the days are beautiful

Last night I had trouble sleeping. The ugly events in the country to the south of my own filled my mind. Imagine even considering that it would be appropriate to take children from their parents, no matter how legal or illegal the parents’ attempts to cross the Mexico-US border might be. No one leaves a home country unless they are desperate. So imagine the difficulty and pain those parents have experienced already (and the stories are beyond terrible) and then imagine removing the children from their parents and putting them in cages. Imagine believing that somehow the Bible has decreed that this is just fine. Listening to privileged men and women suggest that it is within the realm of what’s humane to do this has made me so angry I could eat rocks. Spit fire.

And this only one event, one awful moment in a country’s devolution.

This morning John was outside deconstructing the little deck and two sets of stairs leading to our printshop, the home of our High Ground Press. He likes building projects and these steps and the deck are the last things that need replacing. He’s been pulling usable wood from storage under the printshop—some 2x6s used in a treehouse that was taken down years ago; some other bits and pieces. I was working at my desk when I thought it might be nice to have a cinnamon bun from the bakeshop on the Skookumchuck Trail. For years it was run by Lynn and Martin Mees and the baking was just wonderful. The cinnamon buns, brioche with blue cheese, small pizzas, huge cookies. And really good coffee. Lynn and Martin moved on to a new chapter and a young couple bought the bakeshop. I thought we could also go to the museum in Egmont where you’d find the best collection of chain saws and Easthope engines anywhere. And a scribbler from the old school at Doriston containing a child’s report on his or her own community, a place still remembered by some, including my friend Andrew Scott who wrote this about Doriston some years back. (He’s been to Doriston but I haven’t. Lucky him.)

The bakeshop was closed, still on spring hours (weekends only until July 1 when it opens 7 days a week). We crossed the road to the museum, mostly so John could ask about donating an old chain saw, and I saw the most beautiful small bentwood cedar boxes made by Shain Jackson. I bought one because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. It smells so rich and resiny and the abalone is soft to the thumb.

cedar frog

I wanted to take a photograph of the Egmont Community Hall for the project I am most emphatically not doing (a history of B.C.’s community halls). I’ll add it to the collection of materials I’ve been gathering about the halls in case someone else wants to take the project on. We’ve danced at weddings here, eaten small salmon sandwiches at funerals, and wandered in and out on Egmont Daze when hotdogs are free for kids and huge urns of coffee are steaming and the Thrift store upstairs is open for business.

Egmont Hall

What now, I asked, because I was hungry. Let’s see if the West Coast Wilderness Lodge is open, John replied. And it was, just. We were the first people there for lunch and we had the best seats in the room that is a wonder of the world. Old fir floors and a view of Jervis Inlet:

west coast wilderness lodge

Driving back along the Egmont Road, I stopped the car by North Lake to look at the beaver lodge right by the shore. A pair of yellow warblers must’ve had a nest in the hardhack growing beside the lodge because they kept darting in and out of the green depths and another male was singing in a snag nearby. And all over the surface of the lake along the road, white waterlilies—Nymphaea tetragona?—in bloom, like a moment out of Monet.

lilies on north lake

So sometimes the days are beautiful. You wake from broken sleep, you feel helpless and angry, you wonder how you can go on in a world that values lives so little that children would cry from cages while their parents were imprisoned elsewhere, and then you drive to Egmont where small wonders reveal themselves unexpectedly. Warblers, lilies, a frog with abalone eyes. If there was to be a soundtrack for the morning, it would be Michelle Shocked singing “Blackberry Blossom” because all along the Egmont Road the long thorny canes were holding blossoms up to the sun.

Can you tell me what happened to the blossom
Blackberry blossom when the summertime came?
The blackberry blossom, oh the last time I saw one
Was down in the bramble where I rambled in the spring.

blackberry blossom




“…we made campfires in rings of stones…”


A photograph arrived the other day, two grandchildren in new hats at an Alberta campsite, and it brought back memories of our summers, our camping trips, the scent of woodsmoke and the sting of mosquitoes. Time to pull out last year’s The Summer Book, an anthology of wonderful essays and reflections on sunlight and swimming and the passing of time.

The light is our clock. We talk quietly in bed, listening to the birds. In the night, there were loons, and we’re glad they’ve chosen the bay below us for nesting. One of us remembers a summer when the house was filled with children. Another remembers waking in the tent to face a day of house-building, framing and lifting walls, running out of nails, measuring and measuring again the bird’s mouth notches so that the rafters would rest snugly on the wall plates. One baby slept in a basket on the sleeping bag in the blue tent. (The others were still unborn, waiting to be dreamed into being.) One baby slept in a crib in the new wing of the house, in a room next to the one with bunk beds, while I walked in the garden in a cotton nightdress, coaxing the peas to attach themselves to wire. Three children didn’t sleep as the sun set later and later, long past bedtime, and we made campfires in rings of stones, sat on a cedar plank while the smoke rose to the stars. In the garden, the sundial (Grow Old With Me, The Best Is Yet to Come) was smothered by lemon balm.

—from “Love Song”, in The Summer Book, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017

the Museum of the Multitude Village

house plan

Looking for something else this morning, I found the plans John drew for the house we built almost 4 decades ago. I thought the plans were somewhere else but I wanted the file of information on our property, our well, and anything else that would help me remember the process of day-to-day building. I am working on something about my grandfather, using a file of receipts and scraps of paper related to the house he built in Beverly, Alberta, in 1946. I am also trying to find information on the house he might have grown up in, a house in the village of Ivankivtsi, near Kitsman, in what’s now Ukraine. I’m not sure I’ll find that house but down the rabbit hole of searching on the Internet, I came upon a site devoted something called Museum of the Multitude Village, located in Valyava, not too far from Ivankivtsi, and it seems to have been founded by a man called Vasily Kishkan, who was a writer. Here’s one of the exhibit rooms of the museum:

museum of the mutitude village

What does this mean? I’m not sure but maybe I’m on the trail of…something. In trying to reconstruct the process of building our house, of my grandfather building the house I took my granddaughter to over Easter, maybe I will be able to build something new that uses materials from both these constructions. Something durable, with an old comforting patina.

I see from the copy of the drawings John did for our house and then the additions we built in later years that the language of building is a language dense with meaning, if you need it to be.


I will have to determine the scale appropriate to this strange compulsion I have to find my grandfather’s life in two countries, or three, if you count the US, where he first arrived from Europe, and worked, before drifting to Alberta. And I will also have to figure out the code.

to code

Seeing this stamped on the plans reminded me that everything we did had to meet the building code and when we went to lumber yards or talked to plumbers or other tradespeople, the term, “to code”, came up so often that it lost its mysterious context and just became part of our regular speech. Is it to code? Has the code changed?

Yes, I think the code has changed but I’m determined to figure it out, at least with enough familiarity that I can understand what a museum of the multitude village might be.

“Tell me, who hung the hand-stitched stars on the wall?”

Yesterday, after lunch at the Laughing Oyster overlooking Okeover Arm, we took a little detour to Lund because John’s sister and her husband had never been to the end of Highway 101, the road we live on (though on its Sechelt Peninsula stretch). And there was the Lund Community Hall, on its last legs:

Lund community hall

Driving back to the ferry, I stopped the car by the Lang Bay Hall because it has been lovingly cared for (and therein lies a tale I’d love to hear):

lang bay hall

I’ve been to so many events at these old halls, weddings, funerals, the dances we call hippie stomps, political meetings, concerts. And as they disappear, so do these small but important histories. In an ideal world, I’d somehow organize myself to put together a book about the community halls of B.C. but I’m afraid that kind of editorial skill is not something I’ve been gifted with. If someone else took it on, I’d help. I even have several people lined up to contribute materials on halls they’ve loved and know well. I can’t help but think of Matt Rader’s beautiful poem, “Dove Creek Hall (Formerly Swedes’ Hall)”, with its heart-stopping final line:

                           All the Swedes who built this hall
Are dead now and the women they married are dead
And the pastor who married them and their friends.
But the children do not know this or just how sad
Beauty is on the last day of spring with instruments
And young players making music beneath the rafters.
They play along with mistakes and embarrassment.
Tell me, who hung the hand-stitched stars on the wall?
Who hung the evening light from the windows?


consider the ferns

lady fern and maidenhair

I want to write something about ferns because I’ve been looking at them quite carefully over the past week. A few years ago I lifted a clump of lady fern (Althyrium filix-femina) from a damp area near us, a place regularly mowed by the highways guys. There are so many ferns in that area, mostly maidenhair (you can see a little bit of maidenhair in the lower right section of this clump; it’s Adiantum pedatum, the specific name alluding to the bird’s foot or palmate shape of the leaves). And at this time of year, they’re so green and lush.

