Sky Light, Sky Bright

A few nights ago (back when I was still wallowing in the afterglow of a turkey dinner and mentally preoccupied by an upcoming puppy surgery) I was laying in bed, reading, when my phone buzzed on my nightstand.

“Northern lights are aglow tonight if any of you are still up.” One of my running crew posted on the group chat.

I rushed to the backyard and did not see this.

Instead, I saw the wisps of some green light over the tops of the trees in my backyard and the roofs of the houses that back onto ours. Hints. Not actually anything worth remarking upon.

I was already settled, garbed in my pajamas, and tired … so I went back to bed.

When I woke up the next morning another running friend had shared the included photo on the group chat. He lives a few blocks away from me, but apparently has a much better northern view.

I was in the backyard tonight again for a few minutes, looking upwards and hoping that the northern lights might make a reappearance. All the night sky had to offer me though was a few bright constellations. Cassiopeia. Ursa Major.

But no more northern lights.

Alas, earlier this week the solar winds crashing against the atmosphere offered us a one night show … and I missed it.

Hymenoptera

I sometimes tell people that while in university I unofficially minored in bugs.

As a biology student I had many options for my options, but my interest veered sidelong into a course of courses in the entomology department. I exited with a bachelors degree in genetics, but the extra educational suitcase I had brought along was stuffed full of souvenirs from my study of insects.

Packed in that suitcase, I’ve always adored the word Hymenoptera.

hai - muh - NAAP - ter - uh

Or, the order of insects that contains wasps, bees, hornets, ants and other similar six legged critters.

The summer of 2021 was apparently a good year around here for a particular kind of yellowjacket wasp.

Popular opinion was that there was more than just an uptick in the aggressive insects population over the last few months. Call it a surge. A bumper year for hymenopterans. Nearly everyone had a story of being stung, dealing with a nest, or even the consequence of the crop of pandemic puppies encountering angry bugs for the first time either in their campsites or own backyards.

A nearby neighbour must have had a nest in their yard and for a couple weeks solid the little drones took over a corner of my backyard and harassed the dog (who never did seem to figure out that they were never going to play nice with her.)

I reluctantly put a trap on a tree and caught a few hundred, but to be honest it neither made much of a dent in the population nor made me feel good about myself.

There is a balance to everything, and I noted this most acutely when (after dealing with weeks of wasps and yellowjackets in and near the city) we vacationed in the mountains and hiked for hours without seeing so much as a hint of those black and yellow stripes.

Our attempts to control and manicure the local suburban ecosystem with the species of plants and critters we think we like, the ones that are pretty or simple or tasty, has a side effect of throwing into chaos the nature tug-of-war we can’t quite see, and which manifests as weeds and coyotes and mosquitos and wasps terrorizing those same spaces as we eliminate natural predators or encourage invaders to take refuge in the vacuum.

The mountain ecosystem, by contrast, has seemingly still not tottered onto its side and the result is that we were able to hike without much fear of being stung.

Eaten by a bear, maybe, but stung… less so.

Yet now, twenty years after graduating from university I don’t do much with or recall many facts from my biology education but I have this vague sense that I can see the loose threads of the ecosystem imbalance, that I can talk and write about it with some confidence, and that one of the hundred dollar words I can always lean on is Hymenoptera.

Local Big (Part Two): Kielbasa

A couple weeks ago as I was getting ready for my summer posting schedule, I wrote about the local “world’s biggest” attractions that are dotted all around the rural countryside near where we live.

As it happens, we took the scenic route home from a weekend camping trip, driving for two an a half hours along the twisting and turning secondary highways connecting various small communities throughout the province.

One of our stops brought us to a giant sausage.

Yes, that’s right.

In the town of Mundare, Alberta lives the world’s largest sausage, or kielbasa to be precise.

The forty-two foot tall fiberglass structure beckons from a roadside park across the street from a gas station and nearby to a locally famous smoked and cured meats company (sadly, closed on Sundays!)

We pulled to the side of the road, parked, and wandered around the odd monument to the rich history of Ukranian immigration to the area. A hundred years ago the settlers who left eastern Europe to settle in the middle of the Canadian prairies staked their future on this sliver of their culture.

And today (well, yesterday) I am able to park beside an obscenely oversized statue of tube of garlic-seasoned meat and ponder why this is among the tallest human-made structure for a hundred kilometers in any direction.

I could probably write an entire series on the odd time-capsule-like effect created by mass immigration to Canada over the last hundred years, how cultural heritage seemed to have frozen-in-time as large groups of people moved here with their unique memories of “back home.” What started as serious traditions or means of income, have continued to be acted out in the foods, styles, dances, and other artifacts of their ancestry, having changed or evolved little, practiced almost exactly as they were from the moment they stepped on the boat, train, plane or whatever vehicle took them from their original lands. As such there is this entire pocket of people who come from, say, one region in eastern Europe in the early twentieth century embracing a cultural identity deeply rooted in the wonderful indulgences of, say, sausage and perogies and pysanka. Meanwhile (at least from what I’ve observed travelling) the generation of cousins who stayed behind have shifted and grown and evolved their culture… as humans are wont to do.

In other words, I have no idea if modern Ukrainians are as deeply connected to sausage, perogies, and pysanka as their Canadian relatives, but I somehow imagine that connection is much more multidimensional over there than over here.

I don’t mean to call out any of my friends of Ukrainian-ancestry because that sentiment seems true of most everyone here who “colonized” this place… well, besides noting that I just drove past a forty-plus foot tall statue tribute to garlic sausage in pretty much the middle of nowhere on the Alberta prairie.

If I come across a sixty-foot tulip, or a wheel of gouda as big as my house, you can bet I’ll be posting some pictures here.

A Reprieve by Rain

It was raining this morning when I woke up, the light, almost inaudible patter of drops hitting the windows and roof, creeping into my zone of awareness as I lay in bed contemplating starting my day.

The rain is oh-so welcome this morning, in the wake of a week-long heat wave that baked the city streets and melted our souls, reminding us yet again that we’re too cheap (or just too environmentally guilt-ridden) to install air conditioning.

To be fair, the heat mostly broke over the weekend and the air has cooled considerably since the unbearable never-ending outdoor-oven-like temperatures late into last week. But the rain dropped the temperature even more into the mid-teens and it was the first time in recent memory that I felt a bit of a shiver and chill when I opened the door to let the dog outside.

More important than my personal comfort, of course, is that the rain brings an area-wide break in the risk of fire. The provincial map on the Alberta Fire Bans website had turned from yellow caution to orange restriction and had begun changing to splotches of angry red prohibition against burning, lest the very real risk of forest fire turn into literal flames.

Each year it seems that entire communities burn to the ground because the rain is a few days late in arriving to quench the tinder-like deadfall.

Never mind that in a few days I am about to go camping and as we plan our oh-so-important campfire menu we were seriously wondering if our trip would be a campstove adventure rather than an open flame cast iron cooking frenzy. That would have been a personal disappointment.

Almost always the rain means cool, wet and fresh but this week it also means campfires and cast iron.

And it is raining this morning.