June 27, 2012

200 pieces so far in my Erin portrait

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is like an English course that just goes on and on. Coming up with a 700 word essay for the newspaper every week has been a challenging project – painting a mosaic-style portrait of Erin, one small piece at a time.

This is Column 200. When I started in June 2008, I said I would strive to entertain, report accurately and treat people with respect.

I haven't had any complaints so far, which probably means I am not taking enough risks. The entertainment value would definitely be higher if I was from the attack dog school of journalism, stirring up trouble for its own sake.

I get to pick my own topics, which means there are some aspects of Erin I have not written about, yet. Some issues are so convoluted that there aren't enough hours in the week to tackle them properly.

People tell me they like what I do, and I think the reason it works is that the columns are not primarily about my opinions. I am a boring, middle-aged guy with opinions that would put most people to sleep.

I would rather interview people who are doing interesting things (and there are lots of them in Erin), or dig up and explain things that will help people learn about their own community.

The recent column about the suicide of my son was one of the rare personal ones. It generated not only an outpouring of encouragement for my family, but an unexpected flow of personal stories.

When confronted with the spectre of death, that common fear that binds us together, we often respond with symbols of life and nourishment: flowers and food. More importantly, there is an effort to reassure survivors that they are not alone in their struggles.

Many people, including total strangers, told us about the suicides of children, parents, close friends and relatives, of assisted suicides and of their own attempts. They told us about fears for the safety of their own children, and details about cases of clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Then there are the issues that follow, such as long delays in getting proper treatment, the guesswork in prescribing mixtures of psychiatric drugs and the aggressive marketing of these drugs. The costs of mental illness include not only health care costs and lost productivity, but drug and alcohol addictions, violence, abuse and shattered dreams.

People have reached out to us, since the opportunity to discuss these issues openly does not come along every day. So now we know a little bit about their stories, but they do not know each others' stories, and we are not able to share them.

Suffice to say that mental illness is all around us, and we need to be aware. It is a reminder not to pass judgement on people who are different from us, or who appear weak. We often do not know what they have had to endure, or how they have adapted in order to keep on going.

So we all walk in the valley of the shadow of death. It is that shadow – that  fear – which is more oppressive than death itself.

I know some people who have given up on God in a time of tragedy. How could a loving God allow such bad things to happen? I do not know the answer to that, but our anger could be caused by unrealistic expectations.

We were never promised immunity from terrible things, but only that we need not face them alone. Perhaps that is why the lyrics of Psalm 23, written by David (the shepherd and king) have great appeal for those who mourn:

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

June 20, 2012

Beekeepers helps farmers improve crop yields

As published in Country Routes

For Stacey Holland, beekeeping is not just about the joys of tending these fascinating little creatures and harvesting some wonderful honey. It is part of an organic farming lifestyle and an effective means of boosting the output of nearby crops.

While collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, honey bees pollinate the plants that supply about one third of the human diet, from apples and almonds to strawberries and soybeans, as well as cotton.

Stacey in her protective suit
"Humans need bees more than bees need humans," said Stacey. Bees have been around for about 30 million years, but the normal lifespan of a female worker bee in the summertime is less than 40 days.

Honey bees are not native to North America, and would probably prefer a warmer climate if they weren't being tended as a semi-domesticated species.

For humans, bees have always had a special status, since they produce a food that is packed with more energy than sugar, plus vitamins and minerals. It is ready to eat out of the hive and doesn't go bad. Stacey was always fond of bees and honey, and impressed by their sense of community.

"The colony is a community that relies upon each other. It amazes me, what it can achieve. I love the fact that they are hard workers, how they build comb, how they attend to the queen – it's just this one big entity. Especially after living in Toronto, I didn't feel a sense of community any more there."

Pulling a flat
She encountered the folks from Everdale Farm back in 2005, when they were selling organic produce at Cabbagetown in Toronto, and she saw a notice about farming internships. She ended up taking a leave of absence from her job at CBC in 2007, to learn how to be a farmer. She spent seven and a half months at Everdale near Hillsburgh, and chose beekeeping as an extra activity

"Farming and beekeeping go hand in hand," said Stacey, who comes from a family of farmers on her father's side. "This is definitely my avocation – getting people excited about food. I'd always wanted to learn how to grow food on a larger scale."

