Of cats and fish and stone and the passing of time

Todd Braun is a Manitoba stone sculptor and gardener. His beautiful stone art can be found in many locations throughout the province, in private gardens and public spaces. Todd owes his gardening prowess to his mother, Gail, a wonderful gardener in her own right.

~ Dorothy

 By Todd Braun

The old saying, “change is the only constant in life” has been especially true here at Elemental Stone lately. Lisa sustained a nasty break of her right ankle mid last December. Remember all the ice? So, since last December, Lisa has been confined to a wheelchair or an at home hospital bed and will be there for at least another month. Hopefully she’ll be able to start putting weight on her right leg in a month or so.

On Jan. 7, 2015, my dad passed away. Dad had been ill for some time so his passing wasn’t unexpected. However, losing a parent is one of the larger events in the life cycle. For many of us, “Dad” can be a larger-than-life person, at least that was the case in my experience.

When I was a kid, dad told me, “Live like today is your last day and plan like you’ll live forever.” I’ve often thought of that and when I look around this place I can see some of his philosophy rubbed off on me. The message I got and the example I witnessed was, “Do what you love and believe in with all your heart.” The Sufi poet, Rumi, said something like, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.” I’ve always liked that saying and I think my dad could relate to that thought, as well.

So, it’s been a time of contemplation and reflection. With that in mind I included some pics from a few years back: water lily, Nicotiana sylvestris and Uncle John’s hollyhocks. People often ask me about the big gate at the back of the house, so I included a picture of loading the lintel and the long granite bridge. This depicts the arrival of the south pillar of the west gate, in 2006; exciting times.

Cat and fish news





In Cat news, the Elemental cats are doing well, not overly impressed with the recent cold snap but happy to be spending these cold days in the workshop. Two weeks ago, Wilma and Banjo, our two spoiled house cats, welcomed (with partially open arms) two new arrivals – four-plus-month-old Kazoo and one-year-old Cash. Both cats are rescue cats and both are part Siamese. I have a weakness for Siamese cats.

The fish are longing for their summer pond; April isn’t too far away. Banjo the cat must have some fisherman’s blood in him. One of his favorite pastimes is watching the fish in their big tank in the basement. Banjo has fallen “SPLASH” into the fish tank a dozen times by now. I thought the first time he fell in would be the last but, like a true fisherman, Banjo’s not afraid to get a little wet from time to time… and it makes the fish laugh.

When stone is fish or fish is stone . . .

Fish 4

Fish 4

Speaking of fish, I just finished my fourth small fish sculpture.

Sometimes I think of the thousands of worked stones I’ve left behind in my lifetime. I wonder what will be become of them when I’m no longer here. The big fish I made a couple years ago was inspired by ancient Egyptian fish-shaped vessels. Maybe in 1,000 years someone will dig up one of my stones and wonder about our time. Will anyone in the future be inspired by what is being created today? I’d like to think it’s possible.

I suppose the inspiring artifacts of tomorrow will be the objects created today. Like the ancient Egyptian craftsman who made the beautiful stone fish – an object of beauty in it’s time that endured long enough to inspire me today.

Inspired by stone
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with stone work and artifacts of the past. In some way, I sense what I do is a continuation of that ancient tradition. Stone is one of the few materials that can span lifetimes.

Local stone fashioned by local hands uniquely define a region. In the day when transporting stone was more difficult than today, entire towns were built of local stone giving the appearance of the buildings growing out of the land itself. This concept is more familiar in the Old World but I also see it closer to home – like the beautiful old fieldstone buildings in Morden, MB.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the tools on a more regular basis soon, the lengthening days. This winter hasn’t been as productive (stone wise) as I’d hoped three months ago. I have several unfinished pieces from last year that I hope to complete soon. Now (before the spring rush) is a good time to talk if you have something in mind for 2015. We had several semi loads of granite blocks and boulders hauled here last fall, so the selection is pretty good and, of course, if I don’t have the right stone on hand now, I’m always getting more once spring arrives.

We are starting to think of plants and what we’ll be doing for garden tours. I’ve already placed my first order for unusual plants.


Todd, Lisa and the cats


Of mating squirrels, Peace Gardens and sudden snowfalls

The view from my ktchen window in summer. Today, it is whie with sow but I see the colour in my mind's eye.

The view from my ktchen window in summer. Today, it is white with snow but I see the colour in my mind’s eye.

