Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bamboo -- a plant with many uses

Bamboo is an astonishing plant, but not one we normally associate with this climate zone -- at least not enormous stalks like these, which are quietly pushing themselves skyward in East Vancouver.

Some bamboos grow a metre a day, and this rate accelerates as the plant matures. Bamboo grows quickly into dense forests, and covers much of South America, Hawaii and Southeast Asia. The world's greatest diversity of bamboos are found in the Chinese province of Yunnan.

With types from a foot tall to fifty feet, this strong, flexible, hard and useful grass can be eaten, used as a building and fencing material, or turned into thermally regulating cloth. It's speedy growth and usefulness make it a sustainable crop. It cleans the air we breathe, and doesn't attract pests.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ducks reduced to one-lane traffic in dry Serpentine Fen

The black mud is normally the bottom of the pond. Since August, it has been dry except at the edges, where all the waterfowl must crowd in as best they can. Below the exposed rusty pole reveals the normal water depth.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Serpentine ditch bottoms seen for the first time ever

Since late summer, the Serpentine dikes have been low and the nearby ditches shockingly empty of water. At the same time, the nearby fields are green and lovely. These photos were taken on Thanksgiving weekend.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

This is us -- selfie from a stick

Life is a constant process of learning and adaptation. Not so very long ago, I was irritated by people who were constantly on their cell phones.

Then I got one myself. At first I barely used my cell phone camera. Now I take a lot of photos, routinely uploading and filing them on my computer.

Our latest foray into cellular technology is the selfie stick. We each have one now: this is us.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Positive stories, not "poverty porn"

  Image from Tracey Lindberg
Still thinking about the wonderful panel on Saturday at the Vancouver Writers Fest. Aboriginal writers Tracey Lindberg, Marilyn Dumont and Wab Kinew shared hilarious moments and profound thoughts.

The overall message was positive and hopeful. Enough, said these authors, of the "poverty porn" stories about the terrible suffering of aboriginal peoples. Instead we need to look for inspiring stories, full of hope and success.

Said Tracey, we need to find ways reach for and mobilize the women who are "holding the world together" on the reserves.

In old aboriginal teachings, a leader is humble; citizens are the boss. We need to become more inclusive, focus on the voices that are not getting heard.

The question period brought an interesting challenge. When audience members asked what the panelists were going to do to move forward, Marilyn quite rightly turned the question back. "What are you going to do?" she wondered.

This is my answer. Since June, I've evolved a small personal plan. Inspired originally by a talk by James Bartleman at the 2015 Canadian Authors conference in Orillia, I've decided to send some inspiring books by some of Canada's many talented Aboriginal authors to children in fly-in communities in northern Ontario, where astonishingly, there are no libraries.

Signed works by these three authors will definitely be in the mix, as well as some by Richard Wagamese that I bought and had him sign at the Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival. I'll include something by Joseph Boyden too.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Way Forward II

After the Waterfront Theatre event presented by The Writers Fest, Wab Kinew chats with an admiring reader as he prepares to sign The Reason we Walk. The book is a memoir of his father, an Anishnabe chief called Tobosunakwut. During his final illness, he took an unprecedented step. In order to help us all find a way forward in dealing with aboriginal issues, he adopted the Bishop of Winnipeg as his brother.

His accomplished son Wab is host of Canada Reads on CBC, a musician, a journalist and the Associate Vice-President of the University of Winnipeg. Kinew thinks, speaks, writes and tweets about issues that affect Canada's aboriginal peoples. We need to hear positive stories, he says, move the conversation away from poverty and suffering.

Wab Kinew, still in his thirties, is definitely a rising star, someone to watch. He feels encouraged by the recent success of the Liberals under Justin Trudeau, who he says "sees us, talks to us, believes we're real people." At this recent election, aboriginals voted in record numbers.

Much work lies ahead. First should come the "baby steps" of providing clean water and accessible education to children on reserves. Then the time will come to face for Canadians to work together to cope with the "baked-in" challenges posed by our history and political structures.

One of his memorable quotes at Saturday's event was that "we (aboriginal peoples) are showing you (non-aboriginal Canadians) how to cure the existential meaninglessness at the centre of modern life."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Way Forward I

After the Vancouver Writer's Fest event on Granville Island, novelist and law professor Dr. Tracey Lindberg and Metis textile artist and poet Marilyn Dumont sit ready to sign books.

The panel presentation was full of laughter and ideas as these two Aboriginal women joined Wab Kinew to talk about ways to make a more positive future for the earliest occupants of Canada.

Tracey Lindberg's book, Birdie, was sold out, but I was lucky enough to get the effervescent Marilyn Dumont to sign my copy of The Pemmican Eaters. When she read from this collection, my favourite was "Letter to Sir John A. Macdonald."  The final lines are quoted below:

...John, that goddamned railroad never made this a great nation,
cause the railway shut down,
and this country is still quarreling over unity,
and Riel is dead
but he just keeps coming back
in all the Bill Wilsons yet to speak out of turn or favour
because you know well as I
that we were railroaded
by some steel tracks that didn't last
and some settlers who wouldn't settle
and its funny we're still here and callin ourselves halfbreed.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Old English sports cars evoke a long-ago life

Long ago in another life I drove a friend's Austen Healey 3000 across the Georgia Viaduct. The thrill of speed was accompanied by the knocking of worn engine bearings.

I also re-upholstered seats and replaced carpets in Triumphs like the TR3 below, called a "rolling sculpture" by Hemmings.

Both these old classic convertibles were out and about on the streets of the charming island town of Sidney the first weekend in October.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Great Location for Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival

During most the recent Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival, the weather was fabulous. Visitors and townspeople sat outdoors in short sleeves and rode their bikes in the sunshine. Elizabeth May, who also has some books out, remains the only Green Party Member of Parliament. Before the election, she tastefully welcomed the crowd of literati to her home riding, eschewing political talk.

Sidney by the sea is a delightful town that boasts at least four independent bookstores, and the  Saanich Peninsula and nearby Gulf Islands are home to many fine writers.

Renowned poet Lorna Crozier, formerly of UVic, opened the readings. Essayist Naomi Beth Wakan, mystery writer Bill Deverell and humorist-philosopher-garden writer and ex-monk Des Kennedy then added their varied offerings to the delight of their enthusiastic audiences. Tree-planting memoirist Charlotte Gill read from Eating Dirt, and Patrick Taylor from his latest Irish Country Doctor bestseller.

From the mainland came novelists Janie Chang, Steven Galloway and Richard Wagamese as well as poet Arleen Pare. Zsuzsi Gartner also appeared. Fred Stenson and a couple of other Albertan novelists rounded out the group, and CBC's Gregor Craigie hosted the Saturday celebration.

All in all, the organizers did a terrific job. They even organized contests for young people and awarded them prizes at Friday evening's reading, which was opened by Kenny Podmore, Sidney's Town Crier. Looking forward to the next one, which will take place in two years' time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Victoria Town Crier opens recent Sidney Literary festival

Not many Canadian cities have a Town Crier, but Sidney, British Columbia, does. Kenny Podmore was appointed to the post by the city council. He has various sets of regalia; in the photo at the left, he is seen wearing his town's official colours. Sidney has a long history with Town Criers. In 1997 and 1999 it hosted World Town Crier Championship Tournaments. The 2006 World Town Crier Invitational Competition was also held in Sidney, attracting ambitious criers from England, Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States. The celebration drew 26 participants and went on for seven days.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Happy to revisit Victoria, BC's capital

This Victoria West house is typical of the city. Sunlit on an October day, it's individual and beautiful.

Island living really is special, even on enormous Vancouver Island. People in Victoria live at a much more relaxed pace, neighbourhoods are friendlier, and traffic calmer than in our increasingly frazzled megalopolis.

Some young friends relocated to the island when their children were born. Selling their Vancouver apartment allowed them to buy a nice house in Victoria West.

Being in Victoria makes me nostalgic. While our daughter was at UVic, we spent a lot of time coming and going to the island, always a pleasant ferry trip. The weather is usually warmer than on the mainland, as it was on this day.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fruit and pumpkins ripened early this year

On the Saanich Peninsula, these pumpkins lay ready to harvest at the beginning of October.

In the Lower Mainland too, this year brought a very early crop of pumpkins.

This year, Okanagan peaches were gone by the first week of September. Pears soon followed. Then the delicious seasonal varieties of apples, like Honeycrisp, Braeburn and Gala, they were quickly joined by ripe pumpkins. I'll be making pumpkin curry this week.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Valemount, BC supports the world's smallest library

It's no bigger than a large birdhouse. Frequented by elf bookworms maybe? Of course,  the town also possesses a library big enough to accommodate human patrons.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Darkest Hour by Barbara Erskine

Image from Waterstones

I love reading in my time period -- the one in which part of my own novel-in-progress takes place. Came upon Barbara Erskine from a book club on FB that is devoted to her fans.

After reading The Darkest Hour, which moves suspensefully between  contemporary times and the Battle of Britain, I'm a devoted member of her fan club.

Stayed up till 4:15 reading this 550 page tome, and enjoyed every minute.

Reputed to be Erskine's best-loved story, Lady of Hay is waiting on my table. Next up are Time's Legacy and River of Destiny.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hinton hat

It isn't something I've ever seen in British Columbia's Lower Mainland. Not even in Langley.

But in Hinton, Alberta, it seems to be normal for a cowboy to keep his hat on while ordering and eating in a restaurant.

This Stetson was spotted at Smitty's Pancake House off Highway 16.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Spruce Grove elevators and water tower art

The Alberta town of Spruce Grove still has well-kept wooden elevators. The heritage of the past importance of railroads to haul grain is also celebrated in the art work on this beautifully painted water tower beside the tracks.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Atmospheric Old Strathcona with new innovations

Edmonton's Old Strathcona, on the south side, is a great neighbourhood.  Side by side with the historic buildings are new ideas to keep the area  clean. A  sand- filled ashtray, strategically placed on a street corner, bears this legend: "Thank you for not littering. You've just saved yourself $250." It then quotes the relevant bylaw number.  

Monday, October 12, 2015

Magpies and inland gulls in Edmonton

In Edmonton recently, I finally managed to get a picture of a magpie. This bird, a relative of the crow, became infamous in our family many years ago, when it swooped down to steal pancakes off our picnic table while we were camping in Banff.

Observing them in William Hawrelak Park, I belatedly learned that gulls live inland as well as on the coast. These are a different type from the ones we see in White Rock, though: smaller and more compact.
The picture below shows river gulls hanging out on a sandbar on the edge of the North Saskatchewan River.
Image left from
Edmonton River Valley

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Historic neon signs in Edmonton recall past institutions

Neon signs for baths, and news stand with the Star Weekly. The iconic CNR sign speaks for itself.
In 1913, the Edmonton Turkish Baths opened in the flatiron building on Jasper Avenue. Later these morphed into the Georgia Baths. Open until 1991, they were the city's oldest steam baths.

Baths were beehives of social activity as well as grooming. The original Turkish baths had separate steam rooms for men and women, tubs, showers, a snack counter, shoeshine facilities, a cigar stand and a barbershop. There were also 13 sleeping rooms.

In the heyday of steam baths, tubs and showers in homes were by no means a given. Public baths were popular with working men, and Edmonton's early immigrant groups also used them. Before cheap and plentiful air travel, many who emigrated never saw the old country again. Perhaps the baths, popular in Europe at the time, reminded lonely emigres of their original homes. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Old railway speeder

Currently on display at the Alberta Railway Museum, this speeder once belonged to the now defunct Northern Alberta Railway. A speeder was a small railcar designed for a couple of men to go out and do maintenance on remote stretches of track.

Here in southern BC, the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway has weekend speeder rides available from its station in Cloverdale. The seats are bare wood and the cars are noisy and have no shocks, so the ride is a wee bit bumpy.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Staff quarters and train post office

Many kinds of railway cars from different eras of the past, are on display at the Alberta Railway Museum. These modest quarters for railway employees look sparse but comfortable.

Furnished as they were when still in use, they give visitors fascinating glimpses of the nation's social history through the vitally important railway era. It's fascinating to see where the various categories train's workers and passengers ate and slept. Equally, it was a shocking to learn that black railway porters, who provided for the sleeping comfort of others, had no beds on the train themselves!

An old mail car is also on display. Once upon a time, you could mail a letter by pushing it through a slot on the train as it stood in the station. The mail was well guarded and sorted between stations.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Underwood typewriter and bracket lamps on the train

As I struggled mightily to learn to type, I never dreamed that CN train engineers were using the same model of typewriter as we had in our classroom.

Thanks in  no small part to the user-friendly Underwood machines, I finally acquired this skill. Hard won, it has served me nearly all the days of my life.

My mastery of the keyboard has come a long way since Grade 8, when my clumsy immature fingers first wrestled with a typewriter.

This work station with its Underwood typewriter, lit by oil lamps in wall brackets, is on display in a train car at the Alberta Railway Museum.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Image from national book award

This beautiful book reveals darkness imbued with light. Not the light from the bombs that fall on St. Malo late in World War II. Nor the brilliance of the world's largest natural diamond, smuggled away from the occupying army by an employee of the Paris Natural History Museum.

Not even the light of knowledge put out over the radio waves in scientific broadcasts for children. Nor yet the light of courage in a blind girl conveying messages to the French resistance.

All this light is impressive, of course. Still more inspiring is the hidden light in the human heart: the love between a father and his blind daughter, and the love for a friend and an enemy that beats in the heart of an orphan boy from the Hitler Youth

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Antique steam engine

Railways were of critical importance in the early growth and development of Canada.

The Alberta Railway Museum north of Edmonton now owns and displays the CNR steam locomotive 1392. This engine made its last run in 1955.

Here's a link to a YouTube video of 1392, the old "mixed freight" engine pulling a string of cars past the kind of tank that provided the water for the steam.

Those steam engines were noisy machines, and their whistles sounded mighty lonesome as they howled across the prairies by night.

Monday, October 5, 2015

CNR pottery made in Alberta

This specially designed Canadian National pottery was made in the historic clay district of southern Alberta.

Located in clay country, Medicine Hat was once the home of Medalta, a thriving pottery works that made dishes with unique and appropriate logos for the Canadian armed forces, many hotels and restaurants, and even the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie.

Now a museum, Medalta Pottery gives tours of the once thriving pottery making works. Not so long ago, Alberta produced 75% of Canada's pottery. Artists in residence work at Medalta and some pottery is still made there, and sold in the gift shop, as described in this short video.

Currently, ebay is offering over 60 items of vintage Medalta pottery for sale.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The CNR Porter's cap recalls the shame of a racist past

An exhibit at the Alberta Railway Museum, this cap was once worn by a porter on the CNR. To me, it evokes my first view of the Rockies after growing up on the flat prairie till age 7.

When as a child I watched the friendly black porters letting down the upper berth so I could climb up the ladder and sleep in the cosy cubby -- such bliss -- I knew nothing of how the railways treated these men. Recruiting men from across Canada, the US and the Caribbean, the railways kept black men in the dead end job of sleeping car porters. They were not allowed to apply as conductors, a job reserved for whites.

They worked long hours for low pay, preparing beds for others. Shockingly, they were not given sleeping quarters on the train. The typical run was 72 hours, and these workers had to snack and nap when and where they could, out of sight of passengers.
During World War II, when trains were busy, Canadian porters finally formed a union. Their first collective agreement was signed in 1945, but racist social attitudes still prevailed. The first black Canadian to be given the job of railway conductor did not take up his post until 1954. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Quebec heater in the caboose evokes warm memories

The poorly insulated and partly finished house I lived in growing up had a Quebec heater. It was small, but it cast lots of heat. On the coldest winter days, we warmed our chilled garments in our beds, then rapidly dressed as close as we dared to the Quebec heater. Dad kept a banked fire in that stove through the night.

The one in the picture is in a staff rail car at the Alberta Railway Museum. No doubt in its day it threw plenty of warmth into the small space of the caboose to warm with workers as the train roared across the winter prairies.

Quebec heaters have become antiques but people still use this type of stove. Many originals have been restored, and newer versions are still being made and sold. Voyageurs used these stoves. When the need arose, they could be carried across two large canoes that were then rowed in tandem.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Railroad cats at the museum

The Alberta Railway Museum has a couple of resident cats. They're a bit shy and scruffy, and also a bit grubby from their habit of climbing around and  under the old trains.

Water tower at the Railway Museum

Now on display on the Alberta Railway Museum, this 1919 Gibbons water tank, designed to supply water to steam trains, can hold as much as ten home swimming pools. Though some railway water tanks held as little as 5000 gallons, the ones along the prairie lines usually had capacities between 40,000 and 60,000 gallons.

The water was held in the upper portion of the tank and a stove in the bottom had to be fired in winter to make sure it didn't freeze. The rod on top has a ball attached to a float. This showed the water level at a glance.

This basic style lasted through the forties, but each line used a slightly different building shape. This typical CN tank has sloped walls. CP tanks had vertical walls, often topped by a cupola.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

St. Albert Station now open at the Alberta Railway Museum

This building was moved from St. Albert to the current location of the Alberta Railway Museum, northeast of Edmonton.

Inside and out, it evokes the past of Canada's railways, once so very important to our nation.

I enjoyed sitting on the bench beside the freight wagons, pretending to wait for a train.

While Chris waited by the telegraph office, Yaz imagined what the engineer's job would be like.