Where the Wild Flowers Are

            One of the greatest hardships for me during the pandemic has been the loss of our annual camping trips, both with and without children and grandchildren. The worst trial was, of course, living entirely without family gatherings, since we have no family members living in our city. Apart from that, though, I sometimes felt that my soul would shrivel into something mean and meaningless if I did not soon manage to return to our favourite hiking trails in the Rockies.

To help me find patience to wait just a little longer, I have been scrolling through my photos of wild flowers. While I love the mountain vistas and dream of standing at high altitudes again, it has often been the wild flowers up in the alpine slopes, deep in the pine forests, and along rocky shores of rivers that send rejoicing through my veins. It remains a mystery to me that the Creator should have been so recklessly generous with the sheer numbers and varieties of beauty that live mostly beyond human gaze.

            May I share some of that beauty with you all? 

Wild flowers offer two kinds of pleasure – on masse and one by one. We have, in our various mountain hikes, stumbled on acres of wild flowers, and also discovered small clusters bravely growing on a rocky slope or camouflaged in deep forest grasses. Taking good photos of entire hillsides covered with flowers or valleys likewise filled with color is a challenge, I’ve found. Nothing I’ve taken has ever duplicated my first astonishment. The above photo of a nameless valley somewhere above Taylor Lake, the destination of a trail off the highway just north of Banff, offers me equal portions of happy memory and regret – perhaps I should have tried another angle.

We discovered the meadow by accident. Our plan was to hike up to Taylor Lake, perhaps cool our feet in the water, have some lunch, and then return the way we came. It was a last hike before we departed for home, and we were already tired even before we laced up our hiking boots that morning. It’s not a particularly onerous hike; it should have been a delightful, gentle closing scene on a soul-restoring holiday. However, arrival at the lake felt like entering a combat zone, with our tiny opponents vicious and thorough. There wasn’t enough insect repellent in both our packs to make lunch here possible.

So we kept walking, past the lake and on up a slope, not knowing where the path would take us, presumably up to some ridge for which we no longer had sufficient energy. Then the trail abruptly opened out onto this meadow with more flowers in one place than we had ever seen before except for one, much longer meadow on the trail to Helen Lake, also off the Banff-Jasper Highway. Mosquitoes were forgotten! Even lunch became secondary to exploring the gifts of this place.

But to get a good photo of the whole? A real challenge for this amateur photographer. But I keep trying.

Nobody sees a flower, really. It is so small it takes time. We haven’t time and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.

Georgia O’Keefe

In my own garden in Saskatoon, there are also blue forget-me-nots. They closely resemble their alpine cousins, which means that they seem insignificant, not particularly important among the larger, showier perennials with their dominant reds and yellows. Blue flowers often seem more delicate, almost hesitant to claim space whether in gardens or in the wild.

Alpine slopes are a demanding environment. With minimal soil covering the rock and the harsh cold winds that blow most of the time, flowers grow by anchoring themselves low to the ground, offering little surface to the wind and spreading their fine roots in a net wider than themselves.

I would like to learn that from the forget-me-nots and all their other alpine friends.

Blue-eyed mountain grass is another shy flower that I admired for years in my mountain flower book before ever finding it in the wild. One has to be paying attention to spot these 1 cm. beauties in the midst of the grass and shrubbery on sub-alpine slopes. The plant itself, its leaves mere thin-bladed grass, attracts no attention. Had it not been that on the trail up to Mt. Allan in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, there happened to be a considerable cluster of them, all in bloom, I might never have learned how to spot them.

I attempted to grow a prairie version of them in my garden, with no success. Upon thinking it over, I concluded that it is not necessary to own and control what one loves. Let those gorgeous blue-purple eyes with their startling yellow centres remain in the wild where they can reward those who pay attention.

One last flower from the blue section of any flower guide – blue harebells. These, too, are not overly dramatic, do not overwhelm through sheer color and size. However, they are not shy. Indeed, it seems as if they are everywhere, having developed versions of themselves that are content in almost any habitat. The mountain harebells are smaller, shorter, and the arctic version (appearing on the higher alpine slopes) are a mere 10 cm tall or less. The distinctive bell-shaped flower is consistent in all varieties.

