Yesterday we drove home from Kamloops where we spent a few days doing the things we love to do in that beautiful landscape. We drove down to Nicola Lake for a picnic and a swim. We stopped on the roadside to collect some sage and rabbitbrush. We walked along the Thompson River, listening to water. We ate a wonderful dinner at the Brownstone Restaurant while trains passed outside in the dark. We turned off onto roads we’ve never driven on before–Long Lake Road, Paul Lake Road–and saw a Great Grey Owl swoop across the road right in front of us, settling on a tree where it preened and surveyed the world. We saw horses, hawks, sunrises from our bed in the Plaza Hotel, and the beauty of tule rushes turning russet in the marshes.
What I didn’t do: I didn’t gather pine needles for baskets, although at one point John wondered if I would. When I was writing my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, we took a special trip into the Thompson-Nicola area specifically so I could gather needles from beloved places and then attempt to weave them together as baskets of memory.
The Red Hill needles are easy to place. They settle into the embrace of the Kamloops Lake trios, smooth as they circle and rise to the moment when the next bunch is introduced. A hesitation here, then here, as a needle snaps, as I run out of thread, as the short length demands that I stop and choose another trio. Pause, and step, and move with the weaving. A basket of dry leaves grows as I work.
If you detect music in that passage, good for you. The chapter, or essay, that I’m using is called “Pinus ponderosa: A Serious Waltz”, and I tried to write some of it in waltz time. (Writing to particular and specific rhythms is a challenge I set for myself when something requires it. In my forthcoming book, Blue Portugal, there’s an essay using the dance structures of Bach’s Violin Partita no. 2 in D Minor.)
Now that I’m home, I’m wishing I’d taken the time to gather pine needles. I was thinking, Oh, you have too many other things to do this winter and you won’t have time to make baskets and anyway, you aren’t very good at it. But I’m remembering the intense satisfaction of finding a way to weave smoothly, to figure out how to stitch more regularly–the basket on the left is the first one I made and it’s kind of a mess but you can see that my stitching improved by looking at the inner part of the larger basket on the right–, how finding good linen thread that I waxed by drawing it through a small block of beeswax made all the difference, and I regret that I left empty-handed.
Or did I? I have these baskets. I have a few more made by others and each one holds something. Fossils, a tiny feather, a whole complicated history of walks under pine trees over decades.
In this story, the children have all left home but their ghosts still run down into the kikuli pits at Nicola Lake, gather pine cones to burn in the campfire after shaking them first to release the seeds, and beg for another hour of play before settling down for the night in their sleeping bags. During pauses in the telling, loons call, a coyote yips, and listen! Wind off the lake stirs the wild roses by the shore. Or is it a bear feeding on the blushing hips?
This basket is too small to hold much more than memories, though in a way the world is constructed of such things dreamed into being and remembered in all their textures: pine needles, the stray feathers of a nuthatch, a dazed bat found once under bark, emerald beetles in flight or tiny brown ones burrowing into healthy trees and leave as a death sentence the strange scribble of their life cycle. Remembered as a gracious dance of the living and the dead in the perfection of sunlight. As though memories are enough to feed the beloved in their afterlife, as though nothing else would do.