awe, humility, hope and a few other things I might notice

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Hope, Spring from Wizened Old Men


It is another frigid day today, topping out at about 5F degrees with 25mph winds plus gusts. It basically feels like Antarctica. I somewhat enjoy listening to the wind, but do not cherish the thought of having to go out in it. I thought about building a snow fort and am surprised not to see some around town. I think I could just dig a hole in one of the piles of snow on the side of the driveway at this point, no construction required. An instant igloo.

Despite or perhaps because of the cold what is mainly on my mind these days is gardening. It is my hope carved out of the winter grey. My dreams before sleeping.  I am reading and watching videos and courses about permaculture. Permaculture is primarily a design system, but most people incorporate organic growing and many are interested in interdependence and community development as well. The Permaculture Research Institute defines it this way:

Permaculture integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems. Permaculture studies and applies holistic solutions that are applicable in rural and urban contexts at any scale. It is a multidisciplinary toolbox including agriculture, water harvesting and hydrology, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development.

The succession of nature is simply not tolerated in our modern landscapes and it is amazing to read stories of how nature recovers and builds from disturbed areas if allowed to while being moderately managed or harvested instead of controlled and chemically attacked. Toby Hemenway’s story of the Bullock brothers in “Gaia’s Garden” reads like a fairy tale of growth that could have been more like the story of the woman who swallowed the worm to catch the spider. Instead it tells a story of a destroyed wetland that, when intelligently and sparingly managed, grew cattails that brought in muskrats that over time restored balance and biodiversity. It reminds me of the collapsing outdoor pool I lived near that was much lamented by its former human swimmers. The collapse allowed duckweed to grow, then ducks came to visit, then a muskrat or two and then the crown jewel of a great blue heron would often grace its smooth surface.

One of the things that is so hopeful about permaculture as a philosophy is that it is fundamentally regenerative. Rather than ranting about the evils of excess, greed and destruction, permaculture begins where we are now, not where we could be if things were ideal. We have long and wide stretches of highways and parking lots. We have suburbs and small plots with big houses. It is not necessary to bulldoze it all and try to begin anew. We can build gardens on parking lots, we can paint intersections and have neighborhood farm stands on road corners to build community, we can raise vegetables and useful plants in small spaces using all of our vertical and horizontal space and big houses with extra rooms can become storage areas or plant nurseries. The possibilities abound, and all the more so because we begin where we are standing, with already existing walls, ditches and shady places and we build on them instead of against them.

My heart beats warmly for ideas about neighborhood farm stands and sharing fruit and having little frog ponds even in my current farmburb. Listening to leaders like Bill Mollison, Will Hooker  and Joe Hollis is an uplifting experience with generous doses of knowledge, humor and enlightened sarcasm. Not only that, but I somehow feel like I am listening to my grandfather when I hear them speak.

My grandfather grew up on a farm and continued to do large backyard gardening and raise chickens well into his elder age. My grandmother managed the harvest with baking, canning and pickling. She even had a root cellar that ironically is a point of yearning for me now. I only wish they had more time to teach me what they knew. Maybe it is just their echoes that I hear in the voices of wizened old men.

But late winter is exactly the right time for dreaming in the grey light, listening to the wind blow. I plot my garden chart over and over, refining it all the while knowing that once my hands get in the soil or grab a tool that my charts will be carried off by the breeze. That breeze will be a warm and welcome one.

The hope for Spring is also the longing for connection and a chance to re-start our life. Joe Hollis speaks of how we are trying to define our selves through our status, our possessions, our jobs, and to meet our needs outside of ourselves; our food from the grocery store, our exercise from the gym, our inspiration from the church, our creativity from somewhere else. In the paradise of gardens our identity is found within and all our needs are met in the work and harvest along the way.

May we all dream of gardens before sleeping.

