the 7th is just getting ready to leave

For awhile now, we’ve been watching a pair of chestnut backed chickadees in the nestbox on the arbutus to the south of our house. We built the nestboxes for violet-green swallows — we carefully placed three in various locations around our house — but they don’t seem to use them much, although many years ago they nested regularly in a dilapidated box on one post holding up the fence around the vegetable garden.

The chickadees, though: we do see them taking nest materials into this box some years but we’ve never seen the whole cycle. Maybe something spooked them and they decided against the box. (Now we know there’s a weasel around and maybe that’s the answer to the riddle.)

But this year, we watched them building and then we went away to Ottawa. When we returned, we saw the pair entering the nestbox and leaving, and we realized that they probably had a brood. They’re not shy. All winter I put sunflower seeds out for the birds and the chickadees are bold enough to sit on my wrists as I fill the feeder. They are hauntingly light, the touch of their feet as delicate as anything I’ve ever felt.

This morning John was watching from a window and he said, I think the young are leaving the nest! And they were!


We watched 6 small birds pause in the opening, one after another, while the parents called from the nearby mountain ash. As each one summoned up courage and flew (flew! Imagine doing that for the first time!), the others made encouraging sounds from the ash. I loved seeing a fledgling land for the first time on a tree branch, tentatively and clumsily — those feet! — and then finding its own balance.

Some took a bit longer. A parent would take in a grub to feed the reluctant youngster and then a few minutes later, another chickadee found its wings, found its way to the mountain ash.

first landing.JPG

The 7th has just left. And no other face appears at the opening so we think they’ve all fledged. Half an hour, and a whole family learns to fly. What an amazing way to spend half an hour on a sunny morning, the very last day of May. Of course I am reminded of my own beautiful family, all fledged, all nesting far away. I wrote about this in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, in a chapter about building our house and building the nestboxes:

How time passes, how everything we knew is stored in our own bodies — the dull ache of sleepless nights, the sharp yearning for love, the sorrow of these empty rooms once filled with children laughing, fighting; their books, their toys, their filthy socks, and tiny overalls. One boy still sits under the original nest box (though I know it’s not possible, he lives in Ottawa) with his notebook, trying to sketch the swallow nestling that hangs out the opening, saying, Don’t fall out, Parva! Be careful. And I stand out among the trees, under stars, while the moon thins and fattens, turns soft gold in autumn, hangs from the night’s velvet in February, draws me out on summer evenings to drink a glass of wine while owls fill the darkness with that question: Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all? It was always me and I never once minded.



The other night we were lucky enough to get tickets to Flicker, a hauntingly beautiful performance by the Dancers of Damelahamid at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. “Just as light shimmers, Flicker represents the moments through which one can cross space and time,” promised the promotional material and it was true. For 70 minutes, we entered the world of the Gitxsan, where the sound of northern flickers calling and drumming merged with the Tsimshian stories enacted on the stage. The Dancers take their name from the ancient city state of Dimlahamid (as it was known to the Gitxsan) or Dzilke (its Wet’suwet’en name), the locus of a sophisticated culture (both material and spiritual) that was abandoned after a series of ecological disasters brought about by mistreatment of mountain goats and a mocking of the sky itself.

Those mountain goats were present in Flicker —  two white-robed beings with black horns and rattles. They provide warmth and solace for the central figure of the performance, a young man on a hero’s quest. A series of changing video projections took us through the seasons, the passage of the day from sunrise to dusk and a dark sky filled with stars. Birdsong and wind, a series of animistic dances, the voice of a Gitxsan storyteller providing a rhythmic text almost beyond understanding — almost, because there were moments I felt I knew what the story was, where it was leading us. There were four dancers, four seasons, four directions, the matrix at the heart of the creation.

