When descends on the Atlantic
Storm-wind of the equinox,
Landward in his wrath he scourges
The toiling surges,
Laden with seaweed from the rocks:
Seaweed, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Collecting seaweed on Ardivachar beach
Exactly a year ago, I wrote about the kelp forests which lie offshore to the west of the Outer Hebrides and are part of the complex marine ecosystem of the shallow waters of the North Atlantic. After a winter storm large amounts of kelp and other marine algae are deposited on shores, providing food for wintering shorebirds and an invaluable supply of organic seaweed for the islands’ crofters and gardeners.
This winter has been particularly stormy with a succession of severe westerly gales throughout November, December and January. I had expected that large amounts of weed would be thrown up onto the beach, but still I was surprised by the sheer mass of tangle. At the northern end of our beach the piles of seaweed were over 2m deep and extended for 500m or more. So collecting seaweed was a job for a JCB and a convoy of tractors with large trailers.
The use of seaweed as organic fertiliser is a traditional practice but until recently it had fallen into decline as many crofters either do not have the time or equipment to enable them to make the most of this apparently ‘free’ fertiliser. The costs arise from the use of machinery and fuel for collection. However, with the rising costs of inorganic fertilisers and a demonstration of the effectiveness of seaweed on crop yields, the Machair Life+ project has encouraged a resurgence of this practice. With the end of the project insight it will be interesting to see whether the large-scale collection of seaweed which has been organised and funded by Machair Life+ will continue.
The kelp is dumped in large mountains on the edge of the machair and in April it will be spread over the cultivated strips using muck spreaders. The machair is held in common by the townships (crofting villages) and each croft has a number of strips and a souming (number and type of stock each croft can graze on a common grazings). The strips were originally allocated by lot to ensure an even distribution of good and poor land. These are cultivated on rotation: small oats and rye (for cattle feed) are grown for 2 years and then the land is left fallow for 2 years. The soil is thin and poor so the seaweed is a valuable source of organic matter and trace nutrients.
While the westerly gales persist the kelp will continue to accumulate on the beach, buts as soon as the wind changes and there is a northerly blow, it will all disappear. A testament to the power of the wind and waves. So the windows of opportunity are small and I’m expecting my ten tons of seaweed for the garden to be delivered any day now.
Moving through the night
Running from the grand ennui
(Cole Porter 1934, Michael Nesmith 1971)
Reading Girl, Théodore Roussel, 1886-7,
Photo: © Tate, London (2014)
The himalaya of ironing is behind closed doors, the spice jars are vibrating and chuntering with neglect, the soup pan is slumbering and the computer is consigned to the darkness for daring to suggest that I have writers’ block. Another wet and windy afternoon and I’m supine on the sofa surrounded by books. Fighting the grand ennui, overcome by melancholia? No, I am time traveling.
The children of time travelers begin their training at an early age, a gentle conditioning of songs, rhymes and stories. Slowly they are introduced to the symbols of the code so that they can interpret the manuals which will guide their future travels. At the tender age of 5, led by my guide and mentor, I was taken to one of the stations where the manuals are kept and the guardian gave me a small piece of stiff green cardboard – the key to my time machine. There was no health and safety briefing, no words of warning, no boundaries, I was free to explore and travel.
As an rebellious teenager I experimented briefly with extra-terrestrial journeys, but I soon outgrew this phase and preferred to stay at earthbound. I explored Africa first with Little Black Sambo and later in the more risqué company of Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley. Noggin the Nog introduced me to the Norse Sagas and I moved on through the land of myths into the Celtic Twilight with Yeates. I learned to sail with Swallows and Amazons and then I was ready to hunt whales with Captain Ahab, get stuck in arctic ice on the Fram with Nansen, and to explore the Pacific with Captain Cook to search for terra incognita. If Puck could put a girdle around the Earth in 40 minutes, rounding the Horn in an afternoon was nothing for even a young time traveler:
The gallant frigate, Amphitrite, she lay in Plymouth Sound,
Blue Peter at the foremast head for she was outward bound;
We were waiting there for orders to send us far from home;
Our orders came for Rio, and thence around Cape Horn.
At first the adrenalin rush of pure adventure was enough, but soon I wanted more and the time came when I was ready to travel in search of knowledge. Surveying with Darwin and Fitzroy on the Beagle soon became plant hunting with Douglas in the Americas. For relaxation I might pop into the Royal Society to see the latest experiments by Robert Boyle, drop into a coffee house to eavesdrop on the latest gossip about the nabobs and traders of Honourable East India Company or see who was taking the waters at the Pump Room in Beau Brummel’s Bath.
After half a century the excitement of time travel has not paled and I still enjoy taking tea with Gilbert White as much as looking forward to the promised excursion with a new companion.
As a child I was given a great gift, an insignificant little cardboard key which opened the door to new worlds and allowed me to travel though time. My father taught me to read, introduced me to the public library and gave a little girl with insatiable curiosity and imagination permission to daydream. Sadly my father, guide and mentor died last year. My inheritance is a gift that will last me all my days and I while I can time travel I will never experience the grand ennui.
Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”