“I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

 

tonight’s salad

Tonight’s salad is just-picked baby kale, some dandelion leaves, some blood-red sorrel, a few leaves of arugula, and some strands of garlic leaf from volunteers (which won’t form bulbs so I’ll use them in salad or pasta). Some toasted hazelnuts. And the most beautiful dressing of an organic Bosc pear pureed with olive oil, Dijon mustard, a little lemon juice, and some lovely white pear-infused balsamic vinegar I brought from California before Christmas. And if you look closely at the salad bowl, you’ll see it has fish embedded like fossils in the green Spanish glass. Because the sun came out this afternoon after torrential rain last night (and a wild chorus of frogs singing so loudly I closed the bathroom window), it seems like a good time to celebrate the beauty of the season. And its small bounties…

late march salad

“…a god of water”

Sometimes books we’ve read in the past call to us again, asking to be re-read, re-experienced, savoured in new ways, and old. Ethel Wilson’s books are like that for me. They are so, well of this province where I live, where I’ve travelled extensively, always finding places that call up such yearning in me.  Years ago I had the honour of having one of my novels shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize — it was 2005, for A Man in a Distant Field, published by Dundurn in 2004 — and I re-read EW’s Swamp Angel to pay homage to her particular quiet genius.

And now it’s Hetty Dorval I’m half-way through and trying to make last as long as possible. It’s a novella, 92 pages in this MacMillan Laurentian Library Edition I found in Russell Books in Victoria a few weeks ago. I”ve had other copies of Hetty Dorval but it’s the kind of book you want to give to others, wanting them to love it too, maybe even enough to take to the highway to travel to Lytton to try, as I did, to figure out which house was Hetty’s. I don’t think it was this one but this is the house I have in mind when I read of Frankie Burnaby’s clandestine visits to Hetty. It’s old enough, though Ethel Wilson stresses the bungalow was “all alone above the river, just east of Lytton.”

 

probably not Hetty Dorval's bungalow...
probably not Hetty Dorval’s bungalow…

In some ways, this is an old-fashioned book. It was first published in 1947 and its narrative takes place in the 1930s. But Ethel Wilson was also so modern. Or maybe I mean timeless. She had a profound love for the natural world and she understood how it was an important shaping force of character.  When Frankie Burnaby meets Hetty Dorval on the road from Lillooet to Lytton in late September when Frankie is 13, the two of them form a bond of sorts when they see a skein of geese flying south:

The valley of the Fraser lay broad below, lit by the September afternoon, and the geese, not too high, were now nearly overhead, travelling fast. The fluid arrow was an acute angle wavering and changing, one line straggling out far behind the other. It cleft the skies, and as always I felt an exultation, an uprush within me joining that swiftly moving company and that loud music of the wild geese. As we gazed, the moving arrow of great birds passed out of sight on its known way to the south, leaving only the memory of sight and sound in the still air. We drew a long breath.

I love how the “I” of this paragraph unconsciously includes the other, whom she has just met. And despite all that happens to both of them, I can’t help but thinking that the experience of seeing the geese together has linked them one to the other.

As I said, I’m trying to make the book last. I’m a little more than half-way through and I’ve just read these two sentences:

My genius of place is a god of water. I have lived where two rivers flow together, and beside the brattling noise of China Creek which tumbles past our ranch house and turns our water wheel…

the two rivers meeting
the two rivers meeting

 

backlight

I left my desk a few minutes ago and saw this pot of forsythia lit up by the sunlight flooding into the kitchen.

P1090555The camera kept warning, Backlight, backlight, as though that was something you wouldn’t want. We’ve waited a long time for this sunlight and I’m not going to filter it out now.

Anyway, there was such clarity in the colours — the yellow forsythia, the deep blue glass pot. (The brown clay tiles on the kitchen counter…) And I wanted such clarity. All morning I’ve been struggling with some writing, trying to write about Pascal’s triangle (I do understand this: it’s a triangular representation of binomial coefficients) and how (I think) it can also be used as a model for talking about heredity. I’m trying to work backwards on a particular element of genetics, tracing how a certain member of my family has been gifted with an ability for which there doesn’t seem to be a precedent. So I look at these diagrams and their attendant theorems and feel lost at sea somehow. But I do mean to figure it out.

In the meantime, spring is everywhere. Earlier this morning I went out to peek at the garden and realized I was hearing the first varied thrush song of the season. I thought of Don McKay, much easier for my brain to understand than the binomial theorem, and his beautiful poem, “Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush”:

                       …a close

vibrato waking up the pause

which follows, then

once more on a lower or a higher pitch…

Before I began voice lessons 6 years ago, I wouldn’t have understood the slight shifts in pitch, or vibrato, so maybe there’s hope.

what do they see?

Last week, six elk passed my window as I sat at my desk, musing. And this morning, at 6:30, I looked out to see the waning gibbous moon tangled in the highest limbs of the fir trees to the south of our house. And just before sleep last night, a northern saw-whet owl calling quite close (maybe even in those same fir trees). What do they see, looking at our house from their place in the trees or just passing at the edge of the forest? The elk saw me watching them and dissolved into the woods. But they did see me, sitting at this desk, through the window. I don’t know about the owl. Did it wait until it saw our lights go out to begin its night-hunting? I looked just now for a sign of it — white-wash or pellets filled with tiny bones below the trees. But nothing. As for the elk, they left a trail of droppings and the deep print of their toes in soft moss. And the moon? A memory of its soft-edged shape in the trees, its light.

March 21

how the signs survived the winter

When we rebuilt our vegetable garden in February of 2013, I made signs for the new beds. Unnecessary, I know, but I wanted to give each of them a name. The names came from qualities in the wood used to make the boxes (wavy edges on cedar boards or a long ovoid knot) or for the plants in that bed (garlic; and there’s also the Raspberry Vestibule and Raspberry Beret, where, guess what, the raspberry canes are planted) or for some other feature that came to mind (Old Deck, for the source of the wood for one bed; Postbox, for another, made of old railing 4×4 posts leftover when we replaced the railings on the upper deck with metal). There’s Long Barrow and Thin Deck. And the flower borders around the edges which are still unnamed. But give me time. Anyway, I thought the acrylic paint I used for the signs might fade over the winter but it didn’t. I wish my graphic skills were a bit more sophisticated. And it’s so wonderful to be able to work in the garden again, to see the robins hovering just behind me to feast on the worms dug up as I weed the beds, and to tuck the little sprouted pea seeds into the furrows. (I sprout them inside and plant them out when they’re about three inches high. Otherwise, birds pluck them from the ground just as they sprout and eat the tiny fresh tendril, leaving a hollow seed behind.) The floor around the woodstove is cluttered with pots of sprouting spinach, miner’s lettuce, tomatoes, and a few more trays of peas. And the sun is shining.

first…

…bumblebee in the crocus (also the first) but when I returned with the camera, it was gone.

P1090533And when I lifted a tub of daffodils to move them elsewhere, this fellow was crouched underneath.

P1090531He kept me company while I planted shallots and scallions and when I left, just now, he’d changed colour in anticipation of spring.

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convergent threads (an equation)

I’m (slowly) working on a long essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which hovers in and around mathematics, horticulture, family history, and memory. Part of the work of the essay is puzzling through some theories and planning a quilt to accompany this thinking. I’ve gathered many images from my reading about math and genetics and am struck over and over again by their beauty. My mind is always drawn to pattern so looking at some of the graphic representations of Mendelian inheritance, Pascal’s triangle (esp. his own drawing of this, with his beautiful handwriting), the elegant Hardy-Weinberg principle, and others has been a fascinating journey into design and method. Friends Joe and Solveigh gave me Edward Frenkel’s Love & Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality for my birthday in January and it’s been such a revelation to spend time in the company of this extraordinary mathematician. The book is part memoir, part explication of his introduction to, and life-long commitment to, the Langlands Program, essentially a grand unified theory of mathematics. I really enjoyed his joyous presentation of braid groups in Chapter Five (serendipitously titled “Threads of the Solution”); the illustrations are clear and nicely organized and I’ve been pondering how to translate one (or more) to a quilt block.

Sometimes a gift comes from an unexpected source. The other day an email friend, Andrea, sent a link to a Discover magazine feature on artists using math ideas to make art. http://discovermagazine.com/mathart 

scarf
A fashionable equation: the Yang Baxter scarf, by Robin Endelman, 2013. Manos del Uruguay’s Silk Blend (merino and silk, hand-dyed).

I’m not sure yet what my quilt block will look like but I was thrilled to see this scarf and am happy to know that others in the world experience math by translating its equations to thread and texture.

“What did the thrushes know?” (for Anna)

I’m writing this while snow falls. Again. Snow is not unheard of in our part of the world but it’s late this year, and abundant. Usually by now we are seeing salmonberry blossoms in the woods near us  — single blooms as early as February 17, I see in my notes, and often many by the end of February — and am I completely wrong or do we also hear the long whistles of varied thrushes when we walk down Sakinaw Lake Road in March? That may be pushing it — memory is not always reliable when it comes to hope.

The varied thrushes are around right now but this is because it’s cold and they’re drawn to the seeds that fall from the bird feeder strung on the clothes line. The clouds of chickadees and the animated Steller’s jays always spill some seed while eating and the thrushes wait quietly on the ground for an opportunity to forage a bit. They’re shy. This is the only time of year we can reliably see them. But that whistle — a long note on one pitch, then rising to another, ringing out of the dense woods: it’s one of my favourite bird songs. It’s both sweet and mysterious, somehow. Some mornings I hear it when I first wake, the rising notes pulling me to consciousness, and I lie in my bed listening with something close to pure joy.

Friend Anna in England sent me a link to an Edward Thomas poem this morning. “March” is a poem about spring, about thrushes, primroses, and snow. About faith too. These lines spoke to me so clearly:

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.

I had them in mind when I went out to fill the feeder just now, though the thrushes were not in sight. And the only primroses are in memory, the drifts of them in the hedgerows near the island where I lived for a time in Ireland and used to pass on my way to the nearest town for groceries. I wrote about those hedgerows in an essay, “Well”, in my book Phantom Limb: “…a dense hedge, with fuchia among it, on either side of the narrow road and the raised banks white with wild garlic, yellow with primroses. Birds sang unseen within its depths.” The only time in my life I’ve seen a badger was then. I watched it amble across the road and disappear into a tunnel or sett in the hedgerow. The rich growth above the ground was all the more remarkable for the thought of the tunnels below with their sleeping clans.

Edward Thomas’s poem has a special poignancy when I think of his life. He suffered from depressions and physical and psychological breakdowns. He wrote all his poems during a two-year period before his death, at the Battle of Arras, on April 9, 1917. His great solace was the natural world. His poems are filled with birds, with the sights and sounds of the countryside.

Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

It’s still snowing — even harder now. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of the tray of  primula from the supermarket, arranged by our front door. I always buy the creamy ones, the closest thing to the Irish beauties I still dream of and which Edward Thomas quietly memorialised more than a hundred years ago.

P1090505