Thursday, August 31, 2006

Morris's Scotsman Article

Morris wrote an article that Fordyce Maxwell, agricultural editor of The Scotsman, one of Scotland's national papers, edited to this form and published with a wonderful photo of farming in the fifites in the August 21st edition of the paper. The paper may not be widely available for folks outside Edinburgh, so I thought I would share his article here.
The nice blogger folks explained why the photos weren't showing up. I didn't understand it, but decided to replace the previous photo with this one of Morris holding up the actual page from The Scotsman.

THE BIRDS AND THE BEES. Scotsman 21.08.2006

From horny-handed tillers of the soil who saved the country from starvation during two World Wars to subsidy junkies and destroyers of the environment. How has that happened, I wonder, as I look over my many years of farming, boy to man, and latterly as consultant.

We have indeed drained many a wet spot and torn up many a hedge.

Many of these hedges were planted long by our farmer forebears to delineate the fields and provide livestock shelter as they cleared virgin land and made the fertile farms of today with which we feed the Nation. The traditional hedge of beech and hawthorn, complementing each other, gave a close and tight boundary when maintained by skilful hedgers.

In my early days in bare treeless Orkney we did not have hedges but stone dykes or flagstones or even post and wire fences. Caithness, when we moved there, had a profusion of drystone and flagstone and whin dykes and hedges, giving shelter to animals and birds who fed on the land. Indeed farming was so different then that it is worth a look back to yesterday ”lest we forget”.
Yesterday was a traditional seven course rotation, ploughing out grass for lea oats, second year in turnips, followed in year three by clean land oats undersown with grass seeds. Four years in grass followed, hay taken in the first year, then once more round the rotation.

Farms were split into fields lending themselves to this seven year shift, developed during the 1800s from the old and miserable run-rig system. Today we follow our own whimsical cropping irregularity.
Yesterday our farming allowed involuntarily feeding for the birds and the bees. Long-strawed grain crops, usually oats, were frequently flattened by storm before harvest, laid patches giving great feeding for gulls and crows, sparrows and pigeons. Partridge and grouse had their share.
The unsprayed crop had many weeds, sometimes choking the grain entirely, but a busy place for insects, swooping swallows and hovering terns.
At harvest, stooked sheaves stood a minimum of three weeks to dry before leading to the cornyard, and in many a bad year much, much longer. Stubbles were picked over well into winter, wide loads of sheaves passing through the narrow farm gates leaving a brushing of grain. The countryside was teeming with wild life and farmers, if unwittingly, fed them all.
Today, harvest is usually but a few short days, the massive combine in and out of a field in hours. Short strawed, better standing, modern grain varieties are instantly tanked and into stores that allow no access for bird, rats or anything else. Stubbles are often ploughed within a few days and sown again to winter barley, wheat or oilseed rape. No gleanings to be had there by birds.

Yesterday in the stackyard the feeding continued. We usually had 60 corn stacks, threshing one on Monday and one on Friday through the winter. In bad weather each stack had it’s countless birds, rock pigeons from Sandside Head covered the stacks with a blue blanket, easy shooting for pigeon pie.
Rats and mice took possession, ruinously so at times. Light grain and weed seeds from the threshing mill were put out to the stackyard for the birds to pick over, the chaff used for cattle bedding or even feed. Straw was carried from barn to byre or stable, and a picking again fell to ground. Today there is no threshing mill, no loose straw, no chaff, no weed seeds, just straw bales.
We could not go back to the old system. There are no men, no horses, no time. Today in our farming there is little left scattered.

