compost


She is, I believe, in her nineties. She depends on her cane. The slope up Waterloo from Richmond is difficult. She stops to rest by my stone wall. If I’m working in my yard, I always go over to speak to her. When I do, I’m rewarded with a bit of history about the house, the kind of gossip one might more expect about a person. She’s lived on this street, she says, for forty-five years.
One day, I complained to her that no matter how I water the gardens are immediately dry.
“This property was once a gravel pit,” she said. “The only thing for it is compost.”
After she’d gone, I took a shovel full of soil, put it into a bucket and filled the pail with water. When I poured off the water, the pail was full of sand. I took a handful of soil and squeezed it. It crumbled and fell apart. I grew up in the country but my father was a fisherman and my mother a credit union manager. The little I’d learned about gardens, I’d learned from staying with my grandmother. Now, I’ve got a double yard with gardens on both side of a curving sidewalk, along the front and west of the house and down the east fence. 
My mother’s mother was Irish and, if given half a chance, could grow vegetables on a paved road. During the Great Depression times were hard for her and my grandfather. To make their little bit of money go further, she took over an empty lot on Walker Avenue in Winnipeg. She turned it into a garden rampant with vegetables, a jungle of tomatoes and yellow beans, potatoes and carrots. When they moved to a small house on Fleet, their yard was a tiny bit of grass.  She turned over the grass with a pitch fork. Underneath was subsoil and clay but she kept a plastic bucket under the kitchen sink. Into it went every peel, every tea bag, anything uncooked that would rot, even shredded  newspaper and scraps of cloth. In those days no one had discovered using red earth worms. If they had, she would have had a tray of red wigglers under the counter. Her garden flourished.
Not wanting to keep a large plastic pail under the counter, I bought a kit from the lumber yard and built a compost box. I stuck it in a back corner. Into it went grass clippings and leaves and kitchen scraps and bags of manure I bought from the side of road. Even in buying horse manure, I found you have to be careful. Some people use cedar chips in their stalls instead of hay.  Fresh cedar chips have a chemical in them that can be used to kill weeds. Put them on a flower garden and the only thing that will grow there is bindweed. Manure with hay is much better but you’ve got to be sure you’re not just paying for hay. On the Island life’s still rural enough that stable owners put plastic bags filled with manure on the edge of the road with a sign saying “Seventy five cents a bag.” They leave a coffee can with a slot in the lid beside the bags. It’s up to you to count the bags and drop in the right number of quarters. Life’s changing for the worse though, because lately I’ve come across a couple of cans that have been nailed to a pole and their lids soldered.
When I first started buying manure, I used to just throw five or six bags into the back of the truck, put my money into the can and drive away. Now that I’m a manure connoisseur, I open the first bag, fold back the top and check to see what I’m getting.
The box I built has rotted out and has been replaced by a second compost box. This one sits on the edge of the lane and has, in place of a blue tarp, a wooden lid that my son built. The lid folds back in half or swings up full size. He built the top because some of the neighbours were upset with having to look at the compost box from their front door. I was about to be incensed by their urban sensitivity when I remembered my grandmother’s plastic bucket and how embarrassed I was by it.
Maybe it has to do with getting older but not much embarrasses me anymore. I’ve stopped by the side of the road to collect a pail of manure. I collect buckets of seaweed after a storm. I keep peelings in a plastic bucket that I add to the compost box every couple of days. I scrape up the crushed oak leaves from the road. I throw in blood meal. I revel in digging out the black, friable soil that results. I spread it by the wheelbarrow over both gardens and lawn. In most places the lawn is still patchy and bare, friendlier to weeds than grass. But slowly it’s improving. I’m not going to try to create a golf green but a meadow, something in keeping with the Gary Oaks, a place where in spring the daisies and grape hyacinth will appear in great white and purple swaths.
My elderly neighbor has moved away. Staying in her own home became too much for her. I miss her visits over the stone wall. Before she left she had me come up to her placed and dig up some flowers for my garden.  She was afraid that her little stucco bungalow might be bulldozed, its garden ploughed under and the salmon colored Phlox paniculata (garden phlox)lost. It was a gift from her husband when they first moved into their house.
Her plants are in my garden now, looking robust, their leaves a strong green. I’ve dressed them well with the compost. When they need dividing, I’ll pass on a piece to my daughter.

