Tag Archives: Ash Tree

#HeartwoodPoet – For the Love of Trees

“Poems fall like leaves until/wheelbarrows sag from collected rain.” -Debbie Okun Hill*

Yesterday’s e-mail from the League of Canadian Poets arrived unexpectedly like the popped cork from a champagne bottle.

“We are so excited that Heartwood is finally out in the world!” wrote Madison Stoner, Communications Coordinator for the League.

Heartwood - front cover image

Heartwood is published by The League of Canadian Poets, 2018. It includes 154 poems by League poets representing every province and territory in Canada.

I could feel the effervescence tingling in her words and the anticipated release of congratulatory balloons on a Facebook page. Bravo to editor Lesley Strutt and all the Canadian contributors and compilers and designers and more who worked behind the scenes on this important project. The League’s fundraising anthology Heartwood: Poems for the Love of Trees reinforced my own interest in nature and the importance of trees for our well-being. How wonderful to know that others felt the same way. I was pleased to tag along!

According to the Amazon posting, this collection published by the League “features poets from every province and territory celebrating the immeasurable value trees have for the environment and the soul.”

“Trees matter,” wrote Strutt on the back cover of the 288-page anthology, “and we have written about them with the windows of our hearts open, breathing in the good air that the forests provide.”

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Writing and Reading Poetry is like Test Driving a Car

Yesterday, today, tomorrow…

Autumn Leaves October 2017

Words fall like autumn leaves. In my backyard, ash saplings fight to survive. Listening to their young voices has inspired me. After a two-year dormancy, my ash tree-themed manuscript has been dusted off and is currently being updated with encouragement from a new mentor.

This autumn, I learned something valuable about writing. If you don’t like where you’re going, just get out of the car and start walking in a different direction. It’s as simple as that or is it?

For about a year (maybe longer), I’ve been sitting idle, spinning my wheels and wondering how to get out of this ‘hanging on the literary fence’ rut. I could blame it on my husband who retired almost three years ago. He and the barking-just-found-his-voice elderly dog (with a cone around his head) were quite the distraction. I missed those long hours of quiet time at my computer. However, I also went through the getting old, feeling empty-nested, and craving  a change in my scenery-humdrum blues. I knew I loved writing but…it had become a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week job! I needed a change.

Chalk Dust Clouds by Debbie Okun Hill - Books arrive September 29, 2017

Sometimes a person strolls in one direction and life throws some chalk to do a rewrite. This happened to me. My manuscript Chalk Dust Clouds (rejected and rewritten several times under different titles) won first prize in The Ontario Poetry Society’s 2017 Golden Grassroots Poetry Chapbook Award. Stop by my half-booth at London’s Souwesto Book Expo, Saturday, November 4 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Museum London.

My husband (in his wisdom) dropped a book (Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and David Evans) on my desk and said “Read this”. I don’t always listen to my husband’s advice but he caught me at a weak moment and he was right. It was an excellent book. Through one of the exercises, I learned that I spend the majority of my time working while my husband spends much of his retirement playing. Both of us needed more balance. What a great idea! All I needed was to dump some of my work onto him and then go do something fun. This wasn’t the reaction he was hoping for. (Of course, I’m teasing.)

October 25, 2017 in Windsor

Back on tour with two new chapbooks. If you’re in or near the Windsor area, stop by and say hello at this October 25, 2017 event. Special thanks to Vanessa Shields for organizing this special evening and to The League of Canadian Poets for its sponsorship.

Then I discovered a section about keeping a diary and recording what you liked and didn’t like to do and how you could brainstorm to create new ways to do more of the things that made your waking hours more enjoyable. In one chapter, the authors talked about the bench test and how the best advice was that you shouldn’t listen to anyone else’s advice but just try different things until you found something that felt right for YOU. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for then it was suggested that you just create it or at least move forward and engage in some meaningful activity while you continued to look. A few of my friends tried that, without even reading the exercises in the book.

