Friday, 20 December 2013

Auntie Science

Far away in the galaxy is an anti- planet, made of anti-matter, where a man walks into an anti-bar, sits down at the anti-counter, orders an anti-beer from an anti-barman, takes it to an anti-table, and then gets into a heated debate with an anti-scientist. 

Lately some people  have accused me of being anti-science which is far from true as I've made my living for many years doing science, teaching science, trying to awaken in students a love of science. However lately the label  anti-science has lately been thrown gratuitously at people who question a point thought to be proved. Those who espouse green politics, are anti-fracking, believe that ESP is an established fact, and who believe in God are often labelled as anti-science. The latter category is used with caution as it includes 90% of the Earth’s population.

True, many environmental activists mistrust scientific studies, at least those funded by tobacco companies, oil companies, Monsanto, and most that are quoted by politicians to bolster their policies. That includes many studies in the latest report on shale gas, asserting that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes, pollute groundwater or result in extra methane leaking into the atmosphere. Seriously guys, what studies would you expect to find in that report?

The problem isn’t one of anti-science, but Auntie Science to whom we look for answers to guide our lives, inform us and form our opinions for us. She makes us feel safe at night knowing that a meteor is not going to fall on our heads; that voodoo is only a superstition. When you’re ill, you can rest easily knowing that someone far away isn’t sticking pins into a doll to make you ill. We expect auntie to answer some of our most perplexing questions. Is there a God? Do we survive death? What am I doing here anyway? We’re even more perplexed to find that not only our auntie cannot answer those questions --- at least convincingly, but that more basic questions such as the safety of fracking or GMO crops remain elusive.

Choose your scientific opinion. A hundred years ago science carried a mantle of authority, verging on infallibility. Auntie had supplanted the Bible, the Pope and other religious authorities. But these days, we discover that she is only human and that there’s much that she doesn’t know. Her authoritative mantle is by now a bit tattered.  When Pontius Pilate faced Jesus and asked, “What is truth?” he didn’t get much of an answer either.

She knows certain things for certain --- for example the geology of the planets, the size and age of the universe, that species evolve somehow or other from primitive to more complex forms. But the more she knows, the more she realizes that she doesn’t know. At least if she is honest with herself, and therein lies the problem. Science is done by scientists. Being human, they have their own desires, feelings, insecurities, questions they want answered, opinions that they want to bolster. They are often beholden to a funding agency, public or private, that wants them to come up with “the right answer”.  As well as representing “auntie” they look to auntie for her authority. It’s a schizophrenic set up likely to result in schizophrenic findings.

Can good science be done? Sure it can, but we have to also accept its limitations; that the scientist’s ego cannot be removed from it. The ego is there when the question is posed, in how that question is pursued and it will somewhat colour the results. In atomic physics it’s well known that the observer cannot be removed from the observed. The atom cannot be studied without reference to a point of view or an apparatus. The act of observation changes the observed data. Jacob Bronowski, in his series, The Ascent of Man said, “There is no 'God’s point of view' ”. Even in pure science the errors cannot be removed from an observation. What then of applied science, pursued with the aim of bolstering a certain belief or political agenda? No wonder that most people cast a skeptical eye on such studies. 

Environmental activists, users of homeopathy or alternative medicines are not fundamentally anti-science. They have very good reasons for their views, not necessarily irrational. A man who sees a ghost knows that spirits are real, and all the skeptics in the world will not convince him that they're only his imagination. The fact is that we've grown in consciousness over the past two hundred years; become more aware. Time was when we took auntie at her word, relied on her to give us a feeling of security about our place in the universe, about our own lives.  Now we realize that she may not know a whole lot more than we.    

Friday, 6 December 2013

Gone Wwoofing!

“Good morning, is this the Cottarton Cottage slave labour camp?” Amber asked, when I picked up the phone, implying that we actually have slave labour here doing our heavy lifting. I was working alongside my helper, and she was concerned that I was overworking him. 

Cottarton --- The summer view

We don’t have slave labour, but we do occasionally have Wwoofers --- not to be confused with an audio component. For our American friends, and other urban readers, WWOOF stands for WorldWide Opportunitieson an Organic Farm. You can look up their website. The spring and summer months see many restless souls wandering the world, wanting to discover it. Not content to be camera-toting tourists, they want to connect with ecologically minded people. Get to know the land from inside-out. Most are college age kids, but there are also occasionally the older types like ourselves. The WWOOF organization connects those people with homesteads or organic farms that could use an extra hand.

Having registered Cottarton on the website as a host (we are an organic homestead), I started to receive tons of email inquiries from prospective Wwoofers. Most were from France, Spain or Portugal. Often young couples, all trying to match up dates and our availability.  Sometimes I get requests from young single women, which is fine by me as long as Amber is here; otherwise it might be awkward.

Time for clearing beds and giving them their winter grass mulch

So far we’ve been very lucky with the young guys who each worked for a couple of weeks here. Perhaps it’s something in the Cottarton air, its magic perhaps, but so far we've had not only hard workers, really willing to help out, but really good company with broad interests, those with a somewhat mystical attachment to the Earth, able to talk about both ordinary and abstruse subjects. Often their English speaking skills are limited and we communicate in a mix of English and French. They’re trying to figure out what they want out of life and this is one of the ways they’re going about it..

