Friday, December 24, 2010

Charity? Bah! Redistribution? Yes!

My family gives money to the Salvation Army every Christmas. I give money to the Salvation Army every Christmas, even raise money for them in between. Sally Anne as it's more colloquially known, or even more concisely, 'The Sally'. Our neighbor across the road eats two meals a day there- he is diabetic and needs decent meals to keep it under control. Of course we don't have a grocery store of any substance anywhere near by, and bus fare is not cheap. Of six churches in walking distance, only one offers meals and then once a month. But Sally is right here, every single day.

Our neighbour across the road is the only person we know who is brave enough to climb up on our roof and clean the leaves out of the gutters- four times a year! There were trees actually growing in the eaves troughs when we bought the place. He keeps an eye on the house for us, having a somewhat more nocturnal life than us. He lets the dog run up to him anytime she wants, even run into his apartment. We wave from door to door every day.

When I first started university I discovered there is lots of socialist angst about things like the Sally Anne, and charities in general. The Sally Anne in particular is also cast as the worst kind of charity, trading a meal for your presence at a church service- not true, but the explicitly faith-based nature of the Salvation Army seems to leave no doubt for most.

I agree with lots of this vague socialist angst. I was raised (by the same family that gives money to the Salvation Army every year) to know the difference between palliatives and ruptures, between band-aids and changes, between actions that help us cope with injustice and actions that create social justice. All very socialist, with a capital S.

And yet, the Sally exceeds the grasp of this criticism for us. Because? Because my family is paying the Salvation Army back for all that they have done for us. For people like us who have been directly supported by the Sally in their lives, maybe all of us who have been supported by the likes of the Sally Anne, the Salvation Army is not 'a charity', it is 'insurance', a bell-ringing redistribution network that holds us all together. The debt we owe was never recorded- I haven't inherited an invoice for services rendered. Nope. Instead, I inherited the knowledge that the Sally is there, was there, and will be there. For me, for us, for my neighbour across the road.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Found: Cloth

This is a cloth that probably has a long and alarmingly sad human story attached to it.

We live near two homeless shelters, and in the spaces in between residents from both carve out little spaces to sit, visit, sometimes sleep, drink, whatever else someone wants some privacy to do. As a consequence there are spaces we walk everyday 'littered' with textiles: old clothes, blankets, hats, mittens, scarves, tarpaulins. The guy who lives here regularly brings things home to wash and then send to Goodwill (or wear if we can use them). In fact, there is a sweat shirt in the washer as we speak.

This morning I found this cloth draped across a pile of steel rails along the train tracks. I inspected it, passed it by. It is rusted, moldy and dirty and has been part of a very hard life. But then I hurried back. It is also a textile with dozens of shades of red, green, brown and black, a textile I can use.

All this stuff I'm learning in Jude Hill's class is really sinking in.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Stitch in Time...

All the sewing I'm doing right now made me want to share this little artifact. It is hard to read, but the tube reads 'Superior Quality Mending Skein'.

Being of a certain generation remote from the time when things could be fixed, I barely understood what this was when I found it at the Mission Store. I then realized that I also didn't actually understand what 'a stitch in time saves nine' even means (meant?). So now I feel smarter, and like I've had a little glimpse into the daily life of people living in another time.

And Happy Thanksgiving to you!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

making cloth from scraps of cloth....

This is a diversion from the post I need to get to about City Farming, but it is on the way. In the mean time, I have the great delight to be taking an on-line class with Jude Hill of Spirit Cloth, and just now pinned my first new cloth together!

Every scrap of this fabric is a fragment of something that was scavenged- from the garbage, from the pile of old sheets that were in the garage when we bought the house, from the side of the road- dyed with marigolds (thanks to Deb G. at Bee Creative), Glossy Buckthorn berries and our own raspberries.

I'm feeling so happy to give all this old, worn, forgotten and given-up-on fabric a new life. I can already tell that this will be 'mendable', as well, extending it's use value. Sewing later.....

