Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Moose and the Bear that went to War


It was August, 1916. War had made a hard life in Northern Ontario even more difficult. At that time, my great grandfather William Henry Guppy, or "Bill" as he was actually known, had a small business buying and selling furs out of a humble wood-frame store.

To keep food on the table for a wife and six children, he also hunted and trapped in the winter. The most lucrative part of his income however, came from guiding southern tourists looking to hunt and fish in the Canadian north. With the outbreak of the First World War, those tourists had all but disappeared.

This is a faded image of my grandfather's store near Timiskaming Ontario. The store in the wilds of northern Canada sold supplies to fur trappers and groceries to locals and visiting tourists.

Times were tough, but it was more than financial hardship that made my great grandfather sign up to fight for Canada.

He was a woodsman, who lived for adventure. The chance to fight for his country and see parts of Europe were hard to resist.

William Henry "Bill" Guppy (seen on the left) was a short, wiry man. The Native North Americans had named him Pijeense, the Little Lynx because his eyebrows stuck out like the distinctive tufts of fur on the ears of a lynx. My great grandfather is pictured here with his son Willie, who at sixteen, got lost in a snow storm and perished.

Young men had answered the call to battle in the early days of the First World War, but in 1916 the Canadian war effort was asking older men to enlist.

So my 42 year old great grandfather left a wife and large family behind and went with his brother Alex and his seventeen year old son Harold to the recruitment office in North Bay. Ontario.

 The 159th Battalion of the 1st Algonquin Overseas Regiment were known as the "Northern Pioneers". Their motto "Nekahnetah" translates as "Let us lead". Image Source

If it was adventure they were seeking, the early days of their lives as a privates in the 159th Battalion of the 1st Algonquin Overseas Regiment had to have been a huge disappointment.

New recruits from northern Ontario found themselves billeted in a skating rink in North Bay for the winter. Army discipline and order wasn't sitting well with a group of men who made their living in the wild working as woodsmen, lumberjacks, trappers and road builders. Bored and restless, fighting and drinking became a problem.

Looking to build moral, the adjutant in charge sent my great grandfather out to find and purchase a regimental mascot. After a quick break to visit his wife and family, Bill bought a two year old moose cow for fifteen dollars cash.

The mascot of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion. Image Source

A goat, possibly the mascot for the 16th Battalion, marches past Major-General S.C. Mewburn, the Minister of Militia and Defence from 1917 to 1920.  Image Source

Having an animal serve as a wartime mascot was fairly common. In fact animals in general played a key role in the First World War.

A Canadian soldier sits with his dog, reading the day's paper. The packed equipment suggests that he is waiting to move up the line and to the trenches. Image Source

Many soldiers had small dogs and cats as pets. A beloved pet helped soldiers far from home cope with the harsh realities of war.

Dogs played an important role in detecting dangerous gases, explosives and landmines.  Both dogs and cats carried messages onto the battlefield with notes fastened around their necks.

A member of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps and a horse pose wearing gas masks. Horses could withstand higher concentrations of poison gas than humans, but chemicals could still damage their lungs or burn their legs and hoofs, eventually requiring their destruction. Image Source

Members of the 20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, stand beside their pack horses, loaded with 18-pounder shells. This photograph was taken before the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. At Vimy, the Canadian gunners had an estimated 1.6 million shells and every one had to be carried forward to the guns. Image Source

Battlefields were mud-soaked, and the terrain at the front was often without roads. This made transportation using motor vehicles impossible. Instead horses, mules and donkeys were used to haul food, equipment and ammunition. Horses were even used to carry war wounded.

By the end of World War 1, eight million horses were lost. That's a staggering number!

The only picture that survives showing my great grandfather with Bessie the Moose 
and Kitchener the Bear. From the book King of the Woodsman by Hal Pink.

"Bessie the moose soon became famous," my great grandfather recounts in a memoir entitled King of the Woodsman"She learned to come to me when I whistled a certain call, and would follow round at my heels like a dog when I went out collecting food for her... It was on parade that she shone... Bessie threw out her chest and paraded like a veteran...she walked beside me, step for step, the proudest moose in Canada."

The moose was a great rallying point for the bored and restless men waiting for their time to be deployed. The second mascot Bill was ordered to find and train proved to be a more difficult challenge. My great grandfather recounts that the young bear cub he purchased was “a nasty little brute with a vile temper, showing his teeth and ready to fight at the drop of a hat.”

