“A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.”

Guy Davenport was such an elegant writer. We have most of his books and from time to time I pick one up to observe the twists and turns of a truly original and interesting mind. Today, it’s Every Force Evolves A Form, his 1987 collection of 20 essays. Occasional pieces, if you like. There is no connecting thread, unless it’s happenstance. What happens if you think about birds without a direction in mind? You might begin with Wordsworth and a robin. You might move to a raven, an osprey. Whitman will enter the essay, then Hopkins and his windhover (or kestrel). You will think about the possibility that the birds are daimons, spirits, forces evolving a form, which is the titular essay. It takes its title from Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers. Davenport tells us, “In its practical sense, this axiom was the rule by which Shaker architects and designers found perfect forms.”

I am drawn to essays that make themselves out of musings, scraps, remnants, snags of light; essays that move ideas together in unexpected ways, so that you know the writer felt the same delight and surprise that you feel when you read the sentences in their lovely arrangements. Did Guy Davenport expect that a robin entering a Westmoreland cottage in 1835 would lead him to Whitman talking in Camden in 1888, then a little beyond? I hope not. I hope he just began thinking. Seeing. Sharing those things on the page. Not all essays work this way. Nor should they. But isn’t it wonderful when you find some that do?

One reason that I have this book in front of me today is that I was trying to tidy my study and went to the room we call our “library” (think Ikea pine utility shelves with books back to back and stacked to the ceiling and then three more cases filled to the brim and stacks on the floor waiting to be shelved) to put a few things away. Pushing some books aside to make room, I saw Every Force Evolves A Form and wanted to re-read it (instead of finishing the tidying).

And the reason I’m tidying is to clear room in order to begin a dyeing project. Not physical room but the sense that chores are taken care of so maybe I can do something I’ve had in mind for ages. I want to try to clamp a large piece of linen to make a series of windows once the fabric has been dipped in many baths of indigo dye. It will look something like this:


This particular fabric is only about ten inches wide and I want these new windows large. I want to put things in them. I don’t know what yet. I’ll figure that out as I go along. By pleating the linen in an accordion fold, I’ll use sturdy pieces of wood, more or less the same size, and clamp them to the cloth in a regular way. I have small clamps but I suspect I’ll need to use carpenter ones for something this size. The idea is that the dye won’t penetrate the areas clamped under the wood. It’s work that needs to be done outside and it won’t stop raining. But one day soon the sun will shine and the force of the clamped cloth will evolve a form that will lead me somewhere else.

Not all textile projects begin this way but I’m always eager when they do.


looking west

I have been thinking about nostalgia. Some days it seems to be my lodestar. I know from my time as a student of classical literature that the term is not truly Greek, though one its roots are Greek words: νόστος, home or the return home, and άλγος, longing. The words were yoked in the 17th century by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, and the compounded word, nostalgia, was considered a curable disease. (Think leeches and opium.)

We were recently on Vancouver Island for five nights, three of them near Tofino and two of them in Victoria. Both places were part of my formative years. Victoria was where I spent most of my life until I met John in 1979. I’d been away a lot — Greece, Ireland, England… — but I always returned to Victoria. My parents lived there. I’d gone to high school and university there. (My family moved every two years during my young childhood — my father was in the navy — so we spent time in Halifax as well as Matsqui, in the Fraser Valley. But again, we always returned to Victoria until my father retired from the navy in 1969 and went to work at the Esquimalt dockyards.) And the Pacific Rim was a place I first camped with friends in (I think) 1971 or 2, returning as often as I could for years afterwards. I remember the road from Port Alberni before it was paved and once having to hitchhike out from Long Beach to Port Alberni and getting rides with loggers.

John also spent time on the Pacific Rim in his early 20s. His girlfriend then was from California and was a surfer. He’d gone with her to Long Beach for a surfing competition in the late 1960s, camping on the beach in a Volkswagen van. So he carries his own passle of memories when we walk down trails to beaches grey with mist or watch surfers paddling between the swells. In his, a girl with blond hair is carrying her surfboard down to the water. He remembers how everything was damp, even in good weather.

