Introducing Jimmy…

Jimmy the Crake is a man about town; a man on a real mission, as you can see from his calm, confident, determined air. He’s also, quite possibly, the world’s (or, perhaps, the Hebrides’s) most non-secretive, sanguine, confiding corncrake. Dapper, suave, with a degree of rural sophistication quite befitting his environment, and well able to carry off a zoot suit and bandana combination, here he is striding about his business.

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And in full view of me stood not only watching him but also zooming in on him.

Set off here against a backdrop of the nettle bed stirring into post-winter life just above the shoreline, but yet to regain its full stride, Jimmy soon made his way along the fence to the corner of the garden, where a stone stands proud and which he seems to have made his calling post. From here – twice yesterday in the daytime – as well as several times from elsehere, he rasped, bass steel comb struck along a hard edge, regularly but in short bursts, for the next few minutes before moving on. It’s not for nothing that corncrakes are more usually seen than heard. You see, I’m stood – uprooting a stack of dandelions which have leapt into life while I was away in Sofia – on a bank on higher ground no more than 20 metres away. An afternoon-long activity which is far from complete. Movement into and then from the house, to pick up the camera, and then my somewhat clumsy attempts to creep along and and down the garden, treading less like Grasshopper than Keystone Cop, to where I could get a shot unencumbered by wood or galvanised wire mesh seemed to have little impact on his desire to engage in his primal duty of calling out.

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This is my third summer here and I – very briefly – saw one corncrake the first year, with two other calling males nearby, but saw none (at least, not here in Ardivachar) and heard few others last year. And Jimmy has only arrived in the last week or so – he wasn’t here before I left for Sofia.

A level of bravery perhaps aided by the presence of another calling male a couple of crofts up into Ardivachar; or otherwise, male corncrakes being the love-’em-and-leave-’em types that they are, by the desire to keep an eye out for other women, Jimmy already having found one mate this season (oh yes – I saw her too: a little more traditionally shy, she was spotted in the dense vegetation contributed by irises and nettles a little distance away, Jimmy in fairly close company). Indeed, yesterday I was as likely to see corncrakes as I was starlings. Well, almost.).

Regardless, it seems a good plan to leave the bottom section of the garden unmown again this forthcoming summer, just in case we’re hosting, or otherwise providing cover for, any of Jimmy’s off-spring. The apparently rising population of corncrakes across the UK, where the further reaches of the Hebrides chain, and Orkney, play a key role, is good news and thus a bit of inaction in the garden this summer seems to be entirely justified in support of Jimmy’s attempts to do his best on behalf of the future of his species. Amongst which a lineage based on greater confidence of approach, and less skulking around in the nettlebed, would also surely be a good thing.

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The prospect of summer

We were talking on the blog yesterday about the strength of the winds throughout the Hebrides; and then I saw a tweet from the inestimable account run by Orkney Library, raising an old blog post from the Archive describing some Orkney customs for 1 May. One of them was this rhyme relating wind direction on 1 May to the prospects for that season’s crops:

If the wind is in the Sooth
Thir’ll be braed for every mooth;
If the wind is in the Aest
There’ll be dule for man an’ baest;
Sud the wind blas fae the West
The muckle shaeves are ill tae fest;
If the wind comes fae the Nort
Aa‘ the rigs are tight and short.

(‘dule’ = ‘suffering or misery‘)

It’s interesting – though not at all surprising – that the state of the weather on key dates (as 1 May is, in respects both of pre-Christian customs and traditions as well as having more modern significance in terms of workers’ rights both historically and currently, for example with the McStrikers), popularly linked to agricultural prospects; nor that people in other parts of the UK where trees are somewhat less abundant have different rhymes to the arguable better-known (at least, by me) arbour-based ones (‘When the rooks build high/The weather will be dry’; ‘Oak before the ash; and we will have a splash/Ash before the oak; and we will have a soak’) or the one about St. Swithin’s Day [no, not that one – Ed]. Or, indeed, that rhymes in the northern isles seem to be based on wind, which can be changeable to some degree, rather than rain, which is more or less a given.

