Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A book of gratitude



An old-fashioned book with timeless ideas: George Gissing's The Private Papers of  Henry Ryecroft was first published in 1903, just months before Gissing's death. I like it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it is full of gratitude -- not a common theme in modern literature. Its hero is a nature-lover, and in honour of that, I photographed it against the backdrop of our yard on Saltspring.
My friend Georgeann, photographed here against another scene of nature -- the lake at VanDusen Garden -- introduced me to the book. She just happened to have it on her library shelf.

I loved the book's delicate pages and the way it was created with such care. I found another, more current copy of my own so I could fold down pages and not worry about ruining it.

A beautiful sketch of the author at the front of Georgeann's book. No modern publisher would include anything like this.


Why would I – or anyone – care about the eclectic jottings of a grumpy old man who sequesters himself away in rural England in the late 1800s? He doesn’t like modern life, visitors, religion, hotels, science, vegetarianism, industrialization, the city or people -- especially people. Nor does much happen in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. There are some walks, the arrival of a parcel of books, a couple of chance encounters, the change of seasons. We know when and how our protagonist dies: the preface tells us that he goes to sleep after a long springtime walk and doesn’t wake up.

So, no mystery, no drama, no romance and a failed writer as our hero. Why did I still love this book, from the moment my friend Georgeann showed us her early-1900s copy, with its whisper-thin pages, its old-fashioned cover decorated with author George Gissing’s tiny silver signature, and its fine sketch of Gissing himself in the opening pages?

Because Henry Ryecroft – a semi-autobiographical version of Gissing himself – is, for all his querulous relationship with many things of the world, a thoroughly happy man. After a miserable, lonely life, starving and scraping his living out of writing in the cheapest hidey-holes of London, he is bequeathed an annunity. It’s a modest one – 300 pounds a year – but it means he can rent a small house in the country, hire a housekeeper and spend his days doing exactly what he wants – reading, thinking and enjoying nature.

His pleasure in this new life; his intense appreciation for his reprieve, shine through every page of this little book. How rarely we read about – are suffused in – gratitude! How uncommon are the heroes thankful for a modest break and not yearning for a bigger one! How seldom does a protagonist choose simplicity and nature over the glitzier rewards of the world!

“Here was a man who, having his desire, and that a very modest one, not only felt satisfied, but enjoyed great happiness,” writes the fictional character who explains in the preface how he “finds” Ryecroft’s journals after his death and decides to publish them.

There’s more beyond gratitude, of course. Gissing wasn’t a famous writer, but he was a serious one, comparable to Thomas Hardy and George Meredith. He knew his classics, his philosophy, his history, and the Ryecroft character he created was as deep and accomplished as himself. And so we have Ryecroft grappling with such Enlightenment questions as the mind/body split; man’s and nations’ propensity for war, and his dislike of science, which he fears will become “the remorseless enemy of mankind,” destroying beauty and simplicity and leading ultimately to chaos.

But mostly, Ryecroft talks – bluntly – about anything and everything, and it’s that openness that reverberates more than a century later. We may not see ourselves in all his topics, but we’re sure to catch glimpses in some of them. As I look for some of my favourite passages to give as examples, I notice how often they include that theme of gratitude:

Here is Ryecroft reflecting on his own character:

“Do I really believe that at any time of my life I have been the kind of man who merits affection?” he asks, then answers: “I think not. I have always been much too self-absorbed; too critical of all about me; too unreasonably proud. . . I had brains, but they were no help to me in the common circumstances of life. . . But for the good fortune which plucked me out of my mazes and set me in paradise, I should no doubt have blundered on to the end.”

On the coziness of his living room; an ode to a coal fire:

“See how friendly together are the fire and the shaded lamp; both have their part alike in the illumining and warming of the room. As the fire purrs and softly cracks, so does my lamp at intervals utter a little gurgling sound when the oil flows to the wick, and custom has made this a pleasure to me. . . .After extinguishing the lamp, and when I have reached the door, I always turn to look back; my room is so cozily alluring in the light of the last gleeds, that I do not easily move away. . . . With a last sigh of utter contentment, I go forth, and shut the door softly.”

