Another musical nostalgia-fest for me here. I wanted to share a recording of what has been one of my favourite rock tracks of all-time. No matter how often I listen to this, I never tire of it - the track Nantucket Sleighride by the American rock band Mountain:
This is another band and track to which, like Rory Gallagher, I was introduced by my Uncle David when I was a little lad (maybe 12?). Mountain were an amazing hard rock combo, based around "man-mountain" guitarist Leslie West (vying occasionally for the title of tubbiest guitarist in rock history) and bassist Felix Pappalardi (probably vying for the title of coolest name in rock!). Amazingly, West, Pappalardi and their long-term drumming member Corky Laing are still playing live all over the world today (West seems a bit slimmer these days in the recent Youtube videos I've seen - a bit like Meatloaf, who's also half the man he used to be but in a good way!).
So, Nantucket Sleighride, the title of the track (and the album on which it appeared) is a moving tribute to Owen Coffin, a young whaler who set sail, at the age of 17, on the whaling ship Essex out into the Pacific Ocean on a sperm whale-hunting expedition in August 1819, under the command of his cousin, George Pollard, Jr. As described on Wikipedia: "In November the next year, a whale rammed and stove in the hull of the Essex in mid-Pacific, and the ship sank steadily... The crew of the Essex escaped in small whaleboats, with sufficient supplies for two months, but were not rescued in that time. During January 1821, the near-starved survivors began to eat the bodies of those who died. When even this resource ran out, the four men remaining in Pollard's boat agreed to draw straws to decide which of them should be slaughtered, lest all four die of starvation. Coffin 'won' the lottery, and was shot and eaten." Poor bloody little lad probably never stood a chance as the youngest in a bunch of desperate, starving men.
Readers/ listeners of a certain vintage might recognise the refrain in this track - it was used during the 1970's and up to 1988, as the theme music for London Weekend Television's excellent current affairs programme "Weekend World", shown up here on Scottish Television (STV).
More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.
“The gentle sun cobwebs brightly
his black cap, his crimson breastplate”
Norman MacCaig (From: “Bullfinch on guard in a hawthorn tree”, December 1980)
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
This charming picture shows some of Autumn’s bounty of fruit being enjoyed by one of Britain’s most attractive birds (in my humble opinion). Here, as a car that looks like a psychedelic purple Hillman Minx disappears over the brow of a dip in the road, a pair of bullfinches are feeding on the berries of a road-side elder bush. In the bottom left of the picture, the golden autumnal leaves of a dwarf maple are growing under a heavily fruiting rowan or mountain ash tree, with its clumps of bright red berries.
The Scots gaelic name for the bullfinch is corcan-coille, which I think means “forest finch”, but it has managed to adapt to a wide range of the habitats that humans have carved out of the original forests of Britain. The BTO advises that the bullfinch is most commonly found in scrub habitats but also commonly in deciduous woods, pasture lands, villages and coniferous woods. Although a delightful bird to look at, the bullfinch has a bad reputation with gardeners since its diet, as an adult, is based on soft fruits, and the buds and new shoots of fruit trees and bushes, something g mentioned in the text accompanying this picture. In terms of the fate of bullfinches in Britain, the BTO reports that the UK’s Bullfinch population “entered a long period of decline in the mid 1970s, following a period of relative stability. The decline was initially very steep, and more so in farmland than in wooded habitats, but has been shallower since the early 1980s.”
Although the exact causes are not clear, it is possible that “agricultural intensification and a reduction in the structural and floristic diversity of woodland are suspected to have played a part through losses of food resources and nesting cover”. There is also a suggestion that predation by sparrowhawks may limit the colonisation of certain habitats by bullfinches. Recent figures show a slight upturn although, in Scotland, this has been more marked, with an estimated 30% increase in population between 2003 and 2008. This reflects my own, admittedly anecdotal, experience, that bullfinches are much more common in the Stirling area than when I first moved here over 20 years ago. I certainly see many more pairs in our garden and in nearby parkland woods than I used to, perhaps a response to efforts to improve marginal habitats on farmland through the so-called agri-environment schemes – and perhaps an effect of more gardeners deliberately planting fruit-bearing bushes and trees to benefit fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds. Whatever the reason, it is, to my mind, a welcome return.
