Native among the herbs: Monarda fistulosa

One of my favourite native wildflowers is Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot. It’s the slightly plainer sister of the showy red-flowered herb M. didyma or bee-balm. M. fistulosa produces lavender-coloured flowers and is called wild bergamot because the whole plant smells like a bergamot orange. This fruit is hardly familiar to North Americans except as the flavour of Earl Grey tea. Anyone who uses essential oils has likely come across bergamot oil.

One of the reasons I have a soft spot for M. fistulosa, is that it was the first native plant I ever grew from seed, and it happened almost by accident. As a teenager I began collecting native wildflower seeds and trying to germinate them. Mostly they proved a challenge for me as a novice horticulturalist.

I came across a dried out seed head in the vacant lot beside my house and collected some seeds, not knowing what it was. They germinated more easily than anything else I had tried. When the plant finally bloomed the following year, it turned out to be a wildflower I had never noticed before. Its ring of delicate florets formed a distinct coronet. But having grown M. didyma in my herb garden, I immediately recognized wild bergamot for what it was. Besides, it has the square stem distinctive of the mint family, which includes a large proportion of familiar culinary and medicinal herbs.

The plant in the photo above is not directly descended from the one I grew as a teenager. But I did germinate this one from purchased seed about five years ago.

Wild bergamot’s flavour is a little less intense, a little greener, a little wilder than that of domesticated bee-balm. I like to add a few leaves to my morning pot of green tea. Native pollinators love the flowers.

I’ve decided to dedicate more space to herbs in the garden this year. Well, not exactly in the garden. I’ve planted the main collection in four plastic barrels by the front porch, formerly occupied by tomatoes and peppers. Tarragon, thyme, lavender and wild bergamot survived the winter. Parsley and dill are already volunteering. New lemon verbena, oregano, sage, marjoram, rosemary, pineapple sage and some other plants came from the nursery. Meanwhile, chocolate mint will prefer the shady back patio, where chervil sprouting between the bricks and is ready to bloom white sprays any day now. There’s enough peppermint growing wild in the creek behind our house to supply the entire neighbourhood, though I suppose hardly anybody knows it’s there.

Sadly, I made the choice to dig up and discard lovage. It’s another one of my favourite herbs, with an intense celery flavour for soups. But the monstrous plant has no place in my small raised vegetable bed any longer, and the deep taproot won’t adapt to container living. Besides, it breeds discontentment, making me long for a bigger yard.

Many, many herbs are well suited to container gardening and small spaces, so let’s make the most of them. This herb garden is taking shape. It reminds me of the one I planted as a teenager. Herbs have played a subtle but important role throughout my life, with their savour, richness and hint of magic. Most are immigrants from the Old World, with ancient lineages barely decipherable.

But not wild bergamot. It grew from the same soil as me, and I met it there. It has a softer, more polite stature than cultivated bee-balm. In fact it holds a distinctly Canadian posture beside the Mediterranean oregano and very English lavender that will share its barrel this summer.

Where have all the flowers gone?

20160612-_MG_9712

Where have all the flowers gone? It’s a hackneyed question, but I needed an answer today. I found them growing by the Grand River near Waterloo, Ontario.

This morning brought news of the devastating shooting at an Orlando nightclub that killed at least 50 people. Later the same day, a man with weapons and explosives was arrested on his way to the gay pride parade in Los Angeles. The violence hit me particularly hard; I felt crushed.

My partner and I had planned to go for a walk today. It turned out to be a particularly timely plan. We needed beauty.

I’m a water child. I’ve missed living within easy walking distance of the Eramosa and Speed Rivers in Guelph, Ontario. Since moving to Waterloo last year, we’ve had close access to a stream and hiking trails through the woods. So I shouldn’t complain. But even an abundance of ephemeral spring wildflowers isn’t the same. For me a river provides a potent metaphor for the journey of life. I need to visit water more often.

But Waterloo does have access to one of Ontario’s major river systems: the Grand River, to which the Speed and Eramosa are tributaries. We just have to make a little more effort to get there. So today I looked up the best access points and we drove across town. At Claude Dubrick Trailway the vista shown above waited to welcome us.

