“in the eyes of fish” (Bashō)

ghost fish

During the past four or five days, as news of one catastrophe after another fills the news cycle, I’ve been working on a quilt. I thought it was a bow to swimming — and perhaps it is. I thought of how I wanted to arrange vertical strips of blue cottons, pieced from Japanese momen and other prints, adjacent to red cottons, and how they would be a companion piece to my swims up and down a lane in a blue pool. But then when I kept seeing the images of rivers overflowing their banks, washing away roads, small towns, and now whole farms in the Fraser Valley, I realized that my thinking about lanes had shifted to rivers. I thought of the blue strips as rivers, deep and turbulent. And disrupted. I don’t know any other way to think deeply. I do things. I sew. I swim. Or I work in my garden. While I do these things, my hands at work give my mind a shape for thinking. I can’t begin to describe this any other way. It might sound strange but I’m used to it. So when I was piecing this quilt together, the one I’ve been describing on this blog for the past few days, I was pulled into the rivers I’ve known and loved, pulled right into their water, their turbulence. I was mourning the loss of salmon eggs washed from their gravel nests in the wild flow from the atmospheric rivers. And this is in the quilt, for my own understanding if not for anyone else’s.

Yesterday I bought a soft cotton batting for the middle layer. I don’t want much loft. I want a smooth surface for the red sashiko stitching I’ll be quilting through the three layers. The third layer, the backing, well, that was going to be a deep blue cotton I also bought yesterday. But somehow it seemed too static, too sombre. Though of course this is sombre thinking.

In the basket where I keep the indigo cottons I’ve dyed over the years, I have a couple of sheets, bought at thrift stores, that I prepared when I was dyeing something else. (I like to use up every bit of the dye.) I’d wrapped some of the surface with string for an arashi effect — usually you’d use a piece of wooden dowel or pvc pipe for this but I simply wrapped part of the sheets with hemp string. Because the sheets are big, there are areas of the surface without much pigment. But I’ve kept them because I thought I’d use them for something. As it turns out, the back of a quilt…There are two that are more or less the right size. One of them has really good colour in two areas. But when I held up the other one, I realized it was one I’d printed with wax-relief salmon, just a few of them, hoping that they’d show up after the sheet was dyed. I remember being disappointed because they are sort of ghostly. But right now? Ghostly is exactly what’s called for.

When the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō began his walk around the island of Honshū in the spring of 1689, a walk commemorated in his account, A Narrow Road to the Deep North, he wrote a haiku to set the journey into motion.

行く春や                 Spring passing—

鳥啼き魚の            birds cry and tears

目は泪                    in the eyes of fish.

Fish have survived cataclysmic climate shifts before. During the last ice age, salmon found their refugia, living and breeding in isolated areas, enduring glaciation, flooding, volcanoes. I hope they can survive this latest round of devastation. In the meantime, I’ll sew and think of them, think of the rivers that they are born in and return to, and give them a place of honour, if not the one they deserve.

6 thoughts on ““in the eyes of fish” (Bashō)”

  1. Of course you two have been on my mind as I watch the devastating news reports. This disaster feels near to me, and is so much nearer to you. Sending virtual hugs.

  2. For some reason my techno-imps haven’t been passing along word of your new posts as they usually do so in my mind you were busy stitching instead of blogging. I was delighted to discover two new posts today so thank you for stitching AND blogging. The new meaning for your quilt feels perfect, especially with the addition of the ghost salmon on the reverse. Brilliant! Never throw anything out. I’ll be curious to see whether the sashiko meanders or stays in its channels . . . or maybe some and some. I know exactly what you mean about work of the hands freeing the mind, though in my case it’s often the less poetic chore of cleaning the litterbox.

    1. I started the actual quilting this morning, Susan, and it’s lovely to be using the sashiko needles again. They’re very sharp and strong, with tiny ridges, and they ease through the layers.

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