Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.

Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. We make our living by catching electrons at the moment of their excitement by solar photons, swiping the energy released at the instant of each jump and storing it up in intricate loops fro ourselves.

We violate probability, by our nature. To be able to do this systematically, and in such wild varieties of form, from viruses to whales, is extremely unlikely; to have sustained the effort successfully for the several billion years of our existence, without drifting back into randomness, was nearly a mathematical impossibility.

Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Everyone is one in 3 billion at the moment, which describes the odds. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You'd think we'd never stop dancing.

Lewis Thomas,The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday Ramble - Hibernate

This week's word offering is rooted in the Latin hībernātus, past participle of the verb hībernāre (to spend the winter) and the noun hiems (winter), also the Greek cheimá (winter) and Sanskrit hima meaning cold, frost or snow. All forms probably originated in the Indo-European form ghei-, also meaning winter. Our word is kin to the name of the mightiest mountain range on the planet, the Himalayas, for Himalaya means "abode of snow" in Sanksrit.

Most birds in the northern hemisphere migrate south, but other species of wildlife go dormant through the long white season, and we refer to the process as hibernating.  Bears exhibit an elegant and impressive physiology as they hibernate through the winter in their leaf-lined dens. Ground squirrels, prairie dogs, groundhogs and hedgehogs also den up when temperatures fall, sleeping until outside temperatures rise and food becomes available again.  Northern frogs, toads, snakes and turtles are masters of the art of hibernation too.

Humans "do" hibernation, and we do it in various ways. Some of us travel to warmer climes to escape ice and snow and cold, but most of us simply withdraw from the outside world to warm dens of our own.  Our protocols for getting through the long white season are highly personal. We retrieve shawls, sweaters and gloves from cedar chests, accumulate stacks of books, munchies and music. We kindle fires in fireplaces, pull the draperies closed and surround our winter selves with things that are warm, embracing, spicy and redolent of comfort.  (A fringed shawl in deep, earthy red comes to mind here.)

I buy more cookbooks between now and springtime, make endless pots of tea and pummel bread dough, listen to classical music and jazz, pose still life camera compositions on tables and window sills, pile up leaning towers of reading material. The books brought home are usually hardcovers - there is something comforting about holding the real thing in one's hands, the way its thick creamy paper feels, the smell of the ink, the shapes of the illustrations and the typefaces used. I can get totally caught up in the color of a morning cup of tea, and I have to resist the temptation to add cinnamon sticks, anise stars and peperoncino to anything I brew or stir up in the kitchen. It is almost impossible to pass trees and fallen leaves without getting lost in golds and reds  and bronzes.

Hibernation also means wandering around with a camera, trying to capture the light of the sun as it touches clouds, contrails and migrating geese, sparks across frost dappled fields, farm buildings and old rail fences.   It's a meditative process holding out stillness and tantalizing glimpses of something wild, elusive and elemental. Ice, frost, snow and the paucity of light notwithstanding, it's all good, and something to be treasured. Every view is a wonder and no two images are ever the same, even when they were captured in exactly the same place.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Thursday Poem - Unchurched

Autumnal sun streams through
these yellow maple leaves
translucent as stained glass.

The ground beneath my feet
is strewn with pine cones, acorns.
The random pattern of continuance.

Etched columns of pine and oak.
Incense of resin and fungi.
Great glacial stones for altars.

High winds and choirs of
minor breezes, the whispering hush.
It is the Sabbath. It is enough.

Dolores Stewart
from The Nature of Things
(reprinted here with the late poet's kind permission

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Season of Last Things

This is the season of last things, and how poignant they are in their shapes and colors, in every fiber of their being.

The last antique roses are blooming in our garden, and the last ripening tomatoes cling to their vines in the veggie patch.  The last purple grapes of the season dangle in local arbors, about to be picked and turned into jelly and wine.  Scarlet Virginia creepers wrap old wooden fences in the village, and the last crimson berries sway on our hawthorn, most of them already carried off by birds and squirrels.  Maple, oak and beech leaves from old trees flutter through the air like birds, coming to rest on veranda railings and the chilly dark earth below.

As much as I love autumn, this season always takes some getting used to, and I am working on it again this time around.  Many farewells were said this week, and I tried to remember, too, to say thanks to the myriad entities who enriched our lives this year and are now passing away.  Bumbles, dragonflies and cicadas - wherever they alight in their journey, and whoever (or whatever) they come to be the next time around, may they all be well and happy.