Monday, November 8, 2010

For Grace from Windthread- a link about sustainability

The video in this November 5, 2010 post from 'No Impact Man', titled 'To Hell With Sustainability' came across my desk this weekend. It is a rewarding and inspiring few minutes, and I hope will find an interested audience with Grace from Windthread (who seems to have lots of extra reasons to be hopeful for the future these days!)

I hope No Impact Man doesn't mind me posting this link...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

City Farmer No More (Prologue to The New City Farmer)

It was a big decision to 'give up' the food garden. It was a well positioned raised bed, and the soil had been improved and tended for years by our home's previous owner (and also one of my gardening mentors). I had spent a good deal of time working in that garden with him, practicing stuff I learned (or 'learnt', as I actually say) in my own childhood and learning new stuff.

My grandmother (that's her wedding photo) had created a somewhat more ambitious food garden in the midst of London's first 'suburb' in the 1950s, on the quarter acre that my grandfather had acquired as a Veteran. They (literally, by hand) built a tract house on one corner, and on the rest gramma planted fruit trees, asparagus, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, currents, raspberries and on and on. My mother remembers her youth there as a worker: picking beans and plums, all to be canned and preserved, 'put up' as they say.

She didn't know it, but gramma's garden was defiantly anachronistic. It stood like a farm in the middle of a newly minted 1950s suburb where the culture of home landscaping was steadily taking root. Gramma brought (and planted) the roots of her rural culture instead, and did nothing to hide that this land was her family's feast. While each neighbor obsessed over his/her lawn and the three carbon-copy evergreen shrubs in front of each house, gramma grew pears and beets and cabbages.

Not surprisingly, my first garden as a little kid was vegetables; I started a compost pit when I was ten; my first guerrilla garden was beans, squash, medicinal herbs and onions. Growing up in the old core of the city, I was surrounded by dozens of food gardens, each a culture-specific expression of the kind of rootedness my grandmother grew: grape arbors, chickens, rapini, broad beans. And the guy that lives here, well he arrived with his own rural family's heavily annotated and mostly memorized book of recipes for putting food up. And so it was with great trepidation that I firmly stepped away from being a city farmer- it is in our roots, after all.

But I had come to the realization that something precious was missing in my world that had been present in my gramma's: social bonds built between producers of food and its consumers. During the second world war, living in her rural hometown with her parents and daughters, my gramma had traded her canned goods for scarce foodstuffs; in return she got bacon and oxtail and milk to feed her family. (She even managed to can meat to send overseas to my grandpa's sisters and brothers.) She and her neighbors were part of an interdependent network of producers and consumers that even small producers could be a part of. Together they knew all the secrets of small and varied production and self-provisioning. They had recipes, knowledge, skill and each other.

I finally really noticed that this was all gone when I went to my gramma's home town one summer to see that not a single farm in the area was producing anything except cash crops- feed corn and soybeans. A few pig farmers (they are now gone because of massive overproduction and crumbling export markets). No stands at the front gate of tomatoes, peppers, squash and pears, maybe eggs. Nothing. Not even maple syrup. At the Fall Fair in this teeny little town, there were barely any canning and pickle competitions. But lots and lots of entries of soybeans, feed corn and pumpkins the size of a car.

It had become impossible for me to see these farms in close and immediate relationship with my food, that relationship instead mediated by a long chain of wholesalers and retailers. The places and people that I thought of as producing my food had been modernized, severing ties between producers and consumers.

It was this realization- and the consequent anxiety it produced- that tipped me over the edge away from city farming, as counter intuitive as that sounds. I realized that what I feared was the loss of those links, those networks, that knowledge. I didn't want a relationship with a handful of beets, I wanted a bond with someone who grew beets, expertly and with care.

Now all of this is actually prologue to another post about the city farmers on my street and in my neighborhood, and about the systems through which we provision ourselves here at Gracie Gardens. And Grace at Windthread's cucumbers. And how in them I see not nostalgia for a time gone by, but something new, even as it is a kind of resurgence. How this new city has room for- maybe even needs- what we do, growing bees and flowers and snake habitat. And buying our food.