She got beekeeping advice from mentors such as Erin's Jay Mowat, and decided to keep her own bees, working with the Toronto Beekeepers' Cooperative. Unfortunately, she lost her first hive. The bees used up their store of honey and did not make it through the winter.

Separating the hive
Bees become more dormant and cluster together for warmth in the winter, with the help of well-wrapped hives. But in a warmer winter they can be more active and eat through their food supply more quickly than expected, resulting in the need for a sugar water rescue.

"It's 40 per cent science and 60 per cent intuition; and I'm still honing in on the intuition," said Stacey. Although she's been in the business for a few years now, she still thinks of herself as an apprentice, relying on the advice of experienced beekeepers.

"It doesn't cost a lot of money. It's one of the cheapest livestock that you can invest in," she said. "In my first year, I broke even after selling my honey."

She was surprised that she could get 250 pounds of honey from one hive. Bees are bred to create more honey than they need for themselves.

She was also pleasantly surprised to win first place when she entered her honey in the Erin Fall Fair in 2010. She's been able to sell all of her product through the farm where she keeps her bees and to co-workers at CBC. Her honey is sold raw, as opposed to that which is heated to improve liquidity.

"People really, really like the honey," she said. "There are a lot of floral notes in raw honey, and I encourage people to taste the difference."

Honey connoisseurs (like wine experts) can taste the traces of the plants that helped create the final product. Stacey's bees draw their nectar not only from garden crops, but from apple blossoms, asters, dandelions, wildflowers, clover and sunflowers.

She gave up a city lifestyle for a rural home north of Rockwood. She has maintained her full-time duties doing program scheduling for CBC Television, but takes Fridays as vacation days from spring to autumn, to work at Bernway Farm just north of Ospringe.

She maintains two hives there and does other chores with farmers Cathy and Kaj Hansen, who specialize in organically-grown vegetables, and eggs from free-range hens, and have a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) operation. They had been looking for a way to improve their crops yields, and knew bees could help.

"Having honey bees so close to our garden has made a big difference in the rate of pollination of our cucurbits (cucumber family of plants)," said Cathy. "These include cucumbers, winter squash, zucchini, watermelon and other melons. Raspberries are considered self-pollinating, but the fruit set has been much heavier since the bees arrived... We are happier farmers knowing our community is more diverse."

Other fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers are not pollinated by honey bees, but do benefit from being "buzzed" to shake the pollen loose.

Lighting the smoker
"I try to stick with as many organic practices as possible, not using man-made chemicals to treat your hives," said Stacey. "Because we are providing them a home, there are responsibilities that go with that."

Organic-based compounds can be used, such as formic acid to combat Varroa mites, carriers of a virus which is a serious threat to the bee population. Chemical treatments are not to be used when bees are producing marketable honey.

The Climate Change Action Group of Erin recently presented the documentary film Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us. It examined the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which the normal behaviour of bees is disrupted. They stop maintaining their hives and die off in large numbers.

Stacey has not experienced this problem, but it has been a major issue for beekeepers in the past five years. The causes are not certain, but could be a combination of viruses, parasites and the stress of various agricultural pesticides in the environment.

Smoking the hive
A beehive in the summer can have 50,000 to 80,000 honey bees. Almost all are female workers who cannot reproduce – that job is reserved for the queen. She gets a constant diet of a special food called royal jelly, and lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day. Only the females have stingers – used only in defense, since a sting will result in the bee's death.

There are relatively few male drones, who do no work in the hive, since their only responsibility is to mate with a virgin queen. In the fall, the drones are forced out of the hive by the workers, to lower the population and conserve food for themselves and the queen.

Worker bees start out as nurses for the larvae, then graduate to housekeeping, queen-tending and hive-guarding. Finally they become field bees, collecting pollen (protein), nectar (carbohydrate) and water for the colony. They communicate with chemical scents called pheromones and a special dance that conveys the direction to nectar sources, based on an angle relative to the position of the sun.

It takes about 2 million flower visits to make one pound of honey. Ontario had about 2,900 beekeepers last year, tending 87,000 colonies. They produced 8.8 million pounds of honey, valued at about $22 million.

The top of the brood chamber
Hive populations soar in the spring and summer, and beekeepers try to ensure there's enough room. If the queen senses overpopulation, she will signal the workers to create a new queen, then lead half of the bees away to create a new hive somewhere else.

