Monday, September 28, 2009

The Great Depression

My father was not interested in farming as a boy and after high school, he learned the Morse Code and joined the Canadian National Railway. This was 1929. The market crash did not fully bite on the prairies until the dirty thirties. There was virtually no work for my father. The farms failed, including the farm he grew up on. He tried growing mushrooms and sheep and potatoes in the early thirties as well as the occasional relief telegrapher job, but it was hard, and no one bought his produce. His sheep got maggots, he poured his potatoes down the coal shute into the basement where they rotted and the mushrooms wouldn't produce as advertised. He was scammed by spawn sellers. By 1934, when I was born, he had somewhat steady relief work on the railway but traveled to it extensively, so my mother and I lived with my maternal grandparents for a further three years. The great depression introduced fear into people of that generation that is ill understood today. My father, thoughout his life, had no use for healthy people who did not work. He paid a bill in cash, the day it arrived in the house. He never had a bank loan and never would have had a credit card. He took a two week holiday every year. He rode a bicycle to work for years. He biked because he couldn't afford a car, not because it was politically correct. He smoked a lot, but rolled his own, and used Zig Zag papers because when you laid the cigarette down, it went out, and you could relight it without waste. How could you avoid being raised by this man and not value work!

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Here, at the end of September, the sun rises behind the cedars to the southeast, so we will no longer see it rise in the morning from our vantage point in the livingroom. What we will see, is the dawn of a new day, as the photo shows. We will see the sun rise again in late March. The wall of Western Red Cedars buffer us against the November gales as they come from the southeast, so the trees are a blessing. The harbour goes abruptly from the 20 fathom mark to a 7 fathom mark a bit out from us, so the large rollers generated in the storms of the winter are bracing, along with the wind, and there is lots of flotsam thrown up. Our bank is protected by a massive rock wall, piled to move with the waves. Those who flee to the desert in the south may not miss the season's change, and the rain and wind, but the pianist and I would miss it, though a couple of weeks in Mauii wouldn't be a turnoff. Getting through November to Christmas is the dreariest time. The winter ducks, American Widgeons and Buffleheads, return through the winter, till April. They choose to come here. The Widgeons are dabbling ducks and stay close to shore. The Buffleheads are diving ducks and feed further out. They fatten up at the March herring spawn time, the hallmark for their migration. The ducks don't seem to mind the wind and rain. The day in March that we see the clear view of the sunrise from the living room, for the pianist and I, is the hallmark of the new season.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Altar guild

A great pleasure afforded me is the elegant displays of the altar guild women who provide flower arrangements for the Sunday service. For the months in August September and October the dahlias are used along with the peony leaves, which are turning russet and are a great complement to the dahlia colors. I feel honored that they take from my dahlia and peony patch. I suppose in a sense we all have some icon we worship, in or out of church, that tends to distract from the whole meaning. I suppose there is a certain ego satisfaction in supplying flowers for this period, but it is an act of love and duty on the part of the altar guild women, a form of worship combined with a sense of unavoidable pride. One can certainly be forgiven for being human. We take so many things for granted in a church or any other organization that depends on volunteer labor. The people who are on the ground, doing the regular hands on work as a matter of committment and love are the people who really make the organization work. Some of the most unsung of groups are in fact the connective tissue of the church. You only notice when they are not there, and then it's a catastrophe. The care and skill of the arrangements provided by the altar guild are a reflection of their love and worship of the church. Take the time to thank them for the beauty they provide, week by week.


The Michaelmas daisy, which is really an aster, is a blessing that arrives here in bloom in the late fall, in time for the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, that is, September 29. My daughter who lives nearby, gave me a clump of her asters several years ago for a vacant spot. Here is a photo of them today! What a complement to the chrysanthemums and the maples. I have a number of planter boxes adjacent to the house. I ruthlessly removed the rangy summer blooming flowers, snapdragons, lobelia and alyssum and replenished the soil with compost, then planted chrysanthemums and daffodil bulbs together. Two birds with one stone. Hopefully the chrysanthemums will bloom till mid December and the daffs will carry on in February. All of these flowers are deer resistant, which is necessary here. That is, except the mums, on which deer will graze a bit, so I spray them with that Swedish muck you probably know about, Plantskydd. It stinks for a day. The berries on the Holly trees are now turning deep orange so they are on the way. If we want holly for Christmas we have to pick it by Dec 10 because the birds eat the ripe berries after that. It's a curious thing that my neighbor has an hybrid holly hedge loaded with berries that the birds never eat. Our blueberry bushes have started to turn red early this year and still have a final pick available since they are all bird netted. My big job over the next few days is to get rid of the old raspberry,tayberry and loganberry canes and string up the new vines. Routines like this give one lots of time to ruminate and talk to oneself. I hope my lips don't move! The garden is still alive at Michaelmas. It takes a rest at Christmas!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Halloween party

