from a work-in-progress

bonaparte river

What the Bonaparte River remembered:

West, west, and south, through grassy hills, sage-stung, cactus lying low, water over gravel, rock-weirs and riffles where steelhead spawn, going back, dawn redwoods, gingkos, going back, back, Cenozoic, Mesozoic, glacial features preserved, quartzrose rocks fine-grained and foliated, greenstone and argilite, water-birch and cottonwood, gathering silts, fallen boughs, a dead deer, taking in Machete Creek, Clinton Creek, Loon Creek, the Parke children wading in the shallows, alert for snakes, arrival of springs and the dark jacks, west, west, all my waters surging and surging, alive in sunlight, lit by starlight, look, a horse swimming an oxbow, swirling through hayfields, machines mowing and raking the fine interior grasses, shadowed by hills, flooding the flats near Cache Creek, winding around Elephant Hill, flowing all the way down to my wild entry into the Thompson River.

confined space


Looking for something else connected to my father, I found this, in the births column of The Crowsnest of March, 1955: To Petty Officer A.J. Kishkan, Stettler, and Mrs. Kishkan, a daughter. This is the first time I appeared in print, though unnamed. When I was born, on January 6, 1955, my father was at sea, as we used to say, on the HMCS Stettler. The telegram my mother sent to him was received in Hawaii. Looking for images of life on the Stettler, I found this:


I don’t see my dad among these sailors enjoying their time at the Kam Inn, in Hilo, Hawaii. But who knows. I want to know more about his life in those years. He spent so much time away from us and in trying to figure out who he was, I’ve found strange little signposts. This is a passage from an essay I wrote in the spring, from a section about my father’s time on the MacKenzie River, cutting cordwood for steamships. (In this section of the essay, I’ve used both margins to try to weave passages together, as rivers weave and move apart. So that’s why the movement is right to left.)

I thought of my father, working for a time on one of the last MacKenzie River steamships, as a deckhand, and I think he cut cordwood too. He was 16 years old. Would it have been the SS Distributor? The SS MacKenzie? I don’t know, though my son thinks it was the Distributor, which began its life on the Thompson River. Both were decommissioned shortly after the Second World War; my father had enlisted in the last years of the war, then left the military to work in a meat-packing plant. It didn’t last and he enlisted again in the Navy, learning a trade and raising a family. (A report by an occupational counsellor says, “He enjoyed working in confined quarters aboard ship.”) But sometimes his eyes would go dreamy and he’d remember the long hours of daylight on the MacKenzie River and I wish now I’d asked about the work. (For so many years, my heart was frozen in his company.)

I’m curious about those confined quarters and tried to find images of what a radio room would have looked like in those years, when he was a radar technician:


And where would he have slept, as he dreamed of his young wife in Victoria, with her two small sons and a new baby, me, while he was so far away. I’ve found images of bunks, with lockers beside them, and the thought of him in a narrow bed, in a confined space, with limited time to think about us, waiting for him, makes me wish I had our years together to experience again. I’d have been kinder. Maybe he’d have been more patient. I’d have asked more questions. Maybe he would have too.

the sound of forks and laughter

your table is ready

Sometimes you go along without any apprehension that the world has left you behind and then you are reminded that your values are kind of old-fashioned. This morning I was looking for something on my computer and in my recipe files I found one for the cassoulet I last made a few years ago when a friend was here for dinner. Oh, I thought, that’s what I’ll make for the birthday dinner we’re hosting for another friend next month. There will be 10 of us in total, if you count two of my grandsons (and yes, let’s count them in). I love cassoulet but there’s no point in making it for only two people. You want a crowd. It’s a party dish.

When the friend was here for that last cassoulet, he looked around the kitchen (and it was untidy, dishes unwashed, the detritus of the meal still on the table) and asked me why John wouldn’t give me a new kitchen. I was surprised. I could see beyond the untidiness and anyway, I thought, I have a kitchen. I don’t need a new kitchen, and if I did want one, I wouldn’t wait for my husband to give it to me. I know that kitchens are fetish rooms for many people. In the decorating magazines, there are pages of fancy appliances, floors laid with huge slates, cabinets made of rare beautiful woods, and counters of stones from the mountains of China or Italy.


