Friday, April 28, 2006

The Call of a Circle

I was impatient with his words. They seemed like shimmery soap bubbles, pretty and enticing but ultimately empty.

Still, his writing had yielded riches for me before. I persisted through the first couple of paragraphs and then suddenly found myself in deep, as though I had stepped through a mirror into a place where the meaning was real.

I might not even have looked at the article, except for the mention of Arnprior. Last fall, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada called together the "Arnprior Assembly" to consider the question, "What ministry will God require of The United Church of Canada in its third generation?" At the time, absorbed in contemplating my own call to ministry, and questioning the effectiveness of church ministry to my own generation, I actually wondered if perhaps I could contribute to the Assembly.

Some of you know that I have since decided not to pursue a formal path of study towards ordained ministry. Still, there is a call, but it seems closer to home, closer to the earth, not so much the beckoning of a bright and distant star, as the hint of a sparkle in a neighbour's eye.

For the most part, I am content to wait and watch, to be ready for the call whenever and however it may come. But sometimes I am drawn, and I wonder - is this the call, or is it merely an echo of my own longing to be called?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

My Co-op AGM Door Prize

You might have seen this story about ads on sheep blankets, and a town in the Netherlands that is trying to ban them as a form of roadside advertising.

What caught my eye was the bit at the end of the story about a controversy over putting ads on people.

As if that was something new!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Who lives here?

Sorry for the lack of scale - it was just a quick snapshot during a family outing last week, taken by Garth because I didn't feel like scrambling down the rocks with my tired back. As I recall, the opening is perhaps three inches across at the base. It was just after that heavy rain, so there weren't any footprints visible to our untrained eyes, but there was abundant evidence that somebody was spending considerable time just outside this hole.

The hole is in the top right of this picture, and the pinkish-white debris scattered from the centre to the lower left consists of bits of crayfish exoskeletons. We found some more-or-less intact exoskeletons among the rocks as well.

The setting is a mostly-rock road embankment, with very large steel culverts (perhaps 10 feet in diameter) to the left and right, the gravel road surface above, and the waters of Moose Mountain Creek below.

Update: Chive at Maison Madcap says it's a mink. That's what I had guessed, too. I've never seen one, except in Algonquin Park in Ontario, poking along the shore where we had cleaned some fish nets at the research station. They are widespread across Canada, but mostly nocturnal, so it's not surprising to find their sign without ever seeing one.

Nepal at a crossroads

With massive protests overwhelming his rigid controls on the capital Kathmandu, King Gyanendra has announced that the parliament he dissolved in February of 2005 will be reinstated. Protest turned to celebration, but already hopes of a new stable government have been dimmed as the Maoist rebels who control most of the countryside rejected the King's offer.

Even without this setback, the people of Nepal face an enormous challenge:
"Our parties are better at fighting for democracy than making it work" (Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times).

Garth hears from some of the people he worked with in Nepal, speaking of the tensions, the food shortages, the longing for a better life elsewhere. When he left Nepal, there were plans for him to return in a few months to finalize his project (involving computer software for their credit union system). Now we wait and see.

Nepali news sources:
The Himalayan Times
Kantipur Online
Nepal News

Monday, April 24, 2006

Beaked hazelnut flowers

Why didn't I look here first? There I was wandering the web in search of photos of beaked hazelnut flowers, and lo, Colin has some fine pictures in his Virtual Herbarium, already linked in my very own sidebar.

Three Fingers Pointing Back at Me

My sidebar is pointing at a few new blogs I've been watching for awhile. I was very reluctant to try to categorize anyone, but I finally decided to just do it, and remind you all that the reorganized sidebar says more about me than it does about you. The categories say more about what I get out of blogs, than about what you bloggers put into them. And as for the order within each category: there may be some favouritism there, but it might also reflect my sense of how often I need to check your blog for updates, or it might just be that I like the way some blog titles nestle together.

The place I put your blog is about as meaningful as the place I put a book within a bookshelf (near another book that I find similar in some way), or on a table, or wherever I was when interrupted. If it's tucked under the side of the bed, that's a place of honour. (But then again, it could be a long time since I did any vacuuming...)

Now, where did I put my Harrowsmith Northern Gardener?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Souris Avenue Earthworm Massacre

Manitoba Maple
(Acer negundo)
That is, part of it, upside down.

My biggest project since preaching about wisdom written in the trees has been to cut down this tree and dig it out of our garden plot.

That's one very large weed. Why anyone would tolerate a tree in a garden plot, I don't know, except to admit that I myself was tolerating it, in a live-and-let-live sort of spirit, until I started thinking about growing enough vegetables to actually live on. I don't expect to achieve that goal this year, but we're moving in that direction.

