Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Big Ben to Brussels - Day 1

Despite having a bad knee that took me off the footpaths and into the car for the majority of two of the four days I've traveled with the four amazing women making their way from Big Ben to Brussels on foot (and ferry), I've had a fantastic time.

Day one started out at 5am, a train ride to London, delays on the tube, an exit one stop too early, and a hunt for a toilet before I met up with the team. Upon arrival, I was gifted a bright orange jacket and hat, a pack cover with logo, and some lip salve. After a few minutes of changing clothes and adjusting the contents of my bag, I was ready to meet the team. Alison, extreme free skier, UN Climate Hero, campaigner for the salvation of snow. Jane & Laura, two warm, strong, smart ladies: friends who've known each other for 17 years, both mothers of 3. I also had the pleasure of meeting their husbands. Nora, the documentarian, and her film crew. rain and wind, standing on the bridge to Westminster in front of Big Ben. We posed for cameras, interviews were conducted. Earth balls blown up, taken in and out of mesh sacks. I kept dropping my scarf. I was super excited to be there.

We eventually set off, in the rain, first to visit the ghost forest in Trafalgar Square. They were giant trunks, some with root systems still partially in tact from trees that had been cut down in the rain forest. It was moving to see a tree in that state. After the ghost forest, it was straight down to the Thames and along side it to the East. Walking is such an amazing way to see the city. I love walking along the river, seeing all the bridges and feeling like there's a bit of open space in a city that size.

Most of the day was on pavement, we took a turn north to get to the Lea Valley path, and walked along the river Lea almost until the night's destination. It was beautiful, some parts more than others. We cut through a park at one point and went through marsh lands. The river was smooth and put up a good reflection of the trees and sky, the boats that lived on it. We passed along some locks. It's an old tow path, not dissimilar to the one in Georgetown.

We walked and walked until after sunset and then we walked the last few miles in the dark. The conversations along the way were wonderful. Every one was in good spirits and really friendly. The conversation was lively. It was casual, it was about climate change and sustainability. It was about adventures and getting to know one another. We saw Nora and the camera crew for small intervals along the way. We were all thrilled to get to the hotel--especially me. I limped the last 3 miles or so. My knee didn't want to straighten. I had a lot of pain in the back of my knee and my leg seemed to want to bend to the side rather than to the front. I thought I was done for -- destined to hop on a train and head back, defeated.

Dinner was hilarious. The menu was very limited. When asked if it was possible to do a baked potato instead of chips on a fish and chips order, the bar tender responded, looking perplexed, that there wasn't a button for that. When the fish came, it was crispy. We weren't picky though. We were happy to be off our feet and eating. That night I iced my knee, elevated it and hoped it would be pain free in the morning.

Mountain Top Removal

I just saw Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home (www.garbagerevolution.com), a film that challenges a Toronto-based family of 5 to store their trash in their garage for three months. It looks into the many types of wastes humans generate, including air pollution and their own bodies. It takes the characters to see what happens to their waste--composting with anaerobic digestors, plastic bag mashers, recycling plants. It looks into the contents of detergents with an eye toward water pollution. The ninety day period covers halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas; the last being a huge generator of trash. Buy Nothing Christmas, my favorite way to celebrate that particular holiday, is mentioned. In the investigation into pollution from power generation, the film travels to West Virginia to see a man who lives on land that the coal companies are trying to buy for mountain top removal. The edge of his land overlooks what used to be a mountain. He shows a fissure that's 650 feet deep and 10,000 feet long that was created by the dynamite blasts. Dynamite induced earthquakes. The land is cracking. This man showed the bullet holes in his house and mentioned his dog being shot at. He's being threatened for wanting to stay on his land because some people think that what's under it is more important. He said, Next time you flip on your light switch, think about that. I'm thinking about it. It brings tears to my eyes. We're blowing up Earth, we're polluting it, we're drilling into it, we're draining it of its fluids, we're trashing it, we're turning the oceans to plastic sludge and the rivers to sewage . . . what for? There are better ways to go about meeting our "needs".

What is sustainability? That question was asked of me this weekend. The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I think sustainability is the same - meeting the needs of today without compromising future generations' abilities to meet their own needs.

We've got a long way to go.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Peer Pressure

The other day in my Politics and Society lecture we were being educated about the difference between the views of Realism and Liberal Institutionalism. Realists believe everything is about security (power) and economics (money). Liberal Institutionalists believe in a complex interdependence and cooperation.

We talked briefly about the upcoming COP in Copenhagen and were tasked with what the outcome might be as seen through these different perspectives. If it's a positive outcome, is it because the nations agree that they are all in this together and should come together to solve it? Or do they act in their own interest because they realize climate change is a threat to economic stability and national security? If the outcomes are negative, might it be because those for an agreement see cooperation as being most important, so they'll keep working to build trust in hope of future cooperation. Or is it because climate change is a Darwinian survival of the fittest test and it's every nation for itself?

The US was mentioned as a road block to reaching an agreement. I think that, in the spirit of cooperation and global security and economics, all of the other states who are eager and willing to move forward and sign an agreement should gang up against the US, put into practice that old fashioned peer pressure via embargo or whatever they need to, to give the US a slap in the face, get them to wake up and take responsibility for its role in creating the problem. Maybe then the US will also start to see its potential role and the benefits (in the form of money and power)from doing what it ought to. Come on, America. Quit dragging your feet and free-riding. You're only making it worse for yourself (and everyone else).

