Earls Cove Jervis Inlet Agamemnon Channel

say the names say the names

and listen to yourself

an echo in the mountains

(Al Purdy)

Where do the names go when we forget them? When we stop saying them? Not that Earls Cove will be forgotten exactly because it’s a ferry terminal; it’s where you wait for the small Island Sky to take you up Jervis Inlet to Powell River. Three cars on an Easter Sunday morning in the lot. When you arrived, you turned around to drive back a half a kilometer up the highway because there were elk feeding on the side of the road and you wanted to take a photograph of them. This photograph:

elk at earls cove

And when you opened the window to call, Where’s your mister? (because the elk travel in harems and you’ve never seen a group of cows without their bull), the middle one turned to you, as though agrieved, and you saw his small new antlers.

Earls Cove is named for a pioneer family who built this house looking out over Agamemnon Channel, out towards Nelson Island, and when you first moved to the Sechelt Peninsula, people lived in the house. Not the Earls but later pioneers. Then it was briefly a gallery, then an antiques shop where you once bought a linen table cloth and should have bought the Spode soup-plates and the silver sugar tongs which seemed entirely right in the small rooms with their view of the Channel and the ferry coming in. Where women came in marriage to live in these communities, bringing their family china and silver, and where a table might be set for loggers, visiting clergy, large families.It makes you sad to see the house abandoned, one of the upper windows broken, but a path still leading up to it, the path that might have brought a family to its generous rooms for Easter dinner.

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“one who creeps into holes”

house.jpg

This little bird house swings from an eave out my study window. A winter wren (I know they’ve been reclassified as Pacific wrens but old habits die hard) visits most mornings. After Brendan gave me this house for Christmas five years ago, I hoped a wren might nest in it but I suspect the opening is too wide and the house is too obvious.  The genus name Troglodytes is from the Greek (and I can’t do the orthographic decorations here) and means “one who creeps into holes”, a perfect designation for these tiny birds that dart about in the underbrush, in and out of roots. They are territorial and quite fierce about protecting their (small) ground but they will gather communally in cold weather to keep each warm during the long winter nights. I was sitting at my desk in late afternoon in December and saw 6 wrens arrive at this house, one after another, and each one paused at the opening, looking around to make sure of, well, I’m not sure what (they didn’t know I was watching and probably thought no one could see them), before entering. Was it memory of that safety that brought a wren just now to enter the house and peer out? Or, more likely, the prospect of little spiders and pupae to make a breakfast.

In my forthcoming novella, Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions), there’s an elderly reclusive man, the son of a famous artefact collector (based loosely on Charles Newcombe), who earned a living by preparing bird skins for museums. I tried to imagine preparing a study skin of these tiny birds and realized the skill it takes to do such work. Skill and love. The man, whose name is Tom Winston, also learns something about the music of wrens. I’ll leave that to prospective readers to discover for themselves. But here’s a passage in which wrens occur — and if you read this novella, you’ll learn that they’ve been there all along and that they don’t forget.

Dreaming of water, further north, near Tanu, the darkness that surrounded them as they edged towards an island where burials had taken place. I only want to look at the mortuary poles, Tom, his father told him as the boat bumped against rock, pipe-smoke damp and sweet in the rain. Only want to look. But then his father was winching a pole to the shore with someone else and Tom was helping them tip it into the boat which swayed and lurched on its tether. The smell of rotting cedar and moss. He was dreaming of what was concealed in the niche in the back of the pole, the bones huddled in scraps of clothing. The remnants of a woven cape, skins around the torso, winter wren song trilling out of the underbrush, witnessing their theft.

Last year’s doe…

John called down, “There’s a deer right below my window,” and looking out, I saw her, arching her body to pee on the soft moss. I’m pretty sure it was last year’s doe, the one who came most mornings with her fawn,

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pausing to nibble grass, the tips of roses, the clumps of daylilies (which, sure enough, were eaten in the early hours). And looking again, I saw that fawn, now a yearling, reaching up to eat the new leaves, just buds really, on the Japanese maple. I went out the back door and chased them off. I love to see them but I haven’t quite finished lifting all sorts of plants — iris, daylilies, and other things these visitors feast on — to replant inside the deer-proof fence that surrounds the vegetable garden. More and more, the garden has to be contained or else elevated to save it from the deer. We used to have dogs. They lived outside — there’s a cedar-sided insulated house John built for Lily, with its own sign — Cave Canem (Forrest was studying Latin…) — and she loved it but Tiger was claustrophobic and would only sleep in the open or, in cold weather, on little nests of dry grass under the house (ours is built on footings, on rock…). If we tried to make things more comfortable for her by putting blankets under the house, on boards to keep them — and her — up off the ground, she’d wait until we went away and then she’d drag them out. She wanted a bed of her own making. Like Lily, Tiger slept with one ear open for animals and we’d hear her barking at dawn, as the deer came near, or else in the night when the bears inevitably came for crabapples.

So no dogs means deer in abundance, or at least in the years when they are abundant. (When they’re not, it’s one sign that cougars are around.) And a bear, last year, grazing on sweet grass and, later, the crabapples. One night this winter, I went out on the deck to look at stars and surprised two deer at the foot of the grapevine growing up over the trellis. Not far from here, as the crow flies, the poet Tim McNulty has written beautifully of deer:

And the nights I sat at my desk unknowing,
and the lamplight
found its way through the frost-lit trees,
what, if anything, did it mean to her
–nipping at her winter coat
to make a bed for the fawns,
sharing our water for a time.

— from ‘Three Poems for Deer”

I’ve just come in from the vegetable garden where I mulched the garlic bed with compost

garlic

and saw a tiny tree-frog nestled among some dead leaves and straw, almost exactly the same colour as the straw:

tree frog

It’s the time of year when things happen so quickly. A few days ago, I noticed some clumps of primroses in bud. Today they’re in bloom.

primroses

I don’t know what kind these are — I bought them years ago at a community plant sale where (mostly) elderly gardeners brought divisions of irises and old roses and rhubarb and to them I am grateful for my old-fashioned and unnamed moss roses and vigorous horseradish roots — but they remind me of the wild primroses growing in the fields in Ireland when I lived there nearly 40 years ago. There was so much folklore associated with them and I remember various stories about their magical properties, as well as their medicinal ones.

Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May.  The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under this string.’

–From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC S.455:237. From Co Kerry.

There are lots of myths associated with deer too. Long associated with Artemis (we all know what happened to Actaeon), they were also credited with nursing abandoned babies and would-be saints, had powers of divination, were spiritual guides, and were considered emblems of decorum and kindness.

Though, until this morning, I’d never seen one pee.

 

Notes from the past: from a work-in-progress

I’ve been in the past, and in the Interior, for the last week, working away on a novella. I’ve posted little snippets here before. This comes from about the middle-point of the narrative, when the main character recalls a road-trip with her brother in the mid-1970s. I didn’t have a date to begin with but then as phrases of songs began to sing their way into the novella, I realized that it had to be after 1975 when Joan Baez first released “Diamonds and Rust”. (Another song, Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham”, was also released that year, and it echoes through the first part of the book.) As for the other sacred texts that form what I think of as calls and responses in the novella, they range from Hetty Dorval (1947), Swamp Angel (1954), The Double Hook (1959), to the much older Egyptian funerary texts — The Book of the Dead and The Books of Breathing. Is this too much literary weight for a small story to carry? Time will tell, as it always does. Here’s a photograph of the road to Pavilion so you can imagine the wind, the grass, the prospect of horses.

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from The Marriage of Rivers, a work-in-progress….

Once we were driving to a wedding in Clinton – a guy James went to university with was marrying the daughter of a local rancher – and we’d taken the Duffy Lake Road, through Lillooet, then to Pavilion where we stopped for ice-cream. Our plan had been to continue on 99 until it met 97 at the Hat Creek Ranch north of Cache Creek. We were looking forward to taking some photographs at Marble Canyon. A Shuswap guy James knew said that the high white pinnacle everyone called Chimney Rock was really Coyote’s Penis and James couldn’t resist. –I’ll have postcards made, he said. While we were leaning on one of the poles holding up the roof overhanging the entrance to the store, James suddenly said, I’ve changed my mind. Forget Marble Canyon and that penis. Let’s drive up over the mountain and go past Kelly Lake. Remember the time Dad took us camping there and all he wanted to do with fish until finally Mum said she was on strike so we had slices of bread with ham and nothing else and we thought it was a feast?

Did I remember? I’ve never forgotten how we camped on what I thought was the most beautiful lake in the world and how good those ham sandwiches were. We dipped our tin cups into the lake and drank its mineral water. And how we drove back to the coast with our windows open as we came down off Pavilion Mountain, down the crazy road (“Count the switchbacks, kids, and the one’s who’s right gets ice-cream at the store.” Then, “Who got 8? All of you? (None of us even knew what a switchback was or when we were on one.) That’s ice-cream all around!”).

–Have you got the map?

–We don’t need a map, James. It’s that road there – look, you can see the switchbacks from here. Remember when we didn’t even know what a switchback was?

We always argued about maps. James liked them to be folded just so and he liked to know distances. –How far, how far? And I’d try to estimate by using the scale but it was easier to wing it. –Oh, as far as Vancouver to Hope. Or, about the same as Kamloops to Salmon Arm.

I decided it was more about gender than temperament. I knew how to find our way by landmarks. It was hard to explain but I felt them more than I saw them. I knew how it felt in my body to drive up and get out of the car at what our father had called Carson’s Kingdom, explaining to us that a man called Carson had acquired the land in 1866 and his family had owned it until Colonel Spencer bought it in the 1940s, bought a few ranches both up the mountains and down in the valleys and on the lower benches. Spencer like the department store on Government Street, he reminded us; the store where our mother took us for back-to-school clothing, preferring it to other stores because of the quality and because she knew, slightly, a painter who lived out on Ardmore Drive, also a Spencer. Same family. We all got out of the car to watch how he opened the gate across the road while some cattle watched and we walked along a bit while he drove through, then closed the gate again. Country etiquette, he told us. So we were taking that same route, but backwards; we were driving up Pavilion Mountain rather than down and we were heading north to Kelly Lake, then east to Clinton. But my body felt the road’s contours, the rich feathery growth of the pines, the tickle of those soft grasses. I could relate these things to a map but I didn’t use the map to see how to get from one place to another. I used it as a literary text of its own. I used it to remind me how my body responded to the hills, the low-lying lakes to one of the road, the sight of a hawk gliding along the shoulder, another on a fencepost, and wind, sunlight on my arm resting on the car-door. My shoulders ached for the dry air, a few ripe Saskatoon berries in my palm. That was my map.

Roads went from this to that. But the hill led up to the pines and on to the rock rise which flattened out and fell off to nowhere on the other side. (DH, 33)

Up and up, the grass waving, the finished heads of balsamroot rustling. Crack me a beer, my brother requested, and I did, taking a long pull myself before handing him the bottle. When James was too involved with his beer and keeping us from leaving the edge of the road (the long fall to the far green valley), I let the map drop from the window on my side of the car to the ground where it floated away. Later, I thought, later I could explain that I would never forget a single contour of this landscape, not a single blade of grass, not a square inch of the blue sky above; my body was the map with its wild topography, its legends of distance and scale. In my throat, the bitter taste of hops. Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.

 

 

 

“the life we dream of when we look at houses”

On my bedside table, there are a couple of books I haven’t read from cover to cover but they’re ones I dip into from time to time. One of them is Rebecca Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness and it’s entirely suited to this kind of magpie reading. She’s a writer I return to again and again. Her books about her travels (to Iceland, to Ireland, her deep interest in how we view landscape and climate, her accounts of her walks and raft trips and reading, her intelligent writing on violence and politics — all of it is congenial to my own thinking. I’m always so glad to find an essay of hers in the issues of Harper’s that arrive in our mailbox each month. I’ve been known to start reading one of them as I walk the Sunshine Coast Highway from the mailboxes to our house with ferry traffic whizzing by and I realize that I might have become a story in someone’s repertoire: the woman in the old jacket, barely noticing that one of the cars narrowly avoided hitting her because she was oblivious to the world, face buried in a magazine.

This morning I read “Inside Out, Or Interior Space (and Interior Decoration)” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness as I drank my coffee in bed (one of the luxuries of life: John almost always brings me a cup to drink while he makes the fire downstairs and does dishes from the previous evening’s dinner). I love the wide-ranging scope of this essay, how it combines nuanced thinking about houses, materialism, furniture and its function as art and anchor, privacy, real estate versus home-making…

We have a couch, more like a church pew, built of cedar; a friend of John’s made it 40 years ago. It’s heavy and cumbersome and now and then I think we might have outgrown it. But then I polish it with lemon oil and realize how beautiful it is, or would be, if I only replaced the covers on the foam cushions. I can sew a bit. Well, I can quilt, more like it. And the covers require something more like tailoring. I’ve made 3 sets of covers for this couch over the years — one set of heavy canvas which I printed with lizards inspired by this replica of a petroglph we saw at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah many years ago:

lizards

The others were cottons of various kinds and eventually they wore out, as the current set is wearing out. A few weeks ago, I found a bolt-end of linen in the fabric store in Sechelt. The fabric is French, I bought the whole bolt-end, 6 meters at 12.99 a meter.It’s beautiful and a little research online made me realize it was a wonderful coup; the linen can be ordered from various high-end interior design studios for hundreds of dollars a meter (reduced on one site from 362 a meter to 138). I bought it because I loved it and now I’m scared to cut into it because I realize it’s much finer than I thought. So it’s in a bag, by the couch, waiting for me to summon courage and patience. A small voice asked me if I was really going to devote so much time to, what, recovering an old couch? One that is only mildly comfortable, though it did serve as an extra place to put overnight guests in the old days when we often had many people coming to parties and limited beds for them to sleep in.

couch

So I was interested and consoled this morning to read Rebecca Solnit on interior space:

There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.

I’m not sure our house negotiates inner and outer space elegantly, exactly, but it is where we live and where we return to after travels far and wide. It’s where memories and dreams anchor us as surely as the bed in the Odyssey is part of Odysseus’s return — a bed Solnit refers to in this essay as “the best piece of furniture in classical literature.” Part of the pleasure of an essay in general and this essay in particular is following the route a lively mind takes through rooms and literature and the gorgeous specificities of living itself.

“some ancient ceremony”

bread

 

“Perhaps this war will make it simpler for us to go back to some of the old ways we knew before we came over to this land and made the Big Money. Perhaps, even, we will remember how to make good bread again. It does not cost much. It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with peace, and the house filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

— M.F.K. Fisher, from How to Cook a Wolf

“all the night’s pure figures”

I was awake for a long time in the night, thinking about time. Often I find myself so close to understanding its passing, what it means. I was awake in the night, thinking, in the room we built nearly 35 years ago, with the leafy silhouette of the arbutus tree dark against the white curtains. This tree, now as high (or higher) as the second story of our house, was a tiny shattered collection of branches when we first began to build in the summer of 1981. But in a few weeks the warblers will be loud in its blossoms.

The moon was in its first quarter last night and when I got up to pee, I paused by the window above the stairs where I could see the Great Bear, Ursa Major, that beautiful constellation,

                   …that some have called the Wain,

pivoting in the sky before Orion;

of all the night’s pure figures, she alone

would never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.

(Odyssey, Book Five, 263-6, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

It was a spring sky, or nearly so. Even though there’s new snow on the mountain behind us, the air has spring’s promise. The colours of green are almost fluorescent, particularly the moss on the trunks of the big-leaf maples which are just beginning to show their flowers. (When we walked the other day, after a big wind, you could see the buds all over the trail.) We think we are tuned to the seasons and maybe we are, to some extent, but I’ve been remembering how last March we spent part of a day with an archaeologist in Portugal, looking at the Almendres Cromlech and other neolithic sites near Evora.

cromlech

The Almendres Cromlech site was constructed over several thousands of years, each phase reflecting social, ceremonial, and spiritual values, and seems also to be an astronomical observatory — though why would this be a separate consideration? That says more about me than the people who lived there and were associated with the place, were as rooted to it as the stones appear to be rooted in the dry earth.  There is one stone which is associated with spring equinox and a line from the site to a single menhir about 1400 meters away points to sunrise on the Winter equinox. It was a place I felt I could spend a lifetime. There were cork oaks and black pigs foraging for acorns beneath them. Wild flowers, chestnut trees, olives, and the oaks, tiny lizards skittering among the stones, the sun. Time was a different thing there, a densely layered accumulation of stones, wind, even the generations of pigs, dating back (at least) to Homer:

Bring in our best pig for a stranger’s dinner.

A feast will do our hearts good, too; we know

grief and pain, hard scrabbling with our swine…

Odyssey, Book Fourteen, 416-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald

So the Equinox approaches –March 20, 4:30 a.m. — and we’ll observe it with the usual lack of ceremony. No stone circles to help us predict the sun’s early rising, the long setting over Texada Island. No pig, fattened with the mast of oaks, to roast over a fire of dry chestnut wood. Our stars are storied but who can remember? Years ago when we built our house, we’d sit by the fire outside our tent and John would point out the constellations he knew. Orion, for whom he had special affection (my husband was an archer as a boy and his bow, his quiver of arrows, are in the workshop still, though the bow is unstrung all these years), the vain queen Cassiopeia, and the Great Bear and her son, who never set, “never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.”