“radiating light”

arbutus at Francis Point“There are arbutus trees at Francis Point, a grove of them, leaning out to sea, wanting to partake of the cool air off the water on summer days. Mount one and stretch your body along its length. Has there ever been a tree more seductive to the touch? Has there ever been a trunk, peeled of its bark and new, more like the smooth torso of a beloved? Without mark or blemish, asking us to run our hands along its taut muscularity? The underwood is chartreuse, radiating light.

How many times do we shed our outer layers in a life? How many times expose our tender new skin to the world, soft as the soles of a child who has never touched the earth? Looking out my window, I see the bark curling from the arbutus on the south side of my house. Like paint peeling from an old surface, we hardly notice it but are drawn to what’s revealed underneath. Steaming the bark with the pale bulbs of camas would turn them pink as young flesh, beauty for the eye and the palate.”

                                                              from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane Editions, 2011)

arbutus bark

“all remnants of disaster”

On our walk this morning, I stopped to take a couple of photographs of parts of a skeleton we first saw about this time last week. The remains of an elk, I’m pretty sure — I brought back two toes last week to clean and save and they’re larger than our Columbia blacktail deer toes. I looked for the skull but it wasn’t around, dragged off by a coyote, I bet. And this week some of the leg bones were also missing. I bent a little to take this shot —

P1110160— and had a sudden clear memory of seeing the ribcage of a cow or bullock on a grassy area above the water on the Irish island where I lived for a time in 1978.

I was 23 and in retreat from the life I’d lived in North America. I wanted something but I couldn’t have told you what. Well, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to test myself. I’d walk the island — it wasn’t big and there weren’t trees to block the view — and it seemed that everything asked to be noticed. The hedges of fuchsia, the children walking to and from the schoolhouse, the sound of their lessons from the open windows, a calf bawling for its mother, someone stacking turf (the bricks of peat which were cut and brought from mainland bogs as the island had no source of its own), the hum of a generator (no electricity either), a currach returning to the quay and men helping to untangle the nets and pots used for fishing, the frail notes of a tinwhistle from a doorway. I loved trips to the mainland when I’d tag along with someone rowing over in a currach, the wood-framed boats of the west of Ireland, covered with canvas (though with skins once).

inishbream image
This is how a currach was carried down to the water. It’s a wood-engraving by John DePol, made for my novella Inishbream.

The ribcage on the grasswas like polished ivory and I sketched it, I remember. Later I saw a spine — from the same animal? I don’t know — and that made it into a poem:

The things I find I leave:

a great spine of a bullock

on the west beach

the shards of a tern’s egg.

Brought back 3 ribs

of a currach once

and dreamed all night

of storms and drowning

and when I burned them

in the morning

I saw the craft complete

itself in the flame.

There is nothing beyond here.

They tell me America lies west

and I have looked forever

beyond Slyne Head,

have seen only waves

bullying the fishermen,

have seen only a horizon

too far away for sailing.

All remnants of disaster

catch on these rocks:

there is shipwood, a lobster pot,

a strand of net, myself,

not buried or blessed

but given land underneath,

the sting of an iodine wind

telling us this might be home.

It’s a strange experience to read something written almost 40 years ago. I’m amused a little by the melodrama (I felt I was a remnant of disaster, having run away from unrequited love among other things, but was I really?) but also grateful for the unexpected connections that are often part of the process of writing. The bone frame of the bullock echoing the structure of the currach —

currach1-150x150— the lilt of the language, the gift of the word “craft” at that point in the poem as well as in my life.

