We decided to replace our 38-year-old oil furnace with a natural gas one. No more oil tank issues. But what about the matter of getting the gas from the street to the house? Quotes from the gas company revealed a difference of $800 between the “we dig” and “you dig” options. So we spent Saturday digging a 40-foot trench 18 inches deep and 6 inches wide.
A couple of things to keep in mind here — the trench followed the concrete front walk to the house, along the edge of a large bed containing perennials, shrubs and bulbs. Years ago, we acquired a huge load of beach cobbles and positioned them artistically along that edge. Most of those cobbles hadn’t seen light for many years, having been overrun by enthusiastically seeding plants (California poppies and sweet violets) and buried in soil that seems to rise up magically from the depths.
This is what this area looked like in the summer of 2010.
This is what it looked like a couple of days ago.
And here are all those beach cobbles, excavated and lugged into the driveway.
This is the pile of plant material removed in the process.
I salvaged an Eryngium variifolium and a Convolvulus sabatius, but dug up and disposed of a lot of Viola odorata and Eschscholzia californica.
This is what the site looks like now.
We managed to salvage this patch of sedum growing around some larger rocks by doing a bit of tunnelling. This was another advantage of digging the trench ourselves — it’s most unlikely that the gas company guys would have done anything to avoid disturbing plants. A big factor in making the job relatively easy, however, was the light, sandy soil. Aside from those imported beach stones, it was nearly rock-free.
Altogether, the project looks like a success so far. The salvaged eryngium and convolvulus are back in their original spots and seem to be OK. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before the beach stones are buried once more.
Last week, I attended an event at my public library (where I am employed, but that’s not relevant to this post), featuring Betsy Warland, writer, poet, editor and author of Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. She began with a performance poem, a gesture of casting a net which drew the audience into an intensely personal view of writing in the area of memoir. Ms. Warland spoke of family dynamics, the death of her mother and the necessity of challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions about one’s life which she calls the “coma story.” She also introduced “Oscar,” an interactive online salon on her website built around her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between. Ms. Warland invited other writers and artists to engage in this conversation.
Ms. Warland’s talk was followed by a conversation initiated by representatives of the Community Arts Council and library staff on the theme of resources for writers — including self-published ones. This was truly refreshing. Self-published authors have grown accustomed to exclusion, and here were community institutions reaching out, requesting our suggestions. Needless to say, suggestions burst forth, jostling against one another, combining and amplifying. It was a most rewarding evening.
I was happy to set this positive experience against the dreary slog of comments in another forum — discussions on LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild. There, the argument on the theme of “Is Self-Publishing Evil?” went on and on, with at least one vocal individual saying over and over again that 99% of self-published material is “crap,” generated by self-indulgent slobs too lazy to learn the craft and earn the privilege of being published by a Real Publisher.
Returning to the presentation at the library, which reminded me that writing is a bigger field than the arena of TP versus SP. Publishing is a subset of writing, and the sharing of creative efforts through the internet cannot be labelled with the scornful term “not good enough to be traditionally published.” People write for many different reasons and define success in many different ways. While it’s true that writers aspiring to make a lot of money by selling their novels have to create a particular type of written product, that is by no means the only way to achieve success in the art of the written word. No longer are “traditional,” “vanity” or “none” the only available publication options. Technology has opened avenues for writers and many are racing down them.
A few final thoughts — publishers and editors are made, not born. Many publishing companies were started by groups of writers who wanted to get their stuff out. Editors begin as readers and writers. Writers are people who write, not exalted members of an anointed elite.
The pile of books on my bedside table got so large and unbalanced, a disaster was imminent. Working from the top down, this is what I found:
The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf.
The Eagle and the Raven and House of Dreams, both by Pauline Gedge.
Great Cat Stories by Roxanne Willems Snopek.
Gardens Aflame by Maleea Acker.
Titus Groan and Gormenghast both by Mervyn Peake.
Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay.
That’s the top layer. Holding them up were the following:
The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft.
Canadian Garden Words by Bill Casselman.
Henry Mitchell On Gardening.
The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation by John A. Livingston.
The Cat Lover’s Companion.
Ariel by Sylvia Plath.
Holy Bible : authorized King James version.
