Attack of the Freakish Foliage

As of next week or so, we’ll be celebrating the seventeenth anniversary of moving into our house, our neighbourhood, and this place we call home. Seventeen years is all at once a short blip and a really long time. It sometimes seems like we’ve both lived here forever and also just moved in.

In reality though, a lot has changed. Where I look out my back window and see houses, trees, grass, gardens, birds, and blue sky, on the day we moved in was a construction zone with heaps of clay clumped into piles amongst weeds, lonely streets paved through a blank field, and utility stakes poking from the ground.

We “built” our house, in that we went to a local building company, and from them bought a piece of land, a house plan and contracting services to turn lot and plans and heaps of supplies into a finished home. It took the better part of a year and was simultaneously exciting and frustrating.

Development companies exist largely to do exactly this type of work: turn a chunk of suburban landscape that used to be farms and fields into rows of neat little houses at the edge of the city, and they both do it very well and simultaneously take shortcuts that have long term impacts.

Last year I noticed one of those shortcuts while out on my walk with the dog: a tree planted by the developer had done something that no one had ever intended. It had started turning from a lovely ornamental cherry tree into a scraggly crab apple tree.

Pictured above is actually a single tree.

On the top is green foliage that is starting to spring blossom for a crop of fall apples.

On the bottom (or should I say middle?) is red-hued cherry, an ornamental tree with gorgeous colours year round, and a favourite of developers trying to add colour and splendour to a new neighbourhood.

On the very bottom is the culprit and cause of the mix-up: the fake cherry was actually a graft of cherry branches onto a much hardier crab apple trunk. This was all well and good and no one would ever have known any different. But then droughts and stress and age and seventeen (likely more) years have passed and the cherry bits have been overtaken by new growth from the trunk and now a freakish hybrid of a tree sits at the edge of a small park making passers-by wonder at what the heck is going on.

I’m in no way against tree grafting. I used to have a tree just like this on my front lawn, a cherry trunk grafted with a mismatched collection of less hardy cherry branches. It died after about four years because here on the Canadian prairies life is tough, especially for a mutant tree.

My point, if I actually have one, is that of the downside of taking shortcuts if you’re not going to be around for the long haul.

Shortcuts in life, gardening and most anything else can be time savers and budget buffers. Getting something the quick and easy way can be a nice perk of knowing what matters and what doesn’t.

When building a community, my developer took a shortcut and saved some time, money, and planted a tree that looked great … for a few years. Then they left, went off to build other, newer neighbourhoods, and the community was left with a plant that needed more care and attention than anyone could be bothered to give it. Left to its own, the faux cherry tree has done what nature let it do, in a long, methodical, slow process… revert back to the plant it was always intended to be: a crab apple tree.

Shortcut: zero. Nature for the win.

Had the developer spent a little more care and attention to put in plants that were local (and we have many beautiful trees that grow natively not a few hundred meters away in the river valley) right now there would be a park with something less frankenstein growing at the gate and more fitting for a pretty suburban neighbourhood. But the cherry looked great at the time, sold the idea of suburban paradise to people looking to build lots of new homes, and years and decades later has outlived its purpose.

It was a shortcut, and years later for the long haulers like me, a shortcut to the simple but important reminder that the people who built our community then are not the ones who live in it now and continue to build it today.

Artist in Residence (but just at my own house)

I have mentioned it a few times over the last year of posts, and I have even posted a few modest samples, but I have a slow burning fascination with sketching that has kindled into something more since I’ve been spending so much time at home longing to travel.

In particular #urbansketching has wrapped a watercoloured claw around my heart (and jabbed it with a few sharpened pencils for good measure) and I find myself looking for local subjects as much as flipping through old photography looking for buildings, scenes, architecture, and adventure moments to turn into ink and paint doodles.

Urban sketching is the name of a subset of artistic pursuits usually narrowed to the specific time and attention given to capturing an object or space filled with people and buildings and life and city emotion. It is meant to be quick and rough and in the moment and replace the act of wandering through an urban space clicking countless snapshots into one’s phone with the deliberate action of pausing for long enough to draw a scene with pencil, ink, colour, or one’s medium of choice.

I try. Frequently. I’m admittedly mediocre.

But I am working and practicing and thinking the types of thoughts that I hope will come together into being much better.

What do you want
to learn in 2022?

There is a short list of things I need to focus on over the next year as I improve my sketching skillset and move towards the next level of artistic expression. As I see it, these things are:

1) Finding my own style.

I actually kinda thought this would come to me as a simple act of rote practice, but not only has a style not found me in my numerous pages of scribbles and sketches, I think the lack of a style is starting to creep into what I have drawn as a kind of looming sloppiness.

This is not self-depricating criticism. It’s just a trend I’ve noticed. That in the gaps where I don’t know what kind of deliberate line to draw to fill a space, I make something up. A personal style would inform that and steer me clear of the messy scribbles approach.

Style is a you-know-it-when-you-see-it thing, ineffible but simultanously it jumps off the page when it is done right.

I need to find mine next year because it doesn’t seem to be looking for me.

2) Working in partnership with the colours.

My wife bought me a new set of twenty-four watercolours for my birthday last month and I dug in and was immediately slapping shades onto the page to see how things looked and worked and made the sketch pop with double the number of hues.

I love the set, but I don’t think it has done me any favours. My sketches have just become a little bit more muddled. Why? Because I’m not painting with the colours that need, want, yearn to be part of the picture. Rather the literal science-technology nerd in me is transcribing the colors of the scene directly into the page.

I’m neither good at that, nor is that art. It’s this photographer guy trying to replicate something in front of his eyes with a brush and a smattering of pigments.

I recognize this as a flaw in my approach and that thinking about a cohesive palette that evokes a vibe of the scene or object is far more important that getting the right shade of green for that tree in the background.

3) Seeing.

Similarly to how I’ve tended to regard colour, I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonable photographer because I have a well-tuned sense of composition that has aided me in a way that has led to nice pictures.

I have been working on changing my perspective already, but in 2022 I need to open my eyes a little wider and examine the world like a sketch artist, rather than a guy with a camera lens… at least when I’m attempting to draw that world.

Composing a sketch on the page is a bit like framing a photograph in the viewfinder, but with a different set of tools and a completely different objective. The point of a photo is often to replicate an object or scene with clear focus, to represent it in a way that is true and clear. Alternatively, the point of sketch is often to create a model of an object or scene by use of abstraction, to use shapes and colour to trick the eye into seeing a re-creation of a simplified essence of that and to convey what the artist wanted to purposefully move from the reality of that object or scene into a feeling of the same upon the page.

I’m still thinking too much like a photographer.

4) Letting go of the literal.

And while that overthinking photographer guy struggles to see the world as a sketchable space, looking for the lines and shapes of reality and unravelling it all, in that effort is also a search for the metaphor of the art.

I’ve spent too much time enviously looking at “good” art that faithfully represents something, and while skill is a noble purpose and often a milestone towards achieving all these things I’m writing about, it is just one path.

I don’t know what the alternative path is, but I think it is shaded by experimenting, practice, and dabbling in all these things I’ve been writing about. It’s a mash up of all these points: a style, evoking feelings through colours, and seeing what’s in the scene but also what is inside and through and beyond the scene yet needs to find a way onto the page.

In 2022 I don’t expect to move from hobbiest suburban sketcher to epic, master artist, but I think I’m at the point in my drawing adventure where I need permission (if only from myself) to let go of the aspriration to draw anything but what makes me happy drawing it.

Learning, after all, never really ends.

Thirty one topics. Thirty one posts. Not exactly a list… but close. In December I like to look back on the year that was. My daily posts in December-ish are themed-ish and may contain spoilers set against the backdrop of some year-end-ish personal exposition.

Toys, Tackle and Fish Stories

Another story thread I may have seemed to have dropped is that of my slowly simmering plans to do a little fishing this summer.

Back in my previous Gone Fishin’ post back in March I was revelling in the notion of the snow melting soon so that my brand new fishing permit and soon-to-be-mended rod would see some open water action.

Alas, things didn’t exactly work out as well as I’d hoped.

Of Old Equipment

The last time I’d used my fishing rod was a couple years ago and when I’d pulled it out of storage to evaluate it’s condition I had been quckly reminded that the tip had shattered and snapped off. Back in my last post I’d said that I’d ordered some replacement tips and was planning to fix it.

Not so quick.

The tips arrived and were fine, but the problem wasn’t so much the quality of new parts rather that the old rod was just generally brittle.

That particular rod had been equipment my folks had bought me back when I was just barely a teenager. Best case scenario, I was trying to repair a thirty-year-old fishing rod that was showing it’s age. And it turns out I was right. My attempt to replace the end was all but futile and the rod wasn’t up for even the stress of the repair, let alone some casting and (hopefully) catching.

Of New Equipment

Plan B turned into a research effort and eventually a shopping trip.

I won’t put too many details here because what I finally ended up buying (just this afternoon, in fact) was a compromise between quality and price, in that somewhere around the one hundred and fifty dollar mark I got myself a reasonably middle of the road setup that will let me toss a line out into the water a few times per year but not invest too much into a new rig.

It seems as though fishing equipment follows a similar rule as my rule for other sporting gear: for every hundred bucks you spend on something, you should spend roughly one hour per week using it. In other words, as I once told my university roomate, if you’re gonna spend two thousand dollars on a new bike, I would hope you spend about twenty hours per week with your feet on the pedals. (He didn’t.) Likewise, now that I’ve spent a hundred and fifty bucks on a new fishing rod, I should try and put it out into the water for an hour or two every week. (I’ll try.)

Have strung my new rod, I also had a long, hard look at my tackle box. That was deeply lacking as well. The remains of a distant-past spent along the river bank resulted in barely a half-dozen servicable lures and spoons, and at some point before I do any serious casting I’m going to need to refresh my collection of fishing hooks.

So, I’ll write it one more time before I actually work up the motivation to drive down towards the river and find a bit of sandbar to fish from: get ready summer, I’m going fishing… soon.

Backyard: Saturday (or, a list of rejected backyard blog topics)

In recognition of yet-another-local-lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, I'm doing a week of feature blog posts about living in the backyard. From May 10th through 16th, my posts will be themed around life outdoors but as close to home as possible, a few steps out the back door.

After nearly a week of deeper restrictions that have left me (and most law-abiding residents of the city) without many places to go, I’ve turned that into an opportunity to enjoy my own backyard. Think of it less like a lockdown, and more like permission to do nothing but enjoy my own grass, trees, garden, and relaxing spaces.

If you’ve been following along for the week, I’ve posted a short list of reflective blog posts that haven’t done much for my Google search ranking, but certainly have helped me get a few things pried loose from my own brain.

Given another couple weeks, maybe I’d have stooped to writing about even more trivial topics, like these rejected titles and not-so-interesting daily blog ideas:

Backyard: Naps

Wherein I chronicled the joy of falling asleep on my new, hand-built patio couch under the shade of the pergola sail fluttering in the wind. It’s tough to see how I would have turned that into more than about a hundred words without a serious thesaurus.

Backyard: Chores

Having spent my Saturday morning tilling the garden, planting the potatoes, and dealing with even more weeds (gah!) this rejected blog post risked turning into a long list of all the things I need to get done, y’know, instead of writing blog posts.

Backyard: Chronology

As it turns out this idea was really only of interest to me as I sorted through fifteen years of photos of my own backyard and marvelled at how much my trees had grown since I’d planted them. Breaking news: trees grow!

Backyard: Music

As at least one of my neighbours always seems to be playing music, the distant and indistinct muffled tones of random streaming playlists wafts through the air. My music knowledge is average though, so guessing what songs were playing could have been an amusing blog game.

Backyard: Garbage

Imagine my slow-motion, hand-typed embarassment in reading a blog post listing all the weird objects my eight-month-old puppy has found in my I-thought-I-had-a-clean-yard backyard. A scandalous post idea, and obviously rejected. Photos redacted.

Backyard: Terrible Ideas

A tongue-in-cheek list of some deliberately bad blog ideas, loosely acknowledging the author’s commentary on how difficult it is to make writing about his own backyard interesting and how easy it would have been to veer that metaphorical wheelbarrow into a fence post …oh, wait.