“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

essays in blue

an essay in blue

In the past year, I’ve written most of a collection of essays. This surprises me—and doesn’t. I knew I had threads I wanted to pursue, into a labyrinth of blue pigment, textiles, family history (again! or still?), and some other unknown and perhaps decorative elements. I had a title, Blue Portugal, and I knew that the title would help to determine something of the process of identifying likely threads.

And why the essay specifically for this work? Although I’ve written poetry in the far past and a version of fiction in the not-so-far past (and present), the essay form(s) somehow welcome(s) my own strange metabolic writing style and interests. You will find writers who will argue quite fiercely for what an essay is or isn’t. I’m more interested in what it can be. That its borders are notional. That it welcomes ideas, materials, figurative language, metrical incursions, and really almost anything that a writer cares to bring to it. I don’t mean that it is undisciplined as a form but that its disciplines are not (as they say) written in stone, though an essay would be very interested in learning about about glyphs and maybe the influence of the beautiful carved letters on Trajan’s column.

Last week I wrote an essay, over two mornings, called “Anatomy of a Button”. This one came out of the blue, literally, as I sewed buttons on an indigo quilt. And when I edited it several times and placed it in the draft manuscript of Blue Portugal, I saw that there are now 8 essays. I know I have one more (at least) to write but that one has to wait until after the middle of September when I’ll return from a trip to Ukraine to learn something about the country, and more specifically the village, my grandfather left in 1907. John and I had planned to go to Ukraine last September but an unexpected health issue arose instead. I’ve had a little literary windfall which means we can try again this fall. I’m in the process of organizing it now.

The 8 essays I’ve written are all different. They use language and even the white space of the page differently. Some of them sing. One of them uses a particular piece of music (Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2 in D Minor) to investigate grief, the speaker of the essay taking on each of the dance moments of the Partita, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, to move through space and time, noticing as she dances the strings of a violin bow, the bodies of those in the Cancer Institute as she waits for her own procedure, and the number of breaths a person takes in a life if you stop to do the math. Sometimes in these essays I stop to do the math (as I did in “Euclid’s Orchard”). Sometimes I tie cloth with hemp string and dip it repeatedly in indigo dye. Sometimes I visit rivers with my husband. I wonder about taking psychotropic drugs in order to recover the beauty of entoptic phenomenon experienced when my retinas were trying to detach in Edmonton in winter.

I think nothing gives me more pleasure than realizing that I have an essay to write. My pulse speeds up. Nothing else matters. I feel dazzled by and with language, pulled along in its flow and currents. This winter has been like that. So many nights I’ve come downstairs to work at my desk while the night breaths around me, essays in blue while owls called, coyotes mated, weasels raced through the eavestroughs. Having written these 8 essays, I kind of wonder what’s next. Imagine a single thread, dazzling in its colours and texture. Take it in your hand and wonder about it. Is it strong, is it tied securely to something as yet unknown, unseen? I don’t like confined space and if the thread leads down under the earth, I probably won’t follow. Not yet. But sometimes I dream of darkness, the comfort of it, and the fear. I’ll keep tugging, just a little, and maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to take the first step down.

redux: “Nature not a book, but a performance, a/high old culture.”

Note: I had a different kind of dream last night, a horrible one(post-Alberta-election), so was glad to find that my dream two years ago this day was sweeter. And I see that we still thought Winter was a female cat at that point—he’d only come to live with us from a wild life in the woods and we were still getting to know him…

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I dreamed last night of a stream filled with salmon smolts and on a rock in the stream, an orange-crowned warbler was dipping and doing knee-bends the way American dippers do. I was so close I could see the tiny russet-y patch on its head. When I woke, I was in a sleepy state of wonder. Such abundance — thousands of little fish in a clear stream, a bird I see sometimes foraging for insects in a wisteria beyond my study window, its dull olive feathers a foil for the beautiful crown it wears and which is rarely seen.

I think my dream was the result of a conversation we had at dinner last night. We were drinking the last of our Desert Hills Syrah, dark and jammy, and a joy to have with roast lamb. At our table, facing the west, we’ve seen sunsets and dense fog. We’ve seen the trees fill in over the years, so thickly that a couple are going to be topped in a few weeks, not just because they obscure the view but because they lean to the house in wind.  Sitting and talking with that deep red wine in our glasses, we started listing the wonders we’ve seen here over the years without ever searching them out. Was it luck, we asked, or coincidence? Maybe they’re the same thing? Maybe if you live in one place for 35 years, you will see everything there is to see?

Snakes mating. Northwestern alligator lizards mating. 6 chestnut-backed chickadees taking their first flight one after another from the cedar nesting box on the arbutus tree. A black bear sow passing within a few feet of the living room window with two cubs ambling behind her. A least weasel entering a narrow passage of our metal roof in search of mice and the same weasel on a branch of dog-rose, peering in the window as I drank my coffee in bed. A doe and her twins coming most mornings and shimmering in sunlight like gods. A margined burying beetle slowly carrying a dead mouse away to bury it. A coyote pup coming day after day for a week, pausing one morning to enter a dog-house (its original occupant long-dead), turn around, then sit in the entrance looking out at the world. A western toad sending out a sticky tongue to take sowbugs from my hand. A huge bull elk running into the woods, its antlers shedding their golden velvet.

more than friends

Yesterday I was doing something in the vegetable garden and I saw Winter, the cat that came out of the woods in January and decided to live with us, crouched by a tangle of daylilies, thatched over by montbretia leaves. Something was in the tangle. Her body was quivering and alert. Then I saw a mouse come out of leaves and go up to her. It stopped about two inches from her face. It went back into the leaves. Then came out again and did the same thing, pausing for several seconds. Winter is a good mouser — we see evidence on the patio, on the decks… — so I was surprised that she did nothing. She seemed taken aback (if that’s not too anthropomorphic an explanation). It was a moment I’ll never forget.

I think now of my dream, the salmon all swimming quickly in the silver water, and I know it was about wonder. To stay alive to it.

“Ripples on the surface of the water—
were silver salmon passing under—different
from the ripples caused by breezes”

A scudding plume on the wave—
a humpback whale is
breaking out in air up
gulping herring
—Nature not a book, but a performance, a
high old culture

— Gary Snyder, from “Ripples on the Surface” (No Nature: New and Selected Poems)

“The days of the dawn chorus are nearly upon us.”

This morning I opened the back door to hang out some pillowcases and heard robin song. I’ve noticed birds everywhere these days. Yellow-rumped warblers, sapsuckers, chickadees checking out the houses, a high crowd of violet-green swallows above the garden yesterday when we were taking a break from various chores, hummingbirds in the red currant, and of course robins. They’ve been around for ages but I haven’t heard their chorus yet. We did hear Swainson’s thrushes two weeks ago when it was warm enough to have the window open in the very early morning.

The robins have always nested around our house, sometimes in an elbow of grapevine, sometimes in the crotch of a rose by the front door, and often on a beam that carries wisteria across the patio. We’ve watched the couples build their nests, watched them sitting on the eggs, and even watched the young fledge. One year the nest was a little higher than I am—I’m 5’6″—and I kept a sort of diary of the progress of its construction and what happened after. At one point I held a camera over the next when the parents were off in search of worms and this is what I saw:

open

Only one of those fledged. (And you can see a little dead bird on the left.) A few years ago the robin couple built a nest on the beam and there were eggs, then tiny nestlings (again, the camera held from high so a blurry image):

one egg

I was looking forward to watching the whole cycle again but a weasel raced along the beam and that was the end of that story. The parents were briefly distraught and then began a nest somewhere far from the house. I’m sorry not to see the nests so close but on the other hand, we have a cat now who likes to recline on that beam, and I’ve heard the weasel in the night, hunting on the roof, so it’s better than the robins find a safer location.

I sit at my desk, thinking about the way we try to live our lives in the best possible way. We try to raise children who are ethical and purposeful and who can survive outside the nest (though we hope that they will also remember the nest and the parents who fed them tirelessly while they opened their mouths to the sky). We try to do the right thing for the earth, whatever that might be. (I suspect it’s too late but that’s another topic.) And daily, I try to record what I love, what hurts me, what I am puzzled by, or what I hope for.

The days of the dawn chorus are nearly upon us. I have been very lucky, I think, to see robin eggs in a nest, tiny nestlings, those gawky open mouths. I’ve seen a weasel at my door, once, standing up and looking in at me as I sewed in my rocking chair by the fire, and again, on the stoop where I hang out laundry. I think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels”, and realize that in some ways we too can live close to our instincts, if we are lucky and the light is right:

We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience–even of silence–by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

laundry stoop