Category Archives: Scotland

​Amsterdam’s Wild West: Nature Play at Woeste Westen

Ed’s note – I’m a fan of Glasgow-based City of Play. I’m a sucker for cable spools and other playcycled materials. Though I’m born and bred in Canada, my roots are from Scotland’s west coast. Having had the good fortune to visit and stay with family on several occasions as a young boy, I have a soft spot for the places along the River Clyde where my parents both grew up.

When I heard that City of Play co-founder Grant Menzies was off on a bit of a play research jaunt, I asked him if he would like to guest post here at PlayGroundology. Here he is for your reading pleasure. Woeste Westen really seems like a crossover space to me where nature play meets adventure playground. More on Grant following the post.

Woeste Westen is an exceptional natural ‘playscape’ a short bike journey west of Amsterdam City Centre. Natural playgrounds are not uncommon in the country however this is one of the few that has the psychical presence of an organisation to support it.

Considering the country’s unique geography it is perhaps unsurprising that water features quite heavily in park. To be honest, it’s the main feature. The site was once harvested for peat leaving a series of manmade waterways which have been bridged, dammed, pumped and… eh… rafted? That is, there is a water pump and a raft.

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There are also any number or den building, climbing and balancing opportunities; bonfire sites; and animal habitats both natural and man made… /child made. This amazing (and it is amazing, look at the pictures) natural playscape is supported by the weekly run Adventure Club and onsite clubhouse/ parents cafe.

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Woeste Westen is a truly inclusive landscape offering challenges and opportunities for all ages and abilities. A series of crossing points present different challenges to span the water with varying degrees of difficulty. Rope bridges, felled trees, wobbly bridges, rafts, stepping stones and shallows ensure that the body and mind are continually tested without being forced to encounter unmanageable risks. This is a land and waterscape to invite and excite all.

The abundance of water and wildlife not only provides play value but is a soothing and calming influence. Although chaotic, Woeste Westen is peaceful and pleasant in a manner rarely achieved through other designed “Nature” playgrounds.

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Our arrival coincided with the rain. We witnessed the Adventure Club dress in waterproofs building fires and making popcorn showing that this is an all weather experience.

At Woeste Westen we met founder Martin Hup a former biology and environmental education teacher. Martin discovered this publicly owned piece of land around 8 years ago not much different from what it is now, as a playground with the raft and bridges, but it was rarely used. Although only a few minutes from the bustling city it was still in the middle of nowhere; children/families had no need to pass by and therefore it was not used.

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Martin – as a self confessed adventurer, former Boy Scout and expert in environmental education but with no vision of continuing to be a teacher – saw an opportunity to exploit an underused resource to promote environmental education and facilitate outdoor play. He sought funding from the local government to install a hub with a cafe, toilets and office, to create a perimeter fence and to form the Adventure Club. He says ‘This lets parents feel it is safe, they know there is usually someone here and it has a secure gate – of course it is not “safe” it is about risky play! – but the perception is different.’

Still he insists he is not a play worker, he/they programme events and are ‘facilitators’. The playground, although now fenced, is still public property but without their presence – running the Adventure Club and serving “fine coffee” – no one would use it.

Martin knows his stuff, and he knows that even with Amsterdam’s abundance of playgrounds that free play is on the decline and that parents are to blame. ‘They are scared of cars and the “dangerous man” that wants to harm their children. In fact, there is no more danger than in the 70’s.’

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Concerned, if not dismayed, by reports of schools in the Netherlands removing skipping ropes and balls from pupils due to parent complaints of injury, Martin and the Adventure Club warn that they actively seek risks in their sessions.

Many new parents and even children visiting the park show the same nerves we commonly see in our risk averse time; many concerned by how often their child might climb a tree – God forbid they should get a scratch or a bruise! In Woeste Westen you may well break a leg… But *shrugs* “so what?”. Although it might surprise you to learn that with 57,000 visits per year they still haven’t had any serious injuries.

Martin describes that when children visit, despite initial reservations, they are somewhat set free. They can run and explore and experience the joy of discovering nature for themselves but also they experience a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi ‘ – in a rare moment of broken English described as like “touching their inner Neanderthal” they are wild again.

