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What Grows in My Yard? Only Tough as Nails Survivors

It’s spring, season of gardening hope. Grass pushes up, green and lush, the trees put out their odd little blossoms and action stirs in the flower beds. The urge comes on to rush to the garden centre, come home laden with pots of bedding plants and fistfuls of seed envelopes sporting bright photos of all the blooms and veggies that will overflow in abundance.

Ha!

I have long ago finished being fooled by these false promises. My soil consists mostly of shale gravel with a little dirt in between. The region has the second lowest rainfall in the province and the only source of water is a rural well not designed for mass watering.

After watching cheery little sprouts from the garden centre start out gamely and then collapse from heat and drought, I gave up such cruelty and decided to let nature do what it would. So the yard sports local wiregrass that can stand whatever the season throws. In drought, it simply dies down into a crisp brown mat that becomes a fire hazard and appears as dead as it can possibly be. But give it a sprinkle of rain and up come new blades and the land blushes green again. You can’t kill county grass.

Blue devil or vipers bugloss happily growing up through drought dried up grass.

The other survivors are the orange day lilies that decorate roadsides and provide a thick green border round the house. They smother weeds and defy drought with tuberous roots storing their own water. Other kinds of day lilies lack that fortitude but the orange sort are indomitable.

The young sugar maple I planted years ago put out new shoots each year trying to grow a few more feet, all in vain. Inevitably, the shoots would die off and the tree remained the same dwarf size. One dry year, it turned brown all over and gave up the ghost. Only it’s stump remains.

Opportunistic red cedar tree springing up uninvited among the orange day lilies.

However, nearby, there is a big Manitoba maple that has stood there ever since I can remember. It sports a massive trunk, a great crown of leaves that never turn yellow no matter how bad the drought. Much maligned as a weed tree, this rugged species springs up unwanted along fences, in waste lots and even thrusts vigorously through the cracks between pavement and wall. My tree, sitting on bedrock a foot or so below, has put out a far ranging lateral root system and may even has been lucky enough to find a crack in the limestone, letting it send a shoot down 120 feet, the depth of the well, to where water might be found. It is kindred in spirit to the scrappy red cedars which take so enthusiastically to poor soil and jeer, like hardened gang members, at more civilized breeds gasping for moisture.

Oddly, peonies can take the worst and still produce lush blooms. Also yucca, which I thought was a southern desert inhabitant, stays green and puts out tall, impressive stalks of creamy blossoms against a backdrop of brown grass. No matter how dry and hot, blue devil, or viper’s bugloss (wonderful name), thrusts up out of the dormant lawn, ready to stab anything that dares touch its blue flower stalks. In the flower bed, gold and pink yarrow still have enough wild yarrow in them to stay alive no matter what.

Hardy lilacs stand up toany kind of season, long outlasting the pioneers who planted them.

And, of course, there are the ubiquitous lilacs, lining the roadsides, filling the air with heady perfume in the spring, surviving and spreading a century after the homesteaders who planted them are long gone.

So every spring I pass up the garden centres, wishing best of luck to all the geraniums, marigolds, impatiens, zinnias and nasturtiums on their way to pleasant new homes. By not buying them myself, I am sparing their lives. Among my orange lilies, yuccas and yarrow, I’ll do just fine.

Drinking and Driving on Country Roads. Is it Possible? Hmmm.

Now that snow has melted away and I hike down the road for exercise, I decided to vary the view by seeing what has shown up in the ditches. Most interestingly, it was beer cans scattered vigorously along the stretch of less than half a mile I was inspecting.

Alongside the beer cans were the beer bottles and then the empties of hard liquor. All of these must have been tossed out the window of a whizzing vehicle. So one can only assume that their contents were consumed while the driver was at the wheel. It could be that only passengers indulged but one has to suspect not really.

