Monday, December 31, 2012

Over the bridge

The Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown PEI is hosting an exhibition of paintings by David T. Alexander.  It's part of "The Shape of Place" curated and circulated by the Kelowna Art Gallery, and this pared-down Maritime showing features a selection of Alexander's large-scale landscapes.

Prince Edward Island is connected to NB by the Confederation Bridge, a 12.9 km structure that is the longest in the world spanning an ice-covered body of water.  The arch of the bridge carries vehicles to a height of 60 metres above the Northumberland Strait on an elevated roadway that's high enough to allow fishing boats and cruise liners to pass between the piers below.  On the day of our crossing wind gusts reduced traffic to 60 km per hour, a slow touring speed that allowed me to enjoy a spectacular view of white-capped waves and the distant red earth shoreline.

The Confederation Bridge viewed from Cape Jourimain, NB 

Confederation Centre of the Arts houses a gallery, theatre and restaurant
David Alexander's paintings are grouped according to subject matter with mountain, woods and water displayed on three walls of the central main floor gallery.  The show charts a circular progression from an early dark Saskatoon sky painting to the recent series of water reflections, a path that travels from the Prairies to the Rockies to Iceland to Tokyo and back to the artist's home base in Kelowna, BC.  "Place" for David Alexander encompasses considerably more than the look of a specific geographic location and although the works are recognizable as renderings of the land, they lean toward metaphysical concepts.  I tend to think of Alexander's artistic oeuvre (over three decades of painting) as the construction of a bridge between the phenomenal and the numinous aspects of nature.

Installation view

"Wet" paintings

On the end wall, "Entering the Beginnings of the Big Dipper's Horizon" 1989

David Alexander is an adventurer, an avid hiker and skier, an outdoors man whose wanderlust is matched by an endless enthusiasm for observing nature first hand.  He is not content to pass through a place - whether city or wilderness -  without taking the time to tune in to the forces within it.  Informed by pages of exploratory sketches, his studio-completed canvases are charged with echoes, rhythms, questions, enchantment and (sometimes) angst.

I am snared by one of the water paintings, a vertical high-contrast piece composed of concentric rings and zigzag lines.  It is a complex painting that expands the beauty of a rippling, elongated reflection far enough that it opens to reveal a threat. The comeliness of Nature, the seductive camouflage of her colours, forms and patterns, fools us into thinking that she is benign.   Look long enough and Alexander's work will pose a challenge, compelling you to go beyond the surface.

David T. Alexander, "Salient Rings, Bisque Camouflage" 2009, acrylic on canvas, 80" x 48" 
"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."  
                                          - Oscar Wilde, preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray" 1891

"David Alexander: The Shape of Place" continues at the Confederation Arts Centre until January 20th, 2013.  Here is a link to the artist's website.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A taste of Acadie

My glasses steamed up the moment I entered the Community Hall at Shemogue NB this morning, making it difficult to navigate the stairs leading to the basement. The interior high humidity did nothing to dampen the festive mood of the women serving at the annual Poutine Sale.   By the time I made my way to the lower level and cleared my lenses, one of the ladies had invited me to join an assembly line of jolly helpers rolling fat potato and pork dumplings by hand.  Local customers (the ones who knew the drill) brought their own pots to take home traditional Acadian poutines rapees.

Kitchen crew in the steamy workplace

Uncooked poutines rapees

Simmering the poutines takes 2 hours

A traditional Acadian dish

Interior, ready to eat

 The Acadians borrowed the recipe for potato dumplings from American settlers who arrived in this region around 1766.  The savoury German "Knodel" was adapted by the Acadians who added a salt pork filling, thereby transforming a side dish into a "meal in a ball."  To create poutines rapees, each hand-formed globe of grated and mashed potato is split in half and a small portion of meat is added to the centre before rolling the dumpling up again.  The ball is dropped into boiling water and simmered for 2 hours.  The Shemogue women told me that they like to eat poutines sprinkled with white sugar, while their husbands prefer a drizzle of blackstrap molasses.  

 When I get home and try the dish for the first time, I am a bit put off by the gluey, greyish appearance of the poutine.  Naked and split open, it is not an attractive or appetizing sight.  The potato layer is thick and rubbery and reminiscent of the gnocchi served in Argentina.  The pork is bland, not spicy like the Chinese pork filling used in dim sum dumplings.  I imagine that in the past poutines rapees provided a hearty filler for hard-working farmers and fishermen at times when meat was not plentiful. Acadian comfort food may be an acquired taste, but as one of the cooks at the sale commented,   "Noel ne serait pas Noel sans poutines rapees!"   

NB  The poutine enjoyed in this area of southeastern New Brunswick is not to be confused with the poutine of Quebec which is a combination of french fries, cheese and gravy.  Here is the recipe for authentic NB poutines rapees.   There are other innovative versions on the menu at a Restaurant L'Idylle in Dieppe, NB 

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Sustaining Infinite

Last week I had a glimpse of infinity at the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville NB.  A series of works by Karen Reimer touches on the concept of the infinite through textile models.

The base for each unit in Reimer's "Endless Set" is a standard 20" x 30" pillowcase, to which she sews patchwork pieces and a prime number cut out of white cotton fabric.  The project is structured by rules that govern the format and outcome of the work:

  1. The number of patchwork pieces in the composition is equal to the prime number represented ( 7 is made up of 7 pieces)
  2. The height of the fabric number in inches is equal to the prime number represented  (the cut out number 7 is 7 inches high.)
  3. The pillowcase size remains the same for each work.  This requires folding the fabric as the prime numbers increase.  
"Endless Set" by Karen Reimer

The series resulting from Reimer's rigorous concept and careful craftsmanship becomes increasingly abstract, as the large white numbers take over and obscure the multitude of coloured patchwork pieces that lie underneath.  The viewer can only imagine what a prime number as high as 1399 or 1543 might be like.  In theory the series goes on forever, but in reality a point of collapse arrives as the pieces of patchwork are reduced to minuscule and the prime numbers enlarged to gigantic.  Reimer defines her art-making as "a contest between the concept of infinity and the limitations of the physical world, including my body."

Karen Reimer, "Endless Set", Detail of 101

I love the large-scale ambition demonstrated in Reimer's work; it's as if she's attempting to pull her needle and thread through a model of the entire universe.  After seeing the "Endless Set" I read an intriguing article "Our Place in the Universe" by Alan Lightman in the December issue of Harper's Magazine.  It  describes the XDF (Extreme Deep Field) project headed by astronomer Garth Illingworth, a professor at the University of California. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, a photo of a small section of deep space has been retrieved, rendering the most distant of galaxies visible.   It is a red spot in the night sky dubbed UDFj-39546284.

Illingworth admits to being occasionally overwhelmed by his own probing into a vast, remote territory.  "Every once in a while, I think: By God, we are studying things that we can never physically touch.  We sit on this miserable little planet in a mid-size galaxy and we can characterize most of the universe. It is astonishing to me, the immensity of the situation, and how to relate to it in terms we can understand."

Perhaps the artist and the scientist should get together and compare notes.  Both are working with the tantalizing concept of infinity while confronting the challenges of being merely human.

"The Endless Set" by Karen Reimer is on display at the Owens Art Gallery, Sackville NB until December 16th.

"To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings."  
                                                                      - Mary Baker Eddy

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Backyard Wisdom

My backyard has been a great teacher.  As I clean up the vegetable plot at the end of the growing season, I take time to list the lessons learned.

Lesson 1: Spacing is important
Stunted, forked carrots are the result of inadequate space between the plants. The wise gardener thins ruthlessly when the plants are still young.  Scientists tell us that roots can actually sense others of the same species within close range, and will politely limit their own growth when touching.  This carrot pack reminds me of a human family that's become dysfunctional due to proximity.  A little distance encourages healthy independence and maturation.

Lesson 2:  Pampering may be worth the effort
There are some prima donna plants that demand special attention.  Tomatoes have to be started early, indoors. When transplanted outside, they need to be supported with stakes and twine or a wire cage.  In coastal regions like ours, where the wind is particularly strong, the extra protection of an ice cream pail collar prevents tender stems from breakage.  Tomatoes don't like excessive nitrogen, are susceptible to fungus, tend to wilt and lose their flowers in a heat wave, and require 1-4 gallons of water every 24 hours.  With our short Canadian growing season, it's often an early frost that dashes dreams of a vine-ripened tomato crop.  (Green tomato relish is a specialty in Cap-Pele.)

 Is it really worth the trouble?  Yes, a genuine home grown garden tomato is vastly superior to its anaemic relative, the supermarket hothouse fruit.   There are no shortcuts and no guarantees, but this high-maintenance plant can be the most rewarding cultivar.

Lesson 3:  Even the edges should be beautiful
 I planted a row of insect-repellent nasturtiums at the edge of the garden and discovered that the sight of those vivid orange blooms was as nourishing as the fresh-picked vegetables.   A decorative floral border reminded me that the frame is just as important as the work it contains.

Lesson 4: If you plant it, they will come
 I waited patiently for the fat ears of sweet corn to ripen to the milk stage, the precise moment of maximum flavour. Toward the end of September, when the day for harvesting finally arrived, I found the backyard littered with cobs that had been stripped clean of every perfect kernel.  Raccoons had raided the garden and finished off all of my Silver Queen.  I had never seen a raccoon in the backyard, and had not anticipated their midnight invasion.  When presented with a free meal featuring a favourite food, wildlife (just like humans) can't resist.

Lesson 5:  Share the harvest with your neighbours
The man across the street is an expert gardener who feeds his five grown children and their families from a well-established backyard plot.  When I offered him a box of cherry tomatoes from my garden, he reciprocated with a bag of potatoes from his.   The friendly trade went back and forth all summer - cucumbers for arugula, dill for zucchini, beans for peppers - along with a portion of sound advice on ways to improve my practice.  His voice of experience has been most helpful in this first year of cultivating my Maritime garden.  We had a good laugh about the raccoons and he suggested a novel method for preventing corn theft.   Next year I'll give it a try.

An illustration from "The Harvest Gardener" by Susan McClure

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."  - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Guardian Angel

Angel of Cap-Pele
 In 1935, the priest Donat Robichaud obtained a permit to install a sculpture of an angel at the intersection of Chemin Acadie and Rue Robichaud.  The monument was created by a Quebec artist (name unknown) and placed on a stone plinth directly opposite the church.  It is a prominent landmark, a historic monument that stands in the heart of the community, right in the middle of a main road.   The winged, torch-bearing angel was intended to be a concrete reminder of divine protection, a figure poised to watch over and bless two vital Cap-Pele industries - fishing and agriculture.

Commemorative plaque
Village residents claim that the angel's presence also protected local men who fought during World War II.   It was a miracle, they say, that  all of the enlisted soldiers from Cap-Pele survived the war and returned home.  When I first heard this story, I mistakenly assumed that the number of military originating from Cap-Pele would have been small and the likelihood of their safe return quite high.  Not so - at the war monument in the park,  two black granite slabs are engraved with the names of no less than 160 servicemen who fought in WWII.  Today we honour their bravery (and pay our respects to the guardian angel, too.)

War monument, Cap-Pele
Lest we forget

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Headwork, Handwork

In 16th century Italy, there was an expression used to describe the most brilliant guild of artists:  "Hanno il cervello nelle mani" or "They have their brain in their hands."   Contemporary research into cognitive processes confirms that the Renaissance commentators were right - thinking is not exclusively an internal process.  Hands have an important role to play, not only in reflecting thought, but in engendering new ideas.

David Kirsh, a Canadian scientist working at the University of San Diego's Department of Cognitive Studies presented his findings about epistemic thinking in a recent CBC broadcast.   He studied the strategies used by subjects while playing the game Tetris, a puzzle that involves arranging seven shapes in solid lines to score points.

Tetris blocks accumulate and clear as the player makes solid lines
Kirsh discovered that players who actively manipulated the shapes by rotating and re-positioning them as they fell downward on the screen scored higher and progressed faster in the game than players who visualized where the pieces might fit without physical interaction.  A hands-on approach definitely takes a load off the brain, making a cognitive task easier to complete.  External actions are a step toward simplification and clarity; they reduce the amount of memory work, decrease the number of steps and increase accuracy.

If seeing possibilities in a physical way is an efficient and effective learning strategy, then schools and offices should be adapted to create interactive environments.  I'm all in favour of providing Lego blocks, Post-it notes, fridge magnets, glue and Popsicle sticks, Plasticine and duct tape to everyone from preschoolers to CEOs.  Thinking with the hands pulls abstract concepts into the tangible world, while expanding mental boundaries.   It satisfies a basic desire to make sense out of a hodge-podge of vague ideas.

Words on the fridge - a poem in waiting
The division between head and hand, thinking and doing, has been eroded and the breakdown validates learning methods that incorporate gestures, movement, and playing with objects.  Sitting still to ponder, visualize, imagine or create may be considered passe, and even counter-productive.  Grasping a concept is more than just a metaphor.

 "The hand is the cutting edge of the mind."   - Jacob Bronowski

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


On Sunday evening, when warnings of monster storm Sandy became more urgent and the weatherman was anticipating power outages and possible flooding, I put two cups of dried beans in a bowl of water to soak.   Baked beans qualify as true comfort food, and provide enough low glycaemic carbs to get you through any crisis.   I have a vintage McCoy ceramic pot  that was designed to cook beans to perfection in a slow oven and the heat-retaining vessel works just as well on top of the woodstove, in the event of a blackout.

The real McCoy bean pot

Upon arrival in Plymouth in the fall of 1620, Pilgrims scrambled to learn essential New World survival skills before winter set in.  The blessing of baked beans came from the Wampanoag native tribe whose traditional slow-cooking method involved burying a pot in the ground with hot coals for a day or two. The original recipe called for maple syrup and bear fat, ingredients that evolved into molasses and pork rind once the new immigrants had settled in.  Baked beans were economical, highly nutritious and complied with the rules of religious correctness.  Puritans were not permitted to cook on Sunday, but a hot meal could be enjoyed after the church service if beans were prepared on Saturday and allowed to sit overnight in a brick oven.

We stocked up on batteries, bottled water, matches, candles and chocolate bars.  (Robert survived Holland's hunger winter of 1944 with a stash of chocolate that his parents had hidden away prior to the war.)  On Monday, while the beans were simmering in the oven, I collected dry kindling from the back woods.  The wind howled hard all night, but fortunately the power did not go out, the basement did not flood, and the roof remained intact.  Tuesday's lunch was a tribute to Pilgrim practicality, a down-to-earth pairing of baked beans and cornbread accompanied by a prayer of thanksgiving.

Being prepared is part of the 21st century New World order, as climate change breeds more intense and more frequent killer storms.  It's back-to-basics here in NB, where we're rediscovering the native goodness of beans and corn.

 If you want to try baking beans the traditional way, using a fire pit in lieu of a stove, here are the directions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Swan and John Cage

The swan, Mt. Allison University
The Swan
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down

into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown,
more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.

- Rainer Maria Rilke  translated by Robert Bly

 Whenever I see a swan, Rilke's famous poem about "letting go" comes to mind.  The photo posted here was taken at the campus pond just prior to attending a lecture at Mt. Allison University.    Guest speaker Rob Haskins, a professor and musicologist from the University of New Hampshire was about to give a talk concerning the work of the American composer John Cage.  The event was part of a festival marking the 100th anniversary of Cage's birth and the 20th year since his death.

The swan waddled to the edge of the pond where he hesitated, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, leaned forward and finally lowered himself into the water.  It was a sequence that matched Rilke's text, a reluctant departure from terra firma.   As he glided away, the swan was indeed a majestic creature, transformed and beautified.

Haskin's lecture entitled "Rehearsing Contingencies" explored the problems inherent in performing the music of John Cage.  Cage's unconventional approach to composing (informed by Zen Buddhism and random number sequences generated by I Ching software) resulted in performance instructions that are deliberately ambiguous and open-ended and extremely difficult for the player to follow.  His work challenges musicians to be spontaneous, to respond to other members of the orchestra and to incorporate unintentional sounds.  This method of music-making is the opposite of the routine memorization, reading of notation and following of conductor's cues that are second nature to classically-trained musicians.  Cage compositions require a different level of concentration, and a willingness to let go of programmatic associations.  He aimed to create works that present pure sound, unencumbered by specific ideas or narrative, vivid but not distorted.  

"Art's purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens,"  wrote Cage.

He also advocated a degree of studied detachment.  "What I'm proposing, to myself and other people is what I often call the touristic attitude - that you act as though you've never been there before.  So that you're not supposed to know anything about it.  If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before."

While the act of leaving convention and intention behind may be totally liberating, it is not necessarily an easy accomplishment. David Tudor, a virtuoso performer of Cage's works described his process as one of rigorous forgetting.

"Music of Changes was great discipline, because you can't do it unless you're ready for anything at each instant.  You can't carry over any emotional impediments, though at the same time you have to be ready to accept them each instant, as they arise.  .... I had to be able to cancel my consciousness of any previous moment, in order to be able to produce the next one."

Freeing music from personal likes and dislikes is a form of thought annihilation that recalls Rilke's poetic "letting go of the ground we stand on and cling to every day."   It is that uneasy moment of launching from the familiar shore into the unknown element that allows the marvellous to unfold.

Here is a video clip of John Cage discussing sound and silence.

NB:  Rilke's poem is included in this blog post by David Whyte.

Friday, October 12, 2012

From the field

Last weekend at an estate sale in Sackville NB I purchased a wartime painting dated 1944.  The panel featured a green summer landscape dotted with army tents, two military men at ease, conversing under a leafy tree and a stone farmhouse in the background.   It looked like an oil painting done on site by a soldier/artist.

Painting by A. Pouzadoux, dated 1944

Who was he and where did he record the details of a quiet evening in a WWII camp?
I checked the Canadian virtual war memorial site for A. Pouzadoux, but the search yielded no military men with that surname.  On a French WWII site, I found a page of information on Antoine Gabriel Pouzadoux, a Resistance (Maquis) soldier who served in the Auvergne region.   Pouzadoux was killed on June 20, 1944, during a battle at Anterrieux as French forces tried to delay German troops who were moving north to oppose the D-day landings in Normandy.  The Germans killed 160 Resistance soldiers in the conflict.  Accounts of the days leading up to the attack mention the dangerous evacuation of wounded soldiers from a field hospital at Mont Mouchet.  I now have good reason to think that the Red Cross tents shown in the Pouzadoux painting were part of that encampment.

Antoine Gabriel Pouzadoux (b. 1905 d. 1944)

Prior to the war, Pouzadoux had been employed as a printer at La Banque de France in Chamalieres, a fact that supports the image of a man who might be inclined to create a painting in the midst of active war service.  In Anterrieux there's a stone marker at the edge of a farmer's field near the spot where Pouzadoux died, a simple memorial bearing a flag and a photo.  Perhaps I'll make a pilgrimage to that place some day and find the same green field where Antoine painted the stillness before the storm.

Stele for Antoine Pouzadoux at Anterrieux, Cantal

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Les Chaises

The chair was almost hidden under a stash of bric-a-brac, used books and Christmas ornaments at Dexter's Flea market in Moncton.  Pathetic it was, but something about the curved back and hip rests suggested that a makeover could turn this shabby artifact into chic decor.  With a bit of negotiating Robert drove the asking price down to ten dollars, shook hands with the vendor and lifted the sad-looking piece of furniture from the junk pile.


