Christmas tree by permit.

Christmas tree farms disappoint me almost as much as pumpkin patches and apple orchards. When we first went to cut down our own tree at a farm a few years ago, I thought we'd be heading into the forest with a hatchet, surrounded by banks of snow, bunny tracks, and the quiet of the deep dark woods. It was nothing like a January calendar scene. It was rows of stubby conifers, arguing families, Christmas carols over a loudspeaker and a jammed parking lot. 

We've bypassed the farms and headed to Garden Works instead, but that feels less like an event. 

I can see thousands of cedars and spruces from our living room window. This province is thick with forests; as a lifelong BC resident I ought to be able to help myself to one seven-foot juvenile.

Turns out I can.

BC residents can apply for a free permit to cut down a Christmas tree from select areas of Crown land. The permit was emailed to me within hours of applying. Everything on the North Shore is designated parkland, so we headed up the Sea to Sky Highway in search of a logging road, and found one near Britannia Beach. 

Selecting and cutting a tree from a bona fide natural forest was extremely satisfying. To be fair, in some areas the ground was covered in shotgun shell casings, and we ran into some men in Christmas sweaters drinking beer from red plastic cups, but I accept that as authentic small-town BC. 

Pete and I hadn't adequately prepared to transport the tree home; somehow we had envisioned simply placing it in the trunk. It took some manoeuvring but Pete managed to fit the tree in the van, and we headed home with fir needles brushing our face. 

The thing's a little sparse and spindly, and the trunk's got some lordosis, but festooned with lights and baubles in the corner of the room it looks loved. And it is. We all agree, we've found a new tradition. 

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Wild blueberry picking on Mt. Seymour


It's grey and rainy out there, but berry season isn't over yet.

The wild blueberries on Mt. Seymour don't ripen until mid-September. We headed up the mountain last weekend with some friends to discover an excellent crop. It was overcast and my jeans got soaked from brushing by wet bushes, but the steady plunk, plunk of berries hitting the bottom of the yogurt containers and some quiet conversation made for a lovely Sunday afternoon.

Then we headed back to Deep Cove and had wild blueberry pancakes for dinner.

We've picked blueberries on Mt. Seymour every September for years, and for me, it's the gateway to fall.

Black bear

The doorbell rang on Monday afternoon, and it was my next-door neighbour with his big shepherd dog on a short leash.

"A bear just passed through my yard," he said, gesturing toward the far side of his house. "It went between the houses there." Geoff is retired, and spends his days walking his dog and trimming the trees on his property. He was acting nonchalant, but I could tell this was the best thing to happen to him all summer. "Just wanted to let you know," he said. "I'll be off now to warn the other neighbours."

I looked from every window, but the bear was nowhere in sight. I settled back at my laptop. It was a gorgeous September afternoon. The sun was golden warm, a breeze wafted in from the water, and the neighbourhood was quiet. The idea of a bear ambling through our neck of the woods, snacking on berries, seemed perfectly natural.

Then I heard a siren. A police car sped up the road, letting out an urgent Whoop! Whoop! in front of each home.

But the bear lay low, and it's still roaming the area. It's inspired a sense of camaraderie among the neighbours. Everyone's exchanging stories: someone stumbled upon the bear in their garage, rooting around in the garbage; it's been peeping in windows; outdoor recess was canceled at the local high school when the bear ran across the playground; it's made several visits to a yard with a loaded apple tree. 

My favourite is the one Geoff told me the next day. He called his other neighbour and left a message regarding the bear passing between their houses. She was busy getting a chicken out of the oven, and sent her son out to the car with the bird while she checked her voicemail. Geoff looked out his window and was horrified to see little Ollie, a roast chicken in his arms, traversing the very path that the bear had used moments before.

But everyone's kept safe, including the bear, and I hope it stays that way.          

Salmonberries

The passage of our Deep Cove summers is marked by the wild berry seasons. We're at the tail end of salmonberries and getting into huckleberries. Then August brings blackberries.

The good thing about walking through the woods these days is that the kids are completely preoccupied by the berries. The potentially frustrating thing is that what is a twelve-minute adult walk to the village, and should be a half-hour walk with children, can stretch out to an hour or two.

So I try to surrender any semblance of a schedule, and enjoy the peace of the forest. I'll admit it's sometimes spoiled by Saskia and Leif shouting, "Hey! This is my salmonberry bush! I got here first! Find your own!" (I actually witnessed similar behaviour among adults at Krause Berry Farms.) And if I'm shouldering Ariana in the pack, she yells for berries and I have to position myself so her little fingers can pluck them off the bush. Still, working our way through the woods while the kids hunt and gather berries is idyllic.

All these berries grow in our own yard, but it's so wild Saskia needs to wear a red coat and carry a whistle when she ventures down there.

To humour the kids, I've made salmonberry pancakes, muffins and milkshakes. The berries are bland and full of pips, but the kids proclaim them absolutely delicious.

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Wickenden Park owls

When Pete got home from work yesterday, he took one look at me and sent me into the woods to unwind. We live a stone's throw from Wickenden Park, and there's nothing like spending a half hour alone in the forest surrounded by massive cedars, wet huckleberry bushes and bird calls to calm oneself.

There's a family of owls that have been living in the park for years, and everyone I've met in Deep Cove knows about them. I headed out with my camera, followed the sound of the screeching, and found them in their usual spot near the bridge.

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Pete's been chased by them as he runs along the trail. My fear of having those talons aimed at me kept in check the extremes to which I was willing to go to get a good shot. 

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We've seen the three owls working together to corner a squirrel. Once one flew over the trail clutching a rat.

Another evening one was perched on a low branch in a tree just outside the park. All the neighbours were milling about, coffees in hand, admiring it. The owl never took its eyes off a cat that was lounging at the side of the road.

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I believe these are barred owls. The fluffiness makes me wonder if this one is a juvenile, but I'm no ornithologist.

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Somehow seeing these creatures in the forest puts everything in perspective, and I trotted out of the woods refreshed, having only overstayed my allotted time by twenty minutes. 

Community

Ariana tripped over the power cord to my laptop yesterday, and I thought to myself - That's one childhood experience I definitely did not have, getting tangled in my mother's computer cables. And that got me thinking about some of the dissimilarities between my childhood and that of my kids.

The greatest difference, and the one that makes me most uneasy, is community. My elementary school was a few blocks from home, and directly across the street from the church. All the kids in my Sunday school class were also in my class at school. Several church families lived within a two block radius from us, so the neighbourhood kids with whom we picked blackberries and rode our bikes in the alleys were school friends. We were all Dutch, and many of us were related. Our family walked over to Opa and Oma's every Saturday morning for coffee, and we saw them again the next morning in church.

But my kids have multiple communities, and none of them overlap: extended family, school, church, neighbourhood and family friends. We live near the school but not the church; none of Saskia's classmates are in the neighbourhood; no family or friends live on the North Shore.

My children are not members of one tight-knit community as I was. And I'm not sure what to think of this. I've often thought that I've experienced small-town living just by growing up in the Dutch Christian community that I did. Sometimes secure, sometimes stifling. Good to be known, not good to be assumed to be known. The experience was a good one for me, but I recognize its limitations. I can certainly see the benefits of moving within several different social circles.

Friends with whom I've brought this up tell me that the kind of childhood I had just doesn't exist anymore. I'm not convinced of that. I know plenty of families where at least their relatives, school and church overlap; or school, neighbourhood and family friends.

But that one layered community doesn't exist for us in Deep Cove. And at this point, I'm not convinced enough of its value to move elsewhere or make other major changes to find it.

We took a right after Owl Bridge

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Every Sunday afternoon we go for a walk or a drive.

When we lived on Main Street in Vancouver, we explored neighbourhoods, parks, coffee shops. When we drove, we could head in any direction - Crescent Beach, Queen's Park, Mount Seymour, Horseshoe Bay.

A year ago we moved to Deep Cove, a favourite Sunday afternoon destination. Now that we've got our backs braced against a mountain and our toes planted in the sea, we go for more walks and fewer drives. In the woods the kids name landmarks, pick berries, brandish sticks. At the beach at low tide they flip over rocks in search of crabs.

I'm going to get Saskia started on a field journal. A mix of art and science, leaves and glue.

Activities that enthuse my children and me equally, please me immensely.