what we leave

When we leave home, even for a few days, we leave the watering for a kind neighbour. And because the temperatures were up in the high 20s, low 30s, she certainly saved our tomatoes. And our peppers and eggplants! The Black Krim tomatoes are nearly ripe and I bet the peppers will be delicious.

black krimpeppersWe left a pot of white violets tucked in around a hart’s tongue fern and came home to discover deer had come onto the patio to feast on the tender leaves.

eatenAnd what did we leave in Edmonton yesterday morning? A family, happily settled into an old house in a neighbourhood of huge elms. Here they are just before we walked out for brunch on Sunday morning:

let's eat!And what did I bring home, besides photographs? An envelope of ornamental thistle seeds (maybe a cirsium, though I’ll have to spend some time looking through my garden books) from a border beside the stairs to Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly’s front door. A little bag containing three painted wooden eggs from the Ukrainian Village Museum. And a new lead to follow for the research I’m deeply involved in, trying to figure out things about my grandfather John Kishkan, who came to North America from Ivankivtsi in Bukovina. On the horse-drawn cart at the Ukrainian Village, as we passed a church, fields soft with grass, the Orthodox church, a woman quietly told me about the Cobblestone Freeway, a research service for those trying to gather information about Ukrainian ancestors. And this is how everything has come to me thus far — a small phrase, a photograph, seeds (thistle, Black Krim), a date, passed from one hand to another, one ear to another.

An echo

We walked along the dirt roads tracing the old paths of the Ukrainian settlers in Alberta,courtesy of the Ukrainian Village Museum east of Edmonton. My paternal grandfather was one of these and I hoped to find a way to understand the world he entered when he arrived in Alberta sometime after 1909. And in a way I did. The soft grass, the wild roses, the cool interior of this house where a man from Bukovina described building techniques, lifeways.


And strangely the house looks so much like those I’ve seen in William Kurelek’s book about his father’s village in Bukovina,  not far from my grandfather’s village. So we walked, Brendan, John, Kelly, and I, and I thought how near everything was, and how we are knitted to the past by strands of grass, the long leaves of willow, the sad eyes of the saints in the Orthodox church.


“common enough among outwardly civilised folk in the moister climate of Europe”

Yesterday a climate scientist from Stanford University was interviewed on one of the local CBC programs. He was talking about the current biodiversity crisis known as the sixth extinction. I listened and found myself crying at the damage our species has done to this beautiful planet. And as if to drive his point home in the event anyone was still doubtful about the severity of this crisis, the scientist said, Well, look at what you’re experiencing in B.C. right now. A drought unlike any you’ve seen.

He was right. May and now June have broken the records for low rainfall. I remember one shower in May. We had a little bit last Thursday but nothing before, or after. Usually June is a wet month and we make a fire in our woodstove most mornings. But not this year. It’s supposed to rain today and there was a tiny bit of mist mid-morning which I suspect is the extent of it. We have a well and so far, so good. And we’re planning to set up cisterns to capture and store water off the roof when it does begin to rain again. (Thanks to urging from son Forrest in Ottawa who has two rain-barrels…) Such a system never seemed necessary before but now it does. It’s June 24 and already some of the tomatoes on the upper deck are beginning to ripen. I’ve gardened here for 30 years and tomatoes have never ripened before mid-July.

We’re preparing to leave tomorrow for a few nights with our grand-daughter in Edmonton. So that means a lot of watering today and the good graces of our neighbour Doreen who will come to water the tomato plants on Saturday. (They’re in big pots, about 20 of them, and they dry out quite quickly.) I had to stop at one point during the watering of the upper deck, though, because this corner (you can see my clumsy sign naming it Rose Corner) was so beautiful. A big swallowtail butterfly was pausing on the roses, a hummingbird was darting among them, and big bees were entering the throats of the nasturtiums and coming out with their pollen sacs laden. (Though when I came out with a camera, they’d disappeared…)

rose corner

A frog was crouched on a cane of honeysuckle under an eave, waiting for me to finish so he could find a cool place under the green leaves. These are things I love and to think of them in jeopardy makes me feel so helpless. A cistern against the drought? Too little, too late?

Is it silly to think of magic? To read Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough and think about trying some of these techniques at home? If you hear a loud hammering on a kettle tonight, it might be us.

