Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Plural Of Trellis

It started with this:

A friend of mine posted it on my Facebook wall. Which sort of drives me crazy, because I always end up thinking "Yes! I need this in the back yard! It's what I've always wanted! I'll be able to grow more pumpkins! I love vertical gardening!"

Then cold hard reality hits and I'm left thinking "Where is it going to go?"

Not to mention "Who is going to build that thing?"

That said, I decided to try this, because it looks cool and well, I'm shallow that way.

The instructions seemed pretty basic: arch, squash, sunshine, photogenic opportunities. In case you can't tell from the photo, the black arches are PVC pipe, painted black. I think they are imbedded on reebar. The whole thing is situated in a raised box bed. There is some wire fencing in there as well.

I went outside and looked around for a likely spot for my own Squash Arch.

Have I mentioned that I live in a very slopey yard?

See what I mean? If this isn't a hill, I don't know what is.

It makes things like Squash Arches kind of challenging to recreate.

But I like a challenge, so I kept on looking around.

 This is where the pool used to be. Happy days we had with that pool, until it developed a leak. And the restraining board there to the left stopped restraining the natural slump of the hill. The pool ended up slanting a bit, which had some of us concerned that 300 gallons of water might one day be visiting the back yard of the neighbours down the hill.

Which the neighbours might not like. So we didn't fix the leak in the pool. We endured many a caustic remark from the unhappy offspring, who had really enjoyed swimming in that pool throughout the summer. But our options were limited by that dratted slope, so we kept a stiff upper lip and went to the beach more often. Eventually the offspring got older and bigger and stopped complaining. Well, stopped complaining about the pool, that is. They found new and more exciting things to complain about.

Anyhow, as I surveyed the yard for the perfect Squash Arch site, my gaze happened upon that spot. It was fairly flat. It received a decent amount of sunshine. The rowan tree was kind of in the way but that was easily remedied by removing a few branches. Now all I needed was someone to do that actual labour for me some planks, a saw, some stakes and screws, and some soil. 

So, here is my Tale of a Squash Arch And How It Got Built.  Labour by Sheila. Inspiration by Cammie, who is now limited to posting no more than one cool garden idea per month on my Facebook page (or I'll make her come over and help me). 

First off, get some tools near by so you don't have to keep trudging up the hill into the basement to get a hammer, or some screws, or a drill. Trust me on this. I used a metal bar and a sledge hammer to make the holes for the stakes in the ground because our yard seems to be situated on solid &*$#@ rock. I also used a drill, some screws, some old stakes, and some pine boards. 

1. Saw branches that might be overhanging said project. Be careful that branches don't crash down on your head. Have a band aid near by in case branch falls on arm and breaks some skin. Curse friend who posted stupid Squash Arch idea on your stupid Facebook page.

2. Remove cold frame. Wonder where to put it and drag it awkwardly around for a while, tripping over bricks and irrigation pipes, until you find a good spot. Feel increasingly frustrated that you didn't plan project out a bit better. Kick pine boards and curse as knee makes a popping sound.
 3. Get sledge hammer and insert stakes into ground. Realize that you need the metal bar to make the holes for the stakes. Realize that the stakes are really long and will eventually need shortening. Hit finger with sledge hammer. Realize that neighbour children are listening to you swear. Curse friend a couple of times. Wonder what SHE is doing right now. Curse some more.

4. Request that child slaves some of the children come out and assist in building Squash Arch. Make it sound REALLY fun. Ignore their hesitation and pretend they really ARE enthusiastic. Sieve compost and fill bed with four loads. Discover the scissors that Eldest Child lost in the compost last summer. Discover a clay pot that someone tossed in the compost last summer. Ignore complaints of slaves children. Wonder briefly if so much compost will be too much for pumpkins, then decide to think about this another time. Watch slaves children sneak away while you're changing your band aid.

5. Show husband new bed, original Squash Arch photo, and ask for assistance in inserting reebar and PVC pipe into hill. Cite exhaustion, sore knee, bruised arm, etc.

6. Listen uneasily while Husband suggests new configuration of Squash Arch and points to white trellis in garden. Do that, he says. It will look better, he says. 

7. Ponder uneasily until Husband offers to build Exact Replica Of Said Trellis on new Squash Arch site, then capitulate, because, well, it sounds cool.

And I'm shallow that way.

