The world’s only song about the fossa?

I spent a couple of years working in Amsterdam for EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, as Communications and Membership Manager. Its Executive Director at the time was Lesley Dickie, a Scotswoman whose many passions included an obsession with the fossa, an obscure (to most people) carnivore from Madagascar. Lesley’s PhD focused on the fossa and she was, as she says herself, always “blathering on” about it to anyone who would listen.

At the end of May, in the context of launching a Facebook page dedicated to connections between art and species conservation, Lesley threw out a challenge, calling on friends to create artworks inspired by species conservation. Her successor at EAZA, Myfanwy Griffith, (a co-organizer of a related session at this year’s IUCN World Conservation Congress), specifically issued the challenge to me via Facebook to come up with a song.

Challenge accepted!

I haven’t been doing much songwriting of late, but for some reason this challenge inspired me. I decided I would try to write a song about the fossa Lesley’s involvement made that the obvious choice and that I’d do it quickly. The end result came tumbling out more or less in one evening, following a couple of days tossing ideas around in my head. The last few songs that I’ve written have been a result of a commission of one sort or another: the geek songMairéad’s wedding song, David’s Twiggathon auction purchase, and the challenge I set myself to write a song for Declan.

I wrote and recorded Fuss About The Fossa at the end of May. As far as I can tell it’s the only song about the fossa, in English at least. It took a little longer to find the time to create a video to accompany it. (Sharing music on the web without any accompanying images is fighting a losing battle these days.) I’ve used a bunch of photos of fossa from Wikimedia and Flickr, all available under Creative Commons licenses*. There some really nice images but they are all of fossa in zoos; I would have liked to use some of the wonderful images of fossa in the wild that are available from Arkive, but I wasn’t sure about the usage rights.

I’m happy to have played my own small part in raising awareness of species conversation and the surprisingly interesting fossa. If you’re wondering what some of the lyrics below refer to specifically, read more on the relevant Wikipedia page.


Fuss About The Fossa

He’s the biggest beast on the island to the east of Africa so they say,
Kinda like a cat, but there’s more to it than that, as you’re gonna find out today,
He only feels good hanging out in the woods and keeping out of the way,
But they’re felling the forest, so maybe tomorrow he’ll have no place to stay.
Who’s gonna make a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.

Climbing through the branches, hoping for a chance to get jiggy with a lady friend,
They’ve got very long tails but the fossa male has another impressive append…age,
Waiting around underneath the bough ’til he hears the lady yell,

If he gets his way he’ll spend half a day making love ’til the painful end.
Who’s gonna make a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.

He keeps the Malagasy beat, on his bear-like feet,
Patrolling his patch and hoping he’ll catch some lemurs to eat,
But if we don’t take care, and keep the forest there,
The loss of our friend the fossa will be the result I swear.

Fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa….
Fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa….

Does anybody give a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.
Who’s gonna give a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.

(Download the song from SoundCloud)

* The image credits are listed on the YouTube page for the video.


So you’re considering washable nappies? Don’t bother…

Actually do bother. I’m very glad we did for our two boys. But make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. While it makes economic sense in the long run, the up-front costs will seem like a big waste of money if you quit after three weeks…or even three days.

My much more detail-focused other half has just published a great blog post that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about washable nappies. If you’re really keen to give them a try then it’s a must-read. My approach here might seem a little more negative.

The five biggest stumbling blocks*

1. You don’t really want to use them. Or at least one of you does and the other is just going along for a quiet life. Washable nappies are NOT a viable proposition if just one parent (and it’s usually the already tired new mum) is taking most of the weight of the washing and other logistical stuff involved. It takes two to tangle with washable nappies, so have a serious chat before the baby arrives and make sure you’re both on the same page.

2. You’ll pick the wrong type. We’ve seen quite a few different brands and I can completely understand why some people give up quickly. We (actually, Nadine) did tons of research before settling on Flip nappies. While they may seem a bit faffy compared to some all-in-one models, there are many reasons why they will make your life easier in the long run. Picking the wrong type, or having a mix of different types, is the path to Pampers.

3. You’ll panic in the early days. Newborn babies go through a LOT of nappies. Even if you buy more than the recommended number of washables, you’ll still find yourself loading the machine on a daily basis for the first few weeks. And if you’re lucky enough to have plenty of time to spend at home in those early weeks, there are so many things to occupy your time, mind and energies that you’ll quickly wonder why you’re bothering with this washables lark when you could be using disposables like everyone else.

4. You’ll succumb to the thin end of the wedge. In response to not wanting to do so much laundry, or falling behind on getting them washed and dried, or the need to travel with the baby, you’ll decide to use disposables now and again. The thing is, once you start using them, that now and again will become again and again and, before you know it, there’ll be another washable nappy kit up on eBay. As the Small Faces said, it’s all or nothing. (I don’t think they were singing about nappies.)

