The nasty underbelly of the hero quest

graphic of 0 and 1

(Thanks to @pericat for reviewing this and helping me clarify some ideas!)

As I mentioned in my last From the World Pool post, Natalie Luhrs has an excellent round-up of links relating to issues currently swirling around Shanley Kane, co-founder of Model View Culture, an online publication on technology, culture, and diversity media. I had already read the statements by Kane and Amelia Greenhall (see links below), which had triggered some Heavy Thinking on my part, following which I generated the first draft of this piece. After I had blocked it out I went back and read the commentary Natalie linked to. Those posts have a lot of excellent content and analysis, and some of it overlaps with what I have to say, but I decided to carry on with this post anyway, because the main point I want to make is a bit different. Continue reading “The nasty underbelly of the hero quest”

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Honour and tattletaling

So… a “thinking” post.

Last week I wrote a post about naming names when someone crosses a social boundary, and asked why there is such a reflexive response that to do so is wrong. In a Twitter comment in response to this, @UrsulaV said: “I wonder if it’s because we hammer into kids from a very young age not to be a tattletale and it sticks in bad ways?” And that got me thinking and expanding on her thought.

Every once in a while a youth gets violently attacked, or raped, or murdered, or commits a violent act themselves, and in the aftermath it’s discovered that other youth knew what was happening and did not speak up, and there is a lot of hand-wringing and analysis as to why this is so. (This happens with adults, too, but the public handwringing seems less intense to me.) Even a cursory google search shows how much has been written on this subject—it’s seen as a significant social problem, and so there’s everything from sensational comment in the popular media to in-depth research and analysis in academic journals.

After reading @UrsulaV’s comment I had some thoughts on all this. But I’ll start with a couple of disclaimers. First, my thoughts on this are some brief and random thoughts only, not the result of studying all this material and attempting to become knowledgeable on the subject. I don’t have the time or inclination to make this an area of study, and I’m not pretending to be an expert. Secondly, I do know that this is an extremely complex sociological issue—I get that—and that many things play into it in complicated ways. These thoughts address only a very small part of a much larger context.

So, with those provisos, this is what occurred to me.

We teach kids at a very young age that it’s wrong to be a tattletale. So what are we teaching them?

The first dictionary definition that came up online when I googled the word tattletale was: “a person, especially a child, who reveals secrets or informs on others.” A simple clear, definition: and the word “informs” is important. Read the Wikipedia entry on “informants” and note how strongly it is associated with people supplying information not disinterestedly, but for their own gain.

Most parents, I think, want to know if a kid does something that is cruel to others, or could cause harm to themselves or others. If Kid X is leading other kids into dangerous situations, parents will want to hear about it, so they can stop it. Parents see this as telling tales for the greater good, not for personal advantage.

On the other hand, parents are likely to see snitching in self-interest as something they don’t want their kid to do. THAT’s the behaviour most parents want to nip in the bud: telling tales to deliberately and maliciously harm someone else, or to advantage yourself in relationship to them. We want to protect kids from harm, so we want to know what is happening with them, but we also want to teach kids to be social creatures within a community, not sociopathic predators outside it, and so we tell them “don’t be a tattletale.”

I think this is a distinction, understood by adults, that often gets lost when the “don’t be a tattletale” message is given to kids.

This lack of distinction is carried on as we grow up, as the concept of honour plays into this. Honourable behaviour is seen as an important goal—we want our kids to develop a code of honour as they grow up. Superheroes follow codes of honour, villains don’t. (What exactly constitutes honourable behaviour, and how it is socially and contextually defined and enforced, is a whole other issue, one I don’t want to get into here.)

Popular media reinforces the necessity of honour, but sometimes gets sketchy on the details of what being honourable requires. An honorable person is often presented in the abstract as doing things for the greater good, rather than self interest, thus reinforcing the message that was initiated with “don’t be a tattletale.” But what are the details? Often “being honourable” seems to get reduced to a too-simplistic shorthand that doesn’t fully address the concrete contextual complications of how to be honourable, or the level of personal responsibility that being honourable requires, or the problem that being honourable can be very hard and uncomfortable work when it goes against social norms.

