Youngblood Blog

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Gab o’ May to Gemini June

Ne’er cast a cloot till May be oot
Old Scots rhyme

May blossom: Kanzan ornamental cherry, cedar and pale green maple leaves

The old Scots of our little rhyme applies not just to the month of May, but also to the hawthorn bush, the Maytree. Thereby hangs a tale.

Gemini offers a kindly doorway to summer: and we are now thankfully a few days into this communicative astrological sign. Gone the stress and hardship of winter, cold spring, slow growth. Enter the Cosmic Twins: dualism, communication, seeing both sides of the same situation. In other words, enter the mercurial element. And warm.

Fingers crossed.

Gemini is usually a forgiving zodiac month. It fills one third of the calendar month of May. Its communication is tangible. Emblazoning shocking pink blooms dance on pale green leafy branches next to russet peeling-bark maples. Purple blossoms shout color from bending lilac boughs. Who wouldn’t want to communicate, yea, rejoice, in May? at least in the latter part of it.

“The world’s favorite season is the spring.
All things seem possible in May.”
- Edwin Way Teale

Not only has the zodiac sign of Gemini the backing of communicative Mercury to support it, but this year Mercury has only recently turned from retrograde to direct. Time for winter silence to end, stilted conversation, lack of fluidity gone; communication can start up again. The earth, too, a little miffed at having to wait so long to see the sun, is throwing caution to the winds, and everything is blooming at once.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a Godsend. It has been a long hard winter. We can all do with some relaxation. A little light relief, duality, multi-vision. Spring, however late, is welcome.

Trees this year are coming into leaf together all at the same time. We are reminded by birdsong of the fullness of life – fresh greenness of trees and shrubs – blossoms open. Life coughs and restarts.

If the oak comes out before the ash – we’re in for a splash;
If the ash comes out before the oak – we’re in for a soak
‘ more Scots wisdom

All trees came into leaf at the same time

In ‘normal’ years, the ash and oak are the last to open leaf and flower buds and rivalry between them to prognosticate rainy or dry weather of this old wives’ saying is noticeable. All beech, birch, lime and cherry buds are in full leaf before bare branches of the oak and ash decide to join them. Not this year. It was like a race had been initiated to see which species might rival the traditional early budders. They all won the contest.

What potent blood hath modest May.
- Ralph W. Emerson

Other aspects of the season begin to rub off on our chill northern disposition. We loosen up a little, feeling perhaps not so obsessed to compete or complete projects under the pressure of frost. Northern character is driven by cold: it precipitates one into working harder; showing that one is capable of braving hardship along with challenging temperatures. Mañana doesn’t work here. No cultural bias here, but who ever heard of a multi-million-dollar operation run by a Jamaican?

Is it any wonder that the Scot is Scotland’s greatest export? And, as a corollary, that the Scots hard-working northern ethos is one which takes well to leadership? Historically, successful world empires have been run by expatriot (and patriot) Scots: think Andrew Carnegie 1835-1918 (coal, steel and museums), Thomas Blake Glover 1838-1911 (Mitsubishi), John Paul Jones 1747-1792 (founder of the US Navy). Or politics, art and philosophy: think Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 (lawyer, poet, novelist), Adam Smith 1723-1790 (author, Wealth of Nations, first modern economist), John Sinclair 1754-1835 (politician, writer, first to coin the word ‘statistics’). Or naturalist John Muir 1834-1914, founding father of the environmental movement.

That said, the Scots, like the Germans, are addicted to exotic places — but only as a place to ‘chill’, to ‘get away from’ their ‘real world’. Nowadays Scots populate world cruises and Germans overrun southern Italy. But then they come back home.

Mary Queen of Scots, at one time claimed the thrones of Scotland, England, France and Ireland

A friend on a recent visit from the Pacific Northwest made an interesting observation: more of a cosmic comment:

what if Mary Queen of Scots had not been executed in 1587 by her cousin Elizabeth I?

Would we Scots still be the same feisty underdogs, over-achievers striving to pit our wits against the Universe? If she the Roman Catholic queen, rather than her protestant son James VI & I, had reigned in Great Britain, would we be more stay-at-home? more continental (‘auld alliance’ Scotland/France)? more laid-back? less prickly? less worldly or world-travelled?

Would we have been motivated to invent anything? (James Watt 1736-1819, steam engine; John Logie Baird 1839-1913, television).

Would we tolerate living in a climate which supports, in the words of Lord Byron – whose mother came from Aberdeenshire:
“Winter – ending in July
To recommence in August” ?

Is it any wonder we are obsessed with May?

The Gab o’ May is a harsh word for the beginning of such a gentle month, but historically its behavior has been erratic. The ‘Gab’ or ‘maw’ of a new month which perpetuates the weather of its predecessor is given short shrift. Lest the unwary shepherd forget, ancient tales tell of sheep dying in the fields in May.

Aye keep in some corn and hay
To meet the caul Kalends o’ May

The old earthman’s repeated rhyme about the Kalends of May sounds antiquated and without relevance to the modern ear, but in the North of Scotland this year his words had meaning.

Icy April

Weather in this Icelandic neighbourhood reached Arctic climax proportions between December and March. April’s showers were icy rather than gentle and the psyche of the ‘stoic’ Scot hardened and bristled. It’s the traditional way in a northerly, long-suffering people to cope with the harsh realities of living at the 57th degree of latitude and farther north.

The Pentland Firth, chosen to host the World Surfing Championships, presented contestants with ice floes. Not a single tree opened its spring foliage in April.

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
- Rhyme from England

Not a bee in sight. Not even an over-wintering midge. And May was imminent. Back to the Kalends, though.

Fearless spring inhabitant: peacock butterfly in early May

The Kalends was a Roman term which looks a little anachronistic now on the page of the poem. But it is good to remember that until Pope Gregory initiated a calendar change from Julian to Gregorian in 1582, only a brief time into Scotland’s own revolutionary change — the Reformation, which itself did not fully take hold until 1660 — the Church commanded people’s lives; dictated what was read to them (most of them didn’t read themselves) and what the Church read was Latin. So the first of the month was, in the minds of the rural farmer and countryman at least, still referred to by its Roman calendrical name, the Kalends.

It was the Roman name for the beginning of the month which gave us the word for Calendar in the first place. In Roman Scots it’s the same as the Gab o’ May – Maw of the month – the cold raw maw of May.

So what does it mean?

In times before there were trains, buses, mechanized transportation, when every countrydweller lived close to the land, the only modes of travel other than foot were a horse or a bicycle. And one of the surest ways of surviving was to keep a cow, or a sheep or a goat close to home. It’s what many rural communities still do in countries other than the First World. In Scotland before the 18th century, little “but ‘n’ ben” shacks were built of turf and earth. When stone building became more common at the end of that century, the same structure was converted to stone, but of similar design: a ‘but’, (abutting the ‘byre’ or stable with access to outdoors) where the animals lived and kept the building warm with their cozy breathing; they provided easy access for milking before being put out to pasture in the fields at the end of May. The ‘ben’ was the other part of the house, ‘through’ the house where guest humans went, away from the warm kitchen hearth and adjoining beasts. Until well into the 20th century, ‘company’ were invited into the ‘ben’ part of the house. Only the family spent time in the ‘but’, within soundwave proximity of the beasts. Even after the advent of a more leisured farming class – those in stone farmhouses with separate quarters for farm animals, barns and other sheds – no good practitioner of husbandry would send his animals out into the fields before the end of bad weather.

You kept your feathered friends indoors until all risk of frost was past

When the weather became kindly – as garden centres so often remind us “plant out after all risk of frost has passed”: So with hen, cow, pig, sheep or goat. You kept your life-giving feathered and four-footed companions warm and fed indoors, not venturing to put them out to pasture until all risk of frost was over.

That’s where the calendar and the month of May come in.

The original Roman calendar calculated according to a 13-lunar-month regimen. Julius Caesar, after an extended visit with Cleopatra in Egypt, upgraded the Roman ‘Julian’ calendar in 46BC to run along lines similar to the Egyptian solar one which he admired. The Julian year was on average 365.25 days long. It worked well until extra ‘leap’ days started to mount up over a period of 1500 years. When the Gregorian calendar took over from the Julian calendar, the western hemisphere ‘lost’ 11 days. In country districts in the northern hemisphere – Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles – country people saw this as being robbed of life’s most precious commodity – time.

Because the original Roman calendar had run on cycles of the moon, even the revised version began to clash with solar time and calculation which made sense in the first centuries AD by the 18th century had lost relevance. An adjustment had to be made. September 2, 1752 was chosen as the date on which the old calendar would ‘switch’ to the new. On that day, the British Isles and all English colonies, including America, lost 11 days–September 3rd through 13th. People went to bed on September 2nd and when they awoke next morning, the date had become September 14th.

