The golden days of late summer

I’ve never been a fan of Summer — too hot and humid for me (at least in my neck of the woods), and the contrast of light and shadow is harsh. Late Summer is alright. The daytimes are mellower, the nights are cool enough to open the windows at night for a fresh breeze, and the odd day holds a promise of fall weather.

Just as we start to change our clothing over, so do gardens. The sunflowers have shed their golden collars and are going to seed.

Chestnut trees are bursting with ripening nuts.

The vegetable section of our local teaching botanical garden is lush with fall produce.

The garden is displaying a little trickery — the eggplants have turned white…

…while the peppers are deep purple.

A rainbow of onions are free of their soil beds.

Apparently, once artichokes bloom, the artichoke itself becomes inedible, but the flowers attract bees and can be dried for arrangements.

Monarch butterflies are enjoying the gardens as well.

The afternoon sunlight has a gentler tone at this time of year.

In the rose garden, some of the blossoms are beginning to fade a little.

A few of the lotus flowers have begun dropping their leaves, leaving just a seed pod and a lacy frill of stamens behind.

But soon the autumn coats will come out, flaunting their gorgeous colours to make the evergreens look even richer.

Now’s the time to get out and enjoy Nature’s last glorious party before the winter sleep!

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Exploring Niagara Falls from different viewpoints

A full rainbow forms in the mists churned up by Niagara Falls

What happens when you explore in (more or less) your ‘own backyard’?

You find amazing things that have been around much longer than you thought, and new attractions that celebrate history.

Niagara Falls, the longtime honeymoon cliche that was made even more famous by two movies, Niagara (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe, and Superman II (1980), is a natural wonder that has been reinventing itself for almost 11,000 years. At that time, the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three falls in the cluster, and which forms the border between Canada and the U.S., was about six miles downstream, stretching between the towns of Queenston on the Canadian side and Lewiston on the U.S. side. and started as a small arch.

Today those falls are a large curve 2,590 feet wide, tossing 85,000 cubic feet of water over the edge every second (on average). The cities that overlook the spectacle, both named after the falls, are thriving tourist meccas, and most people who live in easy driving distance, at least on the Canadian side, tend to avoid the area in peak tourist season because the traffic slows to a crawl. On our side, the city is a mix of party town, attractions ranging from cool to cheesy, decent restaurants, and some beautiful old homes (many of which have been turned into B&Bs). The falls themselves are surrounded by hotels, eateries and casinos, so it’s hard to get a sense of what they must have looked like when their full natural beauty could be appreciated.

But, like most tourist destinations, there are ways to see the sights that are more authentic. It’s fun to walk beside the falls, watching the water churn over like gallons upon gallons of green gelatin and getting damp from the far-reaching spray, but to truly appreciate the falls you need to see them from other points of view.

One of those is the White Water Walk, a boardwalk with viewing platforms right along the edge of the Niagara River below the falls, crashing and rushing through Class 6 rapids.

From 1876 to 1934 these views were accessible by a steam-powered incline railway. In 1934 the railway was destroyed by a fire. The Niagara Parks Commission leased the land to a private company, Niagara Concessions, and this enterprise built a 230-foot elevator shaft down to the floor of the valley the river cuts through, along with a 240-foot tunnel to get closer to the river through the rainforest-like profusion of trees and ferns that line the river banks. A boardwalk was built, but was frequently damaged by the raging waters and winter ice floes. However, in the mid 1900s a weir was built above the falls to control the flow for the power plants on either side of the border, and the lowered water flow allowed for a new boardwalk to be built.

I can only say that, if the pounding water that we saw when we did the White Water Walk recently is the reduced version of the river’s flow, the original flow must have been truly ferocious.

The boardwalk runs for 1/4 of a mile and is an easy walk. Good walking shoes or sandals are all that’s needed; there’s no spray from the water to worry about.

Take time to notice the lush vegetation on the other side of the boardwalk, like a scene out of 10,000 Years B.C.

Remnants of the old boardwalks are still visible, rusted monuments to our fascination with this magical piece of nature.

But the water is the biggest attraction, as it rides roughshod over everything in its path, like a green monster on a rampage. The colour of the water is a result of the dissolved salts and powdered rock dust that fills it.

The water is mesmerizing. Allow yourself some time to just watch it leap, curl, dive and crash its way through the chasm. There are viewing platforms that jut out from the boardwalk in a couple of places, allowing you to get even closer to the river (they’re not wheelchair accessible).

It didn’t take people long to realize what a fabulous source of power the falls presented. In 1892 the Niagara Falls Power Company began construction of the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant.

It was the first large-scale alternating current generating plant in the world, Westinghouse Electric built the 5,000 horsepower generators, which were based on designs by Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Lamme, an American electrical engineer.

What a fantastic and exciting enterprise that must have been. Touring the historic power plant today gives a small idea of the mammoth amount of construction, particularly walking through the 2,200-foot long, brick-lined tunnel that discharged the used water back into the Niagara River. It was excavated by lantern-light, using only shovels, pickaxes and dynamite. The new Tunnel attraction takes you from the floor of the plant, down and down in a glass-walled elevator, past the huge pipes and turbines, to the floor of the tunnel, where you can follow a self-guided excursion all the way to the river and the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.

The tunnel is huge, at least 12 to 15 feet wide, and maybe thirty feet high (just my own estimates, I haven’t been able to find actual stats), and runs for half a mile. Imagine the massive amount of water rushing through there in the plant’s heyday. The new floor is damp from water seepage, but textured enough that it’s not slippery. Thick walls and a depth of 180 feet below ground keep the air inside quite chilly, and the walk, if you want to read all the fascinating information kiosks, is long, so don’t go in shorts and a tank top.

If you don’t rush through to get to the prize at the end, where the tunnel opens up to the roar of the falls (as we saw some people do), you’ll notice interesting things like the funky trumpet-shaped fungi growing right out of the walls.

An arch of glowing daylight marks the end of the tunnel…

…and a unique view of all three falls (Horseshoe below), as well as the intrepid boats that take poncho-shrouded, awe-struck visitors as close to the base of the thundering waters as it’s safe to go. We did the boat ride several years ago, and the power of the falls has to be seen to be believed; if you’re visiting, the ride is one thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss.

Across the river, you can watch visitors on the American side get their own close-up views from the top of the Horseshoe Falls, while rainbows form in the mists at the bottom…

…and along platforms near the base of Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls.

One could easily, if it were available, spend an entire afternoon on the viewing platform, sipping drinks at a riverside table. Unfortunately, the platform would fill up quickly that way, but you can linger as long as you want. There’s much to be seen back up in the power plant, however, if, as I am, you’re fascinated by vintage machinery and architecture. You can walk around by yourself, poking around at your leisure, or take a guided tour.

There is an excellent gift shop as well, filled with well-thought out electricity-themed goods, not kitschy tourist junk.

I also recommend that you come back at night for the new sound-and-light show, Currents, which with wonderful light effects, music and narration tells the story of water and the power it has generated at Niagara Falls for over 100 years.

The interior space of the power plant is turned into an immersive, interactive journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

When patterns are projected onto the floor, you can even walk and jump around to make them follow your movement (kids in the audience, and quite a few adults, really got into that). There are a handful of benches that you can sit on if you need to be more sedentary.

The falls in Niagara aren’t the only wonder to behold — people’s ingenuity at creating an enduring source of power that feeds much of Ontario and New York State, as well as innovative ways to appreciate Nature’s artistry, have highlighted the core of what makes Niagara Falls special.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. These photos may not be reproduced without my express permission. E. Jurus

Giving our brains a much needed rest

How often do you take a break from daily life? If you’re like most North Americans, probably not very often. And yet studies were showing, long before the pandemic, that not only our bodies, but especially our brains, need some down time. How much more do we need it now, bombarded by successive waves of the pandemic and political instability around the world?

Breaks throughout the day refresh our brains. When I was working in the counselling department of a college, lunch times were sacrosanct for all the staff, and knocking on an office door when it was closed had to be backed up with a damned good reason.

In the mid 1990s, studies demonstrated that our brains demand a lot of energy – 20 percent to make our bodies run, and even more when we’re doing mental work. Is it any wonder that we so often ‘hit a wall’ before the end of the work day?

The interesting thing, though, was that even when we’re at rest, perhaps just daydreaming, there was still considerable communication going on between certain regions of the brain, which the researchers called the default mode network. That’s an interesting name, including the word ‘default’. It turns out that letting our minds to drift into this basic state allows our brain to process all kinds of information that’s been accumulated but not dealt with. When our brains aren’t occupied with external pressures, they have time to make sense of everything, order it, imagine solutions and connect all the dots.

Some of our most creative moments occur when we’re not trying to find them. As a writer, I’ve found many times over that if I’ve reached a place in my novel’s plot where I’m not sure how to address a problem or move the story from one point to the next, the answer occurs to me when I’m lying in bed, essentially day-dreaming before I fall asleep, or first thing in the morning as I’m awakening but haven’t felt like getting out of bed yet. First thing in the morning is better; last thing at night requires me to tap a quick note into my phone lest I forget, unless it’s something so brilliant that the idea carries through to the next day.

And indeed studies have shown that the default mode network is more active in more creative people, not necessarily because those people have different brains but perhaps devote more time to getting out of the way of their own minds.

Try it out the next time you feel overwhelmed, like your brain is ‘fried’. Take a break and go for a walk, without your phone. It should preferably be in nature, whether it’s a park or even a path through a garden, and un-occupy your mind. Be alone with your own thoughts, and let them flow like the breezes around you. Notice the things going on all around you, from the butterflies flitting from flower to flower to the texture of the path beneath your feet and the colour of the sky. You’ll be amazed both by how refreshed you feel afterward, and by what interesting things your mind will come up with.

When I need to decompress, I love to take walks around our extensive local botanical garden. There’s always something interesting to see in every season, and the peace and quiet are soothing within the first few minutes.

For even better breaks, go on as long a vacation as you can, and make it a complete getaway. The modern penchant for managing your entire trip through a series of apps totally defeats the purpose of getting away from it all. You can check the day’s weather, or find a restaurant, but apart from that it’s important that you put away your electronic devices and just be in the moment. Take some photos if you like to do that, but only a few of yourself. What you should be noticing is the place you’re in and all its wonders, not worrying about how good you look for a series of selfies.

One of the best vacations my hubby and I ever had was our first safari in Africa. Deep in the wilds of Botswana, we spent days bouncing along sandy roads, feeling the wind ruffle our hair and keeping our eyes peeled for the next herd of zebras or elephants, gazing into the golden eyes of a lioness lying under a bush near the road, having morning tea while we watched antelopes graze by the river while hippos snorted in the water. We’d left all our problems at home and immersed ourselves in the hot African sun and the stillness of a place without the noise of other humans. At night we fell asleep to the chirping of tree frogs, woke up to the chatter of francolin birds. It rejuvenated us after a very challenging year, made us feel alive and whole again.

When you’re standing in the magnificent ruins of ancient Machu Picchu in Peru, dazzled by the remarkable stonework somehow built on the top of a mountain surrounded by other blue-green peaks as far as the eye can see, your mind imagines what life must have been like all those hundreds of years ago, waking up with the dawn, walking along paths that overlooked the silvery Urubamba River far below, gathering food from the steep terraces just below the city and feeling the spirituality of the many sacred huaca stones all around you. You’re far, far away from the daily grind, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air, watching a lizard skitter across the intricately laid stones right next to you.

Taking down time is essential to our well-being. Make sure you use it well.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved.

Green Day

A painted turtle shows off its colours while it basks on a pond log

Apologies folks! I was so busy last week prepping for a family dinner on Easter weekend that I lost track of my blog post schedule. But today is perfect timing to celebrate Earth Day, and in honour of the event, this week’s post features green things on our planet. Green is the colour of nature, of growing things, of hope. As Spring very slowly makes its appearance in my neck of the woods (we had snow again just a few days ago!), burgeoning green plants are a signpost that the change of season is really happening.

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is “Invest in Our Planet”. Check out the website for listings of global livestream events as well as a map of any local events that may be taking place near you.

If there’s nothing near you, I encourage you to take a walk in nature and appreciate its richness and beauty. Be grateful that we still have so much greenness to enjoy and celebrate.

Bright daffodils with their rich green leaves and stems
Green mixed with shades of burgundy and purple on tulips pushing out of the ground
A carpet of green grass studded with blue flowers under a venerable old tree waiting to unfurl its leaves
Spectacular unidentified shrub, possibly a kind of bamboo?
The soft jade of a sedum cluster
Even water can be green – here the Niagara River as it flows under the Queenston-Lewiston border bridge

So many shades of green! Let’s all do our part in preventing that colour from going extinct.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified and all rights reserved. E. Jurus

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 🙂

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.