It seems to me that in practice, this lack of depth can lead to a conflation of “code of honour” and “code of silence,” and that is problematic. Effectively it says that to be honourable is to keep your mouth shut—don’t be a tattletale. This is reinforced by our unconscious inclinations: keeping silent is easy to do, compared to speaking against others and opening yourself to attack, which makes keeping silent attractive and discourages us from thinking too much about the implications of doing so.

I don’t know what the solution is to this lack of depth and distinction, or how that gets changed. “Don’t be a tattletale” may be intended as shorthand for “Think of the greater good, don’t harm others because you want to advantage yourself.” But it leaves out too much—we can’t just assume that kids (or youth, or adults, for that matter) understand it contextually. Maybe we simply need to trust that kids are smarter than we think, even when they’re young, and find better ways to explain these ideas more thoroughly to them, instead of trusting to verbal and conceptual shortcuts.

Naming names

Watching stuff unfold on Twitter and the net over the past couple of weeks has me thinking about boundaries, and how often they are crossed. And how objecting publicly to having your boundaries crossed is seen by so many as crossing a boundary in itself—and a much worse one.

A young writer wrote an article detailing sexual abuse from an editor (she used a pseudonym for him, but a friend responding to her original post named names). Two librarians named a library “rockstar” as a known harasser that women warned each other to be careful of at conventions (now he’s suing for defamation). And a woman named and criticized the person she blames for turning her hotel room at a convention into a party room without her knowledge or permission.

In each of these cases, someone has called out someone else for behaving badly. The type of bad behaviour is wildly variable, and reactions to it (of people not directly involved) also vary, from seeing the behaviour as potentially criminal to seeing it as relatively innocuous (if tacky). But they also have two things in common: the original actions of the person being called out cross someone’s boundaries and a significant negative reaction has followed the calling out.

Negative responses vary in their approach and details, but many share a common thread: it’s unfair and unjust to name the accused. The reasons given for this position vary, but that’s the bottom line.

There are many other important issues at play here, but that’s one thing that struck me about all this: the commonality of this belief. It’s universal. Even when there seems to be no real issue of protecting the accused against having their life ruined by (for example) losing their job and becoming a complete social pariah (which is certainly possible for some kinds of issues), there seems to be this belief that people accused of bad behaviour should never be publicly named.

Why is naming names regarded by so many people as a worse offence than the behaviour of the person being named? Why is crossing someone’s boundaries seen as a lesser offence than calling out a boundary-crosser, no matter whether the offence is criminal or social? Why is this true for such a wide range of behaviours?

Why is this reaction so goddamned reflexive?

Reflections in evening water

reflections in evening water

I’ve had a busy couple of days… yesterday was hectic, today almost equally so. So this is a post that’s a little late.

Yesterday afternoon was a memorial service for an old friend, Ray Hrynkow. A group of us attended art school together, majoring in graphic design—for three years of that 4-year program we were were all pretty much joined at the hip in one of the most intense and exciting times of our lives, studying together, working together, socializing together.

For a few years after we graduated, we continued to socialize, but then gradually drifted off in varying directions, building lives with other people in them, doing different things. But we still keep in touch, and for the most part we all know where the others are, or at least how to track them down. One of those bonds that lasts on some level even when you don’t see someone for years. And then, sadly, see them at a memorial service.

So I’ve been reflecting on that time over the past week and a half. One of the things that I remember (apart from joining Casey and Ray every Friday for a year to watch late-late-night re-runs of The Avengers) is Ray’s love of music. Ray had truly wide-ranging and eclectic musical tastes—I remember that he introduced me to the British group Pentangle. If I recall correctly, he’s also the person who introduced me to Steeleye Span, and that led me to the folk music scene and another intense, abiding interest and community. And that led to other places, and that to others, and here I am today, somewhere I could never have imagined all those years ago. A very good somewhere. And Ray had something to do with it.

It’s not an original thought, but… it’s amazing how the ripples from a dropped pebble spread, and intersect, and then go to stillness again. But the changes remain.

An unhealthy leaf

diseased arbutus leaf

I was struck by the contrast in colours on this arbutus leaf—the healthy green, the red veins, the unhealthy red-edged dark speckles, like some kind of nasty spot that you discover one day on your arm or leg, generating worries about your future.

(And then of course there’s the dew on it, just to add complications.)

But is the green health? Green is, after all, often associated with illness or poison.  The dark spots are quite mild by comparison. And why are there those violently coloured reddish-pink lines through it?

