Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Way We Were

... and long to be again, some magical day soon.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Friday Ramble - Cauldron

It remains one of my favorite intervals in the whole turning year - the cold sunny days in late winter or early springtime when the north gears up for the maple syrup season.  The Lanark woods are full of sugar bird (saw-whet owl) songs. Clouds of smoke and steam rise from wooden sugar shacks tucked in among the old trees, and the enchanting fragrance of boiling maple sap is everywhere.

The sylvan alchemy in progress is wild and sweet, and the homely metaphor of the cauldron or pot has profound resonance for me. I still have the battered Dutch oven I carried as I rambled the continent many years ago, stirring soups, potions and stews by starlight and watching as sparks went spiraling into the inky sky over the rim of my old pot.  The motes of light rising from its depths were stars too, perfect counterpoint to the constellations dancing over my head.

These days, there's the stockpot bubbling away on my stove, a rice cooker, a bean crock and an unglazed earthenware tagine, cast iron cooking pots by Staub and Le Creuset in bright red, a small three-legged iron incense bowl on the table in my study. In late February, early March and April, there are the sugar camps of friends in the Lanark Highlands.  Miles of collecting hose in confetti colors are strung from maple to maple, and evaporators send fragrant plumes into the air. Tin sap pails and spouts are fixed to trees, and antique syrup cauldrons boil over open fires to demonstrate how maple syrup was made in times past.

The word cauldron comes from the Middle English cauderon, thence from the Anglo-Norman caudiere and the Latin caldāria, the latter meaning “cooking pot” and rooted in the adjective calidus meaning warm or “suitable for warming”. At the end of the trail is the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root kelə meaning simply “warm”.  Calendar, calorie, chafe, chiaroscuro, claim, clamor, class, clear, council, hale, haul and lee are kin. So is caldera, the term geologists use to describe the massive crater formed when a volcano's magma chamber is emptied by a massive eruption or the chamber's roof collapses. The largest volcanic caldera on earth is the vast Yellowstone Caldera in northern Wyoming which is actually composed of four overlapping basins.

The night that gifts us with stars and enfolds us gently when the sun goes down is a vast cauldron or bowl.  Somewhere in the darkness up there, Cerridwen is stirring her heady cosmic brew of knowledge, creativity and rebirth, her magical kettle simmering over a mystic cook fire. From her vessel, the bard Taliesin once partook of a single drop and awakened into wisdom and song. We're all vessels, and one of the best motifs for this life is surely a pot or cauldron, one battered, dented and well traveled, but useful and happy to be so, bubbling and crackling away in the background (sometimes in the foreground), making happy musics and occasionally sending bright motes up into the air.

And so it is with this old hen when her favorite wild places begin to awaken. Notions of alchemy bubble away gently. Sparks fly upward, images of pots and cauldrons cosmic and domestic whirl about in her thoughts. She simply could not (and would not) be anywhere else.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Thursday Poem - Everything Is Waiting For You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

David Whyte
from River Flow: New and Collected Poems

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Hunger Moon of February

Usually the second moon of the calendar year, February's full lunar round is an icy one, framed by the vague shapes of snowy evergreens and attended by faint faraway stars. Capturing this moon with one's lens and a slender scrip of words is an uncomfortable business, but we wrap up warmly and go outside with tripod and camera anyway. It is our way of "saying yes to the world", to the innate wildness of life in the Great Round of time, to grandeur in the starry, starry night over our heads.

This month's lunar cycle has to be about owls.  In February, the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), claims a nest somewhere in the woods with its lifelong mate and settles down to the arduous business of raising another unruly brood. The great "hornies" are among my favorite birds, and it's enchanting to hear a couple calling companionably to each other across the snowy woods in winter.  Northern residents to the core, the great owls thrive in cold climates, and the further one travels toward the Arctic, the bigger they grow. The Saw-whet Owl or sugar bird (Aegolius acadicus) is not far behind in its own courtship rituals, and neither are the other owls of the Lanark highlands. There is love and fertility in the air, among northern owls anyway. The rest of us are just trying to stay warm.

Life can be stressful for those who lack feathers and dine not on mice and voles. The Wolf Moon made its appearance in January, but wolves and coyotes howl plaintively at the gates in February, and hunger is a beast well known in wild and snowbound northern places.  If we can just manage to hang on for a few weeks longer, there are better times ahead.  March promises slightly milder temperatures, relief and sweetness; the splendid sylvan alchemy of the maple syrup season will be in full swing when the next full moon makes its appearance.

