The towering canopy of the honey locust tree that shelters our front garden, above; and, below, this morning’s view from the spare bedroom on the third floor.
Lastly, the view from the window of my office, a converted sunroom at the back of our house. Often cardinals come to visit, and sometimes a hawk.
In the night it snowed. The birds huddle together and then cluster at the feeder. Soon the squirrels will emerge from the roof over my head and descend to pick up the seeds they kick down to the ground. How stoically — how gently — the cedars bear the birds, the squirrels, the the feeder, and their burden of winter.
Today it is the first Sunday of Advent, and thus begins the Christian calendar. In the United Church of Canada, the Church I was Christened and Confirmed in, each Advent Sunday has a theme: on the first: Hope; the second: Peace; the third: Joy; and the fourth: Love.
It has been many years since I attended any church regularly, and I have always been more culturally Protestant than spiritually Christian, but my faith in Creation–the Creation of trees and the wind and soil and all the things that live and regenerate–persists. I remain ambivalent about the divinity of Christ, am indifferent to the Resurrection, and am not except in form a worshiper of the Holy Trinity–views that in some circles would make me a heretic–but my God, the God I speak to, and who hears my prayers, is the God embodied in the natural world, and I serve this God with steadfast conviction.
This morning the sky has the cast of twilight and the wind roars in the cedars. Sleet pellets the house, but we are warm and safe in the shelter of our Keep. The gardens have been put to bed, the compost banked for the winter. The trees we have planted this year–our major offering to the cosmos–are staked and mulched and protected. Little birds have taken shelter in the cedars, singing against the storm, and the fat squirrels nesting in the roof above my little office caper restlessly but remain under cover.
This morning’s forecast–one last sultry, sunny day before fall weather descends–was enough reason to drop everything, toss our kayaks on the car, and spend a day on the water.
We put in at Humber Bay Park West and paddled west about 5 km to Samuel Smith Park. The sun beamed down; the breeze was mild; the lake warm, the swells gentle. We had a picnic and watched the downtown towers glitter, 15 km away. Paragliders rose and descended in the middle distance. Dogs dragged driftwood along the beach. Endless Summer, for one more day.
We surfed the swells all the way back, the lake just beginning to roil. The haze closed in; thunderheads loomed behind us. In the parking lot crickets were abuzz with the news: a storm, oncoming. Endless summer, for one more hour.
We made it home before the rain, and made pizza for dinner, savoring our sore shoulders and October sunburns.
This morning when I woke up, the house was cold. I went around, closing windows and doors. The sunrise was fuchsia, signalling a change in the weather, a shift in the season.
At mid-morning the air is cool and breezy. There are cardinals in the cedars, and finches at the feeders. The east-facing tips of the trees are turning colour, and the gutters are littered with leaves.
For breakfast I had wild apple sumac jelly on toast. A warm treat on a chilly morning. A good day for seasonal tasks of keeping: sorting the mittens and scarves, decorating the front porch for Thanksgiving, making a rustic apple pie. Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown: Shanah tovah um’tukah to all who will celebrate.
The picture above is from an old book, Gardens in their Seasons, published in 1912 (my copy a 1919 reprint). This is a charming, gently instructional book, written for young readers and wonderfully illustrated. I bought my copy at The Monkey’s Paw moving sale in the spring, and have kept it on my desk ever since, consulting it nearly as regularly as one would a book of days.
Of fall, the book notes, “Autumn has come; it is the time of ripening. [….] The hush and the stillness of late summer has been broken.” During this season, the book explains, the trees and flowering plants expend the last of their energy generating seeds to be spread by passing creatures or the wind. Readers are invited to “gather the prettiest and the best of the coloured leaves of the autumn,” to press into biscuit tins between layers of sand to dry and preserve their rich colours.
There is melancholy in the air, when soft days give way to chilly nights and the moon rises silently above the trees, overseeing this time of gathering in, this season of contemplation.
For years we planned to buy kayaks, but for years we had too many competing commitments. For years our long canoe stayed in the garage, gathering dust. One of the paddles split apart, dry from disuse.
In July an acquaintance let us know she was selling her family’s kayaks, and so, after dropping our daughter off at the summer camp she attends near Bancroft, we drove south to Stony Lake to retrieve them. Before loading the kayaks onto the car, we put them in the water and paddled out into the lake.
Stony Lake, or Cheboutequion Lake, is part of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe Mississaugas. Near the north side of the lake are the Teaching Rocks or Kinoomaagewaabkong, also known as the Peterborough Petroglyphs National Historic Site. Sixty kilometres to the south, on the north shore of Rice Lake, are the Serpent Mounds, located within the lands of the Hiawatha (Mississauga) First Nation. I am not Anishinaabe (my father’s putative Indigenous heritage was Haudenosaunee), but the region, sometimes called ‘the Land Between‘ because it is a zone where a number of geological, ecological and cultural terrains intersect, is the place I feel most at home.
A canoe or kayak set into the water, its hull floating just above the surface, is a mirror held to reality, like a landscape reflected in a silent lake. There is a symmetry in the rising and dipping of the paddle, the movement of air across the water, a hint of the transcendent in exchange for an offering of silence. Decades ago my husband, a skilled back-country canoeist, paddled deep into a marsh and surprised a moose, standing huge and still in the shallows. For a moment my husband stared up at the moose, and the moose stared down at him. Then, implacably but deliberately, the moose shoved the canoe backward with a wide sweep of its antlers. “This is my home,” it seemed to declare: “and you may not intrude uninvited.”
At our home in Toronto, although we are conscious always of belonging to culture, we try to live within–of at least with regard for–the rhythms of nature. We are fortunate to live very close to the Humber River, and to be able to put our kayaks in the water right at the point where its navigable lower portion meets the traditional portage route used by Anishnaabek and Haudenosaunee communities, known as the Tkaronto Carrying Place Trail.
Despite the passage of centuries and the pressures of urban development, the profile of the river at this location remains essentially unchanged. Above the portage point near Bloor Street, the river is shallow and stony; below it the river is wide and increasingly deep, with oxbow wetlands dense with wildlife.
Near its mouth, the Humber is an artificial, somewhat claustrophobic space, with expressway bridges hemming in the river and an engineered shoreline that protects the riverbank from erosion but does little else to soften the impact of waves rolling in from the lake. But below that industrial zone the river opens up, framed by the graceful span of the Humber Bay Bridge, its arch consisting of stylized Thunderbirds.
And beyond the bridge is the open lake, with the harbour to the east, and the surreal skyline seeming to float above the water. Offshore, it seems possible to grasp the city in a glance.
Late last week on a sultry, sunny September day, we set aside our commitments and took our kayaks out on the lake. The water was warm, the surface like rippled glass. And we soared across it like wind over water, like shorebirds granted the provisional freedom of flight, and touched down, hours later, on a shoreline that beckoned our boats and welcomed us home.