Loneliness, solitude and wilderness

Visiting the Assynt area in the North West Highlands last week was a wonderfully refreshing experience after months of Covid travel restrictions. This area has become more popular in recent years, since the concept of the NC500 (a circular 500 mile route around the north coast of Scotland) was floated in 2015.  However, for much longer than that, this area been a mecca for hill walkers, climbers and geologists. Here it is still possible to enjoy the solitude of one of the most memorable areas of the Highlands with the characteristic shapes of the mountains like Suilven and Canisp, the broad swathes of moorland, the splintered assortment of lochs and a coastal mixture of sandy beaches and rocky headlands. The sense of discovery is still there with single tracked windy roads that open up to a succession of new vistas.

View of Quinag from near Lochinver

It was the first time we had been out of Edinburgh for 8 months and our first holiday on our own for a considerable time.  We certainly were in need of a break. It helped that the roughly 250 mile journey from Edinburgh to Lochinver was a fitting prelude to the wilderness of Assynt,  passing through beautiful countryside and skirting popular destinations in their own right, such as  Pitlochry, Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park . We have spent several summer holidays in the Newtonmore – Aviemore region when our children were young but this time the driving rain, mist and snow on the peaks was a reminder that weather in the hills can change rapidly.

My first experiences of the open space and the joy of hill walking in Scotland was way back in the 1960s when we drove up from Cheltenham in an old army truck as part of a school trip to Skye to complete our expedition for the Duke of Edinburgh Gold award, which included overnight camping. I remember the journey as being long and uncomfortable but we had a wonderful week with rock climbing, walking the Cuillin Ridge and, of course, the hike. There was one point where there was heated debate on which direction to take next, as with no roads or habitation in sight we had to use the compass to realign our map and choose the bearing on which to continue.  The memory of this area made a deep impression, so that when I revisited Skye in 2017 the countryside round Sligachan and the shapes of the peaks seemed familiar rather than strange.   

Skye near the Quirang

Being in these wild areas is a reminder of the fleeting time mankind has spent on earth, a few thousand years compared to the millennia ago when the mountains were first formed.  In the 1960s there were many fewer visitors to Skye and more opportunity to enjoy the remoteness and the beauty in peace. In 2017 camper vans and large mobile trailers were parked on the roads in swathes. Often there were jams as the road was too narrow to accommodate two such large vehicles and occasionally vans got hopelessly bogged down in the peat edges and had to be winched out.

By contrast Assynt, though popular, still exudes this aura of remoteness. Rising so steeply from the surrounding land, the mountains, though not particularly high compared with others in Scotland, dominate the landscape and imprint strongly because their distinctive shapes make them easily recognisable and because they are visible from so many different angles and locations in the area.

Suilven from different angles (a) from Stoer headland (b) from Elphin (c) from Lochinver and (d) from Clachtoll view point . In top photo Canisp can also be seen.

They exert almost a hypnotic effect because one’s eye is constantly drawn to look up at them again as the colours and shadows change depending on the time of day, the quality  of the light and the weather. Even in a couple of minutes the tops may disappear under a layer of cloud and then remerge in sunlight.

Early in the week we did a round trip across the peat moorland from Stoer lighthouse to Stoer Point, which offers great views of the chunky slabs of the Old Man of Stoer, standing in the seas off the point. For most of the day we were on our own, occasionally meeting couples like ourselves or seeing a group highlighted against the skyline near the trig point. For the rest of the time we were alone in the solitude of the moor but surrounded by the loud sounds of the birds, a mixture of sky larks, meadow pipits and pied wagtails. Apart from skua and some cormorant skimming low across the water there were few seabirds around and the rock ledges, known breeding sites for fulmar and kittiwake, were not yet populated. The overall feeling engendered by this walk was one of contentment and of being in touch with nature not least the lichens and the bog plants of the moor.

Stonechat on heather bush near Clachtoll

Being alone is a physical state: alone on a mountain peak, a moorland, down a country lane or sitting at a desk in a study. For some solitude is a necessary component of well being: for example we have a friend, who has a strong need to spend time on his own camping outdoors in unfrequented spots and  this makes him feel better in himself. Loneliness is different from solitude. Being lonely is a mental state, in which an individual has feelings of isolation and a belief that the problems he/she faces are not understood by others or cannot be resolved. For many, loneliness has been a big factor during the current Covid pandemic but loneliness has been a problem many have faced as long as communities have existed.

A book that explores loneliness is the novel “The heart is a lonely hunter” , by Carson McCullers, written in 1940. I first read it at school as part of a course in English literature and it has remained in my possession ever since, with a somewhat tattered cover.  Over the last year, with libraries shut, access to books has been either through the Kindle or from our own bookshelves. I have tended to the latter as my partner is both an inveterate reader and collector of books. About fifteen years ago we bought a large bookcase to accommodate these books and now I reckon we have somewhere between 3000 and 4000 books in the house. In lockdown this has been a wonderful resource to browse and to choose a book to match a mood. I have found it a great solace to become immersed in a different world and to cheer myself up, when down.

Browsing the bookcase one night I was drawn to this book and read it again. Set in a small town in the American South, the novel describes the lives of a group of disparate individuals, each of whom in their loneliness is drawn to enjoy the company of a deaf mute, John Singer. He seems to understand them because he listens patiently without interfering or imposing his own views. One character is Mick, a teenage girl; she has a family but is in that transition stage where uncertainty dominates. It is a summer where she discovers listening to music coming from a radio outside someone else’s house brings her a sense of peace and she starts composing in her mind. Listening to Beethoven’s third symphony lights up a spark of joy and the notes are imprinted in her brain, so she can recall them.

During this period she comes to the realisation that her Dad is “lonesome” too.  Two of the other characters are Dr Copeland, a black doctor and strong advocate of the rights of “negroes” and Jack Blount, an educated but easily angered drunk, who moves periodically from town to town. They try and engage in conversation with each other but neither can relate to the other’s point of view. In the centre of this no one realises that Singer might be lonesome too. Graham Greene wrote that Carson McCullers was one of only two writers since D.H. Lawrence who had a sense of poetic sensibility; he admired her for her clear writing and for the fact that “she has no message”.

What the novel does portray is that there are different sources of loneliness and that it affects a wide range of people. This view is echoed today by many charities working in this sector. In 2019 , almost a year before the Covid pandemic, articles in newspapers averred that “ it is no secret that the UK is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic”, following a YouGov poll that reported that 75% of 18-24 year olds felt lonely.

Loneliness, I am sure, has always been an issue in societies but has lacked official recognition or action to alleviate it. Before her death in 2016, the MP Jo Cox initiated a commission to look at loneliness; the report was published in 2017 (‘Combating loneliness one conversation at a time’ ) and included a call to action. Following this there was a brief period when the ‘Minister for Sport’ became the ‘ Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness’. There has been action from 2019 with the setting up of the “Let’s talk loneliness” campaign , the establishment of the Jo Cox foundation, more connections between charities and those involved in community work to combat loneliness, and analysis of loneliness through surveys conducted by the Office for National Statistics.

However this Minister has now been redesignated the Minister for Sport and Tourism in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. So has the emphasis changed and has the commitment to tackling loneliness been downgraded?  The answer is hard to tell. It is well recognised that loneliness has been a major problem during the Covid pandemic and newspapers have highlighted some of the problems, for example  25% of University students  feel lonely, and the effects of loneliness on mental and physical health. It is unsurprising that young single people, people living in inner cities and in areas of high unemployment are more likely to feel lonely. Many of these people are also stressed, depressed and facing financial difficulties.

Lonely people suffer not necessarily because they are socially isolated but because the their connections with other people are not sufficient to enhance their sense of well being. We all need a friend or two but that friend is a friend because they understand us, empathise with us and connect with us.

It is clear that many charities such as Mind, Age UK, Silver line, and the Co-op Foundation are working to alleviate loneliness and their action plans emphasise connectivity, getting people involved in activities and projects.

There is also the benefit we can get from connectivity when we are alone; for example enjoying nature, reading books and listening to music. Anything that contributes to well-being alleviates loneliness. This is the second year that I have looking and listening to the blackbird in my garden; his song and his positivity  brings me solace and peace.  The photo below was taken this  week in a short interval during  his regular evening concert.

Blackbird providing a free musical recital in the garden

Listening to the blackbird works for me but there will be many small activities that can achieve the same result. In addition it seems that getting involved as a volunteer or helping a charity can bring as much benefit to the giver as the receiver.

Written between May 21st-31st

Whirls and swirls – eddies in the smooth flow of time

There has been a lot to make the heart sing recently: sunny weather, the daffodils providing a wash of yellow in parks and gardens, birds busy nest building and the joy of Easter. It is time to balance the recent serious grey tone of my blogs on coronavirus with some life colour and an appreciation of those good things that give us a spring in our step.

Daffodils in park and garden

Being in lockdown for so long can lead to a sense of disorientation both with respect to time and to connection. In normal times the routines of daily life provide a rhythm to our lives: the school run, commuting to work, putting kids to bed, the weekly shop. At the time, we often feel they take up too much time and prevent us from getting on with things on our personal wish list: sitting in a chair reading a book, listening to music, etc. However those routines provide a necessary rhythm and, in their absence, it is easy to lose direction. There are less of these fixed routines as one gets older. With my wife working from home and myself retired it is all too easy for time to drift and for there to be few time signposts.

In the autumn and winter, we kept a rough routine by going for a walk each day, and every Wednesday, whatever the weather, took a picnic with us to enjoy outside. As well as the fresh air we visited new places in and around Edinburgh: the Water of Leith, Roslin Glen, Harlaw reservoir, the Almond river at Cramond, the ponds at Musselburgh to name a few.  However the snow and frosts prevented us from playing golf over the winter although we continued our walks but less frequently. Then at the beginning of March we lost the routine, though we were slow to acknowledge it. A mixture of commitments and the urge to start getting the garden into shape and we were blown off course.

Our relaxation habits in lockdown of doing jigsaws and getting immersed in books can add to the sense of unreality. Our only connections until very recently with the outside world has been a fortnightly trip to pick up groceries in a supermarket car park. So time seems to pass at varying pace:  sometimes it moves slowly, sometimes fast; when life is much the same day after day there seems a disjointed sequence of events, a jumbling of experiences. Perhaps we are dazed from the monotony. Friends have remarked that there is no real distinction between weekends and weekdays any longer. The uncertainty about the future can lead to fluctuations in our moods: whirls and swirls of tumbling thoughts and conjecture about what the situation might be in a few months’ time and regret for time lost.

Whirls and swirls.

Whirls and swirls of autumn leaves,
tumbling in the whispering breeze
Dreams and hopes tossed in the air,
crumbling walls against despair

My heart is beating with a flutter
The words my mouth just cannot utter
Uncertain future, present fears
What tides will wash us through the year?

In winter, snow wiped out the view,
a smothering blanket, white of hue,
minds frozen by the viral storm
a shadow life, outside the norm

But hope arrived this week with spring,
the blackbird and the robin sing
A colour change through flower and tree,
the welcome buzz of bumble bees

A slender recognition of signs
that we could move to better times
With vaccine rollout going fast
a hint of hope appears at last

The outside world in calm progression,
reminds us of a timeless lesson
The fortunes of mankind are tied
to peace with earth, life side by side

While our lives have lost rhythm recently, nature’s wheel has continued to turn on its annual cycle. Last year with the good spring weather of the first lockdown we were able to spend time watching nature more closely, following the progression of spring in flower, tree and wildlife.  With an almanac and gardening diary to hand it has been a source of gentle enjoyment to see what is expected to happen, watch it happen and record some of the highlights.

Almanacs were used by the Babylonians as providing astronomical information on the movement of the sun, the moon and the planets. This type of information is still recorded in modern almanacs.  The importance of early almanacs was related to predicting the weather, which was a vital aid to farming. The changing length of days through the year and the angle of the sun alter the warming of the earth and the light available to plants to photosynthesise. Whilst the belief, held by Ptolemy, that planets and stars might in some way influence seasonal weather is unfounded, the fascination in these bodies, so far away in space, has not diminished. Horoscopes are as popular now as they were then. Old almanacs often also provided daily or monthly advice with predictions of what were good or bad days and advice on how to deal with them.

The author of my current almanac describes its purpose as being “celebrating the unfolding year with advice and useful information for each month as the year progresses”. As well as tables of information on sunrises and sunsets, phases of the moon and tides it provides gardening notes, monthly recipes and articles on butterfly and bird migration plus an article or two about the month in question.

The April super moon low on the horizon. (A wisp of black cloud passing in front can be seen at the top of the picture )

Looking regularly at the night sky has brought rewards: for example observing the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last December and the recent Lyrid meteor shower. Fortuitously I woke up at 3 am on April 22nd, so went upstairs and, with the aid of a compass, looked at the right region of the sky between northeast and east.  I was not disappointed. Despite all the night lights in the car park of the housing development opposite, I could see stars moving and then suddenly one or more apparently shooting in a low arc across the sky. Well worth the effort. If you missed it this year you can put it in your diary for next year as it occurs annually sometime between April 16th and the 25th. I also managed to get a good view of the April supermoon on April 27th. Moonrise was after 9 p.m. and there was dark swirling cloud, so patience was required. Although the April moon is referred to as the Pink Moon, this originated in the name given by Native Americans because of the flowering pink Phlox. In the UK this moon is called the Hare Moon or Egg Moon.

Spring bulbs: snowdrops, yellow crocus, red tulip and blue grape hyacinth

Our gardens, parks and even the roadside verges have been a mass of colour this spring. First to unfold were the white snowdrops, followed by the short but vivid display of crocuses in purples, yellows and white. Many gardens are bedecked with the predominantly blue Scillas, followed by the majestic daffodils and narcissi, which, though now mostly past their best, continue in some locations to provide a carpet of yellow speckled with whites, creams and oranges. All these plants and the spring tulips are bulbs, which lie dormant underground for most of the year. In the winter hormonal changes are triggered by a combination of the lower temperatures and the shorter days. In spring as the days lengthen and temperatures rise, hormonal changes also trigger the conversion of stored carbohydrates into sugars that provide the energy for the leaves to push their way out of the bulb and upwards through the soil. This is the ultimate combination of a rhythm tuned to provide a peak of flowering once a year. Left to their own devices and in a stable environment the cycle will repeat for many years. A lesson in economy.

Spring blossom: pink cherry flowers late than apple and plum with the light green willow first to show leaves

There has also been plenty of birdlife both in our garden and around the city to enjoy. Our walks in the autumn and winter taught us the most likely places to see particular birds such as bullfinches, whilst in our garden we have made minor alterations in the location and contents of our feeders to attract a wider variety of songbirds. The scattering of mealworms on the ground attracts robins and blackbirds, whilst the location of feeders affects the frequency of visits from sparrows and tits. We have observed that a male chaffinch visits a transparent box feeder attached to the balcony glass but not the other feeders; the reason is unclear.

My favourite species of all our garden visitors is the blackbird. Last year we enjoyed his music all spring and summer, a mellifluous, easily recognisable proclamation. We learnt that he had three favourite perches (roughly north, west and south) and would fly between them in a fairly predictable manner, always ending the evening on the southern perch. This year both male and female blackbirds have been in the garden more, perhaps attracted by those meal worms. Breeding lasts from early March to late July, after which the song of the male is no longer heard. As pairs raise 2-3 broods annually the chances are we should see some juveniles, recognisable by their warm speckled plumage, if we are observant.

It is hardly surprising that over the long period of covid restrictions that there are periods where we lose direction, or events follow a different path from what we expected or hoped. Last year in June I wrote a blog called “Emergence” about the feeling of coming out of lockdown. It is odd looking back at my dairies for these months and the now chartered timelines for the pandemic. These have differed from country to country and within the four constituent nations of the UK. Scotland published a route map out of lockdown on May 29th 2020, based on the belief that life would steadily become more normal.  Outdoor bars and cafes were allowed to reopen in early July (then pubs). However, it was just a few months before a series of restrictions were brought in as covid cases rose again and these restrictions increased steadily. By mid-October a two-week closure of all bars in the central belt of Scotland began; in November Scotland introduced a 5-tier system with most of Scotland in tier 3, with a total lockdown imposed on January 4th, 2021. 

So as we now stand again on the threshold of emergence once again, we would be wise not to consider it “game over” and spare more than a thought for those in other parts of the world where vaccination progress has been much slower (Vaccination against Covid-19 : one for all and all for one?). The worsening covid situation in India is a stark reminder that no one is safe until we are all safe and that the virus recognises no national boundaries. Covid complacency seems to have been a major factor, a lesson we would do well to remember.

Currently in the UK the covid outlook has the successful vaccination programme has led to a more optimistic outlook and the feel good factor has been enhanced by the enjoyment of spring. On a personal level enjoying the ordered progression of spring in our garden has reminded me of a small but valuable lesson: to get back into a relaxed and natural rhythm of living.  It is time for us to reset our clocks and our inner compass. However urgent other calls on our time are, we need to restart those weekly walks with a picnic. What was next on the list?

Poem Whirls and Swirls Copyright © 2021 by Bruce Ward

Vaccination against Covid-19 – one for all and all for one?

Sharing things, whether food, a toy, a sympathetic ear is a way of showing caring. Indeed, the Salvation Army has trademarked the phrase “Sharing is Caring” to cover their activities as a religious organisation supplying food to needy families, gifts for patients in hospitals and care homes and toys for underprivileged children. This is sharing of good things, by those who have, with those who lack.

This concept of sharing to help others is a worthy aim, that trips easily off the tongue. In practice humans find sharing difficult and it is not an innate characteristic. The pleasure of giving to others and the ability to share with others is something we learn as we grow up. Ask any parent resolving an argument between siblings over a toy. It has even been known for parents to buy two toys to prevent quarrelling.  

At the moment, this phrase is probably not foremost in our minds. More likely we are thinking more about sharing the difficulties and stresses imposed by living through the Covid pandemic and our caring has been expressed more in appreciation of those working on the front line, particularly those in the health service. We also acknowledge those in the course of their work, whether as couriers/postmen, supermarket workers, teachers etc, who are exposed to greater risk than the general public because they interact with a large number of people each day. However, this caring does not require a sacrifice on our part.

