And as a boy I loved it.
The clear blue sky
Reflected in the shining surface
Of the lakes –
The old stone house,
Resplendent on the hill,
Our home.

It has been my pleasure recently to read Don Warren’s new book, The House on the Hill:  Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son.  (Trafford, 2008).

The first section consists of Don’s memories from the twenties up to World War II.  The second is a sanitized version of his military experiences, and the volume concludes with a collection of poems he has written over the years.

The Lockmaster’s House at Chaffey’s Locks is very much at the centre of this book. At the end of a long wagon ride from Newboro in his seventh year, Don took one look at the big house on the hill and fell in love with it, ghosts and all.  As he gives a lively account of the exploration of his new home, I kept checking back to the photographs he included in the volume.  I hadn’t known about the footbridge across the spillway to the rear entrance of the Mill.  I wish I could have seen the eels tumbling through the current on their way to the Atlantic.

Don’s accounts of battles with Daisy the Cow and early skirmishes with Opinicon guests with sensitive noses make it evident that the young man will not turn out to be a farmer.  The campfire sing-alongs, practical jokes, outhouse mishaps and thefts from his mother’s garden provide a warm and amusing picture of life at the lockstation during the Great Depression.

Then, as now, a lockmaster must be an agent of the government.  Don recounts his father having to tell the Chaffey’s fishing guides that they could no longer camp on the property in order to make more space for visitors from the capital.  Don carries his father’s shame at this act of “democracy” to this day.

Understandably, some of the best sequences in the memoir concern fishing.  Don lists detailed instructions on the construction of a “bob” for fishing bullheads in early spring.   He offers a few tales of his guiding experiences, as well.  For the talented young fisherman largemouth bass were seldom a problem to catch, but he greatly admired the style and equipment of the wealthy clients who came to fish for them.

Don’s remarkably modest throughout the book, and this no doubt takes away from the military saga, Guys in Gaiters.  Like many who have signed the official secrets act, Don explained to me that he preferred to concentrate on the army hi-jinks rather than explain what he was actually doing outside Antwerp during the later stages of the war.  “If it seems as though I had a four-year vacation in Europe during the war, I guess that’s a chance I have to take, but I did get shot at four times during that interval.”

Not much detail of the action sneaks into his account, though one paragraph does mention being left behind at Ardenes, Holland as the Allied forces pulled back to avoid a full-on German attack.  Don explained, “What happened was that four or five of us were left behind to warn of any enemy attack by tanks.  The trouble was that they had to be within 3000 yards for us to intercept their wireless signals.  This meant we had to be left far behind the rest of our unit.”

A member of the 3 Canadian Special Service Company, Don trained in signals interception on the Isle of Man.  One paragraph mentions Don’s crew’s discovery of a coded German radio message which went out immediately before the firing of every V2 rocket.  This insight created quite a stir in intelligence circles because it provided the people of England with an early warning of each V2 attack. This reduced the threat of Hitler’s terror weapon.

But the best part of the book is the poetry.  Don presents a great variety of rhymes, ranging from the ribald antics of The Ballad of Peter Milan, to the timeless portrait Woman of War. But Don won’t hold a serious mood for long, so these give way to the driving rhythms and the lively wit of Lesson for Old Age Dodgers:

So pull up those aged pants
Give old ways a different slant
Take a lesson from the youngsters in the crowd

The reader must not miss The Ballad of Senator Bill.  It deals humorously with an accusation of indecent exposure at the Narrows Lock.  Canoeists are apparently a vengeful lot, and in the ballad Don makes shrewd use of the rumour mill to deal with their tormentor.

The poem Old Age shows the hell of sitting with boxes of multi-coloured pills, blear-eyed and aching, “with conversations centering on the dying and the dead.”  Nestled between those of his children, Don Warren’s home couldn’t be further from this drear scene.  With a brave little dog watching his every move, a flock of turkeys at his window, swans on the ice below and a bevy of songbirds in his garden, Don traces with coffee cups and all-nighters his progress through the next volume of his memoirs.  He’s in his eighty-ninth year.

Donald H. Warren.  The House on the Hill:  Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son.  Trafford Publishing.  2008.  ISBN:  978-1-4251-6019-7

$17.00

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One of the most splendid public institutions in Eastern Ontario is the Experimental Farm in Ottawa.  Originally conceived as a model farm to demonstrate developments in agriculture such as winter wheat, the farm has continued to fulfill its mandate long after progress should have passed it by.  The farm is the city’s jewel, an outpost of spacious greenery in a bustling urban landscape.

Walnut grower Neil Thomas has accumulated data on most stands of black walnuts in Eastern Ontario, and in his opinion the trees on Experimental Farm property near the Civic Hospital are the best he has seen.  I dropped by to gather some seed after a morning appointment.  Staff encourage the gathering of nuts from these trees, and Ottawa friends have reported seeing tree lovers stuffing the green nuts into shopping bags and baskets, laying in their supply for winter while the squirrels scold from above.

After filling all of the grocery bags I could find in my vehicle, I decided to venture over to the Arboretum in search of a shagbark hickory.  Leeds County Stewardship Coordinator  Martin Streit found one in our woodlot, but it’s a small, scrawny specimen, locked in a death struggle with a towering walnut and unlikely to survive.  Martin told me about the edible nuts this strain of hickory produces, so I thought I might try to plant a few if I could find seeds.

Not quite knowing where to look, I did the logical thing:  I flagged down a golf cart and asked the driver.  She directed me to the Friends of the Experimental Farm building, in the Arboretum just off the traffic circle south of Dow’s Lake.  I wandered through a corridor of offices until someone looked out an open door.  I asked if they had any shagbark hickory in the area.  Blank look.  An obvious language problem.  I had no idea how to translate my request, but the pleasant-looking middle-aged man turned to the younger man beside him with a quizzical look. “Carya, I think. Let me look it up.”  With me in tow he dashed down the corridor to a sort of closet, where he started rifling through a set of index cards.  “Yep, carya ovata, not carya cordiformis. There’s one just outside, across the parking lot.  Would you like me to show you?”

Away we went out a side door, and across an open space to a beautifully manicured park with a large shagbark hickory as its centerpiece.  The man looked at a tag implanted in the bark on an ingenious spring system anchored by two long brass screws.  It listed the tree’s Latin name, as well as the translation into the vulgate, “shagbark hickory” and the year of the tree’s planting.

I asked how often it produces seeds.  The guy didn’t know, but pulled down an overhanging branch and showed me some.  “Go ahead and pick any you can reach.  Check back with me if you need anything.”  I offered my surprised thanks, and away he went.

Pockets bulging with hickory nuts, I stumbled back across the parking lot, only to encounter the lady on the golf cart again.  I thanked her for the directions and asked if they had any butternuts with seeds in the Arboretum.  She gave directions to a couple of trees, but saw my blank look every time she used the word “walk”.  Hey, my pockets were bulging with hickory nuts!

Before long we were gliding over the lawns in an electric, four-passenger Club Car, her personal ride at the Experimental Farm, where she is a head hand, Ornamental Gardens division.  To my dismay I have lost her name.  (Madam, if you read this, please post a comment with your name, and that of the other guy, O.K?  I need them for a Review Mirror column. Thanks.)  Down a grassy hill we zoomed, fetching up at the bottom next to a small aesculus glabra, or Ohio Buckeye.  That’s American for a chestnut, I guess.  I picked up a nut on the ground.  She nodded, so I tore the thick, spongy husk away, to reveal a bright, chestnut-coloured, uh, chestnut.  Cool.  She told me you can eat them, as long as you don’t overdo it, at which point they become poisonous because of the high concentration of tannin in the nut.

Off we went on our quest for the perfect caryocar nuciferum, or butternut tree.  She stopped at two more carya ovata to show me how the young ones grow.

Conversation veered to heartnuts, so the cart took a detour through a tall stand of spruces to the juglans section.  I knew that one.  Juglans nigra is the black walnut.  What I hadn’t known is how many subspecies of black walnut they have growing at the Arboretum.

A large juglans ailantifolia – that’s a heartnut – graced a small knoll next to a dwarf black walnut and a magnificent full-sized black walnut planted in 1885, according to the tag on the trunk.

I explained my desire to learn how to graft heartnut branches onto black walnut rootstock.  My guide led me to believe that it might not be hard to time my grafting with some pruning of the heartnut tree at the Arboretum.

Off to the butternut tree.  We passed below a tall bluff with a carefully maintained grassy slope to the river below.  Sitting on the railing of a parking lot at the top of the hill were a number of dog owners, tossing frizbees and tennis balls down the slope for their eager retrievers who didn’t mind at all having to race up and down the steep hill.  The Arboretum has a leashes-optional policy and the dog owners flock to the exquisite park with their charges.

We arrived at the butternut tree and lo and behold, there were butternuts on the ground under it!  I’d never seen this many butternuts in one place before in my life.  The squirrels nab them first thing in our area.  I guess the grays in the park have so many hickories they haven’t had time yet for butternuts.  Whoever mowed the lawn had kindly moved a good quantity of the nuts into a pile out of the way next to the trunk

My guide encouraged me to take them and plant them, so I headed back up the hill to the office and my vehicle with a bagful of butternuts for seed, as well as the hickories, two buckeyes, and one pecan.

My V.I.P. tour of the Arboretum could hardly have been more pleasant or informative.  This large, friendly park is truly the jewel in the crown of Ottawa’s green spaces, and I encourage tree-lovers to visit frequently.

The Beast

September 7, 2008

We all make compromises as we go through life.  Some things which seemed important turn out less crucial when we weigh their cost, but occasionally there remains a glimmer, a spark, of what might have been.

It started the day I drove my first Volkswagen and it never went away, the fantastical dream, someday, to own a Porsche.  Every bump I lurched over in my old Beetle, every corner terrifyingly cut by the back axles tucking under the car – I forgave it because, beneath the rust and flaking paint, it was at heart a Porsche.

My first new car, of course, was a VW Beetle.  I had gazed longingly at the green 911 beside it, but it cost ten times what the Beetle did, and the only way I’d ever be able to afford one would be to spend three years in law school, and I just didn’t think it was worth it.

Nevertheless I deferred the decision while I taught for a couple of years. Two weeks of jury duty sickened me on the legal system, so I reconciled myself to a life of VW’s and the teaching career for which I had conceived a sneaky affection.  If it was a Porsche and the court room or a VW and a class full of eager kids, then I’d take the Volkswagen and like it because from the beginning I derived an inordinate kick out of messing with teenage minds.

Then I got old and bought my first Toyota, the vehicle for those who don’t like to think about automobiles.  My car nerve went numb.  This was not without its compensations:  I was happier, less stressed, and I gained all of my demerit points back.  Police officers smiled at me occasionally.  Waves from pedestrians often involved more than one finger.  Gas mileage improved dramatically, and Toyotas run very well, even if their steering is, to put it kindly, a bit vague.

And of course, for real driving excitement all I had to do was try to bush-hog the horse pasture with its cadre of sunken boulders waiting beneath the hay, or manoeuvre a load of logs out a convoluted trail in the woods.

The golf cart became my favourite car.  I had willingly descended into geezerhood, and then this week, like a bolt of lightning, my car nerve came alive again.

Our son Charlie drove into the yard with a 1988 Porsche 944s.  Argh!  All those temptations I had let drift away into that fond, vague field of remembrance – they came roaring back with a vengeance and I HAD TO DRIVE THIS CAR!  Oh, I was cool about it.  I looked it over, nodding at little details, chatting small talk.  But it called to me and before long I was sitting in the driver’s seat.  The leather bolsters enfolded my spine and muttered in my ear, “Let’s start up and go somewhere far away!”

From the passenger seat Charlie slid the key into the ignition.  Well, o.k.  What can it hurt?  I hit the starter and the beast roared to life.  Keeping up the disinterested façade, I asked:  “What’s the clutch like?”  I didn’t listen to the answer.  I knew what it would be like, so I fed fire to the beast and out the lane we moved, smoothly, stalking, hiding beneath the veneer of civility.  “Nice car, good air conditioning, no rattles, good ride.”  But silently the beast was gripping my spine and saying, “Let’s see what we can do!”

I behaved myself on the way in the Chaffey’s Locks Road, and did my best to impersonate a geezer taking his kid’s new car for a drive.  But then I saw a couple of s-turns without any traffic and the beast cut loose.  Man, can that car go!  It’s not the straight-line acceleration:  pretty well any modern car can do that.  But the thing corners like, well, like a Porsche.  Steering is right there.  No vagueness at all.  The gearshift is actually a bit tricky if driven moderately.  Slam it through a corner at high rev’s though, and it works just right.

It’s been a long time since I have pulled any g’s with a car, but this Porsche left me feeling like that guy with the restored Mustang in the A&W commercial where he takes his wife out for a burger.  All the forgotten lusts came rushing back.

I turned the car back to our son, who fortunately doesn’t seem to have inherited his father’s wild streak.

For him the car seems to be a mechanical puzzle to be analyzed and savoured.  First thing he did was download the 350 page factory manual onto his laptop.  The second was to make friends with a Porsche mechanic.  The third was to clean the car.

The rest of the afternoon it sat on jack stands while Charlie inspected the underside for loose fittings and corrosion, spraying with oil as he went.

He no doubt likes the beast:  his new Audi continues to sit in our yard while he drives the old one. I know he’s a much better driver than I and I hope he’ll have the sense to keep safe – and hide the Porsche keys from his dad.