Every year I collect frog eggs to bring home to watch the process of transformation happen in a big Chinese pot on my patio and every year I’m surprised again by how mysterious and beautiful the clumps of jelly are, dotted with dark commas, hanging from a reed in the vernal pond near us. That pond dries up by mid-July and in the last few days of its water, the garter snakes glide out over the mud to the remaining pools and eat the tadpoles, many of which have their legs but haven’t yet metamorphosed to frogs. Or salamanders – because the long-toed salamanders lay their eggs in the pond too. Often a pair of mallards courts among the reeds, flying up in surprise when we pass them on our walk. And two summers ago, we saw a pair of coyotes drinking there, no doubt the parents of the juvenile who visited our garden every morning for a week, holding down salal bushes with a forepaw while it ate berries with a delicacy I didn’t expect.

I think these are red-legged frogs in waiting and soon there will be tree frog eggs as well to scoop up and bring home to the old bathtub by the garden. And our own tree frogs, the ones in the vines by our bedroom window, will creep down to lay their eggs in a tiny pool under the arbutus tree. Here are today’s eggs in a blue bowl, as rich a sign of spring’s abiding fertility as any.

Roses are (sometimes) red, violets are … yellow

On our walk today, I wondered if we’d see the yellow violets, Viola sempervirens. They bloom as early as late February but this winter has been long and chilly so I didn’t see them last week but we had three warm days in a row so I hoped they’d be in bloom. And they were! The flowers look like kabuki masks, markings applied with a fine eyeliner brush.

We heard red-winged blackbirds whistling in the woods, many Steller’s jays, robins. And the day before yesterday, on the pond near Sakinaw Lake, there were huge clumps of frog spawn among the rushes fringing the edges of the pond. We came back to huddle by the fire but at least we know that other species are busy doing what they need to do this time of year.

Women and trees

Women and Trees

I’m just home from the Women’s Arboriculture Conference in Parksville. I’d been invited to read from, and talk about, my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. It was an honour to hang around such an interesting group of women and to hear presentations on everything from the greening of our urban spaces (Kathleen Wolf) to the ethnobotany of our red and yellow cedars (Nancy Turner). I loved Tracy Ferreira’s presentation about her work with integrated pest management at the Butchart Gardens. In the 1970s, while a university student, I worked for four summers at the Gardens, mostly in the seed store, and I also worked weekends in winters, packaging seed. I have vivid memories of those summers — arriving early and walking the gardens while the dew was still on the grass or leaving late (the store stayed open until the last visitor left) as the deer were making their tentative way through the woods beyond the parking lot, looking up startled as my car headlights illuminated them.

In my writing life, I am often invited to give readings. I enjoy doing this. And over the years, I’ve noticed interesting things happening. Some readings are in a strictly literary context, at universities or bookstores. Generally the questions at the end of the reading focus on style or structure or influences. Sometimes the readings take place in the company of practitioners of other disciplines – musicians, visual artists, etc. And there’s a kind of cross-pollination that takes place. We realize that we might work in different media but that there are shared concerns, sources of inspiration, challenges or restraints or difficulties. At events like the Women’s Arboriculture Conference, the shared interests are not literary or even artistic but (in this case) arboreal. I loved that. My passion for trees comes from personal and cultural experience. I’m not a botanist or an arborist, though I know a little about these things. So it was fascinating for me to read to a group of people who had such different backgrounds – they were arborists, foresters, horticulturalists, landscape architects, garden designers, land planners, master gardeners, ethnobotanists, ecologists – but who were willing to listen to my explorations of trees and memory. And to continue the analogy of cross-pollination, I wonder what kind of interesting hybrid (site-specific?) might be the result of such a great conference?

At the end of my reading, I put out a tin of shortbread cookies flavoured with rosemary. I cut out the dough with my tree cutter – trees + rosemary for remembrance*… A number of women asked for the recipe so I told them I’d post it here. If you’re reading, thank you all for being such a warm and welcoming audience!

There’s a little story behind this recipe. I first had a version of these shortbread cookies at the home of friends in Vancouver. Their friend Alistair baked them as a Christmas offering and when I asked, he kindly gave me the recipe. The recipe in turn came from his mother who was from the Outer Hebrides. He asked me to use his mother’s name with the recipe and of course I was delighted to do that – recipes are carriers of history, after all, and every time I bake shortbread, I think of Alistair and his mother. But the rosemary is my own addition (I sometimes add chipotle chile to the original recipe, too, rather than rosemary, and I’ve also used other herbs: lemon thyme is particularly  nice).

