This heat drains us, sucks our energy away. Our plants focus on their roots, trying to pull as much moisture from under the ground as they can. Their blossoms are limp, tired from all the effort to simply survive. Animals are lethargic. My little red squirrel would rather try to lie flat on the edge of a bin, making himself skinny in the hope that I won’t see him, than run and hide.
These are the dog days of summer. The nights are warm and sultry, there is no rain, although it seems to threaten all around us. I can smell ozone in the air from time to time and the pressure headache, from which there is no escape by pill, haunts me. My house is air conditioned, but still, I cannot sleep. I am tormented by restlessness.
I have set up an outdoor lounge, a place to lie and think and snooze after cooling my legs in the pool to bring my body temperature down. It works. The breeze whispers over me, the tree above me embraces me in its shade. I can watch the cedars play, shoulder to shoulder, with the very tall fir tree between them as the wind animates their branches.
It is the kind of summer we used to have, day after rainless day, with scorching temperatures and blazing sunlight. And even while the heat drains me, I am compelled to come out and absorb more and more because something deep inside me is being regenerated. I am useless while this recharging of my internal batteries takes place, but I know it will be there for me when I need it in the cold, dark days ahead.
“Don’t you want some sunscreen?” urges my host the day before yesterday. “It is hot under the sun in the boat.” But I don’t want sunscreen to get between me and my energizer. I have a thin cover to filter out too intrusive rays, but otherwise, I need its kiss on my winterized skin, sinking to my bones and lending them energizing vitamin D. I do not need chemical filters to interfere with this life giver.
When the sun goes down. The day cools, but only a little. Its breath is like a warm caress. You want to possess it, absorb it so that the memory warms you in February. You drink it in like coffee with cream, comforting and invigorating at the same time.
There is nothing like a Manitoba summer of this kind. These days are the days that gave me life, that informed my soul with possibility, that inspired Rick Neufeld to create Moody Manitoba Morning.
His lyrics strike the tone, reflect the feeling:
It’s a long and kind of gentle,
Lazy prairie town afternoon, The sky is high
I can feel the grass a-growin’ from yesterday’s rain
The sun’s a-glowin’, and so am I.
It’s a long and kind of gentle lazy day . . .
We have long wondered at the magic that make this province the special place it is. These summer days, when everyone is half fearful of the drought and half delighted with the lake weather, are part of the magic: long, long days under the blazing sun, in and out of the water of which there is so much, gentle evenings of laughter and joy.
And no mosquitoes. We haven’t had any for three years. No doubt they will be back, but these are the days we will forever hold in our hearts as we grow old, strengthened by the energy of our sun and the particular way it shines on our bit of heaven.
Hazy is the descriptor for these mid summer days in much of Canada. We always have many forest fires and often encounter smoky skies, but this year is worse than most. In much of the west it is hot, very hot. We are no stranger to 30 C weather in Winnipeg, but this year there have been several days of 39 and 40+ C. Rain is a thing of memory. Electric storms ignite new fires. Why is this happening? Sunspot activity, I am told. This cyclical phenomenon is always disruptive of weather on our planet.
It suits this year of pandemic and panic, doesn’t it?
Despite the prognostications of poor, exploited Greta Thunberg and all the anxious kids out there worrying that the world is coming to an end because of manmade climate changes, we have been through these times before and we will be again. The planet is not a static entity in a static universe. Things are always changing, moving, waxing and waning. The memory of man, like his imprint upon today’s tableau, is fleeting and insignificant. We cannot remember those other times and our puny attempts at recording events for future humans are always flawed and of little real value. Why? Because the world is always changing, including our record keeping technology, our languages, and the subtle, subliminal meanings we rely on in current times to get the message across. We seldom say what we really mean in plain words, expecting an interconnected, universal-think world to “get it”.
Several hundred years later, few can recapture those subtleties.
Forests don’t need the written word to guide them. They know they need periodic fire to regenerate. Some even need incredible heat to pop open seed capsules so that they can replant themselves.
As a gardener, it is hard for me to accept that anyone could believe that we have some sort of dominion over the land and the sea, not to mention the stars and the weather. I work with the natural world and never stop marvelling at how it prevails no matter how hard I try to bend it to my will. But then perhaps I should not be surprised at the fervour that seems to accompany those who express alarm at climate change. Our hubris is limitless. All religions seem to rest on this illusion that we are the chosen, and therefore, superior beings on earth (and maybe in the universe) and that it stands to reason that our deliberated actions can have an irradicable effect on all life.
Now the world is being told that we must abandon civilization as we currently know it and follow a new dictate towards something called zero-based carbon emissions. Well, if that were at all possible, we would certainly eradicate all life, since carbon is the basis of all life, but this another story.
The last thing people need right now is more threat of disaster. I worry for our young people who have been so affected by the dire pandemic predictions of the media who pass on their practiced panic to the public and hence to social media channels. Even now, when all logic supports the contention that those who are double vaccinated are safe from contracting and communicating the virus, but that if one somehow escaped immunity after vaccination and still gets COVID, it is almost always a mild case, the media continues to spew exaggerated reports of how much danger we are all in.
Ah, well, back to the garden, pulling weeds (that are rampant this year) and admiring the brilliant activity of the happy, tropical canna blooming luminously in the heat and watching the antics of the squirrel triplets who are still all together, oddly, and who all think that my garage is the perfect haven (wrong!).
In the back garden, amidst the enthusiastic goutweed, I have discovered the place where a family of raccoons have been clandestinely meeting, rolling in the once lush growth, and knocking down my bird feeders to get the juicy nuts and seeds I offer up to my feathered friends.
Animals have been very much in evidence this year. I am told deer have been making their way through the enclosed park behind my house. They would be quite welcome to stop and have a meal of some of the ambitious plants my neighbour, Leslie, and I have planted over the years. Those aggressive greens don’t mind drought and have grown vigorously this year. Instead, our graceful gourmet friends prefer to come round to the front street and nibble on various ornamentals, including earlier in the summer the canna and certainly the hosta and even the Joe Pye weed! After the damage they did to my now uncaged apple tree, Mr. Bobbex has been keeping them at bay and away from my hydrangeas in that part of the garden. But they have been nipping off the buds on the milkweed, curse them!
My cottaging friends are all complaining of bears, and another neighbour told me of a family of foxes that took up residence in his back yard under the shed. Now the mom and her kits haven been seen patrolling the streets of Charleswood. I would love to see them.
I think the critters are thirsty. The other day, a squirrel jumped from the fence and into the pool, the daredevil. Having just fished out a relative from the skimmer, I shouted at it for being so damn stupid and ran for the net, but by the time I got to it, the little beggar had managed to scratch his way up the side of the pool and away. Now I am putting water in several birdbaths, not so much for the birds but for the squirrels – and, I suppose, the cursed raccoons, too.
The world is so out of whack. A contractor, with no spatial instincts and I guess no tape measure, tried to move a massive house down Roblin Boulevard, which was too narrow to accommodate this. So, he mowed down the trees on the centre boulevard! Now these trees probably should have been removed because some were dead, (ironically, the only one he left standing was already dead!) Still, it wasn’t his right to do this, so sensible residents are calling for his penalty to be the replacement of the trees, times four, and I believe that he should also water and maintain them for the next ten years!
Why is it that people think it is okay to kill a tree on the property of another person (including public property) and to be able to do this with impunity? I have witnessed a neighbour who was angry about leaves from a neighbour’s yard littering his lawn, so he called a tree service when the neighbour was out of town and had the tree cut down. Then he dared the neighbour to sue him! If it had been the neighbour’s front porch, it would be no contest, but living property seems to be up for destruction without interference from the authorities.
In this case, they arrested someone and charged one of the house movers with mischief and assessed him a $5,000 fine!
That aside and back to the garden, I am sharing a couple of pictures to prove my point about the fierce determination of nature. One is an intrepid oak, planted by a squirrel long ago, and no matter how hard I try to discourage it, it comes back bigger and more determined that ever. It is not that I am against squirrel plantations – I have several naturally planted trees in my yard, but this one is right up against the foundation. Another is the rejuvenation of the amur maple that was hit so badly in the October snowstorm of two years ago. This year, she is beautifully decked out with new branches and new leaves and a happy attitude. Not so the hardy lilacs, one in the front and one in the back. Neither looks like it will survive another year, and the city-planted boulevard tree is very dead.
Plants irrevocably change the earth and the soil they grow in. They also “eat” carbon dioxide, breathing it in and breathing out oxygen. They produce harvestable energy while they are growing, storing it as combustible material or, eventually, petroleum products when they pass on. Some have even learned the secret of almost eternal life. The gingko can live 3,000 years and has not changed in 200 million years.
And we think we can predict the end of the world? My advice? Talk to the trees!
The tears come out of nowhere, like a slight summer breeze moving through the leaves. So much sadness surrounding everyone, hearts breaking with the loss of loved ones through the illness or from some horrific act. Unspeakable horror recently in London. A family gone. A child left orphaned and destroyed. Unmarked graves discovered.
We grieve all day, every day. Yet still we strive for the least glimmer of happiness, finding it in the antics of animals on Facebook, in the way the sun shines on a velvet petal or through a dewdrop prism. It is hope that is missing.
The media is mired in the dreadful, focussing on what divides people, crying crocodile tears, and mouthing syrupy sounding words over tragic events that are so very remote from their own sheltered lives. I find myself shouting FUCK OFF! at the TV, like a demented old woman, several times a day. Why do I listen? Because that is all there is. Every show has been politicized beyond bearing – not even the game shows are immune. And the sound of human voices in the background of my day is comforting.
I arise each morning telling myself to face the day with intrepid spirit, to take pleasure in those little things, to distract myself with work or in taking on the cares of others, trying to help them in my puny way when, of course, what I can mostly do is to agonize over their circumstances. Still, I feel I must try and if that at least offers them hope, it is something. Immersing myself in these things distracts me, keeps me from thinking, but how about all those who have no such convenient aids?
I hear their tears.
“I am so sad, so very sad,” said a wonderful, successful young man yesterday.
“I guess I am just so grumpy with everything and everyone,” said another this morning, after his anger had spilled over onto Facebook.
“Can I call you back?” asked a third, her voice breaking. Her mother has been transferred to an Ottawa hospital and is “very bad”.
It is terribly wearing. Folks are reaching the ends of their tethers and do not even realize why they feel so low. How can they help it, though, when all we hear about is hatred and anger and division on every front with accusations of racism and declarations of discrimination against every possible category of group into which people can be divided? It is this division, this labelling, this categorization that is engendering all the pent-up emotions, and this is exacerbated by the solitude and deprivations of COVID and acidly eating away at our souls.
A strong, brave friend who has faced many difficulties in life, confessed to me today that all of this is eroding her energy and joy. “Some days I just feel so down,” she said. “I worry about everything. I worry about what is happening in the world and how to fix it.”
We sat in the garden and talked.
The garden and her company eased things a little.
The annuals were recovering from the heavy rain, yet unpollinated, their scent perfuming the air. Ferns and hostas are still unfurling, lush and perfect, dressed in all the beautiful greens of springtime. The spreading Manitoba maple is carelessly flinging out new growth and generous leaves. On the very old stereo that resides in the garage-cum-potting shed, Beethoven tried to keep up to the wrens that, for the whole two hours we sat together, sang a song of joy.
Behind us two squirrels were having a chattering battle over territory. Everyone wants to live in this garden. The littlest red yearling climbed down the tree and faced us with great cheek, staring us boldly in the eye.
It helped us both.
Gradually, we felt the acid dissolve. The air was cool but not cold, the sounds around us were a blessing on our minds. The signs of life beginning again sent a subliminal message of encouragement.
The sun is having a fit, I hear, sending out fiery splashes of molten sun-stuff into the universe toward earth like an angry mother chastising her young. She does this periodically, as the magnetic poles change, an agonizing process that draws out her hot breath.
When this happens, the earth trembles. Aviators worry and so does the space station. People notice more than we might have ever done because our communications are affected. Today, the world wide web was sporadic, my Internet phone kept dropping calls, my cell phone did the same, I could not rely on Mr. Google to check facts. And the wind is whirling as I write, bending trees that stretch in pain, getting too much exercise after a sedentary winter.
The climate people will bemoan the role of man and blame it on the latest combinations of natural elements that people have been spewing in their excitement over learning more and more about how the universe works. Should we calm ourselves? We seem to have accepted that we must, and we are looking for new ways to do things in response to the terrorizing prognostications that extermination is just around the corner at the local gas station.
I look at it this way; Mother Earth, the daughter of Grandmother Sun, has it all figured out and we will be okay. People, no matter how learned, do not know as much as we would like to think. We are all intrinsically connected, and people are a part of nature so cannot do anything “unnatural”, but we do like to imagine ourselves into a position of superior knowledge. Consequently, we make some comical mistakes, while also doing some incredible things at the same time.
Plants on the other hand, have a different kind of knowledge. They have been leery of appearing too soon this spring, perhaps expecting the periodic chaos of their life-giver. Who would know better, after all, than the ones most directly affected by the moods of their benefactor and closest relative?
There as a lunar eclipse last night when the moon moved into the earth’s shadow, The Blood Moon, they say, or if you are a gardener, the Flower Supermoon. Plants may be a little surprised say those “who know”, but I doubt it. They have undoubtedly been prepared for this normal interruption of their growing cycle.
More difficult to deal with here in the northern hemisphere this year is the strange, long-term behaviour of the weather. The snow disappeared in mid Marsh, holding out the promise of an early spring, but it was only a snowless spring, not warm or early. The cold kept us locked indoors and the plants stayed tucked warmly underground. I lost a rose or two. I am still waiting to see if there are other bereavements in the offing. The hostas are up, but there is no sign of the native Joe Pye Weed or the asclepias that feeds my need for monarch butterflies in the garden.
I have not planted any tender annuals yet, not because I am particularly wise, but because of restrictions on my movements due to COVID. Still, it is not that concerning. I am feeling that we should not be too eager to plant early this year. It is not yet time.
Why were my movements restricted? Well, I went to the International Peace Garden last week, to take on the job as president, and felt I should be there to lead the meeting. Even though I had not technically left Canada and that everyone I met with was vaccinated, Border Services has insisted that I spend 14 days in quarantine.
Ah, well, it was worth it. There is something about this magical place straddling the border of Canada and the United States that fills you with gladness and takes away troubles like an eraser on a blackboard (or are they greenboards, these days?).
I will share a few pictures.
Finally, in the garden, the little columnar apple tree, that I freed from its protective cover last fall, is rewarding me with its very first blossoms! Glenn wrapped that baby in chicken wire to protect it from hungry deer that were nibbling its soft and tasty bark. He even put a lid on the top. It has taken me five years to find the heart to remove the cage, but I did it last fall and the tree is responding. Poor thing has developed two leaders so I shall have to deal with this by removing one. It is only a bit over five feet tall.
Everywhere else, plants are springing up, stretching cramped leaves and branches, flushing with flowers, dredging up their greenest green and manufacturing enticing scents. The ornamental peach is in full bloom and the lilac is opening its plumes of purple. The lily of the valley is perfuming the air in competition. Yellow dandelions are adding gaiety all over the lawn while busy rogue grasses send out tentative underground shoots to find plants they can hide in and sneakily grow without me seeing them. Cursed things.
This is the best time of the year in the garden, a time of renewal and hope. And this year, of all years, this year of wicked COVID, we need renewal and hope more than ever.
All spring, my days have been brightened by my window view of a pair of blue jays that visit the amur maple. It makes me think about what I know of the blue jay, often unfairly maligned as a blue bully and a thief.
First, they are not really blue. They appear as a very striking, and intense kind of blue, but their pigment, like that of many birds, is brown or white. What the eye sees is the light refracted off their feathers in a way that creates the illusion of blue. Well, the sky isn’t blue either. And for the same reason.
Blue jays have been accused of robbing other nests, of murdering and eating baby birds and of hogging the feeder, but only one per cent of their diet consists of their fellow birds. They eat seeds and acorns, and a quarter of their diet consists of insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and beetles.
They have the amazing ability to carry a lot of food at one time, stuffing two to three acorns in their esophagus pouch, one in their mouth and one more in their bill. They are very selective about their food, choosing only acorns that have no fungus or insects or other infections. They have been seen to stash away as many as 3,000 to 5,000 acorns in a single season.
Blue jays are canny birds. Like their cousins the crows and magpies, they have great curiosities.
Their courtship behavior is interesting. They talk while courting, making a dove-like Kloo-kloo-kloo sound as the hop from branch to branch. While she is incubating the eggs, he will sometimes feed her on the nest, but often they will fly to a nearby tree, where she will assume the begging position of a juvenile and he will feed her. It must be a bonding thing because they are monogamous and mate for life.
Male Blue Jays build the nest, taking not just found sticks, but living wood from small trees, often struggling to break off a particularly desirable twig. Frequently, he adds a final decorative and perhaps romantic touch of something white to the outside of the nest. He might as well make it homey: He and she live together for a long time.
Blue Jays in captivity have been known to live up to 26 years and even in the wild they often survive as long as 17 years, although the average life span is seven years.
The other morning, I was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by a very loud blue jay call, and they are known for their loud, rasping voice, but they are also capable of great nuance. They burble and murmur among themselves and with their young. They can mimic predators, such as hawks, and often they use these calls to scatter fellow freeloaders from domestic feeders, lending weight to their reputation for greed. The again, they may just be sending warnings of approaching predators. They can use their voices in a special call to stimulate “mobbing” the ganging up of a bunch of jays perhaps against an owl which might be taking up residence near a blue Jay nest. They can also imitate cats.
A fellow blogger observed the following interaction between a blue jay and a woodpecker. The woodpecker, probably a fledgling, was having a hard time approaching a busy feeder and a cat dish that attracted many birds. Then along came a blue jay, which made a crow-like call and flew onto the feeder. Here is the rest of the tale in her own words:
“Almost immediately, the woodpecker flew down from the branches of the tree and landed directly beside the blue jay. Both birds looked around for a moment more, then the blue jay flew to the railing of the deck, still looking about. The woodpecker flew to the cat dish for the first time; it ate a few pieces of cat food, while the blue jay kept watch. When the woodpecker was done eating, both birds flew away together. Since that first time, I have witnessed the same thing happen over and over. Always the blue jay comes first, looks for danger, calls to the woodpecker, who appears immediately, and then keeps a look-out while the woodpecker gets something to eat. Then they fly away together!” –Amy D.
Blue Jays have been seen to sit on top of an anthill and dust their wings with ants. Blue Jays are said do this to remove the formic acid from the ant’s acid sac before eating the ant and using it to rid themselves of insects, mites, fungus and bacteria.
Blue jays are slow flyers averaging only 32 to 40 km/h, leaving them very vulnerable to their own predators. At that rate of travel, it is no wonder only about 20 per cent of them fly south for the winter – not all, and not every year.
Now that we have so much time on our hands, we have the luxury of watching nature. It is a bit like being reborn, seeing the world with new and more patient eyes.
The Call of the Wild was one of my favourite books when I was a girl. I found it one spring when I was 11, abandoned in the melting snow of a ditch in Carruthers, Sask. where I went to school in a two-room schoolhouse for one year. The book was wet, the covers were torn off and the last page was gone, but I gobbled up the printed words on the dampened pages, enthralled by the images they produced. This book might have been what ignited my long-time passion for the North. . . well, that and my Dad’s melodic voice reciting the lurid tales of Robert Service in his poems about Dangerous Dan McGrew and Sam McGee. The language of Service was so ordinary, yet true and evocative.
People don’t recite poems anymore, more’s the pity. It is a such a soothing way to leave the day and slip in a world of daylight dreaming. But the garden does this to my mind, too. It takes away the fevers and the frettings of people-populated places filled with elbows and tongues that poke and probe and eat away at your peace. There is such egality in the garden. The plants know what is good for them and which other plants are their friends. Did you know that, in a given space, say a container filled with exotic specimens, plant roots will seek out the roots of their allies, even ignoring nearby pockets of nutrition? That fascinates me.
But then I have also learned that plants create their own homes in the earth, altering it with their roots so that the soil is never the same, chemically and structurally, once the plant is gone. Generally, this is a good thing. Plants store carbon dioxide in the earth by feeding the microorganisms that co-exist with the roots in a symbiotic relationship that benefits both. But all we see is the world above the ground where what goes on underground causes miracles to happen every second, each individual plant bursting with energy and life, creating artistic patterns of every imaginable kind.
If you look closely in the garden, you will see little hints of what is and what can be. You could spend your whole life doing this and still be filled with wonder at the continuing mystery.
This morning, I went out to work on my pool, it being a reasonable day and not yet raining, I am pulling out last year’s leaves, a backbreaking chore that takes me days, as I can only do a little a time. Floating on the surface were what looked like millions of little insects or ants, but which, upon closer observation, appeared to be tiny seeds, blown in by yesterday’s winds.
I wandered around the pre-rain yard as it got chillier and chillier, taking a close look at the shrubs which are budding. The forsythia has opened yesterday’s tightly closed blossoms, and more are emerging like little drops of sunshine along its eager stems. I see signs of swelling on the lilac, but the sumac is already extending tiny leaves and the Black Lace elderberry is bursting with impatience to come out fully. The Manitoba maple is all dressed in her finest, with flowers in her hair, but the Amur maple in the front yard is still dormant. I see a flush of green on the dwarf barberry, though.
It is a slow spring, nevertheless. It feels like COVID is in league with the weather to confound and confuse us. After all, the snow left in mid-March (a very rare event here in Manitoba), and since then we have been teased with odd days of unseasonably warm weather, very isolated to a day here and there, then followed by more cold and misery. The sun seems to be missing.
