These days there is a lushness to the garden that we aren’t used to. We live in a semi-arid area where the rain clouds seem to veer left or right, north or south, before getting to us. I’ve watched great banks of cloud separate and the north half drops a curtain of rain onto the mainland (we are an island jutting out 21 miles into lake Ontario, yet hugging the mainland), while the southern half heads to the south shore of the lake to give the Northern New York folk a spectacular rainfall complete with light show. On the horizon I can see the flashes from my bedroom window as I notice there is clear sky overhead.
So the rain we are receiving is a treat for the farmers, but not so much, I imagine, for the winemakers. Too much rain makes the plants leafy, and I believe the grapes that come are supposed to be in response to dry weather. I planted grapes this year so no doubt I can put that theory to the test.
However, neighbours and locals are talking about the incredible growing season and I am watching so many differences, not sure whether to attribute it all to the different weather patterns and perhaps climate change, or the pandemic and the changes it has brought about. There is a vast amount of growth and in this picture you see our old apple tree out back has provided a bumper crop this year. The grass under the tree has been tramped down by deer, I think and perhaps coyotes. And I have been paying regular visits and eating the apples then and there as I pick them. Back home, as a kid, we were never great at growing anything to eat, other than our crab apple tree –– it was too shady, the soil too compact –– so anything you can pull off of a bush, a tree or out of the ground and munch on is pretty miraculous to me.
You can’t really think about our rich growing season without thinking of others who are not enjoying the same good fortune. Land is burning up. People are on the move, whether climate or political refugees. They aren’t picking apples off of trees. They might be hoping a care package falls from the sky and will be enormously grateful for the offerings. Nowadays it is all too easy to switch the channel, turn down the volume or put our hands over our ears and worry about when we can next sit on an outdoor patio at a local café and ‘enjoy life’. I feel powerless in the face of these huge stories. It is all too easy to forget there is a segment of our own population between the apple tree and the news on the television that is very much in need. Those who can’t afford housing and those who have no access to clean drinking water, simple respect or equality. With the approaching election there will be a tsunami of promises, which, like a character in Peter and the Wolf I am now becoming immune –– bad choice of word –– desensitized to.
And I have started to wonder what a normal day on this planet is supposed look like.
We spend time when we can, at this beach. Early summer we have it to ourselves. Even the flies haven’t found us. The beach is comprised of limestone pebbles and rocks that have been ground into smooth discs with the likenesses of thick pancakes. At this particular beach, unlike the other local ones, there is, interspersed, a large amount of varied smaller rocks, some of which have ended up in my garden at the base of our buddha.
The rocks are a variety of colours from greens to reds, some have lines and layers through them, thread thin, or some are half and half. These patterns have grasped at my imagination, taking me onto that extended journey through time and geologic activity, far below the surface of the earth and even farther back in time.
Very often at the beach I try to have a moment of meditation, with my head in the clouds, contemplating the vastness “out there” in that immense horizon off into the stars way beyond that sun that is warming my skin on these days. I envision myself opening to that expanse to become one with it. (Which I am whether I like it or not.)
But it was on one of those days, eyes wide open, wandering along the beach, my poodle piddling here, sniffing there, and me delighting in the array of gems (I’ll call them) at my feet, that my gaze was taken even farther downward, beneath the surface of the earth and time, to really try to understand the organic connection of me to this world.
I thought, to heck with the spiritual, get familiar with this water and rock from which you crawled. Yes, of course, we are stardust, but between the stardust and my full flesh and blood frame there have been eons of growth, while the whole world, every tree and rock grew alongside, all of us evolving at our own rate. I realized how much I owe to mother earth and how much a child of mother earth I really am. I realized how equal I am to my surroundings, no greater, no less. It was embracing, enlightening and reassuring to know that I really am a part of it.
Like the indigenous say “All my relations,” meaning everything and the spirit within everything. I may be so presumptuous to think I have started to understand what this means, in my own limited way. There, it was a feeling, and elsewhere, as I travel through this world, away from my special beach, littered with magical stones and vibrating with my footprints and my dog’s as well, that it is something so easily forgotten and something I need to remind myself. It is the ground beneath my feet, the air I breath, the trees, flowers, birds, bugs and furry things racing around my yard. It is everything, and it us and we have all arrived and we are here, now.