Friday, October 22, 2010


His Holiness the Dalai Lama is speaking today not too far away in our Provincial capital Toronto, on the topic of Human Approaches to World Peace. His press release says he will call all of us to revive our humanitarian values in the pursuit of peace. Such an invitation frees me to shamelessly celebrate and feel boundless hope because of how many times in a day or a week I am reminded of other people's compassion.

Here in Gracie Gardens the wind is celebrating these prayers for peace, too. And underneath, there are snakes settling in for the winter, we had another wagon full of leaves delivered, flower seeds are being eaten up by the birds, we managed to build a new feeder for the blue jays and even the bumble bees are hanging on, despite that there was snow in the air at dawn. All reminding us here of the ways that we can welcome and nurture diversity, be an honest participant in the complexity around us and marvel at the gifts that life brings us.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Full House

This is kind of a book review, but with the slight twist that it is meant to highlight the functions of a book. Here, 'book as weight', enlisted to pin down some unruly (salvaged) pallet straps being made into a basket for the bike.

The reason the book was at hand, of course, is because it was in the midst of its first reading when the basket was under construction. And I couldn't put it down, except to go and peer at the Bee House we put up last summer. Book, thus, as constant inspiration.

The reason I couldn't put the book down is that it is absolutely engaging- each chapter is a trip through some specific aspect of bee life, and how that life is conducted given the challenges wrought by humans, all told through the eyes of a humble human (or rather a human who is seemingly humbled by being a student of wild bees).

And so the book teaches you about bees. Who 'they' are, how their social interactions work amongst themselves, how they cope with disturbance, how they get food, and how Bees collectively make up an almost boundless net of activity that is all around, wherever there is something to eat. The book left me in fresh awe of how big ecosystems are, and gave me new reason to marvel at the sheer volume of bees and bee-like things that come around here now.

Most of all, however, and even more important for me is that the book also reveals an awful lot about the astounding discoveries about the web of life out there created through basic scientific research (ie: actually just watching bees in their habitat). The book is not a 'bee research methods manual' or a memoir by a scientist, no. But Packer's tack here is to often explain how insights about Bee Life have been made, and how often that has meant simple (!) field work armed with a willingness to defy conventional scientific belief about bees. To put it more simply, Packer makes clear how very little we actually know about bees, and what a crisis that is at a time when they are clearly and objectively more at risk than ever before.

It is these two qualities together- information and an understanding about the processes of learning- that make this book so useful. It is, then, I guess, kind of a manual, but a manual for how to engage with knowledge about the natural spaces around us, about how to be a humble student of these places.

Which leads back to the title of the post- the book is a 'full house' as in complete to bursting at the seams, like the house at Thanksgiving. But the title also eludes to the fact that our little bee house or Ontario Bee Roost was FULL this summer- each cell got cemented up with mud by some little bees we never managed to see close up. We also got no pictures because we can no longer actually get to the bee house without trampling towering meadow plants. So we don't know what happened in our Bee House, exactly, except that some kind of bees nested in there.

Which, in turn, leads to what binds the book and our bee house together, or what links processes of learning with action. This week we had a guest for supper who asked to photograph our bee house to pass on to the guy at the Farmer's Market who makes and sells bird and bat houses, while also educating his customers about creating habitat for said winged beasts. Well, our guest has convinced Bird House guy that he wants to start making bee houses. And so next week we will be delivering a huge package of information about bee habitat here in Ontario to this guy, plans for making bee houses and photographs. And so just maybe....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wouldn't It Be Easier to Buy a New One?

Working on creating a sustainable garden environment, and the many successes we've had with this project has emboldened me to hold our indoor environment to higher standard. Meaning that by insisting on sustainability and consideration for the larger web of life outside, we are able to do it inside more easily.

And, I think we have learned the secret to making this transition both inside and out: learn about process, where you fit in, and choose to cherish some processes over others. How is your food produced? How are your goods produced? How are garden spaces produced? How do the systems you are part of as a producer and consumer work? What is your role in them? So for example, as a student of a local eco-system, I've learned how to work with its processes to create our gardens. As consumers, we are lucky enough now to consume ethically and sustainably produced food exclusively, having researched the processes through which food is produced.

So I wanted to share a recent success on this front that I am really proud of: Recycled Couch. My brother rescued it from a friend's parents' garage in the mid 1980s (no one remembers when, exactly). It was then my couch when my brother's girlfriend moved in with her own couch (1990-ish). All through grad school this was my couch, and even though it was tattered and frayed and the cushions all replaced with blankets and pillows, it was still my couch last year when my mother said "you know, this couch has a hardwood frame".

My mother took a class in recovering furniture in the 1960s, and has recovered every single piece of reclaimed furniture we ever had as a family. But even better, my mother is brave enough to say 'yes' to crazy ideas-like 'I want to make my own cushions out of reclaimed textiles'. Because now I want this couch to last, to honour, in a sense, its inherent durability and sustained utility (it has a hardwood frame remember).

So here it is, a testament to my mother's abilities, her willingness to help and teach (we even used reclaimed and second hand tacks) and to her encouragement that 'sure, you can make your own cushions'. And to the fact that everyone else has raided their stashes of worn out blankets, tattered jeans and ancient fabric swatches to get me started making the cushions. And it has become a product and a testament to a workshop given by some of the Gee's Bend Quilters I took in August, where I learned a lot about blending form and function working with textiles, and more about both trusting my own design judgment and taking risks with fabrics.

Yes, a thousand times yes it would have been easier to buy a new couch as a friend asked. It is, however, more satisfying and livable, and way more FUN to have this couch as an on-going project- each cushion is a 25"x74" pad that can be tossed in the wash and dried on the line- so we'll need many, and each will be an opportunity to practice more work. More process.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sphex pensylvanicus and Pterophylla

This week we've noticed that the evening twittering of the Chimney Swifts (who roost about one block away) has been drowned out by the songs of Katydids. Astounding, really, because three years ago when we bought the house and I found one Katydid hanging around on a woodland sunflower leaf it was the very first time I'd ever seen one in Canada. I've seen them in Honduras, where they are called Esperanza, 'hope', appropriately so I think. This week the evening songs show that one has turned to many, and I can't say why, but certainly the context here (both in this lot and in the Province, given a pesticide ban) has changed. A lot.

This past week I've also noticed a remarkably busy, blue and large thread-waisted wasp. Are you ready? Not just a mud dauber, not just a ground nester, but a Katydid Killer wasp. Sphex pensylvanicus. This is one of the fifty-some insects we've seen this summer that we've never even seen before, concentrating its daily work around the new meadow, the wet-clay pots and the bee house.

And apparently capturing Katydids to provision its nests with.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Wild Strawberries and Wildlife

The Fragaria virginiana, the region's native strawberries, have started to produce their berries. The Rubus occidentalis, native black raspberries won't be far behind, and a very wet spring has plumped all of these berries more than last year.

Three years ago when I set the strawberries on their way to take over all of the shady moist spaces in the garden, I think I was imagining one small jar of jam each spring. I soon realized that the berries ripen over a long period in June, but also that just before each is perfectly ripe, it is eaten up. The one in the picture actually has a bite out of it, already.

The raspberries flip into ripeness almost all at once, and so we (Gracie picks her own from the low branches) actually get quite a few. But like the strawberries, they are a popular food source for the wildlife.

But the news for me was that it is not just the berries that make these good choices for supporting the ecosystem, because both the raspberries and the strawberries flower early, and seem to attract bees especially. The berries, the result of all of this activity, extend the benefit of these plants into food for other insects, birds and small mammals.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Salix discolor and Everyday Miracles

Willows, according to Douglas Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home, are second only to oaks in supporting faunal diversity in New World ecosystems. That is, like oaks, they are highly important sources of food, shelter and nesting sites for a large number of insects. You know, the insects that otherwise pollinate everything that grows and that act as food for birds, bats, small mammals and other insects. Willows are a particularly important node in the web of life that is the ecosystem.

