Sunday, July 31, 2016


A "fairy dress" on display at Gallery 8 on Saltspring Island fits right into the fantasy theme that is part of  the island's mystique. More photos of the dresses below.

And here's a fairy door at the base of an arbutus tree, near the Vesuvius ferry terminal on Saltspring. It opens, and children have added little treasures to its interior. 

When John and I climbed Saltspring Island's Mount Erskine a few years ago, there was a big reward near the end of the (for me) arduous hike. At the base of the bigger trees scattered over the rolling hillocks of green moss were "fairy doors" -- tiny carved, painted entrances evoking the idea that little folk just might be living behind them. The fact that someone would go to the effort of installing these little doors -- all imaginative and different -- to create a Hobbit world is testimony to the layer of fantasy that floats atop the down-to-earth realities of Saltspring Island.

One of the people who swims at Vesuvius Beach with us here every day has tapped into this fantasy. When Ida Marie first told me she made "fairy dresses," my mind leapt immediately to neon-coloured confections of puffy material, probably with a set of wings, that doting grandparents would buy for princess-minded grandkids. But no, Ida Marie said, she creates the dresses out of hand-done and sculpted silk, attaches them to bits and pieces of natural material from the woods, and displays them at an art gallery in town. 

At Gallery 8, there they are -- tiny dresses on minuscule hangers attached to contorted little branches anchored in rock. The dresses are dream-like, misty layers and colours blending almost imperceptibly into other layers and colours. One dress is classically shaped -- a tiny person could wear it to a prom. Another cloud-like creation with a feathery hood could belong to a fairy ghost. A black one has more sinister overtones, reminiscent of the skin shed by a snake.

Coincidentally with Ida Marie's creations, I've recently learned that fairy doors aren't restricted to mountain tops. Somebody on the web advertises that he'll make them for your back yard, and there's one -- bright red and openable -- at the ferry terminal close to our place. For fairy ferry passengers perhaps?

Saltspring has as many problems as anywhere else -- water shortages, unaffordable housing, lack of jobs -- but its beauty and isolation lend themselves to a mystique that perfectly fits the fairy theme. Some say the island's geographic location gives it magical qualities; whether that's true or not, it certainly draws dreamers. Vestiges of the old hippie movement still exist here, and the weird and wonderful homes built on the island hint of people finally living out the dreams of a lifetime. So, fairy dresses and fairy doors? We all need a respite from reality sometimes. 

Here's a ghost fairy dress, all in pale blues and greys, with a feathery hood, courtesy of artist Ida Marie.

A grey and black dress has sinister overtones -- reminiscent of a shed snakeskin.

Another pretty prom-style dress, with its supporting sticks adding to the forest-fairy theme.

Here's the gallery description and price tag for all this lovely fantasy.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Flying squid

It was three wooden squid flying through the trees at The Point gallery on southern Saltspring Island that made me start thinking about outdoor sculptures here. What makes them different from the public sculptures I tend to either ignore or dislike in Vancouver? I find the pixillated orca at Canada Place a jangly reminder of a world gone technology-mad, for example. The giant sparrows on an acre of paving at the Olympic village are a horrible reminder of the destruction of our natural world. And the Olympic cauldron, which I gather is also supposed to be a type of sculpture, has a brutal mechanical look, at least when it's not sprouting flames.

Of course Saltspring has its (in my eyes) mistakes on the sculpture front. But possibly because this is a very environmentalist community, and possibly because there are so many artists, there seems to be a happy facility here for combining nature and art, with the result that both are enhanced. Many sculptures are made of natural materials like wood and stone, and often they are placed so the natural setting is just as important as the work itself. Celia Duthie's gallery near Ganges, for example, features  a landscaped forest full of carefully placed sculptures. The forest displays, among trees with dappled sunlight, are usually more impressive than what is in the gallery building itself.

Here are some examples of the sculptures I like -- and one I don't like so much -- on the island:

What could be better than a wooden squid flying through the forested area surrounding Saltspring's Point gallery?

The answer? Three squid, carefully lined up in a row. I show only two here because the photo showing all three made them too small to see. 

This is a wind sculpture, one of several, in a little square of Ganges village. It's all metal of different types and colours, and the wind causes all the doo-dads to constantly twist and  turn. It's playful and eye-catching, and the water view in the background adds to the pleasure. 

This is another wind sculpture, but on a private condo development along the waterfront in Ganges village. Its components are in constant motion, adding movement and interest to the beautiful greenery behind. 

A magical grouping of wooden forms in a golden-grass field near Celia Duthie's gallery on Saltspring lets you imagine anything you want. A group of old-time villagers meeting to chat? 

A simple stone column in the forest of Celia Duthie's gallery could represent a human. Or?

Three wooden forms in the Duthie forest. Obviously they're meant to be people, but the trees around them make them mysterious.

