blue eyebrows

Every year, around this time, the Steller’s jays return to the Douglas firs outside the sliding doors leading to our deck. They’re around all winter, hogging the bird feeders, chasing the more timid birds away, even drop-kicking the sliding doors occasionally to get our attention. They disappear for the nesting period and return around mid-September. I love them. Is there any colour more beautiful than the blue of their plumage? A blue hidden in their name, Cyanocitta stelleri (“cyan” from Greek κυανός, transliterated kýanos, meaning “dark blue” and the specific name for Georg Steller, a zoologist and botanist who was part of the Russian explorations of Alaska in the early to mid-18th c.). The same ones come back year after year. For how long? I don’t know that. But the oldest Steller’s jay on record was 16 years, one month. So chances are some of ours have been visiting for at least a decade. And I know at least some of them are regulars because they do exactly the same things to get my attention. They follow me around if I’m outside. If I’m in the kitchen, they sit in the firs and yell. I put a few pumpkin seeds on one of the posts and within seconds, an adult will swoop down and cram as many into its mouth as possible. When that one leaves, a juvenile — these ones don’t yell; they don’t do that until they’ve been around a bit and learned the routine — will come for what’s left.

And how do I know the adults? They have black heads and blue eyebrows. This guy has just eaten every seed. In a few minutes I’ll put more out for the offspring — their heads are more brownish and they don’t have the eyebrows. But imagine having those to look forward to as you grow into adulthood!


last day of September

Another summer, another season. This morning I made a fire in the woodstove and the smell of smoke took me forward into fall. It was a long hot summer and the Douglas firs began to show the stress about ten days ago, rusty needles falling over the patio, the car, and settling into the kale leaves so that I need to rinse them before I use them. (Though this morning’s rain has rinsed the ones I just picked completely clean!)

P1100575Autumn is a time of paradox. I let things go — keeping the plants on the decks tidy and dead-headed (because most of them will go to the compost in the next week or so; or else they’ll be pruned back and brought into the sun-room or, in the case of the potted roses, tucked against the house for winter); keeping the beans picked (they’re still producing but I’m letting them get big for seed); and not bothering to worry about watering. John has coiled the hoses for winter. The birds have stripped the mountain ash berries, small and fermented, and hit the windows in their drunkenness. (No casualties yet but I suspect more than a few of them have nursed fairly major headaches…) No more summer salads. The other night I made a casserole of rabbit in wine, the juices mixed at the end with cream and Dijon mustard. A handful of chanterelles. Grilled polenta slices to hold the sauce. Raccoons are eating the last of the grapes and the bears, like us, are waiting for salmon.

A time to settle in and burrow into writing. Our friend Anik visited for a few days, enroute home to Amsterdam from a three-month residency at the Berton House in Dawson City, and we talked about our work. She’s calling what she’s working on “fictional essays” and I like that. It’s an interesting way to approach the “what ifs” that the stacks of material I have constantly ask me. What if you knew more about your grandfather’s boyhood? (Another paradox: I know the name of the midwife who delivered him in Ivankivtsi (or Ivankovtsy) in 1879 but I don’t know if he had brothers or sisters.) What if someone wrote to you and told you she was your mother’s sister? Her cousin? What if the mysterious woman in the photograph among your father’s papers began to speak?

When I went out to cut the kale this morning (for a breakfast smoothie, in case you’re wondering…), my feet (in flip-flops) were soaked with rain and the cool air of the last day of September. But the morning glories are blooming, their flowers the blue of a summer sky.


the small god

This morning, a young deer, a yearling buck, came to eat the grape branches torn off by raccoons the other night. John called to say he was out in the back and I went out to talk to him. It didn’t really matter about the grapes — I’d picked what I needed for the most beautiful jelly flavoured with rosemary and a few hot chilies — but I don’t want the deer coming so close to the house. They inhale roses, for one thing. And I think it’s better for them to keep their boundaries. That’s what I told him. Yet I felt I was in the presence of a god when I stood quite close to him and watched him watching me. (Though every time I tried to photograph his face, he looked away.)

P1100571The Greek hermit saint, St. Giles, is always portrayed with a hind at his side.


In some versions of his story, he lived in a forest in the south of France and fed upon the milk of the hind who slept at his feet. John said, as I was talking to our young visitor, “It wouldn’t take much to tame him.” But I’d rather leave him wild, though it was hard to resist stroking that face.

dreaming of sombrio beach

I’ve felt restless lately, caught in a mesh of memories and regrets. Not regret for what I have — I love everything about the life I am living, the participants in that life, its context. But perhaps I mean I regret not having gone a little further down a road I tentatively explored in the mid-1970s. In those years, I was trying to figure out how to be a writer. I thought it meant choosing a place and giving up everything else to be there. In a way I’ve done that. But I wonder about the other places, the ones I spent time in and loved. The ones that provided a template that is a transparency through which I still see the world, understand its complexities, and through which I still dream.