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Grant gained his Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from the University of Strathclyde in Nov 2012. Inspired by the birth of his first daughter, Grant’s thesis focused around the needs and rights of children in urban design. Subsequently, Grant developed an understanding of, and passion for, play and ensuring its proper and right provision.

Grant also spent a semester studying Landscape design under Henry WA Hanson at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Having funded his time while at University working in the building services Grant has an interest and skill at making, fixing and up-cycling as can be seen in works such as The Twits Chairs.

If you have a play story you’d like to share with PlayGroundology readers, give us a shout. Cheers

Chasing the Dragon

The mission starts with a brisk morning walk along the Gourock esplanade. We’re heading across the Clyde River to play in Argyll and Bute’s rolling hills and sea lochs. Our first destination is dockside for the passenger ferry to Dunoon. On the other side our independent garage car hire picks us up then it’s off to Argyll Street where we dine like kings on meat pies and beans at Black of Dunoon Bakers (5 stars for service and food in our books).

DSC08742Dunoon’s Victorian era dock, possibly the last on the Clyde River, is now in disrepair.

The Home Hardware just across the street from Black’s has all the items on our checklist though we’re a little disappointed with the lack of variety. For July in Scotland it’s baking hot and with arms full of supplies we walk up past the old church en route to a touch of guerilla fun and adventure.

Skirting tidal lochs, we wind around the base of hills thick with sky stretching firs before climbing steadily then dropping again through the valley of pheasants. The countryside is lush, dripping green. We’re on the lookout for a legendary quarry we last saw months ago. As we try to recall the location of a particular clearing, we stay alert for oncoming traffic on the long, narrow strips of single carriage roadway.

DSC08648 - Version 2Sky stretching firs

We’ve been bantering about this day for a few weeks. This is the one window we have to add our pastiche to a distinctive roadside attraction. As we slow down for road construction at the Tighnabruaich look off, we know we’re getting closer to our destination.

DSC08653View south and east along the Kyles of Bute from the Tighnabruaich look out

Then a few kilometres further on it’s upon us, a sculpture of stones ripped from the ground – bold, rampant, mythic – a greyish dragon partially encrusted in dried earth.

DSC08623Prepping the canvas.

Emerald green and sunburst yellow are absent as adornments for the beautiful beastie. The Dunoon hardware offers a limited selection of masonry paint. We toss about a few colour schemes and liberally begin to apply our palette of ochre red, pale yellow, black and white. I feel like a kid again creating something new, fresh, alive.

The air is heavy with the buzz of horse flies feasting on our legs and arms. It’s a three hour paint job in the salty, dripping sweat, afternoon sun. Quiet laughter, lighthearted complicity are the order of the day. With our hands caked in paint, there is contemplative appreciation for this new version of the rockin’ dragon of Tighnabruaich. We give a high five to the originators who brought together this magical combination of rocks. I think of the dragon as being under a creative commons license and of our daubs of paint as something building on and enhancing the original.

cIMG_0623compThe Dragon of Tighnabruaich casts a toothy grin on the Bxxxx

Traffic on the road is sparse as we go about our business but those who do notice us – lorry, delivery and post office drivers, tradespeople and families – give a wave as they zip past, a thumbs up, or a quick parp of the horn. Now I have to give credit where credit is due. This painting adventure is 100 percent papa’s idea. As the willing accomplice, it’s great to share this playful experience, a first of its kind for both of us.

New and freshDragon all dressed up with a fresh coat

Now some will say, like one of my colleagues, that this sculpture is a rendition of a rabbit. Looking at the teeth as the ears in the photo above, a rabbit’s head does look like the order of the day. But don’t believe it for a moment. This is just the result of a particular angle. This is a stone cold dragon that we’ve warmed up a wee bit with colour. Now I ask you, does this look like a rabbit?

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We survey our work one last time before we start back down the road to Dunoon. We hope it will be a little bit more noticeable now to passersby and that it will give kids and adults alike cause to smile and maybe even laugh. We’re both well pleased with this play that had a few elements of work associated with it. Although it is broad daylight, I feel we are living moments of campfires burning bright with dragon breath in dark of night.

