Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Into the Season of Soft Air and Long Light

Oddly enough when I first heard the expression "soft air" I was breathing it in and so the phrase made perfect sense. It is, however, one of those things very hard to explain if you are not breathing it.

Last night as I stood just outside the back door, I heard myself saying "soft air" and breathing it in gratefully. I associate soft air with spring and summer--the months of longer light, but I think in all fairness it could occur any time of the year. When the wind is whipping you senseless or driving fine-toothed rain or snow into you, you have neither time nor interest in parsing out the relative hardness of it.

Lichens grow luxuriantly up here. Ecologists use lichens as an indicator of the relative health of the air, so part of that lovely softness may be what is not in our air. We are a long way from smoke stacks and heaps of automobiles. Actually, I might have left that sentence midway and still held a lot of truth. In the season of the soft air and long light, it is joy to be far away from things. when the world is dark and cold, that distance is not such a pleasure.

After a pummelling by a gale, it is easy to imagine that the soft air is the result of the egg beater effect on egg whites--frothy air.

At any rate, the days are stretching and the air is sweet and soft. Soon the gorse will be popping out their butter-coloured, chardonnay-coconut flavoured blossoms all over the hills.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Northerly

I thought I knew most of the classic weather words. I also thought I had seen most of what Caithness can send our way. I was wrong. Today I learned about a northerly. A northerly combines two of my least favourite weather elements--a wind from the north, which means cold and wet in any season. And wind-driven projectiles.

For two or three days now the sun has been shining in brief glorious moments followed by rain or gloom or even the occasional, last-minute show of snow. It has cast a pall on all of us eager for spring. The blustery wind blasted the daffodils and wilted everyone's spirits. The brief sunny moments seemed more of a tease than a cause for optimism.

Today the wind was so cold that it took my breath away as I went out to search for my cats despite two coats, a long wool hat, and gloves. A north wind does not believe in a fair fight. Even indoors the kitchen was so cold that as we prepared lunch we could see our breath chilled in the air in front of us. We took the extreme measure of turning on the central heating to banish the cold to the edges of the house at least.

And then came the snow--not spring is really here but we have some snow left over so we'll just dump it here kind of snow. No. Small snow. Sharp-toothed snow riding the winds like a surfer, packing close together to obscure everything.

From the safety of the sitting room window, I can see nothing but a flurry of white. After a frenzy of white, the sun comes out again and I can see the hedge and into the fields and beyond all the way to Beinn Ratha. And then a shadow comes and the flurry begins again. Despite its ferociety and persistence, the top of Beinn Ratha shakes off the white. A few close packed grains cluster in the corners of the yard and the close, but they fade as quickly as they fell.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Thank You, Ada Lovelace

Some time between news of the day in parliament and 6am, BBC Radio Four becomes World News. If I am awake, I can learn about the parts of the world that are generally overlooked. I like that time of night. The peace of it and the sense of a trip to parts unknown. I usually doze in and out of sleep so I may be in Mozambique and then wake later to find myself in the middle of a panel program discussing ethics or cultural history. Some days ago I heard a blurb about Ada Lovelace day. I meant to write about it when I woke, but it fell into a dream fragment and nestled there until something woke me again. After Ada came Hypatia.

Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and influential in the early genesis of what has now become computer science. Ada Lovelace day was an effort to celebrate women in engineering and science who had influenced us. I drifted off to sleep thinking of some. And then I forgot about it until I heard a discussion of the comparative philosophies of Plato and Aristotle (don't ask me anything about that...) I woke as they talked about a painting of mathematical worthies and in the middle was the only woman--Hypatia. So surely in the thousand years or so between Hypatia and Ada Lovelace there were other women scientists and engineers that slipped through the artist's brush or the biographer's pen. Do you have favourites? If so, celebrate Ada Lovelace Day (belatedly, I admit, but then women's history is often like that, isn't it?) by talking about them.

Here's a couple of mine--Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to become a doctor. I read her story when I was about 8 or 9 in one of those blue-backed books of biographies. I also read about Knute Rockne, but never dreamed of becoming an athlete.

