her normal activity and take care of herself. Wrapping herself in a blanket of clouds she’s lying in a dark corner away from the glare of sunlight. With little milk with which to feed her children, she must wait until she's better.

And now for the forecast. Well, to some extent that depends on you. When was the last time that you were sick, seriously sick, in hospital having to eat hospital food. Nurses bustled in and out, stuck you with needles. Took your blood pressure. Doctors strode in, wiseacred about what might be wrong with you, shrugged their shoulders, affected a smile. A bit like our politicians and weather scientists. What made a difference to your day? It was the people who visited you. The ones who brought you grapes, oranges or a book to read. They told you how much they missed you. The wife who talked to you, held your hand,stroked your hair,or the kids who kissed you and asked when you were coming home.  Just seeing them made you feel that you needed to get better. That you couldn’t just roll over and die. At least not yet. And maybe that’s when you decided to live. That too many people depended on you.

Ah yes, the actual forecast. You want to know whether it will rain during the Olympics. More importantly whether the nearby river will crest. I’m very sorry for those of you who have lost your homes and your livelihood. My house was flooded yesterday. While I sloshed through the water in my sitting room, trying to rescue my pictures, I thought of the land. She’s sick because we poisoned her. Even while she’s trying to shake her fever, we still pump her with toxins. And we expect her to heal? She loves us and misses our love. It's time to think about her welfare, make her feel appreciated so that she knows that people still love her. Don't dismiss her because she is sick. She wants us to touch her with our bare feet, to caress her, thank her for giving us a home and for feeding us. Tend her fruits and her plants. Grow close to her. Acre by acre  help her regain her health. She needs your help. Let her know that you appreciate the bounty that she freely bestows.

Do it and you'll see her smile.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Kin Domain

When Amber and I moved to Cottarton people often asked, “Why are you moving to such a remote place?” “What are you doing there?” Truth to say, we weren’t sure, except that we  wanted to be closer to the land, partially supported by her bounty. So did our friends at Coldhome, though in addition, they decided to build their space from the foundation up. Next to our cottage stands a field: one grassy hectare that we’d no idea what to do with. For four years we developed a vegetable and flower garden --- but what next?

Recently I discovered that we’re part of a greater movement throughout Russia, Australia, the US and Europe, of families establishing themselves on a hectare of land with the vision of building a home for their children, and their children. A place that will provide food, energy, water and most importantly good physical and mental health through work with the land. In Russia such a smallholding is known as the family hearth, “Rodovoje Pomest’e”  or the Kin Domain. 

In the UK,  the movement of families to the land is slower because of high land prices and obstructive planning regulations, but it is growing. There are a few eco-villages --- communities of energy efficient houses made of natural materials. The Findhorn Community for example. Not all houses have enough land for self subsistence. The concept of a family home passed down through generations isn’t yet in the UK zeitgeist. Mobility of family members is taken for granted. Generations are often separated by large distances.

The concept of the Kin Domain was developed in Russia, following the publication of books by Vladimir Megre,  The Ringing Cedars. The books, presented as the teachings of Anastasia, a Siberian recluse, became best-sellers and inspired thousands of people to move closer to the land. Within five years of the books’ publication over 150 new eco-villages took shape. In Russia, the Kin Domain expands on the Dacha (country cottage), and is made possible by the high availability of empty land in central Russia; Siberian ghost towns waiting for people to revitalize them. See the reference article Ecofarming and Agroforestry for Self-Reliance for how micro-farming works in practice.

These days, the nuclear family is on shaky grounds, the family table disappearing fast, children are ferried rapidly from one activity to the next, food is grabbed on the fly. In the Kin Domain, families work together to build their space, promote a sense of cohesion, an appreciation for the land and how it works. Unrealistic, nostalgic, a step backwards or all of the above? Perhaps not. As our social fabric continues to disintegrate with crime, high unemployment, violence, mental and physical illness and the breakdown of the family, it seems to me that the prospect of people working together to build a healthy life has much to commend it. If it becomes a mass movement it could emerge as the force that turns the tide for the better. Green shoots of a new civilization.

