Sunday, 19 February 2023

Rescue Me, Oh Mud, Oh Earth

Rescue Me, Oh Mud, Oh Earth


This has been a hard, hard week. But I got myself out into the backyard today with my copy of Dave Goulson’s book The Garden Jungle - or Gardening to Save the Planet. I had my cup of decaf coffee and a folding chair which I tucked in out of the rain, between the planters and the birdfeeders. I spent several minutes just gazing out at my wonderful, soggy, dilapidated garden and feeling so relieved at escaping from the various stresses indoors. I must have been thinking a lot but I have no idea what I was thinking about. Probably, at first, the things that were chewing away at me when I was indoors. But I do recall beginning to distinguish between the plants I saw before me, to remember: these are the friends that I brought from home. The sword fern, the epimedium, these clematises and bellflowers, the giant bleeding heart, and of course, my Iolanthe magnolia.


I moved here four years ago from a place I’d been for thirty years, a beloved old building set to be torn down. It was really important to me to bring what I could of my plants. One, the magnolia, got some deep root pruning the year before I moved, to encourage it to grow roots closer to the surface in order to survive the transition. The move itself was difficult. And it turns out the land my new abode sits on was a dumpsite previously, and since then many hedge plants and high maple trees have penetrated that hard, compacted earth with their dense net of roots and rootlets. It took me weeks to dig a hole big enough for the little tree, but I got very good at cutting through roots, and I retrieved many interesting items, from rocks and broken glass and crockery to a shrivelled washing machine ringer. So, as gardening goes, it was hard, especially with my screwed up back and knees, but from an archaeological point of view it was fascinating. Finally, digging up that tree might have been the finish of me if one of my neighbours hadn’t come out to lend a hand. And then the wild ride here in the back of my friend’s pickup. Poor little Iolanthe!


I suppose that is where my thoughts began to dwell. On the plants I’d rescued from demolition at my old home to those I have introduced since moving here – those that remain and those that couldn’t adapt to conditions in my tiny yard. The garden bed I am building up from below rather than digging down into, to avoid repeating that fight with the roots. And, of course, there was my roving inspection from a distance: who is coming up from the soil, who has survived the winter, what needs replacing and shoring up.


After a while, I opened my book and began to read about peat bogs and some of the fascinating creatures that live in them, the properties of the bogs themselves and their importance not only to the plants and animals that make up their biosphere, but their role in preventing flooding and storing carbon. Having established the wonder and importance of bogs, Goulson discusses the conditions and health of soils in various circumstances, like farm fields versus allotments versus suburban and urban gardens. He outlines the efforts and lack thereof of horticultural societies and nurseries and gardeners to stop using peat. 95% of UK raised bogs are already gone; the majority of compost continues to be made of nearly 50% peat.


You would think that this would be totally depressing, and I might have done better to stick with my novel. But there’s something about the grace with which he speaks of the land, the personal relationship he has with the butterflies and his compost heap and the springtails and worms in his garden that make his writing uplifting despite all the worries outlined in such depth. Reading him helped me feel more grounded in and related to my own little patch, helped me think of ways to get around the impact of the bans in my building on having open water outside and establishing compost, and so on.


When I was finished with my reading I moved into the garden itself and began to see what was needed and do some work. It felt so good.


There is nothing like concentrating on the leaves and shoots, the worms underneath old bricks, on the soil itself and its black nature and moist beauty. Nothing like deciding where this sort of leaves can go to do the most good and where these ones need to be – figuring out how to get the most out of my limited freedom here. My aim with my little garden is to make it as attractive as possible to all manner of invertebrates, and yes that does include scale insects, beloved of ants, even though my first instinct is to get them off “my” plant. The healthier I can make the soil, the more little creatures I attract, the stronger the plants are – able to carry a greater load of scale bugs, for instance, the more that bigger creatures will come to eat the little ones, and the more joy I feel when I am sitting out there with my coffee and my book in this small, imperfect sanctuary that helps so much to ease the pain of living in this world. 