At first light, autumn hedgerows wear spiderwebs from here to there, swaying and glistening and hung with dew like pearls.  I remember an October morning a few years ago when a neighbor in the village rang our doorbell a few minutes after sunrise, breathless and wide-eyed and ecstatic.  While walking her dogs in a nearby field, she had discovered a vast and dewy orb weaver's web that I just had to come out and capture with Pentax and macro lens.  My friend is now in an assisted living accommodation, and I think of her whenever I pass the cedar hedge where we stood wondering together at the break of day, as happy as two hoary old clams can ever be.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

. . . I don't know what gladness is or where it comes from, this splitting open of the self. It takes me by surprise. Not an awareness of beauty and mystery, but beauty and mystery themselves, flooding into a mind suddenly without boundaries. Can this be gladness, to be lifted by that flood?

This is something that needs explaining, how light emerges from darkness, how comfort wells up from sorrow. The Earth holds every possibility inside it, and the mystery of transformation, one thing into another. This is the wildest comfort.

Kathleen Dean Moore, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Ramble - Edge/Edgy

This week's word has been around since the eleventh century, making its way down to us through the Middle English egge, the Old English ecg, the Old French aiglent and the Old Germanic ecke, all meaning "corner". It is also related to the Latin acer meaning "sharp", and the Greek akmē meaning "point". At the root of it all is the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ak- meaning "sharp". Kindred words in the English language include acerbic, acid, acrid, acumen, acupuncture, acute, eager, ester, exacerbate, hammer and selvedge as well as eglantine (or sweetbriar), an old world rose known for its thorns.

An edgy time is this, for the old Celtic year is passing away, and we stand on the threshold of a brand new year, in the north a chilling contraption of fallen leaves and freezing earth, short days, darkness, frost and wind.

The eastern Ontario highlands always seem empty at this time of the year and rather lonesome. Except for Canada geese, migratory birds have (for the most part) departed for warmer climes. and most of our wild and furry "year round" residents are either already hibernating or thinking about doing it.

On trips into the woods, the long shadows falling across our trail have edges as sharp as the finest examples of the blade smith's craft. The earth under our boots is firm, leaves are crunchy, and puddles along our way are rimed with ice. For all the emptiness, frost and morning sunlight change the Two Hundred Acre Wood into something rich and elegant and inviting: glittering weed fronds artfully curved and waving in the fields, milkweed sculpted into pleasing shapes, bare trees twinkling like stars, the margins of blackberry leaves rosy and sparkling with frost crystals. The air is fragrant with cedar, spruce and pine.

These weeks always seem chthonic to me. That engaging word with its bewildering arrangement of vowels and consonants springs from the Greek khthonios, meaning "of the earth", and it is usually employed in describing subterranean matters and deities of the underworld.  When we use the adjective to describe something, we are focusing on what is deeper or within, rather than that which is apparent at first glance or resting on the surface. Implicit in the adjective are notions of rest, sleep, fertility and rebirth - mortality and abundance coexisting and enfolding each other in a deep embrace.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thursday Poem - This Time of Year

when the light leaves early, sun slipping down
behind the beech trees as easily as a spoon
of cherry cough syrup, four deer step delicately
up our path, just at the moment when the colors
shift, to eat fallen apples in the tall grass.
Great grey ghosts.  If we steal outside in the dark,
we can hear them chew.  A sudden movement,
they're gone, the whiteness of their tails
a burning afterimage.  A hollow pumpkin moon rises,
turns the dried corn to chiaroscuro, shape and shadow;
the breath of the wind draws the leaves and stalks
like melancholy cellos.  These days are songs, noon air
that flows like warm honey, the maple trees' glissando
of fat buttery leaves.  The sun goes straight to the gut
like a slug of brandy, an eau-de-vie.  Ochre October:
the sky, a blue dazzle, the grand finale of trees,
this spontaneous applause; when darkness falls
like a curtain, the last act, the passage of time,
that blue current; October, and the light leaves early,
our radiant hungers, all these golden losses.

Barbara Crooker, from Radiance

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Views From the Shore

Water, sky and morning light, drifting fog and reeds, rocks and hills in the distance, trees turning red and yellow on the far shore...

What more does one need on the trailing edge of a day on October's middling pages?  A heron or three in the shallows would be grand, perhaps a few loons calling from the center of the lake, a bald eagle overhead.

That is all. Everything else is already here.

Monday, October 08, 2018


This is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and preparations for a festive dinner are already underway.

There is a free range turkey ready to go in the oven, cranberry sauce made with berries from a local bog and maple syrup, stuffing made with our own bread, a potato souffle, gravy, salad and all the trimmings. a fresh raspberry pie for dessert with homemade gelato. Will there be leftovers? Probably not....

