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

 

 

diner love

 

Impossible to read Edward Keenan’s piece about the slow demise of family run diners (Toronto Star, Jan.26/19) without being overwhelmed by the urge to visit my own favourite local, aka: Whitby Diner, where the first time we ate there the chef came out onto the made-with-love scruffy little patio chock full of giant tomatoes growing in white plastic industrial sized buckets (originally home to feta cheese) and told us how he left Greece as a youngster and lived for a time in Newfoundland then moved to Toronto and, finally, Whitby where he spent many years making doughnuts at a number of local establishments but was happy to get out of that racket. He tells us with pride about the cucumbers he grows on his land just outside of town (his wife, apparently, is an amazing pickler and the pickles are for sale).

And so we head over on this snowy Saturday morning and while tucking into the best white toast (toast is an art), sausage and over not-entirely-easy/not-entirely-medium eggs (the chef at Whitby Diner really gets me)… I revel in the memory of a few historical faves.

Diana Sweets on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines where Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman eats an egg salad sandwich (because Howard Engel is from St. Catharines and the Benny Cooperman series’ town of Grantham is actually based on St. Catharines) and where my older sister worked and where I loved hanging around because she was like a rock star in those white don’t-make-no-noise  shoes and aproned uniform and how — my god this was big! — she could go right into the back room and USE THE GESTETNER MACHINE to print out daily specials. I wasn’t allowed back there but just waiting for her to emerge with a handful of freshly minted menus was bliss. The glorious smell of the ink! I swear I’m still slightly high from that stuff.

And the stories.  Every day she’d come home and tell something. About staff, about customers like the Hells Angels or the elderly couple who wandered in and studied all the wooden booths trying to find the one they’d carved their names on when they were courting. They found it. (Carving names in the booths was apparently never discouraged, which was just one more groovy thing about ‘The Di’ that made me want to work there one day.) (I never did. Went straight into delis instead and from there I lucked out and got a receptionist gig in a denture clinic, which is when my career really took off.)

The diner across the Homer Bridge where my sister also worked (before the illustrious DS) and where buses didn’t run so my dad had to drive her and pick her up, during which transport I tagged along so that I could wait for her on a twirling counter stool and ask diner related questions like why are there so many flies on the windows? and where sometimes somebody gave me a slice of pie to shut me up.

The place in the old Towers plaza next to the Bank of Montreal where I would drop quarters into the jukebox and listen to John Lennon’s Imagine over and over and over while eating plates of fries with vinegar.

PJ’s in Whitby where the tables used to have built in PacMan games instead of place mats. Now they are just tables… *sniff* (but hands down still the best staff and the best place within walking distance for a cup of tea and/or brekkie and/or lunch and to soak up some beautiful unchanged over the years small town vibe).

Teddy’s in Oshawa. THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE FOR GRILLED CHEESE AND FRIES. None. (And none of yer fancy cheeses either… I’m talking process slices on Wonder bread. Once in a while, and done right, it is heaven.) (Technically more a family restaurant but I’m including it because it’s an ancient fixture on the landscape. And because of grilled cheese.)

A mere quick handful as I’m feeling peckish…

~

(All of which to say…. please, please, support your local diners! They are so much fun, essential to community and almost always run by interesting people, and because it is so very heart-warming to hear a waiter say “Hello, Betty/Jim/Stanislaus/Georgina… the usual? And how’s your mum doing…?”)

And this is a world in need of heart-warming.

~

All pics taken at Whitby Diner (where the jam is amazing). And for sale.

Thanks to Edward Keenan for loving diners and to the Toronto Star for the wonderfulness it publishes.
Support newspapers!

 

(Also… what have I missed?? Current favourites and all diner love memories welcome.)

 

 

 

 

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

 

wordless wednesday: summer postcards

 

Greetings from the garden tour!

(aka outdoor galleries of love, green stuff incidental)

The woman whose backyard is a solid field of day lilies (hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them) and who at first I think must be slightly unhinged until she explains her joy at every day coming outside to see what new bloom among dozens and dozens of varieties has opened. She not only grows them but cross pollinates to create unique hybrids and borrows her kids’ backyards because there’s no room in hers anymore. She wins awards.
Hers husband is on the patio, watching the crowds, and as I leave I stop and say to him, Nice place but you ought to consider getting some day lilies…

The woman who turned a tiny shaded downtown lawn into a glen of cool sanctuary complete with three locally made wrought iron pyramid towers and places to sit and contemplate them.

The woman with a deck full of passion flower vine and other tropicals who doesn’t have a sun room in her house but simply asks the plants to do their best in various windows and they oblige her and are stunningly beautiful and vibrantly healthy. Singing to them doesn’t hurt she says when asked for tips.

The woman whose yard is full of crazy objects, tea cups hanging from branches, giant wooden playing cards nailed over three sides of fencing, mirrors, bird feeders, figurines, mobiles, sun catchers, flea market and thrift shop finds… too much!!  my brain screams as I wander in and consider wandering out again but just then the woman appears and we talk and her joy changes the scene from something I don’t understand… to one that brings utter contentment and peace as she explains the pleasure it gives her to see it all from her kitchen, or from her place on the couch. She would rather look out the window than watch TV on a rainy day, she says. She puts this stuff out each spring and puts it away again in giant bins each winter. It’s time consuming and possibly a form of madness she laughs, but I shake my head, say it feels more like her form of art. She nods. Then she takes me round to the front to show me a few things I might have missed on my way in.

 

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman

 

my bit of sky

 

There is a framed series of photos on my kitchen wall. Clouds scudding across a Florida sky. Each photo shows the exact same square of sky above a couple of palm trees, as seen from a poolside chair so many years ago I was still using 35 mm film and my trusty Pentax.

There are only four shots. But they represent the whole morning and my idle joy in having nothing to do but read… no idea what I was reading, but possibly The Portable Dorothy Parker  (I remember her from around that time) or River of Grass,  by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, about the almost decimation of the Everglades. In other words not a novel. Am guessing my mood couldn’t have been focused enough for a novel if I was able to take notice of the sky changing every so often and carefully positioning the camera to take precise shots (film was expensive) between and above those precise palm fronds.

Those aren’t the actions of someone engrossed in a novel.

The first photo in the frame shows a clear sky with only a wisp of cloud. The second, a larger, but still small, cloud moves in from the left. By the third shot, the sky is mottled with cloud cover, though wispy still, and by the fourth, heavier clouds have moved in and I probably decided it was time to gather my pool toys and go have lunch.

I love these pictures, the memory of a holiday, yes, but also a reminder of how this follows that, how time is passed and passes, and continues…

Someone once told me they rarely look up. I was astonished — how can anyone take the whole sky for granted? But it occurs to me that maybe it comes from our habit of looking *for* something… something useful, or unusual, something to compare ourselves with, as in looking at people, or something beautiful, as in a sunrise or sunset or rainbow.

Each morning I stand outside in approximately the same place to greet the day and every day I look at the same slice of sky above a cedar hedge in the space between two very tall spruce. And every day the sky is never the same. Sometimes the colour of Laurentien pencil crayon Peacock Blue, sometimes another shade. Sometimes speckled or fluffed or water-colour-streaked with cloud. Now and then picture-worthy… most often not. Over the years I’ve seen flashes of lightning in that space, the occasional plane on its way to Toronto, and one year the Snowbirds performed for a local school named after a fallen comrade and I stood in my backyard and watched, in awe, as they swooped and ducked and dived in that very bit of sky.

It is also, apparently, part of the Trans Canada Flight Path for geese.

There’s nothing magical about that slice of blue, it’s just the one I happen to most often look at. Not from a lounge chair and never for an entire morning as you do on holiday, but just as habit. Sometimes I go outside and look up, without realizing it even, with maybe a question on my mind…

And a cardinal flies by in answer.

 

 

wordless wednesday: summer postcards

Postcard greetings of the market kind where a good time is being had by all. Not the least for having discovered the new shiitake vendor… AND scoring seed potatoes, ‘eating’ potatoes, BLACK CURRANTS!!, yellow plums, and a few more things in other and various hues.

p.s. Am slightly addicted to the greenhouse tomatoes Meredith sells (I wanted to wait for the vine-ripened, I swear I did, and I thought I could just taste ONE of the greenhouse beauties, I thought I could handle it, that they’d have no power over me.) I had it sliced on toast with mayo. Do not send help.

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman