pale fish on a pale ground

When I woke this morning, I wanted to go outside right away to unwrap the last shibori piece. But it wasn’t yet light! So I made the fire, fed the cat, ground coffee beans—a more seemly order to the day’s beginning?

And as I was doing those things, I realized that the piece would not look as I envisioned it would. I think the arashi technique is best suited to either a smaller length of fabric (I used a linen sheet, single-bed sized…) or else a long pole or pipe so that the most surface area possible is exposed to both the indigo dye and the process of oxidization. A further thing, I realized, is that the area where I’d drawn and then waxed salmon (a form of resist pattern) would be the area receiving the least exposure to the dye. So pale fish on a pale ground (or water). Maybe I was preparing myself for disappointment. But I also knew, know, that mistakes and errors and (let’s face it) lack of artistic skill and experience often make for beautiful results.

pale fish

And yes, I think the result is beautiful. Or will be, once the sheet is dry and I can remove the wax and then wash the piece. I’d intended to detail the fish with fabric paints in any case and then to embellish them with shell buttons.

shell buttons

I think of these projects like essays, in a way. When I begin an essay, I have ideas in mind, images, even particular sentence rhythms, but I don’t have an outcome that I’m working towards. I want to find things out, I want to try, to attempt, to weigh, all those old notions associated with the essay form. There are variables, stray plants encountered along the way, passages of poetry that somehow seem relevant, maybe a memory of a meal, someone singing, a rise of hill punctuated by umbrella pines seen from a train going between Avignon and Arles, and whoosh, there’s the essay. Or the first draft anyway. And these essays in blue cotton and linen? First drafts too, because now the work of finding out how to improve them, to make use of them in a practical way (as quilts, as clothing even), now that work begins.

All weekend I’ve spent my time immersing my (rubber-gloved) hands in pans of indigo dye while around me the bigleaf maples filled the woods with the most limpid yellow light. I remembered doing a batch of dyeing last summer and how the morning that I came out to cut the threads and roll out the lengths of fabric was the same morning a family of pileated woodpeckers was loud in the trees just beyond my bench. The parents were teaching the young ones to feed and the offspring kept flopping clumsily on the trunks of the big firs and squawking piteously. As I snipped and unwrapped, I wondered if they’d notice me and fly away but no. So the memory of that morning is in the cushion covers I made with the itajime fabric, the sound of woodpeckers imprinted in the process.

itajime pillows

 

So the cloth remembers…

This morning I unwrapped all the fabric I dyed yesterday and washed it, rinsed it twice, and hung it on the clothesline.

clothesline

It’s never quite what I imagine or hope for but I’m always so excited about the results. The darker piece on linen (second from the right), for example. I tied stones from Trail Bay into a sort of diagonal grid for half the length, a technique called kumo, and then simply bound the rest with hemp twine. (It seems to hold best.) I love how the stones left their impression in the linen:

one stone

You can see a bird there, or a snow angel. Or the heart of a flower. I recorded this passage when I read Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada’s extraordinary Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now:

When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the piece during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

So the cloth remembers but it also interprets that pressure, those shapes. A stone from a beach on the Sechelt Peninsula becomes a bird taking flight, a child in snow.

And maybe my favourite piece? A stained but intact linen tea-cloth from my mother. I used a technique called itajime, where I pleated the cloth and then used wooden blocks of varying sizes to make a resist pattern against the indigo. The larger blocks I tied with hemp string and for the smaller, thinner ones I was able to use some clamps.

windows

Look at the light coming through those windows!

Yesterday I waxed fish onto an old linen sheet and then folded and wrapped the sheet around pvc pipe for the effect called arashi, or storm. When I put the cloth-bound pipe into dye this morning, I realized my dye vat was exhausted and so I had to prepare a fresh batch. I’ll spend the afternoon dipping and turning and by tomorrow morning I’ll know if I have what I’m hoping for: a watery sea with a spiral of salmon turning in its centre.