 One can be cynical and assert that Kin Domain people will booze and fight each other just as much, as folk living in council flats. Isn’t alcoholism worse among country people? Haven’t we seen it before in the sixties with people moving onto the land and growing weed? This movement appears to have a different ideology. There’s less talk about getting high and having fun,  and a lot more  about what the Earth needs: an emphasis on clean living, hard work, a spiritual connection to the land, natural healing, home education of children and building a solid foundation for a family through a monogamous relationship. Each topic could be a separate blog.

Here's the plan of Cottarton.

We’ve already dug a pond and plan to plant 600 trees early next year. Within 20 years they’ll form a forest that will break our winds, provide homes for birds, squirrels, a wood supply to keep us warm, and building material.  Our present plague of slugs suggests to me that our ecology is out of balance. We need to restore it, increase biodiversity so that the land can not only support us but a wide variety of flora and fauna (deer excepted --- they’re NOT welcome). We'll also have herbs, perennial vegetables, and one or two cereal crops to support us. All for not an unreasonable amount of work?

To be continued…..

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The New Journey

A couple of days ago Mama embarked on the Journey. She’d been talking about it for a while, about the Train that she had to catch. But she hesitated for a long time on the platform. The idea of getting on board and leaving everything familiar behind must have been more than she could contemplate. Scary, because though you hold a ticket, you can’t read the destination that’s printed on it. Our material brain, wired for survival at all costs, fights the notion of embracing the unknown.

Rose, her sisters Tosia and Marynia 1928?

Children of Polish gentry in their daily garb

 Finally she opened the door and got on the train. In the preceding months, during her more lucid moments she talked more often about the coming journey.

 “Those are my things,” she said pointing to the chairs in the room, the photos on the wall, the dining table and the china plates hanging on the wall.

 “Yes,” I said.

 “I will not be taking them with me.

 “You won’t.”

 She looked at me steadily. “I won’t need them.”

 At another time she called me urgently to her side. She knew who I was.

 “Where is Theresa?”

 I told her that my elder sister was in Edinburgh. She’d be coming over in a few days.

 “And Munia?”

 “She’s in Ecuador.”

 “When is she coming?”

 “In mid July.”

 At that, Mama grew more agitated and said, “That’s far too late.”

 The conversation wasn’t a one off. She'd had it a few days earlier with Amber.

 Sometimes she opened the door of the train but then drew back. A month ago, dehydrated from not drinking enough she was admitted to hospital. She had a bad infection. The doctor felt that she only had days to live. We called Munia and asked her to fly over from Ecuador.

 I felt that Mama needed to be aware of what was going on. While she lay in the hospital bed, smiling at me, I said, “Mama, you are seriously ill. You’re dying.”

“No,” she said, emphatically, adding silently that I was talking nonsense. Imagining some rubbish.

 “You ARE dying,” I said.

 She gave me a wave of her hand to say, “Oh rubbish. There you go again, you silly."

 Did she know something the rest of us didn’t know?

 A few days later she staged, yet again, a miraculous recovery. Started eating and drinking. The doctors were left scratching their heads. She didn’t talk much after that, lay quietly looking at another world. Sometimes she’d return, smile at us, and even say something briefly.

 She always reacted to Father Jim MacManus who visited her when he was in town. She greeted him with the broadest of smiles and reached out to him. Her last words to him were, “I am very, very happy.”

Munia, Mama and the great grandchildren

 And so on Monday morning while Munia recited a few prayers to her, Mama took a last breath. She got onto the train. The door closed behind her. When Amber and I reached her house, we saw her lying on her bed, apparently asleep. A beautiful aura filled the room, a feeling of blessedness that did not appear to emanate from a human source. The oppressive atmosphere of fear and anxiety that had hung around her bed in previous weeks was gone. I sat beside her as before and drank in that benediction.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Building the Anastasia Hive

I’ve always wanted to keep bees. I want the honey, the wax and I need to have my veg flowers pollinated. Bee numbers are in decline. Our pesticides, and Varroa Mite are just two reasons.  The Earth needs more bees now, if it is to heal. I'd like to keep happy bees who feel at home the way they would in the wild. That way they would grow stronger, more resistant to disease and parasites. Then I read about Anastasia, a Siberian recluse, the subject of several books by Vladimir Megre. She’s a fountain of information on  gardening, homesteading, education, spirituality, aliens and yes, bee keeping. “A lot of what you do to maintain bee colonies just gets in the way,” she says. We need a natural hive, the way that bees live in nature i.e. a hollow log with no internal sharp corners, of a deciduous wood. Let the bees roam freely in their log, build a natural honeycomb. They keep themselves clean and healthy, don’t require the place to be cleaned out. Make the hive properly and they’ll spend their energy gathering nectar rather than fixing up a hive that’s the wrong shape.