When the regiment were called up, Kitchener the bear and Bessie the moose boarded the Empress of Britain along with the troops. It was a fourteen day trip to Liverpool, England. Neither Bill nor the bear were seasick, but Bessie faired badly. She grew steadily weaker and eventually died.

A horse drawn hansom cab, circa 1900.  Image from the London Transport Museum.

When the call to the front approached, Bill was ordered to take the bear to the London Zoo for safekeeping. A Canadian black bear was not a typical passenger on an English rail line, so it took quite a bit of persuasion before Bill and Kitchener the bear could board the train bound for London.

When my great grandfather and his bear arrived in London, the station was packed with troops leaving for France and the families seeing them off. The station was quickly in a state of pandemonium, complete with shrieks and yells, as everyone shoved and elbowed to clear a path for the Canadian soldier with his black bear.

Bill and Kitchener rattled through the streets of London in a hansom cab, Kitchener standing on the cab's splashboard, showing his white teeth to the staring crowds of astonished Londoners. 

After releasing the bear into his new pen at the London Zoo, Bill left for the front line in France, where he went for a stretch of 39 days without rest. At one point a German shell exploded burying Bill and several other men alive in their trench. Amazingly, he escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.

In 1917, my great grandfather wrote home in a letter that survives to this day. The letter was written hurriedly in pencil on Salvation Army stationary and uses the plain simple language of a man with limited education. Words are misspelled and sentences run together without capitals or periods. He writes to my sixteen year old grandfather, "Go straight, be gentle and honest and you can't go wrong."

What probably saved my great grandfather's life was a chance friendship he struck up with the army cook of the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles. Bill became a cook in the field kitchens for the remainder of the war. The life of a cook was not without its perils. "In the daytime bullets popped and pinged and whizzed by like gnats...", Bill reminisced years later.

After the war Bill went back to the London Zoo to see Kitchener. He recounts in his memoir, "He showed his teeth at me when I spoke to him, and shambled over to inspect me. But I was nothing in his young life now, so with a snort through the bars he rolled away again."

The ending to this story is a sad one. Bill goes on to say,"Years later, in 1937, I learned that Kitchener the mascot had died in London, and had been given a military funeral. Like Bessie the moose, he never returned to his native soil. I've often wondered what he thought about that trip across London in a hansom cab!"

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Country Garden with Two Ponds– Summer into Fall



A pond is always a standout garden feature, but in the fall, the dark, reflective surface of the water becomes a splendid mirror for seasonal color, transforming a pond into something quite magical.

Frank and Sue Gooderson have not one, but two ponds in their country garden in Caledon, Ontario. The first and larger of the two ponds comes into view the moment you turn into the driveway. A curved wooden bridge divides the large oval pond into two smaller pools of water. A waterfall feeds the smaller of the two pools.



I first visited Frank and Sue's garden back in August on the sunniest of summer days (unfortunately not the best circumstances for good landscape photography). I always like to show a garden at its best, so I determined to return again in October when the light is more golden and the leaves have begun to show their brilliant fall colors.



The Gooderson's had a water feature in their previous home in Oakville, so when they moved to the countryside in retirement, another pond was definitely on their wish list. 

The wide lot of their new country home dipped a little on one side and the ground there was quite marshy. This seemed like the perfect place to create a large, natural pond. They dug out the area and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, the only thing that happened was the weeds moved in. When rainwater failed to pool, a liner was added to hold water. 

The arching branches of a Cotoneaster dangle into the water. One of the really nice things about this shrub are the red berries in the fall and early winter. 


Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum on the left and Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa on the right.

The plantings around the pond include shrubs, perennials and grasses. There are tall clumps of Switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, and on the water's edge, there is low-growing Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa

In the shady area next to the waterfall, there are several types of hosta, ferns and Astilbe with its striking red plumes.

Astilbe as photographed during my first visit in August.

A closer look at the bridge.

A Japanese Maple growing next to the pond.

A view of the bridge from the back of the property.

Hosta in their golden fall hues.


Both the large pond and a second, smaller pond (that you will see shortly) freeze over in the winter. The fish move to the comfort of warm water at the bottom of the pond. A bubbler (seen above) keeps a small surface area open and allows any gasses to escape.



Waterlilies add an ornamental element to both ponds, while native Bullrushes give the larger of the two ponds its natural look. Together the water plants provide a place for the koi and goldfish to hide from predators. The tall bullrushes waving in the breeze also work to discourage birds looking to do a little fishing. 

