Healing – focus on green

To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it hope rises on its currents. 

Edward O. Wilson

Biophilia is a wonderful term that means we humans tend to make connections between ourselves and nature. The book by Edward O. Wilson in 1984 defined it as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  Well, that seems right in this instance as I’ve been holed up until I felt whole again. Solution? Focus on green!

And it’s got nothing to do with the weather – nothing at all to do with the warning of possible “flurries” last night and a temperature plunge this aft.  In May. No, it’s more to do with recuperation from a most welcome knee surgery compounded by dancing around COVID and yet another lockdown – which may go on even longer. 

The good news? Without asking, my dear partner and friends stepped up and took care of me – it takes a village at all stages of life and I’m deeply grateful to the circle of humans in my life. And Furgus, our great grey cat, is no longer my constant companion – on my pillow, head or nestled at the bottom of the bed – and I take that as a good sign that I’m fine and recovered. No longer a source of feline, or human, worry.  Cats know.

From my recuperation room, I was spoiled.  I could look outside the window to see the maples changing day-by-day and look downstairs to see the seed trays with their increasing populations of stems, tendrils, and leaves.  Repotting has taken place – a wonderful way of getting upright and into normal again – and very soon, barring a spontaneous glacier age, many plants will be hardened off prior to a final move to ground.  I won’t worry about the ones that didn’t “take” – they just may need more time, asking to be nurtured a little longer, like all of us right now. Wait and see. Patience is a gift.

Outside, the rain drizzles down, continuing the seasonal magic of coercing buds on trees and shrubs to swell with excitement and unfurl one more time.  All around, green shoots – the best green of the year – are beginning to frame the scene like an impressionistic masterpiece dripping from an artist’s brush, the trees enclosing us all in leaves soon to dance on any errant breeze and I will listen to every story it has to tell. Bliss.

My mind happily wanders through the garden where we will, as always, spend so much time this year. Projection can be a saving grace on days like this although I did manage to edge one bed – a whole bed – just the other day. It’s a start and the others are no doubt eager for the attention to come their way.  In time, in time.

A look back – Helleborus in the melting snow

Down the mulched cedar path running away from the driveway to the mailbox, that marvel, the Helleborus, or Lenten Rose, is putting on a show. Here the leaves of the Helleborus are often the first declaration of spring as they peak out evergreen from under the snow.  I look forward to it each year even as the snow is still hugging it to its cold heart.  Interesting story – there’s a dark side to this enticing plant.  Hippocrates used it as a common prescription for treating insanity and it’s mentioned by other ancients as sometimes found in rituals of exorcism and the coercion of spirits.  Hmmm, could be a good year to explore the broad scope of plant possibility? Never you mind.  Just seeing those blooms burst out will answer to my need for a rebirth.

Time marches on, giving rise to physical healing and to an everchanging landscape. The scilla, crocus and snowdrops have blended back to the earth; the daffodils, grape hyacinths and tulips have taken hold; while alliums, lilacs, and peonies are about to declare themselves.  All this against the yellow glow of dandelions – the year’s first meal for every and any pollinator who wants to wing by.  Botanic pandemonium! Entrancing.

Biophilia.  Not just a hypothesis but a human necessity. Test it out, see if the affinity for other forms of nature fits you too – human, animal, insect, plant. Value those who help in these trying times. Snuggle up to a furry friend. Celebrate the longview when bees arrive. Stare for a ridiculously long time at a favoured plant…or even a plant to be. Walk under trees and feel the ground beneath your feet. For me, nature is pulling me back to myself. Is there any better year than this to claim the joy of continuity? Hobble on!

The Tapestry of a Day

Our place is now, tomorrow will come.

Ours is a mill town, its history well rooted in textiles and the power of a river to create the warp and weft of lives. Yesterday was my tapestry of a day – tightly woven with the delightful demands of the day, high temperatures and the waning of winter. A day bursting with tales to be told and a season of change on so many fronts.

And just as every tale is tempered by a larger story, so we began the morning marking the first pandemic year. A year to the day it was – only a year?  Now vaccines and variants joust with each other on the news feed and in casual conversations as we attempt to wrap ourselves in comfort.  Upon the memories of brutal losses worldwide and new ways of being that are not quite yet ready to end, we attempted to untangle the knots of our time and then, relinquished ourselves to the day. 

In front of the seed trays soon to be filled, I received an email oozing with the promise of sweetness and spring.  We sensed a beginning and it was sublime. A friend had tapped the maples and invited orders for syrup, offering the temptations of enjoying a walk through the sugar bush soon.  Here in the Ottawa Valley, maple sap runs in copious amounts when the temperatures swing between highs in the day and lows at night – as do the visions of calories pouring onto pancakes and, oh my, beans and French toast!  It’s going to be a tasty month.

The temperature hit 15 degrees Celsius and broke records – I’ll worry about that longer-term implication later – but then it meant a focus on the garden-to-be, or not-to-be if I didn’t get going on it.

