Gallery: 2013 December ice storm

Merry Christmas, everyone. Click on the image above for a small gallery of four images taken in the aftermath of the Dec. 22 that left thousands of people without power in Ontario and elsewhere. I hope you are keeping warm in body and spirit in the company of loved ones. What else can we do but marvel at weather’s power and beauty? Be well.

Winter Solstice 2013

Festival of Lights Celebrant

Every year on the evening of Dec. 21, people gather in Toronto’s Kensington Market to celebrate Winter Solstice with a festival of fire and lights. I have attended several times. This year I went with my partner and two daughters. It was a mild and rainy night, so the crowd appeared a little thin, but the weather did not dampen anyone’s spirits.

 Festival of Lights Totems

Drummers and giant totem puppets impart a Native Canadian flavour to the proceedings, but they are not by any means the only forms of music, ritual and spirituality present. Activities commence with droning instruments, drumming circles, fire blowers and dancers putting on a show in the heart of the market. Then a parade proceeds slowly past various performance art presentations around the village. Shadow puppets are a common sight. So are decorative lanterns which celebrants make at home and bring to join in the festivities.

Festival of Lights Shadow Puppets

The event is co-ordinated by Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, a not-for-profit community organization based in Kensington Market.

For me participation has less to do with religious observance than a practical ritual. Winter solstice ends what tends to be the most difficult time of year for me, and this autumn was a particularly heavy one. Henceforth the days will grow longer and my spirit turns upon a different leg of the journey. January is a usually good time for new goals and undertakings.

The winter solstice provides an excellent venue to restore a sense of vigor and connection with a community larger than one’s self.

Festival of Lights Fire Blower

Great moments from 2013

February snow in Preservation Park

We spend so much time dwelling on the bad things that happen, it is easy to miss the good. For the positivity experiment, Kristy Jett invited people to participate in posting a list of 10 positive things that happened this year in their careers, relationships and adventures. It is happening today, Dec. 21. Find out more about Great Moments from 2013 on Facebook and see what others are posting.

My list follows. I made progress in photography this year, so several of my great moments involve the camera. The photo above was taken on one of my favourite walks of the year in Preservation Park behind our house on Feb. 28.

There are other great moments I could include. I ended up with 12 items and cannot choose any to exclude, so 12 it is.

  1. I learned the technique of core spinning and it has provided countless hours of fun and creativity.
  2. In June my partner Danny, my daughter Marian and I opened the cottage and got the pump working all by ourselves without outside intervention.
  3. To celebrate our 10th anniversary, Danny and I spent the week of July 4 at Haliburton School of Art. I took a week-long course in landscape and travel photography with Rob Stimpson. It honed my skills and fired up my enthusiasm to do more photography, both for fun and professionally.
  4. Also in celebration of our anniversary, Danny and I invited a few friends and family to our house on July 20. We enjoyed good food and eased into a fine, long, mellow evening on the back deck.
  5. We bought a new 55 to 250 mm Canon zoom lens which has opened up endless opportunities for expression in photography.
  6. My first published photo essay appeared in the winter 2013 edition of Edible Toronto. It highlights places in Guelph and the Golden Horseshoe where people can connect with the land in cities in winter. My images garnered high praise from editor Gail Gordon Oliver and designer Melissa Petersen.
  7. Danny and I attended the men’s spring knitting retreat at Easton Mountain Retreat Center in May. It was socially engaging and creatively stimulating, as always one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year.
  8. I arranged to spend a nine-day writing retreat alone at the cottage in August. It fired up my inspiration for creative nature writing. I wrote some 22,000 words in a journal. I also enjoyed the opportunity to practise photography.
  9. We flew to Winnipeg to spend Thanksgiving with Danny’s family. I enjoyed their company and also an opportunity to explore more of a fascinating and beautiful city.
  10. I began writing a regular column, Study Sessions, to appear in Gluten-Free Living magazine beginning at the start of 2014. It will highlight current scientific research about celiac disease.
  11. I completed the 2013 WordCount Blogathon and inspired Danny to participate, too. It revitalized my commitment and inspiration for blogging.
  12. The Ontario Handspinning Seminar inspired me to look at new ways of telling stories in fibre. It was also a great opportunity to get to know other fibre crafters better and spend some time with my cousin, Brenda.

