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Strawberry Fields Forever?

Recently, I opened a Flickr file of photos, developed from forgotten negatives recently discovered in my mother’s basement closet. Childhood memories spilled out, especially one evoked by a photo of myself sitting on a fence post by a farmer’s field.

It was 1956 and the summer sun had descended towards distant trees on the western boundary of a vast field. The pickers had left for the day. After a quick surveillance, I climbed the fence separating my backyard from acres of ripe strawberries and scurried out of my mother’s sight at the kitchen window. Then I wandered along until I deemed it safe to harvest the plentiful fruit. I squatted in a row and picked berries until they stained my fingers red and filled my belly to bursting. Day after day I partook in this ritual, never bringing a strawberry home, always hoping my mother wouldn’t notice the tell-tale signs of my orgies. Truly, she must have, but I cannot remember her displeasure at my obvious greed, only the bountiful blessing of those berries free for the taking.

Decades later, on a June day, I unwittingly found myself partaking in a similar feeding frenzy. I had cut across my neighbour’s yard and unleashed my dog to run along the dirt road. Just beyond a hidden creek, another farmer’s field stretched to the woods. Its white sign with faded letters “Strawberries – Pick & Pay” pointed towards long rows of ripening fruit. When I neared them, seagulls lifted and cawed their displeasure. With a backwards glance, I bent and located a cluster of ripe berries, skins red and shiny from the night’s rain. In seconds, my mouth filled with surplus juice. Chester caught up and ambled down the row to strawberries that tumbled off the plants. I reached into my pocket for the doggie bag and picked two, three berries at a time, discarding ones the gulls had pecked. The bag filled up. I settled on straw next to a cluster of even bigger berries and, one after another, devoured them. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a fluffy tail dusting weeds a few rows over. Reassured, I ate until I was saturated with fruit. Then I filled a second bag until it barely closed. Satiated and perhaps dazed, I whistled for Chester and we headed slowly home down the dusty road. (For the record, I did pay for those berries.)

Soon strawberry season 2020 will arrive. I wonder how buying or picking this sun-ripened treat will change in this pandemic. No longer having the where-with-all to bend over rows of strawberries, I pray the local farmer’s stand will still offer boxes brimming with berries. But will there be pickers to harvest them? Or a friendly face to sell them? Will cash be accepted? Or will I have to order online? Once I pull into the parking lot, will there be lines spacing customers? Or gloved hands depositing pre-paid berries into my trunk? If the farmer wears a mask, will we be able to chat about the weather or the size and sweetness of the berries? Or will it only be a ‘hi and bye’ exchange?
Wearing a mask to buy strawberries and sanitizing my hands in the car will not be fun. Foregoing the pleasure of immediately popping them into my mouth will definitely be a disappointment. And, to top it off, storing them in the frig overnight, just in case…., will almost be a sacrilege, for as everyone knows, day old strawberries are not the same. Sigh…such are the times. Hopefully not forever.

(this piece was originally published in Our Pandemic Times)

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By the Pond

Like many authors, nature inspires my writing. As I sit by my pond on a warm May day, I note the chickadees flitting in the cedars, the cat bird gathering twigs for her nest, and the male wren singing his heart out to attract a mate. Last week a mallard duck swam peacefully on the pond, snacking on the weed below his paddling feet. His mate searched for titbits in the cattails. They don’t nest here, but rather in a marshy area tucked up against the neighbouring woods. But every spring, they touch down in our pond for a quick dip or two.

Memories of past year sightings also inspire my stories. Every time I spot the mallards, I remember the time my mother sat reading her book under the big umbrella. The ducks quietly glided into the pond and floated a dozen feet away from her still and silent form. They took turns diving for pond weed in their bottoms-up fashion, and then bobbing up to search for other morsels inches away.

All was calm and amusing, my mother recounted later, until another male mallard suddenly swooped in and landed close by. Within seconds, a duck squabble arose with much splashing, honking, and flapping of wings. My mother remained rooted to her chair, but the female mallard just swam into the cattails and waited for the intruder to leave, which of course he did after a few moments of mayhem. Then the pair returned to their foraging until the male honked it was time to go. Up they glided, off to their night-time abode, after which my mother closed her droplet-spattered book and headed for the house to tell her tale of the duck fight on the pond.

