Food for the Soul

salmongears

When the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Victoria, the city already had a substantial history. In Iceland, there was no military. When they came to Victoria, they came to a city that started off as a fort and, as an outpost of the British Empire, was always vulnerable to attack as a result of European conflicts.

Esquimalt Harbour was used by the British Navy in the 1840s. By the 1850s, a fully active naval base had been established. A fort was built at Macaulay Point 1894 to 1897. That Point was armed and rearmed numerous times as more powerful weapons were created to fend off an invasion. While people today often find the idea of an invasion of Vancouver Island amusing, during WWII, a family that had owned the last house I lived in prior to this one, sold it for a pittance and fled inland because they were certain that a Japanese invasion was going to occur at any time. The Japanese army and navy had successfully conquered one area after the other and seemed unstoppable.

Back in the days when there was an Icelandic community on Spring Ridge, the naval base in Victoria was an active, important place and during the years leading up to and during WW1, it became even more important.

Today, the Macaulay Point area incorporates a beach, a greensward, and winding trails that, from time to time, pass the large concrete and stone emplacements built to defend the West Coast. The old bunkers, ammunition houses and a spiderweb of tunnels (one tunnel goes back to 1895 about nine years after those first Icelanders stepped off the local steamer) are fascinating. The view over the Strait of Juan de Fuca is exceptional

However, today I didn’t just go to wander among the historical sites or to take in the thrashing waves but to take in Sculpture Splash.

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Along the ocean walk and on the greensward, out on the granite outcrops, over ninety sculptures were on display. They were worth the trip. The show was, like all good art shows, full of surprises. One of the tasks of an artist or writer is to get the viewer to look at something familiar in a new way. These artists certainly did that.

There were, for example, two large heads of crocodiles at the edge of the sand. It would have been easy to miss them but as a spectator said to me as he put his hand on my shoulder, “Isn’t that amazing!” I agreed. It was amazing. Two crocodiles staring up at us out of the sand and water.

There were the Asian stone heads set on a rocky outcrop. Given the importance of the Chinese in the history of Victoria (I believe we have Canada’s oldest Chinatown), I felt it was a nice bow in the direction of our Asian history. Now, I would like to see an expanded art exhibition in or before the Chinese cemetery at Harling Point.

There was a nearly life-size rhino hiding in the tall grass on the edge of a cliff, looking like he was going to rush at the passersby. There were birds on the beach made of the most inventive items, feathers from dinner knives, for example. Salmon created from metal gears. A wooden man on a bench but a man that looked like an android. People were lined up to get their picture taken with him.

There were demonstrations and classes and a steady stream of people with their dogs. Dogs love this area because they can be off leash. There were nearly as many cameras as dogs. I knew how successful the sculptures were from the array of cameras that were out. The sculptures were fascinating, surprising, delightful and part of that was the choice of having the show outdoors at Macaulay Point with the wind blowing, a few flecks of rain to remind us that we were on the West Coast, the waves breaking on the rocks, two eagles floating overhead. All that was needed was for a pod of Orcas to come by to say hello. They are seen fairly regularly in this area.

I had lots of work to do today but I’m glad I took the time to drive to Sculpture Splash. Our stomach needs to be fed but so does our soul and, sometimes, lost in our busy days, we forget about nourishing our soul.

Lanes

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A lane is defined as a narrow country road or a narrow way or passage between walls, hedges or fences.

In Gimli where I grew up, a lane wasn’t either of these. It was a back lane. Gimli had been laid out on a grid with front streets and back lanes. Early on, I learned to love back lanes. Front streets were where people put up a front for their neighbours and the public. If a yard was going to be prettified, the grass cut, flowers planted, hedges trimmed, it was in the front yard. The owner’s public persona was on display.

Now, the back lane was different. It’s not just that the back lane was where people put out their garbage with all that revealed about what they ate, bought, cast aside. It was also the muddy, rutted track where fishing boxes were piled, corks hung to dry after being oiled, skiffs rested between fishing seasons, anchors and ropes lined up. It was where you saw who was precise and organized. Gardens revealed a great deal about someone. There were back yards with gardens with exact rows and there were gardens that were chaotic.

