Saturday, May 30, 2009

Square 10: Frog song

Square 010

My favourite time to drive to the cottage is on a May night. In wetlands along the highway the spring peepers pipe so loud they are audible from inside the car. It is tempting to roll down the windows, but best of all, upon arrival we walk to the swamp out back and get the full impact, an eerie wall of sound from tiny frogs. But something is happening to amphibians around the world, and their choruses are falling silent.

Back home it can be equally exciting to walk along the Eramosa River at night, the same time of year. Toads throng there by the thousands to breed, rustling through the forest underbrush and uttering up a collective song that is deafening and unearthly. In a few weeks the spring chorus gives way to other sounds, as bullfrogs fill the summer darkness with their booming calls, and green frogs mutter, “Chub! Chub!”

Sadly, all these souds are growing scarcer. Populations of frogs, toads and salamanders around the world are in decline. Bullfrongs and two other frog species have been extirpated from Point Pelee National Park where they used to be numerous. In the places where I walk the sounds have not yet vanished altogether, but the nights become quieter every year.

It used to be a mystery. Some herpetologists blamed climate change. Pollution was obviously a problem, because amphibians breathe through their skin and are particularly susceptible to impurities in the ecosystem. But even in pristine environments like tropical rainforests, frogs are disappearing, and already a few species are believed extinct.

Several combined problems contribute, but recently one common factor has emerged in many studies. It turns out that a worldwide epidemic is killing amphibians. It is a fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, that attacks melanin in their skin. The disease is called chytridiomycosis. Tadpoles do not produce much melanin anyway, so the swarms in ponds may appear healthy, but upon reaching adulthood they soon succumb to the disease.

This disease alone does not account for the decline of all species, but research into its cause and treatment may provide some hope of recovery. Amphibians are vital members of many food webs. In deciduous forest of eastern North America, innocuous salamanders may account for more biomass than any other vertebrate. It is difficult to assess how the disappearance of these and their kin will affect many other species such as herons and snakes that feed on them, but the decline of amphibians represents the single greatest threat to global biodiversity.

I knitted this square to evoke a nocturnal canoe ride at Lake Fletcher or a walk along the Eramosa River. The spangled dark is gorgeous and irresistible, but with each year it falls incrementally silent. If the frog and toad songs disappear altogether, it will be an incalculable loss.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Square 9: Can you guess?

Square 009

If you live in my part of the world (the Northern temperate zone) and you've spent any time in the garden or park this week, there's a good chance you can guess what inspired this square. Wanna try? The colours are perfect. Even the garter stitch pattern took me by surprise, evoking petals. If only you could smell it! but unfortunately I couldn't work fragrance into the thread. Now that aroma, in a bottle, would be a wonderful thing to pull out of the cupboard on a dreary February day, but at least I will have this square to remind me of my favourite flowering shrub. Oops, that slipped out. By now you should be getting the picture.

The first six squares and stories in this blanket seemed to follow a sentimental path. Maybe I should explore the darker side of yarn, but I could only go where the fibre and my senses led me; where life itself carried me. The death of a friend began to change the tone.

Since then a particular theme has begun to suggest itself every time I root through my stash to find material for the next square. Perhaps this season causes it. Every story that comes to mind relates to nature, our environment, how we're looking after our earth or failing to do so, what will become, and how we might improve the prospects. Will this story blanket become an environmentalist rant?

We are in the midst of the Holocene extinction event, one of the most severe declines in biodiversity that has occurred in Earth's history, and it is entirely caused by human activity. A 1998 study by the American Museum of Natural History found 70 per cent of biologists believe one-fifth of all living populations will become extinct by the year 2028.

Environmentalists usually try to drive home this message (and the one about climate change) and inspire social action by pointing out that this problem threatens our own existence, and that is true. Our actions might harm the biosphere so radically as to render it uninhabitable.

Actually it is more a question of responsibility to other organisms that share this place. How long will we continue believing the world was made for us, it's all about us, and that happiness can be derived from as much as we can take? Admittedly I tend to live indulgently, too, and it won't be easy to stop. Maybe the best thing that could happen to our planet would be if our acquisitive species wiped itself out. Selfishness is bred into our genetic code. Biology didn't consider these limitations when it invented itself.

What does this have to do with lilacs? Because yes, lilacs inspired this square. I went looking for yarn and found exactly what I imagined at Guelph's new fibre boutique, All Strung Out: this hand-dyed confection called "Berry Smoothie" from Lofty Fibres. The creator might have been thinking of fruit, but I saw something else.

An abandoned homestead, its inhabitants long dead and buildings reduced to rubble, still surrounded by a rambling host robed in pink, white and magenta, shedding heaven's fragrance over the graves. Such visions are not hard to find around marginal Ontario farmland. Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, originated in the Balkan peninsula, but has adapted well to growing conditions in Ontario. It is hardy, frequently becoming naturalized and surviving after other relics of human habitation have disappeared. A few minutes from my apartment, a trail following the Eramosa River upstream passes through a thicket of lilacs covering several hectares. They're probably descended from a hedge that lined the drive to a farmhouse a century ago. I call it Lilac Way, and throughout the year savour memories of May pilgrimages along that path.

At Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, the annual lilac celebration (Quicktime movie) continues this weekend, May 30 and 31, at one of the world's largest collections of lilac cultivars.

In the midst of habitat loss, exotic species take over from rare indigenous treasures. Many of these—starlings, rats and cockroaches—seem to make the world a duller, less savoury place.

But I can't help cherishing the indestructible lilac. It gives me hope that whatever happens to this world, beauty will survive whether or not we are here to perceive it. After we are dead, I do not doubt these shrubs will carry on shedding radiance and sweetness. It is in their nature.

This might sound sentimental again, but hope is a valuable weapon in the war against apathy. Find something, whatever inspires you, and go with it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Square 8: Life begins in the soil

Square 008

Friday afternoon Sylvie and I planted vegetables in the narrow soil border along the parking lot behind the building where I live. This will be the garden's second season. I'm trying to dig myself deeper into the soil.

American farmer, poet and economic critic Wendell Berry has said, "Urban people are connected to the land by their gastrointestinal tract." It's a tenuous relationship.

I grew up in the country and began learning principles of organic gardening from Ranger Rick magazine, but my family were city people so I had to learn more from experience than example. Early attempts at a vegetable garden were overrun by quackgrass and I did not develop faith in the Earth until much later.

During the 1990s I lived for three years on top of a hill of glacial gravel and attempted to establish a garden there. Preceding tenants had drenched the lawn with chemicals. The soil was dry and lifeless. I began by applying a few principles of permaculture I had read, laying down layers of newsprint, covering it with grass clippings, dried leaves, manure and any other organic material I could lay my hands on, and planting vegetable seedlings through these layers into the stony soil below.

The first two years were disappointing. Blight stunted the tomato and potato plants, while groundhogs ate practically everything else. I learned the creatures were attracted to cabbage crops, so by eliminating broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi from the plan I persuaded rodents to leave everything else alone.

But more importantly, two years of adding voluminous organic material to the soil finally paid off. During the third summer the garden produced bumper crops of tomatoes, beans, onions and sweet corn.

It was a revelatory experience. I learned that you don't feed vegetables, you feed the soil. It is a complete ecosystem containing more species diversity than a tropical rainforest. Microscopic bacteria, fungi and protozoans, tiny nematodes, springtails and mites, larger earthworms, beetles and colonial insects, and the small mammals and birds that feed on them are members of an interdependent community. They support the cycles of water, gases and nutrients and maintain the soil structure that fosters healthy plants. Recent research has revolutionized understanding of how plants grow. For years farmers knew that the roots of certain crops harboured beneficial bacteria that fixed atmospheric nitrogen and made it available to plants, but we now realize plant roots depend on healthy symbiosis with a wider range of organisms. For example many tree species depend on symbiotic relationships between their roots and certain fungi.

If you have a garden, take time this season to think about what you're feeding it. If not, consider it whenever you pause to admire a rose, or pick up fresh produce from the supermarket. Many of us were raised to abhor dirt, but healthy soil is more valuable to life than pure gold.

While planting tomatoes, beans, peppers, chard and herbs, I got the idea to knit a square that would illustrate the dark beauty of the soil and its relationship to plants we depend on for food. It is not all bucolic and lovely either. Healthy dirt reminds us that nature depends on a healthy balance between life and death. We can't have one without the other. Beneath our feet carry on countless tales of predator and prey. Soil smells good when it is full of killing, eating, rotting, growing and breeding.

This square is comprised of four yarns: background Cascade in deep green, a brown three-ply wool I hand-dyed with black walnut, a variegated Malabrigo merino worsted in shades of growing plants, and an accent of yellow Létt-Lopi to highlight the relationship to sunlight.