I love this man. Joe Hollis and Paradise Garden

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Somewhere along the Trans Canadian Highway

Rural Saskatchewan

Rural Saskatchewan

On the Trans Canadian Highway we do not travel the same way that we do when we travel in the U.S. Actually, the traveling is different almost everywhere we have gone on Canadian highways outside of the greater Toronto area. In short, this is not your typical interstate highway system at all, despite the fact that we are almost always within 100 miles of the U.S. border and traveling on the major highway that runs east to west across more than 7,500 km of the second largest country in the world.

We drive beyond the truck stop chains and the creature comforts they offer with fill-up deals of free coffee and clean updated showers, 24hr services and (usually) large parking lots. We drive beyond the cottages and beyond the places where even the bathroom may no longer be free or working, onto the road where there may be nothing at all, not even a gravel spot to pull-over, where NIGHT DANGER MOOSE signs or images of prancing deer and dashing elk prevail. The passing lanes dwindle to rarer sightings but luckily our fellow travelers, even trucks, dramatically decrease at a similar rate. Rather than Hail Hail to Tim Horton’s individual washrooms, I say Hail Hail to the man who pumped out and hosed down the outhouse on the Coquihalla highway at a brake check area just as we were pulling into it. As we drive further and further out I begin to think that many of the billboards for hotels with free internet and free breakfast are like sirens song. I then realized even the mile markers (km in Canada of course) and exit numbers in the U.S. are a statement about population density and luxury akin to remote control devices or rose garden sightings.

The TCH is not the Yukon or as far out as Yellow Knife nor lawless nor unpaved. However, we do travel through small towns that pass as quickly as we can pronounce their names; Vermillion Bay, Moosomin, and the more challenging names like Assiniboine and Ochiichagwebabigoining (ok, we didn’t pass that last town, but very near to it). There are countless villages with a single trading post/gas station/convenience/gift store with populations that statistically hover around 1000 but appear more like 10 to a few hundred at most. We don’t see the best of these towns. We don’t buy live bait or leaches that are so prolifically for sale, or get out on the lake and trawl along the grassy edges of lake Superior or the hundreds of other pristine lakes I wish I could just dive into straight from the truck window. We can’t take the time to climb the mountains to their foggy and stony peaks. We don’t see the rodeo or the local artists. We don’t learn anything more about First Nations people except that they seem to hug the wilderness to them and with that the beauty of Canada. We just barely enjoy the fresh smell of black spruce forests and spot hawks holding court on the tops of hay bails and we occasionally squint at the tiny ducks swimming with even tinnier baby ducks in salt marshes.

The highlight of the trip, much as it was in crossing the U.S. was the expanse of protected and undeveloped land that even southern Canada can boast about. Although I advocate for the conservation of open space and often long for silence from other human beings, what strikes me as we drive along these struggling small towns is that the shame is on the same principle. I look out across the thousands of kilometers of mostly hay fields and I have to believe that the world can do better, and by better I mean, can’t we share more of this.

Why are we planting acres and acres of hay for cows we don’t need to feed the wealthy of the world, while hundreds of millions of people die for lack of some potatoes, green vegetables, and a few humble carrots? Why are people so crowded up the hills of human waste in mega cities, sprawling along coveted ocean sides for water views in million dollar bungalows, and elbowing each other off of trains and buses from Boston to Mumbai? Now dear reader I understand that city does not have to equal misery and that the efficiency and lower ecological footprint of multi-story housing are strikes against my ideas of rural transplantation, but I want to suggest here a radically naïve and idealistic notion to voluntarily transplant people from urban congestion and suburban super-sprawl to rural towns; not as laborers or based upon some kind of imperialist or racist scheme, but to develop self-sufficient rural living. I will further admit my bias is that I am more entertained by the “Moose on the Loose” signs than by any Tony award winning theater and that my desire to plant a large vegetable garden borders on obsession.

