Lost Cities and Sustainability

It was 27°c here two weeks ago. The flowers leapt toward the sun with abundant joy, the bees danced and hummed their tales amongst themselves and anyone else who would listen, and the birds designed and structured their nests, some already laying their eggs and sitting. Song was everywhere and the blossom on the cherries unfurled and stretched after a winter of confinement and sleep.

At the weekend, the temperature dropped and the sun hid. Snow, thick and heavy snow, fell for two days, and the song faltered, the scent of the flowers froze, and the birds struggled. Here, it settled a little, but not too far away they had more than 80 centimetres (pretty much a yard). At night, for two days, the temperature was -8°c. During the day it hovered around freezing.

Last year was similar, and one of the three cherry trees perished. The tale was the same across the region and much of France, with those who rely on growing things resorting to desperate measures to keep their livelihood and green charges from failing. Candles were lit below vines, blossom encased in covers, and prayers said.

Climate change pushes the first false spring earlier and warmer each year. I remember, when I was a child in Orkney, April being the month were there could reliably be a warmer weekend to play outside, grass growing swiftly, requiring the lawn to be mown and silage cut in May.

Now, in the north of Scotland, March has that first warmth. It is, arguably, similar here, although there can also be heat in the sun as early as February or late January. I hear similar from friends around the world — uncharacteristic and devastating rains in the dry season, or no rain in the rainy season. Winds. Storms. Tides and waves and water.

This year, here, there was a constant warming, over several weeks. The plants and animals were fooled, again, and, again, they suffered. I am keeping my fingers crossed for the remaining two cherries, and was surprised to see the male and female blackbirds both bringing food to their nest yesterday. Extra seed and fat balls, along with the ever-present and laboriously cut cheese-rinds, have hopefully helped.

As I edit this, the sun has returned and it feels too hot to wear a jacket outside. 

I have edited out a long section here, all about the incorrect framing of climate collapse, all about the media, the future, and how families are already feeling the effects — only they are told the cause is something or someone else. I have decided to keep this part of the introduction for another time.

Instead, I will focus on the return of the bees and wonder at how they made it through the weekend. I glance out the window and see a butterfly, then another. The blossom is still there, still providing sustenance for bee and butterfly both.

There is a lesson to be learnt here.


I had hoped to have a second newsletter with you last month. Sorry about that. It turns out planning an imminent wedding whilst wrangling a five and half month old and also wondering when we’ll get to move house is somewhat time consuming.

Still, I’m almost on track with all I need to do in the next week or so. Almost. I do have the occasional ‘argh, still lots to do’ moment, but in general, I’m quite content.

Normal service should, in theory, resume next month. There will still be the small matter of moving home, decorating, cleaning, and finding precisely the right place for each item but, I think, post-wedding things will be somewhat more normal.

Or as normal as my life can every be. (There’s nothing wrong with normal-normal, it’s just not for me. And what, exactly, IS normal?!)

Free Books, All About Lost Cities

Only one promotion this month, mostly because I booked a place on this one two months ago and have since forgotten to look for others. For some reason my brain has been distracted of late.

Only One Death is a part of Lost Cities, a free book group promotion over at StoryOrigin. As those of you who have read Only One Death already know, the tale is framed around the search for a lost city, so the novella fits here beautifully. Do have a look and see if you can find anything you like.

Hopefully next month I’ll have remembered to find more giveaways for you…


I am very much looking forward to having a home of our own at some point soon. The little apartment below Aurélie’s parents is great, but with three people in it, things are getting cramped. 

I miss having a kitchen of our own to cook in (those of you who similarly love to cook might recognise that — there are other kitchens, then there is your own, where everything is placed just so, in a certain fashion, ingredients arranged quite right, according to your tastes.). I miss having a study/office of my own, somewhere to plan and plot and push work forward. I long to have a dedicated mini-gym, a workshop, a wood burning stove, and somewhere to grow herbs and salads and other edibles for a time. It will be good to be in a tiny village, able to walk out into the wilder world without first having to negotiate suburbia.

No matter how wonderful living with other people can be (and it really can be), I think the ability to have a home with your own rhythm and rites, routines and chaos, laughter and books, is to really understand yourself and your immediate relationships.

Aurélie and I are both looking forward to having fun with these and, crucially, establishing a unit with Ailsa.

A lot of our conversations at present start with ‘after the wedding’. Some time ago, we reached the point where things began to be placed firmly on the calendar post-ceremony and it will be interesting once we finally reach this quasi-mythical period of our lives. At present, however, those thoughts lie in the future (despite it being less than two weeks in the future).

*Home is also the title of an essay I’ve been working on for, ahem, err, some years now. (That’s two essays I mention in this issue (one later), two which really need to see the light of day/other eyes.) Home means many different things to many different people and this essay (or story? or post?) is predominantly about what it means to me. The answer is not as straightforward as it might be, but then nothing ever is, right?

On Kilts, Part One

In the next newsletter there may (who knows?) be a Part Two, with pictures of me in my kilt (altered by my own fair hand — I can now add ‘kilt adjuster’ to my list of sewing skills; it was a little too big, as I lost a couple of inches from my kilt waist between measuring just after Christmas, and purchase). 

A kilt, a proper one, made from heavyweight wool rather than one of those I see flooding the market made from polyester, is an expensive investment. I was lucky, in that my family helped out with the purchase as an early birthday present and I carefully planned ahead to be able to buy this for the wedding. It’s something I’ve always wanted, but never-quite-justified.

Expensive it may be, even second-hand, but if you are clever in your purchase and take good care of it, a kilt should outlast you. Similarly with the Argyll jackets, one for the day, one for the evening — these are built to last. My sporran was made in the 1930s, so it too is already an heirloom, older than my Dad. The kilt itself is also older than a number of the wedding guests themselves, having been handmade by a kiltmaker bought out by another at least thirty-something years ago. Yet it looks and feels like new — which is the mark of a great craftsperson (and also thanks to whoever owned it previously storing it correctly).

This idea, of buying sustainably, leads neatly into the next section…

Word For The Year

I have a list on my phone and another in Scrivener of points I forget to mention to you. Things I’ve either promised to talk about, or subjects I have teased then never mentioned again. These loose threads are still there, in my head, on paper and pixel, awaiting their turn to be rewoven into the ongoing tapestry of newsletter which is Not A Travel Writer. Needless to say, perhaps in coming months I shall get to tick these things off? 

However, one thing I do want to mention is my Word Of The Year. I last mentioned this in January, thought about it a lot, and narrowed it down to a shortlist, before selecting a word which I felt best reflects my intentions for this year. I chose it, then forgot to mention it — to you, or anyone else for that matter. Oops. There’s a very real chance you might be the first person other than me to know my word.

The word I have chosen is ‘sustainability’ and, as with most years, this has been chosen to reflect various factors in my life.

The obvious one is the ecological and environmental meaning, but that is only a part of the reason behind my choosing this word.

Sustainability covers all manner of things — food, writing, training, hobbies, nature, relationships and more. This is an excellent year to take a long look at my habits and work out how to be better, how to do more but also, crucially, how to do it sustainably. No point in burning out and requiring the time to recover, much better to plot the steps I need to take to get to the next location in my journey, whether this is how to grow more of our own food, or how to plan my physical workload to maximise the time available.

In short, I want to be focussed and deliberate, whilst also ensuring this leaves room (mentally and also in the diary) to relax and recover. I won’t bore you with talk about the writing Plan with a capital P, I’ve done that recently, but that’s a prime example of how my fiction-writing career can be sustainable. Each step leads to another, and then another. 

That is what sustainability means to me. In a year when I get married and move house, as well as introduce Ailsa to more of my family, including her grandparents and aunties in Scotland, (hopefully, Covid-depending — at the moment they have reservations about international travel), this manner of seeing time and effort and destination is essential and fitting.

Choosing to buy the vast majority of my wedding outfit second-hand fits perfectly with this ethos. As does carefully considering a new phone — an early birthday gift from Aurélie — in order to be future-proof for as long as possible, ensuring it will last at least as long as the one I am still using (which I picked up nearly five years ago, in the brick edifice of Kad Suan Kaew mall in Chiang Mai, immediately after arriving in the city). 

I like to buy and use things which will last, things which might cost more in the short term, due to quality materials and excellent construction, but in the long term will save money, becoming like old friends along the way.

I have mentioned my favourite fountain pen — it is perhaps the oldest item I still use (oldest, as in longest time used by me — I have and use items far, far older). Every time I take that out to write, I am reminded of the words which have flowed before, whether scribbled in purple ink, or green, red, blue or black.

Things which work — Things Which Work, maybe? — can be carefully researched and selected over time.

If I can find something to buy second-hand and it doesn’t affect the quality of the item, then I would much prefer to do this. Since being based in France, I’ve developed something of a minor addiction to Vinted, where I can follow certain keywords, search terms, manufacturers, or sellers, and see when something pops up I’m searching for. 

I find it a thrill to have an item on that list for months and months (and, before Vinted, resting in my head for years and years), only to find a perfect, cheap, and second-hand option I snap up immediately. To be able to remove that item from my list is a victory for patience and fortitude and wonderfully sustainable.

(Items which recently fell into this list include brand-new, never-worn Bluffworks travel trousers/pants — two pairs at 15€ each, rather than the usual $125 per pair [which I have worn nearly every day since]; a Swanndri NZ woollen jacket/heavy lined shirt, from the time they actually made them in NZ and not China, in excellent condition and only 8€, rather than the equivalent $300 NZD for a new one, something I’ve wanted for about thirty years; or a pair of mislabelled, handmade Ortiz & Reed [Ortif & Reed…] Spanish leather shoes for a frankly ridiculous 3€ instead of the usual 609€ [whilst I defend the right of such a pair of shoes to exist, there’s no way I’d ever buy any at that price, I simply do not think I could justify it; various merino t-shirts and tops; etcetera — I could go on, but fear this paragraph may not be as exciting for you as it is for me.)

Patience and sustainability go hand-in-hand and, fortunately, I am a patient person. I prefer to think things through, rather than leaping in blindly and, if I can, I like to have a plan. This all helps with my mental health, ensuring that when things inevitably epically depart from said plan, my brain is still happy because there was one. I can roll with the punches and accept rapid change, as long as I know I tried my best to plot the route before it all fell apart. Weird, I know.

Words can become loaded with meaning which does not necessarily reflect intention. As such, it is both important to recognise this, and also to try and reclaim language where appropriate and needed. Sustainability is too often used to demonstrate an outdated (by a generation or two) idea in the press of earnest back-to-the-land, The Good Life types, goats to be milked, veg to be hoed, chickens on the rug and infants in the coop types.

It is important to realise this idea is NOT A BAD ONE. Those who make that leap to smallholding, or an off-grid lifestyle, are too often mocked and derided when, in reality, they are trying their level best to make a difference — not just to the planet, but to themselves.

Growing up in Orkney we recognised this type, and also recognised how hard this life was — many did not make it, and went back south after their first winter. Others adapted and realised that they could not follow cut-and-paste southern idea of smallholding, moving to more suited crops or animals.

However — sustainability, even in the sense of ensuring we reduce, reuse, recycle, is far more than that. It should be central to our entire existence. It should not even exist as a term, but be so hardwired into our being that it simply is.

We’ve tried the disposable lifestyle of the last few decades and we now know that ideas like fast fashion and plastic packaging should be consigned to history. (Of course, the corporations and politicians in their pocket beg to differ — why stop a thing when there is still money to be made.)

Which is the key issue — money.

As much as some would like to have you believe, money is not actually the be all and end all. And money — and the pursuit of it — is not sustainable. 

This year, I intend to finish and share an essay on the subject of money, working title “I Blame The Bronze Age…”, which also discusses the switch to a predominantly male-dominator culture, suppression of women, the destruction of nature and the rise of incessant greed. The key point of this essay is that these things are all on their last legs and a more sustainable world lies ahead — a quick glance at the news may make you believe they are not, of course, but this is (thankfully) not the case. 

We are swiftly* moving in the right direction and, yes, there will be dark ness on the path, but there is light too. The last gasp of several thousand years of a way of being was always going to be a forceful and violent inhalation, but it is still a last gasp. There will come the shudders and the hissing final breath, but then silence and peace.

Sustainability is destined to be how we as a species survives — so it only seems right that this year, the year so much happens in my life, I adopt this as my touchstone word.

*Swift, as in swiftly for our species — not for the individual, as discussed recently time means different things for different people, and it is the currency in which our lives are traded.


There is much more to this issue in the drafts, ideas and snippets to expand upon at a later time.

I wanted to talk about others, other newsletters I love, other writers, other places to find things which make life that little bit better.

I wanted to talk about Orkney, which has lately been on my mind, as I read Amy Liptrot‘s The Instant, talk of Orkney as a centre of a world, at more than one point in time.

I have to go through the books I’ve read, the music I’ve listened to, the movies and TV I’ve watched.

I wanted to mention switching to a new home on the internet (behind the scenes server-based hosting home, not a new site, that remains notatravelwriter.com).

I wanted to discuss earning a crust of gluten-free bread, of ideas to diversify and how I plan to repurpose material.

I wanted to talk of death and life and living rather than existing.

I wanted to discuss the word ‘curation’, an also-ran for Word of the Year.

And I wanted to talk more about our upcoming wedding, what it means to me and how lucky I feel. How happy Aurélie makes me and how I do not take that for granted.

These things can wait, these thought aren’t going anywhere and, to be honest, I’d much rather be in a situation where I have too much to say, rather than too little. For now, I hope spring is finding you, and finding you well. Or early autumn is not too harsh.

There will be a full moon on the evening of our wedding. I love this. The moon and I are friends, and have been for a long time. It is good that she turns her full face to us, watches, smiles, and turns away again. There are stories hidden everywhere in life and nature. Don’t forget that.

Take care my friend, until May, keep remembering to watch for the little signs that the world is an incredible place, and we are all very lucky to pass through it.

À bientôt, next time we talk I’ll be a married man.

At least the neighbours beside my study window will be quiet. I hope


Photos, as usual, are mine. They are all of the area around where we are to be married. I’ve certainly shared some of them before, but thought it fitting to include them here this month.

If you like my words and/or pictures, do share this with your friends and family. It will remain free. And thank you so much to those of you who do share, or who message me (hit reply to this email, or find me @alexandermcrow on twitter) to say they enjoyed something. It means a lot to me.

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