Saturday, December 10, 2016

Uncle Lucian Dean and The Alligator Selfie

November is archive month in our family. It’s that time when we sort through old analogue photos and digitize a selection to put into a digitally reproduced bound book. It’s an important yearly ritual, and an extension of the tradition of All Soul’s Day, especially since many of the people in the photos are long gone. This year my parents and I are going through some of the photos that became displaced in the chaotic process of moving from Cactus Lake Saskatchewan to their retirement home in Okotoks Alberta.
It’s always amazing to discover prints that you’ve never seen before that shed light on your family history and to look at old hairdos, clothing, cars and . . . alligators. I’d never seen this shot before of a man gently cradling a reptile.  The caption, written in pencil reads “myself and aligator”[sic]. My grandma May has written later in pen: “Uncle Lucian Dean lived in Washington State I think. My grandfather’s brother.”  It’s a lovely portrait in a dappled garden setting of a well-fed Victorian gentleman sporting a healthy tea strainer moustache. The critter looks more like a lizard than a gator, so the caption may be a tad whimsical. Perhaps Uncle Lucian was a bit of a joker.

When you sort through hundreds of photos you start to see patterns. I noticed that in many of our family photos one of us is cuddling some kind of critter, from alligators and snakes to ponies and a full-grown Canada goose. This behavior goes across gender divisions, but more usually it is a female of the human species who is holding the animal. My mom gets the award for cuddling the most creatures in the family photos. In one photo taken in 1953, she is holding a tiny baby rabbit. She has recently arrived in Cactus Lake to teach in the one room schoolhouse and the photographer is my dad, who has just fallen in love. You can tell from the photo how smitten he is. Mom’s lovely sparkling dark eyes are in focus, the rabbit is not. 

Here's a photo of mom a few years later cuddling a kitten. My dad's the smug looking dude on the left, because he's got the girl. My sweet uncle Don is to the right of mom, a gentle farmer like his father. Uncle Harlan is to to the right of him, the intellectual of the family.

This is a photo of mom and dad the year before I was born. Dad was most fond of his hunting dogs. Before I went to school, I would hanging out with dad and our dog Lunar in the truck making fuel deliveries to the farmers. Lunar had a drooling problem, but I tolerated him. I'd hop off and cuddle barn cats with my friends while dad filled the tanks and had coffee with the farmers.
This year I find myself drawn to two kinds of photos: the ones where the family member is being really silly, and the ones that show a family tradition of connecting with nature. There are quite a few photos of my sister and I cuddling kittens and cats, since we are both crazy about them, and have always had cats in our menagerie of childhood pets along with rabbits, dogs, and of course bees. People might say you can’t cuddle honeybees, but I beg to differ. I think one of the main reasons hobby beekeepers keep colonies of Apis melifera is because they are basically in love with handling bees, even though you usually need gloves to do it.

Here’s a picture of mom with two of her sisters, Muriel and Florence, on the family farm in Bounty, Saskatchewan. This was taken in the Dirty Thirties. All my mom and dad's childhood photos show the sere landscape of the drought-ridden prairies.

By contrast, this photo of my grandpa Clark's lush garden was taken earlier, probably in the late 1920's. My uncle Jack on the left became a geologist and my Aunt Mary, on his right, was a flying nurse in Northern Saskatchewan.

Here's a photo of Mary, circa 1945, cuddling a farm pup.

 And then there’s my favorite childhood photo. I am about three years old, and depriving a kitten of oxygen with my affection. Its eyes are looking glazed over as it suffers in my grasp. (By all reports, no kittens were actually harmed in the creation of this picture and the wee pussycat revived all after the photo was taken.) There is a strikingly similar photo of my mother taken at about the same age in the 1930’s. Once again, notice the dry landscape around her.

My aunt Florence in the 1950's is looking movie star glamorous in her kitten cuddling shot.

In a photo taken in the same era, my grandma Clark holds a leggy squirming kitten.

 This is a photo of me in my early 20’s in my “the more I know men, the more I love my cat” phase. I had a lot more luck with cats than men in those days, which is probably a good thing upon reflection.  I discovered feminism. And sublimation.

