Onna Stick

August 30, 2019

It’s a sad truth, but when you’re on US time and the bulk of your followers are on UK time, your scintillating Minnesota State Fair Twitter thread is going to largely fall on deaf ears. This is especially so when the only members of your entire UK-based Twitter timeline who are awake are lying staring in the dark at the ceiling contemplating the latest grim twist in UK politics* and aren’t interested in carnival princesses being carved in butter, for some reason.

But – should you be looking for light relief, proof that Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler is alive and well and living in the Midwest, and an 11-day extravaganza that can only be described as a cross between an eating competition and an agricultural show, the Minnesota State Fair is the place to be.

big Fat Bacon on a stick

Although I think the US version of Moo-I-5 lacks a little in animation.

inflatable cows

We spent a glorious four hours there yesterday and I think we poked into most of the nooks and crannies and managed to try pretty much all the major food groups that can be served onna stick. We climbed what could be climbed, marvelled at tractors, slid down the Big Slide, said hello to the cows, and emerged somewhat footsore, excessively well fed and more knowledgeable about walleye conservation than we were when we went in.

I also finally found a slice of frozen chocolate-dipped cheesecake onna stick – something I once tasted when I was 19 and travelling round the States on the train, and have never managed to track down again. I may have mentioned it a few times to the other half because he was the one who spotted the stall amidst the competing stands offering alligator (onna stick), Pronto Pups (onna stick) and mini-donut beer (not onna stick, but I suspect not from lack of trying). Readers, it was exactly as delicious as I remember it from 30 years ago. And there’s no photo because I scoffed it instantly and wasn’t going to let anything slow me down.

All in all, the fair was $15 well spent (plus how much?! for the cheesecake) and should Brexit end in the way the worst case scenarios predict, we’ll be able to survive the resulting food shortages for at least a week just on the fat stores we laid down over the course of the day. And you can’t say fairer than that.

cow at the fair

* I know we’re not all ardent remainers here on this blog, but I can’t see how the current political shenanigans do anything but make us look like a banana republic without the bananas. Or a stick.

Wee Jimmy

August 28, 2019

We made it to the US (I highly recommend Icelandair if you do have to fly the Atlantic, by the way, if only for the incredibly civilised transfer arrangements between flights at Keflavik Airport) and with a two-week stay in the offing, obviously the first order of business was to get a sourdough starter on the go (One side-effect of blogging a couple of times about sourdough is that other sourdough-curious people occasionally make the mistake of asking me about it, and getting persuaded into giving it a try (see also: cycling)).

cow nose

“Have you been in close proximity to any livestock?”

Sadly, I couldn’t bring Jimmy-Carter-the-Starter with me to the States (the customs declaration makes it clear you shouldn’t have been recently handling livestock, let alone bringing in millions of live microscopic organisms in your luggage) so a new Jimmy needs to be created. That means unbleached flour and ideally untreated water, to allow all the yeast beasties to multiply. Filtered water would probably have been okay, but when the other half mentioned that the big brewery downtown used to have a tap where locals could fill up bottles with the water from their spring, that seemed like a much better option, if only for the Internet bragging rights.*

schmidts brewery


This being 2019 rather than 1979, the brewery tap has moved on somewhat (as has the brewery which now hosts upmarket housing and the misleadingly named Keg and Case market where you can buy mushrooms grown on the site (complete with logs) but not, as far as we could see, any actual beer). This is not just water, it’s The Drink and now comes out of a high-tech vending machine which accepts ApplePay because of course it does. Still, it’s only $1 for a gallon which seemed reasonable enough. We made the beginner mistake of not bringing our own gallon container, but the next-door cafe was happy to provide us with an old milk jug, and the precious water was secured.

filling the container

And appropriately labelled, in case anyone got confused.

water container labelled

New Jimmy is currently residing on top of the fridge awaiting its next feed and looking fairly hopeful so far. I will keep you posted with any exciting developments, or even – my blog, my rules – any crashingly dull ones, as they unfold.

Next stop, the State Fair.

* There’s something about sourdough that attracts a certain amount of one-upmanship. The next time someone flourshames me for just using flour from the supermarket, I’ll be able to hit back with my 35,000 year-old artesian well water.

Wee Stoater

August 24, 2019

As I mentioned, we’re off on holiday on Monday for a couple of weeks, and so it’s been the usual rush to get everything done before we go. So yesterday morning I was keen to get to my desk and get my head down, with a couple of work deadlines looming.

This would have gone better, had not a stoat decided to appear on our front lawn and – if you’ll forgive me the technical animal behaviour terminology – start wildly mucking about.

Up until now, my encounters with stoats have been pretty fleeting – something dashing across the road in front of my bike, or occasionally stopping to peer at me from the undergrowth. I’d certainly never seen one doing backflips before, let alone right in front of my study window. As a means of distracting me from work, it couldn’t have been bettered.