Country ways: living in harmony with your neighbours

There were riots in rural villages when people thought the government was trying to cheat them out of 11 days of their lives. Though these days disappeared in English lands in 1752, a number had already vanished in other places–France in 1582, Austria in 1584, and Norway in 1700. Tsarist Russian, on the other hand, did not convert to Gregorian until 1918. And the Berber people of North Africa still operate on Julian time.

Naturally they were upset when Christmas fell 11 days earlier that year, Epiphany 11 days earlier the next January and then it played havoc with spring. May started 11 days before the accustomed season and so our title quote, another favored Scots expression, became meaningless:

‘ne’er cast a cloot
till May be oot’

It has often been said that the ‘May’ of the quotation refers to the blossom of the May or Hawthorn and this would tie in well with spring timing. In calendar terms, however, in now (Gregorian) time, the Scots are seen to suggest caution when divesting winter woolies, extra layers of ‘vests’ (underwear) until the month of June has begun!

The original aphorism may have applied to the hawthorn, which did indeed bloom during the latter weeks of May; but when 11 days were subtracted from the old calendar, May became 11 days chillier and so in northern Scotland at least, the hawthorn no longer blooms until the last week of the month or the first week of June.

‘Ne’er cast a cloot till May be oot’
becomes the month as well as the tree. i.e. don’t take off anything until June.

… and now is not the time for me to tell the tale of the Victorian Scots bothy loon (farm worker) who was sewn into his underwear in November by the ‘kitchie deem’ (kitchen lass, maid) only to have the stitches removed the following summer solstice.

I’ll leave that delight for another story-telling session…

May 25, 2010 Posted by | astrology, calendar customs, culture, festivals, organic husbandry, seasonal, weather | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Arbor Day and Earth Week

Trees: without them and our wilderness, we as a species are lost

‘Archetype of our oneness with the earth’

We used to call it Arbor Day. On the hinge between Aries and Taurus, when the Sun enters this celebratory earth sign in the western zodiac calendar: that’s the day John Muir was born in 1838. A native Scot who emigrated to the United States and changed the face of a nation, Muir was the original arborist: lover of trees.

Wolves being hunted to extinction following a change in legislation to the US Endangered Species Act

It wasn’t easy. In early 19th-century Britain or the US, wilderness wasn’t a concept naturally entertained by Victorian huntin’ shootin’ choppin’ mentality. [It still isn't, one might argue, when considering the recent Obama administration's upholding the Bush cancellation of sections of the Endangered Species Act: which has resulted in wholesale wolf-massacre in the US States of Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Alaska].

Muir had similar adversaries. A naturalist and explorer of nature, his favorite wildernesses were in northern California, and it is there that his perseverance eventually paid off.

His activism was instrumental in saving swathes of western wilderness which eventually became the National Parks of Yellowstone, Yosemite Valley and Sequoia NP. The Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892, is now the most important (and vociferous) conservation organization in the United States.

His essays, letters and books have been read by millions.

At first, however, his petitions to conserve large areas of natural beauty were ignored. In the USA, it was a time of railroad expansion, the explosion of large cities, and big business in politics and in agriculture.

In his opinion, the high Sierras and other wild mountainscapes were being ravaged by livestock grazing (especially sheep, which he termed ‘hoofed locusts’). He personally spent weeks, sometimes months, in this high country, documenting and writing about the need to allow areas of such magnificence protection from grazing and (by analogy, its later counterpart,) the human and vehicular footprint.

He was persistent and he was inspired. The wild nature of California captivated him, from his first moment of exposure to its awesome grandeur.

Yosemite by Ansel Adams

“We are in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us” John Muir

He had, after all, grown up in rural (but ‘tamed’) Scotland, where the wildcat was close to extinction, where wild boar no longer existed outside zoos, and where in his grandfather’s time a royal patron, King George I (‘Big Geordie’), had commissioned a granite bridge over a tributary of the River Dee at Invercauld, so he could be wheeled from Ballater to the hide to shoot; and where, incidentally, he is credited with killing Scotland’s last wolf in 1722.

Muir saw huge vistas of the Cairngorms, Deeside, Donside and the Ladder Hills have their natural tree populations annihilated by sheep, deer and rabbit. He dreamed of a world that might be otherwise.

Grandeur of Yosemite inspired Muir's lifelong work for wilderness

Muir arrived in San Francisco in 1868, and immediately set out to spend a solitary week in Yosemite. He later built a cabin there, where he lived for three years. For months at a time he would wander alone in the wilderness, making notes, carrying ‘only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson.’ It is here that he and his correspondent-in-Nature Ralph Waldo Emerson eventually met in 1871; Emerson traveling from Harvard to meet the man who lived the life he merely wrote about. His visit lasted only one day, but he promised assistance, and offered Muir a teaching position at the prestigious university, which Muir declined. ‘My work is here’, he said.

In 1872, the first National Park was created by federal legislation, on the strength of Muir’s efforts, at Yellowstone, Wyoming. It was to be the precursor of many others in the continental United States, including a total of nine national parks, now administered within the State of California by the National Parks service.

After his meeting with Emerson and over the following twenty years, Muir gathered, collated and compiled volumes of data on geology, natural history and plant and animal life populations of the Sierras. He envisioned Yosemite and the Sierra mountain range as pristine lands where original wildlife might roam, breed and proliferate, unimpeded by artificial (human) regulation. It was a difficult concept to instill. And his vision suffered throughout his life, wherever conflict surfaced between wilderness and ‘business.’

In one respect he was visionary, in doggedly hounding US Congress, and in writing for pro-conservationist magazines and organizations.

‘“Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts, and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.”


In 1873 and 1874, he made field studies along the western flank of the Sierra Nevada, on the distribution and ecology of isolated groves of Giant Sequoia, one of the few redwood groves left in the world in virgin stands. In 1876, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published Muir’s paper on the subject. In his personal essays, however, he valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities.

Mount Whitney, at 14,500ft, the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail

His work inspired countless Americans, whose culture at the time was focused on the growing phenomenon of sky-scraper building and nationwide travel. He got them out of cities and back to nature. His work inspired photographers like Ansel Adams, painters such as Bierstadt, Jorgensen and Virgil Williams and he might even be seen as the father of the naturalist movement ‘EarthFirst‘. In the words of his biographer Steven Holmes:

“Muir has profoundly shaped the very categories through which Americans understand and envision their relationships with the natural world.”

John Muir in 1907 - wildman to the end

In 1903, after an inspirational (but chilly) night in a tent at Glacier Point with President Teddy Roosevelt, whom Muir was invited to take ‘to the wilderness’, the President rearranged bureaucratic legislation, and consolidated the boundaries of Yosemite, which had been split and decimated for earlier conflicting ‘business interests.’

Many wilderness areas are named after him: from Muir Woods and Muir Beach in Marin County, north of San Francisco, to the 211-mile John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite through King’s Canyon NP and Sequoia National Park, to the 14,500-ft peak of Mount Whitney in central California. A glacier in Alaska bears his name. He was instrumental not only in establishing the structure which became National Parks, but in the resulting expansion of National Forests, including areas with protected ‘Reserve’ status. In addition, State Parks now proliferate throughout the US. California, alone, has twelve regions of state parks (CSPs) administering 278 parks on 1.4 million protected acres.

So, what has happened in the bigger picture?

John Muir would be delighted to know that in 1964, the US government passed the Wilderness Act, to protect around nine million acres of wilderness. Arbor Day was traditionally a celebration conceived in the midwestern state of Nebraska (a treeless zone), as a springtime event to encourage the young to plant a tree. And two Earth Days appeared on the American calendar–one ratified by the United Nations and celebrated on equinox, March 21st–when both hemispheres receive equal amounts of light and dark and when the sun appears to stand directly overhead on the equator; the other, April 22nd, has gradually superseded Arbor Day; their celebrations now interchangeable.

Recently, with the advent of the blog, acceleration of internet communication and a focus on Earth-related activities, New Earth consciousness, Earth Day has expanded into ‘Earth Week‘. That, too, would please Muir.

But what of his homeland? the sheep-munched treeless wilderness of northern Scotland?

Cairngorm National Park

Cairngorms National Park was established in 2003, the largest of 12 national parks in Britain at 1400 square miles, literally 10% of the landmass of Scotland. Stretching from Grantown-on-Spey (north) to Glen Clova in Angus (south) and from Ballater on Deeside in Aberdeenshire (east) to Laggan and Dalwhinnie (Aviemore) on the A9 (west). Its supporters describe great vistas, mountainous peaks (all less than 4000ft) and the Tourist Board of Scotland heralds it a shelter for a quarter of Scotland’s threatened species, and home to 25% of its native trees.

That in itself is disturbing.

Its ‘Angus glens’ the ‘haunt of red deer and golden eagle’; ‘heather moor vivid with summer color’, and ‘wild tundra of high mountain tops’ tell the story.

