how to find a prairie in southern ontario during a pandemic

 

Begin with endlessly sorting your bookshelves. Keep, donate, keep, donate….

At the back of the shelves, find a book on road trips that looks boring and decide you don’t want to keep it but then notice a newspaper clipping tucked inside — an ‘Out Walking’ column from the local paper, by Margaret Carney, a (Whitby) resident, writer, and naturalist.

Notice the date: September 10, 2000.

Read the clipping.

Get excited about sentences like this:

“One of the biggest thrills of my whole summer was visiting a precious remnant of original tallgrass prairie — the site of a historic cemetery — and then, high on a bluff overlooking the Otonobee River, a magnificent restoration of acres of prairie wildflowers in bloom. Both are just east of Durham Region, on the Rice Lake Plains — a pleasant jaunt for anyone out for a drive.”

Consider whether you have enough cheese in the fridge to make a picnic.

(If yes, pick a sunny day, pack a cooler. Include peaches. The peaches are wonderful this year.)

Head out on the road.

Bring the newspaper clipping.

As you drive ask the person in the passenger seat to read out the part again where Carney says the cemetery, because it’s on land that has never been plowed, contains one of the rarest surviving plant communities in Canada.

Also the directions. Could they please read out the directions again.

Because you’re having trouble finding the place.

Though you do find some nice views and happy surprises en route and for a moment you think you’ve found the cemetery. But no…

Just as you’re about to give up, just as you begin driving away, heed the seemingly pointless impulse to turn the car around and drive back a few kilometres along the same road for the third time.

When you see a man on a small tractor (who was not there just a few minutes ago) drive onto his property in a cheerful manner, and apologize for interrupting. Ask about the cemetery and be a little surprised that he knows exactly where it is. Smile when he says have a good time. Grimace when he says watch out for snakes. Snakes??  Oh, sure, he says, there’s snakes out here. Bear too, and mean yellow-eyed Fishers (which you will google later.)

Drive back along the road for the fourth time.

And then marvel at how exactly where he said it would be, there it is, the Red Cloud Cemetery, once part of a community called Red Cloud.

Walk through this small slice of undisturbed grassland with reverence for the people who lived here, for those who’ve come and gone, and wonder about their stories (first burial in the early 1800’s, the last in 1940).  Reverence too for this slice of rich history and remnant of original landscape that looks so ordinary it makes you dearly want someone to explain what’s what.

Above all, feel reverence for the quiet energy that fills this space.

Decide it’s the perfect place for a picnic.

Open up your lawn chairs and haul out your cheese sandwiches. Notice the size and diversity of the trees and wonder how many eyes have looked at them from exactly this angle against a sky exactly this shade of blue. Do not think about snakes. Although because of possible bears, keep the picnic site close to the car.

From there follow Carney’s instructions an hour or so west, to the Rainbow Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Site near Rice Lake, which she describes as twenty acres of private farmland that a family is restoring to its original tallgrass prairie roots.

Once again be unable to find the place.

Once again notice a man on a tractor. A larger tractor this time, driving along the gravel road. He will tell you the prairie is long gone, the property sold to new owners who plowed it over in order to farm the land. He will wonder how it is you came to be looking for it. Tell him about the twenty year old newspaper clipping. Watch the confusion on his face, followed by an expression that might translate to something like: city people.

He will give you directions, tell you it’s over that hill, turn right at the next lane. He will tell you the sign is still there but nothing else and you decide to go look for it anyway, for the sign and for where the prairie used to be and once again, it’s all exactly where the man on the tractor said it would be.

Or would be if it still existed.

Decide to head home now that you are filled with knowing what you already knew, that some parts of nature are preserved and others are not. Be happy that if a tallgrass prairie restoration project had to be razed, it was for someone to make a living. Remind yourself that this isn’t anything new and just embrace the fact that tall grass prairies once covered this part of the province, wherever the soil is sandy. Imagine it.

Be grateful there are still small, independent farmers.

Sigh deeply. For the beauty and the sadness and the joy and the reality of the ever changing change of things. For the miracle of men on tractors appearing just when you need them. For not seeing snakes. Or bears. For the luxury of sandwiches made with local cheese and peaches grown on Ontario trees. For the privilege of being able to spend a day breathing in such peace.

Point the car in the direction of home.

Turn on the radio.

Be grateful for the person in the passenger seat.

And when the mood strikes, stop and stretch your legs, climb up to lookouts and see where you’ve been

and if there are no cars in the parking lot of a bakery, don your mask and enter, leaving with one perfect butter tart,

and when, like a mirage, a field of grapes appears where probably a tall grass prairie once stood, and a sign for libations… take a long deep breath for irony’s sake, slip on your mask, and find the patio.

And if there are only two other people there and they are waaaay at the other end — and down wind to boot — pull down your mask and enjoy the view.

More tallgrass prairie love here.

 

 

 

 

life lessons

 

From him I learned never to eat steak in a hamburger joint or hamburger in a steak joint, to close my vice at the end of the day, that a parking lot is the most dangerous place in the world and a Hawaiian shirt is the perfect thing for BBQ-ing a Mexican breakfast. That when things are especially crummy you should be very pleased because there’s nowhere to go but up and that the patio in a summer rain is a fine place to dance. It is never too late to learn another language. A library is probably your smartest friend.There’s a reason goulash takes so long to make and canned stew is NOT a substitute. Never say no to pie. And no matter how busy you are take time to sit down, to look, to wonder where that ant is coming from or where it’s going and if someone happens to sit down and join you don’t be afraid to ask them if they have any thoughts about that ant’s motivation. Think of a favourite place, paint a mural of it on a basement wall. Play the music you love so often that your kid, whether she likes it or not, will forever think of you when she hears it and will eventually play it herself so she can think of you loving it. Church is not always a building. Sparklers are the best fireworks. Ice cream in a cone should be eaten in a specific way to avoid dripping and you are not allowed to order vanilla if there are 389 flavours to choose from. It’s the brown and white cows that make butterscotch ripple. And, above all, do NOT be afraid to open a book even if it looks a little scary and especially if it’s an atlas… it will always surprise you by the places it takes you and you will grow up remembering a thousand evenings at the kitchen table turning those pages together…

 

david thingy’s green ink, & other recollections of a pink day

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Loving my discussions this week with friends about Valentine memories from their own childhood… like those of a pal who grew up in the UK and says how it was always such an exciting time, wondering if she’d get a card… (wait for it)… in the MAIL. Says she’d sometimes get two, which was a huge deal, even though one of them was always from David Thingy who wrote in green ink. You sent out only a very few, she says, and always unsigned, no identifying marks at all. After which came the fun of classroom chats about who got what and from possibly whom and maybe even a bit of show and tell with the cards. She ends by asking if I have any tips for making pastry.

Another friend thinks it’s possible she gave a card to everyone in her class because her mother thought it would be a good idea, but she’s not sure if that’s why she did it and doesn’t actually have other memories about the day.

Someone else says that while they were not forced to give every classmate a card, she thinks it was encouraged, not that it made any difference, she says, and then remembers there being a sort of tacit competition in terms of how many cards one got. (She closes by saying that since she’s not feeling particularly traumatized by the memory she probably got enough to see her ‘down the middle of the road’ as it were.)

The friend who says her family moved so often during grade school that she was always the outsider and she was grateful for the ‘everyone gets a card’ rule otherwise it would have been just another devastating thing.

Another person’s memory was giving everyone a card but making or choosing the nicest valentines and/or writing special messages for the friends she liked best so there was still an element of doing something extra for special friends, but presumably the others didn’t realize that.

Someone says the day always made them sad, a reminder of who is popular and who isn’t and regardless of cards because that didn’t change reality.

Only one person mentions edibles. They would include in the envelope with the card, a heart-shaped candy that had a little message on it. Not sweetarts apparently, but some other kind of message’d bon bon.

And a friend with lifelong mental health challenges (who I’ve written about before) begins by talking about the advances in awareness of childhood trauma and then says despite those benefits there is still the giant problem of society… and that while he doesn’t have any special memories of valentines day, he does believe that the number of cards a child gets isn’t the cause of trauma… that the cause of trauma in this case is the way society views the number of cards received, the way it defines winners and losers, and how it teaches us to be defined by that.

As for my own memories… in my class we put our names on envelopes and attached them to our desks or possibly in some other part of the classroom and you’d walk around, ‘delivering’ cards into whatever envelopes you wanted. Some kids got a million, others did not. I was not among those who ever got a million, but I don’t recall being sad about that. At all. In fact I do remember thinking, wow…. I got five! or whatever… when I was expecting two. And only some were signed, most were not. All of it quite thrilling indeed.

But the best part was always the cards themselves. I loved the goofy pics and sayings, loved choosing who would get which. Not sure if they still sell them. They looked like this:

I love the diversity of memories and how the day resonates with everyone in different ways, the way it has been, and continues to be, experienced with a wide variety of emotions… because what’s for sure is that this day is not in any way merely about the fluff that marketing would have us buy into.

Here’s to spreading some quiet joy… in whatever way you choose.

 

 

 

 

today’s thoughts (from a kayak)

 

Red winged blackbirds. Darting in and out of reeds, returning sometimes with nesting material. Sometimes I think they just go out for smokes.

Morning pond air chock full of chittering, occasional grunts from somewhere in the bull rushes behind my boat. I tend not to worry about strange sounds on the water… it’s only what’s on land that’s worrisome.

Kingfisher. Flies like she means business.

Seagull. On perpetual holiday.

All this singing, chittering, trilling, cawing. Is it a band or a choir?

[Every time I don’t bring a sandwich, I regret it.]

Yellow finch flits to the accompaniment of frog solo bass.

Have lodged my boat among lily pads and stare at opposite shore wondering what it must be like to understand nature, to know what tree that is or what everything’s surviving on, what kind of fish is it that keeps jumping here, and then here… to have some idea of how to move through the world less clunkily, to disturb little, to be still. I ask these questions then open my tupperware container of market blue berries and eat them with inelegant fingers.

[The lily pads work extremely well keeping my boat in place. I wonder if the voyageurs knew this trick.]

Water level too high for egrets, herons, both blue and green, cormorants too.

Deer. First one, then two. I paddle gently, watching them on the woodland side of the pond but they must see me because their nonchalance suddenly turns to startled and then they turn into the woods. And, poof, they’re gone.

A kind of elation, mild ecstasy, maybe not even so mild… arrives if I stay in one place long enough. The opposite of boredom. The pleasure of being somewhere long enough to have questions, to understand… something…

Two cardinals. I may have caught them in a picture I was taking of the light that has turned lime green yellow bright on this summer morning.

Or maybe not.

 

 

 

how to see wine country in two and half days (with wine being only a smallish — though pleasant — part of things)

 

Avoid traffic. Leave early. Eat your banana breakfast in the car.

Somewhere in the countryside near Beamsville realize you’ve forgotten your notebook so stop at a back-roads Dollar Store and find a gorgeous red spiral bound one with creamy lined pages.

Let the holidaying begin.

Quick stop at a winery you heard makes a raw and organic beverage without sulphur. Anticipate a pleasant conversation. Be disappointed. Your host is a cranky soul who should a) have stayed in bed, or b) better yet, avoid work that involves speaking to people, or maybe c) have some sulphur.

Go directly to lunch on a shaded patio with a view that is so lovely you forget to take a picture. Also the fries are excellent.

Find a sleeveless polka dot blouse for $2 at a thrift shop.

Head to second winery (also no sulphur) where conversation (with owner/winemaker) is top notch and much is learned and wine samples are offered (siphoned) directly from fermenting barrels, a rare treat.

Make annual pilgrimage to house you grew up in. Marvel how stone planter your dad made two thousand years ago is still there, as are the chicks and hens he planted (consider calling Guinness… or is it normal for chicks and hens to live this long? Surely they owe their life to neglect). See Minerva (new owner) sitting on shady porch. Wander in to say hey ho and end up spending the better part of half an hour realizing she is as sweet as ever but losing her faculties and it won’t be long before she can’t manage the place and whoever buys it won’t be so welcoming and so perfectly and wonderfully eccentric. Chat away the time and ask to see the wildly overgrown backyard (because she has done almost no yard work since moving in a dozen years ago)  which still has the shrubs, trees, rocks and shells that your mum and dad put there, and see how the patio and carport your dad made is crumbling and a field of weeds blocks what was once a path along the blackberry bushes… but Minerva’s eyes are bright with love for the place. Isn’t it beautiful, she says, and it is, yes, it’s absolutely beautiful in the most bittersweet way. Ask to take pictures and she will say yes, dear, take all the pictures you want.

Share hotel pool with Serious Swimmer doing laps. Better than Marco Polo.
Dinner.
Walk along shoreline.

Discover remnants of old fort and be reminded of the people who used to live on this land (before forts). Do some research. Find out their names. Be reminded there wasn’t always a pedal pub pedaling by on the street at dusk with merry/raucous passengers singing Sweet Caroline. (Although, really, how raucous can anyone be while singing Sweet Caroline? )

Day Two:

Be happy that you are alone for morning swim. Until you aren’t. Until Serious Swimmer arrives, turning bliss into a wave pool. Pretend you are in the ocean.

Take three things to patio:  red notebook, breakfast date ball, peppermint tea.

Drive along Welland Canal as far as Thorold. Be surprised at how pretty the streets of Thorold are and how really extraordinary is this canal that connects Lake Ontario with the higher elevation of Lake Erie, a canal you grew up around, played Tom Sawyer on, but have never driven the entire length of (eight Locks) nor have ever seen the ‘steps’ of Locks 4, 5, and 6, which allow freighters to climb over the escarpment. Watch two freighters pass in opposite directions. One, coming into the Great Lakes from the St. Lawrence Seaway and/or Atlantic Ocean, and the other, ocean bound. Watch a couple of sailors embark on ocean bound one. Chat with young family from Woodstock who share your awe. Wilt a little in the heat.

Continue to end of canal (Lock 8) at Port Colbourne where you see sand piles like those you remember from Lock 1 where, as a kid you used to climb them until someone realized they posed a danger of air pockets into which you or your friends could easily fall and suffocate and so they were removed. Probably coincident with the end of the unsupervised lawn darts era.

Stop at the most unlikely place to buy books (near Fort Erie). Buy several. Many of which will be donated to the library at a women’s shelter.

Find yourself on a heaven-sent patio overlooking Lake Erie eating freshly caught pickerel for lunch. (Heaven-sent because it’s the real deal, nothing fancy, great music, and on this scorching day it’s shaded, with an unexpected cool breeze off the lake that you learn is common, even constant, on this shore. A slice of old Crystal Beach.)

Stop at one more winery. Be grateful it’s air-conditioned, has a four-legged host (Simba), and an owner who talks you through the tasting while explaining the wine history of Turkey, from whence she and her partner came twelve years ago with zip wine knowledge.

Remind yourself that your parents, too, came to this country with their own variation of zip (and so many others!) and how proud they were to be all things Canadian, just like Simba’s mum and dad. Raise a glass to that.

Remind yourself of the people who lived here first. (Not as sweet a story.)

Another swim, another dinner, another walk, more tea on the patio.

Morning of last day.  Another book store and then farmers’ market where the bat mobile is picking up some new potatoes.

Be unaware of gallery hours and arrive a half hour before it opens. Be happy to have this time to sit in the shade of a park-like garden with a view of backyards and bridges and remember growing up in this town.

Inside gallery find Carolyn Wren’s exhibition celebrating “meditation in the repetitive tasks of life”, featuring installations such as the entire text of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own hand-embroidered on canvas, a video showing Wren hauling a sack of 50 one pound rocks up and down a hill, depositing a single rock each time she reaches the top (to a voice-over of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus). Dresses representing maps made for pilots during the war, made out of Dupont silk because they were light and durable, and which women used after the war… to make dresses. And more. So much more.

Take country roads to find a view for lunch.

Find (another) thrift shop en route and buy two pairs of jeans for a dollar each. Be told they’re on sale because who wears jeans in summer?? 

Who indeed.

Don’t attempt an answer.
Just embrace your one dollar summer jeans… and run.

More Niagara.

 

 

 

 

the joy of stopping

 

Following my instinct I stop at a playground early, early, in the morning with the sun up only an hour, still inching above the treeline. I surprise myself as I stand in mountain pose a moment and feel the warmth of it.

I do not go on the monkey bars because I do warrior I and II instead.

And I do not go on the slidey thing but use the vertical posts either side of it for balance in king dancer pose.

I do a version of sun salutation and the breathing is exceptional.

And before I know it…

…I’ve been there long enough for the sky to turn blue blue blue.

And then I climb up the ladder and slide into the day.

 

 

 

occasionally locally social

 

I’m not a social person. Let’s just get that straight, because what follows may lead some to believe I am. But… I am not. Blips in scheduling sometimes occur, blips that have me gadding about in ways completely alien to my true nature. Happy blips in this case.

Thursday: Writing workshop at the shelter and there is talk of a spaghetti dinner on Saturday to celebrate the birthday of a one year old. I am invited.

Thursday Night: Eve of International Women’s Day and I am at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery eating scrumptious Berry Hill Food kabobs and food in various other forms and quaffing free red wine. (Also being one of thirty five women honoured for commitment and support of the Denise House shelter. Still feeling a little emotional about that one.)

Friday: International Women’s Day and I am at Soebys buying bunches of tulips for a couple of gals who inspire me with their passion in all matters of art and life and kindness. We sit down to lunch over bowls of seafood bisque, crusty bread, and endless, truly endless, chat.

Saturday: I am at the Visual Arts Centre in Bowmanville, listening to Jane Eccles tell the stories of women from all walks of life, women whose dresses she’s painted over the past fifteen or so years. There’s something about a disembodied dress that begs story, that reminds us of the difference yet sameness we all share. I have a soft spot for textile (including upholstory), the way fabric holds things, the essence of memory it conveys.

Saturday night: I drop by the shelter for a spaghetti dinner that is nowhere near ready and I can’t stay until it is but I chat for an hour anyway with a couple of residents and so begins a series of spaghetti sauce secrets that takes me to something called passata which is so apparently ubiquitous that I’m not sure I know how I’ve managed all these many decades without it.

Sunday: I have been invited to a UAW hall in Oshawa where I listen to women speakers, women affected by the loss of the GM plant, who with brave voices encourage both women and men to find ways ahead, to remain positive but to challenge governments, to question when necessary and, (my favourite bit) to be not only trail blazers, but path wideners for each other. Path wideners.

Monday night: I am at the shelter again where I bump into a few of the women from last week’s writing workshop. There are hugs and stories about birthday cake (and spaghetti dinners that may or may not have materialized) and visits to Ripley’s Aquarium and I have to bite my tongue because I have strong feelings about how I’d like Ripley’s to better use their power to more accurately portray the oceans, i.e. how there are areas of plastic twice the size of Texas, and how wildlife is dying from ingesting it all, not to mention the lingering effects of oil spills, but there is a child who’s recently had to leave its home under the worst kind of circumstances and whose future is up in the air and who lovingly embraces a stuffed blue shark as I speak to his mother and so I smile and simply say nice shark and then I have a brief chat about fish, generally, with a couple of kids. No mention of plastic. Not yet.

 

nova scotia, part three: how to visit three gardens

 

Find yourself driving from the Halifax airport to the Annapolis Valley when you see a sign for Coffee. Decide to stop, stretch your legs. It doesn’t matter that you don’t drink coffee, maybe they have something else, which they do… because you are at The Tangled Garden, which has not only beautifully out of season, unruly paths (devoid of other humans) that lead to a labyrinth, but also jams and spicy jellies and chairs made specifically for fairies.

Spend a good half hour walking the labyrinth.

