a mid summer update

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A wonderfully alien looking seed pod from love-in-the-mist. It’s been years since I’ve had to deliberately plant these, and they still come up every year.

It’s hot and smokey here (the smoke’s from the fires in the B.C. interior, fortunately nothing near by is burning). The garden is happily growing and I’ve been keeping busy with a plethora of projects. Since I stopped my monthly garden updates a few months ago, I thought I’d give a general update of what I’ve been working on.

Growing stuff

I’ve cut the water to the beans in the front yard. They all have lovely pods, so if all goes well, they’ll be dry enough to harvest by the end of the month. Potatoes are also ready to harvest, as will soon be my onions. The winter cabbages are putting on nice heads and we’re getting all the cucumbers we can eat.

And check out my hairy melon:

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Isn’t it delightfully hairy?

I planted some bigger fruit producers late winter including an apricot, cherry, assorted currants and gooseberries. All are doing well. As is my deck based lime tree (which will come in for the winter).

So far the only seeds I’ve collected have been from the Alexanders (a perennial relative of celery) – we had enough to eat their shoots this year. Not bad for an early spring crop.

Other random projects

Miso – I started a batch out of soybeans with a friend last night (will have to wait at least 6 months to taste it). Now I’m thinking of making a batch out of my homegrown tiger eye beans – mostly because I could call it tiger miso.

Tempeh – we started a batch last night and I’m struggling to find a spot the right temperature for it to ferment. I have no idea if it’ll work out or not.

There’s a watering system that needs to be put in – I have the stuff and having a working watering system would simplify my life. The hard part right now is most my ground is cement-like, so if I want to dig anything in I’ll have to wait until the rains start.

Writing

Settler Chronicles book 1 – I’ve started my final edit, at this point I’m just wordsmithing. My cover should be ready this fall (October) and I’m on track to release then. I also have the first draft of the second book written.

I put up the first scene on this blog a little while back (see here). Should I put up more of this book here? Perhaps the first couple chapters. Let me know in the comments below.

Deep Trouble – A current day action-adventure I’m co-writing with a friend.  I’ll put up the first chapter soon (it was titled ‘Benthic Adventure’ until a friend pointed out that most people don’t know what benthic means. Perhaps it is best I don’t try to surreptitiously improve readers vocabulary in a fluffy, fun action adventure story)

And I’ve started drafting another story for Wattpad – science fiction with lots of action (I’ll share more on this soon).

Reading

Solitude – a non-fiction book by Michael Harris about how creativity grows out of solitude. So far I’m enjoying it. I’ll likely write my own review, but for now there’s a review here.

The Nakano Thrift Shop – a novel by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from Japanese. I’m trying to broaden what I read, so this one is quite different from what I normally read. It’s about the relationships between the quirky staff of the thrift shop, and I’m quite enjoying it (although I will need a good action book when I’m done). There’s a review here.

rambling with a cherry on top

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Pitted cherries – in total 10lbs of them. This batch went into the dehydrator to make tasty snacks.

I’ve been pitting a lot of cherries lately which is one of those repetitive tasks that keeps my hands busy and leaves me room to think. One of the topics I’ve been pondering is artificial intelligence because I’m about to delve into a near final (I hope) edit of my science fiction novel where one of the characters is an AI.

After the picture above, I feel need a segue such as AI is like cherries… hmmm, nope I can’t think of a witty ending. So how about, here’s some thoughts about AI with a cherry on top?

What will artificial intelligence look like?

No doubt machines have more computational power than a human, but when a machine becomes aware will the first thing it does be to turn on the humans around it like Hal or humanity in general like Skynet? Or will it spend its time trying to figure out how to be human, like Data? Or will they just take all our jobs as news stories suggest?

Will humans be replaced in the workplace as news stories suggest? My job requires specialized, technical knowledge with a peppering of creative thinking – it’s a good human job but perhaps in a few years it could be great job for AI. I’d bet a AI would be faster and more accurate.

As a tangent – would a post-job society free me up to focus on being human? Perhaps. There’s an interesting article about that here.

