Mediterranean dreams

It won’t stop raining. Too wet to go out to the garden, too wet (almost) to go for a walk up the mountain. It’s a bread day so the house is filled with the scent of loaves baking. Because I’ve been thinking about the Odyssey lately, specifically the moment when Odysseus returns to his home (in disguise), to see his old dog die on the manure heap, the faithful dog Argos who’d waited twenty years for his master to return, and because I love Telemakhos’s generosity —

Now Telemakhos

took an entire loaf and a double handful

of roast meat; then he said to the forester:

“Give these to the stranger there…” (Book Seventeen, lines 336-40, in Robert Fitzgerald’s fabulous translation)

— I’ve made some pita to have with ground lamb tonight, along with some of these ripe tomatoes, feta cheese, garden arugula in Greek oil, and maybe a glass of retsina which luckily we just happen to have in the fridge.


Of pinecones and fossils

In the fall I read some reviews of Jenny Uglow’s book, The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine — Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. I knew I wanted to read it and put it on my Christmas list. But no one could find it…

Never mind. I saw a small stack of copies at the Frick in New York in late March and bought a copy for myself. Last night I read the last page and was sad to know I’d finished what had been an extraordinary introduction to a woman, a pivotal time, and a church. Yes, a church. For among her other accomplishments, Sarah Losh designed and built a church in her small Cumbrian village of Wreay.

She was born in 1786 into a wealthy family — they were industrialists, with large holdings of land in and around Carlisle. Her father’s home was Woodside. Sarah never married but enjoyed a wide variety of friendships with intelligent and fascinating people. Wordsworth visited Woodside. The Losh family encouraged their daughters to travel and read widely and (it seems) to think for themselves.

On a trip to Europe in 1816-7, she was entranced by  “the Lombardic churches of Pavia, Parma and Ancona, and the Byzantine basilicas of Ravenna, the mosaics and alabaster windows.” These were in her mind in 1841 when she approached the Twelve Men of Wreay to propose that she build a church to replace the deteriorating village chapel. Also in her mind were the small Norman churches of the deep English countryside. She loved the simplicity and the mystery of these architectural styles.

I loved reading about the decorative elements of Sarah’s church. She was fascinated by what Uglow calls “the strata of belief…the wheat of Demeter and the grapes of Dionysus…behind the bread and wine of the sacrament.”  Lotuses, pomegranates, poppy-heads ripe with seeds, oak leaves (with their echo of Pan), lilies, butterflies, pinecones, and what Sarah called her “emblematic monsters”:  roof creatures, gargoyle-like, serving to hide ventilators, including a winged tortoise, a crocodile, and a great toothed snake.

All kinds of craftsmen were enlisted to create pieces for the church. The stained glass windows were made by William Wailes, who used some pieces of glass from the shattered windows of the Hotel de Sens collected by Sarah’s cousin William Septimus in Paris during the fighting of 1830. And the image which contains these fragments? “The flower made from the fragments was deadly nightshade, named by Linnaeus as Atropa belladonna, the devil’s herb and witch’s berry which can lead, if eaten, to delirium, coma and death. It is Atropa after Atropos, the oldest of the three Fates, who cuts the thread of each mortal life with her shears while her sisters spin the thread and measure its length.” That strata of belief again.

William Septimus taught Sarah to carve so she could contribute her own work to the church. She made lotus candlesticks and helped William with the font, cut from a block of alabaster and decorated with “the curving spores of fern, water lilies and lotus flowers, a butterfly above a leaf, hairy ears of wheat and barley, a hovering dragonfly, a curling grapevine, a pomegranate, a feathery dove with an olive leaf.” Can’t you just see that?

Sarah remembered the windows of the sixth-century basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna from her Italian travels decades earlier, built before glass was in common use, so instead covered with thin alabaster sheets which filtered amber light into the church. She designed and cut patterns based on local fossils — ferns, palms… — out of alabaster sheets which were encased in glass for a similar effect but adding the dimension of ancient prehistory brought to light. It’s this playful and slightly subversive intelligence that I found so compelling in Sarah Losh.

