redux: a mutation of thrushes

This post, from 2014, reminds me that the robins regularly nested nearby,  on the beam across our patio or once in the rose canes by the front door. Then in 2017, the cat Winter came to live with us. He lurks on the beam and so far the robins have avoided it. And the year before he came, a weasel darted across the beam and ate the eggs. So maybe Winter isn’t entirely to blame for this fairly recent aversion on the part of the robins. But yesterday John was looking out at the big fir between the house and the printshop and he said he thought the robins must have a nest there. We couldn’t see but we could see two robins taking turns leaving and returning. When we stood under the boughs, sure enough we could see the mossy nest tucked into a crotch of branches.

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I looked in An Exaltation of Larks for the collective noun for robins. There are so many of them this year, singing, playing chicken on the side of the highway (and these must be males, flying up at the last minute…), and following me in the garden, ready to plunge their beaks into the newly-dug soil for worms. And there’s isn’t one. The closest is “a Mutacyon of threstyllys” from the Porkington MS, a mid-15th century miscellany of poetry and prose now held in the National Library of Wales.  The term appears to come from the belief that thrushes grow new legs at ten years of age and cast their old ones aside.

Last year, in July, I wrote a series of posts about the robins nesting on the cedar beam across our patio. It was the first time they’d nested in that particular spot, though we’ve watched robins build on an elbow of drainpipe on our printshop, in an angle of grapevine climbing our southern wall, and — three times! — in a willow now completely claimed by clematis above the west-facing deck. One year we watched three robins learn to fly and it echoed the passage of our own children away from home. It was very sweet to see the parents and two of the young all in a fir tree calling to the remaining nestling until, whoosh, it flew clumsily from the nest to join them. Every time I see this, I wish for wings myself. Imagine just…well, flying. Gliding away from the nest on wings you never knew you had, the whole world opening.

We were away for four days last week and when we returned, there was a nest in exactly the same place on the beam. No sign of robins but a nest, newly made. And by yesterday, there was a female robin tucked into it — so I’m assuming she’s incubating eggs. The literature talks about “nest fidelity” — the willingness of robins to return to locations and even reuse the same nests. Ours have never reused a nest but maybe that’s because we occasionally remove them (the one on the beam last year) or else the clematis smothered the opening where a bird might enter the cool interior of the willow.

This year, the female is not as skittish as last July. She remains on the nest while I’m watering. I put a saucer of worms on the ground below the nest and went off to do something else. When I passed that way again, I noticed that all the worms had been eaten. So I bet she remembers that I fed her last year too.

I think of Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Every year the same things happen. I begin the tomato seeds. I wait for the first ripe fruit. Baskets of sun-warmed tomatoes give me such pleasure that I forget I’ve done this for nearly 30 years. And the robins, with their echo of our own life, the tune without the words : a nest,  patience, the helpless young growing to maturity in the time it takes to close my eyes, then open them.

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redux: postcard from Waterton Lakes

Note: two years ago we were wandering through southern Alberta and B.C., ambling home after a week in Edmonton. I dream of the soft green still, the scent of poplars.

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Plains bison with calves, black bears with cubs, a herd of bighorn sheep, a single mountain goat on the Cameron Lake road, bluebirds, two cranes flying above the meadows, deer, the sound of water, the snowy peaks, scent of poplar, mayflies over Emerald Bay, magpies in every tree, sticky geranium, larkspur, arrow-leaf balsam root, low soft blue lupines (I didn’t bring a plant book so can’t be specific), fescues and death camas and glacier lilies at Red Rock Canyon. Dear ones, how I wish you were here.

mum and child

moosehorned cedars circled his swamps and tossed
their antlers up to the stars
then he knew though the mountain slept the winds
were shaping its peak to an arrowhead
poised

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart

—from “Bushed” by Earle Birney

striated

dad in metal car

I’m at work on (yet) another essay about family history and am trying to puzzle through something that is both about place and about the public record. In Euclid’s Orchard, in an essay titled “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, I wrote about my discovery that the homestead I’d believed my grandmother’s first husband had taken out in the Drumheller area prior to her arrival in Canada in 1913 didn’t exist. Instead, she arrived to a squatters community.  In spring of 2016 I’d gone to the Provincial Archives in Edmonton to make a copy of a few documents I thought would help me to find the 1/4 section of land I’d always believed my grandmother’s first husband owned and was surprised to find instead the whole long file of maps, letters, petitions, directives, etc. On that day in 2016, I didn’t have time to do anything more than make one or two copies of pages I thought might be useful. Later, my son Forrest sent me a pdf of the microfilm detailing the difficulty the residents of the community had in petitioning the federal government for permission to buy the individual plots they’d settled on. Instead of a copy of the homestead grant and a map, I had 398 pages to decode and try to understand. I don’t believe that my grandmother and her first husband bought the plot they were living on when a portion of the land was subdivided in 1918. Their names don’t show up on the list of purchasers and anyway in 1918 that husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic and my grandmother had a new baby, her 9th, who was to die just a few months later.

