Survival instincts

It is cold outside today.

It’s the sort of cold day that I’ve written about before — so cold you shiver just contemplating going outside. When I checked the weather app on my phone early this morning, it informed me that an extreme cold weather warning was in effect.

In bold white letters on a background of red emblazoned across the middle of the app’s screen so you could not possibly miss it.

The wind chill was -40 in the oh-dark-thirty hour, and -37 when that girl we call B left for school. The sun is blazing out of a clear blue sky, giving the illusion of a beautiful day, but I know the truth, and the truth is bitterly, bitterly cold.

Which is why our eldest child took one look outside and announced that since it was a PD day for him, he was going to spend the day battling tanks, chasing aliens, racing cars, and other such things on the Xbox.

A good plan for a day like today.

Our youngest child though? I have to question her sanity. She hummed her way through her morning routine, not having the day off like her brother, then called out a cheerful “Bye, Mom!” seconds before she slammed the door closed behind her and ran down the road to school. By the time I made it from the room I was in to the front door in hopes of a hug, or at least a shouted “Love you! Have a great day!” down the street, she was already well out of sight.

School is only a couple of blocks away – a 10 minute walk or so if you’re chatting with friends, shorter if you’re in a hurry, and less than 5 if you flat out run and cut through the park for good measure.

But the park is buried under a meter or so of snow pack, making it harder to take that shortcut. And when you have to walk the long way around the park, it is a good 10 minutes at least, though less if you’re walking fast.

I do so very much hope that she was walking fast, for when I turned away from the door (and the bitterly cold air that was pouring into the house at high speed, leaving a cloud of whitish mist in its wake), I spied a pair of dark gray B-sized snowpants still neatly hanging from their hanger.

She left the house without her snowpants, dressed only in her favourite pair of dark green cargo pants decorated a-la-Kaylee.

The Man We Call Dad and I looked at each other and sighed, knowing that with teenagers, some lessons just have to be learned the hard way.

But recess will be indoors, given the temperature, and it’s slowly warming up besides. By the time she heads home again this afternoon, it will be a balmy -19 with the wind chill at a mere -28.

And hopefully our B will have learned a valuable lesson about the importance of having healthy survival instincts, though I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll be having the same discussion about the importance of dressing for the weather for a few more years to come.

The season of light

There is something about Christmas that speaks to my heart in a way few other holidays do. I find myself humming little snatches of songs at odd moments. I find excuses to do yet more fun things with my kids and their friends and cousins. And I catch myself staring out the window watching the wildlife or sitting on the porch breathing in the cold snap of the air while the kids build this year’s iteration of the Incredibly Amazingly Awesome Front Yard Snow Fort (not to be confused with the Awesomely Incredible Amazing Back Yard Snow Fort).

It might be because it is a time when family comes together.  When I think about it though, that happens more than just this once a year when you have a large family with many birthdays and weddings and new babies and other excuses for celebrations, so that can’t be it.

It could possibly be because it is a most perfect excuse to spend many, many hours making and crafting and baking, though I rarely need an excuse and will happily spend hours making and crafting and baking just because it’s raining out, or because someone is feeling blue, or because it’s Tuesday.

And it might be that I get to decorate the entire house from top to bottom with twinkle lights and sparkly gold ornaments and a little Christmas village full of quaint little houses and darling miniature people for the kids to play with and me to smile at. I do so like adding a little bit of sparkle to the house and often wonder why I don’t have twinkle lights scattered about all the time.

But none of those reasons quite hit the mark.

When I think about it, when I reach deep into the heart of the matter and feel for what I love most about Christmas, it’s the light.

The winter solstice falls just a few days before Christmas. It is a day of magic and mystery to some, a day of science reconfirmed to others, but all agree the winter solstice is significant. That day when we stop falling further into darkness and start edging our way slowly back towards the light is a powerful thing.

You might not notice it much at first, but by Christmas day it is no longer a suspicion, but an obvious truth: Today had oh so slightly more sunshine than yesterday, and tomorrow brings the promise of more again. Spring is coming, bit by bit, and with it all the dreams of gardens and harvests and wonderful family meals fresh from the earth.

Too optimistic? I could see how you might see it that way. Spring is, for us, still months away (though I must admit, having had the first green Christmas in over a decade, Spring does feel like she is already here). I still dread the bitterly cold days of late January and am resigned to the dreariness of February and seemingly endless month of March. But with the dawn of Christmas day, I know deep inside that this little ball of water and rock we call home has continued on its merry way around the universe, laws of physics and orbital mechanics still intact, carrying us all along for the journey.

And with that knowledge comes the surety that Spring is indeed coming.

There’s snow in the air

There’s snow in the air… and on the ground. Just a dusting, barely enough to cover anything for more than a short time, but it is there. I keep reading status updates on Facebook and Twitter where people moan and groan about the white stuff falling from the sky, but I cannot find myself sharing their sentiment.

No, I don’t like the cold all that much. Nor do I like how slippery the ground gets underfoot. But I do like how readily the kids go outdoors to play. Snow is, after all, a perfectly wonderful building material and my children are prolific builders and crafters. Winter merely lets them move their crafting and building from being a small thing done at a table to being something that can grow even bigger than they are.

Maybe it’s crazy, but winter makes me happy, at least for a little while. Or maybe it’s the fact that I find snowflakes to be fascinating crystal structures that are at once so delicate and airy, and yet so heavy and dense.

Perhaps it is the change of it all. I don’to mean the passage of time and movement of seasons and freshening up of everything around us. Rather, the fact that one day it is a gentle drift of angel feathers landing on your nose and bringing joy and wonder to your soul while the next day, it is a bitter, stinging cold leaving wet runnels trailing down your face and making you long for summer.

It has been hypothesized that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. Other linguists claim there are no more root words for snow than there are in English, but the Inuit language’s use of suffixes where we would use adjectives gives the illusion of hundreds of unique words when the ideas are just as readily expressed in English, though it may take a few more words to do so.

I am not a linguist and I cannot speak to that debate, but I do know there are hundreds upon hundreds of different kinds of snow that fall throughout a single winter, some of which I love. Others… not so much. But what there is that can always be counted on is a sort of infinite variety that makes every single day seem fresh and new, at least until the end of January.

Why January?

Because by the end of January, you have seen every sort of snow there is and been frozen in every sort of way there is to be frozen and, quite frankly, you are just tired of the whole messy business that is winter.

Until sometime in late February or early March, at any rate, when once again the quality of snow changes and just that suddenly, you just know Spring is on its way. Not yet, not visibly, but coming soon nonetheless, and plans begin to be made for the next stage of existence. Greenhouses get set up, seeds get planted, and we have high hopes of having garden-fresh salads again soon.

But today? Today, we have snow and I keep thinking I should go pull in the last of the late fall crop of greens and the final batch of carrots before they freeze solid and are impossible to get out of the ground.

Morning thoughts

A few mornings ago, while the rest of my little family slept cozily in our tent, I walked along the riverbank and soaked in the feeble warmth of the early morning sun as it slanted across the river. I watched chipmunks chase each other from branch to branch while a plump red squirrel chattered in annoyance. The stringy croak of a frog broke the air every few minutes and a young crow let out its characteristic “caw” in protest of something or other.

Nearby gulls blithely ignored the crow, too busy enjoying their feast of minnows and snails to bother with him. Their webbed feet left perfect impressions in the soft sand at water’s edge. As I walked along, alone in my early morning explorations, I saw another set of footprints interspersed with theirs, but as familiar as my own, if somewhat smaller. I was not the first person up and about that morning, it seemed.

I followed the footsteps for a while and spied a larger, shod set had kept pace with the smaller bare feet, my own belatedly adding to theirs. I gave the gulls a wide berth, enjoying the sight of them fishing and socializing too much to wish to scare them off with too close an approach. Thirty feet or so was plenty of distance, for while they sent the occasional watchful glance my way, they otherwise ignored me.

Not so the blue heron who, at a distance of 100 feet or more, took suddenly to wing, abandoning its spot among the reeds in favour of the distant and perhaps more peaceful shore.

Not a minute later, I spotted a second heron wading among the cattails while something unseen (but not unheard) made the bushes at my back rustle and branches snap. This heron, too, took wing before long.

There were treasures of a different sort to be found as well. The graceful spiral of a snail’s shell. The carcass of a dragonfly with a blood red body and gossamer wings edged in black and shimmering in the morning light. A single feather, black as night and as long as my forearm from wrist to elbow and belonging to the young crow perhaps. An orchid, rare and endangered, native to my home province and glowing sweetly orange from amidst a tangle of green leaves. A stone, somewhat thin and mostly round that gave me 5 good skips across the water when thrown just so.

It is hard to put into words how much I love the quiet wonder of the world we live in. These woods and rivers, the crisp air of an autumn morning on the side of a mountain, the steep rise of a rock outcropping leading to an even steeper plunge into lake water so clear it is as if there were nothing at all between you and the fish hovering some 15 feet below.

I love the city too, though it often saddens me. There is much of the natural world to be found hidden in its concrete and steel embrace. Spiderwebs on street signs. Bird nests on window ledges. Raccoons and mice and, yes, rats, too. Birds flying high or waddling along in search of the scraps we people leave behind. Bees big and small, busily moving from flower to flower, uncaring if they are ornamental or merely weedy volunteers springing up in the cracks of a sidewalk, ensuring that the wild daisies and stinging nettles and flowering crab apples will fruit and go to seed again this year as they did last. Butterflies sipping eagerly at puddles or water on the side of the road. And fish in the storm drains, quicksilver in the murky water and just as eager as their river cousins to devour a little bit of bread dropped by happy little fingers.

Even in the midst of asphalt and steel with a dearth of wild trees and rambunctiously populated meadows, there is a plethora of wildlife to be found if you look for it, really look. It makes me marvel at the adaptability and resilience of God’s creatures.

There is a miracle here, happening everywhere and in every place at every moment. Life finds a way, in the city just as readily as on the riverbank, if not so abundantly. I feel like a child in its presence — small and surrounded by things far greater than I am, by events and happenings I do not yet fully grasp, and filled with a peaceful sense of joy at the beauty of it all.

And my words, as always, feel so inadequate when faced with so much wonder.

Kids and trees

There is something magical about trees. I have always loved them. It doesn’t matter to me if they are the tall, majestic giants anchoring the forest or the small scrubby things that litter the forest floor. For that matter, I even like trees planted in orderly rows in an orchard. Trees are just the most comfortable old friends a person can have.

I think most everyone has a tree that they remember for one reason or another. Probably even more than one. It might be the tree in your backyard, or the one in your grandparents’ back field that had a rope swing tied to it. It might be the tree your mother photographed you with every year on your birthday or the first day of school. It might be the first tree you climbed, or the first tree you fell out of, or the spruce tree on your front lawn that your father strung with lights every Christmas.

As a child, my favourite tree was a lilac tree. It grew beside our house, along with several others of its kind and a plum tree or three. It was an tall, old tree that reached all the way to the gable window of my bedroom and I would go to sleep on spring nights with the heady scent of lilac inspiring my dreams.

By day, those trees made for the most marvelous place to play. They were old enough to have grown bare in their lower reaches, with only the outermost branches bearing leaves. It left a perfect little space underneath, carpeted with blue myrtle and false strawberry and marked by the little rabbit-trail pathways left by my feet and those of my friends.

