A Celebration of Simple Living, Nature, Gardening, Making by Hand and Reading

The country life I lead is rare, endangered, precious, worth appreciating. I am profoundly and constantly aware that the earth, our matrix, is damaged, apparently fatally.  For many, likely for most, the natural world is undeniably remote. And yet, my signature for my nature books, The View From Foley Mountain and A Wing in the Door  remains “Rejoice in wildness“.

In small pockets like Singing Meadow, the twenty country acres where I write, the shadows of great grey herons still pass over my head on their journeys from nearby Bobs Lake to their stick nests in a pond behind our home. At night I can safely stand in the middle of our dirt road, staring at the clear, deep sky full of stars, hearing no sound but a glee of coyotes, spilling over a distant hill.

In these difficult times, I want to write appreciatively, curiously, and only occasionally sorrowfully, about what the remaining gifts mean to me. So this will be my letter to all of you who are unable to be here, greeting the first song sparrow of spring, watching the ice go out from the lake, catching sight of the first flash of the returning kingfisher, reading eclectically, pausing to study a meadow hawk dragonfly, letting my favorite shuttle fly through my weaving, or plunging my hands into the garden soil I’ve helped build.

No doubt this blog will evolve in time, and I hope will include your suggestions and comments, which are always welcome, but things I see including are the difficult practice of simplicity, a delight in creativity and the land, always and most importantly, the land.

What I am asking is: What does it mean to live fully with the time that remains?

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Flowers in vegetable gardens

Already I can see the flowers creeping into our vegetable garden this spring. They always have  done, and I suspect they always will. I always start out with the best of intentions.This big garden is laid out in easy-to-manage squares, with a splendid long double row of asparagus along the far side.  I have my seeds in hand, this year mostly from The Whole Seed Catalog, which seduced me with its fascinating descriptions of the heirloom seeds it offers. In fact, my tomato seeds are sprouted under grow lights and are moving apace. Out  in the perennial herb square, the shoots are growing most encouragingly. I’ve also drafted a plan for every square which takes into consideration crop rotation and complimentary planting–as best I can. So far, so good.

red chardAnd yes, vegetables are pretty in themselves. Think feathery carrot tops, flowering dill, my favourite scarlet runner beans and ornamental swiss chard. Usually, I try to assuage my longing for flowers with a French potager-style garden. It’s just that everything grows better in this well-tended soil. All this available soil is in such good tilth, and unlike my flower gardens, it is blessed by sun. Before Barry and I can even have our annual discussion of where sunflowers could grow without interfering with the lettuce and purple cauliflowers, we detect sprouts “planted” by birds, and the argument is settled. We couldn’t possibly weed out these windfall sunflowers. And besides, they’ll bring birds to tackle the bugs.

That’s when the creep begins. This year I’m going to blame some of it on Diana Beresford-Kroeger. When I read her description of her row of 50 gladiolas in her inspiring recent book The Sweetness of a Simple Life I felt justified in expanding beyond my usual six scarlet and six plum. Where I will put these, I’m not quite sure, but I do know that the brilliant colours will give us joy.

It goes without saying that there will be yellow and orange calendulas and marigolds which I justify as companion plants. I also couldn’t manage without a row of mixed annuals, zinnias, bachelors buttons. More undisciplined are the pink, magenta and white cosmos, which have self-sown since the days of our first gardens. “Now look,” says Barry. “I can’t even get a hose down the paths with those great things in the way.” Knowing he’s right, I get the wheelbarrow and pitchfork and tug out a good many of them. Thinning anything is a job I loathe, and these give generously of themselves with so little effort. Unfortunately, within a few weeks, the remaining cosmos have grown so much that once again I have to remove many.

scarlet runnerLuckily I didn’t win the contest for five David Austen roses, because the only possible place for these would have been the vegetable garden. I do remember, though, that the best row of bearded iris I ever grew were the ones I tucked in beside the beets.

The only possible justification for this flower creep came from my artist mother. One autumn day she surveyed our wild and flowery vegetable garden with amusement. “I suppose,” she said, “you could call this a J.E.H. Macdonald ‘Tangled Garden‘.” And so I do.



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Foley Mountain Trees

The Foley Mountain Conservation Area, overlooking Westport, is one of my special places, as it is for so many who visit there. Many of the trees there are landmarks for us, friends which have inspired us for forty years. Yesterday we made a quick trip to check in with a few favourites.

Barry and I and Magnus our dachsund started by wandering through the long grove of aged maples beside the park interpretive centre, and bordering the frozen Little Rideau Lake. Craning our necks upwards towards the very blue sky, we were marvelling as we always do not just at their remarkable size, but also at their individuality. If any trees feel sacred, these do.

From there we backtracked to a aplendid stretch of pines across from the student campground. These overlook what once was a carriageway for Jake, the First Nations man who lived with his family in a cabin at the base of “the mountain”. Standing under these lofty trees, drinking in their pungent fragrance we listened to the brisk wind in the swaying boughs. With the hint of warmth in the day, at last the winter-stiffened needles were softening.


Yellow Birch

We couldn’t leave without visiting the stand of yellow birch, with their splendid curly bark and glistening trunks. The main one of these was a landmark for me when I had little boys. When Morgan was a toddler and Jeremy was a baby bouncing in my back carrier, the yellow birch was as far as we could walk together. No matter how difficult the day, this trek to admire the tree made things better. Yesterday, I was pleased to see just how many offspring now flourished in the boggy ground around the mother tree.

Before we returned to our car, we stopped to take joy in another favourite, one of the remarkable shagbark hickories that grow at Foley Mountain. Gently laying my hand on the long scales of bark, I promised myself to return when its large pink flower buds unfurl.

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Stories of an Advent Calendar

In the ever-anxious wind-up to the dreaded December exams, one of my few comforts was marking off the days on the Christmas calendar my father had discovered when he was rummaging in a bin at Zellers. One of the first of these to appear in Canada, it must have been made soon after the war—I remember it came to our house about 1950. The only information I have about it is a tiny stamp inside at the bottom “Germany, US Zone”, which may mean that the exquisite village scene was set in Bavaria.

Counting off the school days on the Christmas calendar, fantasizing about the blessed little town, made an adventure of the wished-for passage of time. In the lead-up to the Christmas holiday, each day, after I dragged my way homeward on the long walk through snowy streets I consoled myself by studying the village.

What I was looking at appeared to be a wintry German walled cathedral town, set against a midnight blue sky in which stars sang around the centrepiece, the cathedral. The sky was graced with the silhouettes of bare branched trees, and one tree, springing up in front of the crenellated wall, was alive with roosting birds. A light snow mounded on top of the wall, and appeared under the feet of a green clad boy rolling snowballs. An upreaching child was placing the finishing touches on the carrot nose of a snowman wielding a bat who was guarding the massive wooden gates.

Christmas Calendar gatewayOutside the protective wall of what appeared to be a cathedral town, this wintry scene was filled with people who were busy about their Christmas Eve pursuits. Mostly these were children, lovingly portrayed–a tiny red coated moppet stretching up before the toy stall outside the wall, a shorts-clad boy gnawing a sausage outside the stand of a frankfurter seller, with an envious little black dog who jumped up at him, while another boy tried on a pair of new blue shoes at a stand selling boots and gloves and shawls. This stall also displayed a pair of fur-trimmed, very fancy red slippers, placed prominently in the front row to tempt some Christmas shopper. A housewife was buying a spikey little spruce from the bundled-up Christmas tree seller, huddled by a potbellied stove.This magical scene was lit with Chinese paper lanterns. There was a yellow, scarlet-trimmed gipsy caravan of a trolley bus, a cuckoo clock sold by someone in a green Tyrolese costume, a gingerbread seller in a tiny Hansel and Gretel cottage, as well as a Christmas decorations stand full of angels and candles and stars decorated with green and yellow pennants and old-fashioned light bulbs. Here a jolly-looking boy was playing an accordion.

On the first day of Christmas I began the game of locating and opening all the windows which were cleverly laid out to make one dart about. On the fifth day I got to open the imposing arched wooden gates to enter the enclosed world surrounding the great cathedral and its candle-lit Christmas tree. Within the walls the townspeople were just as busy, but some of them were better dressed than those outside the wall.

Couples entered the arches of a hall where musicians were performing beneath a grand, candlelit, red-swathed wreath. In an upstairs room, a Lucia, crowned with candles, served tea, an astronomer pointed his telescope to the stars and children cavorted with a red- hooded St. Nicholas. In a half-timbered house with a projecting, onion-turreted room, I peeped in on a mother and daughter were making pastry, while in anothfountainer upstairs window, I discovered three boys were practising on brass instruments. Beneath them, through a timbered arch, a stagecoach swung. A postman delivered a letter, while a little brother hauled his even tinier sister on a wooden sledge which was freighted with an immense package. Best of all, I liked the pink-shuttered baroque fountain, where, even on what was clearly a cold night, water was spilling from pipes into the basin.

To me this calendar was an entrance into an enchanted world. I was looking in on a town of children’s dream. How could such a small space, and a simple oval shape convey such life, so many stories? For within the constructs of this magical town I was constantly making up stories. For me there always was a never-ending flow of these stories, begun on my wintry trudge home and continued as I examined the calendar: “It was a dark and windy night, when only a few stars shone. It was the night before Christmas, and Matthew was hungry again. Too poor for a winter coat, an orphan, with no one to care for him, the fragrance of the hot roasting wieners overcame him. Waiting until old Saul turned his back, quick as a flash, he snatched a whole huge, scalding sausage for himself. But then, just as he was about to sink his teeth into it, the dog came again, the little black one, leaping up and barking…” OR“Pauline had always wanted to be Lucia, but with so many sisters, it had seemed as if it Christ cathedralwould never be her turn. You’re too… you’re not… You’ll have to wait just like all the rest…” OR “Why was she trudging so downcast, the woman, weighed on one side by an empty market basket, but on the other by what looked like a suitcase. Her back was turned to all the finery, the carved stone madona and baby supported on the cathedral wall, the Christmas tree alight with candles, the exuberant boys rolling snowballs. She was leaving it all, head bent, shoulders bent, beneath her shawl; she was turning away from the concert hall, the bright lights of the cathedral. She was heading to the city gates, leaving. And on such a cold night.”

Each night, on the adventure of the ascending days, the open windows increased and the scene looked more beautiful. Until, more quickly than I could have believed, safely escaped from school’s ordeal, I was opening the great doors of Number 24 , the cathedral, to look in on a joyful crowd clutching candles and worshipping before a massive organ.


Someday I’ll find it, the enchanted walled town brought to life in the Christmas calendar which was given to me so long ago. I always believed that someday, while travelling in Europe, I would come upon the enchanted snow-clad village itself. But so far I have not been able to trace it. Surprisingly, though, this year, while helping his class work on the advent calendars he had them making, Morgan, our teacher son, was amazed to discover online a perfect replica of the Christmas town which had also been a part of his childhood. And he promptly ordered copies for himself and for Barry and me.

May the stories of your Christmas be joyous ones.

Merry Christmas


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Tableland 2

Today, however, when I reached the part of the trail where I had been stopped, I could follow DSC01163on until I came to a very different, more pastoral landscape. Here I crossed among rolling hills and strode down into groves, where sheltered, silver-trunked beech trees still held their autumn-golden leaves. Past tinkling streams I went, discovering several fine, large deep ponds I had never seen before. All of these were still without any ice at all. With amusement I realized that I could guess the depth of a pond by how much ice covered its surface. Because the beaver at our own heron pond below have devoured every possible food tree they have moved on. This means that with no beaver to mend the dam, the water there has drained to puddle depth. When I passed this one earlier, I noticed that it was entirely covered by an icey skin.

Each curve, each hill was leading me on and on. When at last I came in sight of Blake’s barn I turned back, but then I was tempted onto an offshoot trail through an alder swamp, across a rustling, grassy marsh, and up a fine, swooping hill. At last I was roaming as freely as I’ve longed to, with no creature sound except one scolding red squirrel, king of a castle of rocks. By now I had become so excited by my small adventure that I half ran up this hill. But what if I had guessed wrong? What if this second trail did not lead to the main trail which bisects the Tableland? In the back of my mind was the question that I was not sure how long I would be able to ignore the bone on bone grinding of my old back. If I had to retrace my steps, would it not be better to do so sooner rather than later? Wouldn’t it be wiser to simply turn back now? But onward I rushed. I simply couldn’t help myself. And at the hill’s crest, sure enough, there was the old wagonway which wound past familiar splendid large oaks prospering in a rare large pocket of soil. Assured of an easy return now, I swung along, pleased to see again a further heron pond, still harbouring a dozen stick nests in spite of recent fierce winds, and look, there it was.

When I left, I carried with me a promise. Next summer, I will come to watch the heron colony. But, also, it seemed to me that this distant, mainly forsaken ridge would be a likely place to closely observe the ravens, turkey vultures and hawks who sail above our valley, and so I plan to venture back up there to find them as well. With that, in the darkening light of a short afternoon, I loped off the cartway onto the trail back down from the high hills, past our planted pines, some now taller than I. And on to the lights of home, welcoming me back into the world.

Return to Beginning

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The Table Land

On a bitter, wintry day I walked up onto the Tableland to have a look at the beginnings of things. Any day now, the snow would come. Already there was a dusting in crevices and on a few dark green nests of moss. At this time of year my need to get out becomes fierce. I get an urge to visit as many of my favourite places as possible. Hurry. Soon they may be denied to you by ice and snow.

So, on a raw, cloudy day at the very end of November I decided to head for the Tableland while I still could, before the heavy snows come. Although I often dream of visiting this harsh but magical landscape at the top of the big ridge which guards our valley, many things deter me. But today there was no blazing sun, and there were no deerflies, no hunters, nor threats of phantom bears to keep me away. Facing into a small, raw northeast wind, easily ascending by the newest of our neighbour Blake’s excellent trails, the steep climb to the ridgetop lifted my heart.

DSC01159With its open habitats of either a thin covering of soil or no soil, some might call the Tableland a “starve acres”. It is true that up there only the poorest trees survive, mainly greatly deformed red oaks and ironwoods. These are trees twisted and sick, surrounded by jumbles of fallen branches from hard times, branches which are going to make more soil some day. In the stony November afternoon light, this poverty was particularly evident.

DSC01157Given the extreme fluctuations in temperature up on the Tableland, with scarcely any insulation from trees, and with pitifully little soil to gather moisture, or to drain off excessive water, you might say that the rocky outcrops of this area were inhospitable. But I see this place as a crucible, the difficult melting pot where new life originates. At the moment patchy lichen and moss and fungus communities, the precursors of true plants, dominate the exposed rock, although in places there are grasses and other tough plants, such as early saxifrage (“stonebreaker”), which takes root in cracks in the original granite. To me each piece of fragile life here is precious, worth seeing. So I strode along joyfully, greeting many familiar small landmarks.

As I clambered over the starry moss and lichened rock-face I could feel the morning’s desk-work tension falling from me. How healing it was to be able to walk, to see. Often, too, I turned to take a breathtaking look over my shoulder, back through the ridge’s bare-branched trees, looking into a vastness which stretched beyond Bobs Lake and even beyond the far away pine forests. On and on.

A year ago, when I first set out on Blake’s newest trail, hurrying along in delicious exploration, I was forced to turn back when the flakes of the year’s first snow flocked too heavily around me, obscuring the slick rocks.

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Witch Hazel

At a time when none of autumn’s brightness remains, I’m loving our witch hazel. Although it’s only a common hamamelis virgininiana, this five foot shrub has history for me. The haunting, pure fragrance, unlike any other, has meant late autumn for me since I used to be cheered by the one growing at my childhood woodland home.

Much later, when we lived at Foley Mountain I was pleased to find witch hazel sprouts listed in the catalog of a native tree-loving nurseryman, now, alas, long dead. In his description I read that the plant I loved for its mysterious, ribbon-like yellow flowers in late autumn was a common astringent, often used to treat insect bites and sunburns. Thinking I could watch over it there, I planted one near our dooryard so I could enjoy its subtle perfume often.

Unfortunately, I neglected to tie a cautionary tag on the shrub with orange survey tape and when it was only a metre high, an overzealous summer student gouged the sapling badly with a lawnmower. In a fit of inspiration, Barry fetched his roll of duct tape and wrapped the wounded stems. Neither of us thought the taped witch hazel would make it through the winter, but to our surprise, next spring it threw out new shoots. In fact, although it never prospered, it lived on until we had to leave the park.

Not having another source, and knowing that the next supervisor had no interest in a bush which only comes into its own in autumn, Barry dug the witch hazel up and we planted it at Singing Meadow. One of the things that impresses me about this mostly unassuming small tree is its sturdiness. Although it’s true that the new site we chose was close to true hazels and was near oaks and bitternut hickories, our specimen receives very little moisture, unless I take pity and water it. Although it was called water-witch because the forked branchWitch hazel close upes were used by pioneers to tell where to dig for a well our witch hazel roots stretch down into soil is rocky and sparse .Because it is under maple and ash, it gets little sun. For all of this, slowly the shrub has grown as it acclimatized to yet another location. So far it has not been troubled by marauding deer.

Now, ten years after it was moved, it is taller than I am and this autumn, after other leaves have fallen, the witch hazels leaves changed to a rich yellow, and the lovely petals covered the branches.Even today, when my garden has lost all its color, and it’s cold enough outside that I can see my breath, I crunch through the first snow and see the yellow, witch-like petals still clinging to the bare branches, along with small ochre leaf buds, a promise for next spring.


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Golden Asparagus

Golden Asparagus

Dreamtime. This is the welcome time, hovering between Autumn and Winter. The gardens have been put to bed under a blanket of leaves. Even the lingering golden asparagus fronds have been clipped and burned.

Next week, with the end of gun season, the hunting frenzy will be over and the remaining disoriented deer will regroup and step closer to us again. Meanwhile, the coyotes wait to see what this winter will bring them. The other night, when Barry slipped out on the porch he heard a tumult of cries, more than he had ever heard before, far away on the ridge that overlooks our valley,

If there are intimations of harshness, of a stripping down to this waiting time, there also is a surprising beauty to it  Milkweed and aster seeds drift in the sharp breeze. A dusting of snow sparkles on the pines we planted near the house ten years ago.

milkweed webIndoors, the fire’s burning. It’s almost time to draw nearer, to gather up the pile of books I’ve been saving. I’ll want to tell you about them soon. Yet still I linger, loitering through the valley, while the footing is easy, feeling the sting of the wind on my cheeks. Unwilling to head in, I slip over to the bay to see if the small, precious raft of ducks still bobs in the open water. Wait just a little longer. Still reluctant to go indoors, I sink down on the front steps to delight a while in the whir of chickadees’ wings as they pass on their way to our well-filled feeders.



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