I'm notoriously meticulous, but I am learning to value timeliness as well. I wouldn't have been nearly so meticulous about trowelling in around the roots, except that:
  1. I wanted to save topsoil;
  2. I feared that I might be lifting the stump out of its hole all by myself; and
  3. most importantly, I was very curious about what the underside of a tree looks like.
The plastic is just keeping my bottom dry. This was less than two days after we had two inches of rain. Where did it all go? I had thought I would be pumping water out of the hole, but that clay in the bottom was hardly even muddy.

Accomplishment. As it turns out, I did have some help. (Notice that I've started calling it "our" garden.) Garth kept talking about borrowing a winch truck (partly in the interests of timeliness, but mostly just for the fun of it) but eventually he came along with a crowbar and a great freedom from meticulousness, and the job was done in a flash. Mind you, lunchtime arrived in a flash, too. There's nothing like some good hard work to make the time fly by.

In the background above, you can see some pieces of the original tree. I took it down in sections, working with a hand saw, first from a stepladder to get the lower branches, and then from an extension ladder propped against the denuded trunk to reach the branches of the crown. It felt a little odd, dismembering a tree while leaning against it for support.

Here's another look at the underside of the stump. The crown of trimmed suckers is visible along the upper right edge.

There isn't really a main root at the bottom, although there was one a bit thicker than the rest. In this picture it's mostly hidden behind smaller roots, below centre left. Most of the thick roots branching out closer to the surface seemed to run outward with a slight downward slope for a foot or two and then turn more sharply down into the subsoil.

The stump has quite a thick mass of woody material that used to sit just at the soil surface. I am wondering if it would have an interesting grain to it, like a burl. If any of my local readers want to try cutting it, it's yours for the taking. The early bird gets the worm.

Speaking of worms, I suppose it may have been more like an involuntary orgy of asexual reproduction, than a massacre. But I wonder how well the severed pieces fared after being buried two-and-a-half feet deep.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

So, in honour of Earth Day . . .

. . . I drove a 160 km round trip yesterday, just to pick up a DVD (weighing what, a couple of ounces?) from a customs broker at the U.S. border. Another copy was on its way to me directly in the mail, but apparently the film distribution company underestimated the delay it would face, passively waiting its turn in a customs office somewhere. On the second last business day before the show date, I decided the film needed an active escort across the line.

That took a couple of hours out of my gardening time. Now I'll spend a good chunk of the weekend figuring out the borrowed projection equipment, watching the film, cleaning up the theatre . . . and knowing every hour is going to cost my early plants some growing time.

Lord, save me from my good intentions.


p.s. about the show:

Earth Day Event:
El Caballo
2 p.m. Sunday, April 23rd
at the MacMurray Theatre, Arcola
Silver Collection
Everyone Welcome - but I don't want to see cars and trucks lining both sides of the street!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Tai Chi in the Shop at 7 AM

Supposing Garth hadn't just found a steady job in his own field based right here in Arcola; supposing I actually wanted a job: wouldn't this be fun? Picture this: a dozen guys in their blue coveralls and steel-toed boots, setting aside their coffee cups and gathering on an open piece of the shop floor. Each finds a spot, arms-length apart from the others. All eyes are on me. (Of course. I'm the only female in the shop.)

Heels together, toes apart. Breathe deeply from the belly. Relax, let your arms hang with the elbows away from the body, palms to the rear. Imagine a helium balloon is lifting you by a string from the crown of your head . . .

I figure I could sell it as an injury reduction program. Trucking in the oilfields is hard on a body. Those trucks run in every kind of weather, long hours. The work alternates between sitting jolting along in the truck, and hurrying to haul those heavy hoses over whatever uneven muck or frozen clay you come to, and standing around waiting in the wind or rain or sun, and hauling hoses again, and jolting along in the truck. Now, if those truck drivers had a little Tai Chi routine that they studied with me, once a week at 7 a.m. in the shop, then they could practice it while they're waiting around on those well leases, and keep those muscles warm and limber for the work.

So I could probably get some Occupational Health funding for a pilot project, don't you think? And if it showed good results, then the trucking companies might pick up the tab, to keep their Worker's Comp. premiums down. I could do Nankivell's shop one morning, and Spearing's the next, and so on around the region.

The companies might not want to pay much, but I figure I could do quite nicely with a tip jar.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Lake Arcola appears

It rained most of Tuesday. In the late afternoon, a neighbour came to the door and commented on our moat. By Wednesday morning, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. We'd had a total of 1.9 inches, and more runoff than we did from the spring thaw. I took this photo yesterday, from my usual spot on the 604, looking west into the middle of town.

