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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

wordless wednesday with words (aka: let us talk about trees… )

I’ve written about trees before.  Trees I’ve loved. And my love of trees.

Trees that replace old (tree) friends.

And I’ve occasionally ‘not reviewed’ books about trees… a couple of my favourites are mentioned here. Also here.

Of course I adore the Tree of the Week feature in The Toronto Star and the way trees are these subtle but enormous parts of our lives that we hardly even think about until someone asks.

So I’m asking.

What’s your tree history?

For instance, was there a beloved tree in your childhood? Was it a pear tree and did you read Nancy Drew and eat potato salad in it? Did your father knock down the apricot tree at the end of your driveway because he stepped on the gas instead of the brake, after which your mother no longer made apricot jam because she never found apricots that were as good as her own? Did you read James Michener in a quiet leafy park while eating stolen peaches from a nearby orchard? Do you have any tree stories at all that don’t involve fruit?

Feel free to share even the tiniest wee memory.

Also… I would love to know what I’m missing in the way of literature where trees feature prominently, including kid lit, poetry, and essays.

if you were a tree, what tree would you be?

 

 

 

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)

 

 

tiny rant: space vs oceans

 

Just a wee rant for a Monday, a nutshell version to suggest that if only a fraction of space money was used to clean up the oceans (forget even the lakes and rivers, just the oceans for now) wouldn’t that be a Grand Thing?

But it’s not likely to happen, is it.

I’m guessing space people and ocean people don’t share money, much less philosophies.

I do wonder though: WHY DOES THE SPACE PROGRAM HAVE SO MUCH MORE MONEY THAN THE OCEAN PROGRAM?

And is there even an Ocean Program????

I’m also guessing the answer is that space is sexier than oceans (to some). More fun to play with spacey toys and go where “no man has gone before”…

(ah, therein lies a clue)

And all that space junk hardware, rockets and lasers and wotnots, oh my!

So much more fun (for some) than keeping dolphins and whales happy.

But why aren’t we angrier about this?

I think it’s because everybody, no matter where they are, can SEE space, so maybe that makes the buy-in easier, the universal “sure, endlessly exploring space makes sense” attitude instead of the ocean’s hard sell (because so many people have never even been to an ocean and probably never will). This is what the ocean is up against. It’s simply a LOT more fun to see pictures of Mars,  a place you can actually look at from your chaise lounge on a summer night while having drunken chats with friends about the possibility of living there one day, so much merrier than to look at pictures of seas teeming with pollution WE’VE put there through our stupidity and short-sightedness.

Responsibility is such a downer.

And then there’s the not drunken imaginings part where, in reality, and in the not so distant future, very very very wealthy rich folk will be able to take a ride into space themselves. (Of course the drunken conversations then become about those rich bastards… and lottery ticket sales go up.)

Someone will say that selling space ride tickets to rich people is a money-maker. But does the space program REALLY need your sheckles??? Or, more valuable than that, do they just want to keep you oblivious to the giant waste of money that this kind of farting around actually is…

I don’t mean to suggest putting a stop to the WHOLE space thing, by the way, just the farting around part. If they could ditch that much and use the savings on ocean clean-up, that would be swell.

Public aquariums are beginning to get on board insofar as offering a nod to how deplorable the seas have become with pollution. But they could do so much more. It would be good if pollution was their entire focus at this point. Forget the selfies with rainbow fish. Forget the happy tra la, tra la, of an outing to pretend all is well. Instead, have every aquarium dedicate a proportional amount of space within its walls/tanks equal to how much of the oceans, lakes and waterways are polluted. If the oceans are 70% polluted then 70% of the aquarium’s tanks should be filled with floating garbage. Forget the happy fish and clean water displays. They belong in the history museum.

The oceans need us. And vice versa. It’s the ultimate symbiotic relationship and I cannot believe a space ride beats that in anyone’s mind at this point.

(What can we do besides rant? We can write governments. We can write aquariums too for that matter — not insignificant. And we can stop buying single use plastics… opinions backed by spending habits are powerful.)

Also, we can stop thinking that if all else fails we can move to Mars.

