One Year Sunrise

Dear Jim,

How did it come to be a year since you left this earth? Somehow I have moved forward through these days and weeks, building my own new life, one hour at a time. Moving towards a life re-imagined, that I can’t quite envision yet. Maybe you can see it. Maybe you see me looking ahead to the sun coming up over the horizon now, a little more often than looking back over my shoulder, to where the moon and stars have set.

It’s been such a very full and tiring year. I am 50 pounds smaller now. I can’t tell you how hard I’ve worked on life responsibilities. I went soul-searching in Ireland, then decided to take a sabbatical from work, a true leap of faith. Isn’t it ironic — I gave a talk on decision-making just months before you died…and now all life decisions and consequences are mine to fully own.

I’ve changed in so many other ways this year, too. I’ve learned to be more resilient, more brave, yet more open and vulnerable to let others in. I’ve learned that when hearts break, then mend, they grow in capacity to love. Mostly I’ve learned to love myself. In the absence of your great love and belief in me. Or maybe, in the ongoing subtle presence of it.

You are always in my thoughts, but today I find myself remembering the many times we went bird-watching. These are among my most cherished memories: quietly observing you, immersed in the natural environment, listening and watching for signs of birds in the marsh or flickering in shrubs, grokking nature.

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During these times, you became Jim the naturalist, Jim the educator. And in these moments, I became your student. You inspired questions and celebrated my discoveries. You shared your incredible knowledge, experience and passion with me. You were Essential Jim. And I basked in the light that radiated from you.

Whenever I see a bird fly overhead, I always think of you. Sometimes I think you are the bird. If that is true, I can only imagine your joy to be soaring over this beautiful earth. I hope you can see me. And I hope you are proud.

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First Day of Spring

First day of spring…this was Jim’s favourite day of the year. I can’t believe he’s not here to see the plum tree blossoming.

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I won’t see him outside with his scope, watching for migrating birds. He won’t be sitting on the deck in his old green chair, a pair of binoculars in his lap, bright eyes and keen ears tuned to the trees and wind.

He is missing spring.

The sight of his empty chair hurts so much, I bought a new chair this week, yet I can’t bear to part with his old one yet. This is the paradox of grief.

Jim bought me a camera one spring. He said my creative side needed expression. I shyly put the camera strap around my neck, and took this picture of a nuthatch. Many springs and thousands of photographs later, this first one is still my favourite.

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Struggle and Progress

Waterlogue Tall Tree by Karin“Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.”

Douglas Malloch, American Poet

This post inspired today by a gentle comment in Humans of New York.
Full poem by Douglas Malloch here.

Wassailing the Apple Orchard

“Wet leaves and rotting apples — the smell of the orchard in fall.”

Grandma's Apple Tree
Climbing trees in the 70’s in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

That is how a local orchard owner described the aroma and fermentation of making old-fashioned apple cider.

I know exactly what she means. As a young girl, I used to climb the trees in my grandmother’s apple orchard. I know that familiar smell of wet leaves, fallen apples, and the crisp earthy air.

Last weekend for a lark, I went a-wassailing at a local cider maker, to learn more about growing apples, sample some cider, and for the simple pleasure of being outdoors in a fruit orchard on a sunny January day. Wassailing is a medieval custom to annually bless and drink to the orchard in winter, to encourage a good harvest in the coming season.

This ritual might come in handy. I now live in a hundred year old house in Victoria, Canada and have inherited a small orchard of two trees. The largest one is old and lovely and crooked and covered in moss, and propped up with a 4×4 board, but still produces a good late summer crop of soft, sweet apples. My urban farming neighbour says these are Gravenstein apples. I’ll take her word for it.

Apple Tree
The focal point of the backyard … a lovely heritage apple tree.

And I love this old tree. La Vielle Arbre des Pommes. I was married under this tree. In summer I sway in my grandmother’s hammock under this tree. My pup likes to lay at the base (her “post”) and survey the yard. The woodpeckers, chickadees, hummingbirds, juncos, sparrows, robins and flickers all enjoy this tree, too.

Apple Blossoms
The old apple tree blossoms around May 1.

