Posts filed under 'Green Shots'
Suddenly autumn has arrived on my windowsill and dumped a load of red leaves at the back door too. Hard to believe we once doubted the weedy little Virgian Creeper would rise further than the garden shed. Now it has not only reached our roof but it is working its way along the houses on either side of us. Luckily we have lovely neighbours. Or maybe they just get a kick out of watching Ray collect the leaf mould from their kitchen roof every year.
Let’s call this our vertical garden – it’s full of sparrows, spiders, blue tits, bats and (once) a cheeky grey squirrel, all finding refuge in the grey jungle. Garden walls are taking on a new significance for wildlife in places where people have developed an odd taste for plastering ground with tarmac so the car can sit still outside their house – so much space dedicated to cars going nowhere, hardly makes sense. Anyway (Sunday is too short for ranting) vertical gardens seem a great way of bringing softness and life back into the built environment. And not just outside.
At the Chelsea Garden Show last year there were some new ideas, inspired it seems by the rainforest, showing how planting on walls could create new habitats for disappearing birds and bees and bring quite a few benefits for humans at the same time – improving the quality of city air, regulating temperature and reducing the risk of flooding which has been greatly exacerbated by all those hard new surfaces for parked cars. Ooops, sorry, I said no ranting…but a little Googling instead brings up a fascinating London Mayor document ( published in 2004 when Ken was Mayor).
Building Green: a guide to using plants on roofs, walls and pavements doesn’t rant at all but offers inspiring examples of innovative green urban environments across Europe. I specially like this quote:
The skin of city – its roofs, walls, streets and other hard surfaces – can be transformed into a living landscape. Ecologically dead areas come alive again…
Perhaps it is not surprising that the authors draw heavily on examples from Berlin where (according to a Scottish architect, Howard Liddell of Gaia Architects, in the Econo report another source of imaginative ideas) the city operates a 50% rule, which means: “every square metre of built footprint has to have an equivalent amount of biodiverse rich landscape (soft surfaces and water).”
So lets hear it for green walls, roofs and pavements. Our creeper is making a good attempt to cover all three though at the moment, that’s not so much going green as flaming red.
Footnote: Building Green, by Jacklyn Jackson, an ecologist, and John Newton, an environmentalist was first published in 1993 by the London Ecology Unit, reprinted in 2004 by the General London Council.
October 18th, 2009
In my minds eye this was a great shot, the outrageous St Edwards church sitting pretty between two farm sheds. A folly framed. Now I come to download it from my new mobile the picture hasn’t turned out quite what I imagined when I was teetering on the wall outside a caravan on Canna in June.
But it’s worth going back to try again I think, not that anyone needs an excuse for returning to Canna. St Edwards is that ugly great church on Sanday, a grand gesture built by the Marchioness of Bute as a landmark to shipping in 1890. (As if the island of Rum wasn’t a big enough landmark.)And I see, according to John Lorne Campbell in Canna, it was designed by the architect William Frame. Ah ha, a folly Framed!
Who knows what was in the mind’s eye of Lady Bute. Or what possessed the Hebridean Trust and others to spend £1 million trying – unsuccessfully – to convert the old wreck into a study centre at the beginning of the 21st century. To me it is a comforting landmark from a distance, oddly unwelcoming up close but wonderfully atmospheric seen through a caravan window on a wet midsummer night.
The caravan is perfectly placed near the Square on Canna, so that you can sit looking out towards Rum between the barn on the left (where Julie and Gordon celebrated their wedding three midsummers ago) and the shed on the right where huge generators make electricity for all the homes on the island.
There’s room for a windmill on Sanday. That would be a landmark with a purpose.
August 1st, 2009
“Many of the smaller ones perched on my hat, and when I carried my gun on my shoulder would sit on the muzzle. During my stay I killed forty-five all of which I skinned carefully.”
I really wish I hadn’t read that extract from David Douglas’s diary describing the birds he killed during his few days on the Galapagos Islands in 1824. Douglas happens to be a bit of a hero of mine. I get a powerful kick looking up into the huge trees he brought back from his travels in what was then the wild woods of the Pacific North West. He went to such trouble to collect seed without destroying the forest it is sad to discover he was blasting eagles and owls and other grand feathered things off the face of the mountain. But I guess no-one is perfect.
