ottawa wedding bells

Another spectacular wedding, this time in Ottawa: my son Forrest Pass married Manon Labelle yesterday in a beautiful ceremony by a lay chaplain of the First Unitarian Congregation. Every detail was lovely.

Here are Forrest and Manon saying their vows (our Brendan is a groomsman!):

ImageAnd here is Angelica reading The Good Morrow by John Donne.


Indigo fish, blue water, red frame

I spent the morning finishing the salmon quilt top. In June I batiked fish onto cotton squares, applied a shibori pattern with thread, and then dyed the squares in indigo. Not really with a plan in mind, I submerged the remains of the old cotton sheet I’d cut the squares from in the bucket of indigo dye and left it for a few days. I was surprised and delighted with the marbled pale blue results. So I cut squares out of that cloth and alternated fish blocks with squares of marbled blue. I used 4″ strips of deep red cotton between the rows and then framed the whole thing with 6″ sashing of the same red cotton. I’m really happy with this top and look forward to sandwiching organic cotton batting between it and a backing I haven’t yet decided on, basting it all together, and then beginning the actual hand-quilting, which is probably my favourite part.

Here’s a photograph of the top hanging on the clothes line. The colours aren’t quite right. The indigo is deeper and the paler marbled squares are richer. But this gives the idea and I’ll add progress reports as I go along.

Their chair

I looked out just now and saw their chair by my bedroom window, in rain. Part of the patio set they won from a radio show, made of dark green webbing with textured green cushions. We brought it back from their apartment after my mother died and it’s the one my husband sits on when we have coffee on the upper deck, the deck that surrounds three sides of our second-storey bedroom and his study and our bathroom. Three sides of weather and tree tops and the mountain. Usually the chair is over by John’s study but a few days ago I moved it to the small area in front of the sunroom door where the dog rose climbs around the bedroom window, along with trumpet vine, wisteria, and deep pink honeysuckle. The sun travels lower on its trajectory from east to west, from Hallowell to beyond Texada each September day, filtered more densely through Douglas firs than even a week ago; in high summer it passes directly overhead, clear of trees, from its rising at 8 until its setting at least 12 hours later. I moved it to take advantage of the pocket of sun by the door.

I sat in the chair for half an hour the other day, in-between watering and making tomato jam, re-reading Portrait of a Lady. And then returned to work, because sitting felt too much like indolence. The chair still smells of them. Passing it that day, after its few hours in late sunlight, I could smell my parents as though they were both out there, taking the warmth of an afternoon, talking quietly, not noticing me in my old skirt and tank top, hair wrestled into a knot to keep it from my face as I reached into the tomato vines for more fruit for my jam. I never knew I would miss them as much I do now, smelling them in the coarse green cushions, my book abandoned across the seat. There was so much I never told them. They didn’t want to know about books (“Henry James?”) or lofty thoughts or travel plans for Europe. They hoped I’d share ideas for stretching a dollar, ways to shop thriftily, to use up odds and ends from the fridge. Varicose veins and sore teeth. Stomach acid or the wisdom of generic vitamins or difficulties with the bowels. They wanted me to prove I was theirs, that I’d paid attention to their lessons, their advice, that no one else meant more to me than them. It’s taken me so many years to learn that there is some truth to this. I look at my hands and see hers. My slow metabolism and sluggish blood-pressure, which came from him.

This morning it all seems impossibly sad. His head touched the green vinyl strapping. Hers, too. On the shabby deck of the house on Mann Avenue, they sat in their chairs – this one, and a kitchen chair brought outside through the sliding doors which they locked after each use, bolting down the extra Plexiglas panel at night against all those who lurked, wanting to break in to steal their hifi, their clock radio – waiting for the seagull who came some days for old bread. Willie, they called it. Also a neighbour’s cat. The heavy foot of the mailman as he trudged up their stairs.