The general level of pessimism contained within the Orkney rhyme over prospects for the crop can be noted – only when the wind is southerly is the harvest likely to be decent. And there’s humour in that as well as, probably, grim historical reality. Fortunately, yesterday here on the Range the wind was due south all day, at least until 6pm when it switched right around to NNW. So, there’s some room for debate but, given that 6pm is after most of the growth is done for the day, I’m calling the 1 May wind as a southerly – so, that means there’ll be ‘bread for every mouth’. (And therefore beer too, of course.)

Encyclopedia Brittanica reports the conditions for good wheat production as follows:

‘Weather that is comfortable for humans is also good for wheat. Wheat needs 12 to 15 inches (31 to 38 centimeters) of water to produce a good crop. It grows best when temperatures are warm, from 70° to 75° F (21° to 24° C), but not too hot. Wheat also needs a lot of sunshine, especially when the grains are filling. Areas with low humidity are better since many wheat diseases thrive in damp weather.…’

So, if the Orkney rhyme is to be believed, and can also hold true for over here in the west, we’re likely to have a warm, sunny, non-humid and not too wet summer. Probably, there ought not to be too much wind, either. That would do me.

Book review: Autumn

Just this side of Easter, Spring having sprung; and Calvin is writing about autumn. He must spend his hours wishing his life away.

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Our first 2018 daffodil (taken last Monday, 10am)… now joined by dozens more daffs and narcissus. This, of course, is ‘Spring’.

And this, of course, is ‘Autumn’. By which I mean Ali Smith‘s first in Seasonal, a series of a promised four stand-alone novels (‘Winter’ has indeed already arrived, a signed copy of which sits on my shelf) documenting life in modern Britain. It may well be the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, although the publishers here have done little favour to a tale that, while written substantially after the 2016 referendum, is not about Brexit but one which brings to the fore the ever-constant themes of time (as befits a series of novels on the cyclical aspects of nature) and of love – mental, emotional, physical; between men and women; between mothers and daughters; of books and literature; of art; of ideas, and of the idea of vivacity; and of country, of what it was and what it is becoming – against the backdrop of the social and relationship changes in the UK brought before, and then by, the referendum itself.

The plot centres on Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art lecturer in an insecure, untenured world; and her relationship with Daniel Gluck, a centenarian and wordsmith who arrived in the UK from war-torn Europe, a neighbour whom she first gets to know as a young girl and from whom she learns many life lessons. Gluck is near death – a source of and explanation for the novel’s many dream sequences – and the symbolism of the key events in his life for the UK’s relationship with the rest of the continent on which it sits, so often uneasily, is clear. As, indeed, is the wise old man-enquiring young girl-in-search-of-a-(grand)father-figure symbolism; and it’s fair to wonder why Daniel Gluck could not, instead, have been Daniela: a wise old woman occupying the same role, and in charge of the same dynamic impetus, is definitely a character in search of a novel.

Ali Smith fans will know what to expect from ‘Autumn’ – endlessly, energetically and artistically inventive with both prose and punctuation, and with textual layout (half of me thinks she must be a nightmare to sub-edit; the other half, a dream because there can be no requirement for subbing), ‘Autumn’ consists of a playful rolling and tumbling of words off the page; parenthetical asides from author to reader; dialogue entirely without speech marks; a timeline that jumps around all over the place; characters who talk to themselves in realistically incomplete, sometimes coherent, sometimes incoherent sentences; and dream sequences that take the reader on apparently unconnected flights of fancy. All this plus the non-linear narrative won’t make this a book which will please everyone and neither, I suspect, will it turn unconverted Smith fans into proselytisers – by itself an interesting comment on the state of public discourse on the big issue of the day.

The way that Smith manages to thread into her novel her research and her reading – chiefly into pop-art and sixties London, again a contemporary theme, judging by one London hotel I’ve recently stayed in – is likely to subject her to criticisms that she has clumsily shoe-horned a ragbag of material into it. This, in turn, and owing to the deliberately short timescale of the novel (it seems to incorporate even a pun on the title of the novel of eventual fellow-shortlisted, and actual Booker winner, George Saunders) is likely to entrench criticism that the book was (too-)hastily written (and, in that context, over-hasty in its search for the tag ‘gifted’ it by the publisher). Rather, I would see this – in combination with the ways in which Smith has adroitly weaved her themes into the novel; her characterful vignettes of modern UK life and the absurdities of the interface of ordinary people with bureaucratic regulation; and of the juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane – as emblematic of the collages of Pauline Boty, the actress, model and pop-artist whose work underpins both the development of the plotlines in ‘Autumn’ and in its overall approach: a riot of colour and apparently abstract thematic disconnectedness but which nevertheless tends towards a statement, a position, a theme, or a development in time. Much, it would seem, like autumn itself.

