September postcard, from home


Putting stuff together for a week away. Some readings (Saturday night on Salt Spring Island, at the library in Ganges; Munro’s Books in Victoria next Wednesday), some meals and walks with friends and family, an adventure or two. I’m roasting three Japanese eggplants to toss with basil and garlic for a mezes supper tonight, along with a green olive tapenade, some figs stuffed with herbed cheese, wrapped in prosciutto, and quickly grilled. There’s a melancholy to the late September light, honeyed and golden, and something wistful about the sound of sapsuckers in the dry woods. You hear them and then, in a month, you realize how much you miss the sounds of late summer and fall. As though it passed without you noticing (because you were busy making jam, pickling beans, airing the quilts for the winter beds) and then all you notice is the silence. The frost. The long nights and how it is dark for an hour after you wake.

A postcard is proof that the flowers are still blooming, that you bent and noticed. There are roses in bud and honeysuckle tumbling over the pergola leading into the garden. Everyone I love feels very far away. I will sign this postcard in the old way: Wish you were here.

Henry says “beluga”

My grandson Henry turned 1 two weeks ago. He is a dear little boy, with a big smile, and good parents, a lovely older sister. He’s too far away for me to see him as often as I’d like—all my grandbabies are too far away for that—but I love receiving photographs and videos and I even like Skype, even though it’s often so awkward. (I blame our satellite internet connection!)

I remember my own children acquiring language. The utility of some words was obvious. Mum. Dad. Hi. Bye. And some words were particular to our family culture. One of my son Forrest’s first words was coffee. In those days I drank far more coffee than I do now (ah, age!) and it came with its own rituals. The first morning cup, brought to me in bed. (Our household still respects this ritual…) Our pretty Imari cups for espresso after dinner.


Yesterday I couldn’t stop looking at a video of Henry. He’s not only learned to walk in the time since his first birthday but he’s also learned a new word! I can’t embed the video here without upgrading my site but I can show you the small boy and you can imagine him very seriously saying, “Beluga!” (Baby Beluga is his favourite book right now.) He says it as clearly as anything and even his sister looked up from what she was doing to exclaim, “Henry said ‘beluga’!”

pool rats

What words get to be the first are often strange and magical. Henry’s cousin Arthur is nearly two and he has been talking a wild streak for a year now, in English and French with a few Arabic words thrown in because his daycare provider is Moroccan by birth. When he was with us in late July, he kept asking to go up to see the épouvantaille. Épouvantaille, Grandmama! I didn’t know what he was talking about but it turned out he was smitten with the dollar store scarecrow on a bamboo pole planted in a pot of lilies. He wanted to visit it, oh, ten times a morning. He was a little nervous about actually getting too close to the thing but I suggested he might want to water it. So while I was watering the potted tomatoes and roses, he carefully poured water into the pot with the épouvantaille.


I wish I knew what my first word was, after Mum, Dad, Star (who was the dog of my childhood), and the names of my brothers. I wish I knew what thing was so important that I just had to name it, something as enticing as a scarecrow or whale.

parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme


When I looked at the pantry shelves this morning, I realized we had no herbal jelly. Usually I make a few batches—orange basil; thyme blossom; intensely-flavoured rosemary (a perfect match for roast lamb). But not this year, not yet. Until now. One that I like is one I like to think I invented. I call it Scarborough Fair jelly and I date myself with that name. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?/Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” It’s the prettiest pale green and sometimes I put a dried chili in to give the jelly a kick as well as to watch over the months as the green takes on a little of the chili’s colour

Any child of the 1960s and 1970s will remember the Simon and Garfunkel version of the old “Scarborough Fair” ballad though I loved Marianne Faithfull’s sweet and delicate rendering. When I sing this on my own (and I intend to work up a version for my grandbabies), I’ll think of Marianne’s crisp enunciation and the way she draws out “cambric shirt” in the last verse.

And cambric! What a lovely word. A finely woven cotton or linen, first made in Cambrai. I have a basket of cottons, two vintage linen single-bed sheets, and even two lengths of pale raw silk waiting for me to find time for a dye vat and the work of preparing the fabric for shibori. Before the frosts, before the fall storms, I want to have them dyed and ready for a winter quilt. The other day I was sorting images in a digital file and I found this,


the top of a quilt I finished for Forrest and Manon. It was the second fish quilt I made and the next two were better, I think, in that I figured out how to do the Mokume technique a little more effectively. And I used more shell buttons to articulate the fish-spines, to suggest eggs among stones.

The season turned on Friday and now we prepare for winter. Jellies to have with roast chicken and lamb, a big vat of squash and apple soup yesterday, and this basket of cloth waiting, waiting for its immersion into indigo, its transformation to something more than itself.


a doctrine of signatures


The shy doe who has been around most days ate the hart’s tongue fern while we were away in Vancouver so I could read at Cottage Bistro from Euclid’s Orchard. Usually she doesn’t venture onto the patio but obviously she felt brave in our absence.  She left a few leaves of white violet but everything else has been nipped to the stem.

hart's tongue

I don’t think this doe had a fawn this year. In the past, we’ve seen deer with twins or singles and have watched the young ones grow over the summer season.