Friday, February 13, 2015

World Radio Day

Today is World Radio Day 2015, although you'd never know it from listening to the radio here. Our national broadcaster, the CBC, said nary a word, which just shows you what a slack-assed job they're doing these days. I only know because I was listening to the BBC World Service at 2am this morning, where they announced the fact and followed it up with - you guessed it - a feature about young people and the importance of radio in their lives. Us 40 and 50 somethings are always forgotten in these kinds of features, and yet it seems, judging from the habits of my kids and their friends, that we middle-agers are the demographic that keeps quality radio alive.

I don't know if radio is important in your life, but it's one of my constant pleasures, from the moment I received my first radio as a 9 year old (a crackly AM set contained within a black stuffed poodle with his VERY OWN PINK PLASTIC BRUSH), to now, when I generally listen on my iPad mini via the app Tune In Radio. There I can listen to any show I like, on any station I like, although I mostly gravitate to the BBC World Service and NPR. I'm a lot fussier about my radio these days: as I kid I liked Top 40 shows and didn't mind those horrible blaring commercial breaks, but now I prefer to listen without commercial interruptions. My favourite shows are mostly about gardening, food, or history, but some voices have me in thrall with their accents alone. Alan Johnson, I'm talkin' to you.

In fact, I hold such devotion to certain radio hosts that I sometimes think of them as my radio boyfriends (and girlfriends). My kids think this too odd and creepy to contemplate but they're still young and unmenopausal. They don't lie awake wondering where their sound sleeps of old went. My kids are, for the most part, uninterested in historical clips from the past, news clips from Syria, or quirky stories from around the world, although Eldest Son is starting to listen to Wittertainment and The World, so there IS hope for them yet.

For the most part I have no idea what these voices look like, although I just now googled PRI's The World to get Marco Werman's name (for the past 3 years I thought he was saying Marco Gorman and spent way too many moments wondering what sort of parent would name their child MarcoGorman). I like it this way. The feeling their voices gives me reminds me of a Leonard Cohen poem:

I heard of a man who says words so beautifully 
that if he only speaks their name women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body 
while silence blossoms like tumours on our lips 
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside our door.

Oh steady on. I'm not going all 50 Shades on you. I'm just writing a paean to my favourite radio hosts on this day, this World Radio Day. I love listening to you all. I hope to listen to you all for many years to come. Hats off to them. Hats off to the radio, from one of your devoted listeners.

Some of my favourites:

Dan Damon, Ros Atkins, Marco Werman, David Green, Razia Iqbal, Kai Ryssdal, Karin Giannone, Steve Evans, Alan Johnson, James Menendez, James Coomarasamy, Owen Bennet-Jones, Julian Marshall, Nuala McGovern, Mark Kermode, Simon Mayo, Sheila Dillon, Tim & Joe, and everyone at Gardener's Question Time (James Wong, Bob Flowerdew and Bunny Guinness - you rock).

Monday, February 2, 2015

End of Month View : January 2015

 I see from my last post that I haven't posted here since my LAST End of Month View. I think this is what happens when the gardener is out IN the garden: the blog suffers.

This post is part of a meme hosted by Helen over at The Patient Gardener's Weblog (her blog can be found here). Thank you Helen!

Yes, you heard that right: the garden has actually seen a lot of action this month. The weather has been mild and relatively dry, considering it's the Dank Dark Depths of Winter, so I've been able to do quite a bit out there. Granted, it's quite boggy and slippery, but it's also the perfect time to be uprooting ill-situated shrubs and breaking ground on new plots. Well, to a certain extent. You don't want to be digging something up right before temperatures plummet, but if the week shows a long period of mild weather and the plant is dormant (and you know how to dig the plant up without disturbing the root ball), I say go for it. 

This photo shows a new bed I built on the edge of the slope in the backyard. It used to be a steep slope that was all but impossible to mow. People tell me "get your kids to mow it" (you know who you are) but no one in their right mind wants to slide around on a 40º slope with an electric blade whipping around their feet, so I'm trying to find an acceptable alternative. After a certain amount of slog, I now have a bed that runs along the top of the slope. Taking my cue from Ye Great Terracers Of Olde, one side of this bed is turf and wide planks topped with (purely decorative) red brick, while the other side is a single layer of red brick. I use brick to delineate (and because I like the look of it), but it's also very useful in case I decide to demolish the bed later: no concrete posts to dig up.
 And yes, this IS the lengths I go to to keep the cat and squirrels out of the garlic. For some reason this bed is a favourite of all digging & pooing creatures. I don't quite grasp why, but I've learned to work with it, as all practical gardeners do.

