Sunday, 2 October 2011

My life as a cartoon character

I live in a wood house. I like the house, it's small but cozy and I'm slowly making it home. Yes, I like my little wood house in the forest and it seems I'm not alone.
Photo brazenly lifted from
Williams Lake Field Naturalists
online newsletter
The neighbourhood woodpecker likes it too, I discovered one morning after waking up to the tap-tap-tapping of the little fella making breakfast of the siding. Suddenly I'm Buzz Buzzard, the slow-witted nemesis of attention-deficit victim Woody Woodpecker, banging on the bathroom wall and shouting obscenities to scare him away.

Truthfully, choosing between the wall and the woodpecker is not easy. He's a sweet little guy, and quite nice to look at when he's not munching on my maison.

It turns out he probably won't eat the house - he's just looking for insects, and as far as I know I don't have those living in the walls. And, according to people who should know these kinds of things, if I put out some suet, peanut and black oil sunflower in feeders, my house will look more and more like brussels sprouts or spinach than T-bone steak.
Red-breasted Nuthatch

The homestead is actually a real haven for birdlife, including a long list of species with names that would make for good Bond bad guys (Barrow's Goldeneye, Canvasback, Killdeer), as well as the aptly named nuthatch.

I'm on the lookout now for the Northern Shoveler, and no, I don't mean a relative I don't like. I've got a list, some opera glasses I won't be needing any time soon, and a new hobby. And yes, the kitchen is coming along - the garden, not so much, but there are nuthatches who need my attention.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A little sugar goes a long way....

Corinne and Sean, with our impressive haul for a half hour's work.
For as long as I can remember, my parents have had crab apple trees in the front yard of their home in 103 Mile, a quiet neighbourhood rimming the tiny lake just north of 100 Mile House. (Yes, the creativity of the pioneers who named these places is staggering. I guess they had other things on their minds.)
One year Dad was under his truck, working away on one of those mysterious things that men and women who like to work on trucks do under there, when he heard growling "and carrying on," a few feet away, near the apple trees. He barked at the dog to be quiet, and kept working away. The noise continued, which is not uncommon for the dog, so Dad ignored and went about his business. When that was done, he slid out from under the truck and began to clean up, and found that his noisy companion was not the dog at all, but a bear who was happily snacking on the little red apples littering the ground beneath the tree.

So, now we pick the apples when they ripen and quickly clean up the windfalls, and this year Mom and I have gleaned about seven gallons so far from the yard trees and my sister-in-law and I have thinned out one orphaned tree at my aunt's neighbour's home and have our sights on some of the ornamental trees planted downtown. While it can be a lot of work getting much off the tiny, tart fruit, it's very worthwhile, just don't forget to add sugar. Lots of sugar.
If you get your hands on some crab apples, try this recipe: You'll be glad you did. As for me, crab apple wine maybe?

Monday, 19 September 2011

The New War in the Woods

I wrote a news story many years ago about a phenomenon called "guerilla gardening," which involved well-meaning and undoubtedly well-equipped gardeners who would apply their talents to public spaces that had been overlooked by the city's limited landscaping staff and budget.

As I hack my way through a tangly jungle that some owner at some time must have thought would make a nice garden, it dawns on me that "guerilla" is quite a misnomer when talking about dropping a few sunflowers in a traffic circle. As a gang of raspberry bushes and thistles claw at me and jeer at the pathetic skiff of berries barely covering the bottom of my bowl, I realize that this is a war and I'm not the United States. I'm not even France.

For example, I don't have garden gloves, a layer of delicately flowered cotton to protect my manicured hands from the soil. In my defence, I don't think they would last long out here in the trenches of the dandelion farm, where the plant life must have long ago given up on human intervention and has since developed its own defences against the deer. By defences I mean long, spiky thorns akin to pirhana teeth or prison shanks. Gardening gloves! Please. Hockey gloves, now that would be more like it.

I also don't have pruning shears and, apparently, neither did the people who owned this place before me. Or the ones before that.

And although they're not common stock in a garden shop, I could use a hard hat and chain saw as I battle my way through the raspberry forest.

An hour, about a thousands scratches and puncture wounds, and a couple pints of blood later, I have a quart of raspberries and emerge from the garden leaning slightly toward the hate side in my love-hate relationship with Nature.

As tempting as it is to collapse into the hammock and reward my hard work by downing a quart of fresh raspberries, I stick to the plan to can the berries so I'll have them to enjoy as the snow flies this winter.

My mother, despite decades of dedicated refusal to relive her childhood with these kind of tedious farm chores, is a fount of knowledge on canning. Forgive me, Mom, if I'm wrong but I'm pretty certain that in the 38 years of our acquaintance I have NEVER seen you sterilizing canning jars or processing berries, vegetables or food products of any kind for canning. But I follow her instructions, and voila! Several very tiny jars of raspberry coulis that I hope don't mould by January.

