Monday, June 20, 2022

Beauty in Mixing Nature with Nurture in the Garden


This year, 2022,  has been declared the Year of the Garden. It happens to coincide with a rising enthusiasm for gardening with native plants. For example here in Toronto we have an actively growing organization called the North American Native Plant Society. We might hope that a process to a possible intermarriage of enhanced plant biodiversity and conventional ‘novel super-plant’ display could develop from these initiatives.

While experts on the poor pollinator and other biodiversity value of hybrids versus wild stock trot around the environmentalist and nature club speaker circuits and as yet rarely make it to gardening clubs, we who enjoy the sights and sounds of managed gardens of exotics are becoming more aware of the limited value these have in any process of returning human-planted landscapes to active centres of local biodiversity. Here in Southern Ontario we have a wonderful widely spread-out Royal Botanical Gardens with multiple locations that feature exotics and local hybrids that do well in our climate (e.g. we have the world’s biggest collection of lilacs and dogwoods). The RBC has made some attempt in recent times at featuring natural areas, lying as it does in a traditional oak savanna landscape. For a few years I lived in the milder climate of New Jersey where I visited several exotic gardens that had allowed the fecundity of local botany to embrace their landscapes by overlaying it into the non-natives.  

My approach to my own garden is to conserve some native plants that spring up among my hybrids and exotics in an attempt to improve the potential for pollinators and other native-plant-dependant species to return. While there are native plant seed sellers, the many and varied soil types within my berms, woods and lawns make guessing what to try too hit and miss, so I concentrate on spotting what happens to sprout naturally and, if promising, to protect it from both aggressive invasive weeds like plantain and dandelions and rampaging hybrid perennials. I’ve had some success in creating a panorama of mixed beauty from both wild and garden plantings. 

As there are some highly aggressive wild plants that can totally overrun a garden or pond once established, protecting cultivars from being squeezed out can on occasion be important. An example is a large swamp reed called a cattail that completely encircles still freshwaters if left to spread. It is important as a bird nesting site and water-fowl habitat, as well as having roots providing nutrition in a wilderness emergency (not my problem here yet!) but, if I don’t control it, many beautiful waterside and shallow-water plants, both native and imported, are soon smothered and gone.

Attempting a complete conversion of all gardens to native plant that some native plant apostles shoot for is Fools Gold it seems to me. Much of beauty and interest would be lost to us, plus the fact is that seasonal vegetables are virtually all non-native. Eurasian bulbs and shrubs brighten our spring well before any natives show, plus some lawn still has both social and aesthetic purpose and requires using Eurasian grasses (our native North American short and tall-grasses are not suitable for lawn). 

Disappointingly I’ve yet to read of any seriously active promotion of a ‘hybrid’ approach to gardening that intertwines the variety and colour of human plant breeding with the best looking and/or most valuable to our ecology that Mother Nature has produced by herself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Big Lie as Propaganda

This sort of outrageous bombast was the ‘genius’ of Hitler and his cronies:-

‘Wagner-linked Putin ally: “Dying west thinks Russians are third world scum”

 ‘Putin’s cook’ Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serving food to Vladimir Putin at a restaurant outside Moscow in 2011.

Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of financing Wagner mercenary group responds to accusations of massacres in Mali. A Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin accused by the US, EU and others of financing the private military company Wagner Group has said that “a dying-out western civilisation” will be defeated by Russia.

The Guardian had approached Yevgeny Prigozhin seeking his reaction to evidence implicating Wagner fighters in massacres in Mali. In response he said he had “repeatedly said that the Wagner Group does not exist” and that he had “nothing to do with it”. “You are a dying-out western civilisation that considers Russians, Malians, Central Africans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and many other peoples and countries to be third world scum,” the businessman added. “Remember, this is not true …. You are a pathetic endangered bunch of perverts, and there are many of us, billions of us. And victory will be ours!”

Prigozhin said he was “closely following the events taking place in Mali” where “the collective west, namely the USA, Britain, France and other countries trying to pursue a policy of enslaving Africa, have been planting and organising terrorist groups in Mali for years”. This was being done, he said, “in order to keep the population of this country in fear, to plunder its natural wealth and to write off the money allocated for so-called peacekeeping operations”.’

Seems amazing tripe in these days…but only if we ignore history.


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Finding and Sticking With Our Own Crowd

The article Covid Pandemic Pushed Social Media to Become Increasingly Tribal by a researcher at Concordia University in Montreal points to a phenomenon that the forced stay-at-home aspect of the current pandemic has allowed to evolve - as we have a lot more time and opportunity without oversight to peer at whatever we wish on our screens, we have been enabled to more accurately define just to whom and what we wish to pay attention.

While we may 'belong' to quite a number of social media platforms and subscribe to a panoply of news sources we have had both the time and opportunity to refine just what information we take away from online sources. Indeed many of these sources have themselves come up with ways we can refine our viewing. A multiplicity of online subject newsletters and podcasts have emerged from news outlets, allowing us to better align our reading and listening with our enthusiasms and concerns. Aggregators like Feedly and Pocket allow us to save and view only what interests us. Special interest groups are formed and grow within the major social media platforms. I myself no longer follow any individuals on Facebook but do belong to (and even have in a couple of cases managed) a range of Facebook SIGs.

