Monday, July 22, 2019

Sherwin-Williams/Benjamin Moore/North American bird

Cheerful/Sunshine/American Goldfinch 

Moonmist/Blue Hydrangea/Mountain Bluebird

Eros Pink/Razzle Dazzle/Anna's Hummingbird

Plummy/Purple Lotus/Gallinule

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Constant Companion

“In the waiting room there are, like, four kind of big women, and then little me,” said Sarah. “I’m definitely not the poster girl for gestational diabetes.” She and Dan were out for her evening walk. She said, “The doctor says my glucose levels are good, that if I keep to the diet and exercise I shouldn’t need insulin.” She had priority use of the treadmills in the fitness room at work–a kilometre, twice a day. Then, after supper, she and Dan walked from their apartment to Westbrook Mall and back. This was prime dog-walking time, and it was rare not to encounter several. They came to recognize the regulars and Dan invented names for the dogs, and often spoke to them, and sometimes spoke to the owners too.

This evening the first they met was Floof, a cinnamon-blond hair-thing, parted in the middle, whose ancestors had probably included actual dogs. As usual, Floof snarled cutely and scrabbled a bit, but was quickly yanked aside by its owner, a young woman with her phone.

A few sidewalk squares later Dan said, “I’ve been trying to think of doing something special for the baby, something to commemorate her birth. I was thinking maybe about writing a children’s book?”

She glanced at him. It was a sweet thought. He had the heart and imagine for such a thing, but she doubted he had a clue about what was involved. “About what?” she asked.

“Something hopeful. I was actually thinking of a dog character, but a real dog, not a Floof.”

She asked, “What would the dog do?”

“Walk with its humans from Scandinavia to sub-Saharan Africa.”

“Oh,” she said.Um, why?"

“Because dogs are and have been our constant companions. The one in my story is a constant companion of the children who made that journey, and it’s more than one dog. It’s thousands of generations of dogs, but all with the same name. It’s during the ice age and people are migrating south. The dogs, they’re all called, I dunno, Rex, but with a number afterward. The story starts with Rex 1 and ends with Rex 10,006."

“What made you think of this?”

He explained. He had been editing a manuscript comparing the origins of dogs in eastern and western Africa, based on comparative analyses of the mitochondrial DNA of modern day dogs. Those in eastern Africa arose from old African and Central Asian wolf stock, but present-day dogs in western African villages share mitochondrial DNA with dogs in Scandinavia, which would seem not to make sense. The explanation was that long ago, whichever humans lived in Scandinavia must have migrated south during the last ice age to escape the glaciers and over who knows how many years some got as far as western Africa. Eventually those people moved away, or were chased out, or were absorbed into the population already there. He said, “The paper was about dogs, not people, so I don’t really know what happened human-wise, but it was clear that the northern dogs fell in love with local dogs and left their mitochondrial DNA behind, within the genomes of African village dogs, where it persists to this day.”

“But it’s about human history too.”

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s fuzzy human history written in dog genes.”

“Who figured this out?”

He snorted. “A lot of people, apparently. There are 18 authors from 12 institutions in 5 countries. The entire double-spaced manuscript is 22 pages long, 7 of which are Literature Cited, so, in terms of actual content, each person must have written slightly less than a page.” He said, “In the old days, meaning fifteen years ago, only two or three people, or even, sometimes, amazingly, a single person would publish a paper, and it was pretty clear who had done the work. These days if you turn on a centrifuge and then go for lunch you get your name on a paper and the person who buys your lunch gets their name on one of yours in return. It’s a conspiracy of desperation, padding your publication list to remain competitive in the almost pointless hope to one day become other than someone else’s minion. Science is broken now too.” 

“Yes,” she said.

“An inevitable result of ...”

“Capitalism,” she said.

He stopped walking. “You mock me.”

She turned, smiling. “Yes, but lovingly.” She held out her hand. By now they knew their lines, how to step around or assuage sore spots. Encountering a bump, forging ahead was her favoured tactic. She asked, “Why would anyone think to ask a question about African dogs in the first place?”

Recognizing what she’d done, he laughed, but then said, “I wondered that too, because it’s kind of a cool, ‘where the hell did this come from?’ study, until I read the authors’ institutions. The first author is from a veterinary college, and also an institute for domestic animal germ plasm.

“What? Really?”

 “Yes, really—thus literally surrounded by dog DNA.”


“Exactly. And he probably belongs to dog-DNA Facebook group with members in other countries, a global dog-DNA swap-meet.”

“More ew.”

Another dog was approaching, one they met almost every night, a Border Collie, black and white with pale eyes, its head held low. Dan had named it, “Neurotic Ned,” but subsequently accepted the opinion of its owner, a tall, thin man with a British accent, that its name was Rupert.

Dan crouched and extended his hand. As usual, Rupert gave a brief sniff and then skulked around behind, causing Dan to stand up. There was little to say. They already knew that Rupert was six years old and had been born in Alberta. They smiled at the man and continued on.

Sarah asked, “Would Rupert be a good dog to walk to Africa with?

“God no,” said Dan. “Borders are totally driven by their herding instinct. They’d never leave you alone. In the absence of sheep, they herd you. It would be like being followed around by someone who was continuously criticizing your posture and suggesting other things to do with your hair, and also biting your ankles. Plus you would be constantly yelling, ‘Stop staring at me!’”

They came to Westbrook Mall, the turn-around point. Sarah said, “I don’t know if walking to Africa is compelling enough to be a children’s story. First of all, what goes on in the story? It can’t just be a travelogue. There has to be a goal in mind, right from the start. Also, how are you going to maintain continuity if the characters keep changing? Plus, you have to fit it into 28 pages. Children’s books are 28 pages long, by law.”

“They are?”

“How are you going to fit thousands of generations and thousands of miles into 28 pages?”

“I’ll have them walk really fast.”

“Think of a better name than Rex. Something friendlier.”

An unfamiliar dog was up ahead, a black, compact, short-haired dog with a fox-like, tapered muzzle, upright, triangular ears, and an un-cropped, waggy tail. It was attached to one of the leads that reel out like a fishing rod. The owner, a wiry-haired woman in a wide-brimmed hat, had let out enough line that the dog snuffled right up to Sarah and Dan.

“Don’t worry, he’s very friendly,” called the woman.

Many owners said that, but it wasn’t always true. Nevertheless Dan crouched and instantly the dog was all over him, pawing and licking, almost knocking him off his feet.

“No, no jumping!” The woman scolded, hurrying to catch up, shortening the lead. The dog moved to Sarah, who, one hand pressed against her abdomen, leaned to pat, and got face-licked too.

Laughing, she asked, “What’s his name?”

“Teddy,” she said as she continued reeling him in. “Sorry, he just loves everyone.”                   

“Perfect,” said Dan, wiping his face. “That’s a perfect name.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, and then her arm was yanked straight. Teddy had spied another human.

They returned to their building and Dan held open the door. Entering the lobby, Sarah said, “There must have been babies born all along the long migration to Africa. That’s a lot of walking. I bet not many of those mothers had gestational diabetes.”

He smiled at her, but with concern in his eyes. Her condition was his latest quiet worry.

She added, “There are mothers doing the same thing right now, walking long distances, all over the world.”

He reached to press the elevator button and said, “And they can’t even take their dogs with them.” He stepped back to view the dark little window that showed the present floor. He said, “Now it’s total chaos, and what’s pursuing them is much faster than glaciers, and much less predictable—and...”  He stopped talking.

She imagined the ending of his question: And why are we bringing a child into this?

As the numbers dropped, 11, 10, 9… he said, “On each facing pair of pages, Teddy walks with a child, although it is always a different Teddy and a different child, boy or girl, and the plants and background scenery change with the changes in geography. The last line for every child, standing next to every Teddy, is, ‘This place is nice. I hope we can stay.’ It’s a unified story because it’s always is the same story. Even though the dog snuggles against the child, it isn’t enough because the weather keeps getting colder, and then you turn the page to find a different but similar child, and different but similar Teddy, and the words say, ‘But it got colder, and they had to keep walking,’ until page 28, the last child and last dog, Teddy 10,006. There are no words, just a rear view of a child sitting on a hill, silhouetted against a starry sky, with her arm around her dog.”

The elevator doors opened. She pushed the floor. They held hands, watching the numbers climb to their home.

*    *    *

This story is an addition to The Interpreter Stories 2.0.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Good neighbours make good fences.