When I was reading I heard the chip and thrum of a hummingbird and I looked up from my book. A male Anna’s was checking me out. He went to the left, he went to the centre, he went to the right, hanging in the air maybe two feet ahead of me. His brilliant iridescent neck feathers glittered as he moved from side to side. When he was satisfied, he zipped away. All the while in the garden today, I was hearing chickadees and sparrows and glancing up to watch the brave ones as they flew to their feeders, snatching a sunflower seed or stabbing at the suet, flying away in swift retreat.


There is something about being surrounded by plants and birds and air and mud that is like being swaddled in lace. There is a warmth even on a cool day, a gentleness – perhaps arising from the innate gentling of stopping and hearing and seeing more fully than usual. The worst sorrows can be kneaded softly by the garden world.


So, thank you for this much-needed intervention, oh mud, oh earth. Thank you for letting me reignite my love for you, my involvement with you, my caring for you, and feel again the balm of you against my soul.


I return indoors buttressed for whatever work I need to do in this more human world.


Images: Photo of leaves by Kristian Seedorff on Unsplash. Photo of muddy hands by Chris Yang on Unsplash.

Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Online Writing Groups (Not Critiquing, Just Writing) Are Cool


I am really appreciating the newly-discovered-by-me online writing groups that are apparently going for many hours, every night and day. After centuries of working alone at home I now get to work alone at home knowing there are these four or fourteen folk working away at their own tables, just there in the left half of my computer screen.

Mostly we are silent, and some turn off their video while working, but there are a lot of pluses to having them there.

1) I know the window in which this event is happening, and if I don't get cracking, I'll miss the boat.

2) Having living beings right there silently working calms me, somehow. I do get a bit anxious about settling down to write or plan, so that calming effect is very welcome.

3) At certain points there is brief checking in. This goes against the sense of isolation that can be there in the background, generally not anywhere I notice it. Having it contradicted by the check-ins has brought a sense of relief and camaraderie, so clearly the isolation is there, even if undetected.

3a) In some groups this begins with a query in the chat: "What are you working on today, Mael?" This helps me focus on a single, clear task instead of allowing myself to wander off into side-shoots. Focussing better makes me feel more secure in my efforts, and more satisfied with what I have done that day.

3b) There is generally a check-in at the end, or in the longer meetings, a couple of hours in. "How did it go for you?" That question makes the process more conscious, and therefore easier to consider. How did it go? Is there something I ought to have done to make it go better? (Like eat first.) Or was it just fine? In which case, hurrah!

3c) As faces become familiar, as I learn a little of what people are working on, how it's going for them, their aims and their worries, how they support and encourage each other and me, I begin to feel affection for them, and a sense that I want them to be happy with their work. In other words, even though we talk very little, a sense of community begins to emerge.

4) They end. Just as the beginning of the meeting prompts me to stop whatever I'm doing and get to work, the end says, "You're done! Go have fun." As someone who tends to work till I drop, this is a great thing to begin playing with. You mean, stop before it's finished? Assume I can return the next time and pick it up? Wow.

I just committed to the next two meetings I plan to attend, getting on the roster and writing them down in my calendar. (Yeah. Paper. Weird.) I looked at what was already scheduled for those days and thought, "Yeah, I'd like to put an hour of writing in there." Remembering how blissful it was last time to break after an hour for my (online) yoga class, as I will again this week, and come back to writing renewed and invigorated. Instead of that unscheduled hour trickling by as they are wont to do, I know I will get a contained dollop of work done. And I felt -- excited! What a wonderful way to feel about work that I love but tend to get anxious about. How perfect is that?

If you are interested in trying out a writing group like this, the one below is one of the groups available. It may be the largest, with many hosts across the world with their own meetings and formats. You can meet online, as I do, but they also have live events where folk gather in a coffee shop or some such thing. It's called Shut Up and Write:


Image: Free clipart from

Wednesday, 3 August 2022



I have a sad story and a happy story and they both involve molluscs.

Last night, a few hours after I got home from Emergency with my broken toe, I had the screen door open because one of the larger slugs was on the inside track tidying up for me and I didn’t want to disturb it while it had its head stuck down in the trough. So I just kept half an eye on the open door to make sure no mice crept in, and got on with my dinner.

When I was done, I hobbled over to the doorway and instead of crouching down as I normally would I lay down because that was easier on my toe. So there I was draped over the threshold with one little slug nibbling – well, radulating – and one big slug doing the same, and a couple of others down below on the pavement mucking about.

I greeted them all, my friendly allies, and took note of the pleasant air where no screen was there to stop it from moving against my skin. And I took a few relaxed breaths and watched them at their work. I had with me a small piece of apple to see if I could lure my large friend from its task.

There was something comforting about breaking up this little piece of fruit and distributing it amongst them. Comforting because I was treating them as I would any other creature, rather than simply despairing or resenting because of the work they do on plants I’ve been cultivating, or being grossed out because of their form and fluid state.  Comforting to drop the illusion of being enemies.

The little one stretched out its tentacles as it inspected its piece and the two below moved towards theirs at that gentle pace that slugs employ. But the chunky one on the inside of the threshold didn’t even blink. There was something delicious in that trench, that place that I can’t get at very easily to clean, so I left it to its meal.

You know how, when you are around people who are revved up and ready to dance, their energy can be infectious and before you know it you are revved up, too. Or when you are with praying people or meditating people that can inspire you to feel prayerful or meditative, in that moment. I found that being up close to these beings, with nothing I needed to do, watching them moving in their sedate way, I slowed down, as well. And as I watched them move, extending their tentacles or changing direction in a slow but flowing manner, I began to realise that if they were humans moving in that way and not these creatures that people find so horrifying, I would describe the movement as sensual or like a dance.

I became mesmerised and very happy spending time with them.

I went away and returned when it was time to go to bed. I needed to move my little friend whether it liked it or not. But when I returned it had made a fast track across the doorstep and up the frame halfway to the top. As gently as I could, I took it by its waist and began to detach it. This action met with great resistance. Slugs are very good at gluing themselves to things when they want to. I wonder what kind of substance it is that can both act as a lubricant to move across and a glue so they can’t be pulled away. Even when I had peeled the entire length of this being’s body away from the frame its chin stuck fast. I began to worry I’d do damage if it wouldn’t let go, so I used another finger to jimmy it loose. The amazing thing to me was, when I placed it down on the apple bit, it went straight to nibbling, completely unflustered by our struggle a moment earlier.

It is a deep pleasure to find again and again that time spent in quiet observation of beasts, from bears to cats to spiders to slugs, always leaves me with the sense of having been fully and wonderfully alive.

I have changed my mind about one thing. I’m not going to tell you the sad story. Let’s stay with this one for a bit.

Image of a small slug in the door frame. Casey June Wolf.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Grace and Lynn - In Garments Made of Love


It's been a long time since I have posted here. All I could write about was grief, and I decided to stop a while. 

This wasn't meant to be a blog post. It was to be a short note that I would stuff in with the clothes I am sending Lynn. But it got longer, and more intense. When I was done, I wanted to share it with you.

                                                                                                                    24 June 2022

Precious Lynn,

I have hung onto these clothes for many years, since the original owner, my sweet and elderly friend Grace, died and left her husband Bill and I bereft and sorry.

I want you to have them. I hope you or Lee or someone you love can make use of them. If not, they are yours to pass on or hang onto as I have.

Grace died about thirty-five years ago, and these were old then, archived in drawers and closets.

Grace and Bill rented the main floor of a large Victorian house set back against the alley. There were three plum trees, an apple, a vast rhododenron, and many smaller plants in our big front yard at 1663 Frances Street, just off Commercial Drive.

Grace couldn't leave her floor. There was a long, steep staircase at the front preventing her, and a good verandah where she would sometimes stand and take in the air. Her cussing, grade three educated husband, Bill, had a complicated relationship with the world, but Grace assured me he was a good man, so I persisted until I could finally be his friend.

