Thursday, January 25, 2018

Doomsday Clock Inches Forward

Just read on CBC news that the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight.
The hypothetical clock measures how close humanity is to destroying ourselves and the world we live on.
While not exactly uplifting news, it's not surprising that the clock's hands have been moved. With all the posturing about nuclear war and climate change denial in the news these past few months, it's more a question of "what took you so long?"
Here's a link to a CBC story on the topic, for those interested:
And, in honor of this story, here's a link to a haibun of mine published in Contemporary Haibun Online in their September, 2017 edition:

Wouldn't it be great if people come across this poem a few decades from now, and say, "Imagine that, feeling so close to destruction back then. We're in much better shape now."
It's possible. Back in 1991, the hands were set at seventeen minutes to midnight. Still too close, but a bit more breathing room.

Things can change for the better—we need to believe that, and do what we can to make it so.
For the sake of my grandchildren, I hope we're successful.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cherish is the Word

Most of us, I think, have a song that has the power to launch them back through time, and evoke a specific moment or emotion. 

“Cherish” is such a song for me. 

For when I hear it, on the radio or even in my mind, I am suddenly nine years old again, sitting on a chair in the kitchen.  It is early, early morning, well before my normal get-out-of-bed time and everything seems a bit fuzzy because I am not yet fully awake.  I am sitting—perhaps have been told to sit?—off to the side, out of the way while my parents and two older brothers bustle around purposefully.   

The house in whose kitchen I am sitting is a cozy one-and-a-half storey that has been home to me all my short life.  But that is about to change.

Because we are about to move.  Today, in fact.

And so I am sitting in the kitchen on this morning, which will be the last morning that I sit in this kitchen, as the clock-radio croons quietly from its spot on the kitchen counter:  Cherish is the word I use to describe…  

The music seems melancholy, and it matches my mood, because I am recounting in my mind all the things I cherish about this place where we live.  All the things that I will miss once we have moved into town.  I am thinking about the beloved cherry tree in the front yard where I have spent endless contemplative hours clambering around.  Thinking about the cool, clear quarry across the road whose waters I will no longer dip into on a hot summer day.  Thinking about my friends in the neighbourhood and at school, all of whom will be left behind.   

Why do we have to move, anyway?  is the question that I have been chewing on for the past several weeks, with no suitable answer.  For to a nine-year-old tom-boy, there is nothing wrong with where we live, out in the country on the outskirts of town.   

But stubbornly, inevitably, the day will unfold and the move will, indeed, happen.  My parents and older brothers, with some fumbling help from me perhaps, will load up our worldly goods; some into the back of the light blue pick-up truck the neighbours have loaned us, and some into the seats and trunk of our nearly-new beige Pontiac Strato Chief.  We will be off to town and our new house. 

Eventually, it will all turn out all right.  It will be better than all right, because I will be able to walk to the library instead of re-reading my brothers’ hand-me-down books; and I will be able to participate in sports at school and in town without having to rely on someone to drive me; and I will make new friends.  And eventually, years later, I will be able to choose to move back to the country, to turn the wheel full circle. 

But I do not know these things, and so I am sitting in the kitchen in the early, early morning, with my mood matching the melancholy music that washes over and around me.  And the song Cherish has the power, and will always have the power, to carry me back to that very moment in time. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Close Encounters of the Wildlife Kind

Last week, while driving to work, I was saddened by the evidence of car-nage on the roadways--in other words, road kill.  On the 30 minute drive to work, I think I counted three dead raccoons, a couple of expired porcupines, and one unidentifiable blob with a few patches of black fur.

As someone who once had a racing rabbit run straight into the car, I know that it's not always possible to avoid hitting an animal while driving.  Nonetheless, I try to take what steps I can, and hope others do as well.  That being said, I thought it timely to share some insights I acquired while researching a column on this topic a couple of years ago.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation web site offers some good tips for wildlife avoidance.  According to the site, most deer-driver collisions occur between October and December, with November being the peak month.  The May-June time frame is also risky as various forms of wildlife are attracted to roadside ditches for the salt, and to escape black flies and other insect pests.