urban life

When I sold my house last year with its double lot, I was afraid I’d be bereft of wildlife. didn’t move far but I bought a free-hold strata, a house on a tiny lot and a commonly owned road. Like a lot of property in Victoria, the ground is all up and down with a steep rise that leads to the various dwellings. My bedroom overlooksthe front yard, it’s not really a yard, a patch of ground, then a tumble of rocks until the next
house below. At my previous home, I was used to having deer sleep in the yard. One evening, it was three
stags, two asleep, one standing on his hind legs sampling the holly tree. I watched him he watched me, then he lay down and joined his companions.In the morning, they were gone and so were one hundred
and ninety-eight of the two hundred tulips that lined the sidewalk. I regretted the tulips.My father had spent one spring planting them. I knew that they’d come back the next year, the tulips that is, and as much as I enjoyed three handsome stags lying in the yard, I vowed to cover the tulips with wire mesh. I’d leave a few uncovered so the deer could have a treat.

In spite of their taste for tulips, I love the Island deer. They’re smaller than Manitoba deer. They’re very handsome. They’re a bit like GreatDanes with antlers. I grieved not having them around anymore. Then one morning, I looked out the bedroom window. There was a young doefast asleep. We had breakfast and lunch and dinner at about the same time. I munched ona sandwich and she munched on some grass and weeds.

We looked at each other out the window. I waggled my fingers at her. She waggled her ears at me. She visited for a day, then she disappeared. Two weeks later, she reappeared. She was nibbling on the new leaves of one of my bushes, snacking on some tufts of grass. Then behind her another doe came up the broken slope and, finally, a third. They all looked like they were about two years old. After a time, they drifted across the road to a neighbour’s property. I thought when girls get together, there have got to be boys around and, sure enough, two dayslater, one of the does was nuzzling up to a buck with a handsome
set of antlers.

This isn’t in the country. On Salt Spring you take thisdeer cavorting in the yard as normal. I’m talking about the city. Urban life. Traffic. Buses. People walking. Cars. Yards. Houses. Apartment blocks. And it’s not just the deer. A friend of mine had a raccoon who slept in the tree outsideher apartment window. Another
 friend has two eagles who alight in a tree at the back of her yard every day just when she’s preparing breakfast. A friend lives in the very heart o fthe city, tourists, buses, hors carriages, lots of traffic and she looked out one day to see an otter waddling across the parking lot.

I applaud this, lost tulips or not. I think there is something magical in the fact that when my son and his family go for a walk at their place outside of Bellingham, deer join in and follow behind them. He said it unnerved him at first. I think he’s adjusted. I think we all need to adjust. We’ve done tremendous harm to the environment. Deer haven’t, bears haven’t, cougars haven’t, otter haven’t. It’s their environment along with our own that we’ve harmed. I think other species have been trying to show us forsome time that it is possible  for all of us to live together if we just respect the environment, if we don’t take every last inch for ourselves  and don’t destroy what we don’t possess.

We often think that the death penalty is appropriate for the loss of some flowers, for a bag of garbage being torn apart, for the noise a flock of crows makes. We take what we need and even what we don’t need. At one time the passenger pigeon filled the skies. Buffaloroamed the prairies. No more.

With each loss of a species, we make our world narrower, less interesting, less diverse. There’s a jack rabbit in Gimli, Manitoba, trying to teach people that we can live together, share space. I always look for him. He sprints down the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. If he or one of his kin nibbles on one of your fruit trees, put burlap and wire around the trunk. When he visits, admirehis grace and beauty for he is a miracle of movement.
(This article first appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)

