4 sentences, one leading to another

today's lizard

1.

Every year they sun themselves on warm moss and rocks, every year they gaze into far space, their secrets intact, the way they can release their tails to distract predators, the way the females carry the unborn over a summer, their own bodies cumbersome with the weight, and how I am taken back, back, to a place on Moss Rocks in Fairfield where I was sitting in dry grass and where I saw one come onto the rocks to bask and look around, not seeing me there, where I am still sitting, waiting.

2.

Waiting for the coffee to finish pouring through, I looked through the kitchen window and saw a single chestnut-backed chickadee hop onto the table on the patio, a tuft of dryer lint in its beak.

4.

In its beak, a dead junco, and if I hadn’t seen the raven flying down off the upper deck where the bird had been left by Winter, if I hadn’t heard the raven a few minutes earlier tapping with its feet and hopping so that I thought someone was up there, sweeping or moving pots, if I hadn’t seen the raven flying off with the bird, perhaps to its nest where its own young were waiting, then I wouldn’t have known that the wing that fell from its beak wasn’t a leaf, a dead leaf from the arbutus, the one where the tanagers pause, though I haven’t seen one lately.

3.

Lately my dreams have been the kind where I dream, dream deeply and vividly, of people I’ve known and lost, and then when I wake, I want to enter the dream again, better-prepared to tell them what they meant to me then, what they mean to me now, and to bring them gifts I wish I’d thought to offer when we’d talk casually on the street or at a party or sitting with me quietly in their house or in mine.

“But tell of days in goodness spent…”

Inside, near the fire, waiting for it to be warm enough to go outside to do some garden work, and in the meantime I somehow found myself listening to this. Marianne Faithfull, reading Byron, from her new cd. I said to John, What a wonderful thing to be at a point in your life when you can do something like this, unapologetically, and so beautifully. To say the old poems with ethereal music to showcase your voice. Last night I dreamed of my old mentor, Robin Skelton, dreamed we were both at an spring event, and I saw him across the hall with Sylvia, and thought, How can I go to greet them, having not been in contact with them all these years? (He died in 1997.) He once told me he’d met Marianne Faithfull in Dublin and how beautiful she was, how fragile. I think she was just out of rehab. And all these years later, her gorgeous voice, her perfect sense of timing, of phrasing. If I’d known about this recording earlier, I’d have found a way in the dream to put it into Robin’s hand. I imagine him listening, maybe with a glass of Jameson whiskey, saying, Jesus, the way he said it when he was overwhelmed. As I was overwhelmed, just now, listening.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent…

gravity, infinity

infinity

When I came up from the garden a few minutes ago, intending to sit in the greenhouse for a few minutes, I found that John got there first. He was in the blue chair by the door, smiling. It’s quite cool here today, though there was sun earlier, nothing like the summery weather last week, and when I went out to open the vent and door after lunch, it was 32 degrees inside the closed greenhouse. A few minutes ago? 22. The fluctuations are so interesting. It’s often 10 first thing in the morning and it’s been as warm as high 40s. The plants are thriving. I have a tub of water in one corner and I like walking around to mist or water the flats of seedlings, the pots of salad greens, the beans.

Anyway, he’d got there first. Why didn’t we build this years ago, he wondered. We’d often talked about a greenhouse but somehow time was consumed by other work. Or travel. Or just the dailiness that was different from the dailiness now. (I think our house was cleaner when we knew people would be coming for meals or to stay for a few days.) Why didn’t we. I thought about it for a minute or two and replied, We didn’t need it then. He looked quizzical. But what I meant was, I at least didn’t need something to devote myself to quite so strenuously. We were seeing our friends regularly, we were flying to Europe for work and/or pleasure (and honestly, the work part was pure pleasure too), to the cities where our children live. We were saying one day, Let’s do a little roadtrip, and a day later we were driving to Lillooet just for the pleasure of the Fraser River at that place, or to the Nicola Valley for its memories and the scent of sage, or to Grand Forks for borscht, taking the Bridesville-Rock Creek crescent this time of year for the wildflowers and yellow-headed blackbirds on a particular pond. There was no fear of this virus or any other one.

