Jokers Hill

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A field walk

Last week, on the 17th, I joined the Naturalists' Training Course for the afternoon. We spent a couple of hours in the classroom, learning about asexual or vegetative reproduction in plants, but the day was sunny-- a rare occurrence these past months-- and we were all anxious to get outside. We walked in the woods on the east side of Dufferin, on the lookout for whatever we might see. Because the spring has been so slow we weren't expecting flowers, but green had started to appear in the duff. 

The woods are full of light still, with the trees empty of leaves and the forest floor pale with a carpet of last year's dried leaves. Here's the group just starting along the trail. 

It didn't take long for people to fan out in all directions, and with so many pairs of eyes looking discoveries were made: fungi of various sorts, including one that looked to me like a face, 

an Equisetum, dwarf scouring rush, looking, as Robin noted, like grass having a bad hair day, 

a couple of club mosses (Lycopodium), 

and even a flower: the hepatica were poking their way through the leaf duff in the old sugar bush.

While the naturalists were on the hunt for whatever they might discover, Rufus the dog was having a wonderful time racing about.

That walk was such a pleasure I went out again on my own after supper. Walking to the pond beside the driveway, I discovered the spring peepers were beginning to call. After listening to them for awhile I went on past the grey barn, heading towards the other ponds to see if there were peepers there too. The twilight was deepening and I wasn't paying much attention when I realized the shape on the grass behind the grey barn was a deer. I stopped to reach for my camera and it took off into the woods, its white tail up and shining.  

A little later when I made my way back to the house the moon was shining too. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Snow ... and birds

I walked over to the research barn around 9:00 this morning, to check the weather. CBC had announced a winter storm watch, snow, ice pellets, and freezing rain on the menu. The road was more or less dry, skies cloudy but no precipitation. It wasn’t particularly cold. Birds were calling and singing—robins, a cardinal, a woodpecker, chickadees, a nuthatch, blackbirds. At the grey barn I could see John’s hibiscus shining nicely in the window.

I settled inside with my computer, then glanced up to see a few snowflakes in the air. The next time I looked fine snow was misting the view. Two robins perched on the fence, their red breasts and black heads bright and crisp. Something darted past, towards a puddle, then rose to the fence, a blue shine  –- could it be -- an Eastern bluebird! Yes! I’ve scarcely ever seen one in Ontario. I watched as it sat, dropped to the puddle again, back to the fence, then flew off. A little later it reappeared — I grabbed my camera and managed to take a few photos through the windows of the lab. I don’t have a long lens, so the bird was not much larger than a fingernail in the pictures, but I’ve been able to crop a couple to post here. See that colour? And is that a female further away? I can’t tell.

I finished my emailing and checked the weather, watching the snow thicken. Then I went for a walk—the snow soft underfoot, and the ground soft beneath it. I could hear crows and then the pair of geese on the pond calling. Snow fell heavily and fast as you can see in the next photos.

The beginning of my walk

Maybe 20 minutes later.
I stopped off at the barn to collect my computer. A single robin gleamed on the fence, seemingly undisturbed by the weather. As I was gathering my stuff it flew to the brick outside the door and I almost got its picture …

Here’s the street just across from my house as I came back to it. That blanket of snow makes a nice backdrop to the sign about my reading last night.

Now it’s 5:p.m., no more snow is falling, and most of what covered the car has slipped off it. An hour ago a veery in its reddish  brown plumage landed on the railing of the back deck. The birds seem to know it’s spring.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Time passing ...

Back at Jokers Hill on a rainy April day—with ice pellets threatened for later. Though in fact the day, at nearly noon, is brightening. Shortly I’ll walk over to the research barn to post this blog entry and attend this afternoon’s meeting of the Naturalists’ Training Course. Then this evening I’m to give a reading in the Moriyama Gazebo … though with the rain we’ve had I’m wondering how accessible the gazebo will be. The road over to it is pretty sandy …

Last week at the Naturalists’ Course we were learning about plant reproduction. Because the spring is late this year—Robin mentioned all we’d find blooming if we went out were catkins—we didn’t go hunting for flowers. Instead we dissected  flowers—snapdragons (and nearly all of us ritually made those blossoms open their mouths as if to bite) and gerbera daisies.

A few days before (so a week and a half or so ago) I’d found a small twig with “pussy willows” on it … but I knew it wasn’t a willow. Poplar maybe, or birch, and a lovely sign of spring to have picked up on a windy day. I brought the twig home and put it in a jar with water and photographed it.

Today, those soft furry nubs have stretched themselves out into long dangles that may be harbouring pollen. Or perhaps waiting to receive pollen. It’s amazing what happens as time passes. Here’s what they look like, after about 10 days of being in the house in water.

I’m very aware of time passing these days – my tenure of this lovely house ends at the end of April. Though I will be departing it a little earlier than the very end of the month, to head to Banff where I’ve been accepted at the Writing Studio for five weeks. Perhaps while I’m there I’ll manage to write up some of the posts I’ve made notes for but not yet managed to articulate.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Signs of Spring at KSR Jokers Hill

My last two posts have been texts -- and to balance that today I'm posting mostly pictures. They were all taken within the last week, and show that spring is actually here--although she's hidden more than once behind veils of snow. 

Here's one of my favourite sounds of spring -- at least if I can link to this short video taken by my husband Peter Harris-- 
Well, many minutes later and it hasn't loaded -- let's see if it will load as a photo at least ... 