For many years until recently the pianist and I went to Gabriola Island to celebrate with old friends the weekend of Halloween. I,ve never met Jeffrey Simpson's mythical uncle but the island is full of characters. Our host, we have known for 40 years, and there is a gathering of some twenty other old friends. At least there was, before time has taken it's toll. We party, drink a bit, eat well, and continuously talk. There is not much exercising. We, of course carve pumpkins. The pianist always made Sunday breakfast of bacon and blueberry pancakes,the last berries from our patch. These were friends from another era that keep in touch once a year and we never run out of things to say . The clean up is as much fun as the dirting down. It is in fact the annual closeup for the summer and fall cottagers. We say goodbye each year, hoping it is au revoir! Years ago our host showed us the large cored holes in a granite tumulous near her cottage. There were dozens of them, measuring four feet across and five feet deep. The large intact grindstones extracted from the holes were transported to the Vancouver Island pulp mills to grind pulpwood in the old days. By Halloween the holes are full of water and, in attempting to traverse them I was less nimble than my hostess. I fell in up to my armpits and eventually struggled out. As I was falling I had that split second thought that the holes might be 30 feet deep and I was a goner. It is hard for an old fellow with gumboots and a thick, soaked, parka to extricate himself from such a situation. That night at the party, my cracked rib and the heady atmosphere caused me to faint and, since my fellow celebrants were less than perspicacious at that time, they thought I had no pulse and called the fire department. The firemen had just finished their fireworks display in the harbor and were in need of action. All was well. It was an inconvenient way to be the center of attention, but we were invited back the next year, hopefully for me to provide further excitment.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Green Tree Frog

As I was coiling up my hoses I heard the little green tree frog with his mighty voice summoning all or any females to his side. They are very cute and Telus uses them in their ads along with lambs and lizards gamboling about. My friend, a greenhouse man, puts them in his green house , I suppose to eat the insects, but I'm not sure the" amourian" is in the appetite mode for anything but a lady frog. Certainly those of other species, including our own, in a state of unrequited love are not very hungry for food. I never had much luck with my friend's tactic. He told me he enjoys the frog music but I found it was quiet when I was in the greenhouse. My transplanted frog in the greenhouse withered on the vine, as it were. I think there was a pining and a wasting away because of unfulfillment. You have to face the music, and leave the frog alone. The rule is probably don't muck about with Mother Nature too much. To employ a frog to do your dirty work, in the guise of being organic, is no excuse. Think of his feelings. He is a brief enough candle as it is, what with working for Telus, and seeking and procreating, and surviving the environmental degradation to which he is so vulnerable. As you know he is the canary in the cage. He won't live beyond his alloted life span, greenhouse or not. There isn't anything fundamentally wrong with a short but happy life." Let it Be!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

The past is not a foreign country

David Lowenthal wrote a book called The Past is a Foreign Country in 1985. It's a wonderful book describing history,memory and reliquary amongst others, and the desire to relive or collect the past. The pianist and I and one of our daughters and two of our granddaughters made apple cider yesterday from some of the Gravenstein windfalls. We made 30 quarts of juice heated to 200 degrees to pasteurize. Our press is a 30 year old, hand crank, but sturdy, and our routine is long established. The design of the press is probably hundreds of years older. The mash is great compost. We have a country kitchen, and we press on the grass just outside the kitchen door. This link from the past is lived by us today in a real sense. The software we call a brain, somewhere, has a face book page that is part of my father's farm and my grandfather's orchard. It is indelible and structural. My granddaughters, as sure as the sun rises tomorrow, will one day press their own apples in their own orchard. Yesterday as well we went after church to an old folks home. Some are blind or have short term memory problems but they respond to the singing of the old chestnuts that we sang in church yesteryear. They have intact long term memory. So do I. The pianist organizes this hymn sing and an old chestnut would be, "Jesus loves me", but now modified for the oldsters. It's a hit. It goes, "Jesus loves me this I know, though my hair is white as snow",... and so on. They also love "In the Garden". I love the song too, primarily since the funerals of both my mother and my dad had this song at their request! This linkage to the past, away from the day to day doings, is evocative for me of the connection with my grandparents and my parents. I do not long for the two holer, or the town pump, or the kerosene lamp, nor do I wish to see one. But I don't believe the past is entirely a foreign country.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fall Season