Marie Curie--being an experimental scientist was not an easy life and she paid a heavy price for her research.

Lisa Wenzler, molecular chemist and wise human being. She tried to teach me to ride the wave of corporate America. I didn't drown and in the process learned a lot--even a bit about molecules and science.

Susan Hinrichs. A quiet scholar who got her PhD in what is still a pretty male dominated field--computer science and makes her own way mixing family and career.

So who are some of your women in science, math, engineering?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Un Bel Di"

Before I heard the aria, "Un Bel Di," I thought it was a funny name for a boat. I am not an opera buff. I can hum a bit of Carmen and enjoy many of Puccini's melodies even though I can't hum or name them, but Un Bel Di from Madame Butterfly can and does stop me in my tracks.

As I type this, I have used the power of my computer to deliver Mme Butterfly into my office. Since I am alone in the house, I have turned the volume up so that the sound swirls and snuggles into the dusty corners and lingers in the sunshine from the window overlooking the garden.

Please listen for yourself if you do not know it. If you do, take a moment to re-remember. I pass it along to you in the hopes it brings you as much joy as it did when my friend shared it with me. Not the simple, absolute joy of a child, but the mature joy of someone who as my daughter recently wrote of an elderly friend "had learned to find the joy in moments." It is a powerful and poignant mixture. Can Mme Butterfly, alone with her vision of loveliness sustain it against the odds? The aria has all the fragile beauty of a flower, a cloud, a bubble on the water--all the more precious for its ephemeral nature. Is Mme Butterfly a fool or the wisest of us all to hold to her vision?

That is my convoluted way of saying that today is one of those rare treasures of sun and soft wind. I have worked in the garden all morning in the company of my cats. I stopped long enough to put some arnica on my aching muscles, get a bite to eat, and think about my far away friend and Mme Butterfly and our fondness for moments.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wind and Waves

At 3:41 am I was awakened by the quiet. The silence was conspicuous because the wind had been harrying my mind for several hours. The day had dawned not excessively bright but clear and soft air. By noon, however, the wind was driving the rain into you no matter which way you faced. Worse yet, it had reached the frequency where it sawed away at frayed edges of my already tired mind. I do not like that harrying wind. I do not like it because it can nip at my mind's heels for hours or days or blow into a proper gale. At 3:41 am I was reminded of the other alternative: it can stop.

Because we are still in that time between proper spring and the heavy days of winter bluster, neither bird song nor chittering of small animals intruded on the silence. The large metal door that heaves and shudders in the soughing wind was silent. The cattle were silent. Not even the distant sighing of the ocean into the bay claimed a space in the silence. I lay as still as I could as the first rays of light came through the shade and then I fell back to sleep.

Today is a commemoration of the Longhope lifeboat disaster. It is also a recognition of the 150 years of the lifeboat service. It is going to be a big affair with celebrities coming from the islands as well as down south. The little church where it is going to be held will be overwhelmed. I am honoured to be going but I am reluctant as well. I will certainly cry--that cannot be helped--and I have become more reticent about crying in public. I have in fact become less of a public person altogether, prefering the company of fewer people at a time.

I think I have also been here long enough now to appreciate how difficult life can be--or more precisely to appreciate how close death is living here on the edge. I have learned not to dwell on the calves that do not make it. I still silently grieve for each of them and for the sadness for those who tend them. I keep my perspective in part by keeping my distance. I rarely go into the barn now. When I heard the cow bugling at 11pm the other night, I did not go out to the barn and felt a pang of guilt the next morning when I learned there was a dead calf. Even from a distance, the grief and the guilt can find me. Not a sharp edge as in the beginning, but there lurking waiting to be called up.

It was easier in the beginning to acknowledge with only distant grief the hillwalkers or the young men in road accidents or the people lost at sea when I did not know them or their families. I have been here long enough now that almost any accident touches me more directly--a friend of a friend's son, the favourite uncle of a friend, or a neighbour. Sometimes closer than that.