 Beneath a makeshift covering of raw canvas, straw stuffing and upholstery tacks, the bones of the sturdy antique wooden chair were well-preserved.  Gentle sanding, a cherry stain and a coat of varnish were enough to revive the surface.  The original seat was missing, but the holes around the rim of the frame called for hand caning.

A detailed and fascinating  "How to Cane a Chair" video on Youtube convinced me that it would be wise to find an expert to do the caning, particularly since this was a round seat, not a square one.  Enter Frank Holland the Chair Man.

Frank examines our chair and dates it circa 1880
The cost for restoring a caned seat is calculated by the number of holes to be strung. The bargain-priced flea market find was about to appreciate in value, as Frank multiplied 64 x $2.00.   Facelifts do not come cheap, even in the furniture world.

Frank's chair museum
 Frank's basement reminds me of the stage set for Ionesco's absurd play "Les Chaises." He is not only conservator, registrar, director and curator for his private chair museum, but serves as education officer, too. We learn some interesting facts about caned furniture:
  • Woven cane originated in China, where it was first used for armour and shields.
  • Early examples of caned furniture have been found in Egyptian tombs. There's an amazing tamarisk chair with a caned seat in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that dates from ca.1550-1425 B.C. 
  •  Portugese caned chairs were introduced to England in the 1660s when Catherine de Braganza married King Charles II.   (She also introduced the custom of tea-drinking.)
  • Upholsterers unsuccessfully petitioned British parliament in 1689 to ban the import and manufacture of cane furniture in England.  They claimed that 50,000 people in the upholstery and woollen trades had lost their jobs due to the popularity of cane chairs.
  • In British India where hot, humid weather often rendered upholstery mouldy and moth-eaten, cane was considered a more sanitary choice.  Planter's chairs were a standard item for the colonial veranda.
  • Cyrus Wakefield, a Boston grocer saw piles of rattan discarded from Chinese shipments at the wharf and envisioned a way to recycle it. He established the Wakefield Rattan Company in South Reading, Mass. in 1851 and invented rattan webbing which reduced the labour involved in hand woven cane seats.  
  •  The Thonet Chair No. 14 won the gold medal for design at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.  With its cane seat and bentwood back, it became a classic bistro fixture and is still described by designers as "the chair of chairs."  

Rocking chairs from Quebec
Frank proudly shows us his favourites, the items acquired on clean-up days when Moncton's household waste is placed at the curb for garbage pick-up. (Caned chairs are not designed for standing on, as many owners have discovered.)

We admire a Quebec rocker, an Eastlake chair with carved decoration and a late Victorian era caned beauty with walnut frame.  

Regency style chair with tapered legs

A week after our visit to Frank's studio, the chair is back home filling an empty spot in our foyer near the front door.  This is where an essential Canadian ritual takes place, the winter dance of changing footwear as needed for indoor and outdoor conditions.  The rescued chair is not just a decorative accent piece, it restores a sense of balance and grace to an otherwise awkward moment.

Handsome caned seat

NB: Instructions for do-it-yourself chair caning are outlined in this blog by B.J. a multi-talented handyman.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

On the beach

Aboiteau beach, Cap-Pele

 It was a brief beautiful summer, with long stretches of glorious weather, warm waves and dazzling sunsets.  I write in the past tense because now it's September and Canadian Summer has done the usual - slipped out the back door without waiting for the formality of a solstice.  She's packed her bags and departed without looking back, without ever saying goodbye.

It was a marvellous party while she was here.  There were picnics and family gatherings and weddings on the beach, events hosted in a season tailor-made for outdoor photo shoots.  One ceremony we witnessed in July featured a bride and groom in shorts and sandals, an accordion trio, a shower of red rose petals and a minister who delivered this quote:

"Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls."                                                                                                               -  Kahlil Gibran

An altar in the sand, with the ocean as backdrop

The attraction of the sea is a romantic force and a creative one.  Its energy inspires grand gestures that may only last for a day but leave indelible memories, nevertheless.

Twin turrets, Gothic arch, battlements, winding staircase and a moat 

 The architect of this elaborate sandcastle is no doubt back at school now, following instructions, opening a math textbook to page 36, tackling a problem that involves trains and the perennial distance/speed/time calculation.  The end of summer marks a return to structured days and a familiar routine.

"I pass with relief from the tossing sea of cause and theory to the firm ground of result and fact."
                                                                                                               - Winston Churchill

Gone are the tourists from Quebec, the ones who planted umbrellas, chairs and coolers on the beach, basked in the sun through the morning hours, ate fried clams for lunch, read novels in the afternoon and flocked to the wharf side restaurant's patio at happy hour.  Tanned and relaxed, they packed up and headed home on Labour Day.  A timely departure, as any patriotic Quebecer was obliged to be back in "La belle province" on Tuesday to vote in the provincial election

 "The sea answers all questions, and always in the same way; for when you read in the papers the interminable discussions and the bickering and the prognostications and the turmoil, the disagreements and the fateful decisions and agreements and the plans and the programs and the threats and the counter threats, then you close your eyes and the sea dispatches one more big roller in the unbroken line since the beginning of the world and it combs and breaks and returns foaming and saying: "So soon?"                                               - E.B. White 

So soon?

How did it get so late so soon? 
It's night before it's afternoon.
December is here before it's June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?

-  Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Seaweed: Drifting from ocean to table

The tide comes in and the tide goes out, depositing tangled piles of seaweed all along the beach.  These strings of plant material in vivid shades of green, red and gold could be mermaids' necklaces, with their delicate fronds and bead-like bulbs.   At the start of the summer I vowed to find a practical use for the stuff, and added "Seaweed Gathering" to my list of daily chores.

Bladder wrack ( Fucus vesiculosis)

Garden Mulch

Seaweed adds nutrients to soil, prevents weed growth, retains moisture and reduces insect pests in the vegetable garden.  After dealing with the Colorado Potato Beetle infestation by removing the potato plants, I added a thick layer of seaweed to the ground where the bugs had multiplied.  There were no more beetles.  Dried clumps of seaweed from mid-beach are best for use in the garden, as the rain has already rinsed out most of the salt.

It's readily available, and free

A Dollar Store plastic bin is ideal for hauling seaweed

Spread between the rows, seaweed makes an excellent mulch
I like the fact that the crusty seaweed carpet makes working in the garden a cleaner experience.  No more tracking of dirt from the yard into the house!  When the garden is completely finished at the end of the season, we'll use a rototiller to incorporate the seaweed as a natural fertilizer.


The fibres in seaweed can be used to make beautiful paper.  After reading about a Japanese artist - Manabu Hangai - who uses handmade seaweed paper for his sculptural installations, I decided to experiment with the craft.

 The paper-making process involves cooking the seaweed with caustic soda to break up the cellulose fibres, a messy job best done on a hotplate outdoors.  I used a hand blender to puree the mixture and formed the paper using an improvised mold and deckle made from two wooden stretchers and a plastic needlepoint canvas.  The wet sheet of paper was transferred to a piece of cotton cloth and laid out in the sun to dry.

Paper-making equipment:  homemade mold and deckle

The resulting paper has a rugged texture, flecks of green and an aroma that's reminiscent of an ocean breeze.  It begs for a clever haiku, an artistic pen-and-ink sketch or an evocative love note.
( I'm still working on that part of the project.)
Papier de la mer

Seaweed Vessel

One thing led to another, as is often the case, and now I have a papier mache bowl encrusted with dried seaweed as a centrepiece for the dining room table.  The Neptune Dish has a surreal quality borrowed from Meret Oppenheim's fur teacup, saucer and spoon and is equally non-functional.  It might be a suitable container for seashells, but is definitely not dishwasher safe.

Papier mache bowl