Hundreds of seeds, may have been thousands, were planted.  Using cutting edge technology – an old pen – I poked holes in rooting soil, used eyebrow tweezers (why use them for anything else right now?) to deftly place each seed into its dusky home and poked name-tag-popsicle-sticks in each.  The tags will get lost at some point, it’s a well-honed tradition, but at least for a moment or two, I felt like a competent gardener.  

Even the smallest seeds had stories. Some were purchased online – a key strategy these days – from favoured provisioners and horticultural clubs; others from friends who will enjoy spending time sitting near the plants and exclaiming later in the year; and then our own stash which had been stored and patiently waiting, in envelopes and mason jars.  A veritable smorgasbord of blooms, herbs and veg just waiting for germination.

Every beam of sunlight was now a welcome garden co-conspirator.  Every drip of water, life. Every bright window ledge – bathroom and bedroom included – is now festooned with pots, trays and green potential. And yes, there was already colour as cuttings taken from last summer’s mother plants were placed just so – a foil for those containers that might be mistaken for just some soil. Ha – just wait.

And the water dripped, dripped, dripped from eavestroughs and branches as when outside without jackets, just sweaters and loose scarves, we breathed in the complex scents of early spring. Drip, drip, drip – we eyed the upturned rainbarrels – not yet. 

Needing to further enter this perfect fabric of a day, maybe to imagine the time ahead when spontaneity will again rule the day, we took the time to visit the opening bay.

There the waters swirled and eddied by as the ice changed its solid state back to liquid, twisting like a chameleon flowing down the river. The two Canadian geese had braved the winter here on ice and snow,  and were now swimming in opening waters and joined by a third.  Overhead the V-shapes of spring migration had begun and perhaps old friends were now reacquainted. No doubt our small support group of geese feeders heaved a sigh of relief – the beasties made it through! And so had we.

No doubt we all thought of times ahead when we too will weave our own stories together again, side-by-side. Maybe on the river, the street or in the garden; building on what we have learned. Our place is now, tomorrow will come.

Flummoxed by fences

…and on the next page: ferns!

We seem to be surrounded by them – fences. But what are they really? I’m not turning to the computer glare – too much of that these daze – but rather to the thick, brown, leather-bound tome on a nearby shelf: Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1970.  A beloved holiday gift from my mum to my dad many years ago because he loved words – a legacy that both his children and grandchildren, enjoy. 

Fence: Noun: A protection; defense. A barrier as of wooden or metal posts, rails, wire mesh, etc. used as a boundary or means of protection or confinement.

Protection or confinement. A contemporary allegory for the “fences” we’ve had to put in place over the past year…shelter-in-place, distancing, masking?  Nope.  I’m actually intrigued on this snowy, blue-skied, crystalline day, about the physical fences around me. Why? Well, probably as they’re a visible hardscape that at other times of the year disappear against overflowing green fields, winding roads, gardens, or get lost in dreamy conversations – over a fence.

Our main fence is green and surrounds most sides of the property. Against the main road and down two flanks, it’s all Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). Densely planted by the original owner – thanks muchly – it now rises over three meters high. We hire a team to trim it every two years – this as ladders seem increasingly threatening as time goes by. Through the plants, when sitting on the deck or working in the garden, we can see bipeds, assorted quadrupeds, bikes, cars and wagons go by – even a horse or two if we’re lucky. This cavalcade of road travellers all pass unaware of an audience behind the green – unless they hear the music from the deck or the chat remarking on the day at hand or the surrounding community. It’s enough to keep us out there all spring, summer and fall. In winter, like now, warmed inside and facing out through large windows, it’s a veritable nature documentary where birds and squirrels claim the living fence as a place of refuge against the cold and night.  Might be a rabbit or two there as well. Or a barn cat. Or fox. This fence hugs us and defines an understanding of home – where two sides are open to all.

Given that it’s February, the hedge bends heavy under snow, frosted like a great green cake. Protecting that fence is a seasonal marker for us.  Early in December, Pete ambles down to the tippy shed at the far corner of the property, foraging for a clang of iron perforated bars, a heavy-duty hammer and that most useful of fencing tools – not a rapier – a post driver.  Tumbled into a wagon that a neighbour made for us, all is pulled to the end of the driveway where the fence flurry begins.  Measuring out two metres between each post, they run down the road that gets the most snow ploughing of the season.  A temporary fence is then tied once, twice, thrice, to each support that protects the cedar from any wayward whoosh of snow that comes it way.  One year, the only product available was metres and metres of bright orange webbing: “is that art?” asked a confused neighbour.  “Yes. Yes, it is.” We now search high and low for a colour that cannot be abstracted into anything other than function.

A fence can have an obvious transient nature – much like ourselves. A line of branches simply entwined and piled against a growing bed. Or elevated to recognizable regional history with split cedar rails strategically framing a productive field or a welcoming home. I love the culture of wood in this valley, it speaks of generations of honest labour.

