Thinking Aloud

Non-grumpy thoughts about stuff other than writing and gardening.

View looking north east from Mt Erskine area, Salt Spring Island, March 5, 2019 near hydro transmission line

Finding “Mossy Mountain”

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!”
Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows

A while ago, I wrote a post about a special place that made a big impression on me when I was a kid. My name for this place at the time was “Mossy Mountain,” because of the (you guessed it) mosses that grew all over the rocks and added a kind of magic to the area. I still love moss.

On a cold and sunny day early in March, the Spouse, the Dog, and I took a delightful day trip to Salt Spring Island. Right after getting off the ferry, we drove the island’s narrow, winding roads to a nursery that sells rare and unusual plants, where I bought three hellebores and two blue poppies. Then we turned southward, toward the quasi-urban central part of the island, where I lived in the late 1960s. In many ways, the place hasn’t changed that much. The school I attended is still there, and the layout of the streets was familiar.

We followed roads I had noted on my virtual visit via Google Maps and Street Views, aiming for a major electrical transmission line I remembered. (It’s visible in the image at the top of the post, a view looking northeast across the north half of Salt Spring Island toward the distant Coast Mountains on the B.C. mainland.) There was only one problem — the snow that fell in mid-February hadn’t left this area. In fact, there was still close to a foot of it hanging around — hard, icy, crystalline snow. It certainly made the place look different from my memories, which were of sunny May or June weekends.

Salt Spring Island near Mt Erskine, March 5, 2019
No walking up this hill!

Nelly Salt Spring Island snow March 2019
Nelly the Newf thought the snow was just fine.

But the topography and vegetation were much the same. So was the conglomerate bedrock, which I had forgotten all about, until I recognized it underfoot in spots where the snow had melted. The mosses were still there too, as well as the arbutus and fir trees, the ocean spray shrubs, and the leathery leaves of salal. I heard hummingbirds making their sizzling sounds and other birds singing. In an encounter with a fellow who lives nearby (now that’s new — in the ’60s, there were no houses up there), we heard a cougar had recently killed a deer, a chicken, and a duck. I actually thought this was encouraging. Even though development has crept up the mountain, at least there is enough natural environment left to support a cougar, deer, and wild birds.

Mossy bluffs and arbutus near Mt Erskine, Salt Spring Island, March 5, 2019
Moss-covered rocks and arbutus trees.
Salt Spring Island near Mt Erskine March 5, 2019, Holodiscus, Salal, Arbutus
Typical vegetation: salal (evergreens in foreground) and ocean spray (Holodiscus) bushes, with arbutus and firs in the background.
Conglomerate rock and mosses near Mt Erskine, Salt Spring Island, March 5, 2019
Conglomerate bedrock and mosses.
Arbutus trunk peeling bark, Salt Spring Island March 2019
Arbutus (A. menziesii) trunk showing typical peeling bark.

Because of the snow, it wasn’t possible to explore beyond the road, but a return visit is in order, most likely in May or June.

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A Virtual Visit

Fifty years ago (Fifty! How did that happen?) a school friend and I discovered a marvellous place, quite literally in our back yards. Well, somewhat beyond our actual back yards. We started out at the house my family lived in then, an old, rambling and somewhat decrepit place we were renting while my parents built our new house nearby. With bottles of water and apples as provisions, we crossed a hayfield behind the house and entered a wood in which vanilla-leaf plants were in bloom (it was May).

We emerged from the wood onto a road leading uphill, following it to where it turned away in a switchback. Leading in the opposite direction was one of those magical little nameless roads — two wheel-tracks with plants growing down the middle. It led uphill too, taking its time.

After several kilometers and one or two steep climbs, we came to a place typical of the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia — a hillside sparsely treed with Douglas firs and arbutus, and scattered clumps of juniper, hairy manzanita, and bearberry. Moss was abundant on the rocky outcrops and cliffs, with licorice ferns growing from it. The place was completely natural but looked landscaped. No, more than that — it looked magical, as though inhabited by nature spirits. And indeed, we heard an unfamiliar sound at times, a distant, rhythmic wheezing, like someone sawing wood with a hand saw. I now suspect it was made by male grouse flapping their wings as part of their spring courtship routines. Every now and then, we heard the strident double whistle of a pheasant, but we never saw anyone else there, either human nor animal.

