Month: May 2014

Mr. King and I

A few weeks ago, as I began reading 11/22/63 concurrently with Dr. Sleep, I realized that I’ve had a decades-long relationship with Stephen King.

I bought a copy of Carrie in a used book store in Vancouver B.C. in (I think) 1975 and found it horribly fascinating, not so much because of Carrie’s paranormal power or the bloodbath at the end, but the stark picture of high school culture. Salem’s Lot is a true horror, but told with more subtlety than is common in that genre. The Shining is the same, only better, combining human drama with supernatural evil in a totally compelling way. Then there’s The Stand, the ultimate “what if” scenario. I was on board for just about all his books for years, but I never did get involved with the “Dark Tower” saga and eventually I began to lose touch with Mr. King. While I love big, fat books, I got tired of cataclysmic conclusions (as in Needful Things and Insomnia, for example). The Tommyknockers and It are saved (barely) by memorable characters. It also features one of King’s trademarks — a vivid portrayal of childhood and the past. I’ve read The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Christine more than once, and Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are among my favourites. Oh, and Pet Sematary — now there’s a perfect blend of human tragedy and supernatural evil, just as good as or better than The Shining. Over the years, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours reading (and re-reading) King’s books. As immersive entertainment, the best of them are hard to equal.

Some people don’t seem to realize that Stephen King is not simply a writer of horror fiction. It’s true that his early books were squarely in that genre, and just about all of his writing includes some element of the paranormal, but many of his books could also be called psychological fiction. Their common element is not horror (meaning evil supernatural entities or powers) but people dealing with difficult, even impossible situations, some caused by evil supernatural entities, but others resulting from bad luck and human frailty. (Think of Cujo or Gerald’s Game). Most of them seem to originate with the question “What if…?” Maybe “speculative fiction” is a better label. Readers who are put off by horror may avoid King altogether, missing out on some great reads.

I was sparked into writing my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) after reading King’s On Writing. This slender book made writing seem do-able, something not beyond the capabilities of a person with a full time job. Before reading it, I had always supposed that the only way to be a writer was to write for a living, preferably after completing a degree in Creative Writing and hanging out with bohemians in some writers’ utopia. I already had an idea for a novel — to explore the personality and motivation of H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West, with a librarian at Miskatonic University as narrator. King’s book got me started, and brought me to this point, writing a blog post in tribute to this versatile and wildly successful author.


Malodorous Moments in May

A number of plants have been given names indicating that a foul smell is part of their characteristics. The Gladwin iris, for example, has the Latin name Iris foetidissima. Others simply have a reputation for smelliness. Descriptions of Geranium macrorrhizum almost always include a reference to its foul odor. I find both of these designations exaggerated. Neither plant emits any kind of smell unless the leaves are crushed or at least disturbed, and the smells, though not exactly perfumes, aren’t that bad.

The strange thing is that some distinctly stinky plants seem to have eluded a bad reputation.

After the lilacs have faded and before the giant nameless climbing rose begins to bloom, my garden goes through a distinctly smelly period. The culprit is the Italian arum (Arum italicum). It’s a tough, useful plant, with showy marbled leaves that emerge in fall and last into spring, and weird little clusters of seeds in late summer — like tiny, bright orange-red corncobs on sticks. But in May it blooms, and the flowers, like so many of this family (think skunk cabbage), stink. The pollinators of these plants are flies, so it makes sense that they emit smells we consider objectionable. My Italian arum’s flowers smell a bit like creosote, but even more (I think) like rotten teeth breath — a pretty disgusting aroma to be wafting around the garden on a calm, warm, evening.

I acquired this plant because it was enthusiastically endorsed by the late Henry Mitchell, one of my favourite garden writers. He wrote at least two essays extolling its virtues. Beth Chatto, another esteemed gardener, recommends it in The Dry Garden, one of my gardening bibles. Neither of these authors says a word about the foul smell the arum emits during its bloom time. Descriptions of the plant at various websites fail to mention this quality as well — a disservice to those researching potential additions to their gardens.

Jurgen Dahl, a well-known German garden writer, has a chapter called “The Stinking Garden” in his book The Curious Gardener. He mentions three members of the arum family — dragon arum (Dranunculus vulgaris), voodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum) and the enormous and amazing tropical Amorphophallus titanum, which produces the world’s biggest and smelliest flower  (the flower is up to 2 meters tall). Of a plant that bloomed in 1996 in a botanical garden in Bonn, Dahl says, “It stank infernally for eight days.” (Henry Mitchell wrote about another specimen of this plant, and definitely mentioned the smell). But there is no mention of the Italian arum as a candidate for Dahl’s stinking garden. OK, I concede that its smell isn’t noticeable all the time, only on calm, warm evenings. But that’s true of a lot of fragrant plants too.

I began to think that my Italian arum was an anomaly, smellier than normal. After all, I did not buy the seeds from a reputable supplier, merely collected a few from plants near a walking/cycling trail I use frequently. I was pretty pleased with myself for identifying the plant while it was in leaf and watched for the seeds to ripen months later. Maybe this was a vulgar cousin of the Italian variety, I thought. But when I added “smelly” to my search, I got results. An article on the website of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas says that the flowers of the Italian arum smell like feces, and also mentions that the plant has been given the rather rude epithet “priest’s pintle,” because of the anatomical look of the flower. But the author of the article also calls it a “delightful little plant” (which it is when out of flower). So, confirmation at last, although I disagree with the description of the smell. But whether it’s reminiscent of rotten teeth or poop, it is undeniably foul.

Italian Arum

Italian Arum


Italian arum seed cluster, October 2011

Italian arum seed cluster, October 2011

Mulching as spiritual practice

It’s interesting to see another gardener finding (or creating) opportunities for mindfulness while doing garden tasks such as weeding and mulching. This chimes well with my recent post on weeding as meditation.


I need to mulch.

Mulching is a garden chore. Although it provides a great benefit to the plants by keeping roots cool, suppressing weeds, stabilizing soil moisture and temperature, and generally  making things tidy, I cannot deny that it’s not nearly as sexy a task as, say, installing new perennials from the nursery.

But in gardening as in life, pedestrian tasks outnumber the exciting ones by a wide margin. One secret to having a beautiful garden is to carve out regular time to maintain things. A second secret is to make peace with having to do those maintenance tasks. Whether you prefer to perform maintenance tasks once a week in a morning-long go, or choose instead to take 10 minutes every evening after dinner, glass of wine in hand, to tidy up one planting bed, finding what works for you and practicing it is what achieves the objective in the long term.

Changing an…

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Weeding, Part 3: Weeding as Meditation?

In theory, at least, weeding can be exactly the sort of almost-but-not-quite mindless activity that allows the mind to be alert yet not directly engaged with the task at hand. It can roam free and sometimes throws up ideas worth pursuing later. At the very least, this kind of weeding has a similar effect to that of “mindful meditation.”

Today I noticed that an area by my pond paved with random stone slabs has way too much of a small, weedy grass whose name I don’t know, but which appears every winter. Last winter must have been a good one for it, because there’s more of it than ever before. Even worse, it seems to be going to seed. I had one of those “Something must be done” moments.

May 11, 2014

I pulled up a few of the grass plants, but soon realized that this was going to be a project.

May 11, 2014 (2)

Leaving the little pile of weedlings, I went to fetch a pair of gloves and a kneeling pad. After an hour or so, the spot looked considerably less fuzzy and the weed pile was a lot bigger. Only the “creeping Jenny” (Lysimachia nummularia) intended to be there remains, along with a few Labrador violets and a bit of moss.

Weeding May 11, 2014

Weed pile May 11, 2014

I like moss, especially growing between paving stones. It gives a garden a feeling of age (in the venerable sense) and tranquility. The trouble is, the pesky grass grows right through the moss, and when pulled up its mat of fine roots yanks a out a chunk of moss, leaving a patchy effect and a gardener who is annoyed rather than tranquil. So much for the meditative effect. A set of grass shears is deployed and the grass cut off as close to ground level as possible. Not perfect, but at least the seed heads are gone.

After a couple of hours, the area cleared is pathetically small and the gardener tired. This part of the garden looks splendid, more because of the profusion of spring growth than because of the weeding efforts, but that’s all right.

Pond Bench May 11. 2014


Even the cat (who has supervised the whole operation) approves, and is happy to join the gardener in a well-deserved rest.



Spring in Full Bloom

I know other parts of Canada are still dealing with snow and cold, or even worse, flooding, but here spring is definitely underway.

Tulipa batalinii

Tulipa batalinii

Tulips have been blooming for a while. The small species tulips seem to do better here than the large varieties, but I do have a few remnants of various plantings that manage to bloom year after year, such as these two very different types

Gaudy tulip (variety unknown)

Gaudy tulip (variety unknown)

Tulip "Queen of the Night"

Tulip “Queen of the Night”

















The first roses of the year have started to bloom — rugosas I grew from cuttings, except this one was an accidental seedling.

Rugosa rose (type unknown)

Rugosa rose (type unknown)

Not everything has come through the winter unscathed. The last of my Gaura lindheimeri looks seriously dead (but I have bought some seeds and intend to grow replacements). A small and elegant blue-flowered relative of bindweed, Convolvulus sabatius, has also failed to sprout so far; I suspect it succumbed to a cold spell last December when temperatures descended to -9 C (16 F).

Those losses aside, my little paradise looks lush and lovely right now, and smells wonderfully of lilacs. I really can’t think of anything to complain about.

Meconopsis cambrica

Meconopsis cambrica


Laburnum and Erysimum "Bowles Mauve"

Laburnum and Erysimum “Bowles Mauve”

May 4, 2014

Back garden in May lushness