alharris

Scenes from my Woodland Garden

I am typing this outdoors on a weekday morning, sitting in my woodland garden. The bleeding hearts are still blooming, their season extended courtesy of the cool spring. The Solomon’s seal hang their primordial arches over the garden statuary, and hover judiciously above the hostas. The fiddleheads have unfurled; the lilies-of-the-valley dangle their tiny bells; the violets are nodding their pretty purple heads. The garden casts a green glow.

I am sitting here, breathing, while a wash billows on the line.

A year ago, amid the pandemic, our life was as busy as ever, and in some ways more beset by urgencies than it had ever been, until, one day, we looked at each other and said “F*ck it,” and started talking seriously about retiring–my husband from his small business (and teaching during the fall and winter), and me from teaching (and working with him during the off-season–or, often, in the middle of the night). The overheated Toronto real estate market helped crystalize our decision to sell the small downtown building my husband had bought in the nineties, and after a quarter century of service (after enough glasses of wine I might be prepared to inventory the strange and disgusting things I have cleaned out of other people’s toilets), we retired.

This year I turned 50; my husband is closing in on 60. Like many Gen-Xers, we are sandwiched between parenting and eldercare, meaning we haven’t bought an RV yet! But we have embarked upon an important intellectual project, The Space Between Us, which consists mainly of us airing our differences in public in ways that, we think, can illuminate and perhaps map out ways to reconcile ideological differences in our divided culture. I continue to publish essays and review books (the latter mainly for Spacing magazine–hit up the editors if you have an urban-themed novel or non-fiction book pending), and have a book of my own to finish writing (for which I have spent a great deal of time reading 1940s issues of Chatelaine magazine–more about this anon).

The wind soughs in the trees. A robin flaps about in the bird bath.

After the sale of our building closed, and after my final term of teaching, I felt so tired it seemed impossible to focus. At night in bed, instead of reading I did crossword puzzles. I followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with dismay. I detached from social media. I went dumpster diving with a lovely neighbour. I went down to the basement almost every day and rowed, and now row at least 100,000 metres every month, accompanied by old X Files episodes. I have started walking long distances, as far as I can travel in three hours every Saturday while my daughter attends a downtown art class.

Last Friday I saw Sarah Harmer in concert at Massey Hall. It was a perfect, humid evening, and I rode downtown smelling the heady scent of lilac and crabapples, and listened as she raised her incandescent voice before a rapt audience in that beautiful building, and then rode home in the velvet night.

The garlic are getting ready to grow scapes. The rhubarb stalks grow with disquieting speed, seemingly overnight. I have planted borage. The carpenter bees have returned. My lilac, planted four or five years ago, has flowered for the first time. The iris are blooming.

A week ago we split the cost of a new fence with our neighbours. It is a very fine fence, and its construction has made me rethink the landscape of my woodland garden. I have cleaned out a neglected back corner and laid some stepping stones. I’ve cleaned out the composters and set two of them against the fence in a spot too shaded for much to grow. I have low stone walls to reset and a list of Ontario native plants to procure, and plans for a second row of raspberries to grow along the back of the garage.

Last night we went for a walk. This afternoon I will bike over to Canadian Tire in search of one last variety of hot peppers. Later on I might read on the verandah.

And tonight I will sleep on those wind-blown sheets, fresh in from the line.

Holding Tight and Letting Go

One of my Christmas gifts was a copy of The Faddon More Psalter: The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure (John Gillis; National Museum of Ireland, 2021). The Faddon More Psalter is a circa 800 CE book of psalms dug out of an Irish bog in 2006. This is remarkable in itself, but more remarkable still is that the book, despite being very degraded after having spent more than a millennium in a bog, was nonetheless intact enough for its conservators to reconstruct much of its structure and portions of its text. Two important discoveries during this process were, first, that the psalter remained in its original jacket (reportedly a very rare finding for a surviving early medieval codex, as most were rebound over the centuries) and, second, that its leather jacket contained fragments of papyrus, evidence of cultural and trade linkages to the eastern Mediterranean.

Of all the fascinating analysis in Gillis’ illuminating book, the subject that interests me most is how the psalter ended up in the bog in the first place. Gillis considers the possibility that the psalter had gotten into the bog inadvertently, perhaps dropped by an errant monk or lost during flight, before determining, based on available evidence, that the book was likely deposited intentionally.

