Thursday, December 22, 2011

Voice of an Angel

My favourite Christmas story, written many years ago for Readers' Digest, later included in my book Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering A Secret Past, and condensed here:

A Flat
Fresh snow squeaked protests against the weight of winter boots stomping a path through the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard, and loud enough to echo off the two rows of houses wearing snowy mufflers on their rooflines and windowsills. The houses, all bungalows bunkered by snow banks, reflected the glow of lights announcing that their occupants were awake late into the night, celebrating, or preparing for the arrival of Santa Claus. I could hear singing.

I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window. I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and the frosty moon the Chippewas called Manidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.

I held my breath to hear even better and determined that the music was O Holy Night and the notes came from the window in my grandmother's room. It was open to the bitter cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse and when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:

"Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Night Divine! . . . ." That's the part where the notes rise higher until the singer reaches an awesome A flat.

The solo voice belonged to Louise Lafrance, my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that had been her prison for sixteen years. She was crippled with limb twisting rheumatoid arthritis and suffered searing pain and the humiliation of being bedridden. The others had stopped singing to listen to her. Each time she hit the high notes at the words 'O Night Divine', a shiver danced on my spine.

My grandmother was bedridden with the disease in 1943, the year I was born. Our family moved in with her and my grandfather so my parents could care for her. The disease advanced quickly, twisting her fingers like pretzels, then deforming her ankles and knees, making it difficult for her to hobble on crutches. You could see the pain in the creases around her mouth and eyes, and from my bedroom I often heard her moaning in painful sleep, sometimes calling out crazy things like "bottle green, bottle green" when the primitive drugs she took against the pain grabbed control of her mind.

To pass the time and ease her pain, she took up smoking cigarettes. Late into the night I would hear her stir, then listen for the scrape of a wooden match against the sandpaper patch on the box of Redbird matches. When the acrid odour of sulphur drifted into my room, followed by the sweetness of smoke from a Sweet Caporal, I would get up, go to her door and see the red tip of the cigarette glow brightly as she inhaled. She would motion me in and we would talk in the smoky darkness, mostly about growing up and sorting through the conflicts between a teenager and his parents.

Occasionally she would ask me to reach down into her bedside cabinet and pull out the bottle of brandy my father placed there for when she had trouble sleeping.

She never complained or questioned why she had to bear the pain, and the humiliation of a strong, independent woman now dependent on others to fulfill many of her basic needs. She often needed a bedpan to relieve herself and relied upon her son-in-law to strip her and lift her into the bathtub. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year laying back or sitting on the edge of her bed.

None of this was in my thoughts as I leaned on the back fence and listened to the power and purity of her voice on Christmas Eve.

When she finished singing O Holy Night, the other voices started up again, this time with Silent Night and other favourite carols. I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants - my mom, dad and some neighbours - crowded into the ten by ten bedroom that was my grandmother's world. After the singing we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts. I have long forgotten what I got, and it doesn't matter because my real gift came many years later.

The gift of that Christmas was the realization that the A flats were not solely the products of the lungs; they were driven by something stronger than flesh - an unbreakable spirit and the will to overcome.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thunder, Darkness and Tecumseh

December 16 is the 200th anniversary of the most powerful earthquake in eastern North American history.
About 2 a.m. that day the earth convulsed in the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, in what is now the state of Missouri. There were no measuring systems back then but it is believed the earthquake likely had a magnitude of 7.5 to 8.0. The shaking caused church bells to ring hundreds of miles away, including in York, now Toronto.
The death toll was never tabulated but populations in middle America were small and not heavily concentrated.
There were a number of eye witness reports, including one written in a letter by Eliza Bryan:
“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do —the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species —the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi — the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed — formed a scene truly horrible.”

The New Madrid earthquake had an interesting connection to Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who spent much of his life fighting American advancement into Indian lands.
Tecumseh travelled extensively on horseback trying to recruit tribes into an alliance against American takeover of their lands. In October 1811 while he visited the Creeks in the south, a huge, bright comet appeared and Tecumseh, whose name meant Shooting Star, told the Creeks this boded ill for his enemies.
The New Madrid earthquake of Dec. 16 occurred while Tecumseh was returning home to the Ohio-Indiana region. Some tribes recalled that the great chief told them that he would stamp his feet or clap his hands and make the earth shake, and they took the earthquake as an awesome sign of his power.

