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by Dee Walmsley
Clever's Nature writer
When did it all begin, this interest in the world around me? When did I first notice the taffeta green of a hummingbird, the smell of rain or hear the crunch of new snow? Is my bonding with nature inherent, or is it something that I sought out as a lonely child to fill a void at a particular place in time.
At the age of 13, Swede-saws for bucking up the young green saplings smoldering in a fireplace, and a tar-papered shack, were the only things between me and the cold winter coat of mother nature. A tiny flame from a coal oil lamp flickering in the night was my beacon as I ended the four mile walk from my school bus stop. This was a far cry from the city girl who only months earlier had skipped the three short blocks from school and entered a two-storied house with a built in banister made for sliding and a huge front porch complete with swing and a rocking chair.
The closest I had come to nature then was when a butterfly with a torn wing found me one day on that big old porch. I carefully placed it in a mason jar amid grass, leaves and some sugar water. I punched some holes in the lid and changed its environment each day. Rose petals, grass, honeysuckle all found their way inside that Mason jar, and then one day, my beautiful butterfly flew away. It tested its wings fluttering around the holly hocks. I watched in delight as it returned, landed for an instant on my finger and then disappeared into a waiting sunbeam.
A few months later we packed up and moved to Aldergrove. The paved streets and sidewalks were replaced by gravel roads and ditches. My home, a tar-papered shack sat on the edge of ten acres of alder, maple, fir and cedar trees. A creek ran through the property it was our only source of water.
I fetched ice cold water from that stream, bucket, after bucket, after bucket. On hands and knees I carefully filled each pail to the brim then I balanced each one like the scales of justice and started the 100 yards home. The jostling swells leapt out along the path, and were swallowed up by the parched soil, leaving a trail of water prints in their wake.
This cumbersome chore ended the day the pump was installed. The dowsers arrived at daybreak, witching wands in their hands, and rubber boots on their feet. They walked the land divining rods leading the way, searching for the underground well. The rods remained still. My mother called the men to the house for coffee and a rest. They had been walking for hours and the only water found, came in a bucket from my creek. As the men neared the house one of the rods began vibrating and pulling its nose towards the ground. Water! We have water, and not ten feet from the house the man yelled. We all performed our own rain-dance that day and watched in anticipation as the well was dug, and the pump installed. With a little priming, a lot of pumping and presto running water. Magic!
I never missed carting the buckets of water, but I did miss the crafty rainbow trout that darted under the bridge whenever my shadow appeared. I tried for a whole year to catch that fish and never got a nibble. While other girls my age were learning to knit and sew I was learning about the beauty around me. I loved venturing into the woods behind our house, finding a log, sitting listening to the birds, the falling leaves, the wind and the little cottontails bounding about the underbrush. On a very special day I might see a deer or watch a bluebird disappear into the blueness of the sky.
A year after we dug the well the tar-paper was covered with shiplap, the inside walls were sheathed in plywood and gyproc and we had electricity. We entered a new age of refrigerators, radios and a prized telephone. Gone was the ice-box and the treat of chipping ice for summer sucking. Gone too was the maggot infested ham and warm milk when the last of the block of ice had melted and the box lost its coldness. Gone were the spooky tales told beneath the shadows of a single gas lamp, its mantle’s light piercing my brain and its hissing sending shivers through my soul. The Green Hornet, Lux radio theatre and The Shadow moved in to replace the tales of childhood and imagination. Bing Crosby now lulled me to sleep with his rendition of Blue of the Night, joining him were the crickets and frogs outside my bedroom window.
I learned many things about nature over the next three years as I explored my surroundings. We had no money but there were lots of labor jobs that required little or no skill like picking berries and green beans.Rows of sticky string beans stood waiting to be picked and sacked. I can’t recall how much a full sack weighed, but it put a dollar in my pocket. Ripe red juicy strawberries brought in five cents a pound.
If I was lucky a heavy rain prior to picking added a few cents, then again, a couple of stones hidden amongst the crop added to my coffers at the weigh in. I learned the sweetness of the smell of strawberries after watching the blossoms die and disappear. I watched the beans sprout and begin their daily climb, twisting their way to the top of a pole. I smelled the earth and how it changed its aroma with the rain. I felt the earth between my fingers and on my knees as I weeded the berry patch. I threw worms, to waiting robins, between the rows of red.
Some Saturdays were spent painstakingly cutting cascara bark from back-lot trees, their bitter sap penetrating my small hands leaving a yellow residue like the tell tale signs of tobacco on smokers fingers. Some liken Cascara to licorice but a lick of those yellow fingers caused me to gag and spit. I was so little that I needed a stool to reach higher up the tree. A piece of cordwood worked well. I still remember the technique, score two circles around the tree six inches apart, join them with a vertical line and peel back the bark. The bark cut and dried at twenty-five cents a pound was an incentive to stay in school and gain the knowledge that would surely raise my wages to fifty cents an hour somewhere, someday.
The work was hard, but the environment spoke to me like whispers on the wind. I talked to the squirrels and marveled at the artistry of sunbeams on maple leaves and giant ferns. The dogwood trees and trilliums were too beautiful to pick and so I left them alone, to greet me another day. I loved the solitude, the smells. Even the skunk cabbage was perfume to me.
That icy creek spawned salmon each fall and fed farmer’s chickens as the carmine rotting fish fought their way up stream. They came by the thousands, nearing the end of their journey. Their grotesquely hooked jaws thrusting forth and flashing tails propelling them on. Torn flesh, missing fins, and dying they continued on their course to the spawning grounds. The men straddled the water, pitchfork poised, then with the thrust of a swordsman they pierced the half dead fish and threw the catch onto the green grassy banks. This was certainly a different image for me as the only salmon I had ever seen, came from a can. I marveled at the tenacity of these fish and their life cycles.
A widening in the creek became my swimming hole. Even on the hottest of summer days the water was freezing. To enter took courage. The initial shock gave way to blue tinged skin and numbness. Upon exiting pins and needles set in as once again the blood coursed through my veins. A far cry from an indoor chlorinated heated pool, but it still sends shivers up my spine when I think of that cold, clear, pure water.
When the cooling off from summer was met by a dip in the creek it was time to go fishing. Silvery minnows were abundant; probably rainbow trout, a bent pin and a piece of twine easily caught Jiggers the cat’s dinner. One worm usually was all I needed for my dip and drop procedure. A dip into the water brought the hungry school to the surface, a bite, lift and drop into the waiting galvanized milk pail, ended the task. I taught myself to fish and dig for worms and spent many happy hours trying to outwit my adversaries. I let most of the fish go and watched them swim away, but a few of them ended up in my pocket which left my Jiggers licking her chops and purring loudly.
I found a hummingbird’s nest made of spider webs and moss truly a treasured find as was the American goldfinch’s clutch of pale blue eggs. I carefully monitored this site until the tiny birds were ready to fledge, and then I took one home for a pet. This was my initiation into wildlife rehabilitation.
Times were tough back then, living in a tar-papered shack in one of BC’s coldest winters. But the fun of hopping on and off a horse-drawn stone-boat for a chilly ride to the nearest school bus stop, rolling up and smoking dried maple leafs on a fall days walk home from that distant stop, those times are what memories are made of.
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