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Quick. Write something interesting.

I've been thinking about the Junk Raft project. I've been thinking about oceans. I've been thinking about plastics. I've been thinking, is there something I can do to contribute to the awareness of the nation sized areas of plastic swamp in the oceans? Who do you talk to (other than everyone you come into contact with)? How do you tell the story? How do you get people to give the right people money so they can do their research?

Water is the theme. Ocean rowers. Water projects. Pollution. What can I do with that?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Climate Walking

This weekend I'm going to join a group of women walking from Big Ben to Brussels in a show of support for a binding deal on climate change in Copenhagen. The group is being lead by Roz Savage, ocean rower and UN Climate Hero. I'll be joining for the first 3 or 4 days but getting back to campus for lectures. I'm really excited to get to be a part of this, to get to know Roz, and to learn how to walk from place to place in England. Pray for good weather.

More info here: http://rozsavage.com/2009/11/06/bb2/
Route here: http://rozsavage.com/environment/bb2b/bb2b-the-route/

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Today was my first of what I hope will be many visits to Mersea. It's a place that holds a special meaning for my course-mate Anna and I'd like to get know why. It was a quick but wonderful visit. We started off in East Mersea at the church that Sabine Baring-Gould was supposedly vicar of. There were some great gravestones out in the church yard. One was made out to Wankie. It's a small church, fitting for a small island. It has beautiful windows with some really intricate scenes made on smaller pieces of glass fit into them. The ceiling over the front of a church is a dark arched wood. There's a funny staircase in the side of the wall that leads to a hole in the upper wall. I wonder what it was used for. A cantor? For preaching? There were cushions that were hand knit and showed different aspects of Mersea, from the types of birds you might see there to scenes. There was information about the history of the church on a poster at the back but it's all gone through my sieve-like brain. I remember something about it's use during the civil war--something to do with roundheads maybe? Next we went on to a nature reserve type place. It was mostly a dog park and a kite flyin site from what I could tell, but it was right on the water. A beautiful green grassy path with a view of the Colne estuary and the North Sea. Oh, and a wind farm! On the beach were old sea defenses which look like old fence posts. The sun shone off the water trapped in pools. The tide was out. White birds flocked low over the shore, just at the edge of the water.

From there we went over to West Mersea and a fantastic cafe with excellent scones, good looking cakes and sandwiches. We had our coffees and then went off to meet Stuart who owns a sport fishing fleet. He took us out on his boat to its mooring (not sure if I'm using the terminology right) and we sat on board and talked. Anna interviewed him about his relationship to Mersea, his business, fishing. He was such a lovely man. His friend, a genuine Mersea-an, made us some tea while we talked. It was a real treat to hear his story, his love for the island, and his love of fishing. He invited us to go out on a fishing expedition sometime. I hope we will. We finished with visit to The Coast Inn, a really warm feeling pub with a fire place, fire burning, and a delicious looking Christmas menu.

Anna says a walk around the island takes 6 hours. I'd really like to do it some day. And I hope we get to interview more people. (By we, I mean I hope she sets up more interviews and invites me along.) It's wonderful getting to know places that mean something special to someone else. With Anna, it's particularly exciting for me because I think that while I'm being introduced to it fresh, she's investigating what makes it special and in some ways is discovering it for herself.

Colne viewing: Storm

'T was a stormy Saturday. The river was brimming. It was the fullest I've seen it. The wind was constant. A steady gust for twelve hours. A brave wood pigeon flew west, beak first into the wind. The rain came in fits and bursts with a few instances of pea sized hail. The sound of rain accentuated by the corrugated metal roof that covers the bicycle racks outside my window, three stories below.

My plants bob in the wind as it makes its way from the southwest, into the courtyard and up through the slit made by my barely open window and into my room. It's cool, fresh air. It's clean. The trunks of birch trees at a near constant tilt, their seeds are carried away with the wind. Some stick to my window. Many are blown inside. I find them on my bed, on my chair, in my plants, and on the floor.

I'm amazed that any trees still have a hold on their leaves after yesterday's wind, rain and hail.

I thought about going out into the wind and the rain, going to visit the Colne and see what it was doing with the weather. I chickened out and watched it instead from the kitchen window, warm cup of tea in hand, window cracked so I could feel the wind and the cold in a controlled manner.

The river was gray like the sky. No mud was visible. There was a man on a sea-doo personal water craft machine, speeding up and down the river and making tight turns sending walls of water into the air. I could hear the noise from my kitchen and wondered what the folks in the houseboat thought about it. I wondered if the houseboat was rocking on its wake.


Lectures this week covered a wide range of topics including:

1. Whether democracy or autocracy is better for sustainability
2. The relationship between health and nature which included the concept of Care Farming
3. The relationship between writing about landscapes and painting landscapes and landscape gardening
4. Indigenous peoples and
5. Green Light Trust, a local non profit that's working to plant forests!

My favorite was the talk on indigenous people. It was delivered with a passion and an energy that is unusual in academic lectures. I want to be knowledgeable in the area of indigenous peoples' rights. I want to defend them and do something to help ensure they're observed. Why? I think it goes beyond the underdog hypothesis. I think it's about justice.

I think about the two Lakota grandmothers who talk about how they were moved off their land and shifted to a reservation. How their traditional lands are being mined for uranium. The extraction of it is polluting their rivers. What can I do to fix the situation? What's the most effective way to raise awareness and create change? Where do my talents lie?

