From Wem Sweet Pea to Wild Sweet Pea

The roadsides to the west of Whitehorse are now avenues of hot pink-purple Wild Sweet Pea flowers (a.k.a. Sweet Vetch) often offset by pale stands of Yellow Locoweed. The Wild Sweet Pea looks at first sight like a vertically challenged ringer for the Fireweed blossoms that will take over the land and warm the cockles of the eyeball in a few weeks time.

My home in England is in a small-town-cum-large-village called Wem. Yes, just one syllable…Wem. When I was in Dawson City for the music festival 3 years ago I drew the legend “From Wem to Dawson City”, along with some staves and crotchets, in the dirt that had crusted onto my van. Some young teenagers came up to me at one point to admire the slogan…”Cool! Wem! West Edmonton Mall! We love that place!”

Anyway, Wem is the spiritual and botanical home of the cultivated Sweet Pea. A man named Henry Eckford developed the garden version in Wem over a century ago. Every year Wem hosts an international Sweet Pea show. People from all over the UK bring their cultured Sweet Pea flowers to exhibit, and some folks come from Europe and the USA, bearing fast-frozen blooms in state-of-the-art containers. I went to see the show one year – unless you have feasted on Yellow Locoweed you do not need to go twice. The flowers are insipid, papery, artificial looking hothouse creatures. They need to be seen in the open air in fat banks of trailing blossoms and bursting pods. The Yukon’s wild version is definitely a bruiser of a flower, too vulgar-mauve for a glass case or a Japanese lacquer vase.

However, there is also a rub to the rampant wildness that is the essence of this part of the world. The Wild Sweet Pea, or Vetch, can be toxic to humans in significant quantities. This is only an issue because Yukon and Alaska also has a flower called the Bear-Root, or Indian Potato, which is very similar to the Wild Sweet Pea and is an important food source for Grizzly Bears, and traditionally a rich carbohydrate for First Nations people. Confusion between the two was allegedly a key factor in the lonely death of Chris McCandless (known as Alexander Supertramp) whose story is told in the book and the film Into the Wild. The wilderness giveth and the wilderness taketh away – it is beyond neutrality as well as positivity and negativity.

Wem, by the way, is a place of rampant wildness only on Friday and Saturday nights after the many pubs turf their punters out into the twisty little mean streets.  I plan to remedy this by setting up a rival operation to the Sweet Pea Festival. It’s time that Yellow Locoweed, and its Yukon partner, the purple Showy Locoweed, were given their place in the limelight…an Eckford-style messiah for the so-called Crazyweed is just what Wem needs.

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Kluane (Kloo-ah-nee) is the vast area of mountains, river valleys and glaciers that dominates south-west Yukon and threatens to squeeze the complex Tongass jigsaw away from the rest of Alaska. Today I walked part of the way up one Kluane mountain with a group of Whitehorse people, a spectacular hike that was a mere smudge of smoke in a timeless atmosphere.

Kluane is a seemingly endless set of high ramparts that defends a seldom penetrated mass of even higher ranges and peaks. The snow on the front mountains has melted just enough for the remaining white fields and gullies to emphasise every seam and crease of the greeny-grey and pink rock pyramids. Canada’s highest summit (and the second highest on the continent), Mount Logan, lies deep in the hinterland. It is more extensive in bulk and square mileage than Everest and is one of the least climbed of the world’s major peaks. It can only be seen from a very few places, the alignments of ridges and serrated skylines of Kluane are so artfully arranged.

The whole place (if indeed its complexity and colossal beauty can be comprehended as a whole place) is like some independent nation of natural phenomena, from the grand to the minutely detailed. In 2007 I spent 5 days and 4 wakeful nights stravaiging round a fraction of Kluane, experiencing a whole gamut of thoughts and feelings from fear to electric elation. Going back today was a catch in the breath, a day-long moment of respectful excitement. If you go to one place in Canada, never mind Yukon, go to Kluane.

I should delete that sentence. I don’t like thinking in terms of hierarchies of wonder. I might even write something similar about the Tombstone Range, or the Northern Rockies, or any of the  great ranges of BC, or Valhalla National Park or Denali in Alaska, or the Brooks Range. So I had better delete it, hadn’t I?

No. It stays.

And spend at least a couple of nights deep in there.

*                    *                    *                    *

When writing about the ceremonial rattle-making in an earlier post I mentioned collecting stones for the rattle from a ridge quite close to a Bald Eagle nest. I went back the other day to see if the eggs the parents were sitting on had hatched. The nest now has a scrawny, downy-grey chick being carefully nurtured by the very attentive female and male birds. They are both very large eagles too. Their tenderness is amazing, the generous care and love of every action belying the constant shimmer of violent threat in their eyes.