Or will they be one of us, like Lovely in the the long way to a small angry planet (there’s a nice review here)? Will we discriminate against aware AI? Humanity does have a long history of discrimination. Will AI discriminate against us? Will AI even want anything to do with us? Or will they keep us as essentially pets? Will they even care about us at all? Maybe they won’t identify us as intelligent.

Lots of fodder for thought.

dried cherries

In the end, 10lbs of cherries turned into this.

Changes are coming

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I took this photo on a recent trip to the local butterfly gardens

I started this blog shortly after going back to grad school after more than a decade away from anything academic.

At first, I didn’t think academic writing would be a big deal as I’d been writing fiction and journaling since I was a teenager. My supervisor suggested I start writing early (good advice), so I quickly produced a text destined for my thesis. Well… that first chuck of text got handed back to me covered with red ink and I was accused of being a taciturn writer (a word that I had to go out and look up).

Standing there with my massacred text, it hit me that I had to make myself into a better writer. All the research I could find suggested the best solution was to practice writing more – and (gulp) send my writing out into the world. I’d written 4 novels by that point which very few people had been allowed to read. Perhaps those books suffered from taciturnity, but my readers were kind enough not to mention (Some day I might work up the nerve to re-read those stories).

After an unnecessarily long time spent pondering the issue, I decided starting a blog was the best solution. I was both afraid to share my writing and worried I wouldn’t have enough ideas. But, ideas beget more ideas and writing this format is fun. I ditched thoughts of fiction and started focusing exclusively on non-fiction. I even stopped reading fiction – a state I stayed in for years.

One day, my husband’s co-worker loaned me The Martian. I loved the book, then I remembered some notes about a story idea I’d had years ago. I dug out the notes. It was an outline for a book with themes similar to The Martian (Even if I’d come up with the exact same idea, I would never have been able to execute it as well as Andy Weir). This got me thinking… maybe my story ideas could be good, maybe even good enough to share.

The Martian had the side effect of getting me to start reading fiction again – The Night Circus, Wool, Station 11, The Girl with all the Gifts and on and on. I’ve been reading fiction like mad since.

And (in case anyone noticed my blog posts have gotten a bit sparse) I started writing fiction again. I’m now three drafts into novel number 5 and one of my major goals for 2017 is to finish it and (gulp) publicly share it.

So now that I’ve admitted that I’m going to publish my book, I’m going to start shifting the focus of this blog (it is about tangents after all). There’ll still be some science-y stuff, still some mucking about in the garden and I want to start sharing some of the fiction I’ve been reading and loved along with some thoughts (not necessarily mine) on creativity.

I’m also going to share some fiction.

a saga of imperfect timing

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I captured a shot of this guy while on a recent trip to our local butterfly gardens – I love its eye.

In April my PhD funding was scheduled to officially end. My awesome supervisor had scrounged extra money for a few more months, to the end of the summer at most. But, I was suffering from financial angst, i.e. a fear of being unpaid which would quickly become a problem. I’m progressing on my dissertation, its mostly just writing now. Most of my first draft is done, but I expect to be revising for quite some time. I knew I was very unlikely to finish before my funding ran out. The best case scenario I could come up with would have me finish early fall. Timing that just didn’t match my funding.

To abate my financial angst, I started dabbling in freelance writing, actually found a few paying gigs (I discovered a secret talent for creating logic puzzles). It was an interesting experience, but there was no way I could earn ‘enough’ doing it in the short term.

I planned a massive garden as groceries cost. We turned most of what was left of the front lawn into food garden – effectively doubling the annual veggie beds at the house. Plus, there was my parent’s garden to plant and I signed up for an allotment with some friends. Because I wasn’t busy enough, when I came up with an idea for a novel last summer I decided to start writing. It’s a science fiction who-done-it with lots of plants (and butterflies), and writing it has been a fun diversion from dull academic writing. And, my busy three-and-a-half year old deserves plenty of my time.

In the midst of everything, a job in my field came up. I got it and with rather short notice started in April. It’s a perfect fit for my skill set and has removed my financial angst and much of my free time. It’s all good – however, adding full time work onto my already full plate left me overwhelmed. I had to let some things go (unfortunately this blog was an early casualty). I dialed back my garden plans, backed out of sharing an allotment, and gave my chickens to a friend with a farm (a literal farm, not a figurative one). I stopped freelance writing and cleaned up many of the ‘experiments’ I was running around the house.

I’ve managed to keep puttering on my dissertation. I no longer have to be in a rush, hopefully I’ll be done in a year. Surprisingly, I’ve finished a first draft of my novel and am puttering away on the second. It turns out, for me writing fiction is a nice late evening task. I like my story and am planning on self-publishing it, maybe late fall.

The garden is looking organized, beds are dug over, sprinklers on timers are set up and plenty of things are planted. I lost a few pepper plants due to not re-potting them in time, so I just bought replacements. With my husband’s help we are in good shape to finish planting in the garden. Plus, we’ve created a small plot for my daughter which she has chosen to fill with strawberries and flowers. I’ll try to keep posting updates here, but I don’t promise to be regular for a while.

practice, practice, practice

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These guys are now up.

It’s interesting how sometimes I notice the same idea coming at me from wildly different places. Lately, the concept of ‘practice’ has repeatedly emerged from very different sources.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast about Tetris (the 1980’s computer game). Compared to other video games out there it’s shockingly simple, yet it has endured in various forms since its invention. There is even a version on it on my computer right now. Tetris type games are my favourite type of games – mildly addictive and I never seem to tire of them.

The thing is, it’s impossible to win Tetris. No matter what one does, those blocks keep coming faster and faster until eventually they fill the screen. Every single game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot, I’ve lost. But winning isn’t the point, in fact, there is no set end point. Which links to the concept of practice, I can always play a tiny bit better, manipulate those shapes a little bit faster and that’s what keeps bringing me back.

I recently signed up for a new yoga class. The instructor has been talking a lot about practice and how it’s a way for an individual to push their own boundaries. There is no real end goal to yoga – well… enlightenment maybe, but that’s well outside my expectations in the same realm as winning a game of Tetris. For me yoga (or physical fitness in general) is not a project that ends. I can always push myself incrementally a bit further through deliberate practice.

Along the same vein, I just finished reading a writing book (The Creative Compass) that’s also advocating for a deliberate practice of generating words, a push to get ideas down. Although, I’m working on several finite writing projects (with my dissertation being the biggest) when I finish, I’ll simply start writing something else, a different project – I suspect there is no set end to my writing.

Gardening also fits into this practice model, as there are seasonal cycles but no real end. I can tweak what I do from year to year but it’s never complete – I can’t ‘win’ in any absolute sense (nor would I want to). There will always be weeding, planning, planting and harvesting to do. It’s the process that drives me, which is perhaps the point of considering it a practice.

(Perhaps parenting counts as another sort of practice as there is no real end state, no ‘winning’ just moment to moment choices.)

garden in a cube

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an edible chrysanthemum – blooming when I rather it didn’t

As I sit looking out to the garden six lemon yellow flowers provide a cheerful punch in the winter garden dominated by greens and mud. They’re edible chrysanthemums, planted to provide winter greens, but they decided to bloom – in January.  The only other flash of bright colour comes from the Steller’s Jay that has taken up foraging the footprints of past compost bins, presumably ground full of tasty delights. The flash of blue keeps distracting me, but I don’t mind. Looking out always reminds me, the garden is about more than the food it produces.

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a company that outfits sea containers with hydroponic gardening systems. Inside, lights cast an optimized spectrum of wavelengths on vertical crops creating a glowing purple world. These gardens (factories? systems?) are reminiscent of a retrofuturistic world without ground to plant and gardens are for one purpose only – human food production.

This kind of food production could feed a lot of people. Since I have a ridiculously long and flat driveway for an urban dweller, I could easily accommodate one of these portable systems – and it’s even tempting. I wonder if there has been thought of sending these systems to the remote communities in the north? Could they produce fresh produce cheaper than flying it in?

I have to admit, I prefer a more polyculture style garden. I would never sit in one of these systems, while I’ll sit in my garden and observe. I prefer the lushness of a polyculture set up along with the wildlife that come in. Plus, I like the illumination of the full visible spectrum, not just the wavelengths that serve growth best.

Hey, there’s the Steller’s Jay…

on the elusiveness of ideas

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I’m not really sure why, but this is one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken.

