Thursday, April 16, 2009

more listening



Food. What a word! Layers and layers of meaning and memory wrap themselves up in that simple four-letter word.

Something prompted me to start making a big pot of lentil stew this afternoon. I started very simply, throwing a couple cupfuls of dry lentils into some water in a large pot, and setting the pot on the stovetop to simmer gently. After a while, other chores distracted me and I forgot about the lentils until a wonderful warm aroma reminded me.

The aroma reminded me of many things. Coming in from a long bicycle ride, hands stiff with cold, the kitchen steamy and smelling of lovely, nourishing things cooking. The quick flip of the edge of a large, flat, grassy woven basket held in graceful brown hands sending curling waves of grain into the sunshine, a breath of dust and chaff falling away from the crest of the wave of grain as it settles down again, swirling, back onto the basket. The background chatter of women's voices, women who are my life, whom I love, my mother, my aunts, talking and laughing, as they slap dough down, then the quick thud thud thud of their rolling pins shaping the dough into the little round skins of karjalan piirakka. The hot yeasty smell of freshly baked bread as it comes out of the oven.

And I thought, I will add some carrots, celery, bay leaf, and onions to my lentils, then I will see if I have the "fixins" to make bread.

Ah! Fresh, home-baked bread. That is an experience I haven't treated myself to for far too long.

Why? Why am I too busy to slow down and do this simple, nourishing thing for myself?

I've used the excuse that I'm too busy. I've used the excuse that I would then just over-indulge and over-eat what I've made. I've used the excuse that there is no one with whom to share what I've cooked. I've used the excuse that there isn't room in the tiny freezer compartment of my apartment-sized fridge to hold the excess.

However, when I smelled my lentil stew cooking on the stove, I realized that I should have given myself this gift long ago. I deserve, no I need and have longed for the hands-on, sensual experience of slow food, the multi-sensory meditation of making a simple meal for myself, with my own hands, using basic ingredients.

I am busy. As well as working full-time at my paying job, I try to fit in a yoga practice and all the miles of running required in my training for my first upcoming full marathon race. I try to have a balanced social life as well, to stay connected to my family and friends. Over the last few weeks I felt like I was spinning my wheels faster and faster, becoming more and more disconnected even as I struggled to stay grounded.

I pass by our little garden in front of my building, chafing at the lack of time to tidy up the squirrel-tossed plants, to water, to mulch the dry soil there.

I'm sure you have felt that way too. Suddenly the bottom seems to fall out and you find yourself looking at yourself in the mirror and crying for no reason. Nothing seems solid. Your family and friends are there, but you are incapable of feeling their care and presence. I suddenly realized I was starving.

I woke up from a dream this morning of a small garden in the sunshine, filled with the smell of sunshine on springtime lawns waking up, of crocus, early irises, daffodils and jonquils. I could smell the earth. I could smell the softness of springtime air. And in my dream, I felt in my body the satisfaction of seeing the green things coming up and of having worked in the garden as I entered the kitchen of a small house I once lived in, and again another familiar smell, the smell of sun-heated dust motes dancing in front of a window.

I've been starving for the sensory hands-on experiences of gardens and food. In my mind, they are entwined inseparably. Small cuttings sit in a jar atop my fridge, after all, hopeful twigs that in my mind are a large winged burning bush (Euonymus alata), a pyramidal English oak (Quercus robur), and purple-leaved smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria).

I added some heat to my stew with a generous spoonful of berbere and tomato paste. It is going to be soooo tasty and warming. All I lack is some injera. However, I don't have any tef on hand, nor do I actually know how to make injera, so instead, I'm going to leave you now to bake myself a loaf of multigrain bread.

You must envy me. I'll soon be enjoying a slice of fresh bread with butter with a large bowl of hot and spicy lentil stew sprinkled with some chopped fresh cilantro.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count Highlights

Dynamic Changes in Where the Birds Are
Bird watchers break record for fifth straight year

New York, NY & Ithaca, NY—The 12th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) featured two invasions this year: voracious Pine Siskins (pictured right) and a whole new crop of citizen-science participants! Bird watchers shattered last year's record by submitting more than 93,600 checklists during the four-day event, held February 16-19. Participants also identified 619 species and sent in thousands of stunning bird images for the GBBC photo contest. The Great Backyard Bird Count is led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

"Each year the GBBC provides the most detailed real-time snapshot of bird distribution across North America," said Rob Fergus, Senior Scientist with the National Audubon Society. "We can see how birds are responding to changing weather patterns, available food sources, and other factors from around the continent."

