Becoming a Conservationist – The Middle Years…


I was a wildlife obsessed child. I grew up in the 1950s in rural renfrewshire, close to the Ayrshire border, in a landscape of loch, hill, mixed farms of cows and crops, woods covering abandoned mine workings and sandstone quarries. Lapwings in every tussocky field, curlews calling from the boggy moors, yellowhammers in summery overgrown hawthorn hedges. Mysterious quarry ponds with huge water beetles and the occasional newt rising up from the deep.

My parents were both townies, who had grown up in urban Glasgow, from opposite sides of the tracks. After World War 2 my father swapped his “sword for a ploughshare”, digging potatoes and planting trees in our village garden; keeping bees and generally living a quiet life – a daily commute by steam train to an office in the city, along with many of the good burghers of our small community.

Both parents were astonished and delighted by the wildlife that appeared in their garden. They had spent every last penny on their bit of paradise – a large house and a large garden. An equally large mortgage and furniture bought in antique shops – no new furniture could be had even if they could have afforded it. A cuckoo calling from across Loch Libo, a kestrel hovering over distant fields, a weasel eating the dog’s bone on the front lawn, rabbits under the hedges, the call of the nesting wood pigeons from the tree in front of their bedroom window. All pointed out to their youngest boy, who was making his own discoveries along tree covered lanes, in the wilder parts of the woods, at the tops of many climbable trees and in the lochs fringing reedbeds. Strange squeaks and grunts from the marsh, loud bursts of song from reed buntings and sedge warblers and out on the water, jousting coots and displaying great crested grebes.

The Thames Express thundering past heading to or from that distant land called England – as remote then as Timbuktu. Smoke trailing out across the valley as the roar and thump of the huge engine echoed from the hill opposite, leaving peace in its wake, very little road traffic then, in the village itself we could fearlessly run our bogies down the big hill at the end of the main street.

Years later, a move from the village school – a Victorian building, a class of 5, the feel of the leather tawse on fingers and wrist, frozen milk bottles in winter, wasps in jamjars at the end of summer – Im in a city school, one of 32, learning maths and hypocrisy and with no clear view ahead. Just university [the first in my family], wildlife not a professional option, no school biology department.

University in my home city, high rise block learning. No dreaming spires. Just the horrors of 9am monday morning statistics 101 – fellow students talking about drink and football. Then…a class in biogeography and the old stirrings are awakened.

Our flat in Glasgow’s West End, living with the friends I had made on the Isle of Arran that summer. Wee John, Alastair, big George. John a superb ragtime guitarist with a lucrative job in the Rolls Royce factory – a Gibson guitar and a stereo with speakers big enough to sit on. Alastair and George both studying electrical engineering. All brought together by a mutual love of live music.

“Here, youve got to listen to this, youll never believe what I learned today!” Im back in our top floor flat, where the rush hour entertainment were the nightly road accidents on the Gt Western Road crossing below, never serious – we had a league table of car types. [Aye son, we had to make our own amusements back then!]. “There was this Austrian scientist, Von Frisch he studied bees, he showed that they could tell each other where the best flowers were, by doing a wee dance at the entrance to the hive. Isnt that amazing!” Whit!?..youre full of sh*t! My flatmates reaction was amused disbelief. What kind of nonsense are they teaching him at that place? Gullible fool. I was crestfallen. …”but he won the Nobel Prize!”

The next week I was back. I had been learning about tropisms [the turning of all or part of an organism in a particular direction in response to an external stimulus] which involved a practical demonstration. I gathered my flatmates together.”Right, this time I’ll show you, I can make the fish swim upside down!”. Yeah, right! …..One of the very few luxuries we possessed was a fish tank, complete with heater, lights and oxygen pump. Curtains were pulled, lights turned off, I got a piece of card [probably an album cover..Pink Floyd, George Carlin, Monty Python, who knows what…] and covered the top of the tank, I put the top light from the tank on the floor. I lifted the tank off the table and held it over the light. Half a dozen guppies, an angel fish and a bug-eyed fantailed black moor, called Charlie, all turned on their sides, desperately trying to turn upside down but held back by their swim bladders. They kicked and jerked around the tank…. Jesus Christ, look at that!!

and that was the last time they laughed at my tales of the wonders of biology.

True story…

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 10 – Pittsburgh….

After our wonderful stay with Tim and Marguerite in West Chester it was time to leave for our main destination – Pittsburgh! They were heading West too, on a trip of a lifetime across the US, so it was a bit of a surprise when we met them a few hours later at a service stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike [Interstate 76]!..However their first real stop was also in Pittsburgh, staying with their daughter Lauren, in Higland Park, a distinctly up market section of Pittsburgh.

Its now 2020..and Ive taken so long to get this far blogging, that its all starting to seem a very long time ago!..So I will curtail the chat and leave a string of photos of wonderful Pittsburgh – and it was wonderful. The city itself, from the former steel workers area of Lawrenceville where we stayed for two weeks, with our hosts Bob and Regina [and their excellent cat!], to the spectacular Andy Warhol Museum, the meeting of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the downtown modern high rise buildings, the many bridges and other remnants of an industrial past, huge sports stadiums and a 19th century funicular railway..and last but definitely not least, the huge range of restaurants, cafes and other eateries. Add to that the wonderful Carnegie Library, Museums, Book Shps and public artworks….its a city with everything…hope you enjoy these glimpses..

So..hope you enjoyed those photos. What you may not be able to tell was – it was hot, very hot!..but thats what you expect at end August beginning of September. Eryl and I were seriously impressed with the place – lively but safe, busy but running smoothly. Lots of young folks, new businesses, lots of culture and appreciation for that. Highly recommended!..and a huge thanks to Bob, Regina and family for a truly wonderful experience – I hope this blog can help encourage more visitors to your adopted city. Cheers, Dave.

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 9

A day outing from West Chester – we took the train into Philadelphia.

Amtrak time again...

We never got beyond the centre of town but what a place!…The heat was incredible but there were fountains everywhere..

Nothing to see here….just some more lovely cool fountains..

We were here for culture though, so off to The Barnes Collection – without a doubt the best layout of an art collection Ive ever seen. Small rooms with odd historical objets on the walls amongst a jaw dropping collection of impressionist paintings. Each room had information cards relating to each painting or object – we had time and space to look at everything. It didnt hurt that we were in an air conditioned building either…. https://www.barnesfoundation.org/whats-on/collection

Heres a few of my favourites…

and the outside wasnt bad either….

After that hefty smack to the intellect, back out into the stunning heat….So hot in fact that I dont remember much else – Im sure there was a cafe with ice cream and coffee?…Much to see in the open spaces but we just kept heading for shade.

..and theres a welcome sight when youre far from home!

Into Philadelphia’s famous Art Deco 30th street railway station – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/30th_Street_Station used in many films such as “Witness”. Couldnt resist taking photos….

..and so back on the Amtrak to West Chester….having seen a tiny fraction of what Philly has to offer Im sure. The grandiose architecture is worth a look alone…but thats the tourist life, youve got to keep moving..

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 8

In the midst of all the wonderful West Chester hospitality we had outings for american breakfasts, to buy chocolate, a walk around the park …

“Downtown” West Chester…
Careful with that axe….

Small University Town America…in the hot sun….

One night we were taken for a special treat to Longwood Gardens – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longwood_Gardens – a few miles south-west of West Chester. Arriving just before dusk we walked through the check in building and out into an area of enchanted gardens full of exotic flowers, lakes and water features. To add to the feeling of strangeness we also passed a group of Mennonite women in traditional dress [a slightly more relaxed christian sect than the Amish we had seen earlier].Most of these photos are slightly blurred due to low light levels but they actually reflect the strangely timeless feel of that place….

Mennonite ladies on an evening out..

After a short walk through woodland paths we came out on an area of open meadow where I could hear a Whip-poor-will [like our nightjar], we crossed this, re-entered the woodlands and then joined a gathering crowd heading towards some large wood and glass buildings. The whole atmosphere resembled that of one of my favourite films – Woody Allen’s “Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” – all that was lacking was a Mendelssohn music accompaniment.