But before men there was Smokey the cat, then Sandy the bunny, and more cats: Sima, Rudolph, Percy, Betty and Crocker. As a side note, my dad shot at a skunk one night, thought he shot Rudolph by accident (as he was a black and white cat). But Rudolph came back from the dead one day, sauntering into our lives after a feral hiatus. As to the identity of that unfortunate skunk-like kitty, it remains a mystery to this day.

There can be a dark side to critter cuddling. When I was little I had the love and curiosity about creatures that was not always good news for them. There was a nest of robins in a tree at my paternal grandparents house. I could hear them chirping away, but couldn’t see them, so I took a stick and tried to tip the nest up a bit. Of course, the nest fell down and the fragile featherless chicks were scattered on the ground. I howled for hours with guilt and horror.
Then there’s the whole history of our family’s penchant for shooting critters. I have a photo somewhere of my great grandma Dean holding a shotgun with a dead swan hanging off the side of a shed, circa 1918. My father used to win trophies for marksmanship. Had I been born male I would have been invited to the fishing and shooting trips in Northern Saskatchewan. As I was a girl, I had to stay home and content myself with cuddling cats and looking at slides of pond water under a microscope.

While sorting through family photos I also discovered we had a picture of mom cuddling an alligator when she went on a trip to New Orleans in 1998. The image is not in focus, but it’s mom with a big smile, cuddling a baby alligator. Even though the photo isn’t a great quality it’s worth saving as a reminder to all of us of how fun-loving she is and what a gift that has been to our family as a nature mentor.

 And of course mentors beget mentors. I hope I've modeled my mom's critter cuddling for my son's benefit. This is a photo of my son chillin’ with some snails. I remember the warm autumn day because we took these photos. I’ll choose to put this one on the wall in our home to remind him that even though he’d much rather be inside the house playing board games and philosophizing, there was a time when he was an explorer, a nature lover and a snail cuddler.

Did you have a mentor that connected you to the natural world? When you ponder your family history you look for these signs from the past that give you hints of what sent you on your destiny as a tree or bee hugger. When you do find these photos it’s a reminder to keep getting outside, exploring and bonding with the natural world. It also reminds us to embrace being goofy and gushy because seeking silliness means you are opening your heart to let in those sparks of joy that make life bearable, memorable and worthwhile. Are you mentoring someone else’s journey to bonding with nature?  That is one of the best things you can do in this life on the little blue dot in the universe.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Plot: A Creative Community Garden in Newton

On Sunday I was invited by the SOFIA Collective to speak to some artist/gardeners at fall equinox celebration at The Plot community sharing garden in Surrey. My friend Sandra picked me up at the Scott Road Skytrain Station. After an arduous trip with a train packed with royal watchers, of course I had to use the loo. So I traversed the wilderness to the local big box store and discovered a really lovely patch of goldenrod. These "forgotten" undeveloped liminal spaces are becoming increasingly important for wildlife and particularly bees. As Lincoln Best (@entomo_b) pointed out on my Instagram feed (@beespeaker), sometimes these are the only spaces left to support bees.

So we picked up Matt and drove to Newton, the location of The Plot. What a great idea for a garden!

 I love the design of this space. The medicine wheel acts as a spiritual and social centre, grounding the food and flower plots.

Here are the remnants of the fall equinox ceremony.

It's a bonus that the site is right next to a community center.

These diagrams explain the significance of the medicine wheel that they chose to incorporate into the design.

Matt and Sandra are my buddies from Austria, currently living in Surrey. We have had many adventures together, but haven't seen each other for awhile. There should be a word for that warm glow you get from re-uniting with friends you haven't seen for a long time--something like freundefreude.

What a great idea! This is similar to an idea I had about giving seniors pots of perennial kale--but much better. It's practical and cute and would suit people who live a nomadic lifestyle. I love the broccoli sticking out the side. This would be awesome with mushrooms!

These natural benches are very cool, and safe for children to crawl up on and fly off of. (Well, that's what I'd do.)

These syrphid flies have so much personality.

 Nothing beats clear signage in a garden! I like the chalkboard style.

It was lovely to see a species of bumblebee other than those eastern bb's escaped from greenhouses. I think this might be Bombus mixtus, the mixed bumblebee. Ach, what a dreary name for such a sweet bee.