I was born and raised in Ottawa, the son of a politician. Obviously Canada day was in the picture, whether guests at the family cottage or trips to Parliament Hill. As the years went on the celebrations on the hill became even more of a spectacle with the Snowbirds, concerts, and mega fireworks. I’m not sure I knew what it meant to describe myself as a proud Canadian. I was reminded that I lived in a free and fairly liberal place that other people wanted to come to. I knew some Colonial history and had no idea about the history of this land before the Europeans arrived. I had a romantic idea of the noble savage, but not much else. On the banks of the Ottawa river, at our cottage we argued about whether the path to the beach was made by loggers or “Indians”. We envisioned convoys of boats filled with European explorers led by first nations guides in canoes. (The river, originally know as the Kitchisippi, a rich watershed of wildlife and home to the Huron, Algonquin and Iroquois, later polluted by a Nuclear plant, paper processing and other industry, we were warned that the fish we caught might have too much mercury in it.) But the aboriginals were always either non-existent, part of a diorama at the national museum or living on someplace called a ‘reserve’. This year I took advantage of the free course in aboriginal history https://www.ualberta.ca/admissions-programs/online-courses/indigenous-canada/index.html and my eyes were finally opened to the light and the lie I have been living all these years. I say lie. Passively I have been aware of substandard living conditions for indigenous in this country for many years. Through the press it had come to my attention that developers or oil companies wanted to build golf courses/ pipelines on aboriginal land, still do, and that there were protests and still are. I listened to other non-aboriginals complain about the ‘Indian problem’ and those protests. And passively I tut-tutted, nodded in sadness and sympathy for the First Nations but did little else. I’ve watched Canadian governments tearfully apologize to the natives, again and again, more heart felt and chest thumping each time. I’ve heard the promises and voted on those hopes. The U of A course opened my eyes to the absolute fraud of treaty negotiations, the Indian act, the White Paper, and of course residential schools. I say lie because I was born in 1958 and the last residential school closed in 1997. The math says I was living in a country––and all governments during my lifetime––that supported true appropriation of culture, children, absolute disrespect and meanspiritedness in the true sense of the word. And I had no idea this was going on. Now, for those leaders and others who say that cancelling Canada Day is tantamount to dismantling the country I say this: Imagine you have lived in a family where Uncle Bob has regularly and secretly raped your siblings for years. Everyone in your family “kind of” knew but wasn’t going to say anything. Your family lived a stilted and perhaps unhappy kind of existence. Gatherings, weddings, new members were celebrated with fake smiles and you may have presented yourself well while deep down knowing the truth. And if you didn’t know the truth you knew something was somehow wrong. Really you were living a half life under the controlling hand of Uncle Bob. Wouldn’t you like to finally break the pattern of continuous lies and abuse. I say this: I dismantled my crooked deck last summer and got to the root of the problem. It now stands level. Dismantling is sometimes a very worthwhile thing. This is what has been going on here in Canada. We know a little of our history and we have been living a lie, trying to ignore what we do know. Celebrating every July first, celebrating when Newfoundland joined confederation, tearfully sighing with relief when Quebec didn’t ‘leave’ this great country. I would say that to heal this country we must know the truth, we must learn just what is here worth celebrating. At this point to ignore the sins created by our leaders, carried out by the Catholic church and condoned by the rest of us who turned a blind eye, is not cause for any means of celebration. There is nowhere to point a finger except towards ourselves for knowingly living the lie. We talk about aboriginal anger or black rage, well, tell me, whose rage put 150,000 children in residential schools? Whose rage has hidden the truth about their deaths. Whose rage last year arrested an aboriginal journalist for merely putting pen to paper? I will tell you that rage did not originate with the aboriginals. Whose rage continues to lynch and kill blacks, transgender, anyone outside of ‘normal’. Who has the rage? It’s so sadly obvious. It will take far more than money to rectify this crime, this genocide. It will take upheaval, a paradigm shift and a new way of respecting and acknowledging the true founders and original care takers of this land. To proudly travel the world, or welcome immigrants to this land, as Canadians we will have to make all aware of the new fabric of what we are truly made. My wish for this country is that the truth does in fact set us free and that we can be a model for human rights around the world. There will be no reconciliation without truth.
