from a novella-in-progress:
I needed to drive. I needed to drive up the river, try to follow it to Kamloops where I also hoped to find Ethel Wilson, or at least a trace of her on the landscape she’d written about in Swamp Angel. I would be following the river back from where it had claimed you, James, back through its deep canyon in the desert north of Spences Bridge (I felt I knew it intimately between Spences Bridge to Lytton, the section you loved and where, when I swam in its warm waters, I was in your company for a brief and sweet time), gardens and remnants of old orchards on the shrub-steppes between Ashcroft and Kamloops, and maybe beyond, to the more verdant corridors along its southern route from its outlet at Little Shuswap Lake. One day I would also explore its northern arm’s sinuous flow from its glacial origins near Blue River to where it joined the south arm at Kamloops. I wanted to know it all. It was somehow our river, mine and yours. Thinking of it that way made me shiver a little and I tried to ignore the rattling noise my truck made every time I accelerated on the wide sections of the highway.
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, near Jocko Creek. 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.