Comets, thunder, lightning and earthquakes bode nothing for Tecumseh's enemies. He was killed fighting the Americans in southwestern Ontario during the War of 1812 - 14. He and his people were dispossessed but Tecumseh became a powerful symbol of people fighting to defend human rights.

More about all this can be found in my book Tecumseh: Shooting Star, Crouching Panther (Dundurn 2009).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Alone in the Woods?

It is so quiet here in the woods that I can hear my heart beating. I feel completely alone but I know that I am not. There are animals here: wild turkeys, partridge, deer, moose. There has been no sign of the bears in days, and I assume they have found well sheltered dens for the big winter sleep.

I have brought a local newspaper with me, and as I sit waiting to see wildlife I spot an article that raises once again the theory that cougars exist in Ontario. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says it has 30 pieces of evidence indicating the cats’ presence in Ontario, including photos of tracks and scat samples. It has investigated 2,000 reported sightings in the last 10 years.. The Ontario Puma Foundation, which follows cougar news, estimates there are 550 of the big cats in Ontario. There is no explanation of how it came up with that figure.

A cold shiver tickles my spine. I am alone, dressed in a camouflage jacket.  I have read that cougars are silent, quicksilver killers. You’d never know one was around until it was on your back. I nervously scan the rocky ridges to my left and right, then a dense thicket of conifers.

Silly. I know there are no cougars anywhere near here. In fact, I’m not sure there are any in Ontario. I treat reported cougar sightings like I do flying saucer sightings. I’m not saying that intelligent and reasonable people have never seen what they believe is a flying saucer. Or a cougar. I’m just saying I’m a guy who needs to see clear, indisputable evidence.

No one in Ontario has a picture of a cougar in the wild, despite all the outdoor activities in Ontario, and thousands of pocket cameras, cell phone cameras and game trail cameras out there. Tracks and scat are inconclusive.

The favorite prey of cougars is deer. We have hundreds of thousands of them, yet no indisputable evidence of a deer kill by a cougar. Not even in winter deer yards where they are easier prey for predators.

I’d like to believe that the speculation about cougars is correct, and that the magnificent animals do exist in Ontario as they did more than 100 years ago. (The last one was shot near Creemore in 1884). I’d love to see one myself, but not today when I am out here alone. Having one walk past one of my trail cameras, however, would make me a believer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Politicians and a Sick Puppy

The debate is on, and here come the clowns!

Bob Rae, Liberal chief until his party finds a leader people will vote for, now is centre stage shuckin’ and jivin’ for the CBC.

“Hands Off Our CBC” is the slogan in his campaign and online promotion aimed at drawing support from the dwindling number of voters who still think the CBC is important. It’s a pathetic attempt at helping his own party, not the CBC.

Other politicians aren’t much better. The Conservatives are using their dislike of the Mother Corp as a hot-button issue to agitate voters tired of wasteful spending.

They all miss the point. Voters are sick of the political slicks playing games with issues that need thorough fact finding and thoughtful review.

The CBC is a bloated, sick puppy. Its once awesome news operations have lost the respect of many dedicated, longstanding journalists. It has lost its journalistic way with its desperate efforts to win newscast ratings. How many times do you hear Peter Mansbridge, or someone promoting him or his newscast, use the word ‘exclusive’ when referring to CBC news stories? It has become a joke.

Mansbridge is a visible and prominent part of the CBC problem. He wouldn’t recognize a real news story if it jumped up and bit him on the nose. After decades at CBC, he remains just a voice with no feel for the news, or how it affects people.

What’s needed for the CBC is a serious, independent review. Run it under the microscope, identify its problems, then start fixing it. CBC used to be an important part of Canada. It still can be, if the politicians would quit using it as a pawn in their political games.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Spreading Bad Stuff