Sonnet 34: Why didst thous promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak…
I think of this often when I am either optimistic about the weather, be it a cool spring morning––too cool––or a summer’s day when the storm clouds are just beyond the horizon and when I am beyond the point of no return and I hear the thunder roll and see the puffy white edges present themselves above the treetops the beginnings of a billowing boiling storm.
Today we headed out the door and went east as we sometimes do, a grey overcast May morning, high cloud like the underside of some soft quilt happening above. And yes we were well on our way when the poodle stopped and looked at me. What? We’re doing what you want. A walk to the lookout, lots of sniffing, in the moment. We continued until I heard it too, the low growling of thunder back towards the west, back towards where the clouds are thick and dark, back towards where I had not looked until that moment. He’d heard it long before me.
Yes I thought, oh shit, done it again. We’ll have to run to get back before getting drenched or hit by a bolt of lightening. But this thought, to which I had become accustomed, because of my habitual carelessness, was replaced by a larger, heavier and far more resonant feeling.
India, I thought. That sound, that thunder is coming all the way, through the earth, from India. The sounds of pain and deep, deep tragedy. It was India. I had read about India and the pandemic, at times not trying to follow the headlines and other times being drawn in to the news of this sad disaster. Both responses akin to trying to not look at a train wreck as it slowly progresses from bad to worse to worst. And there I was walking along a country road, dark clouds gathering and thinking as far removed as I was from India that it was there, somewhere in my consciousness. Very real. Very loud. Roaring in pain and anguish.
It’s odd to be in this world, in this bubble, fairly isolated while a humanitarian disaster of such magnitude takes place on the same planet. Do I want to jinx things by saying “why them?” Closer to home, people are dying while angels hold their hands in place of family, sad stories replay over and over. Care workers are worn to the quick. Raw, spent, yet managing to fight to steer the ship, hold the oars against the tide.
The thunder today caught me by surprise. Spoke volumes.
I’ve followed the current advice traveling throughout the internet and then through the minds of my friends colleagues and clients and finally to my ears, that I should leave the gardening and the yard until we have a significant amount of days with the temperature over 10 degrees celsius, all to encourage dormant bees, butterflies and larvae and chrysalis of various descriptions (of which I know nothing) to come safely out of dormancy and do their thing, you know, pollinate and make sure the planet is operating properly for the everyone, although most of us would like to say, somewhat misguidedly operating properly for us, the humans.
So I have been observing things as they start to push through the dead grasses and leftovers from last year’s garden. And I guess emerging like a promise to me is my trustworthy rhubarb plant that seems to present year after year to give me the greatest show and provide really yummy stalks for rhubarb pie.
A neighbour whose husband is an organic farmer, gave me some tomato seedlings, too early to plant but I will move them in and out until late May. Her husband was in the hospital with some issues and then we talked about the dwindling number of farmers. To me it seems a thankless job, but perhaps an incredibly rewarding occupation; being connected to the land, the weather, and all of nature in a very intense way. The work and worry must never ever stop.
When I saw my rhubarb for the first time yesterday and remembered how quickly it grows, it was, to me, like a promise that, with some attention, I will be provided for, by mother earth. Strange that for all of the crimes we have committed against this home, this planet so rich in her gifts, that she perseveres. Discarded tires, roofing shingles, cigarette butts, paint tins and discretely concealed unmentionables, make their way to the “landfill” (isn’t that a garbage dump?) while we look the other way, side to side, not up and down, or perhaps inside where the truth really hurts. While lawn mowers and leaf blowers and pesticides and weed killers prevail and are removed from sheds around this time of year, to dominate Mother Nature, once again, I wonder how much longer she will do so.
