approaching the end of the year

I approach it with reluctance. This has been a memorable year in so many ways and I don’t want to let it go. One of the things I do at the end of December is enter next year’s significant dates — birthdays, anniversaries, literary committments — into my new daybook. (This one, from the Folio Society, is gorgeous.)

datebookAnd going through last year’s book, I see all the dinners shared with friends and my family, the plays attended, a few trips (New Mexico, Edmonton, Victoria, Ottawa, a road trip to the lower Okanagan/Boundary area with friend Liz, a road trip to Edmonton to meet our grandbaby Kelly a day after her birth in July, Tofino, Edmonton again, Ottawa/Montreal/Quebec City, a road trip to Lillooet and Kamloops to gather images and information for a work-in-progress). Sadly there are a few memorial service details noted. Arrivals and departures of guests. The flurry of activity for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I see cryptic marks that I think indicate when I planted beans, tomatoes, and squiggly lines that show the garlic bed and the varieties planted but nothing about the harvest — I am not a precise gardener and those going through my papers will not find a rich hoard of seed notes, yields, or soil temperatures…In fact most of those papers were burned in two huge bonfires of the vanities — old manuscripts gone up in smoke, where they belonged.

I wish I kept lists of books read over the year. At the time of reading, I think, O, I’ll never forget this one. But I have, or at least I can’t recall all the titles that have been heaped on my bedside table and savoured. Some of them I’ve mentioned here but there were many more — 2 or 3 a week; sometimes more — and I can’t help but think I would have a better sense of time’s accumulation (rather than its passing) if I kept lists. I have a fear of the quantitative over the qualitative but there must be a happy medium. Maybe this will be the year I’ll enter the titles into my new daybook. Maybe that’s a resolution.

This morning, the second-to-last day of 2014, the sky is clear and very pale blue. There’s a hard frost over the grass. When I woke in the night around 1:30, the moon was just disappearing beyond Texada Island but there were bright stars and an owl somewhere in the woods. Yesterday we had lunch in Sechelt, a table of adults handing a baby from person to person so each of us could finish our food. Kelly kept smiling at the elderly couple across the restaurant and the woman of the couple said to me, Bless you, you have the most beautiful baby, when I carried Kelly over to see them. At our table, my babies Brendan and Angelica were laughing with Cristen and John.  Yes, I said, I do.

day of the wren

December 26th, day of the wren:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.

Wrens have a special place in my heart. All winter, a tiny one hunts just outside my study window first thing in the morning, hopping along the railing of the little porch there and then darting in and out of the rush birdhouse hanging under the eaves. It’s looking for spiders and other food, I know, but I think of it as a muse. A few years ago I sat at my desk most mornings, working on a novella I called Winter Wren, set on the west coast of Vancouver Island; its structure explores the lore associated with the hedge king, the king of all birds. I re-read Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough which I’d first encountered as an undergraduate in the last century. Its detailed descriptions and contextualizations of the rituals of life, death, and rebirth, and the variant myths in every culture fascinated me as much the second time around.

So imagine my pleasure yesterday morning when I opened this gift from my daughter Angelica:

P1110013And from Forrest and Manon, in Ottawa, came this beautiful little Anishinabe basket, bought when Forrest visited Manitoulin Island in the summer:

P1110010It’s birch bark with sweetgrass woven around the rim and base and the decoration is dyed porcupine quills. (The flower on the lid looks like blue flax to me.)

From John, silver earrings as delicate as spider webs, a wonderful new atlas (he said, “You spend such a lot of time looking at the old one and so much of it isn’t accurate any more!”), and an android tablet which has me kind of nervous — I’m not good at learning new things — but also relieved to know that I can load up library books on it to take on travels. One of my greatest fears is running out books to read when we’re away from home and as we like to travel light, filling my suitcase with books instead of clothes doesn’t make sense. It took me awhile to acknowledge that an e-reader might just be a good idea so check in again, in March, when I’m in Portugal and I’ll report how it’s going…

And tomorrow, another gift: the arrival of Brendan, Cristen, and grandbaby Kelly. It will be Kelly’s first visit to her paternal grandparents and we are so happy they’re coming.

boughs

Our tree has just come into the house. Cut this morning, a nine-foot Douglas fir, it has all the odour of the winter forest, and its boughs are so green and lush that I’m almost tempted to say, “Let’s leave it naked this year.” A paradox — to dress an evergreen in baubles and stars? Little ceramic birds? To remind it of the world it’s been taken from, to give us green through the darkest days? No living bird will settle on these boughs again. No snow will accumulate on the needles, no cones will form. Tomorrow we’ll pull out the boxes of decorations and place them on every branch, against the trunk, the one special star on the top (which had to be trimmed to fit into our house). For now, I want to stand on the edge of the room and look at its splendid undressed beauty.

