First Snow | Cardinal Waits

We have our first snow of the season in Iowa this morning. There is about 3″ on the ground and nearly stopped. I filled the feeders since the birds will find it harder to locate food. This cardinal sat for the longest time in the thicket nearby. I like how he is all fluffed up. Now, he and chickadees, titmouse, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and juncos are busy checking out the new supply.

Cardinalis cardinalis

Cardinalis cardinalis

Scotland | Whisky

by Melanie and Jim

If you’ve never been to Scotland and someone asks you to free-associate words you link to the country, you might think of things like highlands, tartans, kilts, golf, sheep, and scotch whisky. Though Scotland is much more than these, these stereotypes actually hold true. The land is beautiful and rugged; the people hold their textiles and kilts dear; golf courses are everywhere; and whisky is one of the main manufactured products of the land.

According to wikipedia, “Scotch Whisky has survived USA prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.” Besides the whisky itself, the whisky industry is closely linked to tourism. Many distilleries are open for public tours (for a fee), adding more than £30 million of value a year.

When we decided to travel to Scotland, whisky was one thing that drew us. Friends recommended we look at Rabbie’s tours for parts of our journey. Rabbie’s hosts a number of whisky industry tours. Benefits of using a tour company include having a driver/tour guide, an itinerary, and scheduled entrance to distilleries and other sites. We didn’t need to rent a car, drive on the left, or figure out how to get around, all while potentially tipsy!

Where We Went

The Scottish region with most whisky distilleries is Speyside, the area around the River Spey in northeast Scotland. The prime location features fresh water springs and nearby farming of barley, two of the three ingredients used in production. The third ingredient is yeast.

Our 3-day tour, in orange, took us from Edinburgh up to Perth and then northwest through Pitlochry, before turning northeast to follow the River Spey. Near the top of the green region of Cairngorms National Park we stayed 2 nights at a bed & breakfast. On day two we reached the north sea near Forres. The third day brought us down the east side of the park and near Balmoral Castle on the south. Our driver said during one recent summer, on two separate occasions, he met a pair of vehicles on a remote road with one of them driven by the Queen.


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Abscission | Autumn Leaves Fall

On 17 Nov 2016 we reached a near-record high of 75˚F in eastern Iowa. It started to cool off the next day and got very windy. That night and the next day were much colder and windy with gusts in excess of 45 mph. Most of the trees already dropped their leaves before this recent weather. The strong wind removed the rest, except for the mulberry trees. They still held tight to their dried leaves.

The next morning, it was the coldest night of the year at 20˚F. We knew what to expect from the mulberry trees. As the temperature warmed to near freezing, they would drop their remaining leaves within an hour. The process involves something called abscission. Earlier colder and frosty nights triggered the formation of a thin layer of cells at the base of the leaf stem. The very cold temperature helped complete the process of cutting the leaf loose from the stem so it could fall.

In this video the leaf drop occurs on the tree behind out neighbor as the sun warmed the leaves. There was no wind. The video is speeded up by 4X. It will help to view on a larger screen.

Morals | Liberal vs Conservative

A look at moral decision making in a framework of “liberal” and “conservative.”

How I See It

right-way-wrong-way1Consider the following moral foundations that guide the decisions people make. How would you rank them in terms of their importance to you? Which one is top on your list? Which is least important to you?

Take your time. Order them from most to least in how important they are as guides to your moral decisions.

Care/Harm: This foundation is related to our ability to feel the pain of others and underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

Fairness/Cheating: This foundation underlies the ideas of justice, rights, proportionality, and independence.

Liberty/Oppression: This foundation relates our feelings toward those who dominate and restrict our liberty. Tension with authority can bring people together in attempts to remove the oppressor.

Loyalty/Betrayal: Evolved from our tribal history and the formation of coalition groups with others. Patriotism and sacrifice for our group are two ways this foundation is expressed.

Authority/Subversion: Related to the hierarchy…

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Scotland | Edinburgh Castle and Museums

by Jim and Melanie

So far, the focus of our Scotland vacation blog posts has been on the holiday barge trip we enjoyed the first week. Our travels also included several days in Edinburgh. Our first day was upon arrival before heading north by train to Inverness. After the barge trip, we returned to Edinburgh for three days. Lastly, we enjoyed one more day after our whisky distilleries tour. This post presents some highlights of all three of those occasions in the marvelous city.

