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.


Bloodroot patch, April 2009
Bloodroot patch, April 2009

The bloodroots around here are already gone, sadly. I saw them for maybe a week, although my handy wildflower field guide assures me they bloom through May. (Lies!) They are lovely. They are also toxic.

Or medicinal. Take your pick.

Some websites advocate the use of bloodroot, so named for its reddish sap, to treat throat infections, bronchial complaints, and skin problems like ringworm and warts; others tell you that bloodroot can scar and that it is toxic when ingested. What I can tell you is that PubMed is not impressed with bloodroot: one study showed tumoricidal effects of bloodroot extract in a lab (good); another compared four patients who self-treated their own skin cancer with bloodroot extracts, all with disastrous effects (from metastasization to severe scarring). So, you know, if you have skin cancer, go to a doctor.

Bloodroot prefers moist hardwood forests and blooms in early spring, starting as a delicate white bud wrapped by a large, lobed, dark green leaf. It is an ant-dispersed plant, like trilliums; ants collect and eat a portion of the bloodroot’s seed, thus moving it through the forest landscape. At least one study has linked its decline both to habitat disruption and invasive ant species: the creation of new forest edges through tree-clearing appears to induce ants to carry the seeds in the wrong direction, and invasive ant species carry the seeds shorter distances than the native ants do.

With a name like “bloodroot” you have to know that the creative types are all over it. Here’s a sample:

Kneeling at Easter to the Season’s First Bloodroot and other poems
by James Baker Hall
for Cia

Eventually one spring enough ground was turned,
a windstorm occurred at the right moment,

the rest we piece together. Even if a human
had been here he could not have seen
what was rising
from the earth

and traveling by cloud east southeast over two ridges,
to a fresh water pond, stagnant–
owned by a man named Connors–

nor could anyone have seen it reappear,
out of the rain, as algae.
No one was here

when the grasses first appeared, or the whales.
No one was here long before that,
a bolt of lightning forked,
the earth was cooling,
one cell became two.


“Kneeling” strikes me as about right; I kneel, too, when the spring ephemerals come back.

There are also books, anthologies and literary magazines named Bloodroot, as well I’m sure as a lot of other poems and stories. Little wonder: bloodroots are beautiful, delicate, and dangerous. I’d recommend you leave them in the ground.


I have it from reliable sources that a short article I wrote on the East Don Parkland Partners has hit the newsstands in the latest issue of Spacing magazine; I haven’t yet seen in my local Chapters, but it is out there.

Spacing is about public space in Toronto, but they’re branching out to other Canadian cities now, especially online. They recently got a few nominations for National Magazine Awards (including magazine of the year) so it’s exciting to be included, even if I haven’t yet seen it myself!

Environmental Psychology

trillium, April 2009
trillium, April 2009

Yesterday was the first sunburn of the season, gained walking, cycling and photographing before the thunderstorms set in. I’m very fair, and I know I shouldn’t go out without sunblock and I should limit my UV exposure and all those other skin-cancer prevention strategies, but I can’t help it; in the face of a sunny day with everything budding and blooming, I crumble. (Keep in mind, too, that I’m allergic to anything with fur, feathers, pollen or spores, so that one might expect I would be the last person to spend time outside; instead I’m outside whenever I can possibly manage it.)

The trilliums are just shy of blooming. I give them another week before the flowers are open. Bloodroot was everywhere a week ago; I didn’t see much of it this weekend, though. Is it over already? The trout lilies were wide open, bent back, and will be going to seed soon.

It’s not that I’m opposed to creature comforts (as I sit here on the couch in my pajamas with my laptop), but outside, oddly, is home.

All right, I’m strange. No matter how much you enjoy the outdoors, you probably feel more at home on your sofa than in the woods. But studies in environmental psychology repeatedly show the benefits to people of exposure to non-human nature. Those who are ill recover faster in a room with a view of a tree. A forty-minute walk in a natural setting is more restorative than a similar walk in an urban setting. No matter how we try to separate civilization from nature, the former remains entirely a subset of the latter; no matter how much we pretend to be separate, humans are still animals.


So why are so few of us nature-lovers? How can we so easily accept intellectually an idea–the separation of humans from the rest of the world–entirely at odds with fact and with our health? You’d think that getting people to fall in love with nature would be easy.


trout lilies in bloom
trout lilies in bloom

I am alive, I swear it. For proof I offer photographs of trout lilies taken on a recent walk, which would be difficult to do if I were posting from beyond the grave.

