Cacti & Cobblestones

I’m stretched out on a divan in a tile-and-adobe house, on a hillside overlooking San Miguel de Allende, writing. Several handbuilt stone staircases below me, my husband plays with paints and textures in a brick studio, perched beside solar panels on the roof of the main house. Outside the ten-foot-tall windows, cacti swell and bristle on an arid hillside. Mexican music carries up from the farms below us, tuba and accordion, trumpet and a medley of male voices. Roosters crow, donkeys bray, a fusillade of fireworks explodes, celebrating the name-day of one Catholic saint or another. Nisha has given my husband exuberant, impassioned artistic direction and he’s off and running, with three canvases at various stages of completion.

Nisha Ferguson, née Edelson, went to my high school. She wore a brown leather hippie jacket with long fringes, or an authentic-looking Peruvian poncho, swirling skirts, faded jeans. She was an artist and a dancer and a gymnast and oh my gawd she was cool. Yesterday I told her how, back in the halls of Fisher Park High School in Ottawa all those years ago, I admired her confidence and panache from behind my thick, plastic-framed glasses.

“I was faking it,” she told me. “The whole time.”

Today Nisha lives on a rancho on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She and her husband Dan run a highly successful ceramics studio. Also, she has a circus school, GravityWorks, where she teaches acrobatic circus acts, trapeze and silks. She and Dan have two sons, both whipsmart, athletic, and gracious. When Nisha isn’t making bold, bright, and beautiful ceramic sculptures, or teaching ceramics or circus or painting, or cooking scrumptious feasts for a table full of family and friends, she’s painting and sketching and sewing, following a muse that seems to bellow at her every waking moment of every single day.

She’s still the epitome of cool, minus the bold fakery of youth, plus the accumulated years of experience.

I found Nisha on facebook, in a moment of whatever-happened-to-her curiosity. After high school, she moved to Toronto to attend art school, and I went to the University of Toronto. In Toronto I sometimes visited Nisha and her then-boyfriend, in the cavernous abandoned warehouse on Hanna Street where they roller skated or cycled through empty hallways, ambitiously enormous pieces of installation art suspended from the fifty-foot ceilings.

Then life accelerated, and I didn’t see Nisha for a quarter of a century. I married, had two daughters, divorced, remarried a wonderful man who has dabbled in sketching, sculpting and painting his whole life. He’s good, and he wanted to push his painting up a level. A quick internet investigation revealed that San Miguel de Allende is an artist and writer’s mecca, its world-heritage-site downtown cobblestone streets packed with studios, galleries and garrets. I contacted Nisha online, curious, tentative, and asked if she could recommend an airbnb in this funky, central-Mexican locale.

“WHY would you stay in town? WE have casas you can rent!”

I wander in and around Nisha and Dan’s house. There’s a planter in the shape of a sheep, plinths here and there, perched on the edge of the roof and squatting in the rocky garden. The ceramic face of a chubby man wearing spectacles stares up the outdoor chimney, painted clouds float by on the kitchen’s high ceiling. Bullhorns over doorways, a cityscape painting of NYC, an old fashioned porcelain doll propped in a corner. Gauzy curtains in bright colours sigh in the cool breeze of this high plateau.

A few years ago Nisha wanted a way to paint as she travelled, without the inconvenience and bulk of stretched canvases. She shows me the big fabric sketchbooks she has created, unique backdrops painted on fabric, bound and sewn into thematic books, filled with startling images rendered in oil pastels, pen and ink, and other media. She has shown these books at galleries. We imagine them reproduced as art books, and a project opens up, bright purple and promising, like the blooms on the jacaranda trees.

