A Little Celebration of a Small Accumulation

A Shelf of Books

I’m not so much a collector as I am an accumulator. When we were kids, my mother thought that my siblings and I should all collect something. I didn’t see the appeal, as I was too busy trying to read as many books as possible, so she ended up choosing something for me. Somewhere in my storage space is a box of thimbles that I got from various relatives, mostly as part of a Christmas or birthday present. When I run across them, I enjoy the associations and memories they bring up, but I don’t have any desire to add to the collection. As an adult, I can better understand the appeal of collecting. My budget doesn’t allow for art collection and my accumulation of teapots doesn’t really count, but there are a few book series that I buy.

The Massey Lectures, published by Anansi Press, is the series that I’m trying to complete. I’m missing some of the earlier lectures. I also really like the Canongate Myths series, though I’ve been a little lackadaisical about keeping up with the new releases. The rest of my book collection is quite scattershot – a little biography, a mixture of mostly Canadian, Commonwealth, and British fiction, as well as a lot of non-fiction on a bunch of different topics. It’s nice to have a little coherence added to the mix.

My other growing collection is a significant number of cookbooks. My partner and I have had to move our cookbooks from a small bookcase to a larger one, as they mysteriously go on multiplying. There’s even a series of books that bridges the gap between my cookbooks and my other book collections. Penguin’s Great Food series reprints food writing ranging from Samuel Pepys and Brillat-Savarin to Elizabeth David and Alice Waters. I think the entire series will be taking up some shelf space here before long. The books themselves are beautiful, with some of the best cover design I’ve seen in some time. The writings promise to enlighten, amuse and even offend. I think I officially have a new book (set) crush.

Since I’ve been accumulating quite a lot of posts here, one-hundred today in fact, I thought I would do a little something to celebrate and show my appreciation for those of you who’ve visited over the past year. I’ve loved your comments and even feel as though I’ve got to know some of you a little bit. I bought two of the books from the Great Food series and I’m going to give them away. As it’s also my one-year blogoversary (again, that is too a word!) on September 20th, I’ll announce the winners then. All you have to do is leave a comment, letting me know what you like to collect and which of the two books you’d prefer. (If the winners pick the same book, the person drawn first will get their choice.)

The books are these: Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation upon Roast Pig and Agnes Jekyll’s A Little Dinner Before the Play. I have to confess that I didn’t choose them because they’re my favourites of the series, but because – of the titles available at the bookstore I visited – these were the two with the prettiest covers. I do have my moments of superficiality.

A Dissertation upon Roast Pig

A Little Dinner Before the Play


Connection Isn’t Always Direct

Neighbourhood Book Exchange

I had an analogue childhood: records, cassette tapes, letters in the mailbox, and getting up from the couch periodically to change the channel on the television. The Encyclopedia Britannica, in its two-shelf bookcase, took up a corner of the living room. It was our equivalent of Google. I’m pretty sure the Encyclopedia Britannia is entirely electronic these days, but not all these things have disappeared. Records (and even cassette tapes) are being produced for new music and we occasionally get a card in the mail.

Certainly print books haven’t disappeared yet, though e-readers are becoming more and more popular. There’s something irreplaceable about the heft of a book, the texture of the paper, and the quality of light against the page. The history of a particular copy is also something that gets lost when we turn to electronic versions. The experience of reading a book is enhanced by marginalia, inscriptions, forgotten bits of paper, even creases and stains. Perhaps not always stains.

It’s also hard to share books, unless you’re passing the e-reader to your partner. It limits the potential of a single copy of a book. One of the things I love about travelling is how books end up taking their own journeys. When I’m away, I like to bring copies of things that I want to read, but don’t want to keep. Once finished, they’re exchanged for another from the bookshelves wherever we’re staying. (Not in private homes – in hostels, hotels, or bed and breakfasts, where this sort of thing is encouraged. Honestly.)

Helpful information.

I remember being on one long journey, thinking about the trajectory a book I’d just finished and really enjoyed might take. Considering the destinations of the other people staying at the hostel, I thought it might make it to Europe or South America and I wished I could somehow track its progress. A few years later, I heard about BookCrossing, which does exactly that.

BookCrossing is the sort of thing that I love about this new(ish) electronic world, because it is also rooted in tactile experience. The words real and virtual have had their meanings blurred, but in these cases they merge. Projects like this (and similar ones like Postcrossing or many iterations of mail art) are enacted in virtual space as they travel in real time. Eventually the trail stops and the book is never heard from again, though it might turn up unexpectedly, years later.

It’s not just the progress of the books that interests me, it’s also the generosity of spirit inherent in sharing with strangers. Like the sharing economy formed at Burning Man, looking out for strangers is an important part of creating community. Free boxes, extra umbrellas purposely left in cafés, community bookshelves – all these make a neighbourhood more liveable. It doesn’t replace socially just policies, but it helps enhance an atmosphere of neighbourliness.

The bottom shelf is all kids' books.

The electronic component of this process isn’t necessary, though it’s fascinating. The physical location is what’s important. I was thrilled to discover this Neighbourhood Book Exchange a few blocks from where I live. There are similar shelves in coffeeshops around town, but this structure is freestanding and free to visit, 24 hours a day. Another reason to love the Neighbourhood Small Grants project.

It’s exciting to see this sort of creativity and well, friendliness, at work. It’s something that makes me happy to live here. I’d love to hear about the things that make you happy to live in your neighbourhood. I’d also love to hear about instances of virtual community that excite you, or that you’ve followed into the real world.

My next post will be my 100th and I’ll be doing a little something to celebrate. Come back on Thursday to see what’s happening.

Late Summer Garden

A glimpse of one of the flower beds.

I was a little worried about my garden over the last month. In the middle of July, I sprained my ankle rather badly, managing to damage it about as much as I possibly could without actually breaking anything. (Go, me!) My partner was able to do some watering for me and the weather was fairly mild, so nothing died while I was out of commission, thank goodness. The weeds, being the hardy, prolific, and opportunistic garden dwellers that they are, spread riotously. I was stuck looking out the window and watching their progress. Now that I’m mostly healed, I’m trying to slowly clean up the garden beds. They aren’t so bad, but the yard itself has become a little daunting.

Flowers on my bean vine.

The good news is that I’m finally starting to eat from my garden. First radishes, lettuce and basil; now thyme and carrots; soon beets, Swiss Chard, beans and cucumber. I’m also hoping it’s not too late to put in a few more squares for fall harvest. Not bad for my first season of square foot gardening.

Tiny, growing cucumbers!

I’ve had a few challenges, including aphids, though they haven’t done as much damage as I feared. The cucumber and bean vines are making forays into the yard and up the bay tree, the mixed greens have finally bolted and my sad, little pepper plant may never produce a thing, but I’ve had few failures. The biggest disappointment was finding one whole square of carrots stolen. I’ve dug up the rest, though they could probably have used a little more time in the ground. I’m hoping that the person who took the carrots leaves the rest of my garden alone.

English lavender and in the background, beets and marigold.

I’m working on letting that go, because it’s a futile anger. I’m trying to focus instead on why I want a vegetable garden. It’s a place for experimentation and learning, as well as for growing my own food more cheaply and healthily than I can buy it. It’s also a better use of land than a lawn could ever be. It’s nice to feel, in however small a way, a part of the revival of food production in our culture.

Lettuce, hiding underneath dill. (Lacy vs. Frilly)

Roasted Cherries

A dark green bowl full of cherries, atop a brown cutting board with a small pile of basil sitting in a patch of sun.

I never feel I’ve made the best use of summer fruits. No matter how many stone fruit or berries I eat, cook with or freeze, I feel that I could have done more. This year’s been no exception, especially since I was a little out of commission during the best weeks for berries. I did manage to roast cherries though. I’m going to be doing it again before they disappear for another year.

Roasting fruit brings out the sugars and deepens the flavour, without turning it into mush. It’s also a good way to use fruit that’s just past its peak. Mostly, though, it’s just good. I’ve used it in yogurt, over ice cream, and just right out of the jar. My next plan is to use it as a tart filling, perhaps with custard. If I were the sort of person to make cocktails, the syrup would make a great addition. I suppose you could also stir it into soda water. Something like this salad would be really lovely, too.

I sort of improvised these, based on two sources: the kitchn‘s roasted cherry recipe and 101 Cookbooks‘s roasted strawberry recipe.

The cherries, roasted.

I whisked together equal parts of maple syrup and olive oil, with a little bit of sea salt. I then added about a 1/8 tsp. nutmeg and four shredded basil leaves. I tossed the cherries in this and then roasted them at 450° for ten minutes, then added a couple of tablespoons of cognac and put them back in for another five minutes. After they’d cooled, I removed the pits. The cherries keep for a few days in the fridge and freeze well. Slow-roasting is another great method for these, too.

I’m sort of curious to see what would happen if instead of basil and nutmeg, I used a little bit of cocoa powder. Maybe I’d leave the nutmeg in. I’d love to hear your ideas for other flavours that would work well with these, or your experiments with roasting other kinds of fruit.

A closer view of the roasted cherries.

Income Inequality and Unrest

In the midst of all the news about the riots in England, I couldn’t help but think about the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. I grew up in a time of relative prosperity (for white, middle-class kids like me, anyway) and the gap between the wealthy and most of us was much, much less. University was a given for many of us and it was affordable. Canada’s Medicare system was so much the status quo that it never occurred to us that it could be challenged or eroded.

Now, I realize my nieces and nephews have grown up into a world where none of this is guaranteed or even expected. In Britain, where class and race inequality are even more entrenched, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a youth today.

There’s been a lot of good analysis of both the English riots and the growth of income inequality. Rather than re-hashing their points, I’d like to share some links with you.

While Alternet can always be relied upon for good analysis, one of the best posts I’ve seen about the riots in London comes from the blog Penny Red: Panic on the Streets of London

Here in Canada, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has come out with a number of reports and multimedia tools on the subjects of income inequality and poverty:

Canada’s Income Gap

The Cost of Poverty in BC

And finally, another article from Alternet, pointing out the awful absurdities that occur in a culture committed to widening the income gap:

$230,000 for a Guard Dog

A Photo Walk in Fort Langley

Right now, I can only dream about going on nice, long photo walks with my favourite walking companion.

My walking companion, Roxy, with a flowerbed and streetscape in the background.

I sprained my ankle rather badly last week, so a long walk for me right now is across the apartment. Luckily, I have some pictures from my recent walk around Fort Langley. We’ve had a rainy summer so far, broken with some stretches of sunshine. As a result, water levels have been quite high. The day I was in Fort Langley, the Fraser had even flooded its banks slightly, covering the walking path I’d intended to use.

The path beside the Fraser, flooded by high water levels.

I wandered on the raised boardwalk instead, crossed the bridge to McMillan Island and then walked back up to the town’s historic centre. When I was growing up, Fort Langley was a little sleepy, but the community revitalized it on a vintage theme, in keeping with the tourism that’s drawn by the National Historic Site on the edge of town. What they’ve done is similar to La Conner, Washington, but on a smaller scale. There are a number of heritage buildings nearby, including this church, where my family would often go for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

oss the water toward McMillan Island and the historic Church of the Holy Redeemer.


Boats on the river.

I didn’t take many photos of the town’s buildings, but instead kept to the river, a nearby garden and the restored CN Station.

The restored CN Station, white with dark green trim, Flower baskets hang beside the sign, over a bench. There's a chalkboard showing (fictional) departures and arrivals.


An orange velocipede, which was used for railway inspections, atop the rail.


The old rail line beside the historic CN station.

The smaller details caught my eye that day.

An interesting handmade fence in front of a house.


A fully bloomed rose, yellow in the centre, turning to light pink and then fuschia toward the edges.


A close up of a yellow and orange rose, not yet fully opened, with purple flowers in the background.

Driving into Fort Langley from Langley proper, the outskirts seem just as they were when I was young, but on the other side of town, condo developments are being erected. It seems a shame, so close to the centre of town. It’s so lovely otherwise.

Development a few streets away from the historic town centre.

Garden Grows

I’ve been spending some time in my garden, watching over the vegetables in my raised bed, adding a few plants to the flower beds, and (above all) weeding. There’s still a lot to do, but here are a few photos from my backyard, carefully composed to avoid showing the areas that need the most work!

Pink and pinker dianthus.


Flowers in my container of annuals.

A view of the garden through the trellis.

Beets sprouting, with marigolds in the background.

My vegetable garden is starting to take off!

A cluster of pink roses.

Travelling at Home

Looking east over the rail tracks from Vancouver Lookout.

This summer seems especially full of community events. Part of it is Vancouver’s125th Birthday, with events like this past weekend’s Summer Live. Another part of it is that there’s been a groundswell of community creativity around public events that’s been supported by the current City government. Organizations like Vancouver Public Space Network, websites like Vancouver is Awesome, and initiatives like Car-Free Vancouver are helping to drive this movement. Public Dreams pioneered such community-making, espousing a grassroots ethos that includes making these events free of charge.

A view toward the west from Vancouver Lookout.

I think this atmosphere is inspiring traditional institutions like Tourism Vancouver to follow suit. This May, they ran a promotion of local attractions called Be a Tourist in Your Own Town, which was open only to residents of Greater Vancouver. Each day of the promotion, residents could download coupons good for a range of destinations around Greater Vancouver, ranging from the well-known to the obscure.

I managed to take advantage of two of the offers, admission to Vancouver Lookout and Dr. Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden. The first was one I’d never considered, while the second was a chance to re-visit one of Vancouver’s treasures.

Looking from the top of the Vancouver Lookout over the rail lines and cruise ship dock.

Vancouver Lookout sits atop Harbour Centre’s tower, which was Vancouver’s tallest building until 2009. It still gives a clear 360° view, looking out over downtown, the west and east ends of town, and toward the North Shore. Even on a rainy day, the views were compelling. It made for a nice exercise – trying to identify our neighbourhood from that height and distance; seeing the roofs of most of the downtown’s buildings; getting an aerial view across the water.

Through a window onto the garden.

I went to Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens on another grey day, but the rain held until near the end of my visit. The Vancouver Tourism offer coincided with the garden’s 25th Anniversary celebration, so we were treated to tours, activities and goodies. I loved watching the koi feed, hearing the history of the garden, and contemplating the symbolism of elements in the scholar’s garden. The garden is not just a contemplative space, providing a venue for theatre, music and conferences.

Orangy koi fish coming up for food.

Mottled, mostly white koi fish grabbing a snack.


I try to approach living in this region, where I grew up, in the same way I do unfamiliar places. Looking at one’s home through traveller’s eyes means trying to discover both the surprising and delightful, along with what’s most authentic. But tourism has its rewards, too. Thanks Tourism Vancouver, for reminding me of that.

Looking up toward the pavilion.

Taming the Gardener

A bench in front of a raised bed full of flowers and vegetables.

When we think of a garden, the image that comes to mind is of neat rows of mounded dirt, with paths running between them for the gardener. Or, perhaps, a quiet, grassy space surrounded by flowers and shrubs. What we don’t think about is the stories that gardens tell.

A vegetable garden can be a quite utilitarian affair and a backyard can be a haphazard jumble of flower beds, bushes, trees and ill-placed lawn. But it doesn’t have to be so. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for years now. I have had an ongoing battle with blackberry cane, bindweed and nightshade that’s been discouraging. I’ve managed to rid two flower beds of these plants and have a third that I’ve had middling success with, but overall it’s been a discouraging process. My attempts at vegetable gardening have been unqualified failures, though I have a rhubarb plant that produces well each year. I’ve also managed to calm down a rose bush that had been trying to take over the yard in a Sleeping-Beauty-prison-like fashion. Now it’s a reasonable size and flowering nicely, without trapping any wayward travellers or foolish quest-seekers.

A view across the garden, with raised beds, stone-circled patches, bushes and trees in view.

I’m not a necessarily a fan of the manicured garden, with carefully placed plants and no room for surprises, but I would like a balanced space that’s enjoyable for us and hospitable to the plants I do want to introduce. Part of the problem is that all the plants I’m having difficulty with aren’t native to this area (or even this continent). I’ve often thought they are both a metaphor for the colonization that’s happened here and a legacy of that colonization. I admire native plant gardens, which allow for a riot of growth and propagation, but are in harmony with the region, so aren’t unmanageable in the way that imported plants can be.

