June’s prompt for Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up is Sunlight. Let’s start with a sunrise:

A card-carrying night owl, I’m not usually up to catch the sunrise. I hit the jackpot, however, when I got up to see this beauty! Note the crepuscular rays. Lake Muskoka, Ontario • August 2016

Near the same spot on the same lake, this time on an afternoon in May:

Lake Muskoka, Ontario • May 2015

And now for something completely different (not really, I just love trees):

The 500-year-old Comfort Maple near Niagara Falls, believed to be Canada’s oldest sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Its trunk circumference is 6 m (20 ft) • Pelham, Ontario • June 2016

Smell this!

The Fragrant Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata) grows in abundance in the shallow bays of Muskoka. Its golden rays and intoxicating licorice aroma just radiate “summer sunshine” to me. Lake Muskoka, Ontario • July 2008


A Blue and White Love Affair

A little granite island on Lake Muskoka, home to tall pines, majestic oaks and maple, aromatic cedar, scrubby juniper and an active population of pixies, has been in my family since my great-grandfather purchased it in 1911. His son, my mother’s dad, built the sturdy wooden cottage a couple of years later, and other than the addition of a screened-in porch, the house has stood unchanged and resolute throughout the decades. My mother has spent every summer of her life there, as have her three children. Other branches of the family have also enjoyed it, and we all have rich and long-lasting memories of such a magickal place.

Over the years, for example, there have been three marriages performed at the cottage; one of those brides carried fragrant white water-lilies, plucked from a local bay, as her bouquet. I chose to be married in the nearby town of Gravenhurst and have our reception on the (now) 131-year-old Royal Mail Ship Segwun, an elegant and graceful steamer that’s been plying the lakes since the logging days. My sister held her wedding and reception on the same ship, which cruises past our island on every voyage. The cottage has also been the perfect location for honeymoons; on warm summer nights when the moon spreads her silvery splendour across silent waters while loons call out emphatic yet rather haunting encouragement, what could be more idyllic?

As far as I know, no children (human, anyway) have ever been born on the island, but a passel of kids has certainly grown up there. Along its wave-lapped shores, we learned how to swim, paddle canoes, ply oars and run the motorboat. We picked up frogs, crayfish and snapping turtles with naïve hands and caught our first pike in its waters. We ran willy-nilly down the sloping dock path at unstoppable speed, skinning our knees, and we swung to and fro and twirled around on the old rope swing, then got sick all over the dinner table. Clad only in wet bathing suits, we raced through the woods on scavenger hunts and spent idle afternoons in the hammock or perched on a favourite rock, devouring ripe blueberries, juicy blackberries and oh! so many novels. At night we fell, sunburnt and exhausted, into creaky wrought iron beds with lumpy mattresses and were lulled to sleep by the cries of distant gulls.

The cottage’s furnishings haven’t changed much since the old days, except the occasional coat of white paint (the porch rafters were given a distinct marine feel with the addition of lake-blue stripes). When the kids got older, however, we converted a no-longer-needed “bedroom” – a corner of the porch – into a quiet reading nook, complete with white wicker chairs, blue cushions and a view of the lake. From this north-facing aspect, the water is sometimes cobalt, calmly reflecting a sparkling summer sky, and sometimes it’s a dark, moody slate, with a whipped topping of whitecaps foreshadowing an approaching storm.

Like most summer places, the cottage has been the repository of household items the thriftier generations thought “too good” to throw away. Drawers and cupboards are jammed with all sorts of utilitarian bits and pieces such as dented pots, an ancient egg beater, a rusty ladle, heavy stoneware jugs, a chipped enamelware colander and umpteen different patterns of silverware. There’s even a 19th century zinc washboard hanging around, and each bedroom still has its original chamber pot – or “thunder mug”, as we’ve always called them.

All of these things carry their own memories and rustic charm. But there’s one group of items that has graced the kitchen cabinets for as long as anyone can remember: a mismatched collection of blue and white china. Among this classic transferware crockery, the nearest and dearest to my heart has to be Blue Willow.

The story of Blue Willow (or just “Willow”, as it’s properly known) is a popular and romantic fable involving runaway lovers, a secluded island and, sad to say, their doomed end. Despite this melancholy tale, I’ve always found it a cheerful experience drinking my morning tea and eating light summer meals from such classic and fresh blue and white ware. The fact that some of our pieces are at least 100 years old and still in use (we’ve only had to retire one cracked dish) attests to the family’s fondness for the “cottage china”. (There’s good reason this pattern is often used on-screen to evoke old-time hominess and domesticity.)

