I use photographs as visual notes while I’m writing. I use other things too — stones, dried flowers, fossils, seed pods. But photographs help me to summon up textures, experiences, and they usually begin another kind of process: they lead me back into the world I’m writing about in such a visceral way that I look up after a bit and can’t believe I’m here, at a desk on the west coast of Canada, and not wherever the photograph has allowed me to return to.
This morning, writing about the villages I visited in western Ukraine, I’ve been looking at mouse-traps (and a rather fierce looking rat-trap) in the market at Kosiv. They were part of one merchant’s display and I watched for a little while as one person after another looked at them, talked to their maker, and fished into pockets or purses to buy one or more. I don’t understand Ukrainian so what I heard were low murmurs, almost guarded, because I guess no one likes to confess they have enough vermin to warrant traps. Sometimes we have enough. We used to hear mice in the walls but then in January of 2017 our cat Winter came to live with us. We were kind of relieved because we thought our days of mice would be over and in truth I don’t hear them in the walls any longer. But Winter likes to bring creatures into the house, using the cunning little door John built for him in a window opening— we didn’t want a door at ground level because raccoons and skunks would use it too. I’ll hear the little squeak as the door opens and then the sound of Winter racing along the hall and up the stairs to bring us his prize. But then he’ll stop to wash a shoulder or to meow even louder so we’ll wake to praise him and the mouse will escape. I’ve never known Winter to catch a mouse inside the house. Traps have to be set under bureaus or behind a hutch so that the cat won’t investigate them and lose a toe. When I look at this photograph of traps at the Kosiv market, I regret not buying one. Maybe it would have made all the difference.
I’m also using photographs to recall the process of making lizhnky, the most beautiful wool blankets woven by Hutsul people in the Carpathian mountains. We visited a workshop and learned something of the steps involved; I was particularly intrigued by the valylo, or wooden tub under the workshop where a diverted strand of river tumbled the woven blankets to shrink them and tighten their threads. The weaver told us that the time the blankets spent in water depended on the season and the temperature of the river. She was stirring and lifting the submerged blankets with a forked stick and she said, the river is life.
On our way to Yavoriv, where the blankets are woven, I called to our driver, Stop, stop, because I saw a bridge over the Rybnytsya River entirely covered with fleeces. They’d been given a preliminary rinse in the river and were drying in September sunlight.
Note to self: why didn’t you buy a blanket? Then you wouldn’t have to try to remember the scent of the wool, the feel of it as the weaver guided your fingers on the spindle.