• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

Sheathing and house wrap

Tom and crew took some time off last week so that our family could work at the fair, but they made good progress this week, finishing up the sheathing  — the plywood sheets on which the shingles will be attached. — and start the house wrap. My job this week is picking out the shingle colour.

The house seen from the pasture to the east,





Our bedroom with the tower sitting area, now with ceiling,






The roof

A productive few days — the trusses went up yesterday, and today the gable ends and tower roof, with a start on the sheathing too.



























Calving season

This time of year again, and with unseasonably warm weather — it was 14.5 Celsius on Saturday — which is much appreciated. Though not very good for the kids’ plans with the 4H Outdoor club to go skiing.

A little Speckle Park calf,

IMG_8228 IMG_8237

Public speaking and kitty litter

4H public speaking week is done, in both clubs. Beef club public speaking was last Sunday afternoon, 30 kids and 5+ hours. Oy. Daniel got second place with his speech on the life of Monsieur Bombardier before he invented the Ski-Doo, and after a tie-breaker with a good friend a grade or two ahead of her, Laura got second place for her speech on antibiotic resistance in beef cattle. Friday night we had Outdoor club public speaking; Laura gave a speech about her experience at the Young Ornithologist Workshop last summer, and the boys did a presentation on how to make beef jerky, complete with our big black smoker as a prop. The kids each got first place, but won’t be going to 4H district communications next weekend because Tom signed them up for a six-hour hands-on calving course at the college — more educational and helpful all around, especially with calving season about a month away. And the kids eager to move on, with Music Festival coming up in about a month. We’ll start working on poems and prose on Monday. I haven’t participated in Poetry Friday for eons, but I might put some of the kids’ poems up here if I get the chance.

I finally have my dining room back — it was public speaking central, with the boys’ jerky making set-up all over the table — and it was quiet here today. This is Family Day weekend in the province, a made-up holiday to allow for three days off February. Fishing is free (no license required) for the holiday, so Tom and the kids took off early this morning for an ice fishing derby with some 4H Outdoor club members. I opted to stay home to look after some paperwork and make cinnamon buns, having been inspired by a presentation last night. We have a great recipe from my mother-in-law’s former teacher, Mrs. B. Tom discovered the buns about 15 years ago when he reshingled Mrs. B’s roof; she was around 70 then, and sailed up the ladder one-handed when she deemed it break time, holding a platter of homemade buns aloft.

Otherwise the week was filled with cat-sitting for a neighbor (Laura’s first experience with kitty litter), a blizzard, and lots of curling (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). The blizzard put a kink in my Valentine’s plans, since I had hoped to be able to pick up some Hershey’s Kisses for the kids and Tom after my appointment that day, but with whiteout conditions the appointment was cancelled. Fortunately, I had a package each of KitKats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups leftover from Christmas (the stockings seemed full enough), so not the traditional stuff but still sweets for the sweet. And yesterday I found special Valentine’s Hershey’s Kisses for more than half off at the supermarket, so all wasn’t lost.

New in our library system — the audio CD of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, read by Derek Jacobi, from BBC Audio, unabridged on six discs. But am curious why it’s $65 US at Amazon.com, yikes, and $17.61 at Amazon.ca, very, very odd. I thought Inspector Grant and Richard III would be fun bedtime listening for the kids, especially in light of the recent RIII news.

June snapshots

A friend of the kids, a wonderful pianist, is graduating from high school and moving oversees with his family, so he decided to give a farewell concert on Sunday. A wonderful way to spend Father’s Day and our anniversary. On the way home, we saw a Mule deer doe crossing the gravel road. But she paused and looked back for just a fraction of second, enough for us to realize she was leaving a fawn behind. I looked on my side, and there by the side of the road at the edge of the ditch was the fawn hunkered down, still as a stone. We’ve come across dozens of White Tail fawns in the grass around our farm, but never a Mule fawn before. Photo by Davy.

The other week Laura checked all of our nest boxes to see how the swallows are doing. Some boxes had just eggs, others newly hatched chicks, and others a mixture of eggs and chicks. Photo by Laura.

A Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (I think), on one of the pots in front of house. Photo by Laura, at my request.

Duck family at Bonnyville, north of here. Laura came with me on an end-of-season greenhouse run, to find languishing treasures.

Laura found a stand of yellow lady’s slipper orchids (aka Moccasin flower) during one of her birding excursions around the farm the other week. Photo by Laura.

Remembering Jack Layton

The Canadian satirical news show “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” remembers Jack.

Pudding poetry for April

I’m a bit late with this, but with any luck anyone reading here knows not to wait for official proclamations before reading, enjoying, and being moved by poetry.  It’s been a busy and difficult few weeks here.  We’ve been busy with calving, one cow (Laura’s very first 4H heifer) lost both of her twins so we are milking her.  Or rather, Laura and Tom are milking her, and I am responsible for finding things to do with 12 liters of milk a day.  I have been making yogurt, tapioca pudding, cheesy potato soup, and more. I have also realized that I am beginning to slog through the mud of depression and anxiety, not from the deaths of my parents, but from the consequences thereof, which are a mountainous mess.

What kicked me into gear for a poetry month was the news of Canadian poet Gary Hyland, who died last week at age 70 of ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease. Today on the CBC radio show, The Next Chapter, host Shelagh Rogers replayed her last conversation with Gary Hyland, with poet Lorna Crozier reading his “A Safe and Easy Thing”, which is a marvelous poem for Poetry Month.  Pudding on a spoon, indeed.

A Safe and Easy Thing
by Gary Hyland

Don’t stop reading, Mildred.
There’s no need to be afraid.
This is not a poem. Pretend
you can hear me speaking,
pretend I am in a small room
far away playing the music
pictures happy in your head.

See? You don’t need to think.
The words are small and easy,
the lines are short, the print
large, like an advertisement.
Nothing will happen to you,
nothing to buy or believe or give,
like pudding, pudding on a spoon.

No one will ask what this means.
No one will care you’ve read it.
It is almost over and nothing
has happened. Not the sniff
of a mention of something odd,
nothing shifty, nothing fancy,
not one unpleasant anything.

You can be proud of yourself.
Should there be a power failure,
should the bubble puddings stop,
in the cough and shuffle silence
here’s something nice you can say
to your friends who never read,
not even signs or recipes.

Once I read a whole page of words
that my husband set into chunks.
It was easy, really, very easy.
It was about itself and me
and I could forget it right away.
That’s something to flaunt safely.
It’s not as if you’d read a poem.

*  *  *

Poetry and Poetry Month posts from the Farm School archives (there is also a green “Poetry” tab above at the top of this blog, second from the right):

National Poetry Month 2010

National Poetry Month 2009: Essential Pleasures and Happy National Poetry month!

Something different, a list of poetry books and other poetic resources

How I got my kids to like poetry and broccoli

Poetry sings

More poetry aloud, with PennSound

Poetry Is Life, and some Great Books too

A monthlong celebration of delight and glory and oddity and light (National Poetry Month 2008)

Adding even more poetry to your life, just in time for National Poetry Month (National Poetry Month 2006)

“Feed the lambs”: On the difference between poems for children and children’s poetry, Part 1 and Part 2

Thoughts on The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems and classic poetry

An appreciation of John Updike and light verse

Langston Hughes, the “social poet”

Eugene Field, “the children’s poet”, and his plea for the classics, for ambitious boys and girls

Robert Browning, with another plea and an explanation of how children learn best

Poetry Friday: Admonished

Admonition in January
(On Passing a Florist’s Filled with Pussy Willows)

by Phyllis McGinley

An urban mind has learned to bear
The calendar’s perpetual treason:
Strawberries ripe for winter fare
And skating out of season;

Shop windows of December, bold
With swim suits daringly contrived here,
And August magazines grown old
Ere June has half arrived here.

But pussy willows wake our dream.
They wear a true, a springtime label,
And what necessities redeem
The flouting of the fable?

Here, incubated and absurd,
They droop in shivering sorority.
Their hopeful voices rise unheard
Above the storm’s authority.

And sharper seems the wind, and chill,
With April farther off than payday,
And endless all the days until
They have their proper heyday.

Florists, beware! Amid the snows
Let orchids blossom for the vendor.
Permit the violet and the rose
To thrive in hothouse splendor,

But leave these innocents to sing
An honest prophecy of spring.

from Miss McGinley’s A Pocketful of Wry, 1940

*  *  *  *

For more Poetry Friday fun, head over to Suzanne at Adventures in Daily Living, who’s hosting today’s Poetry Friday roundup.  Thank you, Suzanne!

*  *  *  *

More poetry, and prose, I’ve enjoyed sharing from one of my favorite poets:

Poetry Friday earlier this month (The Velvet Hand)

A True and Precious Stone, December 2008

Poetry Friday, November 2007 (Engima for Christmas Shoppers)

Poetry Friday, May 2006 (Incident on Madison Avenue)

Happier and better

Melvyn Bragg, who’s been popping up around here lately, on his friend and neighbor — and “Libertarian and quaffing socialist” — John Mortimer, who died today, in The Guardian:

I’ve known him for years. I made a film about him and never had a dud moment with him. It wasn’t only the jokes and the stories and the roguish malice but the unshakeable core of the man. The pillars of his mind were in the liberties of England, which had to be defended at all costs and extended wherever possible. And in literature. He was soaked in Shakespeare, steeped in Dickens, an everyman library in the great writers and the great laws of this country. …
I sometimes disagreed with him, I never fell out with him. There are an enormous number of people whose lives he made happier and better by his writing, by the stand he took on public causes, and by the irradiation of his remarkably complex, but completely charming, English character.