When I saw the skeleton last week, it was because it was unexpected. (When you walk in the same place over time, your eyes readily see what’s different.) And I didn’t expect to be taken back to that grassy place just outside the cemetery on one of my solitary walks around the island’s circumference where the beautiful weathered ribs taught me something about writing and where several months later a currach took me on the first leg of my long journey home.

a blue cabin at the tide’s edge

At the king tides, said Carole Itter in her interview with CBC Radio’s On the Coast host Stephen Quinn today in which she discussed the issues around the eviction notice and demolition order she and Al Neil received in the blue cabin they’ve lived in for years near Cates Park in Dollarton, at the king tides, which don’t occur very often, the water comes up under the house. (Dollarton was where Malcolm Lowry lived with his wife Margerie in a series of squatters’ shacks and wrote Under the Volcano, a masterpiece of 20th c. literature. )

Imagine that. Imagine a small house perched near the water, a woodstove for heat, a number of sculptures of found objects surrounding it, opposite the Kinder Morgan site over on Burnaby Mountain. Al has lived in the cabin off and on since 1966 and at first he was a sort of watchman for a shipyard next door. He paid them a nominal rent. And then they told him not to bother paying the rent.

carole itter's photograph
carole itter’s photograph of the cabin

Carole and Al are prominent artists — Al is a pianist, composer, and visual artist and Carole is a writer and sculptor. Both of were part of the big shake-up of the Vancouver arts scene in the 1960s and 70s and both continue to work as artists. This cabin is both studio and home, though they also have a shared space elsewhere where (as Carole told Stephen Quinn) hot water is available as well as heat. As Al is 90 and Carole is 75, this is a blessing.

When I first lived in North Vancouver — after meeting John and before we moved to the house we built on the Sechelt Peninsula — there were still people talking about the 1971 burning of the artists’ squats on Maplewood Mudflats near Dollarton. Many artists had constructed driftwood houses there in a vibrant and productive community with others — Paul Spong of Greenpeace among them. The community was called Shangri-La. And oh, there were the usual reasons for evicting the squatters — upholding health regulations, etc. How ironic that in Vancouver, named this week as the second most expensive place to live on earth (after Hong Kong), there’s lately been an effort to remember the Maplewood Mudflats community. One of the artists who lived there, the sculptor Tom Burrows, currently has a show at the Belkin Gallery at U.B.C.  The Vancouver Sun had a piece on the show last week: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/First+museum+exhibition+Maplewood+Mudflats+artist+Burrows/10709676/story.html  I loved this little passage from the article:  “In 2010, artist Ken Lum made a sculptural work at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite at the Shangri La Hotel called From Shangri-La to Shangri-La. The work was made of three scale replicas of the Maplewood shacks where Burrows, Spong and Lowry lived.”  (The Shangri-La, for those unfamiliar with Vancouver, is a luxurious hotel on Georgia Street.)

I know people might think, Oh, what if everyone wanted to squat in a handmade house on the edge of Burrard Inlet and make art. Oh, what then? And I guess that wouldn’t be ideal. But the thing is, how many people want to live this way now? How many artists are willing to settle for simplicity and quiet when the terms of our culture ask us to expect so much more? In the Globe and Mail article today on Carole and Al’s situation, Carole mentions a big assemblance behind the cabin, at the edge of the forest: “This thing sparkles in the sunshine. I’m sorry you’re seeing it under a west coast mildew.  The beauty about working on it is that I knew it was never going anywhere. It was never going into a gallery and it was never going to be on the market. And now I realize it’s going to a dump. Or as Al says, let the bugs eat it.” To create something for the love of it, against the hustle of the contemporary art world…how wonderful is that?

I’m getting cranky as I get older. I want there to be individuals in the world who live against the grain, against the tide. I think of those cabins on Sombrio beach, removed by helicopter, and the small outposts of alternative living disappearing little by little, and I think we’re less for it. The world is less for it. As for Vancouver, with its history of mavericks and creative cooperatives — well, who can afford it any longer? And that’s sad.