Regardless of the time of year, it’s particularly important to be watchful at night and particularly around dusk and dawn, as that’s when the deer tend to be on the move.  Although wildlife collisions occur in Ontario an average of once every 38 minutes, the reality is that many of them occur during the peak danger times:  5 a.m. to 7 a.m., and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.  At times when wildlife's peak travel times intersect with the main commuting rush, the risk is elevated.

The MTO site offered some tips on wildlife avoidance, so I thought I’d cross reference that with my own experience to see if it held up.

“Scan the road ahead,” was the advice, “and watch for glowing eyes”.  OK, I’ll go with that.   More than once an eerie glow by the roadside has given me the first warning of a potential wildlife encounter--and in fact just last week I saw several sets of eyes, in different spots, glinting in the headlights' beams.

“Never swerve suddenly.”  Uh-oh.  That one, I’ll have to work on.  My reflexes always seem to get the better of me and I’ve found myself taking evasive action to avoid dive-bombing birds, squirrels that can’t seem to make up their minds which of twenty directions they want to go, or blowing trash that I’ve mistaken for a small animal.

“Never assume an animal will move out of your way.”  Partly true.  I once had a stare-down with a moose on the way to Sudbury.  The moose stood.  I waited.  Eventually, he moved.  So I guess the point is, don’t assume they will move right away.

“If one animal crosses, remember others may follow.”  True.  I’ve seldom seen a lone deer crossing the road.  More than once, the follower has waited in the underbrush until the leader was partway across before revealing him or herself.  So I always try to watch for the second animal, or sometimes the third, to make an appearance. 

According to the web site, 89% of wildlife collisions occur outside urban areas, on two-lane roads, and 86% occur in good weather.

But I suppose it could be worse.  On its web site, British Columbia notes that animal hazards include not only deer and moose, but also bears, elk, and bighorn sheep.

So as the days get longer and my commuting hours start overlapping with dawn and dusk, I’ll remind myself to keep an eye peeled for deer.

And I’ll try to be thankful that, in the area I live in at least, I don't need to worry so much about bears and bighorns.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Paws for Appreciation

The other day, a friend posted on their Facebook page the news that their canine companion of over ten years had passed away that morning.

That post reminded me once again of my canine pal Jak, who left this planet more than two years ago but still frequents my thoughts.

My dog Jak whined his way into my life in 1996 as a scrawny, insecure mongrel pup of uncertain parentage.  His appearance and behavior gave evidence that his family tree bore no shortage of branches:  he sported the coat of an Australian Cattle dog, the speed of a Greyhound, and the general build of a German Shepherd, with the traits of a few other breeds thrown in for good measure.    

Jak was never a fan of water.  He tolerated baths with rigid distaste, and his first experience with water outdoors—a step onto the rain-soaked sidewalk the day after we brought him home—resulted in a quickly-raised paw and a distressed whimper. 

Never the model of “good dog” behavior, Jak viewed commands as something to be largely ignored, or, if obeyed, casually executed after some delay.  That is, unless the prompt of a dog biscuit was offered.  This was not a sign of stubbornness, nor, I think, of lack of comprehension.  He simply couldn’t be bothered.

He never did get to be “top dog” in our little household; bullied into second and eventually third spot first by my Border Collie cross Sneeks, and then by my purebred Border Collie Emma.  Not that he seemed to mind.  He didn’t have a burning desire to be a leader.

Overshadowed by the others in most respects, and possessed of many less than desirable traits, Jak nonetheless shone in one area:  his love for his people.

While Sneeks would greet her human companions with the air of a goddess graciously stooping to acknowledge mere mortals, Jak was visibly overjoyed when he saw us after even the shortest of partings, prancing to greet us with a flailing tail and a broad, toothy grin.

