art, yoga, connection to life

Posts from the ‘ecology’ category

It’s foraging time.

That means I’ll be out in the parks collecting sumac, raspberry leaves, walnuts and goldenrod to dry for my inks and dyes through the winter.

I appreciate that the dye plants I use are polyvalent, offering culinary and medicinal properties as well as their amazing colour.

Sumac is native to North America and once you have eyes for it you’ll find abundantly available in Toronto and Southern Ontario.  It is an interesting shrub as it plays an important role in the ecosystem and in succession growth.

sumac tree

You will recognize it by its cone shape cluster of bright scarlet fuzzy berries that form mid-summer and remain on its branches through the winter.

Here’s a simple way you can enjoy this season’s harvest:
Forager’s Sumac-ade Home-brew

sumac tea 1collect sumac berry clusters from a location that is not exposed to excessive pollution (think  parks not railway tracks)

  • When foraging from nature, it is critical to leave a larger percentage behind than you collect.  Birds, bees and insects feed and seeds need to sow.
  • place a few berry clusters in a large mason jar or glass tea pot filled with cold water  (hot water extracts tannins and changes sumac’s properties)
  • infuse with sunlight for a couple of hours or days depending on your desired strength to draw out the flavours
  • strain liquid, add honey if desired & refrigerate
  • ready to drink!

sumac tea 2
Sumac-ade or as it is often called sumac lemonade has a citrus like flavour.  It is said to be excellent for lowering blood-sugar.  My good friend Denise Williams, an herbalist by training and proprietor of Matter Company related that, ingested, it is high in vitamin C, is supportive to the immune system and is a general tonic.  She uses sumac berries in her “Blush” body scrub for its exfoliant and antioxidant properties.

Staying connected to natural cycles and organic processes is so vital for our collective well being!

The weekend of March 14 -15,  I had the privilege of gathering with an exceptional group interested in using their creativity to explore the potential of an ecologically conscious society at the Holding Ground Conference  in New York.

Working with along side fabulous co-planners including Sarah Moon, Amber Myers, Laura Sheinkopf as well as team of inspiring facilitators taught me so much about synergy, collaboration and trust.

the team

Through rich dialogue, observation, movement, sound and visual expression, the sessions opened a space to consider the many aspects we face in this harried time of ecological imbalance and what role we might engage with as culture makers.

One of our first practices was a dérive. A dérive is a kind of an amble, that stems from psychogeography, to explore place.  With a set of cues related to Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, participants paired up to wander the neighbourhood and observe the experience without a predetermined destination.

We hoped this would lead to observations of the underbelly of the surrounding, the overlooked details and surprises.  In a playful way wanted invite questions around the relationship to our environment.

The cues given were:
when at an intersection,
if the light is red, turn right
if the light is blinking, turn left
if the light is green, walk straight

when you hear a car horn, stop, can you find a resting place?
(where? what? did you get to rest?)

when you see / hear a plane overhead, find, go into / peer into the next store you see with a global connection
(what is it? what does it make you think of)

when you come across a protected tree, stretch your gaze up to the sky as far as you can see

when you hear a bird look for a microscopic detail in your environment
(describe it  — circle it with chalk)

at 10:55 take a photo of where you are

when you see tree roots, stretch your gaze as far to the horizon as you can see
(what do you see, record it)

when you see a dog walker, invite a conversation & ask for a neighbourhood story
(take a moment, record it)

cue 1

It was a rainy day with a pretty, heavy opaque sky, but in the 30 min we took to wander everyone seemed refreshed and full of stories, each with different routes and encounters.  I was surprised by how much “information” I tend to bypass.   For example, in my group, with reference to the cue given, when we heard a car horn and were to look for a resting place, we decided to hang out by a nice tree root protruding from the sidewalk.  The more time we spent there we realized it was littered with cigarette butts – clearly a restingplace for someone else’s smoke breaks.  Meanwhile Sarah and Robyn found their resting place on a bed in Macy’s.

Many of us doubted that we would hear any birds on that rainy day in Brooklyn, and at that very moment, did hear birds, multiple birds.
cue 2
When I came across the cue to take a photograph, I was amazed to notice I was standing in front of a worn out brownstone with a holiday wreath laying about in the foreground and hopeful spring snowdrops bursting from the earth, blooming.

It was the time of year when the snow had melted and streets were layered with the detritus of the winter’s accumulation and grit.  This is something we were all acutely aware of.   One group decided to make a sculptural arrangement of this waste to spotlight it in the area. That spontaneous engagement foreshadowed a latter discussion we would have with session facilitator Andrew Munn about the anthropocene.  Anthropocene is a term used to describe the geological age when human presence has been a significant factor in shaping the earth and climate.  Strong images that speak to this are pollen deposits from mono crops, mercury from air pollution found in the arctic, patterns carved in the earth. The fact that I love to travel and was travelling from Toronto to NYC return by plane was not lost on me.  While in transit, I took some aerial photos in wonder at the shape of world below.

aerial view 2

In the afternoon of the conference weekend, I joined Phil Irish’s session, Breaking it Apart, Putting it Together, a collage based process, where we worked with photographs he had taken around Brooklyn.  It mixed an image of a car tire, flowers, a bell from a local church and alarm sign along with our mark making, stencilling and a Wendell Berry poem, hand stamped.  The piece achieved within a short 1 1/2 hr, had poignancy and strength.  It made me think about the “wheel” of life and the traces we leave behind; cultural, industrial, personal, collective. What are we spinning towards?  Can we slow this spinning? Is there cause for “alarm”/ Is there enough “alarm”? The first line of Wendell Berry’s poem inspires.

“If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our season welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
along the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windrows.”

collage process
It was good to have some relaxed time to take it in during the evening’s art + music event while listening to Amber Myers’ and Jessica Numsuwankijkul’s soothing voices followed Andrew Munn’s operatic libretto and lively bluegrass Morgan O’Kane and Ezekiel Healy.  Before the weekend ended, Phil found a spot on a graffitied wall in Brooklyn where he mounted the collage.  I’d be curious to see its street evolution.

During Sarah’s session, Balancing Arts and Activism, we spoke about a number of subjects including the burnout and discouragement that can arise from our engagements and the necessity of self-care.  A conference participant shared the idea of a self-care tool she called “moment mining” – that even when we feel the weight of our engagements and busy urban lives, that we take opportunities to engage our senses and opportunities for quiet.  She gave the example of seeing the sun suddenly come out and taking a 10 minute break just to sit and feel it.  It’s a tiny moment in which we can separate ourselves from all the “static” to gain space and perspective.

The conversation reinforced my belief that we are each an important component of a living and growing organism.  Caring for ourselves, including such things as the food we eat, managing our mind and emotions, our schedule and activities and how we get about, is the beginning of caring for the larger community of friends, family, those we have not yet met and all the beings large and small.

On Sunday morning we gathered again a the Textile Arts Center in Manhattan where I led the realization of a collaborative woven paper piece.  We began with an intro to plant based inks which we then used to paint on kozo paper.

I had prepared a couple of images one of which was the holding ground logo based on drawings I did of “weed” roots in my studio neighbourhood.  (I have a fascination with weeds – in terms of their strength and resilience in all environments, where they take root, are uprooted, their role in succession growth and their potential gifts as medicine and food – see blog post titled: “Happy Spring”)
image layout

These images were duplicated then cut into long vertical and horizontal strips to use as a reference for painting.  Each had either few delicate lines or bold bits and each collaborator chose from the small samples and painted it in their own expression on much larger strips of kozo paper with black walnut and gall nut ink.

processweaving process
Part of the challenge was to keep the projects in order as it seemed at times like we had a pile of disparate bits of paper.  At a certain point though, the dispersion came to a sense of order and through the process of weaving, the piece took form.  I felt it was a strong metaphor for our engagements in life.  There are times we don’t really know if our actions will move towards something tangible, but they do.  It felt immensely satisfying to see the unique voice and expression of each,  represented through warp and woof, woven together, contributing to a shared vision.

holding ground installationdetail 2holding ground collaboration detail

I came home to Toronto feeling buoyed by this community of generous, open and sincere individuals.

A few afternoons this summer, I sat in my courtyard with a glass of pastis (souvenir from the Straight Distillery in PEI), drawing the cascade of nasturtiums in preparation for my new silk screen design.

nasturtium plants

It is often in these simple, quiet moments, moments of connection, in spaces we create for ourselves where we find resonance and peace.

When I first moved to my house, the back “courtyard” was actually construed as a tiny parking space with the garbage and recycling bins visible from my bedroom window.


I had a vision though, and when spring came, I set about building a barn like storage shed for the bins, cleared the space, and filled it with plants of all sorts.


Over the years it has grown into a modest oasis of flowers, edibles and herbs.  It brings me such pleasure to dress a home baked margherita pizza with fresh basil, or infuse a pot of soothing anise or lemon verbena tea nipped from the plants I’ve grown.

This backyard habitat is now a place where butterflies visit and bees feed on pollen.  It’s a place where I feed and where I feed my friends.  It’s a place where I create.


A healthy habitat, to me, is a place of layered voices and conditions that support life both cultural and natural. It enlarges the scope for co-mingling, cross-pollination and well-being.

I often bring to this backyard habitat of mine, plants that I have foraged, from which I create botanical dye vats.  Once the fabric is dyed, printed and laundered, the pieces are hung to dry and I watch the shades of colour transition from purple greys to golden depending on what I’m working with.  I’ve always loved the look of laundry hanging on a clothes line, form, composition, colour flow…

screen printed scarves on clothes line

I sense that many of our basic aesthetic decisions, relationship to ourself and our space could have a profound impact on ecological outcomes.

What ways do you create, sustain and participate in backyard habitats in your own lives and in the larger community?