Once was hayfield …

20160706_195118When I first started working with this land, I planted hundreds of trees around the edges of fields and the river banks, and the neighbours hayed most of the fields. One really wet year we stopped haying and I soon realized I did not need to be planting trees. The land exploded into a complex and ever changing ecosystem which reveals much about soil quality, drainage, resilience and patience.

I laughingly refer to it as a farmer’s nightmare because years of someone’s effort to turn this into productive agricultural land have been rerouted drastically into my personal study of succession; my wild studio where I can ponder time, beauty and pathmaking while learning how to move through the world. I am very grateful for this.

This Iris, This Moment

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Photographs are often disappointing when compared to the memory of what we saw in the moment.The colours are faded and the perspectives flattened. The dog turned, the wind blew the flower, the bee flew away, or the whole thing is out of focus. That is my common experience.

Today I finally downloaded the last couple of weeks of photos from my camera to the computer. I gasped when this appeared on the screen.  Did I take that? Was I really there? How could I have not lain right down in the swamp and wept at such beauty? I remember being drawn towards the purple of the last of the wild iris. I remember being conscious of the water seeping in and out through the hole in my boot; aware of the dog blissfully rolling in bear poop nearby; and of course swatting automatically at mosquitoes. I do not recall being in awe of the light caressing the veins of the iris, or contemplating the suggestion of decay in the drooping curve of the petals, or getting lost in the beautiful line of purple against the deep deep green. At best, I thought “oh, pretty” before I clicked and moved on.

Capturing images on the camera does help me to slow down as I move through the landscape. I see small things, relish textures, look for interesting lines and shapes. This picture of the iris is a joy, but it is also a reminder to not let the camera come between me and the things I am trying to “see”. It seems paradoxical that I would spend more time looking at a picture of a thing, than at the thing itself.

I will have to investigate the idea of photography as a contemplative exercise, and practice seeing more deeply when I am out with the camera. This iris, this moment, has been a gift, and an inspiration.

Crow Moon, Sap Moon, Lenten Moon

The last full moon of winter. We are in one of those not quite this, not quite that times of year. The geese and the horned larks are back. I’ve seen robins and juncos and gulls — at least I did before the most recent flurry of wet snow a few days ago. This isn’t the starvation moon of deep winter but it is a difficult time for all creatures at the mercy of the weather. Not much is left of winter food stores, nothing is growing yet, and the ground is still frozen. The wet and windy weather of early spring is hard on old bones and newborns. But the crows are calling, the sap is flowing, and  the days continue to lengthen Inside the house overwintered perennials are slowly opening new leaves.

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Beyond gathering food and firewood in autumn, now I have the pleasure of laying in supplies for the winter season of dyeing,  too. I was so pleased to find that dry leaves, with no special preparation, can provide wonderful prints after a good soaking. Some of my best results this winter came from fallen leaves I collected and stored in an open basket.

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There are still some bags of unidentifiable organic material in the fridge that I believe to be leaves that were not quite dry when gathered. Note to self — use those first next winter. I haven’t thrown them out yet though. I might still see what could come of them in a dye bundle. Hopefully some colour, even if they have lost their original shape.

For many reasons, I do want to use local materials when dyeing. It grounds me in my own little corner of the earth. The process has minimal environmental impact. The results tell a story of water, earth and plants unique to this place. Still, I’m not sure I will ever give up eucalyptus completely! I have one eucalyptus plant that has survived the winter indoors and with luck will be harvesting leaves from it this summer. In the meantime, I am happy to make the occasional trip to the florist for some imported greenery. This lovely bundle should see me through until the neighbourhood turns green again.

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Late Winter Palette

We didn’t get much snow this winter, and spring temperatures are coming early. It’s time to say farewell to the muted colours of winter, at least outside. I find I am increasingly drawn to these calm neutral colours. Partly this is a result of searching through thrift store racks for clothing that will make a good canvas for printing. My eyes skim over all the bright colours, looking for a nice pale silk blouse or a shirt in ecru linen. I have become more appreciative of a subtle patterned weave in a fabric, or a wee bit of lace trim. This is a good outlook to have here on the edge of the prairie, where the beauty of the landscape is often found in leaves of grass or the shape of a lone tree against the sky.

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This wool scarf was dyed in an onion skin bath. I love how the string lines from bundling it up created this topography in the fabric. A little bit like paths of snow through a field of tall grass.

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I was pleased with how the oak and maple leaves printed on this silk scarf, and with the overall shades of taupe colour effect.

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I have been looking at the work of Yoko Saito and admiring her inspired use of “neutral” colour schemes. In her book Japanese Quilting, Piece by Piece she discusses the historical significance of these colours in traditional Japanese fabrics. Her description of taupe as “a subtle mixture of grey and brown … an extremely versatile colour” really made me smile. Ah! That explains the colour of some fleeces I have been looking at over the winter, in pleasant debate over how to define the colour. “Taupe” will never be on the official list of Shetland sheep colours but the idea of a mixture of grey and brown is very useful for me when contemplating sheep colour genetics.

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Linen / cotton shirts, fleece samples from Dash, Ava, and Kir.

Of course, sometimes it is more fun just to watch the sheep themselves. No wonder I love neutral colours when they come in a beautiful package like this. This is Daisy, back in the spring of 2013 when she was just a couple of days old.

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Lambs are due in early May this year. What colours will 2015 bring? Whatever the shade of sheep, we know it will harmonize perfectly with the green grass of spring.

A Stitch in Time

“A stitch in time saves nine” is how that old adage goes. That certainly would apply to this mending project. If I had mended the knees of these favourite jeans at the first sign of a tear, instead of continuing to wear them as the erosion spread and spread, it would have been a simple task. Instead it became a ‘project’. Like so many projects, it was started with great enthusiasm. But this visible mending technique of stitching across the surface of the cloth is not intended to be fast and efficient. It is a slow and meditative process. And life being what it seems to be, the basket with the jeans was set down and instantly buried under an avalanche of, well, more projects, and laundry, and stuff.

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So on this midwinter’s eve, at the turning of the year, I’m picking up this piece of well worn cloth again. Breathe. Stitch. Breathe. Stitch. Slowing the process of decay, while honouring age and imperfection.  And maybe, if I sit still, “a stitch in time” will mean stepping out of the whirlwind for a moment. In the dark of this solstice night, time will stop, and then oh so slowly we begin the journey back to the light. Breathe. Stitch. I won’t count the stitches or the moments it takes, but I hope these jeans will see another spring, and that each of these stitches will feel the fresh stain of moist garden earth under the June sun.

Too Much of a Good Thing

If this were a good fibre for spinning, I’d be sitting on a gold mine.

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But this is a seed pod of the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, and although the floss is lustrous and soft it is really too short and brittle for spinning. The dark side of this brilliant bunch of seeds is an active agenda for world domination, and my back field is living proof.

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Individually, the July blooms are attractive and a good source of nectar for visiting insects.  But each one of those tiny florets turns into an airborne seed, and one common milkweed plant soon turns into this:

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And on; and on; and eventually, even a native plant enthusiast like myself begins to think, uh-oh, where is this going to end? In my mind the milkweed was safely relegated to a certain area where it could flourish and provide reliable habitat for any monarch butterflies who make it this far north on their migration. (Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed species. Their larva are among the few creatures that can stomach the bitter taste of milkweed leaves, and they eat a lot. ) The milkweed is clearly disregarding my plan.

These old fields have been plowed and cropped and hayed and then left to their own devices. The natural diversity of plant material is slowly returning, but in the meantime a vigorous plant like A. syriaca, which has earned a place on many a “noxious weed” list, takes full advantage of any open spaces.  Robust milkweed plants have popped up in all corners of the property, including the area designated for future sheep pasture.

In an active pasture, many less desirable plants can be controlled through grazing. The problem with milkweed is that it is poisonous to livestock. Its bitter taste also makes it unpalatable. The theory is that as long as there is ample other food available, sheep won’t eat the milkweed, but I sure don’t want to test that theory. Plus if no one is eating it, the milkweed might just keep flourishing until it out competes all the other plants in the pasture anyway.

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My entomologist friends assure me that the insect in the close-up above is not part of the solution. I had hoped it was about to devour the seeds, but it is a tiny predatory beetle looking for some even smaller insect to eat.  So next year I will experiment with pulling plants out of a certain area by hand. Butterfly lovers, be assured this will be done early in the season before the monarchs arrive to lay their eggs, and there will still be plenty of milkweed plants for them to choose from. Besides this abundant species, there is a scattering of the much more sedate Swamp Milkweed, Asclepius incarnata, in some of the wetter areas. This is a lovely plant, readily available in garden centres now and highly recommended for home gardens. Occasionally I have found specimens of the Dwarf Milkweed, A. ovalfolia, as well. It’s too small to be much use to a voracious monarch caterpillar, though!

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Beautiful Beginnings

Everything is made easier by having the right tool. And when that tool is a thing of great beauty — well it’s almost enough to just look at it.  This is a very special birthday gift to myself. It’s a Golding ring spindle, made of ancient bog oak from northern England. The inset is a piece of jewellery from the Shetland islands, made of silver and amber.

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Beautiful, mysterious, magic, and it spins wonderfully.

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I walked around the farm to admire it in different lights and in the company of various coloured leaves.

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This spindle is an inspiration.  It connects me to a venerable craft and reminds me that even simple actions deserve to be blessed with beauty.  May we have a delightful and productive time together.