Where Your Treasure Is . . .

It seems much easier this spring to keep my garden seedlings tended. Other years I would let them dry out, or forget to bring them inside during hardening off, or just not get them planted at all, but this year all those little tasks seem to be happening as part of a natural flow. Even though my seedling flats are boarding in bro-in-law's porch across the street, they are getting much more attention than when they were crowded on a windowsill right here in the house.

I think it's partly because I'm outside a lot, setting up rain barrels and digging out a tree stump. Every so often as I lean on my shovel or go to get a drink of water, it occurs to me to check on my plants.

Perhaps more important, though, is a shift in my attitude. I habitually keep a half-dozen or more projects on the go, and the garden has been just one of those, often waiting in line behind paid employment, music, family holidays, and whatever interesting workshops might come to my attention. This year, the garden is my number one focus. And every little visit to my seedlings is a joy.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Winter crocuses

I mentioned the crocus earlier as the prairie icon of spring. They come very early, and they take a risk to do so. Sometimes frost will kill most of the seed. Sometimes you even see them blanketed with snow.

Another risk is that unseasonable weather at another time of year will trick them into blooming at a very odd time. Last fall I posted about a crocus I found in Mom's seed gardens in October. Such autumn bloomings are fairly common, when early cold weather apparently resets the plants' clocks, and a subsequent warm spell gets them going as if it's spring. But this past winter, we had some very unusual midwinter warm spells. Debra at PCTC told me there were crocuses blooming in the Qu'Appelle Valley in November and in January.

White crocuses

These crocuses were spread in drifts across most of a small pasture next to an old farmyard on the west side of Highway 47, somewhere between the Handsworth Dam (Moose Mountain Lake) and Highway 48. I wasn't keeping track of where we were, but I seem to recall a sign for "Braemar Road" just a little bit of north of this site.

We stopped for a picture, but the big surprise was yet to come.

I'd heard of white forms, but these were the first I've ever seen.

Please don't brave that highway to go and dig them up. If you must have crocuses, you should be aware that they do not transplant well, but with a little know-how, they can be readily grown from seed.

Highway 47

It still has a sign, but it really doesn't look like a highway anymore. A few years ago it won first place in a contest to select the worst highway in Canada. Now I see that MapQuest gives it a dead end a little bit south of Highway 48 near Peebles, but it's really quite a passable gravel road.

Sometimes gravel is better than pavement. Around the same time that 47 won that contest, we were choosing to drive on the gravel grid road #620 north of Sedley instead of the paved Highway 35 north of Francis because the potholes in the pavement were so bad. I guess 35 was even worse south of Weyburn, where it earned a dishonourable mention in the contest. But between Francis and Qu'Appelle, it was bad enough to inspire a song chorus. I was on my way to PCTC, tight for time, but in high spirits. This was the result.

Doin' Eighty to Sixty
© 2003 Laura Herman

Doin' eighty to sixty to a hundred-and-ten.
You stand on the brakes and then you floor it again.
Gotta keep a clean dash,
beef up your suspension,
carry lots o' spare tires and . . .
pay attention!
Doin' eighty to sixty -
to a hundred-and-ten.

Before the green

The photos that follow are a couple of days old, due to our Easter voyage to visit the other half of the family. The scenery is getting greener by the minute, even though it's blustery cold and grey today, but as you can see, there were some definite signs of spring ahead of the greening.

The famous prairie icon of spring:

Anemone patens
(But everyone calls them crocuses.)

A lesser known flower that appears around the same time, or sometimes even ahead of the crocuses:
Beaked hazelnut
Corylus cornuta

The hanging golden parts are the male catkins, but the striking flower on this shrub is the female: a tiny cluster of brilliant magenta stigmas spreading from the tip of a bud. Unfortunately in my photo it's just a wee pink blur. (It's the best photo I got in haste with no macro setting available. Next time I'll borrow my daughter's much better camera.)

An excellent picture is here at the WTU Herbarium Image Collection. I believe we have a different variety of beaked hazelnut here, but it gives you the idea.

We were only in the bush a few minutes, climbing a hundred yards or so up the hill behind Mom and Dad's house to look at the crocuses. Just in case there were any doubts about the arrival of spring, Garth collected half a dozen of these little critters. I only got one. Lucky Garth. There's snow in the forecast for today and tonight, but I don't suppose it will slow these guys and gals down.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Cat fight season

As the wild things go wild with spring abandon, I am plodding rather blankly through a time of regrouping. The cantata went well, I think; others have told me it was wonderful, and I do recall some moments of satisfaction as the tricky parts of the piano music passed smoothly under my hands, as well as some shivers of emotion as the choir gave it their all. But I didn't know my part well enough to indulge in much satisfaction or emotion during the cantata; I had to hold my focus all the way through. Afterwards I was asked if I felt relieved, and I said, "No, just stunned."

