Archive for April, 2014


I enjoy strawberry-rhubarb pie. Otherwise, I’m not that fond of rhubarb. That’s probably the reason why the rhubarb in our little vegetable patch has been neglected, so much so that raspberry canes have grown over it. On the other hand, I’m very partial to the ornamental rhubarb in my flower garden. The sturdy knobs of leaves push up through the cold spring earth long before more delicate plants appear. The plant above is Rheum palmatum var. tanguticum. I planted it a few years ago and it has settled in well. It puts out quite a spectacular tall plume which, along with its giant leaves, makes a real statement in the garden.


Last year, I added two more plants to keep it company and fill in an open area. The new plants are a bit different, Rheum palmatum ‘Atrosanguineum’. The new leaves are a brilliant red. They gradually fade to a pleasing bronzy-pink colour. This is their second year and they are coming up well. I’m looking forward to seeing them fill out this summer.


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Long Road

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On the weekend, Seabrooke and I cleaned out the swallow boxes and other birdhouses around the property. That is, Seab cleaned and I offered support and encouragement.


Most of the houses had a swallow nest from last year’s season. This one had a lot of cattail fluff and soft bedding on top of the nest. It was probably the winter home of a mouse.


This box had been filled right up to the top with soft grasses. When Seabrooke began to remove the bedding she realized there was still an occupant…or two.


A tiny red squirrel baby! Seabrooke carefully reinstated the inhabitant and replaced the bedding.

We were none too soon with our Easter clean-up. The very next day, Tree Swallows came swooping and gliding and chittering, anxious to lay claim to the best boxes.


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Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot. Penguin Canada 2013.

I recently started reading Feral by respected British writer and Guardian journalist George Monbiot. His opening Introduction left me stunned. It is right on the money, but I was taken aback to encounter his comments in this book. Here’s an excerpt from his opening pages:

It is an extraordinary thing for a foreigner to witness: one of the world’s most sophisticated and beautiful nations being ransacked by barbarians. It is more extraordinary still to consider that these barbarians are not members of a foreign army, but of that nation’s own elected government. The world has watched in astonishment as your liberal, cultured, decent country has been transformed into a thuggish petro-state. The oil curse which has blighted so many weaker nations has now struck in a place which seemed to epitomise solidity and sense.

This is not to say that there were no warnings in Canada’s recent past. The nation has furnished the world with two of its most powerful environmental parables: one wholly bad, the other mostly good. The story of the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery reads like a biography of the two horsemen of ecological destruction: greed and denial. The basis on which the stocks were managed was the opposite of the Precautionary Principle: the Providential Principle. This means that if there’s even a one percent chance that our policy will not cause catastrophe, we’ll take it. Foreigners and seals were blamed for the depletion of the fish, while the obvious contribution of the Canadian fleet and the Canadian government was overlooked. The fisheries science was rigged and, when it still produced the wrong answers, disregarded or denounced. The government continued to sponsor bigger boats and new fish plants even as the stocks were crashing. A moratorium was imposed only after the fishery became commercially extinct: government and industry, after due consideration and debate, agreed that the non-existent fish should no longer be caught.

Even today, the best means of ensuring that stocks can recover and breed freely – declaring a large part (perhaps the majority) of the Grand Banks a permanent marine reserve in which no fishing takes place – has not happened. All over the world the evidence shows that such no-take zones greatly enhance the overall catch, even though less of the sea is available for fishing. But the Canadian government continues stoutly to defend the nation from the dark forces of science and reason.

The other great parable which still resonates with the rest of the world – the battle over Clayoquot Sound – began the same way: private companies were given the key to a magnificent ecosystem and told they could treat it as they wished. The forests would have followed the fishery to oblivion had it not been for a coalition of remarkable activists from the First Nations and beyond, who were prepared to lose their freedom – and possibly their lives – to prevent a great wound from being inflicted on the natural world. In 1994 they won, for a few years at least. Their courage in the face of police brutality and judicial repression inspired peaceful direct action movements all over the world.

So here are the two Canadas: one insatiable, blindly destructive, unmoved by beauty; the other brave, unselfish and far-sighted. There is no doubt about which of the two is now dominant. For Canada today is providing the world with a third parable: the remarkable, perhaps unprecedented story of a complex, diverse economy slipping down the development ladder towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man.

The tar sands poisoned the politics first of Alberta then of the entire nation. Their story recapitulates that of the Grand Banks. To accommodate rapacious greed, science has been both co-opted and ignored, the Providential Principle has been widely deployed, laws have been redrafted and public life corrupted. The government’s assault on behalf of the tar sands corporation on the common interests of all Canadians has licensed and empowered destructive tendencies throughout the nation.

Well. That’s not the end, there is more in this vein. Monbiot clearly sets out the state of Canada today. He does note: For those who appreciate natural beauty and understand ecosystem processes, it must feel like living in a country under enemy occupation. It must also be intensely embarrassing. Canada is becoming a pariah state, whose name now invokes images formerly associated with countries like Nigeria and Congo. Canadian friends joke that they stitch U.S. flags onto their rucksacks when they go abroad.

Indeed, I have felt more than embarrassment at the disassembling of my beautiful country. I have felt great anger and despair. About the only defense I could call upon is the fact that the current majority Conservative government was elected under our Kooky, anti-democratic election system by a minority of Canadians amongst a flurry of sick, vicious attack ads, robocalls and election fraud such as one associates with a third world country. It is impossible to explain, however, the know-nothing care-nothing attitude of Canadians across the country. Canadians pride themselves on being ‘polite’, but the manner in which citizens have sat back and turned a blind eye to the gutting of environmental legislation, to the targeting of charitable environmental organizations as ‘terrorists’, even the crushing of democratic processes, suggests Canadians are lazily complaisant, selfish and self-absorbed, unable to care about anything beyond the latest hockey scores, maybe their latest electronic gadget. We are entertaining ourselves to death with make-believe stories of hobbits and dragons and super heroes even as our own real world crumbles around us.

