I go walking: Day’s end

I have finally touched down after ten days of swirling in a self-imposed tornado of Doing.  Too. Much.

I knew I would overdo it, in the same way I know I will always eat just a bit too much at Christmas Dinner. I have been alternating between volunteering at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and happily gorging on the overwhelming buffet of theatrical treats ranging from lovely to thought-provoking to “well at least I only spent ten dollars on THAT.”

Oh and this was after a full day at the office.

As usual, my sleep deprived immune system has punished me for my excesses by conspiring with a nasty head cold. But I’ll live.

Meanwhile, viral disciplinarians notwithstanding, life is pretty good. Daughter #1 is riding high on a prime new job opportunity, and daughter #2 has been safely dispatched to camp for four weeks. I am even feeling considerably less panicky about my grading deadline now that I am nearly halfway through my virtual “stack” of e-papers. (Funny– as much as I like not having to sacrifice so many trees on the altar of higher learning, I do miss the physical satisfaction of watching the “done” pile rise as the “to be done” pile wanes.)

Most of my walking over the past ten days has been Fringe Festival walking– treading the downtown pavement from my office to my volunteer venue to another venue to see a play to the food vendors gathered in Old Market Square. It’s a different kind of walking: a getting-somewhere walking as opposed to the more contemplative going-for-a-walk kind of walking that fuels my writing.

Tonight, however, I managed a loop around the golf course.

The old concrete sidewalk that formed the path under the bridge has, in the past few weeks, been chewed up and replaced with a pristine strip of asphalt twice the width (the better to accommodate bike traffic to the stadium, methinks.) There are enough little brown rabbits grazing the lawns along the riverbank to populate the entire works of Beatrice Potter. A pelican floated by on the river. I was surprised to see a group of pelicans in a nearby retention pond a few days ago. This summer is the first time I have ever seen them in city limits. Perhaps because there is so much excess water this year?

On my way back, the sky was beginning to redden, and I reflected on how little time it takes to notice the days begin to grow shorter. I was reminded, as I often am at dusk, of the time my youngest astonished her camp counsellor by being the only seven-year-old in the history of Zoo Camp to arrive already knowing how to use the word “crepuscular” in a sentence.

Ok boys and girls, we call owls and bats “nocturnal” because they come out to feed at night. Does anyone know what you call an animal like a deer that comes out to feed at dawn and dusk…?

And then, as if cued by my reminiscence, there were the deer. Two of them–one young and one full-grown.

Sometimes it’s good to slow down.

Blurry -- because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.
Blurry — because my phone battery was dying along with the daylight, and my subjects were not interested in a close-up.

 

 

The Siege

Image source: http://www.modernpest.com/blog/how-to-protect-yourself-from-the-dangers-of-mosquito-bites
Image source: http://www.modernpest.com/blog/how-to-protect-yourself-from-the-dangers-of-mosquito-bites

I got very little sleep that night, thanks to an air assault to rival the Battle of Britain.

At first, I accepted the invasion as the inevitable side effect of reading in bed.  With the rest of the cottage in darkness, it made sense that the mosquitos would be attracted to my little island of light. Besides, the odd nighttime drone of an incoming mosquito is the price you pay for the opportunity to get up close and personal with the natural world. I reasoned that, now that we were done opening doors for the night, there had to be a finite number of mosquitos in the cottage, and if I sat and read long enough eventually I would have swatted them all.

As the tiny carcasses piled up on my quilt, I began to question my logic.

There did not appear to be a finite number of mosquitos in the cottage. In fact, they seemed to be regenerating their forces as quickly as I could fend them off.

My theory that I could read until they were all dispatched broke down further as it became increasing difficult to concentrate on reading in between slaps. I decided to give up, hoping that if I turned off the light I would not be quite such an obvious target.

I employed the standard pulling-the-sheet-over-your-head technique independently discovered by generations of mosquito-plagued children. There are, however, two problems with this strategy. One is that, since mosquito attacks never happen in the winter, eventually it gets too hot that far under the covers. The second problem is the need for the occasional infusion of new air. Nonetheless, I did manage to lose consciousness for a while, despite my conviction that if I did sleep I would surely be exsanguinated by morning.