Back lanes often had fences, especially the back lanes that bordered cottages. Those fences, usually posts with wire stretched across them, provided us with good times. Gimli was a swamp in the 1940s and 50s. When the spring runoff came, it filled the ditches that fronted all the streets and flooded the low lying cottage yards. Squashers, our name for the egg shaped fruit that grew on the  vines that overtook the fences every spring, grew prolifically. When squashers hit an object such as another kid, they splattered. The inside was wet and filled with sectioned soft membranes and brown or black seeds. The mess was gratifying.

Today, in Victoria, far in time and place from the Gimli of my childhood, I went for a fifty minute walk, up hill and down dale. Some of that walk was on local roads but Victoria is a city of narrow country roads and passageways between walls, hedges and fences.

I walked the road to Playfair Park, crossed the park with its lawns and flower beds, its rhododendron copse, and slipped into a narrow lane between fences. I came out on a dead end road and hiked uphill back to the park where I followed a lane between the park fence and an area of salal and scruffy Gary Oaks. I’d done a loop and ended up back on the road that I’d followed to the park. I slipped away to the left to follow a loop that would make my walk a figure eight.  I was on a busy thoroughfare, but that only lasted a couple of blocks before I crossed over and, although I continued on a paved road, there were no sidewalks and a lot of vegetation dearly beloved by the local deer. The road winds through a neighbourhood of rock, blackberry thickets and fir trees.

I ended up on Cook St. one of Victoria’s busiest thoroughfares. I didn’t stay on it for long but turned onto a laneway, one of those odd little jogs that must have a history of sorts because it is so unexpected. It is at the bottom of a steep slope and the lane runs flat along the bottom of the slope. There are cherry trees grown rampant, an overgrown ditch, blackberry thickets on one side.  At this time of year, the ditch is dotted with light purple daisies growing wild. On the other side there is a mishmash of fences and driveways. Enclosed by the lane, I’m hard pressed to remember I’m in the city.

The lane ended and I began the slow slog up the steep back of the Rise. This road can be called a lane, no sidewalks, twisting its way up, past carefully tended houses and yards,past rosemary bushes so large they form a hedge, past the yard of an urban gardener who I haven’t met but have watched as he tends his half-dozen bee hives or plants and harvests his leeks and raspberries.

There are in these lanes, small surprises. Bird houses tucked here and there. A potting shed resting high up on an outcrop. Ceramic trolls and elves. Uncountable Douglas squirrels running up and down the oak trees. A tree, deciduous, with forgotten Christmas ornaments sparkling in the sun. A box of apples set out for anyone passing by to share. A large metal bowl of water for the? Deer, raccoons, dogs, cats, cougars, squirrels, blue jays, robins, hawks. A begonia at the bottom of a hedge, flaming red.

At the top of the rise is a dead end. No vehicles can pass but I can cross over to the lane that leads down to my house. It is here  one evening as dusk was falling that I met a four point stag. We both stopped and studied each other. I wished I had an apple to roll toward him. He was just about at the cross road where I was standing. Handsome, the way the stags in the old Encyclopedia Britannica looked, noble, head held high. The words from Scot jumped into my mind unbidden. “The stag at eve had drunk his fill/Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill.” Finally, I lifted my right hand in a salute and went on my way.

 

Cornucopia

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When the Icelandic immigrants came to Canada, they left a country where the soil was only suitable for grazing. Even that grazing land was only about one percent of the total land because the rest of the country was covered in mountains, lava deserts, lava fields and glaciers. To make matters worse, during many years, because of cold weather, the grass didn’t grow. That meant there was no food for sheep or dairy cows and with the die off of cattle, starvation was inevitable. The only alternative food was fish and in particularly cold years , the harbours filled with ice so that inshore fishing with open boats was not possible. There were no other sources of food.

Visitors to Iceland commented on the fact that farm land could be much improved with drainage. However, the return on drainage, given that it had to be dug by hand and because of the land ownership and rental system, was questionable.