Soon the garlic will be big enough to repel all but the most determined creature.

I took this photo to show a friend how I deal with Overly Enthusiastic Strawberries. Most of the gardeners I follow do the sensible thing and cut the shoots off during the summer. The only trouble with that philosophy is that the height of summer is also when there are vegetables to preserve, tomatoes to can, and weed growth to cope with, not to mention holidays to go on and beaches to visit. Thus this task falls down to the very bottom of the To Do list. Come winter the strawberries have (not so) magically quintupled. But it's not all doom and gloom: I hack off the newbies and tuck them into trays like this. When the older plants get, well, old, I replace them with these. If this tray looks dusty, it's because they have just had kelp meal sprinkled over them. Kelp meal is truly Magic Fairy Dust. Don't believe me, visit in June and see for yourself. One spring, from a two rows of plants measuring 10' by 3', I canned 20 quarts of strawberry jam, froze at least at many bags of puréed berries, and made buckets of strawberry popsicles and crisps. The strawberry crop was then abandoned by my erstwhile strawberry pickers, who claimed utter exhaustion.
 This is the bed where the strawberries used to grow, sharing the space with tomatoes and brassicas. This year, given the rebellion in the ranks of the strawberry pickers, I've decided to revamp it so that there are strawberries on the right side of this bed, alongside the grass. They used to be on the left side of this bed, which hard to cope with when the tomatoes were tall. This way no one can claim that they are inaccessible. The reemay on the bed is to shield the fall rye from being eaten by the birds. It looks rather pathetic in this photo, doesn't it? I think I've lost heart with my fall rye: last year I seeded a massive bag of the stuff and some rodents ate it all. In one night. Let's just say that I'm not holding my breath that this batch will last long.
 This is the Side Perennial Bed (official title). There are two roses, Lysimachia punctata, Hypericum perforatum, crocosmia Lucifer, Mrs Bradshaw's geum, Stargazer lilies, and some rather evil Bishop's Weed. And it's all a little too rampant for my tastes, so I am planning an overhaul this spring. Ideally I'd like to see graceful billowing spots of colour but all that seems to happen here is a rude elbowing race for domination. Come late summer it's a mess.

I welcome suggestions. Practical ones, mind you. Oh, and I've purchased a Weed Dragon to combat the Bishop's Weed. Those dratted bishops. What did they think they were doing, spreading such a rapacious gospel.
 I took this photo to show how clever my Step Building System is, but this is a rather horrible photo, isn't it. I thought it would show an equal view of a) steps that were neatly formed, b) steps that were on their way to being neatly formed, and c) steps that were Still In The Process.

Perhaps if you click on the photo you can see it more clearly.

Anyways, the system is thus: use newspapers to build the risers. It WILL look odd and messy and you must accept this for now. Let it sit for a season, flinging weeds and dirt every now and then until the blocks have built up enough for you to stomp down hard, creating solid and recognizable steps. In the meantime be really really careful walking down them after a rain. Newspaper is very slippery when wet.

Eventually I'll let the grass grow over them, so it looks much

I planted a lot of dwarf kale this summer and it's still going, even now. It's such a beautiful greeny blue. Kale is the most wonderful thing to have in the dead of winter, because you can ignore the wildly overpriced bunches in the shops, content that you have your own at home. Even when it snows the kale remains green and harvestable.
 Johnny Jump Ups are the most cheerful little plants around. I love them. They seem to thrive in winter here.

This one seems to have emerged unscathed by slugs.

Give it time, says the voice in my head. Give it time.

A slug is probably just waiting for me to leave.

I was never one for primroses until I discovered the perennial varieties, which are quite irresistible. This one is Quaker's Bonnet. The best feature of these primroses is that they return each spring exactly the same as before.

The brightly coloured ones in the garden centres right now always seem to revert to yellow, that is when they're not shrinking into pathetic little knots of misery, soon to be demolished by slugs.

Alright, let's switch to what's going on in the greenhouse.

Here we have some lettuces in a gutter. I'm going to transplant them into larger trays, leaving them in the greenhouse until they get big enough to start harvesting. Come March or April I'll transplant them out, under plastic covers.
 A flower that always seems out of fashion by most of the gardeners I know, but I love it: the sweet pea. There is no smell quite like them. They are the BEST cut flower, as long as you remember to keep cutting them.