I woke around 3:00 to the high pitched zzzzzzzzzzzzEEEEEEEEEEEEE of my assailants, who appeared to have called in reinforcements while I was dozing. Another hour of frantic swatting later, I got desperate.  In spite of my deep aversion to applying anything to my skin that is specifically designed to KILL something, I found myself spraying insect repellant on my arms in the hope that it would buy me another few nanoseconds of sleep.

It didn’t. They mostly just avoided my arms and attacked my face.  So I read for a while. I balanced my bank account. I played FreeCell until my laptop battery died.  And I continued swatting until 7:00, when it seemed like an acceptable time to get up and make some serious coffee.

Rolling out the welcome mat
Rolling out the welcome mat…

As I leaned across the bed to straighten the covers and brush away the bodies of the slain, an oddly placed beam of light caught my eye. The light was coming from the opening at the base of the screen that resulted from a tiny bend in the metal frame. An opening, directly over my bed, that from the perspective of a mosquito was a clear invitation to enter and feast on the riches within.

I might as well have slept on the dock.

Miss Miller draws a tree

Another of my earliest posts– inspired by one of my many walks along the riverbank.

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I looked at a tree today and was reminded of my fourth grade teacher. Miss Miller was pretty memorable on a number of counts, not the least of which was her purple pantsuit.  The year I was in grade four was the year that the school board relaxed the staff dress code, and for the first time female teachers were allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and dresses. But they had to be pant SUITs. And Miss Miller, clearly happy to embrace this brave new skirt-less world, frequently sported  the purplest of purple pant suits you could possibly imagine.

Miss Miller seemed ancient to me, but looking back now I think she must have been in her 40’s. She was a little exotic because she was most adamantly Miss Miller—whereas all my other teachers to date had been Mrs. so and so. (This was before anybody I knew was called Ms!) She was tall and lanky, and she taught very difficult fourth-grade things like long division. To tell the truth I was a bit scared of her at the start.

But what I remember most about Miss Miller was the day she taught us how to draw a tree.

I knew this lesson was especially important to her, because she cancelled Math to do it.

A small forest of lollipop trees
A small forest of lollipop trees

“All right class, today I’m going to teach you how to draw a tree that actually looks like a tree. I’ve been seeing a lot of you drawing trees that look like lollipops sticking up out of the ground.” And she drew some examples on the chalkboard.

“Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tree that looks like a straight stick with a perfectly round ball perched on the top? I thought not.” She vigorously erased the offending drawing.  “ When you draw a tree you need to think about how it grows…”

And then she proceeded to draw a real tree, all the while talking through how she was doing it—how the trunk forked out into large branches which in turn diverged into smaller branches, and so on. How you would never have a large branch growing out of a smaller branch. How the tree branched out to reach the light.

“Every part of the tree has to be connected back to the trunk—you can’t have branches just sticking out at random. And if you could see under the ground, you would find that the roots of the tree branch out in just the same way.” At which point she drew an elaborate root structure for her chalkboard tree.

It was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to be able to draw a tree like that. She handed out art paper and instructed us to draw a tree. I laboured over that assignment with greater sense of purpose than I ever had for long division. I drew a passable tree, and I have conjured Miss Miller every time I have ever had occasion to draw a tree since.

My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree
My latest attempt at a Miss Miller tree

But what I realized only recently is that the best part of Miss Miller’s lesson was that she taught me how to SEE a tree. She taught me to pay attention to how things grow. She taught me that things in nature are shaped the way they are for a reason. She taught me that creating art was a way of learning about the world.

The long division was useful too, but I think the lessons I learned from drawing that tree had a deeper impact.

Buzz

A perfect summer “re-run” — this post was originally written in response to a WordPress  Daily prompt  about anxiety.

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No way was I going outside.

I’d been actively avoiding “outside” all summer. My mother must have been at her wits’ end. It’s pretty hard to avoid the outside world at the summer cottage. It must have been exhausting having to battle with me every time the family wanted to go out somewhere that summer. I don’t recall how old I was, but I recall the anxiety like it was yesterday. At first it was triggered by the faintest buzzing sound. As time went by it reached the point where I assumed that the danger was present even if I couldn’t see or hear it.