Stars of the tomato season

Most evenings we have a platter of tomatoes, sliced, with a sprinkling of red wine vinegar and a scattering of torn basil leaves over the top. The tomatoes are at their peak and every day I pick a wonderful selection of them. Here are a few of my favourites:

Clockwise, from upper left: a single Jaune Flamme, a beautiful persimmon-coloured tomato; peeking out is a single Orange Strawberry — these are rich and meaty, shaped like ox-hearts; then a Purple Cherokee, lumpy, with a profile like the late John Diefenbaker; a big yellow one whose name wore off the little tag I’d so carefully labelled in May; three Alicante, which are so prolific and so delicious; and three Black Plums which I like to eat warm off the plants. We have many others — Brandywines, Yellow Pears, Ailsa Craigs, Romas, tiny cherries, larger cherries, and some Orange Zebras.  I grew most of them from seed but bought a few because there are always ones I see in the garden centre which look tempting. On the weekend we had pizza made with the Black Plums and lots of Red Russian garlic I grew from heads bought last October in Grand Forks and basil of course and dappled on the top, the wonderful fresh mozzarella from Natural Pastures on Vancouver Island, made with milk from Fairburn Farms water buffalo. I could happily eat this daily for the rest of my life.

September aria

For the past week or so, this Pacific treefrog (Hyla regilla, though there’s some debate about this name now and it’s been suggested that these are more properly Pseudacris regilla. It’s a bit like nit-picking* to me. All my field guides call them Hyla regilla!) has been in residence in and around a pot of chives on the deck. In this photograph, it’s on a honeysuckle leaf (pot of chives behind it) and those little holes in the leaf are evidence of sawfly larvae, I think. And there are ants around too. The other day I saw this little frog stick out its tongue and capture an ant which it seemed to relish.

There’s another larger treefrog on the upper deck. And another, the tiny one shown in my post of August 25, as well as one we hear but don’t see in the ferns by the patio. What’s interesting to me right now is their voices. In the spring, you can stand outside at night and all you hear is a huge loud chorus of treefrogs calling to one another in the great mating hullabulloo in the nearby water sources. Such large voices for such tiny creatures! Deep baritones, rich tenors, even the odd mezzo-soprano. Right now, though, the treefrogs close to the house are singing individual arias. It’s not about mating. Wrong season. So what is it about? Yesterday I watered the potted herbs on the deck and as soon as I’d finished, the little frog in the photograph was singing loudly. Was it joy? Irritation? Field guides talk about the “rain song”, the premonition of changing weather. But it’s been lovely here for the past week and we’re promised good weather for the rest of September, and still the treefrogs sing. And who knows, maybe we’re hearing arias from Handel’s Hercules: There in myrtle shades reclined/By streams that thro’ Elysium wind,/In sweetest union we shall prove…”

*i.e., it doesn’t change the essential qualities of the treefrog…

Morning, the moon

This was what I saw, looking to Mount Hallowell in the east, when I got up this morning.

So clean and elegant, like the lines of Sappho (in Anne Carson’s translation): stars around the beautiful moon/hide back their luminous form. . . The image has stayed with me all morning as I prepared bread dough, cut some sweet peas to celebrate Angelica’s arrival this afternoon.

Sappho again:

But for the one who has hair yellower

than a pinetorch


of blooming flowers


I’ve been looking at Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, the two volumes edited by Franz Boas, based on data collected by George Hunt, as part of the 35th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1913-1914. It’s fascinating reading, dense and full of detail of daily life, world view, and spiritual practices of the people who’ve lived on north-eastern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland and islands in-between since the beginning of time. I think that Boas got a lot wrong in his work as an ethnologist — for instance, I believe that the people he considers in these two huge books are more properly the Kwakwaka’wakw ( the Kwakiutl are one band of Kwakwala-speaking people) – and he’s been criticized for his paternalism, his insufficient language skills, and all the errors he made in recording and interpreting the materials he collected. But it seems to me that there is also a wealth of observation in these books and I’m drawn to them again and again. I have both volumes in the original green cloth bindings, the pages fine as tissue. ( I also have the later abridged edition, Kwakiutl Ethnology, edited and introduced by Helen Codere.) It helps to read them at the same time as, or in the literary company of, someone like Agnes Alfred, whose stories and memories are collected in Paddling to Where I Stand, edited by her granddaughter, Daisy Sewid-Smith, and Martine Reid.

I love the stories about food preparation. In the huge Boas volumes, the texts are bilingual and half the page tells you in English, and half in Kwakwala (though I suspect the orthography is dated) how roots were dug and preserved for winter, how herring spawn was gathered, how to roast or dry the various kinds of salmon, including heads, and the elaborate procedures for preserving berries and crabapples. These are still significant foods for those of us living on the west coast. In the kitchens of people I know, mushrooms are drying, canning kettles are steaming, and berry buckets are stained dark purple. Sometimes I try to sound out the Kwakwala, though I suspect I make a terrible mess of it. It seems to be that the style of the accounts is richer for the repetitions that the English only half-preserves.

Listen to a little of how salal is prepared for keeping: Now I will talk about the salal-berry cakes, which are made carefully by the women for their own food and for their husbands, their children, and their relatives…she picks the salal-berries off the branches, and she puts them into the same dishes; and when they have all been cleaned, she takes the mortar box for the salal-berries, and she puts it down on the floor where she is going to work; and she also takes her husband’s stone hammer and places it on the edge or by the side of the mortar-box; and she puts in both hands and takes out the cleaned salal-berries and places them in the mortar-box. When they are two finger-widths deep in the bottom of the mortar-box, she takes her stone hammer and pounds them until they have all burst… She does not make them into cakes quickly but leaves them for two nights in the dish, covered over with a mat, before making the cakes.

And here’s how Agnes remembers making berry cakes, from the chapter “Childhood”: We also picked berries to make cakes. We crushed and dried them on split cedar racks over the fire and shaped them into flat squares so that they could be stored. We made a lot of those cakes because we served them at feasts. We had so many kinds of berries – huckleberries, salmonberries, red elderberries, and salal berries. Another thing we ate was cranberries. We used them all and dried them. That was the jam of the early days. We could eat them all winter long. We also stored them in cedar boxes and preserved them for a long time. The same was also true of wild crabapples. (My note: the names for the berries in Kwakwala are also given but I can’t seem to reproduce the diacritics…)

We spent the morning up the mountain, doing one final picking of blackberries for a second batch of syrup. It’s so delicious and I know how we’ll be grateful for it in winter, over pancakes or stirred into sparkling water to remind us of summer. I also made a batch of peach jam, flavoured with ginger, cinnamon, and a vanilla bean. There was a little left after I’d put the jars into the canning kettle and John drizzled the amber syrup over ice-cream, pronouncing it the best ever.

Over the past month, I’ve made dozens of jars of jam – blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry, and peach – and will gather salal berries this week for jelly. Hot peppers and apples are waiting to be made into chutney. It’s about preserving food, yes, but also about preserving summer, its particular gifts – the slow ripening of blackberries, the scent of peaches, the brilliant colour of the raspberries collected before it gets too hot, and how we are shadowed in our work by the women who have taught us how to collect enough, to prepare our vessels, to take our time, keeping in our minds and hearts the circle of family and friends worth this seasonal effort.

Turkish pears, Okanagan peaches

In 2005, our friend Anik See gave us a beautiful little book, Turkish Pears in August: 20 Ramages, by Robert Bly, printed by Gaylord Schanilec at Midnight Paper Sales ( Ramage is the name Bly gives for the brief 8 line poems in the collection: “The word occasionally appears as the name of a movement during some French compositions for flute; it is related to the French noun for “branch.” We can hear the root of that in “ramify”. The tunings of these things is like tuning on horseback some sort of stringed instrument from the Urals.”

The title poem celebrates “old pleasures abundant/As Turkish pears in the garden in August.” I thought of those ramages yesterday when I saw these peaches in Claytons in Sechelt, so richly coloured, so deserving of their own poem. Or at least their own golden eloquence in jars on a dark shelf, scented with vanilla bean and ginger.

September offering

For so many years, the day after Labour Day marked the first day of school for our household. Up early, new pencils and notebooks packed into backpacks, eye on the clock, kids racing down the driveway as the school bus made the turn on the highway coming from Egmont. I’d listen from the deck to hear the bus doors opening, then closing, and the engine revving as the bus began its ascent of the Sakinaw hill. John or I would walk the kids down to the bus when they were little but then they asked us not to. Our black Lab/Wolf X Lily went with them, waiting until they’d climbed the step and the driver closed the doors to return to the house without them, patient until 3:45 when she’d cock an ear, then trot down the driveway again to meet them. Our Retriever X Tiger was less reliable. Some days she’d accompany them and some days she’d be off in her own world. But she did love to see them walking up the driveway.

I still hear the bus, still imagine it stopping at our driveway for the ghosts who wait for it. Still expect to see a black dog, or a golden one, returning.

In the meantime, here’s a September bouquet, and a few lines of Anna Akhmatova, in Judith Hemschemyer’s translation:

“Let them be more plentiful than stars kindled

In the September skies —

For children, for wanderers, for lovers

They grow, those wild flowers.”