November 11, 2017 event in Sarnia with correct spelling

Thank you to Big Pond Rumours Press for recognizing my love for art in this ekphrasic-themed chapbook Drawing from Experience to be officially launched Saturday, November 11, 2017 at the Coffee Lodge in Sarnia. Stop by to hear Ryan and Anne and bring something to read. Everyone is welcome to share.

For example, one out-of-town author moved out of the big city to take up residence in a smaller community. She’s now concentrating on the novel she’s always wanted to write. Another writer took a break from writing to socialize more. She joined a literary board and spent the summer and most of the fall in a small resort area. She loved being with people and having that time away from her normal routine. Another friend decided to teach and is still testing the waters as they say. All three writers took a test drive to see what they liked and didn’t like. As the book states and I paraphrase, “there are no mistakes, just lessons learned.”


For the first time ever, LUMMOX Press, a California-based press will be publishing an all-Canadian anthology for 2018. Several Canadian poets have already been in previous issues. Check out the Canadian launches of LUMMOX Number Six on November 1 in Hamilton and on November 18 in Sarnia.  A Toronto launch is being planned for April 2018.

In my opinion, reading and writing poetry works on a similar premise. I’ve often said, “if you don’t like poetry, you haven’t read the right poem or met the right poet yet.” Writers, even within the same genre, can differ in style and content. The same works for writing poetry. Some forms and topics will interest you more than others. Find what works for you and run with it.

The same goes for selecting a literary magazine or a publisher to submit to. Also, try different critique groups, attend different open mics, and research different agents and editors to see who might be the right fit for you and your projects. In early 2012, my literary mentor passed away. After five years of searching, I may have found a replacement. Time will tell. You can even test drive your poems to see which version feels right to you.

For those who are interested in attending or trying out a few different literary events, check out the 2017 event schedule on my blog. I try to update it at least once a week. If I seem rather quiet, am skipping regular critique groups and/or am not blogging or writing as much poetry, it’s because I’m still cruising the landscape, pausing on a bench to reflect, and/or seeking balance in the noisy world in which I live.

Have a great week!

P.S. Mark your calendars for two more special literary events:

November 19, 2017 in Sarnia

For the first time, The Ontario Poetry Society will travel to St. Catharines for several mini-spotlight launches, a members’ reading and an open mic for non-members on November 12, 2017. Everyone is welcome.

A shout-out to Sarnia’s historical fiction writer Bob McCarthy who took a detour from his normal fare to focus on writing an amusing memoir about his life. The Book of Bob will be launched Sunday, November 19, 2017 at the Book Keeper.

Additional information about times and locations are listed on the event page of my blog. Once you’re on the page, just scroll down to the right date.

Coming soon…that blog feature and Q & A with Lambton County musician Gregger Botting  and a Q & A with London poet Penn Kemp with a belated book review of her latest poetry collection from Quattro Books.

Artist Mary Abma Preserves Memories with her Ash Tree Project

This project will become an ongoing legacy for the community…* -Mary Abma

More than a tree-spirit chill down my spine! Sarnia-Lambton’s Ash Tree Memorial Performance commenced with haunting woodwind sounds from Kelly Kiyoshk’s flute. Handmade baskets crafted from black ash trees sat on a table beside him.

I shivered with the other performers.

Mary Abma, a local contemporary artist and organizer for the event, stood at the outdoor microphone, apologized for the unexpected drop in temperature, and warmly welcomed the crowd that gathered at the Seaway Kiwanis Pavilion in Sarnia’s Canatara Park.

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Artist Mary Abma said “we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the natural world around us”. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Around her, the Carolinian forest raised its eyebrows. April’s weather had turned shivering cold. Even a winter coat, woolen hat, and gloves couldn’t protect the mourners from the unwelcomed winds off Lake Huron. A Canadian goose flew by, honked in protest.