I finished Edward Abbey's The Journey Home. A few pages in, I developed a deep affection for the man, which if anything grew through the book (despite his drink driving and littering). I've started Desert Solitaire and waiting patiently in the wings is The Monkey Wrench Gang. (Many thanks to Nick for lending me his prized books.)

I find my head pulled in many different directions. I have standing curiosities to investigate and questions that come up with each new paragraph I read. There are things I think I should know or read so that I can keep up. And then there are the essays. And then the dissertation. It's exciting. It's challenging. It's daunting. I'm trying to stay focused and steady in my efforts. I wonder what I'll think when it's over, what connections I'll be able to draw from the now seemingly unconnected bits. I'm grateful for this opportunity and for the knowledge - even if it's only in outlines right now, it sets me up with a skeletal framework and paths to journey down if I want to. I wonder, what will I make of all these inputs? Hopefully a beautifully crafted output.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


It's really windy tonight. My window keeps blowing shut and making a sucking sound. I regularly find birch seeds in my room. I have just found three new ones. I think this is exciting. There are about 10 birch trees in the grassy hill in the middle of the car park outside my window. I walk past two of them on a daily basis and always say hi in my quiet little way. I like to think the seeds are its way of saying hi back.

I wonder if I should feel sad instead. These seeds that blow into my room will not grow up to be big birch trees. Maybe I will plant them in the soil with my calatheas.

How exciting for a seed to ride the wind. As a pod, it feels the wind, is teased by it. It dances on the wind with its many siblings, bound tightly together. But not until they have dried out enough, not until fall, do they get to fly and fly solo, feel the window on every surface.

My first memory of a birch tree is from Robert Frost's poem, Birches (http://www.bartleby.com/104/66.html). It wasn't until recently that I realized that I knew a birch tree. One stands in the front yard of the house where my father lives. The first house I lived in. And I have seen plenty of birch trees. I have crumbled their seeds in my hands and let them scatter on the wind.

There's a swing in the birch in front of my father's house. I've spent some time on it. And I've seen a little bit of time in the lowest branches of the tree. It's a very climbable tree. I now wonder if it's good to climb trees or if one should only climb really large trees so as not to do any damage. The cherry blossoms around Washington, DC are regularly damaged by people climbing on them, swinging from them or tramping over their roots. Since I learned that, I've tried to step around roots and have yet to attempt climbing a tree. Still, I'd like to meet the tree that Rob Macfarlane talks about in The Wild Places.

For now, I'll tuck these little birch seeds into the soil and ask the calathea's to watch over them.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Colne: Hearsay

I'm getting to know a little bit about the river from people who've lived by it. It's maybe my favorite way to learn about things. Part reality, part imagined, part who knows what, it's terribly exciting.

What I've heard:

There are pill boxes along the river. It was thought that Germans might send submarines up the river to attack. (Risky business on a tidal river.)

Impressively large ships used to come up the river to the Colchester docks before the dam was put in.

In high tides and heavy rains the water front of Wivenhoe used to flood. It was considered a regular enough occurrence that people would just move into the upper floors of their houses temporarily.

(This will grow as I remember what I've heard and hear more.)

No Roads Lead Home

The other day I was walking around, exploring different streets, sort of moving in bizarre concentric polygons. I was feeling a little disappointed by my adventure. It took me a while to realize it was because my hunt, my exploring wasn't turning up what I subconsciously wanted to find: home. It's funny to be in a place where no roads lead to home. There's not even a possibility that one leading to another over 3000 miles will get you to home. Not on this island. And the only thing I could think to counter to that feeling was: enjoy it while it lasts.

Miscellaneous Thoughts From a Foreign Land

I find myself smiling at pieces of conversations I overhear or at warm greetings that people exchange or at the buzz of conversations in different languages on a bus in the evening.

I'm already tired of the cold. It's not even proper cold yet and it's only be improperly cold for about three days now, but I'm tired of it. Reading Edward Abbey's description of the all encompassing hot breath of desert air doesn't help.

The joke's been that I'm new to weather, but I have done a few winters now. I think the start of winter is the worst - going from wearing one layer of clothing to four makes for heavy walking. I dislike getting dressed. I think that my desire to leave the house is inversely proportionate to the numbers of layers I have to wear to be comfortable (read: warm). I wasn't built for weather.

The rain makes me want to crawl back into bed and sleep until the sun comes out.

I haven't been getting up with the sun as I sometimes think I'd like to. I know that morning is often the best time to catch sun here. I know the days are short and any sun is good. I sometimes wake up thinking I better hurry and get outside while the sun's shining and then proceed to make distractions for myself.

I enjoy exploring, but I prefer exploring with a partner.

I'm intimidated by public footpaths through people's fields.

This is the land of the ever changing sky.

I remember the first time I realized that the beautiful natural scenery that I so admire here in Britain is entirely the result of careful landscaping. It's about as natural as a french manicure.

Yesterday, I was standing next to a bus stop shelter, intentionally, so that I could be in the sun and found myself getting annoyed at the bloke who came up and queued next to me and blocked my sun.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the amount of information there is to know about anything and get stuck before I start.

I'm a little worried that subconsciously I'm subscribing to the idea that if you don't try, you can't fail.


