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.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘life in the garden’, by penelope lively

 

If, during these sheltering at home times, you’re lucky enough to have a garden, I’ll bet you’re embracing it. I know I am, with infinite pleasure. Not only in love with my own green space but ever more in love with gardens generally, including those of friends through shared pics and conversations and all the beautiful green energy that gardens generate.

Also books about gardens.

Most recently ‘Life in the Garden’ which is so perfectly titled how could I not be drawn to it given that these past three months it’s been my theme song and even now when the world is slowly opening up and I don’t think that’s maybe the best idea I continue to live, for the most part, in my garden.

A slim thing, 186 pp with not a wasted word, reflections on gardens and how they connect to art, to literature,  history, as well as the fashion of gardens (white garden in, wax begonias out, that kind of thing) and the inanity of the Chelsea Flower Show. This last observation especially endears me to the author. The point of it all being that gardens are as individual in appearance and purpose as those who create them and the natural environment in which they exist, and should never be influenced by trends, fashions or other dictates.

Not a new philosophy but what IS new? The writer’s job is not to invent the wheel, but to show it from a perspective that feels fresh, that makes us think differently about something familiar just when we thought we’d thought it all.

“I do not look at [photos[ with the same intensity that I look at a painted garden… The photograph reports; the painting examines, interprets, expands.”

I like how Lively distinguishes between gardening and creating, or allowing a garden to simply be. The former being weeding, etc., the latter everything else. While able to admire aspects of the fancy schmancy spaces with boxwood edges trimmed to mad levels of perfection, she prefers a sort of contrived disarray, enough hands-off so that plants can truly find their own space with only occasional intervention and nudging so that there is fairness to all and a limit on anarchy. This works against the principle of insisting the blue things go here and the yellow there.

“Gardening is not outdoor housework.”

She writes about gardens in various urban and rural settings and how, surprisingly, it’s the suburban gardens (those between city and country) that, despite a devotion to lawns, also tend to have the larger number of green spaces/gardens and the greatest diversity of plants.

There are bits about Virginia Woolf’s house near Lewes, purchased in 1919 when she was thirty-seven and her years of gardening there with Leonard and thoughts on the Garden of Eden and while… “God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth...” she would have been that much happier had there been some second thoughts when it came to creating vine weevil and greenfly.

She writes about The Eden Project, vast biomes housing a rainforest in Cornwall and how Gertrude Jeckyll was THE gardening guru of her time, her books the forerunner to Home and Garden magazine.

She writes about gardens as inspiration for art—German Impressionist, Max Liebermann’s garden at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, Gustav Klimt’s, fin-de-siecle golden ladies, his ‘cottage garden’ flowers of 1905, Munch’s Jealousy in the Garden, (one of eleven Jealousies… including Jealousy in the Bath, etc.)

“Van Gogh said that he discovered the laws of simultaneous colour contrast while studying flowers.”

And she writes about the rhododendrons of Daphne du Marier’s Rebecca. (which Lively personally doesn’t like for their aggressiveness and show-offy ways and which make them perfect for what they symbolize in the book)

Nor does Lively hold back her opinion of A Secret Garden, which she doesn’t love for its sentimentalism and heavy handed approach about the healing aspects of positive thinking which Frances Hodgson Burnett arrived at through Christian Science. (Here I might disagree with Lively. Not on Christian Science, of which I know zip, but that the power of positive thinking itself surely can NOT be a bad message. Though she has other issues with the book and I would need to re-read A Secret Garden to comment further.)

However, Lively (don’t you love her name) IS a huge fan of Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, and references a scene where Tom meets an old woman, Mrs. Bartholomew (once the young girl of the story) who she tells him that “nothing stands still, except in our memory” . The scene goes on a bit longer and Lively shares it all, then adds her thoughts: “For the boy Tom, this is a moment of maturity, a glimpse of the continuity and of growing up, and a reason why [the book] is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. But above all, it is a narrative of great elegance, simply told, and leaving you with insights into the nature of time, and memory.”

The Stone Diaries comes up (when Daisy Goodwill becomes a garden columnist). And Elizabeth and Her German Gardenabout living in Prussia and gardening not being allowed for ladies. Which Lively mentions must have been a Prussian thing because it’s long been okay for the upper class to get their hands dirty (but only in the garden, and with help of course).

My TBR list increased a fair bit thanks to Lively. I now need to add Anna Pavord for gardening advice and compost making. Also her book The Tulip.

Also Margery Fish, a pioneer of informal gardening.

And Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year (who employs tongue in cheek humour about the ‘joys’.)