I’m appalled at how recent atrocities have set the bar for violence higher and higher. Hikes and wildflowers might not seem a useful solution to the problem. Or are they?

20160612-_MG_9719

The riverbanks were dappled with pale pink and purple clumps of dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronlis. Their clove-like fragrance hung in the warm June air. I should know the identity of this familiar grass, but I don’t know my grasses. There’s still so much to learn about the world.

20160612-_MG_9733

White Canada anemones, Anemone canadensis, blossomed by the trail, emblems of simplicity and clarity. Born as I was in Canada I feel close to my roots whenever I walk a trail and see wildflowers. Not everyone has the privilege of familiarity and belonging. We all need rootedness.

20160612-_MG_9753

Buttercups are familiar to many, but drawing nearer I discovered a slight variation on the usual. This was a creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens, and its tiny flower even more ravishing.

Sunlight, fragrant spring air, rootedness, beauty and a little exercise: I felt the river and its inhabitants pulling the edges of my distress. Veils fell away from the eyes of my mind. We saw gulls, a pileated woodpecker, swallows, an American redstart and other birds.

20160612-_MG_9766

Exploring the nearby woods, we found one of my favourite wildflowers, herb-robert, Geranium robertianum. It brings cheer to the shadowy places all summer long. It’s a good symbol of hope. I have come through a difficult period of depression recently. Hopelessness kills; I know this. We can all use some herb-robert.

20160612-_MG_9791

This last wildflower will be familiar to herbalists: comfrey or Symphytum officinale. I didn’t quite recognize it at first; the plant was more delicate and the flowers less blue than the comfrey that once grew in my herb garden. This and the dame’s rocket are alien plants gone wild, but it’s hard to resist their beauty.

The Latin word officinale or officinalis denotes herbs belonging to the storeroom of a monastery, plants believed to have medicinal qualities. Modern herbalists usually do not recommend comfrey be taken internally because it contains alkaloids that can lead to liver failure. But bees love it. The roots draw nutrients from deep in the soil, making it an excellent source of organic fertilizer. Toxic or not, it’s a good medicine plant.

We’re living on a perilous edge where community is giving way to cynicism, alienation and hatred. Ultimately the thing we need is healthy communities where people’s rights are balanced with responsibilities to one another. Without this no weapons or political agencies can provide security.

We need to stop what we’re doing and reflect. Community is part of nature, too. Today’s short pilgrimage took me to a place of sanctuary, fertility and healing. So wherever the flowers have gone, follow me there. Go find your own and I’ll follow you, too.

Corduroy road excavated in uptown Waterloo

20160423-_MG_9541

Last month construction workers in uptown Waterloo uncovered a corduroy road beneath King Street. According to archaeologist Charlton Carscallen it was probably one of the first roads in the region built by European Settlers. He suggests it was constructed before 1816 by Mennonites who moved from Pennsylvania after the American Revolution.

Corduroy roads are made of rough logs laid down at right angles to the direction of travel, then covered with sand. They were used to prevent horses and vehicles from getting mired in mud through wet, swampy areas. Such roads were used in Europe since at least 4000 BCE. They could be a hazard to horses if the logs shifted. In this case not only felled logs but also tree stumps are visible.

King Street is being excavated to make way for a new light rail transit line. The project is not without controversy, particularly due to the heavy toll on local businesses.

Construction halted in March when the historic road was uncovered, as required by law. Archaeologists have now finished documenting it, and removal of the logs is expected to begin in a few days.

I wanted to glimpse this piece of history before it disappears forever.

Earth Day: get a jump on spring planting

20160422-_MG_9529

My neighbour disapproves of me gardening before the end of May. He doesn’t say so directly, but makes sidelong references to inevitable cold weather and the threat of frost. I don’t argue but carry on like the ant in the parable, hoping the outcome will prove me right. Early planting can extend the season considerably.

Some vegetables can be sown in the garden as early as the soil can be worked. That means when the frost is gone and it’s not so wet that digging harms the structure of clay soil. To test it, try making ball out of a handful of soil; if it won’t stick together it’s safe to dig.

