My children are all in Edmonton where one of them lives with his wife and new daughter; the other two, with the wife of one of them, have travelled there for the long weekend, to visit and to meet their new niece. There was a phone call yesterday and a request: the address of the house in Beverly where my grandparents lived when my brothers and I visited them with my parents in the 1950s. (Later, after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother lived with her daughters, rotating her residencies, so that we saw her in a different house, a different context, when we visited in the early 1960s. Though mostly I remember she lived with her daughter Ann.)

I went to the untidy file of papers I kept after my father’s death in 2009 and found the address for them. John and I went in search of that house in 2011 and didn’t find the exact address but I recognized the neighbourhood, the park where my brothers played ball with a clan of boys with whom they formed immediate friendships. I recognized the river — my father’s boyhood friend Steve Josey (Josie?) lived in a house near the river and sometimes he’d cook lunch for my brothers and me. (My middle brother is named for Steve and my older brother is named for another friend, Dan Danilowich.) When I arrived home from that 2011 visit, I realized I’d copied the wrong address into my notebook so we were searching on the wrong street — 113 Avenue instead of 111. But this time I provided the correct address and I hope they found the house. My son said he said he intended to knock on the door and introduce himself to the current residents and I said, “If you do that and if they’re interested, tell them I can make copies of the building permit and materials receipts as all those things are in the file.” There were two houses, I remember, and it was my understanding that my grandparents built one of them in 1946. There are hardware receipts for lumber, socket sets, plaster, and light fixtures. I remembered them from the file and after our phone call, I began to look through it.

Then I called Forrest back in Edmonton. “I’ve just found a receipt for my grandparents’ burial plots in the Beechmount Cemetery,” I told him. “If you can, will you go there and take a photograph for me?” He said he’d been there, years earlier while attending a conference in Edmonton, but that he’d try to go and take a photograph for me. I kept looking at the receipt and thinking how it felt like a palimpsest. So when this photograph arrived this morning, it was one of those moments when time does its strange metaphysical shiver: a phone call, a receipt for plots purchased five years before my grandfather’s death (and three years before my own birth) and thirteen years before my grandmother’s death. A photograph sixty-two years later. A grave behind, for one of the sons who travelled from Horni Lomna with his mother in 1913 and a small plaque for the first daughter born in Drumheller after my grandmother’s arrival.

my grandparentsThis morning I’ve been looking through the file box to see what else is there. I did sort it in a cursory way after my father’s death but there was so much to do and think about at that time and I’ve forgotten most of what’s here. And it’s hard to place some of it, figure out how it fits. A handwritten paper, for instance, signed by “J. Prins” on February ?, 1946, certifying that my grandfather has paid 200 dollars for a house on the Humberstone Farm  which is to be moved on or before the first day of July. At a Beverly history site, I find that Jacob Prins came to Alberta in 1927 and eventually, “After careful consideration, he purchased the 186-acre Humberstone Farm, nestled in a broad bend of the North Saskatchewan River and atop the Humberstone Coal Mine. The purchase came with two bonuses: the mineral rights to the land and a large two-storey white house that William Humberstone had built as a rooming house for the coal miners.” My grandfather was a coal miner, first in Drumheller, then Beverly. I have no idea of his connection with the Prins family but somehow he bought a house that was moved to 111 Avenue and I have no idea if it was the small house with the tin roof in which my brothers and I slept on one visit to our grandparents or the bigger house where uncles and aunts gathered with my grandparents when my parent’s visited and where my grandfather cooked corn for us and, oh, how the years have passed and are reduced to hazy memories and a handful of hardware receipts. And a receipt for two grave plots, priced at 25.oo dollars apiece.

When I showed John the paper signed by J Prins, he read it slowly (he was standing on a stool in the sunroom where he was in the process of scraping the 100 year old windows in order to reputty their ancient glass and repaint the frames) and said, You need to catalogue this stuff. And I will.