Re-reading two biographies of this strange Scot, I feel there is a lot more digging to be done into the psyche of the man who seemed to burn himself out in his relentless search for new plants. Seeds he could pack in tin trunks. Shooting was the best way he could find to collect birds for research back home. Oh, and yes of course, he had to eat as he was climbing the mountains through warring tribes. Roast eagle anyone?
But when you compare Douglas with the rest of the guys he met on his travels, he seems far ahead of his time. He was critical of the Hudson’s Bay Company for its scorched earth approach to hunting: they trapped beavers to extinction and ruthlessly secured the dependence of native Americans by trading in alcohol. Douglas preferred to trade in tobacco, learned the languages of different tribes and seemed to get on well with quite a few chiefs.
The first time I read the story I saw some black humour in his bizarre death in a pit dug to trap wild bulls on Hawaii. This time it seems simply tragic – his eyes were so badly damaged by snow blindness they bled when he was climbing volcanoes on the island but he still kept going. He was 35 when he died and he left only a brother. And thousands of trees and garden plants.
I have all this in mind because I’m working with Anna on a new guide book for Dawyck Botanic Garden, a wonderful place full of plants grown from seed collected in the (fast disappearing) wild including the stuff Douglas sent back from his travels up the Columbia River. Hard not to get a thrill looking at the old Douglas firs at Dawyck and maybe there is some poetic justice in the fact that the garden is full of birds. Even the odd eagle.
Read more: David Douglas Explorer and Botanist and All for a handful of seed
March 18th, 2008
“The trail of Homo Sapiens, serial killer of the biosphere, reaches to the farthest corners of the earth.” E.O. Wilson, The Future of Life.
I took E.O. Wilson with me to the West Coast but I didn’t read a page over the weekend. He is a fantastic writer, he makes science sing, but there is only so much I can read about our species’ malignant growth on the planet. And besides there was far too much life around me to read about death and destruction. While people across much of the UK were wading through floods we were walking through wild flower meadows crowded with orchids and exploring woodland full of ferns.
We had no telly and only a crackling radio in the kitchen to tell us that Harriet Harman seemed set to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. We talked politics a lot of the time (a house full of journalists and academics is like the cast for a Bremner Bird and Fortune sketch) but managed to hold off buying any newspapers. So it wasn’t till we were heading home, stopping for lunch at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar (where a cartoon on the wall celebrates the time Gordon Brown and John Prescott felt tectonic plates moving), that Peter picked up a stray Guardian to find news of the ‘real world’.
Floods, terrorism, and the continuing consequences of our folly in Iraq and Afghanistan. On every page I seemed to find some evidence for Wilson’s general opinion of the human species. When we are not chomping our way through the food chain we are trying to wipe each other out. In the last two weeks, of course, the news has got even more dramatic for west-centered views of the world. I sometimes wonder how it would look from a distant planet – imagine all these wars and terrorist attacks and how puny they must seem when the looming clouds of climate change will do so very much worse.
That weekend on the West Coast was a poignant reminder of how we really could live a more balanced life if we were not so hell bent on consumption. Around the house we stayed were the ruins of a more stable community: a hundred years ago they grew much of what they needed to eat, coppiced the woods for fire wood and fishing boats left plenty for the next season. There is still plenty of fish in the clear waters round Tayvallich but they need to keep out the trawlers that scrape the sea bed, smashing anything they don’t hoover up.
For all our gathering concern about climate change I wonder when any politician is going to be brave enough to tackle the reality: we are plundering our planet to death. Sooner or later someone is going to have to look at the problem of consumption. So far it doesn’t seem likely that it will be Gordon Brown.
But there’s no time for any more of this just now (and not because the end of the world is nigh). This Saturday two interesting events take place which combine my two obsessions. Live Earth concerts will try to do for Climate Change what Live 8 did for poverty (?) and the Glasgow Rally against Terrorism hopes to demonstrate that ordinary decent people of any faith and none really want to live in harmony together.
I would like to go to the rally but I won’t be here. We are heading west again, this time for Barra and South Uist. I wonder what the rest of the world will look like from there?
July 6th, 2007
I’m definitely going to be flying less than Blair this year so I’m feeling smug – but I know I’m hypocritical.
Apologies to Jean whose comment on my last Global Gossip newsletter slipped down page and out of sight last month. I wondered if I should be encouraging a communal blog about places people are likely to reach by plane. Here is her reply.