OF THE THINGS which the public magician sets himself to do for the good of the tribe, one of the chief is to control the weather and especially to ensure an adequate fall of rain. Water is an essential of life, and in most countries the supply of it depends upon showers. Without rain vegetation withers, animals and men languish and die. Hence in savage communities the rain-maker is a very important personage; and often a special class of magicians exists for the purpose of regulating the heavenly water-supply. The methods by which they attempt to discharge the duties of their office are commonly, though not always, based on the principle of homoeopathic or imitative magic. If they wish to make rain they simulate it by sprinkling water or mimicking clouds: if their object is to stop rain and cause drought, they avoid water and resort to warmth and fire for the sake of drying up the too abundant moisture. Such attempts are by no means confined, as the cultivated reader might imagine, to the naked inhabitants of those sultry lands like Central Australia and some parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, where often for months together the pitiless sun beats down out of a blue and cloudless sky on the parched and gaping earth. They are, or used to be, common enough among outwardly civilised folk in the moister climate of Europe. I will now illustrate them by instances drawn from the practice both of public and private magic.
Thus, for example, in a village near Dorpat, in Russia, when rain was much wanted, three men used to climb up the fir-trees of an old sacred grove. One of them drummed with a hammer on a kettle or small cask to imitate thunder; the second knocked two fire-brands together and made the sparks fly, to imitate lightning; and the third, who was called “the rain-maker,” had a bunch of twigs with which he sprinkled water from a vessel on all sides. To put an end to drought and bring down rain, women and girls of the village of Ploska are wont to go naked by night to the boundaries of the village and there pour water on the ground.  (from The Golden Bough)

“Burning the Days”

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote of my pleasure in James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. (https://theresakishkan.com/2013/06/04/five-generations/) I’d read one of his novels, A Sport and a Pastime, many years ago and was enchanted with his prose style. After reading the memoir, I immediately ordered his story collections, Dusk and other stories, and Last Night. I also ordered his most recent novel, All That Is, and couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night to finish it. It was troubling in some ways. The main character is self-absorbed and a womanizer in that old way I remember from my young womanhood (when several times men in cocktail bars sent drinks to me via the waiter, along with notes saying that they felt we had something in common. My friends and I would lower our eyes and smile. Now, when such a thing is in no danger of happening again, I think I’d respond very differently) and he takes revenge on a former lover in a manner which I found horrifying. But oh, what a stylist. Every paragraph had something to teach me about language and structure.  In his introduction to Salter’s novel, Light Years, Richard Ford says that, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” And yes, they are American sentences. This is something I’ll try to write about another time, the nationality of writing styles, sentences (think of Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor), and even cultural obsessions. But for now let me mourn, as a reader, James Salter’s death, yesterday, in Sag Harbor, New York. He was 90 years old.



“Was it a code?”

“The poem about cloth insinuated its way into my work with the quilt. Cresses green culled beneath a stone,/And given to a woman in secret./The shank of the deer in the head of the herring,/And in the slender tail of the speckled salmon. Was it a code? I knew about watercress and how it grew in cold clean water. How it could refresh water with its filtering root system. Did a secret reside in the loden green leaves, the small elegant scraps of velvet?”

I’m delighted to share the final cover for my novella, Patrin, to be published by Mother Tongue Publishing in September. The photograph was taken by Diana Hayes and the cover designer is Setareh Ashrafologhalai (who is also designing the pages as well). There was a simpler version of this in the earlier stages of the book’s production but it was felt that it didn’t bring together enough of the book’s threads. So Setareh revisited her earlier designs and came up with this. I think the spine and end papers will be burgundy, to echo the colour of the title. You can see the patrin itself, in the triangle immediately above the left corner of the title block. (Patrin or pateran: a handful of leaves tied to a tree or thrown on the ground, by Roma people, to indicate their course.) You will be able to order the book directly from Mother Tongue closer to the time and of course your own local bookstore will either stock it or be able to order it for you. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands.

new patrin cover

What do you call?

What do you call an essay that’s 48 pages long? And no, that’s not the opening line of a really great (literary) joke. I’m serious. Because I woke this morning with such good ideas for wrangling a recently-completed first draft of “Euclid’s Orchard” into shape. Maybe it was the cool breeze. Or the strong coffee. I sat with the pages on my lap — I can’t edit on my computer, or at least not at this stage, when I need to know how things are balanced (or not). I like to have the whole thing on paper so I can make notes in the margins, cross out words, use arrows to indicate that I want sentences, or even whole paragraphs, to move down a bit, or else to simply disappear.