Fall is my favorite season. Gravenstein and Cox's Orange to harvest and press for juice and pies. Pears,... Angou,Bartlett,Clapps Favorite and Conference.Transparent apples put away in pies in early August and Northern Spy and Red Delicious for keepers to come later. The summer heathers are still hanging on and the split leaf maples are changing into riotous colors. The Big Leaf Maples, indigenous to the west coast, provide great compost material, and, cover the Gunnera to prevent frost kill. The Dahlias are in slow decline but the Chrysanthemums have taken over and what muted but beautiful colors they are. We don't spray so we have a lot of scabby fruit that composts beautifully as well and reacts with all the shredded branch prunings that provide cellulose to the mix. The Hawthorns are turning leaf yellow with reddening haws and look like a gorgeous shawl. The Dolgo crab has been picked for juice and will be mixed half and half with the wild cherry plum to make what we call Crum jelly. The pile of the summers compost is out of the bin, ready for this fall's stuff.When I was young and strong I used to haul seaweed up for compost but I am too feeble to do this now. Sea lettuce shed in June, and sea eel grass in October. The quince doesn't ripen till November here and often cracks. I haven't been able to solve that. The Rhodo,s have made it through the very hot summer with frequent watering so there is no further need to do anything till the spring. I have more than enough to do to bother heading them. I suppose I should if there were enough hours in the day. Stone fruits don't do well in my hands. The peaches were short lived as were the prune plums,fifteen years and the last five were spotty. The Japanese plums bloom here in March which is too early for the bees except for a few bumble bees. We only get a few plums with them. I guess as our parish priest once said in a sermon," the mind of God for you is to always do the next necessary thing". For me the only way I can do this is to sit briefly every morning and say " What is the next necessary thing?" Then I forget everything else so I am not fragmented. The pianist and I assemble ourselves early in the morning with several cups of coffee to decide on our day, and pray that we are both doing the next necessary thing!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Babe and the secret of life

"Baa-Ram-Ewe, Baa-Ram-Ewe, to your breed and fleece be true, Baa-Ram-Ewe!" This was the password Babe learned to communicate and gain the trust of the sheep, and he never let them down in the end, nor they him. Remember, these are sheep. Babe knew this. They , as sheep, follow a creed and the leader. Babe was an individual. It was hard for him to be a pig and learn to be an individual. He had no parenting that prepared him to pighood, but when the border collie took him on, he began to realize instead, his apotheosis.He had the right stuff! He suffered mightily through the pilgrimage of his life but despite his parlous state, he remained loyal, saw things with optimism, and ultimately he prevailed. The farmer that believed in him was not let down! The farmer saw the greatness in his pig. His individuality of being,his courage, but his willingness to open his heart, led the farmer to the same willingness to risk, that Babe had. To be an individual in this world and to be true to yourself takes courage. Don't be like a sheep, running with the crowd. No matter how consoling it may be to run with the fleece, if you have a muse, you need to follow it. The need to belong may not be your karma. The need for a creed by which to live will limit your horizon. It's safer to belong! In the end, Babe and the farmer prevailed, to the adulation of the many. This is a fairy story and real life does not always come with a win. Thats the risk! Better alone, and have followed your star, than compromised for the comfortable second best. In the end you have only to answer to yourself, and your Maker!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Eating styles

Having lived with the pianist for 52 years, our clearly apparent difference in eating style has remained largely unchanged throughout the years. She eats a bit of the four portions on her plate in rotation. I eat all of one portion and then proceed to the next. Both she and I are fork stabbers but I stab where the food lies and she continually moves the food around on her plate gathering it into the center and stabbing. Neither of us do that ergonomically unsound American way of, after pinning down the meat with the fork so it will not run away , cutting and then, changing fork hands and scooping. We're Canadians eh! When we eat soup or cereal or toast, she spoons away from herself and I spoon toward myself. I often end up with a spot of food on my front and more toast crumbs on the table cloth on my side as a result. I'm not sure whether speed,direction or portliness is the main factor. Probably all three. She cuts her apple fully into quarters and removes the core on each. She likes to dip them in melted chocolate. I cut slices of apple with a sharp knife and work toward the center, eating as I go, knife and thumb.. She says my style reminds her of a medieval barbarian. We both chew and swallow at the same rate but she takes much longer intervals between bites so I finish much faster and have learned to wait comfortably between courses. In my family, once we began to eat we didn't talk, we ate. After the plate was finished, we talked. In the pianist's family they ate and talked. This can be dangerous for choking I fancy, so the Heimlich maneuver should be at the ready. I have now adapted to eating, drinking and talking but with precaution. She puts sugar on her tomato slices and salt on her corn on the cob. I put pepper and salt on them both. She always insists on a serviette which I am always provided but rarely seem to use. I can't say why, but if this blog is boring, then you are under 50. At 75, food and meal time assume an importance of increasing degree. The eating habits that evolved are a reflection of your present persona. This is basic stuff and we are just addressing the nuances of prairie Canadians. Think of the world view!

