“What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

two women, postcard Czernowitz Hauptstrasse 16, Atelier Riveria

A couple of months ago, on a Sunday, I was making dinner and listening to Writers and Company on the CBC. The host Eleanor Wachtel was interviewing Philippe Sands, a British/French lawyer with a specialty in international law. The conversation was interesting and I was glad to be listening as I prepared vegetables, checked the roasting chicken. It was when Sands said the word Lviv that my ears really pricked up.

He went on to talk about the background for his book East West Street, an account of his attempts to trace his family story within the historical context of WW11 and the larger story of the Nuremberg trial. Maybe I forgot something important for the meal because I couldn’t move from where I stood as I listened.

As soon as the interview ended, I ordered East West Street and it’s been waiting for me to open it. Which I did, yesterday. During a cloudy period, after transplanting arugula seedlings and weeding the garlic bed, I sat in our living room and entered a world I know I will remember forever. Because in a way it’s my world. My family background, unlike Sands’, is not Jewish; my Ukrainian grandfather was Eastern Orthodox (I guess). But like Sands, I grew up not knowing the family secrets. And how prescient the epigraph for East West Street: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” This is taken from an essay, “Notes on the Phantom”, by the French psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham. (And of course I’ve ordered his book.) At the beginning of East West Street, after receiving an invitation to give a lecture on the origins of international law to students at the university in Lviv, Sands spends time with his mother looking through two old briefcases filled with his maternal grandfather’s papers.

the moirs box

I thought of the Moirs Happiness Package. I found this in my parents’ apartment after they’d died and I brought it home with me, along with an assortment of materials I’d never known about. There’s not much—some photographs of unknown women, my grandfather’s travel papers and his army book, two rosaries— but in a way what I have has filled me with a fierce desire to piece together my grandfather’s story. In the Moirs Happiness Package is a small photocopied map of Bukovina, the province my grandfather came from, and so I know my father must have wondered about his father, wondered if a map would help him to figure out things about the place and its history. But that was as far as he went. I know a little more than he knew and in the way that these things work, I’ve already booked a trip to Ukraine in September and the final city of my travels there will be Lviv. So this book, right now, is the book I need to read. Philippe Sands explores Lviv with three maps: “…modern Ukrainian (2010), old Polish (1930), ancient Austrian (1911).” I will take the little map my father used and try to locate a cadastral map as well. I’ve given a researcher in Chernivtsi other details—names and dates from the parish records kindly decoded for me by my son Forrest—in the hope that there might be people remaining who are related to me (my grandfather left in 1907).

One thing that Sands finds in his grandfather’s briefcases is a Fremdenpass, or a travel pass. In the Moirs Happiness Package, I also found one of these:

his travel paper

A small object, stained and brittle, but I hope it will help me to travel backwards, across water, across the Carpathians, to a village where a midwife named Rosalia Inravschi delivered my grandfather in 1879. Going back, we find ourselves waiting, waiting, for the moment when the maps show us everything, the gaps between then and now, every season unfolding and the years opening for us, including us in the old family story.

this morning

In my bed this morning, drinking my first cup of coffee, this was what I looked out on:

view from my bed

This is the dog rose (it used to be simply the root stock of an alba pillar but it took over and I’m happy to let it run wild) where I once saw a weasel peering in at me, surprised. I haven’t seen weasels since the cat Winter came out of the woods to live with us. Winter, who left half a bat at the sunroom door this morning—just its face and wing. And this is rose from the weasel’s perspective:

dog rose where I once saw a weasel

How is it that a rose can smell cool? This one does. Sweet and cool, as though it remembers its wild state. We have another Rosa canina I found up the mountain on one of our walks, easily identifiable as neither R. nutkana or a R. gymnocarpa, and I planted it in a mossy private area where our old dog Tiger liked to sleep. (How did it get there? Up the mountain, I mean? One of the mysteries, like the provenance of the tiny oaks I’ve found growing along our lower driveway, not Garry oaks but white oaks of some kind I think, and maybe the result of stored acorns left by squirrels. Or? I’ve brought them home and have them in various places.)

I love this time of year for its promise. The honeysuckle by the kitchen door:

just about

For the table on the deck in the cool air:

quiet table

For the optimism of tomatoes strung up in their pots:

strung up

I am puzzling my way through some material for a long essay, maybe a book, and it’s good to have the world at my window, my doorways. To remember Kobayashi Issa, in Robert Hass’s translation:

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms

Our cherry blossoms are long gone but everything else is burgeoning. Time to go outside to bury my face in roses. They don’t last long, giving way to long elegant hips that brighten the fall, but wait, that’s months away. And there’s still honeysuckle to come, and tomatoes, and many dinners on that waiting table.

Watering the Melba

Yesterday this photograph arrived from Ottawa, with the caption, “Watering the Melba”:

watering the melba

These two young men are very dear to me. The taller one is my son. He was two years ago when we had land cleared below our house for an orchard. He and his younger brother, then an infant (and now a mathematician), sat in their car seats in our old brown pickup truck when we went to buy apple trees from Mike Poole on Norwest Bay Road in Sechelt.

Those first trees—bought from a man who collected heritage varieties and had an apple tasting weekend at his orchard on Norwest Bay Road in West Sechelt: we tasted, then ordered a Melba, a Golden Nugget, a Cox’s Orange Pippin. The trees were tiny, and we planted them reverently, shrouding them in old gillnet salvaged from the dump.

The Melba was my favourite. I loved sitting on the big flat rock under the mature tree, gorging on its fruit. When we finally gave up on our orchard and when John arranged for someone to come and clear out the underbrush to create a firebreak as a sort of insurance against what we fear most during the long hot summers that have come with climate change, he asked the guy to work around the Melba. But maybe the guy misunderstood or maybe he didn’t care. Our Melba is gone, and so is the Cox’s Orange Pippin, though I think the Golden Nugget is still there. I don’t go down there anymore because it makes me sad though in truth it’s been ages since we’ve able to count on any fruit because of the way elk, deer, and bears have damaged the trees. Gillnet, strands of wire, strands of wire with an electric current, chicken wire—the animals found a way through.

I was curious this morning to read a bit more about Melbas. My first thought when the photograph arrived yesterday was that Ottawa might be too cold for what I think of as a delicate tree. But this is what I found out on a site devoted to heritage apples:

Melba was developed in 1898 by the Central Experiment Farm in Ottawa, Canada, and introduced commercially in 1909. Lightly sweet with a hint of tartness, Melba’s fine, white flesh and thin skin give it a pleasing crispness, and it is good for both fresh eating and cooking. Its skin is yellow to lime in color, with streaks and blushes of pink and red.

Melba’s parents are McIntosh and Liveland Raspberry. Also known as Lowland Raspberry or Red Cheek, Liveland Raspberry is an early season apple that originated in the Lithuanian province of Lievland. Now rare, it was introduced into the United States in 1883. While McIntosh contributes to Melba’s fragrant, sweet-tart flavor, Liveland Raspberry influences its early ripeness, and supplies its tender flesh and thin skin.

The younger man in the photograph is my grandson, who is two, the same age his father was when we brought home our Melba. In “Ballast”, in Euclid’s Orchard, I wrote, “I’m interested in how plants travel, how they are carried to new places, how they are botanical palimpsests, in a way. And how they hold stories,some plain and true, and some cryptic.” The first thing I thought of when I woke this morning was the Melba in Ottawa, newly planted, newly watered, with a young family to care for it (another grandson is anticipated in July) and to enjoy its beautiful fruit.


pipe band

For more than a few years, we’ve been away over the May long weekend. Last year it was to Edmonton where we helped Brendan and Cristen replace a porch and build a deck under a leafy maple in one corner of their Strathcona yard. For several years before that, it was to Ottawa to help Forrest and Manon build a deck, then a pergola the next year to provide support for grape vines to shade their summer dinners.

But for the first, oh, twenty years we lived here, we always went to the May Day parade in Madeira Park. When I was a child, my mum always took us to the Victoria parade and it went on for ages—every school band in the city and maybe even the province marching, floats, old cars, banners, clowns throwing candy, and is it just my imagination or was it always hot? My mum never bought us pop or cotton candy and we’d walk home afterwards, cranky and sun-burnt.

The Pender Harbour parade was always just long enough. A single marching RCMP officer in parade dress, a single band (a pipe band, with one black piper with dreadlocks providing the only diversity in those days), a couple of floats, kids on bikes with crepe paper threaded through the spokes, the volunteer fire crew sounding the sirens as they drove the firetruck, hoses spraying those unlucky enough to be within range. And yes, throwing candy. Some years the snow plow would be festooned with balloons. One year an eccentric woman marched alone, a hood covering her head, a papier mâché head carried under her arm, and a sign on her back reading, “Ann Boleyn can be found at the library.” After the parade, everyone went to the school field where a May Pole waited for the dance. And there was a basketball tournament my son Brendan waited for. Booths with games my daughter loved. Cotton candy. A beer garden adjacent to the barbeques set up by the local fishermen and where a plate of halibut and potato salad cost 5 bucks. You saw everyone you knew there. Grown children came back for the parade and the dance that evening.

