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.

“I grieve for the bend in the road and beyond”

There are places you pass through on travels and you dream of them ever after. Two years ago John and I were ambling through Boundary country in the southern Interior of B.C. and saw, on our map, a road meandering off the main highway and rejoining it further east. The Rock Creek-Bridesville Road — though we took it backwards, so to speak, leaving Highway 3 (the Crowsnest Highway) at Bridesville and driving the most magical route through pine forests, along soft gravel, through grassy meadows, past several peaceful farms where deer grazed among cattle and bluebirds sat on fenceposts watching us as we tried to take their portraits. There were wildflowers in glorious bloom, a young bobcat crossing the road in front of us, yellowheaded blackbirds calling across a marsh, and a sense that here was paradise.

Last week terrible wildfires swept through this area. I’m not sure if this particular road was affected — I’ve looked online, trying to find precise maps —  but many homes were burned in the Rock Creek area, campsites were evacuated at a moment’s notice, the highway was closed, and the news was full of stories of people setting their animals free before they had to flee their farms.

kins corner ranch

I think of that beautiful landscape, the Kettle River running through it, the ranches anchored by history and long occupation, the birds, dense stands of fir and pine, and everywhere the meadows, the scent of wildflowers. I hope for the best for all the people who lived there, many of them able now to return to find what was left of home after days in temporary shelters, fed by the people of Midway and Kelowna and other communities which opened their doors, and I remember a poem, not about this place exactly (you’ll note the references to ocean), but about how such landscapes enter memory and come to us unprovoked, in dreams:

A Bend in the Road

In a dream, a road leads to my new life.

I am riding a horse. Around the far bend

is a bay and by that, a house. I am planning

for food, a garden, an occupation.

My family has never occurred.

The ditches are bright with poppies and hawkweed.

I am thinking I have been here before,

in a dream, or not, but long ago, I remember

the fields of daffodils swept back

from the road in sunlight, the horse’s sweat

and the swish of its tail.

What I don’t know is the house.

There are visible boats, a pier,

the sweet smell of tar. When I wake

to find my children in my bed, a guest

in the downstairs room, blue cups on the counters,

no water in sight, the black horse dead

all these years, I grieve for the bend

in the road and beyond.

–from I Thought I Could See Africa (High Ground Press, 1991)

an algorithm for the passing of time

I’ve been sorting through some photographs I took while my family was here last week. I love this one, my grandbaby Kelly in the rocking chair in my study.

kelly in rocking chairJohn’s mum brought this chair for son Forrest when he was a toddler. For years it was in the kitchen, among the chairs in front of the woodstove (“Here’s an rocking chair for someone who likes to rock, an armchair for two more to curl up in.” Yup, we liked the Friendly Giant television show and yup, we had the chairs…) Then I moved it to my study when there was no one small enough to sit in it any longer. The quilt behind Kelly is one my paternal grandmother made for my older brother Dan when he was a baby. (He’s 64…) I never appreciated it fully until I began to make quilts myself, nearly 30 years ago. There’s nothing grand about it but it’s one of the few things I have from my grandmother. This little quilt appears in one of the first essays I wrote when I returned to writing after my children were born. For some reason it didn’t make it into my first collection of essays, Red Laredo Boots, but it did appear in Phantom Limb in 2007.

In Provo, I thought for the first time in years of the small crib quilt my grandmother had made for my older brother. Nothing of the sort had been made for me but the little quilt somehow ended up in my possession. I used it for my children when they were babies, its rough squares of old cotton — remnants of curtains, housedresses, my grandfather’s pyjamas — offering a comfort beyond warmth. I didn’t know my grandmother very well; she died when I was nine or ten. When she was alive, we visited in the summers and I found her to be rather terrifying — an ancient Slavik-accented matriarch who was practically deaf and lived surrounded by daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, seated in a yellow rocking chair on a porch of a house in Edmonton, far from our home. I looked, all the years later, at the crib-quilt she’d stitched and knew something of her hands, the way she saw colour, the thrifty spirit that must have been so pleased to find a use for the bits of good cloth. The quilt was backed with red and white ticking, perhaps left over from stuffing mattresses with goose feathers from the fowl kept by my grandparents in the days of my father’s childhood. It was obvious that my grandmother was not an accomplished quilter; her squares were lopsided and the stitching irregular; but I felt a kinship with her in a way more profound than I ever felt sitting by the yellow rocker and trying to decipher what she was saying to me, all those years ago, in summer.

