Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Bird Count, 2010

This morning at first light I went outside for firewood and heard the bell buoy in the harbour clang.  The swells must have been moving into the harbour ahead of tonight’s storm, which has rainfall and storm surge warnings posted, but the air was still, just as it was yesterday, the day of this year’s Nova Scotia bird count.

Yesterday was my first official participation in the count, something my older brother had suggested I might do when I talked to him on Friday night.  He is my one older brother (the other five are younger) and he has influenced my life in a number of ways besides getting me involved in the bird count. 

He is a statistician, still active in it even though he is retired from active teaching, which of course is a useful skill in the Bird Society, but he started out in university as a Math and Science student.  My highest marks in Provincials (my high official high school leaving grades) were in Geometry and Physics, and I think I won school prizes in both; my lowest by quite a long shot was English.  However, I had watched my brother’s study habits during his first couple of years as a university student and knew I would (or could) never work as hard as that, so I passed on Math and studied English instead.

I have been watching birds since I was about ten, when our dad pointed out to me an osprey hovering over the lagoon at North-side East Bay in Cape Breton.  I watched it dive straight into the water, struggle upwards with a fish in its talons, get enough height to shake the water out of its feathers, swoop up a little higher to shake again, and then fly away to its nest or a high perch to either eat the prey or feed its young.  After that I began to notice the eagles that circled over the big lake when my next younger brother and I would venture out there in the rowboat, and I’ve loved watching birds of all sizes and colours ever since. 

I think my older brother became a bird watcher later than I did because when we were talking about an eagle I had seen floating up the Shubenacadie River on a small ice floe, he didn’t remember the Bras d’Or Lakes eagles and ospreys I used to watch.  However, as a mathematics and statistics person, he became a much more careful and scientific watcher than I ever was, and it was he who often educated me about specific birds and their habits and songs.

On Saturday, the day before the count, Lorraine and I watched chickadees and juncos and jays on and under the feeder in the magnolia bush pecking at seeds and sometimes squabbling over them.  From where she sat she was able to see a male cardinal carefully approaching the feeding area under the bush (the jays are good at knocking seeds out of the feeder every time I fill it).  It was a great moment for me because I hadn’t seen a cardinal in the neighbourhood for almost a year, and I wished that I could do the count that day, as I could have included the cardinal, a couple of blue jays, and a pale goldfinch in its winter plumage.

We weren’t home much yesterday, but in the morning I refilled the feeders and in the afternoon I had a chance to watch for a while.  I saw my little crew of juncos working the territory accompanied by a couple of white-throated sparrows who are also regulars.  My happy handful of chickadees made a busy visit, but no goldfinch or blue jay to be seen, at least by me.  I was feeling tempted to bend the rules and report Saturday’s cardinal, but decided I couldn’t do it – something of that need for statistical accuracy kept me honest.

So I was delighted when the wary cardinal showed up and hopped across the snowy lawn for a quick feed and I added him to my brief list.  When I reported my stats to my brother last night, he told me that his group had observed thirty-eight species out at Cole Harbour, so I was happy for him, but I was also glad to have my numbers included in the total.   

The numbers may not have told anything of my delight at watching the birds, the poetry of their quick presences, but they did put our house and local birds into the record books for the 2010 bird count:

Dark-eyed junco                    10
White-throated sparrow       4
Black-capped chickadee        4
Northern cardinal (male)      1

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


This post is about driving, specifically about driving our Subaru, something I have been doing quite a bit of lately. Most of the trips are in and out of the city, winding up and down the hills on Purcell’s Cove Road and figuring out the best route to take once I get into town, or deciding how to get out of town and then navigating Purcell’s Cove Road on the way home.  What I love the most about it is the opportunity for a kind of seamless smoothness in the journey.

When I used to commute from here to Uniacke District School, which I did for seven years, I wasn’t particularly aware of that aesthetic in my travels.  For one thing I was either heading to school, getting ready in my mind for what the day might bring, or I was heading home, processing the events of the day and preparing to be clear of them in order to focus on supper instead.  For another, I always had CBC Radio going so it was Information Morning one way and Mainstreet the other, and the heavy traffic was always going in the opposite direction so I didn’t have much to contend with.  As a result, I didn’t really think about smoothness in the drive, I just drove.

