Category Archives: Christie Lake


In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “In a way, I was raised by strawberries, fields of them.” She goes on to explain how wild strawberries gave her a sense of the world, and her place in it. She writes evocatively about picking and eating and celebrating with wild strawberries, and also about what the strawberries taught her.

We asked this question in the group of friends with whom I am reading and discussing Braiding Sweetgrass – what about the place you grew up in gave you your sense of the world and your place in it? It is a fine question and we answered with the first thing that came to our mind. It is hard question to answer, and as my first answer (birch trees) did not satisfy me, I continue to think about it.

I am at Christie Lake, one of the places I loved dearly as I was growing up. I return once a year if I can. Each time, I see aspects of the natural world here as if for the first time, or I remember something about the natural world that I thought I had long ago forgotten.

I love to get up early and come to the beach for a swim – usually before sunlight has fully crept into and transformed our bay.

I could watch the play of light and shadow and wind on the water, the sand beneath the water, the reflections from the nearby trees and rocky shoreline for hours. I suspect that I spent many a dreamy moment as a child doing just that. In this dappled world, everything is shifting and changing every moment…it is all glimmers, possibilities, dance. The felt sense I get here belongs to this particular place, and no other place that I can think of.

I can’t come close to capturing this feeling with my Smartphone – which wants to focus in on one aspect of the scene in front of me and give it prominence. As soon as I step into the water to try to take a picture, I create ripples, changing the picture. Even if I could capture some sense of it visually, I would be missing the smell of the wind off the lake and decaying seaweed, the feel of wet sand under my toes, the songs of the birds, the waves lapping, the distant drone of a boat engine, the CheCheChee of the osprey, the feel of this air on my skin, the sound that this wind makes in these trees at this moment. I would be missing the constant movement and interplay of light, shadow, reflection.

The play of light and shadow and glimmer on the water did not raise me, but surely, it played a part in the raising of me, in giving me a sense of the world. and how I see and experience it.

At Home in the Water

I like to think about home, about what it is to feel at home in a place, about what it is to feel at home in our own body. I  consider the question “Why do some places (and some people) feel like home instantly while others do not touch us to the core in this same way?” I have no answers really, it is a question I enjoy turning over in my mind, mulling over, asking others…

I am just back from my longest ever stay near my birth home – our family cottage in Algonquin Territory in Eastern Ontario, a place where the Canadian Shield is at its most southern location mixing lake, rock and white pine with maples, cedar, birch and farmland. It is a place where I am privileged to swim every morning in clear, relatively clean waters. I feel so at home in those waters and can easily evoke my childhood delight at the freeing and floating feeling of water surrounding my body, the joy of doing deep dives under the water, the beauty of water bubbles, the miracle of sun sparkling on the water’s surface, of arms slicing through water so easily. My body needs to swim.

IMG_1206Last year, I did not visit the cottage and while I swam last summer, I did not swim nearly enough. To swim is like a certain kind of breathing. Arriving this year, at the beginning of June, my body felt hungry for immersion in that beautiful water. It was very cold at the beginning of June. I often stood in the water up to my waist, just thinking about diving in for the longest time, putting it off, gazing out at the lake interminably. Thinking about the word itself, lake. My dad had a way of saying lake, a way of extending the “a” and holding the “k” sound in his mouth a little longer than most. Kind of how you would say cake if you were savouring its deliciousness as you spoke its name. When I learned the word lake, this was the lake. There was no other. That word lake for me is full of meanings and associations – the first view of blue as we came around the corner at the hill at Stile’s cottage, the ever changing panaroma from our vantage place the top of a high point of land, it was the feel of the water as you put your toe in first, the pungent odour of decaying seaweed and organic stuff that floated in over night.  It was swimming so much as a child that our skin wrinkled up and was fascinating to our touch, although it looked wizened and grotesque! The way my father said “lake” brings the particular freshness and moistness of a lake breeze to mind and to nostrils! I think I would know it blindfolded. In that lake air, something in my body relaxes, my edges dissipate….I am home.

Taking Flight #4

I think I remember hearing the sound of the loon  during the night as a small girl, and thrilling to it, rather than being scared. That might just as well just be a story I made up! It matches the feeling I have about loons – like many others I have felt a special kinship with loons for as long as I can remember.

My childhood memories of Christie Lake are interwoven with memories of encounters with loons, and with their cries, their keening and their laughter present throughout the day, but most especially at night. A vivid and unforgettable memory is watching a loon swim under our canoe.

The summer I was 17, I took part in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Junior Ranger Program. Along with twenty three other 17 year olds from all across Ontario, I went to McConnell Lake, somewhere outside of North Bay. I drank it all in – from steel toed working boots, to blueberries in an abundance I could not have imagined, to being away from home, to the friendships formed…and especially to a wilder lake than I had ever know…McConnell Lake  was home to somewhere between 24 and 30 loons. I perfected my loon call, and felt that I could commune with a particular lone loon. I remember being punished one morning during calisthenics because the loons were dancing in some kind of formation – and I left (oh horror!) our exercise routine to go and watch them. The young women who were supervising us were barely older than us, and knew that their authority was held by a very frayed thread indeed!

"Deep Diver"- Loon Photo by C. Westmoreland

“Deep Diver”- Loon
Photo by C. Westmoreland

All of this has come to mind for a few reasons. There are two families of loons at this end of the lake this summer. I have had some wonderful conversations at the Perth Farmer’s Market with people who see “Deep Diver” and want to share their own stories and love of loons. When my friend Mary was visiting, I  looked for and found a board I painted as a teenager with loons on it.

Much like my entry in Taking Flight #2 , which shows another sketch of  a loon diving, it reminds me just how formative my growing up years are in relation to creating art (and much else).

Loon Board , c1977

Loon Board , c1977

Detatl- Loon Board

Detatl- Loon Board

Detail- loon borad with Ottawa Point, Christie lake in the background

Detail- loon borad with Ottawa Point, Christie lake in the background

Last Saturday, at the Perth Farmer’s Market, I had a wonderful conversation with a woman spending time with her family at a nearby lake. One of her children made a peeping sound, and a young loon swam right for him on shore. Waters had been stormy so the loon was bedraggled and clearly tuckered out, so my friend was called and she cradled the loon in her arms for a while keeping it warm and offering some rest. For all of this time, no parent loons were in sight. As the small loon revived, they spotted a pair of loons out on the lake and decided to paddle her/him out. My friend sat in the canoe holding the baby in her lap. As they got closer to the adult loons, she put the baby into the water. The baby peeped…the adults did not hear. The adults peeped – the baby hightailed over to the parents and many loon sounds were heard. She hopes all is well with this reunited family.

Another group came by the same Market Day with a woman visiting from the States – from a place where there are no loons. Every time she saw a loon, she commented on the “duck” up ahead. The people she was with were quick to correct her – “Evvie”, they would say when she was looking at “Deep Diver,” “That is not a duck, it is a loon.” As Canadians, we are not usually so precise about bird nomenclature! Some of us call goldfinches canaries, for example. But for those of us lucky enough to spend time in Shield Country, for those of us lucky enough to share waters  with the common loon, it is vital to know the difference between a loon and a duck.

In May 2013, I had an art show entitled “Taking Flight – Exploring Birds and Oher Flying Creatures in the Art of Sue Bland”. I continue to want to explore the theme of birds, and of flight in my life. Previous posts are Taking Flight #1, Taking Flight #2, Taking Flight #3 and some reflections on the show.

Remembering Gerry Starr


This morning (Thursday, July 25th) I learned that Gerry Starr passed away. I was preparing for a visit from my aunt and my cousins but the news about Gerry caused me stop and have a good cry. As soon as I was done preparing food, I went down to the lake to think about Gerry and to wait for my visitors. In Gerry’s memory, I made a small circle of stones on the beach, noticing after I did so that half the stones were in the water and half were not. Along with the stones, I picked a shiny piece of shell, because for me Gerry had a quiet kind of shine. While I waited, a family of loons fished just a ways off shore. A large osprey (also known as fish eagle) soared way out on the lake, also fishing. This made me think straight away of Edith, Gerry’s wife and my friend, who always looked for the eagle to accompany us on each day of a canoe trip we took.


I was grateful for this quiet moment and this peaceful lake where I could remember Gerry. As I sat, the water lapping the sand slowly shifted my circle of stones.

Gerry always called me Sue Bland, never just Sue like most people!! Together, he and his wife Edith were unfailingly kind and hospitable and generous to my family and I.  Gerry was the dad of my great friend Gail, and her sisters Danette, Geraldine, a sister I have not yet met, and the late Jean.  He was the moshum of my goddaughter Janaye and her sister Taye, and a whole bunch of boys. He had three beloved great granddaughters who lit up his face and warmed his heart. He was a respected Elder in his home community of StarBlanket, and beyond.

I did not know Gerry when he was a young capable athlete, or the hardworking manager of the large StarBlanket Farm. Gerry’s health was never great when I knew him and he usually used a walker. It always amazed me how many things he attended despite his great difficulty moving around. I remember him as a quiet, very intelligent, very observant man – nobody’s fool. I don’t think Gerry missed much.

Although he was quiet, when he did have something to say, nothing could stop him from saying it. I remember a couple of those occasions. Once when StarBlanket Cree Nation held a day to commemorate residential school survivors at Lebret, Edith was supposed to speak. When the time came she could not. But with the help of his daughters and Edith, Gerry purposefully made his way to the front and he spoke powerfully about his residential school experience at Lebret. I wrote down what he said, but what sticks with me now is how indignant he was (incredulous really) when he remembered that the priests expected them to pray before breakfast, after breakfast – just about every minute of the day. How there was absolutely no recognition at all that the spiritual ways of his grandfather meant something. He would return home in the summer to go into the bush to learn his grandfather’s ways, then back to boarding school for 10 months learning that those ways were wrong.

On a happier occasion, at Gail and Sonny’s wedding, he called me over to explain that Edith was crying (with joy) because Sonny had gifted him with his best mare and foal, and because this was a return to the way it had been a long time ago. During the traditional ceremony, he spoke at length about this, and very eloquently. He was very moved by Sonny’s gift, and what it represented – regaining  the old ways that had been forbidden and made illegal by my people.

My fondest memory of Gerry – one that always brings a smile to my face – took place at the Wahpimoostoosis Healing ceremonies that were held each year in August. I had taken part in a Sweatlodge Ceremony that morning, and was participating in the Feast where Gerry was one of the Elders that afternoon. During the feast, I could hardly keep my head up, and kept yawning – I was so sleepy from my time in the Sweat. After the feast was over, I was shaking the hands of the Elders and when I got to Gerry, he convulsed with laughter and told me how hilarious it was to watch this white girl almost fall asleep during the feast because the Sweat had been too much for me. He teased me without mercy! Honestly, I would have been insulted except that his glee and laughter was so darn contagious, I just cracked up too. I laugh every time I think of it.

Last year, Gail and I spoke a number of times together. I spoke trying to encourage other Canadians to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Gail had the hard part – she spoke as an intergenerational survivor – both her parents had attended residential schools and Gail shared how deeply this affected her. I learned a great deal about Gerry and about the powerful bond between Gerry and Gail  – but these are Gail’s tales to tell, not mine. I am thinking about these stories as I remember Gerry today. I learned what a complex man Gerry Starr was, and something of his influence on many, many people.

Gerry was waiting for his residential school hearing. Like many Elders before him, he passed away before that could happen. I feel so sad about that. I am not sure that those hearings always offer much healing, but perhaps for some they offer a kind of closure. It seems ironic that today, all across Canada,  has been designated by Indigenous people in Canada as NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER: HONOUR THE APOLOGY. The intention is to honour the children lost to and the adult survivors of residential schools, and to push the federal government to turn over all documentation related to the residential schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (as ordered by the courts). I deeply wish that our Canadian government would honour the words of the Apology made in 2008.

Sometimes I have watched a dying person do great healing during their last days. I don’t know if that was the case with Gerry. I hope it was.

I have been feeling Gerry’s absence all day today. The world is a different place without him. I cannot imagine the Starr family without Gerry in their midst. I am feeling the difficulty of having two homes – this being my birth home and Saskatchewan being my chosen home. I want to be able to hug Gail and Edith and family, to take my brown buns (the buns that Gerry loved) and a good farm chicken, to be present as they honour this very special man in time honoured ways. I want to hear what is said, and I want to learn more who this complicated  and special man was to others in his family, and in his community. I am 2800 kilometers away, which feels pretty far. But if I can’t be in Saskatchewan, this place where I feel the presence of my own ancestors, where I feel close to earth and lake and sky, is the next best  place to give thanks for Gerry’s life, and to offer prayers of healing and peace for him and his big circle of love and family. I feel gratitude for knowing Gerry.


Back at the Perth Farmer’s Market

In the Crystal Palace at the Perth Farmer's Market

In the Crystal Palace at the Perth Farmer’s Market

Alice visiting caught the back view of my head through the window.

Alice visiting caught the back view of my head through the window.


