in pieces

This morning there’s a red-breasted nuthatch hanging out with the chickadees. I thought I saw a more elegant small body on the wisteria and sure enough, a nuthatch with its elegant eyeliner was perched on a long lateral branch.

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I call the chickadees “the sillies” because they come to the window over the kitchen sink if their feeder is empty; they jump around on the narrow sill. They know the food comes from that direction and I like the reminder. They’re a constant. Winters, summers. Last summer a pair nested in one of the cedar boxes John built for violet-green swallows. We watched them dart in and out and just by chance John was standing by the big window facing the arbutus tree where the box is and saw the moment — it happened within five minutes! — when all six nestlings left home. Each one peered out the opening, cheered on by the others who were waiting in the nearby mountain ash. It took courage to try their wings for the first time, to alight on a branch of ash and find their balance. Here’s the last one, a bit more reluctant that the others.

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This morning I’m trying to find a way to finish an essay for my forthcoming collection, Euclid’s Orchard. I thought I had all the preliminary work done — five essays drafted and ready for an editor’s eye. But then my publisher suggested I might want to add one more. And I do have one in pieces. Literally. I’ve been looking at it and wondering how to knit the sections together, to find a way to provide a seam. But this morning I think I might leave it in pieces. There’s a logic for this. They are all discrete elements and the way they’re connected is through memory. The online Oxford Dictionary defines “essay” this way”:

Late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing’, from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial’.

So let this one be that. An attempt, a trial. It’s certainly a kind of weighing. Its title? Well, right now it’s “Ballast”.

This is the second day of our Midwinter Chamber Music Weekend in Pender Harbour. The summer Chamber Music Festival I’m involved with has created this weekend for those of us who love intimate chamber concerts whatever the season. Violinist Corey Cerovsek, cellist Adrian Brendel, and pianist Michelle Mares treated us to a beautiful concert yesterday, including the ravishing César Franck Violin Sonata in A Major and the Beethoven “Archduke” Piano Trio. Today? Ravel, Chopin, and Johannes Brahms (the Trio No.2 in C Major). Can’t wait.

writing on the edge of the world

It’s an exaggeration to say that I live on the edge of the world. Our peninsula juts out into Georgia Strait and west of us, beyond the smaller islands in the Strait, is Vancouver Island. If you drive across it, you arrive at Long Beach and the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet (where we’ll for a few days in late March). That area truly feels like the edge of the world. I went to Long Beach many times as a young woman in the days when people lived in driftwood shelters at the high tide line and you could wander the miles of sand naked if you liked, with only a shell tied to your ankle with a strand of seaweed.

So not the edge of the world here on the land we’ve lived on for 35 years. But some days it feels like that. It’s temperate rain forest, the sea is near, and the view from our dining area is due west so that we see the sunsets year round. Lately we’ve been looking at Venus tangled in the big firs just beyond the window. The year is following its usual route to spring and the red-winged blackbirds are whistling on the marsh we pass on our way to the mailbox. If I wake in the night, I hear barred owls. No coyotes mating yet but we saw a dead one on the side of the road a month ago and I’m wondering if it was one of the pair we’ve had in our woods for years now.

Some days it feels as though we’re very far from the centre of things. I read the news online every morning, from several sources. The world does not feel like a safe place. Not just politically fraught and damaged by human action — its oceans, its atmospheres, its weather, its potential to feed the hungry — but seismically as well. (I wish I didn’t know about this site but I do. This morning, a 4.9 quake southwest of Port Hardy. I wonder if that what we felt, or thought we felt, when we woke.) We do what we can. We keep a supply of dry food and candles. We recycle. Take care of our garden. We send money regularly to organizations supporting civil liberties, free speech, refugee resettlement.

I know that writing can be a political act but mine has never felt that way. I admire writers who are called to that action. I read them. But my own work is quiet. It’s a kind of recording. Not simply my own experiences but places I’ve loved, what they’ve meant as locii of interconnected histories. Relationships. How people are shaped by plant communities and vice versa. How stories are told and held in memory, not just our own but the earth’s. What is held in the layers of stone and sediments. How bird song is part of that. Pollen records. Grass distribution. The architecture of honeycomb.  And how books can be maps to understanding those stories.

In my novella Winter Wren, a potter tells Grace that he wants his pots to be about the place he made them. His clay comes from the Sooke Highlands, his glazes are created by burning native plants — skunk cabbage, scouring rush — and using the ash for the silica it contains. I want that too. I want my books to hold what I love, to remember what I’ve known, and to keep these things safe and true.

Here’s what Grace looked out at each day on the edge of the world. Those rocks have been there for at least 25 millions years, the layers like pages keeping a story in place.

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Stop Throwing My Country To The Wind

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Simin Behbahani (1927-2014), Iranian poet, teacher of French, known as the lioness of Iran.

Stop Throwing My Country To The Wind

If the flames of anger rise any higher in this land
Your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt.

You have become a babbling loudmouth.
Your insolent ranting, something to joke about.

The lies you have found, you have woven together.
The rope you have crafted, you will find around your neck.

Pride has swollen your head, your faith has grown blind.
The elephant that falls will not rise.

Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind.
The grim-faced rising cloud, will grovel at the swamp’s feet.

Stop this screaming, mayhem, and bloodshed.
Stop doing what makes God’s creatures mourn with tears.

My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment.
My enemies’ afflictions also cause me pain.

You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me.
But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

–Simin Behbahani
June 2009
Translated by Kaveh Safa and Farzaneh Milani

Redux: “I wish I had all this to do again.” (for John)

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I wrote the following entry on my wedding anniversary in October, 2014. But wedding anniversaries — at least in this household — seem like a foregone conclusion. The event we cherish more is the night we met. February 17, 1979. 38 years ago. How the time has flown by and returned and flown again. I wanted to post the entry again because it expresses my gratitude for the life I have. It’s not without its wrinkles but it’s worth living, every minute of it. Tonight we will have a special dinner, but early (and not duck), because we’re going out to dance at the Cooper’s Green Hall in Halfmoon Bay where the Tube Radios will be filling the hall with folk music. Well, maybe we won’t do much dancing but if you hear toe-tapping and humming, that’ll be us. Still married. Still in place.

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On this day, thirty-five years ago, I married John Pass in a small ceremony which we wrote ourselves and which was officiated by a Unitarian minister at the Latch in Sidney. I wore a gauzy hippy dress and a wreath of yellow roses in my hair and John wore very wide corduroy trousers and a Harris tweed jacket. Our families, a motley group, attended the wedding itself and a luncheon afterwards; then friends joined us for champagne in one of the Latch’s beautiful reception rooms. Our parents hadn’t met before the wedding and John’s father, estranged from both John and his mother for at least ten years, charmed us all by telling jokes during the lunch, mostly ethnic jokes. I remember my father saying, after each of them, “Ben, I’m Ukrainian.” “Ben, I”m Polish!”. And so on.

We’d met eight months before. John was participating in one of the readings Warren Tallman organized as benefits for bill bissett when a couple of MPs felt that his work — as a writer and a publisher — shouldn’t receive government support. This one was at Open Space in Victoria and a mutual friend, Doug Beardsley, wondered if I’d like to join him and John for dinner before the reading. John and I didn’t like each other at first but during the reading, I had the sense that he was reading his poems for me, and at the end of the evening, he walked me from Doug’s place on Burdett to my flat on Fort Street, past the sleeping Art Gallery of Victoria, where he kissed me and told me I made him feel 16. So that was the beginning.

We were both entangled in relationships. His was in North Vancouver. Mine was in Ireland. I was in Victoria that winter, having spent time in the west of Ireland, and I was planning to return. I did go back, for three months, in part to finish Inishbream, the novella I’d begun to write. After three months, John joined me in Dublin and I took him back to the little caravan in Aughris for a week, the one the cows rubbed themselves against at night so that it rocked back and forth on its concrete blocks. Its saving grace was its position on the very edge of the Atlantic.

At the very beginning of our relationship, we knew we wanted to find a place that was our own. Not Victoria, not North Vancouver. Maybe one of the Gulf Islands? By then, property on the more accessible ones was expensive. What about the Sechelt Peninsula, wondered John. I’d never been but we came up and camped on Ruby Lake. And we bought eight and a half acres near the lake late that first winter. We’d never built anything in our lives other than book-shelves (and with the guidance of a friend, I built a filing cabinet out of half-inch plywood…). But I told John I was sure we had vestigial knowledge in our hands and when the skills were needed, we’d discover we had them. Ha.

