The plight of the monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly needs saving. 

A monarch caterpillar, fat with milkweed.

A monarch caterpillar, fat with milkweed.

 

The sound of satisfied munching is clearly audible as a fat caterpillar eats its way along a milky milkweed leaf. This voracious critter seems of a single mind: eat, eat, eat! Its striped coat of chartreuse, charcoal and creamy white is starkly beautiful against the gray-green foliage.

Two weeks later, a flash of brilliant orange wings, rimmed with black, captures the sun and reflects its light as it dances among the flowers. The monarch butterfly is blessing our garden.

Just a few years ago, the light-as-air butterflies were so populous that their collective weight broke the branches of the fir trees they roosted on in their Mexican winter home. In 1996, swarms of the insects covered 44.5 acres in Mexico’s protected Oyamel Forest Park. Last year their numbers had dwindled drastically; the butterflies covered a mere 1.65 acres.

The monarch population has tended to fluctuate over time, but the trend recently has been to ever diminishing numbers. Many factors are to blame: illegal logging in Mexico destroying their winter home, cold weather and late springs, a drought in Texas reducing migrants up the west coast, but most significantly, a dwindling supply of milkweed growing along their migratory routes and at their final destination. About 60 percent of this once abundant plant has disappeared from the margins of fields and roadways thanks to herbicide spraying for genetically modified crops, which are bred to be resistant to the chemicals. Non-resistant, natural plants such as milkweed are collateral damage, disappearing from their already squeezed native habitat.

Milkweed is the only plant where the female monarch butterfly will lay her eggs because it is the only plant the emerging caterpillars will eat. This may be because toxins in the milkweed’s milky sap also provide the insects with protection against many predators. Without milkweed, there will be no monarchs.

A flutter of monarchs on their favourite flower: goldenrod.

A flutter of monarchs on their favourite flower: goldenrod. Photo by Arlene Dahl.

Milkweed is also a wonderful plant with beautiful flowers that will enhance any perennials patch. 10 Neat Things about Milkweed.

It is not only milkweed that the toxic crop sprays eradicate. Wildflowers of all types are among the other casualties. Wildflowers supply the nectar that sustains the adult butterflies. If the monarch population is to be maintained, the caterpillars and butterflies need both milkweed and wildflowers to survive.

We can help by planting the right things. Adult monarch butterflies love to sup nectar from flowers such as phlox, goldenrod, penta, lantana, liatris, gaillardia, bee-balm, sedum, daylilies, yarrow, mint, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, red clover, verbena, asters, zinnias, Joe Pye weed, ox eye daisies, columbine, cardinal flower, honeysuckle and the pretty little grey-headed coneflower with its golden rays to name just a few (the glamorous hot hothouse bedding plants don’t offer much nectar). You can also put out overripe, mushy bananas, oranges and bits of watermelon to provide a dining table for the butterflies. Plant flowers such as sedum and zinnias bloom that late in the year. This is important for the last generation of butterflies, providing a rich source of nectar so they can build up a good storage of fat to begin their migratory journey back to Mexico.

A monarch visits the garden with a flash of brilliant orange wings.

A monarch visits the garden with a flash of brilliant orange wings.

Hot topic at Summit

Not long ago, a group of concerned Canadians brought forward the issue of the declining monarchs to the international stage and the President of Mexico responded by declaring that his country would deal with the illegal logging in Oyamel Park, but that it was up to America and Canada to deal with the crop spraying and the Monsantos-type companies that are responsible for the GMO crops and the chemical sprays that keep the crops insect-free.

The issue was raised again at the recent Canada, Mexico, United States summit and the three leaders pledged to strike a task force to devise a plan. “We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” Mexico’s Peña Nieto said.

Good news, but while they deliberate, what else can be done?

Order a subscription. Get FREE Milkweed seeds.

At Pegasus Publications and through our Local Gardener magazines, we have decided to pitch in and do what can be done to make sure the butterflies have a place to land and set up housekeeping when they arrive back here this spring. We are urging everyone we know to plant milkweed in their gardens as a start.

We have created a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheMonarchButterfly where people can compare notes and share where they have seen butterflies or caterpillars this spring and summer.

We have also created a blog about the butterflies and we invite guest writers to join us in telling stories about their experiences with these wonderful creatures. You can get involved here. http://savethemonarchbutterfly.wordpress.com/

I am talking about the butterflies on my radio show on CJOB Sunday mornings at 8:00 and we are carrying material in our other magazines and publications. We are also looking for partners to help us get the word out. This spring, we will have displays and seeds at the many garden shows we attend. We are also waiting for Save the Monarch bracelets that many of our garden centre friends and associates are planning to sell on behalf of the butterflies as a fundraiser so we can buy more seeds to give away.

For every subscription purchased to one of our magazines and we will donate a package of milkweed seeds FREE. Just go to my website at www.localgardener.net  to order a subscription to the magazine of your choice. If you already have a subscription, order a copy of The Book of10 Neat Things and we will send you the FREE milkweed seeds when we send the book.

Our hope is that we can convince many, many Canadians to plant milkweeds and make a difference to these amazing animals. You can learn more about them here. 10 Neat things about Monarch Butterflies.

The plants themselves are beautiful and the flowers are very impressive both as cut flowers and as dried. Children are enthralled by the life cycle of the butterfly – who wouldn’t be thrilled to watch the magic of this butterfly emerging from its transparent chrysalis, then slowly unfolding and spreading it wings to dry? And it is hard not to be inspired by the tale of their brave journey south to their winter home — sometimes they have to fly 3,000 miles to reach their ultimate destination. About 10 per cent, we are told, even survive long enough to make the return journey, though most of the spring visitors are the third generation of the butterfly that left your home garden last fall.

One of my staff recently asked me, “Why is it so important to save these butterflies?” The answer is simple: all things are connected and what happens to one thing happens to all the rest.

Or as someone else said so eloquently:

“This we know – the Earth does not belong to man — man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

“Whatever befalls the Earth — befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life — he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

– Ted Perry, Screenwriter, 1971, interpreting and expanding upon the words of Chief Seattle from speech that was made in 1854.

The female monarch butterfly is lighter in colour than the male.

The female monarch butterfly is lighter in colour than the male.

 

Animal talk

squirrel drinking.

Across the garden, a rival red squirrel has taken over the big bird bath.

The garden is filled with birds including a couple of jays that have taken up residence.

They fly alarmingly close to where I sit under the branches of the  fir tree that Glenn trimmed up this spring to give us room for an umbrella. This tree, planted between two cedars, was only four feet tall when we moved here. It seems like only yesterday but it is already 21 years ago. Now it towers above the cedars which have also grown to be mighty trees that loom over our house.

The birds have a mission: the back of the house is covered in vines as is the fence between our house and the neighbour’s pool. The vines are a magnet for sparrows that seem to find juicy snacks among the leaves. They have never nested there, but I hear that sparrows and other birds often do nest among Englemann’s ivy. What a perfect home: food and leafy shade right within beak’s reach. A female would never have to leave the nest!

But they are not the only feathered visitors to decorate the space in homey ways. Behind my chair, Glenn installed a bamboo screen for greater privacy, and here between the tree trunks we set up an urn-shaped fountain where the water bubbles up quietly then trickles down the  sides to a small reservoir at the fountain’s base. A pale blue light shines on the bubbling water and plays with the shadows at night.

This fountain fascinates the chickadees that are not at all shy about landing right beside us for a drink. Glenn thinks he can train them to land on his hand and he may be able to do so. He is that kind of guy.

Now, after scolding me for half an hour from the branches high above, a small red squirrel gets up the courage to come down the trunk for a drink. When I turn my head in its direction, it hesitates and begins to run back up again. “It’s all right Squirrel. You can get a drink,” I murmur, inanely. It looks at me, head cocked, every muscle triggered to spring into action if needed, then instead of scurrying away, it proceeds to edge of the basin where it pauses  and drinks deeply. I can see the movement of its gullet as it draws in the water. It drinks twice, then scrambles back up the trunk.

fountain

The bubbling fountain. The little red squirrel loves to drink from the basin.

It makes you wonder if squirrels can read body language or perhaps our tone of voice. Why wasn’t it afraid? We were so close I could easily have touched it, and these little red squirrels are usually so timid. But maybe animals understand far more than we give them credit for.

People with the time to study these things are discovering that social animals have an extensive language. Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus at North Arizona University, and a group of his students conducted a study of prairie dogs last year. Using computer technology, they were able to decode much of the prairie dog language to understand alarm calls and other “words” in the nuanced tones of their chatter.  The prairie dogs had different “words” for different animals and they could distinguish between the threatening human and the harmless one – even when that person changed the colour of his clothing. They could tell the difference between circle and triangles.

Here’s a link to the CBC program  where I heard this:

http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/06/21/learning-animal-language-from-prairie-dogs/index.html

As  Dr. Con Slobodchikoff pointed out, Why wouldn’t squirrels and birds have similar abilities? And  they also seem to be able to make judgments about behaviour in humans. I earned the trust of a wren when I rescued its nest from a marauding bird. Ever after that, the wrens,  usually shy little birds, allowed me to approach very closely without  any fuss.

Makes your wonder . . .

In May, I plant

The plants have been waiting not so patiently for their summer home.

The plants have been waiting not so patiently for their summer home.

(I wrote this blog three weeks ago. Forgive me for being so late in putting it up.)

The wind was like a knife whipping through the yard, dwelling in the open spaces, carrying whiffs of the Oklahoma tornadoes in its fierceness. But the sun shone intermittently, teasing enough heat out of the sky to bring a smile to the tulips.

And there was I, bending and dipping and lugging and hauling heavy containers around the yard, stooping to pop bright bedding plants into the freshly dug potting soil. It seemed so inappropriate; the cold morning was like an insult to the greenhouse pampered plants.