It is a cold morning with a wind at our back. This is the view at our destination this morning, looking southeast over Smith Bay and Waupoos Island across Lake Ontario. On the winter’s coldest days I swear if I squint hard enough I can see the blue skies over the Caribbean and that island in the sun, Barbados, just there off in the distance to the right side of the photo, just beyond the darkest bit of sky. Can you see it? Even so it would take a plane to get there.
Strange, or maybe not, on these bleak days when I dread stepping out into the cold and grey, there is always a moment when I finally say out loud, “this is so damn beautiful” (in all its harshness). It really is. It can be a smell from my childhood blowing down from the north. That familiar burn of cold on my cheeks. Or that forlorn northeastern sky that used to really give me chills to the bone, knowing that not much existed beneath it, but rock, Canadian Shield, perhaps an ice sheet if you went far enough, but, as far as I was concerned not much more. I wasn’t really that aware of Inuit settlements, polar bears, caribou or just how beautiful and vital landscape could be. I suppose it happens with experiences, memories, imagination and perhaps learning.
These nights though, I dream of warm tropical places, filled with light and the richness of warm colours, vegetation, unbridled growth. It’s as if the dreamworld is bringing me that experience to warm my soul as the wind blows the ice dry and smooth, rabbits huddle under the deck and small birds brace themselves as if the strong wind is just to be tolerated.
I dream too of crowded buildings and places where people gather, places like malls and galleries, open enclosed areas. I am not quite sure what my being is calling out for. Do I need the throng of humanity? I don’t think that is it, but there is something to it, a labyrinth maybe, or a grand puzzle, a maze which I must negotiate. I always have to make my way through these crowds, find something I’ve misplaced.
For all of the memories, desires and thoughts that accompany me on that stretch of road, I am very often dragged back to the present, because that is all there is. Warmer days will be here soon enough, my shoulders will relax, I’ll smell the richness from the marsh, the lake, the first hint of lilac and then when I look across the Bay it will be to that place, much closer, where we play in the cool clear water on a hot summer day.
For way too many years in my naïve bubble of white middle class privilege I could not imagine why Christmas was a difficult time for some people. Was it because they had had such fond memories and now things had changed, they’d gotten older, they had kids, perhaps there was no one to shower them with gifts, cook a hot meal or tuck them in?
When I lived in Vancouver, thanks to partner number two we would semi-regularly trek to St Andrew’s Wellesley United for the Sunday morning service. I had been raised a Presbyterian (now a wonderer at the world and not really of any domination though Zen bhuddist seems to align with some of my beliefs and practices), so, not a big stretch. Really the reason we went I think is because the reverend Sheila Mackinnon put on a great show. It was like having Shelagh Rogers of the CBC give the sermon. There was humour, spontaneity, laughter and much food for thought. Of course my partner at the time was more devout in his practice than I, but the show and the promise of a Sunday brunch, boozy or not, were more than enough to get me out of bed.
The reverends (there was more than just one) regularly mentioned the First United Mission down on Hastings street in the downtown east side of Vancouver. A place I referred to and still do as ground zero––for drug use and abuse, for poverty, homelessness and just the saddest reflection of disenfranchised and victimized humanity.
From time to time I have had to deal with severe cases of the blues. I’m not sure if there is clinical depression lurking in my depths, but I try to deal with it with a hands on approach. Back then I took inventory: Was I sleeping? Eating properly? Bank account was overdrawn, was that it? No success with auditions? Another publisher rejected me? Should I meditate more? Do some therapy around it? Volunteer? Aha! I had heard that taking the focus off of one’s self was a great cure for feeling better! But volunteering to that point had meant stuffing envelopes or something innocuous and boring. Had I ever seen a soup kitchen? Of course I had. In the movies. Of course.
Anyway, as I learned, the First United Mission always needed volunteers so I took the cue and I marched myself down there (took the bus) to Hastings and Main. Hastings then, spoke to a former world of wide busy streets with trolley buses, cafes, Chinese restaurants, grand hotels, big department stores and prosperity of Vancouver in other glory days. The spotlight now was definitely not on Hastings which had become home to sidewalk lean-tos, welfare hotels, lumps of sleeping bags and cardboard hovels, barred windows and entry ways of those same department stores now being used as shelter from a wet and cold Vancouver. Empty taverns, still operated with moving shadows and dim lights. And of course there were people, yes people, horizontal or vertical, with deep hollow eyes and holes in the bottoms of their pockets and shoes, probably wondering how the hell they got there in between the highs and lows.