During a windstorm a week or so ago, the top, lattice section of our fence blew off.  Neighbour and I fetched hammers and nails and whacked the thing back up again.

A few days later I was admiring what a fine job we had done. That afternoon, a sudden wind arose. Two entire sections of fence --lattice, planks, centre post-- fell down. There is a lesson in that. (Pride, vanity, rot.)

Fence replacement people have been notified, but over the long weekend I can take advantage of the gap to admire neighbour's apple tree.

Note the skunk-damaged lawn. 
(Foraging for European chafer beetle larvae.)

There are five apple varieties grafted onto the base. Some are still buds, 
others are in full bloom.

Also, it's raining.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Christmas Bird Count

I took part in two Christmas bird counts this month, one along the northern edge of this island, another along the southern.  Both days it rained.  New binoculars were an early  Christmas present.  I look forward to using them not in the rain.

Here's a shed being swallowed by Himalayan blackberry.  The stuff will engulf you if you stop to tie your shoe--after it snags your shoelace.

Sometimes when you're birding you meet a cheery person, usually walking a dog, because who else would be out in the rain, and, spying your binoculars--what a giveaway--the person will ask if you've seen anything interesting.  I usually reply,  "No, not yet," even if I've just seen a Townsend's Solitaire or a phalarope or some other day/month/year-bird, because if you say, "There was a (whichever fab-bird)  just back there," the most common reaction is a blank stare, because the names of most birds mean next to nothing to non-birders.  

I understand that the non-birder is being sociable, trying to connect with people burdened with the need to bird.  He or she may tell you there's an eagle on a tree up the dyke. in case you might not find that one on your own.

"Thank you," you say.

We came across an old VW buried in empty cat food cans.  Someone has been feeding feral cats here, long-term, which can't possibly be a good idea, and also has been stocking bird-feeders, which is probably also not a good idea, especially in the presence of hungry cats, although it did provide us a chance to up our seed-eater counts.  

Yes, we also wondered why the cans are not being taken away and tossed in a blue bin. 

Birding peri-solstice is made harder by the low, grim light.  It is hard to pick up field-marks against a grey sky, especially with droplets on your lenses.  This is a colour photo:  


Our best bird of the day was a male American Kestrel.  It posed on a wire and shone, cinnamon and blue, even through December rain. 

Forty-something species.  I forget the exact number.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Dan was laid off at beginning of November, as usual.  By Christmas he would be receiving a sixth automatically generated pay slip informing him he had earned nothing during the previous two weeks.  Season’s Greetings!

Despite being canned, at least temporarily, perhaps permanently—there was no guarantee a laid-off park interpreter would be rehired in the spring, despite the continuation of empty pay slips—Dan and the others were invited to the Parks Department Christmas party, where they would be expected to show up all cheery and pretend to be part of the team.  Presence provided no guarantee of rehiring, but absence would ensure an abrupt termination of the empty pay slips. You wouldn’t even get official reminders that you weren’t being paid.

The party was at Head Office, fourteen floors up in a tower in one of the suburbs.   Sarah dragged him along, and he endured, speaking as cheerfully as possible to those he ought to have spoken to, refraining from being drawn into sullen corners where other laid-off interpreters clumped.  He would have drunk, but there was no booze, although the bigwigs seemed well lubricated and kept ducking out to relubricate.  Following Sarah’s advice he stayed exactly an hour and a half, bade coached seasonal farewells to his supervisor and a few others, and then departed before the stupid Santa stuff that Sarah, a rising star the bigwigs wanted to drunkenly flirt with, would be unable to escape, and went to hide in her car in the parking garage, scrunched low in case one of the bigwigs wobbled past prematurely.

It was cold.  He should have thought ahead, brought a blanket.  He should have brought two.  Wintertime parking garages were always inexplicably colder than the world outside. He opened the glove compartment, hoping for a diversion.  Sarah was a woman who left few careless clues.  He liked that about her, except that it meant that in addition to being cold, her car was boring.

He reached to stick the key into the ignition and twisted it to wake up the dashboard.  He fiddled with the radio to find CBC.   The current events program, As it Happens, was on, a story about a flock of sheep in Wales that had adopted a seal pup washed inland by a storm, and would charge at anyone who tried to approach the stranded pinniped, which was starving.  To Dan, the most interesting aspect of the story was the clipped, lilty speech of the Welsh person. His ancestors spoke like that?  He turned off the radio, fearing running down the car’s battery, and under the thin light of the garage’s fluorescent bulbs perused the car’s owner’s manual, which, hundreds of pages thick and printed on super-slippery paper, was as difficult to flip through as one of Sarah’s fashion magazines.  He worked at it for a while, reading the section on oil changes, and then gave up.  He contemplated doing Sarah a favour by tossing it out the window.

He wiggled his phone from his pocket and asked it to ring.  It was the phone Sarah had given him for his birthday, and came with a new number.  Over the months since, he had become accustomed to receiving accidental phone calls from people in Mississippi.  He was puzzled at first, but after a while he figured out that the area code was the issue.  The screen on his phone told him they were dialling from area code 601.  He googled his own phone number, but with area code 601.  Shazzam. The Mississippians were meaning to phone a department store in Jackson, Mississippi, but instead were reaching his breast pocket in wherever he happened to be.   He hadn’t wanted the callers to run up their phone bills, so would quickly tell them that they had accidentally phoned Canada, would wish them a nice day, and would disconnect.  He felt bad about maybe seeming brusque, because they seemed pleasant.  They spoke slowly, with gentle voices, and were invariably apologetic for their mistake.  He half-wished a Mississippian would phone now, a person to speak with, if only for a few seconds.  He had no inkling of the deluge to come.

The instant he stuffed the manual back into the glove compartment the locks popped.  The door swung open, and Sarah dropped into the driver’s seat. 

“You behaved better than I expected,” she said. “You almost pulled it off, as if you were actually enjoying yourself, but I could tell you were faking it.”

He said, “I’ve been waiting so long I’ve become hypothermic.  I was nearing the legendary point where you just give up and blissfully drift away.”

“Don’t let me stop you.”

As they exited the garage, he asked, “Have you been changing your oil on a regular basis?  If you haven’t, you could be in for a massive bill to have your engine de-sludged.”

A week later he sank into a classic pre-Christmas interpreter’s funk.   He was on the balcony, leaning against the railing, searching for perched eagles, surveying the forest and its fingers that wove into the university.  Low fog hugged the ground in the gaps, including the ugly tennis courts.  Sarah was bustling around, getting ready for work.  She yanked open the sliding door.  “Get in here,” she said.  

He stepped inside, and was lectured.   "You're depressed.  You need to leave the apartment, get out.  Out-out, not just out on the balcony.   You have SAD.  You need to go outside, walk around.  Every day you have to put your shoes on, go outside and get some natural light.”

He said, “Some what?  Where do we live?  This is a Kingdom of Gloom.”  

“Yesterday was somewhat sunny.”   

“I must have blinked.”

“Look.  You need to interact with other people.  Go birding.  Isn’t it about time for the Christmas Bird Count?” 

“Like I want to interact with birders.  That’s like agreeing to ride on a float in the Demented Hobby Parade.”

She stared, hard.  “You are a birder. You're a god-damned birder.”  She rarely swore. 

“I’m a biologist who knows birds okay.  There’s a big difference.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I’m crappy on sub-adult gulls and fall shorebirds--and hopeless on pelagics.”

“Well do something else then.  Get back to regular running, or get a membership at the pool.   You have to cheer up, one way or another.  As a favour to me, stay off the balcony until you do.”

The Mississippi deluge came the day after that, shortly after Sarah left for work and he was debating with himself whether or not to fry the last two slices of bacon in the package.  Was it worth dirtying a pan for two slices?  His phone rang on in the living room and he dropped the bacon back into the deli drawer and closed the fridge.  He walked around the counter and picked up his phone.  Oh god, another fumble-fingered Mississippian. “Hello,” he said. 

“Are you the Canadian fellow?” a woman asked.

“I am a Canadian,” he said.  “You’ve phoned a home in Canada.  This is Area Code 604.”

“That was my intention,” she said.  “I’m calling to say hello to you, and to wish you a very nice day, and a Merry Christmas.”  This puzzled the hell out of him.  He stood, looking at his reflection in the balcony door.

“Hello?” she said.

“Yes, hi,” he replied.  “I hope you have a very nice day too, and Merry Christmas.”

“That’s all.  I don’t want to bother you,” she said.  “God bless you, and your beautiful country.”

“The same to you,” he said.  And then she was gone.  He turned off the phone and placed it back on the coffee table.  Almost instantly it rang again.  Again, Mississippi.


“Hello, Canadian friend,” said another woman.  This one had a smokier voice.

“Hello person from Mississippi,” he said.  He didn’t know what else to say.

“You don’t know me, but I heard about your story, and I wanted to take a minute or two to call and say hello, and wish you the blessings of the season.”

“Well, thank you,” he said. “I wish you good wishes too.”  He was painfully inept at salutations and other basically meaningless pleasantries.

The woman said, “This is a hard time to be alone, and I make it my practice, regardless of town, county, state, or country, to reach out to others to let them know that they are truly not alone, that someone cares for them.”

“That’s very kind of you,” he said.

“Not at all.  God bless you.”  And then she too was gone.  He placed the phone back on on the coffee table, safely far from the edge, and stepped away.  It was at least three minutes before it rang again.

After the initial exchange of greetings, a little smoother this time, he got a bit more out of the caller.  He said, “I feel very lucky today, because you are the third kind person from Mississippi to phone and wish me well.”  He told her, “I get the occasional mis-dialled call from your state because my number is similar to a department store down there, but that is the extent of my interactions with people from Mississippi."   He hastened to add, “Not that I mind.  Your call and the other two have certainly made my day, and it’s not even 9 AM yet.”

“Oh,” she said.  “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t think about the time difference. You’re on California time.”

“No-no. That’s not a problem.  I’m just puzzled why I’m receiving these calls.”

The woman laughed, and said, “It’s because of Jo Nell Cobb’s column.  It’s in today’s Barton News-Outlook.”

“The Barton News-Outlook?”  He reached for a pen to jot this down.

“She wrote a story about you.  You and your fellow Canadians are dear to us here, because of your help after the tornado.”

“The tornado?  When was this?”

“May 5th, this past year,” she said.  “We’re a small town, and the larger towns got all the response from FEMA and from the Red Cross.  And then, about a week later, the Canadians showed up.”

“I remember the tornados,” he said.  “There was a record number of them, all in one night.”  Among his other science-related interests, Dan was a weather nerd.  “I saw it on the news, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember hearing about your town.  It’s called Barton?”

“Barton, yes.  You didn’t hear about us because we’re too small to matter, except to those Canadians who came and helped us clean up and get a start on the rebuilding.” 

“What did they do?”

There was a pause.  “Well, it wasn’t that they could do a lot that we couldn’t do ourselves. We can fix stuff fine, given the time and materials. It was that they came without anyone asking.  That’s why it mattered.”

“Were they from our armed forces?”

“Who’s that?"

“Were they soldiers?”   

“They were Mounties,” she said.

“We never heard about that up here.”

“Well, you should know.  You should be proud of them.”

“Thank you for telling me about this.”

“Well, you should know.”

“Yes, we should.”

“Now, what’s your name? Jo Nell didn’t include your name.”

“Daniel, Dan.”

“Daniel.  Hello, my name is Trudy.”

“Hi Trudy.”

“Hello, Daniel.”  She paused, taking a sip of coffee, perhaps, or a drag from a cigarette.  She said, “Daniel, I want to tell you to have hope. I’m sure you will find new work soon, once this mixed-up economy finds its way again.  It’s a hard time for many.”

“Yes,” he said. 

After she hung up he did something he had not done since Sarah had given him this phone.  He turned it off, powered it down completely.  He went online and quickly found the latest version of the Barton News-Outlook.   Even extremely small-market papers had their own websites.   It had a search box.  He found Jo Nell Cobb’s latest column.   Her mugshot was at the top.  She had puffy hair, big glasses and a friendly smile.  The picture didn’t look recent.  He figured she could be anything between 50 and 80 years old.

 Jo Nell wrote,

The idea for this column came to me this morning, a few days after I had a telephone conversation with a person I don’t know.  I don’t know his name, what he looks like, or how old he is—although I don’t think he is either young or elderly, somewhere in between.  I don’t know exactly what he does for a living, although I know he is an educator of some sort, and that he has recently lost his job, just before Christmas, and we all know someone who has been in a similar situation, and how trying that can be. The reason I was speaking to him was because I dialed the wrong number.

He knew I had called the wrong number, pointing out that I had dialed area code 604 instead of 601, and he wished me a nice day and was about to hang up, but those of you who know me know how I never miss a chance to coax out someone’s story, and a stranger on the phone is as good a chance as any.  So I said, ‘I don’t want to bother you, but what’s the hurry, hon?’  That set him back in his tracks a bit.  He said, ‘No, it’s not a bother, but it will be a pretty big phone bill if we keep talking.  You’ve phoned Vancouver, Canada.’  So I told him I was happy with that, seeing as how much we appreciate Canadians down here.  We talked a little more, a minute or two, and I learned that our stranger at the end of the phone is not only out of work, he’s also separated from his family who live at the other end of his country, and to put it plainly, he’s lonely.  I was the one to end the call, didn’t string it out too long, which would seem to be an imposition.  Besides, he's probably too polite to tell me if there was a reason he really had to hang up, even if his house was on fire.  We know how those folks are, since our tragedy last spring, when we got to meet other strangers from Canada who came to help us.  Those ones are no longer strangers.  We know their names and even the names of their spouses and their children.  

I thought that now maybe it’s our turn to be a helpful stranger, in a small way.  Help a lonely Canadian who has lost his job at this stressful time of year. If you’re in the mood to spread a little Christmas cheer to one of our northern friends, do as I did and mis-dial Schnell’s in Jackson.  Change the 1 to a 4, and there you go

“Oh God,” he said.  He remembered the phone call. 

After he told her that she had phoned Canada, she made a little gasp, and then surprised him by saying, “In this county, we love Canadians,” but she didn’t say why.  She instead asked if she could take a bit of his time to chat a little more, a friendly chat between neighbours.

He had said, “No, I don’t mind talking.”  He added, “I’m kind of lonely anyway.” He meant on an hour-to-hour basis.  It wasn’t a chronic condition.

She asked, “Why are you lonely, Hon?”

It was the “Hons” that got to him, southern charm against which he had no learned defence.  He told her he had just gotten laid off from his job as an environmental educator.  She asked him if he had family around to make Christmas more cheery.  He should have mentioned that he lived with someone, a girlfriend, but kept his response to the point and said that his family was more than 2000 miles way.  She must have been taking notes.  She was a pro.

He searched through the archives of several online versions of southern newspapers to read about the tornadoes, and learned more of the devastation and loss of life in central Mississippi on May 5th.  He dug deeper through the archives of Jo Nell’s paper to find out about the Canadians who went to help.  They weren’t Mounties, but close enough.

Having forgotten about the bacon, he dressed to go outside, turned his phone back on and slipped it into his pocket.  It rang before the elevator reached the lobby.

He was in a good mood when Sarah got home.

She asked, "Did you go out?”

He pointed at a poinsettia on the kitchen table.   “To add some Christmas cheer,” he said.  “since the strata tyrants won’t allow us to have a tree.”

His phone rang in the living room.  He said, “Who could that be?” and scampered to get it.  Sarah went into the bathroom and closed the door. 

He was wrapping up another call as she emerged in a robe, her hair wet, her face thoughtful.  She opened her mouth to speak, but then saw he was engaged, saying, slowly and warmly,  “Thank you.  You have a Merry Christmas too.”  He hung up,  smiled at his phone, and then at her.

“Who was that?”

“Someone named Sam, from Mississippi.”

“Mississippi? You know someone in Mississippi?”

“Not really.”

“You were very pleasant to Sam.  Was it a boy-Sam or a girl-Sam?”

“Girl,” he said. 

“You often get calls from women in Mississippi?  What do you do on the Internet?”

“No-no.”  He waved his hand. “Ever since you gave me this phone, I’ve been getting occasional misdials meant for a store with the same number, but Area Code 601.  However, since this morning I’ve been getting a slew of intentional calls from a town called Barton, wishing me a Merry Christmas, because of a newspaper story about me down there.  It’s mostly women, but a few men too.”

 “What are you talking about?”

