Sunday, 1 November 2015

Polar Bears and Paris

The politics of polar bears and climate change is getting interesting. They are undoubtedly the 'poster bears' of the stop climate chaos campaign. But they are also the subject of political developments in the lead up to the UN Climate Change Convention meeting in Paris.

There are five countries with polar bears: Russia, Greenland, Norway, Canada and the United States. They are known as the 'Range States', and for decades they have been negotiating about what actions they need to take, individually and together, to protect our furry friends. The result was the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, and subsequent Circumpolar Action Plans, which are signed up to by all five countries.

In 1973 the reason the range states got together was because polar bears were threatened by over-hunting. But as the years have gone by this has changed. Hunting is no longer out of control and the range states have now finally and formally recognised that climate change is the primary and overwhelming threat to the future of the bears, and with them, much of the rest of the polar ecosystem. They also recognise a range of other threats, namely: 'contaminants and pollution, human-caused mortality, shipping, resource and energy exploration and development, tourism and disease'. Crucially, they are committed to action to reduce those threats.

The range states met recently in Greenland and agreed their action plan, which states in no uncertain terms the need to tackle carbon emissions. The following is a quote from the meeting documents: 'The vision of the CAP is to secure the long-term persistence of polar bears in the wild that represent the genetic, behavioral, and ecological diversity of the species.  This vision cannot be achieved without adequate mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions by the global community.'

Polar bear scientists (see this report) seem to be optimistic that there has been a real change in direction by this political body. It is pretty momentous to see Canada and the United States signing up to a strong statement about the threat of climate change and the need to communicate and legislate to tackle greenhouse gas impacts. If this is an indication of the direction of travel of politicians in these countries, then perhaps we can be optimistic about seeing real results from the Climate Change conference in Paris later this month. 

And meanwhile, it's Polar Bear week, so what better way to spend it than watching the Polar Bear Cam as the bears go out onto the newly forming ice in northern Canada? While you're at it, you can make your own climate change pledge and sign the polar bear petition. I have no idea if it'll help strengthen the political will to tackle carbon emissions, but it can't hurt.

(Thanks to KT Miller and Polar Bears International for use of the image).

Saturday, 31 October 2015

How did Pytheas not get lost?
Tidying up the boat for the winter, we've packed up all the pilotage books, maps and guides, and brought them home to keep them dry. This, and a comment made by a recent visitor, make me reflect on how on earth Pytheas found his way around these isles more than two thousand years ago.

The visitor, when I said we'd been at sea for about 90 days this summer, expressed amazement at how we manage to avoid rocks and navigate around the coast. I told her that, in addition to Bill, who with decades of lobster hunting experience seems to have his own unique underwater sensors, we have a stack of charts and pilotage books. The Clyde Cruising Club, in particular, produce brilliant books detailing thousands of harbours and anchorages, with detailed maps and directions and all kinds of useful information about hazards.

We also have a depth sounder, which helps, although I still trust my plumbline  more than I do the electronics. I always think of Pytheas as I dangle the bit of lead on a string down into shallows, as this technology without doubt goes all the way back to the iron age and beyond.

But Pytheas didn't have pilotage books. Or did he? Incredibly, even as far back as the sixth century BC there was a written guide to mariners in the Mediterranean, called a 'periplus', containing detailed sailing directions to Massalia (where Pytheas lived). And there were even written accounts of journeying out into the Atlantic, one by a Carthaginian called Himilco, who possibly sailed far west (conceivably even to the Sargasso sea) in the fifth century BC. Pytheas' own book, On the Ocean, was widely quoted and used as a source of travel information, not least by Rufus Avienus, the Roman author of Ora Maritima, a collection of sea lore tracing a journey from a northern part of the Atlantic coast back into the Mediterranean.

Avienus wrote his account in the form of a poem. The pilotage books we use today are staunchly prosaic, but I like to think that back in Pytheas' day, a great deal of navigation information would have been in the form of poetry. Most coastal lore and sailing directions would have been passed on orally, probably from generation to generation of navigators, and therefore it was probably full of songs, rhymes and good stories to help it be as memorable as possible. Just as indigenous Australians have 'song lines' to enable them to find their way vast distances across the outback, I imagine sea captains of Pytheas' day could well have sung their way around dangerous headlands and told their children folk tales to help them to remember sea hazards like rocks and strong currents.

