alharris

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.

Seeing Stones

On an old washstand in the bay window of our living room I keep a small shrine of stones we’ve found on local beaches and gravel bars. Some of the stones have faces. One of them contains a fossil that looks like a fish tail. One is a small section of lake-washed brick with the word ‘Toronto’ still visibly embossed on it. In a small bowl are weathered marbles we’ve found along Lake Ontario, and a perfectly rounded, egglike stone my mother once found in the roots of a very old oak tree. And some of the stones are stones with holes worn through them by wave action or other weathering processes. In European culture these are variously called ring stones, worry stones, eye stones, hagstones, witch stones, fairy stones, Odin stones, druids’ glass (Gloine nan Druidh), adder stones, serpents’ eggs, and Hühnergötter (“chicken gods,” which reportedly keep animals safe from injury and in mythology reference conflicts with the Slavic house spirit Kikimora). Recently I have seen them described as “seeing stones,” although the cultural etymology (attributed variously to Indigenous people, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Mormons) seems unclear. Despite uncertainty about the mythical origins of the term (and the possibility that it is simply borrowed, like so many other things, from Tolkien, an enthusiastic mythology borrower himself), I like “seeing stones” best, because one does quite literally see through them, and because their talismanic properties evoke so many other kinds of divination.

Apart from mythological claims about their origins (e.g., that they are formed from the secretions of serpents), seeing stones are the product of a variety of geological and biological processes. Reportedly in Europe seeing stones are commonly formed in flint nodules that weather out of sedimentary strata and wash down streams or tumble about in the ocean. Flint is itself a propitious material, having been used for toolmaking (e.g., flintknapping) by Stone Age cultures dating back at least two million years (the palaeolithic use of flint and application of geological knowledge to mine it is an enormously fascinating subject). Wave action or the grinding action of smaller stones gradually wears holes into and eventually through these stones, which may then be found on cobble beaches all along the sea (for an account of flint hagstones and their history, read stonemason and writer Alex Woodcook‘s wonderful essay “In the Eye of the Hagstone” in Elementum). Recently I learned about piddocks, which are small mollusks that carve burrows into limestone, leaving behind rounded holes and sometimes networks of tunnels in the soft sedimentary rock. Other mollusks and sea worms also reportedly burrow into stone, and sometimes their shells may be seen in these tunnels, rattling around like miniature memento mori.

In Ontario, flint (more commonly called chert) beds (and occasionally outcrops) can be found in Hudson Bay-area Precambrian shield and in the Paleozoic bedrock of the Great Lakes area. But in my experience, seeing stones form in fossil-rich limestone or dolostone that has been eroded out of the sedimentary bedrock or scraped loose by glaciers and then washed down rivers and streams toward the Great Lakes. Over thousands of years the stones are tumbled smooth, and the remains of Paleozoic fossils–formed out of marine creatures pressed into the bottom of a shallow sea underlying much of contemporary North America more than 360 million years ago–dissolve out of them, leaving holes and tunnels behind.

I have been collecting seeing stones since I was ten. In 1981 my parents bought an old bungalow on land perched above a deep, wide southern Ontario ravine with a creek flowing at the bottom of it and thereafter, for all the years we lived adjacent to Duffin’s Creek, I spent hundreds or perhaps thousands of hours walking in the stream bed, pouring over the gravel bars that formed and reformed along the inside stretches of the creek’s meandering curves. My mother did the same thing, and after she died I discovered an old Kool-Aid can in which she had saved the seeing stones she had found along the creek. Every time I have returned to Duffin’s Creek in the three decades since we moved away from the area, I have knelt down and searched until I found a seeing stone for each of us. I do the same thing when my daughter and I go beach glass hunting along Lake Ontario, including yesterday, when after a long ride downtown along Lakeshore Boulevard (wondrously closed to cars for ActiveTO), we ventured onto the pebble beach at Ontario Place, kicked off our sandals, and got down to the business of looking for interesting things along the water’s edge. We did not stop until we had found a seeing stone for each of us, and a third to take home to my husband. The stones along this particular beach look as if they had been brought there for erosion control, but almost certainly they came from a southern Ontario quarry formed in glacial till deposited during the Quaternary ice age, which in southern Ontario ended around 12,000 years ago. Already long since tumbled to rounded smoothness, their fossils scoured or dissolved out of them, these stones will continue to wear along the edge of Lake Ontario, their cups and tunnels widening and deepening until almost every stone will become a seeing stone.