“It’s hard to read at the pond,” she said. “There’s more drama going on down there than in my book.” I agree. Better to bring binoculars and watch the birds in May and June. Soon enough, the mating and raising of young will be over, but then the butterflies will arrive and grace the button bushes and the Joe Pye weed. So for now, when by the pond, I watch, listen, take notes, and save what I’ve absorbed for the long indoor months when the pond chairs and big umbrella are stored in the shed.

(this piece was originally published by Northumberland Festival of the Arts)

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Morning in March

When sleep will not stretch
‘til morning, I slip downstairs
and wait for dawn to drift over
the horizon. As usual, the cats are up,
wanting to be fed, while the dog snores
in his crate, even when I open the door.
He’s old and prefers to sleep late.
I gather vitamins, pour a glass of milk,
slice a banana, and settle onto my sofa.
The sky is dark, but not too dark.
The moon is fading to the west.
The stars are already gone. I wait –
listening to chimes on the patio,
watching the day come to life.
First colours change – slate grey to pewter.
Then shapes sharpen. Twigs on trees.
A bird feeder below a branch.
Sumac cones above the garden shed.
Moments later, smoke floats
over the neighbour’s house,
wispy white on violet blue.
Then a crow caws. A chickadee
flies to the feeder. Juncos gather
on the ground. Peck. Peck. Peck.
The cats stretch, stomachs full.
The dog opens an eye, yawns, and
tucks his nose under a paw.
Without fanfare, the sun scales
the horizon and washes the sky
with a ripe melon orange.
I rise and start the coffee.

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A Shared Name, an Unshared Life