No luck! It's 6:p.m. the sun is shining, I'm going for a walk. 

But below are the photographs...

First strawberry of the year!

My sister's bouvier -- water at last!

Don't know if this is this year's plant or not -- leaves as soft as velvet or felt.

Monday, April 1, 2013

I Found the Poems in the Fields ...

The title to this post is a line from poet John Clare (1793-1864). The line continues  “and only wrote them down.” I’ve been thinking about Clare a lot lately, as the precursor to contemporary ecological poetry, but also as a figure important to field studies and research. After all, that line could easily be transposed … “I found the data in the fields and only wrote them down…”

Clare had a difficult and in some ways a tragic life. Born into a family of farm labourers in the village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, he was schooled enough to become literate—a mixed blessing since it set him apart from his family and fellow villagers. As a child he wandered throughout the countryside around the village, enthralled by the life he found there—birds, animals, plants, springs—and when he discovered poetry he began to write in exquisite and exact detail about the countryside he knew. His poems are in fact field notes.

A local bookseller arranged for Clare’s poetry to be published and he enjoyed a brief celebrity—made much of as “the peasant poet,” invited to London to meet with the movers and shakers in the literary world. Though writers like Coleridge took his work seriously, to most people he was merely a curiosity, a rural versifier, and his fame didn’t last. Nor did it aid his attempts to support a growing family.

In 1809 the Act for the Enclosure of Helpston had been passed, marking the end of the world Clare knew and loved. The landscape was radically changed, the commons made inaccessible, and Clare’s poems took on a political cast. The hard physical labour of his working life, coupled with his sense of dislocation within the changing countryside he loved, led eventually to a breakdown. He spent the last 20 years of his life in the Northhampton Lunatic Asylum.

All of this has been going around in my mind as I read about our government’s short-sighted and narrow-minded closure of the Experimental Lakes Area Field Station … done in an unforthcoming manner as the following article from The Globe tells:

(If you want to know more about the Experimental Lakes Area check out their website here:

As we become more and more a species that lives virtually, it becomes more and more important to maintain the few possibilities that exist for experience and exploration of the material world around us, the planet that supports the virtual dreams and fantasies that seem to beguile those in power. Too many of those fantasies deny what current research is telling us about the effects we are having on the world we live in.Clare knew the importance of field studies and research—if he were alive now I reckon he’d write poems about this closure—and others. 

The Experimental Lakes Area is not the only Canadian field station to face closure. The University of Saskatchewan has decided to close it’s Kenderdine campus at Emma Lake. Emma Lake is very well known as a centre for the arts. What is not as well known is that since 1965 the Biology Department of the U. of S. has used the campus for field study and research. It’s closure means that students in biology will no longer have field studies and research as part of their program. A petition has been circulating against the closure and an organization dedicated to preserving the area has been formed. You can find out more, if you want to, at:

Here’s what George Monbiot had to say about Clare in a piece* he wrote for The Guardian on Clare’s birthday (July 13) last year. It’s worth paying attention to.

“What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging, everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservation and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.”

The closing of these field stations seems to indicate that we are already a little mad.

*You can read the full article here:

An Afterthought about Metaphor

The word “metaphor” has travelled quite a distance. It comes to us from Middle English, arriving via Old French, Latin, and, originally, Greek. Metapherein, means “to transfer” … meta meaning “beside” or “after,” and pherein, “to carry. ” But we can extend its travel further back and further away, to the Indo-European root, bher- 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has an index of Indo-European roots—one of the reasons I like it so much—and it tells me that bher- means “to carry; also to bear children.”  It is the root of a wonderful assortment of English words: bear, burden, birth, bring, fertile, differ, offer, prefer, suffer, transfer, furtive, and metaphor. 

I think one might write a small essay on metaphor letting those words dance through it, but at the moment that’s not what I’m doing. As a poet I’m struck immediately by the prevalence of  “f”, and wonder if that echoing is an accident or has some significance. But it’s the second meaning of bher-, “to bear children” that seems particularly resonant for my thinking about metaphor.

American poet Clayton Eshleman, in introducing Gary Snyder at the University of Michigan in 1996, noted the weave of metaphor in Snyder’s poems, citing among other instances “Four thousand years of writing equals the life of a bristlecone pine.” Eshleman described how metaphor works this way: “let’s say the truth is in the synapse between the parts of a metaphor.”

I wonder if, in that synapse, that small gap between the two parts of a metaphor, something isn’t brought to birth, the progeny being the momentary conjunction of, say “writing” and “a bristlecone pine.” As if for an instant they become something other than what they were separately – singular but inheriting/sharing characteristics of both parts of the image in a way that can’t really be diagrammed or explained. Maybe a version of “both/and,” rather than “either/or”. Or perhaps something like Carl Jung’s concept of “the third thing” that, given enough patience and attention, will emerge (be born) to resolve a psychological struggle between opposites.

It strikes me a metaphor that joins four thousand years of writing and the life of a bristlecone pine is linking the imagination and the material world—overlaying one upon the other, making them continuous for an instant, bringing inner and outer realms together. Through that bringing together perhaps we, as readers of the metaphor, perceive the world and ourselves a little differently than we did before—the world seems less fixed, and we are somewhat porous. 

This thought wants to continue itself ... but hasn't yet become clear. More in another post, one day.