Fences can remind us of the historical choices made given the materials at hand.

To simply admire a few rocks, or hundreds piled up, alongside a path, or through a field, negates the work in finding the rocks, moving the rocks and then positioning them just so. It reminds me of the reaction of a local farmer who watched for days as I packed up the trunk of the car with the blessings from the field. Blessings? Those rocks were from inevitable winter heave and right in the way of a plough – a field reality that caused no end of work every year.  Those rocky landscapes may even have worked their way into remarkable and sturdy house walls. But for the gardener with hardscaping on her mind? Nature’s bounty.

Iron fencing echoes permanence and industry – and the lack of it can speak volumes.  One of the first years here, and ready to absorb our new context, a walking tour of the town had us staring at a charming iron fence. However, no fence is really simple – there be stories here. If you see an old one, pre-WWI that is, you know it was missed, or protected, during those years when many were harvested to feed the great furnaces that answered to military needs.

To protect and contain.  Perhaps to dream.  

Here we will shovel the snow for the foreseeable future, watch for changing seasons and welcome in vaccines – all the while looking forward to leaning on, near, or over, a fence in better times. Flummoxed indeed.

Masked in trying times

Winter solitude –

in a world of one colour

the sound of wind

Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese Haiku master

Forsythia holding up the season of snow

A patch of low sunlight wends its way through the bare branches of the Forsythia shrub outside the window – I’ll cut a few boughs to force blooms soon and seek some level of comfort. The lilac shrubs, and the maples high above, have buds swelling for future flower.  A heavy cloak of snow covers the bulbs deep in the soil, preparing to burst into daffodils, tulips and alliums come spring.  A quiet time in the garden?  Hardly.

However, the longer I stare, icy crystals mock me. My nose presses up on the window pane and eyes glaze as the stark white of a pandemic February taunts me. The very act of my breathing heats the window with fronds of frost – botanical fantasies. As if writing a cold line of seasonal dismay, tracks mark out where a fox has broken through the layer of snow on its way past the bird feeder. The grass is masked by snow.  

Masked. 

As this is certainly the season, along with a global reason, masking comes to mind. By now you no doubt have a suite of masks of your own:  handmade, elastic or ties, medical, thematic or corporate.  What about be-jeweled or embroidered or pieced?  And now, or very soon, you’re probably layering – three layers at least.  If not – why not?

Did you find it took a few days or weeks to finally feel comfortable with masks?  Did you ever? Do you find it only takes seconds now to feel uncomfortable if you’re without one?  I’m finding the wearing of masks at this time of year beneficial in unexpected ways – they keep my face warmer in this chilly, eastern Canadian landscape.  Masks make my eyes transcend mere functionality as they crinkle in greeting, or look longingly at some uncharted tomorrow, beyond a masked rim.  The mask gives a horizon to eyes bright with hope that we will indeed be recognized – true windows into our souls. They do however, fog my glasses when I need icy clear vision. Ah well.

No doubt there will be tomes written about how communities, nations and the great population of the earth, under threat of viral infection and transmission, against feelings of rights being abrogated somehow, masked in hopes of a better tomorrow.

And it’s happened before. We’re not alone masking in trying times. 

In 13th century China, as told by Marco Polo, serving meals to the emperor meant wearing silk scarves to keep the breath from changing the aroma and taste of the food. I wonder if I should try this as we continue in endless culinary experimentation during lockdown? Do leftovers warrant such care?

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, plagues were frequent in Europe.  In 1619, a physician of Louis XIII, posited that a mask made from boiled cardboard in the shape of a beak with two breathing holes and containing garden botanics such as dried plants, herbs or spice, would prevent infection. Hmmm, birds here might see me as competition for the seeds being put out each day – too dangerous.  And herbs, well, there’s always tea.

1918 – California rail station

The concept of a mask to protect, gained new ground in the 19th century with creations to minimize dust inhalation such as experienced by miners. When in 1861, Louis Pasteur proved his concept of air borne bacteria, well, that raised the bar for modern mask design and their usage today, yesterday and, yes, tomorrow.

Canmore, Alberta, 1918 Children off to school. Camore Museum

This pandemic period began with so many uncertainties but as knowledge grew, so did a niche market for masks.  Through the heroic efforts of neighbours helping neighbours by home-crafting endless offerings of face coverings; to friends and families offering protection to those they loved; to stores offering masks and sanitizer to customers coming in; to artists using masks as new means of creative expression; to myriad numbers of brand items and others online – we masked.

By the end of 2020, jewelers were commissioned to create what might be the most expensive mask in the world.  A $1.5 million dollar mask made of 18k gold and no less than 3,608 diamonds, including space to insert a disposable N-99 mask.  Tempting, but I worry that my gardening gallomping would loosen those precious gems as I planted, weeded and harvested this coming year, so, no.  Although I may find that a simpler mask, perhaps with a trowel stitched into a corner or a bold, cursive warning to an earwig, aphid, or blight, will help when tending to our plants or at the local garden centre or community garden.