I had spent most of last week alternating between practising the piano, and resting my arms as soon as it got painful. I realized that the strain was probably due to the nearly constant stretching for big chords, or if not chords, then alternating patterns that still spanned an octave. I have no problem playing octaves, but octaves with two or three other notes inside, one after another as part of a melodic line, fortissimo . . . that gets beyond my current stamina. Anyway, I seem to have found the right balance between practising and rest, because I was able to give the choir much better support than I had expected.

Today I finally got to dig. I dug and I dug, and I rested by putting up posters for the film I booked for Earth Day (El Caballo), and I dug some more, and rested over lunch with family, and dug some more, and rested by helping move heavy stuff back into place at the church, and dug some more. By supper time I was starting to undercut the root ball of that tree I cut down last week. Why am I digging out a tree when I should be deep digging the garden? Because the tree was in the garden, that's why. Don't ask me why there was a tree in our garden plot. I haven't a clue. I'm guessing there could be another day's work there yet, and then I need to fetch manure from the farm, deep dig the existing garden plot, and expand the plot by trenching a fair bit of the lawn.

Once my brain starts functioning again, I'm going to work out a plan to do the digging in stages, so I can get some things planted without waiting until all the soil is prepared. But right now, I'm just digging. And loving it.

Maybe it has something to do with the background music. There was a steady refrain from the mourning doves, with bursts of bright sound from the flickers, and a full chorus of chorus frogs in the brick ponds, and then there was that extra frog voice that I'm pretty sure was a leopard frog - good news, except that I wonder if any frog has much of a chance in the brick ponds this year. Every once in a while there was laughter from the kids and their visiting cousins and friends, and yet nobody asked me to do anything except to put down my shovel and come eat, once in a while.

Tomorrow I have to go back to the keys for Easter Sunday service, and then do family visiting things for a day or so. I might not get back to the digging until Tuesday, but I'll sleep well tonight.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Just resting my arm

I'm not hiding or sulking, just resting my right arm. The wrist and hand have been weak lately, and the shoulder is twinging sometimes too. I have a cantata to play on Friday, and I don't have an understudy, so no more cutting down trees (yes, I cut down a tree the other day) or standing at a sink for two hours straight (did that too), and no garden digging until next week. But, but, but... the weeds are growing, and the transplants are growing, please, please, couldn't I dig for just an hour or so? Half an hour?

My arm says no. And definitely no blogging after this post, and the clock is running.

Just one more quick thing: the cantata is Once Upon a Tree by Pepper Choplin, to be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Good Friday, April 14th, at St. Andrew's United Church here in Arcola. Garth is the narrator (in the role of Luke); soloists are Cliff James, Jacob Van Zyl, and Marla Schlenker; Kevin Hengen has a speaking role; and Jane Gordon is directing the choir of about two dozen singers, including lots of my relatives: Garth's brother Brian, my mom and dad (Nora and Don), my sister Glenna, and my daughter Ruth. But don't get the idea that this is just a Herman-Stewart family project; it involves people from the whole community, from other churches, from both Arcola and Kisbey—if you've ever lived in this area, you'll know someone in this cantata. Everyone is welcome.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Birds: the regulars return

I spent a few minutes in the yard this evening, and gradually became aware of the birdsong. Meadow larks, singing loud and clear and close, instead of the one distant call that made me hold my breath earlier this week. Killdeer, their repetitive call slowly gaining my attention from the background. A mourning dove. And — right there on that branch — a robin! I wonder how long they've been fluttering about just outside the edges of my consciousness.

And then a rumble. Is it a motorcycle revving up, or the first thunder of the season?


A comment from one reading over my shoulder: Ruth heard a phoebe today.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Written in the Trees

Laura Herman
St. Andrew’s United Church, Arcola, SK
April 2nd, 2006

Two weeks ago, I came home from the singing workshop at PCTC-Calling Lakes Centre with a song running in my head, in my heart, and in the rhythm of my steps along the street. I walked down Souris Avenue and up Carlyle Street to this church, and that song swung along with me. Perhaps it’s running in your head right now.

[The song was “Oh Great Earth" by Linnea Good.]

As I walked, I was thinking about wisdom. I was wondering what simple sayings could be written to guide someone who wants to live God’s love in this world.