Sunday, March 3

I slept with the windows open last night and awoke feeling wonderfully refreshed this morning, even though it was well below zero both outside and in my bedroom. I awoke once or twice and was lulled back to sleep by the sound of the wind chimes in the apple tree. Surely this is a sign of spring. The rotting snow is another sign, and while it reveals the ugliness of well-sanded streets before spring cleanup, you can’t help but be heartened by the length of the days and the activity of eager small animals. The rabbits are very busy and, I suspect, so are the squirrels.

You know about the promiscuity of the female squirrel, don’t you? She is in estrus for only one day, but she makes the most of it. She announces her interest by leaving a scent trail that can attract many suitors and she doesn’t turn any of them down. While they play chase games, she is easily caught and she will mate with 4 to 16 different males in one day. Scientists haven’t found any identifiable survival or population increase reasons for this behaviour, but since it’s only once a year who can say its not just for fun.

Some red squirrel female don’t even mate in their first year, although others will mate twice in one year but most mate once a year and bear as few as one to as many as five offspring.

This behaviour is interesting because squirrels do not have a lengthy life span — they are prey to cats and birds  such as owls and goshawks. Most don’t make it much past year two. While they can swim, they can’t swim indefinitely as I have learned to my sadness in the skimmer of our pool. I must build another squirrel and chipmunk ladder this spring.

This morning, my guest on my radio show on CJOB was Doug Hevenor, CEO of the International Peace Gardens. The Peace Gardens, which straddle the U.S. Canadian border between North Dakota and Manitoba, opened in 1932 in the name of everlasting brotherhood between our two countries which pledged never to take up arms against one another.

Doug spoke about the beauty of the Gardens and what he calls the symphony of an aspen grove and poplar forest in the park, where the leaves conspire to make wonderful, mysterious music. It’s a magical place, says Doug, who described how a mist rises in the park and often causes hoar frosts that glisten in the rising sun. He said that the weather there is unusual in that winds seem to swirl around the park affecting the space differently than other and nearby places. This may be due to the fact that it is in the southeast corner of Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. Here, the land rises to over 700 metres above sea level, the southern edge of the great glaciers that receded from Manitoba 10,000 years ago.

It rains and snows here more than in surrounding prairie lands and one-third of the park is covered by shallow waters, some of them small lakes that disappear in the heat of summer. The International Peace Gardens is tucked into a southern corner of this interesting land. I will revist there this  March 30 and many times after that as a privileged member of the Board of the Peace Gardens. I hope that I may be of use in serving this lovely and too often forgotten space.


It snowed . . . and snowed some more.

It snowed . . . and snowed some more.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

It snowed last night. And it snowed some more. We, in Charleswood, were blessed with 19 cm, a mark of pride for those who gallantly dug us out. The ironic Manitoba winner of the most snow last night was, however, Miami, Manitoba with 56 cm.

Already by late this afternoon many of the streets were bare and there were fresh puddles to delight children. The city says it will spend $4 million clearing the snow on residential streets starting on Thursday. Why? The sun will do it better and much less expensively. The benefit from the snowfall was eye-relief from the worst of the sand be-smattered snow banks.

Only 19 cm fell last night, but lovely snow filled the back garden and obliterated all traces of the pool.

Oly 19 cm last night, but lovely snow filled the back garden and obliterated all traces of the pool.

Now go back to the  top of the page and feast your eyes on sunshine from my kitchen window . . .


Foiling little red

The neighbour’s maples are turning red.

“Glenn,” I called down to his family room lair in our split level bungalow. “Where do you keep the bird seed?” I felt guilty. The birds had been popping by only to be disappointed by empty feeders. Glenn hasn’t been up to his usual self and the feeders needed attention.

Male-like, he said in his why-are-you-disturbing-me voice, “Never mind. I’ll come and fill them later.” And so he did: nyger for the finches, a nice millet mix for the seed lovers and black sunflower seeds for everyone.

But it was the black sunflower seeds that drew the squirrel away from his perch in the fir tree behind my chair where he sits all day eating fir tree seeds and raining their hulls down upon our heads. I guess he’s getting ready for winter and his appetite is huge.

No sooner had Glenn turned his back than Mr. Squirrel was on the feeder – he’s so greedy; he leaves nothing for anyone else. I shooed him away, and he scurried off. But I think he was basically just laughing at me and the minute I turned around, he was back at it.

The squirrel is foiled

Now earlier this year, Glenn had rigged up a tinfoil foil which, for some reason, he had taken down. I decided to reinstall it, taking one of those aluminum pans and simply puncturing a hole in it and drawing the feeder hanger through the hole so that it has a kind of roof.

