The Language of Flowers

 When it comes to flowers, the world has pictures aplenty: calendars, seed catalogues, seed and bulb packages, entire websites devoted to flowers, Facebook pages, artists’ canvasses, greeting cards, bookmarks, art galleries, t-shirts and sweat shirts, dresses, even jewelry—everyone who has ever had a camera in hand has taken pictures of flowers.

In preparation for a recent PowerPoint presentation, I went to the internet for garden photos and was promptly overwhelmed. I should have anticipated that: I have never walked through a public garden or conservatory without seeing at least one dedicated photographer equipped with tripod and several lenses.

Photo of outdoor gardens in Winnipeg, with a photographer about to take a picture.

 As anyone who has read this blog knows, I also carry my camera into gardens, and assiduously grow my own flowers.

Who would not want to appreciate the abundant gift of the Creator, whether or not we understand the complex roles that flowers play in all the divergent ecologies on Earth?

 What astounds me most of all, though, is the sheer, undisciplined abundance of wild flowers, many growing where human feet rarely tread, some in climates so harsh that some never grow taller than an inch or two, and flowers are measured in millimeters. While I can admire a dinner-plate dahlia or tea rose with all the awe it demands, my deepest respect is given to tiny wild flowers, such as moss campion and Western spring beauty, both native to the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and requiring a better camera than what I have.

Yes, the Rockies again. Get used to it. I haven’t spent over 40 summer holidays camping and hiking in the Rockies without having been forever changed by the thin air and the thin places where the soul is called beyond itself into worship.

Early in that history of following trails in the national and provincial parks, I wanted to call the wild flowers by name. I bought books on Rocky Mountain flowers, and for decades now, I’ve been teaching myself their names (their common ones, that is, not the Latin ones), trying to distinguish different varieties of the same flower, practicing my identification skills for the benefit of family members.

 It would be appropriate here to insert some photos of those various flowers who have become my friends. As it happens, even the close-up photos that succeeded often leave the individual flowers looking bereft, even uninteresting, as if color has been leached out or the background badly chosen.

The more time I spent this week browsing through my photo folders, the more dissatisfied with my efforts I became, until I realized I was missing the most important point here: flowers, like people, like animals, like birds, belong somewhere. None lives alone. If hiking the backwoods trails can teach us anything, and if reading the now ubiquitous articles on climate change can likewise teach us anything, it is that habitat is everything.

Just as who I am and how I present myself depends on where I am and with whom I keep company and how I live, so flowers are themselves in their habitat, which they share with other flowers and grasses and birds and animals. I had not understood the subconscious knowing that informed my better flower photos: flowers are loveliest and most themselves in the company of of other flowers, of stones and grasses and fallen trees and running water.

Herewith some of my favourite flower photos taken on mountain trails:

Lady’s Slipper, with bunchberry plants around them and possibly a false Solomon’s seal.
Lance-leaved stonecrop, a gorgeous bright yellow, here keeping company with purple asters, not yet opened, and white mountain avens.
Yellow arnica, rose-red Indian paintbrush, purple self-heal, and a whitish yellow flower at the top left that I haven’t been able to identify.
Sometimes I think I should have chosen this photo of wild strawberries for my home page: stones, flowers, and the promise of deliciousness.

 The language of flowers is spoken through color and texture. It is always brief, spoken on the wind, as it were, since no flower remains in bloom for long. Yet their brief presence echoes off rocks, reverberates in moss, accompanies the slow and fruitful rot of logs, remains in the tangled roots of the fallen trees. What solo parts they might be offered here and there, perhaps in a single spot of sunlight in the forest, are still performed in a theater created by other living things, not least of which is the deep, dark soil that other flowers, shrubs, and trees have died to create.

We who have been chosen to speak more articulate, distinctive languages, which carry heavy responsibilities—“words are for those with promises to keep” (W.H. Auden)—could benefit from spending more time with the seemingly silent whisperers of color. Gentleness and beauty in the midst of harsh winds, rhythms of life and death, laughter of resurrections from the humus of the earth: who would not feel comfort and gain courage from those?  

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular, / and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, / tending, as all music does, toward silence, / and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

Mary Oliver “When death comes

The Language of Stones

Had I been told, when I was a child, that I would someday talk about stones as if they were alive enough to “call to me,” I would have giggled in embarrassment. “That’s just stupid. Rocks are dead.” 

Although my father and older brothers did mutter resentfully that every spring, the land seemed to have “grown” more stones. Exempt from the hard labor of picking stones, by virtue of my age and my sex, I only knew the stones, piled in heaps alongside barbed-wire fences, as wonderfully climbable. Sometimes, at their base, I found wild strawberries, unmatched in taste by anything ever purchased since.

My indifference to stones disappeared when I had my first road trip that I can remember through the Rocky Mountains. True enough, at that time I made no connection between that majesty and the stones we cursed on the farm. From then on, when I heard the biblical phrase “God is our rock and our salvation,” I imagined the heights and austere beauty of the Rockies along the highways that we traveled on the way to Vancouver.

Stanley Glacier, near the highway to Radium, BC

 In the summer of 1968, I moved to Jasper, Alberta, in search of tuition money for the next year of university and maybe some adventure.  And I fell in love.

white fabric background, and the goldstone pendant necklace

With previously unknown gemstones. Such a gift that was, my first gemstone necklace, given to me by my best friend and roommate who worked in a gemstone shop. That delicate goldstone star charmed me, all the more when I learned that goldstone is relatively soft, difficult to work with. Now, more than 50 years later, that goldstone star has lost none of its inner golden glints. Its shape is still perfect. I am still in awe.

 My fervent love of hiking in the Rockies was born that summer as well. Every possible day off, every spare hour or three, was spent on the trails near the townsite. If I had access to a bicycle or a car, the hiking was more extensive. The mountains claimed my heart and soul; in them, I could breathe and feel the presence of the Divine without any strings attached—no guilt, no struggle to achieve perfection, no intense shaping of words into prayers. I just was. Small and insignificant, yes, but caught up in beauty without a name or creed.

 Just when and how that beingness attached itself to actual rocks that I could hold in my hand, I don’t know. The love of mountain hiking was soon shared with the man whom I would wed and raise children with. He and I sat together by the side of the Athabasca River, picking up rocks out of the water, drawn wordlessly to the mysterious inwardness of that which was supposed to be inanimate.

The bank of the swift Athabasca River, framed by spruce trees - focus on the rocks, polished by the water.

We began collecting, one by one, special rocks from beloved trails and favorite campsites. I began speaking of rocks as if they had individuality, as if there was a spiritual connection between me and them.

On our first visit to Wanuskewin, a First Nations park just outside of Saskatoon, we heard the indigenous narrator of the introductory video speak reverently of the ancient rocks, seemingly rooted in the prairie, as “grandfathers.” She gave words to a vague feeling I had never been able to name and could scarcely acknowledge. Stones are part of the created world, a necessary part of the ecology, descendants of great glacial movements. They matter. They embody ancientness. They speak.

 Stones also need a habitat; they need plants, and plants want the company of stones. The breakdown of rocks into smaller and smaller bits eventually makes sand, and the energy of plants growing and decaying widens cracks among the rocks and makes humus. Together they make more beauty, a beauty that breathes and multiplies, cell by cell.

We began a rock garden in our front yard, and indoors, I placed small, favorite stones next to my houseplants to keep them company. Stones and flowers: the hard and the delicate, the impermeable and the fragile.

For decades, we have gathered rocks, never many from any place. On the shores of Lake Superior, we found green and pink-speckled stones, yielding a multi-colored sand. Their belongingness near the vast waters that curved out beyond the horizon was not immediately clear to me, not until I attempted to place a few into the dry creek bed we’d created in our front yard. Lovely as they were, they didn’t belong. I had not known that stones know their place, whether they are large or small.

 Two years ago, on the Labor Day weekend, we visited Grasslands National Park, and in the everlasting wind, we walked the trails through virgin prairie, inhabited by herds of bison, veritable congregations of prairie dogs, noisy insects.

A prairie hillside with many rocks of all sizes and gorgeous yellow-flowered shrubs.

This was a harsh landscape, which, despite my initial resistance, called to my prairie-born soul. There were stones everywhere, often covered with lichen, adding color to a minimalist landscape. As usual, my eyes noted particular stones, yet something stayed my hand. These ancient stones belonged; they did not “call” to me as I had thought other stones did. They invited me, instead, to be there, with them.

Four small stones, all very different, placed on a white cloth background.

When I did finally select four small stones, I did so on my knees, grateful to the grandfather stones who were willing to let me carry their little ones in my hands, so that I could sense their eternity. They lack a place now, except in my heart and in a photo, as a work of art.

Creativity, a knowledge of place, a listening to the inner heart of things–all these are gifts to us from the Creator. A necklace and some photos, Lord – I am grateful.

In These Times

Stones and Flowers was never intended to respond to current issues or political events. It was to be a thoughtful reflection on personal experiences—a space to find beauty and commonality, maybe even joy.

But these times are unusual. Unless people have lived in other countries where epidemics have come and gone (remember Ebola?), hardly anyone younger than I will remember what it’s like to be afraid of a seemingly unstoppable new illness with disastrous consequences.

