Gauguin the Gardener

A NATURAL SENSE OF COLOUR

“The landscape, with its pure, intense colors, dazzled and blinded me…”                                                   Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)   “In nature colour is used…as a mechanism to attract. The Blue Trees attempts to waken a similar response from viewers. It is within this context that the blue denotes sacredness, something reverential.”                                                                    Konstantin Dimopoulos (Artist, 1954-Present)

I recently took in an art exhibit, Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, with my two oldest daughters. I had always been drawn to the style and vibrant colours of his latter works, and since Seattle was this show’s only stop in the United States, we thought it was worth the trip down…and we weren’t disappointed. The exhibit was a series of galleries showing Gauguin’s progression from an his art collector / friend of impressionists / young artist years right through to his death in 1903 on the Marquesas Islands. His early works definitely shows the influence of the emerging impressionists and although he was personal friends with the likes of Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and van Gogh (who he lived with briefly in 1888), he never really felt like he was a part of this new direction in art. Then at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris (the same one that erected the Eiffel Tower) he becomes fascinated with eastern culture after visiting the elaborate mock Javanese village and Cambodian pavilion. This obsession would eventually lead to the breakdown of his marriage and the first of two trips to Tahiti, which was then at the furthest reaches of colonial France. It was here that Gauguin immersed himself in the native culture and more importantly, the intense beauty of the natural landscape. He would become a gardener of natural colour, harvesting the hues of this strange land and fixing them to canvasses rich in culture and symbolism, so that over a century later, I could visit his Polynesian haunts with my own two eyes. His work here emerged as something more primal, less contrived than many of the impressionists he had admired back in France and yet he still managed to incorporate that unique sense of colour later made famous by such artists as Picasso and Matisse. In essence, Gauguin had found his muse in Tahiti. The exhibit also included many Polynesian artifacts of the period, carvings and ornaments that would have affected his outlook at the time – so one really felt that you had immersed yourself in his world, at least while you were in the galleries. On our way back to the parking lot from the exhibit, we stumbled upon an interesting art installation in downtown Westlake Park. The Blue Trees by Konstantin Dimopoulos looks exactly as it sounds…with the trunks and scaffold branches of the Honey Locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos) painted in a startling biodegradable cobalt colour. Call it coincidental, but I was really struck by the fact that it reminded me of Gauguin’s work, particularly the predominance of blue in many of his canvasses. I had to wonder how many future artists were being inspired by these blue trees, and if some day, say a hundred years from now, people would be viewing their collected works in the gallery I had just come from.

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Our Garden of Sorrows

FLOWERS OF REMEMBRANCE

“Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that made you smile.”                    Mark Twain (1835-1910)                                      “Thank you, Crystal, for making everyone around you that much more happier. You shined, and that did not go unnoticed.”                                                 Online Tribute                                                          “Life is too short and this proves it, he hadn’t even lived his life yet.”                                                        Accident Witness

It was 2:25 on the morning of February 5th 2012 when two vehicles were driving in opposite directions going down one of the main streets that passes through my town. One vehicle was a green van with three teenaged boys, the other a Honda Civic with three young women. For reasons not important to this story they crashed head-on and the accident took the lives of 16 year-old Dawson Spencer and 18 year-old Crystal Weaver. I know this because a make-shift garden now stands in the place where they both died. It sits in front of an old, time-worn fence that hasn’t been painted for years. Perhaps that is why the brightly coloured flowers, most of which are artificial, seem so out of place…like they don’t really belong here. It is an unlikely place for two young people to have lost their lives, but I suppose that none of us gets to choose the spot where we take our last breath. I had read the story of this tragic loss in the local newspaper and had driven by the memorial many times on the way to work, but I didn’t actually stop to look until I found it completely abandoned one day. In past I had seen dozens of people gathered around that fence, but it is April now and those days are gone – all that remains are the memories and the ephemera of better days strewn upon the ground. One can find personal photos, a plaster angel, poems, a hand-carved bench, toys and even a plastic tiara…each item has a personal significance, each serves to console those left behind, ordinary people left to deal with the palpable grief of a sudden loss. This is a garden borne of sorrow and as such, it will one day no longer be needed. When that time comes, friends and family will instead cling to those happier memories and the bitterness of reality can be left here, in this roadside memorial. The unkept grass, dandelions and blackberries already springing to life will soon cover most of it. Over time, fewer and fewer people will visit and one day a sheepish city worker will no doubt load all of it into the back of a truck and take it away. But that won’t mean that these two young people are forgotten, it will just be the time when this garden of sorrows has simply served its purpose and that those of us left behind have healed enough to go on living without Dawson and Crystal. That said, I’ve decided to post their garden here on the internet, where it can live just a little bit longer.

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The Kid With All The Questions

WHY IS IT CALLED..?

“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.”                                          Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

I have to admit that any job in retail sales can be a bit trying at the best of times, and selling plants is no exception. There are days when I get sick and tired of those ‘avant-gardeners’ turning their noses up at anything that isn’t a new introduction or those idealogues searching for the plant that never gets disease, prunes itself and flowers year-round in full sun, partial shade or even total darkness. I was in one of those jaded nursery manager moods several weeks back when I was teaching a seminar on using native plants to a group of about 30 people. One of those in attendance was a ten year-old boy who had accompanied his mother and seemed somewhat resigned to his captive state. Despite the video game in hand, he actually appeared to be listening and it wasn’t long before he sheepishly raised his hand, as if in class. When I stopped and asked him if he had a question, he perked right up and asked if smoking kinnick-kinnick was better than smoking cigarettes. To give you a frame of reference, I had been talking about the native groundcover Arctostaphylos uva-ursi and how indigenous peoples used to smoke the leaves. After the ambient chuckling died down, I tried to explain (as tactfully as possible) that this was an ancient practice and that smoking anything (including native plants) probably wasn’t the best of ideas. I then proceeded with the talk but soon learned that I had piqued his interest, as the questions kept coming fast and furious. The problem being that they were quite insightful, and so I spent the rest of my remaining time answering them, with the banter between us going something like this…Do Sundews have teeth? No, they are not like Venus Fly Traps. Instead, they have sticky hairs that catch flys and gnats. Why is it called Deer Fern? Because Elk and Deer rub the sore spots on their heads on Deer Fern clumps after they shed their horns. Wouldn’t their food stink if they used Skunk Cabbage leaves like waxed paper? Skunk Cabbage flowers smell bad to attract the flys that pollinate them. Their leaves only smell when crushed and indigenous peoples generally just lined baskets with them. Aren’t all slugs bad? Actually Banana Slugs (the yellow ones) are native here and are an important part of the ecosystem, helping to break down organic matter into soil and dispersing seeds and spores. Why don’t the Hummingbirds just wait for the currant berries? Most Hummingbirds don’t live here in winter, they migrate south where it’s warm. When they return they need to eat right away and the nectar from Red-Flowering Currant is usually the first food they find. Also, it doesn’t make very good berries.

By the end of the seminar we had collectively learned more from a 10 year-old’s sense of curiosity than I could have ever conveyed with my three decades of gardening experience. He had reminded all of us that the only ‘killjoy’ in life is really the biases we pick-up over time and the subsequent tunnel-vision we acquire as we narrow our focus on the often unimportant things in life. Looking back on the experience, I feel badly that I didn’t even ask him his name – but whoever you are kid, I justed wanted to thank you for reminding me why I still love being a gardener.

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Things my Grandmother Taught Me

SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”                                                          Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)                                              “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”                                                                            Steve Jobs (1955-2011)                                                     “At the bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth;                                   Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

She was a skilled gardener and the woman who taught me to savour Salal berries. My grandmother was also the cement that bound my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, brothers and sister into an unlikely amalgam that she called ‘the family’. She did this without the benefit of past experience – as her only sibling, a brother, died as a young man fighting a fire and their extended family lived thousands of miles away in England. And yet somehow she became a matriarch…the head gardener of her own family tree, carefully preserving our collective memories and tending to the many living branches. She was a woman of eclectic interests who passed unto to me her love of gardening, geology and natural history, but perhaps her most enduring quality was her ability to love you for exactly who you are. I witnessed this first hand at a family reunion in the early 1970’s when I met her dad, my greatgrandfather, for the first and only time. I knew from heresay that my grandmother had a difficult family life as a young girl, much in part to her father’s drinking and gambling at the time. And yet when she spoke of him it was always stories of better times when her and her dad would take the ferry to North Vancouver and go hiking for the day – eating Salal berries and visiting the many logging camps nestled in the then wooded slopes. He looked uncomfortable when he first arrived at the reunion and to be honest, none of us knew what to expect…and yet it only took one loving glance and a hug from his daughter for him to fit right in. Needless to say, we had a lovely day. Many years later I was working as a landscape foreman in and around those same north shore forests that she and her father used to hike, only now they were known as the British Properties. As was my habit, I would often wander through the forest during my lunchbreak and one day I came across the remains of an old logging camp in the form of a wooden dam and flue. I couldn’t help but wonder if I hadn’t stumbled into one of Gran’s happy memories and I have to admit that the Salal berries growing there were particularly sweet. To this day I try to hold true to one thing she taught me, that the best person you can be is yourself.

