January 12, 2020

drowned field

I suppose I should know by now that winter in Scotland means a choice between reasonably mild but wet and windy weather, or sunny and sparkly but bitterly cold weather. Yesterday was the former,* but today – through some bureaucratic error – it was both reasonably mild (above freezing, anyway) and sunny. For January, this counts as a miracle, especially as I’m not buried in work for once.

That meant only one thing – into the garden (I did suggest a bike ride but my suggestion was spurned). The problem is, while it might have been fine and mild today, we’ve got at least another 3 months of potential frost, snow, gales and rain (well, technically speaking, 12 months recurring of rain) and there isn’t really much you can usefully be doing in the garden at this time of the year, unless you’re of the tidying-up persuasion which I’m not for both ecological and can’t-be-arsedness reasons. I’ve mulched all the beds that need mulching and cut back all the growth that means cutting back, and the rest of the garden would be happier if I just left it alone to get on with things.

I believe this is what January plantings of sweet peas are for: scratching the gardening itch without compacting wet soil, destroying overwintering spots for wildlife, or encouraging tender shoots to sprout too early. I even had some sweet pea seeds because I took a last-minute trip to the garden centre to pick up a gift before Christmas and made the mistake of wandering into the seed department just to have a quick look at what was there and not buy anything (if anyone has actually managed this feat, please do go ahead and let me know how in the comments).

sweet pea planting materials

And so a pleasant morning in the greenhouse ensued. I don’t think I’ve ever grown them before, at least not in Scotland, so I was a little sceptical about planting them now but it seems worth a shot. I didn’t have the requisite number of toilet roll inners due to some over-efficient recycling, but we have plenty of newspaper and I bodged together some paper pots by rolling them round an old spice jar. According to some sections of the internet I was supposed to have soaked the seed overnight but I googled until I found some advice that said you didn’t need to bother, and then I split the difference and soaked them while I made and filled the pots (you all do this, right?). Twenty-four pots have been filled and planted and are on the utility room windowsill. I don’t actually have anywhere to put any sweet peas if they emerge, but I’m sure that a space will be found; for now they have done the job for which they were intended and any actual plants will be a bonus. Especially as tomorrow brings our next weather warning, and winter is all set to resume.

planted sweetpeas

* I did actually venture out for the paper in the rain, once the wind had died down a bit. Looking at the floodwater in the fields along the way, I did briefly consider that a better blogger than me would extend her trip by a few miles on the way home to check out the ford, and then I came to my senses. Fortunately, a local pal is made of sterner stuff:

For Those in Peril Up a Pole

January 7, 2020

So, I’d like to say that it was a hardship today being the one who had to wait in for the Openreach engineer to come and sort out the fact that we’ve had no landline since before the new year and crappy internet since the last deluge – but given today’s forecast was similarly grim, it would be a complete lie. True, I had to cancel a regular appointment and I would be missing out on a bike ride but I probably would have done that anyway, frankly, given the weather.

Instead, after the engineer had been, pronounced there was indeed a fault on the line, and headed off in search of it, I had a moderately pleasant and productive morning sitting in my nice dry study watching the rain being whipped sideways across the fields and working around our on-again, off-again connectivity. Our intermittent internet has been pretty annoying over the past few weeks, especially as I work from home and do actually need a decent connection for much of my activities (but also, if I’m honest, because I like to waste far too much time on social media). However, I have been gradually learning how to spend the down time doing productive work where that is possible, which it mostly is, and when that fails, turning to things which might actually be a bit better for my general wellbeing than arguing with people on Twitter about why it’s counterproductive to argue with people on Twitter (Reading books! Actually reading the newspaper! catching up with my knitting!).

Despite this, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t want reliable broadband back – although I do have to admit feeling a mild twinge of guilt when I looked out the kitchen window as I made myself a coffee and watched the engineer battling with his ladder in the wind to climb up poles in the rain all so I could watch cat videos and argue about cycling with total strangers. Remind me next time I’m moaning about the freelancing life, or getting a bit damp on the bike, that at least I’m not a telecoms engineer…

openreach engineer

I love work, I could watch it for hours

Oh, and nothing to do with the rest of the post – but if you live in Scotland and would like to see the government investing in transport infrastructure that isn’t just ever more roads then could you please head over here before Friday and let them know?

Going Bananas

January 3, 2020

Among my Christmas gifts this year was a book from my wishlist – How Bad Are Bananas, something I’d been wanting to read since it came up at a wine-fuelled Big Climate Conversation* in October. It’s a little out of date, having been first published in 2010, but it’s still pretty topical given that the climate crisis isn’t going anywhere. It’s a fairly easy read, running through the carbon impacts of everything from which is better paper towels or dryers for drying your hands (answer: a Dyson airblade, strangely enough, although if you’re taking lots of flights and driving around in a 4×4 then don’t fret about how you’re drying your hands) to volcanoes and (sadly topically as Australia burns) forest fires.

