Archive for the ‘Rants & Ramblings’ Category
Warning: this post is pretty low on the Christmas Cheer Index.
I cringe when I hear the word “harvest” being used in a variety of sneaky ways, the primary one being a benign-sounding substitute for “kill.” Right now I am listening to a fellow speaking earnestly in favour of sports hunting of polar bears (a threatened species), uttering that word three or four times in one sentence. Listening uncritically, one might almost think that being “harvested” is good for the bears. The same word is often applied to cutting down trees, as in logging or lumbering. Related to the latter is the concept of “managed forests.”
“Manage,” is another benign-sounding word, behind which lurks “exploit.”
“Harvest” derives ultimately from an old Indo-European word for gathering, plucking or cutting, as is done to crops or to the fruits of wild plants. Aside from hunting and gathering societies, it has generally been applied to cultivated crops.
“Manage,” meaning “to control” or “to handle,” derives from the same root as Latin “manus” — hand.
Both these words hark back to a time when crops were planted and gathered by hand, a process involving physical exertion, hardship and sweat. That is much less the case with present-day mechanized operations intended to supply “products” to an international marketplace. Hunting, too, was a risky business without modern firearms, and certainly nothing like present-day industrial meat production.
Most of us consume the gifts of the earth without paying for them — paying in the sense of physical discomfort and effort, even suffering, because we are largely removed from the processes involved in bringing them to us. Like wealth, suffering is unequally distributed in this world, concentrated in places that have been excessively managed, their resources harvested to bring convenience, comfort and delight to the inhabitants of the fortunate “first world.” And a good deal of suffering is experienced by the creatures entrained in the machine that is industrial agriculture, a fact that most of us (myself included) are happy to ignore when sitting down to eat something roasted.
This is a complex issue and I have no answers to offer, except this: we humans need to feel reverence for the earth. We can’t survive without it. When people go into outer space, they do so inside a facsimile of earth. Despite our cosmic aspirations, we are creatures of earth. We satisfy our appetites, physical and otherwise, by drawing upon earth’s resources, often with negative consequences to other creatures or to the earth itself. At the very least we must acknowledge that.
Happy holidays to all!
In the past few months I’ve been alerted to words that writers should avoid. “Had,” “that,” any word ending in -ly and now “was.”
In a recent meeting of my critique group someone said that “was” imparts an inherent passivity to a sentence or paragraph. I agree that the true passive voice often used in academic writing, as in “A was killed by B,” has (almost) no place in fiction writing. But does that apply to any instance of “was”?
This is a tough one. You can’t just sweep through a piece of writing vacuuming up every instance of “was” (or its plural cousin “were”). The easiest targets are instances of the true passive voice, such lumpy atrocities as “The sandwich was eaten by him.” But what about “The house was red”? I don’t think “The house had been painted red,” is any improvement. “Had been” is “was” in disguise, isn’t it? “Was” (a three-letter, one-syllable word!) is indispensable in certain situations.
And what about “is”? “Is” is just “was” in present tense, but I don’t hear anyone accusing it of excessive passivity (probably because most fiction is written in the past tense).
Reading something at work the other day, about standards for metadata, I found the following: “Contexts are of two kinds: Events in which (or as a result of which) something changes, and States, in which they don’t.” In writing, descriptions of linked events are desirable because they contain action, but descriptions of states, in which nothing changes, must be regarded with suspicion and kept to a minimum. As though description is an ever-present irritant, like ants at a picnic.
I’ve already written a post about this, I realize.
This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on (with the offending words italicized):
Soon we were clear of the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance. By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast. There was a steady breeze, a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated. The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow. The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.
As someone pointed out, every sentence has an occurrence of “was” or “were.” After some denial and grumbling, I made changes:
By the time we left the harbour and cleared the treacherous ledge near its entrance, it was plain that we were to have one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast. A steady breeze blew, a little south of west, ten knots, I estimated. The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow. The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed with pink and gold and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.
So now there are 3 “was/weres”, rather than 6, but is the result that much better?
With respect to my fellow writers, I think that before counting instances of “was” (or any other word) in a sentence or paragraph, the critic should ask whether that sentence or paragraph reads smoothly and contributes to the story. “Was” after all, is the past tense of the verb “to be.” Being something or having a specific quality is inherently not an event but a state. I am old. You are young. He was young once. We will all be dead some day. Which is why it’s stupid to quibble about every instance of “was”.