5. You’ll meet carer resistance. Whatever childcare option you go with in the end – crèche, childminder, etc. – they’ll all raise an eyebrow when you tell them your child wears washable nappies. They won’t like having to so something that deviates from the norm they’ve become accustomed to. Having a special routine for one specific child won’t appeal to them, so you’ll need to be quite assertive in assuring them that it’s really not such a big deal.

So, why bother?

The reason you should consider giving them a try – and the reason you will stick with it, if you do – is because it will feel to you like the right and natural thing to do.**

We live in a world where we’re all using too much stuff. It doesn’t make sense any longer to default to a single-use, disposable solution when a reusable one can work. We don’t use disposable plates and cutlery at home; we wash durable products over and over again. When I’ve used this argument in the past I’ve seen that people are squeamish about the whole excrement thing: “yeah, but we don’t have poo on our plates and forks”. Well, many of my generation – and just about everyone older – were reared (if you’ll excuse the pun) on terry cloth nappies and it wasn’t an issue then. A 60º wash will take care of anything your baby can produce.

Happy in their nappies

Happy in their nappies

Robert, on the right above, wore Flip nappies from his third day until about two and a half years old. Declan, now three and a half months, has inherited them and will wear them until he too is potty-trained. (Robert is just modelling the nappy in the photo above – we prioritised the potty training for him as we were not keen to have two of them in the washables simultaneously. Fortunately it went smoothly and quickly…and there are some that say toddlers that wear washables are easier to toilet train as they have a better awareness of when they’re wet.)

There’s a whole lot more to the discussion than my broad strokes here. You should read Nadine’s post if you want to look into it more.

It’s really not a big deal if you decide they’re not for you, or if you try and just don’t succeed. You’ll be joining 99.9999% of other families in using disposables. I sincerely hope that washables will start to become a bit more common, particularly now that the textile technology has evolved to make them more manageable. Baby steps…


*And if you decide that the nappies are a bridge too far, or try and give up, then do at least consider going for washable wipes. Much less hassle – you can chuck them into any load of laundry and there’s no drying involved. We use Cheeky Wipes – more info in Nadine’s post.

**Edit: A discussion I got involved with on reddit prompts me to clarify here that I’m not saying the use of washable cloth nappies is the right thing to do full stop; rather that it will feel to you like the right thing for you and your family. If you are to make using washable nappies work for you then you’ll need something to drive you along. I don’t think the financial reasons are strong enough – it needs to be something almost emotional. For me/us it’s broadly about sustainability, among other factors. I’ve also removed notions of fail/succeed from this post – it’s not the right terminology.  🙂



I grew potatoes for the first time this year. It wasn’t difficult at all: drilled drainage holes in the bottom of a rubbish bin, added a layer of big stones, some soil, and three chitted potatoes. They grew really quickly and it was just a case of adding another layer of soil every week or so.


I’ll have to admit that I was expecting to have a bigger harvest, but it’s not bad for a first attempt.


We also tried to get a veggie garden up and running, with mixed success so far. We followed the advice from a great book, called Square Metre Gardening, that makes it almost foolproof.  That huge plant sprawling halfway across the garden will hopefully soon give birth to some pumpkins.


The big tomatoes are taking their time with ripening.


The cherry tomatoes are really tasty.


We managed to get a decent crop of little courgettes from a potted plant, and there are a couple of little aubergines developing nicely in the raised bed.


Not bad for a first effort. But we’ll be hoping for more in 2014.


A tale of two toilets

Visiting our friends Ruth and Damian about a year ago we noticed that they had twinned their toilet. The money raised by this clever idea is spent on providing safe, clean toilets for people in developing countries. It’s something we take for granted in our part of the world, but actually 2.5 billion people don’t have suitable sanitary facilities.

They ask for a donation of GBP £60, which goes towards providing toilets for countries in various parts of the world. Apparently it can cost between £10 and £100 to build such facilities, depending on the circumstances. In return your toilet is twinned with a recently built toilet in a country of your choosing – and you get a nice framed certificate to display. As with many charity schemes this serves the dual purpose of making you feel good about yourself (not so important) and spreading the word (very important). I think it’s a very clever way to spread the word – when you visit friends that’s one room you usually end up spending time in, right?

Toilet Certificate

We chose to twin with a toilet in Ethiopia, not least as my neice and nephew are both half-Ethiopian. They provide you with the GPS coordinates of “your” toilet’s location. Ours is located in a village south of Addis Ababa.