The building was a superb series of indoor botanic gardens – with extensive lily ponds at the back. Orchids, cacti in vast rooms easily the equivalent of the Edinburgh Botanics or Glasgow’s Kibble Palace joined together. By this time it was virtually dark outside.

This horticultural marvel and the gardens and woodland outside were the creation of one Pierre Du Pont, a millionaire with a love of horticulture – he created it all to be enjoyed by family and friends but eventually started the development of the modern public gardens that exist today.

The highlight of the evening was about to begin – a huge display of “dancing fountains” with light show and loud musical accompaniment. By this point a large crowd were seated in banks of metal chairs, facing a raised area in the distance but with circular fountains close by. A remarkable show began with spectacular light and water effects. The crowd near us was a bit restless at times, adding to the drama!..Sadly the accompanying music wasnt up to a Mendelssohn score, cheesy disco mainly which took away from the spectacle but still….not something you see every day…many thanks Tim and Marguerite!

..and back home…and off to bed, after a nightcap of liqueur from New York..

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 7

I realise I probably havent gushed enough about possibly the most unexpectedly [to me!] enjoyable aspect of this whole trip – the food. Bob has definitely inherited a love of good food from his mum and was able to guide us to some memorable meals. In New York the most memorable was the wonderful Vatan on 3rd Avenue – https://www.yelp.com/biz/vatan-indian-vegetarian-new-york-2 – I have not eaten such good indian food since my Glasgow days being fed in Gujarati households. The surroundings were magnificent too – a walk down a narrow corridor off a main Manhattan thoroughfare opened out into a mock indian village, complete with straw and red tiled roofs over the eating bays and an entire enormous fig tree! Add to that naive paintings of Gujarati village scenes and enough food to choke an elephant..it was a complete delight.

I should also have mentioned more about the many exotic “watering holes”, which were essential in the heat, always designed to keep the worst of the sun away from its customers but with the legendary US service – whatever happened to the grumpy New Yorkers, we didn’t meet a single one. Some pretty strange brews though!

So…off we went…on an intriguing train journey from New York across New Jersey coastal marshland – osprey and egrets ticked from the window – into the woods and the edges of small towns until we get to the outskirts of Philadelphia. Where all appears to be post industrial rust – maybe that’s just what you get at the edge of the railway?

A change of train and were off out to the “sticks” – well, not exactly, although the amount of trees in Pennsylvania is staggering, coming from my own scalped scottish hills where a thousand years and more of exploitation, neglect and sheer vandalism has left only a few pathetic remainders of our own forests. [Always worth looking at historical context – I visited New Hampshire back in the 1990s and saw it as a forest with holes cut in it for towns, my ornithologist former colleague Iain Macleod soon informed me that it was almost all second growth forest. The first european settlers cut much of it down, before discovering that the prairies over the Appalachians to the west were a far better bet for farming, then upsticks and left. To this day by law, New Englanders have to keep open land open, to stop the forest encroaching!]

Met at Amtrak Exton Station a few miles from the university town of West Chester, Pennsylvania by Marguerite, Bob’s mother-in-law and after a short drive arrived at her beautiful house on the outskirts of the town. A modern house with big airy rooms and best of all for me, a balcony overlooking a lawn with a bird feeder next to some mature woodland. Species ticks from here included Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Cardinal, Turtle Dove, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker [!], Common Flicker, Blue Jay, Chimney Swift, Grackle, Cowbird, White bellied Nuthatch, American Robin and a Ruby throated Hummingbird which almost landed on my finger – and a couple of deer feeding beside the garden fence. Heaven.

Eryl and Marguerite watch deer emerge from the woods..

Another surprise were the “chinese lantern bugs” a recently arrived pest of trees, from Asia. They suck tree sap opening the host trees to mould and disease. Several of them landed on the balcony table during the days we were there. Beautiful but in the wrong place and considered a notifiable pest in Pennsylvania.

