Archive for August, 2009


The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels. McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

The Winter Vault is Anne Michaels’ second novel. Her first, Fugitive Pieces, was very well received, and as I never got around to reading it, I made an effort not to let this second outing pass me by as well. Michaels is primarily known as a poet, and the language of The Winter Vault, beautiful and evocative, reveals the novel to be an extension, in some way, of her poetic works. The story is one of love, loss and longing.

The two lovers are Jean and Avery. From the very beginning, their relationship is tinged by the losses they have both experienced. Jean’s mother died when Jean was just 9 years old, and years later, Jean still feels her loss. Avery’s beloved father died recently, not long before he met Jean. The themes of loss and longing continue to be woven into their life together.

Jean and Avery meet when Avery is working on the St. Lawrence Seaway project and together they experience the empty river bed, the river held back by coffer dams as work progresses. They witness the sense of loss felt by the 6,000 villagers who must relocate to new towns to make way for the Seaway, leaving much of their former lives behind. After the Seaway project, Avery, an engineer, takes Jean to Egypt with him, where he works on another river project, the damming of the Nile and the relocation of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel. Again Jean and Avery witness the grief and loss of the people, this time numbering over 60,000, as they must relocate their lives. Their loss becomes personal and intimate when Jean’s pregnancy ends with the loss of their baby. The loss overwhelms her. She and Avery separate and back in Toronto, Jean meets Lucjan, a Polish artist who suffered great losses in wartorn Warsaw.

The sense of place that Michaels invokes is central to her story. I especially liked the interesting juxtaposition of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project and the construction of the Aswan Dam. The two events do have notable similarities. Michaels briefly addresses some of the consequences of the Aswan Dam: the huge loss of invaluable water through evaporation from the new lake, the loss of silt for fertilizing fields, the loss of fish populations. I was disappointed that she makes no mention of the considerable environmental costs of the Seaway. The fate of Warsaw under first the Nazis and then the Soviets was also interesting. I appreciated her brief introduction of poet Andrei Platonov.

Perhaps I’m unsympathetic, but Jean began to wear on me. She’s exhausting. Talk about the glass is half-empty! Her life isn’t too shabby and includes a good education, a loving husband, the adventure of travel. She doesn’t appear to have any particular interests outside a mild taste for gardening and only works when her husband’s step-mom finds her an office assistant job. Happily, things are beginning to look better by the end of the book.

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Capone at Mirror

Who is that handsome stranger?


Capone sees Capone

And why won’t he come out to play?


Capone x 2

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In addition to seeing the Shay locomotive, we visited the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa to visit the Karsh exhibit, Festival Karsh. The exhibit celebrates the life and work of Canada’s most famous photographer, Yousuf Karsh, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Born in Marden, Turkey on December 23, 1908, Karsh fled to Syria with his Armenian-descent family in 1922 and in 1924, he emigrated to Canada. He apprenticed with a photographer in Boston and ended his career many years later as one of the world’s leading portrait photographers. It could be said that anybody who was anyone sat for Karsh. One of his most iconic works, used on the cover of Life and Saturday Night magazines, was his portrait of Winston Churchill.


The exhibit features an interesting display of many of his better know works, portraits of famous men and women such as Grey Owl, above, and Einstein, below.


Some of the equipment Karsh utilized is on display. Karsh set up a studio on Sparks Street in Ottawa, where his business thrived. He also had equipment that travelled with him as he journeyed abroad to accommodate famous sitters who couldn’t arrange to come to his Ottawa studio.


Karsh retired in 1992. Over six decades of work, he photographed more than 15,000 local, national and international sitters. He died on July 13, 2002, at the age of 93.


One playful aspect of the exhibit is a mock studio that allows visitors to try their hand at portrait photography, adjusting the lighting and camera focus to photograph a friend and email the resulting portrait to their chosen address. A young woman volunteered to take our photograph.


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Unless you are planning on making ketchup, or canning a year’s supply of tomatoes, one pack of seedlings purchased in the spring is likely to provide you with all the tomatoes you want come fall. However, in order to enjoy a variety of tomatoes, I purchased four different kinds and three of the four our now ripening. The last, Brandywine, requires a longer season, and no fruit is yet ripe.


The remaining three varieties all have names that include “sweet”. Pictured above are Sweet Million, a popular cherry tomato. The plants are well-loaded with fruit and the little tomatoes are firm. They work well in salads, or as a snack.


These are Sweet Gold. One review I came across notes: “These tomatoes are naturally sweeter than red cherry varieties with a fruitier taste. Once you taste them, you’ll be spoiled forever.” Now that I have tasted them, I have to agree. The Sweet Golds are noticeably sweeter than the Sweet Million tomatoes, and juicier. Perhaps because of this last feature, they are also more prone to splitting that the Sweet Millions, making them a bit less attractive. Their orangey-gold colour makes them a nice accent to add to a plate of sliced red tomatoes.


Ultrasweet produces nice, medium-sized fruit. The tomatoes have a very nice, sweet flavour and good texture and I prefer them to locally-grown tomatoes I purchased at the market. The tomatoes do seem prone to developing concentric cracking around the stem end. According to Carolyn Male, concentric cracking is a genetic characteristic and can’t be prevented.


A few tomatoes have also had longitudinal cracking. Ms. Male notes that when ripe tomatoes split from top to bottom it usually indicates heavy rains or overwatering. The skin of the mature tomato can’t expand any more in response to the absorption of water, so the skin splits open. We certainly have not lacked for rain this summer.

If you start your own seeds in the spring, the sky is the limit when it comes to tomato varieties. Greta’s Organic Gardens, in the Ottawa area, offers some 200 varieties of tomato seeds! I’ve never done much seed-starting myself, but in the dark days of winter, it is lovely to browse through the pages of seed catalogues and garden books. A very enjoyable book for browsing on tomatoes is Carolyn Male’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden.

Tomato book

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Louis loves Corn


Louis doesn’t mind apples. If you cut an apple into bite-sized pieces for him, he’ll graciously accept a slice or two.


You can’t tempt Louis with carrots. This offering received not even a nibble from Louis. He’s just not an orange-vegetable kind of a guy. I split the carrot in half and the two horses, Mousie and Czarina were happy to share it.


Louis knew there was something better on hand. He checked my bucket.


No apples for Louis, no carrots. Louis loves corn!


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When I was walking out to the barn, I heard a woodpecker tap-tap-tapping and spotted this fellow at work. I don’t have the quality of photographic equipment needed for great bird shots, but was pleased to get a picture of this individual. It’s a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). Birdgirl identified it as a young bird, hatched this year. It can be identified as such by its mottled brown head. This is its juvenile plumage. It will moult in the late fall or early winter and acquire its adult plumage, which features red patches on the crown and forehead.


Sapsuckers drill parallel rows of small holes in the bark of trees. Insects are attracted to the holes as they fill with sap. The sapsucker makes rounds of the trees it has tapped and laps up both the sap and the insects trapped in the sap.

Just after seeing the sapsucker, I spotted the bird shown below in the Viburnum bush. It appeared to be checking out the fruit on the bush.


Fall warblers can be difficult to identify and I asked Birdgirl for her help with this one too. It is a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), a young of the year, just hatched this summer. It’s not surprising that there should be young yellowthroats in the area. There were a number of yellowthroats singing in the spring. They are more often heard than seen, as they tend to stay hidden in the foliage of bushes. The male’s song is easily identified, a crisp “Witch-it-y! Witch-it-y! Witch-it-y!” If you do catch sight of a male, its black mask is distinctive. Below is a yellowthroat I saw outside the kitchen window this spring.


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On the weekend, RailGuy and I visited the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. One of the attractions we went to see was this Shay locomotive. Over the summer months, the engine operates a couple of times a week and we wanted to catch it before the summer was over, an inevitability drawing frighteningly closer every day. A Shay is a type of locomotive that uses reduction gearing in the drivetrain, as opposed to the common directly-driven design. The Shay locomotive takes its name from Ephraim Shay (1839-1916), who was a logger in Michigan in the 1860s. He developed the first Shay locomotive to take logs to market as an alternative to floating them down a river. The Lima Locomotive Works, of Lima, Ohio, began building Shays, adapted from Ephraim Shay’s original idea, in 1878. Between 1878 and 1945, 2768 Shay locomotives were built by Lima. Only 115 are known to survive today.


The Museum’s Shay has parts from two engines (No. 3 and No. 4) built by Lima in 1923 and 1925 for the Merrill & Ring Lumber Co. Ltd, based in Squamish. The engines were used in their forestry operations at Theodosia Arm on the British Columbia mainland. When Merrill & Ring closed their Squamish operations, the engines were sold to the Comox Logging and Railway Company and moved to Vancouver Island in May of 1942. By 1951, the boiler from engine No. 3 was transferred to the frame of No. 4 as the best of aging parts were salvaged to keep one good engine running. In 1951 the refurbished locomotive was transferred to Duncan Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island, where it was put to work at the Elk Falls pulp mill. It remained there until it was taken out of service in 1974.


Thereafter, the locomotive was donated to the Museum by Crown Zellerbach and shipped to Ottawa by flat car. Restoration of the engine began in 1975. The locomotive was dismantled down to its frame and many parts were repaired or replaced. It was not until August of 1995 that the restoration was completed.

Noticing RailGuy admiring the locomotive, the engineer invited him aboard and he enjoyed a trip down the rails and back in the engine cab.


Engineer Gerry and Fireman John are among the many volunteers who have donated their time and knowledge to the restoration and operation of the Shay engine. More than 5000 hours of work were required to complete the restoration. The Museum receives ongoing assistance and support from the Bytown Railway Society.


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losing confidence

Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy by Elizabeth May. McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

Although I voted in the last federal election, I and nearly a million other voters have absolutely no representation in the House of Commons. Where do I live? Myanmar? Some banana republic? No. I live in Canada. It is ironic that, while Canada is sending troops overseas to Afghanistan to aid in the development of a democratic state, our own Canadian democracy is being eroded. When a million votes results in not one representative reaching the House of Commons, something is seriously wrong.

In the 2008 election, nearly a million votes were cast for the Green Party, but not one seat was achieved. The Bloc Quebecois, with just 380,000 votes more, at 1.38 million, won 50 seats. The NDP party, with 2.5 million votes, won just 37 seats. Voters stayed home in droves, with just 59% of eligible voters turning out. Of that 59%, the winning Conservatives received just 37% of the popular vote.

Other issues include shallow, partisan media coverage that fails to adequately inform the voting public on important issues; disturbing, manipulative attack ads that serve to discourage voters from turning out on election day; and declining voter turnout. There’s something wrong when the Prime Minister can pass a bill calling for fixed election dates…and then promptly turn around and call a snap election. There’s something wrong when the Prime Minister can provoke a non-confidence vote and then avoid the consequences of his actions by proroging Parliament. As writer Ronald Wright pointed out, after King Charles I shut down England’s Parilament when he found its restrictions uncongenial, he was beheaded!

The need to replace our antiquated and inappropriate First Past the Post system is urgent and there is no need to reinvent the wheel here. Proportional representation systems are commonplace in many European countries and have been linked to increased voter turnout, greater voter satisfaction, and a better informed electorate.

Elizabeth May’s timely book looks at these and other important issues relating to Canadian democracy in a clear and concise manner. It should be mandatory reading for every voter, no matter what your political leaning. Go out and get a copy! In the meantime, stop on over to Fair Vote Canada and stay informed. Canadian democracy needs you.

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sunflower 2



Sunflower Meadow

Sunflowers and Barn

Sunflowers and Barn

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By mid-August, Wild Cucumber vines (Echinocystis lobata) can be readily spotted along the roadside, gamboling along the tops of fence rows, frothy flowers catching the light…


Or clambering over goldenrod, bounding across the backs of competitors.


This ladder, left in place for a couple of weeks, was soon inundated with wild cucumber, frolicking, foaming up the rungs.

Wild cucumber vines have five-lobed leaves that resemble somewhat those of maple trees. The plants climb by means of long tendrils, which curl tightly around anything they come in contact with. Two sets of flowers are born along the vine. The male flowers develop on long panicles that arise from the axil of each leaf. The clumps of small white flowers give the vine a frilly sort of appearance. The female flowers are produced on short stalks opposite the petiole of the leaf, below each cluster of male flowers.


Wild cucumber is a member of the gourd family. It’s common name reflects the appearance of its cucumber-like fruit. Unlike cucumbers, however, the fruits are not solid. Rather, they are bladder-like, and contain a few seeds. In the fall, the fruit dries out and becomes paper-like. The seeds fall from openings in the bottom of the fruit.

It’s hard not to smile at the “joie de vivre” that this exuberant plant exudes.


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