There were attempts to grow grain but those failed. In 1772, Governor Thodal planted barley. It grew well but before it could be harvested, a storm destroyed the crop. Governor Finsen tried to grow oats but it was never warm enough for oats to ripen. In the Faroes, the farmers were able to grow and harvest oats.

At the end of the 1700s, the Danish government established model farms in Húnavatn. The farm managers tried to grow oats, barley, and rye. When walls were built to protect the grain from the cold wind, the grain nearly ripened. We think of Quinoe as a new discovery but in 1875 Burton mentions the possibility of it being grown in Iceland because it is grown in the Peruvian Andes at altitudes and temperatures where no other grain can grow.

Hr. Haldorsen introduced the potato to Iceland and by the time that Burton is writing Ultima Thule, the potato is grown all over Iceland. It is small but satisfactory, he says. Burton suggests that people grow turnips. Radishes are grown but are ‘hard, coarse, and woody.” Spinach is a success.

In the north-west the Stranda Sýsla has tried to grow various kales. Broccoli, turnip-cabbage, red cabbage, cauliflower. Lettuces are common; beets both red and yellow, carrots, onions, garlic, and shallots, chevril, black mustard, watercress, horse radish and parsley.

Ultima Thule was published in 1875 so Burton‘s comments are relevant to the experience of our immigrant ancestors. His observations are not that the growing of these various food plants was widespread but, rather, that they were experimented with. The attempted growing of food plants is reported by other travelers at earlier times but those experiments were usually associated with the bishoprics where there was the influence of clerics from Europe.

Therefore, when the Icelanders boarded ships to Ameríka, their wooden traveling chests were not filled with agricultural implements unless it was the short blade from a scythe. Their only crop was hay and their agricultural experience was limited to manuring a home field, cutting, raking and stacking the grass. They brought no seeds, nor garden implements, no ploughs. They came singularly unprepared for farming.

In New Iceland and as they moved Westward toward Brandon, then Argyle, further to Regina and Swift Current, they learned to evaluate land, but often the lessons were costly both in resources and in lives. Graveyards and family stories testify to that cost.
Many Icelanders began their journey westward from New Iceland shortly after they arrived in 1875. In the meantime, across the Rockies much had been happening during the 1800s.

On Vancouver Island, the Hudson Bay Company established a number of farms in Victoria as far as Colwood. Settlers were arriving and they wanted to have their own farms. One of the first independent farms was bought by a Captain Cooper in 1851. It’s interesting that as the land was cleared, it wasn’t just farmed but sheep and cattle were grazed. That meant when the Icelanders arrived, there was already a precedent and experience in grazing animals locally.

The first gold rush that brought American miners and others north was the Fraser Canyon gold rush of 1857. This rush was mostly over in three years but prospectors kept finding new gold areas. Most miners by necessity and by government decree entered the goldfields through Victoria. Business boomed. Then in 1896 to 1899 the Kondike goldrush began. A hundred thousand hopeful gold seekers headed north.
Cattle ranching developed to feed the early gold seekers but spread beyond that goal as ranchers sought markets for their cattle. In 1876, the year the large group of Icelanders arrived in New Iceland, Thaddeur Sarper started a cattle drive to Salt Lake City. His goal was to put his cattle into rail cars and ship them to Chicago. Instead, seeing an opportunity closer at hand, he shipped the cattle to San Francisco.

The ranchers also started fruit farming. Between 1864 and 1880 one rancher planted a huge orchard. In the meantime, on Salt Spring Island, apples had been growing since 1860. The first Salt Spring Island Fall Fair was held in 1896. By 1900 there were 80 official farms.

The immigrants had left an Iceland plagued by severe weather that brought many of them to the brink of starvation. Their journey had taken some of them to Nova Scotia where poor conditions drove them away. They traveled to Kinmount where tragedy beset them and the land was not suitable for grazing or growing grain. They traveled on to New Iceland to face a dreadful winter and disease. Westward, always westward, looking for good land, for opportunity. When those immigrants who made it to the Coast stepped off a train in Vancouver, after a long and arduous journey, they were greeted with flower gardens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild berries in abundance. They were greeted with cornucopia.

