And to think I used to sit in a desk chair in front of a computer in a windowless office all day.
I’ll sit in the dirt any day, and do the best work of my life.
May 28th, 2015 § 0
And to think I used to sit in a desk chair in front of a computer in a windowless office all day.
I’ll sit in the dirt any day, and do the best work of my life.
April 9th, 2015 § 1
The past week began with brutal wind-driven snow showers and has ended with temperatures edging into the high 60sF under blue skies and streaming sun. I suppose it’s like spring everywhere, showing two faces as winter reluctantly cedes to the inevitable warmth and light. And the light! Since the clocks sprang forward a couple of weeks ago I’ve been marveling at how long the days are now, with light past 8:00 p.m. What a change from winter, when the world went dim at 3:30 in the afternoon and I went to school each morning in the dark. And the days will continue to grow longer until late June, until it is freakishly light late at night thanks to this northern latitude. No wonder there are aisles of blackout curtains appearing in the local shops.
The return of the light, and some decently warm temperatures, has me back out plant collecting. As the ground wakes up, more and more plants are showing themselves to me. Today I walked to Blackford Hill and the first thing I saw was an orgy. The warm and shallow water of the pond was teeming with toads. I watched one randy fellow swim from one potential mate to another, slipping up behind each in a fumbling wet embrace that was usually deflected in a kicking swirl of muddy water. He could have taken a lesson from this persistent fellow who rode his indifferent girlfriend all the way down the path in front of me as I sat eating lunch.
The toads aren’t the only creatures with spring fever. The geese were swimmingly paired and the swans sat preening on their nest.
And I’ve got spring fever too. The sunlight is intoxicating, and I have dreams of garden parties, picnic blankets, and park barbeques. The plants are returning, and the gardens are even more a place of wonder and education. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a spring, and so full of joy at the return of the light.
March 9th, 2015 § 3
Living in Edinburgh it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a pretty small city surrounded by some beautiful farmland and countryside. I got my first taste of rural Scotland when one of my classmates invited a few of us Botanics folk for a weekend house party at his place on a working cattle farm about 45 minutes outside of town. It was absolutely lovely to be holed up in a cozy home being plied with delicious food and drink for two days. It certainly didn’t hurt that my host is a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants. I ate the best food I’ve had since moving to Edinburgh.
It was a very late night Saturday, up many hours later than I’ve been in years. But even with two hour’s sleep a few of us rallied for a long after-breakfast walk, and I thought you’d might like to see a more rural side of Scotland.
At the top of a great hill behind the farm was a wind farm, furiously spinning in the gusts.
A view northwest to the Pentland Hills, at left, and over the Firth, at right. The lump in the middle distance is Arthur’s Seat.
Walking back down the hill the Firth stretched out in front of us as a blue ribbon. Beyond it were snow-topped mountains.
Naturalized snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) alongside the creek, or “burn” as my Scottish friend corrected me. Beyond were thousands of daffodils just about to bloom.
As we were walking along, most of our conversation was about school and plants. We kept sharp eyes peeled for plants to add to our pressed plant assignment, and it was absolutely wonderful to be in the company of engaging, inquisitive friends whose interests were right aligned with mine. Our geeky Latin-speak would have put some people off, but here we could relax and practice our new language. It was a very profound moment for me, to be able to revel in the safety and stimulation of new and wonderful companions. After a lifetime of learning about plants on my own, I am thrilled to have found my tribe.
The country roads were lined on either side with beech (Fagus sylvatica) hedges whose coppery leaves glowed in the sun. Hedges are such a nice, attractive alternative to fences, and provide so much safe habitat for birds and little creatures.
I returned from the country feeling completely refreshed, like I’d had a vacation. It was wonderful to be back in my native habitat for a bit, and to see some more of this lovely part of the world while sharing passions with some pretty cool folks. I am incredibly grateful for the experiences I am having in Scotland, and each day those experiences deepen and become more amazing as I move further into this new chapter in my life. Exciting times, can’t wait to see what’s next.
March 4th, 2015 § 2
This morning I put on my botanist hat and headed to the east side of town to begin one of the year’s biggest assignments: Locate, identify, harvest, press, and mount 35 native British plants as herbarium specimens. It sounds like a bit of a faff, I know, but it’s actually proven quite challenging for many reasons, the first being that I am not familiar enough with the local flora to identify as many things offhand as I could back in the U.S. So I haul wildflower and plant i.d. books into the field with me, but those are no real picnic to decipher. Second, so many plants that one might believe are native are, in fact, introduced. A prime example is the little snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, which to me and many others is emblematic of late winter in British woodlands. However, it was introduced in the 16th century and then naturalized until it was found in the wild in the 18th century.