The advice made a lot of sense to me.

Curiously, everything I needed for the Siberian hive turned up without having to hunt far afield. Charles at Coldhome had an elm log, rotten in the middle, that was just about the required dimensions (120 cm long, a potential 40x40 cm cavity and walls 5-6 cm thick. The log was already rotten on the inside and would need minimal carving out. I cut the log covers out of a stump I found by the side of the road on the way to Rhynie. Other scraps of wood I just had at home.

After Charles delivered the log on a trailer --- it was a heavy bugger, I hollowed out the rotten wood and some more, mostly by chainsaw. I replaced the chain oil by rape-seed oil (in the US that’s Canola oil), so as not to contaminate the wood with hydrocarbons. Chain-sawing required using a curved stroke with the saw, a twist of the wrist and a pull to get the cleanest cavity.

The top lid was screwed on and covered with a layer of cob (adobe in the US) to seal all the holes. We want the hive to be draft free and to retain the bees scents. Anastasia recommends fitting the bottom lid inside the log, and seal it there by cloth or grass. Since the log’s opening is such an odd shape, I made a cardboard template of the opening, and transferred it to the lid. Then I jigsawed out the excess wood. I plugged extra holes with cob. The access slits for the bees are 10-15cm thick. I cut them first with closely spaced drilling, then cleaned them out by chainsaw.
Ready for Occupants

Finally I placed the log on pilings, at an angle of 20 degrees, the slits facing due south. The little roof is made of plywood, to keep the hot Scottish sun ( ha ha!) from heating up the hive. I think that the bee colony should be comfy, even in winter. Later I'll add a screen for wind protection.

Before sealing the hive I rubbed lavender and lemon balm scents on the wood to attract passing bee scouts. I also left the bees a chunk of beeswax inside. 

I’m waiting for some bees to move in. No deposit necessary. I've also asked around the glen among local bee keepers for anyone with an extra colony. Here's a video. of how they might look.

Once a colony is established, the queen flies to the highest point where she starts to lay eggs and build the brood comb. Meanwhile the workers work at the lower and to build the comb for their winter food. The cloth cover is to prevent the honey laden comb from sticking to the cover.

Natural Honeycomb
For the first year I won’t harvest any honey. The Russian method is to harvest the honey in August. I'm not sure if that timing would work in Scotland, because the length of our winters are very unpredictable. In a long winter the bees could get hungry. This year for example, wintry conditions dragged on into May. Perhaps harvesting in early summer might be a better plan.

Does anyone out there fancy sticking their hand into the log and pilfering some honey? Do you think that the bees will mind?

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Kissing's In Season

When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out o' season. These days our hillsides are covered in gorse which, thanks to the warm spell we had in March, is in full bloom. Kissing's also in season, and so I embarked on making gorse wine. For years, the thought of pricked fingers from picking gorse flowers dissuaded me from making gorse wine. One evening at Coldhome I tasted Fi Thompson’s wine. Something absolutely heavenly hit my pallete. The wine had captured the essence of sunlight; warmed the heart. It also had magnificent and complex body. Wow! The sensation was like a long and tender kiss.

The next day I was out on the land, in a gorse patch, pulling at the flowers with my bare fingers. It was a zen sort of exercise that required total mindfulness, at all times. Inattention was punished by getting pricked, sore fingers. I picked the brightest bushes, those with large, rich flower clumps, pulled them off. The rain dribbled on me, but what the hell. After a couple of hours I had amassed at almost two gallons of flowers. No blood on the fingers either.

Fi sent me her recipe. Here it is.