This time, in both Victoria and on the beaches of the Pacific Rim, we talked about the past. For our generations (I add the plural because we’re 7 years apart, which is nothing now, but in the years I’m referring to, 7 years was a gap wider than it seems now), it was possible to live without much stuff. I didn’t have a camera until I was in my twenties. No cell phone, no computer, no easy access to any kind of social media. Our records are held in memory. A server in one of the places we had lunch in Tofino said she often wished there were more photographs of those years — her boyfriend’s mum had lived in a cabin at Chesterman Beach, she said, for 25 dollars a month — and it’s true. I have none. John has none. We didn’t record our meals for Facebook or Twitter. The driftwood shelters? I don’t have a single photograph. The time I camped with my dog in November and on the one clear day saw whales from Florencia Bay with the binoculars my father lent me? No photographs.

In a way it’s the same with Victoria and other places of my childhood. My father had a small Brownie camera and we have some snaps of our family lined up down the front stairs, dressed for church. We have a handful of slides from later years, mostly of my brothers and me standing against old wagons or plaster dinosaurs on camping trips to Alberta. None of us collecting bark at Clover Point for the little wood-heater in the kitchen. None of the mornings on Salt Spring Island when my father cooked buckwheat pancakes in a old black skillet. Or the falls at Englishman River where we went for camping trips over long summer weekends. Or Bamberton. Yet my memory of these times is as clear as sunlight. Or is it? There must have been shadows too. But walking the route I took to school in grades one and two or passing the house on Moss Street where my best friend lived, I never see a single one.

Nostos is also about the story of returning home. In the Odyssey, Odysseus keeps true to Ithaka. It’s his compass point, his end-point, his journeys-end, his haven.

                              Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the sight of home.

(from Book Five, 218-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

He tells his story again and again, to anyone who will listen, faithful to the place and his beloved who waits for him. Yet places for which one feels nostalgia are not always home. There’s not always the possibility of home-coming. When I walked out on the breakwater at Ogden Point the other day, what I felt was a homesickness, yes, but as often as I looked at pretty houses in James Bay, even the ones with For Sale signs on them, I knew there was no way to return, not even with leeches or opium. Or the long beaches, lit by fires and stars. Yet I keep returning, wanting something of who I was when I first knew them.

a crow’s breakfast

Yesterday there were at least twenty crows on the beach at Cox Bay, tugging something out of the sand. This one let me get quite close.

at breakfast

I was curious: sand fleas? Worms? I think it was both. Some crows just gulped their prizes in a hurry and some savoured, as this one did.

This morning, near the Surf Motel in Victoria, there are gulls down in the piles of bullkelp on the little patch of beach by the breakwater. The water is serene and grey. A few freighters out far and the Olympic peninsula barely visible.

If you see a wolf, do not run…

We drove down to Ucluelet to have coffee at the amazing Zoë’s Bakery. Brownies, big seedy cookies, pastries, loaves of rustic bread, and the best espresso I’ve had in ages. It was raining off and on. We planned to stop at the Kwisitis Centre to look at the exhibits but when we pulled into the parking area, a parks worker told us the beach and centre were closed because of particularly aggressive wolves who’d attacked a dog yesterday. What about the bog trail, we wondered. Oh, that’s open, she told us. And it was, but with this warning on the sign:


We’ve always loved the Shorepine Bog Trail. A boardwalk winds through sphagnum moss, with umbrella-shaped Pinus contorta var. contorta (a pine that is Lodgepole in its interior incarnation), stunted spruce, bog laurel, labrador tea, sundews, reeds and sedges, and everything glowing green in the mist.


There were wolf scats on the boardwalk but none of them recent. The rain had washed away most of the poop to reveal hair and tiny bone fragments. (Luckily I was wearing the yellow slicker our hotel had thoughtfully left in the closet so that if we did encounter one of the rogues, my remains might at least be recognizable as visitor, not squirrel or unlucky dog.)

Lunch at the wonderful Sobo. We ate there years ago when it was located in the Botanical Garden. Fresh local food, a glass of Joie rosé, and back to wait out the rain for another walk on Cox Bay where the surfers are bobbing in the waves like seals.

single lantern on Schooner Cove trail

Yesterday it rained. When we woke, we watched surfers wait for the perfect wave in torrential rain. And then we drove to a favourite trail, the one to Schooner Cove. There was a single lantern of skunk cabbage, its leaves eaten to the quick by a bear.

skunk cabbage

Sometimes I think it’s hard to find the truly wild places on this earth. The ones we haven’t damaged. Looking out at Schooner Cove or here at Cox Bay or at Florencia Bay where I camped as a 19 year old, I know there’s plastic in the ocean between us and Japan, there’s contaminated flotsam from Fukashima, the detritus of populations who’ve taken this earth for granted. Were we always this way? So the heart is compromised, even in the beloved places.