On helping a friend: Ryecroft, who spent most of his working life unsure whether he would have a roof over his head or enough food to keep from starving, delights in being able to help others now:

“Greatly as I relish the comforts of my wonderful new life, no joy it has brought me equals that of coming in aid to another’s necessity.  . .  Today I have sent S--- a cheque for fifty pounds; it will come as a very boon of heaven, and assuredly blesseth him that gives as much as him that takes. A poor fifty pounds, which the wealthy fool throws away upon some idle or base fantasy, and never thinks of it; yet to S--- it will mean life and light.” Ryecroft recalls that in his poverty, he sometimes gave money away, but always in fear “that I myself, some black foggy morning, might have to go begging for my own dire needs. That is one of the bitter curses of poverty; it leaves no right to be generous. Of my abundance -- abundance to me, though starveling pittance in the view of everyday prosperity – I can give with happiest freedom; I feel myself a man, and no crouching slave with his back ever ready for the lash of circumstance. . .how good it is to desire little, and to have a little more than enough!”

Ryecroft is never able to forget the horrors of his working life in London. One of his starkest descriptions is of a dark foggy morning, when he had a bad cold and a sleepless night:

“Hideous cries aroused me; sitting up in the dark, I heard men going along the street, roaring news of a hanging that had just taken place. . . It was a little after nine o’clock; the enterprising paper had promptly got out its gibbet edition. A morning of mid-winter, roofs and ways covered with soot-grimed snow under the ghastly fog pall; and, whilst I lay there in my bed, that woman had been led out and hanged—hanged. I thought with horror of the houses, nothing above me but a ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’  Overcome with dread, I rose and bestirred myself. Blinds drawn, lamp lit, and by a blazing fire, I tried to make believe that it was kindly night.”

On blackberries: Once, when Ryecroft was poor, he was astounded to realize that he had eaten enough wild blackberries during a walk that he didn’t have to buy any food. The memory makes him appreciate even more his current prosperity and to reflect on the brutality of the economic system. 

“At that time, my ceaseless preoccupation was how to obtain money to keep myself alive. Many a day I had suffered hunger because I durst not spend the few coins I possessed; the food I could buy was in any case unsatisfactory, unvaried. But here Nature had given me a feast, which seemed delicious, and I had eaten all I wanted. The wonder held me for a long time, and to this day I can recall it, understand it.” Ryecroft thinks there “could be no better illustration of what it means to be very poor in a great town . . . . I know, as only one with my experience can, all that is involved in the possession of means to live. The average educated man has never stood alone, utterly alone, just clad and nothing more than that, with the problem before him of wresting his next meal from a world that cares not whether he live or die.”


On silence:

 “Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence. This is my orison. I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense of returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. . . Here, wake at what hour I may, early or late I lie amid gracious stillness. . . But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin song of birds.” 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Flowery homecoming

I left my Dunbar garden to its own devices for a couple of weeks this summer, hoping there would be a little rain to see it through. None came, so I was a little concerned about what I would find when I got back home at the end of July. Here's what I found:

A leaning tower of sweet peas. They were heading sideways, but they were alive!
In the same garden bed, the delphiniums (see the bare stakes) had finished blooming, and in the bed to the right, the daisies were in full bloom.


The white hydrangeas were making a good show over the boxwood hedge in the front garden. The leaves were a little wilted, but a dose of water perked them up. 

The red hollyhocks were blooming in the front garden.
The white hydrangea out back was growing into the bird bath.


In the front, the blue hydrangea seemed to be thriving without water.

Another look at that hydrangea, which is spreading farther every year.
In another bed in front, purple phox and white daisies were doing well.

But not everything was happy. Two containers of petunias were worse for the wear, and most of the plants had died in one. 

My concrete urn container of petunias was also looking sad.

I collected all the sweet peas and made one beautiful bouquet for the house. An amazing reward for two weeks of neglect!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Kittycats, teapots and play

Preparing for exploration: mom Aya puts on Emi's shoes at the back door. Photo by John.
We’re all back in Vancouver after various summer adventures, and on Saturday we got together at our place with my nephew Etienne, his wife Aya and their daughter Emi to catch up. It was a classically beautiful summer day, and I thought how blessed we are right now to have our health, our lovely city and each other. It’s especially fun to watch Emi, now nearly three, discover the world around her. This day, the highlights were our neighbour’s garden teapot display, a cat called Phantom and a play session at a nearby park. Here are some photos of our get-together, mostly from John.


Wooo! It's fun to run as fast as you want around the back yard.

But what's this? Emi doesn't quite believe me when I say it's a bathtub for birds.


Up the alley, in front of our neighbour's house, Emi meets Phantom, their cat. John and I were a bit worried because Phantom tends to be fierce, often fighting with our cat, Mr. Darcy. (Who vanished for the day, being shy of visitors.) Photo by John.

Emi and Phantom get along just fine, thank you. No hissing, biting or scratching. Photo by John.

The other attraction is our neighbour's famous teapot display, with all kinds of pots nestled among the flowers and greenery. 

One of the cutest teapots -- a little tea centre in itself.

Emi thinks this display is pretty wonderful.

And goes in to investigate. The pots are filled with water, probably to prevent them toppling in the wind.

Lifting the lids off the pots seems like the main attraction.


So here is an elaborate game called "Dessert." Emi assembles pebbles called strawberry, lemon or banana dessert. She asks what you want, and when you give your order (sorry, no lemon today), she gives you a handful of pebbles and a twig to eat it with. You must scoop up the pebbles -- all the pebbles! -- and the twig, take it to a nearby bench and pretend to eat it with appropriately grateful snacking sounds. Aya, who knows the rules well and can explain them, watches her daughter prepare her goodies. Photo by John.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The everything trail

The Tsawout First Nation Trail on the southern part of Saltspring Island is one of my favourite walks on the island -- because of sights like this. Photo by John.

Part of the trail's attraction is the variety of sights along the way, including rocky peninsulas like this. Photo by John.
John on one of the beaches along the trail.

Away from the shoreline is a substantial wooded area, with lots of signs warning people not to light fires or camp.

Along the shoreline trail, golden grass bakes in the sun. 

The trail leads to this wooden bench,  elaborately mounted on a rock platform overlooking the water. Notice the stones under the bench's armrests. Photo by John.

If you only had a couple of hours to see the best of Saltspring Island, I’d send you on a four-kilometre hike on the island’s south end. The Tsawout First Nation Trail isn’t what you’d call groomed – its paths are marked mainly by other hikers’ footsteps and it’s highly trippable with roots and rocks – but oh. Long pebble beaches, silhouettes of arbutus trees against sparkling water, rocky peninsulas, golden-grassed bluffs, mossy mounds and deep dark forest – even a big wooden bench overlooking the ocean partway along the trail.

No dogs, no camping, no fires, and lots of other restrictions, but this is on the Tsawout First Nation Reservation, and they allow outsiders to enjoy this amazingly condensed version of the island’s beauty, so I have no complaints.


The trail even offers – outside its boundaries -- an interesting glimpse of how a significant segment of the increasingly upscale island lives. It’s a beautifully windowed and gabled mansion that overlooks the water, with a partial-driftwood fence so fine that it must have been created by an artist. From it, leading to the house, is a simple wooden walkway with ropes and lanterns, its rustic faultlessness oozing money. One trail; a perfect microcosm of the island.

This is the view from the bench. . . 

. . . and from the nearby mansion adjacent to the trail area.

This is the fence separating the mansion from the trail area. Notice the use of curved driftwood and the fine shapes.

John's closer-up look at the fence.


I was fascinated by the rustically perfect little wooden walkway/bridge leading to the house. John photographed me photographing it. Notice the elegant sign on the tree warning that it is private property.

It's partly obscured by the trees, but squint and you can see what's beyond the bridge -- a beautiful drystone wall, stairs and a many-windowed house.

A closer look at the bridge, with its ropes and lanterns. How much would such simple elegance cost?



Another look at that rocky shore.

A moss carpet deep in the woods. 

And John heading up the trail for home.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cleaning windows

I'm on holidays on Saltspring, but yup, those windows needed to be cleaned. Twice. Photo by John.

