Reinventing Holidays

We took the opportunity to reinvent Christmas a little this year. With the absence of the usual fantastic community holiday events in our lives we felt the need to bring a new aspect of sharing and celebrating. So the idea of a Literary Festival took hold, and we chose 7 authors to create evening readings from Christmas day to New Years… paired with a dress code of course. Because dressing up is the most fun.

Starting with Christmas day, we read from the new book of short stories from the locally infamous Steve Dunsmuir, which we barely made it through for the teary laughter at times, and in pajamas of course. Then we listened to Thomas King, the first of his Massey lecture called The Truth About Stories, which gave us pause over the stories we believe and create and how they shape our actions in the world. We wore solid colours. Evening 3 was the much anticipated Douglas Adams, in which we listened to the BBC radio play of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy- the tertiary phase… dressed in our best hats, coats and tails. Ahh, for the letting go of the imagination into the ridiculous! Author #4- Mary Oliver. Poetry was an essential requirement for the festival, and so we dressed a little like hippies and read from Mary Oliver’s selected poems, followed with some readings of our own poetic creations. Next we chose Barbara Kingsolver, whom we enjoy as a heart touching fiction writer, although we somehow settled on reading from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, essays on living on a farm and producing and consuming local food. Discussions on food sustainability ensued. We even watched David Attenbourough A Life On Our Planet afterwards… just to really get the point on the importance of dismantling much of the systemic corruption we live in. We decorated ourselves in plants and animals. Evening 6 was Noam Chomsky- a relatively unknown author in our house but inspred by the movie Captain Fantastic, (in which the family reads from and celebrated Noam Chomsky instead of Santa Claus) which was in itself inspiration for our reinvention of the holidays. We embarked on a 3 hour documentary of Manufacturing Consent, an eye opening pre-social media warning of the powers that invisibly feed us certain stories… hmmmm… feeling a little circular in content… we dressed fancy but by now we were beginning to wonder if 7 nights of this was a little long.

The Sword In The Stone

However, we had saved the best for last. Tolkien. And thus, on the night of the 31st, Tolkien Eve was created. We dressed as middle eartheners- Elven, Dwarvish, Rohanian, and Hobbit- thanks to all the past Halloween costumes in the house. We made a true hobbit feast- roasted (homegrown) squash, potatoes, turnip, beets, carrots; veggie sausages, cheese and bread, a bit of salmon. We ate the gingerbread recreation of the sword in the stone that the kids made. Then we read from… Guy Gavriel Kay. Our second most favourite fantasy writer. The Fionavar Tapestries are his most Tolkienish novels, and we got so entranced in Kay that we rather hastily read through an Unfinished Tale of Tolkien and then headed down to the new jam space to avoid falling into a sleepy, post-reading doze. Thus we made it into 2021 with instruments in hand, and elven cloaks on our backs.

It really felt like we touched a lot on the theme of mythology and the stories we bring into our realities. That what we belive about our world, ourselves and of the way we exist in this world, indeed also of our relationships to other humans, extends from these unspoken mythologies that can be passed down unknowingly, or knowingly, or without thought, concern or reality, but which in fact really does shape the entire culture of our communities. If there ever was a time to reinvent stuff, it is now. No matter what age or demographic we are in, even a small token of awareness and action has a ripple effect. Having the awareness to redirect our beliefs towards other humans, to the planet, to the sacred, to the well-being of all, is something we need to hugely embrace even if it means feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable. Conversation is important, open-minded discussions, expressions and art, lest we be apathied into this divided separation.

I certainly didn’t mean to write so much- so if you are still reading let me round out our holidays with beautiful walks, tub installation, tile floor finishing, and the Solstice sun hitting it’s height in the new house. We are deeply sad to miss all the gatherings, but we are grateful for all that we have, which is a lot, a huge amount in fact, of beautiful friends, nature, ocean, forest, food, family, dreams, jobs, health, water, air, earth, and fire. I wish such blessings on everyone.


Loving, loving loving, as the artist can love,

The poet in love with the world- All the senses adoring

All that is alive, courting the whole world with song,

Dancing, poetry, music, a huge passion for life

In the heart.

-Anais Nin

It is truth for me, that the creative spirit that gave form to this world is the same spirit that flows through the creation of everything still being created, by using the hands and thoughts of everyone of us.  Fostering my creative thinking is what propels me forwards, what keeps me in my aliveness.  Creativity is used everywhere, not just in the obvious artistic sense, but in the considerations we face everyday.  How we respond to any situation depends on our creativity and our ability to express ourselves.  It is emerging as the new “education”.  The amount of ways that I see my children create everyday is astounding- in fact, it really is all that they do with the given time of our homeschooling environment.  They create worlds of imagination, then create things to use in those worlds.

It was with the forces of creativity that the elements responded when they intermingled in the very beginnings of life, and it is the quality that will get us out of the many desperate situations that we find ourselves and our human family tangled up in.  For me, the essence of my spirit is what leads my creative thoughts, and it is my thoughts that lead my actions.  When I hear music, or read words, or look at images, it is the feelings that these moments create in my heart that draw me in or not. When I create music, or go out with my camera, or knit, weave, or spin, dance, sing or think up something for dinner, it is my inner stirrings of spirit that a I look for to lead me.  Some call it the Muse, really it can be called whatever you like.  It is an emotion displayed, a heart string, an expression of the spirit that resides in us all.  We just all use different tools, depending on what calls to us and what we have had the opportunity to practice with.  It’s personal and universal at the same time, whether we share it or not.  I give my deepest thanks to the doors that have opened for me, allowing me to explore the forms of creation that give me full expression about myself and this world we live in.

Water Storage and Irrigation System

A small deck and arbour disguises the concrete cistern which collects our spring water, and provides a beautiful space from which to enjoy the pond. The hand pump allows us to access water if the power is out.

Water is a precious resource on the Southern Gulf Islands… and figuring out how to manage what we have when we have it is integral for everyone.  The water source for our three acres of land is supplied by a spring, which has been a registered water source since the 1950’s.  It comes out underground from fissures through the bedrock slope that we have built our house on, and it is beleived that the main supply is filled by rain water running off of George Hill, which rises to the north of our property.  While the land had been only mildly developed, the source of the spring was dug and pooled into a gravel bed and directed to a small concrete cistern.  Previous owners added a small water pump and plastic 300 gallon tank for their domestic use, which serviced the trailer that we became residents of when we purchased the land.

2009- pond dug and water cistern going in

The spring flows all year, but has seasonal fluctuations of flow which correspond quite directly to local rain fall.  It slows to a trickle during the dry season, and fills up again within a few weeks of our first fall rains.  So we have a huge abundance of water in the winter, but we still have to be careful not to overtax the storage capacity in the summer.  With more gardens being created, and more water facilities in the house up and running, we needed to amend our water system to include more water storage.

We added a 1200 gallon buried concrete cistern at the time that we dug the pond, in 2009.  Our field is solid clay, and so was horrifically wet all winter and the pond helped to redirect the incoming winter moisture.  The concrete cistern overflows into the pond, which overflows towards the garden.  However, the water level of the pond drops below the outfall in June, and so the spilling waterway dries up in the season when we could use it the most.  As the next 6 years went along, we watered the garden by hand (which got to be a bigger and bigger job) and experienced  a few summers of extended hot dry conditions, which proved difficult for the spring. Last April we addressed this by adding 2 plastic above ground tanks, each holding 2,000 gallons, for the prupose of irrigation.  The summer following was another long and dry season, but we had awesome results with keeping plants well watered through drip lines and mulch, using the water we set aside from the spring.  We had to refill them partly in August, setting the refill flow at a slow trickle overnight.  By the time the rains returned in october, our season of growing was less intense and we could turn off the irrigation.