If I’m ever back that way, I’ll pull over and remember this afternoon when papa and I were kids again.

20140710_104941Selfie with Dragon

Glasgow Green is Calling

Later today I do the Halifax – Heathrow jet skip with a final touchdown in Glasgow just a couple of weeks shy of the XX Commonwealth Games kick off that happens to fall on my birthday. It’s the second time this year that I’m a guest at a cousin’s wedding on Scotland’s west coast. Joyous days for the couples walking down the aisle and wonderful occasions for all of us to make new friends and reconnect with family on both sides of the Atlantic.

DSC06197Glasgow Green – Play Summit Pop-Up Adventure – April 2014
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My April trip coincided with the Play Summit spearheaded by Nils Norman (check Nils’ great photobank of playscapes here) and London’s Assemble. The Summit symposium featured leading play thinkers, advocates and activists in the People’s Palace and adventure play shenanigans for kids on Glasgow Green.

I was able to pop in for a couple of hours and immerse myself in conversations and presentations about adventure play. It was exciting to meet and chat with people like Hitoshi Shimamura who flies the adventure play banner in Tokyo where, he told me, there’s an aversion to fences around playgrounds. The goal is to offer an inviting, open space that presents no boundaries or barriers with the surrounding community.

Tim Gill and I sat down for lunch and a chat. Early on in my exploration of playgrounds I had sent Tim a few questions on the possibility of developing a play index that could capture how local authorities were measuring up to enabling play opportunities for their young citizens. He sent me a thoughtful and informative response that included suggested contacts and the friendly pointer that an undertaking of this nature would present unique and complex challenges.

No FearClick photo for free download courtesy of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundtation

True to form when we lunched under the glass dome of the People’s Palace, Tim was generous with his time and gave me a broad overview of the UK play landscape from his vantage point. PlayGroundology reblogs some of Tim’s work from rethinking childhood and I never tire of referencing his book, now in its third printing – No Fear – Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society – to parents, educators and the media.

Over the years, I’ve seen some great photos and video from London’s Glamis Adventure Playground. It was a thrill to be in the audience for Mark Halden’s presentation on some of the problems Glamis is encountering with fundraising. He bemoaned the significant time and energy that had to be dedicated to this activity. In an environment with small teams and already parsed budgets, the effort associated with financing can detract from programming for the kids.

Mark has a Canada connection too and has spent time in BC. He made me aware of a well loved and regarded play advocate, Valerie Fronczek who passed away last year. Many people spoke her name when they heard I was from Canada. Valerie was a respected and engaged member of the play community and worked tirelessly for kids. From what I heard, it would have been great to have known her.

What struck me during my brief interlude at the Play Summit was the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the participants. It was one of those gatherings where there was a lot of information flow and the delineation between presenters and practitioners was very porous. Many of of those in attendance had dedicated much of their working lives to help kids and play.

Just before I hopped into a cab to take me back to Central Station, I came across a playground with huge slide structures. I had to grab a few shots while the taxi waited. They sure looked like Spielgerate designs to me. When I visit again in a few days, I’ll give them a test run if I’m not chased away by parents.

DSC06992Towering, twisting slides on Glasgow Green
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April’s pop-up adventure on Glasgow Green was an early days event for the Baltic St. Adventure Playground which is located nearby in the Dalmarnock district. Their official opening weekend is on for July 19 and 20. I’ll be back in Canada by then but playworker Robert Kennedy has kindly offered to give me a tour during my visit. It will be the first time I set foot in an adventure playground. It would be perfect if I could have our three kids with me – another time…

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I’m hoping to get over to Fife too and learn a bit about some of the play happenings there from twitter friend @MairiMo. Mairi was a great help during my April visit and set up a meeting with Theresa Casey, a play author, consultant and President of the International Play Association. I’ll have more to share on the IPA and the meeting with Theresa in a subsequent post.