Masked on a winter day

Masked.

I’m finding that those fine lines around my eyes are deepening – crevicing – the need to smile with one’s eyes etching time a little deeper.  And I’m saving money on cosmetics too – my perfection will remain well cloaked. But I wonder what other traditions will form? What fashion statements will follow us into the gardens and streets this spring and summer? 

For now, my mask is a belief that all will get better.  My mask tells you I respect you and your right to thrive.  My mask is rooted in history and yet, is temporary. 

The global garden we live and play in, that we were oh-so-familiar with, will come back in so many ways. In time.  Mask on!

James Naismith – masked in Mississippi Mills, Ontario

Herbaria – Pressing Thoughts

The lovely flowers embarrass me. They make me regret I am not a bee.

Emily Dickinson

Have you ever picked a perfect flower, weed, or leaf and pressed it carefully between paper?  I remember doing this as a child – may have been using wax paper and leaves, or maybe dandelions. Growing up in Montreal North, I distinctly remember placing Red Maple leaves – Acer rubrum – between pages of the telephone book, or was it the Yellow Pages Book or the Eaton’s catalogue? We’re talking about documenting the green world around us – creating an herbarium (plural: herbaria).  Even the sound of it trips off the tongue and tantalizes the mind. It’s a tangible chronology of nature – observing and documenting that which surrounds us at a specific time, saved for easy reference with related notes. And isn’t a pandemic a perfect time to pursue something new to help get us through? 

If you do, you’re not alone. For me, it was that 19th century Canadian pioneer, amateur botanist, and writer, Catherine Parr-Traill, who found that documenting the plants around her helped her to navigate this new world, “…for I soon found beauties in my woodland wanderings, in the unknown trees and plants of the forest…They became like dear friends, soothing and cheering, by their sweet unconscious influence, hours of loneliness and hours of sorrow and suffering.”  Or think of the wife of Lociq de Lobel, whose name seems lost to time, who created the very first herbarium of the Klondike Gold Rush to distract herself from the daily challenges of northern realities. Or what about Emily Dickinson whose interest in botany had her creating her own herbarium, now digitized, and sharing pressed flowers with friends, then plants in poetry.

Cultural treasure: one of Catherine Parr-Traill’s scrapbooks

It was Catherine, or rather, her scrapbooks, that led me to discover the National Herbarium of Canada.

What a find – a national herbarium created in 1882 – a library of plants not books, but books and shelves of, well, plants. The National Herbarium of Canada, part of the Canadian Museum of Nature, was created when the plant collections of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada were officially incorporated into a museum department. The herbarium holds four plant collections of vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens, and algae – over one million plant specimens, comprising one of Canada’s largest plant collections. It also means they hold the biggest and best archive of Canadian arctic plants in the world and special cultural collections like that of Traill, the author, in 1885, of Studies of Plant Life in Canada. Who knew? 

Jennifer Doubt – Curator of Botany

There was so much going on when I visited – I was curious to know more. What better way than a chat with the Curator of Botany, Jennifer Doubt.

With degrees in Botany from Guelph University (1995) and in Bryophyte Ecology from the University of Alberta (2001), Jennifer transformed an early interest in the great outdoors and biology, notably founded on growing up and exploring in Deep River, into a series of summer jobs working in botany. First working as a consultant, she would eventually land a curatorial role at the Royal Alberta Museum given her familiarity with herbaria for research and eventually, as Curator of Botany at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario. 

Herbarium collections of plant life

The herbarium, located across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, is an extremely busy place and the best part of the work is the camaraderie and scope of people involved both internationally and at home.  “There’s a wonderful dynamic with daily work, research, ongoing visits and emails – we’re exposed to so many new projects and the people behind them. Remember, there are specimens dating back to the 1700’s which gives rise to fascinating stories about individuals who were on those explorations and what happened after.  Yes, we have specimens from the Franklin expeditions but also so many others,” says Jennifer.  With museum staff; active field and lab researchers working on a range of topics; new specimen contributions coming in from all over needing to be processed and stored; students and the public of varying interests coming to the collections to learn; committed volunteers supporting the work of mounting specimens – well, dynamic indeed!

That documentation is critical as it tells a viewer who collected the plant, where it was collected and what they collected. Jennifer speaks highly of those who volunteer, “The volunteers love plants, or a certain geographical area – in many cases it provides a different focus than their formal work life.  The work is valuable beyond imagining.”

Capturing nature – specimens from Catherine Parr-Traill’s scrapbooks

But you just can’t rest on your laurels. “Understand that this work is never complete” says Jennifer. “At a fundamental level, the collection grows through time showing what changes and trends are happening with plants and in specific geographic ranges.  It’s even possible to analyse the genetic make-up of samples.  The value of the collection is broader than just to botanists. Many of the people researching are not botanists, they could be historians interested in specific events/timeframes/expeditions; or artists looking for sources of botanical accuracy; special interest groups like women studies groups or those interested in what insects were impacting plants.” Or those like me interested in being close to a historical personality and their formative work.