A Variation on Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread

1 pound soft butter (the recipe doesn’t stipulate unsalted but I prefer it), left out to soften overnight

1 cup icing sugar

1 cup cornstarch

3 ½ cups flour (I use unbleached white)

¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves, chopped coarsely

Whip butter until creamy. Beat in icing sugar. (It’s easy to blow out a hand mixer doing this. I’ve ruined two over the years and finally treated myself to a Kitchenaid mixer…I wish I’d bought one 25 years ago.) Mix cornstarch and flour in a big bowl and then gradually add to butter mixture. Roll out on a floured board and cut into shapes. Bake in a 300 oven for about 25 – 30 minutes or until just lightly golden. Do not let them brown. (I have a confection oven and it takes a little less time: 22-23 minutes) This recipe makes a lot of cookies but the dough also freezes. Just thaw it and bring it to room temperature. Of course you can also cut the recipe in half.

*–In the words of poor Ophelia in Hamlet:  “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,love, remember…” And Thomas More observed, “As for Rosemarine, I lett it runne all over the garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.


My son Forrest in Ottawa reported last evening that the temperature in the frigid east was 25 degrees Celsius. He and Manon hiked in Gatineau on Sunday in t-shirts and shorts and returned home with sunburns. On the other hand, we woke to soft flakes of snow yesterday morning. When I went out to fill the birdfeeder, I surprised a varied thrush huddled in the woodshed. These are the birds that we listen for this time of year, their long slow whistle in the woods, varying in pitch, a sign that the season has turned. I don’t blame it for wanting shelter. It didn’t even fly away as I passed.

Oh, we do have crocus in bloom, low valiant clumps of purple and cream, and a few of the dwarf daffodils showing yellow.  And someone on the radio the other day mentioned violets in bloom on the lower Mainland. Not here yet.  But Venus and Jupiter were both visible the other night in the western sky which cleared enough by bedtime for wishing on stars. And this is what we saw on our walk yesterday, one of the best signs that spring has not forgotten us entirely, but is simply taking its own sweet time.

Mendel’s Peas

I know it’s late in the season to start peas but this is the first chance I’ve had since we arrived home on Tuesday. I bought packages of pea seeds at the Mendel Museum in Brno and have them soaking now, with flats of soil waiting for them once they’re ready to plant. I grow some peas every year and have never really thought much about their iconic place in the study of inherited traits. And now that I’m trying to write about my grandmother, trying to figure out who she was, what I might have inherited from her, it seems right to grow peas from … well, not from Mendel’s gardens which don’t seem to exist any longer (though I gather there’s a plan to rebuilt his glass houses), but from Masaryk University in Brno at least! These peas are all wrinkled.  Will their flowers be white or violet, will their pods be plump or constricted? Stay tuned.

The smell of cedar kindling

Was it only the day before yesterday that we walked down Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury where flowering currant provided a brilliant backdrop to daffodils and grape hyacinth? Where young girls wore impossibly short skirts and tank tops and flip-flops? Where blackbirds chased one another through the trees of Cartwright Gardens?

We arrived home yesterday afternoon to the aftermath of a storm. Branches everywhere, power lines in the process of being repaired by crews between us and Garden Bay Road, phone lines down, the snow very low on Mount Hallowell’s shoulders . . . Our house was welcoming, though cold. We made a fire in the woodstove, the smell of cedar kindling as sweet as any flower in London, and began to take up our lives again after a wonderful time in the Czech Republic.

So much to think about, so much to do. I began an essay in the small hours of the night, “Mendel’s Peas”; I think this will be part of Blue Portugal, the book I am trying to write about my family’s history.

John just brought me a cup of coffee to drink at my desk. It’s the coffee we always have here at home, bought in five pound bags: Cowboy Coffee’s Black Mountain Blend, a dark roast, freshly-ground each morning. I had good coffee in Europe – tiny cups of  espresso in Prague, Brno, London – often with a pastry (which I reasoned I would walk off during the day!). But more than anything, this coffee, in a creamy faience cup decorated with blue fish (made by Coast potter Darcy Margesson), tells me I’m home. And the fire warming the kitchen, the sound of ravens announcing morning.

Lunch in Paradise

Yesterday we went to Hampstead to visit the house of John Keats. It’s where he lived with Charles Brown just before going to Rome to die and where he fell in love with Fanny Brawne who lived next door. The house is very lovely, the day was sunny, and the sense of the poet, his devotions, and not least the brief passage of his time on earth was very palpable.

We walked on Hampstead Heath for an hour, among racing dogs, children on bikes or foot (“Look how I’m running not in the mud!”, called a small girl to her mother, showing that her red shoes were still clean…), birds, nesting swans on the reed-fringed ponds, and everywhere the smell of spring. We followed this with lunch in Paradise, an Indian restaurant recommended to us by a guy we met in Roznov. He promised that it would be the best Indian food in London and I’m not arguing.

We hoped to get tickets for War Horse last night but it’s sold-out until April so instead we got last-minute seats (good ones) at Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, an innovative and funny production by the English National Opera.