Anyone with an Internet connection is a potential reporter these days. Reporter, not journalist. There is a huge difference.
Millions of people are daily reporting, or re-reporting, what someone has passed to them, through email, Twitter, Facebook and other social media connections. Most of what they report is not checked out for accuracy, or put into any context.
Flander Fields Memorial
An example was seen last week with the wide distribution of the email titled I Am Honored to Do This, a text and photos intended to have people bow their heads in memory of those killed in wars. Nice effort for Remembrance Day week, but the message contained seriously inaccurate information.
It said that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit to have all cross-shaped military headstones removed from cemeteries. That’s not true. It is one of many falsehoods spread around the Internet about the ACLU.
Journalists must check out this kind of stuff before they publish or broadcast. Not only do they face law suits for what they might distribute, their careers rest on accuracy and fairness.
The Internet is the Wild West when it comes to passing along information. It needs to be civilized. All of us, when we receive this kind of information, should at least stop and ask a few questions before hitting a key and passing it along. Where did this come from? It is true? The ACLU misinformation has been has been around for at least a couple of years. A quick search of the Internet would have revealed quickly that it is false.
The email was well-intentioned but wrong. Our society does not need any more wrong information. We get all we can handle from our politicians.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Worthwhile Reflection

There’s frost on the greens and the golf season is pretty much done in the northern reaches of our planet. The end of the season always brings some reflection about games past, what the season’s weather was like and changes in the game in general.
One of the best reflective pieces ever written on golf is The Match by author Mark Frost. The Match is a fine piece of writing that captures clearly and accurately how much the game, and the world, has changed.
Mark Frost is the co-creator of the Twin Peaks television series and writer for the TV show Hill Street Blues.
The Match is about a 1956 wager made between two California millionaires, Eddie Lowery and George Coleman. Lowery bet that he knew two amateurs who could beat two famous pros in a best ball match. The pros were Ben Hogan, just entering the shadows on his career, and Byron Nelson, who was 10 years past his peak. The pros had won 14 major championships between them.
The amateurs were up-and-coming Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, a party guy who sometimes played hung over.
It was a casual, unpublicized game that has become a golf legend over the last 50 years. It tells about the match, hole by hole, while blending in the histories and personalities of the four men. It takes the reader back to what golf was really like before big money, advertising and television changed it from a game for amateurs to an industry of professionals.
Today’s professional golfers often pick up millions of dollars for a few days play. In 2011, 100 professionals made more than $1 million each. The money paid to professional players in most sports is obscene, considering the desperate human needs seen around the world. On the other hand, professional athletes now are industries, with major expenses. They make a lot of money for a lot of other people and many of them contribute handsomely to charities.
My main complaint about golf today is what it says about our society. It promotes a "get rich quick -- by doing less" attitude that has gained prominence in the world, and is hurting us all. It is the attitude that has helped touch off the Occupy Movements.
The Match is a wonderful read, not just for golfers, but for anyone wishing to reflect on how much the world has changed since the 1950s.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Beaver, The Bear and The Useless

This is not a joke.

Last Thursday at 1:40 p.m. Senator Nicole Eaton of Toronto stood in her place in the somnolent Senate of Canada and proposed that the beaver be fired as the official symbol of Canada. She proposed that the polar bear take its place.

A politician we pay $132,300 base salary a year (plus research grants of $30,000, office budget of $20,000, tax-free expense allowance $10,000, free business class flight for them and families etc. etc.) actually stood up in the Senate and said:

 “While I would never speak ill of our furry friend, I stand here today suggesting that perhaps it is time for change.”

The beaver, she said, is a “dentally defective rat” and “tyrant” that wrecks roads, streams tree plantations, lakes and farmlands.

There’s no clue why she wants the beaver replaced by the bear, except she did tell us the polar bear is “the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore and Canada’s most majestic and splendid mammal, holding reign over the Arctic for thousands of years.”

That’s nice, but why is the outrageously expensive Senate operation promoting nonsense when we still haven’t figured out how to fix the health care system, how to stop the gang wars on Toronto’s streets, how to stop the oxycontin abuse epidemic, eliminate child poverty, stop youth suicides . . . . The list of problems and challenges this country’s politicians face stretch from sea to shining sea.

The Senate meanwhile talks about whether the polar bear should replace the beaver as a national symbol.

We citizens pay an estimated $100 million a year to keep the Senate functioning. It sits 69 days a year. It fulfills no useful purpose. It is not supported by the people, and there never will be agreement on how to reform it.

Folks, it’s not the beaver that should go . . . .

And, do we really want Canada symbolized by a ferocious animal that wanders the world’s harshest climate alone and perpetually hungry like the unfortunate street people? Or is it better to be symbolized by an animal that works . . .  well like a beaver . . . quietly, efficiently, and without complaint to build a better life for itself and its fellow citizens.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lowering the Threshold; Diminishing Ourselves

The rising trend of people accepting publication of more gruesome images reached a new threshold with the death of Libyan dictator Gaddafi. His body was not yet cold when video and still images of his contorted and bloodied face flashed around the globe.
For Whom the Bell Tolls?
It used to be that publishing or broadcasting photos of the dead or dying was a news business taboo. There was some leeway: overall shots of indistinguishable people dead on a battlefield, or an unidentifiable body lying in the ash of the monumental Mount St. Helen’s volcanic eruption.
The news media has continually lowered the threshold. Remember the grainy photo five years ago of the hanging of Saddam Hussein? Now the bloody death images of Gaddafi further lower the threshold, and allow even more room for arguing that anything should be published.
A main argument for publishing such images is that they will get out to the public anyway, through the Internet and various social media. What a specious argument. Another is that lack of photographic evidence of the death of monsters such as Osama bin Laden leaves the question of whether he is really dead. Bull!
If we buy that argument, should we not see morgue photos of Clifford Olsen’s cancer-ridden body to prove that the monster who tortured and murdered children in British Columbia is really gone? Why not a close-up shot of serial killer Ted Bundy frying in the electric chair as proof that he would not be around to kill more?
In 99 per cent of the cases, Gaddafi’s included, there is nothing to gain, except sensationalism and ratings, in publishing death photos. Gaddafi’s death throe images do nothing to advance the world. The world is a bit better place because he is gone; but not because we see him dying.
Quite the opposite. Englishman John Donne (1572 - 1631) wrote: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Every person, even a mad dog like Gaddafi, deserves dignity at death. When we deprive someone of that dignity, we diminish ourselves.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Just Do It!!!

I offered an outstretched hand to someone the other day. He recoiled slightly, then said groggily: “I have a cold.”
Good for him, I thought. I could see that he felt a bit embarassed, thinking he had appeared rude. In fact, he was being thoughtful.
It is autumn, cool and wet, and the flu season with its coughs, colds and roiling stomachs is starting. It’s a time when people should be thinking more about their hands, and what’s on them.
SARS and flu pandemic scares have made us more alert to bacteria transfer and hand washing. But most of us don’t think nearly enough about the bacterial dangers of the common items we touch hourly.

H1N1 Swine Flu Virus
 How many times have you seen a restaurant staffer wiping condiment containers to remove germs? In most places, those ketchup bottles, mustard, relish containers and salt shakers get a once-a-day cleaning. In lots of eateries, days and days of people handling them pass before they get a cleaning.
And, although we might think about the germs on coins, handrails, remote controls and telephones, we seldom think about other items. For instance, studies have shown that more than two-thirds of lemon wedges perched on drink rims hold germs. 
Rhinovirus causes colds
One study had researchers order drinks at 21 restaurants, and they found 25 different microorganisms lingering on the 76 lemons pieces. Some held E. coli and other fecal bacteria.  
A University of Arizona study found that about 25 percent of public restroom soap dispensers are contaminated with fecal bacteria. One of the study researchers said that most dispensers are not cleaned so bacteria grow as the soap scum builds up. Hands that touch the bottoms of the dispensers are dirty, so there’s a continuous culture feeding millions of bacteria.And how about those restaurant menus; handled by hundreds of hands, many not properly washed.  Hotel rooms with TV remotes, phones, desks, and sink and tub handles that may or may not have been swabbed by cleaning staff.
Telephones are particular dangerous for bacteria because they receive not only germs from hands, but bacteria contained in saliva that sprays when speaking.
Hand washing messages are everywhere these days. So are instructions on how to do it properly.
The key is for all of us to put hand washing out front in our minds. Do it  often.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Cottage Thanksgiving

The young maple at Shaman's Rock
 is an example of the outstanding
fall colours seen in the Dorset area
Notes from Canadian Thanksgiving at Shaman's Rock:

It was the finest Thanksgiving weekend in memory. Cloudless skies with temperatures double the average for mid-October. In some cottage country spots the thermometer hit 26 degrees Celsius.

Missing was the usual panic to get cottages on winter footing. People kicked back, soaked up the sunshine. Some even went swimming.
The lineup of cars wanting to get up the hill to the Dorset Lookout was so long, two police patrols were called in to direct traffic. The wait was worth it. The leaves are brilliant this year. No matter where you might travel in October, there's probably no place that has better fall colour than the Dorset area. The bright sunshine and absence of wind left the lakes like mirrors, reflecting the shoreline foliage of the maples, oaks and birches for double the pleasure.
The weather was perfect for a final spin in the boat. We checked the winter dock storage area--a protected little bay at the end of the lake. We found our main dock taken over by a family of beavers. They have piled sticks and mud over part of it to make a winter lodge.

It's a mess, but there was no use trying to pull apart their construction. They'll only rebuilt it. We're hoping that when the lake level rises in spring the dock will float free.

The beaver piled sticks and mud
against our dock to make a warm
and cozy winter house

Beaver have used fresh cedar
branches to conceal entrance
to their new house beneath the dock

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Beast is Off the Books

Clifford Olson, the Beast of British Columbia, finally is off the federal government books. He died of cancer Friday, in prison where he spent the last 30 years being clothed, fed, amused and cared for by taxpayers' dollars.

The tax pool from which money was drawn to look after him in prison was contributed to by all of us who pay taxes, including the relatives of the 11 children he kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered.

The cost of keeping a federal prisoner now is around $100,000 a year. So it cost us an estimated $2 million or so to look after Canada's most vicious and unrepentant serial killer. It's unfortunate we had him on the books for so long.

Olson was the classic case for capital punishment. He wrote to the parents of one of his victims, describing in detail what he did to him before he killed him. Also, he was allowed in prison to write manuscripts and make videos in which he described his victims' tortures, including pounding nails into their heads and asking them how it felt.

It was a good thing, for many reasons, that Canada abolished capital punishment. But many Canadians felt the ultimate penalty should have been retained for special cases. We shouldn't be executing those who kill in rage, passion and the other usual circumstances in murder.

But we should be executing admitted monsters like Olson. And, Robert Pickton, the B.C. pig farmer who murdered somewhere between two and four dozen women. And, Paul Bernardo (aka Paul Jason Teale) who with his lovely wife Karla Homolka raped, tortured and murdered decent young women, including Homolka's sister. 

State executions of course will never happen in Canada. All we can do is hope that their time on the federal books is much shorter than was Olson's. And more haunted, and more painful.

We also should obliterate the monsters' names and photos from our minds, and remember instead their victims. Young people who should never have suffered such horrific fates.

Two of dozens of innocents who suffered death by monsters:
Kirsten French and Simon Partington.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Autumn Splendour

View through the window of the ACR
Nature is wonderfully fair to give us autumn splendour before our landscape turns to white. We have plenty of fall colour in our neck of the woods but this year we decided to venture northwest to see the colours of the Sault Ste. Marie area. We hopped on the Algoma Central Railway's famous autumn leaves train, which cuts north through the Canadian Shield and not far inland from Lake Superior.

The colours were terrific, as expected. It's a good year for leaves; oranges, reds, yellow-brown and deep plum colours. Some of the reds are so bright that it's not hard to imagine they are neon.

Many people believe that cold nights and frost make the leaves change colour.
Actually  light is the biggest factor. A fall with many bright sunlit days produce the most vibrant colours. A September with many overcast days makes for autumn colours that appear dull and listless.
Colours are amazingly bright this year
The ACR tour train leaves at 8 a.m. and travels about 114 miles north to Agawa Canyon near the east edge of Lake Superior Superior Provincial Park. There's a 1 1/2-hour stay in the canyon and you are back in the Soo by 6 p.m. Our cost was $99 each.

Much of the trip is through wilderness. High hills, deep valleys and many lakes and streams. Sometimes you'll see a moose standing in a swamp or a bear running across the tracks.

The tour train is packed daily during the time of changing leaves. There's little hope of getting a seat this year to see the colours unless there are unexpected cancellations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Reconstruction of Dom and Con

And so it begins, the Great Reputation Reconstruction of two multi-millionaires who insist they were wronged by justice system of the United States of America.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62, was on television during the weekend telling folks that he has "devoted his life to being useful to the people," indicating one little sexual mistake should not prevent him from continuing to do wonderful works for the world.
Strauss-Kahn is the former head of the International Monetary Fund who hopes to become president of France next year. His plans for more future greatness were sidetracked when he was arrested in New York City and charged with raping a hotel maid. The charges later were dropped. He said he had sex with the maid, but it was a “moral fault,” not rape, and that she lied about what really happened.
The television interview was conducted by a friend of Strauss-Kahn’s wife, incredibly rich heiress Anne Sinclair.
He still is trying to beat down the accusations of a female journalist who says he jumped on her like a “rutting chimpanzee” during an interview in 2003.  Also, a former IMF economist has said Strauss-Kahn used his position to have sex with her.
Meanwhile, multi-millionaire Conrad Black, 67, gave his own media interviews before going back to prison in Florida Sept. 6. He’s doing three and one-half years for mail fraud and obstruction of justice in fraud investigations of his now-collapsed media empire. He had been out of prison, and living in a five-star New York Hotel, during a partially-successful appeal process.
He says he’s a humbler and more sensitive person but insists he did nothing wrong, and is a victim of a vicious U.S. justice system.
Two rich men known for their arrogance seeking to be seen as men now changed after seeing the light. Their money and remnants of their power will make their reconstruction successful among some people. The majority of us, however, will simply wish they fade to black on television screens and in the newspapers. No matter their money or their influence, most people wouldn’t want either into their homes for dinner. No matter what their guilt, or non-guilt, these are not people we want our children to admire.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Bell Tolls Close to Home

We're so used to seeing and hearing news about tragedies in far off places that often times it just rolls off our backs. Death and destruction in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia. A stream of bad news that starts to deaden the senses.

This week a tragedy at home jolted us into the realization of how cruel and unfair life really can be.

Two brothers 18 and 20 are being buried in the Alliston area this week after drowning together last weekend. They were cliff diving into Lake Huron off Bruce Penninsula National Park last Saturday when they were overwhelmed by heavy waves and undertow. Their bodies were recovered by the Canadian Coast Guard. A friend, a 20-year-old from nearby Cookstown, was rescued by a boater.

Gavin and Zachery Marengeur both had attended Banting High School in Alliston. Gavin was returning to the school this semester and had plans to study acting in university. Zac graduated in 2007, had auto mechnic schooling and announced last Friday that he had a job interview at Ford.

The loss is unbelievable for their mother, Cathy Marengeur. Mark Marengeur, her husband and the boys' father, died of a brain tumour six years ago.

A tragedy so close to home makes us understand the absolute truth of the words written in an ancient meditation and later into a poem:

Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Our Cottage Visitors

With Labour Day weekend done, fewer cottagers will be around the lake. As autumn advances, people usually are replaced by more animals.
Most autumns a moose wanders down the road. Other animals that have kept to the safety of the woods begin to appear, expanding their food search areas as winter comes closer.
This year I haven’t waited for the fall appearances. We’ve been watching the animals on a trail camera set up far back in the woods. It’s surprising how much animal activity there is back there, activity you seldom see when passing through.

Top left is a buck with antlers still in velvet. I figure he is one of two bucks caught on camera because the other appears to have more antlers but it is hard to tell.

Next are two young guys born on the property this year. The fawn still has its spots. The cub is standing taking a look around. They are incredibly curious when they are young. And, there's mama bear. She has been behaving herself because we have seen no trace of her near the cottage this year. Last year the bears drove us crazy -- up on the cottage deck and spooking us at night. Must be more food in the back bush this year.

That's the mama deer next. She and the fawn stay close together. I see her large tracks beside tiny ones along the bush path.

Here's a night shot of cubby. He seems to be fattening    up nicely. We just hope the food supply holds as the bears try to take on fat for the winter. When they are hungry all the time, they are a nuisance even when you ensure their isn't a morsel or a smell of food around the cottage.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Deadly Seduction

It’s the time of year when the mushrooms start calling to you. They stand on the forest floor, perhaps with a shaft of sunlight illuminating them, and they whisper seductively how delicious they are.
This year is another banner mushroom year, likely because of the ample rains. The autumn mushrooms are popping up in a variety of wild colours: jet black, bright orange, earth-coloured shades.
I don’t listen to their calls anymore. Too dangerous. Ask Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, the popular novel that was turned into a movie starring Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas. Three years ago he went mushroom picking in the Scottish Highlands. He found some along the edge of a pine forest, cooked them in butter and parsley, and served them to his wife, brother-in-law and his wife. Their lives changed dramatically after that meal.
His wife and brother-in-law are still on dialysis and waiting for kidney transplants. Evans received a new kidney recently from his adult daughter.
Evans was no stranger to mushrooms and had been picking them since he was a boy. But something went wrong that day. He picked some that were similar to an edible type he knows but they almost killed all four them.
Mushroom misidentification and poisoning are not uncommon. Some time back a doctor wrote how he followed a mushroom picking guidebook and ended up in a New York hospital after becoming poisoned.
Never believe any of those folk tales about how to tell good mushrooms from deadly ones. It is not true that brightly-coloured mushrooms are the deadly ones. You cannot safely test mushrooms by boiling them with a piece of silver that turns black from poison. Silver does not react to mushrooms of any kind.
One of the greatest dangers is that mushrooms that are edible in one geographic location, might not be in another. If you are going picking, make sure you know what you are doing.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kids and Caterpillars: Be Careful

