St. Stephen’s Day (murders)

The day after Christmas, house a warm clutter of wrapping paper waiting to be sorted and folded for next year, ribbon untangled, the bowl of nuts and chocolates replenished for those watching sports (yesterday it was basketball…). I love Christmas in all its textures and paradoxes. The newspaper and televsion ads exhorting us to buy big, to take out interest-free loans — and the brightly wrapped packages of books, games, and small thoughtful things under the tree we cut from our own property. Magazines full of recipes for amazing food arranged on china kept just for this season — and our table set with the big Italian plates we’ve had for twenty years, the usual turkey stuffed with cornbread and sausage and dried cranberries (as it is every year), the mashed potatoes (because when I tried something fancier one year, there were groans of disappointment), the bowl of brussels sprouts which only John likes (though it would be unthinkable not to steam a few and grate some lemon zest over them with a dollop of butter), the cranberries cooked with port and orange peel. In the stockings, the same Terrys orange chocolates that have been a staple of Christmas since John’s childhood.

And the same music, every year. A favourite is The Bells of Dublin, the wonderful Chieftains cd with contributions from everyone from Marianne Faithful to the McGarrigles to Jackson Brown. And Elvis Costello singing “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders”:

And the carcass of the beast left over from the feast
May still be found haunting the kitchen
And there’s life in it yet we may live to regret…

The carcass of our particular beast is in a pot, waiting to be made into soup, while the leftover meat is heaped on a platter to feed us today, along with leftover carnitas from Christmas Eve (I’m not sure why we first prepared Mexican food for Christmas Eve about twenty-five years ago but I do know that it’s firmly entrenched and can’t be changed now).

Yesterday as I was making the stuffing for the turkey while others napped or watched basketball, I listened to A Chatman Christmas, a beautiful gathering of carols and choral pieces set by the Canadian composer Stephen Chatman, sung by the University of British Columbia Singers, conducted by Bruce Pullan. The harmonies are so lovely, the arrangements so original and clear (I thought of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, another seasonal favourite): a gorgeous backdrop for the preparation of the great feast.

a chatman christmas

The bleak mid-winter

I don’t think we’ll see the sun today. The sky is grey, the air is cold, and there’s new snow on Mount Hallowell.


I took out the compost and found one rose blooming on the other side of the fence keeping the vegetable area safe from deer. When I tipped sunflower seeds into the bird feeder, two chickadees alighted on my wrist.

We’ll keep the fire burning, grateful for its warmth. We have fir for its heat, and alder, too. Cedar kindling to make everything catch quickly. Remember the rhyme by Mother Goose?

Oak-logs will warm you well,
That are old and dry;
Logs of pine will sweetly smell
But the sparks will fly.
Birch-logs will burn too fast,
Chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn-logs are good to last –
Catch them in the fall.
Holly-logs will burn like wax,
You may burn them green;
Elm-logs like to smoldering flax,
No flame to be seen.
Beech-logs for winter time,
Yew-logs as well;
Green elder-logs it is a crime
For any man to sell.
Pear-logs and apple-logs,
They will scent your room,
Cherry-logs across the bogs
Smell like flower of the broom.
Ash-logs, smooth and grey,
Burn them green or old,
Buy up all that come your way –
Worth their weight in gold.


Later we’ll switch on all the strings of lights around the windows, the chili pepper lights around the front door, and make sure the candles are ready. No day in the year is darker but that means that tomorrow the sun will begin its slow return.


Snow on the shoulder of Mount Hallowell

This morning the snow was very low on Mount Hallowell’s shoulder, the dark trees dusted with white. The weather people tell us the chances of a white Christmas are low but the world seems very festive right now. Frost has a way of making even the commonplace look seasonal — silver-edged branches, rocks, and the cold clean smell of it.