The Pinecone celebrates the kind of passionate amateur so often encountered in Victorian society. One didn’t necessarily strive to be an expert in one particular field but to know something about many — botany, geology, literature, music, architecture, for example. And among their numbers, it is so marvellous to find Sarah Losh.

“…a green thought in a green shade.”

I’ve been thinking of Andrew Marvell and his garden lately as I work in ours and begin to see the results of all the work of February, March, and April when we reconstructed the whole area after drain field repairs and replanted the potted herbs, flowers, and even an apple tree which had patiently (I can only see it that way!) waited for us to return them to the soil.

“…their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid.” (from “The Garden”)

Most of the plants are thriving.

And mostly we are too. It’s a pleasure to pick kale each day and salad in the evenings. A pleasure to pull up a clump of spring onions, as green as anything dreamed of by Marvell. To guide the bean vines up their teepees, to see the Mendel peas climb their wire and see them begin to bloom. Last year I loved steaming these peas — I brought home the seeds from the Augustinian abbey in Brno where Mendel conducted his experiments with peas — with garlic scapes and the timing looks good for the combination this year too.

Searching for Mann Avenue

It’s so different now, the road where my parents bought their first house in 1969 – they were in their forties but hadn’t been able to settle anywhere until then because of father’s military transfers. You got to our side of Mann Avenue by turning off Glanford. Then, the road ended at a small clearing by Colquitz Creek, a place where lovers parked on weekend nights and where I rode my horse when school finished on winter afternoons. There was another short section of Mann Avenue leading off Wilkinson Road. Now the two sections have been connected and the fields have been filled with townhouses and a subdivision and only those of us who were young in the 1960s remember the remnant orchard where the Mahon family had grown apples for cider and where the remaining son Bill, who was probably in his sixties, lived in the beautiful old house with his bulldog Winnie. Where a man who lived on Christmas Hill rented some of the orchard for his young cattle. Where I’d retreat sometimes when our house got too noisy and where I’d read under apple trees and where once a calf grazed around me as though I didn’t exist, so still was I in the soft grass.


 Some weekends, young men came to visit and when the garbage men collected on Monday morning, there was always the sound of crashing glass as they emptied Bill’s can into the trunk. Gin bottles, my mother would say as she pulled the curtain aside to watch. Thereafter, I always associated gin with young men coming for the weekend. I was only in the house once, when I knocked on the door to sell Christmas cards or some other (forgotten) item for a school fund-raiser. The house smelled old. Old in itself, inhabited by old residents: Bill and Winnie. I waited inside the vestibule, by the front door, while Bill searched for his wallet. He wore slippers, I remember, and he shuffled. When the young men came, you never saw a sign of life for the entire weekend. The blinds were pulled and Winnie was put out to pee in the yard by herself. She whined at the door but for the length of a weekend she was not primary in her owner’s mind.

Behind the Mahon house, but still on its property, was another even older house. Our neighbour Daisy Harknett said it was the oldest house in Saanich. Her son Carl rented it for a time, with his wife and young child. Occasionally I babysat for them, walking down the rough lane behind Bill’s grand house to the shabby wooden building behind while Winnie barked from the window. It was a little scary to be in the house, alone, or at least the only one awake, while a small child slept upstairs and the trees creaked outside in the wind. Walking back to my house past midnight was like walking into another century, the one I knew.