View Larger Map

Toilet Detail

(Actually, this is the second time we’ve done this, as our friend Paul pointed out that, having moved house recently, we were cheating by moving the twinning certificate too. It was in fact the toilet in our old place in Meyrin that was twinned with a toilet in Burkina Faso. Hence this new twinning. It was nice to see that in just over a year the Latrine No. has risen from 977 to more than 80,000. Clearly this idea is going viral.)

What Julia did

About five years ago my friend Julia bought a rundown property on some land close to the village of Alegrete in eastern Portugal. Last weekend we paid her a visit to see how the project is progressing.

The property is on the edge of a national park, surrounded by wooded hills. Her plot of land is home to olive trees, cork oaks and various other plants, herbs and bushes.

The building itself wasn’t much more than four walls and a bit of roof when she bought it. It’s now the warm, welcoming home of Julia and Vitor, stretching across two two floors, with a guest bedroom, wood-burning stoves for heat, and plenty of space. Of course there will always be a To Do list – they plan to plaster the exterior wall shown above and there are some chimmney issues to address – but it’s already a very comfortable place to live now.

There are upwards of twenty olive trees on the property.It’s not enough to generate a significant income; nonetheless, they can take their crop into the local press and take home how ever many litres of olive oil they produce. And there are plenty of olives for eating throughout the year too.

Another useful harvest comes from the cork oaks, whose bark is chopped off every nine years. It’s not of sufficiently high grade to use for wine bottles but there are many other uses. The axe above is used to cut a seam down the trunk of the tree…

….and then the bark is prised from around the trunk. The tree itself isn’t harmed, and another thick layer of bark grows back over the years that follow. The trees are marked to indicate when a harvest was last cut from them.

Julia and Vitor have had to clear the land of quite a bit of dead wood, which now serves as a useful supply of firewood. The bark also has to be stripped from these cork oak logs, partly to prevent unwanted ash from clogging up the flue, but also as even these off-cuts can be sold for a modest sum.

It’s quite a labour intensive process. I was happy to give it a try under the guidance of Vitor on Sunday morning. Between us we stripped three wheelbarrows worth of logs in about an hour, generating a couple of big sacks of cork bark. (He, naturally, did the lion’s share of the work, but I felt like I held my own.)

They’re not just removing trees from the land – they’ve also planted lots of fruit trees, with a clever watering system designed by Vitor to help them get through the hot summers.

While they wait for the new trees to bear fruit, they have many generous neighbours who are happy to share. This pomegranate tree is just around the corner – we made fresh pomegranate syrup – and some quince fruits from a neighbour were made into jam over the weekend too.

The longer term plans revolve partly around the distillation of essential oils. For example, there are lots of rock rose bushes on the land, which can be used to create a sought-after essential oil. And that’s just one example of the many plants that can be used in this way. The still above was bought at the market in the nearby town of Estremoz and can be used to distill oils above a gas flame.

The steam travels through a long pipe, cooled by water, before ending up in a flask like this one, which can be used to separate the oil from the water.

What will all that hard work harvesting fruit and cork and distilling essential oils, it’ll be necessary to relax too. The ground between these three cork oaks has been earmarked for a spa pool, with the trellised entrance already taking shape. A return visit will be necessary I think!

We took a stroll up a nearby hill on Monday afternoon. I got to watch the sun set from close to the summit – and to look down on the valley where Julia and Vitor’s place is.

A bird-watching hide has been erected from which you can spot a multitude of birds of prey. We, however, just used it to keep Robert amused!

We had a wonderful time sharing a few days with Julia, Vitor, Zoe the dog, and Antonio and Lou the cats. Robert was tolerated by the animals and spoiled by Julia and Vitor.

When we got up on Tuesday morning they had prepared a plate of special treats for the birthday boy.

They’re living in a kind of paradise, in circumstances that many people dream about, but few have the persistence and vision to see through. I admire Julia very much for the way she’s made this work. We were neighbours on Rue Jean-Violette in Geneva for five years – nice and all as that was, she’s in a much better place now.

Oh, and I should point out that I won the winner-takes-all domino match on our last night in Alegrete, taking the golden fly swat as my prize!

To finish, here are a couple of other shots of us enjoying the Portuguese autumn sunshine.

Turning water into wine (or my beef with Wine & Beef)

Wine & Beef  is a bistro in central Geneva that specialises in, well, wine and beef. Like a few other places around town, the idea is that you decide only how you want your steak cooked and what to drink. I planned to go there for the first time yesterday, having taken a half day to spend some time with our visitors. We did eventually eat excellent steak, but at Café de Paris. Here’s why…

We took our seats, ordered three saignant steaks, a bottle of red wine and, as the waiter was closing his notebook, a carafe of water. He said they only served bottled water. I explained that we wanted tap water – that the water in Geneva is excellent and there was no reason to drink l’eau plate from a bottle in this town. He still refused.

Et si j’insiste?” I said. Nope. It was a business thing, he said; it was completely normal in Geneva he said; there’s no legislation forcing him to serve tap water, he said. I offered to pay for a bottle of water if he would bring us a carafe of tap water. Nope. He simply would not serve tap water. Taking his cue from that biblical tale, he  even offered to, in effect, turn our water in wine, saying he’d give us a free half litre of wine. After checking with my cousin and her husband that they were in agreement, we got up and walked out. As I said, we had a wonderful lunch just up the road in Café de Paris, where they had no problem serving us a carafe of water.

An overreaction? Perhaps. I certainly do drink bottled water from time to time, and if the people I’m eating with have ordered it I don’t create a scene, but I believe it’s my right to be served tap water if I ask for it. And there are lots of reasons why drinking tap water is a better idea in general…watch the video below.

So my beef with Wine & Beef is their refusal to serve tap water to a customer that had just ordered over 150 CHF worth of food and drinks from them. It’s a very stupid and shortsighted attitude to have. I won’t be eating there in future.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge the irony of the fact that, according to this infographic (which looks fantastic, by the way), 15,400 litres of water go into the production of a single kg of beef. That kind of dwarfs the bottle we refused to order!


Take no bottles into the shower

Squeaky green

An infamous TV advert from the early 90s argued that there was no longer any need to take two bottles into the shower: why use separate shampoo and conditioner when you could just “wash and go”? I’ve always tried to minimise the number of bottles, tubes and tubs of stuff required for personal hygiene, usually managing with a bottle of hair-and-body shower gel, a tube of toothpaste and a roll-on antiperspirant as the bare essentials. But it dawned on me recently that, even with just taking one bottle into the shower, that’s still a heck of a lot of plastic over a lifetime of daily showers.

So, my latest effort to avoid unnecessary use of plastic is to replace the shower gel with a bar of soap. A quick trip to Lush revealed that they have a range of soap bars designed for hair and body. At €8.50 for one, (on Kalverstraat, Amsterdam) it’s not cheap, but one bar will apparently do sixty showers; and sixty showers is probably just about two plastic bottles-worth of gel. And, as an added bonus, it’s one liquid fewer to worry about when flying!

Memory bottle

Sigg Bottle

My Sigg bottle - long may it be with me!

When Nadine and I left Geneva in May 2009 we were presented, at our going-away party, with a pair of Sigg water bottles. Both red and featuring the Swiss cross, they were an ideal memento of our time back Lac Léman. But what made them particularly special was that, before giving them to us, Peter and Tonya arranged for everyone present to sign them or write a message for us. Hence we flew away the following morning with tears in our eyes, but with lots of little messages of friendship and fun on our bottles.

Mine now lives on the desk in my office at work, where I fill it (from the tap) two or three times a day. It does indeed remind me every day of the many friends we left behind us in Geneva, even though, like the memories themselves, the text of those little messages has faded gradually. Despite not being able to read them any longer – except for the ones written on the base – I know the traces of the messages, and the memories, are still present. Ah, nostalgia!

Reusable durable water bottle? Tick!
Health benefits from drinking 3+ litres of water daily? Tick!
Tap water rather than bottled water? Tick!
Old friends brought to mind now and again? Tick!

The bottom of the bottle

Scraping the bottom of the bottle

Give bees a chance

I was going to start this post with a famous quote from Einstein that apparently inspired Taggart Siegel to make his film Queen of the Sun. But a quick search to find the actual wording of the quote suggests that he never actually said the words. So I won’t spread further misinformation (or at least misattribution). The fact is, nonetheless, that the bees are in trouble. One statistic quoted in the documentary, which I saw today at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, suggested that 40% of the food we eat depends on bees for pollenation. We should, therefore, worry about the clear evidence that the growth of mono-cultural agriculture and the parallel increased use of pesticides is causing the disappearance of bees in great numbers, both in North America and in Europe.

Queen of the Sun explains how “colony collapse disorder” is killing billions of bees annually, and also gives an insight into both commercial and community bee-keeping. It’s hard to believe the scenes showing 75% of the honey bees in the USA being brought by truck to Califonia each spring where they are fed high fructose syrup before being sent into the endless almond plantations to pollenate the trees. Since nothing but almond trees are grown for thousands of hectares there are no other plants to support a native bee population throughout the other 50 or so weeks in the year. So they’ve reached the point where bees are transported cross country by trucks!

Despite the scary message it delivers, it’s actually quite a positive film that serves to inspire rather than disillusion. It finishes by suggesting things you can do to help the bees, from planting bee friendly flowers and herbs and avoiding the use of pesticides in your garden, to buying organically grown food and even considering becoming a beekeeper yourself. (We’re still trying to get to grips with our balcony wormery, so the beehives will have to wait a few years I think. But I’d love to give it a try sometime.)