From our bedroom window at the Surf Motel

We were settling into the charming duplex unit at the Surf Motel in Victoria last Friday when we looked out the bedroom window, attracted perhaps by the loud sound of gulls on the roof next door. And this is what we saw:

I believe this is a glaucous-winged gull, one of the most common large gulls in our part of the world. We realized that it had a nest — you can see it at the base of the chimney — and then we saw the three young gulls which made our stay at the Surf such a pleasure.

The parent birds were very vigilant, one of them remaining always in proximity to the young, who spent most of their time huddled under that sheltered area where the two rooflines meet. When a parent returned with food, it would stand on the lower part of the nearest roof, call, then regurgitate a stream of breakfast which the young tucked into with gusto.


Up and down the roof the young gulls ran, their undeveloped wings fluttering a little in the wind. Sea-gulls are thought to house the souls of lost sailors but in this case they seemed a very auspicious sight for parents spending a few days in a city where their son was marrying his beloved and where the mornings were washed clean with wind off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Those were the same winds that I knew as a child on the beach near Clover Point, this same strait with its constant gulls, and the white waves racing for the shore. I thought of Odysseas Elytis, whose poems I keep on my desk:

     My sky is deep and unaltered

     What I love is always being born

     What I love is beginning always.

bowl of light

Yesterday Manon and I were browsing in the thrift shop in Sechelt and I saw this bowl.

I knew it was old and I knew I wanted it. I thought it would be perfect for lemons. It was ten dollars. When I took up to the counter, the volunteer who rang it in and wrapped it in brown paper told me it had just come in that morning. It needs a good washing, she commented, but she also agreed it was pretty.

When we got home, I washed it and spent some time examining it. This is the mark on the bottom:

Some searching on the Internet solved one or two of its mysteries. Apparently it’s a piece of Minton ironstone. The design was created in 1823 but Minton didn’t start putting their name on the bottom of this particular design until 1861. So that tells me that yes, it’s very old. Very beautiful. Probably not hugely valuable — it’s not chipped but the glaze on the inside is crackled, the way old glazes do go kind of crazy, and it’s clearly been used. It’s certainly worth the ten dollars I paid for it and possibly more. One went for 250 USD at a recent auction.

Who donated such a lovely piece to the thrift store? What are its stories? Was it part of a set? I think of it surviving more than a century without being broken or otherwise damaged to arrive on a Wednesday morning in a thrift shop on the Sechelt Peninsula where I saw it from across the room and immediately wanted to take it home.

I bought it to use. And you know, it’s perfect for lemons.

Prospect

In Victoria on the weekend, I spent a happy half-hour in Russell Books on Fort Street. It was hard to know where to start so I simply browsed at random and came away with a bag of unexpected treasures, one of them Anne Truitt’s Prospect: The Journal of an Artist.

When my third child, Angelica, was born in 1985, I wondered if I’d ever write again. I’d published two collections of poetry in my twenties, and a chapbook, and when my sons were tiny, I somehow found time to slowly but steadily write enough poems for a third book. John and I were building a house in those years and the word “busy” doesn’t even begin to describe the days but poems would begin, often in the night, and bit by slow bit I’d work on them, gradually complete drafts, and revise. It may be the rosy glow of memory that has me remembering that I often thought of my life as seamless, moving from washing diapers to making soup to cobbling together lines of poetry.

A third child tipped the balance, though. In part this was because there were added elements to the domestic routine beyond simply childcare and daily household work. Forrest began to attend a pre-school in our small community and that entailed driving back and forth  several days a week from our home at the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula to the village where all the services are located. And when he began kindergarten a year or so after Angie’s birth, then Brendan went to pre-school; and somehow there was never enough time to sit at my desk and find my way to writing. Yet I was quite certain that elements of daily life were potent elements of what could be art, if I could only find a way to put them together. The smell of fresh laundry, the act of making bread, the transformation of homely vegetables into soup, the basket of cottons crying out to be quilts, the beauty of my sleeping children, my husband, the way moonlight illuminated our dark trees or stars pierced the night sky over Sakinaw Lake – I wanted so much to do them justice. Somehow. Someday. And I wanted to engage in the physicality of art and its potential materials, though I didn’t know quite how to begin.

I can’t remember when I bought Anne Truitt’s Daybook but it was certainly during those early years of motherhood. She was an American painter and sculptor (1921-2004) and she wrote beautifully, powerfully, of the sources of her work and her own process of making art.

“I sat for a long while in one of the rectangular courtyards, listening to the fountain. Feeling the artists all around me, I slowly took an unassuming place (for two of my own sculptures were somewhere in the museum) among the people whose lives, as all lives do, had been distilled into objects that outlasted them. Quilts, pin cushions, chairs, tables, houses, sculptures, paintings, tilled and retilled fields, gardens, poems—all of validity and integrity. Like earthworms, whose lives are spent making more earth, we human beings also spend ourselves into the physical. A few of us leave behind objects judged, at least temporarily, worthy of preservation by the culture into which we were born. The process is, however, the same for us all. Ordered into the physical, in time we leave the physical, and leave behind us what we have made in the physical.

She wrote honestly and convincingly of the difficulties of balancing art and motherhood while convinced that the two had areas of compatibility and were connected to the reservoirs of her creativity. Every couple of months, I’d reach for Daybook and read a page at random, finding in it both wisdom and solace. I’d like to say that I always had faith I’d begin to write again once my children were all in school but in truth I had nights of despair when I couldn’t imagine ever knowing how to make a sentence, let alone a paragraph, a chapter, or (oh how?) a book.

I’ve been reading Prospect this week. Written when the artist was in her seventies, preparing for a series of important retrospectives of her work, it is as rich and intelligent as Daybook. Truitt remembers the process of making her early sculptures and she captures so marvellously the moments when one conceives of a work, in this instance her wooden sculpture First:

“And, suddenly, the whole landscape of my childhood flooded into my inner eye: plain white clapboard fences and houses, barns, solitary trees in flat fields, all set in the wide winding tidewaters around Easton. At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me, not for my own emotional release but for the release of a radiance illuminating it behind and beyond appearance. I saw that I could trust that radiance, could rely on its presence, even in the humblest object.”

There are many thousands of books in Russell Books. It would take weeks to go through the shelves properly and a more methodical person would work out a system which would involve using those ladders which leaned against the tall columns of books. But somehow on Saturday morning, in between the flurry of activities leading up to Brendan and Cristen’s wedding that afternoon, I found the one book that I needed to remind me of those early years and to offer some guidance for the work ahead.

A wedding on Beacon Hill, in sunlight

A few photographs of yesterday’s wedding on Beacon Hill, in Victoria, where my son Brendan married Cristen Frith Adams among the Garry oaks and a hundred and twenty guests.

Cristen and her dad, Ron.

The vows:

Brendan and Cristen doing the paperwork:

It’s a done deal…

Leaping with joy, courtesy of our friend John Farrer!

 

Owls in the small hours

I’m at my desk in the middle of the night, sleepless, while owls are calling from deep within the woods. There is something deeply beautiful about listening to them in my quiet house.  To have a voice which carries through the trees, echoing! To reach across the dark distance, as these are, to declare territory or announce food or simply to say, Here I am!

Below the cut-block

I was walking alone yesterday morning up on the Malaspina trail, near the cut-block, and saw a bear in the distance. When I looked, she looked back — and I know it was a female because when she turned to run up the slope, I saw her cub at her heels. Here she is:

I found her scat on the road on my way back down from the trail:

And then, nearby, her cub’s droppings:

I thought, There’s a story here, a woman walking alone and seeing the bear and her child on the grassy slope, a woman thinking about her son’s marriage in a week’s time, seeing the boulders overturned on the trail where the bear has showed how grubs can be taken this way on summer mornings,  thinking and eating huckleberries, listening to ravens who have returned to their communal roost area with this year’s young, the smell of elk in the dry air. A story told every year, shaped by walking and thinking, and tucked away in a pocket for the colder months to come.

structural

My tomatoes have responded to the warm weather by putting on their summer growth. I’ve run out of cages — I have about 40 plants this year and have cages for perhaps half of them — so I spent time this morning cutting stakes. Ocean spray branches (Holodiscus discolor) make good straight poles; the Native peoples of this coast used this wood for barbeque sticks for salmon, knitting needles, halibut hooks…. But then I remembered that John had pruned the lower branches of our big arbutus, the one that has a mild case of the fungal disease that has affected many trees in our area, so I went to the burning pile to see if I could salvage some of those beautiful twisty branches.

The wood — these thin sections! — was almost too hard to cut with secateurs. And there are more sturdy pieces of branch. I recently discovered the website of Andrea Cordonier who used a branch to lovely effect in her bedroom — http://www.habicurious.com/?p=3979 — and now I think I might just put some of the arbutus aside to use in the greenhouse we are planning to build this summer. I can see it inside the door, holding a basket of basil, or supporting a young vine.

 

Ombra mai fu

Readers of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees might remember my adventures in learning — in trying to learn — to sing, inspired by the beautiful aria, “Ombra mai fu”, from Handel’s Serses, or Xerxes, in which the Persian king Xerxes I sings of his love for a plane tree.

Ombra mai fu
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

A shade there never was,
of any plant,
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

The opera was a failure but this particular aria lives on. And I’ve been humming it these days as I move about my day, watering, turning on fans, thinking about cool things to make for our dinners. Exactly a week ago, friends came for dinner and we sat on the deck for our apertif, shivering a bit in the unseasonal weather, and John and I decided it might be time to have the tall firs to the west of our house limbed and maybe one or two of them taken down. For years it was too hot in summer to eat on that deck — we tended to have our dinners on the patio which faces northeast… We built a pergola over it and planted wisteria and grapes which didn’t do much for four or five years. Then they took off, filling in between the beams of the pergola, providing green shade. And was it too much shade, combined with the firs which have also grown substantially since we moved here 30 years ago? Last week it seemed that it was.

Now we have true summer heat. That deck is a welcome haven from it. Tonight we sat with a glass of Portuguese gazela, a light bright wine with a bit of animation, and ate tarragon chicken with tiny roast potatoes, dusted with La Chinata bittersweet paprika, prepared first thing this morning before the sun was up, and a favourite summer salad of watermelon, feta, fresh mint, dressed with lemon and Greek olive oil:

“Let’s leave the firs,” I said. And John agreed. Their shade so welcome, so beloved. I thought of Herodotus, who commented on Xerxes’ adoration of the plane tree in The Histories: “While [he] was traveling along this road he discovered a plane tree that so impressed him with its beauty that he endowed it with golden ornaments and entrusted it to one of the Immortals…” For the past few weeks, these firs have been the training trees for the young sapsuckers, a family of western tanagers, robins, and even a pileated woodpecker with its vivid head.  A shade there never was…more lovely, or more sweet.