A passion for places

Cover art: Why We Live Where We Live

It’s something many people take for granted, but it shapes who we are. Why We Live Where We Live is a new book for kids by Kira Vermond (Owlkids, 2014). I happen to live in the same city as Kira, and we both love it: Guelph, Ontario. If you live there, too, don’t miss her book launch on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 at 2 p.m. at The Bookshelf.

Kira writes regularly for The Globe and Mail, the National Post and national magazines. She has previously written two other books for kids, Growing Up, Inside and Out (2013) and The Secret Life of Money: A Kid’s Guide to Cash (2012).

As a child I never questioned why my parents chose to live where they did. On the shore of Lake Erie, it was incredibly beautiful, but far from my dad’s work and maybe not the most practical choice. This made me want to live in places with natural beauty. My priorities might have been much different if I had grown up in a highrise apartment, or if we had moved around a lot.

Did you ever wonder why so many people live in cities while most of their food grows somewhere else? Or why some choose to live near volcanoes or earthquake zones? Kira addresses these mysteries with energy, humour and insight about human nature.

I had a chance to ask Kira some questions about her newest book.

Kira Vermond

Q: You must have had some fun writing this book. It shows your passion for places and communities. How did the idea to write this come about?

Kira Vermond: Ideas for my books come from the weirdest places. For Why We Live Where We Live, I was sitting in the car travelling to my in-laws listening to a TED podcast about urban food transportation. It got me thinking that people are only able to live in cities, far from rural agricultural land, because we’ve figured out how to move food in large quantities from farms to urban grocery stores. We’ve learned how to store food, sell food and then dispose of its waste on a massive scale all over the world. That’s incredible. So what other human innovations have given us flexibility in terms of where we call home? It’s a fascinating question – and I think kids are the perfect readers to explore fascinating questions.

Q: Tell us about your collaboration with illustrator Julie McLaughlin.

KV: Here’s something many people don’t know about how kids’ books come together: the author and illustrator usually never talk during a book’s creation. For instance, I didn’t meet Clayton Hanmer, my illustrator for The Secret Life of Money (Owlkids, 2011), until the book was printed and we were in the middle of marketing that book. I still haven’t spoken to Julie, although I keep meaning to shoot off an email.

Editors will keep writers away from the illustrators so we don’t influence (or hamper) their vision and creativity. I do get that, but I’ve figured out ways to get around the blockage: I write a lot of notes to the illustrator in my copy. “Hey, this would be a great place for an illustration to highlight this point about living next to an active volcano!”

I think Julie’s illustrations are beautiful and so colourful. People say they want to pick up the book because the cover is so appealing. I agree.

Q: The book is bright, upbeat and thought-provoking so it will be fun for kids to read. I can also see it being used as a grade school textbook about social sciences. Is that something you had in mind?

KV: Absolutely. This book definitely has more of an educational, text-booky feel than my last two books, but that’s probably because I had researched the school curriculum for a few key Canadian and U.S. school boards before I pitched it. There were a number of points I needed to cover to make the book relevant at school. Even so, I still wanted Why We Live Where We Live to sound like (goofy) me and challenge kids to think critically about their world. Kids are so smart. They deserve books that make them stretch their brains a bit.

Q: As I recall, your family moved around a lot when you were a kid. Can you talk about how that experience shaped your ideas about where people live?

KV: You’re right. By the time I was 22, I’d lived in 20 different houses and in communities that ranged from villages of 300 people to cities of 3-million people. I’ve lived on a lake in Ontario and not far from the beach in California outside of Los Angeles. All that moving around taught me two things: how to make friends quickly (even though I’m an introvert at heart) and that there are so many incredible places to live on this planet. I do believe that many adults get stuck thinking, “I’ve lived in Toronto for 30 years, and so I should stay here.” Seriously? The world is big. Move somewhere new. Try a new place and see if it’s a better fit. Maybe Toronto really is for you, but you might be surprised that you feel more comfortable in a different community.