When I was at the Saanich Fair this past weekend, I thought of those Icelanders who came to Vancouver Island in the late 1800s. I gazed at the abundance of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and when I came across a display of local produce in a basket, I thought Cornucopia, they were greeted by Cornucopia. To me that basket of fresh produce symbolized this new world they had struggled so long and hard to reach. Of course, sadness, hardship, disappointment did not end. Those are all part of life. Tragedy can occur anywhere but for most, the West Coast provided opportunity.

Cornucopia! As I studied the basket on display with its blue ribbon, I thought of those immigrants as I stood there at the Saanich Fair.

(Material for this article from numerous sources including Burton, Ultima Thule. Lutz, Interlude or Industry? Ranching in British Columbia, 1859-1885, British Columbia Historical News, Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 4. Sivertz, The Sivertz Family, Book 2, Elinborg. Wickipdia.)

The Saanich Fair

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Here in the diaspora on the foggy edge of the world once a year the locals put on a fair. This year is their 148th. That means they started twenty years before the first Icelanders skipped off the ferry and exclaimed, “What have we come to? Is it really summer all year?”
The Saanich Fair is the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. It covers so much ground that I didn’t manage to cover it all before I tired out and came home.
Since it is an agricultural fair, there are 4-H sheep judging competitions, a light horse show, rabbit judging, draft horse events, oodles and boodles of llamas and alpacas. There’s a corner market, a farmer’s market, Victoria market gardeners, and a flower arrangement competition. There’s a highland dance competition.
It’s not all just staring at the animals as they stare back at you. If your kids don’t know where t heir milk comes from, there is milking parlour demo that will show them. There’s also a rabbit care and grooming demonstration and a chance to talk to the donkeys and their owners. There are local farm talks and a chance to hear Marilyn: The Backyard Chicken Lady.
For those who like food and are competitive there is a pie eating competition and a spam eating competition. For the kids there are the pedal tractor races and the zucchini car races. If you haven’t filled up on pie, you can enter the cupcake, ice cream or watermelon eating contests.
There are, of course, the rides. The carnival area is so large that the trucks pulling the rides take up acres of space.
For me, the big thing about the Saanich Fair is that people bring their passions to proudly show them, whether that is roosters, ducks, eggs, apples, grapes, pickles, pies, cookies, bread, honey, goats. And more. I get to see the best that the peninsula (and beyond in some cases) provides.
There are flower competitions for every flower you can think of.
To my joy and delight I came across a booth that said Gluten Free Baked Goods. And were they good! I ate a pocket filled with feta and spinach and went back for a pocket filled with peaches and apples. Before I left, I returned only to find the spinach and feta sold out so I bought a pie and a tart. The owner/baker was shaking her head in surprise at the popularity of the spinach-feta pockets. She’ll have more ready tomorrow. It sounds like she’ll be baking all night.
There are booths and booths and displays and displays. There are numerous ethnic food booths, Lebanese, Jewish, Filipino, and many more. It’s a bit like Winnipeg’s Folklorama mixed in with Salish art, fresh vegetables, turkeys and miniature horses.
I ran out of energy before I ran out of things to see. For three days there is entertainment on the main stage. You could go to the fair for three days and just sit and listen. I promise myself that I will do that some year but when I pass through the gates with the surging crowd, I’m caught up with all the things I want to see and experience. I stop at the stage and watch and listen for a bit but there’s the amazing 4-H displays, the art and photography show, the… You get the idea. My feet take on a life of their own. They lead me here and there, willy nilly, into the heritage building filled with items I remember from my childhood, to the blacksmith demonstrations, to youngsters doing tricky manoeuvers on the backs of very large horses.
The line up for food and long. There are signs everywhere saying bring a water bottle with you. There are free fill ups. It’s that kind of Fair. The kind you should plan on attending some time. The kind you should take your kids to, especially if they live in the city. Get them up close to goat or an alpaca. Maybe even have them hold a rabbit.