I discovered what a landscaping ‘ha-ha’ is (an architectural term for an optical illusion) and that there was a tulipmania period from 1634-37. “…at its height one of the most prized bulbs changed hands for a price equivalent to one of the then finest houses on an Amsterdam canal.”  One of the special charms of the book is that every single thing she writes about is interesting and well presented but short. No eternal chapters devoted to just one thing. Tulipmania, for instance, is beautifully explained in a page with a perfectly acceptable sense of if you want to know more about it, look it up.

Where Lively and I disagree to some extent is on the use of the Latin to describe plants. I understand its helpfulness in terms of genesis, but it does take a lot of remembering of syllables and comes off a bit snotty.

“My beloved signature plant, Erigeron karvinskianus,comes from Mexico and is sometimes called Mexican fleabane, tough I wouldn’t dream of doing so.”

But fleabane is SUCH a much lovelier name! Come on now, Penelope.

 And then she’ll say something like this:

“The gardener ends up with a head crammed full of names…. but I have not yet stared at a rose wondering what kind of flower this is, and in fact plant names seem to surface more readily than those of politicians or celebrities, which is as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.”

And once again, we agree.

 

this is not a review: ‘to speak for the trees’, by diana beresford-kroeger

 

Second time I’ve read this. Probably won’t be the last. So much earth info tucked into the story of how a Canadian orphan became an internationally reknown conservationist. And a few other ‘ists’.

Sent to live with family in Lisheens, Ireland, (Lisheens is the anglicized version of an Irish word for ‘stone circle’), Beresford-Kroeger had the luck of growing up in a world of ancient Celtic knowledge and Brehon Laws (which were ahead of their time insofar as considering equality of people and respect for nature). Living through the depression and the years of WWII in relative poverty, she remembers her childhood as a world rich with appreciation, wisdom, and lessons in how to quietly contribute in ways that were/are of benefit to all life forms. That was the Brehon way.

“From my childhood… I’d been taught to… always look for ways to improve the world around me. I’d never had any money… instead I gave back via other means.”

It was also the beginning of her lifelong interest in healing the earth, understanding at an early age that trees are more than places to picnic under but function as the lungs of the planet. Eventually it began to occur to her that people didn’t need to travel so much, shop so much, drive so much, have so much, and destroy so much.. She became an advocate of simple living, but it was trees, especially, that remained her passion and to speak for them in a variety of quietly powerful ways has been her mission ever since.

Divided into two sections, the book initially follows the author’s life from that childhood deep in Druid lore to her eventual contributions as not only a conservationist, but a biologist, botanist, research scientist (during which time she discovered cathodoluminescence), scientific advisor on genetic modification, writer of bioplans, international speaker, environmental activist (saving, among other slices of the planet, a section of boreal forest the size of Denmark, now a UNESCO site).

In the early ‘90’s she propagated hellebores from Bosnia to raise money for women affected by the war in the former Yugoslavia, which paid for 15,000 surgeries and electrocardiogram machines for Doctors Without Borders and a safe house in the city of Tuzla. Later, she launched The Millenium Project, sending out 750,000 seeds and saplings to 4,500 recipients over a period of years, all native species, all propagated on her farm. She is also a fierce advocate for pollinators, sitting on boards and fighting to legislate chemical-free areas around farmers’ fields.

But the book isn’t actually ABOUT any of this.

It’s about her life as it relates to the natural world, her path to knowledge and discovery… with chapters such as ‘Comfort in a Stone’, ‘The Yellow Box of Paints’, ‘No Burden for a Woman to be Educated’, ‘The Science of Ancient Knowledge’, ‘The Sumac Flower’, etc. It’s mostly about paying attention.

The second half contains ‘The Celtic Alphabet of Trees’ in which are listed 26 trees and shrubs, each with their own short chapter of fascinating tidbits such as medicinal properties and information on weather watching… (a halo around the moon means a change in weather and if there are one to three stars within the halo, they represent the number of days until that change).

Aspens, for instance, are harbingers of weather patterns if you know how to read them. And who knew there are 25 species of wild apple trees, all of which now rare or endangered and that it’s these wild trees not the cultivars that are most important to pollinators and that bees were once revered, and protected by Brehon Laws.

“[The Druids]… honoured the tapestry of life around the honeybee. These workers were considered to be an extended part of the family. Births, marriages, deaths and anniversaries were announced to the bees. Grief was always shared with the bees in a form of non-verbal communication.”