This year I've got several varieties: April in Paris, North Shore, Spencer Ruffled, Blue Celeste, Royal Wedding (whose I'm not sure), Zinfandel, and some seeds from last year's peas, the names of which I have lost track of.
 I inherited this bedraggled lemon tree in the summer and while it doesn't look all that healthy, it currently has 23 lemons on it. Thank you Mr Seaweed Extract.

It came with a whacking great dose of scale, sadly. I hate scale - it never seems to go away. It lurks in the soil, at the base of the plant, waiting for one to look the other way. My usual method is to spray with soapy oily water, then wipe, wipe, wipe. That splash of blue in the photo? A cloth I keep there to wipe up any stray drips of oil.
 Artichokes. I love artichokes. They take up a lot of space, true, but up here in the Pacific Northwest they are a pricey vegetable to buy in the shops, so I grow them instead. And when they get congested you divide them, creating yet MORE plants to take up garden real estate. Which I don't mind in the least, I love them so much.

 After a number of years arguing with Peach Leaf Curl on my two nectarine trees, I happened upon a charming video of the even more charming Monty Don, explaining how to combat it: cover the plant with plastic through the months of December to March. This will prevent the disease from splashing up in the winter rains and re-infecting the plant. Apparently the tree will eventually "grow out" of it, but I'm not sure I believe that. It's not pretty, but it works. I'm all for that.

 Finally, the Abeliophyllum distichum, looking all excited about the prospect of spring. This plant is also known as White Forsythia and while it's not much to look at, it smells like heaven (assuming heaven smells good, that is).

So there you go, what my garden is doing right now. It might be winter, but it's a very exciting time in the garden. This is why I never feel gloomy in winter: there is always something to feel hopeful about.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Garden Meme : End Of Month View

 In the run-up to Christmas I spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking and watching older Gardener's World shows on my mini fruit-based device. There is nothing like watching someone else do a significant amount of digging and weeding, unless it's watching someone else doing a lot of planting or pruning. Meanwhile it's cold and rainy outside and I'm in the kitchen making mince pies: it's the best of both worlds.

Stumpery in December
Of all the online shows I watched this year I particularly liked the Great British Garden Revival series, because everyone had their own fascinating and cherished axe to grind.

Here is a stumpery I constructed last March after watching Chris Beardshaw wander through Prince Charles' stumpery. I probably shouldn't mention them both in the same breath because Charles' stumpery is significantly more impressive than mine, not to mention the fact that it has its own head gardener. Mine only has me. No salary (with Head Gardener perks). No Prince Charles. No stumps even.

My stumpery was constructed in the area I call The Shade Garden, using random bits of driftwood I picked up at the beach (I live on a large island in the Pacific Northwest). These bits of wood aren't terribly practical because they tend to rot, but my theory is this: by the time they DO rot (two years hence), I'll have tired of having a stumpery and want to do something else with the space. The rotted wood can go in the Long Term Compost. It's a win-win situation.

Around the wood I planted primroses, hellebores, fritillaries, and a few miniature daffodils. It is perfectly lovely in spring, invisible in summer, and - distressingly - rather lacking in Serious Gloom in winter. I'm thinking it's the lack of large stumps. The white tubing (slightly-above-ground watering system) doesn't help, but it's there so it doesn't crack during freezes.

 Here is a side view of the giant hedge that renders my stumpery invisible in summer. I'm not entirely sure what it's made of, but there are at least three types of shrub. When we first moved here it was horribly overgrown and I intended to do some thinning, but when I saw all the birds flitting around, not to mention how it greened up and created a massive privacy screen, I decided to concentrate on making it thicker and fuller. I used a technique recommended by various Hedge Pundits, which mostly involved breaking the longer branches and forcing them sideways so they sprout out and create a thick barrier. Irritatingly, the hawthorn that dominates this section accumulated so much ivy this year that our Highly Fecund Squirrel Resident (aka HFSR) moved her nest out of the carport and into this tree. While I admire HFSR's tenacity (she has about 12 babies a year and is very industrious) I don't admire how she (along with her babies) chews up my soaker hoses, digs up my garlic, rootles around in my plastic trays, and generally makes a mess of everything, so I went in and cut out most of the ivy. In doing so I discovered where all the fluff from our barbeque cover had disappeared to. Nice.

Here is one of the winter vegetables I like to grow: purple sprouting broccoli. At least, I think it's purple sprouting broccoli; it could be white sprouting broccoli for all I know because the plant tag has mysteriously disappeared. Along with my memory.

The greenhouse has some trays of sprouting lettuces. I intend to plant these into a cold frame adjacent to the greenhouse in another month. Our garden is a bit of a heat sink even in winter. The container on the far left has grass seed so the cat has some green to munch on. The kids saw someone do this online (far more decoratively than I have done) and demanded that we do this because Toffee desperately NEEDS a cute little container of grass. I didn't want to go to TOO much trouble in case Toffee decides he isn't into grass, so I used a plastic tub instead of an adorable kitty-shaped boot-like object (and saved myself at least $20). Toffee is a very fickle cat. I'm also hoping he doesn't eat it then find a handy corner of the house to puke in (I look further ahead than my children).

It's hard to see but at the base of that wooden planter is a catnip plant. This is an outdoor treat I leave for Toffee. Unfortunately he seems to have some kitty friends who also like catnip, so periodically I have to protect it with some shelving, because Toffee only goes out when it's absolutely necessary. As in: when it's ABSOLUTELY necessary (cue frantic meows at 4am). He'd really rather I get him a litter box but that is never going to happen. 
Here is where I've planted the garlic this year. Right up against the house, under a peach tree and two nectarine trees. It's prime garden real estate but after getting white rot two years ago in the old garlic bed I've been hard pressed to find a new (and equally convenient) spot. Oh, and that fencing? It serves a dual purpose: to keep Toffee from thinking this is a large litter box and to keep HFSR from burying her acorns under my garlic. If you look slightly to the left (at about the third dwarf kale plant) you will see a slight depression: courtesy of HFSR. Or Toffee. Not sure.
One of my most concerted efforts has been in the Winter Vegetable Gardening department. I read books by people like Eliot Coleman or Mark Diacono and think "I want winter salads!" but the reality is that you need to be organized to have winter veg (that and attend Seedy Saturday lectures where you'll learn that celeriac needs to overwinter to grow to any significant size). The other photo is one of the artichokes. It looks as though they are going to survive the winter. They aren't the most stalwart of plants, sometimes easily killed during a freeze or a particularly wet winter. You also need to divide them regularly because they are, as a perennial, on the Shorter Lived side. Artichokes are another plant that hogs the garden real estate but I love them (I tried to resist saying "and true love lasts a lifetime" but I couldn't help myself).

Another encouraging photo: a Pink Lemonade blueberry with what looks like a seriously good crop of Potential Blossom.
This is the only blueberry I've got in a pot and as it gets shunted around the garden throughout the summer I'm surprised it is doing at all well. I haven't found the right place for it. I've got several pots in this situation. I'm not keen on this state of affairs but that's the way of gardening, isn't it? Some things work the first time and others take forever to figure out. At least the Pink Lemonade is forgiving. 

A Calamondin orange, one of the greenhouse residents, thick with blossom (and fruit). I was never a big citrus person before we moved here, but now I love them. They bloom in winter, which gives the greenhouse the most fabulous scent, one to rival sweet box (which I have in the front yard).

The garden always looks slightly uninviting in winter, something I've been trying to work on. In warmer seasons this is a rose border: Crown Princess Margarita, Pink Peace, and a rose I dug up from a rental house we once lived in. I didn't even notice it the first year because it was so neglected, and when we left I had a premonition that it would be even more neglected with the next tenants that I decided to take it with us. It's tall, pink, and deliciously scented. They compete with the comfrey, which I grow for fertilizer and for the bees. So far the comfrey is ahead by a nose, so that's another one for the Problems To Work On this spring.

The oak barrel in the distance has a fig tree. I'm not thrilled with this fig but I can't bring myself to uproot it and toss it, so I'm doing the next best thing: ignoring it.

Another area I intend to work on: this willow used to be an upright specimen, as in straight up and down. Those pieces of wood on its trunk were steps for the kids so they could climb up it. Over a space of six years it's leaned further and further over, until we had to remove the swing, the rope ladder, and the float swing. Finally my husband decided to scalp it. My mum has a neighbour who did this to their willow and it looks quite beautiful now - like a small green fountain. I'm hoping that this one will rehabilitate similarly.

That blue painting is another one of my beach driftwood finds. That's a blue whale painted on the front.

