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