“the secret of secrets”

I don’t watch much television so after dinner, when the kitchen is tidied and food put away, I head upstairs to read. I love to get into my bed, arrange four pillows comfortably behind me, and find my way into a novel. Or poetry. Or (as was the case the night before last) a recent Harper’s Magazine panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are windows on four sides of my bedroom and I can hear whatever is going on outside — boats down on Sakinaw Lake, teens on the highway laying rubber in the most extraordinary scribbles (this is surely a form of graffiti?), owls, loons, sometimes coyotes singing solo or in beautiful intricate harmonies. I’ve done this all the years we’ve lived in this house — we officially moved in on December 18th, 1982 but had been spending most of our time camping and then building (and sleeping on the floor of what’s now the dining area) for 18 months previous to that. I know that I don’t often have original thoughts and with my reading lately, I realize that I am repeating old habits. For some reason, I’ve been pulling old books off the shelf and taking them up to my bed. Yesterday it was Anna Akhmatova’s Poems, translated by Lyn Coffin. I have other translations — D.M. Thomas, Judith Hemschemeyer — but this collection is one I read 23 years ago when I was coming back to writing after an absence, one filled with babies and play-school and herding little children up and down the driveway to and from the school bus.

When I re-read “On the Road” last night, I was transported back to those years. It’s a poem that entered my body, my heart, and found a place in my own pulse. “This land isn’t native to me…” it begins. And how often I’ve felt that. As a young woman I travelled, mostly alone, through Europe, lived for a time in London, then on an island off the west coast of Ireland, trying to figure out how to be a writer. I wanted something. I wasn’t sure what it was. I’d burned bridges in the city where I’d grown up and wasn’t sure I could ever return. (I did, briefly.) I had such yearning, a girl’s yearning, and I’d try to imagine myself into the future. Would anyone ever love me? Would I find a place to make a home? In retrospect, these questions seem so melodramatic and silly but they were so real at the time. I remember staying with some new friends in the south of France just after my 21st birthday and wanting so badly to live among them, maybe in the grove where we ate lunch with a tribe of actors who’d restored an old stone house and made their own wine and brandy (an orange suspended on a wire in one vat). Or maybe in the caravan in the corner of a farmer’s field in Turlough, Co. Mayo, where an elderly friend cared for stray animals (me included) and shared her extraordinary memories day after day over pots of strong tea.

In my bed at night, I keep track of sunsets and they’re earlier now, redder (because of the haze of forest fires burning in the Interior, I think), and my white linen curtains turn pink for a moment as the sun tumbles down behind Texada Island. Last night, the lines of poetry were exactly true, as they were when I first read them and was preparing a manuscript of poems (which became Black Cup):

And the sunset itself in waves of ether

Is such that I can’t say with certainty

Whether the day is ending, or the world, or whether

The secret of secrets is again in me.

It’s been a summer of short trips — to Ottawa, the Okanagan, Edmonton (to meet my beautiful grand-daughter Kelly) — and house-guests and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. The garden has flourished, still flourishes, and I’ve been making preserves, curing garlic, shallots, and squash:

P1100481And I have writing to return to. For some reason I haven’t been able to work this summer, though the stack of quilt blocks on the trunk at the foot of my bed keeps me thinking about “Euclid’s Orchard” — both the essay about math and family history and horticulture as well as the actual quilt whose conception and making has been a companion to the writing. This morning I tried a pattern on my bed, tried to find a pleasing arrangement of the blocks. I’m not sure whether to arrange them in the order I made them or in an order that makes sense mathematically or in an order that resembles poetry and not science. (I’m leaning in that direction…) They’re a bit bigger than book pages and will be sashed with deep blue Moravian blue-print which I bought a few years ago in Roznov. (The quilt under them is a log-cabin I made for my parents’ 50th anniversary.)