The Weekend Carpenter

I built a woodshed last weekend. It looks like something from the Beverly Hillbillies. My only defense is that there is now has a wood stove and it needs dry wood. Wet wood doesn’t burn well, and the winter rains start soon.
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There are lots of big trees here. I chose two that are fairly close together, then erected two posts and a 2×6 crossbar  some distance away. You have no idea how reckless this project is. I’ve never built anything in my life. They only gave me a passing grade in shops because I caught my thumb in the lathe and they were afraid they’d be sued. I’ve still got the scar. The shop teacher told the principal that if I failed and took the course a second year, he’d have a nervous breakdown].
The boss who oversees all won’t let me use her power tools. There’s a good chop saw on the back porch, but she has visions of my hands flying off. I’m inclined to drift away and think about other things when I’m working. A handsaw can’t do much damage. An errant hammer usually just means a smashed thumb. A power saw is not so forgiving. Or a nail gun.
Salt Spring ground is uneven. Except for hollows filled with moss and deadfall, large rocks covered in moss are everywhere. When it rains, the hollows fill up with water. Next to where I chose to put the woodshed, a large cedar tree had fallen some years ago.  It’s old enough to have mostly crumbled into a heavy, deep red pulp. I had to break it apart in places with an iron bar and rake it so I could get back and forth easily.  I wished I had a yard of good Manitoba gravel to level the area. I probably should have called Ganges to see if I could get some crushed rock, but that would take days, maybe weeks, to get delivered, and I was in a hurry. 
When I began the shed, there were low grey clouds and fog so thick I couldn’t see Galiano Island. There’s no thunder and lightning here, not like on the prairies. Instead, the sky closes down on you, the mist rolls through the trees, rain starts a few drops at a time, then settles in to fall all day, all week, all month. Once, it rained thirty days straight. It wasn‘t raining hard on the weekend and there wasn’t any wind but the rain was relentless. I hadn’t expected to build a wood shed and hadn’t brought my Gortex jacket. As a matter of fact, I had no jacket. The weather report had said sun with broken cloud. I put on a sweater, cut a hole in the top of a garbage bag and at the sides. It made a perfectly good rain jacket except for the arms. It was a tight fit because every time I’ve picked blackberries, I’ve eaten them with ice cream.
I spiked two side beams to the trees and nailed them to the cross bar. I didn’t say this would be beautiful, just dry. I nailed some boards across the bottom to tie the frame together, then ransacked the scrap pile. There’s no hurrying. The rocks, moss and water with a tangle of wild rose bushes that never bloom see to that. The wood pile looks like someone has dropped pickup sticks. Boards that may be the right size have to be teased out of the pile. They’re often too long or too short. The too-long ones, I used for the roof. I put them on crosswise. That turned out to be a mistake.
The next morning, it was still raining. The pools of water were deeper. I’d thrown tarps over any wood that could be cut up for the wood stove. I wished I’d brought rubber boots. I started cutting and nailing boards on the walls vertically. With all the rain it’s better to have the boards up and down, with narrow boards over the cracks. The boss came out to inspect my work and said “That’s called board and batten”. At least, I think that’s what she said. The rain was making my hearing aide buzz. During the night, I’d wakened up with a realization that I should have put the roof boards running from the peak to the eave on this shanty. If I do that and put slats over the cracks, the roof will be waterproof. No shingles needed.
The roof boards will have to come off but I decided to do that later. By the time the sides were finished[ , my arms and feet were soaked. I needed coffee. I dragged a tarp over the roof. Everywhere on Salt Spring, you see tarps. They’re the islander’s equivalent to duct tape. The way I use tarps, you’d think I’d been born and raised on the island. If there isn’t a spare tarp or two, I feel unprepared for life. City people need jobs, bank accounts, lines of credit, to feel secure. On SS people are free spirits. A place out of the rain, some homemade goods to sell to the tourists at the Saturday market, an old truck or van, a half dozen tarps, and life is good.
The shed is not much to look at, but no rain comes through. It’ll do for this winter. The next time I’m here, I can change the roof boards and, if there’s time, saw and split wood and store it safely. SS does get snow and sleet. Once, the roads were closed for two weeks. The power does go out. It does get cold. If a blizzard knocks out the power, the wood stove will heat the entire floor.  
In the city, at Thanksgiving, we give thanks for turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie but we don’t often remember to give thanks for electricity that nearly always works and when it doesn’t, it is rapidly repaired, or water that flows from a reservoir rather than our well, or streets quickly cleared of ice and snow but, away from the city, where people are on their own when things go wrong, we slip in thanks for a shed of dry wood in the face of winter storms.
 (A slightly different version was first published in Logberg-Heimskringla)