Finally, the time of year is a challenge as March is just too early for most plants to be actively growing let alone flowering, which limits what I can successfully identify. The assignment is due in May, and it takes weeks to properly dry herbarium specimens so they can be stored without rotting.
So I figured I’d better get cracking, even with these odds against me. I packed a picnic lunch with a roast pork and chutney sandwich, filled a flask of hot tea, chucked my secateurs into my backpack and headed in the direction of Duddingston Loch, a lake and bird reserve south of Arthur’s Seat.
I tromped some woodland on the way, and cut a bits of holly and ivy (yet unidentified) and Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) before I stopped off at Dr. Neil’s Garden to eat my lunch overlooking the beautiful loch. The Pentland Hills in the distance were still covered in yesterday’s snow, and the streaming sun, shimmering water, and myriad swooping and singing birds made for a perfect picnic.
I made my way up the garden to a sheltered nook with a great wooden bench. It was warm in the sun, and I lay down. Watching the clouds skid across the sky made me so mellow I fell asleep for at least an hour. I can’t remember the last time I slept outside—I was entirely relaxed.
When I woke up I hopped a stone wall and ambled around the loch, climbing amongst the spiney gorse (Ulex europeaus), which of course I cut for my assignment despite being prickered to bleeding. I scrambled up some rocks and found myself on an overhang high above the loch, discovering a beautiful feather along the way. Pheasant?
The top of the hill was a great spot to watch the geese, swans, seagulls and other little birds swim below.
As I was drinking my tea I saw two huge grey herons fly side by side to their nest in a brushy little peninsula. It was an amazing sight, something I’d never seen before—a pair of herons on the nest. It’s egg-laying time. Wish I’d had binoculars!
So it turns out that the life of a plant collector comprises a little hiking, lots of fun thinking about plants, a picnic, a nap in the sun, and some birdwatching. It’s a good life, and added up to one of my favorite days yet in Edinburgh.
February 27th, 2015 § 2
Yesterday our nursery production class visited the Inch Nursery, where all of the bedding plants used to decorate the city of Edinburgh are grown. I was really struck by the huge nursery tables filled with seed-starting trays. Each module is no bigger than a centimeter squared and yet every one held a tiny growing seedling just a millimeter or two tall. These are the beginnings of new life, and I stood in front of all that potential and felt like there’s so much to look forward to with the coming of this spring.
My classmates and I spent the afternoon potting up thousands of bedding geraniums, standing and chatting and laughing at a long bench full of compost. It’s mindless work, and essential to do quickly and efficiently. But it’s lovely to get lost in the feeling of compost under my hands. Scoop, dangle a young plant over the pot, one scoop, two scoop, tap the pot once on the counter and on to the next. It’s a flow activity if ever there was one.
I am not sure bedding geraniums are anyone’s favorite plant, but these are destined to bring bright color to what the Rough Guide just the other week voted the fourth most beautiful city on the world. That I had anything to do with making something pretty for millions of people to see is entirely satisfying, especially when that something pretty began life as a dry little speck shoved under compost, with hope.
And also with shovelfuls of hope, here’s a little shout-out to the person who at 7 this morning gave me the best news I’ve had in months. So happy and excited for new adventures in our future, couldn’t stop grinning all day. XOXOXOXOXO!!!
January 17th, 2015 § 3
Even though I now live 3,570 miles away from my farmdog, I think about him all the time, especially when I see a black and white shepherd here in Edinburgh—which is about every day given that this is the land that originated the breed. Ancestors of the English Shepherd went to the New World with the colonists, where they were developed into all-purpose American farm dogs.
Interestingly, the breed “English Shepherd” isn’t known as such here in the U.K. unless dealing with a specialist breeder. A quick glance around the internet reveals that some U.K. breeders are importing English Shepherds from the U.S. for their breeding programs, touting the benefits of these “American” dogs. What goes around, comes around, right? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen of the origins of the breed and how it developed. Right now there are only three U.K. English Shepherd breeders listed on the U.K. English Shepherd Club Web site. Maybe Tuck has a future here as a stud dog?
As much as I am sure he’d like that, Tuck is doing great living with my parents, where he has everything he needs plus the added benefit of canine cousins. Tuck grew up a wild child in a Free Union holler’, homeschooled by an eccentric and reclusive single parent—this new socialization is good for him. As dogs do, he’s adapted to and accepted his new reality without a backward glance, which is all I could hope for. Happy fourth birthday, farmdog.
(Thanks to Dad for the photo, and all the regular updates.)
January 15th, 2015 § 2
This week’s plant identification is a real challenge: conifers. We had a walkaround last Friday, just snuck it in as soon as the gardens reopened after having been closed most of the week because of high winds. It was still gusty, and a cold rain fell as we sped around the garden looking at twenty different conifers. My notes bled across the paper, which melted in the rain and sloughed away under my pen.
