among the seedlings and birdsong

akebia

These May mornings are gifts, the sun over Mount Hallowell around 8:30, birdsong loud where the woods meet our garden. I walked out this morning and heard myself (as though from a distance) singing a song I’ve written about before, another May, about the meadows and flowers gay and whom should I spy but my own true lover, and I thought how a month can contain so many versions of itself. The Mays we travelled to Ottawa to see our family there, the Mays when we celebrated the arrival of new books or the nomination of others for prizes,

may books

the Mays when we went into Vancouver for prize galas or concerts or just to see friends. This May is different. But still lovely. And it will enter the long archive of memories—the 14th month of a world-altering pandemic, the first month when the seedlings were grown in the greenhouse,

armenian cucumbers

the month when I thought to myself, why just built teepees for the beans, why not make sculptural supports and let the beans find a new way of using their tendrils,

bean tree

because maybe they’re eager to break out of old patterns. It’s a month of salad greens, most of them growing on a wild-edged cedar bench on the upper deck (because in the garden this time of year, it’s hard to protect them against slugs),

salad bar

and what a pleasure it is to take a colander up to cut arugula, lettuce, mixed greens (but not the tray of Triomphe de Farcy beans on the end of the bench, ready to try out the new tree of arbutus branches left by the butchers who keep the Hydro road clear where we walk on the mountain (young trees hacked to pieces, the patch of miner’s lettuce gone), a piece of old wisteria, some ocean spray–ironwood in some lexicons). I walked out this bright May morning, coffee in hand, singing an old song (“When misfortune falls sure no man can shun it’), among the seedlings and birdsong, the month a version of itself, like the others but new, new, shadowed momentarily as a cloud passes the sun, birds quiet for a few seconds only, a small snake curled around itself in warm moss beneath a huckleberry bush.

“…home to itself at a porch corner”

IMG_20210512_082402532 (3)

When I was awake in the night, I thought about how hard it will be to find a way to adjust to what’s coming after we are all vaccinated and this virus has been at least managed if not overcome. I was thinking of occasions, how we will anticipate them, acknowledge them, celebrate them. I remember the virtual clinking of glasses as my family “met” for a glass of Christmas cheer, each in our house, children filling the screens of our phones, the delays in both speaking and hearing. The birthdays as we sang into the wires, the dark days at the end of January when we might have said to ourselves, Let’s go to Portugal.

And what is coming? We are hoping to see our children this summer. We will be our small village, a fire for the evenings, swims in early morning before the crowds arrive, talking late into the night while the stars fill the sky. Will I remember how it feels to hold a child on my lap, will the slight panic I feel now when I see someone approach me in a public place, before I recognize their eyes, their voice, will that panic disappear as I realize it’s an old friend? The other day, shopping, someone stopped me and for a minute I wanted to run away until I realized it was a woman I’ve known for more than 30 years. I knew it was you by your eyes, she said, but I didn’t recognize her until I heard her say her name. Say her name. Say yours, mine. We haven’t lost those. Not yet.

John’s had an invitation to launch the book of his poems recently translated into Czech. Where? In Ostrava, a city we loved when we visited in 2012. Will it be safe to travel in October, will a man with two new hips but a damaged foot step off the airplane to read his poems in English while the wonderful young man who translated them reads them in Czech, the languages balancing in the air like the windchimes the book is named for? Will we leave, will we return, will the borders graciously open, will I stop waking in the night in panic, sleep deeply again, set the table for 12. Or 18.

On Wednesday, late afternoon, I was walking around a corner of the upper deck to come in after planting out yet more tomatoes (and honestly, if you live near me, please take a few plants?), and I stopped to look west. Everything in bloom, the robins just resuming their beautiful chorus, begun at dawn, and the hummingbirds darting into the orchid cactii spilling out of their hanging pots. There is this. Still this.

 

corner

          Here is the puffed world expansive

as the air come sidling, glancing
home to itself at a porch corner

thinly, briefly, just under the eaves.

                   –from “Wind Chime”, by John Pass

tous les jours

1.

You sit with your coffee, listening, listening, and what you thought was a warbler singing was the wind chimes turning in the morning air.

2.

Yesterday, driving down the Coast, you saw a man sitting in the trees quite close to your house. Returning, hours later, you saw him in a different place, sitting back against a huge duffle bag. He was no one you knew. You woke in the night from a dream, barely a dream, in which he was shining a flashlight into your bedroom, and it was like the light coming on 3 nights ago when a bear was breaking into the compost box near the motion light mounted on the printshop, and when you came out next morning, the bear’s paws were printed in mud on the car door. This morning, what will you find by the window?

3.

Your computer died a quiet death. When you walk by your study, there’s a space on the desk where it used to wait, tiny ikons on top, a shell, a fragment of lapis lacedamonius your daughter brought you from the Peloponnese on its surface.

“If we return to the old home as to a nest…” (Bachelard)

may 7

This is the wisteria over the cedar beam milled from a tree taken down more than a decade ago, replacing a beam that rotted over time. In a few days the wisteria will be fully in bloom, a moment I look forward to every year, and have since we first planted the it, a gift from John’s mum nearly 40 springs ago. She gave us two, which have become many; we have three growing on various places and have rooted strands for others, most recently the lifeguard at the pool where we swim 3 times a week. The wisteria traveled to Canada in John’s mum’s suitcase, rooted from her own mother’s vine in Suffolk. For nearly 40 years I’ve come up our driveway to see the wisteria blooming in May and each time I’ve felt overcome with its beauty. It receives almost no care. It doesn’t want any. John prunes the long strands back to the 4th bud as his mother showed him and that’s it. For 5 or 6 years robins nested at the western edge of the beam where the wisteria meets a New Dawn rose, a little haven under the eaves, until the little haven was discovered by a weasel who raided the nest of its 3 blue eggs, eating them on the laundry stoop and leaving the shells as the robins shrieked from nearby lilacs. I miss the robins but now that we have Winter the cat, it’s best that they nest somewhere else. A few times they nested in the little elbow of the downspout on the printshop. Those were the years we were lucky enough to see the young fly. I wrote about the robins, the nests in the downspout and the wisteria, in my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, featured on its publisher’s page today with other books about the natural world:

So now it’s back to the downspout and the mother is one that nest as I write. I loved watching her prepare the nest back in April. There had been one there in the past and I know that sometimes robins simply build on top of an old one but that earlier nest had fallen, a perfect construction of woven twigs and moss, held together with mud, and then lined with grass. The new nest took a few days to build and, at the end, the bird crouched in it and plumped out her body, turning as she did so. This formed a cup to the dimensions of her body. She carried wisps of grass to it and then I think she laid her eggs, one a day for three days.
This time around–it’s early July–she simply reoccupied the nest that she had used in April, bringing a little fresh grass for her new family. If we get too near, she glides out and is back again before we know it. I love to hear her mate singing morning, noon, and night, the long rising and falling notes clear and bright.
Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family–three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.”*

As I write now, robins are plucking soft lichen from a cascara tree beyond my study window. It does go on, the work of mothers and fathers, nest-building, nurture, and the beautiful opening of the wisteria blossoms on a beam across the patio, both a threshold for those coming to our house and for those leaving.

*This little quoted passage is from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

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.