Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Five things I’m sort of sure of

Author: Jim Taylor

Shortly before her 61st birthday, author Anne Lamott decided to write down a dozen things she had learned from life and writing that she could be absolutely sure about.

            I’m considerably older than Lamott. But I thought her exercise would be worth trying myself. So here are some things that I’m sort of sure of. They all seem to be rejections of things I once accepted uncritically.

            First, I am absolutely sure that I can’t be absolutely sure of anything anymore. Life evolves. Knowledge changes. Sooner or later, everything I’m sure of will require reconsideration.

            This is, at least in part, a spin-off from quantum physics, where particles can be waves, or vice versa, and both are only probabilities. Werner Heisenberg defined his Uncertainty Principle in 1927. Ironically, he then developed a mathematical proof for his hypothesis – thus making uncertainty a certainty!

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Restorative justice -- a better way

Author: Jim Taylor

This is a tale of two men -- one of them attempting to be an axe-murderer, the other attempting not to be his victim.

            I can give the name of the intended victim; Doug Martindale, a United Church minister who spent 21 years as a member of the Manitoba Legislature. I can’t name the perpetrator, because I don’t have his permission. Besides, he’s dead.

            The way the story goes, Doug agreed to paint the cottage of an elderly acquaintance, who owned a 10-acre woodlot. Doug would get some wood; the older man would get his cottage painted.

            But when Doug went up for a weekend’s work, no one told him that another man would also be there -- a second-generation-distant nephew. For simplicity, I’ll just call him “the nephew.”

            The nephew was drunk. 

            Still, the two worked reasonably well together, painting the eaves. Until they got to a bird’s nest with eggs in it. The cottage’s owner would want to preserve the wildlife, Doug thought. 

            The nephew didn’t like being told what to do. Doug tried to calm him, but the hostility escalated. Anger turned into threats. The nephew picked up a double-bitted axe and raised it over his head to strike Doug.

            Doug admits he was more scared than he had ever been in his life.


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Ode to a lowly garden snail

Author: Jim Taylor

On a morning walk, I almost missed seeing a small garden snail crawling across a paved road.

            Garden snails don’t belong on pavement. They’re too vulnerable. They carry a shell with them, but it’s no more protective than an eggshell. A car tire, or my foot, would crush it instantly.

            I took a break to watch the little creature.

            Its body was almost translucent. Its front end kept reaching forward; its hind end hung back, until it had to let go and suck itself back underneath that shell.

            I wondered how the hind end felt about being dragged along to an unknown destination. Did it scream, “Whoa! Stop! Where are you taking me? I don’t want to go there!”

            And did the front end, in fact, know where it was going? Can a snail possibly know in advance that lush green dewy grass lies on the far side of a paved road?

           In my fascination with the snail’s mental processes, I failed to note whether this particular snail’s shell was left- or right-handed.

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Moon race changed our view of earth

Author: Jim Taylor

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong did something that no human being had ever done before. He stood on the moon. 

            And this coming Friday, James Lovelock will celebrate his 100thbirthday. 

            There’s a connection between the two events. 

            I remember watching the  moon landing, July 20, 1969. Official records say it happened at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. I know our family clustered around a TV set, peering at a snowstorm of grainy black-and-white images. So we must have let our children stay up late to watch history being made.


           James Lovelock turned 50, six days after the moon landing. 

            NASA did not plan that coincidence, although Lovelock was working for NASA in those days, developing chemical tests that NASA would later use for detecting the possibility of life on Mars. 

            As an outcome of that work, Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis proposed that this earth is itself a living thing. Or, to quote Wikipedia, “that the living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.” 

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Encounter with a crashing boar

Author: Jim Taylor

The trail that leads down to the shores of Okanagan Lake clings to a steep hillside. One side of it goes up like a cliff, held together a network of  juniper roots. The other side of the trail is a tangle of thorny wild blackberry bushes that not even Peter Rabbit would welcome being thrown into.

            I was going down the trail when I saw something with its head in among the blackberry canes.

            Then the animal pulled its head back to glare at me. It was a boar. A wild boar. A very big wild boar. With vicious tusks.

            It came charging up the hill on its spindly legs.

            I tried to back away. My feet slipped. I landed on my back. The boar was almost on top of me. I started kicking frantically to keep the beast away.