Most of the kids who visit our cottage want to hunt and catch bugs. They love caterpillars because many are fuzzy and cuddly and easy to catch and keep around. You hate to ruin their fun but it’s important to be vigilant about which caterpillars they pick up as playmates.
Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Caterpillars, of course, turn into moths or butterflies. Some hairy caterpillars carry venom in their stiff hairs or “spines” as a means of defence. When they are touched, the hairs can break, releasing the venom. There are several or more of the stinging variety, including the hickory Tussock moth caterpillar found from Nova Scotia through Ontario.

In most cases, the venom causes stinging or burning and little else. Some people are more sensitive to the stings than others and might get a rash, or in severe cases, swelling and nausea.

Some hairy caterpillars have venom that is extremely dangerous but none of these are found in Canada.

Also, if you ever wondered why caterpillars are so slinky, it’s because a caterpillar has 2,000 muscles in its body. The human body has 700.

For more on venomous caterpillars try these sites:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Policing for Revenue?

There is a line between enforcing the law in the interest of public safety and enforcing it to raise revenue. Police forces, directed by their political masters, are crossing that line more often in these rough economic times.
The Ontario Provincial Police have been on our lake at least four times this summer checking boats for alcohol, required equipment such as a working flashlight and those absurd boating licences. Normally they show up once a year to remind everyone they are out and about promoting safety.
You can hear the provincial coffers ringing as they go about the lake issuing tickets. They boarded one fellow’s boat and found an empty glass that smelled of alcohol although there was no alcohol on the boat. They gave him a breathalyser test, which he passed. However, the empty glass that smelled of alcohol was enough for them to charge him, which will cost him $300 or more.
There are more and more cases like this where a warning would suffice. But the province needs money and policing is an important revenue stream. Law enforcement officers will tell you they are not pressured to lay charges. However, woe be the officer whose ticket issuing is below average at performance review time.
The story making the rounds in cottage country is that the OPP had to buy more boats for patrols during last summer’s G8 meeting in Huntsville. Now they are using the boats to raise money to pay for them.
One priority of the OPP’s strategic plan is to “build trusting relationships with the public . . . .” A trusting relationship will be built only if the public believes that law enforcement’s main focus is public safety, free of pressure to raise revenues.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Watch Out for the Turtles!

The big excitement at Shaman’s Rock this summer is that the snapping turtle is back. He or she is an adult who we hope has been active in making babies because snapping turtles are becoming fewer and fewer.
Photo credit: Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service
Snappers don’t make babies until they are fifteen or twenty years old. That’s a long time in the animal world and it means that even small numbers of turtle deaths can have a major effect on the species’ survival.

Turtles cross roads in search of food, mates or to find a nesting area. They often get smacked by cars, and unbelievably, some drivers run them over just to hear the crunch. If you see a snapping turtle crossing a road, don’t try to move it because they bite, hard enough to take off a finger. (They rarely bite in the water, so it’s safe to share the swimming spot with them).

Snappers now are a special concern under both Ontario and federal endangered species laws. However, in yet another of the great mysteries of bureaucracy, snapping turtles are still hunted in Ontario. Turtle hunting is open in most parts of the province to residents and non-residents. Each hunter is allowed to take two snappers a day, with a possession limit of five. Endangered species list. Hunting. Duh.

Turtle poaching also is a problem. In some cultures, turtles are valued as food and medicine.

Let's give them a break (brake) folks. There are too many extinct species already. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Enjoying the Heat, but not the Deer Flies

Deer flies normally are just a July annoyance. This year they were a July nightmare that is continuing into August. You can’t walk in the woods without dozens of them swarming your head.

