Earlier this fall, I had a lovely conversation with Michael Enright (of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition) about Ethel Wilson’s beautiful Swamp Angel. Readers of this blog know that she is one of my foundational writers. She brought a feminine, perhaps even feminist, attention to the places and stories of British Columbia, and few writers attended to the landscape as lovingly as she did.
Our interview will air this Sunday morning and I hope you’ll listen. When I have a link to it, I’ll post it in my News and Events area.
I’m writing about indigo right now, about that blue that is sort of the outlier in the colour spectrum, a between colour (and I have my own theory about why but will let this wait until I’ve finished the essay). In the meantime, I am looking at blue, at the dictionary definitions (using my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, sixth edition), at fabrics dyed on the cedar log near my vegetable garden on summer mornings while pileated woodpeckers taught their young to feed nearby, at beautiful examples of Japanese textiles, at the hands of Tuareg people who wear indigo-dyed clothing and have stained skins as a result, and more. I am living in blue (“taken as the colour of constancy, taken as the colour of sorrow and anguish”).
This is a celebration of the quotidian, the daily. This is for when I think everything is happening in other places. That real writers are those out in the world, on stages, represented by high-powered agents, writing, writing, in castle retreats or on Greek islands or in the mountains in their own snowy studio, returning only for meals at a table of other writers. This is a day when the wood box was filled, two loads of laundry done, a table cleared and laid for dinner tonight, when sourdough bread and a pie was baked (well, it was one frozen, unbaked, in September when the Merton Beauties sat on the counter),
when biscuits were baked (Stilton and walnut) after the pie, in a cooler oven, to have with glasses of wine this evening,
when I folded laundry and thought about the book I’m writing, a collection of essays called Blue Portugal, and how when I was swimming my slow kilometer yesterday I realized how I could structure the book, mostly long essays about family history, fish libraries, and the nature of memory but what about using smaller “blueprints” based on some actual blueprints I’ve been studying and parsing, what about investigations into the process of modrotisk, the Czech blueprint I’m using as a back for a small quilted piece using a forgotten piece of indigo fabric tied with beach stones, what about tracing the evolution of blue cloth, what about including some of the Assyrian cuneiform tablet stuff detailing the agency of women weavers and merchants in the 19th century BC when their husbands carried their textiles to Anatolia by donkey caravan, what about, what about…You can see how the daily might add up to be something worth writing, and maybe reading.
I was reading entries for November 21st in earlier years to see what I’d written on the anniversary of my father’s death. I was surprised to read this. It doesn’t mention my dad but I remember how I thought about him the whole time I was writing Patrin.
When John and I met and fell in love in 1979, we spent a fair amount of time arguing about poetry. Not our own but what we imagined the important contemporary writing to be. I remember running out into the night, in tears, wondering what on earth I’d done by marrying someone whose ideas were so different from my own. I’d barely heard of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson. What on earth was “projective verse” and how could it possible matter. We did have many favourite writers in common; we were both reading Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, for instance. And in truth, our work was far more congenial than we knew during those first months, that first year. We used different language to talk about writing and in time our vocabularies became as acquainted and then as familiar as everything else.
I’ve been remembering all this for the past month…
This morning, around 6:30, we were lying in bed, talking, Winter the cat at our feet, when the cat suddenly jumped onto the windowsill, alert. He was watching and listening. And listening, we heard a squeal. Elk, I bet, said John, and I went downstairs to see what I could from the still-dark living room. Yes, elk. I saw two of the great golden shapes, sort of smudgy in the near-light, where our cleared area meets the woods. And on the deck off our bedroom, John saw a couple more. They crashed into the woods.
By the time I came to my desk, I’d forgotten about the elk. I’m working on some essays, lyric essays I guess you’d call them, and right now they’re all over the map. I mean this literally. One of them yearns for the rivers of Bukovina, the Prut and its tributary the Cheremosh. One of them explores the trees of Horni Lomna, one of them remembers the MacKenzie River and my father, who worked on steamships on the river as a young man; and others are located here, including one called (provisionally) “Bitter Greens”. This is the essay I opened this morning, trying to find a way to weave a couple of narrative strands together, trying to find the music in plants, broken fences, and, what? Elk. So they were here all along and that sound, the squeal, should have alerted me to the dangers of trying to keep a garden safe when I’m not the only one hungry for greens.
Red Russian kale, Scotch kale, Tuscan kale, Siberian, Redbor, some unknown or unnamed marriages between two or more of these varieties. Garden arugula, field arugula, wall-rocket, red dragon, all self-sowing. Lamb lettuce (or corn salad, depending…), buckshorn plantain, dandelions (the new leaves for salad, the more mature leaves for pizza or green pie), lambs quarters with its dusty leaves the shape of goose feet, chickweed. How I long for them after a long winter, though I usually have tubs of kale close at hand so I can fill the blender most mornings for a green tonic. But a salad gathered in a big colander, scissors snipping the new leaves of this or that, sorted (because slugs like them too), then dressed with good oil, lemon juice or a light vinegar (balsamic is too robust for the early salads), maybe a tiny smudge of Dijon mustard, the one green with herbs, and it’s a meal I could eat every day.
