Some people whistle while they work; I write poems. I wrote a poem on my first day working for the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation as a paper-picker in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was in the mid-1990’s, during winter, and I remember noticing that berries on trees had turned white.
The regular park attendant left each year to go to California for the winter and he was looking for a temporary replacement. Some friends who had done the job for him the previous year asked me if I was interested. I told them I was and suggested they arrange a meeting.
Turns out he was a poet and a spiritual seeker who had been to India to spend time with his guru. We talked about meditation and shared some of our poetry. I admired his nature poems written from his experiences in the park. They were rhapsodic. I remember him telling me that every tree in the park knew him. He arranged for me to take his job for the winter, and we negotiated my staying in his place, the park facility across the street in Hillsdale Park.
I was very lucky to have gotten that job by referral, by default. That’s what his boss implied since he had to approve me for the position. He wasn’t too happy with the arrangement but went along with it. He said many people were on a waiting list to become a paper-picker or a caretaker in one of the city parks, prized positions that paid well.
When the person I had replaced returned, the Parks Board manager offered me a job for the summer, going to Stanley Park and other city facilities along the public beaches, cleaning up and replacing soap and paper supplies in public washrooms. That was an afternoon job with a lady. We would travel as a team in one of the Park vans.
But the winter job kept me active, walking miles each day, spent mostly in nature, in a beautiful park setting. It was what I needed at the time. And I made more money doing that than my other job teaching kids writing after school at a Sylvan Learning Center in North Vancouver.
As a city employee, I had become a member of the local blue collar union. My responsibilities included cleaning the public washrooms early in the mornings, the gardeners’ facilities on Sundays, and walking the park grounds picking up trash. That wasn’t too bad in the winter compared to the summer when a lot of people used the park for picnics.
In the early mornings, I’d see many Chinese people doing their Tai Chi and walking around. When I’d walk by they’d say I had the best job—I was getting my exercise and getting paid! But having to work outside in the often cold, windy, rainy weather was not something I looked forward to. So to help me get through those days I’d repeat something Maharishi once told us about work: “See the job; do the job; stay out of the misery.”
It was good to just do physical work for a change, be simple, appreciate nature, and compose poems when inspired to do so as I walked around. I kept myself amused that way. Here’s an example. On that first day as I was walking in the park, I thought of how things grow in nature, and their relationships, like those whitened berries, and the birds who ate them. Every time I share this poem with kids, they squeal with delight!
Berries are meant to be eaten by birds
who poop out the seeds contained in their turds
this process prepares seeds to sprout in the spring
’til one day they’re trees and in them birds sing
Here are a few more poems written while working in that Vancouver City Park. I was walking along the park lawn picking up trash when I almost got hit by a falling acorn. I looked up and saw a tall oak tree. That was funny, I thought. Did that tree try to get me? What a sense of humor! I chuckled to myself and wrote this haiku.
Do trees have a say
When to drop anchors away
As ripe acorns fall?
I noticed the crows used to climb on top of the large garbage cans and pull out the trash. Not only did we have to pick up trash dropped by visitors to the park, we also had to contend with the animals, like crows, ducks, geese, seagulls, squirrels, and racoons. Here’s a little poem I made up while walking among the gardens, ponds and lawns. It went something like this.
Along the path
comes the paper-picking man,
picking up paper
as fast as he can.
Sparrows fly like arrows
among the underbrush,
foraging for food,
they’re always in a rush.
Crows put their nose
into every garbage can,
pulling out the trash
for the paper-picking man.
There were stanzas about ducks quibbling over crackers, and squirrels stashing nuts. You get the idea. That was one way to keep from getting bored on the job. Speaking of geese, having spent years in Iowa, seeing cows grazing in the countryside, the first time I went downtown to Stanley Park, I saw Canada Geese grazing on the park lawns. A very strange sight, to me, at the time. It sparked this haiku.
Grazing on the park’s green grass
Downtown city cows.
On one of my walks another day, I was playing with words and came up with this seemingly nonsensical fun poem about transformation.
Bats, Birds, & Words
A Bat is a Rat with Wings
A Bird is a Word that Sings
A Cat eats the Rat
The Bird eats its Word
A Bird is Aword with Wings
I used to go for walks with a friend in Cates Park, located in Deep Cove, a little seaside village situated on the eastern edge of the District of North Vancouver. In that park along the Burrard Inlet there is a walk called the Malcolm Lowry Walk, named after author, Malcolm Lowry, who squatted in the park from 1940-1954 in a shack with his wife Margerie. He wrote much of his classic novel, Under the Volcano, there. This short trail takes you through a forest path, past a children’s play area, then along the waterfront to a nice pebble beach with a view of Indian Arm.
On one walk, I noticed a bunch of smooth rocks along the roadside. I thought it was odd for these water-worn rocks to be by the road instead of on the beach. I began thinking of that childhood tune of sticks and stones breaking bones, and was drawn to one of the rocks. It spoke to me. It cracked me up with it’s cosmic sense of humor; I had to write it down. After I wrote the poem, I picked up the rock and took it home.
RIVER ROCK SPEAKS
Deep Cove River Rock
From the Road
Says its Thing
I’ve been Told
Make No Bones
Of All Stones
I AM ONE!
© Ken Chawkin
These two poems, Being in Nature, and its sequel, trees—a poem about the nature of trees, were a gift from a tree on the edge of the UBC Endowment Lands, another park in Vancouver. I also went to Lynn Canyon Park in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver. Check out the Virtual Tour. I took the Suspension Bridge across the ravine to walk in the rainforest. Along one of the trails I noticed these beautiful small white flowers at the base of a very tall tree, which inspired another haiku, Forest Flowers. It was later published in a group, 13 Ways to Write Haiku: A Poet’s Dozen for The Dryland Fish, and in Five Haiku for This Enduring Gift.
tiny white flowers
a constellation of stars
so low yet so high
Since we’re on a favorite topic, trees, see What Do Trees Do? Something to think about, also written when I was living in North Vancouver; and these two more recent poems from Fairfield, Iowa: Willow Tree – a tanka – from a tree’s perspective, and Friendship – another tree tanka, about two trees in front of my house.
More poems were written during my stay in Vancouver and surrounding locales, but we’ll have to leave those for another time, before this post turns into the chapter of a book!
If you plan to visit Vancouver, check out some of these wonderful parks. There’s a reason they call it Super, Natural British Columbia. Watch this 90-second video made for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Vancouver 2010: You Gotta Be Here – Super Natural British Columbia, featuring British Columbians Michael J. Fox, Ryan Reynolds, Erick McCormack, Kim Cattrall, Steve Nash, and Sarah McLachlan.