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!

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

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. 

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.

Understory – Late Autumn Daze

Nothing Gold Can Stay – by Robert Frost, 1923

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Tops of trees without leaves against a grey sky.

The sky is grey and rain cascades like a watery veil down from gutters where too many maple leaves have come to roost.  My tendency would be to despondency as the green season is most definitely passing but when my eyes are drawn down, I see a carpet of rich gold across the landscape. If you really try, the colour wraps us in a final shout-out of beauty. Yes, look for the sublime in the everyday. 

Forest with leaves on the ground.

My mood though is compounded by the awareness that Phase Two of the pandemic is upon us and the coming winter will be tough in so many ways.  Tough in that we’re still pummeling a virus curve against the dreaded outcomes of COVID; that we’re holding onto hope by not hugging each other; that we’re closing in our social circles because we care so very much. And we do care.

This morning I heard an interview on CBC with Tim Robbins (loved his Shawshank Redemption role!) about a new project where he and his team are exploring how to create a community online to affirm we are sane in interesting and turbulent times – COVID and political. He’s adamant that this time ought to be looked at as an opportunity for creative incubation. “I think it’s important that we create forums of communities where you can listen to something, you can laugh and you can understand you’re not alone,” he said.  Well, I like that! Welcome back to the blog-a-sphere! (OK, he was talking about podcasts but moving along…)

Grey cat on laptop keyboard.

Ahem. A slight narrative deviation – apologies. As much as I’d like to mope and wax poetic about the emotional turmoil of grey daze, my constant feline companion and apparently editor, Furgus, is saying it’s purr-fect.  In fact, he may indeed take over the typing of this very post – with cats, one can never really know.

Onto the green reaping that has led me to think that incubation will indeed develop into taste-filled winter nights where we will relax and enjoy any sublime moment at hand.

Case in point – I’m perfumed! The smell of mint is on my hands and stitched fragrantly throughout my clothing. I’ve pulled out hunks of leaves from three medium-sized pots that had basked all summer against an east facing brick wall. Ok – it’s true – these lovelies were deliberately corralled by me in terracotta pots as they are notorious for spreading their mint-ness throughout the garden if left in the ground. Delicious fiends! Now the peppermint, Mentha x piperita; chocolate, Mentha × piperita “chocolate”; and Mojito mints – Mentha x villosa, have been chopped into small pieces, encased with water in ice cube trays and slipped into the freezer. Phase Two winter months were just made more palatable with green sunshine in a tiny block of ice!  Fun to think about who would enjoy these treasures with us – oh, that will be us. Well then, all good.

You know there’s no story without an understory, right?  That freezer was an adventure – an unanticipated purchase due to a great harvest brought about by an intense COVID homestay. An intense homestay for months where we watched every growth spurt, every fruiting.  We were so glad we had basic arithmetic skills and determined that the cost for the freezer was justified as it cost less than than that terrific road trip we had planned for the eastern coast of Canada this year. As the times had appliances like freezers coming up short on the display floors, we were thrilled to find one – still in its cardboard box – kind of waiting for us at the local hardware emporium.  We quick-stepped gleefully out to the rented van to ensure the freezer was ours and ours alone. Warning. Do not get between a gardener, worried about a most excellent harvest, and her desired storage unit!

The freezer interior has transformed into a treasure chest of green memories…er…anticipation. Must stay future focused! Soon, very soon, it will hold most of the green tomatoes I shook off the desiccating vines of summer.  Leaving them longer on the vine made no sense with frost threatening, flurries foretold, and energies waning.  The squares of cilantro, Coriandrum sativum, are frozen in extra virgin olive oil with garlic and honestly, can you imagine the sizzle from that frying pan as the snow comes down outside? The flattened bags tempt with deep red hues – roasted tomatoes processed with sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, and rosemary, Salvia rosmarinus, while other containers hold whole and cubed red tomatoes. The green icy mounds are peppers chopped and ready for a soup or stir fry. Sage, Salvia officinalis, is now drying on a pantry knob while oregano, Origanum vulgare, will soon join it. What a potential explosion of taste just waiting for creative cookery magic and deep winter nights. Cucina Italiana feasts?  Bring ‘em on!

Those nights when the fire is on, the ice lining the edge of the window and the hooks near the back door holding damp toques, mitts, scarves and, well you know, masks. Those nights are when I’ll close my eyes and taste the green season again and maybe, just maybe, wax poetic about gardening daze and marvel at the ability of memory to ignore the twinge in the knee and the ache in the back.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll celebrate the surrounding community and those away at two-arms length or more. We know we’re not alone in this time, we’re just developing a new way of being for all of us. For now.

Mirrored hat rack with COVID masks hanging in centre.

Thanks-be-given

The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude. How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

Here in eastern Ontario, Thanksgiving Day opened onto a cool, bright morning. The farmer across the road was bringing in the soy crop and we were treated to the dust of a good harvest wafting over the hedge, the sun dancing gleefully through the haze.  There is no Hallmark card for the moment. 

Pumpkins and gourds on table

Thanksgiving is my favourite celebration. No festooning of trees, no retail mayhem, no incessant saccharine music in every store.  There are no pressures of gifting except the most essential gift of time and companionship – easily shared. The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude.  How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

The shadows of this pandemic and political time were swept aside by the chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays on the feeders, by the perfection of a morning, by the choice we made to focus this day on the greater garden around us. 

The ways of sharing felt different this year – electronic pulses more than elbows nudging over a good joke. Early morning there was a crop of well-wishers on social media – the newer, electronic garden where words replace touch and proximity.  Only a brief sadness settled in when the distance between sender and sendee was thought about, even as we smiled at the 10 – 100 joyful words on laptop and phone screens. To be read and re-read again.

Sunny day with families safely distanced
Wood piles with hay and pumpkins

Next was a road trip to a local tree farm.  There pancakes were expertly flipped to order on the outside porch and maple syrup from this year’s arboreal haul was poured liberally – much to the delight of the small swarm of wasps entranced by the sweet temptation.  But no garden is without bugs, birds and blooms – they are all intimately interconnected. Children played on hay bales, flew through the air suspended on a line from one pillar to another to the delight of a puppy who stared and stared, parents stood by masked and sharing plans for the dinners they would have later.  We watched it all and warmed to the companionship of others – a garden of fellows on this holiday in isolated times.

We left with treasure stuffed deep into a paper bag – homemade jams and a huge bottle of local maple syrup, ‘cause knowing the maker just means a sweeter experience all around.  Three would be for friends – strawberry jam to a senior neighbour on the street who has treated me to tea and stories of a life well lived; Toe Jam to a friend who shares humour, politics and furry companions; and Middle Age Spread (lemon and orange) that waits on a sideboard for another who shares many adventures with us. Sweet delights to cultivate the garden of friendship.

Crystal vase filled with maple leaf branches

The dinner table – set for we two – was festooned with maple leaves on their woody stems placed just so in a crystal vase from my mum, now gone, while the meal was an amalgam of delights from local entrepreneurs.  It was a decision to fill the table with all that was tasty from those local business owners who have had to navigate this unique year in new and different ways. Roasted veg, garlic mashed potatoes, lentil loaf, hand pies baked resplendent with mushroom filling and turkey with stuffing. All this nudging up against red and green lettuce from our garden that keeps on giving even in the cooling air, whose leaves mark the plenty that was grown. And to end it all, a perfectly seasoned pumpkin pie from our local baker, complete with a pastry pumpkin placed precisely in the very centre allowing thick whipped cream to encircle it in a caloric hug. This meal was not the first where we celebrated the gifts of others, nor would it be the last. We raised a toast and gave thanks for living in a vibrant, creative community which will make it through whatever times are ahead.  

Throughout it all, each hour of this day, we thought of times shared with friends and family, so glad for those moments stored deep inside to be looked at and relived, whenever needed.  Our personal garden of memory and an appetite for more!

Painted signpost against a tree saying: Enjoy a season of change!

And as it must, so the day ended and the sun began to sink behind the cedar hedge in the west. 

The silver and red maples in front of our dining room seemed to stretch out each leaf before they tumbled to the ground in a glowing curtain.  A fitting moment, nature saying time is right to face a change in season and to be grateful for this day – this thanks-be-given day.

Seed for thought

We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have.

I had a wonderful coffee last week with a “green” friend which ended happily with us touring her garden. This was perfect as isn’t it the best of all things to nurture and cultivate a space then to share it in some way, or two? Bliss.

But what stopped me in my explorations were these dark, purply round fruit hanging down from withering late-summer stems in large pot.  Were they mini-eggplants?  This of course caused me a moment of real irritation as my eggplants had teased me all summer by producing gorgeous flowers and then…nothing.  But that’s another story.

That feeling quickly dissipated as knowledge was enthusiastically shared over a growing bed – a most excellent habit of gardeners! My friend introduced me to a Blueberry Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum “blueberry”.  Wow!  And that maybe, just maybe, it actually punched higher by weight than actual blueberries in antioxidants. What!?  When, oh when, does the global garden stop amazing us? I left with a small orb of possibility in my pocket – a mini-tomato whose seeds are being dried and stored for next year’s garden. A grand experiment on my part which got me thinking about the littlest of things that we share from our own gardens – seeds and neighbourly connections.

I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seed 1860-61

My first seed encounter was in the backyards of Montreal North where I grew up.  A culturally rich WWII community – immigrants from Europe and us, Canadian anglophones and francophones – all living in duplexes and triplexes overlooking yards where neighbours chatted in accented excitement over long wooden fences.  My mom loved that back balcony as it gave her the ability to watch over not just the two of us, my brother and me, but those neighbourhood gardens that rose from warmer climes and traditions.  They stood apart from ours with its one Maple tree and sprawling play area, as those other places were lush with a hands-on take on how to provide food for families. And roses.