Yesterday the farmstead had dung middens. Starlings scoured the stable midden, steaming with composting heat on frosty mornings. Rats made their winter quarters within. The bedding straw from the stable would have it’s stray grains and weed seeds. Today there are no horse middens and cattle are on slatted floors with the slurry quickly spread and ploughed in.
Today’s arable farms have no livestock, no large complement of men and women to work the land, no horses to plough and mow, no dairy cows to feed the workers and the “Big Hoos”, no cottage gardens to feed the blackbirds and the sparrows. Today there are few workers at all, their cottages sold as holiday homes.
Yesterday hay was cut much later, when mature, stemmy and gone to seed, the drift of pollen like smoke, the sweet smelling red clover – curly doddies – in profusion, the bumble bees working the flowers through the warm July days. Flies were everywhere, so were the swallows. As boys, we had to go through the last narrowing bouts ahead of the slow moving horse drawn reaper, chasing the profusion of young corncrakes away from the dangerous mower.
Today hay is cut at lightning speed, shaving the ground, turned and baled rapidly. Grass for silage is here today and gone tomorrow, cut too early for the safety of any ground nesting birds, the crop fertilised and too dense for nesting.
Actually, only 5%, in the County of Caithness is cropped - the rest is as it always was. But yesterday, winter feeding of birds yesterday relied on that 5% in crops.
As a boy I saw grain and turnips crops choked by charlock, carron, day nettle and other weeds, the yield a fraction of today’s, and oat crops annihilated by “grub”, the larvae of the Crane Fly. Counter-measures of mixed Paris Green and bran were usually applied, frequently too little and too late. Today, grub can be dealt with easily with an insecticide spray. As farmers , we can do no other.

Yesterday, throughout the winter, the farmer’s bounty was still available in the turnip fields, the root crop often not finally cleared until May. Weeds and their seeds lay in profusion in the neeps, a haven for partridge and hare and rabbit. Today there are few fields of turnips in Caithness, though we still grow some for sheep at lambing time - a Godsend this last harsh Spring. Where neeps are grown, they are kept weed free by pre-emergent sprays. The crop is clean, the yield is good, weed seeds for birds non existent. The men who yesterday hoed and weeded and carted the turnip fields for weeks on end are long gone.
Today we plough it, harrow it, sow it, spray it, harvest it, get it done as we produce greatly increased quantities of food at comparatively low prices for Supermarkets. Today there is no time to sit against a dyke or a stook in the sunshine to enjoy a “half-yoking” while the horses rest, to lean on a gate and study the cattle, to do all those things our fathers did at an easier pace of life. The birds and the bees are the losers, as well as us. Is it not odd that when we have something good we do not treasure it, but when it is gone, we cry for it?

Monday, August 28, 2006

"Oh, the waves. The cruel, cruel waves."

"A small settlement of the Sutherland district of Highland Council Area,
Portskerra lies 1 mile (1½ km) northeast of Melvich,
overlooking Melvich Bay to the east."

The piper began a slow lament in the small hall in the tiny village of Melvich and toes began tapping to the rhythm of the pipes as if acknowledging the collective heartbeat of the community. We are crammed into the hall, hastily added chairs and rearranged tables, the faint aroma of wet wool combining with the fragrance from the lilies at the front of the hall. We have come together for a rededication of a memorial to those who did not come back from the sea on the 200th anniversary of the first of three notable tragedies in Portskerra.

The rain has forced us indoors rather than on the harbour of Portskerra where the memorial joins what Alistair Frazier descibed as "the fusion of rock, sea and sand so pleasing to the eye." Everyone in the room has seen it, both the memorial and the fusion pleasing to the eye. Alistair reminded us all that we were there to remember three dark days when 26 men perished "within sight of their homes." He grew up hearing the stories. His grandfather had been one of those men, in 1918, who did not come home. His grandmother, on hearing the news that she had lost a husband, a son, and a brother in law, cried out in Gaelic, "Oh the waves. The cruel, cruel waves."

"Memory is practice", according to Milan Kundera, and so the names of the men lost in 1918 are slowly and clearly read out by the resident minister of the Thurso fishermen's mission. The men from 1806 and 1893 are mentioned by their ships. There is no one left to recall their names or their stories, so we spread our mantle of caring over their nameless tragedies by singing, "Will your anchor hold in the storms of life," whose imagery had seemed too contrived to me when I lived in landlocked Indiana. In my short time here I have watched a small ship pitch and toss in the gale and large ferries stay in harbor when the Pentland Firth raged.

And every week the news reports fishermen or boats lost. Sometimes they come back again; sometimes they don't. The lifeboat is manned by volunteers who put themselves at risk to rescue ships in distress. Sometimes they come back; sometimes they don't. In 1918, the entire village put their ships out into the harbor because the day was clear and the water was calm. Seven ships went out, and only three eventually came back.

The women of the Melvich Gaelic choir sang a lullaby, a song about waiting for the return of the fishermen. The whole choir sang a lament for Hugh Mckay, the heir of Bighouse Lodge. In a small community, losing a boat can mean the loss of an entire generation, which makes it all the more important to remember them.

As we climb into the car to leave, we consider driving down to the memorial, but my brother in law suggests a better time to come would be either when the sea is quiet or when it is seething. We all wordlessly agree and head for home.

Here's the link for the Scottish gazette whose description I used at the top of this post:

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Barley Seasons

In Indiana, before farming became invisible, you could reckon the season by corn even if you did not live on a farm. As soon as the snows had melted off the ground in spring, the television ads began for Treflan or some other -lan, a pre-emergent herbicide. As the days warmed imperceptibly to city dwellers, the television weather included daily soil temperature for those anticipating the day when the seed could be welcomed into the earth.

Once mittens and scarves had been safely tucked into the closet, the tractors were in the field, but this was largley invisible except for the occasional traffic jam when cars were stuck behind slow moving tractors. For a city person, other than the occasional disaster with flooding or heavy frost, the corn crop was invisible until the first ears began to show up in the farmer's markets or roadside stands. Back when the world moved slowly enough to read Burma Shave signs by the side of the road and highways were black topped lanes through the country side, you could watch the corn growing. "Knee high by the Fourth of July" had long since lost any real agricultural
significance, but it was all city folks knew about corn until the dried ears and corn stalks began to show up in roadside stands along with apple cider and pumpkins.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I noticed by their absence the ads for herbicides and soil temperature reports. When I moved back to Indiana, I always seemed to find myself some time during the year driving past a cornfield. As if embarassed by its corn, Indiana tried promoting itself with the slogan, "There is more than corn in Indiana," to which a standard riposte was, "Yeah. Soy beans." Oddly, even when I was a vegetarian I never discovered the poetry in a field of soy beans.

Now I am two worlds away from my life where corn and soy beans ruled. The first world difference is the obvious one--the physical distance from Indiana to the land on the edge of the North Atllantic and North Sea. I had to go to a health food store and pay nearly $10 for corn meal because here it is maize flour and is exotic and imported. I was aching for a box of Jiffy corn bread mix. Sometimes the things you miss the most are the most banal. Nostlagia is like that.

Less apparent than the geographical world change but more pervasive a change is that I now live in that nearly invisible world where soil temperature and rain and weeds are an immediate concern. Curiously, even though agriculture is the main industry here in Caithness, farming here is becoming invisible. One of the goals of this blog is to share some discoveries of this world with those of you who may not ever have the chance to measure out a year in corn or in barley, so I am sharing this year of barley with you.

The season begins with the rich brown earth. The Upper Lambing Field was grass last year so to hold the barley, it had to be ploughed and rolled and drill seeded. Some seeds are scattered; some are drilled in. I have not yet figured out which and when and why. I have just barely cracked the code of agricultural conversations, so I will move quickly on to the stages of barley that I can describe.

The barley pokes through the ground with a stunningly green shoot. I have seen grass, corn, and rice in that first breath of life above ground and each is beautiful and unique, as is barley, in its greenness. Amy dubbed it barley green. I like it, so I'll use it here.

In the fullness of the season, the barley "shoots"--the ear emerges. The next stage is
"beginning to turn" when the barley is going from green to ripe. Finally, when the grain gets hard enough that you can't put your thumb nail through it, then it is ready for harvesting.