And so I look at our land after our latest companion left and see that trees have been planted, the grass in the field cut, beds cleared and mulched, firewood chopped, fences mended, all sorts of tasks that would have taken me weeks to do on my own. Last year my companion built a flight of steps down to our creek. Our latest companion cleaned up the paint on our antique seed boxes. I suspect that as Amber and I advance into the age of creaking bones and thinning hair, I’ll be calling more for help from those kids who want to connect with the land and share our life here for a spell.

Seed boxes inherited from Dickson & Turnbull, the Perth seed company. On long winter nights our work companions helped us restore the old paint.

So far we haven’t maintained contact with our Wwoofers. Like  proverbial ships that pass in the night, they don’t meet up again. For two weeks we share stories, interests, inspire each other, and work side by side in the field. Sometimes we do some counseling; after all we're gray-heads who supposedly have figured out what life is about.

When we say "good-bye" at the train station or bus stop, there's a feeling on both sides that there's been an exchange of energies, that  both parties have benefited and that something good happened. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Aldous Huxley --- Utopian Visionary

 Why is Aldous Huxley popping up on the Cottarton Blog? It’s because, unlike with JFK and C.S. Lewis,  the 50th anniversary of his death, is about to pass unnoticed. At least in the British press. Also, because when I was 18, I read just about everything he wrote, novels, essays, non-fiction and biographies. More than any writer at the time he shook up my youthful idealism, forced me to question my assumptions about the way things are. The book that burst upon me like an explosion was not “Brave New World”. Everyone reads that in high school and comes away convinced that the world is even more fu**ed up than they'd supposed. No, it was “After Many a Summer dies the Swan”.

On the outside, it’s a science fiction yarn set in California, about a rich man who resembles William Randolf Hearst, living in his castle, and scared of death. His doctor is trying to solve this problem, at least find the cure to aging and death. Unexpectedly they discover that a British Earl may have already solved the problem a couple of centuries earlier. That he might even be still alive! Laced throughout the book are conversations with an elderly chap, loosely modelled after the philosopher J. Krishnamurti, a long-time friend of Huxley, who asks – what’s the point of living longer? People don’t improve with age. In fact, time itself may be our worst enemy. Time, idealism, human suffering are all rooted in the human ego. The worst people are not the uneducated yobs. Those who inflict the greatest harm, enslave nations, lead wars are the idealists, the patriots, those who are convinced they’re doing good. In fact, their “God” is no more than a projection of their ego.

The next book I picked up was “Island”, Huxley’s last novel. It’s set on an island in the Indian Ocean where a utopian society has developed. Not because of a change in a political system, or by any outside imposition, but as a result of a spiritual transformation. It begins with education --- the right sort of education that is rooted in an understanding of the human being, both the physical, psychological and spiritual nature. There’s no religion and no dogma on the island. Most people take occasionally a hallucinogenic such as LSD, not as a recreational drug, but as part of a journey of self discovery. Huxley held that the use of hallucinogenics, taken after proper preparation, could open up a person to experience states of consciousness that we all naturally have but for whatever reason cannot usually access at will. However not everyone needs such an initiation. Some people are naturally high, or can slip into such a state through meditation. Such a religious experience can transform a person by showing them new perspectives, new vistas.

As with all utopian novels, “Island” suffers a little from being dull. A typical novel is usually driven by the conflict of the characters. It is not the best medium to explore a world where the characters don't experience conflict. Huxley was attempting an impossible task, which he largely pulled off. These days, dystopian visions abound and form the backbone of the science fiction genre: movies, novels and video games. A general feeling pervades our society, and our media that the world is going to sh**. The reason for this plethora of dark material is not because such is to be our destiny. I suspect that it springs from an overall feeling of alienation, a feeling of being alone in a universe that doesn’t give a damn for us. That message is regularly reinforced by luminaries such as Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and other science profs.

To see things differently takes vision and imagination. Huxley was a man of great vision which is why, despite Brave New World, he could see the possibilities for a better world. One where things could go right. He wasn’t naïve or Pollyanish about it. He knew that the solution lay not in any political, social or idealistic solution but in the transformation of the human being. Not a trivial task.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Andrew Glazewski --- priest, mystic, scientist and friend

One defining moment in my life was a couple of years ago when Amber and I, driving toward Dartmoor, decided to stop by Ilford Park. For me this was pure nostalgia, a trip down memory lane to see  my friend Father Andrew Glazewski 's old house. Back in 1971/72 I visited him there, an army barrack with a curved corrugated iron roof. He was chaplain to a community of Polish refugees, known as “Little Poland” --- people scarred both physically and emotionally by the war and who could not integrate into British society. Andrew (he liked to be called that, without the “Father” or other title), meant a great deal to me. I met him when I was 13, learned how to meditate from him, how to heal, about angels and other supernatural matters. 

We drove into the area of the camp and soon realized that we were looking at an empty field. The barracks were all gone, the church, refectory, Andrew’s house. All that was left were the concrete slabs. Past the old camp, stood a modern building for Polish old folks. With an empty feeling in my chest I asked the young receptionist if anyone there remembered the old times, especially the chaplain. She agreed to put up a notice on their bulletin board with my inquiry and my contact details.

Ilford Park Camp, around 1960.

As we explored the Dartmoor tors, wandered through the mists and tasted the magic of the place, Andrew remained in my mind. The camp had been wiped clean along with all the memories. Only a few old residents, mostly with failing memories remained. How could Andrew and his inspiring teaching be so forgotten? Google his name and almost nothing shows up. And yet the man drew large audiences, inspired both the religious and atheists to explore a world beyond our physical senses. Among spiritual seekers, if you mentioned his name, either “Glazewski” or “Glass of Whisky” and everyone knew who you were talking about. He had researched the nature of the human field, carried out experiments to test his ideas, published scientific papers. All gone and forgotten. Or maybe not. I could perhaps write a biography, or compile his writings --- if I could find them. Ideas and teachings that had such a strong hold of me needed to be shared with others.

 Andrew Glazewski with Sir George Trevelyan of the Wrekin Trust. Between 1965 and 1973 they collaborated, holding workshops to discuss the new emerging consciousness.

While staying at Felicity’s house in Dorset I set about finding out what I could about Andrew’s family. On a Polish website devoted to family trees, I found Andrew’s family. His brothers were all dead, but his nephews/nieces must still be alive. Somewhere.  

It's strange how, when you put your mind to it, doors start opening. A story that I wanted to tell clearly wanted to be told. An internet search turned up Adam Glazewski, Andrew’s nephew, living in France. After a few tries we connected by phone. "Yes," he said, "Andrew was my uncle." He liked what I was trying to do and said that he would arrange to send me all of Andrew’s letters in the family’s possession. Within a couple of months a large package arrived on my doorstep: a trove of correspondence giving me an insight into some of his relationships, but still not enough for a biographical project.

1972 on St Mary's island where Andrew held an annual summer camp for the parish children. He talked to them a lot about druids, fairies, angels but not much about religion. His right hand holds the pendulum he used for healing.

In response to the notice I left at Ilford Park, people who knew Andrew began to call me. They wanted to talk about him. One woman sent me a 30 page unfinished biography of Andrew written by Bob Bloomfield. Many leads ended up dead. Boxes of correspondence left after his death had been binned, or left to rot in basements, destroyed by water, etc. I kept up emailing anyone who might have known him. A website by the author Maryel Gardyne had some of Andrew's writings. Further inquiries led me to the sons of Bruce MacManaway, a healer in whose house Andrew had spoken several times.

On December 22 2012, a box arrived at our house: tapes of Andrew’s conversations sent by John MacManaway. Bruce was apparently a pack-rat who kept everything. Thankfully, John also held onto the recordings. They had deteriorated badly. The tape player was useless as it produced indecipherable sounds. I sent the reel-to-reel tapes off to my friends Ben Ashton and Roger Wharmby who were able to read them and make digital files. I loaded the old cassettes onto my computer and using various filter options was finally able to hear Andrew’s talks ---his passionate voice, sometimes soft and then rising to an emotional high. Quite recognizable.

I still didn’t have enough material for a full biography. An enigmatic man, he remained so after his death. I doubt if more than a handful of people really knew him well, understood his private thoughts, his feelings, his rough spots --- and I’ve no doubt he had bunches of them. But if nothing else, I could edit and transcribe his talks and writings, give people a flavour of something exciting, that inspired so many of us in those days. I’ve done that. The book, The Harmony of the Universe by Andrew Glazewski is due to be published by White Crow Press early next year.

Andrew's grave in Newton Abbot cemetery. 40 years later, every  All Souls Day procession still begins at his grave. 

Recently I’ve come to realize that many scientists have latched onto the same ideas that Andrew had been teaching, and have taken them further. Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphogenetic field is remarkably similar to what Andrew called the Primary Field. Andrew’s healing technique which he called Psycho-Physical Healing, was rediscovered soon after his death and named Therapeutic Touch. Ervin Laszlo and Massimo Citro’s latest researches bear out many of Andrew’s predictions about the future of medicine.

Whether Andrew himself is remembered is no longer important. The teachings were not his personally but were out there waiting for anyone who was ready to discover them. I suppose that will be our fate too. Fifty years after we are gone, and all who knew us are dead too, whether anyone remembers us and our special gifts won’t matter a damn. In the first place, our thoughts, inspirations and visions never belonged to us personally but to all people.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Travelling with Bees

 Recently I arrived at Cottarton with a box full of bees. During the last couple of hours of the journey  the buzzing from the back of the car grew steadily louder, testifying to the bees growing irritation with the journey. They’d already endured five hours of being jostled and shaken, the occasional pothole, unexpected accelerations, the car swerving around corners, and they’d had just about enough of it.

You might wonder how one transports bees? Why did I have to go so far afield as Dumfries in southern Scotland to find them? These days bees are scarce, especially in Scotland. The last winter may have wiped out about half of Scotland’s bee population. The combination of the previous cool, wet summer and the long winter proved difficult for most colonies. Bees went into last winter with low honey supplies, and were shut in their hives by low temperatures until May. Many colonies, including Cottarton’s log hive, didn’t make it.

Mike the Bee Man raises bee colonies for sale. He breeds local strains of bees. I had arranged to buy a nucleus from him consisting of several wax frames with the bees, brood cells and the queen. Unfortunately three weeks ago he was robbed. Because of the scarcity of bees, bee-rustling has become common in the UK. The perpetrators are no doubt bee keepers because the bandits are skilled in manipulating bees. Not only they made off with a dozen colonies but kicked over several other hives.

Instead of a standard  nucleus, I opted for bees in a box --- one with screen walls. Mike placed it on the table in front of me. The bees were all gathered in a large ball, not spherical but more in the shape of a large heart. The queen was somewhere inside, separated from the others in a small cage. I was just awestruck by my new family. They were so beautiful. Mike placed the box in the back on my car. I noticed a cluster of bees on the outside of the box.

“Are you sure that they won’t go buzzing about my head while I’m driving?” I asked.
“No way,” he said. “They’ll want to stay close to the queen. As part of the cluster.”

And so I began my six hour drive back to Cottarton. Of course, halfway through, the loose bees started wandering throughout the car, flying around my head. I had to talk to them the way you talk to small children.

“Now then. You just settle down. Go back to your queen. I’m sure that she misses you.” After a while they caught the drift of my conversation, and wandered off.

Bees in their new home. They're starting to build comb.

Arriving at Cottarton, I had to wait for a break in the drizzle before I donned my bee suit and took the bees to their new hive. It's a Warre hive, that uses top bars instead of frames, so that bees can build their comb in a natural way. I sprayed the bees with a fine water mist to wet their wings and make them less likely to fly about. Then opened the top of the hive and poured the bees in like sand out of a bag. They made a pile on the floor. I found the little cage with the queen. With a nail I opened the little doorway. The queen was still there, contained by a lump of sugary paste. I suspended the cage between two top-bars, and replaced other top bars. The idea is for the bees in the hive to eat through the sugary paste and release the queen. Before closing up the hive I installed a feeder with sugar syrup spiked with chamomile tea (the biodynamic recipe). Oh what a lot of buzzing and muttering, for the next couple of hours before the bees settled down.

 As I stood there a bee stung me in the leg. That’s considered a mark of respect from the colony. Like they recognize you and have adopted you as their keeper.   

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Bambi --- Long Jump Medalist

There he was. Despite the high fence at the bottom of the field, the extra barbed wire, and my conviction that our field was deer proof, Bambi had somehow breached the defenses. He strutted back and forth where we'd planted willows as if he owned the place.

I had already seen the results of previous deer incursions, teeth marks on the bark of the apple trees, the plum tree’s branches cropped, many of my new plantings gnawed off. How the devil had the bugger gotten in?

Plum tree --- after deer pruning

I walked down the path toward him. He immediately spotted me and searched for an escape route, first to the right along the rear fence, and then left, at a slow canter and then breaking into a gallop. The right hand fence was a sturdy stock fence five feet high, set at the far side of a deep ditch. I’d added a string of barbed wire above it. Upon reaching the ditch he launched into the air, sailed twelve feet across the ditch, high above the fence, barbed wire and all, landed on the far side without having even clipped the fence with his feet.

 The ditch, 12 feet wide, and the five foot fence!

I stared with mingled wonder and hopelessness. How on Earth was I too keep him out of our property short of building a fence as tall as heaven? Sure I could install tall green tubes, deer protectors around my trees, but what about the garden? Our raspberries, veggies and all? Shouldn't I put aside my Buddhist sensibilities and just have him shot? Amber suggested we call Steve Wright of Mortlach Game, the man who sells locally caught venison. Once when she ordered venison from him, he'd told her that if any deer bothered us,  he would change our problem into an asset.

Yesterday around 9 pm, still early in the evening up here, Steve stopped by to visit. While we stood in the garden he listened to my woes. He had seen our deer lately and was tracking them. “The problem,” he said, “Are too many mouths and too little food.” It’s been that way since Scotland got rid of the wolf, leaving no natural deer predator but us. Their population is at an all-time high. By most estimates 50% must be culled to protect the countryside. Talk about a natural ecology out of whack.

 Steve shared with me some of his deer lore.

Nibbled willow sapling

We had planted a forest, and the deer immediately sniffed it out. Even the small saplings. The deer sense of smell picks out the scent, especially on warm evenings when the breeze wafts it downhill. Deer don’t nibble  trees for food, but for  trace elements: salt, magnesium, copper, manganese, zinc, iron, cobalt --- you name it. During the past fifty years, as a result of acid rain, the minerals have been leached out of the topsoil, leaving grasses, that deer would eat, deficient in those minerals. In search of a food supplement, the deer head for the trees because tree roots reach down below the topsoil and bring up the trace minerals. Another stroke against us is our organic farming methods. Deer avoid lands where farmers spray their crops with chemicals. They love Cottarton.

Salt Lick (KNZ brand) formulated for deer. It should not be used for sheep because of its high copper content. 

I suggested a salt lick that supplies those essential minerals and increases deer appetite for grass and forage other than trees. Steve agreed that the salt lick might divert the deer to pastures other than Cottarton.  But he cautioned me that the deer have very long memories of where they’ve found the good stuff. Their foraging memories are passed down through generations. Deer are especially fond of fruit trees and raspberries. Watch out for deer when your rasps are ripe. He left me a salt lick, which I installed the following day.

Gean a.k.a. Bird Cherry, a fast
growing native tree.

Of course a dog would fluster the deer and keep them away. However given our itchy feet for travel, I can’t see owning a dog in the near future, much as I’d love to have one around.

What about the permanent solution?  Steve pointed to a large tree and said that he could build a deer observation platform there, and plug the deer as soon as he appeared. I told him that he was most welcome to try. Johanna and Jon are getting married at Cottarton on August 31, and we’re serving a stew, with venison supplied by Steve. The young couple would like food produced by our garden. Shouldn't we also include venison from the land?  

Friday, 24 May 2013

What Dreams May Come

If you spend a night at Cottarton, you can be sure that the first thing that Amber will ask you in the morning is not whether you slept well. Most people sleep soundly here. But, “Did you have a dream?” If you did, then we’ll sit down and talk about it. If you didn’t, then why not??

On June 8 we’re holding a workshop on dreams and dream interpretation at Cottarton.

We take dreams seriously, even if our culture tends to ignore them. How often do you hear someone say, “It was only a dream” Emphasis on only meaning fictional, made up. Untrue.  Or we point to someone we regard as totally unrealistic, out of touch with the real world and say about them, “She’s a dreamer.”   “Dream on!”  “He dreamed it up”. “People who dream need their heads examined.” 

 In our world, dreaming has certainly got a bad rap. Like seeing UFO's, it’s something that respectable people don’t do. You wouldn't ask a candidate for a job whether he is a good dreamer and then hire him based on that strength. Unless his job was to sleep on beds, to advertise them as giving you a good night’s sleep. People who pay attention to their dreams certainly ought to be doing something more productive with their time.

Chagall: Time is a River without Banks

Most psychiatrists also share this attitude toward dreams. If you’re bluesy or you hear voices, the last thing a psychiatrist wants to discuss with you is your dreams. They wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. More and more, modern psychiatry has become wedded with neurology and pharmacology. In the sixties we used to say, “It’s all in the mind” but these days the psychiatric mantram is “It’s all in the brain”. Dreams are caused by misfiring of neurons, bad connections. They're a result of something electrical gone haywire; of no diagnostic use. Yet all the brain scans, electrical traces and other brain studies have yet to help us understand ourselves: who we are and what we need to be doing.

Is the brain good for anything other than frying?

It wasn’t always that way. In the Bible, dreams were the way that God communicated with people. Remember Jacob’s ladder, Pharoah’s dreams, interpreted by Joseph, the dream of the three wise men, Pilate’s wife. In those days dreaming was serious business . Not only people had dreams but they acted on them. The few times that they didn’t, resulted in misfortune. Didn't Caesar ignore Calpurnia's mightmare, go to the senate and get assassinated? 

Blake: Jacob's Ladder

Each morning Amber and I discuss our dreams from the previous night. At times the meaning is plain. You’re in a car moving too fast, with no brakes. Of course, you need to slow down in your real life. But more often we’re faced with a language that initially makes no sense to us. A dinosaur pulls a bus, changes into a gangly man called, Ronnie. A shark about to swallow you turns into a lion. It’s not that you’re crazy, but your deepest self is trying to engage you in conversation. Unfortunately your Self doesn’t speak English. It uses the only language it knows, the language of the night.

Sometimes in a dream we fly to far away places, speak to friends who have died, visit exotic localities. And different times, even the future. I’ve had a few dreams that certainly foreshadowed events to come.

Many people say that they don’t dream. I suspect that dreaming is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. Pay attention to the few dreams you remember and you’ll find that more will come. The more you correspond with a friend, the more that friend will be inclined to write to you. Interpret dreams and you’ll discover vast spaces inside you that you didn’t know were there. And the adventures? Flying is one of them. If you want to fly like Superman or exercise a super-power, try it out in a dream. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A Long Awaited Thaw

No one else seemed to notice. Certainly not the TV Weather Oracle who only a couple of days ago predicted more and more snow and cold weather. And an all-night frost --- every night, something more typical of February than mid April. However, a week ago when I walked  through my field I felt the land glow with an unexpected warmth, particularly curious since a layer of snow still covered the yellow grass. But there it was, the land's first stirring after a prolonged sleep. Later while planting trees I saw the first buttercups poke through the dead grass. Nasty weeds, but in this case the first most welcome sign that our Narnian winter was not going to last until next Christmas, but would end soon.

My father, who could not make the “th” sound as in “thaw”, would say that “The saw is on the way.”

Overhead, flock after flock of screaming geese flew by. Farmers around here watch them carefully as their appearance usually precedes warmer weather.

And then in our garden, the blackcurrant bushes were budding. Daffodils pushed up another inch. You could tell the difference in only three days. If the Weather Oracles paid more attention to what the land has to tell them instead of to graphs and charts, maybe their soothsaying would hit the mark more often.

Nobody, not even old-timers remember anything like this winter, mythological in its endlessness and severity. A sense of hopelessness ran parallel, a feeling that it’s useless to do anything because the snow will only bury you and your dreams.

Most distressing for us was the loss of our bee colony. Our first one, which we housed in a hollow log. The bees were happy enough there, but I suspect that the long winter did them in. Every few weeks bees have to go outside for a cleansing flight. If temperatures are too low, say below 8 degrees for a long time, the bees are trapped on their comb. They tend to get dysentery, and are at risk of dying. Once their numbers drop below a critical threshold, they can no longer stay warm, and the rest of the colony dies. At Cottarton, for almost two months the temperatures didn't get higher than 3 degrees. 

However, the bees left us a message, a "thank you" for providing them with a home, in the form of  two large honeycombs filled with honey, enough to fill three large jars. Upon tasting that honey, you feel that you're taking in a spoonful of sunshine. And so it is. Bees are essentially solar creatures who imbibe and store the sun’s energies. After tasting the honey, Amber declared that we would not give up. We were going to keep bees again.

