And so 2023 begins. This it the third year of my online Journal, and each year has confounded my thoughts as I sat and looked into the possible shape of the coming months. Maybe weaving plans and expectations for the year ahead is not really a wise move! But it’s a natural, human thing to do … to make shapes of the future, and to make stories of our past. Maybe all journals should be written only in retrospect. I confess that I have fewer ideas about what lies ahead in 2023 – fewer than I expected I’d have. The last 3 years have completely shaken up all our plans and expectations. I guess that is the nature of a pandemic – a global event that reshapes the world. All I can do is describe where I am now, where the UK is now, and where the wider world is now … as seen from this small corner of the Scottish highlands.
Personally we (Mike and I) still treat the pandemic as active, along with ‘flu and several other winter infections. So we live a quiet life of ‘shielding’ and wear masks when shopping etc. This is unusual now, as most people try to act as if the pandemic is over. But cases are still fluctuating, and the advice in Scotland has changed to mask wearing in crowded public places – ventilation and social distancing. There is no functioning NHS. Under-funded and overstretched for 13 years it is collapsing around us. Indeed all public services are collapsing: teachers, local government workers, train drivers, social care workers … so many are striking after 13 years of ‘austerity’ which meant pay freezes all round. The tipping point came in the final months of last year, as rocketing inflation has driven more workers to need Food Banks to even eat minimally. The UK government is doing nothing, waiting for ‘public opinion’ to turn against the strikers, and the strikers to be starved back to work. It sounds Dickensian, doesn’t it …. and it feels Dickensian too, living through it!
January …and the journey begins with some new delights. February …… and re-awakening some dormant cameras! March ….. and the indoor winter experience April …. and a look at how Covid had changed our tech. lives
So, we look forward to 2022 with hope, but tempered by the sense of Deja Vu – that we have been here before! Last year we were facing the first big Covid variant, called Delta – and wondering if the newly tested vaccines could help us through. This year we are triple vaccinated, and facing the next major Covid variant – called Omicron – and wondering what the variant will throw at us, and how we will cope!
Scotland begins 2022 with the promised ‘tsunami’ of new infections. Omicron is highly transmissible, but seems to be ‘milder’ in that the symptoms can be quite like a bad cold, and it doesn’t seem (so far) to be damaging the respiratory system as badly as Delta does. Omicron has been circulating mainly among younger adults and children, as they are the most socially active, and the least vaccinated groups. It remains to be seen how badly it will affect the older age groups, and how well the vaccines will protect us. Being among the most vulnerable group, we are especially cautious when leaving home!
For us, the ‘Pandemic Reality’ has limited us physically. There are shops and locations we haven’t visited since 2019. The shops and locations we do visit are ones we have become happy with in terms of the protection they offer. They form our new ‘comfort zone’. Wearing masks, physical distancing, limiting number in a shop at any one time, spacing while queueing, paying by card and screens at checkout points. All these are the pandemic ‘normal’. Open air or good ventilation are very important … so grocery deliveries to the gate are safest (we take items up the drive in the car, or by hand ourselves) again masks worn even outside now. Omicron is many times more transmissible than Delta, so we are super-careful!
The year and the day starts with the usual daily pattern of checking for cases in our local area, especially when planning to go out. But the numbers now are so far beyond anything we have encountered before – so we no longer feel that anywhere is ‘safe’ or ‘low risk’. So we feel we are in new and uncharted territory once again – which raises the anxiety level.
So… on to the monthly record of our journey through these partly familiar, partly uncharted waters: January – and the 3rd year of the Covid-19 Pandemic begins, and I have a new lens to play with in my photography! February – and the winter of storms continues. From Arwen to Franklin, we have clocked up 7 storms dangerous enough to be named! March – and a new variant, Omicron BA.2 sweeps through Scotland. The government acts as if the pandemic is over, and number soar locally! April – the most volatile month as winter finally gives way to spring. May – which brings Spring and Laurie to visit from Texas! June – as summer blossoms, we are in recovery mode. July – summer and the world around us gets madder! August – and it gets really hot! September – when the world here cools down! October – where autumn begins, and the summer heat is but a distant memory! November – where winter begins with a personal loss. December, where memories and winter takes hold
Well, I waited until the end of the month to write this. It has been such a tumultuous four weeks. I thought I might have a better grasp of what is going on as the month ends. There is a saying – “a week is a long time in politics” – well a month is even longer, and the landscape of our daily lives has been changing throughout September. The key word for the month is ‘SHORTAGES’ We have been warned of shortages of imported goods from outwith the UK – consumer goods – food we usually import such as fresh fruits, salad crops and vegetables – microchips for cars and electrical goods assembled here. The start of a very long list! We all know that in reality the root cause lies in Brexit, and severing ties with the EU. Next there are the shortages of people, again mainly due to Brexit. Shortages in nurses, health care workers and lorry drivers, to name but a few. Then there are new emerging shortages, in gas supplies, supplies of CO2, and finally as the month draws to an end, petrol. ALL of these could have been predicted, and many could have been addressed and tackled months or even years ago. Brexit was always going to mean an exodus of workers in many key areas where wages are low, from seasonal fruit picking to NHS and care home workers to bar/hotel/restaurant staff. We knew that way back in 2016! Among the less obvious were HGV drivers – on whom we depend for the distribution of just about everything. Since Beeching destroyed the rail infrastructure in the 1960s the ever deteriorating road infrastructure has had to handle ever more and ever bigger haulage vehicles. And September 2021 has laid bare the extent of the problem …. as we all queue at the petrol stations hoping to keep our essential cars (public transport is a thing of the past, along with rail travel) on the road. So we are being educated about the 2017 decision to close our UK gas storage tanks, which used to give us 70% emergency supply. Now we have 2% emergency back-up, compared with 100% and more in France and Germany. And gas is used in electricity generation – so we are looking at power cuts this winter! CO2 we learn is used in abattoirs for slaughtering pigs and chickens. This shortage will mean inhumane slaughtering, and reduced food supplies on supermarket shelves. Oh yes! A trip to the supermarket is now a guessing game … guessing how many items on your shopping list will be available! Supplies might appear if there is a delivery (HGV drivers permitting) – or not, if there have been production problems, importation problems etc. etc. This excuse for a UK government keeps calling on the ‘wartime spirit’ (as they seem to live in the past!) …. well, they are doing a fine job of returning us all to rationing!
And as if all these practical problems were not enough to keep us all concerned, Scotland saw a massive surge in Covid infection rates through August, and in September the rates have finally begun to stabilise and even fall. But whereas the rise was meteoric – the fall is proving to be painfully slow!
In our corner of the country the Covid cases are everywhere. The darker the colour the greater the infections per 100,000. And although we are a largely rural area the infections are reaching us all. In my own small administrative district here we are nearly 500 per 100,00.
So September has had the feeling of being battered from all directions! But happily nature is unaware of our human preoccupations, and this year despite the late Spring and poor rainfall through the growing season, we have had a good crop of plums from our Victoria plum tree!
And in the protected south-facing porch the geraniums I keep in pots have been a glorious display of pink….
And the month has not been barren on the creative front! I have been painting in watercolour and also keeping my cameras busy too. We have not been able to get out into the lovely landscapes and seascapes of Aberdeenshire as much as we would like, but the garden and the still life ‘studio’ have been my inspirations.
Another image shot using the wonderful Yuta Segawa miniature vases I bought a month or two ago … here filled with a few begonia flowers from a planter in the garden. And finally the images that I have uploaded to Flickr this September …
As September gives way to October, and nights draw in, temperatures fall, and the leaves fall too – we are left wondering what more can go wrong with this ‘government of all the imcompetents’ that has been in charge of our lives since 2010. Twelve years of growing disaster. As WB Yeats put it … “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
After the deluge that closed July, the whole garden has sprung into life with renewed vigour! The months of little or no rain saw the blossoms fall early, and growth severely limited. Now there is a sense of catching up with our chaotic year of 2021 – an overlong winter, cold and frosty Spring, and dry summer. Not too promising! But we even have hopes that the Victoria plums will revive and fatten – fingers are crossed! There is sense of optimism as we approach August, Covid numbers are down to quite low levels – we might finally see some summer weather – and there is the promise of some return to ‘normal’ pre-pandemic life!
High under the eaves, above my bedroom, we have the ‘homes’ of our summer visitors – barn swallows. This year they have been very busy! We suspect that their first brood didn’t survive the late and long winter, as there were no signs of new life apart from the eggshells. But since then there have been at least 2 more broods, with copious bird droppings adorning the honeysuckle that grows below them 😊 I can see the shadows of the swallows against my bedroom curtains, as they swoop up and into the nests, feeding the young. Some mornings there seem to be dozens of them circling and zooming in to the nests. I watch them with amazement! And through August we have seen a new nest, and a first brood appear under the eaves at the side of the house! They are spreading their wings – quite literally!
I was given a miniature vase years ago – a blue one I use often use, with a few small flowers, in my still life photography. I’ve never found another so small and so photogenic …. until now! They are hand-thrown and beautifuuly glazed. There’s a link here to a video of how they are made. I am having fun shooting them!
And by the middle of August I have started driving again! I need to keep my driving skills up-to-date. The very long and hard winter meant I avoided driving in such difficult conditions. Since then we have had our two Covid vaccination shots, each of them takes away energy, and has left me more tired – not good for the low energy levels from my long-term PVS/ME. But with Mike’s back problems I figure it is wise to make time and find the energy to polish up my driving. So a few early morning sessions at weekends have got me feeling safe and confident – though the energy has only taken me to Turriff a few times!
Since Laurie introduced me to the delights of Japanese snacks, cakes and pancakes I have been enjoying adding to my range of eating experiences. And I confess to being well and truly hooked! Just like here, it is the small, traditional artisan makers who produce the best flavours. This lovely delicate momoyama snack is just one example.
August has been a poor month weatherwise, with little rain to help the crops or our garden! And there has been even less sunshine – the skies have been a leaden grey most days. So we are relieved, as the month draws to a close, to finally see the small wild bees returning and swinging in the breeze on the lavender. Usually the garden is buzzing with activity, but everything is late this year – and insects, especially bees and butterflies are here in much smaller numbers.
And finally, as the month ends, I have to include a Covid reality check at the end of August.
Covid-Delta numbers quadrupled during August! Yes! We started the month feeling optimistic about the progress we had made against the Covid-Delta variant. But as August ends things are running madly out of control here!! Our schools have been back 2-3 weeks now, and colleges are ready to return. And this is all on top of a summer of football, sporting and music festivals, and now the Edinburgh festival.
Previously Aberdeenshire had seen low infection rates – but in the past month infection numbers have more than quadrupled!! August 1st – 230 cases reported a rate of 88.2 per 100,000 August 31st – 1,159 cases reported a rate of 444.4 per 100,000 VERY locally we have usually had weekly numbers too small to count (0-2) with a max of 3 and an occasional 4. As the month draws to a close we have 25 reported cases.
It seems that most hospitalizations are of younger age-groups, mostly unvaccinated or with a single vaccine. But the authorities won’t give the go-ahead for school-age children to be vaccinated yet. And about 1/3 of hospital admissions are among the older and double-vaccinated groups. ICU figures are slowly creeping up, but so far deaths remain low. But there is no idea of what long-term damage there could be from Covid-Delta itself. The Scottish Govt. is holding its breath and hoping that we can ride out the current wave. But already the demands on hospitals are forcing them to cancel non-urgent surgery etc. as the wards are filling up again with Covid cases.
On which happy note we end August! September means we are moving into autumn and winter weather (with more indoor activity). So it looks like we will remain essentially self-isolating and relying on masks and keeping away from any crowded places. But before we move on to September, a look at my Flickr activity for August. I post regularly to Flickr, with a mix of macro, still life, landscape and experimental images. And as the month ends I create a collage for each month. They act as dividers in the flow of images, and also as a reminder to myself of what I have been up to over the previous weeks!
I’ve taken a break from Flickr for a couple of weeks this month, mainly because Mike’s back is bad and I need to take over a lot of the lifting, bending etc. There just isn’t the energy to do it all. But the odd moments I have managed to carve out of the housework have been devoted to my much neglected watercolour project! And I’ve managed to do a little almost every day … keeping my new ‘habit’ of touching base at least! So I decided to give over most of the July Journal to my painting. I use the ‘dining room’ as an art room – always have, as it houses the big paper storage unit and the large draughtsman’s table that I use(d) for pastel painting. But until recently I have felt the watercolour painting space to be cramped and inhospitable. I finally sat down and looked at it, and pondered how it could be improved. The biggest problem is the light, closely followed by lack of table space. I reversed the table so I sit close to the only window. That single move has made a massive difference! Then I have added a second fold-out table behind, for extra lights, paintbrush holders etc. Mike found me a small portable easel to allow the right gentle angle for the paper … and I am in business! It is such a transformation – I actively want to be in the room, where before I had to reluctantly drag myself in!
I have moveable lamps to add to the lighting, as well as some light from the front room, through the archway between the rooms. The room is also full of my pastel paints, with pastel works on the walls …. and then there are my photography prop stores ….. so there’s not a spare inch of surface anywhere! I’m having fun, and learning a whole lot about watercolour painting. The more I expore, the more I understand why it is considered the hardest and most demanding of paint media! There is no room for changing your mind, or correcting a mistake – once the paint mark is made, it is final! No scraping back, no rethinking …. you are committed!
OK! So I’ve reached a sticking point here! There is so much I want to write about that it will swamp my more general monthly Journal ‘digest’. So I am going to do a spin-off into another part of the website. I’ve called in HANDS ON as it seems to sum up all my creative pursuits over the years since Post Viral Syndrome put an abrupt stop to my career in the educational world.
And so July passed, with the world shrunk to our own home and garden. Back to ordering groceries online for delivery to our door – an absolute blessing for when we can’t get to the shops ourselves. Mike is slowly recovering. It is a painful process, but he has discovered that simply walking, to strengthen his leg muscles is also strengthening his back muscles, and he is building up the total of steps. Great news, and a real sense of progess! His world is still limited to walking, lying down and the occasional sitting at a table for meals. Sitting for long hours at the computer is definitely out for the moment!
And the month ended with a spectacular day of rain! After nearly 3 months of very little rain we had forgotten to check the gutters and down pipes – they just weren’t in our minds. Hosepipes, and keeping the newer plants in the garden alive were our main concern. And then, after reading about torrential and spectacular flooding across Europe, and in areas of the UK too …. we had our own taste of ‘climate change’. A day so full of torrential rain that the paved areas were under water and the gutters couldn’t cope at all. Solid sheets of water poured from the gutters over front and back doors …. threatening to collapse. And the water rose too close to the actual house for comfort. We spent the day with buckets of all sizes, trying to carry the flood water to the storm drains, and wondering if it would ever end! Sheer madness, but standing in my knee-high red wellies I just had to capture the beauty of the clear water on the flag-stones … inches deep! The water brought out the colours and the textures! I couldn’t resist!
And so the month ends, and there is the first touch of autumn in the air, as the nights begin to draw in….. And on to August, as summer begins to fade just a little. Back to Journal Page Back to Notebooks cover
June 2021 – in which I discover the joys of Japanese snacks, find that we are in a drought period here, and try to get a grasp on the Covid ‘Delta’ variant.
I’ve long been an admirer of many things Japanese; from their food to their philosophy and art, there are so many things to enjoy, admire, and ponder. ‘Art’ is a word that you can extend to encompass almost every aspect of Japanese life – from the tea ceremony to making paper, there is an expertise that has been developed over centuries. And recently my friend and fellow Japan admirer Laurie Kern introduced me to the taste experience of traditional Japanese ‘snacks’. Laurie discovered two suppliers offering snack-boxes on a regular basis, each with a selection of traditional artisan-made snacks and sweets. Sakuraco supplied their April box that included the Yunomi cup and mochi in the shot I took as the header photo for June. There are many different kinds of mochi. This one is red bean paste encased in a soft cake. The snacks seem to be less sweet and sugary than our usual Western sweets or snacks, and the tastes are more subtle and gentle. And they are wickedly delightful and ‘more-ish’ 😊. Each box comes with a booklet that describes each snack included, so it is a learning experience as well as a taste experience! And after sampling some of the delights of Laurie’s April box, she sent me a box of my own from another supplier, Bokksu as a surprise gift!
And like Sakuraco it came laden with snacks, and an accompanying booklet about each snack. No little porcelain cup this time … just delicious treats to nibble!
Apart from savouring the different tastes from Japan, the month of June was also one of the driest on record! After a prolonged winter that lasted through until May, we were looking for some relief for our garden. Some plants didn’t survive the winter, and those that did were blighted, with new leaves and buds blackened by constant overnight frosts. So we hoped to welcome some warmer and sunnier weather, to allow the garden to revive. It was such a blow to find week after week with no rain! We had to resort to using hosepipes to keep everything alive …..
Some areas like the back rockery find that the steep slope means our light, sandy soil doesn’t hold the water well – and strong sunshine will soon defeat the plants!
And so onto the third and final part of my June Journal – the progress of the pandemic! I saved writing about this aspect of June until the month ended, as it quickly became apparent that there was a further wave (3rd? 4th? I’ve lost count!) of Covid infections breaking on the shores of the UK – the Delta variant. “SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant, also known as lineage B.1.617.2, is a variant of lineage B.1.617 of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It was first detected in India in late 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) named it the Delta variant on 31 May 2021.” [source: Wikipedia]
I live in Scotland, so I keep an eye on the Covid statistics for Scotland, and in rural Aberdeenshire, so I track and record the statistics for my area too. This variant was being tracked at it was even more transmissible than the Kent (Alpha) variant. And instead of closing down international travel between the UK and the Indian sub-continent, the Westminster government allowed hundreds of thousands of potentially infected travellers to enter the UK without testing or quarantine. Another political disaster, to add to the seemingly endless succession of disasters the Westminster government has inflicted on us! I despair /0\ The Indian (Delta) variant quickly took hold and throughout June it spread like a wildfire throughout the UK, especially in densely populated cities. Scotland has fared worst of all, with almost double the number of confirmed cases when compared with England.
A quick snapshot of the data here in Aberdeenshire shows the trend throughout June: * May 31st – 22 recorded +ve cases. That is 8.4 people infected per 100,000. And a test positivity rate of 0.4% ** June 29th – 514 recorded +ve cases. That is 196.8 people infected per 100,000. And a test positivity rate of 5.9% And Aberdeenshire has been one of the least badly affected areas of Scotland.
A snapshot of the state of things in mid-June. By no means as bad as it was when June finally ended! On this daily tally for June 18th we are only 54.4 per 100,000. By June 28th we were 196.8 per 100,000.
Truly horrifying and exponential growth! The figures just got worse and worse as the month went on. We became even more aware that we were guinea-pigs in a giant experiment to see how far vaccination could protect us all in the real world ‘laboratory’. Every afternoon we checked for the latest stats, and drilled down into the Aberdeenshire figures. It was the only way to find information to guide our decisions about when it might be safe to go grocery shopping, or to go out for exercise. The detailed statistics were always lagging 3 days behind, so it could only be a general guide – but it was better than nothing!
Broadly the results seem to suggest that vaccination (double vaccination) does help to protect against the severe form of Covid, as hospitalisation; intensive care numbers and registered deaths all remained low. But the infection rates for the younger and unvaccinated groups have soared, and the implications in terms of Long Covid, and longer term effects remains unclear. And as July approached we wondered about the promises from London of “Freedom Day” and a quick return to ‘normality’.
April is the cruellest month! How right T S Eliot was! Winter continues unabated – sub zero nights and cold days have dominated April 2021. The plum blossom is almost completely killed on the Japanese flowering plum tree by the gate. Usually the tree turns into a pink delight in April, but this year there are just a few random pink dabs among the bare branches! The new green buds on the hydrangeas and azaleas are blackened and blighted too. It is indeed cruel! There is more hail than snow, and the high winds sweeping down from the Arctic are driving the hail off the large field behind the house, and into our garden, building up against the house, and into our faces when we open the back door!
By the middle of the month the snow has been replaced by overnight frosts and bright sunny days. Better than the constant snow and hail, but the weather pattern is still so very cold, even at midday. The blue skies are very welcome, and the sun is hot through the window glass – but it is deceptive! And there is now no rainfall at all – so the land that has been soaked all autumn and frozen solid all winter is now too dry for the Spring planting to germinate properly.
On the personal front we have managed to continue to do some of our own grocery shopping. The lockdown together with the vaccine roll-out has seen a welcome and reassuring fall in infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths. There is now a Covid Dashboard provided by PH Scotland that shows cases by Local Government areas, and within each area too. So we can check to see how safe the places we wish to visit are. It is a strange world when the freedom to enter a shop and choose my own fruit and vegetables is a real treat! What used to be a regular chore has become a mark of returning normality, and real delight to look forward to!
April 14th – and another milestone. We both get our second vaccination jag! That is only 8 weeks since the first, and we were expecting to wait another month. So now we only need to wait another 3 weeks to ensure the antibodies have built up fully. Early May will be so good! No ill effects from the 2nd AZ shot – a mild ‘flu’ feeling for a day, but not even a sore arm!
April 26th – and there is a lot of easing of restrictions, both for travel, meeting others, and for opening up of shops, cafes and pubs. The emphasis is on outdoor meetings and venues as these first tentative steps test how effective the lock-down and vaccine roll-out have been.
But most of these changes are not affecting us two, as cold winter weather continues to make indoors most appealing! So I have been enjoying shooting anything and everything that I can find lying around in my studio! Catching the fleeting moments of sunshine, and celebrating the feeling that the year of constant stress might be loosening its grip…
I call this slightly frivolous excursion into random still-life shots my Flickr Odds and Sods album, and am happily adding to it as often as I can!
And before April ended we managed another trip to Fyvie Castle and grounds, to see if the new green of Spring had finally managed to emerge. This time I took a Sony NEX-7 with the magical Zeiss Makro E 50mm F2.8 lens. Usually used for close macro photography, I have discovered it is a wonderful landscape lens too!
To round off April with the photography I’ve posted on Flickr, here is the collage of my online month.
April ends the way it began, with driving hail and freezing temperatures.