This year we’re home. And Angelica is here. When John picked her at the seaplane yesterday, she asked if we could go to the parade. So we did. It hasn’t changed much, apart from the fact that old cars opened it, vintage ones I guess you’d call them, and then the lone RCMP officer who had to stamp in place for a bit as people took pictures of the old cars. One or two more floats. Fewer kids on the May Queen float because the demographic of this small community has shifted. Fewer young families and more retired people. But we bought fudge and watched the little kids next to us scramble for candy tossed by the firefighters. There was even a Volvo driven by an older couple who’d somehow entered the fray inadvertently and were simply driving ahead of the last float, trying to find their way out of the procession.  And I remembered every other parade, or maybe just one (because they were all so similar), the one where the playschool kids were dressed as Care Bears and the mothers had to paint a backdrop of trees and bears or maybe the one where the kids were a school of fish and we had to make cardboard fish for them to hang from their shoulders with suspenders. One year, when Angelica was in grade 6, she rode the May Queen float as one of the attendants. And it meant work for the mothers. I was writing about bears then, a long essay, “month of wild berries picking”, and I used the occasion as a postscript.

It’s nearing the long weekend when my daughter will join girls of her age to ride on a parade float as queens and princesses of May in our community. For this they need dresses, or gowns really, and a willing group of mothers to help plan and decorate the float.

My daughter’s gown is finished, a blue so true to nature that I keep seeing it around me—in the opening buds of pulmonaria and scilla, the intense spring sky, the carpet of a flower I’m not familiar with in an abandoned homestead by Sakinaw Lake where we go to collect long lengths of ivy to garland the sides of the flatbed truck that the mothers are transforming into a spring grove for their daughters.

The bear has been around this spring. We haven’t seen him yet although the dogs have been barking and running into the woods in the early mornings and we’ve seen the piles of excrement on our walks for the past two weeks. I’ve been studying them, wondering at the diet of the bear, how he can sustain himself on grasses and what appear to be shoots of thimbleberry and primeval horsetails. Wondering too, when I find piles on the trail that is one of our property boundaries, whether he was entering out woods or leaving them when he left his mark.

—from “month of wild berries picking”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)

Today, watching the girls on the boat trailer their mothers had turned into a pirate ship, Angelica said, I remember that we were shown how we had to wave. Like this…” and she slowly passed her hand back and forth, like a young queen. For a moment, I was there in that time of wild berries, bears, draping ivy over the plastic lawn chairs arranged on a fern-strewn truck bed, imagining the girls enacting again the spring rituals of gowns and flowers, anticipating the dance.

may queens


this year

I’ve just been mowing grass and thinking about memory. In a way, grass mowing is an act of memory. You can just let your muscles remember how to coax the mower over the rough ground (we don’t exactly have a “lawn”; we have cleared areas that have accumulated moss and wild grasses and drifts of oregano, so beloved by bees…), you watch for rocks, sleeping snakes, but mostly your mind drifts. You remember all the springs you’ve dragged a mower across the grass, though to be honest it’s usually John who does the mowing. You remember the old vegetable garden, before the septic field gave up and had to be rebuilt, giving you the opportunity to lay out proper raised boxes in a fixed geometry, with paths between them. The old garden had beds that continued to sink, no matter how much seaweed and manure and alfalfa you added to them over the seasons.

One reason I’ve been thinking about memory is because I’ve read several accounts of how scientists have supposedly transplanted memory from one California sea hare (a hermaphrodite sea snail) to another. The experiment involved implanting wires into the snail tails, giving them electrical shocks, inducing a defensive action, then transferring RNA, or Ribonucleic acid (one of the 3 biological macromolecules necessary for life),  via injection, to another snail, where it seems the sensitivity to the electrical prod had been transferred. (Snails who were wired but not shocked did not transfer the sensitivity to the animal receiving RNA.)

Not everyone is convinced that memory is being transferred in this process. In an article in the Guardian, I read this:

Tomás Ryan, who studies memory at Trinity College Dublin, is firmly unconvinced. “It’s interesting, but I don’t think they’ve transferred a memory,” he said. “This work tells me that maybe the most basic behavioural responses involve some kind of switch in the animal and there is something in the soup that Glanzman extracts that is hitting that switch.”

But Ryan added that radical thinking about memory was sorely needed: “In a field like this which is so full of dogma, where we are waiting for people to retire so we can move on, we need as many new ideas as possible. This work takes us down an interesting road, but I have a huge amount of scepticism about it.”

I don’t know, tell me I’m wrong, but this kind of experimentation seems excessive. Why on earth should we be tampering with memory, any organism’s memory? Surely that’s a profoundly disrespectful trespass. Imagine how it could be used in the future (remembering how the tendency to exploit life-forms for the sake of science has been a hallmark of our species). I can imagine researchers making an argument for transplanting or removing memory from humans who have suffered terrible trauma and you might say there’s justification for this in order for those individuals to live lives without that particular suffering but who would decide? Who would be ultimately responsible for determining what memories should be removed and from whom?