I do discuss the personality of place in the book and why that’s so important when choosing a place to live. Our road, town, or city needs to feel like home. I know from living in many different communities that some simply feel more natural than others. (For the record, Guelph is my comfy place. Not too big. Not too small. Just right. But I know people who find Guelph too quaint. A bigger city speaks their inner language. I try not to judge.)

Q: How about your experiences as a parent?

KV: Although I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to see the world as a child, I did find all that moving around stressful. Now that I have kids, we’ve lived in this one house for 10 years. We have no plans to move, but we do travel with our two children a lot so they can discover for themselves that people are able to live almost anywhere.

Q: What three things matter most to you about where you decide to call home?

KV: It has got to have bookstores, theatres and cafes. I need to be able to walk to most places I’d visit daily. My neighbours have to be caring and engaged in what’s happening on the street. I am so lucky to have found a home that gives me all three things.

Q: Where is the best place you have ever lived and why?

KV: Every place has something special to offer us. I used to fish off my dock and catch frogs every day in the summer on Lake Scugog when I was 12. California had fabulous sushi, and the kids, being American, were super friendly and welcoming. I had my own forest to play in and acres of land to roam across as a small child in Guelph. Ottawa taught me that if you bundle up in frozen weather (and don’t mind having hat head all day) it’s easy to brave the cold.

But ultimately, it comes down to the people, No matter where you are and what’s outside your door, that’s just scenery. It’s the people you connect with, laugh with and come to depend on who matter most. They make every place you live, no matter where that is, feel like home.

It’s praying mantis season

Praying mantis

“Watch for them in later summer when they fly from place to place in fields and clearings,” suggests Bugs of Ontario, a Lone Pine field guide by John Acorn and Ian Sheldon. That was precisely what we saw on our walk this afternoon. It’s only the third or fourth one I’ve seen in nature. They’re not uncommon, but stealthy, well-camouflaged predators.

I frequently walk a 20-minute circuit to the east end of our block, through a right-of-way into the conservation area, along a track that passes through the pine plantation and circles our neighbourhood, up a steep hill, through a meadow at the west end of our subdivision, to Edinburgh Road and back to our street.

Today as we crossed the meadow, an ungainly but beautiful insect flew across our path. Its transparent wings glowed pale gold in the sunlight. Then it landed in the weeds and posed for the camera. I was surprised and thrilled at what I found staring back at me.

Unlike all other insects, mantises have articulated necks allowing them to look over their shoulders. If you approach, they will fix their hypnotic, disturbing gaze upon you.

Mantises are effective predators and will eat anything they can grab, often cannibalizing their own kind, but are harmless to humans. Gardeners like them because they eat insect pests. However, mantises will prey just as readily on pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Ontario does not have any native mantises, and this is the only common species, Mantis religiosa. It was introduced from Europe about a century ago.

Continuing along the path, I almost stepped on another one. Two in one day! So if you go walking to enjoy this fine weather and the vibrant wildflowers of our September meadows, keep an eye out for this insect.

The vole that ate my potatoes

Mystery vole

This morning while digging the last potatoes from the garden, I disturbed this vole. At first sight, it darted from a clod of earth I’d dug into the straw. But then a few minutes later I saw it again, shuddering beside the garden, obviously stunned.

I never get a chance to inspect a live mouse or vole closely, so I took the opportunity. It had distinct, rather lovely gold bands, like a mantle along its sides, and a tail longer than its body.

I expected it to be a common meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus. However, the rodent atlas on Ontario Nature’s site says they have “uniformly dark brown or grayish pelage (Peterson 1966).” I didn’t have a rule, but estimate the animal stretched out would have measure about 9 cm, with a tail almost as long.

Voles are supposed to have shorter tails than mice. But this was certainly not a deer mouse or white-footed mouse, and other vole species of Ontario are more boreal and do not seem to have this colouration. So this little creature is a puzzle. Hopefully, by posting these pictures, I’ll be able to find someone more knowledgeable who can identify it.