The last time I was in the tiny historic church where tonight's service will be held was for a funeral. It will be hard to shake off that memory for tonight's service.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Down to the Harbour

Today the sky was a tease--sunshiny and then showery and still a bit cold, but you could smell the earth starting to stir. We headed into town looking for a bacon buttie and then we were going to hit the road for someplace. Along the way, we noticed a large, flat-topped boat being towed into Scrabster. We re-routed our trip to the cafe by the harbour to watch the boat come in.

After bacon, we went to the harbour and watched the ship and the water. In one way, it is very different from my old life, but in a larger sense, it is very much the same. Long ago when the world was more innocent, I used to like to drive with friends out to the airport and watch the planes come in and take off.

For a look at the Scrabster harbour, check out this web site:


I'll let you know tomorrow what the large, flat-topped boat was carrying. Just in case you are curious, too.

Women's Rules

I spent three days in a workshop combining social history and knitting and other textile crafts at nearby Castlehill Heritage Centre. Deirdre Nelson was the teacher-catalyst. Photos will be available soon, but I just wanted to leave a note here as I get busy with other projects set aside during the workshop about the beneficial effects of women's rules. OK, OK, here's a disclaimer, all-female groups are not always charming. They can be petty and vindictive.

This bunch of madcap knitters, however, typified the best of the genre--sharing ideas, yarn, needles, stories, laughter and food. I was reminded once again of my favourite definition of women paraphrased from "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." Women will always manage to find food and declare a celebration in the midst of the most disarming circumstances, in this case, it was when the heroine returned to her friends as they were in the middle of a pitched battle.

We were not facing such circumstances but that ability to find food and good humour wherever you are is definitely a talent worth cherishing. So have a cup of cocoa or a Diet Coke or a dram, depending on your taste and occasion and find something to celebrate.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

World Book Day

I was intrigued to notice in today's paper a little notice about World Book Day. A book seems a great reason to celebrate, so I went to the web site: www.worldbookday.com

According to their site
World Book Day is on Thursday 5th March 2009. (in the United Kingdom)
World Book Day Ltd is a registered charity whose financing of World Book Day comes mainly from contributing publishers, the generous sponsorship of National Book Tokens Ltd, some literacy partnerships and other supporters, as well as the participating booksellers who fund the entire cost of Book Token redemption.

In other countries World Book Day takes place at a different time of year – usually in April. For international information on World Book Day, please visit: www.unesco.org A quick look at the UNESCO site indicates that since 1995 World Book Day has been on April 23rd to commemorate something book-wise that took place in 1616.

Any day is a good day to celebrate books and book-people: the readers, writers, editors, publishers, sellers, librarians; the child with his or her nose in a book, and the gap in the lives of all those children and adults for whom there are no books.

So here is my own, unofficial way to celebrate World Book Day today, tomorrow, April 23rd and whenever it takes your fancy.

1. Read a book. Pick up that book languishing by the chair in front of the TV and finish it.
2. Talk to someone about a book you have read or are reading.
  • Here are mine: Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg is brilliant.
  • My daughter's novel in draft, Independence, is a tour de force of an entirely different genre. Short stories by my friends in my writing group reflecting their different styles, tastes and interests from a spooky story about an encounter in a broch to a translation of a Japanese origin myth.
  • And I am starting a history of the isles by Norman Davis--I expect I'll be at that one for a while!
3. Give a book to someone.
4. Visit your nearest independent bookstore and buy a book by someone you have not heard about on the talk show circuit.
5. Take a hard working writer to lunch or buy them some more printer paper.
6. Write a book review for your local newspaper or the newsletter or web site for an organization you belong to.
7. Give your local librarians a bunch of flowers and tell them that you are glad they are there.
8. Become a Friend of some book-related charity.
9. Next time someone invokes the Founding Fathers in conversation, be sure to include among their achievements the concept and implementation of Free Libraries.