I can’t remember how many expeditions we made to this delightful place. At least three, but probably no more than half a dozen. By June, my annual pollen allergy (which has since vanished, one of the benefits of growing older) made outdoor activities miserable. Then summertime holidays and activities took over, and for whatever other reason, we never went back.

I’ve made a couple of tourist-type trips to that island in the past few decades, showing the sights to visiting friends, but until now haven’t made a systematic search for this special place. Recently, I revisited the area by way of Google Maps and Street View, zooming in on the locale, navigating by names of roads I remembered, finally switching to satellite and Street View. I followed various roads, floating along like a ghost, turning this way and that, looking for the familiar.

It was a weird and dreamlike experience, and ultimately not satisfying.
Although invisible, I couldn’t trespass on private property or go beyond the point where the car with the cameras stopped. Any number of inviting little roads had to remain unexplored. Frustrating but compelling. Eventually I stumbled on a photo someone had taken that looked a lot like the terrain I remembered.

Now I’m planning a real life visit. It’s not that far from where I live, and would make a pleasant day trip. I’m telling myself to temper my expectations for such a sentimental journey. Because what I really wanted to do on my virtual visit was to zoom in, press a button, and be back there, half a century ago, a child of twelve or thirteen, enchanted by the beauty I had discovered. But the eyes and brain are different now, shaped by the experiences of fifty years, and that means any new experience will be different as well.

Image from Pixabay

Twelve Truths About Gardening

I’ve been a gardener for thirty-five years, during which I’ve learned a few things. These thoughts recur regularly as I work in the garden, so I decided to write them down, in case other gardeners may find them helpful.

One

When in doubt, clip the lawn edges. Nothing spruces up a garden (at least the lawn-plus-perennial-beds kind) faster than this. Even a “yard” with a lawn and a few sad shrubs can be made to look like a garden in the making by defining some edges and fluffing up bare soil. Spreading compost around is the finishing touch.

Back garden beds, freshly edged. (This was in 2010. Sadly it doesn’t look this good now.)

Two

Before stepping into a bed or planting, decide exactly where to put your feet. Those size 8s can snap and squash innocent plants. Pick spots where they’ll do the least damage, both to plants and your body, especially if you need to hold a position while tying, digging, or pruning. Balancing on one foot while twisting yourself into a pretzel shape is not recommended.

Three

In summer-dry places, delay watering as long as you can, to encourage plants to grow deep roots. Once you do start watering, make a schedule and water each area regularly, abiding by local watering restrictions. Keep a record of what area was watered and when.

Four

Learn how to deadhead the plants in your garden and do it regularly. Deadheading extends bloom time and prevents excessive self-seeding. It also forces you to pay attention to the forms and structures of your plants.

Results of a heavy deadheading session

Five

Learn how to propagate plants from seed, cuttings, and divisions. These are cheap ways to increase desirable plants, and doing this stuff is a great way to really know plants, way more than buying nursery-grown specimens.

tomato seedlings
Tomato seedlings

Six

Learn how to prune. It’s not brain surgery (since plants don’t have brains, and you do). If in doubt, cut less. You can always cut more, but once you’ve cut something, you can’t stick it back on. When in doubt, stop, look, and think.

Pruning tools

Seven

If a newly-acquired perennial or shrub shows suckering or vigorously spreading tendencies (I’m looking at you, Mahonia aquifolium!), decide right away if that’s okay with you. If not, either remove the plant and get rid of it, or make an effective management plan. Hoping the plant will change its ways isn’t an option.

Mahonia aquifolium “prunings,” up to 8 feet long!

Eight

Don’t try to change your garden into something it isn’t. You’re stuck with the fundamentals (climate, soil, topography), so you may as well live with them. If you’re determined to turn your sandy seaside garden into a mountain meadow, be prepared to labour endlessly. (Gardening involves enough labour as it is.)

