Saturday, 12 March 2016

Window on the World (or... The Garden, Part 1)

It's that time of year where I grow restless, observing the monochromatic disarray that is my tiny Toronto garden.  A mucky patch of greyish-brown wedged into 600 square feet between house,
garage and adjoining neighbours. It's still too early to do anything of substance out there-- I don't dare remove the mulch in case of a sudden March cold snap. I'm pretty sure I lost my favourite buddleia that way a few years ago. It's too soon to prune, too early to plant. It will be weeks before I can really get my hands dirty.  For the moment I have to satisfy myself with photo-memories of what this drab little place will look like come spring and summer.

People who know me say the only time they ever see me totally relax is when I am wielding a spade and secateurs. It is indeed true that I lose track of time when I am out there, immersed in the needs of my verdant charges. My spirit is at home in this space.  It runs in the family.  Gardening is also my mother's great passion. She actually lives off what she grows-- even when there's ten feet of snow on the ground (more on this in future blogs!). My aunt in Jutland, Denmark, is an avid green thumb with a spectacular garden to show for it.  My sister-in-law in British Columbia produces a mind-boggling array of tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers every summer in her raised beds.

On the one hand, gardening provides a way to be  alone with our thoughts. But it also connects us to the bigger world--sometimes in surprising ways. A couple of summers ago I noticed a monarch butterfly feeding on the buddleia, with something stuck to its wing. Worried that it would impede the insect's ability to fly, I moved in for a closer look and was relieved to see it wasn't an errant piece of sticky litter, but some kind of tag, with writing on it.

I grabbed my camera and zoomed in-- and sure enough-- it was a tag from an organization called MonarchWatch.  Curious, I sent an email to the address and discovered that researchers at the
Late-Summer Guest
University of Kansas-- more than one thousand miles and a 14 hour drive southwest of Toronto-- were happy to hear from me, and learn that one of their taggees was hanging out in my garden.  I discovered that an insect ecologist by the name of Orley R. "Chip" Taylor founded MonarchWatch back in 1992.  According to the organization's website, "the program has produced many new insights into the dynamics of monarch migration." And, as my experience shows, it also connects people, and makes us think about what is happening in the bigger world.

This is just one of so many enlightening moments I've experienced in the garden.  I've realized that this tiny patch of earth represents a microcosm of what is happening on the planet.  In twenty years I've noticed subtle but unmistakable changes inside its four walls. Different things thrive here now than in the past. Hardy, drought resistant plants are winning out over water-and shade-loving species. This is partly a result of reduced shade because my neighbour trimmed back her plum tree last year. But after spending hundreds of hours here every spring, summer and fall, it's obvious there's something bigger happening.  In general, conditions are hotter and drier now. It's unsettling to know that the mercury is predicted to climb even higher in coming years and decades.  But it also gives my puttering a purpose.  I feel like I am doing my small part to create an oasis for creatures struggling to adapt to climate change.  And I feel just a tiny bit more hopeful about the future when I see butterflies flocking here in abundance, joining the bees, ants, beetles and earthworms that call this garden home.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Where Time Stands Still

Back in the 90s my favourite way of figuring out where to go on holiday was to find the places that Lonely Planet guidebooks said were remote, infrequently visited and hard to access.  That is how I found Xcalak.

Xcalak is a tiny Mexican outpost in the state of Quintana Roo, a fly fisherman's cast from the Belize
The End of the Road
border, a six hour journey from party-til-you-drop Cancun, and worlds away from the condos of Playa del Carmen and Tulum's boho-chic beachfront.  There's no wind-surfing or parasailing or jet skis in evidence in this town of 375 souls, and the nearest supermarket is a two-hour drive away.  For the few local buses that provide service this far south, Xcalak is literally the end of the road.  The bus stop is the beach.

We come here every few years, to remind ourselves that there are still places where time stands still.  Very little changes between our visits.  There are still the same deep, axel-shattering potholes in the  dirt road that must be navigated to get from the village to Sin Duda, a guesthouse we stay at 8 kilometres north of town.  Water and electricity are precious commodities in this part of the world, captured fastidiously in rain barrels and sun panels on the roof.

Manuel and Marie's Grocery Truck
Family-owned grocery trucks arrive at the door every couple of days, clunking through and around the ruts.  The vendors sell exactly what they've always sold--mouthwatering local Manchego cheese, oranges, avocados, pineapples, cilantro, peppers, and other produce that grows in the region.

Geckos and cicadas still lull us to sleep-- and occasionally startle us wide awake in the dark of night.  Boa constrictors and iridescent scorpions are fairly frequent visitors. It's this rhythm of the jungle  that has lured a handful of adventurous northerners to settle and build small haciendas in the area, catering to those of us who want to go far from the madding crowd.

 The Meso-American reef is right on Xcalak's doorstep...a natural wonder that spans more than one
Just North of Xcalak
thousand kilometers along the coastlines of four countries:  Mexico, Belize, Guatamala and Honduras.  The reef near Xcalak is a place to observe a relatively healthy reef system, that still contains an abundance of species, from parrot fish, trumpet fish, porcupine fish and barracudas, to rays, nurse sharks, eels, lobster and the dreaded invading lion fish.  There's even a moray eel living on the same coral head where we first saw a much smaller eel back in 2002. Is it the same one?  Quite possibly!  The locals have named him Al and he is a lot bigger than he used to be!

There is such comfort in coming to a place that isn't trying to become the next big thing. For now, Mexicans and the foreigners who live there value tranquility. This is what home means to them.  And for brief, joyous periods of time every few years, I am a part of that.

Monday, 1 February 2016

There Is No Place Like House, Home (Melanie's poem)

By Melanie Duarte Sanchez, aged 8, from Mexico: 

There are many things we call a house,
Like small dark holes in the walls for the noisy mouse.
Tall windy nests in the trees are what flying birds like the most,
But dirty deep holes in the ground are cosy for rabbits and moles.
Dogs and kittens sleep in soft pillows,
And little spiders make webs in the corners of some windows.
Crocodiles and snakes enjoy muddy swamps,
But beavers prefer to build their own dams.
Fish and whales live in the wet blue sea,
And wood or brick buildings are houses for you and me.
But what really matters is:
To have a home where you can feel safe and free.

From a British Council poetry competition for children from around the world.  

Thursday, 28 January 2016

On the Road Again!

Home can be about re-finding yourself in a far-away place. That's what recently happened to me.  I've just come back from two challenging but exhilarating weeks in Japan, shooting a new documentary series.
Mount Fuji
I've re-discovered what makes me tick.  Stepping off an airplane and into the unknown. Working long hours bridging cultural and language differences.  Solving seemingly insurmountable logistics issues.  And working, working, working to find the best possible way to tell a story.  

It's something I did for years as a news and current affairs reporter, and then as a documentary writer and director.  In recent years, I have spent more time out of the field and farther up the decision-making chain.  I've spent time on both the buying and selling side of the equation. It has been immensely rewarding on some levels and I've worked with some fantastic people. I am good at it and it always felt like a natural "career step."  It fulfilled the needs of my dutiful, aspiring self.
Great Day at Work!
What I didn't realize, is that during that time I also allowed my passionate, curious, and somewhat rebellious self to take a back seat.  The real me.

I'll admit it.  I've always been impatient with "messaging" and other corporate language for sanitizing reality.  I've spent enough time in that world to know why it happens-- even why it is necessary.  Which is also enough time to learn that it's a job best left to others.

I re-discovered happiness on this trip.  The demands of getting the job done left zero minutes in day for corporate politics, or negative thoughts, or internal power plays within our field team.  I just  knuckled down with my team and got the job done... and felt enormous satisfaction when we succeeded.  And I can't wait to do get out there again!