This week I’ve been reading Thrown: British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and Their Contemporaries, published this spring by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia. It’s a collection of essays, interviews, and letters by or about a group of potters who were closely (or loosely) connected to the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall. These potters – Michael Henry, Tam Irving, Charmian Johnson, Glenn Lewis, Wayne Ngan, John Reeve and Ian Steele – were part of an exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in 2004. The book (“Far more than an accompaniment to an exhibition,” the editors write in the Acknowledgements) is a wonderful pairing of texts and images. For those of us who lived in B.C. in the 1970s, the potters and their work will be familiar. I look around my house and see pots that several of them made. This tea bowl by Wayne Ngan for example. I received it as a gift in 1976. I’ve never used it for tea but keep it on a shelf where I see it every day. The colour never ceases to amaze me.
I’m reading Thrown after the fact. After the fact of the exhibition, which I never even knew about, but also after the fact of writing a novella last summer and fall in which one of the characters is a potter living near Sooke in 1974. He even spent two years working at the Leach Pottery. I read Leach’s books to try to understand the impulse to make things with clay and I was intrigued by one of his colleagues, Katherine Pleydell-Bouvier, who used the ash from rushes and sedges for her pots. When my character returns to British Columbia, he works to develop glazes made from native plants, experimenting with scouring rush and nettles.
In this novella, Winter Wren, I wanted to revisit and re-occupy a time and a place still intensely important to me. I was 19 years old in 1974. I was a university student and I was finding my voice as a writer. I was often lonely and I felt like no one would ever love me. I spent a lot of time on Sandcut Beach, west of Sooke, almost at Jordan River, and in some ways I’m still there. I learned to keep my own company on that length of the coast, bedding down for a day or two at a time above the high tide line and making endless pages of notes in the journal that never left my side. I swam in the breakers and showered under the sandstone cliff where Sandcut Creek tumbles over the edge to meet the sea. The sandstone contains shell fossils from the Oligocene period and I loved running my hand over them for the sense of mystery they contained.
After John and I met in February of 1979, we took a tent and camped on the beach in March. The stars were extraordinary, and the sound of the surf just a couple of yards away was as familiar as breathing. We’ve returned many times and I have a chunk of sandstone on my desk, dense with fossils, to remind me. As if I ever need reminding — of both the early days of our relationship or Sandcut Beach…
The essays and interviews in Thrown are illuminating, shedding light on artistic practice and process, on materials, on friendships and relationships. I love Mick Henry’s letters to Glenn Lewis in which he describes the quotidian details of his life at St. Ives and then later at Roberts Creek – walking, baking bread, making pots. I wish I’d seen that exhibition but in some ways it’s all here, in this book: tables laid with jugs and platters, tea pots and wine cups ready.
Last night as I was getting ready for bed, I heard the most beautiful song through the open windows. Not the loons down on Sakinaw Lake, not the barred owls, not the robins whose long ringing notes attend dusk and dawn, but something else. Luckily I had a cd of birdsong handy and quickly learned that I was hearing a western tanager. They’ve been nesting nearby this summer and we’ve seen them quite frequently, brilliant flashes of yellow and red in the pergola above the sundeck where we eat dinner. But I don’t think I’ve heard their song so clearly, on its own.
Last week, we were awoken around 4:30 to a chorus of coyotes right outside. There were at least four voices, maybe more, and they sang for several minutes, went quiet, then began again. Such mystery in it, an aubade in a language I’ll never understand.
And this morning, as I write, two pileated woodpeckers are feasting on ants behind the house. Watching them, we were reminded that a pair came last summer too, to exactly the same spot: a bench of rough cedar under a fir tree.
In my forthcoming book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, there’s an essay about my father and his father. I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather and in this piece, I try to puzzle through the mysteries of family connection, try to find traces of my grandfather through the small clues in my father’s stories, the tiny hoard of memories. At one point, I was thinking about two photographs in the basement of my parents’ home in Victoria. This is what I wrote about one of those photographs:
“In the second photograph, my father stands in his white shirt, short pants, dark stockings, and boots on a rattan chair. Someone has told him to stand still, because there is nothing natural about his pose. But — and here’s the bizarre thing — hovering in the air, as though balanced on the arm of the chair, is the swaddled form of his sister Julia, who died three years before he was born. This is the late 1920s, before Photoshop — before any of the techniques we are now so accustomed to using. I know that photographers could manipulate images even in the nineteenth century (I think of Hannah Maynard in Victoria with her trick portraits and artistic interpretations). But this is clearly the work of someone who didn’t have much skill at all. The half of the photograph in which baby Julia has been inserted is blurry.
That only this one photograph survives suggests that although money was probably in short supply, my grandparents wanted a record of the two children they had conceived together. Perhaps they were more sentimental than I’ve been led to believe, because what other reason would result in an image of a baby being inserted into the photograph of her brother-to-be, at least five years after her death? Julia was nearly three when she died, and yet the photograph is of an infant, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a hat against the cold.
Photographs are intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying. I’ve tried to read these ones for hidden narratives of love and family connection and perhaps I’ve interpreted them completely incorrectly. Still, sometimes photographs with their cryptic stories and forgotten conclusions are all we have.”