Mystery vole with long tail

We have to snap-trap mice at the cottage constantly to keep the place clean and liveable, and I hate doing it. Still, I had a thought to bash this individual with the side of my garden fork. Last year voles consumed almost my entire planting of potatoes, but this year the crop took hardly any damage. Fortunately, I felt more pity than bitterness.

I don’t know whether it was cold and disoriented, or perhaps I had injured it in digging and stomping around. It was trembling and seemed incapable of running away. After taking these pictures, I covered it with straw.

Here are the six varieties of potatoes I grew this year (clockwise from top left): linzer delicatess, pink fir apple, warba, banana, yellow finn and caribe.

Potato varieties

Pink fir apple and banana are two fingerling varieties I tried to grow last year, but most of the seed potatoes were eaten. I saved a few in the basement through the winter and planted them this spring. They’re both late varieties. I just harvested them this morning. There were only a few small pink fir apples, but the bananas were probably the most prolific plants I’ve grown this year. We haven’t tasted any yet.

Pink-eyed warba is very tasty, one of my favourite varieties from previous years. Caribe is white-fleshed, tastes not bad, and is good for boiling or baking. These are both early varieties. We had our first meal of new caribe potatoes in mid-July and I dug the rest about six weeks ago. Warba was ready a month ago.

Linzer delicatess and yellow finn are mid-season potatoes. I planted them in the newest bed, so the soil fertility was not the greatest, and they did not produce as many tubers as might be expected, but plenty for our purposes.

I dug the linzer delicatess about 10 days ago. I’ve been cutting them in half, drizzling them with olive oil and some seasoning, and roasting them at 425°F for 20 minutes. And they are a sensation, another variety I look forward to growing for years to come.

The yellow finn came out of the garden just two days ago, and we haven’t tried any yet, but they are supposed to be one of the tastiest gourmet potatoes. In richer soil they would be abundant producers, and they’re supposed to be good keepers.

Since I had such good results from the wintered-over potatoes, I’ll save a few of each variety for seed next year. We expect to move this fall, so hopefully I’ll be starting a new garden somewhere next spring. I won’t plant many potatoes, because they need a lot of space and rich, mature soil; not too much fresh compost.

But for this time around I have a large harvest of potatoes in baskets on the basement stairs. They should keep us well for most of the winter.

Damselflies chase water striders

Water striders

I could sit for hours on the dock at the cottage, just watching the water glide and nature unfold. On calm days (and most mornings are calm) water striders spark across the surface of the bay. Dragonflies hover, defend their airspace, hunt and mate. But this summer for the first time I noticed these two insect group interacting in a particular way.

Water striders have always entranced me. Their community looks like a negative image reflection of the multitude of stars in the same still water at night. Each one moves like a jerking vector with quick strokes of its little legs. They seem to bounce off each other like molecules in Brownian motion. They vanish when wind whips up waves, but sometimes they pile onto lily pads. Here are some interesting facts about water striders:

  1. Their hydrophobic legs allow them to walk on surface tension. The middle pair of legs is specially adapted with extra hairs for rowing.
  2. Their front legs detect water vibrations, allowing them to locate prey and declare individual territory.
  3. Water striders prey on other insects, preferring live victims that fall onto the surface.
  4. They are true bugs (Hemiptera), so they have sucking mouth parts. They feed by puncturing prey with their claws, then sucking out their meal.
  5. Water strider nymphs are left to fend for themselves and often cannibalized by adults. North American species do not recognize their own kin, so they may eat their own young.
  6. Outside of mating season, they seldom cannibalize. Large cooperative groups may form to feed on large insects.
  7. Some generations of the same species do not have wings and others do, allowing them to disperse to other areas or bodies of water. Most individuals inhabiting stable bodies, such as lakes, do not have wings.
  8. Cannibalism and flight dispersal control population size.
  9. Scientists have identified more than 1,700 species worldwide, with 10 percent living on seas and oceans.