So this Brassica was the most popular plant with bees in the garden the day I visited. It was taken from the beach and planted here by a boy who gardens at The Plot. It tastes like mustard on steroids and I believe it's wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum). It's a very cool plant, but comes with an invasive warning. The leaves, flowers and pods could be used in restaurants and home cooking. Some folks pickle the seed pods. The Punjabi ladies at Moberly made me curry with domestic radish pods that was absolutely delish.

Lovely sunlit setae on those back legs!

Weeds can be fantastic when used as "a controlled substance" for bees.

When it comes to honeybees, these folks are doing it right. Two hives in a garden where many folks can have hands on experience is more sustainable than having multiple hives in many single family urban dwellings. Plus, locking them up to protect the girls from bears and dumb humans is a good idea.

Matt calls this enclosure "the food court".

I pointed out that most of the bumblebees in the garden were imported Bombus impatiens, the eastern bumblebee. This one looks like she's missing some hair from her thorax. It can get rubbed off as they enter and exit their nests. There was talk of a bumblebee housing project using garden pots. I must say that after talking to Dr. Ralph Carter, I think the wooden nests in trees idea is likely more resilient. But hey, give both kinds of nests a shot and see what happens.

This is how you've got to grow corn to get kernals. It's wind-pollinated and needs to be within spittin' distance of its kin.

This dude is a natural green thumb and he gifted me one of his cantaloupes, which really touched my heart. I must send him one of my books. He was also really good at spotting syprhid flies. Someone's already taught him a few things. Mentorship is a strong part of this garden's model.

And this is where you'll find me in a sharing garden. I love cape gooseberries!

True to their word, there is a free box as you enter the garden. Anyone is free to take these treasures home and make good use of them.

Many thanks for the invite! It was lovely to meet all of you and I hope your garden continues to thrive.

All the Best,
Madame Beespeaker

P. S. Here is a list of sources including info on the artists I mentioned in my talk.

Also, check out The Wild Radish Song. What can I say? I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Shibori Workshop at Trillium Park

It was a blue sky over goldenrod kind of day in Vancouver, which is to say one of the best kinds of days in this lovely city. We lucky folks got to play with a vat of indigo lovingly prepared by MOP artist in residence Catherine Shapiro and her co-conspirator Gloria Tsui.

The location is Trillium Park in Vancouver, bordered by busy soccer fields and a semi-industrial part of east Vancouver near the train station. We are in an area beside a container fitted out as a Fabrication Station, suitable for all sorts of creative pursuits.

While we worked with dye, Rebecca Graham processed locally grown flax fibres, creating a luxurious flax 'stache.

We tied marbles and nuts into the fabric, stitched and clamped it to create areas that would resist the indigo dye.

There are many recipes for indigo dye pots, and Gloria and Catherine have been growing indigo and experimenting with it for months.

We snacked on a potluck "blue feast" while dyeing and waiting between dips for the dye to oxidize. The deepest blues you see in indigo cloth can be dipped over a series of months.

Clipping provided the most resistance and the more dramatic patterns.

We worked with scoured cotton, but I brought along a pale green piece of thrift store silk to work with too.

Oliver is proud of his indigo sky.

East West brought in special violet blue potatoes by request and Catherine made a potato salad.

We didn't eat the blue tomatoes because they are not ripe and "didn't taste too great".

Gloria's fromage blue sur endives avec poire et noisettes: formidable!

Hey, my hands match my jeans!

This was the indigo we used, from MAIWA.

This is what the plant looks like dried.

As Rebecca broke the flax, with a rhythmic wacking sound of wood on wood, David Gowman and friends hammered and chiseled on paulownia wood to make musical horns.

It was like we were part of a village before the industrial revolution!

This is an empress tree growing on the site. Just like the MOP Garden  site, materials grown here are made into art. Soon this tree will be chiselled into a musical instrument. Someone should write a song about that. Oh wait, they already did.

A little caterpillar friend came to visit.

Sadly, this park is in danger of being lost to development for a replacement for the viaduct. Typical Vancouver problem. Please visit the site and help us save it. I've started a hastag on Instagram #SaveTrilliumPark, but my hashtags @beespeaker don't seem to be working. Le sigh. Maybe you will have better luck!

I've been informed that this is not the case--Trillium Park is outside the proposed re-route. Phew!