Bird ID

Is it grouse that storm up from the underbrush

and stop your heart a moment?

Spruce Grouse (Dendragapus canadensis)



I wrote this for a young friend who had something pretty awful happen to her. She’s a gifted artist, before trauma and after. 

I did some performing as a kid. I played piano, clarinet in school band, sang in choirs. I performed in dance recitals; gymnastics one year, jazz dance the next and then Highland dance. Every year I gave speeches at school.

In speech arts I always won at the classroom level, often the division level and a couple of times for our school. I don’t know why it had to be a competition but it was and I did my best. I wrote the speeches with a lot of help from my mom and dad.  She worked part-time as a teacher and knew what they looked for, as well as speaking to groups of kids, teachers and parents all the time.

After my dad died I didn’t want to perform. He had a motorcycle accident and died 5 days later from the injuries. It was sudden but the crisis went on for a long, long time.  Ties that bind us to the earth fray, snap, blow in the wind.

My dad was a powerful, provoking and inspiring public speaker. As a United Church minister he liked to preach sermons. As a senior public servant he liked to give speeches. He worked really hard on them and he coached and helped me practice my own on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, just us, in the dining room by the piano.

The year he died I didn’t write a speech. Instead, I memorized a poem, not too long, about a sailor. It was like a jig or a sea shanty. Anyway I won at the classroom level. I was too good at it by then, even without practicing. I found myself performing, a grade 7 girl, in front of a few hundred kids, the grade 7’s and a very tough group of grade 8’s. They were a sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll crowd.

I got started, and through the first verse. Then, on the second verse I stopped. The words were gone. My memory was white, like old bone.

I stood there for a long minute. And then another one, while the giggles started in the audience. My friend Jeanine from our street was in grade 8. I found her with my eyes and she wasn’t giggling. I heard a voice, inner or maybe from backstage, telling me to start again.

I did and got through it. And that was all. It was over.

After that I didn’t want to perform for a long time at least not as a solo artist. I played in the band in highschool, 2nd clarinet, in the back of the crowd. I loved drama class but didn’t do school plays. It’s still something I feel very unsure about, drawn to, sometimes with longing, but mostly I hear a NO, not for me.

Except. I’m noticing there’s more exceptions as I get older. Some things that felt like performing 20 years ago, like leading a workshop, just feels like sharing with friends now. Or playing at being a rock star, like at ladies rock camp. It can take a while for nerves to heal up I guess.

Dream from Turtle Island

Thomas King on not being raised within the Cherokee Nation, from The essential, inconvenient book for all Canadians, an interview by Taiaike Alfred. (An interview with Prof. Alfred from the CBC’s wonderful 8th Fire.)

I just carry myself and the culture and everything else that I have been able to pull together around with me like a turtle does.

A brief note to my myself that I want to read Thomas King’s latest and am looking forward to Taiaike Alfred’s in-progress memoir on Mohawk ironworkers.

The quote stirred up an image of my long ago turtle island dream, the one where I stood on a white sand, Caribean blue beach and watched the horizon swim toward me, a turtle the size of a continent. I wonder if I was a little turtle in the dream, ready to jump on with my culture and everything else I was able to pull together.

海龟岛 Turtle Islands
Thanks Tianyake for sharing the photo.

After the fire

It’s been a doozy of a month for many I love. We met Jacinda and Leon and their baby Maddy when Harry was a baby. We live close, we celebrate our milestones and holidays together. Maddy slept over the night her sister Phoebe was born and we went to meet her together, just a few hours after she arrived.

We live far away from our families and that’s only possible with friends like these. They bring the joy. And endless practical help.

A fire broke out at their house, started in the dryer. Jacinda was sound asleep but woke up, feeling hot. She looked out the window to flames and screamed “FIRE!”

Maddy flew down from upstairs, Jake and Leon grabbed the girls, whatever coats they could from the front door and escaped to the street. They watched as flames engulfed their home and all their belongings.

Fire trucks arrived, blocking their car, and so they ran up the street to us. As we would have done.

We got through the first few days, alternately giddy with relief and shell-shocked. Offers of help came from near and far and most of our activity, once our school community and their extended family met their immediate needs, was answering the phone and emails of all those who love them.

