Friday, February 28, 2014


It's pale green, hangs from tree branches, smells like fresh mowed hay and feels like a scouring pad.  Usnea (aka Old Man's Beard, Tree's Dandruff or Woman's Long Hair) is a shaggy lichen that clings to the limbs of dead or dying trees in New Brunswick forests.   A thick, trailing growth of Usnea in the backwoods is a good sign, as it indicates an environment with untainted air quality.

"Usnea spp. at one time widespread and luxuriant almost entirely disappeared from a major area of England and Wales covering at least 68,000 sq. km. and at least 6000 sq. km. of Scotland, mainly as a result of the increase in atmospheric pollution."    - Batty/Halberg, "Ecology of Industrial Pollution," 2010

Following a windstorm that pruned some high branches, I collected a bag of the green wool and had fun making a disguise, a green, bushy beard for my old man.   I also crafted a nest, just to prove to the birds that it's possible to work with a material other than plastic.

 In a more serious application, Usnea can be made useful by adding vodka, letting it soak for six weeks and then straining the liquid.  Thirty drops of Usnea tincture mixed in half a cup of water equals a dose of antibiotic, an effective treatment for respiratory infections.   It is anti-microbial, anti-fungal, high in vitamin C and also contains usnic acid, a chemical currently being tested as an inhibitor of breast cancer cells.   

For medicinal purposes, add vodka and wait

More interesting information about this lichen is available at Walking the Wheel Project

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Today I found a small bird's nest in the forest. 

A closer look: strips of white plastic are woven into the construction 

Birchbark, twigs, grass, leaves, animal hair and feathers plastic-wrapped!

A birdseye view of a contemporary home

Discovering man made material in an avian nest made me feel sad: it just doesn't seem right that birds are using petrochemical products to construct their homes when nature has provided them with everything they need to shelter and nurture their young.  This nest was built in the midst of a forest that offers plenty of natural fibers.  Not a city dweller, the N.B. bird architect selected plastic in spite of a good supply of eco-friendly, non-toxic, traditional materials.

 The adaptive behaviour seen in a small bird's nest-building reflects a larger, more alarming reality.  Plastic is everywhere, there's no end in sight for its production and use, and no limit to its detrimental impact on the environment.

 The birds are following our bad example, mimicking man's foolhardy application of a faulty product.  I can hardly criticize - my house is plastic-wrapped, too.  

N.B.  For amazing images of birds' nests see the photographs of Sharon Beals.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Quiet time

In Alberta, a morning walk along the shore of the lake was my quiet time.

Fall morning at the lake, east of Edmonton, Alberta

In Argentina, siesta (1:00 - 4:00 pm) when everyone else was sleeping, was my quiet time.

Finca La Providencia, San Rafael, Argentina

In Montevideo there was no quiet time, day or night.  I yearned for silence, tried to hunt it down, prayed for it and never got accustomed to the intensity of a high-density, inner-city setting:  traffic, neighbours, street people, dogs, drumming, club music, demolition, construction, fireworks, horns, sirens and car alarms - we heard it all, full blast, non-stop.  Whenever I tried to escape the din by retreating to my study, a former maid's room situated at the back of the house, a pianist in an adjacent building would start banging out repetitive refrains of the Beatles' song "Yellow Submarine."  It was hard to bear.

Parque Rodo,  Montevideo, Uruguay

Now I find myself living in a small fishing village on the east coast of Canada, where the surrounding area includes ocean shoreline and sizable forests, sites ideal for quiet contemplation.  I walk along the beach, hearing nothing but wave laps, wind song and gull cries.   The authentic natural soundscape that I enjoy daily is a rare experience in many parts of the world, a precious but fragile aspect of the environment that needs to be protected and preserved along with flora and fauna.

Aboiteau beach, Cap-Pele, NB
The World Health Organization ranks noise as the third most hazardous type of environmental pollution (air is first on the list, water second.)   A 2011 report by WHO concludes that one million healthy life years are lost annually from traffic-related noise in Western Europe.  Adverse effects of prolonged exposure to noise include cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, immune system disruption, tinnitus and annoyance.  Annoyance, yes, I can attest to the long term impact of that.

Noise wreaks havoc with your heart, even while you're sleeping, according to Prof. Gary Housley, director of the Translational Neuroscience Facility at University of South Wales.

"You may not be conscious of the sounds, but noise pollution is being transmitted through your hearing organs - your ears - and the autonomic nervous system responds to that.  Stress levels are higher, measured by increases in blood pressure, and that in turn feeds back into things like heart disease."

Wild nights in Montevideo may have been detrimental, but I'm trying to make up for that year of living large, loud and Latino.  My healthier Canadian lifestyle includes equal measures of solitude, proximity to nature, sky of blue and sea of green ....and not a trace of yellow submarine.

N.B.  Speaking of Uruguay and submarines, a friend in Montevideo told us that at the end of WWII Nazi officers seeking safe haven arrived at the port aboard German submarines.  Whether the story is an urban legend or fact is hard to say, but it might explain our neighbour's choice in music.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


No one writes letters anymore, as email and text messages are such quick, easy, breezy methods of communication.   For me, the demise of post and door-to-door postal service feels like a big loss, a gap never to be filled by typing on a keyboard and reading on a screen.  Already - even before Canada Post raises the cost of a stamp to $1.00 and cuts off home delivery - the act of writing words by hand, with a pen put to paper seems thoroughly nostalgic.   It's an art that's moribund, a nice but outmoded practice requiring skills no longer taught in our schools.

 There's nothing profound or touching conveyed by a string of text abbreviations.  These convenient shortcuts are ugly to look at and difficult to read.


 How are you?
 Just thinking of you.
Smiling ear to ear.
I could of course be wrong.
Best be going.

It's not just a matter of being brevity challenged;  I miss the beauty of ink scrawls with flourishes, loops, valleys and arches.  I miss the sentiment encapsulated in the personal placement of a dot over an i.  I miss seeing my name in cursive script, penned by a familiar hand.  I miss sweet salutations, and clever closings, strong signatures, funny little drawings that dance in the margins and afterthoughts scribbled below P.S.

At a Belgian flea market I bought a number of vintage postcards that remind me of the good old days of genuine mail.  The images are romantic, the messages brief and the handwriting distinctive.

This one was sent from Oberkassel, Germany to Gand (Ghent) Belgium by a writer who remains anonymous.  Surely the recipient, Mlle. Clothilde Lippens, knew exactly who had taken the time to write a love note to her in such artful, florid script.

"G" made majestic

Sent from Cambrai, France to Dottignies, Belgium in 1911

Sent from Lier to Namur, Belgium in 1913

 Postcards are generally classified as "ephemera", along with labels, pamphlets, tickets and tags designed to last for just a day or two.   These Belgian examples have survived much longer than that, and I'm sure they'll outlive today's rapid and vapid email and text messages.

"We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors and yet we have never been more accessible....Yet within the world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation.  We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.  In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.  We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.  We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information."     

                                                                        - Stephen Marche in "The Atlantic" May, 2012