Coming Back to Life

EASTER 2019 A New Path

On a late winter evening three years ago, I was sitting staring at the cascading flames in the window of my well-stoked woodstove. It was a month after my dearly-loved husband Barry died of what his doctors called “a particularly catastrophic form of cancer.” As the shock wore off, I was beginning to recognize that I had no idea who I was, nor what I wanted to become.

Just two months ago, my world had imploded as my husband swiftly died of an illness with similar symptoms to those of ALS. Shocked and numb, I waded through the horrible chores that are left after a death and I fumbled simply to take care of myself—to feed myself, to bring in firewood and keep my fire stoked. When people asked, as they often kindly did “How are you?” I could only respond with a weak smile “Overwhelmed.” To be honest, I didn’t even know what “you” that would be.

In the hospital, over the long nights when I sat by Barry’s bed with my arms stretched across his heart, trying to breathe with him/for him, it was easy to know that I was given a gift of more life, a gift which Barry was denied.

What I wrote soon after he slipped away was:

My task now, in the midst of unspeakable grief, my gift to my beloved life partner, is to learn to turn away from the shadows. While I am still given the astonishing gift of life, I want to face into the sun. Barry, and the ravens, and the feathery pine trees would expect no less of me.

But this evening, as I watched the flames dwindle, I felt challenged by a path ahead which no longer seemed either simple or clear. After the loss of a profound, nurturing, but complex marriage, and faced with a solitary future, I could only feel utterly lost.

Dimly, I was aware that I needed to reinvent myself completely. Even more than I had lost my husband, I had lost myself. Over forty-seven years my life had become so entwined with my husband’s that I had no idea of how to do this. To survive, I recognized that I would have to grow into a completely new way of living. But I had no idea of how to do that and I could find very few roadmaps to help me on my way.

I remembered poet Robert Frost’s poem The Ovenbird and his question: what to make of a diminished thing? Something very small flickered along with the flames. For all the uncertainty of forging a new path, there might be something undeniably exciting about discovering the gifts of my new and different life.

I stretched to reach my notepad and pen and started a list of thoughts, which were mostly questions:

  • How could I reach out to life, let life in?
  • Hope. I knew that for me personally, and indeed for our threatened planet also, to survive. How could I relearn how to practise hope
  • What would help?
  • Reading. Yes, always. I would start with sages like Mary Oliver. My dear friend Tanya had left me with Thirst, Oliver’s poems about her own loss. I would start there.
  • Revisiting. Could I, or did I want to play the piano again, weave, go for big walks into the hills?
  • Awareness. After having to blunt myself, it was time to cultivate that again. Bit by bit.
  • Appreciate. The corollary of this awareness I was going to work for would be appreciation of small things.
  • Live openly. I wanted to learn to say “yes” more than “no.”
  • Choose love. If there was one thing Barry and I had learned while he was dying it was always to choose love.

As I rose and damped down the fire for the night, I knew I had a sketchy beginning for my new path.

And now, after three years of working at, but also easing into, what it means for me personally to face the sun I have a lot to share with you. And right now, as I experience again all the gifts of spring,  feels like a good time to start.

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A Celebration of Simple Living, Nature, Gardening, Making by Hand and Reading

The country life I lead is rare, endangered, precious, worth appreciating. I am profoundly and constantly aware that the earth, our matrix, is damaged, apparently fatally.  For many, likely for most, the natural world is undeniably remote. And yet, my signature for my nature books, The View From Foley Mountain and A Wing in the Door  remains “Rejoice in wildness“.

In small pockets like Singing Meadow, the twenty country acres where I write, the shadows of great grey herons still pass over my head on their journeys from nearby Bobs Lake to their stick nests in a pond behind our home. At night I can safely stand in the middle of our dirt road, staring at the clear, deep sky full of stars, hearing no sound but a glee of coyotes, spilling over a distant hill.

In these difficult times, I want to write appreciatively, curiously, and only occasionally sorrowfully, about what the remaining gifts mean to me. So this will be my letter to all of you who are unable to be here, greeting the first song sparrow of spring, watching the ice go out from the lake, catching sight of the first flash of the returning kingfisher, reading eclectically, pausing to study a meadow hawk dragonfly, letting my favorite shuttle fly through my weaving, or plunging my hands into the garden soil I’ve helped build.

No doubt this blog will evolve in time, and I hope will include your suggestions and comments, which are always welcome, but things I see including are the difficult practice of simplicity, a delight in creativity and the land, always and most importantly, the land.

What I am asking is: What does it mean to live fully with the time that remains?

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Foley Mountain Trees

The Foley Mountain Conservation Area, overlooking Westport, is one of my special places, as it is for so many who visit there. Many of the trees there are landmarks for us, friends which have inspired us for forty years. Yesterday we made a quick trip to check in with a few favourites.

Barry and I and Magnus our dachsund started by wandering through the long grove of aged maples beside the park interpretive centre, and bordering the frozen Little Rideau Lake. Craning our necks upwards towards the very blue sky, we were marvelling as we always do not just at their remarkable size, but also at their individuality. If any trees feel sacred, these do.

From there we backtracked to a aplendid stretch of pines across from the student campground. These overlook what once was a carriageway for Jake, the First Nations man who lived with his family in a cabin at the base of “the mountain”. Standing under these lofty trees, drinking in their pungent fragrance we listened to the brisk wind in the swaying boughs. With the hint of warmth in the day, at last the winter-stiffened needles were softening.

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Yellow Birch

We couldn’t leave without visiting the stand of yellow birch, with their splendid curly bark and glistening trunks. The main one of these was a landmark for me when I had little boys. When Morgan was a toddler and Jeremy was a baby bouncing in my back carrier, the yellow birch was as far as we could walk together. No matter how difficult the day, this trek to admire the tree made things better. Yesterday, I was pleased to see just how many offspring now flourished in the boggy ground around the mother tree.

Before we returned to our car, we stopped to take joy in another favourite, one of the remarkable shagbark hickories that grow at Foley Mountain. Gently laying my hand on the long scales of bark, I promised myself to return when its large pink flower buds unfurl.

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Tableland 2

Today, however, when I reached the part of the trail where I had been stopped, I could follow DSC01163on until I came to a very different, more pastoral landscape. Here I crossed among rolling hills and strode down into groves, where sheltered, silver-trunked beech trees still held their autumn-golden leaves. Past tinkling streams I went, discovering several fine, large deep ponds I had never seen before. All of these were still without any ice at all. With amusement I realized that I could guess the depth of a pond by how much ice covered its surface. Because the beaver at our own heron pond below have devoured every possible food tree they have moved on. This means that with no beaver to mend the dam, the water there has drained to puddle depth. When I passed this one earlier, I noticed that it was entirely covered by an icey skin.

Each curve, each hill was leading me on and on. When at last I came in sight of Blake’s barn I turned back, but then I was tempted onto an offshoot trail through an alder swamp, across a rustling, grassy marsh, and up a fine, swooping hill. At last I was roaming as freely as I’ve longed to, with no creature sound except one scolding red squirrel, king of a castle of rocks. By now I had become so excited by my small adventure that I half ran up this hill. But what if I had guessed wrong? What if this second trail did not lead to the main trail which bisects the Tableland? In the back of my mind was the question that I was not sure how long I would be able to ignore the bone on bone grinding of my old back. If I had to retrace my steps, would it not be better to do so sooner rather than later? Wouldn’t it be wiser to simply turn back now? But onward I rushed. I simply couldn’t help myself. And at the hill’s crest, sure enough, there was the old wagonway which wound past familiar splendid large oaks prospering in a rare large pocket of soil. Assured of an easy return now, I swung along, pleased to see again a further heron pond, still harbouring a dozen stick nests in spite of recent fierce winds, and look, there it was.

When I left, I carried with me a promise. Next summer, I will come to watch the heron colony. But, also, it seemed to me that this distant, mainly forsaken ridge would be a likely place to closely observe the ravens, turkey vultures and hawks who sail above our valley, and so I plan to venture back up there to find them as well. With that, in the darkening light of a short afternoon, I loped off the cartway onto the trail back down from the high hills, past our planted pines, some now taller than I. And on to the lights of home, welcoming me back into the world.

Return to Beginning

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The Table Land

On a bitter, wintry day I walked up onto the Tableland to have a look at the beginnings of things. Any day now, the snow would come. Already there was a dusting in crevices and on a few dark green nests of moss. At this time of year my need to get out becomes fierce. I get an urge to visit as many of my favourite places as possible. Hurry. Soon they may be denied to you by ice and snow.

