Jun 28, 2024

Dear Animal,

Before I was a director or a playwright, I was an actor. I started in kindergarten and kept going, including seven years of higher education. I never did much professionally, but I’m shaped by those years of acting study.  An acting teacher once told me that you can cook something small in a big pot but not something big in a small pot. This was, of course, to encourage us in developing emotional range. To expand the depth of what it was possible to express.

And this is why I cry at small-town parades. 

A shelf with patriotic items

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It’s parade season now, and my first 4th of July in the US in a good three decades.  But it’s not nationality or patriotism that moves me.  I pledge allegiance to small towns where a few hundred people share an ecosystem. A place where weather and vegetables are the news. For example, if you grew up in small-town Maryland like me, you might be vigilant about locking your car doors in August, you know, so nobody sticks a zucchini in it. 

Maybe you didn’t grow up in an ecosystem that made zucchini grow from the size of a cigar to that of a rowboat overnight, but if you have and you just laughed a paragraph ago, maybe you have lived in a community like that. 

That’s why I cry at small-town parades. 

A group of people sitting on the side of a road

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shíshálh/Sechelt parade in 2018

A small-town parade is an intergenerational community performance form–I like the time signature of it. Let us move at the speed of zigzagging toddlers on tricked-out trikes. Slow to the crawl of bagpipes. Let us applaud the fire truck. The town of xwesam/Roberts Creek hosts the Higgledy Piggeldy Parade where anyone can join in. I’ve done it—dressed children from the costume basket and pushed a stroller with the dog leash tied to the handlebar from the Hall to the Mandala. Some years, I’ve watched from the sidelines, and, yes, I have wept for the beauty of it. 

This year, I have stood on the sidelines of a different parade.

I noticed the procession because it’s summer in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, on the ancestral homelands of Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) and Hinono’eino (Arapaho) Nations.  I go down to Boulder for groceries or swimming, or to take a kid to camp. That’s 5400 feet in altitude. Heading back home means a winding six-mile climb up to 7200. The altitude gain takes you backwards in time; as warmth comes slower to the hamlet of Sunshine. Most days, I am up and down the mountain, and variously walking the pupper on the trails that tie these hills together. As a result, I have a sense of the events at various elevations, and, since last I wrote, Animal, the main event is a Wildflower Parade. 

A person looking at plants

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Yes, slowly, in turn each wildflower ‘petals ‘up the mountain. Maybe it takes a week for each species to make the climb. See, each wildflower bloom has a niche it thrives in, and it follows that niche uphill. I have been watching for months. Sometimes, in the space of a few hours, I see the hot pink Locoweed, or blue Beardtongue jump up. Last week, it was Sulfur Buckwheat. Yesterday, Blanketflower and Showy Milkweed. They pop out of the rock face, and leapfrog on the scrubby shoulder of the road. You could pull up a chair and watch the parade go by.

A group of yellow flowers

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Maybe you should. Maybe art can offer that invitation. Settle in and sit a good long while. Take a tip from the mountain. Sit like that. Maybe you would like a sign to cheer on the parade. I’m trying to think what it would say. 

Over the years, Animal, we made a lot of pieces with signs.

From Sticks & Stones, created with the Adeline Collective, design by Kat Binns and Nancy Tam

I guess signs might be more like a protest than a parade. But maybe this piece is both, come to think of it. The closest sign I can think of that suits a Wildflower Parade is from the Women’s March in 2020.

A child on a person's shoulders

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Photo credit: @caterina on X

It might stand for a lot of things, but I might count colour, joy and innocence among them.

To live in these extinction times is to witness the slow migration of species of all kinds on to higher altitudes, to higher latitudes, due to the warming of the world. After all, we are the only animal who runs the AC or drinks iced tea. The bugs and birds and mammals and reptiles climb to stay within their ecological comfort zone. And moving at the speed of  seedling, the native trees climb too. As you can imagine, these wild things all move at different speeds, creating ecosystem stress.  How can you move along before your nesting ground arrives? And in all this migration, of course, the alpine species are the most fragile, as they live at the top where there is no more room to climb. I live with these species now. Doesn’t that make you want to cry? Here, where the very fragile parade route ends? 