Soul Sister on a bed of rose hips One of Jacinda’s hand-crafted Soul Sisters on a bed or rosehips, harvested last fall from their wild and lovely garden

The next wave of support rolled in. Tawny, one of the many fabulous souls they’ve introduced me to over the last 9 years, set up a website with a list of their needs to get re-established. It’s a wiki, a website that we can all edit. So we can add in what we can share and they can keep track of the needs that are being met. It takes a lot of help to start again.

Here it is:


p.s. The title of this post is borrowed from Jane Rule’s great novel: After the Fire
I hope you cross paths with it someday.

Primordial soup, a thank-you to the Flaming Lips

Photo by strangejourney

I saw a swarm of mosquitoes hovering today

flying in drunk tired circles

stupid in the late season

There’s breeding ground a-plenty:

garbage can lids under pots of earth,

overflowing with rain water

mini ponds in low, sodden footprints

but I tracked them to a crack in the lid of  5 gallon plastic juice bucket

Inside a stinking brew of  weeds

water rich green, primordial soup

I remember now: a splash of olive oil on top of the weed tea prevents this

Tip it over, wave goodbye, no tears at the

mosquito graveyard (where the garlic grew)

There’s death in the garden. I’m  always murdering something when I’m out there. Slugs get it the worst. Right through their soft bellies with a sharp stick. I don’t show much mercy to aphids and their nasty leaf-sucking ways either.

However, it’s all hand to hand combat and I don’t focus. I’m opportunistic and lazy. I’m picking greens for dinner or throwing a bit of mulch around, thinking peaceful garden thoughts (or anxious thoughts about money or bored considerations of what to make for dinner) and then GWAH HA HA…!

What I need are  more predators. Garden snakes eat slugs. They’d be more consistently motivated.  But it’d take some doing to get a habitat corridor going in this neighbourhood that would support a snake population. A snake learning party? Invites all done up with skull and cross-bones with a big X through the slug? T-shirt tie-in?

Photo by photogirl7.1

Gardening, from a permaculture perspective anyway,  gets you thinking about sex and death pretty much all the time. A permaculture garden provides the setting for a frenzy of fucking, birthing, eating and dying. (I liked when farmer, story-teller Michael Ableman said last year at his talk in North Van that we we are missing the boat trying to interest people in sustainable farming by talking about health and abundance etc: it’s SEX, SEX, SEX all the time people. But then again, you start with sex, you get to death and in that little human conundrum there lies the story of how we got to the hyper-controlled rows of veggies jacked up on fertilizers.)

I spent yesterday’s late afternoon out there in the end of September sun; warm enough for bare skin, humming the same song over and over, like an am transistor radio in the 70’s


Do you realize

that everyone you know

someday will die

and instead of saying all of your goodbyes

let them know you realize that life goes fast its hard to make the good things last

You realize the sun doesn’t go down

it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning around

The Flaming Lips know what’s up. They share it generously with balloons and confetti and smoke and LOUD, BEAUTIFUL noise. I loved hearing the new Embryonic songs live and loved, loved that Steph was there with me.  We’ve been listening to new music together since we met in grade 9 but its been a million years since we’ve been able to go to a gig together.

It was perfect- well a drink or two would have made for more unrestrained dancing but as Wayne points out there’s trade-offs to the Malkin Bowl. You get to rock out in a forest cathedral but they kick you out at 10 and don’t serve booze.  Isn’t that just like real life.

Thank-you Flaming Lips for another magic show in our forest, in the heart of Vancouver. ’til we meet again, in the meantime,  I discovered you’re all on twitter…

photo by draggin

photo by draggin

I want yellow and blue wings

I am pulled into my back. Nubs of wings want to sprout.

It fucking hurts to grow wings out of this calcified chest cage.

Pushing, through flesh, wounded thin at the surface. Sap oozes, trickles down and pools, a little ocean, a salty bath for all the micro-organisms living in the small of my back.

The body absorbs.

The sea evaporates and is renewed,

one inch less.

Millions live, millions die. This goes on for a long time.

The  salt tang, the liquid pooling, the body absorbing,

water sliding, sap oozing, forming eddies.

Taste snaps me back:  this is a spiral pulling in on itself.

Something vital is being drained while I lie, face down in this cool, sunlit room. Rest does not follow this waiting.

There is a depth,

and a wide open sky,

a golden field stretching to horizons.

I need to walk it. On and on, through the day, sipping water, warmer than my breath, little laps to make it last.

Ahhhh, another blast in the middle of my mouth, stretching me thin into a wisp of cloud.