One of the big stories coming from the GBBC this year was the massive invasion of Pine Siskins and White-Winged Crossbills over much of the eastern United States. These feisty little birds moved southward because of seed crop failures in their usual wintering grounds in Canada and the boreal forests. GBBC participants reported 279,469 Pine Siskins on 18,528 checklists, compared to the previous high of 38,977 birds on 4,069 checklists in 2005. White-winged Crossbills were not as common, but their invasion was still impressive with 4,824 birds on 589 checklists representing a new record over the previous high of 2,854 birds on 135 checklists in 2007.

The GBBC continues to show declines in some common birds, especially grassland and shrubland species. Loggerhead Shrike numbers are down, and although numbers of Northern Bobwhites and Eastern Meadowlarks were both up slightly from last year, they are still being reported in fewer numbers during the GBBC than they were in 2004. These GBBC trends are only preliminary views of what may be going on with these populations, and they must continue to be monitored to get a true long-term view of how these birds are faring.

Species reported for the first time during the Great Backyard Bird Count included two oceanic species--Pink-footed Shearwater and Xantus's Murrelet, both in California. Other first-timers included Baird's Sandpiper, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Blackpoll Warbler. Two rare Mexican species appeared on GBBC checklists from Arizona for the first time: the first Sinaloa Wren ever found north of the border, and a Blue Mockingbird.

"I just love the way this event opens up a new world for so many people," says Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science Director Janis Dickinson. "We have grandparents counting with their grandchildren, elementary school classrooms doing the GBBC as a special project, nature centers taking visitors out on bird walks. And adults who never noticed birds before are suddenly smitten!"

For a more detailed summary of this year's results, visit the GBBC web site at Explore 2009 data, compare with other years, and find the exact counts for each species in a particular state, province, or town.The Great Backyard Bird Count is sponsored by Wild Birds Unlimited.

The next Great Backyard Bird Count is February 15-18, 2010!

#Top 10 most-frequently reported birds in the 2009 GBBC:
1) Northern Cardinal
2) Mourning Dove
3) Dark-eyed Junco
4) American Goldfinch
5) Downy Woodpecker
6) Blue Jay
7) House Finch
8) Tufted Titmouse
9) American Crow
10) Black-capped Chickadee

Visit the "Explore the Results" pages on the GBBC web site to find the list of Top 10 birds reported in your state, province, or city.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009



The Weather is toying with me. Cruelly! That's what I get for exulting yesterday morning that we had not received the forecast snow! The Weather turned around and back-handed me one!


Monday, April 06, 2009

April weather

I woke very grateful this morning that the forecast was wrong. We were supposed to get snow. I thought, yes! It's raining here! But it was not to last. After four o'clock or so, the big wet snowflakes started to fall, and a nasty wind is howling around the corners of my building.
Amazing that some of the tiniest and most beautiful flowers in the garden (perhaps most beautiful because they are longed for after our winters), are hardly worried about a little snow.

My little neighbour, K., got these violets from her grandmother and planted them in the garden last summer.
A week ago, our weather was much more spring-like, the messy dregs of winter, the debris left by the squirrels' assaults on our gardens, all seeming manageable in bright, sunny and much warmer weather.
So, out into the garden I went, attracting the attention of many small kids in the neighborhood who first, wanted to know what I was doing, then, if they could help.
After the very satisfying afternoon I spent tidying up the garden, I participated in a belly-dance recital in the evening that was even more enjoyable because it was shared with my friend C., and supported by my crazy, lovable running gang.
Mistrusting the intentions of my running friends, I confess I feared their attendance would mean suffering through the hootin' and hollerin' of some of the more jock-like/tomboy members, but instead was tickled that they were most encouraging and even brought C. and me these gorgeous bouquets of roses!

The roses lasted and lasted, but a couple of days ago, I did take them out of water and hang them up to dry. They seem to be retaining their colour nicely, don't you think? I know I'll be able to enjoy them for quite a while longer. Eventually of course, the colour will gradually fade to a soft tan, should I decide to keep them that long!
In place of the roses, a small bouquet of the daffodils of the annual Cancer Society fund-raising drive now brightens my living room.

The rain makes me long for colour and I've been tempted to start hunting in the garden centres and grocery stores for pots of forced spring blooms. I had thought maybe putting them into large pots by the front steps would give all of us the hit of colour I need, especially today with big fat snow flakes starting to swirl around outside (noooo! say it isn't so!). But I'm not sure that even the toughies of spring, spring bulbs forced as they have been into early bloom in hothouses, can survive the ferocities and vagaries of our Canadian spring.


hint, hint

I had a great laugh at this from the Dirt Divas and their now ?defunct blog. So I just had to share it with other gardeners, who I think, like me, can think of no better way to be romanced than this, whether it be for Mothers Day or any other day!

"-Darling. Take your woman out for breakfast and a long
leisurely drive, checkbook firmly tucked in your back pocket, and a little mood
music on the radio. Then hit the local nurseries that are brimming with colorful
plants and toys for your garden. Put a little romance in those flower beds.
Think of gardening as a couple’s thing that you do so the woman who runs your
weekends will let you watch the playoffs. A little champagne and showing off
your skills with a wheelbarrow will do wonders for your relationship."