I could have counted the beer cans but the number might have reached dozens. Some shiny new and others in various states of crumpled decay, indicating that this pitching practice has been going on for some time. Bud Light was a big favourite but Coors and Molsen Canadian were also strongly represented. Other beers, like Stella Artois and Lucky Lager joined the crowd along with assorted vodka spiked waters and flavoured sodas, indicating a wide range of tastes and refinement.

Curiously, the beer cans and bottles were punctuated with a many empty containers of Boost, the powerful nutritional drink designed to bring failing systems back from the brink. Less frequent, but also there, were cans from Red Bull and other caffeine blasted energy drinks. Combine enough Smirnoff, Boost and Red Bull and you might have a human torpedo behind the wheel.

This stretch of road is long, straight and uninhabited, the perfect place to pitch one’s empties and step on the gas. Sometimes my neighbour and I grit our teeth when a roaring engine hits the double curve by our houses, spewing up a great cloud of dust as sliding tires chew the shoulder. The pasture fence has multiple patches from vehicle encounters. Both ends of the metal driveway tiles are bashed in. The roadside survivalist oak tree bears a livid scar on its side. The ornamental pine in the yard grows at a drunken angle from being flattened when yet another speeder lost the pavement.

So, on my walks I stay far off to the side when I hear that telltale engine snarl. Though I haven’t actually seen anyone guzzling at the wheel, very suspicious evidence lies at my feet. The ditches tell me to take very good care indeed.

Bonus Finds: Someone’s socks and a microwave oven. No explanation.

Ice Retreats, Spring Edges In

At the end of February, cold and frozen, spring seems far away. However, the days are noticeably longer and the odd spate of warmth creates patches of brown in the snow. But no matter the weather, the inevitable signs of new season show up.

Mom and Pop goose have arrived for yet another year. They keep away from other geese and graze in their usual spot just over the pasture fence.

Canada geese and ducks begin to arrive and gather in crowds on the along the edge of the frozen pond. When there is a bit of melting, they swim. When the cold nights freeze again, they are forced back to shore. At the bird feeder, red-winged blackbirds appear and the dark-eyed juncos depart for their summer in the north.

Red-winged blackbird putting on a show for the ladies.

Walking to school, as a kid, the trill of the red-winged blackbirds from the marsh was a delightful sound. It meant we could soon shed winter footwear and put on shoes. The first day in shoes, after trudging along in heavy galoshes, always felt like walking on air.

Red cedar, dead in the last drought, finally blown down across the fence.
The mute swans raise a family here every year.

Not long after the geese, the pair of mute swans fly in. Odd as they look standing about on the ice, they are already eager to set up house and get started on this year’s family. They are an invasive species from Eurasia, aggressive, territorial and eating large amounts of aquatic plants other birds need. Very ornamental though.

Hunter’s blind from deer season, complete with green plastic chair. Beer cans and cigarette butts reveal how the time inside was spent.

I hike back in the fields and see that the wind has taken cedars that died in the last major drought, smack down on the fences. Farther back, I discover a mesh of cedar branches which turns out to be a hunting blind built by some hunter in hunting season. It is placed to spot deer venturing out into the open. It is complete with green plastic chair, empty beer cans and a carpet of cigarette butts on the ground. Someone was a heavy smoker. Perhaps I will try it out in the summer as a photography blind.

Bronzed grackle, back from a balmy winter in Mexico, watching with its eerie yellow eyes.

No doubt there are plenty more surprises but I will have to wait until the water blocking the lane goes down and the sticky black mud dries enough to get near the pond. Meanwhile, green blades of grass show where the snow gives way and, no doubt, the indestructible thistle crop is busily plotting how far it can spread this year. Still to come is the final sign of spring: the busy march of ants across the kitchen counter.

Pond Beavers Snug for the Winter

This winter has been warmer than usual but the ice on the beaver pond holds up enough for a trip back to check out how the pond engineers are spending the winter. They are at home deep in their beaver lodge snacking on tasty twigs and perhaps binge watching Netflix. They are far too busy in the summer for such idle distractions.

Just the tip of an underwater hoard of tasty twigs and branches that make up the winter larder of the beaver.

Their dam, which creates the pond, is three fields long yet, in summer, it only takes a single small breach to bring the inspectors out to fix the hole. Highly sensitive to running water, the beavers. In winter, when the water freezes, they don’t need to bother.

Their lodge, a large dome of mud and branches, can only be reached on foot in the winter. Fortunately for the inhabitants, the lodge becomes a frozen fortress, repelling the coyotes, foxes and wolves who smell a warm meal just a few feet down but cannot dig it out through the icy hardness. Evidence that they have tried hard is all around. They probably heard the beavers laughing at them too.

Unfinished project that will have to wait until the spring.

I don’t know if they ever come outside the winter. In fact, I don’t see how they could through all that ice. And why bother? The former farm pond, now just a deeper spot in the large beaver pond, is crammed with stored branches as their larder. A diet of wet bark may not be to everyone’s taste but seems to be a beaver delicacy. They are well stocked and have digestive systems way tougher than ours.

The frozen beaver pond, a grand creation by hard working rodents hauling mud and branches in summer to build up their retaining dam.

We all might wish we were as cosy and secure. The beavers might have a couple of young kits in there also which they will introduce the world in the spring. After a year or so of intensive engineering school, the kits will be kicked out to create their own ponds elsewhere. New babies need the space. Beavers are back in the region for good after so many long decades of being creatures only seen in books. Let’s be grateful for more water and more wetlands, more wildlife and, just maybe, some push back against our regular summer droughts, all thanks to this industrious rodent with the toothy smile. May it’s winter rest be full of holiday delights.

Remembering Drought

The winter winds are howling and the pond, filled to capacity with autumn rains, is frozen over, spilling long fingers of ice into the old dead furrows of a hundred years ago. Now that Australia is on fire, let us remember that we too can suffer overwhelming drought.

Pond water plants stranded in dry, cracked mud.

The county , never big on rainfall, suffered such a drought only a couple of summers ago and became also vulnerable to fire. The grass, well adapted, simply turns a crispy brown and dies at the surface, hoarding its tiny spark of life somewhere inside its equally dry and withered root. Lawnmowers are forgotten. The pastures are eaten to ground by hungry cattle. With no new grass, farmers have to break out bales of hay for them in the middle of the summer.

Wild geese wandering in confusion over dry barrens where they formerly swam and fed.

It’s not long before crops stop growing, standing about in stunted rows and exhibiting swathes of yellow where desperately seeking roots cannot find a drop of moisture to sustain them. As drought goes on, shrubs and bushes drop curled leaves. Residents watch the sky, cheering on any shrunken gray cloud that might promise a shower but never delivers. Wells run dry. People resort to the vigorous water hauling businesses that will, for a price, send a truck to fill up the water tanks and reservoirs the prudent have installed to get through the dry times.

Hay must feed cattle in the midst of summer. No grazing left.

Eventually, the trees are struck, first the small ones then the great oaks and maples giving up, turning orange and shedding their leaves long before autumn. Dark banks of mud appear in the marshes. My large wetland pond shrinks to a murky puddle where ducks, geese and swans battle to feed on the few remaining water plants that is their diet. The swans are especially hard hit because they are in the midst of molting, unable to fly away in search of food elsewhere. They set out on foot with their hungry, almost full grown young ones but are frustrated by page wire fences, roads and more dry fields beyond. Their plight is very visible, their breasts blackened with mud from when they couldn’t find enough water to swim. Volunteers from the wildlife refuge come for them even though capturing a large, angry swan is no easy undertaking.

Drought reaches the big oaks and maples which can no longer keep their leaves alive.

Eventually, it rains. Grass, first to wither and appear hopelessly dead, puts up green shoots at the first hint of moisture. If showers continue, larger plants will produce fresh buds. An eager mist of green spreads over the land. It isn’t until the following spring that the true toll shows up. There are trees that never again put out new leaves but only raise the stark bare limbs of the truly dead. A drive down any road reveals the casualties in the form of gray skeletons huddled together where the soil was too thin to hold the water they needed to stay alive.