Their adaptability is enviable; they change only as much as circumstances require without sacrificing anything of their essence. Seeing them is a little like meeting family: maybe one didn’t expect to see them here, or there, but instant recognition brings a smile.

Just as one should not judge a book by its cover or a human being by the color of their skin, so one should not judge a flower by its name. Whoever thought of naming these gorgeous purple flowers, with tiny gold studs on their stamens, scorpion weed? It seems to have come from resemblance between the coiled leaves and the curled tail of a scorpion. Having never seen a real scorpion, I cannot comment.

Their other, less common name – silky phacelia – has the poetic music the flower absolutely requires. Scorpion weed, indeed! This is a “weed” I’d be happy to welcome in my garden, except that my prairie garden offers neither the altitude nor the open dry rocky slopes that these dramatic beauties require.

I must have taken thousands of pictures of paintbrush already. They grow everywhere, it seems, from ditches along the highways to high alpine slopes. I have photographed them against water, against rocks and old tree stumps, with dandelions, bright yellow arnica, white labrador tea, even rein orchids. They’re such friendly flowers and so at home in whatever setting that they practically beg for yet another photo, like the overly chummy uncle at a party, happy to put his arm around anyone and pose for a picture.

Paintbrush flowers come in so many shades of red and orange and pink and yellow that I keep taking more photos. As if I needed another reason to love them, I learned that paintbrush flowers, with their loosely clustered and sturdy petals and abundant sweet nectar, probably evolved together with hummingbirds (Plants of the Rocky Mountains). Now that’s just perfect.

Nothing in my farming background taught me to love thistles. They were a weed, a noxious weed to be eradicated by whatever method was available, and damn the torpedos. Not until I’d been away from the farm for many years did I discover that thistles often have a beautiful scent, and they are exquisite on the avalanche slopes, as wonderfully made as any wild flower.

It is the special gift of a wild flower to demonstrate clearly that there is a place for every one of them, in its chosen place. Each has unique beauty, special ways of attracting bees and other insects, the right kind of root to establish itself where it belongs – in community with a host of friends. That I needed to be reminded of these days.

The earth laughs in flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Remembering the Winter of the Heart – a Reprise

Rabbit in an early unseasonably early storm. It’s about as prepared for winter as we were in November 2020.

Just over two years ago, the second posting on this blog was called “Remembering the Winter of the Heart.” In the wake of a full year of COVID-19, my mind has been drawn to re-visiting the season of emotional winter. In February of 2018, I was grateful that life consisted of summer and winter, both literally and emotionally. The balance, I declared then, was necessary and fruitful.

 Since then we have, as an entire society, explored dimensions of solitude that have always been familiar to contemplatives but not to the rest of us. Our homes have become our fortified castles, not just brief resting places between multiple commitments elsewhere. We have collectively bought more jigsaw puzzles and books than airline tickets and hotel reservations.

Photo of book shelves in my library, which also contain numerous jigsaw puzzles.

Enough people discovered the joys of baking bread that yeast became scarce. Enough people re-discovered – or discovered – the joys of gardening that last spring there was a shortage of seeds (let’s hope that suppliers are ready for this spring).

Photo of our garden in mid-summer with everything green and bushy, doing very well indeed.

Liquor consumption has increased. Sociologists will be busy for many years studying the results of this massive global experiment in drastically changing cultural behaviour.

Now that spring is on its way (there will still be winter storms where I live, but we know the snow won’t last), and the roll-out of vaccines promises an end to the siege of COVID-19, I want to speak my thanks for the deepening of thought and the deliberate fostering of loving connections that occurred in this great collective Winter of the Heart. The additional solitude, and the waves of insecurity, have underlined our vulnerability and offered us space and time to turn depleted energy into important self-reflection.

 We have had time to learn to see subtler shades of white and grey. When the lure of screen-delivered distractions palled, our eyes rested on bland white and saw it as miraculously varied.

photo of huge snow drifts with shades of white and grey and the hint of a barbed wire fence across the top.
Hoar-frost covered trees and shrubs around a small clearing where the white snow is patterned with shadows of the branches.

 

Hoar-frost covered weeds, bending with the weight of the frost, against a background of snow with shadows turned blue by the angle of light.

We have had time to let boredom metamorphose into bone-deep relaxation. Restfulness acquired expansiveness. Urgency lost its hold and immediacy its power to corral all senses.