After last week’s lovely interlude at the Pacific Rim, I am reminded of how much time I spent as a young woman on the far beaches of Vancouver Island’s western edge. I was unhappy in those years. Poetry was my solace and my salvation. Finding out that I could write saved my life: I truly believe this. And the grammar of that early work was rooted in the flora, fauna, and geology of those isolated shores. Leechtown, China Beach, Loss Creek. I’ve written a novella, Winter Wren, still searching for a home, in which I locate my character in the house I longed to live in above Sandcut Creek. I’ve given her the life I wanted then. I was 2o. In my novella, Grace is 59, the age I am now. And here’s the house, above the waterfall where I used to shower after swimming when I camped on this beach in 1975:

P1020930I’ve been thinking about this sense of displacement — my own, and history’s. This afternoon I watched Paul Manly’s beautiful documentary, Sombrio.  (I wish I could figure how to embed these because the trailer has such a beautiful image of the beach itself.) Sombrio Beach is one of the western beaches I knew in the 1970s. It’s northwest of Jordan River, on the road to Port Renfrew, which is the southern end of the West Coast Trail. When I went to Sombrio, there was a rough road which led to a even rougher trail. You climbed down to the beach itself and it was wonderful. People lived there in houses they’d built of scavenged lumber and I know now that some of them surfed. I never noticed that then. I noticed the scent of wood-smoke, the way the houses were low and organic, and how some of the residents sat in front of beach fires and said, Come over and warm up! I know from Paul Manlys’s film that people have lived on that beach for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. It was a summer village site of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations. Later, Chinese and North American gold miners staked claims on Sombrio River. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people migrated there to live simply and quietly, to fish for halibut, gather mussels, and raise families. One family, profiled in Manly’s film, raised 11 children in a handbuilt house without any modern conveniences. The kids were home-schooled, wise in the ways of the natural world, impossibly beautiful with their open faces and wind-tangled hair. They learned to surf as soon as they could walk and several of them went on to become world-class surfers. In a review of the film in the Globe and Mail, Tom Hawthorne describes the interior of the home: “A wood stove provided heat, warming the inhabitants as well as the jumble of wet suits dangling from the rafters like tattered black flags.” When I saw the wet suits, I thought of seal skins, pelts drying as the children spent time in one element, donning them again to enter the sea and ride the waves as though they were part of the water. Selkies. Children of a realm we dream of but seldom experience ourselves.

In 1997, the residents of Sombrio Beach were evicted so the provincial government could include the area in a park. Some of them moved further into the wilderness. The family so intimately portrayed in Manly’s film relocated to Port Renfrew. Tragedy has been visited upon them in unfathomable ways with four of the children dying and the father losing his life to cancer. When I read about this after watching the film, I was filled with sorrow. I imagined them leaving the home that had been cobbled together of driftwood and beach stones, goats and chickens and a garden lovingly tended, and beginning again.

How we fill our lives with stuff we could so easily live without. Looking at piles of dishes in the sink, I think, O, maybe it’s time to think about a dishwasher. Or I feel the chilly tiles under my feet on winter mornings and long for a system of hot pipes to warm the floors. I don’t have a cell phone but I’m wondering how long I can resist. A big television. A fancier car. What haunts me about Sombrio (and I rented it for 48 hours via Vimeo: it cost me 1.99. If you do the same, I’d love to know what you think…) is how people have lived so well with so little (by first world standards) and how authorities simply can’t stand it and move in to fix things. Would I give up what I have now, at the age of 59, to live in a driftwood house on the edge of the Pacific? Probably not. But I wish others could live there, riding the green waves on narrow boards, and opening their windows to the salt-laced wind.


“…deeper than anyone knows.”

P1100565We know autumn is coming. The sun comes over Mount Hallowell an hour and a half later than it did when we drank our coffee on the upper deck and thought about all the things we would accomplish in summer. So much of it is still undone, at least from my perspective. Garden unweeded, relationships untended, some of them. But the pantry shelves are lined with preserves, the tomato plants are still producing their beautiful red fruits, I’ve filled a basket with squash,
and the flowers bloom as though frost was simply a rumour — as it is at this point in the year.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
                                               (from “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur)
On Long Beach the other day, I thought of the way I wanted to write the novella I’ve recently begun, a reflective (and reflexive) book about a brother and a sister and a river. It will pay homage to writers who’ve explored the same territory — Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. I’m thinking of Lytton and the place where the Thompson River meets the Fraser, how it looks this time of year, the sumac turning red and the rabbitbrush vivid yellow on the roadside between Lytton and Spences Bridge. The beautiful changes. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something — a season, a story. And to feel the cadences of both begin to pull me in.