So I reckon Pytheas found his way by joining the voyages of experienced seamen and women who held their pilotage know-how in their heads as songs and poems. Anyone for some poetic versions of the Clyde Cruising Club books, or a setting of Reeds Almanac to some rousing tunes?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Starting to think about hibernation

It's a beautiful season. Yesterday it was sunny and glorious and we took the boat out for our last sail of the year. Although we set off and arrived back in harbour to calm, blue conditions, out on the loch the wind was fierce. We had to reef, then reef again, and even so the gusts were blasting us over at nearly 40 degrees. The east wind is funnelled through the mountains here and it arrives in lumps that are erratic and full of crazy energy. It really is as if the mountains are throwing fistfuls of air at us. The contrast between the moments of calm and flurries of wind are exhilerating, and a bit scary.

The trees are responding here too. Docile one moment, when a gust comes they are dancing and hurling their leaves around with gusto. The birches have been golden for weeks, and the aspen stands are turning, one after another, great flames through the woods. Now the hazels are starting to turn as well. It won't be long before the leaves are all on the woodland floor and the year will be ended.

I await the first frost. That's the official start of winter here on the croft. It'll last until the first primrose, and it is always long, the longest season of the year.

Life will change. We're settled into the Great Hall in the woods. No more nights at the caravan at the shore or on the boat until springtime. A fire will be lit at dusk or earlier if it's overcast and no sunshine heats the shed we're in. We'll begin the game of trying to get up and walk up to the top of the hill to beat the sun getting up over the horizon. Our diet will change to porridge and parsnips and winter greens, dry beans soaked on the stove overnight. We'll sprout beansprouts to replace the salads from the garden. There will be long evenings for reading. Perhaps I'll get the knitting out.

The season's changing. That's good. I like hibernation. It reminds me of what the bears will be doing. We are animals. We should behave differently in winter.

One of my bugbears with modern society is how life is expected to be the same all year round. Children go to school for the same hours in the winter as in the summer. A 9-to-5 working day takes no account of the seasonal variations. Supermarkets carry almost identical food stock for 12 months of the year. I'm sure it's not good for us, physically or emotionally.

I exort everyone to vary their lifestyle to reflect the season, to move furniture around or somehow make a change to our environment, so we know we're in our winter den.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Ten bear poems