 1 gallon gorse flowers
 2 oranges
 3 lb. sugar
 1 gallon water
 2 lemons
 Yeast; yeast nutrient


The best plan is to put your flowers in a calico bag, which can then be dropped into the water and simmered for a quarter of an hour, afterwards making up the water to the original quantity. When you remove the bag, squeeze it well to extract the liquor, and return this to the bulk. Then dissolve the sugar in the liquid, and add the lemon and orange juice, and the skins (no pith) of the fruit. Allow the liquor to cool to 70 degrees F.then add the yeast (a general-purpose wine yeast) or a level teaspoon of granulated yeast and yeast nutrient. Three days is sufficient a soaking period to extract colour and aroma, and for fermentation to get well under way, as long as the liquor is kept in a warm place (65-70 degrees F.), closely covered and given an occasional stir. Then strain it into a fermenting jar and fit an air lock and put it in a slightly cooler place. Siphon it off the lees when the top third has cleared (after two to three months) and again three months later. Put in a cooler place still (55 degrees F.); it will be ready to drink after another two months or so.

Apparently, with the bottle I tasted,  Fi  left her wine in the fermenting jar for five years before she noticed it there. All recipes emphasize the need to allow this wine the time to mature. My mixture is in the fermenting jar, bubbling away. When Christmas rolls around, ask me how it tastes.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Hunger Games --- The Scottish Version

In both Gaia’s Children, and the short story, The Lottery, I speculate that in 50-100 years time Scotland will revert to being the land of small crofters, with most of the food grown on homesteads, typically a small house on a couple of acres of land. I surmised that the rising price of diesel would make large farms uneconomical. Farmers would then sell of their land, perhaps at a handsome price, to homesteaders. The same might also be accomplished through land reform : absentee lairds selling off their land to the locals. So, in the coming, warmer days, small scale food production will turn out to be more economical than today’s large scale, mechanized farms.

Science fiction? Maybe not entirely. In fact Russians demonstrated the effectiveness of small scale food production. I was recently startled to learn that in 1999, 35 million small family plots produced 90% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of vegetables, 87% of fruits, 59% of meat, 49% of milk.

How else did the average Russian survive the transition from communism to capitalism in the 1990s: the years of crippling inflation, stagnant or non-existent salaries and sky high food prices? Most middle class people, including residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg had a country home --- the dacha, where they worked the land on weekends. In 1995 while on assignment in St. Petersburg, I visited one --- a small cabin with a woodstove for heating, no electricity, a composting toilet, and water drawn from a nearby well. It was on an acre of land planted with root vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, every vegetable that grows. I didn't see cereal crops; those still are mostly raised on large farms.

During July and August, city offices close their doors, the employees take off for their dachas where they tend their gardens, harvest their crops and preserve them for winter. Any excess is carted off to the city and hawked by little old ladies on street corners. Russians also are avid wild mushroom hunters, and have every recipe for preserving their haul.

Dachas in Omsk

Doesn’t the idea of small scale food production as a means for sustaining a large population, fly in the face of accepted economical models? What makes dacha farming work in Russia are several factors:

1. The existence of abundant cheap land. Russia has a very low population density.
2. Limited globalization. No access to farms in Africa for example, where these days most of UK vegetables are grown.
3. Low overhead. Dacha farming needs no mechanised equipment apart from a rotavator, often shared communally.
4. No reliance on oil-sourced energy.
5. Large numbers of people doing it (35 million families).

Is this the future face of Scotland? Except for access to cheap land (Point 1), and one could argue that there’s plenty of land, just that it isn’t accessible yet, the other factors could all become the new reality once global warming kicks in, and the price of oil soars out of reach. At least in Scotland which has a lower population density than England.

I believe that the Earth is not only growing warmer, but it will continue to do so, regardless of our best efforts to change the course. If that is the case (and I wish it weren't), we need to adapt to the coming, warmer environment. Securing a reliable food supply would be a priority. Kenya's vegetable farms won’t always be there to grow our food. If not, a new paradigm is called for: communities of small scale crofters, growing their food sustainably. The Russian experience demonstrates that it is much more than a pipe dream.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Rumi : The disappearance of Shams

Episode 5 of Sophia Through Time is set in thirteenth century Syria, the time of the great mystic Rumi. For many years Rumi (Mevlana) grieved the unexplained disappearance of Shams, his beloved master. Some said that he had been killed by Rumi's disciples. Others, that he chose to retire from public view. Rumi transformed his grief into some of his most splendid poetry.