Today we discussed the similarities between landscape painting and nature writing and the roles of painter and writer. In discussing both paintings and texts, it's worthwhile to consider point of view, perspective, style, and so on. The main point, I think, being that painters and texts are constructions. They been created. A person (the artist/author) has decided what to include and what to exclude (somethings intentionally, somethings subconsciously). One could argue (maybe with the exception of a diary) all paintings/texts and presenting or representing what the artist/author wants us to see.

Our reading was particular to John Constable, the landscape painter. The particular interest being that the University is a piece of what's come to be known as Constable country. He painted Wivenhoe Park (though you might not recognize it from the painting) in the early 19th century.

The reading for this week was full of neologisms courtesy of Edward Casey. My favorite is topomensia, which seems to me to be the power of the painter (author) to layer memory onto the visual landscape.

One idea I subscribe to is that walking in a place/space helps you to get to know it. One idea I'm still pondering is whether you need to have grown up somewhere to know it. I think it must not be true. I grew up in Southern California but I think I know more about some of the places I visited in southwestern Australia. Different types of knowing, for sure. And is it important to have grown up in a place or just important to know a place over a period of time and to approach it with a sense of wonder, curiosity and exploration?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Edward Abbey

I've been neglecting my course reading for Edward Abbey's The Journey Home. It'd delightful in its simultaneous deference and irreverence. He has an incredible appreciation and affection for the land and all its features, plant and animal. When it comes to government or society's attitudes, he expresses contempt and uses satire.

In addition to the book being a delight in its own right, I've been finding useful little bits which can be applied to the other readings. Clues, if you will, for how to read "nature writing". While most of what he writes about in this book is the American West, especially its deserts, I think the bits I've picked up on can be applied to any landscape.

"The land here is like a great book or a great symphony; it invites approaches toward comprehension on many levels from all directions." (p 86)

"Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess that ability to communicate to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers." (p 87)

"[W]hen all we know about it is said and measured and tabulated, there remains something in the soul of a place, the spirit of the whole, that cannot be fully assimilated by the human imagination." (p 86)

In the introduction to the book, which Abbey writes to revise the expectations of critics, he denies being a naturalist and says his books belong not with nature books or natural history, not with Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, etc. but that they belong in the category of "personal history". He further defines his writing as "simple narrative accounts of travel and adventure, with philosophical commentary added here and there to give the prose a high-toned surface gleam." That they mention aspects of biological science, name flora and fauna and descriptions of geological or topographical formations, he claims, is merely a result of these travels and adventures being set in real places.

The other was he introduces this book is as being in defense of his home. He describes himself as a displaced person and describes home as a place where he's decided to take his stand.

The next thing he addresses in the introduction is the range of styles that he adopts to tell his stories. They include "adversary essays and assays, polemics, visions of hallucinations, fragments of autobiography, journalistic battle debris, nightmares and daydreams, bits and butts of outdoors philosophizing "all stirred together".

This introduction aids in the reading of this particular text, but I think it is also helpful when wondering how to read other texts that are of a similar (dare I say it?) nature. It allows for a compare/contrast to be set up. As we don't really have any standards yet for talking about this literature and we're in some ways making it up as we go, Abbey lends up a vocabulary or at least a list of criteria for this type of "nature writing". He may do it in an effort to tell us what he is not doing and where this book does not belong, but I think he does it all the same. And I think despite his doing it in the negative, he has more in common with the folks he separates himself from than not.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Long Live Dr. Hansen

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from Dr. James Hansen that he sent out to his e-mail list. It came just hours after I was wondering what he was up to. In it, he details his recovery from surgery for prostate cancer. I've been thinking grateful thoughts for his recovery and also wondering who would follow in Dr. Hansen's foot steps? Hopefully, we'll see great changes come in the next couple of years and Dr. Hansen will be able to retire with assurance that his children's and grandchildren's futures and the future of this planet as we've come to know it have been secured.

For Dr. Hansen's posts and presentations, visit: www.columbia.edu/~jeh1

Sunday, 8 November 2009

River Walks: The Colne (1)

I walked along the Colne again today. This time, I took the bus up to Wivenhoe. From there, I headed down river a little ways. The sun was out and the light was beautiful. It was the perfect afternoon for a walk.

I could hear the cows mooing before I passed the sailing club. There was some metal banging work going on across the river in the industrial site. And then the coolest thing: a whole barge full of lapwings. They make a sort of noise one might expect of a squeaky toy. The simple sight of them was exciting for me, but to see them fly, with their beautiful white wings edged in black and watch them interact kept me standing in one place, watching and snapping photos, for a good five minutes. (Approaching loud children drove me and the birds away.)

The other highlight of today's walk was that the river was at high tide and so was full of water. It reflected the sky so nicely and was particularly beautiful come sunset.

I turned back towards Wivenhoe after about a mile and then walked all along the waterfront and towards the Quays. The sun was setting behind the little ridge of hills. The clouds in the sky turning a light pink, the calm river reflecting the sky back. I realized that I sometimes take distant clouds for mountains and then remember where I am. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

My words can't do the sunset justice.

I did see something small swimming down river, just a little head peaking out of the water. It was either a very small duck or some sort of submerged animal. Could it be an otter? Whatever it was, it was closely followed by a mini-fridge. Yep, a mini-fridge. It's door removed, the sterile white inside expose, the whole rectangular cube of it was on its way out to sea (or at least the dam).