If you live above the 49th parallel, Happy Thanksgiving. If not, come celebrate with us anyway - there is plenty of room around the old oak dining table, and there are lots of (mismatched but comfortable) chairs.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

I don’t think there is anything as powerful as an active heart. And the activists I know possess this powerful beating heart of change. They do not fear the wisdom of emotion, but embody it. They know how to listen. They are polite when they need to be and unyielding when necessary. They remain open, even as they push boundaries and inhabit the margins, understanding eventually, the margins will move toward the center. They are tenacious, informed, patient, and impatient, at once. They do not shy away from what is difficult. They refuse to accept the unacceptable. The most effective activists I know are in love with the world.
Terry Tempest Williams

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Friday, October 05, 2018

Friday Ramble - Between Here and There

There is an element of impatience in the voices of Canada geese as they fly over the house, and the other migratory beings who are still here seem agitated and anxious to be off on their adventures.

I'm restless too, and words alone don't quite "do it" for me; nor do images, at least most of the time. Morning after morning, I scribble a few words and regard them with mild disdain. I prowl through old photos, looking for an image that adequately describes the dark foggy daybreak beyond the windows, the frosted garden grasses and wilting shrubbery, the bare and eloquent trees. Archive prowling at the break of day is a perilous undertaking through volume after volume of photo archives and disk after disk of stored images, all leaving something to be desired. At times, I consider tossing everything out, flogging the cameras to a pawn shop and taking up soap operas or macrame.

What I need at such times is sunlight and clear skies, a fine crunchy frost and an hour or two of wandering around the woods, camera around my neck, vest pockets crammed with filters, lenses and other photographic trappings, seed for the birds and Beau's homemade doggy biscuits. For various reasons, my ramblings are brief this fall, but I often wander the eastern Ontario highlands in my thoughts. There are years of autumn rambles to revisit when I can't get out to the woods, and every step I take is a step through treasure.

Sometimes, what we need is already here and has simply been waiting for us to acknowledge it. When we wake up and notice, we are stopped right in our tracks, so taken by the breathtaking wonders before us that we can hardly draw in air. Old barns and whiskery trees, towering crags and limpid streams, sandhill crane couples slow dancing in frosted farm fields at sunrise, herons and loons calling goodbye as they rise from their summer haunts and head south. Timeless, enchanted and liminal, all of it, and if we are lucky, from time to time, elemental magics rub off on us as we wander about in wild places.

Out of the north wind, there's fine blue stillness and pools of articulate silence, long resonant conversations with dreaming trees and old stones. Camus wrote that in the depths of winter, he discovered within himself an invincible summer. I suspect that for this old hen, what lies invincible within is an early highland winter in all its grace and grandeur. Health issues notwithstanding, frosted leaves underfoot, geese overhead and treed hills with morning light shining through them still catch me by the throat and leave me breathless, every single time.  I just wish I could find a way to say it as it ought to be said.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Thursday Poem - October

October.  Its brilliant festival of dry
and moist decay.  Its spicy, musky scent.
The church's parking lot deserted
except for this one witness,
myself, just resting there.

Somewhere a radio plays Flamenco.
A spotlight of sunshine falls on the scattered debris.
Blood-red and gold, a perfect circle of leaves
begins to whirl,
slowly at first, keeping the pattern,
clicking against the blacktop
like heels and  castanets,
then faster, faster, faster. . .
round as a ruffle, as the swirling
skirts of an invisible dancer.
Swept off into the tangled woods
by the muscular breeze.
The hoarse cheering of crows.

Inside the dark empty church,
long cool shadows, white-painted wood,
austere Protestant candles thriftily snuffed,
Perhaps a note on the altar,
Gone dancing. Back on Sunday

Dolores Stewart, from The Nature of Things

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Village, Scarlet and Bokeh

In the village, scarlets, plums and deep inky blues are creeping into view, their emergence out of summer's dusty greens motivated by much cooler evenings and gently ruffling winds at nightfall. Last night, there was frost in the village, and when Beau and I went out briefly around four o'clock this morning, there were glossy coins of frost from one side of the deck to the other.

In summer, a small gasp of koi or nishikigoi (錦鯉, "brocaded carp") makes its home in the shaded pond underneath this Japanese maple, but the fish have been moved to indoor tanks for the winter, and the pond is a different place, still and silent. I didn't know until recently that a colony of koi is called a gasp. Beau and I visit the maple and her pond on our walks until all her leaves have fallen, and the waters below her branches are covered with snow.

As often as I witness the turning of the seasons and the vivid entities coming into being, the morphing of the village into deeper and more intense hues is always enchanting. It takes us (and the camera) by surprise each and every year. Autumn transformations are magics of a wilder kind, and I can't imagine living this old life without being among them and watching as they flare and swirl and dance, remaking the world in elemental colors.

Northern light dazzles the eyes, and it lingers lovingly on everything it touches in its journey across the eastern Ontario highlands. I wish I could paint everything it touches. Come to think of it, that is just what my lens is doing.

Monday, October 01, 2018