Philadelphia's Magic Gardens (Isaiah Zagar)

Rewind – Travel in 2016 (2); Philadelphia Freedom

It was almost with trepidation that we took off for US WordCamp in Philadelphia at the end of November. In the wake of the Trump election victory, even before his inauguration and what has followed, US travel already seemed somehow less appealing.

Justice, equality and freedom of the press

The Liberty BellIn the event, I am really glad that we were there in that moment. It was a reminder of so much that is good in America. To stand beside the Liberty Bell was particularly poignant. To read of past success in the struggle against injustice and inequality was a heartening reminder that there always have been and still are many who will fight for the best of what it is to be human.

We had a day together in which to explore. The Liberty Bell was a ‘must see’. Benjamin Franklin’s printing press resonated well with our attendance at WCUS. After all, WordPress specifically seeks to democratize publishing. Franklin’s grandson’s statement on the freedom of the press is as relevant now as it as ever been.

Old Philadelphia

We mooched around the historic area, delighting in Elfreth’s Alley, one of the oldest streets in North America, where some houses date back to the 1720s. Later,  we ambled through the very elegant Society Hill.

The weird, the wonderful and the truly magical

As we wandered, we chanced on the fabulous Center for Art in Wood, as well as a weird and wonderful exhibition of pipes. This latter was somewhat outside our normal sphere of interest, but absolutely amazing glass work!

All the while, we were heading towards Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.  These are indeed magical, both for the immersive visual experience and the sense of art as driver for community regeneration. Isaiah Zagar is a mosaic artist on a huge scale, reminiscent of Gaudi but drawing on many other influences, in particular Folk Art. Started in 1994, the Magic Gardens form a hub for the regeneration of the South Street area of Philadelphia; Zagar’s first mosaics in the area go back to the 1960s.

Full Moon, Isaiah Zagar
We even brought our own small piece of Zagar’s work home with us. He titled it ‘Full Moon’, but we also make an association to the Blue Moon. Those of you who know our history will remember that this has a very personal significance for us!

 

The perfect end to a perfect day, Little Fish was one of the best fish restaurants we’ve ever discovered!

The next few days were conference days. In the evenings, though, we made the most of the seasonal spirit with a trip to the Christmas market and to Macy’s Christmas light show.

Passion, democratization, accessibility and community

WCUS itself was a fascinating experience for someone who functions at the edge of the WordPress community. What stays with me is the depth of commitment to making WordPress accessible to all. In 2016 there were 115 WordCamps in 41 countries, with close to 90% of the costs (though not the travel) covered by sponsors.

WordPress is available in 50 languages and there is a strong push for internationalization and accessibility. All this exists in the context of a code-base  written by volunteers (Paul has ‘core commits’ in a number of WordPress releases).

The third day of the conference was ‘Contributor Day’.Hundreds of people gave a full day of their time to coding, bug fix, testing, review, documentation, translation and more. In five years, the WordPress market share has grown from 13% to 27% of the web and this effort is what underpins it. What a fantastic model for social co-operation! 

While Paul focused on the more technical sessions and networking, I tapped into the wider content. Topics included ‘Version Control Your Life’, ‘Five Newsroom Tips for Better Website Content’, ‘Care and Feeding of Your Passion’, as well as a really helpful session on releasing a WordPress product.

‘Darth Vader wins over Yoda every time!’

Perhaps most pertinent to world events was a great talk on ‘The Dark Side of Democratization’. It seems that content that elicits emotional response is what goes viral, particularly if it arouses anger (hence the headline quote!). Therefore we all need to cultivate an ability to evaluate both our emotional response to content and the ‘facts’ in a post-truth world. An interesting suggestion was the importance of monitoring ‘news’ from sources that reflect the people who don’t think like you, engaging with understanding and tolerance, not judgement.

You can find’ the full 40 min session at https://dennis.blog/democratization/,  together with a great set of resource links including fact checkers.

Partying with dinosaurs

Partying with dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences

The ‘corridor stream’ is always a key element of any WordCamp and the after-party is a fun extension of this. In this case, we partied with dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural Sciences, making some useful contacts while were were about it!

A Sunday stroll

While Paul was delving into core code, I made a solo Philly foray. The Barnes Foundation, established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture”, houses a wonderful collection displayed in a quite unique style. The Museum of Art would definitely have been overload, though I did stand on the famous steps. Instead, I wandered on up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway behind the museum to the elegant Lemon Hill Mansion, all decked out for Christmas and picturesque Boathouse Row, enjoying the mild December sunshine.

Google Album – Philadelphia 2016 (more photos!)

Sunset over Cayo Coco

Rewind – Travel in 2016 (1); Cuba in Springtime

Travel wasn’t top of our list in 2016. With the move to rural life there was both too much to do and too much uncertainty about timing really to plan a proper ‘vacation’. Indeed, our summer holiday was, very intentionally, ‘cottage time’ in our new home.

Back at the start of the year, though, I saw a certain tiredness in Paul and, recognizing the long-haul ahead, took the unusual step for us of planning a week away with a focus on doing very little.

Escape into a Cuban Spring

Sugar cane and rum (fresh Pina Colada is a whole different experience!); scuba-diving blessed by the appearance of dolphins  for Paul while I snorkeled the reef; lots of much needed doing nothing round the pool, interspersed with dance classes, tai-chi and water volleyball; a little exploring with glimpses of plantations, mangroves, a crocodile farm and the decaying colonial grandeur of Ciego De Avila and Moron; and, always, the rhythms – rumba, salsa, cha-cha . . .

