Postcard from Beverly, Alberta

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My grandfather built this house in the early 1940s, I believe, when he moved with his family from Drumheller to Beverly, now part of Edmonton. There was another small house behind this one, purchased from the Prins farm, for $200, and moved to this lot. I have a file containing all the receipts  for materials used in the construction of this house, as well as the bill of sale, handwritten, for the smaller house, and it was odd to look at the place this morning, my granddaughter in the car, trying to think of the way a landscape holds us in the plain details as well as the grand ones.  Five generations and a river between my Ukrainian-speaking grandfather and a little girl singing of trains.

the dark considerations

pacific rim

77 years ago today, Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse with her pockets filled with stones to weigh her down, to facilitate her drowning. She left us with such a body of writing: novels, essays, letters, diaries, glimpses of her in the work of others. I was 19 when I first read The Waves. I remember rationing it out because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted those voices, those characters to stay in my life. And what I know now of course is that they have. Bernard with his stories, and maybe Rhoda most of of all, she who looks into water, searching for herself.

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

In my early 20s, I spent a few years trying to figure out how to be a writer in a world that kept asking something else of me. I certainly wasn’t unique in this. And at the time I was pretty self-absorbed. I was porous. Everything I experienced and felt needed to be contemplated, written about, worked through. There was a lot of drama. In a recent essay, “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, I found myself writing about that young self. I wrote about a specific moment on a bridge over Englishman River and when I finished the section, my immediate thought was to delete it. Oh, who needs to know this, I wondered. But then I realized that I am so grateful that the moment passed, that the dog I was caring for reminded me to cross the bridge and continue on with the trip we had undertaken. And it’s good to remember these things, particularly now, at this point in my life, when I can make a place for those dark considerations in the daily light, the beautiful precious years I have somehow been gifted.

When I was a young woman sad enough to consider ending my life, I stood on the bridge in November. I was driving by myself to Long Beach after a series of humiliating events during the first term of my 4th year at the University of Victoria; I had permission to take a week away from classes. I’d borrowed my father’s red Datsun pickup truck. It had a canopy, which leaked, and a canvas hammock, sewn by my father with his big careful stitches, strung diagonally across the bed of the truck. I rigged up a plastic bag over the vent in the ceiling of the canopy to catch the drips and smoothed my sleeping bag into the narrow hammock and walked out to the bridge. I had my family’s dog with me, a crazy Samoyed/Lab cross. He bit people if he was allowed off his leash but he liked me and he was warm. He strained at his leash on the bridge and I thought about jumping off into the deep green water. I didn’t want to think about what would happen to my body but I also couldn’t imagine what would happen to the dog on his leash if I died at Englishman River where no one knew I’d gone and wouldn’t think to look for me. The dog was my wavering. I also wanted to give him the gift of wild running on the empty beaches I knew we’d find that time of year. We returned in the rain to the truck and I heated soup for myself on the little blue Optimus stove and scooped some Gravy Train into the dog’s bowl. I ate my soup on the tailgate in my rain jacket while the dog huddled under the picnic table. Then we both made ourselves as comfortable as we could in the damp canopy and slept while the rain pounded on the roof, near enough to touch.

(A woman, hand inside her rain jacket, tenderly taking her pulse, the drama of her heart pushing blood, whoosh, into her circulatory system, the drama of her life, whoosh, at wrist, at neck. She wonders if she will move forward to the other side of the river, or back, into the wreckage of the past weeks while her dog pants at her feet, eager for more walking. Not this, not the dark considerations of life or death.)

 

 

a wild orchestration

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On a walk up the Malaspina trail yesterday, coyote scats everywhere, full of hair and new grass. This is a sign of spring as much as daffodils and salmonberry blossoms (though yesterday we didn’t see a single one). Last week, an ambulance sounded its siren as it came down the long hill near us, on its way to an emergency in Egmont or Earls Cove. And as soon as the siren stopped, we heard the pair of coyotes denning just to the south of our house sing their own version of the siren’s song, two voices rising and falling, in a complex and beautiful harmony. In the title essay of my book Euclid’s Orchard, there are coyotes singing and they might even be the same animals as the ones last week. I’ve always loved the continuities, the cycles.

We knew about the coyotes because they left scats on our driveway, in the hollows of moss in the orchard, on the nearby trails we hiked regularly, and even along the highway we walked to collect our mail at the community boxes about half a mile away. Every time we walked, we saw the scats. If we were on a trail, the scats were in the middle. The animals wanted anyone using the trail to know they’d been there. On the edges of the highway—a sign that the animals had mastered the knowledge of traffic—the piles were right on the human-worn margins.

And they were—are—fascinating. Coyotes are omnivores. They eat rodents, frogs and other amphibians (but not toads because their skins are bitter), reptiles, fish, crustaceans, birds, larger mammals that they can either kill or scavenge, grass (which helps them to digest fur and bones, I’ve read, and which also serves to scour parasites from their intestines), birdseed, and all kinds of fruit and vegetables.Once we watched a young pup hold salal branches down with its foot so it could reach the ripening berries, plucking them delicately one at a time. We’ve noticed more fur and bones in spring, when rodent populations are highest. And sometimes the scats seem to be composed entirely of grass. Once, the head and neck of a garter snake, scales still intact. Bloody flesh gives them a darker color. Fruit— crabapples, wild cherries, even elderberries–give them bulk. Seeds and fur make them grey. And if they’re lucky enough to find a source of dry dog or cat food, the scats resemble those of canines.

Even though they were mostly invisible, we knew they were around and felt lucky when we saw them. Luckier still when we heard them. We live far from the nearest village and can usually hear emergency vehicles coming from a distance. But if there are coyotes in the immediate vicinity, they begin to howl before we hear the sirens, and by the time the ambulance or police car is near our house, on its way to the ferry or to deal with a collision on the highway below us, there’s a cacophony of siren and coyote accompaniment. A wild orchestration for voices and synthesizer—longitudinal waves coming toward us, bending and refracting the long length of the highway. Sound nowhere and everywhere.

“…all the blues there are.”

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It’s been a long winter and we’re now a couple days into spring. I know I’ve written before that my mother always had something she was working on, knitted or crocheted, over the winter, insisting that she didn’t want the months to pass without something to show for it. Well, she was raised a Presbyterian so it was hard for her to believe that the devil wouldn’t find work for idle hands. And I’d like to think that I know that important things can happen in the mind, in the imagination. The winter passes, an extended essay is written, books are read, friendships are maintained, relationships with my children, my grandchildren, my beloved husband. But I am my mother’s daughter and yes, I am glad to have something to show for the months inside, near the fire, while rain or snow fell, or the nights were long and dark. Working on this quilt was like working with stars, a dusky sky (the sky at 5 in winter, sun just down), cold water, the spirals taking me into deep thought, shell buttons catching the light. I cut the last threads half an hour ago.

finished!

I love the poems of the late Robert Francis. They have a quiet practicality and are observant in the best way. Here’s one for the end of winter, for blue and all its manner of colour, of mood. I’ve seen those rows of hills, the water, ice, and his bluejay is a cousin at least of our Steller’s jay, the one who shouts from the post just beyond the window.

Winter uses all the blues there are.
One shade of blue for water, one for ice,
Another blue for shadows over snow.
The clear or cloudy sky uses blue twice-
Both different blues. And hills row after row
Are colored blue according to how far.
You know the bluejay’s double-blur device
Shows best when there are no green leaves to show.
And Sirius is a winterbluegreen star.

“What song might lure a child from the deck of a small boat…”

first day of spring

First day of spring, and it’s grey. But last night we went to have dinner with our friends on Oyster Bay and it was like so many dinners we’ve had over the 32 years of our friendship. Arriving before the sun went down to a bay filled with goldeneyes, buffleheads. The whoosh of the tide. The smell of woodsmoke as we gathered by the fire to drink a glass of champagne (because they invited us, 4 of us, to celebrate my recent nomination for a B.C. Book Prize!). Looking out the window at the crazy roof of the old part of the house—we were in the newer part—anyway, the old part of the house that was originally a floating camp kitchen where high tides wash under the floor, pulled up onto land in the 1930s or 40s and shored up with logs, I said to one friend, “This is the world we hoped to find when we moved here in 1982.” A place my old friend Charles Lillard described so beautifully in “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”:

This is an old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology.

We ate oysters collected earlier in the day from the beach (and there was a bucket full of them waiting for us to take home at the end of the evening), prawns, a delicious side of perfect salmon, and finished with lemon meringue pie. Champagne, and French chardonnay tasting of wet stones. A vase of snowdrops on the table set with my friend’s family Meissen, brought home from her mother’s house after her mother’s long life ended. Everything so beautiful and cherished.