Vapour calls to vapour, clouds coalesce, densify

and rain over me,

my naked body, lying flat on a field of rape yellow, blue flax in my mind’s eye,

tongue out, waiting to receive.

The View from Barcelona #1

This is a joint production of Harry and I, photos chosen by Harry. He also had final authority on the text.

We start the day at a cafe where Harry drinks his hot chocolate, usually from a bottle but sometimes in a glass. He is now a confirmed cacaolat maniac. Grammie and mom prefer cafe con leche.

Cacaolat maniac

We were very excited to see some of Gaudi’s buildings and designs in person after pouring over a Gaudi book that Brian (Harry’s dad) brought back from his trip to Barcelona last year. Gaudi was inspired by nature. He observed the curves, waves and arches that we see in trees, shells and bones.

Fractal Growth

Curved forms

Gaudi's Inspirations

This was on the roof of Casa Milà, also known as “La Pedrera” which means the quarry in Catalan. Catalan is the first language in Barcelona but everyone speaks Spanish too and many have a bit of English.
On the Roof

Harry ran these stairs fast as lightning to the bottom.


Each day before we got out, or after we come in, Harry does a bit of school work with grammie.

Guess what? Spiderman lives in Barcelona!
Spiderman lives in Barcelona!

That’s all for now- school’s out!
School's Out

She even hung up paper towels to dry

Since I got my picture in the paper some people assume I know what I’m talking about, and that I’ve got some serious credentials to back up my “environmental work”. This article from the Guardian describes exactly my schooling in this area.

Over by the sink, you’d find a soggy tea bag, maybe two, awaiting second use, and dotted around the Aga would be several saucers of leftovers – some likely to contain as little as a few peas or a handful of pasta shells. Meanwhile, upstairs, you’d doubtless come across a toothpaste tube, or maybe a bottle of moisturiser, cut open with nail scissors to reveal its final scrape.

This is not about saving money, although I’m sure finances played a part. We weren’t seriously hard-up. It was something else. A hangover from wartime austerity, perhaps,…#65279; which both sets of grandparents passed on to my parents when they were growing up in the 50s. An almost moral sense of obligation not to waste what you have but make it go as far as possible.  The Pleasure of Penny Pinching by Anna Shepard via my good friend Wendy

I did throw out a number of used tea-bags when I was home at mom’s last month- sorry mom. I also came across some photos of the backyard when I was a kid. It is a huge suburban yard; I was deeply proud that it was the biggest in our neighbourhood (by some fluke I assume for our house was no grander in any  other respect).  Mom planted a massive vegetable garden to which I’d be chained to pull crab grass. Good thing I could turn myself invisible and so could quickly slink off to read books.

For my teacher Robin

Robin Wheeler is coming to town to teach a full-day course for the Sustainable Living Arts School and Langara College Continuing Studies “Gardening for the Faint of Heart”. You should really come if you’re in the Vancouver area.

This course was designed for those who feel they are beginners in food gardening but would love to feel more confident about understanding garden systems and food production. Students will learn garden terms (the fun way!), explore the magic of “microclimates”, make design choices, select plants for your needs, delve into seed catalogues and learn techniques for watering, simple soil improvement and more.

I am very proud to count Robin as my teacher and my colleague in the Sustainable Living Arts School. What I’ve learned from her is that “sustainably” is really about accepting ourselves as creatures of this earth: we’ve got to get our hands dirty.

I was questing for a teacher when I first encountered Robin through the Vanpermaculture listserv. When newbies like me asked questions she’d jump in fast with answers that were grounded in her direct experience, extensive study and immersion in a community of small farmers and wildcrafters. I stumbled onto her book which was hands-down the best, funniest guide to growing food for beginners that I’ve read. Which was great but what I really wanted was to learn from someone in person, in a way that fit with my working mom’s schedule. Robin stepped up and hosted the the first “Practical Permaculture” weekend at her land in Robert’s Creek BC, a short hop over from Vancouver.

The Garden Gate at Edible Landscapes

It was a radical and beautiful thing she did that weekend. Our teachers were the local farmers, back-to-the-landers, herbalists and other country folk. Folks who lived with the land were the “experts”. This simultaneously honoured their years and years of experience and impressed upon us, the students, that what was counted was our own, very personal connection with the earth.

These weekends have been the ground and centre of my learning the last few years. Robin’s own classes are always the highlight for me. They’re often deceptively simple in structure, a walk and talk around her garden that she calls “Timely Actions” where we experience what the garden needed right then. But talking to Robin about gardens and plants is a venue to deep learning about food, our culture and the earth. Ideas take root.