So, on a raw, cloudy day at the very end of November I decided to head for the Tableland while I still could, before the heavy snows come. Although I often dream of visiting this harsh but magical landscape at the top of the big ridge which guards our valley, many things deter me. But today there was no blazing sun, and there were no deerflies, no hunters, nor threats of phantom bears to keep me away. Facing into a small, raw northeast wind, easily ascending by the newest of our neighbour Blake’s excellent trails, the steep climb to the ridgetop lifted my heart.

DSC01159With its open habitats of either a thin covering of soil or no soil, some might call the Tableland a “starve acres”. It is true that up there only the poorest trees survive, mainly greatly deformed red oaks and ironwoods. These are trees twisted and sick, surrounded by jumbles of fallen branches from hard times, branches which are going to make more soil some day. In the stony November afternoon light, this poverty was particularly evident.

DSC01157Given the extreme fluctuations in temperature up on the Tableland, with scarcely any insulation from trees, and with pitifully little soil to gather moisture, or to drain off excessive water, you might say that the rocky outcrops of this area were inhospitable. But I see this place as a crucible, the difficult melting pot where new life originates. At the moment patchy lichen and moss and fungus communities, the precursors of true plants, dominate the exposed rock, although in places there are grasses and other tough plants, such as early saxifrage (“stonebreaker”), which takes root in cracks in the original granite. To me each piece of fragile life here is precious, worth seeing. So I strode along joyfully, greeting many familiar small landmarks.

As I clambered over the starry moss and lichened rock-face I could feel the morning’s desk-work tension falling from me. How healing it was to be able to walk, to see. Often, too, I turned to take a breathtaking look over my shoulder, back through the ridge’s bare-branched trees, looking into a vastness which stretched beyond Bobs Lake and even beyond the far away pine forests. On and on.

A year ago, when I first set out on Blake’s newest trail, hurrying along in delicious exploration, I was forced to turn back when the flakes of the year’s first snow flocked too heavily around me, obscuring the slick rocks.

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Witch Hazel

At a time when none of autumn’s brightness remains, I’m loving our witch hazel. Although it’s only a common hamamelis virgininiana, this five foot shrub has history for me. The haunting, pure fragrance, unlike any other, has meant late autumn for me since I used to be cheered by the one growing at my childhood woodland home.

Much later, when we lived at Foley Mountain I was pleased to find witch hazel sprouts listed in the catalog of a native tree-loving nurseryman, now, alas, long dead. In his description I read that the plant I loved for its mysterious, ribbon-like yellow flowers in late autumn was a common astringent, often used to treat insect bites and sunburns. Thinking I could watch over it there, I planted one near our dooryard so I could enjoy its subtle perfume often.

Unfortunately, I neglected to tie a cautionary tag on the shrub with orange survey tape and when it was only a metre high, an overzealous summer student gouged the sapling badly with a lawnmower. In a fit of inspiration, Barry fetched his roll of duct tape and wrapped the wounded stems. Neither of us thought the taped witch hazel would make it through the winter, but to our surprise, next spring it threw out new shoots. In fact, although it never prospered, it lived on until we had to leave the park.

Not having another source, and knowing that the next supervisor had no interest in a bush which only comes into its own in autumn, Barry dug the witch hazel up and we planted it at Singing Meadow. One of the things that impresses me about this mostly unassuming small tree is its sturdiness. Although it’s true that the new site we chose was close to true hazels and was near oaks and bitternut hickories, our specimen receives very little moisture, unless I take pity and water it. Although it was called water-witch because the forked branchWitch hazel close upes were used by pioneers to tell where to dig for a well our witch hazel roots stretch down into soil is rocky and sparse .Because it is under maple and ash, it gets little sun. For all of this, slowly the shrub has grown as it acclimatized to yet another location. So far it has not been troubled by marauding deer.

Now, ten years after it was moved, it is taller than I am and this autumn, after other leaves have fallen, the witch hazels leaves changed to a rich yellow, and the lovely petals covered the branches.Even today, when my garden has lost all its color, and it’s cold enough outside that I can see my breath, I crunch through the first snow and see the yellow, witch-like petals still clinging to the bare branches, along with small ochre leaf buds, a promise for next spring.

 

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