Confining cities: a giant falls

Cedars covered with snow

Snow flowers on cedars.

There is a hole in my garden this morning. When I look out the window in front of my desk, missing in the scene are the strong arms of the old cottonwood tree. It was felled this past week.

It was not an easy departure for this giant; It took two days and six people to bring it down, but at last it surrendered with a heart-felt thud as the huge trunk hit the ground. You could feel it all through the house which shook with the impact. It was only 43 years old.

Sadly, that’s the way with hybrid cottonweeds. They grow quickly, live vigorously and die early. Out in the open, without the restrictions of city life, native poplar trees can reach 100 years or even more. But in the city, the hybrids face all sorts of impediments to their growth and they become susceptible to disease, soil compaction and limitations on their root growth. In the case of our cottonwood, it had vastly outgrown its living space; it was beginning to drop twigs and branches at an alarming rate and my husband had to make one too many calls to the roto-rooter-type people to clean the sewer lines of its adventitious roots.

We don’t look forward to coping with those live roots over the next summer as they will continue to spring up throughout our lawn, but that too is the nature of this wonderful tree. With a short lifespan, you need additional survival methods and, with a root system that sends up suckers even after the main stem has been removed, chances for rejuvenation are that much greater.

I don’t want to think how the birds will mourn him this summer, though.

Poplar being felled.

The poplar coming down.

Poplar felled.

The poplar comes down with a thud.

Nobody talks to the crossing guard

It’s a beautiful winter so far this year. White flowers of snow have fallen every other day, cleaning up the  landscape and hiding the dirty sand laid down by the City. Of course, we need the sand, especially after the ploughs have polished up the streets and removed the soft snow cushions at the curb edges that helped us to stop at corners.

I shouldn’t complain. It’s probably that I have a bias against high-density cities and I have never been an acolyte to the June Jacobs school of thought. Her anti-utopian vision of bee-hive living is in complete opposition to the Cities Beautiful way to which I am passionately committed. While proponents claim that the “economics” of high density living offer advantages, I have severe doubts about this over the longer term and I worry about the stress such an environment must ultimately take on citizens. I shudder to think what those towers of glass and cement will look like 50 years from now — but anyone who has seen the wasteland of downtown Detroit will have some idea.

And now there is a new threat to the City Beautiful concept: artificial claddings made of a styrofoam-type material that has a lifespan of about 15 years — what happens when this material gives out? The mental images are not pleasant.

As for me, I hug the edge of the city and would move outside if I had the choice, but businesses and personal economics keep me where the streets are paved. If it were up to me, I would spread the city out even further, with lovely parks and treed spaces to separate neighbourhoods — sort of like Charleswood, where I and my neighbours live in harmony with trees and breathing space. In my small subdivison built in the 1970’s, there are seven parks. People walk all the time and they get to know one another. They leave their porch lights on at night, a habit I find wonderfully warming and welcoming.

June Jacobs and compact cities fans claim that high density living promotes a sense of neighbourhood. Hmm. When my youngest grandchild was born in Toronto, I stayed for some weeks with my daughter while she was recovering from the birth. Every day I would walk six-year-old Julia to school and, when we crossed the Danforth, I would always say good morning to the crossing guard. She would say good morning back and one day even spent enough time to tell me that she was originally from Winnipeg.

But one morning, Julia floored me by asking in a six-year-old voice full of censure, “Why do you talk to the crossing guard, Grammy?”

“Shouldn’t I?” I asked, mildly amused.

“No,” she replied, emphatically. “Nobody talks to the crossing guard.”

It made me think about the alienating impact of population density where people seem to need to protect whatever diminishing space they have by not speaking with strangers.

I compare that with going to our local garden centre yesterday to buy a Christmas tree. Children were running about, admiring the plants and soaking up the atmosphere. They talked to strangers and strangers talked to each other. What a lovely freedom from fear.

Note: The above was written December 1, 2013, and just never got published. The hole left by the cottonwood is now filled with perennials on a temporary basis while I decide what new tree to plant. The promised sprouts did spring up and kept Glenn and I pulling them all season long. But the grass, no longer quite so out competed, is making a comeback.