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A Matter of Perspective

INCONSEQUENTIAL

“Do not let trifles disturb your tranquility of mind…Life is too precious to be sacrificed for the nonessential and transient…Ignore the inconsequential.”  Grenville Kleiser     (1868-1935)

When I began writing this blog about a year ago I was looking to share some of the life lessons that I had learned while working as a gardener these past 30 years – and I think it goes without saying that to be a good gardener you have to have some sense of nurture. And since taking care of a garden is much the same as taking care of a planet (albeit on a larger scale), I find myself writing more and more about environmental issues. All of these ‘issues’ are of our doing and whether we like to admit it or not, we are, without a doubt, the biggest problem on this planet and yet we don’t really seem to be serving any meaningful purpose, at least in a biological sense. We are not a part of any species food chain, we don’t pollinate or disperse seeds, in fact the only thing we do seem to be good at is running this planet into the ground per se. And yet the world we know changes with perspective, and how we view it will ultimately determine our stewardship or destruction of it. The truth of the matter can be very hard to find and it is only in those places where we clearly don’t belong, where we are the intruders, that one gets a real sense of perspective – the opportunity for a blunt self-appraisal of our worth as a species. For me, those places are only found when I go scuba diving or spelunking, meandering through the caves and cracks that lead into the heart of the earth. While I realize that these adventures aren’t for everyone, if you ever find yourself hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the earth, try sitting down and turning off your headlamp for just a few minutes. Here in total darkness, with no interruptions but the beating of your own heart, the obvious becomes apparent… we are insignificant. I get this same sense when I’m diving, particularly when I look back up to the surface expecting to see the sky, only to realize that I’m not in a place I could call ‘my’ world and its needs don’t revolve around me. The epiphany being that below the surface of the waters I am inconsequential. If tomorrow this planet was devoid of human beings, the only things that would perish would be our cities and factories, and the roads that connect them – the infrastructure or veneer that we like to call civilization. The rest of the planet would go on as normal – the tides would surge, the insects pollinate, the flowers bloom and go to seed, the animals hunt, the rains fall, the sun set – we just wouldn’t be here to see it all and take the credit.

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Peter Rabbit and Mr. Toad Gone Wild

THE ARROGANT LEADING THE BLIND

“The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”      Thomas Austin (1815-1871)                   “The difference between animals and humans is that animals change themselves for the environment, but humans change the environment for themselves.”                                                                                                Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

You’ve definitely come to the wrong place if you’re looking for a long-lost Beatrix Potter tale or an updated version of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved Wind in the Willows. Sadly, this is a true story of how deliberately-introduced rabbits and toads have ravaged some of the most unique ecosystems in the world – that being the tropical rainforests, deserts and savannahs of Australia. Like any decent moral tale, you need a bad guy to pin the blame on and in this case it is none other than Homo sapiens, which despite its large cranial cavity and capacity to reason, is still proving to be one of the stupidest species on this planet. This story of ecological disaster begins in 1859, when an avid hunter named Thomas Austin thought it would be a good idea to release a dozen rabbits in the wild so he could have something new to kill – apparently the abundant kangaroos, wallabies and possums simply weren’t enough. Those twelve rabbits would eventually multiply into millions of hungry bunnies grazing native plant species to extinction and killing trees, leaving behind barren erosion-prone landscapes. Things got so bad that by 1907 a continent-wide barrier fence (over 2000 miles long) was erected in a desperate attempt to hold them at bay…but it didn’t work. I recently came across another such fence (albeit on a much smaller scale) whose sole purpose was to protect a reforested meadow from the ravages of these same rabbits, although in this case it had also become an incidental trap. My daughter and I were on our way to the Forrest caves on Phillip Island when I noticed something fluttering in the wire fencing that flanked the parking lot. When I walked back to the spot I found a Muttonbird or Short-Tail Shearwater tightly wedged between two layers of fencing. He or she was in pretty bad shape and had obviously been stuck there for quite some time, so I pulled up the wire on one side to provide enough room for it to maneuver. After a bit of gentle prodding we managed to guide it out but surprisingly, it threw itself right back into the fencing. It had me wondering if its nesting site (they always return to the same in-ground burrow) was on the other side. Rather than leave it thrashing against the fence, we gently chased it to the other side of the parking lot, where it finally settled down and started grooming. Ironically, we didn’t actually see any rabbits in Australia, with the exception of a handful on an early morning hike near Ayer’s Rock. Our next encounter with an invasive species occurred about a week later while we were on a night hike tour in the Queensland rainforest. Our guide, an avid naturalist, pointed out a Cane Toad on a log and explained how it had been introduced to control a sugar cane pest. That was back in 1935 and since it had no natural predators or parasites (it is native to Central and South America), it has managed to spread an average of 25 miles a year.  The other problem is that native species such as lizards, crocodiles and snakes are killed by poisonous glands when they try to eat the toad. The extent of this problem became quite apparent on our last night in Australia. We were driving back from the lava tube caves in Undara when we hit some very heavy rains. By the time we were passing through the rainforest the roads were literally covered in Cane Toads. There was no way of avoiding them without crashing the car, but I was still worried that we might skid or slide when we hit one of the larger ones, as Cane Toads can get up to 4 pounds in weight. I can only describe the experience as something along the lines of a biblical plague, albeit a man-made self-inflicted one. Of course, Australians aren’t the only people making environmental blunders with long-term and sometimes irreversible consequences. Back here in North America we have Zebra Mussels in the Great Lakes, Kudzu Vine choking southeastern forests and the European Starling plaguing farmers continent-wide – proving that when the arrogant lead the blind, the results are about the same wherever you go in this world of ours.