For you and for me, Jennifer sees that “a personal herbarium can answer to a love of plants and understanding a geographical area more intimately…it means time well spent”, much as those early pioneers and poets did. Interestingly, on a local level, documenting botanical material can also contribute to environmental impact assessments and how policy decisions are ultimately made.

Hmmm. I wish I still had that desiccated maple leaf from my youth – it might bring back that beloved backyard in a very tangible way.  But there is a tree, two or three, outside now and I know the land holds so much life to be discovered once the snow is gone.  Heather’s herbarium – thou just may be mine!

What wonders wait under the snow?

“This little work on the flowers and native plants of Central Canada is offered to the Canadian public with the hope that it may prove a means of awakening a love for the natural productions of the country…The aim of the writer is simply to show the real pleasure that may be obtained from a habit of observing what is offered to the eye of the traveller,—whether by the wayside path, among the trees of the forest, in the fields, or on the shores of lake and river.”

Catherine Parr-Traill, 1885, Studies of Plant Life in Canada

Cultivating Time Passing

Come, children, gather round my knee;
Something is about to be.
Tonight’s December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark! It’s midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year.

Good Riddance, But Now What?
Ogden Nash (1902 – 1971)

Prescient? Is it really a new year of just the continuation of one that almost got out of hand?  I for one will celebrate the onslaught of new challenges, will welcome in a new year but leave “happy” until we are well established in the upcoming annum. It will wait until we get beyond asking what day it is and being told it is none other than “Blursday!”

Crunch the snow underfoot and puff out a wonderful round of warm air.  Winter meditation. I think about the intent of this blog and focus on “to cultivate” – and to do so in all aspects of its meaning.

Gardens, a great expression of a green idea, are to be cultivated in accordance with nature, space, time and inclination.  My cultivation this year will begin with those seed catalogues soon to fill the mailbox. It’s highly ritualistic. I’m contentedly old-school and need to use a yellow highlighter on paper to plan – bought myself a package of new ones before the holidays too.  Feeling quite chuffed I am.

There will be many a walk around the landscape here and there, and there, picking up on the patterns formed by plan or the designs wrought by botanical forms – who knew there would be such magic under snow and ice?

Cultivation also means refining knowledge – and the time is right as the annual experimentation with seed germination is still a few weeks away. Over one shoulder I can see the piles of magazines draping off the kitchen table, horticultural porn swept up in a tantalizing need to learn so much more. Gardens and garden magazines, hard or online, are great that way – you act as a voyeur and absorb green learnings from the designs, choices, and ideas of others.  Or not.  Interestingly, voyeurism often points us in our own directions.

There are spaces in the heart and in memory that are always filled with those we love, have loved, and miss.  My heart is full this pandemic winter season.  No doubt about it, family, friendships, and community need cultivation too, solid common ground prepared by times together, shared stories and sharing stories, by allowing transgressions to not colour the totality of these precious relationships that define us for a lifetime. 

In some strange way, the pandemic has placed an emphasis on the reality that we need shared space with others to complete ourselves.  Tools like Zoom have helped – even if there is a disquieting feeling after a call that it was not just the same, it did allow for a connection of sorts.  Interestingly our last online encounter meant we were talking directly, kind of face-to-face, to family from across the nation for multiple times in one year – something the miles, or the complacency we had knowing we could visit anytime, had not afforded us before.

And, well, this blog is a means of cultivating the society of others isn’t it?  We share perspectives, challenges, and joys by sharing our words and our sense of the place we find ourselves in.  That voyeur comes to the fore again as we uncover the stories of those involved with green slices of the world around us – those influencers past and present.

All-in-all, my optimism for the year ahead holds as I hope yours does too. Let’s agree to be content to cultivate memory, family, friends, and the growing community all around – to lay the seed for more in the year ahead! 

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear

For auld lang syne

We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet

For days of auld lang syne

Auld lang syne, extract, Robert (Rabbie) Burns (1759 – 1796)

Solstice soliloquy – of sorts

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination.
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
– Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

All alone in an early afternoon, from the front seat of our car, I watch as the two Canada geese, Branta canadensis, slowly walk up the small hill from the bay to the cage.  Here the female moves forward and the male, wing dangling, struts at a distance – ever wary.  Eventually she leaves and he takes a turn nibbling on frozen corn and peas outside and just inside the cage.  They are elegant and strategic.  I think a trust is growing.  I smile while the stomach clenches.

Here at the bay, the water freezes in great rotating arcs.  The moving water that travels through the thrum of the hydro plant and falls over old rocks and tree limbs orchestrates a mixing, a slow blending of deep blue and icy white. It whirls against the land where kayaks and canoes were launched in the warmer days, it nudges the shrubs on the sides and flows within the sight of those living on higher ground above the mighty Canadian Mississippi.  The churning is slowing as it is covered by winter – a time of quiet contemplation in a year of rollercoaster velocities and unknowns.