 These photographs came from an online archive and show the houses at the turn of the 20th century. In the past I’ve asked archivists for information on the street where I lived as a teenager. Specifically I had questions about two houses which I thought had historical value – this was long after the Mahon houses had been torn down and tract houses erected in their lost orchard – but one archivist insisted the road hadn’t existed prior to the 1950s so the houses I was remembering as “old” couldn’t possibly have existed either. Yet my mother learned things from the Ferrie sisters who’d lived on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman. That they’d attended dances with other farm families from the area before WW2 and that they’d walked to dances at the Community Hall on West Saanich Road, built by the Quicks. They wore their rubber boots and carried their dancing shoes in a bag along the dark road to the bright hall and sometimes they took a shortcut through the Mahon’s orchard. Neither of them married but my mother said they had been beauties. I wish I’d paid more attention. My mother had a rose rooted for her by the older of the Ferrie sisters, a bright pink climber, and I wish I’d dug it up when my parents sold their house.

Everyone I knew on that street is gone now. My parents. Bill Mahon. The Footners – Mr. and Mrs. and their grown daughter Molly. Daisy Harknett, who grew wonderful pears and who gave me cuttings from her New Dawn rose, telling me her mother had always said that you needed some old wood and new wood to make a cutting take. Mine took, both of them, and I have large tangly New Dawn roses to thank her for all these years later.The neighbours on the other side died too and I was visiting my parents when the husband passed away. From my open window I heard his grown children cry as they stood in the back yard and planned what to do next.

The first rose anticipates the last

Is this even true, I wonder? The thought came to me just now as I discovered the first roses of summer blooming by the back steps leading up to the deck off my bedroom. They are “Mme. Plantier”, an alba-noisette hybrid, of such innocent pale pink, fading to white, and with a sweet musky scent. It’s a rampant plant, this one, rambling up the stair railings and even finding its way under a transparent roof over our hot-tub. In fact, that’s where these blossoms were — tucked under the panels of PVC or whatever it is.


Somehow the first roses, their sweetness and beauty, remind me that seasons have their beginnings and their endings. That it was only a few months ago that this plant was leafless and bare, that I trimmed a few of the longer canes, and remembered cutting bouquets of roses the previous June, for it’s June when the roses will be so numerous that I bring them in most mornings to fill vases and jugs with them. And lament the fallen petals a day or two later.

One of the discoveries of my middle years was the music of Benjamin Britten. I love the operas (and saw a spectacular Gloriana in Prague last winter), his chamber music, and oh, his settings of English and Irish folk songs. I took voice lessons for a few years and kept trying to sing the Irish ones and they’re very difficult. One of my favourites is “The Last Rose of Summer”. In my childhood, this was something we’d sing in choirs, thumping our way through it without any idea of its power. It wasn’t until I heard a recording of Peter Pears singing it that I realized it was so darkly beautiful. That the line, “Oh, who would inhabit this bleak world alone?” was so heartbreaking. It felt like a travesty to even attempt it during my lessons — the line is so beautifully embellished, nothing like the version we sang in elementary school. But when you hear these arrangements, somehow you imagine your own voice rising to the challenge. (Mine never did.)

I can’t find a Youtube link of Peter Pears singing it (or the Canadian soprano Lois Marshall, accompanied by harpist Judy Loman — an exquisite recording if you can find it) but discovered this, the young English mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, accompanied by David Jones. She’s wonderful, with something of Kathleen Ferrier in the dark richness of her voice. Perfect for Britten.


(One day soon, I promise, I’ll figure out how to actually embed the video on my screen. It’s not rocket science…)

The provenance of things

This morning I woke early with a feeling of horror. What? What? And then I remembered. Yesterday was our provincial election and contrary to every pollster and general opinion, the promised NDP (majority) win didn’t materialize. Instead, the Liberal party — but not a party like the federal Liberals; this lot is really a coalition of so-called free-enterprisers from the old Social Credit party as well as homeless Conservatives and yes, a few true Liberals — won a big majority, in part by running a very negative and aggressive campaign.

I’ve voted NDP all my adult life. Most of the reasons still feel right. NDP stands for New Democratic Party and in Canada the party occupies the political Left, though it has become increasingly moderate over the years. We have the old CCF Party — the NDP’s parent, under the leadership of a true visionary, Tommy Douglas — to thank for our universal health care in Canada. We have the NDP to thank (and to encourage) for its stance on human rights, agrarian reform (I first became a supporter when I was still too young to vote but attended a meeting at Sancha Hall in Sidney, B.C. in 1972 and heard Dave Stupich outline his vision for the protection of agricultural property in B.C. against increasing urbanization and development of fertile land), trying to increase minimum wage to keep pace with the true cost of living, and increasing the corporate tax rate. The NDP’s focus on workers’ rights, social assistance to those who require it, foreign policy based more on humanitarian aid and peace-keeping than military intervention, made sense to me then and it still makes sense.

So my province feels like a strange place to me this morning. The majority of people want something different than I do, it seems — though at least our riding returned our excellent NDP MLA, Nicholas Simons. And I fear for not just the disadvantaged — our child poverty rates are a disgrace to us as citizens in a wealthy culture — but also for the environment as Premier Christy Clark ran on a platform which was evasive on the proposed increase to oil tanker traffic on the part of Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan and her corporate supporters are not exactly green. Though, speaking of green, acclaimed climate scientist Andrew Weaver was elected last night as the first Green Party member to the Legislative Assembly which is positive. Though there’s only one of him and many more who don’t share his strong advocacy for our planet.

But before the news coverage of the election results came on the television, I watched some of the Antiques Roadshow program which preceeded the news. There were some fascinating objects — a huge Acoma water jar in beautiful condition, a Georgian filligree and amethyst necklace, an unpublished (and signed) preface written by Albert Einstein for a book written by a participant’s grandfather, and three prints given to a couple by Sol LeWitt. Of course the appraisals of the pieces were interesting in themselves, what I found more intriguing were the stories told by the owners of the items. Sometimes the stories, lovingly told, didn’t match the actual provenance of the objects. A big green etched glass bowl, thought by its owner to have come from China, was in fact a piece of art glass made by Steuben in Corning, New York.

While I was watching, I looked around our living room at the bowls and pictures, and I thought of other things we own (and love) which have come to us over the years in strange and often wonderful ways. The Minton bowl I found at the thrift shop in Sechelt last summer and wrote about here, for example: The Sheffield silver plate coffee pot given to John’s parents as a wedding gift in 1947:

sheffield plate coffee pot

This little plate, brought by a house guest from Turkey, and made by an old potter she said lived in a village enroute from Istanbul, where Maya’s family lived, to the Bosphorus, where they had a summer home. She said she always bought a little piece from the potter on her journey to the Bosphorus, which sounded so exotic to me:

maya's dish

And to take these photographs, I had to turn on the dining room light, which we asked our artist friend June Malaka to make for us in 1989 as a gift to ourselves for our 10th wedding anniversary. Colours, she asked? Design? Something beautiful, we said, with daffodils and Siberian iris, and this is what she made:

june's lamp

So maybe it’s time for a book of household items, each with its story, and a photograph. Not to publish but to pass on to my children. So often the value of something is in its story and how easily those are lost, forgotten. So that a bowl that sat unwashed on a shelf in a thrift shop or a coffee pot with a monogram — did John’s mother friend, who gave the gift, find the pot in an antiques shop with the monogram already engraved or did she arrange for it before the wedding of John’s parents? — enter our lives only partially told, partially complete. I have a small book on Sheffield plate, given me by John’s mother, so obviously she was trying to complete the story of the pot too. And while there are images in the book which are similar to her (our) silver pot, nothing is exactly it.