Explanation: I started reading the KJV of the Bible a couple of years ago, intending to make a Slow Reading project of it (even wrote a blog post about it). Well, it’s very slow. I’ve had a long-standing interest in H.P. Lovecraft, especially his character Herbert West, whom I adopted and enhanced into a trilogy. Because of the type of person Herbert is, I’m always on the lookout for books with dubious protagonists, hence Raw Head…, which is about a psychotic medical student in the 18th century. Recently I’ve been writing a blog post about evil protagonists, hence Dexter and the Gormenghast books (which I think I’ll re-read, yet again).
Pauline Gedge’s historical novels are detailed and vivid, great for losing oneself in when that’s what one needs to do.
I like cats and two live in the house, so I sometimes read about cats.
I’m a keen gardener and keep Henry Mitchell’s writings on that subject close at hand. This interest has created an awareness of the relationship between human beings and the earth, which is why the books by John Livingston and Maleea Acker are there. I recently heard Acker speak about her book, which is about Garry Oak ecosystems. Since I garden on a despoiled part of such an ecosystem, it seems to be required reading.
I bought Plath’s Ariel after I found myself copying out some of the poems by hand from a copy borrowed from the library.
So I’m not actually reading all these books, but I assembled them for a variety of reasons. Some of them will be returned to the library or their permanent spots on my bookshelves, but I suspect quite a few will stay on the bedside table. I’ll rebuild the pile, making sure that collapse is unlikely.
What with other things going on in my life recently (such as income tax), I have become disconnected from my garden. Today I finally spent some time in it, edge-clipping and weeding, noting in the process that some of the blue poppies have rapidly developing buds. Also notable…
These bergenias in the front garden got to the blooming stage because I covered them with a chicken-wire Bucky barrier. It’s a good thing I took this picture, however, because once I removed the barrier, three of them were prematurely deadheaded, most likely by Bucky. He hasn’t been visiting the back garden much lately, though…
because of this simple barrier — nearly invisible lightweight plastic mesh attached to two long stakes. The orange rope and reflective ribbons are there to make the fence visible to deer at night, and also to deter birds from flying into it. Since we put this up in Bucky’s favourite entry spot to the back garden, he hasn’t returned. I admit I feel a bit guilty, because he must have found the pond a convenient watering hole. The trouble was that he didn’t stop at getting a drink and loafing on the lawn.
These rather gaudy parrot tulips look ridiculous in their chicken-wire cage, but they are in bloom. It’s funny how valuable something seems if you think you’ve saved it from disaster.
In the meantime…
With the new growth of ferns and perennials, and blue-flowering plants such as this rosemary and the ubiquitous bluebells, there is sometimes a blue-and-gold look to parts of the garden.
This is a good example of a “borrowed view.” My garden looks much bigger from this perspective, but the shrubs behind the big Euphorbia “Humpty-Dumpty” (yes, that’s really the name of this variety) belong to my neighbour.
Income tax wins.
In the absence of my intended pithy comments, I offer this image.
Pithy comments return next weekend, I hope.
Recently, a week of warm sunny weather made new growth leap up and reminded me that some plants need to be supported, the earlier the better. Waiting until they collapse before taking measures is not a good idea; the poor things end up slumped and graceless, looking like victims of bondage.
In my garden, the plants in need of support are peonies, delphiniums and a specimen of an unknown Thalictrum with tiny, almost invisible flowers that grows to a luxuriant four feet of lacy green foliage — until the inevitable summer westerly winds, when it develops an unflattering list unless strapped firmly in place.
Specialized metal supports are available in a variety of shapes for different kinds of plants, but they are quite expensive. I rely on combinations of bamboo or wooden stakes and good old garden twine. The first step is to select stakes of suitable height and heft and position three or four of them around the plant. Then I anchor the twine to one of the stakes and wrap it around the rest, securing it to the original stake. Additional sections of twine may be added as the plant grows, resulting in a visually subtle cage that sees the plants through to the fall, when it can be removed. Twine can be reused for a number of years before it becomes too weak and goes into the compost heap.
I use three knots to create these plant supports. The initial knot securing the twine is a Clove Hitch and the final one is two Half Hitches. If I need to join two pieces of twine to form a longer one, I use a Square Knot or Reef Knot. A knot much used by sailors, the Bowline, would probably also be useful in the garden, because it creates a slip-proof loop at the end of a rope, but sadly, I still can’t tie one to save my life. I recommend learning these knots because it’s much easier at the end of the season to untie proper knots than improvised messes that inevitably tangle and bind.
Practicing knot-tying until you can do it quickly and easily is also a good idea. It’s one thing to tie a knot while sitting at a table or standing up straight on both feet. But doing it while balanced on one foot in a perennial border, or holding an asymmetrical position, hoping not to lose one’s balance and squash a bunch of tender shoots is quite another matter. The sooner you can secure your knots, the better.
Much can happen before that, however, such as stepping gingerly into the perennial bed, hoping not to crush innocent plants, teetering in awkward positions while manipulating stakes and string, the surprise lurch when the stake you’re poking into the ground unexpectedly snaps, discovering the string is too short and having to extract yourself from the bed to get more, etc., etc.
Gardening isn’t a sport, exactly, like tennis or cycling, but gardeners can find themselves bending, stretching, reaching, climbing, pounding in stakes, lugging heavy pots and struggling to dig up roots. Sudden twisting motions and mighty yanks can cause injuries that take months to heal. It’s probably a good idea to do some stretching and balancing practice before starting in on the plant support job, especially if you are out of shape from a winter of idleness.
I learned a lot about ancient Greece from Mary Renault and quite a bit about the French Revolution from Hilary Mantel. Reading Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and Arthur made me want to learn more about the facts behind the legends. I knew nothing about the business of making and selling fine china and porcelain until I read Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (which also has an unexpected mini-travelogue of central Florida).
All of these books are works of fiction, but with the bonus of facts, or at least gateways to facts. Fiction is fiction, however, so it’s unfair to expect hard factual information there. Or is it?
Some would say that if a writer decides to use a historical period as the setting for their work, they must learn all about it and be true to the facts. If a novel contains information about a profession or craft, the author is obligated to find out all about it and not guess or extrapolate. Others would argue that unless the plot of the novel directly involves historical events or technical processes, it’s all right for the author to blur things a bit. After all, how many readers are going to bother checking whether a battle was fought on a Tuesday or a Sunday, or what the exact temperature is for firing porcelain? And anyway, no one should expect to learn history or science from novels. If you want to find out about Athens in the time of Socrates, or what Alexander the Great was really like, there are plenty of serious, well-researched books about these subjects.
Well, what do I think?
Except for students, it’s very unlikely that anyone would read a serious, well-researched book on anything if their interest in that subject hadn’t been piqued by something, such as a story in the media or a work of fiction. Authors of novels can contribute to knowledge in this way, and they are most likely to do this by incorporating into their fiction subjects about which they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
I also think writers must exercise responsibility when they incorporate elements from the real world into their fiction. For example, World War I appears several times in my Herbert West Trilogy. It was such an enormous and terrible part of history that I decided I had to treat it with respect, which meant doing a lot of reading about the conditions the soldiers and medical personnel endured. Writing about quasi-fictional places in H.P. Lovecraft’s New England, such as Arkham and Kingsport (thought to be Salem and Marblehead), made me uneasy, as I have never been near these places, but I rationalized my ignorance with their quasi-fictional nature.
Even though fiction is fiction, therefore, it presents a unique opportunity to entice people into reading and learning more about the real world. Writers of novels must keep this in mind, and writers of nonfiction would do well to sharpen their technique and present their facts in prose that is entertaining as well as educational.
Considering that this garden is situated in an old, established suburb only a few kilometers from downtown, there is a surprisingly large population of wildlife.
Yes, it’s the same buck as last March, with an injured foreleg. It seems the injury is permanent, but it doesn’t stop him from jumping fences and finding plants to eat, leading to desperate measures.
Otherwise, there are the usual wonderful things.
This is an odd combination, but quite colourful. The violets have spread throughout the garden and the scent can be overwhelming on a warm spring day. The buck likes them too, but they are tough and don’t seem to mind being nibbled.
I replaced the terra cotta pots with plastic ones that should hold up better when the plants get knocked over by strong winds.
Note the deer-nipped crocus foliage. Fortunately, they have no taste for Meconopsis.
These guys aren’t just cuddling, which means there will be more of them rampaging around the garden, dumping rocks into the pond, digging holes and peeling shingles off the shed roof (which is what they were doing before this).
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about flashbacks in fiction, opining that they are useful but best used sparingly and with specific purposes in mind. Then I began reading a book with helpful chronological flags at the start of some chapters. “The Previous Winter.” “The Present.” “Three Years Earlier.” That got me back to the topic of time shifts.
(Just here I’ll note that I hate labelling chapters to indicate where they are in time. Ideally, time jumps should be signalled clearly within the narrative itself, without the need for little signs saying “You are now in March 2013.” However, I understand that some readers are more easily confused than others and a writer can’t be faulted for helping them out, even at the expense of chronological elegance).
Reading the book with those labels, I was reminded of another reason for flashbacks: a novel opens with the main characters doing something compelling — the proverbial “hook” that draws the reader in. If the book is character- as well as plot-driven, the reader needs to know about the characters’ backgrounds and how they got into the compelling situation in the first place. Obviously it’s not possible to start the book with this stuff, because that will move the “hook” scene beyond the first few pages. Moreover, “backstory” is a dirty word to some. Hence the flashback, to flesh out the characters and give them context once the reader is snared by the drama of the first few pages.
This technique can be formalized if both the narrative present and past feature compelling events. The two story lines can intertwine and reinforce one another, creating a narrative rope to keep the reader firmly tied to the book. Or even if they don’t constitute a storyline of their own, the backstory flashbacks can be used as shots of contrasting mood between chunks of the main story.
I enjoy setting these kinds of parameters and patterns for a work of fiction. Several years ago I wrote a novel in which the chapters alternated between third-person narrator in present tense and first-person past tense. Right now I am trying to get launched on a project alternating chapters featuring the main point-of-view characters (written in third person) with ones in which supporting characters present the fictional world in which the story is set by describing their occupations and professions (in first person). Sadly, I haven’t written enough of this tale as yet to see whether it will work.
Plants are not furniture, but some people try to use them as if they were. Books on landscaping and garden design often advise turning one’s plot of land into a set of “garden rooms” separated by hedges, trellises, shrubs or changes in elevation. That analogy is useful, but some take it further, instructing the homeowner to furnish the garden rooms with suitable plant material as well as actual furniture such as benches.
In selecting plants for a particular space, the architectural approach is useful. It makes sense to think of shapes and proportions before going to a nursery or plant catalogue. This approach, however, cannot ignore the fact that plants are living things that grow and change.
I began thinking about this topic upon seeing brand new gardens laid out and existing plantings undergoing maintenance. The new gardens look so promising — young, healthy, compact plants spaced out in plots of freshly turned and enriched soil, oriental hellebores alternating with ornamental grasses, and a few shrubs to add height. Very nice.
The established planting was one near a large new commercial/residential development intended to have a “village” atmosphere. More than a year ago, legions of blue fescue and lavender plants were installed in a long strip along a major road. At the time I wondered how they would fare, while acknowledging that they looked pretty good, lush yet neat. Recently, an army of landscaping company personnel trimmed, raked and mulched the planting, refreshing it and restoring tidiness.
Looking out at my as yet un-edged and mostly untrimmed beds, I felt more than a twinge of envy at the thought of these orderly plantings, but I have been a gardener long enough to know that application of considerable resources is needed to maintain this state. Plants, as I’ve already said, grow and change. The sofa and coffee table in one’s living room don’t double in bulk over the years or die out in the middle. Rugs may get grubby but they don’t start expanding into adjoining rooms. Perennials, shrubs and groundcovers do all these things, some very quickly. The only way to keep them within the bounds intended for them is to prune, shape, divide and sometimes replace. Even so, some plants die and others fill the spaces left vacant by their deaths. Unintended plants, weeds and others, creep in. The owner of the property may grow tired of the struggle and give up. A few years later there is little or no bare soil to be seen and the proportions and colour schemes so carefully worked out at the planning stage are gone.
If the neat, newly-planted or strictly maintained look is wanted, there are only a few solutions — rip everything out and replace it all at regular intervals, say annually or every two or three years, or choose a few plant varieties that lend themselves to regular trimming, plant them in masses and hire an outfit to keep them in shape.
But is that gardening?
Gardening is more than just keeping things orderly in the “outdoor living space.” Gardening is entering into a relationship with the plants and other living things in the garden, and negotiating with them to achieve a result that is visually and spiritually rewarding. The gardener learns what a plant does through the course of its life, rather than ripping it out when it loses its juvenile charm. Years of successes and failures, experiments and happy surprises, all of that gives a garden a history and makes the person who acquires plants and works with them into a gardener.