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)

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

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.

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.

Growing a peopled place

And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Friendship is the invisible ally of gardens, either given freely or sought. 

Marigolds wrapped in a succulent hug

This weekend, a friend came by with a bright, tight bundle of French Marigolds, Tagetes patula. I know this was a special offering as she had grown them in a thick patch from seeds that another friend had given her.  And so we continue an unending circle of garden stories.

Gardens have a way of attracting people – all kinds of people – green people who have plants and stories to share.  I’m one of those now.  It isn’t unusual in the growing season for the end of our driveway to have a series of pots or cut flowers being offered free to a growing home.  Honestly, that’s the sign that I put up beside the offerings so that no one feels anxious when running away with one, two or three. Seeds are shared, plants provided, conversation ensues – often over years. 

Now that I think about it, it would be hard to leave this garden as there are so many footprints of others so well rooted here.  That sprawling mugo pine, Pinus mugo?  The first plant we put in when we bought our home – a gift of love from my mother. I prune it back each year it’s true, but gently.

The lilacs, Syringa?  Well, my gift to Pete of course so he could have sweet smelling shade to enjoy in future years.  That deep purple one?  A planted memory for a friend now gone.

The glossy mat of blue periwinkle, Vinca major? A spreading memory of another who was celebrating the adoption of her baby daughter.  Invasive?  Always risky but not here – it spreads slowly and is well managed by this gardener.

A welcome annual to wrap around a heart – Morning Glory

Those blue flowers scrambling up the wood support of the birdhouse, those lovely unending trumpets and heart-shaped leaves of Morning Glories, Ipomoea? Planted knowing they are loved by a friend now in the city.

Sharing could be as easy as someone coming over unbeknownst to us and planting something in on of our beds.  Guerilla gardeners. Right there, beside the small pond, I now have the dark leaves of the Leopard plant, Ligularia dentata, complementing the riot of day lilies, hostas, sedum and astilbe – it blooms a bright orange in this semi-shade garden and flowers later in the season.  That same friend also gifted me with a tall, stately Fairy Candle or Black Cohosh plant – a name much more interesting than Bugbane.  Did either one of us know the name of the handsome plant? No, it would take another friend, a horticulturalist, who came by and casually asked if I’d smelt the wonderful perfume of my Black Snakeroot, Actaea racemosa .  So much to learn!

A garden is not a place. It’s a journey.

Monty Don

The garden grows through the generosity of others. However, fair warning, that even friendship might go a bit too far when sharing plants that climb, clamour and root far and wide. Much like our Bugleweed, Ajuga, or as I should have known by the charming local name of Marching Soldiers, we realized after the fact that it had a rambunctious nature – but we learn.

The garden grows in spite of this pandemic year and offers up a space for repose. And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Lovely Ligularia offers dramatic leaf colour and shape