A wooden figure in the Duthie forest is beautifully framed by trees. The little gazebo in the photo has even  more wooden figures, perhaps holding a meeting there.

This figure on the Ganges waterfront drew hoots and jeers from the island's artists. I think it is supposed to be a mermaid, but hmmm...It's the sculpture I don't think works.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The unlucky

Charlotte Bronte and her novelist sisters Emily and Anne used to talk over their writing with each other in the evenings in their father's lonely parsonage. Anne and Emily's early deaths left Charlotte alone to carry on. The rest of the talented novelist's brief life went downhill from there. 

Charlotte Bronte thought some people were marked out for misery; they should just accept that their lives would be full of sorrow and disappointment. As for why, the parson's daughter believed all would be explained eventually.

Her biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, who summarized Bronte's views from one of their conversations, disagreed. She thought some people had more dramatic patches of good and bad in their lives, while for others these were more evenly blended. But in the end, she thought, it all worked out about the same.

It's easy to understand why each reached their conclusions. Gaskell was a successful author and a happy wife and mother. Bronte, well....

Imagine being one of four closely knit siblings in September of 1848, and by May of 1849, being the only survivor. First went brother Patrick, age 30, dead of drink and dissipation in September. Then beloved sisters Emily and Anne, both published novelists, died of consumption in quick succession, one in December, one in May. Both were under 30. And that was after Charlotte had lost her mother as a child as well as two other siblings much earlier.

According to Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte, what followed the latest round of deaths was six years of lonely misery in her father's isolated Yorkshire parsonage, located unhealthily in the middle of a graveyard. Charlotte was famous from her novel Jane Eyre by then, and could have had a busy life in London's intellectual society. But constitutional shyness and delicate physical health (that graveyard!) made social engagements a trial. At least according to Gaskell's biography, it was a toss-up as to where she was most miserable -- at home with her father and two servants in the bleak parsonage with only books for stimulation; or out in society, where she was stimulated but fraught and ill. She chose the former, where at least she could keep writing.

As Gaskell tells it, Bronte's reward came at last, when her father finally backed down on his longstanding opposition to a marriage proposal she had received. Bronte was supposedly extremely happy in her marriage, but within nine months, after a long period of torturing illnesses, she was dead at age 39.

So, who was right, Bronte or Gaskell? Bronte certainly faced an untoward number of sad deaths and unlucky circumstances. But her worst luck was herself. Judging from both her novels and Gaskell's book, she was torn between her inner instincts that women had the right to achievement, fulfillment and independence, and a religious, conservative upbringing that said women must be submissive, modest, and always put duty first. She had other marriage proposals and chances to live differently, but she could not abandon her father or embrace the idea that she had a right to live her own life and seek her own happiness.

So yes, her 39 years contained mostly misery. As for the purpose of that, perhaps she knows by now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Settling in

One of the first things I wanted to do on arrival in Saltspring was to get some flowers into my planter boxes at the front of the house. In the old days, I had lots of flowers around, but in the last few years, they have dwindled to the few hardy perennials that have withstood severe neglect. The plain dark colour of our house cries out for bright flowers, and I wanted something that would survive in high heat with little water. So: geraniums. Here is a photo of them, along with a few photos from our first days of settling in on Saltspring:

It's a silly time to plant new flowers, but I needed colour at the front of the house on Saltspring. Here are my purchases, all ready to be installed.

All planted, watered, fertilized and trimmed back! There are lots of buds to come out in the next few weeks.

John's recycling efforts. He got these chairs from his departing tenant Tracy, painted them blue to match the house doors, and brought them up on the deck for the first time this summer. All we're missing is a table -- they look kind of lonely sitting in a circle. Notice the bathing apparatus and towels behind, hanging to dry.

John surveys his handiwork, along with an umbrella to provide some shade over the chair-circle.

Water shoes and towels drying on deck rails. We need the shoes to get over the rocks on the beach. Very ouchy without them!

View from the deck over the back yard Monday evening. The lawn is very brown, but amazingly, the trees are still alive. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer flowers

It's hard to walk a block without running into a stunning display of summer flowers right now. The city's talented amateur gardeners and -- I have to be honest -- wonderful gardening services and landscape designers, make many Vancouver gardens into showpieces at this time of year. Here are six of the displays I saw on an excursion within an hour's walk of my house on Friday, followed by a few others taken within the last week or two:

Airy pink lavatera bursts out of this garden, combined with grasses and other flowers in the same colour palette.

Bright flowers in a number of containers make this garden a blast of colour on the street.

Combining these white daisy-like flowers with hostas and brown grasses gives them an added  impact. 

Pink hollyhocks against a weathered board fence -- what could be prettier?

