Wednesday 27 June 2007

Communauto and Car Sharing: Driving Green

There are three cars parked in the next block this morning with a funny little cartoon of a car painted on the side. They are automobiles owned by Communauto, a cooperative venture which provides cars to members for short term rentals all over Montreal. For much less than it costs to rent a car from a commercial agency, members can reserve and pick up cars at more than 100 locations all over town. Rentals can be for as short a period as a half hour, and cars are available 24 hours a day. My musician daughter Elin, who is a member, has picked up a car at midnight near her boyfriend's place, swung by our house to collect an instrument she'd left here, dropped it off at her apartment, and returned the car to the original location 45 minutes and 25 kilometers later--and all for about $12.

The car sharing idea started Switzerland 20 years ago, and now many North American cities have services. In parts of Montreal, Communauto says that trips in its cars now represent about 10 per cent of all automobile travel, cutting back pressure to put in more parking places. Its fleet is "green" too, since it consists of high fuel-efficiency models like Toyota Echos and Yarises.

Definitely worth looking into if you're serious about living "green."

Lukas and Sophie are Getting Married!

Saturday's the big day: our son Lukas and la belle Sophie Bousquet are getting married! I'm going to have a good time over the next little while, so there won't be any postings for a few days.

Mulch Ado about Something

Say “mulch,” and I’m tempted to laugh out loud.

The word begins with such a pleasing sound—that Mmmm! makes you think of good things to eat—but finishes as you half-swallow, half-cluck.. The combination is not what you expect and as Aristotle used to say, "The secret to humor is surprise,"

But mulch as a concept is no laughing matter. I wrote a column on it for a gardening feature that I’ve begun in a local monthly paper. Environment Canada had been forecasting below average rain this summer for the Montreal region, so I advised mulching flower and vegetable beds. Mulch and you'll be able to laugh at drought, I wrote.

Mulch means covering bare ground with something that will cut down on evaporation of soil moisture. You can use organic matter like wood chips or inorganic matter like small pebbles . Mulch also hinders weeds from growing, moderates soil temperature, and cuts down on erosion.

Sounds great, and it is great, if you remember to do it. But in front where I planted a Japanese maple in late May I forgot to put down anything. I’d like to say this was because I'm so well organized that in the rest of the beds, I have a continuous cycle of perennials which act as a living mulch. That’s true enough, only I forgot that the little maple was planted in bare earth, without a protective surrounding of low plants.

Poor thing! It appears not to have survived the last hot spell. Maybe that will teach me to take my own advice!

De Niro’s Game, Rawi Hage and Perpetual War

One has to steal oneself to read the news out of Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon these mornings. The breakfast news program will feature, most likely, the sounds of battle and the words of politicians trying without success to further their causes. The spiral of violence seems without end.

It is against this background that I’ve been reading De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage. Told in the voice of Bassam, a young Christian man during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, the novel chronicles the toll war takes on the souls and bodies of those in its path. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, unfortunately.

Hage, who grew up in Beirut during this period and came to Canada in 1992, has written a brilliant, gut-wrenching, beautiful book. It was short listed for Canada’s major literary prizes last year—the Scotiabank Giller, the Writer’s Trust and the Govenor General’s prizes for literature—and won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction and the McAuslan First Book Prize. Definitely worth reading in these troubled times.

Tuesday 26 June 2007

The Greenest House in Canada is in the Middle of Montreal

Park Avenue is one of Montreal’s major north-south routes from downtown to the inner suburbs. It passes through the fringes of Mont Royal Park, hence its name. Once upon a time—about 80 years ago—it was lined with elegant townhouses and upscale apartment houses. That has changed: long ago it became an immigrant corridor and north of the Park it now is a bustling, multi-ethnic business district. (For more about Park Avenue, including the struggle to save its name, check out the )

Some of the old houses remain, however. Most have been transformed into flats with shops on the first floor, but one has become the greenest house in Canada and one of the greenest in North America. Emmanuel Cosgrove, a full-time environmentalist, has just received a Platinum rating from the US Green Building Council in its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ) program. Only four projects have achieved the rating.

The house is heated and cooled through a geothermal system, which pumps warmth from the ground in the winter and relative coolness in summer. It recuperates gray water from the kitchen and shower to flush toilets and irrigate the green roof. Among its other features are hardwood floors and woodwork which was recycled from demolition sites, while the slate floor of the entry is made from old school blackboards, cut into large squares.