Tim and Marguerite were certainly no exception to the US cult of great hospitality!..We ate and drank like Kings and Queens. The weather was superb, if a little hot for us but the house was always a cool retreat.

Tim slaving over a hot barbeque

We had a series of outings, firstly the trip to Amish country, Lancaster County a few miles to the west of West Chester. Rolling farmland, small woods, cornfields between small villages, including the amusingly named Intercourse [postcards were obtained].We saw Amish people in the distance working in the fields and also a couple of horse drawn buggies on the roads – looking precarious beside the 21st century traffic.

Shops and a cafe were visited. One of the shops sold hand fashioned quilts – https://www.kitchenkettle.com/members/villagequilts.asp – we had a very enthusiastic lecture on how they are made by one of the shop assistants. Sadly, well out of our price range..

Quilt Shop in Kitchen Kettle , Intercourse, PA.

Nearby were some superb food shops with a superb range of pickles and sauces – many free samples were taken and a few purchases..

..and so..back to base in West Chester.

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 6

We did…Central Park, New York City..

So on through Manhattan in the heat, next stop Central Park, which is really rather lovely. Terrapins/Turtles in the lake and cool shade in the 90 degree heat. We walked through to MOMA – The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Everyone trying to look cool in the heat..[Im failing as usual!]
Eryl and Bob succeeding – as usual…

Like all great museums there was far more than we could ever see in one afternoon – but we tried…as always it was the paintings that I liked best. Superb collection of impressionists.

Staggered landings let you watch a variety of exhibits..and a variety of visitors.

A long day, home on the subway…with its quirky art and quirky people…

On the move again on our final day in NYC….and back into Manhattan – Eryl was delighted to see the Flatiron Building and I was delighted witha giant hippo sculpture beneath it!

Last stop was Penn Station – glad we had our semi-native guide Bob to get us through the formalities and then we were off to Pennsylvania on the Amtrak train.

Look, isnt that Dave Dick over there?

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 5

So…its getting cold back here in bonny Scotland…the leaves are all falling, the salmon are wearing their “tartan coats”, geese and whooper swans are flying in from the far north and flocks of thrushes are chacking and squeaking in the riverside trees. Time to think back to the New York heat!

Young mothers chatting over a coffee at the rivers edge.. it wasnt always so quiet round there
An old factory building, a reminder of the waterside industrial area of the quite recent past

Modern river traffic of a very different type is continuous but its still the highway into the centre of the city.

..and in the middle of all this, where there were once dockyards and warehouses – a brand new children’s playpark.

The conversion of old industrial into new leisure areas is happening all over New York – one of the real highlights of our visit was a walk along the Highline. This former freight rail line on Manhattan’s west side has [still is being] been transformed into a long treelined walkway, full of artworks, buskers and superb views of the city streets below. Starting near the superb Bubby’s ice cream shop, it winds its way above the city ending at the Hudson Yards crammed with parked rolling stock. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 4 sunday 25th august 2019.

We wandered about crossing busy streets looking for the walkway up to the pedestrian part of the Brooklyn Bridge. A maze of street signs, glad I wasnt driving.We eventually mounted a stairway and came out on the magnificent views of Manhattan and the East River. Crowds of people of all description and the odd cyclist threading through them. So many photos to take it was hard to choose.

A pavement in the sky with breathtaking views – simultaneously very familiar and incredibly exotic, the result of a thousand cop shows and movies. Crowded but never restrictive, “a must see” thats easily achievable and long enough to be very satisfying.

A hot and slightly confused walk off the bridge and we were into Manhattan’s Chinatown. Ice Cream at the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, then into an expensive and lavish chinese restaurant for more exotic delights – luckily with all that walking we were able to balance the huge american helpings of food!