I wrote the essay as my father was dying and since then my mother has died as well. I brought home that photograph (a grainy image clumsily cut to fit in a wooden frame) and many boxes of family papers which I’ve been slow to sort. Every time I open a box, the smell of the past – dust, old cigarette smoke, the sadness of missed or lost connections – overpowers me and I close it again, thinking that the time will come when I’m more resilient or at least able to look at the materials without crying.
The day before yesterday, I opened one of the boxes, determined to put together some photographs for a family project. The problem is, nothing is sorted or organized, so in some ways, I’ve no idea where to look. There are some albums, yes, but then there are also envelopes with bank statements, stray photographs caught between them, or my high school report cards shoved into folders with baby pictures, drawings, my grandmother’s naturalization papers from 1937, etc. Where to begin?
I began with the Moirs Happiness Package, a chocolate box with a bluebird on it, and the slogan, “There’s happiness in every box.” Inside, a small collection of photographs, all of them bent and foxed, and all of them as astonishing to me as anything I’ve ever seen. My father was the only surviving child of his mother’s second marriage. The first child of that union was Julia. She died of diphtheria, I believe, and is buried in Drumheller, Alberta, where the family lived. There are two photographs of Julia’s funeral. One shows a group of solemn people in front on a bleak house, the men and women dressed in dark suits, the girls (some of them must be the daughters of my grandmother’s first marriage) in white dresses and veils. A small white casket is set on a wooden bench. The second photograph is taken inside. The casket is on a table covered with a starched white cloth and is flanked by two girls in white. A child’s face can be seen surrounded by flowers: Julia.
There are two other photographs, too, which I realized were the ones which had been brought together to create the large image of my father and his sister. What’s amazing is that there are notes on the back of them, obviously the work of the person charged with “regrouping”. Notes about tint and placement. “Boy and baby only. Fair. Grey blue.”
There’s so much I don’t know. I want to find out more about my grandmother, a woman who was born in Horni Lomna, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1881 and who left, with her first husband, Joseph Yopek, in 1913. He died of flu in 1918 and she was left with 8 children. She married my grandfather a year or two later (I should know when and will try to find out), giving birth to Julia, and to my father, in 1926.
Our recent house-guests from the Czech Republic, Petr and Lenka, showed me pictures of Horni Lomna. It’s a small village in Moravia, nestled in the Beskydy Mountains. When John and I return to the Czech Republic next February, I intend to go to my grandmother’s birthplace and see if anything remains – a name in a cemetery, in a parish record, perhaps.
We’re leaving Dawson City this morning. We’ll drive back to Whitehorse for two nights and then fly home on Tuesday. It’s early — just after 6 a.m. — and the sky is grey. I was awake many times in the night and it was never really dark. Was it coyotes we heard just before sleep, or dogs?
Yesterday we were out of our B&B before 9, trying to do as many things, see as many things as we could on our last day in this intoxicating place. We went to the cemeteries — there are several: a small Jewish one (the trail to it lined with Boletus edulis!); one specifically for members of the Northwest Mounted Police and the RCMP; a Catholic cemetery; a Protestant one; a Yukon Order of Pioneers burial area. We went for a hike on the 9th Avenue trail through wildflowers surprising in their plentitude: Marsh Grass-of-Parnassus, Mountain Death Camas, Tall Lungwort, exquisite Campanula aurita or Yukon bellflower (I knew this was a campanula but oh, which one? Thanks to helpful Cynthnia in the Visitors Centre, we figured it out.)We crossed the Yukon River by tiny ferry to west Dawson and drove up the Top of the World Highway to look down on the valley, so verdant and calm. And we drove out to Dredge Number Four, a National Historic Site, to see the legacy of placer mining in all its industrial glory. On our way to the dredge, we saw this fox on Bonanza Creek Road, trotting along with a dead squirrel in its mouth.
All along Bonanza Creek Road, there were tall poles with birdhouses on top, stuck into tailing piles. It was lovely to see the swallows swoop in and out of the houses as they feasted on mosquitoes in the sunny morning.
Dawson City is an important piece of our history. Its buildings, cemeteries, the living theatre which visitors are invited to particpate in with Parks Canada interpreters, its fabulous museum and archives, the ongoing archaeological work, the ebullience of its citizens: these go some distance to allow us to imagine not just the heady days of 1897-99 when the gold rush was on but also the years after as the city reinvented itself, survived hard times and celebrated good ones. We’ve met many young people over the past few days who say they never want to leave. And you can understand why. There’s magic in this air, in the endless light. Even the ravens talk about it.
Happy Canada Day! We watched a little parade here in Dawson City this morning — two RCMP officers in red serge followed by many children on decorated bikes, several fire engines, and a wagon pulled by a pony. There are festivities all day in Dawson, ranging from a bannock-making contest to a gold-panning championship.
The route here on the Klondike Highway was spectacular. We saw bears,
We had a delicious dinner last night at La Table. John ordered an arugula salad with prosciutto, gorgonzola and figs, followed by duck breast in a port and demi-glace reduction and dauphinoise potatoes. I had risotto with wild local morels. This was our dessert: