Saturday, January 30, 2010

Garden plans on a freezing winter’s night

I’ve got several streams of thought right now ... and they do come together.

Tonight's temperature will be well below freezing. My plan for this evening was to sort seed packages and look through catalogues. I've got garden dreams. Half an hour ago a co-worker called to tell me one of her best friends had died and to check with me that I'd be able to switch hours so she can take a day off. Of course I will.

This past December, a co-worker's husband died of cancer. In late September another friend died, although that wasn't cancer. A dear friend's mother has ALS, now. All these are gardeners.

A few days ago someone who knows I garden sent me an email about a proposed ‘cancer survivor’s garden’ going into a public park. She thought I might want to comment.

I am a believer in the healing power of gardens, on many levels. There’s even a term and a field of health care, ‘therapeutic gardening', which formalized programs to get people and gardens together. The first time I read the term was in a book written by a Canadian who worked at a treatment centre in Guelph. And there’s a lovely book called 'The Holistic Garden: creating spaces for health and healing' written by a Canadian named Karen York. Therapy gardens tend to be highly interactive. They invite people in not just to look at but to care for plants.

Often, it seems to me, that memory or 'survivor' gardens are too static. They seem to be put in as a place where the main thing a visitor will do is sit quietly and think. I dislike gardens with rows of the top ten favorite plants of lawn control companies (mulched with bark according to current garden styles).

While quiet contemplation may be pleasant, and needed sometimes, I visualize much more for such. I'm all for herbs and scents, medicinal herbs, even a few healthy vegetables to acknowledge the role of good food in a person's health. I want different heights, textures, seasons, and colour.

Also, now I'm thinking, I wonder if this proposed garden will have any ongoing programs so that there is care given by volunteers, instead of a maintenance company. And will 'survivors' be able to contribute plants? We probably all have plants that have come to us from friends or relatives, and we treasure them. I've got two rescued roses over my friend's cat Charlie, who rests near the gooseberry bushes. My cat Mackenzie is by the forsythia, in a lovely shady spot. Memorial gardens should have stories.

There’s a lot of ceremony and joy that could come from a simple ‘pot luck’ of plants being brought to a new garden and planted in whatever arrangement their height and sun requirements bring to the planting event. Let the people who come to the event talk with each other and plan, on the spot and in the moment.

Yes, tonight I'll look through the catalogues.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Self-suffienciency to sustainable cities

This Sunday morning has been a rare morning of browsing books and the Internet, following ideas.

I'd been reading through another wonderful book ... The Forgotten Crafts: a practical guide to traditional skills, by John Seymour, 1984. It is a wonderful book, full of photos from the British Isles, mostly 1880s through 1920s (my guess) and also wonderful sketches and woodcuts. The book has a very old-fashioned look to it (although the author was absolutely aware contemporary issues of rural-to-city migration, fuel shortage, and skills loss). The Forgotten Crafts is filled with history and how-it's-done information on about 50 different crafts/skills (like flax preparation to spin linen, thatching, slate cutting, and tile making). I love the language, the words - some I've heard before when I worked at a museum. 'Hackling' or 'heckling' as part of the process that removes linen fibers from 'retted' stalks of flax. 'Distaff' is part of a spinning wheel, and is basically a drop spindle that some clever person realized could be rotated 90 degrees and moved by treadle instead of always being controlled by hand; 'distaff' also is a word that refers to the female side of families (traditionally the spinners were women ... words evolve).

The Forgotten Crafts is out of print, but copies did turn up on an ABE used book search. The copy I have came from the public library, and when I return it I'll send a note saying that this treasure should never be culled! It's essential history and knowledge.

I only first ran across John Seymour's name when one of his books came into the store where I work. It must be the newest version of an earlier book and it's been updated with more photos. And then I discovered online what an interesting person John Seymour the author was!

He wrote over 40 books, most about self-sufficiency and traditional crafts. His thinking was influenced by experience at many jobs and from travel in several African countries and in India, as well as simply being alive in the British Isles and Europe during a time when skills and crafts were still practised. He was also of the era of Schumacher and similar advocates of a small is better scale. John Seymour was arrested in 1999 for taking part in a protest that damaged a crop of GM sugar beets. Can you imagine how well that would have gone over in the newspapers?! An 85 year old arrested ... and then he turns out to be an articulate spokesman for agriculture without pesticides and synthetics. He was 90 when he died in 2004 and had taught self-sufficiency for many years on his property in County Wexford, Ireland. Participants came from all over the world to meet him.

A friend of his, Herbert Girardet, wrote a really great piece in 2005 in a magazine called Resurgence, itself a real reward for my Sunday browsing! Both the tribute ( and the magazine are really worth looking at.

And Herbert Girardet turns out to be an expert in sustainable cities. He seems to work for or have a business called Under the Sky Urban Renewal and works with an organization called SustainAbility. An acquaintance of mine is working in the sustainable buildings and city realm, and I'll ask him about this fellow and his site. I've been realizing lately that I don't know a lot about what sustainable cities could look like in 30 years from now, I know so very few of the ideas that are out in the world.

But, and this is really important ... I know that there are people in every country who have wonderful ideas. Some ideas are based in traditional skills and others are based in new technologies. Some are 'appropriate technologies' with feet in both realms. And those people around the world are talking with each other and sharing ideas and dreams and practicalities. And there is a lot we can do to save the world in our spare time and in our everyday time.