Water strider movements

This summer we had a big, healthy crop of water striders on the bay. This caught the attention of little bluets. These damselflies are one of nine Enallagma species found in Ontario, all difficult to distinguish. They’re no bigger than a darning needle and make no sound as they fly.

Bluet (damselfly)

Bluets hovered over the crowd, causing a commotion. Wherever they flew, a path cleared like the waters of the Red Sea as water striders scrambled to escape. However, the damselflies spent less time over the large groups than scattered individuals. They looked like sharks confused by a swirling school of fish, waiting to pick off stragglers. Occasionally one would duck down to the surface for a catch.

Water striders can also fly to escape predators. I couldn’t tell whether these ones were wingless. But even in the air, presumably they would have a hard time evading such an agile hunter.


Why I write

My morning ritual: tea and journal

I have contemplated few mysteries as much as, “Why do I write?” It’s right up there with, “Why are we here?” Recently my pal Toni Radcliffe invited me to participate in a blog hop addressing this very question.

My first response to the challenge was, “I’m too busy writing.”

Wait, but why am I busy? I relaunched a freelance writing career two years ago. I’ve never had so many assignments, but it’s still a struggle. I need to work even harder to make it sustainable. There are far easier ways to make a living, but I’ve never been more content with how I spend my days. I write mostly because it makes me happy.

But being happy is not the same thing as leading a meaningful life. I want to strike a fine balance between getting what I want and doing the right thing, which involves generosity, hard work and sacrifice. If I continue writing without making enough money to pull my own weight in the long run, that could be a selfish choice. Now is a good time to take stock, and look at how my internal engine of creativity and productivity has improved.

What am I working on?

Few books have affected my life more profoundly than Carol Lloyd’s Creating a Live Worth Living. It’s a self-guided, 12-week course in career design for creative people, and I’ve worked through it several times, either alone or with a buddy. It’s far more practical and less pseudo-spiritual than the more well-known The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It has helped me sort out what really matters, and how I operate differently from other people.

For example, Lloyd asks students to figure out their work style. Last time I worked through the exercise several years ago, I didn’t believe the “whirling dervish” fit, but as I come more into my own strength, this metaphor manifests.

The whirling dervish has turned out to be a popular model for many of my students who cannot imagine focusing on less than three full careers at a time. What is important about the whirling dervish is that the three careers are interdependent on one another. They don’t pull you in three different directions, but spin you inward!

Besides the fact that photography, fibre craft, gardening and cooking have become more integral to how I live, my work as a writer spins inevitably on different courses.

Two years ago I hired a writing coach, Jodi Helmer, and began focusing on freelance journalism. This has begun bearing fruit, and I now contribute regularly to several magazines. Two I am most proud of: Edible Toronto and Gluten-Free Living.

I have an assignment for each of them currently in the oven, but look online for my recent essay: Nettles, Better a Bite Than a Sting. Look in the October 2014 issues of Gluten-Free Living, which should hit news stands soon, for my update on what is known about non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For the same magazine I also write a column, “Study Sessions”, surveying the most recent scientific research about celiac disease, related disorders and the gluten-free diet.

I expected freelancing to absorb all my writing creativity for a while, especially because a history of depression, anxiety and inattention has curtailed my energy for most of my life. But the reverse has happened, like the centripetal force that propels a dancer. The more I write, the more I write. Improved self-confidence partly explains this.

Apart from journalism, there is one thing more than any other I want to accomplish in this life: to write a novel. I dabbled in fiction throughout my early life. At times it became all-consuming. I started working in journalism in my 20s, but then I had small children and no time for additional projects. Then personal trauma in my early 30s utterly changed my self-concept, initiating major depression. My writing became fragmented and unfocused. Fiction fell by the wayside. I kept journals to figure everything out. Writing helped me survive, but seldom could I follow through on anything.