 

the doorstep of winter

Yesterday I planted the garlic box, four varieties all tucked in for winter. And today I intended to tidy up and winterize some other parts of the vegetable garden. But somehow the basket of prepared fabric was calling. So this morning I prepared an indigo dye vat on the long cedar bench outside

vat

and have just done the first dip of several different kinds of tied and knotted lengths of cotton and linen. The stuff is oxidizing as I type. The last time I dyed with indigo, the final colour was beautiful but not deep blue.

constellations

I’m not enough of a chemist to understand why. I know that the colour comes from many short dips rather than a long sustained time in the vat. And maybe I don’t really care. Today I thought I’d do ten dips of 20 minutes with a 30 minute period of oxidization between dips. We’ll see. Here’s a length of prepared arashi—it means “storm”— and I

first arashi dip

have to use a long plastic tub because the pvc pipe that the fabric is wrapped around is too long for my vat. The last time I did this particular technique, the end result was lovely in that the cloth remembered its turns.

arashi

I’ve also been penciling salmon shapes onto a vintage linen sheet (a single bed size) and if I have time tomorrow, I’ll wax them and then dip the sheet too. I’ve been wanting to make a quilt using full lengths of fabric rather than patchwork and using a kind of sashiko or functional stitching to bind the layers together. Red thread. So this might be the opportunity if the waxed salmon work out the way I hope they will. Sometimes I find myself filled with an urgency to make things with my hands. Not writing but something solid and durable. I can’t paint, can’t draw very well. But there are other ways to immerse myself in colour and texture and on the doorstep of winter, I’m hoping to do just that.

a quilt, a pantry, a book

liberty

 

There was that gate, generously wide so we could bring in our truck with that big willow basket, for when the trees produced the harvests we thought might be possible. I filed recipes for apple preserves, for plum jams, for bottled cherries in exotic liqueurs. One year I scavenged enough pears to process in Mason jars, and we had pies of Transparent apples encased in buttery pastry. Some years this happened, that we managed to harvest enough for ourselves against the constant predations of bears.

—from Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

The other day I had the pleasure of talking to a group of women in my community about my writing life (which is of course entwined with everything else I do). I talked about how I understand story and its importance to how we see ourselves in relation to others, how a woman gathers stories in her carrier bag (thank you, Urusla LeGuin!), and makes them into something useful. A quilt, a pantry, a book. In the face of everything else—toxic politics, the unnecessary divisions between the rich and the poor (the unnecessary presence of poverty at all on a planet with so much wealth and superfluous food), possible nuclear war, the lack of civility in our public discourse, all of it (and this list is just too depressing a thing to continue with on a Friday morning)—walking through a life gathering materials too useful to discard seems a small but hopeful act. As Ursula LeGuin calls it, a “human thing”.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again–if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.

—from “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”

After my talk, I was given a small bag and in it: an apple. A Liberty apple from Karen Strong’s tree. And it was delicious.

a Sunday ciaconna

bach

I’ve spent the morning thus far working on an essay for an anthology about the locations of grief. The essay has given me a lot of trouble, or I’ve given it the trouble, for who can say which came first? If you think of the form as capacious, if you believe (as I do) that an essay can explore anything and can adapt its language, its rhythms, its torque (if you like), to allow any subject as its current beloved, perhaps then the difficulty must be mine, not the essay’s. In any case, I’ve felt my linguistic agility to be challenged as I try to shape my own subject to the forms and gorgeous music of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1004.

Why this music? It’s what I listened to after my mother’s death and I listen to it still, finding in it such expression of everything I’ve ever wanted to say about living and dying. I’ve tried to use the movements—based on dances—to carry my thinking, my enactments of memory and sorrow. I’m not there yet. I printed a draft this morning and see where the clunky moments are. I also see where I’ve done something close to what I hoped to.

Right now I’m listening to Itzhak Perlman play the partita. It’s glorious. I have several recordings—the very young Hilary Hahn, Lara St. John, Arnold Steinhardt (two versions)—and don’t have a favourite (though maybe right this minute? Perlman). Each violinist brings something different to the performance and Steinhardt wrote in Violin Dreams of the texture and sound he understood each of his violins also contributed to his own interpretations, in youth, and later in his life. I’ve also been reading about the Baroque bow and its outward bend and how it suited the dance movements of Bach’s compositions.