And so I cleaned out the log hive with a blowtorch, to destroy any nosema spores that may have contributed to the colony’s demise.  I ordered a Warre Hive that may be a better home for long winters. More on that later. And I ordered a bee nucleus. They’ll be here in June --- by which time the nectar will flow. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Tree-planting in the Snow

The weather’s rubbish! Today is the first day of spring, but there’s no sign of even a daffodil. For tonight the Weather Oracle predicts a frost of -10 Celsius! More snow is on the way --- no sign of spring for at least another two weeks. Do you hear me whining? Actually, the Earth has nothing personal against Scotland or the UK. This Narnian winter (always winter and never Christmas) extends from Russia through Poland, Germany, France, to all of Scandinavia. Put plainly, the seasonal changes are on hold. We’re stuck in winter. Given that the earth needs a month to warm up before anything planted in it will grow, things do not bode well for our growing season. At least for our vegetables and flowers. As for the bee colony? We're worried.

Why is this happening? The Weather Oracle, rational as always, points to the Jet Stream, located near the Spanish border. He mutters something about a “blocking high” over Scandinavia that prevents our seasonal weather from the West from coming in. It’s not much of an explanation. Far more likely is the hypothesis  that our Earth is not well. As with any sick patient the Earth has a case of the shivers. She needs to lie low until she feels better. But meanwhile, she has withdrawn her energies, so nothing is growing. Why is the Earth sick? What’s the nature of the disease? Don’t get me started on global warming, our impact on the planet.

However this is the time for planting trees, even if the land is covered by six inches of snow. Last fall I prepared planting sites for about 400 trees in our field. I scythed the long grass and piled it high on a clump, marked the spot with a cane. Upon kicking the snow away from a stake I found the grass pile, half rotten, the ground soft and rich under it. And so I sunk a shovel into the ground, opened a slot. In went the bare-root tree. I closed the hole with my foot.

For whatever reason, I found the tree planting quite exhilarating, even in driving snow. I planted an oak grove behind our hillock; lime trees went in over by the labyrinth. A grove of hazel bushes surrounds the spot for a future building. The willows all went in at the foot of the field where one day they’ll form a thicket. Pine trees, Rowan and Birch were interspersed in the upper half of the field. Maple and crab apple? Looking around I saw a clump of canes that in my mind transformed into a new maple grove.

Planting the trees went so easily --- and yet it was a momentous occasion. One day a new forest will transform the land. Maybe we’ll be gone by the time the saplings grow into stately giants.

“When did you plant them?” Grand-kids may ask.
“Well, there was this Narnian winter --- the snow kept falling and we thought it would never end. So I got out into the blizzard, shoved the snow away from the stakes and in went the trees.”

Unlike us trees aren’t bothered by a long winter here, or a missing summer there. They tend to adapt and grow, making the best of our changing climate. They have a different, slower schedule than ours.

Now – I have to make sure that Bambi stays away from them.

Friday, 15 February 2013

San Mateo's Children

Children from the Palo Santo Barrio are never very far from the house. If we happen to leave the front door open to cool off the house, within a few minutes a child will wander in. Often in twos and threes they come in, asking for Mary or Mauro. Can we play a game? Do you have change? Can I have some cheese? The most common request is, “May we have dinner with you tonight?”

           On Saturday afternoons the hordes invade the living room, pull out games, sometimes books. Vanessa and Genesis begged me to join them in a game of memory. My pigeon Spanish was no barrier. Of course with their young memories they beat me badly. I was struck by how well the kids play without any supervision, a minimum of quarrelling, delighting in even a set of building blocks. Watch them now! At home, they have no computers, internet or video games. The only electronic gizmo is a flickering TV. They know how to play in simple ways. At 5pm, Mauro walks in and tells them to beat it. They put the games away in the chest and leave.

Our evening, live entertainment. We don't need a TV. Often a line of kids demonstrate their acrobatics.

What sort of homes do they go back to? Some have good homes with parents who take good care for them. But many find that the kids are in the way, and would as soon dispose of them. And they sometimes do. You can recognize those kids by the way they cling to you, want to hang around you in the evening  while you’re sitting on the porch. A while back, the mother of several children asked Mary if she’d like to just keep her children for good. That way the mother could make more money, as a prostitute. “Certainly not. They’re your responsibility,” Mary replied.

 Usually you can spot those kids  wandering around the barrio, when they should be at school. Mauro impresses on them about the importance of going to school, but they don’t see the point. Their dad tells them that he never learned to read or write, and that didn’t stop him from catching fish. What good are books anyway? In San Mateo there are no news-stands, books or magazines for sale. No one wears eye glasses either. If you want to stand out in a crowd, put on your glasses. You'll be the only one.

Is dinner ready yet?

Mary meets regularly with the women of the barrio. They talk about child raising, how to speak to a child, that you never beat a child, or harm one. What to feed them so that they grow up healthy. Those matters should be obvious to any parent but generations of undesirable behaviour patterns need to be overcome. One mother didn’t find it abnormal to punish her daughter by burning her hand.

One evening while I was watching the southern stars, stars not visible from Scotland, Ursula (8) and Vanessa (12) joined us. They stared, dumbfounded while I showed them Jupiter, Sirius, Canopus. And then, through the binoculars, the Orion nebula. They had more questions for me than my poor Spanish could handle. As with all children who haven’t been spoiled by modern civilization, they had a boundless curiosity about everything. And yet, at school they learned nothing. After eight years there they were still illiterate. Apparently the teachers are not too motivated to do their jobs either.

Mauro is certainly the grandfather they never knew. He reads to them, tells them stories, plays with them. For older children he screens thought provoking films, and holds discussions about them. Like a pied piper, wherever he goes several children trail behind.

Young guys about to distribute cakes to the neighborhood.

 They all want to have dinner with us. Every evening three or four join us for a simple fare of soup, fish, or pasta --- whatever Mary prepares, along with  two jugs of fruit juice, freshly squeezed. Used to unexpected guests, she knows how to make the pot a bit bigger at a moment’s notice. Like Trappists, we eat in silence. The children shovel the food away as if someone is chasing them. I never heard a word of complaint, or any child begging for anything that was not on the table. And no matter how bland the soup, or uninteresting the rice might be, every teaspoon is licked up. Of course, we know what this means. Their thin, small bodies tell their story.

Any stray children are put to work. Folding the laundry.

After dinner they beg Mauro for a fable. He knows hundreds and no matter how many times he’s told the fable they want it repeated. Both the story and its moral.

 If there’s any hope that San Mateo will pull itself out of disease and poverty, that hope lies in those children and in their children. Whether they will continue along the road of their forbears, a road to nowhere, or they will find a different one. As I watch them play, talk with them, watch them raise money by making candles or baking cakes, I have every reason to believe that their future will be different. Brighter.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Women of the Savannah

The day I arrived in San Mateo it rained --- the first time in a year. Within a week plants sprouted from the earth, shoots sprang from bare branches and flowers opened. Anyone who sowed watermelons would be rewarded. But in the town, everyone cursed the rain, as it meant mud, water coming in through leaky roofs, cars getting stuck. They saw no advantage to rain.

San Mateo used to have more rain. Outside the city people grew maize, watermelons and vegetables to support themselves. Then for the past twelve years the rains no longer came regularly. Call it climate change. The name doesn’t change the reality. For many people a way of life changed. I saw it the afternoon I followed Mary to visit the women of the savannah. Our close friends Ermica and her daughter, of Ecuador’s mountain people, also came along .

  A faint path took us through a landscape growing greener by the day, past steep gulleys, and down a winding path to a green valley below.

We passed several feral goats that had given birth only a few weeks earlier, and were taking advantage of the green shoots.

Rosita’s house rises on stilts, above a dusty patch where the goats roam. She doesn’t seem to mind the clutter inside the house. She saves her energy for the goats. Each goat is like a small bank account. Mary handed her a couple of bags of lentils. Rosita thanked her, shaking the bags. There was no need for a diabetes or blood pressure test, as Rosita was the image of health.


Rosita and Ermica

“But I’m not beautiful,” she said when I asked to take her picture. To me she was beautiful, full of strength and a zest for life. At 80, she lived alone in the bamboo house, raised her goats. She has a daughter in the barrio who she occasionally visits, but the savannah is where she belongs.

The couple that lived in the next house had only each other for company. They kept their house clean, beautifully decorated. They worked hard for their way of life and enjoyed it. Yet nothing was easy. The pig they kept supported them, as did the chickens but I had no idea where the rest of their income came from. I sensed that they took advantage of whatever opportunity came their way. They also looked in regularly on Rosita.


A beautiful house, but not necessarily durable.
Bamboo houses have a lifetime of less than ten years.

Next door, two women lived in a house that Mauro built for them.  Mary brought a book with nature pictures for Elena.

 With her calloused fingers, Elena turned the pages, delighting in every picture.  After her accident she could no longer walk or stand. Until now, her livelihood was mining gypsum. With her bare fingers. She would climb a steep shale slope to a gypsum vein, loosen it with a few strokes of the pick axe, and then sift the shale with her hands to find a few gypsum pieces. A sack of gypsum would fetch her $3. Now, only her friend could work the hill side.

Traditional cooking over fire: rice lentils and a stew. 

That day several family members were visiting. A large meal cooked over the fire stove. For Elena and her friend this was a big day, as the family didn’t come that often. Also she had received her picture book.

We continued down a path that eventually took us to the beach. On the way we passed several empty houses, each with a patch of fallow land. Before the seasonal rains stopped, maize, squashes and melons grew there. Women worked the fields and didn’t have survive only on gypsum.

The pocket knife points to the gypsum veins that fill fracture zones. A large amount of rock needs to be sifted to extract the gypsum.

Climate change? This year we’re feeling the effects in the UK, in the extreme weather patterns. Luckily our insurance and government funds pay for flood damage. In Ecuador, which straddles the equator, the effects of climate change have been felt for over a decade. Especially in fragile communities like San Mateo.  For people living so close to the land, the lack of rain forced many families to move to the town, but not necessarily to a better life.


A wayside chapel in the savannah valley. Also abandoned.

Next: San Mateo’s Children

Thursday, 7 February 2013

San Mateo's Back Alleys

San Mateo, Ecuador. The view from the street is of a freshly-painted grocery store front , the manicured church on the hill, simple houses. The hurried tourist would note that house windows aren't covered by burglar bars, unlike in other Ecuadoran cities. Children, mostly clean and well dressed, play in the streets with no one to watch over them.

But to see the story behind the outward façade, you have to enter the back alleys, and that’s where Mary led me one morning.

I met her after her early morning duties at the diabetic clinic. She packed a diabetes tester, insulin jars and her blood pressure tester. From a tin she grabbed some $10 bills and stuck them in her pocket.

As we walked down the main street she greeted everyone with a “Buenas Dias”. They all knew her. A woman stopped her and told the story of her children, growing fast. Did Mary have any spare clothes? My sister promised to see what she could do.

 We turned into a narrow alley. Grey water seeped into it from plastic pipes. The bright green algae on the pavement made the surface slippery. The alleyway opened into a courtyard with several houses. The one  facing us had cracked walls, a hole for a window and a metal door. Mary shouted, “Permitte! Ave!” From within a faint voice replied. We entered a dim room.