 We, the public, have been told by our governments, to care for others by following the guidelines to save lives.  We are also told regularly that we are “all in it together for the long term” and that the virus does not respect national boundaries. “In it together” holds as far as the fact that the pandemic affects us all, but it implies that we are all pulling together in the same direction across different sections of society, both within the four countries of the UK and across the world. This is of course untrue, as governments and political parties debate the right course of action in a rapidly evolving situation. Whilst the majority in the UK have been remarkably law abiding in sticking to the restrictions, there is a groundswell of support for a review of how our government has handled the various issues, how life in the UK has been affected and whether the Government has fulfilled its responsibility to keep us safe. A Peoples Covid enquiry, chaired by Michael Mansfield QC, began on March 3rd and eight  on-line sessions on the the following topics are planned:

  • How well prepared was the NHS? 
  • How did the Government respond?
  • Is ‘Zero Covid’ possible?
  • Impact on the population 1 (families, social care, disability)
  • Impact on frontline staff and key workers
  • Inequalities and discrimination
  •  Privatisation of the Public’s Health
  •  Impact on the population 2 – (schools, young people, women and mental health)

It will be interesting and important that this review answers these questions and provide lessons for the future that are learnt.  We already know that preparation for the pandemic was inadequate with money provided for future potential pandemic planning diverted elsewhere and that governments have a tendency to rewrite history and to mitigate or deny self-blame. The overall success of the current UK vaccination programme has pushed the failures of PPE supply and mistakes over protection in care homes – to cite just two examples – to the background. Any subsequent government review will be scrutinised very carefully because the cost to communities and to individuals has been so high and will continue for some time. At the time of writing there have over 4 million Covid cases and over 124,000 deaths in the UK . There has also been immense financial, mental health and other costs to individuals. The sheer scale and length of this crisis has led to extensive documentation by many different groups and individuals. Hopefully, this will ensure that history is not rewritten for the party in power.

It is ironic that while governments publicise that “the virus knows no boundaries”, the fight against Covid-19 has been very much compartmentalised within national boundaries. This is despite world organisations such as WHO arguing against this approach. On March 13th 2020, two days after WHO had declared that Covid -19 was a global pandemic, the UN Secretary General issued a statement stressing the need for global co-operation with the basic message that “we are in this together – and we will get through this, together.“ Within this statement he stated that “no country could do it alone and that governments must cooperate to revitalise economies and provide support for the people and communities most affected by the disease. A pandemic drives home the essential interconnectedness of our human family.  Preventing the further spread of Covid-19 is a shared responsibility for us all. “The cost for this has been estimated at $22.9 billion.

 It is a year since that statement and only within the last few weeks has there been much evidence of these words being heeded. Individual countries have concentrated on measures to control the spread of infection, to reduce mortality and to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by severe cases. Now following the amazingly successful research, development and administration of vaccines the situation has started to change. In the UK three vaccines are licensed for use (Oxford/AstraZeneca. Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) with options for four more already taken up (Novavax, Valneva, GSK/Sanofi Pasteur, Janssen (Johnson) -the last is already approved in the US. Throughout the world there are 23 approved vaccines including Sputnik V and Sinovac (CoronaVac) and a further 56 in development.

 There is plenty of good news about the vaccines in terms of efficacy. Studies both in England and Scotland show that a single shot of either the Oxford-AstraZeneca or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine jab reduces the chance of needing hospital treatment by more than 80% . However the roll out of vaccines across different countries varies widely.

In Israel over 93% of the population have been vaccinated . In the UK the figure is around 31% and the US has improved vaccination coverage significantly in recent weeks to reach 22% *. By contrast in less developed countries the figure is very much lower and even India with a good manufacturing capacity itself has only achieved 1.6%. The figures provided by Our World in Data do show daily improvements but as can be seen from the map there are very marked  inequalities. The International Federation of Red Cross Organisations (IFRC)  has warned of  “ a glaring gap in COVID-19 vaccine roll-out”  and has raised only 3% of the US$111 million needed to meet its target of vaccinating 500 million people across the world.  Overall,  the availability of vaccines is extremely patchy and there is a long way to go before every country can feel their citizens are protected against the disease.

World vaccination as of March 11.2021. Image courtesy of Our World in Data

The inequalities caused by the limited availability of vaccines, the inefficient distribution and administration of them in various countries has led to a lot of rancour and disunity. At the end of January, WHO asked the UK to share its vaccine supply with poor countries, once the vulnerable population had been vaccinated (as has now been achieved). Within the EU there have been complaints about the so-called unified vaccine approach and contradictory statements and decisions made.  There have been disagreements within the EU and between the EU and the UK. All this has shown how far we are from embracing the sharing and caring concept in practice.

The disunity within the EU has been particularly marked despite the setting up of a single body to purchase vaccines on behalf of the 27 countries in June 2020. The EU roll out has been poor compared with the UK vaccine programme: France, Italy and Spain for example have each only delivered one quarter of the number of vaccinations as the UK. A number of factors have contributed to this state of affairs: low precommitment to purchase of vaccines, lack of investment in vaccine research, slow regulatory approval of vaccines, and spreading adverse publicity on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

At the end of January France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, claimed that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was “almost ineffective” for over-65s and this was echoed by Angela Merkel. The Germans made a draft recommendation that the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine should not be used in over-65s.This resulted in a lack of confidence in the vaccine amongst French and German people, with 40% seeing the vaccine as unsafe and a very low attendance at vaccination clinics. Of 1.5 million does available only 150,000 had been used. It was not until very recently that both French and German authorities permitted it’s use in the over 65s and France has stated it would “rehabilitate” the vaccine. France and the EU have failed to secure a deal this year for the French vaccine Valneva, which has a manufacturing plant in Scotland. By contrast the UK has secured 100 million doses. In addition to all this there have been two separate vaccine export rows. In the second, the President of the European Council wrongly claimed the UK had paced an “outright ban” on exports of vaccines produced in the UK.

Injection of vaccine is the last step in vaccine administration. Photo credit and permission CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

These rows on vaccine administration have resulted both in poor roll-out figures in the EU and lack of confidence in the system and in the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to the extent that individual countries within the EU are rebelling against the joint scheme and seeking individual vaccine deals. For example, Denmark and several other countries are seeking vaccines from  Israel, which has an excess of Moderna vaccine. Eastern European countries, such as Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic,  are in the grip of a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic and unsurprisingly seeking vaccines from Russia and China not yet approved by the EMA, in addition to 100,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech under the EU recovery scheme. For example,  Hungary has approved use of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

 The whole situation is redolent of a splintered process. Those countries with excess vaccine can use “vaccine diplomacy” to improve relations and influence other countries. In addition, there is the potential for the development of black markets and anarchy in vaccine distribution. This is a far cry from the calls from WHO, UN, and the IFRC , who have each advocated a unified and fair joint approach.  The Italian economic minister, Daniele Franco, said in late February 2021: “We will not get back to our normal lives until the virus is eradicated in all countries,” adding that fellow ministers had agreed on the necessity of a “bold and global response aimed at curbing the virus diffusion everywhere.”

A unified approach for equable vaccine distribution does exist – the Covax scheme. This scheme was set up by WHO, the Gavi vaccines alliance (founded in 2000) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to help poorer countries. Based on the mantra  “With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe “ the COVAX scheme , designed not only to provide equitable sharing of vaccines among the world’s population but also to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines. Covax is aiming to deliver about 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines globally by the end of the year to 92 lower-income economies. The scheme was launched in June 2020 and after an initial slow start it has been gathering speed as richer nations feel more secure in their own vaccine supplies.

Ghana was the first country to receive Covid vaccines on February 24th 2021 with 600,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine arriving. Within two weeks 162, 000 vaccinations had been administered, reaching 1% coverage. At the start of February the vaccination coverage in African, Asian and South American countries was almost non-existent but by March 11th has reached around 3% in Asia but still only 0.5% overall in Africa. . In total 28.5 million doses of vaccines have been delivered to 37 countries, including 11 African countries, Brazil, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Cambodia and Tajikistan. The scheme has about $7.5 billion (£5.4 billion) pledged and received a major boost after the February G7 summit  with the US, Germany, the UK, France and the EU pledging significant sums.

Vaccination roll out in Ghana. Courtesy Gavi Alliance https://www.gavi.org/covax-vaccine-roll-out.
Photo credit UNICEF/ Francis Kokoroko

 However, there is still a long way to go both in providing a unified approach and in delivering vaccines. . Max Lawson, Oxfam Head of Inequality Policy, said: “While some of those attending the G7 have made welcome steps to increase the supply of vaccines to poor countries, these remain insufficient when compared to the scale of the Covid-19 threat”. The dangers of vaccine nationalism and “vaccine diplomacy” need to be addressed. Even if the full roll out of 2 billion Covax doses is achieved this year, more is needed to vaccinate the world population of 7.8 billion for the first time around.

 So, as we envisage  the prospects of being able to co-operate on Covid vaccination across the world and support a scheme goes against the natural grain of looking after our own interests first, it is relevant to consider two points. First, can we cite any examples where caring for the disadvantaged benefits the population as a whole and, secondly, are we likely to need such global co-operation again in the future?

Woodland canopy – below ground ae fungal networks ( mycorrhiza)

 In nature trees in forests have extensive interconnections provided by a fungal network that enables exchange of nutrients, sending of chemical messages and providing defences against pathogens. As Peter Wohllleben explains in his book “The hidden life of trees“, it is beneficial for the community as a whole to succour weaker neighbours. Isolated trees are much more open to attack by fungal and insect predators.  

 It is foolish to expect that once the Covid pandemic is over we can all relax. Scientists predict that in the future pandemics will occur with increasing frequency as human behaviour increases the likelihood of viruses adapting to new hosts. In his programme “Jump”, Chris van Tulleken explores how and why this happens. In addition, we know that existing worldwide problems such as hunger and poverty have been exacerbated by the current crisis. Add in water shortages, climate change and depletion of scarce natural resources and it is likely we will face crises of equal magnitude in the future.

Will we react concertedly in a caring/sharing manner and be prepared to make some sacrifices or will we forget the lessons we have learned once the crisis is over?

Written 3rd-14th March 2021

Bubbles and reflections — Ramblingthreads

Walking and enjoying gardens offer the opportunity for reflection and for relaxing in a bubble of our own creation. The vaccination programme is well under way, but hospitals remain overstretched. Public gardens can help provide a feel-good factor. The transformation of Saughton Park in Edinburgh to a vibrant community park/gardens is timely and much appreciated.