After rain, the withered grass, desperately dry for weeks, is first to come back to life.

Like Australia, our drought lands become a fire hazard. The county issues a complete fire ban with big fines for a bonfire and constant fears that someone careless idiot will toss a cigarette butt into the tindery grass at the roadside or the flammable red cedars everywhere. So Australia, though we do not have the roaring monster conflagrations in our neighbourhood that you do, in our small way, we do understand. Climate change is coming upon us all. Time to get our butts in gear and do something about it now.

Fun with Photoshop, Gateway to Weird Delights

For the past year or so, I have been entranced by Photoshop and have absorbed a horde of tutorials.  Finally, it’s a way to produce some art without needing the ability to draw. This was always my block as I have been unwilling to put in the ten thousand hours allegedly required to master such a skill.

A visit to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) yielded a whole herd of dinosaur pals. This one needs a drink.

Photoshop makes possible any fantasy so long as there is a bit of raw material to work with. With its vast array of brushes and other tools, it is also possible to produce awesome art totally from scratch. All digital, of course, disappearing at the touch of a key. In two hundred years, folks will still be able to read medieval parchment but all our digital creations are likely to have vanished with the ancient hard drives that held them.

A gal can do a lot with a back road, a train at the local station and a few clouds. I call this one the Car Driver’s Big Surprise.

I’ve also learned that no photo online, in print or elsewhere is trustworthy.  We have become so accustomed to eye-popping colour enhancements, removal of awkward objects, replaced backgrounds, etc. that an honest, unretouched photo, straight from the camera, looks flat and dull.  And with every phone now sporting a good lens, the world is inundated with billions of images every day.

A big glass ball just floating down the road past the farm.

All that aside, I love Photoshop. It has a steep learning curve but worth the climb.  I have a very long way to go yet, but I don’t mind. I am having a grand old time. I just thought I’d post a few of my current creations to show where I am on the great ladder of Photoshop skill that still stretches above my head far up into the sky.  Enjoy!

 

Mesdames of Mayhem Create Yet More Hair Raising Havoc

Canadians are terrific at crime. Crime writing, that is.  A group of my fav crime writers, the Mesdames of Mayhem, have just brought out their fourth anthology with a musical theme, called In the Key of 13.

Anthologies are exciting to read because they offer a buffet of  shivery delights ranging from comedy to thriller to noir.  No matter what your taste, there will be something to raise prickles on the back of your neck.

In the Key of 13: An anthology of music and murder (Mesdames of Mayhem Book 4) by [of Mayhem, Mesdames, Callway, M.H., Piwowarczyk, Ed, Dunphy, Catherine, McCracken, Rosemary]

Nineteen writers, both established and award winning, and talented newcomers, have brought out a medley of music, mischief and murder against a backdrop ranging from Beethoven to Elvis, from comedy to thriller to noir.

M.H. Callway, for instance, in her story, “Brainworm”, relates how a worn-out caregiver is slowly and relentlessly driven mad by her conniving family. Another author, Rosalind Place, in “Bad Vibrations”, invents a cabal of disgruntled musical instruments determined to exact revenge on a hated orchestra conductor.  These are but samples of the inventiveness and variety that just might keep you up at night.

To find out all about the Mesdames, In the Key of 13, and their previous thrilling anthologies, click here.

The Mesdames are also the subject of a wonderful short documentary film by Cat Mills which probes into the fascinating and complex motivations of the many authors.  A female thirst for justice in a world often unjust to women seems to be a prime factor.

You can watch the Mesdames film, entitled “Mesdames of Mayhem” on CBC Gem or YouTube as well as Facebook or wherever else a search turns it up.

The Mesdames books are available on Amazon.ca and through Sleuth of Baker Street and selected bookstores.

Egrets, Egrets Everywhere.