Oblivion by Indridason

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I’m a great fan of Analdur Indridason’s writing. I’ve read all his books that have been translated into English and I eagerly look forward to the next one. I bought Oblivion and, although I usually go to bed about ten o’clock, I stayed up until one thirty a.m. following Erlendur and Marion. For those of you who don’t know, Marion is an older detective, a mentor to Erlendur. In previous books, I’ve been intrigued by Marion and his role in Erlendur’s life and career so I’m happy to say that since this book takes place when Erlendur is just starting out as a detective, the reader learns more about Marion’s life.

It is tricky to write narratives that fill in a story that has already been developed. I’ve followed, fascinated, with Erlendur’s obsession about missing persons, especially those who are lost in Iceland’s dangerous landscape of glaciers, lava deserts, raging rivers, boiling mud and water. I last saw Erlendur on the edge of freezing to death, being snowed under in a reprise of the death of his brother when they were young. I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to send an email to the author saying, “No, no. Don’t let him go.”

Erlendur’s life is complicated. His marriage has broken up. His ex hates him. His son and daughter in the later books are disasters; his daughter is an addict who refuses to be rescued. In Oblivion we get a glimpse of the early years after Erlendur has left his wife. From a distance, he silently watches his daughter on a playground. Not much is said but the passage is full of regret and guilt. It shows Indridason’s ability to communicate emotion tersely so that it never becomes melodrama.

The novel, since this is a murder mystery, begins with a death, a body in what will become known in reality as the Blue Lagoon, now a major attraction for tourists. However, when the story takes place the shores are barren and the woman who goes to bathe in the waters to soothe her skin condition is alone when she sees a shoe rising out of the water. Disgusted that someone would throw a shoe into the water, she goes to retrieve it only to find it attached to a body.

For the next 345 pages we follow Erlendur and Marion Briem as they gradually fit together the puzzle of the victim’s death. To add to the story, Indidason folds in the story of Dagbjðrt, an eighteen year old who, decades before, had disappeared without a trace. Erlendur had been fascinated with her inexplicable disappearance and, now, with Marion’s encouragement, he begins to look at this cold case.

Indridason is expert at fitting together complex puzzles but his novels are made up of much more than tricky plots. He has a genius for creating landscape and mood. Even those readers who have not been to Iceland get to experience the harshness of the landscape, the bitterness of the weather, and the moodiness of the skies. The sense of daily life in and around Reykjavik is captured with place names, short descriptions, the names of food. It is all very bleak, bleaker than I’ve experienced but then I’ve always been there in summer. That bleakness is as much Erlendur’s as it is the landscape’s.

In more than this novel, Indridason explores the relationship of the American military and the Icelanders. The British occupied Iceland to keep it from being taken over by the Germans during WWII. A year later, the British were replaced by the Americans. Relationships were uneasy. Iceland has a small population, at the time of the war, around one hundred and twenty thousand with forty thousand of those living in the capital city, Reykjavik. They were overwhelmed by tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen. Conflict was inevitable. Icelanders were poor. There were serious restrictions on what they could import. The Americans were well supplied with consumer goods: cigarettes, beer, meat, clothes. A black market developed.

Indridason does an excellent job of creating the conflict between the occupying Americans and the Icelanders.

When I stay up until one thirty in the morning to read a book, it has to be very good. At the same time, I felt with Oblivion that as a reader, I was ahead of Erlendur and Marion with regard to the solution to the mysteries. Part of the problem may be that my devotion to Indridason’s novels comes more from his development of Erlendur and less from the plot. In this book, the two plots are more important than the main character and his mentor. As far as the plot goes, I was disappointed with the appearance of Master Sergeant Roberts. It was a bit like having a shoot out in a Western movie and solving it by having the cavalry appear . However, that is a quibble brought about because when I read an Indridason novel, I expect it to be perfect. It won’t stop me from re-reading Oblivion and reveling in the descriptions, details, clever moves, interesting interactions among the characters.

Victoria Cribb has done an excellent job of translating the novel.

I highly recommend all the Erlendur books. However, before you read this one, if you haven’t read some of the earlier novels, I’d recommend you buy a couple and get to know Erlendur so you can appreciate these new details about his life.