And my memories of the 1950s polio epidemic are vague, just a mental snapshot or two: my small 6-year-old self standing on the upper rungs of a long ladder propped against the house, trying to peer into the upstairs bedroom where my beloved big sister is in isolation. Who put the ladder up or why, I can’t imagine. What remains in my memory is my childish fear that I wouldn’t ever see my sister again.

 But I did. Both my big sister and my big brother contracted polio, yet survived without any long-lasting effects. Not everyone in our small town and surrounding farms was as fortunate.

Perhaps that’s why I felt an uprush of gratitude every time I took our children for their vaccinations. It seemed like such a privilege to know that they would not die or be damaged by whooping cough, polio, measles, etc.

 Now again, we are being tested by a new disease. It’s not only a matter of frantic research to find a cure and a vaccine. Our challenge is also to live with compassion for others and to resist panic. Blind fear will accomplish nothing; kindness to a neighbour will make the day easier for someone.

Meanwhile, I shall claim this blog space in which to share some photos that bring me joy and remind me that the world is a beautiful place. All we need is to open our eyes and our heart that we may see and rejoice.

There is no theme today, no pattern or order to the photos.  Each of them, though, is somehow connected to someone I love.

Kelly’s Bathtub in William Switzer Provincial Park, near Hinton, Alberta

For a few days with family in Hinton at the end of February, just before all travel ceased and the world became a lonely place, I remain very grateful.

Pond on the grounds of Calvin College (now Calvin University), Grand Rapids, Michigan

Not a frequent traveler, I have treasured every occasion to attend academic conferences that has been granted to me. This one is particularly special, since it was shared with a dear friend.

Fresno, California. Taken from a hotel window at sunset

A Starbucks coffee shop, a stunning sky – what’s not to love?

On the U of S grounds.

The University of Saskatchewan is known for its lovely grounds and unified architecture. In my life, those grounds have been the place for getting to know my boyfriend, struggling through those angst-ridden young adult years when who I was was under major construction. As a young family, we cycled along its paths, explored the small zoo in the Biology Building, attended occasional concerts. And then I became an instructor and had the privilege of walking those paths for many years. The U of S is home.

A walk in a park in Calgary
Lake Annette in Jasper, Alberta

While Saskatoon has been my residence for most of my life, Jasper remains a special place, where I first lived and worked away from home as a young adult, where we honeymooned, where we camped and hiked as a young family, where we, now as grandparents, continue to camp and hike with family.

Sunset near Oyen, Alberta

Since all our children live in Alberta, we have learned to know the highways between Saskatoon and Edmonton, and between Saskatoon and Calgary. For a prairie born soul like me, the pageantry of sunset never loses its soothing magic.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean on Wickinnish Beach, near Ucluelet on Vancouver Island.

And after we’d absorbed in almost total silence the ever-shifting light on the waves rolling into shore, until darkness gradually covered it all, we turned to leave and saw a full moon in the sky – a blue moon as it happens. It was August 30, 2012.

Linden tree in winter, Saskatoon

Our front yard has also given us beauty of all kinds. Black and white, actually mostly white, feels soul-cleansing. Snow offers inner quietness, the rest that comes before growth is possible.

Purple fountain grass, Saskatoon

Our backyard offers its own stunning details and colors.

My photo albums and digital folders are full of mountain pictures. I claim the Rocky Mountains as my spiritual home.

However, I am not blind to the loveliness of more exotic places. I offer one last photo, hoping that it may awaken dreams of days when travel is possible once again.

Hotel pool in Fresno, California

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead

After the Choices

The election is over now. We’ve had time to think about our choices and balance them against the ones we might have made. We’ve heard the “victory” speeches, such as they were. Within days, we also heard a few mea culpas, not enough, mind you. How is it that after such an important exercise of democracy (ideally a thoughtful, rational, and informed process), everyone – politicians, pollsters, media people, coffee row pundits – can so readily agree that the campaign was short on vision and way too long on insults and trivialities? Was that not obvious early enough to have changed course?

 But it is not the post-mortem I want to focus on, although it has its place; in fact, I hope that its conclusions will definitely affect what comes hereafter. A minority government, as historians and students of current politics tell us, is a forced opportunity to learn cooperation and diplomacy out of which can come important legislation. However, nothing will get done if the shouting and the animosity don’t stop.

A distant shot of the Parliaments that includes more trees and river and sky than buildings.