When the hero appeared in the mask of the flicker towards the end of the performance,  I thought of the masks I’ve seen in collections over the years. Flicker feathers adorn so many of them; the birds were believed to be emissaries between the realms of heaven and earth. On Wednesday evening, watching, I knew that to be true. The physical place, Dimlahamid or Temlaham as it’s sometimes transcribed, might have vanished in linear time but its spirit is alive and flourishing in the work of these young dancers.


the Vollard Suite: a visual diary

On Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or two at the National Gallery in Ottawa, looking at the exhibit of the Picasso etchings known as the Vollard Suite. (Ambroise Vollard was an art dealer who commissioned the work in the 1930s in exchange for paintings by Cezanne and Renoir.) Critics are quick to say that the images follow no true narrative sequence. They do explore a relationship — between an artist and his model, between a lover and the beloved — and they reveal something of the artist’s obsessions with beauty and its variants. Some of the individual etchings are beautiful, some are troubling (there are scenes of sexual violence and brutality involving minotaurs and satyrs), some are mythic in their manipulation of space and time. Some reveal anxiety and fear — a girl leading a blind minotaur through a dark night. In 2016, it would easy to dismiss many of the images as predatory or exploitive but that would be unfortunate. The draftsmanship alone is worth the price of admission and if the viewer is unsettled, maybe that’s not a bad thing. “The Vollard Suite functions as a visual diary of the artist’s creative thinking and preoccupations during a pivotal moment in his career,” wrote the director of Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in 2013 and that strikes me as about right.

A visual diary — for the artist, yes, but I wonder what it was for the model. In some of the prints, she looks aloof, in others bemused. A sculptor with a wreath of leaves gazing at her with both sexual interest and professional detachment: not a situation one finds oneself in on a daily basis. Or ever.

But as I looked at the exhibition, I was taken back to 1977 when I met a painter who spent the next few years obsessively drawing and painting me. When Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter, she was 17 and he was 45, married to Olga Khoklova, a Russian ballerina. When I met my painter, I was 22 and he was in his 60s, also married to a ballerina. It was a complicated relationship, not easily defined. I wrote about it in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees in the chapter “Arbutus menziesii: Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas”:

More than thirty years ago, I removed my clothes for an artist, each layer — the baggy sweater, jeans, cotton underpants, lace bra — flung to the ground in careless abandon of a self I hoped I could transcend, on canvas if not in fact. What he wanted from me wasn’t physical exactly. It was what men often hope to find in a woman’s presence that makes itself known in her body. Before that, and afterwards, there were others who found this in me though I was puzzled by their conviction that I had something they needed…Time provides such clarity and from this great distance I wish I’d been more easy with the role in which I’d been cast. It troubled me then because I thought I was at fault, that I wasn’t worthy of the relationships my friends were entering into. Now I can honestly say it was a privilege to (however briefly) occupy the imagination of a man who caressed my skin with brushes of hogs hair and sable, and who filled a small book with my image.”

At one point, I sat on a bench looking for a long time at a minotaur leaning over the body of a sleeping girl. The composition of this particular etching (June 18, 1933) is extraordinary. And in it is both tenderness and danger. Yet the girl sleeps sweetly, both aware and unaware. It’s not just about male power. It’s about complicity too, though I am uncomfortable writing that. But I’m trying to honestly parse my own feelings as I looked at the work and part of that process is remembering how to felt to be the one who was lying on a flowered cloth while someone used line and shadow to fix something in time. It wasn’t about submission or coercion. There was exchange of sorts. (Remember the Yeats lines, from “Leda and the Swan”: Did she put on his knowledge with his power/Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?) I remember the painter taking me to a small gallery where a dealer had several of the prints from the Vollard Suite available for sale. He wanted to buy one for me. I wouldn’t allow him to. I thought of that on Tuesday, trying to recall which prints we’d looked at. I wish I could remember. I could see his attraction to them. (I was too young to see how derivative his own work was.) But I got out some of his drawings just now (he gave my husband a folio of them as a gift)  and looked at them again, with the tangle of Tuesday’s emotions in mind. That painter is long dead and I am a grandmother but when I look at this one, for instance,  I am also that girl who had a moment of light. (And the satyr was as comical as he was dangerous.)



the blues were annual


Sometimes memory plays its own strange tricks, so that a moment like this brings back all the times I read books to my children, all the books (even this book, Curious George) , all the weight of their bodies on my knees, in my heart. How can the years have gone so quickly, how is it that I hardly noticed them passing? I think of that beautiful Kate Wolff song, “Across the Great Divide”, appropriate to where I am now (Ottawa, far from home):

I’ve been walking in my sleep

counting troubles instead of counting sheep,

where the years went, I can’t say.

I just turned, and they’ve gone away.


I’ve been sifting through the layers

of dusty books and faded papers.

They tell a story I used to know

and it was one that happened so long ago.


And yesterday, hiking the Eagle Nest Trail above Calabogie Lake, the scent of pines (though not Ponderosas), the sound of chipmunks, and I was back in the Nicola Valley with my children, my husband, on one of our family camping trips, the dry air and pollen making our skin mysterious to the touch. Passing the little graveyard in Burnstown, I thought of the Murray churchyard in the old Nicola townsite, the stories I could almost understand as I wrote down the inscriptions, the epitaphs. They were tangled up with my own family stories, the houses we’d lived in, my mother’s attempts to make each one a home as quickly as possible.

In my notebook, “Morning glory” and the date, July 10, 1989. In later gardens, my mother planted a cultivar of morning glory called Heavenly Blue, perhaps forgetting what the white form had done to the roses and peonies. The blues were annual and I don’t remember if they were invasive. Seeds of wild flowers come in the droppings of birds and mammals, hair and fur, the clothing of those passing through. In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of while pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the gentle cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all. –from “Morning Glory”, in Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996)

Winter Wren arrived!

It’s official! Fish Gotta Swim Editions is truly in business! Our first title — my literary novella, Winter Wren — just arrived, by our postal worker’s own car, grinding its way up our long gravel driveway. Anik See designed the book and it’s beautiful. And a bargain — $18 (plus postage, at cost).

winter wren among packing peanuts.jpg

If you’re in Canada, the US, or Central and South America, you can order from me:

And for the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world, you can order from Anik See, who is in Amsterdam:

Some bookstores will carry the book and there will be a launch here on the Sechelt peninsula, date to be announced.

My own printer-in-residence (and Friend of the Press), John Pass, printed a lovely keepsake on our 1890s Chandler and Price press. These will be tucked into orders until the keepsakes run out so get ’em while you can!


in those dark quiet hours

I was awake in the night for several hours and came down to my desk to sit in the quiet and think. I heard an owl in the woods and the swift movement of something running along the deck above the covered porch out my study window. A weasel? Every time I hear animal feet, I think weasel now. But we also have flying squirrels who come out at night to glide and forage. I was relieved this morning to open the hot-tub (it’s such a nice way to wake up — a soak with a cup of strong coffee and old New Yorkers or Harpers) and see this tree frog under the edge of the cover. (The reason it’s in a jar is that I have to remove it when I replace the lid. And for some reason, the frog liked the jar and spent about half an hour meditating inside.)


Anyway, I was awake in the night and because you don’t always get to choose what you think about in those dark quiet hours, I found myself reading parts of Douglas Cole’s Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, a book I read quite carefully when I was writing the “Quercus virginiana: Degrees of Separation” chapter of my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I was trying then to figure out some things about the ethics of salvage archaeology, which is one way to look at the 19th century practice of artifact collection. I was remembering an encounter I had as a child with the Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mungo Martin as he worked on the Welcome posts at Thunderbird Park in Victoria. (I was a free-range child, sent out on summer mornings to ride my bike as far as the edges of the known world, which for me, in 1961-2, was Beacon Hill Park.) I spent a lot of time during the writing of that chapter looking at Charles Newcombe’s archival photographs of villages — Gwa’yasdams on Gilford Island, ‘Mi’mkwamlis with its feast dishes and poles…And those photographs took me to the places where terrible acts of theft and deception were common, as were more businesslike and fair transactions. (I’m remembering information at the Edenshaw retrospective at the VAG a few years ago where a daughter remembered the family’s relative affluence when museums commissioned pieces from both Charles and his wife Isabella, an extraordinary basketmaker; the work was commercially viable without sacrificing traditional formlines and artistic values.)  The Newcombe photographs also documented the villages with such care and attention.

One can look at them, a single degree of separation, and approach something of the experience of gliding onto the beach at Kalokwis on Turnour Island among the canoes where the houseposts stare out to sea, their imagery and context intact. Or walk up to the group of people standing in front of Kwaksistala, a house on Harbledown Island, in 1900, children and adults wrapped in blankets, a few of them in headdresses. That house’s sculpin front informed, in memory, some of the Mungo Martin’s work in Thunderbird Park, as of course did Gwa’yasdams. We can almost remember, looking at these photographs, almost trace the trajectory of the artist’s work back to his original home at Fort Rupert on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, where clams were dried by the fire and elegant hooks of western yew might bring up a halibut. We can almost stand there in our otherness, our clothing slowly absorbing the smell of cedar smoke and salt.

— from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, page 56-7

And then, because I couldn’t find a way to resolve how I felt about the whole thing — the ethics, the dueling notions of preservation and theft, of who owns what, and what belonging means anyway — I spent another half an hour just looking at the photographs in Dan Savard’s wonderful Images From the Likeness House: potlatches, men dipnetting salmon off rocks on the edge of the Fraser River, vats of eulachons being rendered to oil — while the small sounds of the night pressed against my window screen until finally I was tired enough to sleep.


This morning, planting some basil seed in a tub under eaves, I found this tiny wasp nest on the top of the soil. There are several active nests under the eaves and we leave them — this one, partly constructed, must have fallen; sometimes I see two wasps jostling as one defends a nest so perhaps that’s what happened. These aren’t the aggressive vespula wasps, the yellow jackets, that can be kind of annoying, especially during outdoor meals, when they land on the salmon or chicken or whatever else we’re eating, and don’t mind stinging if we try to wave them away. These are polistes wasps of some sort and every year they build their beautiful umbrellas of brood cells, attached by a petiole, all this created with wood scrapings, plant fiber, and saliva. Kind of miraculous. If you watch them long enough, you’ll see them scouring nearby rose bushes for tiny caterpillars and beetle larvae, even the scale insects off the branches of the lemon tree, to feed their own larvae. They themselves feed on nectar. Stay still and watch. The world is an extraordinary place.


“All these years later, Winter Wren is what happened.”


She listened to the creek falling to the beach. She pulled off her sweater, threw it to the rocks. Her corduroy trousers. She left on her canvas sneakers. And darted under the shelf where the fossils slept in the wall of stone. With a little shriek, she stepped forward into the shower of cold water.

She turned so every part of her body met the water, thrusting her chest forward, her breasts stinging at the contact, her legs shuddering. The pool the water tumbled into came half-way up her calves, icy as glaciers. Freshets ran down her back and she could not feel her knees, her elbows.

And now it was dark, moonlight just beginning to glitter on the ocean. Gasping and coughing, she groped with icy hands for her clothing, wrapping her sweater around her shoulders and not bothering to put on her pants. Sneakers squelching, she climbed the bank and found her way back up to the cabin where her candle guttered in the night air. She could not stop shaking. Rubbing her body briskly with a towel and wrapping another around her dripping hair, she realized she had not felt so alive in months.

Any moment now, Winter Wren will be arriving from the printer. It’s the first offering from Fish Gotta Swim Editions and to say I’m excited and nervous about the whole enterprise is an understatement of enormous proportions. It’s a novella about a place — the cabin and the beach in the photograph above the extract from the book. And it’s about a character, Grace Oakden, who appears in an earlier book, The Age of Water Lilies. I visited a book club to talk about that novel and someone asked, What happened to Grace? I had no answer but it got me thinking. And wondering. Winter Wren is the result. In it is buried a meditation on the 19th c. photographers and artifact collectors (Charles Newcombe, et. al.) who plundered and celebrated and recorded the west coast. The issue is complicated and this novella understands that.

On my study wall is a framed series of nine photographs, illustrating the book’s mantra: Bring me the view at dusk. Nine panels for nine window frames. It was given me by my daughter for my 60th birthday.Every morning I study it while I’m waiting for my computer to boot up and every morning I hear the surf, the noisy creek falling over its shelf of sandstone, smell the kelp. When I wrote the book, I had a hard time leaving its world each day to return to the dailiness of my present life, a dailiness I love and that anchors me in a sturdy durable way. But some days I wonder what would have happened if I’d actually left a note on the door of the cabin you can see above the creek, asking if I could rent the place. That was 1974. All these years later, Winter Wren is what happened.

Reading the Lone Pine Field Guide to the Mammals of British Columbia


Weasels have an image problem: they are often described as pointy-nosed villains, and the name “weasel” is frequently used to characterize dishonest cheats.

This morning, a face at the bedroom window, a tawny curious face, with bright eyes. The weasel was stretched along a cable of trumpet-vine, as surprised to see me as I was to see it.

Despite its abundance, the Short-tailed Weasel is not commonly seen, because, like all weasels, it tends to be most active at night and inhabits areas with heavy cover.

The other morning, on the patio, darting in and out of the wood-shed, climbing the laundry stoop (as I have climbed it hundreds of time, with baskets of sheets and towels). And is this the animal I’ve heard for weeks now, at night, racing across the roof just under the eaves by my bed? Sometimes I hear mice but this wasn’t a mouse. And it was too swift for a raccoon, too grounded for an owl. The sound too loud to be a Little Brown Bat waking from its roost between the fascia boards and the wall.

Habitat: The Short-tailed Weasel is most abundant in coniferous or mixed forests and streamside woodlands. In summer, it may often be found in the alpine tundra, where it hunts on rock slides and talus slopes.

Or on homesteads on the Sechelt peninsula where it can be found on blue metal roof-tops, on trumpet vines reaching across the expanse of bedroom windows, in wood-sheds where the family barbecue waits for the next party and where some fir logs are stacked, fragrant with pitch, the bin of kindling split from cedar shakes salvaged from the old roof an occasional trap for mice and lizards.

Food: mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks, pocket gophers, pikas, rabbits, bird eggs and nestlings, insects and even amphibians. They often eat every part of a mouse except the filled stomach, which may be excised with surgical precision and left on a rock.

Three blue eggs, almost ready to hatch, from the robin nest above the beam carrying the wisteria across the patio to the porch. And, oh, where was the tree frog that usually greets me at the hot-tub in the morning, the one I’ve moved (for its own good, I tell it, knowing, even if it doesn’t, that chemicals aren’t good for creatures with such porous skins, skins needed for their respiratory processes) – moved to an old bathtub pond, moved to a trolley of verdant kitchen herbs, to a bowl of water growing scouring rush, to a collection of potted roses with damp soil. (“These weasels are quick, lithe, and unrelenting in their pursuit of anything they can overpower.”) A small green tree frog, poised on the edge of a hot-tub, its pale grey throat pulsing?

Young: In April or May, the female gives birth to 4-12 (usually 6-9) blind, helpless young that weigh just 1.8 grams each. Their eyes open at five weeks, and soon thereafter they accompany the adults on hunts. About this time, a male has typically joined the family. In addition to training the young to hunt, he impregnates the mother and all her young females, which are sexually mature at two to three months. Young males do not mature until the next February or March – a reproductive strategy that reduces interbreeding among littermates.

I remember a tiny dead weasel, left at the sun-room door many years ago, how its tail was tipped with black, and its eyes were closed, as though sleeping.


small morning drama

We noticed that the robin wasn’t around this morning and when I held the camera over the nest, after an hour or so of her absence, this is what the camera saw:


And there were a few feathers in the rose canes beside the nest. The nest is in quite a protected area where big predators like raccoons and ravens would have a hard time sneaking out eggs.

The morning suddenly felt very very quiet. And just now, about to go out the front door, I saw something slip out from stacks of logs in the woodshed, then onto the laundry stoop. A squirrel? No. A short-tailed weasel or stoat (Mustela erminea)! (I thought at first it was a least weasel but they’re smaller and this one has a black tip on the end of its tail, which the least weasel lacks. In winter, this one would be white and we’d call it an ermine.)

the culprit (1).JPG

We almost never see them but when we do, it’s usually dramatic. This one was very active, moving quickly around the patio, under the deck, then back into the woodshed. Somewhere it might have a family of its own. The females raise their young alone, as many as six at a time. Three robin eggs wouldn’t go very far with a brood like that but this one wasn’t wasting any time this morning, hunting for lunch.