Just before the cold snap and snow arrived in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago I went around the garden burying the hellebore plants (many of them already optimistically blooming in mid-January) in drifts of dry leaves, saved from fall especially for the purpose, and topped with old bins, cardboard … whatever came to hand.
When the snow melted, they were still blooming away under their makeshift blankets and huts. Last week, even more varieties came into bloom.
It seems that we could have more snow next week, so I thought I’d better quickly put together my first floral gazing bowl of the season so we could pretend it’s spring for a minute.
I also took the psychic precaution of digging up a few of the garden’s rampant snowdrops and potting them up for indoor cheerfulness … just in case they also go missing in snow action next week. Here they are shown next to my latest treasure from Jane Ryan in Cornwall — a pair of pecking rooks.
As a final nod to #SuperbOwl, here is a video of a really superb barred owl that spent the day in front of our house a couple of years ago.
In the immortal words of Van Morrison, “gotta get through January, gotta get through February,” so I hope you’ve found what you need (flowers, owls, football games, knitting, a faithful pet, a good book, uplifting music …) to get there.
“Slightly Ransacked” might be the best way to describe the look of our house.
Some people call it “charming” or “eclectic,” but I know they’re only being kind.
Clearly, I am quite unqualified to offer serious home décor tips. With that in mind, please consider the following post to be, not so much a design philosophy, but more a coping mechanism.
The thing is, I do aspire to neat and stylish home. Just … not quite enough to do very much about it.
Take this morning, for instance. The plan was: take the dog for a brisk walk and then come back and spend an hour cleaning out my chaotic closet.
But, but, but … there were two ravens in the neighbourhood. Naturally, Geordie and I had to follow them (and their trailing posse of angry crows) up hill and down dale, thus squandering my closet-cleaning time slot.
I’m sure that not all nature lovers are as domestically disinterested as me, but just in case you do face some of the same challenges, here are few things I find work for me.
This is key. When people come over (or even when you first come home yourself) you don’t want to immediately notice the clutter. So, what you need is something rather big and spectacular to create a diversion. We have some of my enormous fern prints in the kitchen and I like to think they draw the eye to their lovely forms, rather than the sink full of dishes directly under them.
This is how the kitchen looked in its pristine state, just after the renovations were completed, about 12 years ago.
How it looks today. So much messier — but at least you can chose to focus on the ferns instead of the mess.
Crows and ravens are, of course, great attention grabbers.
The bigger the better. I have them all over my house, in every form and size. (There is only the smallest chance that this advice may be biased.)
Prince Charming crow with a sort of Eames inspired crow I bought years ago at a now-closed Vancouver shop called Nood.
One of several Hermann Edler folk art crow figures I have dotted around the house.
The judgmental expressions of Marvin and Mavis here could be interpreted as criticism of the housekeeping, but we’ll just keep that thought to ourselves …
Elevate the Clutter
You can almost make clutter seem desirable if you assemble some of it into “collections.” It implies that it’s all carefully curated, rather than a random accumulation. Old printer’s trays are great for this, with their inviting grid of little boxes, all needing to be filled. We won’t talk about the dusting, except to say that once a year is more than enough.
This printer’s tray in my studio contains many treasures.
My favourite item here is a chestnut taken from the ground below a tree that grows over Mozart’s grave in Vienna. My friend, the amazing author Lyanda Lynn Haupt (who wrote Mozart’s Starling, Crow Planet and The Urban Bestiary, sent me this precious seed. We surmise that it may contain a molecule or two of Mozart’s creativity. It came with a lovely note (on the wall below the shelf) about the story behind it and came packaged in the beautiful lavender silk box at top of the shelf.
As you probably know already, I love things with a story!
Another printer’s tray in the living room, full of yet more miscellaneous treasures, displayed with a doll by Hornby Island artist, Veronica Lynn; a smaller doll by a Kyrgyzstan craftswoman; and a bird puppet by another Hornby artist, Susan Cain. Behind the herd of inherited ebony elephants are some very beautiful raku vessels by Canadian ceramicist Mas Funo. I must find a better display spot for them as they’re gorgeous and a bit lost, what with all the elephants …
Over the years I’ve collected snow globes, old tea cups, mad-eyed ceramic terriers, and plastic flowers, to name but a few. Vestiges of these collections linger in corners of the house, overlaid with a thick layer of anything crow or bird related.
Kitchen window at dusk. Lots of birds in there (including more Hermann Edler crows). I also detect the seeds of a possible ornamental cat collection …
Vintage Japanese birds with hare porcelain churn by Vancouver ceramicist, Russell Hackney.
If you just go all-out eclectic and quirky with your home décor, it’s very freeing. There is no theme or colour scheme you need to adhere to. If you find a piece of art or a vintage treasure you love, you don’t worry for a minute whether it will fit in with the rest of the décor. At our place, we already have so much of a smozzle that one more odd item really makes no difference at all.
Top Shelf: Vintage Woodwards truck (a gift from an elderly neighbour); a remnant of the mad-eyed terrier collection; drawing by my son; vintage robot box; miniature landscape by Lois Ditchburn (Phillip’s aunt). Bottom shelf: mechanical toy; vintage silver teapots; tug boat by Vancouver artist, Mark Wilkinson; Jimi Hendrix action figures; William Shakespeare bobble head; chicken portraits by Elaine Savoie and one by me; family photos.
I have a large collection of little vases, from thimble to urn-sized, so that there’s always something to display a cutting from the garden in.
I find you can study a plant for much longer when it’s right by the sink when you’re doing the dishes. Also, it cheers up the dishwashing time.
Fern tiles over the bathroom sink, so you can think about nature while you brush your teeth …
Even though the house is usually a bit of a tip, I’m always happy to return to it.
Messy as it is, there’s no place like home. We’ve lived here for over 27 years and the whole place, clutter and all, is filled with love and memories. And stories.
Wonkily hung collection of family photos in mismatched frames. One of my favourite parts of the house!
Below is a custom-made wooden toy celebrating Edgar, Geordie and Eric the Crow. It’s a love machine, so their hearts beat in and out when you turn the handle. This is one of my most precious things, and just one of many gorgeous pieces I’ve collected by Cornish artist and toymaker, Jane Ryan.
Miniature portraits (about 2×3-inches) in painted plastic frames from Valu Village. These are our previous lovely dogs, the brother and sister team of Taz and Molly.
Current beloved pets. As I get older I find I get more and more lax about “no pets on the furniture/bed” rules.
Having made this brave defence of clutter (oops, I mean collections), I may have to write a new post in the near future. We have recently acquired a copy of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which Phillip keeps reading aloud to me. You never know. By this time next year, we may be living a simple life in a minimalist paradise.
If that fails, however, I am always comforted by the words of a Globe and Mail column I read about twenty years ago. I can’t remember the writer unfortunately, but she said something like: “the homes of the most interesting people always show signs of a recent struggle.”
A little shelf by the back door is a home for some of my nature finds.
Crow and raven cushion covers, guaranteed to distract from messy areas of the home.
Not literally, of course. Crow hugging is fraught with peril at the best of times, but especially in spring when nesting season has them a bit tense.
Please, do not hug me.
But I do suggest that you give the crow (or pick your favourite bird, plant, patch of moss or mollusk) a special thought today.
It’s Earth Day so, ideally, we should be extending our love to the entire planet.
But that’s a hard thing to do, particularly when what the planet needs from us right now is massive change —change that is going to be really tough for us to make.
The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, where we often feel very cut off from what we think of as Nature.
So, given that most of us are urbanites these days, how are we to develop the necessary connection with nature in order to care enough to make change and move towards saving the planet?
As my dear mother used to say, “wherever you go, there you are.”
And where you are now, even if it’s in the heart of the city, has tenacious bits of nature thriving in it.
It just takes a slight focus shift to start becoming aware of, and amazed by it.
This crow is tending a nest at Hornby and Robson in the heart of downtown Vancouver, right by the Art Gallery. A friend who works at the gallery told me that it’s probably the same pair who nested there last year and caused a traffic kerfuffle when one of their babies flew into the back of someone’s convertible just outside of Café Artigiano.
Collecting nest furnishings in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
Often the thing you tend to notice first, just because of its size and boldness, is a crow.
I find that the crow is your gateway bird, leading to the habit of noticing the bird world as a whole. Once you’ve started to look up to see what the crows are up to, you can’t help but start to notice the robins, sparrows, bushtits, chickadees and hawks going about their more subtle, but equally fascinating, avian business.
And noticing birds is, in turn, a gateway to the wonder of nature in general.
The task of saving the earth often seems far too big and therefore hopeless.
The tools we need this Earth Day are empathy and hope.
Someone who embodies both of these qualities is 87 year old Jean Vanier, who created L’Arche — a unique and loving community for mentally disable adults. Here are some of his thoughts on birds, as told to columnist and writer, Ian Brown in a Globe and Mail interview.
Hmmm, something to think about …
Some notes on the author’s quoted in this blog post:
John Marzluff’s Wikipedia page says this:
“John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of In the Company of Crowsand Ravens, Gifts of the Crow, and Welcome to Subirdia. His lab once banded crows with a Dick Cheney mask.”
— so you know he’d be fun guy to know! Subirdia is his most recent book about the amazing adaptability of birds, their importance, and what we can do to help them survive in our urbanized world.
I first discovered Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt when I picked up a copy of Crow Planetseveral years ago. It remains one of my favourite books, combining science, poetry and humour in a way that I could read all day. She’s also written a wonderful book on city wildlife in general (The Urban Bestiary) and I look forward to her next one on the subject of starlings. And she has a blog: The Tangled Nest.
Colin Tudge is a British biologist and entertaining author, The Bird is only one of many books he’s written. I next want to read his book The Secret Life of Trees.
You can read more about the life and work of Jean Vanier on his website.
I took some time to appreciate the last dawn of 2014 – and such a dawn it was.
After a festive season of heath challenges, it seems even more important that usual to appreciate the small things that are big.
Being with family, good friends, health (it’s all relative), moments of quiet loveliness, every dawn, every sunset. Crows, naturally.
A week or so before Christmas my husband was in a nasty bike accident. When we found him in emergency he couldn’t remember the last five years or so of his life, or how he had come to be in the ER. Thanks to his helmet, he did not have a major brain injury, “just” a concussion. By the next day he remembered everything, except for the ride to work, the accident, the ride in the ambulance and the hours spent in the hospital. These things he may never remember. Concussions, I am learning, are tricky things, taking anything from weeks to months to recover from. Phillip has spent about 90% of the holiday season in bed, in the dark with his new best friends — audio books. Even watching TV or reading is too much for his rattled brain at this point.
He will get better eventually, with rest and quiet, so as frustrating as the process of healing can be, we are grateful every day that things weren’t much, much worse.
So this morning I made a point of spending an hour or so bundled up on the top deck of our house to welcome in the last day of 2014 in all its splendour. This may be the most exciting part of my New Year’s celebrations this year, but that’s just fine with me.
The first of the commuter crows arrive.
As the sun rose, the sky behind the poplars at the end of our street was painted with sugared almond shades of peach, raspberry and lavender. And, as reliable as clockwork, the crows began to arrive from the east and their night time roost at Still Creek. Most were just passing through, heading to their “day jobs” in North Vancouver and points west of here.
But the locals stopped on the very tops of the poplars as if to take in the breath-taking views. I’ve often noticed them hanging around there on mornings with particularly gorgeous sunrises, as if they are as susceptible to the beauty as I am. Of course, it could be that they sit there every morning and I only notice them when I happen to be out taking in the view myself, but I prefer to go with my “crows as dawn worshippers” theory.
You can see the neighbourhood waking up from the vantage point of our roof, the sky changing and a positive rush hour of birds – flickers, gulls, geese, sparrows, juncos, were spotted this morning, as well as Eric and the gang.
The northern flicker scooped the weeping birch perch this morning.
As I watched Eric and his little group huddling together on the wires, I was also reminded of how grateful we’ve been for all the friends who’ve rallied around since the accident. It’s the crow equivalent of volunteers leaving the little crow family group to head over and scare away the eagle. I’m sure our friends would scare eagles away for us too, but, in the absence of winged predators, we are very grateful for all of the soup, cookies, help and concern that we’ve received.
And, of course, I’m very grateful to Eric and his corvid kin, because watching them lifts me away from my worries and cares for a while as I realize there are so many lives being lived in parallel to our human ones, even here in the middle of East Vancouver.
The colours of the sunrise glow on Eric’s feathers
If you’re anything like me, the list goes along these lines:
Why is my computer displaying that “fatal error” message?
Where the heck did those extra cell phone charges come from?
What should I pick up for tonight’s dinner?
How soon, exactly, will the world arrive at hell in a hand basket?
These are all very worthy concerns. I am an expert worrier. Just ask my children. However, each time I board a plane I am reminded that, in the event of an emergency, I need to put my oxygen mask on first. In other words, I can’t help anyone else if I’m not functional. I discovered this a few years ago during a time of major stress and sadness.
Taking a small “wonder break” can be the most instantly relaxing and restorative thing you can do for yourself in five minutes or less.
Just some of the many things I like to wonder about:
What do birds think about?
Where do they go at night?
Does the rain bother the crows?
How come moss grows everywhere?
What, exactly, is lichen?
Why is rust so beautiful sometimes?
I think we all followed such thought paths as children, but somewhere along the way, musing-time gets left behind. Mental meandering is frequently written off as daydreaming, a waste of time. But those tiny moments can be the start of bigger things.
Once you start, the wondering can take off in a couple of directions.
Path one: I wonder … (lower case ‘w’) Once you start noticing birds, moss, plants, animals or old rusty signs, you may find yourself driven to find out more. You can talk to people who know more than you, read books or magazine articles, watch documentaries, do some online research. There might be just one question you’d like to find the answer to, or you can end up with a lifelong passion on your hands.
Path Two: Wonder (with a capital ‘W’)
This world is not perfect. Let’s face it, it’s far, far from perfect and we shouldn’t ever forget that or stop working to make it better.
But, there are those moments when you step outside of the door and notice some little, inconsequential thing and everything seems to stop just for a moment. Sometimes you say to yourself (or even out loud) “wow”.
Just for a moment we can live in pure wonder. It’s just a moment, but that feeling rides along with us as we rejoin the daily battle — whether it’s sorting out the cell phone bill, or saving the world.
May that blue bird of happiness sit on your shoulder as it sat on mine when (at last!) a member of the tricky and elusive Stellar’s Jay tribe took pity on me and posed for a portrait.
I can’t really complain about the birds I’ve been able to photograph this summer. From the lovely little white crowned sparrows in my garden to the ravens that seem to have followed me around in recent months, it’s been a splendid season of bird viewing.
But there was one that seemed to delight in teasing me. Hiking in the woods and on mountains I was constantly on the lookout for the vivid blue flash of a Stellar’s Jay. And that’s exactly what I would see – a streak of electric blue disappearing between the shadows. Far too fast and distant for any hope of a photograph, it seemed that the Stellar’s Jay was mocking me. Quite likely from what I know of their corvid personality!
Worse, people would tell me they had these birds visiting them regularly in their gardens. One friend had one expire in his after being attacked by a cat (keep your cats indoors people!). I did have one in my garden once, about three years ago. Unfortunately it was in the deep shadow of the curly hazel tree (collecting nuts) where it was too dark to get a good shot. I only ever use natural light and a hand-held camera, so I am always at the mercy of the light.
Summer was pretty much done when we went for our holidays on Vancouver Island, and I was almost resigned to yet another season without a good Stellar’s Jay photograph.
The first stop on our trip was a visit with old friends who live in the village of Cumberland. Walking with my friend in the woods around their house I could hear the enticing call of the jay and occasionally saw that oh so tantalizing streak of blue.
Finally, I was standing alone, admiring my friend’s garden, when the bird shown here flew close to me at the edge of the woods. Instead of flitting away as usual, this one just sat there — in sufficient light for a decent photograph — and looking magnificent. He even considerately posed on a gorgeous moss-covered branch in a shade of lime green that perfectly complemented his feathers.
This is the original photograph of the Stellar’s Jay taken in the woods outside Cumberland, BC.
It was as if he was saying, “Here, you’ve suffered enough. I’m posing for a perfect photo for you. Don’t muck it up.”
The final Stellar’s Jay portrait is composed using my usual layered approach. There is the Cumberland jay in starring role, with a supporting cast of cracked concrete, a fennel plant, the shadows of maple leaves left in a wet fall sidewalk, a tiny crow feather, grey blue sky and a Canadian postmark.
Some of the other images used in the composition of the Stellar’s Jay portrait.
This little blue bird of happiness is available in my online shop as a signed print, tile and as jewellery. You may have him with you to cheer up on any day, no matter how grey.
I was reading a blog the other day about “bucket lists” and how too many of us put off doing things on those lists, getting too caught up in the day to day to organize and save for that trek to Katmandu, or sailing trip around the world. In many ways I sympathize with the sentiment of the message.And yet, it got me to thinking. For sure I would like to go to Italy one day … and New York and New Orleans. But, for me, it’s just as important, if not more so, to make time to really appreciate the little things every day.Stopping for a few moments to admire the robin’s joyful splashy bath in the birdbath on a sunny spring morning. Glancing at the crows huddled companionably on the power lines as the rain pours down. Spotting an amazing patch of moss and lichen that forms a whole miniature world on a lump of rotten wood. Simply noticing things. No great conclusions are necessarily reached, but I do feel rich, and as if I took a small trip outside of myself. And I was only out in the backyard, or walking to the post office.In my work I try to convey this philosophy. Most of images are taken close to home and the subject matter is not exotic – just things you can see everyday – common garden birds, moss, plants, old buildings. I work with these little moments and try to show them so that others see how I feel about them. I try to convey the ”specialness” and timeless beauty in the everyday.