Monday, December 31, 2012

Resolved: That Families Eat Together

So, it’s resolution time once more. Following a long-standing tradition, I won’t be making any. Why torture yourself? Resolutions are really wishes that are difficult to fulfil.
   Just plain wishes are much better. If they don’t come about, there’s no huge disappointment, but if they do it’s a wonderful bonus.
   There are so many things to wish for - wishes that would improve the world. So many, it’s best to pick just one.
   One that would make our world a better place concerns eating. But not just reducing how much and what we eat to lose weight.
   My wish would be that families, no matter how you define them, sit down to eat one meal together every day. No television, no smartfones, no iPads. Just people eating and conversing. Sharing thoughts. Sharing observations and ideas. Understanding each other and bonding relationships.
   A study in Britain recently found that fewer than one-third of British families sit down to eat together every night. Fewer than 10 per cent do not eat together once a week even though 42 per cent adults try to encourage family meals together.(you can read more about the study at: ) 
   Other studies in different parts of the world show that eating together makes for better grades in school, healthier eating habits,  builds relationships and strengthens the ability to face problems and resist peer pressure.
   There is plenty of reading available on this topic, including The Surprising Power of Family Meals by author Miriam Weinstein.
   Happy New Year and best of luck with those resolutions!

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Voice of Strength and Hope

    Fresh fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard.
   Skuur-eek, skuur-eek.
   The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle deep snow. To each side of the trail, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient Christmas Eve blizzard just passed through.
   Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. 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 midnight sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars, and the frosty moon the Chippewas called Manidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon of early winter.
   I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was the Christmas carol O Holy Night, and that the notes came from the window in my grandmother's room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then, and at gatherings cracked a window to clear the air. 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 Niiii . . .iiight Diii…vine! . . . ." That's the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.
   The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, Louise LaFrance, and I knew she hit that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that was her prison. She was crippled with limb-twisting rheumatoid arthritis and suffered searing pain and the humiliation of being bedridden, a humiliation that included needing a bedpan to relieve herself and having her son-in-law lift her into the bathtub.
   The others 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.
   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 10-foot by 10-foot bedroom that was my grandmother's world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and mother.
   The crippling arthritis had attacked my grandmother not long after my birth sixteen years before. It advanced quickly, twisting her fingers like pretzels, then deforming her ankles and knees. You could see the pain in her eyes and from my bedroom I could hear her moaning in restless sleep, sometimes calling out for relief. She took up smoking to ease the pain. Late into the night I would hear her stir, then listen for the scrape of a wooden match against the side of a box of Redbird matches. Then the acrid odour of sulphur drifted into my room, followed by the sweetness of smoke from a Sweet Caporal. Sometimes I would get up and go to her door and see the red tip of the cigarette glow brightly as she inhaled and I would go in and we would talk in the smoky darkness. Mostly the talk was about growing up and sorting through the conflicts between a teenager and his parents.
   After the singing ended that night, my mother served tortiere, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.
   I have long forgotten what I got that Christmas, and it doesn't matter. My real gift came many years later, and was an understanding of how that frail and twisted body came to produce such powerful and sweet notes. My gift was the realization that those high notes were not solely the products of the lungs. They were driven by something stronger than flesh - an unbreakable spirit. They came from strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce. They came from the will to overcome.
   Adapted from Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering a Secret Past, By Jim Poling Sr., Dundurn Press 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We Pretentious Canadians

   Canadians. We are such pretentious pains in the ass.
   We immediately started the finger wagging and scolding as our American friends and neighbours tried to hold themselves together against the shock waves of the mass murder of 26 school children and teachers Friday.
   CBC National TV news, being far more intelligent than Americans and its own declining Canadian viewership, intoned how America just can’t seem to control the problem of guns like Canada has. Its reporters shook their heads sadly, pontificating that Americans probably never will get it right.
   The Toronto Globe and Mail rushed in with an editorial saying it is time for the U.S. “to cure its sick gun laws.” It seemed annoyed that yet again it was “forced” to write about mass shootings in America. It called the U.S. a murderous society led by a president who has stuck his head in the sand.
   In times of tragedy, real friends put their arms around those who are hurting and keep their yaps shut. They comfort and they give help, if and when they are asked.
   Americans will debate and eventually solve their problems with guns, and without scolding from holier-than-thou neighbours to the north. But first they need to deal with their grief.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Missing in Action

   It was hoped that the literary fad of omitting dialogue quotation marks in novels would simply slip silently away into the night. Regretfully, it has not.
   The fad appears to have started with Cormac McCarthy, who became hugely successful with his novels The Road and No Country for Old Men. McCarthy has said there is no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. (That’s a quote, incidentally). If someone can do something outside the norm and still be successful, others definitely will follow the Pied Piper.
   I've just finished reading Hologram for the King, which is a strong parable but takes some thought to figure out the messages the writer is trying to get across. Thought that is constantly interrupted by the use of a single long dash to denote the start of direct dialogue. There is nothing to show where it ends. It’s hard to figure out who is saying what, when and to whom.
   I finished Hologram and started into The Round House by Louise Erdrich, a favourite writer whose work grows stronger with each outing. Alas, Erdrich has been swept up by the fad: there are no dialogue quotation marks in the book. My mind is regularly distracted from the story while trying to figure out who has started and finished talking.
   Why make a reader work figuring out dialogue and risk distracting him or her from the story? Not using quotation marks is a silly, unnecessary technique that adds to the public perception that literature is pretentious.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Cardinal

   It was just after dawn when I saw him, sitting contentedly on an evergreen branch outside the kitchen window. The sun slipping above the rock horizon across the lake poured even more brilliance over his bright red jacket, making him appear to be a sparkling light on a Christmas tree.
   This morning visitor was a shock. He was the first northern cardinal sighting at Shaman’s Rock in our 27 years here. Cardinals are not seen here because this is bush country, a bit too far north of their range. These beautiful little birds live in forests and patches of bush surrounding residential areas where they find more warmth and more food. Their range has been stretching north with human population growth.
   It was a coincidence that when he arrived I was reading a London Observer article on seldom seen wildlife showing up in British urban areas. The article had one ecologist warning that in future wild boars will invade British suburbs. It noted that wolves and boars are being seen in urban settings in Rome and Berlin.
   The article was not clear on why this is happening. Presumably a combination of pesticide bans, more conservation efforts and global climate change are creating more habitable areas for animals, birds, and insects whose lives all are connected through nature’s food chain.
   North American scientists have said that wild animals once seen only in wild areas are becoming more tolerant of urban settings. Coyotes are an example, and the scientists say we can expect to see wolves, mountain lions and wild dogs in the cities in future.
   I don’t know anything about that. I’m just happy that my morning was brightened by the unlikely visitor in the red jacket.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Cruellest Season

Autumn, some people believe, is the cruellest season. Like spring, it is two faced and deceitful, but unlike spring it promises nothing better ahead. It soothes and tempts with warm golden days but deliberately deceives, lulling us into believing that the joyful days of summer are not really gone.

Golden days, Dying Leaves
It lulls us then slaps us unexpectedly with biting winds, cold rain, darker days and the first falls of winter snow. It strips sheltering trees, leaving their naked bones exposed to the wolfish winds of winter.

Autumn’s cruelty is a favour, however. It helps us to understand the importance of change. Its soft and golden moments offer time for reflection and preparation. Winter requires thoughtful preparation for shelter, warmth and how to get life’s basic necessities in weather that is unkind to those who don’t prepare.

It also offers a deep satisfaction not found as easily in other seasons. A satisfaction that comes from knowing all that can be done has been done. That preparation nourishes confidence, and the hope that good preparation will carry us safely to the renewal promised by the distant spring. 

(Coming in two weeks my new book: Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America's Tobacco Industry. Dundurn Press)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering Billy

Writing a book can be a mystical experience. Things happen that sometimes cannot be explained. Like last month after the final proofread for Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry, which will be in bookstores next month.

Once a book is off to print it’s time to reorganize your life; organize and file notes, toss outdated stuff to make space. I was at my burning barrel feeding outdated files into a fine autumn fire. As I steered a handful of 1999 tax papers toward the leaping flames, a breeze caught it, scattering some. I retrieved the escapees and as I started to toss them into the barrel saw the name ‘Billy’ on one of the pages.

I flipped through pages and saw the following sentence: “Billy Skead was buried almost three months ago but the question continues to prick the conscience of this troubled community: Why did he die?”

Lost 1976 News Story about Billy Skead

I was stunned. That was the opening sentence of a story I had written in 1976 about a 22-year-old Indian man who didn’t need to die, but did because of the unbearable social conditions our society had allowed to develop in northwestern Ontario. The same conditions that continue to exist four decades later in places like Attawapiskat on James Bay.


I keep everything I write but the Billy Skead story had gone missing many years before. I had looked for it many times because it contained some shocking statistics on violent deaths in the Kenora region. Most recently I had looked for it to see if I could reference any of it in Smoke Signals. I gave it up as lost forever.

The deeper I got into the writing of Smoke Signals, the more I thought about Billy Skead. I didn’t have his story to reference but I did have the memory. So I decided, for no explainable reason, to dedicate the book to him.

After re-reading that long-lost story, I’m glad I did.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Just watched The Rum Diary, the movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel based on his wild newspapering days in Puerto Rico. It got me reconsidering my previous negative views on Thompson’s unconventional approach to journalism.

Thompson’s legacy was the use of Gonzo journalism, reporting and writing based on feelings, not facts. It was subjective and emotional writing driven by rage over perceived wrongs in society. For many working in traditional journalism settings, Thompson’s work was considered bizarre, unworthy and not true journalism.

Looking at today’s society, and the reporting of it, it is easier to understand Thompson and his work. There are so many issues demanding that someone stand up and scream for action. Yet, journalism gets shallower every day, too often never getting close to exposing and promoting action against things that are terribly wrong within our society. Too much reporting is fluff, simply entertainment. Fluff reporting is cheap and easy and designed to build market share, profit and ratings, all of which now take precedence over deep journalistic work aimed at helping to create a better society.

Hunter S. Thompson’s living style is not to be admired. Too often it was about booze, drugs, sex and rock and roll, and it ended with his suicide. But today’s society could use more of his journalistic style, more Gonzo to wake up a complacent society and make it shout out against the marketing crap, distortions and outright lies offered up daily by business, industry and governments and their bureaucrats.

The novelist Hari Kunzru once wrote that Thompson was a misshapen sort of moralist, “one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”

Our society needs more of that, and likely will get it as newborn citizen journalism begins to mature.

(My New Book: Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America's Tobacco Industry. Available in November 2012 Wherever You Buy Books)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Received a kind note from Bernie Crawshaw recently. Bernie operates Fernlea Ivix Books, a not-for-profit used bookstore in a former motel on Highway 3 just outside Delhi, Ontario.

The motel-store has the warm and comforting smell of the thousands of used books neatly sorted, sectioned and shelved for customer convenience.  Profits from book sales are tucked away in an old cash box and used to aid education in the Third World. These days the profits, roughly $30,000 a year, are being directed to getting windows and doors for school rebuilds in Fort Liberte, Haiti.

Bernie started Fernlea Ivix 25 years ago after retiring as a teacher-librarian. He is supported by 20 volunteer workers and hundreds of folks who donate their books to help the cause.

I brought Bernie an SUV full of my treasured books, culled with great pain during a move to a smaller place.

Many places that take used books want to sort through them. Other places take them all, then haul the ones they don't want to the garbage dump. Bringing them to Bernie involved a long drive, but the trip was worth worth it, knowing that my books would help some disadvantaged children.

Moving is a traumatic experience that among other things highlights the fact that our world just has too much stuff. Many of us nowadays have two fridges and no room in the garage to park the car. Getting rid of stuff takes time, much patience and even some money.

Thankfully, there are people like Bernie Crawshaw who volunteer their time to take some of our overwhelming stuff and turn it into something good for people who don't have as much.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Writing the Thoughts of Others

   It’s wonderful when authors, especially younger ones, step outside themselves.
   In her new novel, Broken Harbor, Tana French’s main character is Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, a detective on the Dublin, Ireland murder squad. Kennedy is an older, hard-bitten and sometimes reflective cop. Early in the book he does some cranky old guy commentary. Here’s part of it:
   “I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table . . . we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn’t break the rules lightly.  If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbours, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero. Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.”
   Crowds of people, mainly older folks, share Scorcher Kennedy’s feelings. What’s exciting is that a writer, not yet 40 years old, is able and willing to deliver social commentary not expected from her own generation. That’s what makes a winning writer: the ability to gather and transmit the thoughts of different groups of people.
   French is a powerhouse descriptive writer. Her descriptions are fresh and alive - planets away from most of today’s murder mystery fiction. I didn’t find her first novel, Into the Woods, all that memorable but that might just be me. Her ability as a writer, and her growing popularity, are beyond question.
   That’s a wonderful thing considering the illiterate junk, like Fifty Shades of Crap or whatever it’s called, now dominating the book markets. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spying on How You Read

          Did you know that while you are reading an e-book your e-reader is reading you?
          Your Kindle, Kobo, Nook, or whatever takes back information about what you have highlighted, where you bookmarked, how long it took you to read a book, when and where you stopped and started reading.
          Getting into your private reading space provides valuable information to the publishing industry. How long does it take readers to read a certain book? How many stop after Chapter Four? How often do they pick it up and put it down? Authors also likely would be interested in how readers are reading their works.
It's Watching You!
          All the data collected from E-readers is aggregated and supposedly anonymous. What is worrisome, however, is that the E-reader companies do not tell you clearly and precisely what they are collecting from your reader and why. It is a huge privacy issue that few people seem concerned about.
          Most disturbing, however, are the insights into reader mentality. For instance, Amazon Kindle reports that a sentence from the Hunger Games Trilogy is its most highlighted passage ever with 17,000-plus readers marking it.
          The sentence: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them." Wow, isn’t that profound?
          George Orwell’s famous passage in his Ninety-Eighty-Four has been highlighted by only 349 Kindle users. That passage: “'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. '”
          Now that’s profound.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Mystery Now 95 Years Old

         Ninety-five years ago this week the Great Canadian Mystery began. On July 8, 1917, Canadian painter Tom Thomson went missing in Ontario’s bush country. To this day, no one knows for sure how he died, or what exactly happened to his body after his bush country burial.
          Thomson was a moody bachelor who spent much of his time in Algonquin Park, canoeing, fishing and painting. His art work always is associated with the Group of Seven, founded after his death, because all these artists shared a vision of distinct Canadian art connected to the Canadian landscape.
          On the morning of July 8, Thomson went fishing on Canoe Lake in Algonquin and disappeared. His body was found floating in the lake eight days later. A quick investigation ruled his canoe had overturned, or he had fallen out of it.
          There have been decades of speculation that he was murdered by a summer resident from Buffalo, New York, or died the night before in an accident during a drinking party.
          It was a hot week and Thomson’s body was buried almost immediately at the lake because it was decaying rapidly. His brother George was notified and he sent an undertaker to the lake to disinter his brother’s body and return it to his parents’ home near Owen Sound for burial. There is speculation that the undertaker, who went to the Canoe Lake gravesite at night, did not dig up the body and sent an empty coffin back to George Thomson.
          It is a fascinating story that has intrigued Canadians for almost a century. People continue to try to figure out how Thomson died, and whether his remains lie at Canoe Lake, or near Owen Sound.
          More on the Thomson mystery can be found in my book: Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter, available at Amazon or wherever you buy books.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ginseng Hunters

We first noticed them three springs ago. They wore head nets against the blackflies and moved slowly through our bush lot, searching the forest floor for something growing there.
            My wife, always curious about plants, approached one of them. “No English,” he said and the four of them scattered and went back to their car on the highway. We assumed they were gathering fern shoots for cooking, although the ferns in our area are not like the edible and delicious fiddleheads.
Wild ginseng with autumn berries
            They appeared again a year later. And in May this year they were back with their knives and plastic bags. We paid them little attention even though they were trespassing, they were not bothering us or our bush lot.
            Then a neighbour down the highway explained the annual appearance of these people. “Ginseng,” said. “They are after wild ginseng.”
            I had heard about wild ginseng but never imagined it grew on my property. Some research confirmed that it grows in thick, shaded forests. It was used by the Indians and traded as a commodity. The Jesuits are said to have taken it in trade and sold it to the Far East. Its fleshy forked roots are used as an aphrodisiac, muscle relaxant, stimulant and daily health supplement, among other things.
            The market for wild grown ginseng has exploded in recent years. In some places it sells for as much as $250 to $500 a pound.
            Ginseng plants grow 40 to 60 centimetres tall, and are not especially noticeable among the many other forest plants. The most important identifying feature is their single stalk flower head. The flower is greenish white in early summer and produces green berries. In the fall, the berries turn bright red and each berry has two small seeds.
            High prices and increasing demand has caused a decline in natural wild ginseng populations. Now that I know all that, I’ll be less tolerant of the folks with head nets, knives and bags who invade my property each spring.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Everyone Should Write

   It’s wonderful when you see someone with the determination to put words on paper. We all have interesting and important stories to tell, but too few of us find the determination or time to write them, or record them in some form.
   Jess Murray did. She recently published Son of Barbados: A Canadian Journey, a biography of her late husband Eric Murray. Eric’s story is short, far too short. He died at age 46 of leukaemia, leaving behind Jess, two daughters and many opportunities.
   I worked with Eric at The Canadian Press/Broadcast News. He was one of the most interesting people I ever met. 
   Jess Murray’s book is highly personal and was written to honour Eric’s life. For me, it was reminder of how good people influence our lives without our really knowing it. When he was alive, Eric’s calm style was a reminder to me to be more thoughtful, more compassionate and less quick to shoot from the hip.
   He delivered that message again, through Jess’ book. That’s why people should write. I’m glad that Jess did.

Son of Barbados: A Canadian Journey
Published by Xulon Press (March 28, 2012)
Available at Amazon 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Masked Burglars in the Night

Hmmm. Looks a bit interesting . . . 
   It was the 3 a.m. clattering outside the bedroom window that told me he was back. He was into the recycling box looking for a snack, although the cans and bottles had been rinsed to eliminate tempting odours.
   The next night, high-pitched shrieking and snarling beside the recycle box told me there was more than one. They were fighting over who would be first to check out the box.
   Raccoons are mostly creatures of the night. They usually go about their food forays in the darkness, masked and noisy burglars who give no consideration to people trying to sleep. Some are bold and will appear in daylight and ignore shouting and pot banging displays meant to make them go back to where they belong.
. . . Don't think anyone will mind.

 When a raccoon becomes a true nuisance, we get the wire box trap out.  Nothing gets hurt, except their pride.
   A couple years back we had a persistent raccoon that we named Hector. I would trap him, release him and discover him back a day or so later. Once I took him across the lake and released him. Two days later, we had a raccoon back. He looked like the one that I had brought across the lake, but that was impossible. It was a one mile swim back. Or, a hike of many miles around the lake.
   I trapped him again, spray painted his tail fluorescent orange, then boated him across the lake for release. Two days later, I was startled to see a raccoon standing on the deck and looking in the patio door window. He had an orange tail.
I caught him again and transported him 10 miles to a municipal dump. I released him and told him to go crazy in the compost piles.
   Our latest raccoon has started to appear during the day and has an obsession about the bird feeders. I haven’t been able to see if he has a faded orange tail. If he does, I think I’ll give up the trapping and invite him to stay around as long as he wants. Any critter that persistent deserves a break.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

Well, it looks like déjà vu all over again.
There’s much tongue flapping over the book trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. Some libraries refuse to carry it because they see it as pornography. The books are about a dominant-submissive affair between a manipulative rich guy and a naive younger woman.
The trilogy began as a fan-fiction based on the Twilight vampire series. It was published as Master of the Universe on websites, and went through a couple of transformations before being published as Fifty Shades of Grey by Vintage Books, a part of Random House.

It is no literary gem but its popularity is phenomenal. Some libraries are reporting hold lists of more than 1,000 names. The trilogy has been tagged as “mommy porn” because of its popularity among married women over thirty.
There was a similar phenomenon in the early 1960s when D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published openly. Back then women carried the book deep inside their purses, snatching glances through the pages when no one was looking. In coffee shops there were whispered but excited conversations about the sex scenes and forbidden words in the book.
Today, electronic tablet readers keep to yourself whatever you are reading. The conversations no longer are whispered, and of course what was once shocking now is simply titillating.
The criticisms of the trilogy’s sexually explicit scenes, and the decisions of some libraries not to carry the books, are bizarre. Bookshelves in stores and libraries carry plenty of erotic material. Why shouldn’t the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy be allowed to sit on those shelves just like Lady Chatterley or Tropic of Cancer?
Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James is no D. H. Lawrence, and her work certainly is not literature. The writing has been called clunky and amateurish, but the stories are wildly popular.
Ms. James has people reading, and that’s good news.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Menacing Reminder About Nature

The menace to manicured lawns is back. Huge patches of them everywhere; carpets of yellow now turning fluffy white so they can broadcast their seed to reproduce millions more of their own.

Nature as it wants to be
The dandelion is a barbarian weed intent on savaging the coiffed look of our suburbias. They take over our carefully clipped grassy areas, setting down deep roots that support broad leaves to deprive grass and flowers of space and nutrients. Government bans of certain chemicals have taken away our best weapons for killing them.

Dandelions are more than a menace, however. They are reminder that we humans still have much difficulty accepting nature as it is. We persist in trying to control it, and in reshaping it to our liking. We cut trees and bulldoze wide open spaces to separate  and keep us safe from the perceived dangers of the dark woods. Then we plant little ornamental trees and bushes more to our liking.

Nature tries to resist our changes, but in the short term we are too powerful. We should not forget, however, that over the long run nature always wins. Nature is patient and resilient and will be healing its wounds and reshaping itself long after we have gone.

The dandelion is a reminder that we need to condition ourselves to accept nature as it is.  

(Note: Stories of weird things in the dark woods can be found in Lights in Dark Forests, an e-book available in various electronic formats at Amazon or

Friday, May 4, 2012

Fade to Black

Of all the criticisms of the CBC during its continuing deep dive into mediocrity, none is more damning than a recent line from writer Peter C. Newman.

Newman, author 25 books and Canadian icon, in reviewing The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC, wrote that when he came here as a refugee from Hungary, the CBC on radio taught him about Canada. Then, he adds:

While my love of country abides, the national broadcaster is no longer part of that equation.”

What a devastating indictment of the CBC from one of Canada’s cultural elite. CBC, which considers itself at the centre of cultural elite, no longer is a part of most Canadians’ lives.

The Tower of Babble, published last month, was written by Richard Stursberg who was hired in 2004 to resuscitate the English services of the Mother Corp., and was dismissed six years later after losing head butting wars with the CBC president and its board of directors.

It is an interesting book for anyone who wants to know why dwindling numbers of Canadians pay any attention to the taxpayer supported radio and television network. It tells how labour problems have poisoned the workplace, and how refusal to change its CBC-knows-best culture has kept away audiences.

CBC once was a respected powerhouse of news and information. Today it tells us little that we don’t already know. It has lost its ability to tell Canadians in all parts of the country about trends in how we are living our lives. It has reduced itself to telling us what we already have heard is happening in Toronto and downtown Ottawa.

It is a sad story, but as they say nowadays, ‘Hey, things happen.’ There is little point moaning about the CBC, or trying to revive it. The CBC is in palliative care. It’s best now to let it go peacefully.

One of these days Peter Mansbridge will be standing at his teleprompter when the screen begins to fade. In the background, Ottawa reporter Terry Milewski will be trying desperately to get in the last words in his latest rant against the Harper government. Then the screen will go black.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

News from the Black Holes

I learned a couple of interesting things about my country and its people this week.

The New York Times told me about interesting developments on Fogo Island, a small piece of Newfoundland sitting in the North Atlantic. It is an isolated place, geographically and historically; population 2,700 with little work since the cod fishery collapsed.

Zita Cobb, a local who made a name and money for herself as a corporate executive in the U.S., returned to Fogo and began putting thought and much money into reviving the island. She formed the Shorefast Foundation, which is trying to revitalize the economy with a variety of projects, including art studios and a five-star inn.

From the Muskoka Weekender I learned about one man's inspiring late-life campaign against illiteracy. Clarence Brazier, who died April 15 at age 105, was 93 before he learned to read. When he did, he became a powerful advocate for adult literacy, taking his inspirational message to many, especially young people.

He won several awards for his work, including the Governor-General’s Caring Canadian Award and the Canada Post Literacy Award.

Brazier worked bush and mine jobs in which it was easier to keep secret his inability to read and write. His wife Angela covered for him, writing and reading on his behalf.

Stories like these - which tell us who we are and how we live our lives - are becoming fewer. Outside the major population centres there are expanding black holes from which we hear or read little about people and their lives. News media coverage has shrunk as smaller budgets mean fewer news staff and increased focus on news close by and cheaper to cover. More and more news coverage is of government and politics because it is pretty much spoon-fed news, quick and easy to report.

Thankfully there are some news people around, certainly at the New York Times and Muskoka Weekender, still telling us important stories about people.

Government does not a nation make. Nations are created by people living their lives, and reporting their stories should be a priority of any news organization.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spring of Fear

It’s hard to go through April without recalling the worries of the Spring of Fear nine years ago. April 2003 was when we all feared that a new disease named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) would become a devastating pandemic.

SARS killed 800 people around the world, 44 in Canada, before disappearing in the autumn.  We all breathed easier, although medical experts still warn that there will be other serious outbreaks created by new or mutating existing bugs.

Since then, there has been an important developing change in how public health thinks about viral outbreaks. Nine years ago, public health reacted to SARS, as they had with previous influenza pandemics, attacking full force, eventually winning, and then going back to business as usual. Now, however, there are indicators that public health will do more to predict outbreaks and work to prevent them.

A major force behind the change is Dr. Nathan Wolfe of Stanford University and founder of Global Viral Forecasting, which specializes in early detection and control of epidemics. He also is author of The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age published late last year.

Viral outbreaks occur regularly, but the public only hears about, or at least becomes concerned about, the ones that break loose and spread worldwide, like SARS, HIV and the killer influenzas.
No more need
for books
like this?

Most outbreaks start with animal to human transmission. So Wolfe and his organization have taken to monitoring human-wild animal interfaces in Africa and Asia where people have close contact with bushmeat, or wild animals taken for food. They gather detailed information through field and lab work and data from social media, cell phone contact and other sources. They are trying to create a system that provides real-time information that will anticipate viral threats and block them before they spread.

Viral outbreaks spread as quickly as a 777 can fly from one continent to another. We live in one closely connected world and a deadly virus that gets loose, could quickly kill millions of us.

Developing an early warning system and turning public health’s thinking toward fighting possible outbreaks in advance is the best way to make sure killer viruses no longer get loose.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Lily of the Mohawks

So, the silliness has begun over the impending canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. The Toronto Star stirred the pot in January with a story about the ‘damned Yankees’ trying to steal away a Canadian saint.
Kateri Tekakwitha
Tekakwitha was a Mohawk child who was four in 1660 when her mother, father and brother died in a smallpox outbreak that ravaged Iroquois settlements in what is now upstate New York. She also had smallpox but survived with severe facial scarring and partial blindness. She was taken in by relatives and later began to develop devotion to Christianity brought by Jesuit missionaries.
Many of the Iroquois tribes did not like the Jesuits or the new religion. Priests were killed, and people who followed their religion were marginalized and mocked.
Kateri was among some Mohawks who moved with Jesuits to a Christian settlement now called Kahnawake on Montreal’s south shore. She became known there for her piety, acts of penance and care of the sick. She died at only 24 and those at her bedside said that as she passed away, the smallpox scars on her face disappeared and she became beautiful to look at.
The Catholic Church has been investigating miracles associated with her for well over 100 years. In 1943, the Vatican declared her a possibility for sainthood and beatified her in 1980. In October, she will officially become the church’s first native North American saint.
The fuss over whether Kateri was American or Canadian has been going on for decades. It will intensify now with her elevation to sainthood. It’s totally ridiculous. She is neither an American, nor a Canadian saint. She is a saint of the Mohawks, who were a distinct nation long before the Europeans arrived, and still consider themselves a nation despite all the attempts to assimilate them.
Kateri Tekakwitha is an interesting story, whether you believe in saints and miracles or not. More on Tekakwitha and the Mohawks will be found in Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry, my latest book that will be published this fall by Dundurn Press.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Millionaires in a World Gone Mad

It is 20 degrees Celsius and I am sitting overlooking the lake, reading and reflecting on the decline of the daily newspaper industry. The ice on the lake is blackening and perhaps will be out before April for the first time in history. Most of the snow is gone from the bush, unheard of in middle March.

A World Gone Mad
The world has gone mad, but it has little to do with the weather.

I am reading about the severance package handed out to Craig Dubow, former CEO of Gannett newspapers. Gannett owns USA Today and 80 other U.S. newspapers.

Dubow worked 30 years at Gannett, the last six as CEO. The Associated Press news service, on whose board he sat as a director, reported that Gannett's print advertising revenue dropped from $5.2 billion in 2005 to $2.5 billion last year. The company's stock price nosedived 86 percent while Dubow was CEO, dropping from $72.69 to $10.45.

He resigned at age 56 because of hip and back problems after having medical leaves in 2010 and 2011.

His severance? Thirty-two million dollars, a $6.2 million insurance policy, $70,000 in health insurance benefits, secretarial help, a home computer and financial counselling.

New York Times CEO Janet Robinson retired recently, snagging a $23 million adieu package.

More than three billion people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day. One billion children around the world - one in two - live in poverty.

Ontario is getting deeper into the casino-gambling business in a desperate move to keep the province from going bankrupt.