Best regards to all of you,

Why's Woman

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Guelph Organic Conference end of January 2010

Recently, someone I knew mentioned the need for a conference for food producers who were not involved in fossil-fuel based, large-scale, industrial agriculture.

The good news is: the Guelph Organics Conference, January 28 - 31.

I'm sure all of you know some of this, and more ... but I'll just jot down that there are various organic conferences and organic agriculture organizations in Ontario, Canada, US, UK, and farther, farther afield. I take heart reading about the ever-changing world of SANER food production and the exchange of information that goes on.

I'm using the word SANER broadly, because I really like what it stands for and would love to see it catch on. The acronym SANER was coined by the Terra Edibles seed people. Meaning Sustainable, All-Natural, and Environmentally Responsible, the acronym came into use in last year's catalogue so that they would not have to contend with new Canadian regulations to do with organics. Regulations to do with organic food production in Canada took years to develop, with input from many individuals and organizations. There is much that is positive and important. But it is the nature of regulations to have counterbalancing problems, shortfalls and and restrictions. TE's Don McKay and Karyn Wright use SANER to describe their farm and lovingly produced seed. (

Elliot Coleman uses the term Authentic Food to describe the type of healthy, safely produced food that he advocates as beyond 'organic', a term that, sadly, has become co-opted, misused and misunterstood. Coleman writes often for Mother Earth News and has written several books. His latest two are specific to extending growing season in colder areas; Coleman's farm is in Maine, more north than London.

In Ontario, we have the Environmental Farmers of Ontario organization. In Canada, there is the Canadian Organic Growers organization. Both are wonderful. The National Organic Growers advocate organic agriculture and a much different approach than the 'regular' farmers union. The NFU annual conference was in London in November 2007, coincidentally at the same time as London's mayor's 'roundtable on agribusiness' (which I attended as an observer and was bitterly disappointed by). There are organizations for biodynamic agriculture. Individual farms like Everdale do wonderful things. There are CSAs like Sunnivue Farm ( Ontario and the world have incredible, knowledgeable, different, and thoughtful people involved in food production at various scales.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Our skills are our stories, our history, our future

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy New Year to anyone reading. I hope that you and yours will have a healthy and happy year ahead.

The other day I met a friend for coffee and she mentioned her New Year's resolution: for every three mysteries she reads she will read one memoir. That is a wonderful idea. It's something that she will be able to carry out because she will enjoy it. It made me think about why I don't usually make resolutions ... they are so often of the lose twenty pounds or similar negative, fix-up-oneself sort.

And then I found myself at the Centre Branch Library, downtown London, and remembered the special crafts collection on the third floor. This is a unique collection, numbered and catalogued, and contains all sorts of wonderful books on crafts, many of them over 50 years old and never to be had again. And I decided that my resolution for the year is to at least browse one book a week for the next year. I'll learn about all sorts of things.

From the first shelf I picked up a copy of The Shell Book of Country Crafts, written and illustrated by James Arnold and published in 1968. It's not really a 'how to' book, because there aren't instructions for all the crafts that he mentions. But he mentions a huge number of crafts, many not done these days except by specialists and historians. There are sections for roof thatching, bagpipe making, wheelwrighting, quilting and making flails ... about thirty things altogether, in over 350 papes. And although there are not step by step instructions, there are useful and fascinating pieces of information throughout ... things like the ways in which specialty blades have both an inside and outside edge, either used dependent on the part of a chair being finished. There are some wonderful photographs of old workshops, and people working at such things as wattle fences, lacemaking and binding besoms. (look it up, I'll not tell you!)

Mr. Arnold has great respect for the craftsmen and women he met, and thanks them and the Museum of English Rural Life (which still exists in Reading, England and houses important collections and has workshops). A bit of his humour shows in the preface where he says: '... there may be individual craftsmen and craftswomen who like to surround their activities with an aura. Those who have left their imprint on the history of craftsmanship have been too busy or preoccupied to bother about auras.'

I think what he's said here is: the real craftspeople just get on with the work. I looked online to find a bit of biographical material about Mr. Arnold and was delighted to hear that he lived to the hale age of 90.

There's a contemporary word - reskilling - that is used in The Transition Handbook. It's referring to finding and relearning skills that we will/may need as we go into a future where we need to be more self-reliant and adaptable (more resilient). This goes along with the ideas that the food and items our communities need will have to be produced closer to home, that we will be using energy sources other than fossil fuels, and that we will be affected by climate change.

This last paragraph takes a big leap between learning something simple like how to bake bread or sharpen our own tools, to living in a world where we won't be able to go to the store to buy bread imported from 800 km away or to replace a cheap knife with another cheap knife. We are going to be in a world where we do not have unlimited 'stuff'.

And I admit that I look forward to that world. For all I use the internet for so much and appreciate some electronics and conveniences, and love that the lights come on and the water works, I do not value the vast majority of consumer garbage that's in the stores. I am over fifty, and my parents (both deceased) were older parents. The great aunts and uncles I knew in my childhood were born in the 1890s. So my life's stories connect me to 120 years of history, and practicality. My people were in trades, not professionals, and there was no money on either side. I've been a make-do-er all my life, and I've had enough interest in history to feel confident as I read about all sorts of artisans.

Well, this entry sure diverted from my original idea. I was going to talk about the importance of stories in our lives. But perhaps this has been a story.

Again, best wishes to all in the new year.

Why's woman.