(Pictures from today's walk can be found at www.dotphoto.com. Guest username Tigrnite. No password.)

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Suffolk Walks: Minsmere to Dunwich and back

Four of us set out early this morning to visit Minsmere Nature Reserve, just south of Dunwich, Suffolk. It poured rain last night so we were especially glad to have clear skies and sun to accompany us on our journey.

We turned off the A12 and wound our way through Westleton and over to just outside Dunwich, then south to Minsemere. Some of the roads through there are gorgeous. One we went down had an archway of trees. We looked out for animals and saw about as many as you can expect going down small, hedge-lined lanes at fast speeds. There were some red poll, bunnies, dogs, indistinguishable distant birds, and (my favorite!) a pheasant. It was my first sighting of a real wild pheasant. How exciting. With the car at a stop, we watched it cross the road and then casually pecked around a driveway.

At Minsmere, we prepared ourselves for our day of walking with hot drinks in the tea room, then we headed out towards North Hide. We cross over a short walkway over a pond then out into the fields. I don't know what I was thinking--I probably wasn't--but I was surprised that when we arrived at the hide it was a wooden hideout. It was so exciting to climb inside this two story structure, be sheltered from the cold wind, and have a front row seat to bird watching. The north hide looks south over some marshland. The water was a bright silver; the sun, low in the southern sky. The glare made bird identification a bit of a challenge. We raised the windows, lifted our binoculars, and gave it our best effort.

In the marshy area to the west, four ponies grazed with their backsides to the hide. To the east, hundreds of birds, most of them gulls, some of them ducks, two of the swans and two lapwings. I'd been wanting to see a lapwing since I heard that they were becoming increasingly rare in the area. I looked them up because I'd never heard of them before. They're an incredible green color with little tufts of feather onto of their heads. Anna spotted the first lapwing with her binoculars. Then she let me have a look. There it was. My second totally awesome bird sighting of the day. Ducks landing in the water at regular intervals. The swans swam closer. The ponies moved away, in the direction of the gigantic white dome of Sizewell, the nuclear power plant. Soon enough we'd spotted another lapwing. We watched the birds move around for a few minutes before moving on.

We walked down the path, past some well-established oak trees, on our way to the sea. In the tall reeds, I saw a grey heron. It stood motionless, its feet in the water, its back against the reeds. Then it took off, flying low and long, its feet trailing, it's long beak and great breast leading the way. Then over the barrier wall and onto the pebble beach. I set about looking for hag stones.

I find the sight of a pebble beach mesmerizing. With so many textures and colors, shapes and sizes, I can't take my eyes off it. What might I miss if I take my eyes off the beach? We wandered down the beach a ways and then headed back in land to mount the hill in search of toilets. We opted not to stop for tea and a look in the shops but rather to keep on heading north to Dunwich in search of what I'd been told are the best fish and chips. We wandered down the road, stopping to look at toadstools and I got my first glimpse of heather.

I don't know much about it, but it's a word that seems to have always been in my head. I think Emily Dickinson put it there. I had just been thinking about her a few days earlier and how she didn't live that far from the sea and was it really possible that she never saw the sea? Was it not common to visit the water in her time or was it simply that she was that much of a shut in? I'm so grateful to have had the opportunities to have seen as much as I have seen. And now, especially, to have one upped Emily and seen not just one heather plant and not just a whole hill full of them but a whole hill covered in heather and the sea simultaneously.

We wandered down the road, back onto a path, through a forest with birch and pine and chestnut trees. The path was carpeted with fallen leaves. The varied colors and shapes made a beautiful pattern. We came to another road and went past a fenced in area with chickens. Down another path to one that went past the ruins of an abbey and paralleled the cliff. The cliff is a reminder of the erosion that occurs here. It's said that the coast extended two kilometers east of where it lies today during Roman times and it's losing about one meter each day.

We left the cliff side and walked down some steps that let out by the Ship Inn and continued down the street toward the fish and chips shop. I don't know that I'm qualified to jug what's "best" but the fish and chips were fantastic. Really fresh tasting fish, deliciously battered and fried with hot chips. It was great. We ate outside and froze in the wind and shade.

After eating, we headed east and then walked south along the beach. My neck is sore from all the looking down I did. We found hag stones, semi-precious stones, lobster and crab shells, fishing nets, seagull feathers and pieces of colorful plastic cups. We walked in the shadow of the cliff, between it and the sea, all the way back to Minsmere, stopping briefly along the way to rest (as required by eight-year-old legs) and study rocks. Once we stopped and I tried to make a pebble angel. It was a very square angel. Back at Minsmere, we got the last of the day's sunshine. We saw a robin and a big deer. We saw a bunny and a blue tit, a magpie and a pheasant. Not a wildly successful day in terms of rare bird spotting, but I was quite happy with what I'd seen and just to have spent the day outside, in the sun, moving.

Back at the car park, we loaded in, we raced the setting sun, and headed for Southwold Pier. We saw a baby dear and tons of pigs along the way. At Southwold, we saw the lighthouse from the pier, and just a sliver of it's light. We went through the arcade and out onto the pier, in the wind and the cold and the deepening dark. At five o'clock, we watched the water clock's show. The couple in the bathtub sitting up, the tulips blooming, and then the pants on the two boys standing by the toilet dropped, and they peed in its approximate direction. It may have only lasted 30 seconds, but it gave us a good long laugh, ending the day on a high note.