A woman was sitting in a chair. Mary introduced me as “mi hermano” , as if I was royalty. Her husband lay on his bed watching television. Two children ran in circles. Mary asked the woman about her health; about her life. She pricked the woman’s finger. A tester strip soaked up a drop of blood. It contained 300 units of sugar, twice what was normal. The woman swore that she’d taken her insulin. Mary doubted it. She asked to see the insulin. While she held the bottle, she asked the woman what they ate in the house. Fried banana, fried fish and rice; what most people could afford. What about vegetables? The woman said that she tried some vegetables but didn't like them.

Down another alley we came to a family who had just moved in. Mercedes, a young mother with two small children, greeted us. A man of around twenty lay in his bed in front of a flickering television. The small finger on one hand was split open. Badly swollen. When Mary asked how he was doing, Mercedes said that he’d be fine and would soon return to fishing. The children looked on while Mary examined the hand.

She told Mercedes that her son must go immediately to Manta to see a doctor and get antibiotics, or he could lose a finger. Mercedes protested that the doctor wasn't necessary. The boy would be fine. After a lengthy standoff, of words that flew so fast that my rudimentary Spanish didn’t parse them, Mercedes agreed to take the boy to Manta. Mary thrust a $10 note in her hand to seal the deal.

Up another narrow alley we found a house with cracked walls whose cement and plaster were falling off. Fifty years earlier, the builders had opted for a cheap solution of mixing cement using sea sand. Now the residents had to deal with the consequences.

 Inside the house water dripped from long fissures in the ceiling. A man sat on the balcony. In her buoyant voice, Mary asked how he was that day. The man nodded, but otherwise could not move. His wife answered that he was as before. Mary took his blood pressure, fortunately normal that day. She talked to his wife about the leaking roof, prices of vegetables and food. Before we left, Mary slipped the woman $20; said to her, “Se pase bien.” (the local expression for , 'take care'.)

“She’s a good woman,” Mary said. “Her husband used to be a trader, quite well off. He chased other women all his life, but then his wealth evaporated. He had a stroke, and the woman he never paid attention to, took care of him. She has no income. She has absolutely nothing.”

Alfredo has diabetes. The bed where we found him looked like one that Mauro made. Not content with building houses, he also builds beds and gives them to people who otherwise would be sleeping on the floor. While Mary measured Alfredo's  blood sugar, I watched his wife weave a Panama hat. Her fingers moved in and out of the natural twine, like a blur. Hundreds of women up and down the coast wove those hats, taking a week to finish one. A good hat might sell for $100, of which the weaver would receive a fraction.

Weaving a Panama hat

After a longer walk down muddy pathways we reached a house on stilts, at the edge of a steep gully  Rubbish filled an empty garden space. Inside we found a young woman who could barely move because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Her husband was out on the boat. She told Mary that he drank a lot. This was the second marriage for both of them. She used to cook over a fire --- several burning branches in a bucket, until the Barrio kids raised the money to buy her a stove top and propane cylinder. While we talked to her, her teenage son lay on his bed (made by Mauro). He played a game while watching TV. “Tomorrow afternoon, you must send him to the clinic to fetch you pain medicine,” Mary told her.

A stove and propane bottle bought by the local teens.

“He doesn’t like to run errands,” said the woman.

“He must do it,” Mary told her.

This family lives in a bamboo house. They keep doves for the eggs.

We visited many others, all people who lived on the edge of life. So many that the faces began to blend.

As we turned toward home, Mary stopped at a small grocery shop, asked the man working there if she could go up and see Don Ricardo. The man nodded. Opening a metal door we climbed the concrete stairs. A stench of urine hit us as we entered the upper room. Don Ricardo, emaciated, and deathly pale sat on his crumpled sheets. At least three bowls of unfinished lentils and rice lay on the bed, scraps of moldy bread and litter everywhere. I wasn't sure if the stench or sorrow were the stronger. Mary sat beside him. For several minutes she held his hand. There was nothing to say. Apparently the man in the store below was his son. But he had his life to look after, didn't he?

Two days later Mary rounded up a couple of women and came over to clean out the Augean stable. For a few more days Don Ricardo would live with a modicum of dignity. But he was only one of many in the town, forgotten by his closest family.

Our final stop that day took us into a house with a stillborn baby. It lay on a cushion, surrounded by burning candles. The entire family had come together that morning, except the mother who was still in hospital. All told about fifteen people. Mary talked at length with the grandmother. Others sat in chairs not saying much. Despite the sorrow, an overwhelming peace permeated the room. I learned that the mother had a short liaison with a fisherman. When he learned that she was pregnant, he left her. Her family stepped in and supported her throughout the pregnancy. No one knew what went wrong at the birth. In the midst of the tragedy, the family solidarity gave one more hope  than in any of the other houses.

That day I met poverty on a scale you don’t see in the UK. unless it hits the evening news. We were only able to help a few people. There were many others living down back alleys. At the root of the poverty wasn’t a lack of money. To clean up a littered garden and plant a few trees takes little money. Somehow the people could not see new possibilities, the way out of their poverty. Probably because it required changes in diet, work, family commitments and lifestyle.

 The fishermen could not see that the new harbour waited for their boats along with splendid facilities for their catch. Instead, they still landed their boats on the same old beach because they’d always done it that way.

Next: The Women of the Savannah