Every last vestige of hunting forest put to the torch by Robert Bruce, 1308

Brief historical recap: in the early 14th century, Robert the Bruce murdered his (Comyn) rival for the throne of Scotland and pursued his son through the hunting forests of Aberdeenshire until he cornered him in his coastal Buchan fortress and – having proclaimed himself monarch – confiscated what was left of Comyn lands. On the ‘royal’ progress north, every last indigenous native Caledonian pine was either burned to the ground or used as live torches to light the way of the conquering army. This deliberate extinction of the species–and the wildlife it harbored–was Bruce’s way of destroying the Comyn hunting forests, themselves a symbol of wealth and source of self-regenerating food and fuel supply. His act (colloquially called the ‘Herschip o’ Buchan’, harrying of Comyn lands in Buchan) totally changed the face of Aberdeenshire, from which it has never recovered.

What Robert Bruce’s actions created – a treeless raised beach from the Grampian mountains to the sea – was not replanted. Except for small pockets on landed estates where tree regeneration was encouraged, an agricultural zeal took over the desolate wasteland, capitalizing on open countryside with few obstructions.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Highland estates cleared out their resident employees–crofters–to make way for agricultural innovation: turnips and sheep. While these ‘clearances’ were more specific to Caithness, Sutherland and the western portions of Scotland, some effects were felt in what is now the Cairngorms National Park. Where sheep were introduced, trees died; were not replanted; not allowed to regenerate. Where deer population had been nurtured and maintained in small numbers in remnant natural forests, for hunting, with the exit of human monitors, they overpopulated and devastated their own environment.

Thus, the Tourist Board’s ‘heather moor with vivid summer color’ and ‘wild tundra’.

Tree planting has begun again in the agricultural hinterland

The tourist brochure’s proclaiming its 1400 sq.miles as “harboring one quarter of the nation’s native trees” is also misleading. One tenth of the landmass containing one quarter of the nation’s pine, birch, aspen and alder? sounds a little drastic. Especially if compared with John Muir’s Yellowstone. Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, or 3.5 thousand square miles, has more trees per acre than all of Scotland put together. It is true that Aberdeenshire, a region half the size of Switzerland, still has fewer indigenous trees than it should–for its kindly climate–support. But that number is growing: private plantations are beginning to take hold again.

The good news is the story of Glen Affric: and Trees for Life. This Scots charity has gradually (through donation) been purchasing 600 square miles of ancient Caledonian remnant forest west of Inverness, and has begun the mammoth task of replanting original species of oak, alder, Caledonian pine, juniper, birch and rowan (mountain ash).

Regeneraton of Caledonian pine -- a rewarding task

While their goal is not to service the forestry industry, but rather to provide habitat for original animal, insect and plant subspecies, (with the possible future reintroduction of wild boar and wolf being tentatively suggested), the group recognize that some felling and forestry operations may be appropriate.

‘We envision our work to restore the Caledonian Forest as not only helping to bring the land here back to a state of health and balance, but also having global relevance, as a model for similar projects in other countries.’

Other small parcels–once adjacent to hillfarms, and escaping the ‘set-aside’ agricultural brainstorms of the 1980s–were maintained by individuals, and planted with pines, which are now starting to look mature.

John Muir would indeed be proud of his ancient heritage and the inspiration it has given new groups to start again.

Old growth 1000-year old redwoods felled in early 19thC lumber operations

The best news, however, is back in California.

In Muir’s time, after the (1848) Gold Rush, California was inundated with new immigrants. His beloved trees came under great threat. In the 1880s four hundred sawmills north of San Francisco were churning out lumber from felled redwood giants–a process which accelerated after the 1906 earthquake–in a need for timber to rebuild the city. In 1920, however, the Save the Redwoods League began purchasing groves that would become the backbone of California’s redwoods parks. It continues adding to this day.

In the 1950s–the post-war boom–lumber mills were cutting in excess of one billion board-feet of timber per year, a level maintained until the mid-1970s, when clear-felling vast acreage of virgin trees was still allowed.

…Until science and sense stepped in.

Science argued, but the battle was won by 1990s tree-sitters, those brave souls who camped out in makeshift treetop platforms while Caterpillars, chainsaws and chokesetters bumped and strained and devastated beneath them.

To explain:

Old growth virgin redwoods now protected in State and National Parks

In 1905, the Murphy family started Pacific Lumber, believing that by leaving some of their old growth redwoods standing, they could sustain an industry, well into the 21st century. But Pacific Lumber was purchased (by hostile takeover) in 1985, by Houston-based Maxxam, and clear-felling became the norm. Like the Amazon rainforest, Maxxam were clear-cutting eighty acres of California redwoods at a time–eating into the company’s (and the State’s) last remaining virgin stands. When CEO Charles Hurwitz attempted to clear-cut the largest remaining block of old growth redwood, in Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, in 1990, tree-sitters — ‘Forest Defenders’ — scaled remaining giants the size of a Boeing 707, and moved in.

They were supplied food and refreshment by allies via pulleys, by night, their hoists and ropes removed and burned by loggers, by day. Tempers ran high; lives were lost; protesters murdered. But State legislature listened and stepped in.

Headwaters Forest was purchased in 1999 by State and Federal government agencies, and put under permanent protection. Clear-felling practice was legally reduced to a 20-40-acre maximum.

The logging industry finally sat up and paid attention. Its own resource was decimated; salmon runs and ecosystems had suffered in a mindless race for economic gain, with only ‘table scraps’ left, in the view of Humboldt State University forest scientist Steve Sillett. ‘The challenge now is to improve management on the 95% of redwood landscape (felled) that is just starting into regrowth.’

Sequoia sempervirens, redwoods as big as a Boeing 707

Growing trees like a crop of grain is no longer the enlightened view. Scientists from HSU have discovered that the older the redwood, the harder and more disease-resistant is the wood, and the tougher its ability to withstand weathering, damage; i.e. you get more value out of one 1000-year old tree than a thousand 10-year olds. Forestry attitudes are changing too. Heavy Caterpillar earthmoving tractors, that caused such erosion (skid trails) and consequent pollution to streams and spawning pools, are being replaced by smaller, lighter shovel loaders on tracks which leave the forest floor intact. State law now enforces a mandatory buffer zone of trees, along streams and rivers, and salmon and other fish are returning.

They are on target to create new forests (in one hundred years) like the ones protected in the Redwoods National and State Parks. Muir is by now roaring with delighted laughter in his (redwood) coffin.

So, when they ask you ‘what did you do for Arbor Day, Mummy or in Earth Week, Daddy?’ it may no longer be adequate to say you took the dog for a walk or raked leaves off the driveway. With renewed focus on the Earth, a show of determination coming from youth groups and in education, we may be inspired to show our ability to replenish, regenerate and restore parts of our planet we’ve been gifted as custodians, to bring back to life.

During Earth Week at least, the gardener in us is being asked to wake up.
©2010-2012 Marian Youngblood

April 23, 2010 Posted by | authors, calendar customs, culture, environment, gardening, history, nature, New Earth, organic husbandry, seasonal, sun, trees | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

2009/2010 El Niño Crazies? or Just Weather

It was a dark and stormy night – oh, no – wrong genre – start again.

Beauty of a snowflake

I decided winter was going to be a hard one when snow started falling a week before Christmas. Slow and steady, huge hexagonal flakes of white fluff that wouldn’t hurt a fly – until it amasses.

And amass it did.

In this neck of the woods, a white Christmas has become something of a rarity over the last score years: an event you remembered from childhood, when lampposts were short and dogs were tall; when traffic was a report you heard on the radio; when the wind blew from the North and old men predicted the white stuff. In these last few years, it feels as if the Earth is turning on the screws and testing us countryfolk to see if we’re made of the right stuff.

There’s a link there somewhere.

All summer long – I blogged about the weather, because there was nothing I could do to change it – winds brought cloud and rain from the west: dragged it kicking and screaming across the Grampian Mountains – that famous Roman chain that spawned Mons Graupius, which usually blocks precipitation – and dumped it on Aberdeenshire.

geology of Aberdeenshire

Geology of Aberdeenshire: granite, red sandstone and raised beach gravel

For those of you unaccustomed to our spectacular micro-climatic conditions in the Northeast triangle of Scotland, the Grampian county of Aberdeen has paleo-historically been blessed with low-level Pleistocene marine sands and gravels on its eastern coast, Devonian red sandstone on the North coast and intrusive muti-colour granites – also Devonian – in the middle. They’re the ones that usually soak up leftover raindrops.

The Cairngorms form a natural divide between East and West. These stately peaks – though only in the minds of Scots, as they rise to a maximum of 4,000 feet – are geographically closer to the Atlantic Ocean than they are to the North Sea; yet their granite bloc is a block for precipitation, most years dumped unceremoniously on the long-suffering, midge-ridden West.

For every mile east you go you can expect one inch less rainfall. It’s an old Scots maxim that made some sense in Grandfather’s time.

