how road music leads to an essay

We just spent a few days away from home, driving up to Lillooet the first night, then taking Highway 99 through Fountain and Pavilion where the road meets Cariboo Highway 97. This is the loveliest way to see the Fraser River with the benches on either side falling to the fishing rocks, everything grey-green with sage.

fish rocks

These roads are perfect for Emmylou Harris, her sweet voice singing us the whole way to Ashcroft and more of her the next day driving down Highway 5A to Merritt. “The Shores of White Sand”,

‘Cause my heart’s been skipping
Like a flat rock on water
And with each ripple
The further I’m gone

and Patty Griffin’s gorgeous “Moon Song”:

Followed your road till the sky ran out


And though it never ran out, that huge blue sky, you could lose your heart to the wide pastures with cattle and paint ponies, a coyote watching the river, and all the forlorn cabins:

Time go easy on me tonight
I’m one of the lost sheep alright

I kept making notes. Why do some road trips lead to essays and some don’t? I have no idea. But there are times when the landscape shimmers, when the mare turning her face to you when you stop by the fence is somehow your soulmate, when the trumpeter swans on Nicola Lake swim close to the shore so that you can see 3 adults and 3 juvenile cygnets, still grey but nearly the size of the parents and the other adult with them. You text your children to say how the park where you once camped every summer with them is as beautiful as ever, and unchanged, and two of them respond immediately. So you are all there, in that moment, walking down for a swim from your campsite, the black dog Lily settled in the shade of the tent-trailer.

across nicola lake

We’d never taken the road up to Tunkwa Lake and there it was, open and empty. Past ranches, past marshes with remnants of blackbird nests, a field with three sleepy donkeys and the dog keeping guard coming to sniff me out when I stopped to photograph his charges:


We listened to the entire Western Stars cd on the Tunkwa Lake road. It’s like an old-fashioned orchestral tone poem, in a way, with brief intimate lyrics:

I lie awake in the middle of the night
Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right
Now the heart’s unsteady, and the night is still
All I’ve got’s this melody, and time to kill

and huge anthems that somehow match the country we were driving through:

Moonlight, moon bright
Where’s my lucky star tonight
The streets lost in lamp light
Then suddenly inside
Suddenly inside
There goes my miracle…

All the while, making notes, little scratches in my journal, the colour of the birches, the sound of geese high, high, and the rounded river stones at least half a kilometer above the Thompson at Walachin, a line of geological history telling us what happened, and when. Two osprey nests on the Walhachin bridge, the old houses Bert Footner designed and built decades before he was our neighbour in Royal Oak, a man as old as god, it seemed like, when he came out to sit on his shooting stick and talk to me about horses.

On Tuesday, driving back from Merritt, I saw the road unfold in front of us as Van Morrison sang,

Traveling like a stranger in the night, all along the ancient highway
Got you in my sights, got you on my mind
I’ll be praying in the evening when the sun goes down
Over the mountain, got to get you right in my sight

and it’s a song I know every word, every note, and I sing along always:

And we’re driving down that ancient road
Shining like diamonds in the night, oh diamonds in the night
All along the ancient highway
Got you in my sight, got you in my mind
Got you in my arms and I’m praying, and I’m gonna pray
I’m gonna pray, to my higher self, ah don’t let me down
Don’t let me down, give me the fire, ah give me the fire

The memory of our fire, the one we built with resiny pine, and kept our coffee pot warm on a rock in its ashes, that fire, I could lead you to it in a campsite on Nicola Lake in 1988, children in their pajamas roasting a last marshmallow, everything golden with pollen from the pine that spreads its generous branches over our tent. Don’t let me down.



highway 5

highway 5

I woke at 5:30 and opened the curtain of my room on the 5th floor of the Plaza Hotel in Kamloops. We’ve stayed here many times. I love its placement in the older part of the city and how from this particular room I can see Highway 5, cars heading to and from the Yellowhead Highway. Sometimes when we stay here, we drive down Highway 5A to Quilchena and Merritt—that’s what we’ll do today—and sometimes we are returning from somewhere. Like Edmonton, the first time we met our granddaughter Kelly in 2014. (When we got the call to say she’d been born, we loaded up presents in our car and raced to hold her, the tiniest girl, and to congratulate her parents.)

This morning I said to John, it makes me wistful to look at the cars heading north on Highway 5 and he replied that we could easily change our plans and go to Edmonton to visit our family there. But I reminded him that they are all heading to Europe later this week on matters of mathematical import. That little girl, now 5, and her brother, 3, will live in Paris and Munich for 5 weeks and then spend a week in Oxford. I made them drawstring bags to take on the flight. When they open them, they’ll discover magnetic games (Snakes and Ladders, Tic Tac Toe, Racing Cars), puzzles, finger puppets, and little pads and coloured pencils. So even if we did drop everything and drive the road I can see from my window, we’d be returning a day or so later. Hardly worth the drive.

So we’ll stick to our plan of meandering down Highway 5A, through the most beautiful grasslands on earth, and stopping to look at lakes, particular pines, like the one in this post for example. and maybe driving to Monck Park where we camped every summer when our children were young. I have in mind an essay and will be taking notes. Some things never change.

postcard, Fraser and Thompson Canyons

Through the tunnels, whoosh, the moment of realizing you are inside a mountain. Then stopping in Lytton to look down to where the Thompson sidles into the Fraser, driving Highway 12 along the Fraser River, first in light, then in shadow. John slowed for a coyote standing on the edge of the road, gazing at the river, but I missed it, drawn instead to the ochre flanks of the mountain on my side of the road. John said, I am so grateful to have a life where I can drive this road and see this beautiful country. Me too. Wish you were here.



When we came blackberry picking in early September, we missed the berries on this low plant, Rubus laciniatus; its fruit ripens after the Himalayan blackberries of early to mid August. In the patch where we went with our buckets, we did pick a bucket of the cut-leaf blackberries. Walking yesterday, I saw a small bird (too quick for me to be more specific) darting in under these strong canes. Even though these are an introduced species, they feed birds, and they feed the bears who are lurking around, waiting for the salmon to enter the creeks. I see seeds in coyote scats up where we pick berries every year. I could have picked a handful yesterday, there were enough for that but I left them, regretting it afterwards. The wonderful American poet Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Blackberry Eating”, ends this way, and making weather adjustments for Vermont, where he lived, and our more balmy west-coast, the timing is just about right:

…the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

I love the term, “introduced species”. It sounds so formal. Too formal, I suspect, for the actual process of plants finding a foothold in a place not their own, or at least not to begin with. They arrive in so many ways, as ballast, mixed with other seed, in imported plant matter, wrapped in damp cotton in the suitcases of those arriving from afar, wanting to bring something of their old lives with them. (There’s a walnut in my little change purse, picked up from a park in Kyiv last month, and some hollyhock seeds from the churchyard in my grandfather’s village.) I’m not making light of what can be hugely and dangerously problematic: an invasive species edging out a native one, creating imbalances in ecosystems, and everything else that can and does happen. But I think of the benefits too, though predicting them, weighing them against the damage, is not science I’m qualified to engage in. How many gardeners choose seeds that remind them of plants their parents or their grandparents grew? One of my favourite tomatoes is Black Krim, with origins in Crimea. I don’t grow many potatoes but like to have a few hills of French fingerlings, with their buttery yellow flesh suffused with pink veins.

In Ukraine last month, I loved the fields of sunflowers in the western part of the country, grown for their oil. The fields went on for miles, as lush and vivid as sunlight. They are mainly Black Peredovik sunflowers apparently and now I wonder if those are also the seeds I buy for the bird-feeders in winter? The seed I am currently hand-feeding, in small amounts, to my morning breakfast companion, who eats a few and takes the surplus away to store. I’m going to plant a few next spring to see what happens. I’ll look forward to this over the coming winter, with its long cold days. Here is the bird, paused between seeds.