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In Like a Lion

I had almost forgotten among the new words and phrases I have been learning that some of the old ones that I learned as a child still fit. "March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb," we said when the cold winds of winter roared into our winter-weary ears and the snow landed on the daffodil buds. There might be a lamb-like day on March 1, but if so, before the week, the lion would rear its head.

We had here a splatter of snow and then a benign day, but last night, despite a soft breeze, the air had a cold bite to it. I dressed in an extra layer, heard the old shingles pain kick into gear, and did my best to ignore it on my way to stained glass class. When I came out, the air was still but crisp and cold, ice had etched itself like graffiti on my windscreen. With a start I remembered the plants still sitting in my car. Along with my weary self, I would have to trundle them indoors for safekeeping from this too sharp cold.

So three different heathers, London pride sitting contentedly in a tray, tiny Alpines destined for the rock garden, and miniature -leaved plants in pots waiting for the spring as eagerly as I am were toted into the attic at the rear of the house--certainly not warm enough to raise their expectations, but out of the worst of the night's chill.

And today came the proof of what I could feel on the wind last night: giant flakes of snow falling like an afterthought and then in earnest. Melting into the warmed earth except in the spots where their whiteness takes tentative hold. I know it won't last long. If it were November and this were the first snow, I could admire it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sharing a Good Example of Simpler, Better Living

We are bombarded by negative news these days--credit crunch, climate challenge, and wars that seem never to end at the top of the list just now. If you are like me, some days I feel overwhelmed because the problems seem so large that my own efforts seem too small. I get discouraged. A friend that I met when we were both 16 sent me this story. I like the woman's example and took heart from it, so I asked his permission to share it with you all.

It is a good reminder that the simple things do make a difference. So March 15th, I'll be at home working in my veg patch and singing Happy Birthday to Frances Crowe.



When friends and family suggested a party to celebrate her approaching 90th birthday, Frances Crowe had a better idea. Instead of legions of well-wishers driving from far and wide to celebrate her life, she asks everyone to stay put, slow down, enjoy where you are, and reflect on ways to diminish the impact our daily lives have on our wonderful planet.

Celebrate Frances’ 90th birthday and her lifelong commitment to peace, justice, and community by not driving on Sunday, March 15, 2009. If car travel is unavoidable on that day, seek out friends and neighbors to carpool and share the ride. If carpooling is impossible, choose another day during that week when you can refrain from driving.

Frances’ concern about the impact that our lifestyle has on the life of the planet has deepened in recent years. Our dependence on oil has entangled us in war, conflict, and questionable alliances. The pollution from our highways, power plants, industry, and industrialized agriculture has disrupted the ecosystems on which we depend.

When faced with global warming, rampant militarism, and growing instability, Frances has sought ways to simplify her life and shrink her ecological footprint. You may have seen her walking around town--a small woman with a big backpack, joined her in the vigil against the Iraqi war, shared a meal of locally grown food, or felt challenged by the difficult questions that she asks. From offering draft counseling to hundreds of young men during the Vietnam war [note: including Sharon's friend who sent me this story], to organizing against nuclear weapons, to opening the regional office of the American Friends Service Committee, to working against apartheid, to ensuring local access to Democracy Now! and other important media, Frances has been an inspiring example of living out one’s principles. Frances has been ahead of the curve in her thinking and her actions for decades. She walks the walk--quite literally!

Grant this extraordinary woman her birthday wish: DON’T DRIVE ON MARCH 15th. Perhaps this single day will lead you to gradually decrease your driving and increase your attention to the many ways you can live more sustainably. Please help to spread the word about Frances’ birthday and

her birthday wish.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Just a Wee Joke

A knitting friend sent me a calendar which has this sentiment at the top. It made me laugh, so I thought I would put this as an antidote to the preceding mumpy post.

“If you’re crazy, there’s two things you can do to make yourself feel better: One is to get yourself cured. The other is to make everyone you have to deal with crazy.”


This is the reason every knitter tries to teach everyone she knows to knit . . . or at least suggests that they should try it.