Worries and Autumn Leaves

 

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Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

John Muir

And yes, those autumn leaves do drop off and remind us that the annual cycle of life has reached its resting time. Those leaves that were so soft and new in spring time lie underfoot, either brittle or mushy.

It’s nature’s way that they will contribute to the richness of the soil next year. It would be nice if our cares would drop off and become brittle and mushy, gradually decomposing to enrich us next year.

John Muir put cares into their true perspective – small, unimportant things that en masse can perhaps become overwhelming. John Muir it was who tramped all over the western side of the North American continent and determined that the United States HAD to preserve its most beautiful areas in parks – so originating the National Parks system.

He it was who preserved the redwoods of California. Few people have memorials as great and grand as his. And I think he must have been a truly happy man. He usually explored and tramped the hills and valleys alone, but never lonely.

His connection with nature, with plants and the rocks and streams was so strong and so laden with meaning about the richness of life that he felt dimensions the rest of us seldom feel.

He felt the living-ness of plants and the intimate connections of rocks and water. But he must have had worries too. He had a wife, a home and two daughters. All of which are delightful but create their share of cares.

We are told that, good or bad, “this too shall pass”.  I imagine him struggling to prove the glaciation of the valleys as he looked at the landforms but with a niggling worry about his daughter’s latest impossible boyfriend.

Could he put it in perspective, with his little worries like the leaves falling from the trees? Did he look at the mountains and the valleys, wondering how they looked before the ice age? How they had changed since? What changes the hand of man might wreak on them?

And did those wonderings overwhelm his little worries?  Even the landscape changes over time although it is generally a slow process. Humans come and go in a landscape according to a faster time scale.

Cares and worries change even more rapidly, ephemeral like the leaves on trees. These too will pass.

 

Salmonberries

salmonberry Salmonberries are one of the watchdogs of spring. When you are looking for signs of awakening these bright flowers stand out boldly – they bloom before the canes are covered with leaves.

They are common in the lower Fraser valley and the fruits are among the first to ripen in early summer. The canes and fruits are very similar to those of the raspberry, and they were called raspberries in parts of Alaska. Both raspberry and salmonberry are part of the rose family.

The ripe fruits are orange or even yellow, and to my taste are quite sour and seedy. I’m told they make good jam, either alone or with huckleberries. The name salmonberry comes from either the fact that the fruit cluster resembles salmon roe or because the berries ripen at the same time as the first salmon run of the summer. How native people must have looked forward to those first salmon and those first fresh berries of the year. (Also the salmonberries were a good medicine for those who over-ate the first salmon.)

The first green shoots were eaten by native people in early spring and a tea made from the leaves in summer. Berries that were not eaten right away were dried for later use. Robins love to eat the berries too. They disappear into the leaves and all you can see is the bushes shaking as they pull the berries off and swallow them.

Salmonberries grow at the forest edges or in clearings beside streams and rivers. Native families had clear rules throughout generations about just which families had the rights to pick salmonberries (and other berries) in a certain area. Berries were very much part of a healthy coastal diet.

Dandelions

Suddenly the gold of dandelions covers the steep bank beside the street. Not many days ago there were one or two, reluctantly early half-blooming. Now they are countless and there will be many more, wide open and golden ,brightening the whole street.

Above them flowering currents droop and an occasional horse tail pushes through.  A few catkins have dropped into the thickening grass. The sun shines hazily and encourages all the growth.

Mountain Ash (or Rowan)

Wherever I walk I see red mountain ash berries glowing in the autumn sun. Its Latin name is Sorbus aucuparia. ‘Sorbus’ is just the Latin name for mountain ash and ‘aucuparia’ means ‘to catch birds’ (and yes, if you see the way birds flock to eat the berries, you can see it would be easy to catch them). Its English names indicate that its leaves are split into leaflets like ash tree leaves and it will grow high on a mountainside where few other trees are able to grow. In northern England and Scotland it is called ‘Rowan’ because the sacred writing of the Norse was the rune, carved into the wood of this tree.

Within Celtic mythology this was a very powerful tree, with the ability to ward off all kinds of evil, and for this reason it was considered very bad luck to cut one down. Throughout the British Isles until recent times rowans were planted near the house, the barn and the crops in the fields to ward off all evil. Originally this evil was expected to be from witches, the evil eye and sorcery, but with the advance of science the rowan’s good influence became more specifically against crop failure, and illness of people or cattle.

Rowan had power too, over the evils of the deep – a block of rowan wood was nailed to a ship’s keel or a branch fastened to a halyard protested against shipwreck.

So powerful was rowan that it was planted in churchyards to make sure the dead did not arise until the Day of Judgement. In Scotland a hoop was made of rowan twigs and sheep and lambs driven through it to ensure their health and protection. Inside the house butter and cream were churned with a rowan paddle to be sure that evil spirits would not sour or steal it.

One of the reasons rowan was believed to have such power was the tiny pentagram, or five-pointed star (actually the remains of the flower) on each berry. Like many pagan symbols it was adapted by Christianity (if you can’t beat them, join them) and it was said that the Cross of Christ might have been made of rowan, and small crosses of rowan became the family protectors.

More practically, this is a great tree for attracting birds – they flock to the berries. You can make a tangy jelly to serve with game or chicken from them and use the wood to make bows or walking canes.

This tree is not native to North America but it has spread widely, thanks to the birds. You’ll find it has frothy heads of white flowers in spring and will make an attractive (and protective – you can never be too careful) addition to a garden.

Early signs of autumn

Today we awoke to a much cooler day, and my walk was longer than it has been in the heat. The salmonberry leaves are thickening, and becoming almost leathery, their edges turning brown and downwards. A few of their leaves are totally brown; their berries are long ago eaten.

I hear the songs of strange birds in the woodland, migrants passing through. I seldom see them but, from their songs, I think they must be some species of warblers heading away from the cold. I wish them a safe journey and hope to hear them again as they pass by in the spring.

The bushes most affected by the turning of the year are the cascaras (Rhamnus purshiana) whose bark has long been known as a laxative.  At one time John Davidson thought these might completely disappear from the Vancouver area because of over-harvesting (early Vancouverites must have been a costive lot), but they flourish in my neighbourhood.

Cascaras are the hurry-up kids of the bush world. In winter, when it’s hard to spot any buds on branches the cascara will have shiny green buds looking ready to pop open into leaf any day. It’s a very cheering sight the first week in January. And indeed the buds do open earlier than almost any other bush and they cheer us along with early spring leaves. Their berries appear earlier than any other berries, providing welcome early season food for birds. The payment for all of this comes in August as their leaves are first to turn yellow and fall. Ah, well. They’re entitled to their full share of dormancy.

But the heat of last week has brought down other leaves too – alders mostly and they have been so dry they crunched underfoot. Another sign of autumn to come.

This morning, walking through the woodland I found a big leaf maple had dropped a leaf with fine yellow veining, very attractive along with its red stem.

Dark purple berries

As I was walking through the trees the low morning sun illuminated the almost-hidden berries of the Oregon grape bushes. These prickly leaved little bushes hide in the shadier parts of the woodland, nestled companionably against the lower trunk of huge Douglas firs. The berries look like small dusty dark grapes, inviting, but with a very sharp, tangy flavour. I’m told they make a tasty jelly with enough sweetening.

While in the woods it is called Oregon grape, in the garden centres you’ll find it called Mahonia. It has small yellow flowers in early spring, followed by these lovely dark berries that birds like. Its leaves are both prickly and shiny, much like holly leaves. Their Latin name Mahonia aquifolium honours first of all Bernard Mahon who first cultivated the plant brought back as a specimen by Lewis and Clark. ‘Aquifolium’ means that has shiny leaves (presumably looking as if they have been watered). It grows wild down the Pacific coast from British Columbia down to northern California.

This is a useful plant. In the garden it makes a prickly hedge to deter invaders and will grow under trees where the soil is poor and most plants die. You can make jelly from the berries and use the leaves in flower decorations. Recent research has found the plant has anti-bacterial properties and its root may have anti-cancer properties.

But it doesn’t have to be useful to us. It can just delight the eye as a slant of sunlight catches it, share ground cover to protect tiny creatures and supply birds with food in winter.

Midsummer

It’s midsummer already. The leaves are fat and heavy on the trees, and some of the big leaf maples are showing signs of mildew.

The first blackberries are ripe in the sunny corners, still a mite tart but refreshing during my walk. I always try to pick from underneath if I can – that way I can see which are the heaviest and the ripest.

The recent rain has revived most of the grass, but the grass growing in cracks and along the edge of the road is still straw-gray and dead. The clovers are blackening but the tansy is out in masses of glorious golden yellow. they say tansy repels insects so I pick a generous bunch and stick them in an old coffee pot by the open window. It seems to work, but then, the cats deal death to any bugs that enter the house anyway.

Down by the river the fishermen are hopefully casting lines out from the banks into the deep water. There are so few fish in the Fraser this year that I think they must be doing it jt for the pleasure of sitting beside the water in the warm sun.

In the still of the evening, with the sun going down ever more southerly, a raven in the tall Douglas fir gives his whiskey-voiced croak amid lengthening shadows. Most of the mountain tops are hidden in cloud and the river appears motionless.

It’s time to put on a fleece and wathc the sun set.