moss and oak: a love story

this year

This morning, walking over to my vegetable garden, I surprised a chestnut-backed chickadee pulling tufts of moss off a rock. I feed the chickadees all winter and the reward is that there are usually pairs nesting in the boxes John built years ago for violet-green swallows. He built to the specific requirements for the swallows and yes, they’ve used the boxes a time or two, but mostly the chickadees raise their families in the nest-boxes. And the swallows? They swoop over our house in April, testing the ambience—quiet, gracious forest all around, a small pond— and then most of them nest down by the Italian resort on Ruby Lake where red-painted birdhouses fill the trees like a version of a Neopolitan neighbourhood. Go figure.

And then as I repotted plants from the sunroom for their summer season on the various decks, I could hear, then see, the chickadees delightedly discovering the nest-box on a big fir near the house. It’s the same box they nested in last year (if this is the same pair that raised 7 young and whose first flight we were lucky enough to see) but it’s been moved from an arbutus that is due to be tended to by an arborist in early June. (Some of its lower limbs are dead and we can’t get at them to cut them away. The arborist is coming for some other work too.) They make the most delighted sounds as they enter the opening, and then come out again to report on its conditions. Clean! Ready for occupancy!

After watching them for a bit, I went back to my work. And the best part of it? Repotting a tiny Garry oak seedling I grew over the winter from an acorn gathered last fall at Rithet’s Bog in Victoria. We often walk around the bog when we’re in Victoria and it’s bittersweet. Before the subdivisions that have taken over the slopes of what used to be Broadmead Farm, before the townhouses and churches and a street named for Emily Carr, it was a wild area. Here’s what I wrote about it in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees:

In the late 1960s, I used to saddle my horse early on weekend mornings and ride him across the Pat Bay Highway to a gate leading up onto the old Rithet’s farmland. I was in my early teens, a lonely girl in search of lonely places. Someone told me that it was fine to ride there, but that the gate had to be kept closed, as there were cattle grazing in the area. I don’t really remember the cattle, but I occasionally saw deer in the tall grass. There were many oaks growing up the slope. In the spring, there were expanses of blue camas, yellow buttercups, and odd brown speckled flowers that I now know were chocolate lilies.
I loved the open beauty of those meadows, where pheasants roamed and flew up, sharp-winged as we approached. The meadows smelled intensely dry, fragrant as hay, though not dusty. I’d let my horse canter up the long slopes and loved the way sunlight filtered through the trees.

I’ve missed Garry oaks, their shape in winter, the branches gnarled, and the elegance of their leaves in summer. When we go to Victoria, I bore my husband and daughter with my stories of where I used to ride, where I walked among Garry oaks, which shopping centres were once dense with oaks and wildflowers. When I was writing Mnemonic, I kept a map of the tree’s historic range on my wall and I’d look at it daily, tracing the routes of my walk to school, my weekend rides, the private places where I’d go to get away from the clamour of my life. They were everything I wanted a tree to be, carriers of history and memory, my own and the city’s, and the acorn I brought home in my pocket held those things as potently as a seed can ever do. My small plant is so hopeful in its clay pot and I look forward to the day when it’s big enough to plant in a dry area behind the house.

garry oak



Yesterday, on our way down the driveway with a long pole and net in hand to catch some aquatic insects for our little bathtub pond,


we saw some violet-green swallows swooping overhead, the first of the season. We have nest-boxes for them, though for the past 8 or 10 years, the chestnut-backed chickadees have used the boxes instead. Still, every year the swallows come, reminding me of the lovely Puccini opera, La Rondine. The last poem I wrote, before poetry left me completely, opening the door for a life as a writer of novels and essays, was inspired by the opera and the birds, and looking for it just now, I realize that it must have been burned in the last Bonfire of the Vanities. I remember an image in the poem, that the wingtips just touched like fingers, which I thought of yesterday as we actually saw two swallows mate in the air, falling in an amorous embrace, and then wheeling off separately.