Ours isn’t like that. The cabinets were built by a friend from yellow cedar—a lovely wood that bruises easily. The counters are tiles, yes, from a batch we got cheaply because we bought the end of a line and so we have them on the floors, the counters, the bathroom floors…There’s no dishwasher. The appliances are whatever Sears had that would fit the space.

morning kitchen

Recently we had this piece of furniture made for a corner of the kitchen. I wrote about it a few weeks ago, before John tiled its surface, using beautiful rustic tiles from Mexico, given us by friends Joe and Amy who had a box of them leftover from their own kitchen at Halfmoon Bay. The day before yesterday, the grout had set and I put things on top. This morning I measured chick peas into the slow-cooker so now the new sideboard is officially in use. That little oven is a convection oven and it’s perfect for roasting a small chicken, baking a pizza, a pie, a cake. The deep cupboards below are for all my big casserole dishes, including the clay baker I’ll use for the cassoulet in a few weeks.

It’s obvious these are not staged photographs. Sometimes the kitchen is tidy but it’s never posh. We live here, we use it, and we are firmly planted in the last century when we built a house and were grateful for every new thing, the work of our hands. Hot water! A bathroom! Tiles laid carefully over plywood sub-floor. I wrote an essay about our kitchen, why I never want it to change. This is the last paragraph:

It could be made new. It could be made sleek and clean. But there were cats, there were dogs sleeping by the sliding doors, there were toys left around, there were books on the low blue table. There were sunsets that filled the room with golden-pink light. Cookies cooling on racks wherever I could find room. Jars of jams waiting for their labels. A big bowl with bread rising under a clean towel. A boy drawing cartoons in a large pad of paper, another boy building with Lego, a girl playing with a cat. There are days when every meal I ever prepared comes to me in scents and textures, arrangements on platters, compositions in deep casseroles—salads cut from the garden, salmon with lemons and branches of thyme tucked into an empty cavity, turkeys for Christmas celebrations, stews of beef and red wine, lamb legs stuffed with rosemary and olives, blackberry pies and apple crumbles, platters of cheese, long loaves fresh from the oven—and everyone I’ve ever loved sits around the table, waiting for their glasses to be filled, for thanks to be said, for the sound of forks and laughter, for smoke from the candles in their silver holders to rise to the ceiling like ghosts.


“the house shelters day-dreaming”

grandma's house and fields

In a dreamy moment yesterday, I found this photograph of my grandmother’s house online. She came from a village in the Beskydy Mountains, in what’s now the Czech Republic. In 2012, I was lucky enough to see her house, in snow, when a friend took John and I to her village, Horni Lomna. I wrote about that visit here. Hers is the house at the back of the photo, the one at the foot of the hills. That looks like an orchard behind the house, doesn’t it? A few years ago a kind woman in Horni Lomna sent me other photographs of the house and the garden directly behind it. She told me that she thinks the house is only used in summer and it’s owned by several people, one of whom has my grandmother’s mother’s surname, the surname I gave my character Patrin in my novella of the same name. Unfortunately those photographs and the other information the kind woman sent were filed on my old computer, the one that died suddenly. Some stuff was stored on Google Drive but not that. (Oh, the lessons we learn.)

I’ve been looking at this photograph, thinking about it and a girl growing up in it. My grandmother had two sisters whose names are recorded in Horni Lomna’s town hall and I suspect she also had a brother, the man with her original surname who showed up as one of the residents in the squatters’ community my grandmother lived in when she first came to Canada in 1913, the subject of “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard. That man, Josef Klus, arrived in Canada a month or so after my grandmother and on the ship’s manifest, in the category detailing reason for travel, it’s noted that he was joining his sister in Drumheller. Josef died in the Spanish flu epidemic, the one that also took my grandmother’s first husband.

So this photograph is compelling to me for all it says and doesn’t say. The landscape is so verdant. An orchard. Sheep probably. Pigs. She left that place for this one:

julia's funeral

This is 1923, the funeral of Julia, the first child of my grandmother’s second marriage. (There were 8 living children from her first marriage as well as a daughter who died in infancy, of diphtheria.) I have no idea if this house still exists. I’ve tried to find out the history of her houses in Drumheller—the one listed as a “shack” in the materials related to the squatters’ community she settled in with her first husband (and 5 children, 4 more quickly arriving); the one that replaced another (the shack?) that burned to the ground. And this is the last house she owned in Alberta, the house my grandfather build in the 1940s. It’s the subject of something I’m working on now. My father inherited this house and sold it after my grandmother’s death. I have one or two memories of staying here, not in this house specifically, but in a smaller house on the same property (I believe it was a house my grandfather bought from the Prins family and had moved to this property either before he built this one or just after.)