In this fictional narrative, Fatima Khatoun is a real person, as is her female companion. Historical archives don't reveal the latter's name.

Click here for Sophia Through Time: Mevlana

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Story Wrought in Glass

A few days ago, Amber and I chanced on the old parish church in Croick. If you think Cottarton is remote, try out Croick which is fifteen miles from the nearest shops, in an empty glen and not a farm in sight. Only a few scattered houses. You can walk for miles and not see a human soul. The adjoining glens contain the Alladale Estate, the site of an ecological restoration project. It's an idyllic spot with a dark history.

While taking us on a safari tour of Alladale Estate, our guide John, told us about the days of the Highland Clearances, when hundreds of families were forced from their homes to make way for large sheep farms. In 1845, after a prolonged struggle, 18 families, some 90 people, from the glen of Glenvalvie were evicted from their homes. They sought refuge in the nearby church of Croick only to find that the local factor had locked the doors against them. The people spent the night in the churchyard, using tarpaulins to shelter from the wind and rain. Before they left, some of the women used their jewellery to scratch their names, and their story in the windows. We were able to make out a few of those scratches.

"Glencalvie people was in the churchyard here May 24 1845"

"Glencalvie tenants residing here"

“Ros James Borthwick”

“The Glencalvie tenants reside in the kirkyard in May 24, 1845”

"Glencalvie people, the wicked generation”

The latter scrawl suggests that the church leaders persuaded the people that they were being punished for their sins.

Interestingly a nearby plaque makes no mention of the doors being locked. Rather, it states that the people voluntarily decided not to enter the church as to do so would be sacrilegious. That’s not the story the locals have passed down to their children. Nor does it accord with the following letter to the Times newspaper in 1845:

Behind the church, a long kind of booth was erected, the roof formed of tarpaulin stretched over poles, the sides in with horsecloths, rugs, blankets and plaids ... Their furniture, excepting their bedding, they got distributed amongst the cottages of their neighbours; and with their bedding and their children they all removed on Saturday afternoon to this place. In my last letter I informed you that they had been round to every heritor and factor in the neighbourhood, and 12 of the 18 families had been unable to find places of shelter........

History is re-written by the winners.

We don’t know where the people went. Some ended up in cities, others crossed the Atlantic to Nova Scotia. It's sadly ironic that these days Glencalvie doesn’t host any sheep, in whose names the atrocities were committed. The sheep farming of old is no longer economical.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Happy Birthday to Gaia’s Children

Linella's Spread

It was the long expected party, with dozens of guests. Just about everyone we could think of was there, on a Thursday night too. The Texas/ Louisiana spread surpassed its legendary reputation. Chili, salsa, gumbo, queso, beer, spicy beans. You don’t find those in a Scottish restaurant, unless the chef happens to be Amber. Southern cuisine is in her blood, and she knows how to treat it well. For me, sharing the book’s birthday with friendly and supportive people was what it was about. And an opportunity to thank everyone who helped me prepare the manuscript: editors, reviewers, critics and supporters.

I can’t judge the book any more than I could judge a child who is born. It has everything right about it. I’m happy with the way it turned out, and that’s as far as I’ll go. I'm pleased that people whom I’ve never met reportedly like it. While I’m not expecting a bestseller, I hope that the book will please, inspire, provoke a thoughtful response, open a window to a new and awe-inspiring world.

Fiona Alden, Alastair Grant, Charles Ashton, Adam Archibald Charlie Roy, Rachel Ashton, Annie Ashton (All pretending to read)

It’s been a long journey since the sunny October in the French Pyrenees where I penned the opening chapters. The first seeds were kicking about much earlier. Questions about language, and how it shapes our thinking. How would we think if our thinking wasn’t wedded to language? In forming a sentence we already separate subject and object, you and I, I and the world, Catholics from Jews, Americans from the French and so on. Language fragments our world, chews it into small bites that don’t appear to relate to each other. We accept that fragmented reality as the real world when it is more likely an illusion resulting from our rational thinking --- a thinking chained by language. Is that modality of thinking inevitable? Is there another that doesn’t fragment our experience? If so, then it’s not common. Perhaps it’s experienced through meditation or an altered state of consciousness.