When we first moved to Istanbul and travelled during our orientation period on school service buses, I was happy to just watch out the window, but I was also getting itchy to drive.  Part of it was the way others talked about the difficulties of driving there, and part of it was just watching the way the traffic moved, or sometimes didn’t.  Soon enough we got a car, and soon enough we were both driving, heading out from campus onto the TEM or down to the D100 or the sahil yolu (seaside road).  It was a challenge, and you quickly learned to check your mirrors and every angle through your windows because the drivers on the TEM were often fairly fast (like coming up behind you at about 160 and flashing their lights at you as you are passing a long truck and can’t easily get out of the way), fairly aggressive (like riding your bumper so close at 120 that you can’t even see their lights in your rear view), and fairly daring (like using every lane and the paved shoulder to weave their way through traffic at 140).  It was a challenge, but if you liked driving (as we do), it was worth engaging in.

Lorraine noted early on that the key was fluidity, keeping the flow going; as she put it, If you can go, you must.  There was little room for hesitation, and too much politeness (You go.  No, you go.) just interfered with that necessary flow.  So we got into the flow, with some trepidation at first, and started to develop a feel for driving in Istanbul (driving in the rest of Turkiye is a piece of cake by comparison) and the kind of confidence you need to keep going with the flow and keep the flow going.

Now we are back in Nova Scotia where there are few challenges when we set out for the city or its environs, and in the absence of a challenge you need to develop an aesthetic, which is the seamless smoothness I have mentioned.  It’s important to me to be driving a standard, to make my shifts at the right moment so that they are almost imperceptible, to use my brakes as little as possible, to change lanes strategically and elegantly, to get from A to B as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and to pay attention to the sometimes reckless behavior of Halifax pedestrians (in Istanbul they knew how to cross roads without interfering substantially with the flow).

There is, with the exception of pedestrian unpredictability and the inconsiderate actions of some drivers, the relaxation of driving, something that comes with the smoothness of flow and is connected with those right brain activities it requires: scanning the road, anticipating the moves ahead of you, watching the seconds count down on the Walk/Don’t Walk signs, and moving the car through it all like a larger body you inhabit to the place you are heading for.   

If you are, like me, a language person, these periods you spend in the other side of your brain when you are driving can be both peaceful and productive, as thoughts and ideas find space to emerge and blossom, except of course when you come up behind a Pontiac Vibe that is going too slowly or a Mercedes that keeps braking for no conceivable reason.  My road rage in these cases is limited to mild expletives addressed to the car itself, and most of the time I enjoy the meditative calm of a good drive.

I know something of the environmental costs of driving and try to minimize them, but because of where we live and where we sometimes need to go, those costs are sometimes unavoidable.  Given that, I believe it is important, and in fact something I do take pleasure in, to drive well.  You can’t tell, I’m sure, if you see me driving that I am cultivating an aesthetic, but if you notice me coming down the steep hill into the Cove and rounding the corner by Kiley’s at the bottom without needing to brake, you should know that I am feeling a small sense of satisfaction. 

 It’s the satisfaction that comes from being one with the Subaru and moving through it all smoothly and well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

December 10

It’s been a cold clear winter day today, the 10th day of December, with its own kind of beauty.  There’s a dryness to the air, and the sun never gets very high in the sky, or very warm, as we approach the solstice and the official beginning of the next season, namely winter.  It was nice to be out in today’s air, to feel the lawn frozen hard and to understand that the bright green of the grass, which a couple of days ago was like what you see in Vancouver when you make a snowman from the good thick wet snow they sometimes get and see the brilliant lawn underneath, will fade to straw and dun and stay locked in that winter hardness for a few months.

When the sun dropped and the daylight dropped (as it does), I came inside because I wanted to vacuum around the entry and in front of the woodstove.  It was getting darker in the house, not ideal for vacuuming, but I persevered, completing the entry room, kitchen, and living room, not just the area by the woodstove, but the whole of our living room carpet.

And that’s what this post is really about, not working outside or early December sun or the change in the colour and texture of the grass or vacuuming under low light conditions, but the carpet.

In the summer the carpet is rolled up, put away, and replaced with jute mats so that the high bright sun doesn’t have a chance to fade it.  So every fall when we bring the carpet down and unroll it again we are consistently taken by its beauty.

We were first taken by the beauty of this carpet the first time we saw it.  We had looked at lots of carpets and kilims after we first moved to Istanbul and resolved at the time that we wouldn’t buy anything for at least a year because there were so many to see and so much learn about them.  Finally we did buy a lovely Armenian carpet that Lorraine found at Adnan & Hasan in Kapalı Çarşı (aka Grand Bazaar) and that we agreed would work well in our living room once we returned to Nova Scotia and our house.  But it wasn’t the one we ended up bringing home.

We first saw this carpet in the showroom at the Bella Hotel in Selçuk.  Nazmi told us that it had come from his village near Kayseri from a young couple who had inherited it from their aunt and wanted something more contemporary.  We were immediately taken by the unusual soft and subtle green of its background colour, the touches of rust and blue, the wonderful intricacy of the centre medallion and flowers in the border, the faint smell of wood smoke it carried, and all the touches of the hands that had made it and given it such a happy character. 

Words can’t capture the nature of this carpet – you just need to be with it, look at it for a while, and keep discovering all the subtle and wonderful new aspects and details in it.  Unfortunately I can’t supply a daylight image of it until tomorrow, so the image you have at the head of this post shows it being washed on our deck the way we watched the young guy in the courtyard of the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus do it, with squeegee, soap, and a hose. 

It’s wet and soapy in the image but it’s still beautiful and continues to give us pleasure every time we see it or walk on it or even just vacuum it. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Descent of Winter (2)

We had a cold snap for a few days earlier this week, down to minus six or so each night and below freezing each day.  It provided an introduction to winter we didn’t really need because we know it’s coming soon enough, with the same inevitability, someone who is (I think) in Manitoba pointed out to me, as death and taxes.  But we now have a reprieve, and the skim of ice has gone from the frogpond, as well as our own little pond, though the parsley is not likely to stand up again this season.

One of the wonders of that touch of winter was the way splashing water glazed the surfaces it landed on.  Our small dragon kept on spouting, but the water lettuce and water hyacinths we left in the pond are not going to survive this coating of ice.

The morning after a light snowfall there were still remnants on the head of the garden column that Lorraine made.

And, as things warmed up a little, snow slumped off the hood of the car.

While the same snow coated the ice in the pond.

Since this mass of Arctic air moved on, I’ve been able to do a little more yard cleanup, picking up last scraps of firewood, putting pots under cover, and moving the raked leaves to the compost pile.  And the milder air has brought a new crop of moths to the outside light at night and let the crystalline garden soil soften up enough for me to get the last of the tulip bulbs in before everything solidifies again.

Now we can watch with wonder as three pertly perfect chickadees take turns at the suet cage, or the red squirrel makes a fool of itself trying vainly to keep two blue jays away from the seeds, running up slender branches after them and then having to rush down again as they fly back to the feeder for a quick peck.   

And we can wait for the lacy patterns of ice that will soon creep across ponds and puddles again, the iron grip that settles into the ground as it freezes, and the next snowfall that will slide down the air to cover everything as winter descends upon us one more time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Descent of Winter

In 1927 William Carlos Williams wrote a series of poems titled The Descent of Winter.  Each of the twenty included in Collected Early Poems was dated rather than titled, running from 10/29 to 12/15 of that year.  It’s an odd collection with only three of these pieces selected by Williams and Randal Jarrell for his Selected Poems, but there are quite a few in it that I like. 

Here’s one:


In this strong light
the leafless beechtree
shines like a cloud

it seems to glow
of itself
with a soft stript light
of love
over the brittle

But there are
on second look
a few yellow leaves
still shaking

far apart

just one here one there
trembling vividly

And then there’s this one:


We must listen.  Before
she died she told them—
I always liked to be well dressed
I wanted to look nice—

So she asked them to dress
her well.  They curled her hair . . .

Now she fought
She didn’t want to go
She didn’t want to!

Or this:


Even idiots grow old
   in a cap with a peak
over his right ear
   minding the three goats
behind the firehouse
   his face is deeper lined
than last year
   and the rain comes down
in gusts suddenly

I had actually been planning a post about the approach of winter, its onset, how it looks and feels, the leaves on the wet ground, brightness of grass, the ponds overflowing (as someone said recently, “The ponds are always full when they freeze”), and the yellow needles showing up on the tamaracks. 

However, I kept thinking of Williams’ title, the notion that we were on the descent into another season, and when I got to the poems themselves decided that they should stand on their own.  After all, we don’t need reminders of the seasonal change that is coming.  Winter does always find us.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sun after Rain

It is November and this is the sixth day in a row that it has been raining.  A few bright leaves at T & S’s house, small scarlet pointed ones on the Japanese split leaf maple and large yellow heart shapes on the mulberry tree, are hanging on, but many of them are now plastered on the ground, and most of the other trees are bare.  The grass is brilliant green, made even more intense by an unremitting grey sky.  The Sackville River down by the Superstore turnoff is a raging torrent almost up to the bridge, and everything is soggy and sodden.

Sunday afternoon we had a small taste of the light that comes when the weather breaks.  It wasn’t actual sunlight, but you could see a patch of blue and where the sun was if it could just break through the edge of cloud.  It didn’t, and the cloud closed in for at least a couple more days, but it provided at least a promise of what might come (on Thursday, I think, if the forecast doesn’t change).

There is always something to love about sun after rain, so different from the white brightness of desert suns.  It always seems more golden and the blue of the sky always feels washed and fresh.  

I remember my first winter in Vancouver and my introduction to the day after day after day of rain, with no prospect of change.  It was oppressive, that low season, that November dark, but what sticks with me still were those instances toward sunset when the cloud would lift in the west to reveal just enough clear sky for the beneficent rays of sun to shine sideways across the city illuminating everything.  It was always an uplift, both emotionally and meteorologically, and always a wonder. 

After rain the wet surfaces reflect the brightness of the sky, and the remnants of grey cloud provide the kind of dense backdrop for the lit colours that photographers’ eyes (and ours) love.    

In this illuminated world objects seem to be emitting light and colour from within.

The other wonderful thing about the ending of the rain is the possibility of a rainbow, something that still astonishes me.  We have seen some wonderful ones from here arching over the harbour, but one (or two) of the most amazing happened last month as we were driving home from Bayers Lake.  It was late afternoon and the sun had started to drop when the sky opened up to the west.  We were just on the edge of the rain, and the most brilliant double rainbow shone beside and above us, with the near end following the bumper of the car in front of ours rather than pointing to a pot of gold.   

What I find consistently astonishing is the perfection of those curves in the sky and the brilliant delineation of colours, especially in the primary rainbow; I know I could look up the explanation of how the sunlight through the raindrops breaks up into the full spectrum of colour and forms a perfect arc, but I’d rather just see it happen and marvel at its magic.

The rain hasn’t stopped yet, but, according to that forecast, when it does the sun will shine quite a bit longer than it did in Ray Bradbury’s famous story, which we might honestly feel we are part of right now (check it out here if you’re not familiar with its poignancy).   On Thursday, if the forecast holds, I’ll be outside working in the sun and thinking of Bradbury’s  Margot and the tragedy of what she missed

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Three Blue Feathers

This afternoon I was picking up and bundling brush and branches from some of our trail clearing and garden pruning when I uncovered a blue jay's feather on the ground.  When I looked more closely, I saw that it was in fact two feathers together, most likely wing feathers because of their size and the amount of white on their tips.  Then I noticed a third, smaller feather, possibly from the same place and the same bird.

What had happened?  I worry about the jays and the other birds that we see around our house and grounds, mostly because of the calico cat.  Three feathers don't necessarily equal a dead bird, but they are a sign that something happened.  Part of the problem is our seed feeders.  I fill them up and a couple of jays usually notice pretty quickly, eat their fill, and then call to the other jays to let them know.  Of course the others come from around the neighbourhood – there’s a small gang of a dozen or so, I'd guess – and they eat too.

I’m happy to feed them, along with the chickadees, woodpeckers, juncos, and sparrows, but the jays are big, and they get excited as they feed, and within a day the feeder is empty and there’s seed spread all over the ground under it.  None of the birds, except for the woodpeckers, seem to mind eating off the ground, but unfortunately this is where the calico cat sometimes enters the picture.

This cat, which appears to have our neighbourhood as its private hunting ground by day (I believe the raccoons rule the nighttime), knows to run if it sees me.  After all, I do tend to favour birds over cats in this situation, and any time I have noticed it from the kitchen window stalking the small birds pecking seeds off the ground, I go out.  It takes off as soon as the door opens, because it knows I might be picking up a small rock, but there are so many times I’m not at the kitchen window or out in the yard.