Here is a water map of our system as it is functioning at this time.

  1. Underground spring collects into gravel bed and perforated pipe, then gravity feeds to fill the cistern.
  2. Buried concrete cistern holds 1200 gallons, and overflows into the pond.
  3. Water pump in the shop draws water up to the house for our domestic supply.
  4. Water goes through a UV filter.
  5. Outside house tap is turned on to fill the two above ground cisterns using the filtered spring water. (2000 gallons each)

The water is then fed by gravity into the irrigation lines.  A 1″ hose heads to the orchard, where it is split into a 3/4″ line that continues around the pond, and into a 1/2″ line that runs through the orchard.  Drip hoses with either 6″or 12″ spaced drip holes irrigate the rows of cordon espalier fruit trees, and into the various flower, herb, and berry beds.  The veggie garden system is similar, with various drip lines coming off the 1/2″ line.  We dug the 3/4″ line shallowly into the ground around the pond as well as burying the 1/2″ line in places where it crossed paths to avoid damage from stepping on it or tripping.  Two timers are attached to the lines leading into the orchard and leading into the veggie garden, since each area has differing water needs, and shut off valves are placed at the major forks to allow us to manually open or close each section.

The drip system was fairly straight forwards to install after a lesson from islander John Eckfeldt who supplied us with the system.  It is fairly flexible and configurations are easy to adapt for year to year changes.  It works well with a gravity feed, although it is usually affixed to a pressurized system.  Our large tanks are uphill from the gardens by a small degree, so we did some drip tests to see if the volume of water coming from one drip hole was the same as the product indicated, as well as testing out a length of drip line to see if the drip rate was the same after 20 feet.  The timers we bought are also intended to work with less pressure such as gravity provides.




First Pear Crop

We have six pear trees of three varieties in our cordon orchard that was planted in 2014.  This was the first year that we got pears from these trees- a small number of very large pears of each kind.  In my attempt to chronical the annual progress of the orchard, here is a brief description of the pear varieties we planted.

conference pearConference pear- Conference is by far the most widely grown pear in north-west Europe. The variety was found in 1884 as an open pollinated seedling, from a Leon Leclerc de Laval, and cultivated by Thomas Rivers, from Sawbridgeworth in England. It was named ‘Conference’ in 1895 after the ‘British National Pear Conference’ where it was first exhibited. Not long after, this variety occupied a major position within European pear cultivation, due not only to its good flavour characteristics but also to its excellent storage properties. During the last few decades the quality of Conference has been further improved following changes to cultivation techniques, making it the highest in pear cultivation in the Netherlands and Belgium.  Ready for harvest mid september, the conference is a medium sized pear with an elongated bottle, and is suitable for fresh-cut processing.  The skin is thick greenish-brown, becoming pale yellow when ripe, with a moderate amount of russet. The flesh is white, but turns pale yellow when the pear is ripe.  The texture is very fine and soft, and the flavour is sweet.

From European heritage, to local Pacific Westcoast modern varieties…

orcas pearOrcas Pear- Discovered on Orcas Island, Washington, and introduced in 1986, this excellent, disease-resistant variety produces good crops of very large and attractive, carmine blushed, yellow pears with smooth, sweet, buttery flesh. Excellent for fresh eating, canning and drying, Orcas Pear is very reliable and productive and ripens in early to mid-September. These beautiful and tasty Pears can weigh of 1 lb. each!  The Orcas is included in the gardens of the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation, which works to advance fruit horticultural programs for the unique Western Washington maritime climate through advocacy, research, education, and demonstration for the benefit of the general public and the small farmer.

rescue pearRescue Pear- This very large, attractive, yellow fruit with reddish-orange blush is sweet, juicy and flavorful, and great for fresh eating and drying. Well adapted to our Pacific Northwest growing conditions, Rescue is a vigorous, productive, and reliable variety.  The rescue pear was found by Knox Nomura, a nursery grower near Buckley, WA. He had seen the pear at fruit shows but the exhibitor never allowed anyone to take cuttings from his tree during his lifetime, and after his death the tree was scheduled for removal to expand an adjacent cemetery. Knox Nomura “rescued” scionwood from this original tree, and sent trees to Mount Vernon in 1975 for testing. Introduced in 1987.  Ripens early september.

We deeply enjoyed tasting these home grown pears and getting to know their unique qualities.  I look forwards to the maturing of these young trees and the productivity that will flourish as I learn the best pruning techniques for the cordon espalier system that they have been established on.


Expanding the Orchard

chojuro asian pear

Last fall we ordered 5 more fruit trees from Bob Duncan at Fruit Trees and More, our favourite fruit tree supplier.  This time we got 3 plums and two asian pears, all on a dwarf stock.  Bob did some initial pruning when we went to pick up the trees, and showed me how to bend out the remaining branches to encourage tiers of branches spread in a circle around the main leader.  I have tied down the branches while they are still bendable to encourage an open shape.  I planted the trees right away with a sprinkling of bone meal and organic fertilizer, watered them in well and later applied a thick layer of leaf mulch.  Here are the details of the varieties:

Seneca plum– large purple fruit, resembling Italian variety.  Ripens early september, with high quality eating plums also good for canning and drying.

Yellow Egg plum– large, oval yellow fruit with yellow flesh.  Ripens mid september, soft and sweet for eating and canning.

Stanley plum-Ripens mid september, European plum medium to large, excellent for eating fresh, cooking, or canning.

Nijisseki asian pear– ripens late august, medium round, greenish yellow skinned, firm and crisp, excellent eating quality.

Chojuro asian pear– ripens mid august, medium round, brown skinned, mildly sweet, firm and crisp.

asian pear and native berries

asian pear and native berries

The new area is to the west of the orchard that we put in two years ago, and is slightly shadier and wetter than the rest of the open space.  However, this was the only place we could expand the fencing due to our continued plans to have excavators and piles of building materials in the next few years.  I dug trenches for drainage to keep the areas where the bare root fruit trees were to be planted as well drained as possible.  I have been wanting to establish areas of berries, like blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, but I think this new area is too dark and wet.  I discovered that there are lots of native berries that produce abundantly, so I added a few plants each of evergreen huckleberry (growing 5-6 feet tall), lingonberry (2 feet tall), and wintergreen (ground cover).



Hummingbirds love the small, pink-white flowers like fairy bells of the evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum). Late in the summer, black-purple fruits form. Native only to the Pacific Coast (USDA 6-9), it likes acidic soil and can tolerate salt spray and strong winds.  The delicious fruit for pies, jam and unique toppings is an added bonus. In forested areas it can reach 15’ and spreads to form beautiful, dense stands. The glossy, dark green leaves are small and the new shoots are a bronzy red. In full sun, it dwarfs to 3-5,’ and the mature foliage often turns reddish purple.



Vaccinium vitis-idaea (lingonberry) is a short evergreen shrub in the heath family that bears edible fruit, native to boreal forest and Arctic tundra throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Eurasia to North America.  These plants thrive in moist, acidic soils from Massachusetts to Alaska, producing an abundance of healthful, cranberry-like fruits.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbent) is a ground cover that produces the classically refreshing flavour of crisp mint.  The small red berries can be mealy, but are rich in vitamin c.  It is cold hardy and keeps it’s glossy leaves all winter, producing white or pink-tinged bell-like flowers.

new orchard

drainage trenches running between planting areas

Already established in the same area is a black elderberry (sambucus nigra) and three chokecherries that I planted in the margins of the original orchard area.  They are all now nice and tall and bushy, and producing lots of bunches of berries.  Last fall I made a jar of elderberry syrup.  We also have a small native red huckleberry, so I hope to see this corner of the garden flourish with series of all types that we, as well as the birds, can enjoy! dwarf fruit trees



Discovery Apples!

