“looking for the best views”
All night rain fell steadily, the sound of it on our metal roof so welcome after the weeks and weeks of drought. There was sporadic rain here and there – a brief shower or two in May, one in June, a short period last week — but never anything sustained. So to lie awake in the night and hear it, after a day of it yesterday, is to imagine the trees drinking deeply, the big pails at the down-spouts filling, the beans (oh, the beans) outgrowing their poles and reaching for the sky.
I was up in the night, working on this essay-in-progress I’m calling “Ballast”. Fittingly, I sent Forrest and Manon off to Ottawa the other day with a little wrapped length of horseradish root for their garden (and of course I’d shown them the tomatillo plants I’d brought home from their garden in May, tiny little volunteers perhaps an inch long which I’d dug and wrapped in damp paper towel, placing each one in a pot almost immediately after arriving home; they’re now 7 feet tall and laden with fruit). And when Angie and Sahand left yesterday morning, they packed a pot of small kale plants, another of arugula, and another of mint, mint from John’s mother’s garden, into their car. They have a balcony garden in Victoria and now know that it’s fatal to mention that they might like some salad greens for it…Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly managed to get away without any roots or greens but their time will come.
Part of the research I’ve been doing for this essay revolves around the plants emigrants brought to the New World. I’m growing “Black Krim” tomatoes , originally from the Crimea, and every time I eat one, I wonder if my grandfather’s family in Bukovina grew tomatoes. I know they grew potatoes. Potatoes were central to their diet and among the tiny hoard of stories I have about my grandparents, there is one I particularly treasure. My grandmother was pregnant with my father and it was October, in Drumheller. My grandparents were digging the last of their potatoes when my grandmother went into labour. (My father was the tenth child she gave birth to.) “Aren’t you going to finish your row?” asked my grandfather. I wish had some small remnant of those original potatoes for our own soil here.
And tomatillos – well, they originated in pre-Columbian Mexico. I love them. In winter we often have a simple supper of eggs poached in green salsa which we eat with homemade corn tortillas cooked on an ancient cast iron griddle I was given many years ago by an elderly woman who had no children herself and liked it that John and I (in her words) “knew what to do with our hands”. (She was impressed we’d built our own house.) I was very surprised to see how many tiny tomatillo volunteers sprouting in an Ottawa garden after the long cold winter but plants, like people, find ways to adapt to new places.
Forrest was able to get me a copy of an article I’d come across a reference to and which I thought would be useful for this essay. The article, by John Murray Gibbon, was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada in 1923, and is entitled “European Seeds in the Canadian Garden”. Imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered it was about literary seeds, not botanical ones. And the literary references are pretty dull. But there are moments when I realize the trajectories of stories, gardens, and memory are more similar than I expected and the article prompted one of those moments:
The peach tree carried into Northern India by Chinese settlers and introduced into Greece by Alexander the Great, now blooms in many an orchard in the Niagara Peninsula. So the seeds of literature share in human migrations from the Old World to the New, and where they find congenial circumstances and proper cultivation, there they flourish.
Yesterday morning, before Angie and Sahand left, I saw John sitting with them and showing Sahand an album of photographs of our early years here, prompted by questions about how we came to build our house. I was in and out of the living room but loved hearing the stories again – how we came with a tiny baby (Forrest) and lived in a tent on weekends, in all weathers, mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow for the footings, using water in a clear hose as part of our method of finding level, deciding where windows would go by walking the framed platforms and looking for the best views.
So now to try to wrangle all this into an essay, a few new lines added to the old stories and the seeds of those tomatillos enriching our compost for future gardens, winter dinners.