I hear a hidden history

In November I wrote about seeing William Kurelek’s painting Green Sunday in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Kurelek’s father came to Canada from Borivtsi, a village in Bukovina (or Bukovyna), in 1923. Seeing the painting was a kind of gift. My own grandfather came to North America from Ivankivtsi, also in Bukovina, in 1907. I believe he came to New Jersey and worked at Franklin Furnace and then eventually made his way to Drumheller where he met my grandmother and married her around 1920. Franklin Furnace was an extensive iron-making operation and it attracted immigrants from all over the world. I don’t know if my grandfather worked as a miner in Bukovina and was thus attracted to Franklin Furnace for its opportunities or if his time there was serendipitous. Other Kishkans (or Chişcanucs) had come to North American before him. A cousin had immigrated to Saskatchewan (he was the father of the great Toronto Maple Leaf goalie John Bower, whose true surname was Kishkan). I don’t know how close family members were before they immigrated or the degree to which they kept in touch afterwards. My grandfather sent money to Bukovina to pay for the passage of another cousin. My father remembered that his father had been raised in the home of grandparents — my great-great grandparents — with other cousins. I don’t know if this was because the parents of the cousins were unable to care for them or because (perhaps) they needed help or could provide opportunities unavailable in Ivankivtsi. Sometimes I think these things will never be known and sometimes they appear to hover just beyond my consciousness, enticing me to work harder, dig deeper.

I’ve tried to find out about Ivankivtsi. A few photographs —

ivankivtsi3ivankivtsi 2–some parish lists in the LDS metrical records, one or two names. But the farther I get from my grandfather, in time, the less likely it is that I’ll ever know much about his life in Europe and his reasons for leaving. Even the family members he left behind.

After seeing the Kurelek painting in November, I discovered that he’d gone to his father’s village twice — for a four hour visit in 1970 (the days of the old Soviet bureaucracy) and then just before his death in 1977. His father had drawn maps for him and he found them surprisingly accurate. He found cousins, simple houses, many geese and ducks, and ancient pear trees. He drew the farm tools and kitchen implements, simple arrangements of sausages and bread spread with bacon fat, the fields and gardens, the sheaves tied for winter. He made beautiful paintings based on many of these things and it’s clear that he intended to make more; he died just a few weeks after he returned from the second trip.

I discovered a book based on William Kurelek’s trips to Borivtsi: To My Father’s Village: A Final Search to Understand (Tundra Books, 1988). I meant to order it and forgot in the busy weeks around Christmas. But then I remembered, found a copy online, and it arrived the other day. I’ve been immersed in it ever since.

I think Borivtsi is quite close to Ivankivtsi. Both villages are in the Chernivtsi oblast (and Chernivtsi itself has a fascinating history. I highly recommend Gregor Von Rezzori’s gorgeous The Snows of Yesteryear, a memoir of his childhood in that city, as well as his novel, An Ermine in Czernopol, a thinly-disguised portrait of Chernivtsi in its Austro-Hungarian glory). Reading Kurelek’s letters home to his wife Jean in which he describes his father’s village are in a way palimpsests. I hear a hidden history, my grandfather’s, in his words. “Three-hundred year old pear trees such as my father used to hide in if caught stealing.” “There was the pich and even the place on it where father said they used to sleep. The cheap calender icons, the little windows, the loaf of bread on the bed, the pail of slops.” (The pich was the traditional oven.) This could almost be my grandparents’ home in Beverly where we visited them as children.

Maybe this is the way we discover our ancestors. They are short syllables in the stories of others — a stove, the brushes for whitewashing the walls of the two-roomed houses, a few ducks by the edge of a pond. I wish for more but am grateful to have at least this much.


Last week I turned 60. It seems like a threshold, somehow. No longer middle-aged. No longer in late middle-age. Early old age? The golden years? I prefer to think of the years as quicksilver, because that’s how quickly they’ve passed. I looked away and they were gone. Or not gone but stored, accumulated.

My friend Liz, whom I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known John — she was a long-time colleague of his at Capilano College and a dear friend too; we were introduced a few months after I met John and that was in 1979… — gave me a fossil for my birthday. In June we’d been on a little road trip together, the three of us, and we stopped at Whipsaw Creek near Princeton where Liz had once had a cabin. She remembered gathering fossils there with her daughters (now mothers) and so we hoped to find a few. And yes, we did. I wrote about that here:


On that trip, I said I’d always hoped to find a fish fossil. We talked about the Eosalmo driftwoodensis, the genus of extinct salmon from the Eocene period, found at various sites in B.C., including Princeton. And bless her, she remembered my wish and she gave me this:

P1110154It’s not Eosalmo driftwoodensis but a little Knightia, or fossil herring, from Fossil Lake in the Green River Formation; the Formation itself is in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah and Fossil Lake is in southwest Wyoming. Years ago our family travelled to the part of the world and it’s very beautiful. We visited museums where we saw fossil turtles, fish, plants that looked remarkably like their contemporary counterparts, with incredible detail due in part to the fine-grained nature of the limestone matrix they’re found within. And that year my children were young — 4, 6, and 8. I couldn’t have imagined the adults they’d become, the future lives they’d enter, crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood with grace. I couldn’t have imagined that one day I’d be turning 60, with a precious granddaughter who will be 6 months old in 4 days. And her father will be 32 in a few weeks.

To everything there is a season, we’re told in Ecclesiastes (3:1). Where is the point from which we measure time? The formation of this tiny fish, 40-50 million years ago, or the fragment of leaf I found at Whipsaw Creek, from 33-56 million years ago, or my birth, or my children’s births, moments when I truly felt something new and unknown was beginning:

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

                                                      — from Hamlet, Act 1

“Sometimes the noise we don’t hear/is Simon Fraser on his river.”

The title of this post is a line from “Fraser’s River”, a poem by the late Charles Lillard. Sometimes we forget that a river runs through, and by, Vancouver, a river as mighty as any in the world.  It rises near Mount Robson in the Rocky Mountains and winds through mountains, some of the most beautiful grasslands on earth, forests, for 1,375 kilometres until it empties into Georgia Strait. It’s a river of salmon and the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus, the largest fresh-water fish in North America).  Eulachons (or oolichans, oolachons, even hooligans!) run in the river — Thaleichthys pacificus, a fish so important to coastal cultures as a trade item, a fuel source (one common name is the candlefish, for the habit of burning them as candles during the fall spawn when their body weight is 15% fat), and as a valued food item. Howard White asks in “Oolachon Grease”, “…are empires/sustained by condiments?” and in the case of eulachons, I think they were. The grease trails connected coastal British Columbia with the Interior and the small fish, caught in spawning rivers and creeks and dried, were traded for copper, furs, and other materials. More than fish travelled the trails. Cultures exchanged ideas, stories, languages met and influenced one another; in fact Chinook or the wawa, a jargon developed for the purposes of trade and communication, and served as a kind of connective tissue for the Pacific Northwest. We still hear its echoes in our place-names and the words we use every day unknowingly. Skookum, chuck, cultus, muckamuck, illahie, potlatch, tyee, the language of this place with its fish and salt water, its high talk and big stories.

Yesterday we walked along the Fraser River in New Westminster with my brother and sister-in-law after a night at their home. It was a true coastal morning, mist over the river and everything else, several tugs wrangling a long log boom upstream,

P1110141and it wasn’t really surprising to encounter Simon Fraser himself with his back to the river:

P1110133In “Fraser’s River”, there are a couple of lines I thought of as we walked:

Back at the headwaters

the door was still there

to open, to close…

Some mornings history is so close we can feel it in the mist, can hear it in the creak of cedar logs agitating in their boom, wanting escape, the head of a sea-lion poking up out of the water and gazing around as though in wonder at where he’d found himself on a Sunday morning. As I did, watching this little downy woodpecker on an bare tree, hard at work while all around people walked their dogs, a child raced by on a skooter, and trains made their slow way along the tracks:

P1110149Several years ago, I read Stephen Hume’s wonderful book, Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia. It’s both a record of a journey taken by Hume over four years, tracing Fraser’s route in 1808 in search of a navigable route to the Pacific in the service of the North West Company, and a meditation of the processes of history. I loved Hume’s passion for his subject and his alert mind. It’s the kind of the book that sets the soul on fire and you find yourself wondering if you should also set out in a canoe in search of the landscape and human encounters and exchanges that shaped the place you call your home — not just your own small piece of the coast but all the grand waters and high grasslands, the austere mountains, the remnants of old communities and the sound of train whistles in the night. Short answer: no, you won’t. But how wonderful that someone did, and wrote about it. And that you had the chance to walk the river in good company on Sunday morning, the door still there, to open, to close.

“…written to come out of the dark.”

The second evening of my birthday magical mystery tour has just concluded. There was dinner at the Cafe Carthage followed by a play, more specifically a staged radio play: All That Fall, by Samuel Beckett. We drove over to Commercial Drive for dinner and of course we ordered cous cous, rich with merquez sausage, lamb shank, and chicken, brightened by harissa. John remembered the first time he ate cous cous. He’d taken a little train from Tunis to Carthage in the early 1970s with his girlfriend Dulce and after the train dropped them off, they discovered the site was closed that day. But the guard took them on a tour anyway and then invited them to his small home for dinner. He lived alone but a woman who cooked for him brought a dish of cous cous to his apartment. It was very good, remembered John, though it was mostly grain, with a few morsels of gristly meat. The flavour was in the vegetables and the spices. And then I remembered the first time I had cous cous. I was visiting an artist couple in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in the south of France. I’d met them on Crete and they’d taken me on sketching trips and we became friends. When they drove back to France, they invited me to come to stay and a few weeks later, I took the train from Rome to Menton where they were waiting at the station. I tagged along on their sketching trips and one day, learning that I’d never eaten cous cous, they decided we’d go to a little restaurant they knew in Antibes and have a cous cous feast. I didn’t eat meat in those years but there was a delicious fish version and we drank coarse red wine with it. This happened either the week that I turned 21 or 22. I can’t remember which, to be honest. But there was a galette des rois the day of my birthday and that evening I was taken to the casino in Monte Carlo (just next door!) to have a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate the occasion.

The play this evening was unexpectedly wonderful. I say that having imagined that it would be terse somehow and cryptic. Beckett, after all! But it was very moving and although there were indeed cryptic moments, there was an abiding sense of darkly funny disaster which I enjoyed so much, punctuated by passages of unbearably lovely lyricism. Beckett wrote All That Fall in 1956 and it was broadcast by the BBC in 1957 but he refused to allow stage performances of it during his life. He insisted it was meant to be heard. “It is a text written to come out of the dark,” he said. His estate has recently begun to permit stage productions but insists it must be presented as a radio play.

While I was visiting the artists in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, an elderly friend of theirs came from Paris to visit. He’d been ill and was quite frail but he was sweet. (And in the way these threads all connect, a woman I met a year later, in the west of Ireland — she had an astonishing past, was related in some way to Constance and Eva Gore-Booth, and she has a cameo role in my novella Inishbream — turned out to be this man’s cousin.) My friends took him for a drive one morning and I stayed back to do my laundry. I was alone in their house when the phone rang. This was before answering machines. My French was not good (still isn’t) and I answered nervously. There was a man on the other end and when he heard my tentative French, he switched to English. He was calling, he said, to find out how his friend Benny was. (The elderly man was Benny.) He was concerned because Benny had been so ill. I told him what I knew — that Benny was in good spirits, he was enjoying the long joyous meals, and was out at the moment on a drive with my hosts. He seemed pleased to hear this and asked me to tell Benny that Sam had called, from Paris, and to pass along his concern and regards.

When my friends returned, I gave them the message. Benny was delighted to hear that his friend had phoned. My host asked me if students in Canada studied Sam’s plays. You know, he said, Samuel Beckett? I assured him we did.


So tonight, replete with the best cous cous I’ve ever eaten, I listened to a text come out of the dark and it was both beautiful and funny and worth waiting for, on my birthday, 38 -39 years after my conversation with its author.

And as we were approaching our car, parked a few blocks from the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, a voice came out of the dark, asking about an address on that street. It was a young woman, pulling a huge wheeled suitcase, clutching a piece of paper. We told her we didn’t live in the area but it seemed that she was on the right street and it seemed that the actual address she was seeking was about five blocks away. She was confused and very French. Get in the car, John said, and we’ll find the house for you. He lifted her huge case into the trunk. She’d just flown to Vancouver from Paris, via London, and it seemed like the right thing to do to get her safely to her friend’s home. The street petered out and then continued again behind the Britannia Community Centre. But eventually we found the house. She told us that she was leaving again first thing in the morning to take the ferry and Greyhound to Sointula on Malcolm Island for a artist residency. She could have been my younger self or my daughter and in her journey I heard echoes of my own travels to an island off the coast of Ireland and a small village in the south of France. There’s a riddle at the heart of All That Fall but it’s no more or less mysterious than the riddles that shape our lives. Some days the answer is clear and sometimes it’s a voice in the night, asking if we know where 1430 is on the dark unknown street.

“The sun is God.”

Yesterday, as part of a birthday magical mystery tour, John took me to see Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s film about the last quarter of the painter J.M.W. Turner’s life. It’s an extraordinary film, both visually and in terms of its scope, its own artistry. Every frame was beautiful — the skies, the water, the boats in their angularity, the soft fields of Holland and England where Turner wandered, sketch pad in hand. Sometimes the frames were like Vermeers, sometimes (ironically considering their animosity) Constables, and of course endlessly like Turners, suffused with light and something more. God? I’m not a believer but those canvases have a spiritual quality. Queen Victoria dismissed them as blurry and vile but she was wrong. Next month we’ll spend a week in London and Mr. Turner has determined me to spend some time looking at the work of this painter of light. Tim,othy Spall gave an amazing performance as Turner, a man both earthy, plain-spoken, but also attentive to the possibility of the divine, whether it was in the profile of a landlady in a window overlooking Margate harbour or in the tenderness of his father’s hand upon his face as he shaved him. Oh, and “The sun is God?” Supposedly Turner’s last words, before his death in 1851.

So a film, a special dinner out last night, an amble around Granville Island this morning (we’re staying at the Granville Island Hotel), a walk along Kits Beach, and two special treats this evening. All of this was planned without me knowing any of the details and I’m enjoying it so much. To be taken out of my daily life for a few days so that I can return to it gladly and now with a keener sense of purpose. I bought indigo and woad powders today for another of my salmon quilts (Angelica wants to try her hand at shibori and batik so we’ll do some of this when she visits at Easter) and I also have the prospect of working on the edits of my novella Patrin, due out in September with Mother Tongue Publishing.

When we came back from our day out today, I saw the sun reflected off the tall buildings on the north side of False Creek, shimmering on the water like — well, how would Turner have painted it? That chrome yellow, the heart of it all in reds and ochres? Was he ever satisfied with what he’d done? I wonder. But he went to the next canvas with urgency and passion, not a bad working process. He worked to his own vision, refusing to do what the others were doing, even if his paintings were hung in the anteroom at the big Royal Academy of Art shows,  while mawkish canvases of religious scenes were front and centre. Something to aspire to? I think so.


a few days ago —

— we walked with friends over by Oyster Bay. More than ten years ago I wrote a novel, A Man in a Distant Field, in which the main character, an Irish schoolmaster, washed up on the shores of Oyster Bay. I explored the area a fair bit in those days, wanting to give my character a true place to live, a particular place on earth, and this particularity — the weather, the scent of wild roses in summer, the water birds, the bears that came to feast on salmon in autumn, the oysters on the rocks by the shore — would allow him to understand the resonances in the poem he was translating (which happened to be the Odyssey). And walking again by the bay a few days after Christmas, I felt that old complicated obsession a writer shares with her materials. While the others stood down by the water and watched a hawk on the opposite shore, I dreamed my way back into this abandoned cabin, not exactly the one I called World’s End in my novel, but a similar one. (As Melville so wisely noted, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.)

a man in a distant fieldHe put the poem aside and walked out to the shore. He never tired of the bay, stretching out to open sea. Today the tide was coming in over the exposed mud flats, threaded with silvery runs of fresh water. There were birds everywhere — sandpipers on the shore where he supposed their nests must be, ducks coming in with the tide, a solitary loon, silent in daylight, geese gathered by the small rocky islands where some of them nested. He loved the smell when the tide came in, the rich fecund mud, warmed by the sun, meeting the sharp iodine of the sea. He supposed men had always stood by water, admiring the liveliness of its movement, loving the sight of birds feeding on its shores, fishing its depths with their strong bills. (from A Man in a Distant Field, Dundurn, 2004)