First Impressions

We arrived mid-day at the airport and made our way to where we would spend the night. It was only a few blocks from the Royal Mile in the Old Town. The Royal Mile is a series of streets running downhill from the Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace to the east. The descent is from 109 meters above sea level at the castle, to 42 meters at the palace. The thoroughfare is the busiest tourist area in the city. The street was built upon the glacial debris behind the volcanic plug upon which the castle sits. (See more about the Royal Mile and its geology and history here.)

After getting settled into our room, we ventured out to explore and find a place to eat. We walked up the Royal Mile and back again. We explored a few side streets and narrow passages called closes. More about closes in this post. Tourist shops were everywhere, with tartans, kilts, whiskies, and shortbreads in abundance. People from all over the world enjoyed the sights and sounds. Bagpipes could be heard. Street performers (buskers) gathered crowds. The old gray stone buildings rose up with a wide variety of ornamentations. Statues and public memorials were everywhere.

Our train for Inverness was scheduled late the next morning. We packed our bags and rolled them toward a place where we could get breakfast. Afterward, we crossed the Royal Mile and headed toward the train station. This was our view across the tracks. Click on either picture to open them in gallery.

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Scotland | Historic Edinburgh

by Jim & Melanie

Our visit to Scotland this fall included our week-long barge trip, which we’ve already discussed. We also had three separate visits to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. It is a city that is centuries old. The history of the city’s development intrigued us.

Edinburgh of the Past

Edinburgh was built upon ground surrounding an ancient volcano core. The crag sticking up above the surrounding land where the castle was built stands over 100 meters (330 ft) above sea level. Tailing off toward the east was a ridge of land sloping downward to about 30 meters (100 ft). The top of the ridge served as a roadway. Buildings with shops and residences were densely arranged roughly perpendicular to the roadway. Two old maps show the layout from different perspectives looking north and then looking west.


View north about 1770

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Fungus | Ink Cap | Tipler’s Bane

Many of these Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) are popping up in the neighborhood. Note the small one in the back. Later in their life they look like those in the front, especially after a light rain. From the wikipedia article:

The flesh is thin and the taste mild. It can be eaten but is poisonous when consumed with alcohol – hence another common name, tippler’s bane.


Dubuque | Mines of Spain | River Museum

by Melanie and Jim

October included our 35th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we drove 90 minutes to the city of Dubuque, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. There we visited the Mines of Spain recreation area and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. We enjoyed dinner that evening and an overnight stay at our favorite B&B in town.

The City of Dubuque

Dubuque, a city of about 58,000 residents and five colleges, sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the northeast part of Iowa. It’s one of the oldest permanent settlements of Europeans west of the great river, and the oldest one in Iowa itself. The original settlement dates from the 1780s, as a prime location with trapping and hunting, fishing, and logging. In addition, the area had long been a site for lead mining by the Mesquakie tribe, and later by white settlers. The city was chartered in 1837. You can see the evidence of its age in local architecture. Almost 5,000 properties are documented for historical and architectural significance. These include churches, former boarding houses, grand mansions, and shipyards.

One shop in particular, the Iowa Iron Works, started as an iron foundry and machine shop in 1852. The site was responsible for building about 500 boats on the shore of the river. One of them was the Sprague, the largest paddle wheel steamboat on the river at 318 feet in 1901. The company reorganized in 1904 into the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works. Many boats built by the company were for the government during World Wars I and II.

Mines of Spain

The history of this region goes back a long time. Early Native American cultures dating back 8,000 years left evidence of mounds, villages, rock shelters, and campsites on the landscape. The Mesquakie traded furs with French voyagers and worked the lead mines in the bluffs along the river before the Revolutionary War.

The first European to settle here was Julien Dubuque about 1785. He received a land grant from the Governor of Spain in 1796 giving him permission to work the land and mine for lead in an area named “Mines of Spain.” Dubuque married the daughter of the local Mesquakie Indian Chief. Dubuque died 24 March 1810. The Mesquakie buried him with honors at the site of the present monument on a bluff overlooking the region.

