Sunday, 26 November 2017

Water. A few thoughts.

At the end of the summer I was asked to write a short article for our church magazine about water. This is not, as I say in it, in any way an academic paper, and all the statistics in it can be easily found on-line, if you have time to look. But I do think that these points are worth sharing more widely, so here they are.

Water is one main theme for St John’s during 2017. Water is our principal focus during Creationtide. So the Editor has asked me to write an article on the subject. I am not going to attempt anything lyrical or passionate on the subject. This has often been done by others, much better than I could do. Instead here are various facts. This is not a scientific paper, nor am I an expert, but as far as I can find out, these facts are accurate. I hope they will provide a stimulus for thought, a stimulus for prayer, a stimulus for conversation, and a stimulus for action.

The human body is about 60% water. The bones lower the average, of course. The brain and the heart are well over 70% water.

The dreadful floods in Texas and neighbouring states, caused by Storm Harvey have been fully reported. At the time of writing (August 31st) 33 people have been killed and about 100,000 homes have been affected. Also during August there has been severe flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. These floods have killed about 1,200 people and left millions homeless. Many have been killed in mudslides. Niger is affected by severe flooding every rainy season. This summer has been no exception. Between 40 and 50 people are reported killed and thousands have been made homeless.

Our planet is as likely to be affected by drought. That strange phenomenon El Nino has made drought conditions worse than usual in many parts of the world in the last couple of years. The countries of Southern and Eastern Africa have been worst affected. In an article for the “Guardian” in March Lucy Lamble reported: “More than 20 million people in four countries are at risk of starvation according to the UN, making this the biggest crisis facing the world since 1945.” Oxfam describes the drought in Eastern Kenya and Southern Somalia as the worst in living memory. USAID, the US Government’s agency in this field, reckons that food insecurity caused by El Nino will continue in Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe till some time in 2018. Prosperous countries are, of course, better able to mitigate the effects of drought, but climate knows no frontiers. Parts of the state of Montana are experiencing exceptional drought as I write.

The relationship between drought and migration is extremely complex and is the subject right now of much academic study and debate. It would be inappropriate for me to pronounce definitively on the subject in an article such as this. Suffice it to say that there clearly is a connection. In September 2015 “Time” magazine carried an article headed: “How climate change is behind the surge of migrants to Europe.” According to the UNHCR there are some 65.6 million displaced people around the world. The number drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the first half of this year was over 2,000.

The pollution of water is a vast subject on its own. According to the National Academy of Sciences 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases such as cholera. Tens of millions of others are seriously sickened by water-related ailments. Meanwhile at sea there is the problem of plastic pollution. Sir David Attenborough summed up the situation:
“There is no away- because plastic is so permanent and so indestructible. When you cast it into the ocean it does not go away.” An article in the July edition of “National Geographic” tells how the area of severe plastic pollution in the Pacific covers roughly one million square miles. This is not just the notorious “garbage patch” of highly visible plastic waste. Even more alarming are the microplastic particles that may be so small as to be unnoticed and do not necessarily float. The creatures that live in the sea inevitably eat them; we do not yet know what consequences will follow.

I am sorry that I cannot write a more cheerful article on this subject. But I guess if everyone who reads this article does a little, well it will add up to a little more. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The West Highland Line. Sketches.

On Friday I did something some of my friends regard as crazy - I took a day-return from Edinburgh to Mallaig.

I was lucky with the weather; it was more or less as I hoped all the way there. On the way back it was too dark to care, but I had three books with me.

On the way I was doing thumbnail sketches out of the window all the time. My art teacher said I ought to make a blog-post of them, so I have. Here they are.

The first section of the line from Glasgow Queen Street goes down the Clyde estuary, though Dumbarton and on to Helensburgh. It was near Helensburgh that I saw the first snow of the trip. Once the Cobbler came into view we were well into the Highlands. The snow line was around 750m, and there it stayed  for the rest of the way.

After Arrochar the line goes up Loch Lomond and over the watershed to Crianlarich. We frequently saw stretches of the West Highland Way. The foreground trees were as beautiful as the hills beyond, with rich autumn colours. But there was little hope of drawing them from a moving train.

Above Crianlarich the line takes a great curve round a corrie under Ben Dorain, whereas the main road goes straight on. After Bridge of Orchy it takes off across Rannoch Moor, where no road is. There is a station at Rannoch (just reached by road) and on at Corrour, reachable only on foot (or off-road equivalent).

Across the moor there kept being sights of magnificent snow-covered hills to the west. Although I have walked a lot of Glencoe and the Mamores in my time I could not be sure what was what; but that did not make the view any less. After Corrour we went down by Loch Treig. The hillside there is so steep one marvels at the engineers and navvies who built the railway.

Then we went down the Spean to Fort William, and a grey shower swept in, so I drew houses instead of hills. After Fort William the train does not turn; it sets off backwards. But that was no matter. There was so much room that I could dot from seat to seat as the view called. On the whole I preferred to be on the sea side. The sketch of Loch Eil, incidentally, was made of multiple views, as I was able to glimpse through the trees.

At Glenfinnan the voice of the ticket collector rang out, reminding us that we were crossing the Harry Potter Viaduct. The weather had cleared again. As we go down towards the sea at Loch Ailort there is one of my favourite sections, where the line goes the other side of Loch Eilt from the road. One feels in the heart of the hills.

Finally the line goes north up the Atlantic coast. There is Loch na Uamh, here Charles Edward Stuart landed in July 1745. Then there is a fine view of the extraordinary Sgurr of Eigg. So, with a glimpse of the white sands of Morar, we drew into Mallaig at about 1.30.

Next time you have a day off in Edinburgh or Glasgow, why not do likewise?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Painting birch woods

On a recent trip to the Rothiemurchus area we were surrounded by miles of superb woodland. Just across the road from our cottage was an area of magnificent birch wood, which I was determined to paint. After several days walking though it, and thinking about it, I decided to have a go. I also decided to take a photographic record of the process.

The first thing was to choose a site and get set up. My portable easel is over 40 years old now, but it still suits me very well. I can carry it long distances if necessary (not this time) and the adjustable legs allow me to get the board level even on a mountain slope. On this occasion it was just a case of finding a view I wanted, with trunks and undergrowth and bracken more or less spread as I liked. I used acrylic paints - as I usually do - so the equipment was simple.

The first step was to cover the whole board - a thin sheet of hardboard, coated with acrylic primer - with what I knew would be deep background. I used a rag for this. The nature and the direction of the smears was deliberately varied according to the subject. The sky was Prussian Blue Hue and Cerulean, with a lot of Titanium White. The dark patch on the right was Prussian Blue and Raw Siena. This was where there were some dark pines beyond the birches. The smears here were vertical. The foreground and middle ground were Yellow Ochre and Raw Sienna for the patches of bracken with a few bits of green made from Cadmium Yellow with Prussian Blue. Some of the same appears for birch trees in the canopy. I haven't used a tube green for years; I find they too easily take over the whole picture. As for the Cadmium Red Deep in the foreground - well great masters from Ruysdael to Constable have put patches of red in the foreground of landscapes and, unlike them, I don't have to invent a buoy or a jacket to justify it.

The next step was to use a round brush to put in tree trunks. The greys were made from mixtures of the colours already listed and also some Burnt Siena. The main point here was to think about composition. I was closely guided by what was in front of me but I thought just as much about the painting. For example, the largest tree was placed so that there was more or less a square to it's right, and the other large tree was placed so that the gaps between it, the edge, and the other tree were not equidistant. I wondered whether to have the tree just to the left of the big one leaning out of the painting. But I decided that I could use smaller branches to bring the eye back in, and I did not want to manipulate nature's composition too much and and risk making a stock illustration.

Three main steps are shown here. One was to use a small round to add some thinner branches. As before nature was my guide, but I was always also thinking about the finished painting. Another was to use the rags to dab more greens of the foliage. These to steps went on simultaneously, as branches and foliage overlap. Then there was the bracken.I have often found this a problem; I knew I did not want to get involved in detail of fronds. After a couple of strokes of a palette knife I realised that rags were my best weapon. By thinking about how you fold and bunch them you can make marks of different shapes. I mixed a colour for the bracken-in-shade, using more red and blue in proportion to the Raw Siena. Then for the fronds on top, catching more light I added a tiny amount of yellow to the Siena. When it came to the dark green patches - moss and bilberry mostly - and the paler grass, the great advantage of plein air painting is that you have it there in front of you to look at.

This is what my palette looked like at this point. You will observe the rags (old pyjama I think) and the two round brushes. Once this photo was taken I changed the water.

Of one traditional hazard - midges - I was mercifully free. There was enough breeze. But at this point the sun moved so it was straight in my eye; I could neither see the subject nor the board. Fortunately the painting had reached a stage where there was no problem shifting my stance; I was long past copying the scene in front. The main worry at this point, when a picture has gone all right so far, is to wreck all. But I worked away with the small round brush, adding detail to the bark of the biggest trees, and used the rag to add more foliage. By now the build-up of paint was such that there was a sense of looking through leaves to more leaves beyond. Finally I reverted to the small round to paint some more precise, and lighter, foreground leaves.

So the picture was finished after about two and a half hours. A pleasant memory of a lovely spot.

Monday, 21 August 2017

A Verse for the Solar Eclipse

After a previous eclipse of the sun I wrote the following extra verse for Joseph Addison's well-known hymn about the sun, moon, stars and planets.

          However, like a human watch
          The heav'nly clock displays a botch.
          Sometimes the moon gets in the way,
          The sun no longer shines by day.
                  Does this proclaim a faulty God?
                  That really would be very odd.
          Rather give thanks. The obscure sun
          Shows the Creator's sense of fun.

Friday, 30 June 2017

30 Days Wild. The last ten days

Since June 21st I have not managed any trips to especially wild places. But there is no shortage of wild nature in the town if you look around. On one evening wild nature came to visit us, as a large mouse scampered across our second floor carpet. Since we are moving out in a few days it is hard to get too bothered. I was pleased, on the 25th, to see a dunnock (hedge sparrow they are sometimes called) on the path. They are such elegant small birds; this one was surprisingly trusting. I got within a couple of metres before it hopped into the undergrowth.

I went to the small garden of our new property to do a bit of weeding. A beautiful mayfly settled on my glasses. It was about a centimetre long and was one of the ones with two tail-streamers. There will be a small patch of wild-life garden, and I have already made a small log-pile. There will not be room for a compost heap, so I have put a cylinder of wire netting and filled it with leaves and such like as a habitat for those creatures who like such things. On Mothers' Day (March) at church we gave out little packages of wild flower seeds. I found a suitable strip for mine and they are now coming into flower.

Not far from where we live is Saughton Park. This is a remarkable example of what a local authority can do, given a dedicated team.

The park has expanses of grass for football. There is a play-park for little children and a thriving skateboard park. But bringing wild nature into the city is a big part of the venture. The strips of tree alongside the roads that border the park are thick and tangled. There are some larger clumps too, and glades. A lot of thought has obviously gone into setting these up.

Fortunately there is a map of the whole area, so you can easily see the extent and variety of the project.

The formal gardens are very splendid. I have only photographed one patch out of several. But there are also beds of wild flower annuals that were sown by local children.

You will see on the map that the site has one special bonus. It includes a stretch of the Water of Leith. It rained heavily here on Thursday, so the torrent is quite spectacular.

In fact the team are just starting work on a major development of the site so as to take the project further. I wonder what photos I shall be able to post next year.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

30 Days Wild: The next ten days

During the days June 11th to June 20th I was lucky to get two days out in seriously wild hills. I was lucky, too, that on neither day was it intolerably hot.

On Wednesday June 14th I drove to the Manor Valley, near Peebles, and climbed up onto the hills to the west. Almost at once my camera ran out of battery, but I did do a sketch on the top from which I made a painting a few days later.