The second tree in my humble orchard is a younger, smaller, sturdier and giving tree that produces an astonishingly generous, early autumn crop of small, crisp, sweet and perfect dark red apples. I’d love to learn what variety they are. If you know, please tell me (and I’ll be happy to thank you with apples.)

Little Red Apples
The smaller tree produces apples that are typically ready in late September-early October.

I also have a pear tree, but that is another gardening story for another time.

For now, it is still winter and the trees are bare. Yesterday it was calm and sunny, so we gave them a light pruning, and sprayed them with dormant oil. It will still be a few months until they blossom; still a few more before their fruit slowly ripens over summer. In the meantime, there is nothing more to do except continue to love them, admire them, and wait for the bountiful harvest. Cheers.

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.

Just Between Me and the Beach

I went doseasidewn to the seaside today to have ‘a sit and think.’

First I repatriated some rocks and shells back to the sea, and then I sat on a log and quietly watched the world go by.

After a while I focused my attention to the sand beneath my feet. I started poking through rocks to see what beach treasures I might find. On one side of my log I placed interesting pebbles to admire. To the other side I placed pieces of broken plastic and garbage.

I’ve noticed over the years an increasing amount of garbage washing up on our shores. On this particular beach, many pieces of waste are small, sharp edged bits of hard plastic. I often worry about the safety of children with their curious hands and feet, or of puppies and their paws. I also think about the general impression this sight may have on visitors to my hometown, when they come to enjoy the seaside and find the tides have left the shoreline littered. Never mind the party garbage brought in and left behind by nighttime revelers.

Suddenly, I remembered I had a plastic bag in my pocket leftover from repatriating the shells. I started to fill the bag with plastic bits and other garbage. I cleaned up the space around my log on the beach. Of course, it was not enough to make a huge difference, but I left the beach in better condition than when I found it.

This is something I used to do naturally as a child — pick up litter from the sidewalk or park whenever I played outside. But ocean waste is one of those gigantic, complex problems that feels beyond one’s control. And somewhere along the way, in my long life’s journey through different busy phases of adulthood, I personally stopped picking up street litter. Most times I would just feel sad or disappointed in other people for not taking strides to the garbage can, and passing their responsibility along to someone else.

What happened to the little girl who used to accept that extra responsibility?

Now I am not normally one for making new year’s resolutions, but today I decided that I will always pack an extra bag in my pocket, so that whenever I come down to the shore, I can remove some of these small hazards from the beach. And leave it just a little bit cleaner.

If reading this inspires you to take up a similar practice, that would be wonderful. Our efforts would be shared and doubled! But I am really not trying to start a movement with this post, or look for any ‘that a girl’ praise. I am simply remembering the child I once was, and aspiring to live up to her example.

This is a personal decision and agreement between me and the beach.

A Life Well Lived

What does it mean to live a life well lived?

I think about this often (especially as I get older).

I know it essentially includes being open and traveling a spectrum of human experiences. To me, a life well lived is a life of expansion.

This morning, I came across a lovely 4-minute video featuring Jim Whittaker, first American to scale Mount Everest. He shared some of his philosophy on risk-taking, and getting outside to learn about yourself:

“Nature is the best teacher in the world …. it is in the wild places, in the damp clean air of an ancient forest, on a heaving ocean in unpredictable wind, on a snowy summit at the top of the world, that I enter my own personal cathedral and know where I fit in the vastness of creation.”

I understand when he says it is “an unconscious spiritual journey to be in the natural world.” I have only ever felt a sense of awe and wonder while outside in nature’s cathedral.

Moon June
I remember the first time I saw the northern lights dancing in ribbons across a dark winter sky … the first time I saw a shooting star, or watched the luminous orange globe of the full moon, rising slowly over the sea … or felt the vastness of the universe while standing under a million bright and brilliant stars.

My own personal cathedral is the night sky. And in this place, witnessing something special, I have felt very small but also connected to something much larger than myself. I have been overjoyed, stilled, filled with gratitude, and somehow reassured of my place in this world. These experiences have been profoundly expansive.

I will continue to think about this, and build my own definition for a life well lived. In the meantime, if you would like a few moments of thoughtful inspiration, here is Jim Whittaker’s perspective.