Month: June 2012

Saving the Phoenix

A word of warning to writers — be very careful when you wrap up a late night of editing.  Last weekend I did a thorough overhaul on a huge document, getting the final book of my Herbert West Series ready for publication.  I finished it late Sunday night and decided to save a backup copy on a flash drive. Tired and muddled, instead of copying the newly edited document over an older version on the flash drive, I copied the old version over the new one. I didn’t even realize the mistake until I pulled up the document the next day to admire the edits and wondered why it was back to its original length instead of the slim, trim version achieved by deleting countless commas, ellipses, “hads,” “woulds” and “of courses.”

The only thing more devastating is to lose an entire document. I’ve done that too, but was saved by the fact that I always write my stuff in longhand first. Both then and now the real loss was time. I figure it took me a good sixteen hours to redo that editing. Then there’s the uneasy feeling that the lost text was better than the redone version.

I still have more than 100 pages to go before I start formatting the document for upload, and I automatically edit whatever I read — magazine and newspaper articles, weather forecasts, recipes.  One really good thing is nearly 20 mm. of rain yesterday and last night, watering the garden and leaving me free to stay with this project until it’s done.

Look for Hunting the Phoenix early next week!

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A Poisonous Presence

I am about to do in a plant with which I’ve had an uneasy relationship for some time: a specimen of Conium maculatum or poison hemlock. It’s famous for having produced the substance that killed Socrates, and because of this remote association, I was quite surprised to discover that it’s relatively common where I live and garden. It was even more of a surprise when one appeared in my garden a few years ago. The definitive  identifier is the purple spots on the stems, which explain the species name — “maculatum.” (Think of the word “immaculate,” one of whose meanings is “unspotted.” So interesting!)

Not immaculate!

Once I knew what it was, I took a photo of it, dug it up and disposed of it.

This spring, it came back, in exactly the same spot. I suspect that it re-grew from a root fragment left behind. From sheer laziness, I let it grow from a fern-like clump of basal leaves into a statuesque, branching creature, filling out and preparing to bloom. Now that it’s blooming, the time has come. Letting it set and ripen seed would be most inadvisable.

Plants known to be poisonous make gardeners nervous. From rhubarb leaves to aconites and hellebores, many common garden plants are toxic to some degree. I was surprised to see the castor bean plant, Ricinus communis, growing in public parks. It is handsome, with its large, red-tinted leaves, but is also reputed to be the world’s most poisonous plant. The toxin is concentrated in the bean-like seeds, and it may be that in the northern hemisphere the seeds are rarely produced, avoiding the possibility of ingestion by members of the wandering public.

Henry Mitchell observed in an essay on fall-blooming bulbs, “Some people get upset about poisonous plants, yet those of us who are not forever gnawing on flowers need not be deterred. It is startling that people accept that war, automobiles, and power mowers are ordinary hazards, but begin to fidget if there is a colchicum somewhere, as if it might attack or poison one while dozing.”

That’s the thing — poisonous plants must be ingested, or at least touched, in order to do harm. Poison hemlock has been mistaken for parsley, and it appears that animals will occasionally eat it. Yesterday the neighbourhood buck was back in my garden. He nipped the tops off some pea plants that were about to bloom. So much for peas this year, but even so I wouldn’t want the creature to eat poison hemlock. I have always thought poisoning to be a particularly nasty way to die. Poison hemlock is said to cause “ascending muscular paralysis,” which causes death when the respiratory muscles are affected. No convulsions or foaming at the mouth, but still an unpleasant way to go.

So later today I will cut down the plant and dig up as much of the roots as I can track down.  I’ll put the thing in a bag and deposit it in the garbage, thus violating the “no organic matter in the garbage” rule. But I don’t think as toxic a plant as this should be blithely put into compost, either domestic or municipal.

