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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grandmother Effect

When I talked in my last post about how children absorb practical knowledge from their mothers and grandmothers, it reminded me a lovely theory about this very thing called the Grandmother Effect. It is about prehistory, so the theory doesn’t have a lot of evidence to back it up, but it goes something like this: The reason human civilization began to flourish thousands of years ago was because people were living longer. For men it meant that they could still father children and carry on as a hunter and provider for them, but for women though, when they lived into their 40's, they didn’t have any more babies and young children to care for, so they had energy and time to spend helping with the care of their grandchildren.

Being a grandmother is a beautiful role - you have all of the joy of your young grandchildren and little of the work involved. And your grandchildren sense your love and concern for them (they do carry some of your precious genes) and that you have time to 'play' with them. Being together so much, grandmothers had time to teach their grandchildren all sorts of practical things, like how to find and gather food, make pots, cook, sew and practical techniques and shortcuts they had picked up. Even more important, they told stories of what had gone before and passed on the accumulated wisdom of their family and tribe.

But why in the first place did we, of all creatures, have such a long period of life after our reproductive system shut down? Evolution favours factors that improve the fitness of the species, so it is logical that the older women must have made some significant positive contribution. I figure it had a lot to do with the fact that we humans had language. Those talkative grandmothers enjoying their grandchildren must have made a far more important and far reaching contribution than they could have imagined – in all probability they were a major factor in the beginnings of human civilization.

Hey Grandmothers, put that feather in your cap and keep talking. Rie

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Green Thumb

When I came in from the garden today I noticed that my right thumb was green. I had been pinching off the tiny growing tips at the end of the stems on my petunias so they would start growing new branching stems and be nice short bushy plants instead of long lanky ones. 'Ah Ha!' I thought to myself, 'I have a green thumb'. I certainly should - I have been gardening long enough. My mother loved her garden, and I started helping her when I was in my teens. It's how most girls learn to cook and sew and keep house - you just watch and absorb and, if you are lucky, have the pleasure of passing your knowledge on to your children and grandchildren, if they are interested enough to watch and help you.

I read a book years ago, called 'Square Foot Gardening' by ?Fitzgerald? (not the new book by the same name - the original is unfortunately now out of print). Surprisingly it was written by an engineer and it taught me some basic common sense about plants and started me thinking about plants in a new way. For instance, if a plant is being stressed by being very dry, it says to itself 'Oh my Goodness, if this drought keeps up I might die soon, so I better get busy and produce some seeds before that happens.' If you are a worried lettuce plant, you adjust your chemistry and get very bitter as you start to 'bolt'. Moral of story - keep your lettuce and leafy vegetables nicely watered.

But if now you think about a tomato plant - well, things are different. We welcome the formation of the seeds in tomatoes because they happen to be inside the beautiful red fruit. In northern climes where the season is short, there is nothing quite so good as a vine-ripened tomato warm from the garden in full summer. So, I encourage my tomatoes to set and ripen their fruit by pinching off all growing tips and new blossoms, and then add to the plant's stress by denuding it of half its leaves. It really works!

If you don't already have one, your thumb is bound to turn green if you consider your plants' feelings. Rie

Monday, July 19, 2010

By Request

A friend suggested that I follow my last blog post with a few personal observations about the Queen's visit to New Brunswick. Though normally no great follower of ‘royal’ events, I must have been in a pretty heightened emotional state that day because my memories are still very strong. Interesting that researchers confirm what we already sense, that if at the time our brain is laying down its system of recall we are in such an emotional state, it’s almost as if memories are seared into the mind and become unforgettable.

I felt like a bit player that day - the three men had valid reasons for being there, but I was one of the 'chosen few' to be introduced just because I happened to be the 'wife of'. So I hung back and tried my best to be inconspicuous. However, on several occasions her Majesty sought me out and asked me questions. I was the only woman and about her age – but I think it just may have been because of my overly discrete attitude. One question was about the deep red sails on the 'Brunswick Lion', the replica of a sailing vessel that would have been used before 1860 to bring the settlers up the Saint John River. As a chemist, I happened to know the answer to that one and, with a confidence I had not felt with the other questions, I was able to tell her that to preserve the canvas they used red ochre, which was iron oxide commonly found in soil and mixed with oil, often seal oil. (I've just thought of the connection with the old song ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’.)