I begin to research:  What does a wildflower want? I try to start there. Life, travel, children. Sun and rain, in proportion. Autonomy. Protection from deer, maybe?

A small yellow plant growing out of the ground

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Lanceleaf Stonecrop

I think about it while I walk the pup. He likes to walk in the ditches, maybe to feel the half-hug of earth around him, a tiny creature as he is on a vast mountainside. The clay in the soil settles in these ditches, and the rivulets of rainwater braid the clay there. I name the flowers as I pass them, Wholeleaf Paintbrush, Sidebell Penstemon. I stop to ID a new tiny bright yellow bell. 

What do I want from wildflowers? 

Wyoming Paintbrush, Sulfur Buckwheat and Silvery Lupine

To keep them, I admit, in a slightly guilty manner. I press each one in the two-volume Oxford English dictionary. I like the flowers keeping company with words so small you need a magnifying glass to read them. Maybe here there is tiny bit of text that can migrate into the show. 

A purple flowers growing in the ground

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Sidebell Penstamon

I find old dictionaries that track floriography, the meaning of flowers. The Japanese language of flowers is called Hanakotoba. In the Victorian era in England, the language of flowers was gathered into a nosegay called a Tussy Mussy, sort of a little sentence in flower language, passed on to a friend or beloved. 

I look up the floriography of the last hike where the flowers presented to me are Columbine (folly), Pink Geranium (preference), Mignonette (your qualities surpass your charms), and Yellow Rose (jealousy). The latter grows in profusion. Maybe this speaks to my relationship with flowers.

I read that giving flowers in some cultures serves as a silent answer to a question. This makes me wonder about the questions that other folks might have for me. And me for them. A question is such a good gift. And flowers – a good answer. There were times when written communication was forbidden for women, but a bouquet could be handed. What shall I do with the freedom I have here and now? 

Well, I watch the flowers.

A close up of flowers

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Mariposa Lily

And oh, I discover I have left out some key characters. Wildflowers are a source of nectar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. These creatures are the instigators of the pollination of many plants, the doula of the growing world. Flowers and pollinators are constant companions, not just for succor, but for places to sleep or nest. A flower can be a hideout from a predator. 

And without wildflowers and their hearty adaptation to harsh landscapes like this, we would lose our pollinators, our small towns and big worlds. I sigh again. I am always in the process of learning how theatre wants to be about one thing, thrives on singularity and focus, but the web of the natural world is always deep and wide. Not singular but interconnected. How do I begin to tell the story of wildflowers?  

But then, I think I’m writing the program notes here, and not actually inviting you to a show. So, learning as we go, Animal, come this way.………

A gate in a field

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Meet me, say, in a high mountain meadow, on this summer day, after lunch and a nap. You arrive on foot at a rusty cattle gate. There is no fence attached, on either side, nothing to prevent you from going over or around except the promise that Art holds, of something extraordinary. If there are others, wait in line. Practice waiting and this, as much as anything, prepares you for what may come. 

There is a single usher by the gate, attending a wildflower-stage-manager. The flower clock is around you, marking time by opening and closing. There is life and death on the hillside. There is time to absorb it all. The time that the wildflowers give you in this show. It’s nearly time for the Colorado Four O’clock. Stand-by. When she opens, then the usher rises. The gate creaks. You are admitted.

The grass is sharp as blades, but it is braided on two sides. You walk up the part of the grass on the hillside. You climb. 

You notice the wildflowers. And sitting among them, you find musicians with glass music stands with a musical staff written across it. As you watch, the musicians turn their stands to the patch of field chickweed, say, that scatters small white dots across the grass. The blossoms mark the musical staff and make the notes and this is the score the musicians play. The wind brings the promise of more, and you follow the switchback trail. 

More flowers, different sorts, accompanied just so.  Maybe there is mandolin for the Scarlet Globemallow and banjo for the frilly Side Blossom Penstemon, the song of their place.

And bongos, or better, tablas for the groove of Beardstongue in the shade.