Some of Us Aren’t Vikings


He peed on my shirt. When I fell into bed the night before,  I left my shirt lying on the bedroom floor and in the morning, he came upstairs, lifted his leg, and peed on my good shirt. Just like that. I bought that shirt at British Importers. It was the most expensive shirt I owned. I lay there too stunned to say anything. He put his leg down, turned his head to give me a that’ll-teach-you look and went back downstairs.
“Chico,” I yelled. “When I catch you, I’ll kill you.” Except I wasn’t wearing anything and the idea of running around the house nude trying to catch a very quick and agile Chihuahua didn’t really appeal to me. The curtains weren’t drawn. My neighbors are tolerant but not that tolerant.
I went downstairs and Chico was lying in his felt doghouse with his head over the edge. No apology. He didn’t even have the decency to look abject or get out of the doghouse and roll onto his back in submission.
“You’ve got a new girlfriend,” my daughter said. “And she’s allergic to dogs. He’s had  the run of the house for three years. You’ve locked him in the kitchen.  He escaped and let you know what he thinks of the new arrangement.” I’d thought my daughter would  be sympathetic. I thought it was an inborn trait of daughters. Coddle the old codger kind of thing.
“Do that again and you’ll go back to the pound,” I said as I shoveled corn flakes into my mouth. He hated it when I had corn flakes for breakfast. If he had his way, I’d have bacon and eggs every morning. Every lunch and supper. Unless I was having meat with a bone in it that he could hunker down over.  Cholesterol? He didn’t care if I had a heart attack just so long as he got one strip of bacon and a piece of fried egg.  
He walked with his tail in the air and his ears up. He was a babe magnet. Everywhere I took him beautiful women came up and patted him. I’d tie him up outside the grocery store or the bank and when I’d get back there’d be a magnificent brunette or two (why brunettes and never blondes, I don’t know) patting him, cuddling him close, cooing in his ear. When I’d appear, they’d leave. No patting me, no cuddling me, no cooing in my ear. He was cute but I’m not that bad looking.
The wonderful thing about him was that everywhere I took him people talked to me. Because I live alone, that was a blessing. It meant that I wasn’t reduced to telling my life story to bored grocery checkout clerks. I’d sit  on a bench on the Dallas Road walkway and within moments someone else with a dog would sit down and ask me what breed he was. You see, although he was supposed to be a pure bred  five hundred dollar chihauhau, I think his mother slipped out of the kennel one night and went partying. He wasn’t a trembling, fragile, timid mouse. He was barrel chested, strong and with a set of teeth when bared would stop most people in their tracks.
He joined me on West Coast trails. It took him a few attempts to figure out wooden boardwalks, but he plowed through water filled holes, over huge tree roots, down and up slopes, along beaches and over sea wrack. His limit seemed to be ten kilometers. Then he sat down and wouldn’t budge. It was like he was saying if you’re crazy enough to keep walking, you’re crazy enough to walk and carry me.
Threatening to send him to the pound was serious business. He’d been there before. He knew what it was like to be thrown in the clink, the slammer, the cage. One rainy afternoon . he’d slipped out the back door. I didn’t worry about it because I knew he always came back when he got hungry and thirsty /. He usually hooked up with Angel, my neighbor’s dog and they roamed around the yards on our dead-end lane. When he didn’t turn up, I went searching with a flashlight. I called in help. We all searched. No luck. I went up and down the main throughway, Richmond, looking for squashed chihauhau. Nothing. I got a friend to print up posters to put on telephone poles. It had a picture of him with his teeth baered and a statement saying if whoever found him returned him, I’d take him back if they gave me  five dollars. I figured if he peed on their best shirt, they’d be glad to get rid of him.
The following day I called the various pounds. “Yup”, the warden said,  “Chihauhau cross, red collar, no tags, pay his fine and we’ll release him.
When I got to the pound, I was led along the walkway between the prison cells. It was a heartbreaking moment. He saw me. I saw him. It was just like in the movies. He scrabbled at the wire. I held out my arms. But I hadn’t paid his fine so I had to go back to the front office and shell out for his being picked up and transported (a well meaning neighbor had been the stoolie who turned him in), for his not having a dog tag and for a new tag. One hundred and thirty dollars. I could have done a lot of things with those one hundred and thirty dollars.
Then one of the guards brought him out and put him on the counter. He climbed up my left arm onto the back of my neck and then onto my head where he perched, his nails digging into my scalp.
“Nice Daniel Boone cap”, the guard said as I turned to leave.
Most people like to think their dog is supernaturally smart, smarter than other people’s dogs. I didn’t think that about Chico. He learned early on that being cute beat being smart any day of the week.
He’d been my friend Valerie Kline’s dog. Valerie and I had been friends for twenty years. She was born in Kampala, Uganda and spent her first years in an internment camp. Her father was Austrian, her mother, Hungarian. At the end of the war, the family went back to Europe, then came to Canada. A long time after we met, she became ill. She got Chico to keep her company. Later, when Valerie was dying of cancer, she was more afraid of what would happen to Chico than she was about dying. That’s when I promised I’d take him. I’d known him from the day she’d bought him. Chico and I had established a close relationship right away. If I fell asleep on Valerie’s chesterfield, he’d sneak up and stick his tongue in my ear. It was a gotcha kind of thing. I’d come in and play with him. I’d throw a ball and he’d look at it. I’d chase him around and around the coffee table until he got tired of being chased and would lie down under the table and let me run around it. He’d bark to encourage me.
When I said I’d take him, I only made one condition. He wasn’t sleeping on my bed. He slept on Valerie’s bed and on the couch with her. There was dog hair everywhere. I wasn’t having dog hair on my bed. No sir. Not under any conditions. A week after Valerie’s funeral, her eldest daughter brought Chico over, along with a large box of toys,,his felt dog house.and enough food for a Great Dane. Night came. I explained to him that this is where he slept from now on. I put him in his dog house with his special blanket. I gave him his stuffed lamb to cuddle. I went to bed.
I was just falling asleep when I heard a noise. It was very quiet. Not a whine. It was a whimper. A heartbreaking whimper. It was so quiet I could just barely hear it. It was filled with tragedy. It said I’m lonely. I’m sad.
I leaned over the bed. It’s hard to see a black and tan dog in a dark room but I saw him. Sitting there, looking up at me. “Go downstairs,” I said. “You’ve got a very nice bed downstairs.”
Whimper. Silence. Whimper.
I knew then, in that moment, in spite of my Viking fantasies when I was a kid running around with a wooden sword in my parents’ yard at Gimli, I could never have been a Viking. Vikings are strong. They endure pain without a whimper.  When they are fatally wounded, they make pithy statements about life. Maybe it’s the sentimental Irish blood. If I’d been a true Viking,  I’d have had an Icelandic sheepdog, not a Chihuahua, he’d have slept in front of the door protecting me from marauders. In spite of having read Havamal many times, when the crunch came I forgot all about being on my guard going through doorways and slaying my enemies. Can you see any Viking going into battle with a Chihuahua at his side? 
“Okay,” I said sternly “but just tonight. “ I reached down,picked him up and  put him at the foot of the bed. He was very good. He lay right down and fell asleep. And so did I, but he must have moved sometime during the night because in the morning, he woke me with his snoring. He was nestled in the crook of my arm.
He’s back with Valerie’s daughter now. She and her husband have moved to the country so they can have three dogs. Although the other dogs are large, he’s established himself as dog number two. He gets to play all day long and to go for country walks instead of sitting on my lap while I’m working on the computer. My shirts are stain free. But he’s everywhere around the house with me. I often think I hear him and see him even though he’s not here anymore. I’m going to visit him shortly. I’ll take him a treat. I hope he remembers me.

