Because I’m hard at work this month revising the essays in my forthcoming book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I’ve been thinking about clarity – of language and intention mostly but also of light. What is it about late February? Only a matter of weeks ago, we were drowning in rain. Next month, it will probably be the same. But right now, there is such cold clarity in the sky! Yesterday John and I were driving home from Sechelt around 6 p.m. The Sunshine Coast highway follows the coastline for part of our journey. We saw the sun set beyond Texada Island, a few clouds orange and gold from the sun’s remnant light, saw the dark trees on the headlands silhouetted against the deep blue twilit sky, and then we saw the first stars appear above Mount Hallowell, more fiercely silver than at any other time of the year. In a way, I’m not surprised. Last week the moon was full and the stars, as Sappho once noted, “hide back their luminous form/when all full she shines/on the earth/ silvery.” We made the fire, did a few chores, and much later, after I’d been asleep for some hours, I woke to see that the stars had multiplied beyond counting. Almost on cue, the coyotes began their chorus somewhere to the east of our house, each note so clear that if I knew how to notate, I’d have done just that.
February 14, 2011
My last post mentioned barred owls. These are the predominant owls in our woods, at least as far as calling is concerned. Every February and then again in August, we are treated to the sound of them calling through the night and even sometimes during the day. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? It’s a lovely and familiar song, one that isn’t difficult to imitate; on August evenings, on the deck, we’ve called them right to the edges of the cleared area in the middle of the woods where our house is. We don’t often see them, though.
Imagine my surprise a few mornings ago when I went out to fill the bird feeder and realized that a barred owl was climbing out of the ferns where I’d just thrown a handful of sunflower seeds for the squirrels (part of my strategy to keep them from running out along the clothes line to the feeder). It stood briefly among the ferns, staring at me, and then it flew up to the lowest limbs of a big fir by our patio. It spent the day in the tree, coming down to the ferns once or twice (that we saw), hoping to catch one of the squirrels. But they’d retreated to the woodshed. The chickadees and nuthatches weren’t at all worried about the owl, feeding happily without the fierce scolding of squirrels to interrupt them.
Coming into the kitchen the other day to join John by the fire for our customary pre-dinner glass of wine, I saw the beginnings of the sunset in the western sky. A stave, to hold the beautiful music of early February – barred owls, aria of the winter wrens, crack of ice on a frozen puddle.
February 8, 2011.
My mother died in November, a year to the day (plus a few hours) after my father’s death in 2009. We were very different people and I wouldn’t say we had a close relationship but I know she loved me and I loved her. Today would have been her 85th birthday.
My mother was born to an unwed mother on Cape Breton Island in 1926. She was taken into foster care and lived with her foster mother and sister until she left home as a young woman. She married my father in 1950 and produced four children in five years. When we asked her about her own childhood, it always sounded very bleak to me. But she was loyal to her foster mother and sister and wrote to them regularly, sending photographs of her children, providing cheerful news of their progress in the world. When my brothers and I cleared out her Victoria apartment in January, we found many of these letters and photographs, returned to my mother after her foster sister’s death. It’s strange to read the little notes my mother wrote on the backs of photographs. She didn’t praise very often so it was surprising to me to see that she’d noted on a school picture of me in 1967 that I needed a haircut, that the photograph wasn’t a good one because it didn’t show that “she is lovely”.
Photographs provide an alternate history. They articulate moments that require context. So often that context is provided by personal contact, a person leaning over our shoulder as we leaf through an album to tell us what the photograph doesn’t show. I haven’t yet sorted out the materials I brought back from Victoria in January — there are three boxes of photographs and assorted papers – but I know I will miss having my mother available to ask, “Who are they?” (a formal group of girls in old-fashioned dresses, one of whom resembles me) or “What do you remember about this dog?” (a small girl with a dog in a leafy yard. Someone has written on the back, “Shirley and Jimmie”). My younger brother called to say that a photograph fell out of a book he’d brought home from Victoria and to his surprise it showed a women’s hockey team, our mother one of the players. That explains the old black skates she gave me when we lived in Halifax in 1964 and I wanted to join the other kids skating on the pond near our subdivision. (I wasn’t grateful. I wanted figure skates.) But it doesn’t tell us what position she played, if she was ever injured, or if her team ever won.
This is one of the photographs I found in January. I’d never seen it before. She’d sent it to her foster mother in Halifax from the military housing complex where we lived near Victoria. On the back, she wrote, “A real nice family.” In those years, my father was in the navy and was often away for months at a time. She must’ve been lonely, tired, and maybe overwhelmed by the demands of those four children. She didn’t drive. There wasn’t much money. Yet look at her smile! (And look at those long brown legs!) Happy Birthday, Mum.
February 4, 2011.
I recently completed the second draft of a novella, Winter Wren, set west of Sooke, on Vancouver Island, in 1974. It was a pleasure to write because I was able to return to a place I loved as a young woman – the hidden stones of Sandcut Beach – and to imagine a life there. One of the characters is a potter and he talks briefly about an apprenticeship he served twenty years earlier with Bernard Leach in St. Ives, Cornwall.
I love Leach’s work. Friends in Cornwall have some of his pots in their home as well as pieces by later generations of Leach potters – son, grandson, etc. I’ve visited the Leach pottery in St. Ives where the work of the family and many students is exhibited. As part of the research for my novella, I read Bernard Leach’s own books on pottery as well as some critical works on him. I particularly liked a reassessment of BL’s influence as a studio potter by the contemporary British ceramicist Edmund De Waal which I read last spring. And in that mysterious way that we are led to books (or vice versa), I was given a copy of De Waal’s memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, for my birthday in early January. I wrote a review of it for our local monthly magazine, The Harbour Spiel. I’m going to include the review here as a way to indicate what I’ve been reading and thinking in the darkest days of winter, the time of year in which Winter Wren is set.
Here’s the review:
January is a month for reading, unless you’re lucky enough to escape the days of damp and darkness to tropical islands or southern beaches. Tucked into a big chair drawn up to the woodstove, a stack of books on the little table, one hardly notices the rain falling relentlessly.
I spent a happy few days reading The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) by the British ceramicist Edmund De Waal. He’s previously written about the early studio potter Bernard Leach as well as other books on ceramics. His own studio work is beautifully elegant and understated, form balanced with function; and these qualities are also evident in this book.
In 1870, one of De Waal’s ancestors, Charles Ephrussi, a member of the Paris branch of a great European banking dynasty, purchased a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke. These were exquisite small objects of ivory and wood, created as toggles or buttons to fasten pockets to the sashes of traditional kimonos. Charles’ collection included medlar fruit carved of chestnut, many tiny rats (“Perhaps because they give the maker the chance to wrap those sinuous tails round each other…”), dragons, a cooper finishing a barrel with an adze, tumbling acrobats, wolves, a beggar, pails of water, and of course a hare with amber eyes. None of them is larger than a matchbox.
De Waal inherited the collection after the death of his great-uncle, Ignace Ephrussi, who had been the fourth member of the family to own the netsuke. “There is no easy story in legacy,” he writes. “What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories. What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?”
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the account of his search for those stories, a search that takes him to Paris, Vienna, the Czech Republic, Odessa and Japan. In the process, he finds the grand palace that his family owned on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. This palace was the site of the story’s saddest chapter: the family fortune was lost and its property confiscated when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. The Ephrussis were Jews, victims of systemic anti-semitism of the regime.
How the netsuke collection survived the plundering and occupation of the family home is a powerful tale. Anna, a loyal family maid, kept on by the Gestapo to clear the art and valuable belongings to the Ephrussi family, took the little objects, several at a time, in her apron pocket and hid them under her mattress.
At the end of the war, De Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth who’d left Vienna after receiving a doctorate in law in 1924, married a Dutchman, and eventually settled in Tunbridge Wells in England, returned to determine what was left of her childhood home. No family members lived in Vienna. Some had escaped to America. Several had been deported, perishing in labour camps, and Elisabeth’s mother Emmy took too many heart pills at the country home in Czechoslovakia, preferring to die rather than to suffer further indignities.
Elisabeth entered the former Palais Ephrussi, now the American Headquarters/Legal Council Property Control Sub-Section. The once-grand courtyard was filled with motorcycles and jeeps, the elegant statuary in pieces after the bombing of nearby buildings, but to her surprise Anna still lived in a room in the building and the two women met again. “Now you are back,” Anna said, “I have something to return to you.”
The Hare with Amber Eyes is filled with fascinating detail. At times it reads like a thriller, De Waal’s detective work leading him from clues in family letters to archives in Vienna, Paris and Odessa which help him to fill out the shape of the story he’d known in its briefest of forms. Always he is mindful that such stories are ultimately about hiddenness. A family’s history, its legacies of art and aesthetic values, is often passed from generation to generation in ways we learn to understand over time and not always as our ancestors might have intended. Charles Ephrussi continues to intrigue devotees of cultural history: he was a model of sorts for Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; and he appears in a painting by Renoir. Photographs of Emmy and her children haunt her great-grandson, juxtaposed against images of German tanks that overran their beloved city. And perhaps most interesting is how Edmund De Waal’s own father, a retired Anglican clergyman, keeps finding packets of letters and forgotten pamphlets in his small flat.
“I ask, somewhat desperately, if there is any more material… He telephones me to say he has found another volume of Thomas Mann. This journey is going to be more complicated than I thought… I put a netsuke in my pocket and set out.”