Leave the Sally Ann alone

salvation army playing euphonium

When I support community organizations I choose non-sectarian ones. So I usually avoid the Salvation Army. However, I want to point out that the Salvation Army has a policy of non-discrimination which explicitly includes sexual orientation. This has been the case in Canada for a few years, but according to their international website this relates to the organization as a whole. Please read this statement to see the extent to which they reject discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

People like to help others at this time of year. It’s not a bad idea, would be even better if we did it all the time. Personally I recommend non-religious organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the local AIDS committee.

I was curious this year when I saw all the Salvation Army signs appearing on Facebook with slogans like, “Gays not allowed.” According to the Salvation Army, these images have been Photoshopped. It goes to show we should take everything we see online (especially on Facebook) with a grain of salt. It is all too easy to share or like something somebody cooked up.

Prejudice is based on ignorance. Sharing any old photo that shows up in your newsfeed is not smart. I know, I’ve done it. When we detect a scent of evil, it is better to sneeze than strangle ourselves. Do your homework and investigate.

Photo courtesy of j_lai on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Update: Celiac Disease Foundation challenges link with GMOs

The Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF), based in Los Angeles, came out in an article on Food Navigator USA challenging a report I highlighted yesterday linking celiac disease with genetically-modified organism (GMO) crops. The CDF states its medical advisory board does not support any scientific evidence for the link. Their position draws weight from plant geneticist Wayne Parrott, who points to flawed research cited in the the report by the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT). CDF CEO Marilyn Geller emphasizes that most patients with celiac disease respond well to the gluten-free diet, and does not endorse the GMO-free diet advanced by IRT.

Above is a short video I made in a wheat field several years ago.

A link between celiac disease and GMOs


A recent report from the Iowa-based Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) presents evidence that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) may trigger celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity.

It is essential to distinguish that, although celiac disease involves an auto-immune reaction to protein in wheat, the wheat we eat is not a GMO. Wheat has been intensely hybridized for decades, but as yet it has not had bits of genetic material from other organisms grafted into its DNA, which is what creates a GMO. However, GMOs might trigger the auto-immune disease.

Here is an example of a GMO: scientists have introduced genetic material from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into crops such as cotton and corn. These plants produce a Bt substance toxic to insect pests, reportedly safe for humans and the environment.

But research draws this safety into question. In a video on the above link, Jeffrey Smith, author, activist and executive director of IRT, holds a compelling conversation with nutritionist Tom Malterre. While veering toward speculation, they present many points of evidence and logic as to how GMOs could trigger gluten sensitivity as well as a range of other auto-immune and inflammatory disorders.

Bt toxin kills insects by perforating cells in the gut lining. Despite claims that it was safe for humans, research has shown it has the same effect in us. This causes a leaky gut condition allowing larger molecules to cross the gut lining, a condition already implicated in onset of celiac disease.

But this is just one connection discussed in the report. Some other harmful effects of GMO foods might include disrupting the balance of gut microflora, aggravating immune responses, impairing digestion of vitamins, proteins and other nutrients, and damaging the architecture of the intestinal wall.

I recommend watching the entire video. While some technical points may be hard to understand, it presents key concerns and approaches for future research.

Malterre recommends the gluten-free diet to address other auto-immune and inflammatory diseases such as autism and irritable bowel syndrome. However, he recommends combining it with a GMO-free diet to treat the same spectrum of disorders, including celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

I mentioned wheat at the beginning because modern hybrids of the crop have also drawn concern as triggers for celiac disease. William Davis’s book Wheat Belly (2011) stirred the controversy, but the weight of research so far has not supported his argument that the gluten in these hybrid strains is particularly toxic.

In An Epidemic of Absence, journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff instead addressed concern about how the Western diet and lifestyle is changing the ecology of organisms that live in our guts. Velasquez-Manoff expressed doubt about Davis’s premise when I spoke to him earlier this year. His line of investigation appears more consistent with Malterre’s and Smith’s arguments.

If not wheat, what foods should we avoid to eliminate GMOs from the diet? Soybeans, corn, canola, cottonseed and sugar from sugar beets are particularly suspect. But for more complete information, refer to the Non-GMO Shopping Guide.

Photo courtesy of Derek Visser on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Lorraine Roy’s fabric art inspired this handspun hat


I made this hat for my friend, fabric artist Lorraine Roy, based on one of her works, “Tobermory sunset”.