I have not worked out yet whether I’m hopeful about federal-provincial cooperation or not. I do know that we need reasonable unity and focus in the 43rd Parliament, not more partisan jockeying for attention. We have pressing issues to attend to, and to have individual premiers threatening to take their marbles and go play elsewhere is not helpful.

Before the election, I suggested that we institute some poetry reading retreats for our political candidates, encourage them to get to know one another, away from the spotlights and under the influence of holy wisdom of poetry. Now I’m going to suggest some additional rituals, ones that call on our narrative imagination in different ways.

For the politicians, I recommend a private ritual of writing eulogies. (No, I’m not implying dark deeds of revenge and violent seizures of power!) I have noticed in the past that when a former or even sitting Member of Parliament dies, the eulogies spoken and written are warm and gracious, devoid of partisanship and rancor. Suddenly the enemy from across the aisle has been transformed into a statesperson of great stature and goodness. To our amazement, we hear far more than we knew before about this individual’s genuine contributions and honest efforts to create a better world.

So what if, after the election, each politician took time for a solitary, quiet retreat in which to compose a eulogy for that political opponent who had served most often as his or her punching bag in the recent campaign? That could be a first step in defusing the often pointless quarrels that have been magnified past reason in order to motivate voters. Such an exercise will not be easy.

If necessary, the composition of eulogies for opponents could be preceded by the writing of their own eulogies. What would each newly elected or re-elected parliamentarian want to have said about herself or himself? What goal, which once motivated the politician to enter the public square in the first place, would he or she like to see as a crucial point in the eulogy? Honesty and self-awareness would be required for this ritual, but I can’t imagine two qualities that I would like to see more of in our representatives, apart from, of course, a thorough knowledge of the home constituency and the constitution.

 For the rest of us, I will make a different recommendation—although personal eulogy writing wouldn’t hurt us either. What I suggest will require some detective work, and considerable attentive listening. Here it is, with all its echoes of clichéd advice from previous centuries: look for stories of positive change and circulate those instead of the latest rant. Tell the Rick Mercer types to take a hike.

 For example, it was a friend, with first-hand experience, who told me about a little-known goal of Saskatchewan’s former premier Brad Wall, who had decided early in his political life that he wanted to make his province the best possible place for people with disabilities. Many of us, including me, became very angry over several cuts in his last budget, such as the shutting down of our provincial bus service (STC), yet we failed to notice that funding for disability services  had remained steady and even increased.

While the attention given to one group of vulnerable people does not cancel out the pain of another vulnerable group—social ledger sheets cannot be so balanced—it does remind me that premiers, like the rest of us, are not always consistent. Internal trade-offs seem an inevitable part of the job description.

The story also reminded me that we cannot possibly know all of the details, or understand the complicated processes of getting some programs through and cancelling others. Even in the age of social media when nothing seems private any more, the general public is not always aware of essentially good motives and acts of personal integrity. We should not forget the humanity of all political actors.

 On a more local level, I recently heard encouraging stories of initiatives in Saskatoon that seek to ameliorate the difficult living conditions of our most at-risk residents. Whether a particular helpful measure is conceived and brought into reality by city council or by creative and determined individuals makes little difference to those who receive a hot meal (Friendship Inn asks no questions but simply serves the meal) or a place to sleep in security (The Lighthouse). We need to hear these stories.

 So let’s not forget the second portion of this ritual of finding positive stories: pass them on. Admittedly, I have no right to give advice regarding social media, since I do not use them (with the exception of personal email and this blog!). Perhaps there are already a myriad of feel-good stories that are circulating, some of which are even factual.

What I have in mind, though, is the act of pointing out good initiatives in direct conversation with others, as well as passing on pertinent links to specific individuals. Admittedly, it is hard to stay cool in the middle of a heated conversation and then to retell, tactfully, some facts or stories about the object of the rant. Yet without such deliberate tamping down of anger, how shall we proceed toward the cooperation that we all say we’d like to see in our governments?

Long may our narrative imaginations flourish!

“[Marcus Aurelius] argued that the [narrative imagination] contributes to undoing retributive anger. He means that when we are able to imagine why someone has come to act in a way that might generally provoke an angry response, we will be less inclined to demonize the person, to think of him or her as purely evil and alien.

Martha Nussbaum
A photo of a solitary path through the woods.

On the Awe-full Bosom of Mother Earth

 I am a dual citizen on planet earth. As a lifelong prairie dweller, I made my peace long ago with a difficult landscape. When visiting family members mock Saskatchewan as the land that God forgot, I defend not only the clichéd delights—crocuses, meadowlarks, waving wheat fields, the scent of sage, sunsets and sunrises—but also fierce winter blizzards, the spectacular percussion of summer storms, the utter lack of boundaries in the sky.