I bought this book last summer and put it away in a drawer, waiting for the right occasion. It’s from India, from a fair-trade workshop, and its pages are lovely handmade cotton paper, strewn with flowers. A book for the provenance of things. And maybe this morning, the awful memory of how the electorate in my province chose to vote still raw and fresh, is a good time to begin.

the book of the provenance of things

For the mothers

This little jug was my mother’s. I can’t remember her ever using it for herself. But a guest might be given a cup of coffee or tea in a china cup with cream and sugar offered in this jug and its companion bowl. If we had an overnight guest — a rare event, and mostly it was her foster sister visiting from Halifax, or, on one occasion, an old school-friend — my mother would set a place at the table with special china and so forth, though the rest of us would have our usual melmac dishes. (When I lived in Ireland, I remember that I was always given the china cup of the guest when I went to pay my rent. Everyone else had their tea in plain mugs. I wondered how long it would take for me to be allowed to drink my tea from the same crockery as everyone else.)

Anyway, this morning I’ve put lily-of-the-valley in my mother’s pretty jug and I celebrate all mothers — my mother Shirley Kishkan, who died in 2010, my mother-in-law who died last June but whose gift was the wisteria in the background, the robin who is building a nest in the grapevine out my study window, the deer with the spotted fawns we saw on the highway last week, my friends far and near. It is the most mysterious and difficult process, it seems to me: that journey to motherhood in the space of nine months (for a woman) or two weeks for a robin (I think this is right) and about seven months for a doe. I sit at my desk thinking about my children and I realize how they have enriched my life. Made my life, in a way — the life I live now, in a house we built to be a family home, surrounded by trees and rocks and plants and the visitations of birds, deer, the occasional bear, the snakes who are even now mating behind the woodshed, and the lizards in the pile of old cedar shakes we’ve kept for kindling.



A weekend in Victoria

It’s impossible to say which season is loveliest in Victoria where flowers bloom at Christmas and salmon spawn nearby in fall and cool breezes off the Strait of Juan de Fuca make walks along Dallas Road a pleasure in high summer. And May! The streets of the Rockland neighbourhood are leafy, tables are out on the sidewalks on Cook Street, the English daisies are a thick Botticelli carpet in Ross Bay Cemetery. And if you’re lucky enough to be at the Beacon Hill Park petting zoo at 5 on a Friday afternoon, you can see the running of the goats, the mothers and their babies (including a black rabble-rouser called Forrest) racing from their pen to their barn for the night while peacocks languish in high trees and the surrounding meadows are blue with camas.

The running of the goats

We went to Victoria this past weekend for the Lieutenant Governor’s B.C. Book Prizes Gala at Government House. It was a gracious event, more formal than the galas I’ve been to in the past. It was fun to see some old friends and to make a few new ones too. The last time I was at Government House was in grade two when my Brownie pack went for a garden party and where George Pearkes made us feel very welcome. Our current L-G, Judith Guichon from the Nicola Valley, has the same gift.

We stayed across the road from Government House at Abbeymoore Manor B&B. We’ve stayed there before and this time we had the iris roomIris Room looking out over Rockland Avenue. We had our own deck up in the trees where hummingbirds paused and the scent of wisteria drifted up from the vines around the lower porch. Ian, Anne, and Michelle take good care of their guests. The beds are dressed with fine linens, the towels are big, and the breakfasts are spectacular. We love the breakfast room which has wonderful old tiles on the floor

breakfast room

and a view of the garden but most guests on Saturday morning were eating on the sunny porch. That first morning – fruit platter with banana bread, followed by a perfectly poached egg on a cheese scone with hollandaise sauce, crisp bacon, and a pretty salad of greens, tiny white asparagus, pickled beets, and feta cheese. The coffee is dark and rich. Second morning we had the luxury of breakfast on our own deck where we feasted on Caribbean bananas with a ginger scone followed by an omelette stuffed with chicken, cheese, peppers, and topped with a spicy salsa and slices of avocado. A small salad of baby greens. Mimosas in tall glasses. That coffee…

We came home the long way, up Island to Comox and across Georgia Strait to Powell River, then down to Saltery Bay for the final ferry down Jervis Inlet to Earls Cove. We drove up our driveway around 6:30 to see that the lilacs had come into blossom while we were away and the tomato plants have grown to small trees.