Glasgow Green and Edinburgh was time well spent and the first real opportunity I have had to meet with and hear the experiences of so many play people which is resulting in both pragmatic and inspirational returns. The Glasgow Green pop-up really got me juiced to work with others in Halifax to create a similar event. It will be taking place in September in association with the Youth Running Series. I’ll be picking Robert’s brains later this week to see what he can share and suggest.

DSC06231Pop-Up will be playing in Halifax, Canada soon. Thanks to the Play Summit and Baltic St. Adventure Playground for the inspiration

There may be some surprises of the dragon variety on this trip too. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m wrapping this post by giving a big shout out to my papa who will be 80 later this year. He’s an enthusiastic supporter of and sometime photographer for PlayGroundology. Yesterday, along with one his brothers and my brother and sister-in-law, he completed a six-day walk across Hadrian’s Wall. Their longest day was 27 kilometres. He did a number of interviews along the way with people from a variety of countries and is considering putting it all together to share on YouTube. This man just continues to blow me away.

It’s well past my bedtime and I need to get some rest for the long day ahead. Glasgow Green is calling and play is piping the tune. In this year of the Homecoming it’s Scotland Forever.

Playing the Dragon

To the south and west of the Argyll Forest in Scotlands’s Bute and Argyll region is where the mythical beast can be found. As we round a corner on a narrow winding road shaded by towering firs there is the rocky, rough hewn dragon.

Dragon III

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We are on high alert so we can pull over and admire this roadside gift to travelers. Located somewhere between Tighnabruaich and Loch Tarson, the rest of the Nova Scotia band had seen the beast on their way overland to Islay in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides a couple of days earlier.

The dragon sighting was one of the first stories I heard when I rejoined our gang in Islay. My youngest daughter, Lila-Jeanne, had warned me to watch out for dragons just before I left for Scotland. It turns out she was right on the money.

With two grandchildren and a son in tow, my papa, the only Scot among us, is taking no chances. It’s time to play the dragon.

Dragon taming

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The skill he demonstrates in handling his prod suggests earlier encounters of the dragon taming kind. With the dragon subdued, we all take the time to stretch our legs, enjoy the tall, tall firs and get ready for our final dipsy-doodle through the hills to the day’s last ferry in Dunoon.

Thank you to the builders of what could be Smaug’s baby cousin. You instilled a dash of lightness, fun and play in our day. For me this dragon will forevermore be known as Lila of the Towering Firs. Who says dragons don’t exist?

Towering Firs

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More adventures from Scotland’s Glasgow Green, Edinburgh and Islay in coming posts.

Dragons and Clouds

Later today I take off for Scotland. More than 50 years ago, my mom took me on my first trip to the land where my parents played as kids. Times were tougher for them growing up. World War II set the tone for their early childhood years.

It was 1962 when Mom and I took that flight on a BOAC transatlantic plane from Toronto. Before we landed at Prestwick I got a tour of the cockpit, talked mom’s ear off, slept some and was airsick. We stayed in Grampa and Granma Morgan’s home in Larkfield, Greenock for two or three months. Mom had hopes of giving birth to her second child back home and having a wee Scot. In the end, that didn’t work out. My younger brother was born back in Canada.

Memories of those first Scottish days are still fresh. They have texture, taste and smell. I was the spoiled wee grandson while I was there and mom took me on some grand adventures notably to Glasgow for some shopping where I picked up this most excellent sword and shield….

DSC06166All dressed up with no dragons to slay

Apparently this weaponry would stand me in good stead now as my youngest daughter Lila-Jeanne informed me the other day to watch out when I was in Scotland. I asked her what I should be watching out for to which she replied, “dragons”. She got this notion from big brother Noah-David and thought it worthwhile passing on to her papa. At four-years-old, she is just a little younger than I was when I made that first trip. And the world turns.

This trip is bittersweet because earlier this year my mom passed away. I’m going with the best guy in the world and we’re carrying mom in our hearts. He’s the man I’ve always looked up to, admired and loved, the man who showed me how to make a fire with twigs, one match and plenty of puffing breath – my papa.

I’m looking forward to taking in the Play Summit conference on Sunday and experiencing my first adventure playground – Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Glasgow.