She says things like this:

“We are all woodland people. Like trees, we hold a genetic memory of the past because trees are parents to the child deep within us. We feel that shared history come alive every time we step into the forest, where the majesty of nature calls to us in a voice beyond our imaginations. But even in those of us who haven’t encountered trees in months or even years, the connection to the natural world is there, waiting to be remembered.”

And reminds us that the fight for climate change is a long game and that it CAN be fixed with faith, determination and buy in. The DOING of something positvie, even something small, by millions of people would have an effect. Which is different than shouting the odds and blaming The Other and grandstanding. She’s talking about quietly doing something together.

She has an idea: that if every person on the planet planted just one tree per year for the next six years, we’d stop climate change in its tracks.

“Three hundred million years ago, trees took an environment with a toxic load of carbon and turned it into something that could sustain human life. They can do it again.”

Of course she recognizes that not every person is able to plant even one tree but says even a simple pot on a balcony is helpful… keeping in mind there are those who can plant more than one tree per year. Her point is that however small we feel, we have the power to be part of a huge collective if only we stop waiting for a BIG CHANGE,  or a big opportunity or a BIG player to make the first move… all of which would be splendid, but while rattling cages might vent some frustration, it’s the power of ONE small action,  times millions of people, that could actually effect real change.

An example of this is evidenced by what’s happening as a result of the current shutting down of so many polluters. Smog has lifted, water is cleaner. That’s how quickly it happens. So she’s right, it CAN be done by many people doing small things. The key is to understand there will be no social media ‘likes’,  no recognition, no applause, awards, or even signs of change for a very long time… The key is to do the right thing anyway. With conviction.

“… we can fight climate change… we can band together to take on government and industry; we can keep informed of plans to destroy forests and fight them at every turn”

And to keep on doing it long after the media no longer pays attention to you.

On a smaller scale, she says, “we can take on the role of guardian and steward within our own neighbourhoods and towns, as has been done to great effect in Winnipeg… The people of that city have come together to protect their elm tree… These efforts have inspired others to do even more… If you have a large tree on your street, make sure your local council knows that you value it. Every opportunity to vote is an opportunity to put someone who cares about forests in a position of greater power and authority.”

She talks science in easily understood ways. 

“There is a deity in nature that we all understand. When you walk into a forest—great or small—you enter it in one state and emerge from it calmer. You have that cathedral feeling and you’re never the same again. You come out of there and you know something big has happened to you… We now know that the alpha- and beta-pinenes produced by the forest actually do uplift your mood and affect your brain through your immune system…. The beneficial effects of a twenty minute pine forest walk will remain in the immune system’s memory for about thirty days.”

And admits how much we don’t know.

“We still can’t explain how water gets to the top of a tree—how the plant defies physics and causes water to run uphill. With such fundamentals still eluding our understanding, how can we cut down a forest? Just imagine the arrogance and greed of that—and the short-sightedness.”

Because, yes, we have SO MUCH TO LEARN from nature. Cutting down trees without considering the effects is madness. Polluting for the sake of making and buying things we don’t need and getting to places we don’t need to get to is a habit not a necessity.

The reason I re-read this book, is the same reason I re-read a lot of books on trees and nature generally… because of learning how to be on this planet.

One suggestion the author makes along those lines… she suggests we take a moment to become a tree…

“…palms up, arms outstretched… tilt your head up, too, and let the sunshine land on your face, your hands, the rest of you. Feel the sun on the surface of your skin. With this act, you are becoming like a tree… The feeling you have on your skin is a dance with the short-wavelength energy of the sun. This dance has a name in the ancient world of the Celts…. song of the universe.”

The purpose of which is connection… which applies to everything. To us and trees, us and each other, everything and everything. Because the more we understand The Other, whatever and whoever that is, the better off we all become as a result.

So go on, don’t be shy… palms up, arms outstretched…

We have so much to learn.

Prevent the next pandemic; protect nature.

 

 

this is not a review: ‘pilgrim at tinker creek’, by annie dillard

 

The pleasure of this book for me is that I can dip into it whenever I want to travel the Blue Ridge Mountain countryside, which has been a fascination for me ever since hearing as a kid the song ‘Country Roads’, which I sang alone in the backseat of my parent’s Oldsmobile as we drove north for summer holidays… me staring out the window at endless forest and imagining living a solitary life in those woods, making my own orange crate furniture… take me home, country roads…

Until my mother would inevitably say can you please put a sock in it. Or words to that effect.