We did build a house, this house —

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  — and we had three children in fairly quick succession, these children — 

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— who have all grown up and gone out into the world. I can’t imagine another life. Or wait, maybe I can. There were things I’d dreamed of doing. But I wouldn’t trade any of what I have for those. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 35 years. We still find each other interesting. He’s tolerant. I’m, well, stubborn. This summer we were lying in our bed listening to Swainson’s thrushes in the woods just beyond our bedroom and John said, I wish I had all this to do again. We probably don’t have another thirty-five years — I’m 59 and John is nearly 67 — but oh, ten? Twenty?

Tonight we’ll have our favourite dinner — duck breasts with cherries soaked in port. Maybe roasted pears for dessert. And a Desert Hills wine — not sure which one — in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my fiftieth birthday, still remarkably intact.

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two equations for happiness

Our house is filled with the sound of grandchildren. Two of them. Henry is 5 months and has the loveliest smile. His sister Kelly is two and half and she laughs, talks a wild streak about everything imaginable. Why are we here? she asks regularly, wanting to keep the sequences of her life in order. She knows that her family will spend a month in Vancouver after they leave us tomorrow and that her home in Edmonton is waiting for them to return in late March. She likes her bed with the comforter I made for her and she loves the wooden puzzles of diggers and cement trucks her grandfather patiently constructs with her. Her brother chortles from the blanket on the floor in the kitchen and we all walk carefully around him.

Yesterday Kelly played in the yard where her father attended elementary school in the last century. Her dad told her he’d participated in the fishing derby on the dock where we walked to look at boats. I never caught a fish! he exclaimed. And she wondered about this aloud. Never a fish? Nope.

This morning I was reading something and I saw this equation for happiness.

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And the other day I looked out and saw Kelly fitting arms into the snowman she’d made with her mum. Lots of arms because, well, why not?

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east window

Twice on visits to London, we’ve attended the free afternoon concerts at St. Martin in the Fields. The church itself is majestic, situated on Trafalgar Square, near the National Gallery. And to sit in it, listening to a recital of Benjamin Britten’s settings of seven sonnets by Michelangelo, is a sublime experience. Look up, look up, and there’s the east window, created by Shirazeh Houshiary, an Iranian-born artist living in England.

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A window by a woman born in Iran, in an Anglican church designed by Roman Catholic James Gibbs, serving English and Chinese speaking congregations as well as homeless people in London, with an interesting charter, point ten being, “We are committed to identifying and affirming what is good and identifying and opposing what is evil, and living as best we can in the mess in the middle.”

I’ve spent some time looking at Shirazeh Houshiary’s work online — her sculpture “String Quintet”, which is magic to me right now as I work on some notes for this summer’s Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, a visual expression of the lyrical conversations at the heart of string music; a painting, “Between”, which speaks of calm and is reminiscent of star maps, of deep space photography. (Those Islamic astronomers!). The more I look, the more I want to see them in galleries, or open air, or filtering light into an centuries-old church in the heart of London.

From an interview: “Typically my works are multi layered relating to human perception and all its processes. As a result my interest can encompass all human knowledge and feelings.”

the circumstantial drama of a ripeness

A few weeks ago, I wrote about seeing the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick Collection in New York in 2013. I was interested to learn that Piero had written treatises on mathematics and I followed up by looking at some of the commentaries on the treatises. I’m pretty much math-illiterate but the language and the imagery fascinates me. I’ve written a long essay on this fascination (and my own math anxiety) — and because I have a kind of magpie mind, always finding objects and ideas that I like for their brightness and beauty and not necessarily because I understand them, the essay also explores coyote song, quilting, bees, and love. I called it “Euclid’s Orchard” and it’s the centerpiece of a collection of my essays due out in September, 2017.