What does a house contain, what memories does it hold? Gaston Bachelard tells us what a house allows us: “I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” But are we also contained in its continued space, the corner of a street in Beverly, Alberta, near a park where children play, as we played, on the long summer days? And is my grandmother still a shadow among those trees in Horni Lomna or remembered in the small panes of glass gazing out towards the road?


wild kingdom


Yesterday I was working on the garden fence, trying to create a lattice of sticks against the length of mesh that elk or deer (or both) keep breaking down to get to the garden. It was warm and quiet. Then I noticed a black bear about 20 feet away, ambling up from the little pool below the crabapple tree.

All day that bear hung around. It sat in the water and fished out fallen crabapples. Then it climbed the tree and ate as many scabby crabs as it could.

prince of the apple towns

It made us a little nervous. When we yelled at it to get lost, it very mildly watched us. When I banged on a pot lid with a metal spoon, it didn’t move. After dinner (which we ate on the deck, because it was the first sunny day in ages and winter’s coming…), I went upstairs and after 20 minutes or so John called up that he’d opened the door to go outside and the bear was at the bottom of the steps by our sliding doors.

I think this is a two-year old, last year’s yearling whose mum encouraged it up onto our upper deck (using the stairs, if you please) to drag away some tiny tomato plants and claw a little mason bee house down from the wall.

The mum—this bear’s mum?—was in the old orchard last night, with one of the twins she began the summer with. When I spotted her and showed John, she raced into the woods, cub at her tail. She at least knows that it’s not good to hang around the humans. It almost never ends well, particularly for bears. (I did call the conservation officer this morning and left a message. Many years ago we had a problem bear and the officer brought the trap—it looked like a culvert on wheels, with a sturdy door that springs shut when a bear enters, tempted by the bait of fish smeared with peanut butter. We were told the bears got one free ride to new territory and as that bear didn’t return, we hope he learned his lesson.) We don’t leave out garbage. Our kitchen garbage—and there isn’t much of it because I shop with the knowledge that we are responsible for taking our own garbage to the landfill so I choose stuff that can be reused or recycled—goes to a container in a closed shed. We do pick our fruit but those crabapples are growing on a huge old tree (it came as a young tree from John’s mum nearly 40 years ago) and we can’t reach them. We leave them for the grouse, who love them, and every few years a bear will climb and eat and then leave. This one has outstayed its welcome. That picture at the top of this post? It’s the bear, just now. I took the photograph and then it stretched out for a nap on the warm ground.

novellas for a rainy day

rainy day friends

It’s raining, a lovely soft sound on the roof. A perfect day to curl up with a novella, or three. In that spirit, I’m offering my three novellas—Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren—for $45. (That’s a paltry $15 per title! But I’m only offering them as a trio.) I’ll ship for free in Canada. Other places? We can talk!

On my Books page, you can read about the individual titles. And here’s a little sample of rainy writing from each of them:

Listen. There were weeks when the sun refused us. At first I thought I could never live in such a place, but then I learned the sweetness of the Irish mist, how it enveloped you and numbed you to any real action or consequence. And you wandered in it, your hair jewelled, and you let yourself drift in great imaginings, where the ruined castle on the coast was made whole and you lived there, where the beached hooker* was yours and you mended it.

—from Inishbream (Goose Lane Editions, 2001)

My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It repelled both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within, she said. We sat under trees while the rain poured down, and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

—from Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015)

Where am I, where am I? Again, she woke and tried to orient herself in the new room. Curtains, no—the fogginess was because it was raining outside and she couldn’t see farther than the window. Her room was a cube of wood and glass. In the bed she had been born in, she leaned forward and watched drops of water slowly find their way down the glass to the sill. The trees dripped. The cabin was cold and she put off the moment when she would push away the eiderdown and rush to the woodstove to start the morning’s fire.

Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016)

*The Galway hooker (Irish: húicéir) is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

behind the woodshed

It wasn’t these ones but their cousins almost certainly. And that bull? They’re around a 1000 pounds.

Looking out the window as I washed dishes, I saw a golden rump and a darker body behind the woodshed. An elk calf, half-grown, eating the suckers from the base of the Kwanzan cherry. I quietly went to the utility room window, the one opening directly to the little deck beside the tree. Five more elk, adults, pulling at boughs, a huge cow—was she actually inside the vegetable garden? Something had come the previous night and nipped all the new growth on the kale plants that had already been grazed by elk (these elk?) while we were away in Ottawa a week earlier. And a week before that, grazed by the blacktail doe that comes every year with her fawns, yearlings last year, twins this year. My heart sank. But I opened the door and rushed out, shouting. The sound of huge bodies crashing into the woods, more than 5 (that was only what I could see), and everywhere the smell of them, like horses.

Why bother, I thought. Why bother trying to grow anything.