She also nailed the format: 1.5 hour workshops, comprised of demonstrations and experiential activities, interspersed with discussion and as many questions as we could squeeze in, located either in Robin’s extensive gardens, buzzing with insects, studded with birdsong, graced by weeds and charmed by snakes, or in nearby homesteads and farms.

These weekends grew into what is now an urban and rural grassroots education venture: The Sustainable Living Arts School. Robin starts stuff and then she commits to it, until the help arrives. This is how her activism on behalf of local farms happens (check out the “Be Subversive” campaign), how she practices as an herbalist, how she writes books (Gardening for the Faint of Heart is being reprinted and Food Security for the Faint of Heart due soonish from New Society Publishers) and how she runs a nursery full of the kind of plants you’ve got to have for your own edible landscape, all on a shoestring, in the spare seconds when she’s not working at her day-job.

People who live in open acknowledgment of themselves as earth creatures are not sanguine about our future. They are afraid of what’s coming and they are busy preparing for it. They see it, in signs large and small in their kitchen gardens, in the ever-shrinking woods, in the roar of the excavators. Despite more and more coverage on “the environment”, the rampage continues unabated.

Robin is urgent.

She’s also funny and wise and big, big, big despite her size, which actually isn’t all that big. But she’s fed by the earth and it really is something to get a chance to learn with someone like that. She just gets down to it- the class we’re offering on May 3rd in conjunction with Langara College’s Continuing Studies will be packed with ways to start growing food, with the detail you need to get over that initial flood of questions before worms start speaking to you via your dreams (oh yes it can get weird this gardening stuff!). I’m deeply excited. I’ve never had a full day to ask her all the questions I’ve got. Though I wouldn’t say I’m exactly “faint of heart” anymore there’s still big gaps where I’m less than fully confident.

Once you’ve done that you’ll want to head to Robert’s Creek and May 10 and 11 to experience her organizing genius. She’s got an amazing line-up for the Wild Weekend with workshops taught by local experts on Wildcrafting Indigenous Herbs, Wild Basket and Container Making, Cooking on a Fire, Plant Technology and Into the Woods. Register by phone (604) 885-4505

Upcoming for Spring

I got to the garden today. The sun and a blast of warmer air wasn’t the main motivating force oddly enough. I talked to two of my teachers yesterday about some upcoming events we’re planning for spring, a course with Gregoire Lamoureux of the Kootenay Permaculture Institute and a learning party with Dan Gibbs, now of Victoria, and got inspired.

Dan was describing the garden we started last November as part of a learning party. He said the mulch is nearly broken down and rich soil is waiting for the spring plant. I look out on my pile of leaves and well, they look like a pile of leaves. “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s footsteps.” In other words, be there.

I’ve been ignoring it. My greens haven’t really recovered after the last snowfall (though I think I’ll have some again by next week). There’s no food in my food garden so what’s the point? Well, it turns out the point is just to be there, to walk through it, to stop, look around, snip off some rosemary and chew it, trim a raspberry cane. It’s not so much work that’s required, or even possible right now, just presence and attention. There’s no magic garden without the gardener- and that’s fine for the wild but this place is about supporting me and my family and sharing the bounty. We’ve need regular bonding time and I need magic on my side. It is certainly not going to be my finely honed gardening skills that will feed us.

I took Dan’s suggestion and sprinkled some of the weed tea that’s been brewing in buckets all winter over the leaves. It was stinky so that’s good. If this is another kind of fermentation process than what I’m doing is mixing in a little microbial culture action to get things going. My weeds are my most bountiful and useful crop!

Dan’s going to sail from behind the tweed curtain and grace us in the big smoke with his presence on Saturday, March 9th. We’re going to practice dividing perennials, talk about using edibles in landscaping in the midst of other useful plants and share up the bounty of a perennial garden. Everyone will leave with a new plant or two.

Gregoire is going to come in April for a 2 day Intro to Permaculture/Urban Design course. It is looking hopeful that we’ll be able to have it out at the UBC farm and I hope we’ll have lots of Faculty of Land and Food Systems folks out for it. Gregoire has been doing this stuff for 20 plus years. For us this is a chance to start a conversation about permaculture in the curriculum. We’d like to see far more back and forth between the permaculturists on the ground designing, living in and supporting themselves using permaculture principals and the university.