Thursday, June 30, 2016

A friend, a garden, the last day of June

My friend Linda, with one of the few rhodos still in bloom at VanDusen Garden.

Water lilies and all colours and shapes of foliage are the big attractions at the garden now.

Off a wooden walkway, a close-up look at a thick carpet of lily pads and some blooms.

My favourite discovery of the day -- a snake-branch spruce whose vertical lines made me think of driving rain. 

We had the waterfall all to ourselves.

Linda and the delphinium beds. Like many of the spring blooms, the delphiniums are on their way out.

The golden-chain trees have lost all their links, the rhodos all their colour. Even the first blush of the multi-hued roses is fading. Exuberant spring is over at VanDusen Garden, and the serenity of summer is setting in. It's a perfect time to enjoy the garden with my long-time friend Linda, who like me, is happy with silence, shade and any view that includes a bit of water.

On a pre-long-weekend Thursday, the garden is quiet, giving us vast stretches to ourselves. We focus mostly on the water courses, which are bursting with water lilies. They carpet the surface with their thick green leaves -- so solid you can imagine walking on them -- and throw out bursts of white and pink blooms. With most of the trees finished blossoming, their foliage comes to the forefront, and what you notice is shapes and shades of green and plum, all reflected in the water.

Our search for shade leads to the best discovery of the day -- a snake-branch spruce, with downward-spiralling branches and needles reminiscent of the lines of rain in a heavy downpour. I ask Linda to walk through the "downpour" for a photo.

Keeping to the water theme, we visit the waterfall -- we don't have to wait our turn for photos, as happens in busy times. Nearby is the blue of the delphinium beds, where the flower spikes are leaning a bit, looking tired from the spring's exertions. We follow their lead and spend half an hour on a sheltered bench, catching up after a busy spring. The view we're looking at is cool, green and serene -- just the kind of summer we're hoping for.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Watching Emi

 Emi, upside down with father Etienne. Photo by John Denniston -- only a pro could catch the moment this well.
Emi with mother Aya: When life is this much fun, food is optional.

From left, grand-uncle Brian, grand-aunt Wendy,  Etienne, Aya, and Emi, who is standing up -- as usual -- in her stroller. The other relatives were taking pictures.
It's hard not to watch my grand-niece Emi. A bundle of charismatic energy, she bounces around so much in her stroller that passersby have anxiously warned her parents that she is about to fall out. During a recent brunch at a (nearly empty) restaurant in Vancouver, Emi caromed from papa to mama along the length of a banquette, gesturing, leaning, diving down and bobbing up, fully entertained in entertaining herself. There was no whining, howling, dish-breaking or other unpleasantnesses -- just a very lively nearly two-year-old providing herself with a very good time.

Two sets of grand-aunts and uncles, none with any other small children in their lives, carried on their adult conversations with Emi's parents. But with their eyes (and some with their cameras), they gobbled up her every move.

A big life remembered

Robert Kemeny has been haunted all his life by his childhood experiences during the  Nazi and Soviet occupations of Hungary. His family has had his writings made into three books as a way of preserving his memories for future generations.

Robert Kemeny was nine years old in 1944, when his Hungarian Jewish parents and older brother had to report to collection camps in Budapest -- the first step toward deportation to the Nazi concentration camps that were then going full-tilt. Robert, left with the housekeeper in the family's apartment, had no idea whether he'd ever see them again. His resourceful mother got them out, though, and the family spent the next few months hiding in the basement of a Christian family's apartment building while the Nazis combed the streets for Jews.

Robert and his immediate family survived, but after the Nazis came the Soviet occupation and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; Robert and his mother barely escaped Hungary through the snowfields into Austria. But it wasn't his last taste of political upheaval; he was running a copper mine in Chile for his uncle when Allende took over and nationalized the industry.

Dramatic stories, the stuff of movies and fiction, but for Robert and his family, their real history. With the encouragement of his family, that once-nine-year-old boy terrified at watching the Nazi motorcycles tear up and down his Budapest street sat down at a computer in his later years and poured out his memories.

Last summer and fall, I learned every detail of that story as I copy-edited his memoirs for his publisher, LifeTree Media. The result is three handsome burgundy-red volumes that arrived in my mailbox the other day -- a beautifully designed coffee table book, a 600-page memoir and a 230-page collection of reflections and speeches.

