Leaving the rue

Most days I see a treefrog — well, I’ve always known them to be Pacific treefrogs but apparently they’ve been reclassified as Pacific chorus frogs. I don’t think this old dog will learn a new trick — among the herbs on the trolley (a restored barbeque cart…) by the kitchen door. When it’s resting on a leaf, it’s bright green. When it’s huddled in the damp soil of the chive pot (a favourite location for some reason), it’s darker. These little creatures can change colour by expanding or contracting the pigment cells of their skins. The changes are related to temperature and humidity rather than to the actual place where the frogs are found. I love to see them. Their faces are so beautiful and if you look closely, you can see their hearts pulsing. Heart rate? Apparently 173 beats per minute…

I took this photograph five minutes ago, as the treefrog was leaving a pot of rue for the cooler bower of honeysuckle leaves just alongside.


Next day: an addendum

Same frog, slightly different location.


listening to soul of the tango while contemplating the soul of kale

Look at it, the big bowl of kale I just cut to make into spanakopita for dinner tonight! The green is so deep and rich, wet with the morning’s sprinkling. No wonder the young deer was looking longingly into the garden from beyond the fence before I shooed her into the woods.


Like most people who grow kale, we have mountains of it. It reseeds easily and volunteers in areas where other plants are reluctant to settle. So I let it grow. Why interfer?

And while I fuss with the sheets of filo, I’m listening to Yo Yo Ma play the music of Astor Piazzolla. Our chamber music festival this summer will feature a number of tangos and I’m looking forward to hearing what various combinations of musicians — Jonathan Goldman, bandoneon, Yehonatan Berick, violin; Joyce Lai, violin; Lara St. John, violin, Ian Clarke, viola; and Rachel Mercer, cello –do with them.

the beauty of beans

I just picked these beauties to steam, dress with hazelnut oil and a splash of lemon juice, and garnish with hazelnuts. The purple ones are “Triofono violetta”, the flat green ones are “Smeralda”, and the smooth ones “S. Anna”. They’re all Italian varieties and they like our hot summers. We’ll have this bean salad with home-made pizza — tomatoes, basil, arugula, and some of the gorgeous garlic I pulled last week which is curing in the woodshed.

summer beans

Searching (still) for John Kishkan but perhaps a little closer to finding him

I’m not sure why I’m so preoccupied with finding traces of my grandparents. I’ve almost given up on my mother’s biological parents, having tried to obtain her birth certificate which (she once told me) detailed both parents’ names. My mother was given up at birth to a foster mother who raised her. She never knew her biological parents and after she died in November, 2010, I was determined to try as hard as I could to figure out something about them. It turned out to be far more difficult than I imagined. I wasn’t allowed to have a copy of her birth certificate though whom Vital Statistics in Halifax thinks they’re protecting is beyond me. My mother was 84 when she died so the likelihood of her birth parents still being alive is pretty remote. However, regulations are regulations. Any other route I’ve tried has led to a deadend. The surnames of her birth parents were McDougall and MacDonald — names that abound in Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton Island where my mother was born on February 8, 1926.

But I actually knew my paternal grandparents — they were elderly when I was a child — and they left a very small and faded paper trail which I am trying to follow as best I can. My grandfather was born in Iwankoutz / Ivankivtsi in Bukovina in 1879. I have his naturalization certificate, issued in September, 1936, and the actual date of birth given is the 14th of June. But I’ve found that dates are as easily changed as the spelling of names — and maybe even the names themselves. I recently joined a Bukovina listserv and its members have been very helpful. As I know his birth village, it was suggested that I order microfilms of the metrical books (church registers of births, marriages, and deaths) from the Family History Centre of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Because I don’t live near a Family History Centre, my son Forrest in Ottawa offered to do it and to make scans or copies of relevant material. I was so excited on Saturday to receive this email from him:

“The microfilm of the Ivankovtsy birth registers arrived yesterday and I
think I’ve found your grandfather (the year is right but the date of
birth is about a month and a half later than other sources would
indicate). He’s at line 367 of the attached. With the help of a little
Latin and Google Translate, I managed to work out the bilingual (German
and Romanian) column headings, and the handwriting of the
Romanian-speaking priest:

Year: 1879
Month and Day of Birth: 6 August
Month and Day of Baptism: 8 August
Name of Baby: Joan [Romanian for John]
Gender: Male
Religion: Eastern [the only options her are “Eastern” or “Western”, i.e.
Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic]
Born with benefit of wedlock
Name, Alias, Occupation, and Residence of Father: Onufrei Chiscan alias
Alecsei, peasant of Ivancauti [the Romanian name]
Mother: Anna née Fedoriuc [Romanian approximation of the Ukrainian
Fedoruk] of Ivancauti
Names, Alias, Occupations, and Residences of Godfathers: Nicolai Vegera,
Simon Krepincu, Georgi Rudacu, all three peasants of Ivancauti
Name, Alias, and Residence of Midwife: Rosalia Inravschi of Ivancauti
Certified correct by priest performing baptism: Emanuel Nichitovici, Vicar

Aliases are apparently common among Ukrainians, but it is unclear to me
what function they serve (they appear to be an extra Christian name
rather than a reference to an occupation or attribute).

I looked through June and July to see if there were any other John
Kishkans and there weren’t, so I think this must be him. I have the
reel until October so I can check again, and also look at other years
for possible siblings, perhaps even the parents. There is one other
Kishkan on the same page, Maria Chiscan (parents Dimitrei and Anna) –
perhaps a cousin?”

Kishkans — or Chişcanucs (English transliteration: Kishkanuks) — appear in the census for Ivankivtsi (Ivancăuţi in Romanian, Iwankoutz in German, I gather) in the late 1700s so this really seems to be where one of my roots is buried. How deep, though? And how far does it grow laterally? I still have no idea of siblings. But maybe I’m closer, thanks to the Bukovina listserv and to Forrest.

I only have a couple of photographs of my grandfather. This is him as a young man — maybe as he was leaving Bukovina or shortly after he arrived in North America in 1907.

john kishkan

And here’s a photograph of the mysterious ladies, part of his small archive. The one on the left is surely a relation?

the mysterious ladies

patterns, ideas

I’m reading G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, an elegant essay written towards the end of Hardy’s long and illustrious career in pure mathematics. I’m enjoying it very much. It allows me some insight (I hope) into the mind and work of my son, Brendan, who works in the field of optimal transportation as well as mathematical economics and physics.

This essay begins with a statement that locates its writer in age rather than youth. “It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done.” There are of course parallels with many other areas of human investigation and creative practice. Young writers write, don’t they? They tend not to think too much about exposition or justification. Painters, too.  They plunge into the work they are called to do and it’s only later, in retropect, that they attempt to figure out the patterns of this work, its context (if it’s lucky enough to have one — or many…), the connections between their work and that of their peers or predecessors.

But I’m thinking how lucky I am to have found this book which gives me some insights in the workings of an intelligence so mysterious to me. I’ve read about half of it and have some questions: all those theorems that I’m coming to, so beautiful in their abstract language, like Greek; when I look at a page of Greek, I can make out perhaps 1/8 of it but I know that using my lexicon, I can probably figure out more. Will this be the case with Euclid’s proof of the existence of an infinity of prime numbers? We’ll see.

There is much that I admire in this essay, even if I don’t necessarily agree with statements like this one: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”  I think of William Carlos Williams here and his poetic philosophy of intent:

 — Say it, no ideas but in things —

nothing but the blank faces of the houses

and cylindrical trees

bent, forked by preconception and accident —

split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained —

secret — into the body of the light! (from Paterson)

Maybe we are all closer than we think we are, closer in our searching for meaning in those blank faces of houses, the cryptic notion of an infinity of prime numbers, and the beautiful patterns of the world that inspire one person to make equations and another to make poems or vast canvasses filled with angels or to translate one to another so that I can sit with a notebook, wondering how to work this illustration of Mendel’s law into both an essay on family history and a quilt.

Dominant and recessive phenotypes. (1) Parental generation. (2) F1 generation. (3) F2 generation.

empty basket

While I was helping Angelica gather together her stuff to pack into her car for her trip back to the Island, I saw that John had removed the robin nest from its place on the beam above the patio. (If the robins want to raise another family, there’s last year’s nest in the clematis on the west side of the house, a cool protected place with its own roof of willow leaves.) Our nest is quiet now that both kids have returned to their other lives, though we look forward to seeing them again, at different times and other places this summer, along with Cristen. (And the far-flung brother and his new wife as well…) I’ll leave this basket here for awhile, to remind me of both leaving and returning, of how some twigs and mud and dried grass become a home.


into the morning

Yesterday the nestling stood in the safety of its woven basket and looked to the world as though it was something foreign and too far away for any effort it might make.


And this morning, it was still there, standing on the edge of its nest, while the parents called — as they did yesterday — insistently from trees not too far from the house. It’ll fly today, I said, knowing that it was thirteen days old.

Ten minutes later, we were drinking coffee in the kitchen, when we saw a clumsy bird kind of careening by the big windows. And of course the nest was empty. All day it’s been fluttering around, with the parents scolding and encouraging — well, I have to imagine this is what they’re doing. At one point, Angie saw it on the driveway, pecking at something on the ground. Going over, she found a tiny snake, dead, and who knows whether the parents brought it for their gangly offspring or whether said offspring caught it on its own.

At my desk, I reached for poetry. Stanley Kunitz. There is so much of the world in his work — gardens, the textures of summer, the small and large deaths, and the rich language of the human heart. The book opened, not surprisingly as I’ve read it so many times, at my favourite Kunitz poem, “The Layers”:

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feasts of losses?

In the meantime, Brendan is here for two nights and I listen to him and his sister laugh in another part of the house while I sit and think about a single surviving nestling and how it hovered in our lives for the past two weeks. Our table is set for dinner guests, our roses finally deadheaded — we hadn’t wanted to do it for fear of disturbing the small family living in their tangle — and summer accumulates in every hour of sunlight.

feathered out

almost ready

Judging by the movement in the robin nest yesterday — much rising to full height, stretching wings, chirping to the air — this nestling will fly today or tomorrow. (The three eggs hatched on July 1. This is the only survivor…) How quickly the time has passed and how changed this little guy is from the bald creature of nearly two weeks ago:

two hatched, one to go

It’s not quite full-sized and the colouring is still, well, juvenile, but i t’s kind of astonishing to remember that two days ago, this bird sported cartoonish downy eyebrows of which there’s only a tiny suggestion remaining. The parents are in the garden, busily hunting worms in the damp soil. (We just watered.)

eye to eye

Angelica is out digging worms in a pile of soil by the garden. She is as entranced with the small family living in the nest and in the trees (the parent robins spend more time in the firs near their nest than on the beam by the actual nest and given the loud cries of their single remaining offspring, who can blame them?) as we are and since her arrival yesterday, she’s been filling the saucer with worms to help out the parents. There’s an added dimension to this — and that’s Lucy, Angie’s lithe black cat who accompanied her from Victoria. Lucy loves being here, having visited several times a year during her life with Angie. She prowls around, catching the occasional tiny wandering shrew. She’s only allowed outside if someone watches her and so far, so good. When we had cats ourselves, the robins never built so close to the house. But obviously this pair didn’t expect a visit from Lucy.

So here’s the lanky robin nestling with its devastating eyebrows.

eye to eye

All day I’ve been thinking of Tess Gallagher’s beautiful poem, “Bird-Window-Flying”:

I could see the memory of light

shining water through your wings. You

were gray with it. The window

had aged you with promises.

I remember this young bird’s wings when they didn’t yet have feathers. In three days, I expect it will be learning to fly.