Sunday, September 30, 2012

Is postmodernism over yet?

Photo: Land's End

Leafing idly --  the catalogue came in the mail.

"Modern styles," proclaims the description of a coat with dolman sleeves, a belt that passes through a slit, leaving the back loose.

Hmm, I thought. That looks rather like the coats Auntie Gladys used to make. This was back in the nineteen-fifties when, as a tiny girl, I admired the talents of my seamstress aunt who had worked in the GWG factory.

Modern seems to go on and on, as by definition, it must.

Yet there was post-modernism too, though possibly the term was not used in fashion; just in academia.

Is that over yet, I wonder. One hears so little of it now.

And if it is, what has replaced it? Post-post-modernism? Or are we back to modernism again?

As we should be, perhaps. After all, most things in life are cyclic.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot and more by Angus Wilson

Photo: Cineraria, Gap Photos 

Darkly hilarious, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes show-cases Angus Wilson as a master of trenchant social comedy. An intellectual descendant of Ford Madox Ford and fictional forerunner of Ian McEwan, he was enormously talented.

I discovered his work by accident while doing research on Bletchley Park for my novel-under-construction. Walking on Charing Cross Road, I saw Sinclair McKay's book in the window of Blackwell's. Angus Wilson, I learned, was one of the WWII codebreakers who later became a novelist.

On a friend's recommendation, I read Margaret Drabble's biography of Wilson. Strangely, I perused this lengthy but fascinating opus before reading any of his work. As I remedied that omission by reading my way through his works, I found The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot to be my favourite.

In this novel, (originally published 1958) we meet Meg, a woman whose life has been influenced by a her father's abandonment of her mother, brother and herself, leaving them in genteel poverty.

However, Meg has made a fortunate marriage. Twenty years later, she retains a deep love for Bill, her hard-working lawyer husband, who has gladly conferred wealth and status upon her. Meg's financial affluence leaves her free to bring her considerable perceptiveness and intelligence to bear on her life of entertaining, collecting expensive porcelain, and voluntary charity work.

The couple have no children; presumably Meg is unable to get pregnant, but even this does not appear to have seriously interfered with their happy married life.

Meg has some regret about drifting away from her pacifist brother, to whom she felt very close as they grew up. He seems to have the life he wants at the Sussex plant nursery he has established with his partner, Gordon. But this rural world and Meg's London social whirl seem poles apart.

Everything changes when Meg and Bill set off on a six-month tour of the Far East and Australia. No sooner have they paused to change planes in a small fictitious Asian nation than they stumble upon a political drama in the airport restaurant. The trip is cut brutally short. After two weeks at the home of the local consul, Meg returns to England a shocked and grieving widow.

On her return home, she discovers that she now has very limited financial resources. It seems Bill relieved the pressure of his legal work by gambling. First, Meg faces the reality that she must sell her fashionable house. Once this is done, she begins to map out her future, and this means getting some job training. Meanwhile, she plumbs some old but problematic friendships, faces her loneliness, and builds a bridge back to her solitary and grieving brother, who is losing his beloved Gordon to cancer.

This reader, never doubting that she would somehow manage the inner and outer transformation, was plumping for her all the way. Meg Eliot was completely real and sympathetic.

As a bonus, her story plunges the reader headlong into the still-postwar London of the 1950s. Wilson's choice of detail is telling. Meg's fellow-widow Jill has put her life on hold and alienated her adult daughter in an effort to cling to the memory of her RAF husband and assuage her marital guilt. Meanwhile, a surviving RAF pilot and his wife earn a living by arranging tulips and cinerarias in the shabby rooms of the once more genteel hotel where Meg stays awhile.

Gentler than some of Wilson's more sharply observed social commentary, this is a wonderful read, not least because of the gleam of such heartbreaking human truths as Meg's valiant willingness "to accept his cocksureness because she could detect the swamps of self-doubt over which it had been constructed."

Wilson's description of David's awareness of his own motivations in his attitude toward his employee's family is no less than brilliant: "...he wanted above all to get on with Tim's wife, for a hundred mixed reasons -- preventive, defensive, apologetic, identifying."

No wonder so many consider this Wilson's best work. Meg Eliot is so real that the reader would hardly be surprised if she sat down, ready to employ her charm for helpful purposes, and asked a drawing-out question.

Originally published by Secker and Warburg (London) in 1958, the book was reissued in 1961 and 1992 by Penguin. The themes, and the writing, are as fresh and relevant today as when the book first rolled off the presses 54 years ago.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Vintage Photo of the Times of India building taken 1880 by E.O.S. & Company, Bombay Photo Images

Last term a student had presented this book in class, and it sounded interesting. I borrowed the audio version from the library. The start of the story felt slow. At first, I wondered whether I'd make it through all 9 CDs. But I needn't have worried. I was soon lured in by the adventures of Somer and Kris (Krishnan), Kavita and Jasu, and Asha/Usha.

