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July 3, 2016

Summer Starts

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There is no better way to travel then on trains, where the leg room is ample and there is so much time to read. When we booked this weekend away, the train journey itself was the destination, but we had to arrive somewhere, so we chose Ottawa, where we have best cousin-friends and even other friends, and cousin-friends who were kind enough to offer us a place to stay. And it was Canada Day Weekend, so what better place to be…even if the place we mean to be specifically on Canada Day is our cousin’s beautiful backyard across the river in Gatineau. And it really was amazing.

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As we’d hoped, the train journey was a pleasure. I had more time to read than I’ve had in weeks. I finished Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam, which I liked so much and will be writing about, and started Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which was lovely and so much fun. They also had my favourite kind of tea on sale (Sloane Tea’s Heavenly Cream) and so all was right with the world.

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It was such a nice weekend—the children had children to play with and I got to spend time with some of my favourite people. We had an excellent time with our cousins, and met up with my dear friends Rebecca who took us to the Museum of  Nature, and last night I got to visit with my 49thShelf comrades who I’ve been working so happily with for years but have only ever hung out with a handful of times. Apart from one traumatic episode of carsickness (not mine) and the night the children took turns waking up every twenty minutes, it was a perfect long long weekend. I also learned that it is possible to eat my limit in cheetos and potato chips, which I had never suspected. Also that it is probably inadvisable to start drinking before noon.

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We came home today, another good trip, this time with me reading Nathan Whitlock’s Congratulations on Everything, which I am really enjoying, I also started reading the graphic novel of A Wrinkle in Time with Harriet, which we will continue this week. And we arrived home to find that our marigolds have finally bloomed, third generation. We planted them a couple of months back in our community planter, and have been waiting for the flowers to emerge. (Sadly, our lupines didn’t make it.) Summer is finally here proper, what with school out, and even 49thShelf’s Fall Fiction Preview being up (which is my main project for June), and my work days shift with the children being home. I’ve also decided to write a draft of a novel this summer, which is only going to make a tricky situation trickier, but who doesn’t like tricks? We shall see. We will do our best. And there will also be ice cream and holidays and barbecues and sand between our toes, and splash pads and ferry rides and picnics and pools and flowers. It will all go by so fast.

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August 19, 2015

In the continuing story of our garden planter

In the continuing story of our community garden planter, it appears that fairies have suddenly and mysteriously set up shop there.

fairies

July 16, 2015

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

We went to Parentbooks today to buy a birthday present for Harriet’s friend, and their gorgeous summer books table drew me right in. We ended up buying Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal, because it seemed a wonderful companion to Weeds Find a Way, because the illustrations are gorgeous, and because it was so perfectly in tune with our familial zeitgeist of late, which is all butterflies (which Iris calls “fuff-eyes”), watering cans, weeding, and getting up to our elbows in soil.

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The story begins in the springtime, the earth just waking up and the crocuses poking through. Neal’s illustrations show that it’s not just up in the garden where the action is happening, but that underground a whole world exists that helps the plants to flourish.

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My favourite thing about the book is how the illustrations convey the momentum of the summer garden, which is never the same two days, one plant replacing another. From crocuses, to forsythia, to magnolias, to lilacs, to irises, to linden blossoms, and onto cosmos. It’s like time, spilling over, uncontainable. The kind of thing I never noticed before I started paying attention.

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Messner shows the garden as a place of fun and play as well as labour, her young protagonist cooling off from the summer heat by being sprayed by her Nana’s garden hose. While, “Down in the dirt, water soaks deep. Roots drink it in, and a long legged spider stilt-walks over the streams.”

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The silhouettes at the end are particularly striking, showing that the nocturnal world—bats!—has its own role to play in helping with the garden. On the next page, there is even a skunk, an animal which—according to the book’s fascinating glossary—is actually a garden helper. Who knew? “Like bats, skunks are nighttime predators that gobble garden pests after dark. Skunks love grubs and slugs.” Ants too—I had no idea. They help to pollinate plants and air the soil with their tunnelling. Harriet and I were both gripped by these facts. It is nice to find a book that can teach new things to two readers who are thirty years apart.