Harvesting is done with a combine. With the glass front, it looks to me like the man-machine hybrids of Japanese animated stories. I include here a photo of our Dominator 98. It can combine an entire field in a day, but it is a long day with trailers standing by to haul away the grain as soon as the combine is full. Several people need to be scurrying to make sure the combine is kept as productive as possible. Today the combine malfunctioned and a mechanic came all the way from Wick to get it sorted because it was a race not only with the fields but also with the rain, which here is never very far away.

The combine makes great crew cut swathes across the field. The grain gets pulled up through the middle into the trailer behind, and the stalks are used as straw for bedding for the cattle and the cattle equivalent of celery--tasty but not rich in nutrition.

Each of the heaps of stalks is about two feet deep and nearly three feet across. The next step with the straw is to roll it up into those giant rolls that sit in the field loosely wrapped in a plastic snood.

The grain, if it is wet, gets sprayed with urea and is piled in a corner of the barn. If the grain is dry enough, it is put directly into the storage tower. We have two towers and last year the cattle ate all the grain and we had to buy more, which was expensive.

Between our farm and another two with whom we share the combine, there are 14 fields to be harvested. When all the grain is safely in--as well as the turnips (also for the cattle) and any other crops, it is known as harvest home: a celebration and a collective exhalation as the vagaries of one season are stored up against the unknowns of the next season.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walking Against the Clock

The wind was undeniable: blustery, swirling, changing directions on a whim without ever abating. Sometimes such weather makes the cattle edgy, but they moved obligingly enough from the far field around the corner of the farm road and into the steading. The wind, however, worked its perverse magic on me. I was edgy: a distorted emotional geometry in which normally round surfaces become pointed and small things sting and stick and pile up and threaten to take over. I needed to get out from under the effect of the wind and the inward spiraling consciousness. I needed to reconnect to something larger than my own peevishness.

I grabbed a few things and drove into town where I sat anonymously in the middle of a cafe with a cappucino. The background noise of public places is soothing to me. I could not hear the wind above the hum of conversation, and the froth on the cappucino was thick enough to dive into it. I felt myself beginning to round out again. I pulled out Seahenge, a book I bought at Maes Howe in the thrall of that neolithic environment. In the cold light of the farm, I thought it could not live up to the cover art of embossed bronze age swords and a subtitle promising a tale of "quest for life and death in Bronze Age Britain," but the book intrigues me with the connections the archaeologist author makes with his life and his career and the links between individuals and place.

With the last of my cappucino came the awareness that I needed to walk through the very landscapes I was reading about and think about people and lives that have come and gone and left only the faintest trace of their passing. My new neighborhood is the broch capital of the world, a center for Pictish relics, and a long time haven for vikings who left behind place names and burial cairns. And it is all here just for the taking. I have spent some time exploring cairns and brochs but I wanted to find a site that I had only heard about--Yarrows Archeological Trail-- where I could actually walk in the midst of a site much like the ones I was reading about, a ritual landscape.

My enthusiasm was almost swamped by my anxiety over my ability to find it on my own. My navigational skills are limited at best and they go right out the window when I start worrying about what I don't know. It took me 6 months to be sure I knew how to get to Thurso, which is only 10 miles away on a road with no turnings. All I knew about getting to Yarrows was that there was a roadsign marker to it on the road to Wick. I was reasonably confident I could find the road to Wick, so I set out with confidence enough for the first leg, which is usually enough for an adventure.

I found the road to Wick easily enough, but the wind had not diminished either its intensity or its whimsy. Thick-skinned, shaggy Shetland ponies in a pasture by the road have backed into the lea of the prickly gorse bush to take what shelter they can from the wind. As I passed by the road to Camster cairns, I decided I can console myself with those reconstructed neolithic chambers in the middle of bog cotton and grazing sheep if I cannot find Yarrows. Realizing I have choices is one of the signs of a returning perspective, but now I am determined to find Yarrows.