Unable to conceive a child of their own when Somer hits menopause early, this California doctor and her surgeon husband adopt a child from an orphanage in Krishnan's native Mumbai. Asha, their daughter, grows up with every advantage her highly educated and well-off parents can provide. But when she asks about her origins, they cannot give her the answers she seeks. The orphanage has told them nothing about Asha's biological parents, poor farmers from a rural area.

According to village values, Kavita is expected to give birth to a son who will grow up a credit to his parents and help with their farm work. Instead, she has a second girl, whom she names Usha. Kavita then defies village conventions to walk to Mumbai with her sister when the child is only three days old. There, heartbroken, she places her infant in the care of an orphanage, hoping to give her a chance at life.

Eventually Kavita and Jasu do have a son, and though Kavita does not really wish to, they move to the city to provide better opportunities for young Vijay. After leaving behind all they have known, the couple must establish themselves in a strange city. This requires enormous sacrifices and brings new conflicts and unexpected results.

Meanwhile, Asha grows up and goes to university in the U.S. Aged twenty, she wins a journalism scholarship that takes her to Mumbai for a year. During her internship with The Times of India, she writes a report on the children of the slums. While she is in India, Asha gets to know her cultural heritage and her grandparents, and determines to find out who her biological parents are and why they gave her up.

This is a story full of familiar conflicts and misunderstandings: the struggles of a couple in a cross-cultural marriage, the conflicted identity of an adopted child, the terrible dilemmas faced by poor illiterate parents who give birth to two girls before they have the socially more desirable boy.

In the end, the tales of  a California family and "the two Indias," wealthy and poor, traditional and modern, are woven together into a gripping story, well worth the investment of listening or reading time.

Narrated beautifully by Soneela Nankani, the CD set was published by Recorded Books in 2011. The audio version is based on the novel Secret Daughter, written by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, and published by William Morrow in 2010. The book was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin, shortlisted for the South African Boeke Literary Prize, and nominated for two GoodReads Choice Awards.

In 2010, The Vancouver Sun included it as one of the Best Ten Books of the year. It has received many other forms of recognition and been translated and published widely.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Henry Hudson

Photo: Henry Hudson biography

Henry Hudson was one of the many British navigators who sought the mythical Northwest Passage, a sea route to the Orient.

He began his search in the area around New York, where he is thought to have been the first European to arrive, and ventured as far south as Chesapeake Bay. Today, the Hudson River, explored on this voyage, bears his name. In 2009, 400 years after Hudson set foot in what is now New York state, a replica of his ship, the Half Moon, was placed in Albany.

Later, after joining the Dutch East India Company, Hudson continued his explorations. The British, displeased to find him working for their business rivals, forbade him to continue.

After finding English backers, in 1610 Hudson sailed the Discovery into the strait that led into Hudson Bay. When he got as far as James Bay, he realized he had hit a dead end.

He was still hoping to find the Northwest Passage, but his crew did not share Hudson's eager interest in exploration. Some of them mutinied and took over the ship in order to turn back. Hudson, his son, and some of his loyal crew were cast off into a small boat and never heard from again. In all likelihood, they died of exposure.

Hudson did not find what he was seeking, but eventually, the bay where he lost his life, along with the strait leading into it, were named after him.

In Vancouver, Henry Hudson Elementary School also bears his name.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hitchhiking plants along the railway


The railroad grade is a good place to see plants from outside the climate zone.

Among other hitchhikers that growing along the tracks at White Rock, the plants in these pictures include California poppy, some type of mustard plant -- a prairie native, I think -- and alfalfa.

Alfalfa also likes to hitch rides on trucks. Clumps of this prairie animal fodder are often seen blooming along BC's highways.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Saffron crocus - an expensive spice and more

Photo: Saffron

The rich purple and gold saffron crocus makes a gorgeous addition to an autumn garden.

When harvesting, just three stigmas per plant are gathered; they are used as a fragrant spice and also as a golden dye. According to Rachel Geenan, at $315 per ounce or $5,040 per pound, the price rivals that of gold. Not surprising. The Greek Products website says that 75,000 flowers go into one pound of spice.

Saffron has been used for thousands of years, and is featured in stories about the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra as well as in Greek mythology. Catalina Toma places it in ancient times as pigment in cave paintings. Tibetan monks used it in prayer ceremonies. Koranic writers used it in calligraphy.

As the rich golden colour suggests, saffron contains carotenoid compounds as well as volatile oils. According to Saffron Nutrition Facts, these substances, along with the vitamins contained in the spice -- A, C and some forms of B -- make it rich in anti-antioxidants. Medicinally, it has been used as an anti-depressant, antiseptic, and anti-convulsant. Research done in Italy in 2009 suggests that  may be effective in combating eye disease and  alleviating age-related vision loss. Similar research conducted in Australia and Italy the following year pointed to the properties of saffron in treating macular degeneration, and interest it beneficial possibilities continues.

The word saffron comes from the Arabic zafran. Native to the Mediterranean region, this spice is grown today mostly in Spain, Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Iran and India.

Saffron is also the name of an award-winning restaurant in Burnaby that serves a variety of Indian cuisines. At My Shanti in Surrey, I enjoyed a Honey Saffron Lassi recently.

It's a pleasure to enjoy saffron crocus among my fall garden blooms.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The joys of planting

Photo: Kingsbrae Garden

This has been a garden year. One bed was like a wild meadow after it's been logged.

The first stage was to have those unsightly yew stumps taken out and replaced with a berm. Into this fresh bed we transplanted the waiting shrubs: a magnolia, two mock oranges, a beauty berry, the royal roses Lady Diana and Queen Elizabeth, and more.

As well as enabling me to plant out my "temporary" pots, this garden re-design provided a fantastic opportunity to go shopping for more bulbs. I made several forays to David Hunter and also a special trip to Art's to pick up my free orange tulip bulbs and buy an armful of autumn crocus, both plants and bulbs.

The planning and planting of the refurbished beds took place over a couple of months. After a row of astilbes had been put in place, I interspersed them with clumps of orange lilies along the berm that now flanks the driveway. Seeing that row of showy orange flowers was the fun of July, when the the berm was new. Other changes were subtle; the shrubs settled in and sent up some new growth.

As we rounded the front of this bed with an arc of lily of the valley, my friend suggested we flank these with a similar shape in King Alfred daffodils. We used some that had been dug up from another bed that was being redone.

I had many pink peonies repositioned, and a huge clump of overgrown bearded iris moved to the back. On his own initiative, my wonderful gardening neighbour created a graceful curved iris border. Meanwhile, near the door, I had the pleasure of creating a bed of fragrant oriental lilies, including Casablanca whites, Stargazer pinks, and the rare Salmon Stargazers, all with slightly different bloom times.

This week I planted the fall crocus. The potted ones are already in flower; they've relaxed into the ground and the waiting buds have opened. Between these clumps, I added some packaged bulbs -- the nursery tells me they'll be in flower within six weeks.

After the front was done, I took the old bulbs that had been dug up from various beds and tucked them into newly opened spaces in the back garden, where we've never before had bulbs. It was a great feeling to put the last of them into the ground, fed with bulb food and good vibrations. Next year, the space under several refurbished and replanted shrubs should be a carpet of varied colour through spring and summer.

A trip to the iris bed to see how much they've grown, now that they have space, was fortuitous. One fall crocus must have hitchhiked there with the iris: it was in full bloom among them. I scooped it up and replanted it in a bare spot in front that I'd felt needed one more crocus plant.

The joys of gardening are immense; one of these is the anticipation of waiting through the seasons next year to see the many plants we put in place this year flourish in their newly prepared spaces.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Betty Azar and Angus Wilson

 Betty Azar photo from ESL mini-conference 2002

The life of one who takes up the pen or computer to earn a living producing words is full of uncertainty. It was only when the great novelist Angus Wilson left his day job as a cataloger in the British Museum that he was able to turn to full-time fiction writing.

Literary giant though Sir Angus Wilson was (he was knighted for his literary work), his pocketbook did not reflect that status. Indeed, it was due to financial pressures that he began later in life to teach the craft of fiction. Yet that worked out very well, both at the then still-new University of East Anglia, where he and Malcolm Bradbury established the pioneering Creative Writing Program in 1970, and at the University of Iowa, home of the Writers' Workshop.

On the other hand, whether she intended to or not, great American grammarian Betty Schrampfer Azar has demonstrated that practicality pays. Azar kept to her teaching work while she produced several paper and cd editions of Understanding and Using English Grammar and other ESL-friendly texts. The other day somebody told me she owns an island.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Clothes line weather

Picture: CT 2012

Nothing smells like laundry dried on the line. Now is the time to take advantage of the fine fall weather and get that fresh scent while being green -- no dryer means no electricity used.

The only problem is, getting around to getting the clothes back in. Mine have been out there for three days now.

If left too long, they can fade in the sun. Or, this being Vancouver, it might rain and then they'd be wet again and I would be back to square one. I'll take them in soon!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Spraying the shoes

Picture: shoes sprayed for fall CT 2012

There comes a season when I suddenly feel it's time to spray the shoes for winter.

I set them all out on the front doorstep, close the door and spray them one by one to protect against water and stains. This has to be done outside, because the spray smells terrible.

Still, it's a pleasant ritual, a harbinger of autumn. Afterwards, I line the shoes up neatly in the hall closet. Old and new ones are ready for fall. This is the season for new shoes; as children, we always had them in September.

Old ones, no matter how comfortable, have to be discarded eventually. But why is it so hard to give them up, even when they are worn out?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A milestone: thanks to my first 25,000 visitors

Back in the fall of 2009, on a dare, I started blogging. If you will, I will. That sort of thing. After my first entry, I looked at my archives: empty. Posts: one. Much later, I sorted into topics, and quite recently I re-organized the posts and reduced the number of labels.

If I'd known then how persistent I would become at this writing and editing exercise, I would have been amazed. First it was only a couple of times a week. Then, at the beginning of 2011, I set myself the task of posting daily. I let myself off that hook earlier this year, cut back again. But apparently the habit of daily posts had become ingrained, so I've returned to that.

As of today, I've logged more than 25,000 visitors. Lots of readers are looking at multiple pages. Some visitors are new. Others return, and that's an honour. Some have left comments, and one or two have offered corrections. One missing zero had left the wrong impression about a meteorite, but that's fixed now, and I thank you.

And thanks, readers, for continuing to check in on my ramblings about everything from vegetables to volcanoes, from book reviews and writers and to Hudson's Bay Company forts. You are an eclectic group, from an extensive list of countries and every continent except Antarctica.

I love the idea that people who will never see my little corner of the world can read my words and see the pictures I take with my cellphone camera. Even twenty years ago, most people would have had a lot of trouble believing such things would so soon be commonplace.

Isn't the Web wonderful? Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee. And thanks too, to the many other web developers: those who made it happen, and those who kept it free.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Moving the canna to a more sheltered place

Photo: Canna Tropicana from Wilson Brothers Landscape

This year my canna didn't bloom. I have raised them before and I treated this one well; perhaps it was late developing because we had so much rain in June.

It keeps growing, and they told me at the nursery that it has to reach a certain height before it will flower. I'm feeling hopeful; the current growth looks like it might be a flower spike rather than a leaf. But at the first sign of cooler nights, I'm going to tuck the pot it into a southeast corner where it will be sheltered at night and still get lots of sun by day.

The weather is still hot and summery but there is a fall feeling now. Lots of leaves are coming down, and evening comes noticeably earlier: when I sit on the back porch, I can no longer read past 7:30.

Tonight in the garden, I thought I saw a bat, and was reminded of childhood summer evenings by the lake. It still feels like summer and it's supposed to be 26 degrees tomorrow. Hope my canna soon looks like the picture.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

David Thompson, explorer and geographer

David Thompson monument photo: Roadside America

This granite monument stands at Verendyre, North Dakota. A globe marked with lines of latitude and longitude, it is dedicated to the great geographer, David Thompson. The worn inscription says Thompson passed near here during 1797-8 while preparing the first map of the state. The marker was placed by the Great Northern Railway in 1925.

David Thompson was born to Welsh parents in London in 1770. His father died when he was two and he was later enrolled in a charity school, where he showed great aptitude for mathematics. Studies in astronomy and navigation prepared him for a life in the Royal Navy.

Aged fourteen, he was apprenticed to the Hudson's Bay Company, and sailed for the new world. He served the company first at Churchill and York Factory. Then, at the age of sixteen, he traveled along the North Saskatchewan River to Manchester House, a fort located near today's town of Battleford. He spent the winter of 1787 camped with a band of Peigans on the Bow River near Calgary, and returned to the fort the following year.

An unfortunate fall resulted in a broken leg, and with the limited medical care available, it took Thompson a full year to recover. He was to be sent to York Factory, but got only as far as Cumberland House. His injury led to a lifelong limp.

It was during his long recovery that young David took lessons with Philip Turnor as he made plans to take a party to survey the Athabasca country. During his training, Thompson measured the latitude and longitude of Cumberland House with great accuracy. Unfortunately he also lost the sight of his right eye that winter, and was unable to accompany the survey party to Athabasca.

But by now Thompson was a surveyor. As J and A Gottfried mention, when he finished his apprenticeship with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1791, he asked for a brass sextant and other survey equipment instead of the customary suit of clothes. The Company gave him both, but it was another five years before Thompson's collection of survey equipment was complete. His kit included a telescope that allowed him to observe the moons of Jupiter, and he was nicknamed Koo Koo Sint, the stargazer, by native peoples, as Ray Mears mentions in his BBC program.

In 1797, Thompson left the strongly trade-oriented Hudson's Bay Company to join its rival, the North West Company. In the years that followed, he explored vast areas of the west. In the summer of 1807, he crossed the Rockies by way of Howse pass from Rocky Mountain House, and established Kootenae House on the Columbia River. He carried out extensive explorations in what is now British Columbia, and travelled as far south as Spokane and the mouth of the great Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. A couple of years later, he re-crossed the Rockies eastward via Athabasca Pass.

As a geographer, David Thompson was unparalleled. In 2008, his achievements were celebrated with the Thompson Brigade, a 3300 kilometer canoe trip from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Thunder Bay, Ontario. The David Thompson Brigade 2011 celebrated the 200th anniversary of his exploration of the Columbia River.

In B.C. the North and South Thompson Rivers were named after him, and Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops was named in turn after these. David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver was also named in honour of this early explorer of North America.

Canadian storyteller Stuart McLean has said that he considers Thompson one of the greatest geographers who ever lived.

A more personal achievement was Thompson's fifty-seven year marriage to Charlotte Small, his Metis wife.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Polk Salad -- or is that Poke Salad?

Photo: Pokeweed Festival

Pokeweed is often harvested in the wild. It is used as a green, but far from being a superfood, it's actually poisonous. The way polk salad eaters get around that inconvenient fact is to boil it, and boil it again.

The first time polk salad appeared on my radar was when I heard the immortal song by Tony Joe White, Polk Salad Annie. It's a shame the gator got her granny, though.

Pokeweed is native to the southeastern US, and it's young leaves have a flavour resembling spinach or asparagus. Every spring for the past 38 years, the Poke Salad Festival has been held in Blanchard, Louisiana. Events include a parade, a carnival, a pet parade, a treasure hunt, and a beauty pageant.

As a bonus, the pokeberry yields a gorgeous purple dye.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Arugula aka Rocket

Photo: Gourmet Sleuth

This peppery green is known and loved in the UK and Australia as rocket.

In Italian cuisine, it's called rucola. According to the Gourmet Sleuth, this tangy green is also known as roquette, rucola, and rugula. It's easy to grow, and can be used in place of basil to make pesto.

Like most greens, it's nutritious and delicious. Rocket belongs to the brassica family, along with turnips, cauliflower, and broccoli. This plant group is considered useful in combating cancer.

Arugula-rucola-rocket is native to the Mediterranean region, and grows wild from Portugal and Morocco to Turkey.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Photo: The Watercress Experiment

Foods go in and out of fashion, and some are revered for what their proponents consider near-magic properties.

According to Dr. Nicholas Perricone, eating watercress can relieve acne and  wrinkles, and even prevent cancer. Others claim eating watercress is an effective way of losing weight.

The British have long been fond of this green, which grows in their country along streams and in wet places. It can be eaten in salad and also made into soup.

As long ago as 2007, scientists at the University of Ulster published a study in the American Journal of Nutrition that conferred the status of a superfood on this peppery little green.

My first encounter with watercress was the tangy surprise of the green garnish on a Scotch egg. This was a long time ago, in the cafe of the Tate Gallery in London. Watercress was then almost unheard-of in western Canada. Actually, it still isn't terribly common here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Photo: Okra, by Southern Food

Okra, a tropical plant with the Latin name hibiscus esculentis is a relative of cotton as well as of the hibiscus flower, itself used in a herb tea rich in antioxidants. In the southern US, okra is a well-known vegetable. It's natural gooiness is what gives Cajun gumbo its texture.

Sometimes the vegetable itself is called gumbo, from the Bantu word ngombo. Native to northwestern Africa, okra was brought to North America by slaves. A West African Ashanti name for this vegetable is nkruma.

Interestingly, Kwame Nkrumah was the name of the African leader who led the new nation of Ghana to independence. However, as a name, Nkrumah is considered unrelated to the plant name.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Eggplants -- or are they aubergines?

Picture: Fruits R Us

Like tomatoes and peppers, eggplants belong to a plant family called the deadly nightshade.

Along with potatoes and spinach, this plant family includes belladonna, known since ancient times as a poison. Even though it was toxic, it was used by women as a beauty enhancer, and thus acquired it's name, which means beautiful lady.

Eggplants are perfectly edible. They grow on prickly vines. Chinese eggplants are longer, thinner, and less tough. Kitazawa Seed Co. carries a whole variety of Japanese eggplants.

Eggplants are in season for the next couple of months. The name, used only in North America, is presumably derived from the shape. But if eggplants were eggs, they'd be mighty large ones. Emu eggs, maybe, or ostrich eggs.

In the UK, this vegetable is called by its French name, aubergine. The history of this name is circuitous, according to Bill Casselman. Its roots originated in Sanskrit and entered the Spanish language with the arrival of the Moors, coming in by way of Persian and then Arabic, as a corruption of al berginia. The French picked it up as aubergine and the English took it from there.

Though I have often wondered whether the word aubergine is related to auberge, the French word for inn, I've found no evidence that this is the case.

Aubergine is also the name of the rich purple colour of this vegetable.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Love those wolf peaches

 Photo: OKFruit

This week we've been eating sun-ripened Okanagan beefsteak tomatoes. In late summer they are plentiful and cheap, bought with mud still clinging to them from the fields.

Field-ripened peppers are available at this season too, and go well in the fresh tomato soup I love to make at this time of year.

Of course, the best use of these seasonal tomatoes is fresh and raw in salads. Some are cracked or funny-shaped, but for flavour and texture, no hothouse tomato, no matter how smooth and regular, can touch these sun-ripened delights.

Tomatoes have and interesting history. The Latin name, Lycopersicon esculentum, translatable as wolf-peach, was given because this fruit (or call it a vegetable, if you must) was once considered poisonous.

According to Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, the English word tomato is derived from the Spanish tomate, which comes in turn from tomatl, in the Nahuatl or Aztec language.

It is said that Cortez brought tomato seeds back to Europe from the Americas in the early 1500s. However, at first tomatoes were used for ornamental purposes only. The plant belongs to the deadly nightshade family, and the fruit was considered unsafe to eat.

On the other hand, the French have been known to refer to tomatoes as pommes d'amour, due to their supposed aphrodisiac quality.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Simon Fraser

Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Simon Fraser was an early explorer of Canada -- except, of course, the Canada we know today did not yet exist. He was born at Mapletown in New York in 1776 and died in Ontario in 1862.

But what was this man really like? Would he be surprised to learn he had a large and important university named after him? Or that the world-famous SFU Pipe Band, dressed in the university's own tartan, was led by one of the world's major band leaders?

He was the youngest of ten, but in those days, this was not an outlandish number of children. Were Simon's parents too exhausted to bother with their youngest? Did his older siblings play with him, cosset him, entertain him?

We don't know. Across the abyss of time, it is hard to determine with any certainty what personal and social forces formed and motivated him.

We do know he was descended from the noble Lovat clan of Scottish Highlanders. History drove his ancestors out of Scotland. In 1745, Scottish Highland chieftains rebelled against the British Crown and tried to claim the throne for Bonnie Prince Charlie. The attempt failed. In April 1746, the Battle of Culloden sounded the death knell not only of many rebel and British government troops, but of the Highland way of life. Lands, rights and goods were seized, clans were forbidden to wear tartan and the kilt was banned.

In the years that followed, there was a huge exodus of Highlanders from Scotland. Many came to North America, and Simon Fraser's family were among these emigrants. When they settled in New York in 1773, their troubles were far from over. Ironically, Simon's father joined the United Empire Loyalist forces during the Revolutionary War. He was captured and died in jail. His wife, Simon's mother, fled with her children to Canada and settled near Cornwall, Ontario.

Between the ages of 14 and 16, young Simon was educated in Montreal by his uncle, a judge, and then apprenticed to the Northwest Company and sent west to learn the fur trade. He soon became a partner and was chosen to expand the company's operations to the far (west) side of the Rockies.

In 1808, he explored the Fraser River. He left Fort George (now Prince George) in May with a handful of voyageurs, two clerks and a couple of native guides, and followed the Fraser to the sea, portaging their canoes even along the perilous cliffs of the mighty Fraser Canyon with the help of the native guides.

He did not name the river after himself; this was done later by geographer David Thompson, for whom Simon Fraser had already named the river that today still bears his name.

After Simon Fraser retired from the fur trade, he returned to Ontario, where he eventually took part in the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, which was a step along the road toward responsible government for the soon-to-be-born nation of Canada.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Is it thingism, stuffism or salesism?

Whatever we choose to call it, this seems to be the pan-planetary ethos of the day. Human acquisitiveness is choking the planet. At the same time, increasing numbers of people earn a living intruding on the privacy of strangers to pressure them to buy more stuff.

Pushy consumerism has become unbelievably pervasive. So much so that we barely notice it. Worse, we allow ourselves to fall victim to its excesses. Pressure to buy takes up not only an inordinate amount of our money, but more and more of our time.

Case in point: soon after I had some car repairs done, I got a call on my cell phone. My guard was down; usually my cell is safe from rubbish calls. The lady finessed me into talking to her by giving me her first name and then telling me what work I'd had done and by whom. Before I had a chance to say a word, she launched into a lengthy questionnaire about the firm.

How would I rate the service, the speed, the professionalism, would I recommend my friends, and on and on. But this was not rocket science. Not politics. Not education. Just a new windshield.

Finally I interrupted. "Who are you?" I asked. "Who do you actually work for?" I didn't get a straight answer.

"I'm calling on behalf of (firm that did the work)." Sure, it's nice that they ask, but would it not be sufficient just to ensure that I was satisfied, and if not, why not? Who decided that imposing this lengthy questionnaire on all their customers is a good way to spend our time and their resources?

"Just a couple more questions," she insisted, burning away my initial willingness to talk by going on and on with a series of redundant questions that wasted at least five minutes of my day.

Since the telephone debacle before the last federal election, I no longer talk to political pollsters. With that telephone campaign, conservative political organizations turned a corner. From being mere phone salesmen, they turned to harassment of known supporters of other parties. The ensuing scandal was big, and it was nasty, but not surprisingly, the government denied all knowledge of wrongdoing. In effect, they got away with it.