I took several pictures (just a few are on http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedeames) but failed to snap the best action shot. At one point the chick pivoted a little onto its front and did a huge projectile defecation from its wizened little sphincter (eagles cause a tightening in that particular muscle in many living creatures so I don’t see why they can’t have one themselves). A real gobbit-jet of white emulsion came streaking out, clearing the edge of the broad nest. I know that eagles change nests every 3 years or so to avoid build-up of bacteria, but I didn’t realise that they subscribed so literally to the time-honoured Confucius-style law: never shit in your own back yard.

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I used the word ‘grey’ to describe the chick’s colouring. I was conscious a few posts ago, when trying to convey the colour of the pika, that the word ‘grey’ gets a bad press. Understandably, in that it has become synonymous with dullness and conformity. However, in nature, greys can be immensely subtle and eye-openingly beautiful.

Look no further than the Herdwick sheep that populate the Cumbrian fells. If you haven’t seen one, check out an image in a book or on-line at least. You’ll still have to make an imaginative leap. Herdwicks make grey the new coat of many nuanced shades.

*                    *                    *                   *

Tomorrow I head out of Yukon and down to Calgary. I will then be blogging about the journey back up to here through BC, and eventually on to Inuvik on the Beaufort Sea…with luck (something I do not believe in) and a following breeze (something I do believe in).

Whilst on the road I may be a little slower in responding to emails and comments, but will get back to all in time. Do pass on the blog address. Hopefully some news soon about the book for which I am now seeking a publisher.

I would like to thank all readers and participants in the UK and here in Canada, and special thanks to Jan and Lucie for the opportunity to house-sit in such a special place.

Ted

xox

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12 comments

  1. Hi Ted
    I’ve just concluded reading all your Blogs – its been fascinating to saviour all your wonderful detailed descriptions of Yukon the environment and
    natural history. For a non-bird man you’re doing very well – the artfulness of the violet-green Swallows and fabulous shimmering colours of the tiny Hummingbirds; seeing Eagles nests; Otters; and the antics of Bears – all fabulous. I’ve felt I’m there, seeing it all with my own eyes! I particularly enjoyed the Rattle making day; and your intention to add Cowrie shells from Welsh and Scottish locations when you return to England; a lovely way to add meaning and character to your own creation. It all sounds like a wonderful enriching experience; and certainly a great advert for house-sitting, but resourcefulness; courage; and imagination must be involved somewhere so its not for every one of us!! But great to share the experience with you even from a distance.
    I met you at Rae’s birthday party in Argyll some years ago. Look forward to reading more, and good luck with the writing!
    Very Best Wishes, Myra (Warren Zevon’s greatest fan in Ardrishaig!)

    1. Hi Miramac Myra, good to hear from you, and thank you for the thoughtful words…it is great to have a sense of someone reading insightfully. Especially as the journey has reached a point where it might be necessary to call on Warren Zevon: “send lawyers, guns and money”, more of that anon…
      Best to you,
      Ted

  2. Hi Ted,
    I am following you everywhere, sometimes feeling guilty about not telling you to what extent I enjoy your writings,at the same time as not thinking of any words that could ‘sit’ next to your ‘style’,sometimes feeling so overwhelmed by your descriptions that I wonder to what extent I would not be disappointed if I ever went round all those places as I would probably not see half of what you’re describing.
    You’ve got such a gift…,talent,some call it that the world would be silly not to aknowledge it one day or another.I am sure that not only could you easily live on it but also make lots of your ‘Aficionados’do so.I find it so …softly addictive.A HUGE Thank you.

  3. Ted…off to Ravenna on Wed. Then Budapest then Sussex then California. Not Wem. Hope to see you in August

  4. Wem-ber-ley! OOH sorry….got mixed up with World Cup Mania.

    Pat and I visited Shropshire and Wem last summer and we adored the place. Ted.. I’ll be sending you a DVD of our trip. I still Love Percy Thrower’s garden. If anyone gets to Ted’s place make sure he takes you to Hawkstone Follies. There is a website about it. What a lovely English Eccentric place. We enjoyed our hike through the green, soggy, moist “cleft” and making inappropriate comments about poor Mrs Slocumbe what just passed away. I hope some American or Canadian sees this comment and is suitably intrigued to do enough research to at least get a Master’s thesis out of it.

  5. You sound as though you are having an amazing time although I will take issue with you about the sweet pea. Of all the flowers it is the one that truly represents summer and in my opinion far from insipid.Take care

  6. Hi Ted
    Loved this blog – my favourite of all!! The mix of humour and philosophy, as good as the best travel writers. If there’s any justice your book will be snapped up!
    Looked on Google Earth where you are and the steepness of the mountains and valleys gave me vertigo just looking at the screen. What an experience, I’m so jealous.
    Not heard any news on the Shrewsbury book – October possibly! Back from France and Hong Kong now. Will post my Hong Kong shots for you to see soon. Keep posting!
    Steve

    1. Thanks, Steve. You would be in photographers’ heaven in Kluane. I am in the Rockies at the moment and it is beautiful, calendar beautiful, which is great. Kluane is wilder and just that bit more stimulating. Looking forward to the Hong Kong pictures…Ted

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