Picking Chantrelles

 I’m going chantrelle picking. That’s one of the joys of living on Vancouver Island. There are lots of chantrelles in the woods. Some people pick chantrells for money. There are cardboard signs up and down the highway saying “We buy mushrooms.” Some people pick for the health food and specialty stores. Others sell their mushrooms to a couple of the classier restaurants. Some of the pickers are out of work loggers. Others are people who live off seasonal work: tree planting, fishing, crabbing. I’m not that serious a picker. I’m happy with enough for a couple of meals.
You can’t just say, “I’m going picking chantrelles.” You’ve got to prepare. First, you need to wait for the rain. A good rain and chantrelles pop up overnight. After a rain they’re heavy and solid instead of dry and light. When I hear the rain on the roof, I say to myself, “I think I’ll go picking chantrelles the day after tomorrow.” That gives me time to prepare.
I have to get my old jeans out and my heavy socks. My hiking boots. An undershirt, a plaid shirt and a waterproof jacket. A pail and a small knife. Then I’ve got make a lunch, nothing itsy bitsy, a real lunch, the kind I used to eat when I was a kid. A couple of sandwiches packed with meat and cheese and pickles. Something sweet. A thermos of coffee. A bottle of water. A pack sack. I have to dig through my everything drawer to find my compass. I don’t go into the bush anymore without a compass, not since the last time I got lost for four hours.
I went picking mushrooms with a pro, the kind who fills up pails while I’m still diddling around finding my first half dozen mushrooms. We went to his territory. Nobody owns these territories but pickers find them and keep them a dark secret. They don’t want somebody else coming in and scooping a hundred dollars worth of their mushrooms. Some of them even carry machetes just in case. It’s not as bad as the marijuana growers who dot the island. They’re totally paranoid. Not of the cops but of marijuana rustlers. Most of the marijuana is grown on government land so even if the cops find it, not one can be charged, but that means other people, if they discover it, can do the harvesting without the labour. Some of the growers, when the crop is nearly ready, take to sleeping in the middle of their patch with a rifle.
We started up this ridge in an area I’d never been before. We were working our way inland. You’ve go to understand what this ground is like. First, it’s steep. In some places, you’re hanging onto trees and pulling yourself up the slope. You’re looking for mushrooms in the moss and fern and under logs. Second, this is the kind of forest where ten feet from the road, you can’t see anything but trees. And they all look the same. Turn around twice and except for the slope there’s no telling the direction. We went up over one ridge, then I lost my professional friend. He’d gone gallivanting off following mushrooms like Hansel and Gretel followed cookie crumbs to the witches cabin. I followed a stream that turned into a trickle that turned into nothing and then I realized I was lost. Not a little lost. Lost lost. The kind of lost that means spending the night in the bush waiting to be rescued. It took me four hours to find the road again. Now, I don’t go anywhere without my compass.
After I get all my gear into the truck, along with a second set of clothes behind the seat in case I get really wet, I go off with the same feeling I had when I was a teenager and was getting a day off school. I drive the paved highway, turn onto a gravel logging road, follow it until the trees are nearly touching, then snug the truck into a space behind a large cedar.
People say to me, do you take a rifle with you? What about the bears and the cougars? When they say it, I can see the fear in their eyes. These are the same people who live next door to a drug dealer, who lives next door to someone who talks out loud to God on the bus, who lives next door a survivalist who’s convinced Armageddon is coming and has three rifles and a case of dynamite to keep off the roaming hoards of desperate people. No, I say, but if you want to come with me, I’ll let you carry the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If we meet a bear, you feed them to him and I’ll run for help.
The forest is silent. At least it seems silent at first. That’s just because we’re used to so much noise. After I’m in the bush for ten minutes, I can hear again. The kind of sounds that would be drowned out in the city. The sound my feet make in the moss, the dry brushing of my clothes, the creaking of the trees. On really still days, I’ve actually heard a leaf as it struck the ground.
To pick chantrelles, you’ve got to pay attention to the ground. The chantrelles range in colour from white to brown, depending on the minerals in the soil. They often grow under the bright green moss. Only a patch of colour shows through. The first time I go out each year, my mind  has to adjust. I have to learn to see again. At work it’s office politics, I’ve got to watch , memos and body language. I’ve got to hear the words and assess them. There are no words here. I stop every so often and crouch down, getting close to the ground, scanning the area all around me, looking into the shadows, under logs. If I find one chantrelle, I don’t move again until I’ve studied every inch of the ground around me. Chantrelles often come in clusters. I don’t want to step on any or move past them.
When I’m tired from zigzagging up the ridge, I pick out a mother log heavy with ferns and moss, climb up on it and lie down. It’s so big that it makes a comfortable bed. I stretch out, staring up at the distant tips of the trees. This is all second growth but already the trees are bigger than anything you’ll find on the prairies. The tips seem to come together. Between them there are patches of blue sky.
I can hear the beating of my heart. Steady, purposeful after the climbing. I’m going to take a cat nap. Twenty to thirty minutes. Then I’m going to have my first sandwich of the day and a cup of coffee. This I think is a far better way to pick mushrooms than out of box in Safeway.