Month: December 2013

Post-Solstice Thoughts

Last year I found myself entertaining gloomy thoughts as December came to an end. It appears this may become a personal tradition, bucking the expected trend of positivity during the “festive season.” I’ve never been especially positive, and there is a niche for every shade of opinion in the blogosphere. So here goes…

I regularly hear various experts on the environment prophesying doom. Climate change is out of control. Songbirds and large predators are in danger of extinction.  Arable land is eroding or being turned into housing developments. Habitat loss will continue. Invariably, at the end of the half-hour or whatever, the interviewer asks the expert, “In the face of all this, are you still optimistic?” Invariably, the answer is “Yes.” The human spirit of inventiveness will save the day.

Well, I don’t share this optimism. (But then I’m no expert). The dominant cultures hold human life to be sacred (at least in theory), but not animal lives and not the earth itself. Human beings seem to have an innate urge to kill and an insatiable desire for More. “The status quo is not an option.” Economic growth is sacred. But what are we setting ourselves up for? People in eastern Canada who suffered through a week without electricity may have had a sneak preview. There are more than 7 billion of us running around (only 1 billion a hundred years ago). The Canadian federal government seems poised to approve a pipeline from the tar sands to the north coast of British Columbia. Expansion of tar sands development has been approved, even while acknowledging “significant adverse environmental effects.” A mining company is keen to undertake exploration for coal on Ellesmere Island, in an area rich with fossils and home to animals and birds, some of which are classed as threatened. (OK, the company has decided to delay things for a year, but only until they can address the concerns of the local population).

Sometimes, the only view to take is the really long view. The planet will survive us. “Life” as we define it began on this rock as blue-green algae 3 or 4 billion years ago. I’ll bet that between then and now there were long periods where the status quo was the only option, but now here we are. Early hominids were bashing rocks together about two million years ago. Human beings transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture (sufficiently to leave physical evidence) about ten thousand years ago. Even so, there was a lot of slow time before entrepreneurial circumnavigation and exploration took place. The industrial revolution got going a mere two hundred years ago. It took us only two hundred years to make a royal mess of things.

I gather there is a feverish search under way for “earth-like” planets so some humans will have an option when the original earth becomes uninhabitable. Whenever I hear about this, I think the planets concerned should be trembling in their figurative boots. “Oh no — here comes Homo sapiens! Run!” Then there’s “terra-forming” a planet like Mars, which looks like it may have been earth-like at one time. (Here the question arises — rather than these high-flown enterprises, why not put more effort into keeping the earth “earth-like?”).

But the rock will survive, and in time another flowering of carbon-based life will take place. Or maybe some other type of life altogether, not recognizable by us today as “life.” The possibilities really are limitless.

As far as humanity is concerned, my regrets are only that we won’t be around to create and appreciate art, music and writing. If as a species we had been less greedy to dig it up, frack it, suck it out and burn it, we could have continued to pursue our creative endeavours for several more millennia. But the earth won’t care a bit.

Writing Rules Re-Quibbled

I was reading another post by a “writing blogger” earnestly explaining the difference between showing and telling, when something occurred to me. The post repeated all that stuff about using “strong” verbs to show, with an example of how much better it is to write “She bubbled with excitement,” than the boring “She was excited.”  “Bubbled” is viewed as a strong verb and therefore desirable, while “was” is pale and weak.

But what about that other often-quoted rule — Never use a word other than “said” to attribute dialogue. Words such as mumbled, yelled, whispered, replied, declared and opined are frowned upon.

Now I ask — why? Why is it OK for the character to bubble with excitement, but not OK for her to mutter or opine? Why is “said” good and “was” bad?

My own take on all this? Far be it from me to add to all those self-contradicting Rules for Writers, but I think it’s a mistake to declare any word or writing practice taboo. “Was” and its variants are excellent one-syllable words invisible to the reader’s eye. They do the job admirably when the point of a sentence is to deliver information succinctly. Colourful words (bubbled, plunged, darted, crumbled) are indispensable in situations where the writer wants to be cinematic, to create a mind-movie for the reader. Knowing when to use which technique is one of the skills a writer needs to develop.

And finally — this making up of writing rules is sort of a weird little niche some people have wandered into, possiby a sub-category of “those that can’t do must teach,” Elmore Leonard notwithstanding. (Moreover, I suspect that when a writer is asked to supply rules and tips for other writers to follow, they will inevitably come up with a few. But that doesn’t mean those are the only rules worth following).

So endeth the screed on this Boxing Day. (I remember hearing once that Boxing Day was called that because boxing matches were held somewhere on the day after Christmas. Not true, but then there’s post-Christmas crabbiness induced by fighting the crowds for Boxing Day bargains — not something I would ever do, but perhaps it explains the combative tone of this post).

Winter Solstice

The Gardener In Winter Night.

Cold rain drips from branch and twig,

Sullen,

Slow

From edge of roof.

Yellow jasmine lights went dim at dusk,

The garden cloaked in absence and night.

The sky flattens,

The soil accepts.

The eye sees black.

Pond water steeping leaves,

Tree shapes flat against grey sky.

The gardener in negative space,

Opposite of summer’s exaltation,

Contemplates…

Snowdrops soon to raise their elfin spears,

Violets wet and secret within dark green,

Crocus and tulip bulbed in earth,

Honeysuckle buds held tight by leaf to stem,

Blue poppies crowned in tattered leaves,

Rose canes studded with ruby nubbles,

Moss velvet green between reposing stones.

Remember snow,

And hope.

Consider sleet,

Believe.

Return to rest.

Winter Jasmine

Winter Jasmine

Filling Up The Well

Long before I became a writer, I was an avid reader. All that reading inspired me to write. Now it occurs to me that I have depleted my well of ideas and words. I no longer have a plot, a theme, a set of characters that compel me to write.  Maybe I need to read some more, and not  just so I can then write comments about the books, nor to check out what “the competition” is doing (laughable thought!), but simply for the pleasure of experiencing mind movies created by the word-constructions of other writers.

Brain research has revealed a great deal about our issued-at-birth CPUs, but brain function is still largely a mystery. I’ve lived long enough to have made long-term observations about how my brain works, and I suspect that it needs a lot of input before it can produce anything exciting. I do not have a formula for the input — this much Great Literature, a certain amount of contemporary award-winners, a bit of CanLit, a few mysteries, a touch of romance — no, it’s not like that at all. Everything read, heard, overheard, and observed goes into the mix, and the brain sorts, files, matches and links until one day in the shower, or taking a walk, or washing dishes, I get an Idea, thrown up by the ever-busy brain, a Really Good Idea that must be written down asap, because such ideas are as fleeting as hummingbirds. One second they are present in jeweled magnificence, the next they are gone, leaving only a husk of “Didn’t I just have a really good idea about… Oh shit!”

Once captured, an idea needs to grow and mature, by a process rather like that of star formation — more ideas added until the whole thing heats up and starts to spin. The process can’t be induced by force; it just happens, but it needs a lot of raw material. So over the upcoming holidays and for the rest of the winter I’m going to read for the sake of reading, like I used to before the writing bug came along. Even if it doesn’t inspire another novel, or at least a few stories, it will be a vacation for my brain.

Whose Roses Are Those, Anyway?

“Those deer ate my roses! Again! They deserve to die. Bring on the Clover traps!”

So (I imagine) goes the Rant of the Entitled Gardener. The rose plants she has purchased, planted in her personal patch of paradise, and nurtured lovingly have been rudely pruned by an intruding ungulate. Of course the deer should die. How dare it destroy the private property of a human being? Being trapped, immobilized, stunned with a bolt-gun and having its throat slit (humanely, of course) is too good for it.

My roses. My garden. My property. I paid a zillion dollars for this piece of land, I pay a bundle on property taxes every year, so of course it’s mine. My word is law here. No deer, raccoon, bat, bug or microbe can exist here unless I permit it. Right here, where this line is drawn is my property. (Of course, it’s an imaginary line, but never mind that).

Right. The soil (which took thousands of years to form), the microscopic organisms that are crucial to its formation, the sunlight, rain and vegetation are all your property, even though you could not reproduce any of them to save your life. Those rose bushes exist by favour of the elements, not because you laid out dollars to acquire them.

Last night we had temperatures of -5 C (23 F) with a fierce wind from the northeast. Tonight is calm, but a low temperature of -9 C (16 F) is predicted for our area. This unusually cold weather may kill or damage some of the many palm trees that gardeners have planted here, leaving them brown and sad-looking. Except the ones whose gardeners took the trouble to wrap them in burlap or construct windbreaks. Those things detract from the look of the winter garden, but save the palms to provide that tropicalismo effect next summer.

What is the difference between this scenario and that of shrub-nibbling deer? Merely that there is nothing one can do about weather except endure it and take measures to mitigate its effects. So why don’t those gardeners outraged by deer buy some plastic mesh or chicken wire and construct deer-proof structures around vulnerable plants, exactly as the palm-loving gardeners do to get their babies through a cold snap?

The difference is attitude — on the one hand, the entitled, short-sighted, intolerant view that seems inherited from the colonial era, and on the other a realistic acceptance of the land on which one gardens.

The Garden in November

November is perhaps the “deadest” month in the garden, or maybe “dullest” is the better word. The leaves have fallen and faded and even the autumn lingerers have finished blooming. After the usual wind and rain storms, chaos and ruin prevail — wet leaves, withered stalks and tired looking greens. We don’t usually get snow here, so there is no white blanket to cover the wreckage.

November 9, 2013

But this is the West Coast and climate zone 8, so not everything is dormant. Kale struggles on in the vegetable/herb patch.

November 30, 2013

A green and white grass is bright against a broad-leafed Carex and evergreen Euphorbia.

November 9, 2013

The last maple leaves decorate the pond. (Let’s not think about the layer of oozing muck they form when they sink to the bottom).

November 9, 2013

The smoke bush (Cotinus “Royal Purple”) goes through its gorgeous colour changes before losing its leaves.

November 9, 2013

November 9, 2013

November 9, 2013

And on this last day of November, a dark and rainy one (with snow and serious cold — minus 5C or 23F — predicted for next week), the winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, is in full bloom on the trellis, and snowdrops are poking their noses up here and there. In fortunate Zone 8, the growing season never ends, just slows down a bit.

November 30, 2013

But it’s too early to think about spring.