The local black-tail deer mate in November and December. Maybe this one is averse to the prospect.  She has eaten the fern shaped like the tongue of a hart, that beautiful animal out of the Song of Songs (“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag: behold, he stands behind our wall, he looks forth through the windows, showing himself through the lattice.“), and wanders near our house, maybe hoping for protection. I’ve always been interested in the history of herbal medicines and the old idea of the doctrine of signatures, found in Dioscorides and Galen and revived by Paracelsus, suggesting that every herb has its sign, indicating its use for human conditions. A heart-shaped leaf, for treating the heart. Yellow leaves for jaundice. Eye-bright for diseases of the eyes.

Of these ferns, Culpepper tells us, “The distilled water is very good against the passion of the heart…” Maybe the doe has her own longings, satisfied by the long leaves of a hart’s tongue fern glazed with rain. I wish her well in the fall season when we often see the bucks standing in brush by the side of the highway, looking for mates. As for the fern, it will grow back.


Oh, the days dwindle down

We’re at the doorstep of autumn, the overnight temperatures cool enough to require an extra cover on the bed. The woodshed is filling, tomatoes strung across the back to ripen against the wall of dry wood. Yesterday I thought our lake swim might be our last for the year (and we went at 10:30, not our usual 8:30) but I think we’ll go out in our little boat today and tie it to a log on the island we’ve always loved and have a final swim around the island. The merganser chicks have long fledged, the cutthroat will be spawning soon.

Last night we drove home late from dinner with friends and saw an owl swoop up from the dark road. It watched us pass from a fir tree. Time to fill the woodbox in the porch, time to watch the crapapple tree for the bear who always comes this time of year to feast on the small scabby fruit. To watch the leaves fall from the cascara and mountain ash just beyond my study. And to watch this young doe browsing in the dry grass.

september song

It always feels a little sad when the season turns. Did I accomplish anything over the summer beyond morning swims and a bit of editing? I saw my family, yes, but miss them this morning and am trying to figure out how to see them sooner rather than later. When we walked over to the mailboxes the other day, the school bus passed and Wendy (who’s driven this leg of the route since my children were small) honked her horn and waved. I almost expected the bus to stop at our driveway and three kids to climb down the stairs, hands clutching watercolours, lunchboxes, a backpack of homework. Time to pull out the basket with the half-finished quilt, time to pickle another half-dozen jars of beans.  To open the sack of daffodil bulbs and think about where to plant them.


Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you.

—Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson


“When the gift moves in a circle…”

I’ve always loved the idea of gifts and reciprocity. The circular pattern of that process. What you give, you receive. This time of year I fill our pantry shelves with preserves, more than we can ever use. But when we are invited to dinner with friends, we take wine, yes, and often a jar of jam or pickled beans or a herbal jelly. I remember the time I spent living on Crete in the 1970s and how I would accompany my love interest of the time, Agamemnon (yes, that was his name!), to dinners with friends of his family. At the door we would be greeted with a small tray holding a glass of water and a jar of quince or cherry preserves. A long spoon. We would take a spoon of the preserve, called “spoon-sweets”, followed by a drink of water. Sometimes a tiny cup of coffee. This practice was part of an ancient code called Xenia. The guest was treated well in part because he or she might be a god or goddess in disguise. And if that didn’t prove to be the case? Well, no matter. The host had done the right thing. And a guest treated well was unlikely to behave badly.
“When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”– Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property
When people come to us, they bring flowers or books or wine; I feed them; John keeps our glasses replenished; they tell us stories and we share our own. Sometimes they leave with a bag of kale or a rooted cutting of wisteria or scented geranium. It’s the world I want to live in so I do my part.
Someone who does not know the Tigris River exists
brings the caliph who lives near the river
a jar of fresh water. The caliph accepts, thanks him,
and gives in return a jar filled with gold coins.
                 — Rumi, from “The Gift of Water”, trans. Coleman Barks
Someone once said as she arrived for dinner and put a jar of beautiful raspberry jam on the counter, “It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle.” But it wasn’t. Not at all. We grow wonderful raspberries but I never make jam of them. I don’t know why, quite. It seems there are always other things happening when the raspberries (cherished, for sure, but also called “the frigging raspberries” late in their season when they have to be picked, yet again, almost always by John, and arranged on trays for the freezer. In peak season, there’s a bucket a day….), anyway, when the raspberries are ripe so I never make jam of them. And hot buttered toast, with raspberry jam, in January? Oh, man.
So this isn’t entirely about jam. It’s about exchange. John printed these keepsakes on our Chandler and Price platen press to give out at my book launch and yes, we did that. Or Bev Shaw did. She owns Talewind Books and is the gracious bookseller at so many literary events on our coast. (Those who attend the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt will recognize her name!) She is a true friend to writers and readers. We have copies of the keepsake left. I’ll take some to Munro’s in Victoria for the reading I’m doing there on October 4th with Bill Gaston. But in the meantime, send me a photo or maybe just a confirmation that you’ve bought a copy of Euclid’s Orchard (my contact info is in the menu on the right-hand side of my home page) and I’ll mail you a copy of this lovely little letterpress keepsake. I can’t offer you a spoon of jam at the door and a glass of our delicious well water, not unless you visit us here, but I can offer something else. And I’m very happy to do that.
keepsake with linocut