This year I felt sort of desperate. After I finished the revisions for Blue Portugal in March, I was sad for all the things I loved and which seemed so remote from me. Even the grandparents I wrote about, long dead, seemed even farther away in time and place. While I was working on the essays, I could look forward every morning to spending time in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and other places where some of my ancestors lived. I was on and in the rivers I’ve always been drawn to. I was walking with my children in their cities or here. Most days I could remind myself of how lucky I am in the larger scheme of things and I know this, I do. But knowing isn’t always a solace.

Yesterday I had my first vaccination, something I’ve looked forward to for ages, waiting for my age group to be eligible. I wore a dress, tights, all my silver and turquoise bracelets (there are many!), and I took a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates to give to the woman who injected me. She was surprised and I saw tears briefly well up in her eyes. After I received my shot, I sat in the row of spaced chairs set around the perimeter of the hall where we were asked to wait for 15 minutes to ensure we weren’t going to have a reaction to the vaccine. People were sitting quietly. I was too but inside I was euphoric. It felt like something was actually shifting. I know of course that this isn’t the end of the virus and that we will never return to what we knew as normal. I suspect I will never walk through an airport again without wearing a mask. Will never feel comfortable in a market aisle with other people. But as I sat in the chair, I was elated. It’s the way I feel when I am in my little greenhouse among the plants. There’s hope in vaccinations and hope in green seedlings.

Late morning our Edmonton grandson phoned for a story. His grandfather read him Imagine A Night, the most stunning book about imagination and the kind of magic ordinary life can aspire to. Henry’s response was to talk about gravity and black holes. He’s 4. His father is a mathematician and his mum, a physicist, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was so lovely to hear him find the words to explain gravity (in response to one of the illustrations) and then to riff on space, black holes, and how his favourite hockey team is the Winnipeg Jets because of their symbol. I don’t think symbol was a word I knew at 4. After lunch, his 5 year old cousin in Ottawa called for a story too. We’ve been reading Iron Hans and so we continued with that and he very adroitly recounted the story so far when I asked him where we’d left off. His grandad asked him what he knew about gravity and wow, he had the whole concept as clear in his mind as anything. And infinity (because his dad had just given him a badge with the infinity symbol on it) — he told us about numbers and lines without beginnings or ends and all about the number googol: a one with a hundred zeros after it, named by the 9 year old nephew of an American mathematician. He was so excited to tell us about this number and how it was almost infinite.

In the greenhouse there is no virus. There is no danger. In my mind as I moved a tray of peas out to harden off, I was thinking of two small boys held to earth by its own dependable pull, held to us by something as mysterious, and how much I hope they can visit this summer for more discussions about timely subjects, stars, little frogs, the hidden places where the lizards live under the rocks, and how floating in a lake might be the same as, or different from, floating in space.

quotidian: Fair Ellen, maiden hair, Triomphe de Farcy

cuttings

1.

Bringing geraniums out of the sunroom, the ordinary ones, the scented ones, and cutting back their winter legginess. Cutting back, snipping the ends of stems, and putting them in earth. Fair Ellen, Skeleton Rose, Prince of Orange, Pink Champagne, Old Spice, Rober’s Lemon Rose, Citronella, their names like a medieval poem, singing their way into being. Opening the door of the greenhouse, I am transported to summers past when pots of geraniums lined the stairs and those leaving and those arriving brushed against them. Lemons and roses and deep oak woods, orangeries in far lands, the small flowers in lush leaves. Fair Ellen, Grey Lady Plymouth, Rose of Bengal…

hart's tongue

2.

Bowls of ferns by the front door, forgotten under the eaves for a week or so. When I bring them water, I see the new growth. Maiden hair in its nest of old stems, hart’s tongue scrolling to the light, spiny woodfern, green spleenwort, and below them, in a shady area, lady fern, sword ferns where tiny tree frogs perched last summer.

beans

3.

Open the greenhouse door! 52 tomato plants*, all named, Ancho peppers and Arbequina olives, eggplants, a bougainvillea, pots of salad greens, lilies, and look, the beans are all sprouting—the Triomphe de Farcy, Santa Annas, Hildas, and for shelling, the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

*if you live on the Sechelt Peninsula and want a couple of tomato plants, let me know?

primroses

primroses

Some days a gift comes to you in an unexpected way. I had the pleasure of reading a couple of stories to my older Ottawa grandson (via WhatsApp) and his wide smile and bright face reminded me so much of his father at the same age. And there was his father! Coming to the screen to say goodbye as we finished our call, arranging another for tomorrow. There was a little sunlight after the morning rain so I went out to see what was what in the garden. The primroses were heavy with rain so I cut a few stems to bring inside. These are so like the wild ones I used to love in England and Ireland, the ones you’d see when walking on narrow lanes between hedgerows in spring. There were primroses (P. vulgaris) and their cousins, the cowslips (P. veris), and finding them in the lea of the hedges was like finding unexpected sunlight. Putting the stems of these primroses–and all I know about their provenance is that I once bought a single clump at a spring plant sale at the community hall in Madeira Park, which multiplied in many clumps, and I’ve divided them several times–anyway, putting the stems into a vase, I was suddenly on an Irish road with my son, the father of the boy to whom I read stories this morning. We were in search of standing stones and holy wells and we were using an ordnance survey map to find our way through a place I’d known more than 20 years earlier, unaware of the stones and wells because no one talked about them. They knew about them, yes, but why share sacred information with blow-ins? So on a day when it rained as we drove to our swim and then brightened, doubly brightened when two beloved faces looked at mine across thousands of miles, time also doubled, and I was driving with Forrest a road so narrow that the little car we were in was littered with fuchsia blossoms when we parked it by our B&B later that day. Here is a little of that day, from an essay, “Well”, published in Phantom Limb but before that in the online journal Terrain (and I’m linking so you can read the whole essay if you’re interested)

Slow is every foot upon an unknown path.
Irish proverb

We were coming back from Killary Harbour and Forrest noticed a number of things on the map which we could see by taking a third class road leaving the main road near Moyard. I stopped the car on the side of the main road because we couldn’t really see any roads where the map said one should be. Ah, we discovered, reading the legend—there are two kinds of third class roads: the ones wider than 4 meters and the ones narrower. This was one of the narrower ones so maybe it was that opening in the trees. And we turned.

After a short distance on gravel and grass, we came to a farm yard. The road appeared to go through the middle of the yard. Chickens were pecking at the ground and the ubiquitous black and white sheepdog watched us approach. Two men were talking in sunlight, dressed in suits, one with a tie and a Pioneer pin. I stopped the car and rolled down the window.

“Excuse me, we have a map which shows a road….”

They looked at each other and then at us. A few words were spoken between them. I got out of the car with the map.

“Is it a map ye have then?” Both of them came towards us as though I was carrying the relics of a saint.

“Just here, you see, it shows a road. Is this it?”

One of the men, the one not wearing a tie, proved to have an extreme speech impediment but he was very eager. I think he told us that we were parked in his farm yard, that the chickens were his, the fields we could see. The other man, seeing my confusion, came forward to act as a translator.

“It is his land, to be sure. A road, is it? Ye’re wanting a road?” It seemed to baffle both men that someone might want to drive on a road that appeared on a map and which passed through a peaceful yard, geraniums in tubs by the door and a pile of straw outside a shed.

“We are trying to find some standing stones that are shown on the map. They look like they’d be in the open, near here. Do you know them?”

They exchanged words again with each other and the man with the tie said, “There is a stone, yes, in a field just down the road here. If ye stop and look over the neighbour’s wall, ye’ll see it in the field with the sheep so.”

“So this is the road we take?”

“It is, it is. It is very narrow and ye must drive slowly.” He was translating his friend’s concern that we would not be able to see if another car was coming but from the look of the road, no car had been on it for a long time. Primroses grew in the grassy patches between the gravel.

‘Ye’re not Irish, are ye?”

“No, we’re from Canada.” This elicted great delight, both of them reaching out to clasp my hands between their own, much nodding and smiling.

“And ye’ll be careful to drive slowly so?”

“O, yes, I’ll be careful. I’ve been driving for 30 years without an accident.”

“Thirty years! Never! Ye canna be that old to be driving so long so.”

“This is my son,” I said proudly. As though to prove my age, my tall son smiled from the passenger seat.

“Ah, he’s never yer son! Well, ye’ve the gift of youth on ye anyway. God bless.”

With that, we were on our way, nosing the little car between blossoming hawthorne which reached into the windows to tickle our noses with its sweet smell. It formed a dense hedge on either side of the narrow road with fuschia among it and the raised banks white with wild garlic, yellow with primroses. Birds sang unseen within its depths.

“the secret of secrets”

merton beauty

I know I write the same things every year, how I go out to the garden and the apple tree is just beginning to bloom (here, for example), or the lizards are mating (here), or I am listening to birdsong (here), and I know that there is a kind of sameness to my posts. But honestly? Is there a way to say how you forget, almost, over the dark winter days and nights, how lovely apple blossom is when you see the first tight clumps begin to open, or when you get out of your car at the local pool and hear warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, and looking up into the big-leaf maples, you don’t see the birds but you realize that the flowers have come out, the fat chartreuse clusters, in just the past week, and that’s why the tree is filled with music, anyway, is there another way? If I could paint, I know I’d be out there with ink and colour wash, trying to put it all down on paper, fine watercolour paper, and if I could think my way into music more deeply, I’d try to notate the songs and sing with the warblers, the red-winged blackbirds, the robins on fine spring mornings, with bars devoted to sapsucker pairs buzzing back and forth, and even the klooks of ravens in lazy circles above the trees where nestlings lie low in their shadow. (Instead, I listen to this.) You forget, and the days and nights are long, and dark, you forget, and then one day it is all in front of you again, inside you again, and you remember a poem you have always loved, Anna Akhmatova’s “A Land Not Mine” and its sublime conclusion (in Jane Kenyon’s translation):

Sunset in the ethereal waves:
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.

Instead, I make my notes on old envelopes and share them here with you.

I don’t want to make that list.

this morning

1.

Tomato seedlings (6 Amish Paste and 12 Black Krim) pricked out and given their own pots. They’ve joined the others also waiting May for their outside planting: 2 Persimmons, 2 Black Beefsteak, 1 Ardwyna, 2 Principe Borghese, 2 Orange Cherry, 2 Yellow Pear, 2 Caspian Pink, and 1 Orange Strawberry, all from my friend June. Also two Brandywines from a garden centre because I love them, along with a big red cherry of some sort. There are still more Black Krims to prick out even though I wish I could just put them into the compost box. But no. Each strong seedling will be put in its own pot and watered and when August and September come, the cry in the wilderness will be me, wondering why on earth I grow so many tomatoes. But the little gasps of pleasure in December will also be me eating a bowl of pasta with roasted tomato sauce from the freezer or dipping corn chips into bottled salsa so it’s all about perspective.

2.

I thought there’d only been the one bad period when I was awake at night utterly bereft of hope. I thought I’d coasted through the first year of the pandemic reasonably well. But the other night I was reading old posts, like this one, and this one, and this one too, and realized that each month has its hard time. I live in a beautiful place and I have the best of companions. He has had his first shot of vaccine and I’ll be receiving mine next Wednesday. It could be worse. It could be so much worse. I don’t want to make that list.

3.

Squash: Green Hubbard, seed from a particularly delicious butternut, maybe Waltham (unknown because I saved the seed carefully in paper towel but neglected to write the name), Galeux d’Eysines pumpkins promising salmon pink skins with sugary concentrations forming warts on the surface. One year I found a little packet of Rouge vif d’Étampes seed which grew pumpkins that looked exactly like Cinderella’s carriage and I made ravioli stuffed with roasted pumpkin flavoured with sage and Parmesan.

after squash

4.

On the way home from Sechelt, we listened to Roseanne Cash’s The List and I sang along to just about every song: “Sea of Heartbreak” (made even more ravishing by the added vocals of Bruce Springsteen), “Five Hundred Miles”, “Girl from the North Country“, and more. I read Christa Couture’s memoir, How To Lose Everything, last night. It’s remarkable. And what I did afterwards was count everything I hadn’t lost, everything I was grateful for, and I ran out of fingers.

mornings

A few mornings ago, it was this: a weasel by the sunroom door. Did the cat bring it? There’s no sign of teethmarks, a struggle, and in any case, there is almost nothing fiercer than a weasel. This particular species can kill a rabbit by climbing onto its back and biting into its neck. I was sad to see a dead one. Alive, they make themselves known by running through the gutters and small runnels between the panels of our metal roof, hunting mice. Some mornings, in my bed, I’ve looked up to see one on the dog rose canes across the window, peering in at me. The last time a robin nested on the beam across our patio, before Winter the cat came to live with us, we were watching, as we’d watched for years, for the eggs to open, the hatchlings emerge, the young to develop and fledge. But one morning there was a commotion outside, both robin parents agitated and squawking, and then I saw a weasel on the laundry stoop, broken eggs around it. I sent my children the photograph of the weasel and my daughter, who works in a museum, wondered if the mammals curator would want it. She asked and yes, he did. So I measured the little animal, recorded our coordinates, and froze it in a ziplock bag for the next time I see Angelica. I think the weasel will be turned into a study skin and I’m glad it won’t go to waste. That its life wasn’t entirely wasted. Years ago I found one in this same place, on a second-storey deck, by our sunroom door, and in those days we didn’t have a cat. So perhaps it had a virus or parasites. (I wore disposable gloves when I measured it and put it in its bag.)

These mornings are beautiful. When I woke at 5, a Swainsons thrush was singing beyond the house. I took my coffee out to the greenhouse and it was cool and green inside. Something had been eating the arugula leaves and looking closely, I found a tiny slug on the surface of the soil. No doubt it was in the soil when I potted up the seedlings a week or two ago. And around the half-barrel outside the door, tiny flies were hovering over the pitcher plant. I didn’t linger long enough to see if any of the entered the pitfall trap (isn’t that a great name for the modified leaves filled with digestive fluid?) but later this morning I’ll look. I wish my grandchildren were here to join me on a little walk around to see the wonders of the world. Instead, the ones in Ottawa will hang the mason bee house we sent them for Christmas while our blue orchard mason bees are out and about, the females filling the holes in our 6 houses with nectar and pollen before laying her eggs and sealing the holes with mud. We’d look for snakes sunning themselves on the rocks by the garden, lizards on the pile of old cedars shakes (our former roof) that we use for kindling, we’d see if the chickadees are nesting in the boxes in the trees, and peer at the coyote scat at the bottom of the driveway. The Kwanzan cherry is almost open. Everywhere the bees are humming, varied thrushes are whistling in the dense woods, and mornings open us, don’t they, so that we can hear each note.

Between our two lives
there is also the life of
the cherry blossom.
–Basho

quotidian: what grows

looking in

1.

I’ve been taking my second cup of coffee out to the greenhouse at 8 a.m. This morning the thermometer read 4 degrees but by 9 it was 20. I wish I could share the scent–damp earth, tomato leaves (from the trays of June’s tomatoes; she grows interesting kinds and always has some to share: this year there are Persimmons, Orange Strawberries, Black Beefsteaks, Small Yellow Pear, Pink Caspians, Orange Cherry, Ardwyna. I have smaller ones I seeded last month, from saved seed: Black Krim and Romas. At the end of the pavers, Red Sails lettuce (from an early March seeding) is ready to pick. There’s also arugula, some Italian mesclun, and the spinach won’t be long. I have these things seeded in the garden too but it’s nice to have early greens to pick! By the spray bottle, one of the little olives from a half-price bench at a store in Sechelt, and on the ground, in the big black tub, an Arbequina olive, with tiny blossoms. While I was putting plants on the bench John built using an old cedar board from one of our trees, slow bumble bees found their way in. By the front door, where the stairs are yet to be built (but the risers are there, ready for them), I have a tub of water with yellow flag irises in it, and a pitcher plant (second shelf on the left, reaching out) to go in once I’ve replanted it. How long before the frogs find this new habitat?

2.

I was thinking in the night, at my desk because, well, I couldn’t sleep, anyway, I was thinking how we are saved. I was saved as a young woman, late teens, by a summer job in a popular Victoria garden. I worked in the store, selling seeds and china, and after my second summer there (I worked there for 4 years), I also worked on weekends during the university year. I packaged seeds, learned to knit on my lunch hours with the older woman who taught me (though I’ve forgotten everything I know but how to knit a straight line and once people have scarves, they don’t really want more, even Henry, who is 4 and who told me kindly that he already had a scarf so no need to knit him another). I learned about plants then too, in theory, though I had no garden. I loved the early shifts when there was time to walk through some of the gardens to see what was in bloom because people would always ask, as they came into the store on their way home, What is the pink flower in all the hanging baskets, and I’d have to know. I was saved at that job because women who were the age of my mother gathered me into their circle, knitting and gossiping, and they didn’t suggest that I cut my hair or tidy my room or think about applying at one of the local banks to be a teller because honestly where would an English degree get me? I walked through the sunken garden, committing the names of the rhododendrons to memory, and once, when I was really early for my shift because I’d overestimated how long it would take me to ride my bike from Royal Oak to Brentwood Bay, I saw an archer come out of the mist, on his way to his car, which seemed impossible, but I was told he had a special license to scare away deer during the tulip season. This memory grows, grows, until it happened on subsequent mornings and on my walk around the garden, I found an arrow in a small birch, tipped with silver.

3.

An ant is walking across my study window with a dead spider in its jaws. A robin is purposefully plucking at the moss that passes for a lawn. Daffodils open like unexpected suns. I am waiting for swallows, waiting for stairs, waiting for the frogs I hear in the night to find their new tub while the tomatoes grow by the minute.

better days

the bench to be

Today we began the bench for the greenhouse, the one to hold seedlings and pots; it will sit along the west wall, the long wall, which is 10 feet. Luckily we had some cedar boards under the house, a little longer than we need them to be, so it seems like a good idea to use one of them. I pulled it out and we measured and decided to cut a bit from both ends because one end had a crack and the other was quite wide. But mostly? Perfect. This is a board from one of the cedars we had taken down at least 13 years ago. One of them was too close to the house and the other had grown from a weedy scrap to a big tree in the time it took to blink. And it was shading the vegetable garden. I wrote about these trees in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, which is why I know how long ago they were taken down.

origins

When John cut the board we’re using to size, it was as though it was fresh cedar, the scent so spicy and beautiful that I remembered everything about the day it was made. I remember the guys coming with their portable mill and cutting lengths into boards and how we used some of those boards for various projects. I remember how one of the guys had his own peculiar odour (we’d been warned) and how he used his big saw and mill with the precision of a cabinetmaker. These planks are wild-edged, so that you can see where the branches were, the contours of the trunk.

I brought up our old sawhorses to set in place behind the greenhouse so John can cut old boards from our original decks, the ones that were in place for 30 years or so before we rebuilt them for various reasons, saving the usable boards for a good moment, which is this one. Look at them, he said. You can see where I almost cut through in places. And look at the rust on the brackets! Yes, I thought. Look at them. They’ve seen better days. I’m glad to be able to use the old deck boards, John said, arranging them to measure and cut down slightly. We have become our parents, I think, saving everything to be used again, or repurposed for something entirely undreamed of, in years past.

saw horses

They’ve seen better days but so have we. Or have we? We’ve seen good days. Also the past year, which has been filled with difficulties due to surgery, loneliness, anxiety. But maybe this act of making a bench will serve as a hinge to openings. More light, the return of friendships gone fallow because of distance and fear, and even arrangements of seedlings on its beautiful surface, growing, growing, because that’s what it is in them to do, given the right conditions.

The pile of lumber grew—the beam, some 2x10s, 2x8s (these were full dimensions, as the boards were unplaned), some planks which began as one dimension but then tapered as the logs narrowed. I could see them as benches or tables, balanced on stumps. I kept touching them. Their surfaces were damp, the inner mysteries of the wood released to light. On one chunk of wood, hardly a board, the grain formed an eye, elongated and ovoid—a god or a raven staring out. When I smelled my hands afterwards, the incense lingered, familiar and sibylline.
              –from “Thuja plicata: Nest Boxes”, in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees