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.

 

 

 

 

miss rumphius

 

Remember her? The story by Barbara Cooney about a woman who sprinkles lupine seeds as she goes about her days – her contribution to making the world a more beautiful place.

The story is based on a real person, Hilda Hamlin, who immigrated to the U.S. from England in the early 1900’sSome lovely info on her (and lupines) here.

The idea of sharing joy.

How is it possible not to relate?

Every time I blow the fluff off a dandelion I think of grateful bees. And the stones that have been painted with messages and left everywhere during the pandemic or the domino effect of a kind word to a cranky cashier or leaving money in a parking meter as a happy surprise for someone you’ll never see

– all variations of lupines.

**

I’ve been (again) paring down my bookshelves. This is a regular thing but I’m being more ruthless than usual and finding treasures to both read (why haven’t I read this??? I keep asking) and to part with. Some are donates, some are for a library I manage in a women’s shelter, others shout out the name of someone I know and demand to be taken or sent to them. This last part feels slightly lupiney if lupine work is meant to be something that feels good in the process of spreading smidgens of happy surprise.

I’m also going through old photos and finding things I no longer want to keep but that might mean something to someone else. The picture a friend sent decades ago of herself and strangers (to me) at an outback pub in Australia where a handwritten sign on the porch informs that a bush band will be playing that night. The band isn’t named. People sit outside at picnic tables and a young tanned girl, long blonde pony tail and red shorts, is running bare-chested, while another, older girl, twelve maybe, stands primly, shyly, in a below the knee length calico dress and ankle socks next to a man in a cork hat. Both look warm and not recently bathed. The pub is made of roughly hewn wood, thrown together in the middle of what looks like scrub land, a mirage you’re thrilled to come by for a cool one, and maybe a snake sighting while you sip. I’ve sent that photo back to my friend and can’t wait to hear the stories attached to it. Maybe I’ve heard them before… but it’s been a while.

To a nephew, now grown with his own family, I’ve sent a series of pictures I took when he was ten or so and skipping stones at the beach, complete with a final shot of him, both arms up in the hooray! position. His son plays baseball, thought maybe he’d like to show him where he gets his throwing chops from.

And the blank postcards I’m finding in albums. Sunsets and trolley cars, adobe houses. No point in keeping them, so they too are being sprinkled like lupines, with messages scrawled on the backs that sometimes relate to the images on the front and sometimes don’t.

And so on.

It’s brilliantly fun this finding and sending, apropos of nothing, attached to notes that open conversations that would never have been had otherwise.

**

So… Dear Miss Rumphius:  thank you.

 

 

this morning i went to my place of worship

 

This morning I went to my place of worship.

Does it matter where it is, what it is, whether it’s recognizable, made of feathers or cement?

Answer: no.

This morning I went to my place of worship.

I brought my camera and my eyes and my gratitude for seeing.

I brought joy at the blue heron’s greeting and the resident swan family out for their morning constitutional, reminding me of how last year I saw the adults perform a water ballet.

I brought silence and received birdsong, wing rustle in reeds. I brought my breath and it got deeper and the shoulders I thought to pack at the last moment, and which were so high and tight they were a burden to carry, dropped and loosened and were suddenly fine to travel with.

I brought no expectation of blue-blue sky  but there it was and me here in my pew, maybe the only one amazed. The trees seemed to take it in stride.

I brought stillness and found the water rippling with invisible insects, fish jumping, bubbles on the surface in the form of a heart. I found the electric blue green of a dragonfly and the white wings of a tern.

I brought the wonder of how everything knows how to survive winter and weather and drought and us. And I brought no judgement. And I was not judged. Of that I’m certain.

I brought a banana.

And I brought some blueberries.

And I ate them, leaving a single perfect one as my offering…

for the collection plate.

 

 

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…

 

notes to friends

 

Friend A I love that you you threw a typewriter, a few boxes of books and a couple other things into the back of your car and drove across the country, leaving behind a painted red fridge in a turret across from a park and that in your new place we cooked on a hibachi on your back stoop and in your kitchen too, which always smelled like Joy dish detergent and in which kitchen you made possibly the world’s best meatloaf and that you are the person I know can call whenever my black forest cake falls over.

Friend B:  A prism in my window catches the light in a way that it shines on your ‘star charting’ picture in my office. My painter’s-dropsheet-furniture-covers are because of you. No one makes better bruschetta.

Friend C:  You may be the only person I know who hates bathtubs and you are definitely the only person I think of whenever I (still) stuff a sandwich into a container that was made for sour cream.
I love how you love playing the piano.

Friend D: Your laugh cracks me up and the way you ask servers in restos to guess which of us is older and how you tell them before they answer and the fact that you wear rubber gloves to do dishes and play catch with the dog while you’re on the phone.

Friend E:  You are one great dame and each time I think of you I’m reminded that there is really no higher aspiration for a woman. Thanks to a purple gallinule in my kitchen I think of you often.

Friend F:  I love that you are literal and that we share the beautiful DNA of speaking bluntly and that every walk we’ve ever taken stays with me, bits of each coming back as so much beach glass, hot city streets, gardens, and tea.

Friend G:  Who else would I call to ask why a certain scarf purchased in Halifax makes me so happy and who else would without hesitation give me the perfect answer.  I picture you paddling the Mackenzie River.

Friend H:  I love the story of why you paint butterflies.

And to friends a million miles away and those much much closer, some I’ve known forever, others I hardly know but the knowing feels like so much more. To book friends and food friends, to sharing the street friends, to friends who are family and family who are friends. To friends I’ve never met but which lack of meeting means almost nothing where our friendship is concerned.

To all of you, thank you… for being a friend.

kitchen gallinule

 

 

a note for nova scotia

 

Dear Nova Scotia,

We first met somewhere on Cape Breton, remember? Gosh, yonks ago now. And we didn’t know you well then and assumed you were similar to Ontario, that there would be lodging everywhere, that we’d have our pick of places but that wasn’t the case, was it? And as we hadn’t booked a room for the night we had to drive well INTO the night to find a room amongst all that forest, all those cliffside ocean views, which quickly turned into deep darkness as we continued to find no place to stay… the steering wheel being gripped a little tighter in the process, given those thin, winding, cliffside roads.

And then… a place. But would there be a room?

There was.

A funky little room in a motel on the edge of who knows where. So dark we couldn’t see anything around us. Did we even have lunch that day? No idea. Only remember that we were starved for dinner so we asked the owner of the motel if there was a place we could buy some food, or get a bite to eat.

There wasn’t.

And what there was had closed hours ago.

But, he said, if we didn’t mind a sandwich he’d try and make us one himself.

Which he did and which I can’t remember what it was except wonderful.

In the morning we saw that the motel had a mini putt range and I’m sorry that I don’t remember the name of the place because I’d like to send it some love today. And to all the places we’ve visited in the many years since including my favourite tea shop where the owner proudly talks about the science of tea and his insistence on supporting only fair trade leaves and a most brilliant new library with a rooftop cafe (and the old one too, where staff once helped me look things up on microfiche), an off grid cottage, the hammocks of the Bay of Fundy and Halifax too and outdoor showers and the power of standing in the doors of Pier 21 where my mother and father and sister stood decades before. The easy chat in a pub you’ve never been to and the way you can bump into friends while walking down a busy street. Annapolis Royal’s gardens and fruit and the way it rivals BC wine country and Niagara combined. Small towns with parcel pick-up (still) in grocery stores (I’m looking at you, Mahone Bay). The fact that you create people who dream up dreameries and the way it’s possibly impossible to go anywhere without ending up talking to a guy in the park who was once the Harbourmaster of the Port of Halifax and who now likes to dance with his wife in the open air on a summer evening in a downtown garden. Because despite the slice of paradise that you are, dear Nova Scotia… your beauty is legendary… it’s the people, the people, the people…

And the friends we’ve made. Love to you, especially.

Dear Nova Scotia… I can hardly wait to see you again.

 

wordless wednesday with words

This is a picture of *a room lit yellow, which may appear orange, which forces me to tell both an orange story and a yellow one.

Orange

I love everything about orange, the vibrancy of the colour, the spelling and sound of the word — it sounds awake  — and the smell of orange blossoms and how that orange tasted right off the tree that time a thousand years ago in Florida and how avocados grew nearby and the way Florida grass feels on bare feet, different than our grass, and the rain that day, coming down so hard I wanted to cancel our flight but the Florida people said don’t worry, it never lasts, and it didn’t, and the tangerine tree near the avocado one and the dear Peruvian woman who picked a bagful of tangerines and ate them as she walked home while the Florida people clucked their tongues and said they were too full of seeds.

Yellow

I am nine or maybe seven. I am in my room when the door slams open and my dad stands there in his Hawaiian shirt, a Sweet Caporal between his lips, the smoke making him squint as he yells What’s your favourite colour???? and the volume and intensity of the question, the shirt, the smoke, the squinting, it unsettles me, terrifies me a little if one can be only slightly terrified, and I’m not ready with an answer and I can see that he’s expecting one quickly. He is not a man who likes to wait around for things when he’s wearing his Hawaiian shirt because that means he’s working at something in the house or the yard and is in no mood for dawdling. I can barely think of ANY colour much less my favourite. Do I have a favourite? Yellow, I say, and then he leaves (goes to Canadian Tire as it turns out) and returns with a gallon of paint and before you know it the walls of my room (and the ceiling) are canary yellow and before long so is my toothbrush and a new pair of slippers and jeans and pyjamas and it feels like every gift I’m ever given from that moment on is yellow. It’s only when I move into my own place that I can avoid yellow and I avoid it for decades, including being the yellow piece in board games. And then one day it stops. And, along with orange (and turquoise and green), it becomes my actual favourite colour.

~

* The yellow room is an installation (by Kosisochukwu Nnebe) at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, currently part of an exhibition called ‘Made of Honey, Gold and Marigold’.

 

 

chasing the sunrise and missing the rooster

 

I’m often racing out the door in the earliest a.m., sometimes still partially clad in pjs, heading to the ravine where the sun rises behind an embankment of spruce cedar pine larch maple and birch that look down on a creek running through town.

I’m a sucker for that still-darkness when horizons hint at crimson bursts of red sky madness to come, though the red flash is always momentary, easy to miss, but followed (thankfully) with the burnt caramel of a slowly evolving main act, which (thankfully) lasts longer, has the consideration to build intensity before fading, gives you enough time to take off your mittens and point your camera.

Thing is, in all that sky focus it’s easy to miss the sound of a cardinal unseen but unmistakably singing an unmistakable greeting to that rising sun.

Easy to miss the bare branched ancient tree you’d never guess grew wild apples unless you’d seen it in spring covered in blossoms and bees and later in fruit that makes an excellent crumble.

Easy to miss a small gathering of chilled Queen Anne’s Lace or the footprints of someone not you, and their dog. Easy to walk right over frosted grass without noticing the crackle and crunch.

 

Or the tiny rhino…

 

… the seal playing with a ball.

 

And this guy. (Tell me you see it too.)

cockadoodledoo.

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the little book of hygge’, by meik wiking

 

Lovely read, a couple of hours tops is all that’s needed. Pretty pics, very lifestyle magazine in vibe, but don’t discount it because of that. The hygge principle is worth inhaling even if, like me, you’re already pretty hygge’d up, that is, you’ve got a life where simplicity, joy, chocolate and tea play a big role.

The Little Book of Hygge is still a sweet thing to thumb through on a grey afternoon.

— My favourite part is ‘Ten Unique Words and Phrases from Around the World’, which includes…

Iktsuarpok (Inuit) The feeling of anticipating that leads you to look outside to see if anyone is coming.

Friolero (Spanish) A person who is very sensitive to cold weather.

Hanyauku (Rukwangali; Nambia) Walking on your toes on warm sand.

Tsundoko (Japanese) The constant act of buying books but never reading them.

Schilderwald (German) A street with so man road signs that you become lost.

**

Hygge itself, a kind of deep comfort, is described by the author Meik Wiking (is that not the best name?) as “…humble and slow. It is choosing rustic over new, simple over posh and ambience over excitement. In many ways, hygge might be the Danish cousin to slow and simple living.”

There’s a lot about soft, comfy blankets and fires. Much chocolate. Doing simple things (simplicity is key). Much about friends, food, games, music. Much of hygge takes place indoors, the Danish weather, apparently being what it is, especially in winter. Many candles, much coffee, socks.

There are actual Hyggesocken.

In one of the wee sections (all sections are wee) the author tells of their own hygge TV viewing preference which is to watch only one or two episodes at a time of a favourite series, then wait a week or more to watch another one. The opposite of binging. Made me think of The World Before Taping Things Much Less Netflix and how restaurants would empty at 8:30 because the next episode of Shogun was on that night. I’m referring of course to the eighties.

Hygge also suggests that we allow ourselves to play.

“One of our issues as adults is that we become too focused on the results of an activity. We work to earn money. We go to the gym to lose weight. We spend time with people to network and further our careers. What happened to doing something just because it’s fun?”

Like I said, I think I’m already doing hygge.

Including leaving restos by 8:30.

Seems I like reading about hygge every few years.

Also worth reading is this on Denmark’s social framework and its role in creating a deep-breathing, hyggesocken-filled society.

 

 

one exquisite thing, #gratitude

 

“I get so much comfort in thinking of our long friendship, and how it has grown so much stronger through the years, binding us together. If I didn’t have those things at the bottom of my heart I wouldn’t get as much out of blue seas or sunny lands.”

— Willa Cather, (Letters)