Those of you who know me will know how inordinately happy I was to find these, and in profusion too, all over the floor of a local woodlot. To me, the blooming of the first trout lilies is the best and surest sign that spring is really here; plus, they’re pretty.

Trout lilies fascinate me. They can propogate either reproductively or through runners. For the first two years, all a new trout lily does is grow a root; in the third year, a single small brown-and-green splotchy leaf will appear aboveground.

trout lilies in progress
trout lilies in progress

A couple years after that, it’ll manage to grow two leaves; around year seven or eight, the trout lily will produce its gorgeous yellow flower. Even in the best sites, only about 35% of trout lilies will be of flowering age at any given time. All of which is to say that while there is nothing illegal about picking trout lilies, it’s not a spectacular idea since it won’t be replaced for at least seven years.

Rumour has it that trout lilies have emetic properties and were used by First Nations as a contraceptive. They are also, apparently, edible–but for god’s sake, please don’t.

flowering trout lily, April 2009
flowering trout lily, April 2009

They grow thickest and soonest at the base of substantial tree trunks because the microclimate is a bit warmer, so if you’re hunting for trout lily, look at the base of old trees (or on gentle sun-facing slopes). Trout lilies like moist, relatively open hardwood forests with plenty of leaf litter; they’ll bloom in the GTA from about mid-April through part of May (so if you want to see them, get out there in the next two or three weeks). Because they are so fragile–taking so long to grow and having such specific site requirements–they are easily out-competed in more open environments by tougher and more vigorous annual flowers. In the shade of deciduous trees and on ground perpetually carpeted by decomposing leaves, they can grow and flower–but only until the trees bud and leaf, at which point the shade kills them off.

They look so fragile and delicate, but it is that very fragility which enables them to thrive in environments where stronger plants can’t grow.


I wasn’t able to find any art or folklore related to the trout lily, but if any of you know of some, let me know and I’ll add it. Otherwise, I’ll keep looking.

42 Revisited (or, what parents owe their children in an era of environmental collapse, part I)

On Twitter recently the Toronto Star asked people to define the meaning of life. Sure, why not: an endeavour that has eluded philosophers for 10,000 years can be collated from the 140-character submissions of the general public. Not surprisingly, no one agreed. The meaning of life is to love people. To be good. To do good. To be happy. To take risks.

I submit that life has no intrinsic meaning.

The meaning of life is whatever we ourselves bring to it. Which means it depends on the material of our lives. We take what we have and organize it in whatever way allows us to extract meaning. Or impose it, rather.

Which leaves infants dying of AIDS in South Africa in something of a quandary because what material have they been given, what ability do they have to extract meaning from their experience? None. The idea that their lives have no meaning is repugnant, and I cannot accept that the sole meaning of their lives is to provide more experience to other people.* What meaning their lives have must belong to them alone, no matter how awful it looks, as it does to us over-privileged westerners with our comfortable, self-actualized notions of the meaning of life. None of this–grown men raping infant girls to “cure” their own AIDS, parents selling their daughters into sex slavery to feed their sons, young boys drafted into armies to kill each other–makes any sense or can be justified at all unless life is considered a gift, no matter what happens. None of human history makes sense if it is only ethical to have children when they can have a safe, risk-free life in an upper-class North American suburb.

With every fresh environmental crisis, adult men and women are once again charged with not bringing children into such a messed up world. But even we over-privileged westerners have children who suffer and die in infancy or childhood, who will never smile or speak or know about love. Those of us who have or who have known such children may perhaps be better at recognizing the absurdity of charging adults with only bearing children when they can guarantee a world worth living in to their children.

No, whatever parents owe their children, it is something other than non-existence as the sole alternative to a guaranteed adulthood in a sane and propserous society.

No parent has ever been able to promise their children a world worth living in. Children have been slaughtered, enslaved, sold and raped from time immemorial, as even a casual reading of world history demonstrates. I am still haunted by the image found in a history book of a Spanish conquistador slicing off the legs of a native child who was afraid, and ran from him. Of infants torn from their mother’s arms and thrown to hunting dogs.

The question of whether or not the world can afford our children (the consumption, the pollution, etc.) is a separate one and concerns what we owe the world, not what we owe to our children.

I submit that what we owe to our children begins when they get here, and does not end with shelter, clothing, health care and education any more. No. Like it or not, modern parents, you owe the people you brought into this world every effort you can spare that this world will continue to be there.


* I find this to be the most common meaning that well-intended others like to impose on the life of a young child with a disability or illness: think of what it taught the parents, the friends, the community! Children (and, for that matter, adults) with disabilities and illnesses exist for their own sake, just as you do.

April is the cruelest month (but it has butterflies)

Mourning Cloak
Mourning Cloak

Or will be, at any rate: I may have over-committed myself. I have a couple of book reviews and a post about Horton Hears a Who in the works, but they’re going to take more than five minutes to get up–so–in the meantime, here is another harbinger of spring: the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

Mourning Cloaks have a broad range which includes the GTA, and are one of the few butterflies that overwinter: they find a crack of bark or other warm spot and enter a state of cryogenic suspension when winter begins, then thaw and return to life in the spring. Because of this, they are one of our longer-lived species, living nine to ten months on average. Unlike many other butterflies, they don’t feed from flowers but from tree sap, rotting fruit and mud puddles–nice, eh?–one reason it is able to survive the winter and emerge in early spring, before anything is blooming.

Besides sleeping through most of the winter, it can also estivate (hibernate) during summer hot spells, so you may not see mourning cloaks around during the hottest season.

They were all over the path by Newtonbrook Creek last Friday; this one kept divebombing my camera as I tried to take its picture.

Never turn your back on Mother Earth*

dsc_00160001Take a look at what the snow melt this year did to the streambank protection on Newtonbrook Creek. Ouch.

In case you can’t tell from the picture, the creek flooded and wiped out the gabion baskets on the far bank, digging a new channel, turning the gabion baskets into an island and carving a new bluff. (Gabion baskets are large wire baskets full of rocks placed along river and stream banks to protect them from erosion.) Picturesque, sure, but not good. Trees are toppled or their roots exposed to air. Silt is washed into the river, changing the composition and warmth of the water and depriving it of oxygen, which kills fish and plants.

Incidentally, this is not “natural.”

Yes, snow has always melted (or, you know, when earth is cold enough to get snow–this may not last much longer, folks, so get your fill now), and when it melts it turns into water, and so water has to go somewhere, right? Right. So it always ends up in the rivers and creeks and they always flood in the spring, right?


Because until recently, we hadn’t paved over every surface known to mankind. Soil is permeable; water drains into it. Asphalt and concrete are not permeable; water runs off of it. And into the storm sewers, and the rivers, causing them to flood and taking out the banks. And killing the plants and the fish. And wiping away topsoil that took hundreds or thousands of years to form. You’re with me, right? Paving everything=floods=not good.

I’ll assume you’re not about to rip up your driveway and replace it with gravel. Am I right? Right.

Other things you can do:

1. Disconnect your downspouts from the stormwater system.

2. Put rainwater collection barrels underneath your downspouts. Use the rainwater to water your lawn and garden in the summer. This is especially handy in areas prone to summer droughts and restrictions on water use. Alternatively, you can build a downspout bog garden, depending on how much space you have between your house and your property boundary.

3. Bug municipal stuff about making permeable pavers standard wherever applicable. Often useful for those huge parking lots surrounding big-box stores. Spare a moment to think of how much rain must run off of those parking lots, Dear Readers.

dsc_007400014. For the love of the gods, never, ever, ever, ever, ever put anything down a storm drain. I know you like salt. I know salt is easy and convenient during Canadian winters. Salt is a toxic substance. Just try, ok? And all the rest of it, too–it all ends up in the rivers–and the lakes–and while your little bit might not seem like much, all together, all those bits of chlorine from swimming pools and soap from car washing and bits of paint and cleansers and solvents make up a toxic mess. Stormwater runoff is more polluted than industrial discharge.

I’ll just say that again, shall I?

Stormwater runoff is more polluted than industrial discharge.

To sum up: Pavement: handy for rollerblading and baby carriages. Not a friend to Mother Earth. Use judiciously.

Here’s our “new” Newtonbrook Creek. Poor thing.


*Post title taken from Neko Case’s recent cover of “Never turn your back on Mother Earth” on Middle Cyclone. Good album.


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.



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