Clockwise: Tydeman's Late Orange, Bramley's Seedling, Lord Lambourne, Rubinette

Clockwise: Tydeman’s Late Orange, Bramley’s Seedling, Lord Lambourne, Rubinette

Our orchard, now in it’s second year, (and first year of fruiting) has produced 8 varieties of apples out of the 17 types that we planted.  Most of the trees had flowers, and it is my guess that the intensely early heat and dryness that we experienced last spring might have contributed to incomplete pollination of many of the trees, or the flowers prematurely falling off.  We have the trees on an irrigation system to help establish the trees in their early years, but it was indeed a challenging season for water and heat.

slicing up Bramley's Seedling

slicing up Bramley’s Seedling

We had one early, transparent variety, a Lodi, drop it’s apples before we realized what type it was!  I spent some time after that looking up the varieties that we planted so we knew generally when to pick the few apples without wasting them.  (The varieties were chosen by Bob Duncan of Fruits Trees and More, and are a diverse collection of heritage apples ripening at different times and having different properties.  They are all a mystery to us and so we are slowly learning by experience!)

Here is what we tasted this year:

Lodi- early transparent from 1924, USA.  Good fresh eating (if harvested at the right time!)  We didn’t get a picture but it looked like a transparent- greeny yellow and soft.


Lord Lambourne

Lord Lambourne- produced the most this year, with a harvest of 9 apples between 2 trees!  A delicious, juicy, crunchy, flavourful apple that we all loved. From 1923 in England.  Mid season.



Rubinette- only 2 apples, fruity and a beautiful red blush over a yellow background.  Almost glowing in colour.  1966, Switzerland- not entirely a heritage.  Mid season.

Bramley's Seedling

Bramley’s Seedling

Bramley’s Seedling- definitely a late season as the 2 huge apples we got were still tart and a bit hard.  However, the description we found said tart, excellent baking apple that keeps 4 months.  1809, England, gives it official heritage status in my mind.



Snow- We got 8 of these little gems between the 2 trees.  They are bright red and beautifully round.  Late season, so we haven’t picked them, but my son ate one and said it was delicious.  Trees Of Antiquity says this:  Snow Fameuse is one of the oldest and most desirable dessert apples, a parent of the aromatic McIntosh. It was found in almost every French settlement, in the late 1700’s, as the Snow apple was planted 1,000 miles in every direction of Canada and the lower states. Flesh is tender, spicy, distinctive in flavor, and snow white in color with occasional crimson stains near the skin. Snow apple is very hardy, heavy bearing tree that is excellent for home orchards. Snow Fameuse is delicious fresh off the tree, in cider, or in culinary creations. One of very few apples that often reproduce true to variety when established from seed.

Tydeman's Late Orange

Tydeman’s Late Orange

Tydeman’s Late Orange- As named, another late variety, but we only had one so we went ahead and tried it.  From England, 1949, good fresh eating and can store for 5-6 months.

Poppy's Wonder

Poppy’s Wonder

Poppies’ Wonder- I couldn’t find much about this variety, and I think this is why- “In the 1990’s, there have even been some great recent chance seedlings such as Poppy’s Wonder, created when a Cox seed was thrown in a compost pile in Victoria, BC and this fabulous apple tree resulted.” Harry Burton, on why we don’t need a GE apple.I think it is a late season apple, very red and round and sweet.



Spitzenburg- This single apple we harvested was fantastic.  Another heritage- Spitzenburg apple was discovered in the late 1700s by an early Dutch settler of that name. It was found at the settlement of Esopus, on the Hudson River, in Ulster County, New York. Much attention was bestowed upon Spitzenburg apple when Thomas Jefferson ordered a dozen trees for his orchard in Monticello. Unexcelled in flavor or quality, the fruit is great off the tree, but flavor radically improves in storage. Medium apple with crisp, yellow skin covered with inconspicuous red stripes and russet freckles. Flesh is tinged yellow, firm, aromatic, and complex in flavor; a perfect balance between sharp and sweet.  Late season.

rubinetteSo much to learn and discover!  We look forwards to getting to know the rest of the apples as they begin to produce in the coming years, along with the apricot, nectarine, peach, pears, and quince- and the  plums and asian pears that we have ordered for planting in march.



Discovery Orchard Progress

Discovery orchardLast March, we planted a 40 tree cordon orchard on our property, which I wrote about in Discovery Orchard.  There were things left unfinished after the initial planting of the young trees as we moved into a busy spring and summer.  We have finally completed the support system and protective roof structure in time for winter, as well as learning a few things about the pruning of these fruit trees.  Unfortunately, a persistent deer got into the orchard one night and stripped all the leaves off every tree, which altered the pruning techniques we learned to some degree.  All the trees came back just fine from this ravage, however, leafing out once again and putting on some new growth along the top leader.

post saddlesColin split all the posts we needed from his salvaged cedar collection, a side benefit of his business, Thujawoodart.  They are mounted on saddles that were concreted in place when the rows were dug, a total of four posts in each of the four rows.  We used airline cable (1/4 inch stranded stainless cable) tensioned at one end with turnbuckles, three to a row placed at 2, 4, and 6 foot heights.

At each tree, I attached a long piece of bamboo with zip ties to the cables, at a 45 degree angle mirroring the angle that we planted the trees.  Then the main stem of each tree was gently tied to the bamboo with stretchable plastic ties.  We pulled off all the flowers (after they were finished- I had a hard time pulling them off when they were still so beautiful!) to encourage the trees to put more energy into establishing their root systems.  The trees sent out side branches during the summer, and when it came time to prune them in August, Colin met with Bob Duncan at Fruit Trees and More to watch how he prunes his cordon fruit trees.  That’s when the deer got in, but we did what we could anyways, which was cutting back each side branch after the third cluster of leaves.  The leader was tied along the bamboo as it grew.

We also added a watering system to help establish the trees in their first few years.  We have a rain barrel sitting on a platform 6 feet high, using gravity to send water as needed to each row using drip tape.  The rain barrel is outfitted with a float at the top, which triggers automatic refilling as needed from our spring.  It has been hard to keep the rows free of weeds- it seems that the well watered soil is hard to resist for many of the field plants that were growing there before.  I have decided to let the clover take over, which seems to do a good job of keeping out the buttercup, thistles, blackberries, and dandelions  My thought is to perhaps cut it down or mulch over it again in late fall and allow it to decompose over the winter.

Our next challenge was constructing the roof over the rows, something which Bob suggested.  He has been growing fruit trees for more than 30 years, and has come to realize that our naturally damp climate makes in difficult to avoid canker and scab and a variety of other diseases after a period of time.  He was in the process of covering all his apple trees when we purchased our trees from him last spring.  It is not common to put a shelter over apple trees, but Bob considered it to be a major organic solution and something that is easier to install right from the beginning.  Covering the trees meant that we could also add some water sensitive varieties like apricots, nectarines, and peaches to our orchard.  sunflowersColin tracked down long metal pipes that are used for drilling wells, and with the skills of a local welder, he constructed a frame that mounts to the top of the posts, one frame covering two rows, with a minimal overhang.  We stretched greenhouse plastic as best we could across each frame, using pvc piping cut into quarters to clamp the plastic to the metal frame and using  self tapping metal screws to hold it all in place.  We aren’t sure if the plastic will develop any sags with heavy water collection, although Colin did make sure that each roof had a slope for run off.

So long as the deer stay out, we should be looking to begin harvesting next year, and with practiced pruning and training our trees should be in full production in 4-5 years.  To read more about the planting and varieties of the trees, please read my previous posting Discovery Orchard.

