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)

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!

The Nature of Soup

Definition of soup:
1: a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food
2: something having or suggesting the consistency or nutrient qualities of soup
3: an unfortunate predicament
– Merriam-Webster online

Soup in bowls

I want to talk to you about the nature of soup. Soup is that noisy mingling of kitchen chat and chop – an emotional pull to the table through time.  Soup is a mighty coalescence of taste, memory, place and people. 

Not too long ago the harvest was done and it was time for a tasty transformation of veg into soup. I looked at the herbs from the garden on our kitchen windowsill and the thick kale leaves drying in the strainer.  But then a redirect, not unusual these days, as thoughts turned to past gatherings and how they’re just not happening anymore, and probably not for awhile.

Soup has always been part of our garden celebrations.  I mean really, what’s easier than heating up some water, throwing in something, or many somethings, and calling it a meal? Maybe you have a recipe, maybe not – but it’ll work and people will connect. It makes you wonder how long as a species we’ve had the need, as essentially insular beings, to convene and just to be in company with others? 

For the past three winters, every Wednesday in February and March, we hosted a mid-week mulling over soup. We limited the gathering to six people to both ensure that all could fit around the wooden table and that everyone could take part in the conversation.  When I think about it, we had actually managed to hold one this year – in February 2020 – you know, before the gathering world was put on hold.

Kale leaves
Kale

To keep it easy, I used a favourite recipe from Moosewood, Portuguese Kale with White Beans, mingled with homemade vegie broth.  Yes, the same recipe every week – think of it as my little tradition.

The pot, gleaming in silver shininess and large in potential, was brought out the night before and placed just so on the front burner. Early morning on the day of the Event, the sun-dried tomatoes would be soaked; onion and garlic would be diced; fennel, carrots, potatoes, and kale chopped; white beans drained; and best of all, the finishing fragrances of fennel seed, thyme and pepper measured out.  It was a satisfying mise-en-place that had us poised for a great, tasty day when our focus could be just on those gathered around the table. We hope it was memorable because at its most basic level, soup is a touchstone for memory.

As a child of the 60’s, soup generally meant it conveniently arrived ready-to-go in a Campbell’s soup can, offered up with sliced, white bread and margarine on the side.  The only exception was in the winter months when homemade pea soup was all the rage at home in Montreal North. How easy to remember the sounds of people and place, easy to pull up the memories of knowing we had food to eat and all was good.

Sorrel in the vegetable garden
Sorrel – Shchavel

For my partner, soup was a cultural tradition – borscht!  Deep, rich, red hues filled bowls along with a dollop of sour-cream and a pinch of fresh dill that began oh-so-many Ukrainian family gatherings.  With an eye to continuity, I would learn to make this over the years from books like Baba’s Kitchen and through innumerable variations found online. 

Soup became personally surprising to this gardener – like realizing the green leaves of sorrel, Rumex acetosa, at the very edge of the vegie garden were nothing less than the very plant – shchavel – that my partner’s grandma used when he was a very young boy.  Shchavel borscht, a tangy green soup, gave reason for us to talk about growing up and the ghosts of childhood that will follow us for a lifetime.

Creating times to be together, to have a conversation with those here or not, all around the simple excuse of a soup. Maybe my thoughts that day wandered towards memory due to the seemingly unending grey skies heavy with the first, early winter snow.  Or maybe the way the damp days worked into my arthritic bones.  Maybe I was lonely and missing all those who once sat at our table in a tangy broth of conversation.  Soup seemed like both a saving grace at the time and a strategy for the future.

So go on. Grab a pot, splash in some water, put things into it – many things – enjoy it now or freeze it for the future. Rest assured, the table will fill again, and that table just might be here online.  For now.