What I’ve loved about this work is that it’s encompassing, it’s richly absorbing, and I’m learning how receptive an essay can be to the interests of its maker.

“as an ook cometh of a litel spir”

It seems appropriate, on a wedding anniversary, to wonder about the future years as much as to remember the ones that have already accumulated. And so I was glad to walk down to the lower trail and dig up two tiny oak seedlings I saw on a walk last week. They’re not native oaks, Quercus garryana, though this time last year I planted some Garry oak acorns gathered at Rithet’s Bog in Victoria where almost 50 years ago I used to ride my horse. One of those acorns germinated and I’ve been caring for the tiny tree since spring.

little garry oak

The seedlings I saw last week are the same species (I think) as an oak I found nearby several years ago and brought home to coddle in a pot until it was big enough to plant out, which I did this summer. It’s about three feet tall, with spring-green leaves. They don’t turn red in fall but more a tawny or russety colour. So I suspect the oak might be Quercus robur, the common or English oak. Later, when it produces acorns, I’ll be able to see if the acorns are held by long stalks (hence, “pendunculate”, which gives this oak another of its common names). There’s a summer cabin down by Sakinaw Lake, near the trail we walk to Haskins Creek to see the coho salmon spawn in late November, and there are often oak leaves on the trail in fall when we pass the cabin. So I think the owners must have planted an oak. And they’ve been there, in summers, for many decades, so the tree could well be a big one by now. I know that Steller’s jays are good dispensers of Garry oak acorns and we have lots of jays around us. Many Douglas squirrels too, which hoard and disperse every kind of seed, acorns included.

I brought the seedlings home and planted them in pots.

new oak

And now remember Chaucer, from Troilus and Criseyde, “as an ook cometh of a litel spir”. With the years I have left, I don’t expect to see them as stately trees. Maybe I’ll never know what species they are. But it seems an act of hope to plant them. To care for them. And maybe to have them become part of the story that is constantly evolving on this land I’ve belonged to since 1980 when we first walked up to a little bluff with a real estate agent and saw the flattened moss where the deer lie down. There were no oaks then. But in ten years? Or fifty? Maybe four trees for my grandchildren to climb, to lie under in shade, to rake leaves from the base in fall and think about the woman who planted them.

“How in age our own bodies remember their youth…”

wedding1

38 years ago today John and I were married in Sidney, B.C., dressed in our finest. The bride wore a gauzy dress made by Yofi Creations and a wreathe of yellow roses in her hair; the groom was resplendent in a plaid tie, a Harris tweed jacket we’d bought in London and which never really fit (the salesman kept saying, “Oh I like my clothes tight, don’t you?” and it seemed churlish to disagree…), and wide corduroy trousers. This morning John said, 38 years, and his hands made that gesture: where did they go? Where indeed.

Furthermore, the rings in the branches that have been cut off show the number of its years, and which were damper or drier according to the greater or lesser thickness of these rings. The rings also reveal the side of the world to which they are turned . . . — Leonardo Da Vinci, Leonardo on Painting

How in age a tree remembers, how the feet of tiny birds felt on the bark; how on a summer day, drowsing in sunlight, a tree might have been startled awake by a bear climbing to its first strong branch; how an osprey might have settled on the broken crown to survey the lake, the glittering run of river. How the pines stand in their wild observatories, anchored in rock, looking to the heavens, drinking deeply from the aquifer. They have seen meteorites fall, leaned into wind with sockeye migrating below them; given a small shake as ash from burning forests settled on their boughs.

How in age our own bodies remember their youth, how it felt to make love on bare ground (pollen drifting from one cone to another), to rise and walk among trees, light shimmering through their leaves. Listen! A nuthatch, a grey jay, a woodpecker, feasting on insects. How time compresses, so that all summers arrange themselves in a codex of dry skin, tart berries on the tongue, the surprise of cold water as we entered rivers. How later, organizing the photographic archive, we try to imagine ourselves back into that tent on Nicola Lake, our children racing down from the volcano, the pines filtering early morning sun so beautifully that later we say, “it was paradise.”

—from “Pinus ponderosa: A Serious Waltz, a chapter from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, published by Goose Lane Editions, 2011.