I’ve been a little short on blog post lately (by lately I mean the last two months). I’ve drifted away from diligently creating the right kind of environment that allows me to think. When I get it right ideas spring up like weeds when I don’t I feel stuck in a desert – I seem to be in one state or the other, never a middle ground.

Step one is getting enough sleep, as a natural insomniac this is a tough one for me. Add in a three year old on her own agenda and I find myself regularly in a sleep deprived mental fog. I could put a notebook beside my bed to jot down ideas that come to me at night. But, as soon as I turn on a light to do that, sleep, which is my ultimate goal, drifts further away.

My solution is to actively avoid thinking up good ideas at night, instead I play with slightly boring scenarios I’ve poached from TV shows, movies or something I’ve read – nothing I can call my own. This gives me something to think about while bypassing my monkey mind (also called the default mode network where the mind chews on itself dredging up negative tidbits and past conflicts that only creates useless worry). The goal is to relax and fall asleep. Even when I do come up with my own ideas at night I’m not convinced they are actually any good – and a full night sleep is more important as it makes it easier for me to think clearly the next day. Being clear headed enough to write begets more writing and often the ideas just flow.

Step two is to create a situation where my mind can wander. So, washing dishes works as does weeding, running, driving and even sitting on air planes. Going to a coffee shop with a blank piece of paper and no agenda but to write works, as does sitting in my comfy chair at home. My mind tends to go on tangents when I read non-fiction, enough so that I tend to read that kind of book with a notebook at hand. I often find myself putting the book aside to explore my own thoughts. The key seems to be being alone, creating space in my head and seeing what happens.

All this to say, I’ll be coming up with new posts soon.

As a tangent, after almost a decade away, I recently began dabbling with fiction writing again. Who knows if anything will come from it.

the grand re-configuration plan – an update of sorts

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Some rain-soaked rocks

The rain and wind have conspired to turn my backyard into its winter monster-mud-pit state. Mud gloms onto my boots every time I wander out there creating a slippery mess. It’s not cold in a Canadian winter way, which is why I live where I do, but it makes being out there messy. Garden work is possible – and this is why we built raised beds. Carrots, leeks and celeriac still reside in the ground well above the mucky level, but mostly the beds are empty so I can enact my grand re-configuring plan.

We’re changing the beds from orderly rectangles into more of a keyhole shape – since we’re working with bricks, the end result will be more like two big c’s. This should optimize my growing space while reducing the weed-whacking-requiring paths. A cunning plan that requires me to move a lot of dirt and bricks, so hopefully we’ll get a few days of light-to-no rain in the near future so I can get to work.

I’ll post before and after photos when I’m done.

Scents from exotic lands [Exotic Tastes, Ecological Sensibility]

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My jar of pepper

Its that time of year again when we are bombarded with the message to buy, buy, buy every time we set foot near a store. I was going to write a slightly condescending post about the excesses of Christmas, filled with dodgy statistics like: if we cut back on wrapping three presents would save enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks, or that if everyone saved half a metre of ribbon, combined we would have enough ribbon to tie a bow around the planet.

I started this post, but ran out of steam, besides I like wrapped presents with ribbons and can choose recyclable/reusable options. In addition to gifts, wrapped or not, the time of year is upon us when decadent treats come out. I assume everyone has traditional foods that with one whiff conjure up memories of celebrations with family and friends. For me spiced sweet baked goods do the trick, like: traditional fruit cake soaked in rum, buttery shortbread, gingerbread so dark one can almost see the molasses and steamed plum pudding (I have English roots). Each has flavours originating far from where the recipe was invented.

This is also the time of year people start planning escapes from our cold northern climate to warm, exotic lands. I regularly dream of traveling to exotic lands, but my student budget keeps me home, saving me from the conundrum of travel and a desire for ecological sustainability. As an alternative to travel to exotic lands, what about bringing bits of these worlds home? Spices – desiccated plant parts that provide a punch of flavour and scent that can dredge up memories of holidays past. They are light and long lasting, making them great candidates for long distance travel, the opposite of stuffing someone like me into a trans-oceanic flight where the experience of the holiday is fleeting. Instead of shipping myself to exotic lands, I bring exotic flavours to my house.