I am not the only writer for whom bears are their muse, and I'm not thinking here of nursery rhymes, doggerel or poems for children about teddy bears, but grown-up poems about real life, if sometimes somewhat mythical, bears.
  1. Top of the list is Galway Kinnell's 'The Bear' from his 1968 collection Body Rags (and also in his Selected Poems). This is a strange and wonderful telling of a winter hunt of a bear, wounding the animal, following the trail of blood and climaxing when the hunter reaches the bear and kills him. 'I... tear him down his whole length/ and open him and climb in / and close him up after me, against the wind / and sleep.'  And thus there is a 'parabola of bear-transcendence' in which the poet becomes the bear. Extraordinary and totemic. 
  2. There's an echo of the same idea in Margaret Atwood's 'Bear Lament.' in her 2007 collection The Door. 'You once believed if you could only / crawl inside a bear, its fat and fur, / lick with its stubby tongue, take on / its ancient shape, its big paw /big paw big paw big paw / heavy-footed plod that keeps / the worldwide earthwork solid, this would // save you, in a crisis.' This idea of the bear as holding the earth together is so important, the recognition that it is a keystone of our ecosystems and that without them, we are threatened. The poem ends with the cry 'Oh bear, what now? And will the ground still hold? And how much longer?'
  3. Which of Ted Hughes' bear poems to choose? It has to be 'The Bear', from the 1967 collection Wodwo. 'In the huge, wide-open, sleeping-eye of the mountain / The bear is the gleam in the pupil / Ready to awake / And instantly focus.' Here is the bear as our guide from this life into death, or into another life.
  4. Much more recent is the wonderful 2012 collection Ice by Gillian Clarke, throughout which a polar bear is the presiding spirit. Forget some of the trite use of Ursus Maritimus as the 'poster bear' of climate change, here is the real thing, vulnerable and powerful. In the opening poem, 'Polar', she says,  ' I want him alive. / I want him fierce / with belly and breath and  growl and beating heart, / I want him dangerous...'
  5. J O Morgan's In Casting Off (published by Happenstance this year), is another collection with the presence of a white bear hovering in the margins of many poems. It makes itself known, splendidly, fishing in 'Dividing Line', when a leaping salmon caught by a bear 'ceases at once to be shape - becomes fish. // Its sideways thrash about the claws / that have punctured its course, that have drawn it / clear from its universe of water.... The blood / of the fish / becoming / the blood / of the bear.'
  6.  Mary Oliver's 'Truro Bear' (from The Truro Bear and other Adventures, 2008) is a possible bear, seen in the woods by people, 'three or four, / or two, or one.' She hasn't seen it herself, but she's watching out, and 'everywhere I look on the scratchy hillsides / shadows seem to grow shoulders.' Oh, I so know what that is like!
  7. There are lots of bears in Chrissy Williams' 2013 pamphlet Flying into the Bear, and some favourite lines. 'Everyone could use a  bear sometimes, everyone could use a wild bear..' So, to choose just one, it's 'The Invisible Bear', the one you fly into if you lie back at night and look up into the sky. 'There's not much comfort in a bear you can see through, but then / in times of not much comfort, reach out for what you can.'
  8. 'Eliza and the Bear' is the long title poem by Eleanor Rees' 2009 collection. It begins, 'I did not know my lover was a bear', and goes on from there...
  9. I have to include Kevin Cadwallender's Bear and the Elementals, which is online here, and consists entirely of bear poems, my favourite of which is, I think, 'Bear Somnus'. 'In the roll and scratch and snore / of winter, a dream enters .. death calls too, reminding / Bear that sleep is its cousin / and dreams are messengers.' 
  10. Finally, am I allowed to include one of mine? It's in my 2007 collection Castings, which you can get here, and given the time of year, its a seasonally appropriate autumn 'Polar Bear', hanging out in the multi-coloured woods near Churchill, Canada.

    Low-angled sun gleams
    through claret leaves
    and caribou lichens pale green
    in the first skiff of snow.

    A frozen hare watches
    the flight of a falcon
    and spruce fingers point
    where the winds will blow.

    Tamarack needles flutter
    and flurries of snow buntings dart
    over flaming jade, bronze
    and copper-leaved willow.

    Photographers get set to lie
    to freeze-frame your world
    starched, ice-bleached arctic
    whitewashing your rainbow.

    Here you lie in the forest
    a snoozing sumo wrestler
    under trees barely able to hold
    up the sky, so heavy with snow.

     So, which bear poems would you include in the list?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Tiny bird, enormous trust

A goldcrest flitted into my writing turret while I was scribbling. It panicked, battered itself on the windows trying to find a way out, then hid behind the chest of drawers. After a while it fluttered around again, once more struggling to find an exit. Eventually it gave up and let me pick it up.

I held it in my hand. It weighed nothing at all. Apparantly a fat one might get to about 5 grammes.

I was humbled. It didn't struggle or scratch as I took it outside. Did it know I wished it no harm, only freedom? Or was it just semi-concussed?

It was still, utterly acquiescent as I carried it out into the cool air outside. It stumbled off my hand onto the decking and sat there, opening and closing its beak in silent speech. One leg was twisted under it and it was cobwebby from the corner of my shed. I was worried that I had hurt it, and crouched nearby, watching.

A breeze caught it and it was so light, little thing, that it lifted like a leaf. Then its wings trilled a beat and it landed itself back on the deck. Its leg was sorted out and it hopped a bit, closing its beak, looking as if it was coming to. Eventually it flew experimentally, successfully, into the nearest birch and sat clutching a twig, nodding as if satisfied that its adventure had reached a satisfactory conclusion. Then it fell to tapping and nibbling, hunting its usual prey.

Did it come into my writing room to show me how wonderful the world is? To remind me to stop, look and marvel? To tell me I am just one other animal in a forest of kindred animals?


tiny in my hand
- your trust is as huge
as the birch tree

Saturday, 12 September 2015


Bottlenose dolphin off Scotland. © Marine Connection
Before Pytheas set out from Massalia on his way to these northern waters in 320BC, I wonder if he made an offering at the temple of Apollo? I feel sure he would have appealed to Apollo for good fortune and safety on his journey as many sailors did. His name suggests a link as well: the Oracle of Delphi, the priestess of Apollo's temple, was called Pythia.