My fingers and emotions numbed. I waited for the rain-tears to fall but the clouds held them tight inside a grey blanket.

A few days earlier at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG) in Sarnia, Abma spoke about her new exhibition Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail.

Photo 1 Courtesy Mary Abma

Abma’s memorial artifacts were on display from April 28 to May 14, 2017 at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia and can be seen on her website. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“In January 2015, 300 dead trees were cut at Canatara Park”, she said as a slide show of snow-laced ash limbs, stumps, and zig-zagged patterned logs silenced the crowd in attendance.

“In Lambton County, 24 percent of our canopy was ash…37 percent of the total volume of wood in woodlots was ash….”

Almost all of those trees were destroyed by the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive beetle from Asia. The destruction continues to spread to new areas in Canada and the United States, often as the result of humans moving beetle-infested firewood.

Because Lambton County was one of the first Canadian areas (after Windsor, Essex County, and Chatham-Kent) to deal with the loss associated with EAB, Abma wanted to keep the memory of the ash trees alive.

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Abma created ash tree shrouds from phragmites, a wetland grass considered to be another invasive species in the Lambton County area. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Her community-engaged, ecological artwork which memorializes the ash trees of Canatara took Abma four years to create.

The project is multi-faceted. First the Bright’s Grove resident went through Canatara Park and selected some of the dead trees and gave them an identity. Fourteen ash tree memorial stations were constructed and identified with such names as “Ash Nursery”, “the Elder”, “Ash Graveyard”, and “The Guardian”.

Then she took the concept of Victorian mourning practices and used some of the dead ash to create “individual stories, death notices, mourning art, and jewelry”. All of these pieces were displayed at a recent exhibition at the JNAAG.

To connect the indoor exhibition with the outdoor showcase, she mapped an Ash Tree Memorial Trail for mourners to stroll through. She also designed shrouds from phragmites, a wetland grass and another prevalent invasive species found in the area. Using a smartphone (with a QR code reader app), visitors can scan the QR code at each station to retrieve Abma’s memorial art made for the ash trees in that particular area. Those without scanners or those who are not on the trail can see the same webpages through her website.

The final element: the Saturday, April 29 (rain or shine) performance and community gathering pulled her vision and the mourners together.

Despite the cold weather (which couldn’t be controlled), I appreciated the effort Abma exerted to fashion a safe place for the public to grieve.

Canatara Park - Ash Tree Memorial Performance - April 29, 2017

Eulogizing the ash trees. Photos by Sharon Berg.

The one hour service included the music of accomplished Anishinaabe flute player Kelly Kiyoshk, the performance of accomplished singer/musician Missy Burgess, author/aboriginal historian David D Plain’s talk on the uses and artifacts of the ash trees, the beautiful voices of the Wavesong Vocal Ensemble, the readings by Allan McKeown, the dance performance with Robi Williams and my own poetic words.

Following the performances, I walked with several people (like a funeral procession) towards the park’s Tarzanland area where Abma’s Ash Tree Memorial Trail began. The Carolinian forest opened its arms. Despite all the fallen trees, I felt warmer as we followed Abma then paused at the various stations for shared stories and reflections. For the first time, since losing four large ash trees in my own backyard in May 2011, I felt closure.

Canatara Park - Ash Tree Memorial Trail - April 29, 2017

Walking the Trail. Photos by Okun Hill.

Normally, my blog concentrates on poets, fiction writers and/or other literary events but because of my own interest in the lost ash trees, I yearned to learn more about Mary Abma and her project.

One thing I’ve discovered since studying this local destruction of these trees is that you can’t mess with Mother Nature. Diversification in the forest and amongst humans is vital for survival.

A few days after the service, the sun finally nudged the grey clouds into a corner. I drafted my questions and welcomed Mary’s response. Below are the results:

When I first heard you were working on a project focusing on the local ash trees and how they were being destroyed by the emerald ash borer, I was thrilled. Here was another individual who was passionate about preserving the memories of these trees. At what moment did you decide that this would be a worthwhile project to work on? Did something happen to draw your attention to the trees or was it a more gradual process? Explain how you were feeling at the time.