When I married, I chose the Blue Willow pattern as my own household dinnerware, and for years I scoured antique fairs for rarer, more unique pieces to add to a growing collection. To me, this pattern will forever speak of that little white house on that wooded island in that deep, blue lake – and I will always love them both.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 3)

The hummingbird hovers, the goldfinch alights
A leafy green path ’neath the lofty pine beckons:
“Come ye to the woods, seek their earthen delights
where oaks count the hours and bright toadstools, the seconds.”Willow basket in hand, she heeds sylvan call
and wanders past foamflower and lowbush blueberry,
whispers welcome to trees, with a silent footfall,
she soaks up the magick of old forest Faerie.A lighthouse stands guard on the point, giving warning:
Wave-lapped rocks – sailors’ bane! – warmed by midsummer heat.
Her throne a moss pillow bedewed from the morning,
she rests, breathes in pine-scented air, soft and sweet.How wondrous the isle where the woods are enchanted!
How sparkles the sun on the diamond-like water!
How blessed is she in her sturdy white cabin,
where secrets are passed from wise mother to daughter!

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 3
© 2017, Valerie Barrett

Angel Whiskers (Part 2)

Part Deux of L’histoire de Simone, the Van from Japan.


Even house cats need a vacation: Simone spent an idyllic three weeks of every year playing Huntress in the great Muskoka wilderness.

Once the Japanese émigrés, Simone and Gulliver, were ensconced in my mother’s house (Do you think they speak English? Mom – bless her – asked), life took on a rather different slant for all of us. I began visiting Mom a bit more often. My mother was not fooled; she knew I had come to see the cats, a fact I cannot deny. The cat I’d grown up with was long gone. After I’d married a self-confessed cat hater (more on that later) and moved to a small apartment, I was destined to indulge my love of the beasts vicariously through other people’s pets, never my own. I’m the ultimate Cat Auntie – every cat I’ve come to know and love since then, I spoil rotten.

Although she was small, Simone was without a doubt Cat Number One in that household and asserted her royal prerogative over Gulliver accordingly. And when our entire family vacationed at our island cottage (an indoor cats’ paradise), she assimilated quite well with my sister’s older, more established cats, Mister and Missy. Perhaps because Simmy was so sure of herself and didn’t require heaps of attention, that excellent pair accepted her without a flick of a whisker, and life at the cottage hummed along quite harmoniously. They even went on safari in the woods together, sometimes led by their Humans. (Try navigating a narrow woodland path whilst three or four felines, intent on exploring the delicious scents ahead, choose the space between your feet as their primary lane of travel.) Meek and unsure Gulliver, on the other hand, (who, on his very first island visit cowered at the edge of the woods for three days, peering at us longingly with saucer eyes and a grumbling tummy from behind a pine tree) had to submit to Mister’s authoritative paw during several machismo-filled hiss- and growl-fests. Mister, a handsome tabby with a magnificently long, curling tail, made it crystal clear that this was his turf, not the young upstart’s. The two avoided each other quite judiciously after that.


Brother and sister duo Mister and Missy look ready to rumble.

It was down at the dock, or when we took a dip in the lake, that Simone displayed another of the Van’s characteristic traits. Apparently, these cats love to swim, possibly due to their ancestors’ habit of fishing in Turkey’s Lake Van. Simmy never showed fear of the water; if anything, she enjoyed being around it. She’d hop readily into our gently-rocking moored boat. Once, we even found her underneath the wharf, exploring the rocks exposed by a low waterline. When we took the cats for walks, she was the one who jumped onto the half-submerged rocks farthest out in the lake, showing no distaste when her paws got wet. And, although we could never coax her to actually swim with us, she stayed as close as she could, looking for all the world as if she wanted to join in.

We had also read that Turkish Vans are rather more standoffish than most cats and dislike being held. Simone stayed true to her breed in that regard, to be sure, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a sweet, loving cat. In her own way, she showed us great tenderness – but always on her terms. She refused to curl up on our laps and would tolerate being picked up for about 3.7 seconds, but absolutely adored snoozing beside me on the couch, an ever-so-convenient position for her most favouritest thing: the administration of endless “pit-pats” on her backside.

Once in a while, though, the Princess surprised us. Back at the cottage on a chilly summer evening, we caught her and my supposedly cat-hating husband nestled together by the fire. Heat-seeking missile Simmy had euphorically if temporarily suspended her “No laps” policy, while my husband was doing his best to maintain an air of complete indifference to this unlooked-for lap rug. The gig was up for both of them when we spied him sneaking out a hand to give the cat a few furtive yet clearly loving caresses. Busted!


Not exactly a dignified position for Her Majesty, yet essential for soaking up that fireside heat!

