Monday, April 25, 2011

Star of Bethlehem in the Garden

This time of year I feel almost  giddy from an inner propulsion to go outside and work in the garden, whether or not the weather allows me to be outside, and whether or not there is any gardening to be done. Of course, always, always, some kind of gardening is waiting for me.

Here, in our place where we have now lived for one year, the whole back yard and the once-upon-a-long-time-ago flower garden along the back fence are totally overgrown by Star of Bethlehem. A search on the internet gave me the Latin name of this stuff - ornithogalum umbellatum - and tells me it is very invasive, as if I needed to be told that. I suddenly realized the short form of Star of Bethlehem is SOB - how appropriate! The only way to get rid of these SOBs is to dig them up and throw out the clumps of bulbs and growth.

                         The biggest clumps are about a foot across.

During the rainy week that was, any time we had a bit of a break from the rain, I began digging out the clumps of SOBs. The big problem is that the clumps include babies, tiny bulblets deep in the soil, smaller than green garden peas. It is impossible to find all these babies, which means they will grow wherever they happen to be.

I must work at digging for short periods, ideally no more than half an hour at a time, because my knee joints are worn and become too uncomfortable with such jobs as digging, so after each stint I do my stretching exercises. I’ve long known that I can accomplish a lot by working a little at a time. I love this digging, and am enjoying the way the dark friable soil yields to my garden fork.

Andrea, my garden helper, is at the ready to help me as soon as there’s an evening or weekend without rain. Meanwhile I can’t resist the call of the garden fork and the SOBs, and I enjoy seeing the expanding clear space, which will be ideal for hostas to grow among the great rocks that people placed there a long time ago. I thank them for the rocks.
                                         A bit of clear space!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


As someone who draws inspiration and nourishment from both good writing and visual art, I registered for “A Unique Book Club: Words and Images” in the Continuing Studies program at the University of Toronto. This is a six-week course that meets once a week, taught by Tina Urman during March and April. She selected five novels in which visual art plays a central part in the story. Our last meeting next week will be at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

There are a number of things in this course/book club that stand out for me. One is the way the instructor placed each book in historical context, which illuminated both the visual art in the book and the writing. Another is that in her lectures she also told us what inspired the authors to develop the stories in their books. For example, Tracy Chevalier, the author of “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” had hanging in one of her rooms a poster of Vermeer’s painting and had looked at this face for years. When she was at a loss for what to write next, as she thought about the painting and wondered who the girl was, she decided to imagine her and tell her story. So it seems Griet, the servant girl was gestating in the author’s imagination for years.
During the class focusing on this book, Urman gave a PowerPoint presentation of Vermeer paintings (she projected paintings on screen for all of the books, works of artists that played a part in each of the books we read). She chose two of the Vermeer paintings, suggested an opening word for a sentence or paragraph, and asked us to write what our imaginations gave us about these paintings.

One of the paintings was “The Music Lesson” (also called “Girl Interrupted at Her Music”), depicting a seated young woman holding a paper and looking outward. A man stands beside her, with his right hand on the same paper. Urman asked us to write a sentence beginning with the word “Suddenly.” Here is what I wrote. “Suddenly I realized that this man’s ideas were not what he was really thinking about, and I had to look away to give myself the inner quiet to hold my own beside him.”
The Vermeer paintings are full of details and “props” that tell us a great deal about global expansion in the seventeenth century. A related book, “Vermeer’s Hat - The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World” by historian Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia, explains that because of European explorers, wealthy Dutch households had access to, and could afford, Persian carpets and porcelain from China and were included in Vermeer’s painting. It’s interesting that many of Vermeer’s paintings include either maps or a globe.

My guess is that the title for “Vermeer’s Hat” comes from the painting “Officer and Laughing Girl” used on the book jacket. The officer in the painting is wearing, of all things, a hat made of beaver pelt. We learn from Timothy Brook’s book that European beavers had been overtrapped, and after cleaning them out in Scandinavian countries, Europeans turned to North America and took home Canadian beavers for their hats.
As you can see from my ramblings about the course I took, one novel about a servant girl named Griet has taken me for a long fascinating ride far beyond her story.