“It” being bees and wasps. ESPECIALLY wasps. I was terrified of being stung.

So I stayed inside, depriving myself of summer fun in the name of protecting my hide from what I imagined to be a fate worse than death.

One warm September evening my dad set about barbequing supper in the back yard. My younger sister played outside, while I huddled on the safe side of the screen door. My mom made one more attempt to coax me outside.

“Come on out, Anna. It’s so nice out. We’re going to have a picnic supper!”

Don't be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!
Don’t be fooled by the pretty butterfly. If there was a flower there was bound to be a bee somewhere!

“Well…”

Please come out.”

“Are there bees?”

“I don’t see any.”

I screwed up my courage, stepped outside, and started down the wooden steps. The same wooden steps from which hung, unbeknownst to all of us, a massive wasp nest that had been expanding undisturbed while we were away at the cottage.

The wasps, always more aggressive in the fall, were already getting riled by the increased human activity and the smell of grilling meat. My footstep on their roof was the last straw.  They swarmed me.

Surrounded by a cloud of buzzing fury, I froze in panic and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.  My mother, realizing I was too terrified to move, waded into the fray and pulled me down off the steps. I was stung in three places– once on each leg, and once on a forearm. My mother’s rescue effort was rewarded with one sting on the arm that grabbed me.

For half an hour I was a sobbing, hysterical mess. Having ascertained that I was not having any sort of allergic reaction, my mom calmly tweezed out all the stingers and applied antiseptic and Band-Aids.

And then something amazing happened. I was able to go outside. The worst had happened and I had survived. It turned out that my imaginings were far more painful than the real experience.

I have never again felt the kind of anxiety about stinging insects that plagued me all that summer. In my household, I have become the one who swats the wasp that comes in through the hole in the screen. I am the one who takes down the nests under the deck at the cottage before they get too big.

That was the first time in my life that I understood that worrying about something could be worse than the thing itself. It is a lesson I have returned to over and over again. When the familiar buzz of anxiety starts up in my head I remind myself that the sting of reality is seldom as horrible as anything I can conjure in my imagination.

Actually very beautiful --once the tenants have moved on.
Actually very beautiful –once the tenants have moved on.

Envirothon: “It’s a life thing”

I’ve just spent two hours driving down the Trans Canada highway with four 16-year-old girls. We were on our way home from a province-wide competition in which they (together with a fifth team-mate) placed third, and they spent much of the ride doing some intense debriefing. When they weren’t doing that they were, with equal intensity, already planning their strategy for next year’s competition. And then, as we drew closer to the outskirts of the city, this happened:

“Do you remember that really nice shelterbelt we saw on the way out of the city? I really want to see it again.”

“There?”

“Yes that’s it! Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful?”

Whereupon my carload of city-kids proceeded to enthuse over the characteristics of a well- planted, well-tended shelterbelt until we hit city limits. And all I could think was, “This. This is why I think Envirothon is just about the most amazing thing ever to hit high school.”

What is this is phenomenon that had my suburban crew chatting animatedly about the finer points of agricultural land-use practices? The Manitoba Forestry Association website explains:

For 17 years the Manitoba Forestry Association has offered the Manitoba Envirothon which has provided Manitoba’s high school students a unique and fun way to learn about the environment and current issues. Envirothon is a hands-on learning program which helps students develop important skills such as critical thinking, study skills and team work.

There are two components to the Envirothon competition, a field test and an orals competition. The trail test is a hands on activity, students apply their knowledge to answer questions in the field. The oral competition combines public speaking with the students’ learning experiences to develop and present a solution to a current environmental issue.

I  have twice been fortunate to be able to accompany my daughter’s team to the provincial competition and view first hand the tremendous talent that kids from across the province bring to this activity —  as well as the equally tremendous effort and dedication on the part of the team of organizers and volunteers who toil year-round developing curriculum, designing field tests, and planning multiple events in order to maximize the number of kids who are able to benefit from participation.envirothon

When I talk about my daughter’s experience with Envirothon, I get every bit as excited as my young passengers did about that lovely shelterbelt (which, even without their level of technical knowledge, I could appreciate was quite spectacular.) I’ve watched these kids grow, not only in their knowledge of how to responsibly manage the world they live in, but also in how to strive for a goal, care for your team-mates, and think on your feet. I have witnessed these young women learn together to approach their defeats with perspective and resolve, and their victories with humility and grace. It is, as one of the organizers reflects in this video, “a life thing.”

I go walking: Flowing

As predicted, the ice jam came unjammed sometime in the night or early morning. By the time I headed out after breakfast, masses of broken river ice were flowing down the river.iceflow 8When I was a kid growing up on the bank of the Assiniboine River, this flow of ice was a big event. Every spring as the weather warmed we placed twenty-five cent bets on which day the ice would “go out.”  My grandfather generally won. This year the weather has been so erratic that I suspect even grandpa would have been hard pressed to call it.

Standingiceflow 4iceflow 3 on the bank just south of the bridge, I watched the ice crash against the bridge supports that just yesterday were bracing the ice jam. Huge slabs of ice crumbled against the supports which, I noticed for the first time, are shaped much like ships’ prows, no doubt  for exactly this purpose. Fallen trees, carried downriver with the ice, crashed and splintered like giant toothpicks.

As a kid, I always thought of the going out of the ice as a singular event. When I observe the river’s changes now, I see that everything about it is more complex than I once believed. The ice jams, and flows, and jams, and flows again, until eventually the last of it has melted. A lot of things that seem simple when you first look at them reveal themselves to be much more complex on closer examination.

iceflow 2

 

I go walking: Ice Jam

water risingOne of the lessons the river teaches is: Don’t assume that your singular perspective captures the whole story.

There I was, revelling in the view of open water from just outside my door, communing with ducks and geese and watching the spring river inching up the slope of the dike, and I totally failed to notice the ice jam.

Here on the north side of the bridge, the river appears to be wide open. But just a short walk to the other side of the bridge reveals that the southern span marks the edge of a sizeable ice jam.

ice jam 3

I’ve lived with prairie rivers all my life– I should know better than to take a spring river at face value. The ice jam is a reminder not to make assumptions based on the view before me– a reminder that, just around the curve of the river, the world might be quite a different place.

For all I know the ice jam may be gone tomorrow. At some point, the warming air will soften the massive slab of ice that is wedged against the bridge supports and it will break up and move northward, taking along with it the debris of fallen trees and garbage collected along its journey.

The ice jam ends as abruptly as it begins. Another short, southward hike, another curve in the river, and the water opens up again.

ice jam 6

The ice jam is a paradox– both solid and ephemeral. Ice is helpless against the heat of the sun, but it can do tremendous damage. An ice jam is unpredictable and dangerous. And then it’s gone.

geese 3

 

 

I go walking: Spring, actually

The numbers have been crunched, the stats tallied. We weren’t just imagining it. It really was the worst winter any of us had ever experienced. When it came to cold, we even managed to outdo the surface of Mars. It’s now the third week of April, and there is still a sizeable pile of snow on my patio.

ice floe 2But the river is opening up, so I’m declaring it spring, even if I do still have to wear gloves on the way to work in the morning. This is the season when I can scrape ice off my car window when I leave for work and turn on the air conditioning on the way home. In one afternoon I will encounter people out walking in shorts, passing people who are still wearing parkas.

geeseSpring has been so late this year that the first wave of geese to arrive turned back south again because we were still in such a deep freeze. They are returning again now — each day there are more and more of them, wading in half-frozen roadside puddles and looking perplexed by the piles of snow still dotting the brown grass.

Some of my walking routes are still such an awful mixture of mud and ice that I am, for the most part, sticking to pavement until the thaw ends. Wandering through residential streets affords me a view of the aftermath of plowing this winter’s exceptional quantity of snow. Huge chunks of curb, snapped off by the force of the plows, sit perched atop snow banks that are studded with the road sand and salt.

broken curb 2Everything is brown. The grass is brown.  The trees are brown. The geese are brown. The river is always sort of brown. Even the snow that remains along the side of the roads is brown.