The development of my projects is a gradual one. I began by paying attention to the trees in my environment. I had heard of the emerald ash borer but had not really been aware of the extent of its damage until I started to pay attention. Once I began to see the great numbers of dead trees in our roadside woodlots, my interest about these trees was sparked and I wanted to find out more.

Research led to passion and a desire to create an artistic response.

Did you have to do anything special to prepare yourself for this project? If yes, what did you do?

 I prepare for a project by doing research and by talking with specialists in fields related to the project. In this case, I spoke with Larry Cornelis, a local naturalist and tree expert. He taught me to identify ash trees and he told me about how they have been affected in this area. I also visited the Guelph Arboretum and spoke with scientists there. I visited their ash tree “seed bank”. I contacted an invasive species scientist in Sault Ste. Marie and received information from him.

An artist’s journey can be a challenging one. It took you four years to complete your Signpost & Traces project. Not everyone likes trees, and certainly ash trees have a reputation for being a ‘weed tree’, something that’s messy and not often written about or featured in a work of art. Did you ever feel like giving up? Why or why not? How did you stay motivated?

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Bright’s Grove artist Mary Abma worked on the Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Project for four years. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

I never felt like giving up. I think that is in large part because as the four years progressed, so did the problem. About halfway through, the city culled all of the ash trees at Canatara Park. I documented this cull and its aftermath. That experience led to one of deep mourning for me. This kept the passion for my project alive.

What is the one message you wanted the audience to walk away with?

Every one of us has a responsibility to protect and to restore the natural world. One person can make a difference and those little things that we do, however small, are important if only on a ritual or symbolic level. We must not be discouraged because to be discouraged is to give up.

One of the things I liked about this project is that it is organic in the sense that you not only included a performance segment featuring work from multi-disciplines but you invited the public to walk along the trail to experience the loss first hand. Should visual artists be working more with people in other disciplines such as the literary arts or the performing arts such as dance, theatre, and music? Why or why not?

I would never tell an entire group of artists what they should or should not be doing. I can only speak of my own artistic practice. I have discovered that my work is enriched by letting others into my process. I enjoy working this way.

I also liked how you incorporated technology and the use of QR codes for your project. Where did that idea come from?

I once read about cemeteries that put QR codes on tombstones. People who purchase this service set up a webpage that has photos and video of the deceased on it. Visitors to the cemetery can access these from the grave site. I thought that this would be a good way to give access to people walking the trail to the artwork I made in memory of the lost ash trees whose remains they were viewing.

Photo 3 by Jeff McCoy

Each of the 14 stations on the Ash Tree Memorial Trail has a QR code that takes visitors to Abma’s memorial art made for the dead ash trees at each stop. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

You’ve created a few other projects focusing on the ash tree. Please share a line or two about those projects.

The biggest one was an installation in Hampton Park, in Ottawa. I joined together with two other artists, Marcia Lea and Peggy DeVries, to create an installation memorializing one of the old ash trees that had been taken down, there. We laid down the shadow of the old tree from wood chips that had been made from the ash trees in that park.

In your artist’s talk at the gallery, you said “art stimulates awareness”. Could you expand on this? In your opinion, what value is there in the visual arts in a society now obsessed with science and technology?

I think that more than ever, we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the natural world around us. I do not have a problem with science and technology, but I do have a problem with our allowing our collective desire to make our lives ever more convenient and full of possessions to overshadow our need to steward the earth and to live in harmony with it.

Lost Canopy medallions by Mary Abma Photo by Murray DeBoer

Lost Canopy Medallions by Mary Abma. Photo by Murray DeBoer.

What’s next for Mary Abma?

I am not yet finished with the ash tree. I am working on a large installation that will bring all of the themes I have been working with together.

