A man of stone

koi fish in stone

Todd Braun’s koi have been immortalized in stone. Behind the fish is the arbour which used to house Penelope, who was spirited away by an admirer. Photo by Todd Braun.

Twenty-five years ago, Todd Braun felt compelled to turn from farming to working with granite.

His heart has always been captivated by stone which to him is pulsing with life and history. As a boy, he warmed himself near the floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace in his parent’s home. As a young man, he enjoyed working on a stone restoration project at historic Lower Fort Garry. His romance with stone deepened as he helped a friend build a stone castle in southern Manitoba.

Today, Todd makes his living from sculpting lovely things from stone. Gigantic granite rocks hold secrets vibrating with life, longing to be released. They speak to Todd and he listens.  In the early days of his work, he hollowed out polished basins from hefty pieces of granite and he caused big, rugged rocks to let sun-warmed water flow forth through their core and trickle down their outsides. He was thrilled by the way, at certain times of day, the sun could shine through doughnut holes carved out of rocks. He created monuments to that fundamental fact, playing with sun angles and the size of the openings.  He uses smaller pieces of rock to make lanterns in which to burn candles that cause the rock to glow and the light to be magnified.

As Todd and his wife, Lisa, slowly built their home and business, Todd turned his yard into a studio to show off his works. Gigantic stone supports hold up the lintel of a gateway that has been erected at the entrance to their private yard. There are stone benches warmed by the sun to rest on and, at one time, a large stone table centred the yard where he and Lisa have been known to serve lovely home-baked bread, cheeses and mellow wine.

The garden surrounding their home is a curious mix of wildflowers and unexpected artworks of rock. Todd loves wood almost as much as stone and he has a special affinity for the natural plants that grow around St. Joseph, Manitoba, near Altona, where he and Lisa live on their farm. In one corner of the yard, a large female face of stone used to be suspended from an arbour above a fire pit. Her name was Penelope, but she seems to have been spirited away by an admirer. The stone population here has been known to ramble, plucked away for a price by an audience moved by its power and beauty.

stone sculpture

A still water granite bowl. Todd Braun photo.

To one side of the house, Todd created a great pond edged with stone and filled with koi. He likes to sit on the edge of this pond and think about what he sees and how he will bring the next of his projects to life. Not long ago, his koi were immortalized as an enormous stone fish, which Todd can admire from his viewpoint across the water.

Todd has caused pathways to meander through his yard where trees and plants can show off his stone carvings: his  stone fountains and the still-water basins and, in one place, a huge hump-backed rock bearing a spine of little rocks. It’s a twenty-first century dinosaur that seems completely at home here in the partial shade. Stone art is everywhere: carved faces set on pedestals and beautifully shaped rocks, some featuring peep holes or sun-catchers, depending on your point of view.

At the end of the driveway leading from the road is the former barn which is now Todd’s workshop. It is fitted with heavy-lifting pulleys and platforms upon which he can work to split and polish the stones with the various saws and grinders and other implements of his art. He sometimes entertains guests on another stone table set up under a wooden arbour outside the studio.

Todd is a big man, understandingly physically strong, but surprisingly poetic in his view of the world. He radiates a calming stoicism born of the land he works with and his roots that go deep into the prairie soil. His mother, Gail, lives not far away on the family farm, where she indulges her passion for plants and colour in a garden that blazes with bright annuals: coleus, petunias, zinnias and begonias. She seems his polar opposite, but perhaps not. Gail, too, has a yen for rocks and her garden provides a stage for one particularly lovely, castle-shaped rock that she found in a local ditch. She admires her son’s garden. He admires hers.

Lately, Todd has taken to growing potatoes and his fertile brain is absorbing all he can learn about the humble spud. From time to time, he will send out a newsletter to his friends, and one arrived yesterday:

“I looked out one frosty morning to see the fish, under the ice and…. on their sides – YiKeS! I think this particular display was the fish’s way of saying – ‘Help!!!, save us!, final notice, get us out of here ASAP!’ I thought they were done for but, amazingly, we lost only one fish out of 28! They are now happy, warm and begging for food in their pond in the basement.

 The Elemental Landscape cats are spending most of their time in their insulated winter box – very disgusted with the bitterly cold weather. Hendrik, a charismatic stray, applied for a position this spring. After an extended trial period, Hendrik has taken up official residence in the workshop… he isn’t carving stone yet, however he’s very keen to learn. Wilma, our house cat and queen is doing great. She had many adventures this year, going on road trips, exploring quarries and generally enjoying her royal status…

We didn’t make a lot of changes in the garden this year but some of you may have noticed squash and potatoes filled many of the beds. Recently I’ve become fascinated by heritage potatoes – Purple Peruvian, La Ratte and Rose Finn fingerlings. Beautiful and tasty . . .“

Todd’s sculptures are making their way into a lot of Winnipeg gardens and are the iconic feature in many Manitoba town squares, including some in the city. Commissions like this are how he manages to stay alive and indulge his love for stone.

Todd Braun is a fascinating fellow, a true Manitoban. He is charismatic, creative, unique, and fearless in pursuing his passions. I share him with you today as a mark of my regard for his courage and his work. He doesn’t have a website, but I am encouraging him to start a blog so he can share with you first hand.

Happy New Year to all! May 2014 bring everyone joy, prosperity and peace.

Gardening dreams and August harvest

The view through my kitchen window

Dreams of gardens go drifting through my head at night; I am filled with flowers; enlightened by landscapes; swooning from scent. It is the overload of a day spent photographing lovely gardens for my magazines. My frustration is boundless – how can I teach that callous camera to see with my eyes, to capture the gardener’s meaning and give it back to her – or him – as a reward for the exquisite pleasure they have given me? Their gardens make my own efforts seem so puny, but I am glad that they have this power. The beauty they coax from the earth proves so much that is fine about the human race at a time when there are so many pressures for evil.

In my little garden, the annuals around the pool are laughing in the sunlight. Some are past their prime, but they had such a glorious youth that it is hard to blame them for feeling their job is done. The lobelia are very easily tired, the more so if they don’t get enough water, and addicted as they are to garden center fertilizing habits I have a hard time keeping up with their needs. The petunias are hardier, not minding the odd drought and the geraniums seem happy as long as there is plenty of room for their greedy roots and no competition from any other than their own kind.

Today is a lovely day, warm but not blazing and with gentle breezes that keep the mosquitoes at bay. I wish you could hear the music of the garden. When the wind blows, the wind chimes answer with tiny notes that suit the flowers around them. They have many voices, some low and cool, some higher and more delicately warm. They add variety to the whispers of the leaves and the rustlings of the smaller plants. Every now and then, there is a deeper creaking of a tree trunk, forced to speak by the pressure of the moving air. But the apples hang round and silent on their tree, concentrating on getting ripe.

Tomatoes are ripening on the vine

Tomatoes are also working toward that end. I see one or two turning red, but it has been too hot for their colours to develop. Tomatoes will refuse to ripen when the daytime temperatures are above 30 degrees C and the nighttimes, are above 20 C. The heat and, inversely, the cold below 10 C, interfere with the chemical requirements of the pigments carotene and lycopene that are responsible for the red colour in tomatoes.

Fingerling cucumbers will soon be 8 to10 inches long





Last week I picked two luscious cucumbers, about ten inches long each – they are the long, thin English type. Now I see two more showing promise at the top of the trellis. I give them a gallon of water to help them along.

My August garden would never win any prizes. The front yard is a disgrace – it is impossible to keep up with the watering so most of the perennials are simply trying to survive and don’t have the energy to bloom. This year the daylilies disappoint – even the weedy orange ones have not been spectacular. Ithas simply been too warm.

It is still some time before the faithful Clara Curtis chrysanthemum will appear in her pinkish-mauve dress, smelling somewhat unpleasantly of cat pee, but beautiful nonetheless. Still, the white David phlox is just coming into bloom and some blue allium are also showing. It is the annuals, however, that provide the colour now. This year, the vibrant oranges and reds and purples and yellows have added joy to every view.

Claire has gone home to Toronto but Ian’s mom is here from Jersey – I have promised to make them dinner, so I must fly away to the store. Glenn is still recovering (badly) from his second last bout with the chemo treatments. He wanted salmon for dinner and I am hoping he will feel well enough to eat it. Poor darling. He is so stoic about it all, but one more round then we hope it will be over and he can recover.

Hot as blazes

The pot with the feather reed grass is the same colour as the pool lining. The grass flowers dance in the sun.

“It’s hot as blazes out,” my grandmother used to say. I think blazes was a euphemism for Hell and today her saying would be right on the mark. The little mercury thermometer on the wall, the last of a disappearing breed as the Big Brains in Ottawa have outlawed mercury use in thermometers, says it is 34 degrees C or 92 on the Fahrenheit side. The water in the pool, (the cool, cool pool, since other Big Brains have condemned our pool heater as being within nine feet — 8.5 feet, actually — of the neighbour’s window — this after 30 years of completely safe operation) . . . anyhow, it is shining invitingly and I am ready for it.

There is the occasional blast of furnace warm air, hotter than a baby’s breath and just as sweet here in my flowery retreat. It whispers through the frothy flowers of the feather reed grass that glows in the big blue pot on the pool diving board. The pot is the same colour as the pool lining and it looks spectacular against the bright orange geraniums and chartreuse creeping Jenny that slide down the side and keep the grasses company.

I love how the sun catches the flowers of the grasses and tosses itself back and forth among them so that the fronds look like they are alive or alight or both.

All the things that love heat are happy. Overnight, two incipient cucumbers grew four inches and at least one ripe tomato is beckoning from among the lush tomato leaf foliage. The tree tomato is six feet tall, peeping its way from between the moonflower leaves; I planted them together, not having high expectations for either – they can share the tripod there, I thought. Now they have jostled each other until they are a jumble of green in their eagerness to reach the top and beyond; both tough and determined. Oh well, they are related, after all, and the best fights happen in families, don’t they?

I can’t wait for the moonflower to bloom; it does come late, just in time for the dusky evenings of August when we get to enjoy light in our gardens. The sun is now setting just after 9 instead of close to 10 as in June.

This morning a little dog came to visit the garden. Claire of the tender heart was quite concerned. “I feel so sorry for the owners,” she said. “I can just imagine how I would feel if Penny was missing.” Penny is Claire’s five-year-old dachshund that rules Claire’s Toronto household. Claire is 10, but she speaks like an adult. She came on CJOB with me this morning and held her own with the two PhDs who joined me to talk about insects. The lost dog made her anxious and her anxiety spread to me. We searched up and down the street and at last found a neighbour who knew the dog – what relief as he was handed off to his household.

Claire bought a pepper today. She hides it under the gargoyle to keep it out of the storm.

Claire and I went shopping for plants we didn’t need today. The greenhouse was intolerably hot, but we persevered and Clair bought a puny pepper that needed love; she has lots to give.

The heat today reminds me of being a child and lying in the grasses listening to the hum of all the insects that busied themselves in the hot prairie sun. I drew energy from the heat and the thrum of the earth as it passed though my body. I can feel it even now through the soles of my feet as I sit here barefooted on my patio.

Claire is inside our cool house, resting, as is Glenn. But I think I will get the old plaid blanket and lay my body against the earth for just a little while.


The earth was hard and poky. The blanket wasn’t big enough. The grass tickled my arms and the cushion I used was too skinny, but still, I dozed and felt better when I arose. Claire came out and I kept my promise to join her in the pool. We examined drowned casualties from the bug world and deadheaded the flowers that insist on dripping over the poolside. The water masks how hot it is outside and we dream away the temperature, floating on our backs – well, I float and Claire tries.

CBC radio says the temperature is now 35 C, but Claire said the house thermostat has declared it to be 42! That is over 107 F, and it feels every bit as hot as it sounds. I have to believe the house. Its very sophisticated mechanism has never lied before!

But I feel a storm stirring.


The storm sent hail and pounding rain – but little damage to our garden.

The sky turned black with anger and the wind came up violently – 100 km/h in some areas, we heard. There was thunder and lightening and a little bit of hail, but the most ferocious part passed us by. This morning, there were downed trees, one just a block from us leaning on the roof of its owner. City crews are clearing streets of other tree disasters.

But all was serene in my garden an hour after the storm and we cooked outside in the waning light.

Tree tomatoes and blooms

July 8, 2012

A fat robin is perched on the edge of the birdbath, preening itself but not yet daring to take the plunge. I wouldn’t either. There was no time yesterday to clean it and add fresh water. Our birds have been trained to be fussy, so he just sits there, combing his feathers, puffing himself up and looking disappointed. As soon as he leaves, I will take the hose and refresh his bath.

All is noise, not as loud as at 4 a.m. but still loud and melodic. The chorus is almost over, but there are echoes still to be heard in the air at 8:00 in the morning.

Now people are stirring. The neighbour next door peers over the fence and says good morning, startling me as I water the flowerpots there. She tells me of her pregnant daughter, the grown woman who was once the 12-year-old girl throwing chewing gum over the fence and into our pool as she and her girlfriends dreamed of being grown up in the cool of the night. I see them in my mind’s eye as they floated in their pool, just a gum wad’s throw from ours. Now she is lovely, married to an important older man, just as she had always dreamed, and about to be a mother to her own beautiful child.

The daring notes of orange that I introduced to my once pale garden are glowing with a seductive heat in the morning sun. They don’t clash with the purples and wines that adorn the picotee petunias. They don’t fight with the blue (well mauve) wave petunias or the lime coleus, but they outshine their pretty yellow and peach ‘Pink Lemonade’ cousins that I was so wild about this spring. Sad things. They are puny and unvigorous, barely peeping over the edge of their pot even now in mid July. Meanwhile the Papaya petunias of a shy orange are well behaved, leaning sedately over the pool in a tidy fashion that hints of good breeding.

Did I tell you about the tree tomato? Several years ago, a listener to my program on CJOB sent me a small packet of seeds he had rescued from his own efforts after answering one of those “Most Amazing!” ads in some men’s magazine. I meant to plant them but never did until this spring when Ian and the girls potted them up in their early springtime planting frenzy. Now this tomato is a giant, fighting the evening-blooming, but oxymoronic, morning glory for space on the small tripod I put in their pot. It is now about 4.5 feet tall and has happy flowers, ready to set fruit. Ian read that the fruit is black and sweet; people eat these tomatoes with sugar, he says. We shall see if it matures in our short season, although it was planted early in the greenhouse.


July 18, 2012

It has been cloudy the last few days, the heat slipping away into the atmosphere, replaced by a refreshing 22 degrees C during the day. While I long for the sun, the plants needed this breathing room to recover from all that heat-induced rapid growing.

The pink lilies are lovely right now and the filipendula is just coming into bloom. The hosta are all waving bell-shaped flags. I race around the garden taking pictures in the fading light. Everything is happening so fast in the garden this year that it is hard to keep up. I must be out, camera in hand, every day. Blossoms last a day, then wither and drop.

The bugs, encouraged by a warm, snowless winter are just as busy. The lime potato vine is a lacy, wrinkled imitation of its usual lushness.

We were in a very beautiful garden yesterday, the garden of an artist. Its beauty made my little efforts seem pitiful, indeed. Yet, I can savour every plant as it comes into the fullness of its beauty. May I pity the artist? The huge banquet set before him every day must dull his appetite . . .

How can I explain to you how sweet the air is this evening. It is scented with petunias and lilies and honeysuckle. It is swooningly sweet, heady with tenderness. Every night-flier must be heading this way, yet the mosquitoes are few. Perhaps they are drunk with the nectar of the flowers they eat while they ready their eggs to be nourished by your blood.

It is so hard to say goodnight.

It must be the solstice…

The sun kissed the sodden petunia this morning for the first time in a week.

Today is the first day of summer. This morning is bright for the first time in a week. The sun has decided to grace our lives in her own honour of this, her Day of Days. She smiles on the leaves of the old cottonwood and they acknowledge her smile with a silvery shine where she touches them.

In the garden, flowers that have been hiding from the rain are putting out hopeful buds and the petunias are quickly off with the old blossoms to make way for the new. I love the petunias of today that can so readily shed their tired flowers without my intervention. Is there anything cheerier or more determined than the petunia?

Valerian shows up in surprising places, dressed in lace and lavishly scented .

The weeds have not been as reluctant to take advantage of the cool, wet weather. They have sprung up all over the garden, aggressive and quite large. I think they know that most of us are unwilling to go out and fight them when the sky is weeping.

The valerian is in bloom, waving in the wind from unexpected places. She is such a traveler and if you are not diligent in pulling seedlings in spring time, valerian will bound up suddenly, wafting her seductive scent at your unresisting nostrils. Then you must let her have her season before you can take the ultimate measure to deal with her. She is very pretty in her new summer dress, tall and slender with those lovely umbels of scented white flowers.

Blue, blue flax, an unruly little plant, but welcome in my garden.

Why do I love the wild and unruly plants so much? The flax is also alive with the bluest of blue. While it wanders with some respect for the gardener, it does wander, and so does the little white Anenome canadensis, whose flowers are enticing enough without putting out those irresistible seed heads that I can’t bear to cut. Eventually this anemone will wantonly expose bursts of eiderdown fluff to the willing wind.

I wrote a story for my local gardener magazines about plants that wander because I know whereof I speak. I have grown and still do grow every one of them and more.

Lovely Anenome canadensis has wanton ways with her seeds.

It is not just unmanageable plants that I am attracted to. The same is true of people. I am always intrigued by the rebels, the unconventional, the nonconformists. I loved the poems and songs as I grew up about the wayward wind being a restless wind, “a restless wind that yearns to wander”… and I understood how I “must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky, and all I want is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. Do you remember the song, Faraway Places? I never did learn to play the piano, but I would pick out the notes to that song dreaming of going to China or maybe Siam, but knowing I was “burning to see, those faraway places with the strange sounding names that are calling, calling me”…

Now I have been to most of those places, but they still call as do the brilliant restless plants, the wandering souls, the minds that look beyond the obvious.

Oh dear –… it must be the solstice…

Hearing plants grow

April 29 2012

Yesterday was lovely. The sun was warm on my back as I worked to clear last year’s debris from the front garden, but today the wind has returned and the sky is frowning on the world. We could use rain, but it doesn’t rain; it is simply bleak and blowy.  It is so dry here this spring. There is none of that brilliant green lushness we usually see at this time of year. A good pelting rain would be so welcome and satisfying and I know the earth would drink up every drop in gratitude.

The rabbits have been dining on my tulips.

In the garden, though, plants are growing and the rabbits are flourishing. They have been dining in my tulip patch in the front yard, pruning them to within an inch of their lives. I will be lucky to get any blossoms.  But in the back yard, the tiny blue scilla, so pretty and so delicate, are struggling through the debris.  My friend, Mr. Tomato sent me photos of his thick patch of scilla – his are way ahead of mine.

Mr. T’s yard is covered in scilla. (Photo by Mr. Tomato)

Mr. T, as I call him, is a wonderful gardener. And he’s an interesting person. When he isn’t in the garden, he is posing as “Ivan Bigg”, the spokesperson for our local horse races at Assiniboia Downs. But while he may speak Horse, I know his native tongue is Plant. It is Mr. Tomato who says that on a clear, still night in spring, you can hear the plants growing. He hears the whispers of green tendrils curling around a trellis, the pop of a tulip piercing a fallen leaf, the snap of a bud opening on the trees. He hears the fern unfolding with a swish and the crack of the earth as the hosta pushes through. He swears that anyone can hear this. I think we should all try.

I have to go to Ottawa tonight and be away from my garden for another day. I really hate travelling at this time of year because I feel I will miss something, even if I’m only gone for 48 hours. Spring is the magical, mystery time when all good things are happening and usually so fast that we miss much. This year, spring is slow and leisurely and we have been having the pleasure of actually seeing the trees flower, one by one, not just the showy fruit and other blossoming trees, but the ordinary maples and willows, which are both in bloom now, the willows yellow and heavy with pollen for the fat bumblebees that have emerged and the maples, red with sticky promise.

Our TV show progresses

Dr. Ian Petunia and his Petunia-ettes!

Yesterday in the morning, many of my staff members were at T & T Seeds, where dear Kevin and Brian Twomey have allowed us to set up a planting demonstration for the community television show we are working on.  They call Ian, their gardening leader, Dr. Petunia, and they follow his instructions to the letter (perhaps I should say to the “T” in honour of our hosts). They have enough seeds planted to start their own garden centre, but they are happy in the learning and are soaking up happy bacteria by the shovel full! Dr. Petunia is another interesting fellow – he is also a very good chef and in addition to being the lead salesperson for my magazines, he writes a cooking column for my Lifestyles 55 publication. However, his native tongue is also Plant and he loves the garden with a deep and instinctive passion. He is originally from the semi tropical Jersey Isles and is learning how to garden here.

He is a fast learner and a good teacher.

Giant fleeceflower

Giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) is a gotta-have! Psst! They have it at Dutch Growers in Saskatchewan.

I have just introduced Ian to the giant fleeceflower, Persicaria polymorpha. This is an amazing shrubby perennial that gets very large. I saw one in Edmonton last year that was ten feet tall and just as wide, but I understand that they normally grow in this part of the world to be just around six feet tall and wide. Giant fleeceflower gets masses of creamy, white flower  plumes, reminiscent of goatsbeard flowers, that bloom from early spring to late summer and, while it loves moist soil, it will tolerate drought once it is established. Nor does it wander, staying in its spot, although it will get bigger and bigger. And it lives 15 years!

Spring is dilly dallying

Aprinl 22, 2012

Tulips poked up inquisitive heads long before they were prepared to allow their blossoms to come up.

In spite of the very early spring this year, the greening of the trees is still to come. The lilac, which showed such promise two weeks ago, is still showing promise, but that is all. The flush of green is still just a flush of green on the lilac and a few other overeager trees in the city.

Our native plants have an innate intelligence about these things – even though conditions appear optimal for starting, our trees don’t get too excited until it’s time. It’s only the imports and the hybrids that can’t wait – and they end up being burned – or frost-bitten, rather – for their hurry. Even the lilac, although most would think it to be native here, is not. It was imported from Europe by our early settlers who left their lovely remnants on farm homesteads across the prairies. Lilacs can live to be 200 years old and there are groves in odd places throughout the province that must be well over 100. It is the newer hybrids that have been rushing into leaf, not as savvy yet about how fickle our spring weather can be.

Today will be a lovely day, though, and folks might be tricked into thinking that it is time to plant. It is not. Be guided by your local garden centre which has been holding back their annuals and perennials until the second week in May, when it may be safe enough to begin planting out.  And even though plants, such as petunias, can withstand quite a bit of frost, Gail Braun, who grows the most spectacular potted plants, advises that she waits until the first week of June to put her plants out. She says that even though many will survive the odd late frost, it sets them back and they never fully recover.

That brings me to the issue of the plants in the big box stores. They have been hurried along and are flush with leaves and blooms much earlier than the local garden centres, but don’t rush into anything yet. And if you simply cannot resist, at least store your plants in a garage and take them out only for a few hours during the warmest part of the day for the next couple of weeks.

The trouble with bargain cedars is keeping them alive.

The box stores also sell six-foot cedars at a very low price and I see many homeowners who have been enticed to buy and plant them, only to be faced with a row of brown, lifeless sticks this spring.  Save yourself some heartache and money in the long run and go to your local garden centre where you can be sure of getting a plant with a viable root ball that has been well cared for throughout the season. Your garden centre will advise you on the best way to plant your new trees and tell you to water them well all this season and especially before freeze up this fall. They will also suggest putting up a proper sun and windscreen this yea,r and perhaps, for a couple of years after, that to prevent needle drying if the trees have a southern exposure. Most garden centres will also guarantee their trees for the first year if you follow their directions and many will also come out and plant the tree – properly – for you.

Happy Bacteria
Meanwhile, I need the garden. I need the chance to get back down on my knees, to dig in the dirt and tug at the weeds all the time breathing happy thoughts into my body. The happiness comes, they say, from a bacteria found in the soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, literally the happy bacteria which has the ability to turn on serotonin production from the tryptophan in your gut. Did you know, by the way, that 90% of the serotonin in your body resides in your gut?

So we gardeners have wisely, but unknowingly, been soaking up this happiness trigger for years. Have you ever known a grouchy gardener?

Apparently, gardening is also a good way to stave off dementia. Strength and resistance training both encourage the “growth factor”. A growth factor is a protein or steroid hormone capable of stimulating cellular growth. When we gardener squat, and lift and lunge and carry, we are encouraging this activity which has been shown by a Vancouver Hip and Health group to reduce symptoms of dementia in older women.

Who knew?

The catkins are in bloom

April 7, 2012

Maple flowers.

The catkins are in bloom on the old cottonwoods on my street, the slender blossoms dripping like caramel candies from the tips of the branches. All across town, trees are in bloom, the maples, the elms, the birches. The lindens will come later, perfuming the air with their haunting scent. It’s odd to see such an outburst of tree flowers so early in the year and all at once. We are probably only days away from an explosion of green, tender and pale at first, then strengthening as the leaves expand and the canopy fills in.

I love this time of year. I always did.  When I was a girl of thirteen, living in British Columbia, I remember a spring coming down from the mountains where we lived in a ghost mining town and into the valley of the Salmon River when my eye was caught by a grove a deciduous trees on the riverbanks. They were in that fairyland state of pale green; the leaves had probably just opened overnight. They danced in the early morning sun, etching a vivid picture in my mind that has never faded.

The image in my mind this morning is of the small area of garden I cleared of debris last night, delighting in the somnolent movements of the awakened ladybugs and the fat sowbugs, both resentful that I had disturbed their sleeping quarters. But it was 19 degrees C  Friday and the chives are struggling to come through the debris along with the tulips, which often pierce dead leaves in their eagerness to see the sun and end up looking silly all spring.

This will be my day today – my own day, when I can get my fill of the earth and the sky and all the life outdoors after a housebound winter. There is nothing like the intimacy of being in touch with the earth and becoming part of that secret world that we thoughtlessly tread every day.

The sun is rising and I must go out and greet it.


Now the sun is up and pierced by it brilliant light, the caramel catkins have turned to red with little hints of green. The blue spruces of our street are turning blue once again as the sun steps up their chlorophyll production. It’s lovely to watch them come awake; their branches spring to life, lifting up from their downward winter posture to greet the sun.



Ah, spring. Yesterday was cold and bleak with a wicked wind and while the sun came out today, it lost its battle to the wind once again. Still, it is Easter and we spent the noon hours with our Winnipeg children.  Lori made a lovely brunch with Graeme’s help. Holly and her dear one came by and so did Andrea, our almost third child who lived across the street from Lori and the kids all her life. Lori’s Joe was there too.

The garden is waiting patiently for more grooming, but the wind was stronger than my will today. I long to go out and dig, but it’s warm in here and shouldn’t one rest on Easter? Last year, I spent the day in the garden and committed an awful crime. While I was loosening the soil, I came across some lint and fluff, which I ignored, energetically spearing the earth. I was horrified to hear agonized squeaks and squawks. I threw down my fork and ran screaming for Glenn, who came out calmly and examined what I had come across – a nest of tiny, hairless rabbits, fingerlings really. What a thing to do on Easter Sunday!

We covered them back up and hoped for the best. Apparently, that is the correct action to take, but who would have suspected a nest in two inches of soil in the middle of the garden?

This year all I encountered was a big fat yellow present left by the neighbour’s cat. Serves me right!

Hearing Plants growing and other wonders

February 10, 2012


The fog has cleared and the temperature has dropped. The sun is still shining through the clear, cold air that is bothered by a brisk wind. It is cheek sparkling weather.

Glenn is still tucked away on the 6th floor of the Health Sciences Centre, beating back a slight infection which appears to be at bay. Shauna has gone home to Toronto and Lori and I are keeping watch. He is in good spirits. We want him home to complete the mending.

Little blooms of good fortune keep popping up both in business and in my other life as an inveterate volunteer board member. I care only if the good fortune extends to Glenn.

Last Sunday, Shauna, Mr. Tomato and I had a good time on my radio show, talking about wondrous things that we have learned while writing 10 Neat Things. Mr. Tomato had a few wonders of his own to tell. He says that in the springtime, on a still June night, he can hear plants growing. He says that if you are very quiet, you will hear the pops and crackles and tiny snaps that herald the emergence of new shoots from the ground and leaves breaking open their waxy covers. He has told me this before and I believe him. Next spring, I plan to test this myself on one of those magic nights near the solstice.

I wonder if hearing plants grow is like the sensation of lying on the earth and “feeling” its magnetic pull on my body, curing any ills inside. I like to fall asleep like this with only a thin blanket between me and the sod. I awake refreshed and renewed. This connection with the earth goes back a long way.

When my sister and I were very young, growing up on the prairie, we were told that the Indians used to lay their ears against the ground so they could hear the thrum of hoof beats from many miles away. We tested this theory for ourselves, but we never did hear the hoof beats. We did hear, though, the approach of distant trains when we laid our heads against warm, steel railroad tracks that crisscrossed the land then.