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By the end of the book, it is fall, harvest time. Much of the action is taking place underground again, as the pumpkins are nearly ready and the cold is near. And in winter, the story tells us, “a whole new garden sleeps down in the dirt,” the tunnels and nests and animals and insects underground drawn to resemble flowers and vines in an abstract sense—pictorial subtext. It’s wonderful.

Wonderful too the way that the book makes the connection between gardens and books and reading so clear.

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July 14, 2015

Nature is as careless as it is bountiful

IMG_20150714_130830“For nightmare, you eat wild carrot, which is Queen Anne’s lace, or you chew the black stamens of the male peony. But it was too late for prevention, and there is no cure. What root or seed will erase that scene from my mind? Fool, I thought; child, you child, you ignorant, innocent fool. What did you expect to see—angels? For it was understood in the dream that the bed full of fish was my own fault, that if I had turned away from the mating moths the hatching of their eggs wouldn’t have happened, or at least would have happened in secret, elsewhere. I brought it upon my self, this slither, this swarm.

I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I supposed it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful…” –Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

IMG_20150714_130842Although Dillard concedes that fecundity is not quite so appalling with plants. She goes on to report, with amazement, a fifteen-foot-long tree growing from the corner of a garage roof, “rooted in and living on ‘dust and cinders.'” I had forgotten about her relative comfort with, her admiration for exploding botanicals, because it’s around this time of the summer every when I spy life coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk that I think about her comment on the appallingness of fecundity—something awful in both senses of the word. When summer throws off its harness, asserting the wild. We are no tamers of it, any of us, and concrete is only incidental. The whole world is bursting with green.

Though I am not sure there is anything careless about it. I have never encountered a force more determined.

weeds-find-a-way-9781442412606_hrSo it seemed like as good a time as any to get Weeds Find a Way out of the library, a book I recall hearing about last year when it came out but hadn’t read yet. The writer, Cindy Jensen-Elliott as full of wonder and amazement as Dillard is when it comes to the tenacity of weeds, their adaptive knack. Carolyn Fisher’s illustrations are beautiful, the book’s unique design bringing text and images together in a playful, gorgeous and illuminating experience. A glossary at the end of the book highlighting a number of common weeds, weeds so common as to be obscure if (to steal a line from poet Mary Ruefle via Heidi Julavits in The Folded Clock) “we can extend the meaning of obscure to be mean covered up by dailiness.” And who doesn’t love a book with a glossary?

weeds“Wild carrot (Daucus carota) is also known as Queen Anne’s lace. It is said to have gotten its nickname when Queen Anne of England visited Denmark and challenged the ladies there to create lace as fine as the flower of the wild carrot.” 

Which you can also eat for nightmare, apparently. Who knew?

July 1, 2015

A Little Lesson

Every time you make a garden, some asshole is going to come along and try to wreck it.

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Which is only a reason to garden harder. Bring on the pollinators.

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We continue to insist that the world is a beautiful place.

June 16, 2015

Making the world more beautiful…

IMG_20150616_092132Speaking of Miss Rumphius, we’ve been lucky enough to find a way to make the world a more beautiful place this summer. We live in one of those annoying (if you’re driving and want to get anywhere quickly) downtown neighbourhoods—literally a five-minute walk from where Jane Jacobs lived—in which the streets only partway belong to cars, and a one-way system has turned side streets into a maze. The one-way streets are indicated by concrete planters that block access to the road, but which haven’t been maintained regularly so that more than a few of them have been filled with weeds and garbage in recent years. Until this year, however, when the neighbourhood residents association went looking for people to “adopt” planters, and we volunteered. We didn’t even have to do the hard work. Another neighbour dug up the weeds, filled the planter with new compost, and planted a shrub.

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Before.

And then it was over to us, and one day in May we planted alyssum and two lavender plants. We probably should have been more strategic and creative about what to plant, but we were keen and impulsive, so went for it. Happily, the flowers have spread and the garden is lovely now, and when we walk by on our way to school every day, our children bid the planter, “Good morning!” Every evening after dinner we head down the street with our watering cans and give the plants their drink.