I have a friend who predicts the weather for agricultural purposes around the world. He says that the low number of sunspots is having an impact on everything around us right now and that the last time activity was almost this low was in 2009. Guess what happened in 2009? H1-N1 hit us and so did the recession – both probably coincidence. Still, you can’t help but wonder and the only thing we know for sure is that weather prediction is a mighty chancy profession. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has an 80% record of accuracy over the long term. And guess what? The 7-day forecast by meteorologists is also correct 80% of the time!
Tomorrow will be another day and perhaps I will get done then what eludes me today. In the meantime, I will dream of flowers as bright as the imported tulips in my living room, painting my garden with colour and filling my heart with joy.
I have always loved them: The Owl and the Pussycat, a poem that makes Ian roar with laughter; Robinsons Crusoe’s Story, The Walrus and the Carpenter to name a few. I was a great fan of the long story poems of Dr. Seuss when my grandchildren were small and we spent hours reading The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
I suppose I learned it early. My Dad used to recite the poetry of Robert Service when I was young and I love the music of the words, the rhythm, and the delightful, nonsensical images they all call up.
I am going to voice record a couple of my favourites one of these days and put them up here to see what you think.
But today, I don’t know what to do with myself. In the words of John Masefield:
I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the Bay,
For the wanderlust is on me
And my soul is in Cathay . . .
Springtime does this to me, but perhaps more this year due to the constraints on our freedom. Yes, I can go wherever I like, and I do, but I feel the limitations even when they do not affect me all that much. I want to get on a plane and fly to Vancouver to see the cherry blossoms. I want to drive to the Peace Garden and see the cactus in bloom. And I can . . .if I want to self-isolate for two weeks, even though I have had my first vaccination. But we are caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that is tugging at my mind and pulling me into depression.
I refuse to give in, though. The cure is just footsteps and a change in the weather away. I can go outside and see the way the vines in my yard find their way towards the sky. If you look at them carefully, you will see the tactics they employ to take them on their upward journey as they find vertical supports.
Each of these plants has developed it own strategy. The Virginia creeper has tendrils that branch out with a sticky suction cup at the end of each tendril to cling to whatever it finds. It prefers to creep, hence its name, but it also will climb if given the chance. Its cousin, the Engelman’s ivy, has little legs, like that of a centipede, that reach out and cling to the stucco of my house. The unknown ivy that I filched from a building in Ottawa long ago, has tiny feet that attach themselves to the wall. And the hardy and determined hops are twining vines that wrap themselves around anything they can find, including each other.
There are other magical happenings out there right now. The tulips are shyly poking up their pointed heads and the daffodils are lazily sending baby leaves languidly stretching into the cool air. The vigorous garlic chives are asserting themselves. I see the obstinate, pinkish heads of the fern leaf peony exploring the world above. The oriental poppies come up in a cluster, although small right now, all happily formed and hinting of the generous leaves they will soon become. The celandine poppies are well established and there is one lonely cilia exploring the world, bud tightly furled but eager to begin its brief life.
Some things, I cannot yet see; they are hiding under the debris of last year and I happily leave them there in case this early spring delivers a late surprise of shocking cold. The detritus of 2020 will provide them shelter from anything yet to come.
I have been watching to see if the Forsythia is ready to spring into bud with its yellow blossoms of hope, but nothing, although every day things change. Here in Manitoba spring is as violent, in its way, as winter. One day, it is a wasteland. The next, it is a budding green oasis, the third, a luxury of growth. You have to be on you toes to keep up with it all.
See? I feel better already, just thinking about it!
I had two blissful days in the garden this past weekend even though it was not even March 15 in Manitoba.
This is an experience I have not had since I was five years old, when spring came very early, arriving well before its time. But these are some of the wonderful things about living here in a world where the weather commands our lives. We live for these blessed years, years when perhaps it rains on New Year’s Eve – yes, I have lived through those, and when like this year, Spring marches in well ahead of its appointed time.
Will winter come back? The swollen buds on my Manitoba maple and the neighbourhood poplars say No. But more, there is a feeling in the air that says, get ready, it is time.
Saturday, I cleaned the patio. Three hours of the beautiful, clean, fresh air lifted my spirits to the point where I did not feel my aches and pains. Sunday, I cut back winter-parched stalks, leaving the leaves to dissolve into the garden earth while I removed the pokey stems that take forever to break down. I stripped the leaves off the stalks, causing them to fall into the earth before I took away the woody parts. Within a day or two, I know all that leafy stuff will disappear and become part of next year’s nourishment.
