Swimming this morning, I stroked toward the ninebark garlanding the logs, coming down over the the hardhack, the scrappy alder. Nine layers of shreddy bark on the stems, the field guide tells me. It tells me Cowichan women made knitting needles from its wood. I tell the tumble of blossoms they are beautiful, that the sunlight just falling down their centre makes them as lovely as summer maidens. Never mind that their genus name means “bladder fruit”. Never mind.


44 years ago I was a bride. Yellow roses in my hair, a dress of gauzy cotton laced over my breasts. There are almost no photographs.


Yesterday, driving alone, I wept for something in the past. Before I was a bride, before I was a mother. I was a daughter but didn’t feel worthy. All along the highway, the thimbleberries were in bloom. The species name means “small-flowered” but it’s a mistake. A basket can be made from the wide leaves to catch the ripe berries that fall easy from the stems.


Garland. Dark hair. Smooth skin. How many layers to find that young woman I see each morning at the bottom of the stairwell? The flowers could almost be jasmine.


when a book finds you

letters to gwen john

In the long essay I wrote over the winter, “Let a Body Venture at Last Out of its Shelter”, I remember discussions I had with J, the artist who was painting me in 1978. We talked endlessly about art. Gwen John was a painter we both agreed was so good, maybe even better than her dazzling brother Augustus. We talked about Lucian Freud, whose work I’d seen the previous year (1977) in London. J didn’t much like Freud’s paintings. Technique in abundance but he found the work too chilly. I was 23 and I made my own spirited defence. But to be honest, I wondered about Freud’s relationships with his models. Should it matter? There’s a debate about Picasso these days. Does his cruelty, his misongynistic treatment of his models and his wives (sometimes one and the same), negate the importance of his work? In one section of my essay, I look at Balthus and his supposed exploitation of his model, Thérèse Blanchard, specifically the painting, “Thérèse dreaming”. Did she pose against her will? What did her parents think? Did she talk about it? Was she 12, as some art historians have suggested, or 14, or 15? Would any of this make a difference? It’s complicated.

I thought my essay was finished and then I read a review of Celia Paul’s new book, Letters to Gwen John. Celia Paul is one of Britain’s finest artists. She was, as a very young woman, the lover of Lucian Freud. He painted her. She also painted him. I haven’t read her first book, Self Portrait, although (of course) I’ve ordered it. There is such stillness to her work, a similar stillness I see in Gwen John’s paintings and drawings. Gwen also had an intense relationship with an artist, Auguste Rodin. He drew her, he made sculpture of her, and she drew him, or at least observed him, and made drawings of some of his work. He was much older. I remember seeing some of his erotic drawings at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris years ago and now I know that some of them feature Gwen. Sometimes Gwen with another of Rodin’s models. The drawings were very beautiful. Gwen was anything but prim.

In Paul’s Letters to Gwen John, she addresses John across the years. She asks her questions, shares her own life story, difficulties with her health and work; I’m only about half-way through but I reach for the book when I wake in the night, first thing in the morning, and it’s what I’m reading last night before sleep. I have questions as I read, some of them answered almost incidentally, and some of them feel a little personal. Ones I’d ask both women if I had the opportunity. Questions about power, about coercion, or just about love.

Letters to Gwen John is beautifully written, somethings with a delicate brush and sometimes with a harder dark point. This morning I opened the file of my essay to add a new section but maybe I won’t stop there. There’s so much that is unspoken but maybe I will discover something about how an artist feels when she is the subject of a painting, what she’s thinking as her lover gazes at her and puts her onto paper, shapes her head in clay, loads pigment onto canvas and finds her in its colours. What she thinks, knowing about technique and process, about agency and the gradations of manipulation.

When a book finds you vulnerable, unsettled, it can provide something as rare and welcome as a kind of sisterhood across the years, the oceans. I felt alone as I wrote the essay and now as I revisit it, I know that considerations I believed were mine only belong to so many women. A book of letters from one artist to another, over time, has arrived in my house, my heart, at the time I needed it most.


“I like to find/what’s not found/at once…” (Denise Levertov)

pleasures 1

I didn’t expect garden pleasures today. When we left for the lake swim, it was 13 degrees. What a contrast with week before last when one day the temperature reached something near 35, in the shade. John didn’t swim but sat at a picnic table in a hoody while I tried to forget I was cold and swam for 30 minutes, my casual laps between cedars. At home, we didn’t sit on the upper deck with coffee as we usually do.

pleasures 2

But then it got warm. Not as warm as it’s been but the cloud lifted and there was blue sky. A good day to reorganize the greenhouse, I decided. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might remember that the greenhouse was a sort of consolation prize for me the winter after John’s double hip replacement surgery in fall, 2020, the one that resulted in an unexpected injury. So it was a longer recovery than anticipated. Other anxieties too, to do with heart issues and various levels which took a long time to settle down. There were many trips up and down the Coast, before the vaccines, so we were always a little nervous about entering the hospital to have dressings changed or whatever needed attention. When John said, What can I ever do to repay you, I immediately replied, Let’s order a greenhouse kit. I need to say that of course I would have cared for him no matter what. But a greenhouse was something nice to look forward to. We thought we’d have a friend help to put it together but then the friend wasn’t able to (for entirely legitimate reasons) so we did it ourselves. We’d built a house but we did that when we were younger and when one of us wasn’t coping with a paralyzed foot and limited mobility. Still, we worked it out, slowly, and luckily I’m strong because the beams we used for the foundation were water-logged and heavy as hell.

wecome in

It gave me a lot of pleasure to build the greenhouse. To fill the base area we’d framed using treated 4x4s, bolted to posts set on cement pavers, with sand, to level it, to erect the walls and roof, to fit the little door into place, then to lay pavers over the sand inside, one long end cobbled with beach stones. To imagine trays of plants, maybe frogs. You can see the rocks John fitted between the ground and the beams, choosing each piece from the wheelbarrow loads I brought up from the old orchard, the wild area beyond the vegetable garden, anywhere I could find it. (That long diagonal pole was just to keep the rocks in place as he firmed up the foundation.) He fed some pvc pipe through a long edge so we could thread hose through for watering in spring and summer and an extension cord through in winter so we could keep a light, two lights, on when the nights were cold. The opening was blocked with a stone when not in use because, well, mice. The first Christmas of the greenhouse, Angie and Karna were here and Angie said it was sort of magical to look out and see the little box of light beyond the house.

All spring the greenhouse has been filled to the brim with seedlings and overwintered geraniums, 3 small olive trees (in bloom!), and 3 hopeful bougainvilleas. There was drama with the tomatoes this year, it took 3 plantings for me to have any of my own at all, but luckily a friend had extras, which are all thriving in tubs on the upper deck. I thought my own would shrivel up, first time in 40 years, but it turns out that there are about 20 ready to plant out, Pruden’s Purple and Paul Robeson, so after I’d emptied the greenhouse of everything that didn’t need to be there, I filled some pots, using half compost and half Salish soils mixes, and planted some of the tomatoes inside. (Most of the others will find places in the vegetable garden.) The tomatoes join a couple of eggplants, a couple of peppers (purchased because I had the same trouble this year with the poblano chiles I’ve grown for the past 8 or 10 years), a watermelon (its partner will be planted in the garden, an experiment to see who thrives), and some of the lemon cucumbers that somehow grew last year, though I didn’t plant them. I planted Armenian cucumbers. But I guess the package of seed contained a few lemon cucumbers as well and man, did they produce. I let them climb the wire shelving and we ate several each day for about 6 weeks. (I have more little seedlings so if you live near me and want some, just come by!) I have one long tray of lettuce leaf basil up on the deck with the tubs of tomatoes and have one in the greenhouse too. A bowl of Genovese basil.

While I was sweeping the pavers, a tree frog hopped out of the way. I love to know they’ve found the place. Last year there were several that made their home in the damp pots and I put little bowls of water around for them. The vent is open all summer and the door is open during the day so they can go out if it gets too hot.

As I was putting soil in the big pots, I remembered Denise Levertov’s poem “Pleasures””

I like to find   
what’s not found   
at once, but lies
within something of another nature,   
in repose, distinct.   
I wonder if I knew I’d love having a greenhouse to potter around in when I replied to John’s (I suspect) rhetorical question: What can I ever do to repay you? There’s a blue chair in one corner and earlier in the spring, I took my coffee out to drink in the box of light. I never sat for long because I’d notice that the pots of salad greens were probably ready to go up on the deck under the bathroom window or else I’d realize it was probably time to move bulbs to their various spring locations. In the middle of March, it was like heaven.
Now it’s cloudy again. The chairs on the upper deck look like they’re having their own unexpected moment, leaning in to each other like old friends. Lemon daylilies hold the sunlight that appeared, then disappeared, and in the greenhouse, the pavers are wet, the watermelon and cucumbers are getting accustomed to their space, and the air smells like basil. I think I’ll take a glass of wine out there in an hour or so and sit in the pleasure of things growing, every promise kept.
I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow
in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory   
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

redux: green thoughts

Note: this is from June 2, 2018 but so much is the same on this late May morning. I was talking to son Forrest when I came home from my swim and he asked me to bring some cuttings and rooted slips when we visit in late June. Wisteria, from his grandmother’s vine (via his great-grandmother’s garden in Suffolk), some of the honeysuckle, the name of which I couldn’t quite recall as we talked. But I wrote about it, I told him, and sure enough, it’s in this post. This morning? The garden is no longer fenced with deer mesh but instead a more sturdy wire (rabbit-proof! which isn’t an issue for us, but it is better at keeping out deer and elk, though the bears continue to bust the gates in fall if they see something they want). And that honeysuckle, which I believe must be a woodbine and not the Hall’s honeysuckle it was promised to be, is so incredibly prolific that I have to bend under it when I go through the gate into the garden.

abraham darby

One of my favourite garden books is Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s not a “how to” book but rather a series of brief essays on everything from artichokes to toads. The writing is beautifully crisp, the author opinionated, and there was so much I shared of her view of plants and their place in our lives. I loved her admission of smuggling special potatoes home from France. I don’t think I’ve ever returned from a trip without seeds or acorns or bits of this and that in my bag. I know some people highly disapprove but honestly how did you think potatoes got to North America? Or Europe? Or the roses your grandmother grew? Her tomatoes, the ones she insisted were the same ones her grandmother grew in Siberia, or Italy?

I’ve written before that some of my plants came from John’s mother (and from her mother, too, because John’s mum used to bring back cuttings and other plant materials from her annual trip to Suffolk). Our mint, our wisterias, and one of our honeysuckles, the lovely Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’ (also known as late Dutch honeysuckle, and you can bet there’s a traveling story there…), some perennial geranium, Algerian iris, and so on. There was also a wonderful honeysuckle, L. japonica ‘Halliana’, that I loved. It was semi-evergreen here, with creamy blossoms turning yellow as they aged, and I swear they smelled of jasmine. We had it growing up the deck where we eat our summer meals and oh, after rain, the air was heaven. We had another plant of it too, growing up some lattice by our patio. And after ten or so years, both of those plants died. It was easy to root from cuttings. In fact, if I cut stems of it to have in jugs around the house, quite often they’d have roots by the time the flowers had finished. But I didn’t know the plants wouldn’t overwinter the winter they died so I hadn’t taken cuttings. I kept my eye out for new plants at the garden centres but never found one until the year before last. I planted it against one post of the pergola John built by the gate to the vegetable garden. The garden is fenced with 8-foot deer-proof mesh and I wanted something less forbidding as an entrance. Last year the honeysuckle bloomed but this year, oh man, it’s reaching for the stars.


But there’s something about it…the flowers are tinged with pink. So I think it must have been mislabeled. I think it’s L. periclymenum, the common European woodbine, and I believe one of the parents of ‘Serontina’. It smells nice—but not like jasmine. I’m not a botanist (obviously) but I do pay attention and it seems to be that garden centres often sell plants that are not quite as advertised. A chestnut we bought 35 years ago is certainly not a chestnut. What is it? I don’t know. Mostly I don’t mind. I love the named and the unnamed. The David Austin rose ‘Abraham Darby’ for example: it’s beautiful, but is it any more beautiful than the old moss rose given me by Vi Tyner more than 30 years ago and which I thought I’d moved from its location beside ‘Abraham Darby’? (The moss roses are the ones to the right, still not quite open, but when they do, you can smell them ten feet away, both the flowers themselves and the resiny “moss” on the sepals. I have two—a deep pink one and a pale pink and while I understand there are some mosses that are repeat bloomers, mine flower only once, in early June. But I remember them all summer.) I did move the plant but some canes stayed in place, obviously.

two roses

Moss roses are centifolias (“hundred-petaled”), hybrids created in probably the 17th century with gallicas and damask roses as possible parents. It’s when I read about roses and their provenance that I truly regret my lack of scientific background. There’s a tangle of flower-types, origins, and species; and they go back 35 million years. Humans have a long relationship with them, using them for everything from medicine to perfume to food. My hero Pliny the Elder (as opinionated as Ms. Perenyi) said this of the rose: “It is employed also by itself for certain medicinal purposes, and is used in plasters and eye-salves for its penetrating qualities: it is used, also, to perfume the delicacies of our banquets, and is never attended with any noxious results.” And what would poets do without roses to praise? Listen to the 14th c. Persian poet, Hafiz:

Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
It felt the encouragement of light…

I felt that encouragement this afternoon, walking among the plants, roses entwined, the misnamed honeysuckle cascading over its supports, the robins singing the long salmonberry song in the woods beyond the house, and the light, most of all the light of late spring. Sometimes the hours are too brief to hold everything you need them to carry, too quickly they pass, but then you stop to look at butterflies in the flowering sage and it was only yesterday you brought that small plant home from a friend’s garden. You add up the hours, the years, and it was decades ago. But every spring, the flowers, the persistence.

almost bedfellows

the names

morning roses

This morning, roses. Dark Lady, Mme. Alfred Carriere, Munstead Wood, the Lady of Shalott. When I cut them in the garden, they were damp from the early sprinkler. I walked under the cascade of Hall’s honeysuckle, just opening, and already the hummingbirds had found the open throats. Rosa canina in full bloom around my bedroom window.

I want the names of everything. The bees in the first tomato flowers — Bombus vosnesenskii, the yellow-faced; the Swainson’s thrush I heard as I went out for my swim–whit, whit; the long roots of Rumex acetosella, sheep’s sorrel, I keep pulling from between the pavers in the greenhouse. The rough-skinned newt, the Pacific tree frog (sometimes the chorus frog, once Hyla regilla, now Pseudacris regilla, though nothing about the frog has changed), Rosa ‘Félicité Perpétue’ by the front door, where the tree frogs lie low in the damp earth.

The names of Ukrainian cities attacked by Russia–Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Bakhmut, Dnipro, Poltava. A drone over Chernivtsi, the city where the two women in my grandfather’s papers were photographed at the Atelier Riviera by Ferd. Straub, Hauptstrasse 16. Missiles over Lviv.

The names of the family members who drove from Ivankivtsi to Solkilske to meet me, share photographs, strands of story: Mykola the elder, Liuda, Luba, Nadya, Lidiya, young Mykola. The ones who left the village. Semen, Petro, Ivan, Vasyl. The ones who stayed. Stepaniya, Leontyne, Yurii, Maria.

The roses still in bud: Abraham Darby, the light pink moss, the deeper pink, the Lark Ascending, New Dawn rising above the patio.

zuihitsu, the Black Sage Bench

black sage bench


It was warm that morning, the scent of grass and dust, old wood, it was warm, a few crows overhead, a flattened rattlesnake hanging in the weeds. We were going to buy wine on the Black Sage Bench, old favourites, new bottles.


The young woman in the front row at the workshop, writing, writing, and when I asked the group to try a zuihitsu, she corrected my pronunciation, for which I was grateful, and on the card where I’d written the term, she wrote the Japanese characters, for zuihitsu, for Sei Shonagon, for author. Who said, “When crossing a river in bright moonlight, I love to see the water scatter in showers of crystal beneath the oxen’s feet.”


When crossing the river in sunlight, over a small bridge, we listened to birdsong — Bullock’s orioles, yellow-breasted chats, red-winged blackbirds down by where men were easing strawberry plants out of their row covers. Later I bought strawberries and ate them at a table overlooking the lake.



At first I thought the snake had shed its skin and slipped away but looking closely I saw the little section of vertebrae, the delicate ribs. You say, ZooeyHitSue, she told me, emphasis on the hit.

“just like that” (Mary Oliver)

one house

We haven’t spent time in the south Okanagan for a few years. Last fall we drove through quickly, on our way home from Alberta, and didn’t stop. But after the Word on the Lake Festival in Salmon Arm, we drove down to Osoyoos for a couple of nights. This morning, first thing, we bought wine at Nk’Mip, heading over to the Black Sage Bench afterwards to buy more wine at Desert Hills and to stop at the Haynes Ranch. The sky was moody and the buildings had their usual faded beauty. John thought he saw a snake skin under the foundations of the house where rattlesnakes den and then as we walked back to the car, we saw either the remnants of a shed skin or else the remnants of a flattened snake caught up in weeds at the side of the road.


A walk along the river in Oliver where Bullock’s orioles sang in the trees and yellow-breasted chats flew from willow to willow. I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem about the chats:

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that

Wild roses bloomed on either side of the river. We sat on a bench, listening to water and birdsong, and then drove up the site of Fairview, once a thriving town, some say the largest north of San Francisco, and now a sage field on a slope of the hill with a sign warning of rattlesnakes and ticks. Thinking about the past and where it goes when its buildings disappear made me hungry so we had lunch at Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek Winery, possibly the most dramatic restaurant anywhere, cantilevered over the side of a hill, and serving beautiful food with glasses of excellent wine. (How I would like to sing to you.)

All day there’s been wind, small gusts of rain, and I’m thinking of the drive home tomorrow, through Keremeos, Hedley, Princeton, and Hope, the car weighed down with wine and memories, a few tiny wildflowers pressed into the field-guide, and my shoes dusty with Haynes Ranch earth, maybe a seed or two hitch-hiking in the hem of my jeans.

haynes ranch

it’s red-winged blackbirds this morning…

blackbird music

…as I sit on the little balcony outside our room in Salmon Arm, their music loud above the ducks and geese. Swallows dip and swerve. Last night, at intermission during the big reading opening the Word on the Lake Festival, I was in line for coffee and wait, was that Valdy next to me? It was. I was 17, I told him, when I heard you at the Shirley Hall near Sooke. You were wearing overalls and I probably was too. We reminisced about the Hall, the food, and he said, with a twinkle in his eyes, You must have been born in 1954. 1955, I replied. Imagine having that archive in your mind at ready recall. A life of concerts in venues all over the world and the one in the tiny Shirley Hall was there, its time and place perfectly remembered. I loved Sandcut Beach, I said, and used to camp there. I loved it too, he said, and once I showered under Sandcut Creek where it falls over sandstone to the beach. Me too! The sandstone is dense with fossils! Today I’ll ask him for his address and I’ll send him a copy of Winter Wren, my novella set on Sandcut Beach, its main character Grace a regular under the fall of the creek, and I even set an evening at at event at the Shirley Hall. A dance, one of the old kind, with fiddle music and a long table of food. Will you play “Renaissance”, I asked him, and he smiled the sweetest smile. Tomorrow night, he promised.


Let’s dance that old dance once more,
Still move as smooth on that old ballroom floor.
I’ll wear my Sunday best, you wear your faded dress,
Lock up the door, and let’s dance that old dance once more.


evening lines, morning lines

sunset wisteria


I was reading Patricia Bovey’s Western Voices in Canadian Art, three pillows stacked behind me, the heavy book resting on my breastbone, when I realized I couldn’t concentrate on printmaking in Winnipeg for the scent of wisteria and lilac coming in the window behind my bed. Behind my bed, the open window, a single tree frog chirping, the sunset pink gold on the western edge of the world. I walked out into it, the scent, the tangle embracing my house, my life, the tree frog silent, the sky smouldering. I brushed away the long canes of dog rose as I leaned into the evening.

morning wisteria

2. Coming back from the compost boxes, bare feet, nightdress, I stood under the wisteria on the patio’s beam, brushing a few mosquitoes from my bare shoulders.

front door


Coming up the steps to the front door, shells turning in a light breeze, the mesh I pinned up for sweetpeas in pots behind the bench catching the shadow of the Rosa ‘Félicité Perpétue’, a rambler, a gambler, a glossy-leaved 2 year old newly at home in a dragon pot and loaded with buds. For years a ‘New Dawn’ clambered across the wall, grown from a cutting brought home from Victoria, heavy with roses, but it has grown old, grown smaller, is fading away.

“water fell/through all my doors” (Maxine Kumin)


I’ve begun my lake swims again and although the water is a little cool, I know it’s where I want to be. These are hot days, scarily so for mid-May on the Sechelt Peninsula. The thermometer on the west wall of the house, not in direct sun, not yet, reads 35 celsius. That’s 95 fahrenheit. I did the morning watering and a few other garden chores after my swim and then it was too hot to be outside. So the lake will warm up earlier than usual, I think. I was glad this morning to be cool, to hear a creek running down from Mount Hallowell just to the right of the cedars in this photograph (from last summer). Glad yesterday to see an eagle fly over me as I did the backstroke. Glad to hear kingfishers rattling, one on either side of the little beach area where I leave my towel and go into the water.

These cedars mark one end of my swim. I begin here and I swim about 60 meters to another group of cedars, turning, returning. Some days I do 10 laps, or 20 lengths. This morning I did 5, because, well, because the water was cool and I had chores to do once home. I’ve done this particular swim for 7 years. Before that, I was reluctant to join my husband and other family members when they went down for an afternoon swim because I didn’t like the crowds. It didn’t occur to me that I could go first thing in the morning and mostly I would have the water to myself. It didn’t occur to me until it did. Last summer, from mid-May until the first week of October, I only missed 3 mornings. Oh, wait. We drove to Alberta in late September and were away for 10 days. We swam along the way, though — in Nicola Lake, in a pool in Radium, somewhere else too. I’ve become that person who travels with a bathing suit under my clothes, just in case.

In a few days we’ll leave for Salmon Arm where I’ll be part of the Word on the Lake Festival and after that, we’ll amble down through the Okanagan for a two nights, visiting our favourite wineries and hoping to swim. We’re setting up the timer in the greenhouse so everything in there will be watered and hopefully cooler days are coming for everything else. We don’t have an elaborate irrigation system (confession: it’s me…) but if we had this all to do again, I think we would. The shift has happened. In the past 5 or 6 years I’ve watched the western red cedars die in places where I thought I’d see them forever. The ones that are my turning point at the lake will probably live because they are near water. But the ones by the parking area are dying. A huge old hemlock has also died and I expect the parks people will take it down before long.

I don’t know what we do about this. I mean, us. People who try to do their best, who grow some food, who try to keep a light footprint. (You can see mine in the damp sand in the photograph…) When I hear about the fires in Alberta, the floods at Cache Creek and Grand Forks, when I read the thermometer on our western wall, I want to weep. Sometimes I do. This morning I remembered Maxine Kumin’s beautiful “Morning Swim” and when I got home, I looked it up. This is how it concludes:

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang “Abide With Me.”

This morning my bones drank water as I swam from one group of cedars to the other. The cedars drank deep too. They still can. But for how much longer? In just a few days the woods have dried, the moss is beginning to shrivel, and I find myself hoping that birds know to seek shadier places to build their nests as I watch them carrying tufts of grass and little sticks. The insects are quiet. It’s too hot for bees. The tomato plants, so vigorous last week, look sad this week; they don’t have enough bulk to keep cool. Was it only a week ago I was making marmalade in a kitchen warmed by the woodstove, listening to rain on the blue metal roof? “Water fell/through all my doors. I was the well.” I wish that was true. Well to the world, to the living trees, to the chickadee I can see from my window as I type this, a strand of dry moss in its beak.