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 (the same 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.
It wants space, it wants room, it wants to cry, to think aloud, to examine a plan showing subdivision of Lot C Block 6 Plan 2528 AR in Beverly Heights Annex and determine its relationship to where your grandparents built their house, it wants a recipe for your grandmother’s sweet plum pedaha, it wants to know the details of your mother’s birth and abandonment, it wants to include the spring song of the Swainson’s Thrush, the quick rustle of the winter wren in the underbrush just this morning, it wants to spread itself across the page like the clean hieroglyphics of crows on the beach of Cox Bay last month, it wants, it wants, it wants.
I looked out just now to see if there’s the first snow on the mountain because it feels cold enough down here. There isn’t yet, but I bet it’ll come by next week. I love the cold nights, stars, that beautiful scimitar moon in the mid-November dark sky.
I just made a (clumsy) linocut for this year’s Christmas card. A winter wren, with a slightly foreshortened beak and awkward legs. (The lino was brittle this year, even when warmed by the woodstove.) I’ve chosen a short passage from my novella, Winter Wren, and John will print later this week.
Every year I make a linocut and he sets type and prints a card. I remember the first one we created, in the basement of the house we rented in North Vancouver before moving here in December of 1982, after a year and a half of living first in a tent here, then the shell of our house while we made it comfortable enough to live in. That first card used some old wooden type that came with the press and we had enough to print just two words: LOVE&JOY, all in caps, with the beautiful ampersand.
How the years accumulate. I listened to Emmylou Harris while I worked on the lino and realized I’ve been one of her biggest fans, boots and all, since grade 11. 1972. But I don’t think I ever paid much attention to this beauty, the one that caught my heart this afternoon.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll go to Edmonton (speaking of cold) to spend time with our family there. Emails arrive, asking would we like to go for a sleigh ride on Whyte Avenue, would we like to go to an abbreviated Nutcracker (our grandchildren are 2 and 4), and what about a Dickens tea? I remember carving lino in the early year with an audience, my own children, young enough to be impressed by a small knife making images in a piece of lino warmed by the woodstove. Young enough to listen to any music I played, and yes, there was a lot of Emmylou Harris even then. I wanted to preserve time in the images I cut with my little box of tools. I still do. John’s been sorting the decades of Christmas cards to make sure we have a full collection for the High Ground Press archive and there they are—a house on a hill with a moon overhead; a cat in a window with a star by its ear; a tree by the front door; a gingerbread person; a snowflake; a pinecone; the two fish undulating under stars (the image Anik and I appropriated for our Fish Gotta Swim Editions pressmark); a fishing boat with bright lights on its rigging (inked in by hand); and more that I can’t remember right now.
Sometimes I forget what’s to come. In late summer, preserving fruit and vegetables, I forget that I’ll be here in the house on a cold day in November, wondering what might make a card image for this coming Christmas. Or that listening to a cd heard hundreds of times over the years, I’ll stop as Emmylou sings,
So blind I couldn’t see
How much she really meant to me
And that soon she would always be
On my mind, in my heart,
I was blind from the start
On our way back from a swim that didn’t happen because someone at the pool let about a third of the water drain overnight (ooops) and the young women life-guarding this weekend were trying to fill it again and to turn away the eager swimmers (just us, at 10 a.m.), anyway, on our way back we stopped at one of the trails running along the slope of Mount Hallowell to gather 7 big bags of leaves from the mature bigleaf maples growing along that part of the trail. Tomorrow if it’s nice we’ll return for another load. We do this most years. The leaves make wonderful garden mulch. I’ve just been spreading a few bags over the raspberry beds and the boxes where I grow mostly perennial greens. The chicory is still lovely and leafy and the kale that the deer ate when they broke into the garden is coming back. Some of the seeds in the long kale pods were sprouting so I potted up a bunch of the pods in a tub for the sunroom. So far the deer haven’t their way into there.
7 years ago on this day I launched my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, a memoir of sorts exploring my life in within the context of my love of all things arboreal. (7 years! I know I’m becoming old because of how I react to time. It hardly seems like 7 years but in that time so much has happened: 2 weddings, 3 more books, 4 grandchildren…) Mnemonic was a book I loved writing, though it took me out of my usual comfort zone. There were things I wanted to find out and the routes I took were strange and (to me) wonderful. I had to harness my impatience as I worked my way through material, puzzling and thinking, and finding a way to structure the book so that a reader might feel as though she or he was in a grove of trees, a memory grove, guided by Cicero. Pliny the Elder, John Evelyn, and the ravens of Merritt, B.C.
In fall, the samaras whirl to the ground: time to be grateful for fire, the woodshed neatly stacked with fir and bigleaf maple. Bringing in logs, I sometimes see areas of spalting within the chunks of maple I carry. This is a bacteria that causes veining in the wood, a kind of scribbling, like pen lines on paper. The bacteria can be introduced to felled maple, and cultured or managed for a time, to create beautiful patters which woodworkers value. We have a cutting board in our kitchen made by a local craftsman, featuring strips of both spalted and clear-grained maple. When I clean and oil the board, I marvel at the intricate text in the wood we use to cut our bread. Like those beetles that wrote obituaries to the ponderosa pines near Kamloops, something lively is at work to leave its story intact for the future to read as loaves are sliced, fish boned or trimmed of their fins.
7 years later, the board is well-used, its stories intact, and new ones have been added. The stains of ripe cheeses, apples, tomatoes heavy with seeds, red cabbage partly gnawed by elk or deer trimmed, then shredded, a splash of red wine from a glass too near the cutting knife, lemon juice rubbed in to get rid of the scent of pine mushrooms, garlic.
“In certain parts of the lake shore there is tulé grass growing out into the water, thick at the shore, thin and sparse as it stretches into the lake. Where the tulé grass – which is a tall reedlike grass – is sparse, its angled reflections fall into the water and form engaging patterns.” (SA, 86)
Turned off again on the road to Lac le Jeune because I wanted to see Three Loon Lake after all, what Ethel Wilson called it in Swamp Angel, though she had other names for it in another stories: Nimpish, Blue, and before it was renamed in the 1930s, in honour of Father Le Jeune, it was Fish Lake. Before that, for thousands of years, it was Chuhwels. She and Wallace loved the lake and took a cabin on the hill above the water, fishing daily for Kamloops trout.
Is the heart still light, does it balance in the scale as light as the feather?
In Swamp Angel, Ethel Wilson describes Maggie’s relationship with the lake as a union, like a happy marriage. And the Wilsons were happy. Casting their flies, from a row-boat, in deep water or among the tulé reeds; sharing drinks on the verandah afterwards, the water shimmering with sky. So to give Maggie the lake, with its rich presence, the birds, warm rocks, the pines, and even a gun, the Swamp Angel itself, to drop finally into the water, was to give a woman an everlasting place in a landscape. As horses ran through the grass of the Jocko Creek Ranch, the Two-Bit, and others unknown to me, women loved lakes also unknown to me, but Maggie’s was on any map if you knew the code. Knew the legend.
The lake was gun-metal, rippled, as I approached. No loons but what was that? A moose in the shallows eating reeds. Lily pads glittering, a chill in the air I hadn’t felt at the Two-Bit. But low cabins on one shore, drifting ducks, a dock pushed out into the lake and weathered grey. At the very far end, almost out of sight, a man in a small boat casting. One of those moments. It could have Wallace, it could have been. Ethel on the small deck of the cabin, reading. Ice in a bucket for cocktails late afternoon and a warm fire waiting.
Some mornings you wake to sky cleansed by the rain overnight, crackled clean by thunder and lightning, and just a little mist settled over the trees. The fire is warm. The cat’s been fed. To prolong the peace, you read a few of your favourite blogs, one of them Commatology.com. And wow, this is what you find, the musings of a perfect reader:
The past hour has been spent in that dream. I was 23 when I lived on the island I wrote about in Inishbream. I was 44 when the novella was finally published. I held the narrator close to me those years in-between. She was—is—me, and she isn’t. I began this book as a series of prose poems and the people I showed them to asked for more detail, more connective tissue between the anecdotes and meditative passages. I remember asking myself, Well, what if you…and I won’t confess what I did, because I’m not entirely certain now which parts are purely autobiographical and which were invented. Or imagined.
When the book was being printed in its private press editions by the Barbarian Press, I’d receive phone calls daily. The Barbarians would want to check a detail, they’d send the proofs, one page at a time, by fax, and I’d know the presses were inked and time was of the essence. I loved everything about the book they created: the magnificent wood engravings by John DePol; the soft papers, the typeface (Eric Gill’s gorgeous Joanna); the bindings (there are 3 states and they’re all bound with different materials, even a special clamshell box of vellum and leather made by Hélène Francouer); and the way the handmade values of this work echoed my own. Echoed the place that inspired the book. Inspired me in so many ways in the life I went on to live. Sometimes I take down my special copy and read it slowly, wondering at the younger self who lived on an island at the very edge of the world, alone.
I was lucky enough to have Goose Lane Editions publish the book as a trade edition two years later. (I think they still have copies available for sale and if they don’t, ask me; I have some here.) I’ve been back to Ireland twice since then, the last time 17 years ago. Leslie at Commatology was just there and it was sweet (and sort of sad) to read what she found and didn’t find. She writes,
It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.
She was close. Those are all islands I knew. Mine was near them, yes, and named for a fish, though not bream. Remember what Ishmael said, in Moby Dick? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Or they are, but they’re hidden. Mapmakers and writers—we have our reasons.