Everything has its time and right now it’s ferns. The sword ferns in the woods we walked in yesterday, the licorice ferns growing on the mossy trunks of big-leaf maples, the deer ferns sending up their fertile stalks. Even this little clump of maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) I brought back from the underside of a rock outcropping on a walk this winter:

maidenhair spleenwort

It’s been very hot the past few days and the ferns are cool. You walk among them and you realize that you are in the presence of plants that have been around for about 350 million years. They are so well-adapted. And full of lore. In Slavic countries, Kupala night is celebrated around June 24 or 25th, corresponding more or less with the summer solstice (this year occurring at 3:07 tomorrow morning where I live). The longest day. I think that some of the Kupala Night traditions revolve around fertility and that the heart of those traditions is the belief that ferns bloom on this one brief night. Young unmarried men and women go together to search for the flowering ferns. Of course ferns don’t flower. They reproduce via spores. But that shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

maidenhair fern

There’s a little grove of maidenhair ferns at the foot of the stairs leading to my front door. Again, they came from the place that gets mowed every year but the ferns return in abundance despite the blades. In the 13th Idyll of Theocritus, there’s a reference to maidenhair ferns:

Ere long he espied a spring; in a hollow it lay, whereabout there grew many herbs, as well blue swallow-wort and fresh green maidenhair as blooming parsley and tangled deergrass.

The swallow-worts are invasive vines (Cynanchum spp.). Deergrass, though? There’s a deergrass which is a bunchgrass native to the southwestern United States, a plant of dry areas. But deer fern maybe? There’s a lot of it growing at the bottom of our driveway, by a low marshy area where we hear frogs in spring. In winter, we see it nipped right back by deer and elk who graze on its succulent fronds. And right about now, the narrow fertile leaves are rising from the centres of the plants, just in time for Kupala Night or the Solstice, for the young to encounter on their moonlit walks in search of the flowering ferns.

“One cannot step twice…

northwest territories

…into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.” — Herakleitos of Ephesus, trans. Guy Davenport.

I am thinking of my father today, his difficult love. As I work on an essay about his father, I begin to understand him differently. What was held close for reasons I’m trying to fathom, what was withheld, too, and for what reasons.

Herakleitos on the Yalakom River, on the Cowichan, on the far-seeing MacKenzie when you were young, the Red Deer, all those waters changing as we changed—and were ever the same. All roads leading to them, and away.
—from “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, Euclid’s Orchard


it’s a long way from Clare to here

Does this happen to you? That you wake, knowing you dreamed of something deeply important, but you’ve forgotten what? How did you sleep, I asked John just before 7 and he replied, Not well; strange dreams. Given that he is experiencing a new health thing, I wasn’t surprised, but sort of sad, because sleep is the one time we can leave the daily worries and be transported. I knew I’d dreamed of something unsettling too but couldn’t remember just what.

Putting laundry into the washing machine, I found myself singing softly and I realized it was this song:

And then I remembered my dream. John and I were somewhere, don’t know where, and two guys were also there, obviously bored. Never mind, one of them said, we’ll just drive on to Galway. I was pierced, in the dream, and now, that someone could simply drive to Galway, a city I love and have spent a little time exploring. It was the nearest city to me when I lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland and sometimes I got to tag along with someone going there with fish or on other business. Later, in Ireland with my son Forrest in 2001 so I could research Irish history and revisit some special landscapes while I was writing A Man in a Distant Field, Forrest and I spent three nights in Galway. He was just finishing an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Toronto and he’d taken a course in Irish history and was full of information I’d never known. But I knew places and plants and another kind of history so I think we were a good pair that spring. We were blessed with weather. I think it rained the day we arrived in Dublin and it might have rained another day but mostly it was warm and sunny, ideal for following the Ordnance Survey Map I’d ordered from Kennys, a book store and art gallery in Galway, before flying to Ireland. I wrote about that trip in an essay, “Well”, in Phantom Limb, how we used the map to find (or not) sacred sites:

We didn’t see St. Patrick’s Well off the Maam Valley road, nor his bed a little further on. We drove as far as the path to that Well but then it led through a farm yard and the sign told us Do Not Enter. Later in our trip, we ignored the signs and ventured into Hoare Abbey, a field of beehive huts on the Dingle Peninsula, a grove on ogham stones on a private drive, but we hadn’t yet found the courage to climb the gate, and walk up the path, smoothed by centuries of travellers and believers.

near dingle

Forrest found a small map in Galway that took an interested person, or two of them, on a walking tour of medieval sites, many of them hidden in plain view. You looked up and saw a gargoyle, an oriel window, the hall of the Red Earl. We walked, parsing the streets in their layers of occupancy. Streets I’d walked and never thought to look up.