That sounds exciting. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

If you have the time, check out the trail at Tarzanland. As of May 15, most of it is still intact and the signs with the QR codes are still there. Walk the trail, enjoy the beauty of nature, and remember the ash trees.

Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts. The work you are doing to create awareness about the loss of our ash trees is important. I wish you continued success with your visual arts career.

Mary Abma, a resident of Bright’s Grove, Ontario, is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media. A full-time artist, Mary has exhibited in several group and solo exhibitions at galleries over the past 25 years. Mary comes from a long line of artists and grew up with the benefit of mentoring from her grandmothers.

Additional information about Abma and her art can be found on her website.

An earlier blog about her project can be found here.

Follow this blog for additional Canadian author and poet profiles.

*Quote is from the artist’s on-line statement about her project Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail © Mary Abma Used with permission from the artist.

Remembering the Ash Trees with Art, Music, Poetry, Dance, Words

“Somewhere someone/is planting a sapling/but not an ash.”* -Debbie Okun Hill

I can still remember the day the tree service workers came and removed four mature ash trees from my backyard. At the time (May 5, 2011), I jotted down notes with the hopes of writing several tribute poems to the ash trees which I did thanks to a 2012/2013 Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Reserve Grant. Years later, I’m still adding poems to my manuscript and was thrilled to hear that Mary Abma, a local artist has also been creating work to draw attention to those trees destroyed by the emerald ash borer (EAB).

As promised in an earlier blog, below is additional information (a poster) about her upcoming exhibition Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail scheduled for April 28 to May 14, 2017 at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG), 147 Lochiel Street in downtown Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. I’m looking forward to seeing her work and will be posting a Question and Answer featuring Abma in the near future.

April 28 to May 2017

She will also be doing an artist talk TODAY (Thursday, April 27) from 7 to 9 p.m. at the gallery. Admission is free (or pay as you can). Pre-register to ensure enough seats are set up.

On Saturday, April 29, Abma has planned a Canatara Ash Tree Memorial performance from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Seaway Kiwanis Pavilion, Canatara Park (1200 Lake Chipican Drive in Sarnia. The program will include music performed by Kelly Kiyoshk (flute), Wavesong Vocal Ensemble, and Missy Burgess; dancing by Robi Williams & Lightning Strikes Clarke; and words by Allan McKeown and David D Plain. I will also share four of my ash tree themed poems: “Light On Their Toes”, “Arguing With The Neighbours”, “Dueling Chainsaws”, and “Meeting Poe in Canatara Park”.

Following the performance, Abma will invite everyone to walk the Ash Tree Memorial Trail, contemplate the loss of the trees, and leave birdseed offerings at numerous sites where numerous QR codes are posted to view each tree’s memorial page.

Both events will take place rain or shine.

Approximately 15 years have passed since the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle from Asia was first detected in Detroit, Michigan. In Canada, the infestation began across the river in Windsor, moved towards Lambton County and then spread further into Ontario and Quebec.

According to the Emerald Ash Borer Information Network, the EAB has “killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America”. Updated information can be found on its website.

Have you experienced the loss of a tree? Stop by and see what Mary Abma has created to keep these trees in our thoughts. Here are links to her website and her ash tree themed projects.

*Quote is from the unpublished poem “Funeral Procession” © Debbie Okun Hill

Limb by Limb He Cuts Her Down

Sometimes our poetic journey takes us through periods of loss. In many parts of Canada and the United States, the Emerald Ash Borers are destroying our ash trees. Such a shame!

“I should count the rings
such a large log, freshly cut
in this graveyard of ash trees”

–Debbie Okun Hill from a new work still in progress

RIP: Another tree gone.

RIP: Another tree gone.

Fading from the landscape.

Fading from the landscape.

Special thanks to the Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Reserve 2012-2013 program for its support re: my manuscript Beneath Ash Canopy: Poems.

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