Admittedly, that state of not-quite-hibernation was not the prerogative of everyone.

I hereby acknowledge that I write out of the privilege of the retired and adequately funded. For many, this year of the pandemic has meant extra work, multiplied tensions, fear of unending poverty, the weight of loss upon loss, or even loneliness so all pervasive and crushing that being at rest felt more like being comatose. Contemplation itself lost all meaning. I want to hold these grim experiences in balance with my personal effort to be grateful and to be, despite everything, at home in this intensified winter of the heart.

We have had, after all, time enough to nurture compassion. In fact, all our creativity has been required to continue to stay connected to the ones we love and to reach out to those whose pain has, for whatever reasons, become part of our own consciousness as well. While sometimes anger seemed the only feasible response to the statistics and to the blindly furious missives flooding social media, there has been time enough in this winter of inside and outside the heart to let go of all that anger and see instead the fear lurking behind the eyes.

Whatever their attendant annoyances (fogged up glasses, unseen smiles, unheard syllables), masks should have taught us to look people in the eye. And to listen more closely, not only to the actually spoken word but also to the intense desire to know and to be known.  “Who are you, really? What’s going on in your wintry heart?”

This season of the winter of the heart has also taught more of us to walk, not to get anywhere in a hurry or to compete with someone else in how many steps can be taken, but to walk for the sake of walking. To walk in order to feel and see that the world around us is beautiful and various. To breathe the air that rejuvenates and is safe.

To envy the swarm of company that the cedar waxwings enjoy.

To hear the chickadees call out “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” or “hey, sweetheart!” Even when eyes are so blinded by tears that the path is felt rather than seen, the simple language of birds is wonderfully reassuring to “their lonely betters” who have promises to keep (W.H. Auden), and who simply can’t keep them now.

The promise of winter, however, is that spring always follows. There will be a real summer in our landscapes and in our hearts, even if, for some of us, there is an unfathomable “feast of losses” to live through. Even if – perhaps because – the feasts of losses are also collective. Sorrow and beauty come to us all, just as winter and summer come to us all.

Oh, Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Percy Byssche Shelley

Living into the Dark Places

“And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.” (Rumi)

            The first killing frosts have come through. I have dug up my dahlia tubers and put them to rest for the winter in our cold room. The quiet darkness will soothe them after their summer’s exuberant blooming. Our mild fall this year had given them almost an entire extra month in which to parade their flamboyant selves.

A bright red dahlia, about 3 - 4 inches across

 I love dahlias (pronounced dayˈ-lee-uh in British English or daˈ-lee-uh in American English). Their colors are exorbitantly happy. From the dinner-plate dahlias—flowers measuring up to 8 or 9 inches across—to smaller patio-pot versions, each flower has dozens and dozens of petals. That miracle alone makes the work of winter storage entirely worth it.

During the anxieties of July and August when a sobering diagnosis combined with the isolation of the pandemic to make each brilliant summer day feel like walking in the dark, I received a hand-made get well card from our oldest granddaughter. She had previously emailed to ask what my favourite flowers were, and I had said dahlias, not stopping to think that they would be rather difficult to draw.  

The tender care with which she created each of those many dahlias, with all those many nestled petals, is obvious. Her creative bouquet lives on, pinned to our fridge door (that universal bulletin board). It brought pleasure and comfort especially after I realized that an in-person visit could not happen. It continued to delight me during my gradual recovery in our long mellow fall. All the while, our actual dahlias continued to bloom even past the first mild frosts. Now that cold temperatures have entirely ended the real dahlias’ life – for now – the hand-drawn dahlias remain, and still bring smiles.  

I say “for now,” because their life is not at all over. The clumps of seemingly lifeless tubers will rest in our cold room over the winter and when the time is right, little shoots will poke out of those dusty tubers to begin their growth toward mid-summer’s glory.

Gardeners (and farmers), together with all those who live more directly within seasonal rhythms of growth and dormancy, understand that dark seasons are an integral part of life. In our usual lexicon of duality, however, we oppose darkness and light, giving light all the good symbols and equating darkness with evil. Think of our common images: the “dark night of the soul,” “going over to the dark side,” “heart of darkness” (thank you, Joseph Conrad), “we’re in a dark time now.”  We all seem to be “afraid of the dark,” at some level or other, not just young children going to bed.