The days when intellectuals aka thinking people could legitimately scorn social media in their entirety as a toxic stew of ignorance and lamentable prejudice are almost over. Although online provider AIs are fighting a strong rearguard action to present us with source options they derive from our digital behaviour, just as rapidly app tools are being developed to help us filter out the ignorant and unwanted. With some diligent research we can, in my experience, find ways of screening out much of what we did not ask to be presented with onscreen. 

For the avidly curious like myself serious self-discipline is needed to manage time spent onscreen. This is made worse by the luxury of my retirement from work, allowing me each and every day to roam through the world's digital knowledge trove -  this being largely without the interruptions of visitations and recreational travel during our ever-extending pandemic.

While there is legitimate criticism of the fact that we these days can all too easily avoid being exposed to alternate points of view, the onscreen assault of pictures and text that accompanies each power-on of any digital device demands we refine our sources to a manageable number. What the web has facilitated is a greatly enhanced ability to source the 'long tail', data on specialised, even esoteric, interests shared by few or none in our personal communities. We can now belong to many 'tribes' with no obvious connection to each other and located far beyond our immediate neighbourhood. Nothing like this has existed in history. Russia's crimes in the Ukraine are exposed to the world in real-time.

Current disenchantment with and moves to slow increasing globalisation do not preclude us being eager to find out what others afar are doing and thinking. It is possible to be tribal in one's interests and yet internationalist in one's outlook. Today's internet facilitates that. I can be a Settler history buff and Gaelic heritage enthusiast while still remaining connected across the globe.


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Wilderness as Metaphor for Danger

To my mind Bill Bryson, an American-British non-fiction author of renown and high income (many of whose best-selling books I thoroughly enjoyed for their wit and acute observation), did wilderness no favours with his still popular 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods about his adventures on the Appalachian Trail. He sets the stage in the book, which has a scary close-up of a bear on its cover, with a lengthy recounting of published wilderness misadventures with special attention paid, employing his famously comic style, to what awful things both species of bears in North American forests have done to the luckless wilderness traveller. 


In many years summering in remote parts of far Northeastern Ontario and during occasional hikes in New England and our Western mountains I have encountered many black bears, singly and in family groups. On a couple of occasions I have unknowingly ridden a bike right up to one as it fed on a blueberry patch, and, on a four-wheel trip along a logging road far from any settlement, had a huge male suddenly loom up on hind legs to peer in curiosity into our car. Another time as I was standing in a forest stream with my two kids fishing, one came out onto the bank beside us to gawp, and prevent us going to shore until my wife showing up a while later gave it a reason to wander off. 

The only time I can recall feeling out of my depth in bear country was one fine summer evening in New Hampshire when my wife and I with our two dogs were clambering up a mountain to be in time to watch the sun set. A big adult male suddenly appeared above us sliding on its rear end down the steep slope a few yards off the path. Our dogs became shakingly comatose as the bear careered downwards right past us. While we had heard that bears must negotiate steep slopes using only their front legs as brakes, to hear and see one actually doing so close up was intimidating. 

Once back down the mountain and walking out along a cottage road in the dusk, whom should we encounter but the same big boy. Recalling the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy where a young Kalahari bushman stalked by a large hyena deters it by making himself taller holding a rock above his head, I had wife and dogs bunch in to make us as large-looking as possible. Just as we passed by, the boar leapt clear across the road on his way to what we assumed was his nightly cottage garbage sortie - as with so much of bear (and other large predator) behaviour, easy immobile food options beat out larger but unpredictable mobile ones.

Too often in an attempt to thrill the reader or viewer, book and screen writers will play up the threat that wildness can seem to present. In a country like ours with one of the world's biggest percentage of its population residing in urban areas, and with so many immigrants now coming here from warmer countries where wilderness is often seen as hostile, writers do sympathy for our own shrinking truly wild forest lands no favours when they play up their strangeness and supposed dangers. As one who once spent two years in urban New Jersey and New York City, I have found no place as calming and soulful as our forested wilderness. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

I Was So Much Older Then...

'My Back Pages/Baby What You Want Me To Doby The Byrds

 Songwriter: Bob Dylan

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin' high and mighty traps
Countless with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
We'll meet on edges, soon, said I
Proud 'neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
Rip down all hate, I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now
In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
Sisters fled by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now
My guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now
In the 1960s the folk-rock band The Byrds from Los Angeles had a remarkable impact on the mindset of many of us who came 'of age' in that pivotal post-WW2 decade of shift in the zeitgeist of Western belief. Indeed,"Few of The Byrds' contemporaries can claim to have made such a subversive impact on popular culture.The band had a much larger, more positive impact on the world at large than any Billboard chart position or album sales or concert attendance figure could possibly measure." (Domenic Priore (2007) 'Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in 60s Hollywood' Jawbone Press). 
We are today in the early years of another decade of great change in perspective. In the 1960s we were deep in the Cold War, the era of Mutually Assured Destruction and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and hugely concerned for our future. Now in the 2020s we once again face global catastrophe - a once-in-a-century global plague, a deteriorating and highly threatening planet-wide weather shift, and the rise of Neo-fascist nationalism culminating in a major invasion of a democracy; a Hot War against our values.
When I look back at what I wrote in this blog in the earlier years of this century, I have to smile at how much less threatening the things I wrote about seem in the light of today's 'Freedom Convoys', floods and fires, and warlike dictators. As Bob Dylan understood we are often so earnest when we are younger, enraged like Greta Thunberg by the mess older people make of their world. As we age it is key to our mental health to find refreshment in what is still right about our societies - to take a 'younger' perspective' on the news of the day.