Vegetables that can be grown at this time include many leafy greens:

  • lettuce
  • spinach
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage
  • arugula
  • Swiss chard

Thanks to a southern exposure and raised beds, my garden became workable during mild weather in late March. I sowed kohlrabi, kale, arugula (photo above) and spinach.

I like to cover the seeds with a sheet of corrugated cardboard for a few days. This keeps the warm, sun-drenched soil evenly moist and provides protection against the harshest weather. I check under the cardboard every day and remove it as soon as seedlings appear. But don’t try this with carrots or lettuce: they need sunlight and won’t germinate under cover.

Square foot garden 1

Then we had some more cold weather, hard frosts, ice storms and persistent snow. You might expect all that severity to nip my seedlings in the bud, but it didn’t. Fast-germinating seedlings in the cabbage family simply stopped and waited for the weather to warm up again. Spinach, on the other hand, takes several weeks to germinate. It did its preliminaries under the snow. Now this week it’s cropping up happily.

I like to garden slowly: not too much work all at once. It’s easier on my body and lets me spread out the pleasure of planting things. Each day I undertake a few tasks. Unfortunately I lost my chance to plant Swiss chard and beets before more snow flew. Instead they went into the ground today, to mark Earth Day (April 22).

Carrots can handle frost but I’m cautious about planting them too early. The seeds are small, they need to lie exposed on the surface and they take about three weeks to germinate, so I don’t want to expose them to the ravages of late winter storms. I deliberately saved them to plant now. About a month before last frost is right. Early varieties could be sown much sooner under clear plastic row covers, but I’m not that technologically advanced.

Peas can rot in cold, wet ground. Save them too until winter has done its worst. Then be prepared for them to germinate and grow quickly.

You must wait until after last frost to plant:

  • tomatoes
  • peppers
  • beans
  • squash
  • melons
  • cucumbers
  • corn

Hardy perennials can also be planted and transplanted early. I decided to move most of my perennial herbs out of the square-foot garden to make more room for a succession of vegetables. In March I moved French tarragon, sage and thyme into a big barrel for the season. Some of the herbs, particularly the tarragon, got frostbitten by the late winter storms, but it was quick to recover.

20160422-_MG_9535

If you want to plant trees, Earth Day is a good time. It will give those saplings time to establish their roots before drought hits. In fact, trees will do even better if they’re planted in the fall. Their roots continue to grow in winter, searching out new sources of moisture and nutrients. Spring is alright but make sure to give that sapling lots of watery attention through the coming summer.

Once the weather warms up it’s too late to transplant trees and shrubs. Sure, people do it, but you’re making an unfair demand on the plant to establish its roots in summer. It’s unkind. Be patient and wait until next fall. The tree will become better established and grow more quickly anyway.

Ontario’s growing season is so short we must do our best to extend it. Last year thanks to early sowing I harvested spinach, leaf lettuce and arugula in May, peas and kale by mid-June. Maybe if the neighbours are envious enough, they’ll try it too.

Men’s knitting retreat: an act of creativity

20160417-IMG_9522

The idea of creativity invokes arts, crafts and design. We usually use it to describe an individual or small group of collaborators who create something with sensual impact like a musical composition, a knitted shawl or an innovative ad campaign. Tangible creativity blossomed during the first Canadian men’s knitting retreat, which took place this past weekend, April 15 to 17, 2016.

Social interaction can manifest another kind of creativity that’s less tangible but equally rich. We often experience this when people meet. Diverse talents and ideas create an unexpected outpouring of emotion, thought and inspiration that wouldn’t happen otherwise. When conditions are right, the sum can be significantly greater than its parts. Extended time together multiplies the effect. This is why people like to hold conferences, conventions and seminars.

20160416-IMG_9464

I have experienced this in a particular way with men’s knitting retreats. And yesterday (Sunday) morning, when the 19 men met for a final time, as their thoughts and impressions unfolded in our midst, I knew something remarkably good had happened. I might have known earlier in the weekend as I saw the men knitting together in the sunshine, sharing meals, embracing a friendly baby goat and gaining inspiration from workshops. But I had had a hand in organizing it this time and it’s difficult to inspect one’s own creations objectively. The feedback confirmed my belief that the retreat had impacted everyone in a positive, lasting way.