Those who know me have had to put up with my tirades about global warming. I’m not one for political action. I’m convinced that humanity’s devastating effect on Gaia goes back to our basic psychology, to our tendency to see ourselves as separate from our environment, and from each other. We only exploit nature without regard to her needs when we feel separate from nature. Which is where the lupans come in, showing us the way to heal the troubled Earth. Less rational than us more empathic, lacking “the ego”, they may at first appear remote to us, however they are humanity’s unrecognized alter-ego. I won’t say more here. Song of the Earth, the sequel to Gaia’s Children will answer some of those questions.

Back to the book launch and to Linella Sienkiewicz’s table. The outside temperatures aren't warm enough yet to dine al-fresco in March but within fifty years time that will change. Unfortunately no lupans showed up after the guests were gone to take away the leftovers. They haven’t been born --- not yet. This party was only their baby shower.

We all wish the lupans anticipated Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Train Journey

“What station is this?”

She looks up at me, her head raised from the pillow, eyes fixed on something I can’t see. She wants to know where the train has stopped. Is this the station where she must get off? She has no doubt that she’s on a train, and is headed where she needs be. But on which train?

I tell her, “You’re not on any train. You’re in your house --- 98 Stormont Road.”

My words don’t mean anything to her. She’s on a train. Regardless of my rational explanation, the train is her only reality.

“I’m not on a train?” she says.


She shrugs, as if to say, "Whatever you say."

I return to my breakfast, my toast and coffee. Soon I hear her mumble. The same word repeated rhythmically.

“Ches … ches.. ches…” Over and over and over.

When I wake up at night I often hear it. Sometimes during the day, or evenings while waiting for lights-out. We don’t have any idea what it means.

In Polish “Czas” – means time. “Czesc!” means Hi.

But “Ches…ches… ches…” ?? Perhaps it’s more like a nervous tic. An obsessive compulsive pattern.

Last night when I kissed her good-night, she said, “What carriage are you in?”


“Are you in the next one?”

“I’m not on any train. I’m sleeping in the bed over there.”

I’m not sure she sees the bed. When I mentioned the train to Agata, who stays with her day and night, she said, “Cocia's always imagining that she’s getting on a train.”

While Amber and I drink our morning coffee, I hear the rhythmic sound of a steam locomotive:

“Choo … chooo…choo…” Then, “Are we at the station?”

What is this train? A memory of something that happened long ago, when Poland was occupied by the Germans? A short while ago she couldn’t sleep for fear that a massacre was taking place. She called out, “They’re killing the women!” It's likely that during the occupation she could have witnessed a bloodbath from a train window.

Or is the train her life? Years back during a retreat she attended, the priest described Earthly life as a train journey: traveling toward the station where you finally get off. Never sure which station it will be, you have to be ready for it. She told me about the image; said that she liked it. When I talk to her about death, I feel that death is still an abstraction that she can't relate to. But the train journey is real. She and I are on that train but in separate carriages. She wants to know what station we’re at. What station is coming up.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Simon Magus --- New Light on an old story

Disputation with Simon Magus by Fillipino Lippi

Episode 4 of Sophia Through Time takes place at the time of Emperor Nero. The Gnostic teacher Simon Magus is reunited with Helen, whom he recognizes as the incarnation of Thought, separated from him before time began. Together they must face their greatest trial in which one of them must die.

Click here for the story

Friday, 17 February 2012

Of Wolves and Donkeys

The chief question posed when debating the return of the wolf to Scotland, is how to protect livestock. Since the days of the Highland Clearances,Scotland is a land of large sheep and cattle farms. Economic enough but not lucrative. My neighbours often tell me that only with EU subsidies can they turn a profit. Many farms aren't fenced, and those that are wouldn't keep out a wolf. So, is the prospect of returning the wolf to Scotland total lunacy?

Perhaps there’s another solution to coexisting with wolves that doesn’t involve covering the entire country with eight-foot tall electrified fencing. Ranchers in Minnesota, Montana  where the wolf has made a strong comeback are finding that donkeys provide considerable protection against both wolves and coyotes. Apparently donkeys are more effective at keeping the wolves away than the more traditional method of shooting the wolves on sight.  In care you think this is an April Fool column, here’s the lowdown from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. Could a strategic addition of donkeys in Scotland safeguard sheep from wolves?

