Goodbye Jack Layton

I feel really sad.  Canada has lost an inspiring leader and visionary.

When I first learned of Jack Layton’s death, I was shocked. Then I read his letter, the letter he wrote to all Canadians two days before he died.  In those last few precious hours of life, when most would be cherishing every moment with family and friends, he was thinking about us, about Canadians. It really struck a chord with me, especially the last part.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Inspired, I logged onto facebook to post this as my status. Then I saw it, this same quote, everywhere. All over Canada, people were inspired to post it too.

Then this morning the quote was on the front pages of newspapers, it was all over the news. People were making t-shirts with that quote; people were writing that quote with sidewalk chalk in public places; people were replacing profile pictures with that quote.

What is it about Jack Layton that has touched everyone? His unfailing optimism? His can-do attitude? His ability to include all sorts of people in the conversation, from Canada’s youth, to Quebecers, to Albertan moms like me? His sincere hopes and dreams for a better Canada?

As I do, he believed that young people will lead the way to change, that they will take charge of their future. In his letter he specifically spoke to Canada’s youth, saying:

“To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. … As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.”

I voted for Jack Layton in the last election because of his commitment to do something about climate change, and to start the transition to a green, clean economy. Plain and simple, that is why I voted for him. But during the election I got caught up in something else. Here was a guy that stood up for struggling families, for everyday Canadians, for seniors and for the homeless. Who else was standing up for the underdogs?

Listening to him speak, I started to believe that a country is not just a place where we need to grow the strongest economy or export the most oil or build the most automotive parts. A country is a place where we need to look after each other first, for those less fortunate, where we band together as a community of people and say that our collective quality of life is what matters, that is really what counts. It is about families feeling the embrace of their community around them, it is about helping each other, it is about remembering to speak out for those people who don’t have a voice. Jack stood for all that. The economy matters, yes. But it is there to serve us, not the other way around. The people must come first, and our environment must also be cherished so that it will continue to sustain us.

In his last letter to Canadians, he closed in saying:

“And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world.”

We can and we must, do every one of those things. The hope lives on Jack. You have inspired so many, and have definitely done your part to change the world. I will try and do my part too. Thank you for being such an important part of Canada, and for opening our eyes to what is possible. I really hope your dream for Canada really does come true.

Apple Tree

I feel like I am finding my way. Things are coming together, unfolding more or less how I hoped they would. I had a dream and a desire to localize my eating, and now that the growing season is underway, I am learning more and more about how it actually can be done.  I can play an active role in provisioning food for my family.  I started on this journey last year, wanting to make a difference for the environment, for climate change, for our future.  This has progressed into looking at the world differently, looking at nature differently, and looking at how we sustain ourselves with food differently.

I want to go and pick an apple tree. Last year, the idea of picking an apple tree that was not even mine, would have seemed ridiculous and even a waste of time. Why would I spend time in a tree, when I can buy as many apples as I want at the grocery store? Besides, what would I do with all those apples anyway? Where would I put them, how could they possibly not go to waste?

My neighbours have a beautiful old apple tree that they inherited when they bought their house, and it produces hundreds of small, sweet, crispy apples. Last year they picked a few but left the vast majority of them up on the tree to rot and shrivel. All winter I looked up at the dried fruit on the branches and wondered – could I pick their tree next time for them? Could I split the harvest?

In the spring my neighbours and I were chatting about gardening as I planted my vegetable seeds and seedlings. They mentioned their tree in passing, and that I could pick it this year if I wanted. I gladly agreed. This weekend I noticed that the apples were now turning red and that they should probably be picked soon. While I was watering my plants my neighbours came up to the fence and mentioned that I could pick the apples now, if I still wanted to. I did not even have to ask them about it again, something I was working up the courage to do… it’s like they read my mind or something! I thanked them and told them I would pick them a box as well. They did not seem that interested… Then I told them I was going to make apple sauce and apple butter – would they like some jars? They jumped at the suggestion and were really excited about the exchange.

So last night I looked up at the tree, with its big dark green leaves and rosy apples dripping down in clusters from every possible branch, and thought of the possibilities. This afternoon I hope to be up in that tree, with leaves in my face and the smell of live apples all around. I will come down from that tree with more apples than I can imagine – boxes and boxes of them. They will represent a good portion of my fruit stores for winter, when local fruit will be impossible to find.

I can see this tree from my bedroom; I watch it through all the seasons. I can stand in my garden in spring as the blossom petals flutter down over me and my yard. I look up at the limbs in the summer as I pick my own raspberries along the fence, and notice the little green globes growing bigger and bigger on the heavy boughs that droop down over. I see its bare branches for most of the year, reaching upward and out, in stark contrast to the snow all around and the bright blue sky. Now this tree is heavy with apples, ready to be picked, ready to be stored. How many boxes can I harvest? How long will it take? How many little red spheres will prove impossible to reach from my ladder? I have no idea.

The plan? Dole them out as crispy, sweet snacks to my children for as long as they will last fresh. Make apple crisp. Make apple butter – something I have never tasted but have heard amazing things about. Make apple juice perhaps? The vast majority though, will be converted into apple sauce. My kids love the stuff, and I hope to be eating homemade apple sauce in January, when the memory of this green tree bobbing with apples is all but a distant memory. I even bought a food mill last night to make the work easier and faster. Peeling and coring? Not required with a food mill, apparently.

I have never done any of this before, but plan to have fun trying. How many jars will I be able to put up? Time will tell.

In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I have a date with an apple tree.

Berry Me

Out here on the Canadian prairies, we can’t seem to grow much fruit other than berries. We can squeeze out apples okay, and the odd person has a pear or plum tree that manages to survive, but other than that – it is berries all the way. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, choke cherries and Saskatoon berries, to name a few. Because I want to eat as local as I can, I am getting in on the berry action by growing some in my yard and picking some at local U-pick farms. There is nothing better than live berries off the vine!

Raspberries – we have grown raspberries in our yard for a while as a raspberry patch came with our house, lovingly planted by the family before us. It has been a good year for them due to all the rain, making those berries relentless in their need to be picked. Everyday new ones ripen, and if you miss a few days you kick yourself, as they start to wilt and rot. It was a goal of mine to have very little raspberry wastage this year. Alas, waste did occur. Sometimes I just didn’t make it out in time, or was out of town… I did manage to pick quite a few though, and my kids have had freshly picked raspberries on their cereal for weeks.

This year I topped up my raspberry collection by going to a U-pick (Roy’s Raspberries) and picked 5 lbs in only 30 minutes, all for only $18! These berries were so easy to pick (unlike my patch where the canes are falling all over each other). I will make some of them into jam, and will freeze the rest for winter smoothies and baking.

Now for strawberries – I planted a patch this year of 16 plants, some June bearing (which is actually July here), some ever bearing. They are doing marvellous! With their big shiny triple leaves, lots of white flowers, and now suckers everywhere ready to make new plants for next year – what’s not to love? Here are the plants earlier in the season:

I pinched off some of the flowers this year (on the advice from a book I read) to strengthen the plants to ensure a bountiful harvest next year. We will see! As it stands, my kids love these berries so much that every time we are outside they go snacking. They call it the strawberry store. Let’s just say that precious few berries ever even make it into the house. So I want to expand the patch next year, I just need to find/decide on a spot.

To supplement our strawberry store, I went U-picking with the kids twice – once around town (Happy Acres U-Pick) and once near my parent’s cabin at the lake (Moe’s Gardens & Greenhouses). We jammed some, ate some, froze some.  Here are some berries mid-jam:

On to Cherries – I have a Nanking Cherry tree in my yard that I bought about 7 years ago for its display of flowers in spring. It delivers on the flowers alright – it is my absolute favourite part of my yard in early spring!

But I never knew until this year that its berries were edible. No idea! So I tried them for the first time this year. Pretty good! A bit tart, but very juicy and succulent. My kids also liked picking these off the tree and popping them in their mouths, although my three year-old had problems with the pits. After considerable snacking, I picked the tree clean and got only 2 cups, from which I made a single jar of jam. Maybe the bees forgot to visit my tree?

Blueberries – the low bush variety grows wild here, and as kids we used to pick them in the pine forest next to my parent’s cabin. They are really tiny though, and took a long time to pick. Plus the bears really love them, so depending on the time of year, you could run in to one… So I decided to plant my own and got 2 high bush varieties that produce lots of slightly bigger berries. I bought special ones that are hardy to -35ºC (-31ºF) so that they would stand a chance here (Polaris and Northland, with Polaris being my clear favourite). Unfortunately, my two bushes together have produced a grand total of about 15 berries. I know it is the first year and all – but 15? Come on! I think I planted them in the wrong spot, they need more sun. I plan to buy 2 – 4 more bushes next year, but need to weave some magic in order to find a spot for them in my small urban yard. Back alley? Next to the sidewalk? Crammed into a garden bed?

A maturing Polaris blueberry (Vaccinium corymb...

Image via Wikipedia - Polaris Blueberry

On to Saskatoon berries – these grow wild! There are dozens of trees at my parent’s cabin, something I had never realized before. I have grown up there in the summers, and never knew the bounty of fruit that lay hidden in the forest! But this year I have been noticing nature around me more, appreciating it, looking deeper in the forest to identify different types of trees. Hidden amongst all the others, there they were, standing tall with dark purple berries aplenty. Can you spot them?

So there is no need to find a place in my yard to plant these – I can forage! I picked enough for a batch of jam in July, my mom picked bunch for another batch of jam this weekend, and my sister and I picked even more. What else should we do with them? Saskatoon berry syrup? Freeze for baking? Maybe a bit of both. Saskatoons have a unique tart flavour that is quite decadent when sweetened. Plus they are native here, they grew here first. I like that idea, we don’t get much of that here… So as I picked them in the forest, listening to the waves lap up on the beach a few meters away, I imagined myself 300 years ago… would I be gathering berries for my family this way?

All in all, it has been a berry good experience (I know, I know, I couldn’t resist).