But if so, why? Why would someone deliberately bury (or sink, as seems closer to the case) a holy book in a relatively remote corner of a bog? Gillis discounts the possibility that the psalter was concealed from marauding Vikings or hidden during local conflict, given that its simple cover and humble contents made it unlikely to have been considered a material treasure — or threat. It could have been stolen and buried out of malice–but the presence of a leather satchel and calfskin pelt (used, it is inferred, to cover the psalter) at the find site suggest more tender motivations. With this in mind, Gillis posits a third option: that of a ceremonial burial or votive offering. Speculating, Gillis suggests the psalter could have been buried as a deathbed request: perhaps a monk, nearing the end of his service on Earth, asked that the psalter be buried near the place of his ministry.

However the psalter ended up in the bog (and Gillis suggests we will likely never know), its deposition seems to have reflected one of the most consequential and bifurcated kinds of choices: between holding tight and letting go. And its discovery, similarly, highlights the paradox of its deposition. Had the psalter been held onto, like the dozens of other psalters that would have been in use at monasteries then operating in the region, it almost certainly would not have survived to the present day. Conflict, migration, fire, wear, indifference, revisionism, and time itself have done away with most ancient books. To read about the lost libraries of Alexandria is to feel some tug of the tides that sweep writing and ideas away, but most books vanish quietly, without fanfare or mourning. Even books that have survived have often done so only in greatly altered form. Medieval codices were regularly reworked into new books, and the study of fragments has become an exciting subset of medieval studies. But it is exceedingly uncommon for an early medieval book to survive in its original form, thus the paradox that deposition in the bog–letting go–was the reason the Faddan More Psalter survived.

What people hold tight to and what they let go of is a subject of considerable and longstanding interest to me, and has more recently become a major focus of my research. Why do we keep the things we keep? Why do we throw so many other things away? What forces (perhaps beyond our control, as forces so often are) compel us to leave things behind, and what hold do those things–abandoned, taken, lost, destroyed–retain on our souls? What are the consequences of holding on when we should let go–or letting go when we should be holding on?

It is a strange time for our culture, one in which the holding or persistence of an object receives so much less attention than the cycle of its manufacture and marketing and its disposal or repurposing. Objects, like people, are now in seemingly constant motion–and we seem to notice them only when, suddenly, they stop. Hence, perhaps, the widespread public fascination with the saga of the Ever Given, a Japanese/Taiwanese/Panamanian/German cargo ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal in March of 2021, blocking nearly 400 container ships and holding up billions of dollars in trade–a potent metaphor, in multiple ways, of globalization, the state of the pandemic, and concerns about the contradictions of consumer capitalism.

I am very interested in what happens in moments when the movement of things pauses, and this is one of the reasons why I find the Faddan More Psalter so fascinating. Through its discovery and the process of its conservation, the book has become a kind of still life: a moment snipped out of the tapestry of time. As such, it is not only a revelation (of book history, of early medieval religious culture in Ireland, of the nature of trade and communications networks prior to 1000 CE) but also a meditation (on vanishing and persistence, of time itself, and of the consequences of keeping or letting go). The mystery at the heart of the Faddan More Psalter–what it meant to its possessor; how (and how long) it was kept; why it was deposited in the bog; what it can mean to its contemporary conservators and viewers–is the most enduring thing about it, so close to the heart and yet as ineffable as a thing can be.

Image source: National Museum of Ireland, via Brent Nongbri’s Variant Readings.

Summer’s End

On Friday we made the longish drive from Toronto to Cardiff ON to pick up our daughter from summer camp. After having missed out on so many ordinary things during the pandemic — months of in-person school, over a year of swim training, art classes, time with friends — she was eager to return to Camp Can-Aqua for another summer. In 2020, like all sleepaway camps in Ontario, her camp was closed, but this year it reopened with pandemic-era protocols, a welcome return to normalcy for campers.

All the way up highway 28 we breathed in the sweet smells of late summer: the aromatic air of hemlock and pine forests; the cool fresh water of trout streams. Near Burleigh Falls the Canadian Shield announced itself in the form of rock cuts rich with spectacular granitic and gneissic intrusions, a striking contrast to the slow spirals of hawks and the steady drone of cars on the highway.

On the way up the road there were also a few suggestions of the approaching fall: maples showing just a hint of colour; crickets loud in the tall dry grass. A row of aspens, their leaves in continual motion, whispering like running water or the onrushing currents of a storm.