Baltic St Adventure Playground

 

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Also hope drop in on the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art to see the Atelier Public #2 exhibit curated by Katie Bruce. One of my older daughters, Halifax emerging artist Alexa Cude will enjoy getting back to GoMA, an old haunt from a couple of years back. She is joining us on this family trip too along with one of her cousins.

Also on the play beat will be a flip over to Edinburgh to meet som other fine play folk. A big thanks to Mairi for helping me to connect with people in my short window

My parents got us over to Scotland a few times when we were still young. The last time was for a few months when I was 14. Dad was in France at the time and I did quite a lot of skipping out on school. It was also my first solo trip from Greenock to Edinburgh, or more precisely Murrayfield. I saw Scotland kick France’s ass and enjoyed myself to no end in the stands.

It was a 2 train trip in each direction back and forth in one day. Great trust in a young boy of 14 – thanks mom, thanks dad. We’re doing the same for our kids. One of the three young ones has been to Scotland and experienced the wonders of the Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Scalpay. Now it’s for the tow younger girls and the eldest to get over for a visit.

Good family time, fine play people and maybe a little fish and chips and eggs and slice and other Scottish delicacies

On the day of the dragon Lila was full of Scotland. After the dragon story she looked at me and said.

“Scotland is like a cloud.”

I didn’t really see the link but went along with her and said, “Ok.”

At that point she commented:

“Then you’ll be walking on clouds.”

cloudsIn the clouds. Photo credit – Adrian Beard – thanks

Given the progression it sounded reasonable so I said:

“I guess I will.”

And then her finale.

“So you’ll be walking on air.”

Hard to refute the logic.

Tomorrow morning, Heathrow’s international air hub

Tomorrow night, fish ‘n chips, and walking on air with dragons.

Scotland here we come…

Always Remember

The last century saw millions die far from their own countries in conflicts scaled to a global level. In the Commonwealth and other nations, we commemorate that first great war’s armistice each year. November 11 is a day we remember and honour those who never returned and those who came home changed for ever from war’s horrific toll.

1922445322_1cbc83b8aa_bPhoto credit – Maureen Flynn-Burhoe. License – (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

War can also exact a fierce price on kids. Fathers, brothers, uncles lost forever. Homes, villages, towns destroyed beyond recognition. And, in heart wrenching incidents children themselves are killed, maimed, orphaned or pressed into bearing arms.

In the early 1940s, kids throughout the UK were evacuated from urban areas because of the Luftwaffe’s sustained bombing raids. In Glasgow, 120,000 kids were evacuated in a three day period in September 1939.

My folks were then primary school age and lived in shipbuilding towns on the River Clyde on Scotland’s west coast – Greenock and Port Glasgow. In addition to the shipyards there were other industrial targets including foundries, munitions factories, a rope works, a sugar refinery and a distillery.

In May of 1941, the Luftwaffe carpeted their towns with bombs for two consecutive nights. The industrial targets were practically unscathed but there was large scale damage to civilian housing and hundreds of deaths. The Greenock Blitz spurred on the evacuation of kids along this stretch of the Clyde.

Greenock blitzCraigieknowes School Playground, Greenock, Scotland. Photo credit – Ruth Kelly.

My father remembers being taken by his parents along with his two brothers to an assembly point for evacuation. At that time, he was 7, or 8-years-old and the middle child. When the time for departure came, he was separated from his older and younger brothers who were sent off together. That day he left with a group of other kids from The Port and wound up in Dollar, Clackmannanshire home of Castle Campbell.

He adjusted to his brothers’ absence and a new found family of 40 or so kids who lived and went to school together under the same roof. He met an older boy in Dollar a wild spirit sparked with mischief, charm and adventure – a natural born leader. Alexis Smith was the lad’s name and he made a lasting impression on my dad.

One day the burning spark took a bunch of the kids up to the attic full of armour and other treasures to explore and clatter about. He and my dad reconnected years later when they both worked briefly in the same co-op grocers. Alexis subsequently emigrated to the US and died in combat wearing an American uniform. Always remember…

7699921664_7f943aca66_bCastle Campbell, Dollar, Scotland. Photo credit – Mr. Evil Cheese Scientist. License – (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Dad thinks he was at this 3 or 4 story estate for nearly a year. He remembers a summer and winter passing and occasional visits from my grandad. The boys and girls at this home for evacuees were looked after by women in blue uniforms wearing nurse like caps. They were warm and caring with their charges helping to comfort tears and homesickness away.

The large grounds had woods, a marvelous garden and a fountain with goldfish that my dad fell into on several occasions. The rural setting would have been a change from the more urban schoolboy life in The Port. He was very happy when my grandfather came to bring him home. He was the first of the three brothers to return and would have been glad to have his parents’ unwavering attention for a short interval.

My dad shared some of these memories when we spoke last night. He visited Dollar a couple of years ago on one of his annual trips ‘back home’. It was smaller than he remembered and a little worse for the wear some 70 years down the road. The fountain was still there but the goldfish were long gone.

He knew it must of been hard for his parents to make the choice about which of their sons they would separate from the other two. My father was never angry, or disappointed with them regarding this decision. He accepted it as his path, the one less traveled by, and carried on never looking back.

Alex, Dad&Beaumont

This is my dad and I looking pretty suave posing with the new ’66 Beaumont Acadian back when I was about 8-years-old. My lad Noah-David is just 8 now. I can’t imagine either Noah or I at that young age being taken away from the warmth of parents, family and home. But kids are resilient and the unimaginable can make them quietly extraordinary.

Don’t forget the fallen heroes, or the broken spirits but let’s always remember the children. Many kids from my dad’s generation were lucky enough to be removed from harm. In today’s world there are too many still suffering from the heartbreak and terror of war.

UNHCR, War Child International and a Canadian organization, Playground Builders are some of the groups hard at work to help kids who through no fault of their own find themselves in war zones. Check out the fine work that they do and give them a hand if you can.

Always remember…

I don’t know how we find truth in war but this poem by Wilfred Owen has spoken to me since I first read it more than 40 years ago – DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Play Is Play For A’ That

Robert Burns Day is a fine time to share a flickr photo gallery of Scottish playgrounds. Though playgrounds per se were not part of Burns’ 18th century cultural landscape, I have a feeling that in today’s context Scotland’s Bard would be a vocal and formidable supporter of children’s right to play.

4525711335_43b32dd33e_bMake-shift Climbing Frame, Kingussie, Scotland. Photo credit – Dunnock D. License – (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Burns personified the independent mind which is also a characteristic of parents, teachers, advocates, designers, artists, playworkers, landscape architects, planners and community organizers involved in making possible creative play for kids. Free play and independent minds, I’m sure there is a correlation…

Raise a dram for Rabbie tonight and rest assured he’d be speaking out for the bairns if he were with us today. In his absence, we have the fine folks at Play Scotland to carry the torch and fight the good fight – kids everywhere have a right to play.

Here’s leaving you with a wee bit o’ Burns.

To a Mouse

Small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
Oh, what panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With a hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With a murderous spade!

I’m truly sorry that Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes you startled
At me, your poor, earth-born companion
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not that you may steal;
So what? Poor beast, you must live!
An odd ear from twenty four sheaves of corn
is a small request:
I’ll get a blessing with the rest,
And never miss it!

Your tiny housie, too, is in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are strewing!
And nothing now, from which to build a new one
Of foliage green!
And bleak December’s winds ensuing
Both bitter and keen!

You saw the fields laid bare and wasted
And weary Winter coming fast,
And cosy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Until crash! the cruel plow passed
Right through your cell.

That tiny heap of leaves and stubble (grain stalks)
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out for your trouble
Without house or home (belongings),
To endure the Winter’s sleety dribble,
and frosty cold.

But Mousie, you are not alone
In proving that foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes (plans) of mice and men
Go oft astray (oft go awry)
And leave us nothing but grief and pain
Instead of promised joy!

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!
Only this moment touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye
On prospects turned to sadness!
And though forward I cannot see,
I guess and fear!