a perfect day

A walk at Schooner Cove this morning, where the ghost of the girl I was shadowed me on the beach —


— followed by lunch at Shelter in Tofino (mussels in Thai coconut broth; fish tacos), and then Long Beach where some swam (not me), and where this shell presented itself:

P1100534Sometimes we can go back. Sometimes a place holds what we loved so beautifully that we feel our hearts ache a little for the past but we know that the hours can be perfect all the same. We can listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue while Sahand cooks Khoresht gheymeh (lamb stew with lentils and the most delicious smelling potatoes and eggplants alongside) and the view is soft, crows in the trees bickering, and everything is now.

morning on Cox Bay

P1100514The price we pay, a handful of broken sand-dollars, an empty beach at first, just the moon above, caught in the branches of the tree by our window,


and pink sky and the surf.


I first came to this area — the Pacific Rim — as a teenager and continued coming regularly into my early twenties. I camped alone on these beaches in the days when people lived in driftwood shelters and there might have been a resort or two but certainly not the numbers there are now. You could walk in any direction and meet one person, or none. There was a Co-op in Tofino and the winding road in was still gravel, logging trucks racing towards Port Alberni with their loads of fine trees stripped of their branches. And no, I’m not camping this time but staying in one those resorts, with John, Angelica, and Sahand. No beach fires with a bottle of Jamesons settled into the sand nearby. No broken heart, no dog at my heel, eager to roll in rotten fish. But that girl walked beside me just now as I went out to meet the ocean. And the ocean is the same, surging in over the grey sand and then falling back, under the moon’s influence. There are long strands of bull kelp and clam shells


and the wonderful taste of salt on my mouth from the wind. As I headed back to our suite, where I hoped coffee might be ready (and it is!), I saw this young man running towards the rocks at the end of the bay, board under his arm.


rain song

It’s been a hot dry late summer here on the Sechelt peninsula. This afternoon I was making ravioli — roasted Tonda Padana pumpkin, blanched kale, fresh sage, garlic, ricotta — and as I fiddled with the dough and the small mounds of filling, I heard the most beautiful passage of frog song. The rain song. I went outside and sure enough, a tiny tree frog was huddled in a corner under the eaves.

P1100487I thought I heard a weather report promising rain but when I just checked, it doesn’t seem likely. The frog is as hopeful as I am — and maybe as deluded. All summer I’ve weeded and watered the vegetable garden and I want a break from it. There’s a lot of produce to pick and process. Jars of pickled beans to be labeled and stored, tomatoes to be made into bruschetta topping, basil to be pureed with olive oil and garlic and frozen in small portions for pesto base. (I like to mix in pine nuts and parmesan cheese just before I add the base to pasta.) Eggplants ready to pick. Many red Thai chili peppers to be made into jelly, maybe with Chardonnay grapes. (We grow a few wine grape vines for their leaves and shade but never intended to make wine with them. If we can get to them before the Steller’s jays or the elk, they make good savoury jelly, with herbs or other flavourings.)

So more watering. And we’re preparing part of our house for change — new carpeting. I want to paint my study first so have cleared out all the furniture, the boxes of papers, the talking stick my daughter made me in grade 3 (“You give readings. You could take this along!”), decorated with ribbons, feathers, glitter, and a little bag of dried sage tied to its base, the framed copies of archival photographs in which the horses leaving the old roadhouses stare at the photographer with such avid interest that I think there must be a story there somehwere (and of course it’s probably the magnesium ribbon the photographers used for flash for the long exposures), the piles of notes on my desk. Which is taken apart now and stored in the back of the house until I’ve painted (a deep dusty rose) and the new carpet is laid. I’m typing this at the dining table while the honeyed light filters through the grape vines and the frog has gone silent, perhaps having heard the updated weather report.

there was time this morning…

…to read two poems from Jorie Graham’s stunning collection, Place (Ecco, 2012), while I drank my coffee in bed. They are dense poems, scary in their intensity, and this morning a phrase entered my heart, made me shake while I continued reading. It was from the poem “The Bird That Begins It”:

                                                  What is the job today my being

                                                               asks of

                                                               light. Please

tell me my job.

I thought of all the mornings when I woke, never asking. And I thought of what I loved — the moments in light, winter or summer, firelight, sunlight, the soft light of an oil-lamp when the power went out and we read anyway, our books held close to the flame. I remembered our small fires on White Pine Island, cooking over them, our boat bumping against the rocks, and look, there’s Lily (dead nearly 20 years) heading down to the water.