waiting (and sewing)

At dinner with friends last week, we learned that coho have been seen in one of the local creeks. The next morning — Saturday — we went to our own Haskins Creek to see if the run we’ve watched for more than twenty years had begun. Not that day, though eagles were around, waiting, and the air was redolent with the promise of fish.

Nor were they in the creek on Monday. Nor today — though when I walked right to the creek mouth, I saw one leap about ten feet off shore, in the lake itself. It was dark green and red, the colours these fish wear in fresh water, when they’re ready to spawn. And farther off, there was a small group of mergansers, also waiting.

I’ve been quilting this week and have finished half of the light blue squares with their elegant spirals; seven of the indigo squares, printed with salmon, have their buttons.  I think the individual elements are coming together nicely. It’s beginning to look more like a quilt than an idea. And working away on it, sewing on the shell buttons which resemble small bright eggs in the bodies of the salmon, I see that the deep red sashing between the squares is like the blood of these fish. Which makes me think that I will quilt small circles in the sashing — the life cycle, from the beginnings (eggs in gravel) to the alevins emerging, the juvenile period in fresh water, the young adults feeding on invertebrates in the ocean itself, their migration back to their home creek where courtship and spawning occurs.


I’ve wanted to write about the winter wren I see almost every morning when I first come to my study. My desk looks out to a small covered porch where a birdhouse hangs, a gift from Brendan a few Christmases ago. No bird has nested in it though every spring a few chickadees examine it and find it wanting in some way. On these cold mornings, the winter wren darts in and out, no doubt in search of insects or spiders. The wren also comes right to the window and hops along the frame. If it sees me, it doesn’t seem to mind. I know that the wrens have been reclassified, that what was formerly known as the winter wren has now been split into an eastern species (winter wren) and a western species (Pacific wren). But I will always think of this small bird as a winter wren. And their song is part of our winter soundscape in these coastal forests, a long complex song full of sequences of notes that repeat fairly regularly. A few winters ago, I was writing a novella I’d titled Winter Wren and was listening to bird song recordings, some of which were slowed down so one could hear these sequences.  And I was listening to Bach too. There are several bars in the fourth movement of  the Partita in A minor for solo flute which have almost exactly the same run of 16th notes that I hear in the song of the winter wren. I’m listening to Jean-Pierre Rampal play this Partita right now and it’s full of winter — the chilly clear air, the rich polyphony of water and birds. I don’t know much about music but moments like this are openings, windows into worlds just beyond our usual understanding.

Here’s a little bit of the novella in which the main character hears the winter wren for the first time:

“She was on the porch, wringing the mop over the edge when her favourite movement of the Bach partita in A minor, the last, the Bourée Anglaise, began. Leaning on the railing, she loved how the passage floated out in the wintery air, a counterpoint to waves and wind. She hummed a little of it from memory. She’d heard Jean-Pierre Rampal play this in Paris, the amazing backward rhythm of the bourée balancing the rapid run of 16th notes, and ever after thought of it as music she would choose before all else.

It wasn’t until the movement was almost complete that she realized she was hearing another sound, another melody answering the bourée, ascending as the flute descended. Startled, she looked around, fearful. Was it someone whistling on her property? No, it was a bird. It must be a bird because there wasn’t anyone or anything else in sight. And it came from within the salal on the trail down to the waterfall. Peering into the undergrowth, she came face to face with a tiny dark bird, very pert, bobbing and bending on the stem it had claimed. From its open beak came a long undulating series of notes as melodic as anything Bach had put to paper.”

Look up

The other day, we headed out between showers, walking over to Sakinaw Lake to see if the coho were in Haskins Creek. They weren’t; it’s still a bit early. But we wandered over anyway, into the low marshy area between the road and the creek, and looked up at this bigleaf maple with its little forest of ferns.

These ferns are Polypodium glycyrrhiza, or licorice ferns, and occur in epiphytic colonies on the trunks of trees. Here’s a (blurry) close-up of the ferns:

There’s a branch of biology devoted to arboreal canopies, focussing on the organisms which thrive in these elevated ecosytems. Gastropods, insects, amphibians, epiphytes, and even small trees! Think of it happening over our heads while we walk, talking of this and that, while whole worlds establish themselves in moss.

There was elk scat in the marshy area, the sound of mergansers out on the lake, and the silvery gabble of water in Haskins Creek, running clear over sand and stones, waiting for the salmon, as we are.  I thought of Gary Snyder, “Nature not a book, but a performance, a/high old culture…”

Footnote: the Klein Lake trail

We hiked the Klein Lake trail this morning and on our way back down, I saw this piece of alder on the ground, amost hidden in fallen leaves. There’s a veritable forest of tiny fungii growing on it! I’ve never seen fungus like this.