Curlicue vines.

All of this is to say that my garden tells a story of forays and routs, outposts and sieges. Not exactly relaxing. I’m working on it, though. I recently took a workshop in companion planting at The World in a Garden, an urban agricultural project that is part community garden and part teaching space. (All the photos in this post were taken there and, as you can see, it’s both beautiful and functional.) Our instructor was Brian Campbell, a master gardener and a beekeeper.

Our instructor, Brian Campbell.

I expected the workshop to outline the basics of companion planting – a carrots love tomatoes list, with tips and tricks for success. Though that sort of information was part of the discussion, the workshop was really about exploring a broader definition of companion planting, that of using plants to develop a narrative for your garden.

A raised bed with a mix of flowers and vegetables.

The idea of companion planting has its roots (so to speak) in neo-Platonic philosophy, with certain plants being associated with certain of the classical humours and the elements of air, earth, fire and water. So, this sort of gardening accomplishes a philosophical correspondence, rather than a system for successful growth. Modern permacultural practices look at companion planting in its practical aspects, using plants to help each other repel predators and encourage beneficial insects and nutrients. Between these two poles, there are many narrative possibilities, including metaphorical gardens. Plants have accrued many meanings and a little research can help you to plan one that can be read as musical, poetic or more.

A bee hive surrounded by grasses and flowers.

Brian encouraged us to think about the qualities we were looking for in our gardens and to use those descriptors to guide us in our planning and planting, helping us to develop garden narratives of our own. For me, that means concentrating my efforts in my newly-built raised bed and creating a contemplative and relaxing space in the rest of my backyard. I’ve also decided to incorporate the permacultural idea of Zone 5 into a corner of my garden – an untouched, sacred space that doesn’t represent a battle zone, but instead provides a refuge for native plants and insects. A little balance and harmony in the garden should reinforce those qualities in the gardener, don’t you think?

Creating Community, Car-Free

Jump rope in the street, on the Drive.

It’s often been said that Vancouver lacks a civic centre. We have no town square or any pedestrian malls. For many years, the closest thing to a city gathering place has been the steps and courtyard of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Many protests and celebrations have wound up there over the years, but it doesn’t replace the street-level culture that exists when there is a dedicated public space.

Community groups set up along the street, including No One is Illegal.

Travelling to Europe or Latin America (or even Montréal) shows us what we’re missing here. Even the smallest town in Mexico seems to have a zócalo where cafés line the perimeter and couples promenade in the evenings. For the traveller, it can provide an anchor from which to spin out one’s explorations; for the resident, it’s the centre of public life.

A band sets up in the street.

Vancouver gets a small taste of what this can be like when the annual Car-Free Day closes down streets in several neighbourhoods across the city. Street hockey, dance parties, roller derby and jump rope are just some of the activities folks were able to engage in, once the traffic was re-routed and pedestrians flooded the street.

The Carnival Band promenading through the crowd, down the centre of the street.

This model temporarily assuages the city’s need for an outdoor public life, but it’s not enough. The temporary nature of the squares means that the permanent architecture of city squares can only be approximated. Street parties can also be an able-bodied only affair, with buses re-routed as well as private cars. A permanent city square would be physically accessible, as transit would be built around it, not diverted from it. Vancouver Public Space Network has been arguing for a public square in the city for some time now. They’ve got a number of posts on the subject, which I encourage you to explore.

Smoking grill full of fish, with hungry festival-goers waiting.

This isn’t to say that I don’t love and support Car-Free Day, it’s just that it’s a tantalizing, fleeting experience of what our city should have every day. Beyond the vision of a public square for Vancouver, Car-Free Day also suggests some other interesting possibilities – what about closing Commercial Drive to traffic altogether, while running accessible light rail along its length? The Drive is already famous for its café culture; wouldn’t it be lovely if the city turned the street into a sort of plaza, where people could enjoy our mild weather for much of the year? Extended awnings would of course be necessary in our rainforest climate zone, but that’s no barrier.

Kids collaboratively paint a picture, where cars usually are.

Car-free day every day? I’m in.

A valet bike parking sign.

The Car Free Vancouver booth.