I wanted to know more about Piero and math so I took advantage of the Sechelt Library’s generous interlibrary loan program and ordered Piero della Francesca: A Mathematician’s Art, by J.V. Field. It’s really wonderful. I’m reading about Piero’s background and training right now. Some of the material I’ve encountered before. The first section discusses the 15th c.Florentine Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s treatise on the skills needed to pursue art. This is Il Libro dell’Arte and I read it while I was writing “Arbutus menziesii: Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas”, one of the chapters in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I wanted to know about pigments, how early painters compounded them, and something of the chemistry behind them. Cennnini was so helpful and one thing led to another. So I’ll read this book and maybe by the end I’ll know more about how Piero planned and organized his work.

The painting I’m particularly interested in is the “Madonna del Parto”, a fresco painted on a cemetery chapel wall in Monterchi, a small Tuscan hill town.

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The nature of fresco work — painting on fresh wet plaster so that the pigments merge with the plaster as it sets, becoming part of the wall or other structure — means that Piero must have planned so carefully, choosing sections of the work to paint each day (for 7-9 hours, beginning an hour or so after the plaster had been laid). No opportunity for correction.

I’m interested in the blue of the Madonna’s gown. Piero would have used ultramarine, made from ground lapis lazuli, probably coming from Badakhshan, a province in Afghanistan. And he probably would have added the pigment once the fresco was dry, because I understand that the blues don’t adhere to the damp plaster very well. But look at that blue! So radiant. And so expensive. Because of its cost, it was usually reserved for painting the robes of the Virgin Mary. What I love about this Madonna is that she’s so thoughtful. Often the Madonnas of the period are holding books on their bellies, an allusion to the word of God. This woman eschews the book and holds her stomach with one hand, feeling a heartbeat or the kick of a foot, the other hand easing out a pain (perhaps?) in her hip. She is in her body, a gorgeous pregnant woman, less absorbed by faith than by her own impending maternity. Or both? Her halo is perfectly elliptical and in the book I’m reading, there are reproductions of Piero’s complicated mathematical formulas for drawing heads. He was a geometer with a perfect eye.

And look at that tent, embellished with pomegranates, symbols of Christ’s passion, but maybe also a nod to the Madonna’s own cravings. (I remember how much I loved pomegranates while pregnant!) In other cultures, particularly Islamic ones, the pomegranate represents fertility (all those glistening seeds!). And remember Persephone, condemned to half the year in the underworld because she’d eaten 6 seeds at the suggestion of Hades.

What a perfect fresco for a cemetery altar wall. A reminder of life and death and the way two are entwined. In his review of the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick, Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death.”

And sing, too, of the women

Al-‘Ijliyah bint al-‘Ijli al-Asturlabi, daughter of an astrolabe maker and also herself a maker of astrolabes, employed by the Emir of Aleppo in the 10th century. The asteroid 7060 Al-‘Ijliyah is named for her. In my reading about classical Islamic astronomy, I’ve learned that in part the discipline evolved to such a sophisticated level due to the requirements of Islam: worshippers needed to know the precise direction of Mecca for prayers and to determine from the sky the accurate times of sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. In other words, science and the apprehension of the Divine could be entwined. I loved reading about Bedouin navigation, using stars and wind-shaped sand dunes to guide them across deserts. No maps or instruments, apart from the maps inside the mind and the heart.

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And here’s Zaynab Al Shahda, a 12th century calligrapher, who spent her leisure time studying science and literature.

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And listen to Wallada bint al-Mustakfi,  11th century poet from Andalusia, who wore tunics with lines from her verses embroidered on the hem:

When night falls, plan to visit me.
For I believe night is the time that keeps secrets best.
I feel a love for you that if the light of heaven felt, the sun would not shine,
nor the moon rise, nor the stars begin their nightly journey.

the book of fixed stars

This morning I’ve been reading about Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986), author of The Book of Fixed Stars, which built on the work of Ptolemy after the Greek tradition in astronomy began to die out in the West. al-Sufi had an observatory in Shiraz where, among other things, he documented the Andromeda galaxy. In The Book of Fixed Stars, his illustrations show the constellations twice, in mirror image, so that the reader can see how the stars would appear in the sky as well as on a celestial globe. I believe this is Ursa Major.

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al-Sufi’s son, Ibn al-Sufi, wrote a poem to accompany the book and I’ve been trying to find an English translation. These were accomplished scientists, scholars and artists, and it is astonishing that this rich tradition has been twisted and misconstrued in contemporary political thinking.