The humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan popularized the term “topophilia” after observing that people from all sorts of cultures around the world tend to identify one sort of landscape as the ideal, and that people do best when we have access to that landscape. One of his observations was that when given their choice, people preferred a gently rolling, well-watered (but not swampy), grassy landscape with scattered copses and clumps of trees. A savanna, in other words, but not flat. The presence of good grass and trees appealed to both herders and farmers, because it shows good soil and steady grazing. The scattered trees provide shelter but don’t block the view, and people like views. They like to see what’s around them, what’s coming.

People relate to our landscape in various ways. We sort out what is good from what is less good, and what is downright dangerous. This over here would be a great farm, that over there should probably stay managed woodland, and avoid that boggy place that smells bad. We fall in love with landscapes, or reject them for a host of reasons. I grew up on the High Plains, which are semi-arid steppe grasslands. The first summer I lived in the Midwest, I boggled at the thick, black soil and the lush grass even in mid-July. Green ditches are not natural. Ditch grass is brown. But in that part of the world? It is a wonderful landscape that has to be maintained by people, or large areas revert to wetland and marsh. Other parts would become forest. The landscape today is flat to gently rolling, with clumps of trees, large swaths of domestic grasses, and semi-managed watercourses. Sound familiar? It’s beautiful, fertile, prosperous, and a bit rough during winter, with the occasional tornado, derecho, and giant hail in summer.

One of the things that Yuan tried to impress on people, especially urban planners, is that people need greenspaces. I remember reading an account from LA, where well meaning urban planners descended on a ghetto/barrio area with designs for a community center and pool and other amenities that would benefit residents. The residents informed the planners in no uncertain terms that they did NOT want another swath of cement that happened to have a pool and community center. They wanted trees, and grass, and growing things. This was in the ’60s, when the concrete and steel school of urban landscaping and city planning was still hanging on. In this case, the planners listened, and after to-ing and fro-ing, a new urban greenspace appeared in the form of a park with some trails and sports fields and trees. A savanna, in other words.

All people related to our environment in some way. We may reject it and seek another, we may sample a variety of landscapes and decide on a particular one where we want to dwell, we change our current surroundings in order to better fit what we prefer. Some people try to shape landscapes (notably urban ones) in order to remake society in the image they prefer. Others attempt to put the environment under glass, to preserve a perfect “pristine” world that never actually existed, and that is not stable. If there is weather, and sunlight, and the occasional plant, you cannot have an unchanging “climax state” in the ecosystem. In fact, the idea of climax states has gone out the window. We may prefer the land to be a certain way, but often we have to keep it so by burning, or irrigating, or draining, or adding trees, removing trees . . . We’re as bad as beaver and bison, except we have thumbs.


Book Review: The Forager’s Calendar

Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)

I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)

The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.

Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)

The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.

The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.

As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.

I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)

This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.

Since the Rain . . .

“Oh, things look so much better, darlin’.” (Ian Tyson, “Since the Rain)

The part of Texas north of I-40 was blessed with two and a half days of rain, culminating in a huge rain shield that covered everything from the interstate north to Kansas and that left between two and eight (!) inches of rain all over. It was a tropical sort of system, bringing steady rain for hours on end, without much wind, and only a few embedded thunderstorms. They were what the Navajo call “female rains.”

I’m far more used to “male rain:” thunderstorm rains that explode, dump rain and hail for a short period of time, and then move away or collapse in place and stop raining. Most of the area’s moisture now comes between April-June with that type of storm. Sometimes storms “train,” forming lines that move over the same area over and over and flood a small patch or strip of territory. Others look like chicken-pox on the radar: a bunch of little red dots that give small patches of land a good drenching. And there are three-inch rains. A few drops three inches apart, usually preceded by flying mudballs.

The first day on Hadrian’s Wall, the morning was overcast. Then the misty cold rain began, blowing sideways as I picked my slow, panting, flat-lander’s way up onto The Sill to walk more of the route of Hadrian’s Wall. It was the sort of weather I’d expected Yorkshire and Scotland to have, and while it wasn’t fun, it was a very nice change from the 100 F + heat back in Texas. Instead of the veils and streamers of blue-grey I usually see when there’s good visibility around showers, it was grey and hazy where the rain fell. I never got truly drenched, but dampness soaked into my trousers and spotted my glasses.