In a cloud of dust we pulled up the graded gravel road into camp and waited, part of a long line of cars in the cool dusk of the woods, before emerging into the bright sunlight of the camp, and then it was all happy reunions, final farewells, a last look at the lake, and then off for the long drive back home, through forest and lake, then farmland and, finally, suburb and city. In the car our daughter told us stories about camp. Cabin hijinks. Canoe trips. A fish that ate a frog. Diving off the high board. Canoe swampings, waterskiing mishaps, lake muck, counsellor romances. After an hour of excited storytelling she drifted off and slept until we had nearly reached the city, awakening disoriented somewhere on the 401, still on Haliburton time.

Some parents send their kids to the same camps they went to because it is (or they hope it will become) family tradition to do so. I didn’t go to camp as a child (although I have treasured memories of family trips to provincial parks when I was very young). My husband (whose forbears went to very different kinds of camps) spent his childhood being displaced from continent to continent before, as a new Canadian, getting to know the country by spending his adolescent summers attending wilderness canoe camp. By sending our child to a classic Canadian summer camp, we made a very conscious decision to give her something we never had.

Our daughter takes going to camp for granted. She is grateful, of course, in the way all good kids are grateful, but has no context for the alternative. Her life is about openings and opportunities, a perpetual present lit brightly by plans for the near future: fun with friends, schoolwork, swim meets, adding to her art portfolio, booking cat-sitting gigs, learning to skateboard. Today, still only half unpacked from camp, she has taken the subway downtown with friends to go back-to-school shopping.

All the pent-up feelings of nostalgia are mine. Watching country roads unspool in the rearview mirror, the trees recede, all those lakes vanishing into their thickets. The sun’s azimuth a little lower each day; summer fruit hanging heavy in the trees, propelling me to dig out the canner to preserve in jars as much of the summer as possible. Downloading all the photos shared by my daughter’s camp: all those cabins, canoes, cliffs; the loons; woodsmoke; lake water.

Looking at these pictures makes me feel so much longing: for these summers to never end; for my daughter’s future to remain brightly lit; for my dead mother to be able to see her beautiful granddaughter, so long and so graceful, so much like her, even down to the curve of her eyebrows and the roguish gleam in her wicked grin.

Amid the jumble of clothes tangled in my daughter’s duffle bags are souvenirs from camp. Camp crafts, skills badges, interesting rocks, a clay shooting target retrieved from the bottom of the lake, drawings from friends, notes. Her camp walking stick, bark peeled back to expose the pale pine cambium. After sorting all the laundry and finding homes for her camp treasures we take the duffle bag outside and turn it over, grit and bits of leaves falling out, tumbling over the side of the front porch, spangled in the golden light of summer’s end.

Well Preserved 2021 Edition: Tomato Jam

Every morning I go up to my secret garden on the third floor deck and pick a colander full of fruit. Here is this morning’s pick: one Brandywine, two Green Zebra, three Slicer and a half pint of Tiny Tim tomatoes; also a couple of (likely) Cherry Bomb and one Thai Dragon pepper. Usually there is also an eggplant or two, but I’m leaving the current crop on their stems until I can use up the eggplants already in the fridge. And always, of course, there are herbs.

In the last week or so, tomatoes have begun to pile up in bowls and on kitchen countertops, accumulating more quickly than we could use them up. In response, I began casting about for a preserving recipe, one that would enable me to ‘put up’ all these beautiful ripe tomatoes safely and deliciously without enormous amounts of effort spent peeling, coring and seeding them before processing.

I now have a decent shelf of preserving manuals, but my go-to preserving book is still Sarah B. Hood’s We Sure Can: How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011). Earlier this year Sarah published another book, Jam, Jelly and Marmalade: A Global History (part of Reaktion Books’ Edible series). Offering fascinating insights into cultural, economic, labour and political history, this book is about much more than preserves, and as a bonus it also includes a selection of recipes dating back as far as the first century CE. One of those recipes is an intriguing-sounding tomato jam recipe for which Hood credits Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars fame (and McClellan in turn credits a friend, coincidentally named Amy, thus underscoring how deeply social and collaborative food culture inevitably becomes).

[The recipe I use appears in Hood’s excellent new book; it is also printed in McClellan’s The Food in Jars Kitchen: 140 Ways to Cook, Bake, Plate, and Share your Homemade Pantry (Hachette / Running Press, 2019)–another preserving book soon to be added to my own shelf. An earlier version was posted to McClellan’s blog and is available here.]

The first good thing about this tomato jam recipe is that it does not require skinning or seeding the tomatoes. This saves greatly on processing time and reduces waste. It also suits my preference for preserves that have texture, body or at least complexity to them. Even so, it took me about an hour to core and finely chop all five (and a bit) pounds of tomatoes I had sitting on the counter. Next time I think I would chop the tomatoes more coarsely, given how long they have to break down while simmering; I would also be less attentive to coring them.

The second good thing about this recipe is that you can use any kind or combination of tomatoes. A good thing for the half-dozen varieties sitting on the counter, including these exquisite and juicy Sungolds.

Into the pot they all went, accompanied by a mix of spices and sugar, where they simmered for just over two hours until, as the recipe recommends, they were reduced to “a sticky, jammy mess.” By this point the total quantity was reduced by more than half, and smelled otherworldly rich and savoury-sweet [note: the image below is a bit deceptive, as it was taken before the sauce became truly jammy: by that point it becomes a deep red and is quite thick]. I did not add any fresh or dried herbs because, as a first-timer, I wanted to work with the recipe as printed, but next time (and there will be a next time very soon!) I think I will add tarragon and/or fennel and possibly basil and oregano to the spices and ginger the recipe calls for.

Here (below) is my preserving set-up. It’s a bit compressed as I am still using the second-floor kitchen in our formerly apartmentized house (next year, after we are done a few renovations, I hope to be able to use the downstairs kitchen, which is long and expansive and has great runs of counter space and room for the big farmhouse table I salvaged from an old shed two decades ago; not sure we’ll install another gas stove downstairs, though, which is a pity).

The best things about this preserving set-up are the big yellow enameled cast iron Dutch oven, a (brand-new!) score at Value Village a year or two ago, and my mother’s canning tools, which she gave to me a few years before she died. Every time I heft her old enamel canner onto a burner, or use that turquoise melamine cup to ladle cooked preserves into their jars, I can feel some trace of her hands on them.

At the end of about five hours of work (chopping, simmering, stirring, sterilizing and processing), I was able to fill five 500 ml jars exactly full, with only a couple of teaspoons left over for tasting. After 20 minutes processing time their lids all pinged satisfactorily, and I was left to consider how I will use them over the coming months.

Usually I give away most of my preserves–there are only so many jars of crabapple jelly one household can consume in a year–but these jars are staying selfishly in my pantry, unless they can be brought out to be shared with company. Next week, however, I hope to make another batch of tomato jelly, and ladle it out into smaller jars suitable for storing and giving away.

I hear tomato jam is incredible with well-aged cheese.

The Best yard Sales …

… are well-organized street sales held a block from your house, hosted by lovely people who are happy to share the histories of your new treasures, and hold for later pick-up the larger items you cannot quite manage to strap onto your bike.

This morning I biked out early, and arrived at a nearby street sale just in time to snag this printer’s drawer for ten bucks. I have wanted a printer’s drawer for years, but have always balked at the prices these things usually go for. Now, of course, I want a complete letterpress cabinet.

This item will soon be mounted on a wall somewhere in our home, but before it goes up I am thinking about manufacturing a hinged door for it with a plexiglass front, just to keep the need for dusting to a minimum.

Another fun find was this antique concert harp or autoharp, also for ten bucks. It was manufactured by the Radio Concert Harp Company of America in the 1920s. It is missing part of its mute block, but the woman who sold it to me, a harpist [harpy? If I was a professional harpist, I would absolutely refer to myself as a harpy.], was kind enough to show me how to turn the instrument. What will we do with this? I have no idea, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and love the sound of its strings.

I also bought this excellent old wooden tool box, pictured above. It’s quite large: about 36 inches long. I’m not sure whether to use it for seeds and garden tools, or put fasteners in it, or turn it on its end and use it as a shelf. Quite possibly the latter, as the cubbies are large enough to hold small books and other objects trouvé.

The dollhouse in the background was free. It needs some repairs, but is completely seventies-tastic in its décor. I’m planning to fix it up a bit, furnish it with my old dollhouse furniture, and make it available to someone close to me who is living with dementia and might enjoy it. Here (below) is an interior picture. Very cute, complete with curtains and wall art, but that shag carpet has got to go!

My other find of note was this wooden shelf (below) made from reclaimed wood. I paid $7 for it at a different street sale, also in the neighbourhood. I don’t currently have a place in mind for this, but will likely end up in one of the bathrooms.

Phew! One of the things I’ve missed most during pandemic lockdowns was the opportunity to go to garage sales, haunt second hand bookstores, and visit thrift shops. It’s been great to enjoy all these things again.