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The Flying Foxes of Queensland

POLITICIANS GONE BATTY

“Anyone that would put the welfare of a flying fox above that of a human being is sick in the head.”                                                                                   Bob Katter (1945-Present)                                       “Anyone that would put the welfare of a politician above that of a human being is sick in the head.”       Most Reasonable Australians                            (1901-Present)

My daughter and I were recently in Cairns Australia, waiting to board a dive boat for a four-day tour of the Great Barrier Reef. We had a morning to kill, so we decided to do a city walkabout to just see what we could see. Cairns has a beautiful waterfront esplanade and is basically a tourist center – so the downtown is a conglomerate of cafes, souvenir shops and tour offices. After walking for about a half an hour, we started hearing what sounded like the screech of tropical birds and decided to follow it. The dull roar brought us right to the city library which is surrounded on two sides by huge trees with sprawling canopies. As we started peering through them to see what type of bird we were hearing, we were surprised to see hundreds, if not thousands of huge bats hanging upside-down from the branches, staring back at us. These were the famous Flying Foxes of Cairns, which are graceful creatures with maned fox-like torsos and your typical bat body, but on a much larger scale. They were fanning themselves with their partially folded wings in the summer heat and chattering to each other. We came back at dusk the following day to watch them fly off to feed on fruit and nectar (they are herbivores and do not eat insects like other bats) for the evening. As it got darker, the chattering increased and many started to crawl along the branches with their hook-like claws, squabbling over their particular roosting site or grooming each other. Other birds such as White Ibis were perched on the very crowns of these same trees and a few doves fluttered among the branches, both of which seemed to be enjoying the nightly activity. With the diminished light, great numbers of the Flying Foxes set off in flight, heading towards the bay or surrounding mountains. Even though we left before they had all flown away, I was still impressed with this display of indigenous wildlife thriving in the heart of an urban centre. About a week later while visiting the surrounding tropical rainforests, we took the time to visit the Flying Fox Rescue in Kuranda – what I learned there was a real opener. The Flying Foxes sent here are usually injured or orphaned through human contact such as vehicle impacts, barbed-wire fencing and the shotgun blasts of less than enthusiastic fruit farmers – but there are also natural diseases, such as paralysis tick. Most can be rehabilitated with antibiotics, rest and a healthy diet, after which they are released back into the wild. A select few have been injured too extensively for release and these become the permanent residents or ambassadors of the Flying Fox Rescue. When we arrived a volunteer was holding one such resident upside-down in her hands in front of a large outdoor cage housing dozens of females. These were being enticed by a large male named Rupert, who was trying to impress eligible mates with an eclectic display of wing flapping and high pitched calls. Another female Flying Fox, a black-maned species, was climbing around on a small potted bonsai tree on a nearby table and was obviously playing. When she saw all the caressing and snacks the handler’s female was receiving, she started vying for her attention – I was understandably impressed. These amazing animals are smarter than dogs, respond to names, enjoy play fighting with their handlers, are capable of problem solving and well deserving of a place in this world with the rest of us. Which brings us to Bob Katter – independent Australian MP, leader of the Australian Party, farming advocate and sworn enemy of each and every Flying Fox on the continent. On the guise of a potential apocalyptic plague (Hendra virus, which can infect people through horses) and three confirmed fatalities, he has proposed a species-wide cull (and some believe extermination) of Flying Foxes. All of the Australians I talked to felt that the real impetus behind his environmental holocaust were a few irate orchardists trying to protect their Mango crops from the occasional midnight raid by our furry friends. But in a country where dogs kill more people than Hendra virus, does it really make sense to eradicate entire species (after all, he’s not calling for a dog cull) of pollinators and seed dispersers that have evolved with and are essential to the long term viability of the rainforest ecosystem. According to Bob Katter, it does – however, the rest of us would beg to differ!

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