However, jays are corvids, which means that they are smart, like their cousins, the ravens and crows, so I am always hopeful.  I know that the crows aren’t vulnerable, and it’s not just because they don’t come to the feeder.  In fact, they like to gang up on the cat, the same way they’ll chase the raven that sometimes strays here from over by York Redoubt, or an owl if it made the mistake of perching somewhere in their territory.  They call from Irene’s roof to our roof to the big spruce by our driveway to the white pines next to the house and there’s nothing happens around here that the crows don’t seem to know about.  One of my favourite recent moments was looking towards the clamour of crows next door and seeing the calico cat streaking across Jim’s long lawn with three crows dive-bombing it.

So three feathers with their brilliant blue barred with black and white on the tips means I need to watch for a jay with a slightly ragged wing, keep on keeping an eye on the feeder, and continue to hope that the crows are on patrol, the bright-eyed jays are alert, and the calico cat is still stalking in vain.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Falling into Fall (for A. and others who love the season)

This post is about the season, and some of the signs of that season.  Like good old Canadian maple leaves.
Or maple wood stacked to dry.
Or the bright cliché of a burning bush burning.
Or a birch against a blue autumn sky.
Or the soft colours and delicate feet of a creature, this one a deer mouse, that made the mistake of moving indoors.
Or sunlight catching maple leaves.
Or last year’s hydrangeas in the green bin because we have more this year.
Or fall chrysanthemums at the doorway.
Or a rugosa putting out its last bloom of the season.
Or the faint lemon scent you get when you prune the morning star magnolia.
Or just more maple leaves.  Enjoy the season!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Small Broken Lightnesses of Being

A couple of weeks ago I was standing on our upper deck with my friend S. looking down at shrubs and bushes in front of our house.  In particular, we were watching a small brown bird, clearly a sparrow, which had landed on one of them.  He asked me what kind I thought it was, and I said, Maybe a song sparrow, though I wasn’t sure.  I told him that I thought a song sparrow had nested inside that bush the last couple of seasons, but we both agreed that the size of this one didn’t seem quite right.

S. had told me a while ago about sitting very still on their deck with some birdseed in his palm and having a chickadee light there to feed.  I like this meaning of “light” as a verb; it says so much about the kind of touch this small bird makes on the hand that feeds it.  If there is magic in the world, perhaps it can be understood in the lightness of this touch.  I also admire S. for his patient stillness and willingness to wait for the bird to come to him and for the pleasure he found in it.

I thought about this a few days later when I saw a small shape lying on our main deck in front of the tall windows.  It was a white-throated sparrow, or what is usually called a white-throat.  There is much that I love about white-throats, but the loveliest is its song.  It reminds me of climbing the granite slope behind our old cottage in Purcell’s Cove many decades ago and hearing the white throats sing up there in the jack pines.  I knew the sound long before I knew the bird and learned how to mimic the five clear and haunting notes of one of its characteristic songs.  I can never hear a white-throat singing without thinking of those times and that place.  You can listen to the one I can whistle here.  You can see and hear it sing its other lovely song here.

I picked up the dead white-throat and noticed how its head flopped in my hand, its neck clearly broken.  I marveled at its compact shape, the neatness of its small white bib, the variations of brown in its flight feathers, the poignancy of its legs and feet, and the lovely lightness of its small being.  I know that birds have hollow bones and bodies that are lighter than you think they are going to be, but I am still amazed at the feel of one when it is lying in my palm.  It is always a small wonder.

I know that our windows are a hazard because of their height and the amount of sky they reflect, and birds do fly into them, though not always fatally.  At times I have watched small stunned creatures recover and fly away, and when I find small smears of feathers on the windows, or on the glass panels of the deck, I always hope that these birds managed to survive their impacts. 

A few years ago I found a sharp-shinned hawk on a path below our house.  It was lying on its side in the space between the blueberry bushes with every feather seeming to be in place and no sign of what might have killed it.  I carried its perfect lightness of being up the path and buried it at the edge of the garden, thinking of the beauty of its flight pattern, the mottling of its breast, and the sharp strength of its talons.

And I buried the white-throat, also in the garden.  I whistled its song as I filled the hole.