Yesterday I was browsing around the displays at a local garden centre, admiring the clever combinations of new varieties in autumnal colours and wondering if I would find something absolutely necessary for my admittedly overcrowded beds. I happened to overhear a conversation among three prosperous looking middle-aged women. One was holding forth vehemently about the injustice of being a gardener in a place where urban deer were not being “culled.” It was simply outrageous, she said, to expect gardeners to erect fences and other barriers to keep the pests out. Something Must be Done. I knew that if I stayed within range, there was a good chance that I would intrude into the conversation with what would be distinctly unpopular opinions, so I moved farther away, but as always seems to be the case when you’re hearing something you don’t want to, it was almost impossible not to. (Besides, people used to expressing strong opinions often have carrying voices). So I left.
A post about urban deer has been inevitable since they became more populous in this area a year or so ago. I had my first visit by a buck last March, as I reported in earlier posts. He ate quite a number of plants here, but certainly did not destroy the garden. I find that the plants whose loss I’ve regretted the most in the past couple of months are the hostas, especially a large green and white one whose presence was the finishing touch in the area near my pond. Right now I’m missing their gradual colour change to the rich, tarnished gold that is the very essence of the turning year.
But I find it difficult to understand these women’s continuing anger at these creatures. Why can’t they be grateful that they have gardens at all, in this very fortunate part of the world? It’s not as though they are farmers whose livelihood is threatened by marauding deer. And why is the preferred solution one that requires the destruction of nonhuman life forms? Do these people really want men with clover traps and bolt guns roaming around the neighbourhood? Why are human beings so eager to kill things?
Okay, so at this point I make myself remember my own rantings about raccoons, whom I find more annoying and destructive than deer. Instead of nipping at foliage, they dig deep holes, sometimes uprooting plants that dry out and die before I am aware of their plight. How many times have I had to fish around in my pond for rocks from its edge that these critters have dumped in while looking for worms or bugs? How many times have I referred to raccoons in terms that I hesitate to use in print? I don’t deny any of this, but have I ever wished them dead? Have I ever so much as contemplated calling a “pest” control service? Never, because I actually think that the wild creatures that inhabit the garden and the region in which the garden is located are a necessary part of the place, and that I as a gardener must accept them, like the weather, weeds, slugs, droughts and windstorms.
In other words, ladies, suck it up. Use your superior Homo sapiens brains to think of ways to outwit the deer. Get rid of plants that are deer magnets, or be prepared to net or fence. At the very least, step out of your smug, entitled rut and try to see the world you live in from a different angle.
Here is a quotation from Henry Beston, writer and gardener, that seems an apt ending for this post:
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Last weekend, instead of writing a blog post or making garden plans, I flew to Toronto for a short visit. The winter there has been abnormally warm, but I didn’t see much evidence of that. On Monday, March 5 it was -14C, which felt like -20 with the wind chill. And the landscape definitely had the brown look I recalled from late winter in Saskatchewan.
In the City of Heavy Doors (more below), weather can be ignored. There is too much to see and do. In the 3.5 days of my visit, I experienced two Lieder recitals, a church service, the CN Tower, the Art Gallery of Ontario, downtown, the CBC building and museum, the University of Toronto campus and the transit system. And some memorable meals and conversations.
On Sunday afternoon, I went to a recital of songs by Brahms and Schumann performed by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. I discovered the songs of Franz Schubert through two CDs by these artists issued in 1998 and 2001, entitled Lieder and Lieder Volume II (both on EMI). For me, these recordings are like caskets of exquisite jewels, to which I return regularly. Sunday’s performance was notable for its intensity. The selection of songs perfectly represented the combination of ecstasy and anxiety that is German Romanticism. A review is available here.
Monday was a good day for visiting the CN Tower, sunny and clear (but cold). For someone who had never been to southern Ontario before, it was a great way to get an idea of the landscape. I recommend the topmost viewing platform in the Sky Pod, with its pushed out windows. Downtown looks like an intricate 3D mosaic from there, with shadows adding to the effect as the sun descends.
Head offices of the big Canadian banks can be seen from here, a sight to stir up various emotions, depending on how you feel about those banks.
