Rudolf Harmsen 

2011's Year End

Dear Friends,                                                                                               Glenburnie, 21 December 2011

If my calculation is correct, the next planetary year will start shortly after midnight tomorrow, we will then officially enter winter. So far, winter has been very reluctant to show itself, as our autumn has been exceptionally warm and sunny.  We are not complaining, as it gives us more time to bring in dry firewood, drive without worrying about slippery roads, walk around town without wearing snow-boots, and other ways in not having to deal with all the limits set by a world of frost, ice and snow. But, on the other hand, I have not as yet looked for my snow shoes, few interesting birds come to the feeder, and it is hard to feel the proximity of Christmas and getting everything ready for the festivities.

You might think that a person as old as I am would be sorry to see yet another year come to an end, but being honest, despite some good times had, I am glad this year is behind us. Too many days were filled with frustration, disappointment, bad news and feeling depressed. Hopefully, 2012 will be a lot more positive in what it will bring and take. But, let me write about the nicer parts of the passing year, and not make too much of the not so good bits. Winter can be very enjoyable here, and certainly very beautiful. When a mid-winter cold-front comes through overnight, the morning after is like a fairytale, with the sun breaking through a thin mist over the cleanest, whitest snow, layered delicately over all the vegetation and surrounding ground.

Walking down our lane on such a morning, one feels the spirits of all the plants and animals celebrating the inevitable return of a new year.  On one of those days late last February, I put my snowshoes on and made a long trek through our fields and woods into the wilderness. The freshly fallen snow showed all the prints left by whatever creature had ventured out of its den, nest or lair in search of breakfast. I took the normal route from the house into the forest and then decided to descend down the escarpment into the swamp forest adjacent to the lake. As I came close to the bottom of the hill, I noticed an unusual density of coyote tracks, including a few very large foot prints, more like wolf ones. Still wondering about all those tracks, I turned onto the lower path into the cedar forest and faced ahead of me a grotesque carnage: blood red snow, remnants of guts and the torn-apart remains of a large buck.  Looking around me, I suddenly felt uncomfortably vulnerable. Where was the pack? How many strong? What kind of killing machine had left those big footprints? I stuck around for a while, taking pictures and then retreated uphill, glancing over my shoulder, as I had the distinct feeling that something or somebody was watching me from behind the dense cedar bush.   

Jeri gets her winter exercise in a different manner. Her vision problems make it not possible for her to hike or snowshoe on rough terrain. She and I often go for walks on one of the local hiking trails that have been developed on abandoned railway lines. They run through very attractive landscapes , are well groomed and are used enough to pack the snow down, creating a fairly smooth surface. The only problem with this type of exercise is that we have to drive at least 5 km to get to the trail-head. When the weather is fowl, Jeri has a treadmill with a flat-screen TV, so she can get an hour's brisk hike while watching something more interesting than a blank wall.

This summer we both got a lot of exercise from gardening, I manage the herb and veggie gardens with some help from Jeri, while she focuses on the flower beds and what we call the potted garden in the courtyard and around the pool, but which also hangs in other places, from tree branches, fences of wall brackets. Unfortunately, her three handicaps make gardening more difficult and at times very frustrating. Imagine being totally blind on the left half of your visual field, having also 'left neglect', which means the brain is reluctant to acknowledge that there is a space to your left, and 'constructional apraxia', which means the brain can not create a cohesive picture out of the various visual inputs from the retina. Still, Jeri tackles the garden with love and determination and the results vindicate her stick-to-it-iveness.

Our two sons are doing well. Doug has successfully combined acting and teaching into one career. He is at his most happy when on stage, but when he does not have an acting job he has a position in New York City giving workshops for school teachers on how to teach drama and how to use drama in other disciplines. Stephanie, his wife, is still active in her acting career, and teaches part time in a theater school in Denver, CO. Once or twice a year they visit us here in Glenburnie; this past summer they brought New York friends with them, whose five year old daughter loved the large garden and especially our pool. Leif, our younger son, is still working on his career as an artist – we both proudly have much admired portraits of us hanging in our house. But he earns most of his income as a website developer and manager for arts organizations in several countries. At the moment he lives with us, having lost his apartment in Toronto due to the building being demolished. We thoroughly enjoy having him with us. He also makes himself very useful by doing all sorts of jobs in and around the house. By spring he will look for a new place in Toronto again. We will miss him.

As a child growing up in the Netherlands, my father and I used to go botanizing together, and the game was for each of us to pick ten flowering plants, which the other then had to name. Some years later, as a student at the Wageningen Agricultural University, I befriended Professor Victor Westhoff who taught me a lot of botany, and rekindled my passion for studying plants in the wild. Then, even more years later, I conducted several research projects on the effect of grazing on plant communities. Especially in environments with which I was not familiar, I had to make collections of plants to make sure that I referred to the various species correctly in my publications. All these specimens are still in raw form in the Fowler Herbarium at Queen's University waiting for me to deal with. So, this year I have started to enter all the specimens and their collecting data into a file, and then decide which ones will be mounted and permanently lodged in the herbarium. I do this on Thursdays, when I also attend a weekly lecture series. It is my day out of the house, maintaining contact with my academic colleagues. I enjoy fiddling with the plants I collected so long ago on Banks Island and in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. To make my plant job / hobby more lively, I have also decided to make a collection of all the rare plants I encounter in the Collins Watershed. Our property lies within the watershed of Collins Creek, which runs from north of Kingston through Collins Lake, west- and south-wards to end in Collins Bay, an inlet of lake Ontario. I enjoy focusing on something not especially intellectually challenging. I feel a bit like a 19th Century natural historian, surrounded by rows of large cases of specimens, some going back to the 1830s, and shelves of the floras of just about every part of the world, some even older than our oldest specimens. For intellectual stimulation I have been reading a lot of philosophy, especially recent books dealing with morality, ethics and justice. I am now ready to write an essay on this topic as perceived by an evolutionary ecologist, which I was invited to do for the scientific journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. I hope I can find the time and intellectual creativity to do the subject justice.

Jeri is still very involved with a group of poetry lovers (or 'sisters' as they refer to themselves). They meet once a month, and each member reads a poem she has chosen, after which the group discusses all aspects of the piece. This implies that Jeri gets into the library a lot and comes home with piles of poetry books, and spends hours reading not only the poems, but also the biographies of the poets. Names such as Naruda, Crozier, Moss, Oliver and Transtromer, that ten years ago would have been meaningless to me, are now getting to be household friends. Then, once a year, shortly before Christmas, the husbands are invited to join the sisters for a well-lubricated pot-luck dinner. This year's dinner was great fun, as we all took turns reading a part of a story called Christmas in the Zoo, which caused great hilarity.

One good reason for remembering this year is the construction activity that we undertook, in, on and around the house. A few years ago, Jeri started to talk about her desire to have a small cabin all for her self, like a comfortable retreat from her normal life. It so happened that a friend had a small cabin which he did no longer want to keep on his land; he kindly gave it to Jeri. We had a building-mover pick it up and deposit it on a selected location some 200 m from the house, behind a dense stand of lilacs. I had prepared a foundation of concrete pillars about a meter down, through the soil, onto the bedrock. Two strong horizontal wooden beams on top of the pillars formed a simple foundation to keep the cabin from touching the ground.

After the cabin was delivered, we noticed that the tar paper that formed the epidermis of the building was covered with a whitish fluffy, paint-like material. Our worst suspicion was confirmed when a sample fed into the appropriate machine in the Queen's University Geography Department blurted out: 'asbestos'. For about three years we were paralyzed, but this year we decided to do the necessary; we called a qualified outfit and for a small fortune three men in space suits and a large vacuum cleaner removed all the carcinogens, including all the tar-paper. Leif and I provided the naked, wooden endodermis with a new layer of clean, black tar-paper to protect it from this winter's onslaught. Next year we will make it into Jeri's dream cabin – at least, that is the plan.

Our major construction project was a fairly major rebuild of the front of the addition we had built onto the house in 1970. At the time, part of the wall was adjacent to the steps leading up to the front door. Rainwater inevitably seeped onto and then into the wooden part of the wall, including the band joist, which had started to decay. I will not go into the details of how we first demolished the affected parts without having the floor collapse, and then do the rebuilding. But the process was what I will always remember; laying cement blocks while  squatting or lying in a three foot high crawlspace, being fed the blocks and buckets of cement though a hole in the wall has to be the most Hudini-like construction job I have ever undertaken. The price I paid for this job was an overstressed left wrist from leaning on it too much. It took over a moth to heal. After Leif and I completed the basic below-grade job, we hired a mason with fancy equipment to face the old cement wall with a veneer of limestone slabs that match the 1825 stone walls of the old part of the house. A trusted carpenter helped by rehanging the front door and by smoothing the connection between the stone and any wooden parts. Finally, I did a major rebuild of the stone steps, which I nearly finished. All I need now is one stone cut to size, but that will have to wait till next spring.

In the mean time, Leif did a lot of painting of storm windows, the front door and a lot of other bits of wood, like window sills. He even caulked in all the storms with a new product which is supposed to seal them in perfectly all winter and then come out easily next spring – we will see. But for now, we have never before been so draft free.

In late March, when the see-saw between winter and spring seemed to go on for ever, we decided to play snow-bird, and at the same time see Doug on stage in Vero Beach in Florida.  We flew to Orlando (or as the French-Canadian steward pronounced it Horland'eau), rented a car and spent eight days in the area between Melbourne and Fort Pierce. Other than seeing Doug in the part of  Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, which was absolutely fabulous, we did a lot of exploring of the area. Jeri fell in love with the beaches, especially the one in Avalon State Park. Stephanie came for a visit and see Doug on stage, and overlapped for a few days with us. It is very easy to be a tourist in Florida. You can rent a car just about
anywhere, and restaurants, parks, beaches and other attractions are hard to miss. We had some most enjoyable stops, lunching on a terrace overlooking the Atlantic, or admiring the awesome floral displays in the Vero Beach Botanic Garden. But we had one wish which turned out to be not all that easy. That was our great desire to see a manatee. It took us three days of following all sorts of dead-end leads until finally we found Round Island Park. There, in an inlet of the main lagoon, an entire pod of these amazing animals were frolicking, or perhaps just feeding on bottom vegetation in the shallow water of the lagoon. We could only see their bits that kept breaking the surface and splashed about. But then, as we crossed a small bridge, three of them swam right underneath us – truly an unforgettable sight.

Kind people, I could go on for several more pages, but you must have better things to do than read an entire auto-biography of Jeri and me, so once more: have a great 2012!

Jeri and Dolf


  dolf@harmsen.net +1 613 544 3626