death of a naturalist

It was my high-school English teacher, George Kelly, who suggested to me that I read Seamus Heaney. It was 1972 and he loaned me his copy of Death of a Naturalist. (I have George to thank for encouraging me to take a path I hadn’t even suspected existed: writing…) The poems were so clean and precise. “Digging”, for instance:

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

I didn’t know then that one day I would live in the west of Ireland and watch men dig turf in exactly that way. I didn’t know then that simple language could take you so far into the heart of a subject, a landscape.

In 1976, living in London, I bought North at Foyle’s. I was enchanted by the image of its author on the back cover — a portrait by Edward McGuire. The poet sits at a small table, a book in his hands, while behind him, at the window, the wild is pushing against the glass. The floorboards are beautifully scrubbed and grained. I remember going by train from my digs in Wimbledon to one of the theatres in the City to hear Seamus Heaney read from North and I thought he was reading to me alone. I’m sure every person in the crowded hall felt the same way, the poems about the Troubles and the poems about the bodies brought up from the bogs singing the same dark notes.

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification,  outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

I remember his generous and courteous response to my request that he allow me to use a few lines from his “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces” as an epigraph for my poetry collection, Ikons of the Hunt. (There was no suggestion on his part that I should pay him a fee. How times have changed.) When I sent him a copy of the book, he sent a kind note to say he’d enjoyed it.

I’ve read every book by Seamus Heaney. There’s something to admire, to love, in every one. The cover of Seeing Things is a perfect entrance to the poems it contains — the tiny gold boat from the Broighter hoard on a black background and the title, the poet’s name, balanced across the darkness. There are poems in it about his father’s death, exact and dignified. Poems about the past, in which homely objects — a pitchfork, a bed, a schoolbag — shine with a light almost holy. His praise was practical and sturdy.

How strange to hear on the radio news this morning that Seamus Heaney died yesterday. Just a few months ago Forrest and Manon heard him read in Scotland. Like his poems, I guess I thought he’d go on forever.

Here’s the Broighter boat to take him away, wherever he wants to go.


they dematerialize

I’m reading the wonderful new issue of Manoa, Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World. So much to admire — Tom Jay’s “The Salmon of the Heart”, John Schreiber’s “Walking Ts’yl-os, Mt. Tatlow”, Eden Robinson’s “The Sasquatch at Home”, and Gary Snyder’s “Reinhabitation”. And I had to smile as I read Barry Lopez’s story, “In the Great Bend of the Souris River” for this small perfect phrase in the first paragraph: “…an image of coyotes evaporating in a draw.” Yes, yes, that’s exactly what they do.  (I’ve always called it “dematerializing”.) So often you come upon one in the wild and one moment you see it, the next it’s gone. Disappeared, into thin air, right before your eyes. An enviable ability. Not long ago, I saw one cross the trail in front of me and then it wasn’t there. It hadn’t raced away but simply dematerialized. Or evaporated. This is the young one who visited several mornings in a row a few summers ago, walking casually past us where we drank coffee on our deck, and pausing to eat salal berries before vanishing — it had learned the trick!

morning visitor

This is a small tabletop…

…and this is the kale I just picked to make spanokopita. I carried it to the house in my arms, the size and heft of a small baby. And clean, damp — we had dew overnight and I watered this morning.

kaleWhen we rebuilt the garden, I wondered if the kale plants would survive first being transplanted to pots to wait out the work of the backhoe repairing our septic field and then being summarily eaten to the quick by elk. Yet the plants thrived and what was amazing was that the soil was full of dormant seed — it had been a few years since I’d let kale run to seed so what was in the soil was several years old — and everywhere I looked, kale seedlings sprouted and flourished. I have to say it’s a little scary. There’s kale enough for the Russian Army and most of it is Red Russian too, a suitable welcome if they’re passing this way. I’ll offer them spanokopita, Portuguese kale soup with potatoes and sausage, saag paneer, pizza, a salad (a big salad).

And if you’re passing, I’ll gladly fill a big bag with kale for you. Please?

out in the moonlight with nasturtiums on his breath

When Angie was visiting in mid-July, she was awakened by the sound of something outside her bedroom window. Looking out, she saw a young buck nibbling on the figs and grape-vines that grow on the side of the house. (I thought we’d had more figs ripening and wondered if the birds had found them… Somehow the notion of that buck eating them is more, well, palatable but that’s fancy on my part, isn’t it?) He’s been in the orchard, close enough that we were able to see his antlers with their soft covering of velvet. He’s a Columbian black-tail and I think he’s about 2.  (His antlers had a couple of tines.)

Coming home from a concert on Friday night (it was the weekend of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival), we saw him standing by the garden. The headlights of the car startled him and he stood for a moment before disappearing into the darkness. He’s very beautiful.

On Saturday night I was returning home from the wonderful “Intimate Connections”, a concert exploring the music of Robert and Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, the highway bright with moonlight, when I saw the buck by the side of the road, browsing on fireweed (I think). I stopped and rolled down the window. He gazed mildly in my direction and didn’t budge as I asked him to leave our garden alone.

The next morning I noticed that all the nasturtiums in the pots on the patio had been eaten back to the quick. And he’d feasted on some perennial geraniums growing in a barrel around the roots of a “Maiden’s Blush” rose. The buck is obviously fortifying himself for the rutting season ahead and I love the thought of him roaming in moonlight with those velvety antlers, nasturiums on his breath.


An update: His competition (a year younger?) just wandered by my study window.


a winged imp

We’re in the middle of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival here on the Sunshine Coast. Last night audiences were treated to “String Theory”, an event of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. The musicians are truly fine — and it always astonishes me that people who gather together from all over — for this year’s festival, they’ve come from Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and New York City —  for rehearsals on Monday or Tuesday play so wonderfully together by the first concert on Thursday evening. (That was “New Sensations” and it was sensational.)

Last night, listening to Mozart’s String Quartet No. 6 in E flat major, K614 beautifully played by Lara St. John, Joyce Lai, Yehonatan Berick, Ian Clarke, and Rachel Mercer, I was taken back to Brno. Music does that. It carries in it memory and history, our own and the culture’s. In 2010 we were in Brno for a lively conference at Masaryk University. We had a few days to explore the city and John and I both fell in love with it (and have returned, and will return again, I hope). In front of the Reduta — a theatre where Mozart performed at the age of 11 — there is a sculpture presiding over both the theatre itself and the Zelný trh, or Cabbage Market.


It’s Mozart, of course — half impish boy, half angel. I think of this sculpture every time I hear his music — the playful and the divine, in perfect balance.

On that visit to Brno, our hosts arranged tickets for an evening of chamber opera at the Reduta. We sat in this room —


 — and watched Second Movement’s performance of Bohuslav Martinu’s “The Knife’s Tears” and two short operas performed by the Ensemble Opera Diversa: Lukáš Sommer and Václav Havel’s” Ela, Hela and the Hitchhiking” and Ondrej Kyas and Pavel Drábek’s “The Pumpkin Demon in a Vegetarian Restaurant”. (I can’t seem to get all the diacritics to work here…) It was an exhilarating evening, made even better by the huge table of delicious food and many bottles of beautiful Moravian wines provided for the audience, not to mention the pumpkin confit cooked on stage during the performance of the last opera — can you imagine this? A prep line, the smell of ginger and garlic deliciously filling that glorious red room, and the cast graciously serving the audience after the last notes? As we walked back to our hotel that night, our route punctuated with the soft lights illuminating the Baroque facade of St. Thomas church, I asked John to remind me just why we were leaving Brno the next day. I wanted to stay forever.

And I was transported last night, in a similar way, but driving home down the dark highway, I knew I wasn’t leaving.



We’re back from several days away in the dry B.C. interior where we met up with Brendan and Cristen in Lytton to go white-water rafting on the Thompson River.  The air temperature on Friday was in the high 30s (celsius) and at one point, the owner of the motel where we stayed said it was 40. The water temperature in the Thompson was 19. It was heavenly to paddle down the river, anticipating the rapids, and then enter them, feeling them cascade over the raft, heart racing and skin tingling. We were able to swim at several points and that was so wonderful — to feel my body bouyant in the green water of the Thompson River which I’ve loved all my life. John heard a young woman from another raft say, while swimming, “I am so happy.” I knew just what she meant — we are not often so alive in our bodies, so immersed in air and water and light. It’s 35 km. from Spences Bridge, where the expedition set forth, to Lytton, where we ended up, and Brendan and Cristen laughed when I told some other guests at our motel that we’d paddled that distance. “The river did all the work,” they exclaimed. And yes, it did most of the work, along with our amazing guide, Steve. But we did paddle and my shoulders ached at the end of it! (One of our raft-mates took photographs with a waterproof camera and she said she’d send me some later next week when she returns home so I hope to post some here.)

After saying goodbye to Bren and Cristen yesterday morning — they were continuing on home to Edmonton where they will be preparing to move into the house they just bought —  John and I drove to Lillooet where we saw a bighorn ewe along the road, her lamb beside her, and where grass and pines were so fragrant in the dry air. We took the Duffy Lake back to the coast and were rewarded by this beautiful view of the Place glacier group beyond Duffy Lake.


Up this morning to gather the vegetables which ripened in our absence, a basket of summer colour on the worktable.


spirals and sequences

I’m pursuing the Fibonacci sequence for something I’m writing and have noticed it’s everywhere! This morning I was watering the cucumber box, over which a huge sunflower presides. And here’s what I saw:


Sunflowers are excellent examples of the Fibonacci sequence because the seedheads in the centre of the flower are organized in two sets of spirals — short ones running clockwise from the centre, and longer ones running counter-clockwise. If you count the spirals in a consistent manner, apparently you will always find a Fibonacci number.

And that bee at work — the family trees of both drones and workers are examples of the Fibonacci sequence.

fibonacci bees

I’ve come so late to all this and am wandering around amazed.

white water

Three years ago, John and I took our son Forrest white-water rafting on the Thompson River to celebrate his successful PhD defence. (This was just before he and Manon became involved with each other; otherwise, we’d have invited her to join us too. And it was a year or two after his defence but we couldn’t find a mutually convenient time to do this any earlier.) I admit I was a little nervous about the prospect of paddling down that wild river. I wondered if I was too old, too timid. But in fact it was a thrilling experience, made all the more wonderful by the care and expertise of the company who conducts these raft expeditions. We had a fabulous guide who told stories (during the quiet periods when we weren’t actually swirling through the rapids), kept us safe, and made the whole experience perfect.

We’re heading back to Kumsheen on Friday to take Brendan and Cristen out on the river — same reasons, same delay… We’ll stay in Lytton for two nights and I’m really excited. Yesterday John found the disk Kumsheen mailed to us with photographs of our adventure. For obvious reasons we couldn’t take photographs ourselves! So here we are — paddling madly through the rapids which all have names like Witch’s Cauldron or Jaws of Death or Devil’s Kitchen. I have no idea which one this was. (Forrest is in the front, then me, and John is recognizable because of his sunglasses and great paddle technique!)

on the river