At the foot of the Schooner Cove trail, long canes of rose off in the huckleberry. Not a native rose, not Nootka or bald-hipped, but something with curved thorns. Seeded by birds? Planted decades ago by one of the free spirits living at the high tide line in a driftwood shelter?

We ate a delicious lunch at Wolf in the Fog and came back to think our respective thoughts, make notes in our books, dry our jeans by the fire. And later, slept to the boom of the surf. What does it say to us? What it’s always said, its own music. I think of John Luther Adams’s extraordinary “Become Ocean“, and his words: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

the table was waiting

We’d planned to take the second (7:00 a.m.) or third (8:20 a.m.) ferry but then it was 3:30.

–Are you awake?


— If we can get ready to go in 40 minutes, we could get the 6:20.

Fed the cat. (Our neighbour is kindly coming to feed her for the days we’re away.) Filled the cooler and headed down the dark highway, watchful for elk and deer. Just one coyote loping across the road and into the trees.

Two ferries, a stop at Coombs for bread, smoked salmon pate, and other treats, and we were nearing the Pacific Rim. Crossing Lost Shoe Creek #1 and then Lost Shoe Creek #2 (a pair!) and we could see the mist rising from the ocean as we turned towards Tofino.

It’s a long drive to Long Beach, almost as long for us as travelling to Europe (though as the crow flies it’s much closer…). At 4, we checked into our suite at the Pacific Sands Resort where this table was waiting for us.


I was young on these beaches. I know I’ve written about this before (an essay, “Undressing the Mountains”, in Red Laredo Boots, remembers sleeping on the beach in the 1970s and walking its long lengths with a shell tied to my ankle…) but every time I come to the west coast of Vancouver Island, I’m returned to those times. I look out at the shining sea and see everything I saw then. The years vanish and I’m that young woman with a bruised heart and her cells porous for poetry.

We’ve had a couple of walks, picked up sand dollars and a huge mussel shell to sit on the table and hold the smell of the sea. Tomorrow we’ll walk on our favourite trails and eat something delicious at Wolf in the Fog. The whales are passing on their way to Alaska and the ravens are bickering in the trees just beyond where I’m sitting. The fire is warm and the surf is loud. If I have a bucket list, it would include learning to surf. When I see people head into the water with their boards, I want to join them. Is it too late? Can a woman in her sixties put on a wetsuit and learn to balance on a curve of wave?

In the meantime, this is what I see from my chair by the big window.

the view

” …they have also left us with an oud in our hands”

For World Poetry Day, I celebrate  Nazik Al-Malaika. She was born in Iraq in 1923 and died in Cairo in 2007. She is recognized as one of the Arabic world’s foremost poets. She broke from classical tradition to explore free verse though she returned to classical forms later in life. Her work is musical and beautiful, influenced by her study of music, specifically the oud.

Why do we fear words
when they have been rose-palmed hands,
fragrant, passing gently over our cheeks,
and glasses of heartening wine
sipped, one summer, by thirsty lips?
Why do we fear words
when among them are words like unseen bells,
whose echo announces in our troubled lives
the coming of a period of enchanted dawn,
drenched in love, and life?
So why do we fear words?
We took pleasure in silence.
We became still, fearing the secret might part our lips.
We thought that in words laid an unseen ghoul,
crouching, hidden by the letters from the ear of time.
We shackled the thirsty letters,
we forbade them to spread the night for us
as a cushion, dripping with music, dreams,
and warm cups.
Why do we fear words?
Among them are words of smooth sweetness
whose letters have drawn the warmth of hope from two lips,
and others that, rejoicing in pleasure
have waded through momentary joy with two drunk eyes.
Words, poetry, tenderly
turned to caress our cheeks, sounds
that, asleep in their echo, lies a rich color, a rustling,
a secret ardor, a hidden longing.
Why do we fear words?
If their thorns have once wounded us,
then they have also wrapped their arms around our necks
and shed their sweet scent upon our desires.
If their letters have pierced us
and their face turned callously from us
Then they have also left us with an oud in our hands
And tomorrow they will shower us with life.
So pour us two full glasses of words!
Tomorrow we will build ourselves a dream-nest of words,
high, with ivy trailing from its letters.
We will nourish its buds with poetry
and water its flowers with words.
We will build a balcony for the timid rose
with pillars made of words,
and a cool hall flooded with deep shade,
guarded by words.
Our life we have dedicated as a prayer
To whom will we pray . . . but to words?

