The Bathtub Book Club: Earth Almanac

Once upon a time, I only fixated on one book at a time. Start to finish, one focused gulp. However, the pandemic has put a squeeze on the pile of newspapers, real estate catalogs and free mags I’d usually pick up in our travels. My regularly-scheduled coffee reading material has been pinched by a reduced travel radius. So, now I read two books in one go.

Morning coffee reading is reserved for educational stuff, awkward books (in weight, not content) and/or precious books that aren’t bathtub-friendly. Borrowed books fall into this category too. Kim and I down coffee at the same time just a bar stool apart, which means I often act as an audio book app with no “mute” function, reading passages aloud while she Googles South African destinations, slow cooker pulled pork recipes and DIY videos on how to build an outdoor wood-fired cowboy tub. Luckily, she can multi-task and multi-listen.

The book: Earth Almanac: A Year of Witnessing the Wild, from the Call of the Loon to the Journey of the Gray Whale by Ted Williams (Storey Publishing)

The beer: Seaforth, Ontario’s Half Hours on Earth is the shoo-in sipper for this book. They were Canada’s first certified carbon neutral brewery and the feel-good, taste-good company plants a tree for every mail order delivery. “On Some Faraway Beach” is an oak-aged peach strawberry rhubarb sour and an appropriate tonic for these wonky times on earth. If you lean towards comfort food as the mercury dips, “Lifetime Piling Up” is a cherry cheesecake sour, meaning you can have your cake and drink it too.

The bonus: Add a few sensual drops of Forest Alchemy №1 Winter’s Tale essential oil from Dragonfly Dreaming to your bathwater. I can attest to this: “it’s a crisp winter forest for your olfactory senses!” The blend of English peppermint, camphor, eucalyptus, spearmint and white birch is a guaranteed Rocky Mountain high—thanks wholly to Beth Lischeron, the dreamer and founder of the forest-to-jar company based in Cobble Hill, BC. For a simulated walk through a verdant Vancouver Island valley of skyscraper cedars, cypress, pine and fir, try Forest Alchemy №2 Winter’s Green. Either way, you need to check out Dragonfly Dreaming’s Solstice Sale before the earth tilts again!

The who: For distracted and concentrated readers alike. This book can be read in one immersive sitting or in bite-sized chunks throughout the year as the almanac is divided into seasons. Spring ahead or stay seasonal. The Earth Almanac is designed for anyone who believes reality TV is found in the woods, not on the screen. For nature maniacs, manic birders, poets, wanderers and everyone who fell under the twinkly spell of Walden Pond.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Ted Williams wrote a seasonal natural history column (“Earth Calendar”) for Audubon magazine. His sensitive observations morphed into the Earth Almanac, an unhurried and restorative tribute to the harbingers of each season. It’s chill-out homework for the rattled and pure escapism for those land-locked in urban settings. Really, it’s literary smelling salts that will revive your senses in just a few sentences. Bonus: the illustrations by John Burgoyne provide a enchanting gallery walk en plein air.

As Williams suggests, “few prescriptions are more curative than loon music.” The Earth Almanac soothes like a kitten’s purr and enlightens like Peter Jennings. The companionship of coyotes and badgers in the wild will stun and amuse as much as the comical courting rituals of fiddler crabs. It’s flora and fauna and a lot of Jeopardy! intel in one tidy package. Did you know that horny toads can squirt streams of blood from the corners of their eyes? Or, that male wrens will build seven potential nests for females to consider? The weary architect will guide his potential mate on a flying house tour of his creations allowing her to choose the ideal home for their brood.

Yes, I’m the type that says “wow” about 100 times during any David Attenborough (or David Suzuki) episode, and this same knee-jerk reaction came into play while reading the Earth Almanac. I feel like I need an external hard drive to download all that I’ve taken in. In no particular order:

Scorpions glow under UV light.

Crawdads are also called “ditch bugs.”

Kingbirds will ride upwards of 100 yards on the backs of crows and eagles to defend their territory.

Mountain beavers (yes, there is such a thing) can have as many as 30 exits and entrance holes to their tunnels. And, they will eat their own scat, but just once, to make their high-fibre diet more digestible.

Hepatica (liverwort) was used by Native Americans to treat the bites of mad dogs, sunburn, bleeding lungs, recurring snake dreams and also, surprise! To help straighten crossed eyes.

The tail bands of cedar waxwings are now discernably orange. A change in diet has caused their typical yellow bands to turn an atypical orange from increased honeysuckle pigment intake. (*Personal observation: I have also changed in colour since September due to my increased intake of Kettle Brand New York Cheddar chips.)

Here’s the clincher: Williams rolls his pen like Atwood–the imagery is nearly edible. His description of a long-tailed weasel? A “kielbasa-sized package of energy.” Of puffins he notes: they “emerge from the sea with fish draped neatly from their beaks like socks from a clothesline.”

The author’s street cred as an investigative environmental reporter is evident. One wonders how many years he has spent prone observing “doodlebugs” (antlions) and “bunny buttons” (rabbit scat). Certainly, he inspires the “art of looking” and transforming blind walks into genuine expeditions.

From “sound dogs” (I can’t give everything away) to candlefish to witch’s butter and the not-so-secret language of chickadees, this book is a beautiful romp through the meadows, woods, streambeds, deserts and mountains of North America. Please, go for a walk with Ted Williams.

If you love the Earth Almanac, check out these symbiotic books:

How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature by Marc Hamer (Greystone Books)

It was my favourite book of 2019. If you don’t adore it, I’ll send you a bag of New York Cheddars.  And then some hate mail.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (Oxford University Press)

My grade 12 English teacher gave me a copy of this book in an attempt to guide my writing from a white-water rafting expedition to a smooth paddle on a calm lake. Thank you, Joan! First published in 1949, it’s a timeless and sacred legend.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (Top That! Publishing)

Holden’s nature notes were originally scribbled (probably by quill) in 1906. Her posthumous publication didn’t happen until 1977, but we’re all grateful for her watercolour whimsy and yesteryear charm. Thanks to my neighbour, Anne, for the lend!

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The Bathtub Book Club: The Kinfolk Garden

Has it been 10 years already? Well, way back then, I was working at Body Blitz Spa on Adelaide and Portland in Toronto. Lunch breaks were spent dashing through slush and snow to get to La Merceria, an Argentinian espresso bar that did double duty as a bijou home design shop. I discovered two life-changing things here:

  1. Alfajores: Sandwich cookies heavenly glued together with dulce de leche and doused in powdered sugar. You’ll find them in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and at Le Merceria—that is, until the café permanently closed in my Toronto absence.
  2. Kinfolk magazine: On my first exploratory visit, I bought an Alfajor, an almond milk latte (because, why not? It was 2010 and cutting edge!) and Volume Four of Kinfolk: A guide for small gatherings for $21.00 without blinking or balking (*and that price didn’t include the cookie or the latte). I couldn’t wait to finish my spa shift to get home and swallow the mag in one beautiful, uninterrupted gulp.

What/who/where is Kinfolk? For the unacquainted, you’re behind—but catching up will be so pleasurable! Kinfolk just published Issue 37 and in tandem, The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature.

Founded in 2011, Kinfolk “inspires its readers to live with intention, energy and a sense of community.” The quarterly mag is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, so there’s guaranteed and automatic coolness in that alone. Once you’re hooked (also automatic), you’ll be seeking out copies of their coffee table projects: The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, The Kinfolk Home and The Kinfolk Table. You’ll see. The brand is like quicksand, there’s no exit!

The book: The Kinfolk Garden: How to Live with Nature by John Burns (Artisan Books)

The beer: Countdown Pale Ale by Beau’s Brewing Co. It’s a palate punch of west coast hops, bitter citrus and malty sweetness in one cool can. Why the Countdown? With the shift of the equinox and the dip back into single digit temps, I think we’re all counting down the days until spring’s hopeful renewal (Saturday, March 20, 2021). This Beau’s pale ale offers a perfect intoxicating bouquet until then.

The who: For purveyors of good things and those who love curating and creating. For anyone who has pressed a rose between the pages of a book or surreptitiously snapped off some roadside lilac bunches. This book is designed for those who nurse wilting ferns and rescue abandoned clivias. Come hither fantasy gardeners.

The part you’ve been waiting for: To be truthful, this 350+ page book isn’t bathtub-friendly. Post-soak, yes! It’s heavy on content and weight, so if you have a cat, you’ll have to choose who gets your coveted lap space.

Following suit with their magazines that showcase the precise life of leisure and indulgence that we long to be immersed in, The Kinfolk Garden is pure escapism. This book delivers as an antidote to the current state of the world. Gardens of every sort are explored: raw, refined, playful, rambling, experimental, intuitive…

Visit 30 groovy gardeners and their spaces around the world from Buenos Aires to Xilitia, Mexico to Parisian rooftops where flowers are simply planted by birds or the wind. For the travel-starved, take notes from a Turkish botanist who has designed gardens to reflect her travels. Fem Güçlütürk explains, “when I look at my garden, I see all the places I’ve visited softly merge.” Sigh. Güçlütürk even donated 1,000 novels to a second-hand bookstore to accommodate more plants!

The revolving theme of The Kinfolk Garden is “nature as nourishment.” It’s accessible, regardless of your living space. It’s a refuge that can evolve on a condo balcony, community garden plot or Sante Fe ranch. The profiles offer a diverse catalog of growing styles that lean on intuition, minimalist meditation and/or tangible goals like creating a “living kitchen” or personal plant-based medicine cabinet.

The pages and images are an undiluted olfactory experience. I think if you lean in close enough, you can catch a whiff of the indigo jacaranda and ice cream banana trees (yes, they are a thing!). The global gardens are as extreme the minds behind them. The whimsical concrete Las Pozas gardens in Xilitia are consumed by jungle and completely otherworldly. For Argentine architect Alejandro Sticotti and graphic designer Mercedes Hernáez, “greenery is the theatrical backdrop.” The couple keeps no plants inside their house.

Inspiration comes from all angles. Santa Barbara’s “Lotusland” estate was intended to serve as a 37-acre retreat for Tibetan monks. It is now one of the world’s largest and most diverse gardens with over 3,300 species from every continent. The late owner, Ganna Walska, a six-time divorcée and flopped opera singer, unintentionally saved a plant species. Her precious “Three Bachelors” are now extinct in nature. Her MO was mass planting. If one plant was good, Walska believed 100 would be better.

The Kinfolk Garden assembles a dinner party of the most eccentric individuals. You’ll meet a Marrakech garden designer whose resume also includes perfumer and museum owner. His mother suggested long ago that “people didn’t care for plants, but plants cared for people.”

While you might find yourself curling your toes on the diving board of going all-in, fear not! This book feeds all curiosities but doesn’t require estates, ranches, retirement or a Parisian rooftop. There is a primer on caring for houseplants, a guide to creating with flowers (everything from elderberry cordial to infusing vinegars to pressing flowers) to urban guerilla gardening. Fall in love with South Africa’s Babylonstoren, in the Franschhoek wine valley. Here, guests attend workshops on all things green and organic. Or, lie down in a “summer chamomile field designed for horizontal luxuriation.” Yes, please.

It’s about rewilding, land stewardship, the talent of florists and more importantly, taking pause to see and feel the forest floor microcosms under our Vibram soles.

If you are anything like me (caution Virgo list makers!) you’ll have a mile-long list of fantasy plants to grow. I picked out the quirkiest: fishbone cactus, corkscrew rush, rabbit’s foot fern, candelabra trees, hanging lobster claw, Canary Island dragon trees and kangaroo paw. It’s a start.

Confession: Kim and I have just one plant—a vigorous philodendron that has survived four moves from Oakville to West Galt to a temp stay with my folks in Walkerton (thanks, Mom!) to our home here on the Northern Bruce Peninsula. I’d be lying if I said we were devout in the Japanese shakkei tradition of incorporating background landscape, but that’s exactly what has unfolded here. We live in a treehouse with floor-to-ceiling windows of green. Cedars, pine, tamarack. But I loved and marveled every verdant inch of The Kinfolk Garden and the dirty knees that made it happen.

If you love The Kinfolk Garden these books are eye candy shoo-in’s:

Bakeland: Nordic Treats Inspired by Nature by Marit Hovland (Greystone Books). I have baked maybe four dozen cookies in my life but this book has no prerequisite and you don’t have to bake a thing in the end. Hovland takes readers on an edible fairy-tale romp through a confectionary forest of birch bark cookies, meringue mushrooms, candied forget-me-nots and icing spruce needles.

Cabin Porn and Cabin Porn Inside. By editor Zach Klein and authors Steven Leckart (Cabin Porn) and Freda Moon (Cabin Porn Inside).  It’s a phenomenon. If you harbour cabin-in-the-woods fantasies, get ready for a cold shower and cigarette.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Jann Arden’s Shiny New “If I Knew Then”

Two years ago, Jann Arden agreed to write the foreword for my memoir and I almost fell off my bar stool without having had a thing to drink. I still get a full-body tingle thinking about it, as though I have slept for too long on one side and have to shake myself back awake and into my skin. Did that really happen?

Her generosity and mentorship have guided me through soggy BC winters and a few stints in Africa when I was drifting without anchor but somehow weighed down by a life of my own design. She offered insightful thoughts, like fortune cookie messages and I ate them whole.

Her friendship does not mean that this review is biased—however, I would put all my chips on her, even a coveted bag of Miss Vickie’s Signature Black Truffle & Parmesan–whatever the venture. If she decided to market her head as a Chia Pet, we all know it would be successful.

Jann continues to inspire me with all that she does in a day. Meanwhile, yesterday, I was so pleased with myself because I completely finished off a Blistex lip balm without loss, melting or accidental laundering in the pocket of my jeans. Do you know how hard that is to achieve? I also toasted pumpkin seeds without scorching the damned things into charcoal shards for probably the first time in my life.

And I wrote this review, which was as easy as making toast.

Jann’s resume includes everything from cleaning golf clubs at age 13 to putting re-bar in cement foundations to writing the soundtrack of my life—your life—all our lives. She’s as resilient as a honey badger and as persistent as a pickled beet stain. Thank god there will be a whole lot more to come from her.

The book: If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging by Jann Arden (Penguin Random House Canada)

The beer: A Partake Brewing IPA. Ted Fleming, the founder of Partake, was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, but “wasn’t ready to give up craft beer.” He has created a line-up of non-alcoholic craft beers that seriously rival the real deal. Our local Foodland had free samples (remember those? Pre-pandemic?) and the IPA, Blonde and Pale deliver all the flavour in just 10 calories a can. How is that possible? In the words of Jann Arden, “Take your coat and shoes off…” And in the words of me, pour a Partake of any persuasion, raise your glass and give Jann Arden a 干杯 / gān bēi, Na zdravi, ΥΓΕΙΑ, cin cin and į sveikatą (“cheers!”) to her sobriety.

The who: For everyone who swears by Brené Brown TED Talks, Oprah a-ha moments, those at a loss/crossroads/mid-life- Subaru-kind-of-crisis, women experiencing more of a breakdown than a breakthrough, rabid Jann fans, This is Us devotees.

The part you’ve been waiting for: Everyone who pre-ordered this book did so for the exact same reason. We all knew it was going to be solid gold and quintessential Jann. She has admittedly made of living out of being herself. She has also made a career our of messing around inside our amygdala (*the hard drive in the human brain where emotions linked to memories are stored). Jann knows how to mix up our insides like a Ninja blender on HIGH.

Whether it’s the lyrics that we know like freckles on our own skin, a goofy tweet, an olive oil-splattered recipe in Feeding My Mother (*see page 86: Shrimp or Fish Tacos with Asian Slaw) or a rally cry to save Alberta’s wild horses, she tapped into our psyche and weaknesses long ago. Four books, fourteen + albums, eight Junos, a sitcom, a podcast and 18 fish tacos ago…

Everything resonates because Jann pulls the Band-aid off being human without deleting the tears and snot that accompany it. If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging isn’t “preachy preacherson”—it’s a never-too-late push towards rewiring your life by making “good use of those troubled times.” There are home perms, wigs on fire, dill pickles on a stick, rejection letters and reflections on how a basement record player was self-preservation in disguise. God, guilt, aging parents and conflicted love simmer to a rolling boil too.

Can a 58-year-old write a coming-of-age novel? Hell yeah. Jann’s still coming of age in a beautiful way, skipping the self-annihilation and dated concept of expiry dates for successful women. If you’re prone to deep + useless sessions of self-loathing and falling prey to false prophets and past glories, here’s your life ring. Don’t let it hit you in the head. This book lands on shelves in a time when we’re hungry for hope, and here it is.

While the rest of the world has been doing puzzles of hedgehogs and eating Cheezies, blaming a pandemic for pure sloth, Jann Arden has been operating at warp speed minimizing her emotional baggage into something that will actually fit into that *&(^$# overhead bin. (Remember the days of overhead bins and bitching about passengers with oversized bags?)

Be forewarned: She deals with some heavy-hitters within. Like, dying. “No one gets away without doing it.” The first three chapters go down like a sideways Melba toast with no glass of water in sight. It’s uncomfortable, you’ll bite your nails if you do such a thing. Or, you’ll pick tiny balls of your wool sweater until you have a wool snowball or pet your cat for reassurance until it’s furless.

This is what you’ll do after those first few chapters: You will make an appointment to do your will once and for all, or again. That was an unexpected take-away…but Jann has accomplished what no funeral home or financial advisor or life insurance commercial has been able to. Jann Arden is our voice of reason and her voice mail begs, “Do your will. Now.”

Rest assured, there’s a lot of funny in her book too–like her $200 Corvair and a bar mitzvah with a bouncy ball house and grilled cheese sandwich (yes, all those three things in one go). There are quotes that I’m still thinking about like her mom’s suggestion that “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

If you need a kick in the pants without the sticky note stuck on your back (remember those? Pre-social distancing?), this book is precisely that. There is no age limit to get out of your “own damn tornado.”

As always, Jann’s words are like a mug of Ovaltine with a handful of digestive biscuits. The chapters are TUMS tablets after vindaloo curry. She’s aloe vera on sunburned shoulders.  If I Knew Then will change you without a “trip to the ashram.” Maybe you’ll simply crave a dill pickle on a stick or start saying “For the love of Gord” like her mom. Something will happen though, whether you’re ready or not, and that’s the whole point of life.

Thank you, Jann Arden. x

If you loved If I Knew Then, check out this book:

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson. It’s one thing to sort through your own personal emotional attic but after the death of her 93-year-old mother, Plum Johnson was left grappling with 23 rooms choked with the antiques and heirlooms of one well-preserved life. The museum of her mother is one with endless visiting hours–and a remarkable one for readers to peer in the windows of.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Blaze Island

This may read like a strange segue for a book review, but bear with. I recently discovered a Hamilton, Ontario-based company called Digby Paints that is brushing the competition aside. Founded by Jill Torrance and Emily Kinread, Digby Paints is the only paint company in Canada to do everything online. Here’s the pinch hit though: their carefully curated palette of 60 colours are based on experiences. The paint names resonate because they transport customers to a magical time and place. I’m naturally partial to “Taco Truck” and “Sleep Till Noon” but “Reading By the Fire” almost made me sigh out loud. Can’t you feel the instant coziness of a reading nook? Wool socks. Cat curled on your lap. Latte foam like velvet on your lips?

I think of Newfoundland in colours. I could rattle off 60 colours that evoke Fogo’s stillness, a drowsy brunch at Mallard Cottage, the metallic Atlantic at low tide, sun-worn fish shanties, saying “I do” in front of a candy-striped lighthouse in Heart’s Content. The unforgettable electric charge that comes with spotting puffins on the wind-smacked rocks of Elliston. I could go on but this isn’t about me and my fantasy paint line. The author of Blaze Island paints a fictional Newfoundland in so many nourishing colours and smells that you’ll be able to safely ditch your meditation app for a few nights.

So, grab this book or a can of paint and the book as a job-finished reward. Then sleep till noon.

The book: Blaze Island by Catherine Bush (Goose Lane Editions, 2020)

The beer: I’m torn. I have a few suggestions here. If you are in Newfoundland, then definitely a Bog & Barrens Imperial Bakeapple Gose by Quidi Vidi Brewing Company. In support of the book’s content, Muskoka Brewery’s Tread Lightly is an all-natural, chuggable choice with a subtle take-home message.You can also feel-good and morally sound by drinking a McNall’s Mission Honey Brown Ale from Cowbell Brewing Co. At Cowbell, they’re not waiting until the cows come home. Their to-do-next lists include a zero-waste kitchen project and creation of an on-site “food forest” to supply the kitchen and brewery, both in collaboration with University of Guelph. They are shirking away from shrink-wrapped recyclable cardboard can trays too. In an on-going mission to be carbon-neutral, 28-acres at Cowbell have been reforested with 17,000 native species trees, pollinators and fruit producers in a collab with Maitland Valley Conservation Authority. Cheers to all of that, Cowbell!

The who: Greta Thunberg followers, tree-huggers, everyone who loves Newfoundland or dreams of visiting the Rock, fans of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, readers who have a bone-deep connection to icebergs, poster-makers for climate change protests

The part you’ve been waiting for:

You can actually feel and smell all of Newfoundland in Catherine Bush’s nail-biter novel, Blaze Island. Though the isle is fictional, it’s wholly inspired by the partridge berries, roasting eider and rotting kelp of The Rock. Grab a scratchy wool sweater and immerse yourself in the savoury suggestion of bubbling fish broth, salt pork and warm biscuits because this book is a 365-page ad of why-you-want-to-visit-Newfoundland-as-soon-as-you-can.

When a jaded and weary climate scientist assumes a new identity and transplants his precocious daughter, Miranda, to Blaze Island, emotions ignite. A Category Five hurricane collides with island and the aftermath leaves a far-reaching and unexpected path of familial destruction. Miranda’s brooding father, long-obsessed with dying icebergs and solar radiation management, comes to a slow boil. The geopolitical landscape of Blaze Island is volcanic with airline tycoons, carbon pirates, climate change deniers and those conducting underground conceptual experiments in climate engineering.

It reads like the potent stuff of an apocalyptic Margaret Atwood novel. Can humans really create artificial clouds? Will dimming the sun cool the planet or create a more unstable, uninhabitable earth? How will manmade weather impact wintering curlews? Can Milan Wells protect his daughter by mere isolation and sheltering her from the solastalgia that consumes him?

This is a place where word travels swiftly around the island, “faster than a car could drive across it.” Bush expertly nails the small-town feel and characters who still feel completely alone in the world despite it. This is her fifth novel and its intelligence and volume of research are evident.

Elizabeth Bush, Bush’s sister, is a climate scientist whose conversations floated this novel. She also provided scientific consult–so the talk of sulfate particles and calcium carbonate in the troposphere are far from fake news. In fact, though Blaze Island is a work of fiction, it draws upon the work of actual scientists and scientific research on the Greenland ice sheet and sun-dimming experiments.

Bush’s writing residency in Tilting, on the far end of Fogo Island, emerges in the quiet way she has captured the east coast vibe like a heartbeat throughout the novel. Her characters are vibrantly 3D and come together in a hot mess of passion and conflict. Blaze Island raises more than eyebrows. There are deep and daunting questions raised and readers will never look at a cloudy sky the same.

If you love Blaze Island, this book is a shoo-in.

Greenwood by Michael Christie (McClelland ​​​​​​& Stewart, 2019). Enter a daunting world where forest bathing becomes a privilege of the wealthy. The “Great Withering” leads to the collapse of ancient trees, birds flying themselves to death and humans doubled over with “rib retch” from the dust storms. Life as climate refugees. It’s not as fictional as one might think.

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The Bathtub Book Club: Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder

Seventy-six years ago, Anne Innis Dagg, the zoologist known as the Jane Goodall of Giraffes, contracted scarlet fever. At age 11, she was quarantined for a month in an isolation hospital in Toronto. She recently told a Waterloo Record reporter, “I never thought I would die. I just thought this was a good chance to get some reading done.”

Lesson in optimism:

In world-war ravaged 1944, Dagg had just one book in her possession: A Girl of Limberlost by Gene Stretton-Porter. Set in Indiana’s murky swamplands, the 1909 novel follows a fearless, self-reliant teen in pursuit of her life’s dream. Dagg read it repeatedly and when her quarantine period came to an end, she walked away knowing precisely what she wanted to do—she was going to dedicate her life to giraffes. And she did, just like that Phil Collins song, Against All Odds. At age 23, Dagg beelined it to South Africa and became the first person to study giraffes in the wild, thanks to that scarlet fever.

Choosing my next semi-related Bathtub Book Club title was a cinch for so many reasons. Adversity can lead to wildly unexpected things. I’m not suggesting or guaranteeing that everyone will emerge from this time of isolation with an inexplicable interest in giraffes but I’d bet a Wander Lager (see below) and a Phil Collins album that something within you will spark. That’s what books do to us when we’re focussed on the fine print.

The book: Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin (Douglas & McIntyre Books)

The beer: Sparrow Brewing & Roasting Co.’s Wander Lager with its pretty puffin label. It’s a new micro + roastery in little ol’ Hespeler, Ontario!

The who: For anyone who is feeling suspended in time and sensing a “missing” in their lives. For fans of What Colour is Your Parachute? and those that gravitate towards everything new and unfamiliar: yogalates, straw bale gardening, cowboy candy production, black gin mixology, Master Class offerings on pastry fundamentals and filmmaking, podcasts on falconry or origami.

Julia Zarankin’s life has not had a predictable flight path. Her journey comes with scraped knees, defeat, tears and a few swears *(^$# as she tries to keep pace with the experienced. She’s auditioning a hobby mid-life with jangled confidence and the associated unsurety of it all. Enter birding. How hard could it be?

As an intentional birder since age 6 or so, Zarankin’s experience is a flash reminder of the unexpected learning curve that comes with curved bills and warblers. Beginner mistakes in identification are unavoidable (*at age 10 I confidently documented a species of chickadee (Chesnut-backed) native to the Pacific Northwest during a southwestern Ontario Christmas Bird Count). When my wife latched on to birds (her first was an indigo bunting!), she experienced the exact same confusion that Zarankin grappled with. Is it a chickadee or a nuthatch?  And, hey, there’s a deerkill in the field! (ie. killdeer)

Zarankin is a “serial enthusiast” which I can wholly appreciate. She taste-tests one hobby after another hoping one will snag. She moves from yoga to pilates (*I wonder if she has now tried the trending yogalates?), the Slow Food movement, cycling, bookmaking, pottery and even letterpress-ing. She has an epiphany somewhere in the muddled mix: how does one find a way to exercise patience without having to do yoga? Raise your hand if you seek the same magic.

Throughout her illuminating memoir Zarankin maps out her own migratory route from the Soviet Union to Vancouver to Missouri to Paris—with failed relationships to match each move. She earns a Russian Literature degree—surely birds can be easier than that? After navigating a collapsed marriage and total career disappointment, Zarankin is nearly emotionally invincible. Birding seems like a hopeful and tranquil transition from the structure she’s accustomed to.

The stereotypical beige-vested and Tilley-hatted crowd immediately intimidate her, spouting species and Latin binomials like Mensa members in the woods. Zarankin grew up in a house with five pianos; recognizing birdsong should have been her default second language. She should be bilingual in bird, but she’s not. She struggles with the new lexicon. Who’s Sibley? LBJ’s? (Little Brown Jobs) BBF? (Best Birding Friend) FOY? (First of the Year). And why, why so many warblers?

The Toronto Ornithological Club demands a “birding CV” to join their ranks. A birding resume? Her creds in all other departments are unnerving: Princeton for grad school, post doc at Stanford? Does she really need to know how to differentiate between a chickadee and a nuthatch?

Undaunted, Zarankin tromps through urban parks and shivers on wind-smacked lakeshores. She voluntarily participates in bird-a-thons in Pelee and Rondeau Provincial Park and finds herself suddenly dropping everything (except binoculars) to find a “vagrant” (birds blown off course by stormfronts, not native to an area). Her determination is doubled as she chases rarities like kittiwakes in Niagara and Virginia Rails. After a few long hauls with her new spotting scope she’s forced into a dumbbell routine—birding is not for the faint-hearted or spineless!

Despite a rigid Russian immigrant upbringing, Zarankin takes flight from that meticulous nest. As a self-confessed non-outdoorsy person, she acclimates in time, becoming part of Audubon’s Project Puffin on Maine’s Stratton Island. Though her journey is clouded by an early bird banding mishap at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station that she can’t shake, there’s acknowledgement that the little ruby crowned kinglet represented so much more. That’s birding. It’s an indulgence, an escape, an obsession. It’s a reminder of our fragility.

I get the pull. I’ve known it for decades—it’s the reason I went to the Galapagos Islands as soon as my bank account said I could, just so I could see the blue-footed boobies for myself. Zarankin’s tell-all is a necessary read for birding greenhorns though listers and lifers will appreciate the familiar reflection on their own beginnings. It all starts with a deerkill or misidentified rarity and it continues in a non-stop flight of woodcocks, Bohemian waxwings, acorn woodpeckers, the Prothonotary (“the Meyer lemon of warblers) and white-rumped sandpipers.

If you’re looking for a spark during these topsy turvy pandemic days, maybe it’s a spark bird that you’re looking for. Yes, it’s a thing. You’ll see. And whether you’re inside or out, or feeling inside out, birds are everywhere. You can be 35 or 6 or 90. The birds don’t mind.

If you love Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder you should check out these:

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel (*A perfect gift from my sister with an inscription/confession that I inspired her love of birds.)

Rare Birds by Edward Riche (*Also a movie starring William Hurt and Molly Parker!)

Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World by Brian Brett (*Five years later there is still a line from this book that I say to Kim at least once a month!)

Categories: Bathtub Book Club, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introducing: The Bathtub Book Club

The idea to launch The Bathtub Book Club originated in the throes of pandemic panic, as things did (do). What? Libraries are closing? Huh? Even our Little Free Library in the woods (50 paces from our house!) is locked up? What next? Red velvet cupcake recalls?

I’m lucky to have a neighbour with parallel book affections (thanks Dilly!). We have been illegally trading copies from our sanitized shelves to and fro since March—with promise to not read them in the bathtub. I may have to draft a new contract after this post.

Here’s the thing: in the last seven months, I’ve read so many succulent titles that I want to brag about somewhere. I guess that’s what Goodreads is all about, but…

What you may or may not know is that my big Kit Kat break broke in the spring of 2008. My first book review was published in the Vancouver Sun. I knew I’d found my calling, it just took me a while longer to answer back with a full-time commitment to writing. I still write reviews for Cottage Life and Harrowsmith of course, but I read piles of books for reasons other than income. It’s about fantasy-fueling, recreation, higher learning. Some books are purely medicinal–you really don’t need Hindu Kush (*I know my mom is Googling this right now).

I decided to create my own space, a virtual bathtub, without word count or deadline. With the tilt of the equinox and mercurial drop, a little non-fiction and Calgon “take me away” seemed appropriate.

Welcome to the super casual Bathtub Book Club (*where bubbles have nothing to do with your social circle and bubbles can be interpreted as soapy ones or Prosecco-style). Each Bathtub Book Club book will be paired with a beer, because you should hydrate your mind and throat in equal parts.

The inaugural book: The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston

The not so inaugural beer: Goodlot Farmstead Brewing Co.’s flagship Farmstead Ale. This farm-to-barrel brewery in Caledon uses 100% Ontario hops and Farmstead ale “has a soft body with a sweet back bone” with hints of lychee. Who doesn’t love lychee anything?

The who: For rabid fans of The Biggest Little Farm (2018 doc), farmers’ market stalkers, purveyors of good things in general, goat shmurglers, garlic braiders, heirloom tomato folks and those who experience frequent farmer-in-wellies + Carhartt overalls daydreams.

The New Farm will quickly rip the BAND-AID off any romantic hobby farm fantasy you might be entertaining. Brent Preston’s honest-as-a-nun memoir will cure you of any such whims unless rock picking a five-acre field sounds really fabulous to you.

At the New Farm just outside of storybook Creemore, Ontario it’s an exhausting war against groundhogs, curly cukes, flea beetles, pattypan rash (there is such a thing!) and last-minute chef orders for 120 pounds of spring ramps. Stat! Chicken euthanasia goes sideways and the comical recount of trying to locate a runaway piglet in a 30-acre wheat field is merely skimming stuff at the surface.

The quandaries come in quadruples, always. Like, what does one do with hens doubling as Pez dispensers, pushing out 45 dozen eggs of week? Attempts to catch the nuisance groundhog(s) humanely (with marshmallows, of course) is a genuine ROL© (Read Out Loud) moment. Naturally, Preston catches everything but the groundhog and manages instead to capture the neighbour’s dog, a too-curious chicken and a skunk. With marshmallows!

The cast of characters are small town awesome–meet Donna. She travels on her riding lawnmower to cut the grass at the church 3km away. That says it all.

Preston and his wife, Gillian (with a young fam in tow), don’t shy away from the perpetual mental and physical punishment that the eventual 13 acres of market garden presents. However, they soon (well, 10 years later) realize that a sustainable farm must support sustainable happiness and the once sparkly dream of an organic farm slowly sours. Losing 4,000 pounds of tomatoes to blight is just one fermented example.

There are beet-loving pigs with lips stained crimson. There are skill-less suburban interns with university degrees who have never held a shovel but love a good kohlrabi. Add drought, the opposite, boar taint and non-existent paycheques. Did they skip out of the city and a predictable (comfortable) trajectory too soon?

Brent and Gillian’s pre-farmer resume is an impressive one. They both worked for the National Democratic Institute in the Republic of Malawi in central Africa in the ’90s. Gillian was with the Peace Corp in Botswana prior to that. Three hundred pages later, it’s impossible not to cheerlead the New Farm and its evolution from African kismet to Dunedin.

The farm shifts with the topsy-turvy climate and seasons into an impressive social enterprise, making organic produce accessible to low-income communities via The Stop Community Food Centre. They lure everyone notable on board from the crew at Toronto’s Marben to Langdon Hall’s darling, Chef Jason Bangerter. Heck, they even land The Tragically Hip as a musical guest at one of The Stop’s barn fundraisers.

The “New Farm Kitchen” concept soon becomes 3D with a fully-kitted out commercial kitchen, outdoor patio, dining space for 25 and bunks for die-hard chefs to crash.

Good food becomes the catalyst for change. The land changes and the New Farm remains just that. Always new. Renewed. Growing.

Like all solid gold memoirs, The New Farm will either convince you to never venture into such unpredictable, seismic bank account territory—or, maybe it will do the exact opposite.

Fine print: Thanks to PJ and Nicole at Caberneigh Farm for the book lend. And, thanks too for letting Kim and I play chicken-wrangling hobby farmers for a year void of the financial stress or alarm clock!

If you love The New Farm (and you will), cue these two memoirs up next:

The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentleman Farmers—An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

One Bird’s Choice: A Year in the Life of an Overeducated, Underemployed Twenty-Something Who Moves Back Home by Iain Reid

Enjoy your soak and stay tuned for the next Bathtub Book Club read.

Categories: Bathtub Book Club | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

You Can’t Go Home Again, Or Can You?

I’ve never sat in a confession booth but this kinda feels like it. It’s been awhile, but for good pandemic-style reasons. Everyone seems to have the attention span of a GIF nowadays. Even baking bread has been put on the back burner–and if you’re baking stove top bread, well, that’s another story. (*Insert craving for old school Stove Top stuffing here.)

Here’s the awkward segue: Last week I experienced an unexpected turn of events. After many expected turns of our Jeep from our friends’ cottage in Port Maitland back to our home in the Northern Bruce Peninsula, I found myself in familiar territory:

1. the passenger seat

2. my hometown (or the fringes there of)

As Kim and I zigzagged through swatches of near-ready tobacco and leaning corn I navigated us (map-on-lap style) through Mount Pleasant to the apple pie-sweet sounding Pleasant Ridge Road. Hanging a near-missed left on to Arthur Side Road (named after my “settler” great grandparents), it all came back hurtling back. The skinned knees from tree climbing, riding my Turtle Waxed BMX bike through the slippery goose shit by the pond, the ripe whiff of pig manure, Grandma Grunt bent at half mast in her veggie garden, a half-ash Export A pinched between her gums.

In the nostalgic blur I noticed the railroad tracks were long gone–so is Grandma, of course. But the trees! I couldn’t believe how they’d grown without me. Saplings and vulnerable tamaracks that my parents had planted 49 years ago had filled out and nearly hidden the brick ranch that they built in an abundance of love and dreams. The stand of pines that existed long before us were numbered and their mighty presence and shadows have succumbed to age and the force of weather.

I asked Kim to slow down so I could take a few pics. As I crossed the road I walked up the gravel drive to get a better angle. I wondered why I missed the bus so many times–the driveway wasn’t half as long as I remembered! Snap. Snap. I watched as the front door of my old house swung open.

“Why the *&#@ are you taking pictures of my house?”

Shaken but not stirred I hollered back, “I used to live here.”

The homeowner took a step forward, “You’re Larry and Sandy’s kid?”


His face changed and gave way to a smile. “Do you wanna come in and take a look around?”

I didn’t know if I wanted to—I wasn’t expecting an offer or someone to open the door at all. I went with the telling inertia that pulled me towards the front step. I waved back at Kim in the Jeep, hoping I wasn’t entering serial killer territory.

As soon as I crossed the threshold the childhood home of my mind reverted back to a house that was no longer mine. The brick arches in the entry way (so stylish in the 70s) remained but gone was everything else. As it should be. The shag, the lethal gold wheat sheath table that we all nearly lost an eyeball to. Xanadu scratching his ears under the highboy. The louvred closet doors shiny with a layer of orange oil wood polish(the most dreaded but lucrative chore). The scalloped plaster ceiling was long gone too in favour of drywall and recessed lights. Oh how we loved to kick our soccer ball against that lemon meringue pie surface and laugh as the plaster showered down like snowflakes.

I could see clean into the kitchen from where I stood. The avocado appliances, gone! (Funny that avocado was so trendy back then—I don’t think I knew what an avocado was until 1998.) Wait—the wall was gone too! The ol’ ranch had been given a proper open concept treatment.

“Come in, take a look around, really.” The owner apologized for his initial reaction. “We get a lot of weirdos around here.”

I did and it was such a time warp that I can’t even remember a whole lot of what I said because I couldn’t believe where I was. I pointed out the linen closet where we/I used to stuff Dax (repeating “G-R-E-M-L-I-N-S” in the creepiest voice possible, complete with nails scratching the door). How did he ever fit in there? Why were we so terrible?

The house felt compressed. Maybe I was simply taller. My parents sold the house when I was 25 or so but, it had been seven years before that when I last slept atop my beloved waterbed. The “new” owner’s wife joined in on the tour with a bubbly self-introduction. I blabbed about waterbeds and we were both amazed that anything but a waterbed fit in the room. “Oh, and we found your forest mural. Lovely,” she laughed.

Yes, the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling forest mural! More common in dentist offices in the 80s, I just had to have one.

“Do you like beer?” the husband asked.

I thought he was going to open one for me for a proper tour—it was noon after all. He hurried to what used to be our laundry room and returned with four beers and a proper branded lager glass. Generous! Kim might be suspect if I stay for four beers. His wife filled in the blanks—they work/own/brew at Brewer’s Blackbird Kitchen + Brewery in Ancaster. Synchronicity!

Blackbirds. I could hear them in an instant. They engulfed the pond behind our house and bent cattails to the ground with their numbers each spring. I could hear the chorus of peepers, announcing summer’s approach.

“Look, a walking stick!” the wife pointed to a window screen in the living room. “We love being so immersed in nature here.” They both gushed about turtles coming up from the pond to nest in the front flowerbeds. I laughed retelling my David Attenborough years when I tried to track the painted and snapper turtles by marking their shells with nail polish.

Memories ping-ponged from all angles.

I still couldn’t remember where I hid my coveted arrowhead collection.

I could see my dad grinding his teeth down to gum-level trying to put out the fire Dax ignited in the backyard where we stored the rolls of snow fence. I could see Kiley sitting straight-backed on the train tracks with her bags packed. Ready to run away again, at age 8. I could hear the hiss of the blown speaker as we cranked Madonna’s “Vogue” for yet another dance-off before my parents returned home from work.

I took a few pictures for posterity but the lifetime lived at RR#2 is an unchangeable, treasured album of its own.

As I sit here drinking the last swirls of a Brewer’s Blackbird lager in our home in Lion’s Head, it all comes full circle. This home has so many square-feet of memories for the couple that built it. My childhood home is now a place of walking sticks, starry dreams and peepers for somebody else.

They say you can’t go home again, but you actually can. And sometimes you can walk away with a 4-pack of beer! (*Kim would be an exception as her childhood Hamilton mountain home is now a Toys “R” Us. Her bedroom is somewhere in the Lego section.)

So dear readers, tell me. Given the opportunity, would you walk through your childhood home again? Or, are you happy to poke around the boxes in your brain’s attic instead?

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Cocktail of the Day: Love at First Sight

I recently tasked Harrowsmith’s Food Editor, Signe Langford, with a wobbly assignment. Could she create a signature cocktail for my memoir, Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement (Caitlin Press)? I was 100% inspired by the likes of Toronto’s Famous Last Words,  Junction neighbourhood local designed for bookish-types. It’s books and booze under one stylish roof! Founded by Marlene Thorne, the bar’s cocktail lists is truly ‘lit.’ Book clubs are invited to reserve a table and Famous Last Words will create a custom cocktail based on the novel under dissection.


Small circle story: I reviewed Langford’s gorgeous cookbook, Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs (Douglas & McIntyre) in Harrowsmith’s Fall 2017 issue and, well, look at us now! Signe joined the Harrowsmith team and I found my own personal cocktail concocter!

Thanks in part to the pandemic, most everyone has become a day drinker, so, it’s an ideal day to release this signature cocktail! Appropriately dubbed “Love at First Sight,” here’s the (short and sweet) story of how the cocktail came to be and the recipe.

Can I Buy you a Drink?

By: Signe Langford

_MG_3476Some books are filled with words that appeal to the mind, and some you can almost taste, where on every few pages the author has strung together a set of descriptors of a person, place, or moment that read like a recipe.

Free to a Good Home by Jules Torti is one of those tasty reads. Page after page provides the imagination with flavours and ingredients for possible dishes and delicious sips, but there was one passage that spoke the loudest.

Here’s a drink I concocted based on Torti’s yummy description of the gal she would fall hard for, the moment she laid eyes on her. Honey, milk chocolate, peppermint, coconut….and Lanvin, Homme? OK, there’s no cologne in this cocktail, just a little nod to it by way of a tiny sprinkling of Mediterranean sea salt.

It was a perfect summer day on the water, so here’s a perfect summer smoothie with a kick….just like the lady herself.


Love at First Sight

2 oz coconut rum

2 oz Amber rum

2 Tbsp runny honey

1 cup dark chocolate milk – soy, almond, or dairy

4 cubes of ice

Tiny pinch of Mediterranean sea salt to garnish (optional)

Chocolate-covered mint candy, notched for the glass


First, prepare the garnish by heating a sharp, serrated knife in boiling water. Gently saw a notch into the chocolate and immediately slip it onto the rim of the glass.

Add the rums, milk, and ice to a powerful blender and whiz until smooth and frothy.

Pour into two tall glasses and add a tiny pinch of sea salt to the top, if desired.

Makes two decadent drinks, sweet enough to eat for dessert.

**Kim and I would suggest using Mount Gay rum, of course! And, what an easy way to incorporate leftover chocolate Easter bunny ears. Provided you have any left.

Editor’s note: Signe wasn’t aware that Kim and I had ‘experienced’ the Mediterranean, so the Mediterranean sea salt addition was ironic. In 2011, we went to El-Montazana beach in Alexandria, Egypt. We were trying to practice social distancing then, before it was a ‘thing.’ Our beach visit was short-lived as a long, romantic walk along the storied Mediterranean was a bit impossible. See shoreline below.


You can follow Signe around the kitchen on Facebook at @signe’s kitchen and follow me around the world too, at @julestortiwriter



Categories: Eat This, Sip That, On My Bookshelf, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Postcard from Our Basecamp on the 45th Parallel

Selfishly, we miss the world already. Kim and I were supposed to walk the coastal leg of the Camino Portuguese from Porto to Santiago Spain at the end of May. I know. We’re all disappointed. We’ve all had to cancel something—flights, fights, weddings, funerals, concerts, campsites. The world is now closed.


On the Bruce Peninsula, cottagers who normally join a wildebeest migration to our parts with the first drip of a tapped maple into a bucket, have been asked to stay home by Bruce County officials. The Lion’s Head hospital has just four beds and our Foodland shelves are narrowly serving the year-round population of 700. Cottage country can’t cope with a displaced and disgruntled city relocation. Besides, the Bruce National Park is closed, as are the trails and as of today, there’s a total fire ban in effect. All of Ontario’s entire legislated fire region has been designated a Restricted Fire Zone to keep our frontline workers at the ready for COVID-19, not putting out runaway fires. That means no proactive spring clean-up of brush, no wieners over the coals and definitely no S’mores, legit fire pit or not. How much s’more can we take?


The childhood refrain of “I’m bored” has quickly moved into whiney adulthood. Everyone suddenly wants to be wherever they are not. The coping and moping strategies are endless. Some are genius and generous–like our local Bear Tracks Inn initiative to buy a meal for a struggling senior. The Georgian Triangle Humane Society has a pet pantry for pet owners experiencing financial obstacles.

Other coping ideas are hair-brained—and we’ll get to the hair concerns later. Meeting the gang for a pop-up tailgate party is not deemed an essential service. Internet providers are finding their bandwidth growing as fast as the sweat pant bandwidth of all the newfound bread bakers out there. We want time alone, but, not now!


Note: *I am not following suit (sweat suit or bread-baking) with panic flour-buying. I don’t know if I’ve ever bought flour in my life. But, I am wondering—what is everyone doing with our Naan bread? I thought Kim and I were the only ones buying it but now the shelves are bare, save for crumpets. Can we make Naan-less pizza? It sounds like a very terrible gluten-free thing already.

I’m not sure how anyone could possibly be bored with all the heightened activity on Facebook alone. Everyone has become a CNN correspondent, life coach, snitch, philanthropist or part-time Netflix critic. *Thank you to everyone who suggested Tiger King. Whoa. It’s National Geographic meets National Lampoon meets National Enquirer with a whole lot of Honey Boo Boo.


There are living room concerts to attend, anti-anxiety forums (and also accidental anxiety forums), LIVE happy hours featuring day drinking, online church services (or, see “happy hour”), meditations with Jane Siberry, online fitness classes (the most popular one being: jumping to conclusions!), batting lessons With Nikki Beal and house party apps. You don’t have to fret about what to make for breakfast the day after if your house party guests stay ‘on the phone.’

Funny, don’t we all talk about wanting more time to get to that passion project? Bonsai! Buddhism! Time to sleep in? Write books? Do our taxes instead of crushing the usual April 30th deadline in a cold sweat? Don’t we all moan about wishing there was more time to work out? Instead, working “in” is not working out very quickly and the push-up challenge is hardly the fix.


We’re more worried about haircuts and the equally hairy stock market. Canadians are already defaulting on mortgages after two weeks and making omelettes out of their nest eggs. Collectively, we’re defeated, disenchanted and uninspired—especially when it comes to home schooling the kiddos (and/or husband/wife).

From paramedics to prostitutes, we’re all in the same boat. And thank god it wasn’t the one bobbing around the Panama Canal, begging for some final landfall. Wouldn’t it be great to be eight and oblivious, enjoying an extended March Break without comprehension or care?

This virus has existed for ages, in a latent state. Certain species act as reservoirs and when the boundaries between species intermingle, we end up here. Someone in Africa ate illegal bushmeat from a chimpanzee and acquired HIV from a chimp who had acquired it from a monkey. In 2012, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) swept across the Arabian peninsula. The virus was spread from camels to humans. The Ebola outbreak and death of over 10,000 in West Africa in 2014-2015 was the direct result of bushmeat being consumed.


This atomic round of the coronavirus has been linked to bats and a market in Wuhan, China. The Huanan Seafood Market menu was circulated online back in January.  Bats, rats, snakes, giant salamanders and live wolf pups, anyone? It’s the bushmeat and exotic animal trade and demand for aphrodisiacs that have led us here. As author J. Maarten Troost lamented in Lost on Planet China, the only four-legged thing they don’t eat in China is the table.

But, enough beating around the bushmeat. We all need to find our homeostasis again. Or, homeoSTAYsis, for crying out loud. If you are truly bored, explore that further by joining A Public Space. They are doing an online community read of War and Peace #TolstoyTogether. Really.

Instead, I’ve been reading what I thought might be escapist books, but, the escape is short-lived. Both The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder (by Marta McDowell) and The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh brought me back to the place I started. The antebellum pioneers were hard-wired for survival, that’s all they knew. In the Hundred Acre Woods simplicity was complicated and Eeyore lost his tail and faith in one swoop.

In Dr. George Hartwig’s The Polar and Tropical Worlds: A Description of Man and Nature, Hartwig observed that there were Norwegians living in the fjords for whom, “every family, reduced to its own resources, forms as it were a small commonwealth, which has but little to do with the external world, and is obliged to rely for its happiness on internal harmony, and a moderate competency.”

That was 1871 and somehow, at the exact same time, it’s now.

Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

Your 2020 To-Do List: Renovate Yourself

As this decade creeps to a close, lists of all sorts are bleeding into our socials, documenting the year that’s almost behind us in the best books, celebs drinking coffee, Amazon Prime fixes and plant-based burgers. Each year simmers down to a few deglazed moments in a 3D mosaic of places, faces, #’s, peanut butter stouts, sunsets, Wayfair deliveries and don’t forget the ‘feels!’


Some years feel super, don’t they? The lists spool off like a dropped roll of toilet paper in a public washroom. Like a supermoon, when the moon edges as close as it ever will to the Earth in its elliptical orbit, everything appears larger than life. Other years feel foundational, like required coursework for university. You have to focus on critical thinking, analysis and engagement. Yawning. But, every year we are guaranteed 365 opportunities to grow.

As a writer and Virgo, crystallizing 2019 into a list is impossible to resist; it’s wound in my double helix. You don’t have to be a writer or Virgo to do the same—a list is like wet clay and you can sculpt your very own (with or without thoughts of Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel). Here’s mine, in no particular order:

Best M.O. of 2019

tom waits

On the twinkly brink of 2019, most of us probably committed to a new modus operandi, thanks to the omnipotent ammunition of champagne coupled with Auld Lang Syne. Maybe it was an inspirational quote that appeared to you in neon graffiti in a back alley, or on a coffee mug with a llama. I came across this Tom Waits quote and the implication was like a branding iron on my brain’s cortex. “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” If you didn’t find words to live by in 2019, from a llama or alley graffiti, seek them out in 2020.

Best Advice

DSCN2188 (2)

As Stephen Legault suggested in his upcoming book, Taking a Break from Saving the World (Rocky Mountain Books, May 2020), sometimes we have to “eddy out.” When we rest for a moment in quieter waters, we can exhale and scout the downriver out to find the best passage. Kim and I chose to eddy out the winter in Antigua and San Pedro, Belize but you don’t have to reduce yourself to a carry-on to exhale.

Best Book

IMG_0437 (1)

The best book of 2019 was the one that exported my head and heart into the foggy and unforgiving emotional landscape of How to Catch a Mole: And Find Yourself in Nature by Marc Hamer. It’s as sweet as red velvet cake and will turn you inside out. You will be changed. Note to self: Read more books like this in 2020.

Best Soundtrack


A soupy July night at the Mississagi Lighthouse & Campground on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, hit number one for us. It went something like this:

The electric charge of a brewing thunderstorm approaching from the south

Wind ripping across the ink black waters and shelf of limestone and quartz

The snap and baffle of our nylon tent walls

The resilient pines bending and whistling in the fever pitch


Best Sleep


I used to blog about the best places we slept each year and the winners were always unconventional—like a blanket in the middle of Egypt’s star-studded White Desert with a dung beetle halfway in my bra. The list has included Quebec’s Ice Hotel, yurts and a seaside cabana in Colombia that our friend thought was a change hut for a swimming pool.


In 2019, it was a frontier-style tent at ‘Ome Sweet ‘Ome in Burlington, Newfoundland. Cue up the loons calling in the dying sun as we ate cold pizza on a picnic table painted piglet pink. We drank Prosecco in mason jars around a fire that licked the full moon until the stars shifted a rung in the sky. Simplicity, it makes for the best sleep.

Best Wedding (and hurricane)


This was a supermoon year for me. I married my very best friend in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland on the hot heels of September’s Hurricane Dorian. I retraced our 920km experience on the Camino de Santiago in words and have another manuscript to throw at the publishing gods. My memoir, Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement (Caitlin Press) nearly knocked Michelle Obama’s Becoming from number one. That aside, maybe my book’s subtitle says everything.

free to


Each year is another opportunity to become a better version of ourselves—there’s always room for improvement. You can renovate your bathroom and yourself! Inspiration, accomplishment, luxury, learning and love comes in so many forms. Take your ball of wet clay and create something amazing in 2020.




Categories: Home Sweet Home, Retiring--Rewiring | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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