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 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.


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!





Goose Babies Everywhere

The flocks of Canada geese that arrive from the south to congregate on my pond in the spring generally disperse at nesting time. The many nearby marshes are inviting. However, a great many now seem to have decided that the pond suits them just fine and built nests where they landed.

Goslings start out very tiny. For goodness sake, get the family off the road!

The results are apparent as the geese lead their offspring out into the open pasture to graze, graze, graze. At first, they were small yellow balls struggling through the tall grasses. But this year’s grass seems to be extraordinarily nourishing. The goslings are almost half as big as their parents and starting to turn a darker, more grown up colour. With so much rain this spring, the verdure is thick and rich, easily supporting all the geese as well as all the cattle munching away at the other side of the field.

A babysitting sentinel always keeping watch while gosling gobble lunch.

The goose parents also appear to have a day care arrangement to get a little time for themselves. One goose couple appeared to be in charge of about forty youngsters bunched around their feet while the rest of the field was dotted with goose pairs blissfully dining together free of young ones. Perhaps this is the goose equivalent of date night and may be much needed. Canada geese mate for life and can live around 25 years, staying together longer than a great many people. Marriages may need a spot of maintenance now and then.

Running for the safety of the pond as fast as they can go.

The geese are very protective of their families. When out en masse, there is always at least one long necked sentinel keeping sharp vigil while the rest forage. They are oblivious to traffic unless a vehicle slows. Should a person appear, no matter how distant, they herd their charges back to the safety of the pond as fast as the youngsters can run. Until the babies can fly, they could make an easy lunch for foxes, coyotes and whatever else can move faster than little waddling feet.

Goose couple enjoying a little peace without the kids.

Right now, though, they are all out in the pasture gobbling away, the goose version of ravenous growing teenagers who cannot be filled up no matter how many groceries are hauled home from the store. Luckily, the grass supply is endless and the goose population will get another substantial boost before migration time.

Maple Syrup Slurping and What Real Farm Animals Look Like in Spring

Maple in the County has arrived, an annual celebration of our local maple syrup producers. Folks flock for wagon rides through the sugar bushes, visits to huge modern sap evaporators and, of primary interest, the traditional sausages and pancakes which you slather with butter and drown in maple syrup. Weather is usually nippy, but this year it simply poured rain all day. The wise head straight for Fosterholm’s with its large, warm building, wood stove roaring in the corner and grandma’s pancakes stacked high on paper plates. Unlimited syrup and butter grace the tables and the rain can pour all it wants.

Recently sheared ewe feeding her lamb in their winter pen. Not much fluffy whiteness here yet. The lamb’s long tail will soon be docked.

The brave tramped on to other attractions, such as the new fire truck proudly displayed by the fire department. The firefighters served pancakes and syrup in an open-sided shed with a view of farm implements and full complement of breezes. Visitors around the county could take in demonstrations of syrup making, try lamb burgers under canvas and a look at real farms in the mud and wet of spring.

Maple syrup evaporator. A hot wood fire in the black iron below powers it all and must be fed and tended constantly. And no more sap buckets. Maple syrup comes in from the trees via plastic hose.

The children, of course, wanted to see the animals and got to see them in their fields and pens, unslicked up and slopping through spring conditions. They also quickly learned why farmers wear rubber boots in spring and fall. There is another month, at least, before new green grass is fit for grazing in the fields. Only then can cattle and sheep can shed the muck and manure clinging to their haunches and turn into the sleek and fluffy creatures seen over the fences from the road.

Farm equipment waiting to get on the land. Fuel tanks, steel fencing, a harvester head, sheds full of tools and drums are just a hint of what it takes to run the place. The veteran Farmall tractor has probably worked hard since the 1950s and remains a vital part of the operation.

People came from as far away as Ottawa, often toting fancy cameras and sporting designer rainwear. For children, perhaps it was the first time they had ever touched a lamb and many did not know that “baby cows” are called calves. Likely they learned from parents pointing out the big “male cow ” eyeing them placidly from behind his rails. These little visitors are growing further and further away from their agricultural roots, their bedtime stories now featuring astronauts and race car drivers instead of the gamboling lambs, foals and little pink piglets of earlier days.

Here is your bacon and pork chops on the hoof. No question about the fate of these porcine pals.

Despite the endless rain, the festival was a success. Folks went home replete with pancakes and hauling a carload of kids shrieking on sugar highs. Some even had a closer look at where their food actually comes from. We hope they will think about it, at least a little, each time they slather their whiskey infused maple butter on their urban artisan toast.

Growing chickens kept warm against the weather by a heat lamp behind an old window frame. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to peck about the barnyard for a while before ending up as dinner.

Wild Goose Eccentrics are Back

Hordes of geese flock around my beaver pond in spring and fall before they disperse to nest or finally get frozen out and decide to head south. Canada geese, with their white cheek patch, black necks and grey bodies, appear identical to look at. There isn’t even a difference between male and female as there is in so many other birds. While I’m sure their goose neighbours can spot facial differences and gossip about their characters, people generally cannot.

All alone out in the field. One keeps watch while the other checks out the buffet.

However, one pair sets itself apart so that even I can recognize them. Each year, for a number of years now, they return and pretty well immediately abandon their flock. Their favorite thing to do is stand in the pasture, all by themselves, and pass their time poking about in the grass or just watching the cars go past on the road. They choose the same place every year. Often they stay there all day. When they are done foraging, they plop themselves down and have a good long nap. One watches over the other carefully and gives alarm should anyone try to approach.

These two do not appear very social. They keep to themselves, ignoring the rest of the geese swarming noisily around the water’s edge. Even when a crowd of other geese comes into the field to pluck at the grass, this pair stays off on their own. Nor do they ever appear to raise a family. Throughout nesting season, they still show up in the field, together when one should be home watching a nest. Later, no little troop of goslings follow behind, no nearly adults fly with them to be shown this favourite spot.

The pair ignore the ongoing party at the pond.

Yet, year after year, those two stick together, monogamous, mated for life. Neither has a wandering eye. Perhaps they are a gay couple. Perhaps they have accepted infertility and spend their time in philosophic communion in the pleasant meadow. Perhaps, in early mating discussions, they decided against the labours of nesting and chose a life of leisure and winter touring instead. I’ll enjoy their goosey eccentricity with a summer of watching them ahead.

A Year of Happy Photos

Starting from practically zero with a little old Kodak point and shoot, I have worked my way up to a practically pro level mirrorless camera with assorted lenses, which I still mostly have to learn how to use. Add to that a fascination with Photoshop and the door is open to the weird and even weirder. Photoshop has a massive learning curve and I’m only partway up the slope but, once conquered, one can do just about anything with a photo. Excellent online tutorials show you how to make buildings disintegrate and people fly and giant birds stomp through alien landscapes on the moon. It also means no photo we see today is trustworthy. Plain reality now looks dull. At the very least, there be will smoothing, retouching, colour enhancement, seamless removal of any distracting person or element. Those vivid eyes staring up from magazines have had tone, contrast and that brilliant sparkle added, all the better to mesmerize you.

This year’s award winner: Best Altered Reality

I’ve always had an interest in photography but could not indulge it much in analog days due to film and development costs and what do you do with 300 practice pictures of the cat? Hail the arrival of digital photography! You can take a thousand photos if you want, erase them and start over, all for free. Joining the local photo club, full of avid shutterbugs, provided a monthly theme and the goal of producing ever better photos for the meeting slide shows which are viewed by many highly expert eyes.

Rummie, the cat, napping full circle.
Ghost on the road, trying to stop the doughnut truck.
Summer tranquility and very good balance.

As for me, I can’t wait to get my hands on the total tool kit. Photography is good for writers who tend to live inside their heads. Photography makes you look closely at the real world, noting previously unnoticed details and compositions. Everything becomes a possibility, from the cattle in the pasture to the birds at the feeder to the cars that skid and take out my mailbox. Insects and macro photography (still to be conquered) open up the tiny universe most of us don’t bother to see. I can’t do astral photography or take a decent picture of the moon but, after a club outing involving steel wool set afire, (who knew it would burn) I know how writing with light is done.

What’s that tantalizing fragrance on the wind?
Love getting off the rocks.
Rainy days suck when you’re a gorgeous blue jay like me.

Every unlikely thing is checked for interest. For me, that is the prime directive: there must be something of interest going on. That philosophy must be working. Each year I’ve belonged to the photo club, I have won some kind of award. First for Funniest Photo, next for Best Mode of Transportation and thus time for Best Altered Reality. So another year has begun. This month’s theme is “Winter Fantasy”. Now that opens the door to a lot of fun mischief. I shall re-watch the tutorial on the mysteries of shutter speed and brave the winter snows.

Retro cows via a vintage filter.
These two stood about doing nothing on the paving project in front of the house. I decided to put them to work.

Personal Weight Training Program: Pick Up a Ton and Move it Several Times

Each fall the firewood arrives. Four cords usually.   And I stack them all.

Wood comes by the truckload.

A cord of wood is four feet by four feet by eight feet and is dumped in a heap on my door step each fall. Each piece of wood weighs an average of ten pounds. Every ten pieces that pass through my hands is 100 pounds. So 200 pieces of firewood equal one ton and each cord has hundreds of pieces. Quite a fast way to build muscle.

The challenge.

Partially stacked, neat and tidy. Much more to go.

But wait, there’s more.  The wood is carefully stacked outside until needed in the basement wood stove. Each piece of wood is then lifted from the stack to the wheelbarrow, lifted from the barrow and tossed down to the basement door, tossed inside the basement, stacked in the basement and ultimately carried to stove to feed the fire.  That means a ten pound chunk of firewood has been lifted six times. So each 10 pieces really equals 600 pounds of weight lifting and 200 pieces provides a handy three tons of exercise.

The end result., a happy, well fed stove. No heat as cozy wood heat.

Should I say, move over Mr. Muscleman Atlas? Sure why not.