I think it’s Xylaria hypoxylon, the candlesnuff, or candlestick, fungus. So tiny, and kind of beautiful, and eerie in its colouring. How many other things do I miss by not looking down when I walk? I’m going to start paying more attention.

Some kind of wonder

” . . . passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.” (from “A Spiral Notebook” by Ted Kooser)

I’ve quilted one square of the indigo salmon quilt. I kept looking at the blue cotton and wondering what sort of stitching would suit both the quilt and the swirling watery pattern of the cloth. Well, spirals, of course! They are such symbols of life — the double helix of DNA, the nautilus shell, the exquisite carved tri-spirals at the megalithic passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland which is surely as much about life as death (its passage and chamber illuminated at sunrise at Winter Solstice), and the seed patterns of many flowers (the Fibonacci spiral).

Here’s what the first spiral looks like, but remember that the fabric is actually a richer blue:

And here’s what it looks like on the backing of unbleached cotton. Because this is the first square and one quilts from the centre out, to avoid ruckling of the fabric, you can see the seam that runs across the middle of the backing because I had to piece two lengths to get the right size. (The gaping blue threads are the basting threads and they’ll be removed when the quilt is finished.)

This kind of quilting begs to be touched, “passing/your fingers over its surfaces…”,  stitching and handwork creating its own texture of wonder.

Indigo fish, buttoned

Progress on the fish quilt has been, well, slow. Life has intervened — weddings, short trips, a delivery of five yards of mushroom manure for the garden. But now that cold weather is here, I have such a yearning to sit in the big wicker rocking chair by the fire, stitching. I had problems finding backing for this quilt — nothing I had on hand quite worked so I ordered a big flannel sheet in a lovely marine blue which was backordered, then lost. Finally I found unbleached cotton of a good weight and went through the process of preshrinking, drying, and then piecing to the right size.

So here are the three layers, basted together, waiting to be quilted.

And in a moment of what I hope was inspiration and not foolishness, I thought how lovely it would be to articulate the spines of each fish with small shell buttons. I think this will echo the beautiful Tlingit button blankets with their emblematic fish and birds.

Bright Balkan Morning

I’ve been working on a novella and one of the characters in it plays the zurna, a double-reeded wooden horn, a little like a conical oboe. What do I know about the zurna? Practically nothing. So I’ve been reading Bright Balkan Morning (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), a fabulous book about Roma music and culture in Macedonia, and learning about the zurna and its companion instrument, the dauli, or bass drum. The text, written by Charles and Angeliki Vellou Keil, richly illustrated with Dick Blau’s photographs, is full of fascinating cultural and enthomusicological detail about the music and the rituals that provide its context. There’s also a cd, a soundscape by Steven Feld, and I’m saving that for later, when I’m able to understand more of what I’ll be hearing.

Here’s what the website www.brightbalkanmorning.com has to tell us about the book itself:

“Bright Balkan Morning documents Romani musicians and their place in the cultural ecology of northern Greece using photographs, texts, oral histories, and soundscapes. The book tells an unusual story about both “the Gypsies” and “the Balkans,” in which difficult socio-economic conditions context a mutually rewarding ritual reciprocity in the Nommos of Serres.

Our book is centered in a crossroads town of some 5,000 people in a fertile basin formed by the Strimon River as it flows out of the mountains that define Greece’s northern border with Bulgaria.  Iraklia (Jumaya before 1926) is the home of over 2,000 Roma who have been settled there for many generations.  The earliest Roma settlers became fishermen and harvesters of its abundant supply of reeds. In the 19th century Romani labor was the foundation of agricultural production for export.  In the 20th century Romani migrant laborers worked in fields all over Greek Macedonia.”

I love how the cover photograph pays homage to the layers of history in this book where the past shadows the present, where every zurna player remembers those who came before him, where the musicians walk with their ancestors from weddings to dances to feasts.

It’s cold here, with little flurries of snow, but I’m inside reading about weddings, dowry linens, the careful preparation of reeds, and thinking about how music has the capacity to carry stories and culture across generations, time and space. That a horn of apricot wood which I placed in a young man’s hand in a novella still in progress can take me to Macedonia, into the homes of Romani families in the mahala of Iraklia, where people talk of their lives and the place of music within those lives.


From the Concise Oxford Dictionary: “Photosynthesis: process by which the energy of sunlight is trapped by the chlorophyll of green plants and used to build up complex materials from carbon dioxide and water.” But I wonder what the term might be for what bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) do in November when they convert their own leaves back to sunlight?

I read the other day that our area received twice the usual amount of rain during October. That, following almost 12 weeks without any rain, when we had intense heat and drought from late July until October 11. That particular weather pattern has resulted in the most intense show of yellow on the mountainside!

We’ve just returned from a walk inbetween showers and I swear that the yellows have never this vivid! And they mimic the sunlight of September, its brilliance and even a sense of its heat!