I came downstairs by the (almost) sturgeon moon

In two days the moon will be full, the sturgeon moon. We haven’t seen anything of the sky for nearly two weeks because of wildfire smoke. The whole province (and Alberta, too, I think) was hazy with it. On Wednesday we drove as far as Roberts Creek on errands and I don’t think I’ve ever seen or smelled more smoke in our part of the world. But this morning, no, yesterday morning (because it’s going on 3:00 a.m. as I sit at my desk, restless) we woke to clear air, a breeze, and when we swam, it was the lake I smelled, clean and cool. When I came downstairs half an hour ago, the stairs were bright with  moonlight. Looking out the window at the top of the stairs, I saw Ursa Major stretched above the printshop and it made me wonder if the bears will come for the crabapples on one of these late August nights. And passing through the living room, I saw the moon in the southern sky briefly through a particular lens, one of the orbs on the hanging window that June Malaka made, and for a moment it was like the eerie sun we’ve been seeing first thing, dark orange in its haze of particulate. But beautiful now because it was red glass that was giving it its colour.

june's glass
this is the glass in daylight

It is good to have clear air again. The last couple of days have been so hot and smokey and when I read this article in The Narwhal yesterday, I encountered the word “solastalgia” with a kind of deep familiarity, though it was the first time I ever read it. It was coined by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher, about 15 years ago, a portmanteau word containing “solace” and “nostalgia” and it means, more or less, the feelings of distress associated with environmental change close to home. A homesickness for what you’ve always known and loved as it changes or is adversely affected by climate change.

When I was a child, I remember my father taking me—or us? Were my brothers also with me?—to a quiet eddy of the Fraser River near Matsqui where a man had just brought in a sturgeon while fishing on the banks. Others were gathered there to witness the fish. Am I imagining it or did some of them poke it with their feet? There was reverence but also bravado, particularly on the part of the victor. The white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, is a beautiful fish, with barbels on the snout, and they can live to be something like 150 years old. They have survived two ice-ages but their populations are under threat from the usual array of anthropogenic changes to their habitat such over-fishing, degradation of the fresh water and estuaries important to their life cycle. Certain populations (the Nechako for example) are considered “critically imperiled”. I read of a famous sturgeon near Lillooet called Pig Nose (named for an injury to his snout) who’s been caught repeatedly and released and this is always a big moment for the fisher who hooks him. Pig Nose is more than 10 feet long. Lots of photographs and some microchipping before he’s allowed to swim free. And this is considered somehow “conservation” — to participate in the “sport” of tormenting a huge fish, of fighting it with a rod and line, before letting it go. It’s an aspect of humanity I don’t understand.

So in two days, the sturgeon moon. More swims in the cool morning. The fires still rage. There’s no real rain in the forecast. This time next week I’ll be in Ottawa, holding my new grandson (finally) and reading to his brother. My solastalgia is for the whole planet and all its inhabitants, those in far cities and those in rivers. Those haunting the moonlit woods, hungry for apples, and that little girl on the banks of the Fraser, with her father, still in his 30s, never imagining she would never see one of those fish again in her life.

“How much – how little -“

We live in smoke. The wildfires rage throughout the province and a dense haze muffles the world. Changes it, makes it eerie and dangerous. Familiar landmarks are hidden (Mount Hallowell behind us, the rise of Texada Island to the west). Yesterday, after John filled the bird bath, five purple finches arranged themselves around the water, dipping, drinking, cleaning themselves. We never see finches around our house, though I know others have them regularly. Ravens have been hanging around, muttering, and the day before yesterday, one coyote was eating an old corn tortilla I tossed out for the birds just about 10 feet from the back door. Another one loped by my study window. The balance has shifted, altered.

I don’t know what to say about the world. It burns, a madman rages to the south of us, floods carry people to their deaths.

Instead, I cut out and prepared a quilt top to work on once it’s cooler. I catch up on work at my desk. And watering orchids yesterday, I saw this beautiful new frog on one leaf. It’s there still, wise face and still body. Like me, it’s waiting.