The road seems longer than I recall, and the anxiety nibbles at my confidence. I know if I get to Wick I will have gone too far. As I near the outskirts of Wick and my heart begins to sink, I see a cluster of road signs, including:

"Yarrows Archeaological Trail"
and beneath it,
"Not suitable for buses"

British understatement often vies with full disclosure in road signage: the road is not suitable for buses or large cars or one and a half small cars or one small car and a tractor, even a small tractor. And any vehicle will have to play dodgem with sheep. The road to Yarrows is that hallmark of the highlands, a single track road. I find this somehow very comforting. I don't want the road to Yarrows to be broadly paved and well sign posted.

I am awarded with a quintessential single track road: very few laybys--aneurysms in the tarmac that allow one car to move over far enough that another can ease by--and few driveways or hard shoulders. Fortunately, there are as few cars as there are laybys, so I wander up and down soft hills, around bends, including two nearly 90 degree angles where only a gate across the road differentiates the main road from the farm road. I easily elude sheep on the road because by now I have much practice at it. I pass only one other traveller on the road, a bicyclist. Suddenly I come unequivocally to the end of the road, but I see no archaeological sites. Undaunted, I make a K turn on the narrow end of the road and prepare to go to Camster cairns when I see the pillar of stones with a signpost announcing Yarrows.

Yarrows must be like Avalon or Brigadoon I tell myself as I park beside the signpost because now I can see silhouetted on a hilltop the familiar signs of remnants of a broch, a round, tower-house that was popular in this part of the world a couple thousand years ago. The wind rocks the car a bit just to remind me that it still reigns over this day, so I pile on layers upon layers of clothes retrieved from the backseat and the trunk. I remember wistfully when the wind in Caithness was a travel anecdote shared with my brother in the comfort of his living room back in Carmel, Indiana. When he first visited Caithness in April he wore all the clothes he had brought with him and needed his heavy camera case as as anchor against the wind. I never dreamed then laughing at the story that the wind would be anything other than an anecdote about far away places.

A handful of sturdy red cattle sit contentedly in the field chewing the cud. They watch me with only a little curiosity. Just beyond them is a large loch, empty except for the chop from the wind that animates the surface with white waves. The steading at the end of the road also seems empty, so other than the cattle, this whole scene stretches out for me alone.

I climb over the fence to walk the aracheological trail--"allow about two hours" the sign says "over ground that may be wet or slippery." It also promises a broch, a cairn, a burial site, and an ancient probably Pictish dwelling: the archaelogical equivalent of a full meal deal. The broch is not as well preserved as others I have seen because, as with many things in Caithness, the treasures are not as well endowed as they might be in an area where the population density is greater than 8 people per square kilometer. The tradeoff, of course, is that in a populous area I would have to share it.

Today I cherish my sole posession. I imagine a conversation with a former resident teleported back and able to speak contemporary (contemporary with me that is) Amer-English. "What the hell have you done to my broch?" he asks indignantly looking at the rubble that once was his home.

Taken aback by his unexpected assault, I hastily reply, "Not me. It's been like that for a thousand years or so."

And then I wonder would he understand what a thousand years meant--not the words, but the import. I quickly realize that I don't really understand a thousand years and then I remember that is why I am walking here today. I need to get a thousand year perspective on this day.

The sites that comprise yarrows Archaeological trail are linked by a tiny path created by sheep and then enhanced a bit by the local archaeologist. I know her and I know she does a good job with too many treasures and too little time. When I tell her I came here, she will smile because she likes this place, too, and then a cloud will come over her face and she will say how she wishes it were better signposted or so on, but the raw, heathered windiness of the site is so beautiful that any changes could only diminish it.

The hills bloom with lavender, dark purple, white, and the red-tipped heather I have dubbed lipstick heather. I try to get a photo of the sweep of the hills in the subtle shadings of lavender purple gray green as some heathers begin to bloom and others bud and the older ones kick up their grey stems as they dance in the wind, but it is too much for a single image and soon I put my camera away and just enjoy taking it all in.