The Worried Well

The bane of a surgical practice over the years was the frequent referral of the worried well by general practitioners. They were referring the neurotic who needed an opinion to confirm what their doctor had already told them. I understand the need, but it was tiresome in a busy surgical practice to repeat what everyone knew. Occasionally however there was a new discovery which meant the prudent never said ," No! " The decision to operate on someone based on symptoms, or sympathy, or speculation is a recipe for disaster. It is not dangerous to send someone for treatments that carry little or no risk , but there is considerable risk to ill advised surgical treatment. Harm can be done! Surgery is never, however, the last resort. It is best done at an optimum time and it has to be based on the objective (that is the measurable) findings rather than based on the symptoms (the subjective findings), or the patient's desire. That may seem a cold approach to some, but it is a reflection of the science rather than the so called art of medicine. Hippocrates said, in his aphorisms, "Cure occasionally, comfort always! " but, it is cold comfort if you do an operation for reasons other than on a scientific basis. It is incumbent on the surgeon to be selective, which may offend some patients. A surgeon may get away with doing the wrong operation well, and may get away with doing the right operation poorly, but they never get away with doing the wrong operation badly. A little vignette from the distant past I remember is, someone asked the professor why he did that clearly non-indicated operation. He said it was a mistake, "They came to see me once too often !"

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Innocents abroad

In 1961 the pianist and I moved to Plymouth, Devon with a one and a three year old, to complete my training. The Consultant for whom I worked, was an elderly (fiftyish! ) bachelor, a transplant Australian who was for me, an avuncular boss and friend. Plymouth was still rebuilding after having been destroyed during the wartime bombing. Consultant jobs were scarce, so non-Englishmen were a boon since we were transient, and therefore not competition for consultancies. We lived in the upstairs flat of a decrepit council house owned by the hospital. Budgets for hospitals were tight in a Britain that was regaining her feet. The first thing I was told was that a Registrar should have a dinner jacket. I went out dutifully and bought a "shark skin" dinner jacket, cumberbun, starch fronted shirt, silk black socks, patent leather shoes and a black bow tie (clip on). My first foray was to the Plymouth Medical Society annual banquet. The Consultant prepared me for the customs. Stand to toast the Queen, do not smoke until the toast is over, speak to both sides at the table with your confreres, preferably one with the meal and the other with dessert and don't drink too much. I dressed for show that night. I was elegant. I left my bride , the pianist. to wrestle with children, diapers in the kitchen sink , the kerosene heaters, and went to my dinner. Things went well initially. I avoided smoking until the Queen. I took tailor made cigarettes,Woodbines, cheap, (two and six for twenty) rather than my "roll your own" . When we toasted the Queen however , when I stood with the company, glass aloft, the tail of my dinner jacket was caught between the back of the chair and the seat. As I stood the chair rose with me, hugging my backside. I wasn't sure what to do so I shook a little and it landed with a clatter up side down,coinciding with the declaration "The Queen". The company was faintly amused and forgiving, after all I was a new Colonial needing a bit of polish. I returned to my council house needing a hug. As I now consider it, it was the pianist that deserved all the hugs. Inside and outside, I did need the polish.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The exhibitor

My dad was a good gardener and loved to exhibit the results of his efforts. The garden club's motto in Lotus City was " Share what you know and show what you grow." He gardened there in his retirement and was an avid member of the Lotus City Garden Club, but had mellowed by then. He and I often gardened together when I was a boy, in the olden days when we lived on the bald prairie. He grew up on a farm and had no training in horticulture, but he had the knack, in spades! His start in exhibiting on the prairie was with sweet peas and vegetables! Growing sweet peas on a single stalk for the longest stem,the most florets and blemish free. The cucumber that is perfectly straight,evenly green without a flaw and big, but not too big. Exhibiting and competition were everything to him. We exhibited gladiolus and dahlias in speciality shows later, in Regina, Calgary and Winnipeg. His whole energy went into getting the biggest and best of specimens for the show and it started in the early spring. In our little town, our gumbo soil was ploughed with cow manure by the farmer whose field we used. The freight shed floor in the railway station was covered with gladiola corms and dahlia bulbs: corms that we had peeled, disbudded, dusted for thrip, and positioned for straight sprout growth. There was hardly any room left for the freight. I remember once driving to Regina all through the night in a truck with a load of glads, all staked, sitting in washtubs, stabilised through chicken wire. Regina was 120 miles away and I was not allowed to drive more than fifteen miles an hour or the glads would shake too much on the gravel road, and the wind would whip them. He drove the car in convoy, with all the paraphenalia needed for display. My mother went with me, and kept nudging me, to keep me awake. I and most of my brothers and my children inherited his knack. It is no surprise to me, however, that I am totally averse to exhibiting. My garden is personal. We take what we will from our parents and leave the rest behind.