And, he was unquestionably loyal.  Each day, about half an hour before my usual “home time”, Jak would make his way to the edge of the concrete parking pad in front of our house, plunk his hind end down, and patiently sit gazing down the driveway, ears alert for the crunch of tires on gravel, until my car made its nightly appearance.

Somehow the years slipped away in the all-too-quick way they do for dogs.  As Jak’s health faded, it became clear that the time for a final drive to the vet was approaching.  On a sunny May morning, I found myself on the way back from that difficult trip, marveling at how quickly time rockets through the hourglass, and how easy it is to take our blessings—including those that come to us in four-legged form—for granted.

As the car proceeded through the springtime landscape, I pondered the possibility that I might have benefited over the past fourteen years by spending a little more “canine time”.  I thought about all of the evenings Jak had waited so patiently for me to come home—sometimes, only to be brushed off impatiently if I’d had a difficult day at work or was preoccupied by other issues.

Only then did I realize that I had taken Jak’s love and loyalty more than a little for granted. 

Perhaps it’s human nature that we are most prone to under-value those who do things for us in an understated manner.  When I find myself slipping into this pattern in future, I will try to remember that grey-and-black form sitting in patient vigil at the end of the parking pad day after day.  If nothing else, the memory may prompt me to be a little more appreciative.

I think Jak would like that.

Adapted from a column by the author that appeared in the Creemore Echo, September 24, 2010.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Of Cats and Kindness

A letter to the editor in a local newpaper about a problem with stray cats in a nearby town prompted me to share a story about the cat sanctuary in Ottawa, Ontario.

The Cat Sanctuary is located on Parliament Hill, and I had the opportunity to see it during a visit to Canada’s capital city in mid-January.

The sanctuary has been in place since the late 1970’s, and was prompted by a desire to provide some assistance to the homeless cats that roamed the Hill at that time.

Reminiscent of an oversized doll house—or an undersized person house, if you prefer—the “cat sanctuary” boasts a roofed veranda that shelters the feline occupants from the elements. The inhabitants can nibble from a number of kibble-stocked food dishes. During our visit, it was clear that the local squirrel population was also not above sampling the fare thus offered.

Doorways in the main part of the “house” lead into a straw-stuffed bedding area where the feline occupants can retreat to nap at their leisure. It looked quite cozy—if I were a little (okay, a lot) smaller I would be tempted to give it a try.

A sign posted at the site explains that the care and maintenance of the sanctuary and its inhabitants is funded entirely by individual generosity and donations.

The cats who live at the sanctuary have been spayed and neutered, to minimize the risk of the population growing out of control. The health of the cat colony is protected through annual vaccinations and wellness checkups.

The cat sanctuary is significant enough to merit an entry on Wikipedia, which outlines the history of the shelter and a listing of the names of the current and past inhabitants. The Wikipedia entry also notes that the cats make a contribution of their own, by helping to keep the rodent population on the Hill in check.

Although the Wikipedia site says that the sanctuary is currently home to ten cats, only two chose to show themselves during our visit. The first emerged from the small building, stretched its limbs in a leisurely manner, and nibbled some food, then sat and stared at us with the kind of haughty disdain that is all too familiar to any cat owner. Another feline popped out one door, snatched a mouthful of food, then wandered back into the sleeping area through another opening.  Clearly, these two residents at least were comfortable and secure in their surroundings.

After visiting the cat sanctuary, I ran across a story about Mother Teresa’s law of “one by one”. If we think about the examples of cruelty, abuse, or neglect that any one of us might have seen or heard about in the course of our lives, it might seem distressingly overwhelming—perhaps impossible—to hope to make an impact of any significance. But if we focus on one act at a time, no matter how small, over time the cumulative value of those acts can and will add up significantly. This is what I got out of the explanation of the law of “one by one”.

I don’t know what the answer is for any town’s or city’s stray cat problem. In the short term, raising awareness and dealing with issues one at a time are partial solutions. Perhaps the true long term answer lies in raising future generations in such a way that they learn to value and care for all living things, human and animal.

