Nature + Culture

The Changing of the Clocks

swamp milkweed

Unusually this year, although I had made a note in the calendar, I forgot that the clocks ‘fell back’ an hour overnight. It was about 10:30—er, 9:30—before I looked at a digital clock this morning and realized our daughter, whom we’d hounded out of bed already exhausted from the first day of her Bronze Medallion qualification course, still had an extra hour to get ready for swim.

The extra hour is illusory, of course: a reminder that there is always a cost to playing with Chronos. An extra hour on a November morning is lovely, but by mid-afternoon one looks up at the clock, thinking it must be getting on to dinnertime, maybe even bedtime, and is dismayed to see how many more miles hours there are left to go before sleep.

As I write this it is 5:15 pm, and outside it is at the tail end of twilight—as close to dark as it might be at 9:30 pm at midsummer—and this makes me feel as if rather than gaining an hour with the changing of the clocks, we’ve actually lost about four.

These lost hours are what propel us toward hibernation, or at least carbohydrates and cozy mysteries. We turn inward, measuring the hours by midnight snowfalls and mugs of cocoa, and remain that way until New Years’ resolutions and the blinding January sunlight drive us out of our dens.

With the coming winter in mind, I went out today and, in the bleary November sunlight, put the gardens at the circle park to bed. Yesterday my excellent neighbour and I planted about 100 bulbs as a springtime surprise to our community, and today I mulched the beds with fallen leaves, swept the walks, and communed with the native plants tucking themselves in for winter.

Swamp milkweed pods
habitat logs

I am so pleased with what we accomplished this year at the circle park. In April the park was barren, much of its soil compressed into hardpan. In a single growing season we have transformed much of it into a living green space, replete with native flowering plants buzzing with insects. But I think the real measure of the park’s progress has been its late-season appearance–seed-heads bursting with promise, habitat logs settling into the soil, fallen leaves laid down like a blanket. It looks like a healthy woodland, a place possessed of its own sense of time, whose rhythms are closer akin to Kairos rather than to any arbitrary changing of the clocks.

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exquisite milkweed pod

This morning a sense of turning. The sunlight slightly muted, the clouds luminous but shadowed underneath. A cool undercurrent on the breeze. Two days ago robins massed in the cedars, and today they have gone. Birdcast (a wonderful resource powered in part by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) reports a peak of bird migration is expected tonight, with 337 million birds expected to cross the night sky, navigating by the signals (cues in the quality of light, currents in the air and soil) that send them south.

Those of us who are earthbound prepare in our own way. I gather my preserving equipment and assess the ripening crabapples. It is time to pick sumac. On some bright, breezy day next week I will harvest my herbs and hang them to dry. In the coming weeks it will be time to make preserves.

I need to stain the front porch, and do some tuck-pointing of the bricks.

squash plant losing its gourdOne of my major projects this year has been establishing a natural garden at the circle park down the street. This work has been supported by the efforts of many community members as well as the City of Toronto, which provided us with a starter set of native plants. The park, long a desolate and derelict space, has been transformed into a living landscape of native plants and shrubs that has hosted many native species of bees, butterflies and other insets. Early in the summer I brought over all my not-quite-finished compost, figuring it would continue to break down in the soil, adding much-needed nutrients to support the new plants. As a bonus, a surprising number of garden plants have self-seeded, including tomatoes, dill, and several kinds of vines. This morning the melons and squash look ready for harvest; the pumpkin, still green, is nearly the size of a soccer ball; and the tomatoes (possibly Black Krims or, more likely, Green Zebra) are developing their distinctive stripes.

Soon, though, the garden will start to go dormant, and I am looking forward to ensuring it has a good cover of mulch to protect tender roots throughout the winter. But until then the asters, just beginning to flower, will bloom all wild and wooly, feeding wasps and bees right up until frost.

flowering aster with bumblebee

Turning Read More »

A Soul Among Souls

Last Sunday morning, for the first service after Epiphany, I put on a nice dress (fashion note, because one of my New Year’s resolutions is to celebrate the wearing of lovely clothes: I wore a long-sleeved knee-length woolen A-line dress in broad earth-toned horizontal stripes, tights, high brown boots and, to keep things real, a crow’s skull pendant), and walked down to what I have so quickly begun to think of as ‘my’ church. Each Sunday I look forward to walking the six blocks over to attend the service. I would go more often if I could. And so, while sitting in the beautiful sanctuary on yet another chilly, overcast morning, I thought about what keeps drawing me back.

It’s not the sermons which, while interesting and considered in their way, are pretty standard fare for the United Church. It’s not the congregation, or not yet: while I have met a number of parishioners and both ministers, we remain, in essence, strangers to one another. As yet I have no formal belonging to this church. At services I sing beloved hymns and say the Lord’s Prayer and join in the doxology, but speak no words to any person. I am merely a soul among souls, a presence among presences.

As an adolescent I spent a great deal of time—hours nearly every week—in the woods near my parents’ home on the outskirts of a Toronto-area suburb. Almost every day I would walk the lands behind our home, tracing a circuitous but purposeful path along the ridge, across a copse of goldenrod and skirting the edge of a cornfield before dipping down into the old millrace pungent with jewelweed, rising out of it near the adjacent farm’s old bottle dump and crossing the gravel road bordering the conservation lands that were my ultimate destination. Down in the ravine I would walk for more than a mile along the creek, paying attention to the perennial negotiation between the flowing streambed and its slowly shifting banks. High above me, especially in the fall and winter, the wind would roar in the trees, and they would creak slowly back and forth like disciples bearing witness to its power. In these moments my solitude was absolute; my sense of connection to the cosmos nearly complete. I was only breath; only movement; only soft footfalls on silty loam; only a presence among presences, a soul among souls.

The ravine was my church, my place of worship, and no religious service has done more than approximate the sense of immanence I experienced in those days in the woods, or in the awareness of wild creation I sense now in storm-tossed trees or in a waxing moon hanging low over the lake. The Holy Trinity that is Christianity’s core tenet cannot come close to equaling the power of creation present in a stand of trees and in a handful of soil, and in this I likely mark myself irrevocably as an apostate. But I suspect—oh, how I suspect—that theologians have known this for millennia, and that the rules of religious observance owe much of their rigidity to a compulsion to rein in the raw, self-abandoning consciousness of Creation, as if to regulate access to the God who is always already present in every breath of wind.

But still, there are the hymns—such a large part of worship in most Protestant churches—that so often and so evocatively deploy metaphors drawn directly from the natural world. Protestant hymnbooks positively bulge with them. Critics point out, somewhat accurately, that most of these hymns were written in and about pastoral England and are therefore dated, bland and culturally insular. Musicologists sometimes cringe at their prosaic lyrics and repetitive rhymes. And, of course, liberation theologues within the United Church demand, loudly if somewhat absurdly, that the Eurocentrism and coloniality of Christian hymns (and indeed Christian worship more generally) be exposed and decentered.

But the hymns, the hymns. The hymns are the Word embodied; the hymns connect earth-bound souls to the divine; the hymns are the living breath of a living faith. Through hymns congregants sing the same songs as wind and water; through hymns we may channel currents in the air and soil. Singing a hymn is an act nearly as sacred as walking in the woods and echoing in every sinew the creaking voices of the trees.

And so, at services I sit near the back of the sanctuary and stare up at the pillars holding up the broad wood ceiling as simply as trees holding up the sky. I sing the beautiful hymns, and practice my solitary faith, and consider whether belonging to a congregation will add to or constrain it.

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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.

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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.

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*) Read More »