Interesting fact: The 19 men in attendance included nine Ontarians, one “lapsed Canadian” from Long Island, one German and eight Americans who had traveled from as far as Florida, Texas and Colorado.

 

Carol Lloyd’s book Creating a Life Worth Living describes the kind of creativity that involves human interaction. Certain creative types express themselves in intrinsically social ways, for example healers, teachers and directors. Lloyd calls the kind of person who organizes events a realizer. He or she relishes problem solving, provides driving energy and has good communication skills to build community.

20160417-IMG_9509

I think a realizer is also someone who senses commonalities, likes bringing people together and gets satisfaction from seeing them interact.

When Jaye Crawford, Danny Ouellette and I coordinated this event, we had the benefit of advice and support from other men who had realized similar events elsewhere: Joe Wilcox of the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat, Brady Robinder of the the Rocky Mountain Men’s Knitting Retreat and Barry VanderWeele of the Great Lakes Men’s Knitting Retreat.

But the spirit of these retreats comes much more from the diversity of men who attend them. It’s like a patchwork quilt where everyone provides a square.

20160416-IMG_9496

Here are a few things we did together:

  • A choice of workshops including knitting a moebius cowl, shawl design, adapting sweater patterns for personal fit and knitting toe-up socks two at a time.
  • Visited Wellington Fibres goat farm, toured the spinning facility, bought a lot of gorgeous yarn and enjoyed the love of a baby kid born earlier that week.
  • Showed off our proudest recently completed knitting projects.
  • Raised money toward two scholarships to make our next event accessible to men with limited financial means. We did this by donating stuff from our yarn stashes to a silent auction where our friends then bid and bought the stuff.
  • Spent a lot of time just knitting, telling tales, sharing knitting advice and gaining inspiration from one another.
  • Sometimes, especially in the evening, the community room would fall almost silent as everyone focused on their work. It was an unusual but comfortable silence unlike anything I’ve experienced at other weekend events.

20160416-IMG_9482

The group collectively expressed great appreciation for Loyola House Retreat Centre, our accommodation. The rooms were particularly comfortable and the meals got rave reviews.

As the group said its goodbyes, they left with strong support to repeat the retreat again next year. Most raised hands in support of starting a day earlier (on Thursday). So we have something bigger and better to look forward to.

Loyola House has room for 30 to 50 people. We didn’t achieve the minimum, but Loyola House kindly charged us only for the number who registered. Our challenge for next year will be to get 30 registered. Based on the enthusiasm from all who attended this year, I don’t think we’ll have trouble spreading word and generating enough interest for Men’s Knitting Retreat North next time.

 

The first Men’s Knitting Retreat North unfolds

20160416-IMG_9456

Something remarkable happens when men get together and play with fibre. The first Men’s Knitting Retreat North kicked off yesterday afternoon with an informal meet and greet as guys arrived from as far away as Germany, Texas, Florida and Colorado. Ontario put on her best spring weather as if to show off to our international guests.

Old friends greeted happily and new ones forged quickly. Conversation ebbed and flowed, usually most lively around our friend Jeff Cohen, a champion of men’s knitting retreats. But everyone settled down quickly to knit or spin. It was a diverse group as shown by the wide range of projects people had brought: practical socks, splendid shawls, fluffy cowls. And there were several new knitters, too: guys who have only been knitting for a few weeks. We paired them with mentors in hope this weekend will help launch illustrious creative careers for them, too. Others here have been knitting 40, 50 years or more.

This is the first such retreat to take place in Canada. It was largely inspired by the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat, which takes place at Easton Mountain near Albany, New York, each spring, and has spawned several other annual events around the world.

The photo above shows designer Leo Pola starting a shawl in flame colours, and my pal Benn Brisland (this is his first knitting retreat) preparing yarn for the workshop I’ll teach later this morning: how to knit a moebius cowl.

With weather so fine, undoubtedly we’ll take frequent breaks from structured activities to enjoy the sunshine and landscape at Loyola House Retreat Centre. AJ Young and Han Jacobs Meadway had the right idea within a few minutes of arrival yesterday.