I can hear Gail Braun’s voice in my mind saying, “Don’t plant too early. If flowers get a chill, it will set them back for the year.” Gail plants thousand of annuals each year – her yard is a wonder of colour and bloom. Still, I have no choice. It is this weekend or two weeks from now when there will be nothing worth buying in the garden centers. I have to be in Toronto for the next ten days.

Barb comes by at 3:30 so planting is over for the day. Barb is 84 next week, a former model (mod-elle, she says, exaggerating the elle part), one of the local socialites of the 1960s and 70s. She is still beautiful, but a lifetime of smoking and two lung lobe removals have left her a bit breathless and unable to walk far. She loves to garden and the previous weekend, it was her garden that we concentrated on, except for last Saturday morning when Ian and I drove out to Portage la Prairie to visit Our Farm nursery. Here, a widowed single mom and her large family of 14 beautiful kids run a greenhouse tucked away in the middle of farming country – and here one of the boys has discovered the wonderful world of succulents. They have 275 varieties.

I am thrilled. I want one of everything, but I restrain myself to a several dozen. As I shop, we – or perhaps I should say, Ian — stop to chat with the many members of the family who are working around the greenhouse, watering and pruning and tallying up orders. Their young mother comes out to talk – she is beautiful, too. They are all so excited and enthusiastic. I am completely charmed; Ian falls half in love with the oldest girl. Near the front door to the nursery, where a large tank is filled with goldfish and koi and a giant coffee urn dispenses Tim Horton’s finest, the loveliest surprise resides behind the till: a large picture frame showcases an abstract “painting” of subtly coloured succulents. It’s not for sale, although they have had some amazing offers.

Now here we are, the following Saturday, Barb and I, and a lot of these fantastic plants. I have a large clay trough that once belonged to Barb – perfect for a planting of succulents. We choose them together and tuck them in looking for contrast in height and colour and texture. Barb is also an artist.

Then I haul over an old cracked birdbath that we fill with earth and plant a few more succulents to provide greenery for the fairies, in our fairy garden. A piece of broken mirror makes a pond. Bits of river stone and some coral we brought back form Mexico cover the bare earth while the sedums take hold. The chickadee that has taken up residence in the ceramic birdhouse by the kitchen window flits to and fro, not the least intimidated by our presence.

Thus we while away a couple of hours, absorbed in our make-believe world, oblivious to the wind, which is now only cool. The light begins to wane and trays and trays of annuals still await their final homes, but Barb and I are filled with contentment as we move into the warmth of the house and a meal of salmon and salad with Glenn.

Barb and I planted up this old birdbath for the fairies.

Barb and I planted up this old birdbath for the fairies.

Sunday dawned bright and clear with a promise of warmth in the air. After my radio show of CJOB and numerous errands, it was back to the garden. Ian and his kids came over and, in four hours, we accomplished what would have taken me four days. Now the dog work is done and I can play with the yard, moving this here and that there . . .

Meanwhile the hummingbirds have emptied the feeder. The Red squirrel has chased away its rival Gray. Under the budding apple tree, the hostas have poked their furled leaves through the soil and forget-me-nots are waiting to paint the garden blue. Native ferns stand fresh and green, the youngest still shyly holding their heads down. The bergenia have not yet sent out their stiff pink spikes. But the ornamental plum is fully dressed and the lilac may yet wait for me to come home before releasing all her heady scents.

Even though there was frost twice last week, spring is fully engaged now and I am immersed in the joy of the new season.

Flowers, birds and nonsense limericks

Pictoee petunia in a pot. I think this one went under the name of 'Rhythm and Blues'.

Pictoee petunia in a pot. I think this one went under the name of ‘Rhythm and Blues’.

One of the many bi-coloured petuias -- I have lost the name of this one.

One of the many bi-coloured petuias — I have lost the name of this one.

'Lemon Slice' calibrachoa.

‘Lemon Slice’ calibrachoa.

A closeup of the magenta and white striped petunia.

A closeup of the magenta and white striped petunia.

A picotee petunia. picotee simply refers to the white edge, This one was magenta and white.

A picotee petunia. picotee simply refers to the white edge, This one was magenta and white.

'Rhythm and blues' Petunia.

‘Rhythm and blues’ Petunia.

April 21, 2013. It’s snowing in Winnipeg. Again.

 
I just thought I’d add that for the record. I cannot remember such a slow spring, where the snow never seems to melt and keeps being supplemented by additional flakes of frozen rain.
Spring is struggling to emerge.

 
Yesterday, I watched a pair of chickadees cleaning out the wren’s house outside my kitchen window. I wonder if they are planning to take up residence there, although like wrens, they try out a number of locations before finally settling on one. We would prefer the wrens who are very energetic nesters and keep us delighted by their antics all spring long.

 
In my back yard, near the house, the snow has retreated thanks to heat from the house and a southern exposure. Here some little plants are trying to find the light but many are still cowering under last year’s debris. I will leave this in place to protect the plantlings and ladybugs for as long as I can. The green that is showing through is proof, though, that there is life under all that snow — in fact, I am told that the ground is frozen to only a six-inch depth this year, so when the snow retreats, we will see an explosion of life. It will be one of those springs where the plants simply leap from the ground, dragging their blossoms into view almost immediately.

 
And there is so much to look forward to this year in the plant world.

 
As usual, petunias have some new cousins and so do the calibrachoas. The breeders have been hard at work coming up with ever more fantastic combinations of colours and blossom shapes and sizes. There are new petunias which I will share with you over the next couple of weeks. Last year’s were wonderful, too, as you can see here. I loved the picotee petunias in magenta and white and purple and white. The striped reds and yellow calibrachoas were lovely and excellent performers. ‘Lemon slice’ the yellow one glowed in the garden.

 
I love petunias because they bloom so valiantly all summer long, keeping their brilliant colours and always looking fresh and eager, even as summer wanes and other plants fade. I always have many pots full of them and they often steal the show away from the more expensive additions.

The other great winners were the succulents and I plan to have a lot more this year. My little collection was much admired, but as I go along I am thinking of more creative ways to grow them.
The silver dollar tree (Eucalyptus cineria) with its blue gray coin-shaped leaves was very good last year, probably thanks to the hot conditions. I still have great stalks of it dried in vases as a side benefit.

When I go through some of last year’s photos, I can hardly believe that in just a few short weeks the world outside will be as bright with colour and as lush with green when now all is still drab and gray. This is the ugliest time of year, before the spring cleanup of all that gravel put down over winter to prevent accidents.

Yet, the miracle will happen and we will be singing:

Spring is sprung
The grass is riz.
I wonder where the birdies is.
The bird is on the wing!
Well that’s absurd.
I always thought he wing was on the bird!
-Anonymous

And long ago, when just a tad, I penned this nonsense:

If a bug on a bud is a bee
The what is a tit on a tree?
They say it’s a bird,
But I call that absurd.
Is this bump on my chest called a knee?
– It should be anonymous!

As you can see, the prolonged winter has affected my brain.

Reflections on a reluctant spring

Winter bones in the garden of Agatha Wren at Victoria Beach. She made a lovely lunch and showed us her greenhouse while blue shadows played with the trees on the pristine snow.

Winter bones in the garden of Agatha Wren at Victoria Beach. She made a lovely lunch and showed us her greenhouse while blue shadows played with the trees on the pristine snow.

It is the 31st day of March, 2013. The sun is shedding her hot breath on the decaying snow banks, which weep water. Corrosive and salty lake-sized puddles wash the bellies of cars and trucks. It is minus 7 Celsius, but the days are long now, more than 12 hours and 52 minutes today, and the sun is persistent, the snow no longer resistant, even though the air is still quite frigid. It will dip to minus 15 tonight, but the battle between sun and snow will continue tomorrow. Even with the air temperature hovering at just around zero, and much lower at night, the snow must soon be gone.

There is a lot of it to go. It is piled as high as second-storey windows at some rural locations I am told. Exposed to the winds, with no obstruction, the snow can drift into massive peaks. Here in the city though, it’s the snow ploughs that pile the snow up. They have buried my front garden under four feet of snow, sand and salt, scarring a dwarf evergreen in the exercise. I despair of its recovery this summer, poor thing.
In spite of all this and the reluctance of the winter air to leave us, spring is here. And I know that the stirrings under the earth are beginning. The evergreen trees have lost some of their winter blackness as the sun stirs the leaves into action, already manufacturing chlorophyll. On warm days in the heat of the sun, their sap is singing as is that of the maple and the birch and the elm and the cottonwood. I cannot get anywhere near the forsythia which is surrounded by high accumulations of snow, but I imagine the buds to be swelling and the flowers preparing to burst into colour at the slightest encouragement by warm spring winds. This year, there will be some flowers if only from those branches that have spent the winter under the snow. Because forsythia blooms on old wood, a very cold winter (below -38 C) can damage the flower buds of even the hardiest forsythia. And often damage happens once dormancy breaks and the shrub is hit with a heavy cold spell of sub zero temperatures.

But I live in hope. I am a gardener , after all.

The hoar frost was heavy on the trees and it fell like little diamonds through the sunlit air.

The hoar frost was heavy on the trees and it fell like little diamonds through the sunlit air.

“Words are birds
that fly in herds . . .”
So began a limerick I composed while listening to what I am sure was a weighty argument being made by an important MP at some obscure debate back in my old world and I am reminded of this now after a two-week period during which I have given seven talks, attended nine meetings, taken part in two conference calls and listened to one long-winded political announcement. My head is buzzing with conflicting messages.

But the words were driven from my mind as I drove to Transcona this week to speak with a group of ladies who have been meeting about gardens and other things for the past 44 years! Not only were they refreshingly interactive, but the day was beautiful, with the sun smiling through an archway of hoar-frosted elms that line the streets. It was a heavy frost that was falling in diamond flakes, each flake spinning in the sunlight as it fell, picking up bits of light and flinging it outward.

I feel that I can hear the frost on mornings like this, when the air is so crystal clear and there is music in each breath of wind. If it were like this every day, we could wait much longer for spring.

A week ago, I drove to Victoria Beach to do a talk. Agatha Wren made us lunch and showed us her garage greenhouse. The snow lay deep on the ground; it had been refreshed that morning and the sun was marking blue shadows on the white land. I listened to the silence and rejoiced in the birdsong that gave it substance.

These brief encounters with the real world keep me sane. Yesterday, I drove three hours through the winter landscape to the International Peace Gardens for a meeting. Then I drove  home another three hours but by a different route, feasting my eyes on the rolling white landscape dressed up by the spring-urgent trees on either side of the road. The journey drove away the stress of the week. The time slipped by unnoticed with the scenery and a travel companion who spoke intelligently about a whole range of topics.

It is Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, we had a family dinner for 10 and the laughter echoes in my mind with sweetness. Today, Holly will come for dinner because she had to work on Friday. I have spoken with both my lovely daughters. Life is so full.

 

Deaming the summer garden

DSCN1813

Above and right: My untidy garden by the little blue spruce. ( I forgot about the mugho pine). The Amur maple is in the background. The flower-filled space in the photo to the right will be left to bloom wildly for now.

DSCN0246 DSCN1791

The sun rises now by 7:30 a.m. and, when I am on my way to the radio station to do my weekly show on CJOB, it is just above the horizon. This morning it was a brilliant ball of burning fire shining straight into my eyes as I travelled east towards the studio. All around, the trees were dressed in white as the temperature is hovering around zero in the daytime, while at night it dips down to minus ten or so. It’s a different kind of hoar frost than in early winter. Now it seems chalkier, painting evergreens grey as the stock of chlorophyll in the leaves is almost completely used up. It is lovely nonetheless.

You can smell spring in the wind; but more you can feel it in your veins — there’s a lightening in my step, a singing of blood that seems to move faster. There a sort of urgency in the air. My thoughts keep slipping to the garden and what to plant this summer, how I want to renovate and do something completely new in the front yard.

I am a spontaneous gardener. No matter how much I plan. I can’t resist making adjustments at planting time and then the whole scheme goes awry. I’d like to be one of those gardeners who create symmetry in shape and form, but my gardens are always more sprawling and carefree. I have decided that this summer the front yard will be taken to task and turned into a tidy work of art. I even have a plan and have asked Jamie Coté who does this as a business to help me out. I need that kind of discipline.

DSCN1740

Lovely lamium in springtime.

I am thinking that hostas, ferns, bergenia, pulmonaria and dwarf shrubs can be made to reside under the cottonwood and between the small Blue spruce and the Amur maple. I already have a number of these plants that could be divided, not to mention a couple of lovely little lime coloured barberries. Sadly, all my beautiful heuchera succumbed to the warm winters of the past couple of years; they will need replacing to add a few notes of contrast. I mustn’t forget to add some of the fabulous Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ or better still, ‘Looking Glass’, the leaves of which are almost white with a frosting of mint. It’s about texture as much as colour, so I will have to have some astilbes for their ferny foliage. Maybe I could add some wine-coloured bugloss to cover any bare patches. I need to create some mass plantings to allow the shape and colour of the plants to show to their best advantage. With Jamie’s help, the plan will be fulfilled because I won’t be in there at the planting, changing my mind and making impulsive decisions. Either way, I can hardly wait. And I am going to enrich the soil this spring while we are waiting for planting time. The front gardens have gone several years without any help and they show it.
Right now I am shopping in my mind’s eye but wait till I get to the garden centres. I wonder if there’d be room for an elephant’s ear — I’d like the black one. Could I add a miniature water feature to keep it happy?
You see what I am doing here, don’t you? I am reneging on my promise to Glenn to remove the old cottonwood. I am enabling its shade and giving up the luxurious green lawn he longs for — right now the tree drinks as much water as we can pour on the grass. But the call of the garden is strong and I hope he will forgive me. Of course the more I enrich the borders, the more the tree will thrive and the more it will be thirsty . . .

The wanton ways of flowers in springtime

The cosmos seems to say, "Ta da!" as it opens to the sun.

The cosmos seems to say, “Ta da!” as it opens to the sun.

I love the wanton ways of flowers in springtime. They like to open up and spread their petals when nobody is looking, but now and then on a shining morning I catch them flaunting their freshness.

They are so playful and replete with joy as they offer themselves to passing pollinators. Some make me laugh at the way they seem to sing “Ta da!” as they fling out their petals in a burst of sun-warmed enervation. There is a rhythmic dance to the way they emerge, all bright and flawless, some enticingly perfumed, dressed in their blazing colours. Even in the rain they can’t restrain themselves, unfolding more slowly, looking dewy and innocent.

Some, the peonies, unfold their petals one-by-one in a lazy sort of way. They can afford to take their time, there are so many of them. The daisy types, though, are more spontaneous, more willing to bare it all in one grand gesture. Petunias shyly un-crumple like poppies but their wrinkled petals soon turn satin smooth in the sun.

"Pick me! Pick me!" the lily begs of the bee.

“Pick me! Pick me!” the lily begs of the bee.

Tulips unfurl in a tentative way, gradually revealing their hearts to the sun until, throwing caution aside like an unwanted blanket, they spread their petals wide in abandon. Lilies do the same, stamens reaching for any passing bee. “Pick me, pick me!”

Zinnias unroll their petals more sedately; anthers slowly unbend into an upright position like dancers in the Rite of Spring.

The parabolic crocuses are very forthright in their seduction by the sun. Long before the snow has completely left the ground, the crocuses entice fingers of sunlight to reach inside, concentrating the warming rays into the centre of the flower to fuel early seed production. This is serious business for the crocus; a late heavy frost can put it out of production for the year.

This weekend, there was a heavy breeze on Saturday that carried traces of the coming spring. It felt like March, during those blood stirring days when you know that the sun will win in the end and that all the snow will soon wither and leave, shrinking and slipping away into gray puddles, its dazzling white now past history.

Today, there is a blizzard outside the city limits. People are stranded in truck stops on the highway just a stone’s throw away because the roads are sheer ice and visibility is zero. That’s part of the coming springtime, too. This is when we usually get our deadliest winter storms that can dump several feet of snow overnight and then, aided by a biting wind, fling back it at faces and unprotected spaces like a sand blaster.

But this rebellion is all for naught in the end. The winds will die. The sun will win. The snow will melt. For a time the earth will be laid bare, looking barren but only hiding its secrets: the teeming life already thrumming beneath its surface.

Gently, the warmth of the sun will penetrate the earth, stroking awake the billions of bacteria and protozoa, and fungi, the millions of nematodes, worms, beetles, grubs, slugs, ants and spiders and all the beauty and richness of the eco system that surrounds the roots of our plants. The world beneath the surface of the earth is so many times more diverse and rich than our own. No wonder the plants want to reside there. Why be concerned about mobility when everything they need is so ready-to-root? The symbiotic relationship plants have formed both below and above ground allows them to exploit the best of both worlds.

And they put it all to such wonderful use, providing us with food for the body and food for the soul.

The crocus knows how to entice fingers of sun into its centre to start seed production early.

The crocus knows how to entice fingers of sun into its centre to start seed production early.

DSCN8036

Lupine buds ready to burst into the open.

They are bright and flawless when they emerge.

They are bright and flawless when they emerge.

DSCN1076

A zinnia unfolds its anthers that look like dancers unbending in the Rite of Spring.

They all add food for the soul.

They all add food for the soul.

 

The transience of tranquility

It snowed last night, but the early morning sun promises a brilliant day.

It snowed last night, but the early morning sun promises a brilliant day.

The snow is piling higher and higher on either side of the driveway.

The snow is piling higher and higher on either side of the driveway.

It’s minus 24 this morning, a relief from the frigid temperatures we have been enjoying, temperatures that have dipped into the minus 30s and below when the wind is factored in. In spite of the cold, it snowed yesterday, fine snow, falling relentlessly and building on the already formidable snow banks that line our driveway. Today, the weatherman predicts a day of brilliant sunshine where the fiery ball lights up the sky with a blinding lemon glow.

The snow speaks when you walk on it with that squeak-squawk song, this time a low and guttural sound because it is so cold. It is an almost perfect winter. The snow is white, not gritty-gray from sand — it’s no use putting down salt when it’s this cold, thank goodness. Driving is tricky. You have to pay attention because it is quite slippery on the streets. But our cars remain clean.

People are bundled; you can often see only a slit for the eyes of the bus people waiting at the stops. We seem to feel the cold more this winter after the balmy weather last year but there is a cheerfulness in their voices as people come in from the outdoors, saying, “Awfully chilly out there, today!” There is a pride in the acknowledgement. And we all feel vitally alive.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After writing the above, I drove to work, mesmerized by the sundogs that I chased with my camera. They are so elusive when I try to capture an image on the fly. It was very slippery on the icy-glassy streets, so the going was slow, but it didn’t matter because the morning was very beautiful. Exhaust fogs followed cars as they pulled away from street lights. The sun dogs danced on either side of the sun, which seemed so close you could almost touch it. January is the time when the sun is closest to the earth, although the earth’s axis tilt keeps us in the north from feeling its strength.

I drove to work chasing sundogs, caught here as I waited at a red light.

I drove to work chasing sundogs, caught here as I waited at a red light.

 

I had no sooner arrived at the office when my bookkeeper, Margot, came in and pointed out an accident on the corner right outside my window. One car had been rammed up the snowy boulevard and into the street light. The other was sprawled across the intersection, its front end completely crumpled. A red-haired woman was frantically trying to open the rear doors of the car and when she succeeded two young children, a boy of about 8 and a girl of 11, came tumbling out. They began walking in our direction, the girl holding her stomach and crying. They looked confused and in shock.

 

“Open the back door and bring them in where it’s warm,” I shouted. In a few minutes they were all inside, including the other driver who kept saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I think she had gone through a red light, or perhaps couldn’t stop on the icy road. The little girl continued to cry and moan and now her brother started crying, too, frightened, I suppose. The mother was trembling and breathless.

We supplied phones and chairs and comfort and soon the fire department paramedics arrived. Some came in to see to the children. Others efficiently blocked the street until they could move the cars and clean up the debris. This was all done and traffic was flowing within half an hour. Inside, the children had stopped crying and mom was getting in touch with her family. It was finally decided that they would take the little girl to the hospital “just to be sure”, as her stomach was still hurting. The little boy had a goose egg on his head, but he seemed all right. In two hours they were all on their way.

It made me think, though, about the transience of tranquility and how it can be so easily exploded by a chance act, a split second of bad judgement or inattention. It appears that no one was seriously hurt in this case, but I can’t help but think of the disruption to their lives. The children will have missed school that day. The mom will have missed work, not to mention the funeral she said they were going to. The grandmother, who came to take the boy home, had her day turned upside down. Dad, at work, must have been frantic with worry — I could hear the kids talking to him on the phone. The family will be car-less for some time. The other driver may face charges — her car, too, was inoperable because, while it was in better shape, the front wheel had been broken.

And yet, when they were all gone from the office, the turbulent space they had occupied closed behind them as though nothing had ever happened. Our day went on as before and only the snowy tracks of all the firemen’s boots were left to attest to their presence. The snow soon melted in the carpet and dried, leaving no trace.

Outside, other cars passed unharmed through that space on the corner, creeping along to deal with the treacherous ice. The sun beamed down, flooding the world with lemon and leaving the sundogs behind as she rose. The day went on.

Soon the house will be all but buried in the snow if it keeps up.

Soon the house will be all but buried in the snow if it keeps up.

The unattainable sound of silence

The sounds of the city permeate everything.

The sounds of the city permeate everything.

In my office, the heating system sounds like a plane revving up for takeoff. It is not loud, but it keeps me in a constant state of anticipation. I am alert for the message saying it’s time to board, and I don’t know whether that makes me work harder or simply adds to the stress of the day.

At home, the refrigerator has a very loud voice. It not only hums in a most irritating way, if you leave the door open too long, it complains with a chirping sound. The clothes washer and dryer, which Glenn keep in constant action, sing an altogether different tune, competing with the furnace which cuts in and out in a roundelay of mechanical song.

The downstairs television goes 24/7; it’s a Dobbie thing. I say nothing. Clocks tick, computers hum along with the other machines, the house creaks and groans with the weather. Outside, the distant highway sends off regular rounds of thunder as mighty trucks pass — occasionally punctuated by a crash. You can’t really hear the highway inside with the doors and windows closed, but the odd siren pierces the air. On a still summer night, with the windows open at 2:00 in the morning, you can hear the whistle of the train and the rumbling of its wheels on the metal tracks four miles away.

On a quiet Sunday morning, after the dawn chorus of wakening birds, you can hear the incessant whirr of the neighbour’s built-in vacuum system as she cleans up the masses of dog hair that her two big dogs must deposit every day. We used to hear the sweet sound of her daughter’s voice as she practised her singing.

The pool filter motor goes on next and then someone starts up a lawn mower.

At dawn the sound of silence is soon broken by the light.

At dawn the sound of silence is soon broken by the light.

In winter those sounds go away to be replaced by snow blowers and the sound of engines running as cars warm up. After a snow fall, you can hear the cheery sound of shovels scraping against concrete.

When the neighbour’s son on the other side of our house is home alone, he cranks up the sound so loud that it reverberates against my home office wall; I can feel the pulse of the beat and the thrumming of the base.

There is always a hum or a whirr going on in the house even when everything with a volume control is turned off. At night, I sleep with a sleep apnea mask. The sound of the machine is faint — the sound of the air internalized, but there is sound all around. The heater cuts in and out. The incessant television downstairs adds a low rumble, the computer across the hall sends out the occasional ping as the spammers do their midnight chores.
It is never quiet.

Sometimes I long for the deep peace of the countryside, where the quiet is disturbed only by the wind rustling through leaves or by small animals and insects foraging for food. You can hear bees buzzing in this air, the fluttering of bird wings, the early morning dew dripping and releasing leaves of their burden.
In this silence, the sun’s rays travel through space and warm your arms and throat with the quality of sound. At night, the crystal midnight air reveals billions of stars humming overhead.
How beautiful, the absence of mechanical sound. It allows you to hear the throb of the earth and the sound of your heart pumping blood thorugh your veins.