Yellow rudbeckia combined with grasses and lavender -- difficult to see, but it's out on the sidewalk -- make this display worth a second look.

Two kinds of hydrangeas in harmonizing colours planted side by side make each look more beautiful. 

The fuzz of a smokebush combined with purple-blue clematis is a showstopper.

Yellows, blues and a bit of pink in the background add colour to a community garden.

Steel-blue grasses, white hydrangeas and coneflower, with plum-coloured  foliage in the background look like the work of some well-trained landscape architect. 

This photo and the one below are different angles of a beautiful boulevard display about 20 minutes from my house. 

The combination of intense colours with neutral grasses is very effective.

No fancy combinations here; just a happy row of bright rudbeckias marking the boundary between a gravel driveway and a lawn. 

Restraint and the use of Post-It notes

John photographed me deep into my task of removing Post-It notes from my many university course books. Notice the markers on my shoe. 

Some of the books and some of the markers. How will I find my favourite passages without the Post-It notes?

Some bright scientist accidentally created the forerunner of Post-It notes in 1968, but the product wasn't widely sold until the early 1980s. That was about a decade after my first go-round at university, so in my campus days, nobody wandered around with books protruding bright-coloured sticky pieces of paper.

I discovered the wonder of these handy little markers when I went back to university in 2014, and perhaps overdid it. By the time I was finished with my copy of Bleak House, it was so full of markers -- top and side -- that it looked like a many-coloured porcupine. People laughed. But Bleak House's 1,000 pages are so stuffed with great characters, quotes and ideas that I couldn't restrain myself.

Faced with a pile of these marker-stuffed books and the necessity of fitting them into bookshelves, I sat down recently and took out all the Post-It notes, one by one, book by book. There were a lot of books, and a lot of markers. It took awhile. This fall, when classes resume, I think I will choose a little more carefully which passages to mark with a bright little piece of paper.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The outdoor cat

After he was attacked by coyotes in 2013, it was hard for us to let Mr. Darcy outside again. But here he is, stalking through this year's crop of daisies. 

A favourite spot to watch the world go by is  between the two hedges leading out to the sidewalk. When a dog appears, Mr.  Darcy makes a quick retreat.

This scary yawn wasn't enough to keep the coyotes away.

We made a cage out of the back porch by enclosing it in chicken wire. That way, Mr. Darcy can spend time in the outdoor air after being brought in for the night.

When he can't go out, Mr. Darcy is often up on a windowsill keeping track of his outdoor world.

Mr. Darcy has recovered enough strength in his injured back leg to be able to jump up and down from a high window ledge. A chair helps.

Yes, sometimes he enjoys the great indoors, when a supine person's knees are covered with this favourite wool blanket. 

I will never forget the look Mr. Darcy gave me the first time I let him outside. He was under a year old, and until then he had only seen the great outdoors through glass. I was reluctant to let him out, but something in me wouldn't allow him to spend his entire life indoors, even though I knew all the negatives -- cars, coyotes, poison, birds....

So I put him on a leash, and out we went for a tour of the yard. As we stood under the laburnum tree by the side of the house, he looked up at the tree, and his eyes sought mine. They said it was wonderful; they said he was where he belonged; they said he was in paradise.

Then something startled him; he jerked and the leash snapped apart. And suddenly he was an outdoor cat.

It hasn't been easy. I insist that he spend every night indoors, and wage lengthy battles to make that happen. But one night in April of 2013, all my best tricks failed, and as I lay awake worrying at 4 a.m., there came the worst noise I have ever heard. Running outside with the flashlight, I saw a coyote, then two, then three, take off down the street in the beam of light I directed at them. On the lawn of the house next door was Mr. Darcy, blood coming from his mouth.

Three or four hard months later, after multiple surgeries and huge vet bills, his fur had started to grow back and we faced the question again of whether to let him outside. It was harder than ever, but of course we did. We know he may disappear one day or night -- the "missing cat" posters I pass on my walks make my heart sink.

But he is living his cat life, and to me, he is a daily reminder to be very, very grateful for the treasures I have in the moment.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Doerr's love letter to the world

Anthony Doerr's memoir about his year in Rome was inspiring to a new blogger. It was especially interesting to me because I spent last fall studying the history and literature of Rome for a university course.

"A good journal entry -- like a good song, or sketch, or photograph -- ought to break up the habitual and lift away the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart. A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world."--Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome 

Novelist Anthony Doerr would make one heck of a blogger. The Pulitzer-prize-winning author has better things to do with his talents, of course, but a journal he kept when he spent a year in Rome with his wife and infant twin sons is a lesson for anyone trying to blog, trying to transform the experiences of daily life into something readable, enlightening, even delightful.