Since then I have noticed another one perched on that same shrub in front of the house.  I have tried whistling to it.  I am still hopeful it will whistle back.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Root Canal, or The Death of a Tooth

This story began around the middle of July when Lorraine and I went to see M. for our annual checkups and cleaning.  I thought my teeth were fine, no weird sensations in them, no jagged edges from a broken off corner; however, the X-ray told me I was wrong.  Somewhere under an old filling at the back of my upper rights something was amiss.  I came back in a couple of days to get it fixed and thought that was the end of it, but M. booked me to see an endodontist (endo, Greek for inside, and odons of course meaning tooth), or root canal specialist, a few days later because he was concerned that the depth of the repair he had done might upset the nerve.  (Check here to learn about endodontics)

Thankfully it didn’t, and I was really happy when Dr. M., the endodontist in the office down on the third floor, completed all his tapping of the tooth and touching it with hot and cold things and told me it seemed OK.  I took it as an affirmation of my tooth’s health as well as my own and felt pretty good, even, I suppose, a little smug.  And then I forgot about it.

I kept on forgetting about it and carrying on with my usual sleeping and waking and eating and drinking and enjoying the things that make up a day for me; that is, I kept on until a week ago.  That day I woke up with a dull aching that felt as if it went almost up to my right cheekbone.  I don’t think I have ever had a toothache – perhaps someone who has would be thinking right now, That’s not something you’d easily forget  – and didn’t immediately connect it to my happily recovered tooth.

When we went to see M. the next day, by which time I knew the cause of my ache, he told me that these things don’t usually settle down when they flare up and that it’s better to set up an appointment with Dr. M. now before it got to the banging your head against the wall kind of pain.  I took his advice, only Dr. M. was away, so I got booked in to see one of his endodontic partners, Dr. A., this morning, six days later.
Last Friday was the worst day with a serious aching in my jaw and a tooth so sensitive and tender that even the tip of my tongue made it hurt.  Ibuprofen settled it down, and more ibuprofen settled it down more, and as the weekend passed the pain and sensitivity gradually went away, until by Monday everything seemed fine.  Hooray, I thought, my brave little tooth has recovered its good health, in spite of what M. had told me.  No head-banging for me, we beat it, and I felt proud of my tooth!

Yesterday I called Dr. A.’s office and said that the tooth had settled down and should I still come in?  She checked my chart and said Yes, so I went in this morning thinking I would have a conversation with Dr. A. about whether or not we really needed to do this root canal (here is what that looks like).  After all, I wanted to protect the life of my tooth, the little tooth that could.

Dr. A. reassured me that we wouldn’t do a root canal if we didn’t need it and proceeded to ask me questions and tap my tooth.  No problems there, it felt as sound and sturdy as any of my teeth, with no special sensitivity.  I felt relieved, and proud of my healthy tooth.  Then he said he was going to try some cold.  Whatever he used looked really cold as vapour was rising from it, but no matter where he touched my tooth was still ok, no pain at all.  I was still relieved.

Then he dropped the bomb, Your tooth has died.

It was a bomb.  A part of my living body, sleeping and waking and eating and drinking through the days, had, without my even noticing, up and died.  I felt a considerable sense of loss and dislocation.

What do you do now? I asked.

He told me what I really already knew, that he had to drain the tooth to remove the risk of abscess, so that’s what we did, he the doctor leaning over me in a blue mask, she his assistant on the other side, also masked, and me the patient stretched out, rubber dammed, and anaesthetized.  And that’s how we stayed for about an hour.

I learned a lot as I lay there looking at the fluorescent light bars in the ceiling and listening to and feeling the work going on inside my mouth.  For one thing the whole place felt a lot like an office in Mad Men, with all the male endodontists and their female assistants.  Dr. A. and his assistant worked together really smoothly, like a team that has been at it for a while.  He would say something like, I need a #10 file or some kind of paper tip or more irrigation, and she would immediately put it in his hand or make it happen.  One time in all of their exchanges he murmured, Thanks, and she quietly replied, You’re welcome.   I felt we were all engaged in an intimate little endodontic dance.

I knew they could see inside my frozen mouth, but I wondered if they could tell much by looking at my eyes; then I remembered I was wearing protective dark glasses, so all they could tell of what I was feeling or thinking was how often I swallowed or how clenched my hands were with my thumbs pressed so tightly against each other.