Poison Hemlock in bloom

Unintentional Plant Abuse

On my way to work, I often pass by a sign welcoming passersby to one of the many municipalities in our region. Recently, the sign was refurbished and a stone retaining wall built near it. Whoever designed the wall specified that a number of spaces be left among the stones, in which plants of some species of Heuchera were added as a finishing touch. I thought this was a great idea; I’ve seen similar plants growing from cracks in natural rock walls, watered by seeps and drips. Here, the runoff from the irrigated patch of grass surrounding the municipal sign would likely keep the heucheras in good shape. I admired them every time I walked by, wishing I had the space and means for a similar arrangement in my own garden.

One morning a few weeks ago, several of the plants had been reduced to stumps. My first thought was that they may have been eaten by deer, which seem to like members of the saxifrage family. But the thoroughness of the job indicated otherwise, especially as plants farther along the wall were untouched.

The heucheras must be tough customers, however, because the wounded plants began to grow back. A week ago, they looked quite promising, even as the untouched specimens around the corner were coming into full bloom.

Heuchera growing from retaining wall

Then, last Tuesday, I saw that the re-growing survivors had been whacked back again, down to sad little nubs.

Remnants of Heuchera plant

At first I was shocked and offended, but after a little thought I concluded that this was the work of someone with a string trimmer, hired to do maintenance of the lawn and other plantings around the municipal sign. Maybe this person didn’t realize that the plants were intended to grow out of the wall; to him (or her) they must have simply looked untidy. Fortunately, the trimming was confined to the four or five plants next to the sidewalk; the ones farther away were still untouched.

I phoned the office of the municipality to which the sign belongs and described what had happened. I was informed that the maintenance work was contracted out, and that the person in charge of the contract would contact the company and explain that the wall plants should not be trimmed back.

In the meantime, I hope that the unfortunate heucheras have the oomph to regrow yet again.

This incident relates to something I’ve thought about as I observe public and institutional landscaping being installed. It’s clear that the plantings are designed by people who know something about plants and what conditions are suitable for them. The finished arrangements are usually attractive, and over time develop as intended by their designers. But in some cases, a decline sets in as maintenance is done badly or not at all. Weeds creep in and take over. Some of the original plants die when watering arrangements fail. It must be disheartening for whoever designed and installed these plantings to see them turn into neglected messes — rather like revisiting a garden on a property you’ve sold to a person who isn’t a gardener and doesn’t care.

The real difference is the gardener. The landscape designer moves on. The landscape maintenance person does the job as specified in the contract. The gardener hovers around and broods and fusses, and the garden (in most cases) prospers.

A Trilogy in Four Volumes

Last Monday I published Islands of the Gulf, Volume Two, the second volume of the second book of my Herbert West trilogy. Ever since I decided to publish the middle book of the trilogy in two volumes, I’ve had niggling doubts, mostly because of the numerical complications. This must be because I am a cataloguer and therefore hyper-conscious of data relating to books.

So I decided to clarify things by writing a short history of The Herbert West Trilogy:

I wrote the first book, The Friendship of Mortals, in 2000-2001. It is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story (or rather, six serialized stories) entitled “Herbert West, Reanimator.” By the time I finished it, I realized that a sequel was in order, because unlike HPL’s Herbert West, my protagonist isn’t ripped to shreds at the end. Psychically, perhaps, but not physically.

In one of those “why not?” moments, I decided to set the sequel here on the west coast, specifically on a fictional Gulf Island in the waters between British Columbia and Washington State. First I had to get Herbert West — who now called himself Francis Dexter — from New England to the other side of the continent. This was a medium-sized story in itself. Then I had to create the island and the principal characters with whom Herbert/Francis would interact. By the time these interactions played out in 2005, I had a truly huge book on my hands. When I decided to publish it as an ebook on Smashwords, I thought it would be best to issue it in two volumes.  Why not two separately titled books?  Because the two halves don’t quite stand alone. Both must be read for the complete trajectory.

Besides, the word “trilogy” sounds much better than “tetralogy.”  Hence, a trilogy in four volumes.

Book 1: The Friendship of Mortals

Book 2, Volume 1: Islands of the Gulf, Volume One

Book 2, Volume 2: Islands of the Gulf, Volume Two

Book 3: Hunting the Phoenix

Books 1 and 2 are available on Smashwords.  Book 3 will appear later this year.