Snorkeling the Gulf Islands

snorkeling in the gulf islandsOne of the only drawbacks that I have experienced from living in the Gulf Islands is that the water temperature remains, all year round, at a chilly 7 degrees celsius, making it a rather uncomfortable experience for swimming, even on the hottest day of the summer.  Other beaches around Vancouver Island and small islands further north enjoy warm summer swimming in areas of wide sandy beaches, but here, we have lots of rocks and cliffs that dive down deep into fast moving currents.  Apparently, this boasts incredibly well for diving, providing some of the most life abundant waters thriving in the refrigerator that is our local ocean.  It is a frustrating thing to live so close to the ocean and never have the chance to really get in it.  Colin and I have spent many years surfing the West Coast of Vancouver Island, so we have outfitted ourselves with cold water wetsuits for years, but it has only been recently that I realized the simple and beautiful activity of snorkeling around the many bays, inlets, islets, and cliff edges that we are surrounded with.

Pender Penguins snorkeling in January

Pender Penguins snorkeling in January

In January, I put out a call to a few friends, and we started meeting at a local bay to test out wetsuits and snorkel gear, new and old, to see what we had that works and what we need to explore further in comfort and safety.  My 5mm suit with hood, and warm boots and gloves worked quite well with a new snorkel set.  However, while searching for a suit for my daughter, who now is determined to join us in the water, I found a new zipperless Patagonia suit made with 25% merino wool on sale for half price, so I have upgraded from my 15 year old suit.  I figure this will last me the rest of my water-immersed life!5mm wetsuit

We have seen many beautiful things- so many different types of sea stars, anemones, a buffet of seaweeds, crabs, chitons, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and unidentified splendor of all types.  A local diver, Derek Holzapfel, has created a marine species photo database on his website that I have often referred to find out about what I am seeing and what there is to look for.  It is a big learning curve from knowing nothing of what lives below the low tide line, to seeing what thrives by staying deeply submerged.  Getting to swim through swaying bull kelp in sunlit waters has been a dreamy highlight, as well as skimming over shallow rocks covered in feathering barnacles, floating out over a steep drop off of turquoise greenness, then turning to face a wall of life reaching out into the passing fresh currents.

cliffs and kelp beds

cliffs and kelp beds

Every swim is different, even when we visit the same place, and amazing things can be huge or tiny, like the discovery of the giant pink star, (almost 2 feet across!) and sea cucumbers as long as my arm, or the tiny 4cm long white nudibranch tucked in amongst the seaweed jungle.  The visibility has changed as we move into spring, filling the clear winter waters with a “snow” of floating stuff.  Our last swim was down at Drummond Bay, on South Pender, and we had the use of a GoPro camera to swim with.  Joanne, fellow Pender Penguin, has edited the footage into a beautiful video…

kids exploringOur snorkel excursions have also created a wonderful afternoon or morning of beach time for the rest of our families and friends who are not in the water.  Our kids spend the time doing what they do best at the beach- exploring.  They often follow us along the shore.  We have taken kayaks with us so they can take turns paddling with other adults.  We have often had a warming beach fire, and food and tea to enjoy.  Coming out from the cold water and the underwater world seems to leave me in another state of being- slower and floaty, present and grateful, calm and joyful, out of body and entirely in body.  It is difficult to finally declare the chill to be great enough to leave the water, but there is also a deep sense of returning to land as being a place of home.  A re-start button gets pressed in my brain while I play and float and breath in the cold water, feeling the gentle push and pull of waves, and the responding push and pull of my body with that of the seaweeds- a floating meditation.

what lives beneath that glassy surface?

what lives beneath that glassy surface?

Discovery Orchard

an orchard visitorLast fall, Colin and I decided to get going with planting an orchard of fruit trees.  Drainage ditches had been put in around our field the previous spring, transforming our sodden and squelchy ground into a walkable and plantable area.  Our ideas of October seemed well in advance of March, so we approached a local fruit growing expert, Bob Duncan, and asked for his suggestions for the varieties of apples to make up a cordon espalier orchard of about 40 trees.  We were interested in early, mid, and late season apples, with cross pollination dates and a variety of uses for the fruit, as well as a handful of pear varieties.  Bob has been growing fruit for 30 years on the Saanich Peninsula, and now has over 300 types of fruit on his property of less than 1 acre.  He specializes in dwarf apple trees, (over 200 heritage varieties of unusual and hard to find varieties), but also has over 80 varieties of pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, figs, grapes, kiwi, quince and medlar, over 30 varieties of citrus, and hardy subtropicals such as pomegranates, persimmons, loquats, feijoa, jujubes, and olives.  We know where to go when we are looking to expand our fruit harvest!

trees coming outBob put together a list for us and said we could pick them up in four months.  By mid February, Colin eyed up a bunch of trees on the perimeter of the orchard space and decided that they would need to come out first- small and unhealthy cedar trees that leach nutrients from the soil, and some fir trees sporting signs of rot.  A week later and the open field was littered with scrambling heaps of green branches, tops of trees, and a variety of thick and rotten trunks.  It was then that we got an email announcing the imminent pick-up dates for our trees, some of which were bare root and would need to be planted right away.

fencing the clearingWe spent the next two days clearing.  Our decision not to burn anything except in a fireplace left us separating all the debris into piles- the greenery and thin branches for the chipper, the thick branches to be cut up with the chop saw for firewood, and the trunks chopped into rounds for more firewood.  Colin picked up the trees, as well as metal fence posts, a roll of wire fencing, bonemeal, dolomite lime, an organic fertilizer blend, tree tags, tree strapping, a box of 16 post saddles, three bags of concrete, and a new shovel.  Luckily, there was a trailer full with two yards of sea soil sitting just down the road waiting to be sold, so we didn’t need to do an extra trip across the water to fill up with composty soil amendment.

post holesColin laid out the four rows, 2.5 feet wide and 35 feet long each, running north south and spaced with 5 feet between them, and began to dig four post holes in each row to support the wires upon which we would train the cordon trees.  We observed that we had about one and a half feet of nice topsoil, then a solid delineation of clay.  It rained quite a bit in the time of all this digging, and it became clear that the water filtering through the topsoil was hitting the clay layer and pooling, rather abundantly, in our holes.  This didn’t bode well for any tree roots that might be planted nearby, so we resolved that we would also need a drainage ditch running across the ends of all the rows and moving any water off to the side.  The gentle slope of the orchard area will help move the water towards the ditch.

We spent another day mixing concrete, filling the post holes and setting the saddles.  We hammered in the perimeter fence posts and ran the wire fencing around the outside of the rows, leaving a measured gap for an old garden gate.  Then we dug some more.  Colin removed the soil from the rows, a foot deep and two feet wide.  I amended the soil in wheelbarrow sized batches with sea soil, one cup of bonemeal and lime, and shoveled it back into the trenches, with a lofty 4 inch berm.  planting bare root treesThe bare root trees went in first- six pears, two peaches, a nectarine and an apricot- three feet apart with the main stems set at a 45 degree angle, pointing north.  (Except for the stone fruit.  These will be grown in a fan shaped espalier at the south end of each row, filling in the space created by the first tree planted at an angle.)  Our choice to train the dwarf trees in a cordon system was based on the understanding that this system results in a high production of fruit in a small space that can be attended to very easily.

apple treesOf all the 30 apple trees, there are 17 different varieties, most of which are a complete mystery to me.  The first apple tree that I picked out of the pile was named Discovery, and as I tucked it in I wondered what a Discovery apple looks like, tastes like, and what time of the season it would be ready to harvest.  In fact, knowing nothing about any of the varieties made me realize that this whole project was going to be one of immense discovery and learning; all the different flavours and timing and uses.  We have apples called Snow and Lodi and Karmijn de Sonneville.  I am familiar with the Gravenstein and Cox, but what will a Vanderpool apple taste like?  From getting these trees planted to pruning them, training them, and generally keeping them alive for the 3-5 years until they are in full production, (and beyond) will be a whole new subject of learning for me and Colin.