Recently one late night when sweats woke me in the wee hours of the morning, I turned on the television and was fortunate to catch this interesting repeat of a lecture in which Jefferson Medical College professor Salman Akhtar discussed "The Trauma of Geophysical Dislocation".

In his lecture, Akhtar proposed that psychoanalysts need to pay special attention to their immigrant patients, suggesting that "the immigration experience creates disruptions to the waking screen that are too often ignored in therapy and that the objects and landscapes that are left behind have a more significant impact on the immigrant's psychological well being than has generally been recognized..."

Listening to the lecture, I realized that travel and/or immigration is the fine edge of a double edged sword. Part of the thrill is the adventure and opportunites of a new place, but that is also the challenge. I was quite used to thinking of the immigration experience as one with the difficulties of a new language (or as in my case, a language spoken in a different accent), new culture, new bureaucratic mazes to navigate, but had not really paid any heed to the way a new environment impacts one in the body, physically, through our senses.

Immediately, as Oprah would say, I had an "ah-Ha!" reaction. Memories of various experiences came to mind...

I am in a fine bookstore in Uxbridge, Blue Heron Books. Browsing in bookstores being a passion of mine that I simply cannot indulge in as often as I would actually like, I was having a wonderful time.

Among a gorgeous collection of coffee table books, I happened upon a book about the south of France. Flipping through its pages, drinking in the pictures of sun-baked old houses, narrow cobble-stone streets, clay pots of bright ivy-geraniums sitting on quirky, crooked steps, I turned to a photo of a small sunlit square and suddenly felt an overwhelming physical sensation of recognition wash over me, a delicious shiver that ran through my whole body!

I knew this place in my body-memory because of the light. Not that I had ever actually been to that particular village in the south of France. But my body recognized the way sunlight looks and feels in that part of the world and I could feel the memory of it through my whole body as it was awakened by that photo.

I am in an airplane circling Pearson Airport. I am coming home from a trip to Europe. It is a sunny day. The sky is blue. The sky is a particular shade of blue, a big shade of blue, very different from the sky the way I experience it in Europe. Big, spacious. An "aaaaah" shade of blue, an opening-up shade of blue.

It is raining. It is cold, the ground underfoot is muddy, sticky and the smell of it is wet mud mixed with the bitter-sweet tang of donkey and mule puckeys. The clouds are hanging low between the mountains of Ethiopia. The wind is lashing the rain down and I can see snow on the higher slopes that disappear into the clouds. I hear water running, gurgling everywhere. Veils of rain and cloud dance between the mountains.

Small houses huddle together in the rain, their interior gloom under their corrugated tin roofs a ragged shelter from the rain. The road is a wash of running mud. The high thin voices of children speaking Amharic or accented English rise into the thin mountain air and bring back swirling echoes from my memories. Thin vapours of breath mingle with currents of bitterly cold air and mist. My hands are freezing.

It is raining. The air is soft, wet, heavy and smells of green things. There's a white-ness too to the smell, like the metallic taste of snow. The clouds feel heavy, pressing against the mountains, and the mountains seem to press back. I feel small in Vancouver, pushed down by the rain, pushed down by the dark shadows of trees, the dark heavy hedges, the heavy rain, as if my feet will stick to the dark wet pavements, the spongy paths in the forests. Heavy green vines clamber up trees, pulling them downwards.

When the plane turns out over the ocean, eastward, taking me away from Vancouver, it feels like it takes a huge effort to lift ourselves out and above the arms of the mountains. Row after row of white-capped mountains reach even above the thick blanket of clouds into the blueness of the sky, reaching, reaching.

I wonder about all the fine mechanisms in our bodies that help to keep us in balance.

Closing our eyes, we still have a body-memory of the room we are sitting in, the spaces outside, the neighbor's house, the cars travelling by in the city streets, the train whistle in the dark, the returning birds announcing the arrival of spring in the lightening of dawn. Later there will be the smells of cut grass, the sound of lawnmowers, the smells of summer-time barbecues wafting on the mellow evening breezes.

How disconcerting it is to half-wake from a dream where we were in another place, in another room! It takes several moments for our bodies to find our balance again, to turn around, wobble back into alignment, aright ourselves right-side up when we drop into this place from wherever we were in our dreams.

I think gardeners remember rain in gardens most of all. An old song I heard long ago sung by Perry Como comes to mind. Just thinking about the song, I can smell roses, feel springtime rain on my eyelashes and see fat robins listening for worms in the soil! Somebody else, from another part of the world will surely have very different memories, won't they, if in fact, the song is able to speak to them at all.

No wonder being an immigrant is so unsettling!

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