“Singing is simply a sign of human habitation, like smoke.” (John Berger)

This morning I woke at five and lay for a time listening to birdsong — robins, Swainson’s thrushes, at least one varied thrush, a western tanager, and others I couldn’t identify. I found myself thinking of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I bought a copy in New Mexico, in the lovely Tome on the Range in Las Vegas, and brought it home to be savoured over during the course of a week. Cather noticed landscape and how it shaped people. Shaped her, no doubt — no one notices the geography and weather of a place so much as one who has felt the imprint of that place on skin, the soles of feet walking its contours, eyes opened to its sky. I haven’t read all her books but certainly My Antonia and O Pioneers are full of Nebraska and Death Comes For the Archbishop is like a map of New Mexico, the arroyos and piñons lovingly recorded.

The Song of the Lark is Thea Kronborg’s story. Born in Moonstone, a small Colorado town, she knew from the very beginning that she would do something grand.

 “Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.”

Thea’s gift is music. And she aspires to be a singer. The novel traces her quest for teaching and for experience. She’s not entirely likeable and the men she encounters are a bit obsequious, even the one who knows her best and believes in her ability. Of course they — the men, I mean — are not free to love her wholly (what is it about Cather and the hidden wives, the dystunctional marriages?). But they offer money and encouragement and one of them, the wealthy Fred Ottenburg, offers her time in a transcendent place: his father’s remote ranch which contains Cliff-Dweller ruins. It’s here, in Panther Cañon, that Thea finds her voice again. Literally. (And it’s significant that the middle register is the range she has had trouble with.)

“Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind — almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and colour and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. She was singing very little now, but a song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was a like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than an idea, or an act of remembering.”

I loved this section of the novel. Cather takes the reader deep into the cañon where cottonwood seedlings flicker gold-green by the stream and swallows swim in the blue air. There are pot sherds (I saw so many of these at the Pecos monument) to remind her always of the original population:

“This care, expended upon vessels that could not hold food or water any better for the additional labour put upon them, made her heart go out to those ancient potters. They had not only expressed their desire, but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire, water, and something else — even here, in this crack in the world, so far back in the night of the past! Down here at the beginning, that painful thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight.”

The title of the novel is inspired by Jules Breton’s painting of the same name:

The_Song_of_the_Lark_(Jules_Breton,_1884)I can see how it appealed to Cather and the woman is certainly emblematic of prairie strength and beauty. But to my mind, it’s dated, and this novel has a rugged and contemporary heart. My copy has instead a cover image of a bird, clutching a strand of grass (maybe barley?), and looks almost pictographic in its simplicity. Like an image on a pot sherd, tawny and ochre, expressed as beautifully as some of the writing in this novel.song of the lark


Commonplace, from the Latin locus communis and the Greek tópos koinós

I spend a lot of time thinking about what is common to a particular place and how to gather these elements, how to commemorate them (somehow: in language, mostly, but increasingly in textiles, in hoards that resemble the nests of inquisitve birds or pack-rats). I used to keep an actual commonplace book but the habit fell away and I’m not sure I could devote myself to the practice again; my days are often completed filled with, well, the dailiness of my life. Yet I love to discover my old books in the drawer of my desk and read through them, amused or appalled what I chose to note down. Nothing quite as lovely as this passage from Virginia Woolf’s “Hours in A Library”: “[L]et us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing…”

Just now I took a little walk around the garden and realized how there were small things I wanted to record. The poppies I saw burst into bloom yesterday —

P1100189P1100196— one snake of the two I saw mating earlier by the garlic bed:

P1100191and a tree frog in an empty pot:

P1100187I spent a few minutes smelling the roses in what I call the “rose garden” but which is really a collection of potted roses on the upper deck (out of range of deer):

P1100181Then I paused to admire the progress John is making with the trellis/gate he’s building at the entrance of the vegetable garden (I requested this because the deer fence is so severe; I wanted something a bit more whimsical!):

P1100186And into the vegetable garden itself to think about picking lettuce for dinner:

P1100199and maybe some of the great peppery perennial arugula to spice it up:


icosahedron, bordered with cotton

While in Ottawa last week, I had a little peek at quilts in the curatorial wing of the Canadian Museum of History (formerly Museum of Civilization) in Gatineau — thank you, Forrest! — and my hands kept twitching. I wanted to make something! I wanted to work on my own quilt, which has been longer in the thinking stage than anything I’ve ever made. This is because of the long process of working out how to replicate the images I wanted to use. I’m much better at the doing than the planning. Strategies for this particular quilt have changed many times and so there hasn’t been much sewing — until yesterday, when I cut out and stitched the top and bottom borders on all the blocks. And this morning I’ve just finished the sides of the first block. It’s a model of Euclid’s icosahedron and I love how elegant it is. An icosahedron is a polyhedron with 20 equivalent equilateral triangle faces, 12 polyhedron vertices, and 30 polyhedron edges. In the Timaeus, Plato equated the polyhedra with elements and the icosahedron’s element is water. This block hasn’t been pressed so you can see the ruckles in this photograph. And the colours aren’t quite true. But I love the cotton, something from my quilter’s stash which I could never find the right use for, and I don’t have enough of it to line up the pattern at the corners perfectly. But every quilt is a a version of the Platonic ideal, I suppose, and maybe the next one will be better…

icosahedron block

waiting at home

Yesterday we returned home from a week in Ottawa, a week during which a deck was built, many walks were taken, large meals were indulged in, and some explorations were conducted at the Museum of Civilization. I kept seeing wildflowers I wasn’t familiar with (near Calabogie Lake), and trees. A pine with very long soft leaves. Oaks just coming into leaf, the leaves themselves almost frilly, with red margins. (I brought back an acorn and will try to grow one for myself.) On the Eagle Nest trail, there was a small toadlet and amazing views and I brought back memories of those stored in a safe place.

Coming up the driveway, we were so thrilled to see that the wisteria framing our patio (on a long cedar beam taken from a tree we took down years ago and had milled into lumber, a process described in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees) was in full bloom. When we left last week, it was in bud, the leaves opening but not yet fully out. Friend Jeffrey, who stayed here for a couple of nights while we were away, took this photograph:

wisteriaThere are two more of these beauties around the house and I took a root to Forrest and Manon for their garden. (John has already been booked for next spring to help them to build a pergola over one end of the new deck.) The wisterias came from John’s mother who brought them in turn from her mother’s garden in Felixstowe, along with mint, perennial geranium, honeysuckle, tucked into her suitcase after summer visits. I took kale to Ottawa and a tiny mountain ash; and I brought back violets, the ones growing like weeds in the grass and which I carefully dug up from the place where the deck was going to be built.

And it looks like one of my novellas has found a home. A publisher who is enthusiastic about the form has written to say she would love to publish Patrin in the spring of 2016! More on this as things develop but this news is too good to keep to myself!

imagine the days

Mid-way through our week in Ottawa. The days are filled with deck-building (Forrest and John) —

P1100129delicious meals courtesy of Forrest and Manon —

P1100125sitting in Pressed Cafe and listening to poetry (John, Pearl Pirie, and Catherine Brunet), a lunch with Andrea Cordonier (who came prepared to work on the deck but torrential rain meant we stayed inside and talked instead: a pleasure…), and walks through Richelieu Park where trilliums are blooming and some sort of native lily will be in a few weeks (a leaf not unlike the Erythronium oregonum so I’m wondering if these are trout lilies?). Vanier is a neighbourhood of great diversity — old houses and a butcher and porches meeting the streets and a little Mexican restaurant (Ola Cocina where we sat at a sidewalk table and ate duck tacos which were so wonderful). Across Beechwood is Rockcliffe, entirely different, but we went there, to Jacobsons, to buy divine cheese (La Sauvagine, a washed-rind cheese from Quebec which I could happily eat for the rest of my life) and an elk pate I bought just for revenge (see previous posts about elk eating my garlic during a period of garden reconstruction and ongoing consumption of our orchard).

And imagine violets in the grass like weeds (I have a little bag of them wrapped in paper towel to take home with me to try around our patio, the same bag that brought kale seedlings here the other day and which are happily tucked into the vegetable garden as I write…) and brilliant cardinals in the trees. Imagine every step you take in this house being observed by Matilda:


And imagine a bedside table with two new gifts, from Forrest’s workplace (The Museum of Civilization or, no, it’s now the Canadian Museum of History): Sanatujut: Pride in Women’s Work (Copper and Caribou Inuit Clothing Traditions) and The Whaling Indians: Legendary Hunters.


A day to think of mothers — mine, John’s, both dead — and to celebrate one’s own maternity. And I do. My children have been one of the greatest joys of my life. Sometimes I walk around and see this house and its garden as it was when my children were small. They were pretty much free-range. They had 8 acres of our woods and clearings to explore and then continued from there to the lakes, the mountain behind us, and now to Ottawa, Edmonton, and Victoria. Today I thought of them as I encountered snakes in the sunny grass, two tree frogs, and watched violet-green swallows swoop over the garden. These are constants, waited for every spring, and noted with such pleasure. (I know snakes don’t necessarily sound lovely but they are so useful and if you look at them carefully, you can see the beauty in their markings and the elegance in their movement.)

John’s mother brought a tiny crabapple, a seedling or sucker from her own tree, and now it is perhaps 25 feet high, and wide, welcoming — it’s humming with bees today and in the fall, a bear will come for its fruit.

P1100097A clump of sweet-scented white violet which has grown here since 1987 when Vi (short for Violet) Tyner left a bit of it on the seat of my car while I was shopping, its growing conditions noted in her spidery handwriting.

P1100100And remember Oberon, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, asking Puck to bring him ““…a little western flower / Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound / And maidens call it love-in-idleness.” (Act II, Scene 1.) That was the tri-coloured viola or heartsease and I love seeing it growing wild among the new grass:

P1100101In herbal lore, it is associated with happy memories summoned to ease the heartbreak of separation. No heartbreak here but a kind of thoughtfulness. Where have the years gone? Why did I keep hearing children at play in the woods while I planted savoy cabbages and weeded the salad patch?

notes from a work-in-progress

Anyone expecting to see regular updates on my Euclid’s Orchard quilt and essay must be thinking I am very lazy indeed. And in a way I am. It’s been a long process to figure out how to translate the material I am working on in the form of this essay to actual tangible quilt blocks. I’m not much a seamstress although I’ve been sewing since grade eight when we made aprons and jumpers in Home Economics. I was careless then, in a hurry to finish so I could have an actual made object in my hands, and I’m careless still. I’ve made more than 25 quilts and the sewing has never progressed to the point where anyone looking at them ever comments on the actual stitching. But never mind. I love the process and if you kind of squint when you look at one of my quilts, you might mistake it for something accomplished.

The problem with this quilt is that I am using images from textbooks, many of them graphic representations of particular mathematical theorems or ideas. I’d thought of simply trying to draw them onto white cotton and then embroidering them to highlight the parts that are relevant to the ideas I’m pursuing in my essay. But when I tried to do the drawings, they were lopsided and I knew that every step along the way would compound this problem. And let’s face it: a person who is careless at sewing isn’t going to be any better at embroidery.

I’ve seen quilts with computer-printed images on them so that seemed like a good solution. I thought I could design the blocks on my computer and then take the files somewhere to be printed. That didn’t work. The place I thought would do it, wouldn’t. So then I planned to print them myself, backing cotton with freezer paper which supposedly makes it possible to use it in a printer. But ours is a  a laser printer, a good one, and those won’t work. (They generate too much heat, apparently.) Finally, after some more weighing and pondering, I ordered an ink-jet printer (which seems like the height of self-indulgence) and bought four packages of specially prepared ink jet printable fabric.

Then I looked at my images again and they seemed awfully busy. I wanted one element to travel from one block to another, to provide continuity. But what could that be? Because this is an essay about mathematics and ideas but also about a real orchard, ours, which is fenced with chicken wire, and because one section of the essay is about bees and how they construct their honeycombs in hexagonal cells (which Pappus of Alexandria attributed to “a certain geometrical forethought”), I decided to use a simple model of those cells which echo the pattern of chicken wire. So here’s one block, just printed, the one I chose to accompany the section of the essay which meditates on inheritance. This uses a graphic representation of dominant and recessive phenotypes:



Something else will happen to this block when the entire quilt top is completed — and so think of it  bordered with Moravian blueprint cotton, brought back from Brno two years ago, and maybe embellished with beads and gold thread among those cells. There will be 14 blocks altogether and I hope I have enough of the blueprint for the top. If not, there will have to be more improvisation…

 When I first began to work on this essay, I wrote this little aria, which I think I posted ages ago. But it’s still at the heart of this work I’m doing, so I will conclude with it.

Aria leading to summer

“Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come…” (Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, April 21, 1932) How I felt that as I looked at our photographs of White Pine Island – Brendan and Angie in their little bathing suits, Lily on a log, Forrest rowing the boat away from us, my parents smiling the summer of their 40th wedding anniversary. All the years of our family, the warm days, the smell of pine, the silken texture of dry grass flattened under our towels, taste of lemonade from the River Trails thermos jug, all of them collapsed into an hour, a moment, held in my hands, water falling through my fingers. How do I keep my memories intact, how apart from this, a brief time in the middle of the night, darkness pressed to the window by my desk, myself reflected in glass as I sit in my white nightgown, every cell in my body yearning for those I have loved, still love, though the only one left in the sleeping house is John. Whom I have loved, still love.