The rocking chair in my study doesn’t sit empty. My old teddy bear Georgie has pride of place during the times when Kelly isn’t here.

georgie in rocking chairGeorgie was bought in Hawaii in January, 1955. My father was on the HMCS Stettler, enroute to Pearl Harbor, and my mother sent him a telegram to let him know he had a daughter. He returned home a few weeks later with Georgie. I’m sure Georgie was more handsome in those days but in some ways he has always looked the same to me. I couldn’t sleep without him as a child. Or at least I wouldn’t. Once, when I was three and living on May Street in Victoria, I left him on Moss Rocks across the road from our house. At bedtime — it was winter, I remember, and dark — my father had to go out with a flashlight to find my bear. In my family it became a story of how much my father loved me, though I always thought of it as a story about how much I needed my Georgie.

I know I keep saying this but where does time go? How can all these things whirl in my memory, retrievable but murky, how can it be that I remember something that happened when I was three and how can I still feel like the girl of six who made a bed for her bear in a wooden mandarin orange box and did the difficult thing and let him sleep alone? There must be an algorithm for this, for time passing and accumulating, though when I try to find out how that might look, I come across formulae too difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Time complexity analysis. Polynomial time algorithms. The sublinear time algorithm sounds promising and maybe I’ll try to figure that one out.

The person in my family who might know is my son Brendan, the father of Kelly. He’s a mathematician. He’s also the one who was musing about something like this as a boy of about five (it seems like yesterday) and who said, not to anyone in particular, but with a kind of wonder: “Stuffed animals are a lot like grownups. They get older and older and older but they never grow an inch.”

a (botanical) mystery

I’m puzzled. Last year I grew three varieties of Italian pole beans. (Some years I find myself on Commercial Drive in late winter and the Home Hardware there has an amazing selection of Italian seeds. Not the McKenzie Gusto ones — though maybe they have those too — but Larosa Emanuele, from Bari. It’s hard to resist the beautiful packages which contain more seeds by far than their North American counterparts and are cheap to boot.) I planted a romano type, “Smeraldo”, a long green one called “Nano Fin de Bagnols” which is sort of like a French filet, and “Trionfo Violetta”. I’ve grown these before but last year’s crop was astonishing and as well as pickling and freezing many pounds of beans, I left some on the vines to mature so I could dry them for seed. I didn’t keep them separate because quite honestly I love them all and didn’t mind them climbing the poles together and providing many pickings of all three varieties. The seeds were different, though — some of them brown, some of them white. (And true to my careless nature, I didn’t keep track of which was which. More on this in a moment.)

When I planted my beans, I put a selection under each pole of the teepees I’d erected in the bed I call “Wave”. Nice deep soil, well-nourished with compost, mushroom manure, alfalfa pellets, a handful of kelp meal, and a handful of lime. The slugs were around as the seeds were germinating so I had to keep poking in more seeds to compensate for the sad little sprouts with the tell-tale silver trail leading away from them. And then it got warm and the plants went crazy. For the past two weeks, I’ve been picking colanders most days. And they’re delicious. But here’s the puzzle:

beansToday’s picking is unnusual in that there’s actually a green romano bean in the lot. Every other picking has been exclusively purple. I’d say that the mix I saved was about equal parts two greens — the long filets and the romano-type — and one part “Trionfo Violetta”. I am no botanist but I believe (and please please someone tell me if I’m wrong) that beans are almost entirely self-pollinating, that by the time the beautiful flowers open, they have pollinated themselves (the anthers are pushed up against the stigma inside the unopened flower), and that cross-pollination is very rare.

So why are my beans all purple? All of three kinds were vigorous last year. I saved seed from good strong pods and all the beans were dried on newspaper on my kitchen floor in exactly the same way. I don’t actually mind. These beans are fabulous. (Favourite way to eat them is steamed briefly, cooled, tossed with hazelnut oil and lemon juice, some clipped tarragon and chives, and then some toasted chopped hazelnuts over top.)

A few years ago I visited Mendel’s monastery in Brno and should have paid more attention to the details of his genetic experiments. Instead, I pushed my face against the case of his pruning tools — so elegant and so well-cared for — and looked for ages at the detailed notes he kept about weather. Walking through the garden, I kept imagining him with his magnificent patience and attentive mind, I kept wondering about his life, and, well, let’s just say it was an opportunity lost. I found out just how little I’d paid attention when I was trying to write about genetics in my “Euclid’s Orchard” essay this past year.