I always thought great white egrets lived in Florida, close to the sun and the alligators, brightening up the Everglades.  However, in recent years, they have discovered Canada and now enthusiastically populate the wetlands.  I had never seen a live egret until one day, a decade or so ago, I spotted a strange white giant standing around in the beaver pond.

Waiting to spear an unwary frog or fish that foolishly swims by.

Excitement reigned as I got out the bird book and identified the visitor. It must be lost.  Driven north by some hurricane.  Could it digest our kind of frogs?

Yet, eventually, another one showed up.  Then, over the years, more and more until it is nothing to see twenty or thirty of them standing around fishing or in a spectacular flock, white wings lit by the setting sun.  My beaver pond plays host to plenty of them and they roost in trees, an odd sight, for the night.

Taking refuge in a tree until the cyclist gets past.

They are hard to get close to except for a small pond along the road where they are habituated to traffic and won’t fly off if you don’t get out of your car.  There is competition among photographers for the viewing spot but I got their first one morning. Despite the smallness of this body of water, it has been crammed with egrets for weeks.  There must be an incredible amount of food in the depths to support this ongoing egret buffet.  I saw many of them scoffing down frogs or small fish so the attractions of the place show no sign of waning as yet.

Small shallow pond is rich source of breakfast every day.

The arrival of these glamorous birds could be a result of expanding numbers or of climate change making northern reaches more attractive.  Egrets were sadly depleted in the 19th century when masses were killed for their feathers. The mania for decorated hats wreaked havoc on colourful avians all over the world at that time but that’s another fascinating tale. Our abandonment of formal head gear has proved a relief for bird populations everywhere.

Almost got that frog!

So the great white egrets join a number of other creatures never seen in this neck of the woods in my childhood: turkey vultures, wild turkeys, eagles, the exploding deer populations, beavers, fishers, coyotes, etc. Might be climate change, might be my own lack of observation or more likely busy Mother Nature reclaiming abandoned farm fields, flooding wetlands and restoring her own folk to new homes she is providing.

 

 

 

 

 

Sandhill Cranes Remain Devoted as Ever Despite Family Tragedy

The pair of sandhill cranes that nest each year in my beaver pond, have raised another baby into long-legged readiness for the big flight south. However, this year, they have not escaped family tragedy. We had high hopes when, early on, we saw that they had hatched two chicks, little fuzzy yellow creatures following mom and dad everywhere.

two baby cranes

The two crane chicks in happier days. Only one survives. Photo credit for chicks and featured photo at the top: Dave Ellis

When the chicks were big enough to venture out into the pasture to forage, I would see babies gobbling goodies  in their quest to grow as fast as they could. Then, for a long time, the cranes remained elsewhere.  Sadly, when they decided to return to the cow pasture, they had only one chick with them.  Their other  youngster must have fallen victim to a fox, raccoon or coyote fast enough to dodge the powerful beaks and wings of furious parents.

Crane family with one baby grown large

Momma and poppa crane with their one large young one they have left.

However, the cranes have taken good care of their single remaining offspring.  Junior is now as big as they are, fully feathered and flight worthy. With this added security of size and ease of escape, the cranes, at four feet tall with a six foot wing span, can afford to ignore cattle, wandering geese and humans screeching to a halt on the road to stare at them over the fence. 

Largely herbivorous, the cranes spend hours poking their bills into the dirt of the pasture, pulling up treats which they still fondly offer to their large child. They like to visit the spot where the cattle spend the night, turning over dried cow patties to see what they can find underneath. In a leisurely manner, they move about, never far from each other, ever pausing to survey the landscape to make sure all is well. The pasture grass, which struggles with regular drought, is cropped to the ground by the cattle and everything else it supports.

In the evening, the cranes retire to the beaver pond where they hang out with the great white egrets which are beginning to congregate and all the young Canada geese that have now grown up into large adults that also gorge themselves on pasture grass to bulk up for the big migration.

Lecturing Junior

Parents lecture junior and how to fly. Junior would rather look for bugs than listen to elders go on and on about migration and some silly thing called winter.