We were in Vancouver for a day or two, meeting our son Brendan for dinner on Thursday night (and how lovely that was, eating beef tenderloin in green peppercorn sauce at Al Porto, drinking the gorgeous Desert Hills Gamay Noir with it), doing some Christmas shopping. I like to shop locally and most of the gifts we’re giving are from businesses here on the Coast, but it was fun to search out a few things that I can’t get here. I like to go to a particular place (which will remain unnamed because it’s a bit dreadful in some ways) for hazelnut oil and other flavourings (I’ve found several different vanilla extracts there, one from Madagascar and one from Tahiti) and when I cruised the kitchen area on Friday morning, I found a tagine for 19.00, reduced from 59.00. I’ve had my eye on tagines for a few years, never actually buying one but hoping to find an inexpensive version to have here in my kitchen. Years ago I saw a shop in Montreal which had a lot of them in the window, all handpainted and all beautiful. But I was travelling with my small suitcase and couldn’t think how I’d get one home. After Forrest and Manon’s wedding in Ottawa, I wanted one even more. They arranged for a favourite restaurant of theirs — Chez Fatima in Gatineau — to do the food for the reception and the tagine sang of Morocco, its spices and bright colours.

So this particular cooking vessel isn’t handpainted and it’s not particularly beautiful — if I’d had a choice, black and orange would be fairly far down the list. But this afternoon I seasoned it by soaking it, oiling it, then putting it in the oven for two hours. And then I dredged chicken in spices, added onion, unsulphured apicots, preserved lemons from the jar of sunlight (see my post for October 27), and green olives and let the whole thing cook for an hour and half. I steamed some couscous and voila! Dinner!

P1070767    P1070769

What lasts: a meditation on My Sin

When my mother died two years ago, I carried home the camphorwood chest which my father brought back for her from southeast Asia in 1962. I was in grade one and it was the first time I remember my father being away from us for any length of time. He was in the navy and that trip was three months, or maybe four. A long time for my mother to be alone with 4 children, no car, and no contact with her husband. This was before inexpensive phone calls. He wrote letters. He sent postcards to my brothers and me. And he brought home the chest filled with gifts.

One of the gifts he brought my mother was a bottle of My Sin Eau de Lanvin. She kept it in the trunk and wore it for very special occasions. She’d dab a little behind her ears, on her wrists, and on a little cotton pad which she’d tuck into her bra. Once when I was about 15, I went surreptitiously into her bedroom, opened the trunk, and soaked a tiny cotton pad with My Sin which I tucked into my own bra before going to a school sock-hop. I felt so sophisticated. I imagined boys swooning at my feet. But alas, I don’t believe a single one asked me to dance.

I have the bottle of My Sin on my desk as I write. It’s still in its original box, though the top of the box is missing. Paris France is printed across the bottom of the box and a circle with 85˚. On the back of the box: 225 GR.Env.Par Flacon. The bottle is ¾ full of an amber liquid, the Sin itself.

my sin

I imagine my father bought it at a dutyfree store. Did he sniff a number of perfumes and did this one speak to him of my mother, whom he loved, and the woman she was to him, elegant and alluring? Before they had children, I think they went to a few fancy dances but that ended with our births. There wasn’t often enough money for babysitters or new dresses. But very occasionally she’d dab on her perfume and put on her muskrat coat, check the seams of her nylons to make sure they were straight, and out they’d go, into the night, her scent drifting back to me. As it does now, sniffing the cap of the bottle.

I try to find out about My Sin. There are many sites on the Internet devoted to the history of perfume and this is what I learn about my mother’s: Lanvin My Sin (Mon Peche) was created back in 1924 by a mysterious Russian lady called “Madame Zed”, who worked on several more Lanvin fragrances.This feminine, provocative and dangerously seductive fragrant composition begins with aldehydes, bergamot, lemon, clary sage and neroli. The middle notes are: ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, clove, orris, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus and lilac. The base is oriental – woody with vetiver, vanilla, musk, woody notes, tolu balm, styrax and civet. The perfume was discontinued in 1988, but it is still available on line.”