But last night — and this morning — I feel as though the secret of secrets is again in me. And I’m ready.

from “Euclid’s Orchard”, a work-in-progress

wild apple

The stray, the unexpected variable

One apple tree remains under my care. It’s a Merton Beauty, bought as a tiny plant at a produce store in Sechelt. An organic gardener had grafted interesting varieties to dwarf rootstock and I chose one almost at random. Merton Beauty is a cross between Ellison’s Orange and Cox’s Orange Pippin. For years it sort of sat sullenly in a little circle of stones near the garden shed, caged in chicken wire. I’d water it, give it the occasional mulch of compost and drink of fish emulsion. A few frail blossoms, a inch or two of new growth. Then it produced some fruit and those apples were delicious. The information I’ve read about this variety stresses the aromatic flavour of the apples – their spicy taste, redolent of pears, cinnamon, aniseed. I can’t say I noticed those particular notes but the skins were pretty, russeted at the shoulders, and the flesh was crisp, with a true flavour of apple. Not the empty watery taste of many supermarket apples, sprayed, waxed, gassed, and stored for months.

When we rebuilt the vegetable garden after the septic field over which the garden was first made needed repairs, I replanted the Merton Beauty within the newly fenced area. I gave it lots of mushroom manure, bone meal, alfalfa pellets, and a long drink of liquid kelp to help it settle into its new home, a raised bed I called Apple Round.

We also have four crabapple trees up near the house. Two of them, growing in tandem, were given us twenty-five years or more ago by John’s mother, and each spring they bloom like debutantes, one in a pink gown and one in a white one. Working near them, we hear the bees. Most falls a bear comes for their scabby fruits which are the size of plums. And further down the driveway are two small crabapples, white-blossomed, with tiny apples the size of cranberries. Once upon a time I made jelly from a combination of the crabs but no one in our house really liked it and there are so many more rewarding preserves to make in fall so the bears are welcome, if they would only not break branches in their eagerness to gather fruit from the high limbs. And grouse too like to graze on the frost-bitten apples in late fall. More than once we’ve joked about a Thanksgiving dinner of apple-fed grouse but neither of us has the heart (or gun) to make this happen.

So one eating apple and its array of pollinators. And now the stray. Just beyond the sliding doors that lead from our kitchen to the sundeck, coming up from rocky ground, is a small tree that has revealed itself to be an apple. Not a Pacific crabapple – our native Malus (or sometimes Pyrus) fusca — which is what I thought it was when I finally recognized its leaves and bark. I left it to grow up beyond the pink rambling rose tangled among the deck railings so we could enjoy its blossoms in spring. Last year it had fruit, and they weren’t crabs but fairly large green apples: there were four of them and when it seemed they might be ripe, when they came easily off the branch when twisted a little, I picked one to try it. Not delicious, not even remotely. I think now of Euclid: “The whole is greater than the part.” A tree’s beauty is more than the taste of its fruit. But the question of course is how the tree got there. I know that apples don’t come true from seed. Blossom from a Merton Beauty, say, is pollinated by an insect bearing reciprocal pollen from another apple – here, it would be a crabapple – and although the resulting apples would be true to their tree, their seeds would be the children of the Merton Beauty and the crabapple. One in ten thousand of those seeds might produce something worth eating. Who are the parents of this stray apple tree? It started growing before the Merton Beauty began its small production of fruit. Did this tree sprout from a seed spit over the side of the deck or excreted by birds or even seeds from the compost into which I regularly deposited cores and peelings from apples given us by friends in autumn? Belle of Boskoops from Joe and Solveigh for instance which make delectable fall desserts and cook up into beautiful chutney. Or else a seed from the few rotten apples from the bottom of a box bought from the Hilltop Farm in Spences Bridge, their flavour so intense you could taste dry air, the Thompson River, the minerals drawn up from the soil, faintly redolent of Artemesia frigida. This stray is all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance, its unknown parents, and its uncertain future, for it grows out of a rock cleft, on a dry western slope. I won’t dig it up since I have no doubt its roots are anchored in that rock but I will try to remember to water it occasionally and maybe throw a shovel of manure its way this spring.

wild and pruned

I’ve written three books that are autobiographical in nature. Two of them are collections of personal essays which explore family stories, the natural world, history, and landscape. And one of them — Mnemonic: A Book of Trees — does those things too but through a particular lens, using a structure which provides a (loose) through-line. The book is a memory grove and the narrative takes place among trees past and present, wild and pruned.