Oh Canada. Who stands on guard for thee now?


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Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)

Wonderful though it is to hear the voices of the returning migrant birds, the Song of Spring is not sung by birds. Rather, it is sung in trills and peeps and quacks by thousands of tiny frogs as they awaken from a long winter and seek to renew life itself.

I heard the first frog music a week ago, on the evening of Tuesday, April 15, after a lovely mild day. Since then, we’ve had some cooler days, even a dusting of snow, but the frog chorus is growing more persistent, more insistent.

Yesterday, I recorded a homophony of Western Chorus frogs and Wood frogs when I stopped by a wetland on my way home. Listen here:

The trilly voices are the chorus frogs, while the clacky, quacky voices are the wood frogs. It’s hard to believe that such tiny beings create such a clamorous outpouring. Chorus frogs range from about .75 to 1.5 inches long, while wood frogs are a bit larger, 1.4 to 3.3 inches in length.

Thanks to Seabrooke for the use of these two photographs of the tiny singers, which she took last Tuesday night.


Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris t. triseriata)

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Here’s the gang, Teddy, Louis and Czarina, watching what I’m up to. They still have their woolly winter coats. The donkeys keep their long hair well into the spring, but Czarina is losing her winter coat by the handful. Soon she’ll be summer-sleek again.

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Evening on the Spring River

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Here’s a view of the garden taken from an upstairs window. We have enjoyed a few mild days this week and much of our two feet of snowcover has melted away. It’s amazing how quickly so much snow can disappear after weeks of feeling that it would never go! Even more amazing is how quickly the garden begins to return to life.


Of course, you expect spring bulbs to be pushing up. These are daffodils. But many other plants are already greening up. Here is a sampling from a walk around the newly-released flower beds.


Morningstar Sedge (Carex grayi)


Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)


Red Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale)


Angelina Sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’)


Columbine sp.


Mountain Lover (Paxistima canbyi )


Tansy (Tanacetum niveum ‘Jackpot’)

Nice as it is to see some greenery, flower buds are even more exciting. Check out the adorable fuzzy buds on this Pasque flower. I hope it will be blooming, as its name suggests it should, for Easter next week.


Pasque flower ( Pulsatilla vulgaris )

The first flower to bloom will be this pink hellabore. A garden blogger who enjoys the milder climate of the west coast once wrote that he couldn’t see the big deal about hellabores. It was clear that he had never waited out several feet of snow for that first bloom! It’s pretty exciting.


Hellebore or Lenten Rose (Helleborus sp.)

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The road to Willow House crosses our little river before turning sharply left and following the riverbank to the house. The river, the headwaters of the South Nation River, is usually little more than a creek, but it responds rapidly to increased inflow from rain or snowmelt. The year before we moved to Willow House, the culverts that carry the stream beneath the road were all replaced with larger and more numberous culverts. The new culverts have always been sufficient to contain the stream’s most active flow.

That all changed on Tuesday. With a few mild days, our extensive snow cover has been melting rapidly, and on Monday night a heavy rain supplemented the snowmelt. The engorged river overwhelmed the culverts and began creeping across the road.


RailGuy moved a vehicle to the far side of the bridge so that we wouldn’t be trapped, and then we watched with fascination as the river continued to rise across the day. The water never exceeded 6 or 8 inches in depth over the road, and we were able to walk to the other side, but the power of the flow was impressive. The current soon began to erode the gravel on the roadway. The line of rills along the road mark the edge of excavations in the gravel.


Whirlpools marked the spots where water was being sucked into the culverts below the surface.


By Wednesday morning, the flow over the road had fallen to a trickle and we were able to survey the damage the water had done.


Viewing the effects of just a few inches of water flowing over 24 hours gave me a much more visceral understanding of the forces that must have created the Grand Canyon! Here’s Pookie, looking over the main channel the flood grooved into the road, about a foot deep.


On Thursday morning, workers from the Township arrived with several loads of gravel and a tractor to repair the damage.


It didn’t take them long to tidy things up and we were able to drive over the bridge again.


This Friday morning, the river is still flowing strongly, and is higher than the culverts, where whirlpools are still swirling. But it’s well below road level, and ice-free.


Here’s a short video of the river in full flood on Tuesday afternoon.

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On the Move


Each spring, I await the arrival of the first Red-winged Blackbird with great anticipation. From there, spring is a series of birdy firsts. First robin! First grackle! First cowbird! First Song Sparrow! First pair of Hooded Mergansers on the river! First Turkey Vultures! First Great Blue Heron! First woodcock!

And then there are the geese. As they travel north, hundreds stop to forage in the stubble of the many corn fields hereabouts. Mostly, there are huge flocks of Canada geese on the move. But some years, there are Snow geese as well. This year, there have been many Snow geese travelling with the Canada geese.


These Snow geese in flight are easy to identify, with their black-tipped wings. However, Snow geese come in two morphs, or color patterns. White adults have black wing tips and pink bills, with a blackish ‘grin’ patch. Their feet and legs are pink. Blue-morph adults have a white head and upper neck while their bodies are dark bluish-grey. They may have white tail feathers and varying amounts of white on their belly.

While the Canada geese will nest in Southern Ontario, the Snow geese will carry on far to the north, where they will nest along the shores of Hudson Bay and James Bay.


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