Yet as Barbara Brown Taylor makes clear in Learning to Walk in the Dark, just as trees, flowers, animals, insects, and birds all need daily intervals of darkness in order to flourish well, so too do humans require periods of silence and dormancy. Above and beyond the darkness needed for our hormones to do their intricate work of rebuilding our bodies in the night, our minds and souls benefit enormously from regular absence of artificial light. The stupendous miracle of a star-filled sky cannot be appreciated except where all other light is extinguished (one reason, sufficient all by itself, for camping in what we city dwellers call the “wilderness”).

Away from the city, where absolute blackness is still possible, one can hear the owls, the poignant call of coyotes, the way the wind breathes through the leaves, whether in the midst of fecund photosynthesis or rustling their way toward equally fertile decay. In the darkness, human beings can rest or pursue the necessary journeys inward toward spiritual wholeness. We should not shun either darkness or dormancy. Both are essential for self-knowledge without which the virtues of compassion and integrity cannot develop.  

Recognizing that physical darkness is essential for our bodies to sleep well, heal well, build new cells properly, etc., is one thing; accepting that emotional darkness is also essential for our hearts and minds is another. We are none of us eager to seek the dark ways of loss and grief and confusion and fear, yet they are an integral—inevitable—part of what it means to be human.

 “You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing.”

Natalie Babbit in Tuck Everlasting
A large yellow dahlia, partly in shadow and against a black background.

What my beloved dahlias can teach me is that to be dug from my familiar place, dusted off, and tucked away into the darkness for months on end, is not the end of me after all. Not even the spring divisions, when the tangled tubers and dried off roots need to be cut into pieces in order to multiply the beauty into more plants is the end of my essential being.

“Fear is not pathology. Hopelessness is not pathology. Grief is not pathology. They are path. Collect the pieces of the broken world and create a container of empathy and love for the crumbled hopes and dreams to be held and tended to with the pieces of light. Honor the holy truth that the forms that love takes will always fall apart—for this is their nature—in order that they may come back together in more integrated and cohesive ways.”

Matt Licata

It is indeed better to live into the darkness, welcome its unknown space, breathe quietly, and be willing to wait for the newness of life, than to seek endless distractions, turn on more lights, deny the pain, grasp frantically for whatever relief might be on offer.

Live into the darkness.

“In a dark time,

 the eye begins to see.” 

Theodore Roetke

A Rainbow and a Flower

( This post is something of an indulgence in these difficult times. It was indeed first written in a different time and different world – November 2017 – but has perhaps still some relevance.)

On the highway between Lake Louise and Banff, cars pulled onto the shoulder, and camera-wielding drivers and passengers tumbled out—not to immortalize one more grizzly bear on social media, not this time—but to render awed tribute to the full, double rainbow that arose out of the earth in the far valley and returned to the earth on nearby slopes still clad in mists of retreating rain. The upper rainbow a soft-focus version of the brilliant lower arc, each color band was intensely itself yet merged seamlessly into the next, the red and purple declaring themselves against a backdrop of mountains and clouds.       

 The physics of light refraction, most certainly familiar to most of the open-mouthed photographers, meant little in the moment. It would have taken a truly hardened, indifferent soul not to see this unearthly beauty and then to bless the web of coincidence that had prompted light to undress itself behind a veil of retreating raindrops.

Photo of rainbow in the mountains, with the cloud and mist still hanging over the mountains.

 Can a rainbow know its adorers? As a peacock might self-consciously fan out iridescent tail feathers and strut before its admirers? Surely it cannot be sacrilegious to imagine such mysterious conversation.

 The belief that rainbow hues have spiritual dimensions is very old: from the original makers of mandalas, Buddhist monks who wove sand into magnificent sacred works of art, to today’s devotees of Zen adult coloring books, human beings have known that each vibrant color must mean something.

Even those who have stripped all that is sacred from the color spectrum—interior decorators, web-designers, and ad-makers—still know very well that the exact shade matters. Paint the walls bright yellow and we’ll consume more food! Use subtle greys and blues and we’ll stay longer, become more pliable to the message, whatever it is.

Fortunately, the rainbow, co-opted as it has been for various purposes, is not the only divine gift to the human eye. The world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” to use Hopkins’ immortal phrase, through a reckless profusion of flowers, from the grandiose, diva-like spread of tropical plants to the infinitesimal delicacy of alpine flowers growing far above normal human tread.

Gardeners the world over confess their immoderate obsession with the unending possibilities in the intimate marriage between color and texture. Have you ever fingered the petals of a rose in full bloom? Velvet itself is pedestrian in comparison. Or noted how the leaves of the paintbrush transfigure themselves into flowers, adopting whatever shade of red or orange or magenta or pink or yellowish white is de rigueur at a particular altitude?

Or pondered how it is that the leaves of fireweed in fall turn a dormish brown in one valley, yet in another choose to wear gorgeous purples and magentas and oranges?

Or asked a lily enthusiast to describe the patterns of lines and dots in Amber Flame or Chocolate Canary?

photo of several lilies from my garden.

 When I immerse fragile petals of black pansies in boiling water in the first stage of making jelly, a brilliant turquoise precedes the deep amethyst of the final product. That red rose petals should yield a soft blue before turning into a deep pink is no less miraculous to me. No wonder that medieval alchemists, looking for  the elixir of youth, or that which would change all to gold, knew that at the heart of all things is a congruence of elements that none but the Creator understands.

Our subconscious responses to the symbolic resonances of color are particularly evident in how we react to the contrast between what is black and white (literally or metaphorically) and what is color-full. Remember Schindler’s List (1993)? Most of the movie is filmed in black and white, shifting to color only in the last scenes as attention turns from those who perished to those who survived. Other than that, color appears only in a couple of poignant scenes, in which one little Jewish girl wears a pink coat, such a contrast to the inhuman categories of Jew or not-Jew that she provokes tears long before the sheer scale of the tragedy makes weeping the only reasonable response.

  Black and white, as a metaphor, has come to stand for immovable regulations and an avoidance of all nuance. In religion, black-and-white distinguishes between the saved and the damned (no in-between, or compassion); in politics, black-and-white sorts all people and positions into the evil and the good (with the sorter seemingly always among the good).

  Although it seems prudent not to rely too heavily on physics as a source of moral wisdom, especially since the beautiful calls for awe, not moralizing, I cannot help but ponder what physics might teach me. Light is essential for the perception of any color whatsoever; color cannot be seen in the dark. Even more striking, light itself must be broken (refracted) before rainbow colors appear. A consistent rejection of all variances, fragments, ambiguities, irregularities—terminal black-and-white categorization, in other words—impoverishes us, whether we know it or not.

A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, / How rich and great the times are now!

William Henry Davies

There is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

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.

Of Fruit and Knowledge

Originally published in Prairie Messenger on November 23, 2016, but revised now in celebration of another season of fruit that’s come to an end.            

Fruit and I have close kinship; it calls to me and I answer – eagerly. As far as I am concerned, there’s no such thing as too much fruit, especially wild fruit. Family lore claims I can spot wild strawberries in the ditch along the highway through the windows of a speeding car. Small grandchildren have already learned that on hikes in the Rockies, it pays to stay near Grandma. If there is wild fruit to be had—strawberries, currants, saskatoons, raspberries, blueberries—I will find it. And will happily “steal” it from the bears who probably need the calories more than my clan and I do. My guilt over the theft, if such it is, is quickly smothered by my confidence that there are more than enough berries for us all. So far.

Wild raspberries along the trail to Black Elk Peak in Black Hills National Park, South Dakota
Wild strawberry flowers, beautiful in their own right

 The reckless, extravagant abundance of fruit, wild and domesticated, never ceases to astonish me. Even granting that some fruit in a human diet is essential for vitamins and fibre, was the Creator obliged to provide so much, in such profligate variety? Or to infuse some fruits with so much juice and joy that the first bite is like sexual climax for sheer self-abandonment to sensual indulgence? The very shape and luster of fresh peaches, to take one example, is enough to make the sensitive blush, and the intensity of taste in wild strawberries or blueberries can be grasped only through experience, through knowing.

