“Live in the layers/not on the litter.”

the layers

The other afternoon, as we were driving on Highway 10X from Rosedale to Wayne, Alberta, anticipating lunch at the Last Chance Saloon, where we stayed (memorably) in April, 2016, I was commenting on the hills on either side of the Rosebud River, the striations so beautiful in sunlight, and my husband (a poet) recited two lines of Stanley Kunitz:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

I aspire to the layers. I aspire to finding out where I fit in the silt and rock and dry paper records of land purchase and settlement, in the names on the 1926 census where I found my father’s parents (before his birth a few months later) on Midland Road, Michichi (which I first thought must mean the small village of Michichi but then realized was Michichi Creek, in Drumheller on the north side of the Red Deer River). In the mud along the river where I walked yesterday morning, finding other footprints made before my own, on the dry wide main street on Drumheller where I explored with two of my grandchildren yesterday and the day before. I felt porous in that landscape, every bit of light and scent of sage and mineral tang of water entering my body. In the cemetery where we went to pay respects to the two babies who would have been my aunts (Julia and Myrtle), my grandson Henry, age 2, told his mum that he loved his grandparents. You should tell them, she said, and he turned to me, said, I love my grandparents. He is the age Julia was when she died. He is as alive as any child I’ve ever known. When I showed him the bear skin on the ceiling of the Last Chance Saloon, just above our table as we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers, he said delightedly, A star bear! A star bear! (It was, in a way — its skin spreadeagled against the low ceiling…)

Yes, I felt porous, the generations coming to rest in my cheekbones, the small ache in my knees as I unfolded myself from the seat of the rental car in front of the renovated miners cottage where we stayed just a block from the river, its kitchen lit by Benjamin nonexplosive lamps that might once have lit the entrance to a shaft, maybe even the shaft of a coalmine where my grandfather earned a small living for his 10 dependents on a farm near Michichi Creek. My granddaughter Kelly wanted the old story of the mermaid at bedtime, not the Disney version but the heartbreaking story written by Hans Christian Andersen in the book I bought for her in Edmonton and which we read over several days, her questions so sensible: Why does the mermaid have to give up her tail? It’s so beautiful. And her voice? Why couldn’t she keep half her voice?

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Did the little girls buried in the Drumheller Cemetery love stories? Did anyone have time to read to them or hold them and sing, as we sang, the old songs, the ones John remembered, the ones I recalled? It was a hundred years ago that Myrtle died of diphtheria, 95 since Julia died of the same disease.I want nothing more right now than to live in the layers, folded into the place and the remnant lives of those who lived before me, lit by the soft light of those old lamps.

the lamp

Postcard from the road to Wayne, Alberta

We drove out to the Last Chance Saloon for lunch, over bridges, along the meandering Rosebud River, and heard blackbirds whistling in the rushes. This was my father’s early country, a landscape hard and austere and beautiful. At the museum later with my grandchildren, looking at dinosaur skeletons and the tiny fossils of ginkgo leaves, I remembered my father telling me how he’d walked endlessly in those hills as a boy.  “But I never found anything worth keeping in my life.” What’s left? Everything. I wish all of you were here. Love.

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This morning…

…we were planning to drive to Drumheller from Edmonton. But this is what I see from the window of our Airbnb. We think we’ll wait until tomorrow because it seems this spring storm is heading south. Yesterday I made masks with Kelly and Henry and we began to read Thumbelina. We’re just at the point where the dead bird comes to life. Think of us later this morning, in the mole’s underground home, hoping for light.

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redux: “The dream and light softly fading…”

Note: 5 years ago we were leaving New Mexico to fly to Edmonton for a few days. And this morning, we are preparing to leave home for a few days in Edmonton as well as a couple of days in Drumheller, in search of both dinosaurs and ancient Kishkans. I’m thinking that Ian Tyson would provide a good soundtrack…

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Sometimes a song is all it takes. Sometimes it takes you there, to the moment when you drove down highway 518, through snow and deep forests, across the Mora Valley, through soft grasslands fringed with Ponderosa pines, piñons, those fragrant junipers, to the high desert where the unexpected was waiting: the beautiful plaza of Las Vegas. And it was all there, in Ian Tyson’s “Road to Las Cruces”:

On a high plateau out of Anton Chico

I see the dust of a herd coming through

The dream and the light softly fading

My horses will not stand

They wish to go with them

Riding for Alex Carone on the road to Las Vegas.

It’s a song I’ve loved for years though I never had a clue that it wasn’t Nevada he was singing about but that town a few hours from Albuquerque. And not too far from the Conchas-Pecos branch of the legendary Singleton Ranches where there is, indeed, an Alex Carone working as a manager.