We played there for hours at a time, day after day. There was no end to the things you could imagine in that little space under those trees, screened away from grownup view in your own living green world of wonder.

Nowadays, my favourite tree is the grand old man of the forest. An evergreen who rises far above the rest of the trees in the woods, I can see him from the window of my office. He towers over the houses at the end of the street. He towers over the other trees in the woods. He even manages to tower over the sky, drawing the eye away from sunshine and clouds and even the occasional rainbow.

He is grand, that old man. I love him so.

But he’s got some competition for my affections, right here in my own backyard. I have planted several dwarf apple trees, and Oh! how I love them so! Their blossoms in spring bring me so much joy. Their fruit in fall is so eagerly anticipated. But this year, mother nature conspired against us and gave us a hard frost right after the blossoms had opened, and all the blossoms fell off.

A bad year for apples, it seemed to be, without even a single fruit on our trees. How was I going to make applesauce? What would I use for apple pies?

It’s a good thing The Man We Call Dad came to the rescue. Our doggie friend Ginger’s Dad called us up and invited us to go apple picking with them, all the way on the other side of town, over an hour’s drive away for us. The Man We Call Dad said yes, of course (despite the fact that there is a huge pick-your-own orchard not 10 minutes down the road from us), and off he went with the kids in tow.

Apple trees aren’t that tall, unless you are four. Then they are impossibly tall.

Of course, to pick apples properly, you’ve got to get right up there inside the apple tree, or as near to it as you can get. Some kids climb the trees. Some kids fall out of the trees. Ours… preferred to use ladders.

 

Not long after they had arrived, I got a phone call from The Man We Call Dad.

“How many apples do you want us to get?” he asked me. They were sold by the bag, you see. Each bag was rated for 20 pounds of apples.

“I don’t know. Enough to make some applesauce,” was my oh-so-scientific answer.

They brought home a lot of apples. See this bag?

That bag holds a lot of apples. If you are really observant, you’ll have noticed that The Man We Call Dad is in the background, and it looks like he is carrying another giant bag full of apples.

He’s not.

He’s carrying three more giant bags of apples. Yes, its’ true. They brought me back 80 pounds of apples. In truth, I suspect it is more than 80 pounds, because those bags were awfully full.

It’s a good thing I like making applesauce.

Ginger in the woods

A couple of weeks ago, we had company. It was company of the canine sort, and she was a delightful visitor.

Within seconds of arriving at our house, she claimed a spot on the floor beside the loveseat, and so that was where we laid her dog bed. From there, she had a clear view of the door, the living room, the dining room, the back door, and the stairs.

She likes knowing what’s going on, that dog. If one of us were to walk into the family room, she would wander over to see what we were doing. If we appeared to be settled, she would settle there too. If not, she would return to her dog bed and wait us out. Saving her energy, I suppose, until the pesky humans stopped walking all over the house and picked one place to be.

We like having doggy visitors. The kids enjoy having companions who have as much energy as they do, and I enjoy having a warm, fuzzy lump by my side as I work at the computer while the kids are at school. We like the walks, too, despite the necessity for picking up. And we like having visitors who are so fun to play with for a bit and then go away again before we get tired of taking care of them.

Ginger, though, is a doggy visitor in a category entirely her own. She is silent almost all the time. She doesn’t bark, she doesn’t howl, she barely says a word at all. In fact, most of the time she merely sits and observes from the comfort of her dog bed, those eyes wide and wise and calmly knowing.

At least, until you take out her leash.

That leash inspired a flash of action. Tail starts wagging, bum starts wiggling, and she literally bounces up into the air a little, so excited is she about the idea of going outside for a stroll. Once outside, she likes to sniff and sniff and sniff. Everything smells interesting to Ginger. The leaf that fell off the tree. The rock beside the curb. The weedy thing growing at the edge of the grass. The lamp post. The stop sign’s pole. The fire hydrant, of course. All of it gets a thorough sniff.

Unlike our crazy dog friend Waldo who bounds ahead in excitement and drags us along for the ride, Ginger never pulls. She explores in her calm, quiet way, usually a step or two or five behind us as we walk. Sometimes, she stops dead and we find that it is us who are suddenly pulled up short as she decides to dig in her heels for a moment to better smell something or other. Even squirrels fail to elicit much more than a quiet look, sort of a “yes, I see you, silly squirrel. And no, I am not going to bother chasing you. Run along now. I’ve got things to sniff.”

It quickly became evident that this lovely, quiet dog has a deep love for the woods. As deep a love as mine, I would wager. The woods set her tail to wagging and her nose to sniffing like nothing else. As soon as we would enter the woods, her whole being would both perk up and relax, all at the same time. She looked happy in the woods. I can relate. I am always happy in the woods. And I come out the other side feeling calm and centered and joyful, every single time.

I like the woods.

I like bringing things home from the woods and placing them in our nature bowl. A bit of bladder campion. A sprig of wild camomile flowers. A leaf, newly red with the snap of cold weather.

Ginger approved of everything I brought home, giving it a good sniff before wandering off to find the next thing to smell.

I like walking in the woods with Ginger. I like walking in the woods with Waldo, too, though it is a completely different experience. Waldo leaps and pulls and strains to reach whatever he happens to notice. He bites branches. He barks at squirrels. He wraps the leash around trees constantly. He is oh so very excited to be in the woods, and oh so very excited to be on a walk, and oh so very excited just to be, I think, for he is that sort of dog. Mind you, Ginger is also 12 years old and Waldo isn’t even 2 yet.

Ginger is calm. Ginger is quiet. Ginger takes her time and doesn’t jump or pull or wrap her leash around trees.

At least, not unless she sees a chipmunk. Chipmunks, apparently, are her calmness kryptonite. The very hint of a chipmunk sends her into a frenzy of jumping and pulling and straining to catch that speedy little thing that just went racing across the rocks. Chipmunks turn Ginger into a puppy again.

Oh, what joy can be found in the woods!

What can you do with a month?

Has it really been an entire month that I’ve been absent from this space? Oh my! It certainly has been a busy month. I suspect it might just take me an entire month more to share all the adventures we’ve been having.

It has been a month of family, a month of history, and a month of bravery. It has been a month of learning, a month of playing, and a month of working hard on all sorts of projects.

It has also been a month of animals, and we’ve been enjoying every minute of it.

First came Waldo.

Doesn’t he have the sweetest doggie face? We love Waldo. We love that Waldo comes to visit as often as he can. (And this Mama especially loves that when we dogsit Waldo, he goes home afterwards — I’m not up for being a full-time dog owner, especially one as curious and mischievous and strong as Waldo.)

Waldo is very curious. When he isn’t busy investigating everything he can find over this-a-way…

…he’s busy investigating everything he can find over that-a-way.

Which includes clover. And bumblebees. And garden beds. And the water in the ravine. And the bunnies who visit our yard. And the cat who regularly visits our yard (who was rather startled to suddenly discover our yard was inhabited by a rather large, rather exciteable, and rather deep-voiced dog. We haven’t seen the cat since).

And I must say, settling down at the computer to work for a bit with a large, heavy, warm lump of fur laying half on your feet…

…is actually rather nice.

We like Waldo around here.

The day before Waldo went home, three more visitors arrived: one of the hamsters we pet-sat before (the other, sadly, having gone the way all hamsters do after too short a time), and two very friendly rats. And guess what? I still like those sweet rats just as much as I did the last time they came to stay with us for a bit. So did the kids. So much so, in fact, that not only did we play with them daily, we built them a little play fort out of stacked up boxes and baskets and toys we thought the girls might like.

They didn’t like it.

Or rather, they would creep out, explore for a bit, then climb back into their cage (which made up one entire wall of the play area) and hide for a bit. The hamster, on the other hand, loved it. Safely in his ball (I have this fear of losing him down one of the heating vents), he rolled this way and that way throughout the play area as long as we would let him.

They, too, went home after a bit, but they stayed long enough that the kids had a chance to really get to know them, and to enjoy their company.

I like pet sitting. My kids get to play with all sorts of different creatures, to appreciate how important it is to care for each one in the way that suits that animal best, but they only stay long enough for us to get a good visit in before they head home again. If we acquired all these pets for ourselves, I am positive that in no time at all we would have a veritable zoo on our hands. Truly. B would not complain. In fact, she would be happier than happy has ever been.

Until the time came to clean all those litter boxes, that is. Cleaning up critter poo is not her favourite chore.

We’ve had critters in the garden, too. Caterpillars, for certain. Green ones, yellow ones, striped ones, fuzzy ones… all sorts of caterpillars have been visiting this year. Which also means all sorts of butterflies have been fluttering by.

We like butterflies.

We have bunnies, too. Young ones, older ones, every morning as the sun rises and every evening as the sun goes down, we spy bunnies munching away on clover and kale. I was sneaky this year — I planted the kale all along the border of the garden, lots and lots and lots of it — and the bunnies are so happy with the kale, they’ve been leaving everything else in the garden alone. Except for the clover, but I don’t mind one bit if they eat the clover.

The birds have been busy this year, and the squirrels, but so have the beetles. Shiny green and red ones that are busily eating the leaves off our grape vine. I don’t know what species they are, but I do know this: I do not like them. I do not like them one bit.

Inside the house, the birds have been busy too:

But before you get too excited, you should know that this sweet little fellow is no longer with us. This photo was taken on the first day that he decided to try to fly. Yes, you read that right: he tried to fly without any feathers. He hopped right out of the nest and plummeted to the bottom of the cage in a flurry of panicked squawking on behalf of his mother (who has left the nest for just a moment to feed herself for once).

If you have a particularly sharp eye for details, you might have noticed that I wrote “the first time.” Yes, there was a second. No, he still didn’t have any mature feathers when he tried to fly the second time. Unfortunately, he managed to launch himself far enough away from the nest that he landed in the water dish, in water over his head (he was rather tiny, after all, being only a couple of weeks old). Tragically, he did this early one morning before any of us were awake and was only discovered after it was too late to rescue him.

But that’s not the end of our animal adventures this month, oh no!

About a week ago, it started raining frogs inside our house.

Well okay, it was only one frog, and he jumped off the wall of the front porch just as I was opening the door, but still. A frog fell from above and landed by my feet and I shrieked, B shrieked, K came running, and before we could blink, the tiny little frog had hopped his way into the closet, jumped up onto my cane (which was hanging from its usual hook), and started climbing for all he was worth. We managed to trap him inside a clean jar without touching him (frogs breathe through their skin and the oils from your hands can disrupt their respiration) and set him back outside in the garden, but we took a few terrible photos first.

One might think that July was filled with entirely too many animals for any one month, but the reality is that each of these adventures brought us joy in one way or another. After spying on bunnies, picking up caterpillars, cuddling rats, chasing hamsters, capturing and releasing a tiny little frog, mourning a baby bird, and playing and playing and playing with Waldo… we decided our house didn’t have enough critters in it, so we restocked the big aquarium in my home office and K’s much smaller aquarium in his bedroom, too. Fish may be little itty bitty things that stay nicely contained in their watery home, but they add a little bit of flash and sparkle and joy to a room. B is now asking me to set up a little aquarium in her room, too.

If by “asking” you mean “begging and pleading daily,” that is.

I rather suspect she’s been begging every higher power she can think of in her quest for more critters for our house. In fact, I’m almost sure of it. It must be, because there is no other explanation for it.

For what? Oh. Didn’t I mention it?

The birds have been busy again.

(Do you think anyone will notice if I compost some of the eggs?)