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.

The lies that brought us to the brink

A classic ‘picture worth a thousand words.’

Donald Trump (DT), the well-known pathological liar and former President of the U.S.A. who tried but failed to overthrow its democracy has blamed President Joe Biden for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine. But the well-documented record of the last six years shows DT has done more to weaken the U.S. than anyone in its history, while constantly acting as Putin’s ‘useful fool’ puppet, with the help of so-called ‘conservatives’ in the U.S.

I say ‘so-called’ because since when is enabling and supporting social-political disruption and hateful division in one’s own country conservative. In fact, it is knowing or unknowing traitorous behavior that has enabled Putin’s plan to restore the Russian/Soviet empire and emboldened him to attack Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the self-centered DT stands on a public stage before a rapturous audience of several thousand useful-fools, so-called conservatives, and millions of gullible members of his cult, and calls Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, a world-class “tyrant.” And for what? For being patient for weeks? For repeatedly asking protestors occupying the nation’s capital to go home, before defending our country against the imported cult of disruption and chaos trying to destroy democracy in the name of ‘Freedom?’

It boggles the mind that this is what the world has come to: the continuing human tragedy of millions of people being taken in by the lies and hypocrisy of two madmen drunk on power. And as a result, the existential future of the world is at stake; especially now that Putin has raised Russia’s immense nuclear power to a state of imminent readiness.

It is utter madness in a world in which most people simply want their children and grandchildren to have the hope of a peaceful and secure future in which to live.

One morning in the spring of 2016, I was out in my garden hilling rows of recently emerged potato plants. The sun was shining, a few clouds were drifting by in the sky above. I was full of thoughts about why DT, still not formally chosen the Republican Party candidate for the U.S. presidential election that year, would suggest the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NAT0) was obsolete. And, besides, he said, most NATO members don’t pay their fair share of NATO funding, unlike the U.S..

I asked myself, why would he say that now, just two years after Putin’s Russia had invaded and annexed the Crimea, then part of Ukraine, and with Russia conducting a clandestine war in eastern Ukraine in support of separatist rebels. The former Soviet republics that joined NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union were understandably alarmed by those signs of renewed Russian aggression. Wasn’t the U.S. supposed to be their allies?

As a political move aimed at gaining support from members of the Republican Party, what DT said also didn’t make sense. The party had long been a staunch opponent of the former Soviet Union, and prior to the 2016, of Putin’s Russia. So, what was he thinking?

I put down my hoe, looked up at the sky and suddenly saw the light. “He’s got a deal with the Russians,” I said to myself. Call it a hunch: at the time that’s what it was, based on what I knew.

I comforted myself by thinking that, if it was true, the truth would surely come more to light, one way or another, and the ‘smoking gun’ found.

Granddaughter Mirabella helping Grandpa hill potatoes, spring 2016.

Nothing that happened leading up to the 2016 election and after has done anything to change my mind about my thoughts then. On the contrary, I believe now more than ever DT had a ‘deal with the Russians,’ and maybe still has. Certain things that happened over the past almost six years continue to stand out amid BT’s generally fawning attitude toward, and praise of Putin: the Helsinki summit with Putin, for example, whereby DT dismissed the conclusions of the U.S. official Intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. After a secretive close-door session with Putin, the then-President of the United States said Putin had ‘strongly’ denied anything of the sort had happened. Commentators in the U.S., many of them former high-ranking government officials and military officers, were astounded, “I never thought I’d see the day” when a President of the United States would ever say such a thing, said one.

Throughout his one-term tenure, DT continued to say time after time, and still does, that the whole “Russia thing” was a “hoax.” It was not.

The investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller only happened because former U.S. Attorney-General, the late Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the probe into the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the possible collusion of DT’s 2016 election campaign. Rod Rosenstein, Session’s deputy A-G at the time appointed Mueller to head up the investigation in May, 2017.

The final Mueller Report found plenty of evidence of interference by Russian government agents and operatives. A Grand Jury for the District of Columbia (D.C.) charged a dozen Russians with criminal offences, including Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against the United States. They have never been arrested and are likely hiding in plain sight in Russia.

Mueller himself said the reason DT was not charged with Obstruction of Justice was because of a Department of Justice policy against charging a sitting president with a criminal offence.

Bill Barr, who was Attorney-General when the Mueller report was about to be made public, took pre-emptive action by writing and releasing a summary that appeared to exonerate DT, who quickly seized on the moment to claim again that it was all a “hoax.” Partly as a result, 75 million Americans voted for DT in the 2020 presidential election. He still lost by seven million in the popular vote, and also by a wide margin in the electoral college, as confirmed by Congress on January 6, 2021. That was despite a riot by DT supporters who breached the capital in hopes of disrupting the process. To this day DT still claims the election was “stolen” from him.

To his credit, Attorney-General Barr, after ordering a DOJ investigation, said no serious evidence of election fraud was found. And then he resigned after DT’s angry reaction to that.

The Guardian published an interesting article last summer that I recently re-read. The Guardian is widely respected as one of the best news venues in the world. The carefully worded article cites “what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents” that indicate Putin personally approved a secret Russian plan in January, 2016 to support what the leaked papers describe as a “mentally unstable” DT in the 2016 US presidential election

The leaked document speaks of it being “acutely necessary” to take strong measures to facilitate DT’s election as U.S. president. That would help bring about Russia’s favoured “political scenario” because a Trump win “will definitely lead to the destabilisation of the US’s sociopolitical system, and see hidden discontent burst into the open.”

Some of the measures Russia might take to infect American public life with media viruses” would become self-sustaining as they mess with the “mass consciousness” of certain groups of Americans, the Kremlin paper says, as quoted by the Guardian.

Spokespersons for both Putin and Trump strongly denied at the time there was any truth to what the Guardian article said.

It is worth mentioning here though, that if there was indeed such a plan, that it certainly succeeded, beyond Putin’s wildest dreams. The fate of U.S. democracy is still in jeopardy.

A lament for the proud, Canadian dream

Readers of this blog may recall that I have often written proudly about Canada as a wonderful example to a troubled world of a country where a great diversity of people of many cultural backgrounds live together freely in peace.

Ottawa in the midst of the Trucker Convoy protest.

I have always in the next stroke of the pen, as it were, noted that Canada is ‘yes, still a work in progress. It has a history of injustices, especially toward Indigenous people, that it seeks in good faith to reconcile. I have always taken a positive attitude, in expressing my personal belief that Canada is ‘heading in the right direction,’ based on the growing mutual respect of Canadians towards each other, and our shared belief, hopefully, that this is a ‘good country.’

That above being said, I now have to say, the events of the last few weeks have been personally disillusioning and heartbreaking.

I must also confess to being … yes, even angered by the sight of large groups of self-righteous people wrapping themselves in Canada’s flag, while doing great harm to the well-being of this ‘good country.’

Picking beans with great, granddaughter, Jorden: living the Canadian dream

And for what purpose? The truckers’ protest began with a focus on the federal mandate requiring Canadian truckers crossing the border on their return trip to Canada to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or be quarantined if not. Then it became a protest against all government Covid-19 mandates and restrictions. In the midst of that were growing indications that the real objective is to overthrow the current Liberal federal government and democratic system. And so far, protest organizers – whoever they are, and wherever they are – and defiant supporters still occupying Ottawa and blocking vital, cross-border, trade routes, show no willingness to bend on that extreme demand. Meanwhile, foreign donor money, from ‘anonymous’ sources in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, has aided and abetted the undemocratic aims; Trump flags and U.S. flags, even Confederate flags, have flown at the Ottawa ‘occupation’ and border blockades. And Fox news, the most politically biased news media venue in the Western world, fans the destructive flames in blatant support. The ignorance of their unqualified hosts knows no bounds.

Meanwhile, around the world, Canada’s reputation as a peace-loving country, and Canadians as a peace-loving people, is in ruins.

I have to ask, who is this benefitting? Certainly, not Canada; and certainly not the future of my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren; and yours too, my fellow Canadians, who felt warm and secure in the believe our good country was one of the best places in the world to live, and well on its way to being the best. We felt fortunate. We felt blessed. Didn’t we, most of us?

Some among us felt differently. They thought there was something fundamentally wrong, something evil even, embodied in the person of one man, one Canadian, one of us. It is a cruel and dangerous lie.

With certain rare exceptions, who haunt us still, none of us are perfect or evil, trucker convoy protestors and others with different opinions.  But the base, human instinct to close doors, to destroy or blockade bridges, to build walls, to fall into tribal traps, to not love your neighbor: those are symptoms of the ongoing human tragedy. As Canadians we are better than that, and as human beings. That sacred truth was reaffirmed, by the way, more than 2,000 years ago. I’ll leave it to the convoy protestors to discern what that comment is about and give it some thought.

The road ahead.

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 (10): Being human at our best

Yes, indeed, the snow was coming down heavily when the propane truck showed up early this morning. And none too soon either: the tanks were getting low, and to be on the safe side, I had turned the thermostat down to 60.

So it was, with a certain level of relief I saw the truck coming down Cathedral Drive as I put a blue box full of recyclables at the end of my long driveway, after spending a frigid hour or so blowing it out with the tractor-and-snowblower attachment.

The truck driver was a cheerful young man, talking about the weather, as Canadians are famous world-wide for doing obsessively. (That must be why I’m writing this now, eh?).

He said the last time he had delivered propane to my place earlier, in the late fall, it also had been snowing heavy on Cathedral Drive. “A winter wonderland, eh,” he said cheerfully as he started to pull the long, black hose around to the side of the house where the propane tanks are located. Inside, the dogs were barking excitedly as they always do when the propane truck arrives, or for that matter, anybody or anything.

I decided to keep the tractor block-heater plugged in because, the way the snow was coming down, I’d likely have to blow the driveway again. That’s one of the essentials of getting through a Canadian winter:  you have to keep on top of it, whether it be clearing the driveway, shoveling snow off the roof, or making sure the tractor essentials have been looked after: motor oil, antifreeze, gear and hydraulic fluid, battery charging okay, and especially, the block heater working well. Any one of those things neglected, and many others not mentioned, and winter will make you pay the price.

The other thing about winter is it demands you re-arrange your priorities, like, in my case, keeping up on the news is relegated to second place.

Still, I find it hard to imagine how people can live without up-to-date news about what’s going on in the world, especially if it’s something that has the clear risk of being able to create catastrophic chaos. And when I say that I immediately think of the world my three grown daughters, and my many grandchildren may inherit.

In the almost four-score years I have been on this planet, I have never seen such troubling times. At the top of the list of those worrisome troubles is the ongoing crisis south of the border. Make no mistake, the future of Canada, as well as the rest of the world, and the U.S. itself, hangs in the balance depending on what happens there. This new year, 2022, will see it go one way or the other: the survival of American democracy, or a virtual authoritarian regime, even an actual civil war. There’s a virtual one already.

Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic has come back with a vengeance because of the omicron variant, after seeming to be on the wane last summer. It threatens to aggravate the socio-political problems in the U.S. Inevitably, the administration of President Joe Biden, already showing signs of strain, will be blamed if the situation doesn’t change for the better. Talk about a ‘perfect storm.’

And if 2021 didn’t provide enough evidence that climate change is real and closing in on catastrophic consequences – think 50-degree summer temperatures, and -50 winter temperatures in western Canada, for just one example – then I don’t know what more evidence will.

What is the matter with us, we human beings? As Shakespeare had the character, Puck, say in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “What fools these mortals be.”

All that being said – and much left unsaid – I am compelled to dig down deep and come up with hope, that most positive quality of human nature:

We have it in our power, in the ‘better angels’ of who we are, to change things for the much better. Once our most prehistoric, human ancestors, facing a life-threatening, environmental catastrophe, got together and went in search of a way, and a place to survive and go on living. It was a long and hard journey. It took many years, perhaps many generations. Everyone had a role to play, everyone worked together. They learned out of existential necessity how to be a supportive, peaceful community; otherwise, they would not have survived. Sometimes they laughed, often they cried; they learned how to sing and dance to help keep up their spirits; they created and made tools; they fought off predators by outsmarting them. And they no doubt also prayed to the Great Mystery for strength, inspiration, and guidance.

And they succeeded. And so have human beings succeeded many times in accomplishing all manner of great, good things. That’s who we are at our best: intelligent, individually and collectively, and multi-talented, problem solvers.

Nothing is impossible.

Morning thoughts (9): doing what comes natural in the garden

The garden at rest, January 2, 2022

No sooner has the New Year arrived than thoughts about gardening come up like newly-sprouted seeds. Never mind how many times I told myself last summer, as I got down daily on my hands and knees to pull weeds, that I was going to cut back on the size of the garden next season: the seed catalogues have arrived, and this old heart yearns for spring.

So, then why, when I look out the kitchen window, do I smile at the sight of snow starting to fall, with more to come every day this week? Because, on our morning walk, as the dogs and I passed the front garden where I planted numerous rows of garlic last fall, I heard them say, we’re cold. The garlic, I mean.

Okay, I know that’s a tad imaginative, maybe more. But as I approach four-score years of being on this precious little planet I feel like I’m entitled to some flights of fancy. Besides, if there’s one or two things I’ve learned in recent years, anything is possible, both good, and not. But let’s say a prayer for ‘good’ in 2022. It is sorely needed.

The reason why I’m happy to see snow is because an extra layer of insulation is good for the wintering garlic. Yes, it’s winter-hardy, remarkably so, but there is a limit. I follow ‘the book’ on garlic when, after planting, I covered the rows with plenty of fresh, clean wheat straw. That straw is now largely exposed, amid what’s left of the mid-December snow that mostly melted after the unseasonably mild weather that followed. But the temperature fell to -14 Celsius last night, and the sooner the garlic gets a fresh layer of snow-insulation, the better.

And then there’s also the expanded strawberry patch, with six rows of strawberry runner-plants transplanted last September. Some will say spring is better for transplanting; but over the years, I’ve had good luck with early fall. Strawberries also overwinter well, with the help of a good layer of straw insulation. Even so, I’ll be happy to see the snow come for their sake as well.

Jorden and Grandpa, and friends, in the garden

Those who love gardening will understand how one develops a personal relationship with plants. I suppose it’s best described as a matter of faith: the idea that good feelings are expressed, and exchanged back and forth; and that, I swear, is beneficial to the growth of a healthy garden. That and the good, old routine of the gardener’s hard work.

This seems like a good place to say, I don’t and never will use herbicide, including and especially those containing the active ingredient Glyphosate, with the main one being the first, Monsanto’s Round-up. Such herbicides are now used in vast quantities around the world in large-scale commercial farming; to the extent that it’s hard to buy food free of glyphosate residue. I daresay that’s one of the reasons why grow-your-own gardening is booming. Those of us who have the land to do that are indeed fortunate, especially if that land is as far away as possible from areas of extensive, cash-crop farming because of the risk of glyphosate-spray drift.

Yes, I hoe and pull weeds, hopefully before they go to seed; and thus, I kill plants. Some will compose and add organic matter to the soil. Some, like twitch grass, the farmer/gardeners’ worst nightmare, are better burned. But the whole idea of spraying chemicals on the field or the garden before planting or emergence, and thus leaving glyphosate residue in the soil for any amount of time, strikes me as utterly unnatural. Worst of all is spraying herbicide just before harvest, to stop the plant from growing and to begin the drying process. That’s called ‘staging.’ How can that be good, when the fact is glyphosate residue remains in many of the foods people eat? Canadian government food-safety regulators say the levels are not high enough to pose a threat to human health. But do you really want to eat Glyphosate?

Anyway, after that bit of drumbeating about my glyphosate obsession, bon chance with your garden in 2022. And may the love be with you.

A view of the garden, early summer a few years ago. Many rows of potatoes, onions and kale.

Morning thoughts (8): A great moment in American history

I understand the risk in posting the link below, of it possibly being misunderstood by some south of the border who would wrongly claim for their own that great moment in American history. Freedom is a thoughtful word.

But, I’ll take that chance. Readers of this blog will know from previous content where I stand regarding the current existential crisis in the world’s first and greatest modern democracy. As John Adams said then, and would, I’m sure, say again today, he was “not without apprehension.” But rather than the “apocalypse” certain members of the Continental Congress predicted if the American Revolution continued, “I see hope,” Adams said.

Adams, one of the Founders, went on to become second President of the United States, after George Washington.

Now, as then, the fate of The United States of America, hangs in the balance; it will survive as a free country under the rule of law; or it will become what the Founders feared and tried to guard against most of all: a tyranny, an authoritarian, one-party state born of one man’s atrocious lies, and unprincipled pursuit of power.

This is my way, from up here in Canada, to wish the best in the New Year to our great neighbour, and my relatives and friends who live there.

This morning’s walk with the dogs down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone featured another interesting, and, I choose to believe, hopeful sunrise.

Morning thoughts (7): Ravens speak on Christmas morning

Grey and misty this Christmas morning, as we walked to the touchstone down Cathedral Drive. In the woods over to the west, one of the family of ravens that lives there was calling persistently, a kind of ‘whoop, whoop’ sound. I took it to mean, in the fog, “where is everybody?” For a few seconds there was no response. But then came a lower-voiced, continued croaking, as if to say, “we’re here, we’re here, don’t worry.”

“My ravens,” I called them a few years ago when a mating couple built an impressively large nest up high in the barn where two, big, hand-hewed beams meet. That was in the spring of the year. Later, in the late fall, when we were walking back one morning and the first snow of big, fluffy flakes came down, the parent ravens and their three, young offspring flew over from the barn. And I swear, just over our heads, they danced in the snow, wheeling and soaring joyfully. It was as if they were putting on a show, sharing their joy with us. I stopped to watch, and so did my dogs, Buddy and Sophie. No barking, just watching. And then the ravens flew away into the trees on the other side of the house, where they chattered back and forth to each other for a while, pleased, perhaps with their performance.

