Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lessons from Primulas

Primulas do well here. Perhaps a bit too well, but that is always the way of it for gardeners trying to cosy along our favourites against the odds and not cherishing the sturdy ones that flourish. OK this post will go some way to making amends for that.
First, this little guy. His strategy is to begin his flowering life close to the ground and then gradually rise up in the world.

Another strategy is to keep your head down.

In case you're curious, this is what they look like if you look at them from below.


I am happy to see them all sharing space with my hellebores and leading the way for other things barely in bud or still snuggling under the ground, but I need to remind them now that they will have to learn to play nicely with others as well.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Hellebores and the Courgette Crisis

Imbolc and Pauxatawney Phil have delivered their equivocal predictions about the length of winter remaining. Probably no matter how brief it will be too long. My garden pal and I were planning our veg and flower patch and wind protection strategies for the upcoming season. 'If' played a major role, as always. If we do not get a sudden cold snap--it is possible. If we do not get the cold cold northeasterlies late in March when bulbs and leaves and such have begun to think Spring is all the way safely here again then we have our optimistic scenario. But we've both lived up here long enough now to have our more cautious plan.

And for all our planning, the plants and the weather will do what they decide to do. The snowdrops are in bud and the hellebores, those most hardy of flowers, are blooming in the perennial bed.


Weather has asserted itself in the food supply chain. It is hardly a crisis that we can't get courgettes in February in the supermarkets because of floods and cold weather in Spain and many parts of Europe, but it is a reminder that buy local is not just a hippie slogan or empty localism in the face of rampant globalism. Eating things in season and eating them where they are grown just makes good sense.

Ok having dabbled in growing veg I have the luxury of my own approach to what the media have dubbed the Courgette (zucchini to my American friends) Crisis. I have seeds to start in a pot in my sun room. I can pick a few of them at a time rather than fretting about how to get through the multi-portion bags they sell in the supermarket.  A recent addition yo the veg aisle in the supermarkets is pea shoots--very tasty, so again, I'm going to use some old pea seeds and harvest them as tender young plants.  If I had courgette seeds, I would be tempted, but that is probably a step too far even for a sunroom in this latitude.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Snow Blindness

This piece was first published in the Caithness Courier with photos from the editor, Elizabeth-Anne McKay.



Snow is rare here, especially the soft, lightly falling damp flakes that pile gently atop one another like the snow of my childhood. And it is always the snow of my childhood that comes to my mind as they fall slowly out of the pastel sky. Of course driving was treacherous and power would be lost and cars would be stuck at intersections and without question or complaint anyone and everyone nearby would pile out and push. Those episodes of pushing cars out of snow drifts come to mind now not as effortful but with the vague wonder that we shared as we trudged back to our own individual cars alone—why can’t we behave like that as if every day were a snow day. But it isn’t. And that is what makes each of them a wonder as individual as the flakes.

I know as certainly as I know that you can’t make a good snowball with mittens that the flakes are not actually exactly completely unique, but each is unique enough for me to continue to watch snow with that metaphor firmly fixed in my mind. I accept science without compromising my faith. Snowflakes, like people, never experience exactly the same things in the same way. Even if two snowflakes look alike to the rational, discerning eye of a physicist, I believe that their inner selves bear the traces of their individual experiences just as we all do.

When I remember the last snowfall before I left the prairies for the place where the sea determines the weather, I no longer feel the anguish of my brother faithfully but erratically coming to my rescue. He still remembered that he had to look after me and had the strength and will to maneuver a snow shovel adroitly, but he had lost his spatial sense by then. When he ploughed into the centre of the road, shovel firmly in hand, one or the other of us would bring him back. Now that he has gone as completely as that snow, I remember all the snow times before that, such as the first time he showed me how to make a snow angel.

It takes more than a few inches of snow to make a proper snow angel, and it works best if the snow is pristine, not too cold or too wet. Good snowball-making snow will work but only if the snow is fresh. I cannot count the number of times I flopped, face up to the sky in the fresh-fallen snow to leave my impression there. It would often take several attempts to get the arms, working like windshield wipers, to make a good effect to create wings. Only now does it occur to me that all those times I was making impressions in the snow, the snow was making impressions on me as well.
I don’t remember getting cold in the snow, but I remember how wonderful it felt to get warm again afterwards: the almost painful tingling of snow-chilled skin in a hot bath slowly coming back into its own, and then hurrying into thick pajamas with feet attached and sliding into bed before I lost that superheated temperature.

Just as I can’t recall the way playing in the snow chilled me, I can no longer recall the pain of a snowball aimed at my face. In the ethics of snow fights, it was considered poor form to aim at someone’s face. Ill grace and poor aim were made allowances for, but I was a target for such abuse when I tried to play with the boys. As every tomboy then and now well knows, you have to earn the right to play with the boys. After I don’t know how many snowballs in my face, I earned their respect and the right to play with them. Having won, however, I discovered that the prize had not been worth the effort. I still persist in taking snowballs in the face—often more than is reasonable-- if I think the prize might be worth it. 

 



Saturday, January 14, 2017

January Sky in Three Pieces

We have snow again and
there may yet be more--that's what this piece of sky--a milky sky--says to me. This is the view from my front door as I set out to crunch through the snow up to the Loch--my favourite local walk. I have put on mini leg warmers, knit so long ago I had forgotten them, to keep the unusually deep (for us at any rate) snow off my cuffs.



Halfway to the loch, with the wind propelling these we-mean-business clouds in my direction, I decide to head back home. My last walk I barely missed a pummeling of hailstones--my least favourite of all the wintry precipitation.

It's 10:30 in the morning and we are a bit more than 30 days past the solstice--the longest night--so we have gained about 30 minutes of sunlight, but still this is the season of the lazy sun. High noon does not have the same meaning up here. The sun is about three fingers high in the sky--about as high as it will get.




 The home stretch for me. The roof top of Ivy Cottage visible beyond the bare branches. The foreshortening makes it look as if we sit directly on the moor--Greenland Moss, but there is a road between us, a kind of demarcation of the frontier of current versus past habitation. In the spring a flowering currant blossoms where people once lived and there are deep ruts where peats were dug. In early spring, the roadway that once crossed the moss is visible.  The snow covered hills on the horizon lie beyond that long stretch of boggy, peaty land but one of the many virtues of hill walking--even in my own back yard--is the marvellous sense of King of the Hill perspective it gives.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day Loch Heilan

A pause in the weather after yesterday's battering. I thought I'd enjoy the sun --while it lasts up here. Nearly noon and the sun is only one finger's width above the horizon. This is the season of the lazy sun, but we have passed the solstice, the longest night, and we are accruing more minutes of daylight with each day. I set out for Loch Heilan, my favourite walk in my 'back yard' as I think of this little patch where I've landed.

The ducks, the geese, the gulls have all taken flight long before I get to the Loch, but the  swans have simply moved further into the loch, eyeing me warily. I stand on the road. I can feel the wind freshening already, but I decide to walk the lane down toward the loch.

This deeply rutted path is muddy and mucky. I pay attention to my feet and my camera and only as I look through my lens to my right do I notice that the 'will I won't I sky' has made up its mind.

 The wind was full in my face and halfway home the small rain started. I was relieved to see Morris coming in the car to rescue me. Even so I would not have forgone those golden moments.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Boiler Blues

The sun is up at last. A bright pink--Lido Pink--the kind of colour of Brigitte Bardot's bikini or a young girl's most coveted new lipstick-spreads out around her edging into high viz orange. No matter how tacky she looks, I'm glad to see her. Everything looks better in daylight.

Except our boiler.

Sitting limp, as limp as a piece of steel can look, but definitely embarrased in a puddle of water at her feet. Last year about this time, she blew her pressure relief valve--a common enough thing among hard working boilers and she was up to scratch and perky until recently. She kept forgetting to keep her pressure up--or perhaps it was just too much effort. We turned the switch to give her more water, a little reminder of her role in life--our lives, at any rate, and we all limped along until this morning.

A phone call to the shaman--or plumber. And I think of Plan B--how to keep warm if we have to wait for parts or a new boiler or any of the other things. Oil filled radiator. Gas-fired ersatz fireplace in the sitting room, localised heaters for hot water in the shower. Of course we can make it. It may even be an opportunity for developing gratitude for all the things we take for granted--like hard working boilers. Perhaps that's all she needs.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Dark, Dust, and Doves

Dark, like dust, accumulates in the corners of my imagination. For half the year up here, I have to contend first and foremost with the winds (See my previous post re chicanes in the latest battle against King Wind.) For the other half, darkness, absence of light, the other side of the coin, however you choose to call it, is the chief nemesis. And King Wind plays second fiddle.
After a sweltering week in Philadelphia where sweaty rebels turned parliamentatians had hammered out a compromise constitution for the fledgling nation, Benjamin Franklin assured a doubting collegaue that the motif on the back of a chair was definitely a sunrise rather than sunset.  So, Yes, the photo above is a sunrise. That is the good news. The not so good news: this is taken out my back door at a little past 9am. Way too late for my midwestern brain to take on board. And these too long dark days over the years (a dozen now on the edge of the Pentland Firth) have accumulated like dust in the places where things should be clear. 

So I am back to piling words on top of each other in the hopes of clearing the dust-dark and making sense of who/why I'm here.  And on cue, here's a dove. (No, my city friends, definitely not a pigeon). Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the symbol for the new nation rather than the eagle. The wild turkey, like Franklin, was a very canny bird and knew when to take cover. Doves are often used as symbols of peace and the end of travail. I'll take this bird as that kind of a metaphor, but just out of frame is the bird table where he was enjoying a late breakfast (birds don't like the dark much either). And I suspect he was just wating impatiently for me to go back inside so he could go back to breakfast.