Gram and Pop Wisse c 1945

My grandmother shares my name. And I share hers. It is a name of love and loss, given to me before my birth. The name of a woman whose flesh and blood formed the woman who formed me. The name of a grandmother pictured in a 5×7 black and white photograph that rests on my mother’s living-room end table. In it she stands next to my grandfather in their backyard, her head slightly tilted, a soft yet no-nonsense expression on her face.
For most of my life, this photo was merely a vague testament to a woman I never missed because her memory was seldom invoked. Her early death had generated a gap in my family’s history. But recently, I’ve gleaned photographs from a crumbling album and gently mined my mother’s fading memories to reclaim my grootmoeder who died before I was born. She rose out of the shadows of another century, another country, and another culture, all left behind when she married my grandfather and crossed the ocean to begin a new life with him in northern New Jersey.
Marie Buijze was born in 1889 in the Netherlands, in the southern province of Zeeland, which is a cluster of large islands reclaimed from the sea and anchored to the continent by Belgium. Not far from this border lies the small city of Terneuzen with its surrounding towns where my ancestors lived for centuries, some in the countryside, some by the sea, and a few in the city itself.
My grandmother was the eldest of nine children, three of whom died in infancy. She was born and raised in a two-room workmans house covered in grey stucco and roofed in red, clay tiles, a house built on de Baandijk that stretched out of Terneuzen along a ditch and into the countryside.
My grandmother’s father, Adriaan, was a farm labourer. He toiled from dawn to dusk for a wealthy farmer and little money which lead towards his early death. During the growing season, Adriaan also tilled a half-acre of land on the polder behind his house to feed his expanding family. It yielded most of their food for the year.
My grandmother’s mother Rachel was a Dutch housewife who kept their house spotless. She prepared the family’s meals on a cook stove in the small kitchen that contained a dry sink, a cupboard, and a sturdy table with chairs. A wooden ladder led to the zolder where the older children slept under the eaves.
In the front room or beste kammer white curtains framed two windows. Between them, sat an heirloom table and hutch that held the Sunday china. Wasting no space, the middle wall enclosed two beds behind paneled doors – one for Marie’s parents and the other for younger children.
While the front door was opened only on formal occasions, the back door was the portal to the outer world. One step down was a small stoop and an iron pump fixed above a cistern. To the left was the w.c. harbouring spiders. To the right, around a corner, was the pig pen and an enormous pig. A small shed housed farm implements and chickens which Rachel raised for eggs.
After she was born, Marie was swaddled in layers of clothing to protect her from the waterkould the chilly dampness of Holland that seeps into the bones. As a young girl she wore thick undergarments and a heavy skirt and blouse over which she wrapped a striped apron. She pulled woolen stockings up her legs and squeezed her feet into klompen wooden shoes. In warmer weather she often went barefoot. Later, as a young woman, Marie’s clothes resembled her mother’s outfits of warm shirts, bulky vests with flaaren (‘wings’) and woolen skirts. She wore a white cap on her head with a braid hanging down her back. In time she acquired a strand of orange coral beads or koraalen for church or special occasions.
Marie Buijze’s early life was little different from that of generations of girls and women who lived before her. The Dutch family was virtuous, frugal, and hard-working. The father was the provider, the mother the housewife, and the children subordinate to their parents. In the southern part of Zeeland where the Buijzes lived, the Dutch Reformed Church was the pillar of society. Respect for its authority and adherence to its beliefs were paramount in daily life.
Dutch law required all children to attend school until they turned twelve. It is likely that my grandmother learned to read and write in a school with two rooms, one for boys and the other for girls. Along with math and geography, she was taught sewing, darning, and knitting skills. After grade four or five, she returned home to help her mother with the endless household chores and the care of her younger siblings.
Life on de Baandijk was not all hard work and little play. Sundays provided a break from the grind of daily life. Dressing in their Sunday best and walking to church dominated the larger part of the day. But afterwards, there was visiting with friends and family, drinking coffee in the beste kammer, eating a hearty meal, and probably attending another church service in the early evening. A favourite “past time” was debating Sunday sermons and interpretations of scripture. They dove into it with a passion that often stretched into the rest of the week and sometimes into family and church schisms.
As Marie grew into adulthood, she became restless living in the small workman’s cottage. Family lore reveals that my grandmother had an independent streak. As soon as her sisters could take over household chores, Marie spread her wings and left home in 1909. She donned Western dress and went to work for a merchant family in Terneuzen as a nursemaid for their little girls. She also minded their winkel or small dry goods store when the children attended school or when the parents ate their mid-day dinner.
Wages were low for domestics and Marie may have earned no more than 50-100 guilders a year. Some if not all of this money may have been turned over to her family. But some may have been squirrelled away for Marie’s future. No longer a country girl, Marie had taken a decisive step into adulthood and the world of city life. Her expanded horizons grew and, five years later, gave her the courage, determination, and finances to leave her provincial Dutch life when she married my grandfather, Jan Adriaan Wisse.
Born in 1887, my grandfather was the second eldest child of another large family. His father Wilhelm was a visser or fisherman, his mother Adrianna a traditional Dutch housewife who bore 16 children, five of whom died as infants. As an older boy, Jan also worked on a botter in the Westerschelde River that separated Zeeland from the rest of Holland. He dubbed for flounder, sorted fish, and coiled ropes. The work was always hard and often dangerous. Boats, wharfs, fish, ropes, nets, baskets – all were wet, cold, and slippery, especially in stormy and wintery weather. So as a young man, my grandfather decided to learn masonry.
When my grandparents began to court, Jan was 22, Marie 20. He was a city boy. She a country girl. But they may have gone to school together or attended the same church every Sunday. Or maybe Jan brought fresh fish to the winkel or patched the bricks on the merchant’s building. How they met is unknown, but given their small social world, they more than likely knew each other for a long time before Marie’s independent streak caught Jan’s eye and Jan’s hard-working spirit convinced Marie that he was a good catch.
In the spring of 1911, the Wisse family made the momentous decision to leave the Netherlands. The year before, Willem had declared bankruptcy as he could no longer earn enough to feed his large family and pay their debts. Five years earlier, his older brother’s family had immigrated to the United States. They had settled in Northern New Jersey and found work in its textile mills. Undoubtedly, they wrote home about the economic prospects available in this Land of Opportunity.
At this time it was common for whole families to immigrate together. The young, unmarried adults and older teenagers found employment and helped establish their families in the new country. So Jan’s family sold most of their possessions to purchase the steep $45 per person for eleven tickets on the SS Ryndam of the Holland-America Line. On April 8 the Wisse family left Rotterdam for America. Ten days later they arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey. The ship manifest states they had $90 in their pockets and planned to live with Oom Anthony Wisse in Passaic. My grandfather Jan was described as a 23 year old merchant, 5 feet/6inches, with black hair and blue eyes. He was actually a mason and carried a certificate documenting his trade, a profession he pursued for years.

John and Marie Wisse, Wedding 1914

When Jan immigrated to America, my grandparents had not announced an engagement. But two and a half years later, Jan returned to Zeeland with a notarized document from his parents (necessary for “children” under 30) that granted him permission to marry. On December 24, 1913, Jan and Marie announced their engagement and were married three weeks later on January 15 in the Terneuzen Townhall. Afterwards their families and friends gathered for a wedding ceremony in Nordstraat Christian Reformed Church. Before their simple reception of traditional Dutch foods, Marie and Jan posed for a formal wedding portrait. Jan had become John and sported a western suit, while Marie wore a black skirt and blouse with a brocade vest. In her hands she held the black, gauze veil she wore during the ceremonies. Around her neck hung a long gold chain, a wedding gift from her in-laws. She did not wear her koraalen necklace. Nor did she wear a Dutch cap or hat of any kind. She too preferred the ornaments and dress of her future.

Honeymoons for Holland’s working poor were an extravagance the newlyweds could not afford. Instead, after all the paper work had been filed at the town hall and Marie’s emigration paper received, the couple traveled to Rotterdam, passed through a thorough inspection, and finally boarded the SS Noordam on February 14, 1914. John had purchased second class tickets. For twelve days they savoured the luxury of a small, private cabin with running water, hours of relaxation in the lounges, bracing walks on the deck, and hotel quality meals 3 times a day with entertainment in the evenings, all a foretaste of the prosperity available to them in the United States. When they disembarked at the Holland America Line port in Hoboken, New Jersey, John’s family greeted them, hoisted their baggage onto their shoulders, and motored them to the Wisse home on Gregory Street in Passaic, New Jersey.

John & Marie with Bill, 1916

Within two years, despite WWI having broken out in Europe, Marie and John had moved into their own clapboard house on “Dutch Hill.” John had obtained steady work as a mason and Marie had a newborn baby to raise. In their first American studio portrait, John stiffly held his son on his lap, while Marie, wearing a white muslin dress and her gold chain, stood next to him, a small smile playing on her lips. Her eyes were underlined with the dark circles of motherhood, but her gaze was proud and direct. Their small family was already reaping the rewards of their momentous decision to move thousands of miles to the prosperity of the New World.

However, while Marie and John’s house was more spacious, their material possessions more plentiful, and their food more varied, their lives replicated in profound ways the one left behind in Zeeland. Like their ancestors, the Wisses were a frugal, virtuous, hard-working, traditional family. John was the head of the household and Marie a mother and housewife, though often an equal partner in financial and family decisions. Their children, much loved, towed the line. But above all, the Dutch Christian Reformed Church and its beliefs and customs remained the center of their world. Regular Sunday church attendance (3 services, 1 in Dutch), private Christian school for their children, weekly church committee meetings, and a social life comprised of extended family and church members defined their lives. For Marie and John much had changed, but much remained the same.
To tie Marie’s new American life to the old Dutch one of her close-knit family in Zeeland, many letters penned in Dutch crossed the ocean. Only once did she travel back to visit them in Holland. In 1936, two years after Marie’s father Adriaan had died, Pop purchased tickets on a cargo ship The Black Tern for Gram, himself, and my nine-year old mother. Now and then, stories of that trip, and a few others of my mother’s childhood were shared with me and my siblings. But not many. And not often. Life was busy in my house. My parents had five children to raise and full time jobs. There seemed little time to tell tales of past lives, especially of one that ended too soon. Memories of my much-loved grandmother were held tightly within my mother’s heart. Now, as I poke and prod, she shares memories of both parents and a childhood lived in that Dutch immigrant enclave of Northern Jersey. From a few photographs and much research, plus emails from my Dutch cousin Adrie, I have imagined my grandmother’s early life in Zeeland. Seven decades after she died, I am finally meeting my grandmother, even though I never sat on her lap and brushed her long hair or baked Dutch sweets in her kitchen or listened to stories of the old country. Mercifully, we share a name that finally sparked a desire, almost too late, to find her and fill that gap in my life.

A Shared Name, an Unshared Life” is excerpted from a larger memoir piece to be shared with family, friends, and the wider North American Dutch community when completed.

(this piece was originally published in Hill Spirit IV)

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November Windows

A pale November sun
spotlights four windows
that frame tableaus
and buoy my heart now
chilled by days of grey
and degrees plunging
downwards towards months
of icy wind and snow.

Outside the patio window,
a woodpecker hops sideways,
feet gripping rough bark,
its white breast framed
by black wing feathers,
a red cap perched on its head,
as it inches to the feeder,
hungry for suet.

Beyond the kitchen window,
a dozen chickens,
buff and busy, scratch
the frosted ground strewn
with fists of frozen kale
and grain scooped from
a rusted barrel stored
beneath their stilted coop.

Against a living room window,
my husband, forehead to pane,
lifts a storm and clicks it into
place beside a wavy 2 over 2,
while a pale sun silhouettes his
raised arms in an autumnal ritual
that blocks westerly winds
rising behind his back.

Through an upstairs window,
a scene unfolds across the street,
as a young man nimbly climbs
the neighbour’s roof to replace
crumbling bricks on a chimney
built when he erected tall
Lego towers on the carpet
next to the bed behind me.

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Manifestations From the Pond

Our pond is small, compared to those on nearby country properties, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Basically it’s a frog pond only five feet deep in the middle, a third of its depth the primordial muck that incubates dragonfly nymph s and mosquito larvae. Twenty years ago, a back-hoe pulled down a slimy cement pool that filled this corner of our acre lot. Gravelly dirt was dumped in the hole to make a ball field for our children; but spring water and cattails reclaimed this hollow as a mating pool for toads and frogs. So, five years later, another back-hoe dug a new pond and my husband, Ed, spent the rest of the summer shaping its edges and bordering a small grassy ledge with rocks for our chairs and umbrella.

At first, we envisioned deep water with sunfish and perch swimming the bottom and a profusion of ferns and water plants ringing the shoreline. When we planted marsh marigolds, blue flag, and an elder bush in choice spots, native jewelweed, boneset, and Joe Pye weed picked their own places in the boggy parts. When we lodged white and pink water lilies in the middle of the pond, pickerelweed and arrowhead surrounded them and stood erect like commas on opposite shores. Then cattails repossessed the outlets, and uninvited grasses and goldenrod crowded out the turtlehead and cardinal flower. Tough roots of yellow irises, once thought beautiful, grabbed a toehold on as much shoreline as possible, and proliferated into an invincible foe. Gradually, our vision of an artistic landscape of ferns and wetland wildflowers was replaced by a grudging appreciation of both the alien and native plants thriving in the clay soil around our pond. For amid unruly weeds, we glimpsed tiny blue spots of water forget-me-nots and white sprinklings of bedstraw. Next to the rocks we identified bristly nut grass and pink, trailing smartweed, all modest flora offering unique shapes and colour if we but noticed their unobtrusive presence.

After a few years, we conceded that the natural world had its own agenda best left to observe rather than manipulate. When we paid attention, small manifestations revealed themselves, some humorous, some profound, most ephemeral, but all unexpected revelations to be marveled at from the confines of our Algonquin chairs under a green umbrella.

Every mid-April along the margins of the pond, the invisible peeper frogs herald the opening act of the Nocturnal Mating and Territorial Squabbling Season. Soon the elongated trills of the toads, like fingernails on a comb, join this amphibious musical. As the weather warms, the high-pitched tremolo of elusive tree frogs moves from wood to water. Finally in early June, when the shrill calls of the peepers fade away, green frogs add their rubber-band twang to the choir. Occasionally, the rapid, hollow notes of a solitary leopard frog resonate as he seeks a mate in waters that are as busy as a Roman bath in the dark. Come mornings, all is quiet. But along the shore lie jelly masses of frogspawn and, twined around the lily pads, strings of toad eggs whose black dots evolve, if not eaten by predators, into hundreds of tadpoles wriggling in the warm water of the edges. A month later on the day of metamorphosis the border grass vibrates when innumerable brown toads, smaller than pennies, hop towards the grape arbour and out into the wide world of the yard.

During this coupling tumult, spontaneous Frog Wars erupt as green frogs vie for footage along the shoreline. One low croak begins the challenge. A dozen twangs of varying pitches echo around the pond. Like sumo wrestlers, frogs grab opponents and tumble in the shallows. Moments later, losers concede defeat and retreat to prior-claimed territory. Then another couple takes the stage and repeats this performance to the delight of its human audience. These acts of macho-mating recur well into June, when the weary actors disperse to drier parts of the garden and fatten up for winter’s long sleep.