Meanwhile, I think we should all have faith that individual acts of kindness, no matter how small they may seem, are of value. One by one.

This content is adapted from the author’s Creemore Echo column of February 11th, 2011.

If you have examples of kindness to animals you’ve seen, or thoughts on how we could prevent cruelty to animals and abandonment of animals, feel free to share in the comments section.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Remembering my personal “lending librarian”

Several months ago, I had a conversation with someone about the importance and meaning of community.

I have since pondered that conversation. I think there are many types of communities—communities of shared interest, geographic communities, communities of belief, and so on.

But I think the central part is a sense of sharing, and of having care for others.

There is one example that stands out from my childhood.

My earliest years were spent on a rural property. There was no public transit, and the nearest town was too far distant to walk to on my own. And of course, in the 1960’s, personal computers (let alone the internet) were yet to be discovered, let alone popularized.

Living rurally, there were plenty of outdoor pursuits that I enjoyed, but the summer I turned eight, I had a small problem. By then, I had developed a love of reading, but it turns out that I’d exhausted our household’s limited supply of child-suitable literature by the second week in July. Since we lived too far from town to walk to the library, it seemed there was little choice but to wait until school started again in the fall. For an avid reader, this was not an attractive prospect.

One day, my mother and I were visiting Mrs. Sharpe, a lady of Scottish descent who lived in a tidy, well-kept house just across the street.

At some point, the conversation turned to reading. Mrs. Sharpe eyed me shrewdly and asked whether I might like to borrow some of her daughter’s books. Although her daughter had since grown and moved out of the house, she was certain there were still some volumes kicking around that I might find of interest.

This kind gesture opened a whole new vista for me, and made the summer far more enjoyable. Trixie Belden, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, even Calling All Girls magazine-- I would borrow the items one or two at a time, read them cover to cover, and then exchange them for fresh reading material.

The loans from this informal neighbourhood library sharpened my reading skills, broadened my horizons, and kept me out of mischief through that summer. And the kindness and generosity of our neighbor in making the initial offer presents a example of the sense of community—and the fact that small gestures can indeed make a difference.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Poem As Lovely...

“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree”

I don’t think I truly appreciated those lines from Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” until I moved to my rural property, which supports a variety of species, each beautiful in its own way.

For example, there are the beech trees, their grey bark reminiscent of elephant legs. The young beeches whose bronze leaves provide a wintertime counterpoint against the gleam of the snow. The birch whose white bark, in autumn, makes a pleasing contrast against the golden leaves of the surrounding maples. The poplars whose rustling leaves in the summer provide a backdrop to summertime musings on the back deck. The tall red pines whose crowns capture the glow of the setting sun. Or, my favourites: the graceful, branching oaks—lovely in any season but at their peak when clad in their blaze of autumn finery.

Once, on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park, we came across what looked like a broad path leading through the forest. On closer examination, the “path” proved to be the trunk of some massive forest giant that had crashed to the ground years—or more likely decades—ago. It must have been unthinkably huge in its time, and I wondered long it had presided over the area before ultimately surrendering to the forces of gravity. Thinking these thoughts reminded me how small and insignificant we humans really are in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, trees have a usefulness beyond aesthetics. The oaks I so like to admire provide acorns for the wildlife to dine on. The poplars seem to be one of the favourite springtime haunts of the local porcupine population. The deer enjoy the subtle and delicate flavor of the Spartan apple trees as they nibble the tips of the branches. The dead “snags” provide both home and sustenance for birds and mammals. And many a squirrel or chipmunk has been more than happy to find haven in a tree when my Border Collie Emma is in hot pursuit.

I once saw a science fiction moving in which the few remaining trees had become such a rarity that they were kept as specimens in an open-air museum. People would come, and look, and marvel at the fantastic and hard-to-believe notion that there were once vast forests covering the earth.

Hopefully, that scenario will remain in the realm of fiction. Trees are too wonderful a resource to squander.

I’m sure the squirrels and birds would agree.