As well as the carbon footprint of the individual items it covers it gives a few useful rules of thumb for everything else, which can basically be summed up as: don’t buy anything new if you can help it (for almost everything the bulk of its carbon footprint is in its manufacture, not its use), buy at the cheapest end of the market if you must buy something (all other things being equal, cheaper things will have been made with fewer inputs and hence less emissions), and buy British or European if you can (not just because of the transport emissions, but because European manufacturers tend to use cleaner energy to produce things).

All of this has provided fuel for thought for some unavoidable purchases we need to make for the house, but it’s also got me thinking about what we eat. Food has a huge carbon footprint, and it’s not exactly something you can buy secondhand. I’ve known for a while that we should probably be eating less dairy – and, much as I love Moo-I-5, having a dairy farm next door has just reinforced that – but I’ve struggled with the thought of giving up milk, butter and cheese, all of which I love. In the end, I realised that I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way. Just as you can benefit the environment by cutting down on how much you drive and cycling some journeys where it’s practical, even if you don’t give up your car, I could cut out some dairy products and cut my carbon emissions a bit, without going completely vegan. After trying various alternatives, I’ve discovered that oat milk is perfectly acceptable on cereal even if it’s rubbish in coffee. It also seems to have few of the environmental downsides of other plant milks – and at the back of my mind is the thought that oats are famously a traditional Scottish food so might actually be a feasible local alternative to dairy farming (I noticed that one of the local farms was growing oats last year). So we’re experimenting with replacing half the milk we buy with oat milk.


You’re doing what?

The other change we’re trying to make, which might surprise some people, is to eat more seasonally. You might have thought we already ate pretty seasonally, given all the gardening I do, but we certainly don’t grow enough to provide all the veg we eat. We’d never buy anything that had been airfreighted in – no Kenyan green beans or Peruvian asparagus for us – but we do eat things that have probably been grown in heated Dutch greenhouses or trucked in refrigerated lorries from Spain. Those little mini peppers that suddenly appeared in the shops a year or so ago, for example, have become a bit of a staple on our shopping list, and we’ve never really thought about when they might be ‘in season’. Fortunately the book has a handy list of what’s in season in the UK month by month and we’re attempting to stick to that for our fresh produce as well as what we grow already. This will also mean we’re ahead of the game when Brexit starts to really bite – I hope you all like leeks and kale. The one thing I won’t be doing, despite the fact that they’re really not bad at all, is eating bananas, because despite being a cyclist, I really cannot stand the things.

weed free leeks

Set down in black and white like this, against the unfolding reality of what’s happening with the climate, it does feel a bit feeble – like attempting to bail out the sinking Titanic with a thimble – but it’s added to my existing commitments to cycle everywhere I can (and campaign for better conditions for everyone), put on extra jumpers rather than turn up the heating, and buy as little new stuff as I can get away with, without risking arrest for vagrancy.

What are your new year’s resolutions, if any?

* We ran one for the Women’s Cycle Forum in Glasgow and I seem to have neglected to blog about it, which is a shame because it turns out that when you get a load of stroppy cycling women together and add a couple of bottles of wine, the suggestions quickly move past ‘topping up loft insulation’ to ‘smashing capitalism’ (and the patriarchy).

Tinsel Town

December 25, 2019

Christmas tree decorations

I’m generally a great believer in family Christmases – especially if the family in question is not your own. In return for putting up with someone else’s weird Christmas traditions, you get all the fun and festive trimmings you could ask for while remaining completely oblivious to all the underlying tensions. If the family in question has had the good sense to live somewhere bright and sunny, and keeps a pair of bikes in the garage just for your visit then all the better…

This year, though, we’re at my parents’ in Duns, which has at least dressed up for the occasion.

Christmas yarn bombing

We did manage a token Christmas Eve bike ride in the fading afternoon, but I have to admit I’m wistful for the blue skies of Colorado (or even last year’s sunshine break in Norn Iron).

dim afternoon light

Still, for all the dubious joys of a family Christmas, I know that I’m lucky to still have most of my family around to drive me up the wall – and our own comfy double bed in a proper spare room.

So have a great Christmas everyone, if such a thing is possible, and if not hang in there because, if nothing else, we have had the winter solstice and the days are getting longer. bikes waiting

Cry Me a River

December 10, 2019

Regular readers of this blog will know that there’s almost no weather I will not (albeit sometimes with a certain amount of whingeing) cycle in. However, almost a year ago, I finally started to learned how to let discretion be the better part of valour. This year, it didn’t take me being blown into a hedge sideways to give up the my planned social engagement this afternoon – one look at the weather forecast was enough to have me cancel and spend the day largely watching the weather gods do their worst from the cosy vantage of my study.

I did venture out once to pick up a parcel from the UPS man (and watching him battle with his van door was confirmation enough that I’d made the right decision) and then to quickly harvest some kale from the garden. Back in the old place, I’d have been spending much of the time trying to clear the drains with sticks and watching the flood waters rise in the yard, but one advantage of living on a massive hill is that the water doesn’t hang around and we’re no longer at threat of flooding if we don’t keep on top of the drainage. On the downside, we’re also no longer within walking distance of the ford (and my local correspondent declined to flood out her car just to go and check for me) so I can’t report whether it recorded a new high score. I feel a little sad about this, though not so sad that I was willing to go and check it out myself, by any means. And besides, what use is a ford when your entire road has become a river?

water pouring down the road

Here’s hoping it will at least wash away the worst of the thorns. Every cloud, and all that…

Getting Some Sparkle Back…

December 1, 2019

So, was I moaning about the wet winter weather? That has definitely passed in recent days, to be replaced with blue skies but some very heavy frosts. Last night, as we returned from a social engagement, the car was registering a chilly 18F (F cold, or -8 in Celsius) and I don’t think the temperature got appreciably over freezing out of the sun at all yesterday.

So it was something of a wrench to head out this morning for a planned work party keeping one of Bigtown’s better cycle paths clear, into a world turned almost white. Frost is very beautiful to contemplate from the warmth of the house, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go and cycle in it …

frosty start

But not for long. Once I’d negotiated the worst of the ice on our road, I could relax and enjoy the brief glory of a sunny winter’s day- all ghostly pastels, except where the sun had touched the colour back into the world.

winter sun

I’m not 100% convinced that sparkly winter mornings like this entirely compensate for the freezing temperatures, but that could just be chilblain-induced grumpiness (and if the Victorian era calls and would like its disorder back, it would be very welcome). They certainly go a long way.

river and trees

So too does discovering that a good dozen people, many complete strangers,* are willing to come out on a frozen morning to help cut back vegetation, even though much of it was frozen solidly to the ground.

frosty afternoon

* Adjusted for this being Bigtown; I have not doubt that had we chatted a bit more we would have discovered all the connections we have in common

Testing, Testing

November 28, 2019

I have to admit that the last few days have proved testing to my commitment to making my bike my main mode of transport. It’s not just been the rain, or the dark, or the cold, or the fact that I have three evening engagements this week, one of which involved climbing back into my still damp things and heading out back into the rain and the dark only a couple of hours after I had arrived home – but if they’re giving out climate-saving medals, I would like one for that, please. No, I think the low point came yesterday evening as I was heading to New Nearest Village to find out more about the Coonsil’s declaration of a Climate Emergency.* Just as I crested the hill for the downhill run into the village (the topography of New Nearest Village somehow manages to be uphill in all directions, coming and going), my chain fell off. As it was pitch dark, I discovered the downside of having an amazing hub dynamo set up – that you can’t then point your wonderfully bright (even when stopped) but firmly attached front light at any part of the bike to sort it out (yes, yes, I know, you all carry spare lights for just this contingency). I was reduced to waiting for passing cars – not to stop and offer help, but to shine enough light to briefly work by. After about the fourth four-by-four had raced past (I’m going to assume not on the way to the climate meeting, but you never know) I’d managed to free the chain with a minimum of swearing and even managed to make it to the meeting without transferring any chain oil onto my face, which is a first.**

There are upsides too, of course, she says hastily. Mainly when the rain stops and it’s late enough that it’s just me out there on the road, with the odd owl for company. Or – as happened on Tuesday night – a Hercules lumbering slowly overhead at what felt like chimney height. I actually experienced a temperature inversion as the air warmed as I climbed out of the fog in the river valley and up our road. It doesn’t *quite* make up for foolishly choosing to live on a Cat 3 climb, but it is something to have your school geography lessons actually brought to life.

Tonight it’s my final social engagement of the week (well, my writers’ group) and I’ve only got a lift on the way home, so it will shortly be time to tear myself away from the fireside, find the least damp of my pairs of gloves, and set off again into the cold and the dark, saving the planet one bike ride at a time.

I hope the Coonsil appreciates me doing my bit.

* Actually slightly less greenwashy than I thought it would be, but they would appear to have a slightly different definition of ’emergency’ than most people.

** At least, if I did, nobody mentioned it.