A breakthrough came during National Novel Writing Month in 2003 when I sketched the first draft of a novel. I did it again in 2004. This work related to some of the trauma from nine years earlier. Then I struggled to revise and get it off the ground, but my concentration, memory and self-confidence were still inadequate for the long haul of writing a novel. Then I had major writer’s block that went on for years, possibly related to my mother’s death in 2008. But despite setbacks, my life was getting better.

Last January, I broke the writer’s block by setting aside time every day and starting a series of exercise to write about the same characters and situations from the 2004 draft. My enthusiasm grew. I am happy to say a more thoughtful, mature manuscript is finally in process.

Besides paid assignments from magazines and work on the novel, I have non-fiction essays and occasional poetry underway. I blog regularly to build a platform for my paid work. None of this feels like too much. At the age of 50 I am writing harder than I ever thought possible, until recently. Old distractions and mechanisms of avoidance keep falling away like the shell of a chrysalis. I haven’t experienced so much energy and focus since my teens.

How does my writing differ from others in this genre?

So I’m working on a novel and writing about food, none of which identifies how I see myself professionally as a journalist. I have a bachelor of science in wildlife biology, minor in ecology. Natural history has always been another passion, and in university I was groping toward becoming a naturalist. Hopefully I will have more opportunities to write in that vein.

Take a look at the main sections of any major newspaper or information website and you will not find a nature section. Environmentalism may relate vaguely to the majority lifestyle, but only tenuously with the business and economy that govern our society. How can something that surrounds and sustain us be left so far out of the equation?

I felt this alienation personally during the years I lived in a small apartment, under-employed and well below the poverty line. Nature inspired and fed my soul, but was easy to neglect. I tried planting seeds in a small garden behind my building, but someone else saw my fresh-tilled soil and planted potatoes. Disappointed, I withdrew my roots even further. I had not been raised to cope with landlessness. Deprived of opportunity and self-sufficiency, I entered the paradigm affecting the majority of Earth’s human population, where no one expects to be able to improve themselves.

When the planet barely sustains you, it’s hard to care about the environment. Unfortunately, true sustainability probably will require us to drop our expectations about wealth and comfort, and adopt a much simpler, more difficult standard of living. The only way to achieve it will involve developing a consensus in society. We must learn to ascribe value to simple living, rather than equating it with poverty. Most people cannot endure the constant barrage of images promising big houses, fast cars and abundant leisure. Whether or not we can negotiate a global shift in beliefs and desires will determine our survival as a species.

I’m nowhere near that place myself, but these ideas launched a journey of rediscovery. As with all life’s major problems, I wrote about it. And so this blog began: Speed River Journal, an urban naturalist’s progress.

Why do I write what I do?

Environmental scientists debate about the state of wilderness, and about humanity’s intervention in climate change. Is nature something pure and remote? To save the Earth, do we need to preserve something pristine where mankind does not interfere? Do such places even exist any more? Is nature equipped to protect itself? Since our species has become so intelligent, have we the responsibility to use our technology to make things better, perhaps lift the world to a higher state? Or will we only make things worse?

These questions are akin to the mystery, “Why do I write?” Humans are congenitally self-interested. History shows we never clean up our worst messes. This does not come from a failure of ideas, but lack of genuine altruism. Overall, it is not in our nature to make the necessary sacrifices.

I write about nature because we are embedded in it. It is our meaning. I hope that some people by reading might become a little more intimate with it, relating to it as something not out of reach or accessible only on long weekends. Earth, air, soil, water and living things are here and now, wherever we are.

Journalism is meant to inform. It is more intent on giving people all the facts than persuading them one way or another. It tries its best to be truly objective. The best I can do is be aware of my biases and try to see the all the sides of an argument.

The most compelling vehicle for information is good storytelling. In this regard, good journalism and good fiction are kin. Neither form should try to sell anything as much as make you think. Fiction is sometimes better at scraping away our expectations of what the characters should do or say, uncovering ideas that are universal and sometimes unspeakable.

