“In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..”

the point

Yesterday John came back from the mailbox with a package: a book by a Ukrainian poet, Oleh Lysheha. He’d ordered it without knowing anything about the poet but wanted to read poetry rooted in the country we are about to visit next week. He opened the book at random and read a poem aloud. It was “Father” and it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Here’s the opening:

Oh, he liked to bathe..
Best in late summer,
In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..
—Once, there was a deeper place here—
He entered patiently, his turn of wrist,
The elbow high, slipping the hand into the water and out,
As if still dry—in the manner no one sees anymore—
Swimming to a shallow place:
—Would you wash my back?

Almost every day we swim, early, in the lake nearby, and we’ve noted that we can tell it’s late in the season by the later rising of the sun over the mountain to the east of the lake. I wouldn’t have thought to call it “mature” but that’s a perfect adjective for the sun at the end of August.

Reading on, to himself, he kept saying, There are poems for animals and birds! Fish! John’s own new book arrived earlier in the week, This Was the River, with a cover detail from Tintoretto’s painting “The Creation of the Animals”, chosen because a sequence of poems named for the painting is at the heart of the book.

john's river

I’ve been looking into Oleh Lysheha’s poems (translated by the poet and James Brasfield) and find in them something rich and mysterious, anchored in the earth, but also filled with divinity. A horse dreaming of escape to the mountains, an old dog in the woods, “His skull a cobweb of veins” (the poet imploring, “Young nettle, be kind to him—listen—/His heart can’t endure any more the arc of your leaves..”).

I have been trying to learn a few phrases in Ukrainian but wish now I had time to commit one or two of these poems to memory. That father, in the Crow River, “He walked out like a blind man/and fell face down into grass, in sunlight..” and the horse who remembers,

…the day
A man outlined
In red on the cave wall
Shadows of my friends
Coming down slowly,
One by one, to water flowing
From a subterranean river..

a summer song

stray apples

They are coming to an end, the long summer days. Already you can see that the light has changed; it’s more honeyed. This morning we swam amid the repeated dives of a kingfisher, its rattle coming from a cedar bough, then the rocks further along the lake shore. Small dragonflies were darting across the surface of the lake, blue and blue and blue.

Yesterday I made the pies I planned to, three large ones using the Merton Beauty apples and some blueberries, and those went into the freezer for winter dinners. With the last of the apples, I made a galette, adding some of the blackberries we picked the other day. Not the Himalayans but the cutleaf evergreen berries, Rubus laciniatus, that ripen a little later here. They’re spicier somehow, and firmer. We had that galette last night, with enough left for dessert tonight. It tasted of autumn, not summer. Summer is peaches and cherries and green gooseberries and golden plums. This galette was rich and dark, flavoured with candied ginger.

A bear wandered out from under the crabapple tree yesterday morning and when it heard our voices, it loped away down the driveway. It will be back, I know, and it’s welcome to the crabs. They’re too high for us to pick. Later in the day, a deer was standing in the cool flag iris leaves under the crab, grateful for its shade.

The long summer days. The star-filled nights. The mornings I woke to a house filled with my family, the voices of my grandchildren in the kitchen as their parents made coffee, and then the sound of small feet on the stairs as they came up to join me in my bed. There’s a still a stack of their books on my bedside table: The Gruffalo, Anna’s Secret Friend, Long Ago in the Mountains, The Amazing Bone. We read those stories over and over.

I made a large batch of pesto this afternoon, some for the freezer (those winter dinners…) and some for tonight’s supper. I was humming “September Song” as I peeled the garlic, brought in from the strings where it dried in the woodshed, stripped the basil from its stems.

But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

It’s dark earlier these evenings. I was reading in bed last night and was surprised to see that it was only 8:00 and I needed to turn my lamp on. When you are in the middle of those long summer days, you can’t imagine them being over. When you are surrounded by the voices of your grandchildren, you can’t imagine the quiet after they leave.