Nine

Accept that the garden will change, no matter what you do, and not always as you intend. That 2010 picture at the beginning of the post is a good reminder of this truth. Some plants will die out and others will thrive. Not always the ones you want, of course.

The Path Behind the Pond

Ten

Don’t believe all the advice you read, even this post books and articles by writers you esteem. Every garden is different, and gardening is a hands-on business. Learn by doing. On the other hand, reading about other gardeners’ thoughts and experiences can be a comfort and a joy.

Eleven

Keep in mind that your garden is a place in which to engage in gardening (i.e., digging, planting, weeding, deadheading, edging, watering, and gazing in wonder). It’s not a status symbol, contest, or race. But your garden is also a home for various creatures — birds, squirrels, insects, etc. Think about that before making drastic changes, such as tree removal.

Surprisingly Elegant Arugula Flowers

Twelve

Cultivate the habit of noticing beauty, no matter what happens in your garden. Even in the bleakest, deadest, driest seasons, even after the windstorm, there’s something beautiful to be seen. You just have to find it and recognize it.

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and Lychnis coronaria foliage.
Happy Holidays greeting, robins at cotoneaster

Good Wishes to All

To all the bloggers I’ve grown to know over the past few years — you’ve visited, liked, commented, and reblogged. Some of you have read and reviewed my books, and I’ve read and reviewed some of yours.

To writers — inspiration, time to write, and success with the WIP.

To bloggers — ideas for great posts, and lots of likes and follows.

To self-publishers — good (or at least decent) reviews. And sales, of course. And to those of you who dare to do your own editing, formatting, and/or cover design, success with your DIY projects.

To readers — a TBR pile full of delights, and time to read them.

To gardeners — enough sun, enough rain, and may your garden be blessed with earth magic.

To everyone — peace, good health, and good will.

So – we’ve remembered

This is such an eloquently written post, I had to reblog it. Paragraph 9 (the 3rd from last) is especially relevant to all of us.

besonian

Dateline – 1105, on the morning of 11 November 2018.

So – here in London, England it’s gone eleven, and we’ve ‘Remembered’. Now we’ll go out and sell more guns and bombs to Saudi. And to anyone else who’ll listen.

Remembering is easy. Putting a stop to the carnage is harder. In fact, it’s proved so hard since 1918 that we’ve never actually stopped. We’re still at it. Families are torn apart, men, women and their children maimed and killed. But they’re not British bombs and guns, we say. You see, we stipulate that our bombs and guns are not used in life-threatening scenarios. So imagine – two Saudi air force men are loading a bomber with weapons for a raid on The Yemen. “We haven’t got enough bombs to fill her up, mate, this time,” one says to the other. “What d’you mean?” his colleague replies, “there’s a…

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manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Writing Environments

Has anyone ever wondered how much the physical environment in which a book is written influences the finished product?

My first four books were written under these conditions: basement room with closed door, no company except one cat, specially selected music, and totally offline. The computer I used was not connected to the internet; it was essentially a glorified typewriter. I did my research using real books, except for snatched opportunities for internet fact-checking in my workplace. (That’s another thing — I had a full time job then.) Writing sessions were at least three solid hours almost every evening, with the World’s Best Cat nearby. I wrote the entire Herbert West Series between November 2000 and late 2006. Then in the winter of 2007-2008 I wrote another, unrelated novel (which remains as yet unpublished).

Zeke, May 11, 2014

Zeke the Cat (1997-2017)

The conditions under which my latest book (now available in print on Amazon, ebook still on pre-order) was created: shared office in the main part of the house, with spouse and large dog coming and going, and talk radio or randomly chosen music. Almost all research was done on the internet, and the book was written on an internet-connected laptop (after the handwritten “proto-draft,” of course).  Writing sessions were spasmodic, some as short as five minutes (between checking emails, reading blog posts, and looking things up). Some were as long as a couple of hours, circumstances permitting. No wonder it took a whole year to produce a 100K-word first draft, and the best part of a second year to edit, rewrite, and format. And I’m retired now! Finally, most of this book was written without feline company, since Zeke (the WBC) died in January 2017.