How does my writing process work?

I used to eschew routine. Wanting complete freedom, I expected inspiration to drive me. If I waited long enough, it would come.

This is a futile approach, although we must put ourselves in the path of inspiration and be patient, working hard all the while. Muses have a magical, unpredictable quality, but you can’t reach them by wasting time or avoiding unpleasant emotions. The mind must be engaged. If you want inspiration to write, you must be writing.

Writing is a way of being. It’s an immersion in words and ideas. To achieve this I’ve built more rituals into my life to keep me in the path of oncoming light.

Rituals make life predictable. But that’s the point: I know what comes next, without having to talk myself out of doing something else. This would have seemed monotonous to me even two years ago, but it has become compelling and powerful.

Some variety is necessary, of course. For example, I break from routine by going to a quiet writers’ meetup on Monday mornings.

To establish new habits, I give myself incentive. Sometimes bribery works. For a week of good habits I reward myself with points to download music from iTunes. No writing means no new music. A system of rewards and penalties reminds me of the priorities, and they are becoming second nature.

Such stratagems might not work for everyone. Natalie Goldberg says the mind is the writer’s most essential tool, and we must become expert in its use. Everyone’s works differently. Get to know your tool.

So here’s my ideal day, not a rigid schedule, just a structure to hang things on and keep me focused:

7:30 am. The alarm goes off. In the bathroom I play a game on my phone for a few minutes.

7:45. My morning ritual includes a sun salutation (energizing yoga stretches), working in the garden for at least 15 minutes, and making a pot of tea and a nutritious breakfast.

8:30. I arrive at my desk ready to work. Recently I started filling out a journal first thing, to track certain habits and moods, be more mindful of my well-being. At the bottom, I write three points of gratitude. Next I read and clear my email inbox. Then I use GQueues productivity software to identify my tasks for the day. Things get checked off as I go.

9:30. Read the news and a few blogs using Feedly.

10:30. This is my first block of writing time. The morning’s priority is finding new work opportunites: story ideas to pitch to editors, essays written on spec, and blog posts to build a platform for my work. It’s hard to think about advancing myself, so I’ve set marketing as a morning priority, unless I have an assignment due within three working days.

11:30. Exercise, shower and lunch, ideally a salad. I usually eat lunch while looking at online forums or social media, but taking a longer break from the computer might be preferable.

1:00. Second writing session of the day. This is devoted to a current assignment, if I have one. Otherwise, the afternoon sessions should be devoted to more marketing. If I’m having trouble focusing, I might use a timing application on my phone to set a reasonable time period to work on one thing, usually 90 minutes, without glancing at email, social media or other distractions. This technique has improved my work habits significantly.

2:30. A break to do some fibre craft, usually handspinning.

3:00. This is time to connect with clients and colleagues, send email or visit work-related forums such as Freelance Success.

3:30. Third writing session devoted to current work assignments.

5:30. I pour a glass of red wine and write fiction for two hours. I find alcohol in moderation is useful in letting the creative mind make unexpected leaps. It is not beneficial when I need to absorb information or write accurately. I would never drink while researching, revising or proofreading.

7:30. Work ends and I make dinner

8:00. Dinner with Danny. We usually watch a movie or TV.

9:45. Clean up the kitchen.

10:00. To combat insomnia I avoid social media and computer games for two hours before bed. My evening ritual includes manual creativity such as spinning or knitting, a moon salutation (relaxing yoga stretches), herbal tea and a bedtime snack, and finally reading in an armchair. Internet is only permitted if I want to use my phone to look up something on Wikipedia or a dictionary. I used to read in bed, but my brain didn’t have a clear association between bed and sleeping. Now I avoid the bedroom and getting horizontal until it’s time to sleep.

11:45-12:30. I’m usually drowsy by the time I go to bed, and fall asleep within 10 minutes.