The Mines of Spain park is now a favorite recreation spot for locals and visitors, alike. It features bluff-side trails, as is common with river parks in the Midwest. With both of us recovering from knee problems, we weren’t incredibly ambitious with our hiking. However, we did enjoy two different trails with a total distance of about three miles. Views of the river, seen from different overlooks on the trails, still include barges and riverboats, much as they did 150 years ago.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

The Mississippi River has a rich and colorful history. It touched the lives of many as it flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Owned by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum features the culture and history of America’s rivers. There are over a dozen aquariums featuring river wildlife and animals found at the Gulf of Mexico. You can see giant blue and channel catfish, sturgeon, ducks, frogs, turtles, rays, octopus, river otters. Other exhibits include steam boilers, boats building hardware, and a woodworking shop. Children seemed excited to look through the clear tank walls and even had opportunities to touch some of the animals. We found it all very interesting.

We headed back home the next day and stopped at a favorite nearby park. Palisades -Kepler State Park hugs the Cedar River. Bluff-side trails give opportunities for more challenging hiking, with lots of roots and rocks and ups and downs. We didn’t take photos this time. However, three years ago we did and shared them in this post.

Scotland | Caledonian Canal Lock System

Previous posts about our Scotland trip can be found here.

Our barge Fingal of Caledonia embarked from Inverness and traveled to Banavie near Fort William to the southwest. This video gives some perspective for that journey.

Lake | Loch | Lock

From Wikipedia:

Loch (/ˈlɒx/) is the Irish and Scottish Gaelic word for a lake or for a sea inlet. In English and Hiberno-English, the anglicised spelling lough is commonly found in place names, pronounced the same way as loch. In Scottish English, ‘loch’ is always used. Some lochs could also be called firths, fjords, estuaries, straits or bays.

A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways.

Caledonian Canal and Lock System

Three lochs are aligned end to end along the route. The largest and most well known is Loch Ness at the northeast end of the route near Inverness. Loch Lochy is situated at the southwest near Banavie. Between them is the much smaller Loch Oich. The Caledonian Canal connects them and allows boats to access them from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Rivers also connect the lochs. The rivers are not navigable by larger vessels. The canal parallels the rivers.

The elevations of the three lochs are different. Loch Oich is the highest and most inland at 106 ft above sea level. Loch Lochy has an elevation of 94 ft above sea level. Loch Ness is 52 ft above sea level. Ample precipitation inland maintains the loch levels. Because of the differences in elevation, a system of locks raises or lowers vessels to allow them passage. From the Inverness end, there are 14 locks to allow vessels passage to and from Loch Oich the highest elevation. From the end near Fort William, there are 15 locks to allow vessels passage to and from Loch Oich.

Three places have multiple locks arranged end to end. There are 4 in a group near Inverness. There are 5 in a group at Fort Augustus. And there are 8 at Banavie. This last large group is known as Neptune’s Staircase. Passage through it can take more than 90 minutes. Operations can be challenging when the holiday season brings many pleasure boats to the canal. Our barge barely fit its length into the locks. Our width also limited the vessels that could join us in the lock.

How Locks Work

A lock can raise or lower a vessel depending on the desired direction of travel. Below are two series of graphics provided by Wikipedia User Cmglee illustrating the step by step process to raise and lower a vessel in a lock.



capstanIn the past, lock gates and valves were operated by a team of men at a rotating device called a capstan. Sturdy lengths of wood were inserted into the four white square holes so the men could push it around to turn the mechanism. Seven turns were needed to open or close a gate.

Today, the lock gates and valves are operated by hydraulics. One person can control the gates and valves from a console next to the lock chamber. In the past, a busy lock might have several men assigned to operate the gates and valves. Below is one of the hydraulic control panels.


Passage by Fingal

On the third day of our voyage we approached the set of five locks at Fort Augustus at the end of Loch Ness. The video shows our very slow and deliberate approach into the system of locks. Next, we see Fingal within the first lock being readied to be raised. The crew tied the barge and moved the small craft out of the way. The third part shows the water pouring into the chamber. The crew is busy adjusting the ropes to keep Fingal snug to the side. Finally, the water level is the same as the next lock chamber. The gate is opened for us to proceed. The whole process starts over to secure the barge and prepare for being raised in the next chamber.

One of my favorite images I found in researching this post is a map published in 1848. I include a link to it if you are interested. It is a large file over 2 megabytes. On a computer screen, it can be view full-sized showing some amazing details of the canal system. In the lower right corner:

Ordered by The House of Commons to be Printed 29th August 1848.