The oddness of this micro-focused view is that although it is part of a leaf that seems to be diseased, in some ways it’s quite beautiful. I wonder how much disease is beautiful, at a molecular level, when human suffering is stripped out? And what makes it beautiful, anyway? Are there patterns in illness and distress, as there are in other parts of life? I wonder how that affects the way scientists see it?

I wonder if I should have another beer?

Perhaps not.

 

Fantasy, Reality, Dreams (part 1)

One of the pleasures of blogging is that you get to discover other people’s blogs and chat with them as well as on your own. Recently I got into discussions about computer gaming on the blog Notes From Africa, and as a result the blog owner asked me if I would write a guest post. So I did.

Actually, it’s an essay, I kinda got carried away.

At any rate, the first half of the post is now online. The second half will follow in a couple of  days. If you want to read it, go to Fantasy, Reality, Dreams.

Defamation and metaphor

The BC Supreme Court is about to hear a case where an activist is being charged with  defamation by a big salmon-farming company for material he put out as part of an anti-salmon farming campaign.  Apart from all the issues of legal substance and whether this is a serious case or simply an attempt to use intimidation against activists to create a chilling effect, there’s one additional thing that I find interesting: the activist clearly used metaphors and hyperbole, both common rhetorical devices, to get his point across.

If the article is accurate and hasn’t left anything out and I understand it correctly, the basis of the defamation charge is not that he’s saying that fish farming kills salmon, but that fish farming is being compared with smoking and therefore there is an implication of harm being done to humans. What the “cigarette package” actually says is, “Norwegian owned” (which the company is) and “Salmon Farming Kills Wild Baby Salmon,” clearly a parody of the message on real cigarette packs (“cigarettes hurt babies” and “tobacco smoke hurts babies”). Is the association strong enough to be read as saying that humans are at risk? Or is it clear to those who see this that this is a metaphor for killing salmon, rather than killing humans?

I guess my real question is… at what point does a metaphor become defamation?

There are some fascinating implications in the possible answer. Much current advertising and marketing makes intense use of metaphor and hyperbole… including the advertising put out by the BC Salmon Farmers Association itself. Could other court cases be initiated? For example, what about all those Apple TV ads ads that had the cool guy as a Mac and the nerd as a PC? Is that metaphor legally defamatory?

I’ll be watching this one with interest.

Mr. Cresswell’s truck

Many, many (many!) years ago, so long I forget quite when, I was a high school student, and one of the teachers donated his car to a Paint-In. I think it might have been when I was in Grade 9, which would put it at the very tail end of the 60s. I can’t remember if the Paint-In was just a Happening (Something-Ins were common at the time) or whether this was actually to raise money for grad or a good cause or something.

In any case, the idea was that students would be able to get a can of paint and a brush and paint whatever they liked on the truck. (It was an old beater, we’re not talking shiny new chrome here.) Mr. Cresswell would drive the truck around for the rest of the year. (And he did.)

I asked a friend if she remembered this event (she did) and she commented that she thought Mr. Cresswell was expecting a truck that looked like it had been painted by Peter Max, and I think so too. But that wasn’t what he got.  Continue reading “Mr. Cresswell’s truck”

Fragmentary lives

crab claw

I like the crabs that scuttle across beaches. I find them unspeakably cute when they wave their claws defensively, especially when they’re less than an inch across.

closeup of teeth on a crab claw

I do have respect for them; I have had a finger painfully clamped to by what I think was a Tanner crab (Chionoecetes bairdi) that didn’t look like it had claws big enough to cause any significant amount of pain. (My error.) Consequently on those occasions when I’ve found big Dungeness crabs with claws that look like they do mean business I’ve taken care to stay well away from the business end.

I have even finally learned how to tell the female crabs from the males.

crabshell

I see a lot of crabs on our beaches, mostly little ones. And I see even more fragments of crabs—bits and pieces, the detritus of tiny scurrying lives. When you look at the shells that are all that is left of them carefully, you notice how beautiful they are, despite what can be seen as an certain armoured grotesqueness when they’re alive.

Fragments of lives are often beautiful, no matter whose, I think.

underside detail of crab shell

The good (should) die young

Today I read an article that made me stop and think. It starts out by saying, “Selfishness is not a good way to win friends and influence people. But selflessness, too, is repellent.”

