The Garden Chronicles ~ July 28, 2011

Gardening is edifying for me. I never seem to tire of it. Or reading… but that’s another post.

This spring’s six weeks of almost constant rain seemed to give my garden a turbo-boost of energy that’s resulted in lush and exuberant growth. Everything is doing amazingly well, except for my tiger sumac which Mark pruned on a hot day, promptly killing half of it. Apparently, tiger sumacs don’t take well to being sliced and diced in high humidity in mid-growth spurt. The colours in the garden are vivid and lively: sunny marigolds and dahlias, pink nicotiana, purple and white clematis, the new lime green growth of the black elderberry shrub, royal blue lobelia in the hanging baskets, and every other colour in the rainbow. The textures of garden delight me, too… the feathery plumes of the grasses, the waxy hens and chicks, the spidery raised veins of the caladium. The real satisfaction this year, in addition to the heady growth, is the more or less mature condition of the gardens in the backyard, a five year project finally completed. It’s the pinnacle of gratification to see my dreams come to life, a reasonable facsimile of the sketches I made when I retired five years ago.

It will always be a work in progress, though, as all gardens are. There are plants to prune or relocate. We pulled out eight older cedars this spring, and, wow, suddenly the pear tree in that corner, which had languished since we planted it, neither hot nor cold (something biblical there), started to grow like crazy. Sadly, my weeping cherry gave up the ghost. (also biblical). It was my second one at that. I’ve surrendered all hopes of having this exquisite and dainty tree be the focal point of my backyard. Our dense clay soil was declared the winner … and heavy-weight champion of the world! But another graceful tree with a multi-stemmed trunk and pale green variegated leaves has taken its place and looks just as flouncy and perfect. I don’t know its name, because it was given to me, but it’s doing just great. I love it. 

The most edifying thing about the garden, though, is simply how much time Mark and I spend there together. He enjoys all the things I don’t… removing baby rabbits (we won’t say how or in what ontological state… sentient or insentient), filling the bird feeder, buying and installing gadgets like solar spotlights, water sprinklers, and special wand attachments for the hoses (a new one with every trip to Home Depot). One night we heard a rustling in the patio pot behind him. Instantly I was down on one knee, ready to sprint away like a mutant superhero at Beast speed. He calmly lifted up the trailing bacopa and discovered a toad. He wondered if I wanted to kiss it. Oh, yes, we have fun in the garden.

Mark likes to encourage me by offering opinions on all my aesthetic choices… I think those cabbages would look better in rows, don’t you?  Or … that marijuana plant there needs to be pruned, doesn’t it?  I hasten to assure you that I have neither cabbages nor marijuana plants in my garden. When he says cabbages, he means my sedums, and the marijuana plant is my sumac. But he makes up new names for my plants every day, so I’m never quite sure which one he’s talking about. It’s fun to show him new blooms that are emerging, late growth on tardy plants, or how much weeding I got done during the day. He does a great job of pretending to be interested.

We like to watch the birds together. Of course, I’m terrified of them, so some of his enjoyment (OK, most of his enjoyment) comes from waiting and watching to see if any of our five resident blue jays will fly close enough to me to elicit a panicked squeal. He finds that amusing. Every night a neighbourhood cat tries to slink incognito along our fence on some obscure epistemological trek. But the blue jays always see him and dress him down with some seriously manic trash-talk. One night a couple of them actually dive-bombed him. It was quite the melee! Better him than me, I say. Mark gives the birds ridiculous names and the squirrels, too. Some of which are funny but not edifying, so I can’t share them here.

When we sit on the patio and have our coffee, watching the birds and the solar caps on the fence posts come on in uncanny conjunction with the fireflies, we can be quiet for long periods at a time. He’ll have a cigar (something I don’t like, but I don’t nag) and I will look at the garden. I might tell him that the fence is fantastic and thanks again for building that, honey. And that shed is the second-best one in Wyoming. By the way, thanks for building that, dear. I might tell him that I saw a hummingbird today. We’ll talk about the weather, of course, now that I’m a farmer, as he says, and what his golfing schedule will be… not that it ever changes. Golfing tomorrow? I’ll ask, and he’ll say, “Yep, I might, for a change.”


Mary Abma: art from dirt

(Christian Courier, July 11, 2011) 

When the 19th century Peasant Poet John Clare was asked, “Where do your poems come from?” he aptly replied, “I kick them out of the clods.” Mary Abma’s latest art pieces also derive from the dirt, the dirt in her own backyard. As the Agricultural Revolution fenced the commons, drained marshes and exiled peasants to textile mills, Clare mourned the loss of the traditional English landscape. Mary mourns a similar loss – Ontario’s dwindling Carolinian forest, the extinction of native plants and the near-obliteration of a vibrant indigenous culture. Her most recent work, soon to be exhibited at both Redeemer University College (September 24-November 30, 2011) and Calvin College (January 6-February 18, 2012), ponders these losses. In My Own Backyard is a monumental effort in its conceptual framework, its comprehensive research and its profound respect for the natural world.

Mary’s art springs from a curious mind: “I visit themes that relate to universal experiences that are present in our own life narratives. I am especially interested in exploring the bridges that bring us into a connection with our past, those that identify our relationship with the natural world, and those that lead to an awareness of God.”

The spark of this exhibition was Norway’s Doomsday Seed Vault, underwritten by mega-corporations like Monsanto. Intrigued by this so-called bio-diversity preservation project, Mary wondered about its ethical ramifications. “Food” seeds were being stored, a hedge against some future apocalypse. Was that diversity? Seeds safe in a sanctuary … but for whose profit? With what moral safeguards?

Researching the word origins of “sanctuary,” Mary honed in on a Latin definition: “private cabinet of a prince.” Pursuing the history of cabinets led her to the “apothecary cabinet” and to her own ancestor, Louis Hebert, an apothecary who settled in New France in the 1600s. Hebert had brought medicinal plants from France to his new home, a commonplace practice. Mary was struck by the possibility that the non-native plants in her own backyard could actually have been the result of her ancestor’s unwitting eco-meddling.

Cultivation and conquest
Mary’s reading of primary sources about early Canadian settlement led her to a fresh awareness of the “cultivation and conquest” imagery of colonial language, a vernacular that included the subjugation of the indigenous populations as well as the land. In some texts, native people were referred to as crops to be harvested or weeds to be exterminated. The settlers viewed their “cultivation” of the New World as beneficial, even heroic. Mary inscribed their ingenuous remarks, culled from letters and diaries, onto antique farm implements that were specifically used to cut land and crops. The irony is exquisite. Then, the blades were useful, the intentions, admirable. Now, we recognize that both the blades and the intentions had unforeseen and injurious consequences. The artistic meld of text and artefact forces the viewer to ponder the future. How will our present practices appear to generations yet to come?

It’s easy to point fingers at corporations or to judge previous generations. Norman Wirzba’s book, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, confronted Mary with her own obliviousness to the biological habitat just outside her back door. Was her ignorance leading to carelessness? Her lawn was overgrown with weeds and other plants she couldn’t identify. She decided to create a herbarium of all the plants that grew unbidden in her yard. Enter scientific research, cataloguing, assistance from botany professors and the meticulous journaling of her process. With a sense of wonder, Mary discovered an incredible diversity in her lawn, over 75 plant species in all, the vast majority invasive and non-native.

Mary’s research alerted her to the curious fact that early botanists often recorded their observations on paper covered with erasures. Perhaps they were merely dismissive of previous “old” knowledge, or, self-interested, they were seeking to convey discoveries as their own original work. Certainly much of their “new” knowledge was acquired through contact with native peoples, but, given the colonial mindset of cultural superiority, such “borrowing” was not credited. This covering up of old knowledge with new information inspired Mary to explore the idea of a “palimpsest,” a recycled papyrus manuscript with the previous script still faintly discernible. Mary’ series, Herbarium of Lot 161, Plan 150, grew from this concept. She created 120 panels of pressed plants from her backyard. First, she spray-painted the plants a metallic silver, purposely “altering” the plants, creating an artificial homogeneity to signify human intervention. Then the panels were layered with embedded fragments of historical text about each plant, including songs, recipes and medicinal attributes, and, lastly, painted with acrylics.

Mary noted that previous generations had far greater familiarity with native plant species and their properties than we do today. In 1750 all children could identify sow thistle because they fed it to their rabbits. Today, information about plants is readily available on Google, but divorced from daily experience. Do we take responsibility for knowledge if we assume it is readily accessible? Do we treasure knowledge, or is it disposable, a casualty of our drive-through culture?

Such questions led Mary to wonder about the plants that might have been flourishing in her yard today had it not been for settlement. She decided to create lumens, ghostly images of native plants made with technology through a completely natural photographic process. These ethereal silhouettes become evocative reminders of a native plant life that has been decimated by human ecological intervention.






God’s intelligent design
And that, finally, brought Mary to a consideration of transcendence. Wirzba wrote, “We are, in short, bereft of a sense of the cosmos, the sense of an ordered whole that envelops and enables life.” God’s intelligent design for the interconnectedness of life, whether plant, animal or human, is often overlooked or ignored. Mary explored this idea artistically with an installation piece, a triptych. “I wanted this piece to embody the sacred, somehow, and this ultimately led me to reference the Christian sacrament of Eucharist because, first of all, it is very honest for me. The Eucharist is all about communion with God. It is a reminder of the sanctity of life and the importance of ritual. It puts us into a context in which we are thankful and humble. I also felt it was an appropriate reference because those of us who have inherited Christian beliefs and traditions need to take a close look at our history and move toward reconciliation where we have confused our own desires with Divine intention. This reconciliation includes how we treat the environment.”


Mary collected seeds from her yard, storing them in an antique printer drawer, another allusion to the transference of knowledge. Similarly, she also collected rainwater, a full year’s worth of precipitation. 365 communion glasses, carefully shrink-wrapped, contain a proportionate amount of water for each day’s rainfall. The presentation emphasizes the life-giving potency of water, both physical and spiritual, but the packaging alludes to the current commodification of this critical resource. The third panel of the triptych features a soil monolith with exposed strata from her yard, as well as wafers created from the dirt. The installation welcomes the viewer to the Lord’s Table — a Eucharist fashioned from the earth for a humanity created from dust.

Mary has been personally transformed by her work: “My whole notion of what constitutes a beautiful garden has changed. I also recognize my own responsibility when it comes to ecosystem degradation. I will not close the book on this project. Already we are in the process of redeeming our own little patch of creation: our yard. As I walk around it now, I can identify the vast majority of my weeds. I know what to nurture and what to pull out. We have designated two distinct areas of our yard as native plant gardens and hope to expand these over time.”

In My Own Backyard  is a mature show. The art is singularly elegant in its own right, but the exhibition as a whole is unified by an invisible coherence. It’s the coherence of repentance and renewal offered in the chancels of our own backyards, where, as Martin Luther said, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

Travelling Salvation Shows

(Christian Courier column, June 26th, 2011)

It’s another implacably rainy day. Two days ago the Sarnia Observer ran this childishly pleading headline: “Rain, rain, go away.” The lead article: extreme delay in spring planting and poor crop predictions for the fall.

I went for a walk, umbrella in hand, tunes on the iPod. But I wasn’t really listening. My thoughts were bumper cars banging in my head: Oprah’s final show and the global impact of her amorphous spirituality, Harold Camping’s “end times” debacle and its harmful influence. So many Christians convinced that history is in its final spin cycle, not just Camping followers, but everyday Christians all around me. I’ve always understood the end times to be the time from the Ascension until Christ’s return, not a chunk of “apocalypse” sliced from a dispensationalist spectrum. I want to argue: it only seems like things are getting worse because our information delivery systems are inundating us with quantum waves of unfiltered news. Human history could conceivably continue for another millennium! Check newspaper headlines from the 20’s or 50’s or 80’s. It won’t take long to compile an extensive list of even the most rational predictions that were way off the mark.

Still, today, it wouldn’t have been hard to get me on the tribulation bandwagon. I was thinking about Joplin and Slave Lake, Manitoba and Mississippi, Haiti and Japan. All those lives wrung out by water, fire, tornado and earthquake. I was thinking about sad things closer to home, too. A good man commuting daily to London for radiation treatments. A grandmotherly neighbour diagnosed with liver cancer. Other sorrows dragging down my heart …. I told God that he could choose to finish up the laundry anytime. Turn off the machine. I was fine with it.

But my daily walk is more than just exercise. It’s a physical effort to discipline the “eyes of my heart” to see God’s faithful presence all around me. I walked under a massive lilac tree, its creamy panicles tinged with shy pink centres. I contemplated its age…over a century? How many global crises had cycled through its seasons of infinitesimal growth? How many anxious individuals had hurried by without noticing its silent testament of grace?

I thought of my mom at my age, sobbing to me, “It’s all over. It’s all over.” She’d just heard the news that my dad had lymphoma. They battled the disease for ten more years. I thought of my grandmother, severely diabetic, injecting needles daily into limbs already black and blue. When she was my age, she’d survived Nazi occupation and was facing the imminent departure of my mom and dad for Canada. Would she ever see them again? She didn’t know.  