I don’t know why, maybe because I took visitors over one too many times to admire the Raven nest, but a couple of years later they set up ‘house’ in the woods near the barn. Or maybe they were just expanding their territory into the hardwood forest that stretches far to the west alongside the old hay field being allowed to regenerate back to the forest it once was — claiming back its territory, you might say.

So much for close to a century of back-breaking work, the hopes and dreams, of the weary, struggling settlers and their children who cleared that long, winding field through the forest; and then, like most of their neighbors, ended up selling the farm too cheap to Dow Chemical almost 50 years ago. But Hope Ness didn’t become one big limestone quarry; all that land about 2.000 acres (800 hectares) of it, became Ontario Crown land, with some of it now called The Hope Bay Nature Reserve, by Ontario Parks. I count myself fortunate to have ended up living here, surrounded by that nature reserve, on a few acres of what used to be one of those farms.

And so it goes, in the life of humankind. Who knows what or who will be here a hundred, a thousand, a million years from now? But I wouldn’t be at all surprised, if I were somehow able to go forward in time, to find ravens still here.

For a while, a few years ago when the family of ravens had vacated the barn, I wondered if they moved away, found a new territory. I even hoped to a certain extent it wasn’t because I had in some way offended them. But if they left it was only for a little while. they seem at home still in the nearby forest. And when the dogs and I go for our morning walk, the ravens greet us with what I fancy may be the ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ chorus.

I mean these intelligent, interesting, talkative, fun-loving creatures no harm. To be completely honest, I’d prefer they weren’t nest robbers. I can still see the sky-blue remains of robin’s eggs I found one morning on the driveway near the house. For all I know, maybe they saw my reaction, and chose to make a territorial adjustment on that account when they left the barn.

And ravens are the last thing a cattle farmer wants to see around his herd, especially when new calves are about. Yes, it’s true, amid all its beauty, nature can be cruel.

Ah, the myriad of thoughts, some of them perplexing, that come to mind on a morning walk because the ravens were heard talking.

But having a sense of wonder is, after all, the key that opens up one’s heart, mind, and soul to the ultimate wonder: the appreciation of this sacred gift of being alive, this opportunity, this journey of being and becoming, and where it leads.

Morning thoughts (6): An azure-pink sky, the silence, the music of life

Rising more or less at first light, the beloved ritual of morning coffee and quiet reflection duly observed, the online morning news perused – the Tiananmen Pillar of Shame unceremoniously removed by a paranoid regime at Hong Kong University; a reclusive American heiress living in Italy getting a lot of attention for inadvertently funding the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capital — I look up from the screen for a glimpse out the kitchen window facing west. The sky is a lovely, soft, azure-pink color. Astonishing.

I am moved to capture it: I grab my camera and go outside quickly as the dogs complain, wondering why they’re being left behind. But, outside, the moment has already passed, enough that the pink hue in the sky has started to fade.

I should know better, I tell myself, than to think I can, even for a brief moment, stop the natural flow of the world. “What conceit, man!” I tell myself. Buddy and Sophie, look at me questionably, appearing to agree. I give them their morning meal, and, with their usual joyful anticipation, we begin our morning walk down Cathedral Drive toward our waiting Touchstone.

Right away, I take note of the profound stillness in the air: not like yesterday morning when the nearby forests on both sides of the ‘no exit’ road roared in the strong wind, each trunk and infinity of winter-bare branches an instrument within the perfect, natural orchestra. I stop to observe the uppermost branches of ash and wild apple trees along the sides of the road: not a hint of a tremble among them.

In due course, I know, the still air will soon begin to move as the sun rises, prompting the winds to play their part again in the chorus of life.

But in the silence there is also music: a calmness of spirit, a moment of quiet reflection, a gathering of strength. The sky knows, the clouds know, the sun knows, the trees know, and every big or small creature in the forest, in the grass, and in the soil under the new, snow cover; they all know.

The music does not have to be analyzed, picked apart and explained, though that doesn’t necessarily hurt if you keep the essential ‘thou’ in mind: above all, it is heard and understood in the great mystery of heartfelt wonder and appreciation.

And so, dear hearts, this is how we nourish ourselves, as creatures of the world and of the spirit. And, just as important, this is how we nourish, and bring peace and hope to a troubled world.

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.