This has been working well. If it needs to get better, that’s another question to tackle as time goes on. For now I’m focusing on the abundant positives.

Why do I do all this? My greatest hope is that something I write will benefit someone else. That would bring a glimmer of immortality.

Pass it on

Part of this blog hop is to tag three more writers to answer these questions.

Tom Franklin at Franklin, Ink is a fiction writer I’ve known online for probably a decade. I’ve appreciated his dedication to the writing process. I learned from him an important principle.

Discipline means remembering what you want.

Tom has told me that idea lacks something for him: a call to action. But with my history of depression, problems with concentration and short-term memory have done more than anything else to curtail my energy and hopefulness. Learning to know and remember what I want has aided my recovery immeasurably.

Michelle Rafter of WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age has served as a role model and unintentional mentor for me the past two years. As I’ve guest-blogged for her, Michelle’s Blogathon allowed me to see the writing I was already doing as a stepping stone to launch the career I always wanted. But I’ve never asked Michelle what motivates her as a writer, so I invite her to respond.

I’m also tagging two other writers I got to know through the Blogathon. Jennifer Willis shares some of my passions: science and fiction writing for starters. We have exchanged guest posts about the intersection between environmentalism and spirituality. Meanwhile, Barb Freda is a fellow food writer and we have exchanged guest posts about foraging in Bermuda and Ontario. I wasn’t able to connect with Jen or Barb about doing the blog hop, so I hope one of them will. How other writers work and what inspires them are fascinating insights.


A handful of herbs for tea

A handful of herbs for tea

I know few better ways to start the day than by wandering into the garden on a misty August morning to collect herbs for breakfast tea. This is a pleasure I discovered one long summer long ago in the first herb garden I planted as a teenager. Adult responsibilities can push youthful sensuality and mindfulness out of the way, but with maturity these rituals return. This year, for the first time in many, I have a growing, healthy collection of herbs to support this habit.

Often I pick only one or two sprigs to add to a morning pot of green tea. Sometimes I collect a handful to blend their varied flavours. In the photo above (centre, then clockwise from left) are lemon verbena, lavender, anise hyssop, peppermint, wild bergamot, pineapple sage and lemon balm.

None of their flavours require explanation except perhaps the bergamot. Many gardeners are familiar with its close relative, bee balm (Monarda didyma), with scarlet flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds. This M. fistulosa is a native species with pale lilac flowers. It was the first wildflower I ever grew from collected seeds, but that also was long ago. The seed for this plant came from Richters Herbs last spring. It’s a perennial and won’t bloom until next year. It would make a good addition to a meadow garden.

Members of the Monarda genus are called bergamot because their flavour resembles the bergamot orange, a Mediterranean citrus fruit used to flavour Earl Grey. Tea made from these herbs bears a good similarity.

Pineapple sage tastes more pine than apple, but its fruity fragrance adds a slightly, pleasantly bitter character to an herbal mixture.

Lemon verbena, lavender, mint and lemon balm can also grow well in containers. Anise hyssop and pineapple sage are shrubby and need a lot of room for their roots. I’m trying to grow wild bergamot in a pot this year, and so far it’s doing well.

Here’s a bonus August morning photo of our neighbours’ lovely back deck and planters.

Deck planters

Caterpillar in my houseplants

Tiger moth caterpillar

If you grow it, they will come. A tiger moth caterpillar is feeding on my indoor succulents. Burro’s tail sedum might not be included in its preferred diet, but this bug is hungry for anything.

We spotted it in our houseplants several weeks ago. At first pale yellow, it shifted to rusty orange.

It’s making a mess, too. We can usually locate it by the pile of frass on the tile floor. Once, when I disturbed the larva, it immediately began producing bright green poop, an alarming if innocent defence.