P1120038And it was such a pleasure to work my way through and to understand where the gaps where but also that I believe the essay has some strengths, some originality. (Last week I felt I was simply writing the same old story over and over again.)

So I’m finished a second draft, which is so much better than the first (which went through a number of stages before it even became an entire first draft). My writing practice has always been to work on something for myself alone, to follow a thread into the maze (or knotted tangle, depending…), and try to understand its pattern, its relevance. I don’t show others my early drafts and mostly not even my later ones. I’m the one who has to figure out the way I need to do something and I don’t think it would be useful for me to try to work by consensus, even if it’s in a generous context. I do live with a writer, though, and sometimes we give each other our writing when we think it’s finished. John taught composition for years and he’s a wonderful grammarian. My own understanding of language is intuitive. Don’t ask me what a gerund is, or a prepositional phrase. (I don’t know what a gasket is either or a universal joint but I’ve been driving for almost 45 years without an accident and I’ve only run out of gas once.)

I know there are lots of writers who write only for themselves. I write by myself but not necessarily for myself. I can’t explain why but I’ve always thought of my work as truly complete when it’s been accepted by a publisher. For individual essays, this is generally a journal or magazine. For novel, well, I don’t try to publish chapters of those but I do always intend the whole thing to be published eventually. It’s not in my mind while I’m writing but when I’ve finished a work, then I begin to wonder about where, how, when. This is me, wondering.

In the meantime, the weather has changed again. The cloud cover at dawn and the cool breeze of the morning have both disappeared and the sky is clear blue. It’s not as hot as it was yesterday but there’s no sign of rain. I think of the beautiful Fraser Canyon south of Lytton on fire and I wish I knew a charm for rain. A tiny frog has huddled under the eaves on the upper deck and I’m going to put out a bowl of water for it. And then label the jam I made this morning (between editing and another cup of coffee). Gooseberry (we have the green variety) with ginger. A batch of jam, though it’s not even summer yet…


“by any other name”

                                    O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

–from Romeo and Juliet

This morning I was working on this new essay, “Ballast”, and was in the process of wondering, not aloud exactly but certainly on the page, about a rose I have growing over a railing on the west-facing deck, our garden “room” if we have one: it’s the deck where our table is in summer, where we eat our dinners, sit with guests at night with glasses of single-malt, listening for loons down on Sakinaw Lake:

summer roomThe rose came from one of the spring plant sales that happened every year at the Community Hall when we first lived here; you brought your box with you and you got there early because everyone wanted the tomatoes or irises or Muriel Cameron’s dahlia tubers or bits of Vi Tyner’s roses. I’m not sure this one came from Vi Tyner (who did give me moss roses, a soft pink one and a deep pink). But it grows everywhere — old homesteads, seaside gardens, along fences in semi-industrial areas as if remembering a former house, ancient care. It grows across from the Post Office in Madeira Park, for example, and I don’t know if it ever gets pruned or watered. And there’s a place on the highway, near Middlepoint, where one grew for years and years, until it was absorbed by the forest taking over the site of a cabin which I believed burned to the ground before we ever arrived in 1981.

Anyway, I’d thought a little about trying to identify it but somehow never did. And somehow today was the day so I took my rose encyclopedia and a cup of coffee out to the table (you can see both there, if you look hard. It’s not a good photograph but today is so hot that I wasn’t going to stand around fussing with the camera…) and went through, page by page. Until I came to “American Pillar”. Bred by Dr. Van Fleet in 1902. A very prolific and wide-spread rose and yes, it will survive any kind of neglect, it seems.

american pillarI’m interested in how plants travel, how they are carried to new places, how they are botanical palimpsests, in a way.  And how they hold stories. Some of the stories are plain and true and some are cryptic. In Placentia, Newfoundland, two autumns ago, we stayed in a beautiful old Second Empire bed and breakfast inn. There was a lovely garden in front, overlooking the gut or channel connecting two arms of water. And a little photo-essay in the entrance hall detailed the restoration work done on the house, adding that the old roses in the garden had come in soil serving as ships’ ballast, the ship having come from Ireland.