And there are the geese.  The last geese of the year, a mated couple near defeat from a wing that won’t work and a season that won’t wait.

I had been watching them for a few days at that point, wondering at their lingering in our most comfortable town like so many do these days.  Then a wing bent funny, toward the earth in an unnatural way – like that of an angel.  An angel wing.  This one would not make the journey high over rivers, rooftops and rising temperatures to green-scapes down south.

Community can be in the street, face-to-face, and a social media thing. A simple message about the feathered residents in the bay and contacts were provided that just might be able to help.

We called every suggestion for help – avian organizations in the nearby city that operate on small and particular budgets with passionate volunteers but none to send out to the valley in a time when birds are having adventures left right and centre while pandemic “bubbles” keep volunteers at bay.  But solid suggestions were put forward: provide food, find trust then catch them.  Catch them.  Circle them and throw blankets. Uh huh.  The urge to help is overwhelming at moments like this.

There came a day when the geese were no where to be seen … and I felt relief. Relief and belief that either nature had found a way or that someone else had taken them for care.  Mostly, I felt relief that a self-imposed responsibility could be extinguished and I could walk away.  Not good thoughts, the type that worried my brain late in the evenings. Oh, the things we learn about ourselves when in the wee hours of the morning.

But they came back.  Must have been sight-seeing down the river.  

And then an email appeared from a newbie in the area who had been putting a home in place nearby. “Welcome to the neighbourhood” I said after listening to how this full-time transportation employee and family had chosen our town to grow and to provide rescue services of all feathered friends.  Are you kidding me?  This had to be a harbinger of the gifting season and a chance for geese, without the goose being cooked.  The cage, a refuge with food, was put in place. Action and growing trust continues.

And there was a gal from the valley, who works with dogs for the blind – another good soul – who watched the pair with us and would eventually donate a huge sack of corn. Avian dining continues.

Then a woman, living near the bay and willing to keep an eye on the situation and provide sheets if needed.  Care continues.

While at one of the beloved local cafés, a barista suggested we get in a boat, maybe a canoe or what about a wetsuit and a board?  But there is the frigid water and oh yes, the moving ice. Suggestions continue.

This winter’s tale is still in the telling, not ended yet.  It may be that this pair are content in the bay for the season. Maybe they’re helping to carry us through the winter ahead. We will hope for the best for the garden we all play in is large and you’re never alone.

Happy solstice all – some gifts, like hope, don’t need wrapping. 

Pandemic winter pursuits

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” -Cicero, 46 B.C.E.

All geared up for the pandemic winter?  Chilling by the radio, TV, or computer monitor listening to forecasts on pending vaccines?  Wondering why, oh why, the grocery store doesn’t have any broth on the shelves today?  And you know the garden will soon be under snow, and there’s ice, and maybe you’ll stay in today.

So what to do?  What to do?  How are you cultivating yourself these daze?  Many of you are still working from new locations – how is that view from the basement or kitchen table by the way?  And what about those hours in-between?  You know, when too much listening and watching the news of the world can really strip your nerve ends raw. When staring out the window, you suddenly roam into thoughts of COVID testing, roller-coaster stats and bigger, existential realms.

So let’s talk about winter preparations and attempting to ensure that our mental states regain a foothold so that reality is better navigated.  And since that eastern garden will soon be most definitely under cover for a few months…

Green pursuits on a page

…books! There’s a shelf of garden books nearby that looms with green pretension…er…temptations.   The covers catch the light and reflect a touch of guilt that I’ve not read them all yet. This is the promised land – that of broader garden knowledge and inspiration.  Or maybe just horticultural voyeurism.  Some of my books, save a chapter or two, have sat for years waiting to be perused. Is this the year? Possibly. No doubt the reading will accelerate as I count down again to the arrival of seed catalogues but it’s a good start to seed one’s knowledge when one can. 

Winter scene with topiary in Longwood Gardens
Longwood Gardens in winter

What about an online course – some free, some not – offering up a plethora of pleasure and, ahem, intellectualism?  For the green in all of us there are oodles of options from all over the world – check on websites – Longwood Gardens, Kew, etc. Recently, I treated myself to an online tea festival through the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton. Oh my.  I had walked tea estates years ago while working in Sri Lanka and admired the tea plants, Camellia sinensis, and knew there were a multitude of varieties globally.  Winter just may be a great time to dig further and to taste broadly. And did you know you could morph into a Tea Sommelier through courses at local colleges giving rise to a professionalism in sipping with style? Tisanes – those bewitching elixirs made from aromatic herbs, plants and roots – could be the beginning of a tea garden or a pot thereof, to plan for next year. Potentially exhausting – must be too much chamomile!