The gist of it is that people who are too obviously good really irritate us. This was determined by actual research—initially by accident as a by-product of another study, then as a subject of study itself.

The original study found that players of a game designed to test the reactions of players to cheats didn’t want to play again with those whom they perceived to be dishonest—but neither did they want to play with others who were perceived to be utterly altruistic in their choices.

“Most of the responses fell into two categories: “If you give a lot, you should use a lot,” and “He makes us all look bad.” In other words, people were valuing their own reputations in the eyes of the other players as much as the practical gain from the game, and felt that in comparison with the selfless individual they were being found wanting. Too much virtue was thus seen as a vice.”

My first reaction was, well, this makes sense. Yes, people who are always doing good deeds are irritating, because it forces one to examine ones own life, and the insufficiencies of one’s own behaviour. It creates one of those cognitive dissonances—in this case between the reality of what we do (mostly not much) and the image we like to hold of ourselves (noble, upstanding, a true hero).

Then I talked about this with Anna, who pointed out that altruism can also be competitive. It can become a state of one-upmanship: you did something good, damn but I’ll do something gooder! I’ll do more good deeds! I’ll be kinder! I’ll spend more money! I’ll give EVERYTHING, nyah to you!

(When this happens it isn’t about goodness, of course. It’s either about using actions perceived as “good” to increase one’s own status, which is something quite foreign to altruism though cloaked in its appearance, or to make oneself feel superior to others. Neither motives are selfless.)

But whether an action is a genuinely altruistic act of goodness or a self-seeking attempt at status or self-image, I think that the ultimate reaction of most people to unfettered goodness is often suspicion. Why are they doing this? What’s really in it for them? Past a certain point, “doing good” is beyond what is perceived as “normal” and so it can be perceived as dishonesty, and perhaps dangerous.

So. Doing good is a desirable thing. But people don’t like those who are “good.” Where does this leave those who want to be good? What’s “good enough” but not “too good”? How do you do good without it being only in self-interest, or becoming competitive?

I do believe that it’s possible to do good. I do believe that it’s possible not to be competitive or annoying when you do so. I’ve experienced both circumstances. I’m just asking… what makes the difference? Where’s the tipping point? Small random acts of kindness may be safe… but what is acceptable beyond that? How much can you do before the reaction diminishes what you do?

If people respond negatively to acts of goodness… what does that do to the acts? Are they still good? Are they still effective? Are small acts of kindness the most meaningful?

space

Saturn
I'll bet you didn't know that most NASA images are in the public domain.

There are two kinds of spatial relationships that everyone encounters, frequently on a daily basis. One is the physical distance between ourselves and others. The other is the amount of space occupied by our living environments, and the relative distance between ours and those of others—the size of our house lots or apartments, the size of our offices or cubicles. Continue reading “space”

Someone wrote a book about it.

A few days ago, in my “Just the facts, ma’am” post, I said:

Some would argue that much of the so-called progress in such areas is a shell game, and that the same power structures and intolerances are maintained by simply shifting ground. For example, overt racism may be prohibited, but there’s nothing to stop you from using relative education or income or class to oppress exactly the same group that was formerly oppressed on the basis of skin colour; you’re calling it something different but the effects are practically identical.

I went on to say that there’s more than that to it, because it was the “more than that” that I wanted to talk about. But I actually agree with the general premise as stated.

And now it turns out that a woman named Michelle Alexander has written a book about exactly that. It looks like it will be interesting reading.

Just the facts, ma’am.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been struggling with putting together a post about a recent article in the Boston Globe, as pointed out by Diane Silver at In Search of Goodness. It’s been hard, because I see the article as linking a lot of things in complex ways. I wrote up some ideas and asked for feedback from Peri and Anna; their responses helped to shape and clarify some of my own ideas, and I’ve included some of their thoughts. And finally I think I’ve got my thoughts enough in order to actually put it all together and say something.

Continue reading “Just the facts, ma’am.”

In Search of Goodness

While sorting through bookmarks yesterday I found that a friend from an email list that was active years ago has embarked on a new project, and a fascinating one it is: In Search of Goodness. She’s a thoughtful person and an excellent writer, and I know her explorations will lead in all kinds of interesting directions.

One thing I’ll be interested in seeing is how her quest might intersect with my explorations in this blog. While I’m not investigating the complex question of goodness (or for that matter formally investigating any question at all), I am interested in the small stuff, the stuff that gets overlooked yet informs the structure and function of our world, and I think there might well be a connection between these things.

Check it out!

Will you, too, learn not to see?

surreal trees

I reacted to this as though a bell had rung somewhere inside me, a warning: see, notice, they too have had their first impression, and the first impression has been their last. They do not see any longer. Will you, too, learn not to see? (The Fresco, Sheri Tepper)

The above quote is from a work of science fiction, describing a character’s observations of visitors to a fresco that is a fundamental religious icon to a particular society, but I was struck by its applicability in a wider sense (as, of course, the author intended).

The visitors came into the fresco room, but then, after glancing quickly at it, instead of continuing to look at the fresco, they looked at the guide that described and explained it. They looked at the interpretive media, in other words. Now, I have (disclaimer) spent a good deal of my professional life designing interpretive materials. I’m in favour of interpretive media; I think it provides access to information and thus can add depth to experiences that people wouldn’t otherwise have, enriching their knowledge and interaction with the element being explained.

But when media frames an experience, it also moves you one step away from the experience itself. This is true if you read a guidebook instead of looking at an exhibit in a museum; it’s true if you look at something through a camera lens instead of looking at the thing itself. It’s true whenever a “lens” is inserted between you and the experience. You see what the lens allows, whether it is a real camera lens or the lens of a curator’s vision and opinions, and that changes the experience. Either way, the lens becomes a cognitive filter, shaping your experience.

Now, this is not a new idea. There’s all kinds of deep thinking out there on how experiences are mediated by a variety of different kinds of filters, and what the results and implications are. Academics and non-academics alike love arguing about stuff like this.

A filtered experience can go in different ways. The filter between you and the thing of interest can enhance your experience of it, refocusing your attention on the subject so that you see it not only as you saw it before, but with additional new perspectives. Or the filter can remove you from your original experience, so that your focus becomes the interpretation rather than the thing itself.

When I take my camera with me on a walk, I see the world differently, and not just when I’m looking through its lens. I look at things closely. I see things as if I was framing them with a lens. Oh, this will make a gorgeous shot. Look at the detail on this tiny thing. Look at the patterns in the water or sand or pavement. Look at how those colours work together. Look at the light. I see things in terms of lines and shapes and patterns and textures. I see so much more. I’ve gone beyond the small segment of reality that the lens shows.

I’m aware of this, and I’ve learned to use this expanded visual awareness even when I don’t carry a camera; when I’ve been doing a lot of photography I am in general more aware of the visual world around me.

This is a good thing, right?

But when I carry a camera I don’t notice the smell of the pines, or the stink of the diesel. I don’t notice the sounds around me. I don’t notice the roughness of a surface under my hand. The use of a visual filter has limited my ability to “see” using my other senses.

Is that a good thing?

Gestalt psychology describes humans as pattern-makers; our minds don’t break the world down into millions of tiny components, we interpret visual reality in terms of patterns and groupings and relationships. What happens when your filters omit the input from a range of senses other than sight? When you focus intently on something, paying intense attention, you begin to really learn about it, to know it. But what if the input is still limited, despite being so in-depth in some ways? What are the implications for understanding our world?

If I want a fuller experience when I’m walking, I have to take steps to achieve it. I have to remember to go for walks sometimes without the camera, or to deliberately put it aside and Pay Attention in a more holistic way.

I’ve used vision as an example here, but of course other kinds of sensory experiences can be intense and focused as well—music is a perfect example. So for me, a basic question is:

Is it possible to use a filter to enhance experience without at the same time learning not to see in other ways? How do we do it?

Listen

My mother died in the summer of 2000. This is an essay that I wrote back then.

When my mother died, I was in the middle of nowhere.

Quite literally. I was camping on a small island in a large lake, far from civilization. It was almost a week before the rangers found us, and by that time all the arrangements had been made, all the duties taken care of, and my mother had been cremated. There had been no service, because she hadn’t cared for one.

I marked her passing in my own way. I lit a candle in a small candlelantern one cool evening, drank a toast to my mother, and left it burning when I went to bed. In the morning when I got up it was still going, though it didn’t last much longer. But it cast a very bright light on the walls of the tent for an entire night, gleaming like a star through the netting.