When we moved here all the apple trees looked like this. Witches knots. I've been working on them, which has been quite slow because I had to learn all about pruning fruit trees at the same time. I started an espaliered fence, only to discover that I'd used two tip-bearing apple trees when I was supposed to use non-tip-bearing apple trees. Oh joy, I thought. I didn't even KNOW there were such things as non-tip-bearing apple trees.

Another view I'd like to work on this spring. I want the word ENTICE to come to mind when I look down this alley. Right now the word that comes to mind is SLANTED. Not the same thing, somehow.

And finally, a view to the west. The Garry oaks add a note of gravitas to the scene, don't they?

This has been a post to go along with Patient Gardener's End of Month View meme, which you can find at this link.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bird Business

I've had this post sitting here unfinished for at least ten days, due to the usual Christmas madness. However, after flicking through a few updates from much more regular bloggers, feeling slightly neglectful (and finding myself with a spare hour), I sat myself down in front of the computer and thought "finish this thing!"


 Here is our Official Resident Hummingbird. At least, I SAY he's our Official Resident Hummingbird but we're not on super intimate terms and I doubt I could pick him out of a lineup. He could be an offspring of our first Resident Hummingbird for all I know. Given how obsessed he is with keeping every other hummingbird away from his feeder, my rough estimate is that these birds can't last too long. 

Suffice to say that these are unusually territorial birds. It could be well below zero outside - all the feeders but his could be frozen and all the birds faint with hunger and cold - and  our bird would still say "BEGONE! This is my feeder and I don't share!" Every single time. Not a method I approve of, but there you have it.

Oh, and the feeder he's so intent on protecting? It's a good twelve feet away from all the other bird feeders. We've moved it three times, mostly so the other birds get a chance at the food in the other feeders. 

He dive bombs anyone who goes near his feeder, including me.


Here he is flying off, fed up with my constant camera clicking.

He doesn't suffer camera snappers fools gladly, sadly.

I like the way he sways his head back and forth as he surveys his perimeters.
Finally got a decent shot of a Stellar's Jay the other day. This is a moment of triumph, I tell you. These birds are rudely camera shy when in my back yard. Whenever they see that lens, no matter how I lurk, they let out an outraged squawk and fly away.                                                                                                                                     It's exasperating, particularly when there are twenty of them bouncing around on the Garry oaks.                                                                                                       Particularly when I've set up a special peanutty feeder just for them, just for our Camera Encounter. 
The other day I took approximately 78 shots of an odd encounter between a few Stellars jays and a Cooper's hawk - an encounter I've been told is quite common but I'd never actually witnessed before. I had no idea they were so fearless. This hawk, who single-handedly keeps the sparrow population in check, spends an hour most afternoons perched at the very top of the Garry oak, chewing on some unlucky small bird. He's very thorough, rarely leaving more than a teeny scrap behind when he's done. Ask me how I know? It was when I found a small yellow beak on the ground under the tree. Just the beak. Another time it was just a leg. A sparrow leg is a very small thing. Anyhow, he's thorough, our hawk.  

Here is the scene: hawk is that smallish body almost at the top of the tree. A jay is on the lower left branch, and you can't hear him but he's squawking loudly and looking very impertinently at the hawk. There's another one on the other major limb of the Garry oak but it's hard to see him. 
Looks kinda foolhardy, doesn't it, sitting there jeering at a hawk? The jay then makes his way up the tree to a branch about four feet away from the hawk. Unbelievably the hawk appears uneasy. He keeps glancing at the jay and has completely stopped grooming himself. 

Would you call this harassment? I think I would. Those jays are getting in that hawk's face. To clarify: our jays are migratory in these parts. They don't have a nest nearby. They aren't protecting anything. They're acting like my friend the hummingbird. If my kids acted like this I think I'd be dragging them off by the arm, to have a quiet word about getting along with others when on the playground in their ear.

And now look - there's suddenly five jays sitting there, clearly intent on Being Pests.

But it isn't until one actually pecks at the hawk's tail that something happens: the hawk leaves. The jays squawk pleasantly at each other for a few minutes, then fly away.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sperm & Fish

Yes, those two words DO end up together in this post. Trust me.