“Come, sit,” he said.  He took her hand and led her to the sofa.  He set his phone on the coffee table and picked up a printed sheet, Jo Nell’s column. He told her more about Barton, what he had learned from reading the Barton News-Outlook website and talking to the town’s citizens.  He said, “Much of it was obliterated by an F4 tornado in May.  Six people were killed, including two children.”

She frowned, 
because this was terrible information, but was more concerned about whatever strange situation he had gotten himself into.

He said, “They have a lot of churches there.  Or they did.  In a town of 2700, they had seventeen churches.  Now they have eight. That must be hard.  They’re very churchy people.”

“Churchy?  You mean religious.”

“Well aren’t they?”

“Do you realize that if you actually went there and met them, you would find that you have almost nothing in common with them, at any level?”

“That’s not the point,” he said.  “Or perhaps that’s exactly the point.”  He said, of the Mississippians, “The way they speak is calm and elegant.”  He searched for a word. “It's courtly, and gracious. During the first few accidental calls, I always wanted to talk longer, because they were mistaken strangers from far away, and I wanted to make sure they understood their mistake, and I also really enjoyed the way they talked, but I didn’t want to run up their phone bills for no good reason. Now they’re phoning on purpose to speak to me because they think I’m lonely, and they want to help Canadians. I’m their designated hard-luck Canuck.” 

“They're assuming you’re white. To people down there, Canadians are white.”

This knocked him off course. He said, “Yes, probably.”  

“And you didn’t think about what if you weren’t? How far would this happy phone-thing go if they discovered you were black, or brown, or Chinese, or that your girlfriend was one of those things?  What if you were gay, or worse, an atheist? Hey, wait a minute.”

“Please,” he said, “don’t make them villains. They had a tornado.”  

She shook her head. “This is weird. It’s happened because you spend too much time home alone, like I said.”

“No, it’s innocent. It’s payback. After the tornado, several groups of firefighters from Ontario, from St. Catharines and Welland, went down there on their own funds and helped clean up the streets and repair some of the houses. The people assumed they were Mounties, which they associate with the entire country. Out of a sense of gratitude and fairness they're aching to pay Canada back.  If you’re Canadian and want a free lunch, go down to Barton.”

“So long as you're white, and straight, and God-fearing, and... ”


“How many have phoned?”



“So far.”

“They should be phoning the Ontario guys who helped them.”

“No doubt they do. They’re branching out, paying forward.”

She sighed, eyes closed.  “We can pretend this is a nice, Christmassy story, as long as it stops.”  Her abrupt summation meant that they were done with Mississippi.  She said,  “And now here’s this,” and withdrew a short, white, plastic wand from the pocket of her robe.  She placed it on the coffee table, next to his phone.

He leaned close, but didn’t touch.  It was a mysterious woman-thing.

She said, “I quadruple-checked, using three other brands. All gave the same result.”

He didn’t understand, but dared pick up the portentous wand.  There were two tiny, recessed windows.  One had a blue line through it.  There was a blue cross in the other.  He couldn’t read the words on the narrow stem.  Recently he had started needing reading glasses for text smaller than ten-point. He extended his arm and strained. The wand’s meaning eluded him.

“Remember that time, that night, after we went to the Halloween party, and I said I was 99 percent sure we were safe, and you said you were 99 percent sure you had pulled out in time, and then you did some of your mental math and came to the conclusion that there was only one chance in ten thousand that things could go wrong?”

“I did?”

The phone rang. Big bright numbers, Area Code 601.  He said, “It’s Mississippi calling.  You answer. They’re nice people. You’ll see.”  

“No way. They’ll know you aren’t really lonely. Think of the disappointment.” She reached for it anyway.

The wand’s meaning hit him the instant Sarah slid her finger across the face of his phone.  He was starting to say, “Oh f...” as she pressed the phone to his ear and with her other hand pried the wand away.  Catching himself, he said, “Hello?  Oh hi.  Yes, hi.  Pretty good, thank you, how are you?”  There was a long pause. “Oh wow.  Oh really. How many of you?  Really, wow, okay, yup, ready all right.”  He looked to Sarah, apprehensively.

She raised her eyebrows.

He lowered the phone.  “It’s Jo Nell, the one who wrote the story.  She’s at her church carol service. Her choir is going to sing a song for me. She says it’s a Canadian song.” He pressed the speaker icon and gently placed the phone on the table, beside the wand. Then, slowly, clumsily, guiltily, he reached to put his arm around her.  She settled against him.