I have roses from gardens no longer extant. Vi Tyner’s for example, which provided the moss roses as well as white violets, yellow flag irises, and a root of Viburnum opulus which promptly died once planted and which I was always too timid to tell her. A “Tuscany Superb” which came from a cutting given me at a birthday party held perhaps 30 years ago in a house which has long been torn down. My “New Dawns” (a repeat-blooming sport of “Dr. Van Fleet”) came from an elderly neighbour of my parents in Saanich who told me how her mother rooted cuttings (old wood and new wood, in specific proportions, which I’ve forgotten now, but she helped me cut them and three of them did root and thrive still, more than 30 years later).  That’s another rose, like “American Pillar’, to be found in almost every old garden, it seems. Ours are in full and rampant bloom right now and they are almost exactly the colour of my granddaughter’s shoulders. They have such a sweet and delicate scent, almost apple-y, and what’s in a name? Such beauty and such hope.

a new dawn

“my tribe is scattered”

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feasts of losses?
–Stanley Kunitz, from “The Layers”

I’ve begun an essay I’m calling “Ballast”. It’s a companion-piece to “Euclid’s Orchard”, a long rambling meditation on mathematics, family history, genetics, quilting, and, oh, love; “Ballast” will explore the notions of what was carried to the New World by those leaving not just a country but a whole tangled netting of community, horticultural knowledge, embedded memory of landscape, history (family history as well as the extended histories of place). I’m in the process of accumulating and thinking about materials. It’s a little like quilt-making, or at least my version of it: the fabrics collect, wait, and I look at them daily. Then for whatever reason they suggest a pattern. They speak out of their colours and textures and I begin to listen to what they have to say.

Recently I’ve learned, through the magic of online genealogical lists, that my paternal grandmother had two younger sisters. My father didn’t know this. Two very kind women in the Czech Republic have been sending me information about how my grandmother might be related to others in Horni Lomna, the village where she was born. The little run of names I have — her family name, her mother’s family name — are connected now to others and I realize that the futility I’ve felt about finding out what happened to those who stayed in Moravia when my grandmother emigrated to Canada might just lift.

In a way, “Ballast” began in March, in the National Archaeological Museum in Belem, Portugal. We went to see a wonderful exhibit, “Time Salvaged from the Sea”, focussing on underwater archaeology in Portugal over the past thirty years. There were displays of artefacts ranging from pre-Roman materials to fairly contemporary finds, all well-catalogued and with such intelligent descriptions. And it turned my mind to the trip my grandmother took from Antwerp to Saint John in 1913 with her five children. What did she take with her? What did she consider to be indispensable for a new life? To my knowledge (which is admittedly scant), she didn’t send for anything after she’d settled in Drumheller. Even letters were rare. A phrase in the catalogue of “Time Salvaged from the Sea” has haunted me ever since I read it and I know it is at the heart of this writing I’m about to embark on. “During the crossing, for hundreds of men and, in this case, some women and children, stern and bow,deck, poop deck, topsail or hold, became opposite poles of a small world saturated with divisions between social classes and geographical loneliness.”


a turning

The months have turned, May to June, and now it seems that the weather might too. We’ve had the driest May on record — 4.5 mms of rain and the average is 65. Not 6.5 but 65. So all the flowers have been three weeks early, the birds arrived early and the young — at least the first nestsful — have fledged or are in the process. Last evening I watched a sapsucker preparing a thick stem of cotoneaster for its young and soon I expect to see one or two attempting to feed in the prepared holes where insects will be waiting in the sap. It’s a funny thing to watch because there’s a lot of flapping on the part of the young and much earnest coaxing on the part of the parents. This morning I was mulching the garlic bed and startled a bird in the narrow gap between the box and the mesh fence. I didn’t immediately know what it was but soon realized, as it kept flapping against the fence, that it was a young towhee. One parent was calling to it from the salal just beyond the fence. I tried to ease it up but it didn’t realize that it could fly up over the fence and it flapped its way along the mesh, making small sounds of panic. Finally I approached it slowly and lifted the fence up a few inches and brushed it through the low gap. It did fly then, over to a maple by the salal, where the parent made a fuss of it.

And now I think it’s going to rain, finally. The sky has gone very grey. I’m ready for the smell of mineral rain through the window, the sound of it on the roof, the cool breath of air ruffling the linen curtains in my bedroom. I just cut a big bouquet of roses to take to a birthday celebration tonight. June roses (and honeysuckle) for my friend June.