I’m not a user of social media, apart from this irregular blog. Mostly it’s because I don’t understand the parameters. And I don’t much like the language.  Twitter, “friend” used as a verb… About a month ago I asked my daughter to help me set up a Facebook page, thinking that I was somehow not participating the cultural conversation. Within an hour I had many friends. I had messages. I looked at photographs. Every time I walked by my desk, I’d think, “Oh, I wonder what’s new with my Facebook friends?” I’d check. I still hadn’t learned the code about status updates or likes or any of that so I was a bit confused but I realized that one could waste spend a lot of time in the Facebook world.  That night I was awake for hours wondering what on earth I’d done. So I got up in the wee hours and did whatever one does to unsubscribe or unjoin Facebook. I felt such relief! We all have a line in the sand, I guess, and who knew this would be mine? I think it’s my metabolism. I want long relationships, in person, or conversations on the phone. I want to walk with my friends or give them dinner, not *heart* something they’ve said on Facebook. But I also realize that I’m very much among the minority in this respect.

I really enjoyed a recent piece in the New Yorker: “A Memoir is not a Status Update”, by Dani Shapiro. She writes of the difference between living out loud on Facebook, “sharing” every breath we take,  and the methodical work at the heart of writing a memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.”

For the past two years I’ve been working on an extended work of non-fiction, a memoir of sorts, and it’s a very slow process indeed. One frayed thread takes me to the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic, one tangled thread to Bukovina and the dense information in the metrical records of my grandfather’s village, one sad thread to Cape Breton Island, and one to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics. And then there’s the actual thread, the spools of cotton I use to stitch together the quilt that accompanies this work.

“We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve—the one that every writer is intimate with—rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.”

I get a little notice on the sidebar of the screen I use to compose these posts, asking me to refresh my connection to Facebook. But I’m not going to, not yet. I think it’s more important to keep my attentions focused on that slow deliberation, on the basket of thread I sort through regularly to see what colours I have to work with and what I might need in the future.

log cabin






We are half-way through the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival here on the Sunshine Coast. Though the days are grey and damp, the mood of those of us who help to organize the Festival is exuberant. It’s going so well. The musicians are stellar, the audiences (the concerts are sold-out) enthusiastic, the big baskets of flowers we gather and arrange each year are glorious, and the thought of three more concerts (this afternoon, this evening, and tomorrow afternoon) makes me pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

John and I are hosting the composer Kelly-Marie Murphy and her husband Greg Van Bavel. Kelly was commissioned by the Festival to compose a piano quintet in celebration of our 10th anniversary. The work, In a World of Motion and Distance, received its world premiere on Thursday evening, performed by the Lafayette String Quartet and pianist (and Festival Artistic Director) Alexander Tselyakov. It’s a stunning piece. (Look for the recording, released at the Festival on Thursday evening, along with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op.57, which will close the Festival on Sunday afternoon.)

It’s been really interesting to talk with Kelly about composing (and everything else under the sun), to realize the afinities with my own creative process — the gathering of material, allowing it to settle, recognizing the spark that ignites the imagination. She has a fine and graceful mind and it’s such a pleasure to have her here. John and I are already wondering if we can be in Ottawa in November for the premiere of her Blue on Blue: Unthinkable Distance,Unspeakable Sorrow, a work commissioned by the Ottawa Symphony’s music director, David Currie, to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary season. (For more information about this project, visit Kelly’s website:

This is how summer passes — beautiful music under August skies, the friendships begun on terraces by the ocean, and the knowledge that both the music and the conversations will continue.

pre-festival dinner

what were the owls up to…

…in the night, so loud near the house that I woke and came down to sit in the darkness, listening? They were barreds, one calling — Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all? — and the other buzzing. I thought of Gary Snyder, who wrote so beautifully of the deep night:

Long streak of cloud giving way

To a milky thin light

Back of black pine bough,

The moon is still full,

Hillsides of Pine trees all

Whispering: crickets still cricketting

Faint in cold coves in the dark

(from “True Night”, in Ax Handles)

It wasn’t pines in moonlight I saw, but Douglas firs, and the black limbs of arbutus. And owls, not crickets. But awake, in a private place, with the moon so tangled in the far boughs that only a little of its light filtered through to where I sat by my window. And that moon! Almost full — tomorrow night’s moon is the perigee full moon,  the time when it’s  closest to the earth. A time to wake and listen, to take in the sounds and cool air, to wonder about the snap of a branch, the click just beyond the window.  Maybe the owls feel the heightened beauty of the night before the perigee too. A perfect time for hunting.

This morning I was watering tomato plants on the upper deck and I almost stepped on this sawyer beetle, newly hatched from the bark of one of those trees. I think it’s Monochamus scutellatus, the white-spotted beetle. This one was big — I took out an old wooden ruler and discovered it was 30 mm. and its antennae were another 25 mm. long.  It wouldn’t stay still for a photograph but here it is, climbing out of a dish.



happy anniversary

My parents were married on August 4, 1950. My mum was 24 and my father was 23, soon to be 24. They hadn’t known each other long. My mum lived in Halifax and my father was in the navy, either stationed in Halifax at the time or there for some kind of naval function. My mother was a last-minute replacement blind date for a sailor whose friend was dating my mum’s friend. The original choice for the blind date became ill with the flu so my mum filled in. She once told me she knew that very night that he was the man she’d marry. Her foster mother didn’t approve of him and didn’t attend the wedding.

wedding day

My father has been dead for nearly five years and my mother, for four. I have some of their wedding gifts. Some damask napkins, which I found on their linen shelves, still in the original wrapping. Silver-plated flat wear; a pair of silver-plated salad servers. I think of them every time I polish the silver and set it on the table. They never used it. They were saving it for some special occasion.  Not family Christmas or Thanksgiving. Not birthdays. They didn’t “do” dinner parties but people did come for meals and no one thought to bring out the silver. There were never candles or linen napkins. But my mum liked to cook and the food was good and plentiful.

I see something of my son Brendan in my father’s smile. And two of my brothers have that look, too. I have my mother’s colouring. (I wish I had her shapely legs. Mine came from my father’s potato farming ancestors.) There’s so much about them that I don’t know — I thought they would live forever and there would always be time to sit down and ask questions about their childhoods, their dreams and fears. But I love looking at this photograph and seeing the way my mum looks at my dad and knowing that everything was about to happen, everything that is continuing 64 years later as I sit at my desk and remember them.


I drink water I cut fruit

I shove my hand in the leafy wind

The lemon trees irrigate the pollen of summer

Green birds tear my dreams

I leave in a glance

Eyes wide where the world becomes again

Beautiful from the beginning to the measurement of the heart.

                                               (from “Sun the First” by Odysseas Elytis, trans. Olga Broumas)

It’s at this point in the summer that I wonder if an automated watering system might be a good idea. I spend the whole of every morning watering. Some of this means simply turning on a sprinkler — most of the vegetable garden is watered this way. But the decks, where I grow tomatoes and flowers, and which mostly receive direct sun for a good part of each day, need to be done with hoses, sometimes twice a day. I have waterwands set up on two decks as well as the lower level for the cucumber boxes and they leak. We replace the washers, tighten connections, but still…So the plants get soaked and so do I.  It’s nice, actually, to come in out of the direct heat and realize that my skirt is soaked and in the moving air of the ceiling fan, I feel quite cool.

If I didn’t have to move along each deck with a hose, I’d miss things. The scent of the “Gertrude Jekyll” roses — heady and rich:


Or realize the source of the sweet smell I woke to around 6, drifting in my bedroom window, the second flush of wisteria:


Or this little tree frog, huddled in a corner. It’s the same frog I moved yesterday to a cooler place, the damp soil of a pot of parsley. But here it is again:P1100444Or a corner of zinnias, not yet in direct sun but full of its colour:

P1100460And in a very faint breeze, I heard a sound I hadn’t heard before. Looking up, I realized it was the wind-chimes I made yesterday of clam shells and a few bones (a fish-jaw brought back from Ireland many years ago and a tiny fragment of vertebrae), hanging over the outdoor table like a chandelier. But with music!