The charmed population of Aberdeenshire has historically experienced early springs, punctual return of swallows, balmy if slightly dry summers and mild falls. Winter, since the storms of 1981-2, was a gleam in the weatherman’s eye.

Until 2009-2010.

Summer was a non-starter. A brilliant flash in late June – like a forgotten dream: one week after solstice, a few days into early July seemed like a world of childhood fantasy; running barefoot through meadow flowers, gathering domestic strawberries, wild raspberries; thinking of lush promised fruits to come: plums and pears and apples.

Then the drought (so-called ‘heat-wave’) vanished and the rains came. And with them the winds.

Hurricane Katrina August 2005

In the Bahamas and the Florida Keys they used to say a hurricane rhyme:

‘June: too soon,
July: stand by,
August: come it must,
September: remember,
October: all over.’

It applied last year to eastern Scotland, to a scary degree.

June and July were the calm before the storm. August – a month when surprise ‘spates’ arrive and inundate fields of ripening grain, sweeping all before them into overflowing ditches, burns and rivers – brought two downpours. Central riverine communities sandbagged doors, secured and taped windows. And still it came. September there were three more floods; this time the river Don burst its banks in several places: in Kintore a farmer died in his tractor, caught out and drowned, unable to extract himself from floodwaters.

A mile of Don’s worth two of Dee
Except for fish and stone and tree

The September ‘spate’, likened to its ancestor, the ‘Muckle Spate o’ ‘29’ (by that they meant 1829), carried away everything not tied down: including fish, stone and tree.

Equinox came and went and still it rained. Still the winds blew. It was as if the hurricane season of Florida had not only exported its rhyme, but all of its storms:

After Ana, Bill and Claudette, the twisting tail headed north, skirted Bermuda and aimed straight for the north Atlantic, round the Pentland Firth and down through the Moray Firth to blast Aberdeenshire.

That’s right. Not only were these storms of gale-force strength (in high summer a wind over 60mph is unusual, to say the least), but they came from the North. Poor battered plants in struggling northern gardens usually basking in an exquisite micro-climate of Icelandic and Scandinavian temperatures, were being blown to bits.

I digress only momentarily to explain that our countryman, Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort is responsible for giving us the scale of wind speeds that we currently use. It really hasn’t changed much since he standardized it in 1806. There’s been no need. Wind, from a gentle summer breeze that cools the romantic brow (3 to 6 knots, Beaufort 2) right through to a full hurricane-force gale greater than 73mph (64 knots, Beaufort 12) has a way of letting you know it’s there.

sheltering toad

Danny, Erika, Fred and Grace brought similar reminders: storm-force conditions injurious to plant, beast and Man. I even found a toad sheltering from the blast in a quiet niche. There seemed no let-up; no sign of a reprieve. Those of us who believed that the Earth was just playing a game, having us on, it would be Okay in another week… were in for a big surprise.

I planted a giant sunflower out of its (greenhouse seeded) pot in May, thinking how lovely the vision that, in a summer like 2005, 2004, 2001 or 1998 (‘Global warming’ years) it might set seed to feed finches by autumn.

By equinox it still hadn’t flowered.

It was so statuesque, so tall, so strong – its stem larger than the area I could encompass with my two hands. It was full of moisture and had responded with phenomenal growth. But no yellow petals.

October arrived. Swallows had long departed – they’d decided for the first time in twenty years that enough was enough. They’d lingered in Ultima Thule only long enough to hatch a single clutch. They left on a singular warm wind three weeks early. I should have known then we were in for more.

I thought things would change after the ‘equinoctial gales’. It is traditionally a time when, if summer has been a little less than kind, the burgeoning vines, the bending limbs, the fully laden branches of fruit and Nature’s bounty make up for all the hard work, lost sleep, missed opportunities: the promise is fulfilled, Mother Earth comes through in spades, the sun shines and all is forgiven. The warm earth brings forth ripened plums, pears and apples in abundance, even a choice late cherry or two.

Not last year.

Green tomatoes so abundant they were going out of style

True, there were Granny Smiths and Cox’s Orange Pippins lying waiting on apple boughs pruned close to a sheltering wall larger than any I have ever seen. Artichokes as big as squash; squash as big as pumpkin. But I had to bring them inside to ripen or they would have moulded in the wet. Green tomatoes so abundant they were going out of style. Zucchini had been under plastic all summer, keeping out the rain. A summer too wet even for zucchini to grow! that gives you an idea of how sodden the ground was. Victoria plums which love a moist year were hanging in abundance, but they were still green, and a few delicate pears – it is a little too northerly for pears here at the best of times – looked like shrunken castanets.

Granny Smiths & zucchini: bounty of summer 2009

There was a lot of green: lettuce, cabbage, parsley and spinach to die for, but not a lot of ripening. I am not usually an ungrateful person. But my expectation was bordering on exasperation.

Then suddenly, as if the weather elves had been napping and awoke in a frantic state of guilt at not having done their usual earth tending, October turned mild.

Roses bloomed, butterflies emerged from wall crevices, a dry shed, and sought out the late blossom of buddleia to stock up for overwintering. California poppies that thought they’d come to an alien planet, flowered and raised their faces to the sun.

And, lo and behold, my sunflower popped her first petal.

But the stratosphere wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. She’d started, so she was going to finish.

I mentioned earlier that the Grampian mountain chain forms a barrier that usually holds back rain from the West. And last year, its barricading powers failed miserably. Not only did rain follow wind and wind follow rain, but the midges, the West’s most unmentionable tourist nightmare, followed piggy-back along the trail.

The swallows, great feeders of the heavens, had already gone; so nobody was scooping great mouthfuls of the little monsters in massive numbers. Wrens, robins and a few finches that weren’t busy feeding on grain, demolished a few, but the air was alive with them. Wind seems not to perturb these tiny insects: they hide under trees and reappear the minute it drops.

all birds huddle together for warmth

So, calm evenings in the late Northeast autumn were midge-rampant; not pleasant. No window of opportunity for a leisurely stroll in the balmy, breathless air. The blackbirds had it all to themselves.

Thing is, there was no evening birdsong. Most of the summer visitors had departed. And those that were still around were looking for winter habitat. Wrens can bundle together in numbers up to twenty-two in one disused nest. Body heat is the only thing that keeps out the cold. Wrens were doing a big business in re-roofing spring nests – for future reference.

There were other signs. I should have known.

Greylag geese feast on harvest leftovers

Greylag geese round here have become permanent residents. They like the mild winters, so I’ve heard. They top up and home in on a familiar sheltered waterhole; they feed to stuffing point in leftover barley and wheat in open, harvested fields and then head out a little north of here to overwinter. In previous winters, winters without snow, there have been geese still tucking in in open fields in early December. This last fall, all the grain had gone by late October.

And the geese were gone too.

In late October my drenched sunflower was looking a little the worse for wear, but she was still hanging in there. Her strong stem was sturdy enough to support loads of hungry finches, tits, songbirds.

Sunflower, drenched but philosophical

They used her as a stopping-off point between hedge and feeder-table. As if they hoped her yellow bedraggled petals would somehow unfold to present them with a miracle in fat black and white stripey seeds. It was not to be.

The rain succeeded. Not in taming her, but when her petals closed in late October – usually a (midsummer) sign that the head is transfiguring, metamorphosing, setting seed – they chose not to reopen. She bowed her head and became silent. She’d had enough.

November raged and birds were blown about. Humans and animals prepared for what was to come. Early December brought some sunny days, but there was a chill in the air that nobody could really pretend was unfamiliar.

And then, one week before Christmas, the snowflakes arrived. And they fell in great soft plops of Inuit 32-linguistic varieties. And they didn’t stop falling until every last man, woman, child, blackbird, wren, robin, chicken, fox, wildcat, deer, rabbit and stoat had felt every possible chill factor they were capable of bringing.

* * *

There isn’t much point in going into the blow-by-blow of how difficult it’s been. But it might be interesting to look at the overview.

Scotland isn’t traditionally a snowy place. I’ve explained why. It sits on the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a latitude akin to Alaska, but with temperatures more normal for the 42nd parallel of the Pacific Northwest. Yes, there are storms which come and go in the three months of so-called Winter, and local government services are never ready for them; it’s a standing joke. They complain before it comes, don’t deliver enough salt or grit enough or clear enough if it does and then blame central Government afterwards for not warning them or providing enough funding in the first place. As if the weather were not God’s fault, but the Labor Government’s.

People in Northeast Scotland have over time grown weary of bureaucratic bickering, complaining and infighting. In country districts in particular, they just get out and get on with it: fend for themselves. Farmers with snow-ploughs attached to tractors clear country roads which large council ploughs can no longer access.

This last winter saw more hardship, more strenuous community togetherness, more help-thy-neighbor-like-thy-life-depended-on-it gestures to make up for every snowless winter or heat-blistered summer of the new millennium.

To backtrack a little: we’ve all heard of, or been made aware of the ways of El Niño.

El Nino tropical Pacific anomaly


Spanish for ‘male child’, colloq. the Christmas Child, El Niño was the anthropomorphic name given by Peruvian sailors around 1892 to a warm northerly Pacific current in winter time. It is produced by a weather anomaly combined with atmospheric pressure: Indonesia usually experiences huge amounts of rainfall in winter under low atmospheric pressure, while high pressure hovers over the dry coast of Peru. This cycle produces a westward flow of tropical trade winds.

When the pressures weaken, the trades do too and a period of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures arise in the east-tropical Pacific Ocean around December, blown along the surface against weakening trade winds which churn its billowing mass into a lingering ‘entity’; the length of its stay can influence weather conditions across much of the globe.

In an El Niño year, warm surface water encouraged by lessening trades migrates east from Indonesia across the central Pacific to the coast of Peru and Ecuador, bringing tropical rains which would otherwise fall on Jakarta, Bali and Papua New Guinea. Not only does the warm water linger, but with weakened winds, it forms a dense mass of warm ocean that does not sustain plankton (which prefer cooler waters) and consequently the larger fish that feed on this resource. In an El Niño year, the high desert, the Altiplano can experience huge rainstorms, while Australia and India suffer from drought.

Recent meteorological interest has been piqued by the growing frequency of El Niño years and the apparent resultant extremes in temperature worldwide which occur the following summer. El Niños since 1982 have occurred so regularly that world attention has been focused, not only on their effect on mean summer temperature but on the fact that they may contribute to ‘global warming’.

Recent El Niños happened in 1986-1987, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, 1997-1998; and in 2002-2003, 2004-2005, 2006-2007 and 2009-2010.

For comparison, using mean world temperature data, the hottest years on record are, in order of maximum extreme temperature:

Red Admiral on autumn-flowering buddleia


1 2005, hottest on record since 1880
2 1998
3 2002
4 2003
5 2004
6 2001
7 1997
8 1990
9 1995
10 1999

These freak hot summers all happened within the last two decades. And nineteen of the hottest 20 years have occurred since 1980.

Notably, and possibly related to the gap of non-El Niño years since 2007, 2009 is not one of them!

What may be happening is that, with an erratic move away from climatic norm, weather patterns become reversed, unpredictable. Bottom line, for the weather man, a nightmare.

So back to the point. The year 2009 already marked the end of the hottest decade in history – or at least since they started measuring annual mean temperature. We are, of course eliminating Northern Scotland as a candidate here.

The winter of 2009-2010 will also go down in the history books, I suspect. Not just because Scotland was cut off from the rest of the world for virtually three months, but weather conditions everywhere were, shall we say, a little out of the ordinary.

Dickey Ridge in the Deep South, USA winter 2010

They had frozen citrus groves in Florida in January, snow in Georgia in February; and a big freeze in northern Virginia at New Year’s. Dickey Ridge (three miles south of Dickey Holler!) had an icestorm, windchill, winds of 50mph (Beaufort 9) which took the temperature down to 8ºF – that, for the Celsius Euros among us is minus 14ºC; and that’s the Deep Saw-uth.

This winter, Belgium had weather like Estonia; Estonia a brief snowfall like Guernsey. Scotland is the land of the deep freeze, British Columbia hasn’t had enough snow to support the Winter Olympics. Torrential rainfall in Sacramento, Monterey and Orange County exceeded seasonal maximum; Las Vegas had more rain in two days than in the entire previous year.

La Soufrière collapse - the 'Sulfurer' from Space (ISS photo)

⁃ Dare one touch on other phenomena, either closely or remotely related to earth changes? After the January 12th and 13th Richter 6.5 and 7.0 earthquakes of Eureka, California and Haiti respectively, probably not; save to mention that Etna is alive again, spewing out volcanic cloud and ash, Kamchatka’s twin volcanoes are active, as are the Chilean twins of Llaima and Pichillaima in the Temuco Lake District, despite an unseasonal cap of snow! And in the Windward Island chain, the Saint Vincent volcano, La Soufrière, the Sulfurer, collapsed last week.

We’re not experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

We’re just in the middle of a shakedown while Mother Earth gets herself ready for spring in the Northern Hemisphere. After all, we, her children, haven’t been behaving all that well these last two decades. So she’s entitled to shake her feathers like a tousled sea eagle and take a look round to see what else she can do to get us to pay attention. Weather is, after all, one of her mechanisms for that.

We decimate tropical rain forests, she sends less rain. We rape the desert for subterranean oil, she sends dust storms and African drought. We create huge whirlpools of plastic waste in the North Pacific Gyre trapping and killing earth’s most evolved sea mammals: it seems fitting that she should turn around and send us an oceanic anomaly to make us scratch our scientific heads in vain.

What’s in store for 2010?

If the Niño camp are right, and the winter of 2009-2010 is one of the ‘strongest’ El Niño seasons yet, then the summer which follows could outstrip all previous chart-topping statistics.

Snowless slopes for Vancouver's Winter Olympics

Let’s look on the bright side. Vancouver may not have had any snow to speak of, but Iowa and Idaho, Kentucky and Montana have had their fill. As has (Scotland and) the whole of the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Vermont: snow so deep and penetrating that the earth is going to be busy soaking it up, getting ready for new spring growth, filling riverbeds and lakes, dams and reservoirs.

Snow melts down at about a 10 to 1 ratio, meaning 10 inches of snow equals about one inch of water. One thing’s for sure: we’ll have water in abundance to get us ready for the growing season.

Perhaps that’s what Mother Earth has in store. If the summer of 2010 turns out to be another like those twenty hottest years on record, maybe she’s filling up her tanks; mustering inner reserves; getting ready to take us through some punishing temperatures.

I mentioned animal signs. We humans may have lost our ability to intuit what lies ahead, but the birds, wild animals, flora and fauna know a thing or two.

chickens dared to emerge in frozen snow, but didn't lay for weeks

Swallows left early last fall, as if they knew what was coming. The autumn bird chorus was minimal, to say the least. My few chickens stopped laying in the first week of December and, apart from one jewel of an egg that miraculously appeared (probably by accident) on Christmas Day, the little group of eight didn’t produce a single egg between them until last week. Even then, I think it was only the bright sunshine that shone warm during the day that got them motivated. They’re still pretty quick to get back inside their henhouse before five o’clock sunset. Temperatures outside right now are maintaining a solid two or three below zero.

I mentioned Kamchatka. In the darkest days of solstice – and even in subsequent weeks when January turned to February and the light began to return – temperatures in this part of Scotland were, as I said, more appropriate for Siberia than for an island on the Atlantic seaboard. In the second of three storms, four blackbirds fell off their tree limbs in the night and died. I found the body of a fifth frozen under one of the vehicles, as if she hadn’t had the strength to fly for cover. A greenfinch died in my hands from sheer exhaustion and inability to get enough seed in her crop before nightfall.

As I see it, the winter of 2009/2010 has brought out the best and the worst. At the height of the storms, kind neighbors with 4×4 vehicles ferried immobile snowbound waifs to shop for emergency groceries. Birds died, but hens are laying again and there is birdsong. It’s a signal spring is on the way. The pheasant population, usually set by surrounding farmers as fodder for guns in the Spring Shoot are feeding by day with my chickens, roosting by night in my frozen trees. Safety not only in numbers, but also in the non-shooting enclave.

Aconite petals are gleaming with frost, but their yellow is trying to shine.

They remind me of my sunflower. Beaten but unbowed, she made it through some of the harshest conditions ever to greet one of the girosol family. She stood all winter, too. She stands there still. No flower, no seed, but her stem as strong as a sapling.

If she can make it through, I guess some of the rest of us will, too.
©2010 Marian Youngblood

February 23, 2010 Posted by | earth changes, environment, gardening, nature, organic husbandry, rain, seasonal, sun, trees, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Space Weather 30-year Storm: Earth fights back

Frozen in mid surge

I need hardly remind residents of Scotland that we have only just weathered the thirty-year storm. Most households living through four solid weeks of sub-zero temperatures in an Atlantic weather zone (even with the miracle of central heating) will remember this winter (and last month especially) for many years to come.

Fortunately our civilization has advanced enough so that we experienced minimum electrical ‘outages’, despite heavy snow, icicles and ice on power lines. There were, however, multiple power ‘surges’ and computers countrywide were frozen in mid surge. Mac and pc-owners and related computer businesses are still counting the cost. Curry’s have been doing a roaring trade in replacement laptops!

It seems to have hit a lot of young ones harder than they might have thought: not that closing schools and cancelling bus and train services are a hazard; more time to make snowmen, play and enjoy winter sports, you might think. Lack of reliable public transportation, however – counting on any public services, in fact – four weeks without refuse collection borders on neglect, were commuters’ and householders’ concerns. Abandonment, remoteness and surprise at being cut off suddenly are what hit the teens hardest, I think because they are unaccustomed to having their social life curtailed by ‘weather’ and few had experienced conditions such as these in their young lives.