I love spicy food. My pantry is full of tastes my ancestors may have only heard of (I’m from a long line of ordinary folks) cumin, cardamon, star anise, fenugreek and more. In a corner, I have a jar containing enough peppercorns to make myself wealthy back in medieval times. Black pepper went from being a luxury item for kingly feasts and found in ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s tombs to being ubiquitous – found in paper packages along side its salty partner in fast food joints everywhere. I’ve progressed to fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate but I have no idea where my pepper (or the rest of my spices) came from, nor the human cost of its production.

Recently, I watched a documentary about black pepper from Cambodia. The documentary centred around pepper from Kampot, along the country’s southern coast, and this region has grown pepper since the 13th century. Kampot has the right combination of rich soil and climate for this tropical vine to thrive and produce a unique tasting spice. In the documentary, the gangly British chef/host and his pretty sidekick visited a family pepper farm. In the 1970’s, under Khmer Rouge policies, the pepper was ripped up because it was a luxury crop, and replaced by rice paddies with forced labour. After the human horrors ended, this family (and I assume others in the area) went back and replanted their pepper. The work on the pepper farm was manual, the vines needed tending and the green peppercorns needed to be plucked from the vines. The green pepper was spread out on large screened drying racks and stirred every few hours. Once, the green orbs turned black and wrinkly it was packaged and shipped away. The farming process looked equivalent to growing grapes for wine – seasonally physical work. Assuming, they could get a fair price for their pepper, this family operation looked like something I’m willing to support.

When the gardener can’t garden

I stumbled across a blog, You Grow Girl, where the gardener, Gayla Trail, was kept from her garden by illness for a season. She describes the pain of not being in her garden and how some things died but much of the wilderness she created carried on. When she posed the question of what it means to be a gardener who can’t garden as part of her writing guild I decided to join in. So here are my thoughts:

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Rosemary flowers from my office window

From my home office, I can sit and look out on my garden (well part of it now that I’m expanding my garden space). The backyard is where I started when we moved into this house five years ago. Days after we took possession I was already planting lettuce seeds. It was early May and it didn’t take long until I had filled the existing beds with produce producing plants. Thinking back, I certainly didn’t always have access to land and was often living a nomadic life, but I almost always was growing something – and if I wasn’t growing something I was thinking about it.

The first garden that truly felt mine was a shady patch under a big leaf maple I claimed as a child. Bleeding hearts grew there naturally and I would carefully collect their tiny black seeds and spread them around with the hope more would grow. To add to the garden, my mom bought me already flowering impatiens which has left me with a nostalgic fondness of their cheery blooms even though now I prefer to grow vegetables.

Between that garden and the one I have now I tried many growing schemes, exploring all sorts of options that didn’t work. My balconies and window sills were always filled with potted food growing attempts. I know some people are very successful growing food in containers but I never was. Aphids would descend making lettuce, basil and dill to sticky to contemplate eating, while one forgotten watering session would lead to mass plant extinctions. Once, in a balcony-less apartment I had years ago I tried growing roma tomatoes inside, resulting in floor-to-ceiling leggy plants that never bothered blooming. But I kept trying.

For two years in a row, I signed up for a plot at the community garden near where I lived at the time. It was rural Alberta, a place with space – lots of it. All the plots were the same size, way to big leaving me overwhelmed. I was successful growing plenty of food, but both years the weeds took over. Threats to plow my plot under unless I got the weeds under control were issued forcing me to wrangle up my friends and press them into weeding service (which turned out to be fun).

On a micro-scale, while on an icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea a few years ago, one of my crew mates showed up ready to grow sprouts. I thought that was a fantastically original idea and my mind was set free to the possibilities of portably growing food; a thought exercise I still use when I can’t sleep. Under the right lights, I could try grow anything (especially in my imagination). Oh, and growing sprouts on a ship turned out to be an old idea – Sir Parry an Arctic explorer in the 1800’s grew sprouts for his crew to ward off scurvy (I haven’t found any record that his crew actually ate them).

I often ponder why I’m drawn to gardening, even when I’ve not been set up to do so. The answer is that I don’t know. Maybe its because I like working with my hands. Or maybe its because I get to witness a process that almost feels like magic, where with a little effort on my part, a speck of a seed grows before my eyes into a majestic plant.