Category Archives: Visual


dsc_00110001-2Anyone whose known me for more than approximately 8.32 seconds knows how much I love trilliums, and not just because they’re gorgeous (although they are). They’re a fragile, finicky plant in a marginal and difficult habitat, and they manage to turn that into something beautiful: blooming after the ground thaws but before the deciduous leaves come in (which shuts off their sunlight), in some forests in southern Ontario trilliums turn the ground white for a few weeks each spring. Two places I’ve regularly seen a good show are Ratray Marsh on Lake Ontario in Mississauga and Tottenham Park in Richmond Hill; they aren’t as prevalent on the Don. This might be because deer live in the Don watershed and deer love trilliums, eating them before almost any other plant.

Trilliums can reproduce through their roots (clonally) or by producing seeds (sexually), and there is some evidence that in more disturbed areas clonal reproduction is more common. Ants are an important link in trillium sexual reproduction: the seeds are covered with a lovely ant food, so the ants take the fruits and bury them and eat them, and the seeds that remain germinate (if they can) the following spring. Much like trout lilies, it takes a couple of years for that germinating seed to sprout aboveground; and what looks like a leaf is actually a bract, or part of the flower. Seven to ten years after the seed is in the ground, the plant will produce a white flower; trilliums are perennials, so they’ll just keep going until you kill them. When you next see a small child walking home with a fistful of trilliums, consider that they are holding many times their own age in plant life.

dsc_00050001-2Contrary to popular belief, it is not actually illegal to pick trilliums in Ontario (if you don’t believe me, search the statutes site), but it is a horribly bad idea considering how long it takes them to grow, so please don’t. If you absolutely must, at the very least, don’t pick the leaves (bracts) so that the plant can grow again the next year. If you pick the leaves (bracts), you kill the plant.

One review of commercial trillium operations in North America found that almost none of them were actually growing trilliums from seed, instead transplanting them from wild habitats. Trilliums do not transplant well, and usually die; in some areas of the United States, such removals are endangering local populations of this beautiful flower to the point of extirpation. If you desperately want trilliums in your garden, try waiting for the wild flowers to fruit typically in late May or June and then gather some seeds, take them home and grow them yourself.


A bit of art. First, a poem by A. M. Klein:

The Mountain

Who knows it only by the famous cross which bleeds
into the fifty miles of night its light
knows a night-scene;
and who upon a postcard knows its shape –
the buffalo straggled of the laurentian herd, –
holds in his hand a postcard.
In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood –
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass-
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

There is a meadow, near the pebbly brook,
where buttercups, like once on the under of my chin
upon my heart still throw their rounds of yellow.

And Cartier’s monument, based with nude figures
still stands where playing bookey
Lefty and I tested our gravel aim
(with occupation flinging away our guilt)
against the bronze tits of Justice.

And all my Aprils there are marked and spotted
upon the adder’s tongue, darting in light,
upon the easy threes of trilliums, dark green, green, and white,
threaded with earth, and rooted
beside the bloodroots near the leaning fence-
corms and corollas of childhood,
a teacher’s presents.

And chokecherry summer clowning black on my teeth!

The birchtree stripped by the golden zigzag still
stands at the mouth of the dry cave where I
one suppertime in August watched the sky
grow dark, the wood quiet, and then suddenly spill
from barrels of thunder and broken staves of lightning –
terror and holiday!
One of these days I shall go up to the second terrace
to see if it still is there-
the uncomfortable sentimental bench
where, – as we listened to the brass of the band concerts
made soft and to our mood by dark and distance-
I told the girl I loved
I loved her.

And another by Mary Oliver, which I might have to repeat in a couple of days because it is so good:

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

knee-high to a treehugger

Frances the budding field biologist
Frances the budding field biologist

I have a handful of books on how to get kids enjoying nature: I Love Dirt! by Jennifer Ward, Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell and Hands-On Nature by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (edited by Jenepher Lingelbach and Lisa Purcell). All are good. Hands-On Nature is like a teacher’s lesson-plan book, with schedules and activities and curriculums laid carefully out; what best recommends it is the background information pages, without which you might not know how to answer your child when s/he asks you how dandelions make seeds (your first guess was close, but no cigar: dandelions carry complete seeds in their ovaries and thus, unlike almost every other plant, do not require even self-pollination. So if you were wondering how it was that every dandelion lovingly picked by your child and set in a glass of water on the kitchen table managed to produce its full complement of fluff, now you know). Sharing Nature With Children is like a girl guide troupe leader’s book, with activities including games broken out by age as well as intended lesson. I Love Dirt! is the easiest, a list of 52 things you can do with a child outside and ways to get them to explore their environment more purposefully. Its only downside is that you may think, as you read it, who needs a book? Like I need to read that kids like splashing in puddles?

Don’t let that put you off; if you are looking for an easy introduction to ways of getting kids eager to be outside learning about nature, it’s a great place to start. I tend to read a couple different activities, maybe from a couple different books, look out the window to see what’s growing/blooming/migrating/falling/seeding/whatever, and then out Frances and I go. This is FUN.

I think these are white bird's nest fungi, but I am open to being corrected.
I think these are white bird's nest fungi, but I am open to being corrected.

You don’t believe me. You want your sofa and your coffee and your laptop so you can answer emails while little Mikey or Yasmin finds new and exciting ways of using their everlasting Thomas the Tank Engine collection. I hear you. But at least once, give it a shot. Frances and I went to the local woodlot today; I intended to stay for thirty minutes and had to drag both of us home after two hours, and even so, Frances was coaxed out only because I promised we could go back next week.

We marveled at trout lilies, and Frances picked up the basics of their life cycle in about fifteen seconds and delighted in informing me whenever she saw a baby trout lily (small, single leaf) or a grown-up (with a flower). We looked at all the new leaves and buds and plants on the ground. We listened to the creek, and Frances threw stones in it to make splashes. We listened to birds and I caught chickadees nesting in a nearby tree. I had approximately three thousand heart attacks while watching her cavort on the edge of the embankments. We jumped the culverts. We talked about the difference between small pieces of concrete, which look like stones, and actual stones and rocks. We picked dandelions. Frances told me all about weeping willows while looking at a pine tree. We saw weird mushrooms. It was a great afternoon.

Frances on the woodlot embankment
Frances on the woodlot embankment

The “woodlot” in question is a small patch of undeveloped land between two suburban residential streets with a stormwater drainage creek running through it, heavily channeled by concrete and gabion baskets, and an unpaved path running a short ways over several large steel culverts. Algonquin Park it ain’t. Do you think she cared?

Young kids are too small to appreciate the Grand Canyon anyway. Take them to a weed patch, if that’s all you’ve got handy. Let it be ordinary. Nature isn’t special or precious. Nature is dirt.

A study of the world’s leading environmentalists showed that they had almost nothing in common, except a childhood in which they were given the time and space to form a significant relationship with nature. If you want your kids to grow up loving nature, let them jump in mud puddles.


dsc_00840001Last week, a single robin in the school garden; this week, a flock of them by Newtonbrook Creek, bouncing through the leaf litter.

A week or two ago, snow covered the park still, ice preserving footprints like plaster-casts. Snow melt flooded the creek and river. You could see squirrels–that was it.


Today, a chorus of birdsong, including a single piercing call and a pair of hawks, scanning for prey. Today, sunshine to 7:00 pm. Today, buds.

And this weird colour, watchamacallit. I knew it looked familiar, but I had to come home and look it up.

Oh, yeah:


Yesterday it was winter.

Welcome back, spring.



As it turns out, the friendly suggestion of emailing so-and-so for directions was less of a friendly suggestion and more of a base requirement, which makes me wonder why the directions weren’t just included with the volunteer package. In any case, we got to the right address at what I thought was the right time only to find that we were distinctly not in the right place, and had no idea what to do about it.

Instead of participating in an official bird count, therefore, we walked through the winter woods and counted a few birds on our own. And it was lovely. Cold. Very cold. But lovely. Heaps of pristine white snow crossed by those livid blue shadows you only get in winter. I’ll have to ask all my questions next year, along with the new one: Why on earth would you not include full directions with the volunteer package?


The one bird we heard most was the black-capped chickadee*, that improbably tiny ball of hollow bones and fluff. Chickadees are a species of titmouse, meaning a small bird, and are utterly unprepossessing: grey, black, brown, white. No impressive crests, no fan-shaped tails, no glorious songs. Not as famous as Raven or Coyote in native folklore. One Cherokee legend has it nick-named the Truth Teller for helping a tribe kill Spearfinger, a monster who would in the guise of a grandmother or favourite aunt slay children to eat their livers, but even its stories are not impressive enough to have made a mark on our modern consciousness. Only 12-15 cm (4-6″) from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail.

But it will live outdoors through a Canadian winter.

It’s emblematic of a lot of the less-showy Canadian wildlife. It’s small. It doesn’t look like much; it’s hard to turn it into an award-winning photograph for National Geographic Magazine. It looks fragile enough to be knocked out by a toothpick. But it survives.

For that alone, if nothing else, it would be my favourite bird. I also happen to think it’s adorable.


* Truth-telling, in honour of the chickadee: I am pretty sure that’s what we heard. I’m not an expert on birds by any means, but I think the call was the chickadee-dee-dee for which the bird was named. Finding one for a positive id on the top of a 20-40 ft dense evergreen was too much for Frances’s binoculars, however.

It's cold, not dead


I should preface the photo posts by emphasizing that I’m putting up what I find interesting, not what necessarily would win any photography contests.

This creek runs through a small ravine behind several detached homes, and is part of the Don River watershed. The greenspace it runs through isn’t part of the park or trail systems, but it’s well-used. It is, quite clearly, not untouched or pristine, given the wire that likely once created gabion baskets. It’s all incorporated into a natural system now that seems to run without any human inputs–save the dog-walkers and the offerings they may leave behind.