A funny thing happened this week. We'd signed up for a homeschool field trip a couple of weeks ago. It was a grades 4-7 trip to see the salmon spawn at a local provincial park. There would be a guide. There would be a film. It sounded fun. It was also a cheap trip - $2 a person - but a week before the trip FDPG and Dominic showed some concern that they were going to be WAY OLDER than everyone else there because they were in grade eight. This tour ended with grade seven, they reminded me severely. GRADE SEVEN. They are in GRADE EIGHT.  Surely I knew this. They expressed way too much incredulity (one was more polite about it than the other, that's for darn sure) at my signing them up for a tour that ended with a grade 7 period. How could I have done that?

Dominic was very firm. He. Would. Not. Attend. He brought up another trip we had attended where they WERE way too old and other the kids WERE all too young and the talk was WAY too juvenile (baby songs might have been sung). They reminded me how wildly embarrassing it was. I agreed, it HAD been embarrassing. I HAD felt bad for them. I HAD promised not to do that again. Solidarity.

I emailed the organizer, who was very nice and tried to find some more participants. No takers. I felt bad so I told the organizer that we would definitely show up, because I really hate it when people don't show up for organized trips and the organizer is left holding the bill. This happens a lot with our homeschool community: it's annoying and frustrating but there it is.

So we show up on the Appointed Day, my two reluctant ball and chains in tow. The organizer was waiting for us in the Nature House. As usual almost everyone else was late. I was standing idly in a corner of the Nature House waiting when I overheard a guide say "so, what songs should I do with the group that's coming?" Songs? I feel the icy grip of disaster grab me. I sidle towards the desk as surreptitiously as possible so I could hear the other guide answer. "Do the Fishy Song," she said, "the arm movements look like this and then you have them jump up and down for the next verse while pretending they are swimming. Then they can sing the final verse with you!"  They all beamed at each other, except for the male guide, who looked at me as though wondering why I was eavesdropping on such Super Secret Technical Information. I smile weakly and moved away.

I decide it would be best not to say anything to the twins about the impending song choices. Or the arm movements. 

Eventually we assemble at the back of the Nature House with our raggle taggle group of homeschoolers. There are tiny little kids chairs to sit in. Some of us sit. Boy, I thought, you sure can tell homeschoolers: one kid was in a medieval knight costume, two wore homespun knitted outfits that looked, well, weird, and the rest looked worryingly feral. Dominic was doing his If I Pretend Hard Enough I Just Might Disappear routine, staring hard at the ceiling. FDPG was making the best of what she clearly thought was a bad situation. She's philosophical that way.

Our guide walks in and sits down with a fish poster. An old, tatty fish poster. It's the Boy Guide, the one who thought I was stealing Nature House Secrets. He has a very soft voice. No one can really hear him. At least, I can't hear anything he's saying, so I decide to sit in one of the chairs right near him. He interprets this as a hostile gesture, I suspect, because he stops talking and looks at me carefully. I smile in what I hope is an extremely benign way. Fortunately he has no choice BUT to go on, so he does.

We sit through a lesson on how salmon spawn. He talks about the eggs, the fish sperm, how the salmon jaw changes while they spawn, how long they live, and so on. He asks the kids to speculate on the size of a fish brain, or how long they live, and stuff like that. He's a super low talker but he is genuinely interested in his topic. There has been no singing thus far, either.

There is, however, as there always is on tours like these, a kid in the group who knows all the answers and isn't shy about belting them out whenever the guide asks a question. He's very self-congratulatory which is even more irritating. At one point he asks the guide if he's wondering how he knows all this stuff. Awkward. His mother stands beside him beaming proudly, utterly oblivious. I can tell that the guide is uneasy but since no one else is even trying to answer any questions, he lets him go for it. If this were a Diary of a Wimpy Kid novel I would expect Bad Things to happen to this kid at break time out behind the Nature House, but because it's a Homeschool Tour nothing does. Well, a few kids start picking their noses but that's about it.

We then troop into the little theatre to see a film to "solidify" our knowledge about salmon. It's a really old film. I probably saw it when I was in school and that was a LONG time ago. I stand at the back and again, can't hear a thing. The film is ancient and grainy and looks as though the colour is leaking out as we're watching it. Everyone peers hard at the blurry images and tries to imagine the "brilliant colours" we're told we're looking at. Nevertheless the kids all listen carefully and quietly, mine included. Factoid Boy is mercifully silent. When it's over we go outside and down to the river to look at the salmon. I remember this part from my school days. We'd go in a school tour and I'd feel sick the entire time, watching the seagulls flocking on the edges, pecking and pecking and shrieking and shrieking, while the poor bloody salmon struggled along. I wonder, not for the first time, why I thought the twins would enjoy a tour like this.