We also know this moon as the: Ash Moon, Big Winter Moon, Bone Moon, Bony Moon, Budding Moon, Chestnuts Moon, Cold Winds Moon, Coyotes Frighten Moon, Crow Moon, Dark Red Calves Moon, Death Moon, Eagle Moon, Fish Running Moon, Frost Sparkling in the Sun Moon, Gray Moon, Horning Moon, Ice in River Is Gone Moon, Ice Moon, Index Finger Moon, Little Bud Moon, Long Dry Moon, Makes Branches Fall in Pieces Moon, Mimosa Moon, Moon of Ice, Moon of Purification and Renewal, Moon of Rabbit Conception, Moon of the Cedar Dust Wind, Moon of the Raccoon, Moon of the Frog, Moon, When Geese Come Home, Moon When Bear Cubs are Born, Moon When Spruce Tips Fall, Moon When Trees Pop, Moon When Trees Are Bare and Vegetation Is Scarce, Narcissus Moon, No Snow in Trails Moon, Owl Moon, Peach Blossom Moon, Pink Moon, Plum Blossom Moon, Primrose Moon, Quickening Moon, Raccoon Moon, Rain and Dancing Moon , Red and Cleansing Moon, Second Moon, Snow Crust Moon, Snow Moon, Solmonath (Sun Moon), Squint Rock Moon, Staying Home Moon, Storing Moon, Storm Moon, Sucker Fish Moon, Sucker Moon, Trapper’s Moon, Treacherous Moon, Violet Moon, Wexes Moon, Wild Moon, Wind Moon, Wind Tossed Moon, Winter Moon

As far as February's moon names go, I am fond of Quickening Moon, Wild Moon and Owl Moon, but this will always be Penny's Moon. I still miss her.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Out of the Snow, a Reminder

For all the white stuff deposited here this winter, the endless shoveling and heaving, our weariness of the season and all its trappings, it gifts us with surprises now and then, sometimes like this morning's image.

Pleasing bits of gnarly magic poke their heads out of the snow, and they are always wonderful to see. Desiccated remnants of last summer that they are, they are powerful reminders of its warmth and light, its glorious coloration and fragrance, and they awaken something within.

The dried fronds, wands and seed heads coming back into the light of day have curving, sinuous shapes and just a hint of the vibrant hues they once wore, and they are signs that winter is "getting old". We perch in towering snowdrifts, bear witness to the long white season's passing, think about springtime and nesting owls, about maple syrup gathering, about snowdrops and songbirds. We (season and humans) rattle and creak and go on.

Perceptions totter, wither, fade and take on strange shapes in late winter, and we need reminders of the earth's own wonder, magic and infinite change, in this case a strand of last summer's common tansy with flowing arty curves against a background of deep blue snow.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

Magic doesn't sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine -- to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.
David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Ramble - In My Cups

It is still dark outside, and through the window comes the clatter of the wind across our roof, the susurrus of snow falling on the deck and the trees in our engulfed garden. Here in the kitchen, there is the burble and hiss of the De'Longhi espresso machine, the rattle and hum of the refrigerator in the corner.

By rights, there should be the sound of a toaster too, but it will be an hour or so before I can even think about toast. This is a "bang up" month for migraines, and I have awakened with a whopper - thought about doing prescription meds when I opened my eyes but opted for a beaker of industrial strength espresso instead.  The stuff in my cup approaches the consistency of solid propellant rocket fuel and could be dispatched with a fork. Steam rises in arty curls from the surface, and a splendid darker froth rings its shores. The fragrance of freshly ground North Star Espresso (fair trade, organic) from Equator Coffee Roasters is ambrosial. So were the beans. Think I will draw pictures in the foam. Yup, I can do this.

Why is it my thoughts always turn to Paris when the weather is like this? With badass beaker in hand, I am looking through my rainy day "stash" of Cavallini rubber stamps, vintage postcards and notebooks - the little ones with maps of France, old French postage stamps or the Eiffel tower gracing their covers.

Snow or no snow, it will be a grand day. When the migraine has expired in my espresso sea, I will curl up in a corner somewhere and read something in French, perhaps the latest Fred Vargas.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Thursday Poem - Don't wait for something beautiful to find you.

Go out into the weather-beaten world
where straw men lean on frozen fields
and find the cardinal's scarlet flash of wing,
a winter heart, a feathered hope.

Without a camera or a memory,
we travel these old country roads,
turn corners like the pages of a book,
enchanted by the ordinary life

of fields and rocks and woods,
of small wild creatures stirring in the brush.
We take home pockets full of myths
and wonders seldom seen.

We will not give up easily,
Across the breakfast table
in our precarious nest,
we make those promises keep on going

that no one ever keeps.  And yet...
there is the cardinal again,
a finial on our old gray fence.
Red is for Valentines.


This morning's poem is reprinted with permission from Dolores Stewart's gorgeous volume of poetry, The Nature of Things.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Restless in February

Little things leave you feeling restless in February. You ramble through stacks of gardening catalogues, plotting another heritage rose or three, new plots of herbs and heirloom veggies. You spend hours in the kitchen summoning old Helios with cilantro, fragrant olive oils and recipes straight from Tuscany. You burn candles and brew endless pots of tea, sunlight dancing in every china mug.