Both water features attract wildlife to the garden. A mink, muskrat and a snapping turtle have all attempted to take up residence in the large pond. Recently the Gooderson's returned from a trip to England to find a heron taking full advantage of their absence.



A ribbon-like area of garden begins at the back deck and then turns to run parallel to the back of the house. This band of shrubs trees, and perennials breaks the expansive backyard into smaller, more intimate areas. An arbor allows you to pass from one area to the another.

While the garden appears to be fairly low-maintenance, looks can be deceiving. Weed seeds readily blow in making weeding one of the biggest tasks on Sue's list of garden chores. 


Adjacent to the deck at the back of the house, there is a tiny waterfall that empties into a stream. The stream flows over a bed of pebbles down the natural slope of the backyard and empties into a second, smaller pond. A single slab of stone creates a bridge over the flowing water.

The waterfall to one side of the back deck.

A large slab of stone forms a bridge over the stream.


In August pink waterlilies were blooming in the sunshine. The gnarly branches of a Sumac and a stone lantern give the pond a bit of a Japanese feel. Ornamental grasses, hosta, shrubs and evergreens complete the plantings.

A screened gazebo is the perfect mosquito-free retreat.

The small pond in the summer season. 

Water features like this are wonderful, but how much work do they entail? 

Frank figures that he spends a couple hours a week on routine maintenance; checking the pumps, dealing with algae and keeping an eye on water levels. 

The hydrangea planted adjacent to the gazebo.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Pinky Winky' has large, two-toned flower panicles that open white and age from the base of the flower to pink. This shrub is adaptable to most soils in both sun and part-shade. It blooms on new wood, so you can prune it in the late fall or early spring. This hydrangea has the bonus of being a drought tolerant shrub. Height: 1.8- 2.4 meters (6-8 ft), Spread: 1.2-1.5 meters (4-5 ft). USDA zones: 3-9.


There is the seasonal maintenance as well. In the fall, screens are placed over the surface of the smaller pond to keep falling leaves out of the water.


Water features like these help bring a garden to life. They're a haven for insects, frogs and so many other types of wildlife. And the sound of falling or moving water is always so relaxing!

 Maintaining a water feature might require some work, but I think the Gooderson's would tell you it's well worth the effort.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gardening on the Inside


"Plants give me oxygen, and I give them carbon dioxide. We need each other."
                                                   Reginald, Insight Garden Program participant


When it comes to inmates in the prison system, a charitable viewpoint ends for many people. So often there is little sympathy for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Perhaps it is not surprising that it took Beth Wiatkus a full year to gain permission from San Quentin Prison to create a small flower garden, and an even longer period of five years to add a second, larger garden to the otherwise rather bleak prison grounds. But with perseverance, Beth installed raised beds, assembled a team of volunteers and designed the year-long garden curriculum that was to become the Insight Garden Program.

Beth Waitkus and a group of inmates in their garden. 

The raised vegetable and herb beds. 

Beth had been working as a communications and organizational consultant when the attacks of 9/11 made her question her faith in humanity. As part of the process of dealing with the tragedy, she had a opportunity to take a tour of the San Quentin Sate Prison. A lifelong gardener, Waitkus was saddened by the desolate and depressing prison yard that was utterly devoid of any greenery. As part of the tour she met the director for the Insight Prison Project, which provides meditation, yoga and restorative justice classes for the inmates. That chance meeting turned out to be pivotable for Beth.

In 2002, Beth launched the Insight Garden Project. "Everybody has a heart and a chance for transformation," she says. 

The idea of the program is to connect inmates with self, nature and the community providing for a healthier life while in prison and after release.The group meets once a week. Guest speakers talk with prisoners about ecosystems, permaculture, green jobs training and healthy food. 

Many of the men in the medium-security unit have little or no experience with nature or working in a garden. The hope is that prisoners who take responsibility for planting, tending and harvesting the garden will take responsibility for their own lives. Mindfulness practices encourage the men to see their lives as a garden they tend.

Gardening increases confidence, allowing people who may lack skills or education to see success quickly in their work. Seeds sprout and buds soon become food.

Fifteen years later the garden at San Quentin is a thriving plot of drought-tolerant plants. The vegetables and herbs grown are donated to local non-profits.

San Quentin Prison, just north of San Francisco, houses inmates serving sentences under 15 years. 

There is an alarming statistic that in the U.S. over 50% of inmates return to prison within three years. The less charitable among us would say that bad people will always tend to do bad things.