Feast your eyes on Dan & Nisha’s gorgeous sculptures here:


Eco-Fiction Author Interview

Eco-Fiction, a website promoting environmental fiction, talked to me about The Bears! This is part of a series of interviews, Women Working in Nature and the Arts.
EcoFiction Interview with Author Katie Welch

Sunday Drive Through Love Canal

Contemplating human history is peering into a rear-view mirror. People, things and events are distorted, closer or more distant, wider or narrower than they really were. In the 1950’s and 1960’s in North America, industrial growth allowed everyone to own a refrigerator, a car, a washing machine. As these new domestic conveniences became commonplace, we had more of a rare and precious commodity – time. How delicious! The prospect of ever-increasing hours of amusement in our sparkling blue-and-green playground! What would the freshly emancipated populace do with all its free time? Picnics and camping trips, mountaineering and paddling, days by the seaside, cycling excursions, rambling walks in the woods?

My grandmother was a mother of two teenage boys in the 1950’s. She used her scads of free time to shop. By the time I was ten years old, my grandmother had officially declared her favourite form of exercise to be walking through shopping malls. She knew the length in quarter miles of every floor of every mall within a 50 mile radius of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where she and my grandfather lived. She calculated how many circuits of a given mall she should complete to benefit her health. The output of factories had given her freedom, and it was the former she valued. If something was new, manmade, and labour-saving, it was wonderful. She fell in love with the thing that gave her freedom, instead of the freedom itself.

“Look!” my grandmother crowed at lunchtime one day. “Spray cheese! I don’t even have to slice it to make your sandwiches!”

My brother and sister and I, exchanging glances of dread, watched Grandma gleefully press a white plastic pump and squirt a crazy orange-coloured mess onto limp pieces of white bread.

Going for a drive was considered an activity, and given equal or greater weight than walking in a park or playing frisbee. “What are we doing today?” we kids would ask our grandparents. “Going for a drive!” Grandpa would answer. I would get the same sinking feeling I used to get before going to church, sentenced to hours of boredom, repetition, bad smells and nausea. First Grandpa would put on his ‘driving coat’ – a special outer garment for sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle – then remove his leather gloves from said compartment and pull them on slowly, finger by finger. Finally, he would place The Hat on his thin, white hair. The Hat is rare these days, but you can still spot it. The next time someone is inexplicably driving like they’re in a funeral cortege, look for The Hat. We kids would press into the back seat, resigned, and jostling each other impatiently.

In the summer of 1978 Grandpa announced that we were going for a drive “with the windows up”. This was code for ‘the place we’ll be driving is dangerous’. Sometimes we would drive through downtown Buffalo, with its poverty and black neighbourhoods. “Roll up the windows,” Grandpa would say, “and lock the doors.”

We didn’t drive into downtown Buffalo, but through Love Canal, a community near Niagara Falls. Love Canal was – intentionally, to save money – built on 22,000 tons of toxic waste dumped by the Hooker Chemical Company. Here’s what I remember: The day was sunny and beautiful, the sky a perfect blue and every plant chlorophyll green. I was hating the fact that we were once again about to waste a glorious afternoon crammed into the back seat of a car. We didn’t dicuss the gross misnomer, but I thought about it. Love Canal, Grandpa said, was a river of poison. He should know – he worked for the Hooker Chemical Company for much of his adult life.

“Here we are,” Grandpa said. “Love Canal.” Grandma was uncharacteristically quiet.

At first it looked like any other low to middle-class neighbourhood in upstate New York, straight streets of more or less identical bungalow houses, each with its requisite tree in the front yard. On closer inspection, our noses smearing the car window glass, all the doors and windows of the houses had been boarded up. Some of this plywood was defaced with spray paint, angry words emblazoned over the polluted dreams of hundreds of families. Grandpa drove to the parking lot of the elementary school, where puddles of discoloured water were full, he said, of chemicals that could kill families slowly. Tears stood in his eyes as he told us about how the Hooker Chemical Company had sold this land to the Niagara Falls School Board for a dollar.

Because of Love Canal, and other environmental tragedies involving the Hooker Chemical Company, something major happened to my grandfather’s psychology. Just over a decade later, while planting trees, I received the only letter I ever got from Grandpa, urging me to plant some trees for him. He begged me to do everything I could to protect and nurture the environment, to help him leave a better legacy, through his offspring.

Staring at our computer screens, we press our “like” buttons for images of friends enjoying themselves in the great outdoors. Maybe we’re finally learning to love the time itself, instead of the things that buy us that time.

Well, That Escalated Quickly!

My daughters were nine and eleven when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released, and we were in the midst of the camping, ice skating, stargazing, flower arranging, leaf pressing, and pumpkin carving phase. There was no time for news about the end of the world, there was barely time to pack sandwiches and apples for lunch.

My experience of finding out about climate change followed the grieving process, more or less. First shock. What? The planet is warming up – what are the implications of that? They were catastrophic, and we were doomed. Next, I hung out for a while in disbelief, which took the form of minimizing. The science behind this whole theory might be flawed, It will pass, like the Cold War. They’ll figure out how to fix it, before it can affect me, my children, or my grandchildren.

Then anger, where I would argue many of us latter-day hippies are stuck. We could use some ecological counselling. Earth rapists! They can take their fucking profits and shove them up their collective ass.

2006 and An Inconvenient Truth was over a decade ago. Things have escalated quickly, particularly quickly if you set ten years against the history of the planet, or even the history of the modern world. At first there were jokes about how we could happily anticipate palm trees in every yard, bananas and mangoes in Canada. That was before the hurricanes, the flooding, the superstorms, the freak weather incidents.

Time to move on to bargaining, where there’s room for human ingenuity and creativity. The optimists are already at bargaining. They’re developing hybrid and electric cars, installing wind turbines, harnessing tidal power. They’re living zero-waste lifestyles, engineering public transportation, building eco-homes and Earth Ships, planting trees and starting up community gardens. The more of us stuck at bargaining, the better, because the final phase of grief is acceptance.

If We Loved This Planet

You might have the impression that I wasn’t worried about the fate of Planet Earth, because I had my nose in a book. That impression would be erroneous. I was scared for our planet. I lived in abject terror that at any moment, Life As We Knew It would explode, and anything left alive would wither and melt in clouds of radioactive poison. It was the Cold War, and teenagers like me wondered when those heartless, power-hungry fingers would press those shiny red buttons of destruction.

Dr. Helen Caldicott galvanized our collective fear for us in the short film If You Love This Planet. The film included footage from the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nothing was left to the imagination. Melting skin, body parts fused together, gaping facial holes, piles of discoloured bodies. Caldicott neatly encapsulated the political climate of the day, and we understood that it was “three minutes to midnight”, and we were on the Eve of Destruction.

I don’t remember when I stopped being afraid of nuclear war. Caught up in the tender, youthful years of hope and optimism, I planted trees, attended university, played guitar. I got married, had children. Many years of busy naiveté followed. The earth would continue to spin around the sun, flowers blossom in fertile green fields, and birds would twitter merrily, winging their way across blue blue skies. My daughters would frolic in the bosom of nature, examine caterpillars, eat grass, get stung by an ant or a wasp.  And they would never own a Bug Catcher. We would examine insects in their natural habitat, respecting the life force in everything.

A pleasant hiatus of ignorance, which came to an abrupt and permanent halt with the publication of An Inconvenient Truth.

Safe Between the Pages

Enter the awkward, painful preteen years. I fell out of a tree, and killed three butterflies, and got separated from the bosom of Mother Nature. I found sanctuary in the written word. A love for reading, nurtured and encouraged by my hyper-literate parents, became an unquenchable thirst for great books. I entered the make-believe worlds of Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Richard Adams, and Noel Streatfield.

I surrendered myself completely to being a gawky book nerd. I was nearsighted, bucktoothed, and cowlick-tressed. I wore ugly sweaters and thick-ribbed brown corduroy trousers. I recall extreme teasing which today would be called bullying, and stories saved me. I saw the unmistakable imprints of Mr. Tumnus’ cloven hooves in the snow. Scratches in the paint of our front door were made by Gandalf. I was Lucy, pushing to the back of the camphor-scented wardrobe; I was Bilbo on a pony in the forest, hungry midmorning for bread and cheese.