Afterthought: I have a growing affection for pebble beaches. They're fascinating and mesmerizing. I could pick through the rocks all day. I love that below the sun dried and wind blown top layer the rocks are wet. And a pebble beach sure beats a sandy beach, especially in the most likely to leave without sand in your pants category.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Campus Walks: Meeting the Willow Tree

Today I went to visit the willow tree.

I've seen it a few times from a distance, mostly from the fifth floor of the library. I decided it was time to introduce myself.

The willow tree stands on the eastern edge of the pond closest to the library. It's in good company with few giant oak trees near by. I bundled up and set out in the cold and wind under gray skies and walked across campus to arrive in the grass next to the willow tree.

I grew up thinking that willow trees had some magic to them. They're such great beings. They're unlike other trees. They have gentler, more down to earth feel to them. It might be that my mother passed along her love of willows to me. Or maybe there was a book or a cartoon that had a willow tree in it. It might be that I imagine willow trees as wise old men, their slopping branches an aged frame and delicate leaves like a beard.

I startled a lady duck as I approached the willow. I stood still until she was comfortable enough to go about her business. I stood next to the willow tree and admired his shape, the way some of his branches dipped into the water, creating perches for resting ducks. The branches came down around the trunk in a circle like am umbrella. I walked around the edges in a semicircle and then I stepped inside. From there, it looked like the willow tree had claimed his little bit of water and was looking over all the creatures that took refuge in it and came to visit. I stood there for a little bit, took a few photographs, noted the metal tag nailed into its bark, and listened.

It was an awkward first meeting. I didn't hear anything. I stared blankly at it for a while, waiting for it to make the first move. I watched the ducks around it for a while, seeing if I could take cues from them. I looked at the ground to see that I wasn't trampling any roots. I looked up, searching. Then stepped out from its cover. From right next to it, I wondered it maybe instead of an old man, it was a terrible teenage girl flipping her hair. Maybe that's why she didn't talk to me--I wasn't cool enough.

From a few feet away, I wondered it the willow tree was a witch like character, with crazy out of control hair and bony limbs, stirring up trouble in the pond and putting spells on the birds.

I still think willow trees have the souls of old men. Wise and worn, kind but with mischievous smiles. I hope my visits will become less awkward. Maybe he's just shy in fall -- leaves changing color, branches exposed, feeling vulnerable. I'd like it if we could be friends.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The River Colne

I've decided to get to know the river Colne.

Here's what I know so far: I can see it from the kitchen window. I've walked beside it a few times. I've sat near it's eastern bank and read while waiting for laundry to wash. It's a tidal river. I like to guess, before I see it, how high the water will be. When it's very low, it's a small stream flowing through a wide mud valley. People live in houseboats on it. There are gulls and swans and ducks that float upon it. There's a big red ship tied to the doc just north a little ways. Reeds grow alongside the river and in them you can often find trash. There's a TV half-buried in the mud of the riverbed that's maybe 100 yards from the Quays if you walk towards Wivenhoe. Footpaths run parallel to it. Water flows into it near the industrial site to the southeast, creating foam. Just past Wivenhoe, there's a dam. There are some marshy areas. It meets the North Sea to the southeast just above Mersea.

I have yet to learn where it comes from, it's moods, how the tides work, what grows in it, how it's been used, how long the dam's been there, about its mud and the creatures that use it for food or transportation and things that I haven't even thought to wonder about it yet. Let the learning begin!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A Second Look

In today's Wild East seminar, we looked over photos that Julie had taken during our Orford Ness field trip last week. I was surprised that my response to many of the photos was to laugh and smile. How bizarre, how absurd, is it to see a sign stating "unexploded ordnance"? I suppose absurd is a fitting term for a place where, in taking a break from your job at the lighthouse to stretch your legs, you just might be blown up by a landmine. I laughed at the picture of the sign that reads "Information Building". It's on the side of a building which I know to contain information about the island but, as a sign alone, it made me think of building not as a noun but rather a verb and how that structure upon which the sign is posted is attempting to undertake that very act: pulling bits and pieces, facts and fiction, to build a coherent body of information. Since much of what was done on the island in the 20th century was done under a shroud of secrecy, any information about that time period has been built, and, due to lack of facts and documentation, is likely to have been built out of best guesses, made up and imagined bits of information. Then there are pictures of some of the structures on the island that remind me of the mid-west of America. They look like farm houses and silos in the middle of the planes, the structures rising out of a flatness and standing at a distance from one another or grouped together based on functionality. We passed a tumbleweed made of rusted wire. I wouldn't have guessed there would be anything in the whole of England that would remind me of that part of the world.

It surprised me to have this response to the images because that's almost opposite of the response I had while to the island while on the island. There was an eeriness to it, a confusion to it, it's a place in transition, a place that's being left to "continuous ruination" (Duncan's phrase) but selectively being maintained or altered based on "need" and "value". It's a place where decommissioned labs (stripped of valuables) are left to nature's will, the light fixtures inside with their peeling glass are victims of gravity, and a place where roofs are repaired, information is collected and displays are dusted, where sheep are imported annually to keep the grass a certain (or varied) length to entice birds to visit. It's military. It's nature. It's disciplined. It's wild. It's land. It's sea. It's plant and animal. It's part of but disconnected. It's fertile. It's barren. It's bird and hare. It's creation and(/for) destruction. It's delicate. It's hardy. It's going to ruin. It's being conserved. It's always changing but a footprint lasts until something else come along to displace the rocks that hold it. It's left to nature. It's rearranged to suit people. It's erosion. It's deposition. It's recharing. It's rock. It's plant. It's bold and subtle. It's flat. It's ridged. It's rare yet it's like so many other places.