I was given a tour of First United by the pastor, a kind woman who seemed to know how to navigate her church through the rough seas of Hastings and Main. First stop on my tour was the nave, the dimly lit area where services were held. It was modern, curved with the same kind of hard modern pews that my own St Timothy’s back in Ottawa a lifetime ago had. It’s hard to forget that hard pew on my bony kid bum. Forever imprinted. In the dim light I noticed some movement at one of the pews, slowly as my eyes adjusted I saw that almost each pew was occupied with a sleeping body. A pair of boots extending over the end of one, the curve of hips or torso at another. It was almost noon. A weekday. And this was home to God knows how many. The only place to rest their heads, and street weary bodies.
Over the years I ended up participating in what was known as “family friendship” twice a week at First United. (I described it as one of the ‘realest’ times of my week.) A kind of soup kitchen in which attendees committed to showing up for a hot meal. We served, spaghetti, chili, stew, something cast off from a food supplier or grocery store, that became treasured lunch to attendees, accompanied with white bread and weak coffee, maybe jell-o, and then we sat and ate with the attendees and, over time got to know and recognize them. Some you couldn’t look in the eye. One woman, vivacious, straightforward and ball of fire, I later recognized as one of the disappeared women, who met a horrible end, at the hands of the notorious, well, I don’t want to mention more, but you can find it all in the press. You’ve heard about him.
It was a little community of regulars who crawled out from the cracks to show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other days of the week there were other services, coffee or watery soup for those who had spent the night on the street or in a bus shelter.
Christmas drew near. The Vancouver skies darkened. Lights went up downtown. Apartment balconies blazed with colour. Shop windows competed for kitsch. The carol ships (yachts line with Christmas lights), tootled around English Bay every evening, and there was a bottomless optimism reserved for this time of year, where music was everywhere, people stumbled on the sidewalks after drunken staff lunches, and after-work eggnog.
But away from all this mayhem, at the mission was a growing sense of dread. It was clear to me as my bus seemed to descend into the darkened world of Hastings and Main. While I stressed over my Christmas list and thought I was justified in despising how Christmas could bring out the worst in me, it became clear that the impending dread of these peoples’ Christmas was not the over-indulgent sentimentality of days gone by. No, they didn’t have that luxury. They didn’t miss the Christmas of my childhood and the orgy of gift taking (not much giving), over stuffing, decorating, and nodding off to Babes in Toyland. Nor was their dread about that steamroller called Christmas that, in my world, could annually crush me in its wake if I didn’t fight to make it out the other end with a couple of dollars still in the bank account. They weren’t stressing over their gift list or their guest list. There was no rent to pay.
These people had experienced Christmases where the drunk uncle wasn’t a source of amusement. Where Dad…exactly where was dad? Where there was lots of nothing, a whole lot of it, and shouting, and smashing, and fists through walls and wails and tears and the most horrible abuse, all to the soundtrack of someone dreaming of a White Christmas. It all finally made sense. I finally got it; it made its way through my safe little naive bubble and burst. This was why some dread this time of year. For me it had been extra special and for them extra horrible. While I was bemoaning my not having time to ice my gingerbread the way we did as kids or make the short bread according to my mom’s recipe and the price of more booze just because we always need more booze, to sit and reminisce, they were doing everything possible to forget.
Still we decorated the room where we ate lunch, little bits of tinsel and strings of popcorn that we made in a group, each assigned a different decorating task. Cut out paper stars. Things you make with a pair of scissors and a folded piece of paper. We stood in a circle before lunch and held hands. We said a prayer. We all knew. We all knew the storm was approaching. We all knew that the best presents we could give each other were our hopes and prayers, prayers for a safe and Merry Christmas and the hope that we would all see each other again in January. Survivors all.
