the beginning of a story

Last night I paused at the window at the top of the stairs and saw a huge bull elk standing in almost exactly the same place as the big black bear on Saturday morning.

autumn bull

Earlier yesterday I thought I’d heard elk in the woods, two bulls challenging one another in the high-pitched bugle that is unlike anything else. This is the time of year when they fight for their harems and I’ve heard them in our woods before in mid to late September. I haven’t seen a bull right up by our house though. There was a calf behind this bull and maybe other elk in the woods too, though I didn’t see them. I don’t know where the rival is right now or how wide the expanse of his antlers.

The bull stood for some time, watching us watching him. We took some pictures. He sniffed a bit. He turned his head so we could admire his profile. He might have been thinking about a late snack of crabapples or maybe he just wanted to rest.

side look

Years ago, in the 1970s, I lived in Ireland and I had the opportunity to see some of Barrie Cooke’s sublime work. I don’t think I saw his Megaceros Hibernicus until later, though (I don’t believe it was painted until the 1980s so maybe I saw it when I was in Ireland in 2001; and it’s the cover image for a book I keep close to hand: Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, edited by John Wilson Foster), but I remember stories about elk antlers appearing in ancient peat bogs and how the species had become extinct in part because of the breadth of its antlers. They were palmated, like North American moose, and the structures were wide and heavy; they required huge amounts of calcium and other nutrients to create and sustain their growth. (The etymology of the genus is beautifully specific: μεγαλος megalos “great” + κερας keras “horn, antler”.) There’s a haunting image of the elk in the caves of Lascaux:

elk at lascaux

On the webpage of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, I read this note on Barrie Cooke’s Megaceros Hibernicus and thought of the elk at the top of the driveway:

For Cooke the elk represented a powerful symbol of pre-civilised consciousness. In Cooke’s painting the elk emerges from the gloomy bog-land with its enormous antlers treated like massive antennae transmitting, as it were, a message from the past. Yielded up by the bog, the elk demonstrates the process of perpetual interchange that occurs in the cycles of nature.

Our woods are dense and an animal conducting love and war among the trees and undergrowth might find itself impeded by the wide breadth of its antlers (along with climate change and big-game hunting). A message from the past to the present: be careful how you move between the cedars and firs. The beginning of a story that might not end happily ever after.

the sound of the drawers sliding in and out

I’ve been thinking ahead about winter. I don’t expect the current pandemic protocols to change much so I know there will be months at home, the fire quiet in the kitchen, a few quilts in progress, and what else, what else? Writing of course. I hope to do some final edits on a collection of essays (more on this as it evolves), I am thinking about making another essay chapbook (because I found that process so completely lovely last February when I put together Museum of the Multitude Village just before, well, everything else), and I have in mind organizing my vast and untidy recipe collection. Not the cookbooks but the scraps of envelopes with notes jotted down, methods detailed, lists of possible buttercrunch recipes but one of them so soiled you can barely see whether it’s one cup of butter or four, the file cards with cassoulets and roasted carrot salads from Matthew in Wiltshire (now in Yorkshire), Edith Iglauer’s hazelnut torte which she’d bring for dinners, often birthday dinners, the delicious gratin of turnips (I know!) surreptitiously scribbled on the back of a shopping list from a cookbook in a bookstore: anyway, those. Brendan made me a recipe box in grade 8 shop class but it only holds about half of what I’d like to organize.

So in Brentwood Bay on Monday, during a quick trip to the Island to help Angelica celebrate her birthday, we were in an antique store, looking around, when I saw this:

recipe box

Well, before I saw this one, I saw a tall card catalogue cabinet, made of beautiful golden oak, as tall as I am (5’6”). I pulled out its drawers and imagined each of them containing information about a library’s holdings. I loved browsing the card catalogues in the libraries of my youth. The ones in the vast rooms at the corner of Yates and Blanshard Streets in Victoria where we went each Saturday to choose the week’s books, the ones at UVic when I was a student, and in every library in the years between those. Part of the pleasure was what you discovered after you found the book you needed. You jotted down its call number and then, if you had time (or even if you didn’t), you began to read the cards before and after that one.

So I lingered by the tall cabinet and rummaged through the boxes of lead and wooden type, texted John who was nearby in a cafe:

Me: they have some wooden initials, some lead type too.
J: I have all the type I’ll ever need.
Me: they have spacing materials and lock-up stuff!
J: I don’t need any of that.
Me: they have a small paper cutter!
J: Ok, I’m coming.

And then I saw the small version of the cabinet. Just two drawers. Honey oak, said the card. The drawers moved smoothly in and out. I’d already told John I wanted to organize my recipes this winter so he encouraged me to buy it. And the paper cutter? He bought that. (For years we used the one at the college where he taught as well as the one at the local high school. But then he retired and so did every teacher we knew at the high school so we were left without a cutter. We’d always looked for them at printing supply places but never found one that was the right size. The owner of the store brought out some paper as well as card so John could make sure it was in good working order. And it was.) Angelica found the type drawer she wanted and so we packed our prizes into the car. Yesterday afternoon, arriving home, I brought my card catalogue into the house first thing. What was it used for? A small collection of books? Maybe the entire library of the tiny 1908 one-room schoolhouse preserved with love in Brentwood Bay? A list of parishioners at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church not very far away? I love its soft glow, the lovely brass label holders on each drawer, and the sound of the drawers sliding in and out.

Green grapes and late summer coyotes

sour grapes

I keep peering up at the clusters of grapes hanging over the west-facing deck. We planted the vine to cover a cedar lattice over part of the deck, along with wisteria and a Montana clematis, wanting a green shade in the hottest part of summer. I wasn’t hoping for grapes, exactly, though some summers they ripen in early September, just in time for the visits of bears and raccoons. Last summer* I heard a strange noise on the deck after dinner and looked out the living room window just in time to see a young bear falling from the lattice, bumping the cart that holds the kitchen herbs, and pausing as if to ask itself if the grapes were worth another try. Last summer they would have been but I chased the bear away with a broom and then picked the succulent clusters. (I made jelly with lime zest and rosemary.)

Two days ago, I woke early, around 4 a.m., to hear one coyote, perhaps two, in the woods beyond my house. We heard the entire family several times over the summer, an intricately entwined song so lovely I held it in my heart for days. But this call was lonely. Was the family disbanding, were the young, so exuberant in that mid-summer song, leaving to find their own way in the world? A lonely song I want to banish from my memory but I can’t stop thinking about it.

This year the grapes are hard and sour. I don’t think they’ll ripen enough to do anything with and I suspect one night we’ll waken to a ruckus that will prove to be a raccoon family feasting among the wide leaves, their eyes shining in the beam of the flashlight. So let me just say it again. The grapes are sour. They suit my mood. It’s the time of year when it’s easy to feel as though I’ve not done enough as a writer. My novella, published in June, has had 3 reviews and of course I’m grateful for those but I suspect that will be it. We’re moving into the season of big releases and prizes and a quiet novella about two women writers and their influence on a girl in the 1970s isn’t exactly news. I’m glad that other books will find their way into the country’s important conversations, I truly am. Websites and newspapers, online festivals, radio programmes devoted to writers—it’s not hard to find the latest releases. Books can open our hearts like spring leaves, offer a wide and lovely place for our sorrows and our pleasure, for escape and revelation. I am an avid reader: 4 or 5 books a week! I buy them to give as gifts, sometimes with a jar of jelly tucked into the bag. I trade them. I trip over stacks of them waiting on the stairs for shelf space or new homes. The underside of this bright leaf is the knowledge that so few will discover my own novella.

A quiet novella is a kiss of death if you think of literary ambition as a living thing. Do I have ambition? This is a hard question to ask myself and maybe harder to answer honestly. I have never believed I would write a bestseller or be a regular on the prize lists but I did believe that I was writing interesting books, worth a little more attention than they were receiving. There was a time when I thought my reticence towards the hustle and flow of literary activity might be what prevented my books from finding publishers able to promote them with both money and enthusiasm so I dutifully wrote to every agent in Canada as well as some in the US and Britain to seek representation. I am a diligent writer and I thought I could find someone to help with the selling of what I wrote. Some were polite but said no immediately, one or two were mildly interested at first but when the completed manuscript I had available at the time proved to be, well, quiet, they suggested we wouldn’t be a good match, and several were silent. A couple wondered if I would be interested in trying my hand at more commercially viable writing. A few were downright rude. One young-ish and lively woman actually said yes but then wouldn’t send the manuscript out to publishers, telling me it simply wasn’t ready. It was a novel based in some ways on books 9-23 of the Odyssey, set in both coastal British Columbia and the west of Ireland, and the agent read it again after we signed a contract, telling me she had a brilliant idea: I should re-write the novel matching the narrative exactly to that of the Odyssey, scene by scene. I gently pointed out that that my book did echo the Odyssey in subtle (or maybe I should say “quiet”) ways, that I’d had no intention of mirroring the Odyssey overtly, and I wanted it first to be its own story. My manuscript was returned to me, our contract was dissolved, and I was on my own. I did find a publisher for that book and it garnered a few good reviews, an award nomination, and even generous effort on the part of several readers to interest two different film-makers in acquiring the rights. Obviously there’s no film (yet) and sometimes I feel remorse that I am not the kind of person who can advocate confidently for such things but that’s (my) life. Mostly I’m glad to have small publishers interested enough to take on my work though in the best of times they often find it difficult to create a happy buzz for their titles. And these are not the best of times. Sometimes I wonder if I am my own worst nemesis. Nemesis in Greek mythology was the goddess of divine revenge and retribution. She was remorseless to anyone showing arrogance or hubris to the gods. Maybe I am so afraid of hubris that I am the agent of my own shrivelling ambition. Think of me, a handful of green grapes in one hand, the other hand shading my book so that no one will see it beside me.

green roof

A month ago, I was so grateful for the shade of the grape leaves. I sat outside almost every day at 5’o’clock with a glass of chilled wine, the table cool, a few tree frogs chirping from time to time. I have to say I barely noticed the grapes, didn’t stop to consider whether they’d ripen or not. Now they’re what I see when I head out to the deck with my wine, clumps of sour green grapes hanging over the table. Mostly I think about the bear and whether it will come for such bitter fruit but sometimes I grieve a little for the silence surrounding my book.

In good times and in bad times, I’ve listened for coyotes year round. I’ve heard them through my open bedroom window, mating quite close to the house. I’ve heard them chorus in accompaniment to emergency sirens on the long highway leading to the ferry terminal, I’ve heard them on warm summer evenings singing, their throats ululating with joy. They were eating meat together, they were playing at the mouth of the den, they didn’t know where one of them began and the other ones ended. The sound early the other morning was not joyous. It was the loneliest sound on earth.

I live in a quiet small novel. There are wide green leaves overhead. I am grateful for the shade they provide and sometimes I pick a cluster of ripe yellow grapes, each a pure expression of late summer. Some years, as with this one, I try a grape, spit out its sour bitter flesh. I don’t really mind if the bear climbs into the lattice for them. It would make for some drama on these fading summer days. And listen, those coyote songs in the chapter that is June, rich and tangled as our own extended family, they’ve gone quiet, just a single voice, as plaintive and lonely as a night without stars.

*Actually, I think it was the summer before. But this year a young bear has already come up the stairs onto the deck so another visit is entirely probable.

late summer paradoxes

apple leather

  1. That the apples you waited for, watering the tree along with what grew beneath it—primroses, grape hyacinth, herbs gone wild and rampant—testing a time or two, composting those unripe samples, finally filling 3 big shopping bags with juicy goodness, that you ate them, made pies with them, sectioned and froze in ziplock bags for winter crisps and sauces, that you spent a weekend drying, 10 pounds reduced to 8 jars of sweet supple slices.
  2. You are out of the habit of leisure.
  3. Your best crop was nasturtiums.

dream, dream, dream (with thanks to the Everly Brothers)

Dream, dream, dream, dream
dream, dream, dream, dream

This morning, photographs arrived: the first day of school for my older grandchildren. How the years have passed. In Edmonton, it’s grade one for K. She is wearing her favourite colour, purple, and her bike is ready for her, complete with ladybird bell.

first day, K

Wasn’t it just a month or two ago that we were driving along the Yellowhead Highway to meet her for the first time? Her father had called two nights earlier to say she’d been born and we spent a day packing up the car. We had gifts for her and her parents and I remember waking in Valemont at dawn after arriving there the evening before (a long day’s drive…), saying if we left right now, we’d be there in time for lunch.

kelly and grandma

When I want you in my arms

In Ottawa, it’s year two of kindergarten.

first day, A

This is a young man who knows the names of dinosaurs and the relative ages of fossils. When his younger brother was born, we visited, and I remember a picnic on the Madawaska River where A. and I sat on chairs by the slow river and talked about time. Well, mostly he talked, and I listened. He pretty much had it down. We talked about water and where it went and if Herakleitos didn’t actually come up, he was certainly in the air.

talking about time

When I want you and all your charms
Whenever I want you, all I have to do is
Dream, dream, dream, dream

I know that it wasn’t the school bus I heard coming from Egmont at 8 a.m. because school doesn’t start until next week in B.C. but I remember my children racing down the driveway to meet it, new clothes from the Sears catalogue, no lunch for the first day because it was only a half-day, and then listening again around noon for the bus to pause at our driveway to let them off. We’d have lunch and then head down to the lake for a swim. We could swim all through September and then one morning we’d wake and realize the time had passed.

It was quiet at the lake this morning. I swam, I thought of school, and how my mother took us to Spencers Store on Government Street in Victoria for clothing, and how I’d line up my blouses and skirts on my bed to imagine myself in them, a better version of myself, someone who would take more care with her printing, and try not to interrupt the teacher. I thought of walking to Sir James Douglas Elementary along May Street and then Moss, my lunch kit and school bag bumping against my legs, and how September in Victoria was always so mild. Like here. I couldn’t have imagined carrying a mask in my pocket, or wearing one, and keeping my distance at recess. I swam and thought of my grandchildren in this damaged beautiful world and when I came out to dry myself off, my face was wet with what might have been the lake and might have been tears.

Dream, dream, dream, dream

Do tables remember the weight of platters and flowers?

your table is ready

After a grey morning, a swim in water at least two degrees cooler than last week, an unsettling encounter with the corpse of a shrew on the deck by my bedroom, I thought it might be time for a little divination, via A Writer’s Diary. I have the lovely Persephone Books edition, with Vanessa Bell’s endpapers, and this morning I looked at September 7th, 1924, as Virginia Woolf was working on the final pages of Mrs. Dalloway.

There I am now–at last at the party, which is to begin in the kitchen, and climb slowly upstairs. It is to be a most complicated, spirited, solid piece, knitting together everything and ending on three notes, at different stages of the staircase, each saying something to sum up Clarissa. Who shall say these things?

I’ve been thinking of parties lately. Will we have them again? Will friends drive up our gravel driveway, parking in the rough area we call Wood Lane, by the little vernal pool where flag irises grow and where the elk stand up to their knees in early summer, eating the green tops? Will we push tables together and drape them with cloth, setting them with plates and silver—our family silver combined with the junk store collection we bought in Falkland some years ago, along with a silver candelabra out of an Ian Tyson song:

Does the wind still blow In New Mexico?
Do the silver candelabras yet shine?
Is Kathrine still queen of El Paso?
Never to be yours, never to be mine.
Out of reach like the pale moon that shines,
On the road to Las Cruces.

I think it was 2014 that we drove on the high desert near Las Cruces and I kept singing the song, watching for cattle and cowboys and hoping to return to a landscape so deeply storied that I wanted to spend more time listening and taking the side-roads into dry arroyos:

The line of desire, seven strands of barbed wire,
Will hold back the on rushing tide.
Many dreams have been brought to the border…

 

We ate tacos in small towns and slept in an old hotel in Las Vegas, not the city of lights and casinos, but a wonderful little city,  with leafy trees, saddle shops, and young men and women walking around the park across from our room. For dinner there was trout with pinon nuts and cold beer. Will we do that again?
 
Writing is a solace. I was at my desk in the night, trying to find my way into something new. I made notes and sat with my chin in my hands while the moon approached full in the tangle of firs. The corn, barley, and fruit moon, the moon of the hungry ghosts. Mine aren’t hungry, exactly, but they’re wondering if we will ever polish every wine glass we own and fill the galvanized tub with ice. If we will slip our feet out of summer sandals and dance on the grass. If, if, if. When I wrote the final scene of my Virginia Woolf inspired novella in March, just a day after our local pool closed, the same day we drove to Egmont for supper at the Backeddy Pub and realized it would be the last meal out for…well, we didn’t know for how long, when I wrote that scene (to wrangle this sentence back into its fenced enclosure), a meal to celebrate finishing, even though it was in the shadow of something scary and unknown, I somehow thought there might be a party this summer. We had some of our family here and that was lovely but we didn’t have a party. Do tables remember the weight of platters and flowers, do the owls wonder where everyone has gone? Why the firepit is cold, the little lights unlit?
 

Someone has brought out the old jar I filled with dragonfly lights and they flicker from the nest of ferns where the jar is nestled. Nick is a little drunk and his eyes are shining as he looks into mine. Listen, Alice, it’s the Old Country Fairytale. Let’s just dance and forget that a former friend came up our driveway with a knife. It’s hidden away now and she’s talking to Alex. There is a brief passage, near the end of the Fairytale, when Tom’s cello sobs with a low vibrato. We stop dancing and just hold each other, on the edge of the darkness. Tea-lights in their mason jars are golden, some glittering in a small firework of burning wax as they gutter out. The scent of burning cedar is intoxicating. I love watching the children around the fire, the girls dancing behind those in chairs, and the boys leaning on skinny legs to angle their marshmallow sticks over the glowing coals.

a day beginning with mergansers, with a bow to Du Fu

1.

morning mergansers

We didn’t expect to see anyone at the lake this morning, even though we went later than usual (because it was grey and cool). But a merganser just at where the water meets the sand and then another and another until there were 11. As we approached, they swam out, muttering a little, and then they drifted around the point. As I swam, there were small feathers on the surface of the lake, and still the shadows of mergansers as I moved through the water. The last day of August, water green with cedar light, a few feathers drifting, my arms muscular from a summer of swimming, and feet accustomed to the firm sand coming out. The seasons have their own memory of the lake: the year it froze in January, the return of the swallows in April, a canoe edging onto the rocks of the island in July, the cutthroat rising and entering the creek in October,

In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.

2.

monday's pie

If you were dreaming of pie, I told John as he prepared to head out to split firewood, well, you’re lucky because everything that could have gone wrong with the pie we are taking to friends tomorrow went wrong so I had to bake another. We’ll eat the failure after dinner tonight. Cutleaf blackberries, Merton Beauty apples, pastry too brown to give to anyone else. We will eat the one with two coyotes, faces to the stars, and a cascade of those around the edges, and our friends will cut the one with fish swimming head to tail, a gathering of stars in the centre.

The fish and dragons are still and silent, the autumn river cold,
A peaceful life in my homeland always in my thoughts.

 

3.at bukovets

Between the swim and the pie, I tried to figure out how to prepare an extended list of citations for a collection of my essays. Or rather I tried to figure out how to format the whole thing properly. The fonts clashed, the numerals were stubborn and wouldn’t accept the size I wanted for them, and I kept making sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything. I’m sure I did. I’d rather sit at my desk and listen to the maul splitting the dry fir, listen for the sound of fir cones tossed from the trees by squirrels beginning their hoards for winter. I’d rather remember how it felt to sit on lizhnyk in a place I never knew existed a year ago but now can’t stop thinking about, a ridge of mountain running the whole distance from my grandfather’s village in Bukovyna to my grandmother’s house in Moravia, a line connecting them before they knew each other. And how a century later I would look beyond and beyond, the Rybnytsia and the black Cheremosh rivers dividing in the mist, while musicians urged us to dance, drink a glass of horilka flavoured with mountain ginseng, because tomorrow, who knows what may come.

All day I sit by the river in my tower on the green hill.

quotidian: Sunday morning, with thanks to Wallace Stevens

Note before reading: all morning I’ve been thinking it’s Sunday but it’s not! Not yet. Either I’m ahead of myself or behind or maybe time doesn’t matter at all.
 green roof
1. The French cloth has been folded and brought inside so that you’d never know that we actually had friends come the other evening for a distanced glass of wine with dessert. We sat out under the green roof, eating almond cake flavoured with zest from our last Meyer lemon, taking up a conversation that began 35 years ago either here or at their home on Oyster Bay or both places. A tree frog chirped from somewhere in the grape vine above us and there were hummingbirds in the fuchsia, a chickadee stepping over the lattice. When it was time for the evening to end, one friend asked, Were those swallows or bats gliding through the sky just as the sun set? And it was either, or both.
                                               …evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
plums
2. They brought a basket of plums and later this morning I’ll pit them and sugar them so they can sit overnight, soaking up the sweetness and the warmth of a vanilla bean; tomorrow I’ll make the jam from the Pays Basque to have in winter on toast or with sharp cheese, the scent of late summer rising from each jar as it’s opened.
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
4 trunks
3. As I swam at 9 a.m., I realized that all summer the cedars have been my guides. Every morning from June until late September I begin at one end of the beach, using the four trees growing from a single root system as a starting point, and I stroke to the other end, maybe 60 meters, to where young cedars overhang the water. On these late summer mornings, there’s a patch of sunlight there where tiny grey flies dance on the surface of the water. I turn and return, watching for the cedars, turn and return, thinking about the months ahead, the dark months, the quiet nights, turn and return 10 times, the water cooler now, and bird tracks waiting to lead me out.
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer…

letter from a summer kitchen

peachy

As soon as I heard that Olia Hercules was publishing Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine this spring, I asked our local bookseller to order me a copy. It arrived a few weeks ago but somehow I didn’t have time to open it and savour the recipes and the photographs.  But in the past three days, I’ve read the book cover to cover and although I have a few small quibbles—the notes for making uzvar, for example, have been cut short—I love this joyous testament to tradition and making the most of what one has at hand. To my delight, there’s a whole section titled “Summer kitchen memories”: Hercules appealed to Ukrainians from everywhere to send their experiences of this lovely phenomenon: a rustic building set apart from the main house, meant for preserving and social activity centered on food. These are small essays in themselves: “A secret attic and the foam from the jam pan”; “Homemade butter and dried apples”; and the gorgeous “Rhubarb buns and hailstorms”.

This time last year I was preparing for a trip to Ukraine with my husband and my daughter. We chose a company specializing in small cultural tours because honestly? I felt out of my comfort zone without any Ukrainian and unsure of whether I’d feel ok with renting a car and driving the rough roads in search of my grandfather’s village. I’ve never been on any kind of tour before but this one was stellar. There were just 7 of us and most of the time we were driven in a van by Roman, who was flexible and kind of unflappable. Our guide, Snizhana, was lovely and also unflappable. When 8 members of my grandfather’s family turned up at our hotel to meet me, she spent hours with us, helping us to make family trees to determine just how we were related. We made a video call to Forrest in Ottawa (also unflappable) to ask for some information I knew he had at his end. But what I really wanted to say here was that Roman drove us daily for 4 days up and down a steep road in the Carpathians to our hotel and we passed a couple of farms and there was a smell in the air, like wine-y fruit, like smoke, like summer becoming autumn, and one morning at breakfast, there was a jug of something called uzvar and it tasted like that smell. Earthy and smoky and I couldn’t get enough of it. The recipe is in Summer Kitchens.  A dried fruit infused drink made with pears or apples or cherries (or all three, with plums maybe), and in this book there’s even a recipe for how to dry the fruit (which would have been dried and smoked in the wood-fired masonry oven called a pich) in a warming oven, then smoke it on a barbecue with fruitwood chips. For the past day or two I’ve been wondering what to do with the 60 pounds of Merton Beauties John picked the other day, an apple with a spicy pear-ish edge to its flavour, and now? I’m going to dry some and make uzvar.

uzvar

I realize too that the farms on that steep road had summer kitchens. The families were sitting under trees at wooden tables and chimneys jutted from small buildings near the main house. We’d drive up or drive down and I’d press my face to the window by my seat, wanting to know everything about their lives because I felt that I might find myself there, another version of myself, the granddaughter of a man who stayed and married and who knew what to do with the bushels of pears and cucumbers. A woman knew how to make fresh cheese and horseradish horilka and who would take apples to the market to sell from a basket at her feet.

Today in my summer kitchen I made 3 peach pies (unbaked) for the freezer with some of the 20 pound case I got in Sechelt the other day, I sliced and froze 8 pounds more of the peaches to wait in ziplock bags for a winter dessert, and I made a double batch of pesto, also for the freezer. I don’t have a pich but I do have a maple worktable and lots of light and the otherworldly voice of Rhiannon Giddens to make the work go well.

On that road in Ukraine, the air held the smoke of fires preserving fruit for winter and this book holds that too. And so much more. Recipes for varenyky stuffed with berries or homemade cheese, for kvas and borsch (with duck and smoked pears), for sourdough breads brushed with garlic oil. And I’ll remember this man who stopped so we could stroke his gentle horse’s face.

P1140291

In an essay I wrote about traveling to Ukraine, I used brief passages from folk poems. This one spoke to me so deeply:

My dear mother, what will happen to me if I die in a foreign land?
Well, my dearest, you will be buried by other people.

But they would still be mine, wouldn’t they? The women in their summer kitchens, fermenting tomatoes in big jars, the children gathering windfalls, the dogs asleep in the dust.

redux: September song, with boom box

I know it’s not September yet but it’s in the air. And during this morning’s swim, in water a little cooler than I like it, I thought of John Berger, swimming, his “texts in a wordless language”, and I remembered this post from early last September.

________________________________________________

As we were walking down to the lake this morning, to the area where we swim most days before the beach-goers arrive, we could see a young couple just coming out of the water. You beat us to it, I told them, and the woman said quietly, It’s beautiful. They both had the look. I know it. The way you feel after a swim in water that is full of weather somehow, lit green by sun and reflected cedars, pierced with dragonflies, shadowed by the mountain we live under, and wrinkled by light air movement this morning. You are never more yourself but you don’t even begin to think that while you are there. For a few moments, there was the sound of a boom box somewhere and then it was replaced by a loon warbling near the little islands half-way across the lake.

(Yesterday, a video of my Edmonton grandchildren showed them clutching new music boxes, exactly like the one I have on my desk, the one that plays Für Elise, that I bought at Mouat’s store on Salt Spring Island a few years ago, and my granddaughter told us proudly that she has a boom box. She turned the handle and across the mountains I heard the faint and familiar notes of Beethoven.)

grandma's boom box

I finished reading John Berger’s Confabulations last night. In the essay “On Vigilance”, he wrote about swimming. He is in a pool, doing lengths, and he watches a tree he can see through the glass walls surrounding the pools. It’s a maple. Drawing it later, he realizes that what he has made is a text, “…a text of a silver maple tree.” I think we are always wanting a code for the moments of our lives that are numinous. I swim. I try to tell you how it feels to be in a lake made of weather, to come out the water with the muscular memory of it on my legs and my shoulders, to carry its scent home with me so that later in the day I stop, touch my hair, realize that I can smell the lake in the braid on my back.

When I was a child, my family camped on St. Mary’s Lake on Salt Spring Island. I lived in the water. It was green, it was light-filled, it held a girl’s body as tenderly as a mother cradles a baby before sleep. When I bought the music box in a store we’d visit on those camping trips so that my father could pick up fishing lures or kerosene, I knew I had found part of the code of those summers. How the canvas smelled when we woke to sun filtering through the trees around our campsite, the sticky sap on our fingers when we brought wood for the fire, the sound of my mother scraping burned fish off the old iron skillet.

Such texts belong to a wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name.
— from “On Vigilance”