Erosion is happening all around the east coast of England and coasts all around the world. It's happening in Nigeria, in Bangladesh, in France. Where I come from it's mainly an issue because rich people have built their houses on cliffs, which came to be because of erosion, a process that doesn't stop once you've shelled out a few million for the land and cake-topper house. It's happening around the arctic. In Shishmaref, Alaska, erosion is occurring at an increasing rate because declining sea ice allows for higher storm surge and the thawing permafrost makes it more vulnerable to erosion. (The people of Shishmaref, much like the millionaires in their cliff houses, are now debating whether to stay where they've been for who knows how long or move their community somewhere else.) Some glaciers are eroding (calving) at record speeds. By erosion doesn't just happen on the coast and it's not always seen as a negative. Erosion is how the Hoodoo of Bryce Canyon, the 12 Apostles of Victoria, Australia and the Pinnacles of Western Australia developed. It's Victoria Falls. It's the story of the grand canyon and all canyons. Erosion is the great mission of water and wind.

I'm curious to see the oak tree Duncan spoke of that's been there for ages but not grown very tall, battered by the wind. It's miracle enough that a seed can find something to grow in on that pebble beach, but then to get to grow, to establish roots, that's pure luck.

My favorite place on the island was lab 2(?). The one in which we climbed down into the pit lined with metal elongated crosses and a ruler on the wall and listened to unseen birds. The quality of the sound was incredible. If you closed your eyes and followed the sound of their chirping, you could imagine yourself some place completely different . . . with really awesome acoustics.

I remember Rob pointing out the hag stones adorning a wire fence. I remember finding hag stones on the beach. I had never heard of or seen a hag stone before. I just did a quick search to see if I could find the process by which stones become hagged. I haven't come up with the answer to that question yet, but I've stumbled some interesting sites. (I'm by no means endorsing these sites or the information they contain. Just sharing for amusement.)

One site says, helpfully and I'd guess somewhat accurately as similar things are said in other sites:

"Hag Stone is a stone with a hole through it, which is believed to ward off the dead. In European, this stone keeps the "evil hag" spirit away in order to prevent her from stealing horses and children. (see Hag) The hag stone is especially used as a favorite talisman by Cunning Folk to dispel the evil eye. Other people hang this stone in bedrooms to prevent the succubus-hag from ridding on people's chests during nightmares.

In Italian Witchcraft the holed stone is associated with fairies, and often referred as the holy stone. It is considered a doorway, or key to the doorway, into the fairy kingdom. It Italian folk magic, it is believed these stones have the power to bind a fairy to one's service for a length of time. A.G.H."

And then there's this one:

"Hag stones are . . . gifts from the goddess Gaia, our Earth Mother, to remind us of the divine feminine, and the magic and wonderment of creation. . . . During the 'Middle Ages' the Christian church told people that by wearing such a stone they were protected from witche. However the truth has always remained the same- witches since the dawn of time have used these stones as protection from negativity, using them as portable amulets that epitomize the strength and protection of the circle; one element surounding another, in the case of a hag stone earth surrounds air; another natural example is an island, earth surrounded by water, hence islands were sacred places."

Yeah. To lean back in the direction of credibility, ladies and gentlemen, the OED.

"1787 GROSE Provinc. Gloss. Superstitions 57 A stone with a hole in it, hung at the bed's head, will prevent the night-mare; it is therefore called a *hag-stone."

Then there's my personal challenge of being able to rethink the whole 'take only photographs, leave on footprints' approach to nature. What do I think about taking a stone as a memory aid? What do I think about taking one as a treasure? Certainly I've collected stones. I had a whole bag of rocks -- so heavy it tore through the plastic. I'd been weeding out the ones that no longer seemed significant, but recently set the remainder of them free. Sure, some of them only got as far as my backyard, but they're outside.

It's said that the rocks used in hot stone massage should be returned to the earth every so often so that they can recharge.

I did a lot of work in my mom's backyard this summer. One project I did (with the help of my boyfriend) was build a retaining wall. It wasn't one of my pre-planned projects but rather it came about because of a misunderstanding--I asked if the gardeners who tend to the mostly dirt backyard could cut back a plant and they ripped it out. So my boyfriend and I spent a few hours one Saturday building a retaining wall to keep the dirt slope that was left where the plant used to be from washing onto the patio just in case it should rain. When we started digging to create a line where the wall should be and also to even out the distribution of dirt behind the wall, we found that the dirt was full of stones. Whether this was used as a (largely unsuccessful) drainage technique or just as filler I'm not sure. But we pulled the rocks out and there are at least three good-sized buckets of rocks in the backyard now. I guess my point is that the rocks I collected aren't alone either in terms of having no company or in having been relocated.

Rob does talk about taking the stones back to the places they're from after he's had for a while. A catch and release program for rocks. I can romanticize that. Taking and giving back. You take a little some from the rock and give it back with a little something -- an energy, an oil, a warmth.