A purple flower with yellow center

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Fairyslipper Orchid

This will lead you to a meadow that is dotted with tiny stages, each built around a bloom. Herein, you may hear the tale of the Western Wallflower, who is always found alone. You may come to know her flirtation with the wind. This Western Wallflower might just occupy the sweet soliloquy spot Downstage Right. For an audience, this is their left side. If you read left-to-right, you are apt to attach more importance to things on the left, and of course, closer is larger so that gives prominence and power to this position. 

You may be unaware, similarly, of the entrance of a fiercely thorned Thistle Poppy who is Upstage Right. Trust me, it will be almost invisible in your field of vision.

Field of Vision. Which might also be the name of this piece.

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What might the Pale Evening Primrose say to you?

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Or the strange Bladder Campion?

If you seek centre stage, you may find the Blue Columbine. Look at this star-power.……

A purple and white flower

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Come closer to watch. Lie flat on your belly, within inches of these actors in the warm grass.  I call them actors because of their range; they nod, tremble, open and close, grow and blossom, wilt and die. That, to return to an earlier metaphor, is a big pot to cook in.… 

In the wind everything shakes, and this hearkens back to a piece I wrote for one of my first shows in Vancouver, at Templeton Diner with Radix.  “I believe in coffee because it makes you shake. All the beautiful things in the world make you shake–tears, laughter, the 25-cent-beds in cheap motels.” 

The show is a success if you too shake. Is it working on you yet? 

Turn horizontal to vertical once again. Turn your eyes up, after so much tiny down below, and look up high on the aspen. Higher than you can reach, a bear has been scratching. Let a violin go at this score. Let us see if a violin can roar.

And from the home of flora and fauna the path takes you to a set of stairs to another home and you climb them too. 

A brick structure in a field

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Here is the foundation of an old house, a home that might have belonged to any of you. The house was swept away, but you are invited in. Inside the foundation there are a thousand wildflowers living in close quarters, a haven for pollinators, both bug and bird. They have been cared for by more than the wind. This is a human house of flowers with walls of grass and a ceiling of sky.  The wind kicks up and blows at a pair of wooden shutters. You push them open. It is the proscenium arch for the show of the sky.

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Clouds here are not the low, grey scud of the coast. These are gleaming white fortresses on the fly. Clouds here seem almost magnetic; they could talk you off of the ground. Do you have ballast here? A cloud might cut your taproot and take you away. 

A collection of wind instrumentalists are standing by to improvise. Here you might spend some time, with a slow passing cloud-and-tuba duet and the skittery afternoon clouds given voice by a fourth-grade class with pennywhistles. 

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And then, in the late afternoon, inevitably, the wind. The flowers of this place are made to be taken. Behold the Salsify, the heads of which are the size of baseballs and made of fuzzy umbrellas. The invitation is on the wind, and we see the flowers launch a thousand seeds into that towering cloudscape, the staircase that goes on from the top of the mountain, the invitation to the flowers to migrate to the mountains of the sky. 

Maybe also an invitation for you and me. 

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You are tied to the earth, Animal, like me, Human. The wind comes up. We can let go of the hillside, if you like. 

The wind stirs up the fireworks in the Engel Rock Daisy. The thunder comes soon after, and the Stage Manager calls the show. Across the meadow you will run, your arms above your head, also fragile on the hillside, and all the way back home.

A person and child standing in a cave

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This is the end of that telling, but not the end of the idea itself. In fact, it is likely the middle. I find I tend to start plays there and then must figure out what comes before. Maybe we need to start underground. My husband and I are walking the puppy, and a neighbour pulls up in his golf cart to say hello. He has an empty baby bottle and a coffee cup in the same enormous hand. He is headed home (and where he was coming from never came up). We talk about fishing holes and other local news. The gold mine on our property is his side of the road, and we are headed to explore it. He says he has a gold mine on his land that is 4000 feet of tunnel on four levels. I wonder what that would do to me, to just journey through it. 

A light in a cave

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To understand a wildflower, do we need to start underground, to feel the cool of the earth and imagine the path of a seed through its own kind of tunnel to meet the sun? 

There is a spot in Sunshine called ‘The Nooner’. Once it was a pub, I think, some kind of lunch spot for the miners. Today, all that is left to mark the spot where The Nooner once stood is the patch of champagne-coloured irises that once grew beside. Eleanor, the master gardener who has befriended me shows me some in her garden. She encourages me to dig some too. The ‘Sunshine Iris’ she calls them. These are Bearded Iris from southern Europe, brought across the ocean by immigrants. I have heard of women who smuggled sleeping bees into the country in their cleavage. The things we cannot leave behind. These are the legacy of the pioneers—along with stone walls on the hillside. There are many places in Sunshine that were once front porches, but all that is left is a patch of Iris. I think of them as Ghost Porches. Another piece that someday might be. 

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I walk by the old schoolhouse, where they are flying the flag of Sunshine under the American flag for the upcoming holiday. 

A flag pole with flags flying on it

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I think about a festival of Sunshine. All the pieces that could be made. There is a piece that starts here too, an old schoolhouse that turns inside out and dumps us again into the tangled grassy hillside to follow the deer.

The urge to grow a theatre is one we often explored, Animal. I first heard of the notion around 1993 in Poland, in Gardzience. The theatre there, of the same name, planted a set that it would use for a show in 25 years’ time. I was only a bit older than 20 myself, so to me that was a lifetime. Later I worked as an actor with the puppet theatre Runaway Moon, under the direction of Cathy Stubbington. Her partner, Doug Saba, was a farmer, and they planted a garden set for one of the summer shows. To grow a set of native species to reclaim a clearcut was the genesis of 1000 Year Theatre. 

It is this way with me, the rapture I feel when I behold the very slow theatre of growing.

And yes, since last month, there are things happening on the small stage of my new garden beds. I watch the squash settle happily. The tomatoes and the raspberries grow tight and dense. The others struggle with the wind. The Nasturtiums look particularly unhappy. This plant is one I love, and it hurts my heart that it cannot seem to take root.

Seeds do better than transplants, as they get to choose the time of their arrival. After the Nasturtiums have such a miserable time, I am doubtful as I plant Borage seeds among the strawberries. In my old garden I had a hundred self-seeded borage plants, every year, with their periwinkle star-flowers that taste of cucumber. I’m delighted to report that almost every borage seed has come up. I greet this old friend.  

And while I garden, I think about this growing theatre of place, and you know, it wouldn’t be a show for me without the curation of the food and drink as a part of the experience. We had Cedartinis at tinkers, Dried Venison and Salal leather at Cedar Board Game, and Kryptonite cocktails at Nothing but Sky

A group of different colors of powder

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I flip through a cookbook titled Eat the Flowers by Loria Stern. It’s deeply researched, and I find the many-coloured powders that can be distilled from flowers and used as delicate food colouring. Could you do a Thistle Poppy death scene with purple butterfly pea powder and the rain? I drown myself in a huge list of edible blossoms. It seems that flowers can be food for more than bees, but they largely fell out of favour in human cuisine with the advent of fast food. Flowers should be picked just before they are eaten. Who has time for flowers?

Maybe you and maybe me.

In the kitchen, I’ve been experimenting with Juniper Juice, like a kombucha that is seeded by the bacteria on unwashed Juniper berries that are prolific here, and Pine Potatoes that are roasted on a bed of pine needles. Pine Soda, made with Boulder Raspberries and Pine Needles, must be burped so it does not explode. Pickled Spruce Tips are curing for three months. Spruce Tip dressing came for dinner and Spruce Panna Cotta for dessert. I’m still making things with rhubarb, candy and cordial. I might have to wait a few more weeks for cones to mature before I try Pine-cone Cider Jam. It took me 10 months of living here to google Pine Needle recipes. What was wrong with me? 

Next Christmas, I’ll make Pine Needle Cookies

Tomorrow, as with every day this month, using our bath water, I will water the bare earth around the house. There may be more wildflower seeds waiting. I hope to watch  them rise.

Next week, I’ll be on the road back to your whereabouts, Animal.

Wildflowers are tied by long taproots to this land. They cannot travel like I can. Rootless Human Wanders North. That will be next month. 

Til soon, yours, ever so,