Carole and I found such mystery in the everyday things of the earth. This delight is with me still. Now Glenn and I watch the pigeons acting out their imperatives on the gabled roof of the old hospital building outside his hospital room window: the puffed up male and his courtship of the female; their brief coming together; their winged celebration when the deal is done as they swoop up into the sky together in an airborne dance of joy.

Glenn remembers when he decided to keep pigeons. “You were supposed to lock them up in the coop for two weeks so they would bond with their new home,” he said. “I did that, then finally I let them out. I waited and waited for them to come back, but there was no sign so I locked up the coop door and went on my way. Later our neighbor said to me, ‘Hey. Glenn. Your pigeons were back trying to get in, but they couldn’t, so they left!’” Glenn laughs his wonderful spontaneous laugh, thinking of the temporarily disillusioned boy he once was and how he was taught a lesson in patience.

Life is beautiful.

Garden Beginnings

Hoarfrost on our window...

It’s a warm day today, only minus 7, so there is hoarfrost making lovely patterns on the windows where the seal has broken. Everyone says I should get this fixed and make sure the house is airtight, but I don’t think that is all that healthy. A house needs to breathe a little for the health of us all.

I vowed to stay indoors today and do the things I need to be doing, but I long to be outside.

When I was a child, my whole world was the outdoors. We lived on a farm near Dauphin, Manitoba, not far from the lake. Nearly all my earliest memories are of the outdoors, exploring the small wood next to our house, talking with the horses, watching bees, tasting the salt lick that the cows used.

One day, I climbed a tree at the end of the road near the front gate and then couldn’t get down. I thought I would be left there forever. Then there was a year, before I started school, when it turned unnaturally warm in February and we were able to play outside on the brown grass without coats and no snow.


Bachelor buttons


I hadn’t started to appreciate the garden yet. That happened at my grandmother’s house, where I remember wandering at eye level among the cosmos and bachelor buttons. I recall the smell of the garden and the sound of the insects, busy in the heat of a prairie summer’s day. It pleased me to be there with her. The flowers pleased me as they lolled about in the sun. Those memories, though, are marred by the sound of my little sister crying at the front door of the house, where granny had placed a feather on the doorstep to keep her inside. Carol was afraid of feathers. She called them “bite-bites”. Perhaps she had had a run-in with a chicken once.

I loved my sister. She was the first person to ever consciously evoke this emotion in me. Oh, I suppose I must have felt love for my parents, who doted on me, but I never identified the feeling as I did one day when Carol and I were playing. We both had small, wheeled vehicles — hers was a little trike with a wooden seat, mine was a bit more sophisticated and grown up, me being 15 months the elder. We were racing each other around the house and eventually, we crashed. As we struggled to untangle from one another, Carol put her small hand on my forehead to help herself up. I felt a rush of love, a physical warmth that made me want to hug her. I was three or four.

When I had just turned six in January, my mother sent me to the local one-room schoolhouse at the invitation of the young teacher, even though it was midterm. It was an exciting time. Mom ordered a new outfit for me from the Eaton’s catalogue and when the package arrived it contained a white blouse with puff sleeves and a pretty collar trimmed in a thin margin of eyelet lace. There was also a red, white and black, plaid, pleated skirt with straps. I felt so important dressed in those lovely things.

The first morning of school, Mom decided I needed a hair wash. There was no running water at the farmhouse, so after giving me a good lathering at the sink, she carried me outside and dipped my head in the icy rain barrel. She always felt guilty about that, but I didn’t mind a bit. It certainly woke me up.

I was pretty good at schoolwork, but pretty bad at the people side of things.  Mom had once dragged me kicking and screaming to a birthday party for a boy on a nearby farm. His name was George Abess and I was afraid of boys. I think I enjoyed myself once I got there as he had an older sister, but I wasn’t about to repeat the visit unless under duress. Now here I was at school, surrounded by boys, one of whom told me years later that they thought I was cute and tried to make friends. My reaction was to hang on tight to the schoolyard swing and throw stones at my would-be suitors.

Even here, I gravitated to the outdoors, wandering alone through the bushes surrounding the schoolyard, avoiding the other kids. I was preoccupied with sorting out the letter Q (written the old-fashioned way) with the number 2, both hard for me to get my fingers around. But by the end of being six, I could read all ten books in the Colliers Classics set of short stories and poems Mom had. A magic gateway had opened.

The little Manitoba town where I started life . . .


December 10, 2011