Today is our last day in London before we fly back to another kind of paradise. We’ll spend it here in Bloomsbury, going to the British Museum, taking in a concert this afternoon at St. George’s Bloomsbury — the Akoka Quartet performing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Memory Lane

I don’t know if London has a Memory Lane, maybe running off Drury Lane or Petticoat Lane, but it felt like I was walking it yesterday, all the way to St. Martin-in-the-Fields where I attended noon concerts in 1976 when I was working in Wimbledon and trying to get to know this amazing city. The noon concerts are free (though a donation is welcome and given the work this church does with the homeless of London, we were happy to give one) and I’d come by train on my day off to visit one or two favourite paintings in the National Gallery — Pisanello’s “The Vision of St. Eustace” was one and I hope to see it tomorrow: imagine a young girl rapt in front of this image —

and then sit quietly in the church, waiting for the concert. Yesterday we were near the front, in a pew on the right hand side of the church, waiting for Antonio Ballista to accompany Marcello Nardis as he sang pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (I loved “Guarda che bianca luna”, maybe because of the moon we see each evening), and seven of Michelangelo’s sonnets set by Benjamin Britten. How beautiful these are and Nardis gave them a dramatic and luscious performance. This is the window that formed the backdrop:

We had a ittle time to wander in the National Portrait Galley too, though we didn’t join the long queue for the Lucian Freud exhibit, much as I’d like to see it. We found a little French brasserie in which to have a long and delicious lunch. I had a fresh green pea and mint soup followed by warm goat cheese salad with olive crostini; John had smoked salmon on toast with arugula salad followed by grilled smoked sausages on Puy lentils. Warm sour bread in a basket, water in a stone jar. And a bottle of Chateau du Poyet Muscadet Sevret et Maine Sur Lie, crisp and dry, to make us suitably relaxed for the walk back through Covent Gardens where a young woman sang Puccini and a guy did handstands and walked across the cobbles upside down.

Spring in Bloomsbury

Last night we walked out to see a play at the Duchess Theatre, “The Pitmen Painters”, which was wonderful. In early February we walked the same route to see “Master Class” and experienced a blizzard — wild gusts of snow, icy streets. This time a full moon lit our way and I could smell flowers in the darkness as we turned a corner. Trees are blooming, daffodils fill the squares, and the magnolias are even coming into flower. There was a fat orange bee stumbling in some Clematis armandii by a farmer’s market (free range lamb and goat cheeses, bedding plants and levain…) a block or two from here. What a difference a month makes!

We’re staying in a tiny attic flat at Cartwright Gardens. It’s like a ship’s quarters, everything built to fit the small space, and very well-organized. We overlook a square with tennis courts and have enjoyed watching people play in the sunlight that is so welcome after winter’s rain and snow. And last night we passed the pub on the corner where the outside tables were filled with people laughing and drinking their pints.

We tried to go to the David Hockney exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art yesterday but the line-ups were astonishing. Come back around 4, a woman advised, and it will be much quieter. I think we’ll try that today,. Instead we went to Hatchards and bought books — poetry collections for John and Ian Bostridge’s essays about singing for me.

We’re both so delighted to be on shortlists for the B.C. Book Prizes, John for poetry and me for non-fiction. Thanks to everyone who wrote to offer congratulations. It seems like icing on what has already been a delicious cake. A month in the Czech Republic and now five days in London where we both spent a lot of time when we were young and nimble. (You notice the lack of nimbleness when crossing the busy streets, believe me…)

This morning I want to go to look at St. George’s Bloomsbury, a church by the enigmatic Nicholas Hawskmoor. And maybe Sir John Soane’s marvellous house after that. Then a concert at St. Martin in the Fields.

Sunlight in Brno

This is our last morning in the Czech Republic and fittingly it’s beautiful. Clear blue skies out the window of the Penzion Dvorakova, people walking briskly to work below. We arrived from Prague late afternoon and went to Cafe Maia to have coffee with Zuzka and David. They have bought a little house in a village near here and it was wonderful to hear their plans for gardens and renovations and also to see how Zuzka glows with impending motherhood.  And last night we met Katka and Martina here and walked over to have dinner at Spalicek (imagine little hooks over the “S” and the “c” and the soft sounds resulting from those guides). A very Czech restaurant, it seems to me, with lovely old windows, photographs of the area on the wall (and the area is the Vegetable Market, bounded on one side by the Reduta where Mozart performed at age 11, commemorated by a statue). John ate roast rabbit with red cabbage and many dumplings of various kinds while I had the iconic garlic soup (aromatic broth with cheese, potatoes, crisply fried croutons) and a big tomato salad. Katka and Martina both had the mushroom and potato soup followed by dessert pancakes with fruit. Lots of stories and laughter, then walking back through the quiet cobbled square with the sleeping Mozart (or was he?)above us.

This will be a morning of final things: espresso and some luscious pastry in one of the many cafes; lunch at Falk where the glasses of Veltlinske Zelene are cheaper than coffee and baguettes come stuffed with cheese, pears, fresh basil; taking yet more photographs of the churches and soft yellow buildings. Then to the airport to fly to London for a few days of theatre, the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, a concert at St. Martin’s in the Field.