Read the rest here.

Three years ago I was lucky enough to find myself in the same house, my parents’, with a copy of John Mortimer’s Where There’s a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life, which I blogged about here.  As I wrote then, “The book amounts to a curmudgeon’s — and why does curmudgeonly increasingly seem to be a synonym for common sense? — last will and testament of advice to leave behind…”.

Over the river

Over the river

and through the woods

and over another river

and over the the newly-renamed bridge

to Grandmama’s and Grandpapa’s

Upper West Side apartment we go!

Happy Thanksgiving!

*  *  *

A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day
by Lydia Maria Child

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandmother’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood –
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, “Ting-a-ling-ding”,
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood
Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound,
For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood –
And straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow,
It is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood –
Now Grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

Links: Lagniappe

Art & Music

Farm School blog posts on Art & Music:

Halloween on the prairie

What a wonderful Halloween — on a Friday, fairly mild, and with a bit of daylight to boot. What more could you ask for, besides M&Ms in the loot bags. I had to content myself with filching a couple of KitKat bars. The only hitch for me was Daniel’s Darth Maul makeup, which was more challenging than I would have hoped for a Halloween costume. I definitely have to get the Star Wars DVD from the library for the kids; what little they know of Star Wars they know from the Lego catalogue.

Laura is wearing an old traditional Croatian embroidered linen outfit (blouse, skirt, apron) my grandmother brought back from Yugoslavia, and which I wore at least one Halloween. It was too large for Laura last year, and the top will probably be too small next Halloween, so this was the year.

Goofing around with the dog before getting dressed (first two photos by Laura),

My Hollywood makeup job (note the removable parka hood Daniel pinned to his cape),

A Croatian Star Wars battle ballet (I think),

The kids decided to carve three of our little sugar pie pumpkins, and some of the mini gourd pumpkins from the store,

We were home by 7:30, and the kids happily spent the next two hours sorting and trading candy…

Banned Books Week: Day 5: Running with scissors

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/ Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel, feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.

from the 1979 Coda appended by Ray Bradbury to his Fahrenheit 451, originally published in 1953

* * *

One of the main subjects of Banned Books Week is censorship, and the right to read books uncensored, particularly in schools and libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) on its Banned Book Week website has a link to What You Can Do to Fight Censorship and Keep Books Available in Your Libraries, and another website refers to the week as “an annual anti-censorship campaign”. So I liked what I read at Chicago’s Loyola University libraries’ website:

The message of Banned Books Week is more than the freedom to choose, the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular. The essential message of Banned Books Week is the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.

So why do we cry censorship when a mother objects to a book with wizards and pentagrams in the school library or a school board yanks Shakespeare for sexual content, but not when publishers, authors, and sometimes illustrators get involved to give the title character a makeover and a new name, as in the case of The Story of Little Black Sambo*; or when some of the characters and dialogue are changed, as in the case of The Story of Doctor Dolittle**; or when titles are silently dropped from publishing lists? It’s enough to make Thomas Bowdler proud.

Little more than a year ago, Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality urged that Tintin in the Congo be removed from bookstore shelves: “It beggars belief that in this day and age Borders would think it acceptable to sell and display Tintin in the Congo. High street shops, and indeed any shops, ought to think very carefully about whether they ought to be selling and displaying it.” In response to which Borders in the UK and in the US agreed to move the title away from children’s delicate eyes to the adult graphic novels section. Finally, last October, publisher Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which had been planning to publish Tintin in the Congoquietly pulled” the title from its fall list, as Publishers Weekly reported, and said it would not include the book in a forthcoming box set of all 24 books in the Tintin series. The response to the news was fairly quiet, too. We have, of course, only recently revisited the condemnation of Babar, friend to many (generally children) but foe to others (generally adults).

And what of the “updated and sanitised” Enid Blyton? Blyton’s biographer, Barbara Stoney, wrote a very funny but bang-on article two years ago, “Row faster, George! The PC meddlers are chasing us!”:

New editions of the Famous Five have been tampered with. The publishers are apparently planning to relaunch the Malory Towers, St Clare’s and Secret Seven series next year and are talking, ominously, about ‘slight alterations’. ..

Meanwhile, in the Faraway Tree stories, Fanny and Dick have been bowdlerised into Frannie and Rick presumably because their original names might provoke covert sniggers in school playgrounds. …

Even the semantics of Blyton’s stories are being picked over, word by word. ‘Queer’ has become ‘odd’ and ‘gay’ is translated as ‘happy’, while ‘biscuits’ have been usurped by ‘cookies’ in an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to an American audience.

How utterly ridiculous it all is. Blyton wrote the bulk of her fiction in the Forties and Fifties. The settings and the characters’ names and attitudes reflect the time in which they were written.

