The Water Feature

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with water. Raised a few blocks from ‘the mighty Niagara’, as kids we swam in it, hydroplaned on it, and crossed over it, seduced by the siren song (and 3.2% beer) of Buffalo. Its currents stole our skis and very nearly claimed my mother. Its waters provided the stage for any number of rights of passage, jumping from rail bridges, spearing carp, swimming its breadth to touch ‘the American side’, then back, far downstream. No surprise then that water should become the defining element, the push-pull of life for me.

No more evident than water’s relentless and (usually) insidious intrusion into real estate. ‘Dug’ wells, to distinguish this weak sister from its more reliable and respected elder sib, the ‘drilled’ version, are notorious for their poor water quality — being little more than accidental repositories for surface water run-off (and all that implies for the country house) — and penchant for drying up when the dog days drag on. A little covert Clorox down the shaft and a UV light under the sink were the ‘adjustments’ required to seal the sale of an early days school house — and a great escape to citified plumbing.

Silly me. Trusting that fluoridated, strained, sieved, and otherwise purified and regulated municipal sourcing of same would also filter out water’s sinister dark side. Next house, a late nineteenth century cottage built on the shoulder of a hill — well, truthfully more on the hip or ‘lower’ body part — several feet below grade of the street behind and overlooking the banks of the Avon. One would have thought that proximity to one river would have been a sufficient teacher. A well known fact, water — as well as other matter — flows downhill. No truer than, as Geoffrey would say: ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote’. . .What Mr. Chaucer failed to point out was that said showers also ‘perced’ the rubble foundation and spawned an annual indoor pool — on their relentless way to mother Avon. Not to mention dragging along several cubic meters of top soil happily migrating to less lofty climes. Swales and sump pumps, drainage tiles and storm sewer connections mere rhetoric to allow another midnight flit and sale of an ark in waiting to the next Noah in line. (By the way ‘hot water is wetter’. . . but that’s another story.)

On to high(er) ground. Pill Hill in the local parlance. A little reminder that penance had not been fully ponied up, water’s poltergeist had arrived a day before us to remind that we’d missed a (now breached) water heater’s BBD by that self same day. But we were learning. Swamp-friendly flora, irrigated landscape (the dark side is drought), and sloping paths to usher those same ‘shoures’ to neighbouring turf felt for all the world that water had been sufficiently placated to allow an exhale.

And so round the corner to the current digs. As noted ‘the Hill’ sat on significantly higher ground than this wee bungalow, a block north — how soon we forget! A mid-60’s gem, recently renovated, it sat beside (and below), well, everyone. Taking possession in Chaucer’s favourite month, the berm separating house and sometime patio from the remainder of the backyard began to make sense as the rains came down and the yard filled up — happily receiving all contributions from East, South, and West. And thus began another ambivalent chapter.


With plans for a carriage house where Lake Glendon now lapped gently ‘gainst said berm, a more permanent solution was required — and surfaced (as it were). I cared little for the country of origin, but a French drain and some regrading seemed to be the order of the day. A subterranean pit the size of a small garage took shape in the ‘low corner’, filled with ‘aqua boxes’ — bearing an eerie resemblance to grad school book cases / milk crates; and camouflaged with a foot of top soil. As with all good therapies, the trick was to redirect — not resist or attempt (futile) control. As needed, a pump submerged in an access vault and a (significant) length of garden hose returned our element to source — with enormous satisfaction. Coexistence displaced frustration and wet basements. A happy detente.

But, oh, the waste. Gallons and gallons of (now) perfectly good water pumped away, unappreciated. The unsettling drip of a tap at night, the stubborn gurgle of a stopped sink, ice dams, leaking sky lights morph into the soothing sound of water flowing gently over rocks, masking, calming, lulling to sleep. The water feature: cycling and recycling, reincarnating — how gratifying is that! Simple. Tap into our stored resource, salve our conscience, and muffle the squawks from neighbouring pools.

The truly amazing piece is the level of artificiality, frank contrivance that is demanded in the creation of a ‘natural feature’. True, the water doth fall from Heaven. But that’s it — the rest is plumbing, pumps, liners, return rates, pre-drilled ‘bubblers’ (real rocks, if possible — but sprayed styrofoam will do), and a terrifying array of valves, stops, hose, and lighting. In the end though, the water gods are appeased, the carriage house is no longer yet another ark in waiting, our green genes are pacified, and our sleep is sound.



My Movie – Small

‘How can you tell them apart?’ The oft asked question from other walkers. Three dogs, then two, now one — so the task is not so hard. . . now. Morag died today. And so it seems time to reflect on what made her unique and memorable and irreplaceable.

She and brother Oban joined our household twelve years ago. The calculated indifference of her sib and the casual arrogance of adopted ‘mother’, Martha were never a part of Morag. Alert, attentive, always questing for the ‘right answer’, she strove to please — hardly a Westie hallmark. Ears erect long before her sib’s, at mere weeks of age, signalled that she was already ‘on duty’. And never stood down.

The ‘C’mon pups’ or rattle of the treat jar saw her first to the door — as brother ambled up behind, in his own time. Heart on her paw, no secrets in her. The understated held no interest for her. Walks were never complete without the Westie equivalents of snow angels in Winter, dewy grass baths when the seasons warmed. On her back, wriggling, thrilled with the sensation, beyond content to be outside and with her people. The ‘abundant’, embracing, perpetual puppy.

Food was so figural to Morag. Larger, stronger, more athletic than her brother, she fuelled her body to the max, ‘eating for two’ — and often eating twice, the waste not, want not motto regularly seeing her clean up Obie’s leavings. At those rare times when appetite was off, a guttural growl would warn off anyone eyeing her supper: ‘If I can’t have it, neither will you’ the clear message. Instinctive or just proactive, the ritual ‘burying’ of the uneaten was a frequent sacrament, against a day or time when she would choose to ‘dig it up’, to ‘unearth’ from under the placemat or rug. And this was a dog who drank as she lived, with her whole being. Nothing dainty or tentative here, gulping as if parched for days.

Pavlov’s puppies haven’t a patch on Morag. The (obviously) distinctive rustle of romaine packaging or rice cake wrapper would pull sister and brother from the farthest reaches, happy to sit, stay, or perform any other required price of admission, for the lettuce spine (leaves always chewed and rejected) or the 10 p.m. bedtime wafer.

‘Westie TV’, to the uninitiated, the picture window facing the street, was a favourite perch, occupying sister and brother endlessly. At times, territorial — warning the interloper with her piercing bark — or just curious about the world’s projection on her screen, she catalogued and guarded against and observed lifetimes of kids, dogs and owners, squirrels, and seasons.

And she loved. To cuddle on couches at nap time; her longtime Westie friend Kirby; long, river walks; car rides. And to greet, be it her characteristic, rapid fire bark as an adult or an enthusiastic puddle as a puppy, it was no secret that you’d arrived and had been sorely missed. And most of all, the family together. Her people on separate floors would find Morag halfway placed on stairs, the glue that held us as one.

As with any sibs, the pendulum swung from a mutually protective solidarity — a don’t mess with my brother fierceness — thru’ literal ‘dog fights’ should Morag inadvertently disturb her brother’s sleep; or pique his moody bully. ‘Tip toeing’ down the hallway, surrendering her bed to him, or just choosing to ‘sleep elsewhere’ betrayed a lifelong deferral to her grumpier sib. And I’m sure it’s not just we who grieve and miss Morag. The flat-out races round the house and yard, jubilant puppies again, will be her brother’s loss as well.

Morag’s courage and desire not to disappoint marked her character to the end. If a brave front is in a dog’s repertoire, her attempts to rally, to uncomplainingly comply with the probes and prods, pills, needles (even acupuncture!), and pictures were proof of it. And finally her acceptance and trust in her people’s judgment allowed her dignity to survive.

How do we tell them apart? It’s easy. She’s uniquely all these things.

September 10, 2018

If You Build It. . . They Will Come

Perhaps we’re starting at the wrong end of the horse — or bicycle, in this case. The awareness surfaced as we watched a tall, thin, and articulate man on a Ted stage chronicle his journey from a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease — that predicted an increasingly debilitating four or five years of ‘life’ — to a vital, engaged, and active life-style a few years later. His story was much more than a personal testimonial to the life-altering, life-saving reacquaintance with a bicycle. He outlined a template for change that we could all heed. The link following will take those interested to the Youtube posting:

As I bumped along one of my favoured egresses, heading out of Stratford into the countryside for a near-daily ride, I had lots of time to reflect on his comments. Figural in Tony Desnick’s talk were very persuasive numbers. Some, of course, catalogued the familiar apocalyptic arc we seem to be describing for ourselves as we consume and sit or passively transport our way to a point where the machine stops — personally and globally. A few other figures stuck — and resonated — as well. He noted that fully half of the trips we take in a car are for journeys of 3 kilometres or less. He pointed out that, even in ‘bike friendly’ cities in the US, something under 5% of the working population will use a bicycle to get to work. And he contrasted this numerically and pictorially with established bicycling countries in Europe — Denmark, the Netherlands, where, in the case of the latter, some 19,000,000 bike trips are taken daily. Finally, he made a compelling argument for a, forgive me, road map that would, could invite such salutary change on this side of the Atlantic.

Implicit in his presentation was the old saw that biking is good for us. And equally, that driving is, if not bad for us, at least more stressful, environmentally unfriendly, expensive, slower, and, in many cases, unnecessary. Hard to argue that the outcomes of embracing built in exercise, cheap transport, even speed of commute are undesirables.

Where the white hats and black start to become a little less distinguishable is safety. Significantly extended life expectancy and disease symptom remission are fine — except when 25 pounds of CCM meets 2000 pounds of F150. Desnick notes that Amsterdam has not always been cycling heaven or haven. Where bikes now outnumber cars in the order of 60:1, the ratio historically was reversed — with all the attendant risks to that solitary cyclist that are sadly representative of urban biking in this country in 2017. The transition required a dedicated initiative to make the city a safer place ride! The other benefits followed.

Seven years ago I started cycling in Europe. First France, then the UK, and now most often in Italy. I was ‘struck’ by the widespread deference paid to bicyclists by motorists. Nearing the bottom of a particularly long and winding descent — of the order of several kilometres — my companion and I became aware of a tour bus, the ‘third man’ in our little train down the mountain side, waiting patiently until it could safely overtake. No horns blaring or angry gestures. Just a friendly salute as he passed.
York cycle map
Equally ‘impactful’, and echoing Amsterdam’s efforts, is the ‘bike friendly’ infrastructure of many of the cities. The little dots and dashes on the above map identify active cycle routes in York, a northern UK city of some 200,000. It constituted the first major centre I would venture into on a cross-England ride in 2012 — and I had some trepidation over same. Narrow, twisting, hopelessly confusing and sometimes cobbled lanes more resemble a labyrinth than a street plan — and so I’d anticipated a painful and frustrating journey from outskirts to my city centre B & B adjacent the Roman walled ‘old town’. Instead I found wide, mostly paved pathways, well-signed and car-less, that led me alongside River Ouse to my destination. Paths clearly marked distinguishing and dividing cyclist ‘lanes’ from pedestrian footways. Twenty minutes and I was in front of St. Peter’s Gate! A trip that would have taken three times as long by car, and featured multiple wrong turns — if I ever did arrive — and elevated blood pressure. (Full screen image: click on media)

Stratford likes to characterize itself as a smart, welcoming, proactive, healthy and active community. Donning my rose-coloured glasses, I, too, see myself as tall, dark, handsome, and youthful. No harm in cultivating a little benign fantasy. The link below is to a ‘beautiful document’: The Stratford Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan Report — I’m sure there’s a good acronym somewhere in that mouthful — available for public viewing and drooling somewhere in early 2014:

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Concepts are good. Plans are necessary. And where would the world be without its consultants and consultation? In the spirit, however, that sooner or later, to be of value, the rubber needs to hit the road — be it running shoe or bike tire. I’ve taken the liberty of extracting one of the several ‘visions’ of our bicycle friendly city from said report. Together with, as everyone who sat high school English exams will appreciate, a compare and contrast exercise, viz. Google’s portrayal of current reality. A quick squint at the City’s 2014 projection (together with a Captain Midnight decoder ring to fathom all the dots and colours) suggests an interconnected realm of cycling Shangri-la. Google, in its inimitable style of showing ‘what is’, suggests a world slightly less contiguous, a little less replete, decidedly less idyllic —and, oh yeah, less colourful. In short, the orphaned green lines are ‘what is’. (A friend has suggested renaming the black ellipsoids ‘Dan Mathieson Parkway’ — to get a ‘feel for the area’, try bicycling along the respective stretches of Quinlin and O’loane Roads — but don’t forget your pump.)
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To return to Mr. Desnick’s thesis, he cites the importance, the necessity of building an environment that invites cyclists into it. One wherein byways are dedicated and constructed to a useful end. One where cyclists are more than resented interlopers on roads proprietarily defended as the motorists’ domain. One that is safe. He refers to the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, a ‘bicycle expressway’ that traverses the city as an example of just such a project. It put me in mind of our own ‘midtown greenway’ that too stretches from east to west — and may just be something more than a blue ellipse on a Google map. Hopefully in my lifetime.