Doerr had a lot of material to work with: Here was a man from Boise, Idaho, with no Italian, suddenly thrust into the heart of Rome. Shopping, getting around, handling the basics of daily life, were all an adventure. There was also the issue of new fatherhood, with its sleeplessness, worries and wonders. Then there was the city itself. For someone like Doerr, whose brilliance comes through in his fascination for all aspects of the world around him, a city as old as Rome was an infinite treasure trove. History, science, art, architecture, literature, nature -- everything was there and he wanted to delve into all of it.

I had just started my blog when I began reading his journal-turned-memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, so was struck by the similarities between what we were both trying to do: present aspects of our daily lives in an interesting manner that tried to go deeper than surface observations. Watching a master at work was exciting, and inevitably, educational. Here are some of his lessons:

- Details are key -- the right, vivid details. Here's his description of taking his kids out on a hot day: "...we walk stultified through the city, sky throbbing, stroller tires rubbery on the cobbles, the axles flexing, as if the metal is softening and the whole contraption might collapse.... the heat is like having my brain removed and a bunch of hot, wet cotton stuffed behind my eyes."

- Pay attention: You can't include details unless you notice them first. He notes poet Tom Andrews "once asked the Lord to 'afflict me with Attention Surplus Disorder so I can see what is in front of my face.'" Doerr says being in a new city, doing things there for the first time, awakened him from the inattention that comes with familiarity. "Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience -- buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello -- become new all over again."

- Be open. Doerr's hallmark is his insatiable curiosity, which makes him open to new experiences, new places, new ideas. He read as many of the 37 books of Piny the Elder's Natural History as he could while in Rome, entranced by their frequently off-base coverage of everything from the stars all the way down to polyps. Ultimately, Doerr said, the books presented "a panorama of an ancient world crawling with myth and misinformation, but also elegant and ordered and deeply beautiful."

- Be life-affirming. Curmudgeons can be fun to read too, but an attitude that embraces life gives readers something uplifting to take away. "I'm kind of in love with life," Doerr said in an interview about one of his books. In his memoir, he quotes from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead: "There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient."

Doerr, who had won a fellowship to spend a year in Rome, says at the end of the book that the main thing he learned from his time there is "not to count on too much." But characteristically, he adds: "Look closely and the picturesque inevitably cracks apart and becomes more interesting."

He had hoped to use his year in Rome to work on a Second World War novel he had begun, but exhaustion from new fatherhood and the distractions and exhilaration of the city brought the project to a halt. Instead, he read Dante and Pliny, he wrote a short story, and he kept a journal. Eleven years later, that impossible-to-write war novel, All The Light We Cannot See, won him the 2015 Pulitzer prize for fiction.

A testimony to all the things he stands for, including accepting that things are probably not going to turn out as you expect.

Here are couple more quotes from Doerr's Rome book:

"Not knowing is always more thrilling than knowing. Not-knowing is where hope and art and possibility and invention come from. It is not-knowing, that old, old thing, that allows everything to be renewed."

"Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We'd pass out every time we saw -- actually saw -- a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there'd be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs."

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Plants on steroids

Even though my parents lived in B.C. for several decades after moving here from the prairies, they never became blase about the size and lusciousness of the plant life here. My father would look up at the old apple tree in our back yard with awe and marvel at the quantity and softball size of the fruit it produced.

It's the height of summer now, so a good time to see many plants at their peak. During recent walks, I have seen grass grown well above my head; a row of beans turned into a thick high hedge, and dahlias that form a virtual hedge themselves. Then there are the giant plants on display in Stanley Park, including the big trees, both alive and dead. Here are some photos from recent excursions:

Yes, it's a hedge of beans soaring higher than the more usual hedge beside it.

The beans had been well picked, but a few remained on the hedge.

This is a long row of red dahlias that viewed from a certain angle, look more like a hedge of roses.

A closer look at the dahlias.

This beautifully landscaped yard features grasses taller than John. They are so lush that they grow over the walkway into the house, making entry difficult.

My friend Ros in Stanley Park, pointing at a giant thistle. To her left are rhubarb-like gunnera leaves.

Ros says her husband George always suggests adding something like a hat to show proportions. So these gunnera leaves are wearing a hat from Mexico.

This is a lush stand of butterfly, bee and bird-friendly plants in Stanley Park. There are lavender and verbena in the lower levels, with butterfly-attracting buddleia at the next level, and bird-friendly mountain ash above. The lavender was alive with bees and we spotted several Monarch butterflies.

A good old fir towers above other trees in Stanley Park.

This dead tree stretches far out into the luxuriant growth on the surface of  Beaver Lake in Stanley Park. 

This tree trunk and its branches make both a sculpture and a piece of play equipment at the entrance to Stanley Park. Children swarm all over it. 

Abandon a little house and garden long enough while you wait to rebuild, and you end up with lush grasses that no landscape architect ever planned.