Trees bring in the scent of the outdoors and they remind us too of moments when we sat by them, cut them for firewood, burned them gratefully all winter for their heat, brushed against them and ran our fingers along their various barks, reminded of them later as we raised resiny hands to our faces.

Remember “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” by Gary Snyder? (From Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems):

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
I don’t have cones from this tree but here’s a pair of elegant long cones I picked up under a small stand of Pinus monticola at the Dominion Arboretum in Ottawa last month while walking there with Forrest and Manon. They still smell alive. They can stand in for absence, tokens of affection, what we keep to remember the miles between us this time of year.
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feasts

Last night we had a great party to celebrate John’s birthday. There were 18 of us gathered to eat sockeye salmon (barbecued with preserved lemons), boeuf bourguignon, and hazelnut chocolate torte; after dinner we were treated to another kind of feast: a performance of our friend Jeffrey Renn’s Poetry Night in Canada. When I finally fell into my bed around 1 a.m., I was completely sated — poetry, fine wine, good food, and the warmth of friendship.

Earlier in the day, John, our lovely daughter Angelica, and I walked over to see the spawning coho salmon in Haskins Creek. Readers of this blog might think, “O no, here she goes again. The salmon…” But honestly it’s something I look forward to every year: the cycles of birth and death, darkness and light, the beautiful bodies of the fish in cold water and then dragged to the shore to feed the hungry appetites. The music is ravens klooking in the big trees and mergansers muttering in the quiet lake.

When I put the salmon on the white platter, I remembered the carcass on the banks of Haskins Creek, partially eaten.

salmonYesterday I watched a coyote trot past my study window and wondered if he’d come from the creek. We all long for the sweet flesh in winter — whether it’s eagles or ravens, coyotes or dinner guests hovering by the pine table. Jeffrey recited “St. Anne’s Crossing”, one of my favourite poems by the late Charles Lillard:

       …these beautiful fish

three lengths of silver on a flat boulder

bearing all the wilderness of cold fast

water my body can endure.

There was a collective sigh when Jeffrey finished reading and I said quietly, “He slept in this room.” And he did, years ago, the last time a few months before he died. Others were in the guest room and he bunked down on the long cedar couch, a quilt over him, the windows uncovered so he could see stars if he woke before morning. I remember his chuckle, his intense interest in the world, and poems like “St. Anne’s Crossing” summon him back, as the salmon are summoned back by the season, the urgency of life and death, and what Charles called the coastal sanctus: “…above this blue-edged water, a raven does a double wingover, calling, calling…”

“neatly chiseled”

I’ve been rereading my favourite novellas lately, trying to fix in my mind what it is that makes the form so attractive. (Someone, somewhere, wrote that a novella is a bit like a recit in opera but I’d argue against that, I think. Some of them are full of arias, lyrical and serving exactly the same function as, say, an aria in a Handel opera: to balance and contrast the narrative work of the recit.) This afternoon I was reading Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and came to this beautiful passage:

The sound of the cranes’ silver music approaching in all that silence would take her at once out of a cabin with her broom, and into the open, to look up, to listen, and when they had passed over, to recapture the sight and the silver sound which moved on over other lakes and hills. She would walk up the long overgrown trail to the far end of the lake and, in the evening, approach softly, and stand, waiting to see the heads and backs of beaver in the water, leaving their lodge and returning again. She would hear the gunshot sound of the beaver’s tail upon the water as, startled, he dived. She would examine the stumps of the birches, neatly chiseled to clean points by the sharp teeth…

Swamp Angel is set mostly on Three Loon Lake which I believe is a fictional stand-in for Lac Le Jeune, near Kamloops. We often take the Lac Le Jeune Road when we’re in that area, an old route leading past the Jocko Creek Ranch and past small lakes and the larger Lac Le Jeune. Years ago I camped there with Forrest while on a research trip on the Thompson Plateau and we watched a wood duck hen lead her ducklings down from their nest hole in a tree by the marshy end of the lake. And south of Lac Le Jeune, near Nicola Lake, I once heard the sandhill cranes before I saw them, their singing like creaking wooden wheels across the sky. But what I loved about this passage of Swamp Angel is the bit about the beavers. In a marsh on our route from home to the mailboxes, there’s a small marsh where we hear red-winged blackbirds every spring and occasionally ducks in the more watery areas. But there are two alders on the edge of the marsh and a beaver has been chiseling them for the past week. Every day we say, “It won’t be long now!” and today I asked John to take a photograph when he went alone for the mail. (I was busy getting things ready for a birthday party for him tomorrow!) The photographs are blurry because it’s raining and because, well, it was nearly sunset (just before 4). But it won’t be long!

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“…we may quite literally become ocean.”

