Sunday, July 13, 2008

You again?

Woke up last night in the wee small hours. Lay there awhile, floating on the black sea of Unthink. Listening. Was it a car door? Voices? An early squirrel scrambling across the shingles? Tried to hear through the white noise of high frequency tinnitus for a signal. Got the regular surf of the blood coursing up next to my ears. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Sixty a minute. Supposed to be rain tonight. Not yet. Nothing.

Listening again. Not with the ears this time. With the mind. Don’t need to go to the bathroom. What then?


So it’s you. For fifty years I hardly knew you. Sure, we’d met. I found you interesting, at first. But then, you didn’t stay long. Funny really, when I think back to the time when it seemed you added a certain frisson to existence; I used you to embroider the odd short story of my life. Added a little piquancy. That was then. Get a little tired of your company these days. I’ve noticed your moods. I used to think that if I understood you better we might get along. I might adjust, learn to live quietly in your company. After all, even the unwanted guest has to be accommodated; somehow. Not that easy really. Why do you come now? I knew you would, but I’m never really expecting you. It seems an odd time to visit; but I’m learning; you have your schedule. Just when I thought I was getting a good rest.

Hello, pain.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wildflowers, and the Perils of Identification thereof.

Just recently I was so powerfully affected by the beauty of the flowers in bloom in a wild meadow nearby, that I thought to myself - it's not too late, I should at long last take the time to find out some of the names of these little gems of nature. One of the loveliest was a little yellow flower, growing in great profusion and blanketing wide areas of the field. It was only when I got down on my knees for a really close look that I recognized the true wonder it offered. The flowers were borne in fat clusters about six inches long; but the individual florets were the tiniest things imaginable. Four of the smallest petals I have ever seen formed a tiny gold star, with room in the middle for just a couple of stamens, which somehow looked out of scale. There must be thousands of these florets on each cluster. The leaves of the plant were alike beautiful in their delicacy and brillian green colour. Little whorls of needlelike leaflets grew symetrically around the stem, and from the whorl another little stem would grow.

I came back to the meadow again and again. I took photos, I brought home samples of this and other plants. I went to my bookshelf and took down the long-unused Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, confidently expecting to find the flowers I sought clearly and unambiguously described and illustrated. Then I could properly title the pictures I had uploaded to 'Flickr'.

Ah, if only nature was so simple! To my astonishment, there appeared to be no flower in the manual that matched what I had. Despite diligent searching, I was reduced to calling this "Yellow Wildflower 1". I broadened my investigation. Surely, thought I, with all the millions of pictures on Flickr, someone will have illustrated my little beauty? Well yes; the pictures are indeed there, but they only come up if you already know the name, which, uh, didn't work for me at that time. Searching on "yellow, wildflower, cluster" didn't bring up a match. Not to be thwarted, I next searched for groups: two great groups for wildflowers came up on page one. And here a little serendipity came in. In the course of my search I also came upon a group called "ID Please". What a Godsend. Adherents of this group delight in the puzzle of identification, and within 24 hours of posting a photo of my treasure to the group I had my answer. The flower is called "Lady's Bedstraw" or 'Galium verum' to use its official moniker.

Or is it? It turns out there are possibly hundreds of species of 'Galium', and scores of Bedstraws within the group. I Googled. I Wikipeded. I have examined as many species as I can find, and there seem to be no similar candidates. Why take all this trouble? Because the yellow Lady's Bedstraw is apparently not supposed to live in Canada. It is European. It does not feature in the ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario, which I have just taken out from the library.

Which raises the question - is this in fact the European flower, brought accidentally or intentionally to Canada? Or is it some rare variety too uncommon to have been included in the standard texts? I rather lean to the first option. Especially as this field is right next to Fort George, one of the first places in the area inhabited by Europeans. Did they bring mattresses? Did they shake out the old stuffing and unwittingly liberate seeds here. Or did some thoughtful immigrant carefully gather some seeds to bring, thinking not only how useful this plant would be, but how comforting it might be to have this reminder of home?

Where was I? Oh yes, put a name on a flower. Done that.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Meadow on the Commons

Last week I took my bike out and started riding out again, down the Niagara Parkway path. This pathway begins just at the east edge of town, and closely skirting Fort George, heads east to the river. The very first stretch of this route passes across the Commons just south of Fort George. The Commons consists of some hundreds of acres of field and woodland. The part that is now open grassland was used for decades as a military encampment, but now lies quiet, except for the odd equestrian event or military re-enactment. Most of the grassland is mown a few times a year, but a patch bordering the woodland towards the river has been left as a natural meadow. As I passed by early last week, I was struck by the wonderful display of wildflowers. The growth was riotous. There were great swathes of different species, blue, pink, purple, mauve and yellow. I got off my bike and made my way through the long grass to the edge of this glorious field. I was quite transfixed. I stood and studied the scene for a while. Not being a botanist, I cannot tell you (yet) the names of all the lovely flowers that carpeted the landscape. Perhaps with the aid of the photos I have posted on Flickr, some kind person will help me with their identification. They are not rare, and I am surprised that, although I consulted my copy of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, I was still unable to put a name to any except the Chicory and the Milkweed, both of which I already knew.

The next day I took along my camera and took numerous shots of the area, including some closeups of the flowers and others showing the context of how they grow. I was struck by how the patches of each flower in its thousands formed bands of colour, receding towards the woodland edge. When I got home I examined my photos, and felt frustration and disappointment that somehow I hadn't captured the wonder of it all. I went back several times, even bringing home some samples of the flowers and their leaves and stems, determined to find out what they were.

I realized there was potentially a lovely painting waiting for me here and I soon felt urgently that I should try to capture the scene before nature changed its clothes once more.

So this morning I put my sketchbook and some paints in my saddlebag and set out once more. It was a beautiful day, all day. The sun shone brightly and the air was clear, giving hard edges and a vibrancy to the colours which I hadn't seen before. I had a wonderful time. I stood in the field, painting, for about an hour and a half before I was done. And the great thing was this: I knew that here I had a view which was inherently free; free of any requirement for symmetry, or particular shape. It consisted of bold patches of colour in random shapes and sizes, sometimes flowing one into the other, sometimes showing a natural layering one on the other as they marched into the distance. Spiking up here and there were scores of milkweeds with their pink pom-pom flowers, and the occasional shrub and sapling added interest. There was nothing at all which said "I have to be here, and shown exactly like this!" So, I thought, here's the best chance I'll have to break away from tightness and careful drawing. I decided, for the first time ever, that I would not make a drawing, that I would use no pencil. Usually, I feel a certain fear when beginning a painting, that it won't work out the way I hope; that I won't realize the vision. Today I told myself that I had little need to worry, just so long as I faithfully set out the colours. And so it proved. I am rather happy with this one.