And I still feel the same way about density in cities.

 

The Christmas tree

I believed in the magic of the Christmas tree and would gaze into its depths for hours.

I believed in the magic of the Christmas tree and would gaze into its depths for hours.

When I was a child, Christmas always held a special magic for me. I would get a warm feeling of anticipation near the beginning of December, dreaming of the good things to come – the Christmas tree, the presents, the fruit-filled cakes and puddings. The very air seemed to twinkle with possibility, the house ready and waiting with an expectant feeling. Everything would be waxed and polished — I loved that smell of floor polish; it spoke of order in a chaotic world.

When I was 11, chaos visited.

We lived then in a small mining town in the East Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. It was a good life – people were making a lot of money and it was easy come, easy go – that was B.C. in the latter half of the 1950s.

My parents were young and full of hope for a wonderful life. We were a tight knit family of eight, with six kids.

Then, in early November, my father was in a car accident and broke his ribs. He contracted an infection, followed by a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics that put him in the hospital for several weeks. In those days, there was little to back up a family of six when the dad was off work, so things were not easy. To make matters much worse, just when he was ready to go back to work in early December, there was a massive layoff at the mine. By the time Christmas drew near; we were very, very short of money. No Christmas tree, this year, said my mom. And my heart sank. I didn’t care too much about the presents or the cakes and puddings, but I did care about that magic tree. And I believed in its magic.

Mom did her best: the house was clean and polished; it smelled of floor wax and expectation, but as the last few days of school passed and nothing changed, I sank into a pit of gloom. My pessimism may have been abetted by the fact that there was not a lot to eat – a deer my dad had shot in the fall was nearly all gone – we had been living on deer meat and porridge, a dreary diet, but it would be even drearier when the meat ran out.

Still suffering the pain of slowly healing ribs, Dad was out every day looking for odd jobs, but the whole town was depressed with so many out of work and there was really very little to be had.

The last day of school before the Christmas break, I was given the task of taking down the class Christmas tree. As I lifted off the ornaments, I got an idea and, even though I suffered terribly from shyness, I mustered the courage to ask the teacher, “What are you going to do with that tree?” I waited for her answer with my heart throbbing in my throat.

“Throw it out,” she replied. “It’ll be all dried out before we get back to school.”

“Can I have it?” I asked. I thought I would faint before she answered.

She looked at me dubiously, but shrugged and said, “Sure. If you want.”

I dragged that skinny little thing home in the darkening day, tugging it up the hilly streets to our house in Upper Blarchmont, the new subdivision where we were the proud owners of a brand new, but Spartanly furnished, house. At last I was at our front door, shouting for my mom to show her my prize. It didn’t occur to me that we were surrounded by evergreens – the mountainsides were full of them for the taking with a saw and a bit of energy.

She came to the door and hid her look of dismay. I remember her hesitation before she smiled and helped me bring it in. “But,” she said gently, “we don’t have any decorations.”

She must have seen my face fall, because she got that look of concentration she assumed when she was problem solving and then she said, “But let’s see what we can do.”

My mother was a creative and resourceful person. She made some paste out of a bit of flour and water and then we tore old magazine pages into strips which we fastened into round circles to make chains. The chains were a blend of interesting bits of story mixed with the jewel-like colours from the photo spreads. The more we worked – all the kids got into the act — the more enthused we became and soon we were laughing and having fun, coming up with other magazine paper designs for our tree. Mom even pasted together a star for the top.

It was a beautiful tree. For the next several nights, I sat in front of it, gazing into its depths, discovering possibilities and miracles that only I could see. At last it was Christmas Eve. Dad had explored every avenue to make a little money, but there was simply nothing to be found. Every door was closed. We went to bed that night, a gnawing in our stomachs that came from more than just the tiny dinner we had eaten.

Christmas morning dawned, very white and cold. The furnace was coal-fired but it would burn wood, a good thing since there was a whole world of wood outside, but the fire had died down in the night. I remember shivering under the covers when my sister and I woke, listening to Dad downstairs stoking up the coals. “Stay in bed till it warms up,” he shouted, and when he had it roaring, he bounded upstairs and back into bed himself. We were only too glad to obey.

