a face in the window

“Come upstairs, quickly!”

And I did. John was in his study — long windows looking out on the upper deck and the woods beyond. A small animal had just looked in at him as he sat at his desk, standing on its hind legs. His immediate thought was a weasel. So we went to the sunroom and yes, we could see a weasel darting in and out behind the potted tomatoes. And where was the camera? Downstairs.

By the time I came up with it, the weasel — we think a least weasel (Mustela nivalis) but possibly a short-tailed weasel (M.erminea) — was out on the edges of the deck, by the railings, but moving quickly so it was hard to get a good image of it. Here it is (blurry) on a little stair leading from one deck level to another:


One morning, years ago, home alone and sitting on the rocking chair in the kitchen by the woodstove, I had the sense that something was watching me. When I looked to the sliding doors leading to the deck, I saw a small animal standing on its hind legs, front paws against the glass. Somehow I knew it was a weasel. It watched me watching it. It was curious and didn’t immediately run away — not until I got up from the chair. What had I been doing? Quilting probably. Or drinking a cup of coffee in the sudden quiet after the children had gone down to the school bus. I’ve never forgotten that face — bright eyes, soft brown fur.

There’s a Leonardo Da Vinci painting I’ve always loved, the Lady with an Ermine (an ermine is the short-tailed weasel in its winter pelage) —

300px-Dama_z_gronostajem–though the animal is depicted much larger than life. Still, its sinuous shape is right. The lady is Cecilia Gallerani and there are two theories about why she is holding an ermine (though I suspect both are right: Leonardo had a lively mind…). In his own Bestiary, Leonardo tells us, “The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.” So a nod to Cecilia’s purityand chastity –though it’s possible she was pregnant with her lover’s child when the portrait was painted. She was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was Leonardo Da Vinci’s employer. And I love that the first two syllables of her surname echo the Greek word for weasel (ermine): γαλέη (galée).

While I was sitting at my desk, reading the entry for the least weasel in Mammals of British Columbia, I heard a strange sound in the papers behind my door. But I didn’t pay much attention. And a few minutes later, John called down again: “I just saw the weasel running across the room!”

Sure enough it was in the house. When I went back upstairs, I saw it race out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Through the kitchen. I saw it run to the same sliding doors where I’d seen that earlier weasel at least 20 years ago. John quickly closed doors to other rooms and we opened the outside doors. The weasel was behind the washing machine. It peeked out a couple of times — that beautiful face. Then we watched it run through the utility room and out the back door.

Was it the same weasel? We were sure we’d seen that one leave the upper deck by the staircase leading down to the grass. There was a door open behind us — to the sunroom — so maybe a second animal slipped in behind us.

Back at my desk, I read that “Most human encounters with a Least Weasel result from lifting plywood, sheet metal or hay bales. These sightings are understandably brief, because the weasel wastes little time in finding the nearest escape route.”

I wonder how Cecilia was able to coax her animal to remain in her arms for the time it would have taken a great artist to paint her portrait. In various pieces about the painting, critics point out that the ermine is likely a composite. Leonardo drawings from around that time are full of dog paws, boar and bear heads, and there’s even a drawing of a hunter beating an ermine to death.



I was lying in my bed, listening to birdsong, the echo of sounds I’ve heard for more than 30 Junes — Swainson’s thrushes, black-headed grosbeaks, robins, and even loons down on Sakinaw Lake. And I was reading Michael Longley’s Snow Water, specifically the poem “Echoes”, when I heard a loud thump as a bird hit the big window in the living room. I went out in my nightdress with a soft cloth to gather up whatever had collided with the deep reflection of trees in the plate-glass. And it was this tiny bird.

P1100344I think it’s a vireo, the one formerly known as a solitary vireo. Maybe not, though. I’m not a birder by nature and the fine divisions leave my memory as quickly as they enter it. But it was — is — alive and I did what I’ve always done: picked it up with a cloth and held it upright. When it began to move its head and I could tell its neck wasn’t broken, nor its wings, I let the cloth drop. It perched in the bowl of my hands for about five minutes before it flew up to a nearby lilac where it sits now as I write, blinking and looking out at the world, shaken but alive. It was as light as a breath. Almost as light as

. . . a bumble bee on a thistle head

Suspended, neither feeding nor dying.

So now back to Michael Longley and his beautiful poems with all the world in them, the smallest of lives and the losses and the terrible wars and the solace of otters.  And while I read them, I’ll remember the first time I heard loons on this piece of land. We’d come up to begin to prepare the site for the house we were planning to build. We knew nothing about building but we had a few tools and John had drawn basic plans and had them blueprinted (as one did then). John put together a plywood platform and we set our tent on that so we’d be at least up off the ground — it was April, a rainy month on the coast. We had a two-week old baby and he slept between us. Awake one night to feed him — that at least was simple! — I heard loons, the long mournful cry they make most often when they’re breeding and nesting. It’s a sound I’ll never forget, just as I’ll never forget the tiny weight of that bird in my hand, the close tangle of  my husband and child in the darkness of our tent at the very beginning of what became a family, the echoes we carry in our hearts and remember on June evenings, reading poetry before sleep.

he comes most mornings

This is our regular morning visitor. His antlers are growing and are covered in soft velvet.He browses on the edges of our grassed areas and is very calm when we go out to shoo him away. Sometimes he refuses to run into the woods but stands, inclining his head in our direction as we tell him how beautiful he is, how we hope for all good things for him, but why not leave our garden alone?

P1100339And just as lovely, this is one of the northern alligator lizards living in the pile of old cedar shakes we kept for kindling after having the roof replaced with blue metal years ago. I love how this lizard is resting its chin on its tail.


my hands are full

In April, 2008, I travelled to a number of small communities along the Yellowhead Highway and beyond as part of a book tour for authors shortlisted for B.C. Book Prizes. (My collection of personal essays, Phantom Limb, had been nominated for the Hubert Evans Award.) I particularly remember the drive to Kitimat where Mary Novik and I spent time with high school kids in the afternoon and then, before the evening reading at Book Masters, Bryan Pike (the amazing organizer and driver for the tour) took us out to the Haisla village of Kitamaat for dinner at Sea Masters. The restaurant was right on the edge of Douglas Channel and we sat by a window and ate wonderful food — crab cakes with mango salsa, snapper,  halibut: food taken from the waters we looked out on. Pristine waters, alive with seabirds, mists, and seals near the shore.

It was a sublime experience. I’ve often thought of that channel, particularly now that the news is full of the federal government’s go-ahead to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal which would bring bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat where it would then be taken to offshore markets by supertankers navigating the wild waters of our western coast. I’m not an economist nor a energy expert nor a captain of any kind of industry apart from my home and garden. But I’m a citizen and I don’t believe this project is sound. I recall the terrible days following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. The giant tanker ran into Bligh Reef, releasing up to 750,000 barrels of crude oil into those pristine waters. This was an accident that “couldn’t happen” — statistically, at least. But it did. I remember the photographs of seabirds, sea and river otters, seals, orcas, all covered in oil and dying. The long-term damage and losses were catastrophic — think of the communities dependent on those resources: the mussel and clam beds, the herring and salmon runs, the eel-grass beds providing nurseries for little organisms.  All these years later, crude oil continues to be a problem in soils and sands.

So the petitions are circulating and I’ve signed one: http://www.letbcvote.ca/ And I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that this pipeline doesn’t progress any further than it already has.

But I was delighted to learn that the Gitga’at First Nations have come up with a plan. http://chainofhope.ca/ “Made of multicolour yarn and decorated with family keepsakes and mementos including baby pictures and fishing floats with written messages on them, the chain will stretch from Hawkesbury Island to Hartley Bay, a distance of 11,544 feet.” http://westcoastnativenews.com/first-nation-plans-symbolic-blockade-on-douglas-channel-against-enbridge-northern-gateway-pipeline-and-supertankers-project/

It doesn’t surprise me that women are protesting with yarn and old skills. I sometimes think we meditate with our hands, we come to solutions by feeling our way through problems, loneliness, grief, hardship, and traumas by immersing our hands in the materials of creation. And while I’ve been listening to news of this yarn blockade, I’ve been meditating myself, knitting a blanket for my first grandchild, due in July. The connection between keeping a newborn baby warm and safe and protecting the place I love so dearly is as clear as anything I know.




on strands of silk

P1100316We were on the deck, enjoying a glass of wine in the late dappled light of June, when John noticed that hundreds of tiny spiders had just hatched on the underside of a (much-repaired) table against the side of the house.

P1100310What kind of spiders are these? I have no idea. No sign of the parents, who might resemble something in the Audubon Field Guide to Insects and Spiders I keep on my desk. These are the size of the head of a pin, golden and brown. When I blew gently on the mass, a whole lot of them drifted down on strands of silk.

P1100311Though we didn’t see the mother who’d prepared the sheets of silky material where eggs were laid in a sac and developed, it was strangely moving to see the spiderlings drift down to the wooden deck board, the earliest to leave, while the others stayed close to the underside of the table where they’d hatched without us ever knowing. I thought of Walt Whitman, much in our minds these days as we remember his poems about grass and the dead and the soul and yes, spiders.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

life in the (bee-loud) forest

When I taught writing classes many years ago, I used Denise Levertov’s poem “Life in the Forest” as an object lesson in the use of commas. It was a poem I loved —

The woman whose hut was mumbled by termites

–it would have to go,

be gone,

not soon, but some day:

she knew it and shrugged —

had friends among the feathers,

quick hearts.

I’ve just been out logging the kale forest, last year’s “trees”.  The garden needs the room for squash and other things, not the least of which is this year’s kale. But when I reached for the thick trunks, all I could hear was bees. The yellow blossoms were alive with them. I carefully pulled up the plants and set them by the compost so the bees could continue to do their work. The industrious bees barely noticed I was there.


