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