23 January 2006

A herd of cats (not herding cats)

It starts out with just one…then you get another one to keep the first one company. Maybe somewhere along the way you get a female who manages to come into heat before the trip to the vet, and then you have kittens. Before long you have a herd.

Of cats.

That’s sort of what happened with us.

I hasten to add, all our cats are neutered and needled. Most of them are rescues. But we have had kittens in the past, born in my closet, and at one high point we had eighteen cats and kittens living with us—at that time, home being the upper flat of an old farmhouse in another small valley community. It was a bit much…but we found homes for a number of them, got everyone neutered, and then moved to our current and hopefully forever home.

In the nearly seven years since we moved to this old farmhouse, we’ve had cats leave us and cats come to us. We’ve lost two to the road, several to unusual illnesses, one to old age, and had two decide they didn’t want to live here any longer. We’ve rescued kittens that were run over, kittens that were abandoned, kittens that came from feral cat colonies and were being tamed down, and one large cat who fell over at the cat shelter and pledged everlasting love. (Those are especially hard to resist.)

We’re now holding stable at ten cats, or as I sometimes remark, 9 ¾ cats, including Nibbs, our little three-legged one who lost his right back leg after being hit by a car.

Don’t feel sorry for him, though. Our vet told me that cats are born with ‘three legs and a spare’, and Nibbs certainly gets around just fine. In fact, earlier this evening I watched as he chased Spunky Boomerang gleefully through the house in one of their complex games of Tackle Tag and Earwashing. This involves racing through the house at top speed, each other, having a tremendous wrestling match complete with kicking each other, chewing and growling, then abruptly getting tired and washing each others heads instead.

We spend a lot of time watching our cats as they interact with us and with each other. My husband remarked the other day “they don’t seem to have a pecking order, do they?” Curious, I went and looked up some information. While domestic cats aren’t normally a herd animal, they do have social hierarchies and can be very territorial. We can’t figure out if there is an alpha cat in the family—although we do refer to Toby Soprano as “the boss of this here family”, mostly because he’s cute, fluffy and charming, and loves to jump on people and high places.

One article I read suggested that, to ensure peace, order and good government in your feline household, you have one litter box for every cat—in fact, one extra would be a good idea. Whew. Imagine having 11 litterboxes spread around the house! Four of our cats go outside every day, and they do their eliminating out of doors; the rest share the communal litterbox, which is a large tub, formerly used to carry fish in. I clean it daily and there’s usually a highly amusing interlude afterwards where the herd is lined up to do their business, as if the thought of a clean litterbox is just too much for them.

I cannot imagine living without cats, ever. They are so wise, so loyal and loving, and anyone who says they aren’t any of these things knows absolutely nothing about our feline friends. They know things. They know when I’m upset, and the ones I’m most close to will casually hang around, not being obsequious, but just being near and ready to purr and bump and comfort. They ham it up tremendously, putting on great performances that leave us breathless with hilarity at times, even when it’s a case of four of them arriving on the bed with a mouse, and as my husband wrote to me when I was away, “and no one was dead!” We’ve watched them fight with one another, just small snits mostly, and also comfort and play with one another. The rest of the herd is always protective of Nibbs; they will play with him, but when he first came home, they would sleep near him, wash him and seemed to comfort him when he was first adjusting to his tripod method of mobility.

Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing too much here. But that’s what it seems to us from watching them. And they grieve when one of them leaves through death. When Nibbs’ brother Tommytiger was killed after being chased by a raccoon out into the road, Nibbs looked for him for days, crying and coming to me to be comforted. And the strangest thing happened the day we buried Tommytiger. We have two cats who are brothers, Quincy and Mr. Rowdy Retread. They do not like each other, perhaps because they were separated for over a year and forgot that they were littermates, or maybe because Rowdy was late being neutered, or maybe just because, like some siblings, they don’t get along. We were sitting on the back deck, feeling very upset, and Quincy was lying on the deck with us, just being there. Rowdy came parading across the yard with a huge field mouse, fat and sassy on the lush food of early summer. He marched up onto the deck, over to Quincy, and dropped the mouse in front of him. Then he walked away, flopped down on the deck, and started washing himself. Quincy looked at him, looked at the mouse, and I swear he said, “thanks!”—Picked up the mouse and went away under the deck for a snack.

Rowdy climbed up on the chair beside my dearly beloved and purred and bumped. We were speechless with wonder.

My late grandmother DeLong, when she was very old and failing and starting to slip into the fogs of dementia, did not know who I was when I visited her for the last time. However, when I told her I got my love of cats from her, something like a veil lifted from her eyes.

“I was always good to cats, and they was always good to me,” she said with a wise smile. Just for that moment, we connected, and shared a thread of understanding, before that veil dropped again.

I think I should like that to be my epitaph when I’m gone.

17 January 2006

Of seed catalogues and other garden porn

Pssst. C’mere. Yeah, you. Wanna see something hot?

Oooooh, look at the size of those!? Don’t you just want to bury your face in them?

I’ve never seen those that colour before. Gotta get me some of those.

What will my long suffering spouse say? Oh, he’ll understand. He knows about my bad habits.

Yes, the new season of seed and nursery catalogues is upon us.

They are enough to drive even the mildest mannered gardener into throes of ecstasy. Purple carrots. Yellow peonies. Gorgeous evergreens, grasses, perennials, annuals. The almost perfect anodyne for the winter blahs.

They start just before Christmas, at least around our neck of the woods. I don’t get a huge number of catalogues, but I do receive quite a few. Some of them I seldom order from, but use them as a tool to learn more about new plants, new cultivars, growth habits and requirements, and other fun stuff.

After all, I don’t have unlimited funds for the garden, and sometimes there are a few discussions about what my friend Flora’s husband calls “groceries for the garden.” Our garden gets quite a few groceries every year, but I point out to my dearly beloved other half that they are research. After all, I need to know how plants will behave in our garden of clay, rock, wind and fog before I can recommend them to others. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere…”

Favourite catalogues include Veseys, which features seeds for cooler, short seasons such as ours; Gardenimport, which showcases beautiful things from around the world; Richters Herbs, who grow the most amazing lavenders among other delights, and Patrick Studio in Quebec.

When looking through plant and seed catalogues isn’t enough to give me a good fix for my garden desires, I turn to books of garden porn. You know the kind I mean, with the sumptuous photographs of plants, gardens, landscapes…But it can’t be all show and no tell. Oh, no. The books that grace our library of gardening information number in the several hundreds, and we have some wonderful books that are certainly eye candy for plant lovers—but they all provide a wealth of knowledge and share information with their readers.

One of my very favourites came out several years ago now. The Jewel Box Garden by Thomas Hobbs follows up on his bestselling Shocking Beauty from several years previous. Hobbs is described as a garden impresario, and while at times he’s a bit didactic, he’s also very funny and encouraging most of the time. Granted, he lives in Lotusland, British Columbia, land of gentle climates, and runs Southlands Nursery, so he’s privy to plenty of exotic plants that we Best coasters can only dream about, or plant in containers. And one of the things he quotes, ‘free your mind, the rest will follow’ is a good mantra to follow when dealing with a garden, or with any other facet of life. It might sound trite, but it’s not. Throwing caution to the winds and trying something because you think it might work well is great. If the plant shapes don’t work or the colours clash, big deal. Dig out one of the offending plants and find another spot. Works for me.

Another delectable book of garden-porn (I wish I knew who first coined that phrase—does anyone know!?) is Clay Perry’s Fantastic Flowers. Open this book, even on a frigid, blustery, storming January day (whatever those look like, I can’t remember…) and you can feel summer’s warm kiss upon your cheeks and hear the bees drunkenly flying from their pollen banquets. And if, like me, you keep a little box of lavender flowers near at hand, that you can run your fingers through and lift scent to your nose, you push back winter a little bit further.

Perry is a brilliant, luscious photographer, and his wife Maggie a lively writer who provides great gardening tips, snippets of history about the plants that Clay has captured in his lens.

This is like a book of Georgia Okeefe paintings, the photographs are so intimate and seductive. It could make an amateur photographer like me throw up her hands in despair—but instead, it inspires me to work even harder at my photography. Which is, of course as much a pleasure as is the writing.