In the second-hand stores near the plaza in Las Vegas, there were saddles, some of them broken-down and cracked, some of them in pretty good shape. I saw a bridle with silver conchas and many pairs of cowboy boots. There were paint ponies in a field on the way to Montezuma. You could smell history in the air, though maybe not everybody’s history. Not mine, I know, but that didn’t prevent the yearning.

Today I’m putting away my suitcase, the books I bought, and catching up with work at my desk. I took a moment to photograph the little Acoma rain pot that I bought from its maker, Emil Chino, at the Sky City Mesa. It stood out on the table he presided over — a few big ollas, some seed pots, and an assortment of the rain pots. I wish I could read the imagery a little more fluently but I remember Emil pointed out the rain, the clouds, some ears of corn. And for now, that will have to do.

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“One apple tree remains under my care.”

merton beauty

One apple tree remains under my care. It’s a Merton Beauty, bought as a tiny plant at a produce store in Sechelt. An organic gardener had grafted interesting varieties to dwarf rootstock, and I chose one almost at random. Merton Beauty is a cross between Ellison’s Orange and Cox’s Orange Pippin. For years, ours sat sort of sullenly in a little circle of stones near the garden shed, caged in chicken wire. I’d water it, give it the occasional mulch of compost and drink of fish emulsion. A few frail blossoms, an inch or two of new growth. Then it produced some fruit that was delicious. The information I’ve read about this variety stresses the aromatic flavor of the apples—their spicy taste, redolent of pears, cinnamon, aniseed. I can’t say I noticed those particular notes, but the skins were pretty, russeted at the shoulders, and the flesh was crisp, with a true flavor of apple. Not the empty watery taste of many supermarket apples, sprayed, waxed, gassed, and stored for months.

–from Euclid’s Orchard

redux: the springtime lamb

From Easter, 2017. Today? Not lamb but a ham, with potatoes in cream, and a salad with oranges and garden mint. There’s a tiny hummingbird perched on a rose cane outside my window and yes, the earth is coming alive, even if so many of its inhabitants are hungry or at war or struggling in one way or another.

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Today, on my shelves, a book of poetry by Annie Dillard. Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. This is a season I celebrate — not for any religious reason but because moment by moment, the earth is coming alive. In “Feast Days”, Dillard takes us through a strange arrangement of Christian holidays. And I’ve remembered the conclusion since I first bought this book as a student in 1974:

God send us the spring lamb
minted and tied in thyme
and call us home, and bid us eat
and praise your name.

The names I praised were those of my family. All morning I worked on an essay for Euclid’s Orchard, one that explores my deep past in the Drumheller valley. So those names. The Yopeks, the Kishkans, poor Joseph Klus who died in a dugout house on the banks of the Red Deer River, of Spanish flu. Calls or texts came from my children. I’d sent my sons their childhood paper mache eggs, filled with little chocolate treats and toys for their children, my grandbabies. I wondered if they’d remember their eggs and oh, yes. They did.

In the afternoon, I worked in the garden where spring has eased itself into every bed — Spring Tonic, where I grow salad greens; Long Eye, where garlic is planted and kale is volunteering; Wave, where the peas have yet to sprout against their fence and, fearful that slugs will nip off the new sprouts, I scattered crushed oyster shells (from my birthday oysters) over the length of the furrows. I planted ten hills of French Fingerling potatoes in Old Deck and weeded mint volunteers from Thin Deck to pot up to take to Edmonton in May when we will all gather (except Angie, alas) to build a deck and porch for Brendan and Cristen and where I know the young’uns will want mojitos come 5’o’clock. (John and I would rather have a glass of wine. Call us stuffy.)

The spring lamb made an appearance on the Easter table, tied not with thyme, but stuffed with garlic and rosemary. A pan of Greek potatoes, lemony, and fragrant with olive oil from Crete. Eggplant with garden dill and chives in yoghourt. Salad of feta, tomatoes, and Kalamata olives. And for dessert? A galette with last year’s gooseberries and this year’s rhubarb. The most beautiful Desert Hills Syrah.

Today I’ve been naming
the plants of the southern forest:
arrowwood, witherod,
hobblebush, nannyberry
and the loblolly, longleaf
and shortleaf pine.

No, I’ve been looking at the pink new growth on the huckleberries, cerise salmonberry blossoms, Douglas fir, watching two sapsuckers chase one another up and down the trunk of a small cascara, and brushed a bumblebee from my shoulder as I put away the shovel. And thinking of my grandchildren, opening the eggs their fathers loved 30 years ago, on the table that still looks west. And misses them.

easter galette