I am grateful these days to the colour of blackberry leaves, the morning cry of the Steller’s jay in the fir outside my kitchen, the scent of cedar kindling catching in the woodstove in the morning. The other day, as light was falling, I heard geese against the mountain, though I couldn’t see them because of all the cloud. But think of them! Following a signal and a map that we know nothing of, making their scribble against the sky, turning and calling to one another in clouds, and in darkness. I paused on the side of the highway on my way back from the mailbox. Galway Kinnell again:

What do they sing, the last birds
coasting down the twilight,
across woods filled with darkness, their
frayed wings
curved on the world like a lover’s arms
which form, night after night, in sleep,
an irremediable absence.

“…faces looking up, eyes luminous with life.”


This morning, getting ready to head out for my swim, I surprised myself by stepping on something hard on the carpet by my bed. It was a little pearl button, fallen from my nightdress. I put it aside and will sew it on later. Buttons have been on my mind lately as I revise and tidy the final version of a manuscript before trying to find a publisher for it. Buttons, because they figure in many of the individual essays in the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. I use buttons as embellishments on quilts and of course looking at them as I sew them, I am curious about their origins, both the buttons I am sewing as well as the concept of buttons in our culture(s). One of the essays is called “Anatomy of a Button” and here is a little extract:

After my visit to the optometrist, I come home thoughtful. I have seen my inner eye with its small scars, discs securing my retinas in place. I have a dark path of silk and linen and indigo cotton and I have a basket of akoya buttons that I run my thumb over as I shake a few into an oyster shell to see how I might use them on this quilt. I imagine the process of stamping the buttons out of shells and then seeing them sized and polished, drilled with holes (mine all have two holes, though I’ve seen them with four), left loose or sewn onto cards for distribution to stores.

Sinew, gut, veins, threaded through holes in needles made of bone or tied securely to one end, guided through hide and fur, 30,000 to 60,000 years ago, and possibly longer. Plant fibres, twisted and turned until a strong thread was ready to attach one thing to another, snares and nets and fasteners created to hold clothing to the body, tying the knot, using a well-knapped flint to cut the end. In Greek mythology, the Moirai or sisters of Fate spun the threads of our lives, measured them to determine the length of our lives, and cut them to end our time on earth. The threads of our past, our present, and our future spun, and measured, and cut with shears. We know something of this cycle in our own bodies: we are born, the cord connecting us to our mothers cut, our days measured out, our own children born out of our bodies, the cords cut and tied off to make them separate from us, the large artery of our heart distributing oxygenated blood until it can no longer keep us alive. Maybe we have sewn, maybe we have threaded needles, pushed them through cloth, gathered and smoothed and trimmed the threads, and we have sewn buttons, mended tears in our clothing or our children’s clothing, patched and layered, we have drawn cord through a seam and pulled the cord tight until the opening closed and whatever we had gathered in a bag was safe for now. Maybe we have put our mending aside and waited for a quieter moment, sunlight on our favourite chair. A clean oyster shell holding buttons, faces looking up, eyes luminous with life.


I’m in the process of changing my website and I’m no techie so the progress is slow and a little daunting. I’m trying to make it easier on your (my) eyes and maybe simpler to find your way around. But is it simple for me to find my way around the area that allows me to customize the pages or create new widgets or, or, or…? Not yet.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate the big-leaf maple, so beautiful right now. Let’s celebrate the Kwanzan cherry out the back door, filled with sunlight this afternoon.


Last night I had two nightmares, filled with imagery so terrifying that I was afraid to sleep again. I know it was because I watched the election news. Things could have been a lot worse, that’s for certain, but they also could have been a lot better. Our planet deserves our care and attention and I’m afraid the climate emergency won’t receive the focus that it requires at this point in our history. So we’ll do what we can. Look at the trees, dig out the garlic bed, and share breakfast with this loud companion who is waiting by the sliding doors every morning.

wing feathers of jay