14 January 2006

still life with hyacinth

A writer’s job is to write, correct? Yes…but also to do it well, and with passion. I am passionate about writing, because it’s not just what I do—it’s who I have always been, though it took many years for the still small voice inside of me to drown out the voice of the censor/editor who sits on my shoulder, offering criticisms. That censor has become more of an editor now, a friend rather than a hindrance. But when he does get too critical, I feed him dark chocolate, because he can’t talk with his mouth full.

So I’ve had a writing project on my plate for nearly a year, one that I thought I really, really wanted to do, because it’s a subject that I’ve had interest in ever since the event happened. I had some unique contacts and perspectives, and thought it would be a fun project.

Somewhere along the way, something changed.

I worked on this project while I was at sea with the Canadian Coast Guard last fall. I’ve worked at it sporadically in between writing and seeing the Atlantic Gardener’s Greenbook come into print. But it hasn’t come together, and I didn’t know why.

I’ve written here before that gardeners are a generous lot. So are professional writers, at least the ones I am associated with. I’m particularly fortunate to belong to PWAC, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, a 30 year old organization of non-fiction writers flung across this country. We have several internal, private, mailing lists, including the “L”, which is our virtual watercooler. We discuss losing weight, the pleasures of chocolate, red wine, and cats, the foolishness of politicians, whether Macs are better than PCs (yup, of course!), but also a huge range of topics pertaining to our profession/identity as writers.

A few days ago I had a virtual venting, and sent to the “L” a post about my struggles with this book project. The responses I got were warm, wise, and genuine. The one that stopped me in my tracks went like this, in part:

“Be the Jodi who moves me to tears, not the Jodi who produces inoffensive content to go between the ads. What do you want to be when you grow up? There, right there, just for a second, before you could censor yourself, your bliss went flitting by, but then you said, ‘Oh no. That’s not possible, not responsible, not acceptable.’ Follow your bliss, kiddo. We only go around once. No one lies on their deathbed saying, ‘damn, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”

Whew. That moved ME to tears. And caused me to look deeper. For the most part, I AM following my bliss…living where I do, with my dearly beloved husband and our menagerie of animals, writing about the things that I’m passionate about. And I do have some other projects in mind, that will come to fruition when it’s time. Still, even after reading the letters I received from my friends and colleagues, I needed to think deeply and make the decision honestly.

This morning it’s like spring again, unnaturally mild. In my office, it smells like spring. Back in November, I put a large hyacinth bulb into a bright orange forcing glass filled with water, set it on the window, and left it to do its thing. While I was away yesterday, it really opened up, and today, the whole upstairs is awash in this glorious sweet fragrance.

I sat and contemplated this explosion of colour and scent for a while, after rereading the letters about my project. I moved the vase to the window behind my desk, where there’s also a crystal snowflake. When the sun comes up, this room is filled with rainbows of light, which always make me happy. Watching the watery sunlight outside on the gardens, looking around at the icons of identity in my office, I realized it was time to say no.

Far better to write with my heart, which is what I’m known for doing, than do something that is in my head—I could do it well, but it won’t touch people the way I want it to. Monday, I call the publisher and say so. Without guilt, either.

11 January 2006

Why we blog...or plant seeds

Words are a lot like seeds from flowers, grasses or trees. They get cast out onto the winds, or in this case, the Web, and we never know where they will end up or how they will fare. Some may tumble onto fallow ground, in which case they fail to germinate. Others land on fertile, prepared land, where they may flourish and bloom. Of course, not every word or every seed planted will prove to be a stunning rose. Some may be weeds. But that's one of the reasons that I connect gardening to writing, and writing to gardening. Both are facets of who I am, not something I just do. And while not every sentence I write is a rose of perfection, hopefully there aren't too many weeds.

so I'm starting this blog for several reasons. One, to share thoughts about the gardening and natural world around me, and to perhaps extend conversations that get started in some of my writing features and columns. Because if there is one thing I learned very early on about gardeners, they are among the most thoughtful and generous people in the world. We swap seeds, plants, cuttings, information, suggestions, support. I get paid to write about gardening, it's true. But I receive so much from other people's knowledge, enthusiasm, and skills, that this seems a small way of saying thank you to fellow gardeners, whether backyard enthusiasts like myself or professional landscapers, nursery operators, and plant enthusiasts.

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