Near the Albereta/B.C. border the weather turned troubling. No matter what Willie Nelso might say, from her on we encountered nothing but gray skies for the rest of the way. Some light was added to the morning drive by one of my favorite CBC radio shows, The Sunday Edition. Michael Enright had a guest whom I had heard before when he talked about his parrot. Today he talked about himself. The guest was Brian Brett. He is very eccentric. He has called himself as being “slightly sideways.” He is a maverick. I like mavericks.
Brett was born with a very rare genetic condition Kallmann Syndrome that left him biologically androgynous. He was unable to produce male hormones. As a result a doctor said that he would not live past the age of 40. Well that is a bad thing to say to a guy like Brett who has a startling ability to survive.
Being in his 70’s he has lived much longer than that, but now faces new challenges. Again he has ignored predictions of his imminent demise. Rebels do that. More recently he has been diagnosed with a serious heart condition and cancer, and his liver seems to have disappeared, but once again he has refused to go quietly into that dark night. Instead he moved to Vancouver, where he had better access to specialized care. Until then he was a self-styled “rural renegade,” but after that he became an urban renegade.
Brett missed the the natural beauty of Saltspring. Who wouldn’t? As he said, “I always had so much beauty surrounding me there for 25 years. So it’s a little tougher in the city.”
As he told Michael Enright, “I decided that if I was going to die … then I would like to be surrounded by beauty.” That is in my view a perfectly laudable goal, though his means of achieving it were at best dubious. He became what he called a “predator of beauty,” or a “predator of flowers”.
In Vancouver he made an interesting decision. As he said, “I decided that if I was going to die, if this guy was really right this time, then I would like to be surrounded by beauty. I had taken to buying orchids so that I had a couple of orchids on each side of my bed so that when I shut my eyes at night the last thing I will see will be a beautiful orchid. But then I got really carried away. That’s when I got into trouble.”
Brett got himself a pair of pruning shears and ventured out at night. “I’d take a walk in the day. I would go out and sort of check everything out and memorize where I wanted to go and then I could I would go out at dusk, because it has to be light to be able to see what you’re doing. I only went after stuff that overhang the fences. I called it ‘vigilante pruning‘ … I would go out and clean up the trees and I would take my wages in flowers.”
Brett was not satisfied with seeing the flowers, he wanted to have them. Even though they did not belong to him. Sometimes he asked for permission. Not always. He figured he was doing a service to the neighbourhood. “Before I knew it I was pruning the neighbourhood,” he said of his illicit gardening.
Brett, ever the creative writer, wrote an essay about how many shades of blue there are. “When I was a child discovering the world it was all so bright and amazing. I get obsessions, and one of the obsessions was trying to count how many blues I could remember. I got myself up to two hundred and eighty seven before I scrawled it on the back of my dresser in my bedroom so that I would remember it forever. You know, this is the kind of thing you think when you’re in Grade 6.” He says that he has the mind of a 14 year-old.
Enright asked him how his night time forays into the land of flower gardens was connected to his health. Brett replied, “I think it’s just the rage to live. I want to die the way I’ve lived, which is more or less at full speed.”
As a result Brett pruned city trees and helped himself to flowers so he could brighten up his home. He also took cherry and plum blossoms, as well as magnolia blossoms. How could he resist? “A lot of them ended up in my bedroom and so it was pretty extravagant. For a while there I went into a real frenzy.”
Eventually, his conscience, or his fear of the law, got the better of him and he stopped taking flowers without permission. He appreciated the work the gardens did making the city beautiful and stopped robbing them. He admitted, “‘I can be trouble.”
His cancer prognosis has improved recently, and once again he might cheat death as he has done so many times before. Now his doctors say he as 2 or 3 years to live. “I’m pretty creaky and I’m on 19 pills a day, but I have a remarkable ability to survive.”
In the meantime, Brett continues to fill his small home with beauty. He is a still a predator of beauty but gets permission for his predations. He wants his room to be filled with things that bring him joy. As he said, “I just love beauty. And it’s more than the flowers. I love to be surrounded by beautiful objects.”
I felt a little like Brett this morning. Along the Trans-Canada Highway we made a few stops including one where I wanted to see the mountains under gray skies, but I was instead struck by the beautiful flowers just over the roadside barrier. I wanted to be a predator of beauty too. I wanted to grab some images of the precious mountains we were soon to leave behind. Gray skies made that difficult. Beside one of those stops, I found a few gems (wild flowers) worth preying on, but I did not use shears, only my camera and tripod.
Flowers I saw included the following: Chicory (Chicorium intybus), Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and Klamath Weed (Hypercium peforatum).
I hated that last name, how could you call such a lovely flower a weed? So disrespectful. Such a derogatory name for such a lovely flower, but it has had devastating effects in California where it was somehow introduced from eastern North America and ruined 250,000 acres before a European beetle was introduced to control it. Often such attempts to “control” species don’t work well but his one has seemed to work.
I was grateful to Chris for indulging me in this half hour stop to predate beauty. So much fun.