It’s alive!

Cyclamen?

Our local weather has been completely conflicted as March draws to a close, flipping from snow and hail to balmy spring temperatures and back to cold again within 24 hours spurts. The other day I snuck out on one of the good days to my favourite botanical garden to look for any signs of life among the often dismal days that have comprised our early spring so far. What I found was far more than I expected: myriad brave flowers lifting my spirits as they lifted their heads to the fickle sunlight.

I expected to see a few stalwart snowdrops, but there were hundreds of them bursting out all over the lawns and organized gardens
The rhododendrons were already readying their flower buds
All kinds of crocus were sprayed across the lawns; this blue variety was especially lovely
These look like daffodil stalks; their vibrant green shoots poking out of the drab soil just made me smile
The netted iris, which I hadn’t seen before, were absolutely breathtaking
Hellebores in the Woodland Garden were out in all their ruffly spring dress
A pair of glorious yellow crocus also made an appearance in the Woodland Garden
Crinkly yellow witch hazel flowers glowing against one of our rare sunny blue skies lately
In the meantime, the local horticultural students have been busy preparing the flower beds for their spring plantings

If you’ve also been waiting impatiently for signs of spring, I hope these photos cheer you up as much as the real-life versions did me 🙂

Jekyll and Hyde – the two faces of the spillway at 3rd Canal Lock 22

What a difference four weeks made in our ongoing exploration of the Welland Canal in all of its iterations. The canal system in use today — version 4 — is shut down every winter when the ice comes in, roughly early January to mid-March. The waters are drained and maintenance work commences. If you’ve wondered what our engineering marvel looks like when it’s not full of water, the photo above shows you. It’s essentially a large dirt ditch, not nearly as glamorous or picturesque as it is during shipping season, when boats large and small use the only marine pathway linking Lakes Ontario and Erie. Below you can see a completely empty lock — this one at the Port Weller bridge and dry docks.

During the winter more of the older Third Canal sections and locks become visible, revealed by low water levels and bare forest surrounds. Two weeks ago, crunching our way through thick snow that was crusty on the surface but getting soft underneath, every other footstep became a wrestling match with the deep pit our boots had sunk into.

Old walls lay exposed, as well as the bottom of parts of the old canal. Geese took the opportunity to stroll across thin layers of ice and snow until they reached patches of swimmable water.

To the right, not visible in the photo above, the walls of old Lock 21 stretched. The footing was so treacherous, though, that I couldn’t get photos of everything. Below, we’re looking at the deteriorating walls of Lock 22; in the water, wood debris suggests part of one of the old lock gates, but I don’t know that with any certainty.

According to the Historic Welland Canals Mapping Project (HWCMP), some of old Lock 22 was repurposed as a water diversion channel for the current Canal, not far from the Thorold Tunnel, where one of the main transportation arteries in Niagara runs crosses the Canal by running underneath it. In early March, the water below the spillway that diverts overflow from the Lock (to the best of my knowledge — details about how the modern canal is filled and emptied have been really difficult to find) was serene under grey skies.

Fast forward just a couple of weeks, after early spring weather finally made an appearance, and the Welland Canal has been filled in advance of its March 24th reopening this year.

The old canal section and its surrounding reservoirs have a new look. In the upper ‘lake’, the ice is breaking up and launching small floes down toward the weir that feeds the spillway.

The geese can swim about freely between the walls of the old canal.

Trails, such as they are in this area, have dried and offer a pleasant walk on a mild spring day. No idea what this interesting yellow framework was once a part of.

Trees are thick along the banks, but today’s adventure was good timing — the lack of leaves allowed a glimpse of old Lock 21’s walls in the distance.

We were also able to get closer to the edge of the cliffs lining Lock 22, where the noise of rushing water filled the air and the green-tinged water started showing signs of froth.

The water grew increasingly rougher as we continued toward the mouth of the spillway.

There’s a side channel that was flowing swiftly over the west wall of the canal, which apparently has deteriorated from the infiltration of roots reaching from the woods through which the canal runs. The water joined the flow from the spillway to create a wildly churning and rushing mass of water that created its own mist.

As we approached the spillway, the ferocity of the released water was stunning. I took a video clip of it, but for some reason it won’t download to my laptop. (If any of my readers have a remedy for getting a Windows computer to recognize an MTS or MP4 file from a Sony Cybershot — not sure which as I can’t even pull up the video file — I’d very much appreciate hearing it! No luck finding a solution online.)

Below you’ll see the actual spillway. The sight was mesmerizing; we could have watched it for hours. The photo gives you a small idea of the power of the flip side of the waters of the Welland Canal — fascinating, and hazardous if you’re not careful.

When the Seaway puts up signs like these, it’s obvious why they mean business. Should you go exploring in the area, please do heed their warnings, so you can enjoy but still stay safe!

All photos by me, and all rights reserved. Also, a heads-up that I’ll be changing this blog to an every-other-week format so that I can devote more time to my new author blog, Roads’ Guide to the Galaxy 🙂 I hope you enjoy both.

Remarkable Explorers – Marianne North

My own easy photo of lotus plants in the Botanical Garden in Mauritius, All rights reserved.

In honour of International Women’s Day two days ago, I’d like to introduce you to a fascinating explorer from the late 1800s!

Marianne North, born in England on October 24, 1830, broke all the molds. I knew nothing at all about her until I happened across an episode several years ago on television, “Kew’s Forgotten Queen”, aired by the BBC. I was mildly interested, having been to Kew Gardens several years before, but as the documentary introduced more and more about its subject, I became engrossed.

Miss North (as she would have been addressed in her time) was the daughter of a prosperous landowner and politician. She took up flower painting at a fairly early age, perhaps inspired by trips with her father to visit Kew Gardens, where her father knew the director, Sir Joseph Hooker.

Her sister went the traditional route for women at the time of getting properly married, but Marianne had no interest in doing that. She travelled extensively with her father, through Europe and into the Middle East. Her mother passed away when Marianne was only twenty-five, and painting helped her through her grief.

On her visits to Kew she’d been so intrigued by some of the tropical plants that she determined to see their countries for herself. After her father passed away in 1869, she took advantage of her inheritance to do exactly what she wanted: travel the world, painting.

Can you imagine not only travelling all over the globe 152 years ago, crossing the oceans in a steamship to barely-explored continents, but doing so as a single woman? I think we have to give Marianne North extra points just for courage.

For fourteen years, she visited fifteen countries, painting the people and cultures, dramatic landscapes, and most especially the plants.

Her skill and scientific accuracy attracted a lot of attention, and she met many famous people of the day. Visiting Canada and the United States, she visited the home of famous Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, who built his famous Orientalist-style house Olana, near Hudson, New York. He encouraged her to visit South America. Charles Darwin suggested she go to Australia, where she spent a year.

Her paintings are extremely beautiful, and she went to extraordinary lengths to find some of the rarest species. One of the pitcher plants that she painted in Borneo, had been unknown to science at the time. It was named after her: Nepenthes northiana. It’s always been one of my personal favourites of all her work.

Nepenthes northiana (c. 1876), Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens. The painting shows the pitcher plant‘s lower and an upper pitcher.
By Marianne North – Scanned from: Phillips, A., A. Lamb & C.C. Lee 2008. Pitcher Plants of Borneo. Second Edition. Natural History Publications (Borneo), Kota Kinabalu., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3353798

North bucked the traditional stylized botanical paintings of the time, with parts of plants sedately placed on a light background, and instead vibrantly painted everything in its natural setting. Each painting became a time capsule, capturing the entire habitat as it looked in that era.

In 1879 Marianne offered her collection of paintings to Sir Joseph Hooker as well as commissioning a gallery to house them.

You can find out much more about her and view many of her paintings at the Kew Gardens website, and I encourage you to watch the original documentary on YouTube, The Incredible Life of Marianne North Through her Art and Adventures (Full Documentary), to see host Emilia Fox visit some of the same locations as a testament to Miss North’s remarkable passion and dedication.

May her life, and those of all the intrepid women before us, inspire us all to have the courage to live our dreams.

World Wildlife Day – the Circle of Life

Faithful readers will have noticed a lot of wildlife photos on this blog. My father had a great love of animals — we were regularly rescuing injured birds and feeding area squirrels — and instilled it in me. In high school I loved my first biology class, and decided that would be my career path. I entered university with the idea of eventually doing cancer research, but I landed my first summer job with the Ministry of the Environment, and that changed my focus. I majored in Ecology: the study of how the entire world, from the creatures that hang around a pond in a forest to everything on this planet, is interconnected. Every segment is critical, and we humans have arrogantly ignored that for the most part.

People often speak of the ‘circle of life’ in Africa, where it’s obvious and transparent. In the photo above, taken in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a large pride of lions had killed a zebra and were enjoying dinner late in the afternoon. Scenes like that epitomize life in Africa: the loss of a zebra feeds an entire family of lions. This was an important meal for the lions, as their species is listed as ‘vulnerable’, only one step away from ‘endangered’. Yes, the top predator in Africa isn’t doing well at surviving.

As we watched the lions eat, other species gathered around. First the jackals showed up. They’re called “opportunistic” predators — they’ll hunt small animals and birds, and will scavenge from larger kills.

It didn’t take much longer for the vultures to arrive.

Both of these serve as cleaners in the ecosystem. By the time they’ve finished off what the lions haven’t eaten, there’s no longer any meat to decay and attract pests. They’re an essential segment of the circle of life.

And while we feel awful for the animal that was killed, we understand that if the lionesses don’t make the kill, their little cubs won’t eat either.

We permit species to die off at our own peril, not to mention losing the beauty and gift of their existence.

It’s hard to convey how beautiful lions are when you see them in the wild. Their rippling golden fur and mesmerizing golden eyes just can’t be adequately captured by a camera. I took a lot of photos trying.

Can you imagine a world without lions? Within our lifetime that’s a real possibility. Future generations may never be able to go and see a lion walking the plains of Kenya, or Botswana, or South Africa. And every species that we lose is one more piece out of the global ecosystem that supports all of us. If we lose enough pieces, that ecosystem will no longer work.

On World Wildlife Day, you can help by adding your voice to the groups doing their best to prevent further species erosion. You can find out more on the Global Citizen website.