It was rather more gloomy than this exposure suggests. New Lanark, from the famous viewpoint.

The only other day of serious rain was at New Lanark. It had showered on us the afternoon before, when we walked from the mills up to the falls on the Tweed and back. The trees broke up most of the rain, and it’s supposed to be wet in Scotland, yes? The next morning, a steady drenching poured down from low clouds. It was a good morning to be doing museums and poking around the gift shop (great if you are a knitter or do needle art, or like to read about knitting and needle art.) From there we drove almost due west, toward Ardrossan. The rain surrounded us, very heavy and dark, with mist devouring the rolling green landscape. The thickest fog and low cloud met us at Louden Hill.

Louden Hill, where a lot of history and prehistory happened. Creative Commons Fair use. Original source:

The clouds almost skimmed the base of the mound. It was distinctly eerie, not that my imagination needs much help. We were passing the cold front. Just past Louden Hill, the sky abruptly rose, and bits of blue had started to appear when we pulled up to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan.

Departing Ardrossan harbor . . .

It’s easy to see why large swaths of Britain are so green and lush. Now, all I want back here is “clear blue skies—and eighteen inches of rain!” (Ian Tyson, “Eighteen Inches of Rain)

Border Abbeys III: Kelso and Dryburgh

After poking around Melrose, we wandered west to visit Kelso and Dryburgh.

All you need is water, and acidic soil, and soft sunlight, and water, and . . .
Just growing beside a driveway in Melrose. SIGH.

So, the first stop was Kelso. Kelso is in town, and always has been, a bit like Jedburgh. It was founded in 1113 by King David I. They were Tironensians, named for their founding location of Tiron in France. They were new at the time, being a reformed Benedictine order founded in 1109. The monastic orders were undergoing a lot of reform, upgrades, changes, and “back to the Bible” movements, in part kicked into action by the founding of the Cistercians. The Tironensian Order was never all that common in Britain, especially compared to the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians, but David I and his successors approved of their Rule and goals, and gave them several properties in Scotland.

Located near the strategic fortress of Roxburgh, Kelso was the largest and wealthiest monastery in Scotland at one point. The Romanesque remains hint at the glory of the abbey, its wealth partly built on royal patronage and partly on sheep.

Unfortunately, Kelso, like Jedburgh and Riveaulx, sat on a popular invasion route, especially during the Scottish Wars of Independence. It was sacked in the 1290s and early 1300s, and again during Henry VIII’s “Rough Wooing” of a Scottish princess for his son Edward. Something about “I’ll keep burning, looting, and pillaging until you defeat me multiple times, or you give me your daughter.” The bulk of the abbey’s buildings were destroyed or severely damaged in 1545, and once the Reformation began, the Tironensian Order was no longer acknowledged in Scotland. The monks faded out and when the last ones died in 1586, the remains of the abbey were given to the local parish to use as a town church.

Towering Kelso.

As with other abbeys in Scotland, when the Reformation came, the abbey became a Protestant parish church, and served that function until the 1770s, when a new church was completed in 1773. The abbey became a quarry for local building needs, then was the focus of Romantic painters and writers until preservation began. This photo above is the only one I was able to get. The ruins and the park around them are off-limits because of the two years of no repairs, and the town is built close around the base. I’m more or less standing in the street for this shot, taken between passing cars.

Dryburgh Abbey is out in the country, with a very, very nice country hotel now next door. Dryburgh was Premonstratiensian, and was founded under the patronage of the Constable of Scotland in 1150. The monks moved in in 1152. Dryburgh was never as large or as wealthy as the other Border abbeys, and so looked and acted more like a typical monastery. It is near the River Tweed (and to my delight, a gent was fly-fishing in the Tweed when I poked my head around some trees to see the river.)

Sir Walter Scott and Douglas Haig are both buried here. You can see repair survey in progress.
As close as I could get.

A remote, rural setting was not enough to protect Dryburgh, and it too was hit by the English in 1322 (Edward II) and the 1380s, and 1544. In 1443, an accidental fire also did a great deal of damage. The abbey slid into decline until by 1584, only two brothers remained in the abbey. The church was taken over and sold. The landscape around it, and the Romantic ruins, were turned into a landscape park by David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan. Specimen trees dot the landscape, including the copper beech below:

There’s also a Sequoiah, but I couldn’t lean back far enough to get a picture.
A shady Scottish lane outside the abbey grounds.

