Life is so odd that satirists can only applaud

Man, I never know what’s going on. Bottled water went from status symbol to environmental faux pas and the smart set started sipping from trees while I was seeking a rhyme for “macchiato” because impersonal corporate giant Starbucks is now threatened by cosy neighbourhood coffee shops. How’s a satirist to keep up? I really do try. It’s true that I don’t watch TV news; my theory is that if something important happens it will be in the morning paper or my house will explode, so either way I’ll find out. But I drank gallons of ink on the political demise of André Boisclair, wondering how many ways pundits could say: “Toast pops from toaster.” And many trees were consumed to show me the admittedly comical spectacle of Gilles Duceppe executing an elegant half-loser, bouncing off the PQ and crashing back down right where he started. But honestly, how much did it matter? And what can a satirist add to such a performance beyond applause?

Oh, well. If politics has achieved transcendent self-parody, there’s always culture. Indeed, I still like Jackie Mason’s suggestion to save money on a date by plopping two fizzy tablets into water and giving her “selzier” instead of Perrier. But now Maclean’s informs me that trend-setters are rejecting the bottled water without which, until quite recently, no celebrity would venture forth improperly dressed. It may not have dawned on them that paying 3,000 times the price of tap water for a product no more wholesome shows gullibility, not edginess. (Here I tip my hat to Tom Davey, editor of Environmental Science & Engineering magazine, who has long argued that furnishing reliably safe drinking water for less than 1/10 of a cent per litre, to a populace no longer familiar with cholera or the “bloody flux,” is an environmentalist triumph as spectacular as it is uncelebrated.) But the eco-starlets have at last noticed it’s not all that good for the environment to fly water thousands of kilometres in small plastic containers.

I confess, without wishing to join Andrew Cohen in the stocks for blurting out that Ottawa can be drab, that I’ve always found its tap water strange-tasting. But a Brita filter fixes that problem without fuss or status, cleansing the palate for further trendy-beverage-related news, also courtesy of Maclean’s, of a Manitoba bottler of fine fruit wines tweaking an old hooch recipe to make wine out of birch sap. Say what?

This way of consuming trees seemed a natural for my weekly roundup of strange stories until the magazine added that birch wine, far from being a fatuous novelty, was mentioned by the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus in 1240. Monks drank trees? Why wasn’t I told? Maclean’s further informs me that birch wine was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. Possibly explaining his famously wooden demeanour, though it was not he but George III who once addressed an oak tree at length as Frederick William III of Prussia. But as he did not try to chug it, we are off topic here. Revenons à nos arbres.

It’s not like I’m a total hick. I am aware that the Greek wine industry’s answer to ouzo, retsina, is made with grapes deliberately contaminated with some sort of residual pine gunk. The thing is, it tastes like it. (I know Boxcar Willie sings about how the water in his hometown tastes like turpentine, but this is ridiculous.) Whereas birch sap, containing fructose rather than maple sap’s sucrose, has evidently long been famous for its delicate flavour.

In fact, Maclean’s says, because Canadian aboriginals used it as a sweetener, the Manitoba vintners named their wooden wine Tansi, meaning “Hello, how are you?” in Cree. Instead of also furnishing the Cree for “I’m good, thanks, just quaffing this tree, later the wife and I are having friends over for some cedar steaks, think you can make it?” the magazine delivered the verdict of “Wedge Ritcher, a product education co-ordinator at the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission” that the wine “resembles a chardonnay blended with a sauvignon blanc with a little something that finishes it off just right.” Namely a big old tree.

I could not invent Wedge Ritcher, product education coordinator. It sounds like satirical science fiction. Nor could I invent it becoming cool to drink from a tap. I’m reduced to ridiculing birch wine. Except actually it sounds pretty good.

Regrettably sales, although comparatively brisk, have yet to approach the 1.9-billion litres of bottled water Canadians buy for more than we pay for gasoline with far less grumbling. And that I can scorn. Sixty litres each, a year, of overpriced water is enough to drive a man to drink.

Specifically, a tall, cool, trendy 2007 Eau de Robinet. Phew. I am cutting edge at last.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]