Yesterday a friend who came to lunch brought a gift of Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, the brief gnomic messages she wrote on the backs of envelopes later in her life. There is stillness in these, and such power. Last night I read them, looking for hope—for the earth, for everything unsettled and troubled. And did I find it?

In    this        short        Life
that     only      lasts an hour
How    much –    how
little –   is
within  our

N.B. I can’t get the poem to retain its format. Think of it forming a triangle, like the flap of an envelope.

“we’ll do the best we know…”

firewood gate2
An hour ago, while swimming, I caught a thread of autumn in the morning air. That slightly winey scent of leaves, a riffle of cool breeze unheard of a week ago when there was sun on the sand at 8:30. Maybe I noticed it because earlier I’d been reading the Autumn section of Bruce Hutchison’s A Life in the Country with my first cup of coffee. I’ve always loved his books and I found this copy at the Friends of the Sechelt Library book sale a few weeks ago. 2 bucks. It’s an elegant memoir of the author’s home-building in North Quadra near Victoria (the same neighbourhood my parents lived in), garden-making, renovations at the cabin he owned at Shawnigan Lake. He wrote so elegantly and beautifully of the dailiness of keeping a place intact, of welcoming visitors, of the strange and wonderful cast of characters who peopled his world. But back to Autumn. His meditations on the woodshed rang a familiar bell.
….If, occasionally, our politicians turned from rhetoric to reality and grasped an axe instead of a debating point or photo opportunity much social damage might be avoided.
   For those who can read its message, the woodshed rebukes such errors. Neatly piled (a high skill in itself), the contents, unlike all paper assets and printed money, are real wealth, an honest measure of value never diminished by the legal counterfeiting known as inflation. And when the chopper inspects the drying wood for next spring’s fire, he must be a little surprised by his own morality. His work, his sweat, his muscle and ache have created that wealth, or at least preserved it. He has asked no wages and he has toiled while his guests revelled in summer idleness.
   There is a darker side to the lesson of the woodshed. A moral chopper should ask himself what right he has to nature’s generosity when multitudes of human beings are cold in winter and hungry in all seasons. A nice question, especially for Canadians who, possessing a transcontinental treasure, grossly mismanage it by defying the woodshed principle.
   The moral question remains, and it has baffled philosophers of every faith since mankind left its caves—how much of nature’s yield does any nation or individual deserve? What volume of wealth are we entitled to hoard for our own use in woodshed or written contract?
We burn a lot of wood over the fall, winter, and spring. We buy some now that we’re past middle age and we cut what we can on our own land. We’re eyeing the dead young cedars, victims of two years of hot dry summers, and once it’s safe to take a saw into the woods, we’ll spend some time taking down what we can. When our older son visits in October, he may be conscripted for some woodcutting too. It’s good work, if hard on the muscles. But it also makes you grateful for a warm fire made with logs you’ve cut, split, and stacked yourself. Last year, in November, we had a load of dry pitchy fir delivered to supplement what we’d brought in ourselves. And the delivery coincided with two things: an emergency surgical procedure for John; and the visit of our Edmonton family. While he convalesced, I stacked wood in the shed; and Cristen, Kelly, and Henry filled the woodbox and kindling bucket in the porch as needed. Mostly John does these jobs and it was good for the rest of us to take them on, to know the luxury of a fire afterwards.
Yesterday was the first day of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved since the beginning season, 14 years ago, with a break of a couple of years in the middle. It’s always a fabulous weekend of intimate chamber music in the most beautiful setting—a restored Forestry building on a little hill above the harbour, surrounded by big trees. The opening event was this year’s Rising Tide, our annual celebration of young performers; the concert is a gift to the community. We were treated to a programme ranging from John Dowland to Leonard Bernstein. It was during the duet “Make Our Garden Grow”, from Bernstein’s operetta Candide, that I reached for my husband’s hand and squeezed it. It was our life, in a way, in the way that music can reach into your heart, play it as deftly as any instrument, in the words of Richard Wilbur, the poet who wrote the lyric for this particular version of the libretto:
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