I made a decision to fly less – after a flight to Dinard last September. it was an enjoyable trip and it’s an appealing small airstrip – but It was an easy decision to make as I knew I hadn’t a holiday planned for the foreseeable future.
Retirement helps with flying less. There’s more time for taking and planning leisurely trips by road or rail – and having travelled long haul a lot during my working years – I have no wish list left of places to visit.
I’m definitely going to be flying less than Blair this year so I’m feeling smug – but I know I’m hypocritical.
It’s easy for a household of two retirees to conserve energy. We light only one or two rooms at a time, manage without the tumble drier and dishwasher – drive to local producers for veg and meat. We’ve arrived at this way of life for ourselves – on a whim really – deciding for ourselves what we can manage without.
No-one is restricting my carbon footprint or anyone else’s – but this can’t continue. Indiviuals shouldn’t be deciding for themselves. I think we need an imposed target each for reducing our emissions and conserving energy – and soon.
February 26th, 2007
It feels strange when your life becomes part of the news. The day after the flood I drove up to Pond Cottage to check for damage. As Ray and I had expected the cottage got off lightly but the landscape looked like a jigsaw puzzle that hadn’t been put together properly. Some familiar pieces were in the wrong place – Ray’s boat had been lifted out of the pond and dumped on the bank – and a few strange landmarks had been jammed in willy nilly. So there was a brand new lake in the neighbouring field and several tons of hardcore on the front lawn which is why I drove straight into a crater where the road used to be.
Waiting to be rescued by Jimmy, the local JCB driver, who built the road for us in the first place I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid. (The hole is bigger and deeper than you can see from the photo.) But I guess it was like getting up in the morning expecting your feet will find the floorboards where they left them the night before.
We were lucky. Some people in the village lost their floors and furniture as well. One young couple were faced with the prospect of having to rebuild the house they had only just finished in time for the arrival of their new baby.
I was very pleased to see Jimmy. He is a kind man and as he lay in water hooking a steel rope to my tow bar he even managed to make me feel that anyone could drive into a hole in the road. Then we stood and marvelled at the even bigger holes the flood had gouged out of the pond bank. Jimmy, who is built like a mountain, said almost admiringly, “Amazing, the power of water.”
Our cottage was saved by the wetland that allowed flood waters to spread and a deep channel that carries the stream away from the sluice. Even so the water must have risen five feet creating a forceful new river that overflowed the bridge and ripped through the garden before ploughing on through the field.
BBC and newspaper reports made much of the fact that a new flood prevention scheme had only just been put in place in Milnathort at a cost of £500,000. I did not hear one report mention the new Scottish law that now requires local authorities to promote sustainable flood management (SFM in the trade) which very broadly speaking means restoring natural defences of wetlands and floodplains instead of building concrete walls.
With nice timing, news of the Milnathort flood broke just as I was doing some new work with WWF Scotland on sustainable flood management. It is a fascinating and frustrating story. Scotland is leading the way in trying to implement a European directive which requires all member states to look at rivers as dynamic ecosystems (rather than inconvenient channels running through the floodplain developments we have become so good at building). In fact Scotland is the first UK country to turn the Water Framework Directive into law (see more about that here) with an act requiring local authorities to promote sustainable alternatives to concrete floodwalls which tend to push the problem downstream. With climate change concrete is likely to become an increasingly costly and pointless defence – as Milnathort shows. But policy and practice have yet to catch up with the law. (Look out for WWF Scotland’s two new publications early in the new year).
December 27th, 2006
Looking at the sky it’s hard to believe gardeners must start to plan for a scorched earth. Rain is blurring the view from my study window, frogs are hopping by the back door and the cats are settling for a long snooze on the sofa.
A Government minister has just suggested I must start preparing for a more Mediterranean view from the kitchen window, adjusting to seasonal temperatures which simply won’t suit traditional cottage garden plants. He was, of course, really talking to gardeners in the south east which has withered and browned during the hottest summer on record. Scotland is still greener and cooler and today we are soaking wet. Part of me can’t help thinking if this is the worst climate change can do, life north of the border will be positively benign. Then the other part kicks in.
must the view from my kitchen window change?