The rhythm of my footsteps took me along under the arching trees, past their sturdy trunks, one after another, and all at once I was thinking about wisdom that is already written in those trees.

It started with the roots.

Trees stay in one place. They reach deep into the soil and draw out what is stored there from all that has gone before. They draw up water that sank into the earth months or years ago. They draw up nutrients that have been laid down over decades and centuries and more. They cannot wander in search of a better place, but they make their own place better.

A lecturer once said: “If you want to change the world, pick a place and stay there.” Another teacher said, “Do with what you have at hand.” Still others have taught that although you may see great good in other religions, it is best to go deeply into your own religious tradition, for you will find what you are seeking there. And in Tai Chi, we learn the principle of returning to your root. When we practise Tai Chi, we move through a sequence of postures taking us away from our starting point and back again, so that we end where we began.

I see wisdom in all these teachings about rootedness, because I have been a wanderer, always seeking that greater wisdom that would help me save the planet. There are many wanderers in our modern world, always seeking ways to better the world or themselves. Some accomplish great things, but as I wandered and listened to the stories of other wanderers, I got the sense that even greater good would come, if many of us went home and tended to our own little pieces of the Earth.

A tree does not wander in search of good that it may do elsewhere. There are other trees in the forest for that. When the troubles of the world seem overwhelming, we can remember that others see and care about those same troubles, and all over the world, they are doing what they can in their own places.

Trees grow slowly. Grass springs green in just a few days, but it takes years for the boughs of a tree to spread and give shade. As the hero of a Nicholas Sparks novel said, “I often overestimate what I can do in a day, but I underestimate what I can do in a year.” Little by little, if we are patient, letting the Spirit work through us, we may be amazed to see what grows from small beginnings.

Not only do trees stay still; they also keep within themselves traces of all that has gone before. In the rings of their wood, they keep a record of the past. Although the growing part of the trunk is a thin layer near the surface, all the older wood within gives strength and support to the whole tree. It is easy to give all our attention to the growing edges of things, but it is important to honour the past as well. Much of the everyday goodness of our lives is the result of struggles in the past, when such goodness was not so ordinary.

The tough bark of a tree is old as well, thickened and hardened in response to all the little stresses and injuries of weather and wild things. A certain amount of toughness is a good thing, so that we don’t waste our energy on woundedness; we just let the blind, random bumps of the world bounce off us without harm.

In spite of the hardness of their wood and the toughness of their bark, trees can bend and sway in the wind. If they lose that flexibility, they may snap in a storm, and all those years of slow and steady growth are lost in a moment. But as long as they can bend, the branches can give a little when pressures are extreme, and still spring back to their true form when calm returns.

A tree can endure for many decades or even centuries, and even send up new shoots from the stump of an ancient trunk. Still, no tree will last forever. A fire may sweep through the forest, or waters may rise, or deserts spread. No matter how ancient the tree, it takes only a moment to topple. Yet even as the wood rots away, younger trees are reaching upward, unfolding the essence of that same tree that bore the seeds from which they grew.

If we share the wisdom of our experience with others, it is not lost to this world when we pass on. We might think we have nothing of value to share, but it doesn’t have to be something that will change the whole world. It could be something that will help carry on the simple goodness of this piece of the Earth, some piece of wisdom of this place, something that a wise person from another place would not understand. And if we take the time, not only to grow our own skills, but to tend and nurture those skills in others, we make our way of life as enduring as a forest.

Trees give. Not only do they give life to a new generation of seedlings; trees also offer gifts to people and many other living things. They give shade, shelter from wind, fruit in its season, and beauty for those who pause to see it. They give without being asked or thanked, and without even knowing whether anyone will be there to receive what they offer. These gifts simply flow from the very nature of trees, from the way God has created them.

Sometimes our giving can feel awkward, or contrived, if it comes more from outside expectations than from our own nature. Still the Spirit works within us, unfolding the gifts that God is creating and nurturing in us. Our work is to attend to that growth, to trust it and support it, and through it, to explore new ways to reach upward to the light of Christ in our world.

This brings me to the lesson of the trees that overwhelmed me when I saw it.

Although I have spoken about firm roots, strong wood, and tough bark, trees also have tender buds and delicate leaves. They drop their leaves and toughen their twigs in preparation for winter, but in spring the buds soften and swell, and fragile films of green emerge into the sun.

There is no way that a tree can take the sun and grow new branches reaching higher to the sky, unless it first grows those tender, vulnerable buds and leaves.

In these days of spring, the twigs are softening; the buds are swelling.

In these days of Lent, God calls us to soften our hearts, to risk new growth that reaches beyond the sturdy teachings of our tradition — reaches into the light of a direct relationship with God.