The staff at Dryburgh were delightful people, and were quite happy to answer questions and to open up the shop once we knocked. Alas, my thoughts on the management of the property were far less pleasant, but that’s not the fault of the folks on the ground.

(For those curious, the Wikip article about Dryburgh is less about the church than about the order and the politics of the time around the abbey. It’s not bad as Wikip goes, but I got the sense that Dryburgh was the excuse for the larger article. YMMV)

Random Musings and Observations

If you are going to drive on a regular basis like a flying mammal fleeing an infernal region, putting 1) your child’s name and school, 2) your place of worship, 3) your political affiliation, or 4) your employer on your vehicle is not a really great idea.

If you are approaching a small town, and notice everyone else on the highway is starting to slow down well before the first change speed sign, this might be A Clue.

A cat’s interest in your lap is directly proportional to your interest in using a laptop computer or notepad.

Don’t bother planning a trip to Central Texas in mid-summer if you aren’t resigned to heat and humidity. And no, down there it’s not a “dry heat.”

One of the nicest things about being in a foreign country is the lack of US political news. And US celebrity news, and US sports news, and . . .

You always find the perfect book for the trip on the leg home, or after you return.

There’s nothing like finding an e-mail message from your boss when you get back from any trip to remind you that vacations are finite but work expands to fill all available space and time.

Nothing likes the July heat except cacti and tomatoes, and even tomatoes like a little bit more water.

Consider the (Day) Lilies of the Field . . .

OK, iris, but in my defense, they both grow on tall stalks, have large leaves, and need support when the wind starts howling. Like Tuesday, when it was 70 MPH with visibility in town of 1/4 mile in dirt. (Followed by mudballs, then rain and hail. Gotta love May.)

Iris and roses.
Yellow iris and red Columbine. The yellow Columbine have not been as aggressive this year. Yet. . . Yet.
Iris, dianthus (the low pink thing), spring Buddleia, and rose.
Old faithful miniature rose. It hangs out beside the patio and is the sole survivor of twelve years and six roses.
Yes, spring has sprung and the salvia are out to conquer the world.
As I was saying . . . even the garden shark is threatened by the salvia.

Spring is Springing

Apparently the winter was good for iris. That, or they have decided to take over the world. And if not the world, the flowerbeds will do.

Iris with an adoring fan. These are in the back garden, where they have some room to sprawl, because they do.

Some wall flowers, which were found stuffed off in a corner of the WalMart™ garden center last year and brought home to an appreciative home.

The iris are from the local iris society, which has an annual mix-n-match sale.

Iris and columbine, both of which like to take over if you turn your back on them.
Speaking of taking over, the usual suspect (salvia) is taking over the front flowerbed. Again. It needs to be trimmed back, lest it eat all of North America.
The dreaded Lesser Garden Shark stalks the penstemon.

RedQuarters aims for a sort of “native plant cottage garden” look. At least that’s the official designation. It’s more “color that won’t die instantly” in real world terms.

A new arrival. We swore off new roses this year. That lasted ten minutes.
Old faithful Gertrude Jekyll, aka Gertrude, still going strong after 30+ years.

Wisteria Trees

Well, perhaps not really trees. Bushes isn’t quite right, either, since we are talking about vines with ambition that have grown into waist to chest high plants with twisting trunks and twining stems that thicken into curving tangles of branches.

How many wisteria grow. Creative Commons Fair use. Source:

Others are grown over doorways, although I have yet to see a wisteria around here as, let us say enthusiastic, as the one below.
All you need is mild weather, acid soil, and lots of water . . . Source:

Wisteria species plants are found in Asia and in North America. The Asian varieties tend to be more aggressive than native species, but both bloom and tend to be comparatively low pollen producers. Both can be trained up things, or can grow into “trees.” Around here, the tree form is more common. This isn’t really prime wisteria territory because it is so dry and we get such capricious freezes. Last year, and the nasty hard cold snap in April 2020, really did a number on the wisteria around RedQuarters. I thought the across-the-way neighbors had lost their small wisteria tree, because it lost both blooms and leaves. The thing struggled on, and is doing well this year.