During my mother’s move to a condo, Simone expressed bewilderment and grief at the (temporary) loss of her rightful Human when I took the cat home with me for safekeeping one night until the movers were done. She refused to eat, drink or use the litterbox, and prowled the apartment incessantly all night, crying pitifully for my mother. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep for all this caterwauling, either. I loved Simone, but I wasn’t impressed by this performance. Once settled into her new home, however, she happily ruled the roost once again, sleeping at the foot of Mom’s bed (something my mother vowed would never happen) and keeping her faithful company. Whenever I came to visit, she’d wake instantly from her afternoon snooze, hop down from the bed and trot cheerfully to the door to greet me. I wasn’t fooled, either; Simone knew perfectly well that she was in for a glorious few hours of silly talk and endless pit-pats; a task the One Who Fed Her left very happily to me.

~ To be continued ~

The Warmth of Wood

The sub-boreal forests of southern Ontario furnish the material I use to make rustic, nature-inspired necklaces. I gather fallen branches from the wooded island in Muskoka which has been in my family for more than 100 years. Centuries before that, the lake provided rich hunting and fishing grounds and portage routes for native peoples (our family has found arrowheads and a stone pounding tool on the island), and in the late 1800s and early 1900s boasted a thriving logging and boat-building industry. We have several tree species on the island: white and red pine, white and red oak, eastern white cedar, common juniper, red maple, poplar and white birch. But although we’re surrounded by trees, it’s harder than you might think to find appropriate specimens to turn into jewellery; the wood must be seasoned, not green, and can have no signs of pests, disease or rot, and I never harvest living wood. Only a handful of branches I find on the forest floor will make the cut, so to speak!


(Clockwise from top left) Mighty Oak and Strength – his & her pendants of red oak; common juniper Ginny necklace; Balance – red maple bead on genuine leather choker; Arbor Vitae cedar pendant on silver-plated ball chain; Beorc pendant of white birch on cotton twist cord

I prefer to use the most natural materials and tools possible (I do use an electric drill and a woodburning tool), and it takes several days to complete each necklace. I hand-saw each slice, drill a bail hole and sand with five successively finer grits until the surface is silky smooth. Some pendants I leave unadorned in order to highlight the wood grain; oak, juniper, cedar, birch and maple are particularly beautiful, each with its own character. Then I seal the piece with two coats of non-toxic linseed/beeswax wood oil. I finish by buffing on several layers of beeswax polish for further protection and a subtle, natural sheen.


Pyrography on white pine (clockwise from top left): Fyrre; Dark Forest I, first in a mystical forest series; 12 of the Elder Futhark runes shown on the reverse side of this Runic Wheel pendant (other 12 on the front); Make a Wish pendant with ceramic bead

For other pieces, especially those made of pine, the pale wood of which makes a perfect canvas, I embellish with pyrography (woodburning). Most of the designs are my own, applied freehand without a pattern or transfer. I enjoy incorporating motifs from nature, or Celtic or Norse art and traditions; runes, Ogham and Viking sigils work particularly well. I do sell these pieces internationally, so I’m obliged to follow my government’s phytosanitary regulations. Any wood I export must be small, have no bark, and be sealed to prevent the spread of pests to the destination country. I’d love to be able to keep the bark on some of my pieces, but I can’t risk the chance of them being seized at the border – and, therefore, not delivered to my customers. So I came up with an easy way of simulating bark by using pyrography to burn on the effect around the edges.


Watercolour pencils add a tinted wash to Fantasy Butterfly and Greenman pendants

I’ve also experimented with adding colour to the designs. Watercolour pencils are perfect, rather than paint, which would introduce too much moisture to the wood. Their wash of colour lends a soft antique effect that I quite like.


(Clockwise from top left) Ancient Irish Ogham “LOVE” burned into oak; the simple beauty of red oak in this long Druid pendant; Protect – handmade white cedar bead on leather

I also like varying the shapes of the pendants. Cutting the branch in crosswise slices results in discs with lovely end grain patterns. Thinner branches of the same woods can be cut lengthwise to reveal a completely different grain effect, and any knots, sanded smooth, add even more rustic character. They can be cut longer for pendants or kept small and drilled through the centre to make beads. I like to give my customers choices for cords or chains, too. Waxed cotton, hemp, soft jute, macramé cord, ribbon and genuine leather are natural cord options, and I can add glass or ceramic beads (a good way of weighing down the lightweight wood pendants), finishing them with either adjustable sliding knots or metal findings and a clasp. I also offer chains in different metals including nickel-, silver- and copper-plate.


Red oak pocket talismans (clockwise from top left): Faerie Star, a.k.a. Elven Star; Gibu Auja, a Norse good luck bindrune; Aegishjalmr a.k.a. Viking Helm of Awe, an Icelandic sigil of protection and invincibility; Three Wishes dandelion motif

The same production techniques lend themselves to non-jewellery items, too. Oak, a durable hardwood, is suitable for keychain fobs. I’ve used oak and other woods to make toggle closures for my drawstring leather bags. And wood slices without bail holes, pyrographed with good luck and protection symbols such as the Scandinavian Aegishjalmr and Gibu Auja, are popular. They are pocket talismans or amulets intended to be carried rather than worn; I’ve been meaning to make up some unbleached muslin drawstring bags to pop them into. Time to get out the sewing machine!