I learned that my brave little tooth actually had four roots instead of the usual three, that one of the canals was really hard to get at, and that the little electronic machine he hung in the corner of my mouth and made beeping noises measured three of my roots at 19 and one at 19.5. There were names for each of the roots as he told the measurements to his assistant, and I was sure I would remember them, but now as I write this they are completely gone.  Not that it really matters, because now they are empty anyway and the tooth is just an enamel shell. 

I have to go back in two weeks to have it checked and more permanently sealed, I guess, and now that the freezing is out and the aches in my gums and jaws have diminished, I can think about and probe my little dead tooth.  Chew on the other side and be nice to it for a couple of days, Dr. A. told me as I left.  I thought it was kind of sweet to say that about my poor dead tooth.

May it rest in peace, I’d say.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Weeds Are a Problem – The Comfrey Story

The comfrey story started for me in the spring of 1997 six months or so after we moved into this house in Ferguson’s Cove.  One of the previous owners had been a landscape designer, and an attractive thing about the house we bought was the layout of gardens and shrubs complete with a large pile that I understood to be mature compost.  Through the fall and winter we added to the pile, and in the spring a plant sprouted out from within the pile.  It was well established with its sturdy stalks and large leaves – when you see them you understand why some people call this plant Ass Ear – and grew vigorously.

It was comfrey.

I had heard of comfrey and had some notion that it was a useful plant, perhaps with some medicinal applications, but I wasn’t interested enough to research it.  Instead I started to build the vegetable beds that I most like working on and in, happily dug into the fertile depths of the compost pile, and began to spread it around.  I don’t recall now actually pulling up the comfrey plant or doing anything specific with it, but there must have been something because comfrey has a large and solid root mass, compared by some to a turnip.  What I do know is that spreading that compost around included spreading bits of comfrey root around, which really means spreading comfrey plants around.

And now I have them, comfrey plants, and they irritate me. 

I think of blackberry brambles, the way they send out their beautiful arching stalks and put down roots where they land.  They are an annoyance, some people might even call them a plague, especially when their thorns come through your gloves or the roots break off when you try to yank them out, but there is something I like about brambles, a raffish elegance in their way of spreading over an area, reaching out and putting down.  They are lithe adventurers, unlike the squat and somewhat bourgeois comfrey that just sit and proliferate.

Perhaps I am being unfair; after all, there are people who seem to value comfrey for its many useful applications, and there are detailed instructions (check here if you’re really interested) for how to propagate and care for them, as well as (here) how to use them.  I don’t care about the former – they seem to propagate easily and care for themselves very nicely thank you – but since I do have them, I really ought to explore their uses.  In fact, I will do that.

But all that notwithstanding, the task at hand is to eradicate as many comfrey plants as I can, because I have lots, and they do grow prodigiously. 

When we went away in 2003, there were maybe three of them established in a somewhat rocky area  where we had buried our dog and cat near the asparagus patch.  I didn’t attack the plants then, but now that we have returned and I have finally begun to re-address the issues of garden, the comfrey seem to have settled in to more than a dozen large, healthy, and apparently satisfied specimens, undisturbed in our absence by the cut of shovel or poke of fork.

In the spring I dug out two of them, one in each of our former vegetable gardens and was amazed at the large mass of each root ball.  I chucked them into the green bin where they landed with solid thunks (my serious hope is that the processing that happens at the municipal composting facility effectively kills these root chunks rather than just shredding and spreading them to unwitting HRM victims).  Then I gently pulled out as many of the long roots as I could, not because I cared about the plant’s feelings in all this, but because I wanted to extirpate every bit and fragment of comfrey root I could find from my garden area.  These also went into the green bin.

Of course I didn’t get them all, just as I never got clear of all the Japanese knotweed in the backyard garden we made forty years ago on Quinpool next to Annie’s convenience store, and have spent the rest of the season digging out small bits of root with eager young comfrey shoots poking up their loathsome leaves where I want only carrots and parsnips growing.  I didn’t lose the knotweed battle all those years ago, and I don’t plan to lose this one, but I know I’ll need to be diligent and I know I’ll continue to curse my comfrey.

So if you’re thinking you want to grow comfrey, for whatever reason, either forget the idea (come and pick some of mine if you need it) or do it with great care and caution.  You may regret ever introducing these complacent and persistent perennials to your garden areas, and you may, like me, end up girding yourself for an endless battle with the comfrey.  Consider yourself warned!