20160415-IMG_9448

Still, I especially look forward to seeing how creativity and friendships unfold over the course of the weekend. Men’s knitting retreats are good at building community. People who have attended different ones around the country tell me each has its unique flavour. I don’t want to anticipate too closely what ours will be like, but this weekend already has a restful, reflective feeling to it.

After this morning’s workshops and lunch, we’ll head on a field trip to Wellington Fibres to view a lot of baby goats and probably buy a lot of colourful mohair yarn and spinning fibre.

Bringing a men’s knitting retreat to Canada

IMG_9033(1)

Next weekend, April 15 to 17, 2016, the first Canadian men’s knitting retreat will take place. I’ve had a hand in organizing it and can hardly wait. This is the realization of a long-held dream.

Men’s knitting retreats started in May 2008 at Easton Mountain Retreat Center near Albany, New York (group photo shown above). My partner Danny Ouellette and I happened to be there and we’ve been lucky to attend more at the same location. Retreats have spread to other areas, so that several now take place every year across the United States. They have also occurred in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

At a men’s knitting retreat, people who identify as male get together to relax, spend time knitting together, teach and learn new skills and come away inspired. These retreats continually overcome my cynicism about human nature. They make me want to participate more in human community. And they provide an opportunity to do so.

What makes them so special? All the retreats in different places keep themselves deliberately small, less than 50 individuals. You get to know one another. By the end of the weekend there will hardly be any strangers.

IMG_8997

There’s nothing new about men knitting. The Vikings did it. Fishermen did it. Now bankers, lawyers and artists do it.

But in our culture I think it’s fair to say men who knit often do it in solitude or in the company of women. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m fortunate to have many women friends who are fibre crafters. I’d never choose to give up their company. It has enriched my life.

But for me something different happens when a roomful of men knits together. I suppose I let down my guard in a way I don’t around women or other men. Being creative is an essential, essential part of who I am. I don’t have to act more or less manly than I am. And even though a lot of men like to knit in macho tones like brown, blue and grey, I don’t feel compelled to hide my passion for colour.

2009 04 26 Entrelac scarf

Several years ago I wanted to bring a retreat to Canada. However, it would never have happened without Danny and our friend, Jaye Crawford, who helped organize it. We also had extensive practical, tactical and even financial assistance from Joe Wilcox, an original founder and perennial organizer of the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat at Easton Mountain. Others have helped, too. After wanting to do this for so long, I couldn’t be happier than to see it come to pass.

For this event we’re using Loyola House, a retreat centre at Ignatius Jesuit Centre on the north edge of Guelph. It provides all the meals. We have single private rooms and the run of a large community room with a fireplace and windows overlooking the countryside. We’re planning a field trip to Wellington Fibres angora goat farm and spinning mill, a yarn crawl, two workshop sessions and hopefully a bonfire, weather permitting. I expect everyone will also take advantage of unstructured time to simply sit, knit, talk and laugh.

Loyola photo 8

We’re calling it Men’s Knitting Retreat North. So far 19 men have registered, which would be a perfect number, just as perfect as 35. But we still have room and time to register (April 12 at the latest). So guys who knit, if you’ve been undecided or have only just heard about it, sign up. Spinners, crocheters, weavers and other fibre crafters are welcome. So are those who don’t knit but want to learn.

Go to Men’s Knitting Retreats and click scheduled events then. 2016 Men’s Knitting Retreat North is still at the top of the list for a few more days. Click the link to the registration page for more information. And it’s a good buy: $310 Cdn for the full weekend, meals and room included.

Symbol of hope

IMG_7991

There was a rainbow outside my office window a minute ago. I don’t mind taking it as a symbol of hope. It disappeared before I could take a photo. Some things we see are for our individual eyes only.
 
I’ve had a difficult spell of depression this year, starting sometime in the summer. It was frustrating and maddening after having such a good year with no depression in 2014. I think I’m feeling better now but improvement, like Andromeda Galaxy, is harder too see if you look too closely.
 
I’m used to it. I know what to do to make things better. It calls for hard work at a time when I lack the necessary energy. Usually it doesn’t scare me, except on a few bad days. Mostly it makes me listless and nonverbal, a hard thing for a writer.
 