After nearly an hour of walking along the narrow paths, I stop for a moment on one of the wooden stair steps over a barbed wire fence to catch my breath and sit absolutely still. My car, the lone steading, the sturdy red cattle, and grazing sheep are all out of sight as I sit under a wide, grey, birdless, wind-tossed sky. In that exquisite emptiness the waves lap on the loch below, the fenceline wires hum in the wind, and the long grass dances among a chorus of heather. I might have stayed there forever like the fool on the hill watching the heather grow, but a gust of wind nearly bowled me over, so I moved on to the next site.

As I climbed up the hill, the first sight of the single, abbreviated stack of rock remaining from the once round 40-foot tower cast a formidable gaze downward. The argument about whether it was built for defense or for status symbol reminds me of Swift's Big and Little Endians disputing how best to open a boiled egg. From the top of the hill I stood next to the stack and looked out at the wide ocean below. Vikings came in an annual migration with the westerly winds. The height of the tower could catch an early glimpse of the dragon boats and the thick walls would be sturdy defense, but it would be even better if the size and the thickness persuaded the vikings to go somewhere else--to find a softer target. My friend Amy told me a story about a tiny kitten puffing itself up as much as possible when it saw an enemy. "You make the best of what you have," her husband had quipped. And so with brochs.

As I head back to where I left my car, I discover that I have been here longer than the two hours the signpost said it would take. But I have lost all sense of time, which was the intention. I have moved back through time--walking against the clock. As I get closer to the car, I see ahead of me a murder of crows and above me a small bird tries his luck flying into the wind and abruptly makes a U turn and disappears from my sight as I move back into time. I peel off the layers, climb into the car and I am surprised that the way back seems to take much less time.
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Sunday, August 20, 2006

"God Save the Queen"

For the second time this year, I have been startled into awareness that I have acquired a queen along with a husband and all the accoutrements of farm life in the land beyond the highlands of Scotland. It sneaked up on me today in church where the congregation flowed into "God Save the Queen" after the last hymn of the service. It had been a special service because the Lord Leftanant (the Queen's local representative) gave an award to a cadet of the corps of young people preparing for possible military careers. After the award ceremony, the organist struck up the tune, and before I knew what had hit me, I was singing along--with some notable gaps in my knowledge of the words.

"I sang 'God Save the Queen' today for the first time," I tell my husband when I get home. It makes less of an impression than "the Lord Leftanant sends her regards." He knows the Lord Leftenant; he doesn't know the queen.

After the service, the LL stood on an improvised reviewing platform outside the church as the handful of cadets marched past with the junior pipe band in front. I love the pipes and I was proud of the young people. The hoopla enlivened the street (see above) on a grey, mizzly day, but it reminded me all too painfully that these young people in a few years' time will be in Lebanon or Iraq or Afghanistan. I struggle more to reconcile my support for them with my distrust of the political decisions that put them in harm's way than with having a queen. After all, I know them; I don't know the queen.
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Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Secret Life of Barn Cats

Amy took this photo of two orphan kittens we discovered while she was here. I thought they were the offspring of Wee Grey Stripes. Since Wee Grey Stripes disappeared, I have been looking after these guys with help from just about everyone else on the farm--even the ones who claim not to like cats. ( I won't acknowledge them here in case they want to continue their pose as non cat lovers.) But cats, as Ole Possum told us in his book of Practical Cats, will find us if we let them.

One night after feeding the kittens, I was startled to find one of them in the old farm cottage where the oil tank is now. I was worried that he had come across the road between the steading and the house which is a perilous journey for a kitten, where everything is larger than you. I thought I might be able to move them permanently out of their barn and into the old cottage buildings close by the house, so I put food down for the pioneer, but the kitties never again ventured so far.

And then one evening, I saw a grey striped kitten disappear into the bush near the house. It did not come when I called and when I looked at the barn both kitties were there. Attack of the clones. Whose kitties are these and where do they live? These new kittens remind me of just how "socialized" the barn kitties have become. I never catch more than a fleeting glimpse of the clone kitties, but the orphans come when I call, and the smaller one of the two actually holds his tail up and purrs when I pet him. His sister, Miss Hissy, has at least learned to meow. She strikes me as the kind of cat who may never be caught purring. You know some cats and some people just have that kind of personality that no matter how much they like something they just can't show it.