In the meantime California sea hares are being wired and shocked and injected in order to make room for new research ideas, “radical  thinking about memory.”

Last night we watched the pair of coyotes in what remains of our orchard and after they left, we watched a black bear sow, possibly the same one we saw last year, and the year before, with her two cubs. I’ve read that bears have quite sophisticated memory maps that allow them to move across a landscape feeding from remembered and reliable food sources. It’s what brings them down from the berry patches to the salmon streams year after year and to our orchard in years past for the apples and pears. I think this mother is helping her cubs to develop their own maps but is probably puzzled by how the orchard has changed. Last May this mother, if it’s the same one, urged her yearling up onto the second story deck where we grow our tomatoes and the young one dragged several big pots down the stairs before realizing there was nothing in them to eat. Not yet. And was it the mother who encouraged the yearling to drag down the mason bee house above the tomato plants tucked against a warm wall?

Right this minute I can hear a robin singing the long beautiful salmonberry song, as complicated and beautiful as a partita. In the moment is every time I’ve heard it, something deep and complicated, not easily transferred via injection to anyone else. Taken. I think of Gary Snyder’s beautiful sequence, “Little Songs for Gaia”, some of them I remember almost perfectly, each of them observant and alert to the paradoxes of being alive at this point in the history of the planet:

The stylishness of winds and waves—
nets over nets of light
reflected off the bottom
nutcracker streaks over,

Nature calls,
bodies of water
tuned to the sky.

“Find a need and be filled by it.”

“…we can’t help growing older.”

“O day after day we can’t help growing older.
Year after year spring can’t help seeming younger.
Come let’s enjoy our winecup today,
Nor pity the flowers fallen.” —Wang Wei (Tang Dynasty poet, c. 699-759)

just now

This May is warm and beautiful. Today, driving back from errands and lunch in Sechelt, the thermometer in our car read 24° until we reached the hill above Sakinaw Lake and then it read 27°. I am watching the tomato plants grow by the minute. And the purple tomatillos I planted, the ones that sulked for weeks, are also shooting up. Beans are green and vigorous, the kale is, well, everywhere (because it seeds itself so happily and prolifically), and the first rose is out, a Madame Alfred Carrière, soft blush pink, almost white. Last night a friend came for dinner and we sat out in the falling light and he wondered what we’d done with our orchard. Looking down the bank from the deck, he could see what I try not to think about: an area scraped clear of salal and spindly cedars, both of which had encroached upon the old area of grass, moss, and fruit trees. Some of the trees had been broken by bears. And with the shift in our climate, with the long dry weeks of summer that were once rare but now seem to be the norm, John has been increasingly concerned about fire. He wanted a cleared area to act as a fire-break if the woods ever did burn. He arranged for a guy with a machine to come and do stuff I didn’t want to know about.

Our friend has been coming here for more than 30 years. He noticed all the lovely things—the faint birdsong, the wisterias in full and glorious bloom, the clematis fully recovered after the willow that supported it died and fell, taking the vine down with it. We watched blue orchard mason bees and paper wasps and drank wine as the air cooled once the sun went down. Overhead the various wind-chimes sounded their own music of shells, wood, and copper, all animated by the evening air.

I woke in the night, wondering how to allow myself to acknowledge the actual space where our orchard was. I try not to look at the bare ground when I stand on the deck overlooking that area. Last month, I refused to go down to smell the stray blossoms on a stunted pear, a stubborn Melba apple. But life is too short and too precious to turn away from what I’ve loved and what changed. As I’ve changed. As everything changes.

I did go once or twice over winter when various family members were here and wanted fires to roast marshmallows. Henry and Kelly helped John pile more sticks on the fire; Arthur too a few months later. It’s a different place. Maybe that’s the way to think of it, populated by others now—we saw a pair of coyotes trot across the cleared space in February, scouting out territory for their own family, at that point still unborn.


This morning I woke to the most generous review of Euclid’s Orchard. It has received lovely attention from people I know and some I don’t know and so it’s somehow easier to try to adjust to what is. What was has been recorded and loved. And now it’s time to make peace with the new possibilities of clear space, a few old trees, the delicate feet of others testing the ground, its potential, its seclusion.

“…of origins”

mum on gonzales beach
Mum on Gonzales Beach, with Dan

Under Cape Breton’s rocky soil, under the parks in Halifax with their views of the sea, the sound of gulls, of commerce, of pianos and fiddles from open windows, under the earth the buried creeks hide their secrets. And you can hear something, a murmuring, a rill of original water, of origins, of fish in their lost habitats, eels, amphibians entering their dark waters, and in memory, birds at the vanished banks, their beaks poised, and secrets, secrets, my mother’s buried history in the damp ground where water longs for the sky.

                    —from “Tokens”, in Euclid’s Orchard