"Deep Diver" (Loon) and Water Snake #1 catch people's eye

“Deep Diver” (Loon) and Water Snake #1 catch people’s eye

"An Exultation of Larks" - I enjoy seeing how they look on different windows

“An Exultation of Larks” – I enjoy seeing how they look on different windows

"Fairies" with the market happening through the glass

“Fairies” with the market happening through the glass

Not at the market, but I could not resist. Some characters at the Bluegrass Festival that we arrived too late to enjoy

Not at the market, but I could not resist. Some characters at the Bluegrass Festival that we arrived too late to enjoy it

It is great to be back at the Perth Farmer’s Market! I set up my booth two years ago while spending time at Christie Lake, did well, met many interesting people and now I am back. I will be here for the next 2 Saturdays – July  27th and August 3rd from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. under the glass roof of the Crystal Palace. I have enjoyed two Saturdays here already – – many people said that they were drawn to my small corner full of colour and joy! Thank you for coming by.




Taking Flight 2

This is the second post in a series which is focussed on my upcoming art show entitled “Taking Flight”.

My first memory of birds comes from the night sounds I heard as a young child at our family cottage near Christie Lake. In those days, we heard the whippoorwills at night. We seldom hear whippoorwills anymore but recently one spring at the cottage, I heard them again and a flood of memories and sensations returned with their soft “whippoorwill, whippoorwill”. We still hear crows in the very early morning at the lake, and many other places, including here at the farm. I love crows. A few years ago when I learned that crows distinguish between the people who live near them (meaning that they can tell the difference between my husband and I), I tried to observe the crows more closely and see if I could discern differences between them. I have had no success yet, and so continue, enjoying the opportunity to observe the crows who raise a brood of young on the farm much more closely.

Deep Diver, Collage and Watercolour. Photo by Cherie Westmoreland

Deep Diver, Collage and Watercolour.
Photo by Cherie Westmoreland

I think I remember the first time I woke at night to hear the loons singing. As I recall, I wasn’t scared at all. In fact, something deep within me thrilled to that call. It felt ancient, and oddly, it felt familiar.  Had I seen a loon before I heard the loon’s song? Probably, but in my memory, sound came first. From an early age, I felt a deep bond with loons, as so many of us do. A huge childhood thrill for me was taking all my friends to the Museum in Ottawa to watch the NFB film The Loon’s Necklace for my 10th birthday.

When I was  a teenager, working in Northern Ontario, I got to know loons even better. As a Junior Ranger at McConnell Lake near North Bay where there were 24 nesting pairs of loons, I got in big trouble one day for leaving our morning calisthenics to watch the loons dance on the lake. There was one loon I felt a special bond with – when I called, that loon would swim very close. Loons figured prominently in the art I created at that time. I never forgot the loon I saw swim under the canoe. I wondered if I could somehow express how I felt about seeing that loon under the water. I recently pulled out a stack of art created when I was a teen, and note the similarities between this watercolour (in browns below) and what I created decades later using collage and watercolour (Deep Diver). How I see it now : that piece has been inside me for a long time and was waiting for the right time to come out!

Study of loon diving done when I was 17...note similarity with "Deep Diver"

Study of loon diving done when I was 17…note similarity with “Deep Diver”

Deep Diver” is the first in a series entitled “Creatures I swim with”. When at Christie Lake, my favourite thing is to rise early, make a cup of coffee and head down to the beach for my morning swim. I sit quietly sipping coffee, taking in the feel of the day. The small bay I swim in is populated by loons, grebes, mergansers, turtles, otters, muskrat, the occasional water snake, turkey vultures and osprey, dragonflies, minnows…. the list could go on and on. I feel grateful to share the water with these creatures and to learn something about their daily routes and habits. So far, I have completed 3 pieces (Loon, Turtle and WaterSnake) in something like 4 years… a slow process indeed. It seems fitting that the loon is the first of these creatures. Loons are not the greatest fliers…in fact, sometimes they get marooned on lakes in the fall because they need a long runway and the ice has hemmed them in. But their diving and swimming is incredible…a kind of flight in a dreamy underwater world of deep greens and blues, of mystery. Like the loons, I love to dive deep in the waters.

Water Snake #4 – Process



Water Snake #3 and #4 were done while I was at Christie Lake in Ontario this past fall. The first picture gives you a little context, the view from the cabin each day.  I occasionally worked out doors, but mostly worked at the table (second to last photo) in  a small cabin with beautiful light, and no heat!!! It was a great adventure. (Although I did swim, it was freezing and I did not swim every day. I enjoyed the company of the loons.)

Through the screen door. Photo by Ellen Bradley

Through the screen door. Photo by Ellen Bradley



Celebrating Year of the Water Snake

IMG_0003I have been dreaming about water snakes for quite some time. Drawing them, trying to urge them to life with watercolours and collage, imagining them. When I began, little did I know that 2013 would be Year of the Water Snake! What a happy coincidence!

I am working on a series entitled “Creatures I Swim With” – which depicts some of the creatures I share the waters with at Christie Lake near Perth, Ontario. This is the lake of my childhood, the lake I have returned to from Saskatchewan with our family every second summer, the lake that calls me still. “Creatures I Swim With” has a cast of two so far: Loon (Deep Diver) and Northern Map Turtle. Water Snake is the third creature.

Deep Diver and Northern Map Turtle involved some preparation and a few preliminary sketches, but I very quickly got to the final products – both are a mix of watercolour and paper collage.

Water Snake has been a different matter. I have worked on 5 versions, trying to get it right, feeling my way as I go. From a recent journal: “I am loving the struggle. I am learning what the struggle is about by playing with each of these versions. Loon is identifiable as a Common Loon, turtle is Northern Map Turtle, but this snake – although definitely a snake does not look like a Northern Water Snake. It is the feeling of Water Snake that I want. I seldom see Water Snake. Mostly,  I imagine I see Water Snake. I saw one once, swimming across the water and I could not believe my eyes. I was terrified. After that,  it seemed, every dark stick lying on the sand and lent motion by the water above it was a snake lying deep in the water. Or every dark ripple on the surface of the water was a snake. Every brush of seaweed along my thigh felt like a water snake. They are seldom seen. Often imagined. Not dangerous. But, I think they are!”

My heart always skips a beat when I see this tiny snake!

My heart always skips a beat when I see this tiny snake!


One day, early in my relationship with Water Snake, my friend Dolores found a little Smooth Green Snake. Something had very recently killed it. Other than a small wound part way down its body, this little snake was perfect… a most beautiful vivid lime green, with tiny scales, an irridescent gleam… something I could study  for hours. You can see it in the photo above (top right) with a  watercolour sketch beside its now wizened body.

The day before starting to paint Water Snake #1, I found a perfect (garter) snake skin on a coulee hill…laying there like a gift. A gift indeed.

What is the feeling of Water Snake that I hoped  to capture? Here are some of the words I wrote down:

coiled power    mystery    sheen    depths    glitter    sparkle    surprise     danger    beauty     fierce    fear     terror     ominous    flexibility     agility    shifting    elegance    power    hidden    dark    revealed

Over a period of months, I worked on four versions of Water Snake.

Then, other projects took precedence. I knew that Water Snake was not done with me, but there was something holding me back from continuing to explore.

16My friend Mary called. You should check out The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, she said. So I looked up Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s book, and just as Mary said, the water snakes play a pivotal role. In this ballad, the ancient mariner undertakes a sea journey and mistakenly kills an albatross, usually a symbol of good luck for sailors. He hangs the corpse of the albatross around his neck. Things go from bad to worse, from worse to desperate – even his crew dies, and rather than rotting, they stare reproachfully at him. He is so distraught that he cannot even pray. And then,

Beyond the shadow of the ship,

I watched the water-snakes:

They moved in tracks of shining white

And when they reared, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.


Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green and velvet black, 

They coiled and swarm; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.

The sight of the beautiful water snakes lifted his heart so much (“Oh happy living things, no tongue their beauty might declare”), that he blessed them and was able to pray. At that moment, the albatross falls from his neck to the sea.

tumblr_lr3hc6v91o1qccpa7o1_500Of course, we know that snakes are an ancient (and current) symbol of healing. Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine and could restore the dead to life. The two snakes intertwined on a rod are carried by Hermes, who was not a healer but who was a messenger of the gods with a strong connection to the underworld. This symbol is associated with both pharmacy and alchemy. But this reminder of  snakes as beautiful, as agents of healing, transformation and rebirth was what I needed to get me started on the fifth version of Water Snake. Joy, play, movement were added to my list of words.

I was further encouraged when I learned that 2013 was the Year of the Snake. Something loosened in me and out came the scissors, glue, papers, paintbrushes, yogurt container of water (!)and tubes of colour. Water Snake #5 is a little bigger than the others.

Because Water Snake #5 is so precise, I felt a great wiggle and desire to move inside, so began a more fluid watercolour piece which I called Water Snake Wiggler. Some images of the process of creating these two pieces can be found in the gallery entitled “A Close Look at Water Snake #5