How absurdly anachronistic, then, to have a contemporary Pippa and Zoe munching ‘cookies’ in a post-war kitchen where a maid bustles around filling a picnic hamper. If we start to tinker with the text and characters, we must also alter the settings.

Where will it all end? The whole Blyton oeuvre will have to be rewritten to appease the muddled thinking of a politically-correct minority who believe children cannot make an imaginative leap into the past. …

Her current critics have not allowed for the books being written within the context of her time. She wrote about the childhood she knew, which was dependably middle-class, and she peopled her fiction with characters that belonged to the era in which she lived.

In The Adventurous Four, she wrote about a 15-year-old boy called Andy who worked with his father full-time, as a fisherman.

It has evidently been decided that Andy should, in fact, be in full-time education, so the story now ensures that he is not guilty of reprehensible truancy. Now he is at his school desk all day and only helps Dad at weekends.

What patent absurdity! Next we’ll be expurgating Dickens to take out all references to child labour. We’ll have Oliver Twist pursuing a full-time education until the age of 16, before leaving to take up a ‘work experience’ post with Mr Sowerberry the undertaker. ..

The Famous Five are famously intrepid explorers. One adventure takes them into the dank recesses of a series of caves. Surely they shouldn’t be permitted to take such unwarranted risks? What of the danger of falling rocks, hypothermia or, worse, predatory pederasts?

These days, no self-respecting mother would allow four preadolescent youngsters and their dog to wander through subterranean caverns without responsible adult supervision, safety hats and satellite phones.

Surely the errant Five should be safely at home, experiencing their adventures vicariously through their computer screens?

Well, of course they shouldn’t. Children, by and large, want to be thrilled and excited by stories that move ineluctably towards a happy ending. Even Blyton’s sternest critics concede that her talent is to engross the most recalcitrant or tentative young reader in tales that do just that: in Blyton, the good reliably triumph and the bad are punished. …

Blyton is not, of course, universally revered by all young readers. But almost 40 years after her death, she still enjoys a huge following.

There’s even a new Famous Five book, inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys, sort of an Enid Blyton meets “Survivor”; BBC’s News Magazine recently pondered “the mystery of Enid Blyton’s survival” despite “an author whose writing has long been accused of being too simple or even poor in style, bossy and sexist”.

Intriguing that most of the books selected for facelifts seem to be children’s books. In her own article on Babar and the surrounding controversy, in The New York Review of Books in 2004, writer Alison Lurie pointed out that, “Like many would-be censors, [Herbert] Kohl has a low opinion of children’s ability to think and judge for themselves as he once did”; she was referring to what Kohl had written in Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories, that though he had found the elephant king “charming and wonderful” as a child, he nevertheless as an adult believes that “uncritical reading of the book is so potentially damaging that it should be withheld from children when possible.”

I’ve found in the five years we’ve been home schooling that a number of the older books, from novels such as the Little House series to H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story, from my own childhood and which that my children now enjoy, cherish, or find useful are often dismissed on the more secular home educating lists as Eurocentric, sexist, racist, ethnocentrist, or just generally politically incorrect and oppressive. If I were letting the children swallow whole the outdated opinions that we know now to be wrong and incorrect, that would be one thing. But how better to understand the thoughts and opinions of the time, compared to our own times and sensibilities, and how better for children to learn the power of words and ideas, and the power of freedom? I don’t think we do our children any favors by feeding them expurgated pap (and I’m not talking about good quality abridged editions here), or even worse, banning the books outright, and glossing over the honest details of other eras.

A few years ago, in a post about several reprinted history books, I quoted historian Antonia Fraser on the aforementioned Our Island Story. Of the new edition, she wrote,

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed

Similarly, writing about the school/text book business in The Language Police, Diane Ravitch concluded,

The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts. The language police believe that reality follows language usage. If they can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words signify. … If children read and hear only language that has been cleaned of any mean or hurtful words, they will never have a mean or hurtful thought. …

It [censorship] should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas. How boring for students to be restricted only to stories that flatter their self-esteem or that purge complexity and unpleasant reality from history and current events. How weird for them to see television programs and movies that present life in all its confusing and sometimes unpleasant fullness, then to read textbooks in which language, ideas, and behavior have been scrubbed of anything that might give offense. How utterly vapid to expect that adolescents want to see themselves in everything they read, as if they have no capacity to imagine worlds that extend beyond their own limited experience, as if they will be emotionally undone by learning about the world as it is.

At a time when an industry has grown up around the idea of teaching children to think critically, one of the worst things we can do is to discount children’s abilities and remove the need for them to develop reasoned thought and careful judgment. Or to teach children that the way to deal with disagreeable thoughts is to censor them. Much better to teach them to debate those thoughts and strengthen their arguments.