Wishful Thinking

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I made the mistake of repairing the holes in my office walls. They had accumulated over the years. You know, pictures come and go. When I bought the house there were not one, not two, not three but four cable outlets. Then the carpenter ants arrived. The guy in the moon suit listened to the walls, drilled a dozen holes and sprayed the nest. There were a lot holes to fill. Good thing that years ago a plasterer had taught me how to fill, sand, prime and paint.

It took a day to fill and sand. Another day to prime and another day to paint. Looks good . After I’d picked out the colour and the clerk had mixed it, she pointed out the name to me: Wishful Thinking.

The trouble with new looking walls is that the rest of the room looks scruffy. I walked back to the lumber yard to look at floor tile. Right now there is wall to wall. I’m inclined to eat at the computer. I drink coffee at the computer. The carpet is, I think, supposed to be a pale grey. After four years, it looks like an abstract painting.

I looked at a lot of tile. To glue or go free floating. If free floating will there be pinch points caused by my desk, office chair, printer table. I fell in love with cork tiles. I love the honey coloured warmth. Unfortunately, the salesman said they will not stand up to a lot of traffic. But he’s got a wife, two young kids and two dogs. The cork tiles are in his kitchen and the kitchen leads to the patio. They need replacing. Not the wife and kids or dogs. The tiles. I’m the only one who uses my office.
While waiting for advice from my daughter and son-in-law, I decided to look for curtains.

You have to understand, this is not a big room. It’s 13.5 x 6.5 feet. There’s just room for me, the desk, the printer table, a two drawer filing cabinet. The window behind me is 31.5 inches deep and 5 ft 2 inches wide. I need curtains for it because the sun shining through it in the early part of the day means I can’t see my computer screen. I’m not sure what it is that is at the top of the window but it is totally useless. It is about six inches deep and crinkly. I bought this house from an older widow who was into purple and green and ruffles. I’m away during most of the summer and so far I’ve managed by throwing two tea towels over the ruffles. One has a picture of Irish elves and shamrocks and the other has pictures of old buildings and carriages pulled by horses.

I drove to the Bay. My grandmother could always get what she wanted at the Bay. The main floor is nothing but women’s underwear, perfume and with-it clothes. I escalatered myself to the second floor. Circled the floor while trying to look inconspicuous. A man by himself trolling the aisles among slow cookers, brightly coloured dishes, duvets and bath towels is always suspect. I finally stood in line to talk to a cashier.

“We don’t,” she said somewhat archly but with a slight edge of pity, “carry ready made drapes and curtains anymore. However, I can arrange an appointment with a consultant for you.”

“I want curtains for my study window. Forty eight inch deep.”

“You could try the Tillicum Mall,” she said dismissing me to take care of a woman juggling six brightly coloured pillows.

I stopped at Home something or other. They had nothing under eighty-four inches. The clerk was unable to understand why anyone would want anything shorter than eighty-four inches. They did have ninety six inches.

I tried Urban Outfitters. I think they have the same supplier as everyone else. I was getting to know the patterns.

In desperation, I went to Walmart. I don’t like Walmart. For all sorts of reasons. I don’t like giving them my money. It’s visceral. But sometimes you just have to do what you just have to do. They did have “Pocket drapes” for “Pocket Windows”. Imagine that. Except the stock had been ravaged by women (or men) desperate to buy drapes or curtains less than 84 inches. What was left was the stuff of nightmares. Having any of these drapes hanging behind me as I typed would make the hair on the back of my head stand up. To justify having gone there, I bought a couple of cans of garbanzos.

Somewhere in China there there are armies of people making drapes eighty four and ninety six inches. That is what the consumer will be allowed to buy. I see huge factories churning out drapes, that are all the same, massive freighters carrying them to North America, legions of trucks speeding them to stores across the land.

This is what happens when you allow large corporations to drive down prices to the point where small, independent outlets can’t survive. For a few dollars cheaper, you give up choice and variety, you give up the possibility of a lot of small shops producing their own unique products so that when you go shopping, it means looking at a wide variety of styles and colours. You give up choice. You give up jobs and opportunity and, ultimately, freedom.