the western sky

All afternoon we worked in the new garden, side-dressing garlic with manure, uncovering bulbs in the piles of soil the guy who did our drain field work kindly scraped to one side, and planning how we’ll do the paths. There was sun — unexpected. And a few tiny purple crocuses in bloom, always the most hopeful of plants because the bees are not long in finding them, though not today.

So the glass of wine by the fire was very welcome and this was what we saw from our kitchen windows.

late February sunset

The geometry of remembering

I’ve just finished reading Alex  Danchev’s recent biography of Cezanne. It’s a fascinating book, if occasionally irritating. (The author uses “ballsy” as an adjective one too many times…) But the reader is taken into the complex world of Cezanne and his contemporaries and I appreciated the detailed information about the painter’s process and the changing values of his palette.

I’ve always thought that memory was an abiding obsession in Cezanne’s work and this biography bears that out. So often the landscape in a Cezanne painting —  the fields and hills below Mont-Sainte-Victoire near Aix-en-Provence for instance – is one where he roamed as a boy, often in the company of Émile Zola, plunging into rivers and climbing the fragrant pine trees of the region, reciting verses to one another. The landscape paintings are not cool representations. In a letter to his young friend Louis Aurenche, written late in life, he said, “For if the keen sensation of nature – and I certainly have that – is the necessary basis for all artistic conception, on which rests the grandeur and beauty of future work, knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is acquired only through very long experience.”

In the fall of 2010, I spent a morning in the Leopold Museum in Vienna, looking at the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Klimt’s canvases shimmering with gold leaf, Schiele’s figures: all so beautiful – and yet I felt left out. Or maybe what I mean is that I couldn’t find a way in. Then I went in to a gallery hung with pictures on loan from the Fondation Beyeler in Basel and one of them was this, Cezanne’s “La route tournante en haut du chemin des Lauves 1904-1906”.


It’s a length of road just above the studio Cezanne had built for himself in 1902 on a south-facing hillside above Aix. Everything is dense with possibility – the dark trees, the road itself, that high quilted sky, the angular blocks of the buildings. For me, it’s the geometry of remembering: how a road rises, then turns, the sky clear and blue, fields beckoning, young men heading out, their heads full of poetry and girls. And it’s mysterious too, the way the chemin des Lauves disappears behind the trees. In a letter to his son Paul, Cezanne said, remembering his time with his friend Pissarro, “How far away it all is, and yet how close.”

That morning in the Leopold Museum, I felt a sense of recognition. I understood the language of this small landscape by Paul Cezanne, its geometrical forms and planes in service to something recalled and summoned to the moment. I remember that I sat on a bench and fished a tissue out of my pocket to wipe the tears from my eyes.

Sunlight in the Garden

I’ve just come in from feeding the chickadees (and hearing the elk herd crash into the woods, alas) and I was so thrilled to see sunlight on the new garden area. We’re going out to make the final box in an hour or so, once it warms up, but seeing actual sunlight was like a premonition of spring, a harbinger…

cedar board

looking northeast

And I was reminded of this beautiful poem, “The Sunlight on the Garden”, by Louis MacNeice. Read it aloud — you’ll hear its extraordinary cadence, its hidden rhymes and chimes.

The sunlight on the garden

Hardens and grows cold,

We cannot cage the minute

Within its nets of gold,

When all is told

We cannot beg for pardon.


Our freedom as free lances

Advances towards its end;

The earth compels, upon it

Sonnets and birds descend;

And soon, my friend,

We shall have no time for dances.


The sky was good for flying

Defying the church bells

And every evil iron

Siren and what it tells:

The earth compels,

We are dying, Egypt, dying


And not expecting pardon,

Hardened in heart anew,

But glad to have sat under

Thunder and rain with you,

And grateful too

For sunlight on the garden.

Half a glass

After 32 years, our drain field gave up draining and needed to be repaired. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, I know, but it’s really been the focus of my days lately. And it just so happened that we’d made our vegetable garden over top of the field, lovingly but carelessly, and although I have a small notebook with early notes about what I wanted where, it never really worked out that way. My novels are short on plot and my garden is short on design. It seems I’ve always been drawn to colour, texture, the atmosphere of abundance — this has never been particularly helpful when people ask “What’s your book about?” or when I need to remember where exactly I put tulips last spring and which peony is deep pink, which is red.

In May, this is what the garden looked like:

potato box

plum poppy

last of the pink crabapple

So, lush, green, with a (I like to think) spirited sense of joy.

And here’s what the new area looks like today after many days of fairly brutal work with a pick, shovel, rake, trowel.

new box of perennial greens                                                                                                    looking down

It’s not beautiful — yet. It’s not finished of course and it will be entirely different from its earlier self, mostly because we want to know the exact location of the lines in future, so we’re building the beds inbetween them. But today is the first day that I actually felt that the glass was half-full instead of half-empty. I re-planted many perennial greens — lamb salad, kale, arugula, blood-red sorrel — and watered them in with fish fertilizer. That big mound you can see in the foreground will be framed on Sunday, using lumber milled from the cedar I wrote about in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees: “…some planks which began as one dimension but then tapered as the logs narrowed. I could see them as benches or tables, balanced on stumps.” John has been working out the best way to use the boards we stored under the house and I have to say that for him, this particular glass has always been half-full. He could see that the mud-hole, heavy with rock, would improve day by day while I moped around, wanting everything fixed immediately, wanting the ferns back, the thickets of sage and columbine, the corner bed where the bean tee-pees went. He just kept sawing boards, filling the wheel-barrow with rocks, smoothing out the heaps of soil, plucking out roots that he thought might be day-lilies or tulip bulbs. The other morning we looked out to see the elk just to the right of this photograph, their rumps towards us, and we knew they’d been poking around, hoping for kale and garlic tops (which the deer never bothered but which the elk adore so we extended the black mesh fence to include the garlic box). That very muddy area in front of the fence used to be lawn. Well, to be honest, it was mostly moss with clover and dandelions (a perfect bitter addition to salad). I’ve been squinting, hoping that I can imagine the area in two or three months, cool and green on spring mornings, snakes making their way down to the garden from the rocks above.

Cattle, swimming

When I lived on Inishturbot in the 1970s, I saw cattle swimming to the mainland so they could be taken to Clifden to the cattle fair. It was always very dramatic — men on the shore urging the animals into the water and a black currach pulling them across to the mainland, someone in the currach holding the rope that was attached to the halters. Dogs were involved, and children. And somehow, this morning, I found this short film online and was transported back to that island. Here, the cattle swim from the mainland — I think it’s Eyrephort Strand — to Inishturbot, probably for the summer grazing. No one lives permanently on the Island any longer but the small fields still exist and it would be paradise to spent a few months there, among the soft grass and fuschias, if you were a cow, and maybe even if you were, like me then, a young girl hoping to be a poet.

“Think, when we talk of horses…”

I’m reading a wonderful book this week, Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World, which takes the reader immediately into both the world of Shakespeare in about 1590, and also into the minds of those who came to see his plays in the commercial playhouses which were a fairly new phenomenon, not one the parents of those attending had experienced just 20 or 30 years earlier.

Neil MacGregor is a marvellous guide. He’s the director of the British Museum and the author of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a book I have by my desk and will read once I’ve finished this. I am convinced that we can understand so much of a time and a culture by the material objects common (or uncommon) to it. And the 20 objects that take us to Shakespeare’s world are intriguing. A slender brass fork, engraved with the initials A.N., excavated from the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the Thames in London. A knitted and felted cap, almost certainly worn by someone from the lower echelons of Elizabethan society. Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal — remember Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? “We the globe can compass soon,/Swifter than the wandering moon.” And most wondrously, a pedlar’s trunk, rich with disguises, speaking to the theatrical conventions at the heart of so many of Shakespeare’s plots.

A week in which the news has been full of the DNA tests positively identifying the remains of King Richard III, the machinations at play in our own political theatre with the antics and ploys of several senators in Ottawa, and so how timely to read a book like this one. Nothing, and everything is new — yet imagination allows a great playwright to show us the world as though for the first time.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth…” (from the prologue to Henry V)

horses from the chauvet caves

Charm against the grey rain

I came in from work on the fence we are putting around the vegetable garden, the area itself a sea of mud, of rocks, of bare poles waiting for the black mesh that keeps deer from our vegetables, and saw the jug of forsythia on the table. No, it’s not blooming outside yet but ten days ago I cut some branches, put them in a bucket in the utility room sink, and forgot about them until the other day when I brought them to the kitchen, knowing the warmth would force the flowers. And how like unexpected sunlight, like early spring, like a small charm against the grey rain.