Truly, the world has gone mad.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Birth of a Shooting Star

It was 244 years ago in March, time of the declining snows, when a Shawnee woman lay in her bark birthing hut and watched a brilliant comet light up the early evening skies. Not long after, she gave birth to her third child, a son who would become a North American symbol of fighting for your culture against impossible odds.
Some months later, the child had a naming feast, at which an elder pronounced him Tecumtha, or Tecumseh -- Shooting Star.
Tecumseh became a Shawnee war chief at the time North American Indians were being driven farther away from their homelands by colonial advancement. He travelled thousands of miles on horseback trying to organize a pan-Indian confederation that would stop the westward march of the new American society.
He is best remembered as the man who fought alongside General Isaac Brock in the War of 1812 against the Americans. However, Tecumseh was no Canadian patriot. He fought for Canada but had no more liking for the British Canadians than the Americans. His sole interest was to hold some of the homeland being taken by people from afar.
His leadership and the battles he won against the Americans were important to Canada, however. His leadership inspired confidence and helped stiffen Canadian spines, which Brock himself noted were somewhat lacking.
In October 1813, Tecumseh died in battle along the Thames River not far from Chatham Ontario. He fell while trying to hold back the troops of William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, and who would become president of the United States.
More on Tecumseh can be found in: Tecumseh: Shooting Star, Crouching Panther published by Dundurn.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

An Author with a Head on His Shoulders

Where is Robert K. Massie’s head at?
Well, fortunately it’s still on his shoulders, unlike some of the folks he describes in his biography of Russia’s famous empress, Catherine the Great.
Off with Their Heads

In a bizarre twist to a great book, Massie interrupts the fascinating story of Catherine to give the reader a chilling mini-history of the guillotine. The guillotine came into use during Catherine’s time (late 1700s) and became famous during the French Revolution.
Massie notes that it was invented by Dr. Joseph Guillotin as an instrument for delivering instant, painless death. However, Massie questions whether the guillotine really did kill instantly. He cites cases in which the eyelids on severed heads blinked.
One respected French medical doctor experimented with a severed head. He called the victim’s name after the head dropped from its body. The eyelids slowly lifted up and stared at him. The eyelids closed but opened again when the doctor again called the name, and focussed on him.
After the diversion of severed heads, we get back on track with Catherine’s story. There is a valid connection between Catherine, the guillotine and the French revolution. Catherine worried about revolutions like the ones in America and France erupting in Russia, which happened a little more than a century after her death.
Massie’s diversion to the guillotine is bizarre but interesting. For instance, I didn’t know it was used in Germany between 1933 and 1945.  Also, anyone who researches and writes as well as Massie has the right to take us off on tangents occasionally.
Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman is an excellent read that provides insights into Russian history and culture. Massie is the author the Pulitzer-prize winning Peter the Great and the book about the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra.
Massie is 82 and plans another book. He says he has to continue writing because he keeps having children. The youngest is 11.

Monday, February 6, 2012

No Eating the Pets

"God, I love watching them," my wife sighs with happiness. "I don't know if I could eat one now."

I see my plans for hunting wild turkey evaporating. I had taken the mandatory weekend course, acquired the certificate, bought the licence, camo pants, camo jacket, hat and face net, and special turkey hunter's vest with seat. I had steeled myself for cold. dark mornings, sitting and waiting and calling as they come out of roosts to feed.

A Spring Romance
Now my wife is turning the prey into pets.

Wild turkeys returned to Ontario after the government began a reintroduction program in 1984. Today, 70,000 wild turkeys live in areas across southern Ontario.

They started showing up at our cottage appearing skinny, so my wife decided to feed them. It was love at first sight, and now she sits by the window watching them snort up many dollars in bird feed.

They are big birds, males (gobblers) standing up to four feet high and weighing more than 20 pounds. They are tall, dark, but not handsome. They have fleshy, featherless heads and necks that look like posts where kids have stuck their used bubblegum. The colours even look like bubblegum, varying shades of red, white and blue-gray. The flesh lights up bright red on gobblers when the turkey is angry or sexually aroused.

On their beaks is a flap of flesh called a snood, which biologists say is a hearing organ five times more effective than the human ear. Their feet are odd as well, four yellowish toes making a foot. The gobblers have spurs on the backs of their legs and they use them for fighting.

 Their wing and body feathers are pretty, in a way. Dark buff or chocolate brown tipped with white. The body feathers are rich looking with a copper-bronze iridescence. The feathers on males are spectacular during spring mating displays when the tail feathers are fanned.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell gobblers from hens, but one way is to look for the beards. The beards are tufts of feathers that grow out from the chest an average of nine inches long. However, just to complicate things, a small percentage of hens also have beards.

You have to be able to distinguish between gobblers and hens for hunting purposes. But judging from the romance developing through the cottage window, I won't be out hunting them anyway. Or if I do, I suspect I’ll be doing my own cooking.