In fact, according to some sources, this was the point of the acrobatics: stoats apparently hypnotise their prey by acting weird and then pounce as their unsuspecting audience edges closer for a better look. This would be more convincing if there had been anything else around to watch than us – stoats are also known for taking prey much larger than themselves, but even so I think a couple of humans (however fascinated we were) might be overambitious for something that weighs a couple of hundred grams. Another school of thought is that it’s the side effects of a nematode infection (although there’s no reason both couldn’t be true and that the stoats have evolved to profit from their infestation-induced antics; after all, it’s been suggested a similar thing might be happening in humans).

Either way, by the time I’d extracted myself from an Internet-sized rabbit hole of animal behaviour work really was looming, so it took until today before I managed to get the resulting poor quality video up online to prove I wasn’t imagining things

This morning’s distraction was just as cute but rather less acrobatic.

young hare

Given the stoat is still around, if the dancing really is an effective form of hunting behaviour, and the leverets prove as susceptible as we were, we might have a dilemma on our hands …

More Light than Heat

August 20, 2019

Next week we’ll be uprooting ourselves from the comfort of our corner of Scotland to head to the US for a couple of weeks visiting the other half’s family. I’ve been watching with mixed feelings as friends and online acquaintances take the pledge to give up flying in light of the climate crisis, but unfortunately I don’t think we can join them. Much as I’d love to never have to shuffle through an airport security queue in my socks – let alone get into a plane – again, even George Monbiot allows us love miles and regular flights across the Atlantic are going to be unavoidable for the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to dismiss the issue, however. I’ve already decided to cut out all unavoidable short-haul flights – our last one was to attend a funeral – and am doing my bit in other ways to cut emissions, from cycling as much as possible to wearing as many jumpers around the house as is compatible with also moving my arms. We’ve installed solar panels and we’re upgrading our insulation – but according to the various carbon calculators available online, pretty much all of this effort will be wiped out by a single visit to America.

So that leaves offsetting, in itself a bit of a thorny topic. I understand that it’s not a get out of jail free card – and that it would be better not to fly than to fly and then attempt to undo the damage, but it does seem to me obvious that if you’re going to fly anyway then balancing that damaging action with something that will help to mop up the emissions, or cut them in other ways, seems the least worst action. The question is how to actually take that balancing action, or fund someone else to do it. Naturally, I asked Twitter:

Equally naturally, I got a fair few people who just wanted to shout at me for not just flying but for having the temerity to ask about offsetting my flights because apparently that’s somehow worse – and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything different (note to ecowarriors: it was still annoying though). I also got some replies from people who know me who were kind enough to suggest that I was doing enough already with the cycle campaigning, which is flattering (and in line with this excellent article) but I suspect a bit over-optimistic about the impact my efforts are having.

More surprising was the volume of useful responses I got which actually answered the question – including a link to this article in the Guardian which led me to the Atmosfair carbon calculator, and links to various other resources: in particular the excellent Drawdown site which analyses which interventions are likely to be most effective and the Gold Standard site which lists projects which don’t just help to mitigate carbon emissions, but do so in a way that contributes to sustainable development.

So I’m now, thanks to Drawdown, a fair bit better informed about how we might get ourselves out of the planetary-sized mess we’re in (and it confirms my gut instinct that educating girls and providing family planning are two things we should definitely be doing more of). And, thanks to Gold Standard, some trees will be planted in East Timor (and more importantly, subsistence farmers will get some money for looking after them), a small patch of degraded pastureland in Panama will be replanted with trees, and some refugee women in Chad will be able to use solar cookers rather than having to risk their lives to go and cut firewood to cook.

As to whether any of these actions will do anything to offset the impact of our flights, I don’t know. But it does seem to me that they do have the potential to make some people’s lives a little better in some small way, and that seems to me to be a good thing whatever else they achieve.

ash in tree tube

Choices, Choices

August 17, 2019

Stopping to admire a view during the Bigtown Cycle Campaign ride this afternoon, I mused that we too have a nice view from our house – and that as someone who rides a bike for transport, I take the time to appreciate it because I have earned every metre of elevation. In fact, I added, it was worse than that because the final road to our house drops down before the final hard climb.

‘You’ve chosen the worst possible place to live, as a cyclist,’ someone pointed out, who has visited ‘Wherever you go, its always uphill home.’