Bubbles and reflections — Ramblingthreads

Bubbles and reflections

Rainbows have always been a symbol of hope and inspiration. The beautiful but transient kaleidoscope of colours, the never to be reached pot of gold, and their transitory appearance all contribute to their magical symbolism. The association of rainbows with peace and hope has been with us since biblical times but has found new expression with the posting of rainbow images in windows during the coronavirus pandemic as a visible show of support for the NHS.

Bubbles are even more transient than rainbows but have a magic of their own. In my childhood the gift of a cheap cardboard carton containing a soapy solution and a stick with a metal loop was  prized more than an expensive toy. Creating bubbles in fast streams or competing to produce the largest and longest-lived bubble provided much innocent amusement.  On streets in major cities street performers often stop milling pedestrians in their tracks as they trailed their long streamers through the air to create hundreds of bubbles or massive bubbles big enough to cover a horse. Nowadays at children’s playgroups a bubble machine is often used to provide a positive feel at the end of a session.

Bubbles and rainbow

[ centre: rainbow of hope on church -photo credit Bruce Ward. Left and right : bubbles from Pexel library ]

Bubbles have another connotation, borne of the thin film separating interior from exterior. We refer to people as “being in a bubble”, isolated from the world outside. During this pandemic, this meaning has been extended to the concept of social and support bubbles, where small groups have been permitted to socialise together and be considered as an extended household. Sports teams have formed bio-bubbles, living in a carefully contained environment, sometimes for weeks on end.

The reality is that most of us are currently living in an isolated bubble, whether singly, as a couple or as a family. Contact with the outside world is limited despite radio, TV, social networks and limited excursions for exercise. We have more time for reflection and may have a greater appreciation of our environment (see previous posts).

Walking has provided a welcome feeling of well being in lockdown but how far we have been able to roam has depended on the restrictions in place. Currently we are being asked to walk from home, so we have been exploring new places to walk within a small radius and we have been surprised at the variety of interesting walks available: along the canal, disused railway lines, in parks and reserves. In Edinburgh we are lucky enough to have these all over the city including the wide-open spaces of Holyrood Park, The Meadows, Leith Links, and Bonaly Country park.

Female goosander on the Water of Leith with partial reflection. Photo credit: Bruce Ward

One of the smaller parks that offers a different experience is Saughton Park, with the Water of Leith flowing on its southern and eastern perimeter. Our slowness in visiting stemmed from our memories from the 1990s of windswept sports fields, where youth teams played football. A Hearts supporter, writing in 2009 on the online forum “The Shed”, confirmed this impression and lamented the fact that the park looked so run down: “The gardens looked crap; the car park, where once the grand band-stand stood is in a right state. The roads and paths that circled the winter gardens are now all over-grown and there was just a general shabbiness about the whole place.”  He recalled how important the place was in his childhood and remembered the mansion being demolished in 1952.

Visiting the park this January gave a totally different experience. Despite the winter weather with icy paths and the plants in winter foliage there was plenty to admire and the design of the park allowed for varied ambiance in the different areas: boisterousness and laughter in the BMX and playground areas and quietness for reflection in the SiMBA garden just over the hedge. Here people can remember babies they have lost and have an inscription on the copper leaves of the Tree of Tranquillity. SiMBA have also adopted the butterfly as a symbol – reflecting the transience of life.

Saughton park in winter

Rose gardenWillow and grasses

Bandstand — Topiary by Italian garden

There are other parts of the garden that are well suited to reflection.  The walled garden is divided into compartments, separated by yew hedges. Each has a distinctive character: the rose garden with patterns described by low box hedging, the bandstand area with the willow tree and flower beds, the physic garden with medicinal plants and the adjacent sunken Italian garden edged by yew hedges sculpted by topiary. Along the southern hedge is the “Dreamer of Peace” statue. This bronze statue, designed by Kaivalya Torpy, is a life-size figure of Sri Chinmoy , the spiritual leader and meditator, who advocated a spiritual path to God through prayer and meditation and promoted interfaith harmony. In his youth, Sri Chimnoy was also an athlete and Edinburgh has a 1-mile circuit in his honour in the Meadows. There are now Dreamer of Peace statues throughout the world from Toronto to East Timor; each has the same form of the dreamer holding a torch, which you are invited to touch to “offer your own hope for peace – a prayer, a good thought, a moment of silence”.

So how did the transformation from run-down council playing field to vibrant community park occur? In 2012, the Parks and Greenspaces section of the City of Edinburgh Council acknowledged the need for radical action and had both the vision and the determination for an ambitious restoration. In 2013 Heritage Lottery funding was obtained to draw up proposals. In 2015 a design plan for the proposed £5.3 million renovation was submitted for round 2 funding and then converted into a final plan by Ironside Farrar.

At the heart of the restoration plans was the aim of making a welcoming park for all by building on the heritage of the park and providing facilities to make it an integral part of community life in a part of the city which has for a while had areas of social deprivation. This included setting up the “Friends of Saughton Park” , an active group that promotes events, helps in the work of the garden and in projects (literally at the ground level!) and provides a forum for park users.

Another aim of the restoration plan was to foster horticultural excellence through a variety of garden areas including a winter garden inside a greenhouse, harnessing volunteers to help the professional gardeners and inviting the Caley (The Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society established in 1809) to make it their home and to be involved in Saughton Park, in addition to their educational and training remit.

Despite visiting first on an icy winter day, with the café and winter garden closed due to Covid restrictions, there was plenty to afford delight in and several reminders of the past glories of the park. The ornate bandstand was installed in 2018 as an exact replica of the 1909 bandstand, which had been removed in the 1980s, and the sundial in the rose garden, with its homilies on each side, had also been restored. The gardens now are a charming mix of old and new.

Postcard of 1908 Scottish National Exhibition. Photo credit: Edinphoto

The park has a long history, first mentioned in the 1128 charter to Holyrood Abbey, and remaining in the hands of one family, the Bairds, for 250 years before its sale to Edinburgh Council in 1900.  In 1908 the park was the site of the famous six-month Scottish National Exhibition, which showcased the agriculture, engineering, and horticultural industries. In 1910 the park was opened to the public.

Saughton Park in summer. Photo credit: Ironside Farrar (see acknowledgements)

The official opening of Saughton Park  following restoration was on June 6th, 2019. Thanks to the vision and commitment of all involved in the project there has been something that can enhance the well-being of all who live in Edinburgh. I look forward to seeing it full of flowers in summer with the scent of roses and sampling the food from the popular café.

Meanwhile I can find comfort from the rigours of the Covid pandemic by taking a gentle walk, admiring the gardens, observing the many birds around the garden and reflecting.  Equally I can press the pause button on life by sitting on one of the many benches and creating a little bubble of relaxation. Wonderful!

Written 27th-30th January


I would like to thank Gillian Smith, landscape architect, and Liz Dominy, plant layout designer (both of Ironside Farrar), for permission to use the photos of Saughton Park in summer. For more details of the project refer to the linked documents. Thanks also to George Kelsey for the wonderful bird photos and Peter Stubbs of Edinphoto for the postcard image of the 1908 Exhibition. The Friends of Saughton Park website provides a newsletter, background information, photos and notice of current events.

Political earthquake in Washington shakes the world

The tremors of a major earthquake can be felt many miles away from the epicentre, when the actual core event is limited to a small area. The political and physical storm that hit Washington on January 6th was seen by millions of viewers on TV and has reverberated around the world with a massive response expressing a mixture of incredulity, dismay, and concern. Political leaders across the world were quick in severe condemnation and the enemies of America, whom Trump has claimed to have bested, must be rubbing their hands with satisfaction at a free political feast.  

It was a catastrophic miscalculation by Donald Trump, because by inciting his followers to march on Capitol Hill, not condemning their breaches of the paltry security and inciting to entering the central chamber, he allowed the sacred bastion of American democracy to be breached by rioters. Not since the infamous invasion by the British in 1814 have the walls of the Congress building been infiltrated by insurgents. Senators had to temporarily shelter under desks or behind seat before being evacuated to a basement holding room.

As described in a previous blog “Trump card -winner or loser”, the US electoral process shas long transition period and involves several steps that originated in the history of the individual states joining in a federal democracy and also in the time it took for people to assemble for meetings, when travelling long distances. This process has been challenged by Trump and his supporters (including many Republican politicians and aides in the White House), from November right up to January 6th. A large number of lawsuits (60 or so) in different states were all rejected as being without substance and ridiculed by judges as being frivolous or without merit.  The College of Electors consisting of 538 chosen electors in the 50 states) met in the individual state capitol buildings on December 14th to cast their votes, with each elector having one vote. Despite the threatened disruption, this part of the process occurred peacefully with a 306-232 majority for Biden. The results were transmitted to Washington for ratification at a special joint meeting of Congress on January 6th.

Right through this process Trump refused to concede the election, tirelessly repeating his assertion of widespread electoral fraud. There has been a persistent and obsessive post-election campaign to invalidate the election results with some jaw-dropping manoeuvres. These included the hour-long leaked telephone call to Raffensberger in Georgia, pressurising him to overturn the election results, the ‘behind the scenes’ pressure on Pence and the public exhortation at the Save America Rally on 6th January not to certify the election results at the special meeting of Congress. He told the crowd “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election!”. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country.”

In this attempt, he has received consistent and high-level support from many Republican politicians. They have been remarkably loyal, whether from fear of Trump, loyalty to the Republican party or belief in the Trump rhetoric. For some it is concern for the 2022 elections, when they may need the votes of Trump supporters. It has been interesting to see the timeline of politicians withdrawing support, like an orange being unpeeled slowly. Former President G.W. Bush was the first to acknowledge Biden’s victory on November 8th, closely followed by Mitt Romney. It was not until December 15th (6 weeks post-election) that Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, formally acknowledged the Democrat’s victory, while right up to January 3rd Mike Pence was steadfastly loyal to the President when he welcomed publicly the effort some senators to refuse to certify the election result for Biden. However, he stood up to Trump before the joint Congress meeting and affirmed that the role of the Vice-President in ratification of the electoral college vote was purely ceremonial. Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz led a campaign to challenge the results in Congress, a process requiring at least one Senator and one House of Representative to sign an objection, thereby forcing a 2-hour debate on each objection in separate sessions of the two bodies. In the vent despite events outside Cruz objected to the Arizona vote and Hawley to the Pennsylvania vote. While both objections were defeated 121 and 138 Republicans voted to support the objections for Arizona and Pennsylvania respectively. This even after the storming of the Capitol some Republicans were still trying to halt the inevitable.

The gross misjudgement by Trump has caused the decisive downturn in his political fortunes. The shock waves caused by the footage of rioters breaking into the Capitol building, trashing offices and desecrating the centre of American politics was a step too far. Politicians initially hiding under desks and then escorted to safe areas had time to reflect on the consequences of their support for Trump and the reaction of the world outside was soon apparent.

While Trump’s son, Eric, declared that “this isn’t their Republican party anymore, this is Donald Trump’s Republican party” possibly hinting at a rerun in 2024, the likelihood of this occurring has receded considerably. A by product of Trump’s inability to accept electoral defeat is that he has strengthened the Democrats hand immeasurably and split the Republican party. The loss of the 2 Senate seats in Georgia, leading to a 50:50 hung Senate can be directly attributed to Trump’s rhetoric.

Politicians supportive of the US electoral process have argued that the failure of Trump to challenge Biden’s victory shows that American democracy is strong. However, this view ignores two important facts. The first is the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric and the political environment has created a divided America; commentators have described a society of two tribes. It is thought the bitterness of this divide will take a long time to heal. The second is the huge damage done to the concept of democracy both within America and throughout the world. The obvious consequence is that America cannot accuse other regimes in the world of being undemocratic, when disturbing political events occur. The more important and underlying concern is that this earthquake has shaken the foundations of democracy and weakened belief in the system. Belief in democracy and trust in politicians is vital for the system to operate, whether it be holding fair elections, accepting laws or following emergency directives, as we are being asked to do for the COVID-19 pandemic. It is arguable that the Brexit process which resulted in the UK leaving Europe, had its origins in the lack of belief in the honesty and integrity of politicians and lack of faith in the UK political system. Ironically Trumps hope of “making America great again” has been put back considerably by his own actions.

So why write an article on a subject covered extensively in the mainstream media with TV reporters and newscasters providing lengthy discussions and analysis from a series of political analysts, former politicians and military experts. The answer is simple. We all remember where we were, what we were doing and how we reacted when we received news of world-shattering political events. Since 1945 there have been three such events occurring in the United States of America: the assassination of President John F.  Kennedy in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, the 9/11 plane attacks on Manhattan, New York in September 2001 and the storming of the Capitol building on 6th January 2021

In 1963 I was 16 and doing evening homework at school – normally a quiet period- when a friend burst in to tell me he had heard the news of the assassination of President Kennedy on the radio and in a few minutes the corridor was crowded with people, all contributing to a noisy discussion. the We were stunned by the news and disbelieving at first. How could such a thing happen? Why was such a charismatic person assassinated in broad daylight with the TV cameras rolling? Fifty years later with 5 million documents released (though over 1000 are still withheld) and many conspiracy theories formulated, the public still does not know the full truth. In 2001 we heard of the impending attack on New York by Al-Qaeda terrorists who had hijacked four airliners. Two were directed at the World Trade Center in Manhattan and one at the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. By the time my wife switched on the TV the north Tower was ablaze and the second plane was approaching the south tower. Within minutes CNN had a live feed. The second plane hit the south tower at 9.03 a.m., an event seen by millions of viewers

All three events have been costly and have involved a threat to democracy, not just to the US but to the world. They also share common features: a world-wide television audience watching the drama unfold before their eyes, a period of disbelief that this could be happening and then a series of strong reactions unfolding rapidly but with knock on effects for many years.  In all three cases there have been strong allegations of a failure of security allowing terrorists, either internal or external, to breach protective barriers and inflict major damage.  Fifty years after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination Roberts wrote in a review “the conclusion that JFK was murdered by a plot involving the Secret Service, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been well established by years of research”. Although in 2001 the FBI quickly identified the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks, through documents found in the luggage of the leader Mohammed Atta at Boston airport, a number of security reviews and the 9/11 commission report highlighted how security and intelligence agencies were inadequately coordinated to prevent the attacks.  The President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council was set up as well as anti-terrorist legislation across the world. The events of 6th January 2021 showed  a palpable lack of adequate security with insufficient Capitol police and  a failure to authorise deployment of the National Guard quickly enough.

In the aftermath of the 6th January there are a lot of issues being addressed and measures taken (identification of the rioters and the weapons they brought, possible actions against Senators Hawley and Cruz, concerns over any last-minute rash actions by Trump, impeachment procedures against Trump, attempts to oust Trump via invocation of the 25th Amendment, safety at the Inauguration Ceremony, etc.). However, the long-term central dilemma to solve is the vulnerability of democracy and the potential instability inherent in the long transition period between the election in November and the Inauguration in January. Over the next 4 years it is important that this is addressed and not shelved on the basis that “we came through”. There will need to be a balance between the historical customs and improving the system to be more robust, against a maverick outgoing President and US dissidents seeking to manipulate either the voting process   or the post-election confirmation procedures. At the same time vulnerability against foreign interference in the US needs to be minimised. In the past there have been too many instances where the focus of the US on internal affairs has allowed the outgoing administration to lose its focus on what is happening abroad.

The suspension of Trumps Facebook and Twitter accounts has removed the oxygen of publicity, which Trump has used consistently to fan the flames of controversy and to maintain his influence (though many ultra -right wing websites still convey dangerous and false information).

Keep the mahogany ballot boxes but consider changing the electoral college system and ensuring the President-elect has unfettered rights of access to ensure a smooth transition. Despite the good intentions of the Senate resolution in September 2020 (ROM20874) to guarantee a smooth transition, it certainly did not happen that way this year. America’s right to be called the bastion of democracy has been severely damaged by the assault on the Capitol and will reduce US influence on regimes the West considers undemocratic.

Written 10-13th January 2021

New Year’s resolutions and 2021 solutions

Making New years resolutions is almost an annual ritual. In the holiday time afforded between Christmas and New Year we have time to reflect on the past year and think about the upcoming one. Many of us rush to make new resolutions for the New Year, perhaps in the hope that somehow we will be a better, more likeable person.  A common one is that we should take more exercise and so joining a gym would be a good idea. Often these candles of intent flicker and die out in a couple of months, maybe less.

The perceived wisdom is that “we are who we are” and that “human nature does not change”, so these aspirations are bound to fail. This year during lockdown we have already had time to reflect on what is important in our lives and to try new things. I thought it might be instructive to reflect on my own experiences during lockdown and see how I fared in this respect. Out of interest I (in common with many others) have kept a coronavirus diary to record what we did and how we felt during lockdown, so this has been invaluable in promoting my poor memory on what actually happened,  as opposed to what I hope occurred. During this period there have been times when the streets have been empty of the usual hustle and bustle and this was noticeable around August, which should have been Fringe/Festival time.

Edinburgh Lawnmarket: centre in busier times, left and right during 2020 lockdown
Photo credits: Bruce Ward ( left and right) and BestofEdinburgh (centre)

One of my many faults is untidiness and that has been so for many years. My sister recalls me being tidy up to the age of 8 after which “the rot set in” but I received detention at school on many occasions because I left running shoes, clothes and books lying around. Things have not improved much in the ensuing years, thus requiring periodic garden/home “cleansing” when the mess accumulates. Just before Christmas I excelled myself by filling the utility room with wood to dry out to complete the woodshed roofing, whilst having stones strewn round the garden (part of a planned new rockery). Neither job was finished before Christmas but the tidying up was, accelerated by  the threat of eviction.

The curtailing of group activities like drama, pottery and language courses, not to mention socialising with others theoretically gave me a lot of “free” time but we all know that this never translates fully as the time for the ceased activities was scheduled and our routine adapted to fit the activity into a regular slot. Nevertheless, during April and May helped by good weather we were able to spend a lot of time outdoors gardening, walking and relaxing. So it was not a great ask to get the vegetable garden planted and keep it in order. At the end of the day the weather was good enough to have a drink on the balcony and admire the day’s work.

Activities on the “attempted” list

Tried and succeededStarted but either lapsed, done periodically or not completedFailed
Starting a blog Tidy workshop
Outdoor photographyPlanning a week’s menuRepair of bicycle
Regular walkingNew lino on kitchen floorWrite more poetry
Lose weight Start pottery at home
Keep veg garden in order Bury water pipe to greenhouse
Improving knowledge of trees and flowers Decorate bathroom

However bad habits are hard to shake; doing jobs that are more enjoyable first means that the unpleasant and boring jobs remains at the foot of the list. So, the blue waterpipe to the greenhouse water tank at the bottom of the garden remains an unsightly eyesore and the punctures on the old bicycle are still not repaired, while the chain has become clogged with dirt.

With a canal path close to the house that leads to countryside at Ratho, just 7 miles outside Edinburgh and then a further 20 miles onto the Millennium Wheel at Falkirk there is an easy and interesting route out of Edinburgh.   The Union Canal goes from Edinburgh to Falkirk where it links with the Forth and Clyde Canal that runs from Grangemouth in the east to Clydebank (Bowling) in the west, just outside Glasgow. Over the Christmas period in 2017, I walked a different section of the Union Canal for a week and discovered lots of interesting information about Edinburgh’s western side. This Christmas we have walked down to the end of the canal, where the canal now terminates and seen goosanders, mallards, coots and waterhens. Over the last few days with the snowfall it has provided a different picture.

Edinburgh post Christmas 2020: inc. Harrison Park, bronze swans at canal basin and Mortonhall woods

With a canal path close to the house that leads to countryside at Ratho, just 7 miles outside Edinburgh and then a further 20 miles onto the Millennium Wheel at Falkirk there is an easy and interesting route west out of Edinburgh.   The Union Canal goes from Edinburgh to Falkirk where it links with the Forth and Clyde Canal that runs from Grangemouth in the east to Clydebank (Bowling) in the west, just outside Glasgow. Over the Christmas period in 2017, I walked a different section of the Union Canal for a week and discovered lots of interesting information about Edinburgh’s western side. This Christmas we have walked down to the end of the canal, where the canal now terminates and seen goosanders, mallards, coots and waterhens. Over the last few days with the snowfall it has provided a different picture.

Polwarth church and Union Canal

Edinburgh is well adapted for cycling with plenty of green spaces such as the Meadows and Holyrood Park. Within in the city are other cycle routes e.g. from Leith Links to the beach at Portobello, along the Water of Leith walkway from the shore at Leith to the city centre and then onto the Water of Leith centre. The route from the centre to the Forth Road bridge goes northwest along National Cycling Network Route 1(NCN1). There are routes to the east along the coast to North Berwick via Port Seton using NCN76 and routes around the large Pentland Regional Park that extends in a broad band south west from Edinburgh to Carlops. There are 14 cycling groups in and around Edinburgh poviding advice and encouragement on how to start cycling as well as cycling route maps. Over the period of the pandemic the City Council have added bollards protecting cycle paths on roads and have increased the number of areas with a 20 mph limit.

So why with so much incentive to start cycling does the bike still languishing unrepaired in the workshop?. I guess the main reason is it is much easier to get on with a job if there is a deadline to meet or a necessity (mend a water leak, lay a gravel path for wedding visitors etc.) and the second is that I just find bike repairing slow, messy and tedious. The spanners slip on the stretched tyre, the chain requires thorough cleaning in petrol, you lose the clip etc. Perhaps if I was better at it. I would be more enthusiastic.

 The converse question is why did I succeed in other new ventures? We have been walking since the first lockdown with a few gaps and have found it invigorating physically and has helped maintain as sense of well-being in a period of concern and isolation (either partial or complete). It has also provided relaxation and emptied the mind of all that clutter we carry around and which increases tension. Over the autumn period we did a longer weekly walk taking a picnic with us that enabled us to explore new places, take photographs of the autumn colours and refurbish our knowledge of trees and flowers, which had dwindled over the years to a basic level. I guess this actually worked well as  package because the photography  was combined with the walking and this gave more incentive to catalogue both old and new images. Over the months we have refound  old handbooks on wildflowers and trees, bought new books on insects and trees and installed identification apps for flowers, birds etc on our phones.

Witch hazel

On one such walk in December I photographed a shrub with wonderful spiky yellow flowers that stood out against the drab winter foliage aroind it. Image compare on bing suggested it was witch hazel, a plant that flowers from November to February.  However my new tree identification book failed to mention it.- The reason for this is that witch hazel,  is not native to the UK unlike hazel or wych elm. Both witch hazel and hazel have bendy stems, which is why they have been used for water divining/dowsing in the US and Britain respectively. In New England in the 1840’s the Puritan settlers learnt to make a medicinal extract from witch hazel and in  the 1860’s a process of distillation was set up by the Dickinson family, which survived until 1987. Industrial steam distillation of witch hazel chips, followed by addition of alcohol to 14% is still used to produce a distillate used in cosmetic nd pharmaceutical products world wide.You can still buy  distilled  witch hazel from Boots, which is recommended for relieving  discomfort of bruises, sprains, and skin discomforts (despite much medical evidence as to it’s efficacy). As is evident following these rambling threads from observation of a plant or bird to learning more about them is interesting to me.  .

Over Christmas my wife has taken a complete week off work, so we have been able to walk every day whenever we chose. With snow falling overnight we woke up on December 29th to pristine covering of snow in the garden and the park behind us. Taking advantage of the fine weather we walked down the Union Canal towards the city. The canal was frozen with interesting patterns on the ice; the family of goosanders we had seen a few days previously had either hunkered down or flown somewhere more suitable, and the only swans to be seen were the bronze ones in the canal basin, Two coots were trying to find a few holes in the ice but the flew away into some sheltering bushes (a sight I have not seen that often). The combination of walking, enjoying nature and photography has worked and hopefully will continue , when the covid pandemic is over.

The take home message I have learned about making resolutions and starting new activities during lockdown  is in line with advice given when I retired from work; don’t take on too much at one time and identifying a regular time slot will make it easier to keep it going. So I am not making any new Years resolutions as such, just making a few silent wishes that we won’t forget what we have learnt and will think more clearly about the environment and lifestyle we want for the long term future. but that opens a topic for another day. For now the next step may be to throw away the spanners, grit my teeth, dig deep in my pocket, buy a new bike and start cycling.

Christmas dilemmas but lights on the horizon

The annual anticipation of Christmas normally is like having a slow cooking stew in the oven; for a while there is no sign of much activity but slowly the evidence of the cooking builds from a vague hint to a mixture of appetising aromas that whet the appetite. With our children, Christmas started at the beginning of Advent. On Advent Sunday the Christingle was reassembled on the dinner table and one candle lit and three spaces vacant. On each successive Sunday,  a further candle was added, so that the angels revolved faster on each addition. They also enjoyed opening up one door of their Advent Calendar each day. In those days the Advent calendars were fairly simple pictures of the Nativity story with the wise men from the east, the shepherds etc. and there were two larger doors for the 24th and 25th. Nowadays the choice is much greater: elves bearing chocolates, wooden snowmen, reindeer, Christmas trees, craft calendars, etc. There are calendars with pockets for treats and ones with large wooden boxes (like the drawers in an apothecary’s cabinet) that can be used year on year.

The run up to Christmas in Edinburgh is usually great fun with market stalls in the street, Princes Street gardens hosting a big market where smells of mulled wine, sausages and cheese entice the visitor to browse the craft stalls. There are craft fairs in various locations within and around the city with fair attractions such as the Big Wheel and the Star Flyer providing laughter and lights. This year the display of festive lights in the city centre is muted with a few trees lit in Princes Street but the gardens below the castle eerily dark.

Edinburgh Castle on a December night

Unsurprisingly with Edinburgh under tier 3 restrictions, where even outdoors no more than 6 people from two different households can meet, most of the usual events are cancelled. It is still possible to book tickets for lights displays in the Botanic Gardens and the Zoo.

However, the big decision for each of us is not whether to go shopping locally or to meet a friend in a café; it is a choice of whether to spend Christmas alone at home or to enjoy the grace permitted to visit family or friends, locally or further afield. Those with family a distance away have to balance the hazards of travelling, particularly if going by train or plane and the “covid circumstances” of the people they are visiting. By covid circumstances I mean whether their routine is one where they are coming into daily contact with a wide variety of people through work, school or activity and their likelihood of meeting people who could pass on the virus. Despite all the precautions, restrictions and lockdowns that have been in place during the autumn, over the last 7 days the number of cases in the UK has been increasing with an average of 174 cases per 100, 000 people.

For months we have been living with safety messages from the UK Government at Westminster that have been difficult to understand and with wrangling between different regions.  The rules and restrictions have depended first on the country you live in (England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), second on the region and in which tier it is currently placed, and thirdly with time as the tiering changes with the rise and fall of coronaviruses cases and other factors. One of many examples of inter-region rivalry is that northern regions feel London is getting preferential treatment as it is currently only in Tier 2, though the number of coronavirus cases “merit tier 3 classification”, while Conservative MPs argue that this would be “catastrophic” and cause “untold damage”.  Since this blog was started it has been announced that London will finally move into Tier 3 on December 16th.

The assiduous can look at the restrictions on the national websites using the postcode checker but most rely on the latest update from their mobile. So, it was a temporary relief when the four nations agreed a joint plan to allow families to form Christmas bubbles of not more than three households from December 23th to 27th.

However, this seems to have been devised merely as a strategic plan to allow activity that would have occurred anyway and to attempt to limit its scope. No sooner had the rules been explained following their release on November 24th than a stream of advice not to travel and not to mix followed. On November 30th, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland  confirmed that she will not be seeing her parents indoors over Christmas and advised people to “think carefully “about meeting up with loved ones at Christmas. Radio programmes brought in health experts with advice about not passing plates around, keeping windows open and not playing family board games. The SAGE committee suggested that children should avoid close contact with their grandparents or sleeping in the same room as children from other households, a rule almost impractical to implement. Strategic advice has given way to advice and warnings based on safety considerations. SAGE member Dr Hilary Jones, argued that  the Christmas rules were illogical and thought Christmas gatherings will result in increased transmission of Covid -19 , a rise in the R-factor, and a possible third wave in January and February . This view has been echoed by Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University , who labelled the relaxing of covid restrictions at Christmas “a mistake” and expressed concerns about people travelling from “high to low prevalence areas”, thereby enhancing transmission of the virus. The chief of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson wroteto the Prime Minister arguing that the Christmas rules may need urgent review within a few days and other medical experts have also expressed their fears  that a surge in covid cases will result due to relaxation of rules over the Christmas period. This  has led in the last 48 hours to reassessment by the politicians and varying degrees of adjustment and tightening of the rules.  

This all leaves individual members of the public to discuss the pros and cons of mixing at Christmas with family and friends and to reach their own decisions. With a heavy heart we  made the decision not to travel to visit family a couple of weeks ago; all the information coming out since then has made the decision seem logical but not any easier emotionally. At our age (over 70), it seems too great a risk to take and although we shall miss the family enormously, particularly the grandchildren, hopefully we will be around next year to make up for it. With vaccines not just on the horizon but the first already being rolled out in the UK it seems foolish to take a short-term risk.

So, are there any lights twinkling on the horizon to help us survive the winter and provide hope for the future and a truly better New Year?  I think there are plenty and certainly enough to sustain us through the difficult weeks ahead. For the present we have some physical lights to cheer us in the streets and in our homes. The Christmas lights are lit up along Princes Street, the tall Christmas tree is in place as usual  on the Mound and many homes with outside displays together provide reassuring continuances of the Christmas spirit.  The tradition of the tree on the Mound dates back to 1949 when Norway gifted Scotland a tree in thanks for the assistance rendered during the Second World War. But it is the mental lighting up of our hearts and minds that is most needed.

Mental health advisors speak of the importance of having something to look forward to, and thanks to the prospects of various vaccines in development there are messages of optimism (mingled with calls for patience) that transmission will be brought under control. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is already being administered in hospitals and care homes in Scotland and there is optimism that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may receive approval either at the end of December or in January. The formal request by the government to the regulatory agency, MHRA, for the vaccine to be licensed and authorised for wider use has already been submitted. Currently there are 6 vaccines approved in different countries and at least another 46 in development .

Although the news on the vaccines is undoubtedly the most significant area for hope and cheer, we – the human race – need a mixture of mental sustenance to keep us going. In our little bubble of two, we have been actively trying to create a sense of well-being and relaxation amidst the semi-isolated life we currently lead. One feel-good factor comes from communicating with close family and friends, another comes from making the most of the music, films, stories, dramas and entertainment on offer.  I have particularly enjoyed Sunday mornings on Radio 4: news, Sunday worship with a mixture of music, reflections and narration of individuals’ experiences, A Point of View, and tweet for the day providing a little cameo about somebody’s favourite bird. It is refreshing and invigorating whether you are religious or not.

However probably the greatest benefit has come from getting involved in small activities. The long autumn allowed many opportunities for photography and with Christmas approaching cooking and baking has provided a lot of fun. The jellies, chutneys and preserves made earlier can now be wrapped in paper as small presents for friends.  The most sustaining activities have been two that we do each week regardless of the weather and that provide two oases of tranquillity, no matter what else is going on at home or in the outside world. These have become increasingly important in keeping both our spirits up and for maintaining a sense of equanimity as the months of semi-lockdown continue. The first has been our weekly walk; just a couple of hours somewhere different within our permitted area of travel.

Roslin Glen and Rosslyn castle

For example this week we did two short walks on the same day: the first in Roslin Glen, which lies about 8 miles from Edinburgh, through which the North Esk flows amidst scenery that has been admired by poets and writers for many centuries. Hawthornden Castle lies at the northern  end of the glen with Rosslyn Castle at the other end and close to the famous Roslin Chapel. After a picnic in the open we headed for Straiton Pond, which lies close to the busy Edinburgh City bypass and a large, popular retail area. It was formerly an industrial  blue clay pit but  is now a small nature reserve with ducks (mallard, tufted, goldeneye, goosander), swans, coots and moorhens. In winter neither location was at its best but both were tranquil and refreshing.

Straiton pond- tranquillity surrounded by industry and traffic

Our other relaxation has been 9-holes of golf on a country course the other side of Roslin Glen. On a Friday afternoon we are often the only ones on the course in winter. it is easy to unwind any tensions there and to enjoy the company of our friends. Often, we are heading back to the car park in the gloaming with the lights of the surrounding houses twinkling in the twilight. As well as playing golf we can admire the fields and woods surrounding the course and the view of the Pentland Hills provide a wonderful, if sometimes windy, backdrop. In autumn, flocks of geese fly across on their way back to their roosting spots.

How to see the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, 21 December 2020. Credit: Pete Lawrence
Computer generation image as Saturn (L) and Jupiter (R) converge: credit Jamie Carter/Sky at Night

We may need to make a special trip on Monday 21st December, because weather permitting there will be a very special and unusual light in the evening sky. For the first time since 1426 there will be a very close conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, visible low in the west. They may look like one shining star to the naked eye even though they are in reality 450 million miles apart but with a telescope they will look like a double planet, separated by only 1/5th the diameter of the full moon. Whether we take this as a special omen for 2021 or not, this is surely a light on the horizon worth observing. If we allow it to provide a beacon of hope, so much the better.

Tree of light and hope

Written 12-16th December

Trump card – winner or loser?

The statue of Liberty in New York by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Danger for democracy or storm in a teacup

Is the topsy -turvy aftermath of the 2020 US election a danger signal for democracy or the last despairing card being cast by Trump in the political saloon of Washington?

Interest in the US election has been intense in the UK and even overshadowed developing news on the coronavirus pandemic, which has obsessed our thoughts and affected our lifestyles for so many months. This has reached a crescendo in the last week when after an exciting election that seemed to swing in the balance for a while, the clear Biden victory has been contradicted by the refusal of Donald Trump and his political allies to concede.

Trumps techniques in seeding unrest

The current flurry of activities (legal and media) behind the scenes reminds me of those snow globes, where the figures in the scene are obscured by the many “snowflakes” swirling around and only become visible after a time for resettling. Donald Trump has used this tactic of shaking up the system for many years: repeating mantras to reinforce the message and making multiple unsubstantiated statements. It was central to his success in the 2016 election and in the subsequent 4 years of his Presidency.  “Make America great again” has been a useful slogan for the Republicans but we are no closer to understanding exactly what is meant by it or how this goal will be reached.

This tactic has been used dangerously in minimising the danger of coronavirus and the widespread occurrence of infection in the US.  The President has succeeded in convincing many Americans that wearing a mask is not necessary and indeed a sign of weakness. While on the one hand seeming Presidential, holding a major news conference on coronavirus at the White House with US health officials and commercial concerns on  “winning the battle” against coronavirus, he has subsequently on many occasions appeared in in public not wearing a mask, downplaying  the severity of the pandemic and  maintaining  “the battle was won”. The facts are deeply concerning: over 11 million cases, 250,000 deaths, a record 160,000 new cases in a single day on 12th November, and an alarming rate of increase of cases in many States (doubling in under a month). Yet placards against covid measures and refusal to wear face masks still abound.

He has also succeeded in his repeated rhetoric about rigged elections in convincing 75% of voters that fraud occurred, with 40% saying it influenced the outcome of the election – proof that social media has more influence than official reports. This coupled with a barely disguised fanning of the flames is increasing tensions across the nation, with the likelihood of violence. In a move reminiscent of his risk-embracing strategy in October to cheering supporters, when he took a “drive-by” outside the hospital while still being treated for coronavirus, Trump repeated this tactic during the “MiIlion Maga March” on November 14th. Trump supporters from all over the US, including the far-right Proud Boys group, held a rally in support of him and the claims of electoral  fraud.  On his way to golf, his motorcade happened to drive through the demonstration, with the President giving thumbs up  to his supporters in tacit approval.

Why Britons mind about the US election results

First and foremost, the US President is a powerful and influential figure and a nominal world leader. What happens in the US has ripple effects across the pond. However, Donald Trump is not popular nor respected over here, with a 74% negative opinion in a recent YouGov opinion poll. It is partly his bullish assertions and crowd-rousing tactics that strike a discordant note. Like a child in a playground, he hopes that the incessantly stated wish will become true if it is repeated enough times.

A second reason for our fascination with the US election is that it is a unique combination of a race and a drama that plays out over many months. The 2020 election started on 17th February 2017, with Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for a second term, and will end on 20th January 2021 at the Inauguration Ceremony. The race analogy holds up well with runners in the primaries falling at different fences for lack of money or electoral support. Bernie Sanders established an early lead but Joe Biden was the eventual winner with Sanders “pulling up” in early April. The primaries constitute just the first act of a drama played out in many acts: the election campaign, election day, vote counting, the transition period between administrations and finally the Inauguration.

The count drama

The third reason for the massive interest this year was the timing of the counting, which  led to a very exciting and tense wait before the final call by the major networks of a 306 to 232 victory, the same margin by which Trump beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 and ironically hailed by Trump as a landslide victory. The Democrats, mindful of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraged postal ballots, (estimates of c. 95 million).  The rules on counting these ballots meant there were considerable apparent swings from red to blue in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada as counting proceeded.

For example, on November 5th in Georgia, Trump was leading by 18,540 with 96% of the 4. 9 million votes counted but this turned to a Biden lead of 14,172 after 99% votes had been counted. The apparent swings in Pennsylvania were even more marked: a Trump lead of over 600,000 votes on the morning after Election Day shrunk rapidly as postal votes from the major cities were counted and this lead  was whittled down steadily over several days to an eventual Biden win with a majority of 68,712 and a 1% greater share of the votes. It was the Pennsylvania result that led to the news networks calling the election for Biden.

The timing of the count made the election look “knife edge” with a cartoon of Trump threatening the Statue of liberty with a knife “I win or the Dame gets it!”. Also, it provided an opportunity for Trump to challenge the validity of the election and to launch a number of lawsuits in battleground states.  As reported in the Washington Post, Trump allies and “ordinary” Republicans then proliferated these allegations of electoral fraud on social media.

Smooth or rough transition of power

The current focus is on Trump’s refusal to concede the election, which though not obligatory is customary; it is part of the process of the almost 3-month long transition process between administrations. Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister 1997–2007) in a recent interview was confident that despite many Republicans repeating  the assertion that “the election had been stolen” and other disputes, “the democratic system has rules, which will eventually be implemented”.

Two interesting documents support Blair’s view. The first was a Senate motion, ROM20874, proposed by Joe Manchin, a respected Senator from West Virginia, in September and unanimously approved.  The resolution affirmed a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power between outgoing and incoming presidential administrations . In a powerful and impressive speech, Manchin  lamented the need to have to reaffirm a commitment to the US constitution and the freedoms “we all take for granted”. He went on “Make no mistake, this is about maintaining this democracy”.

The second was a joint statement from the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council & The Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committee released on November 12th. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history”. “We can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.”

Sadly, this ordered transition has not yet occurred. The Biden team have not been given access to classified security briefings, federal agencies and funding needed to ensure a smooth transition of power. The risks that this poses for security and tackling covid have been pointed out by people on all sides of the US political spectrum. There is also the process of converting the votes cast in the election into electoral college votes. The electors meet in December and Congress in January. Only on 6th January 2021 are the electoral votes formally presented before a joint session of Congress, completing a complicated system devised in the early days to provide a compromise between States rights, Congress and the popular vote.

What happens next?

Several theories have been advanced as to what Trump hopes to achieve from this refusal to concede: maintaining a hold on the Republican  Party,  running for President again in 2024,  a need to remain in the limelight or to minimise the danger of lawsuits when he leaves Office. Equally there are many questions as to why prominent Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, continue to support Trump’s stance, regardless of the damage that it is doing to the reputation of the US worldwide.

There is an underlying fear in some quarters that the foundations of American democracy will be at best considerably shaken and at worst badly damaged. In a recent interview Barack Obama talked about issues, like inequality and immigration, where divisions between differing opinions were being amplified by news reporting and by “the spread of misinformation online, where ‘facts don’t matter'”. In the short term, the divisions within the US could severely affect the control of the coronavirus pandemic. In the longer term, a breakdown of trust in the election system and the legitimacy of the Presidency could result in deep fissures within American society.

President-elect Biden in his “acceptance” speech said, “This is a great nation. And we are a good people. This is the United States of America.” His task will be to make it united again.  

Seasons of sighs and mournful wistfulness

The autumn colours are starting to shade the trees as if some unseen painter’s brush was choosing a change of palette. The chestnut in the garden pot is already a mixture of yellows and russet brown while the hawthorn leaves in the country hedges are still green with bright red berries. In the streets, a thin layer of brown leaves is accumulating, with little mounds in corners where the colder winds have swept them.

Autumn brings in for me a swathe of mixed emotions: thankfulness for the summer past and the autumn bounty of fruits, nuts and gathered harvest, but is tinged with sadness for the dying year and the inevitable disappointments of unachieved hopes. Acknowledging autumn has arrived means accepting that we are in the twilight of the year and that we have to prepare for winter and wait for spring.

Reacting to autumn varies so much from year to year, and often we are looking to nature to reflect our feelings. In a year when the world has been paralysed by Covid and our everyday lives not only restricted but changed in many ways, some irrevocable, it is perhaps natural to focus on autumn as a period of decay and dying. People who have lost a parent or a partner in autumn often feel sad and depressed every year in autumn due to the close association between autumn and loss.

This year, reading some of the many accounts of the difficulties faced by young people, I wonder how they will look back on this autumn. Those leaving school and starting at university have suffered on several fronts: loss of their last term of school, the exam fiasco and anxiety about entrance to university. Now they  have made it to university many are in self-isolation and all are living under conditions they had not expected . Over 50 universities have confirmed coronavirus cases, the latest with multiple cases being Northumbria University and Edinburgh University.

Students have expressed feelings of being not cared for, resentment at having to pay accommodation fees and frustration that they are missing out on a once in a lifetime experience. While meeting together in large groups to dance and drink is not sensible in terms of the potential spread of Covid, it is  understandable that young people away from home for the first time want to meet other people and enjoy themselves. It is part of the process of settling into a new environment. Many students complain that they have been “cheated”, with teaching online and being confined to their flats.  If they had known what it was going to be like they would have stayed at home and saved the money for accommodation. In addition, the nature of much university accommodation is shared flats, and kitchen facilities shared between 6 and 10 students; students rightly worry that their chances of catching Covid are increased by this. All this has been exacerbated in some universities by poor planning in terms of ensuring food and laundry provision.

Autumn: a time for reflection. Photo credit: Harrison Haines (Pexels)

Equally there are autumnal woes for those in the 16–24 age group seeking employment. While furlough has certainly helped, there have been redundancies throughout the furlough period and across a variety of sectors. This is likely to accelerate sharply despite the Jobs Support Scheme, which is reported to be both complicated and not generous. The forecasts for employment are not good and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has warned that without drastic government action there will be a tsunami of unemployment. Unemployment has crept up from 3.8 to 4.1%; there are 5 million people registered as being “temporarily away from work with 2.7 million of them claiming benefits (Universal Credit).  The UK government has introduced a KickStart scheme to encourage employers to take on 16–24 year olds ) but at the same time there are reports circulating that the government expect a figure of around 4 million people unemployed because of the Covid crisis. Grim news indeed.

So, are there reasons to look on the positive side? For those not struggling, either financially or mentally, this year has been a fruitful one, both at home in the garden and out in the countryside. With more time on their hands many people have found a new affinity with nature, a keener observation of the turning seasons and a sharper observation of the natural world surrounding us. There has been a simple but satisfying joy in the succession of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Aided by an unusually balmy Scottish summer, our own vegetable patch has yielded broad beans, potatoes, courgettes, runner beans and beetroot, with leeks and parsnips still to come. We have even been able to grow tomatoes successfully outdoors. The plentiful supply of plums and apples have been used for deserts and turned into chutneys. Perhaps most satisfying of all are the small pleasures: picking strawberries or blueberries in the morning to go with breakfast cereals or gathering blackberries from hedgerows during our walks, for blackberry and apple crumble.

All this has reminded us strongly of two things. The first is the natural seasonality of food, often obscured by the ability to buying strawberries and other fruit from the supermarket all year round. The second is that growing vegetables gives an appreciation of nature’s bounty as a crop comes to maturity. Even being at home and unable for several months to travel anywhere, at times we were overwhelmed by the peaks of ripening, particularly for the runner beans and the plums. However, the advantages of freezer preservation have not been spurned and plums in syrup await enjoyment in winter (I can remember my mother having to salt green vegetables for the winter). 

The gifts of autumn have been expressed wonderfully for us by Keats in his poem “To Autumn”, written in 1819 at the age of 23 and just two years before his death:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
(For full poem follow link)

Walks in parks and the countryside have helped to keep a “feel good factor” going in lockdown despite gloomy worldwide news. While we have not managed to walk every day, our frequency of walking has increased dramatically and with it our enjoyment of the trees and flowers. For example, whilst visiting grandchildren for the first time since February, we admired the plentiful figs and walnuts on the trees in the neighbour’s garden. I have made a few  additions to our walks: the first to take a camera with me,  the second to use online apps for identification of trees, flowers, insects and birds and the third to use the NHS Active 10 app to monitor how much brisk walking we have been doing (the downside is that scrolling back can bring a guilty feeling for those blank gaps!).

However, it is the watching of the turning of the seasons that has been the greatest benefit. Over the summer we saw the cygnets growing and developing and enjoyed the hedgerow and meadow flowers, but more recently it has been the signs of autumn in the hedgerows and the abundance of different berries like  rosehip, blackberries and sloes. The hawthorn we saw flowering in May has now set red berries while the holly berries are slowly turning from orange to red.

Traditionally the autumn bounty has been celebrated in Harvest Festivals all over the world. As a child attending church in the UK this was always a fun occasion, with sheaves of wheat, vegetables and large, decorated loaves piled up at the front of the church. The hymns tended to be the same year after year such as “We plough the fields and scatter”, “All things bright and beautiful” and “All creatures of our God and King”. After the service, the food was distributed in the parish.

This tradition continues within and outside churches and the need to help others has increased since the start of the Covid pandemic. The Trussell Trust in the UK reports that 2 in 5 households  need to access food banks and  forecasts needing to give out 6 emergency food parcels very minute this winter. Just in the UK it is estimated a further 670,000 people will be destitute by the end of the year. Globally, hunger has been an issue for many years, with charities like Action against Hunger, Bread for the World, Freedom from Hunger and the Hunger Project battling to alleviate hunger worldwide.

Amidst the autumn bounty there is also undernourishment. In 2000, the United Nations and world leaders committed to achieving to meet eight goals by 2015: the first of which was “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. In 2015 a new set of Sustainable Development Goals were developed, including  one to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.These are lofty international aims but we all have the opportunity to contribute by supporting the work of specific charities and caring for others.

In considering the ups and downs of autumns, one image has caught my imagination: at the centre of each cluster of the decaying leaves of the chestnut tree , a small sticky brown bud has formed and is lying  dormant just waiting for  spring to come again.

September 30th -October 3rd


To any reader who has followed me, I offer sincere apologies for the long gap between blogs. In one of my early blogs “Destinations and paths” I wrote about mazes. Well I certainly got stuck in a dead end for some time and my energies got diverted. Hopefully I will learn from that lesson.

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