The really bad news is that repellents, including DEET, do little to stop them. They are attracted to dark, moving shapes and typically go straight for the head and neck in search of blood. They are among the fastest fliers in the insect world, so there’s no point trying to run from them.
Photo credit: Howard Russell, MSU Diagnostic

Aside from a full head net, the best protection is a ball cap, which keeps them off your head. Also, you can buy sticky patches for the back of the ball cap. These trap the pests as they dive bomb your head, and they actually work.

They deliver painful bites and drive us crazy with their relentless buzzing about the head, but deer flies actually are pretty if you get one to sit still for a few seconds. They are the size of a house fly, have brilliant striped gold-green eyes and delta wings marked with dark patterns.

They are related to horse flies, which are larger, even more persistent, but fewer in numbers.

Wind and cooler temperatures reduce their activity, but hot days are expected to continue through most of August in many parts of the continent.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reflections on a Train Wreck

Whenever I think about these sad times in traditional journalism I picture a train wreck. A quick peek at the wreckage scene:
  • The Sun newspaper conglomerate has withdrawn from the National Newspaper Awards, Canadian Newspaper Association, The Canadian Press news agency, and now the Ontario Press Council. Despite whatever group spokespeople say, it’s all about saving money to boost bottom lines. Read more at: Honderich: Sad time for newspapering in Ontario -
  • Those are some of the same actions Conrad Black and David Radler took in running their newspaper empire in Canada, Britain, Israel and the United States. Their empire disintegrated.
  • Rupert Murdoch, King of Kings in world tabloid journalism, is in so much trouble over the British phone hacking scandal that he might as well bend over and kiss his butt goodbye.
  • There no longer is a national news service delivering news to all media outlets throughout Canada. Co-operative news gathering, mainly for the benefit of the people in our far-flung country, no longer exists. News in Canada now is tribal controlled, much like Afghanistan.
  • What little remained of radio news is being further diminished by electronic networking.
  • Television news continues to transform itself into just another entertainment manipulated for ratings. CBC’s The National has become a disgrace in the eyes of many serious, experienced journalists. One, Tim Knight, writes: “Simply put, the senior executives responsible for The National have gone rotten, abandoned the organization’s mandate and, in their frantic race for ratings, lost their journalistic focus and with it their journalistic integrity.” He calls main news reader Peter Mansbridge “A patronizing chief-anchor-for-life who . . . almost never actually seems to feel the scenes he describes. . . . doesn’t care what’s in the stories, doesn’t see the scenes, doesn’t feel the emotions. Has no genuine human response. As a result, of course, neither does the viewer.” Read more at: "The day I finally lost all respect for The National" |

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Empty Rain Barrel

I wish I could take it to Africa
The thermometer reads 35C in the shade as I drain the last drops from the rain barrel.
Without water the vegetable garden on my bush lot will wither and die. There is but one thing to do: Load the pickup truck with buckets and start hauling water from our cottage lake to refill the rain barrel.
As I lift buckets from the truck bed and pour the water into the barrel, my mind is replaying the news clips I’ve seen this week about the drought in the Horn of Africa. Cadaverous children with sunken cheeks and huge eyes. Adults barely able to keep mobile as they travel to find water and food.
They remind me of the forest animals I see continually foraging to stay alive. But these are humans, and they should not die because of lack of water. The little children with their bones pressing outward against their shrinking skins deserve to grow and experience the wonders of life the same way we have.
I see the news show gurus intoning the sad facts of the tragedy, then moving on to the next story. I want to scream: “get off your millionaire’s ass and tell viewers why it has become so difficult to get directly to these people the life-saving things they need.”
Our society is less and less able to act effectively on anything. Individual initiative is smothered by political correctness, stupefying bureaucracy, an over-thinking justice system and, of course corruption and greed for money and power.  All any individual can do is write a cheque, most of which will end up in some bureaucrat’s pay or pension envelope, or in the pockets of corrupt politicians or warlords.
I wish I could fill my rain barrel, load it and a million like it onto planes, and fly them into the deserts where people are dying. Why can’t it be that simple? There is water. There are planes. There are flat places to land. Is there no new, daring thinking on how to stop needless deaths?
I can fill my rain barrel and save my insignificant little vegetable garden. Millions of us, however, can’t find an uncomplicated way to fill rain barrels that will save humans.