Many years before, when Grace was a waitress at a workers' café on Hastings Street (The Milo), she and another waitress , and a fellow her friend knew, went to Ambleside Beach on their day off. The friend and the fellow went into the bushes, leaving Grace alone for awhile.

Grace raised the resulting boy.

At some point Bill, one of her customers, became angry at how her boss treated her, and told the man she was quitting and coming to live with him.

Grace was one of the gentlest women I have ever known. Her dream, never realised, was to one day travel by car all the way across Canada, to see it all.

You would have loved her.

For many, most, of the years of my life I suffered great emotional pain and despair. I would cry my heart out and curse, hoping they couldn't hear me through those old timber floors. I asked her once if my crying bothered her. She lied, said she couldn't even hear me. It was a safe harbour to live through my grief.

I'm telling you all this so you can know, in a small way, the woman who bought these clothes so many years ago. I loved her, and I love you. May you be safe and loved as Grace was with Bill. Imperfect, loyal, and kind. It's all we need, and all we need to be.



Monday, 6 December 2021

Another Fine Day in Dreamland


A lot of people, when they lose someone, encounter them again in dreams or visions or words spoken in their ear when unexpected; a touch, a warm rush of air, a knowing that they are present although they are gone. This is not the situation with me. I have very, very rarely in my lifetime encountered a lost one in a dream and I have never simply felt their presence. But last night the clouds parted for a moment.

I’ve been feeling beset by grief again. It came up late one night — very late — and I said to it, I’m sorry, this is not the right time for you. 

Never say that to your grief.

So my grief retreated and I went to sleep and the next day and the day after that and the day after that I had a weight inside me that drained my energy and made it very difficult to go through the motions of the day. It took me a while to realise that this was my rejected grief, which retreated when commanded but simply stood behind the curtain and found its way into my consciousness in the only way it could.

Yesterday morning I had a co-counselling session with a friend of mine. Co-counselling is a slightly more elaborate form of peer counselling, where two people or three people or a whole group of people take turns as counsellor and as client. In my time as client I spoke of the many things that have been coming up that I am grateful for and happy about. Maybe halfway through I finally said, "You know, I think I may be getting a little depressed and I think it’s because of this grief that I told to go away." My friend said, "Well, do you want to talk about it now?"

So I started to talk. About Vic, of course. I just  told her how the grief was hitting me and why. I talked about having known him almost all my life, so that every part of me, every stage and condition of me, has known and loved him. And that I have loved every time of him, from the baby with the bright yellow hair that seem to be catching the sun and illuminating his beautiful face. His smile, which came so soon and so easily and so often and which again lit his entire face and lit my heart with love. I said that we all loved him, all of the family. We just loved him. So much.

I began to cry, much as my eyes are threatening to do now. Talking about my love for Vic, talking about how beautiful and wonderful and loveable he was allowed me a few moments of feeling my grief directly, in a gentle way, and allowing those tears and those sobs the attention and the expression that they need.

When I was sleeping early this morning I dreamt that I was in my physio office and they were moving things around me and I was puzzled by what was going on. Until I remembered that they’re moving down the hall to a larger location. I said, "Oh, are you moving this weekend?" And suddenly I noticed one of the people who was moving the equipment. He was a young man in his early twenties. He was looking at me as he manoeuvred the equipment to take it down the hall. His whole body was relaxed and his face was lit up with a lovely, humorous smile — just like the one you see in the picture above. To my astonishment, it was Victor. He was here, he was alive, and I thought, "Oh, my God. He’s actually feeling well enough that they’re letting him help with the move." I was so happy.

That was my whole dream. There was no conversation between us. There were no hugs, or tears, just awareness. Contact. Love and the joy of being alive, and being well enough to move.

What a wonderful gift.