The books are for the family only, a means of passing on Robert's remarkable life story to future generations. I never met or spoke with Robert or his family, but in my close reading of those 800-plus pages, I felt I got to know him well. As I thought about that child left behind when his parents went off to their possible deaths, I could only be impressed at someone who created a full life for himself in spite of such a beginning. And appreciate that my own life has been so wonderfully dull.

Monday, June 27, 2016

John's birthday

When John and I first got together in the early 1970s in Edmonton, we celebrated birthdays at the venerable King Edward Hotel. Our wages at the Edmonton Journal were pitiful and I had a student loan to pay off, but we splurged. We drank wine in the hotel's darkly elegant dining room, enjoying the candlelight and white tablecloths. We ate filet mignon.

On Monday, when John turned 71, we celebrated by driving to our favourite coffee and sandwich shop at Britannia Beach, partway to Squamish. John had a double espresso and a vegetarian sandwich and I had a small Americano and a turkey-and-brie panini. The dessert was not Baked Alaska, but a shared slice of Saran-wrapped banana bread.

Tastes change over the years. No candlelight, no white tablecloths, but a fine view of ocean and mountains out of the coffee shop's old wooden windows. We were quite as happy as we were with filet mignon.

John's birthday cake was a slice of  banana bread. We shared it.

The coffee shop's view of mountains and ocean; our preference over a fancy dining room. 

For us, the best part of birthdays is a fresh supply of books.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Rocky little island

Rock is a central fact of life on Saltspring Island. Plant a tree, and the hole for it has to be chipped out of rock. Excavate a basement, and dynamite is soon on the agenda. There's a reason blasters are a whole business niche on Saltspring. (One of my favourite companies on the island belonged to a well-known character called Dave the Blaster. His motto: "We don't stand behind our work; we stand behind a tree.")

Rock may be frustrating for gardeners and add to construction costs, but it's also useful. Support walls, decorative walls, steps, amphitheatres, seats, even works of art -- once I started looking, I was intrigued by the all the ways islanders have found to make use of their most abundant raw material. Here are  photos of some of the rockworks I noticed recently:

This decorative stone wall on Quarry Drive was built out of rocks taken from the building site it fronts. There are plenty of rocks left on the property!

Slabs of rock form a seat near a forest trail.

Outside Artspring, which hosts theatre and art shows in Saltspring, a natural hillside amphitheatre was formed out of rocks and grass.

This sculpture made of rock stands outside the Point Gallery in southern Saltspring.

A huge development planned for Saltspring's Channel Ridge only got this far before it stalled. Rocks blasted out of the mountain were shaped into rock support walls, then left while vegetation grew up around them..

A rock as tall as an entrance gate marks this property.

Stone steps lead from the house to an entrance gate at our place on Saltspring.

Flowers and rocks. No practical use, perhaps, but aren't they pretty together?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Neighbourhood scenes

A stroll in my little Vesuvius neighbourhood on Saltspring Island is a bit different from walking in my Dunbar community in Vancouver. Things are a bit wilder, more spaced apart, and nature takes over more. Here are few photos from recent walks:

A garden gate with an owl on top is typical of the whimsical touches on many properties around here.

When an old tree died along the fence, the owners kept it for its structural beauty. Combined with roses, it makes a nice display.

Up in a nearby forested area called Channel Ridge, there is a beautifully constructed big solid wooden bench. Woodworkers and carpenters abound here.

In the old days, newspaper subscribers in rural areas would get newspaper boxes built on their properties for their daily delivery.  Judging from the ivy covering this one, there haven't been any deliveries for a long time. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Duck Creek Park

You can't see them, but trust me, these fields in Saltspring's Duck Creek Park are full of flying insects, especially dragonflies.

The park is full of shallow pools that serve as natural birdbaths.
The birds are ignoring the nice clean birdbath in my garden. I think they prefer the natural kind.

City walks and country walks are different. Insects, birds, even children seem different to a city person acclimating to the country. Here are some things I noticed during a walk in Saltspring Island's  Duck Creek Park on Tuesday:

Insects: City streets and groomed city parks seem almost bug free, but at Duck Creek, the air is full of tiny flying things. Bees at the blackberry blossoms, various coloured butterflies everywhere, but mostly there are hordes of dragonflies -- little helicopters turning the air above the baking grass fields into a busy airport. Dragonflies have curious wings; viewed at a certain angle, they seem to have square blocks on each corner. Dragonflies belong to a child's rural summer, when there is time to watch them rise and rest, and to sneak close to see how they work. Are there dragonflies in Vancouver?