–Nazik Al-Malaika, translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Carol Johnson


“bright in the fertile fields”

look up.JPG

It’s come. more or less on schedule. When I went out this morning, I heard the first varied thrush of the year, whistling in our woods. Yesterday on our walk along one flank of the mountain,  we saw the first salmonberry blossoms and the orchids (Northwestern twayblades) are up along the trail. Just now I went out into the vegetable garden, thinking to do some work, and realized I need gloves. It’s not warm when the sun goes behind clouds but the light is spring light and there are birds everywhere. Robins hopping on the grass and listening, in the way they do. Chickadees and the single nuthatch that travels with them at the feeder, taking turns, the others waiting in the forsythia. Which is blooming! (Just at the tips of the branches. This is a spray I cut the other day for a dinner party and the buds have relaxed in the warm kitchen.)


One of spring’s truest poets is Ovid. This morning I got out my copy of the Metamorphoses, the Rolf Humphries translation (and I’m sure there are more recent ones but this is one I read as a university student in Peter Smith’s class at UVic in, oh, around 1974), and read the beautiful passage on spring:

Notice the year’s four seasons: they resemble
Our lives. Spring is a nursling, a young child,
Tender and young, and grass shines and buds
Swell with new life, not yet full-grown nor hardy,
But promising much of husbandmen, with blossom
Bright in the fertile fields.

So the garlic, not full-grown, but promising (and it’s Metechi in this bed, a variety from Georgia, by way of Lytton) —


— and the rhubarb,


and this little crocus, escaped from a border and happy in the green moss:

free spirit.JPG

The garden’s guardian, an elk skull found up the mountain a few years ago, was covered in snow three weeks ago but now is ready for work.


the deck in summer

Yesterday we had some unexpected sunshine and I went out to tidy the kitchen herbs. They overwinter on a trolley (in its former life, it was a barbecue…). New shoots of tarragon, sprouts of chives, lush rosemary, even some miners lettuce sprouting in a planter below.

herbs (1).JPG

I swept the deck and thought how different it looks in winter, the bare branches of wisteria, grape, and clematis tangled overhead.

dreaming of summer.JPG

In summer, there are long swags of purple blossoms, clusters of grapes, tree frogs, the occasional raccoon. Yet looking at the deck, I could populate it immediately with summer. It’s been the site of many long family dinners, parties that went into the wee hours, extemporaneous poetry readings, songs. A month ago, it seemed that summer would never come. Our area had the coldest winter in decades, one snowfall after another. Yet the honeysuckle is in new leaf and in a couple of weeks we’ll be picking miners lettuce for our salads! How reliable the earth’s timetable is. For now.

Last week I approved the copyedits of my essay, “Love Song”, which will appear in Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book. While I thought about commas and em-dashes, I also remembered writing the essay in November when I was awaiting test results. It seemed I might have metastatic cancer. But now it seems I don’t. And I’m hugely grateful. I wrote the essay as a way of gathering up my hope into a single day of memory. All the summer meals and swims and picnics, all the children (and their children) collected at the table. All the salmon from the barbecue (both the herb trolley and its successor!), all the skewers of lamb, the bowls of spot prawns with butter and lemon. And the salads! Here’s the deck in summer and here’s a little passage from the essay. This morning it’s not sunny but if I close my eyes, I can bring it all to mind.

summer deck

The table is set; time to come up from the lake. Old songs play on the stereo, the ones we’ve sung all these years in summer. You can’t hurry love. Come along, your bodies cool, duck-itchy, the baby fat turned to muscle, your own children in your arms as you scatter damp towels and hang bathing suits on the railings.

vancouver swingers

Under a leaden grey sky, we walked with the grandbabies and helped Kelly slide down some wet slides, negotiate some slippery ramps, and then we had the pleasure of watching both children on the swings. When I was a child, I remember quite clearly that a boy in our neighbourhood pumped himself so high that the swing went over the top of the metal scaffolding. The boy fell to earth with a thump and (I think) broke his arm on impact. The actual nature of swings hasn’t evolved much — still those thick chains, the seats made of rubber or wood. But the ground underneath, once paved with asphalt or else dirt, is now covered with soft padded carpet.


Henry loved the feel of the metal part of the swing in his mouth, gnawing and sucking. Thank goodness it wasn’t cold. (That old Canadian story…) And there was time to look out on False Creek where geese swam, the little ferries crossed back and forth, and the moments counting down until we return home to the Sechelt peninsula tomorrow and these guys fly back to Edmonton on Wednesday.

me and henry2