Last year, in the front garden, still frozen under a layer snow, I put down woodchips as mulch. I am wondering if I should add a layer of topsoil to this and then more mulch on top of that? It can only help, I think, to encourage more organics and activity in the borders which have been neglected over the past five years as I have recovered from the loss of Glenn.
I think of the Victorian novelists who took only a year for grieving. What were they thinking? It is easier now. I have freed the columnar apple tree that he encased in a wire cage to keep the deer away. It has been almost eight years since we planted it. Perhaps, released to grow and thrive, it will reward with blossoms and apples this year.
In the garden, things change but remain the same. The little fir tree in the back yard, only three feet tall when we arrived, now towers above the cedars it is squeezed between. The globe cedar at the end of the pool, an ornament back then, is now a shade tree. The lovely girl next door whose lilting voice I used to hear practising the scales and who posed so willingly for the covers of some of my magazines, married the former mayor of our town after a career in California and is now a beautiful matron with three smart and lovely children. Her brother diligently mows my lawn, the sweet guy, because he likes flowers. Such are the rewards of the garden. She was visiting her mother today and we spoke over the fence as she held her darling youngest in her arms as she and the other two children and her loyal brother retuned from a walk in our magical woods by the river.
Oh, it is so good to return outdoors, to be able to luxuriate in the free air and to see the sky and to feel the earth ease out of its long sleep. It takes away all the stings and pokes and cuts of daily living in the time of COVID.
In Winnipeg, we have a wholesale company called Gales. It has been around since 1970 to serve the retail industry, but it carries a lot of very cool novelty things. One of these was a little ornamental birdhouse that I have hung outside my office window, eagerly awaiting some tenants this spring. Wrens, I think, will be attracted, although the amur maple that supports the birdhouse is a roosting place for blue jays that are courting right now.
Spring is breaking out all over –the fat buds on the maple are a promise that winter will not come back. You can smell spring carried in the brisk little breezes that stir the bare branches of the trees. The quality of lights has changed, too, and there is much warmth from the afternoon sun shining on the glass of the back door.
To support our feelings of optimism, vaccinations are being rolled out more rapidly every day. My friends across the border in North Dakota are no longer age restricted and, here in Manitoba, age eligibility is slowly coming down as more product becomes available through the Federal procurement system.
The summer of 2021 looks to be a time of celebration!
My earliest memories are of being outside, playing in the aspen grove near our farmhouse where I built a private home of my own design (mostly imaginary) and where I left my Eaton’s beauty dolls to die in the rain. Their faces fell off.
Even earlier, I remember being not as tall as the cosmos but tall enough to look the bachelor buttons right in the eye as my grandmother tended the vegetables. I can still hear the sound of the bees humming in my ears and smell the earth as it roasted insects in the scorching prairie sun.
I remember getting caught up in a tree and being afraid to climb down what was so easily ascended. I thought I would be stuck up there forever until my dad came a lifted me off the easily reachable branch.
I chased bees with a glass jar used for preserves. I licked the salt licks that the cows licked to discover what the magic was. I marvelled at a March day when I was five and the snow had receded too early for the year, leaving the grass dry and sear.
The woods behind the one-room schoolhouse is where I hid over lunch hour from a bullying boy when I had just turned six and before we left for the city. Tattling was frowned on then, so it was put up, shut up or fight back. I threw stones at the boys when I sat on the swings and they wanted to give me a push. Years later one of those boys told me they thought I was cute.
Wandering the prairie meadows with my mother and sister to pick brown eyed Susans and tiger lilies or finding shy lady’s slippers in a shady spot near the woods taught me the language of my childhood. Eating juicy green peas off the vine and blowing dandelion fluff to discover the time, coming inside when the sun went down and walking down dusty roads with my Dad – these were the joys of life when the future was unimaginable.
So, outdoors and the garden were baked into my being like apples in a pie, so much of the sweetness of my life bound up inside the crusty exterior that I revealed to the world. As a young mother, I recall how I dreamed of being out in the country and able to feel the warm air surround and caress me. I talked my husband into abandoning his parent’s comfy cottage to buy a tent so we could go camping. I had visions of wildflowers and sleeping under the navy-coloured sky where we could gaze at the brilliance that peppered the world above us.
I still search for those feelings in my garden and often, on a warm July evening, I will fall asleep under the fir tree that hugs its neighbouring cedars and shelters me from the home next door. Sometimes I feel the need to be recharged by the earth and I will lay a blanket on the ground and fall asleep in the shade of the spreading Manitoba maple that planted itself in my yard.
