Rudolf Harmsen 

2014: Bad Weather - Good Lives

Just surviving is good news at our age.

Dear Friends and Relatives:

Coming back in mid January from our 2013 Christmas and New Year's celebrations in Denver was a shock, both climate-wise and because of the mountain of unopened mail and other unexpected urgent business. And, I must admit that some of the 'urgent' entries on my January 2014 list of 'things to do' are still on the currant list of 'things to do'.

When snow accumulats on our roof, it starts to melt from the bottom upwards, as the snow cover becomes a stronger insulator than the insulation under the roof. Then, the melt-water seeps downwards and freezes on the roof's overhang. The weight of the ice can tear the eaves-troughs off the facia boards.

While we were in Denver, eastern Ontario was hit by several days of heavy snowfall and one nasty ice storm, which did considerable damage to our eaves-troughs, and made clearing the courtyard and entrance to the garage a mega-job. Once at home, things did not improve: for three days starting on January the 25th we had a sequence of snow storms with wicked winds and temperatures to below minus 20 degrees Celsius. On the 27th, Jeri had her monthly poetry group get-together, which meant going into town. I shovelled what felt like tons of snow, and thought the lane-way to the highway would be drivable despite the drifts, which in my experience can be breached by driving fast and hitting them straight on. When we came to the top of the slope down to the end of our wooded property into the neighbour's open field below, I saw at the bottom the mother of all drifts, hesitated for a second or two, and estimating its height at about one meter and a half, decided to go for it. Roaring down hill, I shouted 'brace your self!!' and 'whoosh' we came to a soft but sudden halt, buried in a drift which was not only much higher, but also much wider than I had assumed. I had to struggle to open the car door and make it to the surface of the snow. With the help of a neighbour, we managed to free ourselves, but any idea of getting into town had to be abandoned. It was well after dark before we got a giant tracked snow-clearing vehicle to recover our car, and then clear all the snow off the lane - at considerable cost.

King Winter kept throwing snowstorms at us all through February and March, and well into April. However, we did get used to it, and actually enjoyed it. I made good use of my snow-shoes, going for long slogs through our woods and onto the lake. We also were buoyed up by good medical news: Jeri's latest MRI again showed no regrowth of tumour tissue, which made the oncologist decide that the next scan can be in a year, not six months as before. She said that after five years it is highly unlikely that there will be regrowth.

The long winter and the forecast of a late spring made us decide to go for another couple of weeks to Denver. So, on April the 19th, we took the train to Toronto, shuttled to the airport and flew south-westwards into a gentle Colorado spring: cherry blossoms, sunshine and two more wonderful weeks with Gwendolyn and her parents. We had a good time there, but the flight home at the end of the month was an 18 hour nightmare of delays, missed connections and ended with an uncomfortable 'milk-run' bus-ride from Toronto to Kingston, only to find another pile of mail, notes of urgent meetings and other events.

This summer we were committed to complete the west-facing wall of the big barn, and I am pleased to be able to write that we did so. In fact, we went a bit further and repaired the entire south-facing wall and a part of the North-facing one as well. When I say 'we', I must admit that 90% of the work was done by Leif, who enjoys this kind of work, and has become very good at it. He even decided to insert a lot more windows than we had originally planned. This was possible because an acquaintance who had stored a collection of old windows and doors in our barn, died a few years ago, and despite our notifying his relatives of this architectural treasure, nobody came to get it. Nor did they pay the agreed annual storage fee. Hence, we helped ourselves to some windows in lieu of the accumulated unpaid storage fees. We also have discovered that one load-bearing corner post is precariously punky at its lower end, so we had to tackle it too. Fortunately the original builders placed the post on a couple of neatly stacked very large flat stones, the deepest of which rests on bed-rock. We are going to bolt parallel support posts to the old post, which we hope will make a firm support for the next 100 years, as long as we can keep it dry.

Leif in front of the west-facing wall of the barn.

On the whole, this year's summer was a disappointing one, it had a late start, and had well below average temperatures and too many rainy days. But the biggest disappointment was that the planned August vacation of the New York family (Doug, Steph and two-year old Gwendolyn) here in Glenburnie did not happen. Instead, they had to spend more time in Texas, due to Steph's mother's poor health. We had plans for a very eventful time with Gwen, including trips to farms, beaches and other exciting venues, culminating with her second birthday – much like last year when we celebrated her first.

We are also facing a worsening threat to our 90 acres of fields and woods. For most of the past decades the farmers adjacent to us merely cut what is called 'wild hay' early in the summer. This kind of hay is full of broad-leaved plants as well as grasses, which will recover and bloom later in the summer. In other words, a bee heaven. But a couple of years ago, two of our neighbours started to grow corn and/or soy beans, and treated their precious crops with highly toxic neo-nicotinoids. The result has become an ecological nightmare; hardly any pollinating insects are surviving, and this in turn has severe negative effects on many other organisms from birds to plants. Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. The Ontario government has indicated that it will place severe restrictions on the use of these new insecticides starting with the 2016 growing season. This is way overdue, and I wonder why this delay; and worse, industry and the farmers are lobbying the government to reverse the decision. It is going to be quite a fight, with short-term economic arguments coming face to face with the scientists and the environmentalists.

In July we took a week away from our quiet country lives in Glenburnie, and flew to Vancouver. It was a sudden decision to spend time with our longtime friend Bristol Foster, who faced the imminent death of his son Eric. Our friendship with the Fosters dates back to the 1950s in Toronto, Nairobi in the '60s and ever since. It is hard to imagine our lives without the close connection with them. Eric and his brother Mark were both born in Nairobi only very slightly ahead of our Douglas and Leif.

We arrived in Vancouver, late on the 1st of July, and were met by our friend Gail and her canine side-kick, who brought us home for a nice evening and a good sleep. After breakfast Gail drove us to the ferry terminal at Tsawassen, where we took the ferry to Vancouver Island. It was a wonderful crossing we did so often in the past, that it brought back a lot of memories of eagle watching, feeding gulls, looking for killer whales and of seeing Eric, Doug, Mark and Leif running around and rekindling their friendships. I wrote the following paragraph in my diary:

We are on our way to see Bristol on the day his son Eric died. We called Libbey after breakfast to be told that Eric died early that morning. 'Bristol is o.k.' she said, and that he and Mark are working at all the official razz-matazz. From the ferry, under a cloudless sky, we have a terrific view of Mount Baker to the south, and the Olympic range to the south west. It was a relief when we pulled away from the incredibly noisy and complex ferry terminal, the coal export harbour and the new container harbour to the north, all reminders of the wasteful and destructive nature of our 'civilization'.Having just come through 'The Narrows' we are among the Gulf Islands. Remarkably, so far we have not seen any eagles, indeed no birds other than a few gulls. No cormorants, no ducks or geese – no whales either.

Upon arrival, we were met by Libbey, who drove us to a lunch gathering in Victoria, where we found the Foster family and friends doing their best to talk and be together, and starting to learn to live without Eric. The next day we went to visit the Bateman Centre in Victoria and were treated to a guided tour by Bob. It is a great success for Bob to have this gallery for so much of his art, and the location in the city centre is splendid. For the rest of the week, we relaxed on Saltspring Island., where we saw a lot of people, some old friends, others newly introduced. The Batemans organized a memorable lunch on the veranda of their house with a fine view of their natural landscape. For me, the most memorable times were when we talked with Bristol and Libbey about losing prematurely someone so close as one's child. I will always remember those discussions in their garden, in the shade of a very large Catalpa tree in full bloom; the individual white flowers descending gently all around us, as they dropped out of the pyramidal inflorescences.

On Saturday afternoon, Bristol and I hiked up Mount Erskine, starting just above sea level where we parked the car, and ended up on its 'summit' of 436 m. It was a great thing to do. Here we were, two octogenarians, clambering up as fast as we could when we were young men on several mountains, including Mt. Kenya. It was a kind of assertion that we are still friends who do things together, despite the passage of time and all that has happened. We sat on the very top and felt good, when a man in his twenties dragged himself up the last few meters and stuck his fist up into the air, shouting “I did it!” I asked him how old he was, “twenty eight” he said. I smiled and said “I am eighty-one”. I wish I had taken a picture of his face.

One of the views from the summit of Mt. Erskine: a paper mill to remind us of the industrial nature of our world.

The next day we took the long island-to-island ferry ride back to Vancouver, spent the evening with our friends Helmuth and Janet, and one more night with Gail. After which the sweetheart drove us to the airport, whence we travelled home.

Autumn came early for us this year; due to the exceptionally warm northern Pacific Ocean sending deep storms up into the arctic, which in turn resulted in arctic air being swept down through north central Canada into Ontario. Early frosty nights meant a lot of work trying to get all the cold-sensitive plants into the house, or into the pump-house, the latter of which we keep at five degrees C. and pitch dark all winter.

We also wanted to spend some time in NewYork before Stephanie and Gwen's departure to Denver, where Steph has taken an acting job for both November and December. We tried to find a suitable sub-let in New York for a couple of weeks in September or October, but failed, which was most annoying, because it robbed us of another opportunity to get some time with Gwen, whom we have not seen since late April. Doug had to stay in New York, where he has a good teaching job for the entire school year. They decided that it would be best if Gwen went to Denver with Steph, because they could get the same nanny as they had last year. In the end, we did go for a week to NYC in November to be with poor lonely Doug, and to imbibe in some of the City's plethora of cultural stimuli: its museums and theatres. Then, on the 18th of December we flew to Denver for ten days, which became a very wonderful Christmas get-together with the Doug-Steph-Gwen family. It was so lovely to see the three of them absorb the love from the others, and in return their own love. We were fortunate to be accepted fully as the loved grand-parents, so that we had many amazing Gwendolyn experiences.

Douglas sharing some Christmas cake with Gwen.

 It is amazing how much children can learn over short periods of time and retain afterwards. Every day she surprised us with new additions to her vocabulary, and with her ability to use the new words in the right context, and often with the correct and well-timed body language. She is also very cuddleable, though hesitant about my beard, so that Jeri gets most of the hugs and kisses. We really packed as much as possible into those precious ten days, and on the 29th we departed for home, sadly feeling that those ten days had not been enough. Two days later, Doug and his little family returned to New York. And so did the year of 2014 come to an end for us.

But before I end this letter, let me introduce you to Gwendolyn Harmsen; she loves meeting new friends, so you can imagine her shaking your hand and say "Hello, nice to meet you".

And thus, I end this letter, written to you with love and lots of good wishes for a rewarding and interesting 2015.

Dolf and Jeri





  dolf@harmsen.net +1 613 544 3626