I want to record these times because when we’re gone, will anyone remember that a house sat at the edge of a bay and 6 friends ate a feast pulled from its waters? That we talked of poetry and art (two of my friends are painters), of our children who are all making their way in the larger world but who all knew this house in their childhoods, swam off its generous rocks?

I wrote a novel about this bay after a series of dreams about a man in a small boat. A Man In A Distant Field is set in the salt meadows at the end of the bay where creeks find their way down to it from Mount Hallowell.

Past the watery thickets of eel-grass streaming over the surface of the bay, past the reeds where nests were concealed, past the tiny cove where Declan had stumbled upon Rose digging for clams with a stick shaped like a bird’s claw. There were sandy areas punctuated with oysters, the small Olympics that tasted sweet when you pried their shells open and drank them back like nectar, and there were rocks encrusted with the bigger Pacifics brought from Japan. The man who’d given Declan passage up the coast had told him that he was growing the big oysters on the beach in front of his homestead, hoping to market them to the steamships; he brought boxes of seed by boat from Vancouver, his young son responsible for keeping the boxes damp. “If it’s a high sea,” the man had said, “I tie a rope around his middle so he doesn’t wash overboard.” Declan imagined them coming up from the strait in wild seas on their boat with the boxes of oyster seed, the child tethered to the wheelhouse while the father steered a straight course for home. He heard the echoes of Odysseus resisting the song of the Sirens, lashed to the mast, while his men rowed past the pretty music. What song might lure a child from the deck of a small boat heading north to Pender Harbour into the dark waters of Georgia Strait?

I think it might be the song we hear that draws us back to dinners on Oyster Bay, talking of poetry and children, and all around us, the scent of woodsmoke, of salt.

where my limbs are in space

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I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béalSometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb

 

 

 

“…will the voices come to us again?”

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Euclid’s arrival at Mona’s place

This morning the B.C. Book Prizes announced the 2018 shortlists and I am so thrilled to see Euclid’s Orchard nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

Awarded to the author(s) of the best original work of literary non-fiction. Topics such as philosophy, politics, biography, history, belles lettres, etc. Quality of research and writing along with insight and originality are major considerations in the judging of this prize. (from the Book Prizes website)

I’ve always admired Hubert Evans. When John and I first moved to the Sechelt Peninsula, Hubert was still alive, living at Roberts Creek. I met him once and told him how much I loved his Mist on the River and O Time In Your Flight. In the way that these things happen in small places, his granddaughter, a nurse at the hospital in Sechelt, helped to deliver my son Brendan. Brendan, for those of you who’ve read Euclid’s Orchard, is the mathematician who inspired the title essay. When my publisher Mona Fertig and I were making decisions on images for the book, I had to call on Brendan several times to help with something I had in mind: a photograph of a tree in our old orchard with Euclid’s algorithm hanging over it like mist. Another layer of meaning. I remember my relief when Mona sent a photograph of the spread for that essay, relief that both Brendan’s work and the wonderful eye of designer Setareh Ashrafologhalai helped to bring my vision alive.

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My other children are in these pages too. Son Forrest, a historian, helped with the work of decoding a whole complicated knot of information about a squatters’ community in Drumheller in the early 20th century, the first place my grandmother lived when she came to Canada. My daughter Angelica is always the first person I ask about classical texts (she has an M.A. in Greek and Roman Studies and can read Latin with an impressive fluency). And my husband John, well, he makes so much of what I do possible. The beautiful young women who are the mothers of my grandchildren are also in these pages, entering the family story with grace and humour.

I dedicated Euclid’s Orchard to those grandchildren and my late parents. They bracket my specific time on earth and the stories in my book are theirs. Ours. No one knows when they might need to know something and when I was undergoing medical tests in the fall of 2016, I needed to know how the pieces of particular family stories fit together, both within our own ecology and also the larger picture. How a squatters’ community on the banks of the Red Deer River echoed much of the immigrant experience, the languages of loss and grief and deprivation. How a child dazzled by patterns and numbers might grow up in a family of dreamers and poets and how a mother might try to parse the meaning of those patterns late in life. How letters might be written to the dead.

Migratory, like monarchs, we find our own urgent way to a place where the sun and earth greet us, give us rest.We find our place among wild plants on a roadside, we hear beetles and the lazy drone of bees. If we sit on the grass and let the dry wind ruffle our hair, will the voices come to us again? — from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”