Except the sky, which, in all its blueness, promises that no matter how seemingly endless this winter has been, eventually things will turn green again.

picnic table 1

 

 

 

 

 

On deck…

Today’s Daily Prompt: Theoretically, summer will return to the polar-vortex-battered Northern Hemisphere. What are you looking forward to doing this summer?

The faintest breeze blows cool off the almost-still lake, while the mid-morning sun is already heating up the deck. Fresh coffee burns my lips while the butter melts into crisp cinnamon toast. The quiet is punctuated by the morning songs of bright birds and unseen insects. A jumping fish sends concentric ripples across the lake as a loon breaks the surface and glides placidly along the shoreline.

Everything else disappears. The stresses, the worries, the frustrations. Gone. Melted in the hot sun. Dissolved in the cool water. Washed away by one perfect cup of coffee in one of the earth’s perfect places.

coffee on the deck

Conjuring Canoes

It warmed up! It’s a balmy -14° C this evening (if you ignore the -25° C wind chill, and the drifting snow, and the storm warning, and the fact that for parts of the drive home I couldn’t make out the edges of the road.) It’s downright miserable out there. I’m glad to be home and not needing to go anywhere tonight, and I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that I will be able to get out of the parking lot to get to where I need to go in the morning.

This canoe passed by on one of my river walks back in September
This canoe passed by on one of my river walks back in September

And I’m thinking about canoes.

What, you are wondering, do canoes have to do with a blizzard?

Absolutely nothing, which is precisely the point. If I was sitting in a canoe right now it would mean that there was not a winter storm slowly imprisoning my car in its parking spot.

A couple of things have conspired to bring canoes to mind this evening.

I was sorting though some files of my long-ago writing, and I came across a piece I wrote when I was a teenager about canoeing in the rain. It’s not what you would call brilliant writing. OK I’ll be honest, it’s pretty terrible. I was going to quote some of it here, but thought better of it. Most of it is cringeworthy in an over-descriptive, trying-to-be-deep way. But it reminded me how much I love paddling in silence and observing things that you never see when you go crashing through the natural world in a motorized vehicle.

It also reminded me that my youngest daughter comes by her love of canoeing honestly.

Which is the other reason I’m thinking about canoes on this blizzardy January evening. Because camp registration always opens on the first Monday of January at 9:00 am. Last year I went to register her for camp on  the Tuesday and she ended up on a waiting list for her preferred session. (Thankfully she did eventually get in.) So my job on Monday morning is to boogie down to the YMCA near my office, as close to 9:00 am as possible, application form in hand, so that she can spend July in the blissful freedom of paddling, portaging and pitching tents in the Northern Ontario wilderness.

I confess, I’m a big-time planner and scheduler. Before the snow is gone, I will have the whole summer mapped out. I am always baffled by people who can get halfway through July before committing to a vacation date. The way I see it, when you live in a place that treats you to -25° C wind chill and four-foot-high snow banks for several months of the year, you don’t leave the summer to chance.

Once in a while I think it would be nice to take a more spontaneous approach to holidays. At work today I heard a story today about someone who got a last-minute invitation to escape the cold by visiting a friend in Phoenix, so she paid a huge extra fee to get an “emergency” passport. Who even knew there was such a thing? On the other hand, a study by a group of Dutch researchers demonstrated that the biggest boost to happiness occurs during the time spent anticipating the vacation. So it’s possible my lack of spontaneity is actually making me happier than I would be if I was running about doing things on a whim!

Paradoxical as it may be, the truth is that there is a lot of summer recreation that my family is able to enjoy precisely because I have spent cold winter nights plotting and planning. It’s worth conjuring canoes on a cold winter night if it makes it possible to paddle them six months later.

The video linked to below was made over the summer of 2013 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the canoeing program that my daughter loves. The video makes it clear why she loves it! (And if you happen to know my daughter, you might just catch a glimpse of her in the video!)

The Way of The Canoe from White Noise Productions on Vimeo.