My first go-round with Windex left us looking through smeary glass. I tried again with vinegar and water. Photo by John. 

When we were children, one of the most dreaded slips of paper we could draw from mom’s Saturday job jar was “clean windows.” A laborious, skin-crawly task was ahead, involving making a paste from Bon Ami window-cleaning powder, smearing it on the glass, waiting for it to dry, then using cloths to rub off the swirls of flaky white stuff. The dried powder was the worst part; it sucked the moisture out of your skin, leaving your hands dry as desiccated coconut. My sister Diane even invented a word for the sensation: it was, she said, “gitchy.”

 Spray-on window cleaners had arrived by the time I had my own windows to clean – and how easy and pain-free they seemed by comparison. Stand back, spray and wipe, and move on!  I knew about water and vinegar, of course, but those purchasable bottles of spray-on ease seemed so much less trouble.

Until last week. The ocean-view side of our house on Saltspring is nearly all windows, so when they’re dirty, it’s noticeable.  I ignored the problem as long as I could, but finally I had to haul out the Windex. Partway through the spraying and wiping that followed, though, I had a hint that all was not well.

Instead of the usual clear fluid, easily wiped up, I was getting bubbles, as if soap had been added. The solution foamed and smeared and the glass took longer than usual to wipe dry. Maybe they’ve improved the formula, I thought – these companies are always innovating.

When I finally stood back to survey my afternoon’s work, I was horrified. The windows were streaked. Every movement of the cleaning cloth was visible on some, as if I’d lightly smeared them with oil. I thought I must be over-reacting – maybe it was a trick of the light; maybe it was always this way and I’d never noticed.

 I lived with my annoying "clean" windows for as long as I could, but one day, I started thinking about water and vinegar. What would happen if I applied that old-fashioned solution?  I experimented on one pane. The smears disappeared. A second afternoon of holiday window-washing followed.

According to the Internet, I’m not the only one complaining that our longtime trusty window-cleaning agent is suddenly leaving streaks instead of crystal clarity. I didn’t dig deep enough to ferret out the company’s response; I really don't care. From now on, I’ll be mixing up my own water-and-vinegar solution. A little more work than buying a ready-made bottle, but far easier than my childhood cleaning routine. It won't leave smears, and it won’t be gitchy.

When a house has this many windows, they'd better be clean.

Vinegar and water will keep the view clear from now on.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A country walk

The trick to enjoying a walk on Saltspring is to get off the main roads, which are narrow with hardly any shoulders. Traffic zips by your elbow, and you're uncomfortably aware of how dependent you are on drivers watching where they're going. Fortunately, there are lots of side roads, virtually untravelled, where people walk their dogs and themselves in relative safety. Here are some of the sights along one of my favourite side-road routes:

Walking this road reminds me of the scenes I grew up with -- wild-flower and weed-filled ditches, quiet fields, and scattered homes and farms along the way.
One of the side roads off the side road is Meadow Lane. What a wonderful address to put on an old-fashioned envelope!


In the years I've walked this road, Sugarland Farm  seems to have undergone several different incarnations, some more serious about farming than others. The current owners seem to be quite serious, with a thriving greenhouse and nets over a field to keep the birds away.

And what do we have here? A cow in an idyllic field with a second one munching away in the background. It looks like there is an open gate, but there is actually wire over it to prevent escapes. 
John was with me on this walk, so he was able to get a "real" cow photo, by tramping through the ditch and using his proper camera. Notice the bugs all over the poor cow's face and shoulders, and the little bird eating away at them.

I love this photo of the cow with the bird on its back to eat the bugs. Everybody has a role. Photo by John.
A chair by abandoned to the elements by the side of the road. The seat is unpeeling layer by layer, like an onion.

Weeds and grasses by the roadside.

Along the roadside, "brand new second hand" books; $1 apiece. All were older titles, some quite famous.

Ayn Rand and Aldous Huxley were among the authors on the table; I noticed Huxley's book was gone the next day I walked past.


Another view along the way. It doesn't look like much is being grown in these fields except grass.

Another cow; this one minus the flies. This little statue is in the front garden of a house we passed on the way back from our country walk. Photo by John.