Maybe that’s part of why I am a writer. I didn’t try to contact new clients while I was depressed, but continued to take work assignments from anyone I knew. Everything I wrote was an affirmation of life. Unfortunately, when you’re depressed you overlook and forget the triumphs.
 
Some of the challenges have to do with our new home. There’s nothing I dislike about it, but I need to be more creative about giving myself the gift of daylight. I miss having a large vegetables garden, which took me outside every day all summer in 2014 and was largely responsible for preventing any depression that year.
 
I’m practically the opposite of many people with seasonal depression. It starts with the dog days of summer. The radiance of early autumn seems piercing and terrible. November is a hard climb. I start to feel better in December when the trees are dark and skeletal, and a low midday sun shines in the windows. By January I’m well again. It’s a serious time for new beginnings, routines and hope.

Delightful chanterelles

_MG_9059

Wild mushroom season has become something we look forward to with particular delight. Around the cottage, autumn always delivers some culinary surprises and this Labour Day weekend was no exception. On Sunday afternoon my partner and I found this cluster of delicious and exquisite chanterelles.

In Ontario, wild mushrooms may appear throughout the growing season, but the greatest diversity appears with the onset of cooler, wetter weather. The holiday weekend was one of the hottest of the summer, so I didn’t expect to find anything spectacular.

We did however go mushroom hunting. I’ll be giving a talk on fungi in February so I wanted to find some specimens to populate my slideshow. Quite a few species volunteered to be photographed, like little people standing in the woods: some deadly amanitas, some edible but confusing and unremarkable boletes and a variety of other characters.

We also found three black elfin saddles, Helvella lacunosa, growing beside the roadway. These were new for us. They’re edible, so we brought them home to sample (they were too small to provide a strong impression, but seemed to have an intense flavour).

_MG_8772

I took hundreds of photos. I’ll post some more in the future, but my working laptop has gone for repairs so I won’t be able to process all those images until it comes home.

I spent an hour or so lying down and scrunching up my body to get good shots of the mushrooms. I call it this exercise macro yoga. I was nearly exhausted so we had turned around and were heading back to the cottage when Danny spied a clump of yellow, deformed mushroom caps near the road. They seemed ugly where they grew amid the moss but, overturning one, I found the striking wide gill ridges and recognized the mushroom immediately as a chanterelle. On closer examination we identified it as the most sought-after species, Cantharellus cibarius.

Our previous forays around the cottage have turned up oyster mushrooms and the beautiful, delectable comb tooth, but this substantial gathering of chantarelles was our best find yet. They supposedly smell of apricots but to my nose the fragrance was more evocative of pumpkin. Sautéed in butter, they had a subtly sweet and fruity taste, quite tender and delicious.

As always, I must encourage caution with wild mushrooms. They can be confusing and some are deadly. Foraging is best learned from someone experienced. Always use a good field guide and don`t take chances; never eat anything if you can`t identify it definitely and know that it`s edible.

Chanterelles turned up when we went foraging with Patrick Louch last year, but as I recall we found only a few small ones, not enough to enjoy the gastronomic effect. In the future, I`ll keep a keen eye open for this delicacy. For more information read the Fall 2014 issue of Edible Toronto magazine; my article is online, Trumpets, hedgehogs and chanterelles: tracking the elusive mushroom.

Oliver Sacks who popularized science of perception dies at 82

Oliversacks

Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks died this morning at age 82. He was made famous by the movie, “Awakenings”, based on one of his books, but more importantly he popularized science of how the mind works, particularly its eccentricities, with works like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”.

He has said, “My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

Sacks came out late in life, due in part to his powerful shyness, ending many years of celibacy in 2008 and writing about his homosexuality for the first time in a 2015 autobiography, “On the Move: A Life”. His life is an inspiration for what introverted or socially anxious people might accomplish.

An unusual, lifelong condition, prosopagnosia, impaired Sacks’ ability to recognize faces. In 2001 he lost depth perception due to treatment for an ocular melanoma. He discussed these experiences among other oddities of visual perception in “The Mind’s Eye”.

In January 2015 he learned that the original cancer had metastasized to his liver, and determined to live his last few months as fully as possible.

From Oliver Sacks: ““Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”