I hardly know any caterpillars on sight, but this appears to be Spilosoma virginica, or Virginia tiger moth. At this stage it is known as the yellow woollybear, resembling its familiar relative, the woollybearPyrrharctia isabella. They’re members of the tiger moths, named for the bold black-and-white blotches or stripes on the adult wings of some species. But the family name Arctiidae comes from the Greek word for bear. Our visitor, if it keeps eating its breakfast, is destined to become a fat-bodied white moth.

How it got into my houseplants is no great mystery. They’re situated in our breakfast nook. The door onto the deck sometimes stands open for a few minutes. At night while we slip out to look at the moon, a moth might slip in.

These caterpillars are generalists, feeding on grass and groundcovers. Ours prefers to be on the ground. Sometimes it drops to the floor and gets lost for a while. While I’m happy to see it growing and enjoying my succulents, this indoor existence is doomed to misfortune.

Sometimes regular woollybears manage to get into the house. Supposedly they are not difficult to raise. I tried it once last winter. After feeding on greens for a few days, the visitor spun a fragile, half-hearted cocoon, then died.

It’s high time I moved this voracious critter into the garden where it stands a chance of completing its life cycle.

Come for a walk in the woods

Will you come for a walk in the woods with me? We’ll see a rare white form of red clover, some hummingbirds close up, a gartersnake, an Atlantis fritillary and more beauty.

Click the photo to view a gallery of eight images. Click an arrow at the margin of each photo to navigate. Use the back button on your browser to return to this page.

Dew on maple leaf

We visited the cottage on the weekend. These photos were taken on a walk along the road. Thanks to the neighbours who invited us to watch the hummingbird feeders on their deck overlooking the lake.

Who’s to blame: reversing pollution trends in Lake Erie

Lake Erie

In a recent post about a visit to the beach where I grew up, I mentioned Lake Erie had responded well to international efforts to clean up pollution. Such was the case in 1990s, but no longer, as current news and debates are headlining. Earlier this week, a severe bloom of poisonous algae left 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, without safe drinking water.

I haven’t kept up-to-date because I don’t live there anymore. It’s easy to go back for a few hours, see things looking the same and assume they haven’t changed. Still, my ignorance is inexcusable. When I flush my toilet, the water ultimately goes to the Speed River of this blog, and, via the Grand River, drains into Lake Erie.

The lake’s water quality has been declining (again) for the past decade or so. A severe algal bloom caused problems in 2011, and one municipality in Ohio lost drinking water last summer. People have called for action, research has been done and recommendations have been made, but now many people are wondering why this hasn’t led to more action, and who is to blame.

Pollution in Lake Erie in the 1960s and ’70s resulted largely from sewage effluent. That problem has been addressed, and led to cleaner water 20 years later.

This time there’s a different culprit. As reported by CBC News, the International Joint Commission released a report in February, blaming farmers. Fertilizer makes runoff rich in fertilizer, which feeds an overpopulation of algae.

Before we return absentmindedly to our garden parties and barbecues, let’s think about who eats the farm produce. Or more to the point, who needs the energy that had boosted corn crops for ethanol production? And while agriculture produces the majority of pollution, a lot also comes from lawns and golf courses.

We need to reduce our dependency on phosphorous fertilizers.

As for the zebra mussels, which I speculated had helped clean up the lakes with their filter-feeding activity, apparently they release additional nutrients into the water, increasing the problem. And while they remove suspended particles for clearer water, sunlight penetrates deeper, increasing the growth of water plants, fouling beaches. Essentially, they’re changing the ecology of the Great Lakes, and it’s no improvement for native species. So there’s no reason to like these toe-slicing invaders.

zebra mussels

Remember, Lake Erie is a relatively shallow lake and all the water flushes through it in about 2.5 years. That means we can clean it up quickly, which is lucky for people living around it. But as far as the rest of the Great Lakes are concerned, Erie is the canary in the coal mine. If we don’t address these problems now, things will slowly get worse throughout the other lakes, which take decades or centuries to flush. This problem won’t go away fast.

Playing on that beach may be a thing of my past, but it shouldn’t be for millions of other people who live around these lakes.