Birds I: Crows, I know. They spent years digging up our city lawn for chafer beetle larvae, then eyed me with immense disappointment when we finally got rid of the bugs. They make a racket in the back yard and chase us away from their nests when we get too close. On Saltspring, it is smaller birds, songbirds, that you notice. They sing and scold. As Mr. Darcy skulks around the yard, a loud chittering chorus follows. Wherever he goes, so goes the chorus. In the park, birds dart and swoop and call to each other. They have a life that has nothing to do with humans.

Birds II: The park's creek flows over a brown creekbed, stopped here and there by sticks and stones that separate it into shallow pools. On Tuesday, a fat red-breasted robin fanned his feathers into the water, splashing, then sat on a branch to groom. The sun sent shafts of light and shadow around him. In my garden, the birdbath was filled with winter detritus when I arrived this week. I cleaned it carefully and filled it with fresh water. So far, no birds have paid any attention to my nice clean concrete birdbath.

Kids: "Hello, I'm Chris," he says. "And this is Casey." Chris is about 10 years old, thin, dark-eyed and walking his dog Casey in the park. Alone. He expects a polite, adult conversation when he catches up to a stranger walking on a park trail. He lives nearby, he says. The dog is a goldendoodle. Its white-gold fur, which lies in thick tufty curls all over its neat body, is too hot for the summer, and is to be clipped later in the day. Chris walks with me awhile, talking dogs and summer, then draws ahead to catch up to Casey. He turns and waves goodbye. "Nice to meet you," he says.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gardening lessons

The survivors of what I'd hoped would be a flourishing double row of nut-producing trees on the hill of my Saltspring Island property. After 14 years, still no nuts.   

The delicious task of gardening on a hillside. John took this photo of me on Monday as I cleared dead branches and weeds out of parts of my "jungle."

Okay, nature wins. We are even letting the weeds grow in this corner of the property, where mainly indigenous trees provide homes for wildlife. Rabbits abound!

Another part of the jungle, slightly enhanced by the pedestal of a broken birdbath. No veggies here!

When we first bought our half-acre on Saltspring Island, I fantasized about gardening there. Vegetables! Flowers! Nut trees, fruit trees! I imagined a double avenue of such trees climbing up the property's (very steep) hill, with beds of all kinds of berries running alongside.

My fantasy was based on the fact that the property had sunshine, and lots of it, compared with our shady city lot. But in my excitement, I was ignoring two things -- the island property was shale rock with a thin coating of indifferent soil, and water there was scarce and expensive. A clear case of wilful blindness. As a farmer's daughter, I know all about the three magic ingredients -- good soil, plentiful water, and lots of sunshine -- needed to make plants flourish.

The predictable happened. I began with tons of enthusiasm, ordering truckloads of good soil and having John build garden boxes and carve holes in the rocky hillside for my precious trees. All summer, I dragged hoses up and down the hill, dribbling out that pricey water. But over the years, the excitement flagged. The garden beds vanished, along with all the expensive trucked-in soil. The nut trees that survived produced no nuts, although two apple trees still miraculously push out fruit every year.

What did grow, along with plenty of weeds, wild blackberries and native bushes, was some drought-resistant shrubs I planted mainly as privacy hedges. Now they form a jungle-like border on three sides of the property, where birds, rabbits, snakes and other wildlife abound. It's certainly not the fantasy garden of my dreams, but it's taught me a lesson or two about going up against nature.  I may not have fruit, flowers or vegetables, but judging from the number of critters in my garden, they are very happy with what I'm leaving them to enjoy.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Gifts left behind

This abundance of lavatera blossoms around our Saltspring Island birdbath came from one little plant our neighbour Kathy Robertson gave us a few years ago.

Kathy gave me this little pottery vase a few years ago, along with instructions on how to fill it properly. The roses are from my garden.

Kathy's house across the road from us has been bought and renovated, but most of her garden is intact. Here are some of her roses by her gate.

On one of my birthdays, my Saltspring Island artist friend Kathy Robertson gave me a little pottery vase and instructions on how to use it. "Walk around the garden and find interesting things," she said. "Not flowers, necessarily; think textures, colours, contrasts, similarities." She got the idea because whenever I went over to her place for tea, I would comment on the beautiful arrangements she made from bits and pieces of her garden -- leaves, grasses, flowers, seedpods. A born teacher, she wanted to show me how to do the same.

