Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Well here it is the 23rd of August, and so I have just sent a letter off to my mother's twin, my Aunt Wendy, wishing her happy birthday. She is now ninety. [The photo here was taken on her birthday, and I'm adding it a day later, on August 24; she's the one riding the pinto, on the left.] All those years ago she and my mother arrived two months early, a disaster it seemed. My grandparents had moved only recently to their one-room log cabin on a quarter section of land in the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia. My grandmother had no idea she was having twins; it was only after my mother was born that the neighbour who had been fetched to help realised that perhaps there was another baby in there.

Miracles do happen, and the survival of those twins, despite their puny size and early arrival, was one such. They grew up shy and tenacious and physically capable, unafraid of hard work. My mother died over thirty years ago of breast cancer. My aunt never had cancer, amazingly, for identical twins so often share that kind of thing too. She now lives with her third son and his partner on a ranch near Vernon. As she says, she loves it there for it's the kind of place she knows well, with big landscape to look out at, and animals all around, and plenty of chores large and small to keep her busy.

As we age we lose physical capacity, but I believe we don't lose our need to be useful and needed and appreciated. Living in a place where there are things to be seen to, my aunt, even at this great age, is able to be and to feel productive. I wish that kind of old age for all of us. Happy birthday Wendy!

I spent part of this afternoon picking sea buckthorn up in Grey County. Do you know it? The plant is a low tree, think lilac for size, with long thorns every so often on the branches and tips of branches. The fruit grows in dense-packed clusters of smooth shiny berries near the ends of the branches. It's a rich orange colour with a dot of maroon to red at the tip of each berry. Inside is a seed. The fruit resists being picked, so it takes time. You can't just strip a branch of its fruit in handfuls. Instead you have to pick them off one by one, the berries.

Lillian, whose trees these were, says they originated in Siberia and possibly Manchuria too. They are hardy, which is why she planted them eight to ten years ago, and the fruits are edible.

But here's the question: what to do with the fruit? How to use it? Lillian has been experimenting with it for three years, making jam, vinegar, blended jams, etc. And now she's going to try savory condiments, and also will try using it uncooked, with flavorings. The thing is, the taste is tart and a little sweet, but when it's cooked, to some of us it has a slightly unappealing odour. Well so do many things, from Limburger to durian, but it doesn't stop us eating them. And many people don't notice the odour. It may be one of those aromas that bother only some people, not everyone. The sea buckthorn berries don't have the odour when they're straight off the tree, only once they're cooked. That's why Lillian's next step is to try them in a savory uncooked condiment, like a fresh chutney. They are so beautiful, and the taste is appealing if you have a taste for wild things, not tame domesticated fruit.

It turns out that sea buckthorn is also great for the skin, both if applied externally and if eaten. It contains oils and is loaded with Vitamin C etc. When I learn more about other possible uses, I'll let you know. Meantime, I can't think of a better way of marking my mother's birthday than picking berries, for both she and my aunt took enormous pleasure in berry picking. It was like getting something for nothing, a special treat. As a kid I didn't particularly appreciate their enthusiasm, but now I feel the same way....

My trip up to Grey County started yesterday afternoon. On my way I passed a roadside stand with gladioli in buckets of water, set out beside a money box, but no person. So I picked out some glads, all colours from deep purple to violet to orange-yellow to salmon and magenta, shoved my bill in the box, and continued on down the road. I had a swim in Wilder Lake, deserted because the day was chilly, about 18 degrees (a huge contrast to the 30 degree and more temps we've had), but the lake water was warm and welcoming and I rejoiced in there. When I got to Lillian's the flowers went into two vases and lit up the room.

It was as if they had set the colour palette for my visit, for dawn the next morning had every shade in it: dark purple clouds below, brilliant cerise pink cloads above, the sun making orange-yellow reflections as it tried to emerge, and pale violets and pinks in outlying areas of the eastern sky.

It was pretty wild.

And why was I up to see it? you ask. Well I had the huge pleasure of sleeping out in a new small sleeping cabin in the forest, a perfect elegant place to go to bed by candle-light, to wake in the middle of the night to the moon beaming in (powerfully silver, despite being very much on the wane) and the stars hanging low (I swear they were), and to surface at dawn to heavy dew, mist rising, and that technicolur show to the east. The Swedes have similar small cabins in the country, with a tiny woodstove and a bed, as this one has, and call them lust-haus (sp?), or pleasure house. If you get a chance to watch My Life as a Dog, that brilliant film from twenty-five or so years ago, there is a lusthaus in it....

I'm digressing I guess, but perhaps not. For these small spaces and immediate pleasures of colour and form are stimulating, life-giving, a reminder of who we are and where we like to be.

AFTERWARD: As I send my Aunt Wendy birthday thoughts,and think about age and mortality and living in the moment, I am also thinking about Jack Layton, a remarkable guy who was a politician with ideas, intelligence, and beliefs, as well as an extraordinary optimism and confidence in people. He was Leader of the Opposition as of our May election, having led his party, the NDP, to an amazing victory, especially in Quebec, but now he's died, in full flight. This is a loss for us all, not just for his grieving family. Thanks Jack, for taking it all on with such positive energy; you've been a great example, even to those who didn't agree with you.


Mary L. said...

Lovely commentary! I always enjoy reading what you have to say.
You were close on the Swedish; it's lusthus (all one word).

naomi said...

thanks for the language help Mary. I know I should just have looked it up, lusthus I mean of course, but I do enjoy the process of taking a stab at things I've heard.

ANd on sea buckthorn, I'd love to hear about any ideas or experience any one has had with it.

katie said...

I lived in Ladakh for about 2 years and the sea buckthorn aka tsetsa-lu-lu grew thickly on the banks of the Indus river. It was picked and pressed into juice, sweetened and strained. Delicious, kind of like apricot juice & very high in Vit C.