Drifting, floating

Speaking of things that have washed ashore:


These old glass fishermen’s floats were picked up on a family trip to the Maritimes in the early ’70s. Before plastic and styrofoam took over, these handmade glass bubbles were widely used to keep fishing nets afloat. They were often made of recycled glass. Many are bottle-green, but you’ll also find them in a rainbow of colours, like the ones above. From what I’ve read, glass floats originated in Norway in the 1840s and became popular world-wide, especially in Japan. The Japanese ones were made from sake bottles.

There are roughly three grades of floats if you’re a collector:
1) Authentic old ones that were used by fishermen.
2) Authentically made ones that were sold directly to gift shops. While they never saw action on the seas, they were made by the same glass makers who made the working ones, and they’re identical in form. Collectors call these “contemporaries”.
3) Reproductions. These are made from thinner glass that would likely shatter if used as floats. These started to appear in the early ’80s when the supply of the authentic and contemporary floats dwindled.

The bowl above is full of contemporaries. Back when we got them, they were a popular souvenir of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and were in every gift shop and lawn sale. When I returned to Nova Scotia several years later they were harder to find.

I have a few more hanging around picking up the light:


I have a few authentic ones that I picked up that are made from recycled bottles. You can see the circles of the bottle bottoms beneath their rotting rope. They’re not as pretty as the contemporaries, but they have character:


If you live near an ocean you may still come across the odd one that washes ashore after being adrift for many years. And supposedly there are large numbers of them somewhere in the North Pacific that have been stuck going around in circular currents for decades. I know all the man-made pollution in the oceans is a tragedy, but I can’t help thinking there’s something whimsical about all those pretty glass baubles spiralling around on the waves.

Ooh I just spotted another Nautically-themed item in one of these pictures that may get its own post eventually…


Fool, Britannia!

It’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend. I do not own an outrageous garden-party hat to wear in honour of Her Majesty’s 60th year on the throne, but I do have these:

Hoarder confession: I have owned them for years – nay, decades, at this point. Years ago my British mother brought them back from a trip to England—not that she would have ever worn such things herself! (And even more horrifying: each of my three brothers got a pair, too…as if the four of us would actually wear matching socks.) How have they lasted so long? Well, I am not a loud-sock-wearing kind of person, so I have never, ever worn them. Plus, they are polyester. Plus, they got stuck in the bureau behind a drawer for several years and I didn’t rediscover them until I moved a fews years ago and took the drawer out. Tomorrow, I may get up the nerve to put them on my feet. A sartorial sacrifice from the Commonwealth. Pass the Pimms!


Peeps in High Places

Peeps…not you, as in “Hey, peeps!” I’m talking those chick-shaped, sugar-coated-sugar (“marshmallow”) blobs that appear at Easter. Some people love ’em. Some people hate ’em. And some people turn them into conceptual art projects. Or maybe just release them back into the wild, like this one:

This Peep was part of a gaggle of Peeps found a few years ago while exploring the town of Jerome, Arizona. I mean, we were exploring the town, but it seems so were the Peeps, who randomly appeared throughout this mountainside town.

I’m not saying that Peeps are one of my favourite things (they’re not), but for the purpose of this blog, a found Peep is – especially since it was found in one of my favourite – and largest – kind of found objects: a ghost-town. Not my first, if you read my earlier post about a BC ghost town. Jerome, Arizona is a “living” ghost town, in that it’s still inhabited.

Jerome is a former mining town sitting a mile up on Cleopatra Hill, between Flagstaff and Prescott.  Jerome has a colourful history, in the Wild West tradition: gold rushes, brothels, gunslingers, disasters, natural and otherwise. At the height of the 19th century mining boom, it was one of  the largest cities in Arizona. But then a series of strikes, fires and other events closed down the mines, and the town was mostly abandoned, down to about 50 people. More recently it’s been partly repopulated (current population around 350 or so).

That’s Jerome in the distance:

Jerome from a distance

The small number of folks who stayed behind still enjoyed a nice view and some cheap real estate.

So it was still an ok place to live for some, although remote, at least for a while. But Jerome was sitting on abandoned mine shafts that started to collapse, and the buildings sitting atop the mines didn’t fair so well. Many buildings cracked, like this old theatre:

And others collapsed.

The town jail slid right down the hill.

But despite the devastation and continued precariousness of the place, the die-hards remained. And some artists moved in, as artists do when neighbourhoods become really cheap. Creative types have even taken advantage of the ruins. This studio is “open” in more ways than one:

Talk about optimism: this fixer-upper is for sale:

I was told the pink trim may indicate that it was a former brothel. A selling point?

The town is attracting tourism; there are shops and restaurants, and a couple of historic hotels to stay in, if you’re brave. Although I couldn’t shake the vague fear that the sidewalks might collapse at any time (I was assured they wouldn’t), I loved this place. It’s a great place to visit and explore—just ask the Peeps.


Today I walked up a stretch of road I normally avoid. I always thought it was devoid of interest, run-down, bordering on sketchy, and just sort of depressing. Well, the joke was on me. First I noticed a little plaque on the side of a building:

It stopped me in tracks and made me laugh.

This quote, which on first glance appears to be a zen-like statement expounding on the wisdom of observance, is actually attributed to Yogi Berra, the Major League catcher famous for his malapropisms. Nonsensical though it may be, it goaded me into paying more attention.

So next I saw this:

And this:

And then this:

Lessons learned, street, lessons learned.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”–the wisdom of Yogi Berra

Once Below a Time

My Welsh copy of Peter Rabbit isn’t my only souvenir of Wales. I’ve actually been to Wales twice. The second time was when I was in grad school and writing a thesis on the Anglo-Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Thomas  is now known mostly as the author of the radio play Under Milk Wood and the children’s story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” as well as his most famous poem,”Fern Hill.” In the ’50s, Thomas was like a rock star, travelling the world giving readings to swarming fans. He still has a lot of fans though, and I was lucky enough to take part in the inaugural year of the Dylan Thomas School, a 2-week gathering in Wales of Thomas scholars and general afficionados. There were seminars and guest speakers, including Thomas’s daughter (who sounds eerily like a female version of her father) and Sir George Martin (of Beatles fame), who was working on a new production of Under Milk Wood starring another Welshman, Anthony Hopkins. We also got to go on some day trips, some of which were Thomas-related, such as the town where he was buried and where his writing shack still stands, overlooking the ocean, and, of course, the famous Fern Hill, the family farm that inspired the poem.

So this is my other souvenir of Wales. It’s a piece of fern from Fern Hill. From the “dingle,” to be specific.

And if you don’t know it, this is the poem:

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

–Dylan Thomas

Mrs. Malkin’s Purse

A few years ago I went in search of a vintage purse for a wedding I was attending. Hitting up my favourite haunts in Kensington Market, I decided on this little black silk-taffeta number:

I found it in the same store where I later found my 1920s banjolele. I seem to have some kind of interesting vintage karma going on with that place.

The purse is vintage 1940s or 1950s, with a label that says “Styled by Du-val, Toronto, Canada.”  I’ve since found a few other purses online with “Styled by Du-val” labels, but their labels said either “Hong Kong” or “Japan.” I can’t find out anything about this company. Not that it matters…while I don’t know much about this find’s provinence as a vintage purse, I do know something about its previous owner.

When I got home I discovered that the small pocket in the lining was actually a double pocket, and deep in the second pocket were hidden a few surprises: a tiny clear lucite comb, two pennies (1941 American and 1951 Canadian), and two handwritten place cards from a long-ago fancy dinner, with the names of one Mrs. Malkin and her husband.


I have a friend who’s last name is Malkin, who I hadn’t seen in a long time since he’d moved across the country. Mrs. Malkin’s place cards made me think of him. I wrote him to tell him that I may have just bought his grandmother’s purse. We don’t actually know if this Mrs. Malkin was any relation or not, but we both think it would be nifty if she was.

I think Mrs. Malkin was something of the sentimental sort. That dinner must have been special for her to keep the place cards, and it’s sweet that she kept not just hers but her husband’s as well. And the two pennies…

For some reason it never seemed that they were just random change that had fallen to the bottom of her purse, especially since they were in the inner pocket, and women would have kept their coins in a change purse. They felt like lucky pennies deliberately kept in the purse. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a lucky penny in a purse. There is a superstition that you should never give a purse or wallet as a gift without leaving a coin in it. It’s supposed to ensure that the purse will never be empty. My grandmother did this, and I still do it. Some of us also do this with purses we donate to charity, so it will be lucky for the new owner.

But here were two pennies, not one. And since the comb and place cards were still in the purse, I’m more inclined to think these were Mrs. Malkin’s lucky pennies, forgotten in the purse rather than deliberately left there. Why did Mrs. Malkin have two lucky pennies? Because I’d already found a love token made of two dimes, and two having symbolic significance for partnerships in many cultures, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to think that the two pennies somehow belonged, symbolically, with the two place cards…a penny for Mrs. Malkin and one for Mr. Malkin. Were the dates and countries of origin significant in any way? Sometimes they are, with lucky pennies.

All speculation, of course. I don’t know what Mrs. Malkin’s real story was…but it does seem like her purse is trying to tell one.


This weekend I bought an original piece of Canadian artwork. I love supporting local artists, and it was within my budget.

“Blue Jay with Bottlecap”, 2011, by R. Houston

I bought it from the Northern Beaver Gallery in Toronto. If you haven’t heard of it, it may be because it’s a pop-up gallery. It made a one-night appearance at this year’s Nuit Blanche, near MOCCA (the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art). Although the gallery features the work of several artists, it’s small and easy to miss:

Northern Beaver Gallery, Toronto

“Blue Jay with Bottlecap” measures aproximately 2″ x 2″, and cost me a Toonie ($2) from a vending machine.

I didn’t choose the Blue Jay with Bottlecap—it chose me. I know that sounds kind of woo-woo, but as the Gallery says, it’s a chance possession. And watching others purchase artwork from the machines, it was clear that, even as adults, we still get that thrill of surprise that came with the randomness, or perceived fate, of our childhood vending machine prizes.

The Northern Beaver Gallery is the brainchild of Rebecca Houston, a fine arts student at York U (and, I’ve now discovered, the artist who created my Blue Jay with Bottlecap—score!)  Everything about the Gallery is homegrown, including the gallery itself. (Have you ever noticed that all those vending machines in grocery stores have beavers on their flaps? It’s because they’re made by a Canadian company called the Beaver Vending Machine Corporation. The large, square, big-enough-to-hold-mini-artwork model is called the “Northern Beaver.” I love trivia.)

The Northern Beaver Gallery will be making more appearances in the near future. If you’d like to become an art collector while surviving on, say, a freelance writer’s budget, you can find out where they’ll be next at Artvendu.com. And if you’re an artist who can work in tiny mode, the Gallery is taking submissions. You won’t get rich, but if nothing else, you will likely make someone’s day when they purchase one of your little gems.

I will probably frame my little artwork…it may be with a craft frame from the dollar store (see: budget, above), but it will still fit in just fine with the rest of my prints, which weren’t nearly as much fun to purchase.

Home Sweet Home

This is a piece of 19th Century wallpaper, made in England, that I found in the most unlikely place.


It’s a bit of a long story.

When I was 18, my cousin Corry talked me into going out to British Columbia for the summer. She’d moved there from Toronto a few years previously and was working as a cook in a lumber camp in the B.C. Interior. She was house-sitting at a little place on a mountain outside of William’s Lake, for a family that was away working with a travelling circus (for real). They had a pony that they left behind, so we’d take care of the pony, and I could find a job in town. We didn’t have a car, and it was a long, hot walk down the mountain into town. As I was only 18, I wasn’t old enough to work in bars, and the only other jobs were at fast food restaurants. After two hideous weeks working at a Dairy Queen for a man who ripped off his employees, I quit my job, Corry quit hers, and we spent the rest of the summer exploring.

Corry had a friend named Mike who was a prospector. Not the fancy kind that works for mining companies—a genuine old-fashioned prospector who supported himself by panning for gold. Mike knew the locations of old mining sites from the Cariboo Gold Rush (1860s). They were remote, only accessible by foot, but still had lots of gold in their rivers. Some of these sites still had old buildings and sluices and such. After Corry and I quit our jobs, Mike said he was going to take us to some ghost towns.