The lesson for voters was clear. Tell nobody which political party you support. That phone debacle demonstrated how easy it is for unscrupulous people to sell this information on to who-knows-who to use for who-knows-what nefarious purposes.

I'm also fed to the teeth with the telephone sales pitches. Because of the constant stream of sales calls, of which some come from robot dialers and some from inside prisons, I no longer pick up my home phone unless I recognize the number. But today I got caught. It was Fabrice, calling on behalf of a bank that rings at least once a month. "Is there a problem, or are you selling me something?" I asked.

I guess my alternatives were to stark for him to respond to. He hung up. Perhaps he's not allowed to deviate from the sales script. Unfortunately, I can't stop such calls from coming in without spending a lot of time and effort for limited results.

It's no longer enough for purveyors of objects, credit cards and ideas to use public space and public media to pressure us to consume. Now personal time and space, which used to be private, is constantly being invaded by a full range of the proselytizers of salesism.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cardamom, queen of spices

Cardamom with unripe pods, Aidan Brooks Trainee Chef

For many years cardamom has been my favourite spice. I put it in everything from rice pudding and cakes to stews and stir fries. It's the secret ingredient in my best dishes.

Native to India and Sri Lanka, this plant is grown in North America in special botanical collections. I've never seen it in a commercial nursery in Canada. But it is grown in Kew Gardens, and in the Montreal Botanical Gardens.

I first tasted cardamon long ago at the Afghan Horsemen, a Vancouver restaurant now located on Granville Island. My discovery happened not at the Broadway and Cambie location, but an earlier one, further west, at Maple Street.

When I first saw the restaurant sign, I was living alone on West Fourth at Arbutus Street. Along with the pictures of the Horsemen, I noticed the interesting-looking decor, including low tables with cushions to sit on. I treated myself to solitary dinner, and found the meal delicious.

That evening, I feel head over heels in love with cardamom, which was sprinkled on top of the rice pudding, and also added to the tea. Never having tasted this wonderful spice, I asked what it was. The next day, I went off to Famous Foods to buy some.

Three common types of cardamom are green, black and Madagascar. In cooking, green cardamom pods or prepared powder are usually used, in a wide variety of dishes both sweet and savoury.

Black cardamom is quite different, with larger pods and a smoky, aromatic, camphor-like aroma. It has its own sphere of uses in certain types of Indian and Chinese cuisine.

In Middle Eastern countries, cardamom may be used to flavour coffee.This spice is also cultivated in Mexico, Guatemala, and Indonesia, and is also much appreciated in Scandinavian countries.

The plant belongs to the same family as turmeric and ginger. Cardamom is sometimes used to relieve indigestion, asthma and bronchitis, and is considered good for teeth and gums.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Photo: wild lupine, Glacier National Park

Lupine means wolf-like, a name given because of a belief that the plant ravaged the soil. The blue wildflower grows profusely BC, often included in my childhood bouquets. Like fireweed, it spreads easily in cleared areas. Lupine likes sandy soil and needs plenty of sunlight to flower.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources states that lupine leaves are the only food source for the larvae of an endangered species.Thus the plant is sown in semi-wild disturbed areas in an effort to increase the habitat of the Karner blue butterfly. Lupine is also a garden plant.

Traditionally, lupine was used in fodder to fatten horses and make them spirited. The leaves were also steeped in tea by the Cherokee people to stop bleeding and vomiting. 

However, according to Sophie Johnson, some types of lupine are toxic due to their high alkaloid content. Another name for the flower is bluebonnet.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Manual dexterity applied to berry picking

Wild blackberries grow on thorny plants, so they're challenging to pick. Until I decided it was only fair to meet the berries without weapons, I used to bring a leather glove and pair of pruners. The other day, when I finally got round to going, I had only my berry pail and a water bottle to rinse the berry juice off my hands.

It's been a good year for wild blackberries: the June rain made them plump and the sun and heat of the past two months have made them sweet as ambrosia. As I gingerly pulled back a branch to gather some berries that were hiding behind it, I remembered something good that happened to me in Grade 4. (On the whole, fourth grade was not my stellar year: I was trying to adapt to life in a new province, my teacher was not nice, and I failed handwriting.)

My triumph occurred on sports day. I was no good at sports, but one contest involved taking clothes pins off a line with one hand and keeping hold of them. The person who ended up with the largest handful was the winner. I won hands down -- or should I say hands full? While the other kids pottered away with three or four, I captured and held seven.

Manual dexterity is a skill I still have, and it stands me in good stead in the berry patch. Using one hand to hold back the thorny branches the plump berries hide behind, I use the other to pull them gently off the stem one by one.

I got a good haul the other day, picking that way. Didn't squash a single one.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Way I Found Her, by Rose Tremain

Book cover photo from Goodreads

The Way I Found Her (1997, Sinclair-Stevenson) is a brilliant novel of suspense by the talented Rose Tremain.

Lewis Little, the teenage protagonist, is the son of a conservative school teacher father whom he considers rather boring, and a beautiful and willful mother. After reading a certain French novel, he has begun to call his parents Hugh and Alice. During summer vacation, Alice takes Lewis to Paris for the summer.

The plan is that while Alice carries out a simultaneous translation of the latest novel by the famous Russian novelist Valentina Gavril, Lewis will enjoy a Paris holiday, improve his French and take care of Valentina's dog, Sergei. Of course, things go wrong. At first it's just a matter of Lewis getting yelled at by a gendarme for taking Sergei into a dog-free park.

The voice of Lewis, the intelligent young teenage narrator, rings clear and true, from his Action Hero doll to his predictable infatuation with the volatile Valentina. Aware of his frustration at his own immaturity, he is surprisingly able to express this to his mother, even as he tries to distance himself from her parental dominion. "For about two and a half minutes a day," he tells Alice, he is a child, while at other times he feels and behaves like a mature seventeen-year-old.

Clouds soon gather over Lewis's blissful interlude in the Huitieme Arrondisement. In spite of his round-windowed room in the attic and his friendship with the existentialist Parisian roofer Didier, in spite of his explorations of Paris with his mother and Sergei, his blissful summer begins to go downhill. First, Alice and Valentina stop getting along; soon his mother becomes preoccupied and shuts him out. Then Valentina's ex-lover, another Russian writer, turns up and they quarrel.

Troubles that at first seem minor turn increasingly sinister. Lewis must think things through and figure out what is happening. He makes notes in his Concorde notebook. Can plagiarism lead to violence? Is Lewis's theory right? Can "everything" really "hinge on the lack of a definite article?"

And why, the reader wonders, does Lewis keep dwelling on the story of Didier's father falling from the roof dome of  l'Hopital de la Salpetriere?

Tremain keeps her readers guessing till the last. Even though in retrospect the ending of this gripping tale seems inevitable, the author delivers a satisfying surprise.

Rose Tremain won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home (2007, Chatto and Windus). Her latest novel, Restoration, published this year, was recently reviewed in the Guardian.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Farriers demonstrate ancient craft at PNE

Photo by eHow

Every year we enjoy the PNE, with the animal barns as our first stop. We always learn new things. This year, as we wandered through the Agrodome, we saw a sign that read "Baa Baa Blacksmith." Two members of the Western Canadian Farrier's Association were making horseshoes in the traditional way.

Using tongs, the farriers removed a piece of red-hot rebar from the forge, then laid it on an anvil for shaping. Pounding their mallets in tandem, they sounded out a rhythm like that of percussion players in the same band. More heating, more hammering. As the cycle repeated, the metal was slowly transformed into a horse shoe.

Besides chaps, neither used protective clothing or gloves, although both wore glasses. "You get used to the heat," said the woman.

Horseshoes are made of different materials in a variety of styles and types, according to purpose. Race horses are shod with light aluminum shoes that promote speed but wear out quickly.

Work horses wear thick heavy steel shoes with anti-skid shaping front and back. Shoes for draft horses can weigh from 3 to 6 pounds each. "Horses like these." The farrier pointed to the nearby team of Clydes, eating in their stalls after a workout.

Specialties don't end there. In situations where horses are supposed to slip, the shoe can be designed to work "like a skateboard," the demonstrator explained. And various kinds of therapeutic shoes can be created to provide relief for horses with foot pain.

Today a wide range of horseshoes are factory-made, and many of the older styles are no longer in use. Still, even the most arcane tradutional skills of horse-shoe making are kept alive by farrier competitions. In Canada, these are held at the Calgary Stampede. Those wanting to train as farriers can earn their diplomas at Olds College in Alberta.

According to Equisearch, shoeing horses has a long history, going back almost as far as domesticating them. On the steppes of Asia, riders wrapped leather coverings around the hooves of their animals, and Roman hoses were fitted with sandals similar to those worn by their owners.

European horses began wearing with nailed-on metal shoes in the sixth or seventh century. In the UK, the Worshipful Company of Farriers descends from a Guild formed in the Middle Ages. It dates back to 1356.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Buffalo beans

Photo taken in RAM Natural History gallery 2012

According to the legend beside the picture, the pods of this poisonous plant produces a dye, used by Ukrainian settlers to colour Easter eggs.

Also called false lupine, this plant does resemble yellow lupine. It belongs to Leguminosae, the pea family. According to Alberta Plant Watch, the name buffalo bean is a reference to the first nations' name of the plant. Its time of blooming coincided with the appropriate time for the spring buffalo hunt.

In Borden, Saskatchewan, Buffalo Beans is the name of a shop that sells baby gear.