It’s tempting to wonder if these differences in the environment of creation are discernible in the finished work. I’m hoping my writing skills have improved since the early years of the millennium. Despite distractions and interruptions (or maybe because of them?) the new book is shorter and (I think) gets to the point faster. I’ll have to speed up my output if I want to finish — no, wait — if I want to start the projects I still have in mind.

Our Golden Age?

The early decades of the twenty-first century saw a great flowering of the literary arts, due in large part to the advent of self-publishing on the Internet. The writers called themselves Indie Authors. Many of them were members of the so-called Baby Boom generation, born between the end of the Second World War and the nineteen-sixties. With a high degree of literacy and egos inflated by the conviction that they were the first humans to experience anything worthwhile, many of them used their retirement years to write. Literary agents and publishers were overwhelmed by a flood of submissions from these eager wannabees. Mail rooms overflowed with manuscript boxes, fat brown envelopes and SASEs. Rejections issued forth, provoking incredulous disappointment. Technology came to the rescue, providing online publishing platforms that allowed the indies to elbow the weary gatekeepers aside and publish. Millions of ebooks and POD print books issued forth. Savvy entrepreneurs stepped up to provide services to the indies. Blogs multiplied and online literary salons proliferated.

Every now and then, I wonder what future scholars of literature might say about us indie author/publishers. The mainstream of traditional publishing gets lots of attention, but over the past decade, vast numbers of writers have been quietly publishing, blogging, debating, opining, reviewing, interviewing, and ultimately creating a Thing.

Will anyone, in the future, study, write about, and analyze our Thing? What will they call us? The Early 21st Century Indies? The Tsunami of Crap? Boomers Unbound?

Really, though, think about it: we create, we connect, we write and publish. We’re serious and sincere. Aside from the fact that most of this activity is carried on via the internet, there isn’t much difference between the current phenom and the literary movements of history. Salons, pamphlets, feuilletons, little magazines, and literary societies all have their online equivalents. This blog on which I’m holding forth right now continues the tradition of writers and thinkers using whatever means are at hand to share their thoughts.

Who knows what posterity will make of us? We may represent only the very beginning of a larger phenomenon. Or we may be a brief spark that vanishes into the current of history. Will our works be curated and preserved, or will their survival depend on pure accident amid some global catastrophe? To us, right now, it really doesn’t matter. The true value of the indie author movement to us indie authors is the connections we’ve made with one another by creating and sharing our works and ideas.

mind movie image

Let’s keep on creating our Thing, whatever it is!

hammer and anvil

 

Book & Brains image created with Canva

Hammer and anvil image courtesy of Pixabay

The Indie Author Manifesto by Mark Coker at Smashwords

 

Seeking Immortality in Fact and Fiction

I just heard a really interesting piece on the science of brain preservation. Scientists are still working on it, with the intention that the information in frozen brains may be downloaded into… something, someday. You can read a synopsis or listen to the whole 20 minute article here.

Three thoughts I had while listening:

  • These guys are just like Herbert West!
  • Freshness is, indeed, important.
  • In the end, it’s a crapshoot.

To elaborate…

cfcd9d21bdab825d73b7701b0167b307e9ef5494

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Bringing people (or their brains) back from the dead is a stock element of science fiction. H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is a quintessential mad scientist engaged with this effort. Like one of the present day real scientists on this quest for immortality, Herbert realizes you need a really fresh corpse to succeed. It seems it’s best to start the process before death occurs, meaning it might be necessary to kill the patient to save him.

The article examines this and other ethical and practical issues, concluding with the thought that even if the preservation and information retrieval techniques work (a really big if), by the time it’s possible to do all this, society will be totally different. The reactivated minds will find themselves in environments that may be alien and terrifying. And the uses to which the minds are put may be other than benign. Life after death for the awakened brains may be heaven, hell, or anything in between. Or it may never happen at all. Which is, when you think about it, pretty much where we are right now.

