Saturday, January 23, 2010

No Light from the House on the Corner

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Some places in Caithness seem to me to echo with the sounds of the people once there. This building near the harbour at Castletown was part of the flagstone works but it struck me the first time I saw it as a house with a startled expression that no one had come back to it. Perhaps that is the influence of too many Disney cartoons in my impressionable youth. I recalled it again the other night as I rode with a friend to a gathering at the nearby hall.

As we turned a corner, she looked at a house and commented that the shades were drawn. Because I am still new to so many things and the complex networks of people here, she had to explain that was the home of an elderly woman who had just passed away. She had lived long after her daughter, the friend of my friend, had died of cancer. The elderly woman had watched the television in the dark and so turning that corner my friend could see the faint blue glow of the television through the window and know that she was all right.

I hope in time someone else will come to that house and put some lights back into the windows. It will never be the same of course, but a light at the corner is a welcome sight up here and a house needs living in.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Day Between Weathers

A day between weathers is what we might otherwise call a break in the weather. Today was one of those breathers. The snow has retreated; ice and snow linger only in cold patches hither and yon. As I walked the roadway along the moss this morning, my boots felt a little slip with each step; the temperature is still cold: ice is not far away. It nipped at my fingers as I pulled off the mitten tips to take these photographs.

The consolation prize for winters up here is that the light, although the days are short, is literally brilliant. I will leave the physics of it to someone else to explain, but in contrast to most winters, which have been unbearably drab, the moss here offers a feast of colours for winter-starved eyes.

As I walked along the edge of the moss, I heard the grouse calling to each other; the small birds twittered in the bushes, but there was no sign of ducks or swans back on the lochans even though the ice has dissipated. Perhaps they know better than we do that this is only a brief respite from the cold.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Happy Old New Year

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Just a quick note to say that the weather is easing and a local wind farm project, after much wrangling and contentiousness, has been approved.

I think it will be good for the community--local energy, renewable, low impact on the environment, several much needed jobs, and a constant contribution to a community fund. I naively thought that the decision made, we could all get on with working together.

Any suggestions for ways to bring community together would be most welcome.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Slow Thaw, Sharp Wind, and Longer Light

Although the weather has not hit us as hard as further south, nonetheless we are feeling the effects of the longest cold snap snowstorm for more than decade. The train cannot get through due to deep snow, so soon mail and supplies will be even slower than usual. The woman who runs the cafe in the Cape Wrath lighthouse went south to buy their Christmas turkey and has not made it home yet. She is safe and warm and tucked up with a friend in Durness, but the roads are not clear enough for her to get home. She and her husband--stranded now at the lighthouse--can talk every day on the phone, and their Christmas presents are sitting there still wrapped and waiting.

In contrast with that, we have the climbers lost in an avalanche and the hundred or so people visiting the local hospitals each day with sprains, strains, bumps, bruises and fractures from slipping on the icy pavements. None of the stores have salt, so the slow thaw--the melt and freeze and melt and freeze is going along at its own pace. According to the regional paper, of the 100 visitors in a single day with slip-related injuries, 18 of those were actual fractures.

I have never seen any snowstorm that did not involve some public complaining about not enough plowing or salting or timely enough or so on. Snow management is largely a no-win proposition (Cur, if you read this, I hope you will add some Chicago stories here). But here I find it supremely ironic that after years of regulating and taxing independence out of us to create a proper nanny state, the response to those 100 or so falls was an indignant--well, why don't you get out and do it yourselves?!

I am stuck in the middle of that. Part of me says, well, yes, of course, that is quite right. On the other hand, I have read about the case of the person fined for sanding their pavement and putting up a sign saying Caution slippery surface. When someone did slip on it, the person was fined not because they had knowingly left a hazard to navigation there but because they had labelled it a hazard. They would have been better off doing nothing. Things like that very quickly condition people into doing less. We can become institutionalized very quickly.

It is easy to fall into familiar conversational and rhetorical paths and where our words go, our minds follow. This has been in the back of my mind for some time as I work with organiztaions that are vibrant and visionary and those that are not. And a general election is coming up which means the political rhetoric is filling up the air waves. I have been saddened to hear yet again that politicians seem preoccupied with personal behaviours--the answer to the looming food crisis is for us not to throw away as much food as we have been doing regardless of the government-mandated dates on the food or for farmers to be more productive while still famring sustainably and preserving the countryside. What are they doing? How is it that in lieu of policy changes or long term planning they offer us lectures about our own behaviours?

I won't mention the irony of their moralising against the backdrop of the Grand Barbecue they have been having with their own expenses. Instead, I want to humbly request that we all try just a little bit harder to raise the level of our rhetoric about what we want in our own communities.

I am going to suggest that a good place to start is a visit to a web site (
I know a bit about the people who started this project and the genesis of it. The premise is deceptively simple--we read books and use that as a prompt for guided conversations. We all know we can go through some books and some conversations about books and not be any wiser, but we can also cheat on all the other New Years resolutions. The essence is to read and talk reflectively. Read like you mean it. Think about it. Talk about what really matters.

The wind is whinging around the house and the snow is falling and blowing and blowing and falling, but the sun is striving mightily to get out of bed a bit earlier and linger a little longer. Sunday at dinner with friends, we celebrated the fact that at 4:30 the sun was not yet set. I am always reminded of the back of a chair where Benjamin Franklin and his unlikely companions had been cloistered to hammer out a constitution. A semi-circular sun motif adorned the back of it. As they concluded the last of the conversations to make the document, one wag commented that it was a sun setting. No, Ben Franklin declared, it is a rising sun.