I am sitting at my desk with the window open. I heard loud buzzing and squawking earlier and looked up to see a pair of red-breasted sapsuckers chasing one another among the trees. They are reliable spring visitors and they nest nearby because we often see and hear them over the course of the summer. In June we once saw a male sapsucker teaching the young to feed from holes he drilled in a cotoneaster. He’d encourage and the fledglings would complain. The little holes would fill with sap and insects attracted by its sweetness. Eventually the lanky youngsters found the holes and fed, awkwardly at first. One flailed against the screen door to our deck, spreadeagled across the mesh and looking into the kitchen, wondering if there might be something better to eat inside.

I thought it would be good to walk around outside with a camera. I hoped for the sapsuckers, maybe even the return of the swallows. But instead, the beautiful geometry of an apple tree just coming into bloom:


And as I stopped to kill a very large slug heading to the raspberries, I surprised this pretty tree frog:

so green.jpg

The birds were quiet but the morning so green and rich. If I’d taken a colander, I’d have picked enough dandelion greens for pizza tomorrow. But they’ll wait.

tomorrow's pizza


to try

to try.jpg

A few posts ago, I wrote about my difficulty in finding the right form for one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard. My original thinking about the material I’ve been exploring—some of it archival, some of it personal memory, some of it meditation on time and family history—was that I wanted it to reflect the voices I’d heard speaking to me on a little road trip to Drumheller last spring in search of my grandmother’s first home in Canada. At the time I mused that I’d like to write the piece as a libretto. I know very little about the formal requirements of such writing but never mind. That’s what I hoped I could do!

What I wrote instead was something kind of flat and untidy. The material was there, oh yes, and I think it’s intriguing in its own right but I was disappointed in myself for not trying a little harder to give the piece an original shape and to find a way to represent those voices. Part of the pleasure of working with an editor is that you can often have a second chance, with a very capable eye and mind to guide you. I’ve had Pearl Luke. I know that there are elements to what’s become “Polychoral: A Badlands Antiphon in 25 Sections” that Pearl thinks are perhaps excessive but she’s been so encouraging and challenging. A dream of an editor.

What is an essay anyway? There are many ways to think about the form. I like part of the Oxford definition:


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’.

“Test the quality of.” Isn’t that wonderful? The quality of the writer and the relationship to the material as much as anything. I’ve never used a template for my work. For a while I kept hearing about something called a hermit crab essay, using one kind of thing inhabiting the shell or form or container of another species — for protection? For what, exactly? I’m not sure. Maybe to test the quality of its shape and original intention? But I can’t imagine setting out to write one. In French, “essayer” means to try, to attempt. I like the suggestion of almost preordained imperfection. Yes, we try. We attempt. And the pleasure, the value (if you like), is in that work. We weigh. We try.

So I didn’t write a libretto. I did look at a number of libretti (and the term itself is a diminutive of the Italian word for “book”) and quietly gave up that idea. But something stuck. The memory of my grandmother saying her rosary, the music of the Latin mass I attended once or twice with my father in childhood, the calls and responses of Byzantine chant, the strophic odes so characteristic of ancient Greek tragedy — and there was my essay. There’s no formal musical structure but there’s a weighing, yes, of musical form, a careful listening to the language of old letters and legal descriptions, and an attempt to contain all this in a series of lyrical sections that call to one another and listen for an answer. No other essay I’ve written has given me so much difficulty and perhaps none has given me so much pleasure.

surviving suns


morning mist
what mountains there?

This morning, as we drove out for our swim at the local pool, I wondered if I was seeing snow on the lower slope of the mountain. But no. It was just heavy fog. A season of paradoxes. My granddaughter told me yesterday via Skype that she’d built a snowman a week ago at Banff when she’d gone with her family for her dad’s math conference at BIRS. And she was excited to report that snow fell overnight on Saturday too!

After our swim, the mist lifted, the clouds disappeared, and the afternoon was fine and blue. I planted onions and more peas (because something is getting to the sprouts, even though they are surrounded by chicken wire). And the primula, so yellow and fresh, among the old twigs! Like a poem by Basho.

See: surviving suns
visiting the ancestral
Bearded, with bent canes.




“If you will take the girl for a long journey…”

On Friday night, we had the great pleasure of attending a DakhaBrakha performance at the York Theater in Vancouver. A few years ago, we tried to get tickets to hear them in Quebec City but (of course) the event was long sold-out by the time we found out about it and realized it would coincide with our time there. When we read somewhere that DakhaBrakha would be in Vancouver, John immediately bought tickets.

Sometimes things happen at exactly the right time. I’m revising a long essay for Euclid’s Orchard. After a few false starts with material that has been accumulating for ages now—well, all my life, to be honest—I’ve chosen to shape it as a sort of libretto. I’ve called it “Polychoral:A Badlands Antiphon in 24 Sections” (though there might be one or two more sections with this last revision I’ll be undertaking today). So it’s a call and response essay, based on my Grandmother’s liturgy (the Latin mass, the decades of her rosary), the story of her first husband’s “homestead” in the Drumheller area, and the various voices that I heard when I was reading archival records relevant to my family’s early history in Drumheller. I write of the distances they traveled, what they left, what they came to. I kept thinking that my grandmother’s family in Horni Lomna never saw her or her children again. And they’re my family too. So those voices, those stories.

Hearing DakhaBrakha the other evening was so revelatory.  They are from Kiev and they sing in Ukrainian. That was my grandfather’s language (he came from Bukovina). I heard it as a child, with Polish and Czech. But the old languages were buried as my grandparents aged, as my family grew away from its origins. DakhaBrakha are often described as an “ethno-chaos” band, but they’re more than a band; what we saw on Friday evening was like opera, like theater, strands of folk and various global musics fusing together in the most glorious way.  Hip-hop, Indigenous drum music, some Roma melodies, the sweet harmonies you hear in lullabies: it was all there.

I bought their latest cd, The Road, and we listened to it on the long coast highway yesterday. So beautiful, the songs, the instrumentation, the voices singing out to us as we passed the familiar landmarks of home. And I thought of my grandmother as I read the translation of “Salgir Boyu” (I can’t reproduce the diacritics here…):

If you will take the girl for a long journey, brother,
Both her father and mother will cry.

And her granddaughter cries too, a hundred years later, traveling back to the place she arrived at. This is what I’ll be listening to today, as I revise, as I find my way to the music that is so coded and dense and also mine.

“Nature not a book, but a performance”

I dreamed last night of a stream filled with salmon smolts and on a rock in the stream, an orange-crowned warbler was dipping and doing knee-bends the way American dippers do. I was so close I could see the tiny russet-y patch on its head. When I woke, I was in a sleepy state of wonder. Such abundance — thousands of little fish in a clear stream, a bird I see sometimes foraging for insects in a wisteria beyond my study window, its dull olive feathers a foil for the beautiful crown it wears and which is rarely seen.

I think my dream was the result of a conversation we had at dinner last night. We were drinking the last of our Desert Hills syrah, dark and jammy, and a joy to have with roast lamb. At our table, facing the west, we’ve seen sunsets and dense fog. We’ve seen the trees fill in over the years, so thickly that a couple are going to be topped in a few weeks, not just because they obscure the view but because they lean to the house in wind.  Sitting and talking with that deep red wine in our glasses, we started listing the wonders we’ve seen here over the years without ever searching them out. Was it luck, we asked, or coincidence? Maybe they’re the same thing? Maybe if you live in one place for 35 years, you will see everything there is to see?

Snakes mating. Northwestern alligator lizards mating. 6 chestnut-backed chickadees taking their first flight one after another from the cedar nesting box on the arbutus tree. A black bear sow passing within a few feet of the living room window with two cubs ambling behind her. A least weasel entering a narrow passage of our metal roof in search of mice and the same weasel on a branch of dog-rose, peering in the window as I drank my coffee in bed. A doe and her twins coming most mornings and shimmering in sunlight like gods. A margined burying beetle slowly carrying a dead mouse away to bury it. A coyote pup coming day after day for a week, pausing one morning to enter a dog-house (its original occupant long-dead), turn around, then sit in the entrance looking out at the world. A western toad sending out a sticky tongue to take sowbugs from my hand. A huge bull elk running into the woods, its antlers shedding their golden velvet.

more than friends

Yesterday I was doing something in the vegetable garden and I saw Winter, the cat that came out of the woods in January and decided to live with us, crouched by a tangle of daylilies, thatched over by montbretia leaves. Something was in the tangle. Her body was quivering and alert. Then I saw a mouse come out of leaves and go up to her. It stopped about two inches from her face. It went back into the leaves. Then came out again and did the same thing, pausing for several seconds. Winter is a good mouser — we see evidence on the patio, on the decks… — so I was surprised that she did nothing. She seemed taken aback (if that’s not too anthropomorphic an explanation). It was a moment I’ll never forget.

I think now of my dream, the salmon all swimming quickly in the silver water, and I know it was about wonder. To stay alive to it.

“Ripples on the surface of the water—
were silver salmon passing under—different
from the ripples caused by breezes”

A scudding plume on the wave—
a humpback whale is
breaking out in air up
gulping herring
—Nature not a book, but a performance, a
high old culture

— Gary Snyder, from “Ripples on the Surface” (No Nature: New and Selected Poems)

the springtime lamb

Today, on my shelves, a book of poetry by Annie Dillard. Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. This is a season I celebrate — not for any religious reason but because moment by moment, the earth is coming alive. In “Feast Days”, Dillard takes us through a strange arrangement of Christian holidays. And I’ve remembered the conclusion since I first bought this book as a student in 1974:

God send us the spring lamb
minted and tied in thyme
and call us home, and bid us eat
and praise your name.

The names I praised were those of my family. All morning I worked on an essay for Euclid’s Orchard, one that explores my deep past in the Drumheller valley. So those names. The Yopeks, the Kishkans, poor Joseph Klus who died in a dugout house on the banks of the Red Deer River, of Spanish flu. Calls or texts came from my children. I’d sent my sons their childhood paper mache eggs, filled with little chocolate treats and toys for their children, my grandbabies. I wondered if they’d remember their eggs and oh, yes. They did.

In the afternoon, I worked in the garden where spring has eased itself into every bed — Spring Tonic, where I grow salad greens; Long Eye, where garlic is planted and kale is volunteering; Wave, where the peas have yet to sprout against their fence and, fearful that slugs will nip off the new sprouts, I scattered crushed oyster shells (from my birthday oysters) over the length of the furrows. I planted ten hills of French Fingerling potatoes in Old Deck and weeded mint volunteers from Thin Deck to pot up to take to Edmonton in May when we will all gather (except Angie, alas) to build a deck and porch for Brendan and Cristen and where I know the young’uns will want mojitos come 5’o’clock. (John and I would rather have a glass of wine. Call us stuffy.)

The spring lamb made an appearance on the Easter table, tied not with thyme, but stuffed with garlic and rosemary. A pan of Greek potatoes, lemony, and fragrant with olive oil from Crete. Eggplant with garden dill and chives in yoghourt. Salad of feta, tomatoes, and Kalamata olives. And for dessert? A galette with last year’s gooseberries and this year’s rhubarb. The most beautiful Desert Hills Syrah.

Today I’ve been naming
the plants of the southern forest:
arrowwood, witherod,
hobblebush, nannyberry
and the loblolly, longleaf
and shortleaf pine.

