Tracks in the Snow - Poems and Essays from Life and the Land by Patrick Lima with illustrations by John Scanlan The Ginger Press (2023) 8.5x11'', unspecified pp, black and white, soft cover, $20 - special $5 discount price here at ROTN!)
A new book from Patrick Lima! You’d have to be a gardener of a certain age to understand the excitement the news conjures up. Lima was one of a wave of writers who surfaced in the late ’80s and ’90s to tell Canadians there’s more to gardening than impatiens and petunias. He and his partner John Scanlan created Larkwhistle, a wonderful garden on the Bruce Peninsula that became a destination, a truly Canadian interpretation of humanity’s love of plants.
This however isn’t about gardening. Rather, it's a collection of poems and essays that have grown from gardening. I’m not a poetry fan. Never mind, delve in. It's a slender volume, but with pages large enough to display Scanlan’s interesting black and white illustrations and also contain even the longer poems on one page.
The introductory essay offers a sense of how life can be framed, enhanced, directed by that essential human activity - a walk. Externally, taking note of pleasing details like the crystalline sheets of ice left suspended after a flooded ditch freezes over and then drains away; and internally, with the re-ordering of thoughts and restoration of equanimity that come with time spent in nature. “Believe me, it feels good to exchange pointless perserveration for productive pondering.”
Along the way, local characters come to mind – Ed, for instance, who has never gone further than Owen Sound. I knew an old countryman who had similarly always stuck to his stomping grounds. He was entertaining, opinionated and like Ed, immensely knowledgeable about the countryside around him.
Lima has travelled a road followed by many gardeners. As we observed what is happening in our outdoor space and beyond, alarm set in. “My duty, as I saw it – my finger-wagging mission – was to alert anyone who would listen to the looming environmental disaster.” A talk he gave along those lines to a local women’s group whose mission was “fun, friendship, fitness, freedom and fulfillment” was not well-received. Eventually, he writes, “I had to lighten up.” His position now is that “the world is always ending somewhere,” “just look at how life bounced back after past cataclysms,” and “there’s no reason to read the obituary for this old world just yet – or maybe ever.”
I have given talks from time to time on matters horticultural, and wrestled with the need not to be the voice of doom, and also to respect the traditional gardener’s passion for creation of a space that is a deeply satisfying aesthetic experience. But I have moved from being neutral about form versus function to a more explicit advocacy of the need to ensure our gardens provide ecological balance, to be a link in Doug Tallamy's homegrown national park.
As for planetary disaster, I do think we live in a time like none other, and our fellow species are paying the price of our actions. But as a gardener speaking to other gardeners, there is so much we can do, even in a small area, to make a major difference to birds, insects, soil organisms and life all around us. That’s exciting and cause for optimism! That’s what I show up to talk about. But I don’t kid myself that it’s enough. The sky may well be falling.
Here we are, at the poetry. This writing is about topics that matter to me, so I find I pay attention. I am taken by the keen observation expressed in ‘The Maple and the Birch.’ ‘Red Worms on a Gravel Road:’ Yes, why do they do that? ‘Jewelweed.’ My favourite plant today, August 9, as the brilliant orange and “orchid-like” flowers are peaking, their aerial balancing caught in Scanlan’s black and white illustration.
Lima takes us through change and loss to new paths and fresh outlooks. Each poem tells a tale. ‘A Snake in the Kitchen’ is dramatic and joyful, sad and instructive. Here's how it concludes. Memory, Lima tells us, is “a slippery thing...” Sometimes a bog of bitterness,
A river of regret,
A fen of fabrication,
A murky swamp, and yet…
A watery place where Lilies
Rooted in dark mud
Give rise to buds
Held closed, held tight,
Until they break the surface,
And open there to air and light.