 Nevertheless, when, as a young woman, I lived in Jasper, AB, for a summer, I gave my heart to the sublime and awful beauty of the Rocky Mountains as if I had been in exile until then and had only just discovered my true home. Becoming a lifelong vacationer in the Rockies seemed as natural as breathing. There I could forget the prairie’s harsh narratives of grasshoppers and drought, and my own small stories of grief. The mountains felt clean, uncontaminated by human failures (although I knew they were not); I could breathe here, I could feel the voice of the Divine.

View from the trail to Illecillewaet Glacier near Rogers Pass, BC

 By the time I first read about the correlation between the essential human spiritualities and the primary landscapes—forest, plains (or desert), water, and mountains—our family had been tenting and hiking in the Rockies for many years. Those vacations had always been so soul-restoring for me, that it took no great act of discernment to know that mountains were my spiritual home. There I was often caught up in worship, speechless and ecstatic in the face of a beauty both exquisite in its changeable colors and terrifying in its physical demands. This terrain is not to be taken lightly. Rocks may be ancient and solid; they are also unforgiving and moveable in dreadful ways. Yet I loved it all, and felt loved within it.

 Two summers ago, our family camped in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta. Above the gash of the coulee, where the Milk River flows past the hoodoos, lay the prairies, shimmering with heat, drawing the eye skyward to eternity. Apart from the trees along the river, this was closer to desert than anything we’d known before. Among the sage and grasses and prickly pear cacti lived prairie rattlesnakes and cottontail rabbits; on the sides of immense hoodoos near the river nested cliff sparrows in great colonies and pack rats in their untidy holes.

Hoodoos along the Milk River in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Writing-on-Stone has been sacred territory for indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. Their stories are etched on the rocks in symbolic pictures. On the barren tops of the cliffs, vision quests were held, and even now, recent sacred offerings left for the Creator are mute testimony of a strong human relationship with the earth.  

 Such a powerful spiritual place we were visiting, yet I felt only curiosity and wonder. My soul remained unmoved, as if it knew that I was an outsider, one whose heart had been given elsewhere and couldn’t be truly present here.

 Then came the night when heat made sleep impossible. Under an almost full moon, I needed no light to walk the campground road. A scant breeze ruffled stately cottonwoods into soft sibilant music. Could I ever learn to love this place? The moonlight on the nearby Sweet Grass Hills across the border in Montana was – tender? No, wrong word. “Cool” was more like it, with its old meaning of chilly distance.

Moonrise over the Sweet Grass Hills seen from Writing-on-Stone.

Back in the tent, I still couldn’t sleep although I lay quietly now. Then I felt it. The very soil – so close under me, less than two inches of man-made substances between me and it – rose and fell in a rocking motion that nearly stopped my heart in fear. Those 30 seconds of earth movement were no dream. A sudden scatter of agitated voices nearby asking “what happened?” told me it was real. For the next half hour, I waited, alert now, before feeling again two or three slight shiftings, then all was still.

 In the morning, I discovered that of the 6 adults in our group, all of us sleeping in light nylon tents, I was the only one who had felt the earth move. My story was greeted with courtesy but unspoken scepticism – until the next-site neighbour came over to tell us that her trailer had been shaken violently enough to wake her, and she wondered if mischievous teens had come through our site as well. When I told her what I had felt, she assumed that human hands had shaken our tent (I knew that was wrong).  Later I heard other campers whose trailers had been rudely shaken wonder who the culprits had been. All who had layers of human construction and several feet of air between them and the earth had experienced the event as a mechanical one of human agency.

 Then came news that an earthquake in Montana (5.8 on the Richter scale) had sent tremors even farther north than Writing-on-Stone. My “I told you so” satisfaction gave way abruptly to a reverent gratitude that I had been “chosen” to feel those tremors against my body. What was a rattling disturbance for everyone in trailers was, for a tent sleeper, an intimate pressure gentle enough not to wake anyone. If I had been sleeping, would I have awakened or would it have become part of my dreams? What does it really mean to be at one with the earth?   

 The next day, we hiked up through the hoodoos up to the level prairie to seek refuge from the heat in the excellent Visitors Centre.

Trail through hoodoos near Visitor Centre in Writing-on-Stone.

After a futile effort to absorb information, I volunteered to take my turn to stay outside with the dogs. Since they were content to pant beneath the picnic table, I was left alone with the land, from the grasses and sage at my feet to the towering hoodoos nearby, from the Milk River below me to yonder Sweet Grass Hills. This, this was the land that had moved and had moved me with it.  

Originally published August 30, 2017 in Prairie Messenger.