The volunteers I transplanted last month have come along nicely


and we’ll barely notice last year’s plants have gone — though the bees will have to find other flowers to sustain them. Luckily the vegetable garden is filled with roses and campanula:


I have three small pots of black Tuscan kale to plant out now, the kind with lovely pebbled leaves and an earthy flavour. I look forward to eating a cultivar I know the name of. What I currently have is mongrel — red Russian, Portuguese, Siberian, and collards have all been cross-pollinated by those bees (or their grandparents) and the offspring grow to such healthy heights that I have a hard time uprooting them to let their own children have a turn. Some resemble the parents. Some are deeply lobed, some ruffled, some streaked with purple, some as grey-green as winter rain.

That poem I taught for its punctuation speaks to me in a different way now, with an urgency I wouldn’t have understood 30 years ago.

The trees

began to come in of themselves, evenings.

The termites labored.

The hut’s green moss of shadows

gave harbor

to those who sheltered her.







a mutation of thrushes

I looked in An Exaltation of Larks for the collective noun for robins. There are so many of them this year, singing, playing chicken on the side of the highway (and these must be males, flying up at the last minute…), and following me in the garden, ready to plunge their beaks into the newly-dug soil for worms. And there’s isn’t one. The closest is “a Mutacyon of threstyllys” from the Porkington MS, a mid-15th century miscellany of poetry and prose now held in the National Library of Wales.  The term appears to come from the belief that thrushes grow new legs at ten years of age and cast their old ones aside.

Last year, in July, I wrote a series of posts about the robins nesting on the cedar beam across our patio. It was the first time they’d nested in that particular spot, though we’ve watched robins build on an elbow of drainpipe on our printshop, in an angle of grapevine climbing our southern wall, and — three times! — in a willow now completely claimed by clematis above the west-facing deck. One year we watched three robins learn to fly and it echoed the passage of our own children away from home. It was very sweet to see the parents and two of the young all in a fir tree calling to the remaining nestling until, whoosh, it flew clumsily from the nest to join them. Every time I see this, I wish for wings myself. Imagine just…well, flying. Gliding away from the nest on wings you never knew you had, the whole world opening.

We were away for four days last week and when we returned, there was a nest in exactly the same place on the beam. No sign of robins but a nest, newly made. And by yesterday, there was a female robin tucked into it — so I’m assuming she’s incubating eggs. The literature talks about “nest fidelity” — the willingness of robins to return to locations and even reuse the same nests. Ours have never reused a nest but maybe that’s because we occasionally remove them (the one on the beam last year) or else the clematis smothered the opening where a bird might enter the cool interior of the willow.

This year, the female is not as skittish as last July. She remains on the nest while I’m watering. I put a saucer of worms on the ground below the nest and went off to do something else. When I passed that way again, I noticed that all the worms had been eaten. So I bet she remembers that I fed her last year too.

I think of Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Every year the same things happen. I begin the tomato seeds. I wait for the first ripe fruit. Baskets of sun-warmed tomatoes give me such pleasure that I forget I’ve done this for nearly 30 years. And the robins, with their echo of our own life, the tune without the words : a nest,  patience, the helpless young growing to maturity in the time it takes to close my eyes, then open them.


they leave impressions on the landscape

I’ve been thinking about how we remember — details, stories, the intricate branchwork of family trees.  We gather materials and try to put them into a semblance of  what we imagine the whole complex structure to be. And yet there’s so much we’ll never know.

The other day we stopped by Whipsaw Creek where our friend Liz remembered collecting fossils with her children many years ago.  I’d seen fossils of Eosalmo driftwoodensis, a genus of extinct salmon found in various locations, including the Princeton area. The fossils in the Princeton chert are from the Eocene period, dating back 56-33 millions years. The little museum in Princeton has a good collection but this time we were going to look for our own and I had my heart set on a fish.

Alas. But I was so glad to find this, a tiny bit of flora from the past contained in a piece of rock. (Look at the upper edge of the rock. I tried to get the clearest image possible but I don’t have a camera designed for this kind of photography.)

little fossil from Whipsaw CreekI don’t know what kind of leaf it is.  Other finds in the area include dawn redwoods, ginkgos, the samara and leaves of elms, birches, ferns, and conifers. But to hold this in my hand, something millions of years old, and to think of its origins in that place…How much is contained in such a small remnant of the past.

When you pay attention, the past is everywhere. It might be the immediate past, like this skin discarded by a garter snake sometime in the last few days (and discovered this morning as I watered the rhododendron it was lying under):

empty skinOr this ranch on the Bridesville-Rock Creek Road, about as eloquent as a homestead could possibly be, with its lilacs and bluebirds and weathered boards, the song of the yellow-headed blackbirds in the marsh behind me as I took this shot:


I study these and try to piece together their stories — a ginkgo leaf, maybe, at the dawn of time, a snake easing itself out of an old skin, its new one bright and tender underneath, or a ranch in its bowl of sunlight, remembering the generations who cut the hay and tended the cattle.