another postcard, the stray apple, after weeks without rain


I know that apples don’t come true from seed. Blossom from a Merton Beauty, say, is pollinated by an insect bearing reciprocal pollen from another apple—here,it would be a crabapple—and although the resulting apples would be true to their tree, their seeds would be the children of the Merton Beauty and the crabapple. One in ten thousand of those seeds might produce something worth eating. Who are the parents of this stray apple tree? It started growing before the Merton Beauty began its small production of fruit. Did this tree sprout from a seed spit over the side of the deck or excreted by birds or even seeds from the compost into which I regularly deposited cores and peelings from apples given us by friends in autumn? Belle of Boskoops from Joe and Solveigh, for instance, which make delectable fall desserts and cook up into beautiful chutney. Or else a seed from the few rotten apples from the bottom of a box bought from the Hilltop Farm in Spences Bridge, their flavor so intense you could taste dry air, the Thompson River, the minerals drawn up from the soil, faintly redolent of Artemesia frigida. This stray is all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance, its unknown parents, and its uncertain future, for it grows out of a rock cleft, on a dry western slope.

—from Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

“Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms.”

morning swim

Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This has a wonderful post this morning, a review of Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth. It’s a book I’d like to read, and will. I’ve been reading books about water lately, about swimming, about various kinds of immersion. Jessica Lee’s Turning: A Swimming Memoir was so beautiful and so brave that I began to plot ways of swimming in winter. Wait, I do swim in winter, though in a pool, not the lakes Jessica has found near Berlin, where she lives. I swim daily in Ruby Lake from June to late September and then it’s the Pender Harbour Aquatic Centre, where my children learned to swim more than 30 years ago, and where the lifeguards do their best to save my lane for me, the one closest to the big windows and on the side of the pool because otherwise I can’t keep straight.

I’ve been revising a long essay on rivers and the venous system, mostly because it keeps getting rejected and I return to it with a nervous eye, wondering what to do to make it something more attractive to readers. I loved writing the early drafts. I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before, not in prose, so I used both margins to justify different parts of the text. I wanted the typography to echo the text. I wanted the text to meander on the page as a river meanders through a landscape and our veins and arteries carry our blood through our bodies. (Writing this description, or justification, I realize how this might be the reason no one wants to publish it. It looks odd. It uses space in an unexpected way. But who wants to keep doing the same old, same old?)

Here’s a little of the essay, a section justified to the right margin (though some sections move back and forth between margins, as a swimmer moves through water):

8. Deep Venous drainage system

The fibular vein. Anterior tibial vein. Posterior tibial vein. The three become the popliteal vein at the knee; and then that vein enters the thigh, via a passageway called the adductor canal, as the femoral vein. These are the veins where the thrombosis formed, a clot poised like a temporary island, breaking free, travelling into my pulmonary system where it lodged as an embolism, threatening my heart.

My heart never knew it was threatened. My heart grew large with love that time, in anticipation of a third grandchild, surrounded by other family members, hearing their voices, sitting with them at the long table we’d eaten at for more than three decades. My heart, unaware, as I tried to catch my breath. It never knew it was threatened. It was filled with love, it was heavy with love.

And other minor veins drain into the femoral vein, like small creeks. The femoral vein graciously receives its tributaries as rivers receive theirs, the threads of mountain courses, of run-off, of bog-dark sweet creekwater, limestone, gritty, clear as mirror glass, dense with salmon, lively with mayflies and dragonflies catching fire, of rivulets, right-bank, left-bank, forked, streamlet, greater saphenous vein, which usually receives the external pudendal vein as well as the superficial epigastric vein, and the superficial circumflex iliac vein.