Released from prison without skills, employment and little community support, inmates can default to their previous criminal behaviour. It's a simple case that desperate people sometimes resort to doing desperate things.

I think it comes down to your faith in humanity. Perhaps there are some who are unreachable and certainly there are those who ought to remain in prison due to the serious nature of their crimes. On the other hand, it is also possible that a long series of life's misfortunes added up to a person making a serious mistake.

Beth Wiatkus believes that everyone deserves a second chance. She's grown to realize that people who have made poor choices still have the capacity for change. Sometimes that change involves a man getting his hands in the soil and caring for plants to learn empathy, perseverance and discipline.

Beth's faith has been well rewarded. A survey in 2011 showed that of the 117 garden program participants who were paroled between 2003 and 2009, less than 10% returned to prison or jail.

With the growth of conservative ideology, projects like the Garden Insight Program are always in jeopardy. The sad thing is, this is a program that has proven itself to work.

Fortunately, the Garden Insight Program was granted a non-profit status in 2014 and had the good fortune to receive a generous gift of $200,000 a year from an anonymous benefactor. Additional funding from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has lead to the expansion of the program to two additional state prisons. Waitkus and her team are also launching programs in Indiana and New York state.

It's heartwarming to think that gardening can help people turn their lives around.

Thanks to the Insight Garden Program for permission to use the images in this post.

More Information and Links:

Beyond Prison website

Insight Prison Project website

Read about a similar program here in Canada in this Globe and mail article

Read about "Project Soil" on The Kingston Prison Farms website

Learn about the Evergreen project to complete a community based naturalization and garden project as a transition program for federally incarcerated women in British Columbia, Canada. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Polka Dot Plant


As I have become a more experienced and sophisticated outdoor gardener, I have felt that there has been a shift in my attitude toward indoor plants.

While there are still a few common houseplants I'll always love, I am more decerning than I used to be. If I am going to bother of keeping indoor plants, I want them to be as interesting as my outdoor plants.

Container planting photographed on May 30th just after being potted up.

I first got to know Hypoestes Phyllostachya when I picked up a plant to use in one of my outdoor container plantings. With its pink polka dots, it struck me as a nice alternative to standard annuals.

Despite the fact that I crammed a fair bit into a modest-sized pot, all the plants performed pretty well. The only exception would be the white pansy which surrendered to the effects of the hot summer sun. The other plants took full advantage of the absence and filled in to take the pansy's place.

Same container planting photographed October 12th

As you can see the pink darkened into magenta and green became more olive over the course of the summer. When the plants in my pot got a little leggy mid-summer, I took cuttings and made even more plants.



Originally from Madagascar, Polka Dot Plants are a herbaceous perennial in their native habitat. Outdoors they that can grow up to two or three feet. Here in North America, they are generally kept as houseplants.

The main reason to grow these plants is their cheerful speckled foliage . The 'Splash' series is dotted splotches of pink, white, rose and red. The 'Confetti' series has the same color palette, but the spots are a bit more sparse.


Here are some basic tips on growing Polka Dot Plants:

Light: Bright, indirect light is their preference. Too little light may result in leggy growth. Low light can also cause colorful spots to fade and the leaves to turn solid green.

Water: Moist, but not soggy soil is best during the growing season (indoor plants have a spring and summer growing season just like outdoor plants).
In the winter, Polka Dot plants like to be just a bit drier. If your plant produces a flower and moves into a dormant phase, reduce your regular watering regime until the plant shows new signs of growth.

Heat: A cold windowsill won't do for this tropical plant. It's best to keep temperatures at least 65-70 degrees F. (18-21 degrees C.)

Fertilizer: During the spring and summer feed your plant weekly with a liquid fertilizer following the package directions.


Soil: For indoor plants use a good, well-drained potting mix. When planted outdoors as annuals, Polka Dot Plants require well-drained soil rich in organic matter.

Care: Pinching back growth will encourage a bushier plant.

Propagation: Polka Dot plants aren't particularly long-lived. Once they have flowered they will move into a dormant phase or may die altogether.
Growing new plants from cuttings is fairly easy. I tried rooting my cuttings in water, but that didn't work. Placing the cuttings right into the soil worked perfectly. Just remember to keep the soil moist and the cuttings out of the direct sun until they root and you should have no problem making new plants.

Pests: White fly, scale and aphids can be potential issues.


Polka Dot Plant's bright splashes of color are just as pretty as flowers and it's always to nice to have "flowers" inside the house when outside the garden is sleeping under the snow.