That little vase, which I filled Sunday with roses and fuzzy leaves, is just one of Kathy's many gifts to John and me over the 14 years she was our neighbour. Her skills as a painter, weaver, gardener and cook are on display all over our house: a purple woolen blanket, thick as a rug, that she wove; her painting of the weeping pear tree in my garden; cards made from her paintings; cookbooks and gardening books. She never had much money, but she always insisted on giving us gifts, properly wrapped, every Christmas and on every birthday.

I thought of her again when we arrived in Saltspring on Saturday. As we drove in, we were greeted by the biggest explosion of pink lavatera blossoms we had ever had in our garden. I had not done anything to deserve this, since I haven't even been to Saltspring since Christmas. But the single lavatera plant Kathy had given me a few years ago had survived drought, neglect, and drastic cutting back to multiply and provide this amazing display.

It made me think of how Kathy made and nurtured friendships all her life, scattering gifts and memories wherever she went. She died in August of 2014, but what she left behind is wonderful.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The perfection of ivy

My favourite covering for any building's exterior is not brick, stone, or the current fad of slats of polished wood, but a thick coat of ivy. I don't know where this fantasy originates -- probably from reading way too many English novels featuring ivy-covered cottages or country houses -- but I am not the only one who harbours it. My sister-in-law Wendy says that like me, she'd love to have an ivy-covered home. And when Victoria's Empress Hotel lost its iconic coating of ivy as part of a massive recent renovation, heritage advocate Suzanne Johnston was so enraged that she launched a petition, drawing thousands of signatures. "The new owners of the Fairmont Empress are destroying its history and everything that this heritage landmark stands for," she was quoted as saying in a January story in Business in Vancouver.

But there is another side to the ivy story, and it is why neither Wendy nor I live inside a wall of green leaves. Ivy's tenacious tentacles -- the very thing that allows it to cling so picturesquely to constructions of all shapes and sizes -- digs into its host. "Do you know how much damage ivy has done to the stone and bricks?" asked Empress owner Nat Bosa. Plus, he said, it harboured critters -- mice and a family of raccoons were living in the hotel's ivy.

Wendy and I may have bowed to the practicalities of preserving our homes' exteriors and not inviting wildlife in through ivy, but not everyone has given up on the idea. On Vancouver's Point Grey Road waterfront, there is a row of old-fashioned townhouses. On the water side, these homes have unobstructed views out over the blue ocean. On the street side, they bear a thick coat of beautifully trimmed healthy green ivy. Pretty close to perfection, I think. 

Living in these ivy-covered  townhouses on the Point Grey waterfront would be like being a character in a Thomas Hardy novel.

Wouldn't you like to call one of these doors yours?

Not a leaf out of place: Whoever takes care of these buildings keeps the ivy and plantings beautifully shaped and trimmed.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My brother and Mr. Darcy

My cat Mr. Darcy doesn't like anybody except John and me, and sometimes he's dubious about even us. Guests to our house usually only catch a glimpse of his backside disappearing down the stairs. But strangely, when my brother Brian and his wife Wendy arrived for a visit Wednesday night, something changed. Mr. Darcy hung around the living room where we were talking, then started eyeing the couch where Brian, Wendy and I were sitting. That longing glance is his usual precursor to jumping up for a snuggle. It took awhile, but finally he made the big leap, and settled into a spot between Brian and me. Unheard of! He sat next to a virtual stranger, allowed that stranger to pet him, then snoozed against the stranger's leg!

Mom always said that when Brian was a little boy, he watched over his younger sisters with an anxious and careful eye. "He was so concerned about you all," she would say. In later years, I saw how he watched over his own children like that. I wonder whether Mr. Darcy senses something about Brian -- an innate gentleness, perhaps -- that makes it feel safe for him to leap up where he has never leapt before? Brian and Wendy are more dog people than cat people, but they bring with them a low-key kindness that may be as attractive to cats as to their fellow human beings!

My brother Brian fixes his bike on the front boulevard on Thursday.

Brian's new fan Mr. Darcy (by the hedge) looks on as bike-fixing proceeds. 

Wendy makes supper for us all. What a guest!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Fish in the garden

Someone has created the effect of an underwater garden by suspending painted blue fish among their plants.