 

Photos courtesy of the following articles:
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/plastic-pollution-which-oceans-contain-most/

A Sea of Debris: Oceans Governance and the Challenge of Plastic Pollution

https://www.theoutbound.com/josh-michele/it-s-time-to-stop-polluting-our-oceans
http://plastic-pollution.org/
https://nypost.com/2019/04/26/plastic-pollution-in-worlds-oceans-could-have-2-5-trillion-impact-study/
https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-01-13/5-countries-dump-more-plastic-oceans-rest-world-combined

Our Plastic Ocean

this is not a review: ‘treed’, by ariel gordon

 
 

There are certain books that become full-time residents on my coffee table or bedside table or table by the fireplace or sometimes, if the weather is good and the umbrella is up, the patio table. Weeks and weeks go by and the book is there, picked up regularly, set down maybe in a different place to be picked up again. And again. The more I love a book the longer it takes for me to shelve it. Re-reading is a favourite thing. I make meals of sentences, play a scene back in my mind, go back a page and work my way up to it again. I will read the same story or essay or poem over three days in a row, each time finding another layer of meaning or pleasure, some image initially missed.

Treed is one of those books. Currently living on my coffee table, this wonderful collection of essays makes me happy to know it’s there to fulfill any sudden craving I have for a discussion of tree love or a vicarious forest walk with one of CanLit’s most enthusiastic (and real life) forest walkers, the Winnipeg writer and poet, Ariel Gordon.

Gordon has a penchant for the urban forest and after reading about the trees of Winnipeg you practically want to book a flight and see it all for yourself. But you don’t have to… she’s very good at giving you the vicarious experience and her enthusiasm for woodland (& other) greenery is inspiring, the kind of person who instinctively sees, hears, thinks, imagines… who wonders and is constantly curious and learning, finding nothing in the natural world dull.

Just beyond the slough is a big old trembling aspen that has strange vertical scars on it at about chest height. It takes me a few minutes to realize that these are bear scratch marks, which makes me walk faster.

Gordon well knows that even along the same path through the same park or the same neighbourhood street, if you’re open to using all your senses, no two walks are ever the same.

When I was younger, I resisted naming. But I’ve realized, over time, that this tree, that tree, the other tree isn’t as precise as it could be. Names allow us, as writer and reader, to know that we’re talking about the same things. They’re suitcases that carry not only simply information but also historical allusions and memories of what it is like to stand in a field and be surprised by herd of white-tailed deer, for instance. It reminds us of the quality of the sun on their dun backs, little bluestem grass grinding between their teeth, the rattling leaves of trembling aspen on the breeze, the way the doe’s ears telescope at the least noise.

The next paragraph begins: I’ve started spying on barn swallows.

I love how she compares the community of trees to urban communities, the purpose of a tree’s architecture as important as streetlights, the grid patterns of roads. There’s so much to see and discover in her world of trees and, I’ll confess, while I, too, have never found a dull moment on any walk or in any part of nature, Gordon’s writing has made me see trees, specifically and  individually, where once I saw merely the beauty of the whole landscape.

In ‘Outage’, Gordon recalls a week spent in a farmhouse where she intends to spend her time writing but ends up paying attention to the stories and the life around her instead and we are so glad she did.

I come with my own stories and somehow land right in the middle of Sharron and Kerry’s, and through them, Ken and Alverna’s, to the first settlers on the land and the residents of Sandy Bay First Nation, moved and moved again to make room for those settlers.

In ‘Winter Walk’ she writes:

My favourite thing about a real xmas tree? Being alone with it…. I sit in the warm half-dark by myself and smell the tree’s piney scent. I sit quietly, sipping tea or sucking  on a shard of candy cane, and listen to my own heartbeat. I breathe tree.

A tree covered in vines that turn out to be tiny grapes inspires sentences like this:

Eating them – popping the grapes with my teeth and separating the flesh from the seeds with my tongue – is like completing a puzzle with my face.

In ‘Emergency Carrots’ she weaves various threads (including carrots), the memory of trees past and present, with concern for her husband’s health and safety, and it’s all so seamless. (It’s hard to pick a favourite from among the book’s sixteen essays, but this one’s a gem.)

And from ‘The Social Life of Urban Forests’:  

… every settled place across North America had elms and, eventually, an elm canopy. The arches of elm trees that we’ve cultivated here are just as much a construction as the streetlights, as the layout of the streets, their strange grids and confusions. Our communities of trees are as deliberate as the communities we build among ourselves.

The ending of this piece is simply beautiful… Gordon writes about trees that are marked to be taken down due to disease or other reasons, the stumps she finds in her travels, trees already felled… and if you weren’t at the start, by now you’re with her, not only in awareness, but empathy for the trees around us, those we take for granted on streets and boulevards, the urban canopies, the forest and field and farmland trees… and so when she tells you she sometimes stands on those stumps, stretches out her arms and reaches for the sun… you can hardly think of a sweeter homage.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.