Mr. Squirrel was not amused. He must have remembered the previous one of these impediments because the last time, he just kept sliding off. This time, he didn’t even try to jump on it. Instead, he sat on the nearby bench, looking at it and clearly calculating his chances of clinging to the narrow metal bird perches on the bottom of the feeder. Apparently he calculated that this wouldn’t work, because next he climbed the tree and tried to approach it from the top, turning back before he ever hit the tin foil. He studied the thing from this angle and that and finally gave up – his disgust evident in the way he left the scene.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love that squirrel and his little red brethren. A couple of weeks ago, Glenn and I applauded as he took on a much bigger grey and chased him away, right over our feet. But we love the birds, too and fair is fair. Mr. Squirrel is quite fat and has piles of food in his territory while the birds need to start putting away fuel for their long autumn journey.

Two hours later, I feel that I am being punished by friend squirrel. He has not shown his cheery little face for the last several hours. I haven’t even had a single fir tree cone nut land on my head!

Harvest time

The cucumber has grown over the week.

Creative cucumber trellis. It’s the only sunny place the gardener has.

It’s a lovely time of year – those tiny cucumbers I showed you last week have grown! You can see them here. They grow very fast as long as I give them their gallon of water a day. They like rich, well-drained soil. I am growing my cucumber up a tall iron trellis. Another local gardener has created a ring of fencing wire around a tree where the sun shines all day and he has a lovely plant.

Tomato hornworm

This week I can barely keep up with the ripening tomato crop. Lucky Ian, who has a long row of happy tomato plants, saw a hawkmoth in his garden last night. Of course, at first he thought it was a hummingbird because hawkmoths do resemble them so much. I told him to look for the caterpillars, which are huge – as big as a man’s finger.  They are called tomato hornworms and we seldom see them here in Manitoba, so we treasure their appearance. But I am sure they are much cursed in areas where they are more common because they will defoliate your tomatoes and occasionally will even take a bite of the fruit.

Elsewhere in the garden, the apples are ripe, ready for Ian to come and pick some for his pies and other bakery wonders. I am happy to see someone use them.

The garden is still lovely, but you can feel autumn in the air at evening even though the days are still hot. The view from my kitchen window shows that the seeds on the Amur maples in the neighbour’s yard have ripened and turned red. Soon I expect I will see the Virginia creeper beginning to turn. The annuals that have bloomed their hearts out all summer long are starting to look a little spindly. They would benefit from a severe trimming and some fertilizer, but at some point we have to recognize the inevitability of the season’s change.

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.

Spring rain

I awoke to the sound of the rain this morning, just a few musical drops at first and then a hearty splash as it rained in earnest – for all of 15 minutes. Now it has stopped.

I worry about all the living things beneath the grass, only a little damp from the fast melted snow. The plants and the animals down there need rain; a good deluge lasting a few hours would soak the ground and clean the dusty trees.

It is very dry. Already this year, there are wildfires sweeping across the prairies and destroying homes and machinery. One man, 72, who lives near the peat bogs of eastern Manitoba, lost his 100-year- old home and outbuildings. He had no insurance because who would insure property beside a burning peat bog? And yet, the farm was fine for a century. Now he is homeless. The land that nurtured him for so long turned against him. It is that kind of year.

I gaze out the window above my desk. Raindrops cling to the window and to the leaf bud tips of the old cottonwood. And now – how lovely – the watery benediction has started again in a nice steady, gentle way, so good for the earth. The grass is flushing green in the dawn light and the earth is black with gratitude.

Teeming with life as it is, the rain must send shivers of delight deep beneath the surface, waking up the dormant bulbs and teasing into action the hair-like feeder roots of the trees and perennials. There are 600 million microorganisms in one gram of soil; what a party must be going on right now. All the tiny voles and moles, the snails and slugs and sleepy beetles, the worms and grubs coming out of their estivation will be stirring with a tingle of excitement, like a small electrical shock waking them from their long rest.

The frog-sicles, the frozen wood and tree frogs, will be thawing and the male frogs will be urgently looking for females.  In Manitoba, a whole list of frogs – the boreal chorus frog, the gray tree, the spring peeper, to name some – overwinter above ground and freeze into these frog-sicles each year.

