Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Tardigrade's Christmas

Ura lived in Mossland with her clone sestras, gathering and sucking the delicious juices of detritus and algae. Never looking up or in much of a hurry, she lumbered from frond to front on eight stubby legs in a gestalt of feasting and being. Ura led a microscopic life of bloated bliss—unaware of forests, human beings, quantum physics or the coming singularity…
A sudden fierce wind wicked her water away. In a burst of alien urgency, she wriggled madly for purchase on the frond as it shivered violently in the roaring wind. Ura lost hold and the wind swept her into a dark dryness. Her liquid life-force bleeding away from her, Ura crawled into herself. The moss piglet felt herself shrivel into oblivion.
No, not oblivion… more like a vast expanse…
She had entered a wonderland of twinkling lights in a vast fabric of dark matter. Where am I?
It occurred to her that she had never thought such a thing before. Am I dead? She’d never thought about existence before either. What has happened to me? And where are my sestras? She felt an overwhelming sadness. Something else she’d never felt before and wondered why she hadn’t. Did it have to do with that liquid that had always embraced her with its life-force? Here, in the darkness of space, she felt alone for the first time, separated from the plenum.
“Welcome, sestra!” boomed a large voice.
Ura beheld a being like her with eight arms and hands, seated on a throne and wearing a jeweled crown. “Why do you call me sestra?” Ura asked.
“Because we are ALL sestras! You are a Tardigrade, aren’t you?” She waved all eight arms at Ura. “Well, I am your queen!” She looked self-pleased. “You are in Tunland now! The land of awareness. And now that you are self-aware, you can do anything! We’re special,” the queen ended in smug delight. The folds of her body jiggled and shimmered.
“Why are we special?” Ura asked.
“Because we are!” the queen said sharply, already losing patience with her new subject. “Don’t you know that you can survive anything? Ionizing radiation. Huge pressure. Boiling heat. Freezing cold. Absolutely no air. And no water…”
Ura gasped.
Water was the elixor that connected her to her sestras and her world… her…home…
“How do you think you got here, eh?” the queen mocked her with a sinister laugh. Ura cringed. The queen went on blithely, “So, where do you come from, piglet?”
“I’m trying to find my way home…”
“Your way? All ways here are my ways!”
“But I was just thinking—”
“I warn you, child…” The queen glowered at her. “If I lose my temper, you lose your head. Understand?”
Ura nodded, now missing her home even more.
“Why think when you can do!” the queen added, suddenly cheerful again. “First there is BE, then THINK, then DO. Why not skip the think part and go straight to the do part? In Tunland we do that all the time,” she went on blithely. “And, as I was saying, here we can do anything!”
The queen grabbed Ura by an arm and steered them through the swirling darkness of space toward a box-like floating object. “This is my doctor’s Tardis…”
“Doctor who?” Ura naively asked.
The queen shivered off her annoyance and led them eagerly through the door and into her kingdom.
They entered a strange place of giant blocks and whining sounds beneath a dark swirling sky.
The first thing Ura noticed was the huge tardigrades floating above them like dirigibles! Others were dressed in suits holding little suitcases and walking into and out of the huge blocks through doorways.
“We’ve crossed into another dimension—my universe,” the queen announced cheerfully. “Here you can do anything you want. So, why be tiny and feckless when you can be huge and powerful!” She studied Ura. “This is your moment to do what you could never do before. Think of the possibilities! You too could be huge!”
Ura stared at the strange world of smoke and metal and yearned for her simple mossy home.
As if she knew what Ura wanted, the queen quickly added, “But you can never go back home!”
“Why not?” Ura asked, disappointed.
Because, that’s why!” the queen shouted.  Squinting, she added, “It’s too late. It’s just not done! Once you’ve learned what the colour green means you can’t erase its significance!”
“But I still don’t know what the colour green means,” Ura complained. “And, besides, I think you’re wrong. Becoming self-aware doesn’t stop you from going home. It just changes its meaning. And if I can really do what I want, then you can’t stop me. I’m going home to my family.” 
The little hairs on the queen bristled. Then she grew terribly calm. “I won’t stop you, but…” The queen pointed to the floating tardigrades above them. “My water bear army will. I sentence you to remain in Tunland forever for your crime!”
“I haven’t done anything…yet.”
“You’ve broken the law of thinking before doing. In Tunland you have to skip that part—”
“You just made that up—”
“Doesn’t matter!” shouted the queen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”
“That’s nonsense,” said Ura loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first.”
“Hold your tongue!” said the queen, turning a shade of chartreuse.
“I won’t,” said Ura.
“Off with your head!” the queen shouted at the top of her voice, pointing to Ura with all eight of her appendages. The water bear army hovered over Ura, taking aim. They were going to get more than her head with those lasers, ura thought, and scurried for cover faster than her stubby eight legs had ever moved before. She was doomed—  
Then, just beyond her sight, she saw—no felt—something far more significant than the colour green…or a huge bloated water bear army about to shoot her…
Water! She could taste it, smell it, hear it. Ura rejoiced with thoughts of her green home.
The water came in a giant wet wave of blue and silver and frothy green. Tunland sloshed then totally dissolved. Ura surfed the churning water. That green! She knew what it was! Ura reached out with her deft claws and snagged a tumbling moss frond. It finally settled and there were her sestras! So many of them clinging to the same green moss! She’d found her family! She was home! Yes, it was a different home and different sestras, but it was also the same. Love made it so…

For the first time, Ura looked up … and saw a bright star…

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Get Your Dose of Nature … And Feel Better

Nina beaming after her walk in the forest
This past October, good friend and naturalist/phenologist Merridy Cox took a group of us on a nature walk in Earl Bales Park, located south of Sheppard Avenue W and east of Bathurst Street in North York, Ontario. Earl Bales Park spans 127 acres (51 hectares) of natural park and features a dogs off-leash area, playgrounds, a sensory garden, splash pad, outdoor amphitheatre, memorials, paved walking/cycling trails, picnic sites and fire pits. The park also has one of the two Ski & Snowboard Centres run by the City of Toronto. I parked off Don River Blvd and found the group gathering at the head of the trail.

It was a brisk 6 degrees out as Merridy led us along the main trail through a mixed woodland of black walnut, ash, maple and paper birch.  

Merridy stopped beside a sumac shrub, leaves and berries now a brilliant red, and invited everyone to experience the forest with all our senses—including taste. The sumac’s deep red berries are dried and ground into a coarse powder as a spice in the Middle East. I’ve used ground sumac in many of my salads and dishes with poultry to add a “pop of colour and taste”; so, I wasn’t surprised when I detected tangy lemon—even in the leaf.

Sumac with berries in fall
Another example of “tasting” the forest are the twigs of the birch tree—particularly the yellow and black birch—which, when scraped with a knife (or chewed with your teeth) will give off a strong wintergreen smell due to methyl salicylate produced in the bark.

We strolled along a wide path that led to a pair of murky settling ponds with a colourful view of the forested hills of the park. Filtering the surrounding storm water runoff, the marshy ponds eventually flow to the Don River. We looped back via an enchanting side-path of cedar and hemlock, overseen by a well-established maple upland forest.

At the beginning of the walk, Merridy instructed everyone to stay silent and focus on their environment. She suggested that each person find something of interest in the forest and be ready to share their discovery at our lunch spot by the ponds. Mine was the ubiquitous Queen Anne’s Lace, now gone to seed. Merridy showed us how its outer “basket” enclosed the cornucopia of seeds inside. Essentially, the large flower head had become a dried cluster of 70 or so smaller clusters with 20 or so seeds—each sticky and light enough to be blown great distances to find some animal to stick to and disperse it even further.

Showing the seed clusters inside the "basket" 
According to Legend mavens, Queen Anne, the wife of King James I, was challenged by her friends to create lace as beautiful as a flower. While making the lace, she pricked her finger, and it’s said that the purple-red flower in the center of Queen Anne’s Lace represents a droplet of her blood. But Merridy has another version of this story, and you must ask her. This plant, considered a weed by most, is also called Wild Carrot, given it is the wild progenitor of today’s carrot.

Five Steps to Wellness

Merridy was using elements of her booklet “Nature Breaks for Busy Urbanites: Five Doses of Relaxation” to connect people with nature. The booklet provides five steps to help those wishing to reacquaint themselves with the natural world around them. “Walking every day for a few minutes in a park or along a trail preserves our health,” writes Merridy. “The benefit is not just from walking but from the very act of gathering in the scents, sounds, and the feel of the natural world.” In her booklet, Merridy prescribes an easy stepwise emersion in Nature through five steps with associated “dose” of relaxing Nature. Step One, for instance—which is 5-10 minutes in Nature—is a dose that is good to see you through the work day.

Water drops on Black Locust leaflets
Step One is a dose of 5-10 minutes in Nature, once per day. Given our busy lives in the city, this obviously means finding Nature in the city: urban forests, parks and parkettes. This is, in fact, a critical step; it’s the first step toward turning to Nature and connecting in some way. Merridy recommends practicing breathing, listening to bird song and focusing your eyes on natural things, both stationary and moving: clouds, trees, birds, squirrels and other little things. This first step is key to training your senses of the natural world. It will take some practice (to filter out the city sounds) but soon the natural world will make itself known to you.

Step Two is a dose of 20-30 minutes in Nature, two or three times per week. This might be during a lunch hour or other break long enough to permit a longer walk. This entails you finding a suitable area and park to walk to and through. This might include walking to and from work through a different route. “Create a destination, such as a landmark tree, rock, or architectural structure,” says Merridy. During your walk, she recommends looking for natural phenomena. Hone your skills from Step One; she suggests taking an observation and looking for change over the times you visit. For instance, a tree over the seasons. What the wildlife are doing. Cloud-gazing is one of my favourite things to do.

upland maple forest
Step Three is a dose of 2-3 hours in Nature, once per week. This is easily done, because you can incorporate your day-off time into this pursuit. It may include some driving time to get to a natural park outside of town. If so, try to find an easeful way to get there. For example, I currently live in Toronto and I discovered the Little Rouge River woodland and the Rouge River park nestled within farmland outside of Markham. The route I’d initially navigated was through the miasma of endless suburbia. I then chanced upon an alternative route: the 401 Highway to Morningside then Old Finch Road, a charming little winding road that led me along the high cliffs off the Rouge and eventually to the Little Rouge. This made the entire trip relaxing and wonderful. I’ve been regularly walking the trails since.

Merridy writes: “A red leaf, a splash of water, a fish jumping, a white gull against a blue sky—all of these are moments of grace, a gift from Nature that takes you outside of yourself and lets your heart soar.” The effect on your sense of well-being and ability to accomplish things is palpable.

fungal growth on white birch tree
Step Four is a dose of one full day in Nature, once every two weeks. While she doesn’t specify, I assume this means at least four hours—possibly six or more hours of Nature experience. Long enough for a totally immersive experience. Merridy writes: “You may come away with a memorable meeting with a wild animal; you may find a copse of woods filled with radiant bird song; you may be inspired to write a poem or draw a landscape.”

Step Five is a dose of a whole weekend in Nature, once every month. With this kind of immersive potential, Merridy suggests being mindful of natural rhythms, the diurnal motions of sun and wind. You can pursue “forest bathing”, explore more deeply by returning to the same place over each day. You have the chance to truly study Nature using field guides. You can create poems, write letters to friends, sketch or paint. Look for solitude and simply “be.” I enjoy my longer moments in the forest or meadow, when my quietness allows Nature to return to its natural rhythms and the wild animals ignore me to go about their business.

It has long been proven that a human’s well-being is enhanced and maintained through personal experience with the natural elements. A forest. A stream. A meadow. A mountain.

I write about this (particularly on the influence of water on our well-being) in my book “Water Is… The Meaning of Water”. Articles related to Nature’s influence on our well-being include:
“Coming Home to Water at Stir Coffee House”

Merridy (left) with happy hikers

Nature Breaks for Busy Urbanites: Five Doses of Relaxation” will be available on Amazon for Christmas.