Oh and puzzles.   And boardgames. Did you know some have botanic themes?!? These were the grungy boxes that somehow always wound up at the cottage when we were kids. I particularly remember my mom loving a large puzzle that was mostly black-on-black except for two ballerinas dancing in the moonlight.  For some reason that has stuck in my mind.  Or that an aunt is famous for puzzling without referring to pictures – working along the colour edges to find the puzzle logic. It seemed a pursuit not suited to my generation but that was hubris.  In the sunlight that edged out from the grey clouds this week, I laid out a green cloth on the dining table to do a puzzle a friend had gifted me.  It was huge.  A 1000 pieces – way more that 999. And then, although it meant breakfast and dinner had to be eaten elsewhere, it entranced me –  it became meditative.  Not a bad thing – and then a day slipped away. Think of the focus I’ll be able to apply to garden planning…eventually!

What about pets? Four-footed companions are so welcome at all times but be aware, they can only take so much petting and oh my, any attempted conversation is way too often one-sided…especially if it’s about a food dish unfathomably empty.  Furgus, the great grey cat in this house as you may know, now walks the halls with us.  He keeps pace with our quick step or plod. He’s also gotten used to us picking him up to tuck him into a pile of something soft for the necessary thousands of naps in a day. He goes up and down the stairs when we do and stands by the door if we’re going out.  It may bolster one’s ego to think that something with such steely eyed focus on you is to be admired but trust me, it wears thin when he jumps into the puzzle box or onto your head at night.  Give the wee guys some space so they can work out new routines all of their own.  Too much petting may end up in a less than hirsute companion – keep an eye out for the omnipresent fur balls that dance around the house and lurk in every corner.  Hmmm. Might be able to use them in the garden to repel groundhogs?  Worth a try – now how do I catch those rolling little fluffbulls?

It’s a snapshot of a personal strategy for this pandemic winter.  I’ll worry along with the rest of us but am determined to plot a course forward, well rooted in personal cultivation of self and spirit, seeded with new knowledge from a diverse range of pursuits that will blossom fully, one hopes, in a better year.  And now if only the cat would sit still. Purrfect.

Awww – Furgus likes books too!

Betwixt and Between

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” — Audrey Hepburn

It’s an odd time isn’t it?  Deep worry about COVID yet hopeful about vaccines, the power of masks and distancing; hopeful about politics yet anxious about delayed transitions; transitioning to winter but staring at the green grass through the windows.  It’s a liminal time, a betwixt and between time – a pause requiring study through windows and without.

Interestingly, in this unique time there are new tools that allow a peek into someone else’s lived experience, for the view from a home window.  Window Swap and View from my Window evolved during lockdown on various platforms. My day inevitably starts with a long look out the dining room window, and as I’m as anxious as everyone else, I can understand the strange, voyeuristic enjoyment of seeing what others see daily.  In an odd way, these tools worked to elevate what could become mundane in isolation – affirming that we are still here and oh look, we’re not alone.  With travel severely limited, this might just provide a release of sorts and your carbon footprint is so much smaller too – OMG a double hit! 

So what’s beyond my window?  Well, you might not always see the beauty in this transition season but I think it might be another chance to use the word sublime -’cause, why wouldn’t you? 

We’ve woken to first snows here in eastern Ontario although nary a flake has stayed more than a few hours – yet.  Outside one window, not far from the computer screen that clamours for attention, I look outside and watch a ground ballet – flocks of robins and starlings, neatly spaced, pecking their way across the snowy lawn.  A hunt for seed and insects to help them on their way south no doubt.  And yes, the waves of geese continue above.   It expands the definition of the garden to encompass seasonal change, the ongoing work and migration of beasts and birds, the beauty of those plants now pausing. It is not about surrender and demise, it is about preparation for change.

An ongoing debate was whether or not to cut down the Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum, to tidy the space.  But honestly, tidy is not all it’s cracked up to be – let nature behave as it should. It demands a rethink, of paying attention to leaving organic materials in place both as shelter for bugs, food for squirrels and birds, and as ultimate nourishment for future plant growth.  For all kinds of good stewardship reasons, the plants will stay and desiccate over the winter providing shelter for all sorts of wee beings. For now, oh the colour that has been introduced is wonderful – somewhat like an impressionist brush heavy with yellow ochre. 

I notice the structure of the garden more – the solidity of the green frame in place that cradles us in trying times. Take note – when looking through the window or walking about though, fight the inclination to unendingly list all the projects for next year but rather slow down and notice the details today.

And there’s something wonderful about how plants hold each other in autumn. See the multiple mounds – even if I only planted three to start – of Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca, as they nudge up against Hens and chicks, Sempervivums; how the newly planted Red Osier Dogwood, Cornus stolonifera, sketches out a ruby web against the sky while it sheds green leaves; how the winter creeper, Euonymus fortunei, snuggles up against the Spirea while sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, prepares to die back under the leaves. Sure, the planting was mine but the poetry, well, plants have expression of their own don’t they?