We still have posts to put up, and support wire, as well as a plastic roof system that will cover all the trees 2 rows at a time,  with Bob’s recommendation.  He has been struggling for 30 years to organically avoid blight and canker, and has come to the conclusion that it is all related to the high amount of moisture that we receive on the coast.  Adding the clear roof also allows us to put in those more water tender stonefruit trees (apricot, peach, and nectarine).  Bob Duncan can be found at Fruit Trees and More.




Our Veggie Van

our veggie van

1982 veggie Westy

It has been nine years now since we transformed our Volkswagon Westfalia diesel to run on straight vegetable oil.  Back in 2004, Colin and I acquired the 1982 westy from his relatives in California, and we converted it to run on veggie oil in 2005.  Volkswagon made this diesel model for the North American market only for one year, and shipped them to California in response to the gas crisis of the late 70’s.  Hence, these diesel Westfalia’s are rather hard to find.

German engineer Rudolph Diesel patented the diesel engine in 1892.  He experimented with vegetable oils and successfully used peanut oil. Ultimately, Diesel settled on a stable byproduct of the petroleum refinement process that would come to be known as “diesel fuel.”  In contrast to the other steam engines of the era, which wasted more than 90 percent of their fuel energy, Diesel calculated that his could be as much as 75 percent efficient.

In our quest to move away from being dependent on the petroleum industry,  we saw a useful endeavor in feeding our diesel engine used vegetable oil from the local restaurants.  As long as the oil is non-hydrogenated and filtered, we have had no problems while driving around for free.   A secondary fuel tank to hold the vegetable is the first step.  Vegetable oil is very thick (more viscus) compared to diesel, and thickens at cooler temperatures, so it needs to be heated up before it is sent to the engine.   The vehicle is started on diesel (or biodiesel) in the original fuel tank, and then switched over to veggie oil after the vehicle has been running a minute or two and has heated up.  We used the coolant lines from the radiator to heat the veggie tank with a hotstick (which is a metal rod that the coolant runs down and back up and out of and sticks down into our veggie tank) and a heated fuel filter/water separator system which the coolant lines run through as well.  In this manner the veggie oil is heated first in the tank, then again as it passes through the fuel filter.  Both fuel tanks send the fuel through a 6 port valve before the engine.  This is how you switch between tanks as there are 4 ports on the incoming side (a fuel line from each tank and a return line for each, carrying any fuel not used in the engine) and 2 ports on the engine side (again a line to the engine and the return line to the tanks).  We have a toggle switch on the dash board to switch between tanks.  Just before the veggie oil reaches the engine it goes through a small inline instantaneous electric heater about 8″ before the injector.  This is only turned on when we are driving on the veggie tank.  This is very helpful in our colder winter weather, but not as necessary further south.  Colin also looped the return line from the veggie side of the 6 port valve so that any unused veggie oil coming out of the engine (which is already hot) just goes right back into the feed line to the engine, again helping keep the veggie oil nice and hot.  We did our research and bought a conversion kit locally in BC from a company called which included the hotstick, fuel filter/water separator, 6 port valve, relays, toggle switch, inline heater and some wire, clamps and other necessities.  I think it cost us around $900 at the time.  Colin and our friend Dan both converted their vehicles together over a couple days.  We had a custom tank made out of 3/8″ hard plastic that is mounted in the space under the sliding door entrance to the van.  The tank sticks up at the rear end into the storage area under the rear seats.  This is where the hotstick, and fuel filter/water separator are also mounted.  The fuel lines run from there straight into the engine compartment and into the 6 port valve.  The conversion was fairly straight forward and Colin and Dan figured it all out and completed it about 8-10 hours (for both vehicles).  We have collected used veggie oil from most of the restaurants on Pender over the years, but now collect from one restaurant, The Hope Bay Cafe, because they change their oil regularly and prefilter as they put it back into the 16L totes that we collect it in (and they are close by and are nice people!)

We did what is commonly called a ‘veggie conversion’, but this doesn’t alter the engine in any way.  To get most diesel vehicles to run on vegetable you don’t actually change the existing fuel system, but add a second tank that will hold the vegetable oil.  Biodiesel is vegetable oil that has undergone a chemical process, giving it more viscosity even at lower temperatures, and so it can be directly mixed with and put into a regular diesel engine.


our home pumping station

We have made long trips each summer, in which we carried with us the veggie oil we would need along the way.  We have often pulled into gas stations, only to fill up our veggie tank with our own little pump that runs off the car battery.  We use water from the gas station to clean the filter that we place inside the veggie oil container which is attached to the pump hose.  It feels pretty good to be one more step away from being reliant on the oil industry.  Recycling used cooking oils from local restaurants has been a huge benefit also for the restaurant owners, who normally have to pay to have it taken away, and for the multi-use availability of the veggie oil itself.  And we are happy driving around for free.

Rose Hip Delight

happy harvestersAutumn here is always so colourfully punctuated by the brilliant red orbs of the rose hips as they hang themselves out for the picking.  In the early summer, we spent an afternoon with Ange delicately lifting off the fragrant petals of the roses, being careful to leave the centers, which now have plumped up with seeds on the almost leafless brambles.  On the west coast, we get far more rain than frosts, and so collecting rose hips before they get too soaked and rotten is a better bet than waiting for a first frost.  With the seven of us, we collected almost ten cups in an hour, and then came back to our house to cook them into a syrup for use during the winter.  Cedar particularly liked the thorns, and we discussed the energies of protection that surround the rose and it’s ability to defend us from illness and disease.

The hips of the rose (rosa canina and related species… here we have the nootka rose or rosa nutkana) are loaded primarily with vitamin C, many times the amount found in citrus fruit when measured gram for gram.  Vitamin C is a noted antioxidant with disease fighting abilities.

“The astringency of rose hips can help relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids, coupled with the Vitamin C, have potent antioxidant action and help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses. The high vitamin C content of rose hips will therefore be extremely useful in preventing and fighting infections, colds, flu, and pneumonia, (syrup is the classic way to preserve hips).

Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules are always combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience Vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose hips are rich in this vital chemical complex, known to strengthen body tissues and help to build and maintain a healthy vascular system, preventing damage to fragile capillaries.”  Christopher Hope

Rose hip syrup was exactly our plan for the day.  We simmered 4 cups of hips in 8 cups of water for a few hours, until the hips were soft enough to mash and the water quantity had diminished by a few cups.  After mashing everything in the pot, we then poured the contents through cheese cloth, collecting the liquid in a bowl, and then we squeezed every precious drop out of the pulp.  It was a beautiful deep red with a tinge of orange.  We then added about a cup of honey to sweeten it to our liking, which helps to preserve the syrup while adding the medicinal benefits of the honey to the elixir.

Traditionally, before the invention of the fridge, a lot more honey would be added as a preservative, making it more of a thick syrup.  Our syrup is more like a decoction that will last three months in the fridge.  We have enjoyed it by the spoonful, mixed in with our smoothies, or added to warmed up spiced apple cider.  We did try to cut some of the hip open and scrape out the seeds and the fine hairs inside so we could dry the outside part for making tea.  The hairs can be irritating to the throat, (and to the bottom end on their way out), so it is especially important to remove the seeds and hairs before drying.  We found the task to be time consuming and tedious, so we didn’t do too much of it.  I think the syrup will be a more widely used and appreciated preparation of this years’ rose hips.  Thanks again, Ange, for leading us through this simple and warming process of preparing the beautiful rose hips!

