distilʹ, v.i. & t. (-ll-). Trickle down; come or give forth in drops, exude; turn to vapour by heat, condense by cold, & recollect (liquid); extract essence of (plant etc., or fig. Doctrine etc.); drive (volatile constituent) off or out by heat; make (whisky, essence) by distillation; undergo distillation. So ̴ lAʹTION n., ̴ lʹatORY a. [ME, f. OF distiller, L DI1(stillare drop)

I use my dictionary all the time, my 1964 fifth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I bought it to celebrate my new vocation as a university student in the fall of 1973. Maybe even the last day of August (though I know of course that there are still three weeks of summer left), as I nervously checked my textbook lists, my binders, the tires of my bicycle (for I cycled to the University of Victoria from Royal Oak in those days, up Quadra to McKenzie and along McKenzie to the campus). There were still a few places on McKenzie where I could stop to visit with horses in those years. Hard to believe now.

So this morning, looking at the pantry shelves, at the preserving I did this weekend, I thought of the word “distil”. Yesterday 4 pounds of tomatillos were distilled into 6 jars of salsa verde. That pile of tomatillos, the onions peeled and quartered, the pile of cilantro, the elegant long peppers from the planter on the upper deck, and a handful of fierce little peppers from my friend June — the heaps of vegetables reduced to a few jars of salsa. But what salsa! It tastes delicious and when I open a jar in winter, when I poach eggs (duck eggs if I’m lucky) in it and savour each aromatic mouthful on a corn tortilla, I’ll remember the paradox of the plenty cooked down into essence.

That was the second batch of salsa verde. And there are many jars of pickled beans, another distillation: tender beans, fresh dill snipped from its pot, garlic from the ropes of it still hanging in the woodshed, some salt, some vinegar, a handful of mustard seed, a small chili pepper tucked into each jar. There are jars of blackberry jam, gooseberry jam, jelly made with Himrod grapes given us by Harold Rhenisch and flavoured with rosemary and lime zest. Still to come: spicy red pepper jelly (a family favourite with lamb), maybe rosehip jelly (because otherwise the squirrels station themselves by my second-story bedroom window and throw the hips to the ground below; they’ve been throwing fir cones to the ground for a few weeks now, hitting the plywood covering the kindling pile so that we wake close to dawn to the sound of shots. What was that? What was that? And then sink back, realizing it’s the squirrels. Again.) The deer have already eaten all the low-growing crabapples but there are plenty in another tree for bears to return to, as they do every fall, and they’re welcome to the scabby fruit, though I hate it when they tear a branch in their eagerness to pick every apple.


Reading my dictionary this morning, I thought how glad I am to have a few old skills. Food preserving, quilting (for there is one in the works for an event later this fall), even decoding a word and its origins in a 1964 edition of OED. We have two sets of the dictionary in its larger incarnation, in two volumes. Well, no. We have three sets. We have one set of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a gift to John from me about 15 years ago, bought at Macleod’s Books in Vancouver, missing its case but a treasure. And then we received the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes as an incentive for (re)joining the Folio Society. When it arrived, we realized it was missing a section of pages or had been misbound somehow. (When I look at it now, I see only that there are some pages repeated, out of sequence, and I don’t use it enough to be familiar with its tricks.) The Folio Society cheerfully sent another set. I don’t imagine there are huge numbers of people wanting a dictionary in two volumes, for which a magnifying glass at the very least is required. (I’ve given up on those and bought reading glasses.) But it’s good to have these books for when you do need an authoritative source and online dictionaries are not that, or not to me anyway. In some ways our world is moving away from such notions — of ultimate authority, linguistic, orthographic, or otherwise —  but although communities use language and keep it lively and generative, they don’t always keep its long history in their memories. I’d been thinking of distillation as essence, as something (like 4 pounds of tomatillos) reduced to its essential flavour. But that’s process, really, and there’s so much more at play (and at work) in the word itself and its origins. And one word leads to another, either through its own relationships or simply by those around it on the page. The word before “distil” in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary is “distichous”, a word I’ve never seen before. And what does it mean? “Having fruit etc. arranged in two vertical lines on opposite sides of stem.” Yet it’s a form of phyllotaxis, which I’ve recently read a fair bit about (so maybe I just kind of skimmed over “distichous” if it appeared) for the long essay I wrote, “Euclid’s Orchard”.

Phyllotaxis is the term used for the study of the order of the position of leaves on a stem, how the spiral arrangement allows for optimum exposure to sunlight. I think of my children, my brothers, our parents and grandparents and all the generations of the spiral arranged on our own family tree. We are a case study in phyllotaxis, all of us absorbing the light, all of us contributing (“The whole is greater than the part”), even in death, to the ongoing life and vitality of the tree. Though by now, who knows its genus, its specific name.

We have a fire this morning, the first in months, the sweet smell of burning fir taking the damp out of the air, calling me to note the change in weather, season, to celebrate plentitude and to remember the beautiful utility of my small desk dictionary.

“…a coyote is singing a long low passage.”

Last night I woke around 3:00 to hear coyotes singing in the woods. Or the orchard. Hard to tell in moonlight the location of music, particularly coyote music, which is cast to the air in a kind of magic. I thought of my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which also hears the music and tries to make sense of it. Not only its location but its meaning, over time.

From “Euclid’s Orchard”:

Braid groups, harmonic analysis: The whole is greater than the part. (5th axiom of Euclid)

braid groupsA mid-summer evening, clear moonlight. Down in the orchard, the coyotes have gone under the fence with their young. How many? I’ve seen one, heard several others. I’ve imagined them on the soft grass, tumbling like my children used to play, rolling down the slope over tiny sweet wild strawberries, over the heart-shaped violet leaves, the deep pockets of moss, while around them snakes hid under the lupines. But now in the quiet, I am shaken out of my dreaming because a coyote is singing a long low passage. A lump forms in my throat as I look out into the night, the sky dusty with stars, a three-quarter moon hanging so perfect over the hidden lake that I think of a stage-set, an arranged scene created by strings and wishful thinking. A jagged line of dark horizon and the vertical trees, the line of them rising, then descending as the bar changes, a page of music, the arpeggiated chords, the implied bassline. A pause, a comma of silence. Another coyote joins in, then at least two more. It’s a part-song, a madrigal. Each voice is on pitch but one is low, another high, and several braid themselves in and around the melody line.

See, see, mine own sweet jewel,
See what I have here for my darling:
A robin-redbreast and a starling.
These I give both, in hope to move thee–
And yet thou say’st I do not love thee.

What feast have the parents provided—a flying squirrel, a clutch of frogs, robin nestlings fallen from a tree, a cat from the summer neighbours sound asleep in their beds? See what I have here for my darling—I hear the riso in the father’s line, his extravagant vibrato; and then the sospiroin hope to move thee, as the mother nudges the twitching body towards her eager pups. For she knows, oh, she knows, that by summer’s end, her young will have gone their own way, far from the natal den in the woods just south of the orchard, forgetting the braided perfection of the family body and its unravelling, the strands unplucked and loose, and yet thou say’st I do not love thee.

postcard from Princeton, formerly Vermillion Forks

We’ve always liked Princeton. It’s somehow intact, with its low buildings, modest houses, and (in recent) years, its fabulous Traditional Music Festival, which is the same weekend as our Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival so I’ve only been once, alas, in 2010. But it was memorable: great music on several stages throughout the town, guerilla Morris dancers leaping to the sidewalk from behind parked cars, and a dance in Veterans Square where complete strangers responded to the caller and sashayed, promenaded, and dosey-doed, us among them.

We stayed one night in Princeton on our way back from Kelowna. First, a walk. Past the old halls, the museum, the small houses dating from the area’ mining days. And wait, was that a train whistle? No, it was a white pick-up truck going slowly up and down Bridge Street, two guys gleefully sounding the horn (or whistle and bell arrangement) set up in the back of the truck. We stood aside as a woman in a long skirt, sequinned top, cowboy hat, pulling a wheeled dufflebag with one hand and casually swinging a large double-bitted axe with the other. A double-bitted axe just like this one:

axeThere were posters advertising a free concert that evening in Veterans Square, starting at 6. So just before 6 we ambled down to see what music a swing band called RPM might perform on a warm night in the Similkameen Valley. At first it was just the 5 of us — the couple with the baby who set up chairs right in front of the gazebo (they might have been relations, given the nature of the banter) and us, sitting further back on the benches surrounding the square.

veterans square

And the music was just right. The Bee Gee’s “Words”, “Tennessee Waltz” (which almost had me pulling John to his feet to dance on the (mostly) empty square).  A few more people drifted by (but not many), sitting on benches and clapping enthusiastically after every tune.

As we walked over to the Little Creek Grill for dinner (Greek, and delicious! Though we almost tried the cleverly-named Vermillion Fork…), we passed a man on the sidewalk, taking a smoke break in front of the Legion.

–How are you folks tonight?

–Good, thanks. How are you?

–I’d be better if I wasn’t packing 80 pounds of rocks BACK to the river — I’m supposed to be home.

There was a huge bucket on the sidewalk with a goldpan, a small shovel, and what looked like rocks. 80 pounds of them. And therein lies a story.

If you’re in Kelowna on Friday night…

Final event wraps up successful Woodshed summer series

Last chance to enjoy a summer evening of poetry, fiction, and music

Award-winning writer and poet Theresa Kishkan will read from a collection of her work on Friday, August 21 at the Woodhaven Eco Culture Centre.

What: An evening of poetry and live music
Who: Theresa Kishkan, Darian Saunders, and Sami Al-khalili
When: Friday, August 21, at 7 p.m.
Where: Woodhaven Eco Culture Centre, 969 Raymer Road, Kelowna

As summer begins to wane, organizers of the Woodshed Reading series are hosting a final event before bidding farewell to their second successful series of words and music.

Novelist, poet, and essayist Theresa Kishkan will read from a collection of her work on Friday, August 21 at the Woodhaven Eco Culture Centre. Singer-songwriter Darian Saunders and operatic beat-boxer Sami Al-khalili will be on hand to perform music to accompany Kishkan.

Kishkan is a prolific writer who lives on the Sechelt Peninsula, where she runs High Ground Press with her husband John Pass. She is the author of six books of poetry, including Black Cup, and several chapbooks, including Morning Glory, which won the bpNichol Chapbook Prize. The bpNichol Chapbook Award recognizes excellence in Canadian poetry that is published in chapbook format (not less than 10 pages and not more than 48). Awarded continuously since 1986, the $4,000 prize is presented to a poetry chapbook judged to be the best submitted that year.

Kishkan is also the author of three novels, Sisters of Grass, A Man in a Distant Field, and The Age of Water Lilies, and several collections of essays including Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane Editions, 2011).

This is the final Woodhaven event, closing out what has been a jam-packed summer of words, metaphors, and music. This is a free event, beginning at 7 p.m. and everyone is welcome. Woodhaven Eco Culture Centre is located at 969 Raymer Road, Kelowna.

The Woodshed Reading Series is sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, The Association of Literature, Environment and Culture in Canada, and the Regional District of Central Okanagan. Follow the Facebook page ‘The Woodshed Readings’ or on the blog:  blogs.ubc.ca/woodhavencentre for more events.