One of the main symbols of Apollo was the dolphin, because he changed himself into one in order to escape the island, Delos, where he was born (see here) and then leaped onto a boat and guided it to a safe harbour. So Greek sailors believed that dolphins swimming alongside a boat were bringing good will and wishing them safe passage. It's easy to understand why.

On our first sea trip this year in our new boat, Each Mara, from Inverness Marina to the mouth of the Caledonian Canal, we were accompanied by dolphins. It felt like a good omen, as my aim was to spend a lot of time aboard writing about Pytheas' travels. I was sure Pytheas would have been pleased!

Many times over the summer we encountered pods of dolphins in the Minch and the Inner Sound. It is invariably exciting to see them. Often they have come when the weather has been dire, after hours of rain, or when it has not windy enough to make good progress, or in rough seas. They never fail to lift our spirits as they surface with a friendly 'pff', and then course past the boat.

What do they think we are, in our slow-moving vessel? They play around the boat, racing past us, leaping across the bow, diving under the keel and surfacing with a head-turn and what seems like a wink. Sometimes we've seen a pod of dolphins passing and they have changed direction to come and investigate us, as if inviting us to join them on their journey.

They are humbling to encounter, because they move so much more swiftly than we do, with such utter grace and elegance. Plus of course, they need no oilies to withstand the wet and cold and they don't care at all if it rains!

And if they are, indeed, responsible for safety out there on the ocean, I'm very grateful to them for taking care of us. And if not, well, I'm still grateful to them just for being there.

[Thanks also to for use of the photo].

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Weather forecasts

Image result for raincloud iconI am back onshore for a while, having spent a lot of the summer so far on board Each Mara, our trusty boat, exploring the shores, anchorages and seas of the Hebrides and the north west coast here. It has been great to become familiar with the 'lie of the land' from the perspective of someone traveling around by boat. Places that seem far apart from a road-user perspective are surprisingly close by sea (North Skye and Gairloch, for example). And vice versa (Gairloch and Poolewe). And a place that is a doddle to get to one day can be impossible to reach the next. A three-day struggle beating into a wind to get from A to B can be an easy morning's passage running with a good breeze behind you, a favourable tide and a reasonable sea. It all depends on the wind.

Hence weather forecasts are essential. Sharing long-term forecasts with other sailors and harbour users is a large part of our social interaction. Tuning into the inshore forecast on the VHF radio every three hours has become as much of a ritual as making tea. And attempting to download the more locally specific forecasts from the Met Office by mobile phone is a full-blown obsession. The inshore forecast is for a 24 hour period and for a large area, and, for example, if it says the wind will be 'variable 3-4' it doesn't give much of a clue as to whether B will be reachable from A, where the more specific forecasts for both A and B may at least let us know from which point of the compass the wind may be expected.

I would like to be able to say that I have spent the entirety of the past two months living an Iron Age lifestyle, out on the sea, and writing my novel set there. I have done a lot of that, but it has been intruded upon by certain features of 21st century life, none more so than weather forecasts.

Of course, in 320BC, Pytheas traveled without any forecasts at all, other than the finger-in-the-air guesses of local people, and although they had huge experience and knowledge of how to read the sky and the sea, they would have been going on guesswork and hope a lot of the time.

And we still are. The forecasts are unreliable, especially more than 48 hours ahead, and this summer I've been frustrated over and over again by making plans based on forecast winds that haven't happened, or staying put to avoid gales that haven't blown, or setting out to discover that the wind is far stronger than predicted and in an entirely different direction.

It's not that anyone's lying (I hope). It's just that the weather is inherently unpredictable, especially in a land- and sea-scape as complex as this one. And in a funny kind of way, frustrating though it might be on a day-to-day basis not to know what the wind will bring, I'm glad that we can't forecast it accurately. It's bigger than we are, certainly bigger and more complex than our models, and I'm strangely comforted to know that there is still chaos and mystery out there, beyond our control.