Summer Pondside

lilliesThis summer we have really been experiencing the abundance of our pond as it grows into it’s own beautiful and unique habitat.  Dragonflies and damselflies helicopter over our heads catching bugs on the move, and water boatmen navigate around our ankles and legs.  We have watched the progression of native tree frogs from egg sacs to tadpole to tiny green gems snuggling into the folds of the water plantain and the tall flat stems of the cattails.  We have seen the brief orange flash of a rough skinned newt, and watched puddling ducks and diving grebes, all within the close gaze from the living room window or the pond side lounge.

The pond was dug four years ago as an integral part of our lands’ water system.  It is 50 feet across both ways, 12 feet deep in the middle, and captures 50,000 gallons of spring water, holding it entirely by the natural solid clay that makes up our lower field.  The spring that emerges on our property at the base of the bedrock slope has been registered since the 1950’s and flows all year round, decreasing in the summer months when the rain stops.  Previous land owners dug down and placed a gravel bed with perforated drain pipe in the spring, which we connected to a 1175 gallon below ground concrete cistern for our domestic water.  A pump delivers this water up to the house, and the overflow from the continuous spring water pours into the pond.  In the winter, the overflow from the pond creates a small stream that we have directed towards the garden, which we plan to utilize more effectively in the next few years’ of landscaping.

Right now, being July and without rain for a month, the overflow from the cistern stops while the tank recharges from the spring whenever we use the water, taking up to several hours to trickle out once again, and the level of the pond has dropped 8 inches below the outflow to the garden.  It will most likely drop another foot before the autumn rains begin once again.

Besides water catchment and creating natural habitat, the pond is a fabulous swimming spot.  We had the excavator build two ledges at either end, one being for plants and the other for a small beach.  The beach area goes out about 10 feet before a small rock wall marks the place where it drops off into the full depth, and at one end of the beach is a large rock placed far enough out so that we can jump off into the middle of the pond.  This June we got around to building a wooden deck over the lid of the concrete cistern, which will later have a four post arbor and shade providing vines growing over top as an intimate and relaxing space.  Colin put in a small stone patio connecting the deck to a rock near the outflow pipe, and we formed the beach by building a low rock wall that separates the grass from the sand that slopes down to the entrance to the pond beside the small deck.

These small improvements, with the growing in of the water plants, have created a little oasis for us and many of our neighbours during these hot months of summer.  Almost everyday we have some friends stopping by for a late afternoon cool off, giving the pond a community feel.  All that we ask of everyone is to have respect for the life that is abundant in the natural eco-system, and to have an awareness of safety and responsibility for each other.

On the topic of maintenance, the pond has proven to be not for the faint of heart.  It is a lot of hard work as we navigate the various needs for a healthy water habitat.  We have had various years of algae blooms and have considered different aeration systems to keep the water circulating and fresh.  Really we wanted the pond to create a natural system that self regulates with filtering plants, oxygenating plants, and algae eating critters.  For a few years we left a barley bale floating around in the water, as decomposition of barley straw in water produces and releases many compounds, one of which apparently controls algae populations. The chemical compound does not eliminate existing algae cells but interferes with and prevents the growth of new algae cells. As “old” algae cells naturally die off, few new algae cells are produced and the algae population is controlled as long as the compound is being produced.  We also introduced snails, which feed on the algae growing on rocks and plants.  One year we added a large jug of microbes.  It is difficult to know if any one of these methods really worked or not, since there are so many other natural variants from year to year, and really, the pond is still very young and adapting.  This year the water is clear and clean as the plants and animals settle in.

We planted a dozen water lily plants that we acquired from a friend who was moving, and a few water iris’s and a dwarf water bamboo plant.  All other plants have naturalized, probably from ducks visiting from other ponds.  We have a growing stand of cattails, a fringe of water plantain, sedges and rushes on the edge of the water, narrow-leaved bur-reed, and an aggressive buttercup- like lily.  Now that things are filling in, I am spending more time trying to pull much of it out so that we can still swim in the pond, and so that we can control the alien invaders of the American Bullfrog, which has made itself comfortably at home on Pender in the last few years.  Two years ago we caught two males quite easily, but this year we have a huge male and a female that are quick and elusive.  All this plant matter for them to hide in doesn’t make for easy eradication.  They eat the native tree frogs, as well as dragonflies, hummingbirds, and baby goslings.  No natural predators in this area make them the top of the fresh water food chain.  So besides spending many hours ripping out the deep roots of the water buttercup (I have yet to make an actual identification of this plant), Colin and I have made nightly journeys down to the pond to hunt out the bullfrogs.  I head out in the hand crank paddle boat that my father made for us, with a high powered head lamp, and look for glowing eyes.  Colin sneaks around the pond edge with a net and tries to move faster than they can jump.  At this point, the frogs are winning, and we are increasingly concerned that they are laying masses of egg sacs which will hatch into tadpoles next spring.

Mostly though, the pond has been an important central feature in our increasingly developed vision of our gardens.  It has brought us together with our community through birthday celebrations,  musical concerts, summer picnic potlucks, work party dips, Summer Solstice ceremonies, and casual cool down hang outs.  It has also provided the opportunity for Cedar and Taeven to become stronger swimmers, and made restful and intimate memories for us as a family.  The pond is a constant reminder of the sacred abundance and presence of the spring water that we rely on as our water source.  I imagine that as we all grow, the pond will provide many more years of beautiful memories as we work to create a sanctuary of connection between us, the land and water, and our community.

Learning the Medicine of the Forest

mahonia tincture

mahonia tincture

As late winter gave its final nod to the delicacies of spring and the plants in the forest around us began to put on their greenery,  it seemed the perfect time to learn about the medicines that the natural world offers.  Our friend and neighbor has been studying and using herbs and wild plants for medicine for a number of years, and so another home schooling family and I asked if she would be willing to meet with us every few weeks and teach us about the qualities of wild medicines during this season, working with whatever plants are ready for collecting as the spring progresses into summer.

 digging mahoniaThe first plant we learned about, one that is prolific in these pacific northwest forests, is oregon grape root, or Mahonia Nervosa.  In the late winter (or in the fall) the brilliantly yellow roots of mahonia can be dug up, cleaned, chopped, and soaked in alcohol to make a very strong tincture.  It didn’t take long for our four enthusiastic children to get their hands into the dirt and gently coax up the long sections of root.  They cleaned it, tasted it, smelled it, chopped it, and covered it with alcohol.  Each step was accompanied by many observations about how the plant affected our senses, and sometimes these sensations were different for each of us.  After labeling the tincture clearly we each had a turn swishing the jar, and sending our own thoughts of love and healing into the mixture.  chopped mahonia rootWe learned about the quality of bitter as we tasted the roots, as well as when we collected the earliest spring greens that we can eat, one of which is the common dandelion.  Bitter flavours have the effect of instantly sending a message to our brains, which then send a message to our stomaches to release certain digestive juices which stimulate easier digestion.  We don’t eat very much bitter food in our diets these days, and often our bodies do not get the opportunity to use this system of response.  The root is also blood cleansing (minerals/ detoxifying), astringent (tightens and tones), anti bacterial, anti fungal, and anti parasitic. It expels heat type conditions, urinary tract infections and has long been used for skin disorders such as eczema and psoriases. This is largely due to the action that mahonia has on the blood system.

wild saladBesides dandelion leaves and flowers, we also collected chickweed, plantain, sheep sorrel and it’s garden cousin lemon sorrel, lemon balm, miners’ lettuce, peppercress, and cleavers, all of which were growing in a small area around our house and in our garden.  Because of the small size of our group, we were able to engage in rather intimate conversations about our individual observations of smell, tangy or mild flavour, and dryness or juiciness.  Our kids are all quite familiar with the practice of eating wild greens, and their openness to explore more options and use their intuitive senses is quite real.  So is their caution, however, and on a few occasions they found look alike plants that they were able to discern as being different and so unknown in safety.  We all went off in scavenger hunt fashion, to find and collect  a handful of each plant.  After mixing in some kale and early lettuce, and adding a light balsamic dressing, we sat and munched on an incredibly fresh and nourishing salad.  Ange served up lemon balm iced tea to refresh the senses even more.

straining tinctureA few weeks later we met to strain out the chopped pieces of the mahonia tincture and bottle the medicinal liquid.  We all found that it smelled horrible, and even tasted horrible, but it was evident that strong medicine was present.  Everyone took turns in the pouring, bottling, and labeling, and we learned that to evaporate the alcohol for children, we could pour boiling water over the dosage needed and mix it with honey or licorace to sweeten it up.  Mahonia heads

Then Ange turned our attention to the Douglas Fir tree that was growing right above our heads and the picnic table we were working on.  We noted the needles lying flat on either side of the stem they grew on, rather than circling in a directions like other kinds of fir.  At the very ends there was the lighter green flush of new needles.  As each of us each chewed on a few needles,  an incredible interchange of flavour and texture ensued with different observations about sensation being expressed by us all.  douglas fir needlesWe were going to make a fir vinegar.  After clipping the new growth off the branches we could reach, the stems were plucked and the luscious needles placed into a large mason jar.  Then we poured apple cider vinegar to cover it, and labeled it.  Joanne took the fir needle vinegar home to let it sit until we meet again to strain it.  I wasn’t familiar with the idea of tree medicine, and I am so grateful to learn more.  The trees hold so much for us, and I am always astounded at our forgetfulness.  fir needlesAll of the medicines we have made follow the folk method of measurement, which means approximate amounts and intuitive reasoning.  Whether adding alcohol or vinegar as the medicinal carrier, we have used just enough to completely cover the plant material without leaving too much extra liquid. If the plant material swells a little, a bit more liquid can be added to keep it covered.   The vinegar or tincture is kept in a dark place for about a month before being strained.

“A plant is always much more than it’s constituents. The action or energetics of the plant can be felt through our unique sensory organs, which can be a very personal experience. This is the foundation of herbal medicine and how we can reconnect to a beautiful wisdom.”  Thanks so much to Ange for her insightful words, and the opportunities that she has brought to us through her own journey.

Celebrating A New Christmas

As we journey through the year, Christmas comes as another little blessing.  -Taeven

Colin's hand painted Christmas card

Colin’s hand painted Christmas card

Indeed, the arrival of this time of year provides opportunities for us to step out of the routine of daily life and reflect on the greater values that we hold for ourselves and for the world.  It has taken me many years of feeling caught in a dualistic drama surrounding Christmas to be finally moving into the direction of creating the kinds of traditions that support the values and emotions that I long for at this time of year. While I trudge through the rituals that our North American society, media, and religion have handed to us, and attempt to surround myself and family with ways that feel true for me, there is a motivation to find beauty and deep connection to the light of the spirits of the people around me.  This year I feel particularly strong about creating Christmas with a certain emotional field for myself and for my family.  It seems like a great window to let in beauty, connection, laughter, joy, love, gratitude,the timelessness of days, simplicity, and prayers of peace for the world.  I find myself yearning to create this certain atmosphere, and filling myself up with warmth and the importance of being together.  I struggle with fitting these energies into the physical manifestation of the traditional ways that are expected, and sometimes feel that my hesitations to replicate what everyone else is doing may cause disappointment or misunderstandings.  How do I translate this to those around me in an honest way through such acts as giving a physical gift… a gift of the thoughts of my heart?  For in my heart I wish to give so much to everyone, but without incurring financial strain, encouraging the clutter of stuff, and widening the divide that lies between those who have and those who have not.  So much mental debris is created when we feel obligated or expected- divides between rich and poor, imbalances of wasteful and scarce proportions.  I want to give beyond these limitations,  I want my gifts to reflect my genuine motivation to give honourably and without insult or suggestion, without waste or  support of the factorization of cheap, environmentally harmful stuff.  I hope that handmade tokens, second hand presents, and gifts of food is simply enough.

our tree made with branches

our tree made with branches

I would stuff the stockings with brain teasers and jokes, art activities and clues to scavenger hunts, or with games that involve piecing together something from each persons stocking.  Personal challenges can be created and tucked in for each person, and perhaps can lead to finding a hidden gift.  Things that would keep us all giggling and silly, that keep the laughter and festivities alive throughout the day instead of the short-term, rip-it-open-and-move-on-to-the-next-thing method.  I loved the stocking moment when I was young, but I can’t seem to bring myself now to buying tons of little plastic things to quite over stuff everyone’s stockings.  Activities and collaborative team efforts to create fun and beautiful moments are the best thing I can think of to replace a huge pile of presents that get torn through before breakfast.  I struggle with the waste of cut trees of Christmas, and have created an annual tradition of building a tree by gathering large branches that have blown down on our property and standing them upright in a bucket of water, supported within a bamboo frame.  We collect different kinds of fir and cedar, and I give a blessing of thanks and respect to the diversity and importance of the life-giving forests of our island and around the world.

homemade gingerbread made with Nana

homemade gingerbread made with Nana

And what of the foods of Christmas?  How do I shed a blanket of love over the cooking of Christmas dinner?  Slow food all day, long meals made with many hands, vegetables infused with the luscious flavors of patience and love.  Conversations shared over chopping boards and simmering sauces, laughter spilling like warm drinks and fresh fruit.  A variety of children’s head levels skirting and giggling in wild joy.  Hands passing glasses and plates as if these everyday objects are in themselves, gifts to be given and received.  Eating only what is needed, and savoring each bite with gratitude, sending prayers of abundance to each corner of the world.

a winter walk

a winter walk

It is important for me to venture out into the winter world no matter what the weather is.  To walk together in the fresh crisp air and remember that the hearth of my home is also the hearth of the earth and of the global interconnectedness of the living world.  Humanity, since our slow beginning, has shared the same air molecules as every animal, plant, tree, insect, bird and fish that has ever lived on the earth, renewing and recycling the very particles that bring life into our lungs and blood, just as it brings life to the leaf cells and sap of the towering, ancient trees and young shoots.  Warm hands in mine, I want to walk through gusts, rain, sun, snow, cloud and mist, breathing in the beauty of the air, the abundance of moisture, a giving and receiving in every breath.  Sharing the crisp and glistening air and feeling the world together, the sense of home expanding into the heavens and into the soil waiting quietly for spring.  The birds snapping up the clusters of seeds heads and worms that wiggle and sway- I want to hear their joyful songs and know that their melodious calls are gifts enough.

But what if I cannot do all these physical things?  What if I had no time to hand make gifts, no money to buy games and food, no home even to wake up on Christmas day?  What if my family was gone, or I had none, or those that I had did not feel the way I do or share the same motivations and values?  What if I was limited in any way from practicing these physical rituals that reflect my emotional values…could I still hold these energies of Christmas and feel fulfilled?  Could I still be warmth and love, connection and beauty, joy and gratitude and giving?  How would I show it, share it, offer it?  How do I create physically that which I feel energetically if my physical world is not such as it is- perfectly privileged?  We are spiritual beings first, having a physical experience, but it is through our worldly ways that we express our spiritual energies and needs.  I suppose this is the constant challenge- to meditate deeply in the midst of chaos, in noise and pollution and different opinions, judgement and poverty.  To emanate my center of peace and love, and offer it to any who may wish to take it.

