This morning I’m at my desk, with my book Euclid’s Orchard, trying to figure out some things about citations for a new collection of essays, Blue Portugal. It’s been accepted by a publisher and we are finalizing some language in the contract. One area has to do with the style I will use for my citations. This whole area makes me uncomfortable because I’m not a scholar and the idea of using a rigorous scholarly apparatus for what are essentially personal meditations and ramblings seems sort of dishonest, as though I am dressing my work up in clothing it doesn’t deserve. Luckily I have a very congenial person helping me with this. She says we will try for a light touch and that sounds promising. I think of some of these essays as conversations. They engage other writers, musical scores, human and plant communities, some science, history; but they love the conversations themselves, not the outcomes; they like the voices, listening, responding, and they are grateful to be part of a large and generous world. Weighing down the book with complicated notes was never my intention. I remember having to include endnotes in my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees and hyperventilating most of the time I was working on those notes. I kept wishing I’d paid more attention to stylesheets in my university days, though to be honest they were different creatures in those days. They’ve evolved. I haven’t. Or at least I’ve traveled in a different direction but I still need to leave a guide to how I got there.
Looking into Euclid’s Orchard yesterday and this morning reminds me of the times before this pandemic. I was out in the world more. My friends and family are in these pages. They are also in my new book because most of it was written before last winter. One long essay, though, was begun just as rumours of a virus were circulating and in the way that these things happen, part of it was about an early pandemic: the Spanish flu. This sounds a little too convenient, doesn’t it? Writer explores her family’s experiences in the Spanish flu epidemic in a small Alberta town. But it’s true. I was led into the work by a a voice speaking as I was climbing out of sleep too early one morning last winter. What was it saying? A phrase: the river door. I wrote it down on a scrap of paper, went back to sleep, and when I got up for the day, I was filled with the sense of excitement I recognized as the beginning of an essay.
That essay is set outside, I am outside in it, on both sides of the Red Deer River, trying to find a homestead that no longer exists, though I knew it had once, because I had a couple of photographs and I remembered a few comments made by my late father about his childhood. It’s set outside and it takes place in company; my husband is with me as I cross the river, cross Michichi Creek, and one of my sons and his family are with me as I try to think my way through some puzzles. The puzzles were partly solved. There’s a map that a helpful librarian found and sent to me.
When I look into Euclid’s Orchard, I am outside again, planning an orchard 40 years ago, raising children, learning to make quilts based on our house, the stars, a blue window in the room where one son slept. I hear the coyotes. I argue with my father about stuff. I take plants to Ottawa (on a plane! Imagine flying!) and I bring seedlings home.
We often talk about how lucky we are during these difficult times. We have a house to live in, we have acres of land, enough money to buy food, each other to talk to. We’ve had some challenges—a surgery gone sideways, resulting in damage we are still learning to cope with; loneliness; the sense that the world we love is not quite recognizable. But maybe better days are ahead. I hope they are, for all of us. And I hope my new book will wear its small learning as lightly as it can, its conversations temperate and civilized, its discoveries as interesting to others as it they were for me.