And be so happy it’s October when there’s less to see so you can see it all.    **

A few days later in Annapolis Royal find yourself at the Historic Gardens where once again you are the only souls wandering this 17 acre space that abuts a wetland complete with dykes.

Enjoy an impromptu starling ballet.

**

A few days later still, in Halifax, spend the better part of a grey morning at the Public Gardens and marvel at this splendid bit of greenery in the heart of downtown.

Notice the extraordinary number of garbage cans in almost every conceivable space. (Regret not counting them.) And the corresponding lack of litter. Realize that you have never seen such generosity displayed (of the waste receptacle variety). There is even an off-stage area for garbage-cans-in-waiting, presumably in case any of the regulars get injured in some way.

Stop for tea at an oasis staffed by delightful young people. Be reminded of what a joy it is to come across people of any age who enjoy their work.

Take your rooibos chai outside to the deck where no one else dares to venture in October and watch those who wander the garden paths and wonder how it is that so many people are able to drink tea/coffee while walking. You have never mastered this skill nor do you want to as it seems to deny maximum pleasure of both activities.

Notice a man in a trench coat, a fedora and a bow tie.

Notice him stopping and looking at you from the path just beyond the deck.

When he says “Are you with the cruise?”, answer that no you are most definitely not nor would you ever be. Offer that there are a number of people inside the tea house and perhaps they are with the cruise if he’s looking for people from the cruise. He says he is not, he was just curious.

Realize that you are now engaged in conversation and that it’s only a matter of time before he walks up onto the deck and sits down at your little table and proceeds to talk for at least forty minutes, most likely longer, during which time you learn a multitude of things about him, not the least of which is that he is 83 years old and was once Harbour Master at the Port of Halifax and that under his trench coat he is wearing a leather blazer that he bought at a thrift shop for $2.00. He tells you that he often comes to the gardens to dance with his wife on a summer night when a band is playing and that they’re even on YouTube he says. (You will google this later and find that it’s true and then you will never be able to find the video again., which will be annoying as you write this post. Nuts, you will say.)

The best you have to offer is a furtive snap of him walking away after exiting the gardens together and agreeing it was lovely to meet.

Click on more Nova Scotia!

Nova Scotia: One Perfect Pot of Tea

Nova Scotia: Two Hammocks

 

 

 

 

nova scotia, part one: one perfect pot of tea

 

My favourite kind of travel is the kind that meanders me down side streets where there are no attractions, where the door of a tea shop invites me to sit at a sunny window and read the local paper while enjoying the perfect blend of leaves and ambience and ambient conversation.

Where there’s a table of older people and two tables of younger people and every single one of them strikes me as someone worth talking to. A woman comes in and gets a cup of tea to go, a few minutes later, a man arrives to pick up a large paper sack containing an order of various teas, his personal stock is running low he says. He chats with the owner, who explains that he’s leaving for India soon (I don’t catch the name of the place) to visit his tea farmers and attend the wedding of a farmer’s son.

Later, when I’ve finished reading and eavesdropping and sipping, I get up to pay and I ask the owner, Philip, about his upcoming Indian tea farm travels and… well… the conversation goes on for some exceedingly happy time about ethical practices and the choice to support small growers rather than large companies, the difference in quality, the science and pleasure of blending leaves, the art of using natural flavours rather than synthetics.

Philip tells me that last time he was in India he helped with the planting of tea bushes, that the farmer whose son is getting married is his mentor, that he’s learning everything he can and that he hopes one day he’ll be able to plant tea in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

He doesn’t have to tell me this is a lifestyle, that he doesn’t sell tea to get rich. In fact he nearly went bankrupt when the city closed his street for construction one summer.

By the time I leave I’ve had a fabulous mini tea course. (I thought I knew tea. Turns out I know next to nuthin’.)

As with everything, what I learn most is how much there is to learn.

At home a week later I brew a pot of the same blend and the smell of it, the taste, is as gorgeous as I remember and… presto!… just like that I’m right back in that sunny window on a side street in Halifax.

Which is my second favourite kind of travel.

Click on more Nova Scotia!

Nova Scotia: Two Hammocks

Nova Scotia: Three Gardens