Pearl's Next-to-Fresh Raspberries:

Bring one cup sugar and one cup water to a boil to make a light syrup. Add raspberries and cook until raspberries break down and liquid reduces to a syrup consistency. Sugar to taste.

Sterilize jars and lids in boiling water. Fill jars, leaving room at the top, and tighten lids to hand tight.

Immerse sealed jars in boiling water, making sure they are totally emersed, and boil for at least 20 minutes. Do not set the jars on the bottom of the boiling pot - if you don't have a canning pot then line the bottom of the pot with spare jar lids and set the jars on those.

Remove from heat and let cool. You'll hear a "pop" if the jars seal properly.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Drunken Ungulates and Other Hazards

A friend sent me a story this week about a drunk moose that staggered its way into a tree in some innocent Swedish family's back yard. It would seem the moose got blotto on fermented apples, and had to sleep off his hangover in the garden.

Drunk moose on the loose

I'm not home this week, but rather enjoying the old haunts in Vancouver and the hospitality of the incredible staff at Vancouver General Hospital as the lead contractor (yes, also known as my dad) undergoes a lung biopsy. I was quite worried about the procedure and the contractor until I read this.

Now I'm terrified of the chaos that might await me back home.

I think we've established that the ample deer population that calls my home their home tend toward criminality at the best of times. Stone-cold sober these beasts have behaved as wanton vandals, fearlessly foraging in my wildly unkempt garden and helping themselves to my potted plants. I can only imagine the havoc they could wreak half-cut on the reserve of wild raspberry wine that my wildly unkempt raspberry patch has become!

The contractor is feeling a little under the weather still, although he was moved to a private room yesterday after suggesting to the young man in the bed beside him should "grow some" and give the nurses a break - they're busy, don't you know. He is still leaking a substantial and stomach-churning amount of reddish liquid from the tube protruding from his chest, however, he's going to have to suck it up and the nurses will have to find themselves another bouncer. I need to get back and save the homestead from drunken, marauding ungulates.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Deer Me!

It is an inevitable reality of city life that eventually, your idea of a wildlife experience will be reduced to feeding squirrels in the local park or crossing paths with a skunk on your way home from yoga. I have to admit that despite my rural upbringing, I was starting to feel pangs of delight when I spotted those cute, furry little marmots on the hillsides beside the highway on the drive home. Yes. Marmots - it was THAT bad.
So when I moved into the house I was beyond thrilled to wake up the second morning and find a doe and her fawn eating breakfast RIGHT OUTSIDE MY KITCHEN WINDOW! I sat and watched them for a half hour, trying not to make any noise or sudden movements that would scare them away.

I was just as thrilled a few days later when another young deer sauntered through the yard, stopping to snack on the unruly weeds sprouting in what was once, many, many years ago, a garden.
The scene of the crime
A few days and a couple more sightings later, I wondered to myself as I plunged my hands into the potting soil in my new planters whether the deer would eat the plants. Nah! There's TONS of wild plants for them to eat, not to mention a few rather succulent-looking gardens around the neighbourhood. My meagre little pots will be fine.

Well, it turns out that in the deer world flower pot pansies are to twigs and wild grass what gelato is to ice cubes in mine.

One night. That's how long the pretty little planter lasted before it was nibbled down to a nub. What was a beautiful (and expensive) arrangment of bright flowers spilling down over the pot is now a small mound of chewed-up foliage with two pathetic blooms the sole survivors of the ungulate attack. Bambi is a bit of a little piggy.

Suspect #1
Now I understand why the family down the street has a 10-foot wire deer fence surrounding their property and the woman up the street has her beautiful planters covered in chicken wire.

But I still love ya, Bambi. You and snow.

Suspect #2

Suspect #3

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Project Pretty Face

Despite what seem like long days of back-breaking work, my lengthy to-do list seems only to grow longer. The house has some, err, how should I put it - character. Yes, character, which includes a small electrical job that is now stretching into a third week (not consecutive days, thank the gods), a grotesque fake brick facade in the living room and a bathroom roughly the size of the trunk of my car. Did I mention the dynamite boxes that served as cabinets in the kitchen? 

So, given the many things to do before the snow flies I've come up with the only reasonable strategy I can think of - I've given up all hope. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and I have a hammock! Hence, I've abandoned the interior renovations and commenced with Project Pretty Face. So far, in addition to the hammock, PPF includes staining the deck and planting flowers. Phase II will start today with bird feeders. I like birds.

In truth, I haven't completely turned my back the inside of the house, I've simply left it for the most part in the hands of my main contractor. He is also known as my dad, and he works for coffee and cashews, so it's a win-win for everyone.