I need to repaint it slightly lighter, but I think it gives the idea of the Border hills stretching away, range after range.

I started and finished in the Manor Valley, a most quiet and remote-feeling spot. If you have read "The Island of Sheep" by John Buchan you will recognise the Laver Valley. The Manor Valley was his model; though it does not have a laird's castle at its head. This photo, before my battery ran out, gives an idea of the place.

Looking down the Posso Glen, across the Manor Valley
I was especially pleased to see Cloudberry, and Dwarf Cornel.

The other mountain day was Carn Liath, above Blair Atholl, with a church walking group. There was a strong, buffeting wind and we had a great day. On this stretch of wild country there was a wonderful selection of flowering plants, and good lichens and mosses too.

Round leaved sundew

I'm afraid I'm not sure what this orchid is.

When I was a boy we only saw Butterwort on summer holidays, by which time only the star of leaves was left. Now I can see the deep blue flowers. I took many other flower photos, but I shall ration them for you.

Back in town there is no shortage of wild nature. It is a question of noticing it.

Elder tree

And of course we can keep reading about it.

Plantlife magazine
But I think the best thing I saw for 30 Days Wild was not wild at all, but a piece of stone-work. Drink in this photo.

Inscription in Writers' Court, Edinburgh

Saturday, 10 June 2017

30 Days Wild 2017. The first ten.

As luck would have it my wildest day during the last fortnight was on the last day of May, so it doesn't count. But Ben Lui deserves a photo.
May 31

Since then I have not had the chance to go out of town, but it has been good to notice how much wild nature is all round us.
June 1st

 Our nearest bit of wild nature is Edinburgh's river, the Water of Leith. It had shrunk during May with a prolonged spell of no rain.

But then we had torrential rain for a short time on Monday and heavy rain all day on Tuesday. What a difference.
June 6th
June 8th

Last year I was able to photograph my own wild garden on most days. Now we are in a 2nd floor tenement, temporarily. But in Edinburgh there is no problem finding where others have made patches of wild flowers. This is the Hermitage and Braid Hills Local Nature Reserve.
June 10th  
June 5th
Whereas this luxuriant burst of wild nature is on the slope between the Castle and Princes Street Gardens.

And finally, when you are enjoying the wild this month, don't forget that as well a looking down and around, also look up.
June 4th

Saturday, 27 May 2017

History all around us

This afternoon I went to post a letter. In five or ten minutes I was made aware of history on every side; and all on one block in an inner suburb of Edinburgh.

Nowadays all the tenements have electric door-bells, and a clever switch that can open the street door below. These tenements were built before electricity was harnessed for such uses; but our late Victorian ancestors were just as inventive. They just used mechanical devices.

The ground-floor door-opener has a slightly different design.

The architects did incorporate a last minimal acknowledgement of the heritage of Edinburgh's classical style.

George VI. I was born during his reign. I wonder whether this box was put up just before the war, during it, or shortly after.

The three decades before the First World War were marked by enormously rapid and radical social progress. That is when our local primary school was built.

In those days it was felt proper for Boys and Girls to have separate play-grounds.

Recent history isn't less interesting because it is recent. There were plenty of brownfield sites in the 1990s.

 Come to think of it, we didn't have recycling bins in George VI's time. Though I have been told there were pig-bins for waste food.

This bridge was part of a road improvement scheme in 1841.

The Edinburgh coat of arms is still kept painted.

The old bridge (1766) is still there.

In 1745, somewhere hereabouts, a small troop of Hanoverian cavalry hastily fled as the Jacobite army approached. I hope this photo is legible.

Back on the main road is a sign of changing times in 2017. I wonder if the forthcoming General Election will see a Conservative revival, or whether they will be consigned to what Trotsky called "the dustbin of history"?

This building is now a dental unit of some sort. The inscription, Denta servata fides, is the motto of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is usually translated as  "Loyalty preserved enriches". (I had to look this up.)