April 9th, 2015 §
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 4th, 2015 §
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.
October 22nd, 2012 §
And so we resume our tour of the Shelburne Museum:
I went in to a huge post-and-beam barn filled with all sorts of carriages and wagons, including an old hearse and a Conestoga wagon. I was really struck by the typography on this ferry wagon. I found it incredibly skilled and beautiful:
With just paint, the artist managed to create a complexly shadowed, gilded letter that mimicked malachite. This is one of the most striking pieces of typography I’ve ever encountered and, sadly, my iPhone photo doesn’t do it justice.
Next I went on to the printmaking barn, where I got to try my hand at letterpress. And then on to the weaving barn, where beautiful looms made me want to learn how to weave. I took a weaving course in my second year of college, but it was more art-based than practical, and I think I would enjoy weaving more knowing I was making something I could wear instead of a hippy-dippy piece of dubious “art” to hang to hang on the wall of my opium den.
Another graphically impressive exhibit was in a huge long barn that was hung floor to ceiling with old tools. Here’s just a chunk of one wall, with some wood planes in the foreground:
The other side of this barn featured iron work, including many boot jacks. I got a laugh at these pornographic examples, tactfully displayed near the floor behind a low wall to protect the innocence of any visiting children.
There was an entire house (!) devoted to carved wooden bird and fish decoys. All were beautiful, and I took this picture for my mom. See, Mom, carved wooden swans are art!
Next I went in a few historic homes and log cabins, marveling all the while at how little space people need to live. I learned this lesson first-hand when I spent a few months in a small, one-room cabin in Alaska that was only accessible by boat or float plane, but it was nice to be reminded that the home I have now is, at 2,100 square feet, a relative palace. I guess when you don’t have a lot of crap you don’t need much room to store it, right?
Being on the road for the past ten days has further cemented my inclination that one doesn’t need a lot to live well. This is an idea I’ve danced around in various ways, beginning with my college ramblings and including my time in Alaska. But due to a recent major life change the question of how far I can pare down has resurfaced. This trip is confirming to me that I still possess a gypsy spirit and no desire to measure my success by how much I accumulate. In fact, I feel the inverse. It’s not a radical idea, but the less I possess the more freedom I feel. Even without my comfortable home and land in Free Union, which are a gift and blessing, I feel rich beyond measure with only a working vehicle, enough money to gas up the car, a small bag of clothes, a couple of pairs of boots, my beautiful dog Tucker, and a cooler full of Heady Topper.
Up next: Burlington and the Vermont brewery tour continues!