Suddenly, there was a mighty banging on the front door. Terror froze my heart. Who could it be? All sort of evil possibilities presented themselves. I cowered under the covers beside my sister, listening to Dad go to the door.

Then we heard it. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” The voices were ringing, a smile hidden in the sound. There were happy, stomping feet. There was the noise of things being carried in.

“What a beautiful tree,” said a female voice. “Bring that in here, John.” We didn’t need Dad to invite us to come and see. My sister and I crept downstairs and what we saw was quite wonderful: gaily wrapped presents under the tree. Boxes full of something on the kitchen table. Two warmly dressed people just leaving, saying again, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”

We felt Mom’s presence behind us. She wrapped her arms around our shoulders and together we went into the kitchen where dad was standing, looking stunned. We’d all forgotten to be cold. On the table were two huge boxes stuffed with food – and the prize was a giant turkey. But there were practical things, too: sugar and flour and potatoes and cabbage and carrots and lovely, thoughtful things: syrup and a big tin of Malkin’s strawberry jam. The list went on.

At the very bottom of the box was an envelope that said, “Merry Christmas from the Ladies of the Purple Heart”.

“They should call themselves Ladies of the Golden Heart,” said Dad in a wobbling voice. Mom simply wept, silent tears that she wiped away with the sleeve of her bathrobe.

I don’t remember the presents. My sister and I were just glad that the little kids: my six-year-old brother, five-year-old sister and the three-year-old twins, found those gifts under the tree when they came downstairs.

I was filled with a boundless joy that day. It seemed to me to be a miracle – we had not asked for help – had not told anyone of our need, but somehow, they had known and responded.

I gave the credit to the tree.

We learned later that the ladies were part of an auxiliary to the local Elks lodge. They gave up their own Christmas morning to go from one house to another, filling the Christmas wishes of all the families that had been hit by the layoff.

Knowing this didn’t spoil the magic for me, though. What mattered was their kindness and the cheerful, matter-of fact way they dealt out their charity. They will live forever in my mind as the Ladies of the Golden Heart.

And I still believe it was the tree that told them.

I still believe in the magic of trees.

I still believe in the magic of trees.

Of remembering, the first snow and christmas trees

Dave Lutes of Treewise hangs lights in our 35-foot blue spruce.

The first snow of winter, November 11, 2014 seen though the screen from my office window.

Now it’s November and the mercury, if we still had mercury in our thermometers, reached a high of only -9 C today. The wind is sharp. It cuts through fall clothing like shards of glass, seeking out seams to slice between. It’s not that -9 is that cold in Fahrenheit — only just under 16 degrees — but the negative numbers send psychological chills to our bones.

There is no snow, only skiffs sometimes in the morning. It fills driveway cracks and teases small insects into to hiding under garden debris. I make an absent-minded note to cut off the ugly stems of the globe thistles, but I know it won’t get done, and what does it matter, after all? The stark bare stalks, now standing sentinel-erect, will finally bow to the will of winter and, just like the rest of the perennials, return their borrowed nutrients to the earth.

The peonies huddle in the cold. I don’t cut them back in deference to the advice of an old gardener who would know much more than I. He says leaving them standing will protect their hollow stems from carrying rain water and snow melt down to rot their roots. Yet . . . I find myself sometimes doubting old-timer advice — it often doesn’t correlate with the logic I have learned. After all, the winter-broken stems will still be open to let snow melt in come spring, cut down or not.

Another local garden guru advises me to fertilize my Christmas cactus when it is in bloom. This makes no sense to me when I know that plants need sunlight to photosynthesize and use up fertilizers, yet Christmas cactus blooms in the darkest days of late autumn or early winter. Seems to me the time to fertilize them is before they go into semi-dormancy with the darkening of the days which stimulates the output of their flowers.

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Poppies in a summer garden not far from here.

Poppies in a summer garden not far from here.

I awake this morning to find that the snow has slipped silently over the land through the night. It’s very quiet now at day break, the usual sounds hushed by a thin white blanket and the world seems clean and calm.

It is Remembrance Day, November 11, 2014, 70 years after D-Day, 100 years after the outbreak of the first Great War. It is odd how this day stands out in my memory over the years. I think of a day back in school, a warm sunny day in November, when a girl suddenly fainted at a ceremony as we stood silently remembering those who had died. One moment she was standing straight and rigid beside me, the next, she was flat on her back, not crumpling the way you would think one would fall, but falling backward and landing with a thud.

I think of the five Remembrance Days that I served in Parliament, each of them solemn and heavy with feeling as we laid wreaths in darkened rooms and took part in the great theatre of official remembering.

November 11 has also been a joyous day, celebrating the birth of my first daughter, Lori, who is as perfect and as pretty as the poppy that commemorates this day.

Ah, that poppy, Papaver rhoeas, the field popy, the poppy of Flanders Fields, the poppy that is one of the seed bank plants whose seeds can lie dormant for many years until the soil is disturbed by some physical event. During the war, artillery falling in the fields of Europe caused the poppies to spring up, staining the landscape red and inspiring Colonel John McCrea to write the poem whose words are etched in my brain:

In Flanders Field, the popplies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks still bravely singing fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

A shiver runs down my spine as I read. In my mind, I can see what McCrea saw — the scarlet flowers, the white crosses, the birds winging overhead against a cloudless blue sky while the booming of distant guns bears testimony to death and destruction.

At 11:00, I will take that two minutes to reflect, thinking of my father and how the war killed him although he returned physically unharmed. He was just a child when they sent him off to the front, only 18, and what he saw and experienced never left him. My father had a poet’s soul. The horrors of war gouged out deep furrows of sorrow that no amount of singing or playing or reciting nonsense poems could ever erase.

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But today, thanks to my darling daughter Lori, is also a day of rebirth and celebration, so after the sorrow at 11, I will go on to celebrate the lovely part of life; that it renews itself, just as in a garden the plants re-emerge each spring from their own particular type of dormancy, whether it be from seed or bulb or from sugars stored in roots. The sun will spread its warmth again. Tender leaves will spring on delicate stems from trees suddenly exhuberant, released from their long winter sleep.The beauty will return.

And yet, in its way, this first day of snow is also welcome, bringing calm, quiet and repose swathed in gentle folds of white. There is a time for waking and a time for sleeping and both are lovely.
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DSC_0294

Dave Lutes of Treewise sends a “thumbs up” signal from the top of our 35-foot blue spruce. The wind was blowing, the tree swaying, but the intrepid Dave hung the lights and the tree smiled.

Last weekend we asked Dave Lutes of Treewise to help us put up the Christmas lights on our blue spruce tree. It had grown too tall for Glenn to reach the top with his makeshift tool fashioned from a pool brush with an extension and a hook. We expected Dave to arrive with a truck and a cherry picker. Instead he arrived, well-covered, and shimmied up the centre of the tree like some overgrown cat.

Dave is a tree man, extraordinaire. His view is a lofty one from the tree tops, his preferred perch. His affinity for trees is natural and unbreakable. As he climbed our tree, he dislodged insects nesting in its centre and broke off dead branches, removing these irritating things from the tree’s trunk. I imagine it sighing in relief.

We thank you, Dave. And our spruce thanks you, too.

The colours of Whitehorse

The beautiful tapestry behind the chair of the Speaker in the Yukon Legislature reflects the stunning colours of the territory.

The beautiful tapestry behind the chair of the Speaker in the Yukon Legislature reflects the stunning colours of the territory.

How lovely the colours are this fall. My Amur maple is a blazing red and the Virginia creeper has turned maroon. A drive to Portage La Prairie yesterday  was visual music to the mind — the yellows are stunning this  year.

Speaking of colour, I was away in the Yukon a week ago and all the birches and poplars are a brilliant gold, glowing against the dark green of the conifers under a bright blue sky. The hills in the distance turn to purple and pink at sunset. The colours sear themselves onto your mind’s eye.

