On being reminded of human goodness: a wonderful moment

The historic Great Hall of Toronto’s Union Station

“Keep your heart and mind open to the possibility of wonder: you never know what the next moment will bring.”

Recently, I have found myself saying that often, especially when someone I know, or have just met, talks about a personal struggle they’re experiencing to the point of despair, or how much they’re troubled about the terrible state of the world.

The wonder that might be seen, heard, or thought in the next moment may not save the world. It may be a relatively small thing in the broader personal or global context; but if it lifts your spirits to suddenly see the rising sun shining bravely through a small break in dark clouds, that is also wonderful. Let it lift and embrace you, and give you hope. “Anything is possible,” I often end up saying.

I took that attitude to heart myself just over a week ago when I ran into trouble trying to get to Kingston via Toronto to visit my daughter at her horse farm in rural, eastern Ontario.

I had it all worked out. At least I thought so; except what’s the point of having a plan if you don’t write it down and pay attention to it?

So, instead arriving at Guelph Central Station in time to catch a 12:55 pm GO bus to Union Station in Toronto, that bus had already left. I assured my good friend and son-in-law Ryan not to worry, and to head back north. I still had four hours to get to Union Station, even if I had to take another GO bus to Square One, in Mississauga, and then transfer to yet another one.

Fortunately, as it turned out, I took a seat near the driver, after he showed me how to scan my Visa card on a thingy near the door. Other people boarding the bus, most if not all of them, had something called a ‘Presto’ card to scan, as if they’ve done it every day, twice a day or more, for years, which they no doubt have. I, on the other hand, haven’t used public transit in the Toronto area since the virtual, technical Stone Age.

The Queen Street W. streetcar, circa 1950s

Yes, my children, I am old enough and far enough removed from those days to remember when a child could board the Queen Street West streetcar and drop a nickel into the fare box for a trip downtown. And then when the Yonge Street subway, Toronto’s first, was built and running in 1954, I could put a quarter into a fare box at a glass booth watched over by an actual person at every station.

So, to put it mildly, I was feeling my age, and like a stranger from the boondocks, though Toronto is my hometown (with a couple of breaks to live for a few years on southern Ontario farms). But it has been 42 years since I moved up to the Bruce (Saugeen) Peninsula, and I could count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I’ve been back. And that’s when I was still driving.

But then on the troubled trip some wonderful things started to happen, and this is the real subject of this story: the kindness of strangers who helped me on my way.

When the second driver gone on the bus to await his turn to take over the wheel at a stop before Square One, the first driver brought him over to where I was sitting and explained that I was trying to get to Union Station to catch a Via Rail train leaving there at 5:32 pm. The second driver nodded his head as he looked at me with an expression that told me he would do what he could to help me get there on time. And he did indeed, or perhaps I should say, he tried his best.

He was driving the bus when it reached Square One. I was the last person to get up to leave when he told me I’d be better off to stay on the bus as he drove it south into Toronto to the Kipling bus terminal where it was to be parked for the night. There, he said, I would be able to get on a Bloor Street subway train, which would take me to the Yonge Street subway; and then I could take a southbound train to Union Station. My experience years ago on the subway told me he was right. It was my best hope to get to Union Station quickly by avoiding surface traffic.

I thanked him for his help and checked the time. I had less than 45 minutes to get on the train to Kingston. “Be sure you get off at the St. George stop, and go south on the Yonge Street subway,” he said helpfully. I nodded my head and reassured him I understood.

I want to say something here for a moment. I don’t routinely identify people by their ethnicity. I believe there is one human family of many nations, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction.  I am proud of Canada’s multicultural, welcoming diversity. I want to make a point of saying both these drivers appeared to be of an east Indian nationality, likely either immigrants to Canada or first-generation; and they are my friends now even though I only met them once and may never meet them again.

I missed my train by five minutes; but that’s my fault: with their help I almost made it.

I maybe could have stayed overnight somewhere in Toronto and taken a train to Kingston early the next morning. But my daughter Susan, who I was going to visit, wouldn’t hear of it. If I could take a GO train as far east as possible, to Whitby or Oshawa, she would drive there from her farm north of Kingston and pick me up.

With help from a security guard at Union Station, I quickly found the GO Rail area. I approached a woman identified as a GO employee, there to help folks like me. She helped me use my Visa card to buy a ticket to Oshawa, then walked with me to the platform where that train would soon be arriving. She was genuinely kind and helpful and wished me well.

It was late when my daughter and I reached her beautiful farm-home where I spent a lovely week. The trip there did not go as smoothly as I had hoped; and yet I have nothing but good thoughts about it as I think about the kindness of the good people who helped me.

Pepper, sweet mare.

I also think about the woman and her husband on the GO bus who were on their way to Pearson Airport and with whom I had a pleasant conversation. Turns out they had recently been guests at a friend’s cottage on the peninsula, and they were also avid gardeners.

It was ‘all good.’

Going for a walk in the woods with Sora

A message of profound hope for a world turned upside down

It’s still there in my list of favorite movies; right up there with Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc; Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon; Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring; Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront; Grigory Chukray’s Ballad of a Soldier; and most recently Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent.

Although the original film version of The Poseidon Adventure, was the top-grossing movie of 1973, most reviewers didn’t regard it as anything that special: just an above average example of the then-popular disaster-movie genre with an exceptional cast. They included previous Academy Award Oscar winners Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, and Red Buttons. It was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two second-tier awards, one for Best Original Song, ‘The Morning After,’ the other for Special Effects. Hackman won the British Academy Film award for Best Actor in a Starring Role, and Winters won the Globe aware for Best Supporting Actress. Summarizing 25 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gives The Poseidon Adventure a modestly good score of 6.94 out of 10.

I’m not even going to go there, other than to say 20th Century Fox, the producers, and director Ronald Neame could have done a better job of first realizing, and then focusing more on what I regard as the story’s powerful, allegorical message of hope.

Based on a 1969 novel by Paul William Gallico, I can only suspect “adventure” was added to the book and movie title to attract a mass audience. Fair enough, especially if, as a result more people get the message consciously or subconsciously; and remember it now meaningfully, as I do, in a world turned upside-down.

Here in a nutshell is what The Poseidon Adventure is about: The Poseidon is an aging ocean liner on its last voyage before heading to the scrap yard. It is New Year’s Eve, and the clock is about to strike Midnight. There has been an earthquake deep in the waters of the Mediterranean Ocean. A huge Tsunami wave strikes the ship, causing it to capsize. Sensational scenes of chaos and death ensue in the great banquet hall where New Year’s celebrations are in full swing when the everything is suddenly turned upside down. There appears to be no way out as explosions rock the ship, leaving only a small portion of the hull above water. However, learning from another passenger that the thinnest part of the hull is at the propeller shaft beyond the engine room, Reverend Frank Scott instinctively sees hope. He begins to urge people around him not to give up and soon has a small group willing to join him in a journey through the bowels of the stricken ship. He calls on others to join his little group and climb a tall Christmas Tree raised up to a door in the now upside-down banquet hall. Most survivors gather around the ship’s purser, the officer in charge of money and material needs. Others try to climb the tree after all, but under the weight of too many people, and with the explosions continuing, the tree falls.

Rev. Scott, played by Hackman, and his group begin their journey. They include a Jewish couple from New York on their way to Israel to see their newborn grandson; a police detective and his wife, a former prostitute who he loves dearly; the ships singer; a young brother and sister going to meet their parents on holiday in Greece; and a mild-mannered, life-long bachelor obsessed about his physical health.

With Rev. Scott’s help and advise they overcome many obstacles. At one point, he gets into trouble swimming underwater in a flooded area to find the best way forward. He is saved by the middle-aged Jewish woman, played by Winters, who just happens to have been a competitive swimmer. But as a result, she has a heart attack and dies.

They come upon an area where the way forward seems impossible. Down below is a deep chasm of burning oil. Before them, just out of reach, is a valve spewing burning-hot steam. The detective’s beloved wife slips and falls to her death. The broken-hearted detective, played by Borgnine, angrily blames Rev. Scott. He in turn vents his anger at God.

“How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many lives?” the admittedly unorthodox minister asks God. “You want another life? Take me,” he cries, before jumping over the burning chasm to grab hold of the burning-hot valve.

Gradually, slowly, with painful effort he turns the valve off. But his strength is fading.

“You can make it,” he calls out to the survivors of his group. “Keep going,” he says.

He turns to the detective, still grieving the loss of his beloved wife. “Get them through,” Rev. Scott says, falling to his death

And so the detective does, until they finally reach the point where the propeller shaft goes through the thinnest part of the hull; but they have no tools. What can they do? They hear a sound outside, the roar of a helicopter engine, and boots walking above them. They begin to bang on the hull. Those above hear it. Soon, an acetylene torch is cutting through the metal. A hole big enough for people to get through is opened. Hands reach down to pull them up.

Then we see the helicopter taking off again into the sky with the only survivors of the Poseidon aboard.

That’s hardly a ‘nutshell,’ I guess.

So be it. Just as well: it doesn’t leave much room for too many words of discussion, analysis, and argument about the meaning of it all. Some might say there is none; others of a certain evangelical religious bent might see a transcendental message, the helicopter being a metaphor for the long-awaited fulfillment of ‘end time’ prophecies

If he were alive today, I might ask Paul Gallico what meaning he meant; but from what I’ve read about him I have a hunch the very prolific author/journalist would laugh uproariously.

I won’t judge or question. I will only I say what I still see: a message of profound hope: hope for life, and for those who weep and struggle in these seemingly hopeless times to keep up their spirits, but who ultimately renew their love and their faith in life, and do not give up.

Speaking of the back field and the nature of heritage

It’s been 40 years since I came here to help the late Wilma Butchart and her son Cliff bring in the hay from that beautiful back field that reached out to the depth of their old farm lot, with the mature hardwood forest on either side.

Wilma and Cliff were the first Hope Ness residents we met in the late spring of 1979 when my then wife, Colleen, and I moved up from Toronto to Hope Ness. They welcomed us in the traditional way, with a gift of home-cooked goodness, a generous smile, and kind words. We became friends, and thanks to Wilma and Cliff we learned a lot about the history of Hope Ness, especially the Dow Chemical ‘takeover’ in the mid-1960s. (I have written previously about that in Finding Hope Ness at this link.)

Hope Ness was saved from the terrible fate of being turned into a huge quarry when Dow decided not to go through with its plans, and the Ontario government ended up owning the 2,000 acres (810 hectares) Dow had bought for a measly $5,000 acres per 100-acre farm. But most of the homes and barns had already been demolished, except for the Butchart farm, where Dow had set up its on-site base of operations. Wilma and Cliff continued to live there as tenants when the province took over ownership. Eventually, they managed to get title back to the house, barn other out-buildings, and 5.9 acres. They were also able to continue cutting and taking the hay off the back field to feed their livestock. That permit stopped seven years ago when Cliff passed away. Coincidentally, the province decided about the same time to stop issuing any more such permits on its Hope Ness land. That includes the Hope Bay Nature Reserve which surrounds the former Butchart home and property which I now own, and where I live.

I keep the hay cut on the small part of the back field I own. Beyond that I can see the new tree growth is now well underway. Already, that part where the forests on either side were nearest has begun to close, like a door on the past.

I remember being out there with them, Wilma driving the same Massey-Ferguson 65 tractor I’m still trying my best to keep in good shape, me tossing the bales up onto the hay wagon, and Cliff building the load. And so it went, back and forth to the barn to unload, for several days.

Invariably now, as I stand beside the barn and look out from there over that field as the trees and other seasonal-wetland vegetation take it over again, I also think about the years of back-breaking work that went into clearing that land. And also, the intense work that went into digging wells to help drain it, as often happened in those days. The most remarkable, where the back field begins, is a 20-ft deep well, carefully and expertly walled with stone and cement. That well also served as the main source of water for the house and pasturing livestock. It seems almost unimaginable, and yet I can see it after all in my mind’s eye: the men down below in the darkness, rocks and soil being hauled up by others. By the end of the spring run-off that well is always full to the brim. I use it to water my market garden as needed, which is often, this dry 2022 season especially.

The first house, later used for livestock.

All that work began in Hope Ness after 1880 when the first owner, John Heath, bought the 100-acre lot for “one hundred dollars,” according to the Crown Patent. Other Hope Ness settlers arrived about the same time from down south, or from ‘the old country.’ They had hopes; they had dreams; they worked their hearts out. For some it was too much to bear. Others stayed and survived, with more hard work that we nowadays can hardly fathom. Eventually, by the time the man from Dow showed up that fateful day, there was “a farm on every hundred acres,” as I heard it said in the summer of 1979. And even then, it was still a hard-scrabble, subsistence way of life. So, $5,000 must have seemed like a lot of ‘cash money,’ and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance for something better.

I do know that Wilma Butchart (Tucker), born and raised in Hope Ness, never wanted to leave. She loved this land, and the walk through what she called “the Cathedral Woods” to the lookout over Hope Bay, and Georgian Bay beyond. It was her refuge, her special, even sacred, place.

As a child and young woman born and raised on the nearby Tucker homestead, she loved to walk through the woods. She told me of seeing First Nation people from their nearby Nawash community across Hope Bay gathering edibles and natural remedies in those same woods. She spoke respectfully of that experience. I’m sure she would have joined them, being who she was. And she certainly would not have thought it amiss in any way; on the contrary, she would have welcomed them.

As I look out across that field, I wonder also how much time it takes to have a true heritage, a feeling for a place, the land, the waters, that goes so deep it becomes an essential part of one’s being. Less than 100 years of non-Indigenous settlement had passed since 1880 by the time Dow showed up in the mid-1960s; and little more than 100 years since the Treaty of 1854 that opened the Saugeen Peninsula for settlement was signed under controversial circumstances. The era of settlement is not “since time immemorial,” it is fair enough to say.

And what of me? Am I, who wasn’t even born here, entitled to feel that I truly belong here, this place where I feel so much at home, which I love, as if it was always meant to be? Or is that a foolish thing to say, let alone think under all the circumstances?

I ask these questions sincerely, without any underhand motive. It’s just a question, from my heart to other hearts who know what it means to love their heritage.

Corn, squash and beans growing in the front field, August, 2022.

On the hopeful resilience of gardening, and Lawrence O’Donnell’s interesting timing

In these most troubling times, with among other things the world’s first and greatest modern democracy in grave peril, I look daily to my garden for relief and consolation, and hope. I trust I’m not alone. Others, I know are doing what they can in their own way to keep their spirits up.

Every annual garden season in this little part of the world has its challenges; and the 2022 season has been no exception: unseasonably cool weather and drought in spring held held back the growth of plants started indoors then transplanted outdoors in late May. Seeds planted were slow to germinate. Many hours spent pumping and hauling water from two dug wells helped keep the garden in survival mode. When the rains finally came, it was never enough. A good soaking rain a week or so ago for a couple of days finally did wonders for the ‘three sisters,’ corn, squash and beans, and the prospect of Roma-type tomatoes for homemade pasta sauce.

But most of all I am again reminded of the determination of plants, and the strength of the life-force to overcome hardships, not the least of which is the heavy, clay-loam soil in these parts. Before the recent rain, when I set about to dig the first row of Yukon gem potatoes, I had trouble getting the digging fork into soil that seemed to have turned into virtual cement. And yet, there they were, good-sized plentiful tubers, showing only slightly the struggle it must have been for them to form. My habit of mulching with a generous depth of straw surely kept some moisture in the ground. But I give the potatoes most of the credit for their fortitude. Then came that soaking rain and the digging became easier.

Before the rain I was wondering how the sweet corn – the original, Ontario Seed Company, ‘peaches and cream’ bicolor – was ever going to fully develop and ripen. But within a few days, the development of the cobs was remarkable. And now I fully expect to have lots of corn ready for harvest by the end of the week, and on into the Labor Day weekend, and beyond, with a good, old fashioned corn roast to celebrate.

Likewise, the Roma tomatoes looked good alongside a bumper crop of Genovese basil, and another called ‘Sacred.’ That name reached out. I had to have it.

And so I am reminded again that hope, the appreciation of life’s rejuvenating powers, is the spiritual harvest of gardening and life. Good things can still and surely must happen. We must not give up.

By the way, for further context, I submit the following link that appeared on Youtube again a couple of days ago, with interesting timing regarding the recent Search Warrant that retrieved certain documents from Donald Trump’s home in Florida. The question has been asked what he might have done with them, or done already.

The Corn is up

Here, just south of the 45th Parallel (halfway to the North Pole) in the upper Great Lakes area of Ontario, Canada, the appearance of rows of little green sprouts of sweet corn in the first week of June is enough to make me break out into song and dance. I kid you not.

Corn has been described as a ‘tough crop,’ and so it is. But it’s also fussy: a warm-weather crop that won’t germinate if the soil temperature isn’t warm enough – a minimum of 21 degrees Celsius – and it won’t tolerate frost.

In southern Ontario, May 24 has traditionally been the date for planting such crops, on the assumption there’s no longer a risk of frost. But that’s not always dependable, as the 2021 growing season reminded us, when a hard frost a week after that date did a lot of damage; for example, annual strawberry crops then in pre-fruit flower, were wiped out in many locations, including mine.

Vast quantities of fungicides and other pesticides are used in modern, industrialized agriculture in the production of corn. Some fungicides are used to prevent seed corn from rotting after planting if the soil temperatures are not high enough to bring on germination for too long.

However, some growers, large and small, myself included, choose to use untreated seed. I think it’s fair to say that increases the risk of crop failure if after planting there’s a period of unusually cool weather. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, the weather in recent years has become less predictable, or reliable.

So, on May 17, with the weather and the soil warm, I knew I was to some extent taking a risk planting a few rows of sweet corn. But as a neighbor said, and I agreed, “sometimes you have to take a risk.”

A previous crop of sweet corn in Cathedral Farm garden

About a week later, after a nice rain, I was relieved to see those rows had emerged, and what’s more, showed 90 percent-plus germination. So, I took a deep breath and planted the rest of about 1.3 kilograms (just under three pounds) of seed – one seed, one row at a time, taking about eight hours in total. (Those single-row, push planters don’t work well with corn.)

And then, of course, the weather turned dry, and cool, though sunny. Fortunately, the soil embraced the heat of the sun sufficiently to keep the seed warm enough for germination; and then, a couple of days of much-needed rain was well-timed.

Watering by hand daily from a dug well will keep the garden alive. But there’s nothing like rain to turn it on. This morning is cool, but the whole garden is happy, virtually singing a chorus of relief and new growth as it, and I, look forward to a few days of sunny weather.

I’ll give the soil a chance to absorb the moisture for a day or two before weeding, and then laying down a thick bed of organic straw mulch for the strawberries, potatoes, and tomatoes.

The mulch keeps the clay-loam soil moist and helps avoid the hard-pan problem. It also keeps the potato plants free of potato beetles and helps the tomato plants stay healthy.

Herbs, including lots of basil, as well as the classic, “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” are going to be transplanted into a new raised bed, as soon as the weather warms up a few more degrees.

I am reminded just now of something my grandson Daniel said a few years ago when he was here helping me plant corn. He stopped for a moment, looked over and said in a wonderful way, “you don’t think of anything else when you’re doing this, do you.”

“You’re absolutely right, Daniel,” I said. “There’s lots of great things about gardening; and that’s one of them.

I think of that now because of the terrible things happening in the world, that we surely need to be aware of, try to understand, and do whatever we can to help.

Being alive, trying to appreciate that as much as possible; planting and caring for a hopeful garden; loving and caring for family and friends, and especially for children; being there for a stranger in need; keeping spirits up; taking a moment whenever possible to love yourself, to give yourself a break. Yes, that too … all that and more. We cannot, we must not, lose hope about being alive.

Line 5: A Great Lakes disaster waiting to happen

The view of Hope Bay, with Georgian Bay in the distance, from a Bruce Trail lookout.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard the propane truck backing down the driveway the other day. It hadn’t been that long ago, I thought, that I had the two tanks feeding the furnace filled up.

Turned out it was March 23, a month and a half ago, so it wasn’t that outlandish. Still, I was surprised, and told the driver I wasn’t sure I needed a fill-up. I was just about to turn the heat off for the season, with spring finally arrived after an unusually cold April.

And then he surprised me, to say the least, when he said, “there might not be any propane” come next fall.

“Oh, why’s that?” I asked. He said it was about the possibility something called “line 5” might be shut down by then. He explained that’s pipeline that brings oil and natural gas liquids from Alberta to Sarnia, Ontario by way of Michigan. Propane is a by-product, and if the line is shut down Ontario and Quebec, as well as Michigan and Ohio, would be faced with a severe shortage.

Meanwhile, the price of propane has, along with other fuels, greatly inflated in price this past heating season. With no indication that’s going to turn around any time soon, I chose rather reluctantly to get the tanks filled up despite the unexpected expense just then.

Coincidentally, just the day before I had been to the local gas station to get my 20-litre container filled up with diesel fuel for my tractor. I stopped at $40, not quite full. A year ago, that would have been $20.

The attendant muttered something about “Trudeau” and “pipelines.” The current inflation problem, regarding the price of oil in particular, is not a political problem, unless consumers think government should intervene in the free market, and then be accused of being dictatorial. It’s a supply and demand problem: as the economy bounces back from the covid-pandemic, economic slowdown in the past couple of years, the demand for oil and its byproducts is increasing. But producers are not ramping up supply fast enough to meet the demand while cashing in on the higher prices. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has also helped drive up the speculative price of oil, as war always does.

That’s bad enough. But as a long-time resident of the Saugeen/Bruce Peninsula and the Great Lakes region I was also shocked to learn a section of the 69-year-old Line 5 pipeline goes underwater as it crosses the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron connect. That’s up to 87 million liters of oil and natural gas liquids daily.

I should have known that a long time ago, of course. To be honest, in recent years as the owner a a propane furnace installed five years ago, I didn’t think much about where the propane came from. But now, all I can think is how utterly foolish it is that such a thing exists, and also how lucky the Great Lakes are that a catastrophe has not already happened. The fate of Line 5 is now before state (Michigan) and federal courts in the U.S., and also being discussed as a treaty issue between Canada and the U.S.

In November, 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Wittmer ordered the pipeline’s Canadian owner, Calgary-based Enbridge Energy, to shut down the underwater section of the Line 5 pipeline within 180 days. That action came after a state review of the state easement Enbridge obtained in 1953 allowing the pipeline to cross the straits underwater.

“Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life,” Whitmer said in a statement at the time, as reported in an Associated Press story. “That’s why we’re taking action now, and why I will continue to hold accountable anyone who threatens our Great Lakes and fresh water.” 

Wittmer said over the years the company had persistently neglected requirements under the easement to properly maintain the safety of the line. Parts of the underwater line are not adequately supported, the state claims.

A statement currently on Enbridge’s website says the underwater section of the line was “built in 1953 by the Bechtel Corporation to meet extraordinary design and construction standards, the Line 5 Straits of Mackinac crossing remains in excellent condition and has never experienced a leak in more than 65 years of operation.”

“We’re working hard to keep it that way,” the statement continues. “We monitor the Line 5 Straits crossing 24/7, using both specially trained staff and sophisticated computer monitoring systems. We also carry out regular inspections of the line, using inline tools, expert divers, and remote operating vehicles (ROVs), going above and beyond regulatory requirements.”

Enbridge defied Michigan’s 180-day, shutdown deadline and took the state to court. The situation became more complicated when the question of which U.S. jurisdiction, state or federal, was more appropriate to hear the case. Then the Canadian government raised a treaty issue.

Meanwhile, Enbridge has a plan to rebuild the Straits of Mackinac section of the line, through a tunnel under the Straits, instead of above ground, underwater. The company has applied for a permit, which has so far not been approved.

There has been no public indication recently that the complicated situation may soon be resolved. It could be any day, or weeks, months, or years. The continuing uncertainty is troubling.

Let’s hope the condition of underwater pipeline is being closely watched by Enbridge, government agencies, and organizations concerned about the well-being of the Great Lakes.

Every day the Great Lakes have to wait for that aging, underwater pipeline to be shutdown is an obvious and unacceptable risk to the well-being of the precious lakes and the socio-economic future of millions of people on both sides of the border.

In praise of Russian culture: it deserves better

A scene from Ballad of a Soldier: a Russian mother waits for her son to come home from war.

I suppose this may not be the best time to say anything good about Russia and the Russian people. But no sooner do I write that than I think, on the contrary, this may be the best time.

The atrocious brutality of one man, and his corrupt enablers, whoever they are, have certainly cast a dark shadow over Russia and its people, who are apparently as gullible and easily manipulated as any nation of human beings on this long-suffering planet. Tragically, that appears to be one of the most fatal flaws of our imperfect species; otherwise, brutal, murderous tyrants, like Vladimir Putin, or would-be tyrants like Donald Trump would be laughed off the stage before they did too much harm.

Tchaikovsky

Putin claims to be the Great Defender of everything Russian, including Russian culture. He references the current, conspiratorial ‘cancel culture’ mindset when he says Russian culture is in the process of being ‘cancelled’ by the west, led by the current U.S. administration under President Joe Biden. (No one should underestimate the extent to which Trump’s loss in the 2021 presidential election upset Putin’s grand plan for the takeover of Ukraine, including Trumps likely withdrawal of the U.S. from NATO).

But I dare to say, Russia, Russians, and Russian culture most of all deserves something a whole lot better than Vladimir Putin.

I hasten to say, I am not expert in Russian culture. What I know comes from personal experience and appreciation of the works of certain Russian composers, writers, and filmmakers. I can honestly say, from the heart, that my spiritual life has been enriched immeasurably, and my life changed, since the time I was a teenager by the listening, reading, and watching the great, creative works of the rich Russian culture.

Sergei Prokoviev

I think I was 16 when I first heard Canadian pianist Glenn Gould play Sergei Prokoviev’s 7th Piano Sonata with the dramatic, ‘Precipitato’ final movement, like nothing I’d ever heard before. Thus began my life-long love of Prokoviev’s diverse, creative genius. He stands on a par in my book with Beethoven, possibly even higher; and, with the 9th piano sonata especially, he reached the sublime, ‘edge-of-the-universe’ musical expression of J.S. Bach at his best.

Again, as young man barely out of my teens, I saw my all-time, favorite movie on the unforgettable Elwy Yost’s, Saturday Night at the Movies, on TVO. Despite the less-than-ideal title in translation, the 1959 Russian movie, Ballad of a Soldier, is a classic of world cinema, with the most gorgeous and evocative musical score and wonderful cinematography. The scene at the well in the Russian railyard, when the heroine, holding back her long hair, drinks pure, spring water from a rough iron tap, is a life-lasting image. The hero, the young, Russian soldier, Alyosha, on leave for heroism, finally makes it home to his village with no time to spare. His mother finds out he is home almost too late, runs desperately through the field of grain, reaches the road as the truck carrying her son is driving away, then calls out to him, “Alyosha, Alyosha.” He hears her, but they have so little time to speak. Sixty years later it still brings tears to my eyes.

Scene from Ballad of a Soldier

How many Alyoshas, kept in infernal, misinformed darkness by Putin, died in Ukraine today, I wonder.

Most recently, my new most favorite movie is The Ascent, by Larisa Shepitko, regarded as one of the best women directors in the history of cinema, Shepitko was born in the eastern Ukraine. Her father was Persian. She went to Moscow when she was 16 to study filmmaking and immerse herself in the former Soviet Union’s rich, though tightly controlled, cinematic tradition. For example, Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Odessa Steps scene) is regarded as one of the greatest formative directors in film history.

Made in 1977, two years before Shepitko’s tragic death in a car accident, The Ascent follows the fate of two Russian partisan’s as they try to find their way back to their group through the bitter cold of a Russian winter after ambushing a German patrol. They reach a farm where they are given shelter but are discovered and taken to a nearby village. They are sentenced to hang along with a group of villagers. After torture, one of the partisans agrees to work for the Nazis to save his life. The other partisan goes to his death with courage and Christlike faith. It is one of the most deeply moving movie scenes I have ever watched.

A scene from The Ascent

The historic Ukraine-Russia connection, early and late, is complicated, and forged on the crucible of frequent, foreign invaders, notably, Mongols, Napoleon’s Grand Army, and Germany’s Nazi regime. It’s no wonder a good deal of paranoia underlied the empire-building policies of Tarist Russia, the former Soviet Union, and now Putin’s Russia.

Ukrainians suffered greatly during the mid-1930s under Joseph Stalin’s brutal, dictatorial leadership of the Soviet Union. Millions of Ukrainians died of persecution and starvation as a result of famine deliberately engineered by Stalin. Whatever brotherhood may have existed between Russia and Ukraine before then was destroyed by Stalin’s brutality, much like Ukraine is now, again, being destroyed by Putin.

Thus have the evil deeds of two, ruthless dictators led to the current war in Ukraine, and the real possibilty of a global catastrophe. The Ukranian people deserve better. So do the Russian people. And so does the world.

You would think ‘in the best of all possible worlds’ the historic suffering of both the Russian and Ukranian nations would lead them to a mutual understanding of how to live in separate, sympathetic peace.

But this is not the best of all possible worlds, so long as autocratic tyrants are allowed to take and hold absolute, undemocratic power.

Morning thoughts (11): The plot thickens

Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles

Finding a good book, or books, to read is one way to survive these frigid January days of a Canadian winter. The one I recently purchased on-line has been thought-provoking, enough to distract from the bitter cold as we, the dogs and I, took our morning walk down Cathedral Drive.

I should clarify, the dogs went about their usual busy-ness of sniffing out whatever creatures had been about during the night, and so on. I was the one distracted with thoughts about what I had been reading in King’s Counsellor, Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles. That name may ring a bell for the millions who have watched the Netflix series, The Crown, a dramatic rendering, not necessarily totally accurate, about the ongoing reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Three Kings: L-R, Edward VIII, George V, George VI

I was especially interested in the early episodes focusing on the abdication of Edward VIII in December, 1936, less than a year after becoming King upon the death of his father George V. After ascending to the throne, Edward, formerly Prince of Wales, had hoped to marry his lover, Wallis Simpson, when she obtained a divorce from her husband, Ernest Simpson. But the ensuing constitutional crisis went against him, leading to his abdication. His brother, Albert (Bertie to his family and friends) the Duke of York, became King, as George VI. As a result, his daughter, Elizabeth, now Elizabeth II, became heir presumptive, or first-in-line to the throne. Edward got a new title, Duke of Windsor. Wallis did get a divorce and they married, in France, months later, making Wallis Duchess of Windsor, but not welcome as part of the Royal Family.

In the midst of all that, to a significant and influential degree only fully revealed in recent years, was Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles. The grandson of Henry Lascelles, the 4th Earl of Harewood, Lascelles initially struggled to find suitable employment as a young man after graduating from Oxford University, and twice failing the Foreign Office exam for a possible diplomatic career. He served as an officer in the First World War, earning the Military Cross, after being wounded in action. Crucially, for future events, he became Assistant Private Secretary to Edward, then Prince of Wales, in 1920. Initially, he was impressed by the young prince, already a world-famous celebrity who travelled the British Empire and Commonwealth extensively. Edward visited Canada twice formally in the 1920s and liked the country so much he bought a ranch in Alberta.

But Lascelles’ attitude toward Edward changed drastically, mainly because of the lack of moral character he had observed time after time in Edward’s behavior. He finally resigned his position in disgust, in 1929, despite being a married man with a young family to support, and no immediate job prospect.

“Tommy came to regard (Edward, Prince of Wales) as hopelessly selfish and irresponsible, and quite unfit for his future role as Sovereign. So disgusted was he with the Prince’s behaviour that in January, 1929, he resigned,” Duff Hart-Davis, the editor of King’s Counsellor, wrote in an introduction to the book.

Also of interest to me, though not included in The Crown, is the fact Lascelles became Secretary to the Governor-General of Canada, Vere Ponsonby, the 9th Earl of Bessborough, in 1931, serving until 1935. If the reader is curious about the reason why I’m interested, I refer them to this link.

In late 1935 Lascelles was offered the position of Assistant Private Secretary to King George V. He was reluctant to accept because as Prince of Wales, Edward would immediately become King when his aging father died. However, assured by Royal officials that the King was in good health and likely to reign for at least another seven years, he accepted the position. But as fate would have it, George V died within a few months, and Lascelles again became Edward’s (as King Edward VIII) assistant private secretary, until he abdicated. Then, Lascelles served in that position for George VI, before being promoted to Private Secretary. He was knighted by the King during a successful Royal tour of Canada in 1939, which Lascelles helped organize. He remained Private Secretary during the first year of Elizabeth II reign, starting in 1952, until he retired in 1953. Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles died August 10, 1981, at Kensington Palace, at the age of 94.

His close connection with Edward through his several titles and manifestations is one of the great ironies of Lascelles’ long life and career in Royal service. His character as depicted in The Crown is that of a stern, ‘stuffed shirt’ of a man with an unpleasant personality, rather shallow, and lacking in sensitivity. Despite, how little I knew of Lascelles, except intuitively, I sensed the depiction was not accurate. My reading of his own words as recorded in his daily journal, letters and other documents confirm my sense of who he really was: thoughtful, sensitive, a good judge of character, and with a timely sense of humor to lighten a too-serious moment when needed in conversation or conference. It is noteworthy that he and King George VI were on exceptionally good terms, the king, who suffered from a speech impediment, being especially grateful for Lascelles’ “encouraging” attitude.

However, King’s Counselor, also reveals Lascelles as a man of his times, and perhaps his particular culture, in a disturbing way. In 1947, in the midst of a Royal Tour to The Union of South Africa, in a letter to his wife Joan back in England, he describes a “country of supreme beauty” where he might be “quite glad to live … if only it wasn’t for the blacks” who greatly outnumber “whites.”

Also, in journal entries near the end of the Second Worlds War, his lack of empathy for the countless victims of massive Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities was more than disturbing: it showed the extent to which war can bring out the worst, even in basically good people. Lascelles’ journal entries themselves stopped after the war ended. I hope he found it in him to feel differently about those attitudes.

Winston Churchill

The moment I found most touching in King’s Counselor was what Lascelles wrote in a letter to a friend dated January 30, 1965. He had just attended Winston Churchill’s funeral service which he called “deeply moving,” adding, “I cried a good deal. I was very fond of the old man, who was, for many years, abundantly kind to me. And I am more sure than I am of future life that, but for him, I should not be sitting here a free man.”

King’s Counselor is the most recent of a series of several books based on Lascelles’ journal and other papers stored in the Royal Archives. As Hart-Davis, the editor of the books notes, Archive officials were stubbornly reluctant to permit publication of certain documents for the second book, In Royal Service, published in 1989, which included an earlier period of Lascelles’ royal service; but it did not include a “devastating retrospective assessment of the Prince’s character and behaviour,” Hart-Davis wrote in an introduction to the 2020 edition of King’s Counsellor. Both that edition, and the earlier 2006 edition of the same book contain that revealing document, which corrected errors in the previous historic record.

For example, Lascelles shot down the prevailing sentiment that Edward, “a lonely bachelor, ‘fell deeply in love’ for the first time in his life with the soulmate for whom he had long been waiting.” Lascelles called that “moonshine,” adding, “he was never out of the thrall of one female after another. There was always a grande affaire and, coincidentally, as I know to my cost, an unbroken series of petites affaires, contracted and consummated in whatever highways and byways of the Empire he was traversing at the moment.”

I will say I found that interesting as well: apparent proof that it was entirely possible Edward, Prince of Wales, before he became Edward VIII, and then the Duke of Windsor, left inconvenient, illegitimate children behind him as he travelled the Empire; one in particular, and under circumstances that cast a long shadow to this day.

Morning thoughts (5): Hope

Hope is the most precious …

I was going to say ‘commodity.’ But that primarily refers to a raw material or agricultural product that is ‘bought and sold.’ It has also come to be applied in a more general sense, as in, “Water is the most precious commodity.”

That’s certainly true enough, including spiritually; but then I would add calling water a commodity doesn’t do it justice. Likewise, Hope, perhaps to an even greater extent.

So, what should we call Hope? Preferably, not ‘it.’ The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, best known for his book, I and Thou, would suggest ‘Thou.” The title denotes the different quality of relationship people may have with other beings, ultimately leading to relationship with God, the Creator, the Great Mystery. I use that word, ‘beings,’ in the broadest spiritual sense, as applied to all the natural wonders of our world, and beyond.

Whatever we may call Hope, it is most essential. We cannot live without Hope. Surely that’s true — who can deny? — problems of varying degrees of troubling impact are bound to happen in our lives. It can be, it often is, a hard and frightening world for most of us who simply want to live our lives as best we can with a sufficient level of peace, security and stability, and hope for the future.

But Hope is strained under the weight of too much heartbreak and adversity, and of fears engendered by an overwhelming series of major troubles in the world around us, far and wide. Despair can set in if that persists day after day, month after month, year after year.

Despair is a terrible thing. Taken to heart internally, it will break the spirit, leading to other terrible personal and and community consequences like poverty, homelessness, drug addiction that further eat away at the possibility of renewed hope. It is a foolish society indeed that fails to recognize the need to reach out to help those in such critical need.

Despair also expresses itself outwardly, in confused anger and violence. Millions of people in unknowing despair are easily exploited by selfish, unprincipled people for their own gain, including the pursuit of personal power.

Such, I fear, is the world we now live in; and I confess, I am losing hope.

The Covid pandemic is heading toward the beginning of its third year, with a fourth surge fueled by a new variant that appears to be more infectious, spreading quickly around the world. The Omicron variant originated in southern Africa where, like other poor areas of the world, vaccination levels remain extremely low, compared to richer countries, where booster shots are being pushed to meet the challenge amid indications vaccines are less effective against the new variant. It is hoped booster shots will help.

Meanwhile, the other big story is the continuing crisis in the U.S. Make no mistake, that is an existential, world-changing story that affects us all. I have sensed for some time people are tired of hearing about it. But bury your head at your peril.

In recent days, much new evidence has surfaced about the extent to which the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Congress was the result of a coup conspiracy orchestrated from the White House after former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. He continues to claim election fraud, and insists he has the best interests of his country at heart.  

The White House

Many observers are publicly wondering why, with more than enough evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice appears to be so passive about laying charges, or otherwise showing its hand. To some extent that is the nature of the beast when it comes to enforcing the rule of law; you take the time you need to do your due diligence to ensure you have a strong case. In this case that is even more important. If charges are laid, especially against Trump, and there appears to be anything less than an ironclad case, there is a real chance of civil war breaking out.

Meanwhile, Republicans control a majority of the state legislatures, many of which are busily passing new laws giving them more power to declare the results of the 2022 mid-term elections in their states, if the outcome is not to their liking.

So, in effect, the coup is still underway. And time is running out.

I don’t know how you feel about that. But I am worried.

The decline and fall of American democracy, and therefore, America itself, will shake the stability of the world to its core. Russian troops are massing on the Ukraine border, because Russian leader Valdimir Putin is, at the least, testing the resolve of the U.S. to do anything.

U.S. President Joe Biden and allies have warned of “consequences” if Russian invades the Ukraine. They would likely be more economic sanctions.

The possibility of war is hanging in the balance. It must be noted that any war between Russia and its allies, and the U.S. and it’s allies, would be fought to a large extent in cyberspace, where Russian operatives have already had much experience attacking the U.S., by interfering in the 2016 presidential election in support of Trump.

Am I getting carried away? I actually hope so. But if the last few years have told us anything, it’s that anything is possible.

In the meantime, I keep my hopes up as best I can by, first, going for morning and evening walks with the dogs.