We went to places I’d been but had never known to look at with an historian’s eye. At Sellerna, this megalithic tomb:

at sellerna

The Kilmalkedar church on the Dingle Peninsula:


In my dream, this was all somehow in the atmosphere, that a person could simply go to Galway, or by extension, Ireland. But that person wasn’t me. I know I am mourning in a mild way the loss of our trip to Ukraine and London in September, wondering (perhaps) if we will be be able to plan such things again. Things happen. One day you are healthy and vigorous and another day you aren’t. And a song helps, or doesn’t. It’s a long long way from Clare to here, from Galway to here, from the village in Bukovina my grandfather left in 1907, maybe for good reason, maybe not. It’s part of a project I’m working on, a series of essays that might become a book. I didn’t think Ireland was part of it but, well, are dreams instructive? Was I being told to pay attention to where the heart longed towards?

We had to stop while John Smith drove his cattle to their evening pasture, him still in the black wellingtons with a familiar dog at the heels of the last wild-eyed heifer. He waved to us as though to anyone and for a moment I thought to call to him, asking him…but what? Where have the years gone, John Smith, that you are still with the cattle and I am driving with a son the age I was when I lived on the island we’ll see when we park the car and take our picnic to the sand.


Was I being told to at least look at old photographs and remember that ramble through narrow roads so overhung with fuchsias and hawthornes that we kept having to pluck blossoms from our clothing when we got into the car, or out of it.

I sometimes hear a fiddle play or maybe it’s a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean
It’s a long, long way, it gets further by the day
It’s a long way from Clare to here

the greens

the greens

I just went outside to get away from the news. I know I could turn the morning radio off and soon I will but it seems that world news is everywhere, dominated by a man who is ugly in body and soul. Yeats had it right when he noted that “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

So I went out to get away from the news and found solace in green. In 6 weeks, every spare corner of this particular world has filled with green. The big-leaf maples with their broad canopies, their moss-draped branches, the licorice ferns making small forests on the trunks. The salal. Douglas firs dropping so many pollen cones that every surface is dense with them. There’s a tub of salad greens by the sliding doors and I just pinched off some arugula, a few pebbled leaves of lacinato kale. My breakfast was strawberries purchased at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal on our return from a night in Vancouver to watch a production of “Peter Grimes” and the greens were a delicious footnote. And speaking of footnotes, I don’t grow strawberries any longer but I do let the wild ones grow on the paths in my vegetable garden.  There’s a wonderful moment in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book when Alice comments on how long it took to pick a small basket of wood strawberries for Gertrude Stein’s breakfast and that “young guests were told that if they cared to eat them they should do the picking themselves.” This would be a good time of year for grandchildren to visit because they could sprawl on the paths and feast on the tiny succulent berries but alas, they’re coming later in summer.

But we do grow greens, many different kinds. A solace. The world news is full of that awful man and the damage he leaves in his wake, his “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”,  but yesterday when we returned from Sechelt, late-ish because of appointments, I wondered what on earth I’d make for dinner. And then realized we could have pesto—a head of nearly-ripe garlic, a bowl of basil cut from its tub in a warm protected corner, a handful of parsley. DeCecco pappardelle, wide enough to hold the sauce. A glass (or two) of the most beautiful wine, Desert Hills Pinot Gris from a recent order. And a handful of strawberries for dessert. News turned firmly off.

pesto for supper

Euclid’s Orchard also contains roses

american pillar

The rose came from one of the annual spring plant sales at the Community Hall when we first lived here; you brought your box with you, and you got there early because everyone wanted the tomatoes or irises or Muriel Cameron’s dahlia tubers or bits of Vi Tyner’s roses. I’m not sure this one came from Vi Tyner, who did give me moss roses, a soft pink one and another one deeper pink in colour. But it grows everywhere—old homesteads, seaside gardens, along fences in semi-industrial areas as if remembering a former house, ancient care. It grows across from the Post Office in Madeira Park, for example, and I don’t know if it ever gets pruned or watered. And there’s a place on the highway, near Middlepoint, where one grew for years and years, until it was absorbed by the forest taking over the site of a cabin that I believed burned to the ground before we arrived in 1981. I’d thought a little about trying to identify it but somehow never did.

And somehow today was the day, so I took my rose encyclopedia and a cup of coffee out to the table and went through, page by page. Until I came to ‘American Pillar.’ Bred by Dr.Van Fleet in1902. A very prolific and widespread rose,and yes, it will survive any kind of neglect, it seems.