This is what most of the local wisteria look like, but darker and much shorter.

All the wisteria around here are Asian varieties. I suspect the greater hardiness and faster growth is more important than “taking over the place” the way the plants do in gentler climes. The order of spring bloom tends to be daffodils, Bradford Pear, Prunus trees, redbuds, then the wisteria and forsythia. If you are going to plant a wisteria, ideally you do it when it is dormant. The flowers only come on new growth, so do not prune it in spring! No, resist the urge to “tidy it up for Easter.” Wait until later. They can get top-heavy, so a support of some kind is often recommended. If you grow it over a doorway, you will probably need to water it more often, especially if your house faces west because the plant will bake in the summer afternoons. Keep the roots well shaded with mulch, and be a little generous with the water – occasional longer soakings are better than daily quick drinks. (This is also true for other plants, including yard grass. Water less often, but longer, and let the grass grow longer to shade the roots. You garden and water bills will thank you.)

The web-site below has lots of good information.

Trees Like Clouds

The wind settled, and I did not have rehearsal. Tasks awaited my attention, but instead I put hat on head, took up my walking cane, and went forth into the evening. Along with a goodly number of other people. It was spring, and comfortable out, with no wind and a minimum of dust.

This has been a good year for Bradford pear blooms. All the pears peaked at the same time, something unusual for this area, and clouds of white hovered along the streets or around houses. In the evening light, the globes and mounds of white floated over the ground like summer puffies afraid of heights. Soon they will begin to send blizzards and showers of white petals onto the yards and passing strollers, but that evening, the flowers clung tight to the branches, almost glowing a little in the evening light. The distinctive scent, not entirely pleasant but certainly noticeable, grew and faded as I walked past each tree or row of trees.

The redbud trees bloomed earlier, and had begun to fade, but the plums and crab-apples seemed to be half-way to peak. Dark purple and purple-red flowers appeared as if scattered by an enchanter along gnarled black twigs and branches. Out of nothing – flowers. “Let there be petals” and there were petals, to misquote Genesis. I can see why the Japanese and others have festivals around the blooming of the trees, because they seem to produce life from barrenness. There are fewer plums and crab-apples than pears in my neighborhood. An infestation of borers, and age, took their toll on the plums and crab-apples a few years ago, and the younger trees have not really gotten large and craggy yet. Far more white caught the eye than did red or purple.

The last freeze, in theory, will come around April eighteen. This means that the wisteria and forsythia are courting danger if they bloom early, and they have been caught before. Two years ago a very hard freeze and snow hammered the wisteria, and it seemed as if two of the neighborhood collection had succumbed. No, they straggled back, determined to prove that they can survive out here, if not thrive. The “tree wisterias” that I pass have a very few, somewhat tentative blooms, but lots of catkins that hint at a large bloom for Easter. I hope they make it. The forsythia is warming up, and tried to attack me with yellow-dotted withies as I passed. It needs a bit of a haircut, but later, after it blooms. It looks like a chest-high, brown pompom with a few yellow spots. By Friday it should be in full bloom. Perhaps.

The hawthorn tree, however, was having none of it. It knows better. The hawthorn has a few buds, but stands in thorny determination to remain bare until all danger has passed. It got hit hard in 2011, when we had an April cold snap that dropped temperatures to 24 with screaming north winds and a dewpoint of -5. The roses turned into rose-jerky, they dried out so badly. The hawthorn lost all of its leaves. Never again. It does not bud out anymore until very, very late in April or even early May.

The tulips and daffodils were at peak as I strolled. Some Daffodils in especially warm and sunny places had already started to fade, after an early start. There are traditional King Alfred daffodils, but also a number of odds-and-ruffles. Small or tall, white or orange or yellow, they announce the arrival of spring, even if gardeners have to hurry out and brush the snow off of them.

The air smelled soft, no dusty but not crisp or moist, either. No unusual scents teased my nose. No one was doing laundry, or grilling, or running the smoker. That will be next week, with Easter, and for some, a three or four day weekend. No, it was just a lovely evening full of playing kids, dogs being walked, and people just jogging or strolling.