All of which is undoubtedly true. And yet, how could I now live anywhere where this wasn’t my road home?

road home

Or this?

road home

It’s sometimes worth reminding myself just how fortunate we are to have stumbled upon this corner of the world and made it our home

August Gathering

August 13, 2019

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but August is not my favourite month, in fact it’s one of my least favourite – mainly because it promises so much (at least for those of us raised in the part of the country where autumn doesn’t start until September) and delivers very little, other than torrential rain and the existential dread that comes with the words ‘Back to School’ in every shop. Since my last post, I have endured two more soakings on the bike (and only escaped another one by getting a lift to the station) and our utility room was home to enough pairs of soggy socks and gloves to make it smell as if the Swamp Thing had taken up residence there, or was at least using it as a laundry.

swallow on fence

This week, though, we’ve had a pause in the weather and that has been enough to trigger the best bit of August: the point when all the young swallows seem to emerge at once and start practising their flying. My photos cannot even start to do it justice but yesterday and today the air has been filled with trainee swallows and it’s just glorious (except for the one that learned the hard way about windows just outside my study). Every so often a gang of them will come pouring past the window, or start gathering on the wires, and they seem to be chasing each other around as much as the insects they’re supposed to be eating. Today they mastered landing in the very tips of the birch tree branches, where they bounce gently up and down until another swallow comes along and bounces them off to go zooming round the garden once more.

swallows on birch

It’s not just the swallows, either. At this time of year the hedgerows are full of learner birds and I’m often having to brake as I head down the hill on my bike to let a flustered blackbird or thrush get headway in front of me. We’ve got tiny little willow warblers, gangs of swallows, great tits and coal tits, and a juvenile wagtail that was stamping around outside our front door looking for insects. It’s a time to celebrate all of them, but especially swallows because it won’t be long before they’re gone for the winter and then summer really will have fled.

swallow on wire

Warm Showers

August 6, 2019

It’s not often that I’ll chase after a miscreant driver on my bike – not so much because it’s largely pointless remonstrating with them, but mainly because I’m generally too slow to catch them. But there I was riding into Bigtown in the rain this morning having almost reached the state where I couldn’t get any wetter, when a driver decided to finish the job by accelerating through a puddle as he passed me. Fortunately I was on the cycle path so being engulfed by a wall of water was unpleasant rather than dangerous but I was sufficiently ticked off by the indignity of it, if nothing else, that I made the effort to catch up with him at the end of the road and have a word.

To be honest, I was expecting the driver to be a young lad who thinks that kind of thing is funny but in the end it was an older man who was simply oblivious – and pretty apologetic – leaving me somewhat mollified but still dripping and (once off the bike) audibly squelching in my shoes. My trousers are reasonably quick drying, and my waterproof jacket had largely proved Waterproof in Scotland, but I know from bitter experience that once my socks and shoes are wet, then they stay that way. This was a problem because I had a whole day to spend in town and although Scottish summers might be characterised by – as the Glasgow cyclists say – slightly warmer rain it’s not warm enough that spending the whole day in wet socks was going to be any good for my health.

So for the avoidance of trench foot I had to make a couple of emergency purchases – hiking socks (because why-oh-why can you no longer find any other kind of sock in mostly natural fibres? Even running socks are mostly polyester these days and it’s just … don’t) and a pair of sparkly plimsolls because if you’ve been forced to buy emergency shoes then why not get something that might also serve for a Fancy occasion? Especially as they cost less than the socks, so topsy turvy has our world become.

I wonder if Back On My Bike will consider these fancy enough to go with a frock?

Fancy That

August 4, 2019

I’ve been an admirer of the Fancy Women Bike Ride for a while now, and when an unexpected window opened up in Back On My Bike’s calendar on the appropriate day, we leapt at the chance to organise one in Edinburgh.

It’s refreshing to be involved in an event where not only has someone done most of the thinking for you – but which has joy firmly at the heart of it. And of course, no sooner had we floated the idea on social media, than a man jumped in to suggest how we might better run an event that came about because women were sick of being told what to wear on the bike, so now I’m more determined than ever that this will be a cavalcade of awesomely glamorous and wholly impractically dressed women (chaps are allowed, as long as they stay at the back) having a fantastic time and not letting anyone tell them anything about how they should do anything.

POP tshirts hanging to dry

Of course there is a slight hitch in that most of my fashion choices consist of deciding which grey jumper and/or POP t-shirt to wear (usually the clean one). Indeed, I think Back On My Bike only agreed to the whole thing because she’s curious to see what I look like in a frock (rainskirts apparently don’t count). But in this it turns out I am not alone – although one of the purposes of the ride is to encourage more women to cycle, from the enthusiastic comments I’m getting online, it also seems to be very effective at encouraging cycling women to consider wearing a skirt. For, while I do know some very stylish women among my cycling pals, it’s fair to say that most of us are going for more of a scrubbed outdoorsy tomboyish vibe than the full cycle chic. If we can indeed encourage some more ‘normal’ women to join us in Holyrood park on the 22nd of September, then this should be a wonderful meeting of minds and I’m looking forward to it immensely, at least now. Come back in a few weeks time when I’m in full-blown panic over what to wear …