Most of the items shown here have been sold. I really must get on with making more to replenish the shop. Earlier this year, my brother gave me some lilac and linden branches from storm-damaged or pruned trees. They’re still drying out and seasoning, but I’m dying to give them a go. And I’m always looking for ideas for new designs; if you have any suggestions, please let me know!


20161005_135718-5You may not be celebrating a national holiday like Thanksgiving today, as we here in Canada are doing, but I would like to wish each and every one of you a beautiful day, wherever you are. Hopefully you’re spending it doing something you love, and taking a moment to appreciate the wonders – however big or small – that we’ve been given.

I’m heading up to Muskoka today to help close up the family cottage for the winter. It’s a bittersweet time as we say goodbye to a wonderful summer and hunker down for the long wait until we can be there again in the spring. But it’s not all bad: in between chores, I’ll be taking lots of photos of autumn colours, as well as gathering woodsy bits and pieces to use in upcoming craft projects.

I’d like to thank my readers and fellow bloggers for taking the time to visit my site. Your wonderful comments and support have been truly inspiring, and I’ve loved reading your blogs, too. Thank you. 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving from Canada!


Reading the Runes


Terracotta rune set with hessian bag and guide book by Horik Svensson.

The Elder Futhark, the oldest known runic alphabet, is of Germanic origin dating from the 1st or 2nd century CE. Similar to the Greek alphabet, which is named for its first two letters, the Futhark takes its name from the first initial or phoneme of the first six runes: F, U, Th, A, R and K. Each rune corresponds to a letter or sound (transliteration).

There are many theories as to why this system was invented and what it means, but no one knows for sure. Was it an attempt by northern Europeans to imitate Roman script? Did the runes have a practical purpose, such as recording ideas or events? Or perhaps the characters had mystical or shamanistic properties.

The runes are usually referred to in either ancient Proto-Germanic or 8th century Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. (For the runic items I make for my shop, I use the latter.) The words are from nature — usually animals, trees or weather — or are the names of gods. For example, the first rune, shown in the centre foreground of the photo above, is known as either Fehu (P-G), or Feoh (OE). Feoh transliterates as the letter f, means “wealth” or “cattle”, and is generally accepted today as symbolizing wealth, power and success.


The runes, woodburned onto a cedar plank, with their names in Old English.

Here are the 24 Elder Futhark runes, their ancient meanings and modern symbolism:

Feoh  •  wealth, cattle  •  Wealth, power, success
Ur  •  aurochs  •  Risk, rapid change, stamina, determination
Thorn  •  the god Thor  •  Protection, luck, inner growth
Ansur  •  mouth  •  Advice, deliberation
Rad  •  wheel, ride •   Journey (literal or toward enlightenment)
Ken  •  torch •   New life, fertility, knowledge, the arts
Geofu  •  gift  •  Union, harmony, love, peace
Wynn  •  joy  •  Happiness, success, fulfillment through hard work
Hagall  •  hail  •  Unpredictability, sudden setback
Nied  •  need  •  Restriction, patience, spiritual growth through hardship
Is  •  ice  •  Caution, put plans on hold, waiting
Jara  •  year, harvest  •  Cycles, birth, time of reckoning
Yr  •  yew  •  Positive outcome after delay, inner strength
Peorth  •  pear tree  •  Unexpected inheritance, recovery of what was lost
Eolh  •  elk  •  Protection, beneficial influence
Sigel  •  sun •  Life force, guiding light
Tir  •  the god Tiwaz  •  Battles, competition, vigorous energy, being prepared
Beorc  •  birch  •  Fertility, inception of idea or project, family
Eoh  •  horse  •  Travel, change (made carefully, not abruptly)
Mann  •  Man, humans  •  Separate but not alone, relationships, inner wisdom
Lagu  •  water, lake  •  Intuition, flexibility, receptivity, creativity
Ing  •  the god Ingwaz  •  Completion, good omen, relief is near
Othel  •  heritage, estate  •  Ancestry, the home, land, obligations, karma
Daeg  •  day  •  New beginnings, growth, inner acceptance, security


Rune necklaces I made recently for a customer in California, of reclaimed Muskoka white pine. I pyrographed the freehand designs and bark-like edging and finished the pendants with linseed oil and beeswax.

Similar to Tarot cards, runes can be cast for divination, or can be worn or carried as an amulet. I wear Tir as my personal talisman because it is the rune of archers.