You play with filters, apertures and shutter speeds, entranced (and occasionally irritated) with the surprising transformations wrought by your madcap gypsy tinkerings. Camera in hand or around your neck, you haunt the woods, peering into trees and searching for a leaf somewhere, even a single bare leaf. You scan the cloudy evening skies, desperately hoping to see the moon, and you calculate the weeks remaining until the geese, the herons and the loons come home again.

It may not seem like it, but change is already on its way.  The great horned owls who reside on the Two Hundred Acre Wood are repairing their nest in an old oak tree about a mile back in the forest, and they are getting ready to raise another comely brood.  It makes me happy to think it is all happening again.

This morning, a single maple leaf was teased into brief flight by the north wind, and it came to rest in the birdbath in the garden.  A simple  thing perhaps, but the pairing of golden leaf and blue snow was fetching stuff indeed, and the leaf bore in its poignant wabi sabi simplicity an often and much needed reminder. This is the sisterhood of fur and feather, of snowbound earth and clouded sky, of wandering eye and dancing leaf.  Out of small and frost rimed doings, a mindful life is made.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.

Robert Farrar Capon, from Between Noon & Three:
Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Friday, February 08, 2019

Friday Ramble - Little Blue

Weary of deep snow and icy cold, I am even a little tired of the color blue at times, no matter how intensely blue the sky is or snowdrifts or spruce trees or the cast iron crane out on the deck. Its migratory kin have been gone for months, but our splendid metal bird is frozen in place, and it is well and truly stuck in place until springtime rolls around again. I like looking at it.

There are some lovely words for blue in the English language: azure, beryl, cerulean, cobalt, indigo, lapis lazuli, royal, sapphire, turquoise, ultramarine, to name just a few. I recite them like a litany under my breath as I look out at our sleeping garden with mug in hand or break a trail into the woods.

Just when I decide that I am all wintered out and will not sketch another icicle or frame another photo of such things, another eloquent winter composition presents itself to the eye. Something curved or fragile or delicately robed in snow shows up and begs rapt and focused attention. Glossy bubbles dance in the icicles above a frozen creek in the Lanark highlands. Snow crystals adorn the evergreens over my head and make them blaze like diamonds. As I lurch along, faded and tattered oak leaves flutter down to lie on the trail at my feet. Pine and spruce cones cast vivid blue shadows in pools of early morning sunlight.  Is there anything on the planet as fine as the scent of snowy blue spruce boughs in February? Look closely, and every needle is wearing stars.

Small and perfect, complete within itself, each entity conveys an elemental peace and equilibrium, lowers the blood pressure and stills the breathing, returns my eyes and focus to simplicity and grace and just plain old being here. For a minute or two, my pain recedes and balance returns. It is a miracle that I am standing here at all, and these fleeting moments on the edge of the woods have to be enough. They are enough, and they are more than enough.

Worlds great and small everywhere, worlds within and worlds without, and every one is a wonder to behold and remember and love with my eyes and patient recording lens. Surely, I can do this for a little while longer.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Thursday Poem - Straight Talk from Fox

Listen says fox it is music to run
over the hills to lick
dew from the leaves to nose along
the edges of the ponds to smell the fat
ducks in their bright feathers but
far out, safe in their rafts of
sleep. It is like
music to visit the orchard, to find
the vole sucking the sweet of the apple, or the
rabbit with his fast-beating heart. Death itself
is a music. Nobody has ever come close to
writing it down, awake or in a dream. It cannot
be told. It is flesh and bones
changing shape and with good cause, mercy
is a little child beside such an invention. It is
music to wander the black back roads
outside of town no one awake or wondering
if anything miraculous is ever going to
happen, totally dumb to the fact of every
moment's miracle. Don't think I haven't
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of the grass,
instead of the stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den. What I am, and I know it, is
responsible, joyful, thankful. I would not
give my life for a thousand of yours.

Mary Oliver, from Redbird

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

A Small and Perfect Flowing

The late winter thaw lasts for only a few days in eastern Ontario, and we are all richer for its visitation.  Winters are long this far north though, and some of us are inclined to behave foolishly.  Just about the time we realize how silly we are, the thaw ends, and our world freezes up again.

We take photos with cameras and cell phones, send texts to friends, write seasonal haiku and gaze out the window for hours on end, wax euphoric about the light and lurch about with dazed expressions. We think about things like snowdrops and crocuses, dream about confetti-colored rain boots, slickers and umbrellas, picture ourselves planting gardens.

Small tributaries in the highlands run free for a  brief interval, and they take on the color and texture of quicksilver.  On sunny days, the liberated streams sing like birds, and they are filled, one and all, with buttery light, wispy clouds and breathtaking blue sky.

This week, we can almost hear springtime breathing softly around the bend, but it is wishful thinking on our part. Alas, we (and Lady Spring) still have a long way to go. Snow storms and deep cold are already on their way, and they will be here in a day or two. If only we could keep this glorious light for a little longer...

Monday, February 04, 2019

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is - and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful.

In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but something that is.

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

(One of the most beautiful books ever written)