 And abruptly, the biblical sense of knowing – physical intimacy – comes into play. A raspberry is not real until it is crushed by the tongue, and one is never the same thereafter (I speak here of raspberries for which one has braved the prickly canes, not the ones sold in multinational grocery stores, hybridized for their longevity, and shipped days ago). Whatever fruit one imagines that the first human pair ate in search of forbidden knowledge—perhaps a mango which drips juice everywhere, or a pomegranate whose every seed is a burst of flavor and surprise—it becomes an apt symbol for the uprush of new experience, with all its consequences.

 Fruit and gardens: both are so symbolically rich (and wild fruit has additional hints of the illicit and the adventurous) that writers, from biblical times to the present, find them irresistible.  Isaiah the prophet could find no more apt picture of redemption than the transformation of a wilderness into a garden; for St. John, the Gospel writer, it seemed fitting that the grieving Mary Magdalene should mistake the risen Christ for the gardener; and to John of Patmos, Heaven was incomplete without a Tree of Life that bore fruit every month.   

As I think of writers I have recently encountered, none does more with fruit and gardens than Darcie Friesen Hossack. In her collection of short stories Mennonites Don’t Dance, she piles theological implications on top of too-skimpy pies and blushing fragile tomatoes, and deftly measures her characters by their ability—and willingness—to love dirt into fruitfulness. Those who “have no use for fruit” have adopted a soulless utilitarianism designed to shield them from vulnerability. Those with wholesome relationships, with others and with their God, are most likely to grow gardens and love fruit; they’re unafraid of sensuality and are generous of soul and habit.

 What appeals to me in Hossack’s painfully honest stories about family dynamics is the recurrent insistence on hope, through the fertile, lovely gardens, in the shameless, abundant juices of fruit. Hope, for children wounded by their parents’ struggle to come to terms with their own past, is born as they learn to put seeds into the soil or gather dandelions for wine–transformational activities which Hossack associates with the creative impulse itself, often by way of a fascination with texture, not just taste, or a heightened sensitivity to color.

Sour cherry tree in our back yard.

 That last symbolic connection draws in the very nature of beauty, and raises the theological question of whether one can learn to love God without also learning to love that which is beautiful and celebrating our human sensuality. I am reminded of poet John Keats’ famous words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” If we’re going to follow that line of thought back to the Garden of Eden and reclaim gardening as a necessary theological activity, maybe even as a prologue to love itself (since growing anything is a surrender of control), then . . . well, what then?

Already on that path is a growing congregation of earth-keepers, from backyard composters and determined urban gardeners to highly trained scientists estimating the number of years we have left before our entire earthly garden withers and all its inhabitants with it. Keats’ observation now takes on some urgency; if the interchangeability of beauty and truth is the sole knowledge necessary, then to seek and to gain that knowledge, we need to know also (through experience, through the crushed raspberry on the tongue) that we, and the beauty and truth that we must know (with all our passion and energy), are rooted in the earth, on the earth.  Knowing begins in dirt.

To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi

A Rose Bush and Politics

 It’s been a gloomy 2019 for me, so far. Never mind that the coming of spring brings the delight of watching the gradual greening of the perennials in my garden—which of my roses will leaf out again? Did the new shrub make it through the winter?  What with new depths of incivility in high places of government, plastic-clogged oceans, outrage and hatred on social media, and some monumental displays of hypocrisy, not to mention private griefs, I’ve not been in close fellowship with hope for some time now.    

 I am not alone in my pessimism. Seeking to move beyond shrill and superficial sound bytes, I’ve been following thoughtful columnists and reading some reputable journals like The Atlantic. It seemed important to stand back from daily doses of petulant partisanship and ponder the larger picture, as drawn by astute, knowledgeable political writers, both small-c conservatives and small-l liberals. My reading has been expanded by emails peppered with links to good articles and dependable news postings, sent by family members who typically reside well to the right of me on most topics. In sum, I’ve been trying to achieve a balanced perspective.

However, the possibilities of good outcomes to the current state of affairs, at whatever recent point one chooses to measure it, seem far out of reach. I do not regret the various articles I’ve read, about the function of race in the last presidential election, about the degradation of our environment in favour of profit, or about the way that current policies seem to make reasonable changes in health care or education so difficult to achieve. All awakened compassion in me for those whose future has been steadily closed down by the forces that drive globalization and other cultural processes. Disheartening as these analyses are, I am glad that I read them. I would rather grieve over systemic evils than waste my energy learning to hate particular groups of people for their behaviour in circumstances that would break anyone.

 Even a book as optimistic and as soundly grounded on moral principles as Stephan Schwartz’ The 8 Laws of Change, with its message of the power of the individual committed to non-violence and to making life-affirming decisions, still made it clear that the social and political culture of our time is dangerous to the earth and to all its human and non-human residents.

In such a context, it seems trivial to worry about whether a rose has lived or died. On the other hand . . . .  There was a rose bush that had something to teach me. And it wasn’t just the truism that getting dirt under your fingernails will ground you, to use an obvious pun.

 The “Berini rose,” as it was known in our family, had been planted originally by my mother after her move from her last real home with a real garden to a seniors townhouse, Berini Court, with laughably limited space for gardening. For Mom, growing flowers had been one constant source of pleasure and hope. When available gardening space was reduced, she found some consolation by giving me her best red rose. I planted it beside our front door where she was most likely to see it on visits.  

The rose garden in our front yard

It bloomed happily for some twenty years. I began to buy more roses, and more, until the plot became an entire rose garden. For me also, flowers were essential for sanity. I agreed with Anne Michael’s dictum: “Find a way to make beauty necessary and to make the necessary beautiful.” Yet she hadn’t said it would be easy. For all their hardiness, roses are vulnerable to insects and to black spot and who knows what else. The Edenic project of a rose garden requires constant attention, and even then, success is not guaranteed.

Find a way to make beauty necessary, and to make the necessary beautiful.

Anne Michael, Fugitive Pieces

A bad winter of too many freeze-thaw cycles destroyed at least three of my rose bushes and weakened two others. The Berini rose managed to put forth a few new shoots which eventually produced flowers, albeit with a whiff of desperation about them. I grieved, of course, yet without surprise, when the following spring, the Berini rose showed no signs of life at all.  

There was nothing more to be done. Sentimental attachment would not revive a rose corpse. Yet no sooner had my spade bitten into dirt than I spotted the tiny green shoot (only a month late!), defying me to keep digging. Ach! The shrub that would take its place had already been purchased. 

Fortunately, we have a capacious front yard with a sunnier spot where the rose could live, if it so chose. So out it came. In the process of moving it, though, I broke off the new shoot. Was some pernicious subconscious process at work? In opposition to the regenerative power of the natural world?

 I had believed, when I saw that hopeful little green shoot, that Gerard Manley Hopkins had been right about reality in “The Grandeur of God“: “for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” What’s more, I had, even after reading too much political writing, hoped that that “freshness” was true of human beings as well, not just “nature” (as we so blithely distinguish between us and nature).

An utterly dead rose bush

Two months later, the brown sticks remained decidedly dead. The trauma of transplanting had been the last indignity. A desire to keep memories alive was insufficient. It was time for acceptance—and resilience.

Step one was to toss the clump of dry roots into the compost. That in itself is a reminder that even death is not nothingness. Compost speaks of resilience, of continued life through transformation.

Step two had already begun, without my awareness that it was the next step. I had been filling spaces in the former rose garden with dahlias—dramatic, diva-like flowers whose beauty can be preserved only by taking the tubers indoors for the winter. Of course, I miss the resilience of hardy prairie roses, yet dahlias demonstrate another kind of beauty and an equally miraculous ability to store life until it can blossom again.

In comparison to an increasingly chaotic world stage, the life or death of one relatively insignificant rose matters little. Nevertheless, I could not forget that Hopkins did not limit the “dearest freshness deep down things” to the much trodden-upon earth. For him, human beings also embody that which is capable of transformation, of continued life and beauty.

 His testimony is supported by Marilynne Robinson in The Givenness of Things, a theological and artistic tour de force. In “Metaphysics,” she proposes that human beings are intimately and wonderfully connected to everything of the earth and to the vast complexity of the universe. We are not an accidental development of a random unfolding of atoms and cells, but a special category of existence with a unique quality of self-consciousness that participates in the Divine, separate from yet essential to Creation, however one conceptualizes that confluence of impossibilities.

 If that is the case, and Robinson is compelling and artistically coherent, then Hopkins’ glorious statement “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” applies in a particular way to human beings. There is then always reason to wonder at the creativity and consciousness—and an innate capacity for goodness—of humanity. There is more than enough miracle here to give the lie to despair. Whether a rose lives or dies, whether politicians make a hash of formerly workable societies, there will always be beauty and wonder – and hope.

. . . . . . For all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing Teaches Patience like Jade Plants

A master gardener I am not. I do like gardening, though, and have been known to form strong attachments to particular plants. The rose bush beside our front door, for example, has a long history, beginning in the back yard of a pie-shaped lot in Grosvenor Park, Saskatoon, and then continuing in a small square of dirt in a seniors’ complex on Berini Drive, where my mother had reluctantly acquiesced to inevitable downsizing.

A lifelong gardener, she tried to make this limited living bearable by claiming what little space there was for growing flowers. When even that meagre space was cut, she asked me to adopt the rose bush. Within a year, my father had died, and she had moved to a nursing home. That was over 25 years ago, and until this past summer, the rose bush lived on next to our front door, a bright red statement of the need for beauty, always.

That rose bush has a story of its own, but that’s for another day.

So, about the jade plants—that story begins over 10 years ago when my sister surprised me with the gift of a slip from the large jade plant she had cherished in her condo for decades. Once its roots had become an encouraging tangle at the bottom of a water glass, I gave it a dirt home in a clay pot and took it to my office where I hoped that abundant east sunlight would help it thrive. It did, too—in the manner of jade plants, which is everlastingly slow.

Never having grown one before, I hadn’t realized that jade is in the business of living for the long haul. Goodness, but they take their sweet time to put out new leaves. And it is sweet, because the green of those new leaves seems the very embodiment of hope, tender yet firm, utterly unlike the wraithlike green of new willow leaves in spring.

Large jade plant in Broadway Roastery, Saskatoon
Jade Plant in Broadway Roastery, 8th Street, Saskatoon, SK

But then nothing about jade is insubstantial. Its leaves are almost ¼ inch thick, even at birth. Stems, too, are solid. Jade plants can grow to tree-size with veritable trunks, as I have seen elsewhere. I was disappointed to discover just how slowly jade grows.  

 Eventually I took my little jade home, gave it a larger pot, and wished it well in our living-room window. For a few years, it was happy enough. It branched as it should, adding new leaves, pair by pair. I was proud of it – and of myself. I liked my new plant friend. So when it began to drop leaves that had odd brown spots, I was dismayed. It was no longer as beautiful, with those gaps along the stems, and nothing I did seemed to make it feel better.

Doctor Google assured me that jade plants are easily propagated, advice I viewed with some skepticism, having found no adequate help for my plant in the first place. On a day when my patience, never in abundant supply, collided with one of my impulsive raze-it-all-to-the-ground moods, the jade plant was declared not worthy of its space.

Fortunately, I remembered some instructions about propagating jade. Instead of tossing the whole plant into the compost bin, I cut it up and put the pieces away in solitude to let their open wounds dry. Once the sliced ends had scabbed over, I dunked them in rooting compound and stuck them into dirt.

“Do what you will,” I told those remnants, “grow or not grow. Your choice. I can always find other plants. For the time being, I give you all a spot in the sun and an occasional drink of water.”

Three small beginning jade plants, one of which is still a mere chunk of stem.
Taken in 2017

For weeks—I have no idea how many—the wounded jade plants sat there in the dirt, meditating for all I know. Occasionally, I glanced at them, half afraid to hope. Then there was the morning I noticed the tiny beginning of new leaves at the top of one plant and then on another. Does it seem strange, maybe even ridiculous, that I felt an uprush of emotion quite out of proportion to the miniscule sign of life? I could have bought a nicely shaped healthy jade plant at some nearby store. I didn’t need these misbegotten, misshapen plant beginnings.

Yet I was absurdly happy for every one of them, even the two absolutely barren stems that after months have still shown nothing but a slight green swelling at the top. Several of the cuttings are now clearly growing; their new leaves are big enough that I’m anticipating the next pair. Daily I look for progress and plan which ones I’ll keep and which will become gifts or find their way to some charity sale. I’m reassured by the green upthrust of life that continues, no matter how sharp the knife or how rude the transplanting.

Taken in 2019. This is the plant that began in the coffee mug in the above photo.

On good days, when the sun shines, I dare to consider that similar patience might yet see the healing of more human cuts and the emergence of new growth in relationships that have dropped too many leaves.