One of the trees in the garden is painted a sea-like green, which turns to red in the top branches. 
Front gardens are the face we present to the world (who we really are is in the back), and I am always delighted when a garden reveals something pleasantly unusual about the home's occupant. Whoever runs this garden near Blanca loves fish, and is happy to say so. Wooden replicas of fish, painted mainly blue, but also red and brown, lurk among the garden's flowers, shrubs and small trees. The branches of one of the trees are actually painted a sea-like green, which turns red further up -- a nod perhaps to the colours of a spawning salmon.

 When I passed the garden on Wednesday, shafts of sunlight played on the plantings, creating a moving patchwork of sunshine and shadow. The fish suspended between the plants looked like they were moving through an underwater garden: a bit of whimsical  magic in the middle of the city, thanks to someone willing to share their passion with the rest of the world.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

West Vancouver, past and future

West Vancouver has always been a special place for me because my partner John grew up there, and loves it as only a native can. When I first came to B.C. in the early 1970s from Edmonton, one of the first places he took me was to a residential area near Lighthouse Park. Quaint old houses straight out of a storybook semi-circled a bay that was both calm and wild, spotted with logs and seaweed and bordered by huge trees. I was hooked. Why would anyone live on the prairies when something like this existed in the world?

As a child, John lived near the Ambleside waterfront, and he never got the smell of the ocean out of his nose. The beach was his playground, as was a nearby wild bush area with a slough and lots of deer; kids had to beware during hunting season. Rowboats could be rented for almost nothing, and he recalls taking them out into the ocean when he was still very young. Later in life, one of the things that drew him to Saltspring Island was its resemblance to West Vancouver in the 1950s and '60s.

Much has changed, of course, and right now, West Vancouver is undergoing the same growing pains as Vancouver. Big trees and cottagey old houses are being destroyed and replaced by really big houses and little trees. Concrete abounds. But hints of what used to be can still be spotted in some places, especially in public areas like the Ambleside waterfront. Here are a few glimpses of both the past and the future from recent visits to West Vancouver:

The Ambleside slough has been prettied up a lot from John's childhood days, but it still must have been an amazing playground for kids. On Tuesday, it was hosting families of duck and swans.

The Argyle Village Gardens, squeezed between two old houses on the Ambleside waterfront,  provides some of the prettiest garden plots in Canada.
 In front of the cars, a row of more than 30 trees have been chopped down at 23rd and Bellevue, presumably for a redevelopment of this site. Many of the units appear empty. 
On Sentinel Hill, a big new house is under construction, one of many such houses replacing the old ones in the area.

Across the street from it, a cottagey house recalls the past. 

Finding friends

Andre and Georgeann, my new friends through Simon Fraser University's graduate liberal studies program..

Me and Georgeann. She can inject humour into every possible topic.

Me and Andre. A tutor and Virginia Woolf scholar, he is our go-to teacher.

Finding new friends -- real friends -- can be difficult, especially as you get older. But I found Andre and Georgeann in the best way possible -- through the magic of common interests.  We were all drawn to Simon Fraser University's graduate liberal studies program, which promised us a chance to study and discuss our favourite things -- literature, ideas and the "big" questions of life.

All of us had grey hair and were of a similar age, which was older than our classmates. It seemed natural to team up, and through our introductory "boot camp" year beginning in the fall of 2014, we saw each other through essays, impenetrable (to me) philosophers, and  a tsunami of books that never seemed to stop.

Andre is a Virginia Woolf scholar with a master's in English literature, and as a tutor, he's a natural teacher and go-to person for all questions about literature. Georgeann has the sharp analytical mind of the lawyer she is, plus a love of literature, philosophy -- and a good laugh. For me, with my bachelor of journalism degree, which included no philosophy and not much by way of English literature, this was all new ground. But they were kind, and the three of us -- plus a younger member whose busy  life means she can only come sporadically -- vowed to keep meeting for discussions even when we aren't taking classes.

Last summer's readings included Homer's Odyssey, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Dickens' Great Expectations. This summer we are on a Bronte kick, with Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte on the agenda.

On Monday, we pondered Mrs. Gaskell's treatment of Charlotte and her father; the degree to which Charlotte based her writing on her own experiences, and the amazing independent and feminist attitudes of the Brontes at a time when Victorian women were supposed to be subservient, quiet and married. As always, we segued into personal matters as well. Because we've found that our common interests go well beyond the books we share, and have turned into friendships that have flourished ever since we hurled ourselves into SFU's boot camp two years ago.