Now, it is March once again. At this time of year, my eyes long for green and I feed my need by wandering through photographs of summers past. It is amazing how quickly we accustom ourselves to the bounty of a Manitoba summer, the burning greens, the brilliant blues, the intense colours of the season made all the more vivid by our fresh, clear air. Then, after months of white, all that fades, except for a longing and that sense of activity building beneath the earth. I call it thrumming. Do others feel this? My friend, Mr. Tomato, says when spring finally does arrive, he can hear buds break on a still springtime night. He is one of those keenly aware folks blessed with the natural gift of holding the garden in his soul.
Another friend, Shea, also has this gift. He sees all the tiny things that others ignore. He can hear corn pop as it grows. He talks to bees and understands the subtlest signals of the world around him. He is still very young to have these gifts, but he grew up with them and he carries his knowledge around like a bag of goodies that leaves a trail of joy behind him. Ever curious, ever learning, he grows figs for the public in his prairie greenhouse and raises fish for the children that drop by. He had a collection of a thousand succulents before anyone else ever cared. (if you come to Manitoba or want to see him, go to https://www.ourfarm.biz/greenhouse.html#/ and watch his silly videos with his sisters! He comes from a family or 13 – or is it 14? And they are all filled with gardening joy – well, maybe not all quite as much as Shea, but then, few are.
Then there is my friend Gardening Helen, who raises monarch butterflies. She knows all their metamorphosing habits and how to repair a damaged wing. She is my age, a little at the top end of life, but she is totally involved with living. That is how it should be. And the garden teaches us this lesson.
We live. We grow. We change with the seasons. But we are and always will be, part of life on this planet.
I am not afraid of COVID with its sharp-toothed edges that reach fingers of fear into the hearts of the old and dear, but its ugly stain creeps insidiously into every corner of life no matter how you try to ignore it. The stain is from our fear, the fear that has been fuelled by frantic voices on television news and lurid stories of death marching across the land as though it were inevitable that you would eventually be caught if you didn’t hide – inside. Your house. Your head. A mask.
Is it the killer it is supposed to be? No, it is a cheat and a liar and a coward, seeking out the old and infirm but often even hardy centenarians triumph over it and come thorough unscathed, thank you! It reacts then by menacing random younger populations, keeping its grip of terror fresh in the minds of all.
But I have an antidote. It is called the garden.
Antidote to COVID
When all around is chaos and the world is deeply hurt Ease your aching heart and plunge your hands deep in the dirt. Have a chat with insects, watch tiny buds unfurl, Toss a tasty peanut to an enterprising squirrel. Add some clean, fresh water to the bath you have for birds, Coax a curious chipmunk with reassuring words. Get up close with buzzing bees and flitting butterflies, And watch a tiny ant heft a load that’s twice its size. See the clouds slip through the sky, sheltering the sun, Feel the breeze caress the leaves, tickling one by one. The aching heart once filled with dread now quickens to the thrum Of Earth’s warm promise, always filled, of better days to come.
When you are in the garden, you feel life humming around you, absorbing you with its measured beat, a natural, soothing rhythm keeping pace with your heart. Energy flows into your core from somewhere deep in the earth below and lifts you out of space and into another realm where time stops, and wonder starts.
In the garden, you know there is nothing to fear from COVID. It is a fellow traveller looking for life, and that is fair. There are millions of microbes, some probably just as dire, swarming the ground beneath our feet, but none of them we trust, has us marked for attack. Some are viruses that live on plants or other animals. They are part of the natural world. Some say life on earth began with a virus, so why should we fear it? Why should we not try to understand it and learn how to live beside it?
It may be that we need viruses. They will be the answer, scientists believe, to dealing with cancer. We can manipulate the single strand of a virus that is out there seeking a mate into delivering healing messages to cells that have run amok in our bodies. This cancer therapy is close, and we are learning much from making COVID mNRI vaccines that will help researchers in their quest for a cancer remedy, teaching our own bodies to deal with the would-be destroyers inside.
Fear is a necessary trigger to survival, but for it to work best, it should only be an alarm that wakes us out of complacence and into an awareness that nurtures enlightenment.
The garden is where is it easiest to discover our ability to bring threats such as COVID under our power and learn how to turn them into light that will illuminate our lives.
Think of it. We are part of the earth. The earth and all things in it are part of us. What we do and how we do it is natural. It cannot be otherwise. Therefore, we have nothing to fear except lost opportunities to explore and learn and enjoy life every day.
As we have heard, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Go into the garden and you will learn why.