Queens can also be purchased, either at the stage when they are almost ready to make their mating flight with the drones, or ones that are already mated (artificially inseminated).

Stacey expects to do two harvests, in August and September. She borrows an extractor, a machine that spins the wooden flats. She scrapes off the wax that seals the honeycomb cells, and the machine extracts the product with centrifugal force.

She skims off any foreign matter such as wax, plant bits or bee parts, and the honey can be put into jars for customers. No pasteurization is required, since bacteria and fungi cannot grow in honey.

The other products that some beekeepers produce include pollen, which is a beneficial food supplement for humans, and beeswax, which is used for candles.

Stacey Holland can be contacted by email at beehive_communications@sympatico.ca.

EDHS an Eco-School thanks to student efforts

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin District High School has earned its first EcoSchool certification, thanks to the efforts of students in the Environmental Club.

The EcoSchools Program is part of an Ontario-wide initiative to save energy in the operation of schools, develop broad ecological literacy and encourage students to take leadership roles.

Students did an audit to see if lights, computers and televisions were being left on unnecessarily, and if waste handling could be improved. There’s a core group of about seven students in the club, plus others who help with various activities, under the direction of teacher Ross Watson.

After the initial assessment, they urged teachers and students to change their habits. Reminder stickers were placed on light switches and a pizza party was offered for the class that reduced energy use the most.

Ross Watson, Rachel Plant and Jake McEvoy
“Over the lunch hour, we had significant improvement - especially in the gym,” said Jake McEvoy.

After completing the program, the school’s score of 69.25 earned an EcoSchool certificate at the Silver level. They will be shooting for the Gold level next year.

“We’d like to have a garden, with herbs and spices, and fruits and veggies for the cafeteria,” said Rachel Plant. They would like to support that garden with a large composter, which can be turned to mix food scraps from the cafeteria.

A filling station for re-usable water bottles would promote the drinking of filtered tap water instead of commercially-bottled water.

Other related activities have included community work - cleaning up garbage and planting trees. They did not score well for recycling, saying there are not enough bins in the cafeteria. There were also announcements with environmental tips, such as how to avoid wasteful Christmas gift wrapping.

The EcoSchool effort helps encourage best practices throughout the school system, and align school operations with what is taught in the classroom.

The current curriculum also allows students to major in specialties such as environmental studies by taking certain credits in Science and Geography, as well as completing a co-op work placement.

McEvoy and Plant are taking a course entitled Environmental Resource Management, and both are graduating this year.

He is planning to study Environmental Technology at Georgian College, and hopes to get a job related to waterways. She is planning on taking additional high school courses, then the Veterinary Technician program at Seneca College, and hopes to work in wildlife rehabilitation.

June 13, 2012

Villages have sharpest population decreases

As published in The Erin Advocate

Hillsburgh and Erin village have had more severe reductions in population since 2006 than the rural areas of the Town, according to community profiles released by Statistics Canada.

In February, figures for the 2011 census showed the Town of Erin with 10,770 people overall, a decline of 3.4% since 2006. It was the first decline since the 1930s.

More detailed results released on May 29 showed the 2011 Hillsburgh population at 1,065. This is a 7.9% decline in five years, a loss of 91 residents. Hillsburgh now accounts for 9.8% of the Town total.

The Erin village profile showed a loss of 157 residents, a decline of 5.5%, leaving a 2011 population of 2,674. That is 24.8% of the Town total. (In the early 1900s, Erin village represented less than 15% of the local population, including the former Township, but since 1961 it has been close to 25%.)

The population of the rural area (including hamlets such as Ballinafad, Ospringe and Crewson's Corners) also declined from 2006 to 2011, but only by 1.8%. The loss of 130 residents left the population of that sector at 7,031.

Town-wide, the number of children under age 15 is 1,860, just 17.2% of the population, close to the provincial level of 17.0%. There has been a steady decline in Erin, with 24% under age 15 in 1996, 22.4% in 2001 and 19.7% in 2006.

According to a census report called The Canadian Population in 2011: Age and Sex, the number of children in Canada aged 4 and under increased 11% between 2006 and 2011. This was the highest growth rate for this age group since the 1956 to 1961 period during the baby boom.

