Understanding

When my dad died I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye. I didn’t get a chance to apologize for things I didn’t say or know how to say. I have regrets.

The last three years have been mentally hard. My work situation has been challenging. I have been working hard to work things out. I haven’t been easy to be around. I also know that I can be strong, creative, caring, and will figure it out.

To understand me is to understand that I have connections with my dad through the natural world. This little patch of nature I have created in our back alley reminds me of the large spaces we had as kids to freely roam. I am grateful to my parents for giving us that and so much more.

I miss those spaces and I miss my dad.

Solidago, Fragaria virginiana and Achillea have been joined by chives and Liatris. B. Wanhill. June 2022. Canon T3i
Sisyrinchium montanum flowers open in the sunshine and this plant is slowly making itself at home in the back alley.
Townsendia parryi has established itself at the back gate and spreads fairly easily by seed. It blooms in its second year.
Tragopogon dubius is not native to Alberta but has shown up to join a few dandelions and other common weeds.

Flower teacher

Jeffersonia dubia. Original plant purchased from Rundle Wood Gardens 8 years ago. All photographs B. Wanhill iPhone X, 2022.

Last week on bus duty, I came across three young girls stomping their feet up and down and loudly yelling something. I went over to see what was going on and they were trying to kill an ant.

I told them to stop and when they asked why, I told them ants were beneficial. When they asked what they did, I told them they had an important job in bringing air to the soil – but bus duty is busy and I left it there. I certainly did not have time to tell them the story of my garden ants.

Our garden is built on the less than ideal clay bed the suburban developers left behind after they harvested the top soil from their development. My husband and I spent a few years digging some of it out with a pick axe and when the dump truck showed up to haul the small yard sized mound away, he was impressed that it had all been dug out by hand.

Then came years of adding brick retaining walls, patio stones (and lots of sand) compost, zeolite, manure and seasons of fallen leaves and dead plant parts and now after 15 years, the garden is host to a diversity of plant life and other-than-plant life. It is my oasis from the realities of living within acres of suburban vinyl siding and lawn.

I don’t know if it is the sand that drew the ants or if they were always there, but for years I battled them. I first noticed their annoying presence when they would bury and kill small plants with the earth they dug up while doing their work underground. There were two areas of the garden that were particularly bad and yet it didn’t matter what I tried: ant killer, boiling water, borax – they always came back and continued (from my perspective) their destructive work.

At the same time, I was admiring a newly acquired spring ephemeral from a favourite independent local garden nursery. I had seen two sets of striking butterfly-like leaves when I was walking the Rundle Wood garden and Rodney told me it was Jeffersonia dubia. He dug it up, I paid $20 and brought it home to tend to my new, delicate and expensive(!) plant baby.

If you live in Calgary, you get to know that if you plant the right plants and give them the right conditions, they will be absolutely fine regardless of their fragile appearance. And that was the case with my beautiful Asian Twinleaf.

One spring I was surprised to see those unmistakable leaf forms showing up in miniature around other parts of the garden. When I told Rodney about it, he mentioned that this was the work of ants.

In the last two years, life circumstance, learning about Indigenous worldview and the importance of developing biodiversity where we can has helped me see ants from a more empathetic and even wondrous viewpoint.

I have now made peace with where they have formed colonies. The one most active is now sheltered by the hollow base of my grandmother’s birdbath. The other ones I know to leave spaces open for them. They are fascinating to watch and last summer I was surprised to learn that some people even keep ants as a hobby!

Ants have greater purpose than helping reproduce beautiful plants in my garden, but it was the story of the Twinleaf seeds that inspired me to look at their existence from a different perspective.

Stories of small get me every time.

Winter is for Stories*

I do love the smell of ink and was planning on some more printmaking over the holidays. Thanks to the extreme cold weather (-32ºC here in Calgary) and my determination to get some fresh air, another smell caught my attention. The smell of pure lanolin took me on a completely different tinkering session.

Knitting sample of hand spun yarn, resting on hand card. B. Wanhill. December 2021. iPhone X.

I purchased this lanolin from a Canadian shop a couple of years ago and I had forgotten about its magical properties to heal cut hands. Smearing it across cheeks, lips (and up one’s nose!) is a great way to fend off wind chill and frostbite. Some people think it smells like sheep barn and this (along with donning a beautiful sweater my mom knit in the ’60s) was exactly the sensory experience I needed to help me reconnect with family memories and return to a session in fibre exploration.

In this video Etienna Moostoos-Lafferty shares with us that winter is traditionally a time for First Nations people to tell stories. It was a time “to sit down and listen” as there was not as much work to do compared to the busier seasons of “trapping, hunting, harvesting, building and sewing.”

As I transform the fibre given to me from my mom – fibre that belonged to sheep she and my dad raised, fibre that was given to them by family friends, I am grateful for time to slow down, sit and listen. Sometimes the stories I hear are from memories I play back in my mind. Recently, I am contemplating stories I’ve heard while learning about Canada’s vast history of Indigenous cultures. And I am building a new story collection as I connect during this pandemic via phone with my family a province away or chat with my husband across the room; connect with people I don’t even know through social media or soon, back to the busy, chaotic, joyful personal story connections I make with my students.

For me, making things helps me make sense of a world I often don’t understand and gives meaning to who I am and where I come from. The stories I hear and think about are embedded into the items I make. Lately, I’ve been pleased that the items I make are filled with more peace and contentment.

Happy New Year and may the stories you hear and make this winter be peaceful and happy.

* Etienna Moostoos-Lafferty is an Indigenous education coach, educator and has been sharing her engaging resources with others. Her work has benefitted my students and myself in the elementary art room. You can find her on Twitter: @EtiennaLafferty