In the city in winter, if you rise at four, you might catch a slice of this silence between the hum of the street lights and the distance sounds of ever present traffic. The cold helps and the snow muffles the city noise, but it’s always there, competing with the creak of the trees in the frost, with the scurrying mice feet in the pukak, the patter of the daring squirrel out of his nest to gather a hurried meal in the freezing air.

I think I shall rise at four tomorrow to listen to the sound of silence.

Of New Year’s and fish stories

It’s almost 2013 and I wonder where 2012 went. It flitted across my consciousness like a wraith or like those wispy mists you see on a summer’s morning, hanging just about eye level, barely there.

It wasn’t an unhappy year, although it was filled with anxiety for much of the time while Glenn was ill. There were some ups and some downs and lots and lots of activity. There were moments of quiet joy and others of deep dismay, but that is normal for all of us.

But still, how did the year slip away like that?

When you are very, very busy, it is hard to hold on to time. I live always in the future, it seems; one event is behind and another already looms on the horizon, but what I really want is some time to dream.

I would like to lie in the warm grass in a quiet place with a good book and handful of raisins to munch on, savouring their sweetness one by one, slowly, so make them last all day.

That is what I used to do as a girl when we lived high in the East Kootenays where there was no sunset, only light followed by darkness as the sun dropped behind the mountain. I used to long for the prairies then, never glorying in the pure, cold water that ran down the mountainsides in rills and brooks and by our house in a roaring creek; or in the sweet black cherries that dripped from the trees of a deserted but fruit-laden orchard that yielded other treasures such as crisp apples, warm pears and fuzzy peaches. The pattern for my life was already set then — living in one paradise and dreaming of another.

Now I long for that mountainside where I used to take my book and blanket on a hot summer’s afternoon and lie beside the brook with its waterfall, listening to the soothing sound of insects buzzing in the sun-burned grass. It smelled of home.This small clearing that faced the afternoon sun reeked of the wonderful, wide open spaces that had been imprinted on my heart as a little girl. I knew then, at 13, that home was where the sky meets the earth like an upside down bowl of blue and where, if you stood on a knoll, you could see forever. I knew I would come back here to live or I could not live at all.

But for their brief time in my life, the mountains slipped into my psyche and I dream of them every now and then; of the channel we children dug through our yard so that a rill that disappeared underground when it came to our property would run through the garden on its way to the creek. Our digging was done fruitlessly, I am afraid, the water having a mind and a path of its own; this was an early lesson in gardening that I wordlessly absorbed. There were wonderful wild things there, too. Devil’s club filled us with terror lest we get scratched by what the local kids told us were its poisonous thorns. Hemlock, we were told, could kill us without provocation if we touched it and then our mouths. We believed all these things and they added delicious fear to our everyday existence.

We learned to fish in the cool streams there. My sister and I would take our fishing rods and our golden Labrador, Buster, for early morning adventures, telling our Mom we were going to catch trout for dinner. And often we did. Once though we were having a hard time living up to our promise. The fish were just not co-operating. We tried all the usual spots but with no success. Then we came across a still pond above a little rapids in the creek. Swimming aimlessly in the pond was a very large trout, much larger than the usual eight- or nine-inch youngsters we usually caught. Legend had it that these trout were spawned in some lake further up the mountain beyond where the road ended, past the deserted gold mills, further even than the glacier that fed the creek its icy temperatures.

We immediately set our hooks for this beauteous fish but neither of us had any luck. Still, I had another plan. I had read about fish tickling and I thought perhaps we could apply this delightful trick to the catching of our heart’s desire. Being the eldest, I tried first, confident in my superior abilities due to a 15-month earlier entry into the world than my little sister. But I tried in vain. No matter how still I kept my arms in that chilling water, and no matter how close the fish swam, I couldn’t make the final connection.

“Let me try,” sang Carole and, of course, I  yielded, if somewhat contemptuously. How could she do what I could not? Within a minute she had the fish flipped out onto the gravel beach, flopping and flapping furiously as it tried to regain the water.

“Get the crutch, get the crutch,” she shouted, meaning the “Y” of a branch we had cut earlier to string our fish on when we caught them. Holding the fish at the short end of the fishing line, you skillfully ran one side of the fork through the gills and, if you were lucky, you could extract the hook without ever having to touch the fish. But this time there was no fishing line, only my foot to hold the fish down and the subject was not taking this imposition without objection. Getting the crutch through the gills was turning out to be a difficult task. To subdue it, I stepped down a little harder but, instead of controlling the squirmy little beast, it squirted out from under my foot and right back into the water — this time not into the pool where it had been trapped, but straight into the main stream of the creek and away!

We went home fishless and dejected after many hours of pointless labour. Mom was frantic with worry because we had been gone to so long. She was not amused or convinced by our story about the fish that got away.

As for Carole, she never forgave me. Who could blame her?