* Little Black Sambo, written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, unexpurgated edition

** The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, unexpurgated edition, at Project Gutenberg; audiobook versions at LibriVox and Project Gutenberg

September snow

Davy stood in front of the open window in the kitchen this morning, breathed in deeply and said what I really didn’t want to hear in Alberta in early September, “I can almost smell the snow coming”.

Poetry Friday: Mushrooms

It’s still Friday around here, for another two hours and 50 minutes, so technically I’m not late. It’s been a busy week, with swim club starting (requiring us to be in town four afternoons a week), an art lesson (we had just about forgotten what the art teacher looked like), and a make-up singing lesson today, just to make sure that we could be in town five days this week.

We had about an inch of rain last week, so with a bit more warmth and sunshine, the mushrooms should be coming up soon. Which made me think of

by Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless.

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

For more poetry fun, writer2b is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday round-up

The latest from the tar sands

From The Edmonton Sun, May 5, 2008:

Despite a public apology from Syncrude following the deaths of 500 ducks in one of the oil giant’s tailing ponds near Fort McMurray, an investigation by the province will continue, Premier Ed Stelmach said yesterday.

“I certainly thank them for the apology they gave the print media, but we will continue the investigation until we find out what happened,” he told reporters before taking part in the Bell Walk For Kids Help Phone event at Calgary’s Eau Claire Market.

“And once the investigation is complete, we’ll communicate that with Albertans – and also at the same time ensure that it doesn’t happen again,”

Syncrude, the world’s largest producer of synthetic crude oil, took out full-page ads in several Canadian newspapers on Saturday, including the Edmonton Sun, to apologize for the deaths of the ducks and to promise to improve operations so it doesn’t happen again.

The open letter was signed by Tom Katinas, the company’s president and CEO. …

While Stelmach said he appreciated the apology, he didn’t necessarily accept it. He said there are still several unanswered questions as to what happened and why.

Speaking in response, company spokesman Alain Moore said Syncrude acknowledges that the apology is only one component of the followup.

“Really, the biggest focus, the biggest energy, is around responding to the incident – but also doing a thorough investigation.”

Meanwhile, the company is also helping to pay for the work of cleaning and rehabilitating the surviving ducks – at a cost “in the low thousands.” …

In a further development, however, ConocoPhillips Canada reported Saturday that eight migratory birds – including three loons – had settled on a pond at the company’s Surmont oilsands project northeast of Fort McMurray.

One loon was found dead, but the cause is unclear.

“We are concerned about the loons, and are taking this very seriously,” senior vice-president Matt Fox said in a statement. “We’re working with the appropriate authorities to manage this situation.”

Speaking of government investigations, Greenpeace yesterday rightly called for an independent inquiry of what happened last week at Syncrude’s tailing pit. From Canwest News Service yesterday [emphasis mine]:

Greenpeace is calling for an independent public inquiry into the deaths of about 500 ducks that landed on a northern Alberta tailings pond last week.

Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, said at a news conference at the provincial legislature [in Edmonton] Monday that a government-led investigation into the incident at the Syncrude Canada oilsands mine is not enough.

“The ties between government and industry run too deep,” and bias is inevitable, said Hudema. The provincial government, he added, must also take responsibility for what happened.

Shamefully, Alberta’s Environment Minister Rob Renner thinks otherwise. Demonstrating that tin ear that seems to characterize Alberta Tories, Minister Renner said yesterday that he rejects Greenpeace’s call for an independent inquiry. Of course, antipathy between Greenpeace and the Tories is so high that if Greenpeace said the sky is blue, the party would say it’s pink.  From the same Canwest article:

…Renner reiterated his belief Monday that such questions are only a small part of a larger investigation.

“Right now, we’re focusing on what happened, how did it happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again,” he said.

Inside the legislature, Renner again faced tough questions from the opposition Liberals and New Democrats.

Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said he supported Greenpeace’s call for an inquiry.

“The stakes are so high here,” Taft said. “We’re talking about 50 square kilometers of liquid that’s so toxic that when 500 birds land on it, three come out alive.

“The public has a right to know what’s going on, how it’s being managed and most importantly, what’s going to happen in the future.”

Taft said the inquiry needs to cover oilsands operations, environmental monitoring, liability for any cleanup of tailings ponds and accountability for the duck deaths.

Both Taft and NDP Leader Brian Mason pressed the government for more environmental inspectors.

Hudema also demanded that the Stelmach government assemble a team to search other tailings ponds in the province for wildlife and other environmental infractions, saying the problem may be much more widespread than the public realizes.

“To believe an industry is going to report every single incident, every single spill, is to have too much faith in the industry,” he said, noting initial reports about the Syncrude incident first came in through an anonymous tipster, instead of company officials.

Alberta Environment conducted surprise inspections on all 13 oilsands tailings ponds last week, said ministry spokeswoman Kim Capstick.

The department is also working with another oilsands developer, ConocoPhillips, to make sure it deters more migratory birds from settling on a blowdown pond. Such a pond prepares recycled water and salty groundwater before it’s turned into steam.

The company first noticed three loons on the pond last Thursday and unsuccessfully tried to scare them away. Then, more birds landed Saturday and again attempts to scare them away failed.

One loon was found dead near the pond and is being examined to determine the cause of death.

Capstick said the water in the pond is less saline than seawater, but it has a high pH of 10.

That is almost as alkaline as ammonia. Lakes this alkaline can be caustic and burn almost anything that enters them. Animals must be specially adapted to survive in this kind of habitat.

ConocoPhillips’s senior vice-president of oilsands, Matt Fox, said Sunday the company was not originally required by the provincial government to put deterrents on the pond.

Greenpeace wants no new tailings ponds built and no existing ones expanded until better technology is available, and is seeking job protection for whistleblowers who have information on incidents at oilsands operations.

The group also wants to see stiffer penalties for oil companies that don’t meet environmental regulations.

The current maximum allowable fine of $1 million, Hudema said, is too small to affect an oil giant such as Syncrude. “For them, a million dollars is pocket change and is the cost of doing business,” he said.

Stelmach, who was shadowed by Greenpeace during the recent provincial election, has said Greenpeace doesn’t speak for Albertans. But Hudema pointed to opinion polls suggesting Albertans want a slowdown of oilsands development.

If the government doesn’t take action, Hudema said Greenpeace may launch a provincewide ad campaign itself, asking concerned citizens and oilsands workers to come forward if they have evidence of harm to wildlife and the environment.

Thank you, Greenpeace, and thank you Mike Hudema, who in a bit of good timing returned to Alberta last August to open a Greenpeace office in Edmonton.


“To plant a seed is a hopeful deed.”
— unknown gardener

It didn’t take more than a week, living with the new enormous south-facing window in the master bedroom, to realize that what I had was not a large sunny window seat but the perfect seed-starting greenhouse. I planted some seeds in early April — from the giant squash we bought and carved last fall, short-season watermelon and cantaloupe and tomatoes, cucumbers (an Italian variety that seems quite vigorous), zucchini (because you can’t have zucchini too soon), as well as purple zinnia, morning glories, and sunflower (you can’t have those blooming too soon either).

Here are a few shots, from which you can see that we still have to sand the drywall and do some painting; you can also see one of the raised bed gardens outside, where not much is growing yet. I suggested to Tom, shortly after I had the greenhouse idea, that we put off the finishing til after the seedlings move outdoors. I also suggested that I’d have more room for plants with a shelf, and instead of laughing or leaving the room, my husband the carpenter suggested a free-standing unit with a couple of shelves. Which is why I love the man.

A very fast growing giant squash seedling,

which makes me wonder if I’m going to wake up one morning with tendrils tickling my face.

I went back to the greenhouse in town yesterday, to show Tom some of the new University of Saskatchewan cherries, and we ended up buying three young shrubs, two Cupids and one Juliet, along with some annuals to put in one container together — a new variety of geranium called “Graffiti”, with jagged, pointed petals, sweet potato vine, and dark purple Angelonia angustifolia (summer snapdragon).

Water water everywhere…

When Tom and I heard the news earlier this week about the hundreds of ducks killed earlier this week when they landed on a Syncrude tailings “pond”, we both immediately thought of an article we had read late last year in albertaviews magazine; the article was “The Ponds” by the Calgary investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, in the November 2007 issue.

I can’t find a copy of the article online anywhere, but Nikiforuk wrote a similar article for The Globe & Mail the other month, “Liquid Asset: Could the oil sands, Canada’s greatest economic project, come undone simply because no one thought about water?” (March 28, 2008) which you can in fact still find online; many thanks to The Globe & Mail. I recommend it, even if you don’t live in Alberta or Canada because if you’re in North America, the question of an adequate and clean water supply applies to us all.

And back in January, The Globe & Mail ran a week-long series, “Shifting Sands: How Alberta’s Oil Boom Is Changing Canada Forever”, with articles and remarkable aerial pictures by noted Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.

From Andrew Nikiforuk’s timely and prescient Globe & Mail article, to wet your whistle, so to speak [any emphases mine]:

Some 90% of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for the oil sands ends up as waste in tailings ponds. Nearly a dozen ponds line both sides of the river and pose an enduring threat to the entire Mackenzie River basin. Many are already leaking and creating their own tainted wetlands. Even the pro-development Alberta Chamber of Resources considers this primitive form of long-term storage “a risk to the oil sands industry.”

The ponds, which contain a ketchup-consistency mix of water, oil and clay, give off a strong aroma of hydrocarbons and rarely freeze. Minnows dropped into the ponds die within 96 hours; unwary ducks get coated by surface oil and drown.

The ponds, like everything in the oil sands, are supersized. The dykes that contain the ponds can reach 100 metres in height. Although the ponds already cover 55 square kilometres of forest and muskeg, they’ve just begun. Within a decade, they will cover an area of 150 square kilometres.

According to the Alberta Chamber of Resources, the industry spits out six barrels of sand and 11/2 barrels of fine tailings for every barrel of oil it makes. Altogether, the ponds contain 5.5 billion cubic metres of sand and fluid waste.

Syncrude, the largest producer in the oil sands, also owns the largest tailing pond. Every day, Syncrude dumps 500,000 tons of tailings. The Syncrude Tailings Dam is deemed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to be the world’s largest dam by volume of construction material. The pond, built in 1973, covers 22 square kilometres and holds 540 million cubic metres of water, crud and sand. When China completes the Three Gorges Dam this year, Syncrude will surrender the record. “We are still second-best,” quips Randy Mikula, who has been studying the tailings waste problem for 22 years.

As the team leader on the subject at Natural Resources Canada’s CANMET Energy Technology Centre in Devon, Alberta, Mikula calls the tailings waste problem a “frightening” and vexatious issue. Engineers originally thought that the tailings waste would quickly settle, leaving clear water on top. But that never happened, thanks to what Mikula calls “the bad behaviour of clays.” He suspects the waste won’t settle to solid form for thousands of years. “So something has to be done.”

The prospect of a major dyke failure has also raised concerns. Every tailings pond contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), napthenic acids, heavy metals, salts and bitumen. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers reports that of 25 PAHs studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 are human carcinogens. Both PAHs and napthenic acids kill fish.

In 2003, the intergovernmental Mackenzie River Basin Board identified the tailings ponds as a singular threat. It noted that “an accident related to the failure of one of the oil sands tailing ponds could have a catastrophic impact on the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River basin.”

Peachey, Schindler and other water experts agree. Engineering studies also highlight an uncomfortable truth: The reliability of mine waste containment dykes is among the lowest of all earth-made structures. “The longer the tailings sit there, the more likely there will be a major extreme weather event and a big dyke failure,” predicts Peachey. In Schindler’s view, “the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez” if a dyke failed.

The Alberta government is getting worried. Preston McEachern calls the ponds his No. 1 concern: “We know they leak and we capture these leakages or let some fall into poor-quality water formations…but it’s the long term. What do we do as they build up?” The good news, concludes Mikula, is that both industry and government are pouring millions into research on containment.

The bad news is that there is already evidence of downstream health effects. Last November [2006], a study for the Nunee Health Board Society in Fort Chipewyan, 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, found elevated levels of mercury, arsenic and PAHs in local waters. The report asked if these contaminants were connected with dramatic increases in fish deformities and rare forms of cancer in the community, and called for a major health study. To date, the Alberta government has not taken up the recommendation.

Downstream users are worried. “We have tremendous concerns in terms of the pace of development and contamination issues,” says Michael Miltenberger, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources for the Northwest Territories. “What happens on the Athabasca affects people as far away as Inuvik.”

Open-pit mines aren’t the only big water users in the oil sands. About 80% of all bitumen deposits lie too deep in the ground for open-pit mining. To access these lower-quality deposits, the oil industry has developed a number of novel technologies. The most popular, steam-assisted gravity drainage, injects high-pressure steam into a bitumen formation with one pipe and then brings the melted hydrocarbon to the surface with another pipe.

Land leased for SAGD production now covers an area larger than Vancouver Island, which means that this kind of drilling could affect water resources over an area 50 times greater than the open-pit mines. The industry calculates that it takes about one barrel of raw water (sometimes taken from deep, salty aquifers) to produce a barrel of oil using SAGD. But researchers suspect it often takes much more water. “It’s just as big a problem as the mines, and it’s not going away,” adds Peachey. “And we don’t have a plan or strategy for it other than reducing water usage as fast as possible.”

SAGD’s thirst for water, mostly used to make steam, has a host of implications. Industry used to think that it needed only two barrels’ worth of steam to melt one barrel of bitumen out of deep formations. But the reservoirs have proved unco-operative. The multibillion-dollar Long Lake project south of Fort McMurray, a joint venture of Nexen and Opti Canada, originally predicted an average steam-to-oil ratio of 2.4:1. But the joint venture now forecasts a 3.3:1 ratio.

This dramatic but typical loss in efficiency means companies have to drain more aquifers to produce more steam. In order to heat the water, the companies purchase more natural gas, which, in turn, means more greenhouse-gas emissions. By some estimates, SAGD could ultimately consume the equivalent of the entire gas supply of Western Canada. “A lot of projects may prove uneconomic in their second or third phases because it takes too much steam to recover the oil,” says one Calgary-based SAGD developer, who asked to remain anonymous.

Due to the spectacular projected growth in SAGD (nearly $4 billion worth of construction a year until 2015), Alberta Environment can no longer accurately predict water demand. The Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based energy watchdog, reported that the use of fresh water for SAGD in 2004 increased three times faster than the government forecast of 5.4 million cubic metres a year. Despite the province’s effort to get companies to switch to salty groundwater, SAGD could still be drawing more than 50% of its volume from freshwater sources by 2015.

SAGD also generates formidable piles of waste. Companies can’t make steam without first desalinating the brackish water. An average SAGD producer generates as much as “15 million kilograms of salts and water-solvent carcinogens,” which simply gets trucked to landfills, the SAGD developer says. Because the waste could eventually contaminate groundwater, John Robertson of CH2M Hill calls the salt disposal problem “a perpetual care issue.” The anonymous SAGD developer adds, “There is no regulatory oversight of these landfills, and these problems will be enormously difficult to fix.”

But the biggest sleeper issue for SAGD production may be overall changes in the water table over time. “If you take out a barrel of oil from underground, it will be replaced with a barrel of water from somewhere,” explains Peachey. Here again, the lack of research data is problematic: Alberta “doesn’t have enough data to understand surface and groundwater connections” in the oil sands region, says Peachey.
Given SAGD’s record as a natural gas burner and producer of greenhouse gas emissions (three times that of conventional oil), both the Canadian government and the industry regard nuclear power as an energy alternative. The French nuclear giant Areva has said it can add four reactors to the province’s grid, while Energy Alberta Corp. has suggested building as many as 11 Candu reactors. While some of these reactors would provide power for bitumen mining, oil shale (a hard-rock form of bitumen) and SAGD operators, others would upgrade bitumen into marketable oil.

But that plan doesn’t solve the water problem, because nuclear power requires enormous volumes of water for cooling. It is estimated that just one reactor, proposed for Grimshaw, would require 20 times the amount of water used by the city of Calgary. Such a plant would also lose nearly 57 billion litres of water a year to evaporation.

The final act of the oil sands process will be reclamation of the land. The mining will eventually dig up an area that is the size of Lake Erie and is largely comprised of boreal wetlands. Wetlands are known as the “kidneys” of a watershed because they regulate flow and remove contaminants. According to Lee Foote, a wetlands specialist at the University of Alberta, no one really knows yet how to reclaim a fen, bog or peatland in the oil sands. He calculates that the cost of replacing the projected 96,000 hectares of mined wetland, depending on the replacement standards adopted, could, at $25,000 a hectare, range between $7 billion and $24 billion. “It’s a significant liability if it can be done at all,” Foote says.

Turning bitumen into cleaner oil requires “upgrading” to create a product that can be refined into fuels and petrochemicals. The process also requires — surprise — lots of water for cooling and refining. Thus, proposals to build as many as 15 upgraders outside Edmonton, along the North Saskatchewan River, have spawned yet another water controversy.

Given that the industry has neither the room nor the labour force to build more upgraders in Fort McMurray, a host of oil companies have proposed building nearly $30 billion worth of upgraders in the area east of Edmonton that has become Alberta’s industrial heartland. Three separate pipelines would supply the upgraders with fresh bitumen.

But the upgraders, like their bitumen-mining cousins, gulp lakes of water. The North West Upgrader, under construction by a Calgary firm, will annually use up to 5.6 billion litres of water from the North Saskatchewan—a river only a third the size of the Athabasca.

Last year, a report done by the engineering firm Morrison Hershfield for Strathcona and Sturgeon counties added up the water footprint for the upgrader boom. Each facility would require anywhere between 16 and 20 megalitres of water a day — the equivalent of six to eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. By 2026, their daily thirst could amount to between 200 and 240 megalitres or the equivalent of more than 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools. In contrast, the city of Edmonton uses 350 megalitres a day and returns most of that water to the river in treated form. The upgraders, however, won’t do that: Some 70% of the water will be consumed or lost to evaporation.

The oil patch rates as the North Saskatchewan basin’s second-highest water user (18%), behind other industry in general. The upgrader boom, however, will make the petroleum sector No. 1. In fact, a recent report for the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance says that “nearly all of the projected increase in surface water use will be in the petroleum sector.” By 2015, the upgraders’ demands on the river will increase water use by 278%, and, by 2025, by 339%. John Thompson, author of the report, says the absence of an authoritative study on the river’s ecosystem remains the central issue. “We don’t know what it takes to maintain the river’s health.”

A long read, but you can, and should, read the rest here.

Big Birthday Bash week: February 11

“Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction — faith in fiction is a damnable false hope.”
Thomas A. Edison

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Thomas A. Edison

Many happy returns to Thomas Alva Edison, born February 11, 1847.

(And to Elsa Beskow, Joe Mankiewicz, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Leslie Nielsen)

The Edison National Historic Site is here

GeekDad has a nice Edison birthday post, which links to Neatorama‘s neat birthday post

Suggested present: free books from HarperCollins

Suggested cake, just because I like the way it looks: Baking BitesGiant Hostess Cupcake