This reminds me of the "text work" by Richard Long that was introduced the first week of class. Crossing Stones, it's called. He walks a stone from Aldeburgh on the east coast of England to Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales and then picks a stone from Aberystwyth and walks it to Aldeburgh. The image of the journey for me is stunning. We joked at the time that we'd quite like to try and find those stones. Maybe they'd be easy to spot. Where they the same type of rock?

My block against taking the rocks is because, while the argument has been made to me that taking a few rocks wouldn't make a difference on the beach, surely it would make a difference if enough people with that thinking were to come take rocks. I think it aids the erosion. It's anthropogenic erosion. So was talking along the beach, each step displacing the rocks and sending many rolling down the slope towards the sea. And in place, too, where our footprints last, our every move makes that place different. It may not matter in the greater sense as this beach is moving and the rocks we take won't stop that process, the process by which water and tides redistribute materials. But, really, I should let it go. It's not a matter of right and wrong and I'm being repetitive. The good thing to come of my all-too-frequently thinking on the issue is that I've had to reconsider it, take a closer look and appreciate a different perspective and approach to nature (say British vs. American). One that doesn't regard it as pristine or sacred, but rather as something you can pick up, hold in your hand and take home with you. I've enjoyed theorizing the reasons for that difference.

Campus Walks: Shortcut

There is a well tread shortcut through the grass between the zebra crossing on the service road and the middle bus stop on campus. It's not a great time saving shortcut, but for those of us who like straight lines and get a tiny thrill of rebellion for nonconformity, it's the preferred route. I rarely see people take it, but it must be well liked because it takes the work of many feet at frequent enough intervals to wear a dirt line across a field of grass.

On my way back from campus this afternoon, heading west to the Quays with the sun just above a cloud bank, I opted for a change and took this thin dirt track which runs at a diagonal to the pavement. I expected it to be a bit muddy as it rained yesterday and it didn't disappoint. I was surprised to see tiny needle like blades of grass coming up through the dirt, trying to reestablish itself. I felt a sense of wonder at how quickly it must have grown. Was it only since yesterday when it rained? I hadn't noticed it before. Did this mean I had for once in my life walked somewhere with my head up? I liked to think it was a day's growth, all happened overnight. What an ambitious plant. It's magic: dirt one day and grass the next. And as I walked, marveling at the delicate and determined blades of day-old grass that passed beneath my feet, I did feel a bit guilty.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Natural evolution?

Can the shift in nature writing from poetic descriptive language to the inclusion of the language of the natural sciences be considered simply an evolution of the genre?

In geography there was a shift called the Quantitative Revolution. It was in some ways necessitated by the threat of it being eliminated from academia where it had previously been housed under geology which considered it a soft science. So the shift was made from descriptive geography to a quantitative geography. Psychology and Political science (among others) are also thought to have gone through such shifts. Numbers were introduced to make the "science" more solid.

So is the shift from Wordsworth's poem to a butterfly to W.H. Hudson's essay about hawk-moths a natural progression from admiring nature to investigating it and then documenting both the wonder and results of said investigation? And that investigation turns up words that can be used to provide accuracy and context. Then there are writers like Barry Lopez who has done quite a bit of investigation and does a good job of bringing the reader up to speed by sharing his learning, defining terms and building in context. In doing so, he uses multiple lenses and creates a more full experience. Natural shift? Not at all related? Not sure.

New leaf

I should be sleeping, but a new leaf on my calathea zebrinas is unfurling and I can't take my eyes off of it. Meanwhile, the many leaves on my noisy and indecisive calathea ornata are scraping up and down the wall. It seems unable to can make up its mind as to whether it wants to stand at attention or hang its stripped heads.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Where I come from

Where I come from, a lot of what's said about nature and weather is about how inconvenient or scary it is. How dreaded rain is because it means traffic will be terrible. How high the electricity bill is because it's so hot and we've got to keep the air conditioning on all the time. How tragic when someone's two thousand dollar intentionally tiny pure bred puppy was eaten by a coyote. The looming threat of forest fires. How annoying parking under that tree is because you come away with your car covered in bird poop. The blood thirty mountain lions. The vicious rattle snakes. The brush that you have to spend so many hours or so much money clearing every year. The smell of skunk. The mess of a tipped trash can after a raccoon's paid a visit. The hiss and sharp teeth of a startled possum. That insistent chirping of birds that wakes you up at three a.m.. The steady accrual of leaves, petals, or pollen that you're endlessly trying to wash off your driveway. The weeds. The amount of fertilizers and water required to grow anything in this desert! The drought. Not being able to water your lawn every day and the horror of brown grass.

I love the wild things where I live. The oak trees, the snakes, the lizards, the birds, the wild flowers. I love the two weeks of green hills in the spring. I love the howling of coyotes on summer nights, rare skunk sightings. I love watching mischievous squirrels in my backyard. This summer I put up a bird feeder. A squirrel chewed through the plastic handle that held it up. The bird feeder attracted a diverse group of birds including some that I'd never seen in the yard before. Some with golden breasts. Some with flashes of yellow. They'd come in groups and leave in groups. What a treat to wake up to the tweeting of birds.


I'm accustomed to the sky holding water as clouds, dropping it as rain. Fog is something else. It is water suspended. Floating. A type of anti-gravity.


Fog carried the water in the air
And evenly deposited it everywhere
On sloping power lines and on eaves
Coating the fences and the leaves
In the quiet and the damp
Refracted light of a street lamp
A spider's web took on a silver hue
Each fiber thread through dots of dew