Some of us older oldies remember the winter of 1981/2 with shivering empathy; electrical failure, power cuts, snow drifts higher than houses; evacuating and rescuing neighbours, birds frozen overnight in trees. But that was back in the Thatcherite era, before the internet, when we didn’t EXPECT everything to run on time, snow ploughs to get through, petrol in cars not to freeze.

Human culture has changed in nearly 30 years: Even in the modern backwater of Aberdeenshire, the County of no motorways, the self-styled Oil Capital of Europe.

Tea Clipper Thermopylae was built in Aberdeen by Walter Hood for the White Star Line

For those unfamiliar with our ways, this corner of Scotland – the Northeast triangle between Rivers Don and Dee and the balmy Moray Firth – has always flourished, but more than that, it looks after its own. Rather, I suppose, like Geordies idolizing their working-class heroes that went ‘down the pits’ or Scousers joking ‘don’t bomb Iraq; nuke Manchester’. Parochial in the extreme.

Unlike some other lesser-urban metropolises, however, (Dundee, Perth, Stranraer), Aberdeen has always pulled through its hardest times: Dundee used to be known (an age ago, when the world was young) for its Jute, Jam and Journalism. Now it is home to none of these; but it has Robert Scott’s ‘Discovery‘, the Tay Bridge and it’s on the way to St. Andrews, which every golfer in the world has heard of; i.e. it participates peripherally in tourism, but some of its poorer districts are in appalling shape.

Perth floods every year and millions of national money poured in to rescue low-level housing has been a nightmare. Stranraer we won’t go into. It’s no longer on the way to anywhere.

Then there’s Aberdeen.

Perched on the westernmost limb of the North Sea’s mild Gulf Stream current, its dry climate (usually, rain from the west is captured by the Grampian mountains before it reaches the plain) and its remarkable latitude (57ºN2ºW ), akin to central Alaska, give it a climatic anomaly. Its farming hinterland was rich in Neolithic times and has grown richer.

Tall Ships Race reenacts 19thC sailing contest in the Clipper tea trade


A century and a half ago the city was hub to a thriving fishing industry; its harbours built, housed and skippered trawlers, tall clipper ships, deep sea schooners and whaling vessels. Thermopylae and Elissa were built here. Names like Alexander Hall & Sons, John Lewis and Sons, the Devanha Fishing Company sprang from everyone’s lips. As a merchant marine capital it was second only to Glasgow in Scotland and Liverpool south of the border.

Aberdeen, however, was never one to have only one egg in one basket: it was also the sole exporter of granite to needy growing urban centres: London streets were indeed paved with (Aberdeen granite) gold. Craigenlow quarry at Dunecht supplied the English capital with tons of its ‘cassies’ or granite sets – hand-cut granite blocks the size of a gingerbread loaf – to meet the demands of a city experiencing growing Victorian traffic problems. If they had but known…

At the height of Georgian expansion, Aberdeen city burghers were so wealthy, their coffers overflowing from the ocean tea trade, the Baltic route, their fishing ports supplying Europe’s tables (nowadays it’s the other way around), their granite exported the world over; that they chose to beautify: and the mile-long boulevard known as Union Street was built in 1801-05. This grandiose gesture – a feat of engineering which levelled St. Catherine’s Hill and carried the extra-wide thoroughfare across arches built over the previous lower Denburn and ancient market Green – almost bankcrupted the burghers, but brought the city fame to add to its already growing fortune.

Danzig Willie's Craigievar

As early as the mid-18th century, Aberdeenshire’s famous Baltic merchants continued to bring their fortunes back home; so the county continually thrived, regardless of the ups and downs of a world economy. Robert Gordon (1688-1731), founder of the Robert Gordon Hospital, now RGU, was famous for lending money made in the Danzig trade to Aberdeen businessmen who needed large working capital at even larger rates of interest. ‘Danzig Willie’ Forbes ploughed his fortune from the Baltic trade into the building of exquisite Donside château Craigievar between 1610-1625 on the family estate of Corse, when he was already landowner of Menie estate on the Belhelvie coast north of Aberdeen. John Ramsay, an Aberdeen merchant in 1758 built his palladian mansion at Straloch. Others followed suit. The county is today littered with stately Renaissance piles and Georgian mansions more appropriate to the valley of the Loire, the home counties or the wilds of Gloucestershire.

Within this mix stir a couple of ancient universities – one founded in 1495, the other in 1593, both fostered and supported through the centuries by Aberdonian merchant success.

The world joke about the Aberdonian who watches his pennies is not entirely untrue. And the tradition goes back farther than the fifteenth century.

Aberdeen Harbour shipping with ice floes in the 1920s

Even more relevant to the characterization, perhaps, is the fact that Aberdeen Harbour (presently run by the independent entity Aberdeen Harbour Board) is in fact the oldest running business enterprise in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, having been founded by charter signed by King David I in 1136. The business head of the kingdom resides on the edge of the North Sea.

But the bell tolled. The fishing industry worldwide killed its own small fry: when container ships and tankers beheaded sailing vessels, similarly Icelandic and Norwegian refrigerated freighters signalled the death knell for trawlers and owner-operated fishing boats; and Aberdeen’s shipbuilding days were over.

In the early 1970s, Britain was experiencing the three-day-week, unemployment stats for the country were the highest then known, and even the granite industry declined. Its clients metamorphosed from those who appreciated polished stone to faceless ‘councils’ and ‘road departments’ which required the precious quartz and gneiss resource to be ground into dust-like fragments which could be mixed with tar and spread in increasing quantities on the nation’s arteries.

It looked as if Aberdeen, like every other Scots city, might founder on the rocks of history.

North Sea Oil baled Aberdeen out on the death of shipbuilding and fishing

Then, lo and behold, along came oil. Bubbling up from below the North Sea in 1971, another industry was born. And the ‘silver city with the golden sands’ was perched on the shoreline, ready to receive it.

It is said that because of its very geographic isolation the county learned to take care of itself. And its humour has a lot to do with its character.

Now that there is talk of worldwide recession and dwindling of the oil resource, the current Aberdonian humorous response is ‘oil goes out, Donald Trump comes in’. This refers to the New York entrepreneur’s £1 billion golf course resort where sand dune reinforcing work has just begun on the very landholdings of Menie once owned by Danzig Willie. Aberdeenshire is not averse to turning full circle. It has so far weathered many storms through centuries of change.

So how did we fare in this last Great Storm? How did the planet fare?

Greece had 100ºF temperatures at Christmas and Abu Dhabi and Dubai had HAIL the day before the launch of the 2,717-feet Burj Khalifa tower in the first week of January.

Scotland and Aberdeenshire in particular were at the time experiencing the grip of an Arctic winter, with traffic on all roads down to minimum and gritting and snow-ploughing said by Council spokesmen to be ‘impossible’. While they reported worries that supplies of salt from the Cheshire salt mine might be exhausted, citrus orchards throughout the state of Florida were hit by snow and frost lingered long enough to decimate their total citrus crop for 2010.

At the same time Mount Nyamulagira in a sparsely populated area of the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted, threatening an enclave of rare chimpanzees.

Eureka and Haiti had 6.5 and 7.2 Richter earthquakes respectively, while inland Northern California and Southern Oregon, usually inundated with snow, received not one drop. States of emergency were declared for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties and as the rainstorm headed east, floods swamped the Arizona desert, threatening homes and killing migrant birds. Las Vegas, Nevada had more rain in two days than for the total year of 2009 (1.69 inches). Alligators in the Everglades froze to death.

France’s Mistral blew early this year, wreaking havoc and damage to vines and vineyards in southern départements of Lyon and Provence; the Riviera harbours of St Tropez and Marseille suffered damage to private yachts.

Since the snowmelt arrived in Scotland in mid January, it is superfluous to mention that the resulting floods have routed gutters and drains in cities and country towns and overflowed ditches in outlying country areas. Perth (again) and Inverurie, Huntly and Kintore were unable to cope with the deluge. These levels of precipitation bring Aberdeen’s rainfall statistics for the year 2009 to mid January 2010 to 101.23 inches, for a county normally experiencing 33.6 inches per annum.

The Earth doesn’t like what we’ve been doing to her in the last thirty years. She’s beginning to fight back.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | crystalline, environment, gardening, history, nature, organic husbandry, seasonal, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

2010 Odyssey Two: Space Weather

Festive gingerbread 'helpers'

The cookies are baked, the turkey/veg-burger (goose) is cooked, the Christmas pudding has been scoffed and the Festive Season is still with us. Not only that, Mother Earth seems to be taking charge, so we may have to stock up on a few more supplies and stores to see us through: it may be some time before this cold snap is out.

I am being a little self-driven here, but the temperatures in Northern Scotland recently have been a little more akin to Estonia and the temps in Estonia rather more like Scotland. Estonia had a rapid freeze over Christmas, but by Boxing Day it was blazing sunshine and thawing. We in the northern isles, on the other hand, had a solstitial temperature of -16ºC (approx. 25ºF) and more snow descended. One day of sunny plus degrees and then a refreeze. It’s down to minus something awful again tonight.

It all has something to do with that great author Arthur C Clarke who first predicted a new civilization with his 2001: A Space Odyssey and then followed it with the lesser-known sequel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Or, it could just be that dreaded winter high pressure over Iceland.

All summer long we prayed, begged, cajoled the elementals in Mother Earth’s atmospheric arsenal into giving us a high pressure over Iceland. These little devas may have been listening but they weren’t about to hand one over. A high pressure over Reykyavik in July and August just about guarantees the eastern and northern portions of the Scots peninsula temperatures like you would not believe!

We did have one tiny blip; I do remember. It came and hovered over this long-forgotten plain for two weeks around the time of Wimbledon. I remember this because when it’s Wimbledon, they are serving strawberries to the punters in the interval while the rest of us are craving the taste, the whiff of that red juice; our gardens are trying their best to ripen the much sought-after fruit, and it usually comes two weeks later after everybody has forgotten who won.

Not this year.

When Wimbledon was being served strawberries, the huge luscious berries in my strawberry bed were at their ripest. They were more delicious than any I can remember. So, some of us poor misguided souls thought the summer of 2009 was going to be another nine on the global-warming scale of one to ten.

It was short-lived.

I am not ungrateful. Those berries tasted so delicious, I can sense the tingle in my mouth even now. But two weeks after Wimbledon, two weeks into the height of strawberry harvest, we in Scotland were plunged into rain. And it rained from the end of July until the end of November and then the snow came. I think you might call that a little unfair of Santa’s little helpers in the department of the stratosphere over Iceland.

I should explain.

Stylized Jet Stream flows

The jet stream, just like the Gulf Stream, whooshes perennially by these shores. It arrives from the west and comes in a kind of wavy motion, following the temperature boundaries where, for example, cold from the polar Arctic region meets warmer air masses from the tropics. Jet streams are caused by a combination of atmospheric heating – solar radiation – and the earth’s rotation on its axis. The main commercial relevance of the jet stream, naturally, is in air travel, as flight time can be dramatically affected by either flying with or against the jet stream.

Meteorologists use the location of the jet stream as an aid in weather forecasting. But, as we know, weather is no longer predicted as you and I do it, looking at the sky and feeling the wind change; cloud-watching; most weather forecasting nowadays is predicted by computer with numbers on charts.

Forecast for the first week of January 2010, courtesy Unisys


But there is something comforting about looking at a temperature gauge or a barograph or barometer and seeing the wavy line change from low to high. If the movement is rapid, excitement is tangible: good weather is on its way.

This is where the high pressure comes in. High pressure attracts warm and warm brings clearing skies and clearing skies make clouds disappear, dissolve, evaporate and we get that yellow glowing thing in the sky called the solar orb, sunshine. I know, I sound as if I haven’t seen it since July. It is almost true.

A high rotates as a cyclone with isobars travelling in a clockwise direction; northerly air stream (wind from the north) heralds the end of a low pressure and the start of a high; ; So when a high pressure sits overhead, in the cyclonic centre it is a still, clear day. High pressures centered over Iceland tend to sit; generate another friendly high and sit again. So the northern isles of Great Britain benefit by osmosis. By contrast, if the high pressure of June, July and August lingers (as it did throughout the summer of 2009) over the Bay of Biscay, then the edge of the high is too far away from our northern shores and all we get is the edge spin, suggested above: the following edge of a counterclockwise low drags after it a high; and conversely the following edge of a high brings an anticyclone low. Bay of Biscay high equals northern Scotland low, low low. That translates as cloud: rain, rain, and more rain.

July through November the lows bred more lows and hung over us like a meteorological hangover.

Arctic illusion or high pressure reality: snow in the North

Now, rather late on the scene, the high pressure has arrived; and because it is winter, those clear open skies are so clear and open we are receiving Arctic conditions daily. No cloud to keep the temperature from falling. Below zero freezing conditions more usual in eastern Europe at this time of year. Snow-clad landscape; white mountain ranges sparkling in clear air fifty miles distant.

At times like this our forebears would gather round the fire after a splendid seasonal feast and tell stories. Nowadays, of course, there is tele: and after New Year, if the snow is still with us (forecast is for it to continue) there will be more TV: for our American cousins and for those with satellite reception it will be Rose Bowl season: days on end of watching the sport of bling: football. I don’t begrudge the fans: we all need something to exercise the mind when the body is hibernating and adjusting to the rigours of winter.

We as a society have become near-immune to what is called in meteorological circles ‘severe weather’. But let’s think about that for a moment.

We have been subject lately to some pretty severe space weather. I heard (but it’s only a rumour) that another solar surge is on its way. We know that during the current solar minimum sunspots are infrequent, but, like the unexpected flare which took us by surprise on July 7th this year, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can play havoc with our geomagnetic systems. Now that we are (practically) all on the same grid (electrical, telecommunications, satellite, computer, transport, GPS navigation), power-driven systems are extremely susceptible to solar storms. It’s not just snow freezing the light cables and clogging the plumbing: a mass power failure would not be a good thing while temperatures are as low as they are at present. We might suddenly come to the scary realization that the wall is very thin between us who are dependent on our winter heating systems for warmth and the homeless man lying wrapped in newspaper under the freeway.

Let’s look, just for example, at the strongest geomagnetic storm on record: the Carrington Event of September 2nd, 1859.

Auroral oval over Europe

This CME is named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the solar flare with unaided eye while projecting an image of the sun on a screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the solar explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocked technicians and set fire to their telegraph papers. Aurora Borealis, (Northern Lights) spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.

God forbid we should have another Carrington Event. We are ill-equipped as it is. In Northern Scotland, where there is no such thing as a motorway, autostrada or freeway, it takes council services all their time to grit icy roads to fragile outlying communities. People’s boilers and gas central heating break down and service technicians can’t reach remote districts because roads are impassable. This is what our society now expects: instantly accessible power; we are failure- and breakdown-intolerant. We do not expect the unexpected and yet the signs around us all point to Mother Nature giving us a shakedown.

I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones: in that I have a winter store of homegrown vegetables, chickens that lay when it’s not too bitter, and an accessible supply of wood and (dare I say it, that politically-incorrect fuel): coal. If we get a severe storm warning, either earth weather or space weather, I shall, with angelic help, get by. I am not so sure about the flimsy-skirted, T-shirted commuter driving home in her mini without her winter boots, a hat or gloves, who gets caught out in the snowstorm or marooned in a drift.

If the devas are showing us signs of natural occurrences as we enter that long-heralded epoch beginning in twenty-ten, to keep us on our toes, may I suggest we prepare ourselves for what might be a year to remember.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | environment, gardening, nature, organic husbandry, seasonal, sun, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sunflower Blues

Ideal giant

Ideal giant

One Swallow does not a Summer Make:

This is what a sunflower is supposed to look like. All things being equal, you plant the seed in March or April (not outdoors in Scotland; on a windowsill or in the greenhouse, because it’s 57degrees N 2ºW where I am: that’s the latitude of Juneau, Alaska); water, love, watch and wait. About the last week of May it’s usually all right to plant it out into the garden. And in any given summer, Nature takes over and you get a sunflower: you know that big yellow thing with petals circling round a yellowish – sometimes blackish – centre, which bees love and when the seed sets, birds come and perch all day, pecking.

An attribute to any garden: that’s what they say in the horticultural centres and supermarkets across Britain: there, of course, they’re trying to sell you a potted plant because they think you haven’t been on the ball enough to plant your own from seed.

I do it every year. I plant seeds from last year’s sunflower success or a couple of big stripey ones from the birdseed bag. It doesn’t matter: in the Northeast of Scotland, you need all the encouragement you can get: any seed that sprouts is a success; if it flowers, it’s a glorious success. If it sets seed, then it has to be the summer of 1976, 1996, 2006: you know, a ‘bumper’ year.

So this March I found a really fat stripey seed – the last in a packet of ‘Giant Sunflower’, a big smiley yellow and black face to show you what to expect on the well-worn packet. In it went. Watered it, spoke to it, watched the curved thick neck pop out of the compost in its pot with joy and anticipation.

‘Plant out when all danger of frost is past’: they always say that on Thompson & Morgan seed packets. They must know they have customers in Ultima Thule, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. They have to cover themselves in case someone complains their product didn’t grow.

swallow babes about to fledge

swallow babes about to fledge


This year I waited until June. Frosts had to be past. Swallows were back, firmly in residence, busily building nests and laying eggs in mud scoops on rafters in my sheds. I had in the intervening months been carefully transferring the giant baby from pot to bigger pot in the greenhouse. At waist height, she was ready for the move.

I’d made a new ‘border’ the year before. What an inadequate Victorian description. I nearly killed myself digging out a section of unmown grass on a sunny slope; adding chicken manure from my faithful avian friends, and backfilling with rich mulch left from prolific leaf-fall on the driveway the previous autumn. A gardener’s delight: deep rich flower bed, simultaneously cleared avenue, so cars can actually get up the hill to my house, overgrown with and surrounded by Nature’s bounty. The sunflower and I were just dying to get into the new earth and get ‘established’ (another gardening term they’re fond of in catalogues).

June went well. I planted out other beauties cossetted and nurtured in the glasshouse through an uncertain spring: sweet peas, poppies, nasturtium, nicotiana (‘tobacco plant’) and penny black. People who read about and plant their annuals direct in the earth have no idea.

But things were looking up.

July 2009: best strawberry harvest ever

July 2009: best strawberry harvest ever

Days lengthened to become endless wonderful light-filled experiences one following another. At 57ºN by the middle of June there are roughly three hours of ‘dark’. It’s not quite the land of the midnight sun, but it’s close. You can read a book outside at midnight. And this June was a balmy month.

At solstice and lasting for around two weeks there was a remarkable heatwave. That’s what we call it in Scotland. In other places in Britain they call it ‘summer’. It’s when the sun shines consistently over a period of a week or so; you know, blue sky, no wind, temperatures rising into the 70s. That’s Fahrenheit. I never could get my mind around Centigrade, except for the boiling point of water. Up here near the Arctic circle there’s really no point converting your way of thinking about temperature, because any minute it’s going to change.

This unprecedented spell of warm allows plants and humans to believe all is well with the world. That Scotland is just another place on the planet where life goes on like other ‘real’ places and the garden is a room added to the house. The rural idyll envisioned by Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy.

By the first week of July I had the best crop of strawberries I can remember – ever – coinciding with the second week of Wimbledon. At this latitude, that is a miracle.

Giant sunflower with support

Giant sunflower with support

Sunflower Sally was stretching up there; the stem was big like a fist at the base, needed stakes to keep her in position – in case a stray gust of wind should arrive and surprise…

The rest of the border was coming along nicely, everything starting to flower and send out scent into the warm air. It was like paradise. Green sward, pink, peach, blue, violet, red and orange blossoms mingling with ferny foliage, bees’ buzz, birdsong; hardly a cloud in the cerulean sky. It lasted another week.

Then Scots summer returned to normal. Wind blew from the west, clouds scudded, rain fell on fields and felines, hens stopped laying, day followed night. You know, the usual. Great for growth, they say in other parts of the world. Very green, they say in places where they have forest fires, ground cracking and drying up from lack of water. Yes, very.

I needn’t go on. You get the picture.

August followed July. It rained. Hurricanes Ana and Bill hit the Bahamas and the tail end wound up battering the East coast of Scotland. Crop circles appeared in English fields with regularity until harvested; then the phenomenon was relegated to blogs and picture files. No crop circles in Scotland – Cosmic Consciousness knows better than implant a design in a place where there’s nothing to harvest until mid-September. If you’re lucky. No people either, to come and analyse and gawk.

P9092422_2It’s now the middle of September and farmers round here have finally had their prayers answered: three days of ‘open weather’ (that’s shorthand for no rain) to cut, bale and bring in their barley. They’re all doing it. The air is still warm, buzzing with the distant sound of combine harvesters and tractor loads of grain to-ing and fro-ing from yellow field to dry barn. Nobody has come to marvel at my 12-foot special: tall, stately, erect (staked like a buttress) and still green. They’re all busy. The days are shorter, nights cool. Crisp.

They say if there’s a polar shift, the East coast of Scotland will be the most desirable place to live on the face of the planet. No people means endless vistas of green, space to ruminate and meditate and gaze at mountains and plain. No sticky problems getting to work on overcrowded motorways and packed trains.

Giant Show of Green

Giant Show of Green

In a polar shift, days would be shorter but warmer; sunflowers would blossom; and pigs might fly. I’ll stick with positive affirmations. You know, visualization of the mighty solar orb sending light beams for one more month…

Time to go outside now and see if she’s showing the merest hint of yellow.

One swallow does not a summer make. Or one sunflower, for that matter.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | environment, gardening, nature, New Earth, organic husbandry, rain, sun, weather | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

After the Cosmic Blast | Chicken Out

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Happy chicks make happy hens make phenomenal eggs

 

Back to normal: day in the life of a chicken

Back to normal: day in the life of a chicken

 

 

All this Ascension is exhausting.  I spent most of the ‘energy window’ – all of July through three eclipses, meteor showers and most of August til 20th’s new moon of Ramadan – feeling like a pawn on the Chessboard of the Cosmos. After the much-acclaimed stargate of August 8th (blog below), until the moon reappeared in the western sky last night, I felt alternately like an empowered new being and a wet rag. Now, with the crescent moon once again returning to grace the heavens, the wet rag syndrome persists.

During the Window, that’s going on for a month and a half now, I found myself unusually alone, without disturbance of any kind except for the hens, one surviving cockerel (fox got the rest)  a couple of late-hatching chicks; a multitude of swallows and other more resident avians and my cats.  I don’t have to explain I live in the wilds of Scotland; it is not uncommon for people round here to have more bird and mammal company than human. The ancient (and infrastructurally-challenged) parish in which I live has more organic veggie gardens and freerange hens and ducks per capita than Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s neighbourhood at River Cottage.  As a writer, this suits me rather well.  In my time I’ve been described as a loner, ‘self-sufficient’ not always meant in a kindly way, and able to get on with the daily Zen tasks of chopping wood and carrying water.  

But during the Window, there was an urge to do more.

I was daily attempting peaceful meditation, weeding, tending zucchini and tomato patches, and feeding birds; but appearances were bringing me messages from places so remotely unearthly, that it was a struggle to sleep.   I was nightly communicating like a mad thing with other ‘light-beings’ on and off the web.  By this I mean in dreams, but also on such miraculous dot-ning sites as Humanity Healing  >http://humanityhealing.ning.com/< as well as other spiritual bloggers, because we admitted to being energized by something greater than ourselves.

We all saw at least one of the eclipses (didn’t we?): however I seem to have chosen strange moments to go outside at night to be greeted, for example, by the astonishing brightness of Venus close to the waning moon, the Perseid meteors, and quite an array of noctilucent clouds, passing satellites, even one brief glimpse of (was it?) aurora borealis in the darkening August night.  

All my sleepless nights could be attributed to too much activity in the daytime and maybe (I’m loathe to admit) too much time tapping the keyboard of my beloved laptop.   My father, (which art in heaven, bless his woolly socks) used to tell me I had an overactive brain.  I have come, not uncharacteristically, to believe him, but also to thank him for passing on the genetic strain.  It serves me well.  I like using it, continue to lubricate it and enjoy watching where it will take me.  But the upshot of this, the energy Window (Infinity Gate 8/8), is that post-new-moon I am now completely blah. Done.  Wrung-out.  

They say two things: esoterically, ‘Let Go and Let God’ …

   … and journalistically, ‘Write About What You Know’.

So today, in surfing to see if, post-energetic-blast,  the globe and its earthlings had learned anything from the cosmic trigger to our light-code, our DNA-enhancement;  I came upon two movements of note.

The first is a New Zealand impetus to remove the world’s plastic rubbish from the North Pacific Gyre (Google it: trash vortex twice the size of Texas; it’s been going on for years, but only recently been getting attention in northern countries, many of whose trash ships dump there) where ocean animals are dying needlessly at our own thoughtless hand. The North Pacific Gyre coalesces and holds  the world’s discarded plastic.  Throwing ‘Away’ – this is where ‘Away’ is.

Second: Chicken Out.  Bet you wondered when I’d get to it.  

I love it: but I don’t have to proselytize: Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Bill Oddie are already doing a magnificent job getting the Brit public to wake up and care for some of the birds in our midst.  Hence Chicken Out.

More plastic than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre

More plastic than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre

 I tried to get one of their gang (another tv presenter who shall be nameless) to do the same with Tesco  and other supermarkets’ shameful stance on (not) taking responsibility for their overuse of plastic… but that’s for another day, another blog.

 

I think I’ll just go outside now and see how Henrietta and Phoenix and Mrs Brown are getting on.  They didn’t lay this morning.  I think they were a little miffed that I wasn’t up betimes with their usual plate of leftovers and a handful of barley (thanks to my neighbour, Jimmy) to top up their flaccid crops and set them pecking again: vying with blackbirds and thrush for worms in the newly-turned earth.

The light-workers, soothsayers, astrologers say we’re not done yet.  Saturn’s in Virgo at the moment.  The Sun just entered that same zodiacal sign. In round about ten days from now the two bodies will astrologically appear conjunct.  It is said something profound will happen then to the human race.  Don’t ask.  I’m only the wet rag, here.  What do I know?

August 22, 2009 Posted by | nature, New Earth, organic husbandry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

   

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