Most baby-boomers (born 1946 to 1965) are still working. Among the G8 countries, Canada has one of the highest proportions of working-age people.

Fewer young people are about to enter the labour force than those about to leave it. In 2011, census data showed for the first time that there were more people in the age group where people typically leave the labour force (55 to 64), than in the age group where people typically enter it (15 to 24).

The median age in the Town of Erin is 44.6, compared to 39.5 in all of Wellington County. In the 40-60 age range, Erin has 4,035 residents. But in the 20-40 age range, there are only 1,895.

There are 1330 residents aged 65 and older, which is 12.3% of the population, less than the 14.4% level reported provincially. That continues an upward trend in the Town of Erin, with 7.7% 65 and older in 1996, 8.7% in 2001 and 10.1% in 2006.

All of the age groups are broken down by sex. Among younger seniors (aged 60-79) in the Town of Erin, there were 980 men and 890 women in 2011. Among those aged 80 and over, there were 115 men and 145 women.

Nationally, the number of seniors aged 65 and over increased 14.1% between 2006 and 2011 to nearly 5 million. This rate of growth was higher than that of children aged 14 and under (0.5%) and people aged 15 to 64 (5.7%). Despite this growth, the proportion of seniors in Canada is among the lowest of the G8 countries.

The 2011 population of Ontario was 12.9 million, making up 38.4% of Canada's 33.5 million people. The Town of Erin accounts for .032% of the Canadian total.

June 05, 2012

Suicide highlights need for community support

This is not how it was supposed to be. The death of my son Thomas last week, at the age of 24, has put us in a state of shock. It has also triggered an outpouring of support for my wife Jean, my son Michael and myself, for which we are very grateful.

Starting in Grade 9, Thomas suffered from depression and a personality disorder that made social interactions very stressful for him. He sought refuge in alcohol and drugs, but also in the study of philosophy, and in acts of consideration for his family and friends. The greatest of these were his many courageous attempts to carry on.

No parent should ever have to come home to find that a child has taken their own life, but this is what Jean experienced. It is a horror that I would have gladly accepted for myself, so that she could have been spared it.

Sometimes, I feel angry at Thomas for causing us pain. Both Jean and I have felt some peace in knowing that his ordeal is over. He was a good actor, and could portray an appearance of normalcy, at great cost to himself. Still, he did share his fears, seek our aid and help us understand partially what was happening inside.

For the times when he could not be completely honest, to protect himself and us, and for his final act, he is forgiven.

We are dismayed at the inadequacy of our mental health care system, both in staffing and scientific knowledge. Part of that failure was due to Thomas' inability to accept all the assistance being offered. Ten years of psychiatry, medication, counselling, rehabilitation programs and behaviour therapy did not enable him to live with his core problems. We do not blame anyone for his death.

People tell us we did all we could, but that is not strictly true. We could have done things differently, but knowing exactly what to do is very difficult, since the object is to help a struggling person take responsibility for themselves. Sometimes, the best you can do is travel a tough road together, and not give up. It is a difficult lesson in love.

The fabric of our family and community has been damaged. One regret is that Thomas' instinct, and ours, was to avoid telling people about his troubles. As a result, his suicide was an even greater shock to our broader family. If he had been attacked by an outside force, such as cancer, we would have felt comfortable in calling for immediate support, and not felt so isolated.

We should not fall into the trap of blaming ourselves – of thinking that Thomas could have been saved, if only we had said the right words, at the right time, or found him a different prescription. There are no magic pills, no words that could have made everything all right.

There is consolation in knowing that Thomas has already been saved. We have confidence in the mercy of our loving God – mercy that is freely available to everyone, even if they cannot draw strength from formal religion.

I am fortunate in being able to put my thoughts into words, as therapy for myself and to connect with others. Like most human devices, words are inadequate for the things we hope they might achieve, but some particularly helpful ones were said by our pastor, Fr. Joe Kelly, at the funeral on Friday. These can be read as a separate entry on this blog.

Thomas was a victim of mental illness, which made it difficult for him to find hope in an outrageously imperfect world. But his death was also a choice, considered by him for many years, for which he was willing to take responsibility.

It is a paradox to contemplate, that what could be seen as an act of cowardice, was also an act of strength. We may not understand or agree with his reasoning, but we must ultimately respect his choice.