Yet, for once, I found myself more in sympathy with the Government approach than the knee jerk reaction from environmentalists who were quick to retort that the Minister should be saving his energy. Instead of telling people how to live with the consequences of climate change, they said, the Government should be taking action to stop us all pumping more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. Or words to that effect.
But we need to do both: face the reality that climate change is already changing the way we live – and then do all we can to prevent the change becoming much more destructive. Perhaps Scotland can take a few degrees more heat in summer; Spain, Africa and even China can’t.
So I am wondering if – for once – the Government is playing a strangely clever game. With an estimated 7 million gardeners, contributing to a horticultural industry worth £2.5 billion in the UK, the advice could be very good psychology. This threat to smooth green lawns surrounded by lush herbaceous plants may bring home the fact that climate change is happening – here and now – more effectively than dramatic images of glaciers melting in the distance. Getting people to change habits like driving and flying is difficult because climate change is so often placed in the future. Telling gardeners to start thinking about changing to geraniums and begonias may touch a surprisingly tender spot – the next growing season is not far away.
Of course the Government needs to do much more. But environmental organisations should also work harder at winning hearts and minds of the unconverted and, while they are at it, recognise the social, cultural and environmental value of this mass hobby. Gardening is not just a booming industry, it is probably the best shot we make at creating an environment fit for wildlife. There’s not much room for frogs in the agricultural desert we call the countryside.
September 14th, 2006
I have a windmill in my backyard and I am very fond of it. On calm days swallows have been known to sit on it. When the wind blows hard across the fields we know our batteries are brimming with beautiful clean energy. But oddly enough, with all this power surging freely into our house, we are now much more reluctant to waste energy than we used to be in the old days of electricity bills. Owning a windmill can change your outlook on life. This was the message I wanted to get across when BBC Scotland came to call but it seems our wires were crossed. (Thank goodness for the alternative Radio Magnetic.)
As a journalist I am more comfortable writing words than talking to the camera. On this occasion I was happy to get the chance to talk about life with the windmill – inside me there is growing a green evangelist that wants to get a waste-not-want-not message out to the wider (windmill-fearing) world. But of course the Beeb just wanted a human story to liven up a rather dull Scottish Executive announcement about (a little) extra cash for renewable energy. I didn’t spot quickly enough that the very nice reporter and cameraman had arrived with their script already prepared. My part was simply to add a few live quotes and switch on an electric appliance or two.
My little rant was obviously edited out as soon as they got in the car and headed back to Edinburgh in time to slot the item into the regional news at 6.30pm. There I am making a cup of tea and commenting on the economics of installing a windmill – but not a peep about sustainability or the curious fact that owning a windmill helps you understand the real value of energy.
I think that was a lost opportunity but the topic is not going away. The need to reduce waste was one of the stronger points of the government’s energy review. We shouldn’t let the red herring of nuclear power distract us from that crucial issue. Conserving energy will help us keep the lights on and we are only just beginning to realise how important that is. James Lovelock’s conversion to nuclear energy is largely based on his belief that civilisation will be at risk when we run out of electricity. I think he is wrong about the nuclear solution but the rest of the argument is overwhelmingly convincing. When we started restoring a derelict cottage without mains electricity we found what we had forgotten: that nothing transforms daily life more than being able to switch on the lights. (Well, ok, apart from being able to turn a tap for clean drinking water).
So I tried to tell the BBC how owning a windmill helps you rediscover the wonder of electricity. I think it is interesting that we know how much ‘phantom power’ we waste by leaving the telly or computer on standby, and that the mobile phone charger goes on consuming power unless you switch it off at the wall. And isn’t it extraordinary that an electric kettle takes a 2 kilowatt surge to start heating water – no wonder the power stations go on high alert during ad breaks at peak viewing time.
Such knowledge is power, I think, and my mission is to share it. Thank goodness then for Radio Magnetic, a small innovative alternative internet radio station, who broadcast my short recording on windpower as one of their Audio Postcards. While you are at it, be sure to listen to the others, not least the Texan Steve Warren’s polemic about George Bush. As heartwarming and bloodstirring as watching our windmill.
July 20th, 2006
They were like images from hell. Bulldozers descended into smoking pits 150 feet deep to demolish mountains of colliery waste. In some cases the ‘bings’ of derelict mines were still burning at temperatures of 1000°C as diggers, chained together for safety, worked their way slowly but surely round six redundant pits in the centre of Fife.
Continue Reading May 20th, 2006