Signs of fall

October 29, 2011

By mistake, I typed “sings of fall” and quickly corrected it. But I wonder. The air does sing of fall in some ways. A few weeks ago, I woke in the night and heard geese – the far-away song of the great migration. When we’re outside this time of year, we see those very high skeins heading south but usually we hear them first, searching the sky for the faint and far scribble of their passing. To hear them in the night was magic.

If you listen, you can hear leaves falling. Or at least you hear them as they touch the earth, the small rustle. Because the ratio of light to darkness is the same as spring, we also hear tree frogs these days. The splash of chum salmon in Anderson Creek as they idle, defend their position, then prepare for their next push at current and riffle.

Coyotes – again, in the night. And quite near. The autumnal notes of Bach’s cello suites, played by Pablo Casals. The crack, as John brings the maul down on a thick chunk of alder or maple.

There’s a squirrel climbing the wisteria vine over and over again – I’m watching him this very minute – to knock the long elegant red hips off a climbing rose and climb back down to take them into the bush. I realize that the tiny thump that I’ve been hearing is the hip as it falls to the deck.


Back from a walk with fall bounty gathered not in a basket but in John’s tuque. We’ve been picking chanterelles since early September and I thought they were probably finished for the year. But then I saw the tell-tale yolk-yellow gleam in the moss…

A morning’s work

Some years ago my parents visited us around this time of the season. They often came for my Dad’s birthday – October 24 – and I always tried to think of things they might enjoy while they were here. My father always raved about borscht and as a friend from Nelson had recently given me a recipe for one she said was wonderful, I thought it would be a good thing for my mum and I to do together. It involved lots of chopping and various kinds of cooking – vegetables simmered, sautéed, boiled, mashed. It wasn’t a red borscht and that was a problem. My parents were sceptical that a borscht could be anything other than the one they knew: beets, cabbage, vinegar, thin slices of beef, dill, a dollop of sour cream on top. And I like this kind of soup too. Barbara Kafka’s “Red Russian Soup” in her Soup: A Way of Life is a splendid example.

My mother and I made the soup. As I recall, it was pleasant to work with her in my kitchen, chopping, talking, washing the many skillets that this recipe requires (various combinations of vegetables are cooked in butter before being added to the pot). The soup was delicious. But my son heard my parents out on our sundeck (they smoked in those years) saying over and over that while it was a good vegetable soup but it wasn’t borscht. It was referred to several times after they’d returned home. “Did you ever get through that soup?” my mother asked. The implication of course was that it wasn’t a success. Yet I remember how good it was and what a perfect fall meal it made, with brown bread and cheese.

In Grand Forks last week, we had Doukhobor borscht and I realized it was almost exactly the soup I’d made all those years ago. John and I both loved it. The morning after we had the borscht at the Grand Forks Hotel, we went to a little cafe for espresso and we saw several women behind a screen grating and chopping, a pile of cabbages and a bowl of onions waiting on the table beside them. I did a little searching on the Internet and found a recipe at the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ site. It sounded very much like the recipe I’d made – I no longer have the original – so I printed it out and spent this morning making a huge pot of it. We’re having it for dinner, with the sourdough rye bread I made yesterday, but I did manage to taste it and I have to say that it’s absolutely delicious. Here’s a photograph:


And here’s a link to the site where I found the recipe: I thought while chopping and simmering and cleaning up afterwards that there is something to be said for communal kitchens with many women cooking together. The work that took me an entire morning would be so much nicer shared with others. I imagine us telling stories, laughing, maybe even singing, then sharing bowls of soup afterwards, fresh dill snipped on top and a slice of bread to soak up the juices.

Toil and Peaceful Life

Yesterday we drove from Trail to Grand Forks, stopping in Castlegar so John could read at Selkirk College in their beautiful library overlooking the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers.

We’ve been to Grand Forks before, in the fall of 2009, when I went in search of my grandfather whose name had shown up on 1911 census material from Phoenix, B.C., a search detailed in my new book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. On that trip, we walked around Grand Forks and bought a few books. On the drive back to Osoyoos where we were staying, I’d been very moved by the old Doukhobor village sites. Though very derelict, they spoke of their origins, the tall houses of brick and wood, the u-shaped annex buildings forming a courtyard, and barns and bathhouses behind. Remnants of productive orchards and gardens told of self-sufficiency, that toil and peaceful life.

After settling into our motel here in Grand Forks, we drove up the Hardy Mountain road to look at the village there.

This had been run for many years as the Mountain View Doukhobor Museum and was acquired by the Land Conservancy in 2004. We’d hoped to tour the site but it’s currently under restoration, though that process seems to be stalled. I think the Land Conservancy is a stellar organization and I applaud the work they do in preserving historical and environmental values and I hope that somehow the funding can be found to maintain this beautiful place. I see that one of the partners is Heritage B.C. If the spirit moves you, write to them in support of this extraordinary site. When we lose our history, we don’t get it back.

We stopped at the Boundary Museum in the old Fructova School. The building was constructed by the Doukhobors in 1929, using brick from the local brick factory. On a windowsill, a mold of worn wood held a couple of bricks, gritty with age, one of those moments when you realize what a process is involved in building a community, a culture. Displays provide windows into Doukhobor history in this beautiful valley as well as CPR and mining history and information about the city of Phoenix (where my grandfather lived and worked as a miner in 1911). There’s a schoolroom and a general store recreated in the Museum and many photographs to take the visitor back in time, including one of a large group of kids gathered outside this very building. I almost heard their voices as we walked back to the car.

We ate our dinner at the Grand Forks Hotel. Russian food seemed appropriate and we weren’t disappointed. There were a variety of combination plates available and we eagerly chose one each. The waitress gently advised us to share a platter, saying, It’s a lot of food. So we had a bowl of borscht, the Doukhobor kind, creamy and dense with vegetables, and then we shared voreniki (like a large perogy, stuffed with potato, cheese, and onion), a huge cabbage roll called a galooptsi (which echoed the holopcha my grandmother made), pyrahi, or baked pastry stuffed with beets, and a nalesniki, or crepe filled with cottage cheese and topped with sour cream and strawberry preserve. Every mouthful was delicious.

Plains bison

There are things you never think you’ll see in your life. John and I are visiting Brendan and Cristen in Edmonton for the Thanksgiving weekend and yesterday we drove out to Elk Island National Park where they’d hiked the previous weekend. It’s a very beautiful park, with marshes and lakes and skeins of trumpeter swans flying overhead. We walked the Lakeview Trail and had a picnic among poplars and sweet-smelling spruce. And we saw so many plains bison, about as impressive an animal as any on earth.

The Park brochure says this about them: “Bison begin to breed (rut) mid-July; listen for the deep low roar of bull bison as they entice females.” We were too late for this song, I guess, but one look at the face of this guy, his mild curious eyes and his jaunty horns, and maybe particularly his soul patch, and I was smitten.

My new book is winging its way across the country as I write and I’m really excited. In the meantime, here’s the cover!


Isn’t it beautiful? Julie Scriver at Goose Lane Editions has such a wonderful eye…