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you

apples on the stray

quotidian

blue cups

Shall I now continue this soliloquy, or shall I imagine an audience, which will make me describe…We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough—made me envious of the country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?”…
–from A Writer’s Diary, Saturday, August 12th, 1928

It’s always that, isn’t it? The phrase. And the dailiness of life. Today John is putting new glass into an old window, a blue-framed window from a derelict summerhouse in the yard of the house where we lived in North Vancouver before we came to live here. The summerhouse and big house were demolished after we left and we were given permission to take windows and other bits and pieces. The windows are at least a hundred years old and every few years some of them require work. Not usually new glass but new putty, areas of dry-rot scraped out, the frames repainted with the blue I chose 37 years ago at a paint store on Lonsdale Avenue (a sort of Wedgwood blue; I’ve never seen any reason to change it). The windows have old hardware that creaks a little as you wind the windows open and some of the panes are old warbly glass that make you woozy when you look through them.

As for me, I will making pies to freeze for the winter, using Merton Beauty apples and either blackberries or blueberries. I’ll freeze them unbaked but maybe I’ll make a small one for us. Maybe we’ll have a slice with cups of tea from those bright blue cups.

And I’ll continue to work at my desk, finishing up some small edits of an essay coming out in Brick later in the fall, finding my way into The Occasions, and changing into my bathing suit once it warms up enough for a swim. The light has changed. It has the faint golden promise of fall in it. This morning I looked out at the dog rose surrounding my bedroom window and noticed that the hips are red. What’s the phrase for this little hinge in the year, not yet autumn but creaking a little on summer’s axis, asking us to prepare, to replace old glass, to fill the freezer with the season’s abundance, to take the time to look at the trees.

“…the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing…”

backeddy docks

We were sitting on the deck of the Backeddy Pub in Egmont, waiting for our dinner, when someone at another table suddenly called out, Orcas! By the island! We stood at the railing and sure enough, there were two of them out where Jervis Inlet meets Sechelt Inlet. We watched them surface and then very elegantly disappear for a time, surfacing again further north. Then the couple sitting on the other side of us quietly said, There are more, just there between those boats…

Those orcas were hunting seals. They’d approach the little rocky islets where the seals pull out to bask and then there was a lot of splashing as they ambushed the seals. Meanwhile the people on the yacht fiddled with their crane, pulling up their zodiac, someone else was reading on the deck of a boat,

And then the huge beautiful orcas were gone.

For some reason, I thought of Auden, his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

reading Virginia Woolf on a grey Saturday morning in August

a writer's diary

Last night I had to force myself to stay in bed when I woke after midnight, wondering about the work I have in progress. The night is often such a wide and generous space for thinking and writing but I forced myself to stay in bed because I have a bit of a cold, a rough throat, and two weeks from today I will be in Kyiv and want to be healthy for that. Instead of getting up and coming down to my desk, I thought about the way the story I am writing is unfolding. It’s not as I imagined it. I thought it would be more of a piece somehow. Instead, there are sections told in the first person, there are sections that are simply calls and responses, there are overheard conversations, and there are lists. This may change of course. Right now I’m trying not to second-guess myself but simply to write. Later I can figure out if there’s a better way to arrange the sections, to tell the story and all its backstories. Its understories. At the chamber music festival last weekend, I was particularly intrigued by Timothy Corlis’s “Raven and the First Men”, a tone poem based on the Bill Reid sculpture of the same name. It’s a series of brief movements. The composer writes that, “The shortest movements titled “Bird Sanctuary I-III” are like the post-and-beam structure of the piece.” And yes, they served as structural shelters almost, where we could sit and hear rain, the waves, the sound of birds. In my work-in-progress, I think the equivalent structural element is the table. If it is to work as I hope it does, then linear time won’t be as important as what happens around it. Yes, the story will move forward but it will also linger around the table, hover over place-settings, ask a person to lean to their companion and ask for something to be passed. Meanwhile, the sun sets, the moon rises, and (this is becoming an ominous note in the story), the owls begin to call.

Speaking of companions, it is lovely to have A Writer’s Diary at hand. When I opened it this morning, to August 20th, 1930, I find this:

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

It gives me solace to read Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on her work. Lately I’ve heard young writers talk about their frustration with the “industry” they find themselves in and I’m glad to remember that it doesn’t need to be that. It can be that, of course, if people choose that. Lord knows there’s little enough money in the way I’ve chosen to do things! But for a little while yet, there’s room for other books and writers in the cultural conversation. We don’t need to write for markets, we don’t need to be guided by trends and fashions. Of course we probably won’t find ourselves popular fixtures on the reading circuits, on the bestseller lists, or in demand in a host of other ways. There’s still a place, a quiet place, for the books that don’t aspire to Big.

“The walks in the field are corridors…”

your table is ready

When I was about 21 and figuring out how to be a writer, I sometimes helped at an antiquarian bookstore on Fort Street in Victoria. I liked being there. There were old Persian carpets on the floor and shelves filled with treasures. The owner, who was a friend, gave me books instead of money and that was perfect. Once he presented me (there is no other word) with a copy of a first UK edition (though possibly not a first printing) of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. He made a little speech about her being a good model for me as a young writer and that he knew I would love the book. He’d enclosed a sweet card that I used as a bookmark, and yes, I did love the book. A year or two later I was teaching a writing course at the Y, the one across from Christ Church Cathedral, and I loaned books to the students in that way you do when you are very trusting. I think every book came back except A Writer’s Diary. I’ve borrowed it from the library many times but for some reason I’ve never replaced it. Well, let’s be honest. That particular volume, given in those circumstances, couldn’t be replaced.

A week or two ago, I needed the book. I’m writing a novella (I think it will be a novella, though there’s a chance it might be longer…) that takes as its template Mrs. Dalloway. An anticipated party, the preparations, and of course the flowers. The party in my book will be site-specific and the site is here, though the characters are not us and the house is a bit bigger (to accommodate all the guests who are arriving by ferry, car, plane) and there is even a little guest house, a tiny house on wheels, and that is something I’d love to have here but I don’t think we will take on the work at this point in our lives. My book will be called The Occasions. Even during the busy whirl of the past month, with visiting children and their children, with visiting musicians for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, I was awake many nights working at my desk. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I wanted the guidance of someone who knew how a book can take over both the waking life and the dreaming one.

I ordered a copy of A Writer’s Diary, the very elegant Persephone edition, and it arrived in today’s mail. I’m so happy to see that the end papers are based on the original Vanessa Bell cover! I opened to August, 1924, when I knew Virginia Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway.

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forget some most important intervening scenes: I think I can go straight at the grand party and so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense and ticklish business, and jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; and the walks in the fields are corridors; and now today I’m lying thinking.

Mine is a tale in which I know the place and thought I knew how the events would unfold but something dark is happening and I think I wanted to know that it didn’t need to take over my life. Someone isn’t invited to the party for a whole lot of complicated reasons and she has begun to haunt the proceedings. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. About her. In the meantime, the narrator is surrounded by loved ones, the flowers arranged in big jugs for the long table that is being set with French cloths on the grass by the vegetable garden, and someone is tuning her oud. Yes, her oud. I know nothing about these beautiful pear-shaped instruments but a woman has brought it out to the big rock to the south of the house and I can see the rosettes on its soundboard from where I sit. Or at least I’d be able to see them if she really existed and if an oud was truly being tuned for the party. The walks in the fields are corridors, Virginia wrote, and I am walking them, walking them, listening to music.

a little night music

drip

Last night I slept on the couch downstairs because John has a bad chest cold and I a)knew he would cough for a good portion of the night and b) I don’t want to catch the cold myself. The window above me was open wide and sometime after midnight I heard the rain begin. We have a metal roof and the sound amplifies. It’s lovely to listen to. I found the rhythm very regular and I tried to think how I would write it down. There is a pergola above the section of deck the window opens to and it’s covered densely with wisteria, grape vine, and clematis. When it had rained for a time, the water began to drip down from the green vines, irregular in tempo. There’s a capiz shell windchime hanging over the table (I think of it as our summer chandelier) and it periodically shook in the light wind. After a bit of fuss when the cat came in with some small creature, wanting to be praised while the catch ran away and hid (a shrew, either Sorex vagrans or S. monticolus, whom I believe has made an escape this morning through the door we left open for it after we watched it race across the kitchen floor), who could sleep? Not me. I turned on a light and picked up the book I was reading before bedtime: Listen to This, by Alex Ross. I read this collection of writing about music some years ago, not long after it was released in 2010. This past weekend, the young violist Evan Hesketh and his wife Farrah O’Shea were staying with us during the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival and we talked about how much we enjoyed Ross’s earlier book, The Rest is Noise. I left Listen to This out so they could sample its pleasures. Before bedtime, I re-read the essay on Bob Dylan and in the night I went to my favourite essay in the book, “Song of the Earth”, a piece about visiting John Luther Adams in Alaska and talking to him about music. I love JLA’s Dark Waves and so much more of his work, including the ravishing Become Ocean, an orchestral composition that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Somehow it was exactly right to be reading about him, reading his sources for music:

When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds. It’s symphonic. There’s candle ice, which is crystals hanging down like chandeliers. They chime together in the wind. Or whirlpools open up along the shore or out in the middle of the river, and water goes swirling through them. Or sizzle ice, which makes a sound like the effervescent popping you hear when you pour water over ice cubes.

In a room with high ceilings, I was reading about ice and listening to water, the lush harmonies of leaf rustle, shell chimes, water pinging on metal, and finding its way through dense green vines.

“What was I writing?”

moirs

Yesterday we were driving down to the final concert of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival (I’ve been involved since the first Festival in 2005 and it’s the most wonderful series of concerts over 3 days) and suddenly I was leaning against the car window as John negotiated the twisty highway past the Malaspina Ranch and up Misery Mile, scribbling into my little notebook. What are you writing, he asked, and I made a motion with my hand: Can’t talk now.

What was I writing? I had this image of us on a train, travelling through darkness, with small lights in the distance. And I realized it was part of the essay I’ve begun about my grandfather. I should have been keeping in mind all the things I needed to do once we arrived at the Music School in Madeira Park (part of a restored complex of Forestry Buildings overlooking the government wharf) but instead I was ahead of myself, on that overnight train we will be taking from Kyiv to Chernivtsi in September on our way to my grandfather’s village. There are things I hope will happen. I hope I will find evidence of the family he left behind when he came to North America in 1907. I hope I will learn something that tells me who he was in those early years. What he saw as a boy. I began the essay and then put it aside because I don’t yet understand the relationship between the little I do know and everything I don’t know. Perhaps will never know.

So for now, three photographs, a small archive of papers, two early but specific memories, a few names, dates, and enormous longing. And some lines in my notebook, written in pencil as we drove to a concert, anticipating the sound of a train passing through the darkness, with us inside, sleeping or not. When I think of it, I am excited beyond words. That we will travel backwards and forward, through time, to find memories if we’re lucky. Ghosts, too.

Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness – as if that is what love is: arrival after arrival.

— from Railtracks, by John Berger and Anne Michaels

 

redux: “nothing but August”

Note: our Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival begins today, a joyous weekend of beautiful music. We are hosting a young violist and his wife and all week we’ve heard him practicing at the far end of the house. There’ve been long sweet breakfasts where we’ve talked of music and everything else and a celebratory dinner at the home of our Festival Chair —a stone terrace overlooking the sea, set with tables, and everyone relaxed in the beautiful light, the clarinettist Jim Campbell and his son Graham (whom we commissioned to compose a piece for the Festival’s 15th anniversary this year) performing as the sun set. I was reminded of this 2016 post, in part because every year there are moments when I know I have been gifted with happiness. It’s transitory of course but worth remembering and celebrating.

____________________________________

beans.jpg

It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.

I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness… By the time I finished searching through just one trellis, my basket was full. To go and empty it in the kitchen, I stepped between heavy squash vines and around tomato plants fallen under the weight of their fruit. They sprawled at the feet of the sunflowers, whose heads bowed with the weight of maturing seeds.

–from Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I have to confess, John picked this particular basketful yesterday. But the happiness is mine too. To tie up tomatillos, cucumbers, to re-stake the tomato plants falling over with their abundance, to cut a bouquet of sweet peas on an August morning, a handful of rosemary, a Merton Beauty apple with exactly the right notes of sweet and spice — I wait during the dark mornings of January, the windy March afternoons, the damp Junes, for just these days. Sometimes I’m so busy just watering and deadheading or coiling hoses or weeding to notice. But we don’t get these days again. Or we do, but they’re changed, charged differently. We’re different. Older.

I’m going to sort the beans and then briefly steam a large pan of the smaller ones to dress with green Maille mustard, a squeeze of lemon, and walnut oil to take to a dinner tonight. And some of the larger ones, grown from seed I’ve saved for years, will be frozen. I’ve been pickling the really small tender ones. And tomorrow or the next day, there will be this many again.