Honestly, I’m not sure whether or not we will go back to Cuba. There is genuinely a great sense of welcome, even in a somewhat anodyne resort area. But there is also a feeling of smoke and mirrors; things are not entirely what they seem, a lot of the time you see what you are supposed to see, and there are aspects of the Cuban regime and culture that I find difficult and unsettling. We are not very good at ‘resorts’, and, though ours was very good of its kind, that may have influenced my perceptions. Maybe if we go back to ‘travel’, really to see the country rather than laze . . . but I feel there may be other places that call to me more strongly.

Google Photo Album – Cuba

Winter wonder and magic – art and nature

Yesterday we returned from three magical days outside time in Wakefield, just north of Ottawa on the edge of Gatineau Park; days in which to wonder at the way winter transforms the landscape.

‘A Modern Indigenous Master’

First, though, we took in some magic of a different kind; a fabulous retrospective of the work of Alex Janvier, one of Canada’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, at the National Gallery.

As an indigenous artist who himself was torn from his family and culture and sent to a reidential school at age eight, some of Janvier’s work references very directly the suffering experienced by indigenous people in Canada. At times it is, quite rightly and very movingly, political and outraged. But there is also huge vitality, spirituality and joy. I felt with many of his works that I could sit and be with just one piece for a long time and keep finding new elements and insights. 

Winter – transformation and meditation

Wakefield MillOur destination was Wakefield Mill, a lovely converted 19th-century flour mill on the banks of the Gatineau River, surrounded by 24 acres of forest.  We arrived the day after a minor ice-storm; the roads had been cleared and the journey was fine, but, without significant subsequent snow-fall, even the day after we arrived was exceptionally icy and treacherous. Despite this, we managed to try out our new snow-shoes on a short trail behind Wakefield’s covered bridge.

 

 

I find the light and sparkle of snow, the dampened sound cut through with the crunch of a crisp crust cracking underfoot, the distorted forms of rocks and trees, the transformation of running water into constantly changing sculptures, entrancing.  

This is the best of meditations; I am effortlessly present,  ‘just being’. For me, winter makes it easy to access the child’s wonder and joy.

 

A second outing before we started for home saw us climbing fairly steeply up through woods to a peak above the village where we could look out across the white expanse below – stunning! We looped back down a gentler trail, the first folks through after six inches or so of snow the day before.

pano_20161230_121746-1

 

Of course, every homecoming is also a gift living here; today we were gifted Alice in winter pastels . . .  (Alice is the first island we see as we look out across Cranberry Lake!).

Alice in winter pastels

 

Google Album (more photos!)

Loving the land

One of the things that has surprised me about our move is the intensity of my feeling towards our 2.5 acres of land.

I am awed that we have shoreline, Shield rock, woodland, wetland and meadow, all in this small space!

I had not anticipated the strong sense not so much of ownership but of stewardship that I feel. I want to do right by the land and the creatures that share it with us.

As winter approaches, we are working hard to get the external jobs done. Putting away kayaks and garden furniture, blowing and gathering up some but not all the leaves for compost (the layer on the grass would be just too deep otherwise and the compost will be so useful), cutting wood, replenishing paths . . .

Timber . . . !

We had something like seven trees felled last weekend, which sounds more drastic than it was.

A Basswood (Linden) was partly uprooted in our wood and had to come down for safety, taking at least one other tree (cherry) with it. Then there was a dead Elm in the wetland.

Otherwise it was what the locals consider a ‘weed tree’, four Manitoba Maples (Box Elder, Ashleaf Maple). They shoot up everywhere, are very brittle, don’t burn particularly hot and are perceived as a nuisance. We had one threatening our garage, septic system and the neighbours’ power lines and another that would have also grown through the power lines.

We now have a lot of logs to split (the start of our firewood for the winter of 2017/18) and smaller branches to feed through a wood chipper. The resulting chips are awesome for replenishing our path down to the shore and for creating our way through the woods.

On the plus side, the weather has been largely sunny and mild and doing physical work outside appeals to both of us so much more than going to a gym.

It could take a while though!

Brass Point Bridge - View at Dusk

The next chapter: moving rural (3)

That sense of homecoming finds constant affirming echoes. Seeley’s Bay is a little smaller than Tisbury[1] and Kingston rather bigger than Salisbury[2] but there is a comfortable resonance. The Bath Stone I grew up with is oolitic limestone; Kingston is known as the ‘Limestone City’. As the original capital of Upper Canada, Kingston has older buildings (if not ‘old’ by European standards) than much of Canada, from elegant mansions to more humble cottages, as does the surrounding area. Kingston’s Springer Market Square evokes memories of Salisbury’s market and especially of trips to the fair. There will always be an inward smile when we go to a play Thousand Island’s Playhouse; Salisbury Playhouse was one of the treasures of my early life (so awesome to find a really rich theatrical culture around us here).

Kingston 2016 (8 of 8) Kingston 2016 (3 of 8) Kingston 2016 (4 of 8)

A long time British immigrant mentioned to me the other day that one thing she does miss about the UK is the diversity of the scenery within a relatively small area. Canada is a country known for its vast panoramic landscapes and, sometimes, they can go on for just a bit too long. Here we wend our winding way along roads that transition between bucolic agricultural vistas, craggy outcrops of shield rock that belong much further north, typical Ontario marsh, woodland, and jaw-dropping water views.

Rideau (5 of 11) Lower Brewers Lock Rideau (10 of 11) Woodland ascent to Rock Dunder Rideau (11 of 11) View from Rock Dunder, the highest point between Kingston and Ottawa

I do not, honestly, miss England. But it seems that I have sought out a place that brings past and present together, integrating those things that I loved and valued in my childhood with the choice I have made to be Canadian. That feels like a pretty good opening for the next chapter!

[1] Tisbury was my nearest village growing up, about 3 miles from the hamlet where we lived.
[2] Likewise, Salisbury, at 12 miles away, was our nearest city.