Have you noticed things are a little different in the natural world? I imagine we are still polluting as badly as ever even though many of us are in lockdown. But things are different. My garden responded differently this year. It was more difficult to make things grow. The rabbits and squirrels seemed to take great delight in eating new sprouts of beets, sunflowers, watermelons. Caterpillars ate the leaves off many of my tomatoes. When we first moved here, I’d plant a seed in the hard soil and poof I’d have an eight foot tall sunflower. I planted hundreds of seeds this summer and got a few sunflowers. I had planted many things behind chicken wire–no match for any wildlife it seems.
The rhythm was different. It still is. And now the fall is here and it seems the leaves are taking such a long leisurely time to change. I don’t mind. I have taken billions of photos as a result. There is something about those colours that not only moves me, but, from time to time takes me back to the Ottawa valley in the fall. The desolation in the cold clear sky to the northeast. The warmth in our home. The rapid switch over to winter. Wondering if there would be snow on Hallowe’en.
Yes, the leaves are still putting on a show, though many have fallen. And now we have large mushrooms where there were none before. It is indeed an odd time. Nature seems to be noticing our predicament and responding, well of course it is. Nature is far more sensitive than I can ever hope to be. I’m sure I have my patterns, my response, my escape hatches, my adaptabilities. There seems to be a great knowing that takes place out there in the trees, everywhere in fact, but not in my brain, where I spend so much time trying to figure it all out.
I don’t think I’ve ever described myself as outdoorsy and yet, recently I see the possibility that I may be just that. I am inclined towards the out of doors, upon rising I stand at the front door and look out the window at the garden. I wait for the kettle to boil to make my tea and then, with notebook and some kind of device that can play music to the backdrop of the early morning birdsong, I head out. I might write something, might read a bit of the news but soon the sheer power of the setting lifts my view and my spirit. For about an hour, I stare at the garden, the tree tops, the sky, with no attention at all to anything else.
When it is time for coffee with my partner, we have one cup inside and another outside, on the other side of the house. If not outside, then sitting on the sofa, our attention to a nourishing tableau of cedars and the sky.
Somewhere in the morning is a walk with my dog, or a visit to the beach to beat the heat and other people. There we wander, run in and out of the water, play get-the-toy until we take a break and I stare at the horizon while my dog sniffs around the bushes at the top of the beach, to catch up on recent smells and activity.
In the winter we take long walks through fields, or on the sandy windswept or snowswept beach, weather permitting.
I’ve always thought the outdoorsy type did things like jump off cliffs with kites on their backs, or surf whitecaps holding onto kites, or just fly kites. I used to thing they skied down black diamond runs or over polar icecaps which qualified them for ultimate outdoorsy status. I used to think they bungee jumped, barrel jumped or log rolled, swam channels, climbed mountains, hung off of cliffs, or cycled steep creek beds.
I see now that outdoorsy has little or nothing to do with bucket list activity. Bucket list activity is about checking a box, scoring a goal, receiving a slap on the back for a daring, perhaps life-threatening feat.
Outdoorsy to me is more than just being outdoors, and less than scaling Everest or scaling a fish.
My experience of outdoorsy is my need to be under the vast sky, among some green or rocks or sand, even water, to be where the planet breathes. Birds swoop as if on a pendulum, following upside down arcs from treetop to treetop. Rabbits sit close and rip the leaves from the milkweed, one eye on me, two ears on the dog. Chipmunks travel a highway of hollow logs on the periphery of the yard. A leopard frog pokes his nose out of the mossy pond. Meanwhile new growth and new colours and new volumes of plant life slip almost unnoticed into the panorama.
All this from one vantage point. I use my butt as much to be outdoorsy as I use my limbs. I use very little skill, but vast amounts of attention, very little thought but boundless spirit. I don’t leap from rope bridges into gorges with an elastic around my waist. I don’t kayak down white water. Nor do I know a coreopsis from a blue tit. I might know when a rain cloud is bearing down on me or recognize the scent of freshly rained upon ground. But, to be honest, I know and move very little, though my eyes and ears and spirit travel vast distances at great speeds.