A journey to Canadian War Memorials

A marker found in many of the war cemeteries

Another Remembrance Day is on the horizon. Each year at this time, the sacrifices of so many in decades past, as well as in recent years, is brought back to mind with images and stories. I’m glad the stories of veterans’ experiences have been collected and archived to help keep this aspect of our history alive. As I’ve watched the televised ceremonies from war memorials both in Canada and in Europe, I’ve often thought how much more meaningful it would be to visit some of them, to stand on the actual sites of battles and see how they are commemorated.

Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, near Ypres, Belgium

So the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2019 was the perfect excuse to visit the historic Second World War sites where so many Canadian soldiers gave their lives for our freedom. We chose an escorted motor coach tour of cemeteries and associated memorials and museums around Normandy, and, with the relative proximity and abundance of First World War cemeteries such as the iconic Vimy Ridge Memorial, into the Ypres Salient as well.

But would it be a sad or morbid journey, in view of the tens of thousands of graves that dot the Normandy countryside and beyond? In fact, it was a tangible affirmation of all that I’d read, both nonfiction and historical fiction, of the depth of loss in that dark time. Hard to imagine, though, the lush green farmland and tidy villages we drove through as, twice, a killing field. Seeing first hand the serene, carefully tended resting places where white gravestones stood in recognition showed me the degree of homage that continues to be paid to the Allied liberators of Europe. It elevated my appreciation of the value of their sacrifice to my own and future generations. Every Canadian should see these sites, not only to remember personal ancestors but also to realize why such catastrophic events must never be repeated.

My brief article with photos about this tour is posted at https://guide2travel.ca/2019/10/a-journey-of-remembrance-to-canadian-war-memorials/

Advertisements

Katie and Gulliver

Katie waited for Gulliver’s familiar, raucous wake-up call. Instead, she heard sparrows arguing in the bushes beside the cottages. She heard fishing boats chug away in the morning mist. She heard wavelets slurp-slop under the wooden docks. She didn’t hear Gulliver.

“Maybe he missed the ferry,” Dad teased.

“Bet he found a new girlfriend,” said Uncle Ralph.

Katie pushed the cereal around in her bowl. “He’s not coming.”

“Wait and see,” Dad said, and Uncle Ralph agreed.

My short story, “Katie and Gulliver”, has been published in the July/August issue of Cricket Magazine. I’ve had quite a long association with this US literary publication, one of the best markets for the children’s short stories I love to write; they’ve published 9 of them since 1992.

Katie has grown to love a distinctive one-legged gull that turns up whenever she visits Uncle Ralph’s seaside resort. Gulliver has arrived every summer since Katie was a baby, keeping an eye on her and alerting her dad and uncle to hazards she encountered. Now ten, Katie watches and waits until the last day of holidays. But this summer….no Gulliver. Her decision to search for him outside the protected harbor almost ends badly. Except, it seems, Gulliver is still her guardian angel…

This story explores the special connection that sometimes exists between humans and animals, and how that bond endures. It may border on fantasy, depending on what you choose to believe. But it was inspired by reality: a visit to an RV park along BC’s Sunshine Coast over 20 years ago.

 

The lively setting was the catalyst: the campground occupied a terraced slope on the shore of a rocky harbour.

 

Small sailboats chased the wind,  sea birds circled, salty smells wafted from seaweeds tangled in driftwood and the tide gave up, then took back curious treasures.

While shorebirds searched the sand and rocks, or gulls screamed overhead, there was no one-legged gull that I recall. He flew into my imagination as I looked for a central theme, a way to connect Katie’s coming-of-age closely with nature.      But, who knows, maybe there is a Gulliver out there. For sure, the human-animal bond exists. If you read my story, I hope the setting and characters come to life for you….and then let your imagination do the rest.

 

 

 

Showy visitors

Since I am part of the Save Shuswap Songbirds committee, I’m always watching  for birds that fit the description of ‘songbird’ — a small perching bird that sings well. Called passerines, they belong to the order Passeriformes. Various kinds comprise nearly half of all the world’s 10,000 bird species. A suborder, oscines, are the award-winning songsters. Passerines share a physical characteristic of having three toes pointing forward, and one backward which assists with grasping a perch.

One example, this western tanager, is a woodland songbird found in western North America. We often see them in spring and fall in the tall cedars behind the house. British Columbia is within its breeding territory so it may nest nearby. Its song is a bit like that of a robin with a scratchy throat. Its brilliant colors are reminiscent of tropical birds, so it is a treasured sighting here – and even moreso when it this visible.

While we are on the subject of toes, here’s something different: it’s a pileated woodpecker that is called a ‘near-passerine’. Although it also inhabits woodlands, like other woodpeckers it has zygodactyl feet. That means four toes with the first and fourth facing backward and the second and third facing forward. Better for gripping and climbing tree trunks, it seems.

 

It might not come to mind when thinking of a songbird, as its clarion voice could hardly be described as melodious. Seen on and off all year around this area, it arrived one day to clean out the suet from my feeder.

Saving for a snowy day…

Our winter finally arrived last week with below normal temperatures. Some snow, although we escaped the big storms that have hit the coast, and the extreme cold and winds of the prairies. (Note to self: no regrets about moving west of the mountains!). Feel sorry for the birds at this time of year, so I try to keep the feeder filled. Although I’ve wondered why they have ignored the super-abundance of mountain ash berries in the neighborhood…including on our own tree that has fruit for the first time in its 10 years. Today, I think I know the answer.

Could it be they’ve been saving this nutritious food supply for a ‘snowy’ day? Yesterday morning in bright sunshine, huge flocks of Bohemian waxwings and a couple of dozen robins began swirling around the berry-bearing trees in every yard along the street. They descended on a small one growing wild on our front bank and within half an hour, had stripped it bare. I think they’ve dined on other food for months, using the berries as insurance against the hungry days of late winter. Smart plan, and maybe we can recall this strategy to help forecast future, late season, cold spells.

Bohemian waxwings and robins

One special visitor showed up with the robins: a varied thrush. It is similar in appearance to its robin cousins, but has a black breast-band, orange eyebrow and wingbars. Often solitary, it will flock with robins when foraging for berries. And it will be one of the earlier spring birds I’ll hear calling—a strong single note—from a high perch.

The snow continues to drift down. My walk around the block was a brisk one. And the mountain ash outside my window is bare. But hopefully all those birds are fluffed up, digesting a fine meal.

 

Ending the year on a rare note…

Big excitement around here after the annual Christmas Bird Count on December 16! One of the groups doing the Count around Salmon Arm (not mine, too bad) had the good fortune to make an extremely rare sighting: a fieldfare. This thrush is found in Europe, Asia and North Africa, although it may winter in Iceland. But to find it in the BC Interior is almost unheard of—in fact this is only the second ever sighting in the entire province. Speculation is that it arrived from Russia via Alaska, perhaps travelling with the robins that it has chosen to hang out with.

 

Here’s my best shot, only good enough for evidence that I really saw the bird. Now I can rightfully add it to my personal Life List as #501.

 

To see an amazing photo, go here: http://bcbirdalert.blogspot.com/ 

To date, the fieldfare has been in the same location for 2 weeks. Once the word got out in a local newspaper report and a posting on the BC Rare Bird Alert along with stunning photos by a Shuswap Naturalist Club member, keen observers have arrived outside the rural home. The garden is bordered by mountain ash trees which, like they are everywhere around here this winter, were weighed down with berries. The hefty crop that has attracted robins and waxwings is making for an easy-to-access banquet for the birds.

American Robin

Happy New Year and many birds for your list!

Once in a lifetime…

We all look for those moments, don’t we? We may not even realize at the time that what we are seeing, or doing, could be a once-in-lifetime experience. How many such special moments will we be lucky enough to have? I have friends who used that sentiment as their email address while globetrotting; they certainly recognized the significance of their adventure.

Green sea turtle on Big Island

 

Some of my own unique times have involved nature observations: the glimpse of a rare Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica (sadly no photo); standing in the water while a green sea turtle checked out my feet in Hawaii.

 

I thought my 1993 sightings that added up to 26 whooping cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas would be once-in-a-lifetime too. They’d been elusive in all of our searches in Saskatchewan for years.

 

So here’s the best photo of that experience, taken with an old print camera. Only good enough to prove it was there.

 

But this fall, I had the amazing opportunity to see 120-140 whooping cranes in one flock, an hour or so north of Saskatoon. Other birders who saw them reported a high count of 156, some saw fewer but mostly over 100. The elegant birds stepped along the edges of a slough and stood among hay bales around it. A few stretched their wings and gave their distinctive bugle-like call that I won’t soon forget.

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D. Young

Photo by D.Young

 

I was traveling to a writing workshop—we’d taken a detour, with knowledge of the cranes’ whereabouts— so I had no binoculars or camera. My friend took the photos (thanks for sharing these, Dianne), and we had only her telephoto lens to help us count.

What an incredible sight! I hadn’t expected to have one of those ‘moments’ that day.

 

 

Fruits of Fall

On a recent trip to the West Kootenays in BC, I found a couple of plants that invited closeup photos. Both are familiar: one is a shrub, often found in my home area, in fact, and even around the edges of my garden. The other is a tree I seldom see because it isn’t native to BC.

DSC_4382

The bush is snowberry—but I think a couple of its other names, waxberry and ghost berry, are utterly appropriate. They grow wild around vacant properties near my home (and across Canada), but this one was planted as an ornamental in a small formal garden below the hotel in Nakusp where we spent a night.

DSC_4392

Apparently it is unusual precisely for those white berries (known as drupes) which not many plants produce. I’ve seldom seen anything eat them so they may persist right through the fall and winter. But sources says they are on the menu of bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer and grizzly bears, as well as some birds. Even though they are poisonous to humans, that shouldn’t stop you from using a branch or two of them as fall decorations on the front door.

The tree belongs to the red oak family which has pointed leaf lobes. This oak isn’t native to western Canada, and so was planted as an ornamental on the walkway that runs alongside the Upper Arrow Lake which forms part of the Columbia River passing by Nakusp.

 

DSC_4395

I collected an acorn (they’re also called oak nuts, of course) from those littered under the trees. Growing up in Ontario, where oaks are common, I remember painting faces on these rotund little figures with jaunty brown berets. We can eat them, but they take considerable work to process: cracking, soaking in water to reduce the amount of bitter tannin, roasting, grinding. Best leave them for jays, ducks, squirrels, mice, deer, rabbits and other critters. Acorn woodpeckers relish them, obviously, but that bird’s habitat is far south of BC (we saw them at Clear Lake, CA) where oak forests provide this main diet item.

DSC_4406