I’m sewing shell buttons onto a salmon quilt-in-progress, figuring out pattern as I go alone. I have several sizes of these beautiful buttons and am using three small ones along the side of each batiked salmon and I intend to “strew” buttons of varying sizes among the stones I’ve batiked along each of two long panels. I am also thinking of trying to imply water by sewing lines of spaced buttons through the deep indigo background of the panels.
Sewing buttons has me wondering about their origins. How the leap was made from toggle to pierced circle of (I’m surmising) animal bone and, of course, shell. Many cultures have used something like a button to fasten clothing and many have used them decoratively – though one purpose does not preclude the other. I think of them as elements of containment and also revelation. One opened button – how much more enticing, in some contexts, than full exposure!
Buttons and beads have been used for clothing for the dead, too. Those elaborate Egyptian burials come to mind. And I remember reading about an excavation in a British quarry which revealed a woman of some importance who had been buried with gold beads, more like toggles to my eye, and pierced amber buttons, thought to have been part of a jacket. When does a button become a bead? Or a bead a button? Does it matter?
Over the past few years, there’s been active archaeological work in shíshálh First Nation territory not far from where I live on the Sechelt Peninsula. Over 350,000 beads have been found in a 4000 years old burial site. I believe some of these are stone and some are shell, with varying bore sizes, and that they are the remains of a woven robe or blanket wrapped around an important person. Think of the hours spent making those beads and then the hours spent creating the robe.
I’ve always loved the Northwest Coast button blankets and dance capes and I think that the first use of shell on them was not exactly in the form of buttons but wedges of abalone shell, placed at corners and intended to reflect firelight as the dancer moved in the darkness of the winter ceremonials. Someone realized the potential of extending the possibility of such reflection and began to outline crests with shell buttons, dentalium, and later the pearl buttons brought by Europeans, beauty and utility travelling the centuries at the end of a needle.
Waiting for the salmon in the nearby creek has me reading my ancient copy of Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, based on data collected by George Hunt, by the important (though mercurial) Franz Boas. It’s on my desk and I’ve been looking at the various methods of collecting and preserving fish for later in the year. Cheeks, tails, fins, eggs, backbones — all good sources of nutrition. Reading about the baskets and wooden boxes and woven mats for storing the preserved food has me wanting to make things, and not just food.
In fact there are finally coho salmon in the little creek that runs alongside the boat ramp at the foot of Sakinaw Lake Road. It’s such a narrow creek that I have to wonder how those fish will ever find their own privacy to lay their eggs for the next generation. The situation is not helped by the fact that there’s garbage strewn along the road and a bag of old diapers tossed into the brush at the creek’s edge. There have been guys building a dock down there, preparing to tow it out to one of the summer cabins on the lake, and there’s some oil from their vehicules on the slope of gravel leading down to the lake. What a species we are. I’m going to go over later today and gather up garbage and post a little sign. Those fish deserve more.
There are also salmon gathering in the lake near Haskins Creek but as of yesterday they hadn’t yet entered it. There’s not a lot of water but some quiet pools are waiting. Little freshets to keep the water oxygenated. Deep prints in the mud which means that coyotes are also waiting. The day before yesterday I surprised a red-tailed hawk on the ground and it flew up to an alder with a little cry. And I have to say, it surprised me too.
Friends are coming to lunch today and I’m going to make smoked salmon chowder. And rather than a blurry photograph of fish in dark water, I’ll show you the quilt I’m still at work on, sewing akoya buttons onto the batiked salmon who are swimming both upstream and downstream, to their own deaths and towards their lives.
John and Forrest just cut this year’s Christmas tree. Instead of going up the mountain for one, or cutting one from the roadside (we get a permit for this), John spotted a nice one down the bank in front of our house. We don’t bring our tree into the house until the morning of Christmas Eve. We decorate it during the day, with cups of hot cider and baked treats to accompany the work. Every ornament has a story and part of the fun is remembering where each came from — the paper trees cut from wallpaper samples and decorated with macaroni and glitter (kindergarten projects), the Japanese paper lanterns sent to John’s family by his grandmother in England, the glass stars made by June Malaka, the clay fish and bears, pine cones shaped into Santas … I love coming downstairs on Christmas morning to the smell of Douglas fir (I know balsam firs smell heavenly but they are few and far between in the woods near us) and the surprise of the tree dressed in its finery. I’ve just found the little book I like to keep at hand this time of year, Little Tree by e.e. cummings, for the beauty of its illustrations and its tender lines:
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine
. . .
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
If you are reading this, I wish you a wonderful and peaceful holiday season, full of warmth and joy, and maybe the scent of Douglas fir, of cinnamon sticks in hot cider, a shortbread tree, a star.
As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:
Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:
And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.
It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”
It’s now that we need it most, as the year moves to its close, as the days become shorter and shorter, and night comes sooner. So yesterday, a bowl of calamondins picked from the little bush in the sunroom:
And this morning, along with two bright lemons from California and two clementines from Morocco, these little jars of winter sunlight.
We’re waiting for the coho salmon to enter Haskins Creek. They have arrived as early as late November and as late as the period between Christmas and New Year. The water level in the creek is low and I think the fish are probably hanging around in Sakinaw Lake into which Haskins Creek empties. We walk over every few days and peer hopefully into the water but no fish yet. I think they are my favourite fish on earth (or in water), their clean burgundy and dark green bodies in the clear creek, the dark jacks darting among them. (Jacks are called grilse on the east coast. And I was delighted to learn that the spawned-out fish are called kelts.) I think of how far they’ve migrated from this small creek in their infancy and how they find it again as adults, every departure and return entailing a long swim through Sakinaw Lake, entering the sea or leaving it.
Waiting for them reminds me of the way patience is at the heart of so much of my life. It’s not an easy virtue — if it is a virtue. My mother always insisted it was. This morning I was awake early and came down to work on the essay I have in progress: “Euclid’s Orchard.” It’s about language, genetics, mathematics with its attendant difficulties, love, and why we’ve abandoned our own orchard, leaving it to the bears and deer who kept breaking down the fences, eating the fruit before we could pick it, and now the elk who’ve also discovered it. It’s about patterns and how they both echo and transmutate, crossing the borders of one discipline or landscape and finding themselves at home in another. But I sat at my desk and didn’t know where to go next. If there’s a pathway from what I’ve written to what I need to write next, it’s hidden.
I worked on my current salmon quilt instead, my needle following the spiral I am stitching into a panel of indigo cotton printed with raindrops. Spirals lead me to think about labyrinths. There’s one in the parking lot of one of the churches in Sechelt and I’ve seen people walking slowly between the painted lines. I know that some use labyrinths as a way to leave the outside world and concentrate the mind. As I stitch, I feel the texture of cotton in my hands, as soft of a work-shirt, and I think of all the hopes I have for both the quilt I am making and the essay I’m writing. Not hopes for them as commodities or as a means to fame and fortune (ha!) but as distillations of everything I feel and know about the world. Of what I don’t know yet and hope to discover as I write and stitch, the beautiful textures revealing themselves slowly, in a way I might not even recognize if not for patience.
I believe the fish will come. The creek is waiting, and the cedars and ferns which will draw up nitrogen from the abundance in the spawned out bodies.
The woods were quiet and we almost missed the American dipper who was standing on this branch over a vernal pond, taking a break from its foraging for aquatic larvae.
There were raindrops in the pond, only a few, so that you could see the ripples as they spread out over the surface, each ripple moving away from the centre into the unknown.
Anyone who knows me or who reads my (irregular) posts will know that if there’s anything I hope will continue on this earth, long after humans have obliterated themselves, it’s fish. I have my favourite runs of salmon, visited annually, and all my life I’ve watched fish, admired them, celebrated them, cried as my father brought in a bass to cook for our breakfast (yet happily ate it all the same) ; fish imagery enters everything I do, from quilts to recipes to writing to dreams. They are at the heart of our pacific culture(s) and they deserve more than our measly efforts to protect their habitat and everything else they depend on — dark skies, clean water, catch restrictions, ample riparian zones. So this article by the admirable Andrew Nikiforuk in this morning’s Tyee (which of course is one of the familiar names for Oncorhyncus tshawytscha or Chinook salmon) has me wondering at those of my fellow citizens who not only voted in this government but continue to support them beyond all that is reasonable.