The singing started. It wasn’t a Christmas carol. It was Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah, a powerful song easily sung, performed often, usually as a solo, never before this way, by a southern church choir thousands of miles distant, a chorus of tornado survivors, their blended voices emanating from a smart phone on a coffee table next to a pregnancy test wand.

After the second verse he said, softly, “I’ve never understood what this song is about. Is it celebratory, or is it angry? Isn’t it kind of dark and sexual for a church?”

She said, “They can really sing.”

The volume increased. The folks in Barton were raising the bar, and the roof. There seemed to be more verses than he remembered. Maybe you were allowed to add your own, he thought, as he stared at the phone and at the plastic wand beside it, now practically glowing.  Yes, it was time to start running again, or join the pool, and find a new job, make himself as strong and long-lived and useful as possible. He put his free hand on her arm. She pulled it to her belly, and placed her hand on top.

During what was to be the song's final verse, she said, “Something life-changing and unexpected happened to them.  They’re working together, dealing with it.”

His eyes went back and forth, the phone, the wand.

Sarah said, “That's what the song is about. They phoned the wrong number but they picked the right song.”

More stories of Dan and Sarah

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Frost and hair ice.

We had several days in a row of cold, clear nights after a fair amount of rainfall.  With the sun so very-close-to-the-solstice low, nothing had dried out or warmed up.  In open areas, where energy within exposed surfaces disperses up to the sky (I don't really get that; I believe no one does), surfaces cool and then water vapor touches the surfaces and more energy transfer happens, and...I really don't get it, but frost.  It happens when I'm asleep, so really, like Santa Clause, it's what you find the next morning that counts.


Frosted western hemlock (bristly, open-bog form).

The first three pictures are from the open bog at the Richmond Nature Park.  In winter it is a damp, dark place that gets cold early and stays cold late.  Its plants turn into Christmas cards when frosted.

Cranberry vines.  There are always a few berries remaining for colour.
 The leaf edges frost up nicely.

More cranberry, with subtler berries,

Then, as one approaches the forest, the ground-cover becomes dominated by salal, a blueberry-rhododendron (heath) family member.  It frosts well too.  In morning light it sparkles as you pass.


Entering the forest, which soon becomes a mix of hemlock and birch, frost disappears, because the canopy has prevented energy from radiating from the surface of plants. (Again, no one understands this, plus being asleep when it happens.)

Transition zone, from bog to forest.

Then, if you're lucky, deeper within the forest, a combination of fallen birch branches, fungus, dampness, and temperature will have produced magic.

Hair ice!

What fun stuff.  When you touch it, it melts like spun sugar, which is indeed fun, briefly, but then you look at the spoiled symmetry caused by your warm curiosity and you wish you could undo your touch.   

How does hair ice happen?  

Um,'s ice-crystal chains of diameters of 0.01 mm radiating from rotten wood that contains lignase-secreting fungi.  The hairs extend, following the rays in the wood.  It forms and lingers at temps of near freezing.  This source describes the process better, but even there I’m not sure its author, or even the author's sources, fully understand(s) what’s going on at Hair-ice Zero.  Again, this is an overnight thing, and it's a lot to bend one's brain around early in the morning.  Hair ice usually melts away by lunchtime.  By then, everyone is on to other things, especially lunch.

Here's something to take irrational pride in:  According to the above source, hair ice is a phenomenon that occurs mostly at latitudes between 45 and 55 degrees north.   We are in a sweet spot, at just over 49N, and frequently are mired at the optimal temperature range. If the stuff weren't so ephemeral and flimsy, we could have a hair ice festival.

More hair ice, not quite as photogenic as the previous hair ice .

An interesting side note is that one of the first scientists to investigate the phenomenon in any detail was Alfred Wegener, known for our early understanding of continental drift.  The guy sure had range.  He probably didn't sleep much. 

Unrelated P.S:   Perhaps you remember “the interpreter stories” I wrote in this blog, back in blogging’s golden age, about the trials, tribulations, and minor victories of a park interpreter.  I recently rewrote some of those stories, which can be read here.  If you have the time and inclination to read them, I would appreciate any feedback.