This morning the sun rising through a line of trees to the southeast was enough to stop me for a while. Then on the way back I was struck by how much in a few minutes the sun had risen over the trees.

And that led me to think about how for ages people believed the apparent movement of the sun meant the Earth didn’t move, and therefore must be the center of the universe. In the 16th Century a pretty smart guy named Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician, astrologist and man of many talents, wrote a book that proved otherwise. It was titled, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). A Roman Catholic canon himself, he was praised by other learned people, but also strongly criticized by protestant and Catholic church leaders alike for many years.

Nicolaus Copernicus, who put the sun back in it’s right place

Copernicus, being human, worried that might happen, and delayed publication of his book, until shortly before he died in 1543. But even so, he was hopeful: he believed the truth did not diminish, but rather glorified the wonder of Creation; and the day would come when others would see that.

So, thinking about Copernicus raised my hopeful spirits. And then later in the day, I baked bread, and that always helps.

“To know the mighty works of God, all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High.”– Nicolaus Copernicus.

Morning thoughts (3): potatoes and glyphosate don’t mix

Potatoes and glyphosate were on my mind this morning as the dogs and I walked down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone.

That may come as no surprise in the worldwide community of Finding Hope Ness readers well aware of my continuing concerns about the risk vast quantities of weed-killing herbicide containing Glyphosate being sprayed on crops around the world may pose for human health.

And, yes, I have gone on and on about how much I like potatoes often enough, that some might shrug and say, ‘so, what else is new?’ and turn the page, so to speak. But bare with me.

I have taken it for granted that because I don’t use Round-up or any other herbicide containing the active ingredient glyphosate that my potatoes are free of it. But I bow my head. I confess, after all these years it has taken me too long to find out that may not be true.

So, the question now is: what to do? And the answer may be … Well, I won’t go so far as to say ‘life-changing,’ not in a world where ‘life-changing’ events have become an ongoing or sudden reality. Not being able to do the things you love and live to do because of Covid-related travel restrictions or because climate-change-related weather extremes have already destroyed your life’s work – that’s truly life-changing.

As a good friend has often said when something goes wrong, “it’s not the end of the world” if I have to stop growing potatoes. But I love doing it; and I take pride in the way I do it, especially my habit for the past 25 years of mulching the newly emerged plants with good, clean straw. As a result, I’ve never had to spray any kind of insecticide to control the Colorado potato beetle, the major pest of potato crops. Also, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to weed control. I never use herbicide, and nowadays that means products that contain glyphosate, the best known being Round-up. Developed by Monsanto, it was first approved by the U.S. 45 years ago.

Glyphosate has been increasingly controversial in recent years, with the big question being, does it cause cancer or doesn’t it? Several lawsuit cases in the U.S. have answered yes and ordered multi-million-dollar damages. Bayer, the current owner of Monsanto, has set aside billions of dollars to cover similar future judgements. Various regulatory agencies, in Europe for example, disagree on the answer to the fundamental question. A study done for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) from 2015 to 2017, with results published in 2020, concluded levels of glyphosate residue in food product samples taken from retail stores do not pose a health threat, based on Canada’s existing Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). The study gathered 7,955 food samples from Canadian retail stores. of those samples, 3,366, or 46.3 percent, contained a “detectable” amount of glyphosate. And of those, 99.4 percent were within the Canadian MLR limit, while 46 samples were “non-compliant.”

“The high level of compliance (99.4% of samples with the Canadian regulatory limits) and the lack of a health risk for non-compliant samples indicate that, with respect to glyphosates, the food available for sale in Canada is safe,” the study concluded.

This past August Canadian officials decided after a period of public consultation not to go ahead with proposed increases to some MLRs until “at least” next year. Meanwhile, the government will look at enhancing its monitoring of pesticide matters.

Ah, the beautiful potato, fresh from the garden

In the best of all possible words, I would much prefer to consume no glyphosate. None at all, zero, nada.

Which brings me back to the beloved potato, that which my Celtic ancestors largely survived on; which Hope Ness pioneers, I’ve been told, had nothing else to eat except; and which originated in the Andes mountains a very long time ago, thanks to the indigenous people who lived there.

Winter is the time to start planning for next year’s garden crops. Every year I tell myself not to bite off more than I can chew, but rather, focus on the essentials, of which potatoes are one. So, with that in mind, as well as glyphosate, I went looking online for any possible concerns. Overdue, yes, I know.

I was surprised to find potatoes are, if anything, more sensitive to damage from incidental, wind-drift spraying somewhere else than I imagined. In fact, I thought I was far enough away on the Bruce Peninsula in secluded Hope Ness that it wasn’t a problem, despite the prevailing west and southwest summer winds. I assumed too much.

I found several online sources that spoke of the damage even a small amount of such incidental exposure to glyphosate can cause to potato crops. Most troubling was how glyphosate can travel down the parent-plant into the soil, and the daughter root ‘tubers,’ They are the actual potatoes that are marketed either as food, but most worrisome here, as seed potatoes.

“Tubers may have a normal physical appearance but have glyphosate in the seed that can cause a variety of germination problems the following year,” says a current article in Potato News, written by two associate professors at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.

I routinely buy seed potatoes from certified growers to plant in the spring. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the federal Seed Potato Certification Program.

“The objective of the Seed Potato Certification Program is to supply Canadian growers of seed, table stock and processing potatoes with certified seed which is of high varietal integrity and is relatively free of tuber borne diseases,” says a CFIA web page. (my italics)

No offence, dear CFIA, but I think I may have to delve deeper into seed potato suppliers and how they deal with possible glyphosate contamination. As other on-line sources note, ‘organic’ is no guarantee regarding the effect of incidental drift.

I want to be able to say, “no glyphosate residue in potatoes grown at Cathedral Drive Farm.” Hopefully, that will be possible.”

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