With summer’s approach, the air above the pond’s surface pulsates with the darting zigzags of dragonflies and damselflies. Two-Spot, Nine-Spot, Common Whitetail Red-veined Darter, and Green Darner. After spending most of their lives underwater as ghostly nymphs, they stealthily crawl up spiky reeds, breathe the night air, and shed their larval skins which stick to plant stems like transparent clothes on a line. These ancient insects patrol the pond and devour mosquitoes, midges, flies, always attacking their prey from below. On sunny days, the air close to the pond’s edge dances with the unabashed coupling of Blue Ringtails riding tandem. Over and over, these slender acrobats form circles and hearts before the female deftly deposits her eggs on reeds below the water’s surface. In late summer, as the air cools, Rubyspots rest on rocks, chairs, arms, anyplace warm, and then resume their last minute pairing before an autumn frost ends their brief lives.

These breeding rituals fascinate us. One day, we watched the non-stop labour of a Green Darner gliding from stem to stem, never resting in her rhythmic exertion to reproduce another generation before the sun sank behind the cedars. Suddenly, from under a lily pad, a green frog leapt up and swallowed her in one gulp. Only our stunned silence witnessed her transformation from sustainer to sustenance in this peculiar dance of death and rebirth. One moment a dragonfly laying eggs, the next moment nutrients being rearranged into amphibious cells…premonitions of our own dust to dust mortality.

In my dictionary, the verb “observe” means to watch carefully, to witness, to watch without taking part. Silently, from the confines of my chair, I behold the nuanced life of the obscure—tadpoles, minnows, damsel flies—all creatures indistinguishable from another, all alive for one long moment of a season, seemingly to flicker in their beauty and then to feed the turtles, birds, frogs, toads – creatures of a higher order that emerge on logs, branches, and margins of the pond, all alive in their splendor for a few more seasons. To my ear “observe” sounds much like “absorb” which is to soak up or incorporate something into a larger entity in a way that loses much of its own identity.

My time by the pond is spent observing life and being absorbed by it. Moved by the saga of the Green Darner, I reflect on becoming part of a larger whole, part of a universe replicated in the life of this country pond. At times, my monkey mind quiets, the past and future meld into present. My being hovers briefly over water, pulsating gently, like the rhythmic undulation of a damsel fly levitating near the rushes. The mysterious, relentless passage of time ceases for an instant and I relax into divine tranquility, sensing dimly how my cells will one day be absorbed into a greater whole, and with relief, all will be well with my soul.

This pond has anchored us to our property. Late breakfasts, lunches after chores, and countless coffee breaks “down by the pond” offer quick retreats from May through October. Lazy Sunday afternoons suggest opening a book and drifting into a nap. But most often, we just recharge our spirits with glimpses of reticent creatures in the water. “Have you seen the turtles yet?” we ask each other when the peepers announce spring. Come summer and into the fall, we scan the pond for yellow-striped noses with black eyes that peer back at us; or we look for lily pads shifting jerkily as a turtle navigates under-water stems. The first summer our pond was dug, a neighbour girl excitedly told us she saw a turtle swimming there. Sure enough, a black head with a yellow chin poked above the water’s surface. In the dusk, we saw faint flecks of yellow dotting its shell. After a little research, we realized that a rare Blanding’s turtle had discovered our pond.

Three Junes later, a painted hatchling crawled across our godson’s driveway, and was plopped into an aquarium for the summer. When the weather cooled, Isaac chose our pond for its release into hibernation. Not wary of people, this growing turtle often swam under lily pads close to our chairs. Then it would paddle away searching for larvae before disappearing into the tangle of pickerelweed and cattails. Once, another painted turtle crept across our lawn, presumably migrating from the swampy, cedar woods across the street. It too took up residence in the pond, along with those whose shells had been split by cars.

Most of these wanderers outgrew our sanctuary and climbed its banks, heading for the nearby stream where they likely floated to Lake Ontario or another wetland downstream. We mourned each loss, but eventually accepted their need for other habitats, knowing that other turtles will make their way to our watery haven. In the infinite sky above our land, more than seventy species of birds fly past or rest in its trees while migrating north and south. A dozen camp and picnic in the maples, cedars, and spruces surrounding the house, some for the mating season, others as year-long inhabitants. Goldfinches chatter, looping from tree to tree. Chickadees flit about the feeders rasping “chicka-dee-dee-dee” over and over again. In the garden, jays screech while picking apart the sunflowers. None of these birds seem to visit the pond, except for surreptitious drinks at the water’s edge.

In early summer, the iridescent grackles take over this campground and swimming hole. They raid the canteen feeders. They wade along the muddy shore fishing for minnows. As they raise their young, they clean house by strafing the pond with bird droppings aimed directly at our chairs. For weeks, their constant raspy “vaaak-vaaak” fills the air, until one week in mid-summer, when the fledglings fend for themselves, they clear out for festivities further north and free our open-air band-shell for other avian acts.

In sporadic appearances, a green heron squawks past the pond and hides behind a cedar curtain, bobbing awkwardly on a branch until he deems it safe to fish for minnows and hapless frogs below. This feathered ‘Ed Sullivan’ hunches close to the irises, waiting motionless for prey while keeping a steady eye on his audience, equally motionless across the pond. If pickings are slim in one spot, he crosses lily pads on long, yellow legs to search beneath the elder. Once, absorbed in the hunt, the heron ignored our son Jesse’s camera clicks as he captured the subtle colours of grey-green wings and brown feathers on an out-stretched neck. Subsequent sightings have been rare, as this small, solitary heron, like all good fishermen, seeks its catch at dusk and dawn.

More often, the large, blue heron fishes the stream and pond. One late summer afternoon, it swooped in and settled on the top of the green umbrella, its feet outlined above my startled head. Even our dog’s low growls did not deter its desire to fish. Long wings propelled long legs to the shallow water where it searched for prey despite Chester’s now persistent barking. After an eternity of ten minutes, I released his squirming body from my lap to sprint closer to the pond’s edge. With a slow, steady flap of its wings, the heron lifted off to the north and, clearing the top branch of a black walnut, flew to a quieter fishing hole in the cedar woods.

Over the years, colour, shape, and light, rather than animal visitations, have inspired our family’s creation of Pond Art. Ed’s painted long shots and Jesse’s photographed close-ups hang in many homes north and south of the border, extending the reach of our outdoor retreat to family and friends. Reflected irises, wide sweeps of lily pads, low-hanging elder branches heavy with purple fruit are replicated on canvases suggesting the transparencies of a northern Giverny. Close-up photographs entitled “Pond Geometry” and “Pond Refuse” reveal minutia of water lilies and cattails – the raindrops on decaying leaves, an autumn tangle of flattened stems, the pink underside of a lily pad. While wonder pulls us to the pond, the artist’s eye and the camera’s lens capture its abstractions – complimentary colours of reds and greens, contrasted shapes of straight and round, changing light of sun and shadow, and always the miracle of reflection transposing vertical life onto a horizontal plane. Pond Art converts scenes too intricate to be absorbed into digestible fare, enabling us to perceive beauty in places that reflect featureless repetition or uninspiring chaos.

Absorbed in wonder, we assume our role as stewards of this rural slice of earth, this shared dwelling. We realize there is little difference between the inconspicuous and the amazing; all are caught up in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth; all play a part in this complex community of pond and shore life.

When days grow shorter, the lily pads yellow and decay. Their flowers scarcely open on warm fall days, until one by one, they disappear below the water’s surface. By October there are no more blooms, no more turtle sightings, and only a few Rubyspots resting on the reeds. Instead, in the fire-red reflections of sumacs on the pond’s surface, minnows leap into the air, no longer afraid of predatory frogs and birds. On clear days, the sun spreads a warm light over the faded foliage. A lone cricket repeats a rhythmic note in the grass. A creeping stillness fills the air. Then the first, hard frost crisps everything brown and ushers in the closing act of another year.

By November, cold rains have pulled the leaves off trees and plastered them to the ground. Chalk-white skeletons of birches are etched against cedars that have shed a carpet of needles along the edge of the stream. All the foliage has browned and shrunk back to earth, wrapping it like a shawl against northern winds. Most days, the chairs are empty and, eventually, are carried, with the umbrella, to the storage shed. Only the sky is reflected in the pond, sometimes blue, sometimes steel grey, while the somber crows “caw, caw” high overhead. When nighttime temperatures dip below –5 degrees Celsius, we pull the feeder pipe out of the stream, and rely on winter rain and snow melt to maintain a watery cover for hibernating creatures. Sometimes, on cold clear nights, over the thickened ice, hoar frost scatters intricate ice crystals that sparkle in the early morning sun, beckoning us to gaze in astonishment at winter’s encore.

But once the snow deepens, we only glimpse this frozen habitat during daily trips to the chicken coop. For months, the pond is asleep, tranquil, waiting—waiting for early March when maple sap moves like an elevator up and down the tree trunks and ice melts around the shore’s edge, offering a resurrection of hope and, once more, the grace of its manifestations.