What do I do with a bottle of fifty-year-old perfume? (I am 57 myself.) It’s not something I’d wear. I discovered Chanel 19 in 1972 and never have found any reason to change. I don’t even know if this bottle is still viable. Does perfume turn to vinegar, as an opened bottle wine will if not used within a reasonable time? When I sniff the bottle cap, I say that I smell my mother but how can that be? She wore perfume so seldom —  ¼ of a bottle over 48 years. Maybe she knew she would never have another bottle of French perfume, maybe she wanted to ration it to keep the memory of my father’s return fresh. What I am smelling is the way I would like to remember her, in a rustling cocktail dress one or two evenings only, her feet wiggling into pretty shoes, checking her seams in the bedroom mirror, her eyes bright with anticipation – she loved to dance! Not the old disappointments, a daughter who didn’t visit often enough, the house sold, her husband dead, the days growing shorter and shorter as the year approached the longest night, the bottle of French perfume forgotten in the camphorwood chest, among the gloves and her one cashmere sweater, an old silk square from Zanzibar folded neatly on the bottom.


a studio in Prague

I’ve been looking at Josef Sudek’s photographs for a year or two now, those collected in Josef Sudek 55, a small book published in 2001 by Phaidon Press; and Mionsi Forest, the fifth volume in the Torst series, Josef Sudek: Works.  Sudek was a Czech photographer, born in 1896 in Kolin, best known for his melancholy images of Prague. He photographed its streets, its buildings, and a remarkable series focussed on restoration work at St. Vitus’ Cathedral. There’s one of a wheelbarrow waiting on a pile of sand, the inner structure of the cathedral framing this interior landscape, all of it illuminated by shafts of light. I love the Mionsi Forest photographs because they take me into the ancient forests which shadow the village where my grandmother grew up. The shade, the light, the iconic trees against dark skies — I imagine my grandmother in these spaces, a girl among trees, maybe with the sweetheart who became her first husband.

I’ve just read John Banville’s wonderful Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City, published by Bloomsbury in 2003. His Prague is Sudek’s to some extent (as well as Tycho Brahe’s, Kepler’s, Kafka’s…). In fact, he writes of the moment he first sees Sudek’s photographs, a sheaf he is shown in a private home, prior to helping to smuggle them out of pre-Velvet Revolution Prague: “All day I had been walking about the city without seeing it, and suddenly now Sudek’s photographs, even the private, interior studies, showed it to me, in all its stony, luminous solidity and peculiar, wan, absent-minded beauty. Here, with this sheaf of pictures on my knees, I had finally arrived.”

Josef Sudek’s studio is open to the public (and I hope to visit in the spring):

And for those in Ontario, there’s an exhibit of Sudek’s which opened on October 3, running until April 7, 2013.


Watercolour, December 1st

This morning we walked to Haskins Creek again. Three days ago we didn’t see a single salmon in the creek but now they’ve arrived! These are Oncorhynchus kisutch, the coho salmon.




Haskins is a narrow creek, hung with salmonberry, ferns, and other native plants as well as Himalayan blackberry vines encroaching at the lower end where the creek empties into Sakinaw Lake. One year Angelica and her friend Gloria did a science project in which they sampled aquatic insects in this creek over a five week period and found that the numbers and varieties of insects indicated that the water quality was quite high. There are huge cedars near the creek too. Later in the run, we’ll find spawned-out carcasses distributed over the ground where eagles, bears, and ravens have dragged them.

For some years I’ve followed the work of Dr. Tom Reimchen at the University of Victoria. He’s a biologist who studies the relationships between salmon and forests of the western Pacific coast. One of his areas of interest is the occurance of the salmon signature in the growth rings of ancient trees. I’m not a scientist but I think it works this way. Nitrogen 15 is an isotope occuring mostly in marine organisms. Salmon are eaten by bears, wolves, and birds, and what’s left of the carcass enters the terrestrial ecosytem through decay as well as in the excrement of the birds and mammals who distribute the heavy nitrogen in the forests. The number of salmon in any one year will vary depending on species and whether it’s a peak year or not. So the tree ring growth will reflect these flucuations. The story gets more complicated of course as all good stories do but I think of this amazing cycle every time I see the fish and the huge trees growing by Haskins Creek.