Author Archives: arlenekeith

Don’t count your Berries before they Bloom


Agriculture is a fierce master. Whether you are rich or poor, meek or strong, an experienced farmer or a novice, the weather rules with impartial disregard. I would dance naked in the field under a full moon if I thought it would help. Hell, I’d dance naked in downtown Perth at midday on a holiday weekend if it would make a difference.

I was out west visiting family when my babies broke dormancy (and when I wrote my last blog). When I returned home and raced out to the field, anticipating to see multitudes of blooms destined to become my first salable blueberries, realization dawned with gut wrenching despair. I saw, instead, row after row of brown, dead branches.

Normally in the fall, blueberry plants turn a gorgeous red as they ‘harden’ for winter. But last year our record breaking heat wave was immediately followed by a killing frost and green leaves gasped their last breath and fluttered to the ground, without the benefit of turning red. Being the novice that I am, I wondered at the time if that would have an impact, but it’s impossible to predict what damage will be done until the plants break dormancy in the spring. That they didn’t get a chance to harden properly, combined with the fact that some stuff didn’t get done last year on account of my broken ankles, the result this spring was disheartening, to say the least.

My friend and mentor Charles (who owns Wilmot Orchards in Newcastle) says that the roots are not dead – that the bushes will grow back, it will just take a couple of years. Two years feels like a long time to me. I know that everyone whose lives are intimately invested in agriculture goes through things like this in one form or another. I have a coaster that reads – we can’t direct the wind, we can only adjust our sails. Well the wind had died and my sails were flapping loose.

After mourning came acceptance. The heavy weight of despair was slowly lifted by a gentle breeze allowing me to adjust my sails, as well as my mindset. The only thing to do is put it behind me and move on. But I’m moving on more slowly. That’s ok – it’s probably better for this aging novice than riding the waves at 50 knots pushed by a gale force wind. I will get as much of the netting done as I can but with so much crop devastation, it’s less urgent. I also have more planting to work on. It will all get done, as my friend Nancy says, in the fullness of time. I’m practicing staying in the present and taking it day by day. The bittersweet moral of this story is – you know what’s coming – don’t count your blueberries before they bloom.

Field of Dreams


I built it and they came – the birds I mean. For the past two years I have been wrestling with what to do about avian protection in my blueberry field. Last year, after one beautiful weekend of picking, the little airborne buggers decimated every berry left on the bushes. My original plan was to overhead net the entire field but the mere thought of the work to build the  infrastructure (not to mention the additional cost) felt darn near soul shattering. I have to dig nearly 150 holes three feet deep, cut trees from the back of the property, transport them to the field and put them into the holes, level them all at nine feet high, build a wire support system on top and then anchor the whole lot into the ground with scary three foot long metal anchors. The netting itself is installed each year before the berries ripen and taken down after harvest.  After resolutely researching  easier options like predator bird scares,  individual row netting, fake snakes and owls, shiny pinwheels, scarecrows, drones and sprays,  I came to the conclusion that  the only surefire and practical protection  from the dreaded starlings, robins and blackbirds is overhead netting (getting the farm to this point over the past four years has been a physical and financial bloodbath – now is not the time to be hesitant). And while this venture will hopefully provide a profitable and agreeable retirement for myself, it is also the realization of a long held dream, a dream that was crystallized in the summer of 2014 during a fateful trip to Philadelphia.

I was recovering from 2 broken ribs and my youngest son Max, who seldom ever asked for anything, asked me to take him to Philadelphia to visit a girl with whom he’d met during a wrestling competition. And so, with the assurance that a three day visit from him was ok with her mother, we set out. I was planning on camping close by while working on my Merry Blueberry business plan. (Unbeknownst to me, Max and Laura’s ‘in real life’ relationship consisted of a 3-minute conversation at a tournament the month before, and unbeknownst to both Max and me, Laura’s family were mega multimillionaires). We pulled into their mansion with eyes wide.  After a short, surreal visit, I was talked into  staying in one of their ‘guest wings’. It all turned out well – Max and Laura were deliriously happy to spend time together, I got a lot of research done, but my biggest excitement was when they found out I was starting a blueberry farm and took us to a local u-pick.  Standing under the gauzy canopy of aqua overhead netting, I fantasized that the leafy domain of berry laden bushes was my own field. With imagined proprietorship, head dizzy with excitement, I watched happy people picking.  My field will be just like this, I whispered breathlessly to myself (still so blissfully innocent and naïve as to what was actually involved in starting a blueberry operation). In that moment, my embryonic dream was activated into a fierce nugget of determination.  Max just smiled and shook his head with resignation. He knows me well.

That suspended spiderweb of aqua netting may not seem like much to the casual observer but it was the cloud into which I poured my vision of the future. So when I found out much later that that particular netting, which so perfectly evoked sky and joy and promise to me, was the most flippin expensive brand of bird netting on the market, I was crushed. Alas, pride and dreams don’t thicken wallets and I was forced to ditch the idealistic picture in my minds eye of a transcendent lacework sheltering my precious crop. But the blueberry gods took pity on me (may I offer you another broken ankle, oh fruity overlords?). After many laborious rounds of international phone tag and wagering, I found a vendor in Windsor, Ont. willing to sell me what I needed at a good discount. Guys. I got my aqua cloud. Now I just have to figure out how to put it in the sky.

So far on this multi-year journey I have been fairly steadfast, but I admit I’m weary. I need to stay the course…walk the line …and all the other euphemisms to coax my battle worn body back into the trenches this summer. I remind myself that my field of dreams is almost, nearly, seemingly on the brink of becoming a reality. And it’s not for the birds.

‘Incredible India’


After two months away I am back home in Balderson and recovering in more ways than one. With not a hint of stomach trouble in India, I was hit on the way home with what felt like the biggest, baddest bug ever created. It started during the layover in London with a headache,  stomach pain and nausea. But shortly after we’d lifted off from London in an airplane full of noses pointed eagerly towards Ottawa, my own schnoz was buried deep in a barf bag – a refuge it would not leave, as it turned out, for the next five hours. As my body was relieved of what felt like half its weight, I couldn’t help but think (through a headache so fierce my eyes watered) about all the spicy food I’d so recently enjoyed welcoming into my body. Their exodus was less pleasant.

The upside, I suppose, if I were coherent enough to appreciate it, was that Huggie and I were the  first ones off the plane as the flight crew insisted on having paramedics meet me on the ground. But I just couldn’t face going to the hospital at that point. I had nothing left. My vitals were fine and after making sure I wasn’t being irresponsible, Huggie wheeled me out to my brother who was there to pick us up. I made it as far as his place before collapsing into the quiet stillness of their spare bedroom. Over the next couple of days I slowly recuperated in the protective bubble of Rob and Leah’s country home.  When I left, care package in hand, the feat of driving from Carp to Balderson had the feel of setting out on a major expedition. I come from a long line of hardy stock but that damn bug took me down in one round. It was a humble homecoming that marked the latest in a string of ill-fated returns from trips (see past posts on sand fleas, face tattoos).

There are a lot of things that I will miss about India but it has also taken its toll.  It’s a challenging place to travel on your own, especially for women alone. (Once I was waiting for a midnight train in a small nowhere station, along with a bunch of men, and one lone, young, wisp of a Russian girl with her eight month old baby strapped to her front. They announced that the train was coming and suddenly, with the train in sight,  the men all jumped down onto the dark tracks and ran across to the other side. Apparently, the arrival platform was changed and the only way to catch the train was to cross over. I hurriedly helped the Russian girl down onto the tracks and we ran across. The train arrived momentarily and continued to very slowly glide past us as we frantically searched for our assigned car. A man shouted that we needed to jump on; that the train didn’t always completely stop. We were running along side it and the girl, with her limited English and strong Russian accent, was saying “please, please”. I grabbed onto the trains door rails with one hand, reached for her with my other hand, pulled her towards me and then used my foot to shove her and her baby up onto the still moving train and then swung myself into the carriage).  I won’t miss the attitude of many of the men, I won’t miss their guttural horking and spitting. I won’t miss the continual need to brace myself for the hard sell. And I won’t miss the celebrity status bestowed on us just by virtue of being white. It will be nice to not create a stir everywhere I go. But I will miss the colour and the incredibly beautiful saris. I will miss the food, I will miss the history, the energy, and the joy of the many kind and gentle people. And I will miss the exoticism of it all.Mandela people draw outside their front door for good luck

Huggie and I are each decompressing, feeling somewhat culture shocked and resting a lot. We laugh that watching good drinking water drain away is disturbing. I almost had a panic attack one time when I realized that I was brushing my teeth without my water bottle. And it’s hard to stop squirrelling away toilet paper into our pockets every time we see it. We agree that a hot bath and using cream rinse feels like the height of decadence. And it really is! We have all seen the images of the poverty in India, but being in the midst of the squalor, literally face to face, creates an appreciation for what we have that I hope to never take for granted.

India was quite an experience for both of us. We are happy to be home safe, and in my case, almost sound. At the end of the day, adventure is what we wanted and adventure is what we got. Once again, thank you so much taking the time to read my ramblings and letting me share ‘Incredible India’ with you. Take good care and see you again on the flip side.

Varanasi – holy cow!


I sit in the railway station waiting for my overnight train to Delhi and try to write about my three days in Varanasi. I try to describe the River Ganges, the city, the onslaught of experience, the garbage, the smell, the noise, the tight mesh of narrow interconnecting alleyways, the continual sensory overload, but my brain short circuits. I am at a loss when I hear a soft voice beside me with an Indian accent, “you are writing a blog about Varanasi?” I turn around, stunned. It has been hard to find a soul who speaks English let alone one who recognizes that I am writing a blog. “Yes, I am trying, but I can’t do it. I don’t know where to start,” I reply. He is young but his eyes look gentle and wise. “What are the five things you like best about the city,” he responds. I don’t hesitate. “The history, the spirituality, the food, the energy, the people.” “Start there”, he says.

“What does the river mean to you?”, I ask him. “It is my native place,” he responds. “I was born and brought up here so it has much meaning to me. It is not just the river, it is the mother. She gave us birth and she takes us to the heaven when we leave this world.” He pauses for a moment and thinks. “All the cremations and ceremonies and our dipping, and washing in the Ganges as per our spirituality are because we believe that the Ganges takes us with her to the heaven. All the cultures that live here, we live in harmony and we all believe in the mother.” I want to talk to him more but the train arrives. He offers to help me find my seat but I thank him and tell him I’m ok. We each touch our heart with our right hand and say goodbye and he disappears into the crowd.

Varanasi is the holiest City in India and the oldest continually habited city in the world and the River Ganges is its life blood. Multitudes of people perform ritual ablutions in the sacred water from hundreds of Ghats (stone steps that lead down to the river). Hindus believe that if you are cremated at the burning Ghat after being immersed in the Ganges, you stop your incarnations and attain instant enlightenment.

Huggie and I meet up to share our experience of Varanasi together. We sit on the stone steps of the burning Ghat respectfully witnessing the process. A white-clad man has laid out his twelve year old child on a wood pyre (women grieve at home; tradition dictates that only men attend. Emotion is believed to interfere with the spirit ascending). He walks around the body five times carrying some burning brush that was lit from the temple flame which has been burning continuously for 2000 years. Once he lights the dry wood of the pyre, he is led quickly away as emotion threatens to overcome him. We are profoundly aware of the intimate grazing glimpse we are getting into an age old belief system that permeates to their core. I see a few Indians taking pictures so I discreetly snap a few shots.

We open our minds to connect ourselves to the spiritual energy of the holy city. Huggie is especially connected and I wonder if she has lived on the embankment of the Ganges at some point in the distant past. We hire a boat and float down the river breathing in the sandalwood incense and the chanting of the evening ceremonies, we visit the holiest of the holy ‘Golden Temple’ , which is bursting at the seams with pilgrims, we spit in the face of death as we careen down terrifyingly busy streets on bike rickshaws, we follow a man down the twistiest, turniest, dirtiest, alleyways we’ve ever been in to see a famed gurugu, we eat delicious food (of course) and, oh yes, I get hit by a scooter. That part is a blur for me but Huggie says she will never forget the image. She says it’s a good thing that the driver was young with fast reflexes and good brakes. I’m a little banged up with a sore left side but I’m ok. We have joked that the safest way to cross the road in India is to shield yourself behind a holy cow. And, holy cow, we are not kidding.

Ancient Erotica


All good things must end and I traded in my beach hut for a 50 hour train ride north (talk about being cast out of paradise and into the fiery dungeons of hell). I was headed for the Khajuraho monuments, a UNESCO world heritage site located in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples built by the Chandela dynasty about 1000 years ago (suggesting a tradition of acceptance and respect for different religious views) and are famous for their unabashed eroticism. Interspersed within the hundreds upon hundreds of intricate carvings, are frank representations of explicit sexual acts in varying forms. The reasons for these carvings have caused much speculation but is not known. Whatever their original purpose, by the 13th century, the temples had been abandoned and were swallowed by the jungle. It wasn’t until 1838 that T.S. Bert, a fine upstanding officer of Queen Victoria, stumbled upon them. I can imagine that the discovery was a bit of an eye popper for him. He reported back to queen and country that the panels were “beautifully and exquisitely carved, but indecent, offensive, and obscene”.

I wandered around the intriguing and unique temples, wondering about the society that built them and what life was like then. I was struck again, forcefully, about how civilizations rise and fall with the winds of time and how little we know about any of it. I sidled up to an English speaking Indian guide to eavesdrop.

Some say the carvings were inspired by the Kama Sutra and were intended to serve as a ‘how-to’ manual for Brahmin boys, others claim they symbolize the wedding party of Shiva and Parvati (an important Hindu God and his wife). The guide pointed out one particular panel to his clients depicting an entwined couple and described it as “happy hour”. Happy hour indeed! (I really need to think about moving on, ‘happy hour’ feels like a past life experience.) It has also been speculated that the carvings were related to Tantric cults that use sex as a pivotal part of worship. Yet another version is that the geometric qualities of certain images served as a yantra (a pictorial mantra) to be used in meditation. I left the sensuous temples none the wiser to their original purpose, but fascinated by the mystery surrounding them.

It was also the beginning of India’s Holi festival and the town of Khajuraho was in full celebration. Like India itself, Holi is a festival of color. It symbolizes the end of the dry winter and the beginning of spring and green and lushness. Everybody happily spreads neon coloured powders all over each other, plays loud Holi music and dances in the streets.

I had already checked out of my guest house when I was reluctantly initiated into the festivities. I was still pink and powdery when I walked 10 hot kilometres to the train station for my 12 hour ride to Varanasi. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with joyous shouts of “happy Holi” and offered chai tea. My first order of business on arrival will be to have a nice, cool shower and properly clean the powder out of my hair and ears.

Gokarna Holy Water


The holy water poured from the cows head spout outside of Gokarna’s Ram temple and looked clear. “Yes, yes eet’s good to drink”, my new Russian friend said. “Everybody comes here for dis sacred, clean water, Indians and Westerners both”, she assured me, while drinking and nodding her head eagerly. I wanted to believe, I really did, but I was hesitant. I haven’t had a whiff of stomach trouble in India and I didn’t want to blow it with bum holy water. I’m not very careful with what I eat (years of conditioned stomach abuse combined with plain good luck) but I am generally careful with the water I drink.

When my ankles had had enough hiking, I took two trains and three buses to Gokarna for some leisure time. I arrived late at night and arduously trudged through the soft sand on the silent, dark shoreline, asking at each of the dozen or so rudimentary restaurants if any of their bamboo hut’s were vacant. No luck – that is until the last restaurant at the end of a two kilometre stretch. One crudely roped together hut was available. I couldn’t have been happier if it was the Taj Mahal (well, maybe a little happier).

Travel weary and exhausted, I un-shouldered my pack, collapsed on the raised netted bedboard, and fell fast asleep.

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of the surf, and a handful of Europeans doing yoga on the wide expanse of white sand, and nothing else. The beach was clean and perfectly quiet.

I have been here for a few days now, time comes and goes with the waves, I read and try not to think too hard about anything at all. There is a gentle energy about this place that I love and I have what I need; a hut with my own hole in the ground, an almost empty sandy shoreline, and delicious food (I close my mind to the giant fruit bats with a two foot wing span, and the rats and lizards that jump down from the trees onto my bamboo roof).

I continue to relish the Indian food but it is so carb, oil, and sugar heavy that I generally eat only one meal a day and supplement it with pineapple, banana, or watermelon. A dish that I love is ‘banana bun’; a kneaded mixture of flour, water, banana, and sugar. It is deep fried and served with a spicy chick pea curry (costs 15 rupees – about 30 cents). Another favourite is curried potato and onion with deep fried bread and a side of yogurt with onion. I’m pretty sure that my sweat now smells like onion and curry.

Gokarna has been one of India’s sacred sites for more than 2 millennia and the devout travel from far and wide to pray here and to drink the holy water. I filled my bottle and raised it to my lips. I would join the faithful and believe. But at the last minute, I chickened out and tossed in a purifying tablet. Clearly, my faith needs a little work.