(this piece was originally published in Hill Spirit II)

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Letting Go the Garden

Goodbye, good riddance!
I’ve tended you long enough.
My patience is worn thin,
like your scraggly cucumber vines
and withered onion stalks.

Can’t you hear the jays screech
my aggravation while goldfinch
flit behind my back and empty
each and every sunflower?
Better they devoured
your striped cucumber pests,
and ugly brown squash bugs,
not to mention,
your mating asparagus beetles
with orange shells hard as nuts.

Take heed! While geese honk
their way south, moles below
nibble holes in your squash left
too long by my growing indifference.
Better they had eaten the last
of your mishappened beans
turned to mush by cottony
mildew that billows from
your damp, autumnal soil.

Thank goodness, the crickets
in the meadow rehearse
a farewell that promises
merciful frosts
to end my stoop and bend
under the ambush of a late
heat wave germinating
misbegotten seeds and
endless weeds
on two inch stems.

Get thee gone, garden!
Enough!

Today, I’d rather unbend
my weary back and
pick perfect produce
from bins overflowing
in a grocery store
so many miles away.

Then, tomorrow, I’ll pull
your shrivelled stems,
your brown and crinkled leaves.
After that, I’ll till your tired soil,
and let you disappear
under layers of snow for oh,
so many welcomed months of rest.

But wait! What is that in my mailbox,
arriving so soon, before year’s end?

Ah, a seed catalogue of atonement,
offered as a Christmas gift,
to germinate winter dreams
of sun-ripened tomatoes, cucumbers
stacked like rails on a settler’s fence,
zucchini roasted on the barbecue,
purple basil snipped onto lettuce
plucked from your compost-rich soil.

Oh, the garden! the garden!
My errant child. Come spring
I’ll forgive your vexatious ways
and, after a winter’s reprieve,
welcome you home, eyes wide open,
to make your beds, pull your weeds,
and prepare those providential feasts,
gratefully harvested once more from
your summer’s blessed abundance.

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Meteorite

(A Poem for a Sister Who Left Too Soon)

Last summer, hour after hour,
you milked the currants
from their slender stems
and stained your fingers red.
Some fell into your lap,
small round berries,
reflecting radiation
aimed hot, months before,
at the meteorite that
crashed with a silent thud,
into the epicentre
of your unsuspecting life.
Fleeting months later,
translucent light jelled
that fruit in jars, crimson
as stained glass, but
left untouched by your lips,
too weak to taste its
sweet offering of times past.
Now, day after day,
we savour those berries,
preserved, dwindling
spoonful by spoonful,
spread despondently
across the crater hole
left by the impact
of your cosmic passing.

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No Language for Lost Limbs

Old sugar maples edge the road
with power lines parting branches,
and trunks baring scars of lost limbs,
victims of storms and chainsaws
that feared wind and black-outs.
The ‘b’ is silent, I tell the children.
“Cross it out. Don’t say the sound.”
They nod and ask, “What’s a limb?”  
“An old word for tree branch…
a very large one…a word for you, too…
your arms, your legs.”
Limbs, boughs, silent graphemes,
lost sounds from language,
words once strong, baring tire swings,
tree forts, bare feet, bobcats,
ancient hunters with arrows.
Limbs, grayed, shedding bark,
rotting, crashing to the ground,
remnants of a dying language,
supplanted by buckthorn, box elders,
text messages, lopped words,
hieroglyphs sent to silent screens.
Limbs climbing, leaping, marching
reaching back, moving forward
through centuries to today,
now disemvoweled, shriveled,
reduced to words not spoken.
“Don’t risk life and limb; be careful!”
we warn the children. If you lose one,
you lose the other. Words hold stories,
yours, mine, collective histories.
Limbs lost forfeit leaves, shade,
nouns, verbs, a missing word today,
a vanished language tomorrow.

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Uplift

Beyond the kitchen window,
a western sky darkens to dusk.
My nose drips raw into
a sink of soapy water and
a day of dirty dishes.
Gloom settles on my shoulders
like a suffocating cloak,
a black hole swallowing light.
From the pond, out of sight,
I glimpse a blue heron, fishing late.
It rises over the garden, banks through
the reddened sumacs, and catches
an updraft into glowing backlit clouds,
teasing a smile of gratitude
from my uplifted face.

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