Cosgrove told the Montreal French-language daily Le Devoir that he hopes his house will inspire others to reduce energy consumption and think green when it comes to construction methods. Certainly his example shows that living in a newly “green” house is possible in the center city, where you can also take advantage of the environmentally aspects of urban density like public transport.

Monday 25 June 2007

Robins at dawn, streetlights at night, taxes at work

The robins start to sing these mornings about 4:30 a.m. when the sky begins to pale. That will shift soon, now that we’re past the summer solstice and the world begins its slide away from summer. At their longest, days are about 16 hours long here, which isn’t long at all when compared to the luminous evenings in northern Europe. Montreal, at 45° 30' north, is south of Seattle and Vancouver, and at about the same latitude as Milan and Lyon. London, in comparison, 51°, 32’ north.

Even on these short nights, it is good to have our street lights back. The work started on Tuesday, as promised, and Wednesday night (the shortest night of the year?) the lights came on at dusk, Not a day to soon, because it looks like the darkness invited a little mischief even in this quiet neighborhood. The moveable hockey net that belongs to the Du family disappeared last week, and Friday night the week before a couple of strollers left in front of houses (which people do all the time because there is so little trouble) found their way down the street and on to the roofs of vans. Rather funny to see, actually, but a reminder that the urban fabric requires constant maintenance.

The Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington, D.C. carries an apt quote from US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." One may criticize the efficiency with which those taxes are spent, but there are myriad things that need to be organized and paid for collectively. Street lights are just one. Fiat lux!

Sunday 24 June 2007

From Saint John the Baptist to Fête Nationale: Quebec in the 21st Century

There was a time when June 24 was a very inward-looking holiday in Quebec. It is the feast day of St. John the Baptist and since early in the history of New France, it has been celebrated after one fashion or another. In 1908 Pope Pius X named the saint the particular protector of French Canadians. As the 20th century wore on, and French Canadian and Quebec nationalism became more insistent, la Fête de Saint-Jean-Baptiste was transformed into a great popular, nationalist, political celebration.

Quebec has changed a lot, though, and so has the June 24th holiday, which is now called the Fête nationale. Not only is French the official language of Quebec, but hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the world have come to live here. Most settle in and around Montreal which has always been a gateway city, but the language of integration into Quebec society is not English as it was for several generations, but French. This means that the June 24 celebrations have taken on a very cosmopolitan air, although the singing and the slogans remain proudly Francophone.

As a complement to this integration of people who are not Québécois pure laine, Quebeckers are making themselves felt on the international scene. Indeed, Jean-François Lisée, an ardent nationalist and executive director of the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales at the University of Montréal, titled his Fête nationale essay “Globalization wouldn’t be the same without Quebec.” In addition to the big three—Cirque de Soleil, Céline Dion and Bombardier, maker of airplanes, trains and snowmobiles—he points out that half the helicopters in the world are made in Quebec while Quebec companies are building an Algerian independence monument and sporting installations for the Beijing Olympics. Add that to the key role Quebec politicians played in getting the ground-breaking UNESCO treaty on cultural diversity, and you have an idea of what Quebec and Quebeckers have accomplished over the last 40 years.

There are blue and white Quebec fleur de lys flags flying around town today. Last night saw block parties in many neighborhoods, while there will be a big parade today in Montreal and huge shows here and in Quebec City this evening.

We have a flag on our balcony, too, and my iris, those fleurs de lys, are about ready to bloom. This Quebec has a place for everyone, including us transplanted Yanks who came here more than 30 years ago on a three year contract, and stayed. The place has it problems, but they are orders of magnitude smaller than most other corners of the world.

Saturday 23 June 2007

Saturday photo: Fine Weather for Ducks

This weekend is a holiday one in Quebec--the Fête nationale, formerly known as St-Jean-Baptiste Day. The weather forecast is good, and many people will join these ducks besides various bodies of water. That's the reflected sky you see in this little lake.

Friday 22 June 2007

Summer (Festivals) in the City

Street festivals

Montreal likes to call it a city of festivals, and some respects it is. The Fringe is on now as is Montreal Baroque . The Jazz Fest begins next week. Then comes what? Just for Laughs? Or is les Francofolies next?

Whatever, all of them bring together thousands of people, day and night, in an urban setting which is the best kind of city living. Most of the events are held within a few blocks of each other, and all are reachable by public transit. This is the kind of thing that urban density fosters—exciting cultural activity of all sorts designed to please a myriad of tastes.