            That’s when Joan shook me awake.


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Unconditional love on four legs

Author: Jim Taylor

I lost my closest friend a week ago. Although we don’t normally describe a dog as a friend. 

            But over the last 12 years, I probably spent more time with her than with any human being. She was always happy to take part in whatever I might be doing. Always ready for a walk or a hike, a swim or a car ride. To anywhere. She listened to my 

musings without contradicting me or correcting me. She seemed to prefer my company to anyone else on earth. 

            “Friend” almost seems too weak a word for her. 

            Her name was Phoebe. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever. She adopted my wife and me when she was two. And from then on gave us total devotion. 

            But age caught up with her. Joints that once could run and swim all day developed painful arthritis. By the end of her life, she couldn’t put any weight on her left front paw. Her right hind leg tended to collapse without warning, leaving her sprawled awkwardly on the road, or tumbling down the stairs on her back. 

            We knew her time had run out. We made an appointment with the vet. 

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Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: dog, death, Phoebe




Too few, enough, and too many

Author: Jim Taylor

A few weekends ago, I spent a morning disentangling barbed wire.

            Cleaning up the old rusted wire was not easy. Long grass hid it. Bushes had grown around the fallen wire. Fence posts had fallen, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards. The multiple stands were twisted together. Where previous workers had dragged sections of fence away from the trail, the wires were literally tied in knots.

            So we set to work. And I was reminded again of how well humans can work together in small groups, when we know clearly what our task is.

            Someone, somewhere, must have done a study on the ideal size of working groups. In our small groups of three or four, we solved problems without supervision. We didn’t need a management hierarchy. Or a policy manual.

            But as groups get larger, factions develop. Different people have different ideas on how the job should be done. Or shouldn’t be done. Some members try to dominate others.

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When we run out of ‘away’…

Author: Jim Taylor

Canada just got 1,500 tonnes of garbage back. From the Philippines, a nation that – judging by news photos of emaciated children in Manila scrabbling through mountains of trash looking for things they can salvage and sell – seems quite capable of generating its own garbage. 

            The garbage arrived in 69 containers, part of a shipment of 103 containers sent to the Philippines six years ago. The company that shipped it falsely labelled it as plastics for recycling. It did contain plastics. Also household trash. Electronics. Dirty diapers. Rotting food. 

            That company that sent it has gone out of business. Like Harry Belafonte’s Matilda, it took its money and ran. 

            The transaction raises questions about corporate ethics and bankruptcy loopholes. 

            But the question we should be asking is, why are we shipping our garbage anywhere? 

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Does God control natural disasters?

Author: Jim Taylor

Every time there’s an earthquake, a tsunami, a landslide, a flood, a volcanic eruption -- any natural disaster that kills hundreds or thousands of people -- someone asks, “Why would God do this?”

            Or, more personally, “Why would God do this to us?”

            It’s easy to find someone to blame when a truck runs amok down a sidewalk. When a shooter fires into a crowd. Or when an industry poisons a river. It’s harder when a child dies, when cancer strikes.

            But who can you blame for natural disasters?

            The question, of course, presupposes an answer. It presumes that someone, or something, must be responsible, somehow, for everything that happens -- whether it’s the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago; the origin of life 3 billion years ago; the apple that fell in Newton’s garden in 1666; or the mosquito that bit me yesterday. 


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There’s more to life than weeds

Author: Jim Taylor

Last Friday was the longest day of the year. The sun came up at 4:49 a.m., and didn’t set again until 9:10 p.m.

            I was out in my garden pulling weeds, on my hands and knees, head down, nose near the earth, when I realized that half a year’s worth of daylight had passed me by.

           When I look back, I can remember the cherries in our neighbouring orchard coming out in blossom. Then the peaches, then the apples. I didn’t pay attention. 

            A little later in the year, dark red rhododendrons marched down our north fence. Near-fluorescent azaleas adorned our driveway -- orange, white, yellow, even purple. Our flowering dogwood stood as tall and white as a wedding dress. The catalpa exploded in creamy white petals like popcorn. Peonies were burdened with bloom.

            I saw them all. But I didn’t really pay attention to the beauty around me. Because I was too obsessed with weeds.

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Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: weeds, beauty



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