Today I was drawn toward a clump of blossoming Canada goldenrod, glowing bright yellow in the afternoon sun. It was about four feet tall and teeming with insects. There were all kinds of flies, wasps, and bees climbing over the flowers in a feeding frenzy. As I leaned over to get a closer look at the bumblebees, I noticed a subtle herbal aroma. Burying my nose in a cluster of flowers, careful not to get stung, I inhaled its sweet and slightly medicinal scent. Most of the goldenrod I’ve visited in the city is already past its best, the colour faded to dull straw, and the nectar tapped out. These blooms were fresh and vibrant. It’s like I found a secret pocket of high summer on this east Vancouver boulevard. I took a few shots with my camera, but I knew it would fail to capture the dreamlike quality of what I had witnessed.
August in Vancouver is a bittersweet time of the year, when summer seems to be fully arriving and threatening to leave at the same time. It’s the time when the number of bees and variety of insect species starts to ebb and dwindle as fall approaches. So much of my daily routine is built around exploring the relationships among insects and flowers, that lack of insect floral activity leaves me anxious. Working in the garden helps me internalize this transition into fall. As I begin to harvest spent lavender flowers and the seedpods from nodding onion, I gradually come to terms with the changing of the seasons and the sharp notes of dried plant material that signal the coming cold. Seasons are dynamic in nature, gardens are always in a state of flux, so one must internalize this reality as well. Some days I want to have the superpowers to play with time and to hold onto summer just a bit longer.
August seems to be a particular month when I ritually grieve some personal losses. Last fall, I lost my father, and this month we are taking his ashes home to Saskatchewan. We’ll be seeking a stage of closure to the long process of saying good-bye. There have been other recent losses this summer, and I find myself in a tangle of the weeds of grief. As a part of the healing process, I have been immersing myself in natural settings whenever I can. Being a prairie person, I’m a bit suspicious of forests, but my friend has a cabin on the Sunshine Coast surrounded by some pretty nice looking trees. There are lots of stately Douglas fir and big-leaf maples that ripple and dance in the coastal breezes. On afternoon in early July I stood in a ray of sunlight and watched a tiny object flutter down from the forest canopy. Thinking it was a delicate wind-borne seed, I bent over to examine it. It was the mottled wing of a butterfly. A bird had likely made a meal of the body and clipped off the wings. It was evidence of the cycle of loss and regeneration, gently evoking the bittersweet comfort of the natural order of things.
Grieving is something that happens in private and in public. As social animals, we need to share the experience as a form of affirmation and finding ways to slowly fill the space that our loved one has left in our lives. And our father left a very big space in our hearts. Sharing grief defines grief, gives it the shape and form, the finite qualities we need to see so that we can ultimately let it go. There is a phenology of grief. As we pass through the seasons, memories connected to that time of the year surface, reminding us of the deep connections this person has in our history. As we move into late summer, I am reminded of all the times we celebrated the season by taking photos in fields with the swath and the bales against a deep blue prairie sky. Of course there were family photo ops with crocuses and pussy willows every spring and snowsuits and snow drifts in the winter.
Dad taught me to get outside, take my camera and let my body enjoy the natural sensory delights that surround me. He taught me to connect with people, be fully present with them on everyday activities and special occasions. He taught me to take pictures of the full range of gifts life presents, even if it’s in the metaphorical sense of storing images in your memory rather than on a hard drive. Some images burn themselves onto our heart’s memory even when there is no photographic record. There was an evening in my childhood in deep winter when I lay my snowsuit on my wooden sled, looking up at the stars and thinking how very lucky I was to live in this quiet, beautiful world. There are no photos or videos of this experience, just a really powerful and lasting memory. I can easily recall the fuggy scent of our dog Lunar drooling on me in the front seat of dad’s gas truck, the prickly texture of the sunflower stems in mom’s garden, and finding a white arrow point in the soft sand at the mouth of a gopher hole. These recollections I keep in my heart’s pocket and take them out when I need inspiration and consolation. As we head home to Saskatchewan in another celebrate of dad’s life, we are inspired by him to make every day a celebration of life itself.
I spent many hours in peaceful solitude on the prairie during my childhood, gathering critters from the dugouts to put under a microscope, taking note of the phenology of wildflowers and watching the ground squirrels play hide and seek. But I also spent many hours in the silent company of my father, collecting interesting rocks, driving to ponds to see migrating sandhill cranes and snow geese, and exploring abandoned homesteads. Sometimes dad would just invite me to jump in the car and take me and Lunar on an adventure, without a word of explanation. He’d bring his camera and we’d go look for the horned owl that liked to perch in the window of an empty farmhouse.
We’d take photos until the sun went over the horizon and we lost the light. I miss his companionship, and think about how he would enjoy the thrum of insects around the purple coneflowers and brown-eyed Susans in the gardens in mid August in Vancouver. In honor of my father, I will stay out until dusk and photograph the bees lay sleeping in their petals until I lose the light. I will walk home, thinking how lucky I am to live in this complex, beautiful world. I will celebrate the ephemeral nature of goldenrod.