N.B. Must add, in the interest of full disclosure that my daughter Elin, who plays the viola da gamba, will be in several events at Montreal Baroque, including a barrier-breaking electronic performance were her friend, flutiste Cléo Palacio-Quintin. Called--trilingually, of course--D'autra guiz e d'autra razo
D’une façon autre, sur un sujet autre - In another way, on another subject, they'll be playing a mixture of baroque music, improvisations and new compositions at 11 p.m. Saturday June 23 in Old Montreal at Café à Propos, 300 Notre-Dame Est. Free admission.

Thursday 21 June 2007

Afghanistan is Not Eden

Three Canadian soldiers were killed on Wednesday when their unarmored vehicle was blown up in Afghanistan by a bomb apparently placed by insurgents. Two days before Canada was told to beware of terrorist attacks in a widely-circulated video made by a Pakistani journalist of a Taliban training camp graduation ceremony. Canada Canada seems to be wading deeper into the Big Muddy with tragic consequences.

In 2003 massive demonstrations in Canada, particularly in Quebec, stiffened the resolve of then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien not to get involved in the American-led invasion of Iraq. That was a wise move, but since then things have changed. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have replaced a Liberal minority government with a far more bellicose, US-friendly regime. Harper also has a minority in the House of Commons, but he has acted as if he had a majority, moving Canada closer and closer to cooperation with US military ventures.

It is time for Canadians to protest loudly the foreign policy direction Harper has taken. On Friday 2,500 Quebec-based troops are supposed be honoured at a parade in Quebec city as they prepare to be deployed to Afghanistan. Demonstrators will be out in force. This should not be seen as an attack on the men and women in the Canadian Forces, but as an attempt to bring Canada’s foreign policy back to what it was—a force for peace and good judgment on the world stage. Beginning the 1950s Canada’s military first created and then refined the art of international Peacekeeping and Peacemaking. It is time to get out of this conflict, where our energies are bein wasted.

No, Afghanistan is far from being Eden. Do not forget, too, the irony that the Sumerians, who ruled what is now Iraq 5,000 years ago when Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization, had a special word for "plain."

It was "edin."

How times have changed there too.

(For more about how the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris changed, see the chapter on Babylon in my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Anita Rau Badami, Terrorism and Gardens

My friend, Anita Rau Badami, has asked me over for tea and roses this week. A writer of great talent, she published a timely and strong novel a year ago, Can You Hear the Night Bird Call? Last spring as the Canadian government held hearings into the bombing of Air India Flight 182—the biggest civilian loss to terrorism before the World Trade Center attacks--I often thought of Anita’s story. Three women—two Sikhs and one Hindu living in both India and Canada--are at the center of this book. It covers their lives from the time of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 through the 1980s. It is both a good read and an excellent way to understand better the complex psychology of terrorism and revenge.

Anita and I are both members of the Writers’ Union of Canada, but we didn’t really meet until a year ago when Quill and Quire asked me to do a profile of her, in preparation for the release of Night Bird. Doing it was a pleasure, as it was to discover that she is an avid gardener, making the most of Montreal’s short but intense summers to grow glorious flowers. This week is a particularly appropriate time to visit her, since Air India 182 blew up 22 years ago this Saturday. Growing beauty sometimes becomes a necessary antidote to the uglier aspects of this world.

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Making Sure Jane Jacobs’ “Eyes on the Street” Can See

The borough of Outremont is supposed to start excavation today to repair street lights which have been out on our block for two months. Apparently someone dug a hole without a permit—and without checking to see where the electrical lines are—and cut those which connect the lights at our end of the block to the rest of the system. “Very complicated to fix,” explained the voice at Public Works both times I called to complain.

This is a relatively quiet street of attached, two story, single-family row houses on 25 by 100 foot lots, bookended by on our side by four-story apartment buildings. It’s mixed ethnically with several Hassidic Jewish families and about an equal number of French-speaking and English-speaking non-religious types. We’ve lived here for 30 years, while the same family has owned the house across the street since it was built during World War I. The two sisters who live there now are 100 and 94: they share the house with the older woman’s daughter who is a vigorous 60-something.

What does an absence of streetlights mean on a street like this? A little less security, a little more worry that somebody might break in while you’re away in the evening or on the weekend. As far as I know nothing has happened, but living this close together—there probably are 350 people on the stretch where the lights are out—it’s important that people can keep track of what’s going on, to make sure that Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” are functioning. So I hope the lights are fixed soon.

Monday 18 June 2007

A Walk on the Safe Side, so to speak

This morning I’m going to walk across Mount Royal, which is a very nice prospect even if it means going to a doctor’s appointment.

It’s a walk I like a lot, and I’ve had much practice doing it. Last summer I took the 45 minute stroll every morning, five days a week for five weeks, because I was having radiation therapy in a hospital on the other side. I’d been diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a breast cancer precursor which in a sizeable percentage of cases ends up to be full-blown breast cancer unless treated. Most DCIS cases won’t proceed that far, but no one knows what differentiates those cases from the serious ones. Therefore the standard therapy for all cases is excision of the suspect tissue and radiation.

A routine mammogram showed some suspicious cells in the winter of 2005-2006 in my case, and a biopsy afterwards confirmed that they were nasty. It was a diagnosis which shook me a bit, but the whole process turned out to be much easier than I expected. The surgery itself was a day procedure, and the radiation caused no real problems. I had a lot of energy throughout, in part, I think, because I had my daily fix of nature on the walk to the hospital. (For more about this effect, see the interesting research by Roger Ulrich and others: “Gardens Have The Potential To Improve Health, Research Shows.”)

When it was all over I sent out a circular e-mail to everyone I knew, urging women over 50 to have regular mammograms. You should consider this the next step in the process of passing along the word. Because they fear cancer, many women avoid the procedure because of what they might learn, but this is definitely not a case of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Early diagnosis makes a great difference, and I’m here to tell you that treatment isn’t all that bad. So take a walk on the safe side, and be mammogramed regularly if you’re a woman over 50. Insist that the women you care about who are, do too.

Sunday 17 June 2007

Happy Father's Day!

It's brunch at our house for our gang. Hope the rest of the Dads get a chance to sleep late, play hard, enjoy their families!

Saturday 16 June 2007

Saturday photo: Front Yard on St. Joseph Boulevard

The center of Montreal is filled with two and three story buildings with tiny front and back yards. People spend a lot of energy in making them green. This photo was taken last summer, but it gives a taste of what summer in the city here is like.

Over the next weeks, I'll be posting more photos of the greenery of Montreal on Saturday. Have a good weekend.

Friday 15 June 2007

Free Bikes and Greener Cities

There is snow on the ground and ice on the streets in Montreal for a good four months a year, but that doesn’t stop the city being one where bicycles are used a lot. During a recent, thankfully short-lived public transit strike the streets were full of bicycling commuters, and many cyclists seem to have decided to continue even though buses are back on the roads.

And using bikes to run errands has just become easier. You can now borrow a bicycle for free on one of Montreal’s most interesting shopping streets. All you have to do is present identification at the BécikVert kiosk next to the Mont-Royal Metro station in order to use one of 27 recycled bicycles. Equipped with baskets to hold your shopping and a sheaf of coupons to get discounts at local stores, the bikes are provided by merchants on the street and an ecology group, with support from the Plateau Mont-Royal borough council.

I must admit that riding bikes gives me the shakes—I’m a walker, and I’ve found that in most weather it takes me just as long to walk to a destination three to four kilometers away as it does to take transit. But it’s a pleasure to see that people move toward getting around on their own power. Another step (or pedal) for humankind, I hope.

Thursday 14 June 2007

Dover Beach to Chesil Beach

L’Esprit de l’escalier is what the French call those brilliant thoughts you should have had earlier, but which come to you when the evening is over and you’re going up to bed. So it was last night. On the way home from the Atwater Library’s discussion pf Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I thought of a major point: McEwan is saying that literature can literally save the day.

Saturday's hero is Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon who only reads to please his poet daughter Daisy. He and his family are threatened in their home by a small time hood who appears ready to kill Perowne’s wife. The man is diverted, though, when he discovers that lovely Daisy, whom he’s forced to strip, is a poet. He demands she read one of her creations, but she recites Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach instead. The classic poem captivates him long enough for Perowne and his son to make their move and overcome him. I can’t think of a neater demonstration of the power of words.

But of course none of us at the lively discussion (some loved the book, some hated it) thought of that then. An interesting aperçu that did come forward was the link between the Arnold poem and McEwan’s newest book, On Chesil Beach. In it a just-married couple have completely different expectations of marriage on their honeymoon: Chesil Beach clearly is a place where “innocent armies clash by night.”

To get a taste of both books, read excerpts in The New Yorker: The Diagnosis (from Saturday ) and On Chesil Beach

Wednesday 13 June 2007

Taking the heat

Until now the peak electricity demand on Hydro Quebec, the quasi-governmental electricity utility here, has come during the winter. Montreal gets stinking hot in the summer, but a heat wave usually lasted only a few days. This meant that houses could cool off in between: residential air conditioning has hardly seemed worth it to most people.

That is changing. Summers are getting hotter, and air conditioning costs are going down. Walk around my neighborhood on a hot afternoon, and you hear more and more roar from cooling systems. And—a confession is in order—we put in a ductless mini-split system and ran it this week when temperatures topped 30 C (about 85 F.)

Air conditioning has three environmental costs: the energy to run it, the noise, and heat the systems pump back into the city. Residential solar air conditioners
are becoming available, and in Germany and Australia serious efforts are underway to shift a major portion of cooling to solar power. Since these are out of reach of most North Americans, though, it’s necessary for us to check out the Energy Efficient Ratio—the higher the better.

As for noise, split systems on roofs or under porches are much quieter than window units. We were delighted to discover this spring that neighbors across the street who have run window units non-stop in the past have switched to some other system: for the first time in a five or six years, it’s possible to sit outside on our front porch in the evening when it starts to cool off.

And taking advantage of natural cooling is essential. Plant trees, insulate, open houses to breezes in the morning when it’s cooler. Otherwise you contribute to actually making cities hotter since your system is pumping interior heat outside. (See some interesting research done in Japan.)

But I'm sorry, I’ve got to quit now, and go shut the windows and curtains because the sun has begun to fall on the front of the house...

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Saving African Violets My Way (Or Something)

My African violet is in bloom, which doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but it is for me. People give them to me regularly as a thank you or whatnot. I imagine this is because I wrote about a trip I made to the Amani Nature Reserve in the East Usambara mountains of Tanzania. (The violet pictured here is one found there, not the one in bloom in my window. See "Where the Wild African Violets Are" from the New York Times of Nov. 3, 2002.) The Amani Reserve is a very interesting place where Tanzanians are striving both to preserve a unique ecosystem (the East Usambaras are a UNESCO-designated Biosphere reserve) and to provide decent employment to people living there.

Unfortunately, though, I've been killing the plants given to me as presents. My trouble with growing them shouldn't suggest that I don't like the flowers. I understand completely how you could get wrapped up in their breeding and care. I’ve even got a novel coming out next year called The Violets of Usambara where a woman wild about the plants is a central character.

But I have great trouble growing them, for some reason. The plant that is in bloom now is one of two which I received a year ago and which I treated the same way (or so I thought.) One shriveled up and died about February, but this one hung on, althought it had no flowers until last week. Now it has five stalks and a total of eight blossoms. Not much, the real African violet fancier would say. But I can’t help being a little proud.

Monday 11 June 2007

A Summer Snowstorm

The temperature this morning when I was out walking was about 20 Celsuis (about 70 F), and yesterday it was frankly hot in the afternoon. Yet when I turned off to go through the woods near the Sanctuaire, the ground was covered with white. Not snow in June, surely?

No, the covering was thousands and thousands of seeds from the Eastern cottonwood or poplar (Populus deltides Bartr.) which had been blown around during the last few days and had collected on the floor of the woods. “A summer snowstorm,” as the Global Forest Science web site says. Very lovely, and a reminder of the profligacy of nature. How many seeds, and how few trees will grow from them!

This was the kind of thing that led Linnaeus to decide that the sexual reproduction was the key to classifying plants. His descriptions of the male and female parts--the stamens, stigmas and styles--were called “salacious”and “loathsome harlotry” by some of his contemporaries. An example: he called one class Polyandria (from the Greek words for many Poly and male Andros) and described it as “twenty males or more in the same bed with the female.” For more see the section on the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens as well as this month’s National Geographic.

Saturday 9 June 2007

Saturday on Saturday

It’s Saturday and this Saturday I have the pleasant task of starting to prepare for my presentation of Ian McEwan’s Saturday to the Atwater Library book club on Wednesday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m. I’ve been leading discussions there for several years and they—as well as a similar series I lead at la Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont —are highlights of my month.

After this week, the discussions will be hold until the fall, but here’s the schedule for next year:

Atwater Library and Computer Centre
1200 Atwater, Montreal

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007
The first book given by Yann Martel to Stephen Harper in his campaign to encourage the Prime Minister to read more

Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Winner of three major prizes in France, translated into 30 languages

On Beauty by Zaydie Smith
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Orange Prize Winner 2006

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Inspired by an actual document, Hill’s novel has received stellar reviews

Lullabies for Little Criminals: A Novel, by Heather O'Neill,
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Canada Reads winner 2007

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Best-selling novel which surfaced after more than 50 years in a suitcase

The Unyielding Clamour of the Night by Neil Bissoondath
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Hugh MacLennan/QWF prize winner, 2005

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
2005 National Book Award

Waiting by Ha Jin
Wednesday, June 12, 2008
PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction 2000

Friday 8 June 2007

Saving Mont Royal

This is great weather for walking on Mount Royal, the “mountain” in the center of Montreal island. The original plan for the park was made by Frederick Law Olmsted, but not much more than a curving carriage road remains from that plan. Nevertheless Mont Royal park is a well-used, and well-loved oasis of nature in the city.

Protecting Mount Royal requires continual effort. Les amis de la montagne have just finished a month of activities aimed at raising awareness of Mont-Royal, which included a Sunday when 500 people took to the paths and woods to pick up litter and plant 450 indigenous trees and bushes. But citizen efforts like this are not enough since several projects threaten to nibble away at the edges of the park space. (See Les amis de la montagne's Cartes des principaux projets sur le Mont Royal.)

Perhaps the largest is the transformation of three hospitals on the mountain’s southern flank. Most of their functions will be transferred in a few years time to a new super-hospital. What will become of the existing buildings? With their gorgeous views of the city and the St. Lawrence River, the sites are enough to throw real estate developers into a frenzy. The Royal Victoria Hospital also has considerable historical and architectural features that warrant safe-guarding. These are dossiers that require close attention, and ones to which I expect to return as the summer advances.

Thursday 7 June 2007

Reading for early summer weather

Book discussion groups combine the pleasures of reading, discussing books and getting to know others in a relaxed setting. The groups are famously long-running: I’ve belonged to one English-language group since shortly after I arrived in Montreal in 1968, and to a French one since it was formed in 1980. Over the years we’ve enjoyed hundreds of books and shared all the dramas of our lives.

Tonight the French group will meet to discuss a book which brilliantly evokes one of the 20th century’s watershed summers: 1939. Called in the French translation Une Saison à Venise, the short novel by the Polish writer Wlodozimierz Odojewski begins with a disappointed nine year old, Marek, who had been promised a trip to Venice during summer holidays. When his father is mobilized, he and his mother retreat to the family’s country place where he slowly realizes what looming war means. Odojewski (translated by Agnès Wsniewski and Charles Zeremba) gives us lovely visions of a landscape inhabited by a cast of eccentric aunts: one runs naked every morning in the shoulder high grass of the fields.

The book would make good companion reading to one of the best WW II stories around, Dobryd, by Canadian writer Ann Charney. Odojewski’s book appears not to be available yet in English but if you haven’t read Charney’s book you are missing a real treat.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

This is no way to make denser, more liveable and sustainable cities

The Quebec government commission studying agricultural land use and the future of agrobusiness (called officially La Commission sur l’avenir de l’agriculture et de l’agroalimentaire québécois) will be in Montreal tomorrow to hear presentations. (See more in French at

Quebec has relatively strict agricultural zoning regulations, but they have not stopped continued transformation of good farm land to housing developments, particularly around Montreal. According to a story in influential French-language daily Le Devoir last week (May 29), 50,000 hectares of agricultural land have been removed from zoning protection since 1994 even though only 2 percent of Quebec is arable.

The situation around the province's Métropole, Montreal, is even worse. Laurent Pellerin of the Union des producterus agricoles (a farmers’ group) told Le Devoir that 3,000 hectares of land zoned for agriculture in the Montreal Urban Community have been dezoned since 2003. This is despite the fact there are at least 30,000 hectares of undeveloped, non-agricultural land in the urban community which could be developed.

Montreal is better than other North American cities when it comes to dependence on the automobile, but obviously we're going to have to be more vigilant.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Getting started...

Today is a day of rain and fog and warmish temperatures. I've been away a week in Vancouver and have returned to find the garden a riot of green. The only thing in bloom is the columbine, which are blue-purple stars in the back yard. The hostas are mammoth and must be trimmed or else the flowers growing within the beds they are edging will be smothered. In general I believe in Darwinian gardening--the survival of what survives--but there is a limit. This afternoon some judicious thinning is in order.

But this lushness shows just how much greenery can fit on a small lot. It is more evidence that our innate preference for green landscapes can be nicely accommodated in a dense urban setting.