In 1920 my grandmother remarried. She married my grandfather John Kishkan. They show up on the 1921 Census (though I didn’t find them at first because my grandfather’s surname was misspelled) and again in 1926, living on the north side of the river, near the Midland Mine. I suspect my grandfather worked there. A few weeks ago in Drumheller, John and I took the two photographs we have of my father as a child and tried to find the location of the small farm he lived on by matching the hills in the photographs with the hills near Michichi Creek above the Dinosaur Trail, formerly Midland Road (the address given on the Census forms). That process is what I’m writing about now.

It gets complicated and in many ways it’s a useless exercise. What can I possibly learn by looking at striated hills and barren ground? Maybe something. I’ve discovered that the actual section of land where the squatters community was and where my grandparents had their farm is the same. The records are confusing. It was School Land. It was owned by someone called James Edward Trumble and maybe it was owned by someone else. Maybe my grandparents owned a little piece. Or maybe they rented a piece. I hope to figure it out.

On this map (which asks to be a quilt, doesn’t it?), you can see Range 20 on both sides of the Red Deer River.

map of range 20.png

Imagine the small farm tucked against the flank of hill. Imagine waking to the striations, walking out to the morning in the shadow of those layers. My father once wrote a letter to me when I was living in Ireland, so it must have been 1978, and he mentioned he’d been to the funeral of his last living (half)brother, Paul Yopek. He’d driven to Drumheller after that funeral and wrote that he saw the hills where he’d walked as a boy but had never found anything worth keeping in his life. I thought he meant fossils but perhaps his comment was more ontological. Looking at the sedimentary layers exposed by weather, the mudstone, sandstone, the coal seams, and shale, all softly coloured and shimmering in the light, I wondered if they might take up a large space in the physical topography of a boy growing in their shadows. Paleontologists were at work in the 1930s when my father was a boy and perhaps he encountered one on his forays into the hills. Maybe he’d been asked to keep his eyes open and maybe he had and nothing ever showed up. The long rib of a creature as old as time. An ammonite. A nest of fossilized eggs. In his rough house, his mother made noodles, his father came home dark with coal dust.

          — from a work-in-progress

redux: the Passable Builders at work

Note: this was two years ago today. I’ve been out on my own deck, planting zinnia seeds and moving pots around, remembering the pleasure of watching my sons and their father work together, making jokes, adjourning for beer at the end of the day. And somehow during those days in Edmonton, inbetween walks with the children, making food with my daughters-in-law, driving out to the Ukrainian Village Museum,  I proof-read the final galleys of Euclid’s Orchard with those same men and their lives on almost every page.

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One plan for our time in Edmonton, if weather and time conspired congenially, was to help Brendan and Cristen replace a rotting porch at the back of their house in Strathcona and to build a new free-standing deck under the leafy maples in one corner of their back yard. It’s the place where outdoor tables go for summer meals and so plans have passed back and forth between John and Brendan for a few months. Best size? Lumber dimensions? John loves a project like this. It’s been a long time since two neophytes (poets!) built a house on the Sechelt peninsula and though many projects have arisen since then—adding rooms to accommodate a growing family; replacing the original decks —I have to say that my husband loves construction. I told him once that I thought humans had vestigial building knowledge in their hands and when the need arose to call on that knowledge, it would be there. (I know you’re rolling your eyes!)

Forrest, Manon, and Arthur planned to spend a week in Edmonton too. Five of our days overlapped with theirs. (I just took them to the airport.) All week John and his sons measured wood, hammered joists, screwed down long lengths of lumber for the decking. They joked that they were the Passable Builders (their surname being Pass). This morning, after breakfast, I asked them to sit on the porch (which may or may not see railings and perhaps a bench or two):

passable builders, with foreman

The old porch is waiting to have its nails removed:

old porch.JPG

And here’s the deck where we’ll eat our dinner tonight (the remaining two Passable builders are out buying the last two pieces of lumber to finish it as well as stair materials):

deck under maple

While details were being weighed and pondered (“Measure twice, cut once.”), I looked over to see how weeds thrive in sunlight:

weed thrive in sunlight

 

redux: “The blues were annual…”

Note: In Ottawa a few days ago, I was conscious of all our earlier visits, the one where we helped to build a deck for Forrest and Manon, then the next year a pergola. The year we ate prime rib at their table with the rest of our family, all tucked into rooms in the house in Vanier, and how each year there was a new baby, a new paragraph in the family story. Sometimes a new chapter entire. Three years ago on this day we were building that pergola and hoping that the wisteria I’d brought (from John’s grandmother’s garden in Suffolk) would thrive there. (It didn’t. But grapes have!)

reading

Sometimes memory plays its own strange tricks, so that a moment like this brings back all the times I read books to my children, all the books (even this book, Curious George) , all the weight of their bodies on my knees, in my heart. How can the years have gone so quickly, how is it that I hardly noticed them passing? I think of that beautiful Kate Wolf song, “Across the Great Divide”, appropriate to where I am now (Ottawa, far from home):

I’ve been walking in my sleep
counting troubles instead of counting sheep,
where the years went, I can’t say.
I just turned, and they’ve gone away.

I’ve been sifting through the layers
of dusty books and faded papers.
They tell a story I used to know
and it was one that happened so long ago.

 

And yesterday, hiking the Eagle Nest Trail above Calabogie Lake, the scent of pines (though not Ponderosas), the sound of chipmunks, and I was back in the Nicola Valley with my children, my husband, on one of our family camping trips, the dry air and pollen making our skin mysterious to the touch. Passing the little graveyard in Burnstown, I thought of the Murray churchyard in the old Nicola townsite, the stories I could almost understand as I wrote down the inscriptions, the epitaphs. They were tangled up with my own family stories, the houses we’d lived in, my mother’s attempts to make each one a home as quickly as possible.

In my notebook, “Morning glory” and the date, July 10, 1989. In later gardens, my mother planted a cultivar of morning glory called Heavenly Blue, perhaps forgetting what the white form had done to the roses and peonies. The blues were annual and I don’t remember if they were invasive. Seeds of wild flowers come in the droppings of birds and mammals, hair and fur, the clothing of those passing through. In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of while pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the gentle cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all.

–from “Morning Glory”, in Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996)

“Petals beaten wide by rain”

dog rose

When I went out this morning, full of the sense of being home after five days in Ottawa, I was hoping I’d see a sign of the coyote who was singing and barking just beyond the house at 5:15 (I was at my desk for an hour of musing before going back to bed). No coyote and only the loons calling down on Sakinaw Lake. But the dog rose is in bloom around my bedroom window! I didn’t plant a dog rose here (though I have two others, found up the mountain, and as they’re not native to our area, there’s a story there that I’ll probably never know…) but an Alba rose, grafted onto R. canina rootstock (I’m guessing), eventually died and I let the rootstock climb and climb until it reached the second storey. It is very beautiful, with its shell pink flowers that the bees love and its long elegant hips come fall. Last week, two weasels raced along its length while I was reading in bed just before dusk. The Irish poet John Montague (who once taught for a semester at my university when I was 19) wrote of stories and dog roses and when I read this poem, it’s his soft voice I hear in my head:

And still
the dog rose shines in the hedge.
Petals beaten wide by rain, it
sways slightly, at the tip of a
slender, tangled, arching branch…

This rose blooms once and mostly those are not the roses I love, though I have thickets of moss roses given to me years ago by an elderly woman, Vi Tyner,  who came to our community in 1946, in a 12 foot boat, with her husband (his legs in braces because of polio), pulling all their worldly possessions in a canoe. It took them 4 days to make the journey from New Westminster to Pender Harbour. You might imagine why I cherish her roses, even though they bloom once, in June. She gave me a pale pink one and one that is deep pink, ruffled and so sweetly scented I wish I could bottle it.

In Ottawa, we helped Manon and Forrest in their garden. I dug over a bed and my grandson Arthur collected worms turned up by my fork to tuck into the potatoes in another bed. Forrest planted a rose, one of the Explorer series, hardy enough to survive their cold winters. Theirs is “Henry Kelsey”, a rose with its own history, and it will climb the fence around their garden, where two little boys play and raccoons try to claw their way through reemay cloth to eat the kale seedlings. And John and Forrest planted a pear tree too, to join the two apple trees planted last year, one of them a Melba, in memory of our lost orchard. Gardens and roses and stories fill these late spring mornings as I sit at my desk, waiting for it to warm up enough to head outside to stake poppies and Mrs. Tyner’s roses.

 

 

redux: “tree frogs/are ignoring their ladders”

Note, 4 years later: another dry May. I’m sitting at my desk, sleepless (because I’ve just returned from Ottawa and my body’s clock has yet to find its coastal sequence), looking out at stars and the waning flower moon. A quick walk around the garden when we got home late yesterday afternoon revealed an almost scary jungle out there, roses and poppies blooming, and evidence of a bear’s visit.

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We’re promised a hot dry summer here on the west coast of British Columbia and I believe it. Almost no rain for the whole month of May, plants three weeks ahead of themselves, the tomato vines laden with blossom. I think of W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic poem, “Barometer Reading”, with its beautiful opening lines:

Nothing can be inferred

from the forecasts

Tree frogs

are ignoring their ladders…

Here’s yesterday’s tree frog, climbing the railings to settle among the honeysuckle:

P1120003And a further prediction of the hot summer to come — an abundance of the northern alligator lizards, basking on rocks, scuttling from woodshed to cool border, and even mating on top of the old kindling pile (it lasted hours!):

more than friends