“Her grandmother lived in the woods…”

Last week I bought some finger-puppets, cunningly knit by Peruvian women, to have when my grandaughter comes to visit. (When her cousin Arthur comes — he’s younger! — I’ll find another set for a story to interest him.) We are a low-tech household and I’m sure there will be complaints when the grandchildren are older — “Oh, do we have to go to Grandma Theresa and Grandad John’s? They always want to read to us and their internet connection is so slow! Can’t we stay home and play on our I-phones?” But when I had a little Skype date with Kelly and showed her the puppets, she reached for the computer screen (in slow-motion, because of that connection!) to touch these beautiful little figures.

puppetsI spent time this morning looking at versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”. The one I thought I remembered best was the Brothers Grimm tale, the one in which Red and her grandmother are both consumed by the wolf but then removed from the animal’s belly by a huntsman who just happened to be passing by. He filled the cavity with stones and the wolf stumbled and died from the weight of the stones. And pulling out my copy of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, I see that is indeed the narrative arc of the tale. But my little collection of puppets includes a woodcutter — he’s on the right, with the floppy axe — and it’s the French version that features a woodcutter. This would reflect the changing nature of European forests, I suppose — some of them owned by aristocrats as large hunting preserves and some in the process of being deforested for farm crops and cattle. I remember reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment perhaps 35 years ago and being intrigued by his analysis of fairy tales as important adjuncts to shaping the emotional lives of children. Red Riding Hood was an example of a story that allowed children, specifically girls, to grapple with the unsettling fears and dangers of puberty, among other things. I think it also situates a child in the force-field of generational responsibility. A girl is asked by her mother to take sustenance to an ailing grandmother and she moves from the safety of a village to the isolated forest, from her own home with her parents to the house where her mother had grown up. Although she’s been warned to be careful on the way, how could she ever know the specific dangers along the way? Her mother mentions a few things to be alert to but her concerns are more to do with etiquette once Red arrives at her grandmother’s cottage. Does she warn about a wolf? Or a well-armed hunter? A woodcutter?

I will search out the right story to go with my puppets and if we’re lucky, Kelly might hear wolves in the night when she sleeps at her grandmother’s house in the isolated forest. And when she’s a little older, she can help chop wood herself. Just so she learns to use an axe and doesn’t wait for someone else to do it for her.

“The place is a wilderness…”

the cream beauties

A few days away, at the Galiano Literary Festival. It was such a privilege to be invited, to be hosted by Louise De Cario and Brian Mitchell in their lovely seaside home (with a studio filled with Brian’s paintings), to be included in the readings held at the Galiano Inn with its flowering rosemary and comfortable chairs, and to have the opportunity to meet some old friends and to make some new ones too. We walked out to Bellhouse Park at one point and I noticed that everything was a week or two ahead of us at home — the miners lettuce already sporting its second sets of leaves (and even third sets on some plants), the ubiquitous broom coming into bloom. At Brian and Louise’s, their greengage plum was ready to flower, a few buds opening in sunlight.

But as always, a pleasure to return home. This morning, a hard frost, but the sky is clear and blue, and when I went out to wander my garden (in my nightdress!), I was filled with that sense that it’s time. Time to weed, time to plant (inside…), time to shake off winter and welcome the light. Because it’s here! Moonlight last night, starlight. Time to tidy the leaves away from the chives, to air the blankets, to think about tidying the garden shed and cleaning the tools. I opened Pleasures of the Garden: a Literary Anthology to encourage these feelings of possibility (because after all, it can still snow, and even though I promised myself during last summer’s drought that I would never ever complain about rain again, there will be lots of it) and found myself reading Tao Yuanming’s poem about his own beloved garden:

The place is a wilderness;

But there is an old pine-tree and my chrysanthemums.

Wine is brought in full bottles, and I pour it out in brimming cups.

I gaze out at my favourite branches.

I wonder if I’d love our place half as much if it wasn’t a wilderness? The view of Mount Hallowell behind us, dusted with new snow? The Douglas firs and cedars (no pines, alas) below the house framing the view to the west, the cascara with its lichen-crusted branches to the south, next to the arbutus that is filled with warblers when it flowers. The salal. And what we’ve planted grown large over the years — the crabapples, wisterias, forsythias I let arch over like fountains, roses, the grapes.

I pluck chrysanthemums by the eastern fence

And see the distant southern mountains.

The mountain air is fresh at dusk.

Flying birds return in flocks.

In these things there lies a great truth,

But when I try to express it, I cannot find the words.

rhubarb shoots (and leaves)

from a work-in-progress, The Marriage of Rivers, because I’m missing Ponderosa pines on a damp February morning



Here, once more, they drove past the great solitary bull pines with their strongly hatched and corrugated bark – all the delights of this country spoke afresh to Maggie – swelling hills, wild and widespread sage, look! There is a coyote and his coat is the same dun colour as the hill on which he runs purposefully about his business. He vanishes. This was Maggie’s third year in. Breathe this sagey air! See, a bluebird! Floating cloud, drifting scent, tree, wild creature, curving fleeting hill – each made its own statement to Maggie in the imperishable spring. (SA, 205)

The Lac Le Jeune Road swept up and away from the TransCanada just west of Kamloops. And I took the turn, my truck juddering as I slowed down and then stopped on the shoulder. Because there was a bull pine in dry grass, solitary as any god. I knew from reading the field guides that bull pine was a disputed synonym for Pinus ponderosa, our native yellow pine. Some botanists thought it was more accurately a Pinus sabiniana, or gray pine (also called ghost pine or foothills pine for its occurrence in the Sierra foothills of California). Others grouped all the yellow pines – shortleaf, loblolly, slash, Jeffrey – together as bull pines. And some insisted it was really a particularly large and singular specimen of any of these pines. When I grew weary, in my graduate seminars, of the squabbling over the context of a line of Robert Frost or the etymology of some arcane word used by Basil Bunting, I’d remember the botanists, the clumpers and the splitters, and how their arguments echoed the literary ones and I’d want to just get outside. As I was now, on the side of the Lac Le Jeune Road, looking at a tree. Which might have been one of the trees Maggie Lloyd saw as she drove towards her cherished life at Three Loon Lake, away from the small bitterness of her second husband, the odious Edward Vardoe.

Looking at a tree, a long black scar on one side where lightning or a a fire scorched it. And huge plates of bark fitting together like sections of a puzzle. I got out of the truck and walked over to it. Clusters of resin, deep gold, with a few ants trapped inside, as beautiful as amber. Which they were on their way to becoming in the fullness of time, though I wasn’t sure if these pines were known for their amber, unlike Pinites succiniter, also known as Pinus succinifera, or Baltic pine. I broke off a little chunk and wrapped it in a soft mullein leaf which I tucked into my pocket. And looking up, I heard nutcrackers up in the branches, scolding me for interrupting their meal of seeds. This was what I wanted, the ordinariness of birds and pines, not the sorrow of life without you, James. I sunk into the deep duff of needles to cry and after a few minutes, I took out my map and noted the date, the location, and drew a little pine to remind me to look up the passage in Swamp Angel. My fingers were tacky with resin and a little of it stuck to the map. I pressed a single pine needle into it and made sure I refolded the map with that section exposed to air.

My truck wouldn’t start. I turned the key and there was a kind of grinding noise. Then nothing. I sat in the driver’s seat on the edge of the road, my map on the dashboard, and I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I cried. I’m not proud of it but sometimes I feel so helpless and hopeless that I don’t know what else to do. And then someone was knocking on my window.

An older man in overalls with a John Deere cap turned backwards like a catcher. Need help, he asked. And I must have nodded because he was lifting the hood and making noises like Ah huh, and Oh boy. It was the battery and he had jumper cables but they were at his ranch, about a twenty minute drive away. If I wanted to wait, he’d go get them and then we’d see if we could get the truck up and running.

If I wanted to wait. I didn’t see that I had choice and anyway the day was sunny. I walked up beyond the bull pine, beyond, beyond, to where I felt I was on the spine of the earth. Forests and grasslands in all directions, and the long beautiful length of Kamloops Lake, fed and replenished by the Thompson River. A train snaked its way along the far shore, too far away to hear. But I could see the water holding the sky in its wide bowl.

“…the long dark nights of the evening star…”

A few mild days, when it seems that spring is almost in the air (we heard a bee yesterday on our walk at Francis Point, and the common mergansers were in their courting clothes, the females swimming in a line with an equal number of males following…). In the garden, I saw a few crocuses in bloom and a broad bean, fallen from its pod and forgotten on the surface of the soil, has sprouted, which makes me think I should plant the broad bean seeds I have in the porch. Tree frogs are loud in sunlight. The planets are busy in the night sky and the other night we saw Orion stretched over our house when we came home late from a poetry reading down the Coast.

But I’m thinking of almond blossom, the abundance of it last February in Portugal. I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful — that is, until we passed grove after grove of lemon trees, the small suns brilliant on their branches. But almond blossom, as airy and lovely as spring dresses. I think almonds arrived in Portugal with the Moors, around the 8th century, but they are perfectly suited to the landscape of the Algarve, which is where we first saw them.

almond blossom in Farro


And the almond-tree, in exile, in the iron age!


This is the ancient southern earth whence the vases were baked, amphoras, craters, cantharus, oenochoe, and open-hearted cylix,
Bristling now with the iron of almond-trees


Iron, but unforgotten,
Iron, dawn-hearted,
Ever-beating dawn-heart, enveloped in iron against the exile, against the ages.


See it come forth in blossom
From the snow-remembering heart
In long-nighted January,
In the long dark nights of the evening star, and Sirius, and the Etna snow-wind through the long night.
                                 (from “Almond Blossom”, by D.H. Lawrence)
When we first moved here in 1982, I asked a local nursery owner if she’d order me some olive trees. I wanted to try them on the dry slope below the house. But she refused and said they wouldn’t survive north of San Francisco. Now people are growing them here on the Sunshine Coast, as well as the Gulf Islands, and they’re getting good crops. It might be worth trying a almond tree or two. In the meantime, we have orchids. Years ago someone gave me a cymbidium orchid and eventually that plant became six, though at present I just have two. (They make good gifts!) I don’t love house-plants, or at least I’m not willing to fuss with them. But these seem to thrive on neglect. I do divide and repot them every few years, making a potting mix with fir bark scrounged from the woodshed, and they go outside all summer. When I remember, I water them with orchid food. Right now there are five flowering stems on this plant and the flowers are opening one by one. They last a long time. So no almonds here to transport us to summery climates but there’s always orchids!
orchid in February

“…the house protects the dreamer…”

It was a row of houses and no one else could see them. I’d returned to the neighbourhood where my family lived when I was in primary school and I recognized many streets, the old houses from the early part of the 20th c., the cemetery where we rode our bikes down leafy lanes between the mausoleums and small gated graves. The high narrow coloured houses in the row I was describing were near Government House, off Rockland, and they were perched on the edge of a high rock face, a cliff. I was wondering how they could have been there all those years without me ever noticing them before, above a street we drove frequently, an arrow pointing to a small road leading upward, towards the houses, and I was longing to know more about them. The yellow one, with its fancy gingerbreading, painted like buttercream; and the blue one, the deep pink one. At a little corner store with ice-cream posters in the window and a case filled with jars of penny candy, a woman thought for a moment and asked me to repeat where I’d said the houses were. She thought again. She called to someone in the back, behind a curtain, and that person was puzzled too. A line of houses, with turrets and high windows, a widows walk on the roof of the yellow one? No one else could see them. When I woke up, I could still trace the route I’d taken in the dream and I thought about the road we’d often driven along; as far as I can recall, there’s no cliff, no houses painted the colours of summer.

This has happened to me before, in dreams. A house never noticed before, an attempt to find out about it, walking through a maze of streets leading further and further inward. Or a place so familiar that I recognize tiny details – the shape of the sky through leaves, the scent of the grass under my feet, how a field stretching from the road rises to a hill where a horse grazes, oblivious. Once I was so sure I’d been to the place I’d awoken from that I tried to track it down, parsing each element to determine the relationship of the parts of the dream-grammar. And discovered it was like a slightly different dialect, one I could understand completely when dreaming but not very well in my waking hours. I’ve read a little about dream theory and it seems that the house represents the self. The size of the house indicates one’s own sense of self, the possibilities of growth, of showing your face to the world (if the front of the house is primary in the dream) or turning inward (if the back of the house is presented). I think of the doors, gracious and brightly painted in the row on the cliff, and the abundance of high windows, shining and clear.

When I travel, I often dream my way into houses seen from train windows. Last March in Portugal I saw a small farm nestled among citrus trees, cork oaks and feathery pines, a few black pigs in its fields, and it seemed that every part of me yearned to live there, to know that space and that weather, the dry air and the weight of oranges from those trees in my hands. It was, I suppose, day-dreaming but it’s also the kind of recognition that often precedes writing for me. A novel about someone like me, or not, living on that farm, and looking out to see the train passing on its way to Evora?

A book important to me as a young writer (and later on, too, when I was thinking about memory as I was writing Mnemonic) was Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. ”

I don’t often dream of my own house, though John does; he sometimes dreams we’ve lost it and he wakes up with such relief that it’s still here, that we’re still living in it with all our stuff, all our memories. When I do dream of our house, it’s always years ago and the children are still small and there are dogs. Dogs mean companionship, I think, and loyalty; they are repositories of deep emotion. And waking, I feel sorrow for the ones we’ve lived with and whose lives mirrored our own and who died here – this one in the photograph died on that very deck, after a long life with us. She died of old age and John held her for her last moments of life. She’s buried in our woods, with an earlier dog (and this one’s mentor).


theories of mind


I think I’ve admired ravens my entire life. I remember family camping trips when I was a child and being enthralled by the sound of ravens in the deep coastal forests where we’d set up our tent. Bigger than crows, intelligent, with an extensive vocabulary, they inhabit our geographical places as well as our imaginations. They are pretty much monogamous. They have elaborate social structures. (Read Bernd Heinrich’s books to learn more about this.) We’re lucky enough to have many of them around us most of the time. One of our regular walks takes us up past a winter roost. We watch them and listen to them gossip and argue. There’s always something interesting happening up in the roost and listening to them discuss stuff is fascinating. And we talk to them, though our command of their language is limited. Still, you can stop them in mid-flight by doing the sound that is sort of like knocking on a hollow drum — click your tongue against your palate with your mouth open. If there are ravens around, they’ll almost certainly check you out. They’ve learned to use highways as food paths, flying quite low to the road to take advantage of road kill.  And if you see one huddled over a dead squirrel or robin, it will quickly turn and walk away, looking very casually in the opposite direction, as though to direct your attention away from its food source. They’re opportunists. They’re clever. They work out how to feed themselves and their network. Some calls — I have to say I don’t know which ones — are directed at letting others in the roost know about potential food sources.

It was interesting to read this piece this morning on recent research into their “abstract thinking”.  An experiment indicates that ravens know when they’re being spied on and protect their food caches accordingly. There’s a section at the end of the paper in which the authors wonder if their experiment proves that ravens have a Theory of Mind. It’s always kind of funny when science uses human proposistions to talk about animals, as though, with a bit of work, ravens or wolves or chimpanzees can somehow aspire to be more like us. I think ravens are astonishing birds. They’ve fascinated us and beguiled us and instructed us for as long as we’ve shared the same territory.

A few summers ago, we were driving through Manning Park with a friend and we stopped for a picnic. This raven spent time with us, close enough that we could see it had a deformed beak. (I believe this is an example of “avian keratin disorder”, caused in many cases by environmental contaminants. This bird was quite far from potential sources of such contaminants, though.) You can see that it’s pretty close to where we were sitting and managed to beg food from us quite successfully. It’s messy — this beak condition sometimes means that the birds can’t preen efficiently.

P1100213Long before Europeans were contaminating the air and water of the coast, there were crooked-beaked ravens around. In the winter ceremonials  of the Kwakwaka’wakw, in the Hamatsa secret society dances, Galuxwadzuwus, or Crooked-Beak-of-Heaven, cracked open men’s skulls and ate their brains. A Theory of Mind in the making? Or pragmatism? Does it matter?

My old friend, the late Charles Lillard, spoke fluent raven and wrote of them so memorably that I only got his last book out to check the punctuation. The poem was as vivid to me as it was when I heard him read it twenty years ago.

Out westward the surf washes across the Lord Luckies.

At Sitka the cathedral bells call out their prophecies.

Above these flames, above this crimson beach,

a shadow rises with the updraft: croanq, croanq, croanq

the black sanctus rising into the morning sky.

(from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”)



Close enough to touch

I was awake a little after six this morning and the moon was just visible in the trees sort of south-east of the house. Then, half an hour later, it was right in the trees due south, passing quite quickly. I have Renee Fleming’s gorgeous cd of jazz songs, including her version of this Jimmy Webb song, “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, and thought of it as I watched the moon pass my window:

See her how she flies

Golden sails across the sky

Close enough to touch

But careful if you try

Though she looks as warm as gold

The moon’s a harsh mistress

The moon can be so cold

It’s in its last quarter, 38% visible, and it’s 23 days old. Or millions of years, depending on your perspective…

February is one of those months in which anything can happen. This month last year, we went to Amsterdam for a wedding, then to Portugal to wander. The grey canals, the lemon groves. Yesterday, driving down to Sechelt, we saw a Japanese cherry tree in bloom and there were crocuses, many of them, in full flower outside the Bank of Montreal. Yet the full moon in February is the Full Snow Moon or the Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon, (again) depending on your perspective.

The other day we were walking up on the Malaspina trail and we kept seeing pairs of ravens swooping around, chasing each other, some so close we could hear their wings — a strong beautiful sound. And we could see the buds swelling on the salmonberry bushes (Rubus spectabilis). In a couple of weeks, the first flowers will emerge from those buds, an unfolding of deep cerise petals that always reminds me of that fairytale Princess Furball, in which a young girl has dresses as lovely as the moon, sun, and stars stored in walnut shells; when the shells are opened, the dresses pour forth, impossibly beautiful. Like the salmonberry flowers, dresses of light, with the sound of black wings swooshing overhead…


We have — had — a copy of Princess Furball illustrated by Anita Lobel. I looked for it just now and couldn’t find it. It’s kind of a version of Cinderella, or at least it seems to come from the same rootstock. As I recall, the princess is promised in marriage by her father to an ogre and she runs away in a cloak of many furs with her dresses and a few other treasures hidden away in nut-shells. Her beauty and her cooking skills help her to win the love of a good king. So I can’t find our copy but have just read a variant of the tale, “Thousandfurs”, in my edition of Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, by Philip Pullman, in which he offers his favourite fifty tales as well as providing wonderful commentaries at the end of each. In this version, the princess is running from home because her father has decided to marry her himself after the death of his beautiful wife (her mother). So the plot thickens and grows gruesome with that particular gloss.