It must have been a difficult enough day for them because their daughter, Princess Anne, was riding in the Montreal Olympic Games as a member of the British team the next day. As proud parents, there must have been concerns, as always, about security.

There was no question that the Queen set the pace and was aware of the time, because after the hour allotted for the visit, they were ready to leave exactly on time. However, she refused to go until she said goodbye to me, and, hanging back as usual, I had to be summoned, camera in hand, and had the pleasure of shaking her hand and extending best wishes that all would go well the next day. Overall I was very impressed with the Queen's intelligence, how well she had been briefed and her show of warmth. Rie

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Royal Visit

Whenever the ‘Royals’ come to Canada, I think of the time back in the mid 70’s when they came to New Brunswick to visit the newly opened Kings Landing historic settlement. There were only four of us chosen to greet the royal couple and escort them around the village, the Premier, the Director and my husband George and I. George was the Deputy Minister responsible for creating the site. After being introduced, the Premier and Director stuck with her Majesty, so my husband and I had the pleasure of walking and talking with the charming Duke of Edinburgh. Staff and other visitors were not allowed to come within about 30 feet of their Majesties.

The settlement is strung out along the river like early settlements were in early days, and Queen Elizabeth and the Duke rode part of the way in a carriage drawn by a pair of nicely groomed workhorses. Both of them were very interested in the horses and took time to examine and discuss how they were harnessed.

At one point when the Duke was dismounting from their carriage, he spoke to the driver and asked him if the horses had names. The man seemed very shy and was slow to answer: "Yes, your majesty, they do". The Duke then inquired kindly: "Tell me, do you know their names". Again it felt like almost a minute before the man drawled slowly, still looking down: "Yes, your royal highness, they do". The Duke by then with a bit of impatience in his voice asked: "Well, what ARE their names?" It took what seemed even longer before the man finally appeared to come to a decision. He raised his head, looked the Duke straight in the eye and pronounced: "Well Sir, their names is Queenie and Dook."

With that the ‘Dook’ let out a roar of laughter - we all laughed with him, and the Queen, a few yards ahead, called out - "What has happened?". When Prince Phillip told her, she too had a good laugh and I'm sure it eased any formalities we all felt on that occasion that I will never forget. Rie

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Me? Why Blog?

Those with Latin will recognize that Descartes' famous dictum 'I think therefore I am' has been tampered with.

I’m in my mid 80’s, and as I stare my inevitable demise squarely in the face, I realize that the only part of me that will persist when I go are my scraps of genes passed on to a few progeny and perhaps the effects my presence has had on some of my family, friends and students. Most of what I’ve learned, insights I’ve had, and what goes on in my mind will be lost forever.

That is unless, of course, I should write. It’s sort of amazing that through the written word an ordinary person like me can leave a permanent record behind. I think each of us is unique and should leave some sort of written legacy - but it is not easy. Most of us are not like ‘writers’ who are clever with words and have a compulsion to write, but I often think what a wonderful gift it would have been if my grandparents who died before I was born had written something about themselves. Another advantage of the written word is that the reader has the choice to peruse what I have to say or not.

But why blog? Well, although I should feel a real sense of urgency to write - I’ve lived longer than all but one in my large extended family and, with my health problems, I feel like I am living on ‘borrowed time’ - my resolve is not strong enough to overcome inertia and life’s distractions. I need some sort of nudging along to keep me at it and hope this blog will be the answer. It will perhaps give me enough incentive and feedback to feel committed. I must admit the possibility of a wider audience is appealing too. So there - I have written my first blog post and I aim to continue with a couple a week and keep them short.
Rie (my first grandchild couldn’t say my first name so now I’m ‘Rie’ to all the family. That also explains the spelling of ‘Rieson’ in the name of my blog)