 

Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years.  In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen,  a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisic, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)

It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.P1070588

where on the map

From The Marriage of Rivers, a novella-in-progress:

Our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.

the two rivers meeting
the two rivers meeting

a living element that contains us

Last week I read Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage. It’s a marvellous book, an account of the author’s trip aboard the MV Clipper Adventurer, one of those ships taking scientists, historians, archaeologists, geologists,  and lucky passengers on cruises to interesting places. There’s lots to admire in this book: the writing (lyrical and quirky), the detailed descriptions of time and place, the observant eye of the author. Best of all is the author herself who is warm and funny and perceptive. There were several points in the book where I put it aside and thought, this is something I know, this is something I believe, and I was so grateful to have another writer put it so eloquently.

I’d come to the Arctic at a moment’s notice with nothing but the required items on the baggage list and my inherited way of seeing. But the ice, the bear, the muskoxen, and the whole elemental place had changed this perception. They spoke without audible sound but with a powerful urgency that made me question the nature of what I had known as thought.

Was the land suggesting that here, in the Arctic, we do not own or contain individual thought, but rather move in a living element that contains us? Was it possible this living element was, itself, conscious? Were the sky over the tundra, and the lakes where muskoxen drank, a mind-substance into which I’d moved, as an imagined form might enter someone’s thoughts? Were my body and the terrain — the green and yellow tundra, the purple and white mountains, the lichen and stones — parts of one and the same body?

So often we speak or write of nature as something other than us, or wilderness as some ideal place. Yet we are those things ourselves. They are what we are. Our bodies, which we’re taught early to fetishize to some extent, to mistrust, to regard as evolved beyond the bodies of those we consume and degrade (listening to the news about the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley has me thinking, well, what do you expect when you clip beaks, put birds into tiny spaces, deprive them of the ecology they are natural particiants within: it’s so clear that their health is our health), are part of an organism of exquiste form and energy. Which is also us. I believe it was Aua, an Inuit shaman who guided the explorer Knud Rasmussen, who said, ‘The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.’

sockeye

small packages

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As Christmas approaches, I’ve been shopping and making — and trying to remain true to my belief that good things come in small packages. With my family, it’s not difficult. We’ve never gone into the season with the sense that we had to go into debt or buy big electronic items or expensive bijoux. And it’s lovely to find the right thing, to know it as you see it, or to find the materials in your own surroundings. To plan the baking — white chocolate fruit cakes, savoury rosemary shortbread, gingerbread people with smartie buttons and silver dragee eyes. (I once tried to use a piping device to do fancy work with icing and failed miserably.)

I’m also having an interesting time discussing a new project with my friend Anik See in Amsterdam. Both of us have novella manuscripts which haven’t (yet) been able to find publishers. (Anik has published a novella, postcard, as part of her fiction collection, poscard and other stories; and I’ve published one, Inishbream, and have another, Patrin, forthcoming from the inspiring Mother Tongue Publishing in September, 2015.) Like John and I, Anik has a printing press and has designed and created some beautiful books through her Fox Run imprint. When she was here in September, on her way back to Amsterdam from three months as writer-in-residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, we continued talking about the idea (the madness?) of beginning a small imprint to publish novellas (and maybe some other forms not high on the lists of most commercial publishers). We’d probably begin with our work, my Winter Wren and Anik’s Cabin Fever, mostly because of logistics. We have them ready and we trust one another enough to work together in this way. She’s adept at page design, we have some sense of the market for these titles, and we don’t have illusions about commerical success.

Both of us love novellas. We love beautiful books. And we believe that there should be room in the literary conversation for this form. So we intend to try to expand the conversation, not with the intention of silencing any other voices but simply to ensure that the quiet ones continue to be included.  There are sure to be difficulties but is that a reason not to try? Nope.

Last night I finished re-reading Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s, before her extraordinary (and hugely influential) The Double Hook. It’s a hermetic story, set at Dog Creek in the Cariboo, in winter, and the language is precise and chilly, perfectly suited to the human relationships in the contained world of this novella.

As Miriam reached up the move the lamp Stella noticed the curve of her hip under the gold-haired brown wool of her Harris tweed skirt and the light bathing her braided hair as water bathes pebbles in the creek.

Nor in things extreme and scattering bright — no not in nothing — certainly not in nothing. Why, Stella thought, slipping from the literacy of the past into the literacy of the present, must the immediacy of the moment act itself out in the klieg light of a thousand dead candles.

She rose quickly from the end of the camp cot on which she was sitting and, going to the bucket, poured a dipper of water into the white enamelled hand-basin.

Is supper ready? she asked.

I think of a shelf of Canadian literature — or the literature of any civilized culture — missing this book and others, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, Barbara Lambert’s Message for Mr. Lazarus, Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, and so many others, simply by virture of their size, and it determines me to continue my discussions with Anik. Stay tuned!