The weather and similarity of the subject matter conspired against me, and over the weekend I found I wasn’t able to learn the conifers as fast as I had other plants. So Tuesday night, after a full day of work experience at the Botanics, I set out alone to find the twenty trees we’d been assigned to learn. The gardens had closed for the day, the gates locked, and I was alone with the plants.
It was a real scavenger hunt as I tried to remember where we’d walked in a garden I have still not learned by heart. The day was going dark fast, and snow fell as I tromped beneath evergreen boughs, trying to spot the small black labels that identify each plant in the garden. The only sound was the strange and reproachful flapping of the large roosting birds whose bedtime I’d disturbed. It was so cold that my hands cramped and I could write only shaky initials on the labels I’d brought to i.d. cuttings from each of the assigned trees.
In the empty garden, in the freezing dark, I caught a tiny glimpse of the wildness that makes urban gardens such important links to the natural world. By day the Botanics are obsessively orderly and man’s desire to control nature is the main attraction. But when all the people leave, and the darkness erases tidy edges and labeling plaques, the garden occupants revert to their undomesticated outlines. Walking amongst them, in the quiet dark, the city dropped from my awareness and I was for just a moment back in all the wild places I have lived in and loved, and miss.
All week I’ve been working with the plant material I collected that night, learning these conifers not only by sight (Chamaecyparis pisifera has white, butterfly-shaped markings on the underside of its leaves) but also by touch and smell (Thuja plicata smells like pineapple or artificial fruit flavoring). To have such closely related plant material has been an exercise in broadening my identification skills to include all senses. The test is tomorrow, wish me luck.
January 11th, 2015 § 2
Each year, in the coldest and darkest days of winter, I have to make an effort to keep my spirits up by noticing beauty where I can. This year is no different, and is perhaps compounded by Scotland’s incredibly few daylight hours. It’s unnerving to look up at noon to see, when it’s not raining, sleeting or snowing, a weak sun barely clearing the housetops. It makes me feel like I’m on a different planet, and maybe I am.
I go outside as often as I can, and walk for miles around the city. Thankfully the city cooperates, and where natural light is scarce cheerful electric lights and fires have blazed all winter in what seems a concerted effort to beat back the dark. Here’s some wintery color and light that have caught my eye these last few weeks.
December 31st, 2014 § 0
I’ve never lived anywhere that celebrates the New Year over three days, but that’s the case here in Edinburgh. The festivities kicked off last night with a torchlight procession that attracted 35,000 people who carried long wax torches from the medieval part of the city down the Mound to Princes Street. Amazingly, no one appeared to get burned and nothing other than wax and paper went up in flames. Which is quite something for what was basically a city-wide river of fire shepherded by Vikings.
Initially my companion and I were spectators, but some departing revelers gifted us with their extinguished torches. From the curb I hailed a stranger to light my torch, and with that sharing of flame I stepped into the flow.
Everyone looks beautiful in firelight, and cheerful. No doubt part of that was because of the clear and not-too-cold weather, which in Scotland at New Year’s is indeed a gift. The best part of the night for me was seeing the faces around me lit with love, joy, and companionship. At my farm I lived a long time in isolation, and to see and be part of such collective emotion is powerful and affecting. In many ways moving to Scotland was a personal fight to regain connection with other people, and carrying a flame in this procession became a very literal manifestation of that intention.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Scotland without a bagpiper in a kilt.
The evening ended with fireworks on Calton Hill, which we watched from a sea of torch-bearing processioners. This town shoots off fireworks without hardly any excuse, and ever since October there has been a marked increase in the festivals and fire-bearing festivities. It appears to be an active rebellion against the winter days that start to dim around three in the afternoon, and further proof that a Pagan heart still beats in this ancient land.
I love it, the mix of old and new, the smearing of religion into custom into celebration and back again until everyone is just walking together toward a sky full of wonder.
I’m headed out now for even more fireworks, but I wanted to wish all of you a very happy new year. If there was ever a year of radical change in my life it was 2014, and though it certainly wasn’t easy it was exactly what I needed. I hope that 2015 brings good health, inspiration, joy and wonderful new possibilities, for all of us.
December 25th, 2014 § 0
My first Christmas in Scotland brought the gift of a crystal-clear day amongst so many full of rain, hail, and grey clouds. I walked six and a half miles around the quiet city today, rambling up the Salisbury Crags for a great view of Edinburgh in all directions from the Pentland Hills to the sea. Spot Edinburgh Castle below, and the three spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral to the left, marking the neighborhood where I now live.
The extremely low winter sun, when it’s actually out, makes for some pretty light—caught here on the native gorse (Ulex europaeus). It’s a devilishly spiny shrub that’s been used as hedging to contain livestock. This guy was on my last i.d. exam, and it was nice to see it in flower today.
Wherever you are rambling today, I wish you all a very merry Christmas.