I’m writing this review on the day ‘celebrating’ the one-year anniversary of the UK government’s triggering of the mechanism to leave the EU. The hope is that, like autumn gives way to winter, but then to spring, the events brought by the referendum will, perhaps eventually and after a painful period, bring new growth and new life; the fear is that, as cyclical as these things are, this may instead lead to a return of the UK to its time of Empire, a retreat into the past in an era when the problems of our time can only be resolved by coming together. Either way – and just as how ‘Autumn’ draws to an end on an unexpectedly positive note – we can take comfort in taking the long-term view: that things are never constant and subject always to change, however difficult and full of foreboding they might look in the short-term. Time is, as Smith herself might have put it, timeless.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

A proper May Day Bank Holiday but, with no demos or rallies to join here on the islands – remember folks: the struggles of the labour movement brought you bank holidays and weekends, and we’d like to give you more, too – choice of BH activity was a little closer to home.

After the hiatus of a few days away in Brussels, the first part of 2017’s biannual battle against the invasion of the dandelions needed to be re-engaged with some alacrity, while plants bought fairly recently in Perth were starting to show some signs of needing planting out. I managed to get underway with our plans for our east-facing garden in Uist – essentially re-instating a rockery garden forming a middle way between a grassy strip at the top and a ‘wild’ area at the bottom – a couple of weeks back by stripping out moss and grass overgrowing the rockery’s retaining stone wall. This bank holiday’s project has been to start digging out the grass (and dandelions) from the old rockery, lifting and relocating daffodils as required, and planting out some new spring (and autumn) colour via heathers, sedums and other ground cover plants such as spreading conifers and junipers. Here we are with some progress:

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Retaining wall with overgrowing greenery removed. The rockery will be the sloping section upwards as far as the flatter grassy area at the top – a quite substantial area given that it extends more than the full length of the house, other than a small apron connecting strip off pic to the left, and is about 8′ in width.

IMG_5387 (Custom)Some grass dug out, and a few plants put in. More will be added.

The garden fence (which admittedly does need a lick of paint) is looking otherwise resplendent in the late afternoon sunshine – and it was indeed a gorgeous day today here on Uist: a high of 18.1C at 5pm puts it quite comfortably the hottest day of the year so far and, with little or no breeze in the late afternoon, it was also just a touch too early in the year for the midges to be thinking of doing any damage. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ goes the phrase – to which, we might add, especially when it shines on a bank holiday; so, I did, accompanied by bubbling lapwings sky-diving, the call of larks ascending and the gentle braying of eiders in the bay (think of a slightly excited Frankie Howerd), as well as bees intoxicated to have found some new heather to buzz through. (By the way, here is the unparalleled Met Office forecast for the Range for the week ahead, featuring a sunshine graphic all the way. I have literally never seen that before.) And accompanied also by the stillest, most perfectly milky blue sea, seen at low tide’s distance. We are keenly awaiting the arrival of our corn crakes when, to some degree alas, idyllic peace will be once again deferred (the male’s ‘crek crek‘ call – akin to the teeth of a plastic comb being scraped across the edge of a matchbox – can feature up to 20,000 times a night, over some six hours. And especially between midnight and 3am). Reports are here of corncrakes already in Askernish, to the south of us; and we had two, sometimes three, around the house, including one spotted running (actually, to be fair, probably more high stepping) through our ‘wild’ grass, last summer.

Furthermore, there was 15 1/2 hours of daylight today and sunset – at 9.14pm tonight – will, in about ten days or so, be visible from our lounge window looking north as it sinks into the sea.

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Ardivachar beach, picture taken 21:07.

After a damp and cloudy spring, and some cold northerly winds last week which sent the wind chill factor to below freezing, it seems like summer may have arrived.