Friday, October 9, 2009

Square 67: Meteor shower

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I had a childhood friend named Morgan Lewis. She lived with her parents in Huntsville, Alabama, but every summer she and her sister, Gillian, came to visit her grandparents, who had a summer home down our road. We were both interested in books and nature, and would tape mock radio broadcasts to entertain our families.

Her father, Chuck, worked for NASA, and I will never forget the night he showed us the Perseid meteor shower. The day before, we made a map of the night sky showing major constellations, so we could chart all the meteors we would see. After dinner we went for naps so we would be able to sit up well into the night, but I couldnt' sleep.

Around 11 p.m. our families gathered on the edge of the golf course across the road. There were no large trees around, so we could set out lawn chairs and view the entire sky. It was a clear night with no moon. Mr. Lewis knew more stars and constellations than anyone I had ever talked to, and he identified them for us. I have remembered many of them, like the Summer Triangle: Deneb, Vega and Altair. Deneb, the brightest of the three, is 70,000 times more luminous than the sun and 1,550 light years away.

At first we saw a few small meteors. Mr. Lewis had a good reason for teaching us the names of the stars and constellations, because whenever we saw a meteor, people would call out where it had appeared in the sky, what direction it had taken and how far it had travelled. Morgan, Gillian and I would plot them on the map we had made.

After midnight, as our place on the planet turned to face its direction of travel, the meteors became faster and brighter. Some were distinctly coloured, and some left a momentary tail in the sky. We marked them down furiously, and had to start skipping some of the fainter ones.

In the wee hours a brilliant pink meteor appeared from behind some distant trees and slowly traversed the sky, leaving a long, scintillating tail. It must have taken 10 seconds to cross, finally disappearing near the western horizon.

Our group slowly dispersed to sleep, first my parents and then the Lewises, but Morgan and I stayed out all night until the pale edge of dawn appeared. We had seen hundreds of meteors. Our map showed that most of them appeared to originate near the constellation, Perseus, and radiate outward. This perspective is an illusion caused by the Earth's movement as it passes through a cloud of debris stretching along the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The Perseid meteor shower can be viewed every year around August 12. I have watched several times, but never seen such a spectacle as that night with Morgan and her family. A few years later I visited Huntsville, and Mr. Lewis gave me a tour of Marshall Space Flight Center. I have since lost contact with Morgan, but maybe sometimes we are watching the same stars. I hope we reconnect someday.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Square 66: Elderberry

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Across the road from our house, my parents owned a vacant field that verged on a marsh. There I planted several native shrubs, like snowberry, in hope of attracting wildlife. Then I discovered something growing wild there, one of the things that birds like best: an elderberry bush. I tried making jam from the berries, but it failed. It was full of the seeds, and the sugar crystallized. I didn't make successful elderberry jelly until many years later. But this plant remains for me an icon: nature feeding us, feeding itself, sustenance, sweetness, the cycle of life. Coincidentally, the dark purple Cascade yarn I chose to use as a common thread throughout this blog blanket is precisely the colour of ripe elderberries.

So it was with particular guilt that I cut down an elderberry bush at Danny's house yesterday. In this small Toronto backyard it was not just growing, but burgeoning, taking over its corner, threatening to shoulder the house aside. Elderberries favour moist, rich soil, and I think this part of the city used to be part of Lake Ontario, so the roots must have lots of rank, dark, dirty depths to thrive upon.

The birds came to feed on the berries every summer. I've made jelly from them, and Danny has dyed yarn. The greenish-grey fibre in this square came from that dye pot. So we owe that shrub a lot of thanks.

Instead, we cut it down. Sometimes plants get in the way. It's a fact of life in the city, where space is limited.

When I approached the shrub with gloves and saw, I startled a robin and some white-throated sparrows (Bill has also seen a tribe of Baltimore orioles there). They hesitated to fly away, hovering around as I began hacking at the branches. They couldn't believe it. But by the time the brush all lay in a pile, they had given up and gone away. Later in the afternoon, a forlorn wood thrush appeared on the fence and looked around, casting a mournful, beady glance in my direction, flicking its rusty brown tail in indignation. It circled the yard once or twice before fluttering away in silence and despair.

Guilty. I am guilty.

But as a phoenix rises from the ashes, so a hacked elderberry will re-emerge from the muck, if not here then somewhere else. This particular plant has been cut to the ground several times already. Our world will not soon be rid of them. Ontario will have plenty of fruit for jelly and dye, and for the wild ones to eat.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Square 65: Progress report

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When this idea started to roll, I was fresh with enthusiasm and pumping out four squares per week. I planned to make a full-size blanket, perhaps five by six feet in dimension, and calculated about 14 by 17 squares would be about right: 238 in total. It would take me well into next year.

Then full-time work started lining up and I became busy with other things. I couldn't keep up the knitting pace. At the current rate it would take several years to make that many squares. I balked. I wanted to stop and finish the blanket right away. I was ready to give up.

But new stories kept suggesting themselves. I realized I didn't need to have a definite time frame; I could work until the blanket told me it was ready.

A few days ago when I had completed 63 squares, I laid them all out, nine by seven. It was a great size for a wall-hanging. Once again I contemplated making just a few more squares to round out the stories, finishing, and moving on to a new project.

But whenever I start thinking that way, the squares tell me, "No, we still have more stories to tell." It is like any pilgrimage. It is like life. You can't see where you are going in detail, because you have never been there. You don't know how long it will take, because you can't predict what will happen along the way. But the destination matters less than the journey itself.

I've learned a lot from this trip. I had never used more than two different yarns in one project before. Now I routinely use nine or ten in a single square. Knitting has evolved into a way of painting a landscape, a dream, or a thought.

I have explored the way colours interact, and it's different from coloured pencils or paints, which you can combine to create any colour. The colour of the yarns is immutable, but I am beginning to discover how to use similarities and contrasts to draw out highlights and undertones. A variegated yarn looks very different whether laid alongside a deep red or a muted red.

Perhaps the most obvious change has been the shift from cool, dark colours to neutrals, and warm and bright (inspect the gallery). This is not just superficial. My favourite colour has always been deep blue, followed by green and purple, but I am actually becoming enamoured with orange and its allies. This blanket began as a way to use up yarn in my stash, but has evolved into an excuse to acquire single skeins of anything that catches my eye. This square incorporates several new acquisitions.

I don't regret that, because I know they'll all come to good use over the long haul. Long after finishing this blanket, I'll continue using yarn to tell stories. Hats and scarves will never be the same.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Square 64: Writers' circle

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Someone said it's easy to write; you just open a vein and bleed. I did a lot of my writing longhand until the recent purchase of a laptop, and often would imagine the thread of ink across the white page was not really black, but crimson. The best writing comes when I do not hesitate to plumb my deepest, most difficult thoughts and emotions.

I've been writing all my life, but have experienced a mini renaissance lately. After long years of wishing for writing companions with whom I could meet and share encouragement, in 2007 I took responsibility for my own need of community and started a writers' circle. It meets every week at Out On The Shelf. It took a long time to get going but during the past year it has come to life, and the meeting is one of the highlights of my week.

The most important friendship to emerge from this has been with my writing partner, Sarah. For many months the writers' circle included just the two of us. That evolved into a weekly "business meeting" when we talk about our creative processes and challenges, and set goals for the time ahead. No other habit is more potent in propelling my ideas forward.

Recently I have had trouble with fiction writing. The stories won't move easily from the shadowy recesses of my mind onto the page, and once there they don't seem to communicate what I want them to. I tell myself I must cross this mountain to achieve a higher plateau, perhaps a better quality of prose, but without Sarah and the writers' circle I would probably lose courage and lapse into months of not-writing. So this square goes out with gratitude to them; with ink, blood and the richness of colours we strive to pour out of ourselves.