When I go for my swim at the local pool, I see the older women whose class is finishing just as I enter the water for my laps. They are thin, large, stooped, high-stepping, and lame. On their legs, the story of their lives thus far. Varicose veins, spider veins, venous insufficiency, superficial phlebitis, swellings and dark bruisings, lymphedema: some of them use walkers or canes to help them into and out of the water, to the hot-tub where they are helped down the stairs. But in the pool—sometimes I arrive early enough to see this—they raise their arms, they float, they are light as birds in the clear water while gentle music plays and the instructor leads their movements from the walkway at the edge. In the hot-tub after, their heads above the warm froth, they are beautiful, talking among themselves as the music continues and I swim my laps, listening to them.

…listen to your suppliants voice, come, and benignant in these rites rejoice;
Give plenteous Seasons, and sufficient wealth, and pour; in lasting streams, continued Health.

Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms. Join us, one of them says, smiling, using her cane to walk unsteadily to the change room. My own legs are uncertain rivers, uncertain streams, their courses changing, islands forming of my own blood, its platelets and fibrins turned semi-solid.



a year later

what's new

This morning, because it’s cooler and I don’t have to rush out to water everything that droops, shrivels, or turns brown overnight, I was looking at posts from this time last year. In a way, my blog is my journal. Between it and my datebook, I am able to keep track of what happened when. On this day last year, my publisher Mona Fertig sent me two photographs of the advance proof copy of Euclid’s Orchard. I wrote about that here. As I’ve said before, it was a book I hadn’t expected to write. Or at least I hadn’t expected it to come together quite so quickly. I’m very glad it did. I’m very glad the reasons I wrote most of it—facing a potentially devastating health issue—have resolved themselves. The year leading up to Euclid’s Orchard‘s publication was filled with appointments and tests and the year leading away from it had some of those but also the relief that comes with knowing that the thing I dreaded was almost certainly not going to happen. At least not yet.

reading copy

It was a good year, this past one. My book took me to various places for readings and festivals. People wrote reviews and letters with such generosity. My book took me to the B.C. Book Prizes Gala because of its place on the Hubert Evans Award shortlist and that was fun. Some of the writing has led me to new work and for that I’m grateful. This is one of the best things about the essay form: it can be truly open-ended and you don’t have to think of it as “finished”.  It turns out “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” was only the beginning of the stories I was listening to in the night as I came down to my desk to work during those weeks of waiting to learn if I had metastatic lung cancer. I’d sit in the dark with only the glow of my laptop light and the tiny desk lamp to one side and feel the presence of my father’s family around me. There is no logical way to explain this and I won’t but it was a source of comfort and now that I know a little more about them, I want to  explore their lives. In “West of the 4th Meridian”, there’s a line from Ovid’s Tristia, the letters he wrote in exile in Tomis: “I wish to be with you in any way possible.” To this end, I’m reading books about the Holodomor, about the politics of early 20th c. Ukraine, about the waves of emigrants who came to North America any way that they could. I want to find out who this woman was, the tiny image that was part of my grandfather’s archive. She is somehow familiar.

single woman

Time and the essay are related, I think. Spacious and widening, circling back on themselves when necessary, asking questions, pausing to listen to music, to take the air, remembering to keep the mind and the heart open to chance, to love, to the complexities of what a sentence can hold and also to what it can let go.

a mathematician packs the car


They’re gone, down the driveway for an early ferry, dust rising from the tires. And so much stuff! Last night and first thing this morning Brendan packed the car. They camped on the way here and they’ll camp on their way home to Alberta after a week in Victoria with Cristen’s parents. So the tent, the sleeping bags and mats, the cooking stuff, the duffels of clothing and diapers and towels. I repaired the first quilt I ever made, more than 30 years ago, because Brendan always said he wanted it one day, and that’s in a bag somewhere in the rental car. Toys. Books. The craft package Aunty Angie assembled for Kelly’s birthday. The treasure chest found under the old dog house, filled with wooden snakes and gold coins. A big bag of cheddar goldfish because it’s a long drive from Comox to Victoria. Little boxes of raisins. Blueberries.

When they drove away, you couldn’t see into the car for all the bags and Brown Bear and Henry’s tiny skateboard, found in the sand at Ruby Lake yesterday and perfect for one of the little men who came with the Fisher-Price schoolbus. But we waved and watched and listened until we heard the car pull onto the highway far below.

And now I have to do the watering alone.

1st clue

old grill

This morning I was listening to Iris DeMent sing her versions of Anna Ahkmatova’s poems. I was listening and I wasn’t. I was also making pancakes. It’s the final day of my Edmonton family’s visit and we had an early swim in the lake. Then the children picked blackberries while I went home ahead of them to get things ready for breakfast. Kelly helped me make the batter and then I began to cook on the old cast-iron griddle given us years ago by an elderly woman who wanted it to go to a good home. My father had a griddle like it, though I’ve no idea what happened to it after his death, and when we were children, he made pancakes on camping trips. I remember the taste of them, slightly toasty with buckwheat, and the curling fillets of bass he fried along side, dusted in cornmeal. He was there as I cooked this morning and in that strange way that happens sometimes, I could also sense others at the stove. Maybe it was Anna’s words, in Iris’s voice, that conjured them:

And it seemed as if ages walked with us
unseen, and as if an invisible hand were
striking a tambourine,
and there were stranger sounds, like
something we must mark,
secret signals that whirled about us there
in the dark.

It wasn’t dark but there were secrets as I ladled batter onto the griddle and turned the sausages. As we sat at our table and ate pancakes with maple syrup, sunlight pouring into the kitchen.

At breakfast, John mentioned the map he’d found in his study. He told the children that it was old and that no one had ever been able to figure it out. Of course they were eager to see it. Their father and Aunty Angie remembered it (they admitted, with secret smiles) and confessed they’d never been able to figure it out. Which made Kelly even more determined to see it and try to decode its clues.

From the Oxford Living Dictionary:


Late Middle English: variant of clew. The original sense was ‘a ball of thread’; hence one used to guide a person out of a labyrinth. clue (sense 1 of the noun) dates from the early 17th century.

So a series of clues, leading to locations around our house:

1st clue

Beware of the snakes, one of the clues advised. And when the treasure—because we finally determined that the map was a treasure map—was found, after Kelly pulled on a rope under the old dog house and something wrapped in an old rug (the kind of pirates might have used) emerged at the end of the rope, when the tin was opened, look what was inside!

the treasure

Gold coins (of the chocolate sort) and articulated wooden snakes and tattoos. Clues satisfactorily solved. For two small children, that is. As for their grandmother, she is still wandering through the labyrinth, caught by the tendrils of memory and love.

…mind my wish, however belated, oh, be kind
and send me, waking or dreaming…

A coda to watering the Melba

In May, I wrote about our Ottawa family planting a Melba apple tree in their yard.

watering the melba

The entry ended this way:

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.


And now, in early August, some photos arrived of my grandson picking apples! His brother was born a month ago and the season is turning just a little—our heat wave has broken and the lake this morning was cooler than it’s been for weeks—so it’s a good time to eat apples from a tree planted in memory of an earlier tree, now gone. And good to sit at my desk and look at the image while my Edmonton grandchildren shout and play in the other rooms. They have been helping me water the tomatoes, the basil, the lilies on the upper deck, and later we’ll go out to see if the Merton Beauties are ripe enough to pick.


Summer postcard


And now it’s time, the sundial showing itself beneath a tangle of green leaves smelling of lemon and loud with bees, the yellow-faced, orange-rumped, Sitka, and western. The table is set; time to come up from the lake. Old songs play on the stereo, the ones we’ve sung all these years in summer. You can’t hurry love. Come along, your bodies cool, duck-itchy, the baby fat turned to muscle, your own children in your arms as you scatter damp towels and hang bathing suits on the railings.

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