Friday, February 29, 2008

Twelve Below

Brrrrr. Cold AGAIN. I am really looking forward to our trip to Scotland and Wales, if only to have someone else be responsible for home heating for a few days. I checked the weather in Ardgay, Sutherland, close to where we'll be, and in Cardiff. Ardgay is still in winter, Cardiff in the middle of spring.

Here, we're waiting for the jet stream to move north. The standing wave of the jet stream system in the upper atmosphere controls Maine's weather at this time of year; as the jet stream waves move across, we alternate cold and mild air masses that control our temperature. Cold and mild, cold and mild. As the days lengthen, the influence of the sun begins to beat out the influence of the air mass, and so it can be warm and nice, and and feel very good in the ever-brightening sunshine in the mid-afternoon, even on a very cold day like today is expected to be, but at night the warmth is long gone.

Racing days are another feature, each day and each week brings noticeably more daylight.

In Scotland, in the far north where we're going, the weather has warmed up already from January. I expect we'll see very many fewer snowbanks, if any at all. There will be a snow line on the mountains above which life remains arctic, and that snowline will descend to sea level from time to time. But at low altitude, it will be a weak kind of snow, not the all-pervasive kind we have here. I have a six-foot snowbank in my front yard where the Kubota has been at work, and a good foot in the fields and woods.

In the Welsh valleys where my family lives, it will be warm and sunny, and there will be lambs and daffodils.

Lambs. Bliss. We too will have lambs soon, when we return. Tilley and Tootsie and Jewel and Maggie are bred and will drop sometime after the 10th. Abraram, the patriarch, will get all bolshie again defending his many offspring. Randy old bugger that he is, he's a very prolific parent and grandparent.

Watch this space, and the Sustainability Blog, for both Highlands and lamb pictures.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Highland Regeneration

Very soon, UC Wildlife Care and Education professor Amy Darcangelo, her graduate student husband Joe (who before he was a graduate student was an expert zoo display and captive wildlife habitat designer, and has a UC BA in Environmental Writing), my wife Aimee Phillippi, a PhD marine biologist and Conservation Biology professor, and myself, your sustainability blogmeister and tame environmental policy wonk and economist, will visit the 24,000 acre Scottish Highland estate of British millionaire Paul Lister.

Alladale, as the estate is known, is a traditional Highland country seat dating back to the Victorian era, when famous British industrialists and aristocrats followed the lead of the Queen herself, by setting themselves up as Highland "Lairds." One Highland historian called this process "Balmoralization" and the ethics that drove it "Balmorality."

Mr. Lister has a very different proposition, which, since I'm teaching ethics this spring, deserves at least an analytical note or two here. He proposes "rewilding" the Highlands, regenerating the Caledonian forest, re-equipping the highland ecological community with the predators that would police that forest, keeping herbivores in check, and to boot, demonstrating that this scheme is actually a more profitable land use than others for the landowner and community.

This is quite a tall order. But not impossible or out of the question, given the various regulations on wildlife and land use in effect in the UK and the Highland region.

I have a little personal experience with the "re-wilding" proposition. It turns out to be a combination of older ideas, from various sources. In the Highlands, the proposition that regenerating the native forest would prove more economically sound than other forms of land use dates back to the 1980s. I was “there” when it first became popular, and knew some of the protagonists, interesting back-to-the-landers and activists such as Bernard and Emma Planterose, Andrew Wightman, Donald McPhillemmy, Jonathan Caddy and Alan Watson of the Findhorn community. In the US, this idea came out of the radical environmental movements, and out of academic ecological restoration movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and was taken up by protagonists like Michael Soule, David Foreman, Patagonia clothing entrepreneur Doug Tompkins, and so on.

Some of the Scots "rewilders" were forestry and other graduates associated with the radical Centre for Human Ecology, then at Edinburgh University (soon to be sacked from there by a Thatcherite administration) and now at Strathclyde University. One of the founders of CHE, the eminent Dr Ulrich Loening, had sponsored much student discussion and interest in forestry. I remember he also had a sawmill, and had some of his students work in small-scale forest product harvesting and milling, centered around Edinburgh town, using over-mature ornamental trees as feedstock. So I think the root idea of regenerating the Caledonian Forest on a large scale can be loosely traced back to Loening and his students and graduate students at the Centre. Caddy, one of Loening’s students, was the Findhorn connection.

Two lasting programs emerged from the endeavors of this loosely affiliated group, the NGO Reforesting Scotland, which with its magazine of the same name, continues to be interesting and influential, and the Findhorn-based charity Trees for Life, which, although closely associated with the New Age commune, has also been influential, particularly on the Glen Affric estate. I've always liked the Reforesting Scotland ethos because it emphasizes people and wildlife in a native forest, which seems to me to be more pragmatic and less romantic.

As a partial result of this activism, in the mid 1990s, the official government-run Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural heritage both became interested in native forest plantings, and the emphasis on regeneration began to spread. Because former plantings of non-native conifers were proving uneconomical, this was partly a response to public sentiment, but also partly pragmatic. In the face of competition from "liquidation harvesting" from other global fiber and pulp producers, what form of Highland forestry would have been economical? At least in the short term? My take is that Highland foresters, who for years had depended on economic arguments for employment, switched to native forestry as a way to keep forestry alive in the Highlands.

As a result, a good deal of forest regeneration work has been attempted since then, on private reserves and on government land of different types. An earlier, and quite successful regeneration effort on the Isle of Rum, begun in the 1950s and 60s, offered lessons in "how-to" but was never intended to be anything more than an adjunct of the nature preserve there. The new ideal of Highland native forest regeneration is intended by its advocates to cover a good deal of the landscape. Very often economic arguments are invoked, as when the Planterose's set up a demonstration working private forest economy near Ullapool. I would love to know if this experiment still exists.

The forestry work is not unlike some of the ideas we have for the few acres of the Great Farm Aimee and I own and lease. Cutting to waste of non-natives. Husbandry of native seed stock. Managed grazing.

The there's the wildlife aspects, which is why Amy and Joe are involved. Both are expert in captive wildlife care. The introduction of two previously extirpated animal species have taken place already in Scotland, the sea eagle, and the osprey. The European beaver has been released, although not to the wild. Mr. Lister has introduced moose and boar to large enclosures, although not to the wild, and intends to add lynx, brown bear, gray wolf, and other extirpated species.

This intent has led local antagonists to call his estate "Jurassic Park," which seems unfair, but, believe it or not, political discourse in the UK can be even more prone to hyperbole that in the US. (if you don't believe me, listen to the UK House of Parliament's Prime Minister's Question Time on C-Span! You'll get the idea quickly.) I was exposed to a good deal of this kind of vitriolic and scathing criticism when I did my Master's thesis research. Highlanders would scathingly abuse the government agency I was studying and it's operations.

Anyway, that’s all for now, but watch this space for more to come on our Alladale experiences.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A soggy people

The British are a "soggy people," says Aimee, my lovely wife, referring to the fact that I enjoy walks in the rain while she does not.

An interesting proposition. Soggy with what? Beer? I would have to agree, thinking at least of pub crawls I have known. Water? I feel fairly dry right now.

The sheep are certainly soggy. It's been snowing, then sleeting, and now raining. Too dangerous to go to work, we have the day off. Aimee made a cake. I fed sheep, walked dogs, plowed the driveway and read a trashy novel. John le Carre.

I think I'll take the dogs for a walk in the rain. Sounds like fun. She may be right.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shepherd’s Pie, Sheffield style, circa 1960s

This is the way my mother and grandmother prepared this dish. It was always made with “Oxo,” a British brand of bouillon cubes, and served with “Henderson’s Relish,” a local Sheffield specialty. My grandfather would often grow the potatoes and onions in his “allotment” or community garden. I expect the recipe was modified from a farmhouse recipe, and passed on from earlier generations, but modified by wartime rationing like most of their recipes were. This is probably where the bouillon comes from: obviously not a traditional ingredient, but very popular during the war as a flavoring that made meat “go” further, and that was not rationed. Their recipe was never written down, and I never saw either woman consult a cookbook, not for this recipe. The optional carrots and peas are my addition.

Peel, chop and boil three or four pounds of potatoes. My mother and grandmother always used “old” winter-stored potatoes for this recipe, so they were always peeled. You could scrub some brands of Maine potatoes, instead of peeling. More nutritious.

While the potatoes are boiling, chop finely and brown two or three small onions in oil. (My mother and grandmother would have used lard.) If you wish to add some vegetables, such as peas or diced carrots, now is the time. The original recipe used neither.

Take two pounds of ground beef or lamb (They always used beef.) Brown among the onions. Crumble in one or two bouillon cubes, depending on how strong and salty they are. Vegetable bouillon should be just fine. Salt and pepper to taste. Add water or stock if you have it, until the other ingredients are just covered. Cover with a lid and simmer lightly for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, mash the potatoes.

Make a flour “roue,” or thickener, by heating some more oil or lard and mixing in some flour while continuing to heat, and add just a little of this to the simmering meat so the gravy is not watery, but don’t make it so thick it burns easily when you cook it later in the oven. My mother used “Bisto” brand gravy thickener for this part of the operation. My grandmother, an illegitimate child who was raised “in service” in a big house from age 13, knew how to make a roue.

Put the meat in a “Pyrex” or other glass baking dish. Put the potatoes on top. If your mix is just thick enough, the potatoes should not be drowned by the meat gravy. Use a fork to pat down the top, leaving lines on the surface of the potatoes. Later these lines will become nice and crispy. Do not cover.

Pop into an oven at 350 degrees until the surface is golden brown and beginning to get crispy, about twenty minutes.

Serve with Worcestershire Sauce. This is the closest you can get to “Hendy’s Relish” in the US. If you serve with another vegetable, you have “meat and two veg,” the traditional British working class square meal.