In the past week, at least 15 people have reached out to tell me of similar struggles in their families. In Thomas' memory, let us work to remove the stigma attached to mental illness.

Let us be willing to ask for help when we need it, and accept it when it is offered. Let us reach out fearlessly to those in need, and be persistent in hope.

As we stood looking at the body which he has left behind, I heard someone say, "Such a waste." I understand that feeling, but it is not length of days that makes existence worthwhile.

Thomas was a valued child of God from the start of his life. He had many happy times and did many good deeds, and as we begin to heal, it is these that we will treasure.

June 04, 2012

Sermon at the funeral of Thomas Gravelle

A Funeral Mass for my son, Thomas James Gravelle, was held on Friday, June 1, 2012, at St. John Brebeuf Catholic Church in Erin, Ontario.

The scripture readings were from the Book of Wisdom, 3: 1-9 (The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God); from Psalm 116 (I will walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living); from the First Letter of John, 3: 1-2 (We are already the children of God) and from the Gospel of Luke, 24: 13-35 (Were not our hearts burning within us?).

Fr. Joe Kelly, a Spiritan priest, has been our pastor for the last ten years. Before that he worked for 32 years at Neil McNeil High School in Toronto, as a teacher and counsellor. Here are his words from our celebration of Tom's life:

When I arrived at the funeral home last night and first stood beside the casket, I found myself inwardly talking to Thomas. I tend to do this at funerals of people I knew and liked.

I realised that if Thomas and I were to discuss what I would say today, we might disagree, so I want to be respectful to this very intelligent and highly articulate young man. I will still express my beliefs and what I think are yours, but if Thomas were here to challenge me on any particular point, I think his superior word-power would win out!

So last night, I went home and, while not changing the general thrust of what I had intended to say, I did change the wording here and there. It is in this frame of mind that I begin.

“You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.”

I think that we have to try to understand as best we can the things that have happened here in Erin these last few days. I am not sure that is really possible, because even Thomas himself tacitly admits that his world-view was somewhat singular.

Perhaps we can only compare his life and ours by analogy, and I hope to find analogies in the passages of scripture we have read, to enable us to come to some understanding. Also, I am privileged to have been allowed to read the last letter Thomas wrote to you, his friends.

Wisdom says: “Their going looked like a disaster, their leaving us like annihilation, but they are at peace.” Thomas says that now he will finally be at peace.

However, he sees himself as being “nought,” whereas we believe that the peace he hopes for is to be found in a return to the God who created him.

Thomas did see meaning and beauty in the world; he did see wonder and fascination in people; therefore he found it hard leaving you, his friends; he appreciated your friendship and support, and of course the support and love of his parents and family; it was the contradictions inherent in the realities of life that he could not brook.

For Thomas, “the light that reveals the wonder, leaves dark the horror.” I think it is therefore important for family and friends to realise that they were, or I should say, are still loved by Thomas.

The journey to Emmaus is relevant here. Thomas’s journey of mental illness was ten years long, he himself has said. Therefore he did not see it as going back to the beginning of his life.  He was baptized in this church building on April 17, 1988, God’s child. “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children, and that is what we are.”

On December 4, 2001, about three months after I arrived here in Erin, I witnessed Thomas receiving right here the sacrament of Confirmation. I probably had some small part in preparing him for that.

As a young man, he strove to bring about justice in the world, and he was a person with high ideals. We also reject structures that are unjust, but we at the same time believe that the Christ is walking with us, and that belief sustains us.

The two disciples on the road failed to see Jesus in the man who walked with them, and yet the things he told them stirred their hearts. On the road that Thomas walked, it would seem that a veil prevented him from recognising that presence. 

But Thomas was still a child of God, still loved by God with that unconditional love with which God loves Thomas and all of God’s children. It was incumbent on us to see the Christ in Thomas.

We serve Jesus in others, and surely we serve Jesus best in serving the one who suffers. Therefore those who supported Thomas along his often difficult, painful road, served the Christ in him. The two disciples “told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him in the breaking of the bread.”

We have come here to break the bread together and to recognise the Christ in one another. Thomas often in the past broke the bread with us in this building.

Let us pray that the light he sees now, removes completely the darkness that made life so difficult for him, and that the merciful God who came to him in water and spirit, in bread and wine, and in us, his sisters and brothers, that this loving God may now receive him home.