The young crane can now only be told from its parents by its lack of the bright red patch on its forehead.  It will stay with mom and dad until next spring when they nest again.  Then the hulking youngster will have to fly off on its own to join a flock of other such ousted juveniles. With a lifespan of up to 35 years, it needn’t be in a hurry to take on family responsibilities. It might hang out and party with the flock for five or six years before thinking to look for a mate of its own. When it does, it might even remember its county origins and fly back from Florida to the wetland of its youth where lots of pasture forage will be waiting.

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One Hundred Years of the Village Women’s Institute. The Women Who Create Civilization

Our little village just held a celebration for its local W.I. (Women’s Institute). The village Town Hall was packed as awards were handed out and achievements reeled off.  For a century this intrepid group, through hard times and war time, worked to improve life in this little corner. Before WWII, for instance, they bought a rough strip of land for $30, held work parties to clear it and installed the swings, slide, seesaw I played on as a kid.  In the Great Depression, they banded together to raise enough money to save the town hospital.  They have handed out scholarships, fed the hungry, held endless teas, dinners, meetings and events to support all sorts of neighbourhood needs. When down to only three local members and facing extinction, a new generation stepped in to revive the feisty group.

Girls’ project from sixty years ago full of essays, encouragement and new horizons opened.

They are a branch of the Women’s Institute founded in 1897 by Adelaide Hoodless after her child died of contaminated milk, their mission to bring education, new skills, help and connection to the rural women of the land.

Like much female work, their hard-won achievements are often taken for granted and origins forgotten.  Yet your bread come hygienically wrapped, bright lines on the road keep you safe in fog and rain, labels on your clothes that tell you the fabric and its care, poisonous products are clearly marked, roadside breathalizer tests catch dangerous drunks, railway crossing have flashing signals, train stations have washrooms, and your milk is pasteurized to protect you from tuberculosis, Salmonela, E. coli, Listeria and a host of other lethal pathogens.  All due to the labours of the Women’s  Institute.

Long-serving member wearing the historical costume her mother sewed for the W.I. anniversary celebration fifty years before.

They are just one manifestation of the civilizing power of women.  In research for my novel, The Tomorrow Country, and its upcoming sequel, I discovered that most of the reforms that make life tolerable come about through female efforts. In Britain, as in North America, there is this vast but often invisible force pushing for our betterment.  Notable advances may suddenly have some man as the visible champion, the drive behind it is the usually women. 

Denied public participation in the 19th century, this force, as today, manifested itself in the church groups, improvement societies reading clubs, ladies’ aids, women’s auxiliaries, etc., etc. that provide the groundswell energy, the critical mass that pushed the reforms into being.  The Victorian women were alight with the concept of human progress and the certainty that all social ills could be righted with enough effort and care. Women worked without pay, volunteering from busy home lives, often without recognition, pushing and pushing to get the men to finally legislate social advancement. They still do. Queen Elizabeth II herself has been a member since 1943.

Wherever the W.I. gathers, there is always food, glorious food. And on the monogrammed plates specially ordered for the 50th anniversary celebration. We got to take them home as souvenirs. They are too fragile for modern dishwashers.

These women, as always, provide the bedrock of civilized society. Education opportunities for every child, equal pay for women, access to divorce courts, fair parental guardianship, raising the age of consent for girls, protection of migratory birds decades before environmentalism, female safety when traveling, aid to starving countries, appointment of women to the senate, financial security for the handicapped, old age pensions for all, the list goes on and on. Issues men seem blind to, women spot right away and get on the case.

Some of the many past presidents standing to be honoured for decades of service, silver-haired now but still going strong.

Women such as those in the our thirteen member village W.I are the steadying ballast of society, the ones who see how to make life better and make it happen. Their motto, For Home and Country, remains as true today as it was in 1897. So let us thank them and salute them and hope they someday achieve the level of indigenous women who did not allow men to go to war without female consent. What a social advance that would be!