grateful

 

For so much.

For landing here among berries and forest and sea.

For each morning’s walk and talk with trees and the discovery of edible fungi, for the galette I’m about to make with freshly picked apples, for moss and clover.

For the smell of salt air.

For the kindness of new friends and gifts of manure, jam, books, music, laughter, excellent advice, garlic, and conversation.

For family farms and wool mills where you can bring your own fleece to have cleaned and spun and where you can buy a skein of wool in any colour you choose and send it to a friend who will magic it into a toque, just for you.

For friends and family who stay in touch no matter how far away you roam.

For the luxury of warmth as the nights get colder.

For a sky full of stars.

For a good harvest of mint and the winter teas it will make.

For bees on the sunflower and how the bright red geranium, which has the same name as my newest nephew, has come inside to warm its toes on a sunny windowsill and how when I send my nephew pictures of it I receive pictures of a cherub’s toes in return.

For an excellent vacuum cleaner. This is not small potatoes.

For potatoes. And a garden in which to grow them.

For having become really good at cutting hair.

For not caring if a haircut looks a bit funky.

For the endless love in a cat’s eyes and how they become teachers, and sometimes angels.

For screaming less loudly at the sight of a snake (aka Kevin).

For the smell of supper cooking as I write this and Tea for the Tillerman playing, reminding me of the centuries that have come and gone, all of them leading to here.

For afternoon light and a porch that is made for watching it.

For the frog in the tomato bed, the ladybug in the shower, for the person I saw swimming in the ocean and mistook for a seal until they emerged and I realized they are not a seal but a selkie and who has since become an almost friend. Who would not want a selkie as a friend?

So much.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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here and there

There, at this time of year, I’d be in my kayak just as often as possible, throwing Lulabelle onto the roof of my twenty-three year old Camry (best car in the world) and heading to a small local marsh connected at one end to Lake Ontario but me and Lulabelle staying in the pond where it’s pristine and quiet, just us and the banks of earth-fragrant reeds, egrets, a blue heron colony, thousands of blackbirds rising in clouds at dawn and disappearing-who-knows-where, the magnificent swan ballet, a family of deer watching us from shore, an eagle named Eddie.

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But I am here now, and not there, and Lulabelle is in our new garage still waiting to be dipped into something briny. I’ve been too busy getting from there to here, too busy unpacking and putting in a garden, harvesting berries from the dozens of bushes (blueberries, haskaps, blackberries) that are also here, discovering beaches and tides, where to dig clams, pick oysters off rocks, which seaweeds are tastiest. Busy getting to know the landscape and marvelling at maritime skies, finding the farmers who grow veggies the old-fashioned way, raise meat and eggs ethically, who bake bread and pies and croissants, who make cheese and soap, a mill that will spin your wool for you, a young family of fisherwomen and men where we buy fresh haddock and smoked salmon and the corner mom and pop grocery that sells off-the-boat mussels every Friday.

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There, at this time of year I would take my breakfast, a banana, yoghurt, tea, and park in the lily pads with a book.

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Here I walk barefoot on sand, naming every bend on the shoreline: First Point, Second Point, Toad Point, What’s the Point, Around the Bend, Sandy Point, and Bring a Chair Cove.

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There, at this time of year, the marsh closes to paddling to allow the birds peace as they prepare for migration.

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Here there are apples to harvest and juice, rows of berry bushes to clean up.

But unlike there, here our paddling destination remains open until freeze-up and while I am both excited and nervous to paddle tidal waters for the first time, Lulabelle is calm and ready and as eager here as she ever was there.

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yellow cup

Yesterday a cousin sends pictures of alpine snow heavy on branches, mountains, rooftops, and me here in the rain feeling snow envy, sending a message back to her… “A slice of heaven!” I write and forget my laundry on the line and then this morning I open the blinds and see snow heavy on branches and rooftops and the morning light is just starting and I put the kettle on and go out to the porch, my laundry frozen and me here in coat and boots and a bright yellow cup, lemon balm tea as the sun rises through a slice of heaven.

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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