My mood was lightening, though the rain was not. I refuse to live in Harold Camping’s doomsday world, awaiting my rapturous lift off, waving an I-told-you-so farewell to my human home as it writhes in armageddon agony. I won’t live in Oprah’s world either, channelling the supposed positivity of the universe to fulfill my own personal dreams, nay-saying the inevitability of natural disasters and human failure with psychobabble and spiritual self-talk.

I’ll hold on to my mother and grandmother’s Heidelberg sturdiness, their practical faith in a Saviour who said: “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart. I have overcome the world.” I’ll trust that this same Lord isn’t going to abandon his creation, but restore it in his own time. So, Harold, word up, I don’t really care when. And Oprah, sistah, I bless you for your good works, but I’ll pass on creating my own reality. It’s already in good hands.

As Churchill advised, I’ll keep calm and carry on. I’ll mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. I’ll work on the church bulletin this afternoon and write a column for a Christian paper. I’ll send a card to the nearby friends who are struggling with life and death and be mindful of those in far-off places who are doing the same. I’ll pray, “Your kingdom come” instead of grumbling. 

On my way home, I could have laughed aloud at the misspelled, but appropriate, Baptist Church sign. And, no writer’s tweak here, Neil Diamond singing Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show: And when your brother is troubled, you gotta reach out your one hand for him/And when your heart is troubled, you gotta reach out your other hand/ reach it out to the Man up there….”

I fairly danced the rest of the way, singing in the rain. 

Buffet Lunch at Emily Carr Elementary School

I got the excited message on my machine about a week ago.

 “Hi, Grandma, please get this message soon because it’s very important.  It’s for Tuesday, June 28th at 11:45 – 12:45 in the servery.  We’ve travelled around the world and now it’s time to celebrate with a potluck lunch. You are invited to a taste of the world. Please come. My mommy will be there, too. It’s from my teacher.”

 Amara’s humble contribution was rice (and Minute Rice at that) because her project was on Taiwan. But spread on the centre tables was a veritable global feast. There were many foods I didn’t know, many that didn’t look very appetizing and many that weren’t labelled. Not to say that those that were labelled, like haggis, had any greater appeal.  🙂

Little Julie, across the table from me with big brown eyes and curly, curly black hair, told me that her dad was coming home from Brazil, TODAY, and that her mom was at the gym in a “sort of Biggest Loser contest.” She was delighted that Amara had chosen one of her cookies, a sweet potato cookie iced with vanilla frosting. She’d made them herself.

 Now, just to be up front here, I’m a bit germophobic at the best of times. I judge restaurants based on the cleanliness of their bathrooms. So, shame on me, at the Taste of the World Buffet, I looked for food I recognized and/or looked store-bought. Although, let it be said in my defense, I’ve baked with children before. I’ve had some experience with little fingers scratching their butt and then licking the batter. So potlucks tend to trigger my phobias. Amara had no such issues and tried all kinds of food, unselfishly offering me samples from her plate.  How could I say no to those big eyes and such a sharing heart?  Daughter Shannon tried to comfort me with interesting information about how we need bacteria to live and digest food and that frequently our efforts to be antibacterial  backfire on us.

 As a Christian schoolteacher with a long history of active support for Christian schools from elementary to secondary to post-secondary, I have my biases. But visiting Emily Carr was a wonderful experience for me. Last week I was invited to visit the school and view Amara’s smartboard presentation. She had obviously done a lot of research, handled the technology proficiently, and was confident and pleased to share what she had learned about Taiwan. The teacher was personable and had clear classroom management strategies in place, the children were respectful and patient with one another, and the atmosphere was positive.

 Today I was surprised by the turn-out and involvement of parents and grandparents. I thought most parents would have  been unavailable due to work schedules. But the crowd was full of moms, dads, grandparents, and daycare providers who brought all their charges. The servery was full of friendly support for the students, the staff, and the school. I saw many parents pitch in to help set up and clean up. I heard one little girl say to her teacher, “This was the best project ever, Miss Wilson. I will never forget it.”

 I was also impacted by how multicultural the event was…not just in terms of the foods from around the world, but in terms of the people from around the world all gathered in this small Canadian cafeteria. It brought home to me in a concrete way how insulated my world was growing up, and still is, in terms of my comfort level and ease with people from other races and cultures. Amara is growing up without those insecurities. She doesn’t look twice at children who have a different skin colour, or parents who are wearing burkas and saris.

 It was a fun day. Amara undoubtedly learned a lot about the world from her own and her classmates’ projects. Her grandma may have learned some things, too.