The secret of happiness is that it’s momentary and transitory. I’m trying to remember to claim it and celebrate it when I realize it’s often as simple as beans, a dragonfly perching on the top of the trellis, the warm breathing of my husband in the night.

“how many times”

buckets

Today, after a morning rain, we went up just past the Malaspina Substation to pick blackberries. Last week there was a fire on the other side, beyond; the B.C. Wildfire site had it listed as the Sakinaw Lake fire but in fact it seemed to be over by Meadow Creek which drains into Oyster Bay. A month ago there was a small fire, started by lightning, beyond the little bay of Sakinaw Lake that is just below our house. In my bedroom one evening I saw the smoke and called the Wildfire number to report it. A man kept asking me about location and he had a map in front of him. I helped him as best I could and when he asked if the hill I was describing had a name, I started to say Grass Lake Mountain and then I remembered that this was our family name for the rise between Sakinaw Lake and Agamemnon Channel. Beyond that is Nelson Island. No, I said, I’m not aware that it has a name but due west of the top end of Ruggles Bay. An hour or so later, I could hear a helicopter over the area.

As far as we knew, the fire was completely out up past the Substation. And the patch where we were going to pick was one we’d noticed on our way back from picking more than a week ago. Our buckets were full that day and we passed a beautiful dense thicket with many ripe and ripening berries and today was the first day we had time to return. Guests arriving tomorrow for rehearsals for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival will have blackberry and apple (Merton Beauty) pie for dessert. I hope I’ll have time to make jam on Tuesday. We parked by the patch, just across from two buckets used by helicopters to fight the fire last week, one full of water (with a stamp saying Bad Water Do Not Drink), and the other empty.

Fire and blackberries. The nature of fire in our lives has changed. Many years there was a fire up the mountain. A few years ago we smelled the smoke from the Pemberton fires hazing the air over the lakes and giving the sun an eerie fluorescent glow. But we haven’t had two fires — or four, actually, because there was one at Klein Lake the same week that I called in the fire on Grass Lake Mountain and there was a difficult one on Cecil Hill, overlooking the little community where we shop and where our credit union is and our health centre. Anyway, we haven’t had fires so close to us that what we did and planned had to take them into consideration. To take a nearby fire into consideration is a new thing for me and I can’t say I’m easy with it.

In Back on the Fire (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007), Gary Snyder contemplates his own changing relationship with the proximity of fire. It’s about balance, how we treat the land, what we leave, what we are careful to protect and maintain. It’s about communities taking responsibility for clean-up and firebreaks and the right caution. In the essay “Lifetimes with Fire”, Snyder describes finishing the work of creating a firebreak. There are piles of brush to burn, carefully. We’ve always had these piles too. Prunings and scrap wood and stuff John regularly cuts away from the bank below the house where a fire could race up and take our home easily (it’s wood-framed, wood-clad). There’s a difference between the smell of a forest burning and the smell of a brush-pile burning, a hose nearby, a shovel and other tools in case of an emergency.

One late November day, standing by a twelve-foot-high burning brush pile, well-dressed for it, gloves and goggles, face hot, sprinkles of rain starting to play on my helmet, old boots I could risk to singe a bit on the embers. A thermos of coffee on a stump. Clouds darkening up from the west, a breeze, a Pacific storm headed this way. Let the flames finish their work—a few more limb-ends and stubs around the edge to clean up, a few more dumb thoughts and failed ideas to discard—I think—this has gone for many lives!

How many times
have I thrown you
back on the fire

When our grandchildren were here a week or so ago, we had a small fire in a ring of stones by the garden, roasting hotdogs wrapped in bannock, followed by marshmallows. The older grandchildren remembered autumn bonfires down the bank where the old orchard was, helping their grandfather add branches and sticks, roasting marshmallows for s’mores in light rain. There’d be thermos of coffee nearby, and maybe one of hot chocolate too. I remember the smoky smell of the children when I read to them later and I remember the smoke of those fires in my hair when I woke in the night to make an inventory of who was asleep in my house. Who’d returned, for how long, and how many more years we would stand by fires and talk.

Note: Thinking ahead to how busy I’ll be this week with the Chamber Festival, I got out my jam pan and made 12 jars of blackberry jam, flavoured with lavender I dried in late June. Our house smells of jam. Is there anything nicer?