I read everything in our house that was written for children, then I stole a copy of Judy Blume’s Wifey from my mother’s bookshelves. Wifey is about a housewife having an affair, and the book exposed me to the prurient possibilities of print. Caught reading Wifey, I promised not to lend it to my friends, then promptly (but creatively!) broke my promise by reading the steamy sections out loud to a friend, in our backyard. My mother overheard, and I was punished. Corporeally.


Dead Butterflies

My relationship with nature deteriorated fast after I fell out of the tree. My family moved a few blocks away to a bungalow house across the street from a schoolyard. The grounds at Agincourt Road Public School were identical to those at every other public school, a concrete play yard inside an expanse of manicured lawn. The grass featured thin, weedy patches scraped by the foot traffic of children. I missed the field beside our old house, and my main outdoor activity became riding a purple banana-seat cruiser bicycle (it was the 70’s) around the neighbourhood.

The summer I turned nine my parents gave me a Bug Catcher for my birthday. It was a glorified clear plastic cylinder with a pink plastic mesh top to allow for oxygen exchange. You were supposed to trap insects, pop them into this plastic prison, and examine their fascinating little bug parts. I picked three butterflies off the lilies of the valley in the backyard and successfully closed the lid on them. They were those pale green and yellow, smallish butterflies, the generic ones that don’t inspire gasps of pleasure.

Lunchtime arrived, and I went inside. I forgot about the bug catcher. I left it on a picnic table outside, in the summer sun. I don’t know what I did that afternoon – listened to a Sean Cassidy record, perhaps. Watched an episode of I Dream of Jeannie. The next time I saw the Bug Catcher, my mother was waving it accusingly in my face, and she was furious.

The butterflies were all dead, their delicate little bodies lying in a wilted heap. My crime was gross ignorance. Didn’t I know that touching the powder on its wings was a death sentence for a butterfly? How stupid was I, anyway? Just look what I had done. Dead butterflies, all my fault. I cried, I apologized, and I felt deep remorse. In fact, I felt bad about those dead butterflies for years. 

The powder on butterfly and moth wings is actually scales, infinitesimally small scales. Touching the wings removes or displaces some of the scales, but this in itself isn’t fatal to a gently-caught butterfly.  A damaged wing structure will kill a butterfly, and butterflies trapped in jars will bash themselves against the clear sides of the container, attempting to escape, until they expire. Or maybe my three little everyday captive butterflies asphyxiated in the midday heat.

Falling Far From the Tree, Part One

Beyond the empty lot that served as my childhood fief there lay a long, narrow park known as the Greenbelt. Many cities boast such parks now, but back in the early 1970’s it was a cutting-edge idea.

One day my brother Tim dared me to climb a majestic tree in the Greenbelt. The tree’s canopy spread out over an impressive circumference; it was the tallest tree in the park. The first four vertical meters of the tree were trunk, and into it some intrepid soul had thoughtfully hammered large nails at regular intervals, creating a kind of rudimentary ladder. High up in the branches of this tree there was a platform, a piece of plywood fixed in a crook of branches with two-by-fours. Tim dared me to climb to the platform, and I did, with alacrity. I was a skinny seven-year-old spider monkey.

I reached the platform and crowed about my win, but reversing the trip up the tree was a separate proposition. My sweaty palms slipped on the bumpy bark, my feet reached blindly below me to find the next foothold, the slim shaft of a nail. Reconstructing this memory, I think a nail either broke or slipped out of the tree, but a more plausible explanation is that I miscalculated entirely and redistributed my weight into thin air.

The fall took place in a heartbeat, a fraction of a second. I was feeling for the nail with my sneaker, then I was sitting on the ground under the tree. My brother says I was smiling. All the other kids were staring at me, and some of them started to cry. When I looked down at my unbroken body there were two disconcerting things. Blood was blossoming across my thin t-shirt, and I wasn’t wearing anything between this bloody shirt and my shoes. Tim told me later that my shorts and underwear were hanging from a nail, way up the trunk of the tree. I can see those yellow cotton shorts, that cheap white pair of underwear, fluttering like ignoble flags.

I rode my bicycle home half naked. My mother heard my screams from far away, and she stood at the front door, braced for an emergency. By now I was soaked with my own blood. My mother drew me a hip bath and made me get in it. We were both in shock. Splashing the wound clean revealed that it was in fact just a bad scrape, my mother said. I still have the scar. It extends from below my left breast to the same latitude as belly button.

I wore a piece of gauze taped to my abdomen for a week or so. The scar was the visible mark of the fall, and there was also an unseen repercussion. The fall was when the fear began. After the fall, I was outside of nature. I wasn’t a little spider monkey, free to roam my North American jungle, but a human, who could fail to step on the stupid nail that some other fallible, ignorant human had hammered into a previously pristine, perfect tree.

It was misstep, and it happened in the blink of an eye, like the lapse of judgement in the real, physical world that has separated us from nature, apart from the breathing cells of everything besides ourselves.

Early, Ingenuous Days

There was a field beside the half house in Ottawa where we lived. I was the chief engineer and reigning monarch in this field. In the summer I trampled down all its paths, thoroughfares winding from our backyard to the neighbouring yards. Intimately acquainted with the long grasses, I could recognize them by their scent alone, the tallish one that looked like wheat and smelled like cereal, the bunchy one with wide, flat, wet blades that had a swampy stink. I could map the anthills. I knew the holes where creatures might live, mice or snakes. I never saw them, but I knew they were there. Occasionally someone dropped a candy wrapper or a waxy coffee cup, usually on the East and South sides which abutted busy roads. These instances of littering offended me.

In the winter I created whole edifices of ice in the field, sanctuaries where I reclined on a three-cushioned snow couch, or checked to see if there was anything tasty in the icebox. After a fresh snowfall – in Ottawa, there was a fresh snowfall every other day – I tamped down the pathways with my plastic-bottomed boots after school, road maintenance before homework and TV.

I knew exactly how the veins splayed out on the surface of a maple leaf. I understand dandelions with botanical precision, dandelions in all their vicissitudes, from the tight little button-buds of their yet-to-be-blossoms, through the bright yellow glory of their flowering into miniature suns, staining fingers and cheeks. I knew the hollowness of their green stalks, the milky substance secreted inside those long, tender shoots. And of course I knew their eminently enjoyable reproductive technique – thousands of tiny, fluffy white parasols, freed from their moorings with a puff of breath, floating so gently on the barest of breezes, defying gravity.

I was six, seven, eight years old, and I was part of nature. The stale air and cheap furniture inside our half house was the foreign country, the strange prison to where my parents said I had to return in the evenings. Outside, my body recognized all the other carbon-based life forms as family.

Retrospective Diary of a Writer’s Environmental Angst

I have written three novels. The first of these, Resurrection Tour, is an unedited manuscript on my hard drive. There are also ten photocopied, cerlox-bound copies extant, distributed to my most literature-loving friends.

I self-published my second novel, The Bears, through Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. The Bears was inspired by a politico-ecological crisis in my backyard, and I use the term ‘backyard’ in the Canadian sense, our vast and glorious provinces encompassing broad tracts of varied wilderness. The impetus I felt to write became an imperative in the face of an environmental threat, a pipeline proposal to transfer Alberta tar sands crude bitumen through pristine, precious coastal rainforest, then on to China via a preposterously dangerous tanker route.

I wanted to slap the greedy faces of everyone responsible for hatching this colossally stupid plan. I wanted to show them exactly how their plan would impoverish us – not just our species, but every living thing on Earth. The more I thought about it, the more presumptuous it seemed for a few corporations to risk the homes of so many living things, all for filthy lucre.

I’m working on my third novel. It’s about bees, and vanishing acts.

I write about nature suffering from the meddling hands of humans.