Image: Victor James Arnott with our mother, Lorraine Arnott. Photo by the author, circa 1980 something.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Watching Birds with Vic


I was entering my data for Project FeederWatch today, and they asked, again, that we submit our stories of bird-loving and participation in the project. This time I decided to try it, knowing I had no good stories, but just feeling like giving it a whirl.

The question was about what gets us most excited about participating in the study, or what got us watching birds in the first place, or some such thing. This is what came out:

For me, it isn’t a matter of excitement. It’s a matter of peace. I much prefer the latter over the former, and there is nothing like sitting with the birds and looking out at the garden to find that peace.

This season it is more important than ever that I have FeederWatch to force me to sit down in one place for an hour and just be quiet. My very beloved younger brother, who suffered with cancer for the past two years, died last month. He lived in Manitoba and I was here in Vancouver, unable until this summer to go to him because of COVID-19. Instead, I would talk with him as often as he was able in the time before his death. He didn’t want to think about anything upsetting for the most part, and because I am also (less worryingly) ill I’m not doing a whole lot to report on, so much of our conversation dwelt on the birds in the garden and what the plants were doing, or what his cats were up to, or some animal story he'd seen or read.

Now that Victor is gone I am coping with my grief. Sitting here right now with my computer on my lap, the glass door open and the screen door shut, I can hear the sounds of the goldfinches and bushtits and the nuthatch at the feeders just outside. The Anna's hummingbird is drinking nectar a metre away, and hundreds of crows and dozens of gulls are crying out as they travel the sky.  Now a flock of Canada geese are flying overhead, also giving voice. These are things that Victor would have loved to share with me. I can’t help thinking of him as I sit here, trying not to wish he had ever been to my new home, or that I had spent more time at his, but to stay with the gratitude I have for what we had … and what I still have.

I believe that I will always miss my brother and always grieve his passing, but, even in the midst of the worst of my sadness, seeing the birds, hearing their voices, watching them scuffle with each other over food, I remember the joy that Victor and I shared while he was alive.

So, thank you, FeederWatch, for getting me to sit down and do (almost) nothing, for reminding me to simply be.

Image: Victor and his cat. Photo by Casey.

Monday, 25 October 2021

Grieving A Brother


"I say not this to them that be wise, for they wot it well; but I say it to you that be simple, for ease and comfort: for we are all one in comfort."

 Julian of Norwich, Chapter IX


In the numbness of grief, snatches of thought bring me back to my sadness. These words of Abbess Julian remind me of the comfort I felt in the days leading up to Vic Arnott's memorial service, and on the day itself, that the love and sorrow that I was awash in were equally shared by the others who loved him most, particularly his son, and my sisters and brothers and our mum, but also the many young people whose lives he touched.

This is my cri de coeur. With all its errors and inconsistencies.

Thank you, love that persists despite all obstacles, all failures, all flarings of rage and blame, that you carry me through the darkest hours of life. Thank you, brother, for your existence, for your comforting effect on my scorched soul and heart.

Let every word I write for you be a leaf fallen on a quiet stream. Let it move smoothly along the flow, leaving, let go by my sad fingertips, and may those silent, skimming leaves be prayers of acquiescence, of acceptance turned to joy, some day, some distant day. May the sun's eye glance on them as they travel, catch on snags and windfall, enter the waters again and journey on. May each word, each leaf, each prayer be reflected back to you, brother, your soul a butterfly, moving on, moving on.

I am steeped in sadness unfathomable. I am sorrow, resting on this bank. My beloved brother gone, gone, gone.

May I find my sisters resting on this bank. There, one behind that screen of osier, and one below, stretched out on that rock, and my brothers and our mother and his son — so many voices leave their own words dropping into this stream, rising on soft spray into the air, disappearing into the sky as they are sipped up by the sun.

This comfort is incomplete. It is a beautiful raft, but it cannot bring you back. We live with our chests torn open, Victor, by your loss. Like storm-blasted trees with ribs and heart laid bare. We will live this way, forever, until time softens us again.

I wonder if you ever had the slightest inkling how much you were loved.