It is a luxury that I can consider it an easy possibility to create my ideal vision of how I want to surround myself during the Christmas season, that I can freely try on and rearrange the comforts of life that fit exactly into my spiritual center.  I understand, though, the danger of being dependent on the perfect setting to achieve such peace. I am swimming, floating even, in gratitude that all I write about is completely possible for myself and my family.  It is my wish that I can be surrounded by friends and family who share in this longing for connecting with each other, to bring with them a desire to share love and generosity, to be willing to be openhearted and tender, and to rejoice in festivities.  I want to be bursting with life, and laughing with tears, and saying thank you, thank you, thank you, for being who you are, and to have eyes to look into who say thank you, thank you, thank you, back.  I send out prayers that there will be this same luxury and privilege for everyone- to create for themselves a season of celebration that is an authentic reflection of the beauty of our hearts and spirits, filled with love for one another, and feeling the true peace of the world.

I celebrate the spirit of giving with my hands and with my heart.  I celebrate the spirit of beauty in nature.  I celebrate the spirit of joy with laughter.  I celebrate the spirit of light with candles and with my own internal source of divinity.  I celebrate the spirit of abundance with gratitude.  I celebrate the spirit of love with eyes and hands and prayer.  This is my offering in any place I may be, with whomever I may be with.

Christmas Gifts of Connection

a green star of Christmas

a green star of Christmas

Just as the winter season of Christmas begins to draw nearer and nearer and my conflicted heart starts to get all knotted up about the dualities of this holiday and what it has become in our world today, our homeschool facilitator sent out her ideas about education and the role we can take in bringing our next generation into a different understanding of the impacts of the mass consumeristic element that threatens to dismantle the magic that Christmas ultimately desires to stand for.  Instead of bringing peace,  light and joy to everyone, the time of Christmas triggers so much sadness, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and anger in too many people… a trend that I seek to change for myself and for my family in the hopes that establishing new ways of celebrating the season of love and birth will help alter the emphasis of what this holiday means.

being clear with ourselves and respectful with our earth

being clear with ourselves and respectful with our earth

I do not intend to point fingers to the one issue sorrounding consumerism and the dualities of rich and poor, as I understand that there are so many other factors in the social soup of discord that becomes many peoples’ main flavour around this time of year. Also I do not intend to say that all gifts bought from a store and given at this time are contributing to the negative cycle, as long as those who are buying things do so with love in their hearts and without feelings of obligations that work against what is personally affordable, and consideration is given to the integrity of the gift chosen.  I think it is important that we pay attention to what we are doing, and make it clear for ourselves and for our children, (to whom Christmas media is hugely targeting), that we can create new choices for the ways in which we celebrate and give to each other that do not come with economic, environmental, and emotional stresses.  I would like to reprint Julie’s article about some ideas for education around the issue of consumerism, as inspiration for untangling the heart strings.

Greenheart Education- Julie Johnston

Below are some ideas for teaching sustainability in transformative ways by “greening” the holidays along with your students (or children at home). And I’m not just talking about colouring the holidays green — I’m talking about dipping the holidays into a vat of natural dye until they are drenched in green!

Life Cycle Analysis of Christmas (and Other) Presents

Take time to discuss or reinforce the concept of needs versus wants. Many people forget the difference at “giving” times of the year. Help children see the connections between what they receive (and quickly discard) and the living conditions of their brothers and sisters — of all species — around the world.

How can we get our children to be satisfied with fewer and less expensive gifts when their friends are getting lots of (sometimes expensive) gifts?

You can’t expect kids to go cold turkey. I have found that kids are somewhat open to the understanding that this is somebody else’s birthday that we’re celebrating. If you can make the holiday joyful enough with enough points of real pleasure, parties, hikes, special activities, spending time together… if you can do enough of those things, then the focus won’t be so single-mindedly on how big the pile under the tree is.
— Bill McKibben, Hundred Dollar Holidays

This is also a great time of year to teach about life cycle analysis! As many children in different parts of the world ask for and receive lots of new “stuff” for Christmas (or other holidays), help them become aware of the environmental, social and economic impacts of their gifts.

Talk to children about where their gifts (those they give as well as those they receive) come from and go to. Extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal (the “materials economy”) all have their costs and benefits. But this is a linear system in a finite world (“cradle to grave”), and hence unsustainable.

Introduce the cradle-to-cradle life cycle, where waste = food for the next product, and Nature is regenerated by our “industrial” processes. (Visit this short primer to learn more about the cradle-to-cradle concept.)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a series of three posters (click the link to download), showing the life cycle of


Several other life cycle analysis resources are listed at Greening Schools.

Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute movie that teaches where things come from — and end up. Leonard is an American sustainability scholar, and the film was created from an American perspective (translations into several languages are in the works). If you haven’t yet seen this film, be prepared to have your view of the world rattled somewhat. (Suitable for secondary school students, and perhaps those a bit younger.)


For older students, check out Consume This! Buying That Matters.

A learningful way to teach the concept of sustainable development during this time is to have each student bring a gift from home, perhaps the favourite one they received last Christmas or sometime during the previous year for a birthday or another holiday. (Let’s ignore, for now, Annie Leonard’s statistic about how many new purchases are thrown out within a few months!) If the gift is too big to bring to school or was a service gift, they can bring a photograph or illustration of it, or simply tell a story about it.


Have each child draw a triple Venn diagram with three large overlapping circles, on their own piece of paper or on the board. Label one circle Environment, one Social Equity, and one Economy.

Next, as students start trying to picture where their gift came from, and where it will end up, have them write the answers to questions that arise in the appropriate circles or intersections. For example,

  • What natural resources were used to produce this gift?
  • Are they renewable or recyclable?
  • How far did this gift travel? Was it locally made?
  • What is its “carbon footprint”?
  • Who made this gift? Who transported it? Who sold it?
  • Were they paid a fair living wage?
  • How much did this gift cost?
  • Was that a fair price for the buyer (or Santa)? What is its cost-per-use?
  • What will happen to this gift when it’s no longer needed/wanted?
  • Is there a price to pay for getting rid of it? If so, who will pay that price?
  • How much did this gift truly cost?

(Encourage students to watch Ed Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes if they don’t know the answers to these last questions.)

Answers that require research could turn this into a longer-term project.

A similar activity is written up in the Grade 5-8 Education for Sustainability Concepts section of National Sustainability Education Standards – Version 2, from the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, under 3.2 Collective Action: “Designing a Sustainable System – Using a Venn diagram, students log environmental, social, and economic impacts of a service or system that they use (e.g., transportation of food product). Then students brainstorm a more effective “cradle to cradle” life cycle for the system or product that is effective in terms of reusing or recycling technical nutrients and returning biological nutrients to nature.”

Discuss Gifting Alternatives

Take the time to discuss questions, feelings, needs and concerns that arise. For example, this might be the first time some students have discovered their “social conscience” — and it can be disconcerting, especially if these glimmers of the Golden Rule at the global level contrast with their families’ values and holiday traditions.

Discuss ideas the children have for making their celebrations and gift-giving kinder to the planet, and to others around the world and in the future.

  • Service coupons
  • Charitable donations in the recipient’s name
  • Homemade gifts
  • Fair trade gifts
  • Handmade reuseable wrapping “paper” or gift bags
  • Plants or homecooked foods

Share your students’ ideas in a school e-newsletter.

I wish you, your students and your family a simple holiday season filled with love, peace, fun and kindness — for all.



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