In those gardens, the seasons would be marked by seedlings that had been nurtured through the late winter months, whose bright shoots were tied to poles in regular rows culminating in time to a tasty burst of harvest. A great botanical gathering gave rise to the rolling sound of wine casks emerging from basements and the aroma of tomato sauce thickening on stovetops.  Sauce that had a bold tendency to dance a quick step up the stairs, over the balcony and into our kitchen. Recipes followed as the fence-talk continued.

Once the cooking frenzy was over there was another domestic science experiment going on and it too rolled out in basements.  My neighbour, an immigrant from Italy, knew I was a curious kid and took me down the stairs to that family’s basement one perfect day.  There, spread out on brown paper, were hundreds of tomato seeds that had been sorted to type, dried and would be stored for next summer’s promise. The garden brought a curious community together, built on the experience of the past and kept in high regard the potential of seed – a knowing that my neighbour finetuned by observing year-to-year.

Seed is amazing. At the most basic level, viable seed means we’re ensuring the continuation of the wide variety of plant species and of global food sources.  Everything is held within the seed – an embryonic plant mapped by DNA, supported with protein and starch. Think about it – everything needed for the processes of germination, vegetation and reproduction is tucked into these distinct, botanical packages.  Along with that, we’re also saving the memory of people and plants we have known intimately as we sowed, germinated and waxed poetic about the plants outside.

Seeds and the importance of ensuring that our shared agricultural and botanical history – and future – are saved, takes place through our own garden seed saving from each season to the next, but on larger scales as well. Massive projects save seeds from all over the world such as the Crop Trust Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago – also known as the  Doomsday vault – or through not-for-profits like Seeds of Diversity in Canada. Mind-boggling.

When you save a seed, you save so much more than just a memory from last year’s garden, you hold a unique, biological being – a proto-plant in your hand.  Here life begins and when the growth cycle continues to a logical conclusion, the future is ensured by seed.

In the Book of Seeds, Paul Smith says: “For people, mastering the storage and manipulation of dormant seeds paved the way for agriculture and continues to determine the fate of nations.” We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it?

A harvest of crabby delight

You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

Like most of us in this pandemic year, we look for new pastimes – a means to find moments of joy in difficult times.  With the cooling of the season and yes, the turning of the first leaves to autumn gold and red, it means embracing a sense of adventure – one that mingles community with taste!

Case in point – crab apples, Malus.  This town, on the edge of wild, is home to many a crab apple tree.  Many are beloved. Most of the year, after the riot of spectacular spring blooms have faded, you wouldn’t even notice them but come September, well.  Red and yellow fruit brighten against the green leaves in private yards, lining streets, and on the edges of woodlands where their perfume bounces on the breeze.  A scent of – is it cider? – wafts down the streets and tempts passersby. You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

The immediate result here? We played! And right there, on our back deck, beside the painted red rocking chair, a large basket brimming with fruit from two crab apple trees, Malus ‘Dolgo’.

We hadn’t really noticed them until a gardening friend (thanks Allan!) sent an email suggesting we enjoy the bounty from trees he had planted in the community.  Sounded like a fine idea and we wandered over one afternoon eager for a harvest – although honestly unsure what the ultimate result would be.  

Did I mention we were new to this?

Must confess, we didn’t realize we were looking at apple trees at all.  In fact, we were convinced that the apple tree that we were looking for must be hidden behind these plum trees – so thick they were with small fruit.  It only took one bite to push plums out of our minds and to recognize the small, sweet-tart rounds of luscious crab apples! Fast forward – the basket on the deck.

Within the course of a few days, and a well-placed Facebook post, suggestions gleefully flowed for pies, dried fruit, applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly – all shared with the excitement of well practiced tastes.  This was rapidly followed by offers of hand cranked food processors, jelly jars and in one case, of an actual taste tester. The generosity of garden folk was so appreciated when we realized that this simple act of apple transformation into imagined winter delights was going to take some learning.

Now, somewhere in the depths of the pantry we had stored a box of canning jars. The idea had entered our minds years ago but over time the jars had become candles holders, impromptu vases, dust collectors. However, we did have a large pot, a hand crank food processor, and new lids. There was also the seemingly infinite reams of advice on the web, in cookbooks and through the freely shared experiences of friends pulled into kitchens by harvest delights.

These common apples, as they were once known, could have become so many things from jams to pies. But for us, through the shared experiences of those who succumb to the temptations of apples – move over Eve – we washed and we boiled, we strained and we canned. It was the best of times – who knew?

Now we smile to think that downstairs, on shelves tucked against a wall, the dark shadows obscure the rich red of crab apple sauce and crab apple jelly that wait to help us make it through winter, then spring. Once there, the lovely trees will bloom again, a cycle of green, and of friendship, leading us forward to the delights of new days – embracing the bitter and the sweet.