To the best of my knowledge, my mother never camped, and certainly if she did it was never in anything but a civilized campground. But I go to the wilderness often, because it is the only place that I can truly stop. The city overwhelms my senses, challenging my state of grace; the hum and roar and ticking, the constant motion, the barrage of smells, the people. Always the people. The city demands attention. I shut it out, and in so doing I shut down a good deal of myself.

In the wilderness, though, I listen. I sit and watch and wait. The wilderness can be very insistant, depending on where you are; a waterfall is a tumultous assault of sight and sound. But it demands nothing. It simply is, and I can watch or not watch, listen or not listen. It is my choice. And because it is my choice, I do not need to protect myself from it.

It’s hard to lose the city when we go into the wilderness; we carry it with us like a cloak, like a disease. It takes time to stop moving to rhythms that have nothing to do with the place you are. It takes time to stop trying to make the place you are fit those rhythms. But it can be done.

A few years ago I went canoeing with friends on a remote far northern lake. The southern end of it contains an archipelago of islands. Our circuit through them brought us to one particular horseshoe-shaped island on both the first and last nights of our trip. The far arm of the horseshoe had plenty of bear sign and we heard something large moving through the bush when we paddled near that shore. But we saw only birdlife. The camp itself was home to a grouse and her chicks; that first evening I followed them for a bit, determined to get pictures, but she led the young ones into thickets and hid herself in dense branches, and nothing came of it.

Flocks of loons ambled by several times while we were on the lake. Loons are known for their howling, gurgling laugh, but in closer quarters they communicate with each other by a sort of soft “houk”. I discovered that if you “houk” back at them, they become very interested, and when I called to them they would swim surprisingly closely to us.

I read somewhere, long ago, that the way to get close to an animal is to think and behave as that animal does. It made sense to me, and so from time to time I try it out. It works surprisingly often. You do have to be prepared, of course, to look like a fool.

It worked with the loons, simply by copying their call. I had not tried it with the grouse, because I hadn’t thought of it. The city had still been too close, I was trying to stalk them, and they reacted as they would to any predator.

But when we returned to the island, the grouse and her chicks were still there, and I still wanted a picture. And by then the wilderness had changed me as it always does. So I watched her, and studied her movements, and thought about what she was doing, and how she did it, and what was important to her. A grouse is not a very smart bird. Their concerns are small. She kept an eye on her chicks, circling through the underbrush, pecking here and there for food.

I tried to think and act like a grouse. I walked in aimless circles, picking with my hand at things on the ground, in bushes. She watched a bit suspiciously, but this time she didn’t leave. I ambled and wandered and ended up about ten feet from where she sat under a spruce. I sat down then, and took a few pictures. And then I just stretched out my legs in front of me, watched her and thought about grouseness. She didn’t seem upset by my presence. She clucked occasionally; occasionally there were peepings elsewhere.

And then her head came up alertly, and I realized that the peepings elsewhere were getting awfully close. I slowly and very cautiously looked around–and there was a chick, hopping and rushing and gradually making its way closer and closer to me. The hen made mildly alarmed noises, and the chick squatted under a bush. I tried not to blink too often.

And then the chick made a beeline over to my knee, ran along the side of my leg, and crouched down in the shelter of my boot, peeping. The hen looked at it, clucked, and relaxed. I blinked.

I didn’t try to take a picture. Even if I’d been able to properly see the chick tucked under my boot, I wouldn’t have taken a picture. To use a camera would have made me something other than I was at that moment.

I wasn’t a grouse. Both the birds and I knew that. But it was a precarious, precious moment, where I was no longer a danger. I was no longer the Other. I had paid attention to the birds, listened to them instead of myself, and they had allowed me to be something else.

Someone is likely to point out that grouse are exceptionally stupid birds, and I suppose it’s true. They will say that it is very unlikely that such a thing could happen with other birds or animals, and they are probably right. Yet I read recently an account by Loren Eisley of a similar encounter with a fox pup, and I wonder if it is not so much that we are dangerous and alien to them as that we don’t listen to them. That we don’t allow ourselves to be something other than that which our “normal,” insular lives demand.

What has all this to do with my mother’s death? Everything, and nothing.

In our day to day lives we all shut down, for many reasons, for good reasons. But in doing so we stop listening to the world around us, and that includes the people we love. We remove ourselves from our place in the world; we are in the middle of nowhere. But our grace is that for most of us, there are still connections. Despite ourselves, we speak, and listen.