Emboldened by Virginia, I think of what I want to say, not what form it must take. There will moments when I embellish, or downright invent; there will be brief arias, phrases of poetry, the instructions for making a quilt, for working out the puzzle of Mendelian genetics.

the quiet world

Well, it’s quiet here — apart from roosters down by the lake — but not still. When you take the time to see what’s going on, it’s astonishing. We were just having coffee on the deck off our second-storey bedroom and we saw the mason bee we’d noticed yesterday. There’s a tiny hole in the siding and yesterday the bee was going in and out of it. Today it was just hovering around the entrance. When it left, and I looked closer, I saw that the hole has been filled in with mud. I got out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders to try to figure out what was going on. I learned that the female mason bee constructs small nest cells of clay which she provisions with pollen and nectar before laying a single egg. And then I read this, which is as much of a found poem as anything: “Some species include plant fragments in their nest construction. Others build inside empty snail-shells, and still others line each nest with snips of flower petals.”

mason bee nestThere are also a lot of mud-daubers around right now, looking for ideal locations for their nests. Here’s one building just outside the bathroom window:

mud dauberIn the notes on mud-daubers, I discover more interesting drama that happens without us even noticing:”Using its mandibles, female shapes small masses of moist mud into balls and makes joined tubular cells. Into each cell female stuffs 1 paralyzed spider, immobilized by venom, then lays 1 egg on spider and closes cell with mud.”

And speaking of drama (though in quite a minor key), I saw a snake yesterday rush up to an area below a little Japanese maple, its mouth stuffed full. It appeared agitated and after shoving its face into the moss, it lifted its head, mouth now empty, and began the process of trying to get its jaw back into position. (Garter snakes can unhinge their jaws while eating large prey.) Because I was there, it moved away a little and rested its head on a small stone, opening and closing its mouth, like a cat yawning. (I could see inside its mouth and it was red!) I poked around in the moss and saw that the thing it had been carrying was a huge slug. I thought I would help by tossing the slug to where the snake had by now eased its jaw back into place. But instead of taking the slug,  it returned to the moss and began to plunge its head down, looking for its dinner. Here’s the snake this morning, in the same area. I never knew they cached food.

snakeBecause we are anticipating our first grandchild in July, I said to John, “Won’t it be wonderful to show small children these things?” To which he rolled his eyes and made texting motions with his fingers. (We don’t own a cell phone which is why I have a huge reference library of field guides to use instead of looking up mason bee behaviour on a smart phone.) But honestly I can’t imagine a child not wanting to watch a snake dislocate its jaw and yawn like a cat or fail to be delighted at this tree frog taking the sun on a May morning:

tree frog

green pie

To keep up with the kale — which is last year’s planting and it’s wanting to bolt but this year’s seedlings aren’t quite big enough to begin cutting — I’ve been making green pie. Two big ones today, one to eat over the next few days and another for the freezer. Tomorrow I’ll make a couple more. When our plane landed in Vancouver last Tuesday, after 12 days in New Mexico and five in Edmonton, I thought how beautiful and lush everything was. Grass, trees, even sea itself as we drove home up the coast highway. And when we got to our place, it was the kale I saw first of all. I thought of the lines from the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Phaiakia (and I think they are even better in the Fagles translation than the Fitzgerald which is the one I usually consult, mostly because it was the one my wonderful Classics professor Peter Smith taught to us in 1974):

And there by the last rows are beds of greens, 

bordered and plotted, greens of every kind, 

glistening fresh, year in, year out.”. (Book Seven, 129-31)

So kale and dandelion greens and blood-red sorrel, picked while still glistening with morning damp.

P1100056And they steamed down to this:


I mixed them with chives, mint, and last year’s (frozen) dill, eggs, some delicious fresh feta, and arranged the greens over the filo, bringing out the Greek olive oil which had languished in a dark cupboard and looked like it should spend a little time outside first, reclining on the rosemary:


And now the green pie is cooling on the worktable while we enjoy a glass of wine outside, in sunlight, with a few mezes — beet and toasted walnut spread on little rice crackers, some peas, a hummus made with roasted carrots and chickpeas.

P1100068After one of the wonderful extended catalogues for which the Odyssey is justly famous, listing those rows of greesn, figs, apples, and every other kind of fruit, the vines which would yield wine, all watered from a clear fountain, Homer ends the passage by saying, “These were the gifts of Heaven.” Who can argue?