Her pieces are perhaps best described as fabric paintings. She spreads countless fragments of cloth on the backing to create rich colours and textures, then fastens them using embroidery techniques. Her works frequently provide abstract representations of trees in the landscape or pond life.

I have blogged previously about how her work inspires me and highlighted a lecture she gave about the synergy of art and science.

“Tobermory sunset” is an impressionistic piece portraying one of Ontario’s most unusual and beautiful places. Tobermory is poised between Lake Huron, known for spectacular sunsets, and the hauntingly azure waters of Georgian Bay. It is one of my favourite places to visit, and I have camped at nearby Cyprus Lake in Bruce Peninsula National Park several times with my daughters.

To spin the yarn for this hat I chose a variety of fibres including fine merino wool, alpaca, silk and nylon Firestar. I core spun the yarn, then plied it with blue tsumugi silk from Habu Textiles. The colour blended perfectly and accentuated the remarkable coral-sea blues of those waters I can never forget.

Tobermory sunset yarn


Handspinning outside the comfort zone

Way of Lost Souls handspun yarn

Red is outside my comfort zone. I created these skeins of handspun yarn over the past week. I have been working from photographs, choosing fibres that capture the colours and textures of the scene, hand carding them into small batts and then core spinning them to create super bulky art yarn.

The photo that inspired these skeins was one of fall colours taken by Sabine Härtl in the Harz Mountains, Germany. She called it “Way of lost souls”; perhaps that is the name of the footpath.

It reminded me of scenes from around our cottage on the Canadian Shield. Although golds and oranges of birch trees (Betula alba and B. alleghaniensis) and sugar maples (Acer saccharum) dominate the colourful canopy in autumn, we also have red maples (A. rubrum), which turn a colour much like what is in the photograph.

However, maple red is more of a crimson (cool red). What I had on hand for the primary fibre in this yarn was scarlet (warm red) merino. I tried adding purple and fuchsia merino mill ends to draw it to the cooler side. The mist colours utilize white alpaca/wool (from Ray Rossiter at the Men’s Spring Knitting Retreat) and lustrous blue alpaca silk. Natural wool added the browns. Some mohair/wool/llama I de-stashed from Michael del Vecchio (author of Knitting With Balls) added brassy golden-browns. A range of dyed tussah silk and sparkly nylon contributed autumnal highlights. Once in a while I auto-wrapped some mohair boucle in tapestry tones to create the dark patches like moss or tendrils. Up until now I have plied core spun yarns with commercial novelty yarns as binders, but the single was so interesting I hated to add anything, so I left it alone. Consequently it is somewhat overspun, but a wash and a gentle stretch pulled out most of the kinks.

It ended up looking less like a scene from a quite forest than an exotic marketplace. Or at least a journey through somewhere hot and fiery, maybe more a way of lost souls than intended. Still I am excited about the result. It is quite unlike any yarn I’ve worked with before. Because of the overspun tension, it will be better suited to garter stitch. This yarn is likely destined to become a hat and scarf set or perhaps combined hoodie cowl.

I recommend working outside your colour comfort zone. The results can be amazing.

A pressed ash leaf

Cottage ash leaf

This summer I noticed some unexpected trees deep in the woods, high on a ridge near the cottage. Compound leaves like these are typical of ashes and walnuts, but I had never seen either in the area. To add to the mystery, they were growing in a swampy depression and I could not not approach for a close look at leaves and bark. Ash seemed more likely, but without a closer look I was flummoxed.

In October, following the same ATV trail with Danny, Marian and Brenna (in the same part of the woods where we found the delicious comb tooth fungus) I noticed the trees again and pointed them out. Not five minutes later we came upon a tall, spindly sapling, which had bent right over to the ground. Before Marian attempted to upright it, I picked a leaf and tucked it in my notebook. Just yesterday I came across it, nicely pressed.

It is obviously an ash, probably black ash (F. nigra) or possibly the closely related green ash (F. pennsylvanica). It would be near the extreme northern extent of the green ash’s range. Also, I learn that black ash can have up to 13 leaflets per compound leaf, while green ash usually has only 7 to 9. I recall the leaves higher in the tree having more leaflets, which was part of the reason I thought the trees resembled walnuts. Whether black or green, I have never noticed Fraxinus anywhere around cottage country before, so this adds another species to the woody diversity of the area.