For fictional treatments of this topic, you might want to read H.P. Lovecraft’s stories Herbert West, Reanimator or, for a different take, The Whisperer in Darkness.” Then there’s my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, which presents my expansion on Herbert West and his motives.

chocolate eggs, Easter

Pastel Palette Pleases Palate

These little candy-coated chocolate eggs are almost more delightful to look at than to eat.

chocolate eggs, Easter, glass jar

 

It’s actually a good thing they’re a seasonal item, and the season will end soon. Chocolate eggs, however yummy, aren’t really a recommended food group.

 

chocolate eggs, Easter, glass jar

 

I’ll miss the colours, though. The blue, yellow and white match my kitchen perfectly. And the pink looks great with the current set of place mats.

White daffodil with pale yellow middle near pond

Plant Material

Now that spring is imminent, perennials are poking their noses above the ground, telling gardeners that they are alive and ready for another growing season. Gardeners hover anxiously over spots where particularly fussy or cold-intolerant specimens were last seen, hoping for a sign of life.

003I’ve been hovering over my blue poppies. Late last summer, I transplanted them to what I thought were deluxe accommodations in half-barrels. Excellent soil, no tree roots, and a pea gravel mulch intended to prevent crown rot. Custom made roofs on legs to keep away winter rain. No efforts were spared. The plants settled in nicely and made new growth before they went dormant for winter. So far this spring, things don’t look good. I’m beginning to think the pea gravel was a mistake; it probably kept the top layer of soil moist enough for the dreaded crown rot to do its thing. If all seven plants are dead, I’ll have to acquire new ones and try again.

The white and yellow daffodil in the featured image has bloomed faithfully each spring since the mid 1990s. At first there was only one flower; a few years later, there were two, and the past two or three springs, it’s produced three flowers. So what? Daffodils are planted out by the thousands in parks and even in some private gardens. But this one plant is easily identifiable, and so regular, that I have come to recognize it as an individual.

This picture — of a gardener fussing over a few plants, or even a single one — is completely removed from the way plants are sold and handled on a commercial scale. We’ve all seen hundreds of potted plants for sale, not at nurseries or even garden centres, but at grocery stores, hardware stores, and discount consumer outlets. No one fusses over these units produced by mass propagation. They’re given minimal attention by busy staff, wheeled in and out of display areas daily, get knocked over by windstorms, and finally start to look a bit stressed. Plants that don’t sell by the end of July are put on deep discount and finally trashed. At least they’re compostable.

Then there are instant gardens installed by landscape contractors driving trucks with graphically designed logos on the doors. In a week, the job is done. A multitude of perennials and shrubs has been plugged into the ground in pleasing patterns. The operation has more in common with laying carpets or interlocking bricks than with my kind of gardening. Freshly finished, such gardens look lovely and (on a bad day) make me think mine — the result of a quarter century of earnest digging, planting, watering, and anxious hovering — looks pathetic by comparison. Of course, if not maintained by someone who knows what they’re doing, those installed gardens go downhill pretty fast. I’ve seen it happen.

Those who do large scale garden work seem to have a utilitarian or even disrespectful attitude toward plants. Often, it starts with razing and removal of every growing thing on a city lot — and of the original house too — followed by digging a great big hole, maybe a bit of blasting. A huge house is erected and landscaping installed by a contractor. Another contractor provides an irrigation system, probably programmed and controlled with a smartphone app. A truck pulls up once a week, disgorging fast-moving people wielding power tools who buzz through the place, mowing, trimming, fluffing up the soil and adding mulch. As long as the bills are paid, the place looks fine. In such gardens, you don’t see any shabbily-dressed figures (i.e., resident gardeners) drifting around, peering at plants and scuffling inefficiently, making repeated trips to the shed for yet another tool, a couple more stakes, or a ball of twine.

I want to say that the instant garden isn’t really  a garden, and those yard maintenance folks aren’t gardeners. I suspect this idea may be tainted with irrational sentimentality, but I’m clinging to it anyway. To me a garden is a patch of earth sweated over by someone who knows almost every plant that grows from it, who rejoices when those first shoots appear in spring and mourns when they don’t.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is analogous to the difference between the backyard chicken flock where every hen has a name, and the industrial poultry system. The small, personal garden and the installed landscape are really two different (if related) things. Each has a place, but in me they evoke opposite reactions.