So whenever I see one of the wild(er) cats, I put food where they can easily get it from the safety of the bushes or the underside of the car. I routinely leave food in the dairy maid's cottage where I occasionally see a cat coming or going. I like to think that among the comings and goings Wee Grey Stripes might still occasionally drop in.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Country Mouse Again

The move to Scotland is certainly the longest, most dramatic move of my life, but not my first Big Move. Like many women of my generation, I have been a "trailing spouse", relocating to Philadelphia where my former husband had a teaching fellow position and a scholarship to study what he wanted to study while I reinvented myself as best I could eking out his fellowship to support the family, complete my own degree, and raise our daughter far from family or friends.

Having worked for Indiana University Press, I found a part time position at the University of Pennsylvania Press. Publishing then was a pink collar industry which routinely hired young, educated, literature-loving women and paid them very little with little or no prospect of promotion into the inner sanctum of publishing. No one challenged this for many reasons, not least of all the constant threat of a new crop of graduates ready to take the position of anyone disgruntled or foolish enough to let go of it. In short, I was glad to have it.

My colleagues at the Press adopted me as much as worked with me, and one woman dubbed me "country mouse" for my naivete and Hoosier way of talking. It was the era of Earth Shoes, the antecedent of Birkenstock sandals, and the beginning of the green revolution. I rode my bike to work with my toddler daughter in a seat on the back and bought our groceries at a Quaker-run food cooperative where I worked as storekeeper--helping to fill orders and asking fellow members what they did with thus and such. I learned what was in season and how to cook and made some friends. After a few agonizing months in the strange city, I settled into a routine and can now look back fondly on those years.

These thoughts came back to mind as I wandered around Edinburgh with my friend Harriet both because I feel, again, a perfect country bumpkin and also because it was Harriet who reminded me that I could draw on those experiences to deal with the Biggest Move of All. Harriet is one of those rare people who seems always to know exactly how to solve whatever is at hand and to do it with as much grace as wit. She was the first of my friends to visit me in the far north, and now she is in Edinburgh for a few days on her way back to Indiana from Malta and I have come to join her. It is a double treat for me. I am in the city and I am with Harriet.

For four days we walk and peruse and stumble into large and small adventures and both of us become very fond of Edinburgh. It is a city that is compact, accessible and full of history and cultural events, even without the festivals that mark the end of the summer in the city. When we stop at a National Trust of Scotland building, I am pleased to pull out my membership card only to discover that we are in the offices of the NTS. There is a free exhibit upstairs. I can show my card around the block at the Georgian House, they tell me patiently. I am only a little embarrassed. With my accent I can be either a bumbling American tourist, or I can be, more accurately, a country mouse again. The highlands are a long way from Edinburgh. It is the same country, but a different world.

In the Georgian House, I see little prickly metal leaves strategically placed on chairs to discourage any thoughts of sitting on them. They remind me of the prickly metal put on window ledges to discourage pigeons from settling there.

Peploe painitngs play a role as plot devices in Alexander McCall Smith's books about Edinburgh, which I have read and thus experienced the city indirectly. Now above the mantel I see three Peploes in a row. I am now one degree more urbanized.

Zebra crossings, pelican crossings, and toucan crossings all have slightly different rules for how one can navigate them, according to the Highway Code. The theory test has several multiple choice questions about the finer points between them which I had found baffling because I have seen only a zebra crossing--the zig zag stripes in the street where pedestrians can cross. Thurso, the nearest town to the farm, has one zebra crossing. In one day in the big city I saw both pelican and toucan crossings! Another giant leap forward for the country mouse.

Harriet leaves early Friday morning and I am left to wander on my own. I pull my small wheeled bag through the city streets, not unlike some of the street people. I pass a young woman artfully seated on the sidewalk as if she were posing for a portait of the Virgin Mary awaiting the annunciation. She has freshly scrubbed, pale pinky creamy skin, her blonde hair carefully coifed, her blue skirt spread out like a mantle in front of her accented with a few copper coins on the hem. If we cannot properly read these signs, she has a cardboard sign hand written telling her story as an innocent but unfortunate young girl. Her face is full of sorrow, but she seems less like the face of poverty and more like that of performance art, but I wonder what her story is as I roll my luggage down the sidewalk.

