Christmas Compost


It’s almost upon us, the Day itself, with presents and turkey and another round of A Christmas Carol (black and white, with Alastair Sim). I love everything about Christmas. Well, almost everything. A few weeks ago, we were in North Vancouver and spent a few hours at a mall, wandering around, thinking that we ought to be buying presents. But that’s not really the kind of Christmas we do, so I (at least) left empty-handed. And kind of sad-hearted. For that time we were there, I felt that maybe I should be thinking Larger – gadgets, fancy cookware, gift certificates for elaborate clothing or electronic equipment.

This morning, the old feeling has come back to me as I make some special treats. Butter crunch with hazelnuts and two kinds of chocolate. Angie wanted milk and Brendan, dark. I have big blocks of Vivani this year, a lovely organic chocolate from Germany. And I’m in the process of making candied orange peel, some of which will be dipped in dark chocolate. “What are you doing?” asked Brendan as I cut the peels from three big oranges. When I told him, he laughed and said, “Candy from compost?” Some of these old recipes do hark back to thriftier times, I guess. Cakes and breads dense with fruit carefully dried in autumn or else bought and hoarded for the mid-winter when their flavour is so welcome. Sweet morsels of toffee, shortbreads, gingerbread boys dark with molasses, their silver dragèe eyes and bright Smartie buttons the same every year. When I was a child, mandarin oranges came in wooden boxes and we had one of these to last the holiday. I loved the way the segments came apart so easily and how delicious they tasted, rationed out until the box was finished. And the apples in the toe of our stockings were always McIntoshes, crisp and spicy.

This will be the 29th Christmas we’ve spent in this house. We moved in on the eve of John’s 35th birthday in 1982, a month before Brendan’s birth. Our house wasn’t finished but we had my parents and younger brother Gord with us (he’d helped us move in) and it was a wonderful housewarming – woodstove crackling on Christmas morning and the stockings laid out on the brick hearth.

29 years of watching the salmon in the nearby creek, draping the windows with ivy, cutting a tree and decorating it with a steadily growing collection of ornaments, ranging from homemade (school art projects) to vintage(Japanese paper lanterns from John’s grandmother in England) to elegant (glass stars made by our friend June), of waking on Christmas morning to the stillness of our woods, and sharing dinner with family members, some of whom have passed away, or friends new and old.

This year Forrest and his bride-to-be Manon aren’t here. They’re coming a bit later, in January, but their box arrived yesterday, brightly wrapped presents and three jars of preserves from their garden in Ontario. And Brendan’s girlfriend Cristen will come after Christmas for a few days. Angie’s here until New Year. Hopefully some of them will help me celebrate my birthday which happens to fall on Epiphany. A season of comings and goings and celebrations one after another. The case of Autumn Gold wine from Wild Goose arrived the other day (free shipping during December!) and has been tucked away in the back of the house. John’s about to thread lights through the wisteria outdoors and we’ve just hung the Santa that Brendan painted in kindergarten. Isn’t he insouciant?

So a kind of compost after all…

Shoes of the god

Last night we had dinner with our friends Joe and Solveigh at their home on Oyster Bay. They gave us a gift bag for Christmas and our combined birthdays and Solveigh urged me to open one of the packages right then. Because of your book, she said. So I did. At first I wasn’t sure what the two objects were. One of them looked like the beak of a large bird. But no.

They’re elk hooves, a subtle reference to the section in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees where I write about my attraction to the god Pan.” I thought of the places I ventured alone — the highlands above Durrance Lake, the wild beaches past Sooke towards Jordan River — and how I thrived on that feeling which was not quite fear, not quite awe. Was this the god passing through the trees, just beyond sight?” These little hooves come from the skeleton of an elk in the woods near Oyster Bay. We too find elk skeletons from time to time. I have a skull on the shelf above my desk, sculpturally as beautiful as anything man-made, and a pelvis we found on the Malaspina trail hangs on our deck. But these hooves, these toes – they look like a means of transformation, their emptiness waiting.

A dream of horses

December 12, 2011

Last night I dreamed of horses, one of those dreams in which every detail is lively and you wake with a kind of sadness, wanting to be there again. It was summer and the horses were sweaty, a smell I’ve always loved. I felt one nudge my back and I reached around to touch its velvety face. When I woke, I remembered the horse I rode at the Quilchena Ranch, Twister, and how when I thanked him for a great ride, he pushed his face against my chest.

And when I woke, I also realized that the dream must have been a result of watching Werner Herzog’s wonderful Cave of Forgotten Dreams on dvd (no 3D glasses) last evening. I found the images of horses particularly beautiful. They have a freshness and immediacy that belies their age: 30,000 + years old.

Morning Moon

What is it about photographs? It’s never been easier to take a picture of something and yet it’s never quite right. Or at least to me. When I was a young woman travelling in Europe, and later, living on an island off the west coast of Ireland, I took almost no photographs. How will you remember, people asked. And yet those experiences are as vivid to me now as things that happened yesterday. The olive groves on Crete, the harbour at Sant’Angelo on Ischia, the Slyne Head light flashing, the hedges of fuschia and flowering haw as I walked the Sky Road.

This morning, though — we woke to the moon in the western sky, caught in a tangle of tall fir boughs, with a skiff of cloud floating by. John, usually eager to photograph everything, insisted it wouldn’t work and went downstairs to make coffee. I went out on the deck and tried. Alas. He was right. But here’s my effort anyway.