Ice Cream Eryl in Chinatown…
Famous Dancing Chickens…
Crowded Chinatown…
The entrance to Little Italy…

Out into the blazing sun and 90 degree heat and the next minute we were walking through Little Italy….surrounded by tempting looking italian restaurants but too full to even think of eating more – my trip mantra “I’ll never eat again”…but I always did! looks like the Empire State Building in the distance…

Already thinking of presents to take home but getting a bit foot-weary we went into the Broadway Market Co shop – a collection of stalls selling jewellry, toys and designer clothes….and came out loaded up…Time to head for home – on the subway…while waiting to get tickets from the machine down in the tunnels we had a fascinating 20 minutes watching a couple of hustlers, one black one white, competing over selling half-used tickets to passing punters. We suspected they had deliberately broken the ticket machine to speed up business. Probably a daily event….Then it was back on a very packed subway to Williamsburg and the delight of an air-conditioned apartment and copious drinks of bottled water.

So many good meals – was this the huge pizza night or the margaritas and tacos?…or the raspberry beer sourz in the “english pub” showing premier league football but not a warm pint in sight? Not sure, it all runs together now but Williamsburg is a happening place, particularly at night, packed bars, cafes and small restaurants. Many different languages being spoken, a huge variety of food and shops and a pleasant active vibe…Late at night it grows quiet, the odd shouted greeting, the odd siren in the distance…cicadas in the sparse trees…on a hot late august night.

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 3

Old and new, artistic and naff – never dull..

Waking up in a hot and muggy New York, time to go exploring with Bob, our experienced guide. Walking across Willamsburg towards Greene Park for a farmer’s market we came across many unusual sights, to us at least. The expected higgledy piggledy lack of planned building, development and raised train lines [the famous “el”], advertising signs and graffiti.

Then into an orthodox jewish neighbourhood – men with tall black hats and long ringlets, small boys in shorts, white shirts and skullcaps; many signs in hebrew script including on the iconic US yellow school buses…a very quiet area full of mature trees and old multi-coloured buildings.

Then into Greene Park – the promised weekend farmers market wasnt there, they had changed the day since he left the city. Not to worry, plenty to do around here!

Id never heard of Fort Greene Park and certainly not about the awful story recorded on this sign. I wonder why?? Certainly doesn’t fit with our glorious british history as taught in scottish [and no doubt english] schools.

After that rather gloomy start we entered the park proper which is dominated by a tall pillar at the top of a hill – the whole park is filled with beautiful mature trees, a situation so common throughout our journey in the eastern US, in town and country, that after three weeks I came home to our sad, scalped landscape even angrier at the mess weve made of “our bonny scottish hills”…

A loud series of mewing calls and I was watching three red-tailed hawks [very similar to our common buzzard] flying around and landing on the top of the pillar. Probably a juvenile begging food from its parents….Too hot for more birdwatching – lets carry on across Brooklyn…and towards the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan..but thats for next time.

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 2

So..first time in New York..and yes its just like every cop programme Ive ever seen. Our yellow taxi from Newark Airport got stuck in traffic heading into Brooklyn so the driver took another route – straight through Downtown Manhattan..the driver was getting grumpy but we were loving the sights, gawping at the skyscrapers, the shops and the crowds.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_3510-1.jpg

Eventually over the East River and into Williamsburg – a wonderful, ever changing, upcoming mixed with down and out, grid of streets. Cuban corner shops, noisy bars, mexican restaurants, italian restaurants. We humped our bags up four flights of stairs to the air B and B apartment Bob had chosen for us. Filled with fascinating books and souvenirs from exotic places plus clothes everywhere – the obviously female occupant had an interesting lifestyle.

Bobs old Williamsburg apartment..

Out and onto the streets – before moving to Pittsburgh Bob had lived on the edge of Williamsburg for three years, he showed us his old apartment – like a lot of the area it was a surviving piece of a redbrick street, with a mix of newbuild and dereliction closeby. Many different ethnic groups have passed through Williamsburg in the last 150 years – some have stayed and a lot of new folks are moving in but its becoming very fashionable and very expensive.

I wish Id taken photos of the bars and restaurants we visited in our three nights in that area but all I can remember is the amazing food – pizzas, tacos – and drink; margaritas, ice cold sour beers [including rhubarb pie flavour for Eryl!] Noisy lively streets and very friendly service everywhere. What happened to the famously grumpy New Yorkers Id heard about?..they must be in another part of town. Williamsburg was cool!