I’d been to Barkerville, which is a touristed-up gold rush ghost town near Quesnel. An interesting place, especially if you’re interested in Canadian history, but a tourist attraction nonetheless. It had Can-Can girls, a fake pan-for-gold attraction, and the requisite Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe. Mike’s ghost towns were authentic, abandoned settlements in remote locations unlikely ever to attract tourists, or in some cases any humanity at all. We drove for miles and then got out and hiked a few more. No sign of civilization anywhere. We followed a river until we came upon an old abandoned mill. It was here that Mike taught me how to pan for gold, for real, and I actually found a few flakes. (It was also here that I dropped my camera in a river, which is why the quality of my pictures is terrible.)

Then we continued on to one of his “ghost towns.” Following the river, we eventually came to a clearing where there was a group of several log buildings in various states of decomposition.

Apparently the gold really was at the end of a rainbow…

Closer to the woods were several other tiny log cabins that were in better shape, being slightly less exposed to the elements.

These cabins dated from the 1860s Gold Rush. On the door post of one of these cabins was pinned a note—it was written in the early 1970s by a man who explained that he had squatted in this cabin during the Depression, and had come back to visit several decades later. He may in fact have been the last person to visit this place until Mike discovered it.

Nearby the squatter’s cabin was another cabin, no more than about 6′ x 8′. Dark, cramped, with a dirt floor…

…and imported, flowered, gilt wallpaper.

Some patches had peeled off, particularly near the absent door, although most of it was intact. A few scraps littered the floor, and I couldn’t help taking one. I wish I could have taken a picture inside the cabin, but I didn’t have a flash. It was the most inconguous thing I’d ever seen. This was the roughest hardscrabble home one could imagine, and someone had attempted to civilize it with gold and silver, likely expensive, imported wallpaper. It reminded me of the Journals of Susanna Moodie—the part where she describes rather hopelessly trying to preserve her fine English bone china in the wilderness.

Maybe this miner had a wife he was trying to make comfortable. Or maybe he was a British gentleman sent to the colonies to make his fortune, and homesick for his previous life, or in need of motivation to suffer the harsh northern winters. Or maybe he just had an ironic sense of humour. (I say “he” because the miners were invariably men, but there’s always the chance a woman lived here, perhaps as a cook, or maybe an industrious madame setting up a one-woman brothel. Having since visited other abandoned mining towns, I am aware this is a possibility.)

I have no idea where these cabins are now, or if they’re still standing. I hope so. I also hope Mike is still panning for gold.


Mystery washed ashore

Here’s an item from the childhood treasure box that has been a mystery most of my life:


It’s a stone with a hole in it. I picked it up on a beach somewhere (I don’t remember where), so it became part of my sea glass collection (see my post about sea glass). The hole is perfectly symmetrical. While the stone looks like it was subject to erosion, and I’ve seen sea shells with holes in them, the hole in this stone is too perfect and looks man-made rather than nature-made. But nature IS capable of symmetry, so I’m stymied.  What the heck is this, and how was it formed?

The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore says that pebbles with holes in them protect against witchcraft. Good to know…but I still want to know how it was formed.

Treasure Chests

So people keep reminding me that it’s “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” I don’t know why. I could look it up, but I’m not going to bother. I’m not going to talk like a pirate. But I’ll compromise and talk about treasure.

Many kids have treasure boxes in which they collect their finds—small toys, rocks, feathers…things that were of supreme importance to them at the time but which adults (even themselves at an older stage) would consider junk. My treasure box actually looked like a treasure chest. It even had a tiny lock and key, but that disappeared years ago.


It originally came filled with candy; someone gave it to me after they ate all the candy.  It held things that I once had a strange attachement to, for some reason: stamps; a Canadian flag pin; a compass; my first library card; a Gumby; a troll doll; souvenir coins; a brass bell missing its ringer; a ring I found on the ground, missing its stones; some shell casings that make no sense to me, as I’m a life-long pacifist and anti-hunter; tangled beaded jewellery; a kilt pin; a plastic souvenir tiki from Air New Zealand, courtesy of my grandmother; a couple of other things that I’m going to post about separately when I get around to it, because they are either iconic or weird.

What was in your treasure box?