IMG_20150616_092111There is also now a palm plant in the garden that looks strange and out of place. One day I arrived to water the planter, and someone had left it there for us, quite deliberately, it seemed, the bulb nicely preserved. Now, I’ve heard of people stealing plants from gardens but not so much anonymously bestowing them, and so in order to encourage such behaviour I planted the bulb. Community spirit and everything. I don’t know who gave it to us (or what the plant is!), but I do know that taking care of our planter has connected us with our neighbours in the most fantastic way. We’ve met people out-and-about while we’ve been watering, and heard from others who appreciate the cleaned-up planter and have volunteered to do the watering while we’re on vacation this summer.

IMG_20150616_092055It’s only June, but we’ve already got a best-part-of-our-summer-so-far. We really can’t walk past our planter without Iris sticking her nose into the lavender. It’s just about that point in the season where nature explodes with fecundity, so we’ve got weeding to do and the flowers are spreading fast. And I love that this experience is teaching my children about community involvement, how gardening can be revolutionary, about simple biology, and they’re learning responsibility too—which is important because we’re never ever getting a pet (no way!). They don’t even feel ripped off (yet) that instead of a pet, they’ve got a concrete box that stops traffic, but of course it’s so much more than that, as Jane Jacobs herself would attest.

June 12, 2015

Better late than never

IMG_20150612_191344I don’t know that much about irises, except that we’ve had them blooming in our front garden in previous years. The year Iris was born, they were out on her due date, though by her birth date (two weeks later) they’d already been and gone. But this year, while there have been irises throughout the neighbourhood for weeks now (just around the time the lilacs peaked), our garden hasn’t yielded a single one. Where had the irises gone, I wondered? But then this morning on our walk to school we realized that the strange spiky stalks in the middle of the garden had been irises all along—just in hiding. It turns out that we really don’t know much about irises at all, until they spring into bloom. Which is happening a few weeks late this year because our garden is north-facing and mostly always in the shade, I think. But happening nonetheless, because by school pick-up, the flowers had opened up. Better late than never.

March 27, 2013

The Stop by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis

the-stop-tourOh, there is nothing quite like the The Stop’s Farmers’ Market. To get there, we have to trudge up the hill above Davenport Road, which is no small feat pushing a stroller, but the journey is worth it. In the winter, to arrive inside the big hall at Wychwood Barns, full to bursting with people touring around the tables heaped with fresh produce, delicious breads and cheeses, and other wonderful things. In the summer, the market spills outside into the grounds surrounding the Barns, and you’ve got to set a budget or else you’ll go mad–cherries, pickles on sticks, cinnamon buns, sushi, honey, cookies. We don’t want to snack too much because we’re planning on having our lunch at the Market Cafe, and then after lunch, the kids play on the splash pad while we wait, hoping the artisanal cheese doesn’t melt in the bottom of the stroller. Such concerns such a luxury and these Saturday mornings a highlight of family life in the city.

That’s not the half of it though, as demonstrated by the stories told in the new book The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. We thought we knew what The Stop was all about–I bought their cookbook a few years ago, and used it so thoroughly that it no longer has bindings (and I continue to use it still- oh, the fish tacos, the beef stew, that strawberry bread!!). We visit the market a few times a year when we’re hungry and in need of a trek. And this Christmas, we divided our annual food-bank donation in two and gave half the money to The Stop instead. But for all our enthusiasm, it turns out we didn’t know The Stop at all.

the-stopIt turns out that the hub of The Stop is not the Green Barn, where the farmers’ market takes place each week, where Jamie Oliver paid a visit not too long ago. The real heart of The Stop, instead, lies a few kilometres west down Davenport Road at their main office, which was a small food bank when Nick Saul became executive director in 1998. It didn’t take long for Saul in this role to become disillusioned with the food bank system, which, he tells us, is a relatively recent invention. Food banks came about in the 1980s as a temporary solution to community hunger, but they stayed around as government programs for dealing with these problems were being reduced at the very same time. And now it seems as though we’ve always had them, food banks, systems we support by dumping store-brand Kraft Dinner in grocery store bins every once in a while before heading home to feast on artisanal cheese and organic kale.