No, I’ve been looking at the pink new growth on the huckleberries, cerise salmonberry blossoms, Douglas fir, watching two sapsuckers chase one another up and down the trunk of a small cascara, and brushed a bumblebee from my shoulder as I put away the shovel. And thinking of my grandchildren, opening the eggs their fathers loved 30 years ago, on the table that still looks west. And misses them.

easter galette

I’m here again this morning

morning on the rosebud.jpg

I’m here again this morning, trying to understand the shape of a life that ended in 1918. I’m trying to talk to a man who probably spoke no English but who loved my grandmother and was the father of her first 9 children. Trying to understand what it must have been like to come to a land of plenty and to have so little.

You were in West Virginia in 1911, not long after your son Frank was born in Horni Lomna, my grandmother’s village in Moravia, in January 1911. Did you stay for his birth? Did you hold him by a fire of coal and black spruce and tell him he would cross water with his mother?

I know almost nothing about him.


a badlands antiphon


The one essay in my forthcoming collection that’s giving me trouble is a long one about the search for my grandmother’s first home in Canada. Or, more correctly, it’s about the search for a homestead taken out (in theory) by her first husband, Joseph Yopek, who came to Canada around 1911. His name appears on the Alberta Homestead Records, a guide I used to try to find out information about the place he prepared for my grandmother’s arrival from what’s now the Czech Republic in 1913.

The editor for this collection has rightly observed that the essay doesn’t quite work. All the parts are there but they don’t add up to a finished piece. I know she’s right. When my publisher wondered in the fall if I might have enough essays for a book, I thought I didn’t. And then I went through a series of medical tests that indicated I could be facing a fairly serious health situation. I thought to myself, You need to finish the work you’ve begun because your days could be numbered. Well, of course all our days are numbered but there you have it. And I confess I sort of rushed this particular essay. My hope for it was something other than the way I put it together. So my challenge right now is to find its true shape. In the beginning I wanted it to be an antiphon. Not necessarily the sort I knew, where a choir or group of voices (or sometimes even a single voice) responds to lines of a psalm or other liturgical text. But I wanted to call across the years to the man my grandmother married, a man who seems to have disappeared from any kind of recorded memory, and I wanted him to answer. I wanted to engage in a kind of song with him. But then I let the writing take me elsewhere. Into the dry archive of land grants and the Department of the Interior. Men writing to other men in the language of early 20th c. bureaucracy.

Yesterday I worked for most of the day on other essays. Their editorial requirements were pretty straightforward. Commas. Clarity. Eliminating all those parenthetical asides, or at least thinking about them in a different way. I enjoy this work. I want this book to be as good as I can make it.

But in the middle of the manuscript is this long brooding shadow. I kept scrolling past it to pretend that fixing it would be easy enough, why didn’t I simply leave it for a bit? And in the night, I was awake thinking about it and it suddenly seemed so clear. Return to your original vision. Sing to Joseph Yopek and maybe he will sing back. Never mind that he would sing in Polish, a language I don’t understand. Music can take us beyond language, can’t it? After all, the liturgy of Joseph Yopek’s church would have been Latin and surely he didn’t understand Latin, apart from its context. And when you think about it, liturgy is not confined to the Catholic church. The word itself is a Greek composite, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, meaning “public service”.  The liturgy I have in mind would be service to my family, our own particular music. And his part has been lost, this man who died in 1918 and whose grave I couldn’t even find in the small-ish Drumheller Cemetery.

the world comes in


This morning I’ve been working on the edits for my forthcoming book, Euclid’s Orchard. I have the most perceptive editor in Pearl Luke and her notes challenge me to go a little deeper, to clarify, to find the best words. My eyes are a bit strained by the effort of looking at the screen, contemplating commas. But just now I walked out of my study and saw the glass piece we gave to each other for Christmas, made by our friend June Malaka. It’s hanging in a south-facing window and all winter I loved how the light came through the orbs of different glass. Winter light, sombre and diffuse. But today, there’s spring light and a budding lilac behind it.

The world comes in. It comes to a woman sitting at her desk, it finds its way into her writing, her heart. It reminds her of everything she’s looked at and remembered.

One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad, dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.

–from “Euclid’s Orchard”, title essay of forthcoming book.