Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Life's Little Mysteries

Those of us who come north and end up staying for more than a year or two often get involved in pastimes that suit our locale. Obviously, there’s hunting and fishing, riding snowmobiles and ATV’s, or more sedentary pursuits like collecting northern crafts and carvings. Of course, whether you’re a “southerner” or native-born, we all enjoy our television-watching, internet-surfing or other forms of couch-potato recreation designed to make our lives more pleasant – if shorter!

Gardening is not something that many of us get involved in. I suppose I may come about this particular interest quite honestly, coming as I do from a long line of dirt-farmers who eked out a living on some of the most unlikely agricultural land in the world, starting in the north of England and ending up in the rock, bog and impenetrable forest of the Canadian Shield country north of Montreal in the 1820’s.

It’s been over ten years now since we built our greenhouse and garden, labouriously finding, digging, hauling, sifting, spreading, spading, raking and “improving” many cubic metres of scarce soil. Now that “the land” has been worked for a decade, I must say that the soil is as good as anything you’d find on the fertile flat-lands of southern Manitoba.

As I grow older, the mysteries of life seem so much more ...well,…mysterious. How does a small seed manage to produce so much abundance? How that seed, without much fanfare, effortlessly converts the minerals and nutrients in the soil to a beet or a turnip is really quite a miracle, even if 21st century science tells us it’s only basic chemistry. Just as ten pounds of plutonium can create quite a bang, the fact that a tiny seed can create a three-pound turnip with only the addition of dirt, water, sunlight and warmth is quite beyond my comprehension.

One can import bales of organic material (read “cow-shit”) and peat moss, and bags of chemical fertilizer each year on the barge (sea-lift for you poor Eastern Arctic types), but one thing we don’t have much control over is the weather. The greenhouse certainly helps, and although it isn’t sealed as well as I would like, it will typically create an oasis that is 15 to 25 degrees Celsius above the outside air temperature. This, and an occasional bit of supplementary heat from the boiler in the house, allows planting of seeds around mid-May, and transplants to be set out around the end of that month.

(As I write this, it’s three degrees outside, overcast with a few snowflakes coming down, yet the greenhouse, with no auxiliary heat, is a toasty 19 degrees.)

Gardeners are optimists by design and by necessity, so I usually push my luck a little and set the transplants out a week or two early. Sometimes this pays off, but I often lose a few plants to a frosty night. So far, things are looking pretty good this year: I have peas, radishes, wax beans, beets, turnips, lettuce and onions coming up already. I’ve set out a dozen tomato plants, a few cucumbers, and one pepper. The carrots, always the last to sprout, should be up any day now.

Outside, I grow potatoes and cabbages, but it’s still too early to think about that. However, I shoveled the snow off the garden, fertilized and raked the soil and covered the whole works with clear plastic last weekend. Soil temperature, at a depth of six-inches, is increasing by about half-a-degree per day and will soon be up around the seven-degree point where it will be safe to get into the potato business. The Yukon Gold seed potatoes are eager to get into the ground, with sprouts coming through the holes in the boxes. I’m hoping for a year like 2006, when I got 165-pounds of perfect potatoes from my little 120 square-foot patch.

Gardening in the arctic is not an economically viable exercise. If I factor in wages at even ten dollars an hour, and add the cost of supplies, my tomatoes probably cost ten-times what the Northern Store charges. Nevertheless, it’s a very satisfying endeavour that gets me out in the fresh air and provides a badly-needed, low-impact workout.

Besides, those new potatoes, onions and carrots go so nicely with some fried caribou tenderloin or a nice filet of arctic char!

Late in September each year, as the first snowflakes fall and the potatoes are dug and stowed away in cardboard boxes, Helen and I enjoy several great meals consisting of caribou, musk-ox or arctic char, wonderful little baby potatoes and carrots, and a nice salad. It’s certainly a pleasure to ignore all the work and concentrate on the taste of that fresh, northern-grown meat, fish and produce, and gloat a little over the fact that very few people in Nunavut will ever eat a full-course meal with no imported southern ingredients.

And somehow, that makes it all worthwhile.