Cut pineapple sage blossoms in an earthenware vase

The Final Task of Fall

Early this afternoon a friend posted online that fat snowflakes were falling on her southwestern Ontario city. This was my cue to go out and cut the bright red sprays of pineapple sage blossoms that bright red sprays of pineapple sage blossoms in an earthenware vaseare the last thing to bloom in my garden, and bring them in to set in a vase. In previous years I have also marked this occasion by making pineapple sage bread or pineapple sage jelly, but this year (unless I feel spectacularly ambitious tomorrow—and already I do feel tempted) the cut flowers are going to provide their own lovely coda to fall.

Watching the sky, I also went down the street to tend to our bur oak, guerrilla planted in the circle park about three years ago. The oak has withstood the ravages of kids, dogs and City parks crews, but I was a little concerned about someone or something knocking it over during the coming winter. I hammered in three additional stakes and wrapped fencing around them to provide a bit more protection. I was pleased to see next year’s buds already well-formed.

A young bur oak, staked and fenced for protection in a public parkWhile I was doing this work, a woman stopped to chat about the oak. She told me she also has a bur oak in her front garden, and tends it with care. We talked about trees, raccoons, and the ecological responsibilities of urban citizens. She told me she feels very close to her tree; adding that it’s hard not to love something you care for.

I feel the same about our little oak. It’s hard not to hope too much for its future: the folly (and unfortunate necessity) of urban forestry is that trees are planted as singletons, whereas in a woodland environment dozens of seedings might grow in a square metre, insurance against drought, cold, or the grazing mouths of hungry animals.

Still, next year I might see if it’s possible to obtain another bur oak, or two, and get a small oak plantation going in the circle park. We are already nurturing a (non-native) horse chestnut, a white or red oak, and an American elm sapling that is reportedly resistant to Dutch Elm Disease in pots in our garden, for future guerrilla planting, and it wouldn’t hurt to add at least one more bur oak. German forester Peter Wohlleben‘s work suggests trees grow best in communities, so the least we can do is try to get one going.

After tending to our oak, I came home, packed away the last of the pots on the front verandah (and dug in and heavily mulched some sweet cicely and Angelica in hopes it might overwinter in its containers), put the pineapple sage blossoms in water, and turned my internal clock from fall to winter mode.

milkweed fluff, loosed from its casing

Putting the Gardens to Bed

At six o’clock the setting moon casts its waning glow in the west, while a thin wedge of dawn opens up on the eastern horizon. A pale, thin dawn that silhouettes the trees, stark and bare on this November morning. At seven the little birds congregate at the feeder, wings buffeting the air, their tiny heated hearts beating impossibly fast. Beneath them fat squirrels gather seeds the birds kick down and plan their own incursions at the feeder.

purple asters with yellow centres, glowing in the November lightYesterday, on the last improbably warm day of this beautiful fall, I finished putting the gardens to bed. On Thursday I planted the garlic, pushing fat cloves down into yielding soil, and set the containers against a stone wall in our front garden where they will receive reflected heat and light, and yesterday I mulched them and tucked leaves deep around the containers.

Yesterday I pulled the last of the tomatoes, harvesting the green fruit, and picked red and green peppers. One final, fibrous eggplant revealed itself, too woody to be eaten, and so with regret it went into the compost. All the containers are now tucked away; the walks swept; leaves mounded on the gardens; a couple of nursery trees dug down into the soil to overwinter; patio furniture put away; the air conditioning compressor covered; verandahs swept.

The final task—the one I always put off until last—was to clean out the eavestroughs on the garage. A few years ago we had the eavestroughs on the house replaced and covered with gutter shields, and this has saved us from needing to wedge an extension ladder between the houses, climb up two stories and stick our heads above the roofline in the narrow space, hoping not to swallow too much leaf litter while hauling it out. But the garage eavestroughs are old and uncovered, and fill up over the season with decaying leaf material and bits of grit from the old shingles. Usually I complete this messy task on the last possible day, while rain and flurries swirl about my frozen head. Yesterday it merely rained, a warm rain, as I sang ‘Swamp Thing’ to myself and hauled buckets of sludge down a step ladder and dumped them into the compost (where they will make incredibly rich soil).

milkweed fluff, loosed from its casingThen I put the ladder away, swept the walks one last time, and cast my eyes over the gardens, looking for anything that might be vulnerable to winter. The only container plant left uncovered is the pineapple sage, now blooming in bright red fireworks, which I will cut and bring in today before tucking the very last of the pots away.

There are flurries in the forecast for tomorrow, and then it will be time to turn inward, to warm interior spaces, and hearty meals, and cozy evenings spent with books.

A Late Batch of Lemon Verbena Jelly

It’s very late in the season—it’s well into November, and there is snow in the forecast—but my heat-loving lemon verbena has been going strong throughout this mild, beautiful fall. Usually I spend days in September and October making preserves, but this year has been very short on time. I was able to make two lovely batches of crabapple jelly, however, and hoped—needed, really—to make at least one batch of lemon verbena jelly before fall turned toward winter.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) is a tropical plant of the verbena family, native to South America where it grows as a perennial shrub, but cultivated in northern regions as an annual. It is one of my favourite herbs, mainly because of its strong, sweet, lemony scent. It makes the finest jelly—complex, multilayered and winey—but can also be preserved in oil and vinegar, infused into butter, dried for tea, and used fresh in baking.

I’ve been making lemon verbena jelly since 2018, and use a recipe from American culinary herb expert Marge Clark’s beautiful book The Best of Thymes (1997). In 2019 my lemon verbena jelly won first prize in the Jams, Jellies and Pickling competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the first (and so far, only, a lapse I hope to rectify next year) time I’ve entered any of my preserves, which means it’s an excellent recipe and a superb herb.

Making herb jellies is quite straightforward. It revolves around making an infusion of the bruised leaves of a given herb in boiling water, a thing for which most highly flavoured herbs (perhaps the best known being mint) are well suited. The herb leaves are strained out, and the infusion is then jellied, bottled and processed to be safely shelf-stable. Some people complain about the quantity of sugar that goes into most jellies, but (as preserving experts will attest), sugar is one of the ingredients that keeps jellies shelf-stable for long periods. I preserve my jellies in small (125 ml) jars, because I find a little goes a long way. Lemon verbena jelly spread on fresh sourdough toast is one of my favourite things to eat, and one little jar can cover a month’s worth of weekend toasts. Most of these little jars will be given as gifts to friends, but I will keep two or three for toast.

Yesterday I went out in the low-angled November sunlight, cut the green branches from my lemon verbena, and stripped them at the library table while the aromatic oils filled the whole house. I chopped the leaves, poured boiling water over them, and let them rest while preparing my canning jars. Then I made the jelly, stirring it to a high boil, and ladled it into jars before processing it in a hot water bath. This recipe always makes nine little jars, and I counted nine satisfying ‘pings’ as their lids snapped down after processing.

I have a deep and enduring love of culinary herbs, and grow dozens of varieties, mostly in containers on the sunny decks and verandas of our otherwise mainly shady property. Next year, however, I plan to turn our front garden into a (somewhat) formal herb garden, so some of the classic perennial herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, Angelica, will have more room to root. This year I planted some of the more shade tolerant herbs (Sweet Cicely, lemon balm, lemon thyme) in our back garden, and have recently mulched them in hopes they’ll survive the winter. I have also had good luck with herbs overwintering in containers (especially lemon thyme, tarragon and winter savoury).

A few weeks ago I cut bunches of the herbs I use most in the winter (sage, rosemary, tarragon, lemon thyme, oregano, sweet marjoram) and hung them to dry in the garage. Later this week I’ll crumble them into jars, each handful a promise of life returning after the long winter.


Here’s a bonus picture of eight 1950s-era Jane Ray (Fire King) teacups and saucers I found on the shelf at Value Village a week ago, bundled in sets of four for $5.99 each. This was an improbable find—Jadeite, remains highly collectible and it has become uncommon to find pieces at thrift stores—but I found them deposited on a shelf in the board games section, suggesting they had been picked up and then set down by one of the resellers who prowls the local thrifts. Maybe there’s not enough of a margin on Jadeite teacups, or perhaps they’d been set down because they are unmarked, but I was happy to add them to the small collection of Jadeite I’ve built up since buying my first Anchor Hocking Swirl bowl for $3 at an Eastern Ontario yard sale in 1996. I still use that beautiful bowl every time I make bread (it’s my proofing bowl), and we use Jadeite saucers almost every day as sandwich plates.

Full Beaver Moon Eclipse (and a few more thoughts on the education workers’ strike and on social media and the public sphere more generally *deep inhale*)

I awake as early as ever, and lie abed, cozy under the covers until remembering that the Beaver Moon is to be in full eclipse in the hour before dawn.

And there it is, hanging low above the western horizon, not long before setting: the Blood Moon.

I have not yet set up my new phone, and this one takes blurry shots in low light, but I go outside to capture what I can of it anyway. The moon: not cheese; not a man; not inhabited by a fox; not chased by wolves—just beautiful Selene, or perhaps just a trace of her chariot, wheeling across the Heavens.

An Update on the Education Workers’ Strike

[A follow-up to yesterday’s post, in which I commented on the unfolding situation with the Ontario education workers’ strike.]

Premier Ford blinked first, and promised to rescind his government’s short-lived legislation, including his threat to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. And so ends this chapter of the 2022 education workers’ strike–all 55,000 library staff, early childhood educators, educational assistants, custodians and administrative staff returning to work this morning—meaning schools can reopen for learning. Reportedly contract negotiations will resume; perhaps, this time, they will be governed by something more akin to bargaining in good faith (another requirement of the Labour Relations Act).

I think it likely that the government was surprised by the level of public outrage, having banked on pandemic-weary parents turning against the first union to threaten a strike affecting Ontario’s schools. And this might even have become the case, had the Premier not announced his intention to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to abrogate basic labour protections, thereby threatening a Constitutional crisis.

I have little patience for conspiracy claims of any kind, but do know very well how back-room politics work. I think it highly likely that Premier Ford—a gifted populist but not (surely the obvious can be said neutrally, which is how I intend it) the brightest politician in the country—received advice from within the federal Conservative Party, but bumbled the implementation of that guidance (certainly the timing but probably also some of the details). I think, too, that the Premier’s office had gotten myopic about the labour negotiations and the union(s) involved, as well as the public’s perceived opposition to further school shutdowns. This sort of political myopia tends to occur when politicians are surrounded by too many yes-men or too many behind-the-scenes Machiavellians. In the case of Ford, for whom Cronyism is not just a practice but a kind of ethic and who is really a middle player, placed between the back room fellows who tell him what to do and the people who do his (and the back room fellows’) bidding, it was probably both. And no amount of gee-shucks-I’m-just-a-guy-trying-to-keep-kids-in-school back-peddling (this is, in fact, the source of Ford’s greatest and most genuine appeal) is going to undo all the damage. His political handlers know he is likely to fumble the big stuff, and the public (and by this I mean the non-ideological public, including the large swaths of suburban southern Ontario who returned him to office) is unlikely to offer further forbearance.

I’d have to have slightly more tolerance for conspiracy claims to wonder whether the whole Notwithstanding Clause business was intended (by Ford’s handlers–it does not require any conspiracy thinking at all to understand that almost politicians have handlers and that even gifted operators—e.g., former Prime Minister Steven Harper, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—answer to their back rooms) to be a trial balloon for further staged Constitutional crises. But I do not think it an entirely outlandish notion. We are, after all, now in an era in which political ideologues and fundamentalists of all stripes, on both the right and left, are eager to break stuff.

It is my hope that people—and by “people” I mean decent-hearted, open-minded, thinking people capable of setting aside their ideological commitments in the face of real-world evidence of their cost—will understand what has gone on here. It is heartening to see that members of the public, who are understandably weary of public sector unions’ strike actions (sorry, union friends, but it’s true), recoiled against what cannot be called anything other than an authoritarian act of government overreach (it seems important to remember that Ford could have waited a couple of days to pass back-to-work legislation that would have ended the strike and sent outstanding bargaining issues to binding arbitration, fully within the rubric of the Labour Relations Act, and received wide public approval for doing so).

An important reason I’ve returned to blogging here (and, with my husband, at The Space Between Us) is because in the last decade or so I’ve watched civil discourse deteriorate to little more than narrow  ideological posturing, disciplined on social media ever more tightly by algorithms ‘curating’ what people see, and by self-styled propagandists running scripts via 240 character posts and mic drops. I’ve seen people forget how to think with any kind of complexity.

It is not a conspiracy claim to point out that foreign agents now routinely meddle in elections, that home countries attempt to exert coercive control over citizens living abroad, and that social media platforms have become (with the blessing of their owners) tools of political influence and control. At the same time, there has been, from these same agents, concerted attacks on both representative government and the legitimate press.

You might say, in response, that these things have always gone on. But when have they had such a disastrous effect, or such crushing effect on the collective capacity to think, act, or protect the vulnerable? The examples I can think of—Hitler’s Germany, say, or the US in the McCarthy era, or the Isaaq Genocide in Somalia, or Chi/na in the Zer0 C0/vid era–have had disastrous and vastly spiraling consequences.

You might say that maybe things aren’t so bad—or, in contrast, that they really are so bad we need to burn it all down.

Are you sure about that? Are you really sure?

And are you really sure your views are your own?

If you do not, say, read newspapers, or read only publications whose editorial positions you are sure you already agree with; if you glean your awareness of global issues from social media platforms, online influencers, and/or from your closed circle of friends; if you find yourself responding to social, political, economic and environmental issues in ideological, oppositional terms in which complex problems have simple either/or solutions and easy-to-identify allies and enemies—then it is possible you, like most of us, have spent the last decade or so being hijacked.

There is no shortage of gleeful reportage on the unfolding implosion of Twitter, recently purchased by Tesla (for now: apparently he has just sold a bunch more shares) owner and likely future Russian oligarch Elon Musk. Disenchanted Twitter users are reportedly deactivating their Twitter accounts in large numbers, many joining distributed social network Mastodon in droves (you can find me at Mastodon dot Cloud, username alharris, although I retain a dormant Twitter account too, at least for now).

I find this lateral lurching from one social platform to the next somewhat disquieting. It reflects a genuine, if seemingly increasingly desperate, search for connection, community and (in the era of so-called influencers, the source of this decade’s fifteen minutes of fame, visibility. But I guess I see it as evidence of a problem, not a solution.

It’s become my view that social media are strongly implicated in the decline of civil discourse and the rise of narrow, hysterical, anti-evidence ideologies and fundamentalisms in the west in the last decade or so. The core of the problem, I think, is that social media were meant to augment civil discourse, but instead they have largely replaced it. In the era of social media, the public sphere has withered. It has, in fact, been under concerted attack not only by agencies seeking explicitly to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy but, at times, by social media companies themselves. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns (sometimes running on established social media platforms with the blessing of their executives star-struck by dollar signs); claims by ideologues that even real, verifiable, fact-based news is ‘fake;’ attacks on so-called ‘mainstream media’ (‘mainstream’ here meaning subject to fact-checking and statutory requirements not to make stuff up) on both the left and right; attacks on elections and the democratic process more generally; the concerted targeting (again, on both the left and right) of the hated political middle (i.e., that large section of the non-ideological public still committed to reality); etc. etc. etc. have hastened the decline of the public sphere.

The public sphere still exists. It’s not on social media, though: it’s out here. Here on the actual internet—Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. It’s in the mainstream newspapers ideologues don’t want you to read. It’s in conversations with your neighbours, including that woman in the apartment down the hall who shouts at her kids (what’s going on with her, and is there something you should do or say?) and the neighbour down the street who shovels his snow onto the street (that jerk). It’s in the way you treat the other road users you encounter on your commute. It’s in and on the roads themselves. It’s in the election signs people put up in the weeks before every election–not only the signs for your preferred candidate, but for all the candidates doing the hard and exhausting work of seeking public office because they believe in something, no matter how ridiculous. It’s in international concern for miners trapped during a cave-in. It’s in concerns about inflation, interest rates, and the stuff the government does behind closed doors. It’s in each other and the social world we negotiate, not on a social media platform in which you are alternately a commodity or target.

If we want to un-hijack ourselves, I think we have to do it out here.

Morning Ritual (and a short aside on the Education Workers’ Strike)

I wake every morning before dawn–sometimes hours before dawn, especially in this dark season–and rise to perform the morning rituals. Sit on the toilet, greet the cats (this morning Milo was sleeping rather sweetly in the bathtub), read a few pages (currently Margaret Christakos’ book Her Paraphernalia, but at other times it might be a decor magazine, Erazim Kohak’s The Embers and the Stars or an old cookbook found in the little library down the street), refresh the water dishes and clean the litter box on the third floor, and descend to the second to do the same (later, my husband will deal with litter box on the ground floor, because hunting for nuggets in all three litter boxes first thing in the morning is beyond my tolerance). Feed the cats (really, there are only two of them, but they are very spoiled), put away last night’s dishes, wake our daughter, nag her again to get up, and then, twelve minutes later, make dire pronouncements about the time and remind her she cannot blame the subway for her lateness more than once a week.

[If luck is with me, there will be a moment to glance out at the dawn, and to glean the day’s weather from it. This morning’s dawn: clear, cool, the trees stark against the pale sky, peach fading into pale blue; finches at the feeder; a squirrel rustling in the nest it has built in the Juliet balcony outside the third floor front window—tolerated because it cannot do any structural damage and entertains the cats.]

See our daughter off to school, greet my husband, discuss morning schedules, help with caregiving downstairs (early in the pandemic we moved my mother-in-law into the ground floor of our home—fortunate to have dedicated space in our formerly apartmentized house—cleaned out and sold her condo, dealt with the difficult transition, began learning how to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of Ontario’s eldercare system), walk the cats —

A year ago, at this point I would have disappeared into my office to organize a lecture, mark papers, respond to the deluge of student emails, deal with departmental bureaucracy, and, during the term last year when I ran an 8:30 Zoom class, teach for three hours before stopping to catch my breath and notice the patterns of light and shadow in the cedars.

A friend asked me recently what it is like to retire. I don’t really know, I said: it’s not as if things are any less busy.

And yet: the ceaseless stress, the tightness in my chest; the compounding urgencies; the roller-coaster of term; the steady string of heating or plumbing emergencies downtown—these I have almost forgotten to miss.

Our days are still very busy. Last week my husband had to take his mother to the hospital after a fall, and caregiving for someone with dementia is a 24/7 challenge; parenting our bright, creative, athletic, socially active kid is itself a full-time job; I still have publishing deadlines; we still have business affairs to attend to.

I have the project I’ve returned to, about which I will say little except that hopefully you will see it in print before too long.

And I have rowing, about more anon. Nearly every day, preferably in the morning, I go down to the basement to row for up to an hour (or sometimes, when I have foolishly committed to a half marathon, close to two). During the pandemic when the gyms were closed, we bought a Concept2 Rowerg, and it has been life-changing. After using the rower on and off for a year, I took seriously to rowing in March of this year, and in that time I’ve rowed well over a million metres, joined an international virtual team (which placed 59th out of 746 teams in the Fall Team Challenge and 8th out of 167 teams in our size category), rowed two half marathons, and lost 30 pounds. I work hard at rowing, and my top ranked workouts are in the 80th percentile in my category (not the half marathon, though, where I’m ranked 29th out of 76 bad fifty-something bitches who also like to row hard core).

Yesterday morning I rowed for an hour (while watching Man on the Moon), and then went out to put the gardens to bed. I didn’t finish everything before dark, but did manage to get the Hallowe’en decorations packed carefully away, put pumpkins into the compost, raked leaves, swept the front porch, put the hoses away, brought out the (shudder) snow shovels, and emptied the rain barrel. Today I hope to finish raking and sweeping, plant next year’s garlic, empty planters, and tuck the gardening décor and equipment carefully away in the garage.

Complicating today’s plans is the Education Workers’ labour action, a volatile situation that has closed schools in the Toronto District School Board and left students doing so-called asynchronous learning, with uncertainty about whether, when and how learning will resume later this week. This morning my daughter is finishing off some assignments and a couple of art pieces, while we keep checking the news for updates.

A Short Aside on the Education Workers’ Strike

My own view about the situation? In summary: (1) I believe in the principles that govern trade unionism and wholly support the collective bargaining process laid out in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. (2) I had some issues with OSBCU (Ontario School Board Council of Unions, representing over 50,000 Ontario education workers, including administrative and custodial staff, educational assistants, early childhood educators, and library technicians)’s approach to bargaining, namely the significant wage demands (yes, declining real wages and yes, inflation, but tell that to private sector workers earning minimum wage) and what seemed, from the outside, as its brinkmanship approach to conciliation and the strike vote process (the Province’s subsequent moves make OSBCU’s approach a lot more understandable). To be clear, I support the Union’s aims, but have found some of its moves seemed (again, from the outside) tone-deaf and short-sighted. (3) At the same time, nothing could be more tone-deaf than the Province pushing through legislation last week to impose a collective agreement and declare any OSBCU labour action ‘illegal’–ordinarily this would itself be an illegal act, given that labour rights are Constitutionally protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the government has indicated it will invoke the Notwithstanding Clause, which it appears to see as offering it a free pass from democratic accountability.

I see this not only as an idiotic move on the part of the Provincial government, but also as an authoritarian, deeply undemocratic action. Not only does it abrogate the statutory basis of labour relations in Ontario, it directly undermines the democratic process in Canada. Worse still, it wasn’t even necessary. The Province could have waited a few days and easily passed back to work legislation that would have sent unresolved contract issues to binding arbitration. Premier Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce could have presented themselves as heroes standing up for public education, and the Notwithstanding Clause could have been kept in its box. Instead, most Ontarians blame Ford for the debacle, and labour advocates are now calling for a general strike.

Already this morning I see evidence the Premier might be backing down, and ‘walking back’ his threat to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. If this actually happens, labour advocates will claim it was the threat of a general strike that did it, but it is almost certain that constitutional law experts within his own party have told Ford to back the eff down unless he wants to spend the rest of his term in office fighting a myriad of constitutional issues all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In the meantime, however this travesty ends, it will mean that public support for the Ford government (returned to office in June 2022 with a stronger majority than it initially secured in 2017) will be deeply and likely irretrievably eroded, that public sector unions will be further on edge, that families with children in school will have terminally lost faith in the Province, and that the Notwithstanding Clause–even if not invoked this time–will have been firmly and disastrously let out of its Pandora’s Box. The winners: public sector education unions, who will be able to assert, somewhat accurately, that they are standing up not only for public education but also basic labour rights.

As my mother would say: Oh, the unmitigated idiocy of it all.

And Now For Something Completely Different


Well. At least it is a gorgeous November day. My pineapple sage are blooming, and with some luck I will be able to plant the garlic. The garlic are the last thing I plant every fall, in faith that spring will come and things will bloom again.

[Note: I’ve posted an update and a few more thoughts in the next post.]