Then there is the famous glass floor, just below the main Look Out Level. One is assured that the glass will support the weight of 14 large hippos (emphasis mine). I took a quick walk over the glass floor, muttering “14 large hippos,” and this picture:
The friend I was visiting is a longtime resident of Toronto and expert in getting around the city. As we dodged from the subway and in and out of various buildings, I privately started to think of Toronto as the City of Heavy Doors, I suppose to keep the weather out — cold in winter and hot in summer. Some had signs directing one to pull or push hard, so I couldn’t be the only one to notice this. To get away from the cold en route to the CN Tower, we walked through the Toronto Convention Centre, where a convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada was under way. It’s been a long time since I saw so many men in suits all in one place. There was also a really big bird…
Going from place to place, we relied almost entirely on the transit system, a combination of buses, subway and trolleys that seems to work amazingly well and is used by Torontonians of all stripes. And yes, there are mice living among the rails of the subway. I saw one while waiting for the westbound train on my way to the airport on Tuesday afternoon — a tiny black creature scampering around. Someone ought to study them; I’ll bet they’re evolving into a separate species of urban mouse.
So I was quite impressed by what we Westerners sometimes call The Centre of the Universe. Another visit is in order.
Back in Victoria, I was welcomed by a visitor to my garden on Wednesday morning:
Despite the leg problem, he jumped the fence into a neighbour’s yard and spent part of the day there. Now I take a look around for him every time I go out, at once hoping that he’s gone and that he’s still around. I hope his leg gets better too. I think he nibbled on some emerging daylily foliage, but that’s all. There isn’t much in the way of delectable foliage around as yet, but a big guy like this could do serious damage once plants start to grow in spring.
Ever since Pete, one of my three cats, was killed on a nearby street, I have been much more restrictive with my remaining two cats, Zeke and Zoey. Zoey is less apt to roam, so I trust her to go out alone after supper, even on these still-dark evenings. But Zeke goes out on a leash. He has taken to it surprisingly well. We amble around, following our nose. Well, Zeke follows his nose, and I follow him, rerouting him only when he’s inclined to take off into a neighbour’s yard, through a hedge or over a fence.
These expeditions usually take place around nine in the evening. I strap Zeke into his harness, attach the leash and out we go. I take a flashlight along, just in case, but Zeke definitely has the advantage when it comes to night vision. More than once I’ve discovered rocks that I could swear don’t exist in daylight. When Zeke decides to take a short cut across a perennial bed or between shrubs, I have to illuminate the scene so I don’t step on anything important. Sometimes I tell him that his preferred path doesn’t work for me, and we have to take a different route. Zeke is suprisingly amenable to these negotiations.
He doesn’t always follow the same route, and the length of our expeditions is determined by weather; if it’s cold, wet or windy, a quick in-and-out is enough. On calm, damp evenings that are relatively warm, we stay out longer and go farther. Sometimes we just circle the pond half a dozen times, stopping at intervals while Zeke checks out the smells in various spots. More ambitious rambles start when we cross a narrow perennial border along the west side of the house. I’ve managed to convince Zeke that the best crossing spot is one where there is a stepping stone for me to use, so as to avoid trampling dormant plants. We sneak through our neighbours’ front yard and down their driveway to the boulevard. A couple of times we’ve gone quite far from home; in fact, I’ve asked Zeke if he used to wander around like this when I let him out on his own, but of course he doesn’t say.
I’ve certainly gained a new perspective on the garden and immediate neighbourhood on these cat-walks. Who would have suspected that a dried out stump of a foxglove plant would have such significance for the cat? He sniffs it and rubs his face on it repeatedly before moving on. Certain parts of neighbours’ hedges also offer endless fascination. There is hardly ever anyone else around, and the streets look surreal in the weird orange light. Once we did meet a couple who told me that a man who lived on their street long ago also used to take a cat for walks on a leash. So Zeke and I are continuing a tradition!
I think Zeke enjoys our walks, and he definitely likes the “kitty treats” I hand out when we get home, as a reward for good behaviour. (Zoey gets treats too, even though she’s been inside).
I was out in the garden on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, doing what I expected to be routine cleanup — cutting down old perennial stalks, removing the odd overgrown specimen, etc. But I realized I had a bigger problem on my hands — peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), entrenched and spreading all over one of my sunnier and tree-root-free perennial beds. A planting of variegated irises and a specimen of Eryngium yuccifolium were threatened with oblivion as the peach-leaf pest sent out new offsets and and an ever-thickening mat of roots.
I happily included this plant in my post called Tough Plants for Dry Shade, and I still think it belongs there, but now I issue a warning: do not plant Campanula persicifolia in places other than dry shade, especially if you garden on light, sandy soil. In hospitable, sunny spots, it becomes a rampant thug. Plant delphiniums there instead.
In a hasty attempt to get rid of the unwanted bellflowers, I went from hand-pulling (useless except for seedlings or brand-new offsets), to stabbing with a trowel, to deploying the gardener’s big gun — a digging fork. That did the trick, except that I dug up a bunch of tulip and crocus bulbs along with the bellflower mats, and, worst of all, sliced off a nice hyacinth bud that was awaiting spring under the soil surface.