Fortunately our guide is young and enthusiastic. He's also incredibly knowledgeable. He walks along the water's edge and points out various things: early spawners, old spawners, side markings on the fish and what they mean, the places salmon like to spawn in, the places where they likely fight. It's fascinating. Then our guide asks us if we would like to see inside a fish. Factoid Boy shouts out "YES WE WOULD!!!!" So he does. He walks around looking for a freshly dead salmon. There are a lot to choose from. He lays the salmon down in front of us, then drags his foot in the gravel, making a circle around the salmon. "We won't get in this circle," he says, "because this gives the salmon a dignified space." I'm not sure what he's getting at here but we're all willing to go with it, except for one of the nose pickers who interprets this as a request to get INSIDE the circle.

Then the guide gets out his knife and cuts a neat rectangle on the side of the fish. Oh wait, I forgot the good bit: right before he does this (it's a male fish) he starts milking all the sperm (err, milt) out of the fish. In great long creamy spurts. Over and over again. There's tons of milt in this fish. Gallons. It's graphically, wildly, improbably sexual in a strange and disturbing way. All the mothers stiffen. A snort escapes my mouth, causing the guide to look up. In one uneasy instant he realizes what we're all thinking and starts feeling self-conscious. The poor earnest guide, I think. I start laughing. Factoid Boy, not wanting to seem ignorant of ANYTHING scientific, chortles along with me. Fortunately the sperm stream, err, milt stream, ends, so we can all get back to normal. I wonder if anyone is going to light a cigarette then remember that I'm amongst devoted eco-West Coasters and if anyone is going to light anything it'll probably be an e-cigarette (or a joint).

We see the brain of the salmon, we see his kidney, his swim bladder, his heart, and his liver. It's a little graphic at times but everyone is clearly enjoying this part and they all jostle around, trying to respect the Dignified Space without missing too much. The best part is when he popped out the cornea, which looked like a miniature crystal ball, placed it on his palm, and showed it around. When we'd all looked as much as we wanted, he popped it back in, then replaced the organs and slid the flap shut. "For the next guide," he explained, "some of the girls aren't very good cutting open the fish." I wonder what else they don't do.

And that was that. One family had a seagull poop on them, Factoid Boy fell while balancing on a log (while shouting "look at meeeee!"), and FDPG got wet feet trying to ford a river, but all in all it was a remarkably good tour. We even got to meet a 900 year old tree, not to mention watching a dead fish ejaculate. Good times.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pictorial Evidence

This was the first Halloween that I didn't take photos of my kids in their costumes.

Okay, I did take a couple of shots of Eldest Son in his Deadmau5 head (which you would have seen on my Facebook page), but those photos were taken less as a result of it being a Halloween costume than they were because we were all so shocked that it was a) finally finished, b) being worn to - gasp - SCHOOL, and c) it was finally finished.

Sadly, its start in life wasn't great, as you might expect from a craftsman who wasn't interested in anything that required time, effort, or finesse, aka a 14 year old boy. They have Big Dreams, these boys, but the strenuousness of turning those Big Dreams into Cold Hard Reality is often just too much work.

I, being the (sometimes often) grimly realistic mother that I am, was confident that that piece of papier maché would live out its days as a Half-Made Prototype taking up space in the workshop, in someone's closet, on the kitchen table, or on the coffee table.

Then, after being closeted for close to three years, kicked once or twice in a fit of pique, and having way too much money spent on it (not by ME, I hasten to add), it was finally resurrected and completed. I documented the moment with a photo. Then Eldest Son went off to public school, with it on his head. Apparently he wore it all day. I know because he texted me a few photos. One of him with other dressed up highschoolers; one with our university lecturer friend who dresses up as a giant pink bunny each year (and yes, he DOES teach his classes this way). The two of them are standing side by side, one very tall in a very pink furry suit, the other made tall by the giant blue head with its equally giant blue ears. His arms were crossed and his feet stood wide. I could feel the cool burning out of that Deadmau5 head. This kid sure has attitude, I thought. Attitude made bright by the completion of an albatross of a project.

That was probably when I realized that I forgot to take photos of the other two offspring. At that point of course they'd already changed into pajamas, washed the make-up off their faces, and were scoffing candy.

And thus ended another Halloween.