2020 December

December 2020 collage
A collection of images posted on Flickr during December 2020

December is month 10 of the new way of living in 2020 – living with COVID as an integral part of our lives. It is also the last month when we are, in any way, members of the EU. The long 4 year process of leaving the European UniIon is finally set to end on December 31st.

Brexit happens as 2020 ends
Brexit happens as 2020 ends

Here in Scotland we feel SO cheated. In 2014 we were threatened with being ejected from the EU if we voted for Scottish independence. A lot of people were convinced that the only way to stay part of Europe was to remain a part of the UK. Then in 2016 the UK (or more correctly England) voted by narrow margin to leave the EU, and Scotland voted over 60% to remain. And now we are being dragged – against our wishes – out of Europe. To say we feel cheated and abused is very mild description of how we feel! All we can do is stand on the sidelines as the English government drags us, protesting, like a dog on a leash!

The outlook seemed better when I turn to the pandemic. The first vaccines against COVID-19 are being produced, and the first vaccinations are taking place.

COVID vaccine
The first vaccines against COVID 19 are close to approval

It is – or rather was, the first ray of COVID sunshine since the virus began to spread across the world, and changed all our lives! In personal terms nothing has changed – yet. It will take many months, well into 2021, before we are offered a vaccine. But the speed of the research and development of a vaccine, any vaccine, has been amazing! And there are at least three very promising contenders starting production.

The caveat that has been added as December progressed is that there is a new variant of the COVID virus here in the UK that is much more ‘successful’ in that it can transmit from person to person more effectively. As I write this on Boxing Day, it is estimated that transmissibilty has ‘improved’ by about 70%. So Boxing Day sees the whole of mainland Scotland under Level 4 protection rules. The virus is spreading once again at a frightening pace south of the border, and we to the north are not far behind!
The result of the discovery and initial reserach into this variant (provisionally called B.1.1.7 or the Kent variant) suggest that it is replacing existing strains, and could mean an explosion in cases across the UK and far beyond. It appears to have started in London and S. E. England, and is spreading north quickly. So far it seems to have travelled to Glasgow and surrounding areas, so we are hoping that today’s Level 4 rules will slow its progress!

Flickr Xmas card
My Christmas card for all my Flickr firends and contacts

Christmas is the time when we try to catch up with everyone, especially those who we’ve only been intermittently and occasionally ‘touching base’ with. This year it had to be an entirely virtual experience, sending ‘cards’ I made myself, and catch-up emails. Over the years our dedicated Post Offices have been reduced to one small cubby-hole crammed into a small convenience store. No way to celebrate Christmas by risking contact in such a confined space. Phone calls and emails is the COVID way!
We have brought out the Christmas tree, and added a few festive strings to lights – but it is hard to feel festive when the battle between the mutating virus and the vaccination roll-out looks set to define our lives as the new year begins!

Hogmanay card
Looking forward to 2021 what will it bring?

Hogmanay is a bigger Scottish event than Christmas, with mass celebrations and firework displays in all the major cities. Not this year! The fear is that any relaxation of the Level rules will risk a big explosion of new cases in the weeks after. So Level 4 restrictions are coming into place as Christmas Day ends. A dark and bleak end to a difficult year, though a fascinating one too!

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On to 2021 and a second year with COVID
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2020 August

Collage for August 2020
A collection of images posted on Flickr this August 2020

As August began (month 6 of COVID) it was becoming clear that the devolved governments across the UK were moving away from the ‘follow England’ pattern that had been established at the start of the pandemic. The UK (England) government had been mishandling the pandemic from the start, being slow to react and ignoring the evidence of what was happening elsewhere in the world.
Scotland had suffered badly both in the spread of COVID-19 in the community, and especially in recorded deaths. So as England moved to lift the lock-down and ‘get the economy moving again’ there was a more cautious approach here. We remained in lock-down longer, until the indicators were clear that the virus was under control. But as August began the decision was made to get children back to school. We start the academic year some weeks before England, so we would be the first to see how the ‘back to school’ experiment played out in real life! It was a pivotal moment for us all, and watched with some trepidation. We have a small Primary School in our village, and older students travel to Turriff daily, so our village was deeply involved!

As restrictions lifted we remained in our own protective ‘bubble’ that hadn’t changed since March – we were free to travel to our local beauty spots for exercise, bur we remained largely self-isolating. Nothing had changed to make us feel we were less at risk. It was still the elderly who were dying! As we have no children or grandchildren, and no family living locally, it was ‘lock-down life’ that remained our new ‘normal’. So we sat on the sidelines and watched events unfold! August set a new pattern for us, following the daily coronavirus updates. both with our First Minister and online too. It was hard work, and took quite a lump out of our time …. but we wanted to know what was going on.

Continuing our lives as close to ‘normal’ as we could, I continued with my watercolour experimentation and learning.
I was faced with my usual problem, I have PVS/ME and that means my life is a balancing act between what I want to do and what my meagre energy will permit me to do. Do too much and the consequences are brutal – weeks bedbound as my body tries to regain a balance. Long Covid is just the latest manifestation of what has been dubbed ME or ‘Yuppie Flu’.
So with a head full of ideas about what I wanted to do with my watercolour adventure I started moving beyond copying Cezanne. I wanted to paint every day, so I planned to do a small daily sketch. A study of something close to hand (I have rooms full of objects I use in my photography) it would sharpen my ‘looking’ skills as well as my drawing and painting skills. I also wanted to take some of Cezanne’s pencil sketches and paint them. So I began!

sketch book pages
Daily sketch and Cezanne pencil sketch

If I was photographing snail shells, why not paint them too? And give Cezanne’s pencil sketch of a tree a more Scottish feel?
I so enjoyed it all, but found that my energy was exhausted very quickly when I was sitting at a table, painting. I began to remember why I had abandoned pastel painting in favour of photography. I could shoot in small bursts, and then lie down. Painting demanded I was sitting for a longer time, and using muscles in very precise ways.
Time to rethink.
So I had to take the painting much more slowly, and even reduce it to two or three times a week. Sad, but essential if I was to integrate painting into my life over the long term. So I found a way to make the most of the painting I could manage to do ….

Eggs blending photo and watercolour
Daily sketch eggshells and blend with photo

If I was photographing eggshells, then paint them as well. Then, when energy permitted I could make a blend of photo and watercolour … and get something new and creative using minimum energy!

landscape blending
Blending a Lensbaby photo and watercolour sketch

And a step further with the blending. A landscape that one day I might paint …. well…. I could combine it with a sketch and make a new artwork!
And finally my paint-filled month was rounded off with another idea. Again using trees from the local environment, but this time extracting them, and using their shapes to go in another direction. Using masking tape, and practising using wet washes, I began to create ‘ghostly’ trees.

tree into watercolou
Taking the bones of a tree and playing with it in watercolours

It might take weeks to explore an idea, but at least it was feeding my hunger to create, paint, and photograph! A world to explore that took me away from the world of the pandemic.

And finally, yes, we did manage to get out (with cameras) and enjoy more of the freedom to roam. I took my infrared camera with the most colourful ‘Goldie’ filter and shot the trees at Fvyie Castle loch.

infrared bench in blue
Infrared of bench in blue

Processing them into cool blues – and vibrant reds!

Goldie Infrared
Goldie filter infrared of trees at Fyvie loch

And so August ended with me feeling very tired, but very happy with the creative results. OK, it was baby steps, but the ideas were forming, and my first blundering steps were enough to encourage me to continue with my ideas!

on to September
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2020 June

collage for June 2020
A collection of images posted on Flickr this June 2020

So June came – month 4 of the lock-down. Not seeing family and friends was not too bad, as we are scattered, so the phone, email and Facebook activity were our main ways of staying in touch. What we missed most of all was the freedom to go and walk by the sea, and in the grounds of the local National Trust Scotland sites, along with Historic Scotland and others. We live in the middle of farming land, where there is nowhere for humans to exercise and enjoy the outdoors. Walking a potato field is not fun!

walking in the woods
Trying to find alternatives to our regular exercise/walking

Trying to find alternatives to our regular sites for exercise and fresh air became a preoccupation as the weeks of Lock-down stretched out. It’s surprising how quickly your muscles become weaker with little or no regular exercise!

Sunshine through the trees in infrared
Sunshine through the hillocks and trees in infrared

I took cameras with me wherever we went, and captured the hillocks and difficult terrain in infrared and colour too ….

view through the trees
Still searching for a place to exercise!

Another inhospitable location … difficult to walk without keeping your eyes firmly on the ground beneath your feet, as the danger of spraining or breaking your ankles was very real!
I don’t think the decision to close down the GROUNDS of the National Trust properties in rural areas like ours was a wise one. The grounds were never crowded, and they provided essential spaces for essential exercise! Even with a garden, our health was being impacted by the closing of places to walk safely!

Indoors I was having more fun, and success as I continued developing my painting. I wanted to use some of the thousands of landscape photos I have taken over the years. I don’t think I could ever find the energy and stamina to paint outdoors, so I have to rely on the photographs I take together with the memory of the observations I make at the time of shooting. So my starting point was the trees that are all around us here. It chimed perfectly with Cezanne, whose watercolours include many tree studies!
I started by using some of my infrared shots, as they can give the clearest definition of the architecture of the tree, the ‘bones’ that you often don’t see until winter strips away the leaves. Infrared reduces the foliage to white areas … which I could then paint in from memory or imagination. The idea worked quite well – but I didn’t like my attempts at the foliage!! But then I had an idea. How about putting the IR and painted pictures together, rather than just throwing my watercolour away? I had already used this technique to blend together several photographic images … how about using this technique to create such blends?

blending painting and photography
My first experiment blending painting and photography.

My first blending experiment gently wove the colours from the painting with the original infrared shot. So I pursued the idea – whenever I came across a Cezanne image that reminded me of a local scene, I tried to merge them. Here an avenue of trees at Fyvie Castle echoed an avenue of trees close to Ceazanne’s home in Aix.

blending paint and photo
My sketch based on Cezanne’s avenue, together with a photo from Fyvie

OK – a very amateurish watercolour sketch! But I liked the idea of weaving the images together!

The other ‘newcomer’ during these pandemic months has been the purchase of a Canon camera. I’m a Sony fan, and most of my cameras are Sony – so getting a Canon, even an ‘old’ EOS 70D was a big step for me. Learning the onboard computer was the biggest challenge I foresaw. There would be a learning curve, especially as I wanted to use it Manual Mode. My plan was to be able to create multiple exposure images within the camera itself. This is something Sony have not developed! So I set about learning my new camera.
I shot first of all on Auto, with the kit lens. Just shooting from the front door, looking out along the path into the garden was my first step. I then took some of the shots and blended them together in Photoshop, to get the feel of how in-camera multiple exposure might look..

3 layer image of lockdown
using the Canon 70D and layering shots

As I looked at the result I realised I had (unconsciously) summed up the feelings of lock-down.

Next I moved on Manual Mode, and attached one of the lenses I wanted to use – an old Russian Helios lens that can give wonderful colours and bokeh effects. And this when I really stepped into foreign country!
All my Sony cameras use EVF, Elecrontic Veiw Finder. I hadn’t even heard of the alternative, the OVF or Optical View Finder. But WOW! was I about to discover what OVF means in practice!
Briefly with EVF I look through the view-finder and see what the result of my shot will look like. I can adjust the settings to make everything just how I want it to look, from focus to colour and light. What I see is what I will get! But the OVF just shows you what your eye is already seeing …. NOT what the shot you take will look like! You can adjust the focus – but otherwise you are ‘flying blind’. I found myself having to take a shot, look at it, adjust the settings and try again, and again, and again – before I could take the photo I wanted.
Imagine that you are walking down a tree-lined path, with dappled light, moving from strong sunshine into quite deep shade. With EVF I would simply look and adjust the image I see until I get an optimal balance of light values before taking the shot. Maybe 15 seconds to set and reset the camera. With OVF it takes me much longer and several test shots before I can take the final shot. No way to catch a fleeting light effect, to capture a swan suddenly coming in to land on the water! It felt like regressing to a much slower and clumsier age of photography!
Whether I want to shoot using the kit lens, or a specialist lens the problem is the same – to take multiple exposures I need to work in Manual Mode. So the problem remains. I need to shoot regularly and keep refining my skills and speed to reach my goal of making in-camera multiple shots!

On to July and a lifting of some restrictions!
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2020 April

Collage of April 2020 photos
A collection of images posted on Flickr this April 2020

And so April began – month 2 of our COVID-19 experience.