Still, as the hours go by and by and by, and my one arm hides from the burning sun and my husband’s other arm turns as brown as the waters of an Ontario creek all I see is a sprinkling of mobile homes and a remarkably small number of ranch houses and even fewer farm houses. I can’t help but imagine that there are a lot of people in the world that would cry for the injustice of a land so poorly used. I can’t help but imagine that there are hundreds of thousands who could benefit from a combination of entrepreneurial creativity, the values of self-sufficiency, and green living ecology. Skilled people, doctors and engineers, ecological scientists, vegetable farmers, and artists from all over the world could create and build on a more subsistence, self-sustaining way of life in rural Canada and the U.S. What more do we need than local food, a small health center, school, hardware store, library and a mechanic, and some solar and wind power? The number of settlements that lacked these basics were too numerous to count. The exceptions in towns like Opasitika remain quaint and precious.

Maybe it has something to do with the nature of politics, the corruption that causes mayors and many others to resign in shame, or maybe it has something to do with the 17 or more bridges that I counted (sleep periods excepted) that were under construction just between Kenora and North Bay. Or maybe it is related to the disintegration of the Canadian multicultural charter, or fanatic post 9/11 fear easing its way into deeper xenophobia and cultural protectionism. Or maybe it’s the simple lack of a critical mass of people willing to take the risk in the great white north, but I don’t think so. I think it is a greater lack of willingness to stop competing with the Jones’ or the Sohdi’s for that matter, and to more honestly recruit and provide institutional support for a true immigrant dream of a farm, a home, a way of life under a democracy and in the pursuit of happiness through a more balanced relationship with our environment and with our community.

Yes, strengthening and populating rural communities would mean living in a place where you can’t find a store to buy the newest biggest TV, or fashionable clothes and it would be colder and snowier, but compared to the compaction and stress of urban life, the poverty and the hunger of life within many North American and international communities, wouldn’t it be better. And how can we compare the shiny (and I would say useless) wealth of city buildings and perfectly landscaped yards to the priceless resources of the land, clean water and abundant fresh air and a neighbor who knows your name in a rural town.

I think it is unreasonable to remain unquestioning while working 50 or more hours a week, commuting 2 hours a day and working until we are 70 years old just to get the house, the car and the pool and put the kids through college. Furthermore, who dreams of coming to Canada to be a truck driver or a Tim Horton’s barista? Who dreams of being a farm laborer for so many years that it is only the next generation that can dream of running a farm? I don’t mean to discount the fact that any job, though commonly exploited and dangerous is better than no job. However, I think that we settle for truck driving and similar jobs because it is possible and easily reached while we hold our greater callings and dreams at bay, keeping them close like memory stones in our pockets. I would not like to wait until we are 70, or even 50 to live that more integrated life. But for now we practice our patience, we labor, we look out the window. We are stuck in the system that drives us and keeps us in the cities. We hang on and we hope to slowly negotiate our way out of debt and out of the suburbs until we can safely launch ourselves into the great white north, someday, somewhere along the Trans Canadian Highway when we won’t have to look back anymore.

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Sometimes we imagine we can walk out of our life as if it were a piece of paper, two dimensional, but we were three dimensional and we could just walk away, walk beyond it. All the objects in our life would become flat, existing somewhere, but not touching us, ¾ of the way down the trash chute, discarded, someone else’s. Sometimes we want to throw away the people in our lives too, erase them. What we really want is to erase the flaws, the father who drinks, the mother who didn’t defend herself, the brother or sister that teased too much instead of encouraging, the bullies, the thiefs, the breakers of hearts, the terrorists and haters, the sullen and the reckless. We want more heroes and we want to be our own saviors; of our honor, of our kindness. We wished we were poets or dancers, gifted surgical precision decision makers, that we always knew what was right and wrong and chose the best path more often, and always when it really mattered. But instead we are driving around in disappearing cars of our dreams and floating in the air without the power to steer ourselves over those dangerous cliffs. We cannot guarantee an easy landing or even determine where exactly we will set down. I can only hope that the journey won’t scare me as much as it used to and I try, I really try to enjoy every moment of floating, no matter where it takes me.