Tinker Creek is in West Virginia. The narrator is unnamed but feels like Annie Dillard. Also Thoreau. Non-fiction pieces cobbled into chapters from reams of journal entries. The attention to details in nature thrills me. There’s no point in giving examples… the thing has to be read to be appreciated, otherwise I could as easily say frogs, bulrushes, English sparrow, landscape, polar ice, sunlight, rain, thunder, a gravel path, the egg cases of a praying mantis, the thin membrane of an onion, that sort of thing. The kind of person it would be a joy to walk with through the woods or along the shores of Tinker Creek but I suspect she is one who prefers to walk through nature alone.

I get that. So do I. For which reason the writing and the reading is the perfect vehicle for us both.

“Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn’t make one.”

**

Here is the Country Roads (John Denver) version I remember. Still gets to me and now, in these strange times, also reminds me that as a kid singing this, it didn’t occur to me I was singing about somewhere in another country… I was simply singing about nature, affected by the effect it has, which is everywhere and belongs to no one. Borders are human-made and humans aren’t bright.

Sending the world a little love. Without borders.

 

~

(Also, as a Briny Books Bingo marker… it goes on ‘A book that’s been sitting too long on your TBR pile’.)

 

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 outport people’, by claire mowat

 

I have no idea where I got this book nor how it came to be included in my winter reading. I haven’t been talking to anyone about Newfoundland or outports and the only aquatic thing I’ve had on my mind recently is the Georgian Bay trout we get via a local fisherman. But there it was on my To Be Read pile so I casually opened it and wondered if (assumed that) Claire Mowat was related to Farley. She is. His wife. And it was with Farley that she lived in an outport on the southwest coast of Newfoundland from 1962 to 1970.

That pretty much right there is the story. Except for the details. Because life in an outport, apparently, is/was not heavy on drama, intrigue, or big-time action, but details… oh yes. Oodles.

An outport, by the way, is a small, isolated fishing community almost always without roads. Access to ‘anywhere’ is by boat only, which means during the LOOOONG winters… there is no access to ‘anywhere’. Due to their isolation these communities became a lifestyle unto themselves and in their own way thrived up until the 1970’s when outside influences entered into things and changed that lifestyle (not for the better), after which residents were given incentives to move inland. Many moved entire houses, floated them along the coast, because they had no money to buy new. And a way of life vanished.

Mowat was there, unknowingly, for what would be the last decade of that old-world outport life. She shares those remnants by being an excellent observer of nuance and keeping herself in or out of the story in all the right ways.

The Outport People is billed as a fictionalized memoir but it’s generally acknowledged that the only fictionalized bits are names and the occasional need for artistic license in order to make whole cloth of the ‘details’ and shape the story. Capturing the essence of this now lost way of life was, after all, the point of writing the book, something that’s clear from the reading. You can tell Mowat was truly in love with outport life and deeply respectful, in awe even, of the people who lived it.

What comes off as most extraordinary is that they, the residents, seemed oblivious to the increasingly modern world going on around them. More importantly, that’s pretty much the way they liked it. Most people never once in their life set foot outside their remote community and when then did, didn’t much like what they saw.

“In 1939, when war broke out, Ezra was one of the first men in Baleena to volunteer for service in the British Merchant Marine. He was then close to being fifty years old. He made many stormy crossings of the North Atlantic in submarine-hunted convoys, oiling machinery in the throbbing engine room of an ancient freighter. In the port cities of England he first encountered a way of life that was not the way of Baleena. He had never seen so many buildings so close to one another and he marvelled that human beings could bear to live like that. No one ever invited him into a house there, and the pubs and teashops he visited were damp, chilling places that numbed your feet and soul. He was never warm in England. Even the poorest house in Newfoundland, he reckoned, had a kitchen that was warmer than an English castle.”

Once that ‘modern world’ began creeping in via telephones and televisions in the mid to late 1960’s (but remained a rarity in most homes); when the post office was rebuilt and the postmaster of 35 years, who knew everyone by name, retired and was replaced with a key to your own P.O. box so that there was no one to speak with at what used to be a communal hub; when the occasional car began to appear and the fish began to disappear along with the fish plants along with the young people who could no longer hope to make a living, changing the cycle of families so that elderly parents who were once cared for by their kids were now left to grow old alone…  nothing was ever the same or as good in its maybe-it’s-crazy-but-it’s-worked-for-generations way.

But all this comes at the end of the book and the end of the decade. By which time Mowat has painted a picture of a strangely beautiful world… beautiful despite the fact that no one has more than a few dollars at any given moment,  no reliable medical services, no actual shops (back to no one has any money to buy anything), limited food sources, and despite the howling cold weather and brutal life of families who fish for a living or work for the fishing industry (and receive ridiculously little $$ for it)… despite all that and more, there’s a warmth, from the people themselves, from the way they share what little they have, looking in on neighbours to make sure they’re okay, the way children have ten thousand chores but are also free to run and play and discover their enormous yet tiny world because there is nothing else, not a single other thing, to distract them. There’s a complete absence of fear (other than what weather and sea and fishing companies pose).

And the colours! in this grey landscape where no deciduous trees exist… the bright shiny orange of kitchen walls, a red painted floor, yellow table, lime green chairs, a turquoise exterior. (The fishing boats, however, are all proudly dory buff. A kind of beige. Which makes no sense to me… I’d have thought it would be an advantage to have brightly painted boats.)

Mowat also notes cultural peculiarities, what is considered polite conversation, the way it’s absolutely normal for anyone to walk into anyone else’s house and sit down, almost always in the kitchen, and talk or not talk. The tradition of mummers, the difficulty of unions in environments made up almost entirely of closely linked families, what’s important to people, most of whom, have never been or even seen pictures of… anywhere else.

“The economic history of Newfoundland was a subject as taboo in their house as a discussion about religion in Belfast.”

The reason houses and roofs are specifically shaped and why windows rarely face the sea…

“The Roses’ children had long since left home and their house, which once had had two storeys, had been decapitated. Removing the second floor of a house was a common alteration made by elder couples since it reduced both the amount of fuel need to heat it and the housework needed to keep it clean.”

Oh, yes, and the sea.

The book feels like listening to a friend tell the story of living eight years in a place she was initially only curious about but came to deeply love… including, and maybe especially because of, the tough moments. And what’s more brilliantly beautifully Maritime than that?

(All of which aside, I’ve read that in some cases, residents of Newfoundland outports have not found the book as charming as mainlanders have, but that may be a case of being in the forest, unable to see the beauty of the trees. There were occasions Mowat outlines, where residents wondered why she was taking pictures of the water or the boats, things they found so ordinary. There is also the possibility that residents interpreted Mowat’s ‘details’ of outport life as being meant to be demeaning, when in fact it’s all about respect, admiration and awe, with more than a dollop of envy.)

“I wondered if anyone [on the mainland] ever stopped to think, as they laid the fillets in the pan, about the men who had caught them, or the people who had cut them and packed them, or of the risky voyage[s] made to bring all this fish to them. Only rarely do we think about the complexities of the production and distribution of food. It is so mindlessly easy to ignore the human involvement when we simply reach into a freezer.”

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

wordless wednesday (summer postcards)

Theme: objects hanging in trees or trees otherwise adorned.

At the skateboard park in town there’s a tree hung with sneakers in memory of, and to pay tribute to, a lad who died… while skateboarding or not is not clear. But the tree, heavy with sports shoes shouts a certain kind of respect.

There’s the dressing with ornaments of woodland trees in winter.

And just recently I met a man who is stooped and walks with a cane, but it’s like he doesn’t notice these minor impediments, who has a giant something or other tree in his backyard, from whose enormous (and very high) branches he’s suspended a variety of odd birdhouses from ropes on clips, which he removes and cleans annually, and stores over winter. All of which requires a ladder moved about a dozen times. All begun, he told me, when his brother came to visit many moons ago, from Belfast, bringing as a gift a birdhouse in the design of some historical Irish landmark, possibly a lighthouse, I’ve forgotten because as he spoke the details were less important to me than the animation and passion of the telling. He said he thought it was a stupid gift. And then he didn’t. Once he hung it and birds nested there he was hooked. He put out food. And now his yard is a bird sanctuary with feeders and twenty or thirty hanging-from-a-giant-tree birdhouses, most of them occupied, he said in the midst of much feathered to-ing and fro-ing.

A poet in Winnipeg adorns city trees with poems.

I’ve seen a collection of wind chimes in trees, and masks, and a woman who taught me how to work with cement had a few trees hung with glass bottles, dark blue ones and white frosted ones and strings of fairy lights. I didn’t ask why she hung the bottles. They were beautiful. The answer seemed obvious.

There are easter egg trees, and trees on which you tie little flags containing hopes and dreams, ,the clootie wells of Scotland, and in Kamouraska a few years ago I saw my first tree wrapped (so not technically hung) with knitting, which I’ve since seen many more versions of.

All of which makes me wonder why trees? What is our thing with them? Feels wonderfully druid, this veneration of nature and all its magic. And then I think… don’t question it,  just embrace the lucky fact there seems to be a lingering, primitive something in our dna… when we’ve lost so much else.

 

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman