When Tchaikovsky sang the blues

Ah, there’s nothing like listening to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique, to remind me that the tragic sense of life has always been with me.

That’s ‘always’ as when my father saw it when he casually looked down at me, a newborn baby in my crib just as I opened my eyes and looked up. He put his arm across his eyes and abruptly looked away in apparent shock, so I was told many times, and exclaimed, “My God, he’s been here before!”

And, just now, as I write that, as if on cue, a torrential downpour such as I have not seen here in Hope Ness for a long time is flooding my hopeful last planting of sweet corn. But for just a few minutes. Already it has passed, and to the west I see a patch of blue sky.

Tchaikovsky did not, when he wrote this music, his last symphony, near the end of his famous, but deeply troubled life. He suffered bouts of depression, and anxiety about his creative abilities. Had I been there I would have consoled him about that. He conducted the premiere of this music, his last symphony, in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1893. Nine days later he died under circumstances that are still not clear. To say he left his broken heart in this music, and in concert halls around the world countless times through the years since then, is to put it mildly. But it is so much more than that. From beginning to end in the Pathetique Tchaikovsky speaks through his music of the complex human story: innocently hopeful and joyful, full of the spirit of life, but troubled by it, disappointed, regretful, grieving; but ultimately accepting finally with quiet relieve, yet still echoing the sadness of parting in silence.

This is no “rage, rage against the dying of the light:” That too is past; the struggle is over. He, we, imperfect beings have done what we have done, for good or ill, in terrible or most wonderful ways; triumphant even, for a time, but not enough, the promise of our being, not fully realized. And therein lies our tragedy, fading slowly into the vast silence. This music certainly should have been included aboard Voyager, to tell our story.

Tchaikovsky in 1893

The last movement especially of the Pathetique is beyond despair: it is an utterly tragic ending. I don’t find it strange at all at this moment in the life of this world, that it seems so to me even more-so now.

And so it apparently seems to conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, as they linger in a YouTube video for a long, last note of silence after the written music ends. It is deliberate, and it is brilliant, as Gergiev, whose quivering fingers I have occasionally found irritating, go perfectly still over the orchestra for that extended moment. No one, in my experience, has ever understood this music so well.

I first heard it when I was 16, one of the first LP records I acquired, with the help of a promotional deal at the supermarket where I worked on weekends and after class; and the last movement especially made it one of my favorite and most-loved pieces of so-called classical music. Strictly speaking, it is Romantic. From that moment on I was sure to come to Tchaikovsky’s defense when I heard someone belittle him as shallow and overrated. On the contrary, he is underrated. Okay, there is the 1812 overture. And yes, the parade of crescendos does wear thin sometimes. But nobody’s perfect. And besides, the music for the thrilling, transcendental finale of Swan Lake makes up for it many times over.

Thank you, Pyotr, for sharing. And I hope your spirit has found peace and joy, in knowing you are loved.

The Awakening: Kate Chopin’s still thought-provoking novel

My recent discovery of the creative, literary works of late 19th Century, American author Kate Chopin, most notably her novel, The Awakening, has been a deeply moving and continuously thought-provoking experience. That meets one of the important criteria for a true work of art; and so does speaking so well to readers about what they may be experiencing, as they struggle to find themselves.

It wasn’t only for my own sake, but more especially for my maternal grandmother, Clara, whose tragic life I was reminded of as I read The Awakening and continue to think about it every day. Kate Chopin would have understood perfectly what happened to my grandmother; and would have felt for her. Maybe she is, right now, somewhere, somehow. It may sound strange, but I find consolation for my grandmother’s sake in such thoughts, thanks to Chopin

As a young woman of 28, and mother of two children she dearly loved, my grandmother was desperately unhappy and neglected in her marriage when she dared to fall in love with a married man, famous at the time, 100 years ago. But despite loving her too, he could not face the prospect of living openly in their love, and the consequences it was certain to have for him in the emotionally repressive, post-puritanical, societal norms of the time. That was especially true in the narrow-minded, provincial confines of WASPish (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), Toronto “the Good” where she lived, or tried to. And it was also true of the U.S. Midwest where he was a church pastor, and a prominent figure in the progressive, social gospel movement.

As it was, the consequences of being a married woman who fell in love with a married man were terrible: a broken heart, the court-ordered loss of her first two children, her desperate abandonment of her love child, my mother, her lonely misery and abject poverty in Montreal for 18 years, and her death from cancer at an early age after her sudden return, alone, to her parental home in Toronto in 1942..

Kate Chopin

In The Awakening, Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, raised ‘American’ in Kentucky, is married to Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy member of upper-class, Creole society in Louisiana. She and her husband live in New Orleans, the focal point of the unique, French-based Acadian culture. He’s often away to the north, including New York City and Wall Street, as the story unfolds. Though apparently doting, he cares most about the material trappings of wealth, including what today would be called his ‘trophy wife.’ But she dares to question and ultimately rebel against all that. They have two young children; but Edna rejects the prevailing, social attitude that a woman should always sacrifice her needs for the sake of her children; ‘unessential things,’ yes, but not the soul of her being, as she struggles to discover what that is. She falls in love with a young man who, among other things, teachers her how to swim. That is a crucial, beginning point in her journey of self-discovery, including the awakening of her repressed sensuality. It continues through to the end of the unconsummated relationship with her ‘lover’ who abandons her, “because I love you,” he says in a parting note. Soon after that comes the final and still controversial ending of the novel when Edna, naked and alone on a beach, walks into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand,” she thinks, as she swims out as far as she can before exhaustion sets in. She had by then already rejected the possibility of other, passing lovers. She thinks fondly of her two young boys, left, apparently happy, in the care of their paternal grandmother in the countryside. But she affirms again her unwillingness to sacrifice herself and live for their sake only.

I confess to being troubled by how Chopin handles that important issue in The Awakening. It needs more attention. A key character in the novel, a happily married woman, tells Edna more than once to not give her children short shrift: “The children, the children!” she says. How Chopin’s heroine may have struggled with that begs for more creative exploration, especially when her two young sons are ultimately described in her apparently final thoughts as ‘antagonists’ seeking to control her life. It’s not hard to imagine how outrageous that must have seemed to many readers at the time, in a society where the role of woman was so locked-in to motherhood.

Speaking personally, being similarly ‘farmed out’ twice by a loving, well-intentioned, single mother to pseudo-foster parents – exploitive and abusive in one case – was a deeply troubling experience. I still struggle with it. There are other cultures in the world that have a more natural, realistic approach to parenting than one that puts all the pressure and responsibility on individual mothers: such things as a greater, shared reliance on both parents, the extended family, and the social group. There are many examples, even in the animal world.

A shallow, perhaps too-obvious interpretation of the ending of The Awakening assumes Edna’s suicide. The last the reader sees of her she has gone as far as she can out into the waters of the Gulf, with no strength left to make it back to shore. But Chopin, deliberately, I think, leaves her fate uncertain. Meanwhile, recollections of childhood memories, including walking through a “blue-grass meadow” with “no beginning and no end” come to Edna’s mind.

I am left with this thought: that Edna’s journey, her ‘Awakening,’ reaches its consummating climax, its ultimate expression of her sensuality-come-alive, in and with the sea. I might have said best would have been to go on living, in some state of love, in the world. But, in all the circumstances, Edna had realized that was not possible, that it could only lead to personal tragedy. Meanwhile, her spiritual and sensual reunion with the sea, is love, timeless and complete.

It’s also a testament to Chopin’s literary genius: to have written such a powerful scene in such a book on such a theme, in 1899, in the U.S. Midwest.  

And yet, what an injustice, that The Awakening was widely condemned after its publication. Chopin was shunned in the St. Louis, Missouri community where she lived at the time. She had been born there, but married a Creole man herself, moved to Louisiana, and had six children. She, with her children, moved back to St. Louis after her husband died to look after her sick mother. She began writing in the 1890s as a way of overcoming depression after her mother died. She soon made a name for herself as a regional (Acadian) writer. But after the bad reaction to The Awakening, her further works were largely rejected. She died five years later and was virtually forgotten for 70 years. Now she is a regarded as a forerunner of the modern feminist movement. The Awakening and her short stories are required reading in literary studies.

But with all due respect to feminism, and her courageous contribution to it, any label, be it ‘regional writer’ or ‘feminist,’ diminishes her even now: Kate Chopin speaks of the human spirit in all its wonderful, though often tragic, complexity. There was much more she could have said, in the years before and after The Awakening, had she found her wings sooner. It is not quite a great novel, by a writer who clearly had it in her to be great.

My granddaughter Asia at the lookout. May you see your way clear, my dear.

Speaking of this Brilliant Morning

Speaking plainly of this brilliant morning,

The sun rising in a clear sky,

The lingering snow yearning,

I fancy, for its melting touch,

We walk Cathedral Drive to the rock

Where an “Our Father,” an “Our Mother,”

An “Our Great Mystery,” is said.

Daring to glance at the sun, it is

Entirely obvious why no more

Is permitted. And clear as well

Why the sun would be worshipped:

The giver of life, the rising of daily hope.

But now we are otherwise enlightened.

We know better: the wonder of it

Has been understood to a degree.

And the rest,

Is now just a matter of time.

A winter blessing: not old after all

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Though it’s late in coming, there’s nothing like the onset of something that resembles a good, old-fashioned Canada winter to test the myths and realities of growing old.

Let’s just say I’ve reached a certain age, well beyond the date when I officially became a ‘senior,’ and became eligible for what’s still called here in Canada, “Old Age Security.”

It’s not that I mind the money. I’m far from being a rich man, financially, anyway. But there’s something fundamentally wrong with sticking the “old age” label on someone at 65, or older, or at all, when they’re not old, not really.

When I was 65, I was still a young man. I could still keep up, and more, with guys half my age. I was still going strong at 70, and even, well, older than that. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve finally had to face up to slowing down to the extent that it may, just may, be time to say, yeah, okay, “I guess I’m old.”

December and January were unusually easy months, as Canadian winters go here on the peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. What happened to those lake-effect, ‘zero visibility,’ early-winter snow squalls? Well, it’s early February and they’re happening now, for the past couple of days, and forecast to keep happening into next week.

Just now, I look out my window and it’s coming down at a rate that could see another 10 to 15 centimeters, or more tonight.

And that means, again tomorrow morning it won’t be time to sit back and think about growing old: it will be time, like this morning, to rise to the occasion, fire up the tractor and the snowblower, clear my long, country driveway; then climb up on that too-old, home-built garage roof and finish clearing the snow off it so it won’t collapse under the weight. And then there’s that other, low-sloped roof I’m not all that secure about and would rather not take a chance and let the snow pile up. Better safe than sorry.

Actually, it’s more than safety; it’s survival. So many big and little things in secluded, rural living can turn into a big, survival problem if you don’t give them their due: a loose bolt on the snowblower tightened, chain and auger mechanisms greased; fresh gas for the generator in case of a power-outage; diesel fuel in reserve, a spare key for the tractor, and careful usage. They’re family, after all, Mr. Massey and now Mr. Massey Too.

I count it a blessing that winter and its challenges have arrived, and I am still up to meeting them.

Still not ‘old,’ not really.

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The bugs are winning the Bt fight

Twenty years ago, when I was still a staff reporter at the local, daily newspaper, I interviewed a professor of agriculture at the University of Guelph. At the end of the interview about a certain issue of interest to local farmers, I mentioned I was also a small-scale market gardener who tried to use organic methods. They included the use of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control the caterpillar stage of certain lepidopteran (moth and butterflies) insects that feed on corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other crops. I told her I had recently learned U.S. government Environmental Protection (EPA) regulators had approved the genetic engineering of Bt with corn and wondered what she thought.

I will never forget her comment in response to my question: “Nature abhors a vacuum,” she said, adding “sooner or later” the bugs will develop resistance.

Over the years since then as the use of Bt hybrid corn, and other Bt genetically modified crop seeds, has steadily and greatly increased in the U.S. especially, and in Canada and 16 countries, I have wondered when what she said would happen.

I got the answer a few days ago when I found the latest issue of the Ontario farm-information newspaper, Farmtario, in my mailbox: it has already started to happen — a couple of years ago, in fact; and government regulators in the U.S. and Canada are now considering regulatory changes in hopes of stopping or slowing down the advance of Bt-resistant super bugs. The use of ‘super’ there is my choice of word, because as far as I’m concerned that’s what it amounts to if Bt is no longer useful as an organic solution.

The Farmtario article was perhaps not strictly speaking ‘breaking news’ and therefore worthy of front-page coverage, other than a teaser that referred to an article on Page 10 about ‘The challenge with Bt.’

And it was written in a way that would make it difficult for non-farmer consumers to understand what it’s about. I’m not saying that’s deliberate. And after all, Farmtario is aimed at farmers, so presumably there’s apparently an assumption they know what the jargon like “Bt hybrid corn” means. But, it’s not a hybrid in the traditional sense of cross-breeding different species of the same type of plant to create a new hybrid variety. That’s been done for thousands of years, not 20. “Bt hybrid corn” is misnomer camouflage to hide what it really is: Bt Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) corn.

The “challenge” referred to by the Farmtario article is rooted in the fact more than 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is ‘Bt hybrid.’ The same is true of Bt hybrid cotton. Evidence of growing resistance to Bt ‘traits’ has been reported in recent years and recently confirmed, according to an EPA discussion paper regarding proposed changes to regulations now being considered. They include “compliance assurance” from growers and annual reporting.

The EPA says changes are needed to bring the growth of resistant insect pests under control; otherwise, “if resistance continue to proliferate, Bt corn and cotton could be lost to farmers as tools to address pest problems.”

Meanwhile, similar concerns have been raised in Canada, since the first resistance to Bt corn, involving a European corn borer infestation was confirmed in Nova Scotia last year. “This is the first report in the world of the European corn borer (ECB) developing resistance to a genetically engineered trait used to confer insect resistance. It is also the first report in Canada of any insect pest developing resistance to a genetically engineered trait. The development of resistance in other insect pests targeted by Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) traits in corn has been observed in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil,” the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) reported in June, 2019.

“This is an important reminder that nature can adapt to and overcome genetically engineered traits,” said CBAN’s Lucy Sharratt.

That’s putting it mildly. Say what you want about the ethics of modern genetic engineering, or modification, but from my point of view, the real tragedy here is the loss of Bt as a bona fide, organic control of the damage European corn borer, corn earworm and corn rootworm can cause.

Bacillus Thuringiensis occurs naturally in soil. It poses no risk for human consumption. It has been used by market-garden farmers and gardeners for many years. I have used a liquid concentrate sold under the name BTK for 30 years with excellent results. I have found it is indispensable, to avoid damage rendering the corn unsaleable and repugnant. But I try in my modest way to take a responsible, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. That always involves checking for corn borer when the corn plants are about half a metre high, and then unwinding the whorl of a few and carefully looking for the tiny larvae. If none, I don’t spray. With corn earworm, wait until the silk has begun to form before spraying. Wait another two weeks before spraying again. That’s usually enough.

As for the massive, widespread use of Bt GMO corn, and the subsequent appearance of resistant bugs, it should have been obvious what was going to happen when it was approved.

Hopeful Garlic, currents of great mystery in troubled times

My garlic bedded down under a blanket of straw mulch for the winter

All garden crops are hopeful: you prepare the soil carefully, make sure the temperature is warm enough for germination, then plant your seeds or starter plants at a suitable depth with sufficient water. And you hope, with a certain level of confidence that comes from a combination of experience and trying your best to do things right, that in a few weeks or months various crops will grow and flourish. Doing the necessary work through the spring, summer and fall growing season to help nurse the seeds and plants along is also part of what you do to play your role in turning hope into nutritious reality.

But garlic is surely the most hopeful of crops. The care the gardener takes, for market or family, as described above is still as important. That begins with weed control through the summer in that patch of ground where garlic will be planted. In southern Ontario that most normally happens in the fall when the soil has cooled sufficiently.

I’ve heard that one of my neighbors, an excellent gardener, had good results this year planting garlic in early spring when the soil was still cool. A cool soil temperature is regarded as key to encouraging each planted clove to grow and develop a fully formed, multi-clove garlic bulb.

I’ve had good results planting garlic in mid to late October, and even into November: the root system needs some time to get established before winter freeze-up. In the past few years the climate-change instability of the Jet Stream has brought extremely cold arctic air down to North America’s Great Lakes region for many days or weeks at a time, as cold as -30 degrees Celsius, or colder. I worried about that last year, especially because extreme fluctuations in temperature also brought thaws that left the ground where garlic was planted uncovered by a blanket of snow and vulnerable to the next deep freeze. So, this year, I decided to go ‘by the book’ and mulched my 25 rows of planted garlic with straw. And that was despite one knowledgeable old-timer who insisted it wasn’t necessary. I took note of the fact I planted the garlic this year in a location more exposed to the prevailing west winds. And better safe than sorry, I heard 2,000 planted garlic cloves say. I followed their advice.

So, Azores. Georgian Fire, Persian Star, Bogatyr, and ‘my own’ Purple Stripe are, I hope, safely bedded down for what I expect will be a hard, cold or colder, Canadian winter.

I’ve done what I can. The rest is up to them — the garlic, I mean – and whatever impact the fates or spirits may have on their well-being.

Never doubt, my children, there are great mysteries moving through the earth, up into the clouds, the stars above, and beyond, that help to determine, for good or ill, the fate of us all on this little blue-green jewel of a planet in trouble. It’s a delicate matter, but what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, can shift the fragile balance of fate and the future one way or the other. So, let us hope, by all means.

And then there is this:

Have courage, I tell my hopeful garlic.

You too, have courage, they tell me back.

And yes, I talk to my plants.

A conversation with the sun, revisited

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(Not much has changed since I first published this two years ago in a lot of ways. Old age continues to creep up on me, but I give myself a push and go outside to plant some garlic, or otherwise plant seeds. But I must confess to feeling somewhat less hopeful about the state of the world, driven downward by an increasing level of anger and hatred on social media and other forms of public discourse, and made worse by unprincipled, political opportunism pandering to the worst in human nature. It is, I confess, discouraging, even depressing. I find myself having to turn it all off for a while and increasingly find solace in solitude. And yet I am a social creature, and fundamentally believe each of us in our own way has a responsibility to pay attention, think carefully about what’s happening, and do what we can in a loving way, to help make it better. And then I think it can begin in a modest way, with a simple, personal expression of appreciation for the gift of life, and what the moment we’re in now — the only one we’ve truly got — may bring us: wonder and surprise in so many forms, including an unexpected visitor from nearby or the other side of the world who has a story, their story, to tell. Open your heart to them, I tell myself, and your eyes.)

Another cloudy day in late October with the front field to cultivate before it starts to rain, as forecast. I’m out beside Mr. Massey Too, checking his fluid levels before connecting the cultivator, when I get that feeling, you know, like somebody’s looking at me. So, I look up right where that feeling is coming from, just above the treetops of some tall spruce, and there it is, the sun – a faint light in the clouds, so faint that I can look right at it, face to face, as it were.

I get the sense the son wants to tell me something; so, I say, “What? What’s up? What’s on your mind?” Continue reading

The Hawk is watching

I saw it again this morning as the dogs and I came back from our after-breakfast walk. Had it been watching us from above, I wonder only now? We had just turned down into our long driveway and there it was, slowly, silently, with a seemingly effortless motion of its wings flying easily through the light drizzle over the front field just off to our right. It flew ahead of us, heading northwest toward the big maples and beyond toward the forest, out of sight.

I knew right away it was the same great bird, a hawk, I had seen a few days before. That was also during our walk, but just as we were about to step through the back door. Something made me look up, and there it was circling overhead, also at about treetop height.

That was a blustery, variably cloud and sun morning, a strong wind from the west making the still leaf-laden branches roar. The bird was not moving its wings; it didn’t have to: the wind let it soar, its outstretched, perfectly aerodynamic wings sensitive to every nuance of the air.

There was joy in what the bird was doing, and, inadvertently perhaps, or deliberately, showing me. And so, I imagined it might be a sort of dance, slow and elegant, and – what’s the word? – dignified comes to mind now.  I mean no offence at all to the Ravens who made their home-nest in the barn this past spring, none at all: I love them, and hope they stay, helping in their way to keep the old barn standing. They soar too, with an occasional flapping, and a raucous “croak” now and then back and forth in their social, family way.

A recent view here at Cathedral Drive Farm in early September, 2020, the forest trees still laden with leaves. A family of ravens gain entry to the barn through that space below the roof to the right. They were still spending most of their time in the forest when this photo was taken by a friend; but I hope they will nest again next spring in the barn where they have made an impressive, and very big, nest.

But the hawk was silent and alone as it wheeled and soared in the wind, working its way slowly west and carefully searching the land below for anything of interest..

So, now I count the hawk as my friend, and the Ravens too. And the bear I saw cross the trail several hundred yards in front of me this summer, and the other unnamed creatures who make their presence known one way or another in the forest and the tall grass in the nature-reserve. regenerating fields. And even here – where I keep a portion of the land tilled for gardening, but let the milkweed live on its own terms for the sake of the Monarchs when they come back again next year – life thrives.

Next year I will scatter even more buckwheat for the bees and other pollinators that have found a happy refuge far from vast fields of mono-cropping.

And so, I am surrounded in sky and land and live with many friends.

I hope that’s what brings the Hawk here, good feelings rising from below.

Tomorrow morning when the dogs and I go on our morning rock to the touchstone, I will put my hand on it and pray that I will never again in any way betray that trust.

On the flowering of potatoes, the crimes of tyrants, and your comforting voice

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Rows of flowering potato plants, July 1, 2020. Those are staked tomato plants in the foreground.

The humble potato has its moment of floral glory.

Two types of well-sprouted tubers I planted around the first of May have overcome unseasonably cold temperatures through much of that month, then drought in June, and are now looking quite healthy thank you, despite current drought conditions.

Perhaps in defiance, both are showing pretty, blue flowers. Usually that’s a clue to the colour of the potatoes taking shape in the ground. But not in the case of the four rows on the left where a well-known, red-skinned potato with white flesh is growing. Continue reading