A leaf on the grass

I’m thinking of a quote from Lorraine Johnstone in Tending the Earth – A Gardener’s Manifesto: “While each of us may be changing the world on coneflower at a time, the world of the garden is doings its own crucial work of changing us.”  This happens everyday, every season.  We have a plan and then suddenly, the garden shows us something unexpected, a movement, an unexpected beauty – a teaching. 

Hope quietly informs the day as I fall into this late season with all its trials and tribulations.  The next season will come soon enough but for now, breathe and just be betwixt and between. And with multiple windows at hand and online?  Well, all the better to understand the scope of the garden – yours, mine, ours.

The structure of a garden exposed

On Knowing a Thing – Now and Then

“Even to know the common name of a flower or fern is something added to our stock of knowledge, and inclines us to wish to know something beyond the mere name. Curiosity is awakened…”
Catherine Parr-Traill, 1885, Studies of Plant Life in Canada

Apologies to my neighbours but I really must inspect my Hypericum perforatum and don’t forget the Silene vulgaris.  That’s right – I discovered a botanical paradise!  It’s really wild!  And it’s on my leaching field … or thereabouts!

It really explains why a quick look into our yard from the street may result in a vision of a woman with book in hand and camera at the ready, mouthing tongue-tied words familiar yet strange and decidedly Latin. A pagan ritual perhaps?  No, not an incantation to the powers that be (although not a bad idea all-in-all) but a need, a quest to ignore the news of the day and focus down to the ground.

Today in November, I’m back outside in t-shirt and cut-offs as the strange unseasonly warm weather continues. There are however strong rumours of snow later this week which is at distinct odds with the last tomatoes that I’m roasting this morning.  Go figure. 

This particular pandemic pleasure stemmed from the mid-year. July was tough on the land and on us.  We watched the clouds come and go, performed our rain dances and mourned as grass disappeared and leaves began to fall from our Silver Maples, Acer saccharinum. Barrels emptied and decisions were made to only water veg beds as needed. It was hard to watch and hard on one’s mood…everyday. 

And then.  I stopped cringing and looked, really looked at what was growing.  And growing well in this desiccating landscape.  Nature as always, was finding a way to declare itself and it was in the form of wildflowers.  And what are these but an invitation to learn?  Armed with an Ontario Wildflowers book, and a need to focus on what was popping up everywhere, I went to work. Who knew I would also go back in time?

Arriving in 1832, Catherine Parr-Traill, an early pioneer and writer, found green explorations as a means to hang onto her very being in this new world. As she points out in Studies of Plant Life in Canada, 1885, “…I soon found beauties in my woodland wanderings, in the unknown trees and plants of the forest. These things became a great resource, and every flower and shrub and forest tree awakened an interest in my mind, so that I began to thirst for a more intimate knowledge of them. They became like dear friends, soothing and cheering, by their sweet unconscious influence, hours of loneliness and hours of sorrow and suffering.” She was onto something – a marvelous distraction – and just what I needed.

I knew there would be some wilding happening as on the roadside I could see Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, which easily could provide a shady, lacy umbrella for chipmunk or rabbit or fairy, springing up alongside beautiful blue Chicory, Cichorium intybus, which tempted me to indulge in a coffee – or at least in this coffee substitute.

The garden already had already showcased Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to entice the Monarchs to land and transform; the long pointers of Great Mullein, Verbascum Thapsus, that when dried and dipped in tallow became a torch in days gone by; and the ever present Orange Daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, that shared space with purply Creeping Bellflowers, Campanula rapunculoides. A riot of plants right where we didn’t plant them! Amazing.

Now that I think of it, what a perfect summer moment and one I’ll revisit during upcoming winter days.  They are also intimately tied to the memories of childhood and running free to pick bouquets to be jammed into mason jars on a windowsill and admired. Move over African violet – we picked this! I remember the succinct pop of the Bladder Campion, Silene vulgaris, as my brother and I popped their full blooms against the back of our hands. And the Common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, which meant sitting down in the grass and blowing the seeds that seemed like fairies flying on the breeze.  Haven’t done that in ages although I have thought of dandelion summer wine and crisp greens with odd shapes in salad bowls.

All this to say, I have now strategically added a new list of things to explore in this pandemic winter. Green explorations and those women who have taken it to different levels – a penultimate pandemic pastime to link today and yesterday. Among other things. According to the dictates of the day.

Botanic treasures found this year (so far):

Black eyed Susans blooming.
  • Black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia hirta
  • Bladder Campion – Silene vulgaris
  • Chicory – Cichorium intybus
  • Common Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
  • Common Milkweed – Asclepias syriaca
  • Common St. John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum
  • Creeping Bellflowers – Campanula rapunculoides
  • Great Mullein – Verbascum Thapsus
  • Orange Daylily – Hemerocallis fulva
  • Orange Hawkweed – Hieracium aurantiacum
  • Oxeye Daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Philadelphia Fleabane – Erigeron philadelphicus
  • Pineapple Weed – Matricaria dissoidea
  • Scentless Chamomile – Tripleurospermum perforata
  • Queen Anne’s Lace – Daucus carota