March 23rd had seen Boris Johnson placed the UK on a police-enforced lockdown with strict measures to contain the spread of the virus. The lockdown meant that we were under strict instructions to go out only when necessary – for food, medicine, or exercise. It also meant that no one was able to see friends or family – and shops, restaurants, bars and offices across the country were closed until further notice. When the lockdown was first announced, the initial time it was ordered for was three weeks.
We had no idea what lay ahead, though reports from Italy had been coming through since late January, when the WHO declared the coronavirus a ‘pandemic’, meaning it had reached all around the globe. Italy was the place we looked to (mainly online, as the UK media were not focused on Europe much). And the news from northern Italy was both horrifying and scary. The spread of the virus, and its lethal potential became very clear. Could we in the UK heed the warnings and take early action to avoid a disaster here? Those were the questions we were asking as April began.

Personally we began to look online for advice and information as nothing was forthcoming from the Westminster government.

A new ritual of washing incoming deliveries in dilute bleach.
Ensuring enough fuel for the central heating boiler as well as cars.
Trying to locate hand sanitisers and face masks (not easy at all)
Finding out which ways of protecting oursleves were most effective (an ever-evolving journey of discovery!)
Thinking in terms of living without help in either house or garden – and starting taking on that work load (not very successfully!)
Thnking in terms of much more home cooking, and keeping the freezer stocked with home-made meals.
Contemplating possible rationing, as everyday items became ‘unavailable’ due to panic buying.

Not what a normal Spring might offer as we emerged from a long, cold winter!
And we were finding life becoming ever more complicated, with ordinary tasks taking twice as long as ‘normal’. A lot of time was spent online trying to find out as much as possible, to help us in our highly vulnerable situation. Together with the underlying stress of the presence of the virus, it meant we were sleeping badly, and waking feeling tired. To me this felt very close to a return/relapse of my underlying ME/PVS and this added to my stress levels!
The advice on offer in the UK was pretty basic:

basic protection April 2020
Mid April and the ‘how to protect yourself’ protocol

It was basically suggesting we treat coronavirus rather like ‘flu.

How the virus spreads - April 2020
How the virus spreads and how to avoid it – April 2020

Basic hygeine and avoiding close contact. Looking at our position as we moved from March into April we should have been well placed to prevent the descent into virus chaos that ensued!

Our position in the UK about April 14th 2020

What developed over April was stark and alarming, and moved us up to the top of the deaths table!
Here in rural Aberdeenshire we had no idea how fast and far the virus was spreading. We had experienced an early incident in our local town of Turriff, but just how ‘at risk’ were we? We had no idea, so had to assume that we were at great risk … hope for the best but plan for the worst!

Monday April 6th
We got official notice that we were in the ‘Shielding’ group. We felt relieved that there were contact points both online and by phone to give us support.

Wednesday April 8th
We felt well enough to go for a stroll in the grounds of Fyvie Castle (within the 5 mile radius for travel). But on arrival we found that the entire site, including all the grounds were closed, gates locked, and access denied. We felt so deflated, as it was/is a life-line for us as it offers open spaces that are uncrowded, and grass to walk on. Both are important, as walking on roads or pavements are too painful for Mike’s back injuries.
We tried to find somewhere else to walk – but the ground was very uneven, and without any paths ….

Walking through the trees 1
Finding alternative places to walk … as Fyvie Castle grounds are closed.

We did find it was beautiful in the wild strips of trees that lay between the cultivated fields, but no substitute for the grounds on Fyvie Castle!

light through the trees
Finding alternative places to walk … as Fyvie Castle grounds are closed.

So our Shielded status together with the closure of safe walking places meant we were restricted to our home and garden. We needed to find a completely new ‘normal’ to maintain our health and sanity! We both needed to keep moving as much as possible, to prevent muscles weakening and creating problems … so the garden was going to have to be our exercise ground. That was easier for me than Mike, as any prolonged standing, stooping or bending causes him pain. So garden chores fell to me, along with cooking etc. indoors.

Monday 20th April
Are we shielding? Or are we not? Confusion! Probably we are no longer on the Shielding list! We have discovered that maybe the command to stay restricted to house and garden rather outweighs the benefits. If we are not officially ‘Shielding’ then I am free to start recovering my driving skills.

By the end of April we were getting used to the UK lock-down with a 5 miles radius for travel, stay home except for essential outings, clean all incoming items, shopping online with grocery deliveries, social distancing of 6′ and face masks ready if needed.

So – on to May and new activity brings new energy!
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