The townspeople of Whitehorse seem to appreciate this. They have taken advantage of the green and gold colour scheme by painting many of their buildings a gold colour to match the fall trees. Some of the buildings are trimmed with green. Touches of red show  up here and there on the odd white or gray building. The aesthetic of the land seems burned into the essence of the people who live here.

The town of Whitehorse has grown since I was  last thereabout 20 years ago. Its population is only about 30,000, but the citizens have everything they could want, including a local college that is doing some brilliant research into phytoremediation, the science of cleaning up heavy metals from ground water using plants and even bacteria. At the college, they are also testing and creating cold weather building products and, of course, testing methods to grow root vegetables in a short season. They spend a lot of time studying discontinuous permafrost and have to take this into consideration when they garden (the flower beds I saw were raised beds) and when they build.

I was very impressed with the way they are planning their city — no ugliness that I could see and the roads are as smooth as glass — very interesting considering their winters and the permafrost. The streets people took the time to add the little extra touches, such as stamping flowers and other motifs in odd places in the cement of their sidewalks and planters. Art is part of the city. In the middle of town, a monument to poet Robert Service stands in the midst of a raised flower bed. It is  a quirky metal sculpture of a table with an inkwell and a chair. There are many murals featuring the history and wildlife on the Yukon. Flowers overflowed planters; big displays of rugosa roses were still blooming in the superb, sunny weather . The daytime temperatures hovered round 22 degrees.

Downtown Whitehorse is snuggled between the  Yukon River and a ridge, so it is about eight blocks wide at its widest, making it seem very  intimate, although there are suburbs that now sprawl across the river.

G Libray in Whitehorse d Frank's dog vamp c Stunnig shades of gold and  green

The old railway and station have been turned into a charming feature paralleling a walkway along the river. It’s a lovely place for a morning stroll and along the way you can borrow a book from the tiny public library  set atop a riverside post. At rest on the river by the bridge at the end of town is an excursion paddlewheel,  looking not at all out of place here.

The town is quite cosmopolitan; walking down the main streets I heard a lot of German and French being spoken. Young people come to the Yukon, fall in love with the place and stay. Audrey McLaughlin, who many will remember as a former leader of the federal NDP and who has family here in Winnipeg, says the town just keeps growing and she can’t figure out where they all work because there is so little industry outside of mining and government.

But tourism has become big business with over 300,000 visitors a year. That means that retail is a big employer; the shops are locally owned and authentic. My favourite store, though, was the Riverside Grocery  which is filled with all sorts of exotic and unusual edibles and other goods, including a large assortment of imported candies.

Travellers come from everywhere. There is even a direct flight from Frankfurt to Whitehorse! Florida is another of their key sources for visitors. Visitors are treated well; I had the  best meal  at Antoinette’s Restaurant. It was a maple syrup sweet potato topped with grilled salmon and a thin layer of guacamole garnished with cilantro, all on a bed of sweet corn and other fresh vegetables. Exquisite!

The citizens are also an attraction, being fiercely independent and loving the land. My taxi driver grumbled that he resented all the people moving into the Territory, but there is still room for lots of individuality. Take Frank Turner, who runs Muktuk Adventures, a dog ranch for want of a better term. Frank, heavily bearded as one would expect from a dog musher, has run 14 Yukon Quest dogsled races from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. He even won back in 1995. His kennel holds about 150 dogs which are treated like honoured guests at a dog hotel and his staff is an army of young people from all over to keep the dogs fed, exercised and interested.

In Whitehorse, out-of-doors is impossible to forget; it calls you. You want to be outside soaking up the colours and the fresh air that is so clear and clean it’s like champagne in the lungs.  Nature is omnipresent. Ravens rule the air and we saw a red fox walking across the college campus.

As for gardening, the growing season is short but intense with long hours of bright sunshine to move things along.

There is so much more to see and do than I have touched on here in this brief note, and in the summer  the fireweed will be in bloom adding fields of purple to the colour mix.  Winter will be just as fascinating, with the short dark days and long nights.  If you get a chance to go to the Yukon, take it.

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 . . .