A collection of thought-provoking essays, articles and blog posts from various sources I’ve stumbled across over the past season, and I want to share with you. This autumn, I’ve been thinking a lot about extreme experiences and risk, and managing fear, both personal and global.
Written following the death of ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson on Mansulu in early October, and examining the criticism directed towards women with children participating in high-risk activities in extreme environments.
In early June, I was part of a team from the Cairngorms Connect project partners that carried 3,000 tiny trees up onto the Cairngorm plateau, to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) saplings are rare trees, which can survive in the low temperatures and high winds, and an important species in the montane scrub habitat of the upper slopes of the mountains.
Grazing pressure from deer and other animals mean only a few scattered plants remain, often in the most inaccessible locations, and too isolated from each other to guarantee successful reproduction. The idea behind planting the new saplings is to give the species a fighting chance, and attempt to safeguard the future of the montane scrub zone as part of a larger-scale habitat regeneration project. Read more about our day here.
At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.
The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.
December 11th is International Mountains Day (IMD); a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2003 and celebrated annually since.
Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. But it’s not just about sharing gorgeous, inspirational mountain images on my social media (though I’m sure that won’t hurt). It’s about raising awareness of the importance of mountains, inspiring understanding and respect, and encouraging responsible access in mountain environments.
Five Facts for International Mountain Day
So, what do you know about the mountains?
Around 27% of the land surface of the earth is covered in mountains (that’s approximately 39 million km²).
Mountains are home to 15% of the global population (around 1.1 billion people), but it’s estimated billions more benefit indirectly from ecosystem services and mountain agriculture.
Of the 34 documented terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, 25 are in mountain areas (half of the world’s total), and they support around 25% of terrestrial biological diversity.
Over half of the world’s population rely on mountains as a source of freshwater, which provides drinking water, water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and is used in energy production.
Mountain settings support between 15 to 20% of the global tourism industry, from providing spectacular views, cultural tourism, and soft adventure trips right through to serious expedition travel.
Last year I wrote a post about the steps I’m taking to reduce the plastic footprint I produce on my travels, and at home. It gave suggestions of small, easy-to-take steps to reduce the single-use plastic items I consumed, those everyday things we all encounter; shopping bags and plastic bottles, takeaway drinks cups and eating tools. I hoped that it would spark others to start thinking about their own impact.
Single-use plastics, and issues associated with disposal and a lack of recycling facilities in many regions of the world, were highlighted in the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II. But as things move on, the immediacy of the need for action is starting to fade from our minds. More than 300 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured every year, generating far more waste than the planet can handle. It’s virtually indestructible, and invariably some end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean.
It causes distress to marine life in many ways: a risk of entanglement; ingestion, filling stomachs without giving nutrition; and tiny fragments accumulate toxins which are pervasive through the food chain. Marine ecosystems face massive threats.
There is no away. Because plastic is so permanent and so indestructible. When you cast it into the ocean, it does not go away.
Sir David Attenborough
This time, I’ve been thinking about the toiletries I use and take with me on my travels, and how I can ensure the choices I make have the minimum impact on the environment.
While my toothbrush certainly isn’t a single-use item, we still dispose of millions of used plastic brushes every year. Sustainable, compostable alternatives do exist, with handles made from bamboo, the fastest growing plant in the world, and are becoming increasingly available in supermarkets or high-street drugstores here in the UK.
If you’ve got gappy teeth like me, or wear a orthodontic brace, you’ll probably also use tiny interdental brushes as part of your routine, and these are also available with bamboo sticks.
My travel style means I rarely stay in the type of hotel that provides those tiny wee bottles of shampoo and shower gel, but I’ll admit I am usually tempted to take them. I’m not a complete eco-saint, and who wouldn’t want to smell like pink peppercorns and grapefruit when the opportunity presents? But the best plastic reduction strategy is to forgo these, and take your own toiletries.
More usually, I’ll take my own refillable travel-size bottles, topped up from bigger bottles at home (which I usually take to my local refill shop to top up from even bigger bottles). It’s still plastic, but plastic that’s used again and again. These refillable pouches from Matador roll-up when empty, saving space in your soap bag.
If I’m travelling with a group, like on the sailing voyages I’ve been part of, we’ll often share a full-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and the rest between us. As well as cutting down on plastics, it saves a bit of money too.
Solid soaps and shampoos
I’ve been experimenting with various solid shampoos and conditioners, and I love a gorgeously-scented bar of soap. It means I don’t have to worry about liquids leaking into my bag. I pack the bars in a Matador dry bag, which allows the bar to dry out and stop getting mushy without allowing moisture to seep out by some kind of witchcraft.
We all saw that shocking photograph of a seahorse published by National Geographic. Also known as Q-Tips, I see the plastic stalks turn up regularly in beach cleans. They get there after being flushed down the loo and passing into the drainage system, where they block filters and cause an overflow of wastewater, getting accidentally discharged into the sea.
But the good news is that most major brands have now ditched the plastic and returned to paper sticks. Be sure to double-check the composition when you buy, and bin the buds rather than flushing them.
Razors with multiple blades get clogged up with soap and hair, making the blade lose its edge more quickly, thus needing to be replaced more frequently. If you clean and dry the razor after use, it stays sharp and usable for longer, but plastic disposable razors and cartridge razor heads still generate a lot of waste that cannot be recycled. Around 2 billion of these end up in landfill every year.
I have a traditional style safety razor from Naked Necessities, with a double-edged blade, made of metal with a wooden handle. The only part which needs disposing of regularly is the thin stainless steel blade, which is easily recycled. And though it was initially expensive to make the switch from a razor with changeable heads, it’s something that’s saved me quite a bit of money in the long term.
Plastic tampon applicators are found on beaches so frequently that surfers coined the name beach whistles for these pervasive plastic presences. I find them washed up on the beach often, and I’m not alone as the Marine Conservation Society estimates up to six items of sanitary waste are found for every hundred metres of shoreline in the UK.
For a start, tampons, applicators, sanitary towels, and wet wipes are things that should NEVER be flushed. Wrap them, and dispose of them in a bin after use. Look for plastic-free period products, like TOTM or DAME, which use paper applicators and packaging, or reusable applicators. Some brands offer a subscription service so you can stock up on exactly what you need before a trip, especially if you’re going somewhere your usual products might not be available.
Menstrual cups and period pants go one step further. These are reusable silicone cups and washable absorbent pants designed to be used over and over, immediately cutting out the amount of landfill waste created. Though I still use applicator tampons at times (often I find myself in places where it’s difficult to wash the cup for reuse) I’m a fan of both solutions. They’re compact and easily packed for travel, and are also cost-effective alternatives in the long term.
With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you are connected to the sea. No matter where you live.
Dr. Sylvia Earle
Not all of these products are as easy to come by as their cheap, convenient, plastic alternatives, and some might take a bit of forward planning to incorporate into your travel schedule. But with the future health of the oceans at stake, upon which we all depend, it’s high time to make these changes.
Read more on the extent of the problem at Plastic Oceans, and get involved with various initiatives trying to raise awareness and tackle the issues, like Surfers Against Sewage, 2 Minute Beach Clean, and End Period Plastic. Small things done by many people will eventually have a significant cumulative impact.
What do you do to reduce your plastic footprint? Share your advice in the comments below.
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I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales.
I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons. Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.
So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition. I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.
In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books. Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South. I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing. They’re all good books, Brent.
The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland. Continue reading “Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll”
I’ve put together a selection of my favourite books with an ocean theme, including nature writing, biography, and childhood favourites.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.
I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean. So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.
For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.
The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.