Easter in Ottawa

mum_dad_walking.jpgDad signals the end of his nap with an announcement. “I’ll have a cup of tea,” he says. He doesn’t trouble to open his eyes for this request, and so his womenfolk tease him like Pegeen Mikes.

It’s hard not to delight in my parents’ delight in being on holiday, which is based on walks, treats, naps, and wine. Eleven o’clock is latte time. There are no Starbucks in Limerick yet, but there’s one at the end of my sister’s block in the Glebe, and they love it.

By going to the same place at the same time every day we deal with our most pronounced family trait: indecision. At least until we get there. Starbucks is hard for us, with its made-up sizes and milk varietals. Though Mum has taught generations of Senior Infants to sort big-bigger-biggest, she has trouble with tall-grande-venti, let alone misto-mocha-macchiato, or dry foam. We all do. We mill around the register, getting in the way, then blurting half-formed choices before our shared fear of the service industry drives us out. While the baristas quiz us, we squabble about who gets to pay. The pleasure of the coffee is always tinged by someone’s regret that they didn’t order what they really wanted. Today, we swap what we have to match coffees with hopes. _Tomorrow,_ we’ll know exactly what to ask for…

The Glebe is full of babies and children. On weekday mornings the jog-strollers are lined up outside Starbucks, their big off-road tires signalling some kind of pediatric biker gang. These babas were born to a millennium that gives them the run of the place.

My sister’s new house is a glass-walled beauty, all Corian and cheekbones. Though it sits back discreetly from the red-brickery of the Glebe, it has caught the attention of the neighbors in the year or so it’s been going up. They stare frankly. They want to know how much it cost. They tot the price of the stained oak and brushed steel that gets carried in. They want to know what “he” does.

We know this because “he”–my sister’s guy–works alongside the contractors hired and led by his brother-in-law, George. As Glen steadies bricks or carries sheets of glass he hears and fuels the speculation. One day he’s Head of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. The next he’s a retired hockey player from the Russian leagues. Later, he claims that it’s bought with an advance on my sister’s trust fund; a rumor that makes my schoolteacher parents beam. Mortgages are so dull, and Ottawa needs glamour.

Over the back wall lives a shirtless crank who keeps a broken-down school bus, an oven, a badly-crashed car, and a mound of tires in his yard. He scowls and sunbathes, facing the oven as if for extra spring warmth. Every six months, Glen says, he puts his heart and soul into starting that school bus. By driving it up the block and back in front of the city inspectors, he wins the right to keep it as a “working vehicle.”

A doleful, cat-sized creature paces Claire’s tiny yard, seemingly puzzled by the fence. It has a flat nose, and a band of flattened fur around its middle suggests it’s been run over by a bicycle. It peers at the fence, confused as a sleepwalker, then shuffles to another spot to peer some more. What we know of North American animals we learned from Chuck Jones cartoons, and this one we haven’t seen. Gopher? Possum? Prairie dog? We rule out porcupine, armadillo, and coyote before Glen’s father tells us it’s a groundhog, shedding its winter coat. “I thought they’d be smaller,” Dad says, “Hamster-sized.” After that, we notice groundhogs everywhere, curled up on the verges like Moscow hats discarded for the spring.

Every day we walk the length of the Rideau Canal. My parents stride ahead, discussing whether to move to the Senior Living apartment complex in the Glebe, while Claire and I trot behind as if we were still short-legged kids. I’ve never met anyone whould could match their walking pace, and now that they’re outfitted with new sneakers and windbreakers from the local running shop, there’s no catching them. We survive only because a canal march has to include “a cheeky little beer,” or another “milky coffee,” or a beaver tail. Usually all three.

In the Black Tomato café, the receipts itemize “Dalton’s Tax”–for Dalton McGinty, the Ontario premier-and “Stephen’s Tax”–Harper, the new prime minister. Mum wants to go to a Tim Horton’s, but Claire steers her away, which is a shame. You can’t understand Canada until TimBits float in your blood. I might even have taught her to ask for fifteen TimBits, just to see what would happen. Rumor has it that in certain outlets, that gets you a bag of weed with your donut holes–more Canadian a combination than poutine and Red River Cereal.

The Ottawa spring is undecided. On alternate days it tries out gray bluster, then marrow-warming sunshine. The natives are hedging–fleeces on top, and bare, pedicured toes. Even at 70 degrees, snow is still stacked along the tow-path, and Claire describes winter nights when bar buddies confiscated ice-skates from friends too drunk to glide home. Drug tests. Skate-commuting seems magical to me. I think it would make me feel like a pink-cheeked Jesus to slide down that canal.

Mum is affronted that the tulips haven’t bloomed yet. The Netherlands sends thousands of bulbs every year to thank Canada for liberating the Dutch at the end of the Second World War. Their royal family had taken refuge in Ottawa, and when Queen Margarethe was born the delivery ward was designated temporary Dutch territory so that she would be a full citizen. In the War Museum, there’s a wall-sized photo of Canadian veterans parading in Amsterdam fifty years after their first visit. They look amazed at the young girls who offer them tulips.

It’s two and a half years since I lived in Canada. Two quick April visits–to Vancouver and Ottawa–have made me miss it more, though I still can’t bear Leah McLaren, and I’ve never been able to finish an article on their parliamentary politics. Before I headed back to San Francisco, Claire handed me a bag of papers I’d left in her basement. It’s my laborious application for Canadian residency, almost complete. There are letters from the local sergeant in Patrickswell, from the FBI, and from the Metropolitan Police in London, attesting that no record of my criminal tendencies can be found. There are letter-headed notes from people who admit to having employed me. My college transcripts prove I have unsaleable skills in medieval literature. A certificate from Montreal grades my French as intermediate-advanced. (And for a slow-witted seven-year-old, maybe it is.) I’d filled out a family tree, and accounted for my whereabouts every month of my adult life.

My parents don’t much care for the idea of California, with its earthquakes, SUVs, and fool of a president. They’re pro-Canada. They think it would be a good place for me. As they ask, delicately, what I might like to do with that visa application, I think how hard it must be to go from ordaining how many peas a kid has to eat to earn dessert, to wondering how to suggest that a whole other country might suit that grown kid better. I’m grateful for their grace.

Notes from the Food Chain

Storm Clouds over Beaver Rock Cove, Lake Superior
Thunderheads over Steep Rock

Another guest entry from Ranger Tim, who keeps the bunnies coming back for more.

Aug 31, 8:00 pm

“Down at the beach to tend to the boats, I’m startled to find hordes of Blue Darner dragonflies zigzagging through the warm dusk air. These are imposing insects with 5-inch wingspans and irridescent bodies the colour of gun-metal. Over an average year I might see a scattered few dozen, but there are hundreds in the air now. At first I think it’s a copulatory swarm but the body contact is minimal. Turns out the aerial orgy belongs to another species, a familiar small red carpenter ant. The winged males emerge from the pupal stage all at once, and a lucky few will mate with one of the handful of queens which go aerial the same night. The dragonflies are picking them off midair, one by one, in a tremendous show of acrobatics and gluttony.

These are the same ants that have been noisily hollowing out the gable end logs of my cabin. About this time last year my cabin colony hatched inward and I spent a tedious hour with the ShopVac hoovering them alive out of the air, the wardrobe, and the bed. So I mix martinis and we go back down to the beach and root for the dragonflies.

Sept 2, 10:30 pm

Moments after relieving myself off the cabin deck, I’m sitting at the picnic table undoing my bootlaces. A young snowshoe hare lopes into the small cone of porchlight, nose and ears twitching. He is wilfully oblivious to me as he beelines for the little patch of asters and sarsaparilla that I have dampened. He starts mawing down the vegetation there, barely two paces from me.

At five minutes I find myself shocked at just how much roughage such a small animal can pack away so quickly. At ten minutes it dawns on me that he is in fact being quite selective. He snuffles around rather carefully from leaf to leaf, clipping and consuming only the most thoroughly urine-drenched of them. Cherry-picking, so to speak. The real soakers he just licks dry, presumably to stretch out the feast.

I wonder whether there’s some element in my emission that is scarce in his regular diet, a salt or an alkali or somesuch. Or maybe it’s just the good old-fashioned gobsmacking tang of ranger-piss vinaigrette that keeps the bunnies coming back for more.”

This time next week I’ll be watching dragonflies and drinking martinis with him. And peeing off the porch.


More northern Ontario photos from Ranger Tim:

Stopped at Batchawana Bay on the way back up from Soo the other evening. A sleepy place with an Indian settlement and a rough little commercial fishing dock. It’s the end of the road, and it feels it.

Batchawana Dock

Batchawana Dock Detail

A Public Service Announcement

Another guest entry from Ranger Tim:

“This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cactus Ed wrote that during his season as a ranger in the sublime slickrock wilderness of Arches National Monument in Utah. Me, I’m privileged to be on my way soon to a summer’s work at my own most beautiful place.

Lake Superior Provincial Park covers 600 square miles of Northern Ontario forest and lake country. The land teems with bear and wolf and moose and beaver. It’s here that the most topographically and geologically complex expression of the Canadian Shield’s ancient bedrock is exposed along a moody, waveswept coast of the world’s largest freshwater lake.

It’s a landscape of profound aesthetic drama, and many visitors find that it speaks directly to a place in their souls, some very old place. Still, there’s always room for explanation, for unveiling of secrets; we who are entrusted with the stewardship of this unique wilderness are often called on to convey the deeper meanings and back stories in its natural and human history.

If you’ve spent time in large parks and reserves anywhere, you know that this work has traditionally fallen to the ranger/naturalist/guide, who’s walked every mile of trail, knows the name of every rock and tree and bird, and who can conjure in narrative the experience of the Ojibwe shaman, or the voyageur, or the trapper in the one-room cabin on a lonely cove, surviving his first winter alone.

But it’s gotten harder in recent years to get by on the old park interpretive staples of amphitheater slide shows, campfire storytelling, and guided walks. For one thing, operational funds in the parks service have been stagnant in the face of increasing visitorship and, in some cases, a swelling natural asset base (In Ontario, wilderness area under protection has in recent years leapt to about 13% of the province’s land mass — the highest in any jurisdiction in the world. As problems go, too much public parkland is a pretty good problem to have).

Then there’s the fact that young park staffers, passionate but perennially underpaid, face the temptations of a dynamic — and predominantly urban — private sector economy that can employ them year-round rather than according to the vagaries of the tourist season. So we suffer high staff turnover, which over the long haul robs a park of its most important soft assets: memory, knowledge, an unbroken thread of verbal tradition.

Before the tech bust sent me spinning back into the orbit of the parks service, where I cut my teeth as a naturalist in my early twenties, I managed software development teams for Fortune 50s, middleware vendors, and hot startups. It was in that professional incarnation that I was struck by the power and economy of using web-based tools to capture and present organizational knowledge and other information assets.

This summer I’m setting out to apply some of the same techniques to what is, at heart, just another information business. There’s a vast amount that’s known about Lake Superior Park, or any other public land asset for that matter, but it’s scattered and locked away in manila file folders, herbarium cabinets, racks of videos and 16mm films, shoeboxes of cassette tapes, and thousands of archive sheets of Kodachromes. And most critically, the minds of park staff and local old-timers who at any time may move off to city jobs, a mobile home in Lauderdale, or worse, some place from which there’s no return.

So I’m going to try and build the foundations of an institutional memory for the park using software tools like Wikis and weblogs and relational databases. No doubt it’ll take years, but my aim is that everything that’s known about the place, every tall tale and map and still image and video and sound snippet, makes its way into a searchable, ontologically-indexed, instantly retrievable digital form.

This central information repository will of course help future staffers efficiently do their job of conveying the significance and wonder of the park in their direct interactions with visitors. But I’m hoping we’ll also find a way to navigate the policy minefields and put the knowledge base into the public domain. The forests and the lakes and the coastline are after all a public trust, and so should be all the knowledge and stories we’ve layered over this landscape across the generations. Coming soon to an internet near you.

Anyway, enough of the utopian manifesto. Here’s the practical matter: Through a one-off windfall seeded by a former provincial government, we’ve come into some pretty first-rate digital media and computing gear. High-end DVR, film and flatbed scanners, video production workstation, fast Dell laptops. I’ve ponied up personal funds for hosting. And we’ve got a crew of bright, motivated, dynamic college kids on their way north in a couple of weeks. But we’re still tight on operating funds, and as is typical for government, what purchasing decisions there are happen glacially. So it may be a while until we get an allocation to buy the training materials I need to turn my staff into a crack media production and content management team.

Having watched over the shoulder of dervala.net for some time now, I know that many of this site’s readers are accomplished designers, technologists, and digital mediamagicians. I am sure that many of you have shelves full of O’Reilly texts and the like that you have outgrown. Would you consider donating the dustier of your books to our effort? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of our training needs:

– Linux/*ux administration
– shells
– emacs, vi etc
– sendmail
– Apache
– Dreamweaver
– MySql
– Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, AfterEffects, Audition, Pagemaker

I realize that there’s a lot of good teaching material online but one of the consequences of being based out in God’s Country is the absence of anything but slow, intermittent dialup connectivity. So the dead tree editions, even if they’re a little out of date, remain the medium of choice for our learning.

If you are located in NYC, Toronto, Ottawa, or points in between, I can arrange pickup. Otherwise we might have to do things through the post. Just email tim AT finitor dot com if you have something you think we might be able to use.

I can’t offer much in return other than deep gratitude and modest recognition when we go live. My thanks to to all of you who’ve made it this far in the missive, whether you have books to give or not. And of course a big shout out to Dervala for interrupting her usual eloquence to provide me this soapbox.

“Desire is a treasure map. Knowledge is the treasure chest. Wisdom is the jewel. Yet without action they all stay buried. Hope is the pillar that holds up the world.” — Pliny the Elder