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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Monticchiello + Montepulciano, Tuscany

From Cortona we drove to an agriturismo near Montepulciano, a working farm where four generations of women worked together in the kitchen making our meals. 

We walked ten miles, inadvertently, one day. We were told that there was a walking trail to the small village of Monticchiello, and to watch for the red and white stripes marking the path. Sometimes it was clear, but more often that not the markings were on a fence post toppled into the ditch.

We walked with Tuscany spread out in patchwork squares in every direction. Twenty olive trees planted in a diamond shape; a rectangle of yellow vineyard; squares of field in green, lime, grey, purple. Forested mountains, cliffs, villages, castles. Tiny, deserted Monticchiello was my favourite. Where was everybody? Laundry hung from windows, cats had ramps up the sides of buildings, plants burst out of window boxes behind curved bars. A textiles shop was open and I bought some striped dish towels.

After lunch,we headed straight for Montepulciano. This proved a mistake, as it was much further than we anticipated. We could see our agriturismo across the hills at one point, with the cypresses lining the driveway, but the road kept leading us away from it. Finally at Montepulciano, drinking lemon soda at a cafe, I said to Pete - Actually, what I really want right now is to lie on the bed and read the Internet. So we took a taxi home and did exactly that. 

And that's it. The next day we looped back to Rome for our flight home. Back to the baby with her silky blonde shock of hair and perfectly fat cheeks, and our house coated in wet cedar leaves, and patients who accuse me of taking a brief vacation every year or so.

It was good to be there, and it's good to be here. 

Cortona, Tuscany

From Perugia we drove to Cortona, another medieval town. It was full of persimmon trees, sometimes with the leaves blown off and just a crop of glossy orange fruit studding the bare branches. 

There were cats everywhere, and planters overflowing with succulents and geraniums, and hardly a person in sight. 

 Harvesting olives:

We drove on to Il Convento Frati Cappuccini, a monastery just outside of Cortona founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1211. Stone buildings, terraced, rise up Monte Sant Egidio with waterfalls cascading in front and a massive dome of forest behind.

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We visited St. Francis' cell, which had a short board for a bed, a half log for a pillow, and, previously, a Madonna replica on the wall that was stolen in 1972. (Who does that?) We walked a little ways into the woods. The bell tolled, the rope disappearing between the buildings; how many times has that bell rung over 800 years? We saw one other visitor - the beauty of traveling in November.

We came across a young, very pleasant, very attractive man who told us he was in the process of becoming a friar. It's no secret that I am fascinated by anything related to the Catholic priesthood. I so badly wanted to quiz him on his motivations, his influences and fears, his childhood, what his parents thought. I guess I could have asked him if he had a blog.

Remaining: Montecchelio + Montepulciano

Forcing bulbs

Every day that I'm home that's not rainy, we head out to the yard for an hour or two. The kids tie their bikes together with skipping ropes and I putter in the garden. There are few things that I enjoy more than moving dirt and rocks around while the kids play, squirrels chatter and boats drone up and down the Arm. But it's almost December, and I know our days are numbered.

When I picked up a few hundred bulbs last week, I decided to get some hyacinths and paperwhites (white daffodils) to force indoors this year. The idea of tricking bulbs into thinking it was time to bloom captivated the kids.

For the paperwhites, we put some pebbles in the bottom of a glass (with much analysis of the merits of each stone as it was carefully placed by little fingers), set the bulb on the rocks and added water until it was just touching the bottom of the bulb.

That was Thursday night. On Saturday morning Saskia and Leif literally screamed with excitement when they noticed the hundreds of little roots budding from each bulb. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed myself. And at a dollar a pop, this is the most affordable fun we've had in a while.

For the hyacinths, we set the bulbs in hyacinth glasses, added water, and set them in a dark cupboard in the cellar. They need an eight to ten week chilling period before they can come upstairs to bloom. I'm limiting check-ins on those ones to once a week. 

I do find the term 'forcing' bulbs a little off-putting. It sounds so unnatural. And when I read that a forced bulb will not usually bloom again because of the tremendous amount of energy required, I felt a little pang of guilt.

Hopefully that will abate when I have a windowsill full of narcissi blooming in December.

For more information, HGTV has a good article on forcing bulbs.

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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U-pick

I took the kids raspberry picking yesterday.

I'd never gone before, but if I'd attempted this three years ago my approach would have looked like this:

Research all local u-pick options. Go to farm in the cool of the morning and pick efficiently towards predetermined poundage goal. Pick raspberries and strawberries, and purchase week's groceries at farm bakery and market. Leave u-pick in time to visit another local attraction, such as the Greater Vancouver Zoo. Return home and make preserves.

My current method looks more like this:

Pick u-pick based on a two-minute Google search. Leave home for Krause Berry Farms when convenient, close to mid-day. Have as goal only that kids enjoy themselves. Pick raspberries until children tire. Bypass all other attractions at farm. Return home. Put berries in fridge.

The secret to happy motherhood: lower your expectations.

We had a wonderful time. It was sunny and warm and quiet as we picked the fat pink berries at our respective heights. The only sounds were the breeze blowing in the massive fir trees surrounding the farm, and the occasional murmur of conversation drifting over the rows. It was peaceful.

At one point I sat down between the rows, and Leif lay his head on my leg and napped. A few pickers passed us, pulling wagons, carrying ice cream buckets with the plastic handles bending dangerously, and even filling Ziploc freezer bags directly from the bushes.

Thirteen dollars for one of the best excursions the kids have had this summer, and more raspberries than will fit in my little freezer. We'll be back for blueberry season.

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.