Category Archives: Nature

Roots Part III: Where we come from

There’s something primal about the word roots. We feel it at our core.

Deep roots allow trees to stand tall, and they nourish the plant. Kind of like family. One hopes.

My roots are deep in the Ottawa Valley, in a farming community and a large extended family. No matter how old I get or where I live, the phrases “Ottawa Valley” and “farm” will always be central to my being.

Even as a child I was nosy. Here I am in our old farmhouse, listening in on the party line.

If I dig deeper, I get to “Irish,” “English,” and “Christian.” Yes, I am a WASP—a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with all the privileges that come along with it. My parents raised me in faith and, even though it has evolved significantly over my lifetime, that rooting in faith still keeps me grounded.

What about people who aren’t so lucky?

When trees are rooted in rocky-ground, it’s difficult to stay standing.

There’s something primal about the word roots. We feel it—or the need of it—at our core.

Are you feeling well grounded?

Roots Part II: To grey, or not to grey

If you were to walk up to a group of women in their forties and fifties and say “Roots” out of context, the first thought of many, if not all, would be hair.

They wouldn’t think about tree roots snaking out through soil in search of nourishment, and they wouldn’t start pondering family ancestry. They’d wonder if they left it too long between dye jobs.

For the past year I have been transitioning from dyed hair to natural, and it has been an en-lightening (pun intended) process. For women, there is little middle ground on this topic. Most fall at one of two extreme opposite ends of a spectrum.

  • Abject Horror: “What? You’re going natural? (They step back as if it’s contagious.) Don’t do that! It will age you horribly. I am never going grey.”
  • Militant Support: “Good for you! (They thrust a victorious arm in the air.) I don’t understand why women ever colour their hair. Natural hair colour is an act of resistance against societal beauty norms for women. You will never regret this.”

Considering there are such extreme opinions on this, I myself was quite ambivalent. In the end though, I made my final decision instantaneously as a result of one story told to me by a friend.

She told me about a woman she knew who, on her deathbed, reached out to family to implore that they make sure she had no roots showing when she was laid out in her coffin.

I thought, “God, when I’m on my deathbed, the very last thing I want to be thinking about is my roots.”

And, we never really know when that deathbed might arrive, right? It might come sooner than I expect. And, even if it doesn’t, I’m 57, so statistically I’ve got 25 or 30 more years left. How much of that time do I want to spend thinking about my roots? Surely, there are more important and interesting things for me to think about than that.

“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”

from Desiderata

Don’t get me wrong. I grieve for my former dark hair. I have thick, wavy hair, and when it was my natural, lustrous dark brown, I loved it. I was vain about it, in fact. I have never wanted to be blonde, ever.

BUT, grief is no reason to avoid action. I decided to follow the advice of Desiderata and take kindly the counsel of the years and surrender gracefully the things of youth.

Arlene Somerton Smith
On my way to full silver and loving it

On my recent hiking trip I met many silver-haired women who were striding confidently on steep hiking paths, enjoying the spectacular views, and not spending one second of their time thinking about roots.

In the time I have left, however long that might be, I want to stride confidently on the steeps, enjoy the views, and let my mind whir and spin with how to make the world a better place.

This aging thing is a blessing, every day.

Arlene Somerton Smith silhouetted against glaciers and the sky on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, Lake Louise, Alberta
Enjoying the view on the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

Roots: Part I

When do roots do more then nourish and support?

When are they stumbling blocks?

What do they tell us about what’s going on underground?

Are they beautiful? Or more than that?

I pondered these questions during our recent hiking trip to the Rocky Mountains in Alberta Canada. We marveled at roots burrowing into narrow crevices to eke out nutrients.

Small tree growing up the side of cliff, exposed roots spreading across the surface of the rock
At Johnson Canyon, Banff National Park

We stepped over and around roots intruding into our hiking paths, sometimes buckling the earth in their quest for growth

We hiked around beautiful, large roots that did all of the above: buckled the ground and intruded into our pathway as they sought nourishment in stark environments.

On the Valley of the Five Lakes Trail, Jasper, Alberta

The roots spoke to me of tenacity.

The never-give-up attitude was helpful on the steeps of the trails, and it is helpful to me now that I’m back home and looking at long to-do lists.

They made me wonder what’s happening underground that I can’t see.

I am currently reading Underland by Robert Macfarlane, a book that explores the ground under our feet as a new frontier, like space or the oceans. As I stepped over the large roots and trod carefully around the smaller intertwining ones so as not to twist an ankle, I imagined life teeming in unseen ways under my feet: worms, burrowing animals, microbes, and tree roots co-existing in another realm.

The work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard explores how trees interact with each other, healing, sharing, communicating underground through an “underground social network,” or a “wood wide web.”

It makes me want to become a worm for a day or two so I could periscope into the earth for a look around.

But I’m stuck here above land, and from where I stand the roots have a tenacious beauty. Even the ones that now longer reach for nutrients or buckle the ground.

Large driftwood tree stump lying on a shoreline - upturned roots extending into the air.

Predictable novelty: Why we love fall

I am away on a short vacation – enjoying fall. While I’m travelling, I’m re-posting some content from my previous blog site. Enjoy.

maple-leaf

I love this time of year, when the Earth’s spin and the tilt of the planet carries us into cooler temperatures, shorter days and colourful leaves. And wool socks. And the smoky aroma of logs burning the fireplace. And cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves.

The cooler weather rejuvenates people. The shorter days give us more time to read. Pumpkin Spice Lattes warm chilled hands. (My daughter works at Starbucks, and she spends much of her time these days preparing Pumpkin Spice Lattes. People love them.)

Most of us love these things without understanding why, but scientists have theories about our affinity for fall. Catherine Franssen wrote about it on Huff Post Science.

According to Franssen, we like “predictable novelty.” In other words, fall gives us the two things we crave all in one package: change and stability. It brings change that doesn’t make us anxious, because we know it’s coming. We also associate fall with pleasurable things, like pumpkin pie and walks in fallen leaves. Those pleasurable memories trigger neurotransmitters.

“The neuroscience behind that love is the trifecta of pleasurable neurotransmitters fired: dopamine (pleasure), serotonin (contentment) and norepinephrine (alertness). When all three are going at once, you’re in a heightened state of awareness in a really good way.” —Catherine Franssen

Apparently, many of us float through autumn high on dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—not to mention cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—as we eagerly anticipate football victories, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties.

Sounds good to me. I think I’ll have a latte . . . 

The new (ab)normal

After natural disasters, the landscapes around us feel decidedly unnatural.

I can only imagine how disorienting it must be for people recovering from catastrophic hurricanes, because I find the damages from our neighbourhood’s much smaller scale natural disaster bewildering enough.

Last fall, a tornado tore a swath through the Ottawa, Canada region. The twister uprooted trees and destroyed forests in the Greenbelt near my home and on paths where I used to walk my dog. For months the National Capital Commission kept portions of the path closed because they were too dangerous, and clean-up operations were underway.

Orange barrier fencing with the words "Temporarily closed for safety reasons."

I walked there for the first time two weeks ago, and I stumbled around lost. Paths that I used to walk on every day and knew as intimately as old friends looked completely different.

At one crossroad, I used to walk straight ahead into dark forest, but instead of dense trees and low light, the path ahead was bright with sky. I stopped and did a double-take. Was I in the right place? Had I somehow lost my way?

I retraced my steps to make sure, and I was not lost. The dense forest that used to lie ahead was just . . . gone.

Stacks of felled trees lay piled beside the trail. Ancient trees had lost limbs, and slender trees bent to the ground.

And then there was the swath.

Everything felt topsy-turvy and all wrong.

But, in the undergrowth, in areas suddenly bright with unfiltered sun, young trees sprouted. Buzzing insects had made a home in the torn-up turf.

Out of the new (ab)normal, life springs anew.

Sunrise, moonset

I awoke early on Sunday morning.

Well, I awake early every morning, but on Sunday morning, I decided that an early walk would be nice. I could see the sun rise.

When I walked out my front door, I turned west first. Above me, still high in the brightening sky, was the almost-full moon. I set out to watch the sun rise, but instead I watched the moon set.

A reminder that every end is a beginning, every beginning an end.

Full moon in the morning sky

Lens-artist photo challenge: Silhouettes

I’m inspired by the lens-artists photo challenge to do a bonus post this week. You can see more silhouettes of find the challenge here.

There is something about silhouettes that is particularly touching . . . haunting . . . inspiring.

I’ve added some of my own.

Man and tree silhouette
Hampstead Heath
Sandcastle in foreground with the silhouettes of two teenaged boys in the distance
Anna Maria Island
Silhouette of a harshly pruned tree
St. James’s Park, London
Shadow of skiers on a ski lift
Technically, this is a shadow, but I like it anyway – from Mont Sainte Anne, Quebec
The statue of El Cristo de la Concordia in Cochobamba, Bolivia
El Cristo de la Concordia, Cochobamba, Bolivia