Wolves and Donkeys don’t get along. The enmity between the two species, the canidae and the equidae is legendary. Donkey owners know that they need to keep their dogs away as the donkey will kill them. Not only dogs. The donkey, with its kicking and braying is one of the few domestic animals that can fluster a wolf and send it running. The nasty-tempered donkey has been known to trample many a wolf. Llamas apparently also share the same animosity toward wolves.

What is it about donkeys that instead of hightailing it when wolves appear, they’ll stand their ground and indeed move in to attack? It’s not a lack of intellect; it may be their innate stubbornness. Or a lack of fear. Have you ever tried to fluster a donkey? There’s even a report of farmers in Namibia using donkey to protect their stock from leopards. Wow! Next time I go on a safari, I’m taking a donkey with me for protection.

Donkeys are herbivores. They don’t eat wolves, but nature has endowed them with a good kick, fearlessness and  long ears that give them  acute hearing. They’ll hear a wolf or coyote when it’s far away and respond with loud braying. The wolves evidently respect animals that stand up to it; a donkey’s bray sends them running. Not always though. Wolves have been known to kill young donkeys.

Then there’s the story of the poor wolf and donkey cooped up in the same cage near Tirana, Albania. The pair of them decided that it would best for them to be friends, and so they learned to live together for a while. Fortunately as a result of a petition from various humane societies, the two were set free.

Will it work in Scotland? Donkeys and llamas alone won't totally safeguard a flock, however they are part of the solution. In Colorado where coyotes frequently attack sheep, 99% of farmers use donkeys as guard animals. They also use fencing.

Additional references

The Wolf Army


Video from Switzerland 

Sunday, 12 February 2012

How do you write a novel?

It’s the question that many people ask me at a book-signing, at newspaper interviews or upon hearing that I’ve published a novel. I’ve been writing since my teens. finished ten novels of which two have been published. I can answer the question --- How I write a novel but other authors will have very different responses.

The old cliché that writing a book is like having a baby is not far off the mark. It gestates for a while, grows inside you, then there’s pain, labour and the child appears. I can’t do outlines, synopses and the like. After the book is finished I’ll struggle to produce a synopsis for a publisher, but I hate them.

Each novel begins with a strong feeling, about something in particular; sometimes for a while not identifyable. A student wakes up to find four eyes in his head. How does he feel about them? God on Texas Death Row. Could it happen? With Gaia’s Children, gestation began with the vision of a country torn apart by climate change, climate refugees hunted down by skinheads, and of a woman who stood up for the refugees. The human race was close to finished. The planet was ridding itself of a deadly virus --- us. The evolutionary torch would be passed on to a new race.

In presenting the new race it seemed to me that the role of human language is critical. It shapes our thoughts, attitudes to the environment. In greater part it affects our psyche. Language cause us to divide subject from object, you from I, outside from the inside. It gets been me and what I observe. Our attitude to the Earth as a dead thing to be exploited follows from language and our thought structure. We can try to change things by creating peace movements or doing environmentally friendly things. All window dressing. Our behaviour will not fundamentally change as long a the old psyche remains. Could a radical change happen if we were shown the way? If we lived alongside a people with a different, non-verbal psyche?

While those thoughts and feelings bounced about, I didn’t put anything down. The character of Linella (inspired by Amber) took shape. Some of the others too but no more than charcoal sketches. The unborn book was growing even when I didn’t give it much attention. I wrote the opening chapters. I had to work out how to present events from the point of view of people who don’t verbalize. Several versions of those chapter went into the rubbish bin. Finally the plot skeleton emerged as a series of chapter headings. I still didn’t know details of what each chapter would contain.

The rest tended to flow. Chapters appeared without my knowing of where or how they came from. But they made sense. Whenever I was stuck, I returned to the original vision and to the characters. After the first draft came the hard part, checking the plot and characters for consistency, voice and motivation. You have to be draconian about throwing out stuff that doesn’t work. No matter how much you like it. Then there came endless editing. Sometimes Polish dialog that makes no sense in English sneaked in. Amber’s ear for dialog caught those. She’d tell me: “Nobody speaks like that.”

Other books followed a similar course. In each case the initial vision was key, the place from which the story flowed. I’ve found that as long as I adhere to it, the rest of the writing process takes care of itself.