The Stop is written by Saul and his wife, award-winning writer Andrea Curtis, but told in Saul’s voice as he outlines his decade and a half with the organization. The problems with the food bank, he realized quickly, were manifold: it was a stop-gap measure; users picked up their hampers and left feeling diminished; the contents of the hampers weren’t anything that anyone would choose to eat, and did nothing to contribute to a healthy diet. There were other things going on at The Stop though that were having a more positive impact, such as their Healthy Beginnings Program, which taught food and nutrition skills to pregnant low-income women. Other initiatives came about–a community garden, cooking classes, drop-in meals. Around all these, a real sense of community began to form. Users came to The Stop and began to find it empowering, to find places where they could contribute to their communities and get involved.

Change is hard though, and Saul outlines how difficult it was to shift the centre’s focus away from the traditional food bank’s. First, because The Stop’s volunteers felt good about what they were doing and didn’t appreciate their efforts being criticized. The general consensus was that anyone using a foodbank hamper didn’t have the right to turn their nose up at anything, wilted lettuce, fetid peppers, and all. But Saul was convinced there had be a better way, and slowly, step-by-step, his organization began to blaze that trail. The community garden, he admits, is never going to feed the world, and there are many people who use The Stop whose problems are so complex that those problems are never going to be fully resolved, but many lives have been changed by the place (including those of the babies in their Healthy Beginnings program, all of whom were born at a healthy birth weight last year) and a community has found its spirit.

With The Stop’s Green Barn, Saul writes, “we can have a role tapping into the largely middle-class enthusiasm about food we’re seeing and connecting the dots between the poor and everyone else.” Because the poor, he explains, are largely excluded from the foodie revolution of the last few years. While I’m snacking on my organic kale chips, rising food costs are putting healthy food further and further out of reach of people who could benefit from it as much as I do. Saul checks Michael Pollan’s “vote with your fork” philosophy, and points out that for all the good of the movement, it leaves lower-income people as disenfranchised as they’ve ever been.

Nick Saul left The Stop in July 2012 to become president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, which aims to bring The Stop’s movement and innovations to communities across Canada, and after reading the book, I am confident in this new organization’s success and so excited by the work they’re doing. These aren’t political issues, Saul tells us, but instead these are issues of morality. The Stop is a fantastic story well told, compelling to read, and it will inspire readers to reconsider their relationships with both the food they eat and the people they live amidst.

July 11, 2012

Blooming

Five summers ago, we had the most extraordinary garden, and grew tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis, watermelon, and lettuce, and more, although, regrettably, the carrots didn’t take. When we moved to our new apartment the following year, however, we learned that we actually had not a green thumb among us, and that our garden’s greatness was mostly due to soil worked for years by Portuguese residents who’d lived there before us. We tried growing some veggies in pots on our deck, but we were thwarted by nasty squirrels and lack of sunlight, and so we just stuck to impatiens.

That this year has been different, like all our gardening adventures, has been mostly an accident. While on our annual impatiens-shop, I picked up a cherry tomato plant for the hell of it, definitely not optimistic. I decided I’d tried to grow some basil again, so I threw in one of those plants too. And then Harriet planted beans in a cup in April, in wet paper towel, and they sprouted, so we planted them.

The impatiens have done as well as ever. (They are indestructible.) The tomato plant is enormous and yielding a fantastic crop, though Harriet totally lied when she said she would eat them. The basil never stops, and I can make a batch of pesto once a week. Harriet’s paper towel beans even have beans of their own, though I’m not sure what one does with mung beans other than plant them back in paper towel. And now I wished that we’d gardened a bit harder back in May, though if we had, no doubt, we would have been disappointed. There is nothing our garden hates more than deliberateness, so we’ll play the game. We’ve got our tomatoes.

The whole summer is in bloom– we even had peaches at the market today. It’s the most delicious time of the year.

May 29, 2012

The Occasion is Lavender

I only bake when it’s a special occasion, but the problem is that I seem to unearth occasions daily. Today it’s that the lavender in the front garden is in glorious bloom. We snipped twelve sprigs, and then I set to bake lavender cupcakes, which I’ve always wanted to bake, so that’s another life goal accomplished. I used the recipe from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, which has proven a very poor instruction manual in my experience. All the measurements are in imperial and I don’t own a kitchen scale, so I have to guess the measurements and so I’ve never had a recipe from that book come out right. Though these lavender cupcakes turned out to be pretty damn acceptable. The flower is absolutely delicious. And though Harriet claims that she doesn’t like them, we’ll try her again tomorrow.

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