I walk through the green area in the center of Edinburgh. Yesterday there had been a wildly exuberant drumming performance and crowds of sunbathers, but today the park is just beginning to wake up. I come across a woman with a bag not unlike mine. She is sitting on the sidewalk with several bottles of water, an opened can of cat food, a cat that she is feeding by hand, and all these--woman, cat, bag, bottles and cat food, are surrounded by a ring of dancing pigeons. This seems more like the face of poverty. It feels more sad than the virgin on the sidewalk even though the woman and her cat and the pigeons seem perfectly balanced in an ecosystem of their own into which we have not been invited.

The trash cans that were overflowing yesterday have been emptied. The trash truck is moving slowly down the last of them as someone drops an empty coffee cup into the first of them. I move one rung further into the center of the green land. I walk past a long line of identical benches each of which has a small plaque telling a story of love and loss. I wince at the ones that promise "eternal remembrance," some of them dedicated nearly a century ago by spouses or sons and daughters. Where are they now? Is anyone left to look after the bench? Will someone come along and buy a bench for another story? What will happen to the first plaque? And more prosaically, did anyone think of leaving money to sand and repaint the benches?

The next level down into the center has older, more elaborate forms of remembrance-- a statue of a woman that I think may be Queen Victoria with two young boys at her knee. She looks at them proudly and affectionately, but there is no plaque or inscription. In one corner I find a complex memorial to the first highlanders with steles highlighting their battles since about 1600. Uniting the steles is a background of steel with the Arbroath statement about fighting not for glory but for freedom. Especially now I find war memorials deeply saddening. All too often, "support for the troops" serves primarily to keep alive a war that should never have begun. On the bumper of my little green car back in the US I had a bumper sticker that proclaimed: "Support Our Troops. Bring them home," but bumper stickers are not a part of this world and I am still too much of an outsider to have opinions except among family and friends.

At the opposite end of the bottom of this great urban green space is the National Gallery of Scotland. I am confident that I can find the train station in good time, so I decide to spend my last hour in the city looking at formal art. I leave my wheelie cart with a volunteer in the cloak room and head into the nearest gallery where I am greeted by enormous, room dominating oil paintings of elaborate scenes from the bible or Greek or Roman mythology played out against medieval backgrounds. I like Poussin's mystical marriage of St. Catherine first because the blue of Mary's robe is startlingly blue, and then the cherubic figure of baby Jesus with its warm pink tones catches my eye. Finally I am gratified to see St. Catherine in something other than her martyrdom.

Unfortunately, St. Sebastian is portrayed with an arrow in his neck. Such obvious iconography transcends the ages, but it is not appealing. In contrast, "young man tying his garter" is baffling. The caption suggests that tying the garter may have had some specific, aggressive meaning at the time of the painting. Alas, now, as with the plaques on the benches or the iconography of the statue of the woman and the two children, the original story is lost to us. Whatever tying the garter meant, the young man looks like a glowering bully boy and I move on quickly.

The dark red walls contrast sharply with the colors of the paintings, and the heavy gold frames gleam and glare in the lights. The rooms have high ceilings and paintings so far up that they are virtually invisible. I get warm and begin to feel as if I have fallen into the mask of the red death as I move from room to room. I want out. Images swirl at fantastical angles. I think of my friend who could not go to museums because they made her faint. I quickly find the way out of the galleries back to the cool fresh air of the marble entranceway and the relief of its open, anonymous spaces.

More than out. Now I am ready to be Home. I miss Harriet, I miss my husband, I miss home, I even miss "landscape with cattle" as I christen the view out my window with a grander, more urbanized title as I pull my wheelie luggage, thunkety thunkety ker thunk down the same sidewalk I came up just four days ago.