That’s the really awful thing about spreading plants — they cover up other plants and, unless the gardener has a really good memory and/or really meticulous records, render them invisible. The busy gardener glances over a bed and sees nice, healthy plants of peach-leaf bellflower, totally forgetting about the irises, eryngiums and bulbs that were planted there in the first place. When the truth finally dawns and Something Must Be Done Right Now, havoc and destruction ensue.
Some may say I’m being unfair to Campanula persicifolia. Just because I was too lazy to keep an eye on things, I need not vilify the bellflower, which is an attractive and reliable plant. Maybe so, but gardeners should know about a plant’s bad habits before they introduce it into their premises, so I think this screed is justified. (And of course I’m still upset about that hyacinth).
On a related topic, following my post on Plant ID, in which I made observations about different kinds of plant labels, I actually received as a Christmas gift a couple of dozen rather nice permanent metal labels with solid plastic stakes to hold and display them. I’ve decided to use them to mark valued plants that are at risk of being overwhelmed by the rambunctious “tough plants” that I have allowed to proliferate here. The idea is that the labels will remind me to check on the well-being of the plants they represent, thus ensuring that the markers will not be of the RIP sort.
Oh yes — and what is Garden Enemy #1? In my garden, it’s those maple trees, of course. I’ve ranted about them before, and will likely do so again.
OK, this isn’t about gardening, and not really about writing either, but… I knew this would happen — eventually a post like this would show up in this pure and simple blog. Oh well, here goes…
The past few weeks I have several times found myself thinking that I need to move to a different planet. I am obviously not suited to this one. To tell the truth, I have suspected this for decades, but now there’s no more doubt. When I hear something called “music” that to me sounds like a rhythmic riot, or someone yelling with bashing noises in the background called “a really great song,” I know I’m an alien here. Am I the only one who thinks it’s not OK for there to be 7 billion humans on Earth, but only a few thousand bears, cougars, tigers and other large predators in ever-shrinking wilderness enclaves? And what about the prevalence of thick-necked, bullet-headed creatures driving huge black pickup trucks? Those types need their own planet, totally paved in asphalt. Sometimes I think it’s the one we all live on, the way things are going. Which is why there are days I want to get out.
So where would I like to live instead of this beleaguered Earth? That’s the problem; I don’t think the place has been discovered yet. It would have to be an earth-like planet, of course, with a temperate climate rather like that of Vancouver Island, except with reliable rain in the summer, because I would want to be a gardener in my new home. The human population would be relatively small and not dominant. There would be great forests and savage beasts to counteract hubris. There would be blank spots on the edges of maps, labelled “unexplored regions.” Cities would be small and ancient. Introverts would outnumber extroverts about two to one. Change would be leisurely and everyone would be vegetarian. There would, of course, be hot and cold running water and reliable plumbing, but transportation would be by bicycle and other human-powered vehicles within towns and by rail between them. There would be cats. Loud noises would be discouraged, but good conversation highly esteemed. There would be coffee shops with resident string quartets.
Government? Economic system? Aargh, don’t make me deal with that stuff. Is there anything about the economy of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings? Magic — that’s the thing, and happy hobbit farmers and millers, an idealized medieval England. But yes, this business of creating a real, functioning world is more complicated than it seems in the first flush of enthusiasm. It’s a good thing that most fictional worlds are just that — fictional — and so not required actually to function. (Hmm, this seems to be turning into a Writing post after all).
So if I don’t want to build my own planet — then what? I know — I need a one-way ticket to H.P. Lovecraft’s dreamworld, so delightfully described in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” Ulthar, that would be the place. Listen to this: …the sea of red tiled roofs and cobbled ways and the pleasant fields beyond, all mellow and magical in the slanted light… Then twilight fell, and the pink walls of the plastered gables turned violet and mystic, and little yellow lights floated up one by one from old lattice windows. And sweet bells pealed in the temple tower above, and the first star winked softly above the meadows across the Skai. With the night came song, and Carter nodded as the lutanists praised ancient days from beyond the filigreed balconies and tesselated courts of simple Ulthar. Sounds like my kind of place (as long as the plumbing is adequate). The trouble is, I have no idea how to get there. Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s master-dreamer, has disappeared. He was last seen climbing into a weird coffin-shaped clock, having first morphed into something unspeakable…
So I guess I’m stuck here on Earth, with all its faults and marvels. There are cats and coffee within reach, and last time I checked, the plumbing was OK.