It is quite an amazing thing: the heart slows, the blood stops flowing, there is no breathing, the eyes turn dead white, little frozen marbles in the frog’s head; 65% of the water in the body becomes ice. They start freezing, thanks to the aid of special ice nucleators – bacteria or blood proteins – before it even reaches 0 degrees C (32 F). This slow freezing gives the metabolism time to adjust. At the same time, high concentrations of sugar alcohol are forming in the cells. It works like antifreeze, creating a syrupy solution in the cells, which, surrounded by a protective layer of ice, do not completely crystallize.

Procreation is their first urge after the big thaw, coming even before food each spring. The urgency of this need has them singing now in ditches and other wet places, a sure sign that spring is here to stay – the frogs seldom get it wrong.

We are doing a television show

This spring, we will be starting a garden television show on our local community access channel. On Saturday, we filmed the first segment of the first show. We went to the garden center of our friend and client, Kevin Twomey of T & T Seeds and explored his seed catalogue operation. We also planted the first few trays of seeds that we will grow in his greenhouses and which will become part of the show.

Both the show and the planting party this weekend were spearheaded by our sales leader, Ian. The camera work this time was done by our manager, Steven. The planting was being done by members of the staff and Steven’s daughter, Kate. Several of our other staff was there for the planting and many of them will be part of working on the show – editing, filming, and setting up venues as we explore some of the city’s loveliest gardens during our 13-week season.

We’ll share some of the segments with you here. We hope we can capture the magic that makes Manitoba such a special place.

Warm weather and wasps

Dec 26, 2011

As we drove towards Lori’s house Christmas morning, the sun burnished the wet streets to a blinding gold. It was wickedly warm, not at all like the Christmas day weather we are accustomed to, and this lent the day an aura of unreality.

Today, the sun is still blazing down shrinking the snow and exposing the plant crowns to the inevitable frost to come. I never cut my plants back until spring so that the stalks will capture snow cover, but even so, the sun has done its work around them very efficiently. The plants sit in naked rings, the snow shrunk away where the darkness of the stalks has attracted heat.



Wasp (image borrowed from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, our high efficiency furnace sent us a disturbing message, “System Malfunctioning, on our sophisticated thermostat. The last time this happened, we called in the people who sold us the furnace five years ago. The repairman diagnosed wasps in the air exhaust pipes. He said he would hear them and wanted to cut the pipe open. His boss said, “No! We’re not covered if you get stung.”  We called in the exterminators. They said all they could do was to put some wasp bait near the exhaust opening outside and hope the wasps would take it inside to kill their fellows.

Frustrated, Glenn cut the pipe open himself (although we could hear no wasps) and he found nothing, yet the furnace continued to malfunction and apparently there were high levels of gasses being exuded by the furnace. “Buy a new furnace advised the company. “Not bloody likely,” said Glenn, after spending $5,000 such a short time past, and he called in the gas company. They detected the same noxious mess coming from the exhaust and ordered the furnace shut down.

It was late fall by this time and getting colder. Glenn called in another company. This one said, “There is definitely something wrong with the heat exchanger. “We will have to take the entire furnace apart.” Glenn nodded. What else could he do?

Several hours and a thousand dollars later, the truth was revealed. It was indeed wasps, but not in the pipes. Instead there was a tremendous build up of wasp bodies in the heat exchanger, which was completely destroyed.

We had it replaced and the furnace was repaired, but now, in light of the warning message, I can’t help but wonder if there were wasps hiding somewhere else in the pipes, perhaps awakened by the warm weather.

Ironically, the gas company has a rule against putting a screen on the outdoor openings of these systems. We may have to ignore the rule.

Now, if you are reading this from somewhere outside of Manitoba, you may well ask, “So what if the company has a rule?” but this is a province where the gas utility is a crown corporation owned by the province and they have a lot of clout. Their “rules” are basically “laws”.

This is not the first time their rules have affected us. Several years ago, they shut down our pool heater because it was within nine feet of a neighbour’s window. The pool heater had been in place for 25 years, but the rules had changed and we had no recourse. We have never replaced it because moving the heater the requisite number of feet from the window would put it in the middle of our back yard, smack amongst the roots of a Philadelphus that scents the garden every spring

I cut down the shrub this past fall because it was overgrown and woody. Who knows? Maybe it attracted the wasps.


January 5, 2012

P.S.  A week later and the heater is back up and running and, so far, no wasps have emerged, even though the Winnipeg temperature today is an amazing 7 degrees C (45 F)! The weather has, however, awakened a lazy ladybug that was hiding somewhere in one of the tropicals that spent the summer outside. We are all in a state of stupor here in our town with this balmy weather. The usual average temperature in January here is -17 C . . .




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