—from “Ballast”, in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017

new dawn

Some old wood, some new wood, said Daisy Harknett. So I cut pieces with both. I dipped the lower part of the wood in rooting hormone (though I could have used a tea of willow bark) and stuck them into little pots of soil. And now my New Dawns tumble over a beam, a pergola, and the front door of my house. The pear tree, with its heavy crop of honeyed fruit, is lost now forever, consigned to the same fire as the rotting fence posts, the stable door. Yet anyone who ate one of those beauties must surely remember the flavour. I took a bag of them to one of my classes at the University of Victoria in 1974 and handed them around to my classmates. The instructor, an Irish poet of some note, ate a couple of the pears in quick succession and said they were the best he’d ever tasted. Years later he published a memoir with ripe pears in the title, and although I haven’t read it, not yet, I’d like to think it might be an unconscious homage to Daisy’s pears.

— from “Ballast”, in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017

“…only searching for my roots.”

cheese strainer

One of the nudges that led me to believe I should and could visit Ukraine was William Kurelek’s book, To My Father’s Village. The book details Kurelek’s efforts to reach Borivtsi, the village his father left in 1923; the son’s journeys took place in the 1970s, the last in 1977, not long before he died too early of cancer. Borivtsi is not far from the village my grandfather left in 1907, eventually arriving in Canada a few years later. Looking at the wonderful drawings and paintings in Kurelek’s book gave me a sense of where at least one important node or rhizome of my own life began. The pigs and chickens, the garden implements, the last of the old thatched houses—these seemed to me to be coded messages, both invitations and sorrowful obituaries. This is also you, I read in the careful lines of the drawings; you need to know this because this is land where your dead lie waiting to be remembered.

We made plans to go in September. I’d arranged to be taken to my grandfather’s village for an afternoon. Arranged for someone in Chernivtsi to try to determine if family members still live in Ivankivtsi so that I could meet them. My older son Forrest studied the metrical records for the village a few years ago and I had some names—family names, of course, but also the names of the men who were my grandfather’s godparents, the name of the midwife who delivered him.

Wrapped around the trip to Ukraine, five days in Ottawa to meet a new grandchild due in late July, more than a week in London (and tickets to a performance of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Globe), the prospect of concerts, and rambling along Regent’s Canal.

We were so looking forward to this trip. Both of us have had some medical adventures over the past 18 months, strange encounters with mortality, and it seemed that we were finally out of the woods. But then a visit to the doctor the other day for what he thought was an inner ear situation resulted in John spending an afternoon in Emergency, hooked up to various machines and monitors. The short version is that he will be fine but we won’t be able to travel outside the country because our travel insurance wouldn’t cover what might happen. So he spent most of yesterday on the phone and online, cancelling all the arrangements he’d so carefully made. (He is the most amazing organizer and leaves nothing to chance.)

So we won’t be visiting my grandfather’s village. Not this year. I might be able to go next year if all goes well at home. But time and health are too precious to jeopardize at this point. And love is too precious to squander, which is what traveling alone would feel like. I take solace in Kurelek’s efforts to reach his ancestral home, the gardens and storms and houses where his family began. His trips took place during the Soviet years and it seemed that everything conspired to keep him from actually arriving. Visas, roads, recalcitrant bureaucracy…For us, it’s something more physiological, a heart valve that wants to flutter instead of beating steadily. The right medication will help the valve to do what it should be doing. It just needs time.

There are hints in To My Father’s Village of my own story. “Kurelek’s father came to Canada following a visit to Borivtsi by a member of the Cunard Shipping Line.” A few years ago I read a book about immigration from Bukovina (and unfortunately when I changed computers, the file I kept didn’t travel to the new computer; I’ll have to do some sleuthing to find that source again) that mentioned my grandfather’s village specifically and detailed the numbers of men who left in a wave before the First World War. They didn’t leave because hings were good at home. They didn’t leave because they wanted to, necessarily. They were poor and hungry and they came for a better life. That improved life sometimes skipped a generation. Or two. In some ways I am the beneficiary of that sacrifice.

Maybe we can both go next year or maybe it will be me, maybe even in the company of one of my children. And in the meantime. there is so much to be grateful for. Immediate and good health care, a doctor who called last night to make sure all is well, the love of our children who rallied around their father with phone calls and texts, and the prospect of a trip to Ottawa to meet that grandchild as planned. (Health insurance will be valid for that!)

On Kurelek’s last visit to Borivtsi, he went to the fields to paint and a child found him with his face in the dirt. “I’m alright,” Kurelek assured him. “I’m only searching for my roots.”