And yet they are also on the list of prohibited trees for the City of London- willows are among the trees that cannot be planted on City owned boulevards. I don’t yet know why they are on that list- it may be because they are considered ‘dirty’ (my neighbor believes this, though has no evidence from ours). Some tend to be weak and flexible and so big ones often drop limbs in storms (but you can just site them carefully). Some can spread rapidly and extensively. Of course, as it seems to be going with our naturalizing, I have planted five willows, each a Salix discolor, each a descendent of the willows native to Southern Ontario. None, however, is on City property, and so they are protected.

But discovering that they are outlaws when planted outside the bounds of our property makes me think again about how we compose the landscapes that we are constantly creating and recreating in urban areas. What shapes these decisions?

I chose Salix discolor for two reasons. First are the qualities of the tree itself. I wanted something that could break up compacted soil, because they are planted where there used to be a laneway. And I wanted something with exactly the profile of a mature Salix d.-much taller than it is wide with long un-branched stems reaching upward- and that could thus be planted in a row to shade the exposed west side of the house. And I wanted something that would not too heavily shade the plants beneath it- large clumps of Asters- Aster novae-angliae, Aster laevisJoe Pye-Eupatorium eutrochium maculatum- and Echinacia purpurea. While willows provide shade, they are all characteristically open trees that move freely and elegantly in the wind. And I think the light green house complements their grey-green leaves.

The second reason I chose these salix d. is that they are the descendents of the very tree that is my very first memory of a tree, and one of my very first memories at all. It was Easter Sunday when I was four and I remember standing in the breeze beside my grandmother who had taken me to the neighbor’s house to see the pussy willow in bloom. I remember her hand holding mine, and looking up to see the bright white catkins on smooth grey stems, each stem frosted with a bright green blush. I could only look up at it, which meant I had to take it all in against the bright blue sky.

I can still feel the stems the neighbor cut for me clutched in my hand as we walked home. My grandmother was a devotee of plant life- she had a green thumb, as they say- and so she put them in water in a vase on the kitchen windowsill rather than let them dry out to become decor. Later, when the catkins sagged and fell off, my despair again gave way to wonder as fresh shoots of leaves appeared on the branches.

The tree my grandmother grew for me from those stems – in her own flower garden no less- later provided a new tree for our next family home on Hill Street. In 1988 that second generation gave new stems for trees at my mother’s new home, and now my mother’s trees gave up some stems for the five at our home. I guess there is something to the wild abandon with which Salix spreads.

And something to the miracle that is Salix come spring. This year ours had visitors before the blooms had even burst, checking early and often for the right time. One bumble bee also seemed to be preparing a nest beneath one of them. The bees even seemed to be waiting around, clinging to the near-by decorative and non-native Muscari blooms like they were clinging to buoys, sleepily adrift at sea, buffeted by spring winds, waiting. When the Salix began to bloom, early and ahead of even spring ephemerals like Bloodroot, it was as if the entire bee neighborhood heaved a huge sigh of relief, and spent every sunny afternoon along the willow path.

The obvious benefit of these five trees raises some questions for me about the systems we use to order and determine the adequacy and appropriateness of all of the growth we do encourage and allow in our shared landscape. And I can't help but conclude that these decisions have been and maybe continue to be limited, severely constrained by the logic that landscapes are showcases of our consumerism. The long chain of events that brought our Salix to our home never once included a commercial nursery, a marketing firm or a catalogue. These trees were passed hand to hand, and very likely were started from cuttings taken from a natural swamp that was painstakingly destroyed for a housing development in the early 1980s, about 10 km away from here. These trees are part of the circulation of ideas, values, information and attachments that are put at risk when our decisions begin and end as individual consumer choices. It seems harsh to make this conclusion, and it is indeed overly pedantic, and a little self-congratulatory. But it isn't meant to be- I am just struck by the sharp contrast between the gardener my Grandmother was trying to teach me to be and the gardener that it is 'easier' to be.