In fact, Dad and I have probably spent more time together in the last few weeks than we have ... maybe ever?! Growing up, he worked long hours and often out of town, and there was no Oprah or Dr. Phil to espouse the important of quality father-daughter time so his weekends off didn't involve any bonding shopping or fishing trips. I left home a month after high school graduation for a student exchange in Europe and returned sporadically through the travelling/university/working years for visits and Christmas, but Dad has never been as talented in the telephone arts as my mother, so I can't really say we kept in particularly close contact over the years.

A typical telephone conversation with my dad involves a 20 to 30-second conversation about the weather, possibly 20-30 seconds on the "G-D rain," the "G-D snow," or the "G-D heat" and ends shortly thereafter with: "Well, I better letcha go, then."

It turns out, dad and I work pretty well together. We don't need to talk a lot, just hammer away, cut, paint, trim and, in my case, fetch. I now know what a Phillips-head screwdriver is and the difference between metric and "normal" tools.

In any event, the contractor has the day off today, I think. He could also show up any time now with a Tim Horton's coffee in hand, ready to get to work. Until then, the birds are waiting for me. Take care.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A berry good time

I remember walking along a trail in St. John's, Nfld., once and finding a Saskatoon berry ripe on the bush. As I popped it in my mouth my friend gasped in disbelief that I would EAT something I just FOUND out in the woods like that. She certainly didn't find it as funny as I when I silenced her lecture on the perils of poison by shoving one of the plump purple berries in her mouth.

Growing up in an extremely rural setting - Huck Finn didn't seem that strange to my brother and I - I have never feared the forest and wide open spaces as much as most. Yet after decades of concrete living the closest I was coming to the natural world was eating blackberries during my daily bike rides along Spanish Banks and up to UBC in late summer. I barely knew my huckleberries from a hole in the ground.

So I was eager to go picking chokecherries with my sister-in-law, whose kitchen concoctions amaze me and have become some of my most treasured Christmas loot: zuccini relish from her own garden, crab apple jelly from the tree in my parents' yard, canned salmon from the Fraser River fall fun.

My aunt showed us where to find the chokecherries, small, tart red berries that makes delicious syrup and wine but could set your mouth in a permanent pucker eaten right off the tree. Guess which I plan to try to make? Yes, wine.

My three young nephew helped us pick the berries. Okay, in all honesty ONE of my nephews helped us pick the berries while the others two ate raspberries faster than we could pick them and found the biggest caterpillar I have ever seen.

My nephews played a large part in my decision to move back home, along with my sister-in-law, my parents and all my other relations. In the city, I lived within shouting distance of people I wouldn't have recognized in a police lineup. Here, I'm surrounded by people who I'll eat Christmas dinner with.

So as I stripped the red berries from overburdened branches, I realized THIS was truly coming home - not to a place, but a way of living and being with people who make living worthwhile.

I'll let you know now the wine turns out.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Welcome Home

The first night in the new house, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. The sun was beaming through my window and I had no idea what time it was. All around me there was the sound of silence. Two weeks ago I could rely on the back-up beeper of the Safeway delivery truck or the binners digging through the recycling in the alley out behind my building to get up me up in the morning.

Out here, I have one neighbour in sight but if it weren’t for their rather delusionally protective little dog, I’d think they were on vacation.

It was the quiet and solitude I was after when I asked for a one-year unpaid leave of absence from my job as the news editor for The Canadian Press in Vancouver. Now I wonder how I’ll get used to this deafening silence after 20 years of city living.

My house near Horse Lake
I’m not a morning person but I roll out of bed because the moment my eyes are open a long to-do list appears in my head. A loooong to-do list that makes me wonder if, in just one year, I’ll ever reach the end of it.

I fell in love with the house as soon as I opened the gate and walked up to it last spring. A hectare of trees and raspberry bushes and a tree fort that, for my three nephews, is the highlight of the whole package.

They just might be right.

Horse Lake looks a lot closer in real life. Really.

The house is shy of 600 square feet, which is small even for a long-time apartment dweller like myself. The kitchen is so small I’ll have to watch my weight so I can fit in the narrow galley between the 50s-era stove and the wooden shelf that seems to serve as a counter, and the shower doesn’t appear to be working at the moment. The insurance company laughed when I told them what the house inspector said about the electrical system, then made me swear a blood oath to have it fixed immediately before charging me an amount of money that would make a Vegas loan shark feel bad. It seems the previous owners might have searched the Earth high and low for the ugliest and most mismatched ceiling fixtures they could possibly come up with in order to hang them in the most awkward and useless places in the house – an ultra-modern black-and-chrome ceiling fan? Really? Did I mention that the “cabinets” in the kitchen are old dynamite boxes?

Yes, a loooong to-do list ahead.