In my early teens I read an essay called “The Talisman,” by Canadian journalist Greg Clark, which recounts the protective properties of seeing stones. As a young boy, Clark’s grandmother advises Clark that, should he ever find a stone with a hole in it, he should loop a string through it and wear it around his neck, because “[i]t will protect you from the arrow that flieth by day […] and the pestilence that walketh in darkness.” Years later, on leave from the battles of the First World War (in which Clark becomes a decorated veteran of Vimy Ridge), Clark finds himself sitting on the stony beach at Brighton, and glances down upon the gravel and stares “straight as a needle, into the eye of the hole in a little pebble.” Clark picks it up, and walks to a bathing hut where he obtains a length of fish line, and ties the stone around his neck, where Clark wears it for the remainder of his life, and reports that “in all the long years,” no flying arrow nor crawling pestilence has found him.

For many years I, too, wore a stone with a hole in it on a leather thong around my neck. That stone now sits with a collection of other special stones on the desk in my office, where I touch it often in order to divine all the things that may be seen through the eye of a seeing stone.

Garden Census: June

A view of our woodland back garden, almost impossibly lush after a good rain. Everything is lush: this morning I rode up a nearby street carved out of a ravine, and the smells of rain and soil were so rich I felt as if I could still plunge my hands into the waters of the buried stream that still runs beneath it.

My secret rooftop garden is also lush, and this is something of a wonder, because late in the winter a raccoon breached a vulnerable corner of the eaves and, after making itself a den, gave birth to five kits. We listened to this burgeoning family cavort along the roofline for weeks (waiting in order to ensure the kits were large enough to survive out of the den) before calling a wildlife removal company to have the raccoons humanely evicted. Before their removal, however, the raccoons destroyed most of the plants I had begun to set out on the deck, and trampled my garlic, which had been growing serenely since last fall.

Between having to remove plants to less sunny environs or replace them entirely (several tomatoes and eggplants were lost to our cute but destructive visitors’ nightly rampages), I think I lost about three weeks of the growing season before I was able to return rescued plants to the top deck. And yet; and yet: the potatoes are big, the tomatoes are catching up quickly, the eggplants are blossoming (and a couple of plants are starting to set fruit) and even the hot peppers (Apaches, my favourite because the plants are compact and produce prolifically, and the peppers are bright red, hot but not outrageously so, and dry wonderfully for winter use) are producing.

I’ve also managed a first harvest for drying of some of the herbs (catnip, rosemary, sage) and, of course, go out at dinnertime almost every day to snip a few leaves of parsley, basil, tarragon, thyme or oregano) for salad. Every year I try to expand the varieties of herbs I grow: this year I’m up to 34 kinds (about 25 separate types if one excludes varieties; e.g., of thymes. sages and basils). I love their sweet or secretive smells, and the long cultural histories associated with so many herbs. My retirement fantasy is to one day operate a market garden focused mainly on culinary, medicinal and ornamental herbs.

I’ve also managed, for the first time ever, to grow zucchini plants that seem likely to produce. Zucchinis are supposed to be one of the easiest garden vegetables to grow, but because our property is mainly shaded at ground level and space is at a premium on the sunny verandahs and decks, I’ve never afforded squash plants adequate room to grow and as a result have usually lost them to powdery mildew or squash borers. But this year I’ve set a zucchini in a big urn in my secret rooftop garden and it seems to be thriving.

It’s also a great year for non-cultivated harvest: we managed a first mulberry pick a few days ago from a nearby street tree, and my raspberries, growing almost wild along a walkway between the garages, are burgeoning two weeks earlier than usual). I love raspberries more than any other fruit, and I love these raspberries especially because my thick, wild patch started out as a few surplus seedings my mother gave me from her garden many years ago.

What else is going on in the garden right now? Milkweed! It took years for us to establish even a single milkweed plant, but now we have seven or eight in the front garden, and their blooms are beloved by bumblebees and Monarch butterflies. And also: perilla! Last summer a neighbour gave me some perilla when we stopped to admire her garden. I read that it self-seeds readily, and so over the winter was careful to save the soil in the container where it had grown. This spring only a single plant popped up, and I was a little sad–until I started to see perilla in some of my other pots. I love its minty-licorice taste, and hope my volunteer perillas continue to multiply.

And garlic: here is a clutch of garlic scapes I managed to pull from the front garden. Almost two decades ago my mother gave me some of the serpent garden she grew around her front step to ward off witches, and it has grown pretty much wild in my own front garden ever since. No witches, either, or rather: only the good kind.

And finally: I will end here with a glimpse of the second floor verandah, which has taken a neoclassical turn of late. I bought these painted metal urns last weekend at what was probably the first yard sale I’ve attended in well over a year, and which hopefully will not be the last!