Incidentally, one of the nature writers whose work I most admire, Ray Collier, has written a little article about bullfinches in the Highlands. Ray, retired after a career spent working for the government’s nature conservation organisations, is one of the contributing writers for the Guardian newspaper’ s daily “Nature Diary”. He writes beautifully in those articles, little vignettes of the natural history of the Highlands and his daily experiences and encounters, often while walking his dog. I commend his Guardian articles to you - his bullfinch text can be read here, where you can also access his other writing - under the April 2010 heading.
Both the rowan and the elder in full fruit are very powerful images of the bounty of Autumn, the energy of the Sun captured in fruity form, a highly attractive source of energy for birds building their fat stores for the winter ahead. I’ve already written about both the rowan or mountain ash) here and the elder here, so I won’t add more now, other than to say that we have managed to find ways to use both kinds of fruit in our wild food experiments – rowan berries going into rowan jelly for when we have wild Scottish venison (which a local butcher buys in from the Cairngorms National Park red deer culls), and elder variously into hedgerow jams, a somewhat failed cordial (WITH VINEGAR – IT WASN’T GOOD) and into a black berry (as opposed to purely blackberry, if you see what I mean?) fruit coulis(brambles, blackcurrants, elder) to go on ice cream. We’ve also have elderberry clumps dipped in batter and deep fried (tempura elderberries!) – deep-fried fruit? Well, this is Scotland, you know!
As for the so-called dwarf maple in the picture, with its golden Autumnal leaves, I’m afraid it is not something I can track down – it might simply represent a typical maple species that has grown in a dwarf form as a result of continued pruning/ cutting. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you anything more about it!
Among a lifetime of evil, insane actions and twisted self-serving policies by and for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, perhaps one of the worst from an ecological perspective was his attempt to eliminate the marsh-dwelling Arabs of the huge reedbeds and marshes of southern Iraq by draining the marshes where they lived and which provided them with their livelihoods, food building materials and food, and on which their ancient culture was based.
12,000 kilometres squared of marshes, lying between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the area known historically as Mesopotamia (literally "between the rivers" in ancient Greek), this area is widely regarded as the cradle of Western civilisation, maybe the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. The birth of agriculture, cities, writing all began there.
Before Saddam's insane plan, around 250,000 marsh Arabs lived there. Millions of tonnes of desert soils were imported and used to build large embankments to divert river waters away from the marshes into huge drainage canals. The consequent disastrous drying up of the marshes destroyed this massively productive ecosystem with a 90% loss of area and the breaking up of the indigenous marsh Arab population until only a few thousand remained. Huge populations of birds either died out or left, reedbeds dried out and turned to dust, and fisheries were destroyed. When Saddam's regime was overthrown in 2003, localized breaches in embankments were undertaken in an unco-ordinated ad hoc way, leading to some restoration.
But the process really took off when an ex-pat Iraqi, Azzam Alwash, now a successful owner of an engineering firm in California, returned to the area and began working to restore the marshes. In due course, he established a conservation organisation, Nature Iraq, to lead the work on what is now probably the world's largest habitat restoration project. Struggling with droughts, declining water in the rivers due to upstream dams, e.g. in Turkey, and the difficulties of working in the dangerous security nightmare conditions of post-invasion Iraq, they have nevertheless managed to restore large tracts of marshland and the reedbeds, birds and fish are returning, in some case quite spectacularly. And the people are coming back, with the prospect of a vibrant repopulated "Garden of Eden".
The link above provides more information and a video, based on a BBC2 documentary about the project. More power to the people taking back their land, their water and their inheritance!
Not more Rory Gallagher? Whatever happened to all that nature stuff this blog? Well, don't panic. I just fancied sharing another true favourite track of mine, "Out on the western plain" by Rory Gallagher. He performed this song without his band, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar each time I saw him do it live, a fabulous performance each time. If I could do this, I could die happy... I hope you enjoy it. Back to nature tales soon, I promise...
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of the late, great Rory Gallagher, Ireland's finest-ever guitarist. Feeling a little sad tonight, I turned to this great performance of a melancholy song for the mood I was in and now I think it needs to be shared. I hope you enjoy it too.