Now that my mother is gone, I’m realizing with sorrow how little I heard.

And with joy, how much.


The obsession

This year I’ve had a block of three months in spring during which I haven’t had to travel. So for the first time since we moved to this location almost 2 years ago, I’ve had time to garden.

We have a huge yard, some of which is wild, and although it originally had a lovely garden and landscaping, it got away from the owners previous to us, so there’s an immense amount of work to be done in just reclaiming some of what was there. There are rewards, of course—while clipping back salal and blackberries I’ve discovered a couple of nice plants. One is a smoke bush. Another is an extremely attenuated labrador tea, a native plant I’m rather fond of—hopefully it will improve in health now that it’s actually seeing some light!

There’s also an enclosed veggie garden patch with raised beds. Last year we got new dirt and put that in the beds, but there has been a persistent problem with weeds invading from the turf walkways between the beds (not to mention the horsetail invading from underneath). This year I gritted my teeth and decided to edge the weeds, er, turf, next to the beds. When I did, I realized that under the thick layer of turf there was actually a layer of pea gravel—this must have been what was there when the beds were first built. I decided to de-turf the walkways as a way of fighting the weeds.

What a job. I did it all by hand with a shovel to break up the turf and a gardening claw to pull it up. It took about 2 hours to clear each square yard of turf and fill a wheelbarrow, so it was a slow process. It became an obsession. Go out every day, clear some turf. I’d work till my muscles screamed and I had to stop, but I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to be sitting there with the claw, working and working. It took weeks of work to finish, but it’s now all done (and the berm built up around a couple of douglas firs is now significantly bigger with all that turf added!). I think that next year we’ll order some more pea gravel and upgrade the walkways a bit, but for now this will do very nicely.

picture showing walkways before and after removing turf
I said obsessive, didn't I?

I’ve planted a number of things in the veggie garden, some of which are working out better than others. For me, it’s all an experiment—I’ve no gardening experience.

Except that I have, in a funny way.

When I was a kid we always had a veggie garden. My mother had very little to do with it; garden chores at the time were often gender specific, with women doing flowers and men doing veggies. (Women, of course, were responsible for dealing with the harvest from the garden, canning and freezing and so on, and my mother did a lot of that.) I had no interest in gardening myself, because as far as I could see gardening = weeding, and there wasn’t anything more boring than weeding. I didn’t mind harvesting, as that had an immediate reward, but that wasn’t “working in the garden.”

But despite my active avoidance all those years ago, as I work now in my veggie garden, I find that I remember some of the things that my dad did. Hilling potatoes. Thinning carrots. Watering. I learned how to do some things without knowing that I’d learned them, and I’m remembering them now as I learn more.

I never thought of why my dad gardened, when I was a kid. The only reasons given for it were that the food tasted better and it saved money. Both true, and important, but I think there was more to it than that.

For me a garden is a luxury. But my father was the eldest of 13 kids in a homesteading family in northern Alberta, and he lived through the Depression. Gardens aren’t luxuries in that context—they’re essential to survival. And so I think that having a garden, being able to produce your own food, was a fundamental part of who and what he was.

That’s not true for me, and yet here I am, obsessing about gardening, for the first time in my life. For the first time in my life, I’m realizing why people do it. Maybe I had to get older and want to slow down in order to get to this place. Maybe it’s a reaction to the particularities of my life right now, which tends to be hectic and pressured. Even the de-turfing is kind of zen-like and relaxing.

Or maybe it’s just a connection to my dad, and who he was.

The challenge

This blog is a challenge to myself: look at the small stuff. Look for the things that don’t usually get seen. Some will be beautiful, because I think there’s an astonishing amount of beauty in details. The banner image on this page is an example: have you ever really looked at the tones and colours and subtlety of the clip on a dog leash? Neither had I, till it occurred to me to take a picture of it.

And some small things won’t be beautiful, because life and the things around us aren’t always